December Links Roundup: If You Loved the Three Musketeers, You’re Gay Now

As the wishy-washy, late-blooming trans boi that I am, I’m always looking to retcon my queerness to bolster my self-belief. Remember that time I cried at “The Student Prince”? Yeah, that totally predicted that one day I would wear a lot of leather vests.

Intense crushes on swashbuckling, flamboyant, imaginary men were a defining feature of my childhood. Decades before teen girls aligned themselves as Team Edward or Team Jacob, I was dramatically undecided between Gene Kelly’s D’Artagnan and Errol Flynn’s Earl of Essex.

Transition goals.

Get you a man who can rock these Renaissance booty shorts.

So I was delighted by Sylas K. Barrett’s recent piece for fantasy fiction press Tor.com on “Queer Heroism in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Without insisting this is the only or intended interpretation of the famous tale of male bonding, Barrett revisits the text to discover appealing transmasculine and gay role models in Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their headstrong young friend from Gascony.

As a result, it’s easy for a reader to sort of slip into the role of d’Artagnan; he’s a blank-slate hero for you to graft onto yourself. As someone who was assigned female at birth, I found particular freedom in imaging myself as d’Artagnan, because I could never let my emotions fly the way he does, and act as rashly he does. Not only does d’Artagnan get away with all his daring, impulsive moves, he always ends up doing something amazing, and getting praised for it…

I wanted to be recognized as a boy, to be mentored by the male teachers I looked up to. I never had that belonging in my real life, but through d’Artagnan, I had a way to imagine that I did, a young man living fearlessly in a world of men, striding through life and swinging my, erm, sword around at anyone who dared look at me sideways.

D’Artagnan has a ridiculous amount of personal and professional success, starting the book as an unemployed nobody and ending it as lieutenant in the Musketeers. But more than that, he finds male companions who accept him, support him, and laud him as the best of all of them. He had friends, and very manly ones at that.

Comments below the article were contentious, though respectful. Of special interest was this comment about the story’s glamorous villainess, Milady de Winter (memorably played by Lana Turner in the 1948 film):

From the Wikipedia entry on Milady de Winter:  “In the introduction to his 1952 English translation of The Three MusketeersLord Sudley posits the following:

‘The fleur-de-lis on Milady’s shoulder with which she was branded for having committed a felony in her extreme youth would certainly come as a shock to anyone discovering it, but it does not fully account for the terror and horror which she evoked in every man who had ever known her intimately. Only her husbands (she had two) and her lovers find out her ‘secret,’ and for that, she declares, they must die. And why was the Cardinal, who employed her as his chief secret agent, who had spies all over the country and who knew everything about everyone of importance in France, himself unaware of her criminal record? At the end of the story, d’Artagnan discloses this to [Richelieu], who then declares that he and his friends were perfectly justified in taking the law into their own hands and beheading her. Might not Dumas, in creating such a character, have intended to convey that Milady had that particular form of physical malformation which was regarded even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a terrifying token of divine displeasure, punishable by death – a malformation of which the fleur-de-lis was merely a symbol?‘

“Sudley goes on to suggest that Dumas might have found inspiration for Milady from the Chevalier d’Éon, a transgender spy who acted as Louis XV‘s secret envoy to Russia and England. D’Éon spent half of his life as a man and half as a woman, and was accused of actual physical hermaphroditism during their lifetime.”

“The category is… Live! Work! POSE!”

Meanwhile, queers with more modern tastes continue to mine Disney films for subtextual representation, while the company teases us with storylines and symbols that fall short of genuine equality. Looking on the bright side nonetheless, my old college classmate, poet and critic Stephanie Burt, blogged at Pangyrus that “Frozen 2 Is Even More Trans Than the First One”. For Burt, the original movie was:

…a film about growing up different, playing with girls–or with one girl in particular–until you realize that your difference could hurt them, and then isolating yourself till you ache (the song alluding to this is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”).  It’s a movie about the strenuous, artificial, beautiful visual worlds made by trans girls, first in our heads and then where other people might see them; it’s a movie about trans girls’ fears that we could make monsters, or become monsters, if we reveal who we are. As every parent who has seen a kid shocked at Prince Hans’s heel turn might attest, it’s a movie about how heterosexual, cisgender, romantic, monogamous love, the kind that leads to marriage, cannot be the only kind. It’s a movie where trans girls may see that once we come out—if we learn not to lash out, but to reach out—we might renew the love and friendship we need…

Frozen 2 is about finding trans and queer community: it shows what happens after you come out, if your life and work as you knew them aren’t enough.  How did I get to be the way I am? How can I find others like me? Why do I feel like they—we—must exist, even though I haven’t seen them yet, as if I were hearing a voice nobody else heard?

