Stonewall Anniversary Thoughts: Everyone’s Marriage is Queer

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, typically cited as the first uprising of the gay rights movement. I wasn’t born yet, and I didn’t get a clue for another 30 years, so I had to learn everything I know about it online. (It pisses me off that the third Google result for “Stonewall” is a website called “Stonewall Revisited” which offers “Help for gays and lesbians to leave a homosexual lifestyle for Christianity”. Trademark tarnishment lawsuit, anyone?)

The progressive Christian website Religion Dispatches put out a special “Stonewall” issue of their e-newsletter this weekend. Two articles there reflect the tension between mainstream acceptance and preserving a minority group’s unique culture.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., a religion professor at Georgia State University, laments that although our popular culture tolerates and sometimes even celebrates the existence of same-sex couples, two fundamental institutions–marriage and faith communities–largely remain closed to them:

Greenwich Village has a rare beauty in the early summer, when the days tend to be breezy and nights are still cool. I have never seen the place better kept, each and every park and thoroughfare brilliantly manicured with flowers and spices positively exploding into an orgiastic display of midsummer colors. Most all of the storefronts were painted in rainbow patterns that beautifully set off the gardens. It was the summer solstice. And it is the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots that symbolically announced the birth of a gay rights movement in the United States, rights for a community that would no longer be ignored. Quite suddenly, coming out of the closet meant hitting the streets….

…The lifestyle, the identity, is generally accepted now, especially in the generation that has come of age since Stonewall. The whole thing is generational, and that generational kind of tolerance has been achieved after a fashion.

But what does it mean? What does the alchemical magic that turns private sexual activity into a public lifestyle, and then into a social identity, do to the politics of sexuality? Ironically, it turns thoughts to marriage, and not only because it is summertime in New York, and the solstice is upon us.

“Gay marriage,” for a variety of complex reasons, is still the sticking point. Many people—and I overheard this several times in the snippets of conversation inspired by the anniversary on the quiet streets with storied names, like Bleeker, Houston, and Gay—many people happily grant an individual’s freedom to do what he or she wants behind closed doors.

But churches, mosques and synagogues have open doors, at least in theory.

Marriage is a public statement, and it requires a kind of recognition that goes far beyond tolerance. That is harder to grant, harder for gays and lesbians and others to win….

Meanwhile, in the same issue, Nick Street, a journalist who is the LGBT Contributing Editor for Religion Dispatches, suggests that gays and lesbians have become homogenized in the quest for social acceptance, not measuring up well to the bohemian cross-dressing outcasts who started it all:

…The Stonewall riots of late June 1969—as well as the Summer of Love two years earlier, the Woodstock music festival two months later and the debut of the Cockettes at the Palace Theater in San Francisco the following New Year’s Eve—are examples of what Hakim Bey, a queer anarchist social critic, calls the Temporary Autonomous Zone.

“The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State,” Bey writes, “a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.”

Bey’s idea trades on the observation that orthodoxy of any kind—legal, social or religious—is essentially a living fiction, a collective hallucination. Groups that participate in this illusion take its abstractions for reality, and within that margin of error the TAZ springs into being.

And before it can be captured or commodified, the TAZ vanishes, leaving behind an empty husk. Think of Burning Man (or perhaps the Jesus Movement).

The anarchic spirit of the TAZ inevitably calls forth a violent response from those who tend the shadow-fires of orthodoxy. Crucifixions, witch-hunts, and inquisitions embodied this impulse in our historical past, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy during the Consciousness Revolution of the late 1960s also bore its mark.

As did the 50,000 deaths that Ronald Reagan abided before he uttered the word “AIDS” in public.

Today, queer culture is not so much a vector of this spiritual enlivenment as it is a passive beneficiary of it. Rather than dismantling the master’s house, many of us prefer to beseech the master to loan us his tools so that we can construct a tasteful adjoining cottage and two-car garage.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I should hasten to add. Stability has its virtues.

But we have lost sight of something that the most keen-eyed queerfolk of the Stonewall era clearly had in view: the circumstances under which human beings can flourish are innumerable, and cultivating an orthodox view of human flourishing inevitably leads to the oppression of nonconformists and the spiritual degeneration of the culture that oppresses them….

