The Poet Spiel: “War Zone” and Other Poems

Good evening. America is fucked. Please enjoy these crazy-ass angry and true poems by my friend Spiel, who has lived through this madness for 80 years as a proud homosexual. Transition goals, baby.

War Zone

“My therapist said,
‘Sometimes I think you believe you live in a war zone.’
And I said,
‘I do. Doesn’t everybody?'”

****

Chain of Blood

This bucket of blood
chained to my neck,
same as the buckets
hung to the necks
of my siblings
passed on by our mother
hung to her neck
just like her sisters.

Passed on from their father
same as his sister,
chains from their mother
dragged and dragged on
from their father’s mother,
her mother’s mother and so on.

Each attempt to move forward
clouds my eyes
so I barely can see.
Friends walk away
in dread of mother’s gift.

Why hate her for what
no one knew
of the poison
of her madness?

As I turned dark,
none questioned my blood,
instead whipped my ass
to straighten me.

****

Witness

In innocence, as you crayoned on the floor,
she emerged from her dark closet to reveal
what she knew were forbidden–her petals of flesh.
She planted a wanton glance with nowhere to settle but upon her firstborn son.
Your bewildered face between her space–for her, a lily in her valley.
Your eyes aghast, replete with games, repeated over time
in a shame you could not name in crayon-speak
and your crayon days were early done.

Now, after all these years, you wonder, which hurts the most?
Perhaps those vital tidbits you can’t recall to reassemble nor recant;
or is it the reverberating odor of the absolute volumes you cannot forget?

****

First son

They said on TV that winning champion cow at State Fair
is like something they’d worked toward all their lives–
like when they give birth to a son.
Someone to plow, someone to milk the cows,
someone to carry on the farm when they are gone.
They likely said similar decades ago when you were born,
the first son, fourth generation on the farm.

But you had no inclination to become a farmer.
You were an artist at heart from your first spanking.
They said it broke their hope of what they expected a son would mean to their tradition.
Yup, they said on TV that winning is like getting a son.

They said this in America, not China, where they threw the baby girls away.

****
carne

after The Corvo Brothers art exhibition at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center

indifference in the eyes of the frilly-frocked child refuses you,
refuses also the flop-eared cotton-stuffed bunny she has already
half disposed into a pot-metal meat grinder she cranks without passion
feeding fresh ground rabbit meat out its gaping end onto the flat stump
of an old oak tree long ago erupted up and through the white slate
tile floor of her reckless playroom.

only the wistful eyes of one of her three captured teddy bears connect
to you as you wish the lack of spaces in its bent wire cage might provide
an out for mr. soft-pink-ear elephant if only he were not so deflated
but he proves to be no inspiration for his innocent bear companions
who already recognize their fate is no doubt recorded in the history
tamped into strings of turgid sausages suspended directly above them
and possibly her motivation for not demolishing the weighty antique
butcher’s drawing of a quartered hog barely dangling from old twine.

then of course the significance of the steel roast pan at her side bearing
an enormous sun-bleached skull with a dark eye-cavern that never ceases
its gaze upon a gleaming slaughterer’s axe driven deep into that stump,
the fine splinters of the skull’s own snout forever aimed at new red meat
squishing from the grinder as a constant reminder just how dead the skull is,
how long ago its own live meat may have flourished on its desiccated bone.

but this aloof peach-ribboned child was not there when the tree threw up.
the floor was not there when this skull’s live nostrils flared at the slightest
hint of life and its thick lips feasted upon moss like the moss that even now
still prospers on the roots of the butchered tree.

and certainly she was not there when those peculiar brothers spelled carne
with wooden christmas blocks across the floor way back
when the white slate was new and the wire cage imprisoned,
a perpetual rotation of yellow-fat-dripping fowl.

and if you dared to ask the child
where does the fresh ground rabbit meat come from
it will be as if you were never there.

What Does Gender Feel Like?

Not a day goes by that some trans guy, who just wants to enjoy his seven identical pairs of cargo shorts, doesn’t get asked by a cis feminist friend: “Why couldn’t you just be a tomboy? Why isn’t 21st-century, gender-role-busting, glass-ceiling-breaking womanhood enough for you?” This query is sometimes followed with: “Are you sure it’s dysphoria and not internalized misogyny? Aren’t you just trying to escape sexism?”

