Sunday, 31 March 2013

Liminal space, language, and me

kaberettPosted by kaberett

Hello: my name's kaberett, and English is my second language.

Wait: that's misleading.

My name's kaberett, and English is my primary language.

To give you the full story needs a bit more than a one-sentence introduction in the style of twelve-step programmes. Let's try again: my name is kaberett, and I'm a third-generation immigrant. I was born and raised in the UK; I spoke only German until I was about two and a half; and for complicated and tedious reasons I wasn't allowed to speak any German at all between the ages of six and about eleven.

I don't sound Austrian when I speak English; I don't sound English when I speak German. My proverbs and my nursery rhymes and the stories of my childhood are all in German, up until you run abruptly up against Robin Hood and the Hobbit. But my grammar, and my abstract thought, and my pronouns? They're in English.

My life is bilingual, liminal; my adulthood is, ignoring food, English. It is RP; it is university-educated; it is a disguise, but it does not ring hollow; it is only half the truth, but it is not a lie.

In English I am they; I am genderqueer; I am trans* and queer and I am assertively - aggressively - ungendered, or rather: I am gendered, and it is neuter.

I don't know how to occupy that space in German. I don't even know how to translate queer, with its reclamation and its political charge and its I'm-here-get-over-it, with its oddity and slyness and gentility.

Auf Deutsch I can be sie or er. I don't know how to occupy the space of they: of it, of es: I could, perhaps, refer to myself as mann - one - and force every descriptive noun, every adjective, into the neuter. Not der Lehrer, die Lehrerin: das Lehrer, the teacher, perhaps? But even there, I'm norming the masculine form of the noun.

I don't know how to navigate these waters.

But here is something I can say, can say loud and clear: I might not know how to occupy neutral space in my mother tongue, but at least it is honest about gendering within a binary. At least it is upfront.

No subliminal associations with teacher, doctor, engineer, nurse; no (s)he, no hero(ine): no. We will not relegate the feminine to a parenthetical adjunct to the masculine, an afterthought or grudging concession. Our noun classes are gendered, to be sure, but we have a choice in how to express that. Is the feminine marked? Yes: it is, with suffices to the masculine, but they are not parenthetical.

Schau mal, see here: die LehrerInnen; die Lehrer/innen. The teachers. Women need not be relegated to the position of cramped marginal notes: the feminine can occupy equal space, equal time, on the page. We need not soften her, nor encircle her in chains.

I don't know how to describe myself in German, but here's something I can ask you to do in English: if you must use language that asserts a binary of gender, please don't give the masculine primacy.

Instead, take a leaf out of a cousin's book: s/he, not (s)he. Hero/ine, instead of hero(ine).

If - when - we're pushed into the margins -- we don't have to stay there. We can take out our fountain pens, our marker pens, our spray-cans, our crayons, and we can say:

We are here. Get over it.

As a battle cry, it is perhaps true that librarians and book-herders miscellaneous are the only people likely to be taken faint with horror. But: we can fight this on our own terms, quietly, one by one and word by word.

Let's try it.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Links round-up (26/03/2013)

Lashings of Ginger Bee Timer

Posted by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time

Berlin Riot Grrrl are looking for additions to their next compilation, Cats against Catcalling, the deadline is April 15th. More details here.

Lisa Wade from Sociological Images presents a comic strip that subverts that ways in which persons from the D/deaf community are patronised.

Ellie Kilburn writes on feminism from a teen perspective on the F-Word

Sezin Koehler discusses the whitewashing of the Harlem Shake phenomenon.

BBC Analysis radio programme "Who Decides If I'm A Woman?" features a discussion of trans identities, including excellent contributions from Lashfriend Ruth Pearce - content warning for Julie Bindel and transphobic language.

Highly relevant to my [Bishop's] interests: Jacob Gaboury on the ‘Queer History of Computing’. Gaboury explores the significance of the disagreement between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alan Turing. While their brief correspondence was significant as not just as two gay men in a period of intolerance is Queer-significant; it’s the mathematical ideas they had, which represent what Queerness should be, namely: exploring the space outside formally desirable systems.