Street has a point, but in making it, he perpetuates some harmful stereotypes of his own. As my feminist consciousness grows, so does my appreciation for GLBT subcultures and queer theory, as well as the carnival of misfits that is Pride. Five minutes of shopping for baby clothes reveals how thoroughly we’re indoctrinated in gender stereotypes from birth. The gay community’s visible diversity of sexual personae shocks us into questioning the naturalness of these sex-role straitjackets which shame both boys and girls into suppressing one side of their personality.

So I’m all for resisting conformity. I just get so very sick of seeing the equation of marriage with conformity.

Do you actually think the dominant culture values marriage? It values heterosexual couplings, and maybe weddings, to the extent that they’re an excuse to buy stuff. But the actual work of growing in harmony with another person, of shaping your lives to be a joint project of service to one another and the community, is vastly undersold. The joy of an ever-deepening connection that involves two people’s bodies as much as their souls is nearly invisible in the mainstream media.

Instead, we’re largely served a glamorized picture of singleness as perpetual youth, and promiscuity as self-empowerment. We see this in the adult entertainment that most men consume, and in TV series that continually break up their characters’ romances in order to keep the storyline moving forward without pushing the characters to evolve beyond our initial impression of them.

As Garth says, “We fear change.” Marriage is change. It means you’ve moved on to another stage of life, and unless you believe in heaven (and to be fair, a lot of gay people have been told they wouldn’t be going there), you might be afraid it’s all downhill after thirty.

My husband and I aren’t trying to be countercultural or conformist. Butting heads with the dominant culture is just something that happens when we support one another’s attempts to develop our unique gifts, regardless of how society gender-codes those traits. Okay, so I do the laundry and cook dinner while he fixes the computer and removes large bugs from the bathtub (he doesn’t kill them because he’s a Buddhist). But he also gets up early to shop for bottle sterilizers on the Internet while I’m writing my novel about gay men in love. I pick out the onesie with sequins because I want a fabulous son, and Adam puts it back because he read a baby-care book that says they’re unsafe. But we both agree that Disney is Satan and electronic toys are his tools of destruction.

Living mindfully within the institutions of a patriarchal society is hard work. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Instead of this dead-end debate over whether gay marriage is assimilationist, let’s work to make everyone’s marriage a little more queer. There’s no necessary association between a lifetime commitment to your true love and a retreat into apolitical consumer contentment. Think about gender: which traditional roles suit you, and which feel confining? Can your partner help you appreciate all the roles you play?

I worry that the theme of “marriage makes people lose their edge” indoctrinates us into choosing an abstraction over a connection to a real person. This is fundamentally the same bait-and-switch perpetrated by religious conservatives who tell gays and lesbians to sacrifice their lovers in favor of the abstraction of personal righteousness, or obedience to (one interpretation of) Scripture. So…

Just do your thang, honey!


Poetry by Conway: “Flicker Out”

Correspondence with my prison pen pal “Conway” has been irregular this spring because of the ever-shifting regulations that can cause mail to be blocked without warning. His latest letter shows that he continues to take refuge in his art and to help others do the same.

Several of his poems have just been published in “Paper Thin Walls”, a magazine produced by the Artist Pen-Pal Mutual Aid Project. This project is one of the social justice initiatives from the BuildingBloc Arts Collective, which is also sponsoring a touring exhibit of prisoners’ art, titled “Our Dreams Don’t Fit in Your Cages”. From their website:

BuildingBloc is a collective of artists dedicated to using art to explore
the social inequalities in our society. Through experimentation,
collaboration, and performance, we inform, provoke, and inspire ourselves
and our audiences. We aim to spark dialogue, to create and sustain
relationships between artists and community organizations, to support
existing struggles for social justice, and to erase the boundaries between
art and activism.

In a letter I sent Conway in March, I confided my concerns about a friend in trouble, and my frustration that I couldn’t do more to help her: “I wrote a poem about it this morning but poetry is empty compared to taking action in the world. Or is it? Is poetry second-rate action, the last resort of the powerless, or does it create change?”

His response, in this month’s letter:

I believe that as a blossoming poet myself, I can faithfully say that (for sure) each poem that I write. Creates a change in my growth & understanding of this world and even if Nobody ever reads these scratchings that I’ve tried to conceive; painting pictures with words. That at least I have taught myself to define this world in this moment, and basically that is my first duty. To understand my place and to act accordingly with my fellow travelers.

