Category Archives: Extra credit

Lexi WhiteExtra CreditQueer Media Activism SeriesOn Saturday April

Lexi White

Extra Credit

Queer Media Activism Series

On Saturday April 20th, I attended the final event of the Queer Media Activism Series at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore located on South12th Street in downtown Philadelphia. The event entitled Archives, Affects, and Activism was held in the upstairs reading lounge area of Giovanni’s room.  All seats at the event were full both in the room where the panelists were located and the adjacent room on the other side of the stairs.  When I arrived at the event, the second floor was so packed that some guests were sitting on the floor.  I found myself standing against the wall closest to the staircase.  I enjoyed this location however, because it gave me the opportunity to not only see the panelists but also the expressions, appearances, and reactions of the diverse audience members that this event attracted.  Through mediated discussion, personal anecdotes and a question and answer segment, this event addressed the many ways media artists, libraries, community centers and bookstores are preserving queer and transgender histories in Philadelphia as well as the creativity and politics involved with making these histories available to the public.

One of the panelists was a self-identified gender queer dyke named Helyx Chase who explained her methodology for making media creation and media tools available to individuals and bodies often excluded from media representation.  Chase does this for the purpose of telling histories, and she referenced her work with the Trans Oral History Project in Philadelphia.  I appreciated Chase’s call to action for audience members and their transgender peers to take the reigns on their own representations and historical portrayals.  Also on the panel was gender queer media activist and writer, Che Gossett whose work is featured in the Transgender Studies Reader as well as in the book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex.  I found it interesting that during the question and answer period, Che hesitated to take credit as a filmmaker despite having recently collaborated with Luce-Lincoln in directing a short film about AIDS activist, Kiyoshi Kuromiya.  I do not think one has to be an adept filmmaker to be a media activist, and would argue that Che’s archival work as a writer manifests itself through media when those who read Che’s work are inspired to tell their own oral histories through film and other modes of media.  I found myself questioning what my own criteria is for who can be deemed a true “filmmaker,” how my own understanding of this role compares with others, and whether or not this is relevant to how queer film and media activism are received by the public.  When I reflect upon the work I have been doing in Queer and Feminist Film, I already consider myself a media activist, and a filmmaker, even though I am only just beginning to test my hand and some of the basic conventions and editing tools of film.

My favorite panelist was a man named Bob Skiba, a queer male archivist at the William Way LGBT Center in Philadelphia.  Skiba gave the extensive history of LGBT community centers and archives in Philadelphia.  Like Chase, Skiba urged us to “Take responsibility for our own history.  Take responsibility for archiving it and making sure it’s secure and shared.”  Bob Skiba also engaged the audience and panelists in a discussion about the politics of archive access and distribution.  I found myself struggling with the debate of whether or not it is better to protect LGBT histories and archives in “safe space” community centers, or to disseminate projects and histories in more public access spaces.  These are questions I have never wrestled with or thought about with regards to queer history and the violences and potential censorship that pervade the very telling and sharing of these histories.  Surely the question of community-based archives vs. more public, transparent archives is a difficult one.

Bob Skiba also spoke on the digitization of the archiving process and joked about how he can now sort through histories and archives with his computer and a beer in hand from the comfort of his home, rather than being “bitched at for hours by some librarian.”  It was obvious that a woman in the crowd took offense to this statement as her next question was prefaced by, “Let me begin by saying librarians are great” so as to suggest that Skiba’s use of the phrase “bitch” was inappropriate, though perhaps used in gesture.  This moment reminded me of a moment of tension in the film “Chocolate Babies” when Larva makes an anti-feminist remark to fellow queer ally, Jameela.  Assuming from her questions and engagement with the event that this woman at the event was at the very least an ally to the queer movement, I was reminded that sometimes even while we build-coalition with individuals who stand for our cause, we can still have moments of dispute and/or misunderstanding.  Likewise, even when our social and political visions  somewhat align with others, there can still be room for more listening and learning.

