Perverse Bodies

Perverse Bodies is a meditation on what it means to have a “perverse body” as someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or non-binary. It delves into the “perverse” or contrary in terms of sexuality but also in terms of age, class position, creative output, (dis)ability, disease, gender identity, media choices, mortality, mourning, power, racial identity, religion, reproductive organs, and self-care for personal health.

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Perverse Bodies

Issue – 2
Edited by Genevieve Waller

Perverse Bodies

Winter 2021

Perverse Bodies is Femme Salée’s second zine issue. Femme Salée publishes zine issues twice a year online & in print. Our bi-annual zine issues include, but are not limited to, art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, & scores. The fundamental objective of the zine is to promote & support creative bodies working within exceptional art communities while bringing disability, queer, BIPOC, and feminist narratives to the forefront of art & writing practices.

 def: /pər’vərs/ adj., of a person, action, etc.: going or disposed to go against what is expected; contrary to what is morally right or good; contrary to an accepted standard or practice; remaining set in a course of action in spite of the consequences. 

def: /’badi/ n., the complete physical form of a person or animal; the physical or mortal nature, state, or aspect of man; a corpse.

Introduction

Genevieve Waller

What a pleasure to be able to bring together the work of so many people I admire! 

This zine issue is a meditation on what it means to have a “perverse body” as someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or non-binary. It delves into the “perverse” or contrary in terms of sexuality but also in terms of age, class position, creative output, (dis)ability, disease, gender identity, media choices, mortality, mourning, power, racial identity, religion, reproductive organs, and self-care for personal health.

For me, “perverse” also means “non-normative,” and I’m heartened by all of the ways that queer culture and queer theory have upended the negative connotations of this word and designation, and even embraced it.

I hope this collection of art works and texts by nine accomplished LGBTQ+ artists and writers will help you find like-minded compatriots, inform you about issues and lived experiences that are new to you, and speak to you personally through the narratives and intimate images shared here. Like me, you might become a fan who cheers on these luminaries and learns so much from them in the process!

Thank you to Mary Grace Bernard and the staff at Femme Salée for inviting me to choose and compile the content for this publication. And three cheers for solidarity between the artist activist, BIPOC, (dis)ability, and queer communities!

Matthew Hilyard, Trick, 2011, Photographic print on panel
Matthew Hilyard, Seeking the Fountain of Youth, 2011, Photographic print on panel
Matthew Hilyard, Seeking the Fountain of Youth #1, 2020, Photographic print, glitter, poster, and found frame
Matthew Hilyard, Seeking the Fountain of Youth #2, 2020, Photographic print, glitter, poster, and found frame

Seeking the Fountain of Youth

Matthew Hilyard

Seeking the Fountain of Youth is a series of photographs in which I confront my mortality as a gay man. While exploring gay culture’s attraction to youth and vitality, as well as gay terminology, I produce images that I consider self-portraits. Inspired by my heroes in gay and queer art history, including Felix Gonzales-Torres and Robert Mapplethorpe, with these and other works I hope to encourage a dialogue about ageism in gay culture and about the ongoing fight against HIV and AIDS.

The Continuity of Subtraction

Sam Carlson

It started at a middle school car wash in the bathroom of the Kroger up the hill. 

Pain like I never knew. 

Pain that billowed and violated my body for sixteen years. 

They call this menstruation—I understood this as bodily warfare. 

They call this growing up—I understood this as abject conspiracy. 

An insidious proclamation: “You are female-bodied. You will serve your purpose. Let it begin.” 

It was a core pain that dismantled. 

Ran up my sides, my spine, down my legs. 

Permeating my guts, swelling and putrid from the inside. 

Overwhelming my thoughts and ensnaring my emotions. 

Pain is not the status quo for many. 

For some, this is a gift. 

Menstruation can instill purpose, inspire commitment, produce life and so much more. 

Endometriosis changed that experience for me. 

As an adolescent, I spent one week every month adhered to my bed—or the bathroom—or the floor. 

In too much pain, spinning with nausea, emotional upheavals, and an endless torrent of tears. 

As a teen I learned about debilitating pain, as an adult I experienced that chronic “women’s pain” was invalid in the eyes of society.

Bodily RejectionI was 25 before my reproductive organs gave out and genetics overthrew me. 

In 2014 my first ovarian cyst ruptured while I was simultaneously passing kidney stones. 

Shortly after, two more cysts grew in its place, one on each ovary, leading to the first surgery. 

Over the course of three years I had one surgery every year.

Each instance, the continuity of subtraction. 

2014: removal of cysts, cauterize endometriosis 

2015: removal of cysts, cauterize endometriosis 

2016: removal of cysts, cauterize endometriosis, and the removal of left ovary

Up to this point, pain, amongst other things, had already worn on my relationship to my body. Each operation was intended as an end, and each time I was left with a new variant of the original pain. 

It’s perhaps most challenging to unravel the emotional from the physical.

I felt trapped within the framework of flesh.

The guilt.

The shame.

Was I unlucky? 

I wanted someone or something to blame. 

Something tangible—but it didn’t exist. 