Janani at Black Girl Dangerous analyses the problematics of the term 'POC' / 'person of colo(u)r':

US/Western imperialism is so widespread that it even imposes its ways of doing racism on the rest of the world, and on people of color. For example, my family is upper caste, and that caste position is partly what enabled our immigration to the US. It also means that we're lighter-skinned South Asians (read: closer to Aryan British colonizers). Using the term 'POC' as my identifier rather than 'South Asian' or 'Desi' means I never unpack these non-Western racial systems that are also at play.
 Kate Bornstein - author of the groundbreaking trans book "Gender Outlaw" and committed suicide prevention activist (both in her book "Hello, Cruel World" and the #stayalive hashtag on Twitter) - is currently facing a resurgence of her cancer. Under the USA's medical system, she needs to fundraise to pay for her healthcare. It's a testament to how many people she has helped over the past decades that she has nearly reached the needed $100,000 in under a week - if you can, please consider donating something.

Finally, the news this past week has been full of transphobic fail, so here's some response to that:

- After transgender primary school teacher Lucy Meadows was found dead (following her press vilification by Richard Littlejohn), two petitions calling for Littlejohn to be sacked were started (here and here), and last night a vigil outside the Daily Mail offices was attended by hundreds.
- CN Lester at the New Statesman responds to the growing discourse that 'cis' is a slur
Don’t Buy Transphobia says enough is enough to the way the national press addresses trans* people, and advocates a boycott of transphobic materials.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The show must go on: taking Lashings offstage

kaberettPosted by kaberett

Here's a secret, that probably isn't very: when I get up on stage, I don't know what I'm going to say.

Oh, I know what I'm going to sing, and I know that the introduction is going to be something a little like ladies, gentleman - and everybody else! ... Ancient Greeks... Oscar Wilde... it's time for a history lesson!

And off I (gaily) launch into our Brief And Eurocentric History of Western Queerdom.

But it's not like Shakespeare, and it's definitely not like my Year 9 production of Bugsy Malone: when I roll up in front of you, my words are always all still in potentia.

It wasn't always like this, for me. I used to freeze before going on stage; I used to babble once I was there, stalling abruptly every time I let my mouth run ahead of my brain. I used to come off shaking and nauseous and convinced I'd done everything so wrong that I should never be allowed to perform again.

I'm always astonished by the lengths my brain will go to to convince me I'm not worth taking up people's time.

My orchestra started the job of curing me of this, but it's Lashings that's pushed me the rest of the way: that's helped me internalise the lesson from counselling that well enough is, well, enough.

It's Lashings that's confirmed for me that I can wheel out in front of people and open my mouth and get laughs. It's Lashings that's shown me that a certain amount of arrogance self-confidence can get you an awfully long way.

When I talk about taking Lashings offstage - taking Lashings home with me - I don't mean the work of blogging, and I don't mean the work of learning or writing acts, and I don't mean the work of rehearsing: though, of course, there is always that too.

I mean...

I mean several things, all at once: I mean the obvious hands-on behind-the-scenes work. I mean the introspection that makes me easier to live with. I mean the sense of community and of fairytales and of good magic, of being only a whisper (or a tap of my heels) away from People Like Me. I mean the knowledge that I can educate: that I can make the world a little better by being me, by sharing what I've learned, by saying: I am trans* and queer and mentally ill and disabled, and if there is anything at all I can do to help you with what I have won and saved from my daily trials by fire, please say.

And what I mean is this: that I can arrive at an interview with my chin up, and I can talk about things I love with joy in my voice and a smile on my face. I don't need to know what I'm going to say in advance, any more: I don't need to plot every spinwise step of the dance, lest I stumble and fall.

Thank you: this is because of you, and as such it is for you. I don't think I can pay you back for the gift you have given me.

I only hope that I can pay it forward.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Links round-up (19/03/2013)

Lashings of Ginger Bee TimerPosted by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time

Here’s our round-up of links from the past week:

[TW: Gender based violence] Chitra Nagarajan of Southall Black Sisters is marching in solidarity to highlight the issue of violence against women in India and around the world. Protest takes places in Southall, London on 23rd March. Details for anyone who wishes to get involved here.

