Thursday, September 13, 2012

Serosorting: The Panel That Was and Could Have Been?

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the SF STOP AIDS Project/SF AIDS Foundation Real Talk: Serosorting* panel dialogue, facilitated by Sister Roma, and held at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Days before the event I had been following the lively conversation on the event's Facebook page and enjoying the various perspectives from folks who were engaged through insightful critical contributions on the topic. Of course, many folks were in disagreement with each other, while some were in disagreement with the fact that an organization would even broach the subject. If the provocative language for the event "'F**k without condoms? Ever?' Let's talk about it," wasn't enough to make me want to attend, the Facebook page conversations enticed me even more.

I admit that I walked into the room with some really high expectations. From the title of the event to the fantastic dialogue on Facebook, I was ready to enter a space of conversations that took us beyond conventional rhetoric and morality-based messaging.

Program staff did a fantastic job at presenting the most current data on San Francisco communities. What I found most interesting about the data was that a reduced Community Viral Load in San Francisco was suggesting a reduction in HIV infections as well. With 44% of people living with HIV on treatment, the analysis seemed to offer that we are on to something. In addition, audience members were able to participate in live polling (via text messaging) regarding behaviors and perspectives, which offered some fantastic data that I hope will be made available to the public in some format in the future.

Up to then, I was pretty happy with the event. There were a few interesting and evocative comments, which I thought would lead us into deeper places as we sought to further unfold our understandings and opinions about serosorting. And then things started deteriorating.

I was disheartened to hear audience members' lack of generosity toward other queer men. Every time I heard someone insist that no man should be trusted and that we should assume all men are positive, I wondered if they realized they were talking about the person next to them; they were talking about themselves. I don't mean to dismiss the possibility that some men living with HIV might very well be having condomless sex with other men without disclosing for the purpose of infecting others. But I couldn't help but wonder what deep traumas we carry that this very unlikely scenario becomes the basis on which to construct such awful assumptions about every one of us. 

One of the most thought-provoking and insightful comments of the night came from an audience member who said, "What does it mean that we think everyone we fuck is going to kill us?" The question begged for deeper and more critical conversation about how the constructions we hold about each other's bodies and intentions impact our decisions, our health, and our love for one another. 

What could have been a lively high level conversation about each other's practices and strategies, turned into peer-to-peer admonishments with the same bland morality-based HIV 101 messaging we've grown accustomed to hearing on the streets. It seemed that each time someone offered ideas about how to strategize around a particular scenario (i.e. sex between serodiscordant men), a person behind me would keep yelling "Use a condom! Use a condom!" 

Yes, I know. Use a condom. We've all heard it. But, obviously,  by virtue of being in a space to talk about the fact that not all men use condoms all the time (I believe the audience poll noted that some 95 or 97% of men in the audience have had condomless sex), I would hope we'd be prepared to take the conversation to the next level. While Sister Roma's facilitation was fantastic at deescalating tensions, I kept hoping she'd redirect the conversation back to the purpose of the gathering: to talk about practices and strategies. Where were the impassioned men from the Facebook page posts?

Sadly, the panel, too, left a bit to be desired. Comprised of a mix of field experts and folks who brought their personal experiences forth, the panel had a quasi-traditional feel to it. That is, I felt as though we were to see the panel members as just regular people engaged in a non-heirarchical dialogue with us, with occasional facts-based contributions.

I'm all about deconstructing the Panel Framework and holding horizontally structured community conversations. But that isn't what was offered either. Instead, there was a mixture of panelists who had specific data or information to offer in a given moment, and other panelists who seemed to be the experts in their lives in the same way I am in my own life, but who had more power in their voice by virtue of being on a panel. Pulling off these approaches can be tricky and require a skill that I didn't quite see surface.

Lastly, I can't end this post without looking at race. Besides the one person who seemingly self-identified as Latino, the rest of the panel was unsurprisingly white. Now, I'm not proposing a quota system by any means, but I am calling into question the intention of the organizers. In 2012, in San Francisco, to hold an event with mostly white panelists leaves a lot to wonder. Surely there are men of color who are experts in the field. I know for a fact that there are men of color who are experts in their own lives and capable off offering broader insights on the panel. If there's room for a bartender and club promoter, there's room for more than one person of color.**

In the end, I'm grateful to the organizers for pulling together the event. Despite the critiques, there were some stellar moments. My hope is that through our collective feedback, we are supporting the SF STOP AIDS Project/SF AIDS Foundation to grow with us. These are undoubtably strong foundations to build on.

