Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's Just a Jump to the Left, and Then a Step To the Right

Back to Korea (only figuratively, alas) for a bit.

A 400-day long strike has just ended, over a manufacturer's move to replace irregular workers by outsourcing. The union seems to have won only a minimal concession from the company, and some issues (like punitive damages demanded by the company) remain unsettled.

The Korean police have overstepped again. The Hankyoreh reports that a court declined to issue arrest warrants for seven members of the Socialist Workers League of Korea, whom the police had "apprehended in their homes" on August 26. That leaves me a bit confused -- they were arrested and held without warrants? The Korea Times, which notes the case in passing, says that the men were "detained." I suppose there's a distinction that escapes me there, but in any case the men were released.

The Hankyoreh has an interview with one of the detainees, SWLK President Oh Se-cheol (at left, appropriately enough, in the photo above from The Hankyoreh).

The close of the Korea Times piece is revealing:

It's imperative for the Lee administration to take bold measures to address the police problem. The mission of the police is to protect the lives and assets of citizens by maintaining law and order. The government should no longer delay police reform to ensure the rule of law, the very foundation of a democracy.

Oh, come on. The "police problem" is basically the Lee administration problem. That President Lee has been using to police to punish citizens who had the bad taste to criticize him is not news. And now Lee's ruling Grand National Party has announced its intention "
revise laws in September to drastically limit the freedom of expression, demonstration or rally in the name of establishing the rule of law." That's the only "rule of law" that interests Lee and his cronies.

In addition, the GNP clarified it would support a 'pro-business policy agenda,' saying it would strive to pass various bills that would abolish the investment ceiling for family-run business conglomerates investing in their affiliates and soften restrictions governing holding companies in the regular session of the National Assembly next month.

A KT article from August 29, refers to "
violent candlelight rallies" (though the vigils were overwhelmingly nonviolent) and quotes "GNP floor leader Hong Joon-pyo [who] said those who seek violent, illegal protests are not entitled to enjoy the freedom of association." Somehow I don't think Mr. Hong had in mind the pro-Lee demonstrators in June who attacked other protestors, or those who committed arson at the entrance to a TV broadasting company.

Meanwhile, as Korea anticipates "a US-type financial crisis in September," the government has also announced plans to counter Korea's high suicide rate, "the disgrace of the nation":

According to the OECD's 2006 report on health, South Korea had the highest suicide rate of 21.5 out of every 100,000 people, almost double that of other member countries.

Hungary, Japan and Finland followed in the list, with 21, 19.1 and 18 people, respectively.

According to the health ministry, the growing number of single-parent families and social and economic burdens tend to incite people to kill themselves.

It is necessary to spread respect for life to prevent suicide, he added.

Remember that Korea's suicide rate doubled after the 1997 financial crisis because of destructive economic policies imposed from outside Korea, and has never gone down to pre-crisis levels since. I get the impression from this article that what most concerns the government is the "disgrace," the shame before other nations. But the anti-suicide plan will at least focus particularly "on strengthening the social and economic safety net for those in the low-income bracket and the aged, they said."

As short-term measures, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs is seeking to establish more screen doors at subway stations to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping in front of trains.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries plans to regulate purchases of poison pesticides in a bid to reduce the number of suicides.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Preaching To The Perverted

Immediately after watching this clip, I went looking for Terrance Dean’s Hiding in Hip Hop at the library, and I must report regretfully that it is, as Jay Smooth suspected, a “tell-all memoir,” though it's not that “saucy.” Dean lays on the misery very thick (not without reason: his mother and two younger brothers died of AIDS, among many other hardships he’s suffered) interspersed with basically pornographic accounts of his many sexual encounters with males, laden with loving, drooling accounts of his tricks’ muscular bodies and generous endowment -- not that there’s anything wrong with that! – and names changed to protect the guilty. If I knew more about hiphop, I could probably identify many of them, as some customer-reviewers at Amazon claim they can. Reading Dean’s account of his down-low sexual odyssey, I suddenly remembered a remark in Kobena Mercer’s ambivalent attack on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men (in Welcome to the Jungle [Routledge, 1994], 185):
In post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power America, where liberal orthodoxy provides no available legitimation for such folk myths, Mapplethorpe enacts a disavowal of this ideological “truth”: I know (its [sic] not true that all black guys have huge willies) but (nevertheless, in my photographs, they do).
This is part of Mercer’s explication of one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, the infamous “Man in Polyester Suit.” However, it happens not to be true that all the black men in The Black Book have “huge willies.” And look at it this way: I know that not all black guys have huge willies, but nevertheless, in E. Lynn Harris’s novels, and in Terrance Dean’s sexual memory, they do. It seems that Dean never got down on the down low with even one brother who wasn’t fine, sculpted, and hung, with “luscious lips [and a] hard thick muscle standing at attention between his legs” (128), a “massive hardness” waiting to be squeezed, pulled on, and sucked. Even granted the special circumstances in which Dean moved (the upper echelons of the entertainment business) and granted that Dean probably selects the high points of his many one-night stands, I find this implausible. And that makes me wonder how reliable his story is in general.

I’ve also seen Mapplethorpe disparaged because he liked his young black men to be as “street” as possible. Judging by Dean’s experience, this is not a fetish limited to gay white men: gay black men also crave “thugs,” “hoods,” guys who radiate toughness and aggressive virility. And not only gay black men feel that way: Dean isn’t the only witness to rappers’ need to put up a tough front for their ostensibly straight audiences. As Jay says on his blog, everything Dean says about hiphop in the clip “is pretty much equally applicable to America in general.”

For most of Hiding in HipHop, though, Terrance Dean describes his resistance to thinking of himself as gay. Mostly he refers to himself as “down low,” and it’s interesting to see the varied meanings that now-trendy term carries. First, it means “secret” or “hidden”, or as we white gay men would say, “closeted.” But there’s an important difference. It seems to me that “closeted” is generally a word we apply to others, not to ourselves, while “down low” is becoming an identity for significant numbers of African-African men who have sex with other African-American men. There’s a paradox there, since one of the hallmarks of men who have sex with men is that they reject any identity label: they just happen to have sex, evidently by accident, with dozens or hundreds of other men, but they’re not gay or bisexual. (This tendency is not restricted to non-white men: when gay anthropologist Bill Leap observed male sexual encounters in the locker room and sauna of an upscale health club in Washington D.C., he found that gay men generally exchanged phone numbers and met elsewhere, while the men who had sex in the club vehemently denied that they were even bisexual, let alone gay.) Yet “down low,” which used to refer to any ‘illicit’ sexual relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, is becoming an identity of its own: Dean refers to down low clubs and parties, to his “down low family,” and so on. I suspect that in time we'll see men identify publicly as “down low,” forgetting the contradiction in being openly hidden. (But then, “gay” has similar contradictions, having gone from an in-group code word to a public identity, and now to a pejorative.)

