September Links Roundup: Drawn That Way

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

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

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

“Leash,” my daughter said, nodding earnestly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poet Spiel: “birdchild” and “witness”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a/ the visual artist Tom Taylor, has had a long career of creating work that celebrates nature and sexuality while mocking militarism, conformity, and commercialism. His poetry often delves into sensitive topics like child abuse and homophobia. His most recent book is the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). In his author bio, he writes, “Amidst his 8th decade on earth, coping with losses associated with vascular dementia, art is the friend which has withstood the petty and the foolish, the graceful, the garish and the grand of a diverse career in the arts.”

Spiel says “birdchild”, below, is his favorite poem in his vast body of work. Out of the other strong poems he recently shared with me, I chose “witness”, which speaks of the wounds of mother-son abuse–a phenomenon too long denied or ignored even by early feminist writers who broached the taboo subject of incest.

birdchild

this child before you cannot
say a single word; he seems
as silent as a fallen bird.
his sad eyes follow you.
he is here but shows no sense
of knowing he has a right
to declare his presence—
as in making a sound—any sound.

you recall those few kind men
in your own childhood who,
when they called you by name,
touched your shoulders
or patted you on your head.
oh how you hugged their trousered legs
in gratitude, their warmth, the decency
of their hearts lifted you. even now
though most of them have passed
you hear their voices;
you still feel the touch of their hands.

those men were not poison
but you find yourself
living in a culture
where you are forbidden
to comfort such a child,
a child you do not know,
who does not know you—
as if your touch would be poison.

you find the films you watch
more than once are those where
a father re-unites with his son,
at last unashamed to embrace him,
or where a tearful child is comforted
by the seasoned hands of his grandfather.
you are especially moved by scenes of war
where a grief-stricken soldier softens
and sobs onto another’s shoulders.
and too, those films where two men
follow their hearts in caring,
touching, holding, supporting each other
for a lifetime—against the odds.

so you tempt the odds,
this time with the child
who is like a fallen bird.
you touch his hand, feel him
squeeze your thumb.
you say hello.

he draws your thumb down to his shoe;
he says can you untie me.
and when you hear him speak
you hear your own voice.
and as you stoop
to untie his knotted shoe
it is you who becomes the bird.
it is you who becomes whole again.

****

witness

in innocence
as you crayoned
on the floor
she emerged
from her dark closet
to reveal
what she knew were forbidden—
her petals of flesh

she planted a wanton glance
with nowhere else to settle
but upon you
her first born son
then your bewildered face
between her space
for her you were
a lily in her valley

your eyes aghast
replete with games repeated
over time
in a shame
you could not name
in crayon-speak
and your crayon days
were early done

now after all these years
you wonder
which hurts
the most

perhaps those vital tidbits
you can’t recall to reassemble
nor recant
or is it the reverberating odor
of the absolute volumes
you cannot forget

Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience

Two theology bloggers I follow have been exploring what’s next after one has deconstructed the conservative evangelical faith of one’s upbringing–and have arrived at quite different answers.

I began reading Stephen Bradford Long’s posts a few years ago, when he was just beginning to deprogram himself from the anti-gay beliefs that had severely traumatized him. In the beginning, he focused on developing and defending an affirming Christian sexual ethic. Later on, he branched out into explaining how Tarot was compatible with Christianity–a timely subject for me, since at that time I was also trying to maintain my old faith despite relying more and more on non-Christian spiritual practices. Somewhere along the way, he realized that he no longer believed in the Biblical God or the supernatural aspects of traditional religion. In a provocative move, Long came out this year as a follower of the Satanic Temple.

Now, before you start sprinkling your laptop with holy water, the Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan) is a secular humanist organization that adopts the symbol of the Christian Devil to challenge Establishment Clause violations and invoke a Romantic tradition of rebellion against religious repression. They’re the folks who protested a Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas Capitol by installing a statue of Baphomet, a witty move to highlight the state’s unconstitutional favoritism toward one religion. According to NPR, the Temple “argues that public spaces should be free from religious messaging or be opened up to representations of all faiths, including Satanist icons.”

