My #MeToo Moment

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have shared their stories with the #MeToo hashtag millions of times since October, when an exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment of female employees and performers was quickly followed by similar disclosures about actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and numerous others. #MeToo was coined 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, the program director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers young women of color.

Closer to home, in late October my high school alma mater sent out a mass email to current and former students, parents, and faculty, saying that the school was investigating alleged inappropriate sexual contact between “former employees” and students in the 1990s and earlier. (I attended from 1982-89.) This probe was reportedly sparked by an alumna’s #MeToo post. What followed was an amazing, heartfelt outpouring of personal stories on our alumni Facebook page–so many of us finally breaking through the walls erected by our school’s competitive culture and by the general pressure on urban teenagers to seem sophisticated and invulnerable.

Our school was an amazing place to be a talented maverick, and gave me a better education than Harvard. But if you want to understand its shadow side, read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I remember being assigned to read it in 9th grade and not understanding it at all. As David Foster Wallace said, the fish asks, “What is water?”

I reread it out of curiosity last year after I heard that it had queer subtext. Now the title character’s narcissism is blindingly obvious (though I still find Sandy’s religious vocation unconvincing). But as a teen, I must have thought it was normal for teachers to play favorites, track their students into single-issue identities as “the singer” or “the poet” or “the math genius”, and tacitly encourage us to outdo one another in specialness instead of finding solidarity with our peers.

At times I benefited from this system, with life-changing mentors in poetry and theology. At other times I felt crushed by the inability to break into the inner circle of the performing arts departments. Either way I grew up with an unhealthy sense that my fate, and my talents or lack thereof, were mostly unchangeable.

I was bullied a lot, but never sexually harassed or assaulted at school, unless you count the time that the other smartest kid in 7th-grade Latin class looked up all the swear words in our dictionary so he could call me a whore (meretrix). However, the sexually charged atmostphere felt unsafe to me, and I resisted growing up too fast, even though this made me terribly lonely (and led to some awful fashion choices–Laura Ashley fabric should be only for sofas). My mother supported this choice for the self-serving reason that she wanted me to stay childlike and enmeshed. So I’ve spent all these decades feeling ashamed and angry that my peers had a real adolescence while I hadn’t dared.

Our #MeToo Facebook thread dramatically revealed that I wasn’t so different after all. Many of those “cool kids” felt equally out of their depth, and pressured to be too sexual too soon. Poor boundaries between adults and students played a big role here. Many alums on the thread agreed that our teachers and administrators often forgot we were psychologically still kids, despite our intellectual precociousness.

The then-headmaster and school founder, a notorious womanizer, set the tone. He made a pass at my mother during the admissions process: “Your daughter is so smart, you and I should make genius babies together.” Luckily she thought he was gross, and the world was spared the supervillain offspring of two narcissists. Another story: For a profile in the local paper, he told them he was a “libertarian”, but they misquoted it as “libertine”, which he shrugged off by saying they were both correct. Yet this is the same person who first told me I was “A Poet!”, introduced me to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and reassured me that someday I would be “bien dans ma peau” (fit well in my skin). As Rene Denfeld wrote in The Child Finder, her gorgeous recent thriller about intergenerational trauma, the good in a person doesn’t hide the bad like a costume–the good and bad are inseparable, somehow both true.

It’s been a very emotional experience for me, with these belated waves of compassion and affection for my former classmates (well, maybe not the Latin guy), the grief that we didn’t know how to let our guard down sooner, and the refreshing validation that I wasn’t just a prude–I was right that there was something predatory and boundary-blurring about the environment where our sexual self-discovery was supposed to unfold.

I’ve already made one new/old friend from this group conversation, and hope we will keep up our momentum to share what we’ve learned with the current generation of students. Telling survivor stories changes lives.

Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

Monsters and Madwomen (Just Another Day at Reiter’s Block)

We’re crazy for links this month at Reiter’s Block!

At the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion, Laura Shannon, an expert on traditional women’s ritual dances, recovers intriguing background information on two fearsome females of Greek mythology in “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma”. The story we know best, from the 1st century CE poet Ovid, pits them against each other. Beautiful Medusa is raped in Athena’s temple; the goddess is offended and turns her into a monster, then helps the male hero Perseus behead her.

Shannon contends that this patriarchal reinterpretation covers up an earlier tradition in which Athena, her mother Metis, and Medusa were three faces of the same goddess of wisdom and healing, “aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon…Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze.” Male-dominated traditions emphasized Athena’s warlike qualities, but she was also a figure “of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree–which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.” This tantalizingly brief essay is excerpted from Shannon’s piece in the anthology Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Gladys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley, eds.), forthcoming from The Girl God, a publisher of feminist spirituality books for children and adults.

