Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hate Crimes Bill Signed Into Law

I hear in the news today that Pres. Obama has signed into law the new bill adding sexual orientation to the existing hate crimes bill. Here's some of CNN had to say:

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama on Wednesday signed a law that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The expanded federal hate crimes law, hailed by supporters as the first major federal gay rights legislation, was added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill that Obama signed at a packed White House ceremony.
The hate crimes measure was named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.

Shepard's mother, Judy, was among those at the ceremony that also included Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder and leading members of Congress and the Pentagon, who were on hand for the appropriations bill signing.

—from a CNN news release, 28 October 2009

I hear general clamoring of celebration from most corners of the gay community, or rather, communities. I hear celebration, and I hear cheering, and I hear relief, and also the feeling that now, something will be done, if anything like Matthew Shepard's murder happens again.

And I live out here in the rural small town conservative Upper Midwest, and although my own friends here who know I'm gay have been likewise congratulating me on this news, I know that we're surrounded by many who would still have no problem putting Matthew's corpse up on that storm fence themselves. I wonder what all this will change.

I hear one voice on a gay blog website saying words like: If i am ever beaten or killed it's good to know something might be done.

And I am staggered. If I am ever beaten or killed, it's good to know that something might, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, be done. . . . As though that were never a possibility before. This is how we live our lives: knowing that we can still be murdered, for no reason other than that we're gay, or lesbian, or intersex, or purple. And we all still know that no law can stop people from hating; it can only make the consequences for their actions more severe. Perhaps they'll think twice. But since hatred and fear are emotional and irrational, a potential gay-basher stopping to think before acting seems unlikely. Like the death sentence, it will prove to be no real deterrent, although it might lead to justice.

And I find myself responding to this dilemma, as follows:

Having been bashed, verbally and physically, at different times in different places, for being gay—which is doubly ironic since I'm more butch than femme to all appearances—for being smart, for being opinionated, I suppose that I'm glad to see the legislation added to the register.

Yet I am led to a deeper question:

Is this anything but a symbolic political victory? Will it actually change anything? How long will it be before those who uphold the law actually do uphold the law, and take for granted that gay-bashing is wrong, rather than needing to be pushed into enforcing the laws already on the books? (This new law just makes Federal what many States had already done.)

Will this really put an end to anything? Will it really save future Matthew Shepards? Or will it just make those killers easier to prosecute? Does it save lives, or does it allow us to take better revenge?

If I am beaten or murdered for being gay, will this law mean much to my ghost?

As someone who has been bashed, mugged, and assaulted a few times in my life, over the years—and as someone who was regularly bullied and beaten during my school years—I can't as if I have much faith in the power of this new law. I can't say as if I feel much safer, tonight, knowing that such a law now exists. My feelings of safety come from within, from refusing to be a victim, from my learned ability to take care of myself. I won't depend on the law if I find myself in a situation in which I am at risk; I will defend myself. I won't depend on law enforcement. Being bullied in my youth taught the very important lesson that you cannot always rely on those in authority to come to your aid; in fact, you'd better not.

And then there's the issue of revenge. Is bashing back, if that's what it comes to, satisfactory? Does it make us feel better? Does it make the world a finer place? I can't get Gandhi's words out of my mind tonight: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

I'm not just being contrary here. I think these are genuine questions, which haven't been addressed yet.

Real change, the real prevention of more murders and bashings, will only come when people no longer care whether you're gay or not. When being gay, itself, is not an issue, and neither hated nor feared.

Hate crimes legislation may be a good start. It may in fact be the only place available to start from.

But it's not enough.

This law is only the beginning. There remains a great deal more work to be done.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Remembering Matthew

I once had a big argument with a gay man I knew slightly, who was going on and on about how unrealistic he thought the movie Brokeback Mountain, about how we've made such strides towards gay liberation that surely the movie doesn't represent the truth.


I assured him that Wyoming is still more like it's depicted in the movie—which, a detail he had overlooked in his argument, was set in 1960s Wyoming, not in 2000s Wyoming—and that in fact parts of Wyoming are still just as bad as depicted in the movie. As is much of the rest of the rural West, in many areas. I've lived in Wyoming and in New Mexico, and I know people who are more like the characters in the movie than not. Heck, if I'd stayed in Wyoming, I might have been one of those lonely rural men, myself.

