I thought that this photograph and the words within it fitted well into the discussions of this week’s readings and class. The idea of this person proclaiming, of their assumed gay/queer identity, to a heterosexual/heteronormative audience that they are both their ‘worst fear’ and their ‘best fantasy’ brings forth many discussion points around concepts such as fetishisation and the political space wherein the heteronormative person places themselves.
While looking at this image I immediately thought of how things such as ‘lesbian porn’ are still targeted toward a heterosexual male audience and the dichotomy between someone who would watch ‘lesbian porn’ and yet harass or even be violent toward someone who is a lesbian in their everyday life. This idea of fear can especially be seen if a straight man watches gay male porn as it comes with the possibility of being thought of by others as gay, that part being the ‘worst fear’ (in a society that demeans and points violence and negativity toward gay men and those perceived as more ‘feminine’ and therefore lesser in this patriarchal world) but their ‘best fantasy’ in a sexual sense may be gay male porn.
Throughout the readings there was a theme of sexual desire and fluidity, an image such as this could be read to comply with this theme, as it suggests a fear of a fluid form of sexuality and desire, but brings up the idea that it exists. In the reading ‘Friction Burns’ in Nobody Passes the author states, ‘When I first discovered I had an intense affection for submission I immediately cultivated a sense of shame due to my lack of normalcy’ (41) this quotation can be seen to relate similarly to the idea of having any kind of desire you are taught is not ‘normal’. For this image, there is the idea that you can fantasise about something but the fear of it becoming ‘real’ and a ‘truth’ about your identity and desire, that that is where the shame lies. With this image in particular, with homosexuality or queer desire in a world that condemns that.
On 16th February 2015, the UK part of the Stonewall Organisation publicly and officially announced that it would be including transgender people in its campaign for equality. It is ironic that after 45 years since the original Stonewall riots that the organisation would still have a problem with the very people who started it all and fought back in the first place. I believe that the amount of time this has taken to happen has a lot to do with the concept of homonormativity and the idea of having the ‘right’ kind of people as representation. As it can be seen considered in Dean Slade’s article in Nobody Passes there is this dynamic of people seeing those who they consider not part of the ‘norm’ or the hierarchies of acceptability/authenticity within LGBTQ+ communities as almost holding them back from further political and social progress. This is summed up by Dean Spade when he states, ‘Folks were concerned that the legitimacy of trans identity in the eyes of a transphobic culture if frequently tied to how normal and traditionally masculine or feminine trans people appear. I was ruining it for everyone.’ (65)
It is also ironic, with Stonewall’s signature phrasing of ‘Some people are [blank], get over it!’ that they, as an organisation, did not seem to be able to ‘get over’ this separation between the fight for equality of trans* and LGB+ people and their slogan of ‘Acceptance without Exception’ proves not quite true.
The time it has taken for this to be included and seen as necessary in Stonewall’s work also brings up the forgotten or ignored history of transgender and genderqueer people in the ‘Gay Rights Movement’. This is something that Susan Stryker considers in her work and why the inclusion of embodied knowledge is so important, this is especially important for people such as trans women of color who are completely excluded from mainstream queer history.
This can also be tied to the confusion of the separation between gender and sexuality and a lack of understanding because of history and historical separation and tension between trans people and the traditional ‘Gay Rights Movement’. This brings it all right back to homonormativity and the idea of the us v.s. them dynamic wherein those striving for a way of being that will be accepted into the heternormative, privileged society push those who do not fit into these binaries that may propel them forward to, as said by Sylvia Rivera, ‘the back of the bus’.
One example of this is the way in which the Queens and transgender people, or even just those who presented in a more genderqueer way, were written about at the time of Stonewall in newspaper articles such as this, (seen here) with the author ridiculing and making light of the situtation including people he could not, or did not try to understand. This sets up the homonormative dynamic that has persisted throughout history and constantly marginalises people on the trans* spectrum for the progress of others, especially within a heteronormative or rigid institution of the news reporting setting. Here it is very clear who the audience or the reader the author is aiming this toward, those who will perpetuate these systems of exclusion and progress for a very specific select ‘acceptable’ few.
