November Links Roundup: Inequality Isn’t Magic

Happy (?) November, readers. My mood continues to be “living my best life in the end times”, hence the question mark. This post’s title references an article I will shortly mention, but also a realization that sometimes gives me hope and other times makes me feel more helpless than ever. I grew up thinking that society’s big problems persisted because they were too complex to solve. Not to go all tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory on you, but I’ve learned enough history to see that our broken systems are broken because someone deliberately designed them that way.

The 1619 Project from the NY Times made certain people mad because it argued that racism shaped American health care, urban design, and financial markets in deep and lasting ways that hurt everyone today. For example, this recent post by Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money informed me that urban planner Robert Moses deliberately made New York’s bridges too low for buses to pass under them, so that poorer, mostly nonwhite New Yorkers couldn’t easily access Jones Beach. It’s so blatant that it makes my teeth hurt.

My best friend from Harvard and I were talking about the University of Austin, a new college being launched by “anti-woke pundit provocateurs” (to quote Slate) who believe that social justice orthodoxy has shut down free debate. That is, actually, the kind of statement I would have made as a college student. My friend and I now agree that the real chilling effect on campus comes from economic precariousness and exploitation. Few people have the freedom to speak their mind when burdened with six-figure debt. Whether Left or Right ideologies prevail in a particular institution matters less than the fact that modern university endowments are built on the underpaid labor of grad students and adjunct professors with no health benefits.

On the website of speculative fiction publisher Tor.com, Courtney Floyd’s article “Beyond Dark Academia: The Real Horror in Magic School Is Systemic Inequality” dares us to imagine alternatives to our fantasies of privilege. Comparing popular fictional schools from The Magicians (SyFy) and Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, among others, to the disabilities and financial hardship faced by many real-world graduates, Floyd writes:

It’s wild that even magic school stories about the brokenness and corruption of the system assume that graduates will successfully navigate that system and become fully-actualized professionals.

When you come of age in a broken system, the identity you crafted in school is rarely the one you get to occupy in professional life. And that’s assuming you’re admitted in the first place, able to stay enrolled, and have or obtain the support and resources you need to earn your degree—feats which the academy makes nearly impossible unless you are already familiar with the inner workings of the institution (via your parents or network), are independently wealthy, and are able-bodied enough to throw caution (or work-life balance) to the wind. Because, in reality? Schools, magic or otherwise, are almost always places of privilege that cater largely to the privileged, all while selling the myth that they are for everyone…

By presenting institutions of magical education as places where the darkness sometimes creeps in, instead of places designed to perpetuate systemic inequality, these stories imply that the institution, as well as the kids it supposedly trains, is ultimately alright.

We never explore what happens when your admission letter extends a welcome that’s not followed through by faculty, staff, or your fellow students because you don’t fit into the narrow ideal of what a student should be. Or what happens when the people who you’re trusting to guide you through this process are toxic or abusive or have earned tenure and simply don’t care anymore. We don’t learn what happens when, degree in hand, you discover that there are three full-time, benefited jobs in your field in the whole world, and hundreds or thousands of applicants for each of them.

In another detour into under-explored folklore, I enjoyed this feature that Jewish Currents published near Halloween: “Aaahh!!! Jewish Monsters,” written by Eli Lichtschein with illustrations by Joey Ramona. You’ve probably heard about the golem, but can you identify a shayd–a demon that takes human form? Look for its tell-tale chicken feet! (Could this be why my mother made us take off our shoes in the house?)

The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin riffs on a J.K. Rowling title in their article “Fantastic Faiths and What We Can Learn From Them”. This transcript of Gianna Cacciatore’s Harvard Religion Beat podcast interview with Prof. Charles Stang (no relation to Ivan Stang at the Church of the SubGenius, I hope) discusses how fictional and real-world religions influence each other. Stang observes that films like The Matrix and Blade Runner hark back to the Gnostic doctrine that our consensus reality is an illusion created by an evil demigod. Only now, the demigod is us, and if our films are any indication, we’ve lost the hope of a transcendent reality beyond the veil. Meanwhile, “on the United Kingdom’s 2001 census, 390,000 people identified their religion as ‘Jediism’.” As in, Star Wars.

I continue to be blown away by novelist and short story writer Brandon Taylor’s Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather. His cultural essays are cheeky, erudite, melancholy, and satirical, sometimes all in the same paragraph. You think you’re settling down for a light laugh about bourgeois New Yorkers and suddenly you’re crying, or deciding to read Zola. And then you laugh again. In his October post “trauma is a ghost, who knew,” he reveals why his mind works that way. Adapting the screenplay for his acclaimed novel Real Life made him re-live memories of childhood sexual abuse and its denial by his family.

I don’t speak to my family. I am alone in the world. I have some friends. But. I am alone in the world. And that’s okay. But sometimes, I wonder. Am I being too hard. Too enamored of my grudges. Then I remember that I still have nightmares. I remember that years ago, they carved something from me. Such that whatever love or peace or happiness or prosperity or tiny sliver of the world I might come into for myself is forever alloyed with not just a sense of loss, but a sense of cataclysmic alteration.

I’m never going to be okay. I’m never going to be over it. I’m never going to have processed my trauma. It hangs over me like a part of the starred firmament. That shit is the fucking moon. The permanent, irrevocable nature of what was done to me. That’s why it’s always Alabama when I dream.

