William “Wild Bill” Taylor: “Bored in Sunday School”

Taylor, a Winning Writers subscriber, often emails me his poems about the spiritual disillusionment of the Vietnam generation. This latest entry is one of my favorites. Read my critique of his poem “Corpus Christi” on our website.

Bored in Sunday School

In better times,
we would have been best friends,

growing up with pals down the street,
with our Davy Crockett hats, and our Johnny
    Unitas helmets,

after school was our first attempts at understanding
the head and shoulder movements of the opposite sex,

such mysterious lamentations of nature,
we also were becoming bored in Sunday school,
figuring all this talk of morals was bad for our
    young souls,
we had worlds and mountains to conquer,
our chapter in history had yet to be written,
all of us could do it better than
it had been done before!

the afternoon matinee became the Saturday night
where we suddenly were consumed with our looks,
    and if our
hair and nose were the correct lengths for our species,

we did not care, in the beginning, that our lovers were
    the fruitful results
of aloofness, we held them secure in the dreamland
    epitaph of insecure country boys
who prayed, not to the Sunday god, but that deity who
    ran naked from

the Garden of Eden,

when these starlets whispered “I love you”, we were
our aging would stop,

those blue eyes held us dear,
their ample breastplate provided cover,
their legs, wrapped round us,

until the next sunlight
awakened the merging of passion,

and the future,
was a bitter cough drop,
yet, swallowed,

funny, the old drunk told me,
nothing stays wonderful, forever…

Friday Non-Random Song: Queen, “Too Much Love Will Kill You”

I’ve always thought of myself as a person who shunned emotional drama, but in this as in so many things, I’ve come to realize that I’m not much different from the rest of the human race. “Love” is many things besides eros: attachment to parents or parent figures, idealization of a community or institution, intimate friendship, or passionate self-projection into a future that may not come true. The fact that my romantic history is as pleasantly simple as a mayonnaise sandwich has not spared me these other forms of rapture and heartbreak.

An enduring dilemma in my spiritual life is how to cherish the world and its people without seeking more solace there than perishable and imperfect human beings can give; how to keep an open heart without trusting foolishly and prematurely. In the Book of Common Prayer, we ask God “that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal” (Collect for Proper 12).

But I’ve been having a crisis of faith lately about the proper priority of Jesus’ two great commandments. Asceticism and hard-heartedness are common overreactions to the painfulness of human love. I see Christians invoking God’s sovereignty as a reason to be deaf to the suffering of non-Christians supposedly condemned to hell, or same-sex-oriented people supposedly condemned to lives of loneliness and deception. God’s love is not enough, or everyone would be a monk.

As for a “personal relationship with Jesus”, I don’t know how I would distinguish that from talking to my novel characters. I’ve written a lot on this blog about trusting one’s own perceptions, not because they’re always correct, but because one has no choice. I would really like to feel that Jesus was as real to me as the person sitting next to me on the subway. Still, I’ve been hurt so badly by people who put ideology ahead of compassion, that I am paranoid that this “Jesus” in my head would become a construct that diminishes my investment in the here and now. I suppose that if that happened, it would be a sign that it wasn’t the real Jesus? By their fruits you shall know them…

I’m just the pieces of the man I used to be
Too many bitter tears are raining down on me
I’m far away from home
And I’ve been facing this alone
For much too long
I feel like no-one ever told the truth to me
About growing up and what a struggle it would be
In my tangled state of mind
I’ve been looking back to find
Where I went wrong

Too much love will kill you
If you can’t make up your mind
Torn between the lover
And the love you leave behind
You’re headed for disaster
‘cos you never read the signs
Too much love will kill you
Every time

I’m just the shadow of the man I used to be
And it seems like there’s no way out of this for me
I used to bring you sunshine
Now all I ever do is bring you down
How would it be if you were standing in my shoes
Can’t you see that it’s impossible to choose
No there’s no making sense of it
Every way I go I’m bound to lose

Too much love will kill you
Just as sure as none at all
It’ll drain the power that’s in you
Make you plead and scream and crawl
And the pain will make you crazy
You’re the victim of your crime
Too much love will kill you
Every time

Too much love will kill you
It’ll make your life a lie
Yes, too much love will kill you
And you won’t understand why
You’d give your life, you’d sell your soul
But here it comes again
Too much love will kill you
In the end…
In the end.