Once more, my long-distance friendship with Conway has brought me back to my core mission. Options are distracting. When there’s no motive for writing except soul-survival, one sees that this is the motive that breathes life into poetry, the one truly essential objective.

Flicker Out
by Conway

When, one jealous Moon
gathered its courage (prepared to die)
refused to share anymore, twilight Sky.

It was a last ditch-
gilded dream
another early, end of things.

Feeling betrayed
by a star’s bright glow
another globe was caught up
before it really could know.

Like a thief contesting desire
lurking through church
to own everlasting fire.

While another Heart, fell from its perch
unclad night slept fulfilled–
nuzzling against the hurdles
of squandered adolescence.

Despite this Roaring avalanche
there was not a sound
or whimpering illusion
to be swept along.

No one to miss
or hear the splendor,
the desperate kiss of dawn.

So; In the mornings mist
among abundant bird’song,
this sacrifice too, was forgotten.

The face of a Soul disgraced
sufferingly stares, beyond vanishing sight
trembling through tonight.

As that once flawless jewel
now shares–
nothing; Nothing at all…

Healing for the Holidays

Our culture’s secular holidays (and rapidly secularizing religious ones) can bring up complicated emotions when your family doesn’t look like the ones in the magazine ads, or when your feelings about them can’t be summed up by a Hallmark card. Jim Palmer’s new article for RELEVANT Magazine, “Fatherless Day”, offers wisdom for healing from a troubled relationship with a parent. An excerpt:

Separating pain and suffering

If you experienced abuse, rejection or abandonment from your father, the normal human response is to feel deep hurt and pain. But how you interpreted that abuse, rejection or abandonment can lead to unnecessary suffering. For example, I interpreted my father’s lack of involvement and interest in my life as evidence that I was worthless. I concluded that his rejection was all about me. The truth is, it had very little to do with me—it was all about him.

As a child or young person, when we first experience hurt with our father, we don’t have the capacity to reason through it accurately. For all practical purposes, when a father doesn’t express love and affirmation to his son or daughter, they conclude they are therefore not worthy of love and affirmation. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Psychology to see that a person who views themselves this way will suffer deep emotional anguish, which is likely to sabotage their life and relationships.

“Healing” means identifying the false messages you took on board as a result of the hurt experienced from your father. These could include feelings of self-hatred, irrational or unfounded fears, and all kinds of self-defeating and destructive patterns of thinking about yourself, life, God and others.

The truth is sometimes hidden within a web of lies. The reality of your value, worth and identity may be buried deep within a maze of falsehoods you adopted about yourself in hurtful experiences with your father.

Depersonalizing the hurt

I’m not talking about denying the hurt you feel with respect to your father. What I am saying is that you may only be operating with half the picture. Here’s what I mean. No little boy says: “When I grow up, I want to be a dad who hurts and wounds my children. I want to reject them, abuse them, abandon them and damage them for life.” Damaged, wounded and hurt people damage, wound and hurt others. That’s not an excuse, but it means that any child could have been inserted into your place, and the damage, wounds and hurts would have still been afflicted upon them by your father.

My father had a troubled relationship with his father. My father experienced the horrors of war. My father worked two jobs, barely keeping his head above water. Who knows all the dreams he gave up along the way. My father carried all kinds of hurts and wounds I know nothing about. My understanding of my father is woefully incomplete. There is some healing that comes when this truly sinks in. It doesn’t eliminate the pain, but it helps you to absorb it.

One of the most common miracles Jesus performed was healing the blind, which I believe was partly Jesus’ way of emphasizing the significance of seeing things clearly. In Matthew 6:22 Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light ”(TNIV). In other words, seeing things as they truly are is the bedrock of freedom.

My mother recently gave me a stack of old black-and-white photos of my maternal grandmother’s family, taken in the 1940s and 1950s. I knew some of them as distant middle-aged and elderly relatives, others mainly as characters in my mother’s stories. They were a large family of Polish immigrant Jews on New York’s Lower East Side, with all the dreams, struggles, loyalties and emotional wounds that one would expect in such a group. But it wasn’t until I arranged the pictures into a chronological narrative that I really began to see these people, not as good or bad minor characters in my own story, but as individuals with inner lives of their own–inner lives that, sadly, I’ll never know.