And that’s not how it works.

Choice: With every surgery, the conversation surrounding reproduction came to the fore.

My partner and I had already agreed early on that we did not want to have children and, if that changed at any point, adoption was preferable. 

However, it is much easier to make theoretical decisions.

It’s easier when you still have choice. 

Each surgery further removed the option of choice, and sometimes you don’t fully understand what you want until it is off of the table.

There are also the added societal expectations for someone who is female bodied. 

The cult of motherhood. 

What is your value if you are unable to perform your conscripted services as a person with a uterus?

How will the decisions I make now affect my definition of self-worth in the future?

How do I plan for the unknown?

Do I cryogenically freeze my eggs to buy me time while I make a decision?

With one ovary and my uterus I could still have children.

With one ovary I would not go into menopause.

The truth was I didn’t really have much of a choice—my body acted without me.

Hysterectom(ies): The third surgery was intended to be the last.

We had taken everything there was before altering my quality of life —menopause.

But the pain had settled into a venomous reservoir in my hips.

Imaging was done.

Injections suggested.

The doctors dismissed my pain, but I could barely walk. 

I had arrived at the impasse I had predicted from the start—hysterectomy. 

All the women in my family had hysterectomies early on. 

My doctors and I decided to save my remaining ovary and remove my uterus.

On March 3, 2017 I became six ounces lighter.

During surgery, they found that the endometriosis had spread.

Also, my remaining ovary had burrowed into my pelvic wall and twisted on its blood supply. 

The images show it, a sickly purple-gray shriveled mass.

The doctor untwisted and cleaned it up and left it floating in my pelvic cavity. 

A ghoulish buoy.

Two weeks into recovery I woke to a whole new level of pain. 

I was on fire, and absolute stillness provided no relief. 

I couldn’t even reach a phone to call for help.

I waited for my partner to return in rigid dissociated motionlessness. 

The Change: My remaining ovary had “exploded.”

I admit—I felt mythic, with a mysterious, spontaneously combusting organ.

What once was a soft, fleshy mass shot like shrapnel throughout my abdomen, nicking my bowel and imbedding in its surroundings. 

The doctor removed the remaining ovarian tissue and my cervix. 

As a result, menopause came swiftly, and at 28 my body became that of a 55-year-old. 

It began with hot flashes. 

Constantly soaked in a pool of sweat regardless of the weight of the cover.

There was very little relief or chance of relaxation. 

Recovery was challenging. 

Health insurance refused to cover pain medication since the first surgery was shortly before the second.

I tried a variety of supplements to manage menopause symptoms—none worked. 

I remember having a hot flash in a Lowes in the cold, gray drizzle of Nashville spring.

Walking down the aisles forcibly stripping off clothing while everyone was bundled in their jackets.

The alternative to homeopathy was to take synthetic estrogen, but that has its own risks because it promotes the growth of endometriosis.

Since they could not fully remove mine due to its locations on other vital organs, taking estrogen might lead to future surgeries down the road.

I eventually began estrogen, which mitigated the hot flashes from several an hour to several a day. 

Over the course of the next nine months I was forced to relearn my changing body.

I lost a portion of my bone density.

My face erupted with cystic acne.

My bowels permanently changed.

And the swelling of recovery was gradually exchanged for seventy extra pounds. 

I alternatively found a lot of strength in experiencing menopause. 

For the first time, I did not feel completely overwhelmed by my anatomy. 

I was no longer subject to emotional, hormonal turbulence. 

I felt like I had become a better person by having removed the binary of biology.

I found a freedom from societal expectations.

When I moved to Denver at the end of 2017, the hot flashes that I found so afflictive in the muggy southern summers alternately kept me warm in the frozen desert of the Rocky Mountains. 

Community and Identity: While I found a private strength in my experience, there emerged a yearning for solidarity. 

Unfortunately, I found very little on “exploding ovaries,” and the only hysterectomy community was geared towards cis-women and their grief surrounding the loss of reproductive capability or those already in perimenopause.

This support was invaluable for women with those experiences, but gave no platform for queer women, transgender, and other non-binary female bodied peoples. 

We were still excluded from the conversation.

It took years to find others that shared in my experiences as a then-identified queer woman.

The hysterectomy and unshackling of the domination of my body gave me further strength to explore my gender identity.

I navigated the transition between queer woman to non-binary person. 

I found myself in a unique position to help others by sharing my experience and accumulated knowledge. 

Out of pain, the loss of choice and function, I found freedom from the trappings of my body and societal expectation.

I became a better, and more whole, person.

Danielle McCullough, Apex Anal Wink, 2019, book collage on Bristol paper

Apex Anal Wink

Danielle McCullough

This is a collage of torn and cut images from a book. A disjointed, well-manicured, three-fingered hand propels a round, comic book bomb shape forward from a torn, dark, smoky background with vapor trails. The bomb form is comprised of a circular cutaway model of earthquake shockwaves within the earth’s layers (inner core, outer core, and mantle). At the top of the bomb form, there is an indeterminate soupy meat wad with a small, white terrier and oozing strawberry preserves splooging from it towards the viewer. 

