Coming out

I posted this on Facebook on Thursday, February 13, 2014. Reposting it here for wider viewing.

I’ve written this message over and over in my head. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to finally commit it to Facebook.

I’m genderqueer. For now, I’m still using he/him as pronouns.

Maybe let’s back up slightly. About a year ago I wrote the first in the series of posts for Bad Hessian on forecasting the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. A good friend (Mandy Hayden) encouraged me to begin the show and within weeks I had caught up on all four seasons, ready for season 5. Thus began the career of Kate Silver, the Nate Silver of the drag world.

Like many things in my life, this was an attempt to put some distance between my personal life and my public face, the same kind of defense mechanism that makes me giggle or put a joke in when talking about sensitive political topics or whatever. Another defense mechanism I have is to make an academic endeavor out of personal issues, or to throw myself into work when I don’t want to think about politics or any kind of the terrible shit that’s overwhelming. In a word, drag forecasting was my way of being gender-nonconforming out in the very open.

I’ve been exploring this for a while now; it’s a realization that hit me like some kind of profound enlightenment, unannounced, unexpected, but wholly right. I’ve been scared, restless, but feeling more and more elated and coming into my own skin. I’ve tried to find trans narratives that have matched mine, and while some have had glimmers it’s been a tough time to find those which I can rest in (some good articles on this: http://www.bilerico.com/2013/03/the_emergence_and_danger_of_the_acceptable_trans_n.php and http://www.owldolatrous.com/?p=838). I do love to watch *Paris is Burning*, and like my friend Jimmy, I find solace every time I do. And there’s been Imogen Binnie’s *Nevada*, clips of which I would screen shot and read over and over again. Also: Big Freedia.

Most of all, though, there’s been a lot of amazing people in my life to help me through. My friends in Madison and elsewhere, I would be nowhere without them. My advisor, Pamela Oliver, has been nothing but the most supportive, and I’m truly fortunate (and if I was religious, I would say blessed) to have these people behind me.

And I don’t know where I’d be without roller derby. Derby’s been a place where I can explore my own gender without fear and inhibition, where I can play with femininity and physicality. And where else can I wear tights plastered with cats in space and get mad compliments?

I know I’ve got a lot of privilege where I’m at. I live in Madison, which is a relatively safe place for queer people, and am in a PhD program in sociology, a field where we talk a lot about gender and don’t have to be told twice that it’s a social construction and is performed and yadda yadda Agnes. I’m dearly thankful for that. I also know there’s a lot of ways to go for trans rights, from simply getting proper medical care and using restrooms with which we’re comfortable, to having safe housing and not being incarcerated in prisons with people of a gender with which we don’t identify.

I’m not sure I’m ready to be activist for these things quite yet. I’m still doing a lot of figuring out of my gender, knowing that it’s fluid and possibly not at an equilibrium. Maybe gender fluidity is my new normal. But I do know that I want to be out, and I hope that in and of itself is a political act, one that makes non-binary trans people more visible in academia and in general.

I hope y’all have an amazing Valentine’s Day. Spend it loving yourself and those around you.

I mostly post at BadHessian now

So go there.

Posting tweets

Posting a daily digest of tweets was a phenomenally terrible idea. They are spammy and I’m sure no one reads them the first time around, so why would they want to read them the second time? Stopping that functionality.

Google+ Whine

I honestly feel like Google Plus is very gimmicky. I think FB and Twitter were successful because they occupied a niche and their usage developed over time, as driven by how users chose to use them. @replies, retweets, #hashtags, link shortening, ccing, follow Friday — these were all user initiatives.

It’s a matter of giving people a certain constraint and people getting very creative within these constraints. People really weren’t sure how to use Twitter when it came out but it’s certainly come of age.

I think comparing follower counts between Twitter and Google+  is a really silly way to judge the success of a social media platform.  Every jerk-off “social media guru” has said how their Google+ follow count far outpaced their Twitter account.  But what do I see on Google+ now? I see people mostly complaining about Google+ or posting articles about it.  What do I see on my Facebook? I see political activism, events for political action. On Twitter? Egyptians talking to each other, coordinating political action, sharing links. Google+ will eventually mature (or die), but thus far they are telling users what they should use the platform for, which doesn’t work.

Atlantic’s Misleading Stats on Muslim Brotherhood support

An article posted in the Atlantic today reported that the Muslim Brotherhood had only 17% support, data derived from the latest Newsweek poll.

Here’s the article: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/07/chart-of-the-day-muslim-brotherhood-is-deeply-unpopular-in-egypt/242539/

The first study is from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/html/pdf/pollock-Egyptpoll.pdf).  A few things I noticed right off the bat on this survey.