Monica Enriquez Enriquez Extra Credit

Despite attempts of the United States and other Western states to present themselves as progressive bastions of freedom, Monica Enriquez-Enriquez addresses the marginalization of those seeking queer asylum. As someone that had gone through the legal process and the experiences of seeking asylum as a queer woman, Enriquez-Enriquez’s work dealt with a very personal topic. She spoke of how convoluted and draining the process can be especially as an individual must explain and prove continuously how and why they have been persecuted in their home. The veracity of the narratives is constantly questioned as well as their loyalty to their countries; in one clip, the artist has her immigration story written all over her back and she explains how the process has reduced her to a story that satisfies the words of an immigration agent. Those seeking asylum must present their homeland as harmful and even backwards even when the countries that are supposed to be granting them protection are detaining them. Through this system, the United States exerts a form of colonial power as it presents itself as a savior to queer individuals while ignoring the problems of homophobia and violence that are present in the country. Enriquez-Enriquez has attempted to record the stories of those that have attained queer asylum in the United States without becoming another interrogator. Rather than questioning them, each story is taken at face value rather than being used to further victimize the individual.

What was most revealing from Monica Enriquez-Enriquez’s experiences were the biases and prejudices that those seeking queer asylum have to experience. She talked about the privileges that she enjoyed as a lesbian that presented herself in a heteronormative way rather than being “too butch”. In the article, “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum: Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled (2005) and the Case of the Lesbian Asylum-Seeker”, Rachel Lewis addresses the additional obstacles that lesbians seeking asylum must face within a legal system that is extremely heterosexist, “‘Straight until proven otherwise’, lesbian asylum applicants are frequently judged on the basis of Euro-American stereotypes about how lesbians ‘look’and ‘live’” (Lewis 430). Gay men have filed the majority of past cases of queer asylum thus the legal system makes extremely erroneous assumptions of the type of persecutions and conditions that govern the conditions of queer women such as acts of private rather than public violence. Monica emphasized that had she not presented a “brand” of lesbian that had correlated with the expectation of the judges, she would not have been able to attain her citizenship.

In the film Unveiled (2005), Fariba’s immigration status in Germany is constantly in limbo because she does not fit their idea of being a lesbian. Her relationship with a woman in her native Tehran places her in an extremely precarious situation. Yet because Fariba did not self-identify as a lesbian or fully disclose her motives for seeking asylum, her application is denied at the German detention center. It is not until she takes up the false identity of being a man that she has a semblance of normalcy and safety in Germany. She had to truly take up a queer identity as someone else to be free in this country. Fariba’s story complies with the narratives that Monica Enriquez-Enriquez provided as those seeking queer asylum must change or alter themselves if they do not already fit into immigration’s mold of queerness.

As part of the Queer Activism Series, Monica’s installations shed light on an issue that had before been completely unknown to most Penn students and me. Her work was not presented as a documentary but was rather a cathartic and emotional display of the challenges faced by queer individuals that seek asylum and protection.

Works Cited

Lewis, Rachel. “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum: Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled (2005) and the Case of the Lesbian Asylum-Seeker.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12.3-4 (2010): 424-43.

 

Monica Enriquez Enriquez- Extra Credit

On a stage with a dimmed light stood Monica Enriquez Enriquez as she presented the audience with clips of the constellations that she had already exhibited nationwide. After watching several of her clips and hearing Monica’s experiences as an asylee, she opened my eyes to the idea of “queer asylum.” I had heard about political asylum but that was about the extent of my knowledge in the “asylum” area. She talked about having to recount her story repeatedly for officials to believe that she was actually being persecuted and the severe damage this does to many asylees. She presented clips of people reliving their experiences with the asylum process. Numerous asylees expressed the way that their stories somehow seemed to lose value the more they had to be retold and how they even began to doubt their own stories the more they had to repeat them. This was something that I had not considered about the asylee process. The process by which people try to seek asylum is not friendly or conducive to safe environments for the people who are actually seeking asylum. Through Monica’s work she was able to explore and uncover the different problems that plague asylee communities.

