Monday, June 23, 2014

I only like Erasure when we're talking about Andy Bell and Vince Clarke

     Periodically, I rage and seethe about the lack of representation of people like me, and like my partner, particularly in The Washington Post.  Growing up in the metropolitan DC area, I started reading the Post well before my tenth birthday.  I probably have written about this elsewhere, but it bears repeating, in a world where newspaper readership continues to plummet, I have been reading the print version of the WaPo for over 30 years.  One would think that might classify me as the kind of reader the WaPo would cater to, but this is not so.  Perhaps because I am not a millennial, they have no interest in appealing to me as a reader, or they think I can be taken for granted as a reader, since I've been reading them even as the content decreases in their paper and the price goes up.  The only reason I've been reading them for the past 3 years is because I live in a home where someone else pays for a daily subscription.  In my previous residence, I cancelled my subscription in disgust at their lack of coverage (and respect) for many of the topics that interested me.  I primarily rely on the Post these days for their local coverage, and in that, they often fail me as a reader.




     Their coverage of local women's sports is pathetic, their coverage of local universities that don't have big time football or basketball teams is pathetic, and I'm not talking about their sports coverage of local universities.  Their coverage of LGBTQ issues is dominated by assimilationist gays and lesbians, and privileges marriage equality over all other LGBTQ issues.  They refuse to publish anything that promotes even the tiniest Health at Every Size approach to health and weight (other than a few years ago two brief interchanges with Dr. Linda Bacon).  They even have a long-running weekly feature in their Real Estate section where they profile a different neighborhood in the DMV, and the neighborhood that I grew up in (and my mother before that) has never been featured.  To top it all off, they messed up part of my father's obituary http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/local/obituaries/eugene-mccrossin-navy-photographer/2012/07/03/gJQA8AVWLW_story.html  (he was a Potomac native, not an Olney one).

     Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Washington National Cathedral for their Pride service, which included a sermon by guest preacher Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge.  Rev. Partridge is the first openly transgender priest to give a sermon at the National Cathedral, preaching from the same Canterbury Pulpit where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last sermon.  In addition, Rev. Partridge is a colleague and friend of my partner, Mycroft Masada Holmes (and a friend of mine), so we were doubly excited to attend this service, since Mycroft has not seen Cameron and other transgender leaders in the Episcopal Church since zie moved to Maryland 5 months ago.  The occasion was covered by all four local TV newscasts (channels 4, 5, 7, and 9).  The event was also covered by the other main daily newspaper in DC, The Washington Times, but was not covered at all in The Washington Post.  The lack of coverage by the Post is appalling and inexcusable.  

     I don't have a problem with The Post covering the types of LGBTQ stories that it chooses, as marriage equality and assimilationist gays and lesbians are part of the fabric of LGBTQ life.  However, I believe they should be covering other types of LGBTQ life, particularly those that fall under the B,T, and Q part of the acronym.  When it comes to gender identity and expression, if the majority of local coverage of transgender issues is of the violence done to transgender people, then they're doing it wrong.  I am grateful that they are covering crimes committed against transgender people, and doing so in a way that shows they're taking seriously the issues of violence that affect transgender individuals.  However, there is so much more to the transgender community to cover.  The Post also provided some useful, but not complete, coverage of the recent legislative work in Maryland to pass the Fairness for all Marylanders Act, which added gender identity and expression to Maryland's existing anti-discrimination law.  What is often missing from the WaPo's coverage are the stories of our region's transgender individuals, and their lived experiences, their day to day lives and the culture they are creating.  Rev. Cameron Partridge's sermon is just one of many facets of the world transgender individuals are creating for themselves, and when esteemed media sources like The Washington Post choose only to focus on the legal facet of transgender lives (whether through the political process or through criminal acts), their erasure of transgender existence in its full and wonderful state does another kind of violence to full equality for all human beings in the US.