Small sample size: the sample is of 343 phone interviews with residents in Cairo and Alexandria.  Greater Cairo is a city of 20 million people, Alexandria is about 4 million. Although I know there are strategies at getting representative samples, this seems to me a somewhat limited one. In addition, it excludes getting a representative sample of the majority of the Egyptian population, especially those who live in more rural governates.  If we are look at the results of the constitutional referendum, nearly all of the other governates voted yes, which would have meant that elections would come first, giving more salient parties an advantage.  It’s not a neat proxy for judging sentiment and attitudes towards existing parties like the MB, but a truly representative sample would have aimed at sampling from all governates.  Second, the phone interviews took place from Feb 5 to 8, 2011, still in the midst of the revolution. I’m not sure how this would bias the data, but it’s a concern.

The next study is from Gallup: (http://www.abudhabigallupcenter.com/147902/BRIEF-BILINGUAL-Egypt-Tahrir-Transition.aspx).  This is perhaps one of the better designed surveys, given that it was taken after the revolution and has a sample of 1000 participants.

The last study is from Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/2011/07/24/egypt-s-angry-electorate/the-muslim-brotherhood.html), which doesn’t note its survey methodology anywhere, but says that the Freedom and Justice party has a “plurality of support” at 17%.  The Atlantic frames this more pessimistically, saying that this is an abysmal showing, worse than Nixon before he was shamed out of office.  What they do not say is that 27% of their respondents say that MB majority would be a good thing.  The disparity between support for an MB party and support for an MB majority is confusing. It’s possible that this discrepancy was a result of the instrument — MB has name recognition, while “Freedom and Justice” may not.

This is not to be an alarmist about the “Scary Impending MB Takeover” predicted by Fox News et al.  But the presentation of the data was just too disingenuous for me to leave it uncommented.

My Anti-Blog Pledge

In the past, when I’ve started a blogging endeavor, I’ve prefaced it and said that I will make an attempt to blog regularly.

This is my pledge to do just the opposite of that.

I’m too lazy to write explicitly for a blogging audience that may or may not exist.  So this is what I’m going to do.  I’m going to post things here whenever I have a thought longer than a tweet. For others, I will just tweet, and this site will post a daily digest.

Then I’ll post stuff published in other publications. Simple enough.

Wisconsin and Egypt: A tale of two uprisings

Originally published in The Isthmus, July 18, 2011: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=34131

 

The scene in Cairo on Saturday, February 12, the day after Mubarak stepped down, and two days before the first large protests started in Madison.
The sun rises against a smoggy Cairo sky as I write this on Friday, the day of rest and prayer in the capital of Egypt. It also marks the first full week back in historic Tahrir Square for Egyptian protesters. They’ve gotten better at their craft of occupying the space, setting up fans, air conditioners, and lighting in personal tents.

The comparison between Cairo and Madison has been made on more than one occasion, by high-profile figures from state Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) to Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin. It’s overwrought and problematic on many levels, but what we can compare between the two is what has happened since each uprising, and what it says about our own political imagination.

In Egypt, protesters are demanding largely the same things that they were in January and February: an end to corruption in government, a total overhaul of the notorious police force, a restructuring of the judiciary, no military trials for civilians, a rewrite of the constitution, and an increase in social spending and the minimum wage. Simply put, they want a free, democratic and socially responsible country.

The central demand from earlier in the year, the overthrow of Mubarak, is no longer relevant, but most activists believe that Mubarak’s regime is more than just Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been more than willing to continue the tradition of authoritarianism practiced by Mubarak and his predecessors. I’ve spoken with several activists, and they see the revolution as far from complete, some saying they wished they had never left Tahrir after February 11.

But a wall has been broken, meaning freedom from fear and the willingness to engage in political experimentation. For example, blogger and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah created what is called the #TweetNadwa, nadwa being the Arabic word for “seminar” or “study group.” The forum takes a certain political topic and throws it open for discussion, to both a set of panelists and the audience.

Each audience speaker is only allowed 140 seconds to comment, a nod to Twitter’s 140-character limit. Topics can be as broad as social justice or as specific as how to reform the police and the judiciary. These were the subjects of the last two #TweetNadwas, held in a grassy area of Tahrir Square and open to all the protesters there.

This is only one expression of the continuing political work of Egyptian activists. There is the much harder work of party-building and organizing citizens in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary and eventually presidential elections. The space is also opening up for the development of independent trade unions, freed from the shackles of the yellow union, which workers are forced to join by the state.

