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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]

Bang! Smash! Pow! Representation Matters. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A superhero walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A superheroine walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black woman reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

That’s Black Lightning.

*

Superman and Lois Lane got to love one another, and

Wonder Woman fell in love with the first man she met.

For generations of Sci-Fi and superheroes,

Everybody was straight and white.

The Star Trek franchise has been imagining a fairer future since the 60’s, but

It’s only now -on the newest Star Trek show – that

Yellow, black, white, red and brown people portray species from throughout the galaxy.

Finally, things as fickle as religion or gender identity aren’t barriers to love.

*

I earnestly wonder if it was the creators or the audiences who couldn’t see anybody else loved, but straight white people?!?

That only straight white men could save the day.

Representation matters.

Which superhero did you see at first?

School Boys’ Crush #BlackAsiaWithLove

At first, he would just smile at me from across the room.

During classes, if I rose my hand to answer the teacher, he’d just glare at me as if I were accepting the Miss America title, or giving a rousing speech.

I always felt stronger in class with him inside.

To be fair, I didn’t even know if he liked boys at first.

Or perhaps he was just grinning at me because I was foreign… exotic, and spoke English, the common tongue that everyone wanted to master.

Anyway, he was a foreigner, too, training to be a translator and interpreter and

Still had several languages to master; English was just one.

Our friend Sabine was pretty, blue-eyed, thin, buxom, wore form-fitting-flattering clothes, had long, flowing blond hair and was a native speaker of both French and Alsatian.

Surely, he’d go of someone like her.

Yeah, I threw in every doubt, but

I’d still wait outside for him before the one class we shared, International Relations and

All through the class he’d grin at me from across the room.

Or, I’d look for him when I knew his class was at the end of the hall.

Between classes, somehow, we’d find one another’s gaze.

I loved getting to go to class.

Twice a week, I even got to brush past him before the last period when it seemed that all the classes switched sides.

He’s taller than me, so as we brushed past one another.

Sometimes we would hold our heads up and catch each other’s gaze,

But initially this was too much for me,

I knew my knees would buckle if I stood that close to his deep brown eyes;

I doubted I could stop myself from reaching up and touching his dark curly hair.

I had to look away,

Or else I might just fall over and…

And he’d have to catch me.

Crap, then I’d surely faint!

So mostly I would look down as we passed in the hall between classes.

As he neared, he’d sigh heavily, and

So I could feel the heat of his breath on my neck.

He liked spearmint.

*Sigh.

Then, as we reached the opposite ends of the hall, he’d turn back and smile, and

He knew I’d look back, that I’d be waiting to catch his gaze.

I’d smile back.

Then, he’d turn away – look down – as if grinning to himself about a secret that only he knew.

I found myself on the other end of the hall doing the same.

Then one day, a good friend of his invited me over for her birthday party, and

Somehow, he and I kept creeping closer to one another.

We hadn’t yet formally met, so

He kept talking to his friends, and I kept talking to mine, but

As we shifted around the room, we got nearer and nearer one another.

As the party dwindled and everyone started making arrangements to walk someone else home that night,

I could see him waiting idly, quietly, to the side, until the end.

I wanted him to walk me home, which I had every right to demand, because,

Because I was a foreigner, and couldn’t really even tell you what part of town I lived in.

So, he agreed to walk me home.

And we ended up at his house.

I spent the night in his arms.

I spent the next six years there.

Over the years, he’d mastered and prepared dishes for me from all of the cultures from all the languages he was mastering.

I loved our international relations.

A sissy works at the beer garden. #BlackAsiaWithLove

A sissy works at the beer garden I pass on the way home. In Vietnam, these common watering holes are called “Bia Hoi,” and this one sits at the intersection of two major roads, across from one of the city’s largest parks, on a corner adjacent to one edge of a university campus. To say that this place is a sausage fest would be an understatement. Like drinking holes in so many parts of the world, this is a space for men.