*Serosoting being the practice of choosing sex partners (and in some instances, sexual position) based on all parties' HIV status.
**Not a jab at bartenders or club promoters, but certainly a critique of panel organizers.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

AWP 2013: A Post-Racial, Post-Queer, Post-Trans Writers' Conference?

Yesterday, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) announced the list of selected evens for its 2013 Conference, which is scheduled to be held March 6-9 in Boston, MA. Every year the competition seems to steepen, with this year's proposals of over 1,300 being reduced to 516 (tentatively) accepted events. With just under 40% of proposals being accepted, AWP is projecting to have some 1,980 panelists, 58% of whom are women, and 42% men.

I have been to three AWP Conferences (Austin '06, Denver '10, Chicago '12; weather kept me from D.C. '11), and, thanks to the genius and hard work of my brother and fellow-writer, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran, I've presented at two of these, while missing the third panel in D.C. Overall, I've found the Conference to be rather enjoyable and good for my writer spirit. Given that I often neglect the writer in me due to professional and other obligations, it is a blessing to spend several days with no other hat than that of a writer. Adding to the experience is the opportunity to connect with old friends, make new ones, and stalk a writer (or three) I admire.

Last night, I went to AWP's website and found the List of Accepted Events. I proceeded to do my research and was frankly surprised and a bit disillusioned by the small number of selected events that deal specifically or remotely on matters of queerness, gender-expansiveness, and race. Through some obsessive investigating, I found that 29 of the 516 events specifically reflect these identities and experiences. That's below 6% of all accepted proposals. 

Of the 516 accepted proposals, only five* (1%) are specific to queer and/or gender-expansive identities and writing, and 27** (5%) are specific to communities of color. An additional five accepted proposals seem to include these identities and/or issues (in various degrees) as a part of their overall purpose.

Of course, I know that there are queers, gender-expansive folks, and/or people of color on panels that might not be about, or address, these experiences specifically. However, I personally gravitate toward those panels and events that are intentional and explicitly forthcoming about queers, the gender expansive, and people of color. While I applaud the integration of our communities into other panel opportunities, I continue to believe there is also value and need in creating spaces that are specific to, and intentional toward, our experiences and our values. Hosting a conference with a majority of women panelists is something to be proud of, but it isn't enough; it certainly does not guarantee inclusivity of queer/gender-expansive/women of color.

History has long shown that in spaces where queerness, gender-expansiveness, and race are not intentionally and explicitly brought to the forefront, non-queer, cisgendered, and non-people of color experiences and voices dominate or, more commonly, occupy entirely. Of the 94% of accepted proposals for AWP's 2013 Conference, I trust that the vast majority will either speak to our experiences tangentially or not at all. The latter being the most likely case.

Here's a quick breakdown of the number of panels specifically by, for, and about queers, the gender-expansive, and people of color:

LGB(T)Q, Trans, Genderqueer: 5*
Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal: 4
Black, African American: 5
Arab-Amarican: 1
Asian American: 3**
Caribbean: 1
Latina/o: 3
Chicana: 1*
Immigrant, People of Color Diasporas, Immigration-focus: 4**
Pan-People of Color: 5

I am left to wonder if AWP is demonstrating its (in)ability --or apathy-- to ensure queer, gender-expansive, people of color voices are demonstrably visible and heard. Perhaps this is a reflection of organizational values, or the effects of living in a world that is allegedly post-racial, seemingly increasingly post-queer, and hesitantly post-trans. Perhaps this is what it means to live in the aftermath of selective Gay Marriages, one Transgender Meeting at the White House, and the election of the first Black President. Or, maybe it's just another straight, cisgender, white organization doing that thing straight, cisgender, white organizations do.

Of one thing I am perfectly sure: 6% is an unacceptably low number for a conference taking place in the second decade of the 21st Century. 

