Thursday, 18 September 2008

Instant Me

Supercool, super fast. Oh my, we can do anything, in an instant. Need a flight? Buy one on your mobile on the way to the airport. Need to hear the decision from your board meeting, need to know the results of the FA Cup final? Receive a text in the desert, the jungle, half way up a mountain. We’re free to buy last minute, free to communicate, free to surf, explore and do more than ever before. But what’s happened to Time? Doing more than ever before means being expected to do more. How many hours are you working? And what’s your workload like today/this week/this year?

Once upon a time, dear Readers, bus and train journeys were a time to sit on the bus or train. Read perhaps. Talk maybe. Sleep, think, dream… Holidays used to mean not working. That used to be the point of them. People couldn’t get hold of you so they had to wait. That hard bit of plastic in your pocket tracks you everywhere. That symbol of freedom can be as restricting as a curfew tag bleeping at you anytime you go so far as to relax.

I’m really feeling this just now. As director of a festival happening end of October (York Lesbian Arts Festival 23-26 October, I’m especially busy. A new phrase is popping into my vocabulary: Time Poor. “I’m time poor” I apologetically tell my good friends patiently trying to get a date where they can talk and laugh and eat and share fun times with me. “I’m time poor.” I tell my Reflexologist, ironically trying to book a session to reduce stress. Trying to fit it into my diary sends my stress levels through the roof.

I have a totally unrealistic expectation of what I can do in a day. And when I’m pushed I do that to myself day after day after day. Because you see, I can do so much, and all from home. I can book, change, rearrange, program, typeset, proof-read, do a deal, all with my tiny plastic phone and my thin as air laptop. Woohoo! Digital me, instant me, exhausted me, failing me – failing to do the work of three people. And still not getting it: It’s all so fast…why can’t I do that and that and hey where’s the day gone?

Most children have time, most elders have time, and in between most of us work like drones. Unless you’re blessed I’m guessing you’re working long, hard hours, maybe a little down time, and then you sleep… Are your working conditions really any better than the miners, chimney sweeps and match-girls of the 19th century? Or labourers in Elizabethan times. Do you have better rights? Can you tell your boss the list of tasks they’ve just given you is unrealistic? Or worse, are you, somewhat like me, your own jailor?
One of the reasons different religions have rules about what can and can’t be done on the Sabbath and holy days is so people weren’t forced to work in times when folks also worked 24/7. Worshipping was a legitimate reason to stop. A child needs time to learn and play and grow, and so do you and me…

We make the world we live in. This wonderful technology can be harnessed to make life sweeter, and we must take charge of it. Put the brake on. Be the boss of you.

Monday, 4 August 2008

On Vacation

For a boi who sometime passes summertime brings a different wardrobe, and with it, different dilemmas. I like to look crisp when I travel. I find a jacket, shirt and jeans offset the ridiculousness of having to balance a plastic tray on my knees and eat plastic food with plastic cutlery. When I arrive after a long, cramped journey I don’t want to look like I’ve just popped out to take the dog for a walk in the worst and most unfashionable clothes I could find screwed up at the back of my wardrobe. In luggage collection areas I find myself peering disdainfully at other British male persons while thinking: “There is no occasion that can justify the combination of long shorts and a polo shirt.”

On the other hand, hot, beach destinations do cry out for vests, shorts and swim wear. All of which reveal a lot of flesh. For a sometime passing boi like me, when I strip down, the truth really is out there. Take my recent vacation for example: due to a mix-up and a gross trades description violation the Meet & Greet service neither met nor gret, leaving me to keep going round the block at Gatwick Airport and my good lady wife heading inside to “hold a place in the queue. Now I in her shoes, would be a most peculiar sight, but also would content myself with an occasional smile and perhaps a quip or two about the progress of the queue. My wife, on the other hand, who could chat amiably for England (and in fact may enter that category for the 2012 Olympics where she will most certainly be going for gold). My wife shared our predicament with her queue neighbours and was roundly teased about being stood up. I breezed through the queue in my jacket, shirt and jeans to knowing smiles and general pre-holiday joviality. As we made our way through the now familiar shoe-removing security my wife shared how everyone had assumed I was male. I’m not especially trying to fool anyone, you understand. But once I’m assumed male at what point do I come out that I’m not a bio but a boi? My lovely lady is drawn into this dilemma whether she wants to be or not as people make assumptions about her when they make assumptions about me. She becomes straight when I become bio.

