Devotion at Terse Journal

Terse Journal returns as a bi-monthly Journal this month. My review of Patti Smith’s most recent book, Devotion, is available here.


devotion cover


Coming Out Day Biography

For National Coming Out Day this week (not recognized by the White House, surprise surprise), I was invited to contribute to a series of biographies put together by Allies of Kutztown University. I’m reprinting my contribution about the life of Derek Jarman here.

derek jarman.jpg

Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman became one of the most influential independent filmmakers of the 20th Century. Beginning his career as a painter, Jarman experimented with short films in the late 1960s. His work as a set designer on Ken Russell’s “The Devils” lead him to direct his first feature, “Sebastiane” in 1976. “Sebastiane,” a retelling of the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, was deeply controversial due to its interpretation of Sebastian as a “gay martyr.” Each film Jarman made afterwards contained certain recurring elements—a painter’s attention to detail, poetic dialogue, unapologetic and explicit representations of same-sex relationships—and met with controversial public reactions. Jarman’s use of Super-8 film remained fairly constant through his career, allowing him to film on a limited budget and maintain a more personal “home movie” style of filmmaking.

With the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party government, as well as the reintroduction of homophobic and discriminatory legislation in the late 1970s and 1980s, Jarman’s work became more overtly political. Faced with legislation that banned the use of public funds for artists who “promoted” of homosexuality in their work, Jarman made “The Angelic Conversation”—a juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s sonnets with film of gay couples. His late film, “Edward II,” transferred Marlowe’s 16th Century play to the context of early AIDS activism.

My two favorite Jarman films are “Wittgenstein,” a biographical portrait of the philosopher that was the first work to openly discuss his homosexuality, and Jarman’s final completed film, “Blue.” Jarman was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s, and by the time he made both of these films he was almost completely blind. “Blue”—which consists of narration over a blue screen without any other imagery—is both a testament to Jarman’s creativity and a reminder of his own mortality. By the time the film was released, blue was the only color Jarman could see clearly.

Jarman died from AIDS on 19 February 1994. Since his death, his films have become widely available on the internet, and his visions have continued to influence artists around the world.

Further reading:
“Derek Jarman: A Biography” by Tony Peake
“Chroma: A Book of Color” by Derek Jarman
“Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks” by Derek Jarman
“Derek Jarman’s Garden” by Derek Jarman and Howard Sooley

Feature Filmography
Sebastiane (1976)
Jubilee (1977)
The Tempest (1979)
The Angelic Conversation (1985)
Caravaggio (1986)
The Last of England (1988)
War Requiem (1989)
The Garden (1990)
Edward II (1991)
Wittgenstein (1993)
Blue (1993)

Personal Update

Hello Everyone,

I have recently received confirmation that I will be presenting at the Northeast 
Popular Culture Association (NEPCA) Conference in October of this year! My paper, “Tackling the Femme,” about Bette Davis and the “Psycho Biddy” film genre, is part of the Rethinking the Monstrous panel, chaired by my friend and colleague, Heather Flyte. It’s my first presentation at a conference in some time, so here’s hoping that it all goes smoothly. More details to come.


Playing the Riot Box at TERSE

Terse Journal returns from June recess, and I get back on my game with a new piece in the July issue, “Playing the Riot Box.” It’s about the songs in the jukebox at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the riots in 1969. You can read it here.

Library Never Closes Bonus:

I’ve made a YouTube playlist of all the songs on the jukebox at the Stonewall Inn. You can listen to all the music here.

Ways of “Doing” Queerness in a PostColonial Context (reprint)

This piece originally appeared at PostColonial Minds.

About two years ago, I wrote an article for the U.K. magazine, Vada, that discussed a report from the Human Rights Watch about homophobic violence in JamaicaNot Safe at Home: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT people in Jamaica. It was the first time I attempted to address LGBT issues outside of the frame of first-world culture, and even as I attempted to address the historical relationship between the nations discussed in the report and the demographic breakdown of my readers (predominantly European, mostly in England, with a fair amount in the United States), I had to acknowledge that any call to action at the end of the report or my own analysis of it would have an element of savior complex about it by sheer virtue of the fact that many of us belong to the nations that held colonial stakes in Jamaica at one point or another. All of the articles we were given to chose from this week contained at least a passing reference to this paradox, as well as reference to the historical fact that so many of the laws and colonial attitudes that now harm were done with the intent of “helping”–however you define “help.”