But this city-born-and-city-living gay person still didn't get it, and still insisted that everyone was doing better than that now. He went on and on and on. We've come so far. Even LGBT people in rural USA are doing better that that. Surely everything's changed for the better, now. It's time to move on now. Etc.

I spoke in return about how there are many kinds of bullying, many ways in which verbal harassment is almost as bad as physical gay-bashing, and doubly worse when done by gay men who should know better. I could tell I wasn't getting through. It's become clearer and clearer to me, over time, and this was a key moment in learning this, that one of the biggest divisions in gay culture is between urban ghetto-dwelling fags and rural-living fags. Many city boys just don't get it, when it comes to rural life. Or want to.

Finally, I looked this man in the eye and said to two words to him, after which he finally shut up. I don't believe he "got it," but he couldn't deny the reality of what I was saying after that.

He couldn't deny it. He could only refuse to accept it.

The two words I said to him were, "Matthew Shepard."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Spirits in the Material World

Having been haunted all week by the aftermath of a bad roadtrip, having traveled a long way to try to help only to be rejected, even abused for my troubles, having been trying to restore myself upon returning home, having found that difficult, both mentally and physically, having been so wiped out that I'm not good for much, having been under the weather in the literal sense of my body not liking the sudden turn towards cold, wet, autumn, weather—I find myself watching a movie or two, over the week, and being pulled in perhaps more deeply than usual.

Gods and Monsters, a fictionalized portrait of the last days of James Whale, the great director who set the standard and style of the best Hollywood horror movies in the 1930s. I watched this movie again tonight, having not seen it since I first watched it in the theatre during its initial release. I found it to be deeply affecting, in ways lots of my literary friends no doubt would dismiss—but then, the whole gay subtext is beyond most of them, except intellectually. No one knows what it's like to have to encode your self in your art quite like artists who have been LGBT, or other minorities or attacked groups. Except perhaps intellectually or theoretically,

If you believe the New Age cliché that We're not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual beings have a physical experience, you can come around to the idea of the spirit-in-flesh rather naturally. But what of the monster's flesh? What of the role the monster plays in each of Whale's films, in which it, or he, stands in for the compleat Outsider, the rejected Other? The monster never asked to be made—none of us ask to be born, either—and finds himself in a world that hates and fears him. It's not hard to view that as a gay subtext within Whale's horror films; and it's a subtext that has been discussed, written about, and portrayed extensively, not least in this modern film. We are our own gods, as well as being monsters. We are both.

Much is made of Whale's experiences in the trenches of World War I, where he first fell in love with another man, only to see him murdered by war. At the end of his life, in the film, Whale can no longer evade or escape the horrors of his own life: he has too much time on his hands, and the distractions aren't working anymore. Not even memories of the pretty boys frolicking nude in his pool in the middle of the night, as he watched, smiling.

Having spent a week dealing with my own memories, my own horrors both recently-overcome and recently-renewed, it's hard not to see the parallels. Isolated by distance, age, time, knowledge, experience: things that cut us off from each other, from the general run of humankind, from the usual topics of ordinary conversation—which all seems so dull, anyway, when you're feet are in the fire—you relish even a moment of voyeurism. (Which is not the same as pornography.)

As a photographer I'm more of a voyeur than a pornographer—even when making photos of the erotic male nude. I'm not interested in titillation for its own sake, but only as a byproduct of something that is beautiful. Is it the beauty that turns us on, that makes us monstrous? Or is it the monsters that make themselves desirable. The argument about whether or not homosexuality is monstrous or natural is entirely irrelevant: what matters is whether beauty is also terrible.

Well, it is. It inspires awe, which is a form of terror. Beauty is but the beginning of terror. —Rilke

The other movie I watched this afternoon was the movie based on the Marvel Comics antihero, Ghost Rider. In many ways just as campy as a James Whale movie. Gods and Monsters is certainly the more serious of these two films. But both carry similar tropes about being the Outsider, the misunderstood: being the Monster. In both, the heroes are the monsters; the point is made absolutely, and explicitly, in each case. There is no pretending otherwise.

