Hell Is the Absence of Closure

Having just finished my intensive immersion in “The Sopranos”, I don’t have an explanation for the enigmatic and (some would say) unsatisfying final cut-to-black scene of Tony in the diner. To quote Wednesday Addams, Are they dead? Does it matter? What I do notice is a psychological resemblance to the endings of two other shows that made a deep impression on me, “Mad Men” and “BoJack Horseman”. The central character of all three shows is a charming and destructively narcissistic man whose antisocial behavior at first seems clever and entertaining, then tragic, then dull and predictable.

I binged “BoJack” during 2020 quarantine (how fucked-up is it that we have to specify which year of COVID quarantine we’re in?) and something about its combination of bleakness and surreal frivolity spoke to the sudden bizarre shift in our lives. I was late to the “Mad Men” trend, but caught up in time to watch the last season in real time. Back in 2015 I thought Peggy Olson had finally shown me the kind of woman I was, which I’d never seen on TV before. Isaac Fellman’s essay “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man” tells you how that worked out.

As viewers, we crave a conventional narrative arc. Someone changes, or is shattered by the consequences of refusing to change. The endings of these three series frustrate that desire, because a wearying stasis is truer to life with a person trapped in his own narcissism.

Don Draper seems to have a breakdown and breakthough in the finale, shedding the status symbols of his ad-man life to wind up sobbing in an encounter group at Esalen. But the final minutes strongly suggest he’s going to spin his moment of enlightenment into a Coca-Cola commercial as soon as he catches a ride home to New York.

A “Hollywoo” treatment of “BoJack” would have ended one episode earlier, with him drowning in the swimming pool of his former luxury apartment like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”. Instead, a subdued BoJack is directing amateur theater productions in jail while his friends’ lives move on without him. “Life’s a bitch, then you die, right?” he says to Diane, who replies, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch, then you keep living.”

In my opinion, that’s the punishment to which Tony Soprano is sentenced. He’s dead inside, whether or not his physical body is alive. Like the Flying Dutchman, he’s going to go on eating onion rings in that diner forever, after almost all his old friends and close family have died (many by his hand).

Sometimes the redemption arc is that other people get away from the one guy who’s been soaking up all the energy in the room because of his resistance to growth. The guy who thinks he’s the main character in everyone’s life, not just his own.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2021

How it started:

Jennifer Melfi - Wikipedia

How it’s going:

Silvio Dante Picture

Another year around the Block. I definitely don’t take that for granted. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life is short and unpredictable, entirely another thing to feel that urgency as one wakes up every day in a country under threat from fascism and disease. What am I waiting for?

High Spirits: I tried marijuana edibles for the first time in November. It was pleasant to feel my brain slow down for about 5 hours. No time to do it again till February, I imagine. I really need to readjust my work-life balance.

Salem’s Lot: Studying witchcraft this year has brought me great satisfaction, mind-body integration, and optimism. ICYMI, I blogged about it earlier this month. My first year of training will wrap up in March 2022. Time to start selecting my magickal name, which may coincide with applying for a new passport and driver’s license with a male gender marker. (My desire for gender affirmation conflicts with my basic laziness regarding paperwork and my Ron-Swanson-esque opinion that my gender is none of the government’s business anyway.)

Personal Soundtrack: Remember that week in January when everyone was singing sea shanties on TikTok? I got hooked on The Longest Johns, and particularly their song “Bones in the Ocean”, a poignant ode to survivor guilt that seemed extra meaningful as America’s COVID death toll reached 800,000. The Young Master independently discovered this song at summer camp and now we listen to shanties together on Spotify. His fourth-grade music teacher also introduced him to 2Cellos, an energetic pair of HOT guys who play pop tunes in a classical style. And I still can’t get enough of that German Karneval music.