*One event is Lesbian and Chicana focused.
** One event is Asian American/Immigrant focused. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

From One Spic to Another: A Response to CNN's Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Querido (that means "Dear") Ruben,

Thank you for your opinion on the matter of Leo Manzano's choice to hold both the U.S. and Mexican flags during his silver medal victory at this year's Olympics. I thank you, not because I agree, but because I appreciate the moments when someone who looks more like me than, say, nearly every other CNN contributor, offers an opinion that might seem unbecoming of a fellow Spic. Your words are a sobering reminder that we are anything but a homogenous people, no matter what your bosses think.

While I happen to have an opinion about your taste in Mexican pop stars, I don't care to offer one about whether or not you approve of the waving of the Mexican flag at immigrant rights marches or Luis Miguel concerts. Thankfully, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (I make the distinction here since you choose to do so throughout your article) are utterly stubborn and won't give a damn about your endorsement of their actions. I do, however, care to offer a few opinions about the implicit and explicit white supremacy you deploy and uphold throughout the piece.

Since I was born in the U.S. and educated in a few of its universities, I will make you proud by employing a skill (or three) I learned in this benevolent country of yours. Namely, my English 101 teacher's obsession with bullet points to organize a counter argument. Please note that I do not see a useful distinction between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, so I'll abstain from following your footsteps (or your heart, for that matter). Lastly, please also note that my use of the term "Spic" is offered in my grandmother's humorous tradition as a reminder that you and I are the physical manifestation of that which has long been hated of, and about, Mexicans. 

Aquí te va (that means, "Here you go")...

  • Crazy Mexicans
You say that most of us "would need a whole team of therapists to sort out [our] views on culture, national identity, ethnic pride and [our] relationship with Mother Mexico." I assume you're not counting yourself among those of us in dire need of a team of shrinks, which is a shame, really, since you might be able to actually afford that team of therapists, while most of us would be left negotiating sliding scales. But I digress. Won't you process with us?

Let's say you are correct and that "most" of us need some serious mental health support to grapple with a cacophonous disarray of identity traumas. But, if we were in such need, it wouldn't be because someone at some point "chose" the U.S. "over" México (that means "Mexico"), and "voted with their feet." But because someone, at some point, had to choose to try to make a life in the U.S. To be slightly clearer, the very existence of the U.S. is among the greatest sources of our traumas. Including for those who saw the border cross them.

  • Contextualized Mexicans
You state that your opinion about the waving of the Mexican flag is all about context. I think the same is true about your comparison between Manzano's actions and the hypothetical Italian- and/or Irish-American waving two flags. While I wouldn't be offended if they did so, your comparison falls flat. After all, to paraphrase you, there's the matter of context.

First, while Italian- and Irish-Americans suffered persecution in the earlier part of their presence in the U.S., they have since enjoyed the process of acculturation and acceptance into the greater U.S. construction of whiteness. They, unlike you, my brother, now embody the rights and privileges that their white kindred have long enjoyed in this country. Despite your article and your allegiances, you, Ruben, are still a spic.

Second, while Italy and Ireland both face struggles of their own, Manzano's and (since we're talking about Mexicans) Mexicans' realities and contexts are quite different. Manzano lives in Texas. And, regardless of how he got to Texas (you seem to imply his family walked the whole way), Texas is occupied land. Occupied by this country that tis of thee. Furthermore, said occupation is part of a greater centuries-old project of global control and decimation of people and resources. You forget the role the U.S. plays in, and the dependency it has on, forcing people to cross manufactured borders.

The fact that Manzano's experiences and identities are such that he felt compelled or inspired to hold both the U.S. and Mexican flags during his moment of glory, is less the result of his parent's "choosing" the U.S. over México (again, that means "Mexico"), but that of the process of colonization (a 500+ year process you so eloquently prove is far from over). Remember, my brother, that the reason "Mexican-American" lives in your lexicon (and that your lexicon is English) is, among many other complex reasons, because of the invasion of these lands under the auspices of the same white supremacist ideals you are paid to uphold.

Third, you determine that Oscar De La Hoya's waving of the U.S. and Mexican flags "was largely symbolic" simply because he wasn't born in México and "wasn't an immigrant caught between two countries." As the decider of things patriotic, please, explain HB1070, Prop 187, Prop 227, and Prop 209, and tell me how you and I are not caught between two countries, despite being born in the U.S. For all your "ethnic pride," you seem to have missed the fact that all people of color in this country are caught between countries (geographic, political, metaphoric), regardless of where we were born, and how we ended up in your country.  