In terms of legal rights for LGBTQ+ people, I find it very interesting to look at the history of buggery/sodomy laws. Of particular interest is the way in which colonial-era regulation grafts itself onto PostColonial identity. Most countries held these laws on the books for many years, with the penalties ranging from fines to bodily mutilation and death. Of interest to me is the fact that these buggery/sodomy laws, like most laws governing sexual activity, focus on male/male couplings or work within an exclusively heterosexual/phallocentric narrative framework (IE: by strict reading of the laws, only women can legally claim to have been sexually assaulted, and only men can be accused of having assaulted them). This erases the ability to address sexual violence within an already ostracized community, while at the same time pretending that men are the only creatures for whom homosexuality or same-sex acts exists. According to these laws, there is no such thing as lesbianism, or at least there is no explicit punishment for lesbianism. This remains the case in Jamaican law today.

Dennis Altman writes about the difficulties that arise with universal claims of what exactly constitutes a gay/lesbian/queer/trans* identity.

It has become fashionable to point to the emergency of “the global gay,” the apparent internationalization of a certain form of social and cultural identity based upon homosexuality. He–sometimes, though less often, she–is conceptualized in terms that are very much derived from recent American fashion and intellectual style: young, upwardly mobile, sexually adventurous, with an in-your-face attitude toward traditional restrictions and an interest in both activism and fashion. (77)

Altman’s sketch is accurate to a point, but he could go one step further. The globalized gay is implicitly white. Since the article was published in 1996, there have been major developments in terms of representation within the LGBTQ+ American community, so that now one would be slightly more embarrassed for thinking that queerness was “a white people thing.” Even so, the predominant representations of queer identity within American culture remain white in the majority. As American culture is the one export we still have to offer the world en mass, it would make sense why aspects of “doing” gayness, American-style, would seep into other cultures that may or may not hold the same identity structures. The result is that even in situations where there is a localized queer identity, the appealing representation or “pull” for an advertising campaign directed towards the queer population will be based around the appeal of Western whiteness, as Altman explains in his opening paragraph:

Early in 1995 posters appeared on streetposts in Manila’s Malate district advertising a new gym, with illustrations of muscular (white) men taken, presumably, from overseas gay magazines. The posters seemed to promise a luxurious gym/sauna of the sort found in Paris or Los Angeles, but the gym itself is in an old garage, as small and dark as the other gyms that dot the Taft Avenue area. In the distinction between the image and the reality lies much of the paradox of the apparent globalization of postmodern gay identities. (77)

In terms of sexuality and gender identity, it is hard to bridge the gap between what one knows and what one is being exposed to in these articles or in cross-cultural information exchange. Altman and Perez-Sanchez often have recourse to describing particular sexual labels used outside of Western discourse by comparing them to Western discourse. In other words, we come to understand what something outside of this discourse is by the way in which it does or does-not match with what we have been exposed to. This is not wrong, this is just a way we make distinctions across discourses. We should acknowledge this.

The flexibility of language comes through in Altman’s piece, where terms are defined only to be redefined and complicated:

In Indonesia, for example, local men who identify themselves as gay will sometimes sharply distinguish themselves from banci or waria (terms which include effeminate men and, occasionally, masculine women) but in other contexts will identify with them. (82)