In his post “Why Satan?” Long explains:

Satanism is originally a literary tradition rooted in the romantic poets, namely Hugo, Shelley, Blake, and Byron. These four poets were not themselves religious Satanists, but they were the first to recast the biblical myth of Satan in a positive, metaphorical light. In the throes of enlightenment, romanticism, and revolution, they saw the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as the far more sympathetic and heroic figure. As Ruben Van Luijk notes in his book Children of Lucifer, “For radical sympathizers with the Revolution like Godwin and Shelley, Satan was no longer an evil insurgent against righteousness and cosmic order, but the mirror image and mythological embodiment of the revolutionary standing up against arbitrary and despotic power.” (pg. 77)

Similar to how the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the slur “queer”, Long embraces the demonic imagery that was once employed to fill him with self-loathing:

I’m gay, and it’s hard to describe what receiving this cultural story about homosexuality did to my psyche as I was growing up. I was told that homosexuality is the greatest and vilest perversion of the natural world, that I was demon possessed for loving men. I went through exorcisms. One Christian woman slapped my hand out of the air when I made a “disgusting” feminine gesture, which compromised my godly manhood. I was told that gay sex would open a portal to uninhibited and darkness within me. I was an abomination, just like Lucifer…

Owning Lucifer as my figurehead is now a defiant act of empowerment: it is an ownership of my minority status, a proclamation that the myth of my demonization was misguided, and claiming solidarity with the demonized everywhere. Claiming Satan as the heroic good is a deeply validating act when I myself have been deemed a monster because of cultural myth. I embrace my own goodness by recasting my father Lucifer as good, too.

In the Tarot, the Devil (depicted as Baphomet in the classic Rider-Waite deck) does not represent an external force of evil to be loathed and defeated. Rather, it symbolizes our repressed shadow side that we must integrate in order to be free from self-imposed bondage.

Spiritual integration is good for the abs, too. (Lucifer pin by Kate Sheridan)

Finally, Long chose a symbol from Christian iconography because he remains within the stream of the Christian tradition, though not as an orthodox believer. In his post “Giving Up on Calling Myself Christian”, he writes:

While I have utmost respect of people who can affirm the creeds, I now personally experience the truth claims of Christianity as intellectually insulting, and little more than untenable superstition…And yet I find the symbol, story, liturgy, and tradition of Christianity significant enough for me personally to not walk out of the church. Because of this, I think I personally qualify as at least *some* sort of Christian.

…I’m tired of fighting the faithful over my participation in their religion — a religion which is my tradition, heritage, and central guiding story. I’m tired of trying to stake my claim in Christianity, even though I still speak the liturgies, attend the rites, dream the symbols, and revere Christ.

But whatever. Too many of the faithful insist that I’m not in their club, and I’m tired of fighting them. To make the bickering stop, I’m shedding the term Christian, and adopting “Post-Christian” as a more accurate description: I can no longer affirm the central creeds of Christianity, but I am in a place accessible only by way of Christianity. I don’t think I will ever leave the church fully, but I will partake not as a Christian, but a Post-Christian. That seems like a compromise which makes everyone’s life (especially mine) easier.

This formulation gave me a way to categorize my complex religious identity. I’m a Christian the same way I’m a New Yorker. Manhattan, like Christendom, is a place that fundamentally shaped who I am, but I couldn’t live there anymore. There are things I miss about it that I can’t find anywhere else. When a certain song plays, or a characteristic smell reaches me (incense, burnt soft pretzels, the subway grating after rain), I feel satisfied and whole–for a maximum of 48 hours in the city, or 45 minutes in church, before something predictably makes me overwhelmed and stressed.

Though I chose the Devil as my Tarot Wheel of the Year card for 2019, I don’t feel the same bond with that figure as Long does. It has too many associations with the ritual abuse that some of my friends suffered. Moreover, I want to put my traumatic relationship with the Bible behind me, instead of remaining bound to it in an antagonistic way. For me, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu served the same purpose, an anti-God that doesn’t require literal belief in order to be effective at clearing away the gaslighting of an abusive Father’s “love”.

Cthulhu-chu, I choose you!

Meanwhile, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is writing a series on “post-progressive Christianity”. Beck is a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and a member of the Churches of Christ who also appreciates high-church devotional practices like the rosary. I recommend his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Wipf & Stock, 2011), an exploration of the ethical problems with the purity paradigm in religion, with the reservation that his criticism of “boundaries” is not sufficiently informed by feminism or trauma theory.

Beck’s latest blog series points out some missing ingredients in the liberal Christian churches where many post-evangelicals wind up. Essentially, he argues that these environments don’t offer much that adds to the secular progressive worldview of their members. Liberal theology and preaching mainly emphasizes how our pre-existing political or intellectual commitments are compatible with (parts of) the Bible. We’re less likely to hear a faith-based challenge to the values and methods we brought in from outside the church. The absence of such a challenge can stunt our spiritual growth and make our religion irrelevant. Beck observes:

[M]any progressive Christians are biblically fragile. Almost every page of the Bible triggers a faith crisis, every Bible study getting stuck on what is “problematic.” The Word of God isn’t enjoyed as a location of delight and joy. The Bible isn’t a daily source of life, comfort, and sustenance…

Put bluntly, progressives don’t read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us…

From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.

Now, I absolutely agree with this. It was true of the Reform Jewish congregations I attended back in the 1990s before my baptism, and all the liberal-mainline churches I’ve been in. Back when I was an orthodox Christian, I often cited Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, where he says that the Resurrection is not something to be explained according to our existing ideas of how the world works. Rather, a Christian is someone who takes the Resurrection as starting point, and reorients their understanding of the world accordingly.

