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The Case of Mr Frederick Park and Mr Ernest Boulton

As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer

Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.

So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….

But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;

‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’

(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)

Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:

‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’

Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)

It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.

You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.

This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.

McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:

Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.

It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..

References

McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]

Drag queens and space occupying scenes

In closing out LGBTQ+ history month, Luke Ward and I spoke at the UoN Psychology Society about our research on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Given the popularity of the series (especially now it is available on streaming service Netflix), it is likely that even if you are not a part of the LGBT+ community, you may have seen the show (or at least shared a meme or two).

The series Ru Paul’s Drag Race first began on LGBTQ+ network Logo TV, and over the past decade, has made the move from a niche and community oriented market, to a mass market phenomenon. This echoes the roots of drag, from the underground ballroom scene in 1980s New York, to the accessible (but not always affordable) drag shows and conventions that are available today. We have moved away from the underground to taking up more space – cis, straight, previously unavailable space – which has made drag something more lucrative than its initial inception.

It is within this commercialised region of drag that we see a shift in focus within the community. It is not just a symbol of resistance against societal norms of gender and sexuality, but it is also something of a commodity – something that to our (patriarchal) society, has become useful, in being able to sell products (literally – make up, drag queen merch) to a wider (mostly young, white, and straight) audience. Whilst the majority of the Drag Race series have been based on the US, if we bring in the UK to this conversation, the evidence of wider accessibility of drag can be seen through its showing on the BBC, of all television networks.

Whether the commercialisation of drag is a positive for the community remains to be seen. However, what we can say on the back of the success and accessibility of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is the awareness that has been brought to a range of intersectional issues, from racism to religion, and gender identity to social class. Though some of these issues might not be news to the LGBT+ community, we can most certainly agree that it has brought about discussion of such issues to those who perhaps had not even thought about such positions, let alone experienced them. Especially with the perpetuation of social media, community discussion has never been so lively, both online and offline.

Regardless of your opinion of the series, it has opened up conversations in new spaces that brings visibility to the LGBT+ community. We discuss these issues, as well as the comparisons between US and UK drag, in our recent paper that you can find here.

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who doesn’t speak about race in mixed company, at least not casually, and certainly not in any space not specifically determined for such a conversation. If the invitation doesn’t say ‘race’ in the title, then I most assuredly won’t be bringing up sexism, racism nor classism, nor religious chauvinism – even if social status is evident and apparent by the time we get there. It’s too complicated, and I’ve been the unwitting sounding board too often for too many illiberals, or just folks who hadn’t ever really taken any time to (attempt to) put themselves in anyone else’s shoes – not even as a mental exercise to forward their own understanding of our world and its complexities. 

Hurt people hurt people

I am an empath, and so shifting through perspectives is more organic to me than seems ‘normal’. Empaths more naturally take that Matrix-style 360-degree snapshot of any given scenario, distinct from neurotypical folks. I am also ‘a black man in a white world’, a gay man in a straight world, a Buddhist man in a Christian world, so I supposed I have made it a survival tactic to see the world through other’s eyes, knowing full well most hadn’t even considered I’d existed. It’s only other empaths who aren’t so surprised how we all got here across our differences. I have not had the luxury of surrounding myself with people just like me, and yet this has rarely made me feel unsafe. 

This snapshot is also a means of connection: I like people and usually see similarities between people where they usually show me they’ve only ever seen differences. This isn’t to imply that I am colorblind or don’t see across differences. Naw, it’s that I am more interested in sharing hearts, no matter how deeply one has learned to bury and conceal theirs. Hence, I usually respond with “why” when told something ridiculously racist or sexist, and ask “how come you think that,” when something homophobic is said; and then I patiently listen. I genuinely want to know. I’ve observed that this response can throw people off balance, for they’ve become accustomed to people either joining in or ignoring their ignorance. Really, no one ever purely inquired how’d you become so hate-filled!?!

I wear my heart on my sleeve for I know how to recover from the constant assault and barrage of disconnection. Yes, it saddens me that so many have been so conditioned, and convinced for so long that we are so disconnected.

