Monday, December 31, 2007
Building Bridges Over National, Sexual Borders
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Daniel Watman believes in building bridges, not walls. It’s a hackneyed saying, as he’ll readily admit, but it’s what this young Queer activist is doing both culturally and sexually. As the founder of the Border Meetup group, he organizes regular events that bring together people from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and — at a time when undocumented immigrants are widely scapegoated as the source of virtually all America’s social ills — dramatize the fundamental absurdity of the whole concept of national borders.
Watman started the Border Meetups out of a desire to bring people from different cultures together and give them the opportunity to become friends. He joined the long-established Bisexual Forum for more personal reasons — he wanted to explore his own sexuality and learn how to live with attractions to both women and men — but as one of its current coordinators, Watman has become a bridge-builder in that arena too, challenging the notion that people are inflexibly “straight” or “Gay” and helping others like him find their place in between those identities.
In addition to these forms of activism, Watman is also a committed progressive who regularly joins demonstrations against the Iraq war and has helped organize the weekly Friday afternoon vigils (3:30 p.m. at 6th and University in Hillcrest) calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. For more information on his organizations, contact Border Meetup at www.bordermeetup.org or the Bisexual Forum at http://bisandiego.org/
Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little bit of your background, and how you got involved in both the Border Meetup and the Bisexual Forum?
Daniel Watman: Let me start with the Border Meetup, I guess. I’m a Spanish teacher, and the thing I really like about learning and teaching languages is the ability to reach across cultural barriers. It gives me the opportunity to get to know people on a more intimate level than if I don’t know their language. At first I just liked Spanish and just wanted to learn it, but I recognized that that it gives me the chance to see a different perspective on life. I really saw that as almost a root solution to a lot of problems in the world today: misunderstandings between people of different cultures and subcultures. I’ve been teaching Spanish for the past 12 years, and every semester, no matter what school I was with, San Diego State or Mesa College or wherever, I would take my students to Tijuana to give them the chance to get to know somebody from a Spanish-speaking culture.
Zenger’s: Essentially, “Here you are. Try it out on native speakers.”
Watman: To me, the crux of learning a new language is getting to know somebody from a different culture. Having Tijuana 15 minutes away by car is a huge advantage for someone who’s a Spanish teacher, and has that point of view that language is a way of breaking down those cultural barriers.
Unfortunately, the paperwork for taking students to Tijuana at a community college or at the university is horrendous. You have to fill it out and then bring it to a committee, and a year later you may be able to go on a trip. So normally I didn’t even ask or do any paperwork. I just said, “O.K., class. We’re going to Tijuana next week,” and we’d go to Tijuana and hang out with my friends there.
One time I decided to ask to see if it would be O.K., and that’s when I found out it would be a year’s process! I was kind of fearful for my job if I just took my students to Tijuana after I’d started the official process.. I was living in Tijuana at the time. It was just before I moved to San Ysidro, and I knew about Border Field State Park and the Playas, the beach in Tijuana, where you can literally talk to people through the fence.
So I told all my friends in Tijuana that I was going to bring my class to the border fence, because in general to do a field trip through Mesa College, there wasn’t too much paperwork involved. It was just bringing them to another country that took all the paperwork. I took them to the border, and my friends in Tijuana met them through the border.
It was an awesome experience, even better than I thought it would be. A lot of people made friends through the fence, and later got together, exchanged information had more of a motive to learn the language and learn the culture, because now they had friends that were living in the opposite culture. SoI decided, “Wow, what a cool thing, to bring people together through the border fence.” I started to think of different themes to bring people to the fence. We’ve had birthday parties and beach cleanups, and we planted a bi-national garden on International Water Day. We got high schools on both sides, and from there it’s grown.
I’m hooked up with philanthropic, environmental and humanitarian organizations on both sides. We often do an event so people with the same cause or interest meet through the fence. I’m happy about it, because I’m getting my agenda across, which is for people to get to know each other through the fence, and they’re getting people together from both sides who are interested in their cause.
Zenger’s: I noticed on your Web site you listed a number of the previous events, including two salsa dancing lessons, the beach cleanup, the border fence tour, the binational garden ceremony and the beach cleanup.
Watman: We did a yoga class this year, too. It was cool.
The border fence tour was an unorthodox thing. What I was hoping would happen — which often happens when we walk along the fence— is you can see people hanging out on the Mexican side, waiting for a chance to cross, and talk to them through the fence.. It didn’t happen that day, but at least it dispelled a lot of people’s fears about the border. People think there’s like a war going on there or something, and there’s really not much going on.
