Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The ground has shifted

This isn't a topic I ordinarily write about, but the growing opposition to the construction of the mosque located several blocks from the World Trade Center is too remarkable to pass comment. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America is not exactly noteworthy. Subtle but not undamaging forms of racism, the kind that can easily remain either unknown to or concealed by the person practicing them, the racial profiling of people boarding airlines or the difficulty of the brown-skinned kid with a funny name to make friends or get a job is not difficult to believe. More overt forms of racism practiced at the extremes, a few signs at rallies or disgruntled web postings, aren't outside the realm of common experience in 21st century America. All of these are problems, but none are unprecedented.

"To bigotry no sanction," George Washington promised the new Republic would give to its Jewish citizens, in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. What is remarkable, what I have never before seen in the years I have made that Republic my home, is that we have given bigotry that sanction. We, at least not all of us, have not met these protests with the scorn and derision they deserve. We've given the bigots a place at the negotiating table, the ears and publicity of our press, and the sanction of discussing their concerns as legitimate. We have made the free exercise of religious liberty of a group of our fellow citizens a matter of political debate and social sanction, not a sacrosanct right.

Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Certainly much of the coverage I've seen has treated it with the scorn it deserves; it's not as if I'm the only one to notice the absurdity of the current situation. Yet The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is just about the model for reasonable, learned discussion, an affable group of ever-so-slightly libertarian leaning fellows who can almost always be counted on give the moderate position on any issue its fairest shake. In a post largely critical of the protests against the mosque, believing it to be creating the war of civilizations that Al Qaeda seeks to create, Mark Thompson has this to say:

I don’t have any real problem with those who take offense at the decision to build this project a few blocks from Ground Zero, and particularly those who take such offense having had deep ties to New York on 9/11/01... I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero.

This sounds immanently plausible. No one, least of all someone writing in a sex positive feminist tradition, ought to be commenting on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of certain responses to trauma. Who's to say how you'd feel if you'd lost someone in the attacks?

The apparent sensibility of this opinion is what, more than anything else, is ominous for the future of religious freedom in our country. Set aside the fact that it seems as if the New Yorkers who would be most affected by the attacks and by the mosque being built by and large support its construction. We've just claimed that it's a reasonable response to grief to blame the members of an entire group for the actions of a small subset of them. We're taking it as read that some dislike of the Muslim community for the actions of their most unsavory is justified. Most importantly of all, we've made it the responsibility of religious minorities not to offend the sensibilities of those opposed to religious freedom. The bigots have a place at the table. Their concerns are justified.

If this is the moderate position- construction of the mosque ought to be permitted under the first amendment, but it's insensitive of the people building it there, if belief in full social sanction for religious toleration has been pushed to the moderate and extreme left... I just don't know. Sometime between 9-11 and today, the ground shifted beneath my feet. I scarcely recognize the polity promised to me in 7th grade civics classes, one that never quite lived up to its ideals but tried its best. Where did my America go?

Friday, July 30, 2010

We're not the only ones with a stake in this fight

One would not expect going through the Catholic school system in Texas to be a pleasant experience for a queer kid. The truth is, though, I have few complaints. Homophobia (a not fully accurate word to describe the phenomena) motivated by religious conviction tended toward a staid intellectual condemnation that had an aura of civility to it. For all the reputation Texas has, its bigger cities where I lived don't differ too much in mores from other metropolitan areas around the country. My parents were nothing but supportive. And of course, there's little to pity a queer living in a college campus in Santa Fe for.

All of which is to say that I consider myself pretty fortunate, and my experience is probably not entirely representative. No one's experience will be the same, and a trans man in New York is going to have a considerably different experience than a lesbian in Zimbabwe.

Still, I can't believe I'm alone when I say that the time homophobia had the most impact on my life was not when, halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I was outed before I had chosen to do so, nor was it in the years prior to that when I had realized my orientation and remained closeted to all but my parents. It was before I had even known of my interest in men, when coasting along on the preferences of my peers seemed a decent substitute for forming my own. It was before, in short, anyone else could have known that I was bi, for even I was in the dark about it.

No, I felt most anxious around my desires, my appearance, my behaviors, when I was still expected to- and expected myself to- fit into the straitjacket of American masculinity. It's difficult to overstate the level of gender policing that goes on during those years. Every mannerism, food consumed, TV show watched, piece of clothing worn, tone of voice utilized was put through the wringer of gender politics, the slightest misstep indicating deadly femininity or gayness- really the same thing in men. It was suffocating. Surely it was at its worst when I was attempting to fit into it, around the time right after puberty, but one need only watch a Bud Light commercial to know it's far from limited to the middle school set.

What a relief it was, when I started fucking men! I had consummated my failure as an American man, and that set me free. I didn't have to follow their rules anymore, and I was free to do as I liked. Curiously, scrutiny around my gendered behavior dropped off a lot once I was forced out of the closet. While biological accounts making gay men into a third sex are problematic for obvious reasons, it's almost rung true for me on a sociological level- expectations about behavior and the social roles you get slotted into are much different for a gay man than they are for a straight man. And in my experience, the latter is much more restrictive than the former.

I'm much happier now than I ever was back then. The right to marry, the knowledge that I won't be assaulted for my sexual acts, the approval of the rest of society- I would and did trade it all for the ability to carve out a social space where I could breathe freely, unencumbered by the constant surveillance for gender appropriate behavior.

I'm sure some of you question the validity of describing that gender policing as homophobia. While it is not that in the strictest sense of the word, homophobia does not exist in a space separate from the rest of the culture. It's part of the tapestry of the apostolic succession of true manhood, a history of browbeating those of us born with a Y chromosome into stultifying standards of behavior. Homophobia needs strict standards of masculinity like fire needs air. Get rid of the one, and the other disappears.

