Category Archives: History

Just an observation

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This is Judy Bernly, played by Jane Fonda, in the movie “9 to 5” (1980).  She is our original POV character, walking into the company with the supertoxic boss, and she joins forces with Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) to overthrow the Patriarchy.

Meanwhile, Judy has some issues with sporting the huge bow style of the era:

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Until, of course, she hits her Empowering Fantasy Sequence:

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Of course, in “real life” in the movie, things don’t go quite so picturesquely, but they do overthrow the Patriarchy (in part) and get the promotions Dolly sings about so eloquently in the title song.

I believe that Judy Bernly is the spiritual grandmother of Erin Gilbert of Ghostbusters 2016 and the world’s tiniest bowtie.  (For a variety of reasons, not least that the characters’ presentation and roles are similar, but mostly I’m just presenting this for your consideration, not wanting to argue at all.)

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How Kate Clinton Made Me Gay

(Originally published on my LiveJournal on February 12, 2007.)

Long ago, before the wheel was invented (or, well, possibly somewhat after; I was a life sciences major! what did I know?), I was in college. I picked the wrong college to try first, and wandered around it like a lost soul, and stood outside the college GALA meeting (this was also before bisexuals and transfolk were invented, apparently) in a long black cloak at night under a tree, trying to make my hide in shadows roll and failing repeatedly, for half an hour. I watched the meeting of perfectly normal gay people through the walls of the large glass meeting room in which the introductory meeting was being held — whose bright idea was that? — and felt that piquant terror that many geeks feel at the idea of mingling with normal people.

Fortunately, I failed my hide in shadows roll at just the right moment and was found by a wandering pack of science fiction geeks who dragged me off to join THEIR club. None of them, alas, were willing to be gay at me, but I happily shoved the idea of gayness to the back of my head.

Then I went to a different college. I was too busy to try their GLSU meetings, but I eventually found a slightly geeky gay man who worked with me to come out to. I came out to him on one of our long, boring summer afternoons of watching over our brooding ranks of Apple II+ computers (before the invention of the hard drive). He told me the GLSU was a seething mass of politics, so maybe I didn’t want to try them. Besides, I told myself, I was bisexual (this was after I invented bisexuality), not a lesbian. Perhaps there was still hope I could be ‘normal’.

The next school year, I lived in a dorm that was next to a set of train tracks. After getting used to the sound of the train running by my back door every hour and therefore becoming less sleep-depped, I started wandering the town. One store I walked past on an almost daily basis was Wonderland Records.

I was certain it was a Head Shop.

I wasn’t really sure what, precisely, a Head Shop was, but I was certain that it wasn’t the sort of place a Nice Catholic Girl like myself should be. (This was before I invented paganism.)

It took me something like six months before I dared cross that Heady threshold.

It was, actually, a record store.* It sold records. You know, those vinyl disc things that play on phonographs. It also sold cassette tapes, but I didn’t have a cassette player, so I didn’t even bother looking at those. There was a bargain bin of 8-tracks in the corner.

I looked around the store very carefully. I found a tiny section in the racks near the windows marked “Women’s.” I thought, “Women’s music?” and flipped through it.

I don’t remember seeing anything in there except two records by Kate Clinton. One was called Thanks for the Mammaries and the other, Making Light. (This led to later confusion and disappointment when I discovered the blog of the same name.)

There was something deeply subversive and intensely scary about women’s comedy, so I fled.

It took me something like six months before I chose Making Light because it had a less intimidating (and revealing) title. I carried it to the cash register with an exaggeratedly casual air, paid the uncaring clerk for it with cash, and ran for the hills. When I got to my closet-like dorm room, I played it.

I laughed and howled and played it again.

The line that stays in my head from that album: when she’s talking about removing stuck tampons, she notes, “Fortunately, we have friends to help us.”

Over the subsequent years of waffling and confusion, that album was one of those things I returned to like an orbiting comet. It made me wonder what I could be sometime, maybe, possibly. And every return felt a little more like home. I mean dykes! Making jokes about being dykes! How cool was that? And she wasn’t mean. Well, not to anyone who didn’t deserve it. So much humor about women is based on meanness.

I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be a woman and funny and not mean about other women? It sounds like dykes have so much fun!

(Clearly, Dykes To Watch Out For had not yet been invented. Or, well, it had. I remember seeing the title on the table of the women’s book co-op I went to twice in grad school, and wanting to flip through it, but I ran away.  Then came back later and read bits of it.)

Meanwhile, I kept getting closer and closer to realizing that being a dyke, being part of dykedom, was what I wanted.

It took me a long time to come around to coming out.

Fortunately, I had friends to help me.