The difference between Beck and me is that the Bible is not the authority I want to be under–or to be more precise, not the sparring partner I consider most worthy and fruitful. I want to be taught and challenged, as much as Beck does. But the worldview of Scripture at worst is opposed to, and at best doesn’t prioritize, my core values of consent, sexual and neurological diversity, children’s rights, and the authority of personal experience. I don’t feel it’s ethically or psychologically healthy for me to put those up for debate any longer.

I commend Beck for stating the problem in such clear terms that may be disturbing to his progressive readers. And I wonder how his assessment of left-wing Christianity would change if he looked beyond majority-white denominations and theologians. James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and Renita J. Weems’ Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, both of which we studied in my church small group, engage boldly with Christian theology and Scripture from black liberation and womanist perspectives, treating the tradition with respect and expertise while being unafraid to depart from it where justice dictates.

July Links Roundup: I Don’t Need to Calm Down

Summertime, and the living is easy…as long as I have two air conditioners in every room. The Young Master is off at YMCA camp, learning to shoot a bow and arrow, so that he can provide food for us during the impending collapse of civilization. At Winning Writers, our North Street Book Prize for self-published books received a record 1,700 entries, which means I’ll be asking Santa for a new pair of eyeballs this Christmas. Progress continues on the Endless Sequel, while An Incomplete List of My Wishes was just named a finalist for LGBTQ Fiction in the Book Excellence Awards. As Gay Pride Month gives way to Gay Wrath Month, here are some hopefully-relevant links for you to ruminate upon.

Before we confiscated his Alexa’s, the Young Master went through a period of asking to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” several times a day. (That was not the reason we took him off the grid.) Anyhow, last month our problematic fave released her peppy LGBTQ-ally video “You Need to Calm Down”, which is great fun for a round of “spot that queer celebrity” but repeats some classist tropes about who the real enemies of progress are. Rachel Charlene Lewis at Bitch Media moderated this roundtable article about genre stereotypes:

[R]ural and Southern people are often positioned as if they are never queer, trans, or people of color, but simply…the “enemy” of progress for marginalized people. I spoke with Gysegem, a queer content creator, and Ani Naser, a queer, nonbinary filmmaker of color based in the South, about Swift’s video and why musicians continue to perpetuate classism in their music videos…

Claire Gysegem: I’ve [long] been indifferent to Taylor Swift, but I had my hopes up [when] I went to watch the video. I love Billy Porter and Jonathan Van Ness and [I] was excited to see them, but I raised my eyebrow at the fact that they were all in airstreams. I thought it was a campground/vacation kind of thing, [but] I felt sick to my stomach the second I saw protestors in the video [who] were marching [in] the trailer.

Ani Naser: I agree that the music video can [be] read as [a] demonizing [of] lower-class Southerners. [After] growing up in Texan suburbs, I can say that the vast majority of homophobic and discriminatory people I’ve encountered are affluent white men followed by affluent white women. It’s not difficult to see how a multimillionaire celebrity like Swift could [end up] assembling a cast of the more commercially successful LGBTQ artists in the media landscape and, [in the process] vilify visibly poor southerners rather than Fortune 1000 CEOs.

CG: I don’t think she [intended to] portray homophobes as poor people. Honestly, I think she was [just] lazy and didn’t think it through. It was easy for her to punch down and “otherize,” but it’s a bit more difficult to “otherize” middle-school bullies, hateful church-goers, and politicians. After all, how are you going to make fun of things like their teeth and lack of proper education?…

CG: I wonder how different the video would’ve been if these queer icons, in all of their elegance and power, had been shown celebrating their love and identity in places like a voting booth, a place of worship, or the Capitol steps. I received a ton of backlash on Twitter from those who said that it’s the people represented in Swift’s video who keep people like Mike Pence and Donald Trump in power, when, in reality, the U.S. Census shows that only one in four people making less than $10,000 vote. People with low incomes have an incredibly difficult time voting, especially in Appalachia. If you live in a state with a voter ID law, if you don’t have access to reliable transportation, if you can’t take off work, if you have a poor education—these are all reasons why we see a lack of voter turnout in lower-income brackets. Many people in Appalachia have a strong distrust of government due to past exploitation of workers and natural resources.

In the four years I’ve been co-judging the North Street Book Prize, I’ve encountered the above stereotype in way too many fiction entries. Writers, think twice before coding your villains as “unattractive” by white middle-class able-bodied standards. Kids’ media abounds with such lazy storytelling based on visual prejudices, another reason we’ve limited the Young Master’s screen time to car trips and sick days.

