Interviews by Yasmin Nair in various publications.
An interview with Eric Stanley and Christ Vargas, the creators of the film Criminal Queers, can be found here:
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.”
E. Patrick Johnson is the author of Sweet Tea: An Oral History of Black Gay Men of the South, which consists largely of transcribed oral narratives. Johnson, the department chair of performance studies and a professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University, began researching the book in 2004. In October 2006, he began enacting solo performances and recreations of the narratives. The performances (called “Pouring Tea”) are now part of his current book tour. Windy City Times spoke to Johnson about his book; the accompanying performances and the lure of the South.
Windy City Times: In your introduction, you emphasize the fact that you didn”t approach this as a historian. How would you characterize the difference between your work and that of historians like John Howard [author of Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, about Mississippi gay history]?
E.Patrick Johnson: My book was meant to be a living archive of narratives of African-American gay men born and raised in the South. For me, it was important that it be an oral history, that it be about people essentially theorizing their own lives in the telling. In that way my approach was a little different from a historian’s approach. I wasn’t necessarily interested in it from a scholarly perspective, in analyzing what they said or imposing a certain theoretical frame onto what they said as much as I was interested in documenting narratives and letting the theories speak through what was said. The other difference between my book and other such histories of the South is that I do the entire South.
WCT: What were those theories?
EPJ: For instance, in the narrative of Chaz/Chastity (a transgender person in Hickory, N.C.) : the ways in which Chaz narrates her life is a theorizing about the performativity of gender in a way that’s understandable and based on life experience, and in a way that Judith Butler [the feminist theorist who’s written on the performativity of gender] can’t explain it [Laughs]. We don’t have to go to post-structuralist theory; we can go to Chaz. That’s not to belittle Judith Butler’s work, but just to say that it’s a different way of accessing the performativity of gender—in a way that my mother could understand, for instance.
WCT: In your discussions about the cultural norms of the South, you write about how the South has a way of holding on to secrets. As you put it, that’s a part of “Southern gentility.” But is it also about maintaining power structures?
EPJ: Absolutely, it’s about hostility as much as gentility. [Laughs] The phrase “governing with a steel fist in a velvet glove” [comes to mind]. The dominant discourse in much of the South is a religious discourse; it pervades every aspect of Southern life. So if one’s intention is to have it both ways—to maintain the veneer of religious piety yet be able to partake of the flesh—then one must not speak of those things that might go against the grain of the predominant religious discourse. So that’s why you have, particularly in the church—and not just the Black church of the South—all kinds of transgressions, all kinds of hypocrisy that transcend sexual orientation. There are just as many heterosexuals participating in that [kind of hypocrisy] .
[Southern gentility] is absolutely about maintaining and sustaining certain power structures. But that same power structure provides opportunities for sexual dissidents to use it to their own advantage....Some people might ask, why stay? Why not go to a club? That’s what’s specific to the South. Those of us who are Black and gay and Southern started going to the church in the womb [laughs]. It’s a part of our blood. And so when we come into our sexual consciousness, we can’t just chop [the church] off. Because at the same time that it’s oppressive, it’s also liberating. Because especially when you are a kid, the culture of many Black churches is such that you can be the worst singer, the worst whatever, but they’ll encourage you. That kind of encouragement, in the context of all the other religious stuff, is a part of who you are. That sustains you in ways that other sexual venues can’t sustain you.
Now, that’s not the experience of everyone in the book. But many, especially those who’ve decided to stay in the church, find ways to reconcile the homophobic rhetoric of the church with their spirituality and sexuality.
WCT: That brings me to a popular trope through which many people understand Black gay male men who are not “out”—as living with the “down low syndrome.” How do you prevent people reading Black gay men staying in the church and not being as out [from seeing] another manifestation of the down-low culture?
EPJ: First of all, the down-low terminology and discourse [are] old. People think it came about a couple of years ago with J. L. King [author of On the Down Low]. But it actually emerged around heterosexuality: “Keeping it down low” referred to various indiscretions. Secondly, for as many men in Sweet Teawho are discreet about their sexuality, there are just as many who are open. Many of the men in the church are also flamboyant. They use the rituals and performance aesthetics of the Black church to express their sexuality. So a flamboyant queen can still be that flamboyant queen while directing the choir because it’s expected of him to be over the top. That has nothing to do with the down-low and more to do with people knowing that this person is gay but still not saying anything about it. It’s not like a secret in the same way as men who do identify as being on the down-low.
WCT: The performances that are now a part of your book tour started in October 2006. Did you think about performing these narratives when you conceived the book?
EPJ: No. When I got deep into the research and started conducting the interviews, I realized: This has to be a play. [Laughs] Sitting down with these folks and hearing them tell their stories in their unique ways suggested to me that the immediacy of the telling had to be recaptured in a way that reading it on a page would not. So I decided, after I’d done more than half of these interviews, that I would put together a performance based on these narratives.
What I didn’t know [at the time] was whether I would cast the show or if I would do it [as a solo performance] . It became a [set of] intellectual questions for me: What would it be like for the researcher to stage his ethnographic material? What are the politics around that? So, I began to think about how to frame this performance in a way that also staged this encounter. I’m still thinking through the politics of all this, but one of the things I decided that I didn’t want the show to be was a kind of Anna Deavere Smith show, to “become” these people. But I also didn”t want it to be a bland reading.
So I decided that it would just be me on a stool, with a music stand and the text. But I also wanted the men to be present. I decided I would play excerpts of the men’s interviews so that the audience actually heard them speak in their own voices. And then go into the performance, but also keep within the performance the questions that I asked them, so that the audience is always aware that this is a dialogue between Patrick and whomever he’s interviewing. I’m a performer and I’m interested in the relationship between theory and practice.
WCT: In that context, what does it mean to perform [Pouring Tea] , especially to mixed or primarily white audiences that might expect the usual stereotypical narratives of pathos and sadness ascribed to Black gay men?
EPJ: [You can never] overdetermine how an audience is going to react, and so I try not to do that. [Laughs] But what I do try to do is be very deliberate in the choices that I make in a performance that at least [convey] to the audience that I have thought of [how I construct the performance]. For instance, it’s not a coincidence that you hear the voices of the men speak [before the performance starts]. It’s not a coincidence that I’m just sitting on a stool with a music stand. All those things are deliberate. But still, there’s no way I can anticipate how that performance reinforces certain stereotypical notions about blackness, about sexuality, about the South. Inevitably, there are going to be people who come to the show [thinking] that all these men are down on their luck.
And those men are represented in the performance, but there are also men who defy those stereotypes. I don’t think people who come to the show thinking that everybody in the South is religious is prepared to hear Freddie talk about leaving the church and about how he couldn”t stay in the church and listen to homophobia. They are not prepared to hear from people like Duncan Teague who critiques heterosexuality and [talks] about comforting a straight man whose wife has left him, and about how he [Duncan] can go home to his lover of eleven years.
It’s tricky when you are performing this kind of material, but I think the risks involved in performing it are worth the cultural and social engagement that the performance produces.
WCT: How have the book and the performance shifted for you since the publication of the book?
EPJ: The book is what it is. But the performance is its own thing; it continues to morph; [it] gives the audience a three-dimensional perspective on the men in a way that the book doesn’t. The book is heavily edited…There are certain freedoms that I can have with the performances that I can”t have with the book. The performance keeps morphing and narrators are coming in and out; I don’t do all the same ones every time. Both the book and the performance have a life of their own.
WCT: Sweet Tea is mostly about men who don’t want to leave the South, but there are some who do leave. What pushes them to leave?
EPJ: I write about my own journey out of the South in the introduction: That even though I may leave it, it will never leave me. [Laughs] and I think thats true for even those who reject the ‘south and leave it behind. The South doesn”t leave them.
[And] then you have people who left because they felt too confined, wanted to experience queer culture with a capital “Q.”...There are some who feel, “I will never go back there because I don’t feel free.” They don’t want to participate in that passive aggression. They want to be in a place that allows them to be explicitly gay and not have to get shrouded in codes.
Joe Solmonese, executive director of Human Rights Campaign (HRC) , frequently finds himself in the eye of the LGBT political storm. In recent years, criticism of the nation’s largest gay organization has increased, whether for what many described as the betrayal over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) or its rumored agnosticism over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). The organization recently unveiled a nationwide campaign, No Excuses, which aims to empower LGBTs everywhere to talk to their members of Congress about the issues facing them. Solmonese talked to Windy City Timesover the phone about the campaign, and about a range of legislative and political issues.
Windy City Times: How would you explain the No Excuses campaign?
Joe Solmonese: We have a president who is poised to sign into law everything that we have been fighting for. We have many more allies in Congress that we’ve had before, we need more help from the grassroots, we need people out across the country doing work to bring [our] legislative items to the finish line. We reached out to our membership and to LGBT people across the country. We asked them to go into the office of their member of Congress’ offices, in their district—reminding them that they are, in fact, their constituents—and tell their story.
WCT: Is this HRC changing tactics in the face of the anger felt by people around [the anti-same-sex marriage measure] Prop 8 and, more recently, in response to widespread LGBT frustration with Obama?
JS: What has changed is not HRC’s tactic. What has changed is the dynamic of Congress in that the potential is there, but we’re finding far too many excuses for them not to do things.
WCT: How would someone who goes to the HRC Web site find resources above and beyond HRC’s FAQs? How is this different from similar campaigns by other organizations?
JS: You might be someone who lives in Boise, Idaho and live in a very challenging place, with many challenging members of Congress, without many HRC members around you. We’ve had training conference calls; we’re having all sorts of interactive things going on with our membership so that you can be as armed as you can possibly be. You might live in a Congressional district where the member of Congress is scoring 65 or 75 on HRC’s scorecard. And there’s real work to be done to move that member from a 75 to a 100. In that case, it’s very likely that the volunteer infrastructure or staff member would organize an in-district meeting, something almost akin to a town-hall meeting where we would bring all people in for a meeting with that member of Congress.
WCT: ENDA is looming once again. As you know, HRC still comes under a lot of criticism for the last time, with many in the community using strong language like “betrayal,” What guarantee can HRC give that the same thing will not happen this time around?
JS: Well, it’s the same guarantee that we gave when it happened. We understood, the last time around, that Congress was going to build support for this legislation and they used a time under a president who wouldn’t sign that legislation to build that support. So when Congress brought a bill to the floor that they felt was not all that we wanted it to be but it was something that they felt they could build on, we supported that idea. Every other piece of civil-rights legislation, things like the Family and Medical Leave Act [and] the American Disabilities Act; those were pieces of legislation that were built over years.
WCT: Are you saying that if the same thing were to happen, HRC would do the same thing?