     I have long ago accepted that I will never see someone representative of myself in the pages of the Washington Post.  I'm sometimes resigned to that fact, sometimes angered by that fact, but I never ever think it is justified.  The omission of Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge's sermon at the Washington National Cathedral, the erasure of transgender, gender variant, and queer people from the pages of The Washington Post and other major news sources, can not stand.  I'm hoping to use this space as a place to mark these erasures, to speak out against the lack of representation of people like me, like my partner, and of many of the people we hold so dear, and to document the vibrant worlds those of us resisting these violent acts of erasure (or those of us at the ponderous boundaries, if you'll indulge me) are creating every day.  I am glad to know that others are doing this work in many useful and skillful ways, and I am glad to follow in their wake.  


Monday, March 3, 2014

The Fairness for all Marylanders Act 2014, My Testimony

My dear dragon suggested that I share my testimony that I submitted in writing to be shared with the Maryland House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee, which will have a hearing on the bill Wednesday March 5, 2014, Ash Wednesday. The chances are looking very promising that the bill will pass in Maryland this year, providing much needed protections for transgender and gender non conforming people in the state.

Here it is:

March 3, 2014

Dear Maryland House Health and Government Operations Committee:

I write to you as an almost lifetime resident of the great state of Maryland, having spent about 39 of my 43 years living in Montgomery or Baltimore Counties.  My few years apart from Maryland landed me in an apartment in Washington, DC, less than 1 mile from the state border at downtown Silver Spring.  To say that I am deeply a part of the fabric of Maryland life is an understatement, as I am able to trace my ancestry on my father’s side back to the 18th century in Montgomery County.  There is even a street in Montgomery County named for one of my ancestors, who migrated to the farmland of Maryland from Ireland at a time where the Irish ‘need not apply,’ and yet he found a refuge in Maryland.  In addition, I’ve been blessed to have received most of my education from Maryland public schools, having attended Montgomery County Public Schools from Head Start through High School graduation, and attending Montgomery College and The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), where I graduated cum laude in 2004.  This exemplary education allowed me to earn 2 graduate degrees from The George Washington University, as well.

I mention this at length to show that in spite of my educational background provided to me by a public educational system consistently ranked as the best in the United States, I still struggle to find employment that provides a living wage, let alone a wage that is commensurate with my educational attainments.  This happens not because of my credentials or my skills, but because of how I look.  I have no problem finding employment in the low paying service sector, where my intelligence, empathy, and dedication have served pet owners and book lovers well in my many years of retail/pet care employment, and my appearance means little in these industries that struggle to locate and retain good employees.  However, I have had little luck in cracking the white collar world, despite one undergraduate and two graduate degrees. 

As a gender nonconforming individual, my appearance is the only thing that sets me apart from my better employed and compensated peers from high school and college.  My partner, who is transgender and comes from a similar background of educational excellence in Massachusetts, is in the same predicament, and has been so for years.  I was sure that returning to school to earn college degrees, as has been suggested as the best way to adapt to the current lengthy economic downturn, would be able to lift me out of my working class existence and allow me to earn a living wage.  This has not been the case.  In fact, now I am almost $50,000 in debt, unemployed, and living off the generosity of my retired, disabled mother.  I fear that because of the discrimination that transgender and gender nonconforming people experience in Maryland and most other places, that I’ll never be able to afford the kind of middle class life that my parents were able to build in Montgomery County as public sector workers without college degrees. 

I am proud to have been raised in Maryland, and as a scholar of American literature and culture, I am proud of the tradition of outsider, nonconformist, and social justice figures in Maryland history.  Writers and abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, creative geniuses like John Waters and John Barth, women unafraid to break down barriers like Billie Holiday and Mama Cass Elliott, and many other figures in Maryland history have helped shape its image as a place of refuge and support for the outsider and the minority.  Our legacy as a colony supporting religious liberty in the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, and our recent passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act allowing for marriage equality for all loving and committed couples, demonstrates our enduring legacy as a place that genuinely strives to give all Marylanders the equality that allows them to perform at their best, and contribute to a better society.
 
I hope today you will vote for the passage of the Fairness for all Marylanders Act of 2014.  Let’s continue to place Maryland at the top of the list of places that promotes a just and egalitarian society for all, and a place that emphatically shuts the door on ignorance and discrimination against anyone different from ourselves.  Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and for making me exuberantly proud to call myself a Marylander, because Maryland is a place that embodies the best principles of United States democracy.

