At one time I would have written a letter to you as my queer elder. Now I am writing to you as my queer ancestor. Initially I found myself thinking I wanted to write this letter to pay my respect. However, I find the word respect one overused by fundamentalist white folks who believe respect is something inherent to their position in life, while the rest of us scramble for scraps. Table scraps such as the inclusion of queers in the military (1992), the human rights code (1996), the same social and tax benefits afforded to common-law hetero couples (2000), the right to take a queer date to the high school prom (2002), queer survivor pension benefits (2003), and the fait accompli– legal queer marriage (2005). Gratefulness is demanded to fall in line for heteronormative monogamous institutional table scraps. I de-centre fundamentalism as a matter of my own survival at times. You might say I do it for “those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference”. I am writing this letter to acknowledge and make visible our queer kinship through the many times your activism, your poetry, have deeply influenced my own queer and poor identities of another generation.
Let me tell you about the first time we met. The year you died of breast cancer, I was 17. I had just moved from my Saskatchewan farm to a city in North Dakota. I started university and played competitive hockey. To pay for school, I began to identify as a woman in order to play hockey on a womens team. It was my first experience of the commodification of my female body, but I didn’t know yet what the exchange would cost me. Your collection of essays “Sister Outsider” had been published only a few years before, but it took many years more for me to discover your words.
North Dakota boasted an air force base with the largest cache of nuclear weapons, and the gulf war had just ended. Air raid sirens perched on power poles and air raid drills were practiced in the many churches surrounding campus. The air felt taut with unerupted violence, the skin of a drum stretched too tightly over a frame. The university was situated just south of the air force base, nestled in Badlands riddled with militarymen and hostile ranchers. One of those ranchers stalked me for a year. Notes were left on my car windshield, so I knew he knew where I lived. Eventually he broke into my car and stole random things-the volume control button on my car stereo, my student gym pass. Eventually dead birds were strung by their feet, dangling from my rear-view mirror, mocking life. The police said there was nothing to be done. And nothing was done. Until the night he broke into my house. I took the stand and paid with my university seat. I did not understand yet that the game was fixed. Reading Sister Outsider might have revealed these rules. The rules of a body lost. A body stolen.
Over the years I have heard many people abbreviate your most famous quote to a simplified “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” However, I think about the full quote often in my life. The one where you say, “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” If I had read your words in North Dakota, I might have recognised the stalker as the master’s tool and the law as the master’s house.
But I didn’t meet you until 1996. I returned to university, this time in the faculty of social work in Regina. I had a fledgling queer community and a fledgling understanding of how crucial my queer community is. It was the first time I belonged anywhere. In my community there was an English professor, Jean, who attempted to teach your self-described bio-mythography called “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” to a first-year English class. Many of the students openly complained about the queer content of Zami and some filed a formal complaint, calling Jean’s teaching into question. The students were particularly disturbed by your erotic description of a mortar and pestle and your awakening sexuality. In queer solidarity, I inserted myself into the back of Jean’s lecture theatre and asked questions about Zami. I wanted to keep your voice alive throughout the semester. This is how you and I met. Your words were disruptive, devastatingly visual, and enticing. Zami was the first time my mind’s eye had been exposed to the details of your experience of being Black, and your experience of being Lesbian. I listened as deeply as a 21-year-old farm kid knew how to.
As I supported Jean in her struggle to teach Zami, Jean supported me in my struggle in social work. I took the required class for social work communication. Midterm the instructor chastised me in front of the whole class. She felt that my communication style was too masculine. I needed to practice a more feminine communication style if I planned on being a successful social worker, which she clearly indicated I was not. I recognized the hostility aimed at my masculinity for the first time. For more than 20 years I accepted this behaviour as homophobic. I thought queerness was my offense. As it turns out, heteronormativity is the fabric binding the bone shards of patriarchy together. My professor’s behaviour was a response to the disruption of my masculinity. This hyper feminine, hyper heterosexual professor in a position of authority hated me for no reason other than her inability to read me. When my gender is assumed to be concealed, a distinct confusion flutters to perch on a more pronounced anger in the accuser, as though I have intentionally set a trap for them. I no longer call this homophobia but rather genderphobia.
