Alright, it’s guest post time at We Exist, and here’s Holly Jones with a real meaty one. In her own words, “Holly Jones is a student of Geography at Clark University, and a student of the people around her in Worcester, MA. She excels at English vocabulary, multiple choice tests, telling fortunes, climbing trees, and speaking her mind. Check out her blog, Word Up .”
In the following piece, she reflects on Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and offers a very personal look at how, for her, desire, sexuality, gender identity, and gender intersect and impact one another, how having a queer gender identity can complicate the nature of what are often called “same sex relationships,” and how to continue to subvert sexism and other systems of oppression through it all.
For your humble editor, what makes this piece so special is the personal nature of it. Doubtless, there are other readers who will have different experiences with gender, gender identity, sexuality, and how they interact. Whether you’re reading this piece and thinking along the lines of “OMG, that’s SOOO me!” OR “oh wow, this is totally different from how things are for me”, we want to hear from you at We Exist, and you know what to do… named, handled, or anonymous, send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org .
And now, after all that… back to Holly.
I just finished Audre Lorde’s book, “Zami: A new spelling of my name”. ‘A biomythography by Audre Lorde’. I’m studying the Combahee River Collective, a mostly-lesbian all-black, all-feminist collective in Boston in the 1970s. Their first retreat was in Hadley, at a members house. Audre Lorde was part of the collective, and so before I left Worcester for Bermuda, I scanned my house’s library for any of her books I might take along with me. There lay Sister Outsider, which I read last year, and Zami. Until reading Zami, I had forgotten how deeply Sister Outsider had moved me, and then Zami did the same. It largely focuses on intimate portraits of the women who shaped a young Audre Lorde. Most of the women are lovers, but the lovers are bookended by Audre’s mother.
It felt good to be reading this book on the sunny/windy Island of Bermuda, almost as good as reading Jamaica Kinkaid’s A Small Place: a book of mourning and celebration for a Jamaica she might have had, had it not been taken from her by colonialism. I read it as a reprimand to tourists like me blissfully ignorant of power relations on Caribbean Islands) Both A Small Place and Zami felt like a type of stretching back for roots which had been severed.
Zami. A Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers.
Carriacou; a small island which is part of the nation of Grenada, where the women walk like Africans. There it is said that the desire to lie with other women is a drive from the mother’s blood.
Carriacou was the home of Audre’s mother, and growing up, all good things came from ‘home’, a place Audre had never been. At the end though, Audre says that home is no longer a long way off. The bio-mythography ends somewhere in Audre’s 20s, when she is still stealing from grocery stores for sustenance, working part-time in a library and too poor for groceries.
Audre’s lush and unabashed descriptions of her dealings with women emotionally and physically struck a chord in me. She terms herself a Woman-Identified-Woman, finding strength in other women that she does not gain from men. The book seemed a tribute to those women and herself. And I think I gained some insight into the idea of being drawn to women. That’s always been a hard concept for me because I’ve conceptualized myself as being attracted to people regardless of their gender, though of course that’s not true, because gender is such an essential part of people’s identity.
It’s usually in environments where gender-fucking is welcomed and encouraged that I realize what a burden it usually is to me, that it feels oppressive every time I have to publicly declare my allegiance with one side or the other. When I do declare such an allegiance, though (walking into a gendered bathroom, for instance) my usual reaction is, fuck it. Why do we need gender?
Of course, I’m not so much as declaring an allegiance to “woman-hood” as reaffirming it; everybody already pledges my allegiance for me as a woman, because of my presentation and my body.
And usually when we talk about gender identity, it is these external indicators which we think about. Those are the tangible things. “A woman born in a man’s body” and vice-versa, rather than a person, born in their own body, who has their own relation to it. But of course the body’s not what it’s about; gender isn’t so fluid that it changes depending on one’s outfit (or is it?)
So I can present one way, and enjoy presenting that way, but still feel that I am greater than the way I present. Right? But I also feel frustrated with my inability to switch… usually, I cannot pass as male regardless of hairstyle, chest reduction, packing, beard shadow… it just looks like drag, which is probably why i don’t do it too often. I prefer, for instance, dressing up femme/girly, parading my breasts, and scrawling a label, “BOY”, across them in lipstick. Because in my view, people really ought to just take my word for it.
Still. Still, people should and they don’t. Everybody sees and shapes everybody else… and that creates legitimate differences between genders. Which theoretically ought to be celebrated while remaining necessarily unnamed, as they shape each person in different ways.
My friend I were walking the other day, and a small child asked her why she had ‘boy hair’. I told her to respond with the question, “what is a boy?” but while maybe enlightening for a child in a certain context, the category of ‘boy’ is a useful descriptor of some people and attributes. Some people are strongly attached to it. Perhaps even more so, the category “woman”.
Audre’s term, ‘woman-identified-woman’, is about drawing strength from the female relationships in a woman’s life as much as those relationships being sexual in nature. Because of my complicated ideas and feelings about gender, this sort of identification with ‘women’ is one that I struggle with. I like to think that attraction, for me, is mostly about someone’s personality, and not their gender identity, but of course, gender and being gendered are so essential to our experiences that of course gender identity is an integral part of who they are. Women in our society are shaped by growing up in patriarchy, and that is part of what makes relationships between women, and women appreciating the beauty and worth of other women, so very precious.