A Different Kind of Privilege Conversation

Good morning, lovely readers!

Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind following a thought-provoking interaction with a friend.

A small group (including me and this friend) were prepping for a thing—the thing is not important in the context of the story aside from the fact that we were working on it together and made our way over to a discussion of privilege in the process.

But not the kind of discussion that you might typically see, where people “confess” which privileges they have and vow to stop using their privileges as though privilege were a sin.

Instead we started imagining that privileges could be purchased through a special, imaginary catalog, exploring which ones we each might choose to have if we could buy anything out of this catalog.

Most of the responses were pretty typical; I didn’t even have to think about mine before blurting out “visibility.” When it came time for my friend to go, he hesitated and pondered for a bit before expressing that this would seem off to some of us because of his being straight, white, and a cisman, but he expressed that the privilege that he really wanted was the sense of connection and belonging to a culture or identity like he saw with some of us.

The answer took me aback, but not because I have come to expect that socially conscious men acknowledge that they have “nothing but privilege” (not necessarily something I support, but a common enough reaction to privilege questions). Rather, it took me aback because of the intense longing I actually felt when he said that.

He pointed out to me something I didn’t even realize I had…which makes sense because you are typically blind to your privilege until you’re made aware of it, right? Right. Suddenly all those times that I had scoffed at people who said “Well when’s international men’s day?” or “We need a straight pride parade”—those times began to take on a different light.

Later, as he and I talked more, I began to realize that there isn’t really a positive identity towards which someone like him could turn.

As a woman, I can turn away from sexist characterizations of myself and draw on the beautiful feminist, body-positive, sex-positive, goddess spirituality that I have come to love. As a bi person, I can connect with the Queer community or specific bi groups where I can openly celebrate my identity, taking pride in my sexual orientation. Hell, I’ve even written posts about it.

I have long thought that it is important for marginalized individuals to find ways of celebrating and loving their marginalized parts so that the whole of their interaction with those parts isn’t just fighting against prejudice or discrimination.

But I literally never thought about people like my friend and how they are expected to disown, distance, or divorce themselves from the identity of oppressor but have no alternative positive version of the identity to seek. All the “pride” groups for privileged identities are associated with vitriolic hatred and intolerance. If someone says they have white pride—the context basically means they are a white supremacist. If someone says they have straight pride—the connotation is that they’re homophobic.

But “pride” in that context is more about the way that it is used to mask intolerance, hatred, and superiority complexes. It’s so far from the definition and connotation of pride used in the context of marginalized identities that it’s barely the same word.

When I express pride in being bi, I definitely don’t mean that I think I’m superior to straight people or that I want to strip them of human rights. When I express pride in my feminine side, I’m not harboring hatred towards men.

I’m not trying to say that we need to reclaim the “pride” word. Rather, I’m thinking more about the possibility for…shall we call it healthy self-esteem and sense of belonging?

I want men to have a positive masculinity to gravitate towards. I want them to have ways of relating to their gender that isn’t rooted in shame (if they’re conscious enough to see women’s issues), neutrality (probably the most positive of what I see available currently), or hypermasculinity and arrogance.

I think it’s necessary, in fact. Because becoming interested in social justice shouldn’t carry the idea that you have to forever be ashamed of who you are and disconnected from a sense of dignity. My friend later expressed to me that he was extremely nervous, and I could see that in other contexts, he might have been raked across the coals without anyone bothering to try to understand where he was coming from.

In another context, I might have been the one laughing about fragile masculinity.

So what am I saying? I know I’ve rambled a lot in this post. I guess the thing that has been weighing on my mind is really that we need to do better at understanding that having privilege doesn’t mean that people don’t have a similar desire to belong and feel good about themselves—that that desire is not bad. It’s just a function of being human. We literally all have it. And social justice is a hobbled movement if we’re asking people to “wake up” but not offering alternatives of ways they can achieve those needs without resorting to harmful power structures.

 

 

My Wounded Activist Heart

I’m not a Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m as eager as anyone to see him discredited, dethroned, impeached, jailed, etc.

