"It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security."
— Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1751
American Dream » Tue Aug 16, 2011 1:09 pm wrote: http://www.natcom.org/CommCurrentsArticle.aspx?id=659
In most large cities, there is a neighborhood that has become known as the new hip area. You could go there and find a range of new restaurants and bars; pop into some funky clothing stores and independently owned record shops; and find some cafes that felt unique because they didn't feature the same green, white, and black logo that adorns other cafes in other parts of the city. You were fascinated by the street life in this neighborhood, especially the quantity of twenty-somethings who were hanging out, most of whom seemed to be adorned with tattoos, piercings, and thrift store apparel. The newspaper, alternative weekly, and on-line magazines all told a similar story about this area: the neighborhood was once a grubby no-man's land until the artists moved there, breathing life into this urban frontier.
But then the neighborhood started to change; it was gentrifying. The reporters now describe this change as a problem because the neighborhood is quickly losing its edge. That is, people like you are hanging around too often, looking to buy a condo, and transforming the place from an artsy bohemian enclave into a haven for yuppies and middle class couples with one child and a large dog.
People under capitalism do not relate to each other directly as human beings. They relate to each other through the myriad products which they encounter in the market.
— David Harvey
For The Only LGBT Gang In America, Fashion Is Survival
BY JESSICA GOLDSTEIN POSTED ON MARCH 24, 2015 AT 8:00 AM UPDATED: MARCH 24, 2015 AT 11:22 AM
Check It is a gang, a 200-strong pack of teenagers and twenty-somethings, who are black and gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans. They say they’re the only documented gay gang in America. They live in some of Washington, D.C.’s most violent neighborhoods, places that are exponentially more dangerous for LGBT youth who are out and poor, which is to say, people like everyone in Check It.
Just because there are so many of them and they’re young—you know teenagers, always showing up and disappearing and coming back again—doesn’t mean the whole enterprise is some kind of free-for-fall. There’s a hierarchy, with the founders, the leaders, that’s Skittles and Tray and Day Day and Alton, at the top. There’s the Dom Check It (dominant lesbian Check Its) and Chi Chi (she calls herself the First Lady of Check It; she’s the first trans member) and there’s the Baby Check It (those are the 12-year-olds, mostly). Plus it’s only the police and the press who call Check It a gang. Ask Check It what Check It is, they’ll tell you it’s a family.
It all started back in 2005, when a bunch of victimized gay ninth graders decided to band together; strength in numbers turned the disenfranchised into the almighty. “It’s crazy,” Mo said. “They say that someone who is bullied becomes a bully; in some ways, that’s what they became.” It wasn’t like they could join up with just anybody. “I don’t see straight gangs wanting a bunch of gay people hanging around.” So Check It formed and grew in size and strength: “They built up a reputation. You couldn’t scare them, and most of the time, you couldn’t beat them. They weren’t afraid to use knives or brass knuckles or anything.”
Mo is an ex-con-turned-community-mentor who is helping Check It channel this wild, bruised, beautiful teenage energy into something more creative than criminal. Because even though everybody in Check It has a rap sheet, even though they’ve been stabbed or shot or worse, even though they’ve all had the kind of childhoods that do not as a general rule portend promising adulthoods, they are working on something, together. They’re designing their own clothing label; they are strutting down runways of their own making, trying to build new lives for themselves on a foundation of fashion.
Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer have spent three years shooting a documentary, Check It, about this crew. The film will be executive produced by Olive Productions, a company formed by Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci and Wren Arthur. But the film is not done; the film, at press time, is in the late stages of editing. Flor and Oppenheimer are trying to fundraise $60,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, 10 percent of which will go directly to materials for Check It’s fashion line. With less than two weeks to go, Check It has raised just over half of its goal.
“Part of the reason that we’re doing this story is this is a population that’s the marginalized of the marginalized,” Flor said by phone. “People don’t know about these kids. They don’t even know they’re there.”
Mo, too, is eager to introduce Check It to the world. “I felt this was a story that needed to be told… The thing about this is that the story is going to really let people know that we’ve got a lot of work to do with our children. There are so many who need help right now, as we speak.”
