Friday, May 25, 2007

Hiding From Their Own Shadows

What's wrong with this picture? In 1972, a gay twenty-year-old visiting Manhattan has only one night to "find others like myself":
Yet in an era before gay community centers and programs, or gay bookstores and the right kind of titles to line their shelves, where was a young queer person to go? All I knew -- all I had ever heard about -- were the seedy gay movie houses near Times Square. With trembling fingers, I paid for a ticket and entered one. Within minutes, I was back out on the streets in heart-pounding escape from a brigade in raincoats who had descended on me the moment I sat down. In fear and panic, I ran uptown and into Central Park. Hadn't I read somewhere that queers met there too? My foray into the greenery didn't last much longer than my interlude at the movies: it, too, was a dark and scary place. A brief encounter with a kindred soul? Hell, one could get killed here! I returned to my hotel room, dejected and hopeless. Instead of finding others like me, all I had discovered were shadows -- predatory and frightening.
There's a great deal wrong with this passage from Mark Thompson's Gay Body (viii-ix), starting with the shoddy writing and proceeding through the Jungian demonization of the "shadows" he encountered. (Remember, Mark, those "shadows" are your shadow.) What I'd like you to notice now is Thompson's claim that in New York in 1972 there were no "gay community centers and programs, or gay bookstores and the right kind of titles to line their shelves." In fact, Craig Rodwell's Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore opened in Greenwich Village in 1967, five years before Thompson's night of the Long Raincoats. By 1972, New York Gay Activists Alliance had a community center in a converted firehouse. San Francisco's gay community center was founded in 1966. Chicago Gay Alliance had a center in the middle of the city. (At the age of twenty, with just one night to find others like myself, I visited it in April 1971.) The early 1970s were a time of explosive growth for such resources nationwide. Young Mark Thompson may not have known about these resources, but they did exist, and old Mark Thompson should know it by now.

But facts do get in the way of a good story.

Now let's move ahead a few years. Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart is a moving account of the death from AIDS of his lover Larry Rose. It also tells of his own earlier life in "San Francisco in the late 1970s, those innocent and exhilarating years when it first seemed possible for gay men and lesbians to live and love openly" (79). Notice how the "years when it first seemed possible for gay men and lesbians to live and love openly" creep forward in time. For Mark Thompson, 1972 was still the Dark Ages; for Johnson, the late 1970s -- in San Francisco, mind you -- were just the beginning of the Enlightenment.

Or not: In 1979 ("my second year in San Francisco" [81]), Johnson found a new place to live, out of the fast lane. One acquaintance at the time, "a painfully young man," had "just been discharged from the navy because he was gay, a nice instance of discrimination that at the time we accepted as simply the way life worked and would always work."

Apparently "we" had never heard of Leonard Matlovich, a gay man who received national straight media coverage and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, for fighting to remain in the US military. Rapid growth of gay organizations and visibility had continued through the Seventies, all over the US and elsewhere. Since young Mark Thompson went cruising in Times Square and Central Park and ran shrieking from the reflections of himself he found there, gay activists had confronted the psychiatric establishment, and won: the APA de-pathologized homosexuality in 1973. Aside from Matlovich and other gay military personnel, there were openly gay politicians, from Elaine Noble to Allen Spears. And need I mention that 1979 was the year after the assassination of Harvey Milk? Evidently I need.

These events weren't entirely invisible in the straight media, and certainly could have been known by people who read even the Advocate, let alone other gay media. Johnson writes about the period without the intrusion of these current, local events into his portrait; and even today too many gay people accept discrimination "as simply the way life worked and would always work."

But maybe even 1979 is still too long ago. So let's move ahead to the 1980s, and a young lesbian attending a tiny liberal-arts college in Indiana. Although there was no gay organization there at the time,
To DePauw's credit, with the college's support I was able to attend a number of national women's studies conferences in the Midwest as well as a large antinuclear weapons conference at Riverside Church in New York City. These conferences literally [?] saved my life. They allowed me to meet not only other feminist women but students like myself who were struggling with their sexual identities. The women and men I met gave me the reassurance I needed that being a lesbian was not "abnormal." At the time, it felt like just being lesbian, gay, or bisexual was extremely radical and in itself a political statement (Stiers, xiii).
When I first read this, I immediately wondered: How does "extremely radical" connect to "abnormal"? Or does Stiers approve of "political statements"? She's so incoherent I can't be sure. Let's consider the historical context again: by the 1980s, what might be called the professionalization of the gay movement was well underway, with frequent calls to put the radicalism of the 70s behind us. More gay military, more gay politicians, more gay pastors and priests and rabbis, more laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, even in towns in Indiana. Businessman David Goodstein had bought the Advocate, no radical publication to begin with, and used it to further an avowedly conservative agenda. Gay religious groups were the fastest-growing segment of the gay movement. And by the mid-1980s, AIDS had put a wholly different face on the gay male community. If being gay seemed "radical" at that time to Gretchen Stiers, it was despite all these developments.

But leave all that aside. Consider the impression this author gives that there were no gay resources in Indiana colleges in the 1980s, that it was necessary to go to New York to meet "students like myself who were struggling with their sexual identities." You'd think that Gretchen Stiers was the only gay person at DePauw in those days, which just isn't true. Even DePauw was not quite as bad as Stiers implies: there have been several attempts to get a gay organization going there since the 1970s. I was one of several gay men who visited DePauw from Indiana University in Bloomington (whose first student gay organization -- that I know of! -- was founded in 1970) in the mid-1970s to speak to the whole campus about being gay. Gretchen Stiers may not have known about such things at the time she was "struggling with her sexual identity", but how can it be that 15 years of gay organizing in Indiana (!) colleges and universities have still never intruded on her awareness?

And since we're now talking about women as well as men, how about the Michigan Women's Music Festival -- or if Michigan was too far out ("radical"?) for young Gretchen Stiers, the National Women's Music Festival took place every summer in Bloomington, an hour's drive from DePauw. There were women's bookstores in Bloomington and Indianapolis, also close to DePauw. By the time Stiers was coming out, Olivia Records was moving towards luppification, such as expensive ocean cruises.

