January Links Roundup: Writing Magic

Happy new decade, readers! Many links have been collected over winter break for your enjoyment. I have only two resolutions: do my tiny part to roll back fascism in America, and finish the f*%$ing novel.

Writing for West Branch, the literary journal of Bucknell University, Kathryn Nuernberger reviews five recent poetry books under the heading “The Poetics (and Politics) of Spells”. Among them is the new collection A Sand Book from one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ariana Reines. Nuernberger examines how these books use techniques of ritual and magic, such as litanies and astrological concepts, to create poems that are a written artifact of a transcendent spiritual experience. Poems drawing on marginalized traditions like Vodou can also function as protection spells against racist oppression.

Fashion is another type of embodied ritual with a political dimension. At the literary journal ANMLY, the Issue #29 feature “Queering in Plain Sight: a folio of queer fashion” gathers creative writing and artwork that explores the frontiers of self-presentation. From editor Addie Tsai’s introduction:

These delightful, fierce, inimitable, and unapologetic contributions transcend the lines between genre just as we transcend the lines between gender, sexuality, aesthetic, and style. What we queers make of our bodies and community is how we insist on our own existence, then and now, especially in a world that works tirelessly to erase us, in small and large ways. The marvelous work included in this folio embraces all the layers of hybridity, just as we do. We are collages of our own making, in cut and line and color and seam and material and shade and skin and body. Sometimes, stitching ourselves to one another through the patterns our bodies make is all we have to get us through each year, each day, each moment.

I’m still reading this folio, but so far, I was especially struck by Miriam Bird Greenberg’s creative use of punctuation and line breaks to surprise the reader with multiple meanings, and Antonius-Tin Bui’s intimate yet glamorous genderqueer photo portraits.

It often seems like the mainstream image of queer style is a slender, tomboyish, young, white assigned-female-at birth person. Those folks are very handsome, no doubt, but the rest of us who don’t fit that body type can feel at a loss for personal style options. On the blog of clothing brand Qwear, founder Sonny Oram’s feature “9 Plus Size Cuties Share Tips for Androgynous Style” showcases larger butch and femme folks of different races who put together eye-catching looks from a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” pieces. Ree Melanen has inspired me to hunt down some vintage sweater clips as an alternative to my bowties and bolo ties. Personal shopper and stylist William “Beave” Brooks shows that you don’t have to give up pinks and florals to be a fine-looking dude. Check out Anastasia’s vintage clothing shop Androgynous God on Etsy, too.

The beleaguered Left in the age of Tan Dumplord is doing what it does best, blaming the most vulnerable members of its constituency for distracting the electorate from issues with supposedly broader appeal. Yes, I’m talking about the dangerous nonsense that is “gender critical feminism”, a cosmetic re-branding of transgender-exclusive radical feminism (TERF-ism), which is especially on the upswing in the U.K. In a still-timely 2018 piece at Tits and Sass, a journalism site written by and for sex workers, Juniper Fitzgerald lays out why “Gender Critical Feminism Is Fascism”. Both movements divide society into “us and them”, and evoke a mythical past characterized by a purity that we have lost.

The alliance between “gender critical feminists” and the alt-right has been forged on mutual bigotry: hatred for trans people and sex workers. “Gender critical feminists” are willing to sacrifice access to medical care, abortion, and self-determination in their alliance with the alt-right for the sole purpose of harassing, doxing, and generally inciting violence against trans people and sex workers.

Historically, factions of white feminism have flirted with fascism, from the overt racism of the Suffragists in the US to the Christian Temperance Movement here and abroad…

…While the alt-right conjures up mythic pasts that are entirely race-based and, of course, racist, gender critical feminists rely on myths about their own oppression. This is where their hatred for trans women and their hatred for sex workers intersect—in order to maintain the illusion that patriarchal oppression is solely rooted in genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and reproduction, gender critical feminists must create fantasies of “real” women and “unreal” women. According to gender critical feminists, trans women are not “real” because of secondary sex characteristics,while sex workers are likewise “unreal” because we complicate the notion that sex and reproduction are patriarchal tools for controlling women.

Certainly, the fact that we live under a heteropatriarchy is undeniable. And of course the sex industry, like all industries under heteropatriarchy, operates in specific ways on account of existing under oppressive social systems. But gender critical feminists argue that sex industry workers perpetuates these oppressive social systems, which is akin to blaming low-wage laborers for capitalism.

