pageants and beauty/gender certification

As I write this, I’ve just gotten myself set up for watching the Miss America pageant, which, I confess, is one of my television highlights of the year. I know that probably sounds weird, and yes, I know lots of reasons why pageants can be and are problematic (fat phobia, racism, and certain types of ableism being obvious and legitimate complaints about Miss America; misogyny in the existence of these things at all also being a more generalized discussion that pageants legitimately provoke), but I was a pageant competitor as a teen, and I find them interesting. I also find them complicated. And this year, Miss America looks like its going to be an intersection between the two for me because of Miss New York‘s platform and because of why I did pageants.

Pageants are, at their heart, a weird sort of public job interview, the job in question being model, spokesmodel or spokesperson for the pageant’s sponsors and agenda issues. Pageants are also agents of extreme normativity (and heteronormativity), to a point that the ideal of femininity idealized and desired by them can seem caricaturish and bizarre (this is less true of a pageant like Miss America than of many smaller and regional pageants that have developed their own standards and looks. If you want to get a sense of this, do some Googling or take a look at a magazine called Pageantry.

My own participating in pageants (I was in the Miss New York State National Teen-Ager Pageant 1987, in addition to some other stuff) sprung from a number of sources, none of which were parental or peer pressure. Rather my parents and peers thought it was weird and inappropriate, not because of the issues I’ve previously identified, but because it wasn’t done — not as a New Yorker and not as someone raised in the class I sort of kind of was.

And I’ll be frank, a great deal of my participation in pageants was about my own insecurities. Some of those were the typical insecurities of a teen girl: I didn’t feel pretty, and I entered pageants in hopes of winning so I could tell my peers they couldn’t tease me for being ugly, because look, there was proof, I wasn’t anything of the sort. But my participating in pageants was also, inextricably, linked to my own sense of non-normativity both as a queer person and a New Yorker.

I grew up in New York City, with parents who are artists, but I would come home from school every day and watch The Brady Bunch and wonder what it was like to be an American — to go to school with boys, to worry about learning how to drive, to care about football, and homecoming. Pageants innately fascinated me because they seemed an element of and gateway to the country I was supposed to be a part of, but everyone always told me I wasn’t.

I also grew up knowing I wasn’t like other people. Strangers would tell my parents what a well-behaved little boy they had, and I was always cast in all the male leads in the school plays (which was sort of awesome; how many girl-born folks do you know who can say they played Ko-ko in The Mikado and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before they were twelve?). Harassment I received at school about my appearance (I was thin to the point of illness (undiagnosed celiac disease), gangly, and sort of awkward) was based around gender and sexuality. Why call me an ugly girl, when it was just easier to say I wasn’t a girl at all?

This stuff bothered me for a few reasons. The first was simply that mean people sucked. The second was that I thought my parents would be angry; they asked me often enough what I had done to make people be so mean to me. The third was that the remarks both felt remarkably true and not. I wanted to be gorgeous in an evening gown and an hourglass figure. But I also wanted to be Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica back when he was a boy (yeah, I like me some bad TV, ok?). I was a boy. I was also a girl. And I was really scared I was ugly either way. Mostly though, I didn’t want people to be mad at me or make it hard for my parents or friends to be around me, because I wasn’t right.

Pageants were a way not just to have my beauty certified, but my femininity. It was a way to hide what I was, and a way to make up for it. And I hoped that being around girls performing girl-ness meant that someone would teach me how to be pretty and sit the right way and say the right things and smile at the right time and be less weird and New York-y.

That didn’t work out for me, not really. I was not a great pageant competitor (although I do have a few sashes and crowns), although I can still do a three-diamond turn. But pageants were the first time I ate McDonald’s and went to Chuck E. Cheese. They were the first job interviews I ever did. And the first time I had to learn how to be photographed or make decisions based, not on who I was, but who I wanted other people to think I was. In other words, pageants gave me some professional skills, taught me how to pitch myself, and also taught me that hiding who and what I was would be hard. It wasn’t in my makeup.