Nothing I say can improve on Daniel Lavery’s satirical essay “Did You Know Athena Used to Be a Tomboy?” (Have you really tried being the Tutelary of Athens?) Nonetheless…

First of all, my tomboy quotient is somewhere below “Sopranos” homosexual Vito Spatafore trying to survive as an honest construction worker in Vermont. (He hammers one nail in the freezing cold, says fuck this and goes home to get whacked.) Second, I don’t think anyone ever said, “Life is too hard as a mildly attractive middle-aged wife. What I really need is to become a short, balding gay man with no dick. That’s where the social capital is!”

But let’s leave the facts aside. Womanhood shouldn’t be a cult. You shouldn’t have to prove you have a good enough reason to leave–if indeed you were ever truly a member. This rhetoric reminds me of pressure to remain in a family or spiritual community where your needs aren’t being met. Preservation of the institution is the top priority, so your needs must be squeezed into their box or redefined as something different or unimportant. This approach treats transgender identity as an inferior state to be avoided, a last resort, an imposition on the people who matter.

We all adapt to life’s constraints and inequalities in imperfect ways. Our choices shouldn’t be compared to some ideal of perfect autonomy and objectivity. If anyone does transition for relief from trauma or sexism, that person is just as trans as I am, and their reasons are just as valid. Transition is an incredibly powerful assertion of self-determination over one’s body and sexuality, which can be healing for survivors of intimate abuse. There’s no reason other than transphobia to deny survivors that tool for self-repair. Same for autistic folks who find that one gender presentation causes less sensory distress or social overload than another.

Moreover, transition is a move toward something that fits right and gives us joy. It isn’t primarily a rejection of something else. Being “not-a-woman” is just the beginning.

What do gender congruence and gender dysphoria feel like for me? It’s the sense of daring, expansiveness, and hope when I’m in a men’s group and someone calls me brother, versus feeling the walls closing in when I’m in a group designated for women. It’s understanding why, since my tween years, I was filled with sentimental yearning for stories of male camaraderie and boys’ schools (extra credit if they were British and tragically homoerotic). It’s the sadness, shame, and confusion of being unable to identify with female characters in movies and TV. Was I too fat, too virginal, too immature, or too assertive to share that fundamental similarity that women expected from me? It’s my “aha!” experience in a meditative movement workshop at the 2015 Transcending Boundaries conference (“I’m attending for novel research!”). We started on one side of the room as our current gender and slowly walked into a transformation into any other gender we chose. When I became male, someone who’d been inside me all along suddenly came into view, and I fit into my body with new clarity and awakening.

What I’m talking about here is not certainty, or an unchanging nugget of maleness waiting to be freed from a shell of femininity. I am talking about the right to know what I know about myself in this moment, and act on it, without first having to disprove every other possible interpretation.

Trans Allies: How to Help

A supportive reader of my recent “Trans Genocide” post asked me what cisgender allies could do to educate themselves and help our community in the current political climate. Here are some suggestions!

The first step is to have a more critical mindset toward news coverage of “trans issues” in mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic. Was the story written by a trans journalist? (Probably not.) If not, why is such outsider coverage the norm? Compare it to your standards for reporting on other minority or marginalized groups. Nowadays your average liberal would rightly give the side-eye if abortion-debate stories were only written by cis men, or if only white writers were assigned to review books by Black authors. Reading past the byline, ask yourself next whether the journalist has included eliminationist talking points in service of “journalistic neutrality”. Why is it considered appropriate, in an article about trans healthcare or civil rights, to credit the opinions of people who don’t want us to exist?

In response to Emily Bazelon’s New York Times feature on evolving standards of care for trans youth, a piece that has been widely criticized by trans commentators for the above errors, historian Jules Gill-Peterson wrote this helpful Substack essay, “Three Questions for Every Paper of Record That Publishes a Story on Trans Healthcare”. Keep this next to you while you read the news. It’s eye-opening. Gill-Peterson wants us to be aware of this baseline fact: “Unlike many fields of medical practice, transgender medicine was deliberately intended by its architects to prevent and limit as many trans people as possible from transitioning.”

Notice when double standards are being applied to transition-related choices, compared to other body-altering decisions with permanent effects–teenagers playing football, going on a diet, or even having an abortion. No more or less so than transition, these personal desires are inextricably bound up with community norms, gender roles under patriarchy, and practical survival concerns. But only trans healthcare is barricaded with prerequisites such as psychological tests that are biased against people with autism, PTSD, and minority cultural identities. This imbalance reflects the presumption that trans-ness is a fate to be avoided, a path you should only be allowed to follow if you’ve ruled out all the other options. Being a good ally means noticing and challenging that narrative everywhere.