The title of this collage came to me here in 2020, inspired by the pelvic floor estim machine “The Apex”—I’ve been in treatment for urinary incontinence on and off since late 2018. I found out about this amazing device from Tristan Taormino’s podcast Sex Out Loud. She has featured several guests who are disabled queer activists, including folks with psychological and physical disabilities who have shared great healing insights about sexuality and disability. This is one of my favorites to listen to while rehabilitating my prolapsed postpartum uterus—20 minutes of electrical stimulation via an inflatable probe with electrodes.

I learned the hard way that I can’t fart while operating the machine or it causes a tremendous pressure as my body tries to relax/release gas while the machine is pulling the anal sphincter up and in. The heavy lifter pelvic floor muscle, the only true sphincter in the region, controls the anus along with holding up the uterus, squeezing the vag, and keeping the bladder from releasing its contents in a constant stream out of the urethra. I’m so grateful for the heavy lifting that neurodiverse, disabled activists have done in putting into words and naming feelings in our body minds, especially their work giving explicit and not always “sexy” voice to our splattering meaty cores—our pelvic floors supporting the girth of our torsos. 

As an occupational therapist and someone who has recovered from sexual assault, this has been useful medicine for me in both my professional and personal medicine capacities. Personal medicine and “self-care” are, of course, also terms that have been developed by sick and disabled folks who cultivate autonomous, interdependent communities of care as radically-loving responses to the institutional neglect/violence of our medical system/capitalist nation-states. During a pandemic year, while experiencing “geriatric pregnancy,” I’ve been uncertain about what is self-care versus “letting herself go.” As such, I’ve especially relied on these alternative visions of health for myself and as strategies that help us redefine wellness as a body politic.

Notes

[1] Lydia X. Z. Brown, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Katie Tastrom are the neurodiverse, queer BIPOC folx who are doing the lived experience/scholarly activist work featured in this episode of Tristan Taormino’s Sex Out Loud podcast titled “Disability and Sex.”

[2] For more information, visit Common Group Program, which features the work of Pat Deegan who developed the term/theoretical framework/practice of Personal Medicine out of her own and others’ experiences living in recovery from schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses.

Jeffery Byrd, Butterfly, Belfast, 2007, 30 min performance

Perverse Butterflies

Jeffery Byrd

After a lifetime with the word perverse, I looked up the definition and, like so many things, it turned out to be something I wasn’t expecting. Rather than kinky sex, the word means: “Showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences.” A helpful example is provided: “Kate’s perverse decision not to cooperate.” [1]

About the same time, I came across an Internet meme featuring a drawing of a butterfly hovering over a snail. [2] The butterfly (let’s call her Kate) has brightly colored wings and says, “Hello, I am a butterfly.” To which the more drab-colored snail replies, “Hello caterpillar. You are a caterpillar.” The caption at the bottom: Transphobia. Kate isn’t behaving in any particularly unusual way. Rather, she is something that the snail simply cannot accept. Perhaps the snail knew Kate before she transitioned or perhaps the snail sees something in Kate that does not fit a commonly accepted version of truth. The snail sees the world in a certain way. Kate does not fit into that world as seen. Therefore the snail insists Kate must be something that she is not. Kate’s resistance is perverse.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are continually confronted with this kind of compulsory normativity. The words that accompany the definition of perverse read like a lexicon of border-policing labels: unnatural, abnormal, deviant, degenerate, illogical, wrong. Labels that have been attached to queers by the religious, medical, and legal professions. Labels used by snails who simply cannot accept our existence in their version of the world. The people we are and the things we do spill out beyond the tidy edges of categories that society clings to. And those edges are not always easy to see.

I didn’t know what a queer kid I was until I started school. My childhood was largely isolated. We lived in the country; my siblings were much older than me so I had little experience interacting with other kids. My days were filled with running and reading and drawing pictures and making things before I knew to call it “art.”

I once filled my bedroom with colorful mushrooms made from construction paper and paper plates. Each one had an address in case anyone wanted to live there. My imagination was a portal to anywhere and anyone. Pretending isn’t a strong enough word for what was happening. I would imagine I was someone else (a girl, a dog, a prince, Spiderman, or more often Wonder Woman) so intensely that it seemed real. The seeds of my art as an adult were all right there. At the time, I thought everyone was like this. 

Going to school taught me otherwise. My school was in the boonies and filled with future rednecks. Economically speaking, they were my kin. Everyone in my family had factory jobs. Otherwise, I felt like another species and the other boys liked to use their tiny fists to remind me of my difference. They kicked with the sneakers of coercive normativity. I held my ground when I could. At Easter, I made bunny ears like the boys rather than a bonnet like the girls…but I was the only one with a huge cottontail. I once made a pair of wings from those ugly brown paper towels that every school seems to have. In my memory, they were elaborate and beautiful and when I put them on my back, I felt magical. I ran down the hall as fast as I could. Clearly, I wanted out of there. In hindsight, the metaphor for this action seems a bit on-the-nose. Forgive me, I was eight. 

