Responsible Resistance

By Claire Amsden
 

As an aspiring social activist, a problem that has concerned me for some time is how to measure the efficacy of various forms of resistance against dominant power structures and hegemonic norms. Reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality complicated my understanding of power and resistance by demonstrating that the two do not exist as a clear-cut dichotomy, but instead influence and produce each other in various ways. In light of this knowledge, responsible resistance must be aware of the ways it challenges the power it is resisting, but also the ways that it reinforces that power as well. Personally, I hope to inform and develop my own actions and behaviors by examining different forms of resistance in order to most effectively bring about change. On a larger scale, I think critical analysis of the interplay between power and resistance is integral to any advocacy work by marginalized/non-normative communities and their allies.

Recently, the work of Xandra Ibarra – a lesbian Mexican-American neo-burlesque performer, community organizer, and activist for immigrant and anti-rape communities – has caught my attention because her performances embody both the successes and failures of expressions of resistance. Ibarra transforms into the persona La Chica Boom in artistic pieces that critique her subject position in relation to “coloniality, compulsory whiteness, and Mexicanidad.” She performs “hyper-raciality/sexuality/gender” in order to exaggerate her experience and deconstruct hegemonic normative narratives of her identity. Some examples include her performance “Nude Laughing/Jouissance of White Womanhood,” in which Ibarra, encased in sheer nylon with various symbols of white womanhood pressed against her body, laughs and writhes on the ground until the nylon eventually rips and she crawls out, leaving a trail of ballet shoes, a blonde wig and a string of pearls behind. In addition, her piece “Tortillera,” which references both tortillas and a slang word for lesbian, invokes what Ibarra calls Mexi-minstrelsy as she dresses up as a Mexican housewife and makes underwear tacos with a Tapatio strap-on.

These performances reveal Ibarra’s critical opinion of her relationship with the normative whiteness and gender expectations of American culture. At the same time, she also has a critical understanding of the multivalent nature of her performance – she can’t control the various meanings her audiences attribute to her expression. In an interview with Art Practical, a magazine on contemporary art and visual culture, Ibarra admits that the form of burlesque lends itself to the attribution of contradictory meanings to her performances. While burlesque gives her a lot of freedom in her expression of race and sexuality, the association of burlesque with objectification, and the fact that burlesque culture and audiences are mainly white, distort her intended meaning and even reinforce the colonial ideologies she wants to deconstruct. She states that the critiques she embodies through her performances often go over the heads of her white audiences that merely see her as a “sexy, hot Latina.”

However, like the emphasis in queer theory on malfunction as a form of resistance, Ibarra uses the inherent risk and failure present in her work as resistance in and of itself. Alpesh Patel analyzes the dynamic of failure in Ibarra’s performance “Fuck My Life” in his article “La Chica Boom’s Failed Decolonial Spicticles.” This performance evokes the failure of decolonial work to restructure colonial power dynamics, with speakers placed in the audience voicing racist responses that Xandra Ibarra has received from her past performances. However, the performance itself fails in its attempt to recontextualize this failure as present audience members join the speakers to engage in similar remarks. This is the risk of subversive resistance – because resistance works within the structure of power in order to deconstruct that power, it often ends up reinforcing that power. However, when discussing “Fuck My Life” Ibarra states that the piece “calls upon the practice of endurance amidst the consequences of failure,” acknowledging the limitations of her artistic performance and yet underlying her need to keep trying anyway.

It is not Ibarra’s obligation to account for the ignorance of those in power by tailoring her performative expression to those perspectives in order to more effectively “teach” others about her position within society. In the words of Audre Lorde, that would make it “the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.” This is an additional burden to bear that displaces the responsibility of social change from those who benefit from the status quo onto those who are marginalized by it. I do not in any way wish to discourage activism on the part of oppressed groups, but rather am trying to demonstrate how power shapes even the structure of social change to maintain current power dynamics.

However, this tension does not faze Xandra Ibarra. Despite her analysis of the way La Chica Boom is perceived, she also states that the performances are first and foremost for herself. While she never aims to purposefully reinforce social hierarchies and stereotypes, her “responsibility” is to express her views in a way that is fulfilling in the context of her experience. Her activism achieves even more than this, and her performances have been supplemented by extensive academic articles on the same topics of colonialism, whiteness, and Mexican identity in particular. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of her audience to educate themselves about her perspective if it is unfamiliar to them, because they are implicated in her struggle to redefine her subject positions by representing the very norms she contrasts herself against.

 

Finding Together

By Madeline Burbank

The music pumped louder, and I giggled as I had to shield my ears while skirting by the DJ table​. Wading into the sea of students all swaying, bouncing, and jamming to the beat, I finally made it to a group of my friends. We grinned at each other and mouthed giddy remarks, inaudible so close to the speakers.

They were playing the kind of pop music that I never really cared for, but surrounded by people who all knew the words and grooved along, the meaningless lyrics suddenly became sacred, a holy cycle of the same four chords, celebrating being alive in this moment together. I even sang along.