Like a family album on a much larger scale, the Bible can help us depersonalize our immediate conflicts. Its stories move back and forth between domestic dramas and historical patterns, all the way up to the clash of Good and Evil at the cosmic level. We learn that our personal story has resonance as part of a greater one, and this can give us more compassion for the other characters and patience to see how it all works out.

Book Notes: GLBT Nonfiction in Brief

Back to June pride-blogging with brief reviews of three nonfiction books that offer insightful writing on GLBT themes.

Written from within the evangelical community and addressed to that community, David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) makes a welcome contribution to the dialogue about faith and sexuality. Myers is a psychology professor at Michigan’s Hope College, while Scanzoni is a professional journalist and nonfiction author. Her commercial magazine experience is evident in the book’s concise, approachable style.

The book’s argument proceeds in stages: Committed relationships have proven essential to human flourishing. Marriage benefits couples, families, and society as a whole. More and more scientific evidence is showing that homosexuality is a naturally occurring human variation, probably caused by some combination of genetic and prenatal factors, and that sexual orientation is nearly always resistant to change. (The authors document the general failure of “ex-gay therapy” and denounce the suffering it causes.) In addition, the Bible verses most often cited against same-sex intimacy have been taken out of context, when they really refer to specific abuses such as temple prostitution and rape. There is therefore no reason to oppose marriage for committed gay couples on the same terms as straight couples. “Marriage lite” options like domestic partnerships and civil unions actually do more to undermine a culture of marriage, by suggesting that less-committed relationships are equally good for couples and their families.

Readers familiar with gay-affirming theology won’t find a lot that’s new here, but that’s not a bad thing. Seeing the same reinterpretations of Romans 1:26, etc., pop up in many places, one has to conclude that this is no longer a “fringe” viewpoint. It’s a viable alternate view, supported by scholarship, that at the very least deserves to be admitted to the conversation at evangelical colleges, publishing houses, and places of worship. Hopefully, the fact that What God Has Joined Together was written by two straight allies will enhance its credibility in those circles.

I recommend the paperback edition because it includes a dialogue between the authors, discussing reactions to the book and how they themselves came to change their views on homosexuality. Scanzoni observes at one point:

I think when we keep a subject such as homosexuality distant from us, seeing it only in the abstract, it’s easy to believe false information, accept stereotypes, and act accordingly. Homosexual people are then seen as an “out-group,” a category distinctly different from the heterosexual “in-group.” A blind spot makes it hard to see gay people as human beings, as persons who want the same things as straight people do–to love and belong and just go about their lives with dignity, as persons made in God’s image.

But when a heterosexual person learns that what had been only a generalized abstract mental construct is actually embodied in an admired person who reveals his or her sexual orientation, something begins to happen. How can you continue to believe gay relationships don’t last after getting to know Pete and Tom, who have been together 50 years, and have watched Pete tenderly caring for Tom, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease? How can you claim that homosexual people are rejecting God when that life-transforming sermon you can’t get out of your mind was preached by a lesbian minister? How can you believe that homosexual people are unfit parents when you see the love and care that Elaine and Laura shower on their baby, or the fun little Joey has as he plays and laughs with his two dads, whom he adores? Meeting gay people replaces an abstract topic with real people and with the universality of human experience.

As Harvey Milk said… “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”


Whereas one might say that Myers and Scanzoni’s work seeks to integrate gay and lesbian couples into the bourgeois mainstream, Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993) celebrates the deconstruction of social norms in the figure of the transvestite. Tracing the theme of cross-dressing through historical anecdotes, legends, high art and popular culture, Garber argues that wherever it occurs, it signals anxiety about the instability of some other social category, not only gender but (at various times) race, class, religion, or colonial power. “[T]ransvestitism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.” (p.17) A little further on, she writes, “there can be no culture without the transvestite because the transvestite marks the entrance into the Symbolic” (p.34) The rest of the book works out this simple thesis at great length.

