Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Media Justice for Outlaws

cross posted from my Media Justice column

Ya’ll know I love snail mail.

And although I agree with many who critique “Hallmark holidays” I do send my parents mail for Mother’s day and Father’s Day. I started this piece with a different focus, but then I saw this interview of author
Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, Loose Woman: Poems) by author Dorothy Allison (Skin, Bastard Out of Carolina) from 1996. As I prepare to teach two “special topics” courses this summer, one on women, art and culture and the other on sociology and human sexuality, and build my syllabi I found this interview. See the interview below (in English and right now I have not found a transcript).

Sandra Cisneros with Dorothy Allison, Conversation, 8 October 1996 from Lannan Foundationon Vimeo.

I am using Cisneros’ Loose Woman: Poems in the class I’m teaching this summer, so this video is very much of interest to me and I plan to include it in the class in some way. What struck me at first was Cisneros’ conversation about her mother and Allison’s discussion of her parents and their responses to their work. I wondered about how my work may be interpreted and impact my family. Cisneros talks about there being something embarrassing for her family to read some of her stories that are about sexuality, assaults, and healing while Allison shares similar experiences with her family as well.

Cisneros says that she thinks there may be some level of embarrassment for her parents regarding her work and I wondered: may my parents be embarrassed of my work? May parents of any sexual health educator be embarrassed? How do we reconcile this with the work we have been called to do? The authors talk a bit about parents not wanting to see their children as sexual beings.

I’ll admit I have my fair share of approaching the idea of
children being sexual beings and parents recognizing that as an important part in child development and parenting. As someone who is not a “traditional” parent (I believe I have provided a certain level of parenting, support, and mentorship with many young people in my life, especially a young woman who I’ve mentored for over 15 years), I kind of understand this. It was only this year (this week actually!) that I had the courage to ask one of my mentee’s what her experiences were with sex, sexuality and pleasure.

I realized after all the work I do, the trainings, my goals and hopes there remain some parts of me that are still very similar to, not only my parents, but to some social norms that still believe young people are not sexual beings. I’m more like my parents and I realize this each day and sometimes it terrifies me, but other times I realize I have been selected to embody and continue an amazing legacy. It’s such a overwhelming and affirming experience!

So I wonder, how many of us have talked to our parents about the work we do? What have been their reactions? Do we keep it secret? If so, why? Is there a reason connected to protecting ourselves? What are we protecting ourselves from? Disappointment? Critique? Support? Love?

My parents support me. Yet, I don’t share everything I do with them. I’ve shared that my parents are not too wired, so it’s not often that they read what I produce and share about my experiences, so in that way there is a level of “protection” for me and for them. This “protection” I’m writing about is more connected to anonymity, which is connected to safety and freedom to write on various topics. However, I’m not sure how much longer that may last, for many reasons. With age I realize my parents are important parts of who I am, support systems, and sexual beings on their own. But I also realize they will not always be here with me. I’m still “young” enough to have them in somewhat good health, but that is quickly changing and it’s a new form of terrifying!

Similar to Cisneros, my parents don’t talk too much to me about the work that I do, the classes that I teach, or details about them. When I won the 2010
Mujeres Destacadas award(Distinguished Woman) by El Diario La Prensa and they listed me as a “sexologist” my parents didn’t ask what that was or what it represented when I gave them copies. I can’t say if this is connected to embarrassment, but more to a larger communication about sex and sexuality in our family. I find many similarities to Cisneros. Although my parents were big hippies when I was born, and we embraced nudity and art, we didn’t discuss details to sexuality or sexual health. And that silence transmits so much!

Through this silence, that was often only presented through images of art (think paintings, sketches, some forms of music, after all it was still the 70s and 80s!), I had to find the type of representations that spoke to me, and much like Cisneros, I saw what I desired for myself in the representations of White men around me. The White men were seen as “independent” in a very particular way and could travel freely. I translated these two things as freedom, liberation. I interpreted this freedom and liberation and thought: what could it look like for me?

I knew long ago that just because a White man can do something that doesn’t mean a bushy-haired brown girl could. Yet, that restraint allowed me to dream bigger. The imaginative and creative attributes my parents fostered in me as a child were able to manifest into something more useful and life changing as a young adult. I imagined leaving my town, living in a world where I could do whatever I wanted without having too much responsibility to certain people and things, only responsible to the people and things I love (and yes this means no children or spouse which on it’s own is a anomaly even today!). Today, I think I’ve been able to reach a bit of that.