Though the expectations of masculinity probably fit more awkwardly on me than they do on most, I can't be the only one who was or is chafing under its restraints. Nor can I believe that gays or even those identifying as genderqueer or trans are the only ones who feel constrained by this policing. Straight and gay men both have a stake in the fight against homophobia, because ultimately the forces that nourish homophobia contribute to the system that prevents all men from being able to live their lives as they choose.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Letter to Radiolab

If you guys haven't checked out the Radiolab podcast yet, I strongly urge you to do so. It's the most consistently excellent pop-intellectual show around, and there are few ways to spend an hour that are as entertaining and enlightening as listening to one of their podcasts. Still, their coverage of sexual minorities, when the subject comes around, leaves much to be desired. Hence this letter:

Dear Radiolab,

I'm a big fan of the show. While I discovered it only a month or so ago, your insightful commentary and interesting stories have made Radiolab a regular part of my podcasting diet. That makes your persistent sex-negativity and mistreatment of sexual minorities all the more distressing.

The latest incident was, of course, in your "Oops" episode, in which it was clearly implied that the villainous doctor's cruel psychological experiments were related to his sadomasochistic behavior in the bedroom. I'm sure you have an image of kinky people in your head- depraved, evil people whose scruples would never prevent them from engaging in clearly immoral behavior. I'm equally certain that your image would not survive a meeting with these supposed monsters, such as you might have at your local Conversio Virium meetings, a BDSM discussion and meeting group at Columbia University.

If you are not inclined to take such a step (and I cannot blame you, given the standard portrayals of kinky people), listen to the experts. The research efforts of psychologists in this field have been clear: kinky people are no more dangerous than anyone else. For example, a study done by the University of New South Wales found correlation between kinky sexual desires and psychological distress and impairment, and in fact found men into such things scored slightly better than the general populace. "Our findings support the idea that bondage and discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority," Associate Professor Juliet Richters and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. To the extent that stigma against kinky people persists in the psychological establishment, it is largely a result of widespread ignorance of such findings.

Your reporting on this subject has not only been erroneous; it's also harmful. According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, 30% of regular practitioners of kinky sex report facing discrimination, with 24% losing a job and 3% losing a child over their private sexual activities. As a member of the media, you have a social responsibility to report with care, a responsibility you have thus far abdicated in strengthening the stigma our society's marginalized face.

A public apology is in my opinion warranted. In the absence of such, I hope that you will have a care when discussing sexual minorities in the future.

James Vonder Haar

Monday, June 28, 2010

I wear no pants

If you haven't checked out Manvertised yet, you really should. Very thoughtful analysis of the role that anxious masculinity plays in many modern advertisements. While browsing the blog, I came across a couple of interesting commercials.

The ad betrays an ambivalence rarely seen in advertising. It's hard not to like the jovial singers, whose pastoral setting, non-conventionally ideal body types, and lack of pants symbolize a freedom unconcerned with social constraints. Yet this freedom is not attained by alienation; solidarity abounds in the well-coordinated chorus, whose performance betrays little lack of skill. This kind of unburdened freedom is the sort of brand association one would expect a company would want to instill, yet after giving us this positive portrait, Dockers tells us it's time to grow up and "wear the pants." The gendered implications of the phrase are obvious. It's not difficult to find advertisements that would paint this freedom as the masculine ideal, away from the feminizing influence of domestic life. Dockers instead sees domestic life as a masculine proving ground, with unfortunate implications. One must "wear the pants" in a relationship, obviously impossible in the presumably chaste bro love of our chorus. In order to attain masculinity, then, a man must abandon his egalitarian friendships in pursuit of dominating romance.

Our singers are not merely liberated from the mundane concerns of domestic life but also from the rigorous gender policing and gender anxiety that would make them strive to "wear the pants." Choirs complete with well-practiced harmony aren't considered the most masculine thing in the world, but our singers seem unperturbed that their sexuality might be called into question by putting so much time into perfecting their singing. Their dress, even setting aside their lack of pants, either subverts traditional expressions of masculinity or eschews them altogether; one man wears a slightly feminine sweater, another a soiled button-down one would expect to see on a person in a cubicle.

Our proud singers are simultaneously enviable and laughable, and their appeal is perhaps meant to redound upon us. Their crude facsimile of freedom can seem, and is meant to seem, childish, and finding them appealing is supposed to be shameful. Yet their pride and solidarity might reflect a deeper ambivalence. It's not difficult to find frustration with the feminizing influence of middle class life, but this is the first time I've seen that expressed alongside a frustration with gender policing. While we're ultimately meant to reject the freedom fantasy as childish, Dockers might be hitting something real here- a frustration with the impossible demands of masculinity in modern society.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Stay awhile, and listen

In an otherwise superb post on gender policing and masculine behavior, the proprietor of Danny's Corner tosses in something not so respectful of women's (or anyone's) autonomy:

Want a man to perform a sex act that he would normally not do? Tell him to man up and don't be scared to slap and choke her if she says she wants him to.

The problem Renee addresses here is real, and his point that men as well as women can feel pressured by gender policing into unwanted sex acts is well taken. But seriously, "if she says she wants him to?" How much respect can you have for your partner if you seriously think in those terms? How intelligent can you think they are if you privilege your understanding of them over their own? What hope is there for honest communication if you toss aside what your partner is telling you point blank?

Underlying the whole sentiment is an incredulity that anyone could find such sexually enjoyable; if they claim they want it, they are either lying to please their partner or in the grip of a false consciousness brought about by endemic sexism. One would have hoped that the visibility of other queer sexualities would lead people to conceive of sexualities that exist outside the norm, but that unfortunately doesn't seem to be the case.

I sincerely doubt that Danny would disregard someone's testimony about his or her sexual desires if they fell into a normative rubric. Most progressives may have laudably incorporated those in the GLBT community into that rubric, but the perils of the framework persist. Straights will have their testimony about their experiences believed; queers just might, if their audience is sufficiently informed and kind; but if you're not on the radar, your words are viewed with suspicion, and must be vetted by the normative gatekeepers to determine its truth.

