Apr 18, 2012

The Community That Grinds Together, Stands Together: Notes on Zumba and Grindr as Organizing Tools in a U.S. Military Town

While consuming four varieties of Girlscout cookies, Ry and Addy roundtable about the use of cruising apps and aerobics classes as strategies for overcoming army-town alienation. Both are queers from the Bay Area organizing around GI resistance and servicemember rights in a U.S. base town where Ry is stationed as an active duty soldier.

A: I feel like Zumba is one of the only places I go engage with norm-times women, and I feel sort of undercover. I’m pretty pumped about it, you know? And I had this fantasy that if I spent a long time in [this town] it would be a way I could have lots of conversations with army spouses.

And I was really excited that some ladies from Zumba came [to the outreach center], ‘cause, its like, what’s the ask of people [in our movements]? What are we offering in terms of community and community building? Does it speak to the things we actually come together for in an alienated world?

R: That’s one of the activities that people pursue when they have time and are looking for community. But you tell me, do people just show up and do their thing, or are they there to, you know, meet people?

A: Well, when I took my dad [to Zumba], I realized there was this whole community around there it I wasn’t accessing ‘cause I was showing up being too disciplined about it. Obviously, I want to be doing it with other people or I would be doing it in my living room, but I really get in a zone about it. When I took my dad, I was a little jealous because he’s not that good but everyone wanted to talk to him and hang out with him. I realized I should be talking to people more. When I came to Zumba [in this base town], it was like: ‘Oh, let’s explain why we are here.’

As a space, I feel like people are coming together ‘cause they wanna use their bodies--together in community, which I feel is inherently a space that makes us want more from the world and is about political possibility.

R: Oh sweetheart, you may be analyzing this too much.

A: But look at all the 80’s fight-the-man fight-the-power dance movies.

R: Yeah, okay. I see a relationship.

A: So the connection I see between Zumba and Grindr...

R: Yeah, oh god, okay...

A: Its a way people actually come to be together in an alienated world, to figure out how to be bodies in the world together. We don’t really get that in the privacy of our own homes, and I think that is partly what our politics need to respond to. What we want from one another: to be bodies in the world together and then bodies that also stand up for each other, maybe.

R: Yeah, I mean, Grindr was created because it was supposed to be more of a social network, like a Facebook for gays. An app. It was the first of its kind. And I guess need dictated utility. It just became something else. I don’t know, because of the nature of gay men looking to find each other with GPS (laughs). But other forms of Grindr have grown from that, like Jacked and Scruff. Half a dozen that are pretty popular. It’s funny, I didn’t even realize ‘cause I thought they were all, like, equally slutty, but I was dating a boy for a while, and he was all: ‘What the fuck are you doing on Grindr?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s a habit. I wanna talk to people.’ And he was like, ‘Thats what Jacked is for, not Grindr.’ And you can really tell the difference.

So I see it being a thing for people who are struggling with identity and how to connect with people in the world. There’s a feeling of connection because there is someone behind [the app]. There is that relationship, a sense of belonging. I have a feeling that people use Grindr that way too. They use it in a number of ways.

I talk to guys in my [army] unit who are like, ‘I don’t know how you have so many people to hang out with.’ I mean, every weekend, before we deployed, I’d be hanging out with AA people or the gays. This was even before I knew the [regional gay group] existed. But when I was on guard duty, I realized that was the biggest thing these guys envied. They were like, ‘How do you do that?’

A: Do you think that’s the root of some homophobia, straight people are jealous that gay people have so many friends?

R: Possibly. It’s like the party is in the other room. Something is going on and they aren’t invited. I have the benefit of not having to conform to anybody’s perspective. If I wanna fucking wear a dress and walk down the street, I’ll feel fine. I can do whatever the fuck I want, but they are subjected to the standards of their gender roles. And that’s confining and I’m sure it can be frustrating at times. Its like, homeboy wants to get a pedicure--they wanna do that too! Or get a manicure, and they feel like they can’t do that! Towards the end of Iraq, they started coming to me and being like, ‘When we get back to the states...’ And that’s all you talk about the last three months, anyway. We decided we were going to go to a spa together.

