April 6, 2016
I'm delighted to announce that my review of Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is now online. It appears in the first issue of the gorgeous new Current Affairs magazine, available everywhere you find periodicals and newspapers for sale — yes, it’s an actual print publication!
Here’s an excerpt, enjoy the rest online.
"In other words, Gilbert, who has spent half her life as a professional writer, now believes that hers is simply a vocation. Yet, when she actually describes the trajectory of her career—and it has been a long and illustrious one—she treats it not as a mystical calling but as work. At one point, for instance, she relates how her editor at GQ, where she was then a staff writer, pulled a story she had worked on for five months, a travel story about Serbia on which the publication had spent a lot of money. The editor’s rationale was that he realized she was not the person for the job and there was no point in her pursuing it any further; he told her to simply move on to the next assignment. Gilbert’s point in relating the anecdote is that writers must always be prepared to end projects that aren’t working. But we might glean a different story here: that no one hires a casual, vocational writer to work on a travel story about Serbia for five months. The freedom to flit, to cut one’s losses and move on, is possible only when one has the backing of a serious institution and serious money, plus an editor who can sign off on half-a-year’s salary and travel expenses for a project that never sees completion."
Written by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, $27.95; Beacon Press; 216 pages
It seems that the LGBT community now has everything it could ever ask for in its quest for “full equality.” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed, and while gay marriage is only legal in a few states, major gay organizations have already earmarked millions for that fight. Most significantly for some, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas to finally end an antiquated law against sodomy.
It’s Lawrence v. Texas which convinces many LGBTs that queers can no longer be criminalized. As gay marriage appears on the horizon, LGBTs stand at the foot of the rainbow ready to hoist themselves over it and rappel downwards on the other side to the promised land.
But, meanwhile…In 1999, Bernina Mata, a Latina lesbian in Illinois, was sentenced to the death penalty in a case where Assistant State’s Attorney Troy Owen declared that she had “a motive to commit this crime in that she is a hard core lesbian…”
In 2001, Freddie Mason, a Black gay nurse’s assistant in Chicago was arrested after a verbal argument with his landlord “and anally raped with a billy club covered in cleaning fluid by a police officer who called him a ‘nigger fag.’”
In 2008, Duanna Johnson, a Black transgender woman in Tennessee, was picked up by police despite no evidence of solicitation. At the police station, she refused to answer to an officer who called her a “she-he.” She was beaten so hard that her skull split open. Johnson filed a suit against the police but, before the matter could go to trial, was found shot execution style under mysterious circumstances.
In each case, the victims were identified as queer and suffered at the hands of a system that used their gender and sexual identities to mark them as inherently prone to violence and/or deserving of horrendous and illegal punishment. Or, as the brilliant and searing new book Queer (In)Justice forcefully reminds us, “The specter of criminality moves ceaselessly through the lives of LGBT people in the United States.”
Queer (In)Justice’s three co-authors have long worked on the prison industrial complex and the criminal legal system. Joey Mogul is well known to Chicago and national anti-death penalty activists, and has represented men who sued Jon Burge. Andrea Ritchie is a police misconduct attorney in New York City and Kay Whitlock was the national representative for LGBT Issues for the American Friends Service Committee and is now a Montana-based organizer and writer. To their great credit, despite the presence of three very distinct individuals with long-standing ties to their subject matter (which is a delicate way of saying: this could have dissolved into an incoherent mess), the book is eloquent and seamless.
In seven chapters filled with unstinting accounts filled with detail, acute analysis and historical research, the authors seek to complicate and unsettle what we might understand as the criminalization of LGBT people. The fact that they prefer the term “criminal legal system” rather than the more commonly used “criminal justice system” provides one way to understand this book’s intent. For them, this “reflects an acknowledgment of the reality that this system has not produced anything remotely approximating justice for the vast majority of people in the United States…but rather bears major responsibility for the continuing institutionalization of severe, persistent, and seemingly intractable forms of violence and inequality.”
Queer (In)Justice pulls no punches in laying how this system brutalizes the most marginalized while confident that no one will pay attention or care much. In the case of Johnson, Reverend Dwight Montgomery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that he was appalled but added, “I certainly don’t condone transgender [sic] or homosexuality.” At the same time, mainstream LGBT groups jumped on the opportunity to use the case to advance hate crimes legislation, without criticizing the police department for failing to end what was clearly a systemic problem that could be handled with existing laws in place.
This is the kind of contradiction that this book unpicks so artfully: the fact that the mainstream LGBT community on the one hand expressly wants law and order to work on its behalf even as it sees the history of how that very system has consistently worked to deny it the most basic rights – until relatively recently in our history, Chicago police could arrest lesbians for wearing trousers that closed in the front back, not the back or sides as “ladies” might wear.
What explains such contradictions? The answer, as Queer (In)Justice reveals, lies partly in the mainstream LGBT community’s recent accession to a position of power and influence such that it genuinely believes that it is above such treatment. It also lies in the fact that LGBTs extrapolate very specific lessons from the histories that we understand and/or uncover. For instance, the commonly related narrative about sodomy laws is that they represented the worst of Puritanical impulses and that their repeal now means the end of the criminalization of LGBT people.
But those most affected unjustly by an already unjust criminal legal system are also marginalized on account of any and every combination of race, income level and sexual and gender identity (perceived or otherwise). Thus, “[a] narrow telling of the story of sodomy laws also creates mutually exclusive categories of ‘people who are discriminated against on the basis of race’ and ‘people who suffer oppression as queers.’” And so, Johnson, a Black, poor, transgender woman who could not access to drug addiction treatment programs because she refused to present as a man, was at once ignored by her supposed community of gays and targeted by a system that recognized her socio-economic vulnerability and punished her for talking back.
The book is critical of the mechanisms ostensibly designed to provide correctives to such cases. In a chapter-long critique of hate crimes legislation, they point out the fallacy of such. Originating in the 1950s as a way to ensure that African Americans would get fair treatment under the law, hate crimes legislation persuades us to ignore the fact that law enforcement itself specifically targets what might be deemed protected categories (lesbians, Black gay men, transgender women). In addition, they convince us that bias-based violence springs from individualized and ignorant impulses, allowing us to forget that “behavior that is racist, homophobic, transphobic…does not occur in a political vacuum.”
Queer (In)Justice, written in an accessible style for a general audience, is a much-needed corrective to the idea that “law and order” operate as just and abstract concepts in a system that will protect the innocent. It persuasively argues that innocence is a shifting category, contingent on visible markers of race and class privilege. A concluding chapter provides alternatives to the rush to involve conventional policing systems. For instance, in Tennessee, following the Johnson murder, the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition began calling on transphobic businesses to provide more employment opportunities for transphobic businesses and for shelters to end their practice of turning away transgender people and forcing them live on the streets.
It’s here, though, that the book runs the risk of occluding the clarity it otherwise provides so well. In writing about the accomplishments of various alternative queer groups, for instance, it mentions, a few times, Chicago’s Queer to the Left (Q2L) for its campaigns against gentrification and the death penalty, describing it as a “multi-racial, grassroots group.” I was, along with Joey Mogul, a member of Q2L. Even until her acknowledgments at the end of the book, where she speaks of it in the past tense, it’s hard to discern that the group in fact no longer exists. In and for its time, Q2L did excellent work but by the time I left in about 2003, some months before its eventual demise, it was entirely white and mostly male (a colleague wryly noted that my departure meant a sudden depletion in at least three constituencies), and its internal and external politics displayed the kind of racism and homo/heteronormative agenda it had originally sprung up to combat; its last public action was pro-gay marriage.
I provide this in part to disclose my prior working relationship with one of the book’s authors (Mogul and I still operate in intersecting activist circles) but also to caution against a tendency of the left/progressive organizing world to erase, even if with the gentle nudge of omission of certain facts, the more troubling aspects of our individual and collective histories. The authors are not responsible for long histories of the many groups they mention, but they are responsible for at least accurate portrayals and for pointing out that some groups, while they did vital work, have also died out (similarly, Queer Watch, another network mentioned, no longer exists). In forgetting or erasing our pasts, we run the risk of believing that alternative visions can operate without trouble or rancor or that, indeed, that they somehow operate forever. Our fallibility as organizers does not make us any less radical or effective; our awareness of such can only make us stronger.
That aside, this book is a powerful and productively disorienting book, and essential reading for anyone interested in how queers intersect with the criminal legal system. Queer (In)Justice does not present an explicitly abolitionist agenda, but its politics are clear in one telling sentence: “The violence and punishment visited on LGBT prisoners ‘are not anomalies,’ and they cannot be eradicated through reform.” I suspect that the book’s shying away from a more explicitly abolitionist agenda has something to do with the fact that it emerges from an anti-oppression, not an anti-capitalist framework. Which is to say: the problems it illuminates are depicted as arising from the oppression of marginalized communities, but there is little gesturing towards, for instance, the economic machinations of the for-profit prison industrial complex.
That’s not a critique as much as much as it is a statement of fact, and the book’s main focus is on the larger legal system. Queer (In)Justice provides analyses and information that have rarely been put together in this form, and those looking for more anti-capitalist and abolitionist work can find it in the writings of, say, Angela Davis – who is frequently cited here. Besides, the sheer force of the evidence that the authors have marshaled will undoubtedly have an effect. A reader might well begin this book wondering, “How can we change this system for the better?” That same reader is likely to emerge with a completely different question by the end: “How can we end this structure for ever?”
Originally published in Windy City Times, February 2, 2011
The Muppets have entranced and educated generations of children and generated nostalgic memories for millions of adults. Fans can even take a Facebook quiz to determine which Muppet they most resemble. Yet, comparatively little is known about those who turned the simplest hand puppets into expressive, unique and sometimes cantankerous but always beloved characters. On Jan. 10, the New York City-based writer and zinester Jessica Max Stein will be at Quimby’s Bookshop to discuss the life and work of Richard Hunt, a gay man who was the voice behind Scooter, Janice, Beaker, Statler, Wayne and Sweetums, among many others. He also shared the role of Miss Piggy with Frank Oz until the end of the first season of The Muppet Show.
Hunt is the subject of Stein’s new 84-page zine, The Rainbow Connection: Richard Hunt, Gay Muppeteer, which showcases Stein’s interest and absorption in the life of a man who was among the most long-standing behind-the-scenes performers on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and whose off-screen humor and colorful personality imbued his puppets with the kind of vivacity that has made them popular for so long. Hunt was born in New York City in 1951 and, according to his mother, got the job on the Muppet Show when, a few months after graduating from high school, he decided to cold call Henson Associates (the late Jim Henson’s company) and ask if they were hiring puppeteers. It so happened that they were auditioning, and Hunt was soon hired.
For Stein, it’s that kind of impetuosity and bravado that proved most intriguing and enchanting as she began to hear more about Hunt’s life and career. Hunt, an out gay man, would go on to become a main performer on The Muppet Show, and one of five performers to be a regular performer on all five seasons. He was also on Fraggle Rock, playing both Junior Gorg and Gunge.
Both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show have gained enormous success and international renown, and those who worked on them have continued to do well professionally in large part, according to Stein, because Henson was intelligent about maintaining creative and financial integrity. Hunt, according to Stein and other historians of the show like Christopher Finch, who wrote Of Muppets and Men, was well-liked, energetic and every bit as playful as the puppets he gave voice to. He died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications, with Frank Oz among those at his bedside. According to the Wikipedia entry under his name, “many panels were created in his honor for the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, including one created by his friends in The Muppet Workshop.” Jon Stone, a former director of Sesame Street, said about Hunt’s death and influence: “A generation has grown up absorbing Richard’s art, and I have to believe that every one of them is a smarter, funnier, stronger, sillier, more generous person because of him.”
Stein said that her fascination with the man has a lot to do with the ways in which his life and personality imbue the show with a queerness that might otherwise be overlooked if we only think of the Muppets and their characters as aimed at children: “I love that this project speaks to these contradictions,” she told Windy City Times. “People think of muppets as exclusively for kids, but I also see them as very adult and queer. Richard and Oz created Miss Piggy and when you think of it, hers is a total performance of femininity.” What also intrigued her was the character of a man who had clearly engendered fondness, even as some admitted he could be acerbic: “He was totally effervescent; his mom described him as “expansive,” and I see that as a great synonym for ‘big queer.’” Stein was also intrigued by Hunt’s life and work as emblematic of the era he lived and died in: “We can’t separate his life from the times.”
Hunt was in one sense a casualty of the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the U.S. gay male population in particular in the 1980s. But in his death, Stein saw an opportunity to celebrate a decade that the gay community now looks at mostly through the lens of loss and sometimes in very simplified terms, without much attention to the vitality of those who died. Stein is clear that she has no inclination to romanticize the era, and she has friends who speak of feeling like survivors as most of their friends died: “It was a plague.” For her, however, the lingering questions are about how we choose to remember the decade and grieve the dead. The project has also prompted questions about the state of the current gay movement. Speaking of the current emphasis on gay marriage, she said that “We made all these trade-offs and we've forgotten that there used to be different options for gay people. People are forgetting that very fast. What I loved about Richard Hunt is that he lived with abundance.” She bases her understanding of him not only through histories like Finch’s book, but also through the interviews she has conducted with the people who knew him, like his mother and co-workers.
The Rainbow Connection was conceived as a zine, but Stein’s research on Hunt has continued even after its publication. She is contemplating the possibility that the greater amounts of material she has since been uncovering might result in a book-length project. For now, she is busy with a zine tour that began in Albany, N.Y. Jan. 2 and will culminate in Chicago. This tour is a follow-up to the first one she undertook in the summer of 2009, traversing New York City; Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco. Stein is especially looking forward to connecting with the motley crew of people that comprise her audiences: “the readings bring together a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise be in the same room: the fanboy nerdy straight guys, the people who just love the Muppets, queers.”
In 1990, the Havasupai tribe of the Grand Canyon gave DNA samples to Dr. Therese Markow, an Arizona State University geneticist, hoping for genetic clues about their high rate of diabetes. Markow found none but the DNA continued to be analyzed by various researchers who found that the Havasupai originated in Asia, contradicting tribal mythology that they sprang out of the Canyon.
The Havasupai were outraged, fearing that the revelation might threaten their claim to sovereignty over the land. They also felt that their DNA had been researched in an unauthorized fashion. They sued and, this April, ASU agreed to pay “$700,000 to 41 of the tribe’s members, return the blood samples and provide other forms of assistance to the impoverished Havasupai,” according to The New York Times. The settlement may be the first of its kind. DNA samples have traditionally, usually, been taken without explicit content, but there is a growing backlash from patients.
No cluster of cells is more famous than that of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 in Virginia, only eight months after her diagnosis. Collectively known as HeLa, Lacks’ cells are at the center of the engrossing new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The cells were scraped from her cervix without her informed consent. Unlike average cells which die after a few hours of study, HeLa cells survived long after and kept multiplying. By now, they have been instrumental in some of the most significant medical research and discoveries, including the polio vaccine.
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920. Johns Hopkins, where she was treated, was the only hospital in her area that would admit Black patients; she was seen in a “colored-only” exam room. At the time, the hospital had no qualms about exploiting Black patients. Howard Jones, the gynecologist who examined Lacks, wrote, “Hopkins, with its large indigent black [sic] population, had no dearth of clinical material.”
Over the years, HeLa cells have made billions in profits for various biomedical companies while the majority of the Lacks family does not have health insurance. Such ironies reveal the frequent poverty or disempowerment of subjects used in research and the history of a medical industry which has a long and racist history of exploiting people of color, as in the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. It might be technically difficult to assert or prove that Lacks’ descendants ought to have a share in the profits. Indeed, as Skloot points out in a very comprehensive final chapter which examines the ethics of such research, medical science might suffer if the extraction of cells from patients’ bodies is overly regulated. Yet, Lacks lived in segregationist America, and poor people of color are still routinely denied equal access to the best medical care – either through outright and racist (if covertly so) denial of the same, a broken health care system that excludes the poor, or a combination of the two factors. We have to confront the vexing contradictions that arise out of such circumstances, and Skloot does not shy away from them. Queers have an interest in knowing about such moments given the history of our desires and bodies being scrutinized, medicalized and incarcerated against our will – practices which are still prevalent in the U.S and abroad, under the guise of “reparative therapy,” for instance.
Race and economic inequality are central here. Skloot is conscious of the race and power dynamics in which she is implicated, but it is still worth noting that Lacks’ story is now garnering great attention in mainstream media only after a white writer brought it to the forefront. The Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta has hosted conferences in honor of Lacks since 1996 – and those have gone largely unnoticed by mainstream media.
Skloot’s remarkable book parallels a deeply important story about a scientific breakthrough with an equally riveting one about the human subjects whose active and inactive participation helped make it possible. We learn about the dedication of George and Margaret Gey, the husband-and-wife research team whose tireless quest for immortal cells made the discovery of HeLa possible. We also learn about Lacks. Among the sadder elements of her brief life is the haunting story of a beloved daughter Elsie who was institutionalized as a child with “idiocy.” She died at fifteen, never knowing that her mother had died, and with no visits from anyone else after Lacks’ death. Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave; it only received a headstone in May of this year.
There are still vexing questions around disclosure and profits, and the case of the Havasupai raises more. While they may have a right to know how their DNA was studied, should they be outraged at the revelations? After all, they looked to science for answers. One unintended consequence was an unwelcome but scientific account of their tribe. When it comes to what secrets are unlocked by our cells, are we afraid of what we are not told or what we might be compelled to find out?
By Minal Hajratwala; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 352 pages.
It’s hard to read either fiction or non-fiction about India or Pakistan without wondering about the proliferation of trees in peoples’ backyards. Without fail, a writer reveals simple childhood musings under a banyan, mango or tamarind tree. A sticky-sweet narrative laden with every cliché involving silk, henna, jasmine flowers and spices wraps that moment. Inevitably, a tragedy strikes people due to repression (they can’t marry whom they love!) and ancient internecine battles (too hard to understand but that’s just how those people function!)
Minal Hajratwala was born in San Francisco and raised in New Zealand and suburban Michigan before returning to the city of her birth. Leaving India: My Family’s Journey across Five Continents is her account of a century-long series of migrations undertaken by her family. The scrupulously researched and documented book will be an engrossing revelation for those who are used to imagining Indians as bearers of ancient traditions who never leave their homelands. Only one tree, bearing tamarinds, appears momentarily in her mother’s family’s backyard.
Hajratwala’s paternal great-grandfather Motiram Narsey left India in 1909, making his way to the Fiji Islands where he established “one of the largest department stores in the South Pacific Isles.” Her great-great-uncle Ganda Kapitan went to South Africa at the tender age of eleven in 1904. At seventeen, Kapitan inherited a small eatery in Durban that became a successful institution.
Hajratwala’s maternal grandfather Narotam left for Fiji in 1931, and opened a wholesale clothing business. After a period of prosperity, he died poor. His son Champak became friends with Bhupendra Narsey, who married Hajratwala’s mother, Bhanu. Hajratwala has 36 first cousins scattered in nine countries.
Today, Hajratwala—a queer journalist, poet and performer—occupies multiple identities. Her story and that of her family could have been rendered in syrupy terms, its members painted as enterprising and brave travelers. But Leaving India lays bare the complexity of migration, its cultural and economic hardships, and the dark underside of the many departures and arrivals. Including, for instance, the realities of race in South Africa.
When her great-great uncle arrived in Durban, one contemporary referred it to as “a second-rate Bombay” because it contained a concentrated population of Indians who were segregated and confined to the city and its outskirts, making its famous Grey Street neighborhood the largest “Little India” in the world. But in apartheid South Africa, Indians were accorded a higher status than native Africans, about whom both whites and Indians told strange stories. One Indian lawyer wrote that Black South Africans “are the descendants of some of the slaves in America who managed to escape from their cruel bondage and migrated to Africa.” The lawyer was Gandhi.
Race is as complicated in the United States, where Hajratwala’s parents migrate as the beneficiaries of immigration laws that favor educated professionals from India. Growing up in suburban Michigan, Hajratwala struggled to understand why she never fit: “I was a brown body, and did not know what that meant: that blending in completely would be impossible, that I could never disappear into the “melting pot” described in our history lessons on the ideal American immigration.” Yet, she contextualizes her feelings within the larger context of Michigan’s racial landscape, “a landscape shaped by successive waves of racism” and white flight from cities to suburbs.
But while her racial and ethnic identities are obvious, her sexuality is less so. Among relatives, she repeatedly encounters the question, “When are you getting married?” She writes, “There are people in my extended family who will read for the first time here that I am a lesbian… [ t ] here will be a minor conflagration… [ a ] nd then it will pass…Grace, joy, love, gratitude: these too are elements of my path. When I touch my lover’s hand in the dark, I know what the goddess wrote for me.”
It’s that last sentence that reveals Hajratwala’s quintessentially Californian self (to echo other stereotypes), and the book has a tendency to meander into such loopiness. Despite these minor failings, Leaving India remains an important and clear-eyed look at the realities behind the diasporas of our modern world.
Originally published in Windy City Times, July 22, 2010
When I moved to Chicago over a decade ago, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip offered me one vision of what queer and lesbian-centered life could look like. Over the years, my sense of queerness shifted dramatically to the point where I no considered Dykesto be any kind of barometer of what my life was shaping up to be. The strip was suspended on May 10, 2008, when Bechdel announced that she was gong on a hiatus to work on her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, about her relationship with her father.
Fun Home, published by Houghon Mifflin, went on to become a national bestseller, earning glowing reviews and awards like the Stonewall Book Award. None of that should be a surprise, given its extraordinary complexity and deftness of both graphics and text. But what is a surprise is that Bechdel’s memoir, which is in part about a lesbian and her gay father (the terms are rendered more muddied by the author) should gain such widespread acceptance.
Even more astonishingly, given its explicit queer content, Houghton Mifflin has now come out with an omnibus anthology titled The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Re-encountering the strip in this new and slick shape should bring back memories for those of us who first knew Bechdel as a regular in our gay press, no matter how far we have strayed from its central vision. Indeed, to anyone who knew Bechdel’s work before she became a feted author in the mainstream, it seems odd to see her listed on the cover of this anthology as “author of Fun Home.” It might well provoke more than curiosity in a different set of readers who come to this anthology after reading her memoir.
Dykes first began as a non-serialized sequence of strips, and it was only in 1987 that Bechdel began unifying them as the stories of a community of people. These include Mo, Ginger, Clarice, Lois and a couple of Siamese cats that vacillate between sleep and irritation. It is easy to forget that Bechdel began writing her strip early in the Reagan-Bush era, and how subversive it was for a cartoon strip to actively combine explicit lesbian sex with explicit anti-Reagan politics. In an early — and more loosely-drawn — strip, Mo whips herself up into a frenzy: “But out there in the real world they’re bombing abortion clinics…holding Nazi and KKK rallies…trying to quarantine people who might have AIDS.” That last reference to a disease is one of the rare ones found in a strip that held for the most part to an explicitly lesbian politics and world-view. Men, even in the AIDS era, are scarce here. Instead, the emphasis is on delineating the contours of a very specifically lesbian world.
Looking at Dykes, it is hard not to think that she is drawing a certain part of lesbian Chicago. Madwimmen, the independent bookstore that serves as a social hub for the lesbians, is startlingly like Women and Children First [a Chicago establishment]. The karate club they occasionally meet in might as well be Chicago’s queer-focused Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center. The constant angst over national issues punctuated with bites of raw and vegan food remind us of a fact that is either surprising or scary: lesbian communities of a certain ilk look and sound exactly alike, no matter where they are (Bechdel has been mostly based in Minnesota and Vermont). But here, they also manage to be wryly and self-deprecatingly funny. In episode 522, Lois, long the sexual renegade of the group, is worried that she is losing touch with herself: “I’m too busy being the man to do any drag kinging. I’m raising a teenager. I’m practically married to Jasmine. Am I still polyamorous if I haven’t been with anyone but her for three years?…This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”
As the years go by, the women and men and the occasional transgender teenager find themselves confronted with new worries. Having rid themselves of Bush, they must now deal with Bill Clinton’s rollback of the welfare state and then find themselves confronted by a second Bush. Animals have a special place in the strip. In one episode, the entire clan gathers as they wait for Clarice’s aging dog Digger to take her last breath. One of the Siamese cats dies, and Mo is convinced that the remaining one is going through survivor’s guilt. By the time we leave them in 2008, the ideological differences that seemed so clear in the Reagan-Bush era are much more fuzzy; the group is split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters and Lois is fishing out her gas mask in preparation for protesting both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
Returning readers will find much to remember and be delighted by in this sleek new volume of Bechdel’s archive. Newer readers will find a world that may resonate with their experiences or seem utterly alien. Madwimmin shut down in 2008, devoured by the rapacious chain named Bounders. Given the changes wrought to lesbian communities since Dykes first appeared in print, even old fans might find themselves wondering if the world portrayed here, defined by its chaotic fidelity to community and communal living, can still exist.
Modesty Blaise haunts the world of cultural icons, often appearing as a sly allusion.
I was a child growing up in Kathmandu when my parents gave me a set of Batman and Robin dolls and instructed me to give either one to my favourite playmate and friend, Victor. We were kindergartners, and while I fully understood the mythology of Batman and Robin and that they both fought on the side of good, I devised an alternative story. I gave Victor the Robin doll, and invented a game which involved Batman and Robin fighting to the death. Yelling, “Die, die,” “Boom, boom,” and “KAPOW!”, the vocabulary of warfare I had picked up from the comics, I made them enemies and I made Batman win. Victor, the sweetest playmate I have ever had, took it all in good humour even though he did ask, “Are they really supposed to fight?” At the end of the day, he went home happily with his only slightly battered doll.
This was Kathmandu in the early 1970s, when I was very, very young and lived in a time and place that I have since tended to colour with a tinge of nostalgia. Cat Stevens, who was not yet Yusuf Islam, had popularised the idea of the place with a song that both misspelt and mispronounced its name: it's spelt “Kathmandu,” not “Katmandu,” and is pronounced “Kahthmandu,” not “Catmandu.” I was, even as a child, strongly aware of the mystique of the city – how could you miss it, in the eyes of the enraptured and immensely stoned hippies who wandered around like grungy flies floating around the temples and stupas that dotted the landscape?
Blaise is supposedly based on a real girl O'Donnell and his friends briefly encountered in 1942 when he was stationed in today's Iran as part of the British army. In the strip, her story is that she escaped from a displaced persons camp in Kalyros, Greece. She wandered, learning to survive in ways whose violent and possibly sexual details are hinted at in various episodes. As a child, she met a Jewish Hungarian scholar and fellow refugee named Lob, who gave her the first name Modesty and taught her everything he knew, including five languages. She would later take the last name Blaise after Merlin's tutor. Lob died when she was 17, and Blaise went on to form an international criminal gang called “The Network.” Along the way, she met Willie Garvin, a Cockney rogue who became her closest friend. Eventually the two retired, relatively young, from The Network, but were lured into working for the British Secret Service. The Modesty Blaise comics and accompanying thirteen novels are still immensely popular. O'Donnell died in 2010, at the age of 90, but the comic strip went on until 2001.
All of this is standard for the spy fiction of the time but made unique by the insertion of a female character who was unapologetically strong and unafraid to literally take down men. As a child and later as an adult, I was intrigued by Modesty because she was so different from the other women and girls who dominated the comic book landscape. I disliked Wonder Woman, with her silly costume of tiara and boots, and I held her in contempt for leaving her world for a man, Steve Trevor. Modesty had no need for a secret identity, since her cool façade provided all the protection she would ever need from the incursions of the world outside. I loved her easily sexual looks and her jet-black hair, usually piled high into an up-do that would look stuffy and prissy on anyone else but which she carried off with elegance.
I loved her for her sex life, which was presented without apology or, well, without modesty. I remember the shock of delight I felt when she was shown naked from the back, languidly arising from a bed she had just shared with a lover who pleaded with her to stay. She fucked like a man, and her gender was no constraint. Early in the series, we see her trying to say goodbye to an American millionaire who is forcing himself upon her. With a few simple moves, she has him writhing in pain at her feet before she literally throws him into the elevator, calm and composed all the while. Modesty represented power and an ability to reinvent oneself without giving a damn.
I eventually lost touch with the Modesty Blaise strips, after JS shut down production sometime in the 1970s, and as I moved on to undergraduate and then graduate studies in texts that bore no similarity to O'Donnell's creation (the academic popularity of “graphic novels,” which I still refer to as comic books, had not yet begun). Then, in the late '90s, I moved to Chicago, fleeing life in Indiana and found myself wandering down the streets of the city's Boystown area (a predominantly gay neighbourhood) in search of nothing in particular.