Yours Truly,

Chubmudgeon

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My Doubt Started Thanks to the Greek Gods

I got some helpful feedback on my Facebook page about my questions in the last post, thank you all who responded.  I think the questions will stay questions that follow me as I journey on in my interactions with the world, and that it is OK to stay in the questions.  For now, I'll just meander on in the blog, and see what happens.  

One of the topics I was thinking of dedicating this blog to is my interest in faith and religion.  I'm not so keen on the word spirituality, mostly because I find it to be a nebulous term that doesn't work for me.  When it comes to world views, I don't like nebulous.  Really, though, most of us prefer the concrete, the binary, the non-gray, and I recognize the trap this kind of thinking ensnares us in no matter what subject we're investigating.  My discomfort with the idea spirituality must be my paradoxical need to hold on to outmoded ideas as I work through new ones. 


That disinterest in nebulousness is what kept me away from anything to do with religion or faith for a long time.  Even as I became more accepting of multiplicity and fluidity and the unknowable in many other areas of my life and my perception of the world, I still expected religion and faith to be clear, solid, binary, and totalizing.  I'm guessing that is a tall order even for G-d/a higher power/the laws of physics and nature/the petri dish we're swimming in to deliver.

However, I started to find myself cultivating relationships with people who were observers of religion, more specifically, Christianity, the religion I was born into.  I had long been a believer of that liberal conviction that anyone who was a dedicated Christian was an anti-queer, close-minded, right wing fundamentalist know-nothing.  I thought that any Christian who didn't claim that queers were against the bible and going to hell were just trying to obfuscate the 'facts' of Christianity because they were trying to change the rules to fit their own beliefs, instead of G-d's 'actual' rules.  I was nothing if not dogmatic when it came to my rejection of Christianity, a counter-move of mine to pretend I rejected Christianity before it had a chance of rejecting me.  My stuck out tongue to the big guy upstairs, if you will.

In most things, I seek out wisps and puffs of judgement and brew it up into my complete rejection from individuals and institutions and groups.  It has taken me until just recently to recognize that this is something I do, instead of something done to me.  It is a feeling like old skin, and so comfortable in its deflection of most forms of connectivity.  I must stress that this animating principle did not come from out of the abyss, but by focusing on the times I was rejected, and using my sensitivity to the signs of rejection to suss them out in situations either devoid of such rejection, or so insignificant to expend brain activity on, I missed out many of the moments of inclusion, of welcome, of recognition that we were the same tangled mess of DNA and neurons.

Being an individual with this predisposition, I forgot to look and see how almost all of what Christianity does say, particularly what Christ says, does welcome me.  But, did I want to be welcomed by Christianity, or any other religion?  For a long time, the answer was "No, not really."  By this time I was partnered with someone who had spirituality at the center of their life, and so I was content to be supportive without being connected to the religious traditions of my partner.  Since there were aspects of religion I had always liked, mostly that of art and music, as well as an admiration for those who were able to be selfless enough to embody a lot of the altruistic beliefs of religions both 'Western' and 'Eastern,' it wasn't that difficult to start to be inside religion without feeling part of it.

I've identified as an agnostic for a very long time, somewhere between 15-20 years I think.  This is how I identified over my life span: 0-12 Christian, 12-ish to early to mid twenties, atheist, since then, agnostic.  I continue to identify as an agnostic, and expect that not to change.  I think it is the most tenable position I can take as someone who strives to be open-minded.  Agnosticism is often portrayed as the laziest, cop-out-iest position one can take on the matter of faith; you either have it or you don't.  This belief annoys me, because it fails to recognize that I'm not trying to evade the question when I say "well, I don't know," I'm saying instead "the cosmos is such a wondrous, awesome, miraculous place, and nobody has enough knowledge to know with certainty how it all came together, so why not stay open to possibility, especially when there are so many competing ideas for the hows and whys of the universe."  It is a position that continues to ask, to study, to observe, and to contemplate, all activities that keep one mindful and engaged in 'the big question' of our existence and the world around us.