A: I’m just thinking about [this town]. Its really hard to meet people here. There are really low home prices. There are these big houses. There’s this total premium on private life, plus people being confined to what kinds of relationships are appropriate and mature to have, where you are allowed to get your needs met, like you were talking about. There really aren’t spaces designed around people meeting each other, building friendships, being in public together. With these cruising apps, do you see that people are at home or do you encounter them and cruise in public?

R: More the prior. You cruise online when you are out and about. Almost never are you already on the road and you meet someone and hook up. Maybe at a club or a bar. But not in [this town].

A: Do you think there would be more public cruising spots if not for these apps?

R: Oh yeah, there used to be more truck stops and back trails and bushes and I think that’s a part of the GLBT community that’s tragically being forgotten. I’m not sexually attracted to that, but there’s something to be said about meeting someone in person and deciding to have sex with them versus doing this whole cruising online process. I’ve walked these soldiers through the same thing. I taught all these soldiers how to cruise online.

A: You did a tutorial?

R: I was like: ‘Hey, you have to get some pics going.’ It was pretty interesting. But it is an isolation thing. Especially with the internalized and the general homophobia around here. A lot of people will stay home and lay in bed and cruise Grindr and just go through different apps and different people, and then choose to meet up in the privacy of darkness and someone’s home.

A: How did you decide what to put on your Grindr profile?

R: So, Grindr only lets you put your basic stats. You know, height, weight, age, and then what you are looking for: dating, relationship, one on one sex, group sex. And then it has room for a bio, that is like, a twitter-size paragraph. I put on mine “community organizing, GI resistance, activism, and SEX.” That’s what it says: GI resistance comma space, community organizing comma space, activism comma space, and I’m always down to fuck. Or something like that. It’s like very clear, you know?

So why did I do that? I guess just to have a presence. To say, ‘This shit exists here.’ Its an exposure in case anyone gets interested or wants to get involved or has a spark--that would fuel it. Its also a filter process. Who am I going to be seeing? Just like the TV. Have I told you why I put that there?

(The only television in Ry’s apartment is a broken vintage model with a quote from Orwell’s 1984 that says something like, “bend lower, that’s right, comrade” painted in white across the screen).

A: To see if someone recognizes that 1984 quote.

R: Then they are more than just a fuck. Or its, like, an emotional fuck, more than just getting off.

A: That’s a really interesting bar.

R: A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t get it.’ And then I’m like, ‘1984.’ And they are like, ‘What’s that?’

A: So that’s how you weed out people who make jokes in their ‘books’ section on Grindr? So, have you ever gotten cruised for politics?

R: Yes, well, on [gay military list]. Today, I posted “if anyone wants to get involved...” I asked if anyone was interested in working to better servicemembers lives. LGBT BAH [basic allowance for housing], so I kind of described some of the things that would relate to [that group]. So I had two people contact me through email about this, and if you’ll notice, this person [offered a place to crash]. (laughs) At the same time, somebody else said let me come up there, and that all his friends live in the dorms. So he was suggesting, ‘I kind of need a place to stay.’ And I was like, ‘yeah sure.’ And those are two people who even if they didn’t pass the TV test, they would probably have the intellectual curiosity to figure out what its about.

A: Yeah, its interesting how on this kind of social media, you have exchanges organized more around shared interests and politics. Sex would be secondary. And at the same time, on Grindr you are repping this other [political] stuff. But there, sex would come first and maybe somebody would recognize the 1984 quote when they came in.

The first time I met you a few months ago, we talked about how its possible to feel agency in those moments, in [casual sex]. How sex can be a space of freedom, where we get to use our bodies differently or cast off ideas of how they are supposed to be used and what they are supposed to be used for. And then, thinking on that after talking to you recently about the importance of tattoos or piercings when you can’t switch up hair or wardrobe because of [army regs].

