I have a strange compulsion to think of the date suddenly, without reason, throughout the day, as though it were urgent to remember, or rather, not to forget. I think: the 27th of July, today is 25 days since my father died. The 23rd of July, that’s 21 days since my father died. Yesterday it was the 22nd, 20 days after my father died. How could it be that he died so recently and so long ago?
At least, when I think these thoughts, I feel that I can cry. And that in the other moments, at least I can laugh like this. At least I can laugh this hard and at least I can cry this hard.
The Queer X Tour has been for me personally an un-thawing of sorts, a slow awakening to a self that’s been partially buried since my father got sick last November. It hit me like a train wreck, that first rehearsal the day I arrived back to Berlin three weeks ago, and the tour itself, the enormity of it, the pressure to be great onstage and to live up to the talent and intelligence of my peers, came on without cease. There was no possibility of ever stopping life around me from going on; there never was such a possibility.
It was that first day that began the big sigh of relief; all of us together for the first time to run our show in the black studio space. I was an hour late and bleeding like hell wearing big period underwear and a thick pad, feeling completely disorganized, rushed and only half of the woman that I really wanted to be then and for that rehearsal. And yet I experienced from the first moment a definite sense of comfort; that I could arrive at all in such a state and feel that all of those worries of mine were beginning to disappear and that indeed we were all committed to making such a great show together. It is not often that I get to work on shoe-string budget shows that nevertheless have a professional rehearsal schedule and even a director assigned to watch and critique our pieces. I was grateful, and moreover I got the sense that I was entering a space in which I could share my mistakes and bad ideas with women who honestly wanted to help me make a better show.
It might seem tangential to speak of my father, but he is not unrelated to this tour. I wish that I could speak of it to him; and perhaps I can speak more freely now to him than I ever could. He does not exactly know it, but he will always be instrumental in my work. A father is often a person’s first conception of masculinity. For a girl to understand herself sexually she might see something in the mirror of her father. I think of all the things I do not tell my father, or that he would not understand. In a sense his absence is no different, in regard to him understanding my artwork, than it always was. It is as wide and as full of possibility for relationship as it ever could be. I write about my experience and he could be reading it. If he is still on my email list he is still getting my email.
It was nearly the next day after our first meeting of the queer x tour, when we were naked together at Schwarzer Kanal Wagonbauplatz—that beautifully ripe political space in the middle of Berlin—talking about our sexual experiences, points of view on performance, expectations, and then looking at our cervixes in a tiny wagon with Sadie as our patient leader, women and bois together. To see butches checking out their cervixes in the mirror with a flashlight twisted my world upside down in that one image. Already a level of comfort established between us; a clear message also about the type of women that we would be together—open, sexual, naked, raw, unafraid.
That first week was packed; solo performances on Monday Tuesday and Wednesday; Tara at my side. Then Friday a new show with Tara at the L.U.X.; a baptismal piece about boundaries and consent. This was our first group show and I felt that it was received quite well but also increased my desire to improve personally for the next time. Early the next morning we were off, all eight of us sleep deprived and loony, into our white van decorated with bondage Barbie, punk baby dolls and flower chandeliers.
On this trip I get to hear Ena laugh—a thing I never knew I loved so much. I get to hear my own laugh, deep and big and free. I get the sense that I am coming out from under a cloud, that even my pain is more beautiful because it is so pronounced and raw. I am trying to embrace the concept of the daily cry. I am trying to let it happen and to go deeply into it. And then in the opposite sense I feel the opening of a truly creative space.
What I appreciate most about this tour so far is the privilege and comfort of being surrounded by incredibly wonderful queer women; our ability to have these amazing conversations and not to feel like any of my opinions or feelings are wrong or illegitimate. I realized suddenly at the Brussels show that all my dirty thoughts and desires are a-okay and moreover, possible. It’s okay to take naked pictures in the middle of the club because that was not only what we wanted to do, but also what was expected of us. It is not often that I am able to feel like this. I could carry out that desire without any shame about it. In fact I have license to be exactly who I feel myself to be at all times. I like having that permission. I am familiar with a school of thought that believes sexual desire is superfluous, that these are the things that can and should be repressed and reconsidered, or that sexual freedom is luxury or even childish. But I can’t agree; freedom to express one’s self sexually is tied into every freedom of expression of the body, from speech to basic needs like eating and sleeping. When we don’t have the rope around us we suddenly realize just how much easier we can breathe.