Very recently I've begun to see that being a part of religion and being an agnostic aren't positions that cancel each other out.  I'd long read of priests and other religious leaders who have discussed their own struggles with faith, but dismissed the idea that one could permanently be in a state of unknowing and still consider themselves completely a member of their faith.  I also was well aware that faith itself is a state often described as "a belief held while acknowledging that belief's lack of proof, but still holding that belief as true."  Isn't agnosticism then a variation of faith, a belief that there is no proof for, but a hope that there is some truth (or truths) out there that explains it all?  To quote Special Agent Scully questioningly quoting Special Agent Mulder, "I want to believe."  

Since July, I've been attending church regularly.  Not the denomination I grew up in, but one not too far removed.  This denomination is one of the two my partner follows (being a child of an interfaith household perhaps predispositions folks at an early age to be open to the 'yes, and' or 'yes, also'), and it allows me to have my cake and eat it too, in that it has a lot of the old timey ritual and history and art and music I like with the new timey progressive acceptance of queers and women and other religious practices I need.  It fascinates me that some of the older denominations established in the US are among the most progressive.  We shudder mock-dramatically about how repressive and strict and cold those Puritans were, but many of the churches they founded today have an entirely different bent.

I'm also attending because it is my history, after all, this Christian monotheistic faith, and while I don't think Christianity is better or more right than most other religious beliefs, it is like coming back to myself to attend a Christian church, to claim my right to be part of a faith that my ancestors believed.  I've heard Buddhism described as a practice, and not a religion, and I think I'm approaching Christianity in the same way right now.  There is much to learn, and I'm looking forward to that.

Thus, while there is more to add and probably more to come, this is a good stopping point for my religious musings.  I appreciate you coming along.  I worry my discussion of Christian denomination here is still setting up a binary of good Christian denominations/bad Christian denominations, and I apologize if that is so, as this is not my intent.  Oh, the title refers to the fact that learning there were earlier religions before my own that people now dismissed as myths allowed me to think about other ways of being for first time as it related to religion, and one of the first times I thought about alternate ways of being in general.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

I am rather surprised to see that I haven't written in here in well over a year.  Bye bye 2013, hello 2014!  I've always been conflicted about this blog, what I want it to do, and if it is a worthwhile endeavor.  Here are the thoughts I'm having: 1) isn't the blog sort of an already outmoded vehicle for fashioning and furthering one's online identity?  2)  Should the blog have a targeted focus, or can it be about anything?  3)  Should the blog have more of an active focus (social justice, education, advocacy, etc), or should it be more passive (my reflections, observations, musings, in other words, more personal and internal)?  4)  How much time should I devote to the blog, or can I even commit to a regular schedule?  5)  Who is my audience, and how do I reach them, should I want to?  6)  Do I want to publicize the blog, or keep it quiet and let folks find it if they are so inclined?  7)  How much of my personal life do I think is wise to share?  8)  What is the expected outcome of blogging, is the goal internal or external (in other words, are my goals focused on the effect it has on my life, or the effect it has on other folks' lives)?  9)  How does blogging help or hinder my ongoing struggle with how much attention I draw to myself/need, as well as thinking through the methods I have used, or contemplate using, to get attention or deflect attention? and 10)  How much attention do I want to pay to the craft of blog writing, and will I be OK with the flaws and imperfections of my writing?

We'll see what develops, and thank you for dropping by.  Here's to a 2014 that is bursting at the borders with promising possibilities!  Enjoy a picture of my darling pugston terrier, Ursula, who can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

All of Me (Why Not Take All of Me)

Belonging.  Be longing.  I have always struggled with both states of being (although they are aspects of the same core emotion), and I have many opportunities to reflect on what belonging means, and what I am longing for, at this point in my life.  It may be a cliche, but it seems to be true, when you figure out one answer, another question pops up to bedevil you, and so the quest for a state of belonging, and the absence of longing, continues.