Over at the blog of sci-fi publisher Tor Books, author Theodora Goss surveys literature for “Five Monsters That Explore Gender, Sexuality, and Race”, from Victorian lesbian vampire Carmilla to Octavia Butler’s human-alien hybrid Lilith.

What is a monster, anyway? We tend to associate the monstrous with the ugly, evil, or frightening, but there’s a more sophisticated way of thinking about these creatures. In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are examples of “categorical mismatch.” We like to organize reality into easily understandable categories: you are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. When something or someone crosses those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable: that’s when we label it as monstrous. That kind of labeling can be dangerous, because it can allow us to deny someone’s humanity. But the idea of the monstrous can also be powerful. If you’re a woman, it can be a subversive act to think of yourself as Medusa, with snakes for hair, turning men to stone.

Asma points out that the word “monster” comes from the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. In other words, monsters always have some sort of message for us.

Goss’s latest book is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a Victorian-era paranormal murder mystery featuring the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other female victims of mad scientists’ experiments, including my personal obsession, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lovely and poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini. My 1,000-book wishlist just got a little longer.

With the ascension of the Orange Chucklefuck to our nation’s highest office, we can’t expect much relief from the mental illness “diagnosis” rhetoric that progressives deployed during the 2016 campaign. At Eidolon, an online journal of scholarly writing about Classics for a popular audience, Jessica Wright explains in “Crazy Talk” that calling our ideological opponents mad has a long and coercive history. Wright is a historian at the University of Southern California studying theories of the brain and mental illness in antiquity.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory…

…Our penchant for casual diagnosis does not stem from political oratory alone. The discourse of crazy was fundamental to early Christian texts, especially heresiological catalogues, polemical pamphlets, and sermons, all of which were arguably more influential even than Cicero during late antiquity and the medieval period. Terms for mental disorders were commonly used to undermine one’s opponent and to situate oneself as an authority on others’ moral health…

Phrenitis was an illness popular in early Christian polemic, especially in the writings of the bishop Augustine of Hippo, who diagnosed phrenitis over forty times in his religious opponents, including pagans, Jews, and Manichaeans. In Augustine’s work, as in the writings of contemporary preachers such as John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Peter Chrysologus — phrenitis served as a metaphor or a model for illness of the soul. That is, in early Christian terms, the failure to be saved. Phrenitis stood in for the delusion, the loss of self-control, and the threat of death that Christian authors associated with alternative religious paradigms. With salvation understood as the only form of health, rejection of salvation could not but be understood as symptomatic of disease…

…Phrenitis provided a model for a spiritual illness that presented among its symptoms the experience of spiritual strength. As such, it was integral to Augustine’s anti-Jewish polemic, since it explained why the Jewish people might believe themselves to enjoy a positive relationship with God.

The no-win logic of spiritual/political madness is an authoritarian trap. The more you protest, the more your strengths will be twisted into symptoms–cool logic as sociopathy, emotional pleas as hysteria, self-preservation as noncompliance. A modern comedy or horror film scene in an asylum would be incomplete without the stock figure of the paranoid patient desperately asserting that he’s not really crazy, his distress contrasted with the calm of the men in white coats. We’re so easily fooled into mistaking privilege for sanity.

Preachers such as Augustine commonly represented themselves as physicians of the soul —a conceit borrowed from ancient philosophy — but phrenitis enabled them to leverage a new kind of authority. To borrow an example from Plutarch, a preacher might compare sin to gout in order to persuade his congregants of the importance of spiritual care. When a preacher diagnosed sin as phrenitis, however, it meant that he thought his patient was beyond persuasion, and needed rather to be coerced. More than once, Augustine explains punitive actions against religious opponents as a form of treatment or restraint commonly applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Augustine justifies intervention in the religious and political lives of his opponents on the grounds that he is a physician of the soul, and that their religious difference is symptomatic of an organic mental disorder, an illness of the brain. This rhetorical move diminished his opponents’ authority to speak for themselves: phrenitis offered a model for therapeutic intervention in a context where the patient refused treatment. Psychiatric invective became a powerful tool for establishing the authority of one religious perspective and practice over another. Even though Augustine’s diagnosis was “merely” metaphorical, he intended it to have real-world effects.