And people tell me vanilla privilege doesn't exist.

Look, I've no desire to start up another round of the Oppression Olympics. Lord knows I've experienced frustration when people haven't believed me when I'm talking about my own sexuality. But the fact that at least some people are inclined to believe me when I tell them I like boys, girls, and everything inbetween instead of relentlessly psychoanalyzing me and trying to figure out whether I have an ulterior motive for saying so makes the world just a bit easier for this queer. When they haven't been inclined to believe me- when homophobes start citing daddy issues or biphobes tell me bisexuals don't really exist, is when my life starts to get complicated. Can't we extend this courtesy to all sexual minorities?

Monday, June 21, 2010


A week ago, I came downstairs from watching the first match of the Netherlands-Denmark game to find my father comatose on the couch. An hour later, he was pronounced dead at Arlington Medical Center.

I wanted to post the eulogy I wrote on here, because I would not be writing this blog without his example.

If my computer is to be believed, I first put fingers to keyboard on this speech on December 9th, 2009. "Father.RTF" was never supposed to be a eulogy. The truth is I'm not sure my dad ever appreciated how remarkable a person he was, though those of us who knew him well could never forget it. I had hoped to show him how much love and respect we all had for him, and how much he meant to us. If all had gone as planned, I would have told him all this tomorrow, as we were polishing off the dessert course of our father's day dinner.

I'll never get to say this to him, but I hope it can be a fitting tribute.

I could spend an hour detailing my father's virtues: his temperance and self-control, his frugality, his wisdom, his single-mindedness in pursuing a healthy lifestyle on behalf of his family. But the virtue that defined his life was the greatest of the seven, according to Corinthians: love.

I'm on shaky rhetorical ground, attempting a defense of love. Not merely the most cynical among us view the word, at least, with suspicion. It's hard not to, when it's the subject of a thousand hackneyed after-school specials and a million tin-eared novels. But anyone who knew my father knows that love is not merely a dead writ or cliche. Love was anything but a platitude to him.

There are a million things every one of us does to dehumanize the people around us. Most of us only have room in our moral universe for the hundred or so of our closest friends and family, and perhaps for those like them. Beyond that, the benefit of the doubt becomes hard to muster. The rude shopkeeper is vicious, not frazzled after working double-shifts through the night; the thief is naturally evil, not attempting to provide for his family. Dad refused to believe the former narratives, because he refused to believe that there was a person he couldn't find something admirable about. He believed there was no such thing as human debris, and his moral universe was large enough to compass the world. Mom once made the comment that nothing that his kids could do could really get him angry; he was always ready with a word at our defense. It was true, but we were far from the only ones who got that treatment. It pained him to think anything but the best of anyone, because he loved everyone.

I consider myself immensely blessed to have so many wonderful and remarkable people, accomplished and loving, in my life. In my brief time on this planet I have met activists and artists, scientists and senators. For three blissful years I have lived in the most caring community that I could imagine, and of course, I have known the love of a wonderful family. Yet I have never known a finer human being than my father. And I doubt I ever will.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The capitalist retort to discrimination

I found this post on Rand Paul's racial snafu quite interesting:

The Times editorial and other media pronouncements have perpetuated a drastic misreading of history and of government’s role in ending racial discrimination in this nation. This history is far more nuanced than is widely assumed. At the center of the Jim Crow system lay the “Jim Crow laws.” They were indeed laws, i.e., requirements that persons and businesses and government agencies must practice racial discrimination or face civil or criminal penalties. In other words, government had bolstered discrimination instead of suppressing it. For example, the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which endorsed “separate but equal” treatment in railroad travel and eventually in other spheres such as public education, was about whether an 1890 state law in Louisiana requiring segregation was constitutional. The court said it was.

My experience with the rights of sexual minorities makes me skeptical that a liberation movement can be wholly successful without government backing, so I support government intervention for both sexual and racial liberation. Still, Mr. Calfee is right to conclude that the standard narrative that pits enlightened government officials against racist business owners doesn't wash. Jim Crow wasn't so much the freedom of association run amok as it was a majority using the levers of democratic governance to secure their supremacy. It remains largely mute on the possibility of promoting tolerance through non-coercive means, and on the question of whether freedom of association is compatible with a pluralistic society.

In fact, boosters of the free market would have us believe that one promotes the other. This argument takes many forms, but the one the article posits is that there is an economic incentive to practice non-discrimination. In its own words:

By the 20th century, the Jim Crow system was vastly diminished in the North but had become thoroughly embedded in the South—through government action—despite the incentives of many business owners to reap the economies of scale and consequent profit from treating all customers alike.

Color me skeptical that the free market tends to dampen the enthusiasm for discrimination. There's an unfortunate tendency to view economic man as a straw version of a utilitarian- someone who keeps his nose to the grindstone, is unconcerned with ideology, and in the end driven only by the almighty dollar. We're to imagine someone who buys all the off brands when grocery shopping, because they offer a better deal, and someone who feels that the demands of ideology are so much dust in the face of tangible currency.

Of course, this isn't an accurate description of humanity as a whole, nor is it the description of man as studied by economists when they're doing their jobs right. The father of the discipline, Smith, was fond of citing varying degrees of honor given to professions to explain their different wages. Rather than a fascimile of utilitarianism, Smith's humanity was concerned with things other than filthy lucre. If economics is to accurately describe human action, it must take these things into account.

If the bottom line were all that drove humanity, Mr. Calfee's analysis would be substantially correct. Yet monetary- I hesitate to say economic, for other areas of human action are as amenable to the discipline as practical things- considerations are not all that drive humanity, even and especially in the realm of commerce. Many are willing to spend more money on environmentally-friendly products. Many refuse to spend their money on corporations that have politics that are hateful to them.