Back in May, the good news broke that Taiwan had legalized same-sex marriage. Sarah Ngu at South China Morning Post shared some little-known historical background on Asia’s pre-colonial history of tolerance, which was stamped out by European Christians. Among her examples: 17th-century commitment ceremonies between male lovers in Southern China, which were prevalent enough to have their own designated deity; the lesbian equivalent, the Golden Orchid Society in Guangdong, which lasted until the early 1900s; the five-gender system of the Bugis people of Indonesia; and the indigenous Iban people of Borneo, with male-bodied shamans who wore female clothing and took men as their husbands. In many cases, we know about these practices through the scandalized reports of Spanish missionaries.

[A]nthropologists believe the respect accorded to these ritual specialists were an indicator of a wider societal acceptance of gender and sexual diversity in Southeast Asia – an acceptance that began to be eroded through the introduction of world religions (particularly Christianity), modernity, and colonialism. For example, in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Myanmar and throughout the commonwealth, the British enforced a penal code that legislated against sodomy. More than half of the countries that currently legally prohibit sodomy do so based on laws created by the British.

Similarly, after the Chinese were defeated by Western and Japanese imperialists, many Chinese progressives in the early 20th century sought to modernise China, which meant adopting “modern” Western ideas of dress, relationships, science and sexuality. Concubinage was outlawed, prostitution was frowned upon, and women’s feet were unbound. It also meant importing European scientific understandings of homosexuality as an inverted or perverted pathology. These “scientific ideas” were debunked in the 1960s in the West, but lived on in China, frozen in time, and have only recently begun to thaw with the rise of LGBTQ activists in Asia.

Kevin Killian, an influential gay poet, playwright, fiction writer and editor, passed away in June. “My Mixed Marriage”, a 2000 Village Voice feature by his wife, the writer Dodie Bellamy, lovingly describes a literary and erotic partnership that defied easy characterization. “I never thought I’d marry a homosexual, not even when I was a girl in Indiana with a crush on Allen Ginsberg,” she quips. But she discovered that the fluidity of their orientations liberated her from the power dynamics of straight relationships.

Female sexuality has been my primary subject. But in my formative years, it was hard to find models that moved beyond objectification. Gay writing, on the other hand, gave me a sexual vocabulary, as well as techniques for turning the tables and objectifying men…Reading Kevin and other gay authors, I saw how erotic writing could be more than just a description of sexual acts. It could create a new sexual relationship: the writer as top, the reader as bottom.

…Sometimes our lovemaking felt like lesbian sex, sometimes like gay sex, but it never felt like straight sex. For one thing, with Kevin, fucking was an option, not an expectation. For another, the power dynamics were always shifting and circling back on themselves. With straight guys I felt like I was alone in the dark, being acted upon. With Kevin, it felt like we were two people in mutual need and at equal risk.

In this 2018 essay at The Baffler, Amber A’lee Frost, a labor organizer and co-host of the controversial leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, argues that socialism is the answer to America’s fatherhood crisis. Frost disputes the liberal feminist line that the real problem with parenting is male selfishness and immaturity:

Anti-masculinity is a neat little trick of the liberal reactionary; you can get away with open contempt for working-class men and their struggle for something as essential as the time and resources to care for their own children, as long as you smear them as deadbeat dads and shitty husbands. The idea that it’s men, not money, who are most responsible for preventing parents from devoting more time and labor to their homes and children is so astoundingly condescending and divorced from reality that it’s hard to believe anyone would have the confidence to say it out loud. But I suppose if your biggest problems in life have always been romantic or familial and not financial, it can be easy to mistake your resentful fantasies for a political program.

The author’s personal story–raised by her mother and grandmother in a patriarchal rural church, with a bipolar father who drifted in and out of their lives–taught her that:

There are many reasons why the model of paternal child support is a faulty one, especially when applied to poor or sick fathers. There is the punitive and inhumane cycle of inability to pay, imprisonment, loss of employment, and all over again. And of course, as with anything regarding the prison industrial complex, black men are disproportionately represented in this cycle.

And then there is the secret that poor parents only speak of in abashed whispers: that it’s difficult to love a child whom you cannot adequately care for as you reckon continually with the humiliation and fear of your own inability to provide for them. This private shame causes such pain and anxiety and sometimes eventually delirium that when these put-upon parents reach their limit, it appears downright rational to flee. So sometimes they do.

My father was a frustrating, sometimes dangerous person, but I have no anger for him. I’m told he’d often be assailed with the regrets that any self-aware absentee father is bound to experience, and I feel nothing but pity for a sad old man who missed so much.

You still hear from liberals that you shouldn’t have a baby until you have the money to have one in economic security. In reality, though, that day will never arrive for the majority of people born without money, even when they’ve dutifully launched two-parent homes.

