You can’t take pictures of my voice

You can’t take a picture of my voice
Reflection on International Women’s Day

By Freesia McKee

The womanness that so many of us experience is, by definition, “in resistance.” The word “woman” is a variant of “man.” We are the riff. We are in opposition. To be a woman means to make compromises. To be a woman means to be a target. To be a woman has something to do with voice. My voice is powerful because you cannot see my voice; you cannot take a photo.

Last night, I was at a poetry reading and I was the only audience member. My friend held a piece of paper sideways between us at the edge of the table. She read the piece out loud to me as I read along, raising her voice so I could hear her over the café’s noise and men strumming guitars. It was the queers who made me, she read repeatedly, lovingly, each paragraph a riff on that theme.

Early yesterday morning, I saw a man walking up and down the beach taking clandestine photos of women. He was becoming increasingly creepy, and when I realized this, I left the beach. As I rode the city bus back to my hotel, I imagined going up to this man, talking to him instead of running away. What has happened in your life that makes you want to prey upon women? To collect our images as things? Who has hurt you to make you think you can do this? Another friend posted online that she recently caught a man taking photos of her breasts as she gave tours as a museum docent. My sister used to work at Walgreens and was sexually harassed by customers, including by a man who took photos of her without her consent. Women are under surveillance in a different way. We have always been under surveillance, under the surveillance of men.

Today is International Women’s Day and I am in the airport going home. A young woman behind me yells at her mother, who is giving her generous advice about always carrying cash just in case. We don’t want to think the world is dangerous. Many young women don’t believe older women’s warnings until we find out for ourselves.

Before I checked out of my hotel, I texted my girlfriend back in Milwaukee to brag that I was leaving a generous tip for the women cleaning the room, especially because today is International Women’s Day and the women’s strike. I caught myself a few minutes later and wondered if that was a textbook example of White Feminism: I watched hours of cable TV on a white duvet cleaned and stretched across the mattress by women of color. Then, I congratulated myself before leaving the room. Leaving a tip is not sisterhood.

Back home a few weeks ago, two cars raced and sped past us really fast as my girlfriend drove us to her house. I called 911 from the passenger’s seat. The telephone operator asked me questions: What were the license plates? I don’t know. What kind of cars were they? I don’t really know. Where are the cars now? I don’t know. Right before we called the police, my girlfriend and I had been talking about how policing creates more harm than good, how policing as an institution is racist, classist, patriarchal. We’d been discussing abolition. My girlfriend has lived in this part of town for years, seen too many fatal and nonfatal car crashes in her neighborhood as a result of people racing stolen cars, so we called the police because we couldn’t think of another thing to do in the moment.

In 2015, I went to a workshop with educator and activist Miriam Kaba and started calling myself a police abolitionist that day. But what good is a word without consistent practice?

It was the queers who made me. In the airport, a father walks past carrying his 2-year-old daughter as she babbles in Spanish. She is grinning in a way that I feel like I remember from being carried by my dad as a small child. The TV’s echo as they do in airports. CNN is reporting on the women’s marches. They’re talking about protestors creating a human wall. I try to think about what walls signify. Do they signify protection, or do they signify bigots who want to keep you out?

I guess so many more people are talking about International Women’s Day this year because of DT. I am travelling and can’t attend the feminist poetry reading my friends have organized back home. Waiting in the airport, I read a poem about a woman who is naked and dead, her body a thing. I think about why I haven’t yet told anyone about the man at the beach who was walking around taking photos of women. I have talked on the phone to my girlfriend and my mom and two other woman friends for probably hours; I texted my sister; I sent Facebook messages with other women poets about calls for submission and upcoming gigs and how we need to get together soon for drinks or coffee.

A friend asks if I’ve seen Paris is Burning, a film about Harlem ballroom drag culture in the 1980s. Yes, I have. I think about one of the interviewees, Venus Xtravaganza, who was a performer and a woman of color and trans. Venus was also a sex worker. In the film, she looks so young. She is so young. From the interview, you tell that she is smart and she is lovely, beautiful. Venus talks about what it means to be a sex worker and how she wants someday to not have to worry about money. Before the end of the film, viewers find out she has been murdered, her body and mind treated like garbage.

Wikipedia tells me that many of the performers featured in Paris is Burning have died because of violence, of illnesses related to AIDS, of poverty and racism. I see posts in my Facebook feed about trans people of color who have been murdered. I have “liked” Laverne Cox and Janet Mock because I want to have positive images of highly successful, famous people who are trans flowing through my feed as well. I wonder why in 2017, so many of us still use Paris is Burning as a reference point. The film had a white lesbian director. Many have critiqued the ways she used a colonizer’s lens.

Tonight I will come home. On my way through security the first time, TSA said they needed to pat down my “right breast area.” As I tried to negotiate with the TSA agents – I’m not sure why you need to pat down my breast. Can I go through the scanner again? No, I don’t want to go to a private screening space with you – a man behind me tried to push past, oblivious to my feelings of humiliation. Three TSA agents stood in front of me and looked like they were ready for me to get upset. I was very proud of myself for saying something, anything. I was upset about the whole experience, which amounted to a woman TSA agent drawing an X with the back of her hands over my clothes across my chest. In this body, I’m not used to being humiliated. I’m still thinking about what that means. Trans people, men of color, women experience much worse in airports, prisons, police traffic stops, beaches and other public space, work, and elsewhere all the time.

Can you violate a voice in the same way you can violate a body? What does it mean when someone interrupts and speaks over, or doesn’t? What is the meaning of the interior space a voice resides in most of the time? And when it spills over into the exterior? I need to do more thinking about the privilege of saying one is “in resistance” and what it means to be in “in resistance” when it counts the most.

Last night I dreamed that I was in my grandparents’ house, a house that no longer exists. I felt their presence, all four of them, the two that lived there and the others. We were sitting in the kitchen. I was floating through the rooms of the ghost house.

Then, in the dream, we were on an airplane. A pregnant friend of mine sat several rows up. Her partner sang to her and the rest of the plane. It was comforting. When I woke up, I didn’t remember the song, but I remembered her voice, its echo.

Freesia McKee is a poet, origami connoisseur, and amateur Scrabble player. She grew up on the south side of Milwaukee just a few blocks away from the birthplace of the Chicken Dance.