On a more serious note, Diana Tourjée writes in Vice that “Straight Men Are Part of the Trans Community” because they regularly have sexual and romantic relationships with trans women–yet often refuse to acknowledge them openly as partners. Tourjée wants to break the silence and stigma around loving trans women, an internalized queerphobia that can fuel their male partners’ violence against them. She argues that it’s time for these men to adopt the trans community’s struggles as their problem too.

I’m reminded of the storyline about Harlem sex worker Angel and her white yuppie lover in the first season of the TV series “Pose”. He does seem to love her, in his immature and privilege-blind way, yet he can only imagine expressing it by “rescuing” her from a community populated by women like herself. But Angel comes to see that her coveted “realness” is not conferred by a Cinderella happy ending, but already present in her sisterhood.

Julian K. Jarboe’s new story “Self Care” in Nat. Brut is a wickedly funny and sad tale of queer solidarity and rage, set in a plausible near-future dystopia where “‘some’ neighborhoods get sunk forever as an ‘unfortunate side effect of coastal flooding’ while others become the sexy hip cool new ‘seafloor village’.” Our trans sex worker hero fights to survive while dodging an unctuous priest, a therapy group where “everyone talked like they’d invented feelings”, and flammable polluted raindrops. Find more of Jarboe’s award-winning work on their website.

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.

Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.

Stars from My Bed

On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
back then
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
white carpet
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
like disease.

****

The Magician

Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny

as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled

with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark

with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.

Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic

until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men

surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,

I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag

of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered

that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.

Understanding the Lectionary Through Witchcraft

I went to church two weeks ago for All Saints’ Day and revisited the familiar sensation of being baffled by contradictory extremes in the Bible. The Episcopal lectionary readings were Psalm 149 and an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6. Thus, in quick succession, we heard this:

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.

Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;

To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;

To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;

To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.
Hallelujah!

And then this:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Honestly, neither of those sound like the healthiest attitudes, you know? I could get into the Psalm by praying for Trump’s impeachment. As a call for accountability for corrupt leaders, rather than for God to aid our amoral conquest of other nations, these words fit the justice-seeking spirit of the Hebrew Bible. I am very wary of the supercessionist narrative among progressive Christians, who explain away anger and violence in the “Old Testament” by treating ancient Judaism as a primitive, inferior precursor of “New Testament” sweetness and light. Read Amy-Jill Levine for fresh alternatives to the subtle anti-Semitism of common Bible interpretations.

The gospel message was even more disconcerting to me. I’ve been in too many relationships where appeasement of “those who abuse you” improves neither their behavior nor their character. How is it loving to enable someone’s bad habits of greed and violence? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good outcome from this.

Insight came the following day when I took my monthly online class from the Temple of Witchcraft, “Exploring Four Archetypes of Mature Masculinity”. Our source text is Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (HarperOne, 1990), one of the Jungian-inspired texts of the 1990s Men’s Movement (remember Robert Bly’s Iron John?). The original book is heteronormative and sometimes oddly whiny about feminism, but instructor JT Mouradian is doing a great job of updating their ideas for a more gender-expansive era. During our session on “The Warrior”, we discussed this anecdote from the book:

There is a story about a samurai attached to the household of a great lord. His lord had been murdered by a man from a rival house, and the samurai was sworn to avenge his lord’s death. After tracking the assassin for some time, after great personal sacrifice and hardship, and after braving many dangers, the samurai found the murderer. He drew his sword to kill the man. But in that instant the assassin spit in his face. The samurai stepped back, sheathed his sword, and turned and walked away. Why?

He walked away because he was angry that he’d been spat on. He would have killed the assassin, in that moment, out of his own personal anger, not out of his commitment to the ideal his lord represented. His execution of the man would have been out of his Ego and his own feelings, not out of the Warrior within. So in order to be true to his warrior calling, he had to walk away and let the murderer live. (pgs. 84-85)

Look again at the gospel passage. In all of Jesus’ examples, the action is reactive: what to do after someone abuses you, hits you, or robs from you. One could say he was instructing us to have the equanimity and self-transcendence of the Warrior, who may need to use force in service to a goal larger than himself (e.g. clearing the money-changers from the temple), but never lets himself be overcome by wounded pride, defensive fear, or the “red mist” of rage that clouds one’s vision. Maintaining self-discipline is more important than settling scores in that moment, even if the aggressor will get off too easy.