  • Displaced Mexicans
Could it be that in your effort to think of us as "them," you have left yourself without context? That we live in occupied land does not make us "orphans of the Southwest." And while some might see their struggle fitting within the framework of "too Mexican for the Americans, too American for the Mexicans," there are also those of us who recognize the complexities of our histories and contemporary realities as part of our experience in this country. Perhaps this is what Manzano was attempting to share with the world. 

Politics of nationalism aside, I understand that my Mexican body exists in relationship to both the U.S. and México, however complicated and contested these relationships are. It's telling, however, that you interpret the image of Manzano holding the Mexican flag as a "signal to the people of Mexico," and to Mexicans in the U.S., a reminder of our own "sense of displacement." Our "displacement" is one that has involved us returning to a land we never left. But how to explain your displacement? 

  • Individualistic Mexicans
You lecture that the Olympics are not about the individual but about being part of a team. A lecture that seems interrupted by the interviews, coverage, and announcers' narrative about Michael Phelps. Perhaps I am missing the part about how endorsements are a team sport.

Phelps and endorsements aside, the one thing I noticed most about this year's Olympics was the emphasis on "American" pride and belonging when it came to the people of color representing the U.S. This emphasis was more striking when Black and Brown bodies appeared on stage. What is your country so afraid of that it must be reassured that a Black runner and a Cuban-born gymnast are "proud" "Americans"? In their case, you are right, while the target is the individual, they stand there as part of a team, known also as their communities. 

  • Ill-mannered Mexicans
My mother (also a Mexican, by the way) raised me to mind my manners. She often said that in the event that I had nothing nice to say, I simply say nothing at all. And, while I obviously did not learn that lesson well, I bring up my mother's emphasis on manners to say that I hear the pain in your voice as you decry the "ill-mannered" actions of our brother, Leo.

What I do not hear, my brother, is the pain in your voice that tells me you know of your country's lack of manners, of ethics, of humanity.

Tell me, my brother, what manners were reflected in the genocide of our ancestors? Tell me, my brother, what manners did your slave-owning founding fathers show as they "established" this country of yours? Tell me, my brother, what manners did Texans have when they sought independence from México so they may hold on to their precious institution of slavery, which México had since abolished? Tell me, my brother, what manners were reflected in the Eugenics movement that sought to declare you of an inferior race, and your mother fit for sterilization? Tell me, my brother, what manners do you see in your country when our brothers fill its prisons? Tell me, my brother, what manners has your country when families are viciously torn apart through an archaic inhumane anti-immigrant infrastructure? Tell me, brother. Please.

  • Ungrateful Mexicans
Clearly, Manzano is an ungrateful Mexican. Before doing what seems short of burning the U.S. flag, he flaunted his ungratefulness by tweeting, not only in English, but in Spanish too. I'm dumbfounded by the implied accusation of wrongdoing simply by communicating in Spanish. Would you feel the same if it were a white athlete whose family ensured he learned Spanish, even as his Mexican counterparts had the language stripped or beaten out of them? Let me guess: It would be "largely symbolic."

The greatest sin of all, according to you, is that Manzano turned his back on the country that "gave [him] the opportunity to live out [his] dreams." Your severe amnesia aside, knowing what is known about how your country came into being and continues to sustain itself, Manzano received nothing that he and our peoples did not (mostly involuntarily) give your country first. 

Lastly, you, ungrateful Mexican, have the audacity to speak to the experience of Manzano's parents and dismiss their life story by arrogantly asserting that México "offered nothing to [ ] them and forced them to leave." That you can believe yourself separate superior to them, to us, has little to do with the plight of our peoples, yet much about what you have offered in sacrifice to a country that looks to all of us (yes, you too) with all the hatred, disdain, and perceived inferiority that is felt every time one of us is called a spic.

For all your CNN. The ease with which you refer to one of yours as "illegal." Your love for whiteness. And your pride in "the country that allowed [Leo Manzano] the opportunity to fulfill his potential." You, my brother, will always be just another Mexican in the eyes of your master. No amount of public chastising of your kindred will change the fact that in this country you'll always be one of us; a people displaced in a land we never really left.

So let Manzano have his cake and eat it too. Hell, our people helped bake the damn cake anyway.

