The Queen Diva You Best’a Believah: Big Freedia Reframing Pop Culture

Teaching the course “Race, Sexuality & Representation” has been a great joy. To have 15 upper-level students who are Women’s Studies majors and minors has been a privilege. It is also fun to be able to study people I greatly admire, like Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Sylvester and Beyoncé. In this article, I would like to focus on another person that we have studied: Big Freedia. We read Big Freedia’s autobiography and watched a short documentary about her on YouTube. I am a big fan and this article will be largely be me fan-girling about Big Freedia.

I first was introduced to Big Freedia on her TV show on Fuse called Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. The most recent season was called Big Freedia Bounces Back. Seeing Big Freedia on the screen brought me back to when I was around 10 years old. I was watching a show that has long since been cancelled called Solid Gold. It was kind of like American Bandstand and featured popular artists performing their hits. That week they had Boy George and Culture Club on and I was Transfixed. Finally, I knew I was looking at someone like me, someone who did not fit the cookie-cutter image of traditional men and women. It was so empowering to see a reflection of myself on the television screen.

Big Freedia is a Black, Gay, Gender Nonconforming Icon. Although Freedia identifies as a Gay Man, many people use she/her pronouns and it is believed that this is Freedia’s preference. In honor of Freedia’s preference and femininity, I use feminine pronouns in this article. Like with Boy George, I was transfixed when I first saw Freedia on television. Big Freedia the TV show is not just another reality TV show. It has a lot of heart and it profiles people that we NEVER get to see on TV. Big Freedia is not Transgender, as far as we know, but she is Gender Nonconforming. Perhaps even more importantly, Big Freedia is African American. We don’t see Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color on television. Big Freedia having her own TV show, making her own music videos, writing her autobiography and doing many other things is truly revolutionary. It has taken a long time for her to rise in her career and she has worked incredibly hard. I hope she realizes what she means to so many of her fans and what she means to the culture as a whole for LGBTQ+ people, People of Color and many other groups in American culture.

Big Freedia has truly had to crawl her way up the ladder of media success. She was born poor as Freddie Ross in New Orleans and started out singing in the church choir. She switched it up and got involved with the Bounce music scene in New Orleans. Freedia was very close to her mother, Miss V., and her mother supported her in her career and through coming out as Gay. Freedia started performing in the club scene and quickly made a name for herself. She has had A LOT of challenges to deal with in her meteoric rise in the Bounce music industry. These have included the death of her beloved mother at a young age from cancer, being shot twice in an attempted crime, Hurricane Katrina, the death of colleagues, lots of management changes over the course of her career, and a legal problem that made headlines when she was accused of Section 8 theft.

I absolutely love Big Freedia’s music videos. My favorite one is called “Explode.” In it, she begins by saying:

“My music, it makes me feel good about what I do and the culture that I represent. People get confused by if I am ‘he’ or ‘she.’ I am more than just Big Freedia. I am more than just Queen Diva. I am more than just Freddie Ross. I am Me. I am the Ambassador, representing for New Orleans and for bounce music. So many things in my head sometimes, it just all makes me want to explode.”

The video then goes on to show Big Freedia and her troop of dancers, often called shakers, dancing on the street, in a laundromat and in a club. Big Freedia’s style might best be termed “androgynous royalty.” I particularly like how they are engaging in twerking in the laundromat. I go to the laundry every week with my mom and it is a pretty dismal place. As many people have commented, bounce music is happy music. It is by definition fast paced and euphoric. So Big Freedia and her shakers taking over the laundromat is a form of breaking up the mundane practice of washing and drying clothes. When Freedia and her dancers take over the street, which occurs in videos like “Duffy”, they literally stop traffic. I see this as a decolonization of space: a decolonization by Blackness, Queerness, and Gender Nonconformity. It is reclamation of territory that has been dominated by whites, heterosexuals and cisgender people.