(Lyrics courtesy of eLyrics.net)

Scott Russell Sanders: “Under the Influence”

In this unflinching and eloquent essay, first published in Harper’s in 1989, Scott Russell Sanders recalls his late father’s long descent into alcoholism and how it affected his family. His reflections will resonate with anyone who grew up with an addicted or mentally ill parent.

…I am forty-four, and I know full well now that my father was an alcoholic, a man consumed by disease rather than by disappointment. What had seemed to me a private grief is in fact, of course, a public scourge. In the United States alone, some ten or fifteen million people share his ailment, and behind the doors they slam in fury or disgrace, countless other children tremble. I comfort myself with such knowledge, holding it against the throb of memory like an ice pack against a bruise. Other people have keener sources of grief – poverty, racism, rape, war. I do not wish to compete to determine who has suffered most. I am only trying to understand the corrosive mixture of helplessness, responsibility, and shame that I learned to feel as the son of an alcoholic. I realize now that I did not cause my father’s illness, nor could I have cured it. Yet for all this grownup knowledge, I am still ten years old, my own son’s age, and as that boy I struggle in guilt and confusion to save my father from pain.

Consider a few of our synonyms for drunk: tipsy, tight, pickled, soused, and plowed; stoned and stewed, lubricated and inebriated, juiced and sluiced; three sheets to the wind, in your cups, out of your mind, under the table; lit up, tanked up, wiped out; besotted, blotto, bombed, and buzzed; plastered, polluted, putrefied; loaded or looped, boozy, woozy, fuddled, or smashed; crocked and shit-faced, corked and pissed, snockered and sloshed.

It is a mostly humorous lexicon, as the lore that deals with drunks–in jokes and cartoons, in plays, films, and television skits–is largely comic. Aunt Matilda nips elderberry wine from the sideboard and burps politely during supper. Uncle Fred slouches to the table glassy-eyed, wearing a lampshade for a hat and murmuring, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Inspired by cocktails, Mrs. Somebody recounts the events of her day in a fuzzy dialect, while Mr. Somebody nibbles her ear and croons a bawdy song. On the sofa with Boyfriend, Daughter Somebody giggles, licking gin from her lips, and loosens the bows in her hair. Junior knocks back some brews with his chums at the Leopard Lounge and stumbles home to the wrong house, wonders foggily why he cannot locate his pajamas, and crawls naked into bed with the ugliest girl in school. The family dog slurps from a neglected martini and wobbles to the nursery, where he vomits in Baby’s shoe.

It is all great fun. But if in the audience you notice a few laughing faces turn grim when the drunk lurches onstage, don’t be surprised, for these are the children of alcoholics. Over the grinning mask of Dionysus, the leering face of Bacchus, these children cannot help seeing the bloated features of their own parents. Instead of laughing, they wince, they mourn. Instead of celebrating the drunk as one freed from constraints, they pity him as one enslaved. They refuse to believe “in vino veritas”, having seen their befuddled parents skid away from truth toward folly and oblivion. And so these children bite their lips until the lush staggers into the wings.

My father, when drunk, was neither funny nor honest; he was pathetic, frightening, deceitful. There seemed to be a leak in him somewhere, and he poured in booze to keep from draining dry. Like a torture victim who refuses to squeal, he would never admit that he had touched a drop, not even in his last year, when he seemed to be dissolving in alcohol before our very eyes. I never knew him to lie about anything, ever, except about this one ruinous fact. Drowsy, clumsy, unable to fix a bicycle tire, balance a grocery sack, or walk across a room, he was stripped of his true self by drink. In a matter of minutes, the contents of a bottle could transform a brave man into a coward, a buddy into a bully, a gifted athlete and skilled carpenter and shrewd businessman into a bumbler. No dictionary of synonyms for drunk would soften the anguish of watching our prince turn into a frog.

