Court Rulings, Rules of Courtship, and Honorable Intentions

In the rituals of human courtship and mating, questions of intention appear to have always mattered, and the recent and ongoing debates about marriage equality demonstrate they matter still. I use the word intention, here, as it is commonly understood, to mean purpose or aim, but its more esoteric meanings from medicine, neurobiology, theory of mind research, religion, and spirituality, may also relate, revealing as they do how completely the notion of intention is enmeshed in earthly nature. Many avian and mammalian species require elaborate demonstrations by prospective partners before assenting to mate, and what biologists call animal intentionality emerges in the evolutionary record long before any shotgun-toting patriarch asked of his daughter’s suitor, “Exactly what are your intentions, son?”

In late March, as the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) prepared to hear three days of argument in the two cases considered potentially determinative of future marriage rights in the U.S., Salon columnist Sally Kohn ignited a debate with conservative MSNBC commentator S.E. Cupp when she expressed misgivings about the reasons some conservatives were citing for their support of marriage equality. Although Kohn never used the word, she was talking about intentions.

Kohn argued that queerkind should be wary of conservative support rationalized by moral claims about the institution, itself, rather than moral claims about equality, inclusion, or freedom of choice. She wrote, “To the extent Republican support for gay marriage is based on imposing restrictive and regressive conservative social norms, it ultimately hurts gays — and all of us — more than it helps.” Kohn reminded readers that a diverse coalition of activists expressed concern about this very danger in the 2006 statement, Beyond Marriage, and she quoted one of its seminal claims: “Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.” Cupp, describing in her response the “overtly conservative belief” she said Kohn was rejecting, entailed as succinct a conservative case for marriage equality ever there was: “…that marriage is a stabilizing social construct that should be encouraged…”

That lawmakers might intend to use marriage law to impose social or moral norms, as the Beyond Marriage signers feared, is hardly academic, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg highlighted from the bench, on the first day of arguments in U.S. v. Windsor, the case that challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), when she read from the House of Representatives’ 1996 Report on the passage of that law:

Civil laws that allow only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both a moral disapproval of homosexuality and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.

Those words elicited audible gasps from court spectators, although congress’ morality-shaping intentions should surprise no one who remembers the 1996 debate, and also bolstered the opinion of the court that Section 3 of DOMA, which narrowed the definition of “marriage” in the United States Code to mean only a union between a man and a woman, violated the Fifth Amendment (an opinion propitiously released on the tenth anniversary of Texas v. Lawrence, Justice Scalia’s dissent to which famously foreshadowed such an outcome.) Writing for the majority in U.S. v. Windsor, Kennedy cites the congressional gasp-worthiness:

The history of DOMA’s enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.

Indeed, much of the social agenda of the conservative movement is precisely so intended, and observers can’t help but recognize the connection between conservative disapproval of sodomy and conservative disapproval of abortion, both finally a disapproval of all non-procreative sexual pleasure. Columnist Dan Savage recognized this usually unstated but somehow obvious connection on Up with Chris Hayes at the end of March, when he said, “Gay is the new abortion.” Savage made the point that marriage equality advocates will have to defend every advance just as women must continue to defend their reproductive freedom long after Roe v. Wade; mere court rulings will not dissuade social conservatives from their struggle against what they consider sexual perfidy:

Abortion, access to birth control, women’s freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, it is all about sexual control. And it is all — the thing that links them all is kind of this anger about sexual — recreational sex. You are having abortions because you had sex for fun; you didn’t want to have babies. You’re using birth control, which Rick Santorum has a problem with, because you’re having sex for the wrong reasons, which is 99.99 percent of the sex that human beings have, which is for fun and intimacy and connection and release. And that links gay sex, too. That’s why they’re against all — abortion, birth control, gay people, gay sex, gay marriage all linked by this religiously inspired anger at people who are having sex for fun, not for God.

Significantly, not all Republicans now supporting marriage equality base their support on the conservative nature of the institution, as Rob Portman did. Some, like Jon Huntsman, do frame their support, however belated, in terms of individual liberty, and equality under the law. Similarly, not all Republicans who have not expressed support actively oppose marriage equality.  Many, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, retreated early to the refuge of a states’ rights argument, thus evading the real debate. Nonetheless, with so many Republicans hinging their opposition to marriage equality on the moral disapprobation of “sex for fun, not for God,” and the ones experiencing changes of heart arguing the conservative case for marriage equality – “…that marriage is a stabilizing social construct that should be encouraged…” – circumstances do seem to conspire towards the difficulties Kohn outlined: a paradigm of beliefs and attitudes that together create a subtle coercion to marry, possibly for reasons that hue not to the authentic selves of the participants. Intentions, anyone?

Subtle coercion seemed to worry activist Scot Nakagawa, also, in the widely read essay he posted the same week. Nakagawa addressed concerns very similar to Kohn’s, but did so with an eye on the intentions of movement activists as well as newly-supportive conservatives. Nakagawa argued for supporting same-sex marriage as a civil right but not as a strategy to achieve structural change, his titular premise, and cited the potential pitfalls of the “model minority” strategy the “mainstream LGB movement” is pursuing with success, including the danger of exploiting the same us versus them dynamic that operates to oppress across all the usual axes, and will undoubtedly persist in so doing, long after full marriage equality throughout the states is won. But Nakagawa was especially persuasive when he addressed one of my own personal fears, one I have failed to articulate as well as he. Nakagawa wrote:

Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors (sic) benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

Thus, to seek marriage equality for the wrong reasons is not only to divert queer energies and resources away from the ongoing endeavor of transforming the culture, but also to invest those energies and resources in the reinforcement of the same heteronormative culture queer activists seek to transform. Here, marriage equality advocates risk the emergence of a corollary to heteronormativity that one might well call homonormativity. Enter a world where families, friends, coworkers and neighbors expect certain queerkind of certain backgrounds to pair-bond and marry, a world of “good gays” and “bad gays,” a world where the hegemony of heteronormativity remains unchallenged, even in its homonormative variation, a world that changes queerkind, rather than a world changed by queerkind.

I agree fundamentally with Kohn, reluctantly with Savage, and readily with Nakagawa. Kohn is right to be wary of the intentions of newly-supportive conservatives. Savage is correct in his estimation of the intentions of most socially conservative politicians and activists. Nakagawa is eloquent on the moral dangers of assimilation. Yes, intentions matter. They matter because they describe expectations. They matter because they express identity. They matter because they shape outcomes. So, leaving aside the intentions of marriage equality advocates, their socially conservative opponents, and their newly supportive conservative allies, what of the intentions that will ultimately matter most? What of the intentions of those who would marry?

Before I marry AJ, I must ask myself, "What are my intentions?"

Before I marry AJ, I must ask myself, “What are my intentions?”

With the demise of the central provision of DOMA, and the resumption of legal same-sex marriage here in California, the question has become all too personal for me, while remaining somehow predictive of the trajectory of our shared queer future. So, before I wed my own special friend of the last ten years, I must ask myself: exactly what are my intentions?

Historically, people have wed for many purposes, and what were once the most compelling reasons seem at once meaningless to our modern queer lives. Marriage as means of political alliance, marriage as guarantor of paternity, marriage as means to exchange daughters as property, and marriage to secure religious approval for sexual relations will seem to most queers as archaic, indeed. Yet, these intentions continue to shadow contemporary reasons to wed, and for some will always taint the institution as inherently patriarchic, materialist, sexist, and religious. If marriage’s new adherents sincerely mean to liberalize the institution by their participation, as I’ve heard many queer proponents for marriage equality claim, then they must strive to cleanse the institution of these taints by every reasonable means. That project –to modernize marriage for everyone – possibly requires the would-be-wed to undertake an unflinching examination of their own motives. Minimally, such self-examination might lead to more honest and satisfying matches, and could strengthen meaningful political efforts to expand and defend marriage rights. Optimally, it might help nudge the movement away from the white, middle class pitfalls Nakagawa cited, perhaps even helping to re-contextualize the movement within a larger framework of social, economic, and environmental justice for all.

Naturally, people do most things they do for more than one reason. Multiplicity of pathways and redundancy of means are patterns no less enmeshed in our biology than intentionality. One of the greatest challenges of mindfulness is to recognize all those reasons rather than only the comfortable ones. Human survival mechanisms may permit a suppression of our less-than-noble intentions, but the psychic costs can be dear, and cavalier suppression of the inconvenient may lead to some very unreliable thinking.

Artist Sy Wagon offers good advice: "Don't get married."

Artist Sy Wagon offers good advice: “Don’t get married.”

In the late 1990’s, amidst the gay backlash to DOMA, San Francisco Bay Area artist and Baitline publisher Sy Wagon, then residing in Boston, produced a comically blunt pamphlet aimed at just such unreliable thinking on the topic of marriage. The banner heading the front center panel advises simply, “Don’t Get Married,” then lists the few “good reasons anyone should get hitched,” before listing the “dumb reasons” for which people often do; another panel describes the “life-long disasters” that can be avoided by avoiding marriage. But one finds the best bits of the pamphlet in the five remaining panels of Q&A, including unpretentious advice about not depending entirely on one person for all one’s needs, the unlikelihood of fateful pairings, and why lovers should simply enjoy it while it lasts rather than scheming for permanence. More than a decade later, this all remains good advice for anyone, regardless of the sex-genders involved in their relationships, but I suspect it is also advice that was either never considered or altogether dismissed by the yet uncounted same-sex-gender couples who rushed to California altars and arbors for late summer weddings in this watershed summer of weddings.

My favorite parts are in the Q&A.

My favorite parts are in the Q&A.

