"In queer community, I found a place to belong
and abandoned my desire to be a hermit"
Exile and Pride
and abandoned my desire to be a hermit"
Exile and Pride
Queer Loca Sancta
"But just as the stolen body exists, so does the reclaimed body" declares Eli Clare in the conclusion of "Stones in my Pocket, Stones in my Heart" from Exile and Pride (132). Oakland, California is not so far away from Port Orford, Oregon to boast such a fundamentally different climate that one could expect a radical change in lifestyle based merely on geography, yet because of the distinct social climates which defined them each Eli Clare became reborn when he left the woods to attend Mills College in the city. "Queer identity, at least as we know it, is largely urban" claims Clare (37). "The happening places, events, dialogues, the strong communities, the journals, magazines, bookstores, queer organizing, and queer activism are all city-based." Certainly, there were physical features, buildings, roads, and the density of population that made the experience of walking down a road in Oregon and California distinct, but it is how these spaces were uses that made the difference in allowing Clare to begin the process of reclaiming a sense of home in a community and in his body. "For me the path from stolen body to reclaimed body started with my coming out as a dyke" (132-133). "I went to dyke events, read dyke books, listened to dyke music, hung out at my first dyke bar, went to my first dyke dance." Were there buildings in Port Orford that could have been used for dancing? Yes. But the social controls over the town would never have allowed it. "Queer people - using the narrow definition - don't live in Port Orford," Clare states simply (30). To understand this statement it is necessary to follow the social definition of identity and place. Clare once lived in Port Orford but he could not be queer there. He could not be himself. And so, even when he occupied space there, and his body was occupied by the force of others, he, a queer, did not live there. For these reasons, to follow how one toxic place can take lives one must next examine how another place give life again in order to get a fuller worldview of the social divisions of space and how bodies may move and be moved through it.
An examination of Clare's sexuality in rural and urban places could be undertaken, mapping his relations to other bodies, yet his world puts gender and the love of self rather than desire for others in the forefront. The claim that Clare discovered himself as a dyke complicates this reading by using highly sexualized and woman-oriented gendered language yet he insists that this was for him the first stepping stone out of a rigid cisgender definition of gender towards a pluralistic mode of categorizing genres of embodiment. "Simply put, the disabled, mixed-class tomboy... didn't discover sexuality among dykes," clarifies Clare, "but rather a definition of woman large enough to be comfortable for many years" (133). The invocation of space here is critical. The physical place of the dyke bar was "big enough" for him both because it allowed him be materially present but the greater shift was that the lack of patriarchal controls allowed him to be present in other ways. He was able to feel "comfortable." "Comfort" comes from the Latin "com-" meaning "together" and "-fort," meaning "strengthened." It was a place where Clare felt able to extend towards other possibilities for embodiment and desire and in turn others extended toward him. Lynne Huffer calls this social form of subject formation "coextension," the unregulated and undetermined flow of vital energies that all for new mad, queer, erotic forms of life to emerge. "And somewhere along the line," observes Clare, "I pulled desire to the surface, gave it room to breathe" (134). In response to the desire of others for him, he learned how to desire himself and in time to desire these intimacies to touch. There is, in Huffer's sense, a folding together of queer space and bodies. The place gave Clare room to breath in it and in response Clare was able to make space inside himself to allow in the vitality of the queer environment. The power of the place worked on him perhaps more than he had yet power to act on it or, in certain senses, the power to act on himself.