Both the images above share the same title of ‘American Gothic’. The photograph on the left is by Gordon Parks (1942) and the painting on the right is by Grant Wood (1930). Park’s photograph depicts government cleaning woman Ella Watson and Parks’ spoke about the creation of this image stating, “I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience. … At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and [it was] so disastrous that I felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C. was in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another. And I said, “American Gothic”–that’s how I felt at the moment. I didn’t care about what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America”. This way of using the flag in the image and the title harking back to the painting of what could be argued to depict some part of the ‘American dream’ is a really powerful thing. The use of the American or U.S. flag as protest has been seen throughout art and liberation movements throughout history. By using the flag in this image of Ella Watson it draws attention to the fact that she is a part of the United States and is not being treated fairly, its staging, almost like a presidential candidate’s photo brings up ideas about positions of power and who does or does not have them.
I believe that this image brings into question the way the institutions or America as an institution in itself has created forced ways of being for certain groups of people at the cost of them and the profit of those in power. Although I cannot find out all the details of this image, the fact that Ella Watson is said to be a government cleaning woman in some research and a chairwoman who also mopped the floors of the FSA building in others showcases this lack of history for African American stories and with the idea of her being a chairwoman and possibly having some form of power in the community makes this image all the more powerful, she is the one who is made to mop the floors, even with the power she may have.
Parks’ talks about the racism he saw and had happen to him in Washington D.C. in 1942 and how he partially felt the need to create this image because of that. He encountered a lot of institutionalised racism that he hadn’t before, with aspects such as, he states, “White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn’t even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse.”
This photo was said at the time to depict an ‘indictment of America’, further showcasing that this situation was nationwide and institutional. In the book Nobody Passes by Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, in the article ‘Who’s that Wavin’ that Flag?’ one of the interviewees talks of the use of the American flag in protests and states ‘we’re gonna carry this flag because we’ve also built this country’ (54). I believe that this image shows both the nature of protest against American institutions and norms but also, with the inclusion of the mop and broom, showing work done for others, it stands by this idea of having built the country alongside everyone else, but it also makes a point to say that because of that we deserve more.
This picture shows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a Native American man who has been sent away to boarding school. This practice was something that started in 1879 with the invention of Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was thought that by taking these children away from their Native American home environment and having them re-educated meant that they could be ‘Americanized’ and assimilate to white American life, possibly ‘passing’ as white American people through matching their customs, dress and cultural/religious traditions.
In Nobody Passes Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore states that the book was conceived with the wish to ‘examine passing as a means through which the violence of assimilation takes place’ (p. 8). I believe this picture and the idea of the Native American Boarding Schools as a whole really reflects this concept. The schools were specifically created with the idea of assimilation in mind. This not only reiterates the idea of force and violence in a mandatory situation wherein traditions, religion and ways of living were stripped away, but it also brings to light the systems of power behind the ideas of passing and assimilation. The Native American boarding schools are a direct example of a form of social control to force someone into ‘passing’ as something that they are not.
This situation also showcases how institutions function and work somewhat on a basis, as Geoffrey M. Hodgson states in What Are Institutions?, of norms that are subject to ‘approval or disapproval’ (p.5). Here, the norm was considered to be the white American person, and their cultural traditions and ways of being, and the schools were their attempt to make all those considered ‘other’ fit into this box. This is problematic on many levels and relates directly to this ‘notion of belonging’ that Sycamore brings up in the Introduction of Nobody Passes. Sycamore states that the concept of passing or not passing relates to ‘confronting the perilous intersections of identity, categorization, and community in order to challenge the very notion of belonging.’. (p.9) This idea of belonging and community is something that passing could be argued to be slightly at odds with, as, in one sense, passing as something creates a community and categorises people, and while Sycamore and others are wishing to move away from labels and categorisation, this may also result in a lack of communities. This concept is something that the Native American children who were sent to the boarding schools dealt with after they were over. Many found that they were not fully accepted into white American life and when they returned home to their Native American families that they could not fully fit in there either. This left them with a mixed or lost sense of belonging and a lack of solid community to aid them as they could then neither ‘pass’ as white or Native American.