Several years ago, while in Provincetown, I bought another Kate Clinton album, this time on CD, in Womencrafts (10% Dyke Discount!). I took it home and forgot it. A month or so ago, I found it again, unwrapped it, and listened to it on the way to work. I laughed and howled and played it again, this time for my wife.

When I think about lesbians, the first thing I think of is Kate Clinton’s voice. I didn’t realize this until I listened to this album.

Someday, I’d like to see her perform live. And maybe if I’m brave, I can shake her hand and thank her for helping to make me gay.

 

*Which does not mean it wasn’t a Head Shop.

We Have Always Been Here

I was reading some more of the reactions to JJ Abrams’ tone-deaf and white-boy-oblivious comment last December about wanting his Star Wars to attract female fans because Star Wars had always been a “boy thing.”  Which is, of course, utter bullshit, and I hope that he actually paid attention to the fans and learned a thing (but given previous experience with supposedly open-minded white male directors getting defensive as hell and refusing to learn anything about their female, queer, or POC fans, I’m not actually very hopeful).

I don’t know how I missed Elizabeth Minkel’s article in the New Statesman before, but it is extremely quotable:

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible.

On Tumblr, my old friend X-Cetra said, rightly:

Shame on JJ Abrams and Steven Moffatt and all the adult geek boys of today who have developed collective amnesia about all the girls playing with Star Wars figures, geeking about Star Trek, learning Elvish, reading comics on long car rides, recording Doctor Who off PBS, programming on Commodore 64s, gaming on Ataris, and being masochistic Dungeon Masters. I am sick of having to shout to the rafters, again and again and again, a la Kosh of Babylon 5, that WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE.

And I remembered:

My first good boss was a woman some 40+ years my senior who ran the microbiology lab classes at my university and who was the biggest Tolkien geek I have ever known. She’d read the books voraciously as they were coming out (she said it was awful, waiting for the next book — eat your hearts out, GRRM fans), taught herself Elvish as she went, and was a bit of a Tolkien scholar (how much, I never knew, or even if she was published).

During the 1970s, when there was a big resurgence of Lord of the Rings, and in one microbiology class, she found Elvish writing in the back of one of the student lab notebooks she reviewed weekly. So she wrote back. And the student wrote back.  And so on.  They carried on an Elvish correspondence for the entire semester, even as the student was turning in assignments and lab writeups.  The way she told the story, it was clearly one of her fonder memories among decades of microbiology students.

On my birthday, I went in at midnight to do some microbiology culture prep.  As I assembled my plates on the lab bench, I saw that she’d left me the biggest card I’ve ever seen, with a reproduction of one of Tolkien’s paintings on it.  The inscription was, if I recall correctly, a short quote from  Bilbo’s birthday party.  I hope I still have it somewhere, because I treasure that memory.  Best. Boss. Ever.

Damn straight we’ve always been here.

Thank you, Mrs. Clouser, for being an example for this lonely female geek.

Days and Days and Days: The Fun Home Musical

Last Saturday night, I got to (finally) see Fun Home: the Musical.

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I am a HUGE Bechdel fan.  I starting reading Dykes to Watch Out For secretly, when no one was looking, while shopping at a women’s book co-op tucked into the basement of a Carytown food co-op while I was in graduate school in Richmond.  My very first therapist had told me where it was in hopes, I think, that I would realize both that I was a lesbian and my boyfriend of the time was an abusive asshat.  The bookstore had a central table and all the Dykes collections were tucked onto the side of the table toward the back of the store, and my glimpses of the interiors of the five books that were available then made me wonder where I could find these amazing women, or people like them.  I was disappointed that the women who ran the co-op weren’t Mo or Lois or Ginger, despite their best efforts to bring me into the circle.  Eventually, I ran out of excuses and halfway workable lies to tell my boyfriend about where I was going, and I stopped going to the bookstore.

I didn’t see more of Bechdel’s work until a few years later, when I left that asshat and got together with my current wife, who owned all the collections.  I read through them ravenously and then kept current via Lesbian News, which always had a set of the latest Dykes in the center of the issue, and eventually moved to the web, where Bechdel was posting them on her website.   Naturally, when Bechdel first published Fun Home, we bought it almost immediately.  (We were also lucky enough to get hold of an autographed copy of the sequel, Are You My Mother?)   If I’d been more familiar with NYC, as many of my friends are, we probably would have seen the musical sooner, but I am something of a coward about traveling, and require some time to adapt myself to the idea of going somewhere relatively new.

In this case, travel was facilitated by a friend who so strongly recommended the show that she offered us crash space at her house if we wanted to see it.  So we took her up on it.