Frost quite reasonably concludes that, rather than chase down “hopeless” men for a pittance of child support, society’s resources would be better spent on giving all parents a financial safety net. “I don’t believe that men are so thoroughly heartless they need a financial obligation to remind them to love their children. I think they need the same things women need to be good parents—time and money.”

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More

In mid-May, I attended the biennial Queers and Comics conference at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Kids, you too can grow up to be a novelist and purchase books like Hard to Swallow as “research”. Apart from the fact that SVA is very poorly ventilated and has insufficient bathrooms, I had an inspiring and intense weekend. I’d never been in a group with so many trans men before, and I had all the feels about the possible paths that my gender journey could take.

I heard a panel discussion with Diane DiMassa, creator of the wickedly funny (and trans-friendly!) radical feminist comic Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999), which is inexcusably out-of-print. I learned that my favorite Tarot expert, Rachel Pollack, created the first transgender superheroine, Coagula, for DC Comics title Doom Patrol; the PowerPoint featured a scene where Coagula dissolves a villain’s codpiece-like weapon into a flood of menstrual-looking red goo!

I attended a panel on comics about mental health issues, where I met LB Lee, the writer-artist behind the site Healthy Multiplicity. Lee’s work explores the premise that integration of multiple personalities is not always necessary or desirable. They conceive of themselves as a “system” comprising several minds with different names, ages, and genders in the same body. Their self-published graphic memoir Alter Boys in Love (available from their website) is a unique love story about the romantic and sexual relationships among members of the system. I admire them for working to de-stigmatize experiences that could teach us something new about personal identity and consciousness.

Image result for inside you there are two wolves they are boyfriends

(my internal family system)

Of course I bought many books for myself and my family. For my husband, Mama Tits Saves the World by Zan Christensen and Terry Blas (Northwest Press, 2016), a short feel-good comic book about a real-life drag queen who receives superpowers to bash homophobes. It’s poignant in retrospect because the political mood of this pre-Trump comic is “You’ve come a long way, baby,” riding the wave of optimism after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.

For my mom-of-choice, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by AK Summers (Soft Skull Press, 2014), a well-drawn, witty, and emotionally honest graphic novel about a lesbian couple’s foray into the highly gender-stereotyped world of pregnancy and childbirth. Not exactly a memoir, but inspired by Summers’ own experience giving birth to her son in 2005, Pregnant Butch brought back memories of my gender dysphoria–which at the time I had no name for–when I was first considering fertility treatments and then trying to create a sufficiently mainstream “adoptive mom” online profile to attract prospective birthparents. (Luckily for us, we were found by a birthmom who’s as nonconformist as we are.)

Jane Eyre was a formative book for me. I’ve read it a half-dozen times since I was a child. So I couldn’t resist The Brontës: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary (Headless Shakespeare Press, 2004), a melancholy, enigmatic graphic novel imagining what could have happened if Angria, the fantasy world created by the precocious and lonely Brontë children, had been a real place they could enter through a portal in the nursery. I was deeply affected by the sense of claustrophobia and fatalism that overshadowed the Brontës’ short lives, starting with the deaths of their mother and two sisters in childhood, and compounded by the young women’s maturing awareness of their limited career opportunities in 19th-century society.

There were a few too many skipped plot points in the narrative for me, where high-stakes interactions between the Brontës and the warring factions in Angria were foreshadowed and then left undeveloped. As a history buff, I’m thrown off by anachronistic mishmashes of different medieval/Renaissance fashion eras. In my opinion, 16th-century Spanish Armada helmets, Richard III hairdos, and King Arthur crowns don’t belong in the same scene, though Geary’s illustrations may have been imitating the unaware eclecticism of children’s fantasy world-building.

Other titles I brought home for my to-read shelf include Michael Derry’s Troy: The Whole Shebang (Derry Products, 2013), an anthology of his humorous erotic comic strip about pretty boys in L.A.; Lee Marrs’ The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp (Marrs Books, 2016), an anthology of her 1970s series about a frizzy-haired bi-curious teen sampling the delights of San Francisco; and Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge, 2019). Among the projects on Kobabe’s website is a remake of The Runaway Bunny called The Nonbinary Bunny. Just what I needed!

 

May Links Roundup: Happiness Comes in a Pill

Spring flowers have bloomed in the Happy Valley, and we just celebrated Pride here in the lesbian capital of America. I do love our bohemian small-town paradise, mostly, but one aspect of granola-mom culture that I could do without is the suspicion toward Western medicine, particularly mental-health drugs like antidepressants and ADHD treatments. I was raised to feel this way too, but since recognizing myself as transgender, I’ve noticed a loosening of my attachment to the given body as more natural or safe than the altered one. I struggle to respond politely to cis people’s oft-repeated caution that “we don’t know the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy.” Well, we do know that denial of transition-related care has severe negative effects on people’s mental health, right now. (I’m not on HRT myself but I know a fair number of folks who have benefited from it.) Simply put, I’m no longer assuming that inaction is safer than experimentation.

