January Bonus Links: Butt Trumpets

First things first, “Butt Trumpet” is the name of a delightfully bonkers parody punk rock band that my best friend and I found in the $3 bin at Turn It Up! Records in 2009. Enjoy this video of him as Cyril the Rat Puppet playing air guitar to Butt Trumpet’s “Flannel in Seattle”.

The website OpenCulture delves deeper with their December 2020 article “Why Butt Trumpets & Other Bizarre Images Appeared in Medieval Manuscripts”. Obviously, for the same reason teenage boys draw penises on their desks during Latin class. But there’s more to the organ-playing rabbits and snail-fighting knights than bored doodles. Some scholars think the disrespectful images expressed monks’ disagreement with the texts they were copying. At any rate, they certainly livened things up.

Lesbian-feminist playwright Carolyn Gage finds her own brand of symbolic resonance in the animal kingdom. Recently diagnosed with autism for the first time in her 60s, Gage encourages us to appreciate multiple kinds of intelligence in her post “On Octopuses and Autism”:

Our theories of intelligence have historically been derived from our studies of vertebrates, especially mammals, and especially primates. All these vertebrate forms of “intelligent life”  have been very social creatures that travel in pods, packs, herds, or tribes. Not surprisingly, our theories about intelligence have been shaped by this fact.  These theories have assumed that intelligence evolved in certain species in response to social needs for communication, for bonding, for collective action, for establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, and so on.

But… then there is the octopus, a form of intelligent life that is notoriously anti-social. The octopus does not bond with other octopuses, does not live or travel with them, and  does not observe any kind of social hierarchy. It is a real loner. According to our theories of intelligence, it should actually be quite stupid… dumb as a snail, in fact. But the octopus has 500,000 neurons and the snail has only 20,000.  The octopus is right up there with the pig, the dog, and the dolphin. Clearly there is a problem with our theories about the evolution of intelligence. Being social has no bearing on the development of intelligence.

And here we are.  Autism is “characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication.” We are wired for resistance to social pressure. We are said to lack empathy, to have difficulty reading social cues, are oblivious to social hierarchies. We don’t travel in packs. Are we missing out on evolutionary forces that generate intelligence?  Or are we developing intelligence along a completely different axis, like the octopus?

Scientists believe the octopus evolved complex intelligence for protection because it lacks the shell that other molluscs have. Gage muses:

[L]osing that shell…makes one vulnerable, but it also drives the evolution of a different kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is rooted in highly complex and subtle interactions with one’s physical environment. If the octopus lacks the social intelligence that comes from belonging to a pack, it has evolved an exquisitely fine-tuned relationship to the natural world around it.

If an autistic person is lacking in social intelligence, have we evolved compensatory sensitivity to our surroundings? Without the kind of protective armor that non-autistic people develop in their social interactions, have we developed a different form of perceptual/conceptual mobility, a nimbleness of spirit? Could it be that our “special interests” are part of this protective disguise? Without the rigid shape associated with a social role, are we not able to slip ourselves into the secret nooks and crannies of a rich inner life that appear irrelevant or inconsequential to those who have never had to develop alternative resources?

Feminist writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who came out this year as nonbinary, writes about a similar protective strategy in their Substack newsletter post “The Great Mutation”. Originally they thought they’d refrained from writing about pregnancy and parenthood in order to shield their family life from Internet trolls. In retrospect, it was part of a pattern of dissociating from their female-gendered body.

Before I transitioned, I felt that my writing was my “real” self and my physical body was just its life support system. My real self could not be pregnant, even if my physical body was, because pregnancy was something that happened to other people. To women.

This reminded me of my post here waaaaay back in March 2007, “Am I a Woman?” Perplexed why I felt feminism somehow wasn’t “about” me, despite agreeing with most of its aims, I wrote:

I don’t primarily think of myself as a woman. Sure, my biological gender is female, and I like collecting dolls and wearing pretty dresses. I talk about my feelings all the time, and I take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. But I could do all that equally well as a codependent drag queen.

When I think about what makes me me, I identify much more with my mind than with my body. I resist efforts to draft me into a collective interest group based on unchosen characteristics.