Did I come home from Miss New York National Teen-ager 1987 and come out? No. Officially speaking that didn’t happen until my freshman year of college, after I read Valerie’s Story in V for Vendetta. But pageants let me know, through my failure at them, that I was going to have to. In college, I toyed with trying to do Miss America local pageants and coming out once I won one — would they kick me out for moral turpitude for being queer? They might have, back in 1990 or 1991, but I don’t know.

All of this, however, is why pageants interest me. They are a world both known to me and forbidden to me. They are performative, heteronormative and yet, also, weirdly queer, because who knows what everyone else up there is trying to hide.

This year, the Miss America pageant actually brings my own pageant story full circle in some way: Miss New York’s platform is LGBT equality, because her sister is a lesbian. Miss New York just reached the semi-finals. One day, maybe we’ll have an openly queer Miss America, although with the dwindling viewership of the pageant on television, I don’t necessarily know if it will last long enough to happen.

Right now though, I’m a little bit teary for how scared I was at 13; how angry I was at 19; and how strange the world seems now. Because it’s not just that Miss New York’s platform is that I’m human, it’s that the pageant keeps playing that Pink’s Raise Your Glass. Is it really possible that they actually know that song is about people like me?

Yummy yummy trash day goodies

Later year over 3,900 projects were successfully funded by Kickstarter to the tune of more than $27,000,000. Dogboy & Justine was just one tiny piece of this. I personally also support a lot of crowd-funded projects both through Kickstarter and through other sources. As part of today’s trash day, I’ve got a few to share with you.

Hate doing dishes after parties? Hate what disposable cups do to the environment? Dreaming about beng able to serve cocktails in vegan, gluten-free, flavoured, edible cups? Jelloware wants to make all your dreams come true, even if they are going to have to change the name.

I love the past as it never quite was. I also love photography. Which is why I’m supporting The Fifties: A Tale in Black & White which seeks to create photos that borrow from iconic 1950s imagery while speaking to African and African-American history and culture.

Another photographic project I’ve pledged to is Dirt Floors & Stone Walls, a photojournalism project about India’s public schools. India has a large presence in the life of me and mine and this artist’s work really jumped out at me.

Finally for today’s crowd funding items, Kendarra Publications is raising funds to publish its first novel. I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t actually met Tessa, the press founder. But I do know her from LJ, and I find her to have an excellent critical eye for writing and the absolutely fortitude to run a small business in a challenging space.

Yesterday’s report on Frosty, the pit-bull found dead in the trash, was originally going to be part of today’s links, but I wound up writing about him when the story of the rescued pitbull came to light. I can now report that the rescued dog as found a forever home.

Rats are smart, clean creatures who make great pets. But they also live in New York City’s subways and they are afraid of nothing. Why not to doze off on the subway, part 542,356: Rats. The truth is, I find this rat oddly charming, and I keep watching the video in rotation with the Craig Ferguson Doctor Who show opener routine when I feel down. Intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism! And, even if you hate Doctor Who or don’t know what it is, the Ferguson thing is a freakishly accurate and hiliarious summary of the program

On the acafen front, I’ll be working on a possible submission for Transmedia Sherlock over the weekend. It’s about queer theory and Sherlock Holmes’ reception both by other characters within the narrative and by the audience. If anyone happens to have any good bibliography items related to queer theory, textual analysis and asexuality they want to share, it would help me out for a small section of the paper.

the country of yes

Liminal is one of those words I never used very much until I started doing independent scholarship. It’s not just just that a lot of the work I do addresses, on some level, liminal space, it’s that it’s just one of those words academics really like. It’s a pretty way to talk about a whole bunch of different things that fall into a bunch of different categories, including the magical, the complex, and the vague.

But liminal was never a word that I felt like I owned particularly, until my friend AnnaLinden responded to a few of my posts back on LiveJournal with a certain intensity about the intensity with which I inhabit liminal spaces. It was pleasing to me, because it meant that I and the way I experience the world was being heard. But at the same time, why call it liminal? It was just my life, happening at the moment in an ugly New York winter, and not some existence in the mists of faerie.