But I draw the line at attacking his wife.

Since the election, I’ve seen an upsurge of Facebook posts suggesting that Melania’s former work as a nude model makes her unfit to be the First Lady, disparaging her for being an immigrant, or negatively comparing her with “classy” first ladies like Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy.

As a liberal, feminist, bi activist, I cannot participate in those efforts in good conscience because they conflict with my values.

How Melania has expressed her sexuality shouldn’t matter. No woman deserves to be ridiculed and shamed for how much or little of her body she has shown. Having a history as a porn model or sex worker should have no effect on whether someone is qualified for political office, much less on whether she’s qualified to be the wife of someone in political office.

On a similar note, her former work shouldn’t imply that she’s less “classy” than other First Ladies because claiming such would require a view that sex work is shameful and debasing–a premise I adamantly reject.

Ironically, I have periodically heard people try to justify these attacks on Melania by claiming that it is no different from how Michelle Obama was treated.

But in my book, turn about is not fair play.

It’s not making people reconsider how they might have talked about Michelle Obama. It’s not preventing Melania from being the First Lady.

It’s not even hurting Trump because he unquestionably demonstrated that he had no problem taking jabs at Melania at the Al Smith Charity Dinner, despite his visible discomfort with any jokes directed at himself. Melania is expendable to him, only useful insofar as she feeds his need for power and prestige.

But I have another reason for my refusal to make sexist attacks on Melania. She is the first First Lady that I have worried about her treatment at home.

Trump is publicly emotionally abusive to virtually everyone he dislikes, particularly towards women. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault from more than one woman, including an accusation of marital rape and domestic battery from a former wife.

I have no confidence that he suddenly becomes a docile teddy bear in private with Melania.

It’s hard enough to get out of a toxic relationship in normal circumstances, but when your husband is suddenly the Commander and Chief with the secret service at his disposal and an ego as fragile as a butterfly wing…I don’t know about you, but I’d probably keep my head down and beg people not to make him angry as well.

Ultimately, I see attacking Melania as more than a direct conflict with my values; it’s potentially heaping yet more mistreatment onto an already mistreated woman, demonstrating to her that those who claim to be “on the side” of women are hypocrites, neither a safe haven nor living example of respect for her.

But standing true to my social justice values has resulted in some unexpected conflicts. Others that I would have previously assumed shared my values have reacted with hostility towards my discomfort with the treatment of Melania. I’ve found that people are willing to resort to prejudice and then claim oppression when I speak out against that prejudice. Just yesterday, I was accused of being a homophobe and a white supremacist because of this stance.

It’s a discouragement I didn’t expect to face as I headed into a Trump presidency. I’m not only contending with the horrible realization that sexism, racism, and despotism won the election, but I’m also having to face the reality that it’s infiltrated what I would have considered “my turf” and poisoned those I would have called “my people.”

Trump has said and done some truly awful things that shouldn’t be ignored…but if the attempts to oppose him sound more like something he would say, I’m not sure that’s a movement I actually want to be a part of.

The Answer to Hate Speech Isn’t Legislation: Lessons from Watching Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot recently released a couple new videos, one a direct warning about Trump, the other an anthem to vaginas (which is awesome as fuck!).

It inspired me to watch the documentary about them that’s available on Netflix right now, and I want to encourage everyone to watch it.

Protest is such an important form of free speech, and this documentary gives a stark example of what happens when totalitarian religion and government try to outlaw “offensive” and “hateful” speech.

We’ve been experiencing an erosion of the rights to protest and free speech…driven as much by the militarized response to human rights  and environmental protests (far too many examples to link to) as by the liberal anger towards “hate speech.”

It’s a dangerous trend. And neither conservatives nor liberals seem to realize that if you make it punishable for the other to have protests and free speech, as offensive as it may be, you set yourself up for the same.

In the documentary, you can see how the former intolerance for religious freedom has changed to intolerance for “blasphemy.” But nothing’s really changed. The foundation–that the government has the power to punish one for their beliefs and expression–is the same.