I was walking down Halsted Street when a store window caught my eye. It was the sort of establishment that is peculiar to Boystowns everywhere, a mixture of kitsch-style and glam rock, desperately cleaving to a postmodern hipness that has long since faded in its glory. Intrigued nevertheless, I went in and began to browse, largely ignored by a sales clerk who was on the phone discussing the possibilities for the evening and complaning about her roommate. And that was when I saw it, a round plate-shaped object, about 5 inches across, with a swirl of black lines on the edge and a target in the centre. In the flat middle section was the familiar yet long-forgotten face of Modesty Blaise. Her eyes looked warily to the side, and her right hand held a colt perpendicular to her right ear.
The clerk was uninterested in my squeals of delight, clearly wanting to get back to her conversation with her friend. But I was ecstatic about being reunited with my icon, seeing it as a sign – of what, I have never been quite sure. Mostly, I think, I saw it as a validation of the life and possibilities that were being increasingly obscured by a gay and lesbian culture which insisted that meaning could only come from staid respectability and tax breaks, in the form of newly-minted marriage battles. I came out as queer among gays and lesbians who made it clear that sluts like me were to shut up so that the straight world might believe that we deserved our “rights.” Gays and lesbians, who surely had the most reasons to be suspicious of the prison industrial complex, were now clamouring for hate crime laws that would increase penalties and put more people in jail. It may seem like a huge burden to place on the black and white inked shoulders of a woman who only existed on paper, but in that moment it seemed like I had recovered my balance in the world.
Years ago, I thought of returning to Kathmandu to reclaim an idyllic period of my life, or at least what I thought was an idyllic period. I called a travel agent to inquire about fares, only to have her ask where that was. “Nepal,” I replied. And then filled in the silence: “It’s on the Northern border of India. You know, Mount Everest.” I never made it, reluctant to exchange my surety of intangible memories for the reality that would return and intrude upon my memories. I never followed the comics to the end, but the always informative Wikipedia tells me that she was killed off in O'Donnell's novel Cobra Trap, as was Willie shortly after.
Modesty Blaise haunts the world of cultural icons, often appearing as a sly allusion, most notably in Quentin Tarantino's films. The Bride, or Beatrix, in the Kill Bill films, is clearly modelled after her. In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is seen carrying around a copy of Modesty Blaise, the first novel on her, and there have long been rumours of a Tarantino movie about her. For me, she remains a black and white illustration, the gun cocked close to and away from her face, eyes ever watchful, allowing us to stare and giving us nothing in return. No lost tragedies, no dramas of revelation, waiting silently and tautly, and intently understanding that someone, somewhere might pull the trigger before her.
Originally published in No More Potlucks
The last few years have seen a glut of books about people deciding to get off the beaten path. In No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, the Beavans of New York City eschewed even electricity in order to reduce their carbon footprint.
Robyn Okrant’s yearlong attempt to live what Oprah Winfrey calls the “best life” (the vagueness of the dictate is surpassed only by its vacuity) did not compel her to forego routine comforts. If anything, it made her do the opposite and become enmeshed in the peculiar blend of high consumerism and faux simple life that has, ironically, made Winfrey one of the richest women on earth.
Beginning January 1, 2008, Okrant, a Chicagoan, watched the Oprah show every weekday. She took notes on everything that Oprah wanted her fans to do and buy. In February, for instance, they were told to buy the “10 things every woman needs to have in her closet.” These included a trench coat; a black T-neck; and leopard-print flats. She also set about having an “Intentional Dialogue Exercise” with her husband, as directed by Oprah. All of this was recorded in a blog, which became the basis for her book.
Over the course of the year, she saw some benefits, like greater energy after improving her diet, and acquired a wardrobe that makes her look like, well, no one in particular. The book’s cover features her in a prime Oprah ensemble: white Brooks Brothers shirt, a large ring, dark wash jeans, leopard-print flats, and her dark wavy hair schooled into proper suburban docility. The result is a blandness that she often regretted.
Living Oprah is mildly entertaining, and the author mildly likeable. Okrant is typical of a certain kind of Chicago progressive/liberal. Instructed to give to a charity, she chooses the lesser-known Chicago Books to Women in Prison. At a Celine Dion concert, her friend Joe points out a rare entity in the crowd: A person of color. After Oprah instructs her to adopt an animal, she brings home a cat and names it Selmarie, after her favorite café. It’s there that another patron, recognizing Okrant from a press story and knowing full well that she’s in earshot, proclaims her “crazy.” It’s a sad moment, but it does prompt some questions in the reader: Is Okrant crazy? What did she get from all this living by Oprah? And are the results worth it?
According to Okrant, she embarked on the project because “It’s vitally important for women to question the sources of influence and persuasion in our lives…I want to get to the bottom of why this cycle exists and find out how I’m complicit in it.” Well, maybe. Or maybe she did this because it was an easy book project that might become a movie, inspired by the success of Julie Powell’s Julia and Julia, a record of her making every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1). Like Powell, Okrant began recording her experiment as a blog. Like Powell, she’s a stickler for following through on all the instructions, and so on.
Regardless of what might have motivated her to embark upon the experiment, it’s only fair to ask what we might gain from it. Do we learn anything about why women follow her with such devotion? Well, not really, and not more than what we glean from even the most random observations of the show. A lot of these women seem incapable of discerning the enormous gulf between them and Oprah, and seriously consider her their best friend. At least Okrant keeps reminding us of the disparity between her life and that of Winfrey, who famously said that she likes her bed sheets changed—and ironed—every day: “At that point in my life, I was digging around in the cushions of my sofa for enough quarters to do my laundry.” Winfrey travels in a Gulf Stream jet, which is hardly ecologically sound, but she admonishes her viewers to buy energy-efficient bulbs.
But there are other deeper contradictions and bits of misinformation that Winfrey has been rightly criticized for. In May 2009, Newsweek published an extensive review and criticism of Winfrey’s pushing of various dubious health remedies. Living Oprah has little to say about the disasters engendered by Winfrey’s tireless sense that money can buy anything. In 2007, she established a school for girls in South Africa, and the school has been hit by two sex scandals. All the while, Winfrey has been railing on behalf of draconian sex-offender laws in this country, the sort that are usually over-reaching and result in people being jailed for non-sexual offenses.
Okrant ignores all this and writes cheerily only of the minor contradictions, like the jet, in a style that makes us wish for a moratorium on books based on blogs. While the original material appears to have been tweaked for the book, the style is the same as a blog, and annoyingly so: “My goodness, it’s been such a busy month, I never told you that Jim and I are currently living with less.” The constant present tense makes sense for blogs, but in a book? It’s just annoying.
Okrant doesn’t really help us understand why women act the way they do around Oprah. If anything, the lesson we learn is a sad one: That even otherwise intelligent women like Okrant can get swept away by Oprah’s consumerism (Buy more! Be Happier!) masquerading as a “best life.” After 12 chapters, we know more about how women live by Oprah and much less of why, and we’re left with the slightly uneasy sense that we’ve been hoodwinked into yet another attempt to turn a “year-in-the-life” project into a successful media deal. Perhaps the reality show is next.
Some years ago, I was waiting for a colleague as she finished her last student conference of the day. She was teaching a class on gender and a student had come to discuss paper topics. “I’d like to look at some sexist histories,” the young woman said, with great assurance. I could not help but turn sharply in my squeaky wooden chair, just in time to see the bemused expression on my colleague’s face as she asked, “Um, do you mean feminist histories?” “Oh, yeah, right, I guess I meant feminist,” came the cheerful answer.
That inability to distinguish between feminism and sexism is unsurprising in a world where Republicans denounce anyone critical of Sarah Palin’s vacuousness as sexist and where Hillary Clinton’s career, forged under the aegis of a successful husband, is seen as a feminist triumph. In all this topsy-turviness, is it any surprise that some can barely distinguish feminism from its opposite?
In the fall of 2007, Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein, both in their mid-20s, got into a car and spent a good portion of the season and spring 2008 crisscrossing the country and talking to women about the meaning of feminism. They spoke to 127 women involved in fields like sex work, abortion-provider services and Native American rights activism.
Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism took Willis Aronowitz and Bernstein to places as different as Jackson Hole, Miss., and Chicago. The book reveals American feminism as contradictory and richly complex. Willis-Aronowitz and Bernstein, diehard progressives, don’t shy away from women like Beth in Fargo, N.D., who tells them that she believes in equality in the workplace but also that “[t]here are definitely roles for a husband and a wife, and feminism would be erasing that.” On the other end of the spectrum is Rebecca, who runs Pantymistress, a porn-production company for men with fetishes.
Girldrive boasts of its diversity because the two went to a number of cities and the photographs of their subjects, taken by Bernstein, indicate a rich mix of heritages, from Chicana to Creole to Anglo. But the differences in hues of skin and ethnic lineages cannot hide the fact that underlying the surface diversity is much of the same-old, same-old.
If you live in a hipster bubble in a liberal hotspot like Austin, Texas, or Chicago, you will recognize these women. Their feminist credentials are first earned in a liberal arts college or university; they take their degrees to an enterprising non-profit devoted to some form of social justice; and they support queer, sex- and fat-positive politics.
The women are no less interesting for these reasons. And while some of us might, indeed, strongly identify as and with them, I suspect that they are entirely new to most Americans who cannot fathom a discussion about feminism beyond the standard “Should women work after having children?” question.
Yet, it becomes clear that the two women rarely ventured outside their socioeconomic backgrounds. Entries are often prefaced with phrases like, “Cille …a friend of my best friend,” indicating that they rarely reached out of their network of friends or like-minded blogosphere of supporters (the book originally began as a blog, and was featured on sites like Feministing) . Bernstein, who committed suicide in December 2008, graduated from the University of Chicago and was the daughter of the artist Susan Bee and the writer Charles Bernstein. Willis Aronowitz, who wrote much of the book, graduated from Wesleyan and is the daughter of the Second Wave feminist Ellen Willis, who died in 2006, and the cultural critic Stanley Aronowitz. Driving through North Carolina, they spend the night at the house of Fred, an old family friend of Willis Aronowitz. Fred just happens to be Frederic Jameson, one of the most influential theorists of postmodernity.
Despite Willis Aronowitz’s attempt to make them seem like two wide-eyed innocents who stumble into interviews like one with Erica Jong, it is clear that the duo benefited greatly from their social connections and enormous cultural capital. That is not in itself a bad thing—every writer makes do with the resources at hand—but they could have used all that as a base from which to expand their pool of interviewees and to let happenstance dictate more of their agendas. At one point, they run into a single female bartender with a child and on welfare, unsure if she can finish a degree in anthropology (the value of which she now doubts) and angry about being treated like “a vagina behind the bar.” The authors do not even get her name, but more stories like hers could have complicated their journey in a good way.
In another rare trenchant moment, the poet Lyn Hejinian conveys her distrust of relying on social-networking sites and blogs to stimulate feminism because they can “lead to false senses of community and obsession with faking a caricatured self-image,” but the authors simply dismiss her critique, putting it down to an unwillingness to “communicate that way.” Yet, surely, face-to-face organizing and community-building is doubly important for women who do not have access to the urban areas that the pair choose to focus on.
Girldrive gives a sense of a certain kind of feminism in America today, one that mirrors the privileged experiences of the writers rather than challenging their or their intended audience’s assumptions. But if feminism is to survive to the point where women understand its value and the distinction between it and sexism, we have to be willing to record far more uncomfortable realities than our own.
Memoirs about growing up and feeling out of place are usually about people struggling to become part of the dominant culture. Inevitably, these are also tales about food, and much of the drama comes from the olfactory and textural differences between cuisines. Linda Furiya’s Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread Americais one example, as is Stealing Buddha’s Dinnerby Bich Minh Nguyen, an account of growing up Vietnamese in Michigan. The emphasis on food as a central trope in immigration is not unusual given that the “melting pot” is part of the mythology of the United States.
Melissa Hart’s Gringa: A Contradictory Childhood also centers on food as a way to enter into a culture, but her memoir is unusual in that it involves a young and very white girl who is transplanted from a Los Angeles suburb into the predominantly Mexican-American farming community of Oxnard. Hart’s whiteness is not only marked by the paleness of her skin, frequently commented upon by her Mexican-American friends, but by the “American” food and rituals with which she grew up. During Hart’s third grade, her adventurous mother had grown weary of the confines of suburbia, and the two became partners in crime as they learned Spanish together, aspiring to a life outside their borders: “My mother and I pretended allegiance to their Tupperware parties, to their Brownie troops, to their Sunday morning services at the Presbyterian Church.”
It turned out that there was more than the love of a language involved in this endeavour, as Hart’s mother eventually decamped with Patricia Sanchez, the school bus driver. But this was the late 1970s, and lesbian mothers, seen as immoral and damaging influences, were not likely to get custody. According to her Web site, Hart’s custody story is part of the 2006 documentary, Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement. But Gringa is less about the custody battle and more about Hart’s own coming to terms with her whiteness and her sexuality, and her account of that makes for a gently engrossing tale that carefully unwraps the multitude of contradictions in which she finds herself.
As Hart grows up, she wants nothing more than to be like her friends in Oxnard, and she also wants nothing more than to be just like her beloved lesbian mother. Hart fails miserably at both. No matter how hard she tries, she is always literally the one white spot. She manages to secure an invitation to the quinceañera of a friend of her friend Rose, and finds herself relegated to the role of photographer instead of dancing with wild abandon as she had hoped. When the photos are finally developed, she sees herself as the outsider she is fated to be: “If you looked closely, you could see it poorly placed in the second row to the left … a white blob going nowhere.”
Hart’s attempts to fit into Mexican-American culture could be seen as problematic, and they are. What saves this book from becoming a cringe-inducing and fetishistic account of a white girl trying to appropriate “foreign” culture is the fact that Hart is unafraid to make it clear that she was, more often than not, making an ass of herself and, worse, that her attempts to assimilate were often insulting. Having acquired a Mexican boyfriend, Tony, she shows up at his family holiday party dressed as a Christmas tree, complete with brown paint on her face, hoping to raise some levity. She listens uncomfortably as someone tells her, “the family thinks you are making fun of their party.”
At a dinner party for her father’s boss, she meets the sophisticated 14-year-old Natalia, who has the added allure of an elegant Spanish mother, and the grade-school age Hart instantly resolves that this will be her girlfriend. Natalia’s main interest in Hart is to inveigle her into sneaking the crème de menthe from her father’s liquor cabinet, and Hart is anxious with hope: “Would the touch of Natalia’s hands seduce me…? I tried unsuccessfully to break into goose bumps.” Eventually, by the end of the evening, left cold without desire, she reluctantly reconciles herself to the fact that she is no lesbian.
Gringa takes us through Hart’s adolescence and her college years, ending with a long-awaited short trip to Spain with her mother. Determined to be “authentic,” Hart tucks Rick Steve’s Europe through the Back Door into her backpack so that they might “avoid tourist traps and experience the real country and its people.” When they arrive, every tourist in Spain can be seen walking around with in the book. Eventually, the two women give up on Hart’s plan of authenticity and, following her mother’s meanderings, actually enjoy the trip. At the end, Hart contemplates her attempt to become a “citizen of the world,” her dictatorial tendencies on the trip and a bust of Franco, to which she whispers, “Dude, you need to lighten up.”
The title and cover of Eddie Sarfaty’s book Mental: Funny in the Head lead us to believe that this is to be a rollercoaster ride into the quirky dives of one man’s head, a set of wild escapades and crazy adventures. The truth rarely acknowledged is that most comics are terrible writers on the page. They mistake punch lines for plot development and do little more than string together comedic jabs in the vain hope that, somehow, the reader will be fooled into thinking that all of that constitutes a book. And so it was that I picked up Sarfaty’s book and waited for the worst: a set of clichés about the fun and funny life of a gay, Jewish, stand-up comic living in New York.
Fortunately, for the reader, Mental is the opposite; a set of hilarious, vivid and thoughtful commentaries on, well, yes, what it means to be a gay, Jewish stand-up comic living in New York. But it’s Sarfaty’s gift for observation and telling details that enable him to original pieces that stand on their own as short gems. Like Bob Smith, a fellow stand-up comic and author of Selfish and Perverse, Sarfaty is that rare comic who knows how to write.
In “My Tale of Two Cities,” Sarfaty accompanies his parents to Paris and London on their once-in-a-lifetime voyage to Europe. Sarfaty’s father, now dead, had Pick’s disease, which can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s. Or, as Sarfaty describes it, “In addition to Alzeheimer’s it has components of Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s as well. It’s kind of like winning the neurological trifecta.” This ability to combine the poignant with dry wit suffuses the piece. His mother is resolute about including her husband in every activity. She is equally resolute about finding a bottle of Shalimar, a perfume available at Bloomingdale’s, convinced that it must be cheaper in Paris than in the United States. It is not, of course, but her quest is not unlike that of millions of other tourists who leave home to find the familiar in strange lands.
In Sarfaty’s hands, this is not simply a dull retelling of an ordinary quest. His characters emerge as real people, not stereotypes, even when they are not his relatives. Woven into the story of the trip is an account of his parent’s marriage and their relationship enduring the fact that his father is rapidly receding from their reality as his memories fade. Sarfaty has a light touch, and he’s able to combine humour with poignancy without being sentimental.
He’s also capable of surprise, as with the lovely ending of “Lactose Intolerant.” “The Eton Club” is the longest piece in the collection, clocking in at nearly forty pages, but it remains engrossing. The club in question is frequented by older and wealthy gay men who like to spend their evenings drinking, and not much else. The center of the story is Wendell James Briar, a wealthy lawyer whose finances gradually deteriorate before the eyes of Safarty, who works at the club. Briar, a complex and sympathetic character, finally succumbs to AIDS, a disease he refused to acknowledge he had. Safarty’s astute but spare words capture the meanings of the disease for a generation and for a certain class of gay men: “In Wendell’s mind it had become an affliction of minorities, the poor, and the stupid, and I likened him to a society matron who”d rather go down with a sinking luxury liner than share a lifeboat with the steerage passengers.” Mental is filled with evidence that a good writer does not need extraordinary situations to come up with a gripping story.
Sarfaty is fearless about recounting his sex life and it’s a resolutely and unapologetic gay sex life. At a time when gay men, in the pursuit of marriage, seem determined to wipe out any traces of their erotic lives, this book comes as a welcome change. Mental is the sign of a fresh new talent.
What would a world without rape look like? Can we discuss rape without defining the subject of the attack as either a virgin or a whore? Can we think about rape as a crime if the woman also enjoys sex in consensual situations?
Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s new anthology Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape goes beyond the simplistic victim-perpetrator model of rape analysis and asks us to rethink popular sexual tropes. Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last” asks why non-sexually-aggressive men are often desexualized. In “The Process-Oriented Virgin,” Hanne Blank suggests that the “first time” be defined not by a physical act but in purely subjective terms. So, for instance, if you are a lesbian, you might define your first time as the first time you had sex with another woman, regardless of whether you had sex with men prior.
Despite the occasional interesting piece, Yes Means Yes falls prey to a model of self-righteous victimization such a potentially ground-breaking anthology outght to resist.
Take, for example, “Killing Misogyny,” where Cristina Tzintzún writes about her long-term partner Alan’s repeated infidelity. Alan never coerces her into sex, and she admits that she stayed with him in order “to prove that someone as sick as he was was capable of transformation.” Yet, she does not hesitate to write that she “knew Alan would rape me continuously of my love, my sanity, and my health…” The book uses the word “rape” in such a broad fashion as to render it almost meaningless, and it rests upon the idea of a pervasive “rape culture.”
Most of the writers would have us believe that women and children are constantly under the threat of rape, and that rape is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of daily life. That contributes to sexual paranoia, but gets us nowhere towards understanding the specificities of rape and how to deal with it in different circumstances. Surely the continued sexual assault of a child by her parents, the subject of Leah Piepzna-Samarsinha’s essay about incest, is rather different from the institutionalized rape of immigrant women at the borders, as discussed in Miriam Peréz’s “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough.”
Yes Means Yes rests at the nexus of two ideological points. One is a liberal feminism so battered by decades of right-wing sexism that it spends all its energy reacting to the same instead of questioning how it might have become part of the problem. The other is a burgeoning domestic violence/rape counseling industrial complex compelled to paint its clients solely as pathetic victims in order to get funding. The one supplies the earnest foot soldiers for the other. Many of the writers work in women-oriented non-profits, but very few see the pitfalls of their work. An exception, Chicagoan Lee Riggs, writes of leaving rape crisis work because she felt “drained … within a framework that positioned the criminal legal system as the primary remedy for sexual violence.”
Finally, the book focuses so much on “female sexual power” and “healthy relationships” that it fails to ask a critical question: how do we counter the prevailing message that someone who is not in a relationship does not count? The fact that people are made to feel incomplete without partners contributes greatly to their staying in abusive relationships. Telling people that it is okay to be alone will not end rape, but it would go a long way towards forging exactly the kind of self-esteem and power that this book claims to want for everyone.
There are now several books aimed at gay children or children of gay parents. But there is a relative dearth of books about transgender or gender-non-conforming children.
Two delightful new books seek to fill in the gap. 10,000 Dresses, aimed at young children, tells the story of Bailey, who dreams every night of 10,000 dresses. Her favorite is one made of crystals. One day, she asks her mother to buy her a dress like the one in her dreams. The mother’s response provides the first clue about Bailey’s troubles: “Bailey, what are you talking about? You are a boy! Boys don’t wear dresses!” Bailey’s response—that she doesn’t feel like a boy—only brings on an angry admonition to never mention dresses again. From there on, we see Bailey falling in love with different dresses, only to be met with the disgust of her family. Finally, she meets Laurel, a girl who helps her make one of the dream dresses. This book is meant to be read aloud to young children, so it’s best not to wonder, as an adult might, what happens to Bailey when she returns to her home. This short and lovely book gives young gender-non-conforming children a fantasy world where their dreams do come true.
If You Dream of Mermaids, by A.A. Philips, is for young adolescents. Todd is a 13-year-old boy who loves playing with dolls and dressing up in skirts. But he remembers all too well the fuss that erupted when he was caught in his mother’s clothes as a child. His father, determined to make a boy out of the son he worries will not grow up to be manly enough, wants to sign him up for camp, and Todd hates sports. As a compromise, Todd is sent to nature camp, where he meets Brad, Sylvie and Olivia. Sylvie begins to ferret out Todd’s secret, and Olivia is an odd and awkward girl who, like Todd, doesn”t quite fit.
Philips writes a gently probing account of a boy who happens to want to do the things that, supposedly, only girls do. She combines all the classic elements of young adolescent literature—camp, bullies, a momentary scare and awkward kids stumbling into each other as they try to find their place in the world—with an accurate and non-pathological rendition of Todd’s inner life. We see Todd’s daily struggle to fulfill gender stereotypes. That includes monitoring his own body: “I’m careful how I move. I hold my shoulders stiff, so they won”t swing. … But sometimes I forget.” This is juxtaposed with his internal narratives about finding freedom, some of which involve fantasies drawn from fairy tales but also from the natural world he’s made to explore as part of camp.
Will Todd or Bailey grow up to engage in gender-reassignment surgery? Or are they children whose gender performance will not match what society, for now, demands from them? Both books make it clear that the question is not about what choices the protagonists will make but that their ways of being in the world are just fine. “Just fine” may not seem like much but, as both authors indicate, it’s probably the most and the best we can give them. What Todd and Bailey want is, on occasion, to be encouraged in their dress-seeking adventures but mostly to be left alone in their gender-non-conforming reveries. In a perfect world, that would be just fine with the rest of us.
This year, World AIDS Day will mark 28 years since the crisis began. Today, AIDS in the gay and lesbian community seems like a distant memory, even if we haven’t quite forgotten the years when it was impossible to get hospitals to take the dying. The demographics of AIDS shifted, and with that comes a shift in how much the LGBTQ community sees AIDS as its problem. Half of U.S. HIV patients are African-Americans, and AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women aged 25-34 years.
This is compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of African Americans are in prison. While Blacks account for 12 percent of the population, they are 44 percent of the prison population. In the mainstream media, AIDS in the Black community is often seen through the sensationalistic lens of the “down low syndrome.”
In the early years of the AIDS crisis, the disease was seen as a white man’s problem, and this resulted in Black men with AIDS remaining invisible and neglected. Now, with the rise of AIDS in the Black population, Black gays contend differently with an epidemic that occupies the lived reality and imagination of African Americans.
In this context, what does it mean to be Black and gay, and to live in the shadow of AIDS? How does one disentangle the reality of AIDS so that it’s not automatically assumed to be “the” Black gay experience while also acknowledging the prevalence of the epidemic?
In 1986, Joseph Beam edited In the Life, a groundbreaking anthology of Black gay writing. Following its success, he began working on its sequel, Brother to Brother, but died before its completion. In 1988, the book was completed and published by the poet and activist Essex Hemphill and went on to acquire the same canonical status as the first book.
These two books have literally entered the language of queer life. But they were both out of print until their recent republication by RedBone Press.
Hemphill died in 1995 from complications related to HIV, as did Beam. AIDS is a constant theme in both books, but so is the ongoing narrative of what it means to negotiate being Black and gay. In the short story “Obi’s Story,” by Cary Alan Johnson in Brother to Brother, Stu roams around Africa looking to connect to an African past as he confronts the reality of race. Both books presented Black gay sexuality in uncompromising and graphic terms, resisting the exoticization of Black male sexuality so prevalent in white gay culture while reclaiming its complexity without the gloss of pathos. The books are also essential snapshots of a constantly unfolding Black gay literature; In the Life includes a lengthy and revealing interview with Samuel R. Delany. But Beam also interviews “Emmett,” who lives as a gay man in Russell County, Alabama. It’s an ethnographic approach that portends the recent Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, by Northwestern University’s E. Patrick Johnson.
There’s a relative dearth of work by and about Black women and AIDS. According to Lisa Moore, the founder and editor of RedBone Press, this is in part because “there’s no community around Black women with HIV and AIDS,” leaving women isolated and vulnerable to the stigma of the disease.
Several other books deal with AIDS in the United States and outside. The following is hardly an exhaustive list, but it does indicate that the AIDS crisis is not over:
—The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism, a memoir by Chicago-based Michael McColly. The book won the 2007 Lambda Literary Award for Spirituality
—The Day I Stopped Being Pretty: A Memoir, by Rodney Lofton. Lofton writes about living with HIV
—Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora, edited by Randall Horton and M. L. Hunter (the latter is based in Chicago)
—Sizwe’s Test: A Young Man’s Journey through Africa’s AIDS Epidemic, by Jonny Steinberg
—To Be Left with the Body, a collection of poetry edited by Cheryl Clarke and Steven G. Fullwood. This includes work by the Chicago native Raymond Berry.
—Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction, edited by Richard Canning
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s brilliant new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, is either about the end of queer politics or its beginning. It’s either a record of how dismal the contemporary gay movement has become with its relentless pursuit of assimilation or about the possibility for a politics that challenges the same. But mostly, it’s about a character named Mattilda who lives in San Francisco, turns tricks, protests the mainstreaming of gay politics and our wars, calls shoplifting “bargain shopping” and lives with mice she can’t bear to kill.
Willie Brown, a former mayor of San Francisco, once intoned with raw heartlessness, “If you can’t afford to live in San Francisco, you should leave.” San Francisco’s reputation as a gay Mecca was cemented in 2003 when current Mayor Gavin Newsom granted gay-marriage licenses. Thousands of gay couples see him as their friend. But, as activist groups like Gay Shame (of which our heroine is a member) have shown, Newsom’s political ascendancy came through anti-homeless policies like his 2002 initiative Care Not Cash, which cut homeless people’s allowances from $322 to $59 a month. The feel-good liberal politics of “marriage equality” shields the effects of gentrification.
Mattilda and her friends can barely afford to live here, but they persist. They keep relentlessly protesting gentrification and the war, and keep getting arrested and beaten for their actions. Mattilda seems addicted to the city. When a friend announces he might move to New York (all pronouns are indeterminate), she’s stunned: “Zan says he’s moving to New York, a vortex opened up after 9-11 and people finally treat each other well, all these amazing things are happening. Is she doing drugs?”
Life in Mattilda’s apartment is in perpetual chaos, and she lives with mice and roaches with whom she’s reached an uneasy accord. About the roaches, she writes, “I see them crawling out of my speakers and unfurling dangerous flags, one of them grows so big it takes up half the kitchen, excuse me I need to do the dishes.” Her body keeps betraying her with pain; her migraines hurt; and the news on television and radio makes her physically sick: “there’s another anti-war demo on Saturday and I’m feeling the new P’n’P: powerless and paranoid.” Even in the midst of a perpetual meltdown, she transmits the absurdity and hope and agony of the world around her with astonishing clarity.