But yesterday it occurred to me that this January 9 was the first time in years no one had wished me a happy birthday or given me an odd trinket for a lonely boy. See, my birthday’s in October. But Severus Snape’s is January 9, and among my friends that’s a thing that stuck with me for years. Because of course it was always sort of a joke. But it was also always a recognition: of childhood ostracism I still struggled with, of desires beyond my class and ken, of chin-length black hair and a body too thin. Of a particular relationship with filth. And of the way I’ve always looked to books to save me. So my unbirthday always felt a little bit like love.

When I talk about character and creation and writing and liminal spaces, I like to talk about Anne Rice. Lestat has been real for her in some way that I could try to explain or analyze for you, but that wouldn’t be very effectively. We’d digress into a critique of the work (“she may be channeling a real 300-year-old vampire, but he still needs a damn editor”) or, more unfortunately for the point I’m slowly getting to, an analysis of her mental health. The point is Anne Rice wrote some books about a vampire and she’s described the experience in interviews as him dictating his words to her; she has described the time she spends with him; she has described him as a real and true thing.

I read Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat as a tween and young teen, and they were books that meant a tremendous amount to me. They said that my intense emotionality, and my intense sentimentality, were not, as my parents reasonably frustrated by an odd and artistic teen girl said, lies. They were not manipulations. They were just how I experienced the world. So Lestat wasn’t just Anne Rice’s friend, he was mine too. Before I told other people to be grand, I would lay in bed at night and feel Lestat’s fingers brushing the hair from my face as he whispered to me to never, ever let anyone shut me up. He’s been gone from me for decades now, but I always remember my friends.

The thing about the liminal world, at least for me, is that it’s not a space defined by the things it represents a border between. It is not about whether Anne Rice channels a 300-year-old vampire or not. It is not about either/or. Rather, the liminal world is, as far as I can tell, the country of yes.

It is the place where when people ask if I am a boy or a girl, I can say yes. It is the place where when I fly alone I am still squeezing someone’s hand when the plane takes off. It is the place where I don’t dress up in certain costumes at cons anymore because the wounds I bear in those other lives have become too private. It is the place where I can feel the absence of people who never were. It is the place where I do not always remember, or have to remember, to speak in the third person about characters I’ve played on stage or written in stories. It is the place where my hand gestures shift when I’ve spent days deep in something I’m writing in a way that tells my friends I am not just me. It is a place of signs and signifiers that leads us, not back out of the mists, but further in, to whatever the mists are guarding.

Without the liminal world, time runs in order, stories only happen to other people, and I struggle, desperately, to be here now as fantasy and personal narrative threaten to call me away from stuff like work and laundry and remembering to eat dinner. But the liminal world, no matter how disconcerting or how much it seems like just play to folks that don’t also have this particular experience of desire, allows me to be present, both here and in the other spaces I have used to build myself.

The liminal world allows me to say yes and to slay dragons and not to fail at being a girl or a boy or a hero or a villain, because in the liminal space which is here and now and far away, I am only one thing, and it small and perfect, and it is yes.

(The good kind of) trash day

West Wing fans and wonks all know that Friday is take-out-the-trash day. While none of the below is trash (quite the opposite really), they’re all items that have been prettily littering my desktop that aren’t going to get a full post from me because I’m short on time, words, or possibly both. However, I still want to blog them, and imagine they’ll hold some interest or appeal for you.

My good buddy and spec fic author Christian A. Young has launched a project called Hold Something. For a small monthly fee, you can get a story and images in the mail. You know, stuff you can touch in a world that’s more and more just bits and bytes. One of the awesome potentials of the Internet for artists is the removal of the middleman. That means both that you can be a patron of the arts for less and more artists can get paid for their work.

Lesley Hastings is a friend from fandom and has just published a novella, an M/M romance called The Dream Catcher. I haven’t read it yet, but congratulations are still in order.

Performance artist Justin Bond has written an essay to tell us about v’s name change, preferred prefix and other gender-identity related information. V’s the new pronoun. But it’s really the new prefix for which I link you: Mx. It’s bloody brilliant. As someone who is very, very uncomfortable with the Mr./Ms./Miss./Mrs. choices for both political and accuracy reasons, I am in love with Mx.