In this moment, we see how the terms, while predominantly describing one kind of gender identity, the effeminate male, also describe the “inverse” within a binary structure–the masculine female. The term itself remains the same for both, which can lead to confusion on the part of a reader not paying attention. This can also be seen in the word “gay” itself: while predominantly linked to the male who experiences primary attraction to other males, it can also mean a female who is attracted to other females, even though the word itself does not change. (Writing about it now, I begin to think about the way in which the supposedly non-gendered term, “gay,” is read as male until proven otherwise, just as “Doctor” or “Pastor” is frequently read as titles occupied by men for many people until the name Cynthia or Bethany follows it. It seems that there is usually some sort of adjustment made in order to be inclusive of women, or that there has to be coined a new word to describe their relationship: IE, the lesbian.) This also speaks to the way in which self-identification as a group member is conditional and based on the context in which it is asked. If I am asked if I identify as “Queer,” the answer is probably going to come back as no about 50% of the time, depending on how the question is put to me. If I am asked if I’m “gay,” I’ll probably say yes, even though I think that the term “gay” doesn’t really reflect the way I think about my sexual or gender identity and holds a lot of cultural markers that I do not feel comfortable with. At the same time, everyone has a ballpark idea of what “gayness” means, which makes the conversation run much more smoothly.

To identify as homosexual without rejecting conventional assumptions about masculinity or femininity (as with today’s “macho” gay or “lipstick lesbian” styles) is one of the distinguishing features of modern homosexuality. The new freedom is both distinctly different from any premodern formations of sexuality and intimately related to other features of modern life. (82-3)

In other words, there is more than one way to “do” gayness, and part of the “globalized gay” is allowing for a break from some of the traditional structures of queer relations which stemmed from gender identities. “Jackson speaks of there being four or five categories of sex/gender (phet) in Thailand, and of the new masculinization of homosexuals so that gay men–an emerging category–are those who desire each other” (83). In this case, it is a situation in which the concern is less with appearance than the action of attraction and the act of following through on that attraction. As Gore Vidal put it in “Sex is Politics,” “There is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people.”

As with all colonial/PostColonial states, there is an element of erotic colonization in all of this. The “meccas” for homoerotic play, such as Tangiers (as represented by the work of Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs), Thailand, the Philippines, etc., are more properly represented as arenas of sexual tourism, where those of the colonizing background could find avenues to procure what they desired. Altman quotes a newspaper column that brings this problem to the forefront:

Lurking behind the Brazilians’ pride of their flamboyant drag queens, their recent adulation of a transvestite chosen as a model of Brazilian beauty, their acceptance of gays and lesbians as leaders of the country’s most widely practiced religion and the constitutional protection of homosexuality, lies a different truth. Gay men, lesbians and transvestites face widespread discrimination, oppression and extreme violence. (80)

This leads into concerns raised by Gema Perez-Sanchez in “Transnational Conversations in Migration, Queer, and Transgender Studies: Multimedia Storyspaces.” Reflecting on the legal gains made by LGBTQ+ identified people in the first decade of the 21st Century, Perez-Sanchez wonders for whom these legislative changes came about.

A more cynical view of the reasons behind the passing of these progressive laws is that they also respond to Spain’s desires to be recognized by the rest of Europe and the United States as sharing their values of modern citizenship rights and to obliterate and bury, once and for all, Spain’s repressive fascist past. What better way to prove Spain’s progress to its European partners than to pass gender and sexuality laws that are at least as, if not more, forward-looking than any others to be found in the European Union? In this regard, Spain joins other recent democracies, such as South Africa, in guaranteeing the civil rights of sexual minorities. […] Likewise, through its two new progressive gay and transsexual rights laws, Spain has guaranteed its perception abroad as a modern, liberal country, and it has secured an increased stream of LGBTQ tourism from abroad–not a minor issue in a country whose economy depends on tourism revenue. (164)

And so we see the situation presented clearly: the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights within a country is less about restoring dignity to that particular minority and more about appealing to the way the winds of capital blow. This is not a problem limited to national governments–ask yourself why multinational corporations with very unethical practices (particular computer companies or shoe or clothing manufacturers, for example), companies which have been accused of violating worker’s human rights, sponsor pride celebrations worldwide and emblazon a rainbow of tolerance over the product they designed and manufactured in brutal or oppressive conditions. The harsh term for this is “pinkwashing,” the same term used, incidentally, for corporate entities or talking heads who devote a small stream of cash or another form of “support” at the PR-appropriate moment towards breast cancer research.

