(Re)Producing Gender: The Lavender Menace

Apparently, lesbians in China are less threatening. But less threatening than what? Lalas, the Chinese equivalent of lesbian, are less threatening to conceptions of gender and sexuality than gay men.

Lalas are apparently less threatening because the government has approved a reproduction of a 19th century play featuring two women who fall in love with each. Such approval does not confer acceptance. Just ask the organizers of a recent gay pageant. They had permission, but the police shut it down. Ask the organizers of the Beijing Queer film festival. For years, they would get the necessary permits only to have them eventually revoked.

According to Eli Zaretsky, a psychoanalytic historian of Capitalism, contemporary sexual identities are rooted in corporate Capitalism and the corresponding rise of “personal life,” that is, sections of life that are not connected to the production of value. As far as those interests are concerned, what you might do in your free time does not matter as long as you continue to produce value – which can be generated either through labor or consumption. This represents a rupture from earlier methodologies, which sought to control every aspect of the worker’s life in order to achieve maximum productivity.

Deregulated identities are not unregulated identities. It is simply cheaper for people to internalize  regulations and enforce the ethic themselves. The contradiction between prevailing cultural norms and the interests of Capitalism forms the boundary that separates personal life from production. An identity too far from what is deemed acceptable cannot produce and thus cannot consume. An example of this can be found in a recent survey conducted in the US, in which 6,450 transgender identified individuals found “near universal harassment on the job.” This assumes, of course, that they could even find a job.

While certain identities may have been able to distance themselves from the requirements of productivity, there has been nowhere near the same success in the realm of reproduction. Indeed many of the Chinese queer economies of desire seem to be defined almost exclusively through heteronormative means.

Lala couples are expected to be comprised of a “T” and a “P.” “T” stands for the adopted English term  ‘tomboy’ while “P” is a derivation of laopo, or wife. T is supposed to be more masculine in presentation and thus to take a more active sexual role. P is expected to exist through her femininity and passivity. In this particular economy of desire, a feminine identity is the most sought after.

While there may be a hierarchy of desire amongst lalas, their spaces are not subject to extreme regulations of desire and presentation that seems to be present within the gay male, also known as tongzhi, communities. There, men who display any form of femininity are immediately ostracized as being “not right”. Most will reply that this is because they want to be with men who act like “real” men. Of course, if they really wanted to act like “proper” men they would sleep with women. While the prevalent position on “feminine” men is mired in misogyny, it is also a reaction against a larger cultural misogyny that would feminize and ostracize them simply because to be attracted to a man is to be automatically feminized.

This same ideology carries through what in the U.S. would be called transgender identities. (I refer here only to trans-women as I have no experience with Chinese trans-men.) Their extreme marginalization makes these liminal identities even more resistant to reductive and categorical definition. The difficulty of definition is compounded by the fact that there does not seem to be any sense of cohesive community. Some might secure employment in a legitimate hair salon. Others find work as drag queens. Or they might be self employed, going to popular clubs looking for `foreign investment’. In the case of the last two, any revenue depends on their status as male-bodied women.

One such woman told me that if she were to really be a woman she would have to kill herself, because, otherwise, she would be excommunicated from the collective tongzhi, who already mistrusted her. On the other side, she could never tell her future husband of her past for fear that he would leave her. Not all feel exactly this way, but all distinctly feel the contradiction between their desires and their realities. And so they do what they can, (re)claiming spaces of resistance wherever they are able.

None of this is to say that their desires or their genders do not reflect authentic positions, only that they also reflect social expectations. To this end each identity is defined by the politics of “passing,” being perceived as belonging to the dominant (i.e. heterosexual) group. Gender presentation or identity aside, they are all able to achieve this social ideal through reproduction. Most talk of marriage as a shield from stigma. The difference is that this shield comes in the form of a performance of heterosexuality through the production of a child – a commodity all the more imperative to produce since the advent of the one child policy.

While Capitalist ideology may have opened the space needed to express these identities, it brought with it the imperialism of queer identities native to an English-speaking world. Often, these identities impose categories on the way that these other identities are supposed to behave and how they are supposed to work within the global framework of reclaiming gender diversity from colonialism.

Nevertheless, these are identities struggling to create authentic spaces of existence. That the lalas are somehow less threatening is ridiculous. Even though their identities may fit within the heteronormative paradigm, the space is still subverted through the reclamation of gender diversity. The master’s tool may not be able to completely dismantle the structures of oppression, but his sledgehammer might still be useful to knock down a few of the walls.