But surely, the reader may protest, things changed in the 1990s? I wish I could say so (and don't call me Shirley!). Let's leave the coming-out genre for a moment, and listen to a gay man of 40, writing about gay life in New York City today:
I have, of course, like most of the gay men I know, spent a good deal of time complaining about the bar scene. The complaining -- that if you're a single gay man the only way to meet other single gay men, the only way to find someone to play with, is to stray into that familiar space, probably ugly, most likely badly lighted, filled with strangers and music you wouldn't choose yourself, and wait against a wall with the drink in your hand until you finally slide into a conversation with someone whom you can't see quite well enough and who is probably only looking for a one-night stand anyway, unlike you who, you tell yourself, are looking for a Relationship -- this complaint is a necessary lie. A lie, because I am pretty sure by now that we go to these places in order not to connect, but rather to exist in the exquisite moment when our desirability is still perfect, unspoiled by contact; necessary, because who could acknowledge that this was what he really wanted -- to be a flawless image rather than a living person, to have a narrative rather than a life, to be tragic rather than to live -- and not go mad? [Mendelsohn, 195f]
Ahem. Andrew Holleran said the same thing 20 years ago in Dancer from the Dance, and better: with humor, for one thing, to balance the self-pity. But I don't believe that a) all bars in New York City, even in Chelsea, are like this; or b) there are no other ways in New York to meet eligible men (discussion groups? amateur sports? Spinoza and other gay Jewish groups?). The author of this passage cruises certain streets and bars in Chelsea, and Internet chat rooms, and simply ignores the existence of other possibilities -- as well as the existence of gay men who use those alternatives. At least the author admits that he isn't really interested in "connecting", or in environments where he might do so.

The convenient amnesia continues. The director of one segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2, three short films about lesbians made for HBO in 2000, told the Advocate that they didn't even have a word for such relationships in 1930, when the couple in the segment would have met. Nonsense. Of course there was a word -- in fact there were several -- even if the women involved didn't want to use it. Even now, there isn't a word that's acceptable to all same-sex couples.

The writers I've quoted here are not by any means the only ones who express the perspective I'm criticizing -- if only they were! Unfortunately they seem to speak for many others, and even more important, they bespeak a willed amnesia that is too common among gay people. I'm not surprised to find such attitudes in gay people, like Andrew Sullivan, who have been appointed interpreters of gay life by the straight media, who mirror and reinforce the ignorance of straight editors, reporters, and readers; but to find them in people who are writing for a gay readership is dispiriting.

It's a ritual part of the standard coming-out narrative to claim that in those dark days, one was totally alone and isolated, and there was none to help, nay not anywhere. One was the only sensitive (or "normal") gay person in New York City (or San Franciso, or America) in 1972 or 1979 or 1984, all the rest were predatory shadows. This may make for an archetypically mythic story, but like so many archetypically mythic stories it is a lie. Would it really ruin the tale to admit that yes, there were resources, even if the storyteller didn't know about them -- perhaps still doesn't want to know about them? After all, if all other gay people in Those Days were just extreme radicals and there were no alternatives to the clammy embraces of raincoated hordes in sticky-floored porn movie houses, then it seems sane and reasonable to have remained in the closet for so long. To admit that one ignored alternatives, that one was lagging behind history instead of its prisoner, sounds so much less heroic.

Erasing our history doesn't just encourage gay people to stay closeted: it encourages complacency among the antigay. How often I've heard apologists for bigotry say that you can't bring about change overnight, apparently because their awareness of gay activism has been edited down to the 1993 March on Washington at most. (The Millennium March of 2000 will now probably replace the 1993 March as the beginning of gay activism in this mythology.) The thirty-plus years since the Stonewall riots, the fifty-odd years since the founding of Mattachine, the full century since Magnus Hirschfeld came from Germany to the US to lecture on sex "intermediates" -- all down the memory hole. And worst of all, it is gay people, the very ones who lived through it and who should know better, who are erasing our history.

"How would I know I was gay if I didn't know what gay was," a young gay man asked rhetorically on the Internet, referring to his high school days in Iowa during the 1990s. No wonder so many people swallow the nonsense that there were no homosexuals before the word "homosexual" was coined -- they really believe that without a printed instruction manual, professionally-run training seminars, rainbow healing crystals, and the all-important Abercrombie & Fitch apparel, you don't even exist.

Ever since I can remember (and I came out in 1971), there have been people in US gay communities who've claimed that the war has been won, that no gay person suffers stigma, guilt, or shame anymore, or that (as a graduate student at a large midwestern state university put it in the late 1980s) most people have figured out their sexuality by the time they get to college, so they need no further education about gay history, politics, or culture. Even in large cities with large gay communities, this is clearly not true.

In Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women, she notes how often 18th and 19th century women writers who referred to lesbianism in their work would hasten to add that they couldn't imagine what two women could do together. This forestalled the question that would follow if they admitted knowing: how did they know, hm? I detect a similar disclaimer in these tales of gay and lesbian isolation from the past 30 years: yes, I was That Way, but I didn't want to be, I didn't choose it, I couldn't imagine where to find others like myself, and when I did, they were predators and shadows, not like me at all, not what I meant at all. What gay interests are served by this erasure of history and of the present? What stigma are these openly gay writers trying to fend off?

Thompson, Mark. Gay Body: a journey through shadow to self. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Johnson, Fenton. Geography of the heart: a memoir. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Stiers, Gretchen A. From this day forward: commitment, marriage, and family in lesbian and gay relationships. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. The elusive embrace: desire and the riddle of identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Donoghue, Emma. Passions between women: British Lesbian culture 1668-1801. London: Scarlet Press, 1993. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures
by Gayatri Gopinath
Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005

Okay, what I want to know is: How could Gayatri Gopinath write a book on queers in the South Asian diaspora without even mentioning Chutney Popcorn? I suppose it could be argued that Nisha Ganatra's desi-dyke indie film doesn't merit the extended discussion Gopinath grants to Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, or Ian Iqbal Rashid's 1996 short film Surviving Sabu, but that's the point: it should at least be argued.

At first I thought Gopinath's "queer diasporas" might reckon with the way so many Euro-American lesbians and gay men have imagined ourselves as a diaspora, the exiled children of Lesbos or Sodom scattered among the nations, searching for the lost history of our people and a way back to our homeland. The association of queers with certain places is rich with possibility for her theme; but no.