Ahh, little soft-boiled trans egg…

Doyle’s childhood coping strategies for family trauma and unrecognized dysphoria were a lot like mine (minus the eating disorder). I wrote an entire notebook of laws for my dolls, and enforced them with trial by a jury of mice in Victorian dresses, followed by beheadings or imprisonment in the shoe closet. As for Doyle:

I don’t remember my eating disorder, because I wasn’t there. What I remember about seventh grade are X-Men comics, which I got into rapturously and obsessively, and the vast, elaborate fantasy worlds I built in their image. I invented whole teams of superheroes, with headquarters and code names and plot arcs and recurring villains, and if the embarrassment would not kill me, I could still tell you each and every one of their names. Down on earth, I was engaged in a frantic struggle with my body, but in my mind, I had reached safe harbor, creating a place to breathe during my Cronenberg years.

Clearly, the split — the false life of the body, the true life of the mind — was already in place. But it had always been there. I learned to read at age three, and by the time I was in kindergarten, teachers had to beg and coax and sometimes just rip the books out of my hands to get me to interact with any of my classmates. Even then, at the beginning of my social existence, I was building pocket dimensions, finding doors into a better place.

Vintage Real Fur Costumed Mice Russ and West Germany image 0

“Guilty!”

Finally, enjoy this photo essay in Out Magazine about Anthony Patrick Manieri’s queer male body-positivity series Arrested Movement. The joyful black-and-white nude portraits feature a multiracial cast of cis and trans masculine folks, with several plus-size and disabled models.

 

January Links Roundup: Greetings from the Failed State

Shortly after my post yesterday celebrating the Democrats’ Senate wins, white supremacist terrorists invaded the US Capitol to try to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. I’m with those who believe there’s more than simple incompetence behind the security failure. Fascism has made significant inroads in American police departments.

Baptist minister Candace Simpson, who tweets as @CandyCornball, posted this insight today: “‘Apocalypse’ does not mean ‘the end of the world.’ It means ‘revealing.’ You can choose to notice or you can choose to ignore.” Black Americans like herself have long known the fearsome truth that we are now seeing acknowledged in mainstream news: the Confederacy never died. We will need clarity and courage, and not premature “unity”, to fight it again.

Rebecca Solnit pulls no punches in her LitHub piece from November, “On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway”. Democrats want marriage counseling while Republicans want war. It’s as simple as that. Mainstream media’s numerous sympathetic profiles of Trump supporters–what critics have taken to calling “Cletus safaris”–rest on the naive belief that:

…urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America…need[s] to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that…

There’s also often a devil’s bargain buried in all this, that you flatter and, yeah, respect these white people who think this country is theirs by throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views. And you reinforce that constituency’s sense that they matter more than other people when you pander like this, and pretty much all the problems we’ve faced over the past four years, to say nothing of the last five hundred, come from this sense of white people being more important than nonwhites, Christians than non-Christians, native-born than immigrant, male than female, straight than queer, cis-gender than trans…

I grew up in an era where wives who were beaten were expected to do more to soothe their husbands and not challenge them, and this carries on as the degrading politics of our abusive national marriage.

Yesterday’s coup attempt reminds me of the behavior burst when you set boundaries with abusers. They are most dangerous when their victims are trying to leave. In today’s column for Medium, nonbinary feminist author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle cautions that “Trump Is Leaving, But the Revenge of Men Continues”. The alt-right movement appeals to, and strengthens, many men’s identification with a toxic brand of masculinity, characterized by bullying and anti-intellectualism. Regarding feminization as worse than death, they are actually dying (and killing) rather than admit their vulnerability to Mother Nature: hence climate-change denial and the refusal to wear masks in a pandemic. “The contemporary push for men to give up their ‘masculinity ideology’ — to be softer, humbler, more cooperative, to think of others first, to support the leadership of others rather than assuming they are entitled to lead, to listen rather than doing all the talking — is simply asking men to cultivate qualities that can help them survive in an increasingly complex world. It’s adapt or die.”

Four years of the narcissist-in-chief screaming “Fake news!” has made “gaslighting” a household word. Ozy at Thing of Things objects to how the word has become Internet shorthand for any argument that causes cognitive dissonance or uncomfortable paradigm shifts in the hearer:

Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments… It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person.

Following philosopher Miranda Fricker, Ozy recommends the term “hermeneutical injustice” for something that can feel like gaslighting but is distinct from it: when you have an experience, but your community has denied you a framework to understand and believe in that experience.