I used to read the Ghost Rider comic book pretty regularly during its most philosophical run in the 1980s. The character of Johnny Blaze, and his demonic alter ego, appealed to me, I now imagine, because I was feeling more and more like an Outsider myself. My favorite soap opera at that time in my life was not a TV drama, but another Marvel comic book: The Uncanny X-Men. I've watched all the movies made from those characters, as well. In the second film, X2: X-Men United, there is even an explicit scene in which one of the student mutant characters comes out as a mutant to his family, who are scared and angry. At one point, the mother asks her son, the mutant, "Couldn't you stop being a mutant?" The parallels to so many coming-out stories of LGBT youth and adults to their families are explicit and absolutely obvious. The connection of being rejected as being Other is the same whether you're gay, or have mutant powers. It's rare for an otherwise action-oriented movie to get it so openly, so readily. This coming-out scene was so familiar to me, from my own life, that I had to both laugh out loud and cringe at the same time—which again, is the sort of response the coded layers of humor and pain in James Whale's movies also typically evoke in the clued-in watcher. The parallels are again obvious.

Ghost Rider, the Devil's bounty hunter, who takes his curse and makes it something of a force for good rather than evil, is a spiritual being having a physical-world experience. Movies are flickers of light on a screen: it's hard to get less physical than that, and remain substantially part of the physical world. The generations of men and women who have had to hide their true nature from others, for whatever reason, hid behind screens of coded behavior, coded messages, encoded speech and gesture and knowing looks. And each of these are stories that both tell us who we are, and help us figure out who we are, when such stories are reflected in entertainment. And what else are campy horror movies and comic books but entertainments?

Or perhaps they are something much, much more: perhaps they are the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves, however coded or layered with meaning. Perhaps they are a kind of archetypal autobiography: which is why they remain compelling, decades after they were first written, or drawn, or filmed.

And that's what art does, even more than entertainment: It endures. It still speaks to us, to our human condition, to our wounds and our hopes, long after its makers are gone.


rapture? no: just the handily erotic,
the lover near at hand, the night flesh.
tonight, only: never repeated. two collide
and part, lips avoiding kisses like commitment.

and after you’re gone, I take the bedclothes and,
instead of laundering, wrap myself in them,
in the remnants of your scent and warmth,
swaddle myself like an infant, and rock in the corner chair,

and remember. till the last trace of you lingers, remember.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A House in Bali

An ongoing discussion, regarding a new opera about the life of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer who spent several years living in Bali, who built a house there, and who is known to be gay. There are several problems with this opera's assumptions, and its portrayal, of McPhee.

The discussion speaks for itself, as the opera should.

However, this discussion also highlights how cultural asymmetries (to use Michael Tenzer's phrase) can come into play at any moment. The asymmetries in question here can be summarized as: imposing Western morals onto Balinese behavior; imposing current attitudes about homosexuality onto the past, and onto the past in another culture; the question of consensuality in sexuality between someone who is perceived as local to a culture and someone who is perceived as an outsider with wealth and power and status (after all, he did come to visit us)—in other words, perceived inequalities in socioeconomic and social power relationships.

Such perceptions are built upon assumptions, and conflict often arises in such situations precisely because different players have different assumptions about the nature of reality. In some ways, imposing our current ideas about sexuality onto the past, much less onto those in a foreign country, is a form of intellectual imperialism. Intentional or otherwise, the assumptions in play about what's appropriate, sexually, in a given time and culture, cannot be subject to our current moralizing, if we are to be fair and objective in our assessment, or our fieldwork.

Where I have difficulty in this discussion is the way threads of homophobia are woven in, almost unconsciously.

It reminds me very much of discussions—cultural assumptions, cultural asymmetries—about sexuality in the urban gay ghettoes regarding the way gay men connect with each other in the non-urban areas. It reminds me very much of the assumptions that many city gay men make about living in the rural areas.

They need to remember: The cities protect us. They give us a place to be ourselves, in numbers, in mutual support.

Much of that remains unavailable to those who live outside the big cities, and their active, activist, gay ghettoes.

In the same way, being an ethnographic fieldworker—a participant-observer among the people whose culture and lives one is studying, and writing about—can be a protected status. It can provide a cocoon of (judgmental?) distance, a field of observation that attempts to be objective. But we all carry our prejudices, and the assumptions about life we learned at our parents' knees, with us wherever we go. Half of the fieldwork experience, if we're being honest, is about stripping away our own assumptions, and learning to blend in, to be accepted, to "go native" at least part way. To "go native" enough to be able to empathize with and understand the local customs, cultural assumptions, and belief-systems; and yet to not lose oneself into one's adopted culture completely, but to retain a core of individual self. Finding the balance between Self and Other is precisely what happens to the engaged fieldworker.