They want our RHYTHM but not our BLUES

Now, with my elite education and global aspirations, I often gain access to spaces that explicitly work to exclude people from any non-elite backgrounds. It’s not that I want to pass as anything other than myself, it’s just that I am often surrounded by folks who rarely seem to have considered that someone could – or would – simultaneously exist in a plethora of boxes. I can’t fit into any one box other than human. Yet, I used to try to fit in, to avoid standing out as a means to shield myself from the bullying or peering eyes and gossip as folks try to figure out in which box I reside – a classic tactic of projection. 

I am a dark-skinned Black person with a nappy head and a stereotypical bubble butt. I neither bleach my skin nor straighten my hair, so I am identifiably Black up-close and from afar. I don’t even hide my body under baggy clothes, so even my silhouette is Black. I’ve lived, worked, studied and traveled in North America, western Europe, west Africa as well as north, south and southeast Asia, so I’ve taken 360-degree snapshots of radically different societies ‘seeing’ a Black man, and oh how radically different the reactions. I’m becoming one of those Black people who notices this, but won’t speak about race in mixed company because as an empath, one sees how defensive people become when raising race. I went through a phase where I would more readily speak about gender, then draw the parallels to race and class, for most folks can only handle one form of oppression at a time (fellow Audre Lorde fans may appreciate that pun).

Me, looking at myself being looked at as ‘different’. Hoi An, Vietnam. January 2021

Hello, my name is: Diversity.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who never questions people when they describe their backgrounds as ‘good’, when all they really mean is moneyed, racially and religiously homogenous. Many get all defensive when I reveal that my entire education was radically diverse by design, from second grade through my master’s. I know I had a “better” education than them because I was taught inclusion alongside people who were similar and different from me – and we went to each other’s homes.

I don’t look in the mirror and say ‘hey diversity’; I just see the face I was given, and do with it what I can. Yet, I have often been called upon to speak on behalf of many people. I offer my opinion, or relay my observations, and suddenly I am a spokesman for the gays, or the Blacks, rarely just me. So, what’s it like being on the inside of cultures of power? Darnit, I shan’t ask that either! 

“A small case of injustice”

Gilbert Baker

Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights.  A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights.  The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights.  In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals. 

This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law.  In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group.  These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all.  This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws.  The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation. 

Take for example “entrapment”.  Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis.  The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society.  The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax.  So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals?  It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.  This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.     

The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction.  As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison.  It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery).  It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category. 

The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced.  Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them.  This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested.  For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) . 

The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing.  During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live.  It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police.  This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.    

In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:

It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”

This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise.  For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts.  The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing.  The struggle continues…    

Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm

Rocket Scientist (Ode to those real-life really Hidden Figures all around us) #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Rocket scientist.

Let’s face it. When most of us read those words,

We ‘see’ a man in our mind’s eye.

The so-called smartest job on earth belongs solely to women men.

 

What if those dreams kids dreamed – of going anywhere in the world –

Also included smart women?

What if we grew up knowing that women were rocket scientists?

As much as we use the oft phrase “it’s not rocket science” to exclaim simplicity,

What if the smartest person nobody ever met was a woman?

Nobody anybody knows has ever met a rocket scientist or a nuclear physicist, but we’re all sure THESE guys represent humanity’s brightest.

What if the brightest people in the world were both women AND men?

 

The black women ‘behind’ America’s space race, yet, ‘one step for man…’ really did mean one giant step for man-kind.

Have we stolen little girls’ dreams?

By concealing the truth of the Black women rocket scientists behind America’s moon landing,

Haven’t we squashed those ambitions for black girls?

It’s not that Black girls are absent in Pop Culture, they’re just normally, regularly

Relegated to a few very banal stereotypes.

By praising Black Jezebels, Sapphires and Mammies above all,

Haven’t we assured everyone on the planet that the last thing a black girl could do was grow up to become a rocket scientist?

Or president of America?

One giant step for white man-kind, indeed!

Now we have an unkind thug running thangs.

Mr. Backlash! Mr. Backlash!

It’s telling that the biggest modern feminist march happened because of his inauguration.

new-yorker-obamas_custom-075209aa12d91bd12237cea294a9cdb01e11f1bf-s800-c15

Michele Obama as Sapphire

What if the most powerful leaders in history were women?

What if, instead of deifying generals and soldiers, and

Rather than holding the torch for sword-bearers,

What if we regarded HIS-story through women’s contributions to society?