Mo (real name: Ron Moten) has been working with at-risk youth in Washington since he came home from prison in 1995. He grew up in Upper Northwest D.C. but got kicked out of school and started living on the streets.
“Idle time,” he said by phone. “You know what that means.” He was arrested for selling drugs. “Thank God I got locked up, because a lot of my friends got killed. My brother got killed. I just decided to make a change. And when I came home, there were people who helped me transform that energy into doing something positive in the community.”
In 2008, Mo reached out to Check It through some girls he’d mentored in the past who were part of the Gallery Place scene. “I said, I’d love to work with y’all,” said Mo. “I don’t care if you’re gay or not. I work with all children.” He believes “all children have strengths” and asked the founders, “what do you like to do? What do you want to do with your lives?” The answer: fashion.
Around this time, Mo was meeting with Flor and Oppenheimer. The filmmaking team was at work on their first feature documentary, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, which followed the phoenix-like destruction-resurrection-repeat cycle of the four-term Washington D.C. mayor. While shooting the HBO film, “We spent a lot of time in Ward 8, the worst neighborhood in D.C.,” said Flor. They also met “a lot of Marion Barry’s constituents, [who] were ex-convicts,” she said, as well as community leaders and mentors and, in some cases, both: people like Mo.
“One day, Mo said he was heading over to see the Check It,” said Oppenheimer by phone. When he and Flor asked what Check It was, Mo said, “This gay gang that’s putting on fashion shows.”
As you can imagine, that got Flor and Oppenheimer’s attention. The news of the day was that teenagers in gangs “were raising hell” around Gallery Place. The Washington Post covered the growing pains of what was then D.C.’s newest retail and entertainment district, a stretch of Seventh Street from Chinatown to Penn Quarter. “The night scene has grown increasingly tense,” a 2010 story reported. “Large groups of teens clot the sidewalks, threaten passersby, and confront one another with harsh words and frequent fisticuffs… Their misbehavior ranges from loud, obnoxious clowning to vandalism and muggings.”
By 2011, Check It was making headlines. The Post described the teens as a black gay gang that identified both as oppressors and oppressed: vulnerable because of their sexuality or all-powerful due to their massive numbers and aggressive nature. At the time, D.C. police counted about 20 “members” and between 50 and 100 “associates.”
“A lot of times, the perception is that gay people would never be violent,” said Mo. “But the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter what your sexual preference is. It’s the circumstances that you’re raised in.” This group of kids gets overlooked, Mo said, because “there’s never been anything put in place to deal with this particular segment of this population. They’ve been neglected.”
“Almost all their mothers were casualties of the crack epidemic,” Flor said by phone. “Most of them don’t know their fathers. Many were sexually and physically abused. Many if not all have done time in juvie or in jail. It’s almost miraculous that some of these kids are even here.”
“When you’re talking about a group of gay children who have responded in a negative way in society because of how they’ve been treated, it’s like, nobody wants to touch this,” said Mo. “The system wants to have no part of them.”
But Flor and Oppenheimer were all in. The filmmakers were immediately struck by, as Flor put it, how “supremely cinematic” these kids were.
“Their love for fashion is how they’ve been able to distinguish themselves from everyone else, to visually proclaim who they are, be it gay, trans, whatever it might be,” said Oppenheimer. “It’s the best language for them to express themselves when they go outside their doors and they’re out in the streets.”
“Fashion is their life,” said Flor. “They’re fabulous dressers, and they are very obsessed with hair and nails and clothes and shoes. They have a really wonderful style . They’re very unique, very extravagant and colorful.”
The standard Check It aesthetic is that there is no standard Check It aesthetic. “That comes out in cutting edge combinations of clothes and hair color that changes every day, and extreme makeup, and Hello Kitty short-shorts and moon boots and lacy tops,” said Oppenheimer. “I think when they’re in a pack together, and they’re in a group, [fashion] helps galvanize them, too. It helps them find identity. They have this positive tool that they’re using that helps them stand up tall and feel good about themselves, just by being who they are in a community, in a world, that they’ve been shown is oftentimes very much against them.”