Another boy shoved me hard into the cinderblock wall. He ripped the wings off my back and crammed them into the trash can. A budding art critic? Actually, he was a developmentally disabled kid named Russell. The other boys had told him to do it and like me, he was trying to find a way to fit in. The whole event is a microcosm of just how much society wants to keep everyone in clear, easy to understand categories. 

Heteronormativity and neuronormativity are about power and control. That power attempts to keep queer butterflies firmly nailed to the ground. In far too many cases, this brutality is real and extreme. This wasn’t the worst violence I experienced because of my sissy ways and I know there are a lot of people who had and have it worse than me. Like Kate, we resist.

As a kid, I drew pictures of the Batmobile to keep the bullies from beating me up. Now I deconstruct the outward signifiers of gender and power. Butterflies, tutus, and cardboard neckties have been my armor in a perverse battle to celebrate fluidity in a world where the snails aggressively snailsplain about fixed identities. Clothing is, of course, only skin deep. As is skin. Change, evolution, and the human inside the skin are what really matter. But I still want wings.

Notes

[1] These statements came up with a simple Google search.

[2] Like many things on the Internet, authorship of this meme is vague. The signature is @Drawings or Dogs. I wasn’t able to find any other information.

What Do You Want

Natalie Sharp

What do you want? Chocolate Chip asks.

I want to be tickled, Nikki says, giggling and smiling. 

You wanna be tickled? Chocolate asks, smiling back. Ooh, with a feather? 

Mmhmm, Nikki replies. More giggles, then, as the feather runs over her tummy, full-out laughter. Before long, both performers are laughing. Let me know if that’s too much, Chocolate says, the smile coming through her voice even though her face is off-screen in this shot. [1]

I find myself smiling too, a little chuckle hanging in my throat, full-bodied awe. Then tears. I hadn’t ever seen myself—my sex—in porn before, and I didn’t realize it until that afternoon last June. 

My relationship to porn started when I was 11-ish, and the Skinemax flick Spider-Babe came on the glitchy cable channel stolen from next door. (Spider-Babe is a Spider-Man porn parody, in case you hadn’t guessed.) There’s a lesbian sex scene in it, which would become increasingly meaningful as I realized my queerness. It’s campy; it’s softcore; it’s sexy in the way that puberty renders everything sexy, even though I know now that the sex probably wasn’t very good. It’s also one of the innumerable porn movies featuring an all-white cast. 

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay for porn for entirely too long. Instead, I would scroll through /r/nsfw_gif late at night, watching gifs, some professional, some DIY, sorting by best, looking at the highest-rated ones. What I knew to be true in most entertainment proved just as true here—the most upvoted gifs were thin, white, young, cis women, preferably in scenes with other white performers. I’d flick my thumb up the screen, devouring image after image. This habit didn’t feel damaging, really. It didn’t feel like it was making me hate myself as a default state. 

It bears noting that Spider-Babe, /r/nsfw_gif, and porn in general weren’t the root of my self-worth issues. Sex stuff is just one facet of a life in which I felt unable to love myself or anyone who reminded me too much of myself. What little queer visual media existed when I was younger conditioned me similarly: the desirable characters, the ones I was told were most desirable, even if one of them didn’t die at the end, were the thin, white, androgynous ones. And if they were Black or brown, they were cis and still thin, frequently light-skinned and light-eyed, femme. This is not true in every case, but it’s true enough to be a well-established pattern. 

As a young Black person, I realize that representation matters, particularly for those of us who are disabled, nonwhite, trans, queer, fat, older, or any other identities that aren’t favorably portrayed in media even though we’re literally fucking everywhere. Still, I’m surprised by how downright giddy I feel when someone who looks like me is fucked tenderly on screen, when you can tell the dialogue was written by BIPOC because the characters aren’t exclusively reflecting on how traumatized and angry they are—when Black performers are having sex, and it’s made clear that they still contain multitudes. 

In the short film tender, directed by Felicia Pride, two Black coworkers go home with each other and sleep together after a work function. [2] The morning after, they laugh together, talk, smoke weed, and generally cut up, twerking in the living room. They talk about their bodies, their dreams. One woman gently traces the other’s hysterectomy scar, and they share a quiet moment, acknowledging the weight of the operation, the burden of loss afterward, the terrifying vulnerability. I cried then, too. 

I’ll note here that tender isn’t pornographic. Initially, this essay was about porn exclusively: Black women and non-binary performers who appear in scenes together, what it felt like to experience those collaborations as a queer Black viewer dating a Black partner, how my relationship to the medium has changed. But as I wrote, I realized I wasn’t thinking about sex, per se—I was thinking about Black intimacy and pleasure, whether and how these are portrayed. 

In We are the Fucking World, several of the performers acknowledge that porn is instructional for many people. [3] That statement seems obvious, but because that wasn’t how I used porn—I wanted to watch just long enough to get off; I could go read a website if I wanted instruction—it didn’t strike me how limited my imagination was when it came to who was desirable and which acts might feel good for me and my partners. I hadn’t intended to learn, but I had learned anyway. After years of repetitive images, it was firmly drilled into my brain that I needed to always be thinner, shorter, paler, fuller-chested, bigger-assed, to come quicker and more explosively, to be anything but myself.