Some other simple everyday things you can do: Ask public facilities like restaurants and hospitals in your town to make their single-stall bathrooms gender-neutral. Donate LGBT-affirming books to your local school and library. Include your pronouns in your self-introduction so that trans people don’t feel conspicuous for stating theirs. If you know someone who’s conflicted about a friend or family member transitioning, help that cisgender person process her feelings with you (or a therapist), so she doesn’t dump them on the trans person. Here’s a queer books list for young people, from Western Mass indie bookstore High Five Books.

Two Poems from Pamela Uschuk’s “Refugee”

Pamela Uschuk’s latest poetry collection, Refugee (Red Hen Press, 2022), is not a subtle book, but we don’t live in subtle times. For me, these poems re-enact the emotional whiplash I experience when scrolling through social media, where uplifting images of nature and family intimacy are suddenly and repeatedly juxtaposed with the crude horrors of politics in the Trump era. Uschuk’s skills are most on display when describing her Southwest environment in striking, precise imagery: “Corona of ice, the invisible moon/ blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven,” she writes, or “Sun lifts machetes of light over the Rincons slicing through oleanders.”

I did wish for equally creative language in the political references woven through these poems, which too often didn’t rise above images familiar from the news: Trump’s spray tan and small hands, children in cages, etc. I wanted to see these phenomena through new eyes, learn something new about them, but didn’t always get that from the brief allusions in the poems.

The middle of the book pivots around a sequence of gorgeous, poignant poems about illness and healing, including Uschuk’s journey through ovarian cancer, her brother’s death from after-effects of Agent Orange, a beloved dog’s surgery, and a friend’s bereavement. These hopeful elegies, if I may coin that paradoxical phrase, seem perfectly placed in a book about healing the body politic. Refugee makes the case that our whole earth is one organism, fragile and beautiful, still able to be saved if we look at it clearly and tell the truth.

Pam is an American Book Award winner, and the editor of the well-regarded literary journal Cutthroat. She kindly shares two poems from Refugee with us, below.

Shapeshifter

Each day I climb onto fear’s broad shoulders, tape
my fingers to fragile reins, weaving them through
the unpredictable angry mane.

The future is a cracked ice cube
plunked in the imagination’s teeming water glass.
Chemo’s breath stinks, could take my life with no regrets.

Fear is a shapeshifter with bloody teeth
or no teeth at all, just a broken jaw of anxiety.
Holding tight to grief’s violin, its arms bruise.
What ifs are its favorite cuisine.

No one can predict how fear can leap
up from a birthday cake or laugh like a monkey on fire.
Fear is a horse starving for grain.

Fear grinds down the raw ore of the heart,
smelting each nodule of grief, removing
its aggregate shield.

I have to make you sick to make you well,
the oncologist says, five months
we’ll scour each cell of your abdomen clean.

****

Finding a Moth Dead on the Windowsill

for John Uschuk, d. 2010

Astonishing this cecropia, the color of juniper bark,
its thin wings thrust back as if it dove through the stars
just to die here. What broke its flight
while night froze around its intent? I wait a breath
before I touch its final beauty, wonder
if my brother’s broad chest thrust up
to expel the moth wing of his last breath
in the Veteran’s hospice, where Agent Orange
could no longer scar his hands, where
napalm could not scald the scalps of children
he watched incinerating all his life, so that
orphanages called him in dreams, so that he
could not bear the slap of moth wings on his porch
beating insistent as the blades of the helicopter
he shared with body bags going home.

Trans Genocide

They’re trying to kill us, and cis people still want to quiz me about gender theory.

Dear cisgender friends and allies: I’m glad you value our relationship enough to be honest about what’s challenging for you. I’m glad you see that I’ve changed significantly in the past four years. If gender matters to me, of course it’ll matter to you too. You’re going to relate to me differently as a gay man than as a woman. (Let’s simplify my identity for purposes of this discussion.) I like being “out,” and until recently, I haven’t minded educating you about it. In the beginning, it actually felt more awkward to avoid talking about one of the main projects in my life. What’s new, Jendi? “Oh, you know, the usual, I’ve been busy growing my leg hair and studying witchcraft.”

But there comes a time–and that time is now–when I need you to ask me different questions. Such as: How am I coping with the terrifying wave of transphobic state legislation and eliminationist rhetoric from mainstream political pundits? Am I worried about losing access to gender-affirming healthcare? Do I need emotional or material support, for myself or less privileged members of my trans community? What can YOU do to help?