Ethnically yours,

Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano

P.S. In the future, when you can't remember the last time someone accused you of not being proud of being Mexican or Mexican-American, think of me.

P.P.S. Your article, which speaks of the indigestion you experienced due to Manzano's actions, seems to have upset my stomach as well. Please, pass the Pepto-Bismol, hermano (that means "brother").

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

tatiana de la tierra, dura entre las duras

Foto por Ina Riaskov, Producciones y Milagros

Mudo late este corazón. Despacio rozan mis dedos este teclado. Precavido este suspiro. Me uno a los innumerables poetas que hoy derraman llanto a pluma abierta. Una de las nuestras, una de las duras, se une a aquella esencia a la que tanto adoraba.

Quien haya conocido a tatiana de la tierra sabe que para poesía hay muchas, mas ninguna como ella. Yo la conocí en Tucson, en la conferencia de NACCS en el 2001. Pero primero conocí su poesía.

Fue en una sesión de lectura dentro de la conferencia que me encontré sentado formando parte del círculo compuesto de dos escritoras, un escritor (las tres mariconas), y un público sediento. Las primeras palabras que brotaron de los labios de tatiana cayeron como gotas de sudor deslizándose por la espalda de su público, sus amantes. Tomándonos con la lengua y con los dedos de su musa, tatiana nos enramó con decadentes metáforas eróticas, añoranzas colombianas, y desafíos feministas. Nadie le hizo el amor a su público como lo hizo tatiana.

Recuerdo en particular un poema declamado esa tarde en la que describía un trío sexual entre mujeres. Mas no fue lo erótico lo que me cautivo, sino la delicadeza con la que describía este acto, este ritual entre mujeres. Fue al comparar este momento a tres niñas jugando en los columpios de una escuela, que reconocí el arte y la destreza de poetas capazes de entrelazar analogías arraigadas en los recuerdos de nuestra infancia con los momentos más puros y hermosos de nuestra vida adulta. tatiana fue una poeta como ninguna.

tatiana no permitió que la industria poética dictara el camino de su poesía. Manteniéndose una escritora autónoma durante la mayoría de su carrera artística, tatiana nos trajo obras irremplazables como For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomenology/Para las Duras: Una Fenomenología Lesbiana (publicado por Calaca Press y la misma tatiana), Píntame Una Mujer Peligrosa, y Porcupine Love & Other Tales from My Papayaentre otras. Al haberse esperado a que una industria capitalista le brindara el honor que merecía nos hubiésemos perdido de la riqueza de su arte. Fue por su gallardía que no solo las mujeres a las que sedujera, sino que a nosotros, sus otros amantes, también tuvimos la oportunidad de ser acariciados por sus letras.

Esta noche, la manifestación física de tatiana de la tierra transciende. La mujer nunca deja de ser, se une a todo lo que nos rodea, lo que nos penetra, lo que es.

tatiana fue mi colega, mi mentor, mi amiga, y mi inspiración. Su recuerdo vive en las páginas de sus libros e hilvanados entre las páginas de aquellos poetas, los que la amamos y amaremos.

tatiana escribió para las duras, siendo ella dura entre las duras.

tatiana de la tierra: 
poeta. mujer. amante. 
lesbiana. fiera. cantante. 
sobreviviente. intelectual. erótica. 
bibliotecaria. amiga. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lupe Ontiveros: An Actress We Deserve(d)

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw Lupe Ontiveros on screen. But I do know she was the first brown face I ever heard speak English on TV (yes, even before Edward James Olmos).

Growing up as a brown kid in the 80's, with a father who only spoke to me in Spanish, a mother who only spoke to me in English, and a schooling that taught me that my bilingualism was a deficit to be overcome, making sense of who I was and who the people I "come from" were, was an arduous, painstaking process. Although I didn't quite have the language or understanding to make sense of the experienced animosity toward brown people I witnessed and felt, something in me cherished the scarce moments when brown faces crossed the screen.

Among the scarcity of brown faces, Lupe Ontiveros remained a constant. And as an adult, seeing Lupe on Selena, Real Women Have Curves, and 
Desperate Housewives, conjured childhood memories, and helped put my own experience into perspective. She did so in ways others never did. For what I needed to see on screen were not the heroic Stand And Deliver humans I would never (and have yet to) meet, but the people down the street, the people at the supermarket, the people who raise(d) me.