Back in Madison, the focus has been on the recall elections. As we’re all well aware, If the Democrats can hold onto their three seats and flip three more, the Senate will revert to Democratic control. Gov. Scott Walker’s hands would then be tied in pushing through more of the poisonous legislation we’ve seen over the past six months.

Wisconsin is, of course, not Egypt. We have legal redress, and we have a recall procedure. And while it’s been a monumental recall effort, there is statute that governs it.

The only thing the SCAF can hear, however, is thousands of people calling for its replacement with a transitional government. It seems to be working, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf firing nearly 700 members of the security apparatus in connection with the murder of the nearly 1,000 martyrs of the January 25 revolution. Human rights groups and protesters are saying that this isn’t enough and will continue to press until police have gone to trial and are convicted.

Just as Egyptian activists wish they had never left Tahrir, maybe we shouldn’t have given up the Capitol so easily. As Jack “The Sconz” Craver has opined, campaigning on collective bargaining rights isn’t that sexy anymore. And perhaps it’s been a failure of our own political imagination.

We’ve been so engrossed in the recalls that the question of “how to keep the momentum going” has gotten looped into the means-to-an-end that are the recalls. We should think about what got us into this situation to begin with.

In our own way, we have to retake Tahrir. What about looking into our own organizations — our schools, universities and workplaces — and trying to build power within them? How about reforming our unions in such a way that they are oriented toward a culture of organizing and of collective power? The power of the union doesn’t lie in the law. Although labor law is often the consequence of union actions, union power comes from workers acting collectively and in solidarity with one another.

So while political imagination is blooming in Cairo, it is somewhat disappointing in Wisconsin. And it’s not for lack of a history of innovators. We are the state of Fighting Bob La Follette, of the Wisconsin Idea, and of the first public sector collective bargaining rights in the nation. Let’s find our #TweetNadwa. More concretely, let’s renew our parties, our institutions and our unions.

Gracious, Tahrir

Originally published in Newsweek Pakistan, April 4, 2011: http://newsweekpakistan.com/the-take/279

Mohammed Abed / AFP

Early morning, Feb. 4, I watched with weary eyes as the Day of Departure in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded on my TV screen in sleepy Wisconsin. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators prayed in unison, with one loud, booming voice. They were demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.