It’s cool to think about how you can rep on your Grindr profile the idea that coming together to fuck would be a a political moment and that politics belong there. Broaden the idea of what conversations belong there. I feel like those spots are few and far between. The parts where we actually do what we want to do with one another.

R: I really do think there is something magical about Grindr. I-- (both laugh). But there really is. And I’m addicted to it. I’m not addicted to, like, the application or the sex, but these interactions with people. And getting this context. Being raised west coast and being out here now. So there are things that are amazing about it. Not everyone on Grindr is in the military, which means there are locals. Or if they are in the military, it probably means they came from somewhere else. So we have this total cross section of people from all over the country, especially people of color and people from poverty--who enlist more.

Living in the bubble of the west coast, Portland and San Francisco, then being exposed out here, I just love to go in somebody’s house. I like to go in and look at someone’s library and maybe I might completely judge the shit out of them, but try to get a more clear sense of that person, how do they, like, organize their shoes? Where do they get their artwork? Is this all IKEA shit, or what? In a shallow capacity, but also on a deeper level.

I love to pick people’s brains. I’m serious! I wish the experiences I’ve had, walking into a stranger’s house and getting to know them on some level, I wish I could share that with the world in some way. ‘Cause I have the liberty of asking almost any question and they’d answer it, pretty honestly. I think its just like the nature of where we met, the assumption that we are going to have sex is already made. You’ve already gotten pretty far, so there’s no need to impress somebody. The walls that people build up around themselves on a regular basis, to protect themselves and whatnot are just different in that situation. The situation where you are like, ‘We are here to have anonymous sex.’

And I get to see a part of people’s lives. I get to see through those walls for just a moment, and that is what I am addicted to, getting to see a glimpse of somebody’s heart, a glimpse of whatever essence. Just, try to analyze that a little bit. And I get to do that with people from all over the country. Its an opportunity I never would have had if I had stayed out there, on the west coast, without getting some exposure to what this country is.

A: Do you feel like Grindr, and just pickup culture in a place like SF is more uniform? Who you are gonna come across and who you are going to find, versus who all is having gay sex in a military town?

R: Well, its very clear if you are cruising on Grindr in a big city like that, you are just cruising for sex. Sex, yes, no? But in a place like this, there develops a small town atmosphere. Even if its just extremely shallow, just getting off, there is that thing. Like, ‘Maybe this could be something.’ Because you know homeboy is probably not going anywhere for awhile, And you are probably not going anywhere for awhile. There is that transient atmosphere. In and out of the military. In and out of post. Then deployments and moving to different installations. But there is a little more invested into it than in big cities.

A: Like a hope of camraderie?

R: Yeah, exactly. Like, you have a little more interest in somebody.

Should we talk about how to utilize that for a [political] outreach tool?

A: I mean, you already have used it for an outreach tool, it seems.

R: Yeah (laughs), I know.

A: It seems like a lot of the successful political outreach here is secondary outreach [not the formal outreach]. To some extent, a lot of that is happening through these gay social networks and apps, which is important to notice. It makes sense. Who are the people who are not only marginalized in the military, but are also into hanging out with one another outside of that space? Like you described, people in your unit who wanted that, but there wasn’t a model. There’s not a model for how to find and form and maintain meaningful relationships outside of certain structures.

R: But that’s Zumba, right? That is the formula I tell these kids [in my unit]. I’d be like, ‘Well, what are you interested in?’ And a lot of times, they’d be like, ‘I don’t know.’ Which is depressing. But I would challenge them to find out whatever they were interested in...and find a community around it. Do you like guns? Do you like shooting? Do you like, fucking, rock climbing? Go find it. Even these kids [I just got done eating pancakes with at IHOP] tonight. They were talking about all this anime stuff that was way over my head. Then they started talking about Magic the Gathering. I was like, ‘Hell yeah, that’s my shit.’ That’s what I’m talking about, right?

