February Links Roundup: Birds Do It, Trees Do It

As a good queer aesthete, I don’t place much weight on “the natural” as a prescriptive concept, but I still love a quirky story about nonhuman creatures who defy our narrow social categories. This rare gynandromorph cardinal flips the bird at binary ideas of gender, as reported at the blog Towleroad: “Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal Goes Viral, Has a Male Lover”. Since the bi-color bird’s female side is on the left, where the functioning ovary is located, the pair may be able to reproduce. Can’t you just imagine a children’s book about that future baby bird, along the lines of And Tango Makes Three?

Not only that, but the tree where they nest could be trans. At the online magazine Catapult, nature columnist Miranda Schmidt kicks off their new monthly series “Tree Talk” with the piece “How Trees Complicate Our Understanding of Gender”. In folklore and poetry, we’ve associated some species with masculinity (strong and tall) and others with femininity (slender and graceful), but in fact, over 90% of species worldwide “are alternately termed bisexual, or hermaphroditic, or ‘perfect,’ meaning they have both male and female parts on a single flower.” Reflecting on their own multi-gendered identity, Schmidt suggests a writing exercise to reveal hidden potentialities:

Describe your gender identity without using images that are stereotypically associated with masculine or feminine things. Try it. See what you find. When I do this exercise, I always think of the crabapple tree in the yard of the house I grew up in. It was split down the middle, all the way to the ground. Its two halves grew away from each other, almost as if they were two separate trees. We never knew how it had split. The crack down the middle of its trunk was old, possibly as old as the tree itself. Perhaps it was made by the weight of its branches pulling in opposite directions. Perhaps it originated from some outside source: an axe, or lightning. I would look at that tree and I would imagine its roots, those parts I couldn’t see, grown all together, tangled up and merging in a way its above-ground parts couldn’t. Underneath, I thought, the tree would be wholly undivided.

Alongside the project of unearthing the naturalness of queerness–an understandable objective, aimed at creating political safety and healing queer shame–there’s always been its opposite, the defiant un-naturalness that Susan Sontag limns in the 58 Wildean aphorisms comprising her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”. What she finds in camp is a kind of playful generosity of spirit, a humanistic snobbery, if you will:

54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Food 4 Thot podcast co-host Joe Osmundson a/k/a “Joe the Science Ho” explored the dark side of gay aesthetics in his 2013 Gawker article “There’s a Nerd in the Locker Room: Sex, Beauty and Self-Love”. With wit and pathos, Osmundson tracks the changes in his self-image during a month-long membership at David Barton Gym, the hot spot for Chelsea’s rich and beautiful boys.

At DBG I spend a lot of time contemplating superficiality and the NYC gays. Many assume gay men are shallow because we essentially want to be fucking ourselves. Men naturally have higher libidos, right? Attraction is more physical to us? All this seems too simplistic to me. After a few visits to DBG, I started to think that queer people often know we’re different very young. A lot of us grow up absolutely hating the gay bit of ourselves, praying it away, hoping it would die or recede so we can be normal and happy like everyone else. When you spend a large portion of your life loathing some central component of yourself, you might want to find something that you do love. Your body is something you can make better and faster and stronger. Perhaps spaces like DBG exist because there is a road map and a space for remaking your body. I wonder what a space for doing the work to love ourselves for our minds and spirits, for our ugly bits, our complicated and fucked up internal bits, would look like…

…[I]t would be a mistake to talk about gay male beauty and sex without talking about American culture at large. In America we often define men by their ability to consume emotionless sex. Gay culture exists in conversation with American culture and so if men define themselves by their ability to consume women without attachment, why should gay men be held to a different standard?

But here is the ugly truth: we are all here at DBG to get laid, even if most of us aren’t doing it upstairs in the steam room. I do feel more comfortable in my body than before I was working out. Having facile sex would probably make me feel good, and good about myself, in a lot of complicated ways that may be difficult to undo and that might make certain types of intimacy difficult.

Last week I blogged about how Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering philosophy helps me strengthen my intuition as a writer. Kondo has been subjected to a ridiculous amount of negative “hot takes”, which at times slide into racist disrespect for her personal style and cultural traditions. At HuffPost, Margaret Dilloway explains “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up'”. Born to an American father and Japanese mother, Dilloway recognizes her late mother’s Shinto beliefs in many of the practices that Kondo’s critics have belittled:

Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ―a concept know as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.

“Tell the kami-sama what you’re grateful for,” my mother would say to me, referring to God or the supreme kami, “and what you want.”

