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Filisa Vistima was more than just a martyr: a history of trans women in Seattle’s lesbian community in the early 1990s

Date: October 7, 2016

On Monday, October 10th, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, Department of History will celebrate the opening of the new LGBTQ Seattle Activism Project curated by doctoral student Kevin McKenna. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project already offers an amazing collection of historical materials and testimonies about civil and labor rights, so I was excited to hear about the launch of this new section.

The news of its opening also reminded me that I had done some research about an important part of Seattle’s lesbian and transgender history last year at the Seattle Public Library but procrastinated documenting what I found, and motivated me to finally do just that.

My research was about Filisa Vistima, a 22-year old trans woman living in Seattle who committed suicide on March 1993. In addition to being transgender, she was an active member of local lesbian community, volunteering her time at Seattle’s Lesbian Resource Center, which has since been closed. Last entries of her diary, archived by trans activist and writer Cristan Williams document her struggle with love, life, depression, and (often internalized) transphobia:

I am encountering many old desires of mine, e.g. swimming. By the comments [name withheld] has mentioned to me (“Your hands are large,” “You’re shaped like a boy” and so forth), I have been self-conscious of myself. I wish I was anatomically “normal” so I could go swimming.

If i was “normal” I would no longer have any reason to hide behind my clothes other than to hide my modesty. I could go swimming without clothes… I would love to do that so much!!

But no, I’m a mutant, Frankenstein’s monster.

Now I am feeling the same feeling I had some days ago but forgot about them, the feeling that I hate myself, the physical self. I remember having these feelings when I was a child, hitting thighs with my hands so I would cry. I’m, crying now…

[…] I feel inferior to “real women” and I may never be able to resolve the conflict.

(From Filisa Vistima’s Diary, January 5, 1993)

In The Transgender Studies Reader, trans historian Susan Stryker adds further context to Filisa’s suicide:

What drove her to such despair was the exclusion she experienced in Seattle’s queer community, some members of which opposed Filisa’s participation because of her transsexuality–even though she identified as and lived as a bisexual woman. The Lesbian Resource Center where she served as a volunteer conducted a survey of its constituency to determine whether it should stop ofering services to male-to-female transsexuals. Filisa did the data entry for tabulating the survey results; she didn’t have to imagine how people felt about her kind. […] Even in death she found no support from the community in which she claimed membership. “Why didn’t Filisa commit herself for psychiatric care?” asked a columnist in the Seattle Gay News. “Why didn’t Filisa demand her civil rights?” In this case, not only did the angry villagers hound their monster to the edge of town, they reproached her for being vulnerable to the torches. Did Filisa Vistima commit suicide, or did the queer community of Seattle kill her?

Cristan Williams also writes:

From what I can ascertain, prior to her Filisa’s death, she was made responsible for entering data from a Lesbian Resource Center (LRC) survey asking their service population if they felt that the LRC should continue to provide services to MTF transsexuals. RadFems had taken a hard line against providing services to transsexuals and Filisa was the one who had to record each venomous RadFem objection just prior to her death.

In the footnote, Stryker clarifies that her description “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases” opinion pieces written by Margaret Deidre O’Hartigan and Frederic Kahler (separately) and published several months after Filisa’s death in Bay Times, a weekly LGBT community newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, in my research I found out that some important details surrounding Filisa’s death were not entirely accurate.

There was a major controversy among members of Seattle’s lesbian community, but it mainly was over the acceptability of S/M in lesbian community, not transgender issues. The August 1992 issue of LRC Community News, the monthly publication of the Lesbian Resource Center, reported that “Seattle will play hostess to POWERSURGE, the first international Lesbian SM conference ever held.” “It is an event that heralds a new chapter in lesbian herstory,” proclaimed author Julia Kaplan.

The conference was being organized by Outer Limits, a local lesbian S/M group that held orientation meetings for new and prospective members at LRC, whose presence at the community center was heavily disputed by lesbians who believed that S/M glorified abuse and violence against women. Community member Maureen Brooks submitted a letter published in the same issue of LRC Community News arguing:

Once upon a time the Lesbian Resource Center was focused on creating a safe space for Lesbians to congreate. All Lesbians. It no longer serves that purpose.
[…] For example, the Lesbian Resource Center has become a staunch supporter of the S/M crowd. You can now attend workshops at the Lesbian Resource Center that offer actual demonstrations of Lesbian style sado-masochism. […]

What does S/M have to do with being a Lesbian? What does a trans-gender male or female have to do with being Lesbian? […] The Lesbian Resource Center is Lesbian space. […] My life has been dedicated to Honoring Women and the Female Energy. Obviously, the Lesbian Resource Center does not share in that commitment.

Brooks ends her letter by urging similarly minded lesbians to join her fight against the LRC leadership.

I don’t believe that I’m the only one who feels this way abut what’s happening in our space. […] Our concerns aren’t being represented at the Lesbian Resource enter. Our concerns are real and need to be heard before our Lesbian space is taken completely away from us. I can write letter after letter of protest, and the Board of Officers [of the LRC] will answer each letter praising the god of diversity. One person cannot accomplish change. But together we can reclaim our space and make it safe for Lesbians again. Talk to me. My telephone number is [redatcted].