Even so, I don’t wholly agree that the ability to tolerate infinite amounts of bullshit is a virtue. But it’s a more nuanced and defensible interpretation of the gospel than the usual idealization of codependent pacifism.

Veterans’ Day Poems by Nick Stone

Nick Stone is the author of the poetry collection Fragments (Indie Author Books, 2017). I encountered his work through a mutual friend who, like me, is raising money for the Center for New Americans by writing 30 Poems in November. Nick has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems in honor of Veterans’ Day today.

Veterans’ Day 2019

Poets    we were soldiers    paid in blood
we see your world    it’s not for that we died

men shamed if they don’t look or pray like you
taunted for the gender of a spouse
monuments and homelands up for sale
vast wealth stolen by a privileged few
bullets slaughtering your kids at school
fleeing children turned back at a wall
captured    torn from parents’ arms and caged

a foreign power tilts your voting booths
endless distant wars consume your youth
your president consumed with self    allies betrayed

Poets    unsheathe your pens again
remind our leaders what they hold in trust
for yet our better angels hover near
we died for you    now summon them for us

********

Orange Lifetime
IN MEMORIAM
Jack Hayes, LTJG, USN
1932-1952

sunrise through his nursery window
cuddly tiger in his playpen
tiger lilies in the woodlands
oranges hand-squeezed by Nana
melting popsicles    Jersey summers
sticky tangerines al fresco
falling leaves    October maples
black and orange college banners

blazing sunset    carrier takeoff
his screaming F10 Skyknight’s rocket
finds the first MiG 15’s tailpipe
while a second climbs beneath him

orange tracers through the cockpit
left wing fuel tank    bursting fireball
the other when he hits the mountain

November Links Roundup: Long Time No See

Welcome back, readers. As suggestively-shaped-gourd season gives way to bedtime-at-4:30 season, I have been busy writing 30 Poems in November and reading the Winning Writers self-published books. So why not begin this overdue check-in with Judith Shulevitz’s piece in the November issue of The Atlantic, “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore”:

The hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.

Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.

The personalization of time may seem like a petty concern, and indeed some people consider it liberating to set their own hours or spend their “free” time reaching for the brass ring. But the consequences could be debilitating…A calendar is more than the organization of days and months. It’s the blueprint for a shared life.

The inability to set predictable boundaries around one’s non-working hours plagues workers both at the high end of the pay scale, where professionals are expected to put in 70-hour workweeks, and at the low end, where companies use variable scheduling algorithms to keep costs down, meaning that retail workers’ shifts change all the time. The conspiracy-minded might conclude that the weakening of community engagement is no accident. Shulevitz notes, “A presidential-campaign field organizer in a caucus state told me she can’t get low-income workers to commit to coming to meetings or rallies, let alone a time-consuming caucus, because they don’t know their schedules in advance.”

Michel Foucault’s “Friendship as a Way of Life”, a 1981 interview with the magazine Le Gai Pied, explores the radical potential of non-heteronormative sexuality to create ties of affection across social strata. (Hat tip to the podcast Food 4 Thot for the link.)

One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease, and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force.

I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another–there’s the problem.

The institution is caught in a contradiction; affective intensities traverse it which at one and the same time keep it going and shake it up. Look at the army, where love between men is ceaselessly provoked and shamed. Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relations short-circuit it and introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.

In another example of radical queer potential, Colleen Tighe’s graphic narrative at The Nib celebrates that “Powerlifting Doesn’t Care What I Look Like”. I can attest that my own weight-training regimen, which focuses on what my body can do, rather than what’s wrong with how it looks, has been amazing for overcoming my internalized sexism and butch-shaming. Weight-lifting women and femmes can be loud, big, and powerful, smashing sexist taboos.

Meanwhile, at Refinery 29, this photo essay by Sadhbh O’Sullivan and Holly Falconer demonstrates that “Butchness Is Not the Opposite of Beauty–It’s a Kind of Its Own”. Interviewee Martha says:

When I was more neutrally presenting I didn’t experience that much harassment, but now it’s basically daily. It’s so acceptable to see butch women as ‘other’ and see them as wrong, gross, even dirty. I’m doing everything you’re taught not to do as a woman, and the harassment seems like a more culturally acceptable homophobia. I appear very clearly as someone who is rejecting being sexualised by men and their gaze.

Butchness has a history tied to working class women that’s very important to me. There’s a bit in Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg about the revolution around gay identities that happened in the ’70s and ’80s, which saw far more middle class lesbians taking over the community and rejecting the butches and femmes. It’s part of the reason why I’ve leaned into the butch identity. Being from a working class background also compounds the homophobia and butchphobia you’re confronted with, and it felt like there was much more stigma and shame. I didn’t know anyone who was a lesbian, I didn’t think it was a thing you could be until I was at university. But that’s why there’s something so important about being butch and participating in that cultural history.

