Every morning on my way in to work, Diamond passed judgment on me. She was tall and gorgeous, with long black hair, dark skin, and the best back-of-the-truck Louis Vuitton that Chinatown could fashion. Her breasts she'd also gotten on the cheap — hormones from shady doctors or birth-control pills stolen from female relatives — but she knew how to work all those fakes into a real package.
Most mornings, she'd take one look at my sorry social-work ass — no-brand jeans, scuffed black shoes, second-hand button-down shirt — and utter a devastating two-syllable critique.
"Mmmhmm," she'd say, a sound made at the back of the mouth, up towards the nose, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Not to be confused with the positive "mmmhmm," made at the front of the mouth and an affirmation I rarely received.
Each time, I cringed. I was twenty-three, fresh from college, and had long repressed the cruelty of high-school fashion fascism. Now here it was, thrown right back at me, magnified a hundred times. There were many ways in which the Harvey Milk School, New York's high school for at-risk lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, was a safe haven. But when it came to appearance (especially that of the teachers and staff), it was a war zone with a cafeteria.
But then there were those magic days, few and far between, when I had just the right amount of product in my hair, or wore shoes that complemented my belt and bag. Diamond would look at me in the elevator as we rode in to school together, or pass me in the hallway, and break out in a big smile.
"You look cunt!" she'd say. Or sometimes just the abbreviated, "Cunty!" If I was really on, she'd add a snap of her fingers, or she'd pop her tongue.
I cringed those times, too, but for different reasons. I'd do a quick check to see if anyone else had heard. We had strict rules against cursing in school, and I'd be in trouble if I didn't correct her. But I was just five years older than Diamond, and a white guy from the suburbs — was I really going to reprimand her for complimenting me? Not if I could get away with avoiding it. At most, I'd cock my head and say "Diamond," in a voice I had modeled off the principal on Saved by the Bell.
Among the staff, we called it "the C-bomb." Most of us had no idea how to handle it.
If it had been used as an insult, we'd be on them like the outspoken feminists we were. But a compliment? It was too difficult to parse — like when I meet gay Christians who are pro-choice but voted twice for Bush. I couldn't figure out what was right or wrong.
I had an undergraduate degree in Feminist Studies. I had read (and loved) Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. But my only experiences with hearing the word "cunt" aloud revolved around performance art that invoked the word to shock. I put "cunt," like "faggot," in a category of words that were "problematic" and made me revert to my most academic self, so I could talk around them without ever issuing a judgment on who "could" or "should" use them. I saw it as a good excuse to use words like "reclamation" and "subjectivity." Don't even get me started on the N-word.
When called upon, I discoursed easily on the history of cunt: its contested origin (the Proto-Germanic kunton or the Latin cunnus, both of which refer to female genitalia), its history as a derogatory term (traceable back to a seedy alley in thirteenth-century London named Gropecunt Lane), and its possible relationship to words like "country" and "kin." But I would never, ever, have uttered it myself.
One day, I found Diamond and a few of the other transgirls gathered around a computer looking at a hardcore-porn site. The kind with slogans like "split wet beavers," and other combinations of degrading animal metaphors and synonyms for "lubricious." This was definitely against the rules, and moreover, we could have lost our funding or gotten arrested had the wrong person caught them.
"Oh," said Natasha, one of the younger girls, as I approached to shut down the computer. "They're so beautiful." She reached out a tentative hand to stroke the image of a clinically-bright close-up on a woman's stretched vag. Natasha was crying. It was the kind of picture that would have been disgusting under most circumstances, but the reverence in her voice made it seem a work of art. After that, I let them look up all the vaginas they wanted — but in my office, where they wouldn't get us all in trouble.
Technically, I was employed by the after-school program, but I mostly provided school-related assistance: tutoring, SAT prep, and college advisement. Though a few students wanted academic help, most considered it ridiculous. Schools had given up on them long before they came to us, and in return, my students had given up on school. Especially for our transgender youth, school was virtually synonymous with harassment and violence. They learned to avoid being hurt by not caring if they did poorly. Getting them to attend tutoring was a laughable proposition — and one my job depended on.