Father’s drinking became the family secret. While growing up, we children never breathed a word of it beyond the four walls of our house. To this day, my brother and sister rarely mention it, and then only when I press them. I did not confess the ugly, bewildering fact to my wife until his wavering and slurred speech forced me to. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of my father’s death, I asked my mother if she ever spoke of his drinking to friends. “No, no, never,” she replied hastily. “I couldn’t bear for anyone to know.”

The secret bores under the skin, gets in the blood, into the bone, and stays there. Long after you have supposedly been cured of malaria, the fever can flare up, the tremors can shake you. So it is with the fevers of shame. You swallow the bitter quinine of knowledge, and you learn to feel pity and compassion toward the drinker. Yet the shame lingers and, because of it, anger.

Read the entire piece on the LifeRing website, an online support network for people in recovery.

Hat tip to the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing e-newsletter for this link. The next festival will be held in April 2010. Sanders is one of the featured speakers. I attended in 2006 and recommend it with one-and-a-half thumbs up. On the plus side, I experienced the prophetic power of the Holy Spirit during Walter Wangerin Jr.’s closing address and emerged with a new ability to write literary fiction. On the minus side, the food is terrible and the campus layout is very confusing. So if you go, rent a car and pack lots of beef jerky, and prepare to change your life.

Poemeleon “Gender Issue” Now Online

Mystery boxes! Ironic diagrams! And at least one plastic vagina… It’s the latest issue of the online journal Poemeleon, the Gender Issue, with poems from award-winning authors including Rane Arroyo, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Jennifer Sweeney, and yours truly.

Other highlights include a review of Letters to the World: Poems from the Women’s Poetry Listserv. This lively and erudite online discussion group, better known as Wom-Po, was crucial in helping me transition from the 9-to-5 cubicle world to the more solitary and unstructured life of the writer-entrepreneur, back in 2003. Wom-Po demonstrates the potential of the Internet to create a community for women writers who may not have opportunities for face-to-face mentoring. (Be warned, though – the discussion is so active that reading and responding to the messages may consume your entire day.)

Welcoming Transwomen at Women’s Colleges

This blog’s straight ally of the day, Smith College student Alexandra Bregman, writes today in the campus newspaper The Sophian in defense of allowing transgender students at women’s colleges:

Smith is not a women’s college. The confines of the gender binary are constantly blurred and redefined, as we educate one another on pronoun usage, testosterone injections and the day-to-day tribulations of what it means to be in transition. The transsexual, transgender and gender queer populations of Smith College are valid and flourishing, whether they make it onto the “I Am Smith” Web page or not. In an age where single-sex education is a niche market and a deep source of pride at Smith College, the transient population and all forms of masculinity on campus simply must be addressed….

…all students come to Smith not knowing what the future holds. It’s more than likely that an F to M candidate stumbled upon his, her, hir or ze path to self-discovery by joining the ranks of Smith’s LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual/Transgender-Queer) community. We’re all here to discover our futures. If the future holds another name, pronoun or gender, why should that be a problem?

Unfortunately, gender realization is often difficult on campus. Students can be uncomfortable, and the question of transferring often comes up. A fellow student recounted the tribulations of not transferring. While he loves his ties to Smith, everything from the classroom situation to the bathroom to his on-campus job proves potentially awkward. The constant questions, most often, “Are you a Five College student?” can be exhausting.

Yet this student also fears that a transfer to the University of Massachusetts could be both physically and socially dangerous, especially in light of the recent abuse at Hampshire College.