Why did they do it? What were the intentions, for example, of the couples lined up at San Francisco Civic Center throughout the Pride celebration, and for weeks thereafter, to become legal spouses? Plainly, the question answers itself in at least one part, but legality is only one of a handful of reasons most people cite directly or indirectly when speaking to newspaper and television reporters about why they want the right to marry. Equally important seem to be the social legitimatization and approval that proceeds from that legality; is not social affirmation precisely what Edie Windsor meant when she talked about the “magic” of marriage from the steps of the Supreme Court? Her extemporaneous yet instantly iconic remarks seem to me to be describing the power of social affirmation:

I wanted to tell you what marriage meant to me. It’s kinda crazy. We lived together for forty years. We were engaged with a circle diamond pin because I wouldn’t wear a ring because I was still in the closet… I am today an out lesbian… who just sued the United States of America, which is kinda overwhelming for me. When my beautiful sparkling Fia died, four years ago, I was overcome with grief. Within a month, I was hospitalized with a heart attack, and that’s kinda common; it’s usually looked at as “broken heart syndrome.” In the midst of my grief, I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers and I paid a humongous estate tax, and it meant selling a lot of stuff to do it, and it wasn’t easy. I live on a fixed income, and it wasn’t easy. Many people asked me, “Why get married?” I was seventy-seven, Fia was seventy-five… and maybe we were older than that at that point, but the fact is that everybody treated it as different; turns out marriage is different. And I’ve asked a number of long-range couples, gay couples, who…got married, and I’ve asked them, “Was it different the next morning?” and the answer is always, “Yes, it’s a huge difference.” When our marriage appeared in the New York Times, we heard from literally hundreds of people, I mean, little playmates, and schoolmates, and colleagues and friends and relatives, all congratulating us and sending love because we were married. So it’s a magic word. For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it… it is magic.

So the legality seems to bestow permission for people to express their social approval: magic.

Similarly, from the legality, especially, and from the social legitimization, at least indirectly, a potential for greater economic parity proceeds. This motive to marry is a powerful one for many; it was for economic parity under the United States tax codes that  Edie Windsor first sued. (Even Don’t Get Married agrees that money is one of the few “good reasons anyone should get hitched.”) These three categories of motives to marry – legality, social affirmation, and economic parity – together comprise a complex of what we might call public intentions, a complex that recognizes marriage as a change of public status for the purpose of legal, social, and economic relations.

More private reasons also prevail. Though less openly discussed, sometimes evident only in subtext, these categories of reason seem to bifurcate between those of individual constraint and those of personal commitment, those addressing our need to enforce exclusivity, in other words, and those addressing our need to enforce permanence. This complex of private intentions recognizes marriage as a change in private status for the purpose of domestic, emotional, and sexual relations

The pitfalls that might stymie any of these good intentions, public or private, are more obvious in some cases than others, but the would-be-wed would be wise to beware. Certainly, departures from private intentions seem to cause the most heartache, but these, at least, queerkind can negotiate for themselves. Promises of exclusivity and permanence need not be requirements to marry, and one suspects, based on the attitudes of the young, they will ever be considered less so. Provided all parties are clear on both expectations of personal constraint and extent of personal commitment, why should a marriage require exclusivity and permanence? Undoubtedly, some men may desire exclusivity as protection against sexually transmitted infections like HIV, and for them a traditionally exclusive marriage might be reassuring. Also, I have heard female couples parenting children together express an understanding of marriage as a promise for at least semi-permanence, adequate to see children grown. But these needs do not apply to all the would-be-wed.

Pitfalls to the successful realization of public intentions may be a less obvious cause of personal pain, but these traps, in their own way, may be the more insidious. Marrying for social approval, for example, can prove problematic for anyone whose private intentions are untraditional. I know of at least one instance in which a man was unable to disclose his recent HIV diagnosis to his mother, formerly confidante in all things, because it would reveal the non-exclusive reality of his marriage, a marriage that had marked a turning point in his parents’ acceptance of his partner of many years. “That approval just meant so much to me,” he told me one day in Dolores Park. “How can I throw that away?” Moreover, and perhaps counterintuitively, the collective effect of queer multitudes marrying largely for social approval will likely serve to reenforce the same prejudicial socio-cultural dynamic that for so long heaped disapproval on those same multitudes, and disqualified same-sex-gender couples from the office of civil marriage.

Queerkind may someday find certain aspects of legality bittersweet, too. Should conservative states like Mississippi, where I grew up, be finally budged into the twenty-first century, one can easily imagine its other conservative marriage laws prohibiting adultery, fornication, and cohabitation being enforced against same-sex-gender couples in unfair ways, just as so many southern states simply applied a double standard in the  application of the criminal code once deprived of Jim Crow by the federal courts. One can likewise imagine conservative states taking a page from the anti-abortion playbook, writing new laws intended to raise the threshold to marry for same-sex-gender couples, or trap laws that make it effectively impossible for same-sex-gender couples to marry in those states.

No doubt Kristen Welch and Jenna Lockwood of Picayune, Mississippi were listening when Edie Windsor described marriage as magic from the steps of the Supreme Court, but they were conjuring magic of the political kind in mid-July when they walked into the Pearl River County Courthouse with eleven other same-sex-gender couples, and applied for a marriage license they knew would be denied. According to the Boston Globe, legal concerns like recognition by the Air Force for the purpose of spousal benefits, and the resulting economic advantages, were most important to the pair, but the magic of social approval figured, too, at least emotionally. Of Welch, the Globe wrote:

One set of grandparents has quit speaking to her. In advance of her 10-year high school reunion, some former classmates, after learning she was in a relationship with a woman, have posted Bible verses on her Facebook page. “We haven’t been openly harassed as a couple but if looks could kill, we’d be dead,” Welch said about holding hands with Lockwood in public, which they’re mindful not to do too much.

However wary of marrying for social approval I may be, I do recognize the magical power of marrying, in the sense that a wedding or hand-fasting is certainly a magical process. To gather a group of people together, say prescribed words about collective intentions, participate in symbolic rituals, share meaningful music, and feast in celebration is to follow an ancient rubric of magical transformation, often entailing both outward and inward manifestations. Such processes depend mightily on intentions, said by some who study magical craft to be the basis of all magic, or at least  a singular thread common to its practice in all its diverse expressions. For the magic to work, one must vet ones intentions thoroughly, and articulate them plainly. Knowing ones true intentions is the first step in any spell.

Likewise in the ongoing socio-cultural project of the queering of marriage: to question oneself about one’s own intentions, to disclose them fully to one’s prospective spouse, and to expect one’s prospective spouse to undertake a similar self-scrutiny seem to me necessary first steps, and processes critical to any hopes that queer socio-cultural values would transform the institution of civil marriage, rather than the institution of civil marriage transforming queer socio-cultural values.


Elizabeth and Gordon are getting married today.

Elizabeth and Gordon are getting married today.

Such were the thoughts of marital intention crowding my head in early spring when my younger brother, Gordon, and his partner of the past three years, Elizabeth, phoned me to ask if I would officiate at their down-home, do-it-yourself wedding, taking place later today. Their request reminded me that this need for the would-be-wed to scour their souls of hidden or false intentions is not unique to queerkind; because heterosexism is as much about the “sexism” as the “hetero,” such a self-assessment well serves anyone who would enjoy some of the benefits of legal marriage while avoiding the sex-gender-based assumptions that historically underlie it. Strong independent women like Elizabeth have no business hiding behind a veil to be “given away” by their fathers, either ceremonially, metaphorically, or in fact. The reminder also served notice: the project one might call the queering of the world promises a healthier, liberated sexuality for everyone, not just those whose sexual desires and sex-gender identities do not conform to heterosexist expectations.

Since the repeal of Section 3 of DOMA, three more states have agreed to recognize same-sex-gender relationships under their marriage laws; a total of fourteen states now permit same-sex-gender couples to marry. Some observers believe that achieving full marriage equality throughout the states is only a matter of persistence and time. Inevitable though such equality may be, we need not accept as inevitable a new paradigm of normalcy that continues to ignore the intersection of  sex-gender, race, class, and abilities with the experience of queer oppression and continues to exclude, disadvantage, or discount unwed families.  In essays posted since the DOMA ruling, Nakagawa, for one, has not relented in making these points. On the day of the decision, he reminded his readers that in the very same week of the DOMA ruling, the court had “effectively neutered the Voting Rights Act,” and undermined affirmative action in a ruling involving admissions to the University of Texas. Of these rights — voting, having access to education, and marrying —  Nakagawa rightly asks, “which are more fundamental to a functioning democracy?” On the day following the decision, he wrote:

While most of LGBT America celebrates the legal defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, some of us are finding this moment bittersweet. We recognize the decision is a real and meaningful victory, but we’re worried about what this victory means for those of us who wish to exercise the right not to marry, and about whether winning this right will diminish the transformational potential of the LGBT movement.

When I read those words, I felt as though Nakagawa was speaking for me, and many people I know. Marriage equality activists and organizers must be candidly reminded of these concerns as they forge ahead, state by state, or, in states like New Mexico, county by county. Yet, perhaps the greatest challenge falls to those who would themselves be married: to undertake a careful examination of their own intentions, the intentions that describe their expectations, define their identities, and will shape their outcomes. Perhaps the queerest among them will even recognize that transforming the institution of marriage itself may be the most honorable intention of all.

Bradley Manning, San Francisco Pride, and a Queer Sense of Duty

The controversy over the decision by the board of directors of San Francisco Pride to revoke their selection of Private First Class Bradley Manning as a grand marshal for the 2013 parade has highlighted what most queer San Franciscans have long recognized: SF Pride is a soulless endeavor beholden to corporate capitalist interests and directed by a handful of career professionals who value the comforts of assimilation over confrontational politics. Nor should the dysfunction and incompetence signaled by the way the board of directors has handled the controversy surprise any serious observers of SF Pride, who have watched the organization stumble repeatedly in the past several years. A city controller’s report of SF Pride’s bungled finances exposed the extent of the incompetence in 2010, and a series of poorly timed resignations revealed persisting difficulties well into 2011, even prompting the illustrious Michael Petrelis, never shy to speak truth to power, to advocate canceling Pride’s events that year, and dissolving its board altogether.


No one wears a rainbow flag like Michael Petrelis.

No one wears a rainbow flag like Michael Petrelis.

Certainly, now more than ever, SF Pride requires public scrutiny, and if its legally bound directors refuse to operate transparently, the community must take action to replace them. A diverse group of writers and activists, from locals like Petrelis, Glenn Greenwald, and Clinton Fein, to the far-flung like Victoria Brownworth and Jesse Monteagudo, are on the case, and one can expect the pressure on SF Pride only to build until the directors answer the community’s concerns; the recent announcement by SF Pride to postpone any opportunity to do so until after the June 30th celebrations is thus all the more puzzling to anyone familiar with the rudiments of community relations. The incompetence continues.