I’m far from the only person to realize how messaging about desirability has warped my thinking, but seeing someone else realize how different representation can be was exciting for me. In The Toilet Line, directed by Goodyn Greene, the actor Ze Royale takes their shirt off to fuck a stranger in a Berlin bathroom stall, where the two actors are shot from above for a bit. [4] The Black woman I’m watching with smiles brightly. They have a belly like mine! she exclaims, surprised. I had had the same moment watching a different film called Ignite—the spark of recognition. [5] Those are my titties! I thought, reflecting that maybe the distance between my breasts didn’t make them inherently unattractive. 

I still find my own pleasure immensely complicated, though it’s freeing to explore it with a woman whom I trust not to be cruel or impatient during sex. It takes me at least 45 minutes to come, usually. In my earlier sexual experiences with men, I would tell them upfront, apologetically. If I don’t come, I don’t want you to feel bad. I’m still having a good time, I promise. They’d smile like they knew they’d ultimately make me come anyway, and I’d fuck myself to orgasm when they got tired or I just couldn’t quite get there. Other times, I’d settle for their pleasure, neglecting my own. I stopped trusting other people with my pleasure, but I also started to experience it as a burdensome duty to myself. As I strive to reclaim my sense of pleasure, to divorce it from orgasm as an endpoint, to reintroduce experimentation, I think about what I owe to myself. 

In moments when I’m struggling with my body, my current partner intercuts levity with tenderness. Before my hernia surgery two summers ago, she told me it was okay to be scared of undergoing major surgery without my family of origin, of how my body might change. After, she nicknamed the 1” scar on my abdomen “Slicey” and sweetly ministered over me, bringing me food and little gifts, checking in on how I was feeling, telling me that it was okay to take my time recovering. We talk often about how surprised we are to find ourselves in each other time and time again, how revolutionary it is to love Black skin when we are so often told we are disposable, good only for fetish or appropriation, for a rough fuck followed by a cut to black. 

I hope to see more moments of laughter and conversations about pleasure in porn. I am excited about the directions I see in indie porn, how diversifying the folks behind and in front of the camera radically shifts the lenses of desire and pleasure to allow for scars and sweetness alike.

Notes

[1] Crash Pad Series, “Episode 152: Chocolate Chip and Nikki Darling.” Directed by Shine Louise Houston, performances by Chocolate Chip and Nikki Darling, Pink and White Productions, 2017.

[2] tender. Directed by Felicia Pride, performances by Farelle Walker and Trishauna Clarke, Felix and Annie, 2020.

[3] We are the Fucking World. Directed by Olympe de G, performances by Manon Praline, Peache Lowe, Finn Peaks, Candy Flip, Sadie Lune, Lina Bembe, Bishop Black, Jesse Stryer, and Theo Meow, XConfessions/Lust Productions, 2017.

[4] The Toilet Line. Directed by Goodyn Greene, performances by Jasko Fide and Ze Royale, XConfessions/Lust Productions, 2017.

[5] Ignite. Directed by Brittany Franklin, performances by Daisy Ducati and Anya Ivy, XConfessions/Lust Productions, 2020.

My body was wicked.

My soul was damned.

Joseph Lamar

I grew up in focus_on_the_family_wonder_bread Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was a strange incubator to live in. Especially as a person who sits at the intersection of multiple identities that are often regarded + treated as undesirable. I’ve always had this sort of deeply-embedded intransigence that I can’t really explain. It’s sustained me + helped me to preserve the essence of who I am, even in the midst of the identity crisis that comes with being inundated with direct + indirect notions of my so-called inferiority. Still, I’m a human being. Even though I’ve always been abnormally courageous when it comes to expressing who I am, even though I’ve always known, deep down, that I was never inferior, the messages I received from the world around me still managed to creep into my brain, affecting my physical expression. Most of high school, my toes were curled up like fists in my colorfully checkered, laced tennis shoes. The delightfully unusual outfits I used to wear concealed the tension that I held all over my body. 

While part of me (my soul, maybe) sought to be realized, another part of me just wanted to survive. I tried to do so by being aware of the unwritten rules of body politics I observed in motion. Those who sat closer to the top of the hierarchy were generally granted more body privilege. That meant being able to push your weight around, sometimes to the detriment of others, without consideration, consent, or consequences. People who sat nearer to the bottom of the hierarchy had less body privilege. That meant that your existence was in almost constant negotiation + a more privileged person could move through space in a way that compromised you. Being somewhere in the middle meant that even though your space could be usurped, you could invoke some privilege depending on who you were with. The temptation to do that can be great. It’s easy to mistake physically-weaponized privilege for autonomy. When we aren’t careful, the system can convince us that the superior/inferior dichotomy is inherently true + we can find ourselves using our bodies accordingly without even realizing it. Part of growing up is being socialized into that destructive way of living. 