According to circulating speculative blogs and e-mails, a transwoman of color was seeking refuge at Hampshire College on Sept. 24 when the Five College Public Safety entered her host’s mod, victimized her and took her to jail for trespassing. Then she was taken to the Amherst police station, where she was allegedly more aggressively sexually violated, and detained after her friends had paid bail. I am consistently shocked and saddened by challenges Trans college students face, because it really seems that there is nowhere to turn.

Read the whole article here.

Bregman focuses on the case of an F-to-M student who wishes to remain at Smith despite the awkwardness of presenting as male at a women’s college. The controversy seems to be greater in the other direction, from what I’ve read about this issue: what happens when someone who’s biologically male, but identifies as female, wants to be included in a “women-only” space? The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for instance, only opened its doors to transwomen in 2006 after heated debate.

As I understand it, one rationale for women-only institutions and events is to create a safe space for a group that’s been silenced and discriminated against. Those who oppose inclusion of trans-women have argued that a person who grew up with male privilege, and whose personality was formed by being a member of the dominant group, might carry those oppressive attitudes into the women-only space, notwithstanding hir outward gender presentation.

This argument doesn’t convince me, personally. Having spent a little time with radical feminists, I understand that the presence of any man can be triggering for survivors of extreme abuse. However, I’m really wary about extending this separatist, essentialist model as the norm for women’s empowerment. Gender-nonconforming men may have been born with some privileges that we XX-chromosomal women never had, but they’ve had their own formative experiences of marginalization and discrimination. I think it’s helpful for us to share our space with women who’ve had different experiences of both gender privilege and gender bias, so that we don’t focus on our own sufferings to the exclusion of others.

Abroad, Homophobia Often Turns Deadly

As election day approaches, American activists are preoccupied with the ballot fights over gay marriage in Maine and Washington State. Serious as this issue is, we need to remember how privileged we are in the US. In many countries in the Middle East and Africa, anyone suspected of being gay is vulnerable to kidnapping, torture, blackmail and murder. Church, state, and mosque not only fail to intervene but often encourage these abuses in order to show their control over the morals of society. I’d like to see the well-funded US-based GLBT groups doing more to show solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters abroad.

Other Sheep is a Christian ministry that reaches out to GLBT people and straight allies in countries where such persecution is widespread. This is dangerous work, as the following story from their e-newsletter demonstrates:

After learning through an email from Rev. John Makokha that a mutual gay friend of ours in Kenya had been attacked on Saturday evening, October 3, 2009, Jose was able, through a phone conversation, to have an interview with the victim on Sunday, October 4. Jose recorded the conversation and then made a transcript. Steve wrote up the following report from the transcript.

Rev. Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz
Other Sheep
Bronx, New York
October 6, 2009

…The victim, an active member of Other Sheep Kenya, is a gay Christian Kenyan adult male living in Kenya. The victim is a long standing member of a large and prominent mainline church in Kenya. He takes an active role in the weekly services of his church. The victim grew up in the parsonage. His father, now deceased, was a clergyman.

(According to one Kenyan minister who commented, it is very unlikely that the victim’s present church will take notice of this attack if the members learn that he is gay.)

The Attack – as reported by the victim in a phone conversation

A new “friend” who is not to be trusted

Not too long ago, a certain neighbor of mine – a fellow Kenyan – came to my home and introduced himself. He was very friendly and so we had talks together about life in general. With time, he told me he had a job working for an organization (which he named) that has health programs for the gay community. He said he wanted to understand “what is this thing about gays, and how does it work, and if there are any gays in Kenya.” He told me that he was just beginning to hear about gay people and so he needed to understand more about it. I decided to open up to him and tell him I was gay. When I did, we had a long conversation. He asked me questions in a very nice manner.


Then things changed. He said he was trying to gather information to confirm that I was gay because there should not be any gays in society. He said he was going to take action. Then he started asking me if I had any money. He said he would tell someone in the neighborhood that I am gay – someone who would not take the information very kindly. If I wanted him to keep quiet about my orientation then I was to give him money. I thought, at first, he was joking. He said he studied criminology and could do what he said he would do.