NPR plays constantly here, its innocuous bits and pieces forming the soundtrack to these strange times: “On NPR they are interviewing the woman who invented new ways to slaughter cows. She knows how they feel, which…means they are happy. She’s autistic, once she was incapacitated but now she’s a success story: every day she gets up to perfect the methods of murder.” This is the (neo) liberal world where understanding and knowing how it must feel to die makes up for the killing.
Can Mattilda survive? Are things reaching a breaking point? Her friend Ralowe calls about what feels like the end of a friendship: “I used to feel like Benjamin and I could have these conversations about race and identity and living in the world. I felt like we had this closeness because we’ve experienced trauma and alienation in similar ways and now she’s telling me that never happened…” This is personal, yes, but it’s also about the possible death of political connection. So Many Ways could be a preachy tome about San Francisco but it’s instead an effortless and very funny sashay into the depths of a city that doesn”t bother reconciling its contradictions.
This is neither a hopeful book nor a pessimistic one; it’s an exhilarating one. You could leave feeling frightened by the vision of a sexy gay world that pays no heed to the destruction around it. Or you could exult, as I do, in the revelations offered here.
In 2007, Russian forensic experts confirmed that the remains of bones found near a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg were indeed those of Anastasia, daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Despite such evidence, it’s unlikely that the myth of Anastasia’s survival will disappear any time soon. The idea that a royal heir might have survived and might eventually bring a lost dynasty to life resonates even in the most supposedly egalitarian societies.
Stories about lost royals allow us to navigate our uneasy feelings about royalty. We are distrustful of the unlimited power of monarchs, but we love the trappings and romance of monarchy. We are aware that kings and queens can be brutal and dictatorial, and that the tides of insurgents that rise against them may well do so with just cause. But many of us still find ourselves nostalgically sympathizing with overthrown royalty.
For years after his death, stories circulated that the dauphin Louis-Charles, son of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, had survived his internment in Temple Prison. Louis Bayard’s riveting new historical novel, The Black Tower, picks up the story at this point. Here, the dauphin plays a minor role in comparison to one of the central characters, the famous detective Vidocq, who is based on an actual historical character of the same name, a former galley slave-turned-sleuth.
Vidocq’s reputation spawns numerous tales of his superhuman powers, but in Bayard’s skillful hands he’s not as much a heroic figure as he is a weathered man who’s seen too much of the dark side of humankind. His sidekick of sorts, for the duration of the events related here, is Hector Carpentier, who stumbles upon an old family secret after being mistaken for his dead father—the physician entrusted with the care of the dauphin in prison. The two find themselves locked together in a series of adventures that take them outwards into the city’s suburbs and back again, and bodies literally fall by the wayside.
The tale gets murkier, and the two men must ascertain whether or not a young and mentally challenged gardener is, in fact, the lost dauphin. Bayard’s recreation of 1818 Paris is devoid of sentimentality. This is not a pretty city; it’s visible to us only through the dank fog of reality, and the smells of human and animal waste permeate the atmosphere. Vidocq interacts with the forgotten underbelly of society and life here is cheap, nasty, brutal and short. But there’s also not much nostalgia for glorious times past. At one point, the Baroness de Préval turns to Vidocq with the words, “I wish I could tell you how beautiful it all was.” To which he responds, “Not for everyone.”
Bayard, who writes frequently on gay and other matters for publications like Salonand The New York Times, is also the author of The Pale Blue Eye, a historical novel featuring Edgar Allan Poe and set in West Point in the mid-19th century. This latest story comes vividly to life because he doesn’t try to render it in archaic terms. The dialogue is effortlessly contemporary without seeming artificial, and without the needless curlicues and stilted cadences that often ruin historical novels. And the mystery of the dauphin remains riveting, with twists and turns that continue to take the reader by surprise till the very end.
When it was revealed that John Edwards had an affair with Rielle Hunter, the consequences were swift. Now, the career of one of the more promising U.S. politicians—among the recent few to discuss poverty and inequality—may have been abruptly ended. Maritial or sexual infidelity is seen as the definition of and the worst kind of betrayal, as if romantic love were the only relationship that needs protection.
Gabriella Turnaturi’s insightful and compelling book, titled Betrayals: The Unpredictability of Human Relations,points out that romantic/sexual infidelity is only one kind among many, and that betrayal exists in everyday contexts. She writes about the ways in which betrayal emanates from and reorganizes social relations, about how “Betrayal affects the geography of the positions that subjects assume within a relationship, producing shifts that are not only emotional but that affect identities as well, thus leading to a redrawing of maps.”
Turnaturi looks at various kinds of betrayal: between friends, between citizens and their nations, between prophets and their acolytes, between rulers and subjects. Of the latter two, she chooses Christ and Judas and Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex as examples.
Despite this attention to such well-known figures, Turnaturi doesn’t render betrayal a mythic act but uses their stories to demonstrate its everyday nature. Betrayalsis a welcome relief from our cultural fixation on the notion of betrayal as something that is strictly interpersonal and a character flaw. Instead, Turnaturi shows, through her study of various treatises on the subject and observations, that betrayal is a quotidian indication of the entanglement of power and emotions.
In the case of Judas, she examines the acolyte’s betrayal of Christ in the context of what it enables for Christian mythology: “But precisely why must Christ be betrayed? Probably it is because being betrayed, undergoing an experience that is both so painful and so common, makes Jesus a man like all men.”
In the case of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, Turnaturi explores the context of the relationship between a female ruler and her much younger courtier. This section sometimes reads like a breathless evocation of a “great love story,” but it has insights into the role of power and betrayal between two people inhabiting a world where traditional gender hierarchies were overturned, however briefly.
The last chapter, about Internet betrayal, is the least interesting. Turnaturi contemplates the kinds of infidelity enabled by the anonymity granted by the Web, and which allows spouses to engage in amorous encounters. She also considers the betrayal of consumers by hackers who misuse private and financial information. Here Turnaturi betrays, as it were, her moralistic blanket condemnation of betrayal.
Turnaturi turns her back on the more interesting contribution of her own book—that betrayal shouldn”t be reduced to the emotional, pathological, and affective but considered within an infinite web of relations, many of which are not interpersonal.
It would have been more interesting for her to consider that the act of betrayal itself might be a necessary and enriching experience. As anyone who’s been involved with involved people will tell you, the possibility of betrayal is sometimes the only thing that keeps a relationship going whether between the betrayers or between spouses and partners. Nonetheless, this is an illuminating study that provides an intellectual history and context for a concept that has been overburdened with emotion.
Ruth Perkinson’s Piper’s Somedayis her second novel, following Vera’s Still Point. At the center is Piper, a twelve-year-old who’s lost her parents and brother in a car crash and now lives with her grandfather Victor in a decrepit apartment complex. Victor spends most of his days drinking on the couch and this, combined with his incontinence, makes the place reek of alcohol and urine. To make the situation nightmarish, Piper is repeatedly confronted with the lecherous advances of Victor’s friend, Crazy Clover.
Piper’s only comfort is her dog Someday, a gentle mutt with a bad leg. Piper’s left to deal with her grief and isolation from her peers on her own until two lesbians, Jenny and Andrea, move into a nearby house under what seem at first like inauspicious circumstances: Jenny accidentally clips Piper with her truck. But as the months go by, the three, along with Someday and the lesbians’ pregnant cat, Precious Pink, bond into something closely resembling a family. One day, Someday disappears. A distraught Piper is helped in her search by Jenny and Andrea. What follows involves child custody, an unraveling of half-hidden truths, and a final attempt at escape to Canada.
Perkinson is deft with Piper’s emotions. Piper doesn’t cry much, but then that kind of loss has a way of leaving you to sort out details in a kind of stumbling daze. On top of it all, she’s is dealing with the onset of adolescence. Perkinson’s especially good at showing the divide between the internal world of children and those of adults who think that their words about the former are unheard.
Piper’s Someday is an engaging short novel and it does an excellent job of portraying that time between childhood and adolescence when children shouldn’t experience heartbreak but often do. It’s also part fantasy. Piper’s life changes dramatically with the arrival of Jenny and Andrea, but under a set of circumstances that are a bit far-fetched and involve a rather dramatic, and somewhat unrealistic, bit of rescue. This is, after all, fiction and we are allowed a bit of fantasy every now and then. But the novel’s also a bit manipulative – a three-legged canine companion anda sweet pregnant cat? Lesbian saviors and Canada? All of these elements come together to form a narrative that can be occasionally didactic and tries too hard to be heart-warming.
In her portrayal of childhood and a lead young female character, Perkinson’s clearly drawing upon Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That book is even mentioned constantly as Piper’s holiday reading. Some of the similarities are so close as to straddle the line between homage and, well, needless copying. Take for instance, a pivotal rescue scene in the book, which involves a neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Piper only knows him and his wife as the elderly and somewhat ominously silent couple living next door until a pivotal moment that involves a confrontation with Clover. Suddenly, Mr. Wilson bounds to the rescue, appearing from nowhere to save the day. Afterwards, he turns to Piper and asks, “You okay?...We”ve been watching you, you know…Me and Mrs. Wilson.” Hey, Boo.
The book is set in Virginia, Perkinson’s home state. Much of its force relies upon commonly held perceptions of the state’s residents as poor “ white trash.” The figures of the lower class like, Victor and Clover, are pitted against lesbians and gays who are, it seems, uniformly heroic and literate and kind.
While it’s understandable that Perkinson should write a novel that depicts gay and lesbian parental figures as nurturing and caring, one has to ask why that comes at the expense of rendering others as lesser human beings. In Victor and Clover, Perkinson combines the worst sins that make it easy for us to sympathize with the lesbians: they are both drunk and filthy, and one of them is lecherous towards a child. What if they weren’t so entirely evil but merely indifferent and uncaring? That might have made for a less predictable and less manipulative novel, but perhaps a more nuanced and interesting one.
The End of the World Book: A Novel is structured like an encyclopedia, with entries ranging from A to Z. Or, from A to Zed, as the gay writer Alistair McCartney might have said during his childhood in Australia. The premise is that the young Alistair fell asleep one day while reading an encyclopedia, and never woke up. Perhaps the novel is a result of the dream-like state he’s permanently entered into, mixing up past, present and future and conflating truth with fiction. We learn about assholes and the delicate smell that emanates from them as one finger-fucks someone. Avon ladies may be extinct. McCartney states decisively that “the last Avon lady was seen in 1994.”
Presumably, one can dip into the book, as one would into a traditional encyclopedia, or read it from start to finish. I did both, and neither provided a satisfactory experience. AIDS shows up frequently, and it makes for the only somewhat interesting but not entirely compelling aspect of this project. McCartney writes of the “so-called golden era of gay life” which is supposed to have ended with the first case of AIDS in 1981. But, according to McCartney, “the golden era actually begins in 1981 and … stretches backwards like a long gold streak, far away from us … all the way back to antiquity.” With this in mind, he returns to times past and inserts AIDS into the history books, as in his entry on John Keats, “a young porn star…who died of AIDS-related complications in a little room in Rome.” McCartney was born in 1971, and AIDS, for gay men of his generation, can now be divided into an era before and after the 1980s. Which raises the questions: what does it mean to live in an age when one only knows a post-AIDS world? Has it become a presence that overshadows the history of the world?
This is the sort of book writers might write for other writers; its sense of inventiveness overtakes the need to make or reach a point. It’s self-consciously fey and precious, and the narrator’s laconism and self-obsession begin to grate quite early on, even though McCartney’s wit shines through on occasion. As in this entry about the eighteenth-century German poet Jakob Lenz: “Although Lenz didn’t die until 1792 … an obituary for him came out in 1780. For the last twelve years of his life he lived on posthumously.” There’s a matter-of-fact sense of the macabre in everyday life that resembles that of Edward Gorey, evident in an entry about his librarians who “wear thick, horn-rimmed spectacles and walk around, cutting out the tongues of any patron found talking.” But these are bits and pieces here and there, and it’s difficult to plough through the entries without yearning for an end to them.
This is an inventive and experimental book, and a clever book. But it’s not a compelling book. There are interesting characters and subplots, but none are allowed to develop over and above the narrator’s presence. There’s an entry titled “Stories, Absence of,” under which McCartney writes, “take me seriously when I say I have no stories. I couldn’t tell a story to tell my life…” In a book that mixes fiction and fact, that may be the truest statement of all.
Gay Travels in the Muslim World Michale Luongo’s anthology of gay travel writing attempts to go beyond the recognizable Western symbols and tropes of “gayness”: rainbow flags, Pride parades and stories about coming out. A number of the authors point out that it’s the West that fuses gay identity and gay sex; men in many Muslim cultures are unafraid of holding hands in public without being particularly gay. Luongo writes, after trying to discern between gay romance and everyday gestures in Kabul, “I wonder if I was seeing a society that simply took any form of love, including affection between men, as a wonderful thing.”
Authors honestly foreground the entanglement of race and desire, the exoticizing that comes with that and what happens when the very presence of (mostly) white gay men in tourist traps also makes them part of the commercial structure. Encounters aren’t always peaceful. In Martin Foreman’s “A Market and a Mosque,” the author writes about Sylhet, Bangladesh—a small city that appears, on the surface, to be reaping the benefits of global migration. The influx of money from immigrants sending money back to Sylhet has resulted in a new boom economy of sorts, especially for young men who trade sex for money. Foreman thinks he has a special connection to the place: “… since most of the Bangladeshis in the UK [Foreman’s native country] live in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, I feel a kind of affinity with the place. Whether or not Sylhet feels an affinity with me is a different matter.”
This leaves Foreman puzzled at the hostility of Sylhetis to the foreigner in their midst. Back home, he reads about a bomb explosion in Sylhet, intended to kill the new British High Commissioner: “… for some Sylhetis at least, the bonds that tie their homeland with Britain are bonds not of love, but of hate.” Foreman may be incapable of understanding that more global money doesn’t mean more devotion to neoliberalism, or an instant alleviation of poverty. Or, he’s still trying to piece together the complex threads of sexuality and economics. Either way, the tale at least lends complexity to the notion of gay travel as purely sexual.
Yet, Luongo doesn’t explain why the book only focuses on gay men. Women only appear as silent robed wraiths or giggling schoolgirls. But gender matters. The definitions of queerness/homosexuality, especially in the West’s relationship with Islam, are weighted with the hierarchies ascribed to gender roles: the question of who gets penetrated and who gets to be the penetrator comes up often here. Including the travels of women seeking sex with women would have shed more light on the link between power, economics, gender, and sexuality.
Richard Ammon’s “Love, Sex, and Religion: Betrayed in Muslim Morocco” strikes a discordant note. It’s about the murder of his friend Gerald, killed by “a young Arab Muslim boy,” who had been the former’s sexual protégé. Ammon’s anger at his friend’s death is understandable, but the essay fails under his inability to recognize contradictions. Ammon rails against “a whole cadre of hetero Muslims [who are] betraying themselves as well as homo men’s desire.” In an anthology that strives to render sexuality and desire more complex than the familiar Western homo-hetero paradigms, Ammon’s piece is disturbingly vengeful, condescending, and reductive.
Indeed, only three of the 18 pieces are by Muslim men. By not providing more material on what it means to be a gay Muslim traveler, as in Rahal X’s essay, the book turns “gay,” “Muslim,” and “traveler” into mutually exclusive categories.
Gay Travels is a mixed bag worth dipping into, with caution. While it offers insights, it doesn’t relinquish the hierarchies implicitly built into travel literature. When it comes to travel, it seems that only Westerners travel ironically and self-consciously and write tales of their adventures, while Easterners merely fester in their chains.
By now, the term “on the down low” has become a part of everyday language. Beginning with J. L. King’s 2004 book, On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men who Sleep with Men, the term has defined our perception of Black men’s lives.
Men sleeping with men while acting straight isn’t, of course, restricted to the Black community. And yet, public talk of the down-low phenomenon stands in for any kind of sustained discussion about homosexuality in the Black community. The high rates of HIV infection among Black women foster a further demonization of Black men, who are portrayed as deadly carriers of the virus. The result is a lack of systemic analysis of the causes of the spread of HIV among vulnerable populations, such as inequality or the high numbers of incarcerated black men—and women—who spend lives in jail without access to condoms or any HIV prevention resources.
Terrance Dean’s new book, Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry—from Music to Hollywood, is about the down-low phenomenon in the music industry. It’s also a memoir of growing up in Detroit and Dean’s flight out of there. One of his earliest memories is of waiting while an intruder repeatedly raped his mother after threatening the four-year-old Dean with a gun.
Dean made it into the entertainment industry, where he found a community of people on the down low, including studio executives and musicians. According to Dean, the community in L.A. was cohesive enough to meet for regular social gathering s as well as the requisite sex parties. There are torrid, if sometimes fanciful, descriptions of sex that are a bit Harlequin Romance-ish.
The book doesn’t reveal who’s gay/bisexual in entertainment, but discusses the social and economic conditions that foster the down-low phenomenon. Hiding in Hip Hoptells us what we may already suspect about the implicit and explicit practices of racial exclusion in the entertainment industry. At one point, Dean worked as a production coordinator on The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, fresh on the heels of the comic’s hit In Living Color. He describes the cluelessness of white executives—who wanted Wayans to appeal to “middle America”—about the existence of Black actors: “it was always like pulling teeth to get the talent bookers to understand who some of the most prominent [B] lack actors were.” Under these circumstances, where most white gay actors are compelled to be closeted, Black actors must remain even more so.
The book’s sometimes confusing in its chronology, and latter parts, where Dean writes about founding various organizations to enable, first, Black entertainers to speak about race in the industry and then about sexuality, read a bit like resumes listing his professional accomplishments. That said, this is far less sensationalist than it could have been—and actually provides some insights into the operations of the industry outside of the questions about sexuality.
The question is: what function will this book perform in a culture always eager for yet another reason to demonize Black men as dangerously duplicitous? What are the power differentials in the entertainment world where white lesbians like Ellen are more out than Black lesbians or gay men? Does simply being out solve the problems of an industry that makes enormous profits while paying pittances to some? Ellen’s at the height of her popularity and lauded for her outness. But we forget that she was among the first to cross the writer’s strike picket line—that fact should matter more to us than the fact that she’s out.
Dean isn’t accountable for all these issues. As Hiding amply demonstrates, the phrase “We are everywhere” means empowerment for some. When applied to queer Black men in the entertainment industry, it could be construed as a threat to those who’d like to continue demonizing their presence. But as we read and discuss his book, we might consider the larger economic and political context in which sexuality operates.
Blair Mastbaum’s latest novel, Us Ones In Between, takes its name from the Spencer Krug/Sunset Rubdown song: “I’ve heard of pious men/And I’ve heard of dirty fiends/But you don’t often hear/Of us ones in between.” Kurt Smith is one of those living a life “in between” in Manhattan, as a recent art school graduate who came with a full painting scholarship at Cooper Union but hasn’t painted much recently.
He complains that he didn’t know “how to go out and network and make small talk with a bunch of lame people at a bunch of pretentious parties that I was supposed to attend if I was ever going to be a well-known artist in New York.”
What emerges from Kurt’s first-person narrative is a bleak set of circumstances and surroundings that shed more light on a certain kind of art world than on Kurt himself. Through Kurt’s eyes and recollections, we see glimpses into what it takes to succeed as an upcoming artist, especially a young queer-identified artist. Kurt went to school with the sort of young men and women destined to make their mark in an art and media world always eager to taste the Next New Thing, and his commentary on them is scathingly funny and seems accurate even as we recognize the bitterness from which it emerges.
One of his on-occasion friends is Sherlock, whose paintings of young men are now collected by the likes of Charles Saatchi. His art will soon have an entire book dedicated to it with the title: Teenage Wreck and Heart. As Kurt puts it sardonically, “The title is perfectly evocative of nothing, just like everything young artists are creating these days.” And then there’s Billy, his ex-boyfriend who plays guitar in a band called On the Wings of Love, that’s just become the hottest act in town.
Kurt keeps track of his old friends from a grungy studio apartment that’s slowly baking in the summer heat. Mastbaum effortlessly evokes this bleak world and its denizens, relaying its details with the simplest but most concise brushstrokes. At one point, Kurt walks by a “twenty-year-old boy on a razor scooter screaming, “Hark! Hark!” I roll my eyes. If there’s a new “it” phrase, this skinny fashion victim … would know it.” It’s a fly-by moment, but vividly descriptive of a world where everyone’s constantly trying to be right on the edge of the new.
All of this is a backdrop to the drama unfolding around Kurt. Among his unfinished projects is a novel about Elliot Collinsworth, who takes pleasure in pushing young men into the path of incoming subway trains and watching them scream in pain as their legs are sliced off. Suddenly, the news in the real world is full of a mysterious killer who does exactly what Kurt imagines Eilliot doing.
He writes about going around town and eyeing young men on the train, both as sexual objects and, ostensibly, as research subjects for his novel. What, he wonders, would it feel like to actually push someone off the platform? That question’s often interlaced with the question of what it might feel like to kiss or fuck the young man in question, turning his obsession into an interesting sexual fetish. Eventually, both Sherlock and Billy suspect Kurt of being the pusher and start to insist that he turn himself in.
As this tautly written novel progresses, it becomes less clear whether Kurt’s actually writing about wanting to push young men, or if he is in fact Elliot, and/or if the novel is a novel about himself. Mastbaum’s prose is spare but vivid, exposing both Kurt’s inner and outer worlds while maintaining a sense of suspense about the blurring between reality and unreality. The strange conclusion is a fitting end that may well be another beginning.
According to Hillary Carlip’s introduction to À la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers, she’s been collecting shopping lists—other peoples’ lists—since her teens. Some of these are detailed, with subheadings for beverages and dairy. Others are scrawled on the insides of matchbooks. At least one is cryptic enough to suggest a wicked sense of humor: “Mouse traps. Cheese. Mouse.”
Carlip began to imagine the lives and bodies of the people who made these lists. She set about collecting clothes from thrift stores and, with the assistance of photographer Barbara Green and makeup artist Chris Nelson, posed as the imagined characters in brief photo essays. The mousetrap list? It’s supposed to belong to Derrick, the morbid 22-year-old who still lives with his mother, and spent his childhood killing and mounting bugs. And he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Then there’s Helen, whose grocery list cites brand names. That’s because Helen is an assiduous coupon-clipper who saves an average of $209 each month. She has to, because she’s an obsessive crafter, as is obvious from the hand-made Holly Hobbie denim shirt she’s wearing. Her husband, fed up with her spending so much money on crafting supplies, has drastically limited her allowance, hence her coupon cutting mania. And then there’s Kim, the belligerent alcoholic, suddenly faced with an adult daughter whom she’d given up for adoption as a baby. Kim stands confusedly in the grocery store with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in hand, wearing a leather vest with the words, “Born to be wild.”
For the most part, Carlip’s recreated characters are from the middle to working classes (if such distinctions can even be said to exist in these economically strained times). A rare exception is Dr. Bloom, who’s busy shopping for ham, roast beef and smoked turkey at the supermarket to prepare for dinner with Gloria Steinem; the head of the Feminist Majority; and the president of Girl’s Inc. Dr. Bloom has two daughters who’ve failed to live up to her feminist principles—one’s dropped out of school and the other’s in her third marriage.
What are we to make of Carlip’s recreations of American life as lived through shopping lists? The detritus of other people’s lives can be fascinating. And yet, her literary and visual portraits are troubling. It’s not just the looks that Carlip emulates, with ashy grey makeup and strangely askew noses and eyes standing in for racial/ethnic features of people of color (Carlip is white), but her renditions of their lives.
À la Cart is not meant to be a serious ethnographic study, but its facile nature says a lot about the class-based stereotypes on which we operate. Carlip falters in the rare instance she attempts to portray the upper crust: Dr. Bloom is much more likely to have catered her affair than serve deli meat. Carlip’s typical of American humorists who are comfortable imagining the lives of the poor or stuck-in-the-middle class as hilarious tales of underachievement.
Take Maggie. Ever since she saw Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, she’s struggled to find clients and still dreams of her Prince Charming/Richard Gere coming to rescue her—she’s always wanted to be “a hooker with a heart of gold.” It’s phrases like that which reveal how embedded Carlip is in the clichés through which we’re encouraged to imagine that Maggie’s too dumb to realize that Pretty Woman was a fantasy.
Tuyen is the Vietnamese immigrant who still remembers her childhood in Vietnam and “the mid-Autumn Festival where children parade … carrying colorful lanterns, and receive moon cakes.” What’s a tale of a Vietnamese immigrant without lanterns and moon cakes? Carlip rehashes every tired cliché about who people are based on their income and where they come from. It’s like watching Cindy Sherman pose as Anna Deavere Smith performing on race in America, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Sure, the book’s meant to be a joke. But what and whom are we laughing at, exactly?
The poet David Trinidad, who grew up in the suburbs of California in the 1950s, has memories of lip gloss. His latest collection, The Late Show: Poems, includes “Gloss of the Past,” composed entirely of the names of lip glosses, with names redolent of the spirit of their era: “Pink Dawn, Aurora Pink, Misty Pink, Fresh Pink, Natural Pink, Country/Pink, Dusty Pink, Pussywillow Pink, Pink Heather, Pink Peony…” It’s a litany of names rattled off with such verve that the reader is tempted to find narrative and progression. Is there, for instance, an unfolding pink drama here: “ … Turn Pale Pink, A Little Pink, Pinker, Pinkety Pink”?
Trinidad, who teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College, writes about life wrapped in a culture we tend to dismiss as “popular.” Lip gloss, face cream with names like Topaz, and Barbie have colored his imagination, as has a reverence for movie queens. “All This, And Heaven Too” is a series of Bette Davis film titles. “Penelope” is a poetic biopic of Natalie, an account of how her third flop in a row drove her to the brink and back, before her eventual death by drowning. The poet is both a fan and observer, mimicking the language in which we articulate our familiarity with celebrity: part advertising lingo and part fandom: “the first few scenes, in a nutshell,/of the mid-sixties flick/About a madcap mademoiselle,/A zany light-fingered chick.”
To read The Late Show is to catch a glimpse of what’s often referred to as a “gay sensibility.” That’s not to dismiss Trinidad as “merely” a gay poet, but to state that he enunciates gayness in ways that are more interesting than what we might find in the pages of contemporary gay literature, most of which reads like oh-so-gay sitcoms. That might seem an odd validation for a poet who writes, after all, quite often but not exclusively, about standard gay fetishes—what’s gayer than a fondness for Bette Davis and Barbie?
But Trinidad isn’t mired in nostalgia for its own sake. His understanding of 1960s film-fan magazine rhetoric in “Penelope” isn’t a campy recreation but a mimicry that’s undercut by the almost comic mishap that was Wood’s life. In other words, the only way to tell the Natalie Wood story is to be the Natalie Wood story.
Trinidad grabs phrases from the zeitgeist; his use of them becomes a slightly twisted back-and-forth motion between wryness and belief. The result provides richly textured observations and recollections.
Take for example, “A Poet’s Death,” about his friend Rachel Sherwood who died in a car crash that involved them both. Its epigraph is, of all things, the famous line from the 1970s paean to sentimental love, Erich Segal’s Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five year-old girl who died?”
The line is repeated again, as a question about Rachel that gets answered: “That she lived on Amigo/and was my friend … And that she/once, after a speed—and scotch-fueled orgy --/straddled, rode me like a horse./Rachel, can I say this: your cunt felt coarse.” The last line flips the Segal sentiment in its forthrightness—it’s not a question, or even a note of regret, but a marker of a friendship that continued. In the last stanza, she shows up after her death, a “pulsating white presence, in the hallway” and then: “I’m all right,” you said, “You/don’t have to worry about me.” The scene may challenge our belief, but it also reflects the intensity of their relationship—an intensity that’s oddly made more possible by the presence of Segal. What can we say, after all, about relationships that are not bound by conventional notions of love but are nonetheless as intense as this, and which are denied the language of sentiment?
The Late Show is about a life recalled and retold through the language and style of cultural artifacts. It doesn’t stoop to the level of grand commentary on our times or times past, and for that very reason it adds density and vibrancy to both gayness and poetry.
Blas Falconer’s collection of poems, A Question of Gravity and Light, is about nameless people, perennial outsiders who find themselves in situations they hadn’t planned upon. The 46 poems here explore themes of attachment, family, belonging and of being located in many places at once. The voice is at once detached and enlivened, warily testing out spaces of connection with an eye and a mind that faultlessly record details for a posterity that could be fictive or real. The result is a set of pieces whose apparent lightness belies the burden of grief and longing experienced by the narrator (s) .