My bio mom’s anxiety about being just one generation removed from the working class certainly exacerbated her negativity about butch traits in her partner and me.

Living weird is the best revenge.

Poetry by Hank Rodgers: “Thorn Blossoms”

Longtime Winning Writers subscriber and Reiter’s Block reader Hank Rodgers sent me this moving poem whose orderly formal scheme offsets the chaos of a veteran’s PTSD. Written a few years ago, it remains timely as the US continues to wage costly and unnecessary wars around the world. For more of Hank’s work, check out “From the Album” and “Fishing” in the archives of the Winning Writers Critique Corner.

Thorn Blossoms

We Seals, in our wet, black suits,
Were going in, again.
Boots on the ground, these thorns have roots,
Our nurtured, prickly men.

Commandos were his avatars,
In his dark, locked bedroom.
Virtual man now, one of ours;

His mind a barbed-wire loom.

He turned on us, when we’d trained him—
Our enemy had gone.
Some other prize our eyes, again,
We sponsors focused on.

We knew his games, his nettled angst
Had made him strange; and thus
We could not have him in our ranks—
He turned our guns on us.

We had to keep them in the cloud,
To make them talk, or scream;
While you, with shoes off, heads well-bowed,
Found flying, safe, your dream.

We tried to bring our ‘normalcy’,
Our arms, and faith, to him;
Make real our failed reality,
False hopes abounded, then.

Our droning Doctor zoned us in;
We fought, with little fuss.
That’s how we got our bin Laden,
And how, then, he got us.

We count our dead, and all for what
Our hubris has denied;
We’ve earned, and wear, our thorn-crowns; but
Too many bled, and died.

I Take the Necronomicon Literally But Not Seriously

The spooky season of October seems like a good time to post my reflections on NecronomiCon 2019, the H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror fan convention we attended this August in Providence. Offered in odd-numbered years, this con delves into scholarly and popular media in the Lovecraftian tradition, while critiquing the xenophobic views of its progenitor. While the Young Master and Daddy explored Rhode Island’s beaches, I attended panels on such edifying subjects as the history of insane asylums and pop-culture depictions of shrunken heads. However, nothing I saw was quite as grotesque and unsettling as the SpongeBob cartoons that Shane made me binge-watch in our hotel room.

The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir served up some new parodies of deep cuts from the Protestant hymnal, which unfortunately were unfamiliar to most of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast cultists. I for one am glad they recognized the ghoulish potential in “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Presiding over the breakfast, Cody Goodfellow, Anthony Teth, and Scott Jones opened with a rap battle about the relative merits of Dagon, Mother Hydra, and Shub-Niggurath, followed by sermons warning against blind faith and oversimplified ideologies. Like queer “camp”, which paradoxically employs the excesses of self-parody as a vehicle for intense and genuine emotions, modern Cthulhu-ism inhabits a liminal space, refusing to resolve itself into either mere satire or alternative religion.

The sermons made me wonder: What really is the difference between NecronomiCon and the Episcopal Church? (Not the outfits, certainly!) Minus the references to “Great Dragons Nug and Yeb,” I expect my fellow mainline parishioners would nod enthusiastically at the paeans to liberal open-mindedness. The Innsmouth Choir is merely more explicit about the same story we tell in the Bible readings and 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: the end times are coming, we’re all going to die, the earth will be destroyed, and we may go on to a strange new afterlife in transformed bodies if we appease the right wrathful deity.

In this apocalyptic political moment in America, the cultists’ honest acknowledgment of evil and impermanence was oddly reassuring. Refreshingly, Cthulhu-ism has a sense of humor about the absurdity of all human social structures–even the most powerful dictator or Pope is puny in cosmic terms–whereas the liberal church wants you to take its performances seriously even as it concedes that it has no divine authority over you.

I also wondered how many attendees were sincere believers in magic and monstrous gods, and how many were like me, dancing on that line between genuine faith and the defensive retreat into “just kidding!” when we fear that someone will try to exploit our new belief system as a tool of social control. One of the speakers on the Edward Gorey panel observed that the eccentric artist had a reputation as a difficult interview subject because he dodged any questions that tried to pin down the meaning of his enigmatic books. His work gains its power and lasting relevance from tension that is never resolved by a revelation. That could be one way I would define the queer aesthetic–allowing subtext to remain subtext, so that it can’t be stolen from you by reductionist interpreters. Indefinability as resistance to hegemony, perhaps?