Brooks does mention her opposition to transgender inclusion at the LRC in the passing, but the bulk of her arguments revolve around the acceptance of S/M at the LRC, as understood by other readers who sent in their criticisms of Brooks’ position in the September issue of the LRC Community News:

You talk about what you think the S/M women do in the LRC “space”. I know you haven’t encountered the shocking display of someone actually practicing S/M when you walk through the LRC door. That would be non-consensual, and that’s not what S/M is about. So it’s KNOWING that they were THERE at some point, and might be THERE again that bothers you. (name withheld)

[…] think about the fact that S/M or transgender women who love other women are also lesbians, and therefore have the same right to the LRC as you. […] I fail to see how an S/M workshop on, say, Tuesday makes the LRC “unsafe” for you on Wednesday (or Tuesday, for that matter). (Tonya Mikulas)

How does an event that happens when you are not in the LRC make it unsafe for you to be there at some other time? […] I understand that you may disapprove of me or the other Lesbians based on your own self-definition and “I honor that self-definition in all of us,” yet I realize that the LRC can be, and is, a safe place for both of us, for all Lesbians, for all women.” (Jane Seidman Vosk)

I am very involved in the lesbian S/M community and I do not know of anyone who either hangs out there [at the LRC] or wishes to “take it over.” I don’t understand her [Brooks’] paranoia just because diverse lesbians occasionally meet there and do not fit her lesbian standards. […] I believe that the LRC News handled itself in a fair and true journalistic manner by reflecting the very diversity of which she wrote, by including both her anti-S/M letter and, on the following page, a big story of POWERSURGE, the upcoming Seattle S/M lesbian conference.

All through her letter she referred to S/M dykes as not being lesbians. She wrote about female energy and then referred to the God, not Goddess, of diversity. I’d stake my Goddess-filled leather up against her bigoted cotton drawstrings any day and I’d still come up a dyke! (Julia Kaplan)

I wish to note the number of leather dykes who work in leadership positions in our local, national, and international community. To deny these women–these lesbians–full participation in the LRC is ludicrous! […] My experience with S/M dykes at [sic.] that of all sub-groups within the lesbian community, these are the women most ready to come out, step up, and volunteer their time to their sisters and brothers. […] To restrict the LRC to only a particular type of lesbian is to restrict the LRC’s purpose–and ultimately, the LRC’s funding and thus its ability to survive. I ask all of you to consider what could be accomplished if people like Ms. Brooks stopped spending their time and energy worrying about “how do I keep THEM out” and instead spent it on “how can I keep US strong.” (Karen T. Taylor)

There are many lesbians who share Brooks’ anti-S/M attitude. Many S/M dykes once felt this way too. I encourage those who feel this way to learn more of what S/M is about before passing judgment on the personal lifestyle choices of others. […] As lesbians we are a diverse group with diverse needs and thank Goddess for that! I wish us all support and resources on our paths toward empowerment. I am an S/M dyke and the LRC is as much for me as it is for Maureen Brooks. (Jennifer Greenstein)

The letters section also included a statement, signed by dozens of S/M lesbians, that simply noted “We, the undersigned, feel that S/M lesbians have as much right to use the LRC as any other lesbian.”

S/M Lesbians' Statement

Letters published in this issue of the LRC Community News were all in support of S/M lesbians in the LRC and larger lesbian community, but Brooks published her own “community survey” as a paid advertisement on the same issue under the ad-hoc group “Lesbians for Abuse-Free Lesbian Space.”

The “community survey” contained twelve items that are leading questions designed to promote Brooks’ own opinions on issues at hand and seeking agreement. For example, the question number three reads:

A woman who has experienced abuse enters the LRC. She sees S/M posters on the wall. She reads the LRC publication that announces an S/M workshop at the LRC, complete with demonstrations. She attends an LRC dance and is exposed to the token slave-on-chain being led around by her Mistress. What is the possibility of this woman feeling safe at the LRC or any of its functions? What is our responsibility to this woman?

Brooks questions the inclusion of “bisexual and transgender community” in the LRC (questions nine, eleven and twelve) as well as “whether a male can validly define himself as a Lesbian, even after the surgical removal of his male genitalia and the surgical introduction of artificial female genitalia” (question ten) near the end of the survey, but the focus of the survey clearly is the issue of S/M (questions one through eight and twelve).

Maureen Brooks Survey

The survey concludes by asking readers to submit their responses to “Maureen Brooks c/o Lesbian Resource Center,” promising that “the results of this survey will be presented to the Board of Officers of the Lesbian Resource Center along with a request for action on their part to resolve this growing problem.”

The publication of the anti-S/M and anti-bi/trans survey as a “paid advertisement” in the LRC Community News resulted in a flood of criticisms against its editors, some of which were published in the next (October) issue.