How have women determined the fates of nations,

Irregardless of men’s war of conquest and colonization?

What if we studied those who avoided war, not just those who indulged?

Would so many world leaders be calling the Coronavirus an “enemy” that we must “defeat”?

What if we celebrated the survivors of millennia of mostly male belligerence – where

Women couldn’t even own property, let alone vote.

Let alone control their own bodies.

 

Who were those men and women who fought for equality even then, and

Who were the detractors?

Who were those masochists who believed God had a son, not a daughter, and

Therefore, men have divine right to rule?

What if women had written the Bible, or any holy book or writings from any world religion?

Would patriarchy so regularly be the order of the day?

I’ll have an order of patriarchy with a side of misogyny and sexual objectification for dessert!

My drink order?

Ah, give me a cup of control over every business, government, religious and labor institution for over a thousand years!

Don’t forget the lemon, this is a sour business!

Oh great, free refills!

 

[sigh]

 

Wasn’t Shirley Chisholm brave for being the first black woman to run for president?

Let’s face it, a woman running for any office right now is likely to get trolled online,

Likely to have folks write that they’re gonna rape her, so

You can imagine the hate Ms. Chisholm faced.

And oh, did I mention she was queer?

What gymnastics did Ms. Chisholm have to practice in earnest in those days?

“A woman cannot do the job of a man.”

This is a direct quote from a policeman’s wife when the NYPD integrated patrol teams back in the 70’s.

Aren’t the brave first female officers heroes?

A woman said the same thing at a 2016 Trump rally.

Aren’t women brave for running for political office and raising their voices in chambers?

[sigh]

There is no equal pay.

There are plenty o’ glass ceilings to shatter all around the world.

Yet, we take issue with this word feminist.

 

Feminist.

When some hear feminist, they think bra-burning,

Even though they never burned bras at the infamous feminist protest at the ‘68 Miss America pageant.

Media coverage dismissed this early feminist protest for equality as “bra-burning,” and thus the moniker stuck!

Bra-burning!

You side with anti-feminist masochists when you use that phrase.

You outta keep “bras” outta your mouth until you know first-hand what you’re talking ‘bout!

When some hear feminist, they don’t think ‘feminism’ oh, that means

‘My sister shouldn’t grow up beside me, scared of getting raped by a man in our family.’

 

When some hear feminist, they think ‘lesbians’.

So, feminists are lesbians, or lesbians are feminists?

What-ever!

It’s way too easy to say straight women can’t support equality in power, opportunity and access for all genders!

Seriously?!?

 

When some hear feminist, they think about men being oppressed.

They don’t think about the rights husbands have over wives’ bodies – marital rape is a fairly recent feminist protection.

 

When some hear feminist, they think feminists are ugly, jealous women.

They don’t think about the pressure to be beautiful,

Even in the age of social media where millennials show-up selfie-ready at breakfast, and

Spend half of breakfast posting about the breakfast rather than actually enjoying said breakfast.

But at least their lashes and brows are flawless!

Naw, when some people hear feminist,

They couldn’t even begin to think the amount of money an average woman spends on make-up over a lifetime, trying to make herself beautiful for the male gaze.

[Sing]   “The men all paused when I walked into the room…

The men all paused and the brides held their grooms!”

You can best bet her face was beat up before she stepped a foot outside for her “burgers and sodas”.

Yes, there’s “A Meeting in the Ladies Room,” so you’d better bring your best compact, girl.

Flawless!

 

When some hear feminist, they think privileged white women.

They don’t think, ‘oh, my sister should have the same opportunities as me’.

Or, ‘gee, my sister shouldn’t have to worry about some creep making moves on her at work while she’s trying to feed her kids.’

They couldn’t even begin to know about the Hidden Figures.

 

When some hear feminist, they think men-haters.

They don’t think about all the hateful things we’ve heard our whole lives

About the dangers of women’s bodies:

Females menstruate -problem 1.

Menstruation makes females moody – problem 2.

Females can get pregnant- problem 3.

Female bodies are problematic… dangerous.

We teach this to everyone.

We teach girls to be mindful of men; we don’t teach boys not to prey on women.

We teach girls to dress appropriately; we don’t teach boys to respect girls’ bodies.

We teach girls to take a pill, almost a rite of passage, but

We don’t teach boys to grow up and research, develop and market a pill for men.

