Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore is Burning: Is This Mya Hall's Uprising?

"Set the world on fire.
#MatchboxDreams #NoJusticeNoPeace
#FreddieGray #Baltimore 



A Story

On April 1st, 2015, the first day of the month, Mya Hall (27) and Brittany Flemming (20), two trans women living and working in Baltimore were gunned down by police. Hall died. Flemming was injured. "When police initially noted that the two were dressed in women’s clothing, it seemed a strange twist," wrote Peter Herman for the Washington Post. "Later, authorities made a point to say that the garb had not been meant as a disguise." The two were later identified as two trans prostitutes that work near North Charles and 22nd streets. This is no April Fools joke. This strange fruit, this sort of violence, is not restricted to one day.  "Death," writes Herman, "comes too often, too young and too easy to a transgender population marginalized by a society that they say forces some to resort to prostitution, or what they call becoming 'survivor sex workers.'" This is the life and death of trans women of color in Baltimore.

On April 19th, 2015, Freddie Gray, a young black man (25), was killed when his spine was broken by Baltimore police. Immediately an "unrest" begins to swell across the city.

On April 25th, 2015, what was later called protests, riots, and uprisings began in the city citing Gray's death but responding to wider systems of marginalization, oppression, and violence against people of color in Baltimore.

On April 28th, 2015, after calling in the National Guard, flooding Baltimore with armored cars, troops with assault rifles, and around the clock patrolling, a 10PM curfew was set for the city. Peace and safety will be imposed by armed forces at the expense of citizens' liberty. Ignoring the outcry of its people, the city authorities declare a state of emergency, marking its citizens as potential threats. The city effectively became military occupied territory.

On April 30th, 2015, the last day of the month, I sit in my apartment listening to the constant din of sirens as the lights of armored vehicles periodically flash across my screen. It is after 10PM, I am confined to stay in for the night. There will be no going out to bars or the movies. Following updates about the continued protests around Baltimore and in other cities, I am drawn to reflect on the arc of recent events. I am humbled by the specificity of the life and death stories of those like Mya, Brittany, and Freddie. Their joys and pains, and those of their community, are their own. That I want to respect with deference. Yet, I also feel implicated in the narratives of gender, sexuality, class, and race that systematically dictate our shared experiences. That I want to honor with solidarity. I want to be an attentive reader of this wider story that connects lives too often held apart. Isolated, we become all the more vulnerable, oppressed, erased. Mya's circumstances and death are forgotten in discussion of Freddie's, and too many in my communities wish to hold both at arm's length as groups assert their privilege, indifference, and safety. The question is thus raised: who gets to claim this story? In whose memory and on whose grave do we lay down the injustice and uprising in Baltimore? Who gets to be remembered?


A Question

Baltimore is burning and I ask, is this Mya Hall's uprising? It is Freddie Gray who gets his name shouted as protestors march down the streets. His life comes with a tragic death. Yet so too does hers. His story is being told. Hers is forgotten. In raising this question I do not mean to diminish in any way the impact that the systematic oppression and killing of a man of color. Nor do I wish to downplay his marginalization as a black man by playing up Mya's transness. Indeed the intersections of the city in which they live and the intersections of identity by which they died seem too intermeshed to allow us to separate them. To follow on path long enough will require us to cut across the other, even at times to share the road. Yet the authors and readers of this story can and do begin their plot with a cis, hetero man of color and cuts a path around the trans woman of color. In a narrative about unjust systems of difference, such as race, it is still be manicured to keep other systems of difference, such as gender, separate. Whether it is being stated or not, there are reasons that a massive protest that calls upon the sympathies of cities across the country arises in the name of a cis hetero man and not a trans woman. To say the choice was discussed is wild speculation. To say that sexist, transphobic, even homophobic sentiments are at play when the death of one sparks a few articles and the other becomes the rallying point for a large-scale public demonstration testifies to a consistent seclusion and erasure of trans lives from intersecting politics. Put simply, Freddie Gray is a safer poster boy for the Baltimore Uprisings than Mya Hall. 