And then, being the great critic that he is, he segues into analyzing his favorite movies where people do what his family could not: have long, messy, slowly unfolding conversations about the hard stuff.

I think I love movies like that because it feels like a reality I’d want to live in. Where you had to just keep talking until you both died.

I wonder what my dad would say if we could get into one of those conversations. About everything. The last time I tried, he kept saying, “I didn’t know.” And I thought, how could you not. When I told you. But I couldn’t say that because he was professing not to know. And I thought, here is someone who desperately wants to stop this conversation. Who wants to live in a reality in which he did not know about what was happening to me. And that is fine. He can live in that reality. But he cannot live in that reality and have me live in it too.

Words to live by, friend.

October Links Roundup: Oh Susannah

It’s Socktober!

As part of my ongoing wardrobe reorganization, I was planning to wear a different pair every day, but it’s been shorts-and-sandals weather for the past week and a half. Guess I’ll have to try again in…Toe-vember.

I have decommissioned six bags of ladies’ formal attire this month, some with the tags still on. “Dries van Noten! Tahari! Escada!” I lamented to my husband, for whom these words have less meaning than Pokémon names.

One vintage pleasure that never gets old, for me, is the Richard Tucker Opera Gala that was televised on PBS in 1994. A couple of years after seeing “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (a classic “do I want to marry him or be him” figure for gay trans boys), I had become a full-blown opera nerd. This gala was notable for Samuel Ramey’s mesmerizing performance as the charismatic, sinister Reverend Olin Blitch from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”. Watch it on YouTube. In this retelling of the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders, set in the American South, a young woman is falsely denounced by the Reverend as a sinner when she refuses his advances. Later, I had the great privilege of seeing Ramey perform this role at Lincoln Center with the fantastic Renee Fleming as Susannah. I was reminded of it when I read Floyd’s obituary last month. The great American opera composer died on Sept. 30 at age 95.

In a more modern variation on this theme, feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed analyzes “How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse” in an article for LitHub, excerpted from her new book Complaint! (Duke University Press, 2021). She examines “collegiality”, the loyalty of faculty to one another, as an obstacle and an indicator of what type of person “belongs”. In a choice between loyalty to two faculty members, one of whom accuses the other of abuse or harassment, “collegiality” often weighs in favor of the person who is most similar to you in terms of race, gender, power, or background. This dynamic continually forces younger and more diverse colleagues out of the system.

The institutional fatalism I have been describing…which converts a description (this is what institutions are like) into an instruction (accept this), is also often familial. In other words, you are supposed to accept harassment and bullying because that is what families are like…

When we talk about protecting the institution, we are also talking about protecting some colleagues more than others, or even some colleagues against others. We are talking about how protecting one person can be the same thing as protecting the whole institution. There is a history to who becomes that person. There is a history to who does not become that.

While I’m indulging in 1990s nostalgia, remember when the libertarian/classical liberal wing of the conservative movement was about more than refusing to wear a COVID mask in Wendy’s? That’s when I was a susbcriber to Reason Magazine, which still publishes some good articles about protecting real civil liberties, like this piece about the oppressiveness of the cash bail system. In “Cashed Out”, Leah Libresco Sargeant describes why the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund transitioned from paying poor defendants’ bail to lobbying for the abolition of bail altogether.

Bail funds had looked like a way of outsmarting the system: Courts could keep setting bail, but a bail fund operated as a kind of nullification of the prosecutor’s recommendation and the judge’s decision. The revolving money seemed to many bail fund donors, including me, like a way of turning tragedy into farce. But the BCBF team had come to believe they’d essentially been conscripted into the carceral system they wanted to dismantle…

Bail funds let politicians get the softer outcome they wanted without having to put their names to an attempt to change the law. The BCBF’s solution was to force lawmakers to confront the costs of the current system…

When the overwhelming majority of defendants whose bail is paid by a bail fund—and who thus have none of their own money at stake—show up at trial, it undermines the premise that cash bail was the least-restrictive option available. Those defendants didn’t need to have money on the line in order to come back.

At the Ploughshares blog, Calvin Gimpelevich writes about navigating Jewish and working-class ideas of masculinity during his transition in “Among Men”. Judaism historically placed more value on scholarly achievement than on brawn as the chief virtue of manhood. This can be good news for us mascs who can’t hammer a nail straight. But this archetype also has a fraught history of anti-Semitic polemics linking Jews to queerness and degeneracy. Gimpelevich discusses how such anxieties were internalized by European Jews who wondered whether their people had become too physically weak to fight oppression. Later, male Jewish-American intellectuals like Norman Mailer displaced these insecurities into misogyny and imperialism. Gimpelevich doesn’t take sides in this battle of masculinities, but carefully explores the pros and cons of both. (I had a special fellow-feeling for the author when he disclosed that he has face-blindness and can’t drive. We are a type.)

In this 9-minute video, Rabbi Abby Chava Stein gives an engaging talk about Talmudic support for transgender identities. I recently read her memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman (Seal Press). It’s an inside look at life in one of the strictest, most separatist American Jewish communities. One can’t deny that she knows her theology backwards and forwards!