So after spending the afternoon at the Met, we settled down to wait in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, and watched people come in, including many of the actors.  I was feeling tense already.  I’d read reviews, I’d watched performances of “Ring of Keys,” I’d read Bechdel’s reaction to seeing it. I was afraid my expectations might be too high.  I was a little afraid of my own reactions to seeing it.

Annnnd right from the dimming of the lights and, “Daddy, hey, Daddy, come here, okay?” I was sitting on my vast array of feels and trying to keep them down.

Continue reading

More thinking about representation

I posted about Trixie Belden as one of my earliest, favorite People Who Looked Like Me.  But I’d be really remiss not to post about the One True Baby Butch I looked up to through my teen years.

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Simultaneously an object of one of my longest-standing crushes and an example of how to perform as a tomboy/butch, Jo Polniaczek of The Facts of Life was one of the touchstones of my adolescence.  She first appeared on the show after its major reorg in 1980, and stuck with the show until it folded in 1988, which neatly bracketed my wakening realizations about How I Felt About Other Girls and the first times I stumblingly came out to friends in college.

Like Jo, I tried very hard to “soften” my tomboy image as I grew up.  I have photos of me with long hair, in makeup and skirt, and I don’t even look quite as uncomfortable as I felt in those pics.  My hair didn’t get quite as high as Jo’s did in the late episodes, but it was a close thing.  And I only briefly had a mullet.

But Jo really was was the one visual tutorial I had for how to be butch.  I wasn’t a working-class Polish-American kid, but if I squinted, I could still spot the Irish-American dye factory foremen and shoemakers in my family history.  For my last two years of high school, I was also a scholarship student at a local private school.  I couldn’t claim any particular mechanical aptitude, but I was at least not afraid to change my own damn tires once I learned to drive.  So I was certainly closer to Jo than… pretty much any other girl attending Eastland.

Jo had that masculine kata, the firm connection to the earth with each step, shoulders back, arms and fists ready to take up space, arms crossed to fend off the world when she was at rest.  She didn’t smile unless she wanted to — she certainly wouldn’t smile if some dude told her to on the street — and she almost never hid her cynicism behind an acceptable feminine expression.

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The ongoing flirtation (what?  what would you call it?) between Jo and Blair fueled some of my most frustrating moments of watching television.  Just kiss already! I wanted to shout, but couldn’t because, you know, I was watching these shows with my parents.  You know you want to!  I knew I wanted them to.

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Look at that flannel.  Just look at it.  It is a thing of beauty.

Mallory Ortberg put it beautifully:

Every one of Jo and Blair’s interactions falls into one of the following categories: Unhand Me You Brute You Awful Brute You’re Covered In Oil And You’ll Get My Hair Greasy, My God I Hate You Come Closer And Breathe Into My Mouth So I Can Tell You Just how Much I Hate You, and LEAVE HER ALONE SHE’S MINE. Blair’s not just from the right side of the track; her father owns most of the track. Jo’s not just a motorcycle-riding, jeans-wearing rebel without a cause, she’s the Artful Dodger in Jo March’s body in James Dean’s clothes.

I never wrote fanfic about Jo; I actually feel kind of remiss that I didn’t.  I suppose I read too much about Lisa Whelchel’s born-again Stuff to be able to manage to write something that put Jo and Blair in that long-waited clinch.  And so much else about Jo just didn’t need fanfic… it was text, it was there for us to see if we chose to.

People keep talking about a Xena reboot, and that’s cool, especially if Xena/Gabrielle is text, but I’d love a Facts of Life reboot where Jo and Blair do kiss and carry on a 1980s super-closeted torrid roommate relationship.  Nowadays, that kind of thing would be a Historical Piece.  For me, it would be the resolution of 35 years of frustration.

In any case, thank you, Jo and Nancy McKeon, for giving me that one tiny glimpse, that one striking example of gender performance that could carry me on for years until I could take up my own space and stomp the earth myself.  Until that time, I did my best imitation of Jo and carried on.

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Rabbit, rabbit!

I learned that particular bit of folklore (if the first thing you say in the morning on the first day of the month is  “rabbit rabbit,” you’ll have good luck all month) while reading Trixie Belden mystery novels when I was a 7- to 13-year-old.  I originally inherited several hardbacks from my cousin, like this one:

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I added a few of the late 1970s hardback editions to fill in the blanks between her old books, like this one:

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(Yes, the bindings were that crappy, and mine looked pretty much like this one did, with pages falling out.)

And later found a paperback edition that further extended the series:

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I certainly read (and reread) the complete series up through book #20, and may have read a few beyond that, I don’t remember any more.

