Here we again have passed through June, the month that commemorates liberation of sexual orientations. Or really, it marks two distinct, different strands of struggle that are held in the same month, the first being queer liberatory politics based on sexual orientation and gender identity while the second is neoliberal identity politics that ultimately can be sourced to a corporate human resources department.
It has taken a long time but we are now reaching a certain plateau where we can look back admirably at what has been accomplished, predominantly by men and women of color. The Stonewall uprising was initiated by Marsha P. Johnson, an African American trans woman. In the years immediately preceding and following the events in Greenwich Village of June 1969, writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker have laid important trails their white contemporaries could only dream of. And of course no accounting for LGBTQQIA+ literature in America can be complete without acknowledgement of James Baldwin’s corpus, a kind of fusion of prophecy and politics that bears witness to a dynamic also at play in the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Currently in Providence a talented writer and activist who combines many traits of those forebears in xyr poetry as well as praxis is trans activist and writer Justice Gaines. Hailing originally from New Jersey, xe settled in Providence permanently after attending Brown University with a major in Sociology and currently works at Rhode Island Jobs with Justice while simultaneously struggling in a variety of local causes. One of the more notable ones has been the Community Safety Act, a municipal ordinance that created much-needed and deeply-opposed restraints and requirements upon the Providence Police. As someone who made xemself a public face of the campaign for its passage, xe was putting xyr life on the line in the name of the wider community of Black and Brown residents in Providence.
The struggle on the municipal level for the Community Safety Act did not take place in a vacuum, it happened over multiple years that included the development of a new Black political renaissance which at times has utilized the banner of #BlackLivesMatter. Simultaneously, astride a pale horse also came Donald Trump’s ascendancy, a political career whose entire existence was premised off anti-Black racism and xenophobia combined with the worst aspects of American rape culture. It would be totally understandable for a working class trans woman of color to advocate for the 2016 Clinton campaign purely on the basis of pragmatism and survival. At that point Gaines was facing off against the Providence Fraternal Order of Police, a national body that had endorsed candidate Donald Trump. Yet despite all these factors, Gaines has explained to me in private conversation that xe has no regrets over xyr vigorous criticism of Hillary Clinton and her multiple policy failures, including the 2009 coup in Honduras. Words cannot properly describe this kind of bravery.
Here is a video of xyr reciting xyr poem Letter from Xem in 2015. There is obviously a raw emotion sitting below the surface of this performance, related to the artist coming out as trans to xyr mother, which outshines the finest moments of passion in Allen Ginsberg’s recorded recitations of Kaddish, his own matriarchal poem.
Ginsberg’s work was a memorial to Naomi, his mentally ill mother, who had been an activist in the Old Left that orbited around New York City during the Great Depression. As Naomi descended into insanity, he had been forced, while still an adolescent, to care for her at home, which eventually required her admission to a mental institution. In the days prior to re-evaluation of mental healthcare and patient welfare, lobotomy was seen as a legitimate treatment for symptoms Naomi manifested and the hospital obtained authorization from Allen to perform the ghastly procedure in 1947, when he was 21. She would later die in 1956. In his Kaddish, though, Ginsberg creates a bold suggestion. In recounting through his Beat poet meter Naomi’s life as well as the historical arc of the Jewish Left before World War II, he inquires whether his mother was a sane woman in an insane world. Also, because he was being bitterly frank about his own homosexuality, which was at that time still listed as a mental illness by the medical literature, there is a further level of insecurity about this notion of sanity. Who was Ginsberg to be talking about such things in the first place when his own sexual conduct was seen as reason for commitment to sanitarium?
Gaines is confronting a similar dynamic, though from the opposite direction. For decades, trans folks and trans women in particular have been slurred and demonized with derogatory and ultimately untrue accusations related the state of their minds. The raw pain expressed in xyr epistolary words are clearly pleading for an understanding and respectful affirmation as opposed to condescending pity or the parental inclination suggesting therapeutic means to reach so-called normalcy. While Ginsberg spoke as the caretaker, Gaines is speaking in the beginning as the one who was cared for. But then a kind of inversion occurs. Through xyr address, it becomes clear that xe is also taking on a nurturing, coaching tone that materializes when a child becomes an adult and begins to care for their parents. There is still raw emotion in the recitation and to deny the ever-present insecurity would be mistaken. However, that is in fact the sound we all make when we start being adult caretakers of our elders.