In an importance sense, Baltimore is not burning for Mya Hall. The trans community reaches out to claim her narrative, asking the critical questions that sparked the Uprising. Who claimed Hall’s body? What did her parents say? How many times was she shot? Why did the police have to shoot her?  Yet the wider community does not remember nor tell her story. Neither the fires nor the passions are claiming her story as fuel. People ask, "Who Is Freddie Gray?" but not "Who is Mya Hall?" The tragic figure to spark and fuel the Baltimore Uprising has been chosen. Yet the choice of exclusively cis-male propellent is by no means compulsory or finalized. The unrest in our hearts may yet find room for more life than one. Indeed, it is in our own best interest not to isolate our joint narrative to either Freddie or Mya. Already those seeking to secure the city and the story are working to discredit Freddie Gray as no fallen hero. They are trying to reduce a mass movement against systematic oppression into a narrative that rises and falls with Freddie Gray. By limiting the story to Freddie's crime record, the systems of marginalization that made crime a presumed path become mostly elided and the systems of violence that killed him are partially exculpated. 

If Mya was considered on her own, reduction to the life and death of a single individual would be no less a part of the program of extinguishing the movement. Readers would forget, as Bryanna A Jenkins, who runs a trans advocacy group in Baltimore testifies, “[Trans women] are being driven to their deaths. Out here, you can be attacked. You can be raped. You can be arrested for being trans.” Likely the same agents that work to discredit Freddie and the Baltimore Uprisings would not write more sympathetically following the story that Mya was "a friendly but troubled loner," that she worked as a prostitute, that "she was high and looking for a date," that she was driving "a stolen car" when she encountered the police, that she had "a history of theft and assault," and that she "did not obey a guards instructions" which put her in the situation that served as the trigger for police to open fire (The Huffington Post). What little consideration of the cultural contexts and systematic violences that were given in the stories covering Mya's death would be drowned by character attacks if she was instead held up as the spark of the Baltimore Uprising. 

Anyone singled out as a hero could be pulled apart by cutting out and showcasing the least sympathetic parts of their lives. As much as supporters choosing Freddie Gray over Mya Hall, the oppositions' obsession with isolating narratives to individuals testifies that our story needs more than one protagonist can offer.


A Call

What we learn from considering Mya Hall's place in the story of the Baltimore Uprising is that our call to action may come from many directions at once. Already LGBT activists, in particular trans activists, are relating the Baltimore Uprising to the Stonewall Riots that fueled (not started) a movement. Might we look again at the reasons Baltimore is Burning in the light of such histories as is captured in Paris is Burning? Might the trans community become ignited in solidarity, drawn by the inextricability, with the fires of race and class already being fanned around the country? Whose else may have her story remembered in the flashing beams of the armored vehicles? Who else have have their story re-written in the flickering incandescence of the burning police van? To who else might our blaze call? What dark corner might answer it with fresh tinder?

The system of oppression and violence is too big to be brought down by an individual, living or dead, even with the force of mass movement behind him. Such an expansive problem requires a response just as complex. We need solidarity. We need as many matches as the powderkeg has fuses. The more of us willing to risk our safety by catching fire for change the more we can not only break down roadblocks towards justice, but we can avoid rebuilding the same systems of exclusion that we oppose. This means we have to give up the things that we suppose excludes our stories from intersecting with those of Freddie Gray, Mya Hall, and the rest of Baltimore burning around us. We need to step out of our apartments, our privilege, our individual narratives that make us feel secure. We need to surrender our safety if we are going to be dangerous, if we are going to be powerful. If we think critically about policing borders of identity, community, politics, and narrative, we discover that safety is not only a privilege, it is a weapon, a system of authority that separates us from you. The few become the tyrants of the many. All those made to feel outside that protection, the queer, crip, trans, femme, people of color, know how it is to live penned in by violence. Anything with power is dangerous, the difference now is that the authorities have momentarily lost control over that power. Moments like this, when the people awake, arise, and remember their strength, reveal how those authorities are dependent on the power of the masses. We have control over how our stories will be told and who gets included. Before those burning for justice are extinguished, may the fires find a home in you. Burn with us.