As a dyke who has been involved with the LRC since 1976 (such as LMNDF, workshops, discussion groups, guest speakers, etc.), I clearly question the continual discussion and on-going attacks on s/m dykes and other groups. All dykes should have equal access to the LRC and its resources by virtue of simply being dykes. i am the s/m dyke recently referred to in your (newspaper), but not by name. If any womyn on the LRC board, staff, etc. have questions as to how i have run my workshops and/or what was said or done, ask me directly. Do not use covert references to third hand instances such as Maureen has done in her letter and her survey. (slave falcon, with full support of her Mistress Kate)

As a Queer woman and past contributor, volunteer and client of the LRC, I feel compelled to respond to Maureen Brooks’ letter and subsequent ad in the LRCCN… […] My initial response to the letter was “here we go, tearing our own community apart from within, better than the right-wing does from outside.” But the appearance of the so-called survey by “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space” was just too offensive to ignore. Ms. Brooks’ blatant manipulative language and own personal agenda (is there anyone else in this “group”?) smack of Republican hate-mongering tactics. Distortions and labeling (dehumanizing) are fascist tactics used by far better propagandists than you, Ms. Brooks. (name lost due to editing error)

In response to these criticisms, the Board of Lesbian Resource Center published its apology for publishing the survey:

Two months ago, a letter to the editor appeared in the LRCCN concerning one individual’s concern that the LRC is no longer a safe place for lesbians. Her concern centered on the presence of certain groups of lesbians at the LRC. The editor and the Board discussed whether the letter should be published. While the Board unanimously stands behind the LRC’s mission statement that the LRC is a place for all lesbians to enjoy, we decided to allow its publication. We felt and continue to feel that the LRC and the LRCCN provide forums where ideas and controversies can and should be explored.

The following month the editor received numerous letters opposing the initial letter (no letters in support of the initial letter were received prior to the publication deadline). Many of the letters were printed as space allowed. In addition, the author of the initial letter requested space in the LRCCN for a survey she wished to publish. The editor agreed to publish the survey provided the writer pay for the space at the going advertisement rate. In addition, the editor granted the writer’s request that she be offered the same courtesy other advertisers receive–namely, the option of having responses to her ad received at the LRC. This in no way represented the Board’s or editor’s endorsement of the survey or the idea therein expressed, or any intent by the Board to use any material sent to the author as a community barometer. Unfortunately, our zeal to allow freedom of expression and to stand in the face of criticism and controversy, we overlooked the oppressive nature of the survey. And truly, the survey was oppressive. To suggest, as the survey does, that the LRC should limit access or services to any group of lesbians is oppressive to that group. To question the right of any lesbian to use the LRC, to discuss the issues important to her, to share her knowledge and experience, based on that lesbian’s beliefs, private consensual sexual practices or affiliations is oppressive.

We offer our heartfelt apology to the lesbian community for having published a survey which is oppressive to S/M lesbians, bisexuals and transgender lesbians. We affirm that the LRC remains committed to supporting all lesbians and to refraining from “print[ing] items which are oppressive” in the LRCCN.

After reading these three months’ worth of the LRC Community News it became clear to me that the version of history Susan Stryker and Cristan Williams wrote contained many inaccuracies: The survey was indeed published, but it was conducted by an individual critical of the Lesbian Resource Center’s leadership (and yes, there is no evidence that the whole thing is more than just one individual’s being unhappy with the direction of the LRC), and not the LRC itself. The survey was mostly about the acceptance of lesbians who practice S/M, and the issue of bisexual and transgender women’s inclusion appears to have been an add-on. The Lesbian Resource Center did not intend to “determine whether it should stop offering services to male-to-female transsexuals” or use the result of the survey in any way.

Filisa Vistima’s name last appears in the masthead of the publication under “data entry” until its October issue (in which the apology was published) and disappears in the November issue. Her departure from the LRC Community News may or may not have something to do with her reactions to the controversy, but it is questionable that she was forced to perform “the data entry for tabulating the survey results,” if the LRC merely agreed to receive readers’ responses to the ads at its address for Brooks and her “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space,” especially since the Board quickly recognized how “oppressive” the survey was.

The controversy over S/M or bisexual/transgender inclusion disappears from the subsequent issues of the publication following the apology, no doubt due to an editorial decision made by the Board and editors. Then in its April 1993 issue, the LRC Community News published an obituary for Filisa written by an LRC staffer Mindy Schaberg, along with a beautiful photo of her. The entire obituary is reproduced below (with her birth name redacted out of respect for Filisa, since I do not know if this was something that was okay with her):

Filisa Sofia Vistima, 1970-1993

The staff and board of the LRC are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Filisa Vistima. Filisa took her own life Friday, March 5, 1993. She was 22.

She was found by her housemate after she took an overdose of antidepressants. She left a letter to her housemate, detailing her last wishes, which included the publication of her journal documenting her experiences as transgendered. She constantly struggled with bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Filisa was born [redacted] in Webberville, MI to fundamentalist parents. She will be buried in Michigan under her boy name.

At a recent memorial service held at the LRC, twenty friends and acquaintances gathered to remember this person whom one friend described as “deep waters beneath a still, placid surface.”

She was a member of the computer network 28 Barbary Lane, and those who knew her from her highly intelligent and eloquent writing were surprised when they met the reserved and taciturn Filisa. She was a voracious reader, gifted on the computer, intrigued by science (especially microbiology), and education. She loved the natural world, and kept two mice as pets.