I think for these reasons, although I’ve selected a very “untraditional” route of work for myself as my parents’ daughter, as a person with US citizenship, and as woman of Color, I’ve still been able to find success in how I define it. That is one of the things I take away from this interview: defining success to our standards not to others.

When Cisneros and Allison talk about their parents questioning their sexual orientation because they are not married (more Cisneros) and wondering if academics and going to college is connected to that or ignoring it because Allison went to college, is something that really speaks to me. My parents have not questioned my sexual orientation, but they do question my desires and (in)abilities to partner. I do believe they wonder how/if my career choice may limit my options for partners: would a person want to partner with a woman who does the work that I do. More so, would a man of Color want to partner with me knowing I am working in the field of sexology?

Allison says to Cisneros at the 6-minute mark: “I think there is this common territory that independent, unmarried, women writers occupy. Particularly independent, unmarried, heterosexual, outside the acceptable definition of what a woman is supposed to do. That’s the, it’s the same niche lesbians occupy in this society where, we are in the outlaw territory. It’s a safer place for a writer.” Wow.

Cisneros states later at the 19-minute mark: “What are the options for a woman who wants to be a writer? And Latina? If I had been in a situation where I would have been married that could have killed my writing career. If I had been in some traditional relationship where I had children, I would never have been into books. So I think that destiny puts these situations in my life so I could be who I am now and have all these books. Now I feel like ‘ok I did all that now I may think about having a partner and all that’ I might have kids. I might not. I can afford now to make those decisions, but it’s different for a man.”

Although it’s an identity I’m not in love with, I am a writer. One of the reasons I’m not in love with such an identity is because I know of people who write for different reasons, reasons connected to surviving, to living. My writing is connected in the same way, but at the end of the day, if I had the chance to choose what to do, writing may not be the first thing on that list. I’ve felt shame with my identity as a writer, but I realize that I can’t and will no longer be ashamed, or hold my writing up to the same standards or goals as others. I will write because I can, because I want to, and because there is still so much to say and share. I realize now it is a gift and that I am writing and occupying in an outlaw territory.

I share this because it’s a process. Maybe some of you reading may have never found yourself in that space, maybe some have, either way it is all right. I think it’s important to share these experiences even if they still remain a struggle.

After doing some research, I found a great passage from Allison’s book of short stories
Trash, in her story “Muscles of the Mind” where she writes:
“We are under so many illusions about our powers,” I wrote, “illusions that vary with the moon, the mood, the moment. Waxing, we are all-powerful. We are the mother-destroyers. She-Who-Eats-Her-Young, devours her lover, her own heart; great-winged midnight creatures and the witches of legend. Waning, we are powerless. We are the outlaws of the earth, daughters of nightmare, victimized, raped, and abandoned in our own bodies. We tell ourselves lies and pretend not to know the difference. It takes all we have to know the truth, to believe in ourselves without reference to moon or magic. (pg. 140)
The idea and identity of being an outlaw is not new. Many authors have written about it from gender, race, and class perspectives. Unfortunately, it’s an ideology and discussion that often is transmitted mainly within certain (academic) spaces. Although outlaws are “wanted,” considered deviant, having broken the “law” or challenged social norms, they remain without any (legal) protection. This is many of us writing here at Amplify. Many of us working in the field of sexual and reproductive justice and we must create protections for ourselves within our community.

These are all forms of media I believe. Media that nurtures us and is vital to the work we do. Forming a message, constructing it in the way we choose and sharing it, that’s media!

So, how does this change the relationship I want to forge with my family, to have a response? Some protection? I too, like Dorothy Allison, am hungry for my family’s response to my work. Here’s my plan of action, if you have one, or are thinking of one, please share! I really do believe we learn from sharing and from one another.

Action Plan

• Tell my parents. Perhaps print out a piece I’d like to share with them, mail it, and ask them to read it when they can and be proactive about finding their opinions. This means doing a lot of reflexive work to prepare for that conversation. I think I’ll have to prepare myself for critique, questions, having to explain things in new ways, and being ready to accept love and support.

• Ask myself what does it mean if I am choosing not to share certain pieces with my parents and be honest about those responses.

• Be clear in what my parents may be able to offer me and be ready to receive it or to find it elsewhere.

• Expand my ideas and definitions of “family” to include my community.

• Make sure my community is one that can provide me with the support and is present for me in the ways that are healing and supportive.

• Make sure I can reciprocate what my community offers me.

• Do it all over again.

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