Despite Gopinath's avowed intent to "take queer female diasporic subjectivity as the starting point" (79) of her discussion, she devotes most of her first hundred pages to South Asian diasporic boy culture, from the British Asian bands Cornershop and ADF to Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, mostly to defend them against imputations of sexism or homophobia. While Gopinath speculates freely about the inner lives of South Asian males, she has little to say about female subjectivity: women remain objects, not subjects, in this book.

She does get excited over a single scene in the film East is East (2000, dir. Damien O'Donnell), in which a young "biracial" woman, working with her brothers behind the family fish and chips shop, does a Bollywood-inspired lip synch routine crossed with the chimney sweeps' dance from Mary Poppins. Gopinath sees this as "a resounding rejection of the father-son drama of Oedipal hatred" (83), and "a powerful rejoinder to Enoch Powell's calls for an all-white Britain, in that it evokes an alternative realm of public culture that is available to South Asian immigrants in the diaspora" (88). Whooo! look out Enoch Powell, Mina is in da house! I agree it's an entertaining scene, but I'm not persuaded it's queer. (Gopinath's analysis, though, is like, totally gay.) For Gopinath, though, as for many of her fellow scholars, the word "queer" functions performatively: it is the intrepid scholar who queers the diaspora merely by using the word.

Gopinath declares at the outset that "The concept of a queer diaspora enables a simultaneous critique of heterosexuality and the nation form while exploding the binary opposition between nation and diaspora, heterosexuality and homosexuality, original and copy" (11). These binaries flood back into her writing as fast as she disowns them, however: "home" and diaspora, queer and gay/lesbian, East and West, appear as mutually exclusive categories, rather than the amorphous, overlapping zones they are.

This gets her into trouble when she finally essays an extended analysis of queer South Asian texts. She refuses even to consider the possibility of any common ground between queer South Asians and queer "Euro-Americans" (and her fond notion that Americans and Europeans share a single construction of homosexuality shows just how ignorant she is). Consider Ismat Chughtai's 1940 Urdu story "The Quilt", in which a Muslim Indian tomboy observes a neglected wife cavorting with her female servant under the eponymous bedspread. Gopinath sternly informs the reader that "the text refuses to allow particular configurations of homoerotic desire to settle into stable structures of sexual identity" (148). So there! and never mind that the story's author herself referred to the relationship as "lesbian."

Comparing "The Quilt" to Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire, in which two sisters-in-law fall in love, Gopinath claims that for South Asian women "this privatized, seemingly sanitized `domestic' space can simultaneously function as a site of intense female homoerotic pleasure and practices", against a supposed Western "narrative of`lesbian' sexuality as needing to emerge from a private domestic sphere into a public, visible, `lesbian' subjectivity" (155). This is a false antithesis. Homoeroticism has often been nurtured and harbored by domestic space in the West (see, for just one famous example, Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness), and Fire ends with flight and exile for the two lovers. After denying it for several pages, Gopinath grumpily admits that "the two women eventually do leave the confines of the household rather than continue to exist within it", but that's far too mild: Radha, the older woman, is abandoned by her husband and mother-in-law in the hope that she'll burn to death.

You'd think, reading Gopinath, that American lesbians and gay men chose "identity" and "visibility" out of sheer perversity, instead of as a defensive response to assault and expulsion by our families and straight society in general. "Homonormative" American lesbians and gays are busily burrowing their way back into the "private domestic space" Gopinath accuses them of trying to escape. (Two words: "PFLAG"and "marriage.") And Gopinath's main theme is a demand for more queer female visibility in South Asian culture.

Gopinath completely misses elements of both works that a queer reading, diasporic or not, ought to highlight. There's the bitterly satirical humor of "The Quilt"; its use of a naive narrator to allow the reader to label what the narrator can't; and the author's argument, when the story was tried for obscenity in 1943, that it was important to expose these nasty goings-on, instead of sweeping them under the rug. There's the familiar closeting strategy of Deepa Mehta's insistence that "the lesbian relationship in [Fire] is merely a symbol of an extreme choice my heroines make. ...[I]t is not a lesbian film ... rather, I think of it as humanistic" (157). It's hard to think of a queer movie since The Children's Hour that we haven't been told isn't "about homosexuality." Gopinath is annoyed with Mehta for resorting to "the rhetoric of women's emancipation and personal choices" when her film was under literal attack by Hindu fascists who stormed the theaters in which it was shown, but it's hard to see why, when she can't make up her own mind whether Fire's heroines are lesbians or not.

But Gopinath's blind spots and blunders are normal in her field: the faux-impersonal style, the ignorance about the American gay life and culture it attacks, the invidious East-West dichotomies, the historical naiveté turn up in work after work of contemporary queer scholarship. (Gopinath seems genuinely surprised to find similarities between the experiences of Punjabi women sweatshop workers in the West Midlands and Chinese women sweatshop workers in San Francisco. Girl, read Elana Dykewomon's great sweatshop novel Beyond the Pale!)

I don't mean to jump on the anti-queer theory bandwagon here. Gopinath's problem is her misuse, through assiduously cultivated ignorance, of theories whose radical potential has been contained through the inertia of great institutions. Like so many of her colleagues in the academy, Gopinath seems to believe that merely invoking the deities "Post-colonial! Queer diaspora! Impossible desires! Destabilized identities!" will magically transform her very middle-of-the-road work into something innovative, even radical. Alas, when the smoke clears Impossible Desires is just another unremarkable contribution to that genre of neo-Orientalist ephemera known as post-colonial studies. Gopinath's theorizing isn't queer enough: whoever believes on the names of Fanon, Said, and Foucault will not be saved. And her elision of queer female South Asian subjectivity remains mysterious.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Blind Man and the Elephant

Love in a different climate: men who have sex with men in India
Jeremy Seabrook
London and New York: Verso, 1999.