Moreover, this purposeful scapegoating of the sex industry makes sex workers the barometer by which “respectable” feminists measure their own “purity”: real women don’t hurt other women, gender critical feminists imply. Real women, real feminists, should starve to death before giving a commodified blowjob. For the cause!

Looking back at another period of crisis, Lambda Literary’s article “Will We Survive the 1980s?” excerpts an essay by Bay Area writer and critic Steve Abbott (1943–1992), one of many talented artists of his generation lost to AIDS. In this piece, Abbott surveyed the tremendous progress in gay rights and visibility since Stonewall, but worried that his community would be nearly erased by the twin forces of the epidemic and consumerist assimilation. Was autoimmune disease the symbolic fruit of generations of internalized homophobia, the self turned against itself? The cure is not only medical or political, but spiritual and ethical:

To fight AIDS and the conditions that threaten us, we need more than scientific research, more than money, more than leadership. We need to rethink America’s spiritual, political, social, and cultural systems at the most fundamental root level. How do we use power? How do we use language? It is clear that what we are doing now—as bosses and workers, as men and women, as gays and straights, as whites and non- whites—is killing us all. And as we project these attitudes onto other species and towards the Earth’s ecological system, we are jeopardizing our very planet. I would argue that today we can no longer afford to see anything—not even “gay liberation” or our survival—as a separate issue needing a separate cultural, political or spiritual agenda.

This does not mean I intend to renounce my sexual orientation, far from it. Even in times of sadness or loneliness, it remains my greatest source of strength and joy. But if my sexuality is a social construct, I can change how I think about and act on it.

“Gay is good” doesn’t have to mean what I used to think—that I need a lot of sex or a lover to be happy. Nor need it mean the opposite—stoic celibacy. It can also apply to how I center and balance myself, how I choose and nurture friendships, how I support my community. And when I consider or have sex, can I change how I think about it—to admire, share, and enjoy beauty without trying to use, own, or consume it? Pleasure is good but we are not objects. And contrary to what fashion, ads and some songs suggest, neither are we just images or toys.

In work and play, how can I free myself from the hype of competitive stress? Can I learn to accept and find joy in the present moment, even when it’s not what I might prefer? Can I continue to take risks, to redefine myself? Can I wake up from sexism, racism, ageism, and careerism without becoming obsessed about being “politically correct?” Can I set and fulfill goals, while still allowing spontaneity? In short, can I take my energy glue out of the worry/fear/consumer trap?

What is the right amount of hedonism in response to oppression–enough to affirm that you have worth and deserve joy, but not so much that it becomes the opiate of the masses? One of the many things that jerks my chain, when Mother’s Day comes around, is the proliferation of “wine mom” gifts and cards in the supermarkets. One of our family members died of cirrhosis this year, so I have an extra reason to fume at the suggestion that a bottle of Merlot is your reward for another year of selfless emotional labor.

In this 2016 article at Quartz, Kristi Coulter observed that “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink”. She details the places that have been invaded by compulsory boozing: the farmer’s market, the mandatory workplace mixer, the movie theater, the yoga studio. It’s absurd but infuriating too.

I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon, but Cinnamon Churros Smirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucks up my prescription three months in a row, installs self-service beer taps and young men line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care…

…The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with being a 24-hour woman. The stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus. Even the other TV men, who say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What the fuck business is it of yours whether it’s rare or not? I think.

The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: muscles are beautiful. No, wait: fat is beautiful. No, wait: thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As though we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust, or we’ll lose our shit.

And then I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. But for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about my family of origin, but they deserve props for not having a culture of alcohol use to distract from their problems. My bio mom only used liqueur to flavor baked goods. Those Calvados pancakes were top shelf.

Ah, Vandermint… why did they discontinue you?

Reiter’s Block: DECADE in Review! 2009-2019

July 2009…

…November 2019.

Greetings, loyal readers! It’s been a decade to remember. As my 30s segued into my 40s, I changed my gender, pronouns, religion, and pants size; fired my abusive mother; adopted Lord Bunbury, the cutest boy to ever eat a quarter-pound of lox in one bite; and published five books of sad poetry and smutty fiction.

Julian says, “You just get better with age, darling.”

Biggest Decision of 2019: Starting HRT.

Since October I’ve been taking low-dose testosterone in gel form. (I know, I know, real men shouldn’t be afraid of needles…) Not much visible change yet, but I feel very handsome and full of creative ideas.