I don’t set out to pass. There’s a moment when some folks realise I’m bio female and sometimes that moment is unpleasant. Every once in a while it’s dangerous. So I fret about it a little. Even in pleasant conversation a part of me is grey with bleak anticipation. Even as I’m telling myself to just be who I am, that natural, human, humble self is sure I won’t be liked if only they knew… And yet, I also feel in my heart, only if they and all the world know, only by me being out as butch, as masculine bio female, only by truly being myself will prejudice be challenged and people just damned get used to me, us, difference.

We were both aware of this irony on the evening of our arrival at recent holiday destination. It was a tiring and cramped journey and a ridiculous checking-in procedure but the bar was open and the caipirinhas were going down nicely. We were joined by Deni’s former queue neighbours and both the conversation and pronouns were flowing. The chap is referring to me as ‘he’ while Deni calls me ‘she’: so he’s heeing and she’s sheing and I’m thinking: “Geezer, you’re in for a poolside surprise.” Cos when a butch is standing before you in a bikini there’s nowhere to hide. Ironically we didn’t see this couple for almost a week. We did then meet by the pool but just after the clouds had covered the sky and I had covered my bikini top with a t shirt. I was wearing trunks, which were as flat fronted as a Georgian house, but chap didn’t seem any the wiser. For some people, even when the truth is staring you full in the loin area, folks will see what they wanna see.

Friday, 4 July 2008

On Kissing Girls

Like Katy Perry I too have kissed a girl and liked it. I make a point of doing it regularly to make sure I still like it. And I do. I get a special charge out of kissing femme girls, of course, and therefore can identify with Katy about the taste of cherry chapstick. I have tasted cherry, strawberry, raspberry and I believe grape chapstick on the lips of femme girls, and many types of lipgloss too, which I can report are largely flavourless. Unlike girls’ lips. They taste pretty damn good.

But I digress…Suddenly hearing lyrics I could (kinda) relate to blasting from my car tuner was a pleasant surprise. I listened with interest to the story of the bi-curious girl who wanted to do what good girls don’t do (kiss a girl). It reminded me of early film and tv ventures into the wonderful world of Gays. A story told from a straight perspective about ‘trying’ and occasionally discovering homosexuality. A gentle foray into a mysterious world, which is actually only mysterious to the general public because our life is not often represented in song, story or saga.

Why are gays so invisible in chart song lyrics? We’ve made it vaguely into stage, tv and film but chart lyrics are the last arena where you could be forgiven for thinking everyone is straight. Tatu got people excited in 2003 with ‘All the things she said’, but could I just mention: 2003 is five years ago. Before that I’m struggling think of any gay lyrics: its been decades since Tom Robinson was Glad to be Gay and Frankie told us to Relax. There are as few Out musicians as there are actors Out in Hollywood: Melissa Etheridge, KD Lang, George Michael, the Pet Shop Boys, Beth Ditto…comments please if you know of people and tunes I don’t.

Prejudice runs deep, deeper than the concept that most of the world is straight and therefore all songs and stories should be. If the statistics of what we see and hear were accurately reflecting the number of gay consumers there would be one and a half gays and they would be living in North Acton on a Sunday in March. Lots of people have kissed, its not especially thrilling if its two girls, two boys or a boy and a girl and a hairdresser from Wembley. What is cool is everybody getting to experience themselves reflected.

Is it ungrateful and cynical to view each advance as a marker of how far we still have to go? I hope and trust this tune is a sign we’re moving towards real equality. With London Pride one day away, I’m feeling the importance of being Out. By being ourselves the rest of the world has the opportunity to get used to us. We stop being mysterious, forbidden fruits. Our visibility increases and, as special as we individually are, being gay becomes something very ordinary.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Planet Human

I read last week that a proposed wind turbine station in Scotland has been rejected to protect endangered birds in the region being killed by the turbine rotors. An irony not lost on the 70% of local residents campaigning against the turbine station. The UK is currently planning (by 2010) to meet a fifth of the UK’s power needs by wind power. This is despite theories (cited five years ago by the then energy minister) that wind could power Britain’s energy needs three times over. It seems the hot air and promises whistling through the corridors at Westminster are empowering political individuals, rather than our collective needs.
Protecting other species from human activity including greenhouse gases is not only decent but will ensure our own survival. All things on earth are interconnected from the air we breathe to the grass, the earth, the sand or the rock beneath our feet. Each and every day we rely on insects, plants, animals and trees to do their thing and thereby make our lives possible by say pollinating our crops or exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. In truth, regardless of our technology and machines, we need other species. Why then does the human race so often behave like Ancient Greek gods wrecking devastation in one place while protecting a plant here or an animal there? Its good to ensure birds don’t get dragged into turbine rotors. It’s also good to protect birds from being sucked into jet engines and to stop the daily carnage of animals and birds along our roadsides. As we are so technologically advanced and so damned clever at inventing things I’m sure there’s a lot more we could be doing.
Does it come down to economics, often cited as the reason why more sustainable sources of fuel aren’t used, or why we don’t recycle more, or why animals aren’t protected from traffic? Or is it more a question of how collective wealth from taxation is spent? My shopping bill’s higher when I buy organic, fairtrade and free-range but I figure I’m saving in the long run – saving my health and safe-guarding the future of this planet. It’s about having a caring connected lifestyle. I don’t want plants and animals to disappear. Every time we lose a species we’re all poorer. A part of the network that informs all of our lives is gone. Let’s turn our beautiful creative minds to making this planet hospitable to all.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Gender Neutral?