In “the Given Account,” Falconer, who is of Puerto Rican origin and who happens to be gay, takes on a weighty subject: the legend of Diego Salcedo, whose death by drowning is considered by some to be an origin tale of Puerto Rico. As the story has it, Salcedo was killed by Taíno Indians in an attempt to see if the conquering Spaniards were indeed mortals. The poem’s narrator—“I, who came to drink, struck dumb by one thought—they bleed, they die—” seems mysteriously at odds with the killers and filled with a nameless grief that’s both corporeal and abstract: “He hung / wet and limp and heavy in my arms—/ this man, this man, almost too much to bear.”
Seven poems share the title, “Letters from the Cumberland,” referring to the part of Tennessee where Falconer lives and works as an assistant professor of English at Austin Peay State University. They explore the process by which a stranger makes his way into town and into the consciousness of his neighbors: “ … though the boxes have been broken down for months, the pictures hung, my name exchanged … / We wave across the street … ./ They don’t ask much … “
The Cumberland poems are markers of the poet’s attempts to set down roots, while struggling with unfamiliar and hostile students and the possibility of a long-term separation from a lover. The briefest of them is also the most precise in its description of two people trying to make distance work: “ … I’ll fly north. / You”ll drive down / when the time is right. / A question mark over the month of May, months from now.” But the questions about time aren’t just about the logistics of schedules; they are about testing the elasticity of attachment: “ … Someone has to give.”
Other pieces relive childhood memories, and reveal how elusive and mysterious these become over the years. In “A Story of Winter,” there is, possibly, the death of a child: “…And the boy. / There. Then not there. / The ice breaking…” Falconer’s poetry is fiercely precise and sharp even when he writes about death. Here, as in “The Given Account,” the enormity and grief of death is conveyed in the simple words that hover at the end: “the air changing over and over again.”
This kind of dexterity with words can, in the hands of lesser poets, be sometimes precious, but Falconer is too adept to let the work slip into flashiness and he is playful without coyness. In “A Definition of Terms,” he waits in an airport and mulls over the meanings of “cruise”: as “a verb, slang, to seek a trick, / usually at night; no connection to / Tom Cruise, beloved actor and movie star.” As the poem continues, he reveals different meanings of the word, including as a description of planes cruising the runway, and finally settles upon his trick. The two men continue their wordless circling around each other: “… talking sex / without talking…” before the clink of buckles and bathroom sex. At the end, what could be a judgment is rendered more ambiguous: a trick might be “… the cruised, / the lonely, the starved…” or it could be “…sex between strangers / who give and take this temporary love.” A Question of Gravity and Light is a pristine collection of poems about the untidiness of sex, death, and attachment, written by a poet who’s precise without being sterile and weighty without being burdensome.
Sarah LeVine’s The Saint of Kathmandu: And Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands is a memoir about her 30-odd years in communities devoted to spiritual quests. It implicitly argues that what brings people together into massive football stadiums to pray as one or as solitary worshippers in darkened Cathedrals isn’t religion—a set of prescribed doctrines—as much as faith: the need to believe in a power that can alleviate the conditions of living.
The book is divided into five chapters, ranging from the early ’70s to sometime near the present. The locations vary from Africa and Hong Kong to Nepal and the United States. In Nigeria, LeVine, an anthropologist, spends time with Alhajia Rabi, who is both a learned Muslim woman schooled in the Koran and the chief medical officer in the Muslim town of Kaura. In Kathmandu, she’s taken under the wing of Guruma (the name is a title, meaning both teacher and mother), a vital woman and female Buddhist monk devoted to the cause of women’s equality in her order.
In the most poignant chapter, set in Hong Kong, LeVine befriends her Filipina maid Isabel. Maids are the Philippine’s biggest export—they go to the farthest corners of the world to cook and baby-sit for strangers, and many spend years apart from their own children. Isabel, it turns out, married a man who disappeared while she was pregnant with their child.
After being told by her father that he couldn’t support her any more, she flies to Hong Kong to work as a maid (LeVine was her second employer) , leaving her infant behind. Depressed and isolated, she meets a woman who persuades her to come see Brother Mike Velarde, a local leader of the Charismatics (Christians who believe they can witness manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and in the power of miracles) .
Isabel’s faith in Velarde is clearly a way of coping with her solitude and deep unhappiness. It’s tempting to see this as an instance of religion/faith as an escape, but LeVine situates Isabel squarely within the context of post-handover Hong Kong and after the Asian economic crisis, turning the story into a poignant reminder of the human costs of the neoliberalism that creates millionaires out of a small segment of society and cheap labor out of the remainder.
The Saint of Kathmandu is a compelling book, and it’s compassionate without condescension. LeVine writes about strong women, and that goes a long way in shifting the paradigms through which we understand faith in the global south.
Yet, the book tends to portray matters of faith as timeless and unchanging. LeVine is often mysterious about dates (the Hong Kong chapter is one exception, but then it’s difficult to dehistoricize Hong Kong). The chapters on Africa and Mexico, in contrast, require a good deal of math to discern when events might have occurred. I found myself looking for clues. The presence of a Walkman, for instance, told me that one chapter was (presumably) set in the 1980s or early ’90s.
Given that the least historicized chapters are also set in Africa and Mexico, LeVine’s book contributes to a dangerously shallow narrative about religion and faith in those parts of the world, about people whose lives are bounded by an unchanging faith, regardless of historical events around them.
But faith is formed by politics and history, and we sacrifice real political change when we render it in ahistorical terms. Reading about how Beatrice, in what we must assume is the late ’70s, finds out that her husband’s infidelities have resulted in her gonorrhea, it’s difficult not to ask what might happen to her faith in a post-AIDS Africa. What might happen to Ana Maria’s faith and her attempts to alleviate poverty in her Mexican town, presumably set in the same period, in a country now torn by a neoliberal dependence on the United States? Narratives about unchanging faith might reassure us about the unchanging nature of the world’s faithful, but it does nothing to alleviate the drastic political and economic changes they endure.
Elizabeth Gregory’s Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood is about a phenomenon she calls “later motherhood,” of women having children, either biologically or by adoption, in their forties and beyond. Susan Wicklund’s This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctoris about her twenty years of experience as an abortion provider and the changing landscape of abortion rights. Wicklund’s clients are rural pregnant women in need of abortions in a world where clinics sometimes remain for only a few days a month. Gregory is the Director of Women’s Studies and Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston. Her book draws from a small sample of 132 women, all of who share her privileged background.
Wicklund writes about her own alienating experience with abortion, with cold instruments and colder nurses, and her subsequent resolve to ensure that she could provide women in similar situations with a far more supportive atmosphere. But abortion rights have, by law, become increasingly restrictive and onerous for poorer women in particular. For many, the fight for “abortion rights” may well be a moot point.
Wicklund has had to bear witness to it all, from the abortion protestor who showed up for an abortion and still called Wicklund a sinner, to the man who brought in his daughter to abort the child he’d fathered. One woman lost her job because of the required 24-hour waiting period which forced her to take extra time off that she couldn’t explain.
In sharp contrast, Elizabeth Gregory’s Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, is optimistic to the extreme. She sees a brave new world where birthing technologies and adoption opportunities make for a perfect world where anyone (in her social class) can become a parent. It never occurs to her that women might not want that chance; it’s clear she feels that having children is the ultimate mark of adulthood. Or, as one of the women puts it, “I could never have shown up [for them] in my twenties because I was too busy trying to show up for myself.”
Her eagerness to render childrearing in the sunniest of terms prompts Gregory to make bizarre statements, as in her description of international adoption: “Part of the hope around adoption in impoverished countries is that the children who are adopted out will gain the education and resources needed to return as adults and help make things better for their birth country.” It’s unclear why she would ignore the economic duress that forces countries like China and India to turn into baby factories in the first place. Or that adoptive children are not and should not be sent out as economic emissaries to the world.
Even more disconcerting is her willful ignoring of the issues of child-rearing that face most parents today. Gregory gets around all that by only focusing on women of her own class, leading her to write blithely that “highly educated women spend intense amounts of time stimulating creativity in small numbers of children, preparing those kids to be the innovative workers the market now demands.” Such statements are typical of her placement of women’s bodies and the children they bear or adopt as agents of neoliberalism.
Gregory’s book cloaks reproduction in terms of choice and technology. Wicklund provides a stark look at the realities of reproduction from the other side. Her book gives us the perspectives and experiences of women for whom giving birth might be an unwanted experience but whose rights to terminate their own pregnancies are increasingly being eroded by the very economic system that Gregory celebrates so joyously. Elizabeth Gregory shouldn’t be held directly responsible for the world that Wicklund inhabits, but a book about reproduction could at least be more aware of the socio-economic circumstances surrounding the same.
Placed next to each other, these two books provide unsettling insights into a climate where the ability to reproduce and the ability to cease reproduction are mired in a complex entanglement of access and privilege. Seen through these two lenses, motherhood emerges less as a privileged and natural process of adulthood and more as an experience mediated by women’s gendered relationships to inequality.
Vega, a lesbian, left her job to move with her partner, Mala, to Washington. She remained uninsured for five months as she looked for employment; Mala’s job didn”t provide her any insurance because they weren’t married.
Proponents of gay marriage claim that such cases prove why gays should be allowed to marry—in order to access their partners” benefits. In her new book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, Nancy Polikoff debunks that logic in the simplest terms: “Marriage is not the solution...The solution is universal health care.”
We have reached a point where the feminist-queer critique of marriage is barely a distant memory. Polikoff points out that, “the shift is so pervasive that the generation of gay and straight young adults who have grown up during the culture war over same-sex marriage has no idea that the gay rights movement was once part of coalition efforts to make marriage matter less.”
Over the last few years, there has been wider resistance to gay marriage in the queer community. Many among us have argued that marriage shouldn’t be the guarantor of something as basic as health care, and that queer commitment is no more special than the worlds that the uncoupled have created for themselves. They can now resort to Nancy Polikoff’s detailed book for supporting counterarguments against the gay marriage crowd, as well as ways in which to craft a system that guarantees basics like health care to everybody, not just the coupled and married.
Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is also a history of how marriage, in the United States, came to represent much more than a social or emotional bond. Given her background (as a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law), Polikoff’s more comfortable with legal argument than cultural analysis, but the book is lively and accessible to a general reader. Given the gay marriage movement’s constant use of emotion; panic; and charges of homophobia to bolster support for its cause, her legal depth is both timely and important.
Polikoff takes her microscope to every conceivable situation raised by the gay-marriage crowd, and shows what solutions (like domestic partnerships that don’t privilege straight or gay) might have worked already, and what others could be crafted. She reminds us that the gay marriage movement frequently echoes the Right’s agenda about an institution which only grants more powers to the state and patriarchy. So, for instance, gay marriage supporters insist that marriage would mean that their children could grow up in loving and stable homes. How is that any different from the Right’s relentless argument that single mothers and unmarried people will bring about civilization’s end?
It would be one thing if marriage were simply part of the ordinary social relations through which people carry on their lives. The problem begins when so much else of the state’s benefits only go to those who are married. Canada, it turns out, isn’t just the Shangri-La to the north of us with universal health care. Since 2002, Alberta residents have been able to avail of something called the Adult Interdependent Act, where two people in a close relationship (friends, for instance) may designate each other as decision-makers in the case of organ and tissue donation, or receive each other’s extended healthcare benefits. And all that’s without a sexual relationship between them. Through a myriad such examples, Polikoff shows why it’s necessary to separate marriage from the state’s responsibilities.
Ultimately, Polikoff tends to privilege institutions like the family and non-profits over and locates resistance only in their terms, as in her mantra that we need to respect all families. While she’s occasionally critical of Lambda Legal and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in their support of gay marriage, she doesn’t extend that critique too far. Yet, these two key queer organizing groups, which supposedly present a progressive alternative to Human Rights Commission, have greatly enabled the gay marriage agenda and that speaks to the role such organizations play in contemporary queer politics.
Meanwhile, queer independent groups like San Francisco’s Gay Shame or individuals like Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, who go unmentioned in this book, have constantly resisted that agenda—most significantly in response to Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose politics around marriage disguised his conservative politics around gentrification. Given its deep embededness in formal institutions (like the law!), this is a neoliberal book, but it’s also an important critique of the idea that marriage should organize our lives and our access to the basics.
Travelers destroy what they seek. Brian Bouldrey once saw those words on a bumper sticker, and they haunt him throughout his walking trip in Corsica's maquis, the dense scrub that's a favorite destination for hikers. Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica is about days spent trudging and camping as Bouldrey, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University, makes his way through an alien landscape without much of a sense of direction. What’s remarkable about the book isn't just that it's astonishingly well-written, but that it's actually a travel book by a gay man that isn't about boffing the natives. Bouldrey writes about Corsica, friendship and even his dog, Grace, with sharp wit and a musing quality that only fellow walkers will recognize: the ability to be very still and collect yourself even as you keep moving forward.
Corsica is an island of 260,000 inhabitants, but there are also over 800,000 Corsicans living on the European continent, many of whom dream of independence. This fierce, if rather diasporic, nationalism is also additionally nurtured, as any reader of Asterix and Obelix comics can tell you, by deep memories of ancient internecine blood feuds: “Just a walk along the river with a pretty lady without her father's permission could begin the cycle of vendetta.”
Bouldrey’s walking companion through this proud and eccentric land is his friend Petra. Theirs is a dryly affectionate relationship, fortified by an instinctive knowledge of knowing when to leave each other alone. Faced with literally insurmountable piles of vertical rock, Petra’s solution is to assiduously apply very expensive lipstick to her lips, “her trademark gesture of desperate dignity in high places.”
As might be expected of a travel narrative, the book is filled with fleeting characters memorable for their peculiarities, such as the young German who walks without a hat or sunscreen and whose rapidly burning ears lead Petra to casually declare that he will die of cancer. There’s wildlife in the form of wild pigs, which are actually domestic animals let free to roam the maquis through summer before being herded back for slaughter. Bouldrey’s observations of these life forms are interspersed with recollections of friends and family. In the hands of a lesser writer, the results would have been precious. But Bouldrey possesses a deft and light touch; he can be simultaneously funny and dry. He recalls his HIV-positive friend Adam, who departed for India, not a country known for hygiene: “When a soldier goes into battle fighting for oil or land, we praise his death as an act of courage. When you go to India with a compromised immune system, you are an idiot, and deserve to die. Don’t bother coming home, Adam.”
In what may be the most eloquent section in the book, Bouldrey describes a nighttime performance by a group of singers. The song “is of love, or dying of it, or revenge because it went wrong because, well, this is Corsica.” It ends as noisy revelers enter. Rather than fume endlessly about the intrusion, Bouldrey wisely leaves the scene where it is, and comments on his own ambivalence about wanting to preserve the memory forever. There are, after all two kinds of travelers. Those who destroy what they seek and those who worry endlessly that they might destroy what they seek.
Written by Jhumpa Lahiri; $25; Knopf; 333 pages
new collection of short stories, and it doesn’t stray far from the literal and fictional territory, of aliens living alienated lives, that she’s
best known for. But it does take the reader away from adults by focusing on their offspring. Part One is a set of five discrete stories, while Part Two’s three tales are linked by protagonists Hema and Kaushik. The results are fresher than Lahiri’s previous work, and her typically somber characters yield insights into more than the awkwardness of straddling two cultures.
Chicago, as Mark Twain put it, “outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them … she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.” The city yields multiply layered histories to those who take the time to search. Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City is an assiduously researched and lively look at the Everleigh sisters, Minna and Ada, women who seemed to come from nowhere to found the famed brothel, the Everleigh Club. The sisters maintained a spectacular home and business place, offering pleasures to those who could afford the services of the women who worked for them. But they were also constantly embroiled in turf wars with other brothel owners; negotiations with corrupt police; the growing hysteria over “white slavery;” and the grandstanding of puritanical zealots who worked to shut them down.
Abbott carefully reconstructs an inside view of the lives and careers of these famed sisters. The book also reveals the social and economic changes in the city at the time, and provides glimpses of the prostitutes employed by the Everleighs. Neither hookers with hearts of gold nor scheming harlots, they understood too well the hypocrisy of their opponents. On her death, one of them is found with a note: “ … Kindly tell, for me, all the psalm-singers to go to hell and stick the clergymen in an ash-can. That goes double for all the parasites who talk a lot but don’t do a damn thing to help a girl in trouble...”
Edited by Kevin G. Barnhurst, published by Peter Lang. 298 pages, $32.95
Queers are everywhere in the media and we no longer have to furtively seek and consume images of ourselves. Media Queered: Visibility and Its Discontents, edited by Kevin Barnhurst, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ponders the costs and advantages of this new-found visibility.
Essays frequently contradict each other. Todd Mundt’s “Talking Gay” celebrates the rise of queer representations but Gavin Jack writes, in “Whorephobia,” about the media’s refusal to engage the complexities of queer sex workers, “the point is to question claims that visibility achieves practical equality and that a more talkative media is necessarily more progressive.” Such contentiousness makes Media/Queered a textured and interesting record that questions our fealty to visibility.
Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, South End Press, 257 pages, $18
In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against “ … the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.” Progressives have since used the term “industrial complex” to describe systems, like that of prisons, ostensibly designed for the public good but which, in reality, benefit the few who make profits from them, while increasing the very conditions they are supposed to eradicate. There are 1.5 million non-profits in the United States, creating what the editors of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex claim is a nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC) . In Asia, Africa and Europe, nonprofits are known as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) , a term that, semantically at least, grants them outsider status while the American term “non-profit” imbues them with an air of piety.
Bob Smith’s debut novel, Selfish and Perverse, is about Nelson Kunker, who lives and works in Los Angeles as a writer’s assistant for a show named Aftertaste. He hopes to write novels, and wonders if he’s stagnating: “What had me worried was that I was an artsy, thirty-four-year-old man who needed to confront whether I was really talented or just gay.”
That delicious line speaks volumes for and strikes at our notions of gay productivity. One-liners come easily to Smith, who’s better known as an openly gay comedian. To his credit, witty observations like this don’t stand alone; they’re fully integrated into a taut narrative filled with, for the most part, skillfully drawn characters.
Nelson’s life changes dramatically when Aftertaste hires the charismatic star Dylan Fabizak in an effort to boost ratings. Around the same time, Nelson literally runs into Roy Briggs, an Alaskan fisherman and archaeologist about to head back to his native state. While on a date with Roy, Nelson suffers a public embarrassment by accidentally sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits. The press coverage leaves the nation laughing and him wishing he were elsewhere. When he loses his job soon after, he decides to move to Alaska to see what might come of his literary longings and his relationship with Roy. Dylan, who has his own reasons to go to Alaska, wheedles Nelson and Roy into taking him along.
Selfish and Perverse is mostly about Nelson’s choice between the taciturn Roy and the manipulative Dylan. It’s also about the beautiful and unyielding landscape of Alaska and the characters Nelson meets and knows. The state comes alive through details like the taste of nagoonberries and the rugged boats of the fishermen. The characters include Lloyd, a self-described “fiend for champagne” (you have to read the novel to get the real joke) and Nelson’s father, who’s probably the sweetest straight parent a gay man could want. Eager to help his son with his romantic life, he writes earnestly of the special expertise of straight men who, after all, “ … can be objective about men because we’re never going to date them, but we know all of their devious ways.” And then there’s a pivotal sex scene, a threesome between Nelson, Dylan and Roy. I won’t give too much away; I’ll only write that this scene alone proves why we need queer fiction by queer writers.
What makes the novel less than satisfactory is that it’s vastly overdetermined as a gay love story. As a result, the end is both predictable and predictably written. Smith’s compulsion to write a standard romance narrative also prompts him to resort to a stock character in the shape of Nelson’s fag hag/best friend, Wendy. Despite his attempts to paint her as entertainingly larger than life—six foot three with a “fee-fi-fo-fum personality”—she’s really a watered-down Karen Walker and exists only to move the plot along. When she arrives in Alaska for a visit, it’s to bring news about a possible writing job and this leaves Nelson faced with a choice: return to L.A. with Dylan or stay in Alaska. Although Smith’s considerable talents are wasted on a standard love story, this is a promising debut and bodes well for an original, inventive and very funny writer.
Jean Thompson’s Throw Like a Girl is an occasionally illuminating collection of short stories about women who inhabit what we call the “middle class,” that fictitious category invented to reassure Americans that there is no economic inequality in the United States. If we all try just hard enough, we’re told, we could land somewhere solidly in the “middle” and live happily normal and humdrum lives.
Thompson’s women live in the middle of middling lives: they are neither coming nor going; they live in the middle of the country; they live in the middle of life itself. They are caught in the process of daring themselves to leap one way or the other. Jessie in “The Five Senses” is between her comfortably middle-class parents and the wild boy who promises her freedom. In “It Would Not Make Me Tremble to See Ten Thousand Fall,” Kelly Ann is between her high school graduation and life as a pregnant and married teen. In “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” the married protagonist finds herself literally between her husband and her lover.
Thompson digs deep into quotidian details and the results are sometimes effective and surprising, but too often bound up in inevitability. She’s best when she lets her characters function as if they had inner lives of their own, rather than forcing them to work inexorably towards the endings she has devised for them. The finest and wittiest story is “The Inside Passage,” about an unnamed woman who has been unhappy in an involvement with a married man and is now in Alaska on a series of boat trips because “I had the luxury of going somewhere exotic to be miserable.” At every stop, she calls her lover from pay phones under a different assumed name, hoping to talk to him one last time. The story’s delightful unpredictability is matched by the woman’s engaging cluelessness about everything, even the possibility of a bear attack: “It would eat me up while I was still thinking none of this was happening.” Yet it’s she who precisely and wryly summarizes the nature of longing: “It seemed you ought to be able to aim desire like a lens, and pass your longing straight through it. Maybe I was simply out of range.”
But for the most part, the trouble with Thompson’s characters is that it’s difficult to imagine they could survive outside the stories. Reading Throw Like a Girl is like being led through a series of doll’s houses with all the little people manipulated and arranged precisely, caught in mid-sip during a tea party or on the way to bed. They are all compelled to move towards an upper-case Fate, and it’s difficult to empathize with many of them. In a collection of stories about women, it seems more than a pity to not allow them this much—the freedom to lead messy lives, the freedom to become utterly lost.
This kind of overdetermination is especially evident in the dialogue, which often snaps and crackles too much, like sitcom banter. In “Holy Week,” Olivia confronts Bruno, who wants to take her daughter away to Europe, “For money, Mamma give permission?” Comes the response, “For free, Mamma break your face.” It’s too funny ha-ha, like something that should be accompanied by a laugh track.
Endings can be similarly overdone. The finely tuned “Hunger” is about a woman who melts and oozes into dementia as her family mops up the mess around her and it ends on a surprising note that matches the quietly understated narrative thrust of the story. The same cannot be said about “The Five Senses,” which works too hard to shock and jolt at the end. The best fiction takes one by surprise, not shock; the latter, unless rendered with skill, is a pale substitute for the former. Thompson would have done well to remember the distinction more often.
A 2003 Pfizer advertisement for the anti-depressant Zoloft featured a downcast woman and the words, “Is she just shy? Or is it Social Anxiety Disorder?” Below that were only four sentences about the drug’s efficacy, and the standard disclaimer about side effects.
As Christopher Lane points out in his stunning and revelatory book, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, “social anxiety disorder” is seen as so commonplace that there’s no need to explain the symptoms. These encompass a broad array of responses once considered normal behavior. Are you nervous about public speaking? Do you blush in certain social situations? You’ve got social anxiety disorder. Ordinary shyness (who isn’t nervous before speaking in public?) is now classified as a sickness.
Some of the literature on social anxiety disorder inserts the qualifying word “excessive” in front of its supposed symptoms. Regardless, contemporary norms of social interaction leave no place for shy people. Those who are reclusive and prefer solitude are especially under suspicion. After the Unabomber and the Columbine shooters, anyone who shows signs of withdrawal from society is suspected as a potentially violent killer. Shyness no longer exists alongside social anxiety disorder, it is social anxiety disorder.
How did shyness, a perfectly natural response to the world that can be a protective cocoon for many, become diagnosed as social anxiety disorder? What are the long-range effects of this diagnosis?
Lane answers these questions by relating a series of histories of language and diagnosis. At the center is the behind-the-scenes battle over the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III, 1980). Lane doesn’t argue that excessive shyness might be debilitating for some, or that mental illnesses like depression don’t exist. But he argues that shyness was cast as the base catalyst for a host of perceived ills, including many defined as psychotic, whose symptoms remain vague. DSM III warns that those with “Shizoid Personality Disorder” often engage in “excessive daydreaming.” As Lane puts it dryly, “What constitutes an appropriate amount of daydreaming remains anyone’s guess.”
DSM-III calcified social anxiety disorder as such, but not without opposition from psychoanalysts who argued against pathologizing those who did not hew to societal norms of proper behavior. Or, as one psychoanalyst wrote in a 1975 memo, “…people should not be called mentally ill because they are different or unhappy.” In contrast, psychiatrists held that reclusive behavior was abnormal and that it should be pharmacologically treated. Psychoanalysis lost the battle and was henceforth reduced to a caricature and debunked for its willingness to let patients understand the roots of their issues through a more reflective process than that allowed for by quick-fix drugs. We have since attempted to scrub ourselves clean of the unconscious.
The dependence on pharmacology has devastating physical consequences. The drug Paxil, for instance, blankets “the nervous system so completely it prevents the brain and nervous system from distinguishing between routine stress and chronic anxiety.” In 2003, the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products, which oversees the distribution of drugs in the European Union, warned about the drug’s role in the increase in “suicide-related behavior” among young adults.
There are social and political losses as well. As Lane puts it in the most haunting sentence of the book, “The sad consequence is a vast, perhaps unrecoverable, loss of emotional range, an impoverishment of human experience.” Political dissent is pathologized as “a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” I’m reminded of The Nation’sfirst cover image after the Nov. 2000 election: Bush as Alfred E. Neuman. Instead of the icon’s usual insouciant line, “What, me worry?” was now a single word: “Worry.” Anxiety can be both justified and productive.
For a book that’s about the invention of a medical condition, Shyness is as riveting as a detective story. Lane writes elegantly and passionately about the need to maintain our consciousness about the maddeningly rich complexity of human emotion and thought. Without romanticizing the figure of the tormented genius, he reminds us of the costs of being mired in an excess of equilibrium. In the end, he seems hopeful about the tide shifting against the overdiagnosis of social anxiety disorder and towards a resurgence of psychoanalysis. For the sake of our lives, we can only hope that he’s right.
Jennifer Parello’s debut novel, Dateland, is a fun romp through a world populated entirely by lesbians who talk non-stop in the kind of patter made famous—if not entirely likeable—by the television show Gilmore Girls. They spend most of their time plotting ways to seduce each other or setting up dates for their unsuspecting friends.
Julia, the narrator, is a partner in a Chicago law firm with her friend Tricia, who lives with Anne in an open relationship—understood as such mostly by Tricia. Jean and Julia move in together but Jean absconds with Michelle just as she’s supposed to close on a condo with Julia. Julia meets Claire, who has never been with a woman and who is still close friends with her ex-husband and his current wife. So far, so lesbian.
This central cast of characters is surrounded by every conceivable kind of dyke, from the upper middle-class power couple who decide to give birth to their second child after adopting the first from China because artificial insemination is now the more fashionable option, to the vegans who create an uproar when Tricia walks into a bridge session wearing leather shoes. Julia is a wryly self-conscious narrator who’s aware of all her contradictions. When she discovers that a group of squatters on welfare is about to be evicted from a dilapidated 1920s building on the lakefront, she’s quick to outwardly empathize with their plight but can’t resist making her own plans: “I nodded my head to demonstrate my mutual liberal outrage. But as I strolled back home and gazed at the muscular skyline of brick and stone, I mentally calculated what it would cost to buy one of the buildings and convert it into condos.”
Parello, a columnist for Nightlines and a Chicago resident, writes lovingly of the North Side lesbian community and its hangouts. Dateland reaffirms a central fact of lesbian life everywhere: we are incapable of ever truly separating from our lovers, even after the most disastrous and dramatic break-ups. An army of ex-lovers, to borrow the title of Amy Hoffman’s recent memoir, turns into a cadre of friends.
This is an energetic, lively and hilarious book that doesn’t try to be anything other than unpretentious lesbian lit. Ultimately, Dateland also reminds me of all the reasons I don’t date. Despite their collective show of careless detachment from conventional romance, every lesbian in this book is eager to succumb to the plague of domesticity that overwhelms our community.