JS: No, because now what has changed is that we have a president who will sign that law. So the consequences are different. Our commitment is now that no legislation will be signed into law that is not inclusive. And that is because we laid down that legislation, a painful process that we went through to build on it, but we have done that work. We believe that we have done a significant amount of work to close that gap and stand poised to pass fully inclusive legislation. But if we are not there, if we are not where we need to be, then that bill will not move.
WCT: And you’re not saying that HRC is entirely responsible for ENDA?
JS: I can only say what HRC’s position is.
WCT: Which brings me to the perception that HRC does not set an agenda as much as it moves along pieces of legislation that it thinks it can win. For instance, with DADT, as you know very well, both Jason Bellini and Nathaniel Frank have asserted that HRC had no interest, at least in the beginning, in DADT.
JS: First of all, Jason Bellini lied about almost everything he wrote and he is trying to make a name for himself as a journalist. And Nathaniel Frank was completely wrong about what he said. And there is nobody, which I find fascinating, in the administration or in Congress who has backed up the assertion that they have made that we have in any way said that Congress or the White House should wait or hold off on DADT.
But the notion that the largest LGBT organization in the country would, in any way, not be doing everything possible to try to overturn DADT is absurd. There is no DADT bill in the Senate right now, so common sense would dictate that it’s very likely that hate crimes would pass before DADT. I’ve got a news flash for people like Nathaniel Frank: There are many other issues like the overturning of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] , and there has not been a bill overturning DOMA in the Senate, either. I think it would be a much more productive undertaking if people all got about the business of lobbying members of Congress and getting them to support legislation, rather than looking for someone to blame someone for the fact that it’s not far along as it should be.
WCT: Can you tell me about a specific instance where HRC spoke to a member of Congress about DADT?
JS: You could speak to our legislative staff and they could point you to a meeting almost on a weekly basis. You have to remember that up until 2006, when you were talking to members of Congress, oftentimes you were talking in the abstract.
WCT: Regarding politics in general: Steve Ault’s recent Washington Blade article questioned why we should fight for things like DADT and marriage which, he suggests, are conservative issues. As you know, though you talked about the last eight years, HRC has also been criticized for its own conservatism.
JS: It’s sort of laughable that we are called right-wing or conservative. You know, we advocate for real LGBT people who are living their lives across America. For instance, there is a tax that same-sex couples pay in order to access same-sex domestic partnership benefits that straight people do not have to pay. So we are advocating to have that tax removed.
WCT: But about health care: Being married isn’t going to help if you don’t have health care. There’s also a criticism of hate-crimes legislation, which HRC advocates, that it’s similarly conservative and heightens the criminalization of mostly poor people of color.
JS: The hate-crimes legislation was borne out of a real-life need that has been and continues to be expressed by local law enforcement as a need for them to—or for them to call on federal authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
WCT: Do we focus on criminal penalties or community education?
JS: I would say both. I think if you were to ask Judy Shepard or me for that matter, [we would say that] community education and the work of bringing down the instances of hate crimes do not end.
WCT: So I’ll assume you are in favor of penalty enhancement?
WCT: And that you’re not in favor of prison abolition, the position of groups like the Audre Lorde Project.
WCT: What’s the next step for HRC, your next projects?
JS: We are continuing to do the work we’ve done in expanding on our foundation, whether it’s our religion and faith program, and using our religion and faith counsel to push back on religion-based bigotry, or expanding on programs like our corporate equality index. We’re also launching our health care index, where we’re going to be weighing in on hospital settings and the job they’re doing for LGBT people.
WCT: Can you talk a little more about health care and hospitals?
JS: It’s the same model as the corporate equality index, but for hospitals. We basically have gone to hospitals and said: “We’re going to be rating you and the job that you’re doing in providing health care and a welcoming and equitable environment for your LGBT patients. And so we started similarly by talking to hospitals, by coming up with a set of criteria by which we would measure them and we have begun that process and you might imagine that like corporate America, it’s really changing the way America’s health care settings are responding. You can look at the first report; it’s actually on our Web site.
WCT: Can you point out one kind of legislative agenda that HRC has initiated entirely on its own?
JS: I would say we have really led the legislative agenda and have taken the leadership role in most legislative efforts. Going back to the very beginning, of crafting the hate-crimes bill or the more specific things like the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act or eliminating the tax on [domestic-partnership] benefits. I wouldn’t say we singularly did all this, but certainly led the drive on them.
WCT: You have also been criticized for endorsing Republicans. Do you define yourself ideologically? That seems to be a question for many organizations these days.
JS: I think that we have a responsibility to ensure that we are bringing as many members of Congress to a place of being supportive of LGBT issues as possible, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on. To say that we are a Democratic organization and to dismiss the idea that there is any hope of bringing Republicans around LGBT issues would be short-sighted. It may seem that today with Democrats having such big margins in both chambers, that it might be safe to do that. But our job is to ensure that we have the greatest number of LGBT-supportive members of Congress as possible.
WCT: Regardless of their political orientation?
JS: Regardless of their political orientation.
See www.hrc.org .
RESPONSE FROM JASON BELLINI:
I find it disgusting and desperate that Joe Solmonese would attack my reputation as a journalist, and use the word “lies” to describe my reporting on the actions of his organization. Everything that I reported is 100 percent true, and backed up by Senate sources with direct knowledge on this matter. Since my report came out, others have come forward with corroborating details. I’ve never had an axe to grind with Joe Solmonese or the HRC, and I would never risk my reputation as a journalist to “make a name for myself” on a single story, as Solmonese suggested in your article. What would be my motivation to make up “lies”? The people who know my work know just how careful, and devoted to accuracy I am.
We should expect more from our leaders than ad hominem attacks. I’m sorry if HRC’s fund raising is suffering as a result of the reporting by myself and others. One of the jobs of the media is to let people know how their donations are being spent, and one of those ways, earlier this year, was in lobbying to discourage members of Congress from pursuing DADT.
Any questions about the quality of my sources should have been cleared up by the news I’ve broken exclusively in The Daily Beast since that HRC report. I was the first to break the news that Senator Gillibrand was pushing, behind the scenes, an amendment to suspend DADT for 18 months, and then that the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to hold hearings on DADT in the fall.
I never intended for this to be about me, but I won’t let words like those used by Joe Solomonese (with whom I had a friendly relationship with before all this) go unanswered. Joe, please knock off this hateful nonsense.
Nathaniel Frank’s new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (Thomas Dunne, $25.95) , considers the effects of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. In the wake of an Obama administration, the LGBT community has been buzzing with the possibility of repealing the ban. Frank, who is optimistic about the end of the legislation, spoke by phone to Windy City Times about his project.
Windy City Times: You write that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) activism began around 1992-1993. Given that the AIDS crisis was still a concern for the gay community at that time, how did DADT become an issue?
Nathaniel Frank: That’s a great question. As you say, there was a much greater emphasis on the AIDS crisis in the early ’90s. The queer population had not been as sympathetic to this particular issue because of the tradition of queer activism that’s left-wing or pacifistic or anti-militaristic. I think it became a movement first, because it seemed easy. I think [President Bill] Clinton thought it could be easy and the gay movement thought, “Well, let’s start with this, and get that out of the way, because that’s a no-brainer.”
Female gay activists who were either in or had friends in the military recognized that even while some of the queer left was not warm to this issue, this was a matter of careers and lives being wrecked because of those for whom the military was always important. And then there were some of the newer people who came to the movement, who didn’t have the experience or orientation of the queer left, who thought, “this is winnable, this is easy.” All the stars seemed to align to make this a logical, easy step.
WCT: You mention the queer left. Given the widespread queer and straight opposition to these current wars, why should those who are opposed to war care about the lifting of the ban ?
NF: I’ve always had trouble understanding the position of what you might call strict pacifists. I’ve always thought our country needs a military. I think that needs to be separated from anger with and opposition to the particular militaristic history of the U.S. t certain points. You can oppose [all the prior and ongoing wars] and not necessarily think the country doesn’t need a military. As long as there is a military, the military should treat everyone who’s in an equivalent position equitably. You have to remember that this is not about whether gays can serve in the military but whether we admit that there already are gays in the military. How do you treat the 65,000 gay and lesbian members who are in uniform? What I try to do is show the hidden costs to those lives.
WCT: You write, “the gay ban is no less than the stalling of the march toward Enlightenment. The last three centuries of Western civilization have celebrated the ideals of freedom, truth, reason, and self-understanding. In the United States we often consider ourselves to be a world beacon for these efforts.” What’s the relationship between the agenda of DADT and this ideal of American global governance?
NF: That’s a great question. There is certainly a relationship between the ideal of gay rights [that] rests, among other things, on a notion very consistent with the best and earliest ideals of America, which was that bloodlines and heritage and race and tribe don”t need to separate us but can unite us. And gay Americans and gay families do that in sometimes very unique ways that buck the trend of world history, if you don’t mind me putting it that grandly. And so the ideal of the Enlightenment, that freedom comes through knowledge, self-understanding, self-governance, power—these are concepts that are very dear to what the gay-rights movement has sought to do over the past half-century in particular. Now, when I talk of Enlightenment ideals: there is also a connection between Enlightenment and Imperialism, and I’m not trying to endorse imperialism. It may be a slippery slope, but it’s always been one of the very self-conscious challenges of America, to do good in the world without going the way of other republics that have become damaging empires.
WCT: You seem to posit the gay soldier as separate from race and class issues. In a chapter that looks at how the army is discharging gays and filling its ranks with ex-convicts, you give the example of Private Steven Green, who shot and raped Abeer Qasim Hamza, a young Iraqi woman. You point out that Green was a “high school dropout with three misdemeanor convictions and history of drug abuse.” But ex-convicts could just as easily be gay, and we do hear stories about man-on-man brutality in Iraq.
NF: Sure. That’s exactly the issue. We certainly don’t know who’s gay on an empirical level. I’ve no way of knowing if people in that category are gay or not; I would argue that it doesn’t matter. What I am suggesting in those cases is that to take as a classification people who have a trait [gayness] that has been proven to have nothing to do with capacity for military performance and then ban those people because of the prejudice or discomfort of some other group in the military, is unwise policy. And next to that is a policy that, partly in order to fill those very slots, takes a group of people who statistically are at higher risk of causing disruptions or leaving the military early. I feel that those who have served their time deserve a second chance. Nowhere do I suggest that those who are ex-convicts in the military are straight or are not gay. It’s a question of risk assessment and an unwise application of risk assessment.
WCT: You write about the Tailhook scandal and the harassment of lesbians at West Point. We are always reading about instances of brutality and harassment in the military. So why would anyone want to join the army?
NF: That goes back to what I said earlier about the queer left. At times the queer left has tried to hold hostage issues like this one … in order to forward a particular agenda that shouldn’t be tethered to queerness. There are a huge number of Americans, often between the coasts, who have different politics than the queer left, who join the military because it’s a tradition, because their parents and grandparents were in it, because of benefits and education. A strict pacifist will say, “I don’t support that because I don”t want to endorse or perpetuate a scenario where in order for people to follow tradition or gain education, they need to carry a gun and kill people.” That sounds nice initially, but that’s not realistic.