Wright cites contemporary examples of psychiatric diagnoses being mis-applied against marginalized groups. For example, during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the psychiatric establishment redefined schizophrenia to discredit and criminalize black men:

Jonathan Metzl in his book The Protest Psychosis…shows how schizophrenia transformed, during the Civil Rights era, from an illness characterized by weakness and depression and associated primarily with white patients (especially isolated housewives) to a diagnosis of aggression and paranoia, disproportionately applied to African-American men. Within the frame of Civil Rights protests, Metzl argues, violent actions (including self-defence) could be interpreted as the unpredictable outburst of the schizophrenic, while the identification of structural inequality was interpreted as paranoia, and the denial of one’s own sickness as delusion. Asylums for the “criminally insane” saw a steep rise in the population of African-American men, who were contained through sedatives in doses now considered extraordinarily high. Fifty years later, African-American men continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with the disease, which continues to be associated with violence and aggression. With the merciless irony characteristic of structures of injustice, the system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the intervening decades in fact minimizes the mental health resources available to incarcerated populations, criminalizing mental illnesses, even as it medicalizes “deviant” behaviours.

Thus, when we use “crazy talk” to oppose our resident fascist demagogue, we’re not just being politically incorrect. We’re actually reinforcing the authoritarianism that we fear.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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December Links Roundup: Into the Dark

kaliimwithher

“Turn your face away from the garish light of day, Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, And listen to the music of the night,” the Phantom of the Opera sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. These lines captured my heart when I saw the show 25 years ago. Darkness as fertile, safe, restful, profound, and full of tenderness.

As we approach the Winter Solstice, and a political transition that feels apocalyptic for many, the spiritual qualities of darkness invite closer attention. In both popular culture and pagan literature, we need to rethink the colonialist metaphor of “light” magic as good and pure, “dark” or “black” magic as evil and sexually decadent. Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, a new book of intersectional feminist spirituality, suggests the terms “empowered” and “occluded” (rather than the Jungian “shadow”) to refer to the helpful and destructive aspects of an archetype.

I’ve been exploring the Pagan channel on the religion blog portal Patheos, which is where I found John Beckett’s blog, Under the Ancient Oaks. Beckett is a Druid and Unitarian Universalist. In a post written shortly after the presidential election, “Be the Dark”, he had a refreshing take on the ubiquitous urgings on social media to “be the light”. Many of us on the Left did not have a ton of happy confetti to throw around last month. We were feeling scared, despondent, angry, and overwhelmed. Even if we had it in us, was spreading positive vibes really helpful or a form of denial? Beckett reflected:

[W]hat if you don’t particularly feel like being the light? What if you’re still hurting, still afraid, still mad as hell? What if you’re just not a love and light kind of person?

Then be the dark.

Be the safety of the dark. We tend to think of the dark as a dangerous place, but for a wide variety of nocturnal creatures, daylight is dangerous and the dark is where they’re safe. You can’t see as well in the dark, but that also means it’s harder for you to be seen. Our mainstream culture mocks “hiding in the dark” but if you’re up against predators who are bigger, stronger, and more numerous than you, hiding in the dark is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Embrace the safety of the dark.

He went on to praise other positive qualities of the dark: restfulness, nurturing, and the ability to create illusions. Finally, he dared to encourage us to be the danger of the dark:

Here we shift from nice safe pretty Nature metaphors to the reality of what must be done in the dark… Being the danger of the dark is knowing in your soul that you’re scarier than anything that might come after you. This isn’t the testosterone-driven braggadocio of young men. Rather, it’s the quiet confidence that comes from the direct, first-hand experience of Gods, spirits, and magic. It’s knowing you have allies in the Otherworld – not servants you can call down at will, but mighty Powers with whom you are aligned and at whose side you will fight… and win, eventually if not immediately.

It’s knowing your own Will can be enhanced with herbs and stones, with blood and piss, and with the bones of other creatures. It’s knowing the power of words and the power of symbols.

It’s knowing spells that go against your morals, that you would never use… unless there was no other way.

It’s knowing that as long as you have breath you have hope, because you have magic and you have Will.

Some of the most interesting scenes in Once Upon a Time happen when Regina, the semi-reformed Evil Queen, must partner with the heroes to fight a threat to their town. She’s a risky but invaluable member of the team because she’s willing to be the bad cop when nothing else works. In the current season, she’s split off her Dark side so that she can be a good person who gets a happy ending, but dis-integration is not working out well for her or anyone around her.

(If you’re all getting tired of OUAT life lessons, don’t worry, I’m now binge-watching Luke Cage.)

Also on the subject of Dark Goddesses, a friend sent me religion scholar Vera de Chalambert’s article “Kali Takes America: I’m With Her”.  (The subtitle was Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan.)

