Below is the text of a talk that Reina and Grace gave at Williams College on April 30th. It’s about the after-life of anti-cross-dressing and anti-touch laws, embarrassment, and friendship, along with a lot of other things that feel important to us right now. It’s existed in many versions, and will probably keep changing.
Today we want to talk about feeling undesirable, about feeling embarrassed, and about being touched. We don’t just want to talk to about history, but about the way we hold history within us. We don’t just want to talk about the state, but about the ways the state moves through us.
Last month, we went to Los Angeles for a project we’ve been calling “The Undesirables.” We went to LA wanting to learn how, in the shadow of a state that wanted them dead or gone, people seen as undesirable still lived their lives, all the while being told that there was no life to be lived.
In post-war Los Angeles, they called the people they wanted gone from the city “undesirables.” The city being that cleaned-up, cleared-out, cracked-down-on project of white-nuclear violence. They wanted undesirables arrested and jailed, disappeared and dead.
They wanted downtown rid of soapbox preachers, street hustlers, queer cruisers, and migrant workers. They wanted to beautify the singing and shouting, fucking and fighting. They wanted no outlaw life.
Post-war LAPD Sheriff, William Parker—the queer/trans community called him Wild Bill Parker—kept a record of more than “10,000 sex perverts.” The LAPD’s head criminal psychiatrist, Paul de River, published a guide to “policing perversion” called The Sexual Criminal. Wild Bill and de River trained vice-squads of handsome young hollywood wannabes in “gay mannerisms,” sending them out into the night to meet entrapment quotas. Wild Bill filled the Lincoln Heights Jail with so-called cross-dressers and masqueraders, coercively gendering them in wings for men and women, known as t “The Fruit Tank” and “The Big Daddy Tank.”
The city-makers said undesirables were a danger to the City. They said that, in the wake of the war, there were more sex freaks and sex fiends than ever before, out to destroy white children and white families, white safety and white security.
What were the city-makers so afraid of? Were they afraid because some good citizens of the city liked the way the undesirables were living and loving, wanted a taste of the ways they were doing it? Were they afraid because hollywood executives were going to drag shows and queer sex clubs in Compton, because white businessmen were visiting Hawaiian and Samoan trans women in their communal apartments downtown, leaving their bedroom communities in the middle of the night to cruise “The Run”?
The project started when we learned about the anti-police riot at Cooper’s Donuts, in 1959, ten years before Stonewall. Police showed up on a routine ID check, trying to make cross-dressing arrests, and the group of queer/trans youth who hung out at the 24-hour diner rose up and resisted arrest. They hurled donuts, coffee, and fire, burned squad cars, and occupied Cooper’s for almost 24 hours.
I had spent nearly a decade researching and working within the legacy of the organizations that sprung up after Stonewall. I had never heard of Cooper’s. Hearing this story for the first time made it plain how much of our resistance history is in our social life, and how much historical erasure our battles face.
I wanted to be closer to that moment, to meet the powerfully undesirable people who had lived through it and despite it.
The Sunday of our trip to LA for the undesirables project, we went to Jewel’s Catch One, the oldest black-owned gay club in LA. It’s a big place, with two ballrooms and gold molding. It’s about to close, after over 40 years. We went for the birthday party of someone named Avery, who named the club. Most people at the party had seen Catch One through its beginning and, now, its end.
Avery told us how gay people used to not be allowed to touch. At bars, clubs, wherever, you’d be arrested for touching. So people danced with two feet of space between them and scattered even farther when the cops came. But he said they took up a lot of space when they were dancing, used their whole bodies.
I imagine they locked eyes, and made all the feeling with their movements that they couldn’t make dancing close.
A few months earlier I was at the ONE Archives, giving a talk with Miss Major, Cece McDonald, and Janetta Johnson. At the archives, I saw a Gay Liberation Front flier from the 70’s that said: “Touch One Another.” I didn’t quite understand its meaning until Grace and I were at Jewel’s, and Avery told us about the no-touch laws.
Then, we understood that the state had existed in the space between two people. I thought about how law creates forcefields between us, isolating us from the touch we need and want. I thought about the after-life of these laws, the way that forcefields still exist all around us and between us.
It was profound, and scary, to think about about the way those anti-touch laws still affect my experience of myself.
The day before Avery’s birthday at Catch One, Reina and I went with friends to a trans night at a nondescript bar in the valley. The club had mirrored walls, a dance floor, and purple light.
Before there were organizations and non-profits, trans people came together at night, on the street or in whichever bars, clubs, 24-hour diners would allow them. Places like Cooper’s Donuts, in LA, or Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco. Not the safest places, but the only spaces.
For so many, night is still the only time we get to be something close to who we want to be. At the club in the valley, on the mirrored danced floor, a lot of people were just dancing with themselves— wearing sequined dresses and high heels, looking so beautiful, swaying in front of the mirror and taking themselves in under the purple light.
