I am writing this in a state of turmoil. Let’s just get that out there.
In case you haven’t heard about the horrific news out of Long Beach, CA: a transgender man was slashed in a public restroom on the campus of Cal State Long Beach on April 15. Mainstream media seems reluctant to report what LGBTQ media and other anecdotal accounts claim: the attacker carved the word “IT” on the victim’s chest. To top it all off, there’s a frustrating discourse out there about this possibly being a hoax. More on that later.
But let’s just get it out here: To be queer means to live under the constant threat of actual physical violence. Let’s be clear on this. Yes, even in these United States. Queers know this, but others can look here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. Get the picture?
Let’s ruminate on the inhumanity of the word “IT” for a moment.
Also today, I had several different Internet sources I follow mention the hilarious video of American soldiers (at least, I think they are American) in Afghanistan loosely reenacting the Lady Gaga/Beyonce “Telephone” music video. Hilarious. If you don’t believe me, look at one of the highest-rated comments:
>Laughing really hard at this with a big grin on my face. I loved the blonde guy who was dancing solo - he’s got some moves! The Beyonce section was genius.
In case it’s not clear, I don’t find this funny. In fact, I find it awful, and I can’t help but read one of these events through the other. While I would never even conceive of equating the magnitude or enduring trauma of a physical and psychical attack such as the one in Long Beach with a video like this, I want to illuminate what I see as an insidious, subterranean parallel.
I am going to assert that hate crimes are committed against queers—and particularly against transgender people—because of the very same anxiety that makes us want to laugh at straight boys acting like girls. It is a profound, unsettling anxiety, a black-hole moment where our supposedly solid constructions of gender are revealed to be shams, rickety notions, two-dimensional edifices that work well on one façade but collapse and splinter the moment they’re pushed from the side. It is the same anxiety. It is the same violence. To be empowered means you can make silly YouTube videos and laugh it off. To be divested of power means you get stabbed.
Confused? Let’s visit another comment on the YouTube video:
Get it? They’re so gay! They’re acting so gay. They’re acting like girls. They’re hilariously gender performing.
I have no idea if any of these men like to suck dick, nor does it really matter. In fact, to dwell on this “reality” would be to ignore the Sedgwickian sliding interplay of public/private that structures our entire project of modern sexuality—a fundamental episteme that reverberates in countless ways through culture. For my intents, and for the viewing public, they are “straight.” I am being purposefully blunt here, as the US military is purposefully blunt: if you’re not spoken, then you’re not gay. And if you are spoken, then you are gay, and you’re not in the military any more. As Jasbir Puar points out, institutions predicated on homosocial environments are the most strictly regulated in regards to gender. Firehouses. Frat houses. The military. And we know this, which is why it’s even more funny to see manly dudes in the military behave this way. Look at these manly dudes pretending like they’re over-the-top female pop icons. Ha ha.
Let’s return to Long Beach. The LA Times and the Long Beach Press-Telegram seem to stick with institutional accounts: “The attacker pulled Carpenter’s T-shirt over his shoulders and head and used a sharp object to slash his chest, university officials said.” There is no mention of the word “IT.” Accounts in the LGBTQ blogosphere and anecdotal accounts mention that this was indeed the case. In an unsettling twist, it seems like some popular discourse is trending toward the fact that Long Beach police haven’t charged a hate crime, implying that somehow the word “IT” is the defining factor here. Let’s dispense with this quickly:
1. Everything happened as described, including “IT.” Hate crime.
2. Everything happened as described, but no word. To attack a transgender person by lifting up their shirt and mutilating their chest is a hate crime, regardless of words. I hope I don’t have to explain this.
3. This is all a hoax. In my opinion, this says more about the accuser than the crime. But I don’t even want to dignify it.
My thoughts are with Colle Carpenter. And my thoughts are with all queers who live under the threat of gender violence. Which is all of us. So, I refuse to laugh, smile, or even entertain the privilege of “straight” military men taking pleasure in gender transgression while others are brutally punished for it. It is a slap in the face, a slap that hurts. But not as badly as letters carved in your chest.