We teach girls: her power is in her sex; we don’t teach boys ‘conquering her sexually is sexist’.

Smash her.

Bash her!

“Beat that p*ssy up!” goes the chant of an infamous deep House beat!

You can take these lessons to the Supreme Court and still win!

 

So, what if we grew up knowing women were rocket scientists?

What if boys and girls grew up knowing this… taking for granted that girls were smart, too?

If this AND may such stories hadn’t been so conveniently “forgotten”

Would women have to prove themselves so much at work?

Would we be asking women how they balance a career and motherhood?

Or would we be asking dads that question just as often and effortlessly?

So, what if we grew up knowing women were rocket scientists, that

Women were excellent and disciplined at the height of logic?

What if we grew up knowing women were rocket scientists?

Would we use words likehystericalto mete out a symbolic hysterectomy?

Would insults like “bitch” or “like a girl” carry any weight?

Notice by adding “like a girl” to any phrase, it becomes an insult!

If women were known to excel at rational thinking like rocket science, then

Wouldn’t we then assume males are emotional beings, too?

Would there be such a thing as toxic masculinity, the irrational, natural extension of teaching kids the ‘Boys Don’t Cry’?

Did you know that by age 7,

Girls know significantly more words to talk about their feelings than boys?

If women were rocket scientists, too,

Would we still refuse to teach boys Emotional Intelligence?

Bury your feelings, boys, take it out with your fists.

Would we still refuse to teach girls that they can excel at math?

What world would we craft, if little boys and girls grew up knowing that muscle and brawn didn’t matter in the world of equality and respect we were told we’d built?

 

 

 

Michele Obama as Sapphire

 

 

Mourning Travel. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Mourning Travel.

One of the first casualties of Corona was travel. Nations immediately began controlling the flow of people in and out of ever-broader borders. First neighborhoods, then cities, regions, and countries all closed. As fear of the virus spreading spread, different parts of the world became associated with Corona, though bullheaded public figures even continued to call it “Chinese”

A few years ago, I got a 10 -year visa to China through work and had planned to travel there much more than time has allowed. Now, I am fearful of ever traveling there before my visa expires. I am unable to accept the many invitations to connect with my previous students who’ve returned to China and know of my interest in the region’s cultures. I have been to southern China on several study trips with students. We finally ventured to Beijing and its wonders on a later trip. Naturally, I did my happy dance when I reached a peak on the Great Wall just a few years ago. I am now on sabbatical in Hanoi, just released from lockdown.

It was a lifelong dream to visit China, I was raised on my godmother’s stories about growing up in Hong Kong, savoring the flavors of her homeland in her kitchen in Kentucky. I knew I had to see for myself. As a kid, she and I would go on shopping day-trips to Chicago’s Chinatown, a 7-hour drive each way. For those few hours in Chi-town, we’d be transported to a world where finally she was the insider. She spoke for hours in several dialects with all the people around that I didn’t understand, and we even browsed restaurants that resembled what she’d told me home was like. We’d go in and eat not from the tourist but from the Chinese menus – foods that were not nearly available in Kentucky.

Kentucky is pretty black and white, but there, in the heart of Chinatown, in the heartland of America, smack in the middle of the 80’s, I got to experience my godmother being in the majority. Growing up close to my godmother confirmed I could experience more freedom through travel. This was a key insight into the world for a gay kid growing up in the Bible Belt; I could just go away. Travel has always exposed me to new ways of being in the world.

Nehru-Park-pride

Pride, Nehru Park, New Delhi 2008

“You’ve got to go to the city/They’re going to find you there…” -Flawless, George Michael

Travel is essential for the development of a healthy self-identity as a queer person. ‘Travel’ is, in fact, inseparable from the notion of a gay community. This is exemplified by having to leave our homes and communities to commune with others queers, and certainly the richness of gay tourism. One might also consider how gay identity uniquely depends on the very idea of gayness traveling far and wide to enter the minds of gays isolated everywhere.

Knowing gay people is a primal impetus for me to travel. Rather than just seeking to know ‘different’ people, places and cultures, I crave knowing how people like me thrive in those places. We’re everywhere.

india_hug_583457a

Celebrating India’s decriminalization!