Hours later, I was on a bus to Chicago to pick up a visa at the Egyptian consulate. In contrast to Tahrir, nothing seemed amiss there. A timid male receptionist with a trimmed mustache supervised a square desk with nothing on it but a stack of old visa forms, a phone, and the Quran. Hieroglyphics hung from walls, next to the obligatory picture of Mubarak.
I landed in Cairo two days later. The streets were empty because of an Army-imposed curfew. This blankness was in stark contrast to the bustling Cairene streets I remembered from my last trip in 2008. Tanks doubled as roadblocks every half mile or so.
The taxi driver and his “supervisor” told me how tourism was taking a hit, how Army-controlled gas stations were only open for a short time during the day, and even then the price of gas had gone up dramatically. They just wanted the country to return to normal, and Mubarak stood for normalcy. This was a common complaint from those who didn’t protest— like my cousin in Alexandria who was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood usurping the uprising—and from bloggers who had been to more rural areas. Not surprisingly, this was also the narrative on state-controlled TV. Accordingly, the driver, while sympathetic to change, thought Al Jazeera wasn’t telling the whole story.
The next morning, I made my way down to Tahrir Square with Cyril Almeida, the Pakistani journalist with whom I was staying. The taxi took us to the edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge, from which we had to walk. People had queued to get into the square, some of them carrying bags full of food for the protesters. Everything about the line seemed political: young men yelled “Honor Egypt!” with arms full of flags for sale. They talked about what post-Mubarak Egypt would look like, expressing disbelief at reports on how much money the regime had allegedly embezzled. Even the line seemed political—people I spoke with later expressed wonder that Egyptian people could actually form queues. I spoke with a few boys behind us. One remarked that something like Mubarak can never happen again, that the next president should know exactly when to enter office and when to leave. Another said that while families had been coming to Tahrir, it wasn’t going to be all fun and games: the goal was still to overthrow the regime.
The Qasr al-Nil entrance was flanked by a fence on one side, a tank on the other, behind which stood a mess of makeshift barricades and barbed wire. The military décor seemed merely symbolic. Citizens were the ones playing security by checking IDs and giving pat-downs at the entrance. Inside, the mood was carnivalesque. Drummers and singers chanted revolutionary slogans and sang nationalist songs. Banners flew in English and Arabic, both proclaiming those now legendary words: “The people demand removal of the regime.” I met a blogger friend, whom I had previously only known online, on the sidewalk which separated two sides of the square. On one side, a group of women dressed vividly in a rainbow array of hijabs chanted and marched. On the other, a swarm of children did the same.
Nadia, my blogger friend, became my guide and led me through the different parts of the square. We ventured to the middle, once a grass-covered traffic circle and now a tent city. I use the word “tent” loosely, since shelters were constructed from poles, stakes, rope, and whatever could be draped over them. We ducked through the narrow makeshift alleyways and thoroughfares, saw women, men, and children of all backgrounds making food, sleeping, living in these highly unusual circumstances. I puzzled the most at the sleeping, since Tahrir held an excited revolutionary buzz, with people talking and chanting, and loudspeakers blaring speeches and music. I came to understand later that as long as the buzz is constant, one can ignore it.
We found one of the first tents established in the square, the so-called “Freedom Motel” started by blogger Tarek Shalaby. It had become a meeting spot for bloggers and net-savvy youth, most of them fluent in English. Tarek described some of the impromptu systems that had developed in the square, like the station for charging cell phones. One would have to leave an ID with the cell phone and take a checkout number in return. Another man said he had left his job in the U.S. to be with his family and friends during the revolution.
We then made our way to another entrance. Men stood on a burnt out police truck that had been turned onto its side. Those entering the square were greeted with songs and the waving of Egyptian flags. Nadia pointed to the top of the residential building from where Mubarak’s supporters had been throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at their opponents below. I’d seen the same building on Al Jazeera some days earlier. Behind the truck, someone had taken stones thrown by Mubarak supporters and spelled out irhal (“leave”) on the street. Nearby, men camped next to tanks still manned by the Army to ensure these didn’t move on Tahrir’s residents.
Around 4 p.m., the square began to fill up. Families came together, along with students and businessmen. Nadia hadn’t seen crowds of this size since the protests began. There was a marked difference in the environment and mood between Tahrir and the rest of Cairo. A blogger, Mona Seif, had tweeted right after pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the square that Tahrir was the safest place in the city.
She was right. I felt no aggression toward me, no fear. When I spoke to people outside of Tahrir who opposed or were skeptical of the protests, they would speak with a shadow of contempt if not outright hostility.
Evening fell on the square with pockets of men gathering to pray. Others formed a wall around them for protection. On our way out, we saw a bride and groom, married in Tahrir that day. Here was the union of the private and the public, the sacred and the mundane.
Exiting the square, we walked toward the state TV building, now a fortress with no less than 40 tanks surrounding it and soldiers stationed behind mounted guns on the second story. The streets outside brought me back to the reality of Cairo. The sidewalks and streets were thick with garbage, traffic was backed up and barely moving, honking continued unabated. The fallout from the clashes was visible. The Army guarded the Ramses Hilton, whose sign had been defaced with anti-Mubarak slogans. A wall read “Mubarak=sadness.” Nadia and I parted ways as I returned to the hotel after my first full day in revolutionary Cairo.
Three days later, Mubarak stepped down.

Islam and the Egyptian Uprising

Originally published on Inside Islam, February 9, 2011: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/index.php/archives/7082

Mainstream news outlets have been making a lot of noise about the Muslim Brotherhood and  the possible Islamist threat coming from the impending downfall of President Mubarak’s 30 year-old regime. This point is generally overstressed — although the Muslim Brotherhood is a large opposition group and has been supporting the protests in the past few days, they were not the progenitors of the uprising and are not the current leaders of it.

 

 

Video: Alexander Hanna

 

Much more ubiquitous and important for the protests, however, has been the regular sort of Islamic practice and worship to which Egyptians are generally accustomed. For every member of the Muslim Brotherhood protesting in Tahrir Square, there’s surely over a thousand more Egyptians who are nonpartisan worshippers.  They are in the middle of the square, praying en masse, or sitting under the Army’s tanks, making sure they don’t move to force protesters out.

 

Tahrir Square has become a microcosm of Egyptian life, and accordingly, it has all the “publicality” of Islam, with calls to prayer on megaphones and large groups of men kneeling together, on prayer mats or Egyptian flags.

 

Islam is extremely public here, the merging of the sacred and the mundane, the unexpected and the carnavalesque, which Tahrir has become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Egypt Feigns Ignorance

Originally published in Dawn, January 17, 2011: http://www.dawn.com/2011/01/17/egypt-feigns-ignorance.html

ON January 11, a man boarded a train in the city of Salamut in Upper Egypt. He reportedly checked that the passengers had crucifixes tattooed on their right wrists, a customary practice of Coptic Christians. Allegedly uttering “there is no god but Allah”, he began firing indiscriminately upon passengers, killing a 71-year-old man and wounding six others.