Garber’s book comes from that mid-1990s postmodernist period when everything looked like a text. She’s a Shakespeare expert, so it makes sense that she’d use the tools of literary criticism to investigate the cross-dressing phenomenon. However, I found myself wondering whether her romance with transgression fits the experience of most trans-people. From what I’ve read on their blogs (and I admit that I’m a beginner here), at least some of them are quite eager to resolve their “third-sex” status into something as close to “male” or “female” as possible. They want to pass for a particular gender, maybe not the one they were born with, but also not some liminal category between.

Bottom line: I wasn’t always satisfied with Garber’s analysis, but I’m still thinking about the book, months after reading it, and that’s enough for me to recommend it.


Wrestling with the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men, edited by Brian Bouldrey (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), is a profound and heartfelt anthology of spiritual memoirs, with contributors including Mark Doty, Andrew Holleran, Kevin Killian, Alfred Corn, Fenton Johnson, and Lev Raphael. The authors touch on such topics as the connection between spiritual and erotic ecstasy, family secrets and reconciliations, and AIDS as a modern crucible of faith. Several Jewish and Christian denominations are represented, as well as Eastern spiritual traditions.

New Fiction Online: Furuness, Patterson, Yanique

The Internet is full of great short fiction, both in literary webzines and on the websites of traditional print journals. Below are links to a few stories I’ve recently enjoyed.

Freight Stories is a relatively new online journal of literary fiction that publishes good work in a clean, easy-to-read format. I’m working my way through Issue #5 and wanted to recommend two pieces published there.

Bryan Furuness’ “Portrait of Lucifer as a Young Man” is a short magical-realist piece that generates, so to speak, sympathy for the devil–maintaining a delicate balance between tenderness and menace:

Lucifer’s father was a portrait painter for hire. If you mailed him a photograph and a check for four hundred dollars, he would paint your likeness in dark, smoky oils. Not a bad deal for a vintage ego trip and the surest way to make new money look old. It was the nineteen-eighties. His business boomed.

He wasn’t the world’s greatest portrait painter, truth be told, but his clients didn’t complain, and he loved the work. Loved it so much, in fact, that when he was finished with paying jobs for the day, he liked to paint Hoosiers of guttering fame—men like Hoagy Carmichael or Booth Tarkington, men whose names rang a faint bell, but you weren’t sure why, though you thought they might have pitched for the Cubs or served in your grandfather’s platoon.

The idea behind these unpaid portraits was to revive some of the subjects’ former fame, but since no museum or gallery had commissioned them (or would accept them, even as donations), they ended up lining the living room wall in rows, a jury box of befuddled uncles.

Growing up, Lucifer thought portraits were ridiculous, and that his father’s clients were shallow and stupid. But around the time of his twelfth birthday, curiosity began to gnaw at him. If his father could make a grain dealer look like a university president, how dignified would Lucifer look in oil?

Victoria Patterson’s “The First and Second Time” takes an unflinching look at the sexual awakening of a teenage girl who is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce:

…Rosie had once been Daddy’s little princess. Before the divorce, her father had slept in the guest room on the foldout sofa bed. Above the sofa was a crudely drawn picture of ice skaters. Her room was next to this room, and often her father would climb into her bed, on top of her beige silk comforter.

He would fall asleep easily. She never got accustomed to having her father’s adult-size body in her bed, and she would not sleep. It made her feel weird, as if she was the wife and not the daughter, but she would let him stay because she knew he was desperately lonely.

She would become hyper-aware of his breathing, the way it would develop into a snore, counting the seconds between her breaths and his long breaths. She would try to time her breaths to his, but she could not.

He had hair on his arms; his lips parted when he fell asleep; a scar divided his left eyebrow; his mustache brushed against his top lip; his face relaxed. Eventually, he would stir and turn, curling into a fetal position. She would move her body if his arm or leg touched.

Always, he would wake, startled by one of his more resonant snores, or for no predictable reason. She would pretend to be asleep. She didn’t want him to feel guilty about keeping her awake.

Sometimes, smelling of moist sleep, his lips would touch her cheek, his mustache brushing against her skin. He always returned to the sofa bed. She would feel relief when he left, although she would curl into the warm spot his body had created on her bed, and finally drift to sleep.