An unexpected side effect of my transition is that I spend almost as much time thinking about breasts as my husband does. Other people’s breasts (more interesting than I thought); my breasts (dysphoric but pleasurable); whether it helps to call breasts something else (chesticles?); whether the problem resides in the body or in others’ reactions to it. In Allie Spikes’ essay “Minimizer” in Gulf Coast (Fall 2021), about her breast-reduction surgery, she delves into the contradictory messages she received about her body as a young Mormon woman: look fertile enough to attract a husband, but not so voluptuous that you lead men into temptation. Big breasts create forced visibility, and visibility is unsafe–or at any rate, burdensome and confusing–in a society that feels entitled to project moral values onto your body.

I’m still thinking about the book talk I attended online for Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness. Harrison has been posting proud pictures of themself on Twitter lately–beard, belly, and breasts. I am encouraged by the way that they embody queerness as its own style, not an imitation of white cis gender norms. In their talk, they cautioned against surgery that came from a place of internalized bias against one’s own body type, arguing that mainstream gender roles were specifically defined in opposition to the Black “other”. It’s an unsettling thought, because I also know how I can deceive myself with theory, arguing myself out of my feelings. But I really think I should read this book.

Evangelism as Microaggression

So it’s a radiant early-autumn day and I’m walking downtown to get some fish tacos, listening to a Food4Thot podcast on my headphones, when I happen to smile at this woman’s little dog and she stops me to say that God nudged her to speak to me. Apparently I haven’t yet mastered the genial indifference to strangers that is the hallmark of cis men, so I unplug my earbuds and politely listen to her rhapsodize about her church where God heals the sick and raises the dead. This may well have been the same woman from this 2018 blog post; autistic face-blindness means you get to be annoyed by the same person twice.

I manage to be happy for her happiness until she starts urging me to search online for testimonies of people’s visions of the hell that awaits unbelievers. I interrupt her, firmly but with a smile, to say that I don’t believe that only Christians go to heaven, or that God torments anyone for eternity. But the visions! She can admit no disagreement. “And I’m transgender and happy about it, so thanks but goodbye,” I retort, starting to walk away. She hasn’t brought up the LGBTQ issue, but this is generally a good way to shatter the façade of love-bullshit. “I’ve known people who’ve been delivered from that, from homosexuality,” she calls after me, and I call over my shoulder, “That’s bigoted,” and plug back into Spotify just in time to hear Denne Michele say, “Trans is beautiful!”

Why did this bother me enough to write about it? I have no anxiety about the eternal destiny of my gay-ass soul…but I once did. And it upsets me that Christian supremacy is so normal that strangers have the chutzpah to use these scare tactics. This lady’s emotional register went from ecstasy to threat in under two minutes. And she might really have been motivated by concern for me, rather than simple arrogance. I was once close friends with an evangelical woman who’d been raised in a missionary denomination. As brutal as the doctrine sounds to outsiders, Calvinist predestination appealed to her because it relieved her of the obsessive anxiety to force everyone she met toward salvation. Leaders fill their flock with fear that they spread to others like a virus.

Microaggressions are little mundane irritations that hurt because they hint at larger oppressive dynamics underneath. They’re behaviors that are still acceptable in “polite society”, that remind you that your inclusion is conditional. They can be so stupid that you feel you should be strong enough to laugh them off, but somehow you’re not, and that adds to the shame.

Hellfire evangelism feels like a microaggression because this person is trying to traumatize me. I’m just walking down the street laughing at pre-recorded dick jokes from August (because, like Denne, I am always late catching up with media) when somebody decides to frighten me into an existential crisis. For the evangelist, a successful interaction would result in me imagining myself in horrible pain, which I can only alleviate by becoming exactly like her. Sounds pretty abusive when you lay it out clearly.

Though I had the privilege to laugh this off, I was also traumatized vicariously on behalf of the many vulnerable queer people who might harm themselves, or be harmed by others, as a result of this theology. Underneath the concern for my eternal bliss is the demand to worship a god who sees everyone outside a certain demographic as subhuman, unworthy of empathy.

As of today, I am not delivered from transsexualism; few heavenly pleasures can compete with the superior pockets in men’s trousers. I am left with a more complicated theological question, however. How should I interpret these reported visions of the hell for unbelievers? What were they really seeing? And how do I exercise discernment in interpreting my own spiritual intuitions, dreams, and guided journeys in Witchcraft class? Our head witch in charge, Christopher Penczak, teaches that we avoid delusions by consistently practicing introspection and psychic self-cleansing (which includes therapy). We learn techniques to become aware of the different levels of our psyche and clear them of harmful thoughts and attachments. I’ve never been in a church that paid such attention to sanity-maintaining tactics or offered a specific framework for developing spiritual discernment.

As for the visions of heaven and hell, Christopher has also said that when we’re in a visioning state, we will perceive ineffable spiritual realities via the images and concepts that work best for our minds, which is different for everyone. Maybe those Christians did see something terrifying in a dimension adjacent to this one. I can credit the genuineness of their experiences without drawing identical doctrinal conclusions.

Or maybe Christopher Moltisanti is right, and hell is an eternal party in an Irish pub. Sláinte!

August Links Roundup: Ship It

Better get this post up before the month is over! Here’s an eclectic list of good reads around the web.

