Sunday, November 26, 2006

What Gentiles Should Know about the Christmas Season

by a cranky Jew

I do not celebrate Christmas.
Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Martian happy 4th of July.

Christmas is not a “secular” or “American” holiday. It is a Christian holiday.
If you celebrate it in a secular way, it is still a secular Christian holiday. (If I celebrate Pesach/Passover without reference to G-d, is it then an “American” holiday? No. It’s a secular Jewish holiday, and it’s no more universal without the G-d language than with it.)

Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.
It is not even a religious holiday. It’s a cultural/historical holiday commemorating a military victory of a group of Jews (specifically, Macabees) against imperial oppressors (specifically, Syrian Greeks). It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.

Chanukah does not occur on December 25th.
It is an eight-day festival beginning on 25 Kislev by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar calendar. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used in public life, ranges from mid-November through late December. Therefore, do not tell me to have a happy Chanukah unless you know when Chanukah falls this year, and that it’s not over.

Chanukah may be spelled several ways:
Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukah, etc. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and it’s actually spelled like this: חֲנוּכָּה. Chanukah is probably the closest transliteration. It sounds like it looks, only the initial H or Ch sounds like the guttural sound at the end of the composer Bach.
I don’t care how you spell it. Just don’t tell me how weird it is that it has multiple spellings. I’m over it. If you can’t say the Ch sound without spitting on me, then just say H and keep your germs to yourself.

There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush.
Did you really need to be told that? Christian hegemony appropriated the tradition from Celtic pagans, and now is trying to impose it on Jews. We already have pretty stuff for the holiday. We don’t need Jew-ish-ified trees, wreathes, elves or mistletoe.

Chanukah is not a good excuse to tell me about your best friend, neighbor, or distant relative who is a Jew.
If you didn’t care enough to tell me the rest of the year, then I don’t care to hear about it now.

Don’t try to impress me with how much you know about Chanukah or about Judaism.
It’s a safe bet I know a whole lot more than that about Christmas and Christianity. Not cause I’m so smart or so studied. Just cause y’all are everywhere.

“Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable secular substitute for “Merry Christmas.”
No matter what words you use, we both know you’re only saying it because of Christmas. Otherwise, you would say it in September/October and March/April, when I’m observing major religious holidays, as well as in December, when you are.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

He's Not My Girlfriend

Me and my friend have a little problem. Everyone thinks we’re lovers. Hotel clerks assume it, and waiters, and strangers on the street. Even some people who actually know us pretty well, continue to believe it after we’ve tried to explain.

We are considering desperate measures. Maybe I should start to dress more punk again, so we look like an even more improbable couple than we already do. Maybe when my voice starts to change, I’ll seem half his age instead of two-thirds it. That ought to throw ‘em. Maybe we should make more of an effort not to finish each other’s sentences in public.

Actually, the most likely plan is that I’ll make us a matched set of tee shirts. Mine will say “He’s not my boyfriend,” and his will say, “He’s not my girlfriend.” But I don’t know. The way some people are about gender, that might not do it.

I resent the wrong assumption for a lot of reasons. One of the big ones is because of what it implies about how people are reading each of our genders and sexualities. People almost always take us for a straight couple. That means they’re reading me as a woman. I hate that. Failing that, they might be assuming that he’s a gay man. It wouldn’t be the first time, but still … I imagine it gets to him.

My instinct, for a while, was to address people’s wrong assumptions from that angle. “Of course we’re not fucking. I’m a trannyboy. He’s a straight man. It would be ludicrous!” But something did not feel right about that argument.

I dated a straight man once. Actually, a few times. We were on and off for five years. We were on when I was a lesbian, when I was an I-don’t-believe-in-labels, when I was genderqueer, just plain queer, a trannyfag and a boy. He was a straight guy the whole time. Many of those combinations could be called ludicrous, if the only information you had was how we each identified. But it happened. It was entirely possible, and not particularly ludicrous.

When I told people that it would be ludicrous for a straight man and a trannyboy to be lovers, I drew on dominant assumptions that a) there is a thing called a straight man, and being a straight man means something particular, and it means that for all straight men everywhere, b) there is a thing called a trannyboy, and being a trannyboy means something particular, and it means that for all trannyboys everywhere, c) straight men behave like straight men and trannyboys behave like trannyboys, and d) because of what a straight man is and what a trannyboy is, it would be by-definition impossible for a straight man and a trannyboy to be lovers.