At Dame Magazine, Erin Biba takes a sympathetic look at the misguided anti-vaccination movement in her April feature, “Why are so many women rejecting medical science?” (Hat tip to the feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

There are, obviously, many reasons for the growth of miracle cures and predatory medical treatments and their popularity among women. But one of the main causes is a failure of evidence-based medicine to properly study, understand, and treat women—or even to show them basic empathy. The lack of proper health care and even a basic understanding of women’s bodies has left women desperate for any possible treatment. Because why trust medical science when it ignores you and fails to treat your health seriously?

Among her examples are studies showing that doctors spend fewer minutes listening to female patients; women’s pain is minimized (especially black women), leading to under-prescription of painkillers as compared to men; and clinical tests that until recently only included males.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress finally passed a law requiring all NIH-funded trials to include women. It may seem shocking that drug trials with government funding only started including women in the 90s, but what’s even worse is that it wasn’t until 2016 that NIH-funded research was required to use male AND female mice in their studies and to use male AND female tissue cells in their research.

What that means is, until recently, the way that drugs work in female bodies has been largely unknown—and that drugs to treat female-specific disorders have not been developed.

While we’re on the subject of better living through chemistry: Mike Morrell is a progressive Christian writer and speaker whose blog fearlessly explores the fringes of mystical experience and ecumenical collaboration. In this post, he reprints an excerpt from Jack Call’s book Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living. Call speculates on what the “unforgivable sin” might be, reaching a conclusion that reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story on this topic, “Ethan Brand”:

We are all sinners and we are all forgiven for our sins. By the way, let me just say that I hate the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I hate it because it implies that Christians are superior to non-Christians in that they are forgiven and non-Christians aren’t, and this is not a bit less self-righteous than simply saying, “Christians are perfect. Non-Christians aren’t.” Non-Christians are forgiven too.

Jesus said that there is only one sin that is unforgivable: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And what is that? Well, it certainly isn’t just not being a Christian. If it were, we would all be damned; because, even if a person is baptized in infancy and a Christian from that point on, she or he wouldn’t have been a Christian before that; so, if not being a Christian was an unforgivable sin, all of us have committed it, and it would be the one sin that baptism can’t wash away.

Given, then, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not equal failure to be a Christian, what is it? The context in which Jesus proclaimed this to be the one and only unforgivable sin was one in which some scribes and Pharisees had accused him of driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt: 12:24-32, Mark 3:22-30)…

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is being so morally blind and confused as to be unable to see plain and evident goodness as goodness and instead to think that there must be something evil about it. It is unforgivable only because the intended recipient of the forgiveness would be unable to accept it, would think there is something evil about forgiving and being forgiven. If you are worried that you have committed this unforgivable sin, then you haven’t, because your worry shows that you care about and can recognize goodness.

What this tells us about what we should do to reach the ultimate goal is that we should be open and ready to see goodness in the place where we find ourselves. If we can’t do that, it won’t help to be in the kingdom of heaven. No matter how bad you think you are, God forgives you and blesses you, but he can’t accept and appreciate the forgiveness and blessings for you. Only you can do that for yourself.

I was watching the overhead TV at the Green Bay, WI airport (the cutest little airport ever), out of touch with the news cycle as always when I travel, when I saw video of the catastrophic Notre-Dame cathedral fire. I had to watch the repeating loop for several minutes and still didn’t quite believe it. At the time, it sounded as if the whole structure was doomed, though it appears that much has been salvaged and money is being raised for rebuilding. Predictably, there was some disagreement on social media regarding (1) whether the Catholic Church as a whole should be burned to the ground, metaphorically speaking, and (2) the unfairness of wealthy people and countries rushing to save a building when they’ve done nothing of the sort for the suffering poor. At the socialist journal Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why this is a false dichotomy in “Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame”:

It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality…

…This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

Speaking of false choices, literature and critical theory professor Grace Lavery’s e-newsletter The Stage Mirror (the best $5/month you will spend on the Internet, trust me) hosted an insightful conversation with queer/trans writers Daniel Ortberg, Molly Priddy, and Charlie Zieke about the perceived competition between butch lesbianism and transmasculinity. There’s a narrative going around in some cis lesbian circles that nowadays, young tomboys are pressured to transition to male, instead of embracing their nonconforming womanhood. The feminist counterculture narrative against “Big Pharma” informs trans-exclusive radical feminism here too. Grace frames the issue thus:

So, our topic is the narrative that sometimes gets called “butch flight,” but it’s an old and slightly tiresome phrase and we might all decide we want to use something better. The narrative, which is as old as ftm transition, is something like: we are losing our butches to testosterone and maleness. Every part of this is fascinating to me, as a fear, or as a piece of reasoning. The “we,” the “losing,” the “our,” and the notion that transition is less queer, and more definitive, than lesbian identity or butch identity. I’m interested in why people feel this way, and what political desires and interests the feeling enables or licenses.