This very much correlated with the storylines that were conveyed and explored through Unveiled. Unveiled followed the story of Fariba who moved from Tehran to Germany seeking asylum because of the persecution she feared in her home. Although she never explicitly self-identifies, she is a lesbian who was engaging in a queer relationship that was later discovered by her lover’s husband. In the initial interview in which she was trying to seek asylum, the German government does not grant it to her because they feel they can no longer trust any of what she says because she did not overtly disclose the reason she was seeking asylum. In some ways this challenged some of the things Monica talked about when recounting her own story and the reasons she felt she was given asylum. She said she was not particularly “butch” nor was she a heteronormative representation of queerness so she felt this worked to her advantage. She talked about her process being, in her opinion, much easier than maybe someone who looked “more queer” than she did.

While Fariba does not exactly exude the representation of “lesbian” her quick transformation between woman and man can be seen as an illustration of Monica’s idea. Fariba thinks that she did not receive asylum from the German government because she was queer and had not revealed her status. However, to follow in Monica’s ideas, it could also be said that she was “too queer” and too closely was able to move between both genders as demonstrated through the way that she was able to pretend to be Samiak for the rest of the film and this was a reason that she was not given asylum.

The way that lesbians are judged under Euro-American stereotypes is something that Rachel Lewis explores in her article “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum: Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled (2005) and the Case of the Lesbian Asylum-Seeker.” Lewis mentions that under most governments the general rule is “straight until proven otherwise.” The general idea about lesbians is that “they are young, unmarried, childless, independent of their families and that they subvert gender norms, particularly with respect to physical self-presentation” (430). Fariba challenged this idea especially by not disclosing her sexual orientation from the beginning and by looking “too straight” by the standards of the German government. This is something that Fariba was not coached about, but more and more lesbian asylum-seekers are being “taught.” Legal activists are “‘teaching’ applicants how to reproduce dominant narratives predicated on visibility and an identity in the public sphere” (431). This causes women to believe that in order to gain asylum they have to represent these “in your face” ideas of queer that they may not personally feel comfortable conveying. This idea could also be used to make the argument about why Fariba was not given asylum. Fariba had no “proof” of being a lesbian. She reveals to her German lover, Anne, that she had no proof of her attraction for other women or her imprisonment and torture in Iran. While this is something that Lewis would agree with, Monica seems to think that in her specific case the fact that she did not characterize these overly queer ideas benefitted her in the end. It was interesting to see how Monica felt her self-presentation helped her and having contrasting ideas to Monica’s play out in literature and film.

 

Works Cited

Lewis, Rachel. “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum: Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled (2005) and the Case of the Lesbian Asylum-Seeker.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12.3-4 (2010): 424-43.

 

Event Report: Philadelphia Queer Media Activism Series

Drag Activism: Performing the Revolution was highly educational and entertaining. I’ve had very limited experiences with drag, so I was introduced to a lot of new ideas. Perhaps the best way for me to summarize my experience is to touch on each person in the panel and what sticks with me from their contributions. I had never heard of drag kings before, so Charles Cohen’s entire act was novel to me. Since he introduced himself as a relative newbie to performing drag, I was really impressed by the high quality of his clearly well-rehearsed dance and performance. Compared to the other panelists, he had relatively less to say about activism or politics, but that’s probably because he’s still figuring out his position. Lascivious Jane was interesting in that she covers both drag queen and drag king roles, and she believes all gender play (in real life or on stage) is a type of drag. I liked how she described her troupe, the Liberty City Kings, as a body-positive, gender fluid, kink-positive group whose stage representation accurately reflects their community (their audience, friends etc.) in terms of race and body type. It was funny when she said lesbians don’t know how to tip. Mesopotamia LeFaye (spelling?) described herself as a post-gender radical fairy interested mainly in new opportunities for self-presentation. I thought it was cool how she’s interested both in hoarding and wearing vintage women’s clothing, and totally breaking free of the pressure of “passing” in drag by assuming the identity of a tree or a spoon instead of a gender. Apart from her beliefs, her activism consists of appearing at charity fundraising events and making them lively. She brought up the danger in taking drag outside of a safe space, sharing that she feels she walks a fine line when bringing her drag to some places because even though she likes to have a broad audience, certain environments have made her feel hyper-queer in a non-affirming way. This reminded of Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s “Introduction: From Wonder to Error—A Geneology of Freak Discourse in Modernity” that discusses anomalous bodies and how they have been viewed through time. I think drag may be comparable in some ways, especially how people in drag may, “function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment” (2). Messy said that the way people stare or take pictures of her has made her feel like a caged animal at times, which recalls the monster discourse of freak show history. It’s curious that drag, as something one chooses to do, and disability, which is not a choice, can both induce awe, viciousness, and pathologizing (4).