In other words, capitalism is far from a panacea because some people will attach an economic value to expressing their racism. Any advertising executive will tell you that ideas and values are as important to commerce as practical utility. Even setting aside clearly erroneous beliefs that workers of different races will be less competent to do their jobs, racist business owners will feel an incentive to practice racist policies because their beliefs are deeply held. And those who patronize those businesses will express their displeasure in racially progressive hiring policies by shopping elsewhere.

So it would have transpired, anyway, if the libertarian solution to race problems had prevailed in the Jim Crow south.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lay down your burdens

The Slacktivist has this to say on the subject of pity:

Pity gets a bad rap. It's considered acceptable to feel pity for those who are fully aware that their plight is pitiable -- victims, say, of earthquakes or tsunamis. But to feel or show pity for those not fully aware of their plight -- particularly of those who would vehemently deny that they are, like the rest of us, deserving of pity -- is somehow regarded as unforgivably arrogant and condescending.

"Undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free." How patronizing! Who are you to tell someone else they're oppressed. "Let the one who has two tunics share with the one who has none." How condescending! Keep your tunic to yourself, you stuck-up, less-shivering-than-thou jerk.

If we are to love one another as we love ourselves, then pity is unavoidable. To reject pity as arrogant and condescending can only lead to somewhere cruel, callous and monstrous. Somewhere, obviously, pitiless.

Pity, at least the sort the slacktivist describes, is rarely the friend of those in favor of sexual freedom. The pity for the compulsive evangelical, burdened by the duty to witness to the faith no matter how awkward they make social situations, is of a piece with the pity for the homosexual, burdened by his or her nature to never know the joys of parenthood, the pity for the polyamorous, doomed to exploitative and unloving relationships, and the pity for the masochist, who could not in his or her right mind truly enjoy what is happening. What they all share in common is the refusal to take the experience of the pitied seriously. Empathy untempered by humility is worse than useless. If we are to love one another as we love ourselves, we must also accept that others might have different values than we do. We must acknowledge that our judgment of others' circumstances may be wrong. And we must have the love to shelve our pride and accept the testimony of others about themselves over our judgments about them.

In short, imposed pity is never loving. Pity for those who do not consider their plight pitiful is considered condescending and arrogant because it is condescending and arrogant. I share Mr. Clark's revulsion of those who consider all pity an evil, but we oughtn't group imposed pity together with empathy. The one seeks an honest connection with another human being, accepting their personhood in commiserating with their plight. The other objectifies the pitied by replacing their experience with the judgment of the pitier.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's Never Just a Game, Part 1- Escapism

I wrote this post originally for the Border House Blog, a clearinghouse for queer's, feminist's, people of color's, and other marginalized views on gaming and technology. There's a lot of great stuff being published there, so I highly encourage you to check it out!

I get the appeal of escapism. No one actually wants to think of their own troubles or the problems of the world while slaughtering Ares in God of War or destroying the Death Star. Gaming can be our brief reprieve from Kant and accounting, romantic problems and chores, responsibility and danger. It can be a refuge from the world, a small part of existence where everything can be right.

Taken in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with such an escape. In fact, taking the time to relax every once in awhile seems critical to maintaining mental health and living a happy life. The reluctance to question the provider of this good is understandable. I think that explains why critical analysis of video games tend to be dismissed by the notion that it’s “just a game.” Case in point: a friend of mine recently got into a discussion on potential antisemitism in Mass Effect 2, and one of our mutual acquaintances responded with, “If they want to politicize something, then let them, but enjoy the stupid thing for the game that it is.”

In other words, what we do here at the Border House threatens the escapism of the gaming public. The duty to think critically about the stereotypes that our gaming can reflect, and about the portrayal of those who exist outside the mainstream of American society, can seem like it’s getting in the way of a good time. If we could just lighten up, shrug off unintended insults, and play on, we’d be much happier.

It’s not difficult to deconstruct the privilege in this assessment. Obviously a gentile can safely ignore antisemitic sentiment if it pops up in their favorite game, but a Jew will be painfully reminded of every time they’ve been treated as lesser because of their racial and religious identification. Straight gamers can laugh at cheesy gay stereotypes, but queer gamers will be reminded of slurs tossed at them on the playground.

Members of minority groups would rather like to join their privileged brethren in enjoying some depoliticized, harmless entertainment. We’d love to have a small reprieve from our troubles and be able to just focus on beating a boss. That’s why it’s so frustrating when games, intentionally or not, remind us of our marginalized status. Being reminded that people of color are seen as nothing more than accessories to white protagonists isn’t the most relaxing thing when you’re just trying to beat Ultima Weapon. Ultimately the only way we’ll get media that reflects our existence is if we start making some noise.

That’s why we’ll keep writing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ultrasounds and bodily autonomy

So Pro-lifers in Oklahoma have succeeded in passing a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound before that procedure, presumably because seeing the fetus beforehand would give some women doubts about aborting it. This is problematic on a number of levels, for obvious reasons- it smacks of paternalism to claim that we need an act of government to educate women on the true costs of abortion, and the gradual eroding of reproductive rights by restricting access to abortion and increasing the social stigma associated with that procedure continues apace. Yet the most troubling aspect of the discourse around this bill has been the disregard for the bodily autonomy of the women forced to undergo a non-consensual medical procedure in order to exercise their reproductive rights. I've heard the argument that, "well, an abortion is already an incredibly invasive procedure, so it doesn't seem like that much more invasive to get an ultrasound" with disturbing frequency.

I imagine that, were I in that situation (to the extent that a man can really put himself in the shoes of a pregnant woman), I probably wouldn't balk at an ultrasound when an abortion was around the corner. But it doesn't matter what I would or wouldn't balk at. Only one person gets to decide whether a medical procedure is too invasive or not- the person undergoing the procedure. There is not an objective sliding scale of more invasive and less invasive medical operations that we can base our laws on. We are certainly in no way justified in assuming consent to one procedure because of consent to a different one.