Parello’s characters, like so many of us, take special joy in living entangled lives. But they all eventually settle into comfortable attachments to those who bring the least pain and complication. Claire, for instance, presented as the ideal, is so adorable, so winsome, so utterly well-adjusted and charming that you’d like to wring her slender neck. Life settles easily for us into a pattern of Sunday brunches and predictable routines, even if they are routines peppered with lesbian drama. We have convinced ourselves that being happy and being interesting are two incommensurable states of being.
Kenny Fries was born with what his medical records call “congenital deformities of the lower extremities,” a condition of his legs so rare that there is no medical name for it. In his latest memoir, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, Fries juxtaposes two histories. The first is his own, a life of living with what many around him have considered an abnormality and a disability but which has been, for him, a quotidian experience. The second is the history of the theory of evolution. Popular mythology attributes this to Charles Darwin alone and we tend to assume that all of it came to him in a blinding flash of light, one that changed minds and the world forever. But in fact, as is the case with all modes of inquiry, the process took years of research and Darwin was constantly testing his hypotheses with a wider circle of like-minded naturalists and scientists. One of these was Alfred Wallace, 14 years younger than Darwin. While they often collaborated, Darwin’s reputation eventually exceeded Wallace’s but the two remained close colleagues until the end; Wallace was one of the pallbearers at Darwin’s funeral.
What, as Fries asks in his first chapter, does any of this have to do with a pair of shoes? The shoes in question are the specially fitted pair that Fries wore for years. He trekked the world in them. Over the years, as his body and gait inevitably shifted and changed, he’s had to endure numerous adjustments to the shoes and also had to resist other people’s ideas of how a disabled man should look and behave. So, the first history is of Fries growing up and resisting widely held notions of what it means to be disabled even as he also learnt what it means to be gay.
The central evolutionary theme of this book emerges easily enough. There are no real aberrations in nature, only adaptations—even if, sometimes, the point of a trait is not ultimately clear. Looking at a set of blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos islands, Fries asks his guide the reason for the color of their feet: “‘No reason,’ he tells me, echoing the answer I have given countless times to people who have asked about my feet.” In other sections of the book, Fries ponders the history of disability rights, and the shift that occurred when people with disabilities decided that they were no longer medical problems but bodies with civil rights. He considers the history of eugenics, the popularity of which in Nazi Germany would have surely meant the extermination of people like him.
As interesting as some of this is, it doesn’t all cohere into a riveting text. The two histories are juxtaposed but the exact connections between them are hazy. It’s a lovely, fizzy, even sexy idea—to parallel the history of an idea with the history of a body—but the end result falls rather flat. Fries’ musings about gay sexuality and disability synthesize the work of queer and disability theorists and activists but do not contribute much intellectual heft to their work. The History of My Shoes reads more like a set of journal musings about interesting ideas. However, interesting ideas don’t always make for compelling books.
Dark Reflections is Samuel Delany’s richly comic and extraordinarily multilayered book centered around Arnold Hawley, a gay African-American poet living in New York. It’s an effortlessly experimental novel that moves back and forth between time periods, but with none of the labored cuteness present in what often passes for “experimental.” Hawley’s poetry has the respect of his peers but isn’t sexy enough for a publishing world that demands newness and flash in a rapidly waning genre.
Hawley is asked to judge the work of a younger colleague whose poetry consists of a set of cards in a box, each printed with words like IN, LOVELY or BLUE. The point of what the publisher calls a revolutionary work is to turn the reader into a writer, someone who puts the cards together to make her own poem. Hawley recognizes this latest version of fridge magnet poetry for what it is, an “absurd bit of poppycock.” Dark Reflectionsconcerns several things at once: the contemporary publishing world, the state of today’s poets (and perhaps poetry itself), the blight of political correctness and the twisted labor practices of academia.
It’s Hawley’s shambling, shuffling and often inept figure that prevents the novel from becoming didactic. While waiting for the subway one evening, Hawley gets a whiff of pee and wonders, with some panic, if he might be the source. Suffering from bladder problems, he has been occasionally piddling onto his aging cashmere coat. Dry-cleaning it would be a financial burden. This is not the book to read if you are an aspiring writer with hopes of a quick million-dollar contract.
Hawley lives in fear of losing his meager livelihood and becoming homeless. He constantly seeks to reassure himself that he belongs to what he imagines is the world that produces literature and culture: he haunts the local bookstore even though he can never afford to buy anything; he attempts conversations with fellow poets and publishers, and usually loses respect for them over the course of an evening; he stores volumes of his work on bookshelves in his crammed apartment: “Because of these I am alive.” He tries to ensure his own posterity by dating photographs of himself as if they were of someone else, of a poet whose successful life was being recorded for a biography, “the poet Arnold Hawley, age 18.”
Despite his fierce fidelity to his work, Hawley is a timid man. One day, he literally runs away from two men who seem to be part of an elaborate blackmail scheme involving scores of male nude photographs. Years later, in what forms the shattering conclusion to the novel, Arnold Hawley walks into his favorite gay bookstore and is confronted with this incident from his past. His memory of that time is now a cultural artifact.
I write cryptically of this incident because I don’t wish to give the ending away. Let me add this: the ending is not a mere ending but a revelation that comes at the conclusion of this bloody brilliant book. Let me also add this, equally cryptically: attention must be paid to a set of teeth. Dark Reflectionswill be read by many as a celebration of gay life and bodies and sex and history, about the beauty of porn and the triumph of art over adversity. It is about none of that. In all the descriptions of cocks—flaccid, hard and somewhere in between—it’s easy to miss, as Hawley so frequently does, the proximity of art to inequality. What we fetishize as art and culture is usually lost in the smell of piss and shit, until it’s packaged and sold to us in the shape of a coffee-table book.
Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: True Tales of Love, Lust, and Friendship between Straight Women and Gay Men is an anthology of personal accounts about the relationships between gay men and straight women, often known as “fag hags.” With a foreword by Armistead Maupin, the book includes pieces by celebrities like Simon Doonan, Michael Musto and Gigi Grazer, and celebrity and fashion journalists like Karen Robinovitz. These seem to be the marquee names meant to attract attention to a collection that claims to explore the complexities of such relationships, but theirs are among the most facile and superficial essays and repeat the worst stereotypes about gay men. Robinovitz writes perkily about how tremendously useful her gay best friends are to her: Such fashion sense! Such a divine ability to accessorize! But she seems barely able to distinguish between the men, and airily lumps them together as “my gays,” much as the Queen might refer to her ever-present brood of Corgis as “my dogs.”
The best pieces are by writers who fearlessly explore the messy contradictions and complexities that their relationships have spawned, in more ways than one. Philip Himberg writes about having sex with his former high school girlfriend in order to have a child; living with his daughter apart from the mother; and the close relationships between the three of them. K.M. Soehnlein writes about a sudden twist in a relationship with a female friend: “One of us leaned in for a kiss, and who knows why, but ten years into the friendship, we decided to keep going, like lovers would.” The friendship continues and Soehnlein is no less gay for the experience.
For the most part, Girls Who Like Boys eschews such complexity and rehashes the worst stereotypes about fags and their hags, pretending that all such relationships are pure bonds of friendship. It’s disingenuous to ignore the systems of economic and social privilege that tie gay men and straight women together in a world that still cherishes heterosexual (or even metrosexual) masculinity and consistently reminds women to be more feminine. Is it an accident that straight women with power and access should attract gay men who are excluded from it for not being men enough, even in supposedly gay environs like the fashion industry? Is it any surprise that some gay men play up the stereotype to the hilt, decorating, finger-snapping, screaming “fabulous” at every turn and bolstering the confidence of straight women and tutoring them in how to be femme? How often do we see straight women forming lasting bonds with lesbians—or gay men—who don’t look and act like they belong on the set of The L Word?
In this complex and politically-correct dance, straight women play the gatekeepers to class privilege and ensure that their social orders, hierarchies and heteronormativity are maintained. In an essay that’s at least honestly named “Super Couple,” Sarah Kate Levy rejoices in the fact that she has entered a privileged married life and now double-dates with her two gay friends: “We talked about real estate, work, traveling.” Mike Albo, in perhaps the only essay (“That Unsettling Feeling”) that even remotely considers the economics behind such relationships, writes wryly about the fact that his life clearly doesn’t match what appears so often now in the House and Garden section of The New York Times where gay men and their partners can be seen lounging casually outside their carefully renovated second homes; Albo considers adding a caption to one such photo: “Tim and Jorge converted the old slave quarters into a ceramics studio.”
Simon Doonan bemoans the end of the fag hag, claiming that she mostly disappeared from the scene in the late 70s. But the truth may be otherwise, given that larger numbers of wealthy gay men can now have the same kind of privilege—and ability to keep others out—as their straight counterparts, and no longer need women with power to usher them in. The “fag” today seems an anachronism, a leftover from an era when non-heterosexual men either hid their sexuality or flaunted it in a drama of survival. It’s not the fag hag who’s dead—it’s the fag.
Craig Seymour was a graduate student in the University of Maryland in the 1990s, when he decided to write a thesis on the strip clubs of Washington D.C and become a stripper. He did this partly to pay his bills, partly to be an informed researcher, and perhaps mostly because stripping allowed him to explore facets of his sexuality that had never seemed possible, even as an out gay man. According to Seymour, who”ll be joining Northern Illinois University as an Associate Professor of Journalism, the job requirement of complete physical and psychological exposure also led to greater confidence in his pursuit of a later career interviewing celebrities like Janet Jackson.
The clubs that Seymour writes about, with names like Follies, Heat, Wet, and Secrets are lost to gentrification. Perhaps they”ve been replaced with sleeker, hipper, and more sanitized clubs, the kind where straight women love to bring their dates. Fortunately, Seymour’s prose keeps them alive.
All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.Csuccessfully blends genres. It’s a memoir, history, and ethnography, told with the vivid details and sharp pacing of a novel. We learn about the rules governing D.C. stripping, which allow touching and fondling. Until, that is, D.C’s alcohol board cracks down and forbids physical contact between customers and dancers. Seymour complains, “Not to be touched, fondled, fingered, or stroked. What are we supposed to do – dance?” The regulations are enforced despite numerous customer complaints. On one website message board, one leaves a plea that Chicagoans will appreciate: “Can”t someone be bribed or something?” But the end was nigh, and “The Rule,” as this crackdown came to be called, signified the end of an era.
Interestingly, it’s in this oh-so-gay world that Seymour learns about the blurred distinctions between gay and straight. Sex, it turns out, says nothing about sexuality. That’s a lesson queers have known for years, but one we are apt to forget in an age when essentialist categories come with identity-based “rights.” Straight-identified dancers dance for men, and even have sex with men. Sometimes that’s a form of “gay for pay” but sometimes it’s something that’s still a part of their identity as “straight.”
The book reveals the subterranean economy sustained by strip clubs, one beyond even the sometimes thin line between stripping and sex work. This economy includes the panhandlers hired for a few dollars to watch the cars of dancers as they work and the corner stores that stay late with a supply of Elbow Grease, an oil-based cream used to soothe the ache from too many hands pulling on penises. Seymour is refreshingly non-judgmental about all this. And he doesn”t see forms of attachment/cruising in terms of hierarchies. For some spectators, the contact with dancers is efficient, circumventing endless cruising at bars. For the most part, the relations between gawked and gawkees are cordial and even affectionate – even when people disappear for months or forever.
We learn about the sexual economy of race and ethnicity. Seymour’s parents are both black, like most of his ancestors, but he was born with “toffee-colored skin,” making him racially ambiguous -- a fact that could be a disadvantage, as he writes with dry wit: “… I was the tragic mulatto of dick dancers – too brown for “Vanilla Shake Mondays,” not brown enough for “Hot Chocolate Wednesdays.””
Intercut with all this are Seymour’s relationships with men, especially with Seth, a long-time partner. Seth is devastated when Seymour decides to experiment with other sexual partners, even though he initially agrees with the change. In true queer fashion, Seth remains his closest friend even after they break up (the book is dedicated to him), and Seymour’s account of their complex relationship adds depth to an already textured book. This is a deftly written and very funny account of the places you could go as a gay stripper, and it demonstrates that neither “gay” nor “stripper” are easily understood categories.
Dan Mathews is a vice president. Ordinarily, people with such titles are somber spokespersons for their causes and/or organizations. But Mathews holds this post at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, www.peta.org), an animal -rights group that’s notorious for throwing paint at the furs of rich socialites. So, a typical day for Mathews might mean spending a few stifling hours in a giant carrot suit outside an elementary school in Nebraska, holding a sign that says “Eat Your Veggies—Not Your Friends.” Much to the horror of at least one parent who hustles her children away from the sordid sight with the words, “Kids shouldn’t talk to strangers, even if the stranger is a vegetable.”
It’s this combination of the absurd and the deeply earnest that makes for PETA’s lasting influence since 1980, when Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk founded the organization. Today, it has branches in countries as disparate as the Netherlands and India. PETA’s activism is similar to ACT UP’s work in the “80s and early “90s: a blend of street theatre and angry protests carried on by people who are willing to literally put their bodies on the line. (The two groups have themselves clashed over PETA’s policy of not supporting AIDS pharmaceutical research that uses animals.) PETA is most famous for its guerilla tactics. In the 1980s, it sneaked half a dozen people past an unsuspecting security guard at the Calvin Klein office, and scrawled anti-fur graffiti over his walls. According to Mathews, Klein finally met with PETA, watched videotapes of animals being killed for fur and stopped using it in his collections.
Mathews is frequently at the center of such demonstrations. He’s been with PETA for over 20 years and shows no signs of burnout (see accompanying interview) . His memoir, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir, is both a personal history and a history of PETA’s gradual evolution from a group that took “animal rights from a grandmotherly concern into a vibrant youth culture movement.” Perhaps the most enduring character in Committed is Mathews’ mother, Mary Ellen, who raised her kids on very little money but without any shortage of humor or sense of social justice, whether marching with immigrants or putting up a sign with the words “Impeach Nixon” in their front window. Mathews himself refused to stand up for the pledge of allegiance at his high school graduation because he was “uncomfortable with nationalism.”
Within an engaging personal narrative, Committed provides a snapshot of a leading contemporary activist movement and the strategies that organizations have to adopt in order to make themselves relevant to successive generations. As Mathews puts it, “we had to boil the brains out of many of our efforts.” PETA has the complicated job of initiating serious public discourse about why animal rights matter, but it also has to vie for attention in an era dominated by cable television and tabloid media.
So, its Web site provides tomes about animal rights by the likes of the philosopher Peter Singer, and it continues with grassroots efforts aimed at students and youth leaders. At the same time, it increasingly uses celebrities to promote the cause, and Pamela Anderson is its most famous spokesperson. (A brief biography of her in Committed reads too much like publicist’s material, creating the only jarring note in an otherwise seamless narrative.)
It’s hard to separate this story of PETA from Mathews’ own life, but that’s part of the point. He doesn’t claim to be the sole driving force behind the organization, but it’s clear that his work defines and drives him. Committedis about a fat, poor, gay kid who was beaten up for all those reasons, became a vegan, worked a series of odd jobs—including a stint as a hustler in Rome—and ended up working for the world’s leading animal rights group. The book is neither self-pitying nor melodramatic, and it’s a sharply written and very funny account of his life and experiences that, thankfully, never stops to take a breath to become uplifting. A lot of contemporary memoirists could learn from it.
On July 2, 1980, when she was 20, Alison Bechdel’s father, Bruce, was killed by a truck as he crossed a road. One version of the story is that he committed suicide by deliberately putting himself in front of the vehicle. Another is that he saw something that startled him at the side of the road and jumped backwards, only to be hit. If that were true, Bechdel writes, perhaps he recoiled from the sight of a snake—perhaps a snake like the one she had once seen in the woods, a six-foot-long reptile sipping from a spring.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a dense and recursive memoir about Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Events are relayed with multiple possibilities of what could have been. It’s also a “graphic novel,” a term that doesn’t convey the depth and artistry of this lovely and incisive book.
Alison Bechdel is long familiar to Windy City Times readers as the creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which is about a motley crew of lesbians in various entangled relationships. Fun Home is nothing like Dykes, which is mostly a good thing. In the last few years, Dykes has become overly didactic and tries too hard to convince us that lesbians are still ironic and willfully postmodern.
With Fun Home, Bechdel creates a text without artifice or needless commentary. Characters are generally uncommunicative with each other but their rich interior lives form the bedrock of the narrative. Panels convey silence and space with concise drawings; text is positioned above or on the sides as people walk with their secrets.
The secret at the heart of this story is, like every good family secret, really no secret at all. It’s a long-suspected truth that simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. Bruce Bechdel had numerous affairs with local teenage boys and men he met on his excursions out of town. When Alison Bechdel came out to her parents in a letter, her disclosure prompted her mother to respond, “I have had to deal with this problem in another form that almost resulted in catastrophe. Do you know what I am talking about?” Alison writes back, “What catastrophe?” It’s significant that her response is not to ask what the “problem” had been but to ask about the end result, the “catastrophe.” As if to say, “I know what the “problem” was, but when did it really become something we couldn’t ignore?”
In the hands of a lesser writer and artist, this might have been a narrative about betrayal, anger and barely-contained homophobia. In Bechdel’s acutely-rendered panels, such moments are simultaneously hilarious and solemn. Key events, in this case a disclosure met with another, appear more than once. Each time, they are rendered even more complex and coupled with Bechdel’s dry wit: “I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy.”
Fun Home is about living with the truth in plain view and learning to work around it. The Bechdels were not conventionally close, but were nevertheless exceptionally communicative; their many letters were carefully-crafted commentaries on the world and repositories of the emotions they would not display otherwise. They are drawn with their eyes warily half-closed, slightly hunched over in carefully-composed attitudes of detachment. Their guardedness had its advantages; it meant they could dig into their creativity without feeling the need to answer to the world.
Bechdel grew up with a father who was simultaneously gifted, kind, aloof and cruel—a man who spent years restoring their crumbling Victorian mansion into a perfect setting for an idealized version of a family. His physical presence did nothing to reassure her of his proximity to her. Or, as she writes in a panel where her child-self cuts the grass on their meticulously tended lawn, “I ached as if he were already gone.” That writerly ability to understand untold and hidden stories and to fictionalize experience may well be her father’s greatest gift to her.
The Jacqueline Taylor memoir Waiting for the Call: From Preacher’s Daughter to Lesbian Mom is, in many ways, a classic Christian lesbian story. Taylor grew up in the 1950s as the daughter of a Kentucky Baptist preacher in a household so strict that she had to fight to attend a dance. Once in college, Taylor flew away—literally and metaphorically—from her Christian upbringing, marrying and divorcing twice before she finally came out. Eventually, she became a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and met Carol. They moved in together, adopted two little girls from Peru and now live as a family that regularly attends the gay-friendly Broadway United Methodist Church. Along the way, Taylor rediscovered her faith among fellow believers. Her parents came to accept her as their lesbian daughter.
The arc of the story is set in the title itself; we can guess what the end of Taylor’s journey will be before we turn a single page. But even conventional memoirs can become riveting tales if the writer allows herself to be occasionally overtaken by some details instead of trying to corral them into a tidy, happy story.
In Taylor’s memoir, her mother’s story leaves the reader wanting more. If the young Jacqueline had the burden of always being the role model for the other children in town, her mother, Marjorie Kerrick Taylor, bore a much bigger burden as the preacher’s wife, a model of rectitude and piety and an example to all the other women. Eventually, something unraveled in her and, in 1972, she succumbed to a long bout of depression and mental illness that lasted until her death in 1995.
Taylor struggles to understand the root of her mother’s illness and comes to her own conclusions: “She was a splendidly creative and brilliant woman trapped in a high-pressure and isolating role.” She’s determined never to suffer the same fate: “I resolved that I must find a way to work that was my own. I did not want to emulate her role of helpmeet.” From here on, Marjorie remains in the background until she reappears years later as a doting grandmother.
Much of the latter part of the book is spent on the adoption of Grace and Lucy and we learn about the arduous and often nerve-wracking process of adoption for two lesbians who must pretend to be non-sexual partners in order to have their adoptions approved. To their credit, the women make a point of satisfying their daughters’ curiosity about their adoptions, and the four take a trip to Peru to try to reconnect with the birth mothers. Both children seem to acquire a healthy sense that having—and deeply loving—more than one set of parents and relatives, whether by blood or adotion, is perfectly natural.
These parts of the book are filled with details about the sometimes difficult conversations between the women and their daughters, to the point of inducing a kind of claustrophobia in the reader. The book is aimed at gay adoptive parents, especially religious ones, who enter into trans-national adoptions.
The rest of us are left wondering why Taylor’s story needs to be so rigidly and neatly ordered and smoothed out. Waiting for the Callbegins with an intensely drawn picture of Taylor’s family and her distraught and unhappy mother. This part of the book is vividly written and stands in stark contrast to later chapters, which are overtaken by caution and circumspection, and are presented as carefully calibrated accounts of domestic happiness. But what accounted for Marjorie’s decline that proved so debilitating and happened for so long? And if Taylor assumes that her mother’s life as wife and mother is what caused her breakdown, why and how does she herself identify so much as a preacher’s daughter and lesbian mom? The reader is left with these nagging questions about untold stories.
Always is the third installment in Nicola Griffith’s popular series of books featuring Aud Torvingen, a six-foot-tall ex-cop whose set of special skills includes various martial arts and a heightened awareness of her body’s relationship to its environment. It’s about Torvingen’s visit to Seattle, intercut with accounts of the self-defense class she teaches in Atlanta.
Torvingen is in Seattle to see her mother and check up on a warehouse that’s being used to film a television pilot. The warehouse is hers, along with a lot of money—so much money that the mind boggles at the mere thought of it. Shopping for a wedding gift for her mother, she coolly informs a saleswoman at Nordstrom’s that “there is no budget.”
Torvingen is drawn to Victoria “Kick” Kuiper, a former stuntwoman who runs the catering company that feeds the television crew. Torvingen’s character is cool and unwilling to give in to her emotions. But her life starts to unravel when she’s poisoned with a substance that leaves her without control over her body, hallucinating scenes around her and unable to drive. Always is about control—how some try to exert it and fail, and how others regain it. To complicate matters, Kuiper is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
All of this should make for an interesting plot and characters, but it doesn’t. Always tends to read like the research notes for a novel rather than the novel we’d like to read. The scenes set in Atlanta describe self-defense techniques but in too much detail, with too much about the vulnerable points of the body, and exactly how to turn your palm so that it becomes a lethal weapon with which to remove your attacker’s eyeballs, and so on. Much of this reads like the author demonstrating that she’s spent countless hours collecting information for the benefit of the reader.
Griffith seems bored and unmoved by her own characters. The novel has a carelessly tossed-off air about it and it often seems like the author slipped in details and then forgot why she put them there. So, for instance, when Aud meets Kick for the first time, we are informed that the latter is protective of Rusen, the show’s director: “Perhaps the body language was unconscious, but the message was clear: if you hurt him, I’ll hurt you.” This interesting tidbit does us no good—the book never expands on why Kick should feel this way about Rusen.
Before mid-point, we’ve given up caring. The subplot involving the warehouse and estate deals is not, ultimately, much more than a land-grab scheme gone awry. It’s difficult to feel much for Kuiper and Torvingen, whose relationship is a series of intense bursts but lacks the emotional detail to hold our interest.
Always, in short, is half-drawn and humdrum–which is a pity, because Griffith’s talent does shine through, on occasion. Perhaps the problem is that Torvingen, with more money than God, has nowhere else to go and nothing else to surmount. At the end of the novel, she resolves to settle in Seattle and set up a foundation, the exact point of which is unclear— except as a way for the author to tie loose story ends together.
So. This is it? Aud Torvingen, super-sleuth, impenetrable martial-arts expert and, now … executive director? What lies ahead? Endless board meetings? Will the chairman make it home in time to put her kids to bed? It’s not that money is inherently bad. As Torvingen puts it, “Money shouldn’t frighten people. It’s a tool.” She’s right, but the problem with money in Alwaysis that it becomes the easy way to resolve situations. Money is a great thing to have in real life, but it makes for a lousy plot device in a novel.
In 2004, Barbara Kingsolver relocated from Arizona to Virginia with her family to live for a year on locally produced food that included fruits and vegetables grown, and turkeys killed, in their garden and orchard. They were inspired by the slow-food movement, which advocates the protection of indigenous plant and animal forms threatened by cheaply produced homogenous varieties made for mass production and easy transportation.
Kingsolver book about that period, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, deftly weaves the larger context of global agribusiness into descriptions of her family’s days planting, pruning and harvesting. Her book espouses many admirable principles, but falls prey to the cloying sentimentality that runs rampant in most food writing and leaves us desperate for the acidic wit of Anthony Bourdain. It also reflects a larger trend in food and environmental writing: The recuperation and depoliticizing of more radical activism into a middle-class aesthetic.
Ultimately, the book is an account of what happens when a nice upper-middle-class family decides to live off the land. Kingsolver is anxious to point out that hers is a solidly respectable endeavor by lovely normal folk. So, despite the alternative nature of her experiment, Kingsolver distances herself from the vegans/hippies who might seem like her natural allies. She insists that she and her fellow farmers are nothing like the “dreadlocked, Birkenstocked [guy] …reeking faintly of garlic.” Instead, they wear “Red Wing work boots, barbershop haircuts, Levis with a little mud on the cuffs, men and women who probably go to church on Sunday...” So there. Hard-working, all-American sorts with none of that radical nonsense cluttering their neatly-trimmed heads, and presumably smelling of apple pie.
Such caricatures erase the fact that vegans and hippies were among the first in the United States to make connections between food and politics—connections that Kingsolver only occasionally makes in her folksy and precious narrative about good farmers living off the earth. The group Food Not Bombs provides vegetarian food to the hungry while protesting war and other conditions that create poverty. They are well known for their “food recycling”—dumpster-diving for food trashed by markets and restaurants for cosmetic “imperfections.”
These tactics may not be organic but they are every bit as ethical as and more politicized than Kingsolver’s year of eating locally. While her brood will not let a speck of non-organic flour pass its lips, FNB utilizes and maximizes available resources in a much less insular and more sustainable fashion.
It never occurs to an otherwise progressive-minded Kingsolver that her project might replicate the United States’ political isolationism. And, as even Slow Food NYC’s co-leader David Berman has written, choosing only local food can actually diminish the biodiversity that’s essential to a healthy environment. But Kingsolver is fixated on the ideas that Alice Waters and others have made popular: The earth is our giver, and we are obliged to eat locally and personally know the farmers who bring its harvest to us.
Or not. I’ll never know the city employees who keep my streets clean, but I’ll also never vote for any alderman who opposes their unionization. In other words, we don’t have to have a stiflingly intimate knowledge of farmers to support their work. Some of us, terrified even of earthworms emerging from the ground, are fine with never going near “real mud.” And we might not want to spend all—or any—Saturday morning talking to every farmer at the market. But we might support their practices in more impersonal and equally effective ways, like pressing our local stores to buy their produce or insisting that our politicians stop enabling agribusiness.
The current food production system is undoubtedly disastrous for both the world’s economy and our health. But the best solution is to think politically, radically and inventively about how best to create a sustainable and varied system of production and consumption that diminishes waste while providing better and more healthful food to everyone. Kingsolver’s solution might work for her family, but the rest of us might not want to revert to our hunter-gatherer selves just yet.
Shirley, the eponymous heroine of Todd Taylor’s new novel, wants to throw a pumpkin—really, really far; she wants to win the Second Annual Pumpkin Chuck. Prize money and fame aren’t the motivating factors. What Shirley wants to do is create a “weapon of mathematics,” a demon of pure physics mastered and materialized by her own hands to throw a pumpkin far enough to win the competition.
Shirley lives with her granddaughter, Rachel. She works in an office where she isn’t just “used to being considered average … she [counts] on it.” All that her co-workers know about her, because of her annual Christmas gifts to them, is that she loves to knit. Shirley and Rachel live quietly together, and the latter is consumed by her love of punk and bio-genetics (the kind practiced by Gregor Mendel, not the corporation GM).
Shirley’s passion is physics, one that she had to submerge 45 years ago because, as Taylor puts it un-tragically, “Life has a way of folding up what you really like, putting it in a garbage sack, hauling it to the local dump, and handing you a job in its place.” Her long-buried interest comes to life one day when she finds an abandoned physics textbook. She takes it home to devour its pages and those of more books borrowed from the library. Fate intervenes a few days later, with an article about the pumpkin chuck printed on the other side of a full-page coupon for lasagna.
From there on, Shirley Wins is an account of months of hard work and countless experiments, mostly carried out in secret. The task ahead of Shirley is, on the face of it, relatively simple: To throw a mid-sized circular object through the air. But this requires an exact understanding of basic and complex matters of physics—the exact curve of the spiral of air around the pumpkin to maximize velocity; the width and depth of the pipe that hurls it; and so on.