Freedia reframes popular culture in the same way that she reframes identity. In Euro-American identity politics, there are very clear demarcations between “Gay Man” and “Transgender.” While I am not making the assertion that Freedia is Transgender since she has said explicitly that she is not, I am asserting that her Gender Nonconformity and Queerness mix together in a very fluid way. Freedia’s best friend and fellow Bounce music artist Katey Red is a Trans woman so Freedia is very familiar with Trans identity. Freedia may identify as a Gay Man but prefers the use of feminine pronouns. I think Freedia challenges the fixity of a Euro-American paradigm that would see “Gay Male” and “Transgender Woman” as absolutely antithetical. Big Freedia’s Queerness is complex and challenges us to re-think the total separateness of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and how we might rework these entities in very creative ways.

Finally, I wish to end this piece by saying that Big Freedia is Royalty. There is a reason she is called the QUEEN Diva. There is a reason there is such a thing as Drag Queens and Drag Kings. In a society that hates Blackness, that hates Queerness, that hates Gender Variance, for a Black, Queer, Gender Nonconforming person to demand their right to the throne is revolutionary. Big Freedia will never know how many countless people she has helped to honor their own uniqueness and claim their own nobility. We are all majestic and remarkable, larger-than-life figures like Big Freedia remind us of exactly that.

 

 

Patriarchy

Patriarchy is a nightmare. It is a system of terrorism. I don’t care about hyperbole. It is a system that has destroyed many lives. It is a system that has brought many of us to the brink of death. And it is a system that needs to be completely obliterated.

Patriarchy is a system based on cis-het-male supremacy. When I was born, I was assigned male. I quickly learned as soon as I left my parents clutches to attend first grade at age 6 that I did not fit the cultural definition of a boy. It was not until Women’s Studies in college years later that I learned that I was a victim of patriarchy. Patriarchy hates women, queers and trans people. It is a system that delights in dude bros, the most toxic variety of masculinity you can imagine.

Patriarchy is a theoretical concept. It names the system of male supremacy we live under. It is not only a word of Women’s Studies or feminism, but it is heavily featured in both. There are some who may see the word patriarchy as second wave or as dated but I believe it is timeless. As long as there is sexism and misogyny there will be patriarchy. I actually look forward to the time when there is no need for the word patriarchy because it will finally be destroyed.

Men are the primary agents of patriarchy. They benefit from it and they revel in the privilege they receive from it. They hurl their hatred at women, queers and trans people every hour of every day. It is difficult to list all the ways that men foment patriarchy because the list is endless: through violence, rape, battering, exploitation, gas-lighting, LGBTQ bashing, economic domination, emotional abuse, employment discrimination and hyper-normative gender roles. Women, queers and trans people face a lot of time having to heal from the violence: physical, mental and financial that men commit against them.

Are women agents of patriarchy? I am not sure I would use the word agents. But women are very much affected by patriarchy. There are some women whose minds are colonized by patriarchal ideology. There are some women who have severe internalized oppression. So they act in collusion with patriarchy. Even though it goes against their own personal interests, they have internalized dominant ideology and hope to curry favor with the oppressor. The same goes for LGBT people who collude with heterosexism and cissexism. It is sad when women and LGBT people don’t realize how they are aiding and abetting patriarchy.

Patriarchy is world-wide. It plays out differently in different cultures, but the persistence of gender inequality is stunning. I don’t see an end to patriarchy in my lifetime. But I do see people rising up and fighting back against patriarchy. These are people called women. These are people called feminists. These are people called radical queers and radical trans folks. The Time’s Up movement and the #MeToo movement are encouraging signs. Women are stepping up and speaking out. Feminism hasn’t gone anywhere, but it has been strengthened. We may not end patriarchy, but we will commit a full-frontal assault on it.

 

Clothing

I have a love-hate relationship with clothing.

If I could wear a rain-slicker in the shower and still get clean, I would gladly do so. I do not like being sans vêtements ever. It is likely related to gender dysphoria, body image and other things. Thus, clothing is highly practical and convenient. It covers our bodies. It keeps us warm in cold weather. It protects us from the elements. I am thankful for clothing when others don’t have it or lack it.

What bothers me about clothing is the social meanings behind it. Clothing and fashion is a fascinating thing to study because it is so closely linked to race, class, gender, weight, disability and sexuality. In a previous post, I talked about my identity as a gender abolitionist. One of the key things which helps to perpetuate the tyrannical binary gender system in everyday life is gendered clothing. Clothing is oppressive along multiple axes of difference.