I’d made my very best attempts to read Nancy Drew, because That Is What Girls Read.  I just couldn’t manage it.  She was repellently girly.  I just couldn’t care about her. I turned to reading the Hardy Boys, and even religiously watched the Hardy Boys TV series (with Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy).  (THAT Nancy Drew — Pamela Sue Martin — was watchable, even though the books were unreadable, but they didn’t make as many episodes for her as they did for the Hardy Boys.)

My point is: Trixie Belden was the first time I saw myself in a book.

Okay, I’m not blonde OR perky OR outdoorsy.  I didn’t have any siblings, my friends were thin on the ground, and I certainly didn’t live in suburban/rural New York OR have a club for investigating mysteries.

But I was a baby butch from pretty much age 5 onward.  I resisted skirts, dresses, and anything frilly because they made me feel stiff and icky, basically, and my mother, kind and patient woman that she is, let me.  More than that, she supported my right to dress however I wanted.  The woman went toe-to-toe with the parish priest to get permission for me to wear a pantsuit for my first communion when I was six.  And won.  So I wore pants.  I wore turtlenecks.  My 7th and 8th grade pictures are rife with me in turtlenecks and flannels, for gods’ sake.

Trixie Belden wore short-sleeved buttondowns and jeans by preference.  She had a best friend, Honey, who was beautiful and femme.  I had some serious Feels about their friendship that often slid into wondering when they’d start kissing, which they never did, of course, but I shipped them hard before I knew what shipping even was.

All the other “girl sleuths” in existence spent nearly as much time on their wardrobes and other girly-ass things as the heroines of Regency romances, but not Trixie!  She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or be clever (heck, she saved her younger brother from a snakebite!), and the boys in the club almost never ended up saving her, or if they did, it wasn’t nearly as overweening and preachy as in other books.

AGENCY.  DECISIVENESS. ACTION.

Plus, come on, this chick is a butch:

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The heterosexual romance threads all annoyed the hell out of me, but even at that age, I realized that they were compulsory in this genre, so I held my nose and read between the lines for what I didn’t know at the time were the “slash moments.”

This culminated in my starting to write a fanfic sometime in my late 20s in which Trixie did, in fact, grow up to be a private investigator, but was also a dyke, and was coming home to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance. Alas that I never did finish it.

Trixie  holds a special place in my heart as the first other butch I ever really discovered, and whose adventures I could read and actually enjoy, as opposed to those (heterosexual propaganda) stories written for the YA population.  Finding her was my own  “Ring of Keys” moment: there ARE other people like me.

We exist.

Representation matters.

I still have trouble finding butches in the genres I choose to read, despite increasing visibility for the FABGLITTER population.  I’m happy to read about FABGLITTER folks anywhere, any time, but I confess that my delight is just a little greater, my mind a little lighter, when I stumble on someone who looks like me in fiction.

And this is why I write what I do.  Because it matters.

Short Character Overview: Ira

Ira Solomon Feldstein

Birthdate: 9 April 1928

Height: 5’10” (in prime)

Weight: about 175 lbs

Race: Hebrew (as they say in the old census records!)

Spandex name: Mister Metropolitan (retired)

Sign: Aries

Blood type: B

College degree: Accounting, Wonder City Business College

Paranormal powers:

  • Strength: Class 4
  • Invulnerability: Class 5

Other notes:

In my original timeline, I was married to Elizabeth McCallum, a.k.a Tin Lizzie, and we had one child, Joshua.  In this timeline, though, I was originally married to Andrea Prinz, who was Mrs. Metropolitan for a while, and she was the mother of Joshua.  Apparently, I cheated on Andrea with Violet Stein, and ended up divorcing Andrea and marrying Violet for a decade or so of misery before we divorced.  I don’t remember any of the stuff that happened in the current timeline, but everyone else does.  As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been a widower since Lizzie went into the Great Gulf in 1984.

Wonder City Stories, the Web Serial

I started writing the episodes of the serial with only a few ideas about characters and where I wanted the story to go, but didn’t snag http://wonder-city.dreamwidth.org and start posting until I knew what the ending of the first story arc was going to be.  I knew I was going to have a character be my “Maryanne”—who was the innocent, just-come-to-town lead point-of-view character in Tales of the City—and I named her Megan, but she grew as I wrote her in the first draft into the butch, queer, not-quite-eight-foot-tall daughter of a retired superhero named The Amazon.  Despite knowing about her first, Megan’s voice was difficult to find, and only really came together in the novel.

