VIRGINIA BEACH – THE FAMILY
My Parents, my sister, and Des are now in Virginia Beach, living in a pleasant apartment complex that is buffeted by the sound of military jets overhead every 15 mins. My father soaks in the blasts of white noise, silently watching till the sound fades and bird song returns. In the past this noise would have filled him pain and fear, now it seems to pour nostalgia on him from out of the sky. My mother smokes on the balcony and says, “Well it’s step up from watching traffic in Herkimer.”
The tourist town, a military town – a place that exists for present-tense pleasure and violent future conflict. There are ghosts are here too though they cause no terror. Even that power was taken from them. What's left is a sad, mundane haunting – lingering apparitions in a flesh driven town, surrounded by the present day members of the military drove them into this ghostly state so long ago, watching hordes descend on the beach like colonists arriving.
I’ve photographed Desi since she was 7. I’ve photographed Desmond since he was 7. At 20, Desmond speaks about gender like a cultural theorist who has no patience with jargon. He says Desi was a mask. Desi had two dimensions like a photograph. Desmond has three dimensions, more than three, but he has to rely on surface things like clothes and breast binders to make his maleness known.
Desmond has a hoody made that reads “your girlfriend calls me daddy”. On the street a woman holding hands with her boyfriend walks towards us. Wearing a small white T-shirt and magenta short-shorts, she is unashamedly working her large breasts and high, wide ass. She stares as Des then gives a sly smile and says,”Hey daddy,” with perfect timing as she passes.
Jesus stands across from the gay bar. He holds a huge plastic cross so lightweight that the breeze shakes it to and fro. He asks me if I have found grace. I tell him that I find grace to be a luminous but vague concept in Christian thinking, but yes, by my own definition, I’ve sometimes found it. He gives me a beagle-like look of patience and sad, infinite pity.
The show’s hostess makes her rounds, her big form packed into glittering curves – the daughter of a disco ball and a comet. Her make-up is so thick that her painted features seem to move independently of the actual facial structure beneath. Drag beauty is miraculous because it is a fleshy hyperbole and a ghostly state at the same time. If she stepped back quickly her drag face would surely detach and hang alone in the air. “Hey photographer” she says, “look at the stage – that bitch’s working with one leg.”
I watch the performer dancing, somersaulting. She uses her prosthetic leg to buffer landings that would bruise real flesh. The hostess takes the mic. “Give it the fuck UP FOR HER. None of y’all queens know what real work is! ‘Course you know how she lost that leg… She like it rough.”
The performer gives a well practiced look of shock and grasps the dance pole. Her arm tenses as she relies on its solidity and lifts herself into a dizzying spin.
I think of Jesus outside with his hollow plastic cross. Grace. The lame shall walk.
I know time flows slower in the South but I can’t believe a bathroom door can open onto as much tension today as when I was young here in the 80’s. I can’t speak for transgendered experience but as a gay teenager I was marked (and marked myself) as effeminate and was therefor an enemy of good ol’ boy masculinity. I entered public restrooms like a spy scanning the room for enemies, lovers, and allies in disguise. Virginal as I was, I felt like Bluebeard's bride opening the door to discover her husband's sexual history and murderous urges. When I unzipped to piss visions of hard-ons and beatings spilled out along with my urine. I’m not saying this was an OK or justified situation but at least their was the potential for outlaw pleasure alongside the terror. (It was also a great primer for reading Genet.)
But here the door of my experience shuts. However effeminate, I was a man in the men’s room and my right to be there was never an issue. The presence or even the fantasy presence of an erection in that space was problematic. The presence of my dick itself was not.
The current public facilities debacle is about the presence of gender, not about genitalia and not about sex. However, given the abundant propaganda about transgender molesters and the fact that I've yet to see a billboard about shielding fragile males from a glimpse of a vagina or from molestation by women, I'd say the boner in the bathroom is still throbbing away at the heart of the things. The boner in panties rather than briefs or boxers. The boner confusing the CIS gendered person trying to imagine transgendered anatomies. The raping boner. The boner stripped of all pleasure, standing starkly as sign of violence. An erection in the men's room (surrounded by the vaginal folds of an open fly) was once the image par excellence of illicit homosexual desire and potential harm. Ironically as this image loses its transgressive power at the urinal it moves into the ladies' room, expands its wardrobe and transformes into a frighteningly effective tool for transphobia. How American to be unable put a door between gender and sex; to be unable put door between sex and violence. Instead of marking restrooms and locker rooms as unisex we should replace the signs on their doors with the word DANGER.