Sex and the People, Keynote by Carmen Vazquez
December 12, 2013
When first asked to make this presentation, I shared with Ricci that, while I have spent many years inserting sexuality into my public comments, I had never actually been asked to specifically talk about sex. The opportunity to do so felt both daunting and liberating.
I have insisted on a public discourse on sex and desire for over thirty-five years for reasons that are both personal and political. I have done so for reasons that have to do with race, family and my queerness.
As a lesbian/butch/queer I have found it absurd that anyone would not see the political, religious, and cultural condemnation of our sexuality as central to our oppression – no matter what color or race you are. When I speak with LGBT people who think sex and sexual repression is a personal matter not to be addressed in public or understood politically, I am dumbfounded. Have they no understanding of why we have been burned, drowned, hung and gassed through the centuries? What is it they think motivates the murders of our sisters and brothers everywhere in this country and in many other countries?
What did White Europeans — and later American slave owners — do with the female slaves they bought off the coast of Africa if not to use them as sexual chattel? What was the most ubiquitous rationale for lynching Black men if not their alleged lust for and rape of white women? Have we no memory left of the rape of Native women on every continent of the “New World”? Are we unaware of the objectification of the “Hot” Latino or Latina? Are young men and women from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands not still being bought and sold into sexual slavery today?
Sex as a tool for power and control has been with us in the United States and former “Americas” since Columbus got lost and hit the shores of “Hispaniola.” The Europeans brought it with them along with their guns and their germs. It is not possible to struggle for liberation and justice without understanding the centrality of state-imposed sexual oppression and repression that has been buttressed by religious and cultural stigma for centuries. As Bertol Brecht said, “If you can control a people sexually, you can control them absolutely.”
My own journey, like most of yours, begins with family.
Family is where the heart starts beating, where it heals and where it is first broken. Mother brings you home, her bundle of joy. Mother strokes you and sings to you, kisses the scrape on your knee, makes you rice soup, swings you in the cradle of her heart. Mother leaves you with a key in your hand and your heart pounding against your chest, your throat dry, and fear creeping through your belly. Will she ever come back? Daddy throws you in the air and catches you, and you’re screaming with glee every time. Daddy rides you on his shoulders and teaches you how to play beisbol like the little men on TV called the Yankees. Daddy’s stubble tickles your cheek and he crushes your skinny bones to him, calls you baby doll. Daddy beats you with the belt, long thick welts on your back, but you shed no tears. Big girls don’t cry.
Except, I cry all the time. I cry remembering the joy and innocence, the fear and the pain of my own family and growing up. Being queer, I think, doesn’t make it worse or better. Everyone first gets wounded in the very place they expect to find comfort and safety. It’s just that most of us queer ones don’t get to go back. We used to walk around in broad daylight with our hearts broken, looking for that rainbow, looking for daddy, looking for mom, dissing the breeders, drowning at tea dances on ecstasy pills, crystal meth and loneliness, looking for love anywhere. Now we look to marriage as our salvation from all that. Except it is not.
When I was a child, I knew that I was not a girl like other girls because I did the things that boys did: the baseball, the fighting, the getting dirty, building milk crate scooters, shooting caps, pitching pennies. The only thing I didn’t like to do that boys did was make girls cry. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to kiss them. I wanted to protect them. When I imagined myself being grownup I imagined myself as Pedro Infante (a Mexican actor/soldier hero of my youth) who was going to get his Adelita back from whoever it was she went off with — and I would do whatever it took, follow her by battleship on the sea, by military convoy over the land — to get her back.
I didn’t know or understand that my fantasies and predilections were wrong or even unusual until I was about six and my mother said I had to wear a dress. I fought and cried but, of course, I lost. Most of my grammar school life was a series of fights and humiliations and loneliness that had to do with being a Puerto Rican kid in white ethnic neighborhoods, or a kid on welfare in Black Harlem, and with being forced into a manner of dressing and speaking and even playing jump rope instead of baseball that had nothing to do with who I felt myself to be.