Men come here. Me, too. Although I stick out as a visible foreigner, I am part of the crowd of men. In every part of the world I’ve encountered, there’s nothing weird about a guy sitting around having a beer. Hence, it’s not uncommon for local groups of men to send one over, or invite me to their table for a drink. This has drastically different implications than men in pubs buying drinks for women, especially a woman sitting alone in a drinking hole, which is the LEAST likely thing to see here, despite the number of Bia Hoi’s owned and run by women in Vietnam. The majority here are either men in starched shirts and slacks stepping out, or other groups of guys crossing from the park to gather here for a post-match drink. I started coming here years ago with a man I met through work, and stop by every now and again. As compared to other masculinized spaces, there’s no competition here, and the primary resource – beer – flows freely.

The sissy wears an apron to serve the food and beer. He ties his apron tightly over the same loose orange T-shirt all the other guys wear to serve. This, of course accentuates his curves. While the others walk around baggy, clothes hanging loosely like a barrel sac, with this apron, the sissy has seriously upgraded the uniform with color, shape and flare. What’s more, his hips switch back-n-forth, too quick to be a pendulum. Naw, he switches like nobody’s business, and you really see this the way the beer garden is set-up with several rows of long tables. This is his cat walk. While the other servers seem to be drudging through the labor, the sissy flutters around like a butterfly. And he always looks at each customer, takes time to chat, and seems to have the patience of Job when it comes to their eventual drunkenness. Beer loosens tongues.

The sissy has to march back and forth the serve the orders like a busy bee. It’s hot, so the sissy fans himself with the menu, like it’s a prop, as he prances up-n-down the rows as if it’s his own stage. Everyone else pales in comparison, they’re just there to work. The sissy is there to ‘work’, or as Fergie says: “Make YOU work!” Life’s a stage, they say, and er’body gotta play they part.

The sissy stands at each table like a tea-cup, grinning, weight shifted to one leg, hips leaning to the side, back arched, hand on his hip, holding a pen waiting for the men to call out their food orders. Unlike the other servers who seem to just stand there bluntly to take orders, the sissy acts like a host, and actively shows folks their seats, offers that they take a look at the menu, and genuinely makes sure they are all satisfied.

This sissy has mad flavor, even in this part of his career – of which I know nothing – save for what I’ve seen of him serving beer in a local Bia Hoi. He makes such a flutter when he moves around, just doing his job, that I too, see him on stage, among peers, not drowning in this mundanity. I almost wish he would bring some Hot Lunch from Fame, for those hips are already singing the body electric. Those shoulders practically shimmering as he walks friskily across the pavement, arms stretched open, elbows squeezed, holding a beer in each hand – swish, swish, swish. I can see the musical notes floating around him as he makes his way, doing his job dutifully, albeit with Glee. “Just do it,” I want to say to the sissy. Free us from these seats.

In some places, even today, our existence is a crime.

#ProudBoys

“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

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.

Within Grey Walls

“Waking up to gray walls and black bars…in the silence of ones own thoughts, leaves one to a feeling of somberness…as those around begin to stir and began their individual day, hope creeps into ones mind….as the discussions regarding legal strategies began, hope then becomes more than just a shadow…as guys began to discuss their potential future beyond prison and being locked in a cell for days at a time, hope becomes more than just a fleeting moment!  Silence can sometimes be ones own enemy on death row:-…So I condition myself to discover the “why” I fight through the fits of depression and despair, instead of focusing on the “how’s”….because pursuit of the “why’s” bring about methods of finding a solution….encouragement to remain hopeful!”

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (1).     

Without the right to life, we cannot enjoy the freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, what if one’s life was imprisoned and waiting to be ended for crime? In addition, what if a person was to be put to death for associating with a particular demographic?

The death penalty is the authorization of the state to kill a citizen for a crime, whether it’s murder, rape, treason, or more severe crimes, such as crimes against humanity and genocide (2).

Whilst the death penalty can be a deterrent, provide justice, and be the ultimate punishment for a crime and justice for victims, it is also used in some countries to persecute minority groups, such as the LGBT community (3) (4). (In references, there is a link to an interactive map of countries that utilize the death penalty for LGBT groups).

According to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), around 82% of cases involving capital punishment, race was a determining factor of giving this punishment, in comparison to white counterparts (5). However, the justice system is far from perfect, and miscarriages of justice occur. Due to issues of racism and racial bias (particularly within the American Justice System), this has seen members of minority groups and innocent people put on death row whilst a criminal still walks free. A damning example of a miscarriage of justice, and a clear demonstration of racism, is the case of George Stinney, whom, at the age of 14, was wrongly accused of murdering 2 girls. He was taken to court, tried by an all white jury, and was given the electric chair (6). 