Police found the man near his home shortly after and identified him as an off-duty police officer. He claims he was annoyed and did not know what had gotten into him.

There are several ways to read this tragedy. The first is obvious — as a tale of mental instability, of a loose cannon whose frustration, paired with a pistol, caught some unfortunate people in its crossfire. This will undoubtedly be the story told by Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and the state security apparatus.

The other narrative is that of a religious conspiracy in which the police deprive Copts of protection and attack them whenever and wherever possible. I venture that this is the interpretation of demonstrators who clashed with police outside the hospital where survivors of the attack were being treated.

While the former reading ignores context, the latter overstates the case against the police. Instead, I would risk a more symbolic and foundational reading of this attack. The officer, a representative of law and order, had seemingly free reign to attack his targets and then retreat home. This wasn`t because of religious fervour or police orchestration, but because of a culture of tension between Egypt`s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority and of the political milieu that has fostered it. The country`s leadership and intellectuals have not only been complicit in the growing polarisation, but are also in denial of its existence.

There isn`t much of a chance we would be framing this event as such if it were not for the grotesque attack on Two Saints` Church in Alexandria on New Year`s Eve in which a car bomb exploded as the congregation was exiting, killing 23 people and wounding 100 others. The sad truth is that this was only the largest of what has been a constant stream of attacks on Coptic Christians — over 120 since 1972, according to Karima Kamal writing in newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm .

The official line has been an outright rejection of the notion that Egyptians could perform such an attack. President Hosni Mubarak responded quickly, blaming foreign extremist elements for directly attacking the church or planting the seeds of radical Islamist thought in the minds of frustrated and malleable, but otherwise pious, Egyptian Muslim youth. Some commentators pointed to the perennial bogeyman, Israel`s Mossad (who, coincidentally, are also behind shark attacks in Sharm al-Sheikh and have been busy outfitting vultures with equipment to spy on Saudi Arabia). Mariz Tadros writes in Middle East Report that some prominent political commentators have even suggested that Coptic organisations in the diaspora may have orchestrated the attack in order to “instigate sectarianism”.

Simply put, the mainstream line is that foreign hands are behind these attacks. Any proud Egyptian citizen could not have done this. But unfortunately the tension is real and palpable, and cannot be papered over with discourses about citizenship and nationalism. The Copts, especially, don`t seem to have much reason to be patriots when the state short-changes Egypt`s largest religious minority.

A telling example is the double standard concerning construction and zoning permission for religious buildings. Members of a church in the slum of al-Umraniyya were assaulted and arrested for attempting to turn a community centre into an prayer room, all because the building did not have permits to serve as a place of worship. Or take the construction of a new church dome in the governorate of Beni Suef, which was halted for not having construction permits only days after the Alexandria bombing. At the same time, many buildings that serve as mosques do not have permits and enjoy no interference from state security.Even in the wake of the New Year`s Eve bombing, Coptic youth demonstrating in a nonviolent manner were cordoned off and eventually beaten in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Cairo by overwhelming numbers of state security forces dressed to the nines in riot gear. This after several weeks in late 2010 in which Salafi Islamists protested outside churches, calling for the release of two women — wives of priests — who had allegedly converted to Islam and were being held prisoner. A confrontation between demonstrators and police at events like the latter are, however, unheard of. Note also the contrast between chants at the two protests: the Copts yelling, “with our blood and souls, we will defend the Cross”, compared to death threats against Pope Shenouda III and other prominent Coptic clergy.

This is not to absolve the Copts of aggravating tensions. Recently the high-ranking Bishop Bishoy accused Muslims of being “visitors” in the country. Others, especially in the diaspora, have bought into the American neoconservative narrative that a creeping Islamism will soon take over the world and implement Islamic law.

The point, however, is that the double standard of treatment has resulted in two forces tugging at the religion rope — the marginalisation of Copts on the one hand, and a home-grown Islamisation on the other. So what is to be done?

As the 12-step programme of addiction recovery would have it, first Egypt needs to admit that it has a problem. A policy of denial will not slow or stop the growing polarisation of the nation`s religious communities. The government can only accuse foreign hands for so long. Intellectuals, moderate Muslims and secular opposition leaders cannot wax poetic about the virtues of national unity without addressing the divisive elephant in the room. The Alexandria bombing is a stark reminder of what is, but it can also serve to illuminate what ought to be. Before the light dims, Egypt`s leaders should look closely and earnestly at the fissures its brightness reveals.

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