Manipulated, threatened and forced to the home of a good friend who said he wanted to kill him

On the night of the beating, this same neighbor who had blackmailed me, came to my home and grabbed me and told me to come with him. He said he was taking me to see a certain friend of mine which he also knew. He named the friend and he was, indeed, a very good friend of mine. He said if I would not go with him he would start screaming to everyone nearby that I am gay and that I had tried to molest him. I said, “OK, if you want my friend to know, let’s go.” I didn’t know if they had planned this out together, but I decided it would make things easier for me if I were to go. I felt that my good friend would take the time needed to understand me and accept me still as his friend. However, I was shocked by his reaction. He didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say. He just said, “I knew he was gay. He should be killed. He should be destroyed. Don’t let him say another word. Let’s just hit him and let’s make sure he is destroyed.”

The neighbor who had grabbed me and forced me to my good friend’s home said, “You accept that you are gay and that you should not be gay?” I tried to explain to them both that there is nothing wrong in being gay; that gay people are normal human beings; that gay people do no wrong to any one; that they need to be given the opportunity to explain what they go through, that is, the kind of stigmatization they experience in society.
But they would not listen to any of this.

There, at his home, my very good friend said, “I have a gun. We have to destroy him. I don’t care if he is my best friend. He isn’t anymore.”

The victim attempts to verbally defend himself

I think my very good friend was homophobic all along, but he had no evidence that I was gay until this night when I admittedly told him I was gay. I told them they needed to understand. I told them that I have accepted myself as a gay man and that if I have done anything criminal then, instead of hitting me, they needed to call the police and write up a report against me. But they said, “No, we just have to hit you.”

Other people join in to hit and beat the victim without mercy

It was my very good friend that started to excite to action the others who were there. They started hitting me and saying they should call the brother who plays rugby – that he would deal with me properly; that he would hit me at the end of each day until I become normal. And that I should no longer live in the neighborhood.

As they hit me they shouted, “You can change, you can change.” They were hitting me so I would change and would understand that I needed to be heterosexual. A crowd was being drawn in by the commotion and my good friend was telling them to hit me and beat me and not to listen to anyone [who said otherwise].

The beating resulted in swelling to the head and chest with bleeding. My mouth and lips are swollen because they stepped on me and jumped on me. They actually did call the rugby guy and a second guy in town. They lifted me up and threw me on the ground and then stepped on my head.

On lookers aid the victim; the perpetrators follow the victim to his home

Ladies near by started screaming, “They are going to kill this man.” Some people starting saying, “Let him live.” These people saved my life. Two men held back the guys who were attacking me, saying, “You have to stop this!” At that point I had a chance to get away and went to my home, locked the door, and went to my room. But they still came after me. They attempted to break the door in. Instead, they broke all the windows in the house. They told me they would return in the morning to destroy me.

A kind woman told me I should leave.

Meanwhile, this article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel reports that a “wave of homophobia” is sweeping through the Islamic world:

In most Islamic countries, gay men and women are ostracized, persecuted and in some cases even murdered. Repressive regimes are often fanning the flames of hatred in a bid to outdo Islamists when it comes to spreading “moral panic.”

Bearded men kidnapped him in the center of Baghdad, threw him into a dark hole, chained him down, urinated on him, and beat him with an iron pipe. But the worst moment for Hisham, 40, came on the fourth day of his ordeal when the kidnappers called his family. He was terrified they would tell his mother that he is gay and that this was the reason they had kidnapped him. If they did he would never be able to see his family again. The shame would be unbearable for them.

“Do what you want to me, but don’t tell them,” he screamed.

Instead of humiliating him in the eyes of his family, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $50,000 (€33,000), a huge sum for the average Iraqi family. His parents had to go into debt and sell off all of their son’s possessions in order to raise the money required to secure his freedom. Shortly after they received the ransom the kidnappers threw Hisham out of their car somewhere in the northern part of Baghdad. They decided not to shoot him and let him go. But they sent him on his way with a warning: “This is your last chance. If we ever see you again, we’ll kill you.”

