Tag Archives: art

In the Shadow of Illness

I don’t remember ever being told my father was dying. I must have been too young when I internalized this information. I think I always knew he was sick, and since my dad was an AIDS educator, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the disease did.

It was the 1990s. We were only beginning to knew what AIDS was, and at 8 years old, I only understood what it had done to my father.

My memories of these days are so scattered, and I try to pick up the pieces, scrambling them together like a puzzle made of my own sadness.

I’m still missing some of the pieces – and as an adult I am discovering that the process of getting to know my father nearly twenty years after his death is something I am going to have to fight through. I have letters, written to him, and written from him to others. I have his artwork. I have his writing. I have the play he wrote about his disease.

But I will never remember what he smells like. How do I grab hold of his smell, or his tone when he was happy? The question I begin to ask myself is not “who was he?”, but sometimes “Who am I?” in the context of my lineage.

People tell me I look like him. I have been told that I dance like him once or twice. But I cannot draw like my father, and our writing styles are vastly different. Where does the person I have become line up with the person that he is, and how do I integrate these things into a whole?

When all you have is fragments, where do you begin?

The discovery of who my father was is slow.

Whether or not we realize it, our parents are integrated into our identities at early stages in our development. But there was no father to take with me to the father daughter picnic for father’s day, and I remember having to explain myself whenever a classmate at a new school would ask why I wasn’t making my dad a card.

As adults, we’re expected pretty frequently to identify with our families – especially in highly socialized rituals like weddings. When I got married last year, strangers would ask, “is your father going to walk you down the aisle?” or say, “Oh, your father is just going to love lifting this veil off your face!”

I’ve never been a Daddy’s Girl. I don’t even know what that means. I do know that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to acknowledge and remember a person who I don’t really know. This year I’m forming an NYC AIDS Walk group in his memory – to walk in his honor and raise funds to fight the disease which killed him. But I don’t want to know my father through his disease. I don’t want to have him be just an illness. I want him to be my parent.

The problem is that even when I ask the people who knew him best about his life, they can’t tell me about the relationship we might have had because none of them are his child. These splinters of memory – reading books about hippos, playing rocketship/astronaut games before going to sleep (and sharing my bed with him when I stayed the night), having my art hanging on the wall – a child’s sketches, next to his artwork during a showing— reading his dedication to me in the play he wrote. These are the things I can cling to.

But they’ll never be enough.

I don’t know if this is what it’s like for everyone when they lose a parent – but I know that I still grieve 20 years later, in part not because I miss him, but because I miss what he could have been in my life. I miss the may-have-been moments.

As a child I remember that I clung to the idea of his physical remains – his ashes, because they were the only reminder I had that he had been there at all. I sometimes envy the people who have gravesites to visit, because at least then there is an acknowledgement outside of their memories – a physical space to occupy when you wish to remember. I don’t have a gravesite, but I do have physical touchstones. As a historian, I suppose it does help me to have these artifacts of his life. I own his archive.

I didn’t know, for example, that my father could read German until I found letter written to him exclusively in German. I didn’t know that his artwork wasn’t always abstract, and that the things I love in art are influenced by the work he did when I was around him. I don’t know how I’m like him, but I want to know. I remember going with him to teach AIDS education classes to adults – I have letters thanking him for his teaching, and these are the things I choose to carry with me. I haven’t done the work in a long time, but I think it may be a way to connect with him – something which I did with him before that I can carry on as an adult. The disease is so different now, but the reality remains the same.

It happened to me, it has happened to others: their parents die from AIDS, but instead of everyone understanding it like they would cancer or another terminal illness, the sideways glances of misunderstanding cloud their faces. The politics of sex education and gay rights muddle the story of my past, and I am forced to politicize the very nature of my identity. The teddy bear gay pin sits in my jewelry box. The ACT UP pin sits next to it. The photos of drag queens and letters from family sit in my office, and I need to find a way to synthesize the historical image of my father with the reality. I need to understand where I came from without forgetting what I already know.

He was Tanya Ransom, a drag queen. He was Michael, an artist, educator and playwright. And he was a patient. And he was my father.

N.B.: If you would like to donate or walk in the AIDS Walk Team I have begun, it is team 4884!

Artwork by Michael "hiv" Norman and Elsa Sjunneson

Artwork by Michael “hiv” Norman and Elsa Sjunneson

Leave a comment

Filed under LGBT, Personal

Why I’d be Proud to Have a Book Banned

In graduate school I studied the history of obscenity in the United States, and specifically sought to understand art as a subject for legal critique. My question has always been why art is so threatening to society. Every year, the American Library Association presents one week (the first week of October) as Banned Books Week. One week to educate the public on the history and issues surrounding banned books. So I’m doing my part here at feminist sonar.

Book burning and book banning are both manifestations of the desire to control information. Historically speaking, those who seek to control the kind of information which is deemed inappropriate are socially conservative and religiously conservative groups, trying to keep a hold on the rampant devastation of “good” society.