If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.

But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.

Hermeneutical injustice isn’t only perpetrated by conservatives. Feminism’s transphobia problem is documented in this Atlantic article by Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Secret Internet of TERFs” (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Like QAnon cult followers, TERFs have created an echo chamber in Internet communities where they spread paranoid conspiracy theories about the “trans agenda”. TERF discourse, though ostensibly from the Left, shares with right-wing homophobia the dangerous assertion that other people’s mere existence threatens the meaning of your life. Not a stretch to compare these folks to the tiki-torch-wielding racists in Charlottesville whose battle cry was “You will not replace us!”

I wrote my college religion thesis on original sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Hawthorne didn’t have the word “narcissism” at his disposal, but his moral tales were targeting TERF logic. The fatal flaw of a character such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark”, the scientist who killed his wife in an attempt to perfect her beauty, was that he treated his fellow humans as pieces on the chessboard of his own symbolic scheme. Purity of concept mattered more than real people’s pain. That’s what Christian conservatives do when they argue that marriage equality devalues their straight marriage, or when cis women claim that including trans women in their spaces would erase the significance of childbirth and menstruation. It’s an assertion that some people don’t have the right to narrate their own lives. There’s nothing feminist about that.

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Happy 2021, readers! And happy Feast of the Epiphany, too. As of this writing, it appears that both Democratic candidates for Senate have won their runoff elections in Georgia, giving us the slimmest majority in the new administration (51-50 with VP Harris’ tiebreaking vote). Big thanks to Stacey Abrams, the NAACP, Movement Voter Project, Swing Left, and other folks who worked hard to bring progressive and minority voters to the polls. Gerrymandering and voter suppression have long made the South seem more conservative than it has to be. Next stop, Mississippi?

My two writing projects this fall were 30 Poems in November and those get-out-the-vote missives for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. This mashup was the result.

 

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Turning the Senate blue? Don’t write our cause off:
Time to work your ass off in the runoff for Jon Ossoff.

Rev. Warnock too, though hard to rhyme his name,
Could represent the state without taking his cross off.

Incumbent Loeffler saw stocks about to dive,
Pandemic inside knowledge, sold to write her loss off.

Perdue — no relation to the chicken man —
Is scared to tell any campaign-donor boss off.

The lame-duck fascist fears the winds of change
Will blow his toupee’s pumpkin-colored floss off.

While Giuliani sues to throw out ballots,
His flop sweat streaks his TV makeup’s gloss off.

Democrats hustle to get out the vote,
Thousands of names to register and cross off.

My hand’s still sprained from the November race,
Like a cat’s paws when the vet has pulled its claws off.

Nonetheless I will write one hundred times —
Like a bad schoolboy dusting his blackboard chalks off —

“Dear Georgia voter, it all depends on you!
Sincerely, Jendi, a volunteer for Jon Ossoff.”

December Links Roundup: What’s Not Wrong

Will 2020 end? It’s possible! As we ride out another frightening virus surge, with a vaccine in sight, let’s light the winter darkness by looking at some small good things.

I was going to give my readers a break from “WHRT Radio: all transgender, all the time” but then this happened.

Elliot Page, the Oscar-nominated star of “Juno” and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” has announced he is transgender.

Elliot, formerly known as Ellen Page, addressed his social media followers saying:

“Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey. I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self. I’ve been endlessly inspired by so many in the trans community. Thank you for your courage, your generosity and ceaselessly working to make this world a more inclusive and compassionate place. I will offer whatever support I can and continue to strive for a more loving and equal society,” he wrote.

“I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive. To all the trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse, and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you, and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better,” Page continued.

Page uses both he/him and they/them pronouns, and describes himself as transgender and non-binary, meaning that his gender identity is neither man nor woman.

He’s one of us!!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve experienced a shift in what I want from transition. Maybe I’ve retrained my eyes to rejoice in the beauty of gender-nonconforming people instead of comparing myself to cis gay musclemen. Maybe masks and the Zoom mustache filter have given me sufficient control over my self-presentation. In any event, I’m less concerned about “passing” now. Small sensual pleasures get me through the monotony and anxiety of COVID life, and those include perfume and jewelry. Should I ever earn millions and/or leave the house again, I want to dress like the louche male models for Palomo Spain, as seen on the fashion blog Tom & Lorenzo.