Also, a lot of people don’t realize the monstrosity of the triple fence they’re building across the border.. Doing our fence tour, when you see it in person, it hits home a little more. Where we normally do our Border Meetup events you can’t see that, but since we did a tour of the whole fence, they got to see it in that case.
Zenger’s: It’s my understanding the so-called “triple fence” is actually three fences with the width of a football field between each one, so the Border Patrol’s vehicles can do U-turns and maneuver in between the fences to try to catch undocumented immigrants.
Watman: From what I understand — and I go out there all the time as an activist, not as part of my Border Meetup activity — I check out what they’re doing, and I put up videos of what they’re doing on YouTube. I’ve talked to Border Patrol agents, and I’ve talked to the National Guard, who are doing all the constructing there. I can’t usually get much out of the National Guard, but I can get more out of the Border Patrol.
The plan that I’ve heard, that’s been pretty consistent, is pretty similar to what you said. As it is now, there’s already a second barrier that stops about four miles before the beach, and the reason it stops is there’s an ecological reserve there that was protected for 30 years by California state environmental laws. But since DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] has come into play, they’ve passed a law that allows them to override any state law to extend that second barrier.
And, like you said, in between the second barrier and the first barrier there’s going to be a big, wide road. I’ve heard it’s going to be 150 feet, so not quite a football field, but a wide road for the reason you were saying, so the vehicles can drive back and forth and do U-turns, and “get” people easier, “get” migrants easier. They’ve already built the road out a mile. They uprooted all the vegetation, all the native plants that were in the way there, as well as interrupted some archaeological sites to build this nice, flat road.
The plan that I’ve heard is for that150-foot wide road to go all the way to the park. I’ve heard two different plans: one where it goes all the way to the park, and one where it goes through the park to the beach. I don’t know which one is the real plan, but whichever one it is, it won’t happen for a couple of years. Then they’re going to extend the second barrier, which is this monstrous 14-foot-high thing — actually 17 feet, including the barbed-wire top — they’re going to extend that all the way to wherever they extend the road to, which is probably at or close to the beach. Then, like you said, they’re going to put another wide road beside that, and another fence beside that.
I think it’s crazy. The direction of enforcement, instead of reaching out to make friends, is definitely wrong for me. I think the best protection you can get is a friend, so if we want to be protected, we need to reach across barriers and build bridges. I know it sounds like a cliché, but build bridges, not walls. “Make friends, not fences,” I’d say.
Zenger’s: One thing that especially moved me when I looked at your Web site was the photos you had of people literally reaching their hands through the fence, and people shaking their hands, wanting to touch other people, through the fence. Was that one of the things you were expecting?
Watman: Not exactly that, no. But I had seen that already before I started doing this. I’d discovered Border Field State Park and the Playas area before I started doing the Border Meetup, and it’s quite common for families who have been broken up to meet at that area, because it’s a place where you can see and talk to your family. So I had seen people hug and kiss through the fence. I guess maybe I did expect it. But I’ve been doing it for four years now, and there have been so many events I don’t remember if I expected it the first tine, you know?
Zenger’s: What would be your message to the people who are really scared of the so-called “illegal” immigration: the people who say, “They’re taking our jobs, they’re destroying our culture, they’re threatening the United States, this is an invasion,” blah, blah, blah? What would your message be to people who feel that way about it?
Watman: I’ve talked to people who have that viewpoint, and I guess what I would want to do is talk to them and do the same thing that I want people to do across the border fence: break down the barriers. It’s created a kind of culture, the Minutemen culture and the anti-immigrant rights people versus the immigrant activists.
I also see there’s only so much to go around, and the population gets too big it’s going to cause a problem. I think that’s their viewpoint as well, and so I would try to maybe start with that common ground, I guess. I think I would do what I always do, which is invite them to get to know an immigrant as a person, and do it with an open mind, so that then —which is what often happens at the Border Meetups —all those ideas, all those fears, all those racist attitudes, just drop away and they see the person as a person, as valuable a person as someone who’s here legally.
I would also hope we could work together to try to make a more livable situation for everybody. I’ve had the idea of fighting for better working conditions and salaries at the factories in Tijuana, the maquiladoras, and I really feel that if that were to happen, then people wouldn’t have as much reason to come here. They would have a job where they could be able to feed themselves and their families without having to go through a treacherous, militarized border and risk their lives. That’s something that a Minuteman-type person might even want to do with me: to try to make conditions better for people who are working in the factories, because they might see the result that they want, which is that less people would come here.