Whatever criticism observers may rightly reserve for SF Pride, though, I am equally troubled by the failure of another player in this drama. Those active duty members and veterans of the military who demanded SF Pride take the ill-advised decision to rescind Manning’s selection not only demonstrated their utter ignorance of community relations, they also showed both a deep disrespect for a convention of martial culture essential to maintaining civilian democratic authority over the military – the legal duty of every soldier, sailor, and marine to refuse to obey unlawful orders, and to report others who violate military or civilian law – and a regrettable disregard for the free, pluralistic society one’s military service is intended to secure. While I can easily overlook their naiveté of public affairs, their disrespect for the legal complexities of Manning’s case, and their disregard for pluralism impress me as dangerous indeed.

Advancing the first criticism is challenging for a self-professed anarchist like me, as it relies on legal paradigms I do not myself accept as valid, but those legal paradigms nonetheless operate as the framework for construing concepts of military duty and obligation, and function as the sole constraints on the exercise of military power by the democratic state, civilian authorities, the chain of command, and the troops themselves. So, peaceful society relies on these legal paradigms to avoid the perils of military force run amok. The sworn duty of every inductee into the armed forces is to obey all lawful orders, and much of military training is structured to teach every member to do so without question, but the obverse of that Janus coin is the duty to refuse unlawful orders, and instruction in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is meant to teach every trainee to be able to discern the difference. Manning was clearly paying attention in class.

As for Manning’s critics among the queer military community, I’m not so sure. The contempt these supposedly upright service members hold for the complexities of law is apparent even in the short quotes they’ve provided to the media: all have spoken of Manning as if he had already been convicted, which he certainly has not, and prosecution on the capital crime of aiding the enemy is highly improbable according to some legal observers, who say the government is overplaying its hand. Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partners Association, called Manning’s alleged acts “treacherous,” and accused him of “blatant disregard for the safety of our service members and the security of our nation.” Josh Seefried, co-chair of OutServe-SLDN, an organization one might have thought should have supported Manning, called Manning’s alleged acts a “disgrace.” Navy veteran Sean Sala even asserted that Manning “makes Gay military, the Armed Forces, and the cause of equality look like a sham.”

I’m unsure how these critics have arrived at their conclusions. Other critics have referred to Manning’s “confession,” by which, I presume, they mean his statement before the providence inquiry in February. I have lately suspected the most voluble opponents of Manning’s selection as grand marshal have perhaps never read that statement, because Manning was eloquent in the defense of his actions, especially eloquent to anyone who ever served. Service members and veterans should know, better than civilians and non-veterans, that the induction oath sworn by enlistees and commissioned officers and the UCMJ, in which all service members are well indoctrinated and of which ignorance among the troops is not tolerated, require that service members refuse unlawful orders. Under Article 81 of the UCMJ, prohibiting conspiracy, therefore, no authority can require a service member to conceal the violation of other laws. In other words, once Manning knew that others were breaking laws or ignoring the military’s own rules of engagement, he was duty-bound to come forward, and if the chain of command were complicit in said violations, he was duty-bound to find another way to blow the whistle.

Those who have served, and those who still do, should be very sympathetic to Manning’s dilemma. On the one hand, standing orders and certain laws pertaining to handling classified information bound him to silence. On the other hand, yet different laws, arguably higher laws, and a sense of moral duty bound him to speak the truth. His statement before the providence inquiry suggests Manning knew he might be held accountable under those lesser laws and orders, but he rightly recognized, as his critics should recognize now, that the prohibitions against the murder of civilian journalists and firing on unarmed children trump the prohibitions against leaking classified information, and the laws forbidding our military personnel from helping a foreign government to imprison and torture its political opponents supercede laws forbidding the publication of secrets.

Uncertain though I might be of the logic by which the opponents of Manning’s selection derived their condemnation of him, I remain quite certain they are mistaken. Any who may have obscured the truth about battlefield crimes were acting treacherously, not Manning. If some in Manning’s chain of command, as evidence suggests, were misusing U.S. forces to interfere with the liberties of the very people whose democratic rights those forces were meant to secure, they were demonstrating a blatant disregard for the safety of our service members and the security of our nation, not Manning. The State Department officials who hurled insults at foreign leaders in cables they believed those leaders would never read, and who, in their embarrassment, would now hang a private, are the disgrace, not Manning. Those in the Obama administration and the military chain of command pursuing the prosecution of a man whose actions will probably save lives by rendering the Status of Forces Agreement untenable and forcing an earlier end to operations in Afghanistan make…the Armed Forces…look like a sham, not Manning. And Peters, Seefried, Sala, and all the other victims of military group-think, so insecure in the legitimacy of their own service that they must ignore the facts of Manning’s case in order to join in his pillorying, make…Gay military…and the cause of equality look like a sham, not Manning. (Sala’s use of the term “Gay military,” never mind capitalizing it, is a sham unto itself, but I digress.)

I must also quarrel with the simple sanctimony of any queer veteran or service member who would reduce their denouncement of Manning to calling him a criminal. Yes, in his testimony to the providence inquiry, Manning admitted to breaking lesser laws in the service of a higher good, but so did thousands of veterans, like myself, whose service predated Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Our illegal but honorable service was the justification for the incremental improvement in policy represented by DADT. Likewise, once the military implemented DADT, those who did tell were also violating the law in the service of a higher good, but none who have benefited from the repeal of DADT would castigate those individuals as criminals. Instead, our communities, even many who oppose U.S. military policy, count those individuals as heroes. As a participant and organizer of many protests of the military ban, I also know that the intentional breaking of the law in acts of civil disobedience was critical to raising public awareness and shaping popular opinion so that queer service members might serve openly today. That those who enjoy the greatest advantage of such efforts would take such an uncritical view of military or civilian law truly disheartens me, and suggests a childish understanding of history.

Most troubling, though, is that queer service members and veterans would employ the Manning broke the law tactic when congress has yet failed to repeal Article 125 of the UCMJ, the article that prohibits sodomy of any stripe for all service members, queer or not, married or not. The repeal of DADT may have decriminalized calling oneself  “gay,” but actually doing anything that makes one so remains a brig-time offense. While this odious law persists, Peters fights for spousal benefits, Seefried chases media attention, and Sala organizes military contingents for Pride parades. Might this be the dirty little secret compelling them all to their vehement repudiation of Manning? Is the internal recognition that their service remains a legal hoax undermining their own sense of legitimacy, like the closet case homophobe who lashes out in hatred of others because of what he despises in himself? Is their lack of courage in confronting the legal and political issue that should now most concern queer service members, the repeal of Article 125, feeding their rebuke of Manning’s moral bravery? I can’t know the answers to these questions, of course; but I would be failing my own sense of duty if I didn’t now propose them to Peters, Seefried, and Sala. Their attacks on Manning reveal a deep disrespect for the complexities of law that must always be unacceptable in individuals the state trains, equips, and licenses to kill, because such disrespect for the complexities of law among the warrior class is dangerous to all.

The second flank of my critique of Manning’s queer detractors is not concerned with the law but with the conventions of pluralism within a free civilian society, and the military’s role in protecting the freedoms that underlie those conventions. For uniformed participants in queer life to demand that civilian society conform to the rigid notions of homogeneity and the authoritarian demands of artificial hierarchies required by military life is insulting to the very idea of democratic pluralism, and casts those uniformed participants in the unflattering light of police state bullies, or, at least, children in tantrum.

I can illustrate this problem in two ways. First, consider how a secularist like me feels when pride organizations select religious leaders as grand marshals, as they reliably do in cities across the US, including San Francisco. As a class, I find the clergy altogether unfit as personal role models. I do not think religion ever serves queer freedom. To me, these individuals will never be heroes. I also sometimes disagree with the political or social views represented by such selections. But I am so grateful to live in a truly diverse community, populated by many with whom I disagree. I would never presume, as Peters, Seefried and Sala have, to suggest that pride organizations not select individuals with whom I disagree, or even those of whom I somehow disapprove. Rather, I expect that the contingent of people representing me in such roles will be diverse, and that I may sometimes even find some choices objectionable. Otherwise, I might suspect that the pride organization had failed in its responsibilities. No doubt, many queer San Franciscans are pacifists, or at least oppose militarization, but they didn’t stamp their feet and demand SF Pride rescind its selection of Dan Choi as grand marshal in 2009. Instead, they took the opportunity to discuss military politics with their queer neighbors, pulled the boas and boots from their closets, and went to the parade.

The cultural, philosophical and intellectual diversity of our queer communities enriches us all, and Manning’s critics should be eager to foster it, too. The pride organizations of large cities like San Francisco, recognizing that one person alone can’t possibly embody such diversity, typically select more than one parade marshal, and usually employ multiple means for their selection. A board of directors will likely employ different criteria in their selection than the voting public participating in a community selection process might employ. Similarly, a congress of former grand marshals will likely employ different criteria still. Finding ways to embrace the differences among us strengthens our communities in important ways, and Manning’s critics should be grateful for San Francisco’s robust efforts to do so. Indeed, one would hope that a desire to protect the freedoms that make such expressions possible serves, in some part, at least, as motivation for military service. The uniformed participants of queer life can celebrate such expressions even while disagreeing with them; to instead selfishly demand that such expressions be disallowed does not comport with the demeanor of sacrifice, and love of liberty demanded by life in uniform.

My second illustration of this problem may better appeal to the self-interest of queers-in-uniform, as it concerns their strategic position in the queer political community. For this illustration the reader must permit me a slight historical diversion. As the Navy was discharging me for homosexuality in 1987, I stood at a payphone on the quad at Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando and called every major political organization that had ever taken any interest in queer politics or queer legal issues. I called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (LLDEF), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force NGLTF), and the Human Rights Campaign Fund, (HRCF) among others. I realize now that I was naïve to think these organizations could help me in any way, but what surprised me even then was how little they seemed to know or care about the issue. On the political left where most queer alliances were forged, the plight of a Navy fag was something of a non-issue. Lambda was litigating one relevant case at the time, as I recall, and the receptionist at HRCF was sympathetic, and a volunteer at ACLU advised me to say nothing that would incriminate myself. Otherwise, they told me in no uncertain terms, I was on my own.

After my discharge and my return to Washington, D.C. I had the great privilege of meeting and befriending Frank Kameny. He was then the only political figure in the capital to have any sense of the gravity of the military ban on homosexuality encoded in Defense Department regulations. The queer right first seemed strangely protective of the military closet, but by the end of the decade was recognizing the need for the military to permit queers-in-uniform to serve openly, thanks in part to Congressman Gerry Studds, and HRCF Executive Director Tim McFeeley. The queer left was not only indifferent to the plight of queers-in-uniform, it was hostile to the very idea of queers-in-uniform. Several years before NGLTF inaugurated its Military Freedom Project, I sat across the desk from Jeff Levi, who would later lead that effort, and told him the story of how I was exposed as a fag and discharged from the Navy. He said not a word until I finished my story, then after a long weighted pause, he shook his head with puzzled derision, and asked,” So, explain to me again, if you’re gay, why would you want to be in the Navy?”