Some answers came.  I was longing to be loved, not by duty, but by want, and that happened.  I tend to be an over sharer on social media about my relationship, and a large part of why I do that is to reassure the phantom me from the past that, yes, love can happen to the oddest and misfit-est of us, too.  I'll tell you I do this as an example to others, who may be struggling with finding loving relationships of their own (and such relationships come in so many different forms, not just the binary romantic 'couple' form), and that is true, too.  I always thought I was too 'something' to ever have the kind of partnership I wanted, and needed:  too needy, too cold, too fat, too queer, too unaccomplished, too immature, too poor, too awkward, too moody, and so on.  I figure we all feel we're too 'something,' in different ways, and I hope that the fact that my 'too something' was somebody else's 'just right' might provide a speck of hope for others to know that they're 'just right' (yes, I know you're now probably thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Thinking about bears, no matter what kind, is always a good thing).

This is a joy that can't be described, and I am thankful every day for this gift.  However, there are other longings for belonging that tap into our roots as social creatures.  I can't fight societal dynamics, no matter how hard I try, and so I also long for community.  Honestly, when I see the word 'community' used in current discourse, it often annoys me, as it seems too insubstantial a word for what kinds of kinship organizations we create with others who share an intrinsic aspect of our being.  I use it, too, reluctantly, because I haven't found a word that encapsulates what I need from the communities I find myself in.

Perhaps too, the problem is that I long for one magical place, filled with darling humans, who accept all aspects of myself.  I don't mean that in some magical sense of perfect harmony, but a space where nobody thinks twice about whether I am 'allowed' to embody a particular identity.  I don't think I'm unique in longing for this, and feeling that there isn't such an ideal waiting for them, but it often is a surprise and blow when I am made aware of how difficult this is to locate.  I want to be among people who accept me for being fat and queer, not one or the other.  I want to be in a space that accepts me for loving someone who self-identifies as a Fat Admirer, and accepts my partner, too.  I want to be in a space where my voice is longed for, where people let me speak for me, and accept that I have valid things to say about my embodiments, and that recognize that there are very many different ways to live a life of value and integrity and wholeness.  In fact, a place that recognizes that wholeness is an impossible goal anyway, and allows us to figure out what shape we want our lives to be.  A location that thinks weirdly rule abiding and anti-authoritarian contradicting eccentric queer spheres are hunky dory and full of self agency. 

I know, I'm asking for rainbow dolphins and super galactic kittens and rivers made of sweet, sweet chocolate here.  I get that much of what guts me here is the dirty flip side of group dynamics-that what helps bond a certain community of people together creates other groups of people to be guarded against.  We only know the borders of our own groups by knowing, and in many cases actively policing against, those who are not fit for 'our group.'  No group is immune, no matter how 'progressive' or open-minded, particularly when they rarely have to interact with people who fit the definition of the 'other.' I'm not proud of my own prejudices, and I don't expect a pat on the back for my work to undue my prejudices; I do follow a live and let live position about other people's lives, and I often try to analyze my own reactions to people I recognize as my 'other,' lest I allow myself to wallow in lazy thinking or the need to feel superior, or threatened by, others.  I hope I am doing the work I need to do to overcome these aspects of societal community building, but I suspect this is a lifetime work order.

What I can do, and what I know is probably not the best thing, is to stop associating with groups who refuse to hear my voice, or evaluate my lived experiences in mis-informed and stereotypical ways, when deciding what they think about people 'like me.'  I have always been a 'you draw more folks with honey than vinegar' kind of person, but it is only recently that I've begun to re-evaluate that position.  I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it is only recently that I have fully understood what I've heard people of color who are involved in social justice circles say, that it is not their job to educate whites about their privilege, and about racism.  Previously, I accepted that this was true, and that this was a viable option for some, but for myself, I would need to be 'nice,' and not rock the boat.  Now I get it, now I understand, and now I want the same for myself-if you aren't at least minimally responsive to ideas about gender privilege and straight privilege and thin privilege, then I have no time for you. 

I think one of the absolute best slogans I've ever heard is from the disability rights movement: "Nothing about us without us."  When you are hit with the realization that in fact the world doesn't hear us all equally, or allow us the latitude to live lives as rich with possibility as those taken for granted by so many US residents, it masticates reality and tosses you out of your own center.  It sure makes the journey back to your center so much easier when you have allies, colleagues, friends, loved ones, who recognize you in all your complexity, allow you to speak your truth without denials and erasures, and recognize the joy, love, and worth of even your most stigmatized identities.  I still long to belong in such a space, but do have hope that someday this sphere will exist, and I hope that for you, too.