At other times, “down low” has other connotations for Dean, as when he mentions that he and another man “didn’t enjoy being around crowds of gay men. We were down low and we liked being low-key.” In this context “down low” seems to translate as “straight-acting” in gay white men’s jargon. Again, “When I got back to MTV, I noticed there were quite a few openly gay black men, who I stayed clear of because I still wasn’t comfortable being around obviously gay men.” Dean here confuses “obviously gay” with “openly gay.” “Openly gay” means that one’s gayness is an acknowledged public fact, whether or not one fits popular stereotypes. Being openly gay, explicitly declaring which team we bat for, has been important for precisely those of us who wouldn’t stand out in a straight crowd, so that we wouldn’t be mistaken for straight. “Obviously” gay men may not need to declare themselves, though I’ve met a fair number of screaming queens who were sure that no one knew about them.

One of the more painful aspects of Dean’s story is that for all his intelligence and education – he did well in high school and was offered scholarships to several colleges, finally attending Fisk University – he has shut his eyes to everything that has been happening among gay people in his lifetime. Not just white gay people, either, though if he read anything about the history of white American gays he might spot immediately the similarities between the down-low life he knows and white gay life down to the late 1960s: not just the fear of exposure and violence, but the feelings of inferiority and shame, the double lives and isolation. But Dean seems not to have ever encountered the voices of African-American gay experience.

In his strange and conflicted book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men (Broadway Books, 2004), J. L. King remarked, “It’s a helluva lot easier for white folks to accept homosexuality, because they have their ‘out’ Elton Johns and Ellens, their Queer as Folk and Will and Grace. ... Could a famous, popular black athlete ever come out like the Olympic diver Greg Louganis and get the same treatment?” Leaving aside the minor point that Louganis isn’t “white” but Pacific-Islander, like the former NFL player Esera Tuaolo (and see Keith Boykin’s article on black gay athletes), I’ll see King’s Elton John and raise him Little Richard and RuPaul. Black folks have their Meshell Ndegeocellos, their Alice Walkers, their Ma Raineys, their James Baldwins, their Audre Lordes, their Samuel Delanys, and a good many more.

It’s a pity that Dean apparently never stumbled on a copy of Joseph Beam’s Black Gay anthologies In the Life and Brother to Brother, or Marlon Riggs’s poetic video work Tongues Untied, though they appeared just as he was coming of age. At one point, when Dean is struggling especially hard in “the down low lifestyle,” he re-commits himself to church, “reading books on spirituality.” Why not some books on sexuality, or the intersection between sexuality and spirituality? By the end of Hiding in Hip Hop Dean has finally decided to come out, and he’s surprised by the amount of support he receives from his family, but he is still clearly extremely conflicted. Maybe his next book will have some better news.

Is That A Hypodermic In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

According to this article (via), skinny boys are now all the rage in fashion ads and runways.

In the late 90’s designers like Miuccia Prada, Raf Simons, and Hedi Slimane embraced an alternative male. He is slim, youthful, lean, frail, sensitive, lyrical, and odd, a little too odd at the time. This was not a man, it was a boy, and he did not go to the gym he went to the library, and in instead of growing muscle he cultivated interests. … And we find ourselves today in 2008 and those odd skinny creatures are ruling the runways. It’s almost impossible now for any muscle stud to find work in Paris or Milan save for a few fashion dinosaurs that still live out their heydays in the 90’s. Muscles have vacated the realm of luxury and have become especially low brow. The meek truly shall inherit the earth.

Until next week or whenever the fashion changes again, that is. I don’t think this is quite news – wasn’t there a media fuss a few years ago (1995, in fact) over Calvin Klein’s “heroin chic” ads, to say nothing of Twiggy (whose spare figure was called boyish) in the 1960s? I’m no fashionista, but this isn’t exactly insider knowledge: I believe I picked up on the CK brouhaha in the Village Voice.

I’ve always liked skinny boys myself, back before it was permitted by Our Shadowy Fashion Overlords. (Though I must say, some of the young men pictured here look downright anorectic; contrary to what Coco Chanel or the Duchess of Windsor or whoever it was said, you can be too thin.) But while the fashion world was catching up with me, I moved on to short, stocky, even chubby Latino men with strongly Indian features. Since I’m clearly prescient, forward-looking designers will want to start retooling for their Spring 2038 line, Aztec Campesino Chic.

What really annoys me about the piece, though, is not its failure of memory – we live in the United States of Amnesia, darlings, and this is a relatively trivial (if not benign) example. No, it’s the assumption that history moves in lockstep:

The male figure and visage, constantly idealized, is constantly morphing. In the 50’s it was solid and broad with large but poorly defined muscles. The face: reserved, strong jawed, and stoic, a man back from the war and ready to live the American Dream. In the 70’s the figure became leaner, sportier, and much furrier, think Burt Reynolds, (a young) John Travolta, and Mark Spitzer. It was a look that exuded sex on a more carnal level. But in the 80’s and into the 90’s the male ideal mutated into an inflated, steroid ridden, massive hulk.

Whose “male ideal”? A relative few designers, casting directors, and photographers I guess. But in any of those periods there were plenty of exceptions to the “ideal”: in the 50s, for instance, James Dean didn’t look like he’d just come back from the war, to say nothing of Sal Mineo or Elvis Presley. (Our blogger also seems to have confused Mark Spitz with “Mark Spitzer”, but the 70s was a long time ago.) No matter how often it’s pointed out that historical change doesn’t happen this way – that trends overlap, older strata coexist with newer ones – many people persist in talking as though yesterday goes into the dustbin of history, today is sparkling new, and Tomorrow Belongs To Me. Nor are individuals so simple: when I was younger I liked skinny boys and chunky boys, blonds and brunettes (and redheads). I rarely liked facial hair, but then every so often someone would come along and transcend type. I still like skinny boys, too, as well as barrel-chested morenos with bushy bigotes. I know that I’m far from alone in this charming messiness; what continues to mystify me is that so many people apparently want to think of themselves as being so narrow, so limited.

And what’s the post’s title about: “In Which Physical Perfection Becomes Profane Idolatry For the Masses”? They wish. Just because I want to get someone into bed, it doesn't mean I idolize him. But those who have something to sell – or who, as in this blogger’s case, identify with those who have something to sell – naturally wish they could make you buy their brand and none other. But it doesn’t work that way in the real world, and a good thing too.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dorothy (Del) Martin, 1921-2008

Okay, I'll get on the bandwagon, though I can't imagine everyone who cares hasn't already heard: Del Martin (on the right in the photo below), one of the cofounders of the pioneering Lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, died Wednesday at the age of 87. She's survived by her wife of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon (on the left).
I can't remember when I first heard of this enduring couple. They've been there, like parents, on the LGBTQ+ π scene ever since I came out in 1971. I met one or two of the other homophile-generation founders -- Franklin Kameny, Barbara Gittings -- but never Martin and Lyon, though I knew all about them from their joint book Lesbian/Woman. I knew more about them, in fact -- their lives, how they met, the work they did together -- than I know about my own parents, who were never obliging enough to write a book together.