In a major city there's a park where men go to look for sex with other men. These men vary in their motives, and the kind of sex they're looking for. Some are apparently masculine, others apparently effeminate. Some are here because they aren't married, or aren't living with their wives, and they want a quick and easy sexual release that costs them no money. Others prefer to pay for sex, and they can find men here who will accept payment: some of these latter are full-time sex workers who insist that they don't feel desire for men,but hustling is a relatively easy way for them to make money. Some of the married men who cruise here live with their wives, but they married only to satisfy family or social pressure, and have no sexual interest in women: many of them claim that they fantasize about their experiences with men to be able to perform sexually with their wives. Some speak wistfully of finding a man who will stay with them for longer than it takes to reach orgasm, a friend who will love them and be loved in return. Some men come here as much to socialize as to cruise, and spend hours chatting and gossiping with other habitués.

I'm referring to the park in Delhi where Jeremy Seabrook found interview subjects for this book, but I think most people knowledgeable about human sexuality will recognize that the park could be almost anywhere in the world, including the United States. It might be a highway rest stop, an adult bookstore, or a public bathhouse, but the range of behavior and rationales of the men who gather there is much the same, regardless of their language or color. The stories they told Seabrook differ only superficially from the stories men would have told him in New York City, Taipei, Berlin, Mexico City. Love in a Different Climate is most valuable when Seabrook lets his subjects tell their stories, bearing witness to their lives in a culture that ignores and even denies their existence.

Seabrook, however, seems to think that these men live on another planet, their experiences absolutely alien to those of men in other countries and cultures. As I will show, this bizarre notion undermines all his contrasts of India with "the West." But the trouble goes beyond that. Like too many writers on homosexuality nowadays, Seabrook has a lot of bad things to say about the word "gay": that it is "Western," "reductive," and so on. But, like his fellows, he never explains what he means by "gay." He never explains how it differs from "non-Western" conceptions of same-sex love and desire. And that, it seems to me, is where he should begin.

Perhaps I can reconstruct Seabrook's definition of this Western concept by looking at what he thinks it is not, the behavior and attitudes he opposes to it, which he found among these Indian men. But as I just noted, the stories he was told in Delhi could just as easily be told by American men. This is not an endorsement of "essentialism." While remarkably similar patterns appear across cultures, there is no single pattern in any one culture: a similar variety of types and patterns appears within each culture. That variety includes people who want to form lasting partnerships with others of their own sex, whether or not they call themselves "gay."

"Shivananda Khan, Calcutta-born founder of NAZ in London and a tireless researcher into sexual identities in South Asia, points out that a compelling reason now exists for not projecting onto India Western concepts of straight, gay and bisexual: the spread of AIDS cannot be prevented by having recourse to these stereotyped and rigid categories. Men who have sex with men do not recognize themselves in these classifications, and any attempt to reach them and to create consciousness of the need for safer sex will not reach them" (140f). Evidently Khan is unaware that the same problem has arisen in the"West," including New York and San Francisco -- even London.

Khan and Seabrook may be using the same term differently, however. Seabrook includes some men who think of themselves as gay among the wide range he describes of Indian "men who have sex with men." Khan seems to mean only those men who have sex with men but don't identify themselves as gay or bisexual. As I understand it, "men who have sex with men" originated as a hopefully non-threatening term intended to cover all men who have sex with other men, including gay and bisexual-identified men. Now it seems to have split off, referring only to men who resist such identities, but in either sense it is certainly one more Western concept, coined in the West to enable AIDS services to reach Western men who resisted gay or bisexual identity. As Khan uses it, it's as rigid as the identities he denounces -- after all, its boundaries are delimited by those identities.

Those identities are not a product of the gay liberation movement. They are a grass-roots construction by people -- not only college-educated middle-class whites by any means -- who loved their own sex. Such people are generally hostile to the notion of fluidity in sexuality, and to the Queer theorists (often denounced for supposed elitism) who question the popular rigidity. "Rigid" better describes those men who indignantly reject labels such as "gay" or "bisexual," despite extensive erotic experience with other men.

Seabrook says that a gay consciousness "is itself a response of the powerful, those who have had access to Western liberal education,who know global English-language culture. To the powerless it can appear crushing, dominant and oppressive. Another man, less dogmatic, said, 'Indians do this thing, but they don't talk about it. They don't give it a name, and then it is OK. It is integrated into life not in theory, but as it is lived and experienced. Once you start to rationalize and explain, it becomes something else, and that something else falsifies the Indian form of integration. In this way, even your liberation can become another form of colonialism. That is what you have to avoid'" (137).

Seabrook considers this condescending diatribe less dogmatic? On his own showing it is not "OK" for Indian men to have sex with each other as long as they don't talk about it: if that were so, they would not be so furtive about it, they would not have to keep it secret,they would not feel that it is shameful and a sickness and an addiction. (What this informant calls an "Indian form of integration"is all too familiar to American gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. We call it "the closet.") Sex between men is not "integrated into life"in India. On Seabrook's own showing, it is marginalized and shoved into silence and obscurity.

Seabrook's painter informant is even more dogmatic. Gay liberation "is a kind of cultural terrorism and we must resist it. In India, to be a friend may have erotic overtones or it may not. If a male friend comes to visit a married couple, the wife will leave the marriage bed to the friend. There may be sex or there may not. That is not the point. ... The wife will sleep with the children or her mother. It will not necessarily matter to her if sex takes place between the men -- even if she knows it -- because this does nothing to undermine her place at the heart of the family." Cute, but this ignores the experiences of Indian men, some of them quoted by Seabrook, who do not want to marry a woman, who do not want to put a woman at the heart of the family, who marry because it is demanded of them, and who then must imagine men in order to have sex with their wives.

Karim, "a historian from Lucknow", declares: "Love between members of the same sex was portrayed as a higher form of attraction and was even considered divine by some. [...] Historically, at least as far as men were concerned, as long as you continued the lineage, no one really cared what else you did. ... It is a perfectly effective and civilized way of managing human sexuality" -- except for women, and for those men who do not wish to marry a woman.

The (false) idea that same-sex eroticism is "a higher form of attraction" is known in the West, of course; it can be comforting to think of oneself as a member of a divine elite despised by the ignorant many. Toleration of sex between males "as long as you continued the lineage" (and avoided scandal) is familiar too. Think of England's King James I, who was allowed his male favorites as long as he dutifully married and sired heirs. "Effective" this approach may be, but it's as Western as it is Indian, and "civilized" it is not. (To paraphrase Gandhi, a civilized approach to sex would be a good idea.)