Years before DADT, the radical queer left helped forge a consensus to "lift the ban."

Years before DADT, the radical queer left helped forge a consensus to “lift the ban.”

Over the next five years, Kitt Kling, Miriam Ben-Shalom, J.B. Collier, and I, veterans-turned–activists all, joined Kameny’s ongoing efforts to change those attitudes. By Veterans Day 1991, our efforts had united hundreds of demonstrators, representing an array of groups from the HRCF to the NGLTF marching behind a Queer Nation banner, to protest the ban on the steps of the Pentagon, but the issue remained far from a mainstream concern of what was then considered the national movement, either in D.C., or out in the states. Our communities were suffering the worst of the AIDS crisis; progressives were generally wary of US military policy in the wake of the Gulf War. In some ways, moreover, movement activists had never fully recovered from the shock of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, and they had every reason to be reluctant to take up the cause of lifting the ban.


On the Pussy Grazer "Hit List" for self-hating patriotism.

On the Pussy Grazer “Hit List” for self-hating patriotism.

After Glenn Belverio wished me dead in the queer ‘zine, Pussy Grazer, I decided to argue directly for the support of the radical queer left, of which, as a member of ACT UP and Queer Nation, I considered myself a part. I first made my case in a speech I gave during a workshop on military homophobia in Norfolk, Virginia, “Tell the Queer Who Asks Why Care,” written to address the specific objections of the queer left. I then spent the spring of 1992 repeating its key points to anyone who would listen. I argued how the military’s ban and its culture of homophobia adversely affected American civilian life, even for those antagonistic to US militarization, and how lifting the ban served the queer left’s desire for a more pluralistic civil society. I was among only a handful of activists, organizers, and elected officials making the case, but the case was strong, and eventually more and more influential voices were added to ours as the political pressure for change grew. By that fall, reporters were asking questions on the campaign trail, prompting candidate Bill Clinton to make his now-famous promise to lift the ban, in turn prompting queers from every walk of life and from across the political spectrum to vote for him that November. One year after Queer Nation had stormed the Pentagon, President-elect Clinton affirmed that he would keep that campaign promise.


The tragic murder of Alan Schindler galvanized even pacifist and anti-military activists behind "lifting the ban."

The tragic murder of Alan Schindler galvanized even pacifist and anti-military activists behind “lifting the ban.”

In those five years, from the summer of my discharge to the autumn of Clinton’s election, I had witnessed a large national movement shift from a position of indifference, even hostility, on the issue of queers-in-uniform, to a position of nearly full support for lifting the ban. Even many who identified as pacifists, and many opponents of US military policy, now agreed that the plight of queer service members was an issue our communities could no longer afford to ignore. Early in 1993, when the news of sailor Alan Schindler’s brutal murder at the hands of gay-bashing shipmates surfaced, the fatal beating seemed to tragically emblematize all the arguments of the last five years. No one who attended the March on Washington in 1993 could fail to observe the unity of the national movement on this issue. Diverse components and factions, some who were very anti-military, closed ranks in solidarity with queers-in-uniform: a pluralistic force of immeasurable political power. The rest of the story is well-told: an unfortunate compromise, seventeen years of justice delayed, an ultimate victory the full measure of which is yet unfolding; but without the alliances of diverse groups with various interests united in pluralism to lift the ban, there would be no story to tell. The right for queers-in-uniform to serve openly may not have been achieved until 2011, but the political will of the movement that achieved it was forged in 1993, and it was forged in the fires of pluralism.

I can’t imagine why those who enjoy the finest fruits of that achievement would turn their backs on the very same leftist impulses that drove queers into the streets in solidarity with them. Perhaps, they are ashamed of us, the queer comrades who fought for them and would now fight for Manning, too. Or perhaps, now that they have their full place at the military table, they fear losing it through guilt by association. I don’t demand they agree with supporters of Manning’s selection as grand marshal, although I think the facts are on his side, and speak especially clearly to those of us familiar with military law. Nor do I demand that they share my views on US military policy. I do expect them to respect the pluralist conventions of the diverse civilian society they are sworn to protect, and in which they are choosing to participate now that they are free to do so; I expect them to express their disagreement without censoring the expression of others; I expect them to recognize that, just because they are no longer bullied by the military closet, they are not now free to bully the rest of us.

Bradley Manning faced a terrible dilemma, and none should judge him lightly. Given the choice between doing the right thing at enormous personal cost, or doing the easy thing by ignoring a great wrong, Manning showed true valor. Under similar circumstances, most of us would like to think that we would choose the right over the easy, as Manning did, but, until we are somehow tested we can never be sure. So, we must imagine these aspirations for ourselves through him, holding his example close, a model for our own behavior in trials yet to come. Moved by empathy for the victims of battlefield crimes, an empathy I have speculated may have somehow emerged from his very experience of being queer, Manning bravely sacrificed self. For this, he will always be a hero to me, and for many of us, a true cause for celebrating queer pride.



Bully, Know Thyself

In the late autumn of 2010, as Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project climbed quickly to national prominence, and upon my mother telling me how one of the videos had moved her, I complained that I thought the project was not completely honest.

“It gets better? That’s a lie, really,” I retorted argumentatively, “because, if  ‘it’ is one’s experience of the abusive dominant culture, ‘it’ doesn’t get better.  That experience is a constant throughout one’s life; only one’s response to it is susceptible to one’s willful change.  From elementary school through high school and even college, and throughout one’s working life, one is forever subjected to a culture of bullying. Most bullies never outgrow their abusive ways so much as improve their capacity for subtlety, and expand the range of their influence over their victims’ lives — as foremen, managers and chief executives, military, political and spiritual leaders, husbands and fathers.”

I ranted on: “If life improves for those of us with rough childhood experiences, it does so because we get better. We get better at maneuvering the demands and expectations of the dominant culture; we get better at moderating our own behaviors in precise ways calculated to elicit specific rewards and avoid specific punishments from the dominant culture; we get better at formulating values independent of the dominant culture’s values; we get better at choosing when resistance to the abuses of the dominant culture is essential to our authenticity and integrity; we get better at the very resistance itself when we decide it is essential; we get better at compromising when it’s not essential. We get better at all these things, but the culture doesn’t change, really. The abuse never stops. The bullies never rest.”

(How lucky I am my patient mother endures these verbal tirades without perceiving me a bully. I often find myself at odds with the conventions and trends of gay culture, e.g. the marriage equality movement, in ways that engender these awkward conversations with would-be allies eager to support whatever convention or trend the gay community might be pursuing, but that thorny problem must await another post.)

Derrick Jensen, whose extraordinary writing I’ve cited before, argues that the abusiveness of our culture is intrinsic to civilization, that the creation and sustenance of cities, the defining project of civilization, requires systematic violence; without violence, why would indigenous people ever permit the exploitation and denigration of their watersheds, food sources, and land bases that the support of concentrated populations in cities requires?  The first five premises of Jensen’s Endgame summarize this argument succinctly, so I quote them here in their entirety:

Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources – gold, oil, and so on – can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do whatever they can to destroy traditional communities.

Premise Three: Our way of living – industrial civilization – is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

Premise Four:  Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted, yet unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

Premise Five: The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control – in everyday language, to make money – by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.

The implications of the fourth of these premises have weighed heavily on me in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, because the attack was, arguably, an example of “violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher,” and, with all due respect to the dead, the injured, and their families, the reactions of the dominant culture has closely tracked the predictions of the fourth premise. Again and again in the days since the bombing, politicians, civic leaders, and commentators have used these very words to describe the attack: shocking, horrible, unthinkable. Yet, how many of them have used those words to describe any of the far more excessive and far more murderous elements of United States foreign policy? To me, the 2003 bombing of Bagdhad and the consequent murder and maiming of thousands of innocent Iraquis was shocking. To me, the use of radioactive munitions in the Battle of Fallujah with its legacy of illness and birth defects was, and remains horrible. To me, drones swooping from the sky to kill our so-called enemies – let alone the innocent bystanders and the wrongly targeted – are unthinkable. But the dominant culture seems to find these things not so much unthinkable as easier not to think about.

Authorities tell us the surviving alleged perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing admitted that religious beliefs motivated him and his brother, and that they undertook their attack as a protest against America’s ongoing wars, but such a direct connection to United States foreign policy is not required to make the point: attacks such as the one on Boylston Street are hardly unthinkable; as long as the United States remains determined in its worldwide bellicosity, such attacks seem quite thinkable to me, even inevitable. How is it so many Americans have come to believe that United States military and intelligence forces can range the globe wreaking mayhem, killing people, terrorizing cities, and poisoning communities with depleted uranium without the violence coming home to roost?

Moreover, such a direct connection between the motives behind the Boston Marathon bombing and United States foreign policy may well distract from a larger point: the stated reasons of the alleged bombers’ actions are relevant only in the superficial way a married couple’s stated reasons for arguing relate to their argument; rarely does anyone do anything for only one reason, and more rarely still does anyone’s deepest motives find overt expression. Thus, the couple continues to fight, never resolving, possibly never aware of, the less obvious causes of the discord. Thus, the bombers continue to strike, and state security apparatuses cannot expect to stop them while ignoring their less obvious motivations.

Given a singular, if wildly diverse, earthly nature – a system that has evolved to self-regulate for life – might one not also conjecture that earthly desires and earthly discontent operate within that system as feedback loops, the means by which different components in the system share information vital to its self-regulation? With every report of violence exploding up the hierarchy, I can’t help but speculate that over-population, the effect of denigrated foodsheds, cultures of sexual oppression, and other similar forces are as much in play as the stated reasons of an alleged bomber, or an alleged mass shooter for that matter.


When a hydrant fails, the pressure in the main creates a waterspout.

When a hydrant fails, the pressure in the main creates a waterspout.