While she may have felt most comfortable in a cerebral realm, she loved a bit of raunch and drama as well. One friend described the time she announced that she wanted to feel Filisa’s “tit buds,” as the hormones Filisa was taking took effect, and did. Filisa was shocked and delighted.

She moved to Seattle in 1991, in part because of the city’s transgendered community, and checked in with the Ingersoll Center. She began volunteering at the Lesbian Resource Center soon after. She spent hundreds of hours here as a drop-in volunteer, cataloging the entire collection of periodicals and books, helping out with whatever project was going on. When this newspaper was between editors a year and a half ago, for example, she and then-director Cherie Larsen put in sixteen hour days to get it out.

We knew it was Monday at the LRC because Filisa would appear suddenly, tall and thin, her long reddish hair cascading down her back, a diaphanous scarf knotted at her throat, and settle on the couch with a book. Phone messages would appear on our desks in her tiny, cramped writing, invariably in purple ink–purple fine-point being her pen of choice.

She wrote many short stories and poems. One poem “Message in a Bottle,” written in October of 1992, contains this stanza: “I know you don’t know me / And I hope you get my message. / I come from a far-away place / And time. / I want to give you a part of me / In this bottle of unfulfilled dreams. / I will not begin a new life– / One without mortality– / Through these writings i (sic) have written / And end an old one.”

We will miss you, Filisa.

It is undoubtedly true that Filisa faced prejudice and discrimination for who she was within the lesbian and queer communities as well as the rest of the world. It is possible that Maureen Brooks’ attacks on the Lesbian Resource Center that took place several months before Filisa’s suicide contributed to the already full plate of rejections and disappointments that ultimately led to her death. Suicides, hate crimes, and the slow deaths of depression, social isolation, poverty, and obstacles to self-care continue to claim many trans lives today, after more than two decades of movements for transgender liberation since Filisa’s time.

That certainly is a part of the history of transgender lives in Seattle, but it is only a part. What is missing from Stryker’s and Williams’ telling of Filisa’s story was that Filisa was also accepted and loved by her peers at the Lesbian Resource Center, who at times made mistakes (like publishing her birth name in an otherwise loving obituary). The Lesbian Resource Center did make a mistake by allowing Brooks’ “survey” as a paid advertisement, perhaps motivated by a desire to be held accountable to criticisms, but the Seattle lesbian community deserves more credit than being recorded in history as a group of transphobic haters who forced a trans woman volunteer to tabulate the results of the survey about her own exclusion.

I shared my finding with Susan Stryker, who offered the following statement to be published along with this post.

I knew the story of Filisa Vistima only from coverage in the Bay Area gay and lesbian press–two editorials in the San Francisco Bay Times, one (May 20, 1993) by Portland-based trans activist Margaret O’Hartigan, and the other (June 3, 1993) by Frederic Kahler. As I mention in a footnote in the article of mine that you refer to, the paragraph in which I discuss Vistima “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases, O’Hartigan and Kahler.” As such, my citation of these works undoubtedly reproduces any biases or errors in their representation of events. The main topic of the article in which I mentioned Vistima was not her or her death, but rather monstrosity, and the main point I was trying to make was that the denial of humanity to trans people, and the attribution of monstrosity to us, can be transformed into a positive source of power, by rejecting the hierarchy of values that puts “the human” on top of the rest of material being. I mentioned Vistima only because in her journal entries, quoted in the media coverage, she wrote of considering herself a “Frankenstein monster,” which she found to be extremely disempowering, and which seems to have played some role in her suicidal ideation. Her story was in the press just as I was writing on this topic, and I simply used it as an example to illustrate the larger point that I was trying to make. The circumstances of Vistima’s death were not anything I investigated deeply, so if your research shows that the editorials I drew on mischaracterize her relationship to the Lesbian Resource Center, I defer to your greater expertise on the matter, while nevertheless maintaining the point I was trying to make in the article, and the appropriateness of using her self-characterizations to support that point.

Susan Stryker

I would like to thank Susan and the librarian at the Seattle Public Library who found copies of the LRC Community News spread over multiple shelves due to repeated changes to the publication’s name.

Filisa Vistima Obituary

“didn’t know at the time” – a high school romance

Date: January 6, 2013

didn’t know at the time

I finally looked up the whereabouts of my high school band teacher, Miss Jackson. After being transplanted from the streets of a West Coast city to a fundamentalist Christian household in Southern Missouri to “rescue” my soul, I managed to fake my transcripts and was allowed to take four music classes every day, three of which were with her.

I didn’t know it at the time, Miss Jackson was a classical butch woman, with very short hair, undecorative clothes, and independent, tough, dependable personality. Students adored her, especially the girls, because there weren’t any other adult women like her in the rural Missouri town.

My best friend at the time was girl named Helen, who was also taking all four music classes with me. We also went to the same Southern Baptist church, which met four times a week for different activities. I didn’t know at the time that we were practically dating, so we just styled each other’s hair and copied each other’s fashion. On one occasion, we even performed a duet during a Sunday morning service, a deeply romantic ballad about Jesus’ longing for a former believer who has strayed away from the faith.