…Donald Trump might already be picking his deplorable cabinet, but it is the Dark Mother, the destroyer of worlds, oracle of holy change, the tenderhearted be-header, that won this country. Kali has brought down our house in a shocking blow; all the illusions of America, stripped in a single night. We are not who we thought we were. Now we must get ready to stand in her fires of transmutation. We need them…

Paradoxically, the price of true hope, it seems, is being unsettled beyond repair. And this is exactly the opportunity our political moment is presenting to us all. Right now, from all corners of our shocked culture, there are cries of hope, demands of needing to become even brighter lights amidst the spreading darkness. I disagree.

I think that this moment gives us an opportunity for reckoning only if instead of running for the light, we let ourselves go fully into the dark. If instead of resolving our discomfort too quickly, we consider the possibility of staying in the uncomfortable, in the irreconcilable, in the unsettled.

Before we rush in to reanimate the discourse of hope prematurely, we must yield to what is present. Receptivity is the great quality of darkness; darkness hosts everything without exception. The Dark Mother has no orphans. We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better.

We can’t cut of the stream of life and expect to heal.

Cutting off the inconvenient is a form of spiritual fascism. By resolving to stay only in the light in times of immense crisis, we split life; engage in emotional deportation, rather than hosting the vulnerable. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact.

In a culture of isolation, be the invitation to everything.

The intuition that the Dark Mother has returned is pervasive if we heed the signs, and our thirst for the dark is deep.

She may not be an official Goddess yet, but Ursula the Sea Witch (from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”) is the form that the Dark Mother has been taking for me lately. Like Kali, she has a lot of arms, and she’ll fuck you up. Half octopus, half chanteuse, she is loud, large, lusty, and speaks the truth that you may not want to hear. She’ll tell you the price of following your dreams. Can you pay it?

ursula

I had no gaydar when “The Little Mermaid” was released in 1989, but when I re-listened to Ursula’s song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” a few months ago, it was obvious she was a drag queen! Was I just reading my own preoccupations into her? Nope. In the literary journal Hazlitt, Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree’s article “Unearthing the Sea Witch” reveals that she was based on none other than Divine, the countercultural icon of outrageous filthiness from John Waters’ movies. Lyricist Howard Ashman, a gay man, also added a smidgen of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant from his hit musical “Little Shop of Horrors”.

The article concludes, “Ursula is a plum role because as Glenn Milstead [Divine’s birth name], Howard Ashman, John Waters, and generations of queers and drag queens know, being ostracized, fat, and sick can bring its own strength and power… [I]n stories like these there is no convention. There are only relationships. Deep, firmly felt connections between strange, gross, gorgeous, and utterly authentic characters. What’s subversive about Ursula, Audrey II, and Divine is that they cannot be contained.”

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Release Week Reviews for “Two Natures”

More great reviews have come in since Two Natures debuted last week. I’m honored when readers say that I did justice to the real-life experience of gay men and their loved ones during the AIDS crisis. When other people make an emotional connection with characters who previously existed only in my mind, something magical happens, like the scene in the play Peter Pan when the collective strength of the audience’s chant “I do believe in fairies!” brings Tinkerbell to life.

On Goodreads, reviewer Nocturnalux gave thoughtful attention to the book’s literary devices and philosophical dichotomies:

The story of Julian, a young fashion photographer trying to make it in the fast and furious 90’s New York environment, is not simply the vehicle through which gay rights, religious issues, the AIDS epidemic, family breakdown and queer identity are addressed: by immersing the reader fully into its well developed world, the novel conveys all this and so much in an organic manner.

This immersive quality is achieved in part thanks to a very apt usage of the first person narrative. As a photographer Julian employs highly image saturated language to frame his experiences, in a most literal sense. Visual intense descriptions punctuate the story and is the lenses through which the storytelling process happens. But these also serve to show a sense of alienation from the actual world, a pressing anxiety that haunts Julian.

The narrator’s repressive, traditional Christian upbringing also factors in his means of expression, with many biblical references strewed very liberally throughout the entire novel, to the point of the title, as it has already been mentioned. The biblical imagery covers a gamut of tones, from lyrical, pensive and musing to snarky and highly cynical…

Two Natures is in all respects very honest. It does not shy from being graphic, painful, at times horrifying, often moving, all without caring for niceties. The comprehensive scope of the endeavor has its own artistic vision, both in-universe- Julian strives to capture some form of beauty- and at a structural level as the novel is almost flawless in how it harnesses highly personal moments to turn into literature.