At one point in the conversation, Ortberg, a trans man, remarks: “it’s hard when there’s a whole sense of community that’s invested in your own gender/body/lesbianness as a sort of public resource!” In my experience, this sense of entitlement to an assigned-female person’s loyalty and political labor, at the expense of that individual’s self-development, is both narcissistic and sexist. Our real enemy is toxic gender roles, not maleness.

Closing out with some femme love: the New York Times profiled doll fashion designer Carol Spencer, “The Chic Octogenarian Behind Barbie’s Best Looks”, who’s written a new memoir, Dressing Barbie, about her career at Mattel from 1963-99. Countering criticism that Barbie fosters unrealistic body image woes, Spencer “defends Barbie as a healthy alternative to video games; an engine of imagination for girls and boys, who can project onto a Barbie doll whoever they may wish to become.” My son and I agree!

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Witches, Gods, and Ducks

The Young Master (soon to turn 7) and I have become regulars at Forbes Library’s kids’ department on Saturday mornings, listening to the ukelele band rehearse in the community room while we work our way through their extensive comics and graphic novels collection. Big-name superhero comics are the junk food of literature, stimulating but nutritionally questionable, though they’re good for his reading practice. To me, it all looks like a bunch of over-muscled white guys punching each other.

The purple melodrama of “Batman” suits my camp aesthetic, but at read-aloud time, I try to point out the mental-health ableism and inaccuracy of Arkham Asylum as a revolving door of grotesque villains. Batman and the Joker seem like two sides of self-hating homosexuality–the flamboyant predator and the Übermensch of the police state. I can’t help seeing Gotham through the lens of the other book I’m currently reading, French journalist Frédéric Martel’s new exposé In the Closet of the Vatican, which details how the Catholic Church’s most powerful and homophobic cardinals were in bed with fascist dictatorships during the day and with undocumented rent boys during the night.

But fear not, more wholesome fare is in our rotation. We’re delighted with Molly Knox Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy, a coming-of-age story about a youth whose magical skills transgress the gender roles of his community. All the girls in Aster’s extended family are supposed to become witches, and the boys, animal shapeshifters who defend them from evil spirits. However, Aster’s passion is for witchery. With the help of Charlie, a non-magical girl from the neighboring suburb, he uses his forbidden talent to fight a monster in a way that only he can. Charlie, who has two (off-page) dads, is uniquely sympathetic to Aster’s dilemma because she’s a female athlete struggling for equal opportunities at her school. Both children are people of color, and Aster’s extended family includes a variety of ethnicities. The artwork, in cozy earth tones, is clear and expressive, and not too scary for younger readers. I promised Shane I’d pick up the sequel, The Hidden Witch, at Flame Con this summer. Book three, The Midwinter Witch, will come out in November.

We discovered George O’Connor’s Greek myth cartoons in the anthology Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. (The Fairy Tale Comics and Nursery Rhyme Comics anthologies in this series are fun too.) O’Connor’s Olympians graphic novel series is a playful, stylish retelling of the tales that my generation first read in the classic D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. (Adam and I each still have our original copy of that bright orange hardcover.) Each Olympians book is about a different god or goddess. We began with O’Connor’s Hermes: Tales of the Trickster because the messenger god and his chaotically playful son Pan suit Shane’s personality 100%. This book is both a great adventure comic and a painless introduction to classic literature. For those wishing to dig deeper, there are humorous endnotes, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

When I was a kid, I had two anthologies that I re-read countless times: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and The Smithsonian Collection of Comic-Book Comics. (Good thing I still own them because they seem to be out of print.) I pored over the noir adventures of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the proto-feminist antics of Little Lulu, and the folksy satire of Pogo. Now, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (Abrams ComicArts, 2009), brings that experience to a new generation with 300+ pages of toons from the 1940s-50s. It looks like the editors worked hard to weed out stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster in modern times. Check it out for such wacky gems as “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism” and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to Tralla La, a remote civilization without money, where he hopes for relief from the pressures of being a gazillionaire. Of course, human (or duck) nature is not so easy to escape…

February Links Roundup: Birds Do It, Trees Do It

As a good queer aesthete, I don’t place much weight on “the natural” as a prescriptive concept, but I still love a quirky story about nonhuman creatures who defy our narrow social categories. This rare gynandromorph cardinal flips the bird at binary ideas of gender, as reported at the blog Towleroad: “Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal Goes Viral, Has a Male Lover”. Since the bi-color bird’s female side is on the left, where the functioning ovary is located, the pair may be able to reproduce. Can’t you just imagine a children’s book about that future baby bird, along the lines of And Tango Makes Three?