Helen and I often went to Miss Jackson’s house after school. She lived with a big dog and a housemate, the skinny emo guy, who was probably a gay man when I think about it, but I didn’t know at the time and was puzzled what their relationship was. We watched women’s college basketball on tv (“Go Lady Bears!”) while eating Hamburger Helper, which she cooked like every day.

The year after I graduated, and a year before she was to receive tenure, the school fired Miss Jackson. After some hesitation, adults at the church told me that she was fired due to a “lifestyle problem,” but I didn’t know what it meant. I thought I knew Miss Jackson well, and could not think of any devastating personal secret that could be described as a “lifestyle problem.” Later when I realized what it meant, I felt guilty because I felt like our visiting her may have triggered the firing. But, as I found out recently, she is still teaching music to very lucky middle school students in a different State.

I didn’t know what a butch woman was or even what townfolks meant by a “lifestyle problem,” but she did save my life. And it’s not just because she fed me (and Helen) Hamburger Helpers when I was not eating breakfast or dinner at “home.”

— January 2013

I Heart Google Ngram Viewer.

Date: December 14, 2011

I just discovered Google books Ngram Viewer, which lets users find out historical changes in usage frequencies of particular words or phrases in its vast catalogue of scanned books. It’s not perfect, but a very good tool to analyze how our vocabularies have changed over time. Just as an example, here’s the comparison of terms “transgender,” “transsexual,” and “transvestite” (click for larger graph).

Google Ngram: transgender, transsexual, transvestite

As you can see, both “transsexual” and “transvestite” were used commonly in the literature until the 1990s, when “transgender” started to become more popular. Just to give you the perspective: Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw” was published in 1994; Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Warriors” came out in 1996.

In my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking,” I pointed out that the term “human trafficking” came into popular usage since around 2000. The chart below, which compares frequencies of “human trafficking,” “involuntary migration,” and “forced prostitution” confirms this.

Google Ngram: human trafficking, involuntary migration, forced prostitution

Here’s another interesting graph, comparing the usages of “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and “queer.”

Google Ngram: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, queer

You can see that the word “queer” was commonly used before the 1970s, but probably for different meaning: in the 1970s and 1980s when the word was increasingly recognized as a slur against LGBT+ people, its usage dropped. However in the 1990s the word “queer” makes a comeback as a self-identified label for LGBT+ people, surpassing clinically-sounding “homosexual.”

Chart below shows how current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s middle name was dropped from popular usage after she went from the First Lady to a politician on her own light. I know that during the 2008 primary election pollsters were showing different polling results depending on whether or not “Rodham” was mentioned, so it makes sense that she strategically dropped the middle name and became Hillary Clinton.

Google Ngram graph

Finally, here’s a fun comparison between “womyn,” “womon,” and “wimmin” as to which one is the most popular alternative spelling of “women”:

Google Ngram: womyn,womon,wimmin

Isn’t this fun?

How I am on the verge of losing my adoration for Queers for Economic Justice

Date: November 7, 2011

Queers for Economic Justice is an organization in New York that I have long admired, so I was really excited when my friend invited me to its fundraiser/party this past week. Citing a series of parties with racist/colonialist themes that are happening around the city during Halloween season, the QEJ party which took place at Bartini Ultra Lounge (a gay male venue) was tagged as “Party Without Oppression.” But the main drag performer for the night posted something weird on the event’s facebook page:

Divine Grace Super-fantastic. I apologize in advance if my song offends anyone who may be a prostitute.
October 26 at 3:26pm

I thought it was odd that she had to “apologize in advance” to prostitutes, so I asked a question.

Emi Koyama Are you saying that your song is offensive? Or just being super sensitive? I’m all for nasty, but not for things that are mean to prostitutes.
October 27 at 8:21am

I waited for three days, but I did not receive a response so I wrote another comment.

Emi Koyama Not getting a response and I am starting to wonder if I read the title of the event wrong. Perhaps it meant to say Party with Oppression.
October 30 at 10:27am

At this point, Brandon Lacy Campos from QEJ and Divine both replied.

Brandon Lacy Campos Hey Emi…thanks for posting your concerns to Grace. I know she has had out of state company for the last few days, so perhaps giving a little lee way for a response. I will also check in with her. QEJ supports sex work and the right to provide for oneself using whatever means one has and to be able to do so with dignity. I will not censor Graces choice of performance number, but also please know that she is a comedic writer so there should be no assumptions made that derive from her magical ability to piss everyone off with a few simple words….until we know exactly what she meant by it. Also know that Grace is wicked but works for justice every bit as much as we do, which is why she was invited to perform. Be welcome.
October 31 at 8:47am

Divine Grace Perhaps I would just be better suited emceeing this event rather than performing. My act tends to be pretty low rent and it already appears that I am offending guests.
October 31 at 1:32pm

Divine Grace And Emi, just so you know, and just so your children will someday know, my intent has never been nor ever will be to oppress. As Brandon has stated, I have put in 20+ years at the office in an effort to garner equality and justice for the LGBT community.
October 31 at 1:35pm

Brandon Lacy Campos The hell you will.
October 31 at 1:35pm

I appreciate the fact that “QEJ supports sex work,” but they are not addressing my concern. I was not concerned about whether or not her performance piss people off in general, but I wanted to know why she singled out prostitutes as one group she intended to “apologize in advance.” Also, her threatening to cancel her performance fully knowing that she is the main attraction for the event and that QEJ would not cancel her just because one prostitute is upset with her seems manipulative.