Vanessa Crowley
vanessacrowley5@gmail.com

Haunts: Child-ghosts in the society of the spectacle

In November 2008, La Promesse, a school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed. Three stories came crashing down, at least 84 children and staff were killed, over 150 injured. It was not an earthquake that brought death to those children. It was shoddy construction, it was greed. Immediately afterwards, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s building were poorly built and unsafe.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin tried to understand, to live with, the calculations that leave children suffering and dead under the weight of preventable destruction. She tried to understand the promise we make to our children:

The Promise
— For the Haitian schoolchildren who 
died under the rubble of “La Promesse”

children die
do not talk to me about prayer
or paradise
talk is cheap
children die
and my anger supercedes my grief
remember
it was a november morning like any other
when the plaster the brick the mortar
came crashing down
children die
under the rubble of the promise
women cry
the air is heavy as lead
the air is filled with dust
we live in heartless times
and children die
looking for paradise

Children die. We live in heartless times and children die. Those children become child-ghosts. We live in an age of spectacle in which children die and living children are treated as dead. Both are child-ghosts.

Sunday morning, May 16, seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones lay asleep in her bed, when Detroit police rushed in with guns drawn and, quickly, blazing, and killed her. An accident, they said, in apology, as explanation. `A Tragedy in Detroit, With a Reality TV Crew in Tow’, according to The New York Times. The police were participating in an A&E reality show, The First 48. For some, this is an issue about reality shows, for others police violence, for others the value of the lives of people of color, of girls of color. These are all worthy lines of lines of inquiry.

At the same time, Aiyana Stanley-Jones is precisely not a tragedy because her story is too familiar and too often repeated. She is one with the girls of La Promesse, young, Black, dreaming, and killed. A ghost-child.

The next day, Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that “juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” “An incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison”? Perhaps. A step in the right direction, but not a long enough nor a strong enough step? Probably. A ruling that addresses neither the inequities of life without parole nor the cynical inequalities of the parole system? Most likely.

Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole turns that child into a child-ghost. Once he or she, and the majority are he (and he of color, at that) is sentenced, the game is over, the play is done, the curtain is drawn. All that matters is the spectacle of society being defended, the courtroom drama that assures that humans will be protected from monsters. How? By sending them to the beyond. That those monsters actually are still alive is irrelevant. Who really cares about ghosts produced in a society of spectacle? No one.

And what of those children whose only crime is that of seeking safety?

On Wednesday, the British Home Office announced that children would no longer be held at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. The decision came soon after a Pakistani woman asylum, Sehar Shebaz, and her 12 month old daughter Wania were arrested on Monday, and sent to Dungavel. People protested. The Home Office said fine … and then prepared to ship Sehar and Wania Shebaz to Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood … again: “Anne McLaughlin, SNP MSP for Glasgow, called for an immediate end to the policy across the rest of the UK. Ms McLaughlin has been a key activist in the high profile campaign to prevent Florence Mhango, from Malawi, and her 10-year-old daughter Precious, who were held at Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood, from being deported after seven years in the UK. She said: `From Precious we know the horrific impact detention at Dungavel has on young children, but we also know that her experience at Yarl’s Wood was no better. By removing children immediately to Yarl’s Wood they are being taken away from the support networks and services they have built up in Scotland. The House of Commons has been highly critical of child detention in Yarl’s Wood and we must see this practice brought to an end across the UK as soon as possible.’”

A child seeks asylum and is sent to prison. A woman seeks asylum, with her child, and is sent to prison. Does it matter which prison? Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out of options, out of light, out of life. They are ghosts, and they are treated as such.

Today is May 22, 2010. May 22, 2009, seven girls perished in an altogether preventable fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, Georgina Saunders, all 16 years old; Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15, and Stephanie Smith, 17. The Prime Minister called it a tragedy. Of course. A video and petition campaign has begun to make sure that the Prime Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions work harder, work better so that the tragedy is not repeated.

These child-ghosts, these girl-ghosts, under the rubble, under the gun, behind the bars, in the flames, they are children, living, breathing, human children. In fact, they are our children. We must teach them as we ourselves must learn and live the lesson of the Griot, “You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.”