I had my mother in mind when I watched Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” for the first time. In each episode, Kondo, a professional organizing consultant, instructs her clients to identify the objects in their homes that “spark joy” and devise a plan to honor those objects by cleaning and storing them properly.

She also encourages people to part ways with the objects that fail to spark joy, but not before thanking them for their service. The way Kondo pledges gratitude for the crowded houses she visits, and thanks the clothes and books and lamps that serve so much purpose for the families seeking to declutter their homes, struck me as a powerfully Shinto way of conducting life.

Full disclosure, when my Copco white plastic spatula broke after a dozen years of service, I duct-taped the handle back on and stored it in my kitchen drawer. I mean, that’s one of the longest relationships I’ve had. It’s not going in the recycling bin. Marie understands.

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Poetry by Charlie Bondhus: “Becoming Baba Yaga”

Just out from Sundress Publications, Divining Bones is the third collection from award-winning poet Charlie Bondhus, who has kindly permitted me to reprint a sample poem here. This compelling book stakes its territory in the liminal spaces between male and female, fairy-tale and horror, the archetypal struggle in the psyche and the mundane (but no less dangerous) conflicts of domestic life. The presiding deity of this shadow realm is Baba Yaga, the child-eating forest witch of Eastern European folklore, who guides the narrator to embrace traits rejected by mainstream gay culture. Aging, emasculation, and the grotesque lose their stigma and become sources of transgressive power.

Becoming Baba Yaga

I was born an old woman,
I mutter through lather
as I scratch away the beginnings
of a beard, each stroke bringing me
a hair closer to alignment
with the female divine
curled and kicking inside, while I glare
at the little snub nose which belies the long,
crooked phantom pressing my skin
like an erection in the underwear I buy a size too small.

My dreams are full of chicken legs.
My thighs tingle for the swish
and stroke of a checkered peasant
skirt. Invisible handwoven blouses girdle
my imaginary breasts. I tug at my boy-short
hair and think about raspberry-colored headscarves.

There is no other way
to say this: I was meant to be a wise
and powerful Russian witch
rather than an unimpressive man,

a truth that makes me ambivalent
about the pretty young women
who come seeking transformation,
asking me to shave away the fat
a child left, straighten a nose
crooked as a kidney bean, plump
up breasts that are like the hard, rounded
nubs of an old cook’s pestle.

Like any witch I serve
the vanities of all who can afford
my fee, helping those who hate
their bodies in ways different
from how I hate mine. I study

the college photos they bring
of glamorous, uncomplicated youth,
remembering an old, lost book
and the engravings in which I recognized
myself—a fierce, bestial woman
as necessary as bone and just as unseen
in a world whose first language is skin.

Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
wild things
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
wet fire;
living skulls;
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.

 

Originally published in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts

The Poet Spiel: “Absent Member”

Love comes in many forms, and even romantic love is not limited to sexual partnership. The bond between gay men and their female friends, though sometimes complicated by mismatched desire, can be as profound as a marriage. Artist and author Tom Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel explores this truth in a bittersweet narrative poem about the only woman he loved. Below is his portrait of Phyllis. He tells me she died in a plane crash in 1972 with her husband, leaving behind their two children. May their memory be a blessing.

absent member

as if the lambs the lambs of childhood days were bleating
cross the lawn were softly bleating in my ear were calling me
to come this voice this girl i’d never seen her voice was like
the lamb’s and by voice alone i wanted her to know me

as fate allowed in time we came to know each other closely
came to trust each other’s touch but not like other couples
though we never did stop laughing never ceased to love
each other’s presence there was something missing
something fundamental to what other lovers found
to be essential in their coupling though she never labored
it and nor did i we loved our time together never mind

this girl this gift into my life this female like no other
i had known who took my heart and softened it
was raised to stay a virgin to save her precious cherry save
it for her husband save it at all cost through raucous
parties moments cast in passion foolish passion stay
a virgin til her prince had promised her to bear
her children all the children she had dreamed of like
her siblings being twelve she dreamed of twelve

and as for me although she was the foremost woman of my life
i could not promise knew for certain that i could not
promise her the children that she dreamed of could not
promise her at all there came a time a time of our adoring
when she realized when she began to think it odd
that never had i touched her regions of temptation
regions that her friends had told her had been compromised
by lovers had been taken in delight and perhaps
it was not just respect that had kept my hands my face
away from there and she’d begun to count my many friends
my closest friends whom she had so enjoyed who she clearly
knew were queer and at the toughest time of our relationship
and after all those years she asked me are you gay