This, ultimately, is the state failing to protect its citizens, and causing irreparable damage to others. The George Stinney case is a condemnatory example of this. On top of that, it is hard to measure deterrence, and whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing crime.

However, what is it actually like being on death row?

June 2017 saw the start of a new friendship – a unique friendship. What simply started out with me wanting to reach out and be a ray of light to someone on death row, turned into a wonderful experience of sharing, support and immeasurable beauty. In June 2017, I began writing to a man on death row, and simply wanted to be a ray of light to someone in a dark place.

He has shared some of his thoughts of what it is like to be on death row:

“Perseverance. This is key when facing a day in prison (physically and mentally) because is never “where” you are physically, but your ability and willingness took push through those times of adversity and overcome the very things that have the power to bring you down….such as evil”. BUT- when we examine the word “evil” look closely…. Do you see it yet? ….. It’s “LIVE” backwards and to me its when we lose our patience to “LIVE” that we have brushes with “evil”…no???? So within these walls I do my best to find the “silver lining” and develop the better aspects of me”.

Now, it may seem effortlessly -but- in all honestly….its very difficult to face each day with the uncertainty of knowing whether the presence I have is one that has significance….in here I have to prepare myself on a constant basis in order to be the best version of myself no matter what lays ahead.

Thankfully….I have met an incredible person, who guides me by way of her words…offers me comforts by way of her thoughts and prayer and encourages me through her never ending presence! She is beautiful in every aspect of the word…She has helped me to discover that EVERYTHING and NOTHING awaits beyond forever! 

References

(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDH) Article 1 Available online at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/    Accessed on 21/01/2020

(2) Louise Gaille ’15 Biggest Capitol Pros and Cons’ Available online at: https://vittana.org/15-biggest-capital-punishment-pros-and-cons  Accessed on 24/03/2020

(3) The Human Dignity Trust ‘Saudi Arabia: Types of Criminalisation’ Available online at: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/country-profile/saudi-arabia/  Accessed on 24/03/2020

(4)  Death Penalty Information Centre ‘Executions By Race and Race of Victim’ Available online at: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/executions-overview/executions-by-race-and-race-of-victim

(5) Ibid

(6) Snopes Fact Check ‘Did South Carolina Execute 14-year-old George Stinney, then declare him innocent 70 years later?’  Available online at:  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/george-stinney-execution-exoneration/  Accessed on 24/03/2020

Other

Interactive map of countries where the death penalty is used against the LGBT community: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/?type_filter=crim_gender_exp

Human Writes: https://www.humanwrites.org

Solitude.

Time alone, socially with ourselves, can be a truly healing ordeal. When we’re alone, we tend to think. Thinking is hard work. It really takes a disciplined mind to reflect, to look at different items in life and piece them together differently than they are presented to us.…perhaps with more clarity. We may experience anxiety, left with our own thoughts in the solitude of quarantine. From whatever source or another, you may feel anxious about being alone. Develop calming practices. Curate calming activities in your life that bring you peace.

 

You may experience restlessness. What to do with all that time? Many of you will want to be productive. Do something you enjoy. What do you like to do with your (wrestling) hands? Hold a book? Saw wood? Bake? Knit me a scarf?!?

 

Whether you enjoy listening to music and talking about the memories and times music evokes, explore what you like to do. Me? I dance, read, write, binge on TV series, and digging my hands in dirt to grow stuff. I especially love propagating plants. I try any plant I can get ahold of. In my garden, I have a beautiful crawling flower I clipped in Barcelona. It spreads over soil and has bright green leaves with bright red flowers that unfold into a star at dusk. Curate creative activities in your life that bring you peace.

 

Solitude gives us time for introspection – a kind of dialogue with ourselves. We love all forms of art because of the internal dialogue with ourselves as we observe a movie, painting, sculpture, fashion, performance, etc. We know at the heart of each of those creations, there was an artist in solitude.