And as with parents, there comes a day when the older generation of activists, the forerunners. are no longer there. But their having lived makes a huge difference. Courageous people like Martin and Lyon, Harry Hay, Kameny, Gittings, and so many others, changed our world -- and by "our", I mean straights too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

McCain and McAbel

I'm currently reading Richard Barrios' Screened Out: Playing Gay from Edison to Stonewall (Routledge, 2003), which amounts to a supplement to Vito Russo's groundbreaking The Celluloid Closet (Harper, 1981). Barrios covers a lot of ground that Russo couldn't: a good number of the films he discusses were hard to find in the 1970s when Russo was doing his research, and some were thought lost. Barrios also had access to a lot of archival material from the studios that probably wasn't available to researchers forty years ago. Screened Out is as good a read as The Celluloid Closet, and where the books overlap it's interesting to compare Barrios' take on certain films with Russo's. I may write about it more later, after I've finished it, because I have some quibbles here and there (surprise, surprise). But here's an interesting bit from pages 128-129, comparing a latter-day crusader against smut and violence in the movies with the censors of the 1930s:
On September 27, 2000, a congressional panel, chaired by Sen. John McCain (Rep., Arizona) convened a day of hearings in which the heads of major film studios were compelled to defend their marketing practices. A series of school shootings in the late 1990s, climaxing with the horrifying tragedy of thirteen dead students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had compelled some members of Congress to shine an unforgiving glare on the industry. In the aftermath of Littleton, the American film industry served as an eye-catching and easily attackable target – the great corrupter of the young – and the themes continued to resound to Congress and in the concurrent presidential campaign. Specific and heavy criticism was directed toward the guidelines by which R-rated films could be advertised to children under seventeen. “I don’t understand this language,” McCain complained to the executives, referring to the studios’ marketing policies. “I think it’s filled with loopholes. … Why don’t you just simply say that you will not market to children this kind of R rated material, that you will not market to children this kind of R rated material, that you will not market it to children under seventeen, period.” …

... followed by this footnote a page later:
Senator John McCain’s words, all these years later, seem quite in tune with the days of the Payne study and Our Movie-made Children: “I’d love to be the Super Censor,” he told an interviewer following his committee’s hearings. “I’d love to sit and watch movies every day and say which ones are suitable and which ones are not.”
I'll bet he would, that ol' horndog.

(Photo above from Weekly World News -- it must be true, right, or they wouldn't have published it!)

Monday, August 25, 2008

I Must! I Must! So I Can Read Photo Captions!

Here's one of those pictures that reminds me I need to work on my Korean. In the center is former Korean President Noh Mu Hyun; just to the right of him in the picture is the brilliant director Lee Chang Dong, one of my favorite filmmakers and one of the best in the world today. (I strongly recommend his harrowing second film, Peppermint Candy, though all of them are worth seeing.) Lee served as Minister of Culture during Noh's term of office, which goes some way to explain why he's there. But beyond that I'm lost, though I'm proud of myself for recognizing Lee in the picture even before I spelled out the caption.

It looks like the administration of current President Lee Myung Bak is continuing to try to intimidate dissenters. It's an advantage governments have over movements for social justice -- they don't have to work in plain sight. Whatever can be said against the candlelight vigils of the past summer, they had no real secrets. That may be why Lee and his supporters had to invent paranoid fantasies about North Korean funding and such. Regardless, Lee could retaliate by picking off his opponents when they didn't have the safety of numbers, by having them arrested and otherwise harassed one by one. The protests took place where they could be seen; the arrests, the trials, will happen with much less publicity. One flaw of the protests would seem to be that they didn't anticipate such tactics, or at least didn't plan how to respond to them.

Meanwhile, Lee's approval ratings have gone up slightly, probably in large part as a result of South Korea's strong showing at Beijing. Whether this rise will survive little problems like the declining currency, Koreans' discontent with law enforcement, and other worries about the economy, will have to be seen.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

As Obama Sinks Slowly on the Right

I've been very critical of Obama's remarks on Latin America, particularly his declared intention to continue the embargo against Cuba and his ign'ant attacks on Hugo Chavez. But Laura Carlsen has an interesting piece at Counterpunch, analyzing "A New Partnership for the Americas", a paper released by Obama's campaign after his pandering speech in Miami last May. Carlsen does a nice job, and raises some good points, but I think she's too optimistic with her talk of the necessity of a "leap of faith" (Jump! Jump!), and I'm taken aback by her claim (quoting the Miami speech!) that Obama's "perspective also seems to recognize that Latin America has come of age and validates in principle the reform experiments in the region that the Bush administration has vilified."

"Come of age"? Back in the 60s some of us used to question whether the United States was "ready for self-government," mocking a common American excuse for keeping various countries under our or European heels. I still don't see anything in the vacuous campaign rhetoric of Obama's Miami speech to indicate that he even understands what is at stake. It seems that he also "vilified" the reform movements in the region, and seems to think that the oppressive "governments that cared more about their own power than their peoples' progress and prosperity" emerged out of nowhere and survived without U.S. support. In Miami he said, "It's time to press Haiti's leaders to bridge the divides between them." Has Obama ever said anything about the U.S.-backed coup that removed Aristide from office in Haiti and established the current regime that he's now criticizing? Does he know anything about the active role the U.S. has played in stifling democracy in Latin America and elsewhere? It doesn't look like it, and that is inexcusable.

Has the U.S. come of age? It doesn't look like it to me. Carlsen finishes with the hope that "If the Obama campaign continues to build a grassroots base ... we have the raw material for making change." I don't think that any politician is going to build a grassroots base that will undercut him. The democracy movements that swept the U.S. in the 1960s weren't built by John F. Kennedy. Don't look to Obama's own machine to produce opposition to his policies.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twilight of the Clones

Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath (Da Capo Press, 2008) is a partial reprint of Andrew Holleran’s Ground Zero (William Morrow, 1988). Holleran explains in his introduction that

Dale Peck and the English editor Richard Canning were upset that certain books written during the AIDS epidemic by people like Allen Barnett, Harry Kondoleon, Christopher Coe, David Wojnarowicz, and John Weir were not only out of print but, they felt, had not received their due because of the times in which they were published. So they spoke to Don Weise, an editor at Carroll & Graf, about launching a series of reprints, a series now in abeyance because of the demise of that publisher. (Ground Zero was the only one that squeaked through.) What drew Weise to the project, however, is still valid: He was afraid that this part of gay history was being forgotten [page 2].

I share that concern, though I’m not sure that other parts of gay history are being remembered any better. From time to time I ask volunteers for our local GLB Speakers Bureau what is the most recent gay-related book they’ve read, and the most common answer is, “Um … I don’t remember …I don’t think I’ve read any.” It seems to me that these people, just by virtue of volunteering to speak publicly about being gay, would be more motivated than most GLB people to have read something. When other queerfolk of my generation remember how they scoured their libraries for any information about homosexuality they could find, and marvel (or lament) that today’s gay kids can see gay characters on TV, I have to remind myself that we bookworms were as atypical then as now.