Zenger’s: Actually, on that one my immediate reaction is I think you’re already too late. The maquiladora sector is already in decline, and achieving that goal would only hasten that decline as the companies that own the maquiladoras or buy from them would say, “O.K. Mexico has now burned itself out as a source of cheap labor. We’re going to China.”
Watman: Yes, but if you had some type of regulation where it was required for people who worked in the factories in Mexico to be given a living wage, that would give me hope that it could be accomplished in other places, too. It would be a tall order to start with, because I feel that the government and the corporations have kind of become one. But if that were accomplished, it would help.
Zenger’s: One of the arguments you hear from the Left is that what’s driving the waves of immigration is not — as the Right would have it — that an amnesty bill was passed in 1986, and that’s why you had 3 million undocumented then and 12 million now. The usual explanation from the Left is NAFTA. [the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1992, which took effect in 1994] By opening the Mexican economy to American corporations, has NAFTA been driving some of the immigration?
Watman: Yes, yes. I feel like I need to research it more, but from what I know, my impression is that NAFTA was huge in creating an influx of poor working-class people into the United States from Mexico, and from Central America too. It coincides with Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Mexican president who stole from the national treasury and caused an economic crisis there. I think it was just the whole corporate power, and the Mexican and the United States governments in cahoots, to benefit from that corporate power, created NAFTA.
I think that the corporations and the governments knew what was going to happen when NAFTA took effect. They knew that it was going to cause people to have to come here, and so they built the fence and started Operation Gatekeeper that same year, 1994. The same thing is going on now with the whole enforcement mentality. It’s just a political ploy to get the people to think they’re being protected.
Zenger’s: You’ve got people saying, “Just by their very presence on our soil they are ‘illegal.’ They are breaking our laws. What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” How would a nice progressive activist like you defend their presence on American soil when they are breaking our law by being here?
Watman: My opinion is that people are people, and everyone has the same human rights, independent of where they are geographically. So the fact that they’re “illegal” doesn’t matter to me.
Also, politically speaking, I believe the reason they’re “illegal” is so they can be exploited. I think the U.S. government and corporations need this for their profits. They need a working class they can exploit. If the migrants were legally here, they might have to pay them higher wages and things like that. I sometimes wonder if they developed the whole “illegal” system in order to do that, or if it just kind of happened but now it’s convenient. But I think that corporations definitely want there to be “illegals” here, and the government’s in there with the corporations.
Zenger’s: I also wanted to ask you about your involvement in the Bisexual Forum. It did occur to me, looking over the material from the Border Meetup, that there’s an interesting similarity between the missions of the two groups. Both are about breaking down barriers — barriers of culture in one case, barriers of sexuality in one case — trying to get people in different communities to see themselves as kind of network of humanity, kind of a continuum. Is that a parallel that you’re conscious of when you’re working on both causes?
Watman: I’ve become conscious of it a little bit, but it wasn’t why I went into the Bisexual Forum at all. I feel like I’ve dedicated myself as a person to bringing people together across cultural boundaries, but the reason I joined the Bi Forum was because I was struggling on a personal level with my sexuality. I was looking for a safe place to get that out and to find myself, and the Bi Forum provided it.
Zenger’s: How do you see the mission of an organization like that? Are you seeking recognition for bisexuality as another orientation, or are you trying to get people to see beyond the categories of “straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian,” what have you?
Watman: That’s a really good question. I don’t feel like I’m really trying to do either one. I’m trying to notice how sexuality in society is being viewed, how it’s being accepted, how people who are Bisexual are feeling, and how they’d like to be seen. It’s tough because it varies so much. There are a lot of people who really need a place where they can say, “I’m Bisexual, and I’m proud.” Often that comes just from being worried that people aren’t going to accept them.
There are a lot of other people who are just fine with being Bisexual or Gay or straight or whatever they are, and they don’t see any need to become part of a group or a club. I don’t know if this will ever happen, but the ideal is that people wouldn’t care: they’d just accept you for who you are, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being Gay or straight or Bisexual. Even though it’s looked at by a lot of people in society that liking the same sex, or loving the same sex, or having sex with the same sex, that there’s something wrong with it, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. And I would like it if, some day, no one did. Then everyone, whether they like the same sex or the opposite sex, would just be accepted.