The conversations in the van challenge me and present viewpoints that are at times even uncomfortable; butch/femme dichotomies that I am unfamiliar with or can’t relate to, new terms that I’ve never heard of, strategies of polyamorous relationships that are new and interesting to me. Every viewpoint has been valuable. What’s nice is to know that my viewpoints are likely at times equally strange to others but, therefore, equally acceptable. It started on the day that we did the cervical show, which was only the first Wednesday at Schwarzer Kanal and continues into every instance we share from van to backstage to onstage to even private sexual experiences away from the camera. I am sure that this is exactly where I belong along my path in life, in my artwork. I hope this is how everyone on this earth gets to feel, or rather, it is a feeling that I can say that I should feel extremely blessed that I get to experience.
We have spoken of so many diverse subjects together already. Yesterday for example we were speaking of personalities that trigger us negatively– white people with dread locks, a drag queen who calls herself something like “Downie” and pretends to have Down Syndrome, artists to claim their art is apolitical. We talked about judging people by the way that they look and the power of appropriation; who owns what symbols, who has the legitimacy to even re-appropriate symbols and aspects of a heritage. Who has the right to wear a chieftain outfit, who can dress like a Nazi. Who can demand that another person suck their cock and slap them around.
We are laughing about so many things; we have created a mini language based on what Judy and Sadie called “mimes”: tiny snippets of random information that only have meaning to us. I am enjoying discovering Europe again through an American’s eyes. The idea of what is surreal is no longer surreal … and yet now it is again, I see it starkly and each day, especially as we drive into Germany and our experiences become a bit more like a John Waters film, as Germany always sort of has been. But I’ve forgotten to recognize it. Things can only be surreal when they are not quite real. But when the surreal becomes real, the surreal is lost. When I travel with Americans I begin to reawaken to what was once surreal. This is at once annoying (reliving the instance of surrealism discovered in innocent and loudly American appreciation) and twice joyous—to rediscover the apparent forgotten youthful innocence still inside, who has become so hardened to her reality that she ceases to recognize the absurdity of her own situation.
“Place your goblet. Make your choice,” says the badly translated self-serve coin-slot espresso machine in a Belgian rest stop. Sadie and I laughed so hard that pee was running down my leg. And every time I thought again upon it I exploded into laughter. Sadie made a cartoon of it; in which the choices on the coffee machine became “Espresso. Café Latte. God is Dead. Satan Rules. Certain Death. “
And I feel myself opening up, in a sense like Sadie’s speculum into her vagina, I feel myself opening “like a flower”—to be terribly lesbianic (a term we throw around liberally). I feel myself laughing more hysterically. I feel the tears becoming more terrible, more significant, more pronounced and at the moments that I don’t exactly expect them. I think about how to hang out with my dad now that he is no longer alive, if I can get closer to him simply by writing about him, continuing to read more about him. I think about how I hung out with him at the funeral home as I slowly got used to the reality of his dead body—familiarity by osmosis.
It’s a slow unthawing, I guess, I am hoping. That I might find a little bit of life under here, even the painful parts, and it’s this kind of perspective, which happens to be called “queer” but could be called something else, that makes it come so much more easily, and my own willingness or readiness to open.
Coming out of the club the other night in Brussels, I concentrated hard on each step as I carried out my five bags from the depths of the subway station turned club. And as I climbed the final stairway I recalled that my father had counted all the steps from our apartment to my elementary school Bottonfield (which he called Bottom-field and that embarrassed me and pleased me with guilty delight all at the same time) in Champaign so I wouldn’t get lost on the way to school. I think there were 567 steps. He asked me, not long ago, if I remembered how many steps there were. Those are the kind of questions that sometimes you want to ask someone. Dad, do you remember how many steps there were?
I am not sure how to articulate the strange yet obvious juxtaposition of contemplating a father’s life and being a queer woman on tour with the queer x team. In some sense I feel the strength of the juxtaposition because a father and a girl’s sexuality is always at odds, or almost always set up to be so. He is the model for all men, he is the expectation of all men, his fears of men are her fears of men, his imaginings of other men as predatory are as real as men being so. And as well it should be for him; he would have his daughter believe he is the safest man in the whole world.