So, it’s good that Holleran’s writings from the peak years of the AIDS crisis, which appeared as essays in the pioneering gay glossy Christopher Street, are back in print. They are primary sources for what it felt like to live in gay Manhattan during the early 1980s, and as always with Holleran's work they're beautifully written. If you’re concerned about history, though, you should probably skip Holleran’s introduction, because it’s a mess. He confuses the gay psychologist Walt Odets with his playwright father, Clifford Odets (3); he includes Samuel Delany (whose surname he misspells, but then so does almost everybody) in a list of writers who “wrote nonfiction that many consider their best work” (8) out of the AIDS crisis, all of whom also died of AIDS. Delany is still alive, and while he’s written important nonfiction, I’m not sure that his writings about AIDS are considered his best work. In the same list Holleran includes “Alan Barnett”, probably a misspelling of Allen Barnett (whose name, as you can see above, he does know how to spell correctly), who is known not for nonfiction but for a single volume of fiction, The Body and Its Dangers and other stories (St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

I know, I know: these are details – but there are more of them, and they’re the kind of details that should have been checked before putting them into print. There are also dubious historical judgments, like his defense of Arlene Croce’s denunciation of dancer / choreographer Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here – which she refused not only to review but even to see – as “victim art.” Holleran says, “When the dance critic Arlene Croce asked in The New Yorker how she was supposed to criticize a ballet about AIDS by a choreographer who had AIDS, she was predictably assailed for inquiring, but her question was valid. Who had the right to write about AIDS at all, much less make judgments? The only people, it seemed to me, with authority to do so were people with HIV” (6). Consider the errors of fact in his summary: Still/Here was a combination dance and theatre piece not a “ballet”, it was not only about AIDS but about other life-threatening conditions besides, and Croce didn’t defer to the authority of PWAs but denied that the work had any validity at all. (There’s an abstract of her polemic here.) And if only people with AIDS had the right to write about AIDS at all, what was Holleran doing?

It seems that Holleran still feels defensive about his lack of involvement in AIDS activism; he returns to the issue several times in the introduction:

Years ago a friend who had been as skeptical as I about Act Up at the beginning, but started going to its meetings after deciding the protests had accelerated medical help, accused me – after his death, through a mutual friend -- of not doing enough about AIDS. This has always bothered me. Last fall, reading the latest volume of Gore Vidal’s memoirs, I came upon this line: “I am also chided for not doing enough about AIDS, but my virological skills are few.” That’s it. If a virus could only be stopped by a scientist, it seemed to me at the time, all the rest of us could do was stand by friends [14].

Everyone has to make his or her own decisions in these matters, and I’m not casting the first stone at Holleran for not joining ACT-UP. What annoys me about his apologia (and Vidal’s, come to that) is the assumption that either you invented a cure in the laboratory, or you did nothing. By Holleran’s own standards, an uninfected person had no business even writing about it. What he’s doing here is not just justifying his own inaction, it’s devaluing the action of others, who not only ‘stood by friends’ but stood by people they didn’t know. It’s one thing for Holleran to have felt this way in the 80s; it’s another to try to exalt it now. (It may be worth noticing that among the writers on AIDS Holleran doesn’t mention is the lesbian novelist, playwright, and AIDS activist Sarah Schulman.)

What struck me as I read Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited was how different the tone and mood were from Ground Zero as I remembered it. This is partly because Holleran left out “six satires on safe sex” that appeared in the original. My count disagrees with his, though: as far as I can tell, seven essays from the original edition were left out and replaced with other (quite good) pieces. Holleran kept one of those satirical pieces, “Beauty NOW”, abandoned three (including an essay on Henry James), and added yet another, “My Little Trojan.”

But even the essays that remained from the earlier edition seemed to read differently after twenty years. This may be partly because I’ve read the books Holleran has written in the interim, and except for some of the stories in the collection In September, the Light Changes, his writing has descended more into gloom and – dare I say it? I dare – self-pity. How much this reflects Holleran’s own personality I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter: I’m talking about what he writes and publishes. His most recent book, the novella Grief, is about a gay man in late middle age coping with his mother’s death, and the title accurately reflects its mood. The novel The Beauty of Men, parts of which originally appeared as essays in Christopher Street, was about a middle-aged gay man who mourns his increasing inability to play the game of Fast Food Sex (as Holleran had called it before) that had been his preferred pattern in gay life. Unlike Holleran, who writes and teaches, the narrator of The Beauty of Men seems to have no life outside of the baths and other cruising places, except for visiting his mother in the nursing home. Holleran's fictional world has, if anything, shrunk over the past three decades.

Holleran’s sense of the country he inhabits also seems skewed. Reflecting on the spare, puritanical paintings of Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Eakins, he wrote (62):

We have always been two countries – Puritan and Cavalier – as there are two cities in New York right now: the infected and uninfected. One country is chaotic – illegal immigrants, heart transplants [?], pornography and drugs, homosexuals and AIDS. The other has been around much longer, and speaks from these paintings. Nothing decorative, nothing baroque. No crosses, and no Virgin Marys. No birth, and no death. Just the trackless forest, the mountain pass, the shaft of sunlight landing on a clearing in the valley, the solitary sitter.

How can a southerner like Holleran write as though America equals New England? The “Puritan” strain has not “been around much longer” than the “Cavalier” – among the English, Cavaliers beat the Puritans to the New World by a couple of decades, and of course the Spanish, with their crosses and Virgin Marys, were earlier by a century. To say nothing of the people who were already there when the Europeans landed bearing plague: people with towns and farms and their own lives. Even the Puritans weren’t as colorless as Holleran wishes to believe. No, Holleran sees America this way because he wants to see it this way, just as he wants to ignore all gay men (let alone lesbians) outside the clone subculture. It’s part of what, with perverse pride, he and “the Jesuits call ‘morose delectation’ – an addiction to melancholy” (3).

In the essay “Tuesday Nights” he writes about a gay men’s discussion group he attended in Gainesville, Florida:

Ten years ago I would never have come to a meeting of this sort. People who belonged to groups like this, or went to the gay churches, were, I assumed, people who did not have the nerve to look for a partner in the actual world: the baths, beaches, and bars. In the old days tricking was how we met people. … How to integrate our homosexuality with the rest of our selves, our lives – our family, our society, our upbringing – was a problem a minority, not a majority, of the gay men I knew were able to solve before the plague [203, 205].

I notice that when Holleran writes “we,” he usually means “I.” Like many who write about the gay male fast lane, Holleran has paid lip service to the notion that such men are only one subgroup among gays – Doomed Queens, he called them in his first novel Dancer from the Dance (Morrow, 1978, page 249):

And even so, do you realize what a tiny fraction of the mass of homosexuals we were? That day we marched to Central Park and found ourselves in a sea of humanity, how stunned I was to recognize no more than four or five faces? Of course our friends were all at the beach, darling; they couldn’t be bothered to make a political statement.) I used to say there were only seventeen homosexuals in New York, and we knew every one of them; but there were tons of men in that city who weren’t on the circuit, who didn’t dance, didn’t cruise, didn’t fall in love with Malone, who stayed home and went to the country in the summer. We never saw them.

But in most of his writing he and his narrators simply equate that “tiny fraction” with (male) homosexuality tout court. Like too many gay men I’ve known, Holleran has painted himself into a corner, called that little spot the world, and then complained because it’s so cramped and isolated. Holleran really ought to get back in touch with his inner Sutherland. Let me quote Holleran to himself once more, from Dancer again, page 51:

“You know, I hate being gay,” said the boy, leaning over toward Sutherland.“I just feel it’s ruined my life. It drains me, you know, it’s like having a tumor, or a parasite! If I were straight I’d get married and that would be it. But being gay, I waste so much time imagining! I hate the lying to my family, and I know I’ll never be any of the things they expect of me,” he said, “because it’s like having cancer but you can’t tell them, that’s what a secret vice is like.”