 

In my solitude…

 

 

1st-book-cover-ColorPurple

First edition

Alice walker sat and wrote The Color Purple with pen and paper. The screenwriters later came along and did the same. Each actor received their own script. On screen we watch Ms. Sofia tell Ms. Celie to “bash Mister’s head in and think about heaven later,” after confronting her for telling her step-son to beat her. Imagine how Oprah read all of THAT from just a few letters to god. On the page, Celie acknowledges her jealousy of Sofia’s power – she’s just as “poor, Black and ugly” as she. She apologizes and reconciles by helping Harpo’s next woman recognize her own power. There’s a whole storyline about this. The book more keenly develops more characters and their transformations. In our solitude, we read The Color Purple and for the first time view it in Technicolor.

 

In the book, of course, we neither see the bruises and blood nor hear the screams the children must have hears when Mister beats Celie senselessly throughout their marriage. We read how Celie gained the courage to leave this batterer. Oh, and the grandest surprise is that Shug reveals to Celie that God ain’t a man, and he ain’t white, neither. If God were a white man, neither could believe in him, according to the book. Both their redemptions came from there, not as the film shows. In the film, Shug is a floozy who redeems herself by becoming ‘respectable’.  The film doesn’t question the heteropatriarchal god, a central narrative in the book.

 

The book is really queer. Harpo loves to cook, clean and take care of kids while his woman works. Harpo resolves his Oedipal dilemma by accepting that he’s not a patriarch like his father. The film depicts his struggle but not this resolution. In the book, there’s an entire sub-narrative about how Celie’s kids in Africa – raised by her sister Nettie – reject the traditional gender roles. This is only hinted at in the film.

 

Celie-Shug-kiss

Celie & Shug’s only on-screen kiss

Of course, Celie’s a lesbian, Shug’s bisexual and Mister is cool with their love triangle. In the book, Mister’s redemption is there, literally becoming just a tiny bit more feminist, though still not nearly as the flashy boxer Shug later marries. Another big twist is that in the book is that Shug and her husband split amicably; he moves south of the border with Harpo’s woman, Mary Agnes, to run their very own marijuana plantation.

 

Celie encouraged Mary Agnes to stop people from calling her Squeak, a sub-narrative that only is hinted at in the film’s iconic Thanksgiving scene, aka Celie’s uprising. I love Celie’s nasty retort to Mister’s sinister dad in this scene: “Seem like if he hadn’t been your boy, he might a made somebody a halfway decent man.”  Shug helps Mary Agnes have her own singing career, as implied in the Thanksgiving scene when she says she’s leaving with Celie and Shug Avery. In a deep hearty laugh that breaks the dramatic tension, Sofia declares: “Oh, Sofia(‘s) home.”

oprah-winfrey-in-the-color-purple-1541447363

“You told Harpo to beat me!” Oprah’s breakout character & breakout scene

 

Self-love and women supporting women are huge themes that can’t be captured in a movie, it needs a whole mini-series to watch at home.  Serendipitously, at the end of the scene when their boarding the car, Celie’s hex on Mister is almost taken directly from the pages. “Until you do right by me, ev’ry thing you even think about gonna fail!”

celie-stabs-mister

Celie’s Thanksgiving uprising

Finally, in the book, Celie and Mister eventually become friends. Come back with her long-lost kids and the dear sister Nettie he’d banished and “whoop his ass.” I love, love, love the film, but all of this was erased from book to script. I discovered all of this in my solitude.

 

The Color Purple was originally written as Celie’s prayers, the way she escaped the hell of her existence. In the book, she found this through love. On the paper, we can see that she stops writing to “God” and instead addresses the letters to her sister Nettie, the one who taught her to read (in both versions).  The pages, not the movie, clearly reveal this spiritual transformation. Celie continues to write to Nettie, not knowing anything of her fate, only having found the old letters Mister had stashed away for years. Their love was so strong that in her solitude, writing the letters brought her peace. Curate writing activities that bring you peace.

color-purple-book-cover

The revised book cover following the film’s success

Do you keep a journal, dabble in poetry, admire the prose in your head? Set aside time as a family for writing and reading. Experience solitude together. Share your work. Curate activities that bring you peace. Use this quarantine to strengthen your capacity to love.

 

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.

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