Nobody’s asked me this. I don’t know, do I seem too happy? Are blue-state liberals assuming that Massachusetts and New York will remain untouched by the national-level bans that Republicans are itching to impose? We can’t afford this complacency. Look at what’s happening with abortion in the lead-up to the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade. Conservative states and cities are attempting to criminalize abortions that occur outside their geographic jurisdiction, and we can’t expect the current Supreme Court majority to care about this plainly unconstitutional restriction on the right to travel.

Abortion is a good analogy because I’ve always had a visceral and moral discomfort with it, rooted in personal trauma as much as philosophy–perhaps the same way J.K. Rowling feels about trans women! My narcissistic mother wasn’t convinced of my independent personhood after I was born. She literally said to me when I was 30 years old, “I had three abortions, I could’ve had a fourth!” because she was mad that I wanted to meet my father. So it always frightened me that pregnant people would get to decide whether their fetus was a human with rights.

But who cares how I feel? Seriously. It doesn’t matter. The issue is not whether abortion, or transition, is a good decision that someone is always making for the right reasons, with no regrets, and no better alternatives. The issue is, who is best equipped to make that decision? The person living in that body, or the state? And beyond that, do we want to live under a regime that has that much power over our intimate lives?

So, friends: Stop asking for the perfect definition of womanhood that includes you and Laverne Cox but not Elliot Page. (Who wouldn’t want top surgery after seeing that torso? DAMN.) Start asking whether this question is so important, that it justifies subjecting schoolchildren to genital inspections if anyone makes an unsubstantiated claim that the young athlete is trans. Here’s Reason Magazine–hardly a liberal rag–on this Ohio law that passed last week:

The “Save Women’s Sports Act” bans schools and colleges in Ohio from permitting “individuals of the male sex” from participating in women’s sports. It covers any school that participates in organized interscholastic athletic conferences, meaning it covers private schools that compete against state-funded schools as well.

The bill does not explain what the “male sex” or “female sex” is. It does not say “trans” or “transgender” anywhere in the bill. It doesn’t talk about birth or biological sex.

What it does instead is give people the power to dispute the sex of an individual athlete. Then it falls upon that athlete to prove their sex by going to a physician and getting a signed statement confirming the athlete’s sex based on only the following:

“The participant’s internal and external reproductive anatomy;”

“The participant’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone;”

“An analysis of the participant’s genetic makeup.”

The bill does not specify who has the authority to levy such challenges, but it does authorize individuals or schools “who [are] deprived of an athletic opportunity or suffers a direct or indirect harm as a result of a violation of this section” to sue the school, school district, or conference who allowed the trans woman to play and be awarded damages.

The article notes that Idaho passed a similar law in 2020.

Stop asking me whether all these minority gender identities are splitting “the movement”. You don’t think they’re coming for you next? Bans on trans healthcare, or even abortion, aren’t the endgame. All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall of the evangelical-authoritarian state. One party in the United States has gone full fascist and you’re still acting like we can appease our abuser with the perfect argument or self-effacing compromise.

You don’t have to agree with every decision we make, or see yourself in us, to understand that we’re in the same struggle. What are you going to do about it?

New Reviews for “Made Man” and a “Two Natures” Book Talk Video

Last month I had the pleasure of co-hosting a Zoom book talk with Canadian novelist Jessica Pegis, “Divine Non-Duality and the Queer Body”. We read excerpts from my gay male coming-of-age novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and her new book The God Painter (Stone Table Books, 2021) and explored their common themes of exile, divine love, and spiritual and sexual integration. The God Painter is a work of Catholic-infused speculative fiction in the tradition of Mary Doria Russell and Ray Bradbury. Intersex aliens rescue humanity from our destroyed planet, but are they angels, demons, or something outside our limited categories altogether? Watch the 80-minute video on the Winning Writers YouTube channel:

Poet and critic Michael McKeown Bondhus wrote a wonderful review of my new poetry book, Made Man (Little Red Tree, 2022), for Full Stop Magazine this month. I have this novelty greeting card on my office shelf where one 1950s lady exclaims to another, “Sometimes I wish someone who understands me would tell me what I mean!” Michael has done just that…and saved me the labor of explaining myself to cis people quite so much. The review captures the specificity of gender transition but also its continuity with the dynamism of human life (however much we try to arrest its progress with laws and dogmas). We are not, after all, foreign objects or monsters compared to the rest of you.

As much as people claim to loathe change, it is also understood to be an elemental part of existence. The need to change one’s body, then, can be read as another manifestation of this universal impulse. Therefore, Made Man becomes an examination and celebration of change writ broadly along with all its magickal implications.