Sutherland was speechless at this declaration; he sat there for a moment, and then he said, “Perhaps what you need … perhaps what you need,” he said, in a speculative tone, "is a good facial.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Group "W" Bench

Based on what police and detainees said August 19, police placed five protesters, including a 27-year-old office worker by the name of Goh, in a holding cell after they were apprehended in a candlelight demonstration August 15. There, they were asked to remove their bras. They at first refused, but police continued to demand they do so, saying the detainees could use the bras to kill themselves. In the end, they took off their bras, and spent about 40 hours in detention until they were released Sunday evening.

-- "Women detained by police forced to remove bras after demo", The Hankyoreh, 2008

After the ordeal we went back to the jail. Obie said he was going to put us in the cell. Said, "Kid, I'm going to put you in the cell, I want your wallet and your belt." And I said, "Obie, I can understand you wanting my wallet so I don't have any money to spend in the cell, but what do you want my belt for?" And he said, "Kid, we don't want any hangings." I said, "Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?" Obie said he was making sure, and friends Obie was, cause he took out the toilet seat so I couldn't hit myself over the head and drown, and he took out the toilet paper so I couldn't bend the bars roll out the - roll the toilet paper out the window, slide down the roll and have an escape.

-- Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant Massacree, 1967

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

No Homo

"Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." -- Matthew 15.11, King James (No Homo) Version

Monday, August 18, 2008

Am I Blue?

The Seoul Police overstepped a bit this weekend. I’d been wondering why they were using colored water in their water cannons; turns out it was to mark demonstrators for arrest. (On August 5 they used red coloring; on August 15, they used blue.) According to The Hankyoreh, though, quite a few passersby were hit by the spray and then arrested, as were some undercover police officers in the crowd. (Photo from OhMyNews, who also have a slideshow here.)

“A judge with the Seoul Central District Court said that if police are going to arrest people with coloring on them for flagrant offenses, they need to prove that they fired the water cannon at demonstration participants only, and that nobody besides them was hit.” But those who support authoritarian regimes in collaboration with global corporate capital shouldn’t worry: the repressive elements in Lee Myeong-bak’s administration, including Lee himself, will find other ways to intimidate and stifle dissent in Korea.

Korea Dispatch caught my attention with “The ‘bulldozer’ and the Buddha’: Korea’s dangerous middle”. “Militant” (?) organizers of the candlelight vigils have taken sanctuary in Jogye Temple from the Lee administration’s attempts to arrest them. Some of the monks are engaged in a "very public hunger strike against what they say is a government hostile to Buddhism.” (What point would there be to a private hunger strike? I ask merely for information.)

“Politics in Korea has for centuries been polarized by bitter factionalism,” writes Dispatch blogger Peter Schurmann. Unlike, say, the US? I’m always baffled when I read statements like this. “… That division continued into the twentieth century, the most glaring example being the line dividing North from South, with nothing in the middle but guns and explosives.” And of course, outside forces had nothing to do with that division, it was entirely a result of Korean factionalism. This description of Korea (which is by no means unique to Schurmann, as readers of this blog will know; here, for example) seems the knee-jerk reverse of many Koreans’ and outsiders’ claim that Korea rejects Western binaries and divisions. Both positions are caricatures.

From a personal standpoint, as a quasi-Buddhist I think of the teaching of the middle way, and wonder why these striking monks aren’t doing the same. Rather than widening the gulf that already exists in this country’s political and religious landscape, a gulf far wider and more damaging than any national canal could possibly be, why not — as one of the few groups with any authority capable of doing so — operate in the middle? In a country divided between black and white, their grey robes should stand for something more.

Gee, that sounds so reasonable -- only an extremist could disagree. I don’t even rate as a quasi-Buddhist, but Schurmann’s invocation of the doctrine of the middle way reminds me of people who say that Einstein’s theory of Relativity proved that “everything is relative.” I’ve been wary of people who talk about seeking the Golden Mean between extremes ever since I first encountered the doctrine in freshman Philosophy class in 1969. It immediately made me think of the new US President at the time, Richard Milhous Nixon, who could have gone to one extreme and killed all the Vietnamese, or to the other extreme and killed no Vietnamese, so he chose the Middle Way and killed only a few million of them.

The beauty of the Golden Mean is that you can use it to justify any course of action you like. Just select or invent positions that differ from what you want to do, and dismiss them as “extremes” that you moderately and reasonably choose to avoid. It can be manipulated easily to support the status quo, as Ellen Willis showed in one of her early satirical pieces: “For example, the feminist bias is that women are equal to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men. The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.” (“Glossary for the Eighties,” reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, [Knopf 1981], p. 146)

But one of the more powerful answers to the Golden Mean appears in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. As you can see, King tells how at first he tried to cast himself as a moderate between two extremes, but then changed his mind:

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement.... I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the "do-nothingism" of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest....

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic.

King could have also quoted Jesus’ condemnation of the middle way from Revelation 3:16 (“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth”). I don’t share King’s Christianity, of course, but I like his take on this question. From what little I know of the Buddha, his doctrine of the Middle Path didn’t keep him from taking strong positions, nor from being wrong (as in his misogyny, though maybe his eventual acceptance of ordaining nuns, despite his reluctance, was a golden mean position of some kind).

I wonder what sort of Middle Way Peter Schurmann envisions for the fugitive protestors and the hunger-striking monks at Jogye. Maybe the temple should just hand over some of the protestors to Lee’s cops? Or should the monks moderate their hunger strike to a diet? Schurmann insists on framing the conflict as one between extremes, but I think it’s at least arguable that the response to Lee’s policies has mostly been quite moderate, the middle way of predominantly peaceful assembly to which Lee responded with paranoid Red-baiting and repression. A Middle Way would begin with a more balanced view of the situation.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Privates, Your Privates, All God's Children Got Privates

There’s an interesting discussion of invisibility, both literal and figurative, going on at Kelley Eskridge’s blog. (I’ve already weighed in with a comment.)

Here’s something, though. Several of the participants, including Kelley herself, mentioned government surveillance (with invisibility as a way to evade it):

And I do understand that my privacy is already violated in a zillion different ways by my own government. I don’t discount that at all. I think it’s wrong. And I also do not take it personally in the same way I would if my neighbor got invisible and snuck into my office and watched me while I was working.

What suddenly struck me about these sentiments is how American they are. They may even be a product of the very surveillance she’s talking about.

In a “traditional” society people have little privacy. Everybody knows your business, and it’s hard to get away from the watchful eyes, the listening ears. “Private” space, especially indoors, is not easy to find when there are no doors that lock, when servants and slaves are constantly listening to be called. People at the top of the food chain, royalty and nobility, possibly had less “privacy” than commoners, since they were dressed by servants, excreted before waiting servants in pots brought and carried away by servants, slept with servants nearby. Even sleeping alone in a bed was unusual; I was struck when I read The Odyssey for the first time a decade ago, that when prince Telemachus visits another court, he’s given a prince as a bedfellow. Who’d want to sleep alone? It’s lonely, and cold.