Shirley Wins celebrates the expertise accumulated by people as they go about their daily lives and jobs. Stoobs, the man who helps Shirley make a critical part of the machine, mulls over the history of the combustion engine as he drills and shaves metal. She enlists Rachel’s help and the young woman goes about engineering pumpkins with a sufficiently hard shell and the exact required size. Shirley can make connections between knitting, at which she is an expert, and welding, which she must teach herself. The novel is as much a meditation on the nature and rhythms of work and the patterns through which we get projects done as it is about Shirley’s path to the pumpkin chuck.
On the way, Shirley gets connected to her body in unexpected ways. She’s now vulnerable to sharp steel and pipes that blow up in her face. At one point, a test catapult pulls up suddenly—leaving a long, straight and bloody line all the way down her face and body. It also leaves Shirley momentarily dissociated: “She felt like she was subconsciously measuring herself for a highly calculated slaughter, like old recipe books that explained where to cut for each piece of meat available from a cow.”
The book is filled with such sharp but unobtrusive details. It’s an account of the unconventional, intimate and sometimes fleeting relationships between people who unite for a common cause. None of this is maudlin—Rachel and Shirley love each other deeply, with no heed to the years between them and without sentimentality. When this book came by my desk, it was described as a novel by a punk-rock author and I wasn’t sure, at first, what that meant. Punk’s political power once lay, at least in part, in its refusal to live by categorizations, and its defiance of the imperative to grow up, settle down and pretend that there is nothing new to learn or live for after a point—in which case, this small jewel of a novel is as punk as it gets.
Rupert Everett was born in 1959—at 48 years, he’s surely too young to write a memoir. But he’s done exactly that, with a book titled Red Carpets and Other Banana Skin: The Autobiography. He seems sick of Hollywood and its insistence that gay actors should only play what he calls NPBs (non-practicing buggers). Even if some of his angst is a writer’s posing, it’s nevertheless true that it’s easier for a straight actor to play a gay man than the reverse.
Everett’s role as Julia Roberts’s gay confidant in My Best Friend’s Wedding brought him widespread fame but also sealed his fate. He writes about being typecast and his unsuccessful attempt to make an innovative film about gay parenting which, according to him, was twisted by producers into a giant cliché. It ended up as the flop titled The Next Best Thing.
Red Carpets is a typical behind-the-scenes Hollywood book filled with these and other more gossipy details, which are fun to read. It’s also a self-consciously literary, often portentous memoir that seems to want to be a novel, and it’s sometimes difficult to pin down where and when events might have occurred. Despite such flaws, the book is an interesting commentary on the cult of celebrity.
It begins with an account of Everett’s idyllic childhood in the English countryside. We follow the young Everett to London and drama school, and in his travels across the globe for work in films like The Far Pavillions. In India, he vividly describes the effect of walking among crowds of bodies, and the vast disparity between the haves and have-nots (but also mixes up Hindi and Hindus -- the former is a language, the latter are people, some of whom speak said language). Rupert Everett is both carouser and detached observer –immersed in on-set ribaldry while keeping an eye on the world around him. In Moscow, the guard changes from Gorbachev to Yelstin while on location for Quiet Flows the Don; nothing changes for the old women in the freezing cold selling all their possessions.
Among the more intriguing aspects of Rupert Everett that he’s not just an out gay actor; he’s out as a gay man who has intense affairs with women, Susan Sarandon among them. He writes unapologetically about such unconventional attachments to varied people, attachments which seem composed of equal parts kindness and betrayal on all sides as he forges complex kinship networks across continents. And then there are the animals, especially the late Mo, who crops up in photographs and text as a remarkably self-possessed canine companion.
The best parts of Red Carpets are on the advent of celebrity culture in the ’90s. Everett evokes the changes that came to Miami with Gianni Versace, whose particular brand of glamour reflected the cultural change in the city and in fashion. As he tells it, the changes came with place names, “No more Surfcomber, South Seas or Coral Reef. The new Miami Beach was christened with more ‘powerful’ names like Continuum, Portofino, Murano, The Icon.” Now, to be a celebrity was to become a logo—and even the names of people, like JLo or Paris Hilton, reflect the transition from an ’80s sweat-soaked iconicity to the cool brand-naming of celebrity today.
Ultimately, Rupert Everett’s ire at Hollywood may well stem from the fact that he couldn’t achieve that transition and become a household name—much of which may have to do with Hollywood’s latent discomfort with out queer actors. But there’s enough in Red Carpets to indicate that even years of carousing haven’t dulled Everett’s ability to laugh at the trappings of celebrity—or at himself.
The United States is a country of paradoxes when it comes to food. Obesity is an “epidemic,” but the number of hungry people has never been higher. In a 2006 Seattle Times article, Dr. César Chelala reported that 33 million people in the United States lived in households without an adequate supply of food. Since food is the most flexible part of living expenses, many are often forced to choose between it and essential payments like rent and health care.
The best response to this crisis is to advocate for a living wage and universal health care, but such solutions are thwarted by those who dismiss them as rabid leftist propaganda. Our way of feeding the hungry is to do so inadequately and with immense doses of humiliation by setting up soup kitchens and food pantries that donate food.
Sara Miles is a former leftist journalist and professional cook who happens to be a lesbian. In her new book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Miles recounts how she went from being an atheistic social justice activist to the founder and director of a food pantry at her San Francisco church, St. Gregory’s. The book starts out as an engaging take on food and life, with some funny bits about Miles” experiences in restaurants.
As her journey progresses, however, Miles remains a lesbian while her leftist politics disappear. People have a right to their faith, but Take This Bread exposes thorny issues about the role of religion in social justice. Miles works hard to convince someone—perhaps herself—that her new-found conversion and, well, missionary zeal is really part of a larger “radical” social justice mission. Miles can’t see the pity for the piety and mistakes charity for social justice.
Charity does not bring about revolutionary social change. She’s proud of the fact that St. Gregory’s, unlike federal programs, does not ask for identification, which means that undocumented migrants can avail themselves of this resource. She’s also proud that her program emphasizes fresh produce and healthy food, rather than dumping cheap junk food on its clientele. But while serving better food to more diverse bodies may alleviate hunger, it doesn’t eradicate the systemic conditions that lead to poverty in the first place—and even extenuates them.
Take, for instance, the San Francisco Food Bank (SFFB) where St. Gregory’s gets its supplies. We see the tip of the iceberg when its executive director tells Miles, “We’re simply a part of the market.”
And how. SFFB gets food from the giant corporations, called agribusiness, that have taken the place of independent farmers across the country. In exchange for its donations to food banks, agribusiness gets tax write-offs. That makes it more profitable. That makes it harder for workers, especially migrants, to unionize or demand fair wages. That creates more poverty and more underpaid laborers, who line up at food pantries like St. Gregory’s. Which work with enterprises like SFFB, which work with agribusiness. Leaving agribusiness free to continue bad labor practices.
Be scared. Be very, very scared.
Ultimately, this is an immensely useful and revealing book, if not in the ways Miles intended. Her account of giving free food to poor people tells us nothing about how to end the systemic conditions that produce such depths of poverty in the richest country in the world. But it reveals how Charity, practically a religion unto itself, is as much big business as an instrument of liberal good will.
Presidential candidates may be scrutinized for their stances on both gay marriage and abortion, but their ideas on the latter are more likely to determine their political futures. Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice, an anthology with a pro-choice perspective, is the latest contribution to this intensely polarizing topic.
As the writers demonstrate, language is the key to how abortion is framed and to how the Right nearly destroyed our ability to discuss it in reasonable terms. Around 1995, the pro-life forces renamed the rarely used dilation and extraction (D&X) process “partial-birth abortion,” implying that a viable life was being wrongfully terminated. Since then, over thirty states have passed laws that go so far as to deem D&X a second-degree felony.
The power of such rhetorical moves, which result in the political disempowerment of women, is not the only obstacle faced by those who seek abortion. Patricia Justine Tumang is a young, queer Filipina-American who had to research abortion options on her own, finally choosing RU-486. The process caused her intense pain and bleeding until “one night, clumps of bloody tissue and embryonic remains fell into the toilet.” The post-abortion experience was nearly as painful. When she asked for a queer-sensitive therapist of color, her white female doctor aggressively quizzed her for her reasons.
Jenny Higgins points out that poor women are coerced into Norplant implants and tubal ligations by doctors, “sometimes even while the woman [is] in the throes of labor pain,” because they are convinced that their patients are incapable of using condoms or oral contraceptives.
Abortion under Attack does a commendable job in presenting these perspectives. But it replicates the middle-class-centered ideology critiqued by Higgins and Tumang. The right to an abortion is a moot point for poor women without access to safe contraceptives, and for young women without the legal or economic means to terminate their pregnancies.
Much of Abortion under Attack is interesting, but too many of the writers engage in the apologist discourse of abortion as a tragic choice, rather than acknowledging that it is frequently a necessity—especially when the woman cannot afford to raise children. Such rhetoric also fails to acknowledge that many women are glad to be able to continue their lives unhampered by children.
Frances Kissling, in a now-famous essay “Is there Life after Roe?,” reprinted in the book, will have none of that. President of Catholics for a Free Choice, she sanctimoniously criticizes the pro-abortion side’s refusal to discuss abortion in simple moral terms, rather than political or legal terms. She’s critical of pro-choicers who argued against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which endowed a legal status on a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus. Pro-choicers rightly saw this as one more attempt to end abortion rights; Kissling insists that their responses “made us seem heartless.” With friends like these, who needs the pro-lifers?
Inevitably, writers reveal their unconscious biases. Jacqueline Lalley suggests a reframing of the partial-birth abortion debate by informing people that, “A great number of women who need this procedure are married and already have children.” So, are the unmarried sluts among us who have abortions less deserving of protection from anti-abortion zealots?
These fracture points are symptomatic of the contemporary abortion rights movement, perennially caught between fighting for a right and the perceived need to gain cultural acceptance. Abortion is framed by both sides as a gendered and heterosexual issue. Yet, we enable gay men to adopt the children of poor women who can’t afford to keep their children or seek abortions. Paradoxically, we enhance the reproductive capabilities of privileged women, straight and queer, with fertility drugs. Abortion is ultimately about how we regulate, scrutinize, and render immobile the bodies of the poorest among us. Technologies of non-reproduction, foisted upon poorer men and women, are technologies of reproductive surveillance.
Questions about morality and values blind us to these issues. Kissling claims she’s writing about her belief, not politics, and is hence being nuanced. But enunciating a belief is not about providing nuance—it’s about believing that you are in the right. Our views on abortion reflect our beliefs in the rightness or wrongness of it. Those of us who stand for a person’s right to have an abortion need to be less ashamed of our belief that it’s right to think so.
I’ll never have or adopt children. I’m quite fond of all my friends’ kids, who are decent and sensible souls. We talk on occasion, but end up terrifically bored with each other after ten minutes. Babies scare me and I’ve never felt the urge to have or hold one.
Rebecca Walker would argue that I’m shutting myself off from the primal experience of motherhood. One without which I will remain forever incomplete, “[b]ecause the fact is that until you become a mother, you are a daughter.” Remaining baby-free will apparently cause nothing but grief in later years—she quotes her gynecologist’s solemn pronouncement that as, a rule, women don’t regret having children -- they regret not having them.
In a new blog cleverly designed to resemble a book, Walker writes about fifteen years of ambivalence about motherhood. “Will I lose myself—my body, my mind, my “options” …If I have a baby…will I die?” Walker refers to a metaphorical death, fearing that motherhood might cause atrophy in her creative life. The answer is a yawning maybe. Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence is a set of mind-numbingly tedious journal entries about Walker’s pregnancy. Walker suffers from a common misperception that the mere act of writing about the everyday and the humdrum magically transforms them into meaningful experiences for the reader. Baby Love suffers from annoying tics, including a habit of posing rhetorical questions (“Right?” and “Isn’t it?”) as if that might make us more engaged readers and fill in for her lack of insight. After the nth such question, I found myself snapping, “I don’t know, Rebecca. Write your own bloody book.”
Reading Baby Love reminded me of Bella DePaulo’s Singled Out, which demolishes the myth that only people who couple up and have children count as adults. Walker insists that she is now grown-up because she spends hours online choosing between expensive strollers. In her retrograde world, it’s impossible to be complete without a partner, let alone raise children on your own, “I think we need partners for life … the magical togetherness quotient you find in healthily fused adults.”
Rebecca Walker is the daughter of the writer Alice Walker. Much has been made about the rift between the two, which she discusses here. But this does not make Baby Love more interesting. It offers few insights about the issues faced by most parents, and instead recycles clichés about motherhood as another form of sainthood. Mothers are elemental, powerful, givers of life. The rest of us, I suppose, can just rot in hell, our shriveled and useless uteruses testimony to our incompleteness as human beings.
Walker sees Baby Love as a meditation on the “right” of women to have babies. That’s a rehashing of the argument that feminism’s ability to let women choose not to be mothers also means that feminism can be about choosing to be mothers. But that’s a feminism enjoyed largely by privileged women like Walker, whose biggest dilemma about childbirth is choosing between a home delivery and a hospital birth. Most women who want children face less pay than their male counterparts and few, if any, child care options.
Motherhood is hardly a choice when women are surrounded by a stifling set of cultural expectations that they are incomplete without it. Walker’s weighty pronouncements add to that oppression. Furthermore, too many teenagers are forced into parenthood and penury because of the combination of a lack of access to sex education, no affordable contraception, and the waning of reproductive rights. For them, motherhood is not a choice but a sentence.
Contradictions abound in Baby Love. Walker is shocked when two successful women talk on television about not needing their partners for validation, “I know how I would feel if the person I devoted my life to told millions of people he didn’t need me. Wrecked.” But she does something similar to Solomon, the child she reared with a former female partner, when she writes emphatically that the love for a biological child is always stronger than that for a nonbiological one. What does that say about queers and straights who form families through adoption—not just of children, but those we choose as part of our kinship circles?
Baby Love doesn’t make Walker’s journal entries relevant to anyone outside her friends and family and her privileged existence. After the birth, she gushes that she no longer dreams of finding the perfect place to break away from writer’s block—no spas or hotels or lonely retreats, just her bed and dining room table. This is not news to those of us who cobble together writing time and space. As for the search for the perfect spot, we writers back on earth have a name for it: Procrastination.
By Yvonne Zipter
As I read Yvonne Zipter’s new chapbook of poems about her greyhounds, I remembered my response to the first such animal I ever met. Startled by its lean frame, I was convinced it was being starved to death. There’s a dog-ness to most dogs, characterized as they are by a certain fluffiness and furriness. But greyhounds are not part of your usual breed of dogs.
For starters, they are among the most aerodynamically shaped animals, with impossibly lean bodies, willowy legs and curvy stomachs. Every feature, from the tapered snout to the slinky spine, is distilled for speed efficiency. A greyhound is a haiku of a dog.
Greyhounds are mostly used in racing; their careers only last for three to five years, after which they are either euthanized or adopted by a rescue group. Most greyhounds in households are adoptees, and the owners are often almost obsessively devoted to their animals.
Yvonne Zipter is in love with her greyhounds, and Like Some Bookie God is an unashamed series of paeans to the dogs who rule her life. I’ll confess I expected a set of greeting card clichés about lovable pets, but found instead a set of masterfully written poems. Zipter’s poetry has a tensile strength and an economy of scale, much like the dogs who allow her to wander around in their habitats with them. She’s an accomplished poet, and these poems are both elegant and sparkling in their conciseness.
What makes them worthy of returning to is the slow revelation of the relationship between Zipter and the greyhounds who rule her home and life. These dogs aren’t her pets; they are ethereal and lovely creatures whose gentleness and friendliness belie a certain reserve. Zipter is not their master but their humble devotee, fascinated by their bodies which seem to be in flight even as they stand still, enthralled by their ability to glide through the world without disturbing the air around them. They are spectral creatures that defy categorization. The greatest charm of Zipter’s work is that she never loses her sense of humor, even as she contemplates them most seriously. “In the Naming” has her wondering how to classify one of them: ““Dog” is too dense a word for him…He is, / in a word, ethereal. Except / for the click of his nails/ on the floor and the earthy way / he licks himself. Maybe “dog” / will do after all.”
Zipter occasionally tries to discern the inner worlds of the dogs. In “A Canine Metaphysics,” she wonders about one dog’s perception of his self, “…he wants to run/ but ponders, it seems, / how he will know / he’s a greyhound / if I”m not there to see him.” Like Some Bookie God is also a subtle series of meditations on Zipter’s—and the dogs’—relationship to the organic world around them. “Ephemeral” contemplates animal life, including her own: she watches one dog leap in the air, “like a fish hooked to a line, a whip / of alarmed resolve;” hammers new boards on the porch, and considers a firefly, “when all the world could see / he is neither fairy nor falling star / but only a homely beetle / with a wondrous other self.”
Zipter and her dogs emerge as denizens of a world they inhabit sometimes to the exclusion of others, dreaming of dozing together like conspiratorial lovers. In “Exhuming Eva,” the body of a long-dead animal is dug up and her owner rearranges the bones in her studio, comforted by finding a piece of fur that escaped decay and “…familiar / as Eva’s weight against my leg / or mourning’s sharp punch / to the heart.” None of this is cloyingly sentimental or awestruck. Zipter’s intense attachment to the animals never descends into humdrum worshipfulness. Like Some Bookie God isn’t about the universal love between person and dog. It’s about one woman’s very particular relationship to some very unique animals whose dogness she relays to the rest of us who can only stand outside their world and watch.
For a brief moment in the ’90s, the phenomenon of passing—the adoption of one identity to hide another—fascinated literary and cultural critics. Discussions about authenticity and belonging with regard to race, gender, and sexuality abounded. Today, the idea of rejecting any part of your identity seems woefully unfashionable. We are all hybrid mutts now, straining to assert our multilayered selves—you are no longer just gay, but a gay cowboy from Montana, a Green Party member, of Indian descent, and a drag queen on weekends. If we are constantly encouraged to display our various origins, are we no longer compelled to pass? In a world where entire months are devoted to every identity under the sun, is passing, well, passé?
The anthology, Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, asserts that the pressure to pass still exists. The essays are written in a range of genres and include memoirs, interviews, and fiction. Here, people pass in diverse contexts like AIDS, the domestic violence prevention movement, homohop, migrant farm work, Okie migration, and transgender politics. All these topics concern political struggle and identity, but there’s no sense of an overarching solidarity between the writers who often seem disconnected from their own communities. Most of them don’t care whether the reader likes them or not, and some even admit to inventing details in their non-fiction accounts. The result is an extraordinarily bracing and important set of essays about contemporary politics.
Nobody Passes exposes the problems that arise when we assume that a left/progressive agenda depends on commonalities between varying causes of social justice. It also exposes the continuing inequalities faced by those who don’t pass, refuting the notion that a world where sexual and gender identities are celebrated is necessarily a better one. As Rocko Bulldagger wryly asks in “the End of Genderqueer,” “…when exactly does this smug queer future begin?” The book challenges our cherished but worn notions of community, authenticity, home, identity, and solidarity—all of which underpin a traditional progressive movement, and none of which live up to the challenges of a world where the distinctions between left and right have blurred.
One popular fallacy of the left is that identity is the pivot upon which social justice must rest; the force of identity, in turn, depends upon specious concepts of authenticity. Origin myths about identity, stories which perpetuate fantasies about where our ethnic and sexual selves come from, are especially targeted in the book. In an essay about growing up Arab American, Stephanie Abraham fondly recounts a childhood of hours spent by the sides of her Syrian and Lebanese great-grandmothers in their kitchens, “inhaling the scents of garlic and thyme.”
In reality, the fourth-generation Abraham has no memories of meeting her grandparents. Abraham clung to this affective fiction for years, worried that she would only be validated by such an archetypal story about “the immigrant experience.” For her, such fictions belie the reality of growing up Arab American in a world where “looking Arab” makes you a potential terrorist.
The sex worker Kirk Read writes about inventing a story about his first client assuring him that Read’s work provides “healing.” The story reassures friends and family that Read’s life and work are socially conscious and fulfilling. He finds that even the most politically correct and sex positive people have no interest in discussing his profession of choice, unless he first offers them this fictional and romanticizing story about sex work.
Origin myths are deployed by many of the book’s writers, who find that their concerns about social justice will not be heard if their lives don’t fit predetermined templates of authenticity and enlightenment. Nobody Passes questions the affective and emotional grounds of what passes for social justice these days. It dares to ask: Can we fight for the rights of those whose lives and experiences don’t fit our exoticizing paradigms, whose professions are not morally redeeming? Do we care less about people’s rights because we don’t like what they do?
Similar questions face the immigration rights movement, and are addressed in “Who’s That Wavin‘ That Flag?” A popular banner at rallies has the words, “We are not the real criminals,” which implies that “…the people that we currently lock up—almost 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails—are real criminals.” The banner obscures the fact that the prison industrial complex disproportionately punishes the economically disenfranchised among immigrant communities and people of color. The piece addresses the issues facing non-citizens who must constantly negotiate the conflicting ideologies of the immigration movement in relation to normative ideas about “good” citizenship. While the right discusses immigration in simplistic “us vs. them” rhetoric, the left draws upon equally simplistic narratives about good immigrants who should be rewarded for their exemplary behavior. Both sides evade tougher critiques of a system that depends upon cheap labor.
Meanwhile, the gay marriage movement has hijacked immigration as a cause, insisting that the right of heterosexuals to marry into citizenship should be bestowed equally upon queers. As Terre Thaemlitz puts it in ‘Trans-Portation,” an essay about transgendered bodies and immigration, “Unable to buy our way into a country, we find ourselves fucking our way in.” The argument that people should gain entry because of their relationships with citizens undermines any analysis of the systemic economic inequality that structures the immigration system.
Nobody Passes is a set of complex analyses and an essential book for anyone seeking new frameworks for progressive politics. The writers eschew tired and familiar concepts of identity and belonging. These essays provide an important corrective to the pallid and politically correct narratives that pass, as it were, for social justice.
If you’re single, you’ll die alone and miserable in a cramped and filthy apartment. Only the stench of your putrefying corpse will alert neighbors to your death. Once they break down the door, they’ll find your desperately ravenous cats chewing on the soft tissue of your eyes and lips. There’ll be no one to claim the body or your pitiful estate. Your life, in short, will have been useless; you will leave behind no works of value to the world and no lasting memories.
This vision of single life is ingrained in culture and perpetuated by studies claiming to prove that married and coupled people are naturally bound to live longer, healthier, and wealthier lives. Couples, we’re told, are just better people, leading unselfish lives as they go about loving each other; sending children off to college; buying consumer goods; and generally contributing to the overall well-being of the world. Singles are seen as a collective embarrassment, bitter and gloomy folk who slither at the margins of sane society with wasted lives spent in the pursuit of their own happiness. Single parents are demonized for raising children supposedly doomed to become high school dropouts, serial killers, and drug addicts.
As Bella DePaulo puts it in her excellent and refreshing new book, How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, this is pure poppycock. Singles lead lives that defy stereotypes and most are single by choice. A 2005 Pew Report revealed that 55% of singles are not in committed relationships and not looking for a partner. Divorce rates are up and 51% of women aren’t married. Even coupledom is being reconfigured; fewer couples cohabitate or share bank accounts. So why does what DePaulo wickedly calls the “marriage mafia” remain in the grips of “matrimania?” And, “…if married people … have so much going for them, why do they need swarms of scientists, pundits, politicians, experts, authors, reporters, and entertainers making their case for them?”
In answering such questions, DePaulo combines her training as a social psychologist with wit and sharp analysis, bringing the entire “marriage is better” argument down like a house of cards. Singled Out dismantles the common myths about singles and examines the far-reaching impact of “singlism” -- the rampant discrimination faced by singles in everyday encounters and cultural and economic infrastructures that devalue their lives. The social slights are easily recognized by anyone who’s had to endure the callousness of couples. DePaulo describes people who make it clear that she’s not worth inviting to an adults’ night out with other couples, only inviting her to brunch when she can entertain their children. Singles face insidious forms of discrimination in the workplace when pressured to work overtime or teach night classes so that their married counterparts can have time with their families. They supposedly don’t have anything better to do than make life more comfortable for couples. Singles earn less than their married colleagues because they cannot collect the benefits claimed by married people. Even death is no equalizer – a single person’s social security benefits can not be claimed even by a close friend, even though she spent her work life subsiding benefits for the married. And if you’ve been married multiple times, you can collect the social security benefits of your richest spouse. Don’t just marry, marry often.
The book is an engrossing read, and DePaulo’s examples of singlism range from faux-scientific surveys that expound the supposed benefits of marriage to the public shaming of singles. Take, for instance, the 2004 interview of Ralph Nader by Chris Mathews. Given his vast influence on citizens’ rights and environmental matters, Nader is inarguably one of the most important figures in American public life. Yet, Mathews berated him for his lack of maturity because, unlike his opponent George Bush, he hadn’t “exactly grown up and had a family and raised them and seen them off to college.” Well, then.
Singled Out focuses on marriage as the prevailing obsession of straight society. But the book is especially relevant to queers given our rabid and misguided emphasis on gay “marriage equality” as an organizing principle. We seem to believe that it’s impossible to be queer and single. If you’re single for more than a week, pffft, your membership card goes up in a cloud of pink smoke. This might explain the relentless drive to serial monogamy among queers who keep entering the revolving door of sequential relationships. Marriage is considered critical for us so that we can access the same benefits of married straights. From a queer progressive standpoint: this approach only perpetuates inequality and benefits for the few. As DePaulo asks, “Why should you have to be any kind of couple to qualify for ….benefits that are currently available exclusively to couples who are married?” Her chapter on “The Way We Could Be” details the kinds of fairness that make for a truly just society – basing taxes on the earnings of individuals; ensuring that single or married people who care for children and the elderly are subsidized; and giving all employees the same benefits regardless of marital status.
Singled Out argues that we overvalue coupledom and ignore the social networks that singles create as part of what DePaulo calls “intentional communities.” This is especially relevant to those of us, queer or otherwise, who don’t define our social groups according to ties of blood or romance. The book details how singles forge long-lasting and profound networks of friendship and care; the growing importance of these might ultimately be the reason why so many are opting out of coupledom. That’s not to argue that there’s no place for the loner who prefers a larger degree of isolation. Ultimately, Singled Out is a funny, clear, and absolutely necessary book that emphasizes the importance of maintaining our connections to ourselves.
Originally published in Windy City Times, February 14, 2007.
Some of us might remember the short-lived ABC sitcom It’s All Relative, which came and went quickly in the spring of 2004. Its flimsy premise was the impending marriage of Bobby and Liz, who came from vastly different backgrounds and found themselves caught in the culture clash between their two sets of parents. The twist? Bobby’s parents were working-class folks from Boston, and Liz was the child of two gay men. The differences between the two families were drawn out in painfully obvious ways that highlighted class more than sexuality. Or, as the show’s promotional literature put it, “Liz’s parents are into St. Laurent. Bobby’s parents swear by St. Patrick. Bobby’s parents are devotees of the Red Sox. Liz’s parents are devotees of the arts.”
It’s All Relative suffered from insipid acting and dialogue; flat characters; and the writers’ inability to think beyond one season and a wedding—factors that doubtless led to its cancellation. Did ABC really expect people to tune in every week to watch yet another argument over whether to serve hot dogs or caviar at the wedding? But even as a blip over television’s landscape, it demonstrated that “gay” in the U.S. is thought of as a specific class identity, one that requires no explanation as to its origins and is considered inherently progressive. So, Bobby’s parents were Boston, Irish Catholic, Red Sox fans who were conservative in their politics. In contrast, Liz’s parents had no affiliations with any place or religion—they voted for Democrats because they were gay and that’s the gay thing to do. In other words, they came from nowhere and the only explanation required about their politics and class identity was their sexuality.
But if “gay” in America is now equal to being upper middle class or rich, it doesn’t follow that “straight” is equal to being poor. The opposition on It’s All Relative was not between gay and straight but between two class identities. Whether on such sitcoms or shows like Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar TV, the poor/working class are increasingly the objects of the kind of derision that would not be tolerated if the narratives revolved around any recognized ethnic or sexual minority. Time Out Chicago recently profiled a theatre production by the ensemble Murder Mystery Players titled “Bubba Ain’t Alone No More!” The show features hillbilly stereotypes like a drunken reverend and an incestuous family, pulling in audience members to play the characters. The Kurt Russel movie Breakdown has the actor playing a man whose wife is kidnapped by a sadistic ring of redneck truck drivers. There are no reasons given for why these drivers engage in their criminal behaviour; we are led to believe that it’s just inherent to their cultural DNA as rednecks. Our cultural loathing for the lower class is so ingrained that we assume their behaviour is simply and entirely cultural. Hence a comment by one audience participant in Bubba Ain’t Alone No More, “this is just how crude people live.”