…Is Made Man’s goal, at least in part, to simultaneously muddy and clarify gender? Desire seems simple — person A wants person B — yet it is full of contradictions and taboos. Racist uncles are clearcut assholes, yet their worldviews are rooted in a version of reality they have absorbed from outside sources, including Russian bots. Gender, as Reiter and many others suggest, is both a social construction and an intimate part of the self. It can appear to be reducible to labels like trans man and genderqueer, yet those labels carry different meanings from person to person. By highlighting ambiguity and algorithms in some of their poems, Reiter finds another, less direct way to address the messiness of gender and compares it to the messiness of so many other parts of our lives.

Goodreads reviewer Transgender Bookworm rates Made Man 5 stars, saying:

Poet Jendi Reiter has written a beautiful and inventive collection of poems that explore gender and the pain of existing beyond society’s rigid binary in a new and exciting way. Tackling subjects both serious and lighthearted Reiter explores the way our absurdly gendered world informs our understanding of each other and the world at large. I found myself chuckling on one page and then gripping my seat in anger the next.

Enjoy this sample poem. Or don’t. I don’t care.

 

Prettyboy in Pink

This generation of lavender-haired pronouns only knows Molly Ringwald as hot Archie’s small-town mom on “Riverdale”. They play the torso drinking game as russet-top KJ Apa square-jaws his way from high school wrestling showers to prison cagefight to skinny-dip in the lake of girls beside the maple sugar factory. Who knew there was so much wealth in syrup? Like his nipples stretched immobile over muscle, mother Mary/Molly is contractually slated to appear in every episode, offering pants-suit credibility to his scheme to rescue the malt shop from mafiosi.

But we assigned-X’ers will forever stan Molly’s bricolage of girlhood, pretty in pink slicing and stitching the bridesmaid shells of teen tulle into a skin she could survive in. Lovestruck Duckie was too much a sister to her, with his manic pompadour and emotional hands. She required the prep-school prince’s genes for her supreme tailoring experiment. When Archie’s done running through his day’s foolish script, those maple-golden eyes go blank. It’s her body now, her finest dress.

June Links Roundup: Six Dildos, Infinite Guns

Happy June, a/k/a Queer Pride Month! Which begs the question…is there a Queer Lust Month? Queer Sloth Month? I need some rest.

Gay and Tired Sloth Greeting Cards | LookHUMAN

I have finished both seasons of the “Animaniacs” reboot on Hulu, and I am convinced that Pinky and the Brain are a T4T asexual couple.

May be an anime-style image

The Tumblr site wakkoswish delves deeper into “The queercoding of Pinky and the Brain” in this 2020 post. Among the many examples:

Pinky has always been very gender nonconforming, and loves to wear dresses, do his makeup, and make himself look pretty. For the most part, this is played pretty straight, and not as a gag, like a lot of shows tend to do! It’s just a casual fact about him that he likes to present femininely sometimes.

This does play into their taking over the world plans pretty often, where Pinky wears drag, usually either to sneak into somewhere. Like in one of their earliest appearances on Animaniacs, Noah’s Lark, where they pose as a couple to board Noah’s, and I quote, “love boat.” After boarding, Noah says to himself, “Who am I to judge?

The reboot leans even harder into this setup than the original 1990s show. I mean, they’re attending a pottery class on the advice of “their therapist”! The image above comes from an episode where Pinky has to enter a beauty contest as part of Brain’s latest world-domination scheme. His notoriously sarcastic and monomaniacal partner seems genuinely proud of him for winning.

Those of you who grew up with the Internet have no idea what it was like to think you were the only pervert in the world. Born in 1972 and raised in a three-person Victorian-era reenactment cult, I didn’t know there was such a thing as fan-fiction. Being horny for imaginary people seemed proof that I’d inherited my family’s insanity. Same for the pubescent discovery of being friends-with-benefits with a conveniently shaped toy or stuffed animal. My only point of reference was that George Romero horror story where the guy kills people and makes clay sculptures incorporating their bodies, which he keeps in his apartment as his “lovers”. I read this one in the barely-lit stacks of Columbia’s Butler Library as a college student and felt stomach-churning dread that could only partly be attributed to the light timers shutting off. Was I that kind of abomination, too?

How much better I would have felt, if 12-year-old me could have read this New York Times article from April 2022: “This Man Married a Fictional Character”. Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno report on a Japanese fandom subculture where adults have emotionally significant relationships with a computer avatar:

In almost every way, Akihiko Kondo is an ordinary Japanese man. He’s pleasant and easy to talk to. He has friends and a steady job and wears a suit and tie to work.