I do see a parallel between that and the immigrant rights movement. I see it all the time. Immigrants are being oppressed, and there’s a lot of racism going on, and a good way to stop that or to defend yourselves is to group together and say, “We’re immigrants and we’re proud.” Ideally, that oppression wouldn’t be there and they wouldn’t have to group together so much. They could get to know somebody and find out if they have common interests, if they like each other, regardless of where they’re from or whether they’re an immigrant or not.
But it’s a struggle. I see the need to group together and defend yourself, and then again I see the ideal where that need wouldn’t be there. I’m O.K. with people — Bisexuals, homosexuals, immigrants, whoever — who are feeling that they’ve been oppressed, doing essentially what I did with my bisexuality, finding a group of people looking similarly and getting comfort and strength in that. I think that’s a very healthy process, and I think it’s needed so that people can be more healthy in their lives. So I support that, and I still continue to hope that some day that won’t be necessary.
Zenger’s: One of the issues often raised at the Bi Forum is how many Bisexuals feel oppression from Gay and Lesbian people and the organizations in the Gay and Lesbian communities. Is that something you’ve personally experienced, and do you want to comment about it?
Watman: I haven’t personally experienced much of that. I’ve heard it quite a bit in the Bi Forum. It’s almost like an extra obstacle for Bisexual people sometimes. I experienced it a little here and there, but I’ve hung around with a lot of homosexual people, and I haven’t had anything close to that burden as far as the pressure to be Gay or something. There have been comments here and there, but nothing like that.
Zenger’s: You mean, no “Stop sitting on the fence, come out as a Gay man already”?
Watman: I did get that, actually just from one person. It was when I wasn’t even clear about my sexuality — less clear than I am now, I should say. All I knew was I was having these homosexual feelings and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had already tried to come out as Gay for a very short period of time, and found I couldn’t deny my heterosexual feelings, so I went back into the straight thing and said, “O.K., I have these homosexual feelings, but I’m straight,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s how I was feeling.
I didn’t know what to do about my homosexual feelings. I told a professor at San Diego State who I knew was Gay, and he esteemed me. We got along, and I felt comfortable enough to tell him about my homosexual attractions. He went through his whole Gay coming-out experience and he said, basically, “O.K. You’re Gay.” He didn’t want to hear that I could still like women. He was being really nice and comforting, but always in the back of his comforting was, “It’s O.K. All of us go through this. It’s O.K. to be Gay.”
Finally it was weird for me, because I was thinking, “What if I’m not Gay?” It was bugging me that I had to be Gay in order to get this comforting from him. I actually confronted him about it once. I asked him, “What if it turns out I’m straight? Would you still be my friend?” He said, “Oh, yeah, of course I would be.” But from that point on, he wasn’t as comforting as he’d been before. That’s a somewhat typical thing I hear in the Bi Forum.
Zenger’s: Where do you see yourself going, both as an activist and as a sexual being?
Watman: I don’t have a really clear picture. I consider myself an activist, but for me it’s secondary to bringing people together across cultural boundaries. That ends up including activism, sometimes. But with that in mind, I want to start a language school, probably in Tijuana, where I go to foreign countries and recruit people who are of low socioeconomic status and need a job to come to my school and teach their language and culture. I have had that idea, that goal, for a while and I would like to make it happen in the next four years.
I’m learning Arabic as part of my whole idea of reaching across language and cultural barriers. I see in the news, and just generally in society, how people in Arabic-speaking countries are demonized, and I don’t feel I know enough about their culture to defend it. So I’d like to learn Arabic, and I plan on going to Syria or Jordan next year to get going on the language and cultural thing, and then hopefully recruit some people for my school.
As far as the sexual being goes, I have a lot of personal issues with relationships in general that don’t have much to do with my sexuality. I don’t really see anything happening with the sexual part until I get my relationship things in order. But as far as me having sex with men or women, I’m O.K. with whatever I feel like doing. It’s fine.
Zenger’s: That does seem to be the nub of it. If you want to do something with someone, and the someone wants to do it with you, why not?
Watman: The sex thing has a really strong energy. With women, for some reason it ends up being — it brings up a lot of relationship issues for me, and so it makes it difficult to have that attitude sometimes.
Zenger’s: I’ve talked with Bi men who draw a similar line. They feel more able to be detached, to be just sexual, with men, whereas with women it brings up the whole emotion/relationship/love/marriage/settling down track that straight people are told they need to be on.
Watman: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate for me too. I’ve had much more experience with women than with men, but from the little experience I’ve had with men, I’m able to separate sex and emotion a lot easier.