Sandrine Berges comments on the omission of women in Peter Adamson’s influential podcast ‘History of [Western] Philosophy: without any gaps’, which does in fact, have gaps.

On the ‘Break the Box’ campaign on gender stereotypes from the Texas Association on Sexual Assault.

Here’s an informative piece from the F-Word on information about the ‘under-occupancy rule’ coming into the UK from next month, or the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, as well its impact.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Lashings at NUS Women's Conference 2013

Lashings of Ginger Bee TimerPosted by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time

A week ago on Tuesday, Lashings performed at the NUS Women's Conference in York - a night we also chose to officially launch our crowdfunder for taking Fanny Whittington to Edinburgh this year! Valentina, Astra, and Cleopatra share their feelings on the gig.

 Valentina writes:

We were utterly overwhelmed at the reception - 200+ noisy, enthusiastic, fast-tweeting, colourfully dressed and well-informed feminist activists, fresh from a long day of discussion and planning, looked absolutely delighted to see us. They cheered and laughed from the moment three Tories jumped onto the stage, a little rushed and flustered from a start time earlier than we'd been expecting, and by the time we'd resurrected Thatcher to tell them all about spin, they were cheering and clapping along in earnest.

Spirits stayed high throughout our 45-minute set, which took in performance poetry, stand-up comedy and singing numbers and covered discussion of straight and queer relationship models in the media, the policing of normative beauty standards, the failyness of transphobic feminists and lots more besides. It was fabulous to hear different sections of the crowd cheer the start of several songs as they recognised them - music inspiration came from Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Wicked, RENT, Mary Poppins and the Buffy musical - and laugh at small asides in the lyrics. (Playing several villains, I found it rather difficult to keep a straight - or brooding, or evil, or patronising - face when standing before such enthusiasm.)

We were helped along by the fantastic techie power of feminist DJ extraordinaire and long-time Lashfriend Ruth Pearce, who ran an excellent dancing set soon after the entertainment. As the NUS had provided hotel rooms, we were able to stick around after our set - it was unusual to not be scrambling to clear away and catch a train afterwards, and we greatly enjoyed being able to chat and dance with our audience into the night. Several people invited us to perform at their student unions, and we even had an offer of publicity help in Edinburgh. The next morning, tired out from dancing and full of hotel breakfast, we returned south still glowing happily over the gig.

Astra writes:

The NUS Women's Conference marked my third gig since joining Lashings as part of their recruitment drive last autumn. And this time, I was doing more acts in front of a lot more people than before.

But the inevitable stage fright beforehand proved totally worth it, as I had a fantastic time. Playing to a crowd that we knew were on our wavelength was a huge amount of fun. The moment they started clapping along to Spoonful of Bullshit, clearly just as delighted by the juxtaposition of Mary Poppins + Tories as we are, I stopped panicking and started performing.

For me it was a particular pleasure to sing 'Dead Girlfriend' for the first time, an act that's meant a lot to me since I first saw it at a Lashings gig two years ago.

It was wonderful to watch other Lashers perform so brilliantly - each poem, song and piece of compering or standup came together to create a very exciting and entertaining set. Ending the gig with a rousing audience participation chorus of 'join the fight with me against hetero-patriarchy' was a delight, and I have no doubt that the activists sat at tables at front of us intend to go on and do just that.

 Cleopatra writes:

I can safely say I've almost never had a Lashings gig like Tuesday's at the NUS Women's Conference in York before. Probably not since I joined up last minute to help with last year's Cinderella Panto. It certainly marked a first for me in that I've never felt so unconstricted by stage fright in my performance. (If you've ever spoken to me before, after, or during a gig, you've probably found me quite short, irritable, and/or aloof. Rather overpowering stage fright at work.) I'm hoping it's a lasting change rather than a one-off thanks to a fabulous audience!