With the recent videos, Pussy Riot does a brilliant job of showing how Trump represents an overt threat to freedom, but the documentary carries a dire warning of another kind.

Free speech is only as secure as the right for the most offensive person to speak without legal retaliation.

As a bi feminist, I may not like it when someone speaks misogynistic or homophobic things, but I realize that their right to that opinion is my right to mine (and you’d better believe I want to be able to respond).

As we head into the future, with whoever becomes President, we as a nation really must consider what kind of nation we want to live in.

Will we support the rights of those we disagree with to have their voice so that we can protect our own?

Or will we support the comfort that comes when a police force can shut down those who make us uncomfortable and thus begin crafting our own gags?

 

The Continuing Horror of Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby is one of those old classics in the supernatural horror genre. I saw the movie several years ago and scooped up the book when I found it at a library sale. I decided to give the print version a spin this Halloween.

As I’ve written about before, one of my reasons for loving horror is due to the rich symbolism. It’s not enough to just have the surface plot. The best horror movies, for me, are the ones that manage to portray the horrors of real life as monsters and ghosts.

And for Rosemary’s Baby, the horror was all in the subtext. The plot point about sex with Satan and birthing the anti-Christ wasn’t particularly scary to me, but the terror of having those you trust gaslight and manipulate you is always terrifying.

Early on in the book, Rosemary is drugged and raped. She is partially conscious throughout it, conscious enough to know that something happened the next morning, but when she confronts her husband, she has her feelings of violation dismissed. He didn’t want to “miss” the window of opportunity for impregnation.

Since she wants a baby so much…and since she thinks it was her husband who raped her, she convinces herself that her feelings are silly, that she’s making a big deal out of nothing–even that she is partially to blame.

Later, when she finds out she’s pregnant, the circumstances surrounding how she became pregnant become even further buried as everyone around her celebrates her “good fortune.”

Immediately, the reader begins to see how Rosemary’s desires and concerns are overridden by others, beginning with being pushed into going to a doctor who ignores her concerns about her pregnancy complications and scares her away from talking to her friends, telling her that the only information she needs will come from him.

When she does want to get a second opinion from a different doctor, her husband shames her for being disloyal to the doctor she currently has. Protecting his ego as doctor takes precedence over her comfort as the patient.

As things progress, she becomes more and more suspicious of the motives of her husband and neighbors. When she finally figures out that they have been manipulating her for their Satanic rituals, she flees, seeking protection and help from another doctor.

Bur rather than believing her, he assumes that she is psychotic. After all, her doctor and her husband are both well-respected men.Rosemary is even aware that the way she tells her story will affect whether she is believed and takes every precaution to seem calm in order to avoid being accused of hysterics, but to no avail.

In a move familiar to every woman who has ever been disbelieved about sexual assault or domestic violence, the reputation of the men she is accusing of conspiracy undermines the believability of her fear.

After she has been handed back over to her captives, who now make no pretense of hiding the fact that they are drugging her to keep her docile, she goes into labor and delivers her baby. It is quickly whisked away, and she is told that it died.

The gaslighting continues when she hears a baby crying and feels her body responding to its hunger but is told that she is imagining it…then that it is the upstairs neighbor’s child.

Rosemary fights to hold onto her sense of reality and succeeds to an extent, but at the expense of her will. Once she is brought face to face with the horror of her rape baby and the truth surrounding the conspiracy to use her body for their own ends, she finds herself succumbing to the pressure to accept the situation. Surrounded by so many people who have completely disregarded her own boundaries, she finally submits to her role.

The demonic aspect of her pregnancy and birth are almost secondary to the horror of how she is consistently used and abused and then convinced that she is the one over-reacting when she is upset about it.

And perhaps the scariest part is that women in this day and age don’t have much more guarantee of being believed when they come forward to accuse men in power. They’re still convinced to overlook increasing violations against their autonomy and duped into thinking that they want what others are forcing them into.

