I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but: I am a performance poet. I write, and perform around New York City usually a few times a month; I’m involved in a writing group and a book group. I take this pursuit very seriously.So, as such, I have a bio that I use to describe myself; the first line describes me as a “queer butch writer,” specifically.
A few weeks back, I was asked to be a judge for a state-wide performance poetry competition for high school students that is happening this Thursday. I’m not going into the details (not that you probably couldn’t find it, or that this won’t totally reveal myself) but that they are high school students is relevant, because the coordinators for this event asked me, after receiving my bio, to “tone down” the language so as not to be potentially misunderstood, potentially inviting problems from the “upstate and rural” New Yorkers who are “not as tolerant as we are down in the city.”
One woman actually said, I kid you not, “I mean, I don’t have a problem with it – I have LOTS of gay friends.” Which, though she was trying to comfort me, is a really horrible thing to say. Of course! It is never YOU who is oppressing ME specifically – it’s all those other people, ruining the fun for everyone.
Plus: she is implying that, if I called myself a queer butch, and IF someone was offended for whatever reason, there would be reason to be afraid. That that person would be RIGHT to be offended. That they could create a LEGITIMATE complaint that would potentially damage the organization.
If that’s not true, the organization would be strong enough to stand up and say, no, actually, this isn’t a problem, there is nothing wrong with someone calling themselves a queer butch, and if you have a problem, that’s your fucken problem.
But: I really want to participate in this. I really want to go, network, be a visible queer butch for these high school kids.So I agreed to change the word “queer” and emailed my revised bio back, leaving in the word “butch” – i.e. “self-defined butch lesbian writer” – explaining that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, that I’ve worked hard to claim this word and that I feel it is integral and important to my identity and my self-definition.
But, no go: “we are still really afraid that [the word butch] has the potential to be misinterpreted by some of the attendees. We completely understand that the word has significant and special meaning for you, but we’re afraid that it won’t mean the same thing to others and that it might have the potential for causing a backlash from a parent or teacher.”
I sat on it over the weekend, and toyed with ways I could be subversive and still participate in this competition. Wear a work shirt that says “butch” on the patch. Get “butch” tattooed on my foreheard. Include “marginalized freak lesbian writer” in my bio.
“Queer butch” does not equal “lesbian” — and that is exactly the point. Exactly one of the reasons why I call myself those words. POWER.
And? It’s a POETRY competition. This entire event is all about words, and they are asking (telling?) me to change mine. To choose words that are less scary so their homophobic uptight audience and participants don’t have to be shaken in their little privileged suburban worlds. That is the entire point of my poetry, of my artistic fucken mission even.
I suppose, under all the frustration and hurt cracking feeling in my chest, this is reminding me why I do this kind of work, why I want to be visibly queer, why I want to use words like butch and dyke and cunt and queer, words that have power. This is exactly why I need to go to that competition, to walk in and LOOK like a queer butch dyke and then talk and sound like an articulate, emotional, thoughtful POET.
Because I seek to be a bridge. I want to become suspended between worlds, create new pathways over which to travel.
And, actually? THAT – being a bridge – may even be my more powerful, stronger artistic mission than what I just mentioned about shaking things up. Those two things do go together, I think, despite seeming to contradict, and I seek to do them both.
I’m working on a formal letter, conceding the point because I want to participate but officially stating my position in protest, but meanwhile, I have agreed to let my bio be changed to describe myself as a “lesbian writer.”
I hope they won’t be disappointed when I, a queer butch, show up.