WCT: But this [criticism] is not only from strict pacifists. And when you point to the two coasts—that’s a stark contrast that allows for certain arguments to be made, but it also relies on an idealized notion, does it not, of what Middle America wants? And that idealization of the Middle American is exactly what you very rightly critique in the book, when you point out how that figure is manipulatively evoked as an example of someone who might dislike having gays at close quarters.
NF: I wouldn’t agree that I am referring to the military in an idealized way. This is an age-old debate about whether change is best brought about from the inside or the outside. The idea that we can simply not join something and hope that what that institution is doing will stop—I don’t think that’s the way to do it. This is an important institution in American life.
WCT: You mention that NGLTF [the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force] was part of the consortium of groups that first wanted the ban lifted. Most people assume that HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] was the driving force.
NF: They haven’t [been that] , actually. They will say that they favor a repeal but they have not devoted as much time to this as ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and hate crimes. I have found their silence somewhat surprising. Congressional staff members have told me that it’s very important to them to have HRC on board.
WCT: Why do you think HRC has been silent?
NF: I don’t pretend to know the way the big groups operate. All I can guess is that they prioritize those laws and policies they think are most likely to move first or easiest and/or reflect their constituents.
WCT: You position the religious right against gay Americans. There’s always a presumption that the queer agenda is inherently oppositional to the norm, but in fact DADT is about the war, and about preserving America’s role. Is it time to acknowledge that the queer agenda is not necessarily always a left agenda?
NF: Right. Historically, the queer agenda has been at odds with the Religious Right, not with religion itself. The Religious Right has been a socially conservative movement that has been intolerant of queers. It’s important to acknowledge that queerness is not the same as leftness. We tend to be leftish. That suits me, but it doesn’t suit everyone. It’s a reminder that [DADT] is not just about the war. It drew a lot of people to it because it’s about what American citizenship means. And part of that is refracted through the question of what it means to be a warrior, to defend America. And even for those who are not warriors, it asks, “What does it mean to be an American and what does it mean that so many people have tried to define gay people as somehow not first-class American citizens?” So it’s larger than war.
Kage Alan’s latest book, Andy Stevenson vs. The Lord of the Loins (Zumaya Boundless; $14.99) —a sequel to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Sexual Orientation—is an adroitly written and funny tale about the perennially bemused Andy Stevenson, a gay college student who struggles with the semester’s assignments as he looks for love. His sexual encounter with fellow student Tristan leads to heartbreak. And then, with his best friends, Kim and Ryan, he plots Tristan’s downfall. Windy City Times spoke to Alan.
Windy City Times: Is Andy based on you? And why did you write a sequel about him?
Kage Alan:I’m not Andy and Andy’s not me, and yet he came out of my experiences. In the first book, he’s almost an idealized version of how people think somebody gay might be at certain times when they don’t know who they are. There, the character came to terms with his sexuality, so, as an author, what do you after that? You try to find a relationship with someone compatible. I had a lot more to say about the character in the second book, which was about relationships, about finding something you don’t want, thinking you do and then finding what you do want and realizing the difference between the two. The first one comes back to bite him in the ass.
WCT: Your book is filled with banter but it doesn’t seem gratingly artificial. How do you write dialogue so that it’s fresh and funny?
KA: The dialogue is usually the first thing that gets done. I hate going in and adding description because I think I’m terrible at it. I base the dialogue on the importance of the scene, what I’m trying to convey with it, and on the dialogue I have with my own friends. A lot of the way my friends and I talk is exactly the way we will talk to each other. And we do have a lot of banter back and forth. So it’s taking the best of the banter.
WCT: I’d like to talk about one scene in particular without giving it away—the pivotal one between Tristan and Andy. It’s very funny, but it’s also about something possibly traumatic.
KA: That was the one scene in the book that I rewrote the most. It felt too harsh too often. And I wanted to leave it as open-ended as possible. I see it as: Andy was there in the moment, he was questioning it, but he wasn’t really allowed to fully explore the questions before the event happened. In my mind, if he had really, really wanted to go, he would have gone. He knew something wasn’t right. But he went through it anyway because he thought it was what he wanted. But that was the one scene I struggled with the most. [I wanted] to make it seem like he didn’t want to be there but he went through it anyway and was ultimately overpowered by the whole sensation—which is why I injected a bit more humor into it.
WCT: Another pivotal scene takes place in a bathhouse, and it’s Andy’s first time in one. He’s monogamous and his sexual life seems quite different from that of earlier generations, when gay men’s first experiences might have been in bathhouses. And then he has a conversation with one of the regulars who explains what some might like about bathhouse culture. Was that a deliberate attempt to talk about different sexual politics?
KA: It was deliberate. When I put the bathhouse scene in, I thought, there’s got to be a point to this. He’s got to balance his ideas. What does it mean to him? How can he express that? So he has a conversation with someone else who says, “We can argue the morality but this is what it used for, this is what it means to people.” And then he throws it back to Andy by asking, in essence, what does this mean to you? If it doesn’t mean any of these things, why are you here?
I was trying to show two sides of the story there. Tristan exemplifies the stereotype: fun, free, do whatever you want. Andy sees that and he knows from his first love Jordan that it doesn’t have to be like that. And he doesn’t like it when Tristan uses him, and doesn’t want to make that mistake again. I think he goes against the stereotype because people do think that all gays go and have sex the first time.
Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley is one of the many candidates running for Rahm Emmanuel’s seat in Congress. He recently spoke to Windy City Times about his views on gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, the environment (one of his pet issues) and his thoughts about a school for LGBTQ youth.
Windy City Times: What’s your opinion on same-sex marriage?
Mike Quigley: I’m in favor of it because I don’t think a government should be able to tell people who they can love and how to express it. From a purely equality point of view, there are thousands of rights that derive from marriage and I think it’s abhorrent to deny people their rights. I was the author and sponsor of the domestic partnership registry, which is as close as a state law as we could get in Cook County.
WCT: What is your stand on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
MQ: I don’t understand why we’re so fascinated with this. I don’t understand why someone’s orientation affects their ability to serve their country. Obviously, there are thousands of [LGBT] members who are serving in the military and I think it’s abusive that we somehow discriminate against someone who is willing to serve their country. I think Barry Goldwater’s the one who said, “Just because you aren’t straight doesn’t mean you can’t shoot straight.” The Israeli army doesn’t seem to have a problem with this, and they’re a pretty crack outfit.
WCT: What is your stand on adding sexual orientation to hate crimes legislation?
MQ: I helped draft various forms of hate crimes legislation in the past and I think, overall, it needs to be strengthened at the federal level. I just think there are just too many homophobes out there in Congress that probably think it’s okay for someone to be beaten or hurt and have that exacerbated because it’s a hate crime.
WCT: Progressive organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and the American Friends Service Committee are critical of hate crimes legislation, especially with regard to penalty enhancement. They feel that these laws only increase the rates of incarceration, especially among the poor and minorities. What’s your view about that?
MQ: I guess I don’t understand it. A hate crime is a hate crime. I think prisons are too filled with people who are drug users. If you want to reduce the prison population, you should start with people who have addictions and they should be diverted to treatment rather than incarceration. We criminalize the mentally ill. But I think that if someone commits a hate crime, they’re dangerous and I have no problems increasing their penalties.
WCT: What do you think of the idea that hate-crimes legislation punishes thought and not actions?
MQ: I guess I still don’t get it. If your statement about what they say is their point, that we’re overcrowding prisons, I think we’re overcrowding prisons through different actions, through drugs and mental illness. I don’t have a problem increasing penalties for hate crimes.
WCT: What do you think about the idea of an LGBTQ school?
MQ: I understand that there’s some difference of opinion within the GBLT community. My attitude is: I’m in favor of this high school if the community thinks it’s a helpful, good idea. I understand the incidents and issues as it relates to the teenage kids who are discriminated against. In the end, however they want to sort this out—in favor of or against—I’d support it. My inclination is to be in favor of the school if it helps.
WCT: What about increasing anti-bullying measures?
MQ: I favor that as it relates to all issues, [LGBT] students. Bullying is a real serious problem across the board. I favor doing what we need to do in order to reduce and eliminate that problem in our schools. I know very few people who weren’t bullied at one point or another; it has a long-lasting impact on many people.
WCT: What would you do about the perception of Illinois as mired in corruption?
MQ: First you act like a responsible elected official. You act as an example. Second, and a lot of this is what I’ve done: Increase transparency and accountability. We put all the property tax appeals and their results, and the attorneys of record online. We moved to make the TIF (tax-increment funding) process more open and accountable. We also passed the Cook County Inspector General Ordinance, giving the Inspector General more power, more autonomy, and more resources. That sort of thing has to happen at the local, state, and federal levels. The interesint thing is: The President is talking about the very same thing. He talked about the first bailout package, that it lacked transparency. A wise man once said, “Illumination is the best disinfectant of government.” So my short answer is: Illumination, open, transparent government.”
WCT: Could you talk about your issues with Sara Feigenholtz?
MQ: In the end, I think it’s pretty obvious Sara did a negative poll accusing people of real negative stuff. And I’m not sure if Fritchey did it or didn’t do it. I think in the end what the public wants is for someone to acknowledge it. If you did it, and you think it was okay—say so. If you did something that, upon reflection, you thought was a mistake, you say so. I think we all move on. Comparisons are one thing. You can say, “Look, I voted against taxes, he voted for taxes”: That’s fair game. But the sort of hidden, behind-the-scenes last-minute negative attacks—I hope we refrain from doing that and let this be a clean campaign at a time when the public is desperate for a cleaner game of politics.
WCT: What differentiates you from Rahm Emanuel?
MQ: I’d be more focused on transit, on local politics. I think Rahm is really partisan. He’s very involved in national politics to elect core Democrats; he can destroy Republicans. I would seek more bipartisan efforts to get us to the problems we face.
WCT: Is there a particular issue that you’re keen to work on?
MQ: I got into this business because of the environment. The environment does touch all the other issues as well. For example, energy. If we’re able to reduce our energy consumption and become more sustainable, look at everything else it touches. It reduces health care costs by reducing air pollution and global warming. It reduces dependence on foreign oil, it helps with national security issues and it drives down the cost of our energy which saves money and helps the economy. I’ve probably passed a dozen major ordinances dealing with the environment, from smoke-free Chicago to green buildings to green fleets of cars, to mandatory recycling, green practices. The issue affects not just us but our kids and our grandkids and every other aspect of our lives.
WCT: Anything you want to add for our readers?