Ultimately, Rosemary’s Baby isn’t a horror story about religion. It’s a horror story about patriarchy.

 

Expanding Feminism with Archetypes: Hestia vs. Hera

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen. It’s an older book with a fair bit of binary language and a slight over-emphasis on literal application of archetypes to women’s lives, but it has clarified something for me that I’ve struggled with for quite some time.

I like to clean. I like to cook. I like to do a lot of things that might be associated with “typical women’s chores.”

At least, in the right circumstances I do. Sometimes I loathe it and feel boxed into the housewife category. Sometimes when I enjoy dusting or doing laundry, my feminist mind observes with cool disapproval.

I could sort of recognize that the times I enjoyed cleaning were different from when I felt trapped into cleaning, but it still felt like maybe I was caving to gender conditioning or expectations.

That all changed when I read Bolen’s descriptions of the goddess of the hearth vs. the goddess of marriage.

Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, is not a very prominent goddess. According to Bolen, she was honored in every house and temple by the central fire, but she was also pretty unassuming, preferring to sit back and take pleasure in the quiet maintenance of the hearth rather than running off on wild adventures like Artemis or seeking out trysts like Aphrodite.

Hera, the goddess of marriage, is a little more well-known as Zeus’ wife. She’s often portrayed as wildly jealous of Zeus’ affairs with other women but is also fiercely devoted to her role as wife. The convoluted issues of jealousy aside, Bolen describes her as being primarily driven by her union—the stereotypical fifties wife who promotes her husband’s career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of interests of her own.

Hestia and Hera both can be seen doing somewhat similar things sometimes, but for different reasons.

Hera is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because a clean home is a comfortable home for her man, the type of goddess that would probably throw a dinner party to help her husband get a promotion.

Hestia is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because it brings her joy and peace to be in a space that feels good. She would cook because she enjoys the act of preparing food.

I can identify very strongly with Hestia. I like beauty, cleanliness, and harmony around me. I enjoy doing the things that bring that to my surroundings. I know that even if I were single I would still do much of what I currently do in my marriage.

But I loathe being a housewife!

If I’m doing my own laundry, I’m happy as can be. If I’m doing someone else’s laundry, suddenly the task seems like an enormous burden, demeaning as well as time-consuming. If I am cooking dinner because I want to have yummy food that carries the magic of having been prepared by hand, I feel content and absorbed in the process. If I’m cooking a meal because I feel obligated to have dinner on the table when my partner comes home from work, I find the process overwhelming and depressing.

I was conditioned to be Hera, so I’m not entirely without that influence. I do find myself periodically running around trying to be the perfect housewife, and that’s when I really hate household chores.

Feminism has been key in helping me buck that obligatory mindset, but I didn’t quite realize initially that rejecting the notion that I need to clean and cook to “make a home” for my partner didn’t necessarily mean that I would want to stop doing home making things entirely.

To some extent, I think certain facets of feminism contribute to that. There’s a certain amount of judgment or shame that sometimes gets directed towards women who might actually want to be a housewife or carry the greater burden of chores in the home.

It’s not everywhere. There are also feminist circles that uphold the value that a woman should get to decide what she wants to do, even if that is doing things traditionally relegated to women. But it’s present enough that when the Hestia archetype would take hold and I found myself enjoying the process of organizing a closet, I would feel guilty, wondering if I was falling back into old conditioning.

I can see now that Hestia and Hera are vastly different motivating forces. The one chooses to “keep the hearth” because it is valuable in and of itself to her. She probably wouldn’t do it if it weren’t personally fulfilling because she isn’t driven by duty or public opinion.

The other chooses to “keep the hearth” because it contributes to what she thinks a wife should be.

Hestia does her thing for herself whereas Hera does her thing for her husband.

It’s such a subtle but important distinction.

Hestia is a natural part of my personality. Hera is not (though she might be for others). When I find myself driven by the conditioning of “should’s,” I embody the patriarchy’s mandate that I should want to be the housewife that I’ve been told I should be.