This attitude of greater self-acceptance extends to my art practice, too. Instead of trying to be famous and talented so that I can feel happy, what if I just dialed direct, and wrote what made me happy, whether or not anyone wants it? I used to think this kind of inner peace was merely touted as a consolation prize for folks who didn’t succeed in worldly terms. Don’t get me wrong, I still want a Lambda Literary Award. But right now I’m down to essentials. I’m alive today and I want to enjoy it. I can plan for the future, but I don’t have to live for it.

At the Poetry Society of America website, they’re doing an interview series called “Stopping By” where they ask creatives to reflect on language and community during the pandemic. These words from poet, novelist, and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths stuck with me:

Have you created something during the lockdown, or are you working on anything now?

I create things every day but it’s not about everything having to be a product or for somebody else’s experience. I would like to believe that my inner life is a spectrum of progressive transformations and experiments, rather than overly transactional. For me, creating and sustaining a private space where I allow myself to rest, to read, to cook, to play music, and to risk new turns of language and imagery where I have no idea how to be wrong or right, is part of the calling.

In high school, I was that edgelord kid who carried around a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness to piss off my liberal teachers. Though I have moved on to other ways of annoying people, Pierce Delahunt’s Medium article “What Does Sex Have to Do With Socialism?” showed me that I still didn’t actually understand socialism versus capitalism. Rand and contemporary conservatives had me conflating socialism with state control, and capitalism with free choice–although the Trump years have shown that we can have a free-market dictatorship.

Delahunt summarizes: “let’s make sure we do not fall into the Capitalist trap of thinking of Capitalism as private enterprise and Socialism as government control. Put simply, Capitalism and Socialism are defined by who controls the means of production: owners (Capitalism) or workers (Socialism).” The crucial difference is not the structure of the economy, but whose interests it serves: the rich few, or the people. In another Medium piece, “Antisocialism: The Personality Disorder of the Economy”, Delahunt explains:

Capitalism is not Commerce. Under Socialism, trade still exists. Transactions still happen. Phones still get made. The difference is that there is more input in every part of this process from the people doing the labor: workers…

Just as Capitalism is not Commerce, Socialism is not “anything the government does.” Government, in fact, can support Capitalism or Socialism. When the government takes power over the means of production from the private owners, but does not grant it to the workers, this is State Capitalism. The power still rests with owners; the owners just happen to be in government. This is what most people in the US think of when they think of Socialism. (The US expends a lot of energy to make us think that.)

I’m not sure you can really prove that “sex is better” under any particular regime, because people define “sex” and “better” in diverse and incompatible ways, but hey, I’d settle for universal healthcare!

November Links Roundup: Testify to Love

Thanks for your patience, readers. The link farm harvest is a bit late this month because I’ve been front-loading my Winning Writers work in anticipation of another school shutdown. The Young Master and I expect to spend the winter making art and lighting fires.

Over a decade ago, when I was deep into Gay-or-Christian angst, the Christian pop band Avalon’s song “Testify to Love” always renewed my desperate hope that God accepted me as I was. Even now, when a lot of Christian media is triggering to me, this song gives me joy. I wondered whether I was just reading my own preoccupations into the opening line, “All the colors of the rainbow…” But this People Magazine article from September shows that my gaydar was correct–as is my instinct to mistrust evangelicals: “Former Avalon Singer Michael Passons Says He Was Kicked Out of Christian Band for Being Gay”.

Michael Passons, a founding member of Avalon who left the Christian band 17 years ago, is opening up about his departure from the group.

The singer-songwriter, 54…said that he was confronted by his former bandmates on June 30, 2003, to leave Avalon.

“Avalon showed up at my house and told me I was no longer in the group,” he said. “And it was all because of who I am.”

The artist also said that he was “required to attend some reparative therapy sessions” prior to his exit, which like conversion therapy, is an attempt is made to try to make someone identify as heterosexual.

Acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell, though not a religious man, has a devotional cast of mind that makes his literary criticism especially insightful. An admirer of St. Augustine, Greenwell often writes about how our desires and needs are a mystery to ourselves. The liberal, rational self envisioned by the literary marketplace has too narrow a time horizon and too judgmental an imagination, he proposes in his Harper’s essay “Making Meaning: Against ‘Relevance’ in Art”. Although the current push for “relevance” provided a necessary corrective to the presumption that only stories in a certain demographic are “universal”, taken to extremes this demand denies the possibility of grace, understood in the humanistic sense as the opportunity to be confronted with the divinity in any person (even middle-class white men!).

[I[t is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

And he also deftly subtweets Marilynne Robinson. Go read the whole essay.

Along with “relevance”, the idea of a “writing career” is an idol that periodically needs to be dethroned. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, themselves no stranger to literary accolades, diagrammed the mutual back-scratching among winners of the most prestigious awards, in their article “On Poets and Prizes” at ASAP Journal. The ostensible goal of awards is to make poetry visible and relevant (that word again) to the general public. In addition, prizes are the only way that most poets ever get paid for their writing. Spahr and Young’s data-crunching showed that although winners’ racial and gender demographics have finally diversified in the past 5-10 years, their background is still quite elite and insular:

The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners… Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Hey, I went to Harvard! Where’s my money?

Philosopher Adam Kotsko decries the pressure to prove the humanities’ worth in terms of market forces, in his article “Not Persuasion, But Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”, part of a forum in Boston Review on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus”.

For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.

I’ve spent the past five years working on a novel, which means I haven’t written anything I can make money from. I miss that sweet short story prize cash. But Origin Story is hard to excerpt. You need context for those blow jobs. At Craft Literary, novelist Maria Cichosz (Cam and Beau) explains why in “For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt”.

The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

Finally, I have to share this fierce and funny Missouri Review poem-of-the-week by Katie Erbs, “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once”. It’s not what you think. Check it out.

Poem: “Strap-On Ghazal”

First, let me just say:

BIDEN/HARRIS: WE DID IT!

During the darkest moments of Election Week 2020, I spent a lot of time in the graveyard across the street from my house, invoking the ancestors. Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) is buried there. These delightful reminiscences from poet Steven Cordova on the Lambda Literary website show Ali’s gay side, as in both sexuality and playfulness. I apologize to his spirit for the poem I wrote this morning after visiting his grave. Please sponsor me to write even worse poems every day this month in support of the Center for New Americans.

Strap-On Ghazal

Diagnosis, girl: missing her own penis.
My body is the Tomb of the Unknown Penis.

Firmer than rims on a bright-blue pickup truck
The secret boast of the silicone penis.

The two genders: do you click on “Like” or “Block”
Surprise photo texted to your phone — penis.

Tip for the successful gardener:
Weekly T-shots fertilize a home-grown penis.

Cockiness the downfall of great men —
The teleconference disrupted by a shown penis.

Yet even Jacob raised his Ebenezer to the Lord,
Marking angelic throwdown with a stone penis.

And Earth herself thrusts up wood and mountain,
Exoskeleton and bone penis.

While I, Jendi, though my leg hair grows like fruited plains,
Must make do with ordered-from-Amazon penis.

Election Day Poetry by Carolyn Howard-Johnson: “We Will…”

An Election Day poem by my book marketing guru, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the Frugal Book Promoter series. Also check out her human rights themed poetry collection Imperfect Echoes with cover art by Richard C. Jackson, known to readers of this blog as Conway. (He is still waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2008!)

We Will…

Today we will line up.
We will line up in the heat…
We will line up in the cold with scarves around our necks,
hot coffee steaming from paper take-out cups…
We will line up, leaning into Santa Ana Winds or hurricanes
named after Greek letters…
We will line up in fire storms and bitter ashes…
We will do what persevering voters did in ‘64
with a new voting bill as assurance we should be there.
Today we will line up
with that bill clawed away
because “there is no longer a need,”
our postal service disrespected,
our drop boxes suspect or gone.
We will line up today, tomorrow and tomorrow…
We will line up wearing our masks…
We will line up six feet apart
with space enough
to dance,
to sing
to vote.

My Tran-niversary: One Year on T

Sept. 2019

Oct. 2020

 

One year ago I began HRT. I’m really happy that I did. It’s been something positive to think about during our year of national disasters. Like slowly but steadily assembling a jigsaw puzzle, monitoring the growth of my tiny soul patch gives me a sense of clarity and empowerment when life feels out of control. I wake up grateful and believing in magical manifestation. (And also terrified of being sneezed on by fascists, but that’s 2020.)