In the meantime, I am hoping to adopt a dog.  As I've told my partner, caring for dogs taught me how to care for, and love, humans.  I try to model the acceptance, the unconditional love, the gratitude, the trust, and the subsuming joy for life that dogs show in my own relationship.  Thank goodness I've learned so much from dogs, for I also, like many dogs, will follow you wherever you go if you have a treat in your hand.   

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Zombies: It's a Lifestyle Change, not a Diet

Stephen King argues in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (http://www.amazon.com/Danse-Macabre-Stephen-King/dp/1439170983/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1336655091&sr=8-2) that the types of horror that we consume are influenced by the cultural fears and anxieties of the times we live in.  For example, movies like "Them!" from 1954, about giant ants, represents cultural fears over the realization of nuclear weaponry, after the horror of dropping the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The great Universal horror films of the 1930's, which harken back to an almost pre-industrial 19th-century Europe, were a great distraction from the all-too-contemporary Great Depression and the frightening modernity of living in a post World War I world.  Are these European monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman) merely the front lines of the very modernist horror show of World War II to come, teasing out US audiences' anxieties about what was left unresolved after the devastation of WWI?  Gives a whole new spin on the next generation of these films, when Abbott and Costello hung out with the Wolfman, doesn't it?  Once WWII was over, and the United States begins its ascendancy to the top of the superpower heap, Boris Karloff and the rest have to jape with comedians, not menace poor damsels in distress, a sure sign that the world was safe for democracy and consumerism once again.

I've always been a fan of a good monster movie, and my allegiances have always been to the vampires.  They're the most human of monsters, if for no other reason than their close resemblance to non-monstrous humanity (although in recent decades the serial killer has usurped vampires in this category, adding a sort of 'banality of evil' ethos to the monster pantheon due to their obvious un-supernatural nature).  Their sensuality and allure have been well documented, and they have been able stand-ins for all sorts of cultural fears, many of those related to queerness (see, Carmilla, Anne Rice, "True Blood").  In fact, vampires themselves seem to embody the idea of 'queer time' or 'queer temporality' in provocative ways, since their ultimate allure is their immortality, and their shady existence (literally).  Who wouldn't want to have the power to mesmerize others, draw them into your control, and then decide if they live to serve you or not, all while living forever, and never aging?  It sounds like both the historical stereotypes of gays, and everything our contemporary time dreams about, and no wonder their popularity continues to live on in so many different forms, including Mormon vampires (the "Twilight" series).

Even though my fandom has always been for the vampires, there are aspects of Frankenstein's monster that appeal to me.  In keeping with my evocation of queer theory in the previous paragraph, the tomb as womb in the Frankenstein narrative is a queering of reproduction in very provocative ways.  As well, using a more traditional assimilationist approach, the primal need of the monster to be accepted as fully human, to be able to participate in perhaps the most fundamental of human rituals, the ritual of kinship formation and social networks via communication and connection, and to feel something akin to giving and getting love, speaks to any outsider bullied or stigmatized or shunned.  In other words, Frankenstein's monster sure could have used an "It Gets Better" video.  The werewolf doesn't much interest me, but I appreciate the dynamic it tries to play out, the culture/nature divide, although the lack of any real female werewolf leaves the base story of the werewolf much too patriarchal for my tastes.  The werewolf narrative often reads to me like a scary variation of Huck Finn or any John Wayne movie, those rugged individuals trying to escape the constrictions of 'polite society' (otherwise known as 'Girls Town') and heading out for the wilderness in order to enact 'real' masculinity free from criticism and restraint and girlie cooties.

I've spent some time on some other monster staples because, well, even though this blog post is about zombies, I don't much like zombies at all.  They bore me.  They have no personality, they have no humanity, they don't for a moment allow me a point of connection, and even worse, they don't much scare me.  However, I find their use in this contemporary moment as being a great source of amusement for so many to be telling.  I would argue that zombie narratives are so popular today because they represent the 'obesity epidemic.'  Many folks are familiar with the cultural analysis of perhaps the greatest zombie narrative in the US, "Night of the Living Dead," that it evokes the dread of what was happening in the 60's, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggles, the rebellion against the military industrial complex and the increasingly ineffectiveness of governments to serve their citizens.  Zombies, because they are such ciphers, seem to have gained traction in recent decades as being a 'go-to' monster for explicating societal dreads.