October Links Roundup: Be More Gay, Fight More Nazis

October, my favorite month–cold, dark, and spooky. Trans bois everywhere rejoice at the beginning of vest-wearing season.

When times are troubled, Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to look for “what’s not wrong” in the world. So let’s start out with this inspiring historical comic from The Nib, “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.”, by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings. We usually picture gays during the Holocaust only as concentration camp victims. Beck came of age in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. In 1943 he helped found Chug Chaluzi, an underground support network for Jews living in Berlin in defiance of Goebbels’ deportation order. With his twin sister and his life partner, another member of Chug Chaluzi, he worked for the Resistance until captured and tortured by the Gestapo. The three survived the war and lived a long life of activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel and Germany. “I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life…no matter how dire the straits,” Beck wrote.

The structural obstacles to justice in America today seem dire indeed. The more I learn, the more intertwined and entrenched the inequalities appear. Yet I take comfort in the awareness that I’m part of a collective movement, adding my little pebbles to the mountain we can build together. I don’t have to fix this by myself.

At present I’m focusing on voting rights and their connection to the prison-industrial complex. We can have all the progressive candidates we want and it still won’t do any good if large swathes of the Democratic constituency are disenfranchised. This happens through strategies like gerrymandering (drawing odd-shaped legislative districts in order to rig the election for a particular party) and a racially biased criminal justice system. Check out the Emancipation Initiative website to help with our campaign to restore prisoners’ voting rights in Massachusetts.

At Salon, journalist Igor Derysh reports on the late Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, “the master of modern gerrymandering,” whose secret files, opened after his death in August 2018, reveal his strategy to dilute the black vote.

…Hofeller’s files show that he compiled maps with overlays of the black voting-age population by district, suggesting that racial data was a key part of the gerrymander, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle

Hofeller, a key player in the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, compiled data on the citizen voting-age population in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and other states going back to 2011. In memos, Hofeller argued that drawing maps based on the number of citizens rather than the population would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and help “non-Hispanic whites.”

…The files show that Hofeller also traveled around the country to educate Republicans about redistricting and urged them to push for prison gerrymandering, which allows inmates to be counted as residents of the area where the prison is located, often helping Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some cities are rethinking the use of arrest warrants for minor nonviolent offenses. The Washington Post reports that “One in 7 adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest,” often for misdemeanors such as panhandling or missing a court date. The City Council is considering a resolution to dismiss all warrants and charges associated with poverty and homelessness, which account for over 40% of the total. “A coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution—wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.” These reforms would clear the overcrowded dockets, reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate one burden that falls more heavily on poor and minority residents:

Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.

Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.

A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.

Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.

Also last month, California legislators approved a bill to ban private (for-profit) prisons from operating in the state, The Guardian reported. The move would likely shut down four ICE immigrant detention centers as well.

Going in the wrong direction, as usual, the Catholic Church is still using its behind-the-scenes political power to block clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Maria Kwiatkowski and John Kelly have the full story this week in USA Today: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.”

The article details what I would consider numerous violations of the Establishment Clause and tax-exempt status requirements, including sermons and mass mailings to parishioners, smear campaigns and threatening personal messages to pro-victim legislators. At stake are proposed state laws that would extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue. Victim advocates support such laws because memories of child abuse can take decades to surface, and even for those victims who never forgot, they often do not have the safety and resources to pursue a claim till later in life. Meanwhile, the Church pleads that lawsuits would bankrupt it, while spending millions on lobbying. However, it appears that public opinion is finally turning against these once-revered authority figures:

Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis, and the rate of success has picked up. Of the 29 states that have enacted such laws, 11 did so for the first time this year.

Ten states no longer have any civil statute of limitations and 16 states have revived expired statutes, according to CHILD USA, which tracks such legislation daily.

Perhaps we’d be better off with Mindar, an AI recently installed at a 400-year-old Japanese Buddhist temple. According to Vox.com, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral”:

For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.

“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.

Then there’s SanTO — short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — a 17-inch-tall robot reminiscent of figurines of Catholic saints. If you tell it you’re worried, it’ll respond by saying something like, “From the Gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anthony Boucher’s classic sci-fi story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” has become a reality. Let me know if you see a robass at the Blessing of the Animals service this weekend.