"In queer community, I found a place to belong and abandoned my desire to be a hermit," recalls Clare (134). The structuring of free space into a defined place can be a tool of violence and oppression, walling in bodies from traveling or changing. Places like Port Orford can sustain systems of violence in its system of making genders and sexualities which have a place in its schema. Yet not all places are so toxic that queer and transgender persons are forced to become hermits in order to survive. In places like Oakland, in dyke bars and bookstores, Clare was able to breath in his body and in his space. Over time, he was able to come out of the shell that he built to protect himself and begin the process of reoccupying himself and building a life around him. It was in such a place that Clare built himself back up from the wreckage of Port Orford and began to feel pride in what he found and what he made. Thus armed with dignity and confidence, Clare became better able to make connects, explore desires, and freely identify with others. The shape of this unfurling could be seen in the transformed image of himself. Clare recalls the joy of watching himself dress in the clothes that helped him feel at home in his body, "in the mirror, dressing to go out, knotting my tie, slipping into my blazer, curve of hip and breast vanishing beneath my clothes" (123). Through the support of queer loca sancta, dyke bars, Clare was able to reclaim a sense of home in himself and his environment, including all the others who shared the space. He had places to go out, had people he wanted to see, and had a body he wanted to be seen because at last he was able to dress and determine the modes by which his body would be accessed (or not) by others. This is the power of queer and transgender loca sancta, they can affirm for the bodies who occupy them that they are sanctified and desirable.
The Cost of Travel
The ability to travel is a power of the exile that not all are able to attain. The circumstances of Clare's life, the often intersecting but sometimes competing oppressions of disability and dysphoria gave him the distance from prescribed gender norms to be able to slip away into an asexual hermitage for a time and later to become a pilgrim to the city. "But listen, if I had wanted to date boys, wear lipstick and mascara, play with feminine clothes - the silk skirts and pumps, the low-cut blouse, the outrageous prom dress - I would have had to struggle much longer and harder than my nondisabled counterparts," confesses Clare (130). The lessons of Port Orford was that Clare's gender and sexuality was not his own. They were prohibited, prescribed, and enforced in violence on his body. His recollections of living as a hermit in his home and his body were not merely that he was walled off from his later destination of queer and transgender masculinity but that he was walled off on the other side from normative feminine gender and sexuality. Had he desired rather than begrudged the dresses he described as being like bondage, he might have never have felt at home in them because the markers of disability dismissed his power of femininity. Disability and the disabled are not supposed to be desirable and so are not supposed to flaunt their gender. He was forced at times to submit to the sexual dominance of others but would not be allowed to embrace his own even if he had felt normative desires. Furthermore, notes Clare, the demands of such high femme attire are largely not made with the particularities of his CP embodiment in mind. The precision needed to put on make-up and the delicacy of the fabrics demonstrate that much of feminine standards of beauty are intended for non-CP persons. For Clare, the environment offered the hermitage of asexual and agender as the path of least resistance. It was a place he was willing for years to hide out until he could plot his escape but it was after all the beginning of exile.
The narrow paths that lead to Clare's escape from the place that wasn't home for his body or transgender society only emphasized for him the contingency and high cost of moving from exile towards pride. Clare found among the anti-loca sancta of the city, the dyke bars, room enough to allow him to sit in a queer and trans environment. It gave him the freedom to share space without being put in any specific place in the community. He could be or not be, move and change, all essential powers for growth and free breathing. "And what if that definition [of gender] hadn't been large enough, what then?" asks Clare (133). "Would I have sought out hormones and/or surgery?" The space of city did not make demands on Clare to immediately claim an identity even as he eschewed the chains of Port Orford. Now that he could have a sexuality, he was not pressured to affirm an allegiance as a lesbian. Now that he no longer had to be a girl, he was not forced to be a man. Yet not all alternative queer and transgender spaces are so free. There are places, many places, where transgender persons are only embraced if they defined themselves according to one of the two binary positions: a transgender man or a transgender woman. Often in such cases social assistance is only given to transgender persons to transition if they undergo the full range of treatments for gender identity disorder, now called gender dysphoria. Such treatments include hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery (now called gender affirmation surgery), legal name and gender change, as well as psychological diagnosis and therapy. Such care is usually very expensive, running easily upwards of $100,000 and above. Transgender transitions are often mapped like roads with these treatments as waymarkers that authorize access to an alternative gender. The cost for transitions becomes the price demanded if people are allowed to escape the gender and sexual confines of their home but denied free access to alternative transgender spaces and modes of being.