What could be more fearful than the 'obesity epidemic'?  Every day, in a million different ways, fat people are presented as the most dangerous thing to happen to our society since perhaps the Black Plague.  Soon the whole world will be fat, we'll all die impossibly young, with a plethora of crippling diseases, draining the coffers of nations via our health expenses and failing to reproduce, because everyone knows fat people are icky and shouldn't be touched, let alone screwed.  According to the now-disproved social-contagion theory, just being around us fattys will make you fat, and of course hauling our fat asses around in cars and airplanes is causing the destruction of the environment.   It is heady stuff, having the power to destroy the universe as we know it, and I for one won't take this responsibility lightly (rim shot).

Zombies are fat people, no question.  Like the stereotypical representations of fat people (and not, let me be clear for those of you who traffic in fat stereotypes, real fat people), zombies stumble and lumber around, unsteady on their feet and struggling with locomotion.  Like fat people, zombies have pasty, blotchy skin; the fat get this way from all that time indoors in their mother's basements gaming and consuming high fructose corn syrup.  Like fat people, zombies rarely get to dress in fashionable tailored clothing, or even care to invest in their personal appearance.  Like fat people, zombies have no interest in sex.  Like fat people, zombies are mindless and have no reason and won't deviate one bit from their hunger drive; fattys are so dumb you can't get them to see the error of their ways and start dropping the lbs.  Like fat people, all zombies care about is eating, and will do anything to eat.  Not only that, but their favorite thing to eat is brains, thereby symbolizing exactly what fat does to a human, it eats away their brain, their seat of consciousness and understanding of themselves as a human being.  Like fat people, zombies reproduce rapidly, and if we don't annihilate them, they'll be none of us (thin)humans left.  Therefore, no mercy or kindness can be shown to the zombie or the fat person, and they must be destroyed as soon as possible.

Thus, both zombies and fat people are completely dehumanized, and audiences can deploy their own well-stoked anger and fear of fat people vicariously through zombie narratives in TV, film, and games that requires exhilaration when zombies are killed, and the collective sigh of relief that the world has been made safe for the non-zombie/fat again.  Every day the collective drumbeat of 'obesity epidemic' rhetoric does nothing more than hasten the transformation of fat people into dehumanized, monstrous zombies who must be destroyed.  However, there is one key difference between representations of zombies and fat people, and I think it is frighteningly telling:

There are no images of headless zombies, but an industry of headless fatty images*+

*thanks to Charlotte Cooper for this wonderful phrase
+although I've been playing around with these ideas for a few years now, thanks to folks at the Popular Culture Association Conference for indulging my riffs on this topic

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My 400-pound pet peeve

I just read this interesting New Yorker piece (linked from Longform.org) about Hurricane Katrina:

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/28/051128fa_fact?currentPage=all

Maybe none of you know this (mostly because you're not reading my blog), but one of my dissertation chapters was going to be about fatness and Hurricane Katrina, so I tend to read things I stumble across about Hurricane Katrina.  This may sound like a stretch to you, a whole chapter about fat and one particular event in U.S. history, but it was meant to be deployed as a space and place to talk about larger issues of size, race, class, and identity/community formation (among other things), and of how fatness was used (and, more importantly, not used) to discuss the event, the aftermath, and what it symbolized about U.S. society.  It would have served as a great prelude to my last chapter, on geographies, nationalities, and fatness.

Since the dissertation was never finished, I suppose what I was going to do is irrelevant, but I share it anyway.  The reason I want to talk about this linked article does link to the dissertation chapter in a rather loose way.  Specifically what I'd like to speak about is this early sentence from Katherine Boo's piece: "On the evening of September 3rd, though, a gunshot victim, a four-hundred-pound woman, and a man with a broken spine arrived at the gym simultaneously, joining two hundred other evacuees."  I was excited, here was a journalistic piece that will talk about fatness and Hurricane Katrina!  However, the 'four-hundred-pound woman' never made another appearance in the story, and so I have no idea what happened to this woman.  Did she have to go through what had been mentioned on the less mainstream online sites, that is, wearing plastic bags as clothes because there were none to be had in her size?

