There was something rather charming about Toronto’s first-ever queer literary festival. I don’t know if it was the perfectly jagged mohawk of Jon, one of the organizers, or the excellent warm-but not-too warm weather. Or perhaps it was simply that, as my companion for that day, The Queer Organizer quipped, “It’s like a mini-Pride day!”
I heard some new writers, like Nairne Holtz – writing with a low-key, dry yet loving humour, and Michael Rowe – earnest and au courant. I listened to a panel of writers, editors and booksellers mouth cliches about queer writing and I went to a smut reading that was utterly un-sexy. I ran into old and new friends, ate eggs florentine on a sunny patio, did a reading, signed books, chatted with readers and writers. I had a lot of conversations with younger queers – a significant part of my readership, as it turns out! – and one of the things we talked about was the troubled relationship of feminism to transgender politics, in the wake of Patrick Califia‘s reading that morning.
Formerly Pat Califia, he (then she) has had an enormous impact on my life and writing. Califia was writing about sex at a time when that wasn’t, er, uh, the thing to do, and, during the reading, he made frequent and somewhat bitter references the “the feminists” that had stood in his way. Odd that, because it was a lesbian feminist publisher, Naiad Press, that bravely published his first book, Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality, in 1980. In it, Califia wrote, “Knowing I was a lesbian transformed the way I saw, heard, perceived the whole world […] We share a rebellious passion for the disinherited one, woman.”
The thing is, Califia wasn’t the only one writing so courageously and honestly. Feminists of all stripes were taking on a culture’s erotophobia and writing words or producing images that rocked the worlds of readers and audiences in the 70’s and 80’s, straight and queer alike. In Canada, there were video artists and filmmakers like myself, as well as Corrie Weingarden, the Kiss ‘n Tell Collective, Lynn Fernie, and writers and theorists like Mariana Valverde, Dionne Brand, Carolyn Gammon, Betsy Warland, Nicole Brossard. The American list of sex-positive feminists writers and theorists reads like an elegy: Annie Sprinkle; Audre Lorde: Joan Nestle; Sarah Schulman; Cheryl Clarke. The holy names of all these artists span my bookshelves; their words have marked my life. They made survival, and better yet, growth and expansion, possible for generations of queer feminists.
Why then, does Califia (much like other transmen that I’ve heard or read) define himself so singularly, and so in opposition to feminism? It’s certainly true that identity is relational, and that we often define ourselves by what we’re not – Canadian because we’re not American, queer because not straight, and so on. Sometimes that kind of identity formation can be the sign, as in Canadian identity, of a problem: a crack in the facade of national identity.
Identity itself is so fragmented, so multi-faceted. Defining yourself as just one thing – say, in my case, Ukrainian – would, of necessity require denying queerness, and probably feminism too.
Could it be that transgender politics is in an early kind of postcolonial nationalist stage? Something akin to the ‘lesbian nation’ of the 1970’s?
Still, I expect more from folks like Califia, who are old enough to remember the pain and pitfalls of essentialist identity politics. A fellow writer and ally, I don’t want to be lectured and stereotyped as I sit in the audience. I love Califia’s sex writing, admire his craft, appreciate his charm. I think he needs a good editor. Or maybe as audiences and readers, we need to be more outspoken.
I did, however, enjoy seeing straight couples, out for a stroll, pause by the tent where Califia was reading. I watched their expressions go from a pleasurable tolerance to something more bemused and unsettled.
And I thought, that’s the crux of it, really. To paraphrase Joan Nestle, “being a sexual people is our gift to the world.”