she took a flight to where her mother lived and left me
mourning in the dark to wonder what i’d done i knew
i must have broken something more than just her cherry
must have taken more than that i must have ruined
what she’d hoped for all her dreams of being with me
in the future and naïve as it may seem my dreams along
with hers my dreams of my companion gone because
i could not be the man that she expected me to be could
not perform and knew it all along but never really thought
to think it out while in the midst of loving her so thoroughly

time soon came when she returned and met with me to tell
that her mother had inquired of her is this the man you love
and if so give your cherry to him and you need not wait
i was so thrilled to see her thrilled to hold her once again
came to think i could deliver that i could be her prince her man
i could do it no i couldn’t i could do it no i couldn’t
yes i would because i loved her and just because this was her
wish my dearest lover’s wish that i should take her lay her give
her what a lover gives the one he loves like all our friends

i laid her down in moonlight on my plastic couch
my crummy couch was not the best place to begin but
nonetheless it was the place i laid her down the surface cold
and somewhat crackly to the touch the surface harsh to
her flesh the color of a pearl a pearl without its gloss
a special kind of white a lovely white like pearl
without its gloss i sensed her apprehension but i
also sensed her readiness her breasts like halves of pears
lying limp and longing in their readiness for plucking
the moonlight from the window casting shadows
on their nipples lightly pinkened softly readied
for my plucking i saw then heard then pressed my hand
upon the pounding of her heart stood up and gloried
at the beauty of that naked body given to me for taking
never having seen a female body in its skin so beautiful
and offered up to me and then i saw her bush this mound
of hair i must admit i found it odd the lack of penis there
no penis in between her thighs for me and of course
that was a foolish thought but in sex the norm would be
a penis in that place for me between the thighs and though
her bush was plump and fit in place i found it strange
there was no penis there for me and knew not how to act
i wished her to become aggressive then to thrill my cock
and balls excite me but i knew full well that this
was new to her to even see a cock and balls to have a sense
of how this all should play itself and surely i the man
should take the lead but truth be told my cock was limp
and uninspired and unfamiliar with a body such as this
though so exquisite to the touch and so available to me
yet not familiar thus my cock hung uninspired

i’d always loved the way she said to me in french
that i had lovely hands in fact i hear it in my head
tu as les belles mains at 77 she is so difficult to lay aside
to lay aside as if she never happened in my life and
not so long ago when it appeared that i was dying
and i thumbed through scrapbooks of my years with her
my sister made a stupid comment like that dear girl
was nothing to me surely nothing in my life nothing
to a man who’d come to live a gay life with a man
and i recalled all those who’d done the same who’d never
known the depth to which i loved my girl my one
and only female sweetheart whom i would have married whom
i wished had had a cock and then i told my sister
of the day my girl and i were on our way to tell my parents
we were finished tell them that we were no more
because my parents too had hopes that we would marry
they too had dreams that i had found the woman of my life
and my sweetheart sat so close to me as we were driving
there to tell my parents and we laughed and had not ceased
to love at all and that was when she said perhaps the only
way that we can tell them why is to tell them that you finally
put your hands between my thighs and discovered
there’s no penis there and though my sister laughed
i don’t believe that she nor anyone believed then
nor believes now just how much it hurt to lose my girl
how much i hurt to lose her how she wakes alive again in me
and i in her these days or so it seems but in fact i lie beside
my kind and faithful man of years and years of better days

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.

Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Nerd Community at Flame Con

For my novel research, this weekend I went to NYC for Flame Con, billed as the world’s largest LGBTQ comic con. Now in its fourth year, Flame Con is sponsored by Geeks Out, a volunteer nonprofit dedicated to making comics and sci-fi fandom more welcoming for us queers. As the title of one panel put it, I experienced “the subversive simplicity of queer joy”.

Flame Con was way more fun and friendly than any literary conference I’ve attended. Poets can be so bitter, present company not excepted. We trail clouds of angst about whether our work is important enough and whether our publishing deal is as good as someone else’s. At Flame Con I rediscovered the happiness of making things you enjoy and meeting other people who are doing the same. We were like children in the best sense, unselfconscious about loving sparkly ponies and superheroes, simply grateful to spend time in the fantasy worlds we created.

It was a delightful novelty to be in a social setting where I felt completely cool and like I fit in. Imagine that every time you get into the elevator in a large Manhattan hotel, someone else is also wearing a butch haircut, rainbow jewelry, or a tank top with a sassy gay slogan. I got a compliment on my glasses, y’all.