Ricky Paul, who is the director of the Dumpsta Players, plays macho dumbass Italian guys (among other characters). He gave us a small snippet of that act, and I wish he would have elaborated because I find that a hilarious iteration of drag that I never would have imagined existed. He described the Dumpsta Players as being script-oriented and interested in flipping sad realities upside down to call attention to the ridiculous and messed up stuff going on around us. Mrs. Miller comes to drag from a compellingly untraditional background. She’s straight, and does drag to disappear into another character, talk about the sexuality of older women, and work out her own body image issues. Icon Ebony Fierce had a huge and magnetic presence—I was captivated. She said, “I just do my own art,” and her message is that we are all able to be artists of our own creation. She talked about how it bothers her that there are members of the drag community who don’t know anything about their own community or history.

Given the topic of the evening, it makes sense that there was agreement on the part of all the panelists that drag should be about something more than just glamour and getting attention. Some drag performers see what they do solely as a job (perform Top 40 songs, only perform for money), while everyone at this event was concerned with using their skills to support other causes and to make political assertions. Another similarity was that everyone on the panel agreed on the importance of audience feedback. I had no idea that drag performers rely so much on expressive and positive reception from the audience, which makes sense to me now because it is quite a participatory type of theater. The other common thread that surprised me was everyone’s emphasis on being nice and professional. I used to think of drag performers in a stereotypical way, which is that they are divas and difficult people in real life (like Madame Sata), but during the advice session, everyone stressed the importance of being easy to work with and saving bigness of personality for the stage.

After watching the performance, I found myself wondering what people did before drag. It seems to serve such an essential function both as a form of expression and social critique that there would have been a big gap without it. Then I realized that drag has existed for a long time in western culture in different forms, from court entertainment to Elizabethan theater. The major difference that I detect is that perhaps while drag has always been subversive, it has never been so owned by its performers as it is now. Drag artists today don’t need to do drag for some other purpose other than for drag itself and for whatever it means to them personally. Before the twentieth century, people who performed in drag were often lower class and performing for aristocratic audiences as part of a drama, opera, or even lighter comedic shows that may have poked fun at social constraints and the upper classes, but were ultimately bound by their patronage. It seems like drag performers today are in much more powerful positions when it comes to blatant self-representation and political messages.

It would be fascinating to learn what drag performers several centuries ago thought about what they were doing or what they were saying to their audiences. If drag has always been about the non-fixity and arbitrariness of gender and the exploding of social norms, maybe drag performers living in a more restrictive time simply had to invent creative ways to convey their perspectives, like Hollywood filmmakers during the Hays Code era. The show also made me think about how drag has been used in the later 20th century alone. It’s interesting that within about a twenty-year time span, glam disco drag (described as “classic” by Icon Ebony Fierce), Monty Python, and Tootsie all emerged. These three examples all use drag for what seem like very disparate purposes. I wonder about the different types of comedy that can be embedded in drag, and if they can overlap or if they point to conflicting underlying ideologies and world views.

Work Cited

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. Ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: NYU Press, 1996.