Starting to look familiar, yet? We're not justified in assuming consent to a "lesser" sexual act because of consent to a "more invasive" one, either. The argument of the pro-lifers looks uncomfortably similar slut shaming (big surprise, I know). Obviously consent to one sex act implies consent to all the other "lesser" ones; consent has already been given, regardless of the will of the person. The woman wearing revealing clothing, or who has had sex with multiple partners, dabbled in S&M, or practiced polyamory- she's public property, who willed away her ability to say "no," long ago.

The only world where such ideas can make sense is one where there is an objective sliding scale of lesser and more invasive acts. When collective wisdom and the testimony of experts can construct a guideline of reasonable and unreasonable things to consent to, authentic subjectivity can find no place. When we substitute our own scale of values for those of another, we've made it impossible for the testimony of our own desires to be taken seriously.

This isn't an arcane philosophical point, and its importance is felt by both men and women. The only way everyone can be safe in sexual relations- whatever our gender, orientation, and proclivities in the bedroom- is if our subjectivity is respected. A world in which my partner- or the social construction of my actions- can paper over my desires and construct consent where it is not willed is a world where I'm not safe sexually. No one is.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Only heterosexual white males are capable of objectivity

Thus saith the American Family Association:

A fundamental requirement of a judge is impartiality. He is to be as impartial as an umpire or a referee. His responsibility is to take rules written by others (including and above all the Constitution) and faithfully and neutrally apply them without bias or favoritism, and without changing the rules in the middle of the game to give the advantage to the team he happens to like best.

Tim Donaghy, an experienced NBA referee, was recently banned for life when it was revealed that he placed bets on games he himself officiated. He eventually plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges and is in prison as we speak. You just can't have a referee - or a judge - who has a built-in bias towards one team or the other.

A homosexual judge cannot help but give the home-field advantage to every legal team appearing before him who represents homosexual causes. It will be impossible for the visiting team, the team representing sexual normalcy and natural marriage, to get a fair shake in his courtroom.


Apparently a heterosexual who sits on the court doesn't have a unique viewpoint or a possibility of having his or her judgments clouded by his or her unique life experiences. It isn't worth worrying that he or she will have an insufficient appreciation of the struggles that sexual minorities (or minorities in general) face, yet homosexuals are obviously impeded in coming to an objective verdict.

Of course, the only people who are competent- whose judgments will not be impeded by their own unique history- are normal people. That's why we call them normal: they're the default. Putting anyone aside from a heterosexual, white, upper class male, who alone among the classes have the unique ability to distance themselves from their upbringing and enter into a realm of pure reason, is simply irresponsible.

It's the same song and dance we heard during the Sotomayor hearings. My letter to the editor of the New York Times on that issue summed it up as well as I can:

It is disingenuous to paint Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s commitment to bring a unique point of view to the court as evidence of racial bias, as leading Republican members of Congress have done.

Proponents of a diverse bench believe that pursuit of the objective truth requires the input of many different kinds of people. We cannot allow the nation’s highest court to become blinded by a myopia brought about by racial, class and gender homogeneity. The upper-class white male is not a tabula rasa from which verdicts come untainted by circumstance of birth.

The court will be all the better for a panoply of viewpoints and backgrounds on the bench.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Using Tiger Woods as a club

From a recent New York Times piece justifying the media hysteria over Tiger Woods:

Monogamous marriage matters. As a 21-year veteran of the institution, I can attest to its imperfections. But compared with the alternatives, it looks pretty good as a means of rearing the next generation. It is more compatible with egalitarian, democratic values than polygamy is, and it has various advantages — including sheer economic efficiency — over single-parent child rearing.

Of course, he disregards the benefits that non-monogamy can have for creating and sustaining loving and stable families, should that be one's goal. If we had a culture where married people had more leeway to negotiate the sexual rules of their partnership, we'd probably see many more stable and happy marriages. A couple that's trying to stay together for their kids despite their difficulties might find their task considerably easier if they agree that they will drop their insistence on sexual exclusivity.

And if two parents are more economically stable than one, wouldn't three or four be more stable than two? Poly families seem poised to reap the benefits from extended kinship networks that the modern family has largely abandoned. A poly family more closely approximates "It takes a village to raise a child," than most of the nuclear family arrangements we have in modern America.

I'm not saying that polyamorous families are better than monogamous ones, or even attempting to denigrate the dedication of those who cleave closely to monogamous ideals. Dropping monogamy isn't the solution for everyone in a disintegrating marriage, and a triad isn't superior for child raising to a couple. Happy parents are likely to lead to a happy family, and I'm the last person to suggest that someone should attempt a framework for love and sex that goes against what feels most right to them. And I'm certainly not excusing Tiger Woods or adulterers in general, whose behavior, should they not get the okay of their spouse, is dishonest. It's just that any non-monogamous arrangement is held to a higher standard of social benefit than a corresponding monogamous arrangement.

Our chief problem is one of perception. Look again at the above quote- the only options Mr. Wright can conceive of are 1.) adultery, 2.) polygamy, or 3.) monogamy. In other words, we have Tiger Woods, fundamentalist offshoots from Mormonism (small disclaimer: lumping in Mormons with the fundamentalist polygamists is not cool), or Mr. Wright himself. He seems literally unable to contemplate a triad, a married couple agreeing to be sexually non-monogamous, or any of the panpoly of frameworks that characterize the sex-positive polyamorous community.

This is problematic because it colors almost every discussion of polyamory in our society. It's pretty clear when you talk to most people about it that they've got patriarchal polygamy in the back of their minds, and filter everything you say through that lens. To put it mildly, this isn't a constructive framework in which to view the subject. Comparing sex-positive polyamory to ancient polygamy is like comparing modern homosexuality to Athenian pederasty. Yeah, both involve same-sex attraction, but the cultural and ideological conditions are so radically different that concerns that apply to one are unlikely to apply to another. Only homophobes are concerned that homosexuality in our society will largely consist of older men having sex with younger boys of questionable ability to consent. Likewise, though the effects of sexism and patriarchy on current models of polyamory are of concern, only woefully misinformed people ought to worry that modern polyamory will even remotely resemble the chattel slavery that characterizes polygamy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Including the majority

I messed up.