There’s just one exception: Mr. Kondo is married to a fictional character.

His beloved, Hatsune Miku, is a turquoise-haired, computer-synthesized pop singer who has toured with Lady Gaga and starred in video games. After a decade-long relationship, one that Mr. Kondo says pulled him out of a deep depression, he held a small, unofficial wedding ceremony in Tokyo in 2018. Miku, in the form of a plush doll, wore white, and he was in a matching tuxedo.

In Miku, Mr. Kondo has found love, inspiration and solace, he says. He and his assortment of Miku dolls eat, sleep and watch movies together. Sometimes, they sneak off on romantic getaways, posting photos on Instagram.

Mr. Kondo, 38, knows that people think it’s strange, even harmful. He knows that some — possibly those reading this article — hope he’ll grow out of it. And, yes, he knows that Miku isn’t real. But his feelings for her are, he says…

…Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as “fictosexuals.” That’s partly what has motivated him to publicize his wedding and to sit for awkward interviews with news media around the globe.

He wants the world to know that people like him are out there and, with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics allowing for more profound interactions with the inanimate, that their numbers are likely to increase.

Unfortunately, the host company for Miku’s hologram discontinued support for Mr. Kondo’s software during the pandemic, but he still has his doll, and his memories. Just like I do.

Make love, not war? In Texas, only up to a point. After the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Twitter was full of outrage about the Lone Star State’s lax gun control laws, and someone shared this 2021 article from Onward Texas: “Is It Illegal to Own More Than Six Dildos in Texas? Yes, It Is.”

The Lone Star State, called by Republicans one of the States where citizens have more freedoms and civil rights because people can buy unlimited guns, has a law that makes it illegal for a person to own six or more dildos…

…The Texas Penal Code understands that an “Obscene device” means a device including a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs. So, because the law considers dildos obscene devices, and a person who owns more than six obscene devices is committing a criminal offense, therefore, owning 6 dildos (or plastic vaginas) is illegal.

This regulation is a complete violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (engage in private intimate conduct in the home without government intrusion). Judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional in a ruling from 2008, considering that the Texas statute cannot define sexual devices themselves as obscene and prohibit their sale. However, with a GOP majority in the House and in the Senate, the law remains in the books.

This is why we’re all having intimate relationships with our action figures. Won’t you think of the children?

At Electric Lit, novelist Elif Batuman has wise advice on “the tragedy of heterosexual dating” and forgiving your younger self. This article makes me want to read her books, The Idiot and the new sequel Either/Or, about a Harvard college student named Selin who’s trying to make sense of her love life via misogynist literary classics and philosophy.

When you get to be in your 40s, you start to think about the time in your life when you were in your teens and 20s, and you see all of these mistakes that you made. I think that’s the reason I called the first book The Idiot. The temptation is to think of yourself as having been really stupid, and yourself now as knowing a lot more. But that’s actually quite an uncharitable way of thinking about our younger selves. I’m just as stupid now, I just have better information. What I wanted to do was to go back into that state, and show why everything Selin is doing seems to her like a good idea, and seems like the only correct thing to do. But I really didn’t want to make it look like she was being stupid. I wanted to make it seem like she was drawing the correct conclusion that she had from the information that she had at the time…

…As I was writing this book I was reading about the childhood experiences of people like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and they were all horribly abused. A lot of Western philosophy that we’ve inherited are the coping mechanisms of abused little boys. And we’re stuck with them now.

If you want to read an extended treatment of the latter insight, I highly recommend the first half of Cognition and Eros by feminist philosopher Robin May Schott. The Marxist second half hasn’t aged as well…or maybe I’m still too much of a pervert to think of “commodity fetishism” as a bad thing. Bring on the dildos!

The Poet Spiel: “Roots”

Here’s a thoughtful poem about endurance from friend-of-the-blog Tom W. Taylor, The Poet Spiel. The times we’re living through make me feel helpless and fatigued. I refresh myself by connecting with the trees, who experience time on a different scale from us humans, and presumably are not as afraid of death, either.

Roots

Not like the stench of that early place,
being downward bound,
insistently struggling toward a skimpy well of doubtful tomorrows,
the leaves of summer wore masks of pain
where roots grew deeper than trees grew tall,

but like that reassuring smell of yesterdays
where no matter how fearful my nightmares had been,
I knew at least that I would waken
and they would end.

The Reactionary Pull of Sacred Texts

I left Christianity because…

…the people who took its mystical, supernatural, and personal transformation aspects most seriously are the people currently turning our country into a fascist theocracy.