Hurray for the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. If I wasn’t already happily civilly partnered I’d marry them. And why – they introduced Gender-Neutral toilets at the BFI for the duration of the festival. This single radical act transformed my experience of the festival. Using the GN convenience I felt the weight of Gender Neutral. I normally feel so very not in the right space, whether using the Ladies, the Gents or Babychange/Disabled toilets. At the festival finally I was right where I should be.

Single acts inform changes that transform lives. The BFI provided all the usual facilities: gender segregated and unisex disabled spaces, in addition they TRANSformed one of the women’s toilets to Gender Non-Specific. (Transforming the Gents would mean women having to walk past urinals in use and women after all are used to the privacy of a cubical). Gender Neutral is not a new issue for the LBGT communities and its right such a forward thinking act should happen at the LLGFF. When lesbians take over spaces women use the mens and Trans girls slap on the slap alongside femmes in the Ladies. It’s a Gay thing.

Binary gender locks people into boxes defined by their biology. Segregated toilets provide safety for women, and it’s likely women-only conveniences will be needed for the foreseeable future. For those of us not passing, the pain and anxiety of being challenged in our own bio gender designated space is a daily burden. I can be needing the toilet and be too intimidated or just plain too tired to run the gauntlet of the straight world’s confusion and disgust.

The gay world has always pushed beyond binary gender stereotypes. Women and men can be masculine, feminine or varying degrees of inbetweenee, and most of us love us all, wherever we are on a gender scale. It’s the beloved exchange of culture and perspective that rocks my world. It’s hard to imagine then that anyone gay would question such progressive thinking, like the Guardian columnist who questioned why ‘transgender folk need a gender neutral loo at a gay film festival’. Where in the Guardian was the voice of transpeople, butches and all the dykes I spoke to who loved the GN toilets? And where was the reporting on the rest of the festival? It’s no accident that the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival organisers were the festival organisers that pioneered Gender Neutral toilets at the BFI. Ironically it was assumed the Gay communities would be on board.

At the film festival’s closing gala this uninformed column was widely talked about. And that’s a good thing. So many more people will now hear about the BFI’s progressive action. Maybe that’s the most beautiful thing of all.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Week of Contrasts

Nought so queer as folk, huh? This correspondent has to report a week of contrasts. It kicked off with the Dirty Red Ball. I enjoyed the different rooms, the great styling & set design/art direction, I loved the chilled out people attending. Clearly a lot of thought and attention had gone into the event. Shame that this boi had a bit of bad luck with the bio security. Shortly after arrival, for the first time in my life I was stopped from going in the Gents. I was packing, I was at the DRB, there was a ridiculously long queue for the women’s. “How do you know I’m not trans?” I enquired of the gentleman barring my way, to which he remarked: “Huh?” There was a pause while we looked at each other, me thinking: Hang on, this is a gay event, isn’t it? I repeated my question, and he asked: “What are you?” I told him I was butch and he decided I should use the women’s. Hmm….hadn’t realised security guys get to define gender these days… Gay space was the one space I thought was my space.
In the long queue for the women’s I had plenty of time to mull over the times I’ve been frogmarched to the Gents by similar security guys…am I getting more feminine or are security getting more clued-up? Perhaps if I had facial hair…I wondered, while women powdered their cleavage and acquaintances hello-oed me in varying degrees of dirty red and filthy rich dress code. BTW, what is the etiquette when bumping into a colleague in their underwear? Are you supposed to look or not?