At the trans and GNC meetup, about 40 of us sat around a workshop table, two rows deep, and threw out joking answers to the question, “What is the trans agenda?” Hint: it involves a lot of fanny packs. People connected over the shared experience of renaming themselves after comics and video game characters, obsessively listening to “Reflection” from Mulan, and using FaceApp to envision ourselves as the “opposite” sex.

You handsome devil.

At the Queer Nerd Poetics reading, I heard funny and passionate performances by fine writers who were new to me. I especially enjoyed Liv Mammone’s persona poem about the lack of handicapped access at the Louvre, “Venus de Milo Answers a Tumblr Feminist”. Liv really knows how to write a catchy title. Read an interview with her at Brooklyn Poets and follow her on Twitter. Omar Holmon of Black Nerd Problems spoke out in verse about the challenges of loving a genre where you don’t often see yourself reflected. Brendan Gillett, dressed as a dapper elf, graciously emceed and closed out the show with “Names for Months in a New Queer Year”. Happy Augayst, everyone!

I spent several hours at the exhibitors’ hall, making contacts to interview for the novel about the 1990s indie comics scene, and buying a ton of books and swag. G. Pike designs beautifully colored pins, keychains, and stickers depicting birds in the hues of various pride flags. Pride Pets enamel pins from Gay Breakfast feature different breeds of adorable cats and dogs with pride flag stripes, and pronoun pawprints, too. I met public health consultant Christel Hyden, the educator behind Heads or Tails NYC, an interactive webcomic about HIV prevention. And I bought this shirt from Hiroki Otsuka, because apparently I’m into bears and tentacles now?? Is this a thing that happens with middle age?

Ready for Chippendale’s of Arkham.

Continuing on that theme, I bought Kori Michele Handwerker’s Undone: A Tentacle Illustration Book, an elegant black-and-white art chapbook reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley; the first issue of Megan James’ comic book Innsmouth, which the artist described as being about incompetent Mormon-style Cthulhu cultists; a pin-up of a sweet hairy dude in purple high-heeled boots by Joel Gennari; and the erotic art anthology Doable Guys III. Check out Kori’s webcomic about discovering their nonbinary fashion style. Offsite at the BGSQD bookstore, I attended the book launch of the groundbreaking collection We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology from Stacked Deck Press, edited by Jeanne Thornton and Tara Avery–which, now that I think of it, I probably also backed on Kickstarter. Well, if I end up with two copies, I’ll donate one to Forbes Library. I also picked up collections and graphic novels by Molly Ostertag, Tony Breed, Jessi Sheron, and others.

The convention wasn’t all NSFW by any means. Diverse, upbeat books for children and tweens were well-represented too. I bought Shane a Lumberjanes collection and a Warriors graphic novel about magical cat clans. Let the geek family traditions begin.

August Links Roundup: Love and Dark

Happy Lammas! This month’s harvest of links is loosely bound together by the theme of category reversal and overturned binaries (no surprise).

Over at Stay Woke Tarot, a blog that brings author Rashunda’s African-American heritage and political concerns to bear on topics in alternative spirituality, the post “Are you afraid of the dark?” challenges the color-prejudice in our conventional metaphors for good and bad. In this corner: enlightenment, “love and light”, angels in white robes. In the other: black magic, shadow side, a dark (hopeless) outlook. Rashunda’s poetic reversal of our typical language reminds me of my favorite lines from “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (LOL problematic fave): “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.”

Light for me doesn’t mean goodness. Or my true self. When I think of “light,” sometimes I think of the bright light of interrogation.

Someone flicking that bright overhead ceiling light on when you’re dozing off into a gentle sleep.

The searing hot sun in the desert, drying out and cracking the soil. Burning. Glaring. Parched land.

Dehydration.

The sun-bleached bones of a dead animal.

Interruption. You’re doing something “wrong” so let’s shine a light on it. Get it out into the open.

Judgement. A Renaissance-blonde angel clothed in sparkling white, ready to blow his trumpet and send us to Hell.

But “darkness” – for me – represents deep, rich fertile soil.

A womb.

Looking at a beautiful night sky.

A large, inviting void just waiting to accept creativity. Ideas.

My mom.

Having a pure black heart.