Here is Gaines’ testimony to Providence City Council’s Committee on Ordinances regarding the divestment of the City’s assets from banks lending to the Dakota Access Pipeline, in particular Citizens Bank. At the time of the protests nationwide, the labor movement was being shaken by a schism around the matter. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, proclaimed “The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change… We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americans. However, once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.” Yet here is Gaines, speaking truth to power by emphasizing the opposition expressed by CWA and SEIU to the pipeline and in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux community and other American Indian groups engaged in the protest.
In Rhode Island, the Building and Trades Unions are a longtime powerhouse of the Democratic Party’s political hegemony. Michael Sabitoni, one of their leaders, spoke on behalf of the Building and Trades Unions that day and can be seen sitting in the background of the Gaines video. He spoke in opposition of divestment and expressed his point with the help of union members he had brought into the Committee meeting chamber holding signs that read “WE SUPPORT CITIZENS BANK”. In so doing, Sabitoni promoted the absolute worst aspects of American labor’s complicity in settler colonialism over the totality of its history.
Such are the contradictions of American state capitalism and the subservient role that the AFL-CIO plays within that project. Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee Boggs, and C.L.R. James, writing as the Johnson-Forest Tendency in a 1950 book titled State Capitalism and World Revolution, said “When we reach state-capitalism…it is obvious that we have reached ultimates. We are now at the stage where all universal questions are matters of concrete specific urgency for society in general as well as for every individual… State-capitalism is in itself the total contradiction, absolute antagonism. In it are concentrated all the contradictions of revolution and counter-revolution.” [Emphasis in original] While the near-apocalyptic vision that Johnson-Forest presented in that volume has been transformed by the shift from the Keynesian to neoliberal epoch, with the prognoses perhaps requiring slight modification, their point remains contemporary.
That Gaines went before the Committee without a shred of deference to fear or good manners despite the fact that Jobs with Justice is part of the AFL-CIO is yet another instance of bravery that should be instructive for many self-described white queers this month.
Just under a month after xyr testimony before the Committee, Justice performed another poem, Gender or Desperation. This is a far more intimate and brief one. It confronts notions of trans intimacy and romance along with being gender fluid. The poem shows a different, tender side, just as poetic as that aforementioned testimony. It contemplates the challenges of trans and gender fluid identity when seeking the solace of romance and intimacy. A deep analysis would only obscure a work whose brevity is only surpassed by its poignancy. In understanding the dynamics of the previous two videos I mentioned herein, it seems perfunctory to offer more verbiage. It is by seeing this fragile, vulnerable side of such a brave and noble freedom fighter, contrasted against the earlier two clips, that the synthesis reveals a vivid representation, a mere beatific reflection, of xyr humanity.
The dialectical vision of history presented by the struggle for a socialist tomorrow is one of contradictions, defined by how two opposed classes relate to each other through a shared conduit known as the means of production. In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx wrote “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.”
“From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed,” he continued.
“In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”
Marx’s analysis of capitalism was notoriously limited when it came to matters of imperialism and what we now designate as matters of identity, a shortcoming that would define the break between Lenin’s Communists and Bernstein’s Socialists at the start of World War I. Yet there is also a clear strand within this corpus of work that has always dealt with the arts, be it Marx and Trotsky writing on literature, Mao’s poetry, or the songs of Nina Simone. It is here that the artist as a revolutionary serves as proper designation for our current subject. The poetry and praxis of Justice Gaines is a living exhibition of the aforementioned “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict.” Through xyr example, courage, and art one can discern a signpost directing towards revolution.
On June 28, 2018, Gaines announced xyr candidacy for Providence City Council’s Ward 1 seat. As the campaign season progresses, it shall prove impressive to consider what emerges next from xyr pen.