Transgender is for Clare not a destination nor any other fixed place but a mode of liberating movement. Indeed, in referencing "the trans movement" Clare seems to suggest both the political drive for change and the hard personal wanderings. "The trans movement suggests a world full of gender and sex variation, a world much more complex than one divided into female-bodied women and male-bodied men," explains Clare (128). The road for a transgender person at the terminus of transgender man or woman but criss-cross with a wide range of possibilities, some of which are not yet named. The wide open road and unmarked footpaths of gender and sexuality can seem like chaos. Those who are most invested in the structures of power that order specific places and forms of embodiment express such queer and trans alternatives as empty or completely unorganized. The fear may be sincerely felt or it may simply be a scarecrow, yet another boundary marker, to keep people in their place and from exploring the free world beyond. Yet Oakland is a place with structures and systems of its own, only with space enough to allow queer and transgender bodies to breath. Indeed, the transgender movement is not aimed at destroying the loca sancta that are home for many who live there. Rather, transgender simply gestures to the road and offers assistance on the way to other places. "Many trans activists argue for an end, not to the genders of woman and man, but to the socially constructed binary" (128). Tearing down the walls that enforce strict gender norms or forcibly enact sex on subjugated bodies are not the same as living in a world without a place to call home. Rather it turns such walls into bridges, it opens gateways, breaks chains, and also makes maps, founds cities, and offers resources to wayfarers who might want to enter the wilderness of gender where few have yet trodden.
In the conclusion to "Stones in my Pocket, Stones in my Heart" in particular, and Exile and Pride in general, Clare returns to the metaphor of the walls that define gender and sexuality, that section shared space into places of home and exile. Yet this time, Clare imagines himself not as a hermit but as a pilgrim. The wall becomes a bridge that he can cross or one that he can straddle, hanging his legs on both sides at once or just dwelling on the in between space. "In the end, I will sit on the wide, flat top of my wall, legs dangling over those big, uncrackable stones, weathered smooth and clean," writes Clare (138). Yet ever the social critic, Clare's pilgrimage is not offered only as a personal story but as a map for others to join him on the wandering hike through the deep woods and urban alleys of gender. Clare imagines and invites others to imagine themselves on the wall next to him, reveling in multiplicity and the liberty to change. "[I] Sit with butch women, femme dykes, nellie men, studly fags, radical faeries, drag queens and kings, transsexual people who want nothing more than to be women and men, intersexed peple, hermaphrodites with attitudes, transgendered, pangendered, bigendered, polygendered, ungendered, androgynous people of many varieties and trade stories long into the night... Bold, brash stories about reclaiming our bodies and changing the world" (138). In the end, Clare positions his story as just one among many shared in a wider community. Each place in the spectrum of gender he crosses and occupies are but nodes that connect with wider queer and trans networks of possibility. "The stolen body, the reclaimed body, the body that knows itself and the world, the stone and the heat that warms it; my body has never been singular" (137).
The world of the transgender pilgrim is one that invites a change in how we view our environments and the bodies that occupy, shape, and escape them. On one level, the movement seeks to reveal the diversity of wildlife living in our backyard, the other forms of gender and sexuality turned into hermits and exiles. "Trans people of all varieties say, 'This is how we can be men, women, how we can inhabit all the spaces in between,'" writes Clare (132). The revelation of Exile and Pride is not that Port Orford is a straight cisgender place and Oakland is full of queer and transgender people. Rather the world we live in is a love wilder and dynamic than we expected. The ground shifts beneath our feet. On another level, such pilgrims demonstrate that places, rural and urban, straight and queer, cis and trans, are socially constructed. The problem when a queer or trans youth finds themselves lost, alone, or violated where they grow up is not that the child is broken and needs to be fixed. Nor is it that the child needs to be taken from toxic environments to safe spaces. Care both for the person and their location may need to occur. This is where attention to personal stories and scars are critical. "Harder to express how that break becomes healed, a bone once fractured, now whole, but different from the bone never broken," writes Clare (132). "How do I mark this place where my body is no longer an empty house, desire whistling lonely through the cracks, but not yet a house fully lived in?" Yet these scars can be used to tell tales and incite social change. Importantly, toxic environments are not set by nature and unchangeable. More often, the problem is in the social environment and not in the individual, the place and not the person needs to be transformed. This may mean physical changes need to be made to bodies and buildings but it also means that social changes need to be made in who and how the world is allowed to be used and shared.
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