Saturday, August 26, 2006

Our treasured stories

By Guest Columnist Genet

One of the things I most love about lesbians and gay people is our stories. We have a tradition of storytelling, from the groundbreaking "coming out" stories that were so powerful in the '70s and '80s, to the stories of Dyke Drama.

Straight people never want to hear our coming-out stories, nor do they ever ask us personal questions. Have you ever noticed this about straight people?

Since our history as lesbians is completely separate from the rest of the world's history, these stories take on a much more poignant aspect. I get quite cynical at times about what the world considers "important news." I get down right mean at times too; so mean that it would shock people.

I hate being forced to have emotional reactions to things I feel nothing for. As a lesbian I deeply resent having to look at straight people's wedding photos, for example. I hate it when straight women blather about "grandchildren." What a nightmare.

Which brings us to the topic of lesbian friendships. Our friends carry our memories.
If the world doesn't honor all our work as lesbian feminist activists, our friends remember all the workshops we went to, all the books we read, all the protests we showed up for, and all the potlucks we attended.

In the '80s, we had several women's retreats in San Francisco, and those stories get told and retold amongst my old friends. We even have our own Christmas stories, like the time Christmas Eve when a mentally unstable gay man had a chunk of plaster fall on him from the ceiling of a gay church. He yelled, "It's the devil, the devil's going to get me," and was genuinely terrified. Just another Christmas Eve in San Francisco. We all tried to comfort him.

Jesse was special. He had some mental illness, but there he was every Sunday saying, "Give me some sugar," a kiss and a hug. At our going away party, Jesse was the last to leave. He was desperately poor, but he managed to scrape together money to buy us two lovely blue and smoke colored cooking pots. We still have these gifts. Jesse died, probably of AIDS, and the funeral parlor conveniently "couldn't find" his insurance policy. They flat out cheated him out of burial money for a funeral. It was so awful; I have never been able to tell this story out loud. He's in my wedding album; he's smiling away in our goodbye photo album. His memory is alive every time I cook something in those pots!

We had heroic things to attend to too. Women on the verge of suicide, women in hospitals, and we'd all go to visit them. Once a senior vice president of a major bank helped find homes for two homeless women because they, too, were a part of our little lesbian community. Remember the parties we had where all women were welcome? That's right, once we were all together -- bank SVPs, homeless women, and everyone else in between. Now we are so class divided, and yet we seem not to notice.

Once, when I was going through a terrible period of unemployment, I got help from one of the least likely sources. For some reason, a woman who had multiple personality disorder, whom almost everyone shunned, reached out and helped me get a job. It changed my life and got me back on track. When we had a goodbye party, she stood next to me, and a tear from her eye fell on my right hand. It was an unforgettably tender moment. We had many friends back then, but Lisa was the one person who we maybe helped the most, and her grief at our leaving was tangible.

How many people really care about you? How often do we just shrug our shoulders when women leave town as if they didn't really matter at all? I think we often tune out the fact that straight people are so completely closed to our most personal and meaningful life experiences. They just don't give a damn. Of course, they deny this, they pretend to be liberally accepting, but it's not the same thing.

I rather suspect African-Americans feel this around white people all the time. We are so uninterested in African-American life and this is truly awful. I find the life of African-American struggle deeply meaningful because freedom to me is a tangible thing.

Every once in awhile, I am caught off guard just struck down by freedom in a visual form. I connect to this as a lesbian and it reminds me of the great lengths we have to go to achieve freedom from all the homophobic awfulness of the straight world that is a daily occurrence. Women tune out these slights all the time. We don't even know men all around us are treating us with condescension. We don't even know that the gender police (AKA straight women) are blowing their silent dog whistles every time we show up in classic lesbian attire. I am well acquainted with the socially hostile acts of straight women against lesbians, and I must admit, over the past year, I am finally (as they say in California) "getting in touch" with my explosive anger at straight women! That's right, you've been very, very bad Ms. Straight Woman!

