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.

 

 

“No Fats, No Fems, No Blacks, No Asians”: Interrogating Whiteness and Its Collusion with Thinness and Hyper-Masculinity in Queer Communities

I have a t-shirt that says “More Fats More Fems.” It is a direct confrontation to the “no fats, no fems” rhetoric that is used in many gay personal ads or app profiles. I have seen this for many years. In addition, “no Blacks, No Asians” is also frequently used, along with an aversion towards transgender people.

Most of these ads emanate from white, cisgender, gay men. White supremacy, thin supremacy and cis supremacy are huge problems in the GLBTQ community. I have found this out the hard way through my own experience. I am oppressed by two of these axes of oppression and privileged by the third. I will talk about the oppression first and then end with the way I am privileged.

I am fat and femme. In 1973, I was assigned male at birth. Growing up, I always knew I was not a boy. I was a feminine-acting and a gender nonconforming child. My gender creativity did not sit well with my peers or even my own family. For my first six years of existence, I was just me and living life with my parents and siblings. But as soon as I went to elementary school, I was thrown to the wolves. It was like a trial by fire. The playground was a battleground for me. I was brutally bullied from grades k-12 and grew increasingly aware of the fact that I was femme. When I came out into the gay community as an undergrad I was shocked by the level of femmephobia or effemiphobia. Fem gay men were completely marginalized. There was a tremendous emphasis on being masculine. Masculinity was seen as sexy and male-assigned people who were fem/me or feminine were seen as sexually and socially undesirable. I was shocked because I erroneously assumed that a group that was discriminated against would not discriminate against members of their own community. There were lots of fem/me gay and queer men that I met and they too faced marginalization from the community. When I came out as trans the anti-femme hatred only intensified and I realized how much misogyny, sexism, effemiphobia and transphobia there was in the gay and lesbian community.

I was also a chubby child and was bullied for being fat. I look back at chubby photos of myself as a child now and think I look cute. At the time, having my appearance mocked was devastating. I was already being teased mercilessly for being a feminine boy. Being made fun of for my weight and appearance dragged me down even further. I am not a lifelong fatty. When I hit puberty, I zoomed up in height [eventually reaching a height of 6’6”] and became really skinny for about 15 years. However, when I hit 30, my weight started to shoot up. This was similar to my other family members. I went from my lowest adult weight of around 200 to my current weight of over 400 pounds. I doubled in size. I have seen the way people treated me then versus the way they treat me now, including in the queer community. One time at a trans event, a skinny trans woman gave me the dirtiest look because apparently I was taking too much food from the buffet. I could no longer enjoy the event and felt like crying. The standard in the LGBTQ community is thin. The community as a whole is thin supremacist. The beauty standards for trans women or transfeminine people is the same as dominant culture: thin, dainty and petite. As a 6’6”, 425 pound transfeminine non-binary person, I am a TransAmazon. I do not fit the dominant beauty standards of cis or trans communities. It is very difficult to realize how marginalized I am in this society.

Transmisogyny and Fatphobia are issues that I care deeply about. I am affected by both problems and am the victim of these forms of oppression. However, I am also white. As a white person, I receive white privilege. This refers to unearned benefits and advantages that a person receives simply for having white skin. I first became aware of my whiteness in 1992. I was taking a Black Studies course and it was also the year that there were riots in Los Angeles due to the fact that the Black motorist Rodney King was brutally beaten by cops and the cops were exonerated by an all-white jury. This was done even though there was a video of the assault. I could not believe this injustice and was embarrassed to belong to a race that was so hateful and so dedicated to spreading white supremacy and dominance.

When I first came out, one of my best friends was a Black, bisexual woman. Her coming out paralleled my own coming out as queer and trans. We were both in a white, cisgender, gay and lesbian community and organization. As I began to experience transphobia, I noticed that she began to experience racism and biphobia. White lesbians and gay men treated her differently and made inferences about her identity. She got sick and tired of the racist treatment and had me read a letter to the LGBT group addressing her mistreatment. Her experience sadly was not unique. Beginning in the 70s and 80s, women of color began to speak out and write essays about racism in Women’s Studies, feminism and the lesbian Community.

Women of color and lesbian of color feminists sounded the alarm about racism in white-dominated feminist and lesbian spaces. Audre Lorde emerged as a leader who wrote and spoke extensively about racism in the women’s movement and in the lesbian community. She wrote that “your silence will not protect you” and encouraged women of color and queer women of color in particular to speak out about racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

It was through my friend’s experiences and then through my immersion in Women’s Studies that I learned about racism and my own white privilege. I realized that I have white privilege in the LGBTQ community and that there are many ways in which white people receive better treatment in both the mainstream and in the subcultures. LGBTQ people of color face racism in the white dominated LGBTQ community and sometimes homophobia and transphobia in communities of color. This means that it is often hard to find a home where they truly feel valued. It speaks to the need for queer and trans people of color communities to have their own groups and spaces that are safe and inclusive.