This is one area where I think feminism can grow–in helping women see the difference between doing what they choose to do for themselves vs. doing what they are expected to do by patriarchy.

Rejecting the imposition of Hera on me doesn’t mean that Hestia disappears. I can still feel called to keep my hearth for reasons that are authentic to me.

Call Businesses to Action in Promoting Consent

I love Twitter’s ability to hold people accountable for social justice issues.

Attn.com recently showed how beautifully Twitter can shut down rape-culture enforcing articles like the one Men’s Fitness Magazine recently published (and then removed) on “how to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”

While the article should have never

a) been written

b) been published

Men’s Fitness Magazine at least responded fairly quickly to taking it down.

Good, yes?

Success?

Mmm, it’s a good start!

But it’s not enough.

We’ve gotten to the point where businesses are mostly willing to respond to outrage over rapey material, but the problem is that they seem to think they can just take it down, make some sort of statement about how some editor or supervisor failed to approve it properly before it went out, and then move on from there to their next mistake.

I think it’s time we started demanding more from the business world.

Whenever an advertisement, commercial, or article goes out there that supports rape culture and then gets taken down, I think we need to start demanding that a statement or article outlining the importance of consent is then sponsored by that business as a follow-up.

Men’s Fitness Magazine shouldn’t just remove the article by making an excuse and failing to apologize.

They should step up to correct whatever misperception they may have given readers about interactions with women. They should hire someone to talk about how you can respect a woman’s right to say ‘no’ and to explain what consent is and how to make sure you have it before you do something with someone.

Maybe while they’re at it, their employees can also take a class on consent.

 

When People Don’t Want You to Live, Existence Becomes a Revolutionary Act

People want to kill me.

Sorry, that was too deliciously melodramatic not to open with. Now that it’s out of my system, let me back up.

I’m currently conscious that people want to kill me. It’s probably the first time that it’s been a conscious, active awareness.

I’ve known that people think I should die for being under the Queer umbrella—that they might passively pray for it, preach about it, maybe even deign to say it to my face.

But the Orlando shooting was the first time I had the icy realization that there are people who would actively take measures to end my life.

Some say it’s my generation—that we Millennials have been spared the active, moving-beyond-dislike-into-murder kind of hatred that other LGBT faced several generations ago.

To some extent that is true. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that law enforcement will help hold space for a Pride parade instead of hauling people out of bars and beating the shit out of them for being gay.

It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that many teens and young adults can attend safe spaces on school campuses.

It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that religious institutions have begun the slow paradigm shift towards acceptance.

Yet, we haven’t come so far that Orlando is the first time that Queer people (especially Queer people of color or Queer people raised in fundamentalist homes) of my generation or younger have faced life-threatening prejudice. People are still beaten up, kicked out on the street, or murdered for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Orlando is just the first time that many in my generation have seen that hatred directed at so many people in a single incident.

Then again, it’s the largest mass shooting for our nation in a long time, so millennials aren’t the only ones having a “first” in this sense (Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t the largest in the history of the nation as this article points out).

Being forced to confront how deep someone’s hatred of you runs is a daunting feeling, but once the initial shock of it wore off, it reminded me of an idea that took root reading Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.

My very existence is a revolutionary act that undermines a prejudicial society.

Simply by living and refusing to be erased or cowed into submission, my life becomes a big “fuck you” to everyone who would try to control me. People can do a lot of things, but they can’t take away my self-awareness or my pride. They can try to oppress me or destroy me, but they cannot change who I am.

Ultimately, it’s the fact they can’t prevent my existence that makes them truly angry and bound for failure no matter how they might want to end my existence.

There’s something powerful and elegant in that realization.

What’s my gay—ahem—bi agenda?

To live my life like a declaration of independence, not like an apology.

To not let fear dictate who I love—or who I hate.

To live my life authentically and do all I can to support others doing the same.