My granddaddy would berate me for moving my hips or having limp wrists or putting my hands on my waist or exhibiting a sense of physical independence. It sent a clear message: you can only show up in a space if you show up on other people’s terms. If you make yourself small. I could feel something essential to me being repressed. That repression made its way into my body. I started to shut down around him. I figured I’d avoid issues if I could rid my body of any idiosyncrasies. I assumed a posture that was devoid of personality. I was like a rockfish. Camouflage until the perceived threat has passed. It sorta worked. Sorta. There were other threats.

There was a world beyond that house where I needed to carve out a space for myself. In that world, the long list of things boys could + couldn’t do with their bodies seemed to apply, but my white male counterparts appeared to have a less rigid form of masculinity. Some of the ones I knew to be straight walked with slightly twitchy hips + mildly loose wrists. Generally, me + my straight black male counterparts weren’t as freewheeling with our bodies. The only black boys I knew growing up who held their bodies organically were the “sugar-footed” ones. (At least, the ones who didn’t hide it.) For the longest time, I didn’t know that I was a sugar-footed black boy too. I just knew that being too “girly” in my body was considered wrong. I got the impression that people who loathed limp wrists knew something I didn’t know. There were words for it. Gay. Queer. Fag or faggot-ass-nigga. I didn’t connect the dots. I didn’t really have a concept of gay attraction, let alone that I was cursed with that affliction. 

There was sex ed but it was heterocentric. Church offered an explanation that further solidified a growing sense of bodily shame; the flesh was a loathsome, sinful thing. In fact, the only reason I had a body at all was because my soul needed something to wear. Just like my body, my soul couldn’t walk around naked. Every layer of me was meant to be covered with something else. Around the time I started masturbating religiously, I learned in bible study that I was sinning. Not only was I not supposed to be jerking off, but I wasn’t supposed to think of my male classmates or watch porn (+ certainly not gay porn) while I did it.

Then one Sunday, I heard my grandaddy shout from the pulpit, “God made Adam + Eve not Adam + Steve!” It clicked. I was the abomination. I was worse than original sin. My body was wicked. My soul was damned. If it was true, I didn’t have a right to my physical space or self-determination over my body. Part of me believed it. Part of me didn’t. Now, I understand why the power structure is bothered by body autonomy. When the people society seeks to marginalize choose to exercise body autonomy it calls the entire social hierarchy into question; how can someone have that kind of power without being white, male, straight, able-bodied, etc.? 

The system + the people who benefit from (+ are hopelessly attached to) it interpret challenges to the status quo as an attack on their very being. They act accordingly. That’s why black people are targeted, terrorized + killed for nothing at all. Meanwhile, hordes of white folks in silly red hats can stage a whole fucking coup + get off scot-free. (These are the same people who refuse to wear masks in public spaces in a global pandemic. Again, they’re weaponizing their bodies against others for a feeling of power.) Yet, black bodies are automatically regarded as dangerous no matter what we’re doing. 

My grandaddy grew up in a time + place where being black was even more dangerous than it is now. Being a “hard-headed” or “absent-minded” black kid on top of that was considered a death wish. In that sense, strict rules undergirded with harsh physical punishment could save a black kid’s life. It’s a terrible position for a black parent + a black child to be in. For the parent, you have to sometimes hurt your kids because you love them. For the child, you live in a world where you can’t be a child in the same sense as any white kid. 

Two generations later, I would have an experience that wasn’t dissimilar from my grandaddy’s. I too witnessed, in close proximity (post-integration + all), white kids, with enormous personal bubbles, doing things I’d never dreamed of. For a time, I believed that being free in your body was an inherently white thing. There were even times when I tried to mimic what I viewed as white male mannerisms because I believed it was the only way to achieve autonomy in a hetero-white-world. I’m currently decolonizing my idea of bodily expression. It’s a continuous process of dissociating body autonomy from privilege + proximity to privilege. I’m learning that true body autonomy sits outside of colonized power dynamics. I’m learning that the path toward feeling comfortable in my skin isn’t linear. I’m learning that the way my body seeks to express itself is beyond narrow categories that leave no room for real people. I’m learning to give myself permission to explore the way my body moves without needing to impose definitions on myself. (My hips don’t twitch because I’m gay. They twitch because they twitch. My goal isn’t to attain whiteness. My goal is to be me. Whatever that means at any given moment.)

I’m working on feeling safe, whole + happy in my body. I’m cultivating true love, acceptance + respect for my body + the bodies of others. I want to allow the way I show up in the world to be an extension of that. I’m unafraid of the real or imagined dangers of occupying space + using my body in essential + fulfilling ways. Even if kids like Elijah McClain are being executed for being black + eccentric + even if what happened to him could very well happen to me. I reject the notion that my body is anything other than mine. We all must accept the responsibility of cultivating loving, respectful + equitable sharing of space for all bodies. This requires the dismantling of hostile + violent systems + paradigms in our heads, our hearts, our bodies, our relationships, our interactions + in the broader macrocosm. 