At the Iowa Review, Amanda Peery-Wolf’s “What Can I Ship” is a witty found-poem based on the Union Pacific Online Customer Handbook from 2007. The reader may be alternately numbed and delighted by the sheer volume and random diversity of items that human beings have invented and sold. Strategically placed linebreaks lead one to imagine additional strange mash-ups of existing products:

toasters walking sticks with rubber tips video games mattresses hd

screens jeans green bicycles for boys rubber hands for halloween minidresses

for when she’s starting to come into her own pocket pill containers

horse blankets rabbit biscuits jingly balls for cats eyebrow brushes

keyboard covers car accessories menorahs plastic bags pen caps worry

dolls folding fans molding clay ac units fuel charges apply to all shipments

balled-up tissues tootsie rolls rolling papers live rabbits beach umbrellas…

At the Ploughshares blog, Pepper Stetler‘s essay “The World Will Be Tlön” compares the DSM-5 to the aliens’ rewriting of human history in Jorge Luis Borges’ surreal fable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The human psyche craves order and categorization to such an extent that we confer authority on “expert” psychological diagnoses and overlook their contested political history. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Stetler can’t ignore the labels that will help her family navigate the medical and educational systems to get the resources they need. However, she remains skeptical enough to value aspects of her daughter’s mental life that the DSM would pathologize. “Intellectual disability is still described in terms of deficits and a failure to meet certain standards, rather than language that might suggest that the environment, the conditions of our modern world, might be what is deficient, which would open up the possibility for social change.”

At MEL, a men’s magazine, Chingy Nea opines that “‘The Sopranos’ Belongs to the Gays Now”. Gay popular culture loves references and memes from the Mafia drama because it’s a show about masculinity as high camp. “Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.”

I got halfway through Season 4 when “The Sopranos” originally aired, quitting because I didn’t want to see Adriana get whacked. If we go on lockdown from COVID again this winter, or even if we don’t, I suspect I’ll be bingeing the show from the beginning. I have HBO Max now–I am fancy. No more bootleg videotapes from my parents’ friend who had premium cable.

My new passion as of last year is making collage art. My handmade greeting cards are everything that my writing isn’t–upbeat, popular, and easy to understand! Via Poetry Daily, I discovered the online journal Ctrl+V, which is dedicated to creative writing that incorporates visual collage elements. I particularly liked this flower clock poem from Nora Claire Miller, “To Understand a Tendency Consider Its Conditions”.

This cheerful non-manifesto by poet Maggie Smith, part of an interview in the “Stopping By With…” series from the Poetry Society of America, lightened my anxiety:

What do you see as the role of art in public life at this moment in time?

A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.

So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.

LitHub published the winners of this year’s Insider Prize, a writing contest sponsored by the journal American Short Fiction for incarcerated writers in Texas. Eva Shelton’s story “Bottles of Grief”, about solidarity and loneliness in a bereavement support group, and Keith Sanders’ essay “The Myth of Me”, about being a rebellious teenage atheist, are both worth a read.

Classicist and poet A.E. Stallings shares a bit of forgotten queer history in “Warrior Eros” at The American Scholar. Reviewing James Romm’s The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, she describes the real-life inspiration for the thought experiment in Plato’s Symposium about “an army of lovers and their loves” who would be bonded by affection to fight to the death.

In Athens and Sparta, romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships between men were largely countenanced and conventional: a couple was composed of an erastes (the lover), the older partner, and the eromenos (the beloved), a youth on the cusp of manhood; “lovers and their loves.” The pro-Spartan Athenian historian Xenophon seems to have been atypical in his disapproval of male-male sexual relationships; in ancient Greece it was arguably unwavering heterosexuality that was “queer.”

But if, as Romm points out, in Athens and Sparta “male erôs was ‘complicated,’” in Thebes and Boeotia it was sanctioned by the state. Male couples could take an oath at the grave of Iolaus, Hercules’s own beloved, to live together as syzygentes—yoke mates—a term that elsewhere indicates a lifelong marital bond. It is etymologically related to “conjugal.” (The modern Greek word for “spouse” is still syzygos.) After running a junta of Spartans out of Thebes in 379 BCE, the Thebans turned their attention to defense. What Thebes needed to keep Sparta’s hoplites (heavily armed infantry) at bay was an elite squad of its own; thus was born the Sacred Band of 300, its couples having sworn the “sacred” oath at Iolaus’s tomb.

When will we get a movie about this??

Here Comes Mommy-Man

Several of my trans male and nonbinary acquaintances were mothers before they transitioned, and are now exploring alternative ways for their children to address them. I’ve started to introduce myself to new people as “Shane’s parent” but I haven’t asked him to call me anything different. On his own, my creative boy decided to call me “Mommy-Man”, or sometimes “Mommy-Sir”. He usually saves these titles for when he especially wants to please me (“Mommy-Sir, can I play Minecraft?”).

At 9 years old, puberty is on the horizon, Cthulhu help us all. My son seems to love his masculinity, and is playing around with flirty phrases he learns from YouTube (“Hey baybeee”). The Oedipus Complex is real. I feel like he needs and appreciates both my new dad-like qualities, playing ball in the backyard and admiring how thoroughly he can coat himself with mud at Wilderness Survival Camp, and my mom-like nurturing with food and snuggles.

As an adoptive parent who overcame institutional prejudices and personal sabotage (from my bio mom!) to have a baby, I feel attached to my hard-won title of “Mom” despite its misgendering connotations. Because I didn’t give birth to him, on some level I still worry about disrupting his attachment to me, undermining my legitimacy as his parent, if I give up my behavioral claim to motherhood.

I’m also a diva, honestly–I don’t want to share Father’s Day with Adam, I want my own day!