Bookbag: Some of the extremely homosexual books I enjoyed this year were Aden Polydoros’ Jewish paranormal mystery The City Beautiful, Brandon Taylor’s literary short fiction collection Filthy Animals, and the poetry collections Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams and The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. I’d been meaning to read Glen David Gold’s historical novel about vaudeville magicians, Carter Beats the Devil, for almost 20 years, and it was all I hoped for and more. Julie Murphy’s queer YA romance Pumpkin gave me the courage to sign up for a transgender runway show next month. Pictures forthcoming!

The Writing Life: I finished a major revision of my novel Origin Story with guidance from the peerless editor/sensitivity reader Denne Michele Norris, co-host of Food 4 Thot Podcast and the new editor-in-chief of Electric Lit.

Once again, I took part in the 30 Poems in November fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, while binge-watching “The Sopranos” on HBO’s streaming service. The conjunction of those two pastimes generated The Waste-Management Land, a poetry chapbook manuscript in need of a good home.

My third full-length poetry collection, Made Man, comes out in February from Little Red Tree and is now available to pre-order. Cover art and interior illustrations by Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel. This book explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters. Enjoy the opening poem, first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal.

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

July Links Roundup: Free at Last

Readers of this blog may remember my pen pal “Conway”, the poet and artist who was serving 25-to-life under California’s three-strikes sentencing law for stealing a motorcycle. This Independence Day finally has real meaning for him, because he is FREE! He is thriving in a re-entry program in Los Angeles, reuniting with his devoted daughters and learning how to use the Internet. He dreams of opening up his own auto repair shop and tattoo parlor. Read more of his poetry here and here, or browse the Prison Letters category on this blog.

Several factors converged to make this miracle happen (if you can really call it a miracle for a man to spend 29 years of his life in jail for petty theft). The new Los Angeles County D.A. is no longer opposing early-release petitions under Prop 36, the 2008 referendum that retroactively repealed the harsh sentencing law. Stanford Law School’s pro bono clinic continues to help my friend navigate the legal system that profits from keeping people under perpetual surveillance, even when they’ve served their time–and then some. And I applied the full force of four months of witchcraft training to send him protective energy and courage.

Though Conway’s exodus is cause for tremendous rejoicing, millions more Americans are still trapped in prisons and jails that violate their human rights to medical care, adequate food and shelter, voting access, and speedy trial, among other indignities. In June, Harper’s Bazaar, in partnership with the PEN Prison Writing Program, published this worthwhile feature: “5 Formerly or Currently Incarcerated Writers on What Freedom Means to Them”. The personal essays include criminal justice reform leader Vivian D. Nixon on reclaiming the freedom to use African-American Vernacular English, and Elizabeth Hawes on music and literature as a lifeline behind bars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native American and Canadian Indigenous children suffered another type of unjust incarceration in euphemistically named “residential schools”. Governments run by white people stole the children from their families, with the goal of eradicating Native languages and cultures. This genocidal project has been in the news lately with the discoveries of mass graves on the sites of some schools. Many more doubtless remain to be unearthed, as conditions at the schools were brutal. This online curriculum from Facing History describes the shameful role of Christian missionaries and educators in running these institutions.

To help bring justice to Native Americans today, consider donating to Lakota People’s Law Project. Their initiatives include fighting for voting rights, creating community centers for Native youth, and protecting the land and water from pipeline pollution.

Truly the best essay I’ve read in a long time is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from the 2002 anthology Touching Feeling. Eve understands what’s wrong with The Discourse. Does debunking everything make you feel better? Does it help you understand what to do about the brokenness of the world? Especially in 2021, is the trash fire even news? Suspicion is not always the most progressive hermeneutic. Nor is exposure automatically effective at producing change, because people may still be apathetic, wedded to fake news, or too hopeless to act on what they’ve learned. Sedgwick suggests that one can see systemic oppression clearly, yet still be committed to a reparative approach that aims at maximizing love and pleasure, rather than the paranoid priority of avoiding all bad surprises.

45 Shining Harvey Milk Quotes - SayingImages.com

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

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.”