Only a week after the Boston Marathon bombing, as my canine companion, Red Sonja, and I walked up Octavia Street towards Patricia’s Green, we encountered the most spectacular disemboguement of water from the city’s fire main. The frothy white jet d’eau gushed several meters above the opening in the sidewalk’s pavement where the painted hydrant once stood, then cascaded back upon itself in a sparkling cataract that fully whelmed the storm drain. Passers-by couldn’t resist stopping and watching, taking photos and video; the raw beauty of such a quantity of water spewing with such force seemed to mesmerize all. In its eruption, the spill animated, vividly and brilliantly, what practitioners of permaculture call the general core model – or at least its upper half – entailing all the patterns of nature in one dynamic, mnemonic representation. Maybe some primal appreciation of that significance explained the compulsion to stare into the inflorescent spume.


By the time Red Sonja and I arrived, workers had already removed the failed plug.

By the time Red Sonja and I arrived, workers had already removed the failed plug.

I had no clue what had happened to the fireplug previously capping the main that now surged its geyser into the April sunlight. Perhaps a motorist sheared it away, or some metallurgic weakness led to the failure of one of its closures; the firefighters seemed fully aware of the plug’s demise as they approached the scene for what appeared to be at least the second time, so I surmised they had already cleared away the old hydrant. It was nowhere to be seen.


City workers need to know why the plug failed.

City workers need to know why the plug failed.

The superficially recognizable and stated motivations of a certain bomber or a particular mass shooter are like the causes of a single fire hydrant’s failure. I understand why the fire and public works departments must properly assign importance to discerning the superficial causes of a single failure as part of preventing future failures, but when the city worker dismounted his truck cab with an over-sized wrench and tee-bar to shut the valve controlling flow to the main, he was enacting a tacit admission: as long as pumps and gravity maintain high water pressure in the main, such failures are inevitable.

So it is with our overcrowded, overheated, unsustainably farmed, and war-torn planet. However different the explicit motives recognized in Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Ross Truett Ashley, Adam Lanza, and now, allegedly, the Tsarnaev brothers, they are all connected, like a city’s fireplugs, by the same underlying pressures. Perhaps the culture of bullying is just such an underlying pressure. I suspect that if the United States would secure its communities against such attacks, it must first see itself as it truly is, bully through and through.

The bully culture is evident in the domestic economy, in the ever-widening, policy-driven gap between those who have not and those who have much. The bully culture is evident in the justice system, and the national ease with which that system imprisons millions of those who have not, while holding accountable only very few of those who have much. The bully culture is evident in budget politics, where the most harmful effects of sequestration and austerity are reliably  mediated for the traveling and professional classes but not for the working poor, the disabled, the very old, and the very young. The bully culture is evident in gun politics, where a vocal minority thwarts the legitimate interests of the majority – not to defend the civil rights of the minority so much as to defend the profits of the gun-makers. The bully culture is evident in sexual politics, where outdated religious dogma and cultural traditionalism overtake the rights of women and queerkind. But most prominently and consequentially, the bully culture is evident in foreign policy, whereby American citizens accede to a deadly, counterproductive, immoral, and seemingly endless campaign of unnecessary wars, military occupations, illegal coups, and lately, stealth drone attacks. In many parts of the world today, even in places where the people of the United States presumably have no quarrel, ordinary people live in fear of us.

One needn’t accept Jensen’s premises to recognize this fundamental fact: on the world’s playground, the United States of America is the über-bully. See how it puffs itself up, how flamboyantly it struts and threatens, how quickly it pushes and shoves and snarls, how decisively it strikes, and how it bawls the moment any raise a fist in kind. Once challenged by even the slightest resistance, America whines and complains louder than any of its victims. The land of the brave, indeed! Ours is the land of the bully-cum-crybaby.


A worker must close the main to stop the flow.

A worker must close the main to stop the flow.

The waterspout at Octavia and Grove Streets must have released hundreds of gallons by the time the water department arrived on the scene to wrench closed the fire main that serves that particular city block.  Sonja and I stood and watched as the fluxion slowed and fell and drained away.

Red Sonja stands alongside temporary repair.

Red Sonja stands alongside temporary repair.

The following day, the breach remained only temporarily repaired, with an inverted traffic cone protruding from its gape, and even today, although the inverted traffic cone has been replaced with a metal cover, the hydrant itself has yet to be replaced.  Similarly, our neighborhoods, schools, and homes will remain unsecured and ourselves unsafe if we continue to ignore the deeper pressures underlying eruptions such as the Boston Marathon bombing. To resist unflinching self-criticism in the aftermath of such attacks is certainly to invite their violent reprise. Rather, we must all now take a collective look in the national mirror, and recognize the bully in us.

A proper cap has replaced the inverted traffic cone, but still no hydrant.

A proper cap has replaced the inverted traffic cone, but still no hydrant.

Willful Empathy

As last week ended, empathy was in the news again. (How long has it been? Since Obama specified it as a criterion for his Supreme Court nominees?) This time, the context was marriage equality, and identity politics at their most personal. When Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) reversed his previously staunch opposition to marriage equality for same-sex-gender couples, because, as he explained in a Columbus Dispatch opinion piece Thursday, his son Will is gay, he triggered a fourth category storm of empathy references that not even the internet could contain. The word “empathy” appeared in blog posts, news stories, and at least one headline about Portman’s reversal before blowing over into primetime HBO, where Bill Maher asked his guests if not the tragic flaw of the GOP was, indeed, its limited capacity for empathy.

At Firedoglake, the lack of empathy in the absence of a family coming-out saddened Pam Spaulding, and similarly, at NPR, Liz Halloran observed that some Columbus Dispatch readers posted comments criticizing Portman for “failing to have empathy for gay Americans before his son came out.” Susie Madrak, posting at Crooks and Liars, called Portman’s path to empathy the “traditional wingnut way: his son came out.” She also wished, “Now if only one of his kids would be affected by global warming.” At Roll Call, exceptionally, the headline for Jonathan Strong’s piece concerned itself with empathy for Portman at CPAC, not Portman’s new-found or previously lacking empathy for queerkind. In perhaps my favorite online empathy citation, Joshua Pugh, posting at The Detroit Free News, managed to allude to the last time empathy was in the news, setting the Portman reversal alongside his observations of a scoffing conservative audience listening to a speaker at a Citizens for Traditional Values event warn against the “clear and present danger” of empathetic judges.  Matthew Yglesias, posting at Slate, added a bit of polish to the meme, decrying what he characterized as Portman’s political narcissism and recalling the term Mark Schmitt coined for the phenomenon of conservatives showcasing their moderation on a single issue: Miss America Compassion. Yglesias’ was perhaps the most powerful exhortation to Portman and his peers:

But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Sitting in for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Friday night, Chris Hayes catalogued several instances of conservative reversals having turned on insights of personal empathy. His is perhaps the most powerful exhortation to the rest of us:

Empathy, especially in elected officials, is a good thing, but there is also something frustratingly blinkered and limited about this form of persuasion. If it’s going to take every anti-gay politician having a gay son for gay people to be treated like other human beings in this country, then equal rights are going to take longer to achieve than they should. That’s why THIS [referring to video footage of Harvey Milk] is still necessary in order for change to happen: things that turn those moments of personal empathy into civil rights advancements. That’s the work of activists and social movements and organizing; they build on top of the moments of personal empathy and build them into votes in city councils and state legislatures and congress. They build the sentiments of the Rob Portmans of the world into civil rights laws and protections and they build them into a new society. They build the bridge between the personal and the political.

The conceptualization of empathy as the seed-germ of political advocacy resonates powerfully for me. As I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, I uphold empathy as a core queer value. Together with authenticity and mutual care, I believe empathy is paradigmatic to queer character; the awakening of our queer empathy frequently concurs with our recognition of our own “otherness,” seems somehow connected with it, and may well depend on it.

Movie audiences may have forgotten that celebrated film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22, The Birdcage) began his career on the stage in tandem with the inimitable Elaine May, but in an “unprecedented joint interview” of Nichols and May (Vanity Fair, January 2013), Sam Kashner reminded readers why history will likely credit the duo as the principal originators of modern sketch comedy. Wisely, Kashner interposes very little, and the result is an interview no less entertaining than an original Nichols and May improv circa 1957, but it was the following exchange between Nichols and May that really caught my attention, because herein Nichols seems to hint at the underlying dynamics, or precursors, to the very experiential process whereby otherness produces empathy. Kashner reports that May had taken the list of prepared questions from his hand to assume the interviewer’s role:

“What have you learned, Mike?”

“I’ve learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things. For instance, if you grow up odd and — what is it when you’re left out? You’re not an extrovert –”


“No, when you grow up—”


“Peculiar. Different,” Mike continued. “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you must learn to hear people thinking. Just in self-defense you have to learn, where is their kindness? Where is their danger? Where is their generosity? If you survive, because you’ve gotten lucky – and there’s no other reason ever to survive except luck – you will find that the ability to hear people thinking is incredibly useful, especially in the theatre.”

Aside from the recognition that many of the skills and qualities useful in the theatre served as tools for queer survival throughout eras of concealment, and aside from my personal identification with the “luck” of survival, Nichols’ digression resonates with me because it suggests at least a trailhead to a path towards empathy, if not the path itself.  If I disregard Mays’ subsequent assertion that being able to hear people’s thoughts was the basis of their shared hostility towards their peers at the University of Chicago where they met, Nichols could be describing an empathetic awakening, here. Learning to “hear people thinking” precedes and prompts learning to feel people feeling, and Nichols’ statement would have been no less accurate if he had ventured, “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you can’t help but learn to feel people feeling.” Whether as a rudimentary, intellectualized sympathy with the thoughts of others, or a deeper, emotional empathy with the feelings of others, this capacity of connecting consciously with others permits a deconstruction of otherness itself.

In either expression, this capacity is perhaps even more useful in politics than in the theatre, and all the more so if we would expect our politics to ever stretch beyond the merely theatrical, and, like Hayes’ bridges, reach back to the personal. That all identity politics is personal need not be the only lesson from the Portman spectacle, moreover, for the senator’s reversal also teaches that the limits of identity politics are not proscribed so much by the nature of politics as by the nature of identity; Portman’s failure to identify with the difficulties imposed by unequal marriage laws, even among other affluent white Christians like himself, until he had taken two years to absorb the truth of his son’s declaration, is not Portman’s failure alone. But for this universal limitation, intergroup contact theory, as understood by criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists, might prove predictive, and it is more than evidently not so. Like Portman, everyone is bound, each to one’s own sense of self, and only to the degree that one can expand one’s sense of self can one expect to expand the range of one’s true empathy. For myself, this exertion is the beating heart of queer practice.