September Links Roundup: Drawn That Way

Nothing I will read on the Internet today could top this hilarious illustrated essay by Bradley Bazzle in the new issue of the online lit mag DIAGRAM. In response to his 2-year-old’s fascination with the human body and “Sesame Street”, a bored dad finds himself drawing “Naked Bert & Ernie” in some peculiar situations:

When I draw a Bert or Ernie, I start with the face. The moment I finish the face, my daughter shouts “body!” Then, the moment I start the body, my daughter shouts “naked!” But sometimes, in my haste to finish the face before she starts shouting “body” and “naked,” I’ll accidentally draw the collar of Ernie’s crewneck sweater or of Bert’s turtleneck, which he wears beneath his v-neck sweater…

…I was drawing Bert for my daughter when I made the mistake of starting his turtleneck. As usual, I recovered quickly. I even jumped down and started drawing his arms, to distract her, but my daughter kept pointing at the line around Bert’s neck. I told her the misplaced line on Bert’s neck was “like a collar.”

“Leash,” my daughter said, nodding earnestly.

“That’s right,” I said, “a leash. Like a dog has.”

My daughter started pointing at the empty space next to Bert’s neck, so I had no choice but to draw a long leash extending from the collar and then, naturally, to end it with a hand.

“Ernie!” my daughter cried, and I colored the hand orange. “Ernie! Ernie!” she persisted, and so I drew the rest of Ernie’s body. In my head a little voice (my wife’s?) told me I should draw him clothed, or, better yet, in his traditional jeans and horizontally striped sweater, and so I did this, over my daughter’s strident objections, but then what I had in front of me was a drawing of Ernie, clothed, walking Bert, half-naked, like a dog.

The essay goes on to ponder the ambiguous age of the humanoid Sesame Street puppets, the backlash against their possible queerness, and the downplaying of romantic love on the show in general. Bazzle is disappointed in this last omission, but I find it refreshing in a media landscape where nearly every kids’ cartoon movie includes a heterosexual love interest.

On the subject of comics strictly for adults, graphic novelist LB Lee has launched a Kickstarter to publish an updated edition of their memoir All in the Family, about coming to accept themselves as a multiple-personality system and grappling with recovered memories of incest. I had the pleasure of meeting Lee at the Queers & Comics conference this May, and enjoyed their graphic novel Alter Boys in Love, a sweet and unique story about relationships among their “headmates”. For a good introduction to their work, check out this profile by Abraham Riesman at Vulture, “The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is Eight Different People”:

In an era when memoirs about gender, sexuality, mental health, and trauma are surging in importance, LB Lee deserves to become a much-better-known name, not in spite of their work’s challenges, but rather because of them — and because of their comics’ untrained and exhilarating beauty. Indeed, by elegantly and brutally exploring the fringes of fluid identity, LB Lee makes one rethink what it means to be human.

Riesman’s article is notable for its respectful, even-handed investigation of the controversial subjects of recovered memories and dissociative identity disorder (DID). He writes:

I spoke to multiple medical professionals with expertise in DID and asked all of them if it would be a problem for me to treat LB’s alters as individual people. I was worried that acknowledging the headmates was somehow encouraging the disorder when I should be trying to convince them that they’re actually a single person. I was told in no uncertain terms that the latter, actually, is the more dangerous approach. In fact, the medical consensus is that it’s almost impossible for people with DID to unify back into a single personality, so there’s no sense in trying.

“I commonly talk to my patients as ‘you all’ and they refer to themselves as ‘we,’” says Dr. Richard Loewenstein, the medical director of the Trauma Disorders Program at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and a professor at the University of Maryland. “Just say you’re mostly interested in understanding and want to be very respectful and make sure you’re not treading into territory that may cause undue distress.” In other words, although being transgender or gender-nonconforming is very different from having DID, the same principle, so radically important and newly acknowledged in mainstream thought, applies: If someone with an uncommon identity wants to be called something, it’s your duty to comply, however awkward it may seem at first.

At BuzzFeed, Kristin Arnett, author of the bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things, shares childhood memories of “Queering Barbie”. The doll’s plastic-perfect middle-class life was aspirational but also shaming for a girl whose own world was messy and full of struggle:

A good way to make yourself feel like you’ve got any kind of control over your life is to play with dolls, because you can make them do whatever you want. Another good thing about owning Barbies if you’re a little queer girl is that you can look at their naked bodies and not feel like anyone will say anything weird to you for it, because if there’s anything we know about Barbies, it’s that they were manufactured for the purpose of taking their clothes off and putting new clothes on…

…The Barbies I own are hard-won. I have to beg for them. Looking back, that feels right — how to get all the women I want who want nothing to do with me. I should get on my knees and grovel. It should cause me physical pain to acquire them. I need to beg —to do service to deserve them…

Did you know: Barbie is a pediatrician, a veterinarian, a stay-at-home mom. She works at McDonald’s. She owns a dream house. She owns a fucking DREAM HOUSE. I will never own a dream house. The house I live in has five rooms and one of them is a bedroom I share with my sister and one of them is a bathroom I share with my entire family. The only way I can read in my house is to wait until no one’s in the bathroom and then go lock myself in and pretend I’m taking a bath so I can have one second of time alone so I can read, because no one in my family reads and no one wants to let me read — they think it’s a fun time to try to yell my name over and over again while I am trying to focus on any of the words.