I understand “gender euphoria” now because I enjoy being photographed, for the first time since before puberty. A lot of days I walk down the street feeling like John Travolta in the opening scene of “Saturday Night Fever”. But dysphoria is also heightened sometimes, since the more I let myself realize what I want, the more I feel the grief of not having had it sooner, and the anticipatory disappointment that I may never fully achieve it. I can stop policing my own body language as insufficiently graceful and delicate, and worrying that I’m not pretty because I’m fat–but I sometimes make myself equally self-conscious with fears that my vocal intonation, head tilt, or stance aren’t masculine enough. Then I remember I’m a gay nonbinary trans guy and this is all cis-heteronormative brainwashing. In general, being more present in my body heightens all sorts of emotions, positive and negative.

Until recently, I felt that medical transition was completely out of reach. My adored husband, whose masculinity is not threatened by the fact that I now have more leg hair than him, loves boobs and hates beards (on me anyway). Without top surgery and whiskers, I didn’t think I would ever “pass”, so why give up my privilege as an average-looking woman? But last summer my gender therapist sent me some articles about micro-dosing T for that androgynous look. That seemed like a compromise everyone could agree on, so I made an appointment with an endocrinologist and started the gel in October. Hello, little chin hairs and constant horniness.

Thank our terrible American health care system for what happened next. My little bottle of Love Potion Number 9 cost $375 a month with insurance, while the more common delivery method of weekly injections was one-tenth the price despite generating more medical waste. Get you a man who’ll buy you a sharps disposal container for Valentine’s Day. Results from the gel had leveled off; my voice wasn’t deepening and I didn’t see any muscle growth. Hubby and I attended the trans conference First Event in Boston in February, which clarified for both of us that I wanted to progress further down this path, and that other couples had successfully adapted.

In February I started injections. I quit for a little while because the injection site in my thigh hurt a lot for several days afterward. My trans support group leader suggested alternatives. Never been so glad to have a fat butt. Results from the new method: wider face, deeper voice, arm muscles, somehow lost 10 pounds (though that could be because I haven’t had onion rings since the restaurants were closed for COVID), annoying neck pimples, minor bisexuality, general sense of wellbeing.

Whither the future? Well, except for top surgery, I expect to go through the usual stages of transmasculinity: baseball caps, writing an autobiographical webcomic, Satanism. Meanwhile, some life hacks for my fellow bois:

Wearing men’s underwear (by which I mean, underwear for men, though if you want to bring home other men and put on their underwear, good on ya) brought me a surprising amount of gender euphoria. Jockey’s boxer briefs have a nice pouch in front that make you look like you’ve got a real package. Plus, their browser cookies will make pleasantly distracting images of male bulges follow you around when you’re reading the news online.

Compression sports bras are a comfortable alternative to binders. Brooks Running makes a nice one.

Follow Phil Powell (@DandyYour), Queer Eye‘s Jonathan Van Ness (@jvn), Jeffrey Marsh (@thejeffreymarsh), and Pose star Billy Porter (@theebillyporter) on Twitter to remember that you don’t have to give up beauty and bling.

October Links Roundup: Change the Conversation

Welcome to the beautiful, spooky month of October. Remember, masks aren’t just for Halloween anymore.

(Get your own man face at AxeandCo on Etsy)

Sci-fi novelist Isaac R. Fellman wins the Internet for 2020 with his July newsletter post, “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man”, which explains why she was the only female TV character I’ve ever fully identified with.

Peggy is so utterly dissociated from the flesh of Peggy that she can carry a baby to term while pretending, even to herself, that she is just putting on weight…

This is seeing your body as an imprecise instrument which you must learn to use. It’s seeing your body as a thing out of your control, so that anything else it does, or that you may happen to make it do, has no meaning. It’s just topology.