Some of Seabrook's informants aver that to be gay is to be gratuitously hostile to the "family." This sort of talk is also familiar in the West, which implies either that these informants have been corrupted by Western influence, or that the Christian Right in America has been drinking from the bountiful well of Eastern wisdom. This tendency appeared in India decades before "gay liberation"existed, and it attacked any and all erotic connections between people of the same sex. As Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai point out wryly in their anthology Same-sex Love in India (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000, p 250f), these denunciations "associate homosexuality with the West. ... On the other hand, they draw on Western sources to legitimize their homophobia." (It's interesting to compare Love in a Different Climate to John Howard's similarly antigay Men Like That:a Southern Queer History [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999]. For Howard it's Mississippi instead of India that trembles helplessly in the grip of gay cultural terrorists, whom he denounces in almost identically vitriolic terms: evil outside agitators bringing in their Communist ideas to stir up and confuse the natives, who were perfectly content before.)

It's true that radical gays have often been hostile to the patriarchal family, but not without reason, as Seabrook himself shows. Since Love in a Different Climate deals solely with the experiences of men, with only passing references to women, I won't say much about the price women pay for living in an extremely sexist society like India. For now it should be enough to point out how destructive the Indian family is just to men, using information from Seabrook's subjects.

The Western Jungian "men's movement" holds that in traditional societies, fathers are closer to their sons than in the deracinated West, teaching them what they need to know to be men in their cultures. Seabrook unwittingly demolishes this romantic fantasy. Both his park informants and his Indian apologists represent Indian fathers as distant, authoritarian, and unsupportive. When young Indian men need information about sex, they turn to their peers, who are as ignorant as they are, sharing such disinformation as that sexual release is either necessary or weakening, or that you can't get diseases by having sex with men.

Many gay people in the West are heartbreakingly eager to prop up the patriarchal family, to keep their place in it despite their families' equally determined efforts to expel them. Not all Western parents reject their gay children, of course; neither will all Indian parents. If American experience is any guide, and I believe it is, Indian gay men won't want to cut themselves off from their parents. Given what one of Seabrook's spokesmen says about the material support that children provide to parents in a traditional society without Social Security, it is downright self-defeating for Indian parents to disown gay children. Compare Mina Shum's 1994 film Double Happiness, in which a Chinese-Canadian father disowns first his only son, then his elder daughter, for defying his authority. In the degenerate West we might call this "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

At least two gay-identified Indian men reject Seabrook's assertion "that there is a powerful undertow of eroticism in relationships between Indian men: they see this as a form of cultural projection by Westerners upon what they perceive as crude and rudimentary sexual encounters." I couldn't have put it better myself. "On the other hand, they themselves are impressed by what they perceive as the subtlety, richness and sense of equal status between gay men in the West. 'In India, there is no equality between people in such encounters. It is at best a patron-client relationship if you pick up some young man, and at worst a brief and unsatisfactory meeting.'"

Seabrook is briefly taken aback: his uppity native informants have presumed to point out his Western bias, his imposing of his Western conception of eroticism on relations between Indian men! He quickly puts them in their place. "Perhaps we are all doomed to see things, or imagine that we see things, in that which is exotic, foreign, and other; and to set little value on what is close at hand, local and familiar. ... I was referring rather to the observable loyalties and affections between men in India of all ages -- the physical closeness and holding of hands which causes so many Western visitors to believe, mistakenly, that being gay is a common and open experience in India; while they were speaking of the pick-ups which they, as privileged men, might make by chance. [Not only 'privileged men' make such pick-ups, nor do they make them by chance, as Seabrook's informants in the parks make clear to him. What about those encounters, which he himself labels "abusive," between older men and young boys who must share a bed during a wedding festival? This has nothing to do with class privilege.] They were speaking of the possibilities that certainly do exist in the West for gay men to make long-term stable relationships and live together. [And which Seabrook's informants long for, if only in fantasy, as they have told him again and again -- because these possibilities hardly exist in India.] They were looking at the situation from their own Westernised and socially advantaged position. In that sense, they are bearers of precisely those values which Karim and other Indians whose lives are anchored in India deplore. Yet there is truth in both testimonies" (145f).

That isn't the only time Seabrook's Western bias misleads him: "There is an even more fundamental problem, and that is in defining precisely what constitutes sex. For some time, I was puzzled by the assertions of men whom I had seen regularly in the Park that they never had sex. This seemed at first to be only a more flagrant form of denial. But for many, 'sex' means vaginal intercourse with a woman. Whatever they did with men did not count; indeed, it did not even constitute sexual activity at all. It became clear that 'play' or 'fun' belonged to a quite separate order of experience; this suggested a degree of dissociation which I had not believed possible." Then he's pretty damned ignorant. This "degree of dissociation" was far from unknown in the West, even before the Clinton sex scandal reminded us about it.

Notice how willing Seabrook is to impose Western concepts of sex on his informants. By "sex" and "eroticism" they must mean what he means; if they don't, it is due to "dissociation". His very label "men who have sex with men" relies on Western conceptions of "sex" (and "men"). Notice too that safe-sex outreach to "men who have sex with men" will fail if these men don't think of what they're doing as "sex." Since such education involves talking about things ("giving them a name") that in India (as in America) are not supposed to be talked about at all, it is impossible to do AIDS education without destroying the sweet "naiveté" that Seabrook and his accomplices find so quintessentially Indian.

Contrast "Karim, thirty-four, who says, 'Before I went to Canada, I had had a limited number of relationships with men in India. But the shortage of numbers was balanced by the intensity of the relationships. We built friendships that lasted and have continued until today. In Canada, I was shocked by the casualness of it all: the ease and abundance of partners, but also the readiness with which people discard and forget each other.

"'It is now getting like this in India'" (152). Seabrook doesn't dismiss Karim's testimony as tainted by "privilege," though by his standards that label certainly applies to Indians who can travel overseas for study and sexual tourism, but Seabrook is so eager to demonize the West that such details escape his notice. In any case, unless The Park in Delhi has only recently become a place for quick, forgettable and forgotten discharge between men, it has probably always been "like this in India" too.