Empathy was also evident on Wednesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee Hearing on Sexual Assaults in the Military, though not in the person of ranking member Lindsay Graham, whose opening remarks inappropriately and insensitively muddled the issue at hand by invoking both consensual fraternization and false accusations. Rather, one of the veterans who testified, Rebekah Havrilla, was the one who demonstrated the expansion of self-identity demanded by true empathy, in response to Graham’s rather leading question about why the chain of command might be so “hostile” to the claims of sexual assault victims (as if commanders might have a legitimate reason for it):

One of the things that I really do stress is: it is about the leadership. The hostility really isn’t necessarily even about women. The hostility is towards the feminine: the perception of being less than, the perception of being weak. Even though I was the only female in my unit, I was not the only one that was targeted for abuse. We had two other males in my unit that were targeted regularly for sexual harassment and sexual abuse that were – that went through a lot of the same stuff that I did. It was not a gender issue. It was a “we are targeting what we see as less than,” and just by me being a woman, I was automatically less than, even though I was just as good as they were. So the mindset, when you had that mentality, and then, again, you had the leadership that allows it to continue every day – I can’t tell you a single day that…didn’t go by without some type of rape joke, sex joke, sex play, simulated sex play between men; I mean, it was: we had a sexual assault and harassment training that we went through; one of our sergeants got up on a table, stripped naked, and laughed at it. I mean, that was the kind of culture that I lived in on a daily basis. So…then, when you deploy, you’re stuck with these people in very small units, in very small spaces and…why would I go to a chain of command that I knew was going to allow those things? So, it’s not even a hostility towards women in general; that’s the kind of culture some of these unit commanders allow to thrive, and when you have that type of culture, this type, these types of issues are going to continue to be perpetuated.

In her answer, Havrilla revealed that she had stepped out of her own feelings, imaginably even feelings of relief that someone else was being targeted, to recognize that the two men being harassed were suffering the same abusive experience she was. Any woman in her situation would have been forgiven for grouping all the men together, identifying with none of them, her victimizers all. Instead, Havrilla seems to have been stretching, allowing the usual boundaries of self-identity to dissolve in favor of a larger identity, one that included her implicitly less-than-masculine colleagues, perhaps also the sailor sitting beside her who was the first male victim ever to testify before congress about military sexual assault and, even, to some degree, some of the victimizers, too; Havrilla’s testimony suggests that, in their own way, the victimizers were also in the corrupt grip of an abusive culture.

Havrilla served in Afghanastan as an Army specialist in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), disarming deadly devices. That she was the only woman in her unit is unsurprising; hers was a decidedly male-dominated field, and in a blog post at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Havrilla acknowledges, “I have always been willing to do things outside my gender norm…” I’ll say: soldiers who do Havrilla’s dangerous and difficult job must possess the supposedly masculine virtues in surfeit. So, did Havrilla’s experiences with her own gender non-conformity possibly contribute to her empathetic understanding?

Empathy is also what moved PFC Bradley Manning, according to his seventy minute testimony before the providence inquiry two weeks ago, to release thousands of pages of classified documents to Wikileaks: empathy for children being needlessly killed in combat engagements, empathy for journalists wrongly gunned down by US forces, empathy for legitimate political opponents of the Maliki government being imprisoned and tortured by the Iraqi Federal Police. No one was harmed by the release of the documents, and many stand to benefit should the release engender appropriate public debate and action to reform US foreign policy and military operations, and yet, for his empathy, Manning may pay with life in prison. Because he openly identifies as gay, and referred in his statement to the isolation he felt among his peers in Iraq, citing as an example his roommate’s “discomfort” with his “perceived sexual orientation,” I again wonder: did not his experience of queerness likely inform his empathy?

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

Of course, experience is not our only way to empathy. Literature and art and example have long set their powers to the arousal of our Einfühling. My mother, who grew up in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas, in the years after the Second World War, recalls how a Japanese schoolgirl’s firsthand account of atomic aftermath stirred her first feelings of empathy, an empathy that would grow into solidarity with the civil rights movement and prove itself experientially, no doubt, when she found herself “othered” for daring to teach an adult literacy class attended by black men. Whatever the pathway thereto, empathy informs our moral yearnings, guiding us towards actions that comport to the needs and feelings of others as well as ourselves, so, regardless whether our empathy depends on our experience of queerness, our experience of queerness does seem to demand our pursuit of empathy.

When the storm of empathy references finally made landfall, surging against the wind-slowing topographies of first Monday’s and then Tuesday’s news cycles like a hurricane against the shore, it had merited headlines at Huffpost (Why Was Rob Portman’s Stroke of Empathy So Shocking?), and Slate (Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem); it had kept the phones ringing at the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (Empathy, Politics, and Civil Rights); it had left the internet strewn with the litter of  its phrases like so much flotsam on the beach: empathy deficit, empathy gap, empathy fail. Still, whether voices rose in defense of Portman or to criticize him, all acknowledged the heart-turning, politics-changing potential of empathy, and not just incidental empathy, incidence apparently being Portman’s worst offense, but purposeful, deliberate empathy, empathy pursued and pursuing empathy, empathy as social and political practice.

Maybe Will Portman will now lead his entire family, including the senator, on precisely such a pursuit, or perhaps, as Lawrence O’Donnell mused on his broadcast Monday night, the Portman reversal is merely another instance of identity politics that is so personal as to be utterly selfish, like legislators, O’Donnell recalled, who privately sought to amend, in ways favorable to self, family, or friends, bills for which they never intended to vote, but which they expected to pass.

I must admit, one might easily construe much of my past politics to be selfish, too. To save our lives, we ever demanded more or new AIDS research/funding/drugs, but we were at our best when we demanded universal healthcare for all. To ease our deaths, at least, if not save our lives, we demanded single-patient investigational new drug (IND) protocols for marijuana, but we were at our best when we unequivocally demanded the end of the unjust “war on drugs” that was always just a war on us. To preserve our sexual freedom, we demanded the Washington, DC police stop arresting denizens of certain establishments for sodomy, but we were at our best when we demanded an end to all sodomy laws, like the one that continues to apply to military service members regardless of their sex-genders or the sex-genders of their partners.

Perhaps our most immediate, selfish purposes qualified as tactical, or even operational goals, requisite to the achievement of broader strategic goals – or not. Perhaps I’ll never gain the distance on it required to discern the difference. It was all so personal, after all.

Yet, moral uncertainty about the past must never dissuade us from seeking accord with our queer consciences in the present, employing our fabulous imaginations to stretch ourselves to encompass others, and so undo the otherness: Einfühling, all queer together, altogether queered. The resulting connections to other politically active communities, the resulting deep alliances we might form in the pursuit of an ever-widening empathy, will require no Miss America Compassion, no contact theory, no petty, personal identity politics of the utterly selfish for its maintenance or progress, and might help propel humanity from its apparent anthropocentric inertia to confront the planetary calamity we have caused, and which now threatens ever-growing numbers of non-human species.

The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to hear what other people are thinking. The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to feel what other people are feeling.

So, how peculiar must how many of us finally be, to save the shining polar bears that roam the Arctic Sea?

What Lesson, Lazarus?


I shouldn’t really be here writing these words right now, by which I don’t mean I shouldn’t be here, in my second story corner apartment in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, typing this post, but rather, I shouldn’t be alive at all, anywhere, doing anything. I should be dead. I should be dead, incinerated to ashes and scattered to the winds, perhaps over the Seine or the Keizersgracht or the White House lawn – each had once been my wish – and long since re-integrated into the molecular and energetic fields of being that compose the universe. I shouldn’t be here writing these words right now because I should be dead.

These words, moreover, come not lightly. Neither flippant ease nor trolling provocation guide my typing fingers. Rather, I am deadly serious. I only barely survived the terminal stages of AIDS in those crucial years before lifesaving therapies became available, and, ultimately, I only survived because activists successfully compelled the makers of those new drugs to offer them, through compassionate access lotteries, to patients already too sick to participate in the trials, and I was one of those patients who won the lottery. Thus, in Aristotelian terms, one could claim the efficient cause of my survival was a combination of combinations, a cocktail of drugs combined with a mix of activist-perseverance and gambler-luck. Such is the stuff of award-winning documentaries, and I don’t deny that I owe my life, in some part, to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the Treatment Action Group (TAG), and randomized contingency, as much as protease inhibitors.

I am not alone, of course. Four thousand U.S. patients received the drug that saved my life in the same compassionate access lottery, and thousands of others received a different “miracle drug” through another lottery, and thousands more received the new therapies outside the U.S. Who knows how many, or how few, of us remain? Of course, I cannot speak for them, or anyone else, but my unexpected recovery propelled me on a quest to understand and give meaning to my survival. In the decades since my recovery, a more complete, and consequently more accurate explanation for my survival has emerged — a more complex narrative, and one that recognizes deeper forces operating without and within the obvious, proximate causes.

Douglas Ward and Earl Johnson

Dr. Doug, on left, with his partner Earl.

In addition to tenacity, fortuity, and the then-new drugs themselves, any complete enumeration of the efficient causes of my survival must include my privileged access to healthcare, generally, and the abilities of my determined physician and friend, Dr. Douglas Ward of Washington, DC, specifically. Without such care I never would have survived those years before hope, or those months before the selection of my lottery number. I was also willing to break the law, and use marijuana to help combat severe wasting. Without Cannabis, I would surely be dead.

Marijuana is good medicine. I'm the living proof.

Marijuana is good medicine. I’m the living proof.

Add to this list all the other prophylaxes used to fend off deadly opportunistic infections, the researchers who developed those drugs, the non-human animals they tortured and killed in the process, the companies that manufactured those drugs, the employees of those companies, the distribution systems that delivered the drugs to my local pharmacy, the pharmacists who dispensed them, the educational systems that prepared all those individuals to perform their assigned roles, the governmental agencies that assured I could afford them, and the taxpayers who subsidized their cost – and, still, the enumeration remains incomplete. Truthfully, to account comprehensively for the means of my survival requires that I extend recognition to the entire industrial economy, to the climate-changing carbon it spews, to the reef-smothering agricultural poisons it dumps, to all the species threatened by and lost to our runaway civilization, to the denigrated ecosystems that once supported those species, to the dying planet itself.

The b.i.d. reminder: I owe my life to protease inhibitors.

