The Reactionary Pull of Sacred Texts

I left Christianity because…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Links Roundup: Courting Fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Made Man” Makes News: BGSQD Reading Video and Solstice Lit Mag Review

The Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (BGSQD), the queer bookstore at The Center NYC, hosted a fabulous launch reading for me and poet Steven Riel (Edgemere) this past weekend, which you can watch on their YouTube channel:

Being back in person in a queer arts space was a sacred experience, enhanced by Frank Mullaney’s “Wallpaper Saints” photo exhibit, which you can view behind us. Please support this essential cultural haven by purchasing books from their website. If you don’t see Made Man or Edgemere on their site yet, email Greg Newton at contact@bgsqd.com to purchase your copy.

In other news, Solstice Lit Mag poetry editor Robbie Gamble just published a great review of Made Man in their Spring 2022 issue. Gamble says, “The reader is in for a comitragic, day-glo accented, culture-hopping, snort-inducing, gender-interrogating rollercoaster of a ride… In the current season of culture wars, where state legislatures are enacting ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills, and trying to reframe gender-affirming treatments as parental abuse, Made Man stands as a testament to the humanity of trans people everywhere. It’s also chock-full of intelligent, often hilarious and sometimes biting poems that will leave you spinning and exhilarated.”

Other great stuff in this issue of Solstice includes Richard Jeffrey Newman’s sexual abuse memoir “The First Time I Told Someone” and MC Hyland’s prose-poem “Five Short Essays on Open Secrets”. Check it out and subscribe to their free e-newsletter.

April Links Roundup: And the Real (Estate) Monster Was…

Happy April Fool’s Day to the readers of this increasingly sporadic blog. I pranked my son this morning by telling him that the Nutella company was going out of business. We both love to eat this sugary spread for breakfast (him without benefit of spoon). Never fear, the nut supply is still abundant.

For genuine everyday horror, I’ve just finished reading Robert Marasco’s 1973 haunted house novel, Burnt Offerings, reissued by Valancourt Books. This book is like what would happen if a “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine became sentient and started eating your brain. Our protagonists flee the grime and noise pollution of low-income apartment life in New York (something I know well!) only to be seduced by the luxuries of an upstate mansion that consumes tenants’ life force in order to repair itself. Unlike typical haunted houses, this one is delightful to live in. The horror arises from watching the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves because they want a room with a view.

That this impulse remains strong, especially when New York real estate is involved, is documented by Morgan Boyle’s essay at Fence Digital, “Imaginary Liminality Steps From the Train: How to Dreamwalk the World of Craigslist Apartments”.

Occasionally the ceilings are high, the rent is cheap, the deli is two doors down, the kitchen is large and there’s no sink in the bathroom. The listing says the apartment is unique. The apartment is unique. The kitchen is big black and white tile and good to dream about. You think about never washing your hands after using the toilet. You think about never washing your face at night. You think about brushing your teeth over the kitchen sink. The living bodied broker waits expectantly, digitally behind a computer screen. The listing says it is unique. Are you unique enough for this apartment? What’s a bathroom sink? You think about a potential lover standing in the bathroom looking expectantly for a sink that isn’t there. You think about the moment the realization of the lack dawns. You think about the look they give you upon exiting the bathroom with the missing sink and their unclean hands. You think about the unspoken shared knowledge of filth between you. You stop daydreaming in the apartment and click to the next listing. There is not a lot of room for this type of uniqueness in a pandemic world.

The Guardian’s Meg Conley takes a deep dive into the history of kitchen design and social class in this October 2021 article, “Invisible fridges and cooling cubbies: how kitchens have been designed for the rich”. Since the labor of home management historically fell to lower-status groups–women, and particularly Black women in white households–it was important to conceal it because oppression is such a downer when you’re throwing a dinner party. Rather depressing to learn that in 1908, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the classic feminist tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”, proposed liberating white women from household duties by creating a forced labor corps of Black men, women, and children!

Along those lines, the ever-astute Brandon Taylor suggests in his Sweater Weather newsletter that costume dramas like “Bridgerton” or “The Gilded Age” can never adequately represent historical injustices such as racism, because we watch them to enjoy the pretty stuff and the rich people behaving badly, but where do you think that wealth came from?