My friends and I danced in a loose circle. Some couples and groups were wrapped up in each other or grinding, and from the whoops and clapping sounds, a dance-off had started not too far away. Some wallflowers still bobbed at the sidelines, people-watching.

The ballroom was packed. Suddenly, I realized: I probably won’t ever be in a room with this many queer people again.

But this realization made the biggest impact on me, not because of the magnitude of the occasion or the number of people, but because for the longest time that day, I hadn’t thought about anyone (or myself) as being different.

Different is not bad; everyone is similar and different, really (though twisted structures of power and domination “other,” oppress, and victimize certain groups). While I’m conditioned, like most Americans, to pinpoint differences in sex and race whenever I encounter another person, I’m also particularly tuned in to perceived differences of gender and sexuality, because for me, queer means community.

Some people boast about the accuracy of their “gaydar,” and if that is a thing, it must have been “system sold separately” when I was packaged, because I don’t have much sense for it. And while my conclusions can be inaccurate, I’m still sensitive to small cues and clues (admittedly socially constructed and ultimately arbitrary details) and try to reach conclusions that will inform me how relate to others.

There is hardly a monolith in the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA+, but there are still shared experiences to relate — especially for college students — and embers of solidarity to stoke. Still, for all its benefits, keeping subconscious track of how many people possibly or openly identify as queer when I enter a room keeps me too focused on categories and details that really shouldn’t matter – undercut hair here, a bow-tie there, a casual remark open to interpretation…

So this experience at the dance helped me reflect on how I do that every day, and how I should try to alter my thought process going forward.

Learning and reflection was the backbone of that weekend at Illinois State University. The dance punctuated the schedule of the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MGLBTACC), which had gathered students from across the Midwest for a whirlwind of workshops: gender-inclusive housing, trans language politics, living as undocumented, slam poetry, advertising, homelessness, peer education. I can’t detail all of it here, because there is a literal book that participants received, mapping out the workshops and session choices for the day.

Even though the topics of the day kept queer lives and issues center stage in my mind, I had been welcomed into and helped create a space of community where we didn’t have to scope each other out; we were fully present and open. I didn’t know how anyone explicitly identified unless they articulated that in a workshop, and for the first time, it didn’t matter. I was able to see everyone as more purely human, something I’ve been actively trying to do for years.

The caveat to this moment of community is that it also helped me understand the darker side of normativity and how the majority or dominating group (usually white straight people) becomes invisible in its ubiquitousness. Also, everyone attending was college-educated, and while I was around more people of color and people with physical disabilities than attend St. Olaf, I know it still wasn’t a proportionate, completely representative demographic of Midwesterners. Nor did we treat each other perfectly. Still, so many people were more informed and striving to be more informed on topics of racism, ableism, sexism, and other issues that affect people, and I really appreciated that.

After all, these issues don’t just target people in the queer community; they exist within it, too. As I was dancing with friends, I turned in a circle, making use of what small space I had and enjoying the people-watching as I danced around. I found myself facing a couple that had been behind me. A woman wearing glasses was holding another woman close as they danced, but I couldn’t see the other’s face. I paused, concerned about how intoxicated her stooping suggested that she might be, wondering about her health. The more alert woman wearing glasses suddenly reached for my arm and tried to pull me to her. Uncomfortable and uninterested, I yanked my arm back and turned to walk away. Before I got farther, though, she stepped forward and groped my rear.

I retreated to the other side of the circle, not saying anything to my friends. At first, I tried to brush it off. It’s a dance…things get awkward…she seemed kinda drunk too. I wanted to continue enjoying the dance, and for the most part, I did. But as the night went on, I felt worse. It really bothered me. I have been verbally sexually harassed before (by men), but never physically, and for it to come from a woman in a group where I had felt so safe… The physical violation was magnified by the ideological shock.

So, I realize that this story started out so upbeat and is ending kinda grim, but my point is not to get cynical. Community and feelings of belonging and safety are so important, and we need to build them up. Sometimes a group can feel like a haven, but it’s also important to recognize that it’s not a haven to retreat to.  A group is a team to build affinities with so we can share those feelings of belonging, and more importantly join forces to face the issues that affect all people. We are stronger together, and we also have to work harder to unify that togetherness.

In Memoriam

By Josiah R. Mosqueda

On April 26th, 2014, my friend Robert committed suicide. He was 17 years old, and had only recently come out as being gay. He was very much a part of our family; he was one of my sisters’ best friends, and would hang out at our house all the time. His death left a void in our hearts.

Robert’s death also struck me hard because of the similarities between us—we both loved reading (especially science fiction and fantasy), we both were involved with choir and show choir, we were both out as gay at a school that provided no support for LGBTQ students. When I was 17, I myself contemplated suicide very seriously, tired of being in a world that condemned me for loving whom I love.

It is a sad reality for me that Robert will not be the only queer friend to die before I do. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for LGBTQ people ages 10-24. In Minnesota alone, there has been an epidemic of LGBTQ teen suicides in the past five or so years, a sobering thought.