The b.i.d. reminder: I owe my life to protease inhibitors.

I am responsible for that. I must answer for it. To be a long-time AIDS survivor is to be a planet-killer. My handful of pills reminds me twice a day. These are not the products of a sustainable human society. Although medicating death away at any cost may seem to somehow ennoble our earth-hating civilization (Homo sapiens at our best, right?) I suspect the polar bears, expected to largely disappear in the next fifteen years, will take no consolation in the fact that some of the greenhouse gases that destroyed their world were emitted to save an old AIDS-ridden fag like me. No, whether the Arctic thaws because of industrial medicine or industrial war will matter not at all to the polar bears. Moreover, the seemingly ennobling endeavor of industrial medicine illustrates the profound tragedy of our deluded civilization as industrial war cannot, for to wage war means to waste and destroy. War makes little pretense to disguise itself. It no longer even pretends, as it sometimes did in the last century, to seek some enduring peace, some permanent end to war. Now, wasteful, destructive war is forever, and we don’t even bother to pretend otherwise. But industrial medicine calls itself health care, pretending it has something to do with wholeness, pretending it’s not just as ecologically violent as industrial war, pretending its own war, its supposedly merciful war on death, continues to make sense on our perilously overpopulated planet.

Years ago, after discovering the deep ecological philosophy of Norwegian mountaineer Arne Naess, but before discovering the devastatingly honest books of Derrick Jensen, I wrote of this quandary more delicately:

I awake each morning with a paradox, and with it I retire every night. A peril to my life has revealed to me the immanence of earthly nature, but the same peril can only be eluded through the gravest offence to that very immanence. I am bound in a Faustian bargain with an unsustainable fossil fuel economy, and twice a day, swallowing a handful of pills aggregately known as Highly Aggressive Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART,) I must also stomach the hard truths of my entitlement.

I have AIDS, and so I have for fifteen years. I am very lucky. I was infected long ago, and in the clock’s last ticks of my eleventh hour, effective therapies availed themselves to me. With other fortunate comrades of those embattled years, I rose up Lazarus-like from my death-bed, not winged by some messianic miracle but rather snatched from the bier by the perfectly-machined pincers of oil-energy technology – a petrochemical rescue – a medical redemption that finally saves no one, promising only overpopulation, a mean living, and a miserable prolonged death.

Make no mistake. I am ever so grateful for this life, this time, and especially this rare view through the veils of the sacred cycles of time and place that define our earthliness. But I also understand that if human beings are to survive, we must live in different ways, more sustainable ways, more earthly ways – and those ways probably don’t include HAART.

The “hard truths of my entitlement” have weighed heavily on me of late. While I welcomed the recent news that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have begun releasing their research chimps to a retirement sanctuary in Louisiana, I remained disappointed that the last congress failed to pass the Great Ape Protection Act. While I welcomed the president’s State-of-the-Union threat to direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its current authorities to regulate greenhouse gas emissions if congress fails to act, I’m discouraged that the Department of State, in a Supplementary Environmental Impact Study since revealed to have been written by oil industry contractors, failed to use its authority to halt the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. While I welcomed the video of tens of thousands of protesters marching on the White House to demand serious action on climate change, especially a halt to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, I was saddened to see so many protesters whose signs and props suggested they still mistakenly believe wind farms and solar panels will save us.

Such global concerns in the news have muffled my crowing over small queer victories of recent weeks. The inclusion of queer and indigenous people in the Violence Against Women Act, the amicus curiae briefs supporting repeal of DOMA and California’s Prop 8 filed with the Supreme Court by the White House: such is the expected fodder for these pages. But these victories, though real and meaningful, will be rendered merely pyrrhic should humans fail to recognize the planetary emergency we now face.

To be clear, I believe these things are all connected in ways queerkind has largely failed to realize. While intuitively, even academically, we acknowledge how the power dynamics of “othering” queer men is somehow an iteration of the “othering” of women which, in turn, is somehow an iteration of the “othering” of wild nature, including indigenous people, we have not successfully organized our politics, ethics, or culture around this knowledge. “Othering” is a requisite enabling mechanism in the ongoing destruction of this earth, wild people, non-human animals, and our natural selves – and queerness is perhaps the only antidote.

For me, identity politics remain relevant on a dying planet not because of the short-term legalistic gains made for small groups of slightly-less-privileged people in rich western nation-states, but because how we identify, how we imagine our most expansive selves and what we include in that extension of our identity define our priorities. While Naess hints at the hopeful prospect of humans developing a sense of ecological self, expanding our identities to encompass the land base, watersheds, and food sources that sustain us, Jensen’s words on the topic of identity are unflinchingly dark:

If you perceive yourself as a consumer, consume you will. If you perceive yourself as a “new and thoroughly superior predator,” you will act like one. If you perceive yourself as a member of a species that can act no other way than to destroy your landbase, that is what you will do. If you perceive yourself as the “apex” of evolution, you will try to climb to the top of something that has no top, and you will crush those you perceive as being beneath you. If you believe you are separate from your landbase, you may believe you can destroy your landbase and survive, and you may very well destroy it. If you perceive yourself as entitled to exploit those around you, you will do so.

One of the stated premises of Jensen’s two-volume Endgame, the source of the preceding quote, is that our culture’s sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy and technology. What about queer subculture’s sense of self? Is it sustainable? Do we identify with the Wapishana, Yuqui,  Fleicheros, Guaja or dozens of other yet-wild peoples subsisting in ever-shrinking refuges as civilization encroaches all around?  Or do we identify with the celebrities who dominate our commercial culture? Do we identify with the non-human animals struggling to survive in the ecosystems our civilization continues to denigrate? Or do we identify with the superficiality of fashion, the excesses of materialism, and gratuitous technology?

Jensen has gotten under my skin, and having trod so near to death, only to return, I can’t help but identify with the shining polar bears, and the living soil, and the wondrous coral reef. I can’t help but identify with Jerom, a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother as an infant and confined to the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta. There, researchers repeatedly and pointlessly infected Jerom with HIV, and there, in 1996, just as I was discovering a second life, Jerom died at the young age of fourteen, having suffered miserably for years. Researchers learned nothing from these experiments except that chimps were generally not useful to AIDS research; HIV infection did not progress to AIDS in chimpanzees as it did in humans. Jerom was an exception, and though researchers failed to find in him their holy grail, that is, an identifiable opportunistic infection, Jerom grew very ill indeed, suffering chronic diarrhea and severe wasting like everybody I else I knew who ever died of AIDS.

As one who has held a dying friend in my arms, I must also identify with Jerom’s caregiver and friend, Rachel Weiss, who quit her job after Jerom’s death and, so, was free to tell his story. The compassion she brought to Jerom’s care provided rare reprieve to his tortured existence. However many times I read her moving account, it yet brings tears. To such cruel wrongs as these may I never be inured.

In the years since my recovery, I can trace my path through a process of recognizing the reasons for my survival through distinct periods of recovery, one evolving into the next, in a phased homage, an obeisance to the first and second causes. Without failing to acknowledge the efficient causes of my survival as I already outlined, I assumed my attitude of homage to explore the material and formal causes of my survival. This attitude accorded to the rubrics of gratitude, accountability, and generosity, meaning each phase of the obeisance represented an intentional practice of identifying and recognizing a reason, or cause of my survival as the object of my gratitude, then defining my accountability to the object of my gratitude in terms of my specific future responsibilities to the object of my gratitude, and finally, attempting to fulfill those specific responsibilities with generosity.

Remember, upon discovering I would live after believing I would die, I had no plan. My bucket list had been enumerated, edited for time, adjusted for loss of capacity, edited again for time, and so on, until nothing remained. I don’t remember anyone having a plan. “Hey, PWA. You just cheated death. What are you going to do next?” Going to a theme park hardly rises to the occasion. Since no one knew how long those protease-inhibitor-driven recoveries would last for the once-near-dead like me, long-term planning seemed like an inappropriate paradigm, anyway. So, lacking a plan, I deliberately applied a practice. (I have not overlooked that the acronym for the rubrics of gratitude, accountability, and generosity would be G.A.G., and I fully recognize the gag-inducing potential of anything smacking of self-improvement cliché, but I welcome any ridicule it invites as the price of my authenticity and as harbinger against my own sanctimony.)

I wish I could say I was so successful in my practice that anything I’ve ever done has been adequate to express even a fraction of the gratitude I feel, or return even a fraction of the generosity I enjoy at the hands of brother, friend and stranger alike. I can never make a full accounting for my undeserved turn of fate. The homage to the causes is but my stumbling, leaning, and lurching efforts towards some adequate expression.

Malcom Gregory Scott with Christopher Beamer

With Chris, who opened his Florida home to me.

The first period of homage celebrated my resurrected body. After only a few months taking protease inhibitors and upon the return of my vigor, I began exercising, eating healthier foods and enjoying them more than ever before, and sleeping until I awoke without an alarm to be always perfectly rested. I left Washington, D.C.’s  swamp-winters and blazing summers for sub-tropical South Florida where I spent more than a year without any worry in the world other than the optimization of my own health, thanks to my generous friend Chris, who let me live in his comfortable home as an honored guest. Like a spa-resident’s, my days began with long bike rides, possibly to one of the beaches, or to Fort Lauderdale’s extravagant public swimming pools, or to the gym. Relaxed afternoons faded into warm nights spent sharing healthy salad-centered meals, then to be followed by long sleep-filled nights. I had never felt or looked better; in Florida, I even quit smoking tobacco. In homage, I had renewed my relationship with the substance and shape that are my body; I made and kept commitments to myself about my personal habits, and became accountable to my constitution, whatever genetic or developed physical advantages had made my survival possible. Without this body, I would be dead. I am accountable to this body.

Thanks to Chris, I spent the first year of my recovery poolside.

Thanks to Chris, I spent the first year of my recovery poolside.

I could not forget how my near-death experience had opened my mind to the interconnectedness of the seemingly disparate, and the permeability of apparent boundaries. As if in fulfillment of the promise of that insight, I now discovered that the more gratitude I showered on my physical self, the more expanded grew my sense of self and the scope of the gratitude I felt; having depended so heavily on friends and family and community during my illness, I could no longer perceive myself as a wholly autonomous organism in the way I might once have. I now understood viscerally the meaning of being a social organism, existentially interdependent with others, whom, as parts of one’s expanded self, could no longer be “othered.” The perception shifted most easily among biological relations, whom, by virtue of shared genetic and cultural birthrights, society permits us to consider extensions of ourselves. Among friends, the shift in perception was more unexpected, and for its greater unlikelihood, perhaps all the more revelatory.