P.S. As a political side-note, right now people want my “agenda” to be trying to strip people of their fifth amendment rights, but I refuse to let my radical existence be hijacked so that others can be oppressed. We’ve come a long way as a Queer community. We’ve made a lot of progress. But we’re not done. The fight for recognition of civil rights (for everyone, not just ourselves) and the protection of rights already recognized is an ever-present struggle. 

 

I’m Here. I’m Queer. And I Just Want To Grieve.

I wish there were a moratorium on political discussion following tragedies like Orlando so that for one fucking, goddamn moment we would all just have to be with our grief and sadness together.

Yes, the things that contribute to this will need to be addressed: the hypermasculinity and homophobia, the cults that, regardless of religious or political faces, convince people to do horrendous things, the access to weapons and how we screen people seeking them or screen what people can obtain, and most importantly, the continued struggle for basic civil rights of oppressed people.

We cannot sit idly by, unresponsive to the rising mass violence or to the targeting of minorities, but we shouldn’t use our response to distance ourselves from our pain, to bury our wounds under a body-guard of anger, because they will only fester.

One thing I’ve learned about grief is that it makes it SOOOOOO hard to think rationally and make good decisions while it is still fresh. There’s so much anger at…literally everything in grief, and it doesn’t make sense and is so hard to control. Little annoyances, daily tasks, they just become daunting.

The LGBT community needs the safety and space to rage and cry and curse without having to be on guard for people exploiting us either financially or politically and without having to worry about whether our expression of that rage and grief is rational enough for a serious conversation.

Yet we are called on, by each other and the rest of the world with all their varying pet agendas, to set aside the purity of our emotions and enter into an immediate chaotic search for “solutions”–anything that will give a false sense of safety.

People want to use our own fear to divide us, inhibiting our ability to hear each other and see each other.

I wish we understood that first we need to mourn and come together as a community and as human beings. And the rest of the world needs to hold space for that. Mourn with us, sure, but more importantly guard our right to mourn. This should be a sacred time for us, separate from what is to come.

Then, after we’ve had time to let the rawness of our grief settle, that’s when we need to come together as activists, politicians, voters, and citizens to figure out what our next steps are.

I’m not saying don’t politicize what happened because that would be impossible. But I am saying to stop trying to exploit and co-opt the emotional process. We can all argue over the political meaning of this massacre later. Right now, let me fucking grieve for what has happened to my community.

 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Metaphor of Patriarchy

I recently read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.

Two things: It’s a ridiculously long book. I confess I skipped a few pages…er chapters with unnecessarily detailed descriptions of buildings and scenery. (Like he literally had whole chapters of nothing but description!)

And it’s fucking dark and depressing.

It’s nothing like the Disney movie. I found none of the characters to be decent human beings, except Esmerelda.

Spoiler alert: she dies.

In the afterword of my edition, it talks about how Victor Hugo was trying to show the process of fate and how inescapable it is.

I didn’t see that.

I did see some interesting feminist themes though.

I was struck by how sensual yet virginal Esmerelda is. She belongs to no man. She chooses to marry a somewhat important character to save him from being “executed” by the court of fools, but she basically tells him to fuck off when he wants to consummate the marriage.

But her virginity isn’t one of chastity in the Christian sense.

She’s a dancer and seems very in touch with her body. She acknowledges having desires. She isn’t afraid to own her sexiness. In a way, her virginity seems more about her being in charge of her sexuality. She is in search of her mother (perhaps a symbol for the sacred feminine or crone) and doesn’t want to have sex until she has found her.

Therefore, I dubbed her the “wild feminine spirit.”

And in a patriarchal world, of course the wild feminine would be besieged from all sides.

There are two characters who want Esmerelda sexually. Phoebus, a playboy soldier, is one. Esmerelda develops a crush on him after he rescues her. Phoebus is named after a sun god, and in a way, I believe that Esmerelda is in love with what he should be rather than who he actually is. She is obsessed with his name but never really knows him.

Phoebus, the non-god, is a pretty douchey guy. He has a fiancée, but is bored with her. He finds sport in seducing women. When he sees Esmerelda, he decides he wants to have sex with her and sets about trying to seduce her with promises of love that he doesn’t mean.