MQ: Being close to the [LGBT] community has been a way of life for me, and not just a campaign I just started. I helped start the Halsted street festival. My first job was working with the Broadway merchants. I passed four major ordinances [for] the community. I did the first annual AIDS ride, from the Twin Cities to Chicago, before I ever ran as a candidate for anything. I played hockey in the Gay Games. I haven’t missed a parade since 1982, when I was just a citizen. For me it’s a way of life, not a campaign practice. I think that’s someone you could trust to be with you no matter what.
Democrat John Fritchey is currently the 11th District State Representative. He’s also among the many candidates seeking to fill Rahm Emanuel’s recently vacated seat in Illinois’s Fifth Congressional District. Fritchey has a reputation as a progressive and is backed by a number of labor unions. He spoke to Windy City Times about his views on gay marriage, DADT, hate crimes legislation and his stand on labor-related issues. The primary will take place on March 3 and the general election on April 7.
Windy City Times: What are your views on gay marriage?
John Fritchey: Since long before I was in the legislature, and the 12 years I have been a state representative, I have been supportive of equal rights across the board regardless of consideration of sexual orientation, race, gender [and] age.
WCT: But would you support a state or federal law that legalized gay marriage?
JF: I’m more concerned with the rights that come with the institution than with the institution itself. Accordingly, I support the idea that each and every right that’s extended to every couple by virtue of the institution of marriage be extended to same-sex couples as well. I don’t care what government or anybody else wants to call it. I think at the end of the day what I want to do is make sure is that we recognize the institution for everybody.
WCT: What about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
JF: It was a terrible idea whose time not only has come but whose time never existed.
WCT: What are your views on hate-crimes legislation?
JF: I have been a co-sponsor of, I believe, every piece of legislation strengthening penalties and extending coverage of hate crimes since I’ve been in office and I will continue to do so.
WCT: Progressive organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and the American Friends Service Committee are critical of hate-crimes legislation, especially with regard to penalty enhancement. They feel that these laws only increase the rates of incarceration, especially among the poor and minorities.
JF: I’m aware of their position on the issue. In a perfect world, there would be no hate crimes so there would be no legislation punishing hate crimes. But we, of course, don’t live in a perfect world and, until such time as we do, I believe we need to take significant action against repugnant behavior.
WCT: What ideas do you have for prevention of hate violence?
JF: I think that the best defense is a good offense, and the best offense will come through education.
Obviously, we need to work on educating our adult community but a long-term solution rests on educating children. The beautiful thing about children is they are inherently free of biases, be it based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. Prejudice is taught and learned. Tolerance should be as well.
WCT: Can you speak more specifically about what that education looks like?
JF: When I talk about education, I don’t mean only within a child’s school, but also within their homes, their family and their community. These prejudices have been passed down from generation to generation. There’s some very direct parallel between hate crimes aimed towards the LGBT community and those that we saw aimed at African Americans and other minorities in the past. What we need is structural social change.
WCT: In relation to that, what are your views on the plan for an LGBTQ high school?
JF: I have certain reservations only because it strikes me as having the potential to segregate communities rather than integrate them. I would rather see LGBTQ curricula incorporated as part of traditional learning. By that I mean options to study issues on particular importance to the community, and discussions on tolerance for all children. My concern is that having a school of that nature, as well-intended as it may be, may serve to be a refuge rather than an institution for enlightenment. The idea is to tear down walls, not to build new ones.
WCT: What are your views on passing anti-bullying measures?
JF: I’ve sponsored legislation in the past regarding bullying issues in the classroom. Bullying tends to be the building block for hate crimes down the road. I don’t just blame the child that engages in the bullying activity; I blame the society that taught him to do that.
WCT: There has been some controversy regarding Sara Feigenholtz’s polling strategies.
JF: I did not get in this race to run against anybody. I got in this race to run for an office. Yet, days after I was in the race, Sara had put out a poll alleging, among other things, that I was running my campaign out of a taxpayer-funded district office. That was wholly untrue, which her campaign either knew or should have known. It set a very unfortunate tone. I think the responsible thing would have been for Sara to acknowledge that they had done it, and that it was a mistake and move on. Yet to this day, she won’t do something as fundamental as accept responsibility for a poll that everybody knows was hers. That sets a troubling tone not just for the campaign but for a lack of transparency in how she operates. It was an avoidable situation.
WCT: The issue of transparency brings me to the question of Illinois having become known as a bastion of corruption. How would you remedy that perception and even the reality?
JF: I have sponsored more ethics reform legislation than any legislator in Illinois; over two dozen pieces of legislation in the last decade. I was the author of legislation that was at the core of the condition of George Ryan. Most recently, I sponsored the law banning pay to play politics in Illinois. I’ve been a steadfast believer that all government, including state government, belongs to the people and should be treated as such.
WCT: How do you differentiate yourself from Rahm Emanuel?
JF: Rahm has a very contentious style, which works very well for him. Because of my background, I’m inclined to work with individuals and groups across the spectrum. Everybody finds a style that works best for them: That’s the style that works best for me.
WCT: You’ve been endorsed by a number of labor unions. Can you speak about the connection between labor issues and social and cultural issues, especially in the context of this economy?
JF: I have a 97 percent lifetime labor record and I’m proud to have the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Standing up for working men and women means more than just supporting more jobs in a better economy. It means supporting a healthy and viable workplace for those men and women. So whether it’s a living wage, access to health care or a workplace tolerant of workers’ natural languages—the issue of standing up for workers’ rights is a broad one. Advocating for more jobs is simply one part of that.
WCT: What are your views on the stimulus package?
JF: There’s no question that a stimulus package was needed and it will have lasting benefits not only in terms of the physical changes it will bring to our city and state but in the lives of the men and women that will bring those changes about. We are about to invest dramatically in everything from physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges to human infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. This will change life not just for us but for generations to come.
WCT: Any parting thoughts?
JF: Ordinarily candidates run on campaign promises about what they are going to do. I’m running my campaign showing people what I’ve done. I’m confident that when people look at my record, they’re going to like what they see. Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.
Nikki Patin is a Chicago-born performance artist and activist, who has appeared on HBO’s Def Jam. Her work combines burlesque, spoken word and music to address the themes of body image, race and class. Patin will be touring New Zealand and Australia from the end of February through April, and is hosting a series of fundraisers in town to pay for the upcoming trip. She will be signing copies of her book “The Phat Grrrl Diaries” at these events. Windy City Times spoke to Patin.
Windy City Times: Could you talk about your work and its combination of elements like burlesque and spoken word?
Nikki Patin: Body image has been the major focus of my work. I’m a bigger girl, and to do burlesque in a bigger body is really political for a lot of people. My show is about a broader range of body image, not just in terms of size but in terms of skin color, class, religion, ancestry, ethnicity, nationality. It’s about how body image can impact action and how action can impact image. You don’t have to exist within a narrow range of expectations. I’m a big girl and I’m a big fan of Prince, pop culture and erotic literature so it’s a combination of my love for the poppy, dance-y side of life, but also my acknowledgment of reality and how I see the world.
WCT: What do you mean by the political aspect of the work?
NP: I reveal a lot of flesh, for someone with a body type that most people would cover up. For me, as a bigger girl, one of my biggest fears was being naked in front of people. To conquer that is really powerful, for me personally. For other people who see that, it’s something brave and bold. That wasn’t a reaction I anticipated. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I think they like the honesty of it.
WCT: There’s been a lot of cultural discourse around the concept of phat/fat bodies, over the last decade or so. That has emerged both from performance artists like Nomy Lamm but also in the more conventionally “popular” culture works of people like Monique. Has the moment when fat/phat bodies were a subject of cultural production and discourse largely disappeared or become something else?
NP: Maybe it has. For me, I think of balance. I just don’t see many bigger women out there. Typically, I’m the biggest person in the room in whatever show I perform in. What’s problematic is that we’re perceiving fatness as a specific genre of performance. In actuality, if the oppression around it didn’t exist, it would just be woven in. Just like anything else. We have a balance of men and women, blacks and whites, Christian and Muslim performers—they’re woven into the texture of performance because we’re looking at the story of humanity. I don’t think issues around fatness/phatness and body are past their time because I don’t see many fat people who feel like they have agency or access to the stage. For me, performatively, that means there’s something missing.
WCT: In terms of your New Zealand/Australia tour, do you think that the concept of body image and related issues will translate in the same way? Those would seem to operate in a culturally specific way in the United States.
NP: I’ve been thinking about that this past month, especially because there are a lot of cultural references to being Black, and to being queer and a lot of Chicago references. I’ve settled on not really having any expectations about it, and thinking about it just in terms of presenting my story. It just so happens that these issues have framed my existence. I speak to that. I’m really blessed to have sixty minute shows on the tour. That’s a nice amount of time to get to know an audience and for them to know me. I’m pretty excited about it.
WCT: What are you most excited about, in terms of this tour?
NP: I’m looking forward to growing more comfortable on stage and growing up as a person. And the experience of traveling alone, and seeing what life is really like in another part of the world.
Susan Hahn is a Chicago-based poet and playwright, and the editor of TriQuarterly Magazine. Her latest collection of poems is titled The Note She Left, and it follows The Scarlet Ibis, published in 2007. Windy City Times spoke with Hahn over the phone.
Windy City Times: Could you talk about The Scarlet Ibis and The Note She Left—what they might have in common and how they differ?
Susan Hahn: I had never intended to write The Scaret Ibis. I was on a fellowship for an entire year, and when I applied, I put in my application that I wanted to write a book entitled Self/Pity. I finished [that] book at the end of November; I had these months ahead of me and I always knew the next book would be entitled The Note She Left. I finished that in February of 2004 and I had till the following September to write.
I had these two beautiful photography books, The Earth from Aboveand The Earth from Above for Children. In the children’s version is a picture of all these scarlet ibises in flight, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I didn’t know anything about scarlet ibises or birds. And I was so captivated by the picture. … It brought me real peace of mind. The more I researched it, the more I fell in love with the bird. The Scarlet Ibisis a really personal book about disease, beauty and messages that we should pay attention to.
Then I thought of illness and disappearance. The Note She Leftis more of a traditional book. Because of the title, I decided that it should be published after The Scarlet Ibisbecause it’s completely different. I mean, both are about departure [and] both are about extinction and disappearance, but they’re very different pieces of work. The Note She Left got ignored in the shuffle, and that was one of the reasons I decided to give a reading at Women and Children First when I was invited, because I need to pay attention to this book.
I decided if you have a title like The Note She Left, it can’t be: whine, whine. whine. You have to step out of yourself and get a perspective of not only private history but public history. It just seemed, for me, that I had to step out of myself and look at the world. There is some personal detail in the book— [but] it was important for me to look at the world in a historical way. I used “The Bells” and “The Crosses” [the first two sections of the book] to do that. I do that in “Widdershins” [the third section] too.