Ultimately, Two Natures questions the very notion of ‘either/or’ system: perhaps there is a way of sublimating truth into beauty, or vice-verse, and reach an integrated way of feeling in which one can be true to oneself and still find actual love. There are no guarantees but the mere possibility is enough.

Meredith King at the M/M review blog Diverse Reader provided an enthusiastic release day review and promo post. Leave a blog comment or tweet about the giveaway for a chance to win a free e-book review copy.

Talk about a debut novel that grabs you, bleeds you, and makes you cry until you’re raw. It’s one of those books that when it ends you realize you stopped breathing. This is not an easy read. The subject matter is very heavy and the author really thrusts you into the gritty.

Many of us remember the early 90’s and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus.  This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you’re getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.

This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely.

Gay novelist Hans M. Hirschi belongs to the same generation as Julian and me. His positive response to the book was very meaningful. Hirschi is a literary writer with crossover appeal to the M/M romance market, as I hope to be. His books have romantic subplots where love generally prevails, but also tackle serious issues such as bereavement, child abuse and trafficking, spirituality, and the obstacles faced by nontraditional families. I recommend his novel The Opera House, which is so far the only book I’ve read that reflects my experience with mental health stigma as a prospective adoptive parent. Some highlights from his review:

First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described…

…Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.

As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.

Who knows, perhaps writing can change reality, after all? Readers, if you see Julian walking around New York sometime, give him a big kiss from me. He saved my life.

July Links Roundup: Mommy T-Rex

In the years leading up to Shane’s adoption, I used to say, “I want to be a parent, not a mother.” I had hoped that non-reproductive parenting would free me from predetermined expectations about the balance of caregiving labor and the self-negating emotional enmeshment that I didn’t want to replicate from my own childhood. I wasn’t reckoning on the internalized sexism of social workers, but thankfully that period is over, and my husband and I can try to raise our son to appreciate all gender roles without feeling bound by any.

I resonated with this post from last year by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan (Shakesville), “Childfree 101: The ‘Women Are Designed to Love’ Narrative”, where she challenges the common argument that childfree women (but never men!) are denying themselves some supreme opportunity to give love. Even in a perfectly egalitarian socioeconomic system, emotional labor is a finite resource, and being female shouldn’t mean that people are entitled to infinite amounts from us:

In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.

When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.

Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.

And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.

I think a lot about gender because I’m raising a boy in a sexist world. Now that Shane is verbal enough to engage me in imaginative play, I’m fascinated and pleased by his non-attachment to the categories that adults so anxiously defend. “I’m Mommy T-Rex, you’re Baby T-Rex,” he’ll tell me, and then he’ll switch us. Eddie the Teddy might be another bear’s daddy one day, his mommy the next. Shane’s self-chosen interests are what society typically calls masculine: robots, dinosaurs, building blocks, big trucks, loud machines, and rolling in the dirt. At the same time, he loves to try on my costume jewelry and make his own in art class, and his stuffed toys are more likely to kiss each other than to fight.

In hopes of delaying his fall from genderfluid innocence, last year we removed the YouTube and PBS Kids apps from his iPad. (Yes, he has his own, and it’s better than mine. Don’t judge, read the link below.) On his own, he picks sweet, sometimes educational games that cut across stereotypical lines: DinoTrux and the Big Button Box of fart sounds and ambulance sirens, but also pony hair salon, dollhouse, and baby animal care. We highly recommend Toca Boca, Fox & Sheep, and Sago Mini. Toca Boca proclaims on their home page: “Gender Neutral: No pink or blue aisles. Digital toys for all kids.” My PlayHome is a series of apps where you put a multiracial cast of characters through everyday activities in a school, a suburban home, and a quaint shopping district, though Shane was disappointed that he couldn’t put the girls’ clothes on the boys and vice versa. In Toca Life, on the other hand, hairstyles and clothes can be swapped freely by male, female, and gender-ambiguous characters.

By contrast, many picture books, especially the classic ones that he receives as gifts, are retrograde in their gender roles. Books about trains, trucks, robots, and other “boy” subjects, which happen to be Shane’s main interests right now, have few if any female characters. I’ve resorted to switching the pronouns in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site so that some trucks can be “she” or “they”. My headcanon on the modern Little Golden Book I’m a Monster Truck! is that the narrator is a butch lesbian who is dancing with her femme girlfriend. As other parenting bloggers have complained, the Lego mini-figures that come with the City (garbage trucks, ambulances, etc.) and Dino World sets are predominantly male. So the argument for meatspace versus virtual playthings is more complicated than you’d think.