“For them to be as talented and joyful as they are, it’s amazing,” said Flor. “These are kids that have been through a lot and have risen above it and still have hope and go about their lives.”
Flor and Oppenheimer didn’t take their cameras out for the first four-to-six months of face-time with Check It. “We take baby steps,” Oppenheimer said. “These are kids that have been let down by every adult in their entire life.” During that introductory period, “They were just waiting for us to go away. They have that ‘fuck you’ attitude a lot of the time. ‘You’ll be adult number 374 that promised they’d help me go to school, get a job, tutor me for a GED, and then disappeared.’ So we were people who they learned — after trying in a way to get rid of us — that we are going to be there.”
“They don’t really trust people because they haven’t been shown they can trust people,” said Flor. “But they did trust Mo,” and Flor, who has children the same age as some of the Check It kids, “sort of became a surrogate mother.”
Fair to say that Flor and Oppenheimer did not exactly maintain a reporter’s-arm’s-length from their subjects. “We fell in love with these kids and we were fascinated by their stories,” said Oppenheimer. “We weren’t out to make a gay film, a black film, a poverty film. We were out to make a character study of their world. And as it progressed, these three years, it became something else. Those walls did break down. You can’t do something like this without being there for them. The only way to tell these stories in a truthful, honest way is to spend a lot of time with them. The idea of an objective journalistic wall being built between us and these kids, yeah, that crumbled pretty fast.”
“What was exciting about this is, because they’re so marginalized and come from such unstable and unsupportive homes, no one’s ever asked them these questions we were slowly beginning to ask,” said Oppenheimer. “What was it like to first realize you were gay or trans? What was it like growing up here, on these streets, and having to deal with the persecution or the anger that you deal with, just going out and being who you are? When did you decide that you just wanted to wear dresses and makeup and say, fuck it all?”
“They lit up,” he said. “They’d never answered those questions before.”
Oppenheimer and Flor chose Indiegogo to raise the money they need to finish the documentary “because it’s not just a film,” said Oppenheimer, pointing to the $6,000 Check It will get for their fashion line if the campaign reaches its goal. “This is a way to help at-risk LGBTQ kids in a very concrete way. And it’s a chance to create a dialogue about a situtation that really is not big on people’s radars.”
Debates around gay marriage are “front and center in the news,” he said. “But in terms of certain marginalized communities where being gay is really not accepted, there’s a whole other struggle going on.
“D.C. is a very gay-friendly town in some ways,” said Flor. “But it’s really not for these kids. That’s really the purpose of the film: to help create that awareness, and to point [out] that these kids have fallen through every crack there is to fall through. How did that happen? This is the nation’s capital. D.C. has a responsibility. We’re the petri dish for so many things in America, this beacon of democracy and all that. The kinds of things that go on a mile or so from the White House, it’s pretty stunning.”
“I think when people see the story, they will have a lot of sympathy for the population,” said Mo. “Whether you’re gay or straight.”
“We’ll show you something that you haven’t seen,” said Flor. “I guarantee.”
Polyamory and Queer Anarchism: Infinite Possibilities for Resistance
Polyamory as a Queer Anarchist Form
Polyamory refers to the practice of openly and honestly having more than one intimate relationship simultaneously with the awareness and knowledge of all participants. This includes relationships like swinging, friends with benefits, and people in open relationships. The open and honest aspect of polyamory points to anarchist conceptions of voluntary association and mutual aid. Polyamory also allows for free love in a way that monogamous state conceptions of sexuality don’t allow. Emma Goldman in “Marriage and Love” writes, “Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. ...Love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely.”
In free love, there reside anarchist notions of mutual aid. Returning to a previous point, polyamory as a form challenges conceptualizing one’s partner as possession or property. Instead of having exclusive ownership over a partner, polyamory allows for partners to share love with as many partners as they agree to have. In contrast to compulsory monogamy, polyamory can allow for more than one partner, which can challenge state conceptions of what is a normal/natural relationship and enacts a queer form of relation. Compulsory monogamy can refer to relationships that are produced in a context where there is pressure to conform to monogamy. Compulsory monogamy is a concept that’s pervasive in our laws and institutions, where the expectation and pressure to conform to monogamy is awarded by material and social gain. This is not to suggest that those who choose monogamous relationships are more restricted than their polyamorous counterparts. A critique of the ways in which monogamy has become compulsory is quite different than judging individual romantic/sexual practices.