…the paradigm of redemptive sacrifice of the innocent was counterproductive to my healing as a child abuse survivor.

…I couldn’t keep fighting for space for my bodily autonomy and human rights in a text that wasn’t designed to include me.

The latter reason is especially salient for me because of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which would not only overturn Roe v. Wade but also threatens all the modern precedents founded on a constitutional right to privacy in sexual and family life. As Jonathan Capehart writes in the Washington Post, “Alito’s draft ruling on abortion is a warning to LGBTQ Americans”:

“The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Alito writes. “That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’” This country has a lot of rights not deeply rooted. For instance, the nation is 245 years old, but racial integration is just 57 years old. Marriage equality is nearly seven…

…Alito rips the Roe ruling because “it held that the abortion right, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, is part of a right to privacy, which is also not mentioned.” And Casey, he sneers, is grounded “solely on the theory that the right to obtain an abortion is part of the ‘liberty’ protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.” Theory?

Then Alito casts aspersions on the cases the court used in its Casey ruling to justify that liberty “theory.” Among them are Loving v. Virginia (legalized interracial marriage) and Griswold v. Connecticut (guaranteed access to contraception). He also hammers away at the “theory” by taking aim at post-Casey decisions such as Lawrence v. Texas (decriminalized consensual sex between adults) and Obergefell.

Robyn (@hmntre) on Twitter puts it succinctly: “Love the argument that we can’t have rights because we have a deeply rooted history of not having rights.

TechFreedom think tank editor @JasonKuznicki expands on the reactionary implications of tradition-based jurisprudence in this thread. “You know what’s really deeply rooted in history? The absolute rule of a father over all the members of his family… The more we privilege deep roots in history, the more weight we have to give to some terribly illiberal ideas. Rights for white people have deeper roots than rights for black people, and no amount of time can change that.”

The Religious Right’s legal theories and Biblical interpretive method are identical. Notwithstanding the anarcho-communist messages you can easily draw from Jesus’s words and actions in the gospels, the primacy of Scripture in Christianity is structurally reactionary for the same reasons that Constitution-worship produces slow, stingy, and inconsistent recognition of the civil rights of people who aren’t white Christian male citizens. In both cases, empathy and political representation are circumscribed by how much permission you can wring out of a text from an era when you weren’t considered fully human.

I’m not saying we should scrap the Constitution, but that we shouldn’t interpret it as though preserving the past is more important than flourishing in the present.

May Links Roundup: Courting Fascism

I had a whole list of links to recommend this month, and then Politico broke the story today about the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that seems likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. As feminist journalist Jude Doyle lays out in chilling detail in “We Have Entered the ‘Anti-Gender’ Endgame” at Medium, the Court’s proposed radical rollback of the right to privacy would jeopardize all of the LGBTQ civil rights and reproductive healthcare protections we’ve relied upon in the past 50 years:

We are not going back to the way things were before legal abortion. We are going somewhere much worse.

After Roe is overturned, abortion will become illegal in all or most circumstances in 21 states. The “right to privacy” on which Roe hinges was established in an earlier case,Griswold v. Connecticut, which established the right to contraception; Alito specifically names Griswold as a faulty ruling, and it will almost certainly be overturned as well, making birth control illegal. This might not immediately inspire panic — why not just go to a safe state to get your abortion or your IUD? — but the states that pass abortion bans will also pass travel bans. If you leave home pregnant and come back otherwise, that itself will be illegal…

Griswold also formed the basis of Obergefell v. Hodges (the right to marry someone of the same gender) and Lawrence v. Texas (the right to have queer sex, ever, at all, without being criminalized). If there is no “right to privacy” and no sovereign right to control one’s healthcare decisions, then bans on HRT and gender-affirming surgery for adults are within the realm of realistic possibility; anti-trans advocates like Abigail Shrier have been obsessively framing transmasculine transitions in particular as attacks on the “fertility” of “young women,” and anti-choice legislation will likely sharpen the attacks on transition care across the board.

We need to make these connections now, because our enemies are already making them. Alito is overturning Roe, not just on the basis that the decision was faulty, but because any “unenumerated right” — that is to say, a right that can be safely assumed on the basis of the Constitution, but which is not specifically named within it — must be “grounded in U.S. history and tradition” in order to be valid. Gay marriage, gay sex, youth transition, any transition, interracial marriage, domestic partnership without marriage, abortion. contraception, or simply not being forcibly sterilized and/or detransitioned by the state — none of this is safe. None of this is “traditional.” All of it is on the line.