I wrote:

Emi Koyama It doesn’t seem that either of you answered my question. My question wasn’t whether or not you are a good person, or your act tend to offend people. It was whether or not your act is mean to prostitutes.
November 1 at 4:43am

To which Divine wrote:

Divine Grace Emi, darling, my act is never mean. Tacky? Yes. Tasteless? Probably. Vulgar? Always. But my act isn’t “mean” to prostitutes unless you take Kim Kardashian’s feelings into consideration. Now, is there anything else that I owe you, and how quickly should I respond before you get huffy again?
November 1 at 1:16pm

I am glad to hear that her act “is never mean” to prostitutes, but she is continuing to engage in manipulative behavior with this fake passivity. I wrote:

Emi Koyama I would have appreciated that clarification earlier, but after witnessing how you can make such mean-spirited comments toward me about how you are not mean, I don’t have very much faith.
November 1 at 5:01pm

This brought further ridicule, belittlement, and insult from Divine:

Divine Grace And after seeing that you consider the word “huffy” mean-spirited, I have no faith that you could sit through an episode of “Dora the Explorer” without curling up fetal.
November 1 at 5:03pm

Immediately after this, Divine changed sharing setting of this thread to make it invisible from me, so that the personal attack remained on the event wall while depriving me of the ability to respond. At first I thought that she had deleted the thread, but my friend pointed out that she could see the exchange from her account, and allowed me to copy the content.

Finally, Brandon further adds insult:

Brandon Lacy Campos Emi. I appreciate your concern, but I clearly indicated that QEJ supports sex workers. While I appreciate that you may have perceived that Divine’s comment was “mean” to you. It is clear that something about it triggered something for you, which is a valid experience, but I assure you nothing “mean” was said to you. QEJ would never invite a performer to share space with us if that person actively participated in oppression towards a community. Having said that…satire and comedy often intersect at an individuals personal experience and just because something make you feel uncomfortable does not mean that it was unjust or mean.
November 1 at 5:13pm

Brandon seems to be employing the infamous Bush administration rhetoric on torture: the United States does not practice torture, and therefore what its military is doing in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere are not torture. Similarly, since QEJ supports sex workers, nothing it does can possibly amount to attacks on prostitutes or those who stand up for prostitutes; since QEJ never invites a performer who is oppressive, nothing the performer does would amount to oppressive acts. I am astonished by the use of anti-oppression policies and principles as a tool to invisibilize and therefore support oppressive acts. To suggest that I merely “perceived” meanness in Divine’s comments, or that I was merely “triggered” is invalidating and insulting, and seriously undermines my trust in QEJ’s ability to advocate for sex workers and others facing multiple oppressions.

I was going to just give up and not deal with QEJ in the future, until someone pointed out to me that QEJ’s interim director is Amber Hollibaugh, who is one of my superheroes in the social justice movements and the author of “My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home,” which is also one of my all-time most favourite books in the whole world. I love and trust Amber so I wrote her an email to alert her what has happened under her watch. I hope that she will reply to me in such way that restores my trust in and support for an organization that deserves much better.

Suggestions to improve “Queering Occupy Wall Street: Radical Language Road Guide”

Date: November 6, 2011

This past week, I visited New York City to present “Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade” at an NYU Law symposium on transgender law. While I was there, I went to Occupy Wall Street and spoke with people at Queering OWS table, who showed me a draft copy of “radical language road guide” for other OWS participants to understand queer and trans terminologies. Many of the definitions were problematic, so I promised to write what I think should be changed. Below is what I thought the “language road guide” should consider.

I live in Oregon, but visited NYC this past week to give a presentation at NYU symposium on transgender law. While in NYC, I was able to come to OWS and spoke with someone about the problems with the draft version of “Radical Language Road Guide.” I agreed to write my recommendations to make the guide better, so here it is.


People often get hang up on understanding terminologies to avoid appearing offensive to people, like when a white person gets obsessed about whether to call someone Black or African American or something else. But the important part should be to respect how someone identifies, and actively engage in resistance to systems of oppressions, rather than simply learning how to appear “sensitive.” It would not be a “radical” guide if it doesn’t stress that. I think respecting each person’s self-defined ways of identifying and expressing themselves is more than just recognizing fluidity.

Now to the specific term…


AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) defines an asexual as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” It is wrong to define it as a matter of (lack of) expression of sexuality or sexual preference.


Similar to “transgendered,” the acted-upon construction should be avoided. “Cisgender” is preferable. Also, this definition may not be clear to many folks, so I suggest adding that it means someone who is not transgender.


The definition (“an individual who doesn’t qualify or conform to any gender identity”) is wrong, because someone who clearly identify with and conform to a third gender would be considered “gender non-conforming” from the perspective of gender binary. Perhaps you meant to say “an individual who doesn’t qualify or conform to male and female gender roles and identities.”