So the poor are the way they are because it’s their culture, just as gay men are fa-aa-bulous designers with an innate ability to choose the best wine and cheese and who automatically vote for liberal causes. My point here is that both “poor” and “rich” have become cultural identities in America, just like “Gay” and “African American” and “Asian.” We haven’t entirely accepted the poor as a suitable identity group, but if the recent surge in “Working Class Studies” in academia is any indication, they too will soon become objects of reverential analysis. We no longer care to think about how to make the conditions of poverty (and hence the poor) disappear; we’d rather spend our resources freezing the culture of the poor in perpetuity.
How did we come to a point where we fetishize disparate elements like sexuality, race and poverty as culture and ignore economic inequality? How do concepts like culture and identity, so wrapped up in the idea of attaining “full equality,” help in furthering inequality? Walter Benn Michaels persuasively provides a set of answers in his new book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Michaels, a professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), has been for many years a highly regarded and occasionally polarizing figure in academia. This is his first book aimed at a wider audience. Unlike most academics, he can unpack complex intellectual and cultural histories without resorting to jargon.
However, the real contribution of the book is its ability and willingness to take on the most revered principles of American cultural and political life: diversity, affirmative action, and a deep adherence to a respect for cultural difference. His argument about diversity is that it allows us to forget about economic inequality while increasing our reverence for difference. It’s to his credit that Michaels is able to write about weighty issues like race, culture, and inequality with wit, “We like diversity and we like programs such as affirmative action because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve and that solving it requires us just to give up our prejudices. (Solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more; it might require us to give up our money) .” A consideration of inequality may not seem like anything new, especially in the wake of Katrina when we found ourselves confronted with the images of very desperate and very poor people, mostly of color.
Kanye West’s declaration at a celebrity relief telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” has become an argument in itself about the Bush administration’s supposed inattention to race. While the response is understandable, given what we saw, the issue of whether or not Bush is racist is beside the point (and this administration is the most diverse in history). Michaels’ analysis productively differentiates between race and inequality. The truth is that Bush—like the rest of us—doesn’t care about poor people. Or, as Michaels puts it, “We like blaming racism, but the truth is there weren’t too many rich Black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so ... . This doesn’t mean, of course, that racism didn’t play a role in New Orleans. It just means that in a society without any racial discrimination, there would still have been poor people who couldn’t find their way out. Whereas in a society without poor people (even a racist society without poor people) , there wouldn’t have been.”
If anything, Katrina has led to a strange form of respect for at least some kinds of poor people, but that takes us nowhere to solving the problem of inequality. Michaels writes about an episode of Wife Swap where Jodi and Lynn, from rich and poor households respectively, exchange places. Jodi becomes aware of her prejudice against people who “live different lives” (meaning poor people like Lynn) —the lesson we are meant to take away is that the rich should not look down upon the poor. In other words, we are persuaded that being tolerant about what makes the poor different from the rich somehow solves the problems faced by the poor. That gets us away from the fact that the problem with poverty is poverty itself, not whether or not you are made to feel ashamed about it. It’s horrible to be poor. It means you can’t pay your bills, can’t fix your teeth, can’t put food on the table, and can barely make rent. But according to our cultural logic, hey, it’s okay to be poor as long as you are respected for being poor.
This is why it ultimately doesn’t matter if my opening paragraphs convinced you to respect hillbillies or not. Respect for poor people does nothing about the poverty in which they live and, as Michaels indicates in his analysis of the educational system, respect is one more way to keep the machinery of inequality going. Respect breeds band-aid solutions to the problems of inequality, prompting us to rely on a combination of charity and volunteerism to keep poverty in society temporarily at bay. We volunteer at soup kitchens and literacy centers and we depend on millionaires to keep foundations going. Whenever possible, we donate to education as if it were a cause, and not something that should be funded well and equally, regardless of where schools are located. We proudly teach respect and tolerance in our schools and ignore the fact that students often don’t get much of an education in anything else. We make a virtue out of the fact that inner city school teachers have to dig into their pockets to pay for basic supplies like chalk and textbooks for their students.
In other words, we’ve given up on the fight against inequality and have convinced ourselves that respect and tolerance for difference and identity will alleviate our problems. As for the gay movement, it has wholeheartedly announced its support for economic inequality in its fight for marriage. The dominant argument for extending the rights of marriage to queers has been that we should have the right to health care through our spouses, the same way that straights do. That ignores, of course, the fact that a large number of straight married couples don’t have health care because they can’t afford it. More damagingly, the gay marriage movement has no argument to make for universal health care, the single biggest signifier of inequality today. Instead of fighting so hard for the status quo, what if we replicated the actions of AIDS activists in the “80s who insisted that all of those with AIDS—Haitians, gay men, African-American women—were entitled to universal health care? So strident has our specious call for “equality” been that we’ve convinced straight allies to engage in some bizarre acts of solidarity. Charlize Theron, among other celebrities, has declared that she will only get married when gays have the right to marry. Well, first of all: Charlize, honey, stop using my people as a cover-up for not wanting to tie the knot with Stuart. But more importantly, how about a truly progressive act? Let’s imagine a world where gays are allowed to marry, and gain those much desired health care benefits. Will we then ever see gay couples refusing to marry and gain benefits until “everyone,” gay or straight, has access to universal health care?
The Trouble with Diversity kills a lot of our sacred cows and challenges us to formulate a truly progressive politics that focuses on poverty and economic difference. The trouble with diversity is the same as the trouble with equality, the buzzword of the gay movement. Both concepts replicate the status quo and neither takes us any closer to ending economic inequality.
Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House, 2006), makes a bold claim for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the entanglements between identity, marginality and society. Yoshino is currently a law professor at Yale Law School and this book expands the arguments he’s previously made in various law review journals and magazines. The title is inspired by Erving Goffman’s pivotal 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Stigma, about the relationship between society and its marginalized subjects, is among the most referenced texts for scholars in a range of disciplines from queer theory to sociology. Goffman’s words form the epigraph to Covering: “It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma […] may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large ... this process will be referred to as covering.”
Yoshino’s central thesis is that an earlier deference to diversity has given way to an emphasis on assimilation to the extent where individuals who are different from the perceived norm feel compelled to cover or downplay their distinguishing characteristics. He includes a wide range of people in this group—from the disabled who hide their canes to African-Americans compelled to “look white.”
Stigma maintains its allure in part because it’s a generous and capacious book, and it presents both theory and actual narratives from the margins “straight,” as it were, without the political correctness that marks similar and more recent books. Yoshino draws upon experience as well: his own, writing about it in excessively writerly prose that strains too hard to be beautiful. He includes these because “if a human life is described in enough particularity, the universal will begin to speak through it.”
In an interview with Yoshino, I asked him what role covering might play in a post-9/11 world. After all, we are now witness to an erosion of civil rights in the form of endlessly expanding surveillance and policing. His response was that covering is like the canary in the coal mine. After 9/11, Muslim communities found themselves debating the extent to which they should downplay their more obvious characteristics, such as speaking publicly in Arabic. Covering indicates the extent to which American culture and politics demand that citizens conform to standards of the norm.
But examples like this don’t indicate the centrality of covering, only the degree to which it might be a symptom of an erosion of civil rights. That doesn’t mean that such instances are not troubling, and Yoshino gives equally poignant examples of same-sex couples feeling compelled to self-censor their demonstrations of affection in public and women downplaying their lives as mothers in the workplace. In the process, he lumps together disparate groups in order to advance his thesis. But women who must cover their maternal roles in the workplace are subject to an entirely different set of pressures than African-Americans who feel compelled to “act white” by speaking and dressing in particular ways. Talking about covering may get at the need for people to assert what Yoshino calls their authentic selves, but it does nothing to question the systemic conditions of inequality that determine how we negotiate our identities in society.
Take, for instance, Yoshino’s example of Lawrence Mungin, an African-American lawyer and the subject of Paul Barrett’s book The Good Black. Mungin related how his white suburban neighbors were friendly to him when he walked around in a suit but clutched their purses when he dressed for the gym. Ultimately, according to Yoshino, Mungin simply got tired of trying to make his neighbors comfortable and the author uses this as an example of why covering is ultimately exhausting and pointless. He argues that those who don’t choose to cover—like Barack Obama refusing to change his name—and are proud of their explicit difference eventually succeed the most.
This analysis ignores the realities around race. Success or failure at covering doesn’t explain the fact that an African-American male like Mungin, who drives into an affluent suburb at night, is still likely to get pulled over regardless of how he’s dressed. It assumes that Mungin’s neighbors were responding to his class status in his gym clothes when, in fact, they responded to him as an unidentifiable African-American who did not fit in their environs, a marker of inequality. An African-American UPS delivery person, signified as such by his uniform, would not elicit such a reaction and would be ignored in the way that we ignore “service” people going about their business around us. What the neighbors really responded to was their fear that someone who looked liked he had less than them, economically speaking, might seek to redress the imbalance by taking away their purses. In other words, the real reason behind Mungin’s reception was a complex mixture of race and economics that signifies how people respond to inequality. Yoshino confuses class with inequality.
Yoshino gets it wrong when he claims that those who choose not to cover are rewarded for their authenticity. Despite the popular mythology surrounding Oprah Winfrey, the truth is that her audiences don’t love her because they see her as an African-American who survived the odds and stayed true to herself. They love her because she made it into and stayed in a realm of wealth that exceeds our imagination. Nobody loves the poor. We don’t celebrate people who remain poor. What we love is the idea that we can leave the poor and poverty behind.
Yoshino is undoubtedly sincere in his belief that there is a cost to covering, and this book does indicate a sharp intelligence at work. The problem is that he doesn’t present too much of a case as to why covering should be a central organizing principle in a collective quest for social justice or equity. The autobiographical details, while sweet and occasionally touching, only call for our sympathy. Their transparency belies the extent to which this book furthers a neo-liberal rhetoric of choice and autonomy. If only we could talk to each other and understand each other’s differences, it argues, we might see what we have in common with each other.
The question remains: And then what? How do we confront the conditions of inequality that define “our” fractured relationship to a social sphere where not everybody is able to talk at a collective table? To what extent should we rely on that to address our needs? Talking about the hidden costs of covering will appeal to those who like the book’s reliance on the idea that accepting diversity and difference solves our problems. But covering doesn’t begin to cover the issues we face today in the realm of civil rights.
Paul Robinson, Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics
University of Chicago Press, 2005
Mattilda, AKA Matt Bernstein Sycamore, ed. That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation
Soft Skull Press, 2005
What are the histories and promises of “queer”? Two new books offer different sets of answers to the question.
That’s Revolting is edited by the activist Mattilda/Matt Bernstein Sycamore. The book is an anthology of writings by radical queers who are wrestling with issues like homelessness, poverty, and queer assimilation.
Essays range from short performative pieces to detailed accounts of protest participations. Rocko Bulldagger’s hilarious “Dr. Laura, Sit on My Face” is a satirical love letter to the rabidly conservative radio talk show host. At one point, she asks simply “Who would have heard of my kind of queers if it weren’t for you?”, deflating both Dr. Laura’s venomous rhetoric and those who would censor her. Anarchists and anti-war activists Olivelucy and Salmonella write about their efforts to establish a queer, anti-capitalist media outlet during the Seattle 1999 protests against the WTO.
We might believe that gay is always good, but gay spaces frequently replicate wider social inequalities. Tommi Avicolli Mecca writes about picketing a gay bar in Philadelphia for only carding Black patrons. And Priyank Jindal reminds us that even progressive queer organizing spaces are so engrossed in their critique of capitalism that they can fail to recognize their own racism, classism, and transphobia.
Refreshingly, writers foreground connections between sexuality, gender identity, and political projects. “Query” writes about a trip to Israel where he and other media activists splattered part of the ‘security fence” that cuts through the West Bank with the colors of the Palestinian flag and launched a banner that read “No Apartheid Wall!” His account is interwoven with details of his sexual encounters, reminding us that the lines between sex, life, death, and politics are always shifting and intangible.
Elisa seMbessakwini writes as an intersexed person, born with ambiguous genitalia and subject to a lifetime of painful surgical procedures. But instead of a clichéd narrative about progressing towards a fixed and acceptable body, she provides descriptions of events that cannot be defined as either fact or fiction. Consequently, the reader has to confront and negotiate with the author’s contentious concepts of identity.
Proponents of gay family values might believe that the desire to change the world, which runs through this book, only reflects a phase that everyone goes through before embarking on the more serious project of contented domesticity. Paul Robinson’s Queer Warsis a critique and intellectual history of contemporary gay conservatism, and he defies this logic of “growing up.” The author came of age in the Stonewall era and is an established academic in his ’60s. But he remains an uncompromising believer in the principles of Gay Liberation: leftist politics, erotic and sexual liberty and the celebration and adoption of gender and sexual “deviance.”
Robinson focuses on four central figures. The assimilationist Bruce Bawer, who wrote A Place at the Table, was among the first “gaycons,” as was Andrew Sullivan. The remaining two are somewhat surprising choices, given that their politics have not always been clearly discernible as conservative. Gabriel Rotello wrote Sexual Ecology, a book that fueled public fears that gay sexual practices caused the AIDS epidemic; he is also former editor of Outweek. And Michelangelo Signorile was, after all, a member of Queer Nation and is both anti-war and a strong critic of the Bush administration.
But Robinson points out that it’s Sullivan who often argues for more sexual libertinism in contrast to Signorile’s calls for sexual restraint and even policing. And it could be argued that Signorile’s “exposure” of Sullivan’s ad for a barebacking partner replicates the Right’s reliance on shame to score political points. Robinson calls for a closer look at how the gay “left” and “right” are defined in an era where neither Gay Liberation nor fierce AIDS activism define queer politics. His book is a complex analysis of the histories and legacies of “queer,” and is based on a sustained and historical consideration of our social and political contexts.
These books are essential reading for anyone who feels that something has been missing from the coverage of queer culture and politics in the mainstream gay press. If we take seriously the claim that we are everywhere, then we are also among the uninsured and the homeless, and we continue to fight for a radical politics against all odds. Queer Wars and That’s Revolting make it clear that we have to think politically about private choices. And that growing up queer does not mean giving up the struggle for a better, more contentious, and a more just world.
The history of condoms is littered with eye-opening details. According to some accounts, the earliest condoms were linen sheaths used by Egyptians, but it is unclear if they were used for ceremonial purposes or actually used during sex. There are descriptions of condoms made of bone and others made of sheep’s intestines. Until the 15th century, condoms were mostly used for birth control and even then mostly by the upper classes.
With the rise and spread of syphilis, condoms became a necessary part of public-health measures as well as the first barrier, as it were, in nations’ abilities to engage in war. After World War I, 100 percent of German occupying forces were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea. One German military doctor in the Warsaw area wrote about being ordered to “open a brothel for the members of formations that came marching through.”
That last detail appears in Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis, a book that provides an account of the singular condom-manufacturing business established by Julius Fromm in the early part of the 20th century and its takeover by the Nazis. In 1839, Charles Goodyear (yes, that Goodyear) developed the rubber-vulcanization process that was the material basis for condom manufacture, and subsequent innovations produced a dipping method that enabled the mass production of seamless and sheer condoms. But it was Fromm who redefined the industry.
Conservatives who felt they encouraged promiscuity and, worse, family planning regarded condoms with suspicion. But the need to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases eventually outweighed moral questions. Fromms was able to benefit from this double-edged cultural discourse and was the first to package his products with all the elegance granted to chocolates. A box of three condoms came in a pretty little box striped with green and purple and cost 72 pfennigs. This was a relatively high price for the time, but the condoms (or “Fromms Act” as they were called in German) came with a guarantee of quality unmatched by any other brand of the time. Each condom was subjected to three inspection processes and eventually dusted with a lubricant that gave them a “velvety surface.”
Fromm’s condoms became immensely popular and the entrepreneur was able to establish himself as the patriarch of a large and extended and well-off Jewish family. Fromm was born in 1883, in the town of Konin, which was part of what was then the Russian Empire. His family moved to Berlin in 1893 into a working-class neighborhood where his father made and sold cigarettes, an occupation undertaken mostly by impoverished immigrants. The entire family pitched in, and eventually they all changed their names to seem less Jewish. The second-oldest son Israel thus became Julius. But some years later, his first one-man company was named “Israel Fromm, Manufacturing and Sales Company for Perfumes and Rubber Goods.” Aly and Sontheimer deftly evoke the ways in which Fromm, like so many Jewish immigrants in Germany, constantly negotiated their identities in a society whose anti-semitism lay always simmering under the surface, long before the brutality of the Nazis made it come to a head.
The company became spectacularly successful; by 1931 it was producing more than 50 million condoms. In 1933, Hitler became Reichskanzler and Fromm, who had assiduously avoided politics and been naturalized in 1920, now found his firm threatened with takeover and began reluctantly the laying the ground to emigrate. Fromm’s citizenship was denied, and Hitler’s government possessed the company. The process whereby that happened was a convoluted one, and while the financial details are somewhat dry they provide a critical perspective on the Aryanization process that engulfed Germany at the time.
Fromms is a complex portrayal of a man whose life philosophy appeared relatively simple but efficient. Julius Fromm, by most accounts, adhered to a strict work ethic, treated his workers well and was responsible for innovations beyond the products he made. Aly and Sontheimer dedicate an entire chapter to the architecture of the firm’s headquarters, revealing that the building, designed by Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzmann, presaged what would become the ubiquitous use of glass in the facades of modern buildings.
The book falters in its consideration of gender. This is not a cultural history of the condom, but initial sections do consider the social relevance of rise in their use. Here and in other places women emerge as marginal figures. The authors begin with an intriguing statement about Ruth Fromm’s dislike for her uncle Julius, but never follow up on a promise to reveal more about that. The account of Korn and Weitzmann’s collaboration contains an abrupt statement that “the friendship between these two architectural masters came to an end in 1937 because of a woman.” An endnote refers only to some correspondence, but we are given no details in the text and left only with what appears to be a classic case of misogynistic blaming of a woman for the end of a creative collaboration between men (think John, Yoko and the Beatles) . The authors are preoccupied with the issue of disease but have almost nothing to say about the advantages condoms presented to women in their pursuit of sexual freedom. In a book centered on an item that revolutionized sex between humans, it seems odd to disregard its effect on half of them.
Originally published in Windy City Times, February 24, 2010.
March 3, 2010
A striking bronze statue of a dog sits in the Mendeleyevs-kaya subway station of Moscow. The city has been home to roving packs of semi-feral canines since the Soviet era, and many of them have made their homes in the warmer spots of the stations. In the old days, the dogs lived in the industrial zones of the city and often found their food while sifting through garbage. With neoliberalism came drastic changes in the city’s landscape. The old factories became shopping malls and apartment buildings, and the dogs were now compelled to learn a few new tricks. These included learning to travel back and forth between the city and the suburbs on the subway and riding escalators.
A 2009 article and video from The Sun shows the animals dog-napping on subway seats. One of they may have been Malchik, the dog now immortalised in bronze, who is described as “gentle” in a Wall Street Journal article which reported that she was repeatedly stabbed to death by a crazed fashion model: “[H]orrified celebrities and ordinary city residents raised money” for the memorial.
video here (also from the WSJ):
There is so much to ponder in this story of the mad model and the unsuspecting dog. The description of her death evokes sadness and the sounds of a crazy woman stabbing a helpless dog. It is unusual to hear of a dog being stabbed; we are more likely to hear of them being clubbed or beaten or kicked to death. This story of stabbing brings with it a history of deliberate intent and passion gone awry.
The affective register continues with an accompanying photograph of the dog’s statue being caressed by a woman while flowers lie at its base. It’s unclear whether the dog got her name before or after her death. What is clear is that Malchik’s bronze memorial, shrouded in affect, effectively recuperates a narrative of dog-ness into a story about a city’s beloved pet.
As it turns out, the Moscow dogs are not at all pet-like, even as they have finely attuned their behaviour to maximum effect. In a WSJ video, we see one of them stand in front of a couple for a couple of minutes, and then turn away, having quickly discerned that these humans will not be sharing their food. A zoologist who has studied them asserts that they have learnt to not nuzzle or touch humans, knowing that their physical proximity is not always welcome. While they are not exactly wild, they are also not the kind of cute and cuddly dogs you would want to take home to your child.
The statue of Milchak, endearingly posed sitting down and looking upwards at an invisible human master, mitigates that loss of doggy-affect – even though she was never a pet. Rather than standing and staring at us, as the dog in the WSJ video does, she sits as if at someone’s feet and looks up. In death, the stray dog is domesticated.
All traces of ferality are made to vanish, replaced by the bronze warmth of a pet for the whole city. But such a vanishing of animality into the affective register of universal petness comes with a cost to us. Our affective relationship to animals helps structure neoliberalism.
The Moscow dogs are not a unique phenomenon. Such roving packs are common sights in cities like Calcutta and Delhi which, despite their recent ascendancy into neoliberalism, are still burdened with the kind of economic inequality that makes the lives of wild and stray dogs metaphors for the kinds of lives endured by many of their human residents. Indeed, some of the fascination with the Moscow dogs (the news story made its way around the internet) may have to do with the uneasy sense that the city is not supposed to function like one in the “third world.” Such dogs would likely have been common in England or the United States until well into the 19th century, but “animal control” organisations now ensure that all strays are quickly and effecticely corraled and either domesticated or euthanised.
In the U.S, suburbia has brought with it a perceive need to possess animal companions and a sharp increase in the breeding – and miniaturising – of dogs and cats has resulted in forms and shapes that would be unrecognisable to an average 19th century urban or rural citizen. In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the villain Bill Sykes is accompanied by an equally villainous bulldog named Bulleye whose loyalty to his master remains unchanged even after many beatings. Bulldogs were so named because bull baiting was a popular sport in Medieval England, and the dogs used in these events were gradually bred to best enable them to tackle their helpless prey (positioned as combatants). As is evident from the images of the period, the bulldog of an earlier time had longer and sturdier legs. Today’s bulldog, with its lower jaw far outreaching the upper, the multiple extraneous folds covering much of its face and the short stubby legs that go nowhere fast is a cartoon of a dog. But the bulldog of Dickens, with longer legs and a rather different face, bears no resemblance to the squat and low-hanging dog with which we are now familiar.
The history of animals turning into pets designed to do no more than look cute while being (often, but not always) lavished with attention is inextricably linked to the history of the animal rights movement. That latter history forms the riveting tale of Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals: The History of the Animal Protection Movement.
The focus of Shevelow’s book is the Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822, described as “the first national law anywhere in the world, passed by a democratically elected legislature which dealt specifically and entirely with cruelty to animals.” But the Act took decades to come to pass, and Shevelow gives us histories of the various public and philosophical discourses that made it possible, along with biographies of the men and women who kept up the pressure to ensure that animals were actually seen as deserving of rights and freedom from harm. These include the famed beauty and early animal rights philosopher Margaret Cavendish, and Richard Martin, who helped pass the Act and was among the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shevelow is careful to give us the histories of lesser-known but equally diligent activists like Arthur Broome, who called the first meeting that led to the SPCA, and spent much of his life toiling in poverty while devoted for his cause.
It may seem shockingly obvious to us today that animals should be treated without cruelty, given how much of the Western world focuses on animals as a natural part of rights discourse (whether or not that template of rights can or even should be part of a “natural” discourse of rights is a topic that cannot be explored at length here). But England was for a long time home to the most horrifying forms of cruelty to animals, and bull-baiting was only one manifestation of that. Until the passage of the Act, animals were considered mere property and incapable of feeling pain.
By the eighteenth century, England had earned a reputation as the cruellest nation, based on what foreigners saw of its treatment of animals (my friend J., a historian of the period, is quick to remind me that it was also notoriously cruel towards humans). Carts and coaches were routinely overloaded, and the horses or donkeys dragging them were badly beaten and crippled. Shevelow gives a telling example of “[o]ne man who had torn a horse’s tongue from its mouth – it is striking how often this particular cruelty was reported in the newspapers during the century – was arrested but, since there was no evidence he had done it to injure the horse’s owner, he was set free.”
The work of prominent writers and reformers like Alexander Pope and Jeremy Bentham was creating more sympathy for the idea that animals had the right not to suffer, and that, in turn, necessitated an acceptance of the idea that they could suffer in the first place. At the same time, people were acquiring animals as pets and keeping them in their homes. Popular empathy towards animals was also greatly enabled by numerous stories about the devotion of beasts to their human companions. In July 1805, a shepherd leading his flock to pasture in the Lake District heard the howling of a dog. Searching for the source of the sound, he eventually came upon a small terrier apparently guarding the decayed and headless body of her master, Charles Gough.
The terrier, named Foxey, became a national heroine and both William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott penned poems to her. Scott’s words in particular are indicative of the strength of the affect engendered by the public’s growing sense that animals could suffer, and the increasing tendency to anthropomorphise them:
How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long nights didst thou number
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
The tale of Foxey began what has now become a genre of stories about dog fidelity. For a while, however, the story of her incredible devotion was almost marred by a suggestion that floated about for a while: that she may have actually stayed near Gough’s body in order to sustain herself by eating off his carcass. But this other and darker (and perhaps more realistic) story was quickly squelched as a vicious rumour and Foxey regained her status as the Dog Who Stayed By Her Master Even After Death.
The idea that animals could feel such fidelity and love certainly helped make the case for them as sentient beings worthy of our regard, and this marked a change from a period when animals were tried for crimes against humanity. In 1386, according to Shevelow, “a sow convicted of murdering a child in Normandy was forced into men’s clothes before being hanged in the public square.” But crimes by animals were not just those that came about by accident or in defense; bestiality was punishable by death (and was a crime in Britain till 1861). In 1677, one Mary Hicks was found guilty of having sex with her dog; the case was based on charges by her neighbours. In court at the Old Bailey, the dog sealed his fate and hers when he greeted her by wagging his tail and “making motions as it were to kiss her.” Hicks was forced to watch him hang before she herself was executed. As we shall see in later sections, such notions of animal criminality are not entirely absent from today’s public discourse.
With the passage of Martin’s Act and subsequent ones that also ensured the rights of domestic animals, the animal protection movement soon began to gather momentum and legitimacy. In 1835, Princess Victoria, a lover of animals, became a member of the SPCA. She became Queen in 1837 and, in 1840, the SPCA became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ending its long and beleaguered history as an organisation struggling to survive.
As animal rights began to expand, so did the vast reaches of the British Empire. Victorians had a sometimes literal feast of animals to pick from, and they included creatures that stood out for their difference from the natural fauna of Britain: gorgeously hued peacocks, enormous elephants, and strange creatures like the platypus which looked like it had been stitched together from parts of other beasts. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859; that and other works in the growing field of evolutionary science fuelled a restless curiosity about the origins of humans – and an anxious desire to know and understand the dividing lines between man and beast (and man, indeed, was the sole concern here).
The fiction of the period following Darwin’s work would reflect the anxiety about origins and the tenuousness of the idea that man was the centre of the universe. It would also reflect an anxiety about what the expanding Empire could bring into the nation. In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a novel about a scientist who discovers a way to unleash another and more vicious man within. In 1896, H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau, about a mad scientist’s attempts to turn animals into men. Both these novels were about botched scientific experiments and embedded in a combination of suspicion and hope about what science could bring to the world.
While both works explored the concept of a beast or beast-like creature within (or, in Well’s book, the man within the beast), it was Bram Stoker who took the fear of the animal within into the supernatural realm, in Dracula. Borrowing from established European folklore, Stoker created a narrative about a man who could turn into a beast while sucking the blood of humans to stay alive. As Count Dracula, we first encounter him as an extraordinarily gracious human host greeting Jonathan Harker, the first of the narrators of the story, as he enters Dracula’s castle in the Carpathians. As the nights go by, Harker discovers that he is a prisoner of the Count and slowly begins to suspect his true identity. His fears come true one night when he looks out of his window one night and sees Dracula leaving by a window, but not in the way any human might:
I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abys, face down, with his cloak spreaking out around him like great wings….I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones…and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
Much of the fear of Dracula comes from the understanding of his ability to metamorphosise into other animals. He can change from man to wolf, or from man to bat and back again. In other words, Dracula is not a man with a beast within – he is something else altogether, someone who looks like a man but can change solidly into an actual animal. That makes his human prey much more vulnerable, and it literalises a discourse of anxiety about the beast within.
But what makes Dracula most alarming to his opponents is his lack of affect. Nowhere in Stoker’s text is there a hint that he particularly cares for anyone or anything; all are merely future corpses to aid his way to relative freedom in London.