Boston Review is a well-regarded magazine of poetry and progressive politics which offers several annual contests. A lot of their content is available online. Tiphanie Yanique’s lush and haunting story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” won their 13th annual short story contest in 2006. It’s the title story of her new collection, coming in 2010 from Graywolf Press.

…When I left Trinidad for Chacachacare it was 1939 and I was only 14. I came for two reasons. The first was to bury my father, who had lived there for three years and had just died. The second was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The same arm my mother held as she walked me to the dock and left me there. Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the main street, to catch a bus that would take the whole day to get her back to San Fernando, way down in South. I thought of her sitting in the bus for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose empty because she had sold the gold to buy me a used sari and a bag of sweets as a gift for my new caretakers.

I also sat that whole day. I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hear the sounds of the junction that the driver had dropped us off at. It wasn’t Port-of-Spain, but it was the biggest, loudest place I had ever been to. It was like a wedding in my village with all the food laid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand that sold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce before slurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightly colored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and I rushed by, avoiding getting close to people.

During our long walk, the busy road turned into a dusty path. And then we were walking along a wood dock with the sea beneath us. My mother sat me down with my legs hanging over the side and pointed to the small mound many miles out into the ocean. That would be my new home, she told me, where the nuns would take me in and bless me with the sacrament of confirmation when I was older. She did not say, if I lived to be older. Instead she kissed me on the mouth and made me promise not to eat the sweets. And she left. And then it was so quiet, with only the waves and the breeze as sounds of life, that I closed my eyes and pretended that I was back in the junction, eating oysters in pepper sauce, putting them in my mouth with my good hand.

My arm was wrapped and in a sling. Even in my mind I could not forget how my elbow was hurting me in a funny way that wasn’t about pain. Even alone on the dock I was too afraid to touch it, to give that arm the healing power of the other one. It is a dangerous thing when a girl is afraid to touch her own body. I was afraid to touch places on me that weren’t even private. And I was going to die for it. Die for having those places.

Queer Families Speak Out in “13 Love Stories” Video Project

13 Love Stories is a multimedia advocacy project that tells the stories of families adversely affected by Prop 8, the California ballot measure that took away same-sex marriage rights. The project was organized by the UCLA Art/Global Health Center. It includes videos narrated by 13 GLBT couples, who talk about their commitment to one another and their children, and how the lack of marriage equality puts their families in financial and legal jeopardy. This video montage, with a soundtrack from Jason Mraz, is a good introduction to their inspiring narratives.

Yes, WE Can (But YOU Can’t)

I believed in you, Barack Obama.

Yes, I knew you were only a human being, not the savior of our nation, no matter how many giddy songs we sang and tears we shed when you were inaugurated in January. But still, I believed you were a nobler and wiser person than the average politician; more than that, a symbol that social change was possible, that justice for all would not be delayed forever.

I also know that you have more on your mind than whether Heather’s two mommies can file a joint tax return. Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy…I get it. You don’t want to be another Bill Clinton, distracted by the gays-in-the-military issue during your first months in office.

But you didn’t have to file a brief in support of the “Defense of Marriage Act”. I put the name of this wrong-headed federal law in quotes because it doesn’t actually protect anyone’s marriage. It only withholds over 1,000 federal rights and benefits from same-sex couples, even if their marriage is recognized by their own state’s laws. And what’s more, President Obama, you didn’t have to file this brief, which substantively and in detail defends the constitutionality of discrimination against gays and lesbians, arguing that they are not a “suspect class” for equal protection purposes.

There are a lot of folks in this country who still don’t see a parallel between gay rights and the civil rights struggles that ended “separate but equal” schooling and the interracial marriage ban–even though the Justice Department’s pro-DOMA brief relies on the same legal arguments that once would have prevented the president’s parents from getting married. But, President Obama, you led our community to believe that you saw that connection. Were you just promising marriage in order to get us into bed?

Former Clinton top aide Richard Socarides has written on the liberal political website AMERICABlog News about why the DOMA brief was unnecessary and harmful:

Like many other gay people who support the president, and as someone who had hoped he would be a presidential-sized champion of gay civil rights from the start, I was disturbed by his administration’s brief defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), filed late last week, in opposition to our full equality.