If Ms. Boo never planned to write about this woman, why did she make an appearance in the article? Presumably because she was listed alongside individuals with bodily trauma, the reporter sought to portray her as equally traumatized.  However, without supporting details, we have no idea if her weight was impacting her health in such a way that she needed special attention from health-care professionals.  Even if this was the case, Hurricane Katrina did not cause her weight, so her inclusion in this group seems odd.  More likely, Ms. Boo, like many non-fat people, grossly underestimate the health of fat people.  Telling the reader that an individual is 400 pounds says very little about their health, particularly if it is framed in the context of bodily trauma.  More precisely, the bodily trauma that woman was experiencing was a trauma placed on her by a society that refuses to recognize, let alone shape itself to accommodate, fat people.  Sadly, Hurricane Katrina only exacerbated that condition. 

I think the real reason we are told that a 400 pound woman is one of the early arrivals at the shelter has nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina at all.  It is part of that all too familiar trick of making sure 'we' call out and move to the margins any person who does not fit 'our' idea of what a human being should be.  Those 400 pound women must be marked, a permanent 'O' on their written selves, so the rest of the reading public knows that they're reading about someone who is 'less than' and 'other than' themselves.  It happens in all sorts of written work, from newspaper pieces to critical law books, college textbooks and in footnotes to college textbooks.  It also happens to people who weigh both much less, and much more, than the 400-pound woman of this New Yorker piece. 

Why do writers include weights for those who have weights many deem to be 'too much' or 'too little'?  If they don't plan on addressing the topic of weight and body size in their work, then there is no reason to do so.  I have asked one of the former ombudsmans of The Washington Post why body size isn't included in their style guides in ways that seek to minimize this type of othering, in keeping with their policies about race and other characteristics.  Unsurprisingly, I got no reply.  Unless the weight is given for every person mentioned in an article, this kind of selective 'outing' of fat people in writing is bias, and it needs to stop.  I'm tired of seeing bodies like mine treated as freaks of such magnitude that our weight must be hung around our heads even in places where no image of fatness exists, the ultimate shame of daring to live while fat.

I also get angry when I see this happening for people with other bodily traits, like stature, for example.  I also find the practice to be so obviously about policing bodies, that I find it hard to see how otherwise knowledgeable people don't catch it and erase it.  My favorite example of this is found in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (http://www.amazon.com/Norton-Anthology-Theory-Criticism/dp/0393974294/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331141739&sr=1-2).  In a book chock full of cultural studies critiques of all sorts of representations of various identity groups, we find a charming footnote in the entry for Judith Butler's Gender Trouble.  This charming footnote provides basic biographical information on both the drag queen Divine and the director John Waters, queer film collaborators.  Divine is described as a '300-pound drag queen' and Waters is described as a director, with no body weight given. 

One of the reasons I find this so delightfully f-ed up and endemic of the need to stigmatize fat people no matter when and where they dare to show themselves is because it collapses all temporality into one moment.  At the time of this book's publication, Divine had been deceased for many years, so the editors of this book decided that the corporeality of Divine was frozen in time for the periods of his life in which he weighed 300 pounds.  Considering that weight is often a destabilizing status (our weight fluctuates daily, even if only by a few ounces), this fact seems oddly flattening of the varied lived experiences of any person, even a fat one.  Secondly, it rather hilariously presents an image of Divine bursting fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus' head, as a fat drag queen from birth, and that he maintained a stable 300-pound weight for his entire life, from cradle to grave.

Since I think Divine is a god, this image is oddly comforting, even as I recognize the insidious way it seeks to mark an individual with a stable identity while at the same time performing the slight of hand that makes most people think that a fat identity doesn't exist, is in fact impossible, and that we're merely only thin people waiting to be let out of our traumatic fat cages.  A good start would be if writers actually provided some humanity to the fat people they seek to diminish by making them an absent presence in their work.