That was four months ago. Hisham has since moved to Lebanon. He told his family that he had decided to flee the violence and terror in Baghdad and that he had found work in Beirut. Needless to say he didn’t disclose the fact that he is unable to live in Iraq because of the death squads who are out hunting for “effeminate-looking” men.

In Baghdad a new series of murders began early this year, perpetrated against men suspected of being gay. Often they are raped, their genitals cut off, and their anuses sealed with glue. Their bodies are left at landfills or dumped in the streets. The non-profit organization Human Rights Watch, which has documented many of these crimes, has spoken of a systematic campaign of violence involving hundreds of murders.

Restoring ‘Religious Morals’

A video clip showing men dancing with each other at a party in Baghdad in the summer of 2008 is thought to have triggered this string of kidnappings, rapes, and murders. Thousands of people have seen it on the Internet and on their cell phones. Islamic religious leaders began ranting about the growing presence of a “third sex” which American soldiers were said to have brought in with them. The followers of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in particular, felt the need to take action aimed at restoring “religious morals.”

In their stronghold, the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, black-clad militiamen patrol the streets, on the lookout for anyone whose “unmanly appearance” or behavior would make it possible to identify them as being homosexual. Often enough long hair, tight-fitting t-shirts and trousers, or a certain way of walking were a death sentence for the persons in question. But it’s not just the Mahdi army who has been hunting down and killing gay men. Other groups such as Sunni militias close to al-Qaida and the Iraqi security services are also known to be involved.

Homosexuals in Iraq may be faced with an exceptionally dangerous situation but they are ostracized almost everywhere in the Muslim world. Gay rights organizations estimate that more than 100,000 gay men and women are currently being discriminated against and threatened in Muslim countries. Thousands of them commit suicide, end up in prison, or go into hiding.

Egypt Starts to Clamp Down

More than 30 Islamic countries have laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality and make it a criminal offense. In most cases punishment ranges from floggings to life imprisonment. In Mauritania, Bangladesh, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran convicted homosexuals can also be sentenced to death.

In those Muslim countries where homosexuality is not against the law gay men and women are nonetheless persecuted, arrested, and in some cases murdered. Although long known for its open gay scene, Egypt has recently started to clamp down hard. The lives of homosexuals are monitored by a kind of vice squad who tap telephones and recruit informants. As soon as the police have accumulated the kind of evidence they need they charge their victims with “debauchery.”…

Read the whole story here.
The New York Times Magazine also recently ran a feature story on NYC-based activists who are trying to save Iraq’s persecuted sexual minorities:

n a bright afternoon in late March, an 18-year-old named Fadi stood in a friend’s clothing store in Baghdad checking out the new merchandise. A worker in a neighboring store walked into the boutique with a newspaper in his hand and shared a story he had just read. It was about “sexual deviants,” he said. Gay men’s rectums had been glued shut, and they had been force-fed laxatives and water until their insides exploded. They had been found dead on the street.

That evening Fadi met up with his three closest friends—Ahmed, Mazen, and Namir—in a coffee shop called the Shisha café in the Karada district of Baghdad. Karada is a mixed Shia-Christian neighborhood that has a more relaxed, cosmopolitan feel than many parts of the Iraqi capital. Fadi and his friends had been meeting there nearly every evening for a year, Fadi coming from his job cleaning toilets for Americans in the Green Zone and the three others from college. The coffee shop was relatively new and attracted a young crowd. The walls were colored in solid blocks of orange, green, and blue, the glass-topped tables painted red and black. It was the closest thing to hip that Baghdad had to offer. For Fadi and his three friends, who secretly referred to themselves as the 4 Cats, after a Pussycat Dolls–like Lebanese group, the Shisha was a refuge from the hostile, often violent anti-gay climate that they had grown up with in Iraq.