Lupe wasn't afraid to portray the characters of women, specifically Chicanas, who aren't the most "palatable." From Yolanda Saldivar, to Carmen García, to Juanita 'Mama' Solis, Lupe served Chicana fierceness like no other. Lupe embodied these mujeres by surfacing their complexities and their humanity. From the possessive friend/lover, to the overbearing all-too-concerned with qué dirán mother, to the skeptical daughter-in-law-hating suegra, Lupe gave us raw, unapologetic images of people whose personalities were not without context. Lupe portrayed the women in my life, Lupe portrayed me. Possessive friend/lover, overbearing, still concerned with the pinche qué dirán, skeptical, and untrusting. Through her acting, Lupe gave us the beautiful, the strong, and the, oh, so messy in us. Lupe portrayed Us.

Neither of my grandmothers were universally adored as they were tough, often crass, intentionally irreverent, and at times rude in their own bluntness and clarity. And for as much as my mother tried to teach me to be delightful, respectful, and amicable, I too, am often less than palatable (I am undoubtably their grandchild). Lupe portrayed both of these women with the craft and the corazón that they, and our comunidades, deserve(d).

And while JLo went from playing a Tejana to play sweet Italian girls, Lupe, a Tejana herself, kept serving corajuda, terca, macha, and loving madre/ lover/ friend/ enemiga/ chingona fierceness. Lupe was an actress we deserve(d).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Oversimplified Meme #999,999,999...

In light of last night's tragedy, I saw this meme begin to circulate on Facebook. The meme, which I understand was started by the Facebook page George W. Obama, attempts to offer a critique of the President's comments on the Aurora, CO shootings. And while I tend to enjoy memes as a vehicle for public comment and dialogue, I think this one falls short and wanders aimlessly into the offensive.

I would offer that things are more complicated than allowed by a mere comparison between the Aurora shootings and the killing of a "U.S. citizen." On the one hand, I think it's problematic to highlight the one "U.S. citizen" as if that life has more value than the 1,000,000+ non-"U.S. citizens" killed in the "war against terror." On the other hand, there's definitely room to talk, and be critical, about the use of drones and, of course, the war as a whole. And while I agree that the commander in chief serves to protect the empire and the corporate interests that sustain it, and for which it stands (as he has for over 200 years), I still see this comparison as falling short of providing an astute critique. 

A critique I would provide of Obama, however, is the lack of gun control muscle he's demonstrated. Granted, we're talking about a gun-crazed Christo-terrorist-leaning country in which doing anything that might be interpreted as an effort to weaken the 2nd amendment would be considered political suicide. Nonetheless, critiques are important and necessary.

Friday, June 1, 2012

[IL]LEGITIMATE POETICS: Reconciling (or not) Radical Craft & the Literary Establishment

Have you ever asked a poet why they write? It’s a fun question to ask. I would venture to say you would typically hear a profound (at times, perhaps cliché) response that evokes or explicitly articulates a philosophical and/or spiritual purpose. I have heard poets say they write for their community, they write to remember, they write to hold hope, they write to survive… and so the list goes.

No matter the oil that fuels our midnight flickering flame, most poets I have broken bread and stanza with write from sacred spaces composed of intricate amalgamations of memory and prophecy, affliction and bliss, irreverence and worship, insurgency and pacifism, desire and duplicity. The poetry I have been blessed to caress over the years show signs of roots tracing back to the richly complex wombs of inspiration. I insist poetry is more than compiled descriptions of dichotomies. Rather, gathering places of sweet-layered literary cacophonies spinning, resting and exploding at the speed and mind-baffling complexity of a planetary revolution.

Given that I liken the craft of poetry to the sacred scribing of biblical verses, I struggle to wrap my head around the bureaucracy of poetics. Not that I am entirely against institutional constructions of form. But, as I do with all institutional inventions, I call them into question, abstain from revering and resist abidance. Having questioned the existence of god, I must also hold the poetic establishment against the sun.

In my fervent resistance against the institutionalization of a sacred act, I spent a good eight years refusing to entertain the prospect of MFA programs. I met heartbroken writers who barely survived their MFA experience, including one novelist who stopped writing upon graduation. Over the years, I pictured MFA programs as predatory monsters taking the form of the Little Mermaid’s Ursula, offering their gift of legitimacy in exchange for the voices of their prey. Of course, my fears, while not entirely justified, were not completely fallacious either.