When I was in junior high school forty years ago, boys were expected to undress and shower in front of each other before gym class. If you were shy about it, you must be a fairy, since bodily modesty was considered a feminine trait. Around 1990 I began hearing from young college males that they had never been naked in front of their classmates – not even athletes. Some young swimmers were as shocked to learn that I’d routinely showered naked with other boys in school, as I was to learn that they never had: they showered in their suits. (Paradoxically enough, male modesty in the gym was increasing at the same time as the “pornification” of American society, with more eroticized public nudity in media among men and women alike.) According to a local newspaper article, boys’ locker rooms in newer schools are routinely built with individual shower cubicles. Around a decade later, I was hanging out with some Korean friends and an American friend of theirs in his early 20s, who I discovered had gone to my high school. Somehow the subject of communal showers came up, and my Korean friends were as startled as I was to hear this boy indignantly hiss that of course he wouldn’t take a shower in front of other students – it would be a violation of privacy! Although most Koreans now have private bathrooms at home, public baths are still popular in Korea with people of both sexes and all ages, and if this guy ever goes there he’ll have some adjusting to do.

One reason I’m not so concerned by what the government knows about me in this age of high-tech surveillance is that it doesn’t – in principle – feel all that new. My birth is on record, with the certificate filed in the county courthouse back home. My school records are government files, and so on. The census (which many people denounce as illicit government spying) is mandated in the Constitution. Government spying itself is not exactly a new development, including illegal spying. That doesn’t mean I can’t be brought up short if someone overheard a conversation without my knowledge. I wouldn’t feel all that safe even without illegal (or legal) wiretaps, though, because I also know that people will misreport what I’ve said in any case. Years ago, when another gay man complained that “everyone” knew who he’d slept with last night, I told him, “Remember, you have no secrets in this town -- especially the ones that aren’t true!” I suppose one advantage of the gay male tradition of anonymous sex is that it gave us some secrecy (though probably not as much as we thought): if he doesn’t know your name, he can’t tell everybody about your secret shameful fetishes!

I think that Americans’ assumptions about privacy are related to our myth of heroic individualism, symbolized as escaping into the wilderness from concentrations of people. But that, I suspect, is The Myth of the Frontier, of solitary self-reliant pioneers who wanted lots of space between themselves and their nearest neighbor. Did frontierspeople have much privacy? Did young Abe Lincoln have privacy in his log cabin? Probably not. This used to be an advantage of cities, and it was one of the reasons people ran away to them, to get away from ingrown communities where everyone knew everybody else, and there was always someone breathing down your neck.* As Laura María Agustín put it (in Sex at the Margins, Zed Books 2007, p. 45), “In the sentimentalizing that occurs around ‘uprooting,’ the myriad possibilities for being miserable at home are forgotten. Many people are fleeing from small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets and suffocating families.” One of the battiest notions of the ‘communitarian’ left, as exemplified by Christopher Lasch, was that The Family is a “haven in a heartless world.”

It doesn’t bother me that the government knows where I live, or that the supermarket knows when I last bought toilet paper. The ‘violation’ of my privacy (though I don’t consider these things private, any more than the fact of my homosexuality) in earlier times or other cultures would have taken different forms, but it would still have been a reliable feature of my life. It’s not that I feel safe under this government, or any other. What worries me more is misreporting, misinformation. People who’ve gotten their FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act tend to report that what they find most surprising is how inaccurate much of that government “intelligence” was. Things have not really improved since 9/11, as far as I can tell. Too many of the people who have been disappeared, in the US itself and in our foreign domains, were chosen on the basis of equally unfounded reports. As another commenter at Kelley Eskridge’s blog put it, “The thing is, I once read the Paranoid’s Manual, and the first rule said that, ‘No matter how paranoid you are, you can never be paranoid enough.’” But that applies just as much to the low-tech Inquisition. It’s not what other people know about me that makes me nervous, it’s what they think they know, and what they’ll feel entitled to do about it.

* Even in the cities, private space is and was hard to come by. How much privacy did a lodger have who slept on the couch? How much privacy did you have in the tenements, with a family crammed into one room?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Card Redux

I’ve often found it helpful to turn commonplaces around and see what sort of sense they make. For example:

Heterosexuals aren’t a real minority. Heterosexuality is a lifestyle choice. It’s not something you’re born with, and you can’t tell that a person is a heterosexual by looking at them.

The first objection to this might be that no one says that heterosexuals are a minority -- indeed, a major claim of heterosexual supremacists is that they are an overwhelming majority. This is supposed to prove that they are right, or at least that they’re better than homosexuals. But moral absolutists would insist that right and wrong can’t be put to a vote: no matter how many people want to do something wrong, it’s still wrong. Many feel quite comfortable denouncing what is worldly, what is held by most people to be acceptable – it’s an ancient Christian position, and by no means unique to them. I basically agree that right and wrong aren’t decided by numbers, and that the majority can be wrong, even on very serious matters. But if that’s so, then the numerical superiority of heterosexuals doesn’t establish their moral superiority to homosexuals, or even equality with us.

Heterosexual supremacists know very well, of course, that heterosexuals are the majority. (Hard-core, militant flaunting heterosexual supremacists may be a minority, though.) Why, then, do so many of them insist on presenting themselves as vulnerable, if not helpless victims of the Homosexual cabal? As Sarah Schulman pointed out in her brilliant book Stage Struck: theater, AIDS, and the marketing of gay America (Duke University Press, 1998), page 124:

Historically, dominant people have always been comfortable with the idea of oppressed people as secretly powerful. The easiest example, of course, is how for almost two thousand years, dominant groups of various stripes have convinced themselves that they were ruled over by a secret cabal of Jews.

… or Catholics, or Freemasons, or Communists. There’s even the term “Homintern”, possibly coined by the poet W. H. Auden as a campy play on Comintern, which was adopted by some heterosexuals sure that a homosexual Mafia had taken over the arts and was moving in on the State Department.

Orson Scott Card, like many heterosexual supremacists, claims (he has no arguments) that legalizing same-sex marriage is a lethal threat to the heterosexual many. I’m not the only person who wonders what kind of threat it could possibly be, given our numerical insignificance and the likelihood (even according to bigots) that only a few of us would give up our nonstop cavalcade of mind-blowing sex with thousands of anonymous partners in order to marry.

One response appears to be that we will marry anyway, to get Special Rights, which will bankrupt the country by their expense. Even if we all married, I can’t imagine how our Special Rights would cost the economy any more than the vastly greater numbers of heterosexual couples’ Special Rights do.

Or maybe when ignorant young heterosexuals see homosexuals marrying, they will decide that same-sex marriage is normal, which will either mysteriously devalue marriage itself in their eyes, or lead them to turn homosexual and marry same-sex partners. Since American heterosexuals began rejecting marriage in favor of cohabitation (‘living in sin’) long before homosexuals began to agitate for same-sex marriage, I’m not the only person who has wondered if heterosexuals hadn’t already devalued marriage before we decided to lay claim to it. (Sort of like buying rich folks’ castoffs at Goodwill. Some advocates of same-sex marriage actually say that heterosexuals have devalued marriage with their high divorce rate, etc. If it’s so devalued, why do they want it?) Maybe same-sex marriage would make marriage look “cool” in any configuration, seducing young heterosexuals into contracting mixed-sex marriages so they could be as “with it” as Teh Gay, just as they adopt our fashions and musical trends. If so, whether they marry heterosexually or homosexually, they may find that it doesn’t come easily or naturally.