American period dramas are exercises in self-delusion, always evading the twin horrors of colonization and enslavement. The reason is simple: the history as it happened is too horrifying to turn into a rosy bourgeois narrative. There are no good guys to root for. No way of affirming Protestant sexual and social values in a way that flatters contemporary audiences. That’s why every period drama is ultimately a confection. Because to tell the truth how it really was, how it truly was, would be too much. Implicating.

Don’t miss Taylor’s searing short story “Urgent, Necessary, Vital” at Esquire. A college pottery class becomes a microcosm of sexual and racial politics, as a Black photography student finds that artistic success doesn’t insulate him from being othered, merely gives the problem a different form.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” last month interviewed trans activist and mixed media artist Alok Vaid-Menon about breaking free “from every socially constructed binary that does not allow us to live out our full humanity, our divinity, our infinite creativity and possibility.” Listen or read the transcript here. Alok says:

I see so much of what the trans movement being in the world is a love letter that says, I believe in your capacity for transformation, I believe in your capacity for self-determination. And then in response to that love, we’re told that we are wrong, that we’re disorderly, that we’re foolish, that we’re ridiculous, that we’re delinquents, that we’re predators, that we’re violent. That’s a pain that I continue to face as my words reach more people, is this extreme and coordinated backlash to tarnish me and by extension tarnish the ideas that have been here, they’re ancient ideas, because I think what patriarchy does is it makes us publicists. We find ourselves speaking it, doing it, living it, thinking it with such a fierce allegiance that if someone dare say another way of living is possible, people would rather eradicate and extinguish that alternative than confront that kind of spiritual nudity of asking, who am I outside of what patriarchy wants me to be?

I love their reframing of beauty standards: “Beauty is looking like ourselves.”

Devon Price’s Medium article “The Power of Defiance in the Age of Trans Bans” expresses an understandable exhaustion with the political process. How many times do we have to convince voters and politicians that we deserve to exist?

As a Millennial…I still received the message that being gay was strange and disgusting, and being trans was freakish and deluded. To be both gay and trans was too bizarre to even consider. Anti-gay laws convinced me I was an impossible, dangerous thing. Children and families needed protection from even the idea of me.

Believing all that about myself was absolutely shattering. It ruined my physical and mental health, and for many years destroyed my ability to love others. This is exactly the fate states like Iowa, Texas, and Florida are currently setting trans kids up for. The many political victories gay people have won in recent years have done nothing to prevent this. It was always conditional acceptance, as easily taken away as it was given.

But our autonomy and dignity should not belong to others like this. It should only ever belong to us.

I am not here to write inspiring calls to political action. I’m not interested in begging people to call their representatives or get to the polls. I don’t want to waste anyone’s energy or hope like that anymore. I no longer believe there is any liberation to be found within a legal system that has already tried, many times, to legislate entire groups of people out of existence. I think our power as trans people will not be attained through conventional political channels, but by standing together in proud disobedience of the laws that attempt to control our identities and bodies. I think our committed cis allies must be ready to disobey unjust laws too.

If your professional life is touched by these anti-trans laws, I believe you have a moral obligation to break them. If you’re a teacher, doctor, therapist, or school psychologist in Texas, you must be willing to protect transgender kids and their families. If it proves necessary, refuse to report trans kids’ existence to the government. Disrupt and thwart your colleagues’ attempts to report trans families, too. Lose documents. Slow down processes. Lie. Find any methods you can to grind this dehumanizing machine to a halt.

If you’re a healthcare provider in Iowa, find surreptitious ways to deliver care to your trans patients. Help trans families find the resources they need, and build networks with your colleagues in other states, to keep trans kids treated and safe. If you’re a school teacher in Florida, protect your gay and trans students from harassment, and quietly provide information that will help them understand themselves. If you are a parent or educator anywhere in the country, be on alert for transphobic, homophobic policies and undercut them at every possible turn. Every unjust rule is an opportunity to break it. You have so more power than you realize — and far more options than our political system would like you to see.

March Links Roundup: The Transience and Greatness of Books

Happy March–the month when, theoretically, spring will arrive, even in New England. As they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a day. As changeable, too, are the fortunes of books. This essay by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), reprinted in Narrative Magazine, limns the author’s destiny in terms that are simultaneously humble, noble, and humorous.

Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life…

No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form—often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.

Given the fickleness and unpredictability of the literary life–like any life–Conrad advises the author to prioritize clear understanding, compassion, and the liberty of the imagination. Art is already dead when it merely serves to illustrate an ideological or aesthetic agenda.

It must not be supposed that I claim for the artist in fiction the freedom of moral Nihilism. I would require from him many acts of faith of which the first would be the cherishing of an undying hope; and hope, it will not be contested, implies all the piety of effort and renunciation. It is the God-sent form of trust in the magic force and inspiration belonging to the life of this earth. We are inclined to forget that the way of excellence is in the intellectual, as distinguished from emotional, humility. What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction. It gives an author—goodness only knows why—an elated sense of his own superiority. And there is nothing more dangerous than such an elation to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation.

To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so.

At the Southern arts and culture magazine Scalawag, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt urges us not to give up hope for the queer and leftist struggle in the South. Don’t write off the region as belonging to the right-wing racists. Like her late spouse Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Warriors), Pratt sees transformation occurring through intersectional alliances among queer, POC, and working-class people.

The South is full of our queerness—35 percent of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives here (the Northeast is home to only 19 percent). In the Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana—almost 40 percent of us identify as people of color; In Texas that figure is over 50 percent.

Pratt shares anecdotes about political organizing and how we can learn from each other’s limited perspectives, such as her white mother who appreciated women’s gains in independence in the 1970s, but was unaware that Black activism laid the foundation for her freedoms.

In this video at Poets & Writers, Paul Tran, in a gorgeously gender-bending dress, reads “Copernicus” from their new poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Books). Read more of their work at the Poetry Foundation website. From “Endosymbiosis” (a word that means one organism living inside another):

It wasn’t him
but what he did
that lived on
inside me.
I had to
learn that.
I had to
cleave  action
from figure,
the verb  do
from the noun  doll
Performance artist Kris Grey creates thought-provoking shows and videos with their trans body, often nude, as the centerpiece. This untitled piece, in which they move in and out of a cast of their former body shape, helped me visualize how I might look and feel after top surgery. In their 10-minute video “Suspicious Packages”, Grey tries on some unexpected phallic substitutes. It’s deadpan funny, but maybe only trans guys will get the poignancy of it, too–that way in which a packer both eases dysphoria and uncomfortably emphasizes its own artificiality, its separateness from the body.

My Poetry Book “Made Man” Is Here!

My third full-length collection, Made Man, officially launches March 1 from Little Red Tree Publishing.

Staci Wright at the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table Reviews says:

A mix of somber moments and charming wit, Reiter’s collection makes space for humor in the maelstrom of navigating gendered experiences. Their poems synthesize recent historical moments and deeply personal anecdotes to create commentary that dares you to question binaries and social construction itself. Reiter sources material from the nooks and crannies of the human experience; they sculpt each poem using anything from Scholastic Book Club books to Jewish folklore to 1970’s photography series to Manhattan dumpling houses.

Poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt says:

Dense with figure and dense with thought, full of fun and full of anguish, superbly conscious of every rule they break, sometimes giving us comfort and sometimes “another live coal in your mouth,” the poems in this collection work and play and travel in many directions, speak through many and varied masks. Then they come back together to point to a confident future, a nonbinary embodiment, a way past the limits of what other people have told us counts as feminine (“the mermaid bleeds lipstick”), as masculine (“chaos softboy”), as sacred, as childhood (“happy as a rubber ball”), parenthood, adulthood (“I didn’t grow up. I had more laundry”).

I regret that I did not send the poem below to queer theorist Leo Bersani, author of the seminal-in-all-senses text Is the Rectum a Grave? And now he has gone to the great bath house in the sky. Dr. Bersani passed away at age 90 on Feb. 20. From the NY Times obit:

Dr. Bersani was best known for his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” a dense, polemical critique of the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality.

Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life.

“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship,” he wrote, “gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women.”

This poem (like many of my best works) was inspired by a joke from my husband, so I guess marriage is good for something. FYI, the opening line of Bersani’s famous essay is “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”

 

Is the Roasting Pan a Grave?