Fadi has a warm, irrepressible laugh; his eyes narrow under thick black eyebrows whenever someone tells a joke. He told his friends about the newspaper story, but insisted it couldn’t be true.

“They’re doing this to frighten us,” he said.

In recent weeks, with rumors of gay death squads and torture on the rise, the four friends had lowered their profile. They no longer went to the Shisha every night. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Fadi said, on the last night they met there.

On April 4, at about 8 p.m., Fadi’s cell phone rang. It was Mazen’s brother.

“Mazen and Namir have been killed,” he said.

The maimed bodies of the two friends had been discovered together in the vast Shia district of Baghdad named Sadr City, which is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shia militia. Mazen had had his pectoral muscles cut off. There were two drill holes in Namir’s left leg, below the knee. Both had been shot in the head, apparently from close range.

“Two young men were killed on Thursday,” an unnamed Sadr City official told the Reuters news agency in a story published that same day. “They were sexual deviants. Their tribes killed them to restore their family honor.” In the same story, Reuters cited a police source as saying that the bodies of four other gay men had been found in Sadr City on March 25 with signs on their chests reading PERVERT.

Fadi called Ahmed. They spoke for an hour. They were devastated by their friends’ deaths, of course. They were also terrified. Under torture, Mazen and Namir may have given up their names….

…As virulent as the violence against gay people (men mostly) was, it
operated at a kind of low hum for many years, overshadowed by the
country’s myriad other problems. But in February of this year,
something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly
declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave
of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with
disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen
young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female
belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies,
a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and
Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils
of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up
their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their
gay relatives. The bodies of gay men like Mazen and Namir, often
mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify
the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates
place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to
have been killed.

The eruption of violence in February appears to have been an
unintended consequence of the country’s broader peace. In the wake of
the surge in American troops and the increase in strength of the Iraqi
military and police forces, Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni and Shia
militias have wound down their attacks against American forces and one
another. Now they appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of
moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of
engendering public support. Gay Iraqis seem to believe that the Mahdi
Army is the main, but not only, culprit in the purges. “They’ve started
a new game to make people follow them. No more whores, no more
lesbians, no more gays,” a friend of Fadi’s told me. “They’re sending a
message to people: ‘We are still here, and we can do anything we
want.’ ”

doesn’t help that gay people have virtually no allies in Iraqi society.
Women, ethnic minorities, detainees, people who work for the
Americans—just about everyone else in the country has some sort of
representation. But there are no votes to be gained or power to be
accrued in any Iraqi community—Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians,
Turkmen—by supporting gay people. Gays in Iraq today are essentially a
defenseless target….

Read more here.

There’s an incredible Christian missionary opportunity here if anyone has the guts to take it. As I understand it, a community modeled on Jesus should have a “preferential option” for society’s outcasts, and you don’t get much more outcast than a gay man in Iraq. We should be the refuge for those who have none. Instead, too often we’re part of the problem. The future of Christianity is in groups like Other Sheep, who dare to challenge a universal prejudice by spreading God’s love.

In Praise of Wasted Time

We’re in New York City, probably through the rest of October, visiting family on the Upper East Side and making plans for a new project. While Adam manages his Northampton activist campaigns from afar, I have been “doing research for the novel”, which to the untrained eye might look like shopping for clothes. Fortunately, here is novelist Nick Hornby, in an interview on the literary social-networking site Goodreads, to ease my guilt:

GR: The idea of wasting time is a strong theme in your work. The characters of your novels often share a disability to engage fully with life—a motif that can be traced back to your memoir, Fever Pitch. Do you see this as one of life’s primary challenges?