I’ve found salvation for my body in self-exploration + various forms of creative expression. The arts have allowed me to feel connected to my body + to assert myself in spaces that can be hostile. Music, visual art, dance, theatre, fashion + language arts gave me a constructive outlet for my aggression; a way of bringing my suppressed thoughts + emotions to the surface. A way of saying, “I belong here.” It’s made it possible for me to begin to actualize the truest parts of me. There’s power there. A power that’s greater than privilege. A power that can create equity + disassemble destructive paradigms. A power that can awaken us from the inside out, liberating our bodies, minds + souls. I wish that for everyone.

Performance documentation, promotional images & video stills from Bound: a ritual for Queer Ancestors lost to AIDS, performance by Michael Espinoza, 2020.

Bound

a ritual for Queer Ancestors lost to AIDS

Instructions: This text is a spell. To participate in this ritual, prepare your imagination to hold space for the absence of loss, the emptiness of what-never-existed, and the sorrow of what-could-have-been. Remember that your body is the perfect instrument for this purpose. As you read to this text out loud, [1] follow the instructions with your mind; try to remember the images that flow from your perceptions. When you have completed the spell, interpret the images in your mind by manifesting them into any art form. 

Spell: Think of an artwork that changed your life; now imagine it never existed.

These strings are my sadness; I am binding them to my survival.

AIDS left behind the empty space where lifetimes of artwork went undone.

 Imagine the empty museums and galleries where this work should be starting conversations and inspiring another generation of artists, artists like you and me. 

Imagine the silence left behind from unsung songs we cannot hear, songs we can’t sing together. 

Imagine the loneliness left behind because that one artwork never effectively communicated this simple notion: you are not alone. 

Imagine the new ways we never learned to see, the ways culture was never transformed, the lives never saved or the lives never altered by encounters with these unknown visions. 

We should be making and writing and playing and experimenting with ideas from all that missing art, but we are not.

These artists, these silenced voices, when they leave the world of the living they do not stop making their arts; when they join the world of the ancestors, they need our fingers and our feet and our eyes and our hearts to make what they left unmade.

I am weaving what remains into these burial shrouds, strings bound to strings tied to cloth dripping with tears of loss and dripping with tears of losses unknown. The bodies, these books, the bodies leftover, the scant remains, the traces, the edges of a vision unrealized. What remains is the empty space where the unknown work never existed.

We carry the burden. We carry the responsibility. We carry the sadness. We carry the joy. We carry the celebration. Our bodies, given briefly, must carry on the work that went undone. These ancestors know our secret purpose on earth. They will reveal it to us; all we have to do is ask. [2]

–END–

Notes

[1] Espinoza has prepared a visual and audio recording of this spell, available at: www.michaelespinozaart.com/bound. 

[2] This ritual was created as a video for the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, presented on December 1, 2020 in observance of World AIDS Day.

Kameron Ackerman, Plush Armor, 2020, Collage on paper

Electric Plush

Kameron Ackerman

On Halloween afternoon, 2009, I was running around doing last minute things like my head was cut off. Our inaugural variety show was kicking off that night, at the local community space that had just opened up. One of the many things I realized I’d overlooked was figuring out how to hook up a boombox to the PA system. I burst into a Radio Shack without the slightest idea of where to look, but also with a strong aversion to talking to anyone working there. I called my mom. My brother, Tom, was around too—mom put the call on speakerphone.

“I need a jack or an adapter or something, to get my boombox plugged in to a PA.” My mom had always helped me rig up my stereo equipment amidst many moves, and Tom had played bass in a bunch of bands; I hoped the two of them together could figure this out for me.

“OK,” Tom cut in, “you’d need a 1/8 inch jack on the boombox end, and then a 1/4 inch to plug into the PA.”

“OK so, I’m seeing those. There are a bunch of kinds though.”

“Get one that’s male on both ends.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Male. Like, it’s protruding out, right? Instead of female, which would get plugged into.”

“I don’t get that.”

“Uhhh, so, the male is what’s getting put in…”

“No, I get that! It’s just, I don’t get why it’s called ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Is that for real?!”

“Yes! Of course I’m not just making this up!”

It was the first I’d heard of it.

“I just don’t get it!”

“Yea, figures.”

As I poured over which product to get, a memory flashed into mind. Tom and I had been vintage Saturday Night Live fiends. We were sitting together, watching Dan Aykroyd as a sleezy late night public access TV host, and Laraine Newman as his guest/date/escort. They’re watching a video of some worms getting it on, making lewd comments. 

“These little buggers have both male and female organs. They like to go both ways, AC/DC you know what I mean, heh heh,” Dan Aykroyd’s character jeered.

I didn’t have the slightest clue what he meant. But it seemed obvious from all this imagery: Sex is electric. And from that, I deduced that I was doing it wrong. 

I had had some electrifying moments, but they were few and far between, and around that time I had been feeling I’d been short circuited all together; from there I just shut down the whole operation. When things had continued to not work like I kept hearing they were supposed to, when nothing ever felt right, I stopped pretending they did and clammed up. Sex was touchy, both the act itself and the topic in general. If a group of friends were laughing about sensational sex stuff, I would get so uncomfortable that I’d just get up and leave, no explanation. I’d just be gone. I didn’t seek out anything that might be arousing because it didn’t seem worth the effort. I was not asexual. I was purposefully squelching my sexuality because things didn’t line up. And since none of it made sense, I didn’t know how to start trying to open back up, even if I had wanted to. 