I had never heard the word “widdershins” before. I came across it in an essay, and immediately looked it up. I fell in love with the word because it means going against the nature of things. And once you start going against the nature of things, well, what’s the end of that? It’s witchcraft. So [laughs] , I was able to read a lot about witchcraft.
The Note She Leftis about this woman who, in her mind has tried everything to get some peace. But nothing seems to work. So [in] “Widdershins,” she [decides to try Orrisroot]. It’s about somebody trying to get some answers as to why things are why they are. But nothing seems to quite work.
WCT: You write about a near-death experience in “The Bells: IX,” about an aneurysm. Is that related to a personal experience?
SH:That poem isn’t the voice of me, but it worked within the poem. … I do have trouble with my hearing—that led to the writing of “The Bells,” because I was always hearing this ringing in my head. I'm just used to this constant sound … [But] it’s more of a metaphor. It’s a very powerful image. … It’s not to be taken autobiographically.
WCT: Gender and femininity come up a lot in your work. You write about cross-stitching as therapy, and the last poem, “Clean” ends with the lines “The kitchen is so clean, / everything’s in its nook.” The lines seem ironic, almost sarcastic at points.
SH: [“Clean” is] a metaphor for mind-peace. I do use what is a clichéd female task for mind-peace. After all the turmoil in this book, everything’s in place. That’s very positive for me.
In the cross-stitch poems, I’m a little bit sarcastic … almost unbridled sarcasm [laughs] because she’s doing what she’s been told to do [by these doctors] , these little cross-stitches, on an “even-weave pattern” I like that because it’s like a pun. And she’s “allowed … the autumn colors -- / so overheated.” I do envision the therapists, who are giving her these items to bring her peace of mind, as masculine.
Susan Hahn will be reading from The Note She Left at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, Friday, September.19 , at 7:30 p.m.
Bashar Barazi is the president of 3B Media, Inc., the parent company of MAQAM, a sponsor of the 2006 Gay Games VII in Chicago. MAQAM brought artists to perform at the Opening/Closing Ceremonies and is now producing A Dream of Arabia. Barazi spoke to Windy City Timeson the phone about the upcoming show.
Windy City Times: Tell us about your show.
Bashar Barazi: The show is called A Dream of Arabia, and it is the first theatrical presentation of Middle Eastern music and dance. It’s a full Broadway-style production, on a very large scale, that attempts to bring together the dances and the music of a very wide region that today is known as the Middle East—North Africa and Arabia—and makes it accessible to a Western audience.
WCT: How is this different from other performances of Middle Eastern dance and music?
BB: The only instances we know of tend to be at the international festivals where a traveling troupe, typically representing a government or a Ministry of Arts and Culture, does some type of a small performance. This is the first time that something on this scale has been done.
WCT: What’s the scale?
BB: It’s a cast of 21 dancers, [and] a crew ranging [in size] from 50 to 76. We do about a 146 costume changes during the show, which averages to 2 costume changes per minute. The music has been produced, for the most part, specifically for the show. There’s a story line, in two acts, that’s been written specifically for the show. We did international auditions to find the right cast and the stage sets have been built specifically to reflect the environment and replicate hat tof the Middle East. It tries to incorporate the four elements: water, earth, fire, air.
WCT: “Arabia” is not a term you hear very much these days. You write about Orientalism [on the Web site]. So why do you use the term Arabia?
BB: It’s a dream of Arabia. We had a dream of why we wanted to do this: a cultural revival, of bringing the world together, of building a bridge through art, performance, and music through which we can find we’re more alike than not. Historically speaking, much of the term the Middle East is, I believe, a geopolitical term because: what’s the middle of the East? We wanted to resurrect the idea of a region that has no borders. Many cultures have arisen in that region. Everyone’s impression is that it’s conflict and strife, when [in fact] people there have created the universal language [of dance and music].
WCT: You write about belly dancing as a Western construct.
BB: Belly dancing is purely a Western invention. It’s not an ancient Middle Eastern dance. It was created here at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 by Saul Bloom. He hired a burlesque dancer, created a tune that has no basis in Arabic music and introduced it. The scandalous nature of the dance captured the Victorian imagination. Afterwards, Hollywood took the concept. Even the costumes became these bejeweled creations.
WCT: But readers might be curious to know why the Web site features a woman who does look a lot like a belly dancer.
BB: Those costumes are not what you’d consider belly-dance costumes. That costume was handmade with Swarovski crystals and doesn’t show legs. The show is a theatrical presentation of the dance so it’s fused with elements, and takes it to a different level.
WCT: What do you want to accomplish with this show?
BB: That people who come to see the show clearly be very entertained; it’s a spectacular theatrical experience. But also that they leave more educated and more hopeful. It’s a tremendous privilege to have a voice that reaches out to thousands of people. I’d hope that they can see the culture in a different way. Learning alleviates fear, and people see that we”re all human beings.
A Dream of Arabia will take place June 12-15  at the Dominican University Performing Arts Center’s Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division, River Forest. See www.ADreamOfArabia.com or call 708-488-5000.
Arsham Parsi is the head of the IRQO (Iranian Queer Organization). Parsi was born in 1980. As he tells it, he grew up in Shiraz with no contact with other gay people until he found queer communities on the Internet. Following that, he worked on HIV issues, until rumors of his sexual orientation began to spread and he feared persecution. According to Human Rights Watch, “Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty.” Reports indicate that women and lesbians also endure lack of access to equal rights and persecution. Parsi fled to Turkey and then to Canada, where he applied for asylum. Today, according to Parsi, IRQO works for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Iran, and to increase awareness about queer issues among Iranians.
Parsi spoke with Windy City Times in a phone interview.
Windy City Times: You’re here for the International Day against Homophobia, which began in 2005 and which was also connected for a while to the hangings of two men, Ayaz and Mahmoud, in Iran that same year. I’m curious about your thoughts on that incident. In a 2006 interview, you disputed the characterization of them as gay. Have you changed your mind?
Arsham Parsi: This case is very complicated. As a human-rights organization, we have to be responsible about our mission. We didn’t know those people and we don”t have access to their case files through the Iranian Ministry of Justice. So how do we know under which circumstances they were arrested by the government, and what happened to them in prison? Maybe they said they are gay. You know, we have no idea. I know many guys in Iran who have same-sex relationships but are not homosexual. You can’t say they’re homosexual or gay. So the truth is we don”t know if they were gay or not. It’s not Black or white.
We had a hard time with the international journalists [and activists who insisted they were gay]. The Western media sometimes doesn’t know what’s going on. In May 2007, 80 men were arrested in Ishafan—and most media insisted they were gay men. And we had a hard time, because that gave the courts evidence about their sexuality. So the western media helped the judge prove their homosexuality. The Western media doesn’t know what’s going on.
The most important thing is: in Iran, people are executed on account of their sexuality and sexual behavior and sexual acts. In Iran, having sex between men and [women] is illegal before marriage.
We have many cases we can stand by, where people were executed on the basis of their sexuality, regardless of their sexual orientation. If you read the Islamic Code, it’s difficult to know whether they’re punished for rape, pedophilia or homosexuality. You can’t find out what they’re talking about.
WCT: What do you think about the threat of war on Iran?
AP: I believe that war is not about democracy and human rights. If the United States attacks Iran, it won’t be about democracy. I’m anti-war.
WCT: A lot of your work rests on the idea that there’s a universal gay identity. Your own story about coming out via the Internet seems very Western-influenced and about class access. As you know, many feminist and queer scholars have been critical of the idea of a universal gay identity, Joseph Massad’s book Desiring Arabs being the most recent among them. How do you respond to that?
AP: About sexual identity: many Iranians say we don’t have to have a label. But sometimes that story is just on paper—it’s not real in society. Many say we don’t need the Western lifestyle of gay men. But we use “gay” and “lesbian,” the English words. There’s a professor of sexuality who recently said that homosexuals in Iran are okay as long as they identify as gay in the Western context. But we don’t accept that. In Iran, people are arrested because of their sexual orientation.
WCT: I don’t think most people would argue that there’s no persecution of gay people, but they do have questions about what it means for an Iranian queer to have to declare a particular kind of identity in order to get help. On Iranian.com, Choob Doshar-Gohi writes about her interview with an American asylum officer: “He engages me in a patronizing conversation about veiling and the oppression of women in Iran. I cannot argue, or I will lose the asylum case.” How do you feel about what people have to go through to gain asylum and what that might say about adopting Western ideas about gay identity?
AP: I didn’t have a problem. But in the U.S., they have more problems than in Turkey. In Turkey, all the questions were around the facts of my case, not whether or not I was gay; I didn’t have to prove I was gay. When I told them I’m gay, they said fine. But I know from friends in the U.S. and Canada that they’ve been told by officials, “You don’t look like gay people.” In Western societies they [asylees] have more challenges than in other countries.
WCT: In a 2006 speech to Egale Canada (Canada’s national gay-rights group) you said, “These lonely shivering hands are the representatives of all of the Iranian LGBTs’ hands. Take my hands as their representatives and support us. Do not norget Iranian LGBTs, do not leave us alone.” Some might argue that such language reduces Iranian queers to pathetic creatures pleading for help, rather than political agents.
AP: We don’t use that literature any more. That was part of the early activism when we first started in Canada, but we no longer use such language.
WCT: We don’t hear much about lesbians in IRQO.
AP: Lesbians, unfortunately, are more invisible than gays; they have more problems. They prefer to hide their sexual orientation because, in Iranian society, they have two negative points against them: being women and being lesbian. I know many feminist activists who are fighting for women’s rights, but who don’t accept lesbians. I know a couple of lesbians who are active in the feminist movement; they decided to work for the women’s movement first, and after that the lesbian-rights movement. They’re not out because, as they told me, “Right now, our priority is women’s rights, and when we have equality, we can come out as lesbians.” We do have some lesbians working and blogging in Iran, and others outside of Iran who are active with our organization.
WCT: What about feminist support for your group? You’ve spoken about Shirin Ebadi [a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer and human-rights activist] .
AP: We talked to Shirin Ebadi through one of our members in London and she told us, “I accept your rights, but I couldn’t support you in public.” At first, I thought she was being homophobic. But now I believe that because Shirin Ebadi [and others] are fighting for women’s rights, their support of gays or lesbians [will mean that] those people will be in danger. Because the Ministry of Justice and the Iranian government will deny them all rights: “No” for women, “No” for lesbians.
WCT: One of your main issues is to increase Iranian awareness about homosexuality. But you’re associated with people like Peter Tatchell, with whom you’ve appeared on an interview, [and who has] been accused of making Islamaphobic comments. How might that affect your work with Muslim Iranians?
AP: I’ve done many interviews, and sitting at the same table doesn’t mean we accept each other’s agendas. One of our issues is with the level of information about homosexuality in Iran, and the other is Islamaphobia. Islamaphobia and homophobia are both hate-based. We have many problems with some activists who campaign or speak about LGBTQ Iranians —they sometimes make problems for us because they don’t know exactly what’s happening in Iran. They have their agenda, they have their political issues, and sometimes they create problems for us, as happened in May 2007.