The gig did get off to a bit of an inauspicious start, my entrance was slightly late, due to an earlier start time than we were expecting. The others covered for me like pros, however, and I don't think the audience even noticed the change. Like Astra, I noticed how much they enjoyed Margaret Thatcher giving lessons on how to improve the deficit to the tune of Mary Poppins, laughing and clapping in time to the music. This was an incredible boost and spurred us on through the rest of the set, full of Lashings staples I've loved both as performer and audience member. It was wonderful to be able to focus on performing, rather than doing an adequate job through a haze of nerves.

It also made a lovely change not having to pack up at top speed and clear the venue or make a mad dash for the train. We had a great time afterwards at the feminist disco.

In contrast to Astra's experience as a newer Lasher, if you had told me when I joined that just over a year later I would be the most experienced Lasher at a gig, I would have told you you were dreaming. I've loved so much about my time with Lashings and this gig felt like a real milestone for me in terms of how far I've come as a performer.

We spent a very enjoyable night drawing each others' attention to various tweets from our audience - one Lasher has put these together into a Storify, stored here if you'd like to have a gander.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Links Round-Up (12th March 2013)

Lashings of Ginger Bee Timer
Posted by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time

This week most of the items for the links round-up are going to focus on the fact that last week on Friday (March 8th) was International Women’s Day (IWD).

Dr. Brooke Magnanti discusses IWD including a bit on its socialist origin and the cynicism about awareness days such as these.

[TW: objectification] TED Talk on the ways in which sexual objectification of women has had a distinct presence in advertising. The speaker, Dr. Caroline Heldman objects to the idea of ‘empowerment’. The first part of it is quite disturbing, but at the end of the video, Heldman gives suggestions to women and men on how to challenge this cultural trend.

Isadora and Orlando love Spectra's piece on how concepts of sisterhood, solidarity and celebrating women are too often exclusive.

Here’s a nice piece on ‘Anita’s Quilt’, an initiative to represent the experiences of women in working in computing and inspire more women who are interested in working in computer science and engineering.

Tabasum Wolayat on the F-Word speaks out against the stereotyping against Afghan women and being labelled by outside agencies. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Links Round Up 05/03/13

Lashings of Ginger Bee Timer
Posted by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time

Hello Lashfriends!

Once again, Lashings of Ginger Beer Time are here to bring you your Recommended Tuesday Intake of internet.

Great news for both Nine Worlds (run by our very own Valentina and featuring numerous Lashers) and the Mechanisms (featuring Zim's doppleganger, Ashes O'Reilly) - both campaigns have been funded and are going ahead! The Mechanism's Indiegogo is still going, if you want to grab yourselves some space pirate themed goodies, and don't forget to pick up your ticket for the awesome Nine Worlds convention before they all get snapped up!

Lashings will be performing at the NUS Women's conference this evening, where we will be announcing the start of our own Indiegogo campaign, raising money for our Edinburgh Fringe show, Fanny Whittington. If you enjoyed our first pantomime (in which case, you have remarkably good taste), then you're sure to enjoy our radical, queer, feminist take on Dick Whittington. Make sure you get a chance to see it at the Fringe AND get your hands on lashings of treats (sorry) here.

F-Word blogger Laura writes about how the cultures of sexual harassment as seen from Lord Rennard serves to maintain male dominance(TW: Sexual harassment)

Marxist Queen talks about how the police perpetuate transphobia. (TW: transphobia)

Tara at xoJane gives instructions on how not to be a dick to your disabled friend. The principles behind these also apply to other marginalised groups.

Finally, relevant to many of our reader's interests is this video from the BBC magazine, featuring the first museum to display video games as an art form.

Friday, 1 March 2013

"I am Quvenzhané": Racism, Anglocentrism and Quvenzhané Wallis

Posted by Galatea

[TW: This post contains discussion of racism and misogyny]

[image description: A screenshot of the Twitter feed from ‘The Onion’, a satirical website. It was posted at 8.42pm on Feb 24, 2013 and reads “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?”. The word 'cunt' has been blacked out: this was added by the source from which I obtained the picture]

Yes, that Tweet was posted as a ‘joke’, and yes, The Onion has subsequently taken it down and apologised for it (and good for them for doing so).  However, I’d still like to unpack some of the discourse that has been going on around Quvenzhané Wallis, her name, and her position in Hollywood over the past few days.