My gay friend and artistic mentor John Ollom, a choreographer in NYC, calls himself “Mother” and his artists’ community “The Haus of Ollom”, in the tradition of the Harlem ballroom houses depicted in the TV show “Pose”–a family-of-choice for queer refugees from bigoted homes, headed by a fiercely protective and nurturing elder. That is the kind of motherhood I can emulate as a trans mommy-man.

The gospel of Elektra Abundance. Transgender actress Dominique Jackson… | by Jonathan Poletti |  | Medium

Mother Elektra Abundance is not taking any sass from you.

May Links Roundup: Rock Polishing

I promise, I was not Googling “sexy stalactites”. I was innocently browsing Twitter the other day when @sbearbergman decided we all needed to be cheered up by “Do Not Fuck This Rock” discourse. Tumblr user Astolat’s picture of what seems to be a naturally occurring malachite dildo prompted a scientific thread about why the pH and temperature of the human vagina can dissolve rocks. Then it swerves into a useful and timely political example:

The good news? Biochemically speaking, you’re probably ok to put it in your butt. It’s not as acidic or salty in there, plus there’s a huuuuuge stockpile of gut microbes right upstream that can quickly repopulate the colon after spelunking is complete. However this stalactite is not flared at the base so it is the wrong shape for putting in your butt. Do not put this stalactite in your butt.

This all looks like fun and games, but I think it’s really interesting that the internet’s mistake in concluding that this stalactite is fuckable is very similar to the mistake made by the Flint water management system. Hear me out.

Central to the Flint lead poisoning crisis is that authorities only looked at & tested Flint’s water in its central treatment plant before it went out through the pipes. Not after it went through the pipes. They did not consider what would happen biochemically as it went through the pipes and metals started dissolving.

Similarly, in concluding that the stalactite is fuckable, the internet only considered the stalactite itself. Not the biochemical processes that would happen to it as it, welp, went through the pipes.

Media frequently reports that the Flint River’s water is “corrosive,” leading many to believe the river is full of industrial waste. This ain’t the case. You’d need industry to fill a river with industrial waste, and industry left decades ago. That’s why Flint’s so poor. So what IS in the water? Road salt. Plain old stupid road salt. The old Detroit-based source didn’t have salt because it came from Lake Huron which has a large, mostly rural watershed. Meanwhile the Flint River runs through a lot of towns, making it slightly salty as everything melts down in spring. And as we recall from the stalactite experience, a little salt is all it takes to get metals to dissolve…

Morals of the story: when dealing with a biological system pls consider asking a biologist, your vagina and/or city could depend on this.

If you’re not already in awe of pussy power, check out Vice’s list of “Vagina Dentata Myths from Around the World”. For example, a Russian folktale tells of:

…a beautiful young woman who is married off to a gross, old man. In order to avoid having sex with the guy, the young bride puts a fish head in her vagina so its teeth will cut him every time he tries. The husband is traumatized, she “calls him a fool for not knowing that young girls’ vaginas usually have teeth,” and she lives the rest of her life without having sex with him.

The blog When You Work at A Museum… recounted an incident in 2016 where a “Christian school” teacher asked for her high school students’ tour to avoid any artwork with sex, violence, or “pieces that glory in immorality”. As the blogger noted, that leaves out the vast majority of museum holdings:

Obviously anything with nudity is out. That shuts down much of the sculpture wing and the NeoClassical, Rococo, and Mannerist collection, which ironically includes many of the Christian paintings.

Could we show them the armor or weaponry collection? Probably not, since links directly to graphic violence.

What about a mural depicting slavery? That’s unquestionably immoral.

A follow-up post featured the satirical “Universal Never-Nude Art Museum Tour Map”.

Last night I attended an enjoyable online reading by Callum Angus from his new story collection A Natural History of Transition. He read a magical-realist piece titled “Rock Jenny” about a young woman who transitions from boy, to girl, to mountain, and beyond. It made me feel momentarily liberated from the pressure to choose a binary gender expression that would be legible to the mainstream. London-based DJ and performance artist Dahc Dermur VIII expresses a similar attitude in his “Extreme Beauty Routine” video for Vogue Magazine, demonstrating how he creates his over-the-top Goth couture looks. In his vestment-inspired, operatic gowns, Dahc has reclaimed the flamboyant majesty of the Christianity that once oppressed him.

At Jewish Currents, Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child, contends that “The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda” is to redefine citizenship in cis-het white Christian terms.

Since at least the antebellum period, as historians have detailed, the racial innocence invested in the figure of the white child has served as an anchor of proper American political feeling. Statecraft and governance often invoke the hypothetical child’s welfare and protection as a justification for dismissing real people’s political demands. The politics of “protecting” the innocent white child have rationalized the disposability of entire populations, like immigrants, the descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants. Today we are witnessing trans children’s addition to this list.

Meanwhile, in Current Affairs, journalist Noah Berlatsky (whose teenage daughter recently came out as trans) wonders “Why the Panic Over Trans Kids?” He debunks pseudo-scientific studies about “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and “trans trenders” as the skewed perspectives of parents who can’t accept that their children have independent private lives. Moreover, even if peer influence and the greater visibility of trans discourse online helped some kids latch onto this identity, why is that a problem? “If we had a study showing that kids are more likely to want to be poets if they’re friends with other kids who consider themselves poets, that wouldn’t make love of poetry a dangerous plague. Even if our gender identities are affected by those around us, or the media we take in, unless you are transphobic—i.e. you think it’s bad to be trans—then [so what]?”