In the literary journal TriQuarterly, the personal essay “Both and Yet Neither” by novelist and essayist B. Pietras troubles a different boundary, recounting the struggles of his adolescence as a feminine boy, and his love-hate relationship with the myth of Hermaphroditus. Pietras shares how, even after he embraced his differences through cross-dressing and discovering androgyne role models in classic literature, his desires attached to conventionally macho, straight or straight-acting men. His uniqueness and his shame centered on his voice–a fraught problem for a writer, in particular, since “voice” is another word for the maturing writer’s distinctive style or viewpoint.

During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.

Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.

As part of my journey into maleness, I’ve been trying to pitch my voice lower on the phone when I call strangers: my legislators, customer service, political phonebanking, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s fooling anyone, but it makes me feel more confident. I think twice about every habit of speech–does it sound feminine, and is that synonymous with pleasing, deferential, childlike? Can I dial that back, without sounding unnecessarily brusque or robotic?

Captain Awkward, the world’s greatest advice blog, gives the definitive list of reasons for not sharing that “Trump is crazy” meme, in “Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Over the Internet”. Besides the often-cited problem of perpetuating mental health stigma, this point really stood out for me:

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

While we’re on the subject of survivor-centered redemption and healing, check out the blog Fundamentally Free, which amplifies stories of folks who have left spiritually abusive and repressive Christian traditions. In the post “Violence and the Redemption of the Soul”, Jerry Proctor describes how he found an unlikely post-Christian spiritual path in martial arts, channeling his anger into tests of endurance.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training…

As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become.

Real Social Skills is a very smart blog about boundaries, power dynamics, resisting ableism, and thriving as a neurodivergent person. Their post “Don’t order people to feel safe” pinpoints a subtle kind of manipulation and doublespeak in social justice workshops, a problem that I’d sensed but never been able to articulate.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do…

…We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time.

Riffing on J. Halberstam’s book title The Queer Art of Failure, columnist Laurie Penny at The Baffler teases out the implications of my favorite comfort TV in her post “The Queer Art of Failing Better”. Last year, Netflix rebooted the early-2000’s makeover show “Queer Eye”. The Fab Five’s interventions are not just for straight guys anymore; one of my favorite episodes was devoted to a black church mama and her shy gay son. But there are plenty of interventions for their original constituency: stalled-out straight dudes who need to be taught how to groom themselves instead of waiting for their wives and mothers to do it. It’s this burden-shifting of female emotional labor that Penny sees as the show’s real subject:

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid…

…What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s…

…The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

Actual queers in today’s America, on the other hand, often have more serious problems than learning to use a laundry hamper. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, along with right-wing efforts to roll back civil rights at the state and federal levels, we have to deal with left-wing “contrarian” thinkpieces disputing our identities. Trans writers and well-informed allies (including the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ activist organization) roundly condemned Jesse Singal’s Atlantic Monthly cover story on desistance and the supposed pressure on trans kids to make irrevocable medical decisions. Now, journalist Noah Berlatsky has compiled a list of links debunking the biases and inaccuracies in this prominent feature story. See, for instance, Alex Barasch’s response piece at Slate, asking why we continue to privilege cis parents’ anxiety over life-saving care for the majority of trans youth who don’t freely choose to revert to their birth-assigned gender:

[O]nly a specific subset of detransitioners—namely cisgender women and girls who misinterpreted mental health issues or more general gender nonconformity as signs that they might be trans, only to realize later that this was not the case—are of interest to Singal and the media writ large. Those who are intimidated back into the closet, those who are battling intense stigma both internally and institutionally, those who begin the process only to find that their insurance won’t cover their transition—none of these people are given a voice. I know more than one trans man who might have been counted among Singal’s tomboys who were saved from themselves if profiled in their mid-teens—never mind that they were repressed, miserable, and would in fact go on to transition. But such is the double standard of the piece. A fourteen-year-old who outgrows her dysphoria is celebrated, her self-knowledge taken as definitive; a fourteen-year-old who seeks to transition is still in flux and must be given time to change their mind.

Finally, to end on an upbeat (?) note, for fans of this blog’s Murder Ballad Mondays. At CrimeReads, an affiliate of Literary Hub, detective novelist Mark Billingham explores “Why the Best Country Music Is Crime Fiction”: “At its best, country music…seems to me to do what the very best mystery fiction can, and arguably should do. It can tell dark, dark stories, and wrap them up in an entertaining package, turning an often twisted narrative into an earworm. It can reveal unpleasant truths while it keeps your foot tapping.”

 

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

Posting has been light in the past month for a number of reasons, including course prep for my church group and attending my 25th college reunion. (What is it with the false modesty of our alumni going out of our way to avoid saying where we went to school? We’re not fooling anyone. Harvard Harvard Harvard.) I am exactly halfway through the 40-day book of Bible meditations that accompanies our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course, and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it.