From the comments section of my previous post:

It isn't right and as a Christian, please know that there are many of us out here that are fighting against these stereotypes in much the same way as you are.

I'll never forget the time one of the nicest people I know, a good friend and, at the time, aspiring clergyman (he and his spouse are currently in seminary), took me aside and reassured me, on no uncertain terms, that his deeply held faith by no means implied a hatred for me because of my sexual orientation. At first I didn't know what to make of such a confession. It seemed odd; I mean, the rest of my friends didn't feel the need to make this clear, and it seemed to put a tad too much emphasis on my difference in my sexual orientation.

That was before I'd considered things from his point of view. As someone who both subscribes to staunchly progressive politics and morality and holds a deep faith, I can't imagine that he's happy with the invisibility of people like him. Contemporary political discourse, loving its dichotomies, must make conservative politics a prerequisite for faith.

This is entirely absurd. Institutionally and individually, Christians are not uniformly opposed to sexual freedom. The ACLU down here in New Mexico uses a local church as a staging ground for our student lobby day, which focuses almost exclusively on advocating for domestic partnership legislation. Moreover, 76% of America is Christian. Average out support for gay rights at somewhere around half the population, with substantial majorities in favor of anti discrimination legislation and a sizable minority in favor of marriage, and, even assuming every single non-Christian is on our side, half the support of gay rights comes from Christians.

You'd never know that from contemporary portrayals of American Christianity. I know well how frustrating feeling invisible can be, and if my friends wish to make their experiences known, more power to them.

The unfortunate truth is that progressive activists can be just as guilty as mainstream outlets of perpetuating this myth. Often subconsciously, we treat anyone identifying as Christian as opposed to our cause, and bring religious identification into the discussion where it does not belong. We consider it a relevant difference, an important point to make when excoriating opposing viewpoints, and therefore treat as "other" many people who are just as passionately devoted to sexual freedom as we are. That's what I did when I referred to First Things as a "conservative Christian magazine."

The bottom line is this: my friends and family should not have to justify their faith. Their religion should not make them "other" in sex-positive spaces, just as my sexuality should not make me "other" in mainstream contexts.

So, I messed up. I put my Christian readers on the defensive, and marginalized their contributions to the movement. For that I apologize.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Apollo Program

It's not good enough anymore.

I remember playing a game called Civilization II back when I was a kid. Per the title, it was one of the empire building games where you explored territory, founded cities, negotiated with other civilizations, and discovered new technologies. You'd venture out into the all-encompassing blackness and gradually reveal more of the map, getting a lay of the land and the surrounding civilizations. You'd find new fertile areas to settle and new defensive positions to fortify for when your neighbors got uppity. Eventually you'd have explored your continent, gotten a pretty good idea of where the borders lay, and settled into a comfortable existence. Once you'd discovered the right seafaring technologies, you might strike out into the darkness once again, discovering new civilizations on a new continent and trading maps and technologies. But it was always difficult to motivate yourself to explore once you'd discovered all the trading partners. Blackness on the edges of the map still loomed, but you had more pressing priorities. This trireme is clearly needed to reinforce the fleet at Salamis; I need my cruiser sticking around Thermopylae to discourage those Chinese bombers from getting antsy (of course, I always played the Greeks). I can't invest in a fleet now, not when I'm so close to discovering gunpowder; maybe in twenty turns.

Then you'd make it to the modern era, and the space race began. With military domination unachieved, this was your only path to victory; first one to Alpha Centauri wins. Of course, to get there you first needed to get to the moon, so you'd start working on the Apollo Program. Since you'd put all those satellites into space, you'd finally, after all this time, have every square on the map revealed. There was an island you had no clue about, just six squares from your coastal capital city, a superb place for a fishing village. There was a source of incense or oil in the arctic wastes where you never thought to look. Or even a new civilization, who you might have learned from.

Gradually expanding the center's horizons isn't good enough anymore. They certainly won't dispatch their own triremes to find us, and the curious islanders that wash up on their shores every once in awhile are either unheeded or reviled. That's not entirely fair; sometimes enough of them make an effort to brave the straits in their rickety boats, and if they're close enough to the center's locus of power, they just might make it and have their existence realized and their humanity acknowledged. Maybe their island will remain a curious colony of the empire; most likely, that's how it starts, with begrudging acceptance gradually giving way to full citizenship. Perhaps one day, even their marriages will be accorded the full dignity they deserve.

But the center rarely makes the leap that there might be other islands, just a stone's throw away from their new territory. Those islanders might have a better chance of being noticed now that they're closer to a locus of power, but the process repeats itself. Each new revelation has to be fought for painstakingly, as if the previous struggles never happened.

Until the Apollo Program.

I want to talk about my father for a moment.

I do not believe that there is a condescending bone in my father's body. Only his refusal to discount my experiences and to treat my perspective as worthwhile salved the pain of navigating as a child in a hostile world that continually treated me as incompetent to define myself and my desires. When the long-promised respect for my humanity failed to materialize as I neared adulthood, when I was inundated with messages claiming that I knew not my own sexuality, that I was experimenting, confused, haphazardly reaching at a masculine self-actualization, his steady support was invaluable to convincing me to trust my own competence. When I began exploring a variant gender expression, his nonchalance that his son was shopping in the women's section of Target gave me the courage to become comfortable in my own skin.

I don't want to lionize my dad, or turn him into something that he's not. Lord knows there were difficulties- the awkward silence when I first commented on the guys that I found attractive or the advice that was overly preoccupied with preserving privilege than being comfortable in my own skin. Despite all that, he trusted my judgment, and once the advice was given, treated my decisions with respect.

He never asked me to justify myself.