March Links Roundup: Uptown Rat

Uptown rat…You know I can’t afford to buy her trash…

The quintessential New Yorker, the subway rat, turns out to have distinctive neighborhood populations just like the Big Apple’s human residents. According to The Atlantic, “New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats”. In 2017, a genetics grad student at Fordham sequenced the critters’ DNA, with the goal of controlling the vermin problem by understanding their migration patterns.

Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It’s not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don’t mix much.

When the researchers drilled down even deeper, they found that different neighborhoods have their own distinct rats. “If you gave us a rat, we could tell whether it came from the West Village or the East Village,” says Combs. “They’re actually unique little rat neighborhoods.” And the boundaries of rat neighborhoods can fit surprisingly well with human ones.

(True New York rats understand Times Square is just for tourists.)

Rats get a bad name, but humans right now are casting doubt on the superiority of our species. Last month in #MeToo news, the Christian humanitarian organization L’Arche disclosed that their revered founder, the late Jean Vanier, had sexually exploited a number of women under his spiritual direction. Founded in France in 1964, L’Arche is a network of intentional communities where non-disabled people live in fellowship with those who have intellectual disabilities. Catholic theologian and popular author Henri Nouwen had a spiritual awakening there and was pastor of a L’Arche community in Ontario for the last 10 years of his life. The Catholic magazine America reports:

Mr. Vanier is accused of sexual misconduct with six adult, non-disabled women who sought spiritual direction from the late activist, author and philosopher. According to a press release from L’Arche USA, the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

According to the release, the inquiry “has found the allegations to be credible.”

…The L’Arche founder’s behavior seemed to repeat the pattern of abuse initiated by his mentor, according to the investigation. Father Philippe had been Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” who inspired him to begin his ministry with disabled people. The pair met in 1950, when Mr. Vanier, then in his 20s, joined L’Eau Vive, a community for theology students in France founded by Father Philippe. Two years later, Father Philippe was called to Rome and removed from ministry, ostensibly for unspecified health reasons.

Some scholars suggest that Father Philippe was removed from ministry then because “for his unorthodoxy and exaggerated Marian mysticism, which was based on an experience he had in prayer in 1937.” That theology appears to have been used in Father Philippe’s promotion of sexual practices in his spiritual counseling.

According to L’Arche: “At least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe’s spiritual direction in 1951/1952.”

Mr. Vanier had maintained for years that he did not know why Father Philippe had been removed from ministry in 1952…But the new investigation reveal[ed] that was not true.

Followers of the clergy abuse beat may notice similarities to the late Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, a similarly revered figure in progressive Christian circles, who is believed to have harassed or abused some 100 women in the guise of intimate spiritual counseling, as summarized in this 2015 article in The Mennonite.

For a broader analysis, The Revealer magazine’s March 2020 special issue examines “Religion & Sex Abuse in and Beyond the Catholic Church”. I found the article “The Guru-Disciple Relationship and the Complications of Consent” especially thought-provoking: can there even be “nonconsensual sex” in the context of a relationship where the disciple has voluntarily sworn complete submission to the guru? When does victim advocacy become an imposition of our own values on someone else’s religion? Personally, this is the point where I feel we’re making an idol out of tolerance and pluralism. But radical feminists might say the same thing about kink. The piece left me wondering if there are any formal checks on a guru’s power in this system, like a safeword in BDSM. I don’t think it’s cultural imperialism to advocate for accountability structures within the guru-disciple relationship, just as we (theoretically!) have rules against abuses in the military, despite the expectation of obedience to your commanding officer.

Queer Christian activist Kevin Garcia brings the clarity with his new blog post “We Consented to Our Own Abuse”, about how non-affirming churches gaslight LGBTQ people into believing that suffering and exclusion are “loving”.

I called myself disgusting. I called myself sinful and gross. I thought these things about myself. And it made me cry that I tried so hard but couldn’t change.

But I was told, if I would just hold on, hold on and wait for God’s best for me to show up, then I could stay a part of this beloved community.