The helpful overall premise of the course is that our spiritual life is too often unconsciously dictated by family patterns and other people’s opinions of us. We’re encouraged to spend quiet time with God in which we pull back from these worldly manifestations of our identity and seek security instead in God’s unconditional love for the unique person that God created us to be. This practice has been deeply sustaining right now, because a situation in my personal life has been forcing me to confront my codependence and what I used to call self-salvation or works-righteousness. The desire to be “good” can make me afraid to be honest with myself and others about what I can willingly offer, and what I can’t or shouldn’t.

Alongside this fruitful process, however, old wounds of betrayal by the church are reopening. I’ve heard it all before: the invitation to listen to the Holy Spirit, the fine-sounding pronouncements that God doesn’t want us to stifle our true self in conformity to social pressure and secular norms. Well, I did that, I found out I was queer, and they tried to make me believe that all the fruits of the Spirit in my life had been a lie. The author of this course is a conservative, presumably non-affirming pastor. I imagine he would say that queerness couldn’t be a true self because gay and trans identities don’t exist; in the evangelical worldview, these are just sinful behaviors. This inconsistency doesn’t invalidate the insights I’m getting from the course, but it makes me depressed at a time when I’m already struggling with trust issues in relationships.

A surprising outcome of daily journaling is that I get bored with writing my objections to evangelical theodicy and hermeneutics over and over again, and eventually find something insightful and positive (however tangential) in grappling with those brief excerpts from the Bible and Christian writers. (A fan letter I’ll never be able to send: “Dear Pastor Pete, your Daily Office workbook really helped with my gender transition! Thanks.”) I hope the selected musings below have some value for my readers.

Mark 11:15-17

What secondary things keep me from being silently present with God? Mainly the need to be “productive” to prevent anxiety from rushing in.

Surrendering control over my own importance feels like depression and annihilation because my mother’s sad defeatism was contagious (old insight) and because living with an engulfing narcissist meant that I was constantly battling to hold onto my realness, my separate and desiring self (new insight!).

How does God, or some kind of connection to Spirit, provide a better way to preserve myself? This is not an answer I can find in the evangelical framework of surrendering one’s will to the Big Daddy in the Sky.

God is not absent from us. We are walking inside God’s body, the beautiful world where everything is growing and alive. We are inside God when we stand on the earth and look up at the trees full of life force.

Luke 10:38-42

Wondering if there’s an interpretation of Mary versus Martha that retains Jesus’ point about priorities, without shaming Martha for doing what women have been told they have to do since the beginning of Western civilization in order to support the higher calling of (mostly male) contemplatives. Yet, in what ways am I passive-aggressive like Martha, blaming structural forces for my lack of courage or energy to claim my contemplative time as valuable? Am I really constrained, or am I not doing what God calls me to do because I’m afraid of displeasing people?

The pop-culture antidote to anxious busyness feels too close to existential purposelessness. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”–well, then why get out of bed at all? Better to try believing it’s all big stuff. Everything I could do today is sacred or sufficient, going for a walk or writing or frying eggs, so no worries about doing the wrong thing.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The thorn in St. Paul’s side: what would be an alternative to self-blame and shame, that wouldn’t make me fake positive feelings about being a fat queer loon, and doesn’t play into the creepy evangelical concept of God sending us disabilities and disappointments so we don’t get uppity? Perhaps Ariana Reines‘ idea from her reading of my astrology birth chart, that my unique nature is part of a cosmic pattern where I have a role to play, but not like someone up there intentionally put obstacles in my path to change me!

That’s what is so coercive and doublespeak about thorn-in-side theology. It’s supposed to be saying, accept your flaws, but it’s simultaneously telling you that God sent you a burden because you couldn’t be trusted with the power of being whole and free.

Christianity is like the female clothes in my closet. I keep trying it on, because it’s right there and I used to like it, but it just gives me bunions.

Exodus 3:1-5

Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Genesis 12:1-3

On trusting in the slow work of God, and giving up control over the outcome: When I pictured what it would be like for an abusive parent’s soul to be purified in Purgatory, I had a (previously unknown till this moment) awareness of a Love so secure and powerful that it could hold that person in every moment of their lacerating self-awareness and make it bearable, even a blessing overall. And how, then, can I start to live this life with the consciousness that a Love so great surrounds my poor little old ego in every moment, so that nothing I do or have done to me should ever make me afraid of myself??!!