Many allies of the queer community call the sweeping acceptance of marriage equality across the nation the movement’s greatest achievement. Yet what good is the ability to get married if our youth do not live long enough to exercise these new rights?

Robert’s death reminds me every day that the work of true equity and acceptance for LGBTQ people does not end with legislation; it’s about combating microaggressions we face everyday, normalizing queer people and our experiences, and embracing diversity wherever it is.

I do not mean to make Robert into a martyr—he himself would have hated that idea. Suicide is a terrible plague that is killing our people silently and violently. It must end. Our youth are the future, and we must make this world a safe place for them to explore, create, and be who they are.

Of my friend, I can say this: He had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known. He was funny, with a dry sense of humor that I found refreshing. He liked Starbursts. He played the saxophone, with skill that I envied. He was tall and lanky, with glasses that hid his bright intelligent eyes. I still hear his voice sometimes in the whisper of the wind, his laugh echoing in the silence after thunder strikes. I will never forget him.

Te quiero, Robert. Siempre!

Transgender Inclusion in Minnesota High School Athletics

By Elisabeth Springer

I find it interesting that one main argument made in opposition to the inclusion of transgender athletes by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) was that it would allow for “a male…to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter.” This inflammatory statement was made by the Minnesota Child Protection League in response to a proposal that transgender high school athletes be allowed to join teams of their preferred gender identity. The Child Protection League is, in their own words, “committed to promoting the welfare of children and protecting them from exploitation, indoctrination, and violence.” However, much of their work is blatantly anti-LGBT and supported by religious conservatives.

The fear-mongering ad placed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune by the Child Protection League attempted to create anxiety about the mixing of genders inside locker rooms, saying: “A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU OK with that?” However, I find it extremely interesting that the opposing argument is not made: after all, wouldn’t a female wanting to shower next to your 14-year-old son cause an equal amount of anxiety? Apparently not, as such a sensationalized ad caters only to the perspective of parents of vulnerable cisgender females.

Strictly policed gender separation is the product of centuries of fear about children’s sexuality. Michel Foucault would argue that such fears are reflective of adult anxieties about their own sexuality. Likewise, to carry this concept further, the discomfort of parents and educators about privacy and spaces for their children certainly may stem from their own personal anxieties on the subject. This leaves us with the question: what is it about being transgender that creates fear? Is it because trans folks threaten cisgender existence with their flouting of the gender binary? Is it because their presence in itself threatens ideas of what it means to be “male” or “female”–that maybe such concepts are not so concrete after all?

Gender essentialist arguments are often cited to support claims that transgender individuals will have an unfair advantage if allowed to play in the sport of their preferred gender identity, especially with regard to male-to-female trans individuals. However, even to make this claim one is forced to make gross assumptions about the athletic capabilities of individuals on the basis of gender, namely:

1) All biological males are stronger and more athletically gifted than all biological females,

2)Such a universal difference in ability necessitates the division of sports by gender, and 3)Biological females wishing to participate in a sport with biological males are at an innate disadvantage simply because they have a vagina.

My final sarcastic point drives at the heart of the argument: that separation based on one’s physical body parts is a conscious choice made “in the best interest” of children and youth. However, this distinction is, for all practical purposes, arbitrary. There will always be a natural human variance in athletic ability both within and across gender, and the demarcation of sports based upon whether or not your body produces more testosterone or estrogen is a culturally constructed measurement that has existed for centuries. But why, may you ask? Because it “made sense”…right?

After all, women are supposed to be smaller and less able to build muscle tone than men. They can bear children, so their bodies are just built differently. Those arguments aren’t enough for me. Many biological females both have the ability and choose to procreate. But just as many choose not to, or are unable to. Therefore, isn’t being female more than having the ability to reproduce? After all, Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” meaning that female gender performance is the creation of social, political, and economic structures, often of patriarchal origin. Therefore, it shouldn’t matter what genetic makeup you have; what matters is the way you choose to express and perform your preferred gender. Additionally, haven’t biological females existed for centuries who have been born stronger than biological males, or done the same work as biological males in spite of differences in size or strength? Categorization based upon “universal” sex characteristics is inherently flawed.

All things considered, I wholly support the decision made by the MSHSL to allow for transgender individuals to play sports for the team of their preferred gender identity. In fact, I feel that the decision does not go far enough: to me, a complete renovation of athletics may someday prove to be answer. To create sports teams purely based upon ability rather than hormones and chromosomes and to foster relationships that transcend traditional cutthroat competition and performances of masculinity would be an ultimate goal. Still, what the MSHSL has done is a step in the right direction. The League has also stipulated that no individual should feel uncomfortable in the locker room, and that alternative locker room options will be provided for any individuals who do feel their privacy has been breached. Further advocacy and attention to this and other transgender issues is vital to increase the visibility and acceptance of trans individuals in all realms of life–from the field to the workplace and social realms beyond.