But it has also always been like "that." Men who have sex with other men are no more all alike in India than they are anywhere else. This is not to say that gay life in the West is free of problems: of course it isn't, because it is life. The Indian men Seabrook romanticizes, who dream of finding a friend, have almost never had the chance to try a relationship with another man. If they do, they will find that in the end it is a relationship, with rewards and difficulties not really so different from a relationship with a woman.

Seabrook and his privileged Indian informants talk as though hostility to homosexuality did not exist in the West. Gay liberation is at least as much a rebellion against "Western values" -- which look a lot like Eastern ones, as Seabrook and his subjects define them -- as it is an expression of them. As even Seabrook admits, there is no "harmony" in the lives his informants live in India. Listen to "Kamal, thirty-four.... 'I learned of the secret circles of men looking for sex with men. ... But it doesn't get you relationships,friendship, love, respect or comfort. It gets you sex. It is only by discovering the existence of yet another world -- the openly gay world where you are not bound by pretence or false machismo or the demands of family -- that you come out into the free air of making real choices, deeper relationships, more satisfactory friendships with other men'" (148).

Gay liberation in the West strives towards openness, towards recognition of gay people as part of their society-- towards "harmony" and "integration", in fact. And this, it appears, is the "gayness" Seabrook objects to, so vehemently that he wrote a book to attack the idea. At the same time, Seabrook is appalled by Hindu fundamentalists who want to suppress gay identity in India, such as those who attacked Deepa Mehta's lesbian-themed film Fire. Why doesn't he deride Mehta as a privileged, Western-educated traitor to her race, trying to impose foreign categories on Indian culture? Why doesn't he defend Mehta's critics as honest folk "anchored in India," seeking to resist the neocolonial cultural terrorism of feminism and gay liberation? For that matter, Seabrook's antigay Indian informants are themselves mostly privileged Western-educated men with access to global English-language culture. But since they say what he wants to hear, he overlooks what is, by his criteria, their contaminated status. The only mitigation is that thanks to its author's overwrought ambivalence, Love in a Different Climate wears its contradictions on its sleeve.

Part of the trouble lies in Seabrook's provincial conception of"gay." I suspect he associates the word with celebrity queers such as W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood (men who often rejected "gay" as a label anyhow), not with the pansies and bulldaggers, the window dressers and factory workers, documented by historians like Allan Bérubé, Rictor Norton, Jonathan Ned Katz, George Chauncey, Lillian Faderman, Elizabeth Lipovsky Kennedy and Madelyn D. Davis.

Seabrook's assertion that gay consciousness is "a response of the powerful, those who have had access to Western liberal education, who know global English-language culture" would, I believe, have surprised the people who formed proto-gay communities in North America and Europe from the 1700s on. Many of them were marginal to begin with -- poor, sparsely educated, non-white, gender-nonconformist -- and finding kindred spirits in the cities did not make them less marginalized. These areas were visited by elite men, however, who didn't want to be marginalized but were willing to use those who were. (Resisting and rejecting a stigmatizing label is one of the privileges of the "powerful," especially while they're slumming.) On top of this, the depiction of gays as a bunch of predatory rich people is a familiar homophobic trope in the West -- to say nothing of its resemblance to anti-Jewish propaganda. It doesn't occur to Seabrook or his elite Indians that a non-elite Indian (or for that matter, American or British) man might find gay liberation liberating. Many have.

Like his privileged Indian informants, Seabrook mistakes commercial gay male culture for gay liberation. "This has significant implications for the debate about same-sex relations: people can scarcely be expected to wait for the liberating potential of Western-style affluence to sanction their sexual behavior. This version of lesbian and gay emancipation is simply not going to occur. Other forms of repressed or denied sexualities have already arisen; people will always create some space for themselves in however hostile an environment, as the testimony of the men here make [sic] clear"(182).

Gandhi was influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, Eastern teachings transmitted through Western institutions and missionaries; Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by Gandhi; people around the world have been influenced by King. The Gay and Women's Liberation movements took their names and some ideas from non-Western national liberation fronts that took much from the Westerner Karl Marx. Cultural purity is a mirage: impossible to achieve, and destructive to attempt.

The Gay Liberation movement was sharply critical of contemporary patterns of urban gay life in the West, and gay radicals continue that critique to this day. Gay Indians will surely criticize the institutions, commercial or not, that will be developed by and for men who have sex with men in India. But their criticisms should not be based on whether those institutions are "indigenous" (unless they're prepared to agitate against telephones, automobiles, radios, televisions, air travel, VCRs, and other non-indigenous colonial-terrorist devices). Indians have created plenty of oppressive institutions around sex and gender, without any help from the West; they can also create new ones, for better or worse.

Seabrook and his Indian informants view Indian culture as monolithic, ignoring its history of diversity, conflict, and dissent. Of course, Western gays can't escape their Westernness, any more than Indians can escape their Indianness. Why should they? But if Indians can appropriate Western homophobia for their own uses, as they have from Gandhi to Shivananda Khan, why shouldn't they appropriate Western gay liberation as well?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things!

I suppose my all-time favorite is the student who stood up in the audience during a dormitory forum on gays and Christianity, identified himself as a gay Christian who knew his Scriptures very well, and proceeded to denounce the "Saint James Version" of the Bible, much to the amusement of the fundamentalist students present. (It wasn't only the name of the translation that he got wrong.) But as a longtime educator on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues, I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from, not only from panel presentations before classes, but from Internet debates about homosexuality and the Bible.

Once again on a classroom panel this morning, a gay speaker emitted a spew of misinformation about Christianity and the Bible, warm with the glow of his superiority to ignorant Bible-thumpers. If I sound cranky as I write this -- and believe me, I don't just sound cranky -- it's because 1) on principle, I believe that we should have our facts correct; 2) pragmatically, our enemies will gladly point out and capitalize on our misstatements; 3) many of these mistakes are irrelevant (as you'll see) and waste time that could be spent on issues that really do matter. So without further preamble, let's sample a few of the Darned Things Gay Christians Say. (Several of these are also spread by Christians who aren't gay; but that doesn't excuse the gay people who pass them along.)