What Story Will You Tell 
in Response?


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Eve & Sin In Media Res: the Epic Sex of Paradise Lost

“Those male, these feminine.
For Spirits when they please
can either Sex assume, or both ” 

Paradise Lost
John Milton

Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre 

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.

Between Heaven and Hell

Narrative at once works to explain bodies according to specific genders and genres and as a creative project also helps shape them. In this way, gender and genre are more than etymologically linked but can share a direct causal relationship. What then does an "epic" gender look like? By examining the characters of Paradise Lost through the epic narrative trait of writing in media res (in the middle of things), we can see how its key female characters, Eve and Sin, become defined by a fundamental indeterminacy, caught between roles of submission and independence, daughter and mother, heavenly spirit and hellish sinner. Although Paradise Lost centers around its male characters, Satan and Adam, it is only through the agency of women that the plot is able to move forward. Indeed, not only do women mirror the masculine power over shapeshifting, they potentially exceed the men in their mutability. The inconstancy of women functioned as a characteristic of female inferiority, but as the epic in media res of the epic demonstrates, all bodies share a common instability between choices, roles, and trajectories that open up a critical space between the tyranny of assumed origins and predestined conclusions.

Paradise Lost begins in media res, just after Satan has fallen from heaven but before he becomes the biblical Satan who temps Eve and then Christ (a point which draws a stronger connection for Christ as a second Eve rather than as a second Adam), yet as events unfold it becomes clear that the whole epic is structured by the sense of indeterminacy offered by existing in the middle of things. Indeed, the realization of the perpetual tension between possible truths, potential trajectories, and multiple desires is what sparks Satan's decision to become the inconstant tricker and tempter. "Me miserable!" he confesses before entering Eden, "which way shall I flie / Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire / Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell" (IV.73-75). The wrathful truth of heaven or the despair of meaninglessness in Hell are both impossible choices for him. They exist as poles that he finds himself temporally and geographically located in between and between which he constantly moves. This is his power and his curse: mutability. There is no escape from the indeterminacy of his post-fallen state because, like it or not, it defines him as a creature ever caught in media res.

 In his first famous speech, concluding with the call for his defeated forces to "awake, arise, or be forever fallen" Satan rouses the sense of a perpetual revolution of form and power by affirming a sense of cosmic mutability. "The mind is its own place," argues Satan, "and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (I.254-255). One change has already happen, the fall, materialized in the shift in heavenly to infernal settings. Yet more changes may take place. By calling on the spirits to embrace a change of mind, they may exercise power by changing the meaning of their circumstances. "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n," Satan asserts (I.263). Likewise, the bodies of the spirits will soon change in turn. The text provides a general sense of the new names and features of the fallen angels but admits that this too is not fixed. There “Those male, these feminine," the text narratives, but adds that they can not only shift between mental states but sexes as well. "For Spirits when they please / can either Sex assume, or both ” (I.422-424). This statement occurs briefly in the first book yet transforms how we read the rest of the epic. While most of the main characters present as male, they are no more stable or fixed in their position or embodiment of gender than its female characters: Sin and Eve.

Satan and Sin

Featuring characters who can assume the state of "either sex" or "both" at once, it is perhaps not surprising that the key male characters of the epic find themselves in the trans position of being pregnant men, each in turn giving birth to indeterminately gendered children. The first birth in Paradise Lost we discover in media res, as Satan meets his daughter at the gates of Hell. Realizing that he, and the reader, are not aware of the gestation that had just taken place, Sin describes the circumstances of her own birth. As Satan was in the midst of battle, she tells him, "All on a sudden miserable pain / Surprisd thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzie swumm / In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast / Threw forth, till on the left side op'ning wide" (752-755). By the work of heaven, Satan body opens up (like Adam's left side in Eden and later Eve's body after her fall) giving it an organ for reproduction. "Likest to thee in shape and count'nance bright," Sin describes, comparing herself to Satan, "Then shining Heav'nly fair, a Goddess arm'd / Out of thy head I sprung" (756-758). Gesturing at once to Athena's birth from Jove's head and Eve's creation from Adam's left side, Sin springs fully armed. She describes herself as a mirror image of Satan in form and force. Sin is a bright spirit and a warrior with the same potential as Satan to take on a feminine role as mother and a masculine role as revolutionary. 