Which, eventually, I did. Sometimes I would have wet dreams, and I was glad that at least I had that going on, that thing that is generally a male thing. It was my favorite part about my sexuality. Waking up because I was orgasming felt like the best gift in the world. It felt like a freebee. Because to climax in waking life was a lot of hard work. 

Around the time I started to transition medically, a few years after that Radio Shack moment, with hormones and top surgery and other stuff, I felt an urgent need to finally and fully figure out my sexuality. Really force it—reading books, going to workshops, making my spouse come to workshops with me even though they didn’t want to, talking about it exhaustively in therapy (or rather, writing exhaustively and emailing that writing to my therapist), bringing it up a lot with my spouse even though it felt, well, forced. All these efforts helped a little but not much. What did get me there was patience, time, experimentation, thinking creatively, and just feeling out how to be present in my body in other ways.

Transitioning did help. What I can see and feel makes a lot more sense now. My chest contours in a way I can accept, although it’s not perfect. My voice is present and fully-formed, after seeming far off and lost for so long. Broader shoulders and more muscle definition have allowed me to carry myself differently. Getting confirmation that I’m seen as male, mostly, by others, has bolstered everything else (although I identify as non-binary and am not actually a man). It’s my junk though; although it has changed for the better, it’s not enough and I still get hung up on the junk.

And I do mean “junk,” a word with various meanings, one of which is “male genitalia.” I don’t technically have a dick, but in all ways other than the physical realm, I do, and in that discrepancy lies the crux of my transness. Or more specifically, my in-betweenness. Because although there is a strong correlation between genital-dissatisfaction and transness, the two do not always go together. Some cis people don’t like what they were born with either. And some trans people are fine with what they got going on. Others are not at all, and lower surgery is first and foremost; the ultimate transformation. I’m somewhere in between. 

A few years ago, I was tasked with designing and creating my own “groinment” for a theatrical production of a tripped-out version of a play called If Boys Wore the Skirts. In this genderfuck of a fever dream, my three “classmates” and I wore white button-down shirts, black ties, black socks, black shoes, and black skirts upon which we had designed fancy-free versions of our internal landscapes. I was thrilled by the opportunity and took it very literally; here was a chance to come up with something that reflected the way I feel about my junk. If you were to ask me, I don’t have a vagina, clitoris, and labia. Nor do I have a penis, scrotum, and prostate (unfortunately). What I got is junk, and it’s janky AF. But by reimagining it, I’ve started to learn to live with, maybe even love, what I’ve got. In this version I dreamed up for the play, there’s a highly delicate water balloon configuration at the top of a water slide. Pointy party hats are there to protect it. And in my right hand I held a needle: I’m the only one who gets to “pop” it, which I did, during a fashion show scene in the play. The water did indeed gush down the slide and splatter fantastically on the upswing. My ultimate wet dream, cum true.

Play Video
Vanessa Viruet, Dress Smart, Stay Alive, 2018, 6 min 48 sec digital video & Black Car Panuelo, 2017, Silkscreen on fabric
Vanessa Viruet, Race Flag End, 2017, Silkscreen on fabric
Vanessa Viruet, Race Flags: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Disqualified, 2017, Silkscreen on fabric

Flagged

Vanessa Viruet

Though craft and art making I seek to look closer at the intersections of queerness, masculinity, femininity, gang identity, Latino culture, and American values. 

My research has lead me to consider the connotations of flags in noun (flag) and verb form (flagging). This has brought me to the fringes of masculine culture—car racing, gang banging, and gay cruising—where flags and flagging have a prominent role and are a visual tool for examining human relations. 

By covering the body of an automobile, I hoped the viewer would see it as a mascu-line figure, and consider the not so subtle indicators of race and social class. 

I use the bandana as an example of socioeconomic cloth—one I associate with my own upbringing. By flagging cars and introducing this icon into a gallery setting I seek to call attention to the vast space between the art world and various communities of so-called outsiders. Exaggerating the scale is a symbolic gesture of intervention, a way of colonizing and claiming my space in the world as a queer, Latina woman from a barrio. 

The value of art rests in its ability to communicate across barriers.

Artists & Authors: Kameron Ackerman, Jeffery Byrd, Sam Carlson, Michael Espinoza, Matthew Hilyard, Joseph Lamar, Danielle McCullough, Natalie Sharp, & Vanessa Viruet.

This zine was published in 2021 by Femme Salée.

© 2021 Femme Salée

Individual artworks, poems, and essays © 2021 the author/artist.

Cover: Danielle McCullough, Apex Anal Wink, 2019, book collage on Bristol paper © Danielle McCullough.

Definition sourced from the Oxford English Dictionary. 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any other information storage and retrieval system, or otherwise without prior permission in writing from publisher.