1. "The Bible has been translated so many times."
This doesn't really mean anything, and amounts to an announcement of the speaker's ignorance about the Bible. To the extent that it can be construed as true, it's a good thing. (I have to speculate here, because the people who say things like this are often parroting slogans whose meaning they don't know, and can't explain.) For example, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek around 200 BCE is used by modern scholars to help understand or restore parts of the Hebrew text that were lost or corrupted. Translators of any text will consult earlier versions to see what their forerunners made of this word or that phrase. The existence of numerous modern translations is also helpful to non-scholars who don't know Hebrew or Greek, so they can get an idea of what meanings may lie behind the English by comparing different versions. (Of course there's nothing to stop anyone who cares from learning biblical Hebrew and Greek, and reading the Bible in the original, without need for a translation.)

I believe, though, that when people talk about "so many" translations, they usually mean that recent translations are the latest links in a game of Telephone: that they were made by paraphrasing earlier English versions, which in turn were based solely on the King James Version, which was a loose rendering of a Lower Glycaemic translation of a Pig Latin version of a corrupt Artesian manuscript, and so on. This simply isn't so. All modern translations, since before the King James Version, begin with the Hebrew and Greek texts. The Catholic graduate student who was sure that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate,and conservative evangelicals who suppose that modern translations merely update the KJV's archaic English, or that the Hebrew text is a"translation" of the Old Testament, are equally mistaken.

And yet the same people who say this will often quote their favorite saying of Jesus as the basis of their faith, with no evident concern that it might have been mistranslated. Why is it only the parts of the Bible they don't like that are unreliable?

2. "Hebrew doesn't have any vowels, it's only consonants."
Of course the Hebrew language has vowels. It's only the Hebrew alphabet which lacks them, or used to. But so what? Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters lack not only vowels, but consonants as well. Like some other ancient alphabets, such as the Phoenician from which it was descended, the biblical Hebrew alphabet began as a memory aid for people whose job was to know a text by heart, using the writing to prompt them as they went along (aloud, since silent reading was not an ideal in those days). Context eliminated most ambiguity. By about 100 BCE, some copyists were filling in gaps by letting some consonants double as vowels; we can see this in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Around 600 CE, the Masoretes -- Jewish scholars assigned to establish an accurate text for the Hebrew Bible -- developed a system of vowel "pointing", symbols which could be written around the traditional consonantal text without changing it.

The absence of vowels left uncertain the meaning of only some parts of the Hebrew text. (The early Greek translation mentioned before helps to resolve some of these.) More serious problems are caused by changes in the meaning of words over centuries; copying errors (before printing was invented, all books had to be copied by hand), and the lack of punctuation, spacing between words, or standardized spelling.

In any case, the lack of vowels applies only to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian "Old Testament." The New Testament was originally written in Greek, whose alphabet comes with an ample supply of vowels.

3. "The Church left so many books out of the Bible."
Again this is true only in a narrow and unhelpful sense: the Church also left the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and Danielle Steel out of the Bible. Some people who say this seem to wish the Church had left out even more, especially the letters of Paul.

In fact, the Church added books to the Bible. When New Testament writers mention "the Scriptures," with just one exception they mean the Hebrew Bible, the "Old Testament", whose exact contents had not yet been determined within Judaism. To this the Church added four Gospels and numerous other writings, the "New Testament." (And this process of addition wasn't completed for a long time: the famous story of the Woman Taken in Adultery, for example, with its punchline "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone", was added to the gospel of John in the 5th century.)

Not only that, the Christian "Old Testament" contained more books than the Bible of Judaism. When St. Jerome translated the entire Christian Bible into Latin in the late 4th century CE, he wanted to follow the Jewish canon (which had been settled by then), but the Church preferred a bigger, longer, and uncut Old Testament. To this day, the Catholic Bible is longer than the Protestant, which follows the Jewish canon.

That one exception? It's 2 Peter 3:15-16, which refers to Paul's letters as if they were "scriptures." No one knows for sure, but many scholars believe that Paul's letters were probably the first Christian writings to be collected and circulated as authoritative Scriptures. The gospels probably were not written until after Paul's death. The earliest listing of Christian Scriptures that we know of dates from about 200 CE. (This is controversial, like almost everything about Christianity before 150 CE, but that just means that no one knows for sure.)

It's true that the early churches didn't treat every document written by Christians as Scripture. We know very little about the process by which some books came to be considered Scripture and others did not. Many of the "excluded" books survive to this day, and scholars disagree whether any of them contain reliable information about Christianity before 150 CE, let alone authentic teachings of Jesus himself. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, was found in Egypt in 1945. Some scholars believe that it may include some genuine teachings of Jesus which are not preserved in the New Testament. But not even its strongest advocates believe that all of it was written by a follower of Jesus, let alone that its picture of Jesus is free of political or theological bias. It has, in short, the same limitations and problems as any book you will find in the Bible. Should it have been included in the official collection? There's no reason to believe it's older than the four gospels which were included. If they were written too long after Jesus' day to be reliable, then so was Thomas. If Thomas probably contains some authentic teachings of Jesus, so do they. If they are merely the writings of men, so is Thomas. If earlier is better, then Paul's letters are the best we have ... but if the Bible has been translated so many times and has no vowels and has been altered by the Church, then we don't really have anything.

But again,the same people who confidently assert the uselessness of the Bible because some things were left out, will often use it with equal confidence as a source for the teachings of Jesus they like.

4. "The Bible knows nothing of homosexuality, as we know it."

Oh, I suppose this one is true: the ancients knew nothing of rainbow flags, leather bars, toaster ovens, Bette Midler, k. d. lang, Al Parker videos, or the Michigan Women's Music Festival. (Indeed, recent scholarship has revealed that Leonardo da Vinci never owned a Madonna CD in his life. Nor was he at Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, a fact which has led some scholars to doubt he was really gay.)

Seriously, it is not clear what people mean by this argument.It's true, as some point out, that the word "homosexual" does not occur in the Bible, since it was not invented until the 1800s. Neither do the words "sex," "sexuality," or "gender" -- but few people, I think, would claim that the Bible has nothing to say about these topics. Thanks to misunderstandings of some abstruse historical theories (see my forthcoming article "Gay Foucauldians Say the Darnedest Things!") many people interpret this to mean either that there were no people who loved people of their own sex before the word was invented; or that in the 1800s someone invented an entirely new way of thinking about sex between people of the same sex, which bore no resemblance to anything known in Biblical times. (A few even believe that a new genetic mutation appeared around 1870, which spread around the world in a generation or two, creating a new "species" called "the homosexual.") As a result, apparently, gay people in the 20th century are as different from lovers of their own sex in the first century as a raven is unlike a writing desk, and the Bible's condemnations of sex between males have nothing to do with us.