That's where Diamond came in. She was a natural leader, one of those people that everyone looked up to, even the staff. If I could get her to tutoring, just once, and have it not be a disaster, there was a slim chance the other transgirls might go. And more than anything, I wanted the transgirls to go. They were the ones most routinely and brutally screwed by the system. Diamond was expelled from her old school for being disruptive, because the other students threw bottles at her in class. If most of our kids had it bad — and they did — the transgirls had it the worst. They were the hardest to reach and needed the most help, and I refused to be another person to give up on them.
It took months of pleading to get Diamond to consider tutoring. In the end, she went only because of my secret weapon — Keshawn. Most of the volunteer tutors were white undergrads from Columbia and NYU. Nerds, like me. Well meaning, but not particularly equipped to relate to or impress my kids. Many of them were nervous around my young, loud, brown students. Keshawn — well, everyone referred to him as "the hot tutor." He was a grad student at Columbia, but he was nobody's nerd. He was a beautiful multiracial guy with long dreads and a dancer's body. In my mind, I'd nicknamed him "bait."
Diamond took one look at Keshawn and signed up for tutoring on the spot. I had to remind her to get her math homework so they would have something to do. She gave me a look that told me to get the hell away from her man — but she got her books.
Tutoring sessions lasted an hour. I spent the next thirty minutes waiting for something to go wrong. When I heard pounding on my office door and looked through the tiny window to see Diamond's upswept hair staring back at me, I almost sighed with relief. It was over, I had failed.
I opened the door with a leaden heart. Diamond was waiting on the other side, one hand on her hip, a scowl on her face. My office was right outside the main room of the after-school program. There were at least seventy kids there, waiting to hear Diamond read me good. No one would ever go to tutoring again.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she said angrily.
I stood there mute, unsure of what I had held back from her. I was sure I'd mentioned that tutoring involved homework.
"Tutoring is cunt, Ms. Thing. My homework is done!" She held out a page filled with equations and something clicked in my mind.
Tutoring is cunt. It was like "Reading Is Fundamental" for a whole new generation. I wanted to shout it from the rooftop — except I was still at work, and I'd be in serious trouble if I did. In fact, I was supposed to do the opposite. But faced with a choice between correcting Diamond in front of everyone and welcoming her new found academic excitement, I did the obvious.
"Mmmhmm," I replied. (The good kind.) "Tutoring is indeed cunt."
I paused, waiting for some sort of outburst, a look of shock on Diamond's face, the wailing sirens of the second-wave feminism police; something. But nothing happened. I dropped the C-bomb and the world didn't end. It hadn't felt weird, and no one else noticed. I'd given the word so much power and hadn't been able to separate it from its derogatory usage. But I hadn't realized that my students didn't use it for shock value. Well, okay, maybe they did a little. But mostly, to them, it just meant something good. Cunt was the highest compliment they had to bestow, not in a righteous act of reclamation, but through a simple equation: cunts were good, therefore good things were cunty.
And Diamond was right — tutoring was cunt, and it was time my students realized it.
After that, I still tried to avoid saying it in front of the students, but inside the office it was cunt-a-palooza.
"Does this binder make my quarterly report look cunt?" I'd ask my office-mate Julissa.
"Hell yeah," she'd reply. "Are my shoes cunty enough? I've got a date tonight." Then we'd high-five and practice popping our tongues like the students.
On a family trip, I even taught my mother to say it. When we gathered for a final photo, she pronounced sweetly "Everybody say cunt!"
Of course, words have contexts, and cunt isn't something I'm likely to shout on the street anytime soon. I wish I could. I wish I lived in a world where cunt only meant beautiful. But at least I get to visit that world occasionally.
And damn is it cunty.
©2009 Hugh Ryan and Nerve.com