Here is a list of names (assembled in about ten minutes on the Lashings mailing list) that the film-going, TV-watching and novel-reading public has had no problem at all in learning to pronounce and relate to in the past fifteen years:

Arwen Undómiel
Meriadoc Brandybuck
Leia Organa
Neytiri the Na’avi
Miles Vorkosigan
Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan
Raistlin Majere
Danearys Targaryen
Cersei Lannister
Garrus Vakarian
Bhelen Aeducan
Elphaba Thropp

Yes, these are all fictional characters, and yes some of them are from texts that do appeal more to that special geeky sub-section of the public that I hold dear. However, it sure seems to me that names which are difficult-to-pronounce for an English speaker don’t attract much in the way of screaming and whining if they come attached to Sparkly Elven Princess or Awesome Wizard or Space-Age Alien. However, when the name that presents an Anglophone speaker with some difficulty belongs to a young Black girl – even a ridiculously talented and adorable one – what we seem to end up with is comments like this (made, I remind you, by someone who was responsible for judging the Academy Awards):
"I also don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce. Quvez---? Quzen---? Quyzenay? Her parents really put her in a hole by giving her that name -- Alphabet Wallis." 
In the words of Junot Díaz, one of Galatea’s literary lust-objects du jour, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over”.

In the past few days, we’ve also seen incidents of TV producers and commentators referring to Quvenzhané Wallis as ‘Little Q’ and ‘Miss Wallis’, presumably out of a desire to avoid having to say or type her real name (I don’t recall Haley Joel Osment being referred to as ‘Little H’ or ‘Mr Osment’ shortly after the release of The Sixth Sense, do you?).  My point here is that yes, ‘Quvenzhané’ is an unusual name, and one that doesn’t follow pronunciation rules that are familiar for a speaker of British English. I didn’t know how to say it when I first saw it written down either! But it is a real name, it is her name, and it literally takes all of ten seconds to learn how to say it properly (here’s a handy guide, which includes a video of the lady herself saying it for you!). If you’re a professional commentator on the entertainment industry, barring disability issues or temporary lack of access to communications devices, learning to say/spell the name of the person you’re speaking or writing about seems like a fairly basic minimum job requirement to me.

Interestingly, I suspect that the reactions of Anglophone people around Wallis’ name are to some extent backed up by research. A joint study produced last year by the University of Melbourne and NYU suggested something the researchers called the ‘name pronunciation effect’, meaning that people in the study were more likely to positively evaluate people with ‘easily pronounceable’ names in both a laboratory and a real-life context. You can read a short article about the study here and a copy of the report itself here

And despite the fact that a lot of people regard Quvenzhané Wallis with affection and joy, there have been a number of such negative evaluations. See the not-so-subtle hostility in the comments on this Jezebel post, for example (for those who don’t want to click through, the post features an image of Wallis ‘pumping her arms’ in her seat at the Award ceremony: apparently a gesture of pleasure and pride used by many cast and crew members on the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film for which Wallis was nominanted). At the time of writing, comments included:
“Am I the only one who saw this and was disgusted? I immediately decided I didn't want her to win because I don't want her to get any more full of herself than she seemed right there.”  
“Sorry this Quvenzhane kid annoys the fuck outta me. She's insufferable. Ever see her on a talk show? She is dangerously carried away with herself - way past the point of cute. You're never too young to learn humility.”

Which brings me back to the 'cunt' comment in the Onion. Yes, it was a joke -- a joke that revolved around the idea that so many people love Quvenzhané that you can now base humour on the idea of 'taking her down a peg or two': the basic premise of the comedy is still that a little girl -- a little Black girl -- has 'got above her station' and this makes it funny and shocking to throw misogynist slurs at her.  