The word "homosexual" was invented in Europe in the 1860s and borrowed by some adventurous doctors to refer to an imaginary being, the "invert" or "third sex." These doctors believed that while some people had sex with their own sex because they had no access to the other (as in prison) or from sheer contrariness, the invert was a mistake of Mother Nature, with the soul of a woman in the body of a man (or vice versa for lesbians), and therefore not to blame for his or her difference. The ancients had their own notions about this mythical creature, and their own words for it; they were also aware of other patterns of same-sex desire, love, and sexuality, and they had words for them too. Of course there isn't an exact correspondence between our words and those of people who lived in other cultures two thousand years ago, but there is enough overlap for us to understand what they were writing about. And even today, the word "homosexuality" is used in different ways and refers to different patterns of sexual desire and activity between people of the same sex, including patterns known to the Biblical writers.

5. "Homosexuality wasn't mentioned in the Bible before the King James version, because..."

a. "Homosexuality never appeared in the bible till King James had his scribes translate the Bible so he could understand it better. king James had an accute [sic] ...or well not so accute tendency towards young boys. His scribes felt this was worg [sic] so they added the homosexuality to the Bible as to deffer [sic] him from being with young boys."

b. "I've heard that the King James version was the first translation to actually declare homosexuallity [sic] a sin-all previous ones supposedly did no more than discourage it on the grounds that it did not lead to the growth (population-wise) of the human race. *ponders* Funny. King James was a transvestite AND a homosexual."

c. "This version has been modified by king james and he was not only a paranoid schizophrenic but also a homphobe [sic]. Even any other version of the bible has been translated loosley [sic], asit [sic] was not [sic] ever written in english. Along with this, the inerpretations [sic] are heavily tainted by shakespeare and James [sic] Milton's Paradise Lot [sic, sic, sic]."

The quotations above were cut-and-pasted from Internet postings of gay and lesbian Christians. As folklore they're fascinating; as statements about the Bible, or James I of England, they're ridiculous. They reveal an eagerness to vilify a person about whom their authors clearly know nothing, that I think is best described as "Christian."

First, prohibitions of sex between men were in the Biblical text long before the English version authorized by King James I for use in English churches. You can confirm this easily enough just by looking at other English translations, such as the Catholic Douay or Jerusalem versions, or the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh.

Second, while King James was probably homosexual (oh, I suppose he was a little bi -- he married dutifully and sired some children, but his great loves were male), he was neither a transvestite or a paranoid schizophrenic as far as I can tell, nor did he have even a "not so accute tendency towards young boys": his first love was 34 when they met (James, who initiated the relationship, was 13!); the second and third were both in their twenties. Of the third, George Villiers, James famously told Parliament, "Christ had his John and I have my George."

Finally, John (not James) Milton, the great Puritan poet, could not have had any influence on the King James Version, since Milton was only three years old when it was published in 1611. Many people have speculated that William Shakespeare might have worked on the style, but how this would "taint" it or have any influence on its translation of the passages dealing with homosexuality, I have no idea.

I could go on, but I'll stop here. (Did I mention the gay minister who was offended by a picture of Jesus brandishing a sword, and claimed not to know where this image came from? See "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword", Matthew 10:34. Or the gay graduate student who referred to "fire and brimstone" as "Old Testament doctrines"? This is not only false, it's a defamation of Judaism -- a popular pastime among gay Christians, by the way. Hellfire and damnation are a major theme of the New Testament, and especially of Jesus' teaching as recorded in the gospels; they do not appear in the Hebrew Bible. For a real "Old Testament doctrine", see Leviticus 19.18, "Love your neighbor as yourself.")

When I call people on mistakes like these, they defend themselves by protesting that not everybody has the time to become a Biblical scholar. They're right: it takes time and effort to inform yourself responsibly on any subject. The trouble is, these people begin by presenting themselves as knowledgeable, even authoritative, about the Bible when they haven't bothered to take that time or make that effort. They only disavow all knowledge when they get caught in an embarrassing error.

When I consider that the Bible is a rather important document in their tradition, I'm surprised by most Christians' unwillingness to educate themselves about the Bible. I'm not saying every Christian should be a Bible scholar; but their lack of interest goes beyond that. What does interest them, guessing from their behavior, is feeling superior to other Christians, a feeling as easy to achieve as it is unwarranted.

Ah well, I'm an atheist, so it's not my problem, is it? My problem is knowing that many GLBT and pro-GLBT Christians care so little about informing themselves about issues that are supposedly important to their lives, and happily spread misinformation to others. As an American humorist once pointed out, the trouble isn't that people are ignorant -- it's that they know so much that isn't so.

Where to begin?

Just in case anyone else stumbles onto this, including myself during a bout of amnesia, I plan to use this blog to post whatever screeds, polemics, meditations, and suchlike I don't know what else to do with. I've been writing at a number of things for the past few years but have not been able to find a place to publish them, because they're too long, or not timely, or too far from the mainstream, or maybe just not good enough. So I'll put some of them here, in the hope that I'll be able to call them finished and get some closure.

I also intend to post some older pieces that have been published, for example my book reviews for Gay Community News in the 1980s, but aren't available on the Web. And since I seem to be grinding out reviews of Korean movies and Korean TV dramas too fast for, my usual outlet, to use, I'll use this blog for the overflow. It'll also allow me to put up some reviews of films that have already been reviewed there, or aren't Korean, along with reviews of anything else I feel like pontificating about. Which brings me full circle, doesn't it?

At this point I'm feeling too lazy to take comments on the blog itself. (Yeah, right, like I'm going to be flooded with them!) Maybe that will change later on. Meanwhile, I'll try to answer any e-mail, though I also reserve the right to post anything I receive, especially if it's either very helpful or informative, or if it's abusive.

I guess that's enough of an introductory post. Thanks to anyone who's read this far.