It has always struck me that as queer people of color, we too often must venture outside our ethno-cultural communities to meet gay people. I came out at 16 and by then only knew gays within my age-group. Fortunately, in that era of grand community building, a local charity had organized a gay youth group. There, in addition to comradery, the adult facilitation and guest speakers provided mentorship and what we now understand as inter-generational knowledge. They also alerted me to queer writers: Through Sister Outsider, I’d traveled around the world with Audre Lorde long before I stepped foot outside of north-America. This is a powerful glue that can sustain solidarity within any community.

By attempting to transport certain functions of the gay club scene into the virtual world, we have certainly lost a core opportunity for inter-generational bonding. The ominous gay club also functions as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience. This phenomenon is sustained by travel, particularly tourism, migration, immigration. Or, how long did it take for nations to consider asylum for queers fleeing in deadly homophobic regimes? Flawless:

Don’t you know, you’ve got to go to the city
You’ve got to reach the other side of the glass
I think you’ll make it in the city baby
I think you know that you are more than just
Some F-ed up piece of ass

Pride – both metaphorically and literally – has circulated the globe, first and foremost through travel and tourism, then through globalizing the fight against AIDS. By the mid-90’s, the attention of gay rights advocates had widened to confronting homophobia. If health was a human right, then surely freedom from stigma is, too. Mind you, this same argument fueled the successful campaign in India to decriminalize same-sex sex, which was based on colonial legislation. Rights advocates in India had successfully used case law to articulate access to healthcare as a civil right, showing how stigma impeded this for queers.

Sadly, the exact same Victoria-era law has been strengthened and extended in many African nations, legitimizing jungle justice! For many, travel is a lifeline, including asylum. For queers in the African Diaspora, this is yet another form of exile – banishment from the motherland.

Under the bridge downtown…

If there were ever a community consumed with travel, it would be LGBTQ+ folk. Our folk knowledge is transmitted in myth and music, for example, lyrics urging gays to head to the shelter of the city. Whether chants about finding a YMCA, or told to Go West to be “together” in the sanctuary, mythical San Francisco, for gays to achieve self-realization, we needed to ‘know’ urban life to counter traditional values in the homestead. “I think you’ll make it in the city, baby.” There -away- we’re promised a new beginning with freedom. I’m very proud to have seen this through.

Gay civil rights have advanced globally far faster than those of any other recognized minority group, and certainly, one factor is… (drumroll) …we’re everywhere, even where there’s no Pride! Like ether, our pride travels through the stratosphere.

A song for Terry. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A song for Terry.

 

Terry was just six when he died.

Not a long time spent on this Earth,

But enough to make himself known to the universe.

There were many obstacles in life waiting for boys like Terry.

If life is a vast ocean, then he only sailed a meager ferry.

 

Terry was born in a place, in a time and

In a body that didn’t count much –

A poor, southern Black boy and such.

He was loved, for sure,

I’d see his grandmother kiss him every morning,

As she sent Terry off to school.

 

Like mine,

Terry’s household didn’t look like those on TV.

None of ours did.

There weren’t any of those Cosby kids.

But Terry was like my brother, my dear friend.

I looked forward to walking to school with Terry each day.

He always had something interesting to say.

 

Terry and I were in the same class.

He lived across the street,

And our school was just a few blocks away.

There and back,

I wanted to be by his side.

Sometimes I would walk to my grandparents’ after school,

And momma would pick me up after work.

No sooner did we get home and settled did I ask to go outside and play,

With Terry.

 

Our story was short-lived.

Two kids on the block,

On the poor side of town,

We lived cocooned in a world of luxury:

We were cared for and we were safe.

Everyone on the block looked out for all the kids;

There were no strangers around home base.

But, we also lived

In a time and place of misery,

Where things like poverty,

Would determine your destiny,

And all the dreams we would dream,

Would have to fight the sun to live.

 

A handsome little brown boy,

And a finely picked mini ‘Fro.

An easy smile,

And an easy-going way about him.

Terry was a nice guy.

And did I mention he was loved?

He was not the most popular kid in class –

Naw, everybody feared that guy!

Terry was the one everyone liked.

 

sweetheart-candies

For Valentine’s day,

The whole class exchanged heart-shaped candies and notes with one another-

All in pink, my favorite color.

My one time of year to shine!