No sooner was Sin born than Satan shifted back into a paternal role, as if to reassert his masculinity, he places sin in a subordinate female role by penetrating her and making her into a mother. "I pleas'd, and with attractive graces won / The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft / Thy self in me thy perfect image viewing / Becam'st enamour'd," she confesses, "and such joy thou took'st / With me in secret, that my womb conceiv'd / A growing burden" (762-767). Underlining her similarity to Satan, Sin demonstrates how this union is not merely incestuous its practically masturbatory. This has implications for Sin's pregnancy. That Satan becomes the father and Sin the mother is not predestined. Given their spiritual nature and Satan's evident ability to bear and issue forth life from his both, either might take on either role. While the plot follows reader's expectations of Satan as masculine and Sin as feminine, the text nonetheless stresses this likeness to suggest a mutual sexual indeterminacy.

Indeed, Sin fights and falls beside Satan as a comrade in arms, gaining her name along with him and then taking on a co-rulership over Hell. He becomes marked as Satan, the Enemy, in battle. She becomes marked as "Sin" when "All th' Host of Heav'n back they recoild affraid / At first... and for a Sign / Portentous held me" (759-761). Sin's appearance suggests the eruption of mutability, change, and revolution that Satan's opposition has generated. No long is eternity fixed but now open to many more falls and transformations. While Paradise Lost focuses on Satan's fall, it is not an isolated event, but one collaborated by Sin's fall. "Driv'n headlong from the Pitch of Heaven," narrates Sin, "down / Into this Deep, and in the general fall / I also;" (772-774). Adding "I also" just after the split not only highlights the importance of the fall as a collective ("general") event but stresses the start of the next line, "I also" just before it ends with a semi-colon. Sin shared in Satan's form, sexuality, battle, and defeat. Satan in turn becomes a prince of hell, tempting more to enter through its gates, yet even he must submit to Sin's power over the liminal space of the gate. Arriving in Hell, Sin is given her position of power, "at which time this powerful Key / Into my hand was giv'n, with charge to keep / These Gates for ever shut, which none can pass / Without my op'ning" (772-777). She determines who enters and who leaves. In turn, her body will become the womb of Death and by him many more children. Sin generates possibilities for mutability. This involves death but also change. Likewise, as gatekeeper of Hell, she uses her position in media res to control others, including men, even Satan.

Adam and Eve

In Rabbinical lore, some hold that Adam was a hermaphrodite. As in Aristophane's myth of the three sexes and three sexualities in Plato's Symposium, a male-female pair logically comes from dividing a body composed of both genders. Indeed, of the many ways that two humans could have been formed, creation through division is suggestive conclusion for the authors of Genesis and Paradise Lost. In one sense, the division changes (and thus creates) both Adam and Eve. Each are made of the original flesh yet not identical to it. In another sense, if one wishes to stress Adam's relative constancy through the generation of Eve, at very least Adam functions like Satan as a mother's body that is opened up to reproduce life. In Book VII, Adam recounts just how this happens. "Though sleeping, where I lay, and saw the shape [God] / Still glorious before whom awake I stood," recounts Adam, Who stooping op'nd my left side, and took / From thence a Rib, with cordial spirits warme, / And Life-blood streaming fresh" (463-467). Like the loss of blood in childbirth, and Satan's birth of Sin, a part of his body is taken through a hole in his left side produced by heavenly forces. Although held up as humanity's father, in this moment, before any other children, he (or at least his body) takes on the fleshly shape and role of a mother.