In my community, uniformity of thought was so important. Uniformity of feeling was also fairly important. We had to all show this outward sign of God’s work in our lives. JOY! PEACE! KINDNESS! That was the fruit of the spirit. But if your joy didn’t look like their joy, if your peace didn’t look like their peace, then they would apply their own form of “kindness” in order to get you there. They’d wanna “love on you.”

I was made to believe that if I didn’t belong, I would never feel happy because I’d be outside of God’s presence. On top of that, I was also told that I’d go to hell if I chose to live outside what they said was God’s will.

And anytime I got “loved on,” to be honest most of the time it hurt.

Love shouldn’t hurt.

But I didn’t know that. I was taught that I had to make a sacrifice for the kingdom of God. I was told that what I had to offer was not acceptable to God, who I was, the way I loved and the way I connected with others was sinful. What was weird is that I wanted this thing I was told was sinful. “A king gets to make demands that seem unjust to us, but He’s the king. We don’t get to question that sovereignty.”

Read the whole thing and prepare to cry. Kevin is so right: “it is worth everything to be free. It is worth everything to rediscover your infinite connection to Love.”

Sorry to beat a dead rat–er, horse–but stories like this February item from Raw Story cement my conviction that evangelical Christianity has lost all moral credibility: “White evangelicals are set to undermine Native American adoption protections”. In 2016, a Cherokee/Navaho toddler was placed for adoption with a white evangelical couple in Texas, but the federal Indian Child Welfare Act first requires authorities to search for a Native adoptive family from the child’s background (though not necessarily related to him). Only if no such placement can be found, is the child eligible for adoption outside the tribe. The white couple is challenging this law:

By this point, the tribes have relented and allowed the adoption to go through. But the Brackeens are now pushing for the invalidation of the ICWA altogether — a law that was meant in part to rectify the long and brutal history of the U.S. government separating Native families. A district court has agreed the ICWA is unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit partially reversed the decision. The Fifth Circuit is now rehearing the case en banc, and it may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Another Supreme Court case to watch this term is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which could potentially create a huge “religious exemption” to anti-discrimination laws. Vox reports:

Fulton asks whether religious organizations that contract with Philadelphia to help place foster children in homes have a First Amendment right to discriminate against same-sex couples…The plaintiffs in Fulton include Catholic Social Services (CSS), an organization that used to contract with the city to help find foster placements for children but that effectively lost that contract after it refused to comply with the ban on discrimination. CSS claims it has a First Amendment right to continue to do business with the city even if it refuses to comply with the city’s anti-discrimination rules.

…A decision for the plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, could have implications that stretch well beyond foster care. The Fulton case involves an especially sympathetic plaintiff: a Catholic organization that helps vulnerable children find homes. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of that plaintiff, it could potentially establish that a wide range of government contractors, from social service providers to military contractors, may discriminate if the company’s owners claim a religious justification for that discrimination.

As the article explains, the plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn their 1990 precedent Employment Division v. Smith, which held that the “free exercise of religion” provision of the Bill of Rights isn’t a broad license to opt out of any laws that incidentally burden but don’t target religious practices. The difference seems to be political rather than legal–Smith was a Native American fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ritual.

In secular rat news, the website Follow the Money reports that “between 1989 and 1998, Dutch multinationals paid over one million guilders (close to half a million euros) to prominent climate sceptic Frits Böttcher (1915-2008), with the explicit goal of sowing doubts about climate change and humanity’s role in it. Böttcher used the money to set up an international network of climate sceptics…The doubt created led, among other things, to a lack of political support for regulatory measures with regard to CO2 reduction during the 1990s.”

Image result for gay rat images

Take over the planet, boys. The humans are done.

 

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.

October Links Roundup: Be More Gay, Fight More Nazis

October, my favorite month–cold, dark, and spooky. Trans bois everywhere rejoice at the beginning of vest-wearing season.