WCT: How do you feel about being the representative of all Iranian queers as the head of IRQO?
AP: I should clarify: I’m not an elected official. It’s my personal responsibility, and I became an activist because of the situation [for queers in Iran] . Some people refer to me as “Arsham Parsi, leader of Iranian LGBTs” but I don’t like that title. I don’t identify myself as a leader, but as an activist. Right now, we’re talking about and for those who identify as LGBT, because we’re dealing with this community [that doesn’t get spoken about]. I try to address all their concerns.
WCT: We know about your history as a queer Iranian, but not much else of your political history. What would you like to see in Iran?
AP: I don’t identify myself as a political activist. I hope that we have a democratic government, that the people can decide about their rights and their laws. We don’t have safe elections. When we have a democratic party, I believe everything will be okay.
WCT: But does that mean that you don’t see queer activism as political activism?
AP: Human-rights activism is part of political activism. So I prefer to identify myself as a human-rights activist, not as a political activist. I know some parties are active, but their work is not about human rights—it’s about power.
Windy City Times’ Yasmin Nair recently talked with Dan Mathews, the openly gay vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) about his new book, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir, punk rock, and celebrities.
Windy City Times: In your book, you draw connections between gay-bashing and cruelty to animals, writing that those who engage in one usually inflict the other as well. Let’s turn that around a bit: do you think there’s a possible connection between being gay and marginalized and the need to pursue social justice?
Dan Mathews: I’ve always looked at life as a big dark comedy. Even [with] horrible things, I find amusing elements in them—maybe because of the absurdity. I think because of that, even though I’ve been at the front lines of the animal rights movement for the past 20-some years, I never feel dispirited or down. I’ve maintained a light-hearted outlook about that. But I think what compelled me to get involved at an early age is that I grew up in a trashy neighborhood and I was beaten up for being gay, for being a punk rocker, whatever.
The same individuals who were pummeling me were hurling new-born kittens against the wall. These horrible things happened every day and so, for me, at a very young age, I saw cruelty as cruelty—not as cruelty to me or to somebody else.
When people go fishing, that’s sadism. It’s people getting their rocks off in having caught some innocent creature, yanking them out of their world. Even if you throw them, it’s horrible and it’s violent. I was just talking to someone at a radio show and they were just shocked—they couldn’t understand why there was anything wrong with fishing.
WCT: Well, we are in Chicago, heart of the meat-eating Midwest.
DM: Yes, exactly. When I learned more and more about what was happening to animals... Even though I was very sympathetic to the plight of women, to civil rights issues, gay rights issues— when I saw how animals were being mutilated in laboratories; how they were being dismembered alive in slaughterhouses and electrocuted; skinned alive in the fur trade—I realized at a young age that I was some sort of do-gooder and that I only felt that I had a productive day when I did something to push the world.
The animal cause seemed to be the biggest emergency because of what’s going down—the sheer number of animals and the intensity of the cruelty that’s being inflicted upon them. And I think that PETA has always had a lot of gay supporters because gays, to a different degree maybe, have had similar experiences... I think gays have a higher sensitivity.
WCT: PETA uses a lot of celebrities. That’s obviously very useful in terms of getting attention, but have there ever been drawbacks to this strategy?
DM: If we were able to get across intellectual messages in our really tight cruelty cases, and in a lot of our campaigns in which there is no celebrity or no shebang, then I would say that there are drawbacks to using celebrity. But what we’ve found [is that] for every 10 solid, serious stories we want to promote, cases we want to highlight or campaigns we want to launch, the total lack of interest in them vs. what we get when we get a celebrity—there’s no question, we get the world’s attention. It would seem like there would be drawbacks, but it’s better to be taken less seriously than not be taken at all, not be seen at all.
WCT: And you’ve never had an experience with a celebrity whose presence has been counterproductive?
DM: Naomi Campbell. Naomi Campbell came to one of our anti-fur photo shoots and was all excited about being in the “Rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. Then she went back on her word when her career stalled and started doing fur ads again. We had to officially fire her as a spokesperson and tell her not to mention that she was involved with PETA. We told her that there’s actually a heart and soul to this; it’s not just something you can frivolously get behind. But I was young at the time—it was 15 years ago—and I was still learning my way around. I didn’t realize that what they say about models is often true: “Lights out, no one’s home.” I found that’s true of Naomi Campbell [and] Cindy Crawford. But there’ve been a lot of other models who’ve been terrific. Although it’s generally true.
WCT: Let’s talk about recent issues around ALF (Animal Liberation Front). The group is known for its intense animal activism and its work has led to recent legislative efforts to classify its work as “domestic terrorism,” which causes a lot of concern for those concerned about the infringement of civil liberties—especially in the wake of post-9/11 surveillance tactics and the infiltration of anti-war groups by undercover agents in New York. What’s your sense of these new trends of classifying certain forms of activism as domestic terrorism?
DM: Right. We are an above-ground non-profit organization that doesn”t participate in any illegal activity. But we don’t condemn [ALF] either because we understand what drives people to those extremes. What’s happening in the last few years is because everyone’s so excited about anything with the word terrorism in it. There’ve been some congressmen in states with a lot of animal industry, like Colorado, Wisconsin or Texas, who’ve tried to use this mindset to make it illegal to take pictures of anybody’s animals, to stifle our investigations. They’ve tried to classify animal activism as domestic terrorism. They have not had a lot of success, [but] they’ve gotten some attention. So we try to hire lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum to look behind these things; we keep an eye on it.
WCT: Can you talk about your interest in and the influence of punk rock on your politics? It seems that you’ve clearly been influenced by punk, in terms of your activist methods, in adopting a mode of confrontation and rebellion.
DM: Punk sort of deviated in the ’80s, but when it first started in the ’70s, it was a complete U-turn for culture. It’s hard for people to imagine now, because we live in a time where you see a lot of irreverence in the press and you see people being opinionated and not apologetic. [However,] back in the late ’70s, this was brand new—not like peaceful hippies putting a flower in your rifle barrel. It was people who were going to take that rifle out of your hand. That was the sort of attitude that I loved about the punk scene. Also the calling attention to the hypocrisy and the frivolity in society, but with a sense of humor as well—I’ve always been attracted to that.
WCT: About the “Rather be naked than wear fur” campaign: what do you say to those who argue that it’s sexist?
DM: I think what happens in America is that some people confuse sexy with sexist. And we, in America are a very puritanical society and that carries over into some of the feminists as well—it’s almost as if they want everyone to wear a burkha, which I think is really damaging. For some people, their sexuality is their best card to play. For other people, perhaps it’s their sense of humor, or they are really smart. We are all born with a different set of gifts.
I think that to tell people that they shouldn’t use their gifts because it’s offensive—that attitude is old-fashioned and offensive. We have always involved men in the naked-fur campaign. It doesn’t get as much attention because people want to look more at naked women. Even women prefer to look at naked women than naked men a lot of times. … Gloria Steinem agreed…that as long as we use men as well as women, we can’t be accused of being sexist about it. At the same time, I understand people’s concerns—we are puritanical in America.
WCT: Do you see PETA changing in five years, in terms of acceptability?
DM:Certainly. We’ve had major victories in getting McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s to upgrade their humane standards—which is a huge step in alleviating a lot of suffering. We’ve finding that we have a foot in the door now. We spent many years kicking the door open and now we’ve got a foot in it. I wouldn’t say we are inside it but we have a lot more clout in the industries we are fighting, especially the fashion trade. And the meat trade, even. So that’s exciting.
Everything we do, we do for the younger generation. Those obnoxious stunts we do that piss people off who are in their ’40s and ’50s inspire kids in their teens who haven’t had their sense of justice corrupted yet. And we are doing everything to create a generation that’s more sympathetic when they are in positions of power. And that’s what we are starting to see now—now that we’ve been around for a while.
Irshad Manji is a Canadian Muslim lesbian whose book, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith was published in 2003 and re-published with the title The Trouble with Islam Today in 2005. She was in Chicago on Feb. 13 for two events: a meet-and-greet and interview at Roosevelt University, and an evening lecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
What follows is the interview conducted at Roosevelt.
Windy City Times: Let’s talk about Project Ijtihad, and its progress so far. You write about social entrepreneurship and projects for women. Can you name some specific projects and things that have happened?
Irshad Manji: Project Ijtihad is only a year old. We’re in the process of designing an interactive Web site that will, unlike any other out there, actually host taboo-busting debates about Islam. … There are plenty of sites that offer alternate views of Islam … but there’s none we’ve come across that actually hosts debates with scholars, with journalists in which people are challenging one another in real time. There are chapters of Project Ijtihad cropping up—there’s one in Amman, another in Dubai [and] one that is in the works in London. And each of these, while very much under the rubric of the project, will obviously respond to local needs as well…
One very concrete success—and this will actually be covered by 60 Minutes in a story that’s going to be aired in April or May— [is that] the work that Project Ijtihad is doing has managed to turn a seasoned young jihadi in the UK away from the terror network. One of the things that I can tell you … is that he has already left the network and his former brothers in the network now know that he’s a defector. One could argue that he’s a dead man walking. He can’t afford, and Project Ijtihad can’t afford, to provide professional security services. So what has he done? He’s actually managed to convince three other former members of the jihadi network to come to his side. And now they are serving as his bodyguards.
It’s a little bit surreal, and it certainly is embryonic. But how does anything start without those initial steps?
WCT: I’d like to talk about queer organizing and your work, which isn’t the focus of The Trouble with Islam. What do you see as issues in terms of LGBTQ youth and Islam?
IM: It’s actually going to become more of a focus of my Web site. I am increasingly faced by a deluge from queer-identified Muslims who don’t know where else to turn. My first instinct, always, is to tell them there are groups like Al-Fatiha (Al-fatiha.org) , Salaam (Salaamcanada.org) and so forth. But often, what they’re looking for is not support but rather the philosophical argument from within the faith about why they are not complete apostates for being this way. And I’m actually in the process, so if you come back to my site next month, you’ll see that there’s going to be a section for all kinds of people where you can just click and get copies of speeches that I’ve given about this [and] some of the interviews I’ve done about this.
I am allergic to the notion of reducing any of us to one identity. I think, honestly, that’s what so many young Muslims are struggling with, particularly in Europe but also in North America. The other thing is that it is so easy for this to become … a weapon of mass distraction. The fact of the matter is, it’s an emotional distraction from the points I make about the need to think for yourself.
But here’s the great frustration of it all. … To this day, I’m told I shove it in people’s faces. You’re either too gay or you’re not gay enough. And, at a certain point, I have to just remember what the goal of this mission is—and it has to do with the mind, not with sexual orientation or gender or skin color.