Is this why I can’t listen when anyone calls me now? Is this why I can’t believe when anyone actually wants me?

My fellow St. Ann’s School alum Wendy Chin-Tanner, a widely published poet, shares her own experience of racism and classism at our elite Brooklyn high school in Gay Mag, a new online publication curated by Roxane Gay. In “An Unsentimental Education”, Chin-Tanner describes how the arts-oriented school’s ideology of individual meritocracy made her blame herself for micro-aggressions and cover up her working-class Chinese heritage. (TW for sexual assault.) “The ethos of Saint Ann’s eschewed the bourgeois and reified the artistic class, obscuring how that class is nonetheless bound to economic and social capital,” she writes. Chin-Tanner is the poetry editor of The Nervous Breakdown and Executive Director and Co-Publisher at A Wave Blue World.

Another St. Ann’s graduate, Rachel Cline, writes in Medium about “The Unexceptional Jeffrey Epstein”:

We have normalized the idea that women can be treated as less-than-fully human in so many ways that it is like weather, or air — a fact, an act of nature or God. The Epstein case demonstrates this. He was as much a friend of Bill Clinton’s as of Donald Trump’s, his friends were A-listers ranks deep, his sweetheart deal in Florida was kept secret from the victims, and Pulitzer Prize nominators were swayed by Alan Dershowitz’s super slimy plea to eliminate Julie K. Brown’s Epstein reporting from prize consideration — all these things required the collusion of regular people, non-sex offenders, non-plutocrats, and women, too. The girls themselves were able to believe that what this jerk asked of them was somehow appropriate, and that it was acceptable to recruit others to the same fate. I am not saying we should go after them, nor do I want to minimize in any way the extent of Epstein’s harm — what I am trying to say is wake up: This is so much more than one man’s wealth or one man’s kink.

Cline’s new novel The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019), about two women finding themselves on opposite sides of a sexual misconduct case against their former high school teacher, is on my to-read list.

Lastly, one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ariana Reines, was interviewed at length about her new collection A Sand Book (Tin House, 2019) by Rebecca Tamás in The White Review. Among other topics, they discuss poetry-writing as an occult force that can shift our consciousness away from planet-destroying political paradigms. Asked whether her work has ever faced dismissive criticism because of her references to astrology and esoteric spiritualities, Reines replied: “The reason I’m involved in poetry is because I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, not because I want to trick some boring asshole into considering me an intellectual.”

High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

I recently watched the Netflix documentary “The Family”, based on religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s books about a covert Christian supremacist network that seeds the highest levels of government with right-wing evangelical allies. Hiding in plain sight, these folks are the force behind the National Prayer Breakfast and send congressmen on unofficial junkets to change the hearts (and secure the petrochemicals contracts) of authoritarian leaders from Russia to Libya. The Humanist magazine has a good summary here.

The show opens with a dramatic reconstruction of a younger Sharlet’s stint in an intentional community called Ivanwald, an idyllic suburban mansion near Washington, D.C. where wholesome young men are groomed for future leadership. Like a Christian version of the boarding-school lads in Dead Poets Society, the “brothers” play football, share their innermost feelings, study the texts that are supposed to change their lives, and subject newbies to surprise hazing rituals.

Watching these scenes was a bittersweet reminder of the evening at Harvard Hillel, over 25 years ago, that sealed my desire to try living as an observant Jew. It must have been Succot because we were eating dinner at long picnic tables outdoors under a lantern-lit tent. The Orthodox boys had a camaraderie with one another that was mature, tender, and close-knit, a visible contrast to their jaded, slick, competitive counterparts in the secular world of elite schooling. My three imperatives in my 20s were (1) find a husband, (2) don’t fail physics, and (3) survive one more day of living with my mentally deteriorating mother. (Two outta three ain’t bad, kids.) But the yearning in my heart, as I looked at those young men, wasn’t for a future father of my Jewish babies.