They might even become trans poets!

April Bonus Links: A Rainbow of Eyes

More and gayer links that didn’t fit in the last post!

Janelle Shane’s adventures in AI learning are always good for a laugh. She trains neural networks to generate plausible new members of a data set, such as paint colors or rock band names. If you thought real pick-up lines were pretty terrible, computers are even more clueless. “Your eyes are like two rainbows and a rainbow of eyes” shows a shaky grasp of human anatomy, and I’m not even sure what this kink is about: “Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?” Although I would definitely swipe right on “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?”

When I was a romantic young girl, I dreamed of the day when I would wear a Jessica McClintock wedding dress. Though the word “calico” now gives me flashbacks, I had a sweet pang of nostalgia when I read the designer’s obit in the New York Times daily briefing email. “Jessica McClintock dressed generations of women in calico, lace and beribboned pastiches known as granny dresses. Her clients included Vanna White and a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham for her 1975 wedding to Bill Clinton. McClintock died at 90.”

Last month I attended an online book launch for the new edition of lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren’s (JEB) Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, a groundbreaking work of photojournalism from 1979. Local archivist Debbie Richards posted many historical background links in the chat, including this 2015 profile of JEB in the photography magazine Aperture, “Sophie Hackett on Queer Looking”. At the book launch, I was struck by JEB’s reworking of the language around the photographer-subject relationship. Rather than the dominant phrasing of “shoot” or “capture”, she envisioned an equilateral triangle of relations among the photographer, her muse, and the viewer. The Aperture article discusses this paradigm shift, as well as JEB’s way of reading archival photos for queer subtext.

A lot of us picked up interesting hobbies during the pandemic. Music journalist Moritz Weber decided to re-translate Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin’s letters, and concluded that the Polish hero had been straightwashed, according to this article in the Irish Times:

Frédéric Chopin’s archivists and biographers have for centuries turned a deliberate blind eye to the composer’s homoerotic letters in order to make the Polish national icon conform to conservative norms, it has been alleged.

Chopin’s Men, a two-hour radio programme that aired on Swiss public broadcaster SRF’s arts channel, argues that the composer’s letters have been at times deliberately mistranslated, rumours of affairs with women exaggerated, and hints at an apparent interest in “cottaging”, or looking for sexual partners in public toilets, simply ignored…

…In an 1829 letter to Tytus Woyciechowski cited on the programme, Chopin refers to “my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, […] about whom I dream”, and who inspired an adagio in his recent concerto. Weber argues that the context of the letter makes it clear that this “ideal” is the letter’s addressee himself.

Yet a translation of Chopin’s letters published in 2016 by Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute assigns the “ideal” in the letter a feminine pronoun (“not having spoken to her for half a year now”) even though the Polish noun is masculine.

Them Magazine’s photo feature by Amanda Chemeche on “8 Drag Kings You Need to Know” made me want to whip out my eyeliner pencil and draw a mustache on myself.

Pokémon’s hapless but endearing villains, Jessie and James of Team Rocket, are queer icons for their flamboyant hair and dramatic voices. But did you know that their Bronx-accented feline sidekick, Meowth, was voiced by trans actress Maddie Blaustein? David Levesley tells “The Inspiring Story of the Trans Actress Behind Your Favorite Pokémon” in Them Magazine.

In a eulogy written after Blaustein’s death in 2008, Aaron McQuade, a friend of Maddie’s, claimed that her decision to transition and come out to her co-workers was inspired by an episode of Pokémon. In “Go West, Young Meowth,” we learn the story of how Meowth learned to speak like a human: He fell in love with another Meowth, and decided to learn English and to stand upright to impress her. It failed horribly, and the female Meowth called him a freak. “Meowth,” explained McQuade, “was a human trapped in a Pokémon’s body.”

Image

James, is that a Jessica McClintock gown?

 

 

April Links Roundup: Making and Unmaking

Happy Spring! Six weeks into my program as a first-year student of the Temple of Witchcraft, I have communed with several trees, learned a lot about my inner struggle over manifesting my power, but so far failed to establish a meditation practice before the end of April. The Temple’s founder and head minister is Christopher Penczak, author of such books as Gay Witchcraft. It’s early yet, but I may have found my ideal path (for the time being): a tradition that combines the sensory paraphernalia and rich imaginative world of Christianity with the empiricism, practical skills focus, and interfaith coexistence that I admire about my husband’s Buddhist practice. Penczak discusses the Temple’s rigorous but non-dogmatic approach to occultism in his essay “The Path of Making and Unmaking”:

Part of the world of the occultist is the continual evaluation, revaluation, and refinement of our ideas based upon our experience. We see Witchcraft as an art, with creative expression, as well as a religion that builds relationships with the gods, land, and people, but to the occultist, it is a science. Having too strong of an attachment to a belief system or identity, including that of the Witch, can hinder evolution. We obviously need words, ideas, and images to communicate, but as one enters the mystical realm more deeply and encounters direct experiences of consciousness and the spirit, one often opens up to greater possibilities and broader definitions of self and others, including the identity of the world “Witch” itself…

…Occult teachings will often break you down, unravelling the pattern for you to see the parts. We seek not only what is behind the masks of the gods, but behind the many layers of our own masks, to find the god within. Our heads are cracked open to new possibilities of the universe and the self. Our own image of ourselves and how the world works often changes. Our hearts are cracked open, and our wounds from childhood and adulthood are exposed to be examined and healed. And for some, even our bodies are cracked open as we become teachers through illness and injury, through pain and pleasure, and we explore the link between thought, feeling, and health. Mystery schools offer a path of purification, of unmaking, returning you to a place of potential.