The particular issue of the National Identity Card, the Documento Nacional de Identitdad (DNI), strikes a chord with me. I’ve spent part of my free time in the last year helping transgender friends of mine get legal name changes on their driver’s licenses, Social Security Cards, Passports, and other critical documents needed to be viewed as a law-abiding citizen in the United States. “A leftover from the Franco dictatorship” (167), this identity card can, like all of the documents I mentioned previously, serve to either reify and validate one’s gender identity, or to disregard and out a person as transgender or otherwise gender non-conforming. The laws that require these identifications exist as a form of social control, and the requirement of a clear gender marker stating where one fits in this situation is a second form of control: limiting the expression of the individual’s gender identity as well as reinforcing the ways in which one “should” do gender.

“Romero Bachiller argues that in our current globalized regimes obsessed with regulating bodies and movements across borders (national, gendered, sexual, racial,

ciertos elementos no-humanos, en concreto los documentos de identidad/identifica cion, adquieren una preeminencia particular convirtiendose en autenticas “extensiones protesicas” que permiten asegurar la legitimidad de los “cuerpos” y garantizan la posibi lidad de que sean siempre reconocibles en los regimenes fijados. Los documentos de identidad/identificacion pasan a convertirse en los habilitadores y garantes de la verdad “humana” de los “sujetos-cuerpos-ciudadanos” que los ostentan.

[Certain “non-human” elements, in particular the identity documents/identifiers acquire a particular pre-eminence by becoming authentic “extensions of protest” that allow for the legitimacy of “bodies” and guarantee the possibility that they are always recognizable in the established regimes. The identity documents/identifiers become the enablers and guarantees of the true “human” of the “subjects-bodies-citizens” that bear them.] (167, followed by my [no doubt poor] translation in brackets)

In this way, the DNI becomes the object of the narratives Perez-Sanchez describes. The DNI is manipulated and adjusted in a video piece referencing a pamphlet GtQ put out for 2003’s Gay Pride celebration, in which “identity-fucking” (169) is the name of the game. (Incidentally, I was unable to locate this pamphlet either in a larger, reader-friendly image or in English translation. If anyone was able to track it down or could send me a link to the video as well, I would be greatly appreciative.) The distinction between a “bio-woman” and a “transgender woman” (169-70) Perez-Sanchez questions at the start of the video cuts directly to the problem of identification within legal documents, as well as the public perception of “trans-ness,” which is to say, what determines the way in which an individual is viewed as male or female. The photo evolves until it displays a nude posterior, the most gender-ambiguous form of nudity (ie: regardless of genitalia or secondary sex characteristics, everyone has an ass, and at a quick glance, asses are not easily distinguished as masculine or feminine). In this way, the purpose of identification and the intimate details that determine the gender marker on the DNI are subverted–by the ambiguity of the image as well as the act of “mooning” the holder of the DNI, be it a police officer or a court judge. Working across the forms of pamphlet, performance art, video art, and the DNI itself (art as a[n il]legal document?), Perez-Sanchez offers an analysis not only of the individual aspects of Spanish culture transgender people have to encounter, but also spurs a consideration on the part of the viewer as to the way in which the categories on legal documents do or do not represent the person.

PostColonial Minds: Bandit Queen (repost)

Trigger Warning: This post contains explicit descriptions of sexual assault and descriptions of images some may find disturbing.

Within the first thirty minutes of Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi is assaulted or raped five times on camera, with the implication that it happened more times than that in real life. Several of the incidents occur when she is 11 years old. Indeed, it happens twice before the opening credit sequence. The ethics of forcing a child actor to replay an assault are tricky. One hopes the intent of this film was to tell the story of this woman in such a way as to help understand why she acted as she did. The film also gives the audience reason to ask, Why haven’t more people risen up like this? In doing so, however, I fear that the film also acts as a way to curtail revolutionary action or autonomous rejection of colonial governance.

“This is a True Story.”

-Opening Title Card of Bandit Queen

“I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!”

-Opening line of Bandit Queen

The film makes apparent one aspect of the power relationships it depicts: rape is a form of terrorism. That Devi was raped and assaulted multiple times, often depicted in front of the town and often with cold complicity on their part, demonstrates the idea of rape as a form of social control. When Shri Ram parades a naked, beaten, repeatedly raped, and still-bleeding, Devi in front of the village, he proclaims: “This is what we do to low caste goddesses,” ensuring that Devi’s humiliation intimidates those who would stand up.