NH: The trouble is, of course, that it’s a challenge one can never win. I refuse to accept that the people who have never wasted a second of their lives in the conventional sense, the people who climb mountains and run for high office and find cures for diseases, have succeeded in engaging fully with life. They’re the ones with the damaged relationships and the piles of unread novels, the people who don’t know what Little Walter sounds like…I’m frustrated by how much time has slipped by in my own life, and I’ve wasted more time than most, but I’m not sure I’d feel any better if I’d been more productive. For a start, my first couple of books were a product of all the times I’d wasted at football matches and in record stores.

in the interview, Hornby’s nostalgia about his intense relationship to his small record collection reminded me how I felt about the few poetry books I owned as a teenager.

NH: I think I used to obsess over albums simply because I didn’t have very many. Back when I started listening to music, your record collection began with one album. And then, a couple of weeks later, when you’d got the pocket money together, it became two, and so on. And that meant you had a pretty intense relationship with the albums you owned in your teenage years. Now it’s different. My nieces and nephews ask me to fill up their iPods. I give them a couple hundred albums with the flick of a mouse. I can’t really imagine what that is like, being presented with the history of rock ‘n’ roll like that.

The books that somewhat randomly fetched up on my
shelf, which I reread more closely than anything I’ve bought since,
included Diane Wakoski’s Emerald Ice, the collected poems of Auden, Eliot, and Sexton, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Robert Hass’s Field Guide and Praise, Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, and Robert Kelly‘s The Mill of Particulars.
This last, which I received as a 16th birthday gift from Alissa Quart,
fascinated me even though (or because) I didn’t understand much of it.
I was a real high-modernist in those days; Allen Ginsberg gave a reading at our high school (!!) and I commiserated with my friend Nick about what a poseur the great man was. Now Nick is a priest and I am writing the great gay Christian novel. “I saw the best minds of my generation…”

In honor of life’s unforeseeable twists and turns, and Hornby’s passion for rock music, I’ll close with a favorite song from one of the few non-classical cassettes I owned in the 1980s (see “high-modernist” above). It’s still so very true.

Well baby, there you stand
With your little head, down in your hand
Oh, my god, you can’t believe it
s happening
Your baby
s gone, and youre all alone
And it looks like the end.

And youre back out on the street.
And you
re tryin to remember.
How will you start it over?
You don
t know what became.
You don’t care much for a stranger
s touch,
But you can
t hold your man.

You never thought youd be alone this far
Down the line
And I know what’s been on your mind
You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time

The autumn leaves have got you thinking
About the first time that you fell
You didn’t love the boy too much, no, no
You just loved the boy too well, farewell
So you live from day to day, and you dream
About tomorrow, oh.
And the hours go by like minutes
And the shadows come to stay
So you take a little something to
Make them go away
And I could have done so many things, baby
If I could only stop my mind from wondrin’ what
I left behind and from worrying ’bout this wasted time

Ooh, another love has come and gone
Ooh, and the years keep rushing on
I remember what you told me before you went out on your own:
sometimes to keep it together, we got to leave it alone.
So you can get on with your search, baby, and I can
Get on with mine
And maybe someday we will find, that it wasn’t really
Wasted time

(Lyrics courtesy of Lyrics007)

Poem: “What You Need to Know Is”

The New England Trans United pride march will be held in Northampton this Saturday, Oct. 3, from 11 AM-5 PM. I would love to march again this year, but my husband and I will be in New York City on family business for most of October. Please send me your photos and videos to post on this blog.

In honor of Trans Pride, I’d like to share this poem from my new chapbook, Swallow, which is now available from Amsterdam Press:

What You Need to Know Is

Not in my urinal or my soprano,
white rubber corset or tobacco whiskers.
Not in the gun or the red bloom
on the tumbled gown. Not prone and not aiming.
I could presume to say that you dream
of Lazarus and if it is anywhere,
it is there, in the nights your dry tongue
burns for wasted water but more so
in the mirror dream where your hand spills it away.
Sometimes I, too, soften it like the twilight
and then I am that lightbulb questioner
who slaps you awake with a hose.
I in my nursing smock, I in my meat-stained apron,
how I wish I did not know this
much as you wish I were not beside you
(O my mustache, O my silver-tipped fingers)
sweating through the Gloria.