As with MFA programs, I have looked at publishing with a sense of reluctance. I was raised within a queer people of color-led movement of radical thinking and doing— a movement of transgressive people, thought and action. So when the world of publishing declares rules for what acceptable and legitimate forms of publishing are, I find myself resisting.

From the queer communities of color context I was raised in, publishing is not about profit or notoriety. Rather, the purpose of publishing is, to quote my sister and poet, Rajasvini Bhansali, for the “production of knowledge.” As radical community-rooted poets, our stanzas do more than describe our values— they construct manifestos. Within this context, institutional standards of legitimized publishing become irrelevant, if not direct ideological and pragmatic impediments to the production, dissemination, and engagement of our knowledge.

I come from the Bridgforth School of Writing where truth is inherent to craft. A school where one is asked to articulate how one’s resistance speaks to the work. A school where community is not forged, but in a constant organic process of birthing. A school where the body and its memory are mightier than the pen. It was under the mentorship of Sharon Bridgforth that I found my voice and purpose on this planet.

As a radically trained cultural worker, I spent most of my 20’s advocating (at times fighting) for queer artists of color whose embodied artistic intention push against conventional white and heterocentric standards of art. Fueled by the values and training of queer people of color and radical ally sisters who created and sustain allgo (a statewide queer people of color organization in Texas), I stood-up to funding bodies who would rather fund the regurgitation of works by a European man dead nearly 400 years, over the innovative cutting-edge and autonomous craft of Southern butch dykes.

Inspired by, and in collaboration with, the genius of Joe Jiménez, Sharon Bridgforth, Jennifer Margulies and Dr. T. Jackie Cuevasallgo launched itself into publishing. This energy led to the publishing of Virginia Grise and Irma Mayorga’s The Panza Monologues (based on the play by the same name, which engages in community dialogue on the Chicana body), as well as two anthologies, Queer Codex: Chile Love (a collection of works by queer men of color writers, performers and visual artists) and Queer Codex: ROOTED! (a collection of works by queer womyn and trans writers, performers and visual artists). During this period, my own book, Santo de la Pata Alzada: Poems from the Queer/Xicano/Positve Pen was published by the radical and feminist Evelyn Street Press.

And yet, with all my training in community-based publishing and arts production, as well as the caring experience I had in the publishing of my first collection of poetry, I found myself allowing notions of legitimacy to plague my mind vis à vis my future in publishing. The more I began to move in the world as a Writer, the more the structures of industrialized poetics questioned my relationship to the establishment they jealously protect.

This is my retaliation.

What does Vanity Publishing mean to someone who has lived an entire life at the margins of institutional acknowledgement? Are we to assume that a self-published author has no writing community that offers support, feedback and spaces for growth? Thus, rendering the self-published work substandard (insert “whose standard” here), as if all work published traditionally were of supreme quality. By these rules, is the self-published person even an author?

Similarly, while theater companies producing the work of its membership are treasured, nonprofit publishers and collectives are called into question when publishing the work of their own. Even as ethical inquiries arise for poetry contests where winners have questionable ties to judges, the books remain published and valid in the eyes of the industry. In a world of such artistic double standards and, dare I say, classist, sexist, and racist assumptions, what hope is left for writers whose training takes place in community backyards and living rooms, and not in the pale halls of the academy?

When so many of us come to poetry hoping to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings, and longing to imagine a future that is possible, being confronted with structural regulations for valid writing is a challenge, if not a reappearance of oppressions we sought to overcome through our art-making. Poets enter non-linear processes of craft-development, self-discovery, self-defining, and self-identification only to be forced to define ourselves by the rigid terms of institutions. Dare upset the poetic establishment and find yourself relegated to the outskirts (at best) or becoming (or remaining) irrelevant in its eyes. The poetic establishment has the final say.

I do not mean to disregard MFA programs or their value as spaces for writers to develop and refine their craft (for god’s sake, I’m about to start attending one). Nor do I intend to dismiss the role of traditional publishing in the lives and careers of my kindred, or demean their successes. To the contrary, I applaud and celebrate with them as they receive acclaim, distinguished awards and residencies, and publishing opportunities. I believe our communities deserve to enter and exist in those spaces. For without us, the literary establishment is illegitimate.