The generation of Eve as a woman, then, occurs at the same time that Adam is affirmed as a man, a synchronicity that affirms the shared likeness and indeterminacy of the two. "[W]ide was the wound," continues Adam, "But suddenly with flesh fill'd up and heal'd: / The Rib he formd and fashond with his hands; / Under his forming hands a Creature grew, / Manlike, but different sex" (468-470). At the same moment that Adam's flesh is being knit together, Eve's body is also taking on a new shape. Indeed, the double meaning of calling Eve "manlike," signifying both a common humanity and gender with Adam, that adding the tag "but different sex" seems to add clarification. In fact, it tells us little about who is the more conventionally masculine or feminine in body or appearance. Although there is a differentiation of nouns and pronouns, neither's bodies are described (in the Bible or Paradise Lost) until after the fall of humanity. The text gives qualities which are common to both and abstract rather than defining the shape of their flesh, "so lovly faire, / That what seemd fair in all the World, seemd now
Mean, / or in her summ'd up, in her containd" (471-473). We learn of Eve's beauty, which is to say her aesthetic value and sense of wholeness; a totality which seems to include all things and thus by extension all genders. 

In many ways, the text does more to affirm their likeness than there difference. Eve is describe as consubstantial to Adam by Adam, "Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self / Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man / Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe / Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere; / And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soule" (495-499). By the end of the description of Eve's birth, Adam has all but convinced the reader that their bodies share more than hold apart. Properly, one should consider them together rather than separate one as existing prior or above the other by their relation to "Father and Mother." Who after all is this Father and Mother? It could be God, parent of all, in which case the divine becomes associated (like all Spirits) as both masculine and feminine. And/Or, God could be like flesh, and Adam made in His/Her image. The Adam that exists prior to the divide could be considered both Mother and Father since he reproduces asexually. Or, yet again, Adam could be the Mother that bears the creation of God (here figured as a Father). In any case, Adam and Eve constitute a whole but indeterminate body that seems able to slip between the forms and positions of sex.

Like Satan, as soon as Adam gives birth to Eve and witnesses their likeness, he immediately asserts his sex (qua masculinity) by taking a dominant position in sex (qua intercourse). "To the Nuptial Bowre / I led her blushing like the Morn" (510-511). Eve's blushing and need to be led by Adam supposedly signifies the natural passivity of her sex and sexuality. From this Adam proposes that despite their like appearance, Eve is in fact secondary in creation and station. "For well I understand in the prime end," Adam admits of Eve, "Of Nature her th' inferiour, in the mind / And inward Faculties, which most excell, / In outward also her resembling less / His Image who made both, and less expressing / The character of that Dominion" (540-546). Again, both Adam and Eve are now products both of a hermaphroditic first creature and/or Creator. Yet, Adam differentiates between his body which lacks a rib and hers which was made of that rib. In the beginning they are the same and "in the prime end" they are different. Yet what of that transformative middle space, in media res, where they are formed and seem to continue to transform together?

Once Adam lets go of Eve sexually, and they get on to other business, she begins to assert her like powers of self-governance and her ability to chose (for better or worse) the many potential changes she may undergo and influence. "Let us divide our labours," she begins on morning, "thou where choice  / Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind  / The Woodbine round this Arbour, or direct / The clasping Ivie where to climb, while I / In yonder Spring of Roses intermixt /With Myrtle, find what to redress till Noon" (214-219). Each of them have been created to work Eden and while Adam pushes for them to work together like they do in bed, mutually and yet with him on top, Eve asserts her own ability to control her body and the world it can shape. Adam tries to instill in her fear over the vulnerability of her body, yet Eve presses back with an affirming of her own masculine-like constancy. "Let us not then suspect our happie State," Eve asserts, "Left so imperfet by the Maker wise, /  As not secure to single or combin'd. / Fraile is our happiness, if this be so, / And Eden were no Eden thus expos'd" (337-341). Like Satan who asserts that he embodies Hell, Eve claims that she embodies Eden. If Eden is a place of constancy, then so is she; as much as Adam. If, however, Eden now exists in a state of mutability, where change has happened and may occur again, positioning Eden and its occupants in media res, then both Adam and Eve are open to many potential futures. Whatever those futures may be, Sin and Eve become gatekeepers to unleash further change for the cosmos. Thus, while women become dually responsible for the fall of humanity, so too are they mothers and fathers of all the new things that take shape in the course of all that follows: more falls, salvation, and the indeterminacy that allows for the possibility and power of choice.