WCT: Let’s talk about the connections made between you and [Dutch politician] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As you know, she’s been criticized for right-wing views on Islam. There’s also the continuing issue of how U.S. and European gays might respond to reports of violence against gays in say, Iran. [This] leads to a debate about how progressives might take on such issues without, for instance, siding with the administration’s actions against Iran. How do you reconcile those things?
IM: There’s no easy answer to that. I’ve been routinely accused of being right-wing, of being a neoconservative. [ That ] hurts me and appalls me, considering I come from a perspective of universal human rights. This used to be the terrain of the classical left—of classical liberals—who believe that every individual is entitled to a certain set of basic dignities. There’s an us-vs.-them mentality going on and the really sad part about that is … I identify as a liberal through and through. But I’m not a conventional liberal anymore. It floors me that we will sully George W. Bush for using “You’re with us or without us” language…We’re exactly the same.
I’m arguing that there are two occupations, not just one. One occupation is of the military occupation now of the West Bank, but formerly of the West Bank and Gaza. That has to end.
The other occupation, no less significant, is of the Palestinian mind-set by their own corrupt leaders. But do you ever hear staunch liberals acknowledge that Palestinians are facing two forms of oppression, not one? It is always an us-vs.-them mentality—and how does that lend credence to the notion that we’re any different than George W. Bush? We’re not. And if we had the kind of power that he does, I dare say we would be as malignant in our use of that power as long as we tout the same lies that we do now.
The late gay community historian Allan Bérubé is best known for his revelatory book, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. His unexpected death in 2007 left unfinished a major research project on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union ( MCSU ) . The MCSU eventually disbanded after a ferocious anti-Communist and anti-union campaign was historic for a number of reasons, the most prominent among them being that it was a fiercely interracial union committed to both a left politics and solidarity across race lines.
Less well-known is the fact that that racial and class solidarity also spanned across sexual lines: prominent MCSU organizers and members were openly gay and lesbian and fondly referred to as "queens." Bérubé came across this rich and complicated history while researching Coming Out Under Fire, and conducted numerous interviews with former members while also collecting whatever he could find of correspondence between and about them.
After his death, two of his closest friends, John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, set about collecting an anthology of Bérubé's work that would showcase the variety of research he had undertaken over the course of his life. D'Emilio, professor of history and of gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes this new book, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, as "one of the richest collections of GLBT history available" in which "you see both a person and his evolution as a writer and thinker and interpreter of the past."
My interview with John D'Emilio is easily one of my favourites, and we talked about labour and queerness, amongst other things. You can read the entire interview here:
Photo credit: John D'Emilio
I knew the man as well as any of the other commuters. He stood outside the Chicago “el” station, selling copies of StreetWise, the weekly city paper written by homeless people who sell copies on the streets for a dollar each. They get to keep a percentage of the price, and the idea is that you give a homeless person a chance at learning skills that they might use to get jobs.
My finances changed when I became a freelancer, and I struggled to pay my bills. I was now hard-pressed to spare that dollar. Yet, I persisted in guiltily handing him one every time, paying for something I could not afford. I never saw myself like the man outside the el. My education and sundry other factors-- like the roof over my head-- meant I could never see myself as poor like him.
And then one day he made what seemed like a nasty personal comment – not salacious or creepy-- just mean. That comment now became my reason to stop buying the paper. Even then, for the longest time, I couldn’t just walk by and simply not buy a paper. Instead, I skulked up another, and much longer, ramp out of the station. Finally, I decided to walk by without buying. He’s long since stopped trying to attract my attention.
My real reason for not engaging in our usual transaction was that I couldn’t afford it. But acknowledging that would have meant acknowledging that I shared a class identity, of sorts, with him. Instead, I chose to take the path of offense-- I wasn’t paying him for a paper because he wasn’t nice to me. The truth is that I just didn’t want to admit to my poverty.
This is how inequality and poverty are lived in the US. Nobody claims “poor” as an identity, despite the fact that there are larger numbers of us every year and that the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider. Forty-seven million in the US, the world’s largest industrial and military power, live – and often die too early – without health care. As Walter Benn Michaels puts it in his new and important book, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books, $23), the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. Americans today work more for less than ever before, leaving many of us perennially exhausted in multiple dead-end, often part-time jobs, with no benefits.
But comfort beckons in the form of identity. You can claim any number of racial, gendered, sexual, and ethnic identities when job hunting, but you can never simply state that you’re either a) poor, b) really poor, c) in deep financial hell, or d) desperately hoping you’ll win the lottery or American Idol and quickly leap out of your penury. All of which might actually be better reasons for wanting a job in the first place.
Sure, we might proudly celebrate the culture of the “working class,” as is the wont in some political and academic circles. We might emphasize the dignity, hard work, values, the saltiness and saintliness of the working class. (We’re less likely to refer to them as “lower class”-- horrors, there are no hierarchies here!) Reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina might be sufficient proof that you know what it’s like to be poor and queer.
In the US, diversity mandates have proliferated to the extent that there is an entire industry around “diversity training” – you can hire people to come to your expensive law firm or school and teach you and your employees how to be nicer and more sensitive to people of color, the disabled, women, queers, and so on. Create a world without prejudice, we are told, and we can approach something like “full” equality for all.
Walter Benn Michaels isn’t buying that argument. Instead, he demonstrates that the rise in economic inequality in the US parallels a rise in the discourse of diversity. The Trouble with Diversity lays out the ways in which economic disenfranchisement has not only been obscured by the commitment to diversity, but actively enabled by it.
Even talk about class has become another way to turn the stark economic differences between people into factors of identity, avoiding any analysis of the systemic inequality that divides them. The sheer genius of the US-based mandate to diversify is that it turns even class inequality into an identity category.
Michaels writes about the New York Times series “Class Matters,” which “started treating class not as an issue to be addressed in addition to... race but as itself a version of race, as if the rich and the poor really were... different races, and so as if the occasional marriage between them were a kind of interracial marriage.”
Katrina was supposed to have opened our eyes to inequality, and it did show us the immense racialization of poverty in the US. But besides the occasional story about the victims not getting their money or their houses back, it’s a story whose real implications have vanished. In fact, it’s far more likely that the eyes of people in Toronto, Calcutta, or Jakarta were opened to the depth of inequality in the US, while ours have remained shut to it. Meanwhile, we’ve persisted in thinking that race was the primary problem in Katrina, not poverty.
Kanye West said to the cameras at a telethon following the disaster, “George Bush hates black people.” Actually, there’s little evidence for that; his is in fact the most diverse cabinet in history. Some of Bush’s best friends seem to be people of color; but they are certainly not poor people. As Michaels writes, “We like blaming racism [for Katrina], 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, he argues, in a society without poor people (even a racist one), there wouldn’t have been.
In contemporary American gay politics, nothing signifies inequality more than the inability to get married. The problem with gay marriage as a monomaniacal focus of organizing in the US is that it so blatantly affirms that those who choose not to marry-- or are in civil unions, or domestic partnerships-- simply don’t deserve the right to health care or benefits. Or, as one snippy young dyke once said to me at a party, “Why shouldn’t I be rewarded for my commitment to my life partner?” Her arrogance took my breath away.
So, when the gay marriage movement people go on endlessly about how Canadians and assorted Scandinavians and, oh yes, Spain, have gay-marriage rights, and that this is proof of their advancement, they miss the point. If you’re a Canadian queer who gets divorced, you don’t lose your health care. If you’re a queer in the US whose loving life-partner suddenly takes a shine to the prettier, younger thing she met at the bar while you were taking care of your baby, you’re up shit creek without health care, benefits, money, or possibly even a roof over your head. Take heed, snippy young dyke.
Consider a country where the gay marriage problem is solved. In South Africa, gays now have the right to marry and queers everywhere rejoiced. But 40 percent of South Africans live in dire poverty (and the rest are not exactly well off). Thirty percent of pregnant women in South Africa have HIV/AIDS. Nearly 30 percent of its citizens, male and female, have HIV/AIDS. “In 2006, 900 people died every day of AIDS-related illnesses because they did not have access to antiretroviral medicines,” writes Zackie Achmat, South Africa’s most prominent AIDS activist, who has refused to take antiretrovirals to treat his own AIDS until they were made available to the general public.
The South African constitution does not guarantee health care and access to free or affordable medications. In this context, giving queers the right to marriage means, well, nothing, given the scale of economic and medical inequality.
In fact, the disconnect between the symbolic generosity of the state toward inevitably middle – and upper-class queers and its material stinginess to the poor has fuelled resentment against gays among ordinary South Africans.
And that’s the trouble with diversity –it’s often a social, cultural, and emotional response to economic problems which allows us to live in blissful ignorance of the inequality that surrounds us. It allows us to believe that expunging bigotry or prejudice, or granting extra access to a few, encompasses the entire field of social justice.
Walter Benn Michaels may well meet the StreetWise vendor more often than I do. From 2000 – 2003, I was a lecturer in the English department of the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC); Michaels joined the faculty in 2001 and is currently department head. In the last chapter of The Trouble with Diversity, he writes about spending a summer writing this book about inequality, in his study with a window that gave him a daily view of a homeless man living under a railroad underpass. Michaels makes $175,000 a year. Despite his relative wealth – and the weight of the book’s topic—Michaels felt no liberal guilt at the sight of the homeless man, and no desire to feed or clothe him but, “Mainly... wished the man would go away.”
So what’s Walter Benn Michaels, with his kind of income, doing writing a book about inequality? And why isn’t he nicer to the homeless?
Critics have asked these questions about The Trouble with Diversity. And they haven’t known where to place the author politically: he is simultaneously, it seems, a leftist, a right-wing conservative, some kind of radical. He’s well known for his academic work in literary theory but this book is his first foray into public discourse. It argues that neoliberal policies on race and culture provide social panaceas that abet the growth of inequality and the attrition of any real and lasting vision of social justice.
The book grew out of an article he wrote for the New York Times in April 2004, “Diversity’s False Solace.” Michaels, who had previously taught at elite institutions like Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, found himself at UIC with a student body very different from any he had previously encountered. The university has historically been home to what some euphemistically refer to as “first-generation students”— either the children of recent immigrants or from the economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, or students with the kinds of test scores that keep them out of more elite Chicago schools like Northwestern or the University of Chicago. UIC’s biggest selling point to prospective students has been its ethnic and racial diversity, and this frequently obscured the lack of resources in an institution that was, like many others, facing budget shortfalls.
Or as Michaels put it, “The bad news about our current condition is that you may be jammed into a classroom so full that you can’t find a place to sit. But the good news is that 46 percent of the people jammed in there with you will be Caucasian, 21 percent will be Asian, 13 percent will be Hispanic and 9 percent will be African-American.”