I have spent the entire rest of my life creating that self. I have tried, as best I could, to recreate gender, personally and politically. This defiance and invention of gender, this living in the nuances and possibilities — both boy and girl, in the private world of the traditional “woman” and in the public world of the traditional “man” — is inseparable from my sexuality. Butch is more than a shirt and tie. It is who I am, how I desire and how I express that desire. It is how I understand the free exchange of pleasure and power.
I need to talk about sex because when a lover asks me to fist her, I have to able to listen to her and her desire, and not be afraid because I’d never done any such thing. I need to talk about sex so I can help her understand how my vulnerability and fears were created by the stigma and shame imprinted on me by my family and the traditional church and the prevailing white culture. I need to have sex because it gives me great pleasure and because the raw, complicated, breathtaking, and sometimes violent explosion that happens between people who desire each other and allow that desire to take them out of their skin and mind in a tangle of sweat and skin and cum and passion is how I conquer my own essential aloneness.
As a political activist, I also understand that without taking sex out of the confessional, we cannot authentically engage in movement building, whether that is the movement for racial justice, the movement for sexual freedom, the movement for reproductive justice, or the movement for LGBT Liberation. Sexual repression is critical to the perpetuation of racist regimes and policies, to the perpetuation of the denial of women’s right to sexual freedom and pleasure, and to their right to reproductive choice. Sexual repression is central to the discrimination, denial of fundamental human rights, and violence that is still very much a reality for most of the world’s LGBT people.
It all started innocently enough in 1981 in San Francisco. I was at a conference for Third World/ People of Color Gay and Lesbian People. We hadn’t made up our mind about Third World or People of Color, Gay still came before Lesbian, and Bisexual and Transgender were not integral to our identity. I was on a panel with a Latino and a Black man, both of whom spoke eloquently and passionately about racism within the Gay Movement and beyond it, about violence, about their right and the challenges to live as open Gay men of color. They had my full support. Then they both made assertions to the effect that their sexuality had nothing to do with who they were. I was outraged. I challenged them to explain how they can assert that sex has nothing to do with them or me. That I knew full well anytime one of them fucked a man in the ass or I fucked a woman, we were at danger not only of the political war being raged by Reagan and the moral majority against us, but of death itself through violence. I asked how they could not understand that every women’s right to sexual pleasure and abortion was as central to that right wing agenda as was homosexuality. They said abortion was not a gay issue either. Speaking to the intersections of race, class, sexuality and reproductive justice became central to my public message forever after.
Not long after the beginning of my tenure as Director of Public Policy at the LGBT Community Center in NYC, I made a presentation at a harm reduction symposium in NYC’s Riverside Church. I was, of course, thrilled to be speaking from a pulpit and extremely nervous about my decision to address sexuality. But I did it anyway.
“Do I get to bring my sex with me? Do I get to tell you how sick and tired I am of the condoms and the dental dams and the saran wraps and all the other things that keep my skin, my cock, my cunt, my cum, my juice separate from the person I want? Do I get to tell you that I’m out of control here? Do I get to tell you that I want my lover and somebody else’s lover and a stranger in a bathhouse? Do I get to tell you that I want pain and power in my sex? Do I get to tell you that my sex is very vanilla and I really like it like that? Do I get to tell you that I’m queer and never have sex except for what I desire?
Do I get to tell you that I’m a female to male transsexual and a gay man? Do I get to tell you that I’m a male to female transsexual and a lesbian? Do I get to tell you that I’m a transsexual who is a heterosexual? Do I get to tell you I am a bisexual slut? Do I get to be in your community? Do I really?”
There was stunned silence. They expected me to talk about race or class or harm reduction, not sex. What they didn’t realize is that in one paragraph I had, in fact, talked about all three. I also realized that what had begun more than a decade earlier in San Francisco at the Third World People of Conference would have to remain very much a part of my political and public life.
