I lived in Philly from 1982 through 1988. I moved here newly sober, with my third wife. I moved here less than a year after having left 12 years of 24/7 service to the Church of Scientology. I was diagnosed with PTSD and Anorexia. I was starving myself so I could pass as a girl, and there was no one to tell any of this to. There was no language, no theory, no way to analyze the intersecting madnesses of my life.
In 1986 and 1987, I marched in Washington side by side with women holding up signs that read Biology Is Not Destiny and Keep Your Laws Of My Body. I was a brand new baby dyke, and I was into goddess culture, crystal healing, and feminist theater.
Before pledging my allegiance L. Ron Hubbard, the only skill I’d learned was acting: I knew how to make people laugh, gasp, and cry. But I never knew what value that had in the world. I was a soldier of the arts, at the beck and call of no political movement that had included a freak like me. I’d left graduate school after my first year, and I went out looking to see where I might be of value. Within three months, I’d found Scientology. Twelve years later I left Scientology. Five years after that, I was co-founding a lesbian theater here in town. We called it Order Before Midnight—because that sounded somewhat goddess-y and militant, even though it was just the catchphrase from a late night television Billy Mays commercial for Ginsu Blades: But wait! If you order before midnight, we’ll send you another 78 piece set absolutely free! Order before midnight. Well, our theater company produced plays by lesbian playwright Jane Chambers. We made people laugh, gasp, and cry. Nonetheless, I was only the second out transsexual woman in the Philly lesbian community for over seven years, and the first one had made a real mess of things when she tried to take over the leadership role in the local lesbian community.
Mine was not a trustworthy identity in the lesbian community, in the women’s community. I was accepted on a trial basis. I had no language, no theory, no way to analyze the brand-new intersecting desires and identities. I couldn’t describe myself to anyone.
Lesbians were telling me I wasn’t a woman, not a real one. I had male energy, they said. I had male privilege. I agreed with them. I didn’t feel successful at being girl back then, I didn’t have a way to say what kind of girl or woman I wanted to be. I was one year old and I behaved like a one year old. I left this campsite dirtier than when I found it, and I didn’t know how to say that back then. Over the last twenty years, I’ve discussed with my therapists the possibility of me being a borderline personality. We were all pretty sure I was mildly bipolar—if such a thing is possible. All this to say I was a scared, lonely thing at the end of my stay in town. I had no language, no theory, no way to analyze my obsessive mindful reconstruction of my identity, my desire, and my power.
I was living in Philadelphia when I attended my first ever academic conference: The Women In Theatre caucus of American Theatre in Higher Education. I’d just gone through with my gender change surgery. I’d been living as a woman for a full year. I’d been unwelcome in the Women’s movement, and the lesbian movement. I didn’t match up, and I didn’t have language to describe my identity to anyone else. I couldn’t find any other people like me because I couldn’t describe myself well enough to find a community, a tribe of gender transgressors. There were no words for that in the late 1980s. The words were hegemony, patriarchy, deconstruction, signifier, and the male gaze. I was viewed as the patriarchy in sheep’s clothing. I fell back on theater, on what I could do best: I could make people laugh and I could make people cry. I knew I was acting, living as though I was a woman. To communicate that, I performed three monologues from three different roles I’d played: as a man, as a drag queen, and as a woman. This was the language I had available.
Since then, I’ve forged productive alliances with the world of women’s academic theater. We help each other with language, theory, and analysis.
OK, I’ve said a mouthful. But I can say all of this to you, because you know how to peel apart these very dense facts of my life. This is after all a Consortium of Women’s and Gender Studies. You weren’t here twenty-one years ago when I was spinning out of control with obsessive self-analysis. So returning here to keynote your shindig this afternoon leaves my jaw hanging slack with wonder at how much you have accomplished over the last two decades or so. Bless you for the great good work you do in giving your students and your colleagues the gifts of language, theory, and feminist analysis. I’ve been in town four days now, and I’ve been to now seven of your campuses, and everywhere I went, I saw hope for the future of gender and sexuality as it plays itself out on the leading edge of radical lefty politics. You made this space possible.
What began as a purely academic theory is now the heartbeat of a vibrant counter-culture beyond the wall of the academy. The students who’ve been studying feminism and postmodern gender theory for the past twenty years are now coming into their power, and they will continue to rely on your support for language, theory and analysis. I’m asking you for help in building bridges through a carefully deconstructing, unpacking and ultimately dismantling the binaries of theory versus practical, and secular versus spiritual.