I raise these questions to engage my fellow writers in dialogue, to engage in public self-critique, and to open my own submission to the literary establishment for the critique of my kindred. I refuse to hold myself to the standard of a profiteering self-serving machine, but will submit to the voices of my peers. I look to you, my kindred, for guidance on how we might hold the establishment accountable, and, more importantly, how we continue to develop sistemas autóctonas (autochthonous systems) for the production of knowledge. 

[Originally published in June of 2011, this manifesto of sorts speaks to the values that undergird Kórima Press.]

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sex, Drugs & Bath Houses

It's been several months since I've written a post for this blog, and even longer since I've written about queer men's health issues. But this evening, I saw a string of comments on a friend's Facebook page around whether or not he should accept an invitation to visit a bath house. The responses were not atypical, and were, in fact, pretty much out of the pervasive imaginary textbook of morality that permeates public health discourse, and the opinion of so many of my queer brothers.

The summary: my friend was discouraged from visiting the bath house, and was told to inform whoever extended the invitation that he was "not that kind of guy" and to not talk to that person again. The reason? Because "they're dirty, unsafe, and largely drug infested."

Now, it's not my job to be the counter gay-morality police. But the policing of queer men's bodies by other queer men has become so widely acceptable (even in the liberal queer paradise of San Francisco), that I thought I'd weigh in and offer a different opinion.

First, I must agree that some bath houses (yes, I've been to one or 12) could use some extra Fabuloso, a paint job, and better lighting. As for being "unsafe," I imagine the person is referring to the socially constructed concept of "safe sex." Meaning, people at bath houses are engaging in sex without condoms. And, well, some people are. I also agree that some people are probably engaging in some form of drug use (prescribed and not), although I'm not exactly sure what a drug infestation looks like.

I'm not necessarily in disagreement with most of this person's assessment of what goes on in bath houses. Most of what he says could be true in some, or perhaps most, bath houses. However, it is also true that bath houses are, as far as I know, regulated by public health departments, they provide condoms, and local organizations often provide free testing and resources. Also, typically 
there are signs stating that drugs are not allowed, but we can always debate about how enforceable those placards are.

It's not the assessment of bath houses that I have a problem with. My problem is this simple-minded approach to gay men's health and how widely accepted it seems to be. Queer men already live in a world that thinks of us (our bodies, our minds, our spirits) as "dirty, unsafe, and largely drug infested." And somehow, at some point, our legacy was infected by the very morality that deems us pariahs and perverted vectors of disease.

There's no arguing that HIV is still a significant concern for our communities. There's no dismissing that the pain of losing so many of our queer forefathers and brothers is a pain we carry on our backs. But this pain seems to have translated into us believing the words of the Reagan Administration and the hateful rhetoric of those who despise us. We must remember, 
this disease is not our cancer, it is not our own doing.

I know I am unpopular in my public support for the existence of bath houses. But I state my support publicly because silence around our sex and sexualities is dangerous. Despite what goes on in bath houses, they can be, at a minimum, a space where men can engage in consensual sex. Some men don't have other spaces. I've seen far too many reports of men being subjected to violence at the hands of sexual partners or law enforcement when engaging in consensual sex in other spaces (i.e. public areas). If anything, a bath house can provide literal, albeit relative, safety.

But arguing a case for why bath houses should exist is hardly the point of this post. Rather, I hope to convey an argument against the moralization of queer men's sex and sexualities, and against the patronizing peer-to-peer policing we engage in. We already exist in a culture that works to dismiss our sense of agency and deny us our right to self-determination. Why must we strive to do it to each other?

Bath houses aren't the only place where sex without condoms happens. Bath houses are not the only unsanitary spaces where men have sex. Bath houses are not the only places where drugs are used. If the concern is that queer men do not have access to the necessary information to make informed decisions about their health, then make the information (not your moral opinion) accessible. Demonizing and treating us like unintelligent creatures who are incapable of taking care of ourselves does not help us make informed decisions. It only increases the silence between us. There's a reason more men seem to frequent bath houses, than men who freely admit to doing so.

P.S. If at the end of the day you refuse to visit your local bath house, remember, it's your body and only you get to make that decision. And, yes, that is my moral opinion.