Without words to articulate what was happening to me, I defiantly wrote the final paper on communication and queer culture. Specifically, the use of body signalling in the 1990s to build public safety for queers, while being careful not to publicly out them. This paper was the first place I quoted you academically. I referred to a passage in Zami where you eloquently describe a childhood memory of your mom doing her best to protect you from the everyday racism you experienced. You spoke of times when white people spit at you and your mom and how your mom would disparage them as low-class people for spitting into the wind. I thought this was a stirring and brilliant example of how cultural communication is used to hold space for a reality and an identity under constant scrutiny. Again, the professor took the opportunity to publicly shame me in class. She made a point of giving me a F because queer communication simply does not exist. I do not exist. I had to take the class again with yet another straight cisgender white woman, one possibly more friendly than the last. You tried to warn me of women like this when you said “this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” It was just the first of many classes I failed before finishing my degree, stitching the tears in that fabric to soldier on.
You seem to be more noted for being a civil rights activist and a feminist activist than a queer activist, although as my queer ancestor, I can see the ways in which your queer activism and queer identity are erased, as though you can be black and I can be queer, but you cannot be black and queer. Wikipedia does a fine job of erasing your queerness. Not mentioned at all is your queer activism. What is mentioned is the name of the man you were married to for four years in the 1960s. Not mentioned are the women who loved you and cared for you throughout the end of your cancer years. They are not even a footnote, but the man you married gets to ride through immortality on the coattails of your name.
The paradoxical title of Sister Outsider expresses your commitment to your identity and the multiplicities being in relationship to assemble such a unique identity. These multiplicities often placed you in a space that refused the safety of an inside parameter, demonstrating your ability to embrace difficulty on the path to creating change. You continuously inform us that the histories of westernized culture have conditioned us to view “human differences in simplistic opposition to each other” –good/bad, superior/inferior- and to always be suspicious of the latter, instead of, as you suggest, using differences as a catalyst for change. Throughout your essays, you emphasize the use of poetry as a profound form of knowledge, a powerful tool for naming and challenging power relations within a racist, patriarchal society.
I read some of your essays over time, but I hadn’t taken the time to read Sister Outsider front to back-back to front. In 2008 my partner Diane was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced late stage lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. With a prognosis of 6 weeks to live untreated by the most aggressive of chemotherapies, opposed to the poisonous effects of chemotherapy, Diane only had a couple of hours to decide her own future. I spent three days curled next to her at the Saskatoon Cancer Centre as we waited for the poison to work its ironic magic. For comfort, I had Sister Outsider packed next to the water and snacks I no longer cared for.
My first experience of homophobia, or perhaps I mean genderphobia, in the cancer-system came from nurses. As “the patient”, Diane’s queer identity was invisible, particularly because she passes for straight and cisgendered. Me, I am much more visible. On the first day, the nurse in charge of Diane’s care constantly insisted I would be much more comfortable waiting for Diane at home. When she insisted for the sixth or seventh time, I drummed up the deepest of energy reserves to ask her just one thing. I wanted to know if she was the one who was uncomfortable and perhaps she would be more comfortable caring for a different patient. The politics of care and safety thinly veil the Christian undercurrent of control and sabotage. It can be exhausting in the strongest of times but in the cancer centre, I had scarcely the steam to speak through a simmering age-old rage. Fists full of violence clenched around my copy of Sister Outsider. In an act of resistance, I threw Sister Outsider at the nurse’s head as she fled. Sadly, your words bounced off the closing door. Only then could I see your words as a shield rather than a weapon. Your shield held space for me to offer Diane shelter from some of the hate.
Was your poetry your shield? Your shelter?
Yesterday I asked a younger PhD classmate if he had read any of your work. He said he hadn’t read your work directly, but rather he read the next generation of scholars who refer to your work. I’m sorry this letter is just a footnote on the liminal magical places Sister Outsiders like you dwell. A footnote on the intellectual influence of your thoughts on mine. I do hope this letter inspires others to read your words, directly, carefully, to take your words in, and build their own shield. Their own shelter.