Stepping into my handy wayback machine, let’s take a look at some of the first people who banned books in the United states: Anthony Comstock and the New York Society For the Suppression Of Vice.


You’ll notice that even in their group seal, they have a man burning books. Comstock was the reason for the federal Comstock Law, which is how many books on the classically banned books list at the ALA landed on the list. The Comstock Law federally criminalized sending obscene materials through the mail providing groups a solid foothold for the legal battle against smut and literature.

These days, books are banned for a myriad of reasons. But I find most of them rather baffling. Scanning the list of banned books over the last 5 years, I can see that not only have I read most of them, but frequently the banning just doesn’t make sense. However, the point is not the baffling nature of the reasons for banning a book, but the very idea that a book should be banned in the first place. For example, I understand why the Catholic Church had issues with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I don’t agree with their issues, and had I been in a city where the book had been banned, you can be sure I would have been upset. The books aren’t just about religion, but are an excellent story about growing up.

It is the books banned for having homosexuality which I find the most troubling.

The reason I find it troubling is that I feel that most of these books are banned out of fear. Out of fear that children will learn that being gay, or a person of color, of being from a different religious background, or for that matter that having sex is okay. People ban books and burn books as a signal for fear of knowledge. Fearing that someone might live a life differently.  That their lifestyle is a threat. Stories can teach us many things, but one of the most important things that literature can teach us, is tolerance. We can get inside someones head, and learn their life, we can explore their trials and their successes. And we can do it all without having to intrude.

And when it comes to books like The Hunger Games we fear the idea that what happens inside a book is going to happen outside of the book. But I don’t think reading a book is going to make me *want* to go hunt my peers in a dangerous arena. Quite the opposite. But what the Hunger Games might teach a young woman is how to fight for her freedoms. Branded as anti-family, I felt that the book taught us that our family is what we make of it. Protecting our little sisters from going to a terrible place, creating relationships with others in communities – these are not anti-family actions, but rather ones of communal spirit.

And as for the “unsuited to age group” notice that lands on almost every challenged book – we don’t pick the ages when we’re ready to read the books we want to. It isn’t up to groups to decide what someone is ready to learn. I read Sherlock Holmes when I was 6 and it didn’t turn me into a pipe smoking, cocaine using sociopath. It turned me into a person who likes to observe the world, and who would be proud to have a book banned – because it would mean I made people think.

Perhaps, rather than fearing the written word, we should embrace the challenges it gives us. So read a banned book today, and question why it was banned. You might learn something about the society you live in.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics

Internet Archive

Glimpses of Tanya Ransom
It isn’t often that I get to see my father perform. Actually, it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I think the last time I saw him perform was when I was seven years old. Maybe 8, I can’t really recall. The point, is that this is very unusual. yesterday I got to watch a video of my father performing at the Pyramid Club. It is where my parents met, where much of my extended family got to know each other. It is for this reason that I am grateful the internet exists, because without it I may never have seen this video. You can see my mothers response to the experience of finding this video here.
N. B – How to Survive a Plague comes out this weekend. I hope you’ll see it –  I plan to. It is a part of my history, and part of my life.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Truth Will Set You Free

Neil Gaiman shared a letter by a young, frightened actress today. I wanted to link to it, and also to talk a little about the nature of truth.
Anna wrote to Neil asking for his advice and he wrote back to Ms. Anna Gurji, and told her to send him her story. He said “The best weapon against lies is the truth, after all.” And he’s right.

Ms. Gurji was lied to, by the makers of a film. They intended to spread hate, and in doing so, they implicated artists in their argument. Telling the truth about this film is important, not only because there are people in other countries who are violently angry about the film she was in – and for this reason she has a right to be afraid. Telling the truth about this film means that she doesn’t have to stand for being a mouthpiece for anti-Islamic rhetoric.

As actors, when we do a play, we inherently lend our bodies and our images to the words and stories we are telling. Without the integrity of knowing what the stories are we don’t have the integrity of our work. I write today because I want to give Anna Gurji credit where it’s due, that she is willing to stand up, to ask for help, and to tell the truth. I applaud her willingness to stand up, be counted, and to speak against the hurt she feels.
I appreciate that Neil Gaiman wants to tell the truth about these sorts of things, because as a well known storyteller, his ability to be a trustworthy source only lends more credit to his name.
I thank them both for their integrity as artists, and their dedication to telling the story which is true, even if it is frightening.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Self Casting & Burlesque