Polyamory can also challenge state conceptions of possession and property. Marriage as an institution is invested with notions of heterosexual reproduction and patriarchy. Sara Ahmed’s work can be used to further help conceptualize polyamory. She writes, “In a way, thinking about the politics of ‘lifelines’ helps us to rethink the relationship between inheritance (the lines that we are given as our point of arrival into familial and social space) and reproduction (the demand that we return the gift of that line by extending that line). It is not automatic that we reproduce what we inherit, or that we always convert our inheritance into possessions. We must pay attention to the pressure to make such conversions.” Her analysis demonstrates how polyamory can challenge ideas of inheritance and possession. Polyamory as a form allows for a multiplicity of partners and isn’t necessarily invested in heterosexual reproduction in the same way that marriage as a state institution can be. In this way, polyamory can disrupt practices of reproduction and inheritance by creating new family and relationship forms not invested in sexual ownership and in becoming a part of state-enforced and monitored relations.
A Call to Sexual Freedom
One may ask, how is polyamory relevant to me if I’m not interested in practicing it? What is the point of critiquing monogamy if I’m in a satisfying monogamous relationship? By bringing queer theory into our bedrooms and into the streets, we can begin to expand what may not be thought of as in need of liberating. When folks in fulfilling, monogamous relationships consider this history of sexual repression, they have the tools to understand what it means to become sexually liberated in spite of that history, even while choosing to remain in monogamous relationships. We can liberate ourselves from confining and arbitrary gender norms and expectations in not just our romantic relationships but our everyday lives. Queer theory gives us the spaces to transgress and play with gender and question the limits of identity politics to further consider that sexuality and other identities are not stable and don’t have to be. Sexuality can be fluid and come in multiple forms, just as our gender expressions can be.
We want more than class liberation alone. We want to be liberated from the bourgeois expectations that we should be married, that there is only a binary of men and women in rigid normative roles who can date monogamously and express their gender in normative, restrictive ways. We should fight for gender liberation for our gender-transgressive friends and comrades and fight for freedom of consensual sexual expressions and love. This fight isn’t just in the streets. It’s in our bathrooms where transgendered and gender-non normative folks are policed by people who don’t acknowledge trans or other gender non-normative identities, either by reinforcing a gender binary of cisgendered identities and ignoring a fluidity of gender identities or by otherizing transgender folks as an Other gender. It’s in our family structures that create bourgeois order in our lives. It’s in our production of discourses around sexuality, where sexuality is seen as something to be studied under a Western, medical, biological model. It’s in our meetings and movements where critical voices that don’t belong to straight, white, cis-gendered men are marginalized. We should create new, different ways of living and allow for queerer forms of relating and being.
Sexual liberation looks different for each individual. In my experience, being consensually tied up by a friend and consensually flogged in a negotiated setting is liberating. Kissing or hugging someone who you’ve carefully negotiated consent with is explosively satisfying. Being in an open, honest, polyamorous relationship for me created one of the most liberating romantic relationships of my life so far. However, sexual liberation is a deeply subjective experience. A problematic binary is set up in conceptualizing polyamory itself as a queer anarchist form and in potentially creating and reinforcing a new “norm” of polyamory as being superior to monogamy and other heteronormative relationships.
Returning to Ahmed, what is significant in considering new relationship forms is the pressure to make conversions and this should be considered as we form new ways of relating that challenge patriarchy capitalism, and heteronormativity. We must broaden our ideas around what anarchist sexual practice looks like, ensuring that smashing gender norms, accepting that sexuality and gender are fluid, unstable categories, and challenging pressures to be monogamous are as part of our anarchist practice as challenging state forms of relating. We should live, organize and work in a way that consciously builds a culture that embodies these norms of being resistant to patriarchy and heteronormativity. This work is fundamental to our shared liberation from capitalism—but also from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and restrictive and coercive sexual expectations of all kinds.
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