It had such a buckshot approach to it, a veritable kitchen sink of anti-gay legal theories, that it seemed expressly designed to inflict maximal damage to our rights. Instead of making nuanced arguments which took into account the president’s oft-stated support for repealing DOMA – a law he has called “abhorrent” – the brief seemed to embrace DOMA and all its horrific consequences.

I was equally troubled by the administration’s explanation that they had no choice but to defend the law. As an attorney and as someone who was directly involved in giving advice on such matters to another president (as a Special Assistant for civil rights to President Bill Clinton), I know that this is untrue.

No matter what the president’s personal opinion, administration officials now tell us that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) must defend the laws on the books, and must advance all plausible arguments in doing so. Thus, the theory goes, the DOJ was just following the normal rules in vigorously defending the anti-gay law.

I know and accept the fact that one of the Department of Justice’s roles is to (generally) defend the law against constitutional attack. But not in all cases, certainly not in this case – and not in this way. To defend this brief is to defend the indefensible.

From my experience, in a case where, as here, there are important political and social issues at stake, the president’s relationship with the Justice Department should work like this: The president makes a policy decision first and then the very talented DOJ lawyers figure out how to apply it to actual cases. If the lawyers cannot figure out how to defend a statute and stay consistent with the president’s policy decision, the policy decision should always win out.

Thus, the general rule that the DOJ must defend laws against attack is relative – like everything in Washington. And even when the DOJ does defend a law against constitutional attack, it does not have to advance every conceivable argument in doing so (such as the brief’s invocation, in a footnote, of incest and the marriage of children). In fact, many legal experts believe that in this particular case none of the issues going to the merits of whether or not DOMA is constitutional needed to be addressed to get the case thrown out. The administration’s lawyers could have simply argued, for example, that the plaintiff’s had no standing. There was no need to invoke legal theories that were not only offensive on their face, but which could put at risk future legal efforts on behalf of our civil rights.

An earlier post on AMERICABlog News, by John Aravosis, is also worth reading for its point-by-point analysis of the DOJ brief and its potential negative impact on other gay-rights cases.

Call for Papers: Soulforce Anti-Heterosexism Conference

Soulforce, the activist group that resists religion-based oppression of GLBT people through nonviolent protests and education, seeks workshop presentations for its anti-heterosexism conference this winter. The event will be held
in West Palm Beach, FL on Nov. 20-22 to coincide with the annual conference of “ex-gay therapy” organization NARTH. Co-hosting the event with Soulforce are the National Black Justice Coalition and the “ex-gay survivors” website Box Turtle Bulletin. From their press release:

Heterosexism is the presumption that everyone is heterosexual and that opposite sex attractions and relationships are preferable and superior to those of the same sex. Heterosexism has been encoded into nearly every major social, religious, cultural, and economic institution in our society and it leads directly to discrimination and the harmful efforts by some health care providers and religious groups to change or repress the sexual orientation of those under their care.

Anti-heterosexism involves recognizing and questioning the power and privileges society confers on heterosexual people because of their sexual orientation. It involves respecting and fostering the inclusivity and diversity of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities….

One of the most destructive forms of heterosexism is the practice of “ex-gay” ministries and “reparative” or “sexual orientation conversion” therapies. Based on the false presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality, these treatments use scientifically unsound and outdated understandings of sexual and gender identity and offer false hope to vulnerable and distressed LGBT people, especially those from conservative religious backgrounds. The harm caused by such programs can be immense, with troubling ethical violations that may include breaches in patient/client confidentiality, and outcomes that increase the risk for depression, anxiety, and self- destructive behavior. Deeply rooted in heterosexist attitudes, they frequently teach that LGBT people are lonely and unhappy individuals who never achieve societal acceptance, satisfying interpersonal relationships, or a genuine faith experience.

Furthermore, ex-gays have become a central component in the strategy to deny LGBT people full civil equality. Paid spokespersons from ex-gay ministries speak in courtrooms, school board meetings, and directly to legislators in Congress. Their goal is to convince political leaders and the American public that LGBT people can change their sexual orientation or gender identities and therefore do not need equal rights or protections.

Proposals should be submitted by August 29. Consider making a donation to support this event. Soulforce, like many other nonprofits, has been hard-hit by the recession. Right-wing ministries and political action groups that spread ex-gay misinformation are better funded and have the power of the dominant culture behind them. Help turn the tide.