I call that normative identity logic. It is how most of us are taught to think about identity, and it’s bullshit. (This is my opinion, and also a central argument of contemporary queer theory.)

How many lesbians do you know that sleep with men from time to time? I know I’ve met quite a few. Some of them even do it for pleasure! And who are you to tell them they’re not a lesbian? I know a lot of dudes that have sex with men, and if you tell them they are gay you will have another thing coming.

Identity does not equal behavior. Identity categories are not natural, definable, or stable. And identity labels are not merely descriptive. Identities like straight man or trannyboy are complex strategies that people deploy in a context of oppression where nothing is neutral.

I had the best of intentions when I called on the well-worn logic of identity. I was only trying to represent our relationship truthfully. But in the attempt I slipped into an anti-queer logic that I don’t believe in and I don’t want to be preaching. I don’t want people to believe me because of some essentialist nonsense about who can date whom. I want them to believe me because it is true. Ironically, even though most people do believe in normative identity logic, my strategy didn’t even work!

I realized that, when my friend and I try to convince people that we are not lovers, our genders and sexual orientations are entirely beside the point. If I were a girl, or my friend were a fag, I would still want us to be able to go out for dinner, and not have everyone and their second-cousin’s lab assistant think we were screwing. And I think that this would still be a problem, even if our identities were different.

No one who buys into the logic of identity (and I think we all fall into it to some extent) wants to believe that a straight man and a trannyboy are lovers. So why do they choose to explain our relationship in that way?

I think it’s because they don’t want to see what is true. I was naively assuming that our friendship was innocent and simple. But now I’m thinking it is actually way more radical than I realized.

We are friends who treat each other like family. We go on vacations and spend holidays together. We go grocery shopping together. We accompany each other to doctor’s appointments. We put each other first, often before our romantic interests. We do deep personal work, separately, so that we can be better friends to each other. We do deep personal work together, and grow closer through it. I have had long-term romantic relationships that I put less into than I am putting into this friendship.

And I think that’s what people don’t want to see. People would rather believe that we are breaking all the rules of sexual identity than see that we are being really good friends. It is radical to be good friends. It is radical to centralize a relationship that is not romantic. It is radical to build intimacy that has nothing to do with sexuality or building a nuclear family or making babies. It is radical to say, it is not impossible that we would be lovers, but as it happens we are not doing that. And what we are doing is just as important, just as intense, just as rewarding as the fictional romance you imagine.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Too Funny to be Fiction

A store downtown is advertising specially decorated cakes for "the holidays." They have a sample on display. It is a round, white cake, with green holly leaves and red berries adorning the edges. Red icing traces intricate, swirly caligraphy across the middle.

We may never know if it was poor spelling, poor penmanship, or both, but instead of Joy someone has decorated the "holiday" cake to proclaim Goy*.

How great is that! Afterall, "goy" is way closer than "joy" to what I'm actually thinking when I look at a Christmas wreath. Now I know what to bring to the agency "holiday party" potluck! I just hope someone gets the joke.

*For my hypothetical reader who might be one, I should explain this word. Goy is a slightly rude Yiddish word for a person who is not Jewish. How rude it is depends on context. The connotation can range from tolerant ("He doesn't know the blessings, he's a goy."), to wary ("Donna's new boyfriend's okay, but, he's a goy..."), to exasperated ("Another official department event scheduled on Yom Kippur. A goy did that for sure.), to angry ("Why your zayde was poor his whole life? Cause the goyim, that's why."), and so on. Yiddish is flexible that way.

So anyway, it's funny, you see, because it's redundant. A Christmas cake that says Goy on it. Because anybody who knows what goy means already knows it's a goyishe cake. Only it's not completely redundant, because "goy" is Yiddish, so pretty much only a Jew would use it. So the market for a Christmas cake that says Goy would be pretty narrow - Jews who celebrate Christmas (that's a story for another entry, but yes, they exist) and goyim who are in with Jews enough to mock themselves. Mostly likely both of those at the same party. This is a very Jewish joke, because you need to know at least 2 cultures and 1-1/2 languages to get it, and not everyone who finds it funny is laughing for the same reason, or with the same emotion.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ah, lowered expectations...

I am thrilled with the Tae Kwon Do school at which I have newly (re)started training. And that makes me kind of sad.