A: But how do you take it a step further? Maybe we should have a Zumba-thon fundraiser for our work.

R: You are so into it. I can’t judge. I’ve never done it.

A: Well, its weird. Its this culturally appropriative dance aerobics form that you would think is, like, ‘oh great, we are incorporating every dance on the planet and turning it into this patented way to make ladies skinny.’ But what I realize when I go, is that its pretty different than the rest of the gym or even group aerobics classes. There’s so much camraderie. Its mostly women of color in the classes, in California and [here]. I do feel, and I don’t mean to be a fundamentalist, but there is something to having spaces that are about being free to move it in different ways, experimenting, and doing that in a non-judgmental atmosphere. I hear people talk about weight and fitness way less in Zumba than any other fitness thing I’ve done. It feels like its more about going and being in presence, in body with others, and I feel like that is a special thing for a bunch of women to come together on that basis. It’s of benefit to most sentient beings, but also, just, sisterhood is powerful. (laughs)

R: Do you think a lot of those parallels are there with yoga? Because that [has worked for the outreach here].

A: Yeah, that makes sense. All sports have their own culture to them. What is the idea of what we are trying to achieve? With Zumba, the vibe of what people are trying to achieve is not just ease and presence but fun and joy and play. People are nice to each other. Here, Everyone rolls their strollers in and there are eight year old and four year old girls doing Zumba on the sidelines.

Also, I have my own feelings around, like, never having become a dance protege. Not that I could be, but why didn’t I take more dance classes as a younger person before I busted myself up? It’s expensive and hard to break into as an older person, but you can just go to Zumba all the time. It might be mediocre, but we can be mediocre together.

R: You sold me, I’m sold.

A: And it did work for outreach. If [this town] has hipsters, its those ladies. Well, not the young hipsters. You were hanging out with them tonight [at IHOP]: the army brat, magic card-playing bey-bey queers. The Zumba ladies are women of color in their early 30‘s to late 50‘s. Excited about poetry slams and writing and are, like, all up in the library happenings here. The instructor really seems to be the nexus of this lady social scene.

R: Alright.

A: We’ve really done some social mapping of this town.

R: Well, its, like, marginalized communities, those groups: gays, people of color, immigrants, typically come together more. People unify with one another under oppression. So, how can we help that process and also make it more about ending that oppression, rather than dealing with symptoms?

A: That’s why I was excited those kids [the IHOP queer youth] showed the other night and I hope they come to poetry. I was like, you all are working it out in the world. I want you to have space to do that and I want there to be spaces that connect that process of looking for community to politics.

But also, alliance between communities. When we started talking to [the Zumba ladies] about our work, the thing they brought up was concern for LGBT soldiers. Well, first of all, they thought I was an army wife. I was told later. Talk about my self-image-concept being off--and this is to say nothing bad about army wives--just that I have, like, knuckle tattoos, you know? But even in talking to me and thinking that, it got brought up multiple times that they were invested in the existence of queer people. Zumba ladies.

R: I think that’s rare. You may have found an anomaly.

A: It’s possible, That’s what I’m saying. Its all coming together at the off-post Zumba class. I also went to a free yoga class there, and it was kind of amazing because the teacher was post-army and had this super-official, dead-pan way of saying things like, ‘I’m sending rays of light and love to you right now.’ There were, like, moms and adult daughters doing yoga on sleeping bags while disaffected teen daughters texted in the back. Just zany lady times with endless partner poses and giggling. At one point, we did this move where we all held each other’s legs in a line and the teen got called from the back of the room to hold the leg of the lady at the end of the line. So she was there, holding her leg and texting. And that’s what it was: like, we are all in this together and it is weird.

(We transition to updating the online member profiles of left organizations we belong to be more explicitly queer, while eating so many Thin Mints and Trefoils).