In conclusion, the “no fats, no fems, no Blacks, no Asians” phrase is absolutely despicable. This phrase speaks to the need to combat racism, fatphobia and femme-phobia within the LGBTQ community. One of the things that has truly helped in the past several decades has been the emphasis on intersectionality. Now people are looking at what it means to be a queer person of color or a fat feminist or an Asian trans man etc. because they are putting together multiple forms of identity and analyzing multiple forms of oppression. My hope is that people will analyze both how they are oppressed and how they are privileged and work towards a community of diversity, inclusion and respect.

White Supremacy

bell hooks frequently uses the phrase “white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” I think it is a handy way to name the systems of oppression we live under, even if some identities are not included in it. In the last entry I talked about patriarchy and today I am going to talk about white supremacy.

The first thing that I want to say about this entry is that I am white. Therefore it colors what I have to say about the subject. Many white leftists like to talk about racism as if they are the experts on it. We are not and never will be. So take what I have to say here with a grain of salt given my white privilege.

White supremacy is a system of domestic terrorism. It has been going on for centuries. It started with the genocide of Native people and then proceeded to slavery with the arrival of the first African person in 1619. African Americans have suffered 400 years of horrific oppression. When slavery ended, the attacks continued via lynching. Then came Jim Crow segregation and now we have the prison industrial complex. Slavery has not really died; it has only been redesigned.

In recent years we have seen case after case of mostly African American men and some women be assassinated by the police. While this has been going on much longer, the availability of cell phones makes documenting the cases easier. In some cases police body cameras also show the event. But what is remarkable is that in most cases it doesn’t matter. In case after case we see officers exonerated even when there is video proof that they murdered someone. The fight for justice against police is an uphill battle. Police are seen as being in the right, and armed or unarmed Black men are targeted as the enemy who deserves to be killed. When we hold police accountable for their crimes?

When you think of genocide, forced relocation, boarding schools, slavery, Japanese internment in concentration camps, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, the prison industrial complex, police brutality against POC, you get a good sense of what the system of racial terrorism looks like in the U.S. POC can never really catch a breath when their lives are always on the line. The recent extreme presence of xenophobia and immigrant bashing is another facet of white supremacy. The fact that a president as blatantly racist as DJT could be elected president is proof positive of the continuing power of white supremacy.

White supremacy can also be used to refer to colorism, the system that assigns superior value to light or lighter skinned POC within POC communities. It can also be used to refer to POC collusion with dominant systems of race ideology. bell hooks has termed this the colonized mind. Internalized oppression is a huge problem in all oppressed groups. We must work to make members of our oppressed groups “woke.” This involves education and the willingness to stick your neck out in service to a larger cause.

Sometimes I am amazed that POC even talk to white people given the way we have treated them for centuries. To me, it would only be natural for POCs to have animosity for white people. At any rate, as white people we need to take responsibility for white racism and own up to our white privilege. We have created this problem and we have a duty to correct it.

 

Feminism

When I was 20 years old, I took two Women’s Studies courses. They both changed my life. I flipped my major from English to Women’s Studies and my life as a feminist was born.

Feminism is a revolutionary movement. It is also one of the most successful movements of the past century. The amount of changes that have been ushered in by hard-working feminists is awe-inspiring.

The dictionary definition of feminism is the movement for the social, political and economic equality between men and women. Needless to say, this old-school definition leads a lot to be desired. For me, feminism is a revolutionary, intersectional movement to eradicate oppression and exploitation of all kinds, with a particular emphasis on masculinism, male-supremacy and patriarchy. But race, class, trans, disability, age, weight, appearance, religion, etc. all intersect in vitally important ways with feminism. As the internet slogan goes, our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

I am a third wave feminist through and through. Ironically, I was raised on second wave ideology because the third wave was just beginning to happen when I was being schooled in feminist theory. I am a third wave feminist in the same way that I am a Gen Xer. It is my generation and I am proud of it. We have accomplished a lot and made quite a contribution to the movement. We build on the shoulders of the first and second wave. In addition, we build on the shoulders of all the women of color who may or may not have been involved with feminism. Feminism is a movement mired in white supremacy, historically and contemporarily. While strides have been made in combatting racism in feminism, it still continues to be a serious problem.

In addition to racism, feminism is often transphobic and trans-misogynistic. I have felt this from so-called TERFs as well as from more mainstream feminists. My relationship to feminism has not been a bed of roses. I have never walked away, but there have been times I have thought about it because of the transphobia and transmisogyny I have encountered. I would ask: Am I allowed to be a feminist in the same way that my cisgender counterparts are? White, cis women have a lot to answer for when it comes to the inclusion of trans people and women of color in Women’s and Gender Studies and in the feminist movement.