Speaking only for myself here–you don’t have to do anything medical to be a “real trans”!–bringing my subjective sense of masculinity into objective physical reality via HRT has felt like an act of magical manifestation. I grew up in a home dominated by gaslighting. Maintaining my inner truth against constant assaults was exhausting. Being trans sometimes feels that way too. If my womanhood falls in the forest but everyone still calls me “Ma’am,” does it make a sound? My little bottle of Love Potion Number 9 gel is something I can point to, a fact in the world, a self-affirming decision to be myself outwardly and not only in my fantasy life. It tells my younger psychological parts that we’re finally safe to come out of the closet (and give away those uncomfortable high heels).

Happiness Comes in a Pill: For the first time in my life as a congenitally anxious person, I’m also taking Effexor, a mild anti-anxiety drug. The main benefit is that I sleep more deeply and have vivid dreams that seem meaningful at the time. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was re-creating the Bloomsbury Group out of Lego. Thanks a lot, Carolyn Heilbrun.

Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf.

I Wrote Some Stuff: I participated in the Center for New Americans’ 30 Poems in November fundraiser again this year, writing more strange poetry for a new chapbook. It’s not too late to contribute to this great organization that provides literacy instruction, job training, and naturalization assistance for immigrants in Western Massachusetts. Visit my sponsorship page here.

In addition, my poem “psalm 55:21” won the local category of the 2019 Broadside Award and Glass Prize from Slate Roof Press. The award was $250 and publication as a limited-edition broadside. You can read the winners on their website.

Young Master Update: His Nibs earned an orange belt in Tae Kwon Do this year, switched his allegiance from Pokémon to Minecraft, and learned to read chapter books on his own. (Shout-out to the “Captain Underpants” book series for making one of its main characters gay in the last installment.)

Fractions, Mommy!

We undertook a perilous trip by plane (me) and car (Daddy and Shane) in an April snowstorm to visit Shane’s birth mother in Wisconsin, where she was hospitalized for liver failure. Sadly, Stephanie passed away this August at age 45. She lives on in his happy-go-lucky personality, mechanical skills, and love for the arts and animals.

Stef and the Bun in October 2012.

Highlights Reel: With some trepidation, I have combed the Reiter’s Block archives for posts from the past decade that I still agree with. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how passionately (and dickishly) I defended beliefs that let me down in the end. But as Julian would say, you can only wear the clothes you have. Some people grow up by learning from failed love affairs. My method was to throw myself fully into the best available worldview at the moment, searching for an ethical foundation and a compassionate space where I could discover myself. What if I’d known about FTM transition in 1983, or demisexuality in 1997, or trauma theory in 2006? Well…I didn’t. Here’s what I did instead.

2009: I was really preoccupied with how to be a Bible-believing yet gay-affirming Christian, because I still had faith that good theological arguments would make a difference. Sigh. If this is your jam, check out the posts “Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives” and “Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty”. Also, my most ambitiously insane chapbook, Swallow, was published by Amsterdam Press. Now out of print; email me for a copy.

Swallow

2010: More gay Christian angst. I noticed the questionable respectability politics of some gay-affirming theology in “The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute”. Seriously starting to wonder why writing as fictional “Julian” felt autobiographical: “Straight Women, Gay Romance”. Marched in Northampton Trans Pride as an ally. Didn’t blog much that year because secretly coping with failed-adoption trauma and abusive mom meltdown. Another chapbook published: read the title poem in the post “‘Barbie at 50’ Wins Cervena Barva Poetry Prize”. Also received Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in poetry. Misery has never stopped me from being productive.

2011: I went no-contact with my mother, and shortly thereafter, mom-of-choice Roberta left her as well. I was still under the social workers’ microscope in the adoption process so I barely posted anything about my personal life on the blog. In September, Stef contacted us through our adoption website, and the rest is history. The series “Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 1: Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology” and “Part 2: Obeying Jesus Without Knowing Him?” is the culmination of 5 years wrestling with the gay Christian issue, and in retrospect, already shows the de-conversion that I would take several more years to admit to myself and others. I also gave myself this advice on my 39th birthday: “Every five years, you will completely change your mind about something important, so don’t be a butthole to people who disagree with you now.”

2012: Welcome, Bun!! I blogged about why “Adoptive Families Are Queer Families”. In other news, the title story of my eventual debut collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes won an award from Bayou Magazine. I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I turned 40 and wrote a three-part roundup of the books that influenced my youth.