It’s not just that Peggy is willing to endure all kinds of things — Joan’s cruelty about her body, a pregnancy without medical care, the logistics of a new wardrobe, the bearing and giving up of the child, becoming a temporary ward of the State of New York — in order to avoid more conventional humiliations. It’s also that she endures them, does her usual hard course of work, gets through it stoically, because the alternative is acknowledging the life of the body…

Peggy rather famously spends the whole series trying to figure out how to be a woman. I would argue that her process here — which, like her process of fucking, is all about patterning and identity theft — nonetheless has a very different vibe from her relations to men… [T]he series is littered with the bones of women Peggy has tried to bond with, with all the sincere good will and feminist consciousness in the world. Peggy likes women, is politically aligned with women, makes a career of selling products to women. Peggy’s friends are men.

In this September interview in the New Statesman, gender-theory heavyweight Judith Butler cogently debunks J.K. Rowling’s brand of transphobic “feminism”:

If we look closely at the example that you characterise as “mainstream” we can see that a domain of fantasy is at work, one which reflects more about the feminist who has such a fear than any actually existing situation in trans life. The feminist who holds such a view presumes that the penis does define the person, and that anyone with a penis would identify as a woman for the purposes of entering such changing rooms and posing a threat to the women inside. It assumes that the penis is the threat, or that any person who has a penis who identifies as a woman is engaging in a base, deceitful, and harmful form of disguise. This is a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality. Trans women are often discriminated against in men’s bathrooms, and their modes of self-identification are ways of describing a lived reality, one that cannot be captured or regulated by the fantasies brought to bear upon them. The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry…

We depend on gender as a historical category, and that means we do not yet know all the ways it may come to signify, and we are open to new understandings of its social meanings. It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women… Their abiding and very real sense of gender ought to be recognised socially and publicly as a relatively simple matter of according another human dignity. The trans-exclusionary radical feminist position attacks the dignity of trans people.

Did you know that the notable 20th-century writer and critic Dorothy Parker was a civil rights activist? Me neither, till I read this news item from the NAACP:

For over three decades, the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, served as the resting place for Dorothy Parker. Forever etched into the NAACP’s history and legacy, the American poet, writer, critic and satirist was a fierce supporter of civil rights and social justice during a critical era in our nation’s history.

At a time when the country was in the midst of a social movement for civil rights and equal protection, Parker gave to a cause she believed in by bequeathing her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and providing that upon his death, the estate would pass to the NAACP. The NAACP continues to benefit from her gift by licensing the use of her works.

Born in Long Beach, New Jersey, Parker rose to prominence for her literary works published in such magazines as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers and critics. In 1932, Parker found success in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Among her accolades, she received two Academy Award nominations and worked on more than 15 films.

Throughout her life, Parker grew to be a vocal advocate of civil liberties and civil rights. In 1988, under the leadership of then-NAACP President Benjamin Hooks, Parker’s remains were interred at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore and remained there for 32 years.

Preserving the legacy of Dorothy Parker has been an essential part of the NAACP’s history. At the request of her family, which coincided with the NAACP’s planned moved to Washington, Mrs. Parker’s remains were re-interred in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York on Aug. 22, 2020.

What might Parker have said about Rowling? Perhaps “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Or, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”

At the Forward, a venerable Jewish magazine, Abigail Pogrebin asks the provocative question, “Does God’s gender matter?” A journalist and former producer for “60 Minutes” and “Charlie Rose”, Pogrebin is also the daughter of Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cotton Pogrebin. Here, she talks with Rabbi David Ingber of the progressive congregation Romemu in Manhattan.

The text he sends before our interview, (I ask each teacher to choose one) is a midrash, or rabbinic commentary, from the 6th century, in which a sage known as Rab Kahana analyzes the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God.”

Kahana suggests that when God asserts, “I am the Lord,” it’s to clarify not only that God is one, but God is all. We should not assume the Lord takes one shape or is found in just one place.

Ingber builds on Kahana’s analysis: if the Lord our God has multiple iterations, the Lord is therefore not one gender at all times.

It’s not because of some feminist principle that Ingber seems to suggest this, though he’s known for an egalitarian approach to traditional observance. Instead, Ingber says that asking whether God is male or female is the wrong question. God takes any form you need God to take. And the midrash gives us permission to find — or feel — God in whatever form speaks to us.

Later in the piece, Rabbi Ingber says:

Why would the first thing God tell the people of Israel be, I am the Lord your God? There must be a hidden reason. The rabbis are imagining a God who is really concerned that the people not be confused by the polymorphic nature of God. Will the real God please stand up?