Ever wondered why the Torah talks so much about curtain rings? In the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, English professor Raphael Magarik muses on the detailed re-description of the Ark of the Covenant in “Exodus: Vayakhel”. He suggests that the repetition is meant to de-mystify the sacred object so it doesn’t become another idol like the Golden Calf. “…The traveling sanctuary itself is built on a shaky foundation; it is constructed only to be deconstructed, its repeated relocation a cycle of sanctifying and secularizing space, bewitching and disenchanting.” Magarik urges us to embrace a similar paradox in our return to post-Trump, post-COVID “normalcy”, to celebrate without letting the rituals of our civic religion lull us into ignoring injustice once again.

Dr. Eleanor Janega’s hilarious and informative blog, Going Medieval, is aptly subtitled “Medieval history, pop culture, swearing”. In her recent post “There are no white knights”, she deconstructs the ideal of “chivalry” that modern-day conservatives tout as preferable to feminism. Like cops today, medieval knights were more likely to beat up the poor than rescue women from rapists.

In general, licit violence is made licit in order to protect the power of an entrenched class, and whether that is rich white dudes in the medieval period or rich white dudes now doesn’t make much of a difference. In other words, you are only given the power to beat people up if you beat up who the rich guys want, then as now.

Much as gallant knights were much more likely to inhabit fictitious worlds, the good cops we are meant to understand are out there are the preserve of shows like Law and Order: SVU. That isn’t something real. No one is coming to help you if you are not from the ruling class. Don’t let that scare you. Let it spur you to make the world differently.

In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a reform bill that would end re-imprisonment for merely technical violations of parole, including addiction relapses. Get on the Real Cost of Prisons Project email list for updates. The wisdom of this approach is laid out in the USA Today story “Community supervision, once intended to help offenders, contributes more to mass incarceration”. (The cynic in me balks at “intended to help” but so be it.)

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail system was Raymond Rivera — a 55-year-old father and husband who lost his life in April. The “offense” that ultimately resulted in a death sentence for Rivera? Leaving a drug program without permission — a minor technical violation of the parole he was on for stealing a motorcycle cover and some bicycles.

There’s a common misconception that probation and parole — sometimes called community supervision — are more lenient alternatives to incarceration. But justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations like the one that resulted in Rivera’s incarceration and, ultimately, death…

Rivera was hardly alone. Almost 25% of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical supervision violation, rather than a new offense…

In 2017 alone, U.S. taxpayers spent $2.8 billion on the people who entered prison for a technical violation. It would clearly be a much greater boon to wellness and safety if scarce resources were used to address the housing, education, health and employment needs of those under supervision, rather than disrupting people’s lives, families and communities through unnecessary incarceration.

I enjoyed Randy Rainbow’s parody song videos and other satire of the Trump years, in moderation, but I didn’t delude myself that it made a real difference to the advance of fascism. I was raised by a narcissist, so I know that all attention feeds the beast. At the Yale University Press blog, social anthropologist Mark Leopold analyzes the deliberate buffoonery of dictators Idi Amin and Donald Trump. Playing the outrageous windbag entertains supporters, causes opponents to underestimate the leader’s power and intelligence, and distracts the news cycle from his more serious and dangerous actions.

Behind all this is clearly what Freud recognized as the aggressive nature of joking. I suggest that buffoonery is, at root, a quintessentially masculine characteristic. In my experience, very few women are ever called buffoons. The jokes of a buffoon carry the stale reek of an all-male atmosphere—the barrack room in Amin’s case, perhaps the golfers’ locker room  or boys’ boarding school classroom for others… [A]n open, even boastful sexual promiscuity is another part of the package.

Don’t feed the trolls.

The Poet Spiel: “a suite of dirty pictures”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a visual artist Tom Taylor, is a longtime reader and occasional contributor to this blog. He asked me if these poems were too steamy for Reiter’s Block, but there’s no such thing! In this poem sequence, a gay man watching porn has an artist’s eye for the complex shadings of emotion in acts that are both intimate and mechanically mediated, painful and pleasurable, filthy yet strangely beautiful. As bodies violently strain to close the gap between self and other, the viewer straddles the line between obscenity and transcendence. And cums all over it.

The Poet Spiel and his life partner, Paul Welch

 

 

a suite of dirty pictures

seventeen seconds

as if to break his own neck,
the subjugated throws his head back,

utters an odd range of lamentations
expressing dire suffering

at each snap of the narrow strap,
more reverent than his moans.

hooked once more by this 17-second litany
panning flesh, compromised in stress,

no doubt pre-agreed to inflict the ecstasy of pain,
but when looped,

this sequence of harsh snaps and abrupt groans
becomes other than directed;

rather a familiar insistence —
like an old hymn lulling you

til you are lured to draw yourself to closure
into soft tissue.