In 1996 at no less an auspicious gathering than the National Gay and Lesbian Task Conference, Creating Change, I made a presentation that delighted many of my progressive queer brethren and outraged just as many. The speech was called “Wounded Attachments,” and was a broad critique of the emerging conservatism in the LGBT Movement and a defense of a progressive agenda. That critique also included a very pointed dismissal of marriage as a central focus of the LGBT movement. Not because I have anything against people being married. Marriage is, after all, a fundamental human right. I myself have asked several women to marry me only to be refuted by all of them. Many of my best friends are married. One of the women who said no to me will be marrying the woman she left me for next summer, and I will proudly stand with her and their children whom I love more than life itself. Not because, as many a sexologist and therapist will tell us, marriage (at least monogamous marriage) is not all that great for sex. No. I voiced my opposition to marriage as a focus of our movement because it is not central to our oppression. It is not why people are still killing us. It is not why Russia has adopted explicitly anti-gay legislation. No. We are targeted for violence, repression and oppression because we have sex for pleasure, not reproduction. Because every time we have sex with someone of our own sex, we forever sever the ties between sex and reproduction. The original sin was not sex, my friends. It was the knowledge of pleasure.
Michel Foucault asserted that the tradition of confession was combined with scientific discourse to create our modern concept of sexuality. These two discourses combined lead us to think of sex as something secret and suspicious, but also as the key by which we can discover the truth about ourselves. Perhaps that is true, but I think secret and suspicious has the upper hand in our current discourse over the key to understanding the truth about ourselves. He also asserts that sex is everywhere in the public discourse. This is also true, but that discourse has more to do with selling cars and beers and entertainment than anything we actually talk about in this nation of sexual stutterers.
Can you defend abortion rights and talk about sex? Not in Texas. Can you defend the right of same-sex couples to marry and talk about sex? Never! Can you promote “safe sex” and actually use explicit sex images and language? Not if you want funding from the Centers for Disease Control. Can the delightful promiscuity of Amanda in Sex and the City or Shane in The L Word or some of that raunchy lesbian prison sex in Orange is the New Black be a source of delight to countless viewers? Absolutely. They aren’t real people. Can you run for public office if you have been found to engage in sexting? Not in America. Ask former Congressman and NYC Mayoral Candidate Anthony Wiener.
The political, policy and personal implications of living in an interdependent global society that gags on the discussion of sex and its consequences are staggering. The UN projects world population growth to peak to 10.1 billion by 2100, quadrupling the world’s population in less than a century, and bringing with it growing poverty, dwindling resources, and a planet ravaged by what we have and continue to take from it in order to support that growth. Based on a report from the World Health Organization in 2008, recorded cases of AIDS stands at approximately 40 million worldwide. Reflecting data only from countries with reliable tracking systems reports, the WHO also reports 500 million cases of curable sexually transmitted diseases and 21.6 million unsafe abortions that were undoubtedly the result of unwanted pregnancies. The report attributes the growth in unsafe abortions to be “mainly due to the growing population of women of reproductive age.” Not poverty or lack of access to safer sex information or contraception. No. It is because there are more young women of reproductive age.
That is policy language from the world’s leading health organization. Really.
I am not naïve enough to think that a simple change in our willingness to talk about the pleasure and consequences of sex will slow down world population growth, cure AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and eliminate unsafe abortions.
But I do believe that keeping sex in the confessional will make policy change incremental and ineffective. Women have unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions because they have unprotected sex and no access to contraceptives. People of all ages, races, genders, and nationalities get HIV primarily through unprotected sex. Sexually transmitted diseases are not something you catch on a urinal. Policy makers, government officials, scientists, and activists engaged in the day-to-day struggle to make sex safe for millions of people need to be explicit and unrelenting in our pursuit of sexual health education and contraception as a human right and obligation, not something anyone can opt out of because a parent or minister is still stuck in the 19th century. To do so, we must all be willing to rid ourselves of the puritanical confessional and hypocrisy that puts talk of sex and pleasure by and for the people in a straightjacket.
