DEL: It's a Sunday night in London. I've met up with a few friends at the ICA to see the new Afghani film, OSAMA. A film about a young girl who is persuaded by her mother to pass as a boy in order to survive Taliban controlled Afghanistan. It's been a difficult film experience and we are all more than a bit shell shocked, sad and depressed about the state of our world. I mask my sadness with anger and defiance.
Indra, Oreet and I walk up Regent Street towards Picadilly Circus, past the statue of Eros to Shaftsbury Avenue where we catch the 19 bus home. The 19 is a red, open double-decker and has both a conductor and driver. It snakes through London all the way from Battersea in the southwest through Soho, ending at Finsbury Park. Our stop is Highbury Barn, almost at the end of the line. The 19 is my favourite, it doesn't feel closed in. You can get on and off when you want as long as the bus is going slow enough.
Tonight we are lucky and don't have to wait very long. We all sit downstairs, talking about the film until Oreet gets off at Grey's Inn Road. Indra and I continue the discussion but have such different responses that communication breaks down. Which is another way of saying I have a minor emotional eruption and storm off to the top of the bus in my customary melodramatic fashion.
As I head upstairs to my usual seat in the front on the left hand side, I push though a group of kids sitting with their legs in the aisle. My thoughts are elsewhere so when one of them shouts, "The word is excuse me!" I don't realize at first that they are talking to me. Silently I check in with myself and ask, was I rude? I'm not completely sure, so I say, "Excuse me" with just a whisper of sarcasm in my voice. I'm in no mood to wear a burqa. I suddenly realize that it must have been me they were calling faggot, freak and poof as I walked past. I decide to ignore them, reasoning that they are just stupid little boys. I feel a bit of crumpled paper hit the back of my neck. Something else hits my shoulder. I refuse to turn round. I'm not afraid. I see their reflections in the window, surely they can't be more than 14 years old. Just as one of them is about to throw a can of coke at me I turn, pointing and say, "Don't even think about it!" Standing I move towards them, all two meters of me, and suddenly I am aware of the danger. It's just them and me on the top deck. I move towards the back of the bus and the staircase which will lead me to safety. As I get closer I say in what I think is a very reasonable school teacher voice, "You shouldn't be throwing things at people..." But before I can even get all the words out I feel a fist come down hard on the back of my head, then a kick in my ribs and a few punches to my face. "Fucking freak! Fucking faggot! Talk to us like that will you? We're gonna teach you a lesson you fucking queer!"
INDRA: I hear raised voices and shouts from the top of the bus. My reaction is instant. A dormant knowledge, some kind of latent vigilance I wasn't even aware of becomes activated on the spot. This is a part of my reality as a queer in a homophobic society that I rarely speak about, or acknowledge even to myself. A story within the story, submerged in my more dominant narrative of Pride and 'we're-here-we're queer-get-used-to-it In Your Face-attitudes'.
I smell fear, breathe panic and sense chaos. The image of the herm that I love, squeezed up against the barrier, violently battered as I look up the stairs is etched into my book of memories, tattooed under my emotional skin. A sea of fists, punches, kicks, blows, insults and humiliations. I cry and scream and beg them to stop as I try to pull my lover down the stairs. All I want is for the hitting to stop. Please let the bashing stop!
DEL: Images of Montgomery Cliff in "Suddenly Last Summer" enter unbidden into my head. In the movie the character of Sydney, a gay man, was beaten to death by a gang of young boys. Now I have my own gang of young boys surrounding me, closing in, just as they did in the movie. I desperately try to fend off their blows. I need to get to the back of the bus and down the stairs but can't move without being punched or kicked. But I must move! Ten angry young teenage boys in hoodies and baseball caps are beating the holy shit outta me and not a sound escapes my lips. I'm paralyzed with the fear. How could I have not noticed that they might be a gang and possibly dangerous? Could it be that subconsciously I was afraid of being racist? Afraid of buying into the media frenzy that demonizes young black men as violent and homophobic?