Book Notes: Gay Fiction Roundup

As promised, our Pride Month series this year includes reviews of the best GLBT-themed books that have come to the attention of Reiter’s Block. These short fiction anthologies stood out for their fine writing, diverse perspectives, and emotionally compelling characters.

*Steve Berman, ed., Best Gay Stories 2008 (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008).

This anthology boasts an appealing mix of genres including fantasy, horror, and crime fiction, along with more traditional literary fiction. The economic and racial diversity of the characters also held my interest. As a woman writing about gay men, I appreciated the inclusion of two female authors here. Favorite tales: Raymond Luczak, “Interpretations,” the story of a sign-language interpreter working with deaf gay men at the beginning of the AIDS crisis; Holly Black, “The Coat of Stars,” a magical-realist love story about a Hispanic tailor who must win his childhood sweetheart away from the fairy queen; and Jeff Mann, “Taming the Trees,” which combines the rural, S&M, and “bear” subcultures in the unlikely persona of a middle-aged professor missing the one man he truly loved.

*Richard Canning, ed., Between Men (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).

This is a fine collection of contemporary literary fiction, enhanced by Canning’s introduction, which highlights important themes in the stories and places them in their cultural context. Some novel excerpts work better than others as stand-alone reads, but all authors are high-quality. Overall, the book’s flavor is subtle and melancholy. Favorite tales: Kevin Killian, “Greensleeves,” a disturbing account of a power game between a wife, a husband, and his gay lovers, whose motives are left to the reader’s imagination; John Weir, “Neorealism at the Infiniplex,” in which anger, grief, and comedy collide at the funeral of a friend who died of AIDS; David McConnell, “Rivals,” the unforgettable story of a female teacher who seduces an eleven-year-old boy (an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Beads); and Tennessee Jones, “Pennsylvania Story,” the dark romance of two abused men reenacting their past.

*Donald Weise, ed., Fresh Men 2: New Voices in Gay Fiction (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005).

This anthology series showcases emerging gay male authors of literary fiction. Not surprisingly, casual sex and unfulfilled longing are common themes, though handled in a variety of ways. In my opinion, the most original and substantial tales in this book are clustered toward the end: Rakesh Satyal, “Difference,” an unbearably tender and sad story of a young man who can’t get over a breakup; Ted Gideonse, “The Lost Coast,” in which a vacationing male couple’s relationship is tested when tragedy strikes their fellow campers; and James Grissom, “A Bright and Shining Place,” which addresses homophobia in the black church and how it strains one interracial couple.

*Richard Canning, ed., Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).

Canning once again works overtime as editor to provide a masterful survey of AIDS literature from the pre-1996 period, before the new drug therapies offered HIV+ people a chance at a normal lifespan. All the stories are powerful and well-written, but I was particularly affected by the following: Edmund White, “An Oracle,” in which a young hustler on a Greek island helps a man grieve for his dead lover; the late Allen Barnett, “Philostorgy, Now Obscure,” about a terminally ill man gently closing the book on his complicated friendship with two women; Thomas Glave, “The Final Inning,” about the suffering of closeted gay men in the black community; and Dale Peck, “Thirteen Ecstasies of the Soul,” a lyrical tribute to two dead friends, told as a series of prose-poems.     


True Love in the Granite State

Today, New Hampshire became the sixth state to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. According to an email bulletin from MassEquality, Gov. John Lynch has just signed the bill that the legislature passed earlier this spring. Thanks are due to MassEquality, New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAD, and other activists who worked to make this a reality.

This has been an amazing year for supporters of equal rights. Was Prop 8 the Stonewall of the marriage movement? Something seems to have galvanized voters and legislators to take action on an issue that’s been sidelined too long.

However, opponents are hoping to roll back these gains, with a ballot initiative in Maine and other proposals. Now is the time for GLBT-affirming people of faith, in particular, to talk to our neighbors about why our beliefs are compatible with Scripture.

On a related note: If you’re in Western Massachusetts tomorrow night, come to the Interfaith Service for Transgender Rights, 7 PM on June 4th at the Edwards Church on Main Street in Northampton. Find out more at the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition website.