One of those ah ha freedom moments came when I was channel surfing. I believe it was a CNN lecture by Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter that caught my attention. She was speaking about a book she had just written called, Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings 1619 to the Present.

What made the lecture extraordinary is that Prof. Painter illustrated her historical lecture with African-American art through the ages. One painting by Faith Ringgold was titled, We Came to America, 1997. It depicts the Statue of Liberty as a black woman, and her torch is burning a slave ship in the distance. The sea is filled with Africans celebrating their freedom by the thousands.

The painting hit hard. I almost started crying, because it got at my disenfranchisement as a lesbian in a classic American symbol. It made me realize how we as a lesbian people are being constantly written out of history. So this book is a must, because it is historical, it has fabulous art, and the idea of freedom is so powerfully illustrated in its pages. We need to see freedom in art so that we have a theme and variation on freedom's ring. One ringee dingee!

I like to read about how others got freedom, because the cause of lesbian freedom is invisible even today. Maybe that's why my friends' stories of my life are so important to me; only they really appreciate my life.

I'd like to see straight people actually sit down and listen and ask questions about our lesbian lives for once. I'd like to see them care when our attempts at marriage in San Francisco get so degraded and attacked by the straight press. Imagine if the religious right crashed your wedding party, for example. How would you feel about that? How would you feel if your family photo album was burned by right-wing ideologues? How would you feel if the president of the U.S. attacked your relationship? I have yet to have a straight friend acknowledge what is going on in America. No one said, "I am so sorry those right-wing idiots attacked your weddings in San Francisco," for example. Straight people said nothing at all to me about these events.

I don't think straight people have much idea of how our personal lives are so ignored and degraded, just as men don't realize how they always hog the spotlight and denigrate women's history.

This toxic hatred or blatant neglect by straight society often causes me to feel distantly contemptuous of straight people. I have a cynical contempt for all they hold sacred. Remember the wedding party that was blown to bits in Jordan by suicide bombers several months ago? The mainstream press was screaming in outrage over this desecration. Me, I was sitting back and thinking, "Oh, boo hoo, a straight wedding." If it had been a gay wedding, they would have celebrated, just as Fred Phelps showed up and attacked Matthew Shepard's funeral.

I could provide other examples of my smoldering contempt for straight sacred cows and occasions, but I believe my anger would be too much even for the blog world. Suffice it to say, that every straight person I have ever met, has really showed no interest in my life and times. Yet, they expect us to listen to them.

There isn't much change on a personal level. It's why you can have Mary Cheney flying on Air Force Two. All the while, the entire campaign goes on about the evils of gay and lesbian marriage. She can sit next to Rumsfeld and his wife and yet remain silent about the persecution of lesbians and gays in the military. One wonders what this might feel like emotionally.

When I saw the slave ship burned by the Statue of Liberty's torch, it was a stunning metaphysical moment. We can create a body of visual art that chronicles our road to freedom as lesbians. We can create spaces to tell our stories, and we can honor each and every personal story a lesbian cares to tell.

I am often in situations where lesbians talk to me, and I listen. Sometimes, I listen for hours as a 75-year-old lesbian tells me her life story, for example. You only get these windows of opportunity now and then. Be open to lesbian sacred storytelling, because when a lesbian tells you a story, it is sacred text more precious than Shakespeare, more real than the Bible, more holy than holy.

If you really want to aid the cause of liberation, I invite my straight readers to actually sit down and hear the stories of your gay and lesbian friends. You might try a sympathetic nod to their real lives. You might want to include them in the family album of America. You might want to be a little more careful the next time you whip out those dreadful baby pictures, because the next time that happens, I might just take a torch from Lady Liberty and burn them!

IMAGES: At the top, a graphic interpretation of Genet's story about Jesse as a book with pressed flower in loving memory. Second, Nell Irvin Painter's book, Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings 1619 to the Present. Last, artist Faith Ringgold's We Came to America, 1997, acrylic on canvas, painted and pieced border, 74.5 x 79.5", from the series, The American Collection, #1.