INDRA: Every Friday I go to a kickboxing class. My friend, the Irish poet, who brought me to the class politely declines to pair up with me since she thinks I'm too fierce and prefers to train more softly. Last summer another friend had a birthday picnic on Clapham Common. We were rolling and tumbling around in the grass, roughly play-wrestling with each other, testing to find out which of us was really the toughest, the wildest. To both our devastation she woke up the next morning with a broken rib. My lover advised me to increase my bodily self-awareness and to play with people my own size. I do perceive of myself as physically strong, with a lot of willpower and stamina. I have taken all the feminist self-defense courses available, but in the midst of a gang of ten youngsters deliberately trying to hurt, injure and trash someone I care for just because - in their eyes - herm is different, deviant, out of the norm, I am no Rocky, I am Ghandi. I don't want to fight. I can't fight back. All I wish for is the violence to stop. So I locate my own body between them and Herm. I turn myself into a cryingweepingbegging shield. I am the border, the wall, the skin, the mitts, the no-man's land, the liminal. Every blow is a blow not just to my lover's body, but also a painful blow to our community as a whole. To all of us that on a daily basis struggle in our different ways for the right to exist on our own terms.
DEL: Indra grabs at me, trying to pull me down the stairs by my jacket, a big butch khaki down number. But not quite butch enough to disguise my flaming freak self! Under the jacket I'm wearing a tuxedo jacket, over a green mirror t-shirt with red trousers that come just below my knee. On my feet are a pair of cool boots, black on the outside and hot pink on the inside with turquoise zips, the left zip straight and the right zip curving round the calf. Very asymmetrical. Very me. I don't know of any gay men who dress like me, but they got the queer bit right.
Indra is screaming and crying and begging them to stop hitting me. She places her Amazon Goddess body between me and them. Miraculously they decide not to hit her. Maybe they think she is simply a concerned citizen and don't see us as belonging together? Would it matter? The conductor is doing his best not to get involved and succeeding quite well. The other passengers seem too frightened to intervene. At last the bus stops. Instinctively I jump off, escape being my only thought, but the bashers run down the stairs and start beating me up on the street. Indra screams at me to get back on the bus. I jump back on. But so do they! We pass Sadlers Wells. At Upper Street the bus stops and they get off for good, but manage to land a few more punches before they do. They are all powerful in their own eyes, unfortunately in mine as well. The driver runs to a police car that is stopped at the lights but reports that they are rushing back to the station for tea and biscuits and just can't be bothered. Across the street the boys are slowly strutting their victory not 50 metres away. A fellow passenger, a middle aged white woman, goes up to the driver and says: "You know it's really too bad that guy got beat up but can't we go now? This is too much! I need to get home!" Thanks lady, I want to get home too.
INDRA: Afterwards my hands zigzag over the purple bruised areas inflicted on my lover's body and my thoughts wander to the wide range of expressions that homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, anti-queer, sexist hatred takes in my own life. Ugly, distasteful, unappealing shapes and forms no matter their size or dimension. I think about our queer friends newly opened cafÈ in the supposedly chilled out, bohemian part of Stockholm sprayed with swastikas and "KILL HOMO" messages. I think about some of my male relatives dismissive, pejorative comments to my cousin regarding her troupe's nomination for the best drag act of the year. I think about the Christian protesters at the opening of the Queer Zagreb festival with their rightwing placards exclaiming "Abomination!" as I kiss my herm.
My guess is that most of you queers have similar stories to tell. Unfortunately. Different, yet overlapping individual scripts adding up to a collective narrative. To paraphrase Jeanne Marecek: How do we tell these stories - to ourselves and others - in a way that we can both validate and give witness to the structural oppression we are clearly suffering and at the same time not put ourselves into the disempowered position of 'the victim'? How? Let's enter into a dialogue of how a re-authoring of our stories can be done. As Jeanette Winterson says: "WE CAN CHANGE THE STORY. WE ARE THE STORY."
Del LaGrace Volcano and Indra Windh, 2004