I had another unfortunate experience with bio security an hour or so later. The guys were having to hold people back from the Cabaret room. It was crowded in there thanks to Miss Bijou Noir getting busy behind a couple of enormous feather fans. Once I’d cottoned on I wasn’t being held in a queue for the cloakroom and the boys were just doing their job I didn’t mind the wait. I did mind the sixth time I was called Sweetheart and Darling by one of the bios. Gentlemen: let me give you some advice that could sweeten your life, darling: Check the masculinity – check your language and check the attitude. I make a point of being reasonable – that’s the kind of world I want to live in. But boy I’ll bristle right quick if a bio calls me darlin. And, gents, its not just the bois who hate it. A fine femme friend of mine was being held in the same queue. Neither did she like being called sweetheart or darling. My own south London family use darling and sweetheart, and I appreciate they’re words of cultural expression. Actually I find them very endearing when spoken by people who know me. Shame then they are so damn PATRONISING when you don’t.
This lack of awareness from 2 individuals in a queer/queer-friendly space was an eye-opener. Quess I just didn’t feel at home…

Contrast this oh so London behaviour with the glorious trip I went on a day later to Cornwall. Stopping at a supermarket to stock up before heading out to a log cabin on the edge of a lake, in the heart of a forest (ohhh, let me just remember the bliss for a moment………….ok, back with you). We were 2 bois, 2 gorgeous femmes and we all rocked up to the checkout to cause multiple confusion. We had food items and one or 2 bottles of alcoholic beverage. The warm and lovely cashier welcomed us to Cornwall, and was asking about our trip. When the wine glided under her fingertips she stopped and very seriously asked us who would be paying for the alcohol.
“Big daddy here.” Said my butch bud clapping me on the back and causing me some embarrassment as we were in the land of straight and also I don’t daddy up as s/he well knows.
“Oh…” said lovely cashier lady. “I’m afraid I will have to see some ID.”
My femme wife laughed. Oh how she laughed. “That’s very kind of you to say.” She chortled.
Cashier Lady looked strangely at my wife, prompting her to say: “You don’t really think we’re under age, do you?”
Cashier Lady nodded slowly, just as my butch bud queried the large melon rolling through the scanner. “Your wife put it on.” I told my bud, causing Cashier Lady to glance quickly from me to my bud to my femme friend to my wife and rest on me. “Have a lovely stay in Cornwall.” She said warmly. Kinda made me wanna stay.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Straddling Gender

What is Butch and why? Why does it matter if a girl is a bit of a tomboy? Who cares if a woman is a bit of a man? Other people’s reactions to me have gone a long way to define my identity. For me, butch is a Gender. It’s not something I’ve adopted, its something I am. When I was an itty-bitty true baby butch I was mistaken for a boy and if they didn’t know better, told people my name was John. I remember the day my best friend’s older sister told me I really shouldn’t be kissing girls. Still in primary school, that was the day I knew I wasn’t a boy.
Unfortunately, I did stop kissing girls all the way through secondary school. Fortunately, after a brief heterosexual phase, I realised I really should be kissing girls, and boy their kisses were sweet. When I came out lesbians were political. I cut my short hair shorter and once more the world embraced my masculinity. Political lesbians didn’t. They thought it was homophobic people called me Sir. I remember the day a lesbian feminist called me Butch. She meant it as an insult… “Why do you want to be like a man?” She asked. I didn’t understand. I hadn’t done anything mannish. All I’d done was lift a box and walk across the floor. I may have drunk a pint of beer before that, I don’t remember.
In my lesbian community butch wasn’t a good thing. I was part of it too. I internalised that butchophobia. It was ok to look butch, as long as that was called looking dykey. I was never in dresses, always in jeans. Wearing suits, ties, walking and lifting like a man…all the while refusing to accept the identity. My femme girlfriends were so hot, so gorgeous, so un-ID-ed. (I’ll skip over the two butch girlfriends, that’s for another column). We danced the butch-femme dance in lesbian hotspots all over (once my girlfriend had managed to get in). I loved their femininity, thought it daring they wore make-up. I believed a woman should wear what she wanted, and I accepted my femme girls wearing their hot femme clothes for themselves. I knew they didn’t wear them for men.
When I came out it was like waking up to a new world. One full of promise and adventure. When I acknowledged I am butch, it was like coming home. Thanks to the courage and insight of butches and femmes before me I finally got it. Thanks to Leslie Feinburg, Joan Nestle, Lesléa Newman, Rhon & Chris of thanks to Marïjke & Mel, I formed the word butch inside my head until it passed my lips. (This is in no way supposed to be an extensive list of butch-femme artists & activists, just those who’ve influenced me). This name for what I am made sense of my daily experience. I remember the day I told my long-term butch bud: “You’re right, I am butch.” S/he said “How comes you’re the last to know?”
Words are both medicine and weapons. If I can make a difference to one fledgling butch or femme by exploring my identity in words then the time I spend doing it is golden. This is my debt to repay, and I repay with all my heart. I know I’m butch because I never tried to be. Although I’m blessed to know more femmes and butches than when I acknowledged myself, my gender is still not widely accepted by either the straight or the gay communities. Straddling gender, I neither apologise or boast for being as butch as a diesel dyke. I just am.