Feminism, in many way, provides the foundation for my social justice work. For papers and essays, I often implore my students to explore a given problem through the lens of intersectional feminism. Feminism done right is thoroughly intersectional and able to provide a rigorous analytical reading of any number of socio-cultural problems and crises. Intersectional feminism is the go-to magic for theory and for activism. Intersectional feminism must include critical race theory, queer theory, crip theory and more, as well as insights from Black Lives Matters, queer organizations and disabled activist collectives among many others.

I should get a tattoo that says “Feminist Forever.” I hate patriarchy, male privilege, male dominance and masculinism with a passion. It is destroying our society and destroying our planet. Even with its problems, feminism provides a framework for thinking about all of these problems that desperately need solutions. As Nancy Hartsock said, “Feminism is a method of approaching life and politics, a way of asking questions, and searching for answers, rather than a set of political conclusions about the oppression of women.” I would add the oppression of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, etc. but you get the point. It is a sophisticated theoretical apparatus and it is an equally sophisticated approach to on-the-ground activism. Between its rigorous theory and grassroots activism there is no telling what progress feminism will continue to make in the coming years, decades and centuries.

 

 

Race

Race is an illusion. It is fictive. It is a made up category. Scientists and anthropologists tried to prove the existence of discrete racial categorizations for decades but they continuously came up short, finally having to admit that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as race. And, simultaneously, the effects of race are hyper-real. They are detrimental, devastating and destructive. How ironic that a phony classificatory scheme could cause so much havoc and violence for centuries.

Race is an idea. It is an invention. Contrary to popular belief, race did not come before slavery. It was the other way around. Slavery is an evil institution, the use of human bodies for break-breaking labor without any pay and with abusive and violent treatment. How could anyone justify the morally unjustifiable? By creating race. Human greed propelled white European colonizers to need a free supply of labor for their agricultural aspirations. They stole African slaves from their continent and forced them into the nefarious institution of slavery. How could they justify treating human beings like chattel? What was an obvious difference between their white selves and their African captives? The color of skin. So, African people were labeled as intellectually, culturally and spiritually inferior. This became the justification for a system that treated people of African descent as disposable people, people called 3/5 of a human being who existed to work ceaselessly until their premature deaths. In addition, race came in to explain away the genocide against Indigenous North Americans and the stealing of their land in Westward expansionism. Native peoples, like Africans, were “uncivilized” and needed European whites to show them how to be cultured, thus taking away their land and killing them in the process was justifiable. Race was used to round up Japanese and Japanese American people during World War II and place them in concentration camps because we were told their race made them untrustworthy. Race was also used to steal land away from Mexicans through its “annexation” in the 1800s. It is used today in racial profiling by police against African American and Latinx people and in “flying while Arab” and many other cases of Middle Eastern profiling in the post-9/11 era.

Race is also socially constructed to the max! It is so important to point out that race is not a trans-cultural, trans-historical coherent essence. It has radically different meanings around the world and across different historical epochs. I believe we often think, especially in the U.S., that the way we think about and conceptualize race is the way that everyone around the world does. Nothing could be further from the truth. And our meanings around race have changed in the past 500+ years in the North American continent. Slavery and Jim Crow segregation are gone. However, that doesn’t mean racism is gone. Segregation persists and many believe the theatre of slavery has simply changed from the plantation to the prison industrial complex.

The project of race is inexorably linked to the project of racism and white supremacy. In a very real way, race is racism. However, I do not believe in the abolition of race in the way that I believe in the abolition of gender. Race has done great harm but it is also a powerful identity and it is linked to people’s cultures and their respective cultural traditions. There is a liberatory side to race that has performed a full-frontal assault on the use of race as a justification for oppression and inequality. Conversely, gender is not a culture; it is a cult. And as with any other cult, the goal is to get out of it, not perpetuate and strengthen it. This is a good case when we simply need to proclaim: race and gender are different entities with very different histories.

As a white person, I benefit from the current system of race. I receive white privilege in a myriad of areas. Thus, in order to oppose the system, I must be disloyal to whiteness. I must not only be an “ally” to people of color but an accomplice. The other side of the oppression I have described above is the people of color and their white allies/accomplices who have fought against white supremacy for centuries. It is by far an incomplete task but the stories of resistance in the face of tremendous odds are formidable. An indomitable spirit prevails in the racial justice struggle, and that continues right through to the present with Black lives Matter and numerous other movements. The war has not been won but countless battles have been. How far we progress in the years to come is wholly dependent on people coming together and fighting for what’s right. The work and opposition is tremendous but so is the will of the people to transform our society for the better.