We need to lift up the voices of the women of Sister Song and all the other LGBT people of color engaged in efforts to bring our sexuality out of the shame and titillation it has been buried in. We need to embolden our people, whoever they are, to embrace and celebrate their sexuality and to talk about it with their family and friends, with their lovers and partners, with their congregations, with their legislators when abortion or reproductive choice or contraception or sexual health education are being threatened by legislative action, State bureaucracy or indifference. We need to put an end to the absurdity of abstinence only policies, here and everywhere. They don’t work. They run contrary to human nature and represent the worst of confessional, fear ridden approaches to both population control and disease prevention. It is human suicide. We need to stop it.
On a much broader movement building level, if we are serious about creating a broader audience for alliance on sexual freedom and sexual health, the dialogue in which we must engage our sisters and brothers of color, the dialogue we must engage the political community, organized labor, educators at every level, unorganized civil service workers, college students, and the people in welfare waiting rooms is about the truth of who we are, the whole truth. The sex part and the race part and the class part and the gender part.
The dialogue about racism in America must be about more than whether or not we will use offensive language, but about how together, white and of color, we will end the subjugation by political and economic force of white people over people of color. So too, must the dialogue between ourselves and America and the global community be about how we will choose to be subject and object in our sexual lives, how we will achieve and sustain sexual health; how we will be free.
In our hurry to win legal and legislative battles on the sexual freedom front, we must not forsake the spirit in us that keeps longing for a freedom and desire that laws alone can never give us. The language and image, the strategies and tactics, the song and spirit of our movement should have more in common with the people still working to end racism and economic injustice in our country than with those espousing the notion that thirty years of affirmative action have somehow given African-Americans and other people of color in this country “equal” opportunity. It should because, like ours, those are struggles for dignity and hope, for the right to choose where we live and whom we love, for the right to choose work commensurate with our capacities — not our color or our gender or our sexual orientation or our bank account.
There is daily reference to terrorists in our news. As a lesbian, a woman, and a person of color, I am fully aware of actions intended to terrorize by instilling fear. I know from the fabric of my own life what it feels like to be afraid of walking down any given street and fear for my safety. I know what it feels like to disguise my appearance so those who would do me harm will not recognize me. I know what hiding feels like. I know the numbing waves of rage that flow when people murder gay boys and transgender people, whose only sin is a desire to love and the hope of living and working in the light of day without fear.
I know that “terrorists” are not just desperate and hate-filled people hiding in caves thousands of miles away. They are right here at home. They wear hoods and burn crosses on lawns. They wield baseball bats or knives, and murder people whose gender and sexual orientation frightens or disgusts them. They bomb churches and synagogues and mosques. They bomb women’s health clinics and stalk abortion providers and shoot them in the back.
None of that will keep me or you from our commitment to sexual freedom. I just ask that we do that work with an unrelenting push to lift the veil of shame and secrecy over sexuality from the public domain, to talk to administrators of public health, educators, legislators, judges, and doctors about the need we all have to engage in this very fundamental human need and universal right as a celebration of our spirit and not something that need ever take back to the confessional.
I have no aspiration to be “normal.” I embrace the oddity in me and the oddity in many of you in this room because if we are brave enough and have enough love, it is the odd ones who will inspire the creation of new ways to love and live and uphold the dignity of our sexuality. I imagine a world where wars for oil will end and the sun will be our only source of energy. I imagine a world where those children I love will not have to face the melting of the ice caps and the end of New York City or Florida as we know it. I imagine a world where all children will have the knowledge and access to technology and sexual health that our scientific community is capable of providing right now. I imagine a world without AIDS. I imagine a world where health care, social security and other benefits are not tied to marriage. I imagine a world where no pregnancy is unwanted. I imagine a world where no child is bullied because of who he desires or her gender expression. I imagine a world where sexual freedom and sexual health will be everyone’s right and not the privilege of those who can afford it. Let us create that world.
© Carmen Vazquez
Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance Sexual Freedom Summit
Silver Springs, Maryland
September 20, 2013