I was so excited to choose one especially for Terry, my brother:

Will you be my Valentine?

Even the teacher got along with him.

Terry never got in trouble.

He got sad-eyed when any of us got marched off to get paddled.

 

At lunch, I’d always sit with Terry.

Terry got free lunch, and

Peanut butter and jelly is what I got when momma packed mine!

We’d hurry to the front of the line,

And finish our food quickly,

So we could go to the play area the rest of the time.

I didn’t like milk, but Terry did.

And he didn’t care for apple sauce, but I did.

Sometimes we’d split:

Half a piece of pizza for half my sandwich.

We’d trade.

We didn’t keep score, but

We were always even.

 

There, right in the middle of the cafeteria,

Smack in the middle of the school,

Was a large, carpeted recreational area.

There, we’d play and everything was cool.

After lunch, but also before and after school,

We could climb and crawl,

Spin and jump,

Run and hide,

Seek and find,

And holler as loud as we’d want.

Teachers would monitor from nearby, but

They left us alone and took their break-time.

Our teachers would even rotate who had this monitoring job to do.

We weren’t a rowdy bunch,

So, there were no fights to break-up.

There were neither hoops nor balls to tussle over.
No nets, no bats –

No competition and all that.

Just a space…

Where us kids could be free.

We were free.

 

Terry died in the middle of first grade.

We had found out from our teacher that Terry was sick,

We’d all heard of sickle cell, many in our own families, like mine.

But none of us knew what it means.

We knew Terry was not always sturdy.

One time he’d had a bad bout with asthma.

Our teacher helped him take his inhaler,

That she’d showed us where it was kept in her desk drawer.

Now, she was telling us that Terry was just spending a few days in the hospital.

The whole class avidly awaited Terry’s return.

She didn’t know more than that,

I needed to know when Terry’d be back.

 

I knocked on his door, one day

On the way home from school,

To tell his grandmother I hoped Terry’d be ok.

I knew my grandmother would be heartbroken if anything like that happened to one of us.

Kids that little aren’t supposed to die.

Not here, and not of diseases we can’t even see.

Even at that age, I knew this just shouldn’t be.

And yet turn on the TV,

Every day we see signs and symptoms of little Black boys’ morbidity.

Whether from war or starvation in distant lands, or

Dilapidation and disease on these burning sands.

Just like what was happening to Terry:

A casualty of a neglectful society.

 

I didn’t get to mourn Terry,

Didn’t have some cathartic corral with our classmates about

The fun times we had or how much we missed him.

There was no school counselor coming to our class –

No one explaining the cycle of life, nor

Asking us about our feelings.

I knew how I felt.

I loved Terry, and knew the way I loved him was seen as peculiar;

I couldn’t let anyone know about this one-sided affair.

I was sad, and all this was unfair.

What would I say?

We were only 6 years old, and

Terry was the first boy I ever loved.

 

 

M-ALi-kidIn memory of Muhammed Ali, another Black boy who survived those same streets and corridors.

The ‘other’ BBC worldservice. #BlackenAsianWithLove

The ‘other’ BBC worldservice.

If you google “BBC+Mandingo,” please be aware that it is NSFW. Use your imagination. Now, imagine an auction block. Imagine a slave standing there. Breeding slaves underpinned the ‘white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal’ system that placed their bodies upon that auction block. Hyper-sexualisation of Black bodies began right there. It is bell hooks’ Intersectionality lens that’s necessary for a holistic gaze upon consumer commodification.

Now, imagine that one Black boy in class, vying for attention just as any other adolescent, yet he’s got an entire multitude of hyper-sexualised images filling the heads of virtually everyone in the room. By the time they hit the locker-room, everyone is expecting to see this kid’s BBC. I’ve had many (non-Black) adults say that to me explicitly, inexplicably in any given situation where one might not otherwise imagine penis size would surface so casually in conversation. Hence, we can all imagine that with the crudeness of adolescent male vernacular: Your kid is asking my kid why his penis isn’t what all the rappers rap about. we-real-cool-cover

Why are so many commercially successful rappers’ fantasies reduced to “patriarchal f*cking?” Reading Michael Kimmel’s essay “Fuel for Fantasy: The Ideological Construction of Male Lust,” in her seminal book We Real Cool: Black Masculinity, bell hooks clarifies: “In the iconography of black male sexuality, compulsive-obsessive fucking is represented as a form of power when in actuality it is an indication of extreme powerlessness” (hooks: 67-8).