Which brings me to the question of nature. Card wrote:

No matter how sexually attracted a man might be toward other men, or a woman toward other women, and no matter how close the bonds of affection and friendship might be within same-sex couples, there is no act of court or Congress that can make these relationships the same as the coupling between a man and a woman.

This is a permanent fact of nature. …

Human beings are part of a long mammalian tradition of heterosexuality.

Is heterosexual marriage a matter of nature? If so, there’s nothing so special about it. The copulation of a male and female dog would be “the same” as heterosexual marriage on Card’s assumptions. Heterosexual supremacists almost admit this at times, when they claim that even animals “know” that you need a male and a female to produce offspring. Animals don’t know any such thing as far as I’m aware. Homosexuals know very well that our couplings will not produce children, and even the most militant heterosexuals do not want their every copulation to result in conception. I don’t see why an animal function needs the kind of hysterical defense Card and his ilk are trying to mount. Contrary to Card’s claim, animal copulation does not equal “heterosexuality,” an ideology which structures copulation into institutionalized forms. Heterosexual marriage is clearly not natural, but a lifestyle choice.

Perhaps Card considers heterosexual marriage superior on “spiritual” grounds. Not all religious believers have thought so. Jesus reportedly thought it better to refrain from any sexual relations, and perhaps that the abstinent had a better chance of attaining salvation. Paul certainly thought so: he warned the Corinthians that the married person cares about what his or her spouse wants, while the single person cares about what God wants, so that while marriage is permissible as a licit outlet for lust, abstinence is preferable. (Jesus went further, demanding that his followers put obedience to him before family obligations.) Many later Christian fathers agreed with him. The Mormons are not the only Christian sect to abandon these teachings of the two greatest Christian exemplars. Other world religions and numerous philosophers have held similar views, regarding sexual desire as a snare and the vagina as a grave.

If we accept, though, the view of heterosexual marriage as a spiritual good, one must ask whether only religious believers ought to be allowed to marry. Do heterosexual atheists travesty true marriage if they marry legally without benefit of clergy? Will just any religion do, or does marriage have to be contracted in the name of the Christian god? Perhaps only Latter Day Saints can mine the blessings of heterosexual marital copulation. In any case, these are questions which heterosexual supremacists should be expected to answer. Typically, Card equivocates, treating heterosexual marriage as something both “natural” (“older than government”, like slavery, rape, and warfare) and something so tenuous and fragile that it must be legislated.

Card goes further: he says that heterosexual marriage is something “very, very hard -- to combine the lives of a male and female, with all their physical and personality differences, into a stable relationship that persists across time.” As I pointed out before, this seems to imply that heterosexual marriage – perhaps even heterosexuality itself – is unnatural. Perhaps this is why so many heterosexual marriages fail, and why Card describes marriage as “a permanent or semipermanent bond”.

Maybe he thinks that producing such a bond would be even more difficult between two men or two women. If so, wouldn’t that make it an ideal even more devoutly to be sought? Maybe he thinks it impossible; I venture that it’s not for him to say, but even so he needs to provide compelling reasons why same-sex couples should not be allowed to try.

And here he runs into a serious obstacle. Probably he doesn't argue on religious grounds that marriage must be heterosexual-only, because that would ignore the First Amendment too blatantly, and give his game away. So he confuses marriage with reproduction and insists that marriage just naturally is heterosexual-only, one-man-one-woman-only. But reproduction does not equal marriage, as any single mother can tell you. Reproduction is a natural phenomenon (though of course being human, we humans have laden it with all sorts of symbolic meaning), and it's true that the state can't change that by legislation. On the other hand, human beings have always struggled against the natural limitations of our bodies, including in reproductive matters. Heterosexuals whose bodies won't spawn only accept childlessness as their god's will after exhausting the resources of prayer, magic, and medicine. Since marriage is a human institution that isn't naturally anything, Card and other heterosexual supremacists don't have an argument. (I feel the same way, incidentally, about gay marriage advocates who say things like, "if marriage is really about love..." It's not.)

In the end these considerations are beside the point. If two men or two women want to exchange vows sanctifying their couplehood, it is not illegal (yet) for them to do so. Under the U. S. Constitution, the State is not supposed to decide such matters. If a cult doesn’t want to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, that is its right, but it may not block other cults from recognizing them. (I notice again that nowhere in his rant does Card so much as mention polygamy; but I see he has addressed it here, with equal historical and theological dishonesty.) Card claims that if same-sex marriage is legally recognized, there will come a day when cults will be required to recognize them as valid. I doubt it, if only because Christian cults aren’t required to recognize heterosexual marriages that don’t meet their standards. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, doesn’t have to recognize civil marriages involving Catholics unless they also take place under cult auspices – and if one partner isn’t a Catholic, he or she must meet cult requirements, such as contracting to raise any children as Catholics, or the church wedding will not take place.

I know that there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals who want the State to bend churches to their will. I hope they fail. Religions are not required by US law to be fair, just, or decent, and I would prefer that more people stopped expecting them to be. The State, however, should be just and fair and if possible, decent. (I said "should.")

What is being disputed now is civil marriage and the Special Rights with which it endows those who have access to it. There’s something about marriage – rather like patriotism – which makes people argue in bad faith. When the city of San Francisco briefly issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, numerous couples asked the clerks to bless them as well. Some complied. (See Mark Jordan, Blessing Same-sex Unions [Chicago, 2005] pp. 1-5.) If a random city clerk would do, why do they need a priest or minister to bless them? Blessings are not a commodity for the State to dispense. Advocates of same-sex marriage seem to be as likely as their opponents to confuse civil and cult marriage, as though a City Hall ceremony will save them from 'living in sin.' If sin worries them, they’ll have to work for change within their respective cults, without benefit of government. As for those Special Rights they want so badly, I’d like to know why single people shouldn’t get them too. As M. le Ioz put it, if those Special Rights are human rights, why should you have to be married to get them?

Card asks rhetorically, “If a court declared that from now on, ‘blind’ and ‘sighted’ would be synonyms, would that mean that it would be safe for blind people to drive cars?” To see just how disingenuous this is, imagine another sort of religious zealot applying the same analogy to religious freedom. It’s not so far-fetched, really; some Christians have tried to argue that religious freedom in the US only protects Christian sects, with a special dispensation for Jews too, but letting Muslims and Hindus worship freely is going too far. So, if a court declares that from now on, ‘Mormon’ and ‘Christian’ should be synonyms… Card has not shown, though, how permitting same-sex couples to marry would be unsafe.

And I can’t help wondering how far he wants to go. As I pointed out earlier, there is no legal barrier to a same-sex couple’s exchanging vows and receiving a blessing – having a wedding, in other words – and then calling themselves married. Their marriage would have no legal status, but Card has already declared that the law doesn’t define marriage (though he also considers it vital that the State define marriage to suit him). Sectarian heterosexual supremacists need not recognize their marriage, any more than the Roman Catholic Church must recognize heterosexual marriages it doesn’t authorize. Does Card want the State to intervene in ‘defense’ of the institution of marriage against such guerilla weddings? Given his coy advocacy of armed heterosexual rebellion if same-sex marriage is legalized, and his earlier advocacy of the selective enforcement use of sodomy laws to keep homosexuals from getting too uppity (this was before sodomy laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003), I wouldn’t be surprised.