This is because my father believes that there is no such thing as human debris. His staunch refusal to ever discount a person's point of view, to believe them irredeemably corrupted and incompetent, his dogged insistence on finding humanity in every person, is an inspiration to me.

To the extent that the sex positive movement will be successful, is the extent to which we succeed in creating more people like my father.

That's our Apollo Program.

Constructing a righteous sex-positivity

"There is no should between consenting adults."

I'm seeing this meme spread more and more in the sex positive blogosphere, and believe me, I get the impetus behind it. It's incredibly empowering to cast off the social taboos that once bound you. It's a defiant affirmation that rape is the only sexual crime*- that all immoral sex acts must boil down to a disrespect for the autonomy of another individual. It's an affirmation of one's identity, a refusal to allow the message that say we are sick or perverted to deny us our happiness. Really, I get it.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree. There are shoulds between consenting adults. We should aim for enthusiastic consent rather than begrudging acceptance. We should aim to respect our partners and not treat them as means to an end. We should aim in all instances to practice the virtue of love in our sex life, which is not to say that we must feel a romantic attachment for a sex act to be positive or moral. Rather, the morality borne of empathy with our fellow humans ought to be our guide in sex as well as the rest of life. As Jens Bjornboe put it:

People speak of 'sexual morality,' but that is a misleading expression. There is no special morality for sex. No matter what you do with yourself, whether you go to bed with girls or with boys, and no matter what it occurs to you to do with them or with yourself, no moral rule applies to that sphere of activity other than the principles that govern every aspect of life: honesty, courage, common humanity, consideration.
This ethic eschews a facile checklist approach to morality and concerns itself instead with their underlying principles. Rather than blindly following a list of dos and don'ts, we must thoughtfully construct satisfying principles and figure out how to better live them.

No greater example of this poor sexual morality is found than in this comment from a conservative Christian online magazine:

There are so many of us who simply don't like living in a world where absolutely anything can be condoned. Man must have laws and rules and those who seek to destroy boundaries should think twice.
Let me first say that I'm disinclined to sacrifice my only hope for happiness in this world so that people like Maria may have the mental security that someone, somewhere, has been prevented from practicing a fulfilling life.

Part of this is a problem of perception, and part of it is a problem of articulation. Certainly, sex positive activists have been trying to convince the rest of the world that we have not abandoned all of our moral principles in favor of libertine anarchy, with greater or less results.

Yet I think we could be doing better at articulating a righteous sex positivity-not simply as an overturning of conventional mores in favor of sexual freedom, but as a framework in which to lead a morally satisfying life. We should be articulating why our outlook on the world is the one most consonant with the classical virtues, why Christ's outreach to the marginalized reflects on our sexual minorities, and why our opponents fall short of the only morally defensible principles.

Here's to the work of a lifetime.

*Which is to say that, pedophilia, bestiality, et al are immoral because of their affinity to rape, as the victims are incapable of consent.

On Using Words as Shields

I recently posted on my facebook wall that I had come very close to using the word "heteronormative" in the previous night's Pride and Prejudice seminar, when my tutors (first-among-equals facilitators of discussion that take the place of professors at St. John's) began to laud marriage as a proxy for adulthood and responsibility. One of my friends rejoined that heteronormative was not quite the right word, and something like monogamy-centric might be a better one.

She has a point. Heteronormative isn't the right word to use there, not quite. It nettled me that she was mostly right, since it's been a dissatisfaction with the little writing I've done here. I feel like I've finally been set free and given a set of tools to describe what was constraining me before; on the other hand, using the words "heterocentric," and "hegemonic masculinity," as a catch-all talisman for warding off everything I dislike about modern culture is imprecise, leads to wooly thinking, and is aesthetically unpleasing.

It's all the more frustrating because there is an obvious connection between all these -isms. Transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and dislike of gender variant people obviously have some unity to them. The above may be more artfully described as marriage-centric than heterocentric, but obviously extolling marriage as the sole path to respectability negatively impacts social groups that have for the most part been denied access to that institution. What I was really trying to express is that both have an insufficient regard for the diversity of what makes for a happy life, and focus too much on conventional methods of attaining that life. "Conventional," and "normative" have worked to describe that vague feeling in certain circumstances, but they're ultimately unsatisfying. What I really want is a language I can deploy analytically to sharpen my thoughts and make myself clearer to my readers.

Unfortunately, such a language may be logically impossible. If I lack access to such language right now and must seek out the works of academia to construct a satisfying vocabulary, there's no way most of my readers will have access to such a vocabulary. In being able to articulate myself I risk becoming so dense that no layperson would ever be able to decipher me.

So, um, help?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon: the queerest manifestation of heteronormativity

First thing's first: despite some harsh words later on in this post, I completely adored How to Train Your Dragon. Continuing the upward trajectory that Kung Fu Panda started, Dreamworks has finally produced a movie worthy of their longtime rivals at Pixar. Gone, for the most part, are the uninspired character designs that remind one more of the worst of Saturday morning cartoons rather than Disney, replaced by characters dripping with charisma and personality. Though a few of the dragon designs miss the mark, the main character really steals the show; while initially seeming mundane, Toothless eventually exhibits more charm in an unvocal character than we've seen since Wall-E and Eve. It's a bit predictable, as most children's movies are, and the jokes, while rarely failing to produce a laugh, can sometimes feel a bit pedestrian and formulaic. Still, the chance to see the dragons caper around on-screen, and the exhilaration of the flying scenes, which put even Miyazaki to shame, are worth the price of admission. It's been a long time since a movie has so brightened my day and let me go about the rest of my business with a sense of wonder; I haven't really felt it since Spirited Away. I very seriously considered sticking around in the theater afterward to catch a second showing. Don't miss it.