__________

white smoke

two taut dudes
in possession of one and the other’s face
by squalls —
like dying fauns —
while that dark duo
of more substantial steamy feathered beasts
barks out harsh commands
and their prides, be-sheathed in latex skin,
come to resemble white smoke
just as they begin to burst
as turgid mounts,
now cease fire,
re-loop,
so returns
this pair of fauns
faces engaged, one micro instant
between the smoke and squall.

you relight your hands,
hot enough
to ignite your
otherwise compromised
spoil.

_____________

hard pressed

hard copy is not an option here;
no quickstop key to press then print
just eight-fleeting-seconds
of this rapidpoundingcocksucker.

his eyes with the inestimable insouciance
of fine crystal glistening
at table several hours before
you would be allowed to partake
of his admirably boned dish.

so you refuse to celebrate yourself
until you are able to regain your conscious mind,
some many dozens of re-plays later
when at last you are convinced

he

gazes

directly

at

you.

_____________

war of pearls

as qwik as a want,
your mouse glides you from coy to desperado;
your hands hostage to a war by casual treaty
declared within this spartan triad
harboring ransom never to be paid
but relentlessly antagonized.

this sequence of howls, indistinguishable
from the sacrifice of salt as real booty
beneath the drawing down of fetters —
as if little more than weekend anarchy
where the only courtesy might be
that all three come out alive.

but this is not your concern for now,
you too are subject to the strictures
as you form a fist jouncing madly in succession
to the flow of what you’ve come to rely upon.

the glistening of the jugular,
the snapping of the glands,
repeated incantations
oh so tautly veined like orchid whipsnakes unraveling
upon a fevered yowling emitted of flesh fresh bared,
committed to this driven theater that will never end.

at last, in sudden silence you sacrifice your will,
you loose the grip between your teeth
and as your walls submerge your windows,
you baptize your nipples in pearly showers
of hism.

________

urgency

these two
young blooming hides,
rising phoenix,
so hot before your eyes,
rush their capture
between your thighs
as ash becomes sweat —
like viscous rubber
on august asphalt —
these are not two peaches
abrading hair from there
but sizzling it

and no sooner
than you screw
your lotion bottle’s cap off,
the thickness
of your pour
is compromised.

March Bonus Links: Food and Freedom

More links that didn’t fit in the last post!

My prison pen pal, “Conway”, sometimes sends me pictures of the gross food that they serve California’s inmates. It’s mostly starchy, unidentifiable mush slopped together in styrofoam trays. I’ve been spending a few hundred dollars every year sending him and his cellies some more appetizing, though probably not very nutritious, packaged food from the few official vendors that are authorized by the Department of Corrections: jerky sticks, shredded beef in a bag, candy bars. They’re not allowed fresh fruits and vegetables for fear they would ferment them to make alcoholic beverages. I’ve heard horror stories of prisoners being fed spoiled milk and bait fish labeled “not for human consumption”. Diabetics and others with special dietary needs often don’t receive the types of meals that are medically necessary.

Patricia Leigh Brown’s New York Times Op-Ed this week describes “The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” and reports on an innovative prisoner-run farm and kitchen in Maine. The inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility, a medium- and minimum-security prison, are not only eating healthier, but also learning self-care and food-prep skills that will help them re-enter society. Seems like common sense, right?

Though the average American rarely spends time worrying over how incarcerated people are being treated, their physical, psychological and emotional health has a ripple effect on all of us, especially after they serve their time. If the goal of prison involves not only punishment but also rehabilitation and lowering recidivism, then sending a healthier person back into society is in everyone’s interest.

I accidentally subscribed to the e-newsletter from Jewish Currents when I bought their “Zayde mug” for a fellow Bernie Sanders fan, and I’m actually finding it’s a must-read. Jewish Currents is a left-wing politics and culture magazine that combines a strong Jewish identity with fact-based criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government–a third rail among many liberal American Jews, for whom Zionism fills the gap left by traditional belief and Orthodox observance. “How the ADL’s Israel Advocacy Undermines Its Civil Rights Work”, an investigative piece by Jacob Hutt and Alex Kane, explores how the Anti-Defamation League has remained silent on threats to free speech from state and federal measures that silence Palestinian human rights advocacy. This stance also hampers American Jewish leaders from making common cause with groups like Black Lives Matter.

In my continuing quest to learn how to BE A MAN, at the thrift shop I picked up a copy of The Bastard on the Couch, a 2001 essay collection in which two dozen male writers (mostly straight, usually with prestigious publishing histories) shared their feelings of confusion, resentment, and self-deprecating humor about modern changes in gender roles. Essentially they don’t know what to do with themselves now that their wives earn more money and open their own jars. One particularly whiny chap felt emasculated by the fact that his wife makes him a to-do list. I recently came across this graphic narrative, “You should’ve asked,” by feminist cartoonist Emma, which encapsulated why the men’s essays frustrated me so much. The invisible work of being household “project manager” often falls to the female member of a heterosexual couple. Without a conscious effort to resist societal conditioning, they can get into a mutually resentful pattern that is more like overworked mother and immature son than a pairing of equal adults. Luckily, my partnership has not been like this, even when I was female.

Finally, enjoy this cute story that I found on Twitter today, published in Queerty in 2018: “Are Bert and Ernie a couple? We finally have an answer…” In this interview, “Sesame Street” scriptwriter Mark Saltzman says he based the Muppet pair’s relationship on himself and his life partner, the late Arnold Glassman:

Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.

So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?

Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.