As pointed out in the general comment above, this should stress the importance of respecting others’ self-determined gender pronouns, rather than giving examples of alternative pronouns. My experience is that a lot of cis people want to learn about all the exotic pronouns but supplying them with such list is a distraction.


Let’s be honest and just say that this is something that is cultivated by gays and lesbians. It is true that bisexual and transgender communities also hold their versions of normative standards (i.e. appropriate ways to be bisexual or transgender), but much of what bisexual and transgender people are facing are homonormative prescriptions coming from gay and lesbian communities.


Intersex is not about “gender expressions,” but any of the many medical conditions that result in internal or external reproductive and sexual anatomies that are different from most males and females.


Providing definitions for these terms without contexualizing them give the false impression that it is okay to talk about these topics. These terms either don’t belong in the “radical” terminologies, or simply declared “none of your fucking business.”


So wrong and offensive. First, it’s “Two Spirit.” Second, it is not a term referring to a “concept,” but actual indigenous people who live as Two Spirit, and that should be stressed to avoid cultural appropriation of their identities by colonizers. It should also be noted that “Two Spirit” is not a traditional term within First Nations communities, but a term invented by indigenous people in order to describe a whole series of gender and sexual categories that exist among many different cultures and communities that have been considered by colonizers as abnormal, as well as those identities that were created by contemporary indigenous queers and trans people beyond their traditions under the colonial rule.


I have an issue with this concept, because it frequently functions as part of the homonormative discourse. How about rephrasing it to say that “an individual should be allowed to live in an environment that fosters pride in” their sexualities and gender identities, rather than that an individual “should be proud”?

Good luck QOWS people!

One more comment re “TRANSGENDERED”:

The term “transgendered” (as opposed to more appropriate “transgender” as an adjective) has always been offensive, but it is more so now that anti-trans “radical feminists” have adopted this as their terminology of choice.

The “radical feminists” have referred to sex workers regardless of their circumstances as “prostituted women” in order to deny women’s (and others’) agency and resilience in doing whatever it takes to survive and to categorically classify them as powerless victims. Over the last couple of years, they have began to use “transgendered” in a similar construction to suggest that trans people are manipulated and victimized by the society and the medical industrial complex into accepting transgender medical treatments, and should not be treated as individuals capable of speaking for themselves.

Worse, they use the term “transgendered men” to refer to male-to-female transgender persons (i.e. trans women) and “transgendered women” to refer to female-to-male transgender persons, because they reject people’s self-defined gender identities. To them, a “transgendered man” (i.e. trans woman) is a man who has been wrongly manipulated into believing that “he” is a woman, and “he” should be helped to recognize this act of “violence.”

In the past, use of the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender” was just annoying. But now, it is part of the vocabulary of clearly hostile people and movement that wishes to “morally mandating it out of existence” (Janice Raymond, “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male”) and all trans allies must abandon it.

Note: Someone commented on facebook that it wasn’t fair that I group all radical feminists and suggest that they are all anti-sex worker and anti-trans. Below is my response.

You might want to read the exchange between pro-sex, pro-kink sex worker feminist Lori Adorable and her “radical feminist” critics. Lori said that she views herself as a radical feminist because she believes that “there is structural oppression of women and that radical everyday actions that undermine traditional gender roles can undo this large-scale, structural oppression.”

For writing this, she was however ridiculed and dismissed as “just making it up” what it means to be a radical feminist. A comment on her blog states that “I believe you are a feminist. But I do not believe you are a radical feminist. A liberal feminist, sure. But not radical.”–which is a typical response from other radical feminists. See for example:

As someone who have studied feminist theory, I tend to agree with these (majority) radical feminists’ own definition of radical feminism: it is a version of feminism deeply rooted in the belief in the primacy of patriarchy and men’s subjugation of women over all other oppressions. Other oppression may be tools of men’s domination over women, but are viewed as subsystems of patriarchy.

Now, the reality is that not everyone who identifies as “radical feminist” agrees with this definition, including your friend and Lori. I agree that we need to acknowledge diversity of opinions among people who identify as “radical feminists,” but I feel that it would be disingenuous to pretend that radical feminism at the very fundamental level is not racist, classist, transphobic, etc. due to its fundamental assumption in the primacy of patriarchy over all other oppressions. I am talking not about radical feminists, who might take the label for whatever reasons, but radical feminism as a theoretical standpoint with a specific history and tradition.

Individual radical feminists might be able to reconcile pro-sex worker or pro-transgender stances with radical feminism, as I have done in the past (see my 2001 article, The Transfeminist Manifesto in “Catching a wave: reclaiming feminism for the 21st century” as an example). Even Andrea Dworkin has written something supportive of trans women, which is completely forgotten by many of her fans. But that doesn’t negate the overwhelming weight of the history and tradition of radical feminist thought.

Also, for what it’s worth I did clarify that I was referring to “anti-trans ‘radical feminists’,” not just any “radical feminists,” precisely because I know I myself have been a pro-trans “radical feminist” in the past.

Three new updates to “Interchange” on prostitution, intersex, and trans issues

Date: May 26, 2011

I don’t usually report site updates on this blog, but I’m making an exception because 1) there are three new documents, and 2) people who are reading this blog these days might be interested.