This was one of the most important things I’ve witnessed in a long time. I remembered my own relationship to mirrors, standing in front of them as a child and imagining my face and body in the world I wished existed. Not being a boy, exactly, but being loved by who I wanted, as I wished to be.
People stayed at the bar in the valley until it closed, dancing with themselves, seeing themselves, seeing themselves be seen by one another. Touching one another. Because when I say touch I don’t just mean hand to hand or lip to lip, I also mean eye to eye, mirror to mirror, under the shared light of trying to be yourself.
Mirrors have held so much power for me, and not in ways that have always helped me feel good about myself. There was a time in Boston maybe 20 years ago when I looked in a mirror and I started crying. I was so consistently navigating a racist and transphobic gaze that I couldn’t help but reflect that back at myself. I was overwhelmed by the me that existed through that lens.
What I connected to at the club with the mirrors was a different gaze that reminded me of the powerful moments of becoming I’ve had in front of mirrors, seeing and imagining myself for who I want to be, or who I already might be. The becoming gaze happening that night helped me feel confident enough that I wanted to risk feeling humiliated, risk feeling beautiful and powerful. So often, it’s the same risk. Something I’ve learned is that it’s harder to accept that I might be beautiful, powerful, maybe even hot, than it is to organize against the institutions I hate.
So the next day, the Sunday we went to Jewel’s Catch One, I put on a dress. And I was hit with an incredible wave of embarrassment. I was overwhelmed by embarrassment. I wasn’t surprised—this feeling is why I hadn’t worn a dress in years. The history of laws and punishment and shame washed over me and through me. After so long, and so much work, it’s still so fucking hard to be a public woman.
Even in social movements, capitalism gets reproduced and tells me that I’m not supposed to be in a place of becoming, that I’m supposed to have arrived on the scene already with a sense of my own internal power and a brilliant political analysis to articulate it. We’re told that if we have emotions that say otherwise, they’re our own fault. I felt embarrassed of my embarrassment. I am deeply embarrassed by my own embarrassment.
What I needed in that moment was for my friend to tell me I looked okay, or even that I looked hot as hell. So many of us depend on other people to reflect back who we are, how we want to be seen. I’m trying to understand those moments not just through a framework of trans liberation, but also through dependency. I believe dependency is one of our greatest sources of power.
Here we were, in LA, 40 years of anti-cross dressing laws, 40 years after no-touch laws, 40 years after wild bill parker, the vice squads, and the fruit tank, just trying to figure out how to be outside, together, without so much fear and embarrassment. These laws, even in their afterlife, don’t just affect how we see ourselves, but also put up those forcefields between us and the friends we want to love the best and hardest.
I could feel how much distance there was between Reina and me. I could feel how, in her embarrassment, she had gone into herself, into the isolation of being alone in those emotions.
When you’re told people hate you, you feel like the problem is within you instead of outside you. So you isolate yourself, in order to protect yourself. And Isolation happens in our relationships. You disconnect, like how I disconnected from Grace. It’s so terrifying to take the risk of being seen, of being touched. That’s also why it’s so important.
I never stop having to remind myself that oppression changes the way we feel about ourselves. It dictates our communities’ ability to get jobs, to get out of prison or detention centers, to get into housing, or get on welfare. But racism and transphobia inspire embarrassment. Poverty and ableism create self-hate. They certainly have for me.
And this is all still within me, moving through me. I spent 10 years organizing against state violence in the most literal way, and I still felt ashamed to wear a dress. I wanted to. I wanted to feel hot. The work of becoming is always still happening.
I’m trying to conceive of embarrassment as something full of insight. How could we not be embarrassed to be us in this world, with so many laws about how we’re supposed to be: laws telling us what we can’t wear; laws telling us who we can’t touch; laws policing, incarcerating, and killing us, for wearing dresses, being touched, being ourselves.
In our culture, we’re made to feel like our emotions are our fault and ours alone to bear the weight of. What if, instead, we see our most painful emotions as sites of recognition, as evidence of how oppression is all around us and moving through us. I think that embarrassment is a moment of painful understanding. We feel—sometimes unbearably—the force of histories telling us how to be. I think there is work in learning to see that pain not as evidence of who we are, but of what we’re fighting against.
Reina looked hot and powerful as hell. I saw where she was and slammed my way in so I could be next to her, and maybe pull her back out. Even in the afterlife, the two feet between us got smaller.
I was touched when grace recognized the levels of embarrassment I was holding in my body, which to me felt like the afterlife of slavery, and the afterlife of anti-cross dressing laws, both inside me. Laws and regulations have been taken off the books, but still, so often, I believe I’m undesirable.
The questions I want to ask myself now are: How does a fear of being hated get mixed up with a fear of letting ourselves be loved? When we choose to hide, what are we afraid of showing? What are we afraid will be seen? These feel like the biggest risks.
We’re thinking about the club with the mirrors on the wall, about our relationships and friendships, as places to come out of isolation and into embarrassment. We’re thinking about being undesirable together. We’re thinking about people being themselves, seeing themselves, together, touching one another.