When I was a student as a private boarding school in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they had a strict dress code. For boys, or those perceived to be, the requirement was dress slacks, a shirt and tie or turtleneck and a blazer. Needless to say, I hated the dress code with a passion. I hated having hegemonic masculinity foisted upon me. I would wear a turtleneck every day, even when it was extremely hot as I refused to wear a shirt and tie. Being forced into the role I did not identify with and being forced to further the gender binary made me angry for my entire four years there. I would carry the blazer around in my bag rather than wear it and some instructors made me take it out and wear it. It is only in the last couple of years that the school got rid of the dress code. Often it was the students themselves who said they wanted to maintain it. Trans students and allies obviously were key in bringing down this oppressive policy and I am glad to hear it.

The dress code was also Western. Western hegemony is global in scope. Colonialism and neocolonialism has installed Western clothing as the norm, particularly the norm of what is considered “dressing up.” I love multicultural dress and think groups wearing the dress of their Ethnic group is beautiful and empowering. Most Western-style dress is incredibly boring and lacks color and comfort.

In addition, clothing is heavily related to class. Clothing is one of the most obvious areas of conspicuous consumption. The emphasis on labels and designers is ubiquitous. “Who are you wearing?” is the question-on-repeat along the Red Carpets of awards season. Clothing in a very fundamental way communicates a person’s social class to others in the social realm.

Related to gender, gender nonconforming queer people are policed based on their sexuality. Femme gay men are told to butch it up while butch lessons are exhorted to be more feminine. All in all, clothing can be a bludgeoning tool to force people into compliance with hegemonic norms and make them into conformists.

With all of that said, it is only part of the story. Clothing can be liberatory. Sartorial expression can be empowering and even subversive. I like clothing that shocks. This could be due to ethnicity, gender, class, weight, disability and sexuality. Like jokes and humor, clothing critique should punch up. While gendered clothing can obviously be very oppressive, when redesigned, retooled and reformulated it can shock the status quo and subvert dominant expectations. A gender ambiguous person wearing a shirt and tie and a skirt is something that is not expected. It potentially states that the whole project of gendered dress is absurd. Another thing that is often not as considered is breaking fashion rules. Wearing horizontal stripes when you’re fat, for instance, or wearing extremely bright colors or colors that intentionally clash. It could also be clothing that highlights one’s disability rather than minimizes it. This too is subverting fashion and helps to break out the monotony of traditional dress and its endless rules.

If gender was abolished as I would like, that does mean everyone would be forced to wear a burlap sack, as I have heard some people state in an attempt to render the project of gender abolitionism into an unappealing one. In fact, sartorial diversity would intensify, increase and expand under gender abolitionism. It’s just that it would not be linked to bodily geography on the chest or between the thighs. The oppressive concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” dress would fall apart and what would become central would be individual self-expression and agency.

Unfortunately radical re-articulations of dress and their relationship to race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and weight are often far off and out of reach. Thus while I am hopeful about liberatory potentialities of fashion subversion, I know that the cultural conditioning and expectations run deep. Being able to step out of line fashion-wise is often a direct result of power and privilege. Time will tell how this area of socio-cultural change shakes out. In the meantime, we can encourage individual acts of bravery and even slight challenges to the sartorial status quo. Wear it with pride and see how many people you can piss off!

Families of Choice

In the last entry, I talked about the limitations of the nuclear family and the overemphasis placed on being a blood relation. In this entry, I wish to talk about families of choice and how much they help or don’t help to subvert the hegemonic meaning of family.

Families of choice have a lot of meaning in the LGBTQ+ community. This is because there are so many LGBTQ+ people who are thrown out of their homes or disowned by their blood families. When this happens, blood family as the central reality is no longer an option. Families of choice are when people actively select friends that come to serve as substitute blood families. They can allegedly take the place of blood families when those relationships are either non-existent or strained.

I like families of choice in theory. I really do. They circumvent the cultural importance placed on blood families. They insist on love, nurturance and caring as the primary characteristics of a family rather than a bloodline. They prove that a nuclear family is not the only kind of family and that people can reinvent notions of family in ways that work for them.