I don’t have any brilliant political advice except: Solidarity. Harvey Milk understood this when he built coalitions between labor unions and gay-rights activists. A lot of us have fallen into a traumatized pattern where we resent other groups’ struggles for drawing attention away from our own; this is often the root of lesbian-feminist qualms about transgender issues, for instance. We can’t allow ourselves to be split apart this way anymore.

Along those lines, Jewish Currents ran a thought-provoking essay by Eli Rubin called “The Soul of the Worker”, rediscovering a 1940s Chabad author’s fiction lamenting the cultural opposition between Jewish observance and modern socialism. Marx’s anti-religious attitude isn’t the only possible path for the Left to take. There are interesting parallels here to American Christians’ fears that secularism and liberalism go hand in hand, such that progressive policies are perceived as an attack on faith. Rubin explains:

[C]ontemporary Chabadniks are likely to associate socialism with their inherited memories of Soviet persecution. Thousands can recount stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who were shot or sent to the Gulags for practicing and perpetuating their Jewish way of life… Given this background, it is understandable that contemporary Chabadniks often respond to any invocation of socialism with suspicion, or even fear. This reflex is part of a broader matrix of factors that skews political inclinations among Hasidic Jews to the right, so that when it comes to the ballot they tend to be more aligned with political elites than with working people whose interests might appear much closer to their own.

My alma mater is making both symbolic and material changes to reckon with the exploitative sources of its wealth. Lydialyle Gibson describes a new report on “Harvard’s Slave Legacy” in our alumni magazine.

The report—deeply researched and heavily footnoted, the culmination of a years-long effort—lays out the findings and recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, formed in 2019 by President Lawrence S. Bacow, to study the University’s entanglements with slavery and its enduring consequences. (The reportrecommendations, and other primary materials can be found on the project’s website, also unveiled today.) Those entanglements with slavery were in some cases very direct: the committee found records of at least 79 people who were enslaved by Harvard presidents, overseers, and faculty and staff members before the practice was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783—many more than had been previously known. (Two of their tombstones stand in the Old Burying Ground across from Harvard Yard: a woman named Jane who was enslaved by Harvard steward Andrew Bordman—who owned at least eight people—and a woman named Cicely, enslaved by University tutor, fellow, and treasurer William Brattle.) In other cases, the links were financial or intellectual; the University benefited enormously from the slave trade, for example, through investments and donations, and Harvard scholars promoted racist ideas that underpinned slavery and other racial hierarchies.

We Northerners like to think of slavery as a Southern institution, but the ugly truth is that our elite universities, businesses, and cultural treasures were also built on wealth from these atrocities:

One of the strongest connections the 130-page report draws is between the University’s early growth and prosperity and the slave trade, first in the Caribbean and later in the American South. The colonial era’s economic alliance with the sugar islands of the West Indies—trading New England food, fuel, and lumber for Caribbean tobacco, coffee, and sugar produced by enslaved Africans (or for slaves themselves)—“effectively made Boston a slave society,” according to historian Wendy Warren, quoted in the report. That description included Harvard: “For roughly a century, Harvard had operated as a lender,” the report states, “and derived a substantial portion of its income from investments that included loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers. After 1830, the University shifted its investments into cotton manufacturing, before diversifying its portfolio to include real estate and railroad stocks—all industries that were, in this era, dependent on the labor of enslaved people and the expropriation of land.”

In addition to renaming buildings and so forth, Harvard says it’ll invest actual money in supporting Black and Indigenous communities that are impacted by slavery and colonialism. It’s hoped that they will also return human remains and photographs of slaves from their science and anthropology collections to the descendants of the people involved.

Do you need something positive to keep you alive despite all this bad news? You should be watching “Our Flag Means Death” on HBO, a pirate rom-com series where everyone is queer and that’s not even an issue. It’s really a show about two middle-aged men who tenderly, ridiculously, bravely start to overcome the toxic masculinity that teaches us that affection is for sissies. Check out this interview with creator David Jenkins at The Verge, and this appreciation essay from Maya Gittleman at Tor.com, “Act of Grace: Masculinity, Monstrosity, and Queer Catharsis in Our Flag Means Death. (There are some spoilers, so watch the show first.)

Then check out Sam Herschel Wein’s funny and pointed poem at Waxwing Literary Magazine, “I’m tired of the gays, bring me a Grade A Faggot”:

…if I had a jockstrap for every jockstrap
that didn’t know how to properly love
a body. I’m giving up on the gays because
they’re too interested in just being men,
in just shoving in and bonk bonk bonk
like I’m not even there beneath them.
delight in me.