Intersecting with the obvious racism here (a nine-year-old kid looks pleased and happy at the effing Oscars and she's 'full of herself' and needs to 'learn humility'? WTF?) I think that the jokes and complaints around Quvenzhané's name are particularly interesting. Here is where it veers off the theoretical and gets a little personal for me: in non-Lashings life, my family name is non-English and is difficult for many English speakers to pronounce. It's worth noting that for me, this comes with a large side-serve of white privilege (classic immigrant story: perfectly-ordinary-name in non-English-language became awkwardly-misspelled-uncommon-name when illiterate great-grandparents came into contact with English-speaking immigration officials). However, I’ve certainly felt that hostility, that slight frisson of ‘Ugh, awkward kid with awkward name’, even though my racial privilege shields me from most of the worst aspects of it. It was much worse when I was a kid and subject to the whims of roll-calling teachers, but is still around to some extent today. Anyone who’s ever had a microaggressive conversation that ran along the lines of

“What kind of name is that?”
 “How do you say that?”
“How do you spell that?”
 “Are you sure?”
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”

might agree. When the 'name pronunciation effect' study first came out, I shared it with a number of friends on Facebook. Several people jumped in to say that I had it wrong -- there wasn't any kind of racial or cultural bias at work in the study: it's just that people don't like names which are 'unfamiliar'. By an amazing co-incidence, the contradictors were all people with English-based names living in majority-English-speaking countries. Reader, I LOL'ed. It's about more than 'unfamiliarity', I'm afraid. Yes, a ‘difficult’ name demands that the person who needs to use it work a little harder: ‘Quvenzhané’ requires more effort from an Anglophone teacher or secretary (or ‘Entertainment Tonight’ journalist) than ‘Sarah’ or ‘Jane’. That's called cognitive bias, it's a real thing, and cheers to fellow Lasher Bishop for reminding me of it. 

HOWEVER, I suspect that this interacts in some important ways with who we as a society deem worthy of ‘extra’ time and effort: we're much quicker to get over our cognitive bias about unfamiliar names when we think the person causing it is important or powerful. When I was little, adults didn't make much effort to say my name properly and were often rude and dismissive when they got it wrong: now that I'm an adult with a professional job, other people tend to be more careful about pronouncing it right and get embarrassed if they mess up. Funny, that. And thus back to Quvenzhané Wallis and an attitude that many powerful people seem to be projecting: who does this kid, this girl, think she is, ‘demanding’ (with her very presence) that we go to the trouble of learning how to say that tongue-twister? Can’t we just call her ‘Annie’ instead?

[GIF description: An interviewer is speaking to Quvenzhané Wallis. Interviewer: “Look who it is! It’s Annie!” (a reference to Wallis’ recent casing in the 2014 remake of Annie). Interviewer: “I’m calling you Annie now.” Camera zooms in on Wallis’s face, she looks shocked and annoyed. Wallis: “I am not Annie! I am Quvenzhané”.]

To my mind, this explains in part why there's been very little crying about having to learn how to say names like 'Jake Gyllenhaal', 'Gerard Depardieu' or 'Arnold Schwarzenegger', and why I've never seen a reporter bounce up to Ralph Fiennes on the red carpet and demand to be allowed to call him 'Ralf'. The 'name pronunciation effect' seems to entangle itself with other factors affecting the way in which we deem people in society to be worthy of our effort and respect, and age, gender and whiteness are all key in this. Having been someone who, by age and gender, was not deemed worthy of that respect at various times in my life (oh, but that "I am not Annie!" expression in the gif above is identical to that which frequently appeared on the face of the infant Galatea), I see what's going on here and I don't like it. I dislike even more the fact that it's still going on in 2013, and that we'll apparently spend more effort on learning to say the name of a fictional hobbit, alien or dragon-keeper than a real live nine-year-old girl. 

I don’t have a quick or easy solution here, but I think that it’s important to keep this in mind, and to remind everyone that this bias exists and perhaps needs to be consciously countered where necessary. In other words, do 'vote for people you can't pronounce' if they deserve your votes, and maybe be conscious of the need to do so! Another simple act of respect that you and I can begin with is to deliberately set out to educate ourselves about names that are not familiar to us, and to use them correctly whenever possible (assuming that we have the permission of the owner to do so).

[image description: Quvenzhané Wallis standing outdoors, wearing a red dress and smiling].

Who does this kid think she is? She thinks she is Quvenzhané, and she’s damn well right.