The film is, on the whole, spectacular about gender and sexuality issues, making the few missteps all the more nettling. Most of the queers in the audience will probably be able to empathize a lot with Hiccup, our oddly named protagonist. He has serious problems conforming to his society's expectations of masculinity, as his slight build and bookish demeanor make him unsuited to killing dragons, the only source of respect in his Viking society. Like most of us, he vacillates between envy and emulation of his more manly and respected companions and acceptance of himself ("y'know, there are a lot of great Viking warriors, but not many great Viking smiths or farmers,"). Eventually his less aggressive nature wins both his own respect and the admiration of society; while every other Viking would have killed the dragon when he had the chance, Hiccup's refusal to kill it, and eventual befriending of it, are key to resolving the costly war. He achieves self-actualization in his gender variant behavior, and his lack of aggression and intelligent use of tools are acknowledged as admirable traits in their own right by his peers. And, of course, Hiccup's relationship with his dragon, though not even remotely sexual, bears more than a superficial similarity to other taboo loves.

The way in which Hiccup's newly won respect is expressed is somewhat problematic, specifically the poorly executed romance subplot shoehorned in at the last moment. It's a testament to the film that I can't even wholly condemn the rewarding romance; Astrid, the object of Hiccup's affections, is far from a wilting damsel. In fact, she's Hiccup's rival in their dragon-slaying classes, and is generally portrayed as the best of the class, though frequently upstaged by our protagonist and his superior understanding of the creatures won from interacting with one of them.

Yet it is just that: a reward. Astrid and Hiccup's relationship exists only to symbolize Hiccup's newly won status. The admiration of society is symbolized by the adoration of a girl. It falls into the same trap all too many low-status males do, of viewing relationships (and sexuality) as a way to prove their worth. In other words, it exhibits a transaction model of sex.

Still, if that's the only complaint I have against the movie, compared to the mountain of hegemonic masculinity most of Hollywood's efforts are mired in, it's doing something right.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tonight's Pride and Prejudice discussion was frustrating.

It's not easy to mount a defense of Lydia, as I halfheartedly attempted tonight. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story or have forgotten, much of the drama in the middle act of the novel revolves around Lydia's elopement with Wickham, an amiable-seeming character eventually revealed as a scoundrel . Without the permission or even notice of her father, this is a scandal, and one that places the Bennett family in considerable danger. It's strongly implied that Wickham had no intention of marrying Lydia, and meant to take his pleasure and leave her honorless with little hope of finding a husband. This puts the entire Bennett family, who has the unenviable task of marrying off five daughters, in peril; it shames the entire family and makes it unlikely that any of her sisters would be able to find a husband to support them.

This is by no means frivolous, and the outrage of her family is not simply a retrograde expression of barbaric sexual mores. While the modern ethic would discount such concerns, Lydia's actions have placed the future happiness and prosperity of her sisters in jeopardy. When your means of supporting yourself is tied only to who you marry, you'd best ensure that you can make a good match. To that extent, an analogous (and suitably privileged) situation might be one where a modern-day Lydia gambled away her sisters' college funds.

And to be sure, much as I would like to lionize Lydia as an imperious defender of her right to dispose her body as she sees fit, or as practicing a stoic defiance in refusing to allow the social consequences of her actions to destroy her happiness, she is, in the end, simply a naive girl. She is not the socially transgressive version of Charlotte, who walks into a dreary marriage with her eyes open, and a plan for finding her happiness even inside her unfortunate circumstances. She simply had little sense, and her family nearly paid dearly for it (disaster is somewhat averted when the couple is found and Wickham is cajoled to marry Lydia by promising to pay off his gambling debts).

Even so, much of the discussion tonight revolved around excoriating Lydia not simply for her foolishness but for her selfishness. Putting her family in that much peril was unconscionable, said most of the table, and given the above, it's hard to say that they're entirely wrong.

Yet I couldn't help but feel attacked every time one of my classmates launched another salvo at the girl, because despite (and perhaps because of) her faults, I saw a lot of myself in Lydia. I'm profoundly uncomfortable in asserting that she has a responsibility to consider respectability or even the prospects of her sisters in choosing her relationships. The bottom line is that, not so very long ago, and not so very far away from my birthplace in St. Louis or from my college campus here in Santa Fe, I would have been expected to forgo every prospect of happiness in marriage, or in any case had my options intolerably limited, on account of propriety and the reputation of my family. Though I have for the most part been spared this dilemma by changing attitudes toward homosexuality, I would fervently like to believe that I would be acting exactly as I am now, whether I were born forty or four hundred or a thousand years ago, or a few thousand miles to the south.

Despite rehearsing this speech in my head for several minutes, I never did give it, and perhaps for good reasons. Putting a modern- or an idiosyncratic- lens to an ancient author is rarely productive. I had to set aside my skepticism about the supernatural to get anything out of Aquinas, and likewise, if I'm to get anything out of Austen, I might have jettison cherished beliefs about sexual freedom.

Even so, I have to wonder if there's not some privilege operating underneath tonight's discussion. Not all my hesitation was attributable to intellectual modesty- there's an unfortunate tendency to discourage bringing up the ways in which privilege can influence thought. St. John's College doesn't tend to think much of the critique that almost all of our works were written by dead white men, and as such are somewhat blinkered, or in any case present only a narrow point of view. They prefer to view thinkers as cogitating in isolation, and that good thought transcends circumstances. To be fair, the college is consistent about this, being skeptical about the role of autobiographical information and historical context in proper exegesis.

In any case, because most of my classmates occupy a normative sexuality, they can't really put themselves in Lydia's position. They don't feel quite as strongly what's at stake when they assert that her sexual decisions ought to be subordinate to the well being of her family. For them, such an assertion is an entertaining thought experiment, a trying on of how things seemed a few centuries ago- or more charitably, it's an exercise of intellectual rigor that sets aside their own opinions in favor of meeting the author on his or her own terms. Either way, I have to wonder if a few of the women in our class weren't, as I was tonight, choking back the bile when us boys blithely treated Aristotle's misogyny as an intellectual parlor game.