Over at Medium, social media expert Alexandra Samuel makes the case “Why Kids’ Screen Time Is a Feminist Issue” in this blog post from May. One of her commenters also makes a good point that the attack on screen time is ableist: autistic and other easily overstimulated kids need an activity that’s a respite from intense face-to-face interaction. I’ve observed that Shane does seem to benefit from the cool-down time with his apps after a very active day at his Montessori school, which is a technology-free zone. Samuel writes:

When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan. When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.

It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace — or at least nobly suffer through — all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.

The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat…

Just look at the prevailing attitude towards another innovation that gave mothers more autonomy: baby formula. We know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, but that doesn’t begin to explain the horrified looks you attract when bottle-feeding in public. (The glares I got for bottle feeding my baby were good preparation for the glares I now get when I hand over my iPad.) As Cindy Sterns writes, “by deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a ‘poor mother’ who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby’s welfare. By contrast, the ‘good mother’ is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child’s needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress.”

When we shame women for adopting labor or sanity-saving innovations, we don’t limit ourselves to guilting them over the damage they’re doing to their kids: we also guilt them for what they’re doing to the earth itself. If disposable diapers emerged as one of the great symbols of environmental waste, that’s in keeping with the idea that women should be prepared to sacrifice themselves not only to the demands of motherhood, but of the greater good. The focus on “what you can do at home to save the earth,”Stacy Alaimo notes, “shifts the focus from patriarchal capitalism to the home and places the blame and responsibility, not on corporate polluters, scandalous lack of government controls, or waste-oriented capitalism but ultimately on homemakers, who had better use cloth diapers and keep those pots fully covered.”

Even before the advent of the contemporary environmental movement, saving women time took a backseat to saving men time, or to saving the earth. “Investment in labor-saving equipment for the farm took priority, partly because men made these decisions on their own,” writes Joy Parr, in her fascinating study of the differences between Canadian and American adoption of washing machines.

What’s really going on is an age-old problem: we don’t like innovations that make mothers’ lives easier.

This diaper-using, non-breastfeeding adoptive mother says, Amen.

In case you missed it, this May 31 New Yorker profile of the late Arnold Lobel made me feel even better about one of Shane’s favorite books. In “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love”, Colin Stokes discusses the enduring appeal of these gentle stories about the bond between two friends. Their situations are certainly not sexual or even romantic, since the youngest readers don’t usually care about such things, but instead center on the small crises and relationship glitches that make real drama for the pre-K set: wanting to play when your friend wants to be alone, or worrying that you look funny in your bathing suit. We don’t need sentimental conversations or tacked-on moral endings to know that Frog and Toad will stay together through it all.

[Lobel’s daughter] Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me.It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me…

…Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”

June Links Roundup: Bathroom Walls

Bathrooms and discrimination have a long history together in America. Restricting bathroom access is a way to limit a minority group’s freedom of movement and their ability to exist in the public sphere. The debate over access can taint the minority group by association with the taboo subject of bodily functions, reinforcing the prejudice that these bodies are contaminated or inappropriately visible.

Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel The Help has been fairly criticized for centering a white-savior character, but my eyes and heart were opened by its depiction of the everyday indignities suffered by African-American domestic workers in the South in the 1960s. A flash point in the novel is one bigoted white woman’s campaign to make her Junior League cronies build separate outdoor toilets for their nonwhite employees. This arbitrary rule served no purpose but to signal the unworthiness of certain bodies, to punish them for having the most basic human needs.

Similarly, in Matt Ruff’s excellent new horror/satire novel Lovecraft Country, set in the Jim Crow 1950s, one of the main characters publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the product of sometimes life-threatening research into which towns, motels, gas station bathrooms, and restaurants will tolerate African-American travelers. The protagonists’ run-ins with a secret society of white occultists are less troublesome than the effort to find a safe place to pee on a road trip between Florida and Illinois. The rules are set up to make it physically impossible for a black person to not break the law: either you’re arrested for using a white bathroom, or for loitering when you pull over to use the bushes.

This history should make us skeptical of the current manufactured panic over transgender bathroom use. I personally would prefer not to pee in bathrooms where anyone, of whatever gender expression, is using a urinal without walls around it, but I think it’s ridiculous and offensive to suggest that gendered bathrooms protect people from rapists. See, for example, this anonymous guest column for the British blog The Queerness, “Toilet transphobia: Sexual assault is not your weapon to wield” (trigger warning for rape description). The author was victimized in the public restroom of a bar:

I am a cisgender gay man. I was attacked by another man. This means that I am forced to undergo an incredibly painful process of re-adaptation to what should be the very banal everyday task of relieving myself when not in the comfort of my own home.