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Asylum haunts the foreign service

Asylum haunts the foreign service. People face violence, persecution, torture, from the State, from partners, from various sectors. Finally, they flee. They escape. They go to the United Kingdom, say, or the United States. Where they apply for asylum. And are treated like criminals. Often they are placed in immigrant detention centers, where they are treated as immigrant detainees, which is to say where they are treated as common criminals … or worse. Then they are returned to the torture zones and the killing fields. They tell their stories, others tell their stories. Their stories circulate, in the languages of those who suffered throughout their communities. Their stories, their bodies, their scars and their memories, precede the ambassadors and the envoys.

This week Bita Ghaedi was informed that she would not be deported immediately to Iran. Further, she was informed that she could finally leave Yarl’s Wood. In 2005, Bita Ghaedi fled a violently abusive family and an imminent forced marriage. In the UK, she has been a civil rights, women’s rights and human rights activist who has publically supported the opposition to the Iranian government. She has reason to believe she would be killed if she is returned to Iran. The question is whether it would be the State or her family who would commit the deed.

In 2007, Bita Ghaedi’s application was turned down. She attempted suicide. She appealed the decision. In January of this year, she was on weeks long hunger strike. She was supposed to be deported April 20, but Icelandic volcanic ash postponed that. She was supposed to be deported this past Wednesday, May 5. That’s when the high court decided, again, to delay the deportation and hold another hearing. That is meant to happen July 21.

Bita Ghaedi’s story parallels that of Rodi Alvarado. Rodi Alvarado was born and raised in Guatemala.  In 1984, at the age of 16, she married a man, a former soldier, who immediately began beating, torturing, raping her. She went to authorities who did nothing. She ran away, was caught by her husband, and beaten unconscious. Finally, in 1995, she fled to the United States, leaving her two young children with relatives. She applied for asylum. In September 1996, an immigration judge granted her asylum.

That’s where the story turns: “The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed the grant to a higher court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). And in June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, by a divided 10-5 vote, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala”

The case then lingered on until December 2009, when Rodi Alvarado was finally, and without explanation, granted asylum. For fourteen years, Rodi Alvarado waited in terror.

In March 2009, Amnesty USA released Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA. Without naming Rodi Alvarado, the report suggests that, in the context of US treatment of asylum seeking women, Rodi Alvarado’s case is not unusual. In fact, it’s almost benign.

In the United States, women asylum seekers are routinely abused. Some, like Saluja Thangaraja, can share their names: “Saluja Thangaraja fled the brutal beatings and torture that she suffered during the Sri Lankan civil war only to endure more than four and a half half years of immigration detention upon arrival in the United States in October 2001. She was granted asylum in 2004. However, immigration authorities appealed the decision, and Ms. Thangaraja remained in detention. She was finally released in March 2006 after filing a habeas petition. Despite posing no danger to the community and demonstrating a commitment to pursuing her asylum claim, Ms. Thangaraja was never given a custody hearing during the four and a half years she was detained.”

Others must continue to insist on anonymity: “A 26-year-old Chinese woman cried as she told AI [Amnesty International] researchers that she fled persecution after she and her mother were beaten in their home for handing out religious fliers. She arrived in the United States in January 2008 seeking asylum and was detained at the airport before being moved to a county jail. No one explained to her why she was being detained. An ICE Field Office Director decided that she should remain in detention unless a bond of $50,000 was paid. Neither her uncle in the United States nor her family in China had sufficient funds to meet the required amount. Her attorney told Amnesty International that the immigration judge indicated that he did not have the authority to release her from detention or change the amount of the bond set. Family members in the United States were finally able to raise the money needed to secure her release in December 2008, after she had spent nearly an entire year in detention.”

Women asylum seekers in detention centers are shackled in childbirth, placed in isolation for the crime of not speaking English, sexually harassed, abused, exploited. In other words, women asylum seekers are treated exactly the same as women immigrant detainees.

Bita Ghaedi, Rodi Alvarado, Saluja Thangaraja, the “Chinese woman”, and the thousands of other asylum seekers who are and have been abused, these are the ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom. Not the Secretary of State nor the Foreign Secretary. Not Hillary Clinton nor David Miliband, or whomever it will be next week. The lives and bodies of these women testify to the story of women who have sought refuge and the manner in which they have been treated in the great democracies of the early twenty first century. These women and the asylum they have sought haunt the foreign service and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com