He is a perfect example of objectification within patriarchy. He has no concern for her as an actual person and merely wants to possess her sexually. He tries to guilt her for not wanting to have sex. He promises her things that he never intends on following through on. Sound familiar?

Frollo, the priest mentioned above, is the other. He hates Esmerelda’s sexuality and craves her at the same time. He has spent his life in celibacy. When he becomes aroused by Esmerelda’s independent spirit, he blames her for his own arousal.

In other words, he’s purity culture incarnate.

Interestingly, he’s probably far worse than Phoebus. Phoebus doesn’t care about Esmerelda, but he also doesn’t see her as responsible for his own desires. Frollo, on the other hand, thinks she is the devil for the way he thinks about her.

He blames her and abdicates his own responsibility for his sexual desires. In doing so, he justifies stalking her, trying to kidnap her, trying to rape her, and ultimately murdering her.

Phoebus embodies the “boys will be boys” mentality of patriarchy.

Frollo embodies the “I can’t help it; she was asking for it” mentality of rape culture.

He even tries to convince Esmerelda, as she is languishing in a dungeon without food, warmth, or basic necessities of any kind, that he is suffering more than she.

He gets off on images of her being tortured until she confesses to being a witch.

Ultimately, when he cannot force her to love him, he abandons her to the gallows, allowing her to be executed as a witch.

In the end, Frollo acts the way his own god acts, demanding the submission and love of someone while threatening to punish them if they will not comply.

And the namesake of the book? Well, he’s definitely not as nice as Disney portrays him. Probably for good reason, he hates everyone in Paris except the man who raised him. Quasimodo attempts to help Frollo the first time he tries to capture Esmerelda. He gets caught and punished for the attempted kidnapping. When Frollo turns his back on him while he is in the stocks, Esmerelda shows him kindness by bringing him some water.

At that moment, he falls in love with her, in a different way from the others. He doesn’t want to own her or force her sexually. He longs to be loved by her but sees her as a person. Even then, he is pretty despicable. He protects her from rape one night, but when he realizes he’s fighting off his master, he cowers down, basically saying, “Go ahead and rape her, but please kill me first so I don’t have to feel bad about it (my paraphrase).”

So Quasimodo has glimmers of being able to be a good character, but ultimately cannot stand up to patriarchy and power enough to be good.

I went back and forth as to whether I saw Quasimodo as a symbol for the deformity of healthy masculinity, which cannot fully develop in a patriarchal, misogynist culture or whether I saw him as the alienated and tortured “good” potential of Frollo, twisted by the church, suppression of his own sexuality, and his lust for power.

Probably Quasimodo is both.

Eventually he redeems himself slightly by killing Frollo, but only after he has been rudely awakened to Frollo’s evil when he sees Esmerelda hanging and Frollo laughing in delight.

Frollo certainly spouted off plenty about fate, so I can see where readers might think he is speaking for the author, but I was struck by how fate was often the name he gave his own inability to take responsibility for his desires, needs, and vices. Externalizing his desire and viewing his sexuality as evil set the stage for his dehumanizing Esmerelda and blaming her for the abuse he carried out.

Throughout the story, for all of the men who bemoaned “fate,” the only person who was literally powerless, imprisoned, and at the mercy of other people’s choices was Esmerelda. (Well, the only main character). The others who felt “powerless” to fate were only powerless insofar as they refused to own their choices and actions in the events.

And Frollo, in feeling the most powerless, was the one with his hand on all the strings.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably one of the most depressing books I have ever read, but I can’t say that it was a terrible book. There was so much there symbolically to analyze, and I was mesmerized by the way that it seemed to map out how patriarchy crushes a woman’s attempt to own her own body and sexuality. While I might have been happier with a different ending, I can see how no other ending would have carried the impact. In the end, it’s a story of the feminine being betrayed and murdered for refusing to submit.

 

 

Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.