In my stats reports I see people keep clicking on my Palatine Crescent link. But I know when you get there you are discovering that there’s no there there. It’s the web page for the work I do with my previously mentioned writing partner Kali. I promise to throw up a placeholder soon. Right now we’re feeling a little more pressed on both our novel and a couple of treatments and a screenplay before I hit LA next month (full disclosure: that trip’s mostly to geek out a Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One, but it’s also the launch for Whedonistas and I’m planning to be doing a little bit of business in town too).

Meanwhile, A chemical in women’s tears dampens male desire, according to a New York Times article about a research study. The article is less offensive than you might initially imagine from this description, and, despite my including it in trash day, I may eventually get to writing something about men, women, tears and our new Speaker of the House.

Finally, no word from Patty yet, but hopefully she’s enjoying Gujarat. I don’t know a lot, but I do know that at least it’s not snowing there.

Buffy, Angel, and a whole bucketload of spoilers

At least a year after we started, Patty and I finally finished watching Buffy and Angel. For her, it was a rewatch; for me it was a first time thing brought on both by the scholarly work I’ve been doing on mourning for fictional characters and a desire to understand more about the stuff she loves.

What a ride. As she predicted embarking on this thing, I’m more of an Angel person (even if I really hate the season of demon pregnancy incest whining) and she’s more of a Buffy person. It’s easy to say that’s about me liking the darkness of Angel or her being a teen girl when she first saw Buffy, and those things aren’t untrue, but on my side of the aisle it also has something to do with a sense of intimidation I feel in the face of the women — good looking, feminine and more popular than they think they are — of Buffy, which is something I write a bit about in the forthcoming Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. Aside from being glad to be include because, Hey, writing about stuff! for money! Yay!, it means a lot to me to have my perspective included there both as a queer woman and a genderqueer person.

Early on in our watch, the Internet warned me: You’re going to love Wesley. You’re going to identify with Wesley. And it’s going to break your heart. I entered the shows with my teeth grit for that reason alone. I didn’t necessarily want the burden of anyone else’s stories right then; the journeys I’d been on as a fan and at least tangentally-related pro with Harry Potter and Torchwood had been exhausting and personal enough. There are only so many broken boys with strange codes of personal honor this heart can house.

Luckily, Buffy-era Wesley turned out to be a buffoon, and I was more worried that I was Spike and his obsession with the word effulgent (which you have to admit is great fun to say). Last night I cried when Spike got the reception he always deserved if not in talent, then in desire and ambition, for his poetry. And when Wesley just did the work — not because he maybe had nothing left to live for, but because the work is what he knows how to do well and with passion better than anything (he’s not a man with hobbies) — I just nodded.

Yup, that’s right, I don’t believe Wesley went into Angel’s grand plan at the end because he had nothing to live for. And it’s not just that he sort of liked Illyria in her own right (actually, can we talk about the her for a minute? Ilyria is describes itself as “godking of the universe” and inhabits a female body. It was, for me, daring and compelling stuff about gender, that I wish the show had had time and inclination to go farther with; Ilyria isn’t female. It’s not male. And it’s not sexless.); it’s that when Angel asks everyone if they are in on his suicidal mission the camera lingers on Wesley and his face seems to say I can survive this; I’ve survived so much else. It’s remarkable to me. Where I expected the smile of someone ready to die in the way that we so often see in these hero narratives, there was the smile of someone who was somehow, in spite of everything, ready to live. And then he volunteers anyway.

It was an absolute punch in my gut.

The last episode of Angel is sort of a mess because the season had to be wrapped up so quickly. It’s not, strictly speaking, emotionally satisfying, but it has a glorious symmetry. In the last shot and line we are told that this whole grand story — of heroes and watchers and vampires and desperation and of small people trying to do great things in an uncaring-if-you’re-lucky universe — is about to start all over again. As it always does and always will.

I won’t tell you the last lines of my piece for Whedonistas, but I will tell you that I am, having finally seen the end of Angel, remarkably satisfied and a just little bit startled by my essay’s conclusion. I managed to nail the thing I hadn’t seen yet; time is, it seems, always out of order.