When times are troubled, Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to look for “what’s not wrong” in the world. So let’s start out with this inspiring historical comic from The Nib, “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.”, by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings. We usually picture gays during the Holocaust only as concentration camp victims. Beck came of age in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. In 1943 he helped found Chug Chaluzi, an underground support network for Jews living in Berlin in defiance of Goebbels’ deportation order. With his twin sister and his life partner, another member of Chug Chaluzi, he worked for the Resistance until captured and tortured by the Gestapo. The three survived the war and lived a long life of activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel and Germany. “I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life…no matter how dire the straits,” Beck wrote.

The structural obstacles to justice in America today seem dire indeed. The more I learn, the more intertwined and entrenched the inequalities appear. Yet I take comfort in the awareness that I’m part of a collective movement, adding my little pebbles to the mountain we can build together. I don’t have to fix this by myself.

At present I’m focusing on voting rights and their connection to the prison-industrial complex. We can have all the progressive candidates we want and it still won’t do any good if large swathes of the Democratic constituency are disenfranchised. This happens through strategies like gerrymandering (drawing odd-shaped legislative districts in order to rig the election for a particular party) and a racially biased criminal justice system. Check out the Emancipation Initiative website to help with our campaign to restore prisoners’ voting rights in Massachusetts.

At Salon, journalist Igor Derysh reports on the late Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, “the master of modern gerrymandering,” whose secret files, opened after his death in August 2018, reveal his strategy to dilute the black vote.

…Hofeller’s files show that he compiled maps with overlays of the black voting-age population by district, suggesting that racial data was a key part of the gerrymander, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle

Hofeller, a key player in the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, compiled data on the citizen voting-age population in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and other states going back to 2011. In memos, Hofeller argued that drawing maps based on the number of citizens rather than the population would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and help “non-Hispanic whites.”

…The files show that Hofeller also traveled around the country to educate Republicans about redistricting and urged them to push for prison gerrymandering, which allows inmates to be counted as residents of the area where the prison is located, often helping Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some cities are rethinking the use of arrest warrants for minor nonviolent offenses. The Washington Post reports that “One in 7 adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest,” often for misdemeanors such as panhandling or missing a court date. The City Council is considering a resolution to dismiss all warrants and charges associated with poverty and homelessness, which account for over 40% of the total. “A coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution—wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.” These reforms would clear the overcrowded dockets, reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate one burden that falls more heavily on poor and minority residents:

Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.

Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.

A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.

Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.

Also last month, California legislators approved a bill to ban private (for-profit) prisons from operating in the state, The Guardian reported. The move would likely shut down four ICE immigrant detention centers as well.

Going in the wrong direction, as usual, the Catholic Church is still using its behind-the-scenes political power to block clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Maria Kwiatkowski and John Kelly have the full story this week in USA Today: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.”

The article details what I would consider numerous violations of the Establishment Clause and tax-exempt status requirements, including sermons and mass mailings to parishioners, smear campaigns and threatening personal messages to pro-victim legislators. At stake are proposed state laws that would extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue. Victim advocates support such laws because memories of child abuse can take decades to surface, and even for those victims who never forgot, they often do not have the safety and resources to pursue a claim till later in life. Meanwhile, the Church pleads that lawsuits would bankrupt it, while spending millions on lobbying. However, it appears that public opinion is finally turning against these once-revered authority figures:

Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis, and the rate of success has picked up. Of the 29 states that have enacted such laws, 11 did so for the first time this year.

Ten states no longer have any civil statute of limitations and 16 states have revived expired statutes, according to CHILD USA, which tracks such legislation daily.

Perhaps we’d be better off with Mindar, an AI recently installed at a 400-year-old Japanese Buddhist temple. According to Vox.com, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral”:

For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.

“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.

Then there’s SanTO — short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — a 17-inch-tall robot reminiscent of figurines of Catholic saints. If you tell it you’re worried, it’ll respond by saying something like, “From the Gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anthony Boucher’s classic sci-fi story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” has become a reality. Let me know if you see a robass at the Blessing of the Animals service this weekend.

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.”

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.