I have done a couple of interviews about my work on a couple different shows, and it always comes down to the same question. Why do I enjoy the burlesque world? Why do I think it has a benefit for me as a disabled performer?
The answer is in self selecting casting. In theater, I was always cast as either a little girl, or an evil person. Only once did I get to play a young woman in love. Only once did I get to do that. The first role I ever played was Caliban – the monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On looking back on it, many people have suggested that perhaps this was inappropriate casting for a young girl with a cataracted eye. At an Oxford University summer program, I played Cassius in Julius Caesar. I was the evil manipulator, and part of the way my director had me play that manipulation out on stage, was to have Cassius pretend to be a blind man. The ploy for sympathy made sense in the context, but looking back I see it as a challenging way to question disability. Theater and disability are tricky things, and I often just wanted to play someone without having to adapt it to myself. I’ve been witches, and I’ve been old women, and I have been the tortured and angry Betty Parris – but until burlesque, I never felt like I was playing a person I wanted to play. Nobody would cast me as Juliet. Nobody would cast me as Marian the Librarian. Creating my own opportunities became my best chance.

In burlesque, there is frequently no director – and when there is, they are asking you for proposals on what you’d like to do in their show. So through that process we choose what characters we embody. I no longer have to portray the evil character because someone told me to, but rather, I get to choose. When Whedonesque Burlesque called,  I was able to self select to a character whom I wanted to play – and it wasn’t a vampire. I suggested three options, and the one my producer decided that we should pursue, was that of Kaylee. I wanted to play Kaylee because I felt like she and I had more in common than many of the other characters. I wanted to demonstrate her sweetness, and her love for her ship. Most importantly, I wanted to have fun – and in regular theater, I rarely got to play fun roles.

I think there’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to play, and there’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to be.

This isn’t just a benefit for those of us with disabilities, but for everyone. I think a lot of people can benefit from being able to self select who they play on stage. Many in the theater have roles they would love to play, but would never be given the chance because of what they look like. Perhaps you’re considered too heavy, or too old. Perhaps you think you have the right spirit, but your director doesn’t agree. Self selecting roles is both a way to validate yourself, and a way to show the world that you are something others do not necessarily see.

The downside to self-selection is obviously when those selections are inappropriate. When people put on a race that is not their own, or a disability which they do not live with, or for that matter a mental illness which they do not posses – then it becomes problematic. People feel that because they can choose to become anyone at all, they can do so without judgement.  However, because self-selection requires us to look within, we also must look without. Commonly, blackface is verboten, putting on another race is considered inappropriate and wrong.  Using another culture is called cultural appropriation. Why is it then, that performers do not see the same taboo in playing disabilities and illnesses which they do not live with? Consider that your actions in costume do reflect upon individuals for whom the costume is reality.

Self selection is a wonderful thing, but with it comes a great responsibility to care for one another. It is this precise self selection which makes burlesque a viable and important art form, but if we abuse self selection, where does that leave us?

(I highly encourage polite dialogue. I screen comments, so be thoughtful.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Burlesque, Disability Issues

Where’s Dita Von Teese?

This week is Burlesque Week here at Eliminating the Impossible. For those of you unaware of my professional and academic and famillial activities, I’m a relatively active member of the burlesque community. In the last few weeks (especially with Burlesque Hall of Fame having occurred) we’ve had a lot of time as a community to discuss the things which bother us most.

Today, I’m going to discuss the current debate around racism, stemming from Dita Von Teese’s act during her Strip Strip Hooray! tour. In the act, she is a woman in an Opium Den.

Here are some links to get you started on the why of this article, because what I’m not going to do, is talk about what does or doesn’t make a racist act:

http://www.racialicious.com/2012/06/01/race-burlesque-dita-von-teese-dons-yellowface/

http://dirtyfemmeburlesque.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/how-far-is-too-far-a-word-on-dita/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8T2DXjSUtQ – video pieces of the act itself

Now, the dialogue here covers what I wanted to say about the racism, but I’d like to make an observation about the dialogue itself.
Where’s Dita?

In the burlesque world, we do a lot of things which could make our audiences uncomfortable. I have seen acts where performers shoot up heroin, I have seen acts where performers have sex with garbage cans. I’ve recently heard of a “burqualesque” act dealing with the notion of honour killings. I’ve seen a performer stab herself in the vagina during an act (it was a stage knife, thankfully). We see a lot of things in burlesque designed to provoke dialogue, designed to provoke controversy. The only way for this kind of performance to be successful, however, is to encourage audience members and community members alike to dialogue with the artist. The problem, is that when such a successful performer does something which rankles many a community member, they need to step down from their pedestal and interact with the artistic community they come from.

When it comes down to it, this is what needs to happen every time we make a choice as a burlesque performer – perhaps it isn’t the comfortable thing to do – but I’ve done it multiple times, and each conversation I’ve had with an artist whose work has made me uncomfortable has usually been a positive dialogue on both sides.

Sure, you might not agree that Dita’s act was racist – but I think it is reasonable to assume that for any individual who does find it offensive, they should be able to interact in a positive dialogue about race – a dialogue which strengthens our community, not one which creates fractiousness within our walls.

Leave a comment

Filed under Burlesque, Feminism