S. Bear Bergman is an author, storyteller, and educator working to create positive, celebratory representations of trans lives. Recent and current projects include children’s storybooks featuring trans-identified kid characters, a performance about loving and living in a queer/ed Jewish family titled Gathering Light, teaching pleasure-positive trans/genderqueer sex ed, and his sixth book Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). Bear answered a couple of questions for the blog this week, enjoy!
BWS: Your latest book, the essay collection Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter, opens with “The Really True Story, Once and for All, of How We Got Stanley (with Footnotes)” and “Starting a Family,” two pieces in which you consistently address encounters with privilege and normativity with humour. How do you understand the power of humour in such situations, and how does humour help you write about the topics that you do (in these two essays, queer parenting)?
Bear: Talking about privilege and normativity and how they work is always kind of a minefield, really, no matter which side of any of the questions you’re on or have ever been on. It makes people uncomfortable at best, and hostile at worst. What’s most interesting for me is that now that people read me as a relatively gender-normative white man all the time, I can speak about racism and sexism and homophobia and gender policing to other white men and they seem to really…listen, which was totally not the case when I was a white gender-nonconforming person people usually read as a woman. So I have a lot more opportunities to practice now, than I used to. As someone who works to be a co-resistor against oppression, the most useful thing I can do is often trying to get the other white guys to do better. Adding a little humor to the call-out helps it get heard just like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
But also, when I started doing gender and sexuality education, I was often booked into things like 8 a.m. Abnormal Psychology. There I would be, standing in front of three hundred hungover twenty-year-olds in pajama bottoms and flip-flops, trying to get them to listen to me while I talked for an hour. What I figured out in the first thirty seconds was that if the students are laughing, they’re listening (and in the second thirty seconds I learned that one bawdy remark can earn you the next five minutes of serious talking). As time passed and I figured out what worked, my talks developed into what one professor referred to as “either the funniest academic lecture or the smartest stand-up comedy routine I’ve ever seen.” And that, ultimately, is what I’m aiming for – I want to achieve an Eddie Izzard level of erudition combined with humor combined with insight. (I would also like a beach house, and a plastic rocket, and a pony, in case any genies are reading along.)
I can’t always find the funny. Sometimes I get really angry or scared or sad about what’s happening around me, and I fly into a rage or get in a protracted brawl on social media or have to just stop interacting with the awful thing and watch Veronica Mars on Netflix until I calm down a little. I recently had this around Bill C-36, the brutal and dehumanizing new proposed legislation about sex work. I patiently busted myths and offered perspectives, relying frequently on the work of friends associated with the Bedford case or with Maggie’s Toronto (a sex workers rights and advocacy organization), but then at some stage someone was just too horrible and I went TILT like a pinball machine and spent the next two hours shopping for vintage linens on eBay while sipping ice-cold chocolate milk. It happens. I try to be funny and positive and even-tempered and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but let’s not kid ourselves — there are days that all I want to do is go over to someone’s house with a rusty pail of rabid ferrets and make them see reason.
BWS: The essays “Get Up Everybody and Sing” and “Machatunim” talk sincerely of the strength of family-of-friends bonds, and don’t shy away from putting your real friends/family on the page. How do you deal with writing about real people that you care about? Do you seek their permission before publishing? Though what you’re saying is nothing but positive, do you feel the trepidation so many other writers feel about using real people?
Bear: As a queer and transsexual writer and performer, it has long been my habit to draw heavily on my personal life for inspiration and illustration. Because the experiences of people like me have so long been erased from media culture, it’s an artistic choice that seems both educational and, well, interesting. This has come, of course, with some very delicate balancing about who gets written into the stories and who is left out, what I feel I can speak about and what is better left unsaid. In my head, therefore, I have a complicated set of rules (and their attendant exceptions) about the personal — which accounts for so much of my subject matter — and the private; what I don’t write about. There is, however, a guiding principle: Don’t leave anyone feeling exposed.
That’s not a difficult principle to uphold, for me. On the one hand, discourse about transsexual experiences in particular continues to shade so strongly toward hard, bad, left out, cast out, betrayed, unwanted. Modern literary fashion strongly rewards the author for delving into the nakedly awful. But on the other hand, as both a storyteller and a Jew I am acutely aware of how important cultural transmission of our stories can be. I’m tender-hearted and optimistic in both my work and my personal life, and therefore enjoy writing uplifting stories and positive reflections. I don’t very often even consider writing my upset or frustrations with a particular person into my work. Far more likely is a description of some intimacy of friendship, or the recounting of an experience or adventure undertaken with someone I love, or have come to love. I really want to show warm places where a specific and real queer or transsexual person is known, and seen, to be well and happy.
Fortunately, my friends don’t feel any great need for privacy and my relatives are mostly used to my shenanigans. So, the principle against exposing people in my life is relatively easy to follow — at least, most of the time. But sometimes, I’m surprised. For example, I wrote into my show Machatunim/Gathering Light a line from my mother when she heard that my husband and I intended to have an entirely vegetarian wedding: “People are going to expect a real meal.” She later gave me permission to keep it in the show — in no small part because it’s just a really funny line. Though I offered to remove that bit if she felt ridiculed, I wouldn’t agree to remove the discussion of my parents’ long-past bad behavior concerning my gender expression or sexual orientation (though I did contextualize it) from other work. Those chapters give a sense of how far we’ve all come, together. I judge that to be essential to the narrative, and it trumps even my desire to protect my loved ones.
We will see in a decade, I suppose, how my now-four-year-old feels about being written about at such length in his relative smallness. Where other children only have to worry about that embarrassing toddler photo in which they’re wearing only a pair of red socks, my son’s early life is in the library – his journey of having long hair, his feelings about air travel, and so on. While I try to tell only the stories that show him in his better moments, he may feel otherwise and I can’t really predict. Ultimately, I feel the weight of responsibility to him. And yet, I also feel an equally strong and equally protective obligation to tell my full story to an audience that might not otherwise have imagined that a queer trans man could marry, have children, and riff about all this after a performance with his parents — who are still, after all these years, coming to the show.
S. Bear Bergman visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Kirk DeMatas, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!