There is a big secret about turkey: most people don’t like it.
One November day’s duty, otherwise ignored, the bottom.

When the legs are moist, the breast’s dried out
With a hellbound heart, closeted clerics exhort the bottom.

The more savored the taste, the more later despised:
Rest now, fabulous martyrs who whored the bottom.

Play families, play natives’ welcome spread for the plagued men:
Our schoolboy histories will not record the bottom.

But for one night, we feast together in a dying year —
What, then, that too much stuffing may distort the bottom?

We “failed to find the idea of the holocaust unbearable”:
Rather police meat market into pastoral, report the bottom.

Give thanks to ghosts, our unquenchable forefathers,
Pilgrims of filth, who on their knees adored the bottom.

TL;DR? Should Bersani’s words prove dry,
Read the foil pan embossed: ALWAYS SUPPORT THE BOTTOM.

February Bonus Links: Go Ahead, Break That Dish

When the pandemic started, my spiritual guide Julian said to me, “We’re all going to die, darling–wear your good shoes.” (For more advice from an imaginary fashion photographer, read this book.) The sudden closeness of death and impermanence brought home to me that there may be no “later” that we’re saving our luxuries for. Or, as a less slutty higher power is reported to have said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20)

In the magazine Eater, journalist and witchy writer Jaya Saxena advises “Stop Worrying and Start Using Your Fancy China”:

 It is such a waste of beauty to keep the loveliest things out of sight, away from the parties and the food and the people you love, just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.

The thing about owning nice things is you’re going to die one day. Which isn’t to say throw it all to hell and only eat off paper plates, but that nice things are meant to be enjoyed while we’re still on this earth… Honor your ancestors or your family who bought such nice things off your registry by actually using what they’ve given you.

This mindset shift is not easy, I admit. Referencing the fraught family dynamics of our wedding, I often caution my son when he’s playing too vigorously next to our the china cabinet, “Many Bothans died to bring us this Royal Doulton tea set.” Which, now that he’s seen “Star Wars”, perhaps he will understand.

Shortly before that wedding, a much-fought-for event that I’d dreamed about all my life, I wrote this poem about my ambivalence about making any life-altering decision, even one that I wanted. Now, contemplating another big step in my gender transition, I appreciated this article by Joseph Bikart at the UK-based digital magazine Psyche: “How to make a difficult decision”. Bikart offers several thought-exercises to help you identify the parts of yourself that want opposite things; expand the range of choices; clarify your underlying goal; and break down big overwhelming projects into manageable steps.

Bikart writes, “Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.” (Literally, in my case, since I’m thinking about top surgery!) And he really called me out with this one: “Indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day, until you finally decide.”

On that note, hats off to cultural critic and historian Lucy Sante, formerly known as Luc Sante (author of Low Life and The Other Paris), who transitioned last year at age 67. In her recent Vanity Fair article about her journey of self-discovery, this passage stood out to me:

I once described myself as a creature made entirely of doubt, much of it self-doubt, but as soon as I made up my mind to come out, last February, I ceased doubting. That is to say, I experienced regular bouts of dysphoria, which in this context means intense recurring periods of self-doubt, self-hatred, and despair, which happen irregularly for varying lengths of time, typically (for me, by now) about two or three days a week. Yet paradoxically I had never before experienced such wholehearted conviction. Even in the throes of those bouts I felt an unaccountable bedrock of certainty.

Trans people colloquially refer to this moment as your egg cracking. It would be equally true to my experience to describe it as an iceberg thawing. All of the frozen feelings emerge like the Old Ones in “From the Mountains of Madness”. Along with euphoria, wholeness, relief, and a new sense of integration and resonance with myself, I have bouts of grief and fear. I confront internalized cis-het beauty standards that tell me I’m mutilating my body, or squandering the safety afforded by presenting as an average-looking lady. My younger selves finally speak up about the shame and discomfort of puberty. Paradoxically, I mourn both the young man I never got to be, and the older woman I won’t become.

Here’s another poem, “Couplets”, from the same pre-wedding period. “One can never/prove anything to the world, only make it surrender/by ignoring it or being ignored.” Thanks, Jendi-age-26. You were a smart guy.

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!