It’s auto-asphyxiation, a kind of nihilistic sadomasochism that says, if the world thinks of me as a beast, then a beast I shall be. Plenty of kids work this out by the time they hit the playground. “Patriarchy, as manifest in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society,”  explains writer/activist Kevin Powell (qtd. in hooks: 56). Ironically, Powell came to fame in the 90’s on MTV through the original reality show aptly entitled “The Real World.”

Plantation Politics 101

Since at least 2017, commercial rap has been the most widely sold musical genre; it’s pop. Beyond roughly 700,000 sales, Black people are not the primary purchasers of commercialised rap, as explained in the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It takes millions to earn ‘multi-platinum’ status. Yet, while created by and for Black and brown people in ghettoized communities, it has morphed into a transnational commodity having little to do with the realities of its originators, save for the S&M fantasies of wealth beyond imagination. And what do they boast of doing with that power, read as wealth? Liberating the masses from poverty? Intervening on the Prison Industrial Complex? Competing with the “nightmareracist landlords like Donald Trump’s dad Fred? No! They mimic the very gangsters they pretend to be. Once Italian-Americans held hard that stereotype, but now it’s us. It’s always about power. Truly, ‘it’s bigger than Hip-Hop’.

We-real-coolThe more painful question few bother asking is why commercial rap music focuses so keenly on pimps, thugs, b*tches and whores? Like other commodities, commercial rap is tailored to the primary consumer base, which isn’t (fellow) Black people, but white youth. What is it about contemporary white youth that craves images of salacious, monstrous, licentious and violent Black people boasting about killing and maiming one another? Describing this mass commercial “Misogynistic rap music,” hooks states: “It is the plantation economy, where black males labor in the field of gender and come out ready to defend their patriarchal manhood by all manner of violence against women and men whom they perceive to be weak and like women” (hooks: 57-8). Plainly, the root of commercial rap’s global prominence is the reenactment of “sadomasochistic rituals of domination, of power and play” (hooks: 65).

Hyper-sexualisation is a form of projection onto Black people a mass white anxiety about our shared “history of their brutal torture, rape, and enslavement of black bodies” (hooks: 63). She goes on to explain: “If white men had an unusual obsession with black male genitalia it was because they had to understand the sexual primitive, the demonic beast in their midst. And if during lynchings they touched burnt flesh, exposed private parts, and cut off bits and pieces of black male bodies, white folks saw this ritualistic sacrifice as in no way a commentary on their obsession with black bodies, naked flesh, sexuality” (ibid). Hence the BBC obsession finds a consumer home safely in pop music!

“I am ashamed of my small penis,” a stranger recently mentioned to me in a grilled wing joint I happened upon here in Hanoi. The confession came from nowhere, having nothing to do with anything happening between us at the time. Is this the locker-room banter I always hear about? Are straight men really so obsessed with their penises? Given his broken English and my non-existent Vietnamese, I tried comforting him by explaining in the simplest terms the saying: “It’s not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean.” Colloquialisms never translate easily, but I did at least deflect the subject away from ethno-sexual myths spread worldwide through contemporary consumer culture.

We’ve got to talk about ethno-sexual myths with openness, honesty and integrity. Silence is the master’s tool; silence = death! Further, echoing ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I am Black in Asia, and there are perhaps no two groups of men at polar opposites of ethno-sexual myths. Like the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour, these myths reveal that neither Blackness nor Asianess is at the centre of these globally circulated myths. Hyper-sexual in comparison to who or what? Hegemonic heteronormative whiteness. Say it with me: Duh!

 

To get In-formation:

hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge.

Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

‘Guilty’ of Coming Out Daily – Abroad. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.

 

The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?

Come out, come out wherever you are.

In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.

Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.

In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status?  Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!

I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.

Kuku-HUST-performace.jpg

The word is ‘out’.

In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.

Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.

A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.

 

*Picture from The 2019 Traditional Arts Festival at Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST)

100% of the emotional labour, 0% of the emotional reward: #BlackenAsiawithLove

Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.

Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.

“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”

Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.

They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.

“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.

Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.

I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.

I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.

Works mentioned:

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.

hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

 

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