2013: Is it gender dysphoria or is it sexism? Less filling, tastes great! I battled cultural expectations of femininity and motherhood in “The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and ‘Selfishness'”. (Thanks to Bun for sleeping through the night at 6 months old, so I had the energy to string sentences together.) I self-identified publicly as a child abuse survivor for the first time in “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal”. In “Imitation of Christ, or Substitute Savior?” I questioned whether it’s possible to write a “Christian” novel without romanticizing codependence. In “Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs”, I began asking the church to consider liberation theology from an abuse-survivor standpoint–a project I’d ultimately drop after recognizing its basic incompatibility with mainstream Christianity.

2014: I dyed my hair red. Many boxes of books were given away, with “Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014” surveying how my beliefs had changed. I wrote a series on Survivors in Church: “Between Covenant and Choice”, “Our Spiritual Gifts”, and “Insights From Disability Theology”. But it became evident that I had to leave church altogether: see “The Priesthood of All Survivors”. After 6 turbulent years, I finally finished an acceptable draft of the Endless Novel a/k/a Two Natures. To celebrate, I got a tattoo.

2015: I began studying Tarot, as described in “The Spiritual Gift Shop: Or, Living in Syncretism”. My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, was published by Little Red Tree. In “The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test”, I explored where accountability can be found in a self-directed spiritual practice. I met Elisabeth Moss, who played my favorite character on “Mad Men”! The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage equality. I won $1,000 from Wag’s Revue for a poem about buying a plastic dick. (No wonder that was their last issue.)

2016: Two Natures was published by Saddle Road Press! I blogged about why I write explicit sex in my fiction (“Sex God”), and the pros and cons of the radical feminist critique of Christianity (“Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes”). I tentatively came out as genderqueer in “Nonbinary Femme Thoughts”. My story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”, a semi-autobiographical tale of painful setbacks on the road to adoptive parenthood, won the New Letters Prize for Fiction. However, the year ended badly for the planet with the election of Tan Dumplord.

2017: Our storage unit raised their prices, so we let the lease expire and brought back a truckload of memorabilia to Reiter’s Block HQ. Some of my archeological finds are described in “Killing You in My Mind: My Early Notebooks”. I self-diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The Aspie community’s acceptance of finding emotional qualities in “inanimate” objects (“Autistic Pride Day: Everything is Alive”) paved the way for me to study Magick. I took charge of the Young Master’s religious education with a family trip to NecronomiCon Providence (“The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus”). I killed off my menstrual cycle with the Mirena IUD, ending three decades of disabling chronic pain from endometriosis (and, as it turned out, gender dysphoria). Our high school had a collective reckoning with the #MeToo Movement on our alumni Facebook page.

2018: My debut story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was published by Sunshot Press, an imprint of the journal New Millennium Writings. Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I took an online course from anti-racist group White Awake about decolonizing our New Age spirituality (“Problems of Lineage and Magic”). Christian feminist author Emily Joy’s Lenten journaling workbook Everything Must Burn helped me process my spiritual trauma. I regret that I didn’t write to Dr. James Cone before he passed away, because our church small group was passionately inspired and challenged by his book Black Theology and Black Power. (I was embarrassed to imagine that he’d say, “Well, light dawns over Marblehead, white ladies!” Centering my own feelings like a typical whitey…) For the same class, I did a 40-day Bible journal (“Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave”) and tried not to laugh at evangelical prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”. (Okay, I didn’t really try.) But it helped me get through losing one of my best friends. “Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Community at Flame Con” recounts my trip to an LGBTQ comics convention for research on the Endless Sequel.

2019: I did another purge of books and clothes that didn’t spark genderqueer pagan joy (“Facing Literary Impermanence with Marie Kondo”). As more research for the Endless Sequel, and let’s face it, to buy gay erotica, I attended Queers & Comics at the School of Visual Arts (“Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More”). I considered the symbolic appeal of Satan and Cthulhu for spiritual-abuse survivors in “Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience”.

In the year ahead, I hope we can elect a Democratic president and reverse course on the imminent destruction of democracy and the planet. Beyond that, my goals are the same as before: Be more trans, do more magic, lift more weights, write more words! Thanks for traveling with me.

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

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

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

Transition goals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The category is… Live! Work! POSE!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

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

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

Stars from My Bed

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

****

The Magician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November Links Roundup: Long Time No See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living weird is the best revenge.

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.”