I remember that in the last couple of years my father read some of my writing on queer performance and that at one time he told me in the car, “I enjoyed your writing, but does all this stuff about performance and female sexuality really matter all that much?” And somehow, to my dismay, I recognized what he meant, in the sense that I could concede to see where he was coming from. And I relinquished for a moment instead of chiming with teenage defensiveness. I simply said, “sure, I guess in some sense it doesn’t matter all that much.”
But now that I reflect on that moment I realize that he felt similarly about his obsession with mathematics—not really that it didn’t matter, or that it was futile, or that he would give up trying to figure out that one problem, but rather that in the larger scheme of things it didn’t matter all that much except to him. So when I asked him about the mathematical problem he spent fifteen years contemplating without finding any answer, “What will really happen if you figure it out?” He answered, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, Katie.”
I cried before going to sleep last night, I woke in the morning to Wendy and to Ena, their kind eyes and faces. They have the right kind of energy for me at this time and the room in Paris, Wendy’s room, reminds me of something earlier about my life in San Francisco, about being an artist, about going to my Aunt Angela’s house and the smells there that I can’t quite place. It reminds me of another life I could be living or am almost not quite living. I lie there looking at her books and think that I probably should be/ could be … going more doing more in the direction of writing and of publishing and Wendy inspired me to want to be writing my own book and taking it to the next level. I am distracted at the moment from being in this writing, for example, by my competing need to be practicing my piece for the evening and the need to be memorizing and adding and thinking about the piece itself.
And such is the beautiful part of being inspired and challenged by the women around me—they inspire desire in me, jealousy, pride in their work, urgency in my own; to produce more, to do better, to complicate myself, to take myself less seriously, to take myself more seriously, more professionally. To work harder. To be as beautiful and modest and generous and artistically talented as they are.
The show at Le Tango was one of the best shows of my life; not my show alone—though I felt very good about it—but I mean specifically together as a group, I have never in my life been so proud of us. I was so proud to be onstage with these women and as we were performing I thought, wow, we are bringing the women and men in this audience something really special, something they have never seen before. As Sadie finished meshing our bodies into hers, bathing us in the ritual of the whore, kissing our breast and pressing us into her own, I felt the tears rush to my eyes. I stood before a queer audience that wanted us to be there, that was angry and proud and critical and full of praise for us. I even liked the bitching theorists who had yet another analysis for our not critically complex enough performances, performances that are always ever arriving, about to come, about to climax, almost but not yet there in the imaginings of what we really see for ourselves and our identities as changing women. One is never really old enough to be an artist. One will never escape the process so much that he or she can produce the final word on his or her own life.
This trip has not been without drama. There was the night that a man harassed us at a restaurant as he passed without provocation, calling us dogs and lesbians. When I asked him to fucking leave he became incensed and told me he would shoot me, reaching for a gun in his back pocket that I never discovered was there or not. Only two days later one of the bois that was helping us during out shows got physically attacked in the Paris subway. We’ve had internal frustrations about taking two much time to get from point A to point B, we’ve had trip-ups in shows, forgotten props, mid-street strip performances, rough sex, awkward piercings onstage, fights with partners, polyamorous negotiations, temper tantrums, crying fits and peals of laughter.
On my last day in Paris I drive Madison to the airport with Judy—an adventure in itself—and then decide to visit Shakespeare Books on my own, the sister store of City Lights in San Francisco. This is significant to me for many reasons.
I walk in and inhale the delicious smell of new books and, indeed, written in English—rare treats for an American writer living in Germany. I’m not speaking of the new books that you can find at airports—the latest NY Times Bestseller—rather, the new independent press publications in queer theory and ethnic studies and pop cultural commentary, even American big gun literary magazines like Tin Roof and the Believer, two staples of my MFA experience. I feel the strong simultaneous delight at experiencing this alone and yet wanting to share the feeling with someone else. I write a letter in my head, as I often do—a letter to someone, you, for instance, trying to explain why this experience of being in Paris on the Queer X Tour at this moment in Shakespeare Books is so important to me.