I also knew that Ira Feldstein, my octogenarian, Jewish, retired superhero Mister Metropolitan, was going to be a major character, and Ira’s POV voice snapped into place powerfully and immediately.  The fact that he was displaced from his own original timeline — or possibly not — came later, with all his fears that maybe he was just “losing it.”  My exploration of aging superheroes was not done with Ira; it came back with a vengeance in the third story arc of the serial.

Nereid, believe it or not, was going to be my mean girl.  But she fought me mightily, and quickly won the battle.  Traces of the mean girl can be spotted in her earliest episodes posted in the serial, and that was one of the things I had to change when I was editing/rewriting bits of the first story arc to turn it into the novel: making Nereid’s character consistent, and show more growth and backbone.  Nereid’s character got a major upgrade in the second story arc of the serial—which will be published as a novel called Ephemera in 2016—and I had to reconcile that Nereid with the first novel’s Nereid.

Finally, there was Suzanne Feldstein, Ira’s daughter-in-law, my token non-paranormal POV character.  She took some reworking as well for the novel; I wanted her to be a white woman with some clues about the world, but I also wanted to show her as being very stuck in the past.  I think I succeeded in getting early Suzanne to move fairly smoothly into the Suzanne we see at the end of the novel, the one who’s trying to get on with her life.

Strong supporting characters I didn’t expect included pretty much everyone, but especially Simon.  I adore Simon, my readers adore Simon: I didn’t expect, or even hope for, a Michael Tolliver/Mouse character (one of the best-known and best-loved characters of the Tales of the City books), but I got one anyway.

G originally didn’t work as well as, say, Watson Holmes, so she was kind of a struggle to write.  I finally realized why, as I was working my way through the serial.  As a result, her story leads into and drives much of the second story arc.  Watson has gone on to become one of my favorite recurring characters in the serial, along with her sister Death, who only shows up occasionally, but is awfully memorable when she does appear.

And then, of course, there’s Zoltan, who I loved enough to write an entire novella—”His Faded Idol”—about.  That novella may get blown out to novel length before I put it out; I have some ideas about things I’d like to do with it.  Hoping for that at the end of 2016 or early 2017. *fingers crossed*

I might start doing more in-depth discussions of some of the characters, or maybe a bit of Wonder City history now.  We’ll see what moves me to write in a few days.

Where did Wonder City Stories come from?

Sometime in early 1974, probably around the time I turned 6, I was standing around with my parents in a newsstand in Wilmington, Delaware. The magical ice cream menu failed to capture my attention as thoroughly as it had once upon a time, and I drifted over to one of those spinning wire-cage display racks to see what the especially colorful magazine covers were all about.  And this cover caught my attention:

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I begged my parents for it, I pleaded, and finally, they paid the 20 cents for my first entry into the world of mainstream comic books, which was, coincidentally, my introduction to alternate universes as well.  (I knew full well that Superman and Batman normally did not have wives, much less children.  After all, Batman, at least, was too busy running around his 1960s show, in syndication, fighting crime.)

Nowadays, of course, I recognize the racism, misogyny, horrific Victorian anthropology, and awful bullshit social Darwinism of the story.  But it was shiny and colorful and I read the damn thing on my own because when I hit a word I didn’t know, my mother just handed me the dictionary.

I didn’t collect comics regularly until the 1980s because I was not one of those children with a regular allowance and 20 cents/25 cents/35 cents/50 cents (as the price rose) was a big deal to a middle-class family during the recession of the mid-to-late 1970s.  In the 80s, I had some jobs and was able to start collecting George Perez’s runs of Teen Titans and Wonder Woman, and cemented myself as a DC Comics woman.

I still love comics, but over the last couple of decades, I’ve gotten disillusioned with them.  There aren’t people like me in them, and when there are people who have even the slightest overlap with my existence, they’re singular, worthy of note, as opposed to all the straight white dudes all over the place.  I want fat women, butch women, queer women I can look at and identify with — and straight cis white dudes?  I’ve been identifying with your people for decades, you can learn to do it too.  And then there’s the people everyone else would like to see: people of color, disabled people, trans people, genderqueer people, asexual/demisexual people… the list goes on.

I was frustrated by the medium — I am not an artist, and the comics writing industry takes luck to fall into — and the “make your own if you don’t like ours” refrain.  But then, one day, as I was embarking on my lengthy work commute, I put in the audiobook for Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and fell in love with his episodic, multiple-point-of-view format, as well as his queer characters in the 1970s and 1980s.

And that’s how Wonder City Stories, the web serial, was born.  It is, as I described it once, the lovechild of 1980s mainstream comics and Tales of the City, full of comic book and other geek references, people who get left out of comics, and multiple point-of-view characters.

More on the development of the serial next time!