The film stylizes the violence of rape in a way that both glorifies it and shows it as violent. The high sexual content of the film–only a small portion of which is explicitly consensual sexual activity–is tied to the desire and need to tell Phoolan Devi’s story. The graphic nature of some of this content reinforces the horror of what is happening to her. (This is particularly true when Babu Gujjar, who has kidnapped Devi, is raping her in a mountain range. Vikram shoots Gujjar in the head and kills him, as well as several other members of his gang, becoming the new leader. This is one of the few times that someone comes to Devi’s aid. Even so, Devi is covered in Gujjar’s blood, and is extremely disturbed by the violence that met the violence done against her.) It remains the case that Devi was still alive at the time of the film’s release, and that the explicit content that causes the film to have a gut impact also forced her to live through having her repeated assaults being played on cinema screens around the world.

When the film was released in 1994, Devi threatened self-immolation if the film was released without her seeing it. She was concerned about the way she was being portrayed, and concerned with the graphic nature of the scenes depicting her rape. “They have shown me naked to the press. People come up to me and say I look very sexy. I find this humiliating,” Devi said in a comment published in the Independent. The producer of Bandit Queen said in the same piece that he wanted to screen the film for Devi privately because, “We feel it could be traumatic for her to go through her past all over again.”

Violence begets violence. The internal frictions of the caste system become the grounds for acts of violence against an entire caste, the Rajput (the Thakur in the film), whether or not they had individually harmed her. There is a code to this violence: no women or children are harmed, harassed, or assaulted. It is the men of the clan who bare the brunt of the violence, being gunned-down en mass at a wedding party in a violent sequence that matches the violence enacted on Devi. The naked girl-child screaming as she watches the men of her village be gunned down reminds viewers of the screaming image of a young Devi being abused by her husband. Even with this act–the act that Devi was actually wanted for, above and beyond being a bandit–Devi seems not to find her emotional catharsis through this act, as Shri Ram was not in the village. Compare this scene with the scene in which Devi and Vikram return to the village where Devi’s husband lives. Seeing his child-bride grown up and recognizing her, his expression turns from rage to fear as Devi begins beating him to death with her rifle. In this case, she is attacking a specific person who abused her. In the former case, she is attacking an entire section of the caste system that was responsible for allowing her abuse. This has been cemented through the film by repeated shot sequences of people watching or pretending not to watch as Devi is abused.

Even with the clear link between past abuse at the hands of a particular caste and the retribution Devi’s gang wrought, the film’s stance on Devi’s actions and the film’s sympathies towards her remain ambiguous. There is a point to the life of Phoolan Devi, but the filmmakers seem uncertain of what that is. Our sympathies are raised and then questioned within a few scenes of each other. In some moments, it seems as though her life is being glorified, to turn her into the goddess people call her through the film, and other times it seems as though her life is a cautionary tale, capable of repressing those who might have the instinct to speak out (against colonialism, against caste) by saying: Look at this woman who spoke out in the way you want to. Look at how she was beaten and abused. This could easily happen to you as well. Thinking about the film, however, it becomes clear for me that Bandit Queen questions the responsibility of the observer, the viewer, both ithin the context of the film itself and in the meta-sense of the film itself. In viewing this film and questioning the way it depicts Devi’s life, are we perpetuating some of the same abuse she suffered in her lifetime?

Phoolan Devi died in 2001. She was shot multiple times. At the time, she was a member of the Indian Parliament. Her assassin’s trial and sentencing took place over a ten year period. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014. Several Bollywood producers and actors have expressed an interest to meet with him to discuss a sequel film, tentatively titled The End of Bandit Queen.

Deep Analysis

My thoughts on Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” and Gyasi’s short story, “Inscape” are available at PostColonial Minds. 

What is the purpose of writing the Future Testament? Why is it significant that it is always written in material that will be washed away–materials stemming from the body (or a body), leading up to the pad the mother sets ablaze at the end of the story? The investment, to use the economic language Spivak and Marx propose, is short-sighted and doomed to be transient.

You can read the full text here.