The additions are in the “Interchange” section, which archives my contributions to mailing lists and message boards. It should have been a blog, but I started it long before “blog” was a common word or concept (remember “weblog”?), and content management systems were primitive. Anyway:


My Tikkun article about Uganda and the U.S.-based LGBT activism, plus my Uganda flier

Date: May 10, 2011

Uganda’s pending passage of the anti-homosexuality law is in the news these days, so I thought I’d post a link to the article I wrote for Tikkun magazine about how U.S. LGBT activists and allies are engaging in the whole controversy and what they could be doing instead.

The Uganda Controversy: Solidarity vs. Imperialism in LGBT Organizing
by Emi Koyama
Tikkun magazine, July/August 2010

Also, below is the text of the flier I handed out at the Beaverton, Oregon rally against the anti-homosexuality bill which I talk about in the article above.

North-South Disparities Kill More Gay Ugandans Than Anti-Gay Legislation Ever Could.

Many of us rightfully feel angry and scared about the proposed legislation in Uganda that would prescribe punishments up to death for the “crime” of homosexuality. But when activists and politicians begin calling for economic sanction against the country of Uganda, we must consider its consequence on Ugandan people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender Ugandans.

Uganda’s economy (like our own) is dependant on foreign trade, and an economic sanction could result in more gay Ugandan casualties than the proposed legislation could ever match: is it truly worth the cost? Who decides? Who put the U.S. in the position to impose its values on others by military or economic force?

And if there were such an outpouring of support for gay Ugandans, where were they when much of the country was (and still is) struggling in poverty, partly caused by the enormous international debt? Where were they when gay Ugandans needed medical treatment and educational opportunities? Or the right to migrate to the (relative) safety in the United States?

In short: are we truly concerned about the rights and lives of our brothers and sisters in Uganda, or are we simply playing our part of the imperialist U.S. foreign policy? If we are, consider the following:

  • Support elimination or deep reduction of unpayable international debt.
  • Support continuation of international aid and economic exchange.
  • Support the expansion of fair trade.
  • Confront American conservative groups that spread hate here and abroad.
  • Strengthen international human rights standards by holding the U.S. government accountable to them (death penalty, overreliance on prisons, etc.)
  • Promote respectful engagement and dialogues with countries whose policies we find objectionable.
  • Expand cultural exchanges (including Southridge High School’s sister school program).

This message is not endorsed by the organisers of today’s rally. We are a small group of activists, students and scholars and we speak only for ourselves. We welcome your responses and opinions at emi AT eminism DOT org

Support Engagement, Not Sanction.

“Homosexuality, Gender Identity Disorder, and the Politics of Depathologization”–Alternatives 2006 Conference Keynote

Date: April 27, 2011

I was going through my computer, and found this slide from the keynote speech at Alternatives 2006 conference, an annual gathering of mental health client/consumer self-advocates and allies funded by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the federal government (with its baggage–read “Anatomy of an Epidemic” author Robert Whitaker’s experience of being invited, dis-invited, and then re-invited by the conference organizers due to his politics).

It was at this conference my bio simply stated that I was “an advocate” without specifically mentioning what sort of advocacy I do, because words like “intersex,” “transgender,” “queer,” “sex worker,” and others were unacceptable to SAMHSA (at least under Bush administration). Anyway, here’s the slide I used for my talk, which is pretty straightforward…

Rejected workshop proposal for Oregon Disability Megaconference

Date: April 29, 2010

It’s a shame that they didn’t think this was important enough to include in this huge annual conference.

Title: Organizing Support and Social Group for LGBTQ People with Developmental Disabilities within and beyond the Staley/Brokerage System


In January 2010, Bridges to Independence hosted a historic drag show featuring performers with and without developmental disabilities to kick off its LGBTQ Group, a new program consisting of support groups, relationship and safer sex education, community outings, and public events, for LGBTQ individuals with developmental disabilities.

The goal of the program is to support LGBTQ people with developmental disabilities become integrated into the community, especially within the local LGBTQ communities, while providing support and education needed to build and maintain health, safety, and self-esteem.

We also hope to challenge the local LGBTQ communities to become more inclusive of all members of sexual and gender minorities. In this presentation, we hope to discuss our experiences of organizing the group, difficulties we have faced, and how we addressed them.

A special attention is given to how we are funding the program: Bridges to Independence generally works within the Medicaid/Brokerage system of funding social inclusion supports, which we found to be inadequate to support ambitious projects such as this, partly because of the Medicaid’s increasingly narrow definition of what constitutes “disability-related support” (i.e. something related to someone’s disability and not to his or her poverty or sexual and gender identities, even though these things might be intimately linked to their disabilities), but also because many LGBTQ individuals are not enrolled in the brokerage system, and it would be difficult for someone who is not “out” to his or her family members or workers to sign up to receive services through the brokerage system. This realization forced us to seek non-traditional funding sources, such as LGBTQ foundations and LGBTQ community specific fundraisers.

We will also show a short video recording from our drag show, which demonstrates both the need for and the value of this program.

From a Magazine Rack…

Date: April 28, 2009


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