I was in love with a kind of homosocial bonding that seems to flourish in high-demand communities–some alchemy that makes loud insensitive boys into reflective young men, a pressure that forces affection out of them like weeds pushing through a cement sidewalk. I devoured books like Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (doesn’t that title just make you tingle?), a semi-autobiographical novel about the military academy The Citadel. Later, in my 30s, married and recently moved to this very female-centric Western Massachusetts town, I went along with a teenage friend to her charismatic evangelical church. It was remarkable to see white working-class men weeping, trembling, and embracing as a matter of course–a space of respite from the bluster and gruffness that such men perform with each other in the outside world.

The appeal of places like Ivanwald can’t be reduced to covert homosexuality, however tempting it is for liberals to take that cheap shot. In his essay collection Undergoing God (Continuum, 2006), gay Catholic theologian James Alison suggests that sexual desire may be a subset of men’s stigmatized need for emotional intimacy, rather than the reverse. (Alison is a follower of social scientist Rene Girard, referenced below; the blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement explains Girardian theology in layperson’s terms.)

Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here.’ Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here.’

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games. (pg.160)

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis contrasts eros, romantic love/lust, with philia, friendship. Whereas lovers look at one another, friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction at something they both value. In the classical and medieval worlds, philia was considered a higher-level love because freely chosen and not tied to bodily needs such as reproduction. (Sounds kind of queer, no?)

It stands to reason, then, that philia based on shared spirituality would be especially deep and meaningful. The stronger the pressure to face in the same direction, as in high-demand religions like Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, the more that bond is reinforced. The men’s passion for one another–again, not necessarily sexual–is given cover by their passion for God. Because these religions are punitively heteronormative and patriarchal, these men can have it both ways, being vulnerable and devoted to one another in “feminine” ways without losing status.

I wonder if this is a particularly masculine flavor of friendship, to be more object-oriented than personally intimate. In the past decade I’ve had several intense female friendships where our conversations revolved around psychological growth and relationship processing. We had common interests, such as literature, but that wasn’t our strongest bond. It was partway to eros, without any sexual desire, but with that love’s characteristic shadow side of jealousy and engulfment. One element of my masculine transition is the attempt to shift towards a male style of philia, which I’m currently pursuing by attending every available queer nerd convention.

The shadow side of worship-oriented male philia is, of course, the Christian supremacy that is all around us in America. Non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians in Israel might tell a similar story about the deadly consequences of believing that your in-group is chosen by God. In another essay in the same book, Alison contrasts non-idolatrous worship with authoritarian group bonding exercises, epitomized by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rally. Boldface emphasis mine, and some paragraph breaks added for ease of online reading.

One of the things in Nuremberg-style worship is what I referred to in my initial description as ‘Bruderschaft’. This is the sense in which, as they gradually become worked up in their enthusiasm, so those involved in the crowd begin to discover a special sort of love for those who are there along with the, a deep camaraderie, a sense of being one with, and delighted to be with, these others who, but a few hours previously, were entirely unknown to them, and, in a few hours’ time, will be just as unknown once again.

Part of worship is a sense that love enables you to leave behind the tedious banalities of the particular, the petty irritations, the timidities, the quirks, and instead find yourself together, and in communion, with these people whom an outside viewer would describe as strangers, but you, at the time, would swear that you were united by a special and mystical bond. And that ecstasy, that ek-stasis, can be quite overpowering, and indeed quite addictive.

Now I want to say that, from the perspective of True Worship, this is all completely ersatz. True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular. This is part of the sense that we don’t need to hide from each other if we are all being forgiven together by the forgiving victim [Jesus], and that un-hiding, that discovery, happens very slowly.

Worship requires the suppression of the particular because it requires all those involved to share in a lie which will lead to a new form of unity creating a new sacrifice by casting someone out. All those involved in the unity are automatically, by the mere fact of being involved, abstracting from their particular stories and sharing in a lie, a cause that is beyond them. The love, the friendship, the real brotherhood which comes with and through True Worship, is a certain sort of being able gradually to bask in particular beauties discovered without any cause beyond themselves. (pgs.46-47)

Preach! I read this book a decade ago during my spiritual crisis about writing a gay novel. Re-reading these passages I bookmarked, I now understand how the ecstasy of friendship with my Christian women’s group could have felt so real, and how it was inevitable that my emerging gay transmasculine self would subsequently be cast out. The main virtue of Julian, my novel protagonist, is his anti-ideological bent. This slutty but sensitive fashion photographer is an expert on “bask[ing] in particular beauties…without any cause beyond themselves.” I believed then, and even more now, that the Holy Spirit sent him to me.