This is why I am so angry at those that would seek to deny trans people the right to use the appropriate toilets. It infuriates me that transphobes would effectively appropriate the trauma of sexual assault for their own nefarious purposes…

…The bottom line is this: I do not have the option of banning other men from public toilets on the grounds that men sometimes sexually assault other men there. Even if there were documented incidents of trans women assaulting cisgender women in such environments (there are literally none), the heinous actions of a minority should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire group. Terrible deeds are perpetrated by terrible people in a variety of scenarios and in all manner of circumstances.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed columnist Shannon Keating connects the dots between civil rights issues then and now, in the recent piece “The Past Hundred Years of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms”. Keating notes that separate women’s facilities (often inadequate compared to the number of men’s toilets in the same workplace) were first added to public buildings in the late 19th century because of Victorian paternalism towards white women in particular:

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices…

…But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.

Keating goes on to observe that our current bathroom arrangements also protect traditional masculinity at the expense of women and queer people. Our favorite movies reinforce the problem:

Public restrooms — and, perhaps even more strongly so, locker rooms — have always operated in the cultural imagination as sites of strict gender roles and compulsive heterosexuality…

…popular culture has long established tropes associated with each restroom. The men’s room is a place for aggressive macho posturing, bullying the weak, and artfully avoiding eye contact; women’s rooms, meanwhile, are hyper-feminine places for girls to get primped, gossip, cry, and avoid boys — boys who, in turn, fantasize about what goes on behind the closed girls’ room door. A number of ’80s teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Porky’s to Fame, include scenes (which have inspired countless others) involving guys attempting to see into or enter the girls’ bathroom — and they either play the attempt for laughs or treat deeply creepy peeping Tom behavior with a cavalier “boys will be boys” shrug. While queer men in bathrooms are a threat, straight men are just guys doing what guys do.

In the shift from drama and comedy to horror, the bathroom becomes ground zero for violence against women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,the most famous bathroom scene in cinematic history involves a woman in the shower getting stabbed to death by Norman Bates, a notoriously genderqueer bad guy. In what’s arguably the other most famous bathroom scene of all time, The Shining’s Jack corners Wendy in the bathroom and proceeds to hack his way in. David Cronenberg’s Shivers, from 1975, features an absolutely repulsive scene involving a parasite that crawls up the bathroom drain and between a woman’s legs. And speaking of ’80s teen movies again, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street gets an unwelcome visit from Freddy Krueger while she’s in the bath. If they want to avoid spiders and grudge monsters, women in horror films would do best to avoid the bathroom altogether. These scenes manage to sexualize the vulnerable and violated female body, while also suggesting that the Victorian paternalism of yore might still apply according to the fantastical versions of our modern conceptions: Women still need protecting.

Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful physical and social spaces when it comes to both revealing and informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment lost essential footing in the ’70s due to infamous counterprotestsclaiming that banning gender discrimination would result in unisex toilets (which, protesters cried, would enable sexual predators), so, too, have today’s social conservatives driven anti-trans panic by insisting that gender-neutral bathrooms would give (queer/trans) aggressors free rein to prey on girls. The mixing of genders in bathrooms, so our pop-cultural scripts go, results in awkward gags at best and rape and murder at worst. Anti-trans bathroom bills are, in part, the product of pop culture’s queerphobic and transphobic scripts…

…What we actually take for granted is why, exactly, public restrooms are segregated in the first place. We assume building codes are purely objective, rooted in science and dictated by function. Separated restrooms, in their guise of objectivity, only manage to reinforce age-old essentialist notions of binary gender difference. What would it mean to break down those walls?

The predator bogeyman — the impetus behind a million anti-trans petition signatures; a villain as potent, and as pretend, as Freddy Krueger — is not at the true heart of the bathroom maelstrom. Those who oppose equitable bathrooms are presumably far more afraid of what trans people represent than the nonexistent physical threat they pose. The expansive, complex, never-ending potential of gender, which separated bathrooms have veiled with the lie of their form-follows-function objectivity, is arguably what anti-trans protesters are trying to suppress — along with, of course, the fundamental fact of trans people’s humanity. Under the pretense of “privacy” and “safety,” social conservatives are stoking cultural anxieties around bodily privacy, genitalia, and sexual deviance in order to keep trans people from participating in the public sphere, a fate of bathroom exclusion that befell women, people of color, families, and disabled people before them. The bogus fear of an aggressor is, at root, most likely the fear of the Other gaining power.