Also, we seem to judge McPhee now by the standards of contemporary fieldwork. If he slept with some of the native boys, we seem to want to judge him for that. (The definition of "boy" is problematic at best in this context, as it doesn't really imply an age difference so much as that power imbalance inherent to relationships between the visiting outsider and the locals.) We have an ideal, as ethnographers, that it's never okay to "sleep with the natives." (And because our own culture is so interlaced with homophobia on such a deep level, in its rooted assumptions, many of us aren't even self-aware enough to know why we squirm more when it's boys rather than girls.) And yet we, as fieldworkers, are also human beings, engaged with other human beings. Sometimes the enchantment of the Other, whether its exoticism or intoxication at finding oneself on another planet, can be overpowering. Sometimes we fixate on an individual we ought not to interact with, as fieldworker, or as sexual being. And yet we do.

Is this a situation in which we are judging McPhee for what we ourselves have done? Is this a situation of "judge not, lest ye be judged"?

And then there is the question of gender roles, gender construction, and gender fluidity, in which the "rules" of gender performance are not so fixed, especially between cultures. North American culture is particularly puritanical in its rule-set about gender, and gender performance—even relative to Europe. (But then, the religious heretics of Europe, from the 16th Century onwards, were often exiled, sometimes by choice, to North America; and several of these, from the the Puritans to the Shakers, were particularly potent influences on overall North American culture, in its attitudes about sexuality.)

if we persist in judging McPhee as wrong in his actions, we must at least be aware that we are judging him by our standards, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps inappropriately to the time and place in which he lived, and loved. That McPhee himself was equivocal about all this must also be remembered. Sometimes the body acts before the mind can answer all these questions. It's the compulsion of desire, and it is capable of overruling the most sanguine of mortal souls.

And we also must remember: McPhee wasn't primarily an academic researcher, a fieldworker, an ethnographer first and foremost. His purpose for living in Bali was to learn about the music, and the musical influences eventually went in both directions. (So much for objective reporting.) He was there as an artist, not as an intellectual; a composer rather than an ethnomusicologist. (Although McPhee was neither the first, nor the last, to blend those two roles.) His intentions were not the same as ethnographic fieldworkers who go to a foreign culture nowadays. So we judge him, once again, by our own standards, appropriately or otherwise.

If we must judge McPhee, let's at least try to judge him fairly.

Being Gay in Smalltown Pennsylvania

CJ Springer

Gay Boys in Oil City, PA.

On my trip out to Connecticut and back this past month to do what I could for my ailing aunt and uncle, I passed right through this area. I was within an exit ramp's distance of Oil City, PA.

I drove through Harrisburg on the trip back. In the parking lot of the truck stop next to a chain restaurant where I stopped to eat a late lunch, there was a pentecostal church built into the trailer of a semi truck, complete with a cross in LED lights on the entrance door: a literal chapel-on-wheels.

Although most folks think the Bible Belt is more a southern phenomenon, right there in rural western Pennsylvania, in those smalltown hills between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, you are in fact right in the heart of rural Christian fundamentalist Bible-thumping, tent-revival, no-doubt-intensely-homophobic country.

Which is what the documentary film linked to here is all about:

Out In the Silence

I've had arguments over the movie Brokeback Mountain with some urban gay men. I'll write about that in more detail someday. But the argument was centered on how realistic such a portrayal of gay life could be; my position was based on the truth that I have lived in Wyoming, and it's still more like the reality depicted in the movie than most urban gays can comprehend.

There really is a strong misunderstanding amongst most urban dwellers about how gay life is in the rural areas. This documentary serves to remind us that, no matter how much we pat ourselves on the back in the cities about our accomplishments in terms of civil rights for LGBTs, there remains an entire rural culture where most of this work is still to be done.

People need to still remember that the battles are not done yet, and that there's still plenty of hatred out there. Not that we need to dwell on it, or make it ruin our day, but we also can't afford to ignore it.

I live in a small town that's more like rural PA than it is like any of the big cities that have urban gay ghettoes. Let's be blunt here: Lots of gays in big cities are protected enough that they sometimes forget that they are protected, if only by being around other gays in big enough numbers that they can have a voice. There is a very telling line in the wonderful movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that says this exactly: "The cities protect us."

So, again, I remember having this big argument with some San Francisco Castro-dweller who thought that Brokeback Mountain wasn't a very realistic movie; it was completely outside his experience and imagination. Having lived in Wyoming, myself, I could have been like those characters in the movie. Fortunately, life didn't turn out that way for me, and I thank all the thousand little gods for my good fortune.