So this text is decidedly trying to say, ‘I appear in multiple places, in different ways, but they’re all me.’ God is saying, ‘You can see me as your aunt or uncle, your father or mother. You can see me as a God who at one time feels like a stern disciplinarian and another time feels as a loving, compassionate comforter. All of these faces are legitimate expressions of who I am.’

Covenant is the weblog of the Living Church Foundation, an independent nonprofit ministry within the Episcopal Church. Hat tip to Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and one-half of the Lent Madness team, for tweeting this Covenant article by lay theologian Elizabeth Anderson: “The Priesthood of All Believers: The Uses and Abuses of a Doctrine”. Anderson critiques a phenomenon that I’ve noticed as well. Despite the Protestant belief that everyone has a ministry, non-clergy are often kept in social service roles, not allowed to influence the church’s theology or offer spiritual direction. “[A]ll of these false binaries — sacred/secular, spiritual/material, contemplation/action, Church /world, clergy/laity — imply a kind of dualism that is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity.”

Tor has a relatable new post at Speaking While the World Sleeps: “Defined by Future Regret: Survivors’ Autonomy”. As child abuse survivors, we question (and are constantly questioned about) how we can know ourselves well enough to transition. I often say that the “always already a boy” narrative doesn’t fit me, because there was never a time when I had access to an uncontested selfhood.

The idea that there is a “before” we could get back to, should get back to, makes no sense when talking about a lot of trauma, especially child sexual abuse. What’s the “before” when that would be when I was a child?

But I think the difficulty here is that it’s not just a “before” people expect us to get back to. They also assume an “underneath.” Underneath the trauma is you, underneath the trauma is what you actually think, want, hope, desire, and dream.

Tor observes that these questioners are far too concerned about us regretting non-heteronormative choices, while the real thing worth mourning is the years of authenticity we lost.

As much as people fixate on survivors who talk about, say, transitioning, and regretting it because it was “just because they were abused” I’m betting it’s far more common that trans survivors are like me, wishing they can been capable, emotionally, and mentally, of going on hormones years ago. But our regret only matters when we make active decisions about our life, when we assert our will over our bodies, not the passive regret that at least makes us fall in line within socially acceptable parameters of existence…

…This means that rather than helping survivors confront, grieve, and move past our regret, we’re instead taught to value it, to see it as something live by, more than any other emotional experience, more than any other aspect of our trauma.

And in doing so, we make it difficult for survivors to grasp at the normalcy of regret.

What I mean is: when you get to the end of your life, you’re always going to have choices you wish you’d taken and choices you wish you hadn’t. That’s what it means to be capable of choices. But survivors are encouraged to see their every regret as an aspersion on their capacity for reason, their decision-making as fully autonomous human beings…

Part of coping with abuse is understanding that there isn’t an “underneath” self who would make perfectly correct choices, who knows with pure clarity exactly who they are, who is so self-assured that they will never guess wrong about their own needs or desires, if only there wasn’t the trauma mucking things up. It’s understanding that messiness is a part of being human. And so is regret.

The Poet Spiel: “Teaching Little Ones”

The phrase “gut instinct” is more than a metaphor. Scientists have found a sort of second brain in our GI tract, which they call the enteric nervous system. During stressful times, it’s common to develop digestive issues. In the piece below, the Poet Spiel muses with his usual humor and bluntness about what makes 2020 so hard to swallow.

Spiel’s books include the illustrated autobiography Revealing Self in Pictures and Words and the poetry collection Barely Breathing. His spoken word album breathing back words is available on Spotify. Visit his website for more information.

 

TEACHING LITTLE ONES

As a farm kid, I swallowed
axle grease, copper rivets and dingleberries,
road tar, spiders, coal dust, and lead paint,
chicken beaks, mouse bones and my sister’s snot,
and chips from Uncle Charley’s permanent asbestos siding.

Mostly I swallowed crap
similar to what my dad swallowed
in the early 1900s
before the age of five.

I’ve swallowed a lot
but I cannot swallow the brazen narcissism,
the hypocrisy and bullying of a nation’s government
that serves its righteousness to me in a bloated bladder
that’s about to spew its selfishness all over this earth
while the shameless leader of the pack
teaches our little ones that cheating and lying
are the only way to win.

I will stand when you stand,
but I will grip my grieving gut
with my right fist
while you place yours against your heart.