There is a completion of a circle here in this moment that started when I was very young and writing short stories in school, continued into Simon’s Rock in high school, the summer spent with writers like me in Massachusetts, continuing on to my first moments alone in Oakland when I was a young aspiring writer deciding to go back to school, to a budding writer in San Francisco who began to even dare calling herself a writer to taking the writing from readings to performance and to now being here on a tour as a performance artist. It is as similar a path of discovery of being queer, of being a freak, of discovering one’s “kind” and realizing where they must go if they are to follow their heart.
It is Judy telling me that for her City Lights also has a special place in her heart as a writer, because that is where she found Michelle Tea’s book and said, I want to translate this girl into French and fuck it—actually began doing translation of American feminists into French. This is how I felt when I started getting to know the queer literary and performance art scene in San Francisco as well—this mix of total adoration and hero worship that slowly developed into rapid heart beating when I start to rub shoulders with my idols.
This is one of the reasons why this tour is important to me. Sometimes I’m not quite sure how it ended up that I got to be part of this group, what strange and lovely twists of fate managed to land me here, and then I think when I’m among them, like when we were holding Madison after our group scene with her backstage at the Chez Regine – I wonder, equally, how it could have been any other way? It seems so natural and right that I should be a part of this because in this group I feel moments of my most comfortable. How could it be that I could never meet Sadie, who is clearly my twin separated at birth, and, of all things, ride the Vomitorium in Brussels with her, coming to orgasm 12 times as we spin far above the city and at the same moment decide we must indeed relinquish control and trust that we will be held as the wind rushed by us; how could it be that I wouldn’t get to meet bright-eyed and boundary-pushing Madison and learn about Femina Potens, her queer feminist San Francisco gallery which places me squarely back into the birthplace of my personal sexual revolution; How could it be that I would never meet seductive Wendy and her hot James Dean girlfriend with the tanned Corsican goddess underneath—how could I not get to experience the natural comfort and thrill at performing with Wendy, such a talented, professional, natural and sharp performer, not to mention industrious young writer and translator; How could I not have met the brilliant young and beautiful Judy, a prodigy, in my mind, who dares to do whatever she feels in the moment, who tells me about French revolutionary struggle and speaks with the passion of the young student activist that I was; or Ena, calm and clear-headed, who has always been a crush, to see her hot and shaved with only gaffer tape and headphones, matching beats with a confidence that is so attractive; and how could I have not begun to work with Emilie, whose work I first admired at the Berlin porn film festival and now share a show with.
When it compares to other tours that I am on, there are no other situations where I am allowed to be as openly sexual, as openly loving, as openly unashamed about desires. That I could feel as safe in my opinions that I begin to speak in group discussion, that I feel motivation to create new performances. That I would dare to share my ideas with the women around me and brainstorm a new performance idea. When I am developing a new idea with almost any other group or even my closest partners, I often feel what I describe as stage fright—that fear that my idea will be shot down. Here I feel a base confidence that no matter how much work my idea needs, I do not need to be afraid to share it.
How could it possibly be that I wouldn’t be able to meet these lovely women with whom I feel so much comfort? We have become so comfortable with our bodies that we hardly think about taking off our clothing in situations that might be judged as inappropriate. We are riding half naked in the van. And for us, for me, empowerment is evident in that irreverence to social propriety; our empowerment makes the irreverent possible, not the other way around.
I suppose in this way it is beginning to make sense to me to say, “I only sleep with girls.” Because I know I don’t actually mean that I only sleep with girls, but what I mean is that I only sleep with people who can understand the nuances and importance of healthy sexuality, healthy bodies, and healthy gender expression. And among these women I am beginning to see the ease of this over and above what I have experienced with many men, even homosexual men. On the other hand, I don’t want to be quick to judge because it is also rare to find, among a random set of women, this kind of mutual understanding. But that’s exactly what makes queer people have a sense of unification, I suppose. And it does seem, time and again, that the glove does fit nicely.
I think of my father in the book store—God, did he ever even know the depth of my yearning as a young artist in City Lights? I think of his eyes when I last saw him in Dulles airport, the sun streaming through those large windows. I think of all the writing I have ever done about my father, I think about the certainty that, “all things will be written.” I think about his favorite poet Dylan Thomas dying young. I think about the Tour de France when I see tourist t bike shirts for sale in front of the Notre Dame. I am torn apart on the inside to think of him and tears come to my eyes. How could it be, ever, that a father would not want this sense of power and comfort and strength for his daughter as she navigates the world?