michael j. morris

We Were When They Started, and We Were After They Had Gone

This morning, Westboro Baptist Church picketed on the campus of the Ohio State University. I have chosen not to offer any hyperlinks to WBC’s sites, or to offer any photos of their protests or transcriptions of their rhetoric; I have chosen to not reproduce or proliferate what I categorize as hate speech/rhetoric. I think it is enough for the purposes of this post to summarize that WBC considers homosexuality to be “soul-damning” and asserts that the “sanction” of homosexuality in the United States (and around the world) has exposed our country to wrath of god. The Ohio State University is apparently also complicit in this “sanction,” making it a target for these radical protests.

Last week, a colleague of mine named Owen David told me that WBC would be on our campus again. He suggested that we stage some sort of performance response to their presence at OSU. I agreed; while I rarely engage overtly in public protests, it felt important to me to oppose the presence and sanction of these voices in the place I call home. Over the past week, the idea for the performance evolved and developed, settling into its final form this morning. We decided to engage in a walking meditation on intersecting pathways, converging nearby where WBC would be protesting. WBC was set up on the corner of High Street and 12th Avenue. Owen started approximately 100 feet west of the intersection on 12th, and I started approximately 100 feet south on High. Our plan was to take twenty-five minutes to walk from our starting positions to our convergence point only a few feet from where WBC were positioned, hopefully finishing our walks around the time that the protest dissipated. Instead, our walks took over an hour. We started when they started, and long after they had gone, we were still progressing. This transformed the situation of the performance, and in doing so provided me with unforeseen significance for what it was we were doing.
This performance/performative protest was intended as a quiet assertion of the visibility and mobility of bodies that would be prohibited under the politics of WBC. It was important that we were not responding in the same social registers as those deployed by WBC (signs, loud music, etc.). Our response was articulated through silence, sustained mobility, concentration, and contemplation. By the end of our walks, several other themes had emerged for me: endurance was significant, not only in the sense of the bodily endurance necessary to take over an hour to walk close to 100 feet, but also in the sense that our presence/action endured/persisted far beyond the presence/action of those to whom we were responding. I was also deeply aware of how my understanding of visibility had shifted by the end of the performance.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the overall context in which we enacted this performance/practice. WBC protesters were not the only bodies present on the corner of 12th and High. In fact, the crowd of counter-protesters dramatically outnumbered the small but vocal WBC crowd. There was also a large police presence on the scene, some officers spread around the periphery of what felt like a rally, but most establishing a line of protection around the protesters from WBC. The crowd that had gathered in opposition was exemplary of the productive force of power, and the unforeseeable/uncontrollable effects of political action. The hate rhetoric of WBC became a foundation for unlikely alliances: those who showed up to oppose the homophobic rhetoric occupied space alongside thus who showed up out of a sense of school spirit, opposing the anti-OSU rhetoric deployed by WBC, as well as those who showed up out of a sense of national patriotism, to defend the country and the military against the attacks issued by WBC. This church opposes the nation and the university, claiming that both institutions enable homosexuality, and that this enabling marks this nation for destruction. However, these attacks produced unlikely results, namely, provoking a response that allied bodies/individuals alongside homosexuals who might not otherwise occupy such a position. Witnessing this was a great reward.

When we started, I immediately felt as if I had conjured myself as invisible. My quiet, slow progression down the sidewalk seemed to vanish alongside the noise and commotion of the protesters on the corner. This was a difficult place to begin: I had come to this place this morning to assert my visibility, my mobility, and at the start it seemed as if my action had effectively erased my presence from the situation. However, the longer I walked, the more those who passed by me in either direction took notice of my presence. Several people spoke to me. One person asked my permission to photograph my walk for his photography course. Others simply stared or observed from a distance or became aware of me as an unexpected obstacle in their path. In this sense, what I had conceived of as an assertion of visibility became something more akin to a journey from invisibility into the very visibility I had intended to assert.

However, this experience of visibility became most important—and significantly reoriented—towards the end of the walk. The crowd had dissipated. WBC had left the corner, and it was once again a seemingly neutral thoroughfare. That was when I became aware of my awareness of Owen. He had been at the periphery of my vision throughout the walk, and although he was far off and through the crowd, I recognized him. As we approached one another in the last few minutes of our walk, I realized that this sustained recognition may have in fact been the vital practice of this performance. I kept thinking of this passage from a lecture by Judith Butler:
“So what I accept is the following: Freedom does not come from me or from you; it can and does happen as a relation between us or, indeed, among us. So this is not a matter of finding the human dignity within each person, but rather of understanding the human as a relational and social being, one whose action depends upon equality and articulates the principle of equality … No human can be human alone. And no human can be human without acting in concert with others and on conditions of equality … The claim of equality is not only spoken or written, but is made precisely when bodies appear together or, rather, when, through their action, they bring the space of appearance into being.”
I had shown up to assert my visibility; what I came to realize over the hour of our walk was that it was actually through this performance/practice that I truly “showed up,” came to appear, came to be visible, to recognize and be recognized. It was through our performance together that we conferred visibility and recognition on one another, and it was in part through the walk itself that we created the conditions for that mutual recognition. As we got closer, I noticed that our steps fell into unison. Neither was fully leading or following; rather, we were moving together. We acted “in concert” with one another, and in doing so, established our own experience and possibility for recognition. Afterwards, Owen commented that as we approached one another, he actually smelled by scent before he saw me directly. As we met, we turned towards one another, made eye contact, and then embraced. Seeing and touch became further iterations of recognizing and being recognized. It seems now that the true significance of this performance lies in this conference of recognition, specifically in the presence and aftermath of those who would erase our existences.

It seems important to me after the fact that so much of this mutual recognition was practiced at the periphery of our vision. We did not look at one another directly until we converged at the finish. This seems to me a very queer experience indeed, to not only see someone, but to recognize him, not straight-on, but obliquely, from the side, at the edge. This indirectness that might be read as a form of queerness seems to also have been implicit in our spatial pathways. We didn’t come from opposing points (a rigid binary), but neither did we presume to come from the same place (alongside one another). These variable experiences of seeing, recognizing, and approaching seem essential (if I may hazard that word choice) to what it means to move through the world queerly, and it seems important that these elements made up the primary materials of this performance.

It also seems important to recognize the inherent connection between recognition and desire, between desire and discourses of sexuality, between recognition/visibility and the political projects of civil rights, specifically those that mobilize around issues of sex, sexuality, and gender identity. I’m afraid I don’t have the time or space to fully address those connections, but my hope is that by suggesting them, I might also suggest possible extensions for today’s performance/practice.

I do not know if we were recognized as other-than-heterosexual, as queers or homosexuals moving, but what I do know is that we presented ourselves as moving through the world differently, as moving out of step with those around us. The very thing that differentiated us from those moving around us—being out of step, our slow and sustained progress, etc.—was also what established our commonality, our visibility to one another, visibility that eventually led to a synchronization of our steps.
How significant that what makes us recognized as different is not necessarily something that we are, but rather a way that we do, and that this doing is simultaneously what set us apart and brought us together . . .

1 Comment so far
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i love you.
…..your missing-in-protest-friend

Comment by cocoloupedance

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