Bigots often try to excuse themselves by pointing out that their prejudices are based in their religion. I think it’s safe to say that in the West, at least, most bigotry has been based in religion, if only because religion is used to support social norms. Would Card argue that there was no bigotry in the 19th century persecution of Mormons, since it was based on the religious beliefs of the persecutors? The persecution of Jews by Christians was religiously based. The persecution of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, of Quakers by Anglicans … all were justified as the defense of the Faith by Christ’s soldiers against Satan-worshiping infidels. Religious belief was used to justify racial segregation in the US in my lifetime – those Christian schools that proliferated in the 1960s were in large part an attempt to evade desegregation by hiding behind religion. (Consider the history of Bob Jones University, for that matter.)

Card has complained, “It’s just one of those things where I think, 'Why have I been singled out as your enemy?’” he says. “Why do some people call for a boycott of my books? I don’t make this a cause. I’m not attacking anybody.” Scott darling, I’m not singling you out, nor as far as I know is anyone else: you’re just one of many bigots out there. No doubt you have numerous causes, not just the demonization of homosexuals. You told that interviewer “I’m not attacking anybody” before you wrote your attack on same-sex marriage and advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, but you already had some attacks on gay people to your credit even then. “Disingenuous” is too mild a word: “out of touch with reality” comes a little nearer. If you stood alone, your bigotry might be considered merely eccentric, but the Latter Day Saints is officially engaged in trying to overturn legal same-sex marriage in California. It’s not just you; you’re part of something larger. And freedom of speech means not just your freedom to express your opinions, but the freedom of others to attack your opinions.

Friday, August 15, 2008

War Is Just God's Way of Teaching Americans Geography

... except that as usual with God's ways, it doesn't work very well. But it's still a great line, one of Jon Stewart's best. (Well, his writers'.)

FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Media) has a good media advisory on the coverage of the Russian (I almost wrote "Soviet" there) attack on Georgia, and provide some helpful historical background.

Be sure to watch the clip if you want to see what Dubya was doing with those scantily clad female beach volleyball players -- still photos don't do it justice. And I was wondering what was going on when I saw that photo of W being lifted from his seat by the Secret Service; Wonkette (via) and many others have concluded he was drunk. (More similar photos here.) At least he didn't throw up on anyone.

Listen to this song by Nicola Griffith's early-1980s band Jane's Plane. It's good haunting stuff, especially for a recording made "after much drinking" at 2 a.m. I'm presently rereading Griffith's first novel Ammonite, which for some reason didn't do much for me when I first read it, but now (maybe because I've read her later books) it makes a powerful impression.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Don't They Know It's The End Of The World?

That's strange: I could have sworn I'd posted this review already, but evidently I haven't. And here I was trying to get my act together to write something about the new reissue of this book (with a different title and somewhat different contents), which would necessitate referring to this review. It originally appeared in Gay Community News, March 12-18, 1989.

Ground Zero, by Andrew Holleran. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1988. 228 pp. $16.95 clothbound

No matter how funny and lyrical they were, no matter how beautifully written, Andrew Holleran's earlier novels were damaged for me by his ambivalence about being gay, particularly in Dancer from the Dance. He wrote some of the most exhilarating accounts I have ever read of the sheer excitement of being an urban gay man in the 1970s: the ecstasy of dancing, the beauty of men's bodies, the "joy that there were men who loved other men." Yet at the same time he seemed unable to shake the feeling that there was something wrong with it all. His characters' complaints seemed to come from his own heart: "Homosexuality is like a boarding school in which there are no vacations." "Gay life fascinates you only because it is the life which you were condemned to live." On the other hand, it was this ambivalence which not only made Dancer bearable but may have been the engine which drove it to the heights it achieved, giving us the incomparable comedy team of Malone and Sutherland: every time Malone's Fifties self-pity reared its head, Sutherland would slap it down: "Perhaps what you a good facial." I always felt that if Holleran had done one more draft of Dancer, he'd have found the proper balance for the guilt and the joy, and it would have been a better book.

But after reading Ground Zero, his new collection of essays about gay men's life in the age of AIDS, I think I understand what was going on. Holleran is one of those writers who has a Theme, and his is Lost Innocence. In Dancer, Lost Innocence meant the days before you had come out, preferably the days before you'd had any sex with men at all: "A homosexual will never have such a close relationship with his heterosexual peers again, unless he enters the army, a relationship that sublimated sexuality makes even more moving." Now, however, the Plague has changed all that, at least for Holleran. Lost Innocence now means the days before AIDS: sex, drugs, dancing, and all; when Fire Island was the Dangerous Island only because there you might lose "your heart, your mind, your reputation, your contact lenses." As a result, Ground Zero is Holleran's best book so far; while it hasn't (thankfully) become uncritical, his ambivalence no longer rejects gay life. Holleran's obsession with Lost Innocence unifies these pieces, which were originally published in magazines over several years. Everything has fallen into place; he's never been funnier—

In ancient Rome, a certain empress would slip out of the palace at night, Juvenal tells us, to take a room in a local brothel and entertain customers till dawn. This was being both promiscuous and a prostitute. (And bored.) (And an empress.) ["Notes on Promiscuity"]

SUGGESTION: Put a little sign above the bathroom mirror that says: 1. I will wash my face every night. 2. I will not let anyone sit on it. ["Beauty NOW"]

or angrier --

It still seems against nature, a violation of the hierarchy of things, that a microbe could destroy a man who could stop on a summer evening and talk about friends, Rome, Christmas, while the city he loved went past us. It still seems a scandal that an item scientists do not even define as living -- a microbe that can't paint angels, trumpets, clouds, or gods upon a ceiling – can devour a creature who can. It still seems a reproach that a virus can return us from the twentieth century to the Stone Age. . . .

Human beings lie broken and shattered on the ground, like statues pulled down by barbarians invading Rome, or Protestants smashing the art in a cathedral. ["Snobs at Sea: 1983"]

The high-pitched giggle Pat Buchanan broke into whenever interviewing a homosexual on Crossfire -- the blush, the expression of a nine-year-old boy telling a dirty joke that inevitably suffused his face, the near falsetto of his voice when homosexuality was the subject of the program -- only typifies the way legions of people like him view homosexuals: as an off-color joke. ["The Absence of Anger"]

or more lyrically elegiac --

Or the dance floor at Track's. It's filled with people dancing; the handsome men take their shirts off at a certain point, as they used to formerly, observing rituals practiced by a court that no longer exists. It is all muted, a ghost of itself, all difficult to explain, till I see a muscular man beating a stick against a gourd while a woman dances to his syncopation and, as she whirls around, read what the sweatshirt she's wearing says: CHOOSE LIFE. That is the caption that explains the dance now, and our whole community. ["Trust"]

-- or prouder to be gay, and he never strikes a false note. Because of AIDS or despite it, there seems to be a new renaissance of gay men's writing going on, with exciting new writers like Stephen McCauley and older ones like Holleran and Edmund White working at the peak of their powers. I'm now thirty-eight years old, the age at which Malone swam into the sea from Fire Island; I've looked a long time for gay books which speak fully to me about the complexity of my life. Our lives. They're starting, finally, to appear. Ground Zero is one of them.