And Wesley? I didn’t cry for him. But I sure felt like his brother there for a while.

romanticism and the DADT repeal

The DADT repeal got signed yesterday, and the rhetoric around it, which I mostly agree with, tells us this is a good thing. The hope, of course, is that a country willing to let me die for it, might soon be willing to let me live for it and so go on to pass things like ENDA and DoMA. On the other hand, getting excited about the opportunity to go to war – which, lest we forget, is generally an endeavor that involves killing people – is a fairly uncomfortable idea.

It’s also a romantic one, and as a people whose government arguably does not wish us to love and whose pop-culture paints us too often as weak or ugly, it’s pretty easy to see why queer people might be inclined to romanticize violence and uniforms.

Of course, romanticizing war isn’t something that’s limited to queer people in the throes of a civil rights victory. For a lot of writers, it’s practically a job requirement, which is what’s got me thinking about Arkady.

Arkady’s the main character in the novel Kali and I are writing. It doesn’t have a name yet, but we call it Unbanked in our work on it, due to our having realized that the best way we could solve a major world-building problem we were having was to use the European banking crisis as a metaphor.

It’s a difficult book. It’s about ambition, antiheroes and colonialism. It’s about people doing horrible things for what are really perfectly reasonable reasons. It’s also about love and war and magic. And it’s very, very queer.

In Arkady’s world, everything and everyone is a game of allies. And the rules of taking lovers, particularly of the same sex, are as complex and as formal as those for heterosexual marriage in this book. One doesn’t replace the other in Arkady’s world; in his world, families accumulate and extend through desire. Which isn’t a fantastic deal for a low-born, obscenely-talented scholarship boy with incredibly wealthy and dangerous friends who don’t make the best choices when it comes to self-preservation.

About 40% of the way through the book, after a precipitating hideous event about which I will not tell you at present, Arkady is forced to ask the people he loves most in the world to buy him a commission in the army so he can leave their sides and go on an adventure that may uncover the one piece of information that will allow them to extricate themselves from the political and magical morass in which they’ve embroiled themselves.

All of which means, Kali and I spend a lot of time talking about regiments of an army of a country that never existed stationed on a front at a colony that never was and how someone gifted and sharp grows into a man who is ruthless and calm by trying to hold things together at the muddy edge of his known world.

It’s a hard journey to write without romance, and it’s not one we’d want to write without romance. But it must be just the right sort of romance. As writers, we must be cautious where Arkady is not, where his lovers are not, where his charges are not, where the woman he effectively requisitions from her family to be his field secretary is not (and lest you think this is just a story about men, it is not; she is awesome and not the love interest).

It’s hard work. But it’s also pleasurable. It’s an indulgence. And sometimes, to be frank, that worries me. Other times, I feel like we’re getting it just right.

In the wake of the DADT repeal, I keep thinking about is something a Tumblr blogger who said the other day: “The military is full of poor people, and people of color. Now it gets to be full of queer people too. And you wonder why i’m sad today?”

That quote pulled me back down to a certain reality – as a queer person, as an activist, and as a writer. What will legalized open military service mean ultimately to LGB people (remember, no T here; trans people received no positive benefit from the DADT repeal) both individually and collectively? Will we use the military or will it use us?

Kali and I know everything about Arkady’s journey. We know what his service does to him. But we haven’t philosophically decided if that means he uses or is used.

Arkady’s a character I have a lot of love for, and the things he has to sacrifice are weighing heavily on my mind tonight. When other avenues of perspective fail me, Arkady has a habit of reminding me that stories are powerful, dangerous things, and that’s true of any through-line, assembled from fact or from fiction.

So the DADT repeal is great symbolism. It will also be a huge good in the lives of a great many LGB people who have served and continue to serve with honor, fortitude and courage and have suffered significantly and needlessly under the complete absurdity of DADT.

But I do wonder, I must wonder – simply because I make up stories to breathe – whether in the long term, in the balance of things, we will use this or be used by it.

The repeal of DADT deserves celebration. But it also deserves solemnity. And questioning.