Not only that, but the tree where they nest could be trans. At the online magazine Catapult, nature columnist Miranda Schmidt kicks off their new monthly series “Tree Talk” with the piece “How Trees Complicate Our Understanding of Gender”. In folklore and poetry, we’ve associated some species with masculinity (strong and tall) and others with femininity (slender and graceful), but in fact, over 90% of species worldwide “are alternately termed bisexual, or hermaphroditic, or ‘perfect,’ meaning they have both male and female parts on a single flower.” Reflecting on their own multi-gendered identity, Schmidt suggests a writing exercise to reveal hidden potentialities:

Describe your gender identity without using images that are stereotypically associated with masculine or feminine things. Try it. See what you find. When I do this exercise, I always think of the crabapple tree in the yard of the house I grew up in. It was split down the middle, all the way to the ground. Its two halves grew away from each other, almost as if they were two separate trees. We never knew how it had split. The crack down the middle of its trunk was old, possibly as old as the tree itself. Perhaps it was made by the weight of its branches pulling in opposite directions. Perhaps it originated from some outside source: an axe, or lightning. I would look at that tree and I would imagine its roots, those parts I couldn’t see, grown all together, tangled up and merging in a way its above-ground parts couldn’t. Underneath, I thought, the tree would be wholly undivided.

Alongside the project of unearthing the naturalness of queerness–an understandable objective, aimed at creating political safety and healing queer shame–there’s always been its opposite, the defiant un-naturalness that Susan Sontag limns in the 58 Wildean aphorisms comprising her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”. What she finds in camp is a kind of playful generosity of spirit, a humanistic snobbery, if you will:

54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Food 4 Thot podcast co-host Joe Osmundson a/k/a “Joe the Science Ho” explored the dark side of gay aesthetics in his 2013 Gawker article “There’s a Nerd in the Locker Room: Sex, Beauty and Self-Love”. With wit and pathos, Osmundson tracks the changes in his self-image during a month-long membership at David Barton Gym, the hot spot for Chelsea’s rich and beautiful boys.

At DBG I spend a lot of time contemplating superficiality and the NYC gays. Many assume gay men are shallow because we essentially want to be fucking ourselves. Men naturally have higher libidos, right? Attraction is more physical to us? All this seems too simplistic to me. After a few visits to DBG, I started to think that queer people often know we’re different very young. A lot of us grow up absolutely hating the gay bit of ourselves, praying it away, hoping it would die or recede so we can be normal and happy like everyone else. When you spend a large portion of your life loathing some central component of yourself, you might want to find something that you do love. Your body is something you can make better and faster and stronger. Perhaps spaces like DBG exist because there is a road map and a space for remaking your body. I wonder what a space for doing the work to love ourselves for our minds and spirits, for our ugly bits, our complicated and fucked up internal bits, would look like…

…[I]t would be a mistake to talk about gay male beauty and sex without talking about American culture at large. In America we often define men by their ability to consume emotionless sex. Gay culture exists in conversation with American culture and so if men define themselves by their ability to consume women without attachment, why should gay men be held to a different standard?

But here is the ugly truth: we are all here at DBG to get laid, even if most of us aren’t doing it upstairs in the steam room. I do feel more comfortable in my body than before I was working out. Having facile sex would probably make me feel good, and good about myself, in a lot of complicated ways that may be difficult to undo and that might make certain types of intimacy difficult.

Last week I blogged about how Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering philosophy helps me strengthen my intuition as a writer. Kondo has been subjected to a ridiculous amount of negative “hot takes”, which at times slide into racist disrespect for her personal style and cultural traditions. At HuffPost, Margaret Dilloway explains “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up'”. Born to an American father and Japanese mother, Dilloway recognizes her late mother’s Shinto beliefs in many of the practices that Kondo’s critics have belittled:

Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ―a concept know as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.

“Tell the kami-sama what you’re grateful for,” my mother would say to me, referring to God or the supreme kami, “and what you want.”

I had my mother in mind when I watched Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” for the first time. In each episode, Kondo, a professional organizing consultant, instructs her clients to identify the objects in their homes that “spark joy” and devise a plan to honor those objects by cleaning and storing them properly.

She also encourages people to part ways with the objects that fail to spark joy, but not before thanking them for their service. The way Kondo pledges gratitude for the crowded houses she visits, and thanks the clothes and books and lamps that serve so much purpose for the families seeking to declutter their homes, struck me as a powerfully Shinto way of conducting life.

Full disclosure, when my Copco white plastic spatula broke after a dozen years of service, I duct-taped the handle back on and stored it in my kitchen drawer. I mean, that’s one of the longest relationships I’ve had. It’s not going in the recycling bin. Marie understands.

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…