However, I believe that families by choice work better in theory than in practice, at least in my experience. The reality that is unavoidable is that traditional families of partners and children, parents and siblings, is what is installed as normative and universal. It is the “go-to” family unit. While I love, value and appreciate my friends, it is hard for me to see them as a “family of choice.” They are often MIA when I need them or sometimes go away altogether. For better or worse, the ties that bind more normative families are much tighter and more reliable. I wish that families of choice had the same stability as a blood family but they simply don’t. It seems like they require a lot more work and a lot more imploring, neither of which particularly interest me.

The idea of just eradicating the very notion of family is impossible. It is the central institution of society. All we can do is expand, expand, and expand. Families of choice would fall under that expansion, but people need to be real about the challenges. Whenever you are going up against a cultural behemoth like the nuclear family, you are going to have a hell of a time. This is why families of choice tend to flounder. Because they simply don’t possess the institutional stability, power and importance of more traditional families.

None of this is to say that families of choice are bound for failure. There are such families that are working and successful. But I often see people holding up families of choice as an alternative to nuclear families who themselves are deeply ensconced in traditional families and are unwilling to give what it takes to make a family of choice workable for somebody not related to them. It is hypocritical to talk up the positivity of families by choice and then not reach out to people who need you to be precisely that for them.

In summation, families of choice are nice in theory but seldom work out in actuality. With that said, I don’t think we need to abandon the concept, just figure out how to actually operationalize them.

 

Spirituality 2: Queering the Spirit

What does it mean to be queer and spiritual? I think this has been a central question for me. The reality is that many religions are overtly or subtly homophobic or transphobic. This streak of bigotry throughout so many religions is something found in the U.S. and across the globe. And it is what has turned many LGBTQ+ people away from religion. Some have gone running and screaming. And who can blame them? Religion and spirituality should be all about acceptance, inclusion and diversity. Every church, mosque, synagogue and all other places of worship should be open and affirming. No one should be turned away at the door because of their sexual orientation of gender identity/expression.

I think this is one of the reasons that for so long I avoided religion. Way back in Sunday School, I remember one of my teachers saying that when she went to Boston and saw a “homosexual” she walked to the other side of the street. It was around junior high that I dropped out of church and went my own way. But as stated in my previous entry, this eventually did not work for me. I needed a place to ask the “big questions” that started to plague me as I felt increasing alienation from our culture. What I now know is that any religious or spiritual tradition or path that shuns LGBTQ people needs to acknowledge that their traditions are not acceptable. There have always been LGBTQ people in their faith and there always will be. It is not a question of whether LGBTQ people will be there or not; it is a question of whether LGBTQ people will be openly embraced, accepted and celebrated or not.

My religion’s official stance on LGBTQ people is not one of inclusion and acceptance. Despite this, there are many LGBTQ people in the church, both “out” and not out. Many wonder why I don’t simply walk away from my religion. I understand where these people are coming from. My response is that I am standing in my truth and demanding my place at the table. I fully sympathize with those who choose to walk away. But the church is never going to change unless some of us stay put and advocate for transformation from within. We deserve to fully be who we are within the faith traditions of our rearing or of our choice. It is going to take a tremendous amount of work to change these deeply ingrained attitudes and traditions but I know it can be done and in fact change is happening in big and small ways all around us.

Spirituality can help queer people. The reason I choose to embrace religion and spirituality is because I need something to give me gas for the car. I have faced so much adversity as a queer and trans person in this society. Because of this, I have a strong need for something that fuels my fire. I need determination, I need grace and I need perseverance. And I need something that makes life more than something to simply survive. I need something to make my life worth living and to make it meaningful. Spirituality gives the journey, the search for meaning, so much of its life and power. I am delighted that spirituality found me once again and I am determined to make a place for myself and for all queer people in religions. The good thing about spirituality is that it does not require religion. Being spiritual is an immensely personal journey and we can do it anywhere, anytime. As I continue this blog, expect issues of queer spirituality to bubble up many times. It sits at the very core of who I am.