In today’s renditions of Dracula or the imitations thereof, we are given hints – and more – of longing and even pain raging within the vampiric breast. Angel, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and the ubervampire of the millennium, is a tortured soul. He is also a thoroughly modern vampire, given to modernist restraint in his art collection and furnishings and, as Xander, a friend of Buffy, once put it, “that whole tall, dark, swishy-coat thing.”
Today’s vampire no longer speaks to our anxieties about the beast within. Our representations of them evoke little more than humans gone slightly awry, essentially people who can change from ordinary humans to humans with fangs and bumpy foreheads, but who stay essentially human nonetheless. Even Dracula, on an episode of Buffy, is now merely a slightly morbid, slightly foolish vampire. Today’s vampire is no beast. He has great cheekbones and is a really cool dude who looks good in a wet shirt. In his stead, animals have been returned to their rightful place.
What or where, exactly, is the rightful place of animals in a neoliberal world where we can no longer locate them within us or in the supernatural? The United States in particular stands at a nexus of extreme devotion to household pets and a sharp increase in farmed meat consumption. There are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs and 93.6 million owned cats in this country. In 2009, 22,281 cows were slaughtered, as were 5,800,295 chickens. There are approximately 304,000,000 people in this country.
I do not point out these figures to criticise the fact that we kill some animals for meat while we fetishise others as pets (and some, like rabbits, may function as both). Rather, I want to point to the discordant effects of affect in a country where pet ownership and kindness towards certain animals is valued even as we turn our eyes away from a massive meat industry whose immense growth and endless dissection of the product it churns out has enabled most of us to forget that there are actually animals involved in the process.
The last decade or so has seen the rise in a new kind of food literature. Where food writers of the past revelled in providing gateways to gastronomic travels cookbooks or treatises on the origins of cuisines, today’s food writers are assiduous about pointing to the failure of the farming and meat industry to provide sustainable and nutritious food and the cruel treatement of animals herded and slaughtered in conditions that are as dangerous to us as to them. The overproduction of meat has led to disastrous eruptions of food crises. As a result, organic and supposedly sustainable forms of farming have been gaining attention in the media. Along with this has come some amount of pressure on the commercial meat industry to reform its ways and ensure that its products are as humanely created as possible.
But does any of this really make sense? Is it really possible to create the conditions for “humane slaughter” without perpetuating the disastrous model of overproduction and overconsumption of meat that this country relies on? What does it mean to treat animals in a humane way when we are the humans who lead them to their slaughter? How do we begin to understand what “humane” means in this context?
The name of Temple Grandin, who has become something of a high priestess of the animal rights movement would most likely be invoked in conversations where such questions are asked. Grandin has earned some unique and contradictory distinctions. Besides her job as Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, Grandin serves as a consultant to the livestock industry. In 2004, she receved the Proggy award from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). On its website citing Grandin’s work, PETA writes:
Renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would receive PETA's Proggy Award. An associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Dr. Grandin consults with the livestock industry and the American Meat Institute on the design of slaughterhouses! However, Dr. Grandin's improvements to animal-handling systems found in slaughterhouses have decreased the amount of fear and pain that animals experience in their final hours, and she is widely considered the world's leading expert on the welfare of cattle and pigs.
This is high praise indeed, coming from an organisation otherwise well known for guerrilla tactics like throwing paint at the fur coats of Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. Grandin’s supposed success at making slaughterhouses more humane – and PETA’s bolstering of that supposition – comes in part because of a biographical detail that she has consistently claimed makes her more empathetic to animals: she is autistic.
Born in 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, Grandin grew up with undiagnosed behavioural problems. In 1951, she was diagnosed with autism. Since she was one of the lucky ones of her generation to have a supportive family with access to resources, Grandin was able to continue and complete her education with a doctorate in Animal Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Today, Grandin is well known as an inventor of various devices that are meant to provide more security and comfort to animals in their feed lots or on their way to inventions. As she often tells it in her many books (which tend to repeat the same anecdotes), her solutions can be modifications in the structures surrounding animals, like the sweeping curved corrals intended to reduce stress in animals being led to slaughter, or as simple as installing lights at the end of tunnels so that pigs don’t balk at entering the darkness.
Grandin’s claim, explicitly laid out in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, is that she thinks much like animals do – on a visceral, sensory, and visual level – and that allows her the unique ability to grasp their needs. For her work and lectures on autism and animal science, Grandin has received numerous accolades and it is difficult to find any substantive critique of her, except on the occasional vegan blog where her assertions about “human slaughter” are roundly denounced (as is PETA’s award). Grandin’s theories about the link between autism and animal welfare dovetail our “love of animals” with our need to recognise and perhaps even overly fetishise people with recognised disabilities. Today, Grandin is enjoying unprecedented popularity in the wake of an HBO documentary on her life starring Clair Danes.
The problem with Grandin is that her proximity to animals along with her autism has become a way to construct a particular narrative about autism itself. Given her educational history, she clearly has a right to claim expertise in livestock environment design, but the fact of her autism does not necessarily make her an expert on the topic. In fact, Animals in Translation is filled with instances where she provides only the fuzziest evidence for her claims. In a section about frontal lobe functions, she writes: “A major autism researcher told a journalist friend of mine that if you compared the brain scan of an autistic child to the scan of a sixty-year-old CEO, the autistic child’s brain would look better.” She provides no details about this anecdotal evidence, not even the name of this “major autism researcher.”
It is in relation to animal experiences and lives that we find Grandin engaging a vastly affective discourse in which animals deploy human modes of interaction and values. In a section titled “Rapist Roosters,” she writes of finding a hen freshly killed by a rooster. Outraged at what she considers an overturning of natural law, she consults animal scientists and finds out that “the rooster courtship dance had gotten accidentally deleted in about half of the birds.” When a hen does not see the dance, she does not crouch down so that the rooster could mount her. Enraged, the rooster tries to force the hen to mate and, when she tries get away, slashes her to death. The result: corpses like the one found by Grandin.
On the face of it, Grandin’s explanation via her animal scientist colleagues makes sense, given our understanding of how overbreeding can have harmful effects on animals by making them lose some or all of their natural instincts. The problem is that Grandin makes no connection between this overbreeding and the sheer size of the livestock industry that she works with. Teasing out that connection would throw the whole enterprise into question – and presumably diminish her role as a consultant to the same industry. Instead, Grandin chooses to overlay the problem with affect by choosing a term as loaded as “rapist” to describe the roosters. This allows us to transpose and amplify an affective human trait onto an animal while ignoring the systemic reasons why such traits exist in the first place. In another instance, she writes about rats choosing “bad-tasting” painkillers over sugary solutions, and the notion that animals can discern good or bad taste based on human perceptions of the same is echoed in other parts of the book.
Yet, cats and dogs regularly and assiduously lick their own bums, will sometimes chew on their own vomit, and seem to consider toilet bowl water a particularly fine treat. Surely, the concept of “bad-tasting” food is not one that translates easily from the human to the animal world.
The level of affect in Grandin’s work is the result of living in a culture that only allows humans to interact with animals through a relentless anthropomorphising that requires us to transpose our emotions and likes onto them. It is also a necessity in a culture that needs to constantly locate farming in an idyllic imaginary of family-owned enterprises, rather than remember that it is a mega-industry that thrives on the use of hard labour, much of it undocumented.
On May 12, 2008, the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security carried out the single largest raid of a workplace in U.S history, arresting nearly 400 people working as undocumented workers. The raid happend on the premises of the Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. The raid had cataclysmic effects on the town of 2, 273 and was marked by a particularly egregious and brutal set of procedures which involved treating undocumented workers as hardened criminals, even though many of them had done nothing more than work with false papers.
The Agriprocessors plant had been in trouble long before the raids. In September 2005, workers at the company’s distribution site in Brooklyn, New York, voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union and were challenged by the company, which falsely claimed that the workers’ votes were invalid because they were undocumented (the National Labour Relations Act places no requirement of documentation). Workers also alleged that Agriprocessors engaged in egregious employement practices, like failing to pay overtime. In October 2008, Agriprocessors was fined $9.99 million for various violations of state labor law by the Iowa Labor Commission.
In the meantime, PETA had been secretly recording slaughterhouse practices on the animals inside the factory and found cattle having their tracheas and esophagi being ripped out of their necks and surviving even after the ritutal slaughter. The video made headlines, prompting discussion in the Jewish community over whether such practices rendered the meat nonkosher or not. Temple Grandin was called in by PETA to testify that the slaughter practices were indeed painful for the animals. In 2006, Agriprocessors received a visit from Grandin, who said that the plant required continuous monitoring. An August 2009 article in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle notes that the company is now under completely new management and quotes Lindsay Rajt of PETA stating that the organisation would be monitoring the slaughterhouse practices and supporting Grandin’s recommendation to have video cameras installed.
The raid spotlighted the Agriprocessors’s labor infractions as well as the issues with slaughter processes. For many Jewish activists, the incident was especially fraught because of the tradition of tying ethics standards to the requirements of kashrut. A Jewish Daily Forward piece written shortly after the raid quotes Rabbi Morris Allen, director of the Hechsher Tzedek Commission: “For too long, we’ve ignored that production of kosher food has taken place in a world where we’re concerned about the ritual aspects of food preparation and not the ethical considerations.”
Yet, such concerns appear to not have affected either Temple Grandin or PETA, whose attention to the slaughtering practices appears in a vacuum. Indeed, what is peculiar about Grandin’s writing about agribusiness in Animals in Translation is that she has nothing to say about the human labour conditions in an industry that depends so much on undocumented labour. The only time that she mentions the undocumented is when she refers to Mexicans who enter the country undetected because they are able to conceal themselves among herds of Brahmin bulls. According to Grandin, the bulls’ fierce horns and large humps make them intimidating creatures and enforcement officers are reluctant to go too near them. The point of the story is simply to point out how fearsome the bulls are.
Temple Grandin was brought in to the slaughterhouse to oversee killing practices, and it could be argued that she has a right to stay focused on only that aspect of the business. But it could also be argued that neither Grandin nor her supporters at PETA nor the owners of companies like Agriprocessors can afford to connect the ethical treatment of animals to the ethical treatment of the workers. To do so would require a fundamental shifting of the industry, at a cost that is unsustainable to all concerned. To Temple Grandin, all that matters is the overlaying of affect onto animals and her use of affect is what structures and sustains the most unsustainable form of animal and human exploitation.
A little-known fact about the physical history of cinema is that photography and film stock is coated with gelatin. As Nicole Shukin writes in Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, “gelatin binds light-sensitive agents to a base so that images can materialize.” Even today, gelatine remains indispensable in the production of film stock. Shukin makes note of this curious bit of visual history in order to make a point that runs through the book: Capitalism is shot through and through with such material remnants of animal life, even as it seeks to make them invisible in order to sustain the popular fiction that modern life is divorced from what Shukin terms animal capital.
Shukin, a Canadian academic currently housed at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, has written a work that bears the hallmarks of a dissertation turned into a book, such as the need to restlessly cite various theoretical sources in order to legitimise its own forms of inquiry. Nevertheless, Animal Capital is a profoundly important book that offers some searing insights into the ways that animals have been rendered creatures of sentiment, instinct, and affect even as their presence enables the spread of neoliberalism.
We live in a time when we are constantly told that the only sustainable way to live is to constantly recycle and use our resources to their maximum effect. The rendering industry takes this logic of reuse to the world of slaughterhouses. In the home kitchen, rendering is the simple process of turning fatty animal tissue into a purer fat, as in the making of duck confit. On an industrial level, rendering involves turning the unwanted and inedible leftovers of animals into products as varied as soap (from tallow) or cat food. Rendering has long been valorised as the meat industry’s built-in mechanism for ensuring that nothing is wasted in a kind of ecological service to society and as a corrective to more wasteful forms of industrialisation. But as Shukin points out, “More than just mopping up after capital has made a killing, the rendering industry promises the possibility of an infinite resubjection (“return”) of nature to capital. The “industrial ecology” metaphor of the closed loop valorizes the ecological soundness of waste recovery and recycling just as the rendering industry effectively opens up a renewable resource frontier for capitalism.”
We may at first be hard-pressed to find a reason to critique rendering which, after all, seems to provide a way to use up the surplus generated by capital in the literal mounds of offal it throw out. But the problem with such an uncritical view of rendering is the same as the problem with Temple Grandin’s myopic view of the livestock industry. In focusing so narrowly on only creating “humane” practices of killing, Grandin and her ilk leave unchecked the many dangerous effects on both human and animal consumers and labor. Similarly, believing that the rendering industry is some form of good and innocent capitalism allows us to forget that we should not be overproducing meat in the first place.
Animal Capital offers a way out of the morass of affect left us by the likes of Grandin. Yet, Shukin’s work also offers a significant departure in the reading of capital that may not sit well with some: It decentralises the “privileged figure of the laborer…as the focal historical subject of industrial capitalism.” Shukin’s central questions are: How do animals enable and make capitalism perform better even as their presence is literally and metaphoricall and violently erased? What can we regain in our understanding of how capitalism works when we place animals at the center of an analysis? To answer thes questions, she returns us to the primal scenes of capitalism which, it turns out, were interpenetrated with animal life from the start – the use of gelatin on film being only one example.
Henry Ford’s assembly-line production in Dearborn, Michigan is routinely credited – or blamed – for the birth of Fordism. However, Ford in fact designed his automobile production methods after watching the moving lines in the “vertical abattoirs of Cincinnati and Chicago, with deadly efficiency and deadly effect.” Similarly, in Chicago and New York City, former meat markets are transformed into trendy neighbourhoods. All around us, animals penetrate capital.
Where Grandin uses affect to locate and keep animals in their place (if we could just think like them, we could end their suffering, right before killing them in vast numbers), Shukin points out that affect is ruinous. She repeats the question posed by Donna Harawy in Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science: “What forms does love of nature take in particular historical contexts? For whom and at what cost?” Animal Capital is thus critical of the modern rush to endlessly engage the logic of vanishing as in the oft-repeated and plaintive cry of an ecological movement that insists that all modern life is built upon the disappearance of species and even humans from the face of the earth. Much of this is true, but the sentimentality and affect through which this discourse appears to us is wrapped around notions of authentic “other” (non-white) cultures and species that could be lost to us if we (white) saviours do not rush to their rescue.
Shukin produces a telling genealogy of animals within capitalism, showing how they are still deployed within its vectors, and she persuades us to dismantle the far easier idea that technology and animals only existed together in a far-away and pre-industrial time.
What then, of the animals themselves? Shukin gestures towards the possibility of animal agency, but acknowledges that there are few ways to judge the existence of such: “… the rendering of animal capital is surely first contested by animals themselves, who neither “live unhistorically” nor live with the historical passivity regularly attributed to them.” For that, we have to turn to present-time incarnations of animal eruptions.
On February 24, 2010, a killer whale named Tilikum attacked and killed a trainer at Sea World. The incident sent shock waves through those long accustomed to seeing the giant creatures cavort and play tricks for the benefit of spectators. As the story unfolded, details emerged that made it seem like that Tilikum was a repeat criminal offender. The same whale was blamed for killing a trainer who lost her balance and fell in the pool in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. Tilikum was also implicated in a 1999 death, when he was found floating with the body of a man draped over his back.
Recent weeks have seen reports of packs of Beagles in Long Island going on seemingly mindless and deeply feral attack raids on humans and their more timid domestic dog partners. The problem here is man-made: Hunters buy the animals to aid them in the hunting of rabbits, and the dogs that don’t make the cut are simply dumped in the wild. Left on their own, their apparently revert to a feral state. Recently, a woman reported that she was walking her retriever when she found herself hounded down by a pack of 4-5 Beagles.
Snoopy, it seems, has gone native.
Whales and dogs are subject, like so many other animals, to the affective fictions we construct around them. We convince ourselves that putting a giant whale in an enclosed space and teaching it tricks means that we have established a loving relationship with the entire species. Dolphins, we tell our children, are eternally smiling at us when in fact their mouths are simply naturally upturned. Elephants sway their heads from side in their enclosures, and we convince ourselves that they are listening to some ethereal music when in fact the gesture simply means that they are slowly going mad in their cramped and unnatural habitats.
When animals explode and turn upon us, we are left with no more affect with which to sustain the myth that we have formed a deep and connective bond with them. To save ourselves from further disillusionment, we retreat into our archive of animal criminality. While we may no longer hang sows for murder, we do not hesitate to invoke the past record of a killer whale and subtly indict him for the possession of a murderous character. All the while, we use animals to further and legitimate our exploitation of them.
Dracula may vanish and turn into a bat, animal fat may be rendered reusable by capital, and we may turn all conceivable creatures into our pets. We might memorialise a dead and semi-feral dog and render her into a beloved icon, but are we really prepared for the consequences of sustaining our affective fictions about animals as our companions and cohabitants? How do we end the ways in which we use that affect to sustain the exploitation of capitalism?
My interview with the inimitable sex icon, on the publication of her new memoir
April 8, 2011
Susie Bright has had a storied life and career as a sex educator, editor of erotica, and commentator and promulgator of queer/feminist sexual politics. Her most recent memoir, Big Sex, Little Death provides details about her early life and adolescence as a sexually forthright young woman who became a member of the International Socialists, a labor organizer, a poet and writer and, eventually, a founding editor of On Our Backs,the first female-run lesbian erotica magazine which drew the ire of lesbian and straight feminists alike for its frank depictions of female sexuality.
YASMIN NAIR: Let's talk about the structure of the book. The first two-thirds seems more impressionistic than the last third. The last parts are more detailed and chronological concerned as they with, primarily, On Our Backs. Could you talk about that stylistic difference, and what says about your approach to the subject matter?
SUSIE BRIGHT: Some of it was intuitive. I was intimidated at the beginning because it was the first long-form narrative that I’ve done that felt novelistic. I've done long-form political treatises but not like this. If I could have written everything with poetry and impressionism from beginning to end, I probably would have liked that better as a writer. There were times when I felt this public pressure, like my readers would want me to say something about x. I'll give you an obvious example: So many people ask me how do you raise your daughter, how do you ge involved with your sex life when you have kids. They wanted advice, in certain respects, the educator part of me came out and the poet had to go sit in the corner. If I was more clever and more experienced with this kind of writing, I wold have loved to tell more stories, and I did but it was too long. It would have taken another 200 pages to really unpack that as beautifully as I might have had in my Proustian mind [laughs].
On the other hand, the little scenes I show from the International Socialists and the Red Tide [as examples], I would get very detailed [as in this moment when I’m in Detroit, and this crazy vet loses his mind] so you've got these snapshots. Whenever I could, I found a moment to give a feeling of this new social world that I became a part of and these women who became very important to me. Later on, I had to march the action along.
YN: You write about your early experience with the International Socialists, and your clear disappointment with them. Would you say you still identify as someone on the left, and is so, how?
SB: These isms and labels are just fraught with misinterpretations but on a very general level, yes, I still consider myself a socialist. It means a great deal of my worldview is driven by class consciousness and about following the money and that capitalism puts profit above the survival of the species to a cruel and self-extinguishing degree. When I saw the young people taking to the streets in Tahrir Square, I knew exactly what they were going through. I knew they were staying up all night having sex and talking and singing and not letting their hopes burn and how they're not going to let the old people screw it up. And when the citizens and workers of Wisconsin said, “We're not going to take it any more, we're not going to bow and scrape and say thank you master,” it was so good to see a response against that dominant paradigm.
YN: You have this critique about the right wing clamping down on sexuality, and sexual freedom and expression. Given that you've been very clear about the profit motive – is there an overt critique of capitalism [in your work]?
SB: I used to get into trouble with the International Socialists [laughs] if I didn't write at the end: “this is why capitalism is bad.”
YN: Yes, but is worth us returning to that question of capitalism, without using that cliched rhetoric? We don't seem to think about capitalism so much when we think about sex, or do we? Do we think about capitalism when we think about sex?
SB: As far as what activism and discussion is like now: I find it amazing that amongst my daughter's generation, you can now use the word “capitalism” and everybody knows what it means and it's not considered a sneaky, dirty, commie thing. When I was becoming familiar with Marxism, you could not say the word “capitalist” without people saying, “do you hate this country?” And the rest of the world was never like that. In the US, the red-baiting had made certain words off the table.
The sexual anxiety that the ruling class has promoted is this double-standard titillation that we see the media drowning in. Why is that? Because if a woman is nothing more than the producer of your heir, it's very important that you control her sexuality, it's very important that she doesn’t fuck around. The more valuable the dynasty, the more valuable the heir – it's almost like a royal wedding. The royal wedding is a mirror of the the false consciousness about sexuality that we have these days of. Unfortunately, because the mainstream Democratic party feminists have been so parochial in their focuses and threw so many women out of the movement, they haven’t been able to face the big picture and look at the attacks they're sustaining. What's happened to planned parenthood in just the last few months would have been unbelievable a year ago. When you don't have a thriving women's movement that is united around sexual self-determination and sexual self-empowerment for women, if you don’t have that point of view you can't defend your causes and your territory like you need to.
There are always people like me on the left who say, grow a pair of balls, defend this, defend the whole thing. Don't just sit there saying, “Well, it's so sad, every time there's an abortion, but we're just trying to help with family planning.” Why don't more women say, “I want an abortion, and it's none of your business, and my uterus that has a whole life that goes on for years and years and it's none of your fucking business.”
YN: You write about your daughter [in the book]. Are there generational shifts? In your book, there's this delightful moment where you were accused of sleeping with a schoolmate's boyfriend, and you turned around and said what's your problem with that? That discovery of a sexual ethos that isn't so much about possession, about claiming “my boyfriend,” ...
SB: [laughs] When I was my daughter's age [Bright's daughter is 20], we would have been embarrassed [to say that].
YN: Right. It seems like teens are being encouraged to become much more puritanical, and that notion of teenagers sleeping around because it was just fun seems to have been erased. Do you think there's a possibility of that returning?
SB: There's a real class divide on this too. There was an article that recently appeared that said it turns out that recent college grads have had far less lesbian experience than women who haven't gone to college, and it defied defined this titillating notion that women go to college and have little lesbian flings. And I said that this survey doesn't surprise me, but it doesn't explain something else, which is that these recent colleges grads who didn't have same-sex experiences also didn't go to bed with boys either or, if they did , it was far less frequently. They're a less experienced generation in sex over all. It's this group that has been kept in a hothouse and supervised by their parents as if they were royal infants from day one, it's that group. The group that hasn't been supervised every minute, and had every hour of every day planned for them: those people who have been making their way throughout their life without the Ivy Leagues have been more impulsive, impromptu, very experimental in their sex lives, not necessarily within the context of a bohemian movement but just because life presents itself with sexual opportunities. And there's nobody in your life saying, “No darling, you mustn’t go to bed with anyone or you won't get your PhD or you won't get into the best schools, or you won't have a future, you won't have a good job, you just have to postpone that.” That is the the mantra of the frightened parent that says that if we don't keep them pure, we'll lose everything, our future will become insecure.
I don't think it's everyone who's so bloody celibate. I just think that the upper class sets the tone and controls the media. It's like watching one of those television shows when I was a kid. I would think to myself, “How come all the parents on this show are married how come no one's divorced.” Of course, that's changed, you know what I mean, but it's a picture that isn't altogether real.
YN: Where are queers in relation to sex? Given the state of the current gay movement which is focused very much on gay marriage and on establishing the reasons why it deserves the same rights and proving to be capable of conjugal fidelity...
SB: [Laughs] Right, because that's so important. And proving themselves capable of adultery.
YN: Right, yes, now that we can get married, we can also be adulterous, how delightful. You talk in your book about the gay daddies who actually helped keep the publication going and also kept the spirit of that sexual revolution going. Where do you think queers are today in relation to notions of sexual freedom and expression and sex in general, given all of this?
SB: It's a more conservative group, certainly. It's been a very awkward position because it was so much gay artists, intellectuals, left-wingers, revolutionaries of all stripes who birthed the gay movement. We've always thought we would be setting the tone and when the marriage issues came up and the military issue came up, we were like, well, yes, certainly, it is an issue of fairness and civil rights, but honest to god, who wants to join the army anyway? I couldn’t believe that was going to get traction on that and boy, was I wrong. I feel passionate – I cry when I see those army vets who've been thrown out after years of service. I was so proud of San Francisco's City Hall when we started doing marriage and let the rest of the world go to hell. It's true on the most basic rights of a citizen – if you're really legal, and you could say the same thing about sex work - if you're really legal you should have all the rights, you should have access to law and order just like anyone else. It is absolutely a valid issue. If that, however, is the scope of it...some of my friends who are fighting these battles, like in the ACLU or in gay rights organizations: they have a hard enough job as it is but there have got to be other dimensions to what we're all about besides being victimized by second-class citizenship. And that is because the very notion of being queer raises issues about a sexual spectrum and a gender variety and a sexual variety that interests us as an entire species.
People really aren’t so black and white as we like to make out, we're not all gay or all straight. In some ways the gay movement has tried to shoehorn themselves into a nuclear family, straight-thinking square dichotomy. If you're going to be gay but you want to be square – here's what it looks like, it doesn't quite fit, but try to fit yourself into it anyway. It's like an ill-fitting pair of shoes, and it's an ill-fitting pair of shoes for everyone, including men and women who live with each other and have sex and get married. People are just a lot more unexpected than we like to make out, and what they want out of life and how they regard their sexual philosophy, how they see themselves as masculine and feminine and everything else outside of that: that territory is very real and the extent to which we ignore that and ignore critiques of Squaresville, we do so at our peril. I so wish that these laws would get passed, gay marriage and the gay military, if only because once it were done, there would be this fabulous moment where you'd say, now, now, can we talk about something else? Could we get out of the baby stages, because it's long overdue and this is absolutely wonderful and I've stayed up partying but now I want to move on?
YN: You write about your entanglements, especially during the time of On Our Backs, with lesbian separatists and anti-porn feminists.
SB: I'd give my eyeteeth to meet lesbian separatists today. Now, it seems so romantic...I’d be happy to be in a lesbian separatist commune at any moment, it sounds fabulous to me, you got to be the whipping girl of the entire feminist movement [who said], “Oh, yeah, those man-haters, it serves them right.” It was never like that, it was never the right-wing stereotype about man-hating . There was a lot of really awesome do-it-yourselfism, and independence and economic freedom and art and culture that came out of it, and not all of it was sexually puritanical. That was also a lie. It was a mixed bag. I'm still waiting to read the ultimate analysis of why it so spectacularly died out as a philosophy.
When I was in On Our Backs, it was so frustrating because we would do our magazine and we'd have women say, “Well, you shouldn't do this magazine because if a man sees it, we're ruined.” And I said, “No, we're not going to hide. I don't care if they see it, I want you to see it. And I want you to be in it and I want you to write for it.” And I said, “Do you see gay men hiding and worried that some straight woman is going to pick up their magazines? We need to be a lot braver about who we are and more confrontational.” That was a difficult and weird sectarian moment. There is no real lesbian separatist movement now and I'm sorry for it. I miss the separatists. I like having more variety in our political life. I just hate the sameness and only having two alternatives.
YN: Where do you think feminists are, especially the anti-porn feminists, in relation to sexual politics?
SB: There's a professional class of anti-porn campaigners, and it consists of evangelicals and certain feminist-background people who've made it their gig. And they lost a lot of points in the porn wars and so they've moved on to trafficking, and they've been rather successful at establishing this word and this meme which is filled with junk science and spurious claims. They've gotten to the point where anybody they disagree with for any reason is a trafficker. They have very conservative politics on migration and internationalism, and they have no class consciousness about sex work as work, they have no empathy or compassion for the labor issues of sex work, and they don't listen to anybody. They make a nice little penny off the government tit of sexual control to the extent that they've joined arms with certain NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and certain law and order elements.
If you tell the Attorney General that we're going to go after the traffickers, boy, you're going to make a lot of political hay out of it by saying, “They [the traffickers] are just a bunch of disgusting people anyway, they're worthless. And we'll find victims too, we'll find them all.” Okay, a few million dollars later, they really don't have the claims, they don't have the data, but it doesn't matter because it's trafficking, quote unquote, neon letters, flash, flash, flash. I get very excited about the international sex worker organizations, who will not let these positions go uncommented upon, who speak a little truth to the power.
When you talk about where they're at, it's funny because back in the old days, some of these anti-porn people posed as separatists [laughs]. It's hysterical, they are so in bed with the highly patriarchal government establishments to control women's lives, and with the patriarchy of the religious Christian Right, it's just absurd. I mean, that's who their financial and influential allies are.
Interview edited for conciseness. A version appeared in Windy City Times.