Right now in my home state of Massachusetts, the Senate has passed an important bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, hospitals, transportation, etc.). The House will hear debate on this legislation on June 1. Look for #TransBillMA on Twitter and visit the Freedom Massachusetts website for updates. If you live in MA and are transgender or gender-nonconforming, Freedom Massachusetts can use your stories of how you’ve been affected by discrimination in public places. Please contact them. Everyone else, talk to your legislators, and donate to support this historic campaign.

 

Poetry by David Kherdian: “I didn’t want to protect myself”

Armenian-American poet David Kherdian has written over 70 books and edited three major anthologies of ethnic American literature. His most recent publications are the memoir Root River Return (Beech Hill Publishing, 2015) and Living in Quiet: New and Selected Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2013). Reviewer Ricker Windsor said of Kherdian’s work: “He grasps and is able to express the most important feelings, those that constantly escape the net of expression…David Kherdian’s poetry is evocative of past time, of a simpler world, of memory we can taste”.

This poem speaks to me of how I would like to live, if I had the courage: with an open heart, gratitude, and faith. At a time when complex creeds leave me cold, these are words to refresh my soul. David has kindly given me permission to share it here.

I didn’t want to protect myself

I didn’t want to protect myself
by seeking perfection against the
accidental onslaughts of time–
but instead to move imperfectly
through it all, not to be the best
or the only, or the one to watch,
but rather the beggar of mercy
and grace, finding new hope
in each disappointment
believing against reason
(against what the senses
said could not be) that there
was an order beyond this
disorder, that there was
a truth beyond this lie:
and that I was included
in its design,
that could not be seen
or named
but could be believed in,
if one believed that one
was loved.

 

Reading “The Lorax” in Lent

To my relief, this month the Young Master has moved on from conformist 1940s Little Golden Books to another genre of indoctrination more congenial to his Gen-X progressive parents. I’m talking about Dr. Seuss. Shane’s current favorite is The Lorax, a still-timely 1971 environmentalist cautionary tale about a greedy manufacturer, the Once-ler, who destroys a pastoral paradise. (I hope our boy remembers this when he finds out that we spent his college fund on litigation to save our neighborhood’s wetlands…)

dr-seuss-lorax-thneeds_510On about the tenth re-read, Shane asked me why the Once-ler is only ever shown as a pair of green hands. This is actually pretty unusual for Dr. Seuss, who never seemed to run out of ideas for depicting unique creatures. Shane thought maybe the Once-ler had no head, but some of the other pictures show his eyes peeking out through the slats of his abandoned workshop. So I brainstormed other possibilities. A 4-year-old’s “Why?” will lead you somewhere deep if you let it!

I said maybe the Once-ler did not feel connected to anything around him. He just made things without listening to his head or his heart, or paying attention to his environment. He didn’t take responsibility for what his hands were doing. He let himself become part of the machine of consuming, producing, and selling.

But I sensed that the alienation of the worker under capitalism was still too abstract a concept for the Young Master. So I tried again. “Maybe he doesn’t show the Once-ler’s face because the Once-ler could be all of us. We all have to be careful not to do what he does, not to be greedy and chop down too many trees and make the animals sick.”

As I spoke, I heard the echoes of a troubling concept we’d discussed in our church small group. We’ve started a video series by an evangelical pastor on the last words of Christ from the cross. That first week, we talked about “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Explaining the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the pastor said that “We are the ‘them'”. Past, present, and future are all one to God. Each of us, because of our sinful nature, crucified Christ and is forgiven by him from the cross.

That formulation no longer sits well with me, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think guilt feelings are the most skillful motivator for turning our lives around. Hopefully we feel bad enough about our actual sins without adding a cosmic crime on top of them–and if we don’t, there’s a good chance that the extra load of guilt for Christ’s death will only harden our ego-defenses. The second reason is that I’m looking to move away from theologies that romanticize scapegoating, because on some level they validate an abuser’s belief that splitting off her shadow side onto a victim is effective. During the time when I most fervently defended this atonement theory, I couldn’t have conceived that the universe could operate any other way; I was just grateful for Christ to take the hit on my behalf, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984 begging the torturer to hurt his girlfriend instead of him. I don’t believe in a totalitarian cosmos anymore, because I have a different kind of family now.

Nonetheless, these two myths, the gospel and Seuss, converge in reminding us of our universal temptation to sin and our interdependent responsibility for the kind of world we make. When we see a tree cut down, or an innocent man hung on one, none of us can stand apart and say “That’s not my problem.”