You see, this school is not trans-savvy at all. They don't deal well with chemical sensitivities. And let's just say I'm not thrilled with the idea of a Christmas-Kwanzaa-Chanukah party idea ever, and much less so when it is in fact on the first night of Chanukah.

But most of me thinks, they're not so bad. The head instructor, Master J, has gotten my gender and/or pronoun wrong 3 times, and gotten it right 0 times. Each time he's gotten it wrong, I've corrected him, and each time he has responded with grace and humility. I said that it was "okay," that it would probably take people a while to get used to it. He acknowledged that it will take a while, and insisted that it was not okay, and promised to push himself to learn faster. Most of me thinks, "Wow! What more can you ask for?" A lot, I guess. But I don't ask for more. This is better than I had hoped it would be.

When I started grad school, I had high expectations. I assumed everyone in my social justice-oriented program would get it right all the time. Don't laugh! I had come from a community where this was possible. I could walk around with no bra on, wearing glitter in my hair, swishing my hips and smoking girly cigarettes and everyone still knew that I was a boy, because I said I was. I thought my graduate program would be at least 1/10 that welcoming and supportive. Boy was I wrong. I spent three years in the program dressing more and more "passing," acting more and more normatively masculine, smoking butch cigarettes and walking like a cowboy and they still couldn't manage to call me "he." By the end of my three years, out of four full-time faculty members, one was getting it right most of the time, one some of the time, one rarely, and one has yet to refer to my gender appropriately. By contrast, Master J seems to really have his act together.

Likewise, Master J's solution to my chemical sensitivities is not adequate, but it's a far sight better than anyone's offered me before. He reminded everyone not to wear scents, he keeps windows open and fans on, and he allows me to get out of rank order to stand close to the window where the air's fresher. These measures help a lot. They're not perfect, because some people don't realize that their body products are scented, and wear them anyway. Since Master J doesn't wheeze or get migraines from it, he doesn't notice that people are still wearing scented products. I don't complain, because other teachers/leaders/groups where I've asked for changes to accomodate chemical sensitivities have responded far less well than Master J has already. Again, my inner voice says, "What more can you ask for?" So I don't ask for more.

I'm not even gonna get into the Chanukah thing. We'll have more than enough of that conversation over the next few months.

Is it necessarily a bad thing, these lowered expectations? Should I reclaim my punk, bitchy, oppositional persona and teach myself how to ask for more? Or will I be better off accepting that happy thrill I get when something goes slightly right? Will I be better of if I'm not always putting energy into making things better? Maybe with lowered expectations, I'll make fewer enemies. Maybe with fewer enemies, I'll have more friends. Maybe some of those friends will turn into allies, and fight these fights with me so that I'm not so often doing it alone. But then, would I only get to breathe easy (literally!) when I'm with friends?

When I think "What more can you ask for?" I imagine I hear my great-grandparents' voices. It even has a Yiddish accent, in my head. It sounds like my great-grandmother Molly, who was really named Malkah but I didn't know that until recently. When I was ten I visitted Molly for the last time. She was something over 90. We don't know, because in 1929 she lied on her passport to get past immigration, and in 60-odd years no one ever managed to clarify the situation. She sort of spoke English. At ten, I could barely understand her. She said, "Do you want a banana?" This is not just a cliche, this really happened to me. She offered me tea. A section of orange. Crackers from a box. Molly grew up (if the family stories are true) as the daughter of a kosher meat wholesaler, and the granddaughter of a rabbi, in a shtetl where even so she must have eaten potatoes and cabbage at almost every meal. I imagine she thought, "A fruit with no pit that you can buy any time of year for a dime. What more can you ask for?"

Maybe she couldn't ask for more. Maybe she was actually unable to imagine more. But I'm not. Even when I choose not to ask for what I deserve, I never want to forget that more is possible. I must nurture that imagination, that vision. Without vision, oppression just feels like pain. But with the knowledge that more is possible, oppression feels unfair, and where I can recognize unfairness, I can choose how to respond.

Lowered expectations are one thing. I expect mediocrity, and sometimes I get to feel pleasantly surprised. But an atrophied imagination is not acceptable. I let myself feel content with mediocrity, because I am too tired to fight all the time. But I do not let myself imagine that a mediocre situation is fantastic. It is not fantastic. I can imagine more. I must imagine more.