There are hundreds of activist groups out in the world whose focus is the sex and gender matrix. For example, there are queer activists out there who are inventing language to communicate their rage. They’re using the words cisgender, cissexual, and cis-people to name who they’re calling oppressors: most of you who were born and assigned a gender and it worked for you. There’s a radical fringe trans activist movement who names you as our oppressor. Did you know that?
And there’s a rebirth of feminist analysis of misogyny directed at transwomen. There are internecine wars over power. On one side, there’s the established, well-funded self-proclaimed LsGsBs and Ts who want nothing more than gay marriage, joint stock certificates, and Gay Day at Disneyland. On the other side is the counter-culture that you’ve been teaching for the past twenty years. We are out there now, and we need your help just like we’ve always needed it.
Please, analyze us, find a language for what it is we’re doing. Please find the cultural matrix that not only includes transgender people, but also all sex positivists and gender anarchists. And here’s a partial list of ‘em:
L for Lesbian
G for Gay
B for Bisexual
T for Transgender
Q for Queer
F for Feminists
F for Furries
F for Femme
Q for Questioning
A for Asexual
A for Adult Entertainers
S for Sadomasochists
S for Sex Workers
S for Swingers
D for Drag Queens
D for Drag Kings
D for DragFuck Royalty
I for Intersex
B for ButchM for MSM
W for WSW
G for Genderqueer
T for Two Spirit
K for Kinky
P for Pornographers
P for Pansexual
P for Polyamory
H for Queer Heterosexual
ETC for et cetera
AI for ad infinitum
AI for queer Artificial Intelligence
And lastly, a W for women.
I’ve run all those letters through half a dozen anagram machines, and nothing of any use showed up. All I know is that these are identities that are somehow primarily based in gender anarchy and sex positivity, so we could call this new emergent sub-culture G-A-S-P, gasp! Here’s a challenge for you, if it intrigues you: as a movement, we must locate and articulate the common thread of all these emerging outlaw identities.
I wrote Gender Outlaw almost a quarter of a century ago. During my visit here to Philly, someone reminded me that I had triaged gender activism and found the group most routinely and massively wounded by the bipolar gender system is women. I’m so very sad to say that hasn’t changed. In addition to addressing their own immediate needs, any sex/gender movement needs dedicate a large percentage of their time and resources to ending the violence against women.
The leaders of all the new groups which form an activism capable of dismantling and reconstructing the sex/gender matrix need your help. Please, reach out beyond your classrooms. Continue to encourage those kids you’ve been teaching. Please keep in touch with the students who bowled you over they did so well. They’re out on the front lines now. You discover and perform the academic equivalent to baking them cookies and knitting scarves for them. They need you.
In closing, I want to locate us politically: The false binary of the left and right wings of American government are in the process of imploding, deconstructing themselves. The right-wing looks like the Wicked Witch of the West at the end of Wizard of Oz. They’re melting, they’re melting! The left wing hasn’t managed to stop itself from chasing it’s own politically correct tail. A viable third party is forming with the name Conservatives. They are not conservative. They are radical right win. We need a vocal radical left wing to counter that movement and let the current system shift itself into something more healthy than what we’ve had for the past forty years. The last person I know of who was uniting the left wing was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. He had God on his side. So here’s another challenge for ya:
Today’s students need to hear from you about God, goddess, human spirit, higher power of whatever kind. I’m not asking you to preach any particular religion or spiritual path, but I beg of you: please at least build an on-ramp to spirituality from the academic super highway you’ve now got.
The radical right wing is daily battering the culture with its message of anything-but-Christian hatred, greed, and arrogance. As Women & Gender Studies scholars, I’m asking you to work even more closely together with feminist religious scholars to articulate for a cosmology and ethic of feminist spirituality that includes sex positivists and gender anarchists.
I have one more favor to ask you: please can we talk more about sex? Can we teach more about sex? May I beg the most radical of you to hook up with Planned Parenthood, COYOTE, and the legion of sex bloggers and sex educators that have mushroomed over the last two decades? They’re feminists and scholars too. Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen have PhDs in sexuality. Did you know that? They’re your colleagues.
In these scary days of political upheaval and rightwing backlash against sex/gender freedom, we need to be reminded that sex for any reason other than procreation is a political act. Please take this to heart, and pass it along to your students.
In closing, I’m going to tell you what I’m telling all my tribe and loved ones: please do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything, anything at all. Just don’t be mean.
Thank you for your great good work to date, and for your kind attention this afternoon.