What impelled Michaels to think and write about diversity was not the fact his students spoke proudly of their diverse cultural and racial/ethnic origins, but that they could not or would not talk about their class identifications; despite their economic origins, none of them would identify as poor or working class.
Similarly, students he taught at Harvard were willing to admit that their UIC peers might be more culturally diverse, but did not see that they were also less wealthy. The Trouble with Diversity is girded by a deep sense that much of the potential for guaranteeing a rich and productive life for everyone in this country has been woefully lost by an overcommitment to diversity.
Michaels’s career has been in academia and he places much of the blame for this woeful state of affairs at its feet; during an interview, he characterized it as the “Human Resources Department of neoliberalism.”
But while academia and the waning support for publicly-funded schooling are certainly part of the problem with inequality, Michaels does not stop there. The Trouble with Diversity considers the emphasis on diversity and identity made explicit by institutions like the Holocaust Museum-- which, he notes, marks an event that never happened in American history but which was erected long before any such memorial to slavery, which was a truly American phenomenon that speaks enduringly to economic inequality between blacks and whites.
Michaels considers pop-culture as well as institutions. In a section on the reality show “Wife Swap,” he writes about Lynn, a working-class woman, exchanging households with the rich and pampered Jodi. He wryly observes that at the end of the episode, what participants and viewers seemed to take away was not that poverty could make you miserable, or that it might be better to be rich than poor-- but that it’s important to respect those who have less than you. It’s a lesson hammered home when Jodi’s husband, Stephen, is berated by everyone for being a “snob” towards Lynn. It’s this ability to locate the trouble with diversity in a range of texts and impulses that makes the book a funny and absorbing read.
I talked with Michaels in his office.
Yasmin Nair: After several academic works, this is your first book aimed at general readers. Why this platform?
Walter Benn Michaels: The point in writing the book was simply to start an argument, to provoke people into seeing the degree to which the rhetoric of diversity was completely compatible with the class stratification of neoliberalism. And then to see that real political change in the US was never going to follow from the success of diversity. The point was to emphasize the ways in which the discourses of race and culture were in fact hindrances to producing actual social justice in the US.
YN: Several critics have insisted that your analysis is nothing new, and that there’s already been a consciousness about class issues. But it seems your book distinguishes between class and inequality-- the two are not the same.
WBM: That’s an important distinction. Because that says a lot about class consciousness and what it means to turn class into an identity. The goal of a discussion of class should be to eliminate the conditions which produce class. And it’s perfectly true that there’s a long, Left discourse on class; I don’t claim originality here. But in the contemporary context, class is placed on the back burner in relation to diversity. And class itself turned into a diversity category. The point of the book is that it’s not just that you have to add class on to the racial, cultural, ethnic groups-- the point is that class fundamentally works by a different logic. And that liberalism has forgotten that.
YN: You’ve been defined in terms of every ideology under the sun: a leftist, a right-wing conservative, a socialist, a communist. I’m not so much asking you to define yourself but interested in what this apparent inability to classify you ideologically suggests.
WBM: On left-wing, liberal talk shows, I’m seen as a racist and on right-wing talk shows, I’m a communist. The right-wing shows are closer to the truth. American politics has become so deeply defined around a politics of identity that it means that if you’re skeptical of identity, people think you’re right-wing. Even right-wing people think that. I have lots of reviews from right-wingers who start by saying, “Oh, this is great, he’s making fun of diversity.” And then, they get to the economic equality part, and that’s where they draw the line, “Oh, my God, this is insane communist egalitarianism.”
So the Right thinks you’re on their side because you’re skeptical of identity, and the Left thinks you’re completely against them because you’re skeptical of identity.
What that actually means is that both the Left and the Right in this country have succeeded in defining the center of politics as how you feel about identity. And as long as that’s true, that means the Right always wins. Because even when they’re losing the identity war, they’re winning the thing that makes them really the Right, which is economic inequality.
What I’d love is a world where being on the Right in America didn’t just mean being skeptical of affirmative action and being skeptical of diversity, but meant defending the legitimacy of economic inequality. And being on the Left didn’t mean saying, “Wait a minute, there aren’t enough gays and blacks in these institutions.” Instead being on the Left meant saying, “No, it’s economic inequality itself that’s wrong, and we have to be addressing that.”
First of all, it would be a lot harder then to be on the Right. You couldn’t just make fun of the extremes of multiculturalism. You’d have to be there saying, “Yeah, the fact that some people are rich and some people are poor, or are more likely in the US to remain poor-- that’s okay!” It’s not that now people don’t talk about economic inequality, but they completely subordinate it to these identity issues.
YN: There’s been a great deal of public discussion recently about inequality. But there seem to be a number of different and sometimes contradictory approaches about what to do about it. In both the straight and the queer communities, one strategy seems to be of “socially conscious philanthropy,” the kind espoused by Bill Gates.
WBM: It’s a good thing in that people do clever things with their money to help the poor. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with a vision of a just society, which requires the best we can do towards equality of opportunity right from the start. That’s not a radical demand; most Americans already believe that we should have equality of opportunity. But that’s possible only through state intervention.
Here’s the opposite of philanthropy: John Edwards actually proposed a raise in taxes two days ago. It’s designed to make universal health care possible. Raising the taxes of the rich is very different from hoping that they will give to progressive causes. It’s nice that they sometimes do, but I’m arguing for the intervention of the state here. And that has nothing to do with philanthropy, the voluntary transfer of wealth by some rich people in whatever amounts they choose to whatever things they choose. It is the involuntary transfer of wealth from rich people to poor people for purposes that are judged appropriate by the body politic as a whole, and not by the rich people in question. And that’s a very different process. It’s one which is public and political in a way that philanthropy is not.
What I’m arguing for is something a lot closer to socialism. It involves the state to begin to minimize the gap between rich and poor.
YN: The mainstream gay community is increasingly invested in working through foundations. Instead of organizing street protests, they’re likelier to give to charities that, for instance, get queer kids off the streets. Doesn’t this create a structure whereby the gay community can now define itself as a privileged class identity?
WBM: It’s precisely a way of defining itself as not a class, of defining identity in a way that makes class irrelevant. Because you have a moment in which gay philanthropy can replicate the structure of straight philanthropy, with the difference that it’s specifically attached to people who are gay. So, if you’re queer, you want to get queer youth off the streets. It’s good to get people off the streets, whether they’re gay or straight; it’s good to get anybody off the streets. There’s nothing intrinsically Left about getting gay kids off the street, as opposed to getting straight kids off the street. And there’s nothing intrinsically Left about any philanthropy at all insofar as it involves just people using the money they’ve got to do some good things as opposed to doing bad things.
What I’m arguing for is the acceptance of the responsibility of society as a whole to keep all kids off the street. And that has nothing to do with individuals’ desire to do what they want with their money. It has to do with the responsibility to transcend the individual and make it the state’s responsibility.
YN: Hate crimes...
WBM: Complete bullshit.
YN: You write in your book, “The preferred crimes of neoliberalism are always hate crimes; when our favorite victims are the victims of prejudice, we are all neoliberals.” What do you mean?
WBM: You and others have analyzed the various practical ways in which hate crimes laws perpetrate or extend inequalities that already exist. I think that analysis is totally convincing. But my own opposition is somewhat more primitive: that hate crimes are precisely defined as crimes of identity.
The biggest of all hate crimes in our culture is the Holocaust. The point of course is not to defend the Holocaust but to suggest that the murder of six million people is sufficient unto itself as a crime.
The first point is that it’s not as if we want to legitimate these crimes. The second point is that insofar as we make hate crimes foundational for us, we end up imagining the just society as a society without hatred, without prejudice. My argument is not for prejudice; only that the elimination of prejudice has nothing to do with the elimination of exploitation. And that insofar as we focus on the idea of social justice as the elimination of prejudice, with hate crimes being a kind of ne plus ultra of that form, what we are doing is focusing on something which, even if we should succeed, would make no difference whatsoever in the principal inequalities that currently confront us.
Now you and others have argued that not only does it make no difference, but it can extenuate the inequality. And it’s interesting-- I only have anecdotal evidence for this-- that when you read about hate crimes, it’s extraordinary how often the perpetrators of hate crimes are people for whom the categories of victimhood were invented in the first place.
YN: It’s also true that poor white people are often held as the most phobic and hate-prone.
WBM: Let’s say for the sake of argument that poor white people are more characteristically racist and homophobic than middle-class white people. Let’s say for the sake of argument it’s true. The argument here is not to defend their homophobia, or their racism; it’s not defensible. But my deeper argument is that they are not the enemy. That is to say, if you turned the world into a world where the elimination of prejudice is the sole desideratum then you’ve got a face-off. Between the upper-middle class, committed to its own sense of virtue, which is completely tolerant of the inequalities which make poor white people poor and completely intolerant of the racism and sexism that poor whites exemplify. The liberal elite that conservatives criticize really does exist. It’s an elite whose liberalism consists in its opposition to discrimination, in its cultivation of identity, and in complete indifference to economic inequality. So, for the liberal elites, the poor whites are the people they love to hate. And the liberal elites are the people the poor whites love to hate. If the liberal elite began to think of its liberalism as a challenge to its elitism, we would have a different world. A world where the goal was not to diversify the elite but to eliminate elites. Whereas now we’re just diversifying the elite.
YN: Let’s talk about the notion of sexual culture or heritage. Some might perceive a split in the gay community, between a “gay left” and a “gay right.” And it might seem the struggle between the two sides is over whether or not we should define ourselves by our complete access to, say, public sex and sexual freedom, or if we should define ourselves by more normative standards of behavior-- the “good gay” syndrome.
WBM: First of all, the question of whether you should sleep with lots of people or just one or two people is a completely uninteresting political question. My book takes no position on how many people you should sleep with. But I will say this: people who think it’s somehow radical to sleep with lots of people are deeply mistaken about what political radicalism consists of. So, from my standpoint, the very idea of defining “Left gayness” or “Right gayness” in these terms is just a complete mistake. There’s nothing intrinsically conservative about being for gay marriage or against gay marriage. So if you’re for gay marriage but you’re primarily committed to socialism, then you count for me as someone on the Left. If you are against gay marriage but you’re really just trying to open a store and make a lot of money on Christopher Street, you count for me as somebody who’s on the Right.
YN: On the question of sentiment and affect -- or really, the lack thereof in your book. You seem committed to a high level of abstraction.
WBM: Somebody wrote about my book, “He writes as if he believes that people had no psyches.” I get that people do have psyches, that they have certain complicated emotions about this.
But, first of all, I’m very skeptical about the kind of argument that’s been made for identity. Which is the argument that, well, even if there aren’t such things as races, isn’t it useful to organize people around the idea that there are such things as races because it helps get them emotionally committed and all that? But I say no, I think it’s our job to say there aren’t such things as races because there aren’t such things as races, and let their emotions take care of themselves.