With my dear friend J.B. who was always there for me through the worst of my illness.

With my dear friend J.B. who was always there for me through the worst of my illness.

The progression, from perceiving friends – like dear J.B., and openhearted Chris, and brilliant Dr. Doug – as existentially interdependent to perceiving my larger community as existentially interdependent, required only a subtle shift further in my perception of my self as a socially interdependent creature.  My conscious awareness of this shift marked the transition from the first period of my recovery to the second, and my homage to the first and second causes, understood as my own physical being and predictably manifest in glowing physical vitality, yielded to my homage to the first and second causes as revealed by my shifted perception: the material revealed as energetic and shared, no longer contained by my mortal individuality, and the form revealed as social and connected, no longer bounded by genetics or personal loyalties. Again, following the rubrics of gratitude, accountability, and generosity rather than any plan, my second homage realized itself in several years of volunteerism, activism and community organizing in South Florida. I knew no other way to say thank you to my family, friends, and community, but to give my time and my modest abilities back to communities of people like those who had sustained me, and in advancement of the ideas those communities valued.

Unrecognizable in some ways from the activism I had practiced in Washington. D.C as I had grown ill, my community endeavors in South Florida were more measured, thoughtful, consistent and mature than my earlier engagements with politics, even if they were sometimes manifest in outrage as well as service; my shortcomings notwithstanding, there I became the best community member, the best social and political self, I had ever been. Without community, I would be dead. I am accountable to community.

Malcom Gregory Scott with Dennis Gilbert

With Dennis, who opened his San Francisco home to me.

In 2003, I left South Florida for California, where I enjoyed the open-handed hospitality of another generous friend, Dennis. The reasons for the move were many, and some were more complicated than others; in one sense, I was following my gratitude towards an expanding sense of community, one that now entailed entire ecological systems, food sources, watersheds, and wild places. I vaguely hoped I might live in closer connection to my own food. But just as my practice during the homage of the first period of my recovery led to insights that transformed my understanding of my own substance and shape, thus yielding to the second period of my recovery, so the rubrics of gratitude, accountability, and generosity as practiced during the second period of my recovery transformed my understanding of community, expanding it to encompass the ideas that bind communities together, the shared cultures of places, beliefs, and values that shape communities, and the collective wisdom embodied by those communities. This insight turned me again towards self, but now to attend my emotional, intellectual and intuitive self. Here in California, I have spent years improving my mental health, resuming my education, and exploring my spirituality, pursuing all according to my own individuated and heterodox curricula. Though the rubrics remain unchanged, this homage manifests as reading, listening, studying, learning, and meditating. Just as I achieved my finest physical self, or being-self, by practice of the rubrics during the first period of my recovery, and my finest social self, or communing-self by practice of the rubrics during the second period of my recovery, so I sense I am now shyly approaching my most knowing-self. Without this mind, I would be dead. I am accountable to my mind

In California, I sought a deeper connection with nature.

In California, I sought a deeper connection with nature.

With the rubrics propelling me towards new insights still, I feel myself already in the flush of transition yet again. Perhaps this blog is among its outward signs. My homage continues, now turning imperceptibly towards collective consciousness, yet another surprising expansion of my sense of self, and one that obligates me even further to Jerom and the other chimps like him, and the rhesus monkeys who have replaced the chimps as HIV research subjects of choice. At its core, the homage to the first and second causes remains homage to an expanding sense of self, a recognition and reverence of multidimensional identity, a queering, or un-othering of everything.

Without the shining polar bears I would be dead. I am accountable to the shining polar bears.

Without the living soil, I would be dead. I am accountable to the living soil.

Without the wondrous coral reef, I would be dead. I am accountable to the wondrous coral reef.

I can’t be sure where the rubrics will lead me, but I imagine some day, through my interior journey as charted by my evolving homage to the material and formal causes of my survival – my expanding sense of self – or the outward journey as charted by the obvious, efficient causes with which this post began – tenacity, fortuity, and miracle drugs – I may yet discover the fourth and final cause, a purpose to my survival, my reason for being. Until it reveals itself to me, I can only strive for gratitude, accountability, and generosity. I owe it to my expanded sense of self. I owe it to my family, and friends, and community. I owe it to my landbase, and watersheds, and food sources.

And I owe it to Jerom, because, without Jerom, I would be dead. I am accountable to Jerom.




Penetration, However Slight

Last month, when I cheered the decision by US Marine Corps’ lawyers to assert the rights of marines’ same-sex-gender spouses to participate in military spouses clubs, I never expected Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to follow the marines onto the beachhead so expeditiously – as he did today with his announcement that the Department of Defense (DoD) will significantly expand benefits for the domestic partners and spouses of queer service members. Although the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits the DoD from expanding health care, housing and survivor benefits to queer spouses, the executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Allyson Robinson, calls the expansion “substantive,” praising Panetta for doing nearly all he could while DOMA remains in effect. Fully implementing the changes may require as long as eight months, according to the DoD, hardly soon enough for the family of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, whose opposition to DOMA and advocacy for queer spousal benefits elevated her to national prominence before she succumbed to breast cancer. Morgan died yesterday.

Central to today’s announcement is the plan to issue military identification cards to same-sex-gender spouses and partners. The military identification card is integral to life in the service; without it, one can’t freely come and go from a spouse’s workplace, use recreational facilities like gyms, swimming pools and tennis courts shared by all other military spouses, attend work-related social functions at mess facilities, or participate in spouses clubs. The officers’ spouses club at Fort Bragg justified its exclusion of Ashley Broadway on precisely this: Broadway didn’t carry a military ID.

Before 11 February 1987: squared away sailor.

Before 11 February 1987: squared away sailor.

Panetta’s announcement struck me as especially auspicious today because of a personal anniversary. Twenty-six years ago, on 11 February 1987, after almost two years of training and only weeks before I was scheduled to graduate from the Naval Nuclear Power School (NNPS) in Orlando, Florida, the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) summoned me to its offices where agents informed me they were investigating me for sodomy. Military legal procedures did not require the agents provide me any other information, and I refused to say anything until I’d spoken with a lawyer. I walked out of the NIS office with pounding heart, racing mind and the creeping recognition that my navy life was about to end. Standing at one of the open-air public telephones lacing the NNPS quadrangle, I dialed long distance information and obtained the phone numbers for Lambda Legal Defense Fund in New York City and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. I knew I wasn’t the first fag to be drummed out of the military, so I thought someone must know what I should do.

My situation wasn’t nearly so grave as it might have been only a decade before. Upon assuming the presidency, Ronald Reagan had implemented a revised policy concerning homosexuality, a revision originally drafted by the DoD under Jimmy Carter. The Carter administration had been looking for ways to save money. The previous, harsher policy always denied honorable discharges to members separated for homosexuality, thus limiting the veteran’s benefits they could claim; many sued to upgrade the characterizations of their discharges, and often won, all at considerable taxpayer expense. As attitudes towards homosexuality shifted in the late 1970’s, the administration had decided that the money expended defending these discharge characterizations would be better spent expanding the nuclear navy. The new policy, effective as of January 1981, was encoded as part 1, section H of DoD Instruction 1332.14, concerning administrative separations for enlisted personnel, and DoD Instruction 1332.30, concerning separations of regular officers for cause. These instructions, which any president had the authority to simply repeal by executive order, as Bill Clinton would later promise, but fear to do, constituted the “ban” that activists like me fought so hard to “lift” in the years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

Thus, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) assigned to advise me was able to offer a choice that wouldn’t have been an option only seven years earlier: by voluntarily “admitting to homosexuality,” I could avoid a criminal investigation, possible criminal charges and brig time, and hope for an honorable discharge, benefits intact. I left his office unsure what to do. I had no clue how they had discovered my secret. I didn’t know what evidence the NIS officer kept hidden in the dark brown folder on his desk. When I called Lambda Legal and the Task Force, advocates there had little helpful advice as neither organization had yet fully engaged on the issue, but they agreed I should probably not risk an investigation, and that I could not trust the JAG to represent my interests if I did. They hinted that a big gay world awaited me, but otherwise could do little to help; already the queer world begged for Michelle Benecke and Dixon Osburn.

The threat of serious punishment if I resisted discharge was real, and the pressure to capitulate and “admit” was powerful. That I was nearing completion of such an elite program with so demanding a curriculum in calculus, engineering, and nuclear physics complicated my decision. I had overcome my own considerable limitations, especially a strong aversion to mathematics, in order to come this far. I didn’t want to quit, but the word “sodomy” rang in my ears for the next several days.

My suspiciously concurrent diagnosis with HIV would complicate this entire process, and lead me to speculate, years later, that perhaps a Western Blot result was the only evidence the NIS officer withheld in that dark brown folder as he declared the suspicion against me, segregating by dramatic pause the filthy word he seemed to fear capable of contaminating all other speech: sodomy. Like every good recruit, I had memorized the articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) during boot camp. For Article 125, prohibiting sodomy, our instructors had drilled into us a phrase they must have construed as the heart of the law: Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense. With whom had I shared penetration, however slight, other than those similarly compelled to secrecy by Article 125? Who had reported me?  Without this knowledge, determining my legal vulnerability was impossible. If I were convicted of violating Article 125, the military court could imprison me for five years.

To avoid prosecution, I completed the Navy's Homosexual Questionaire.

To avoid prosecution, I completed the Navy’s Homosexual Questionaire.









Finally, on 17 February, I reported to the yeomanry division, my pristinely white “Dixie cup” in hand, where an ironically effeminate petty officer guided me through the paperwork that would comprise my admission to homosexuality, the feeblest such confession I would ever make. Immediately upon my admission, NNPS dis-enrolled me from its coveted training program, and transferred me to temporary duty with base security where, until my administrative separation in April, I oversaw the detail of sailors who served gate watch, a responsibility I found comically telling, years later, as I contested DoD claims that “homosexuality compromises security,” a long-held justification for upholding the “ban.”  On my last day of active duty, after donning civilian clothes to be escorted through the main gate by a security detail, a first class petty officer confiscated all my uniforms, every non-civilian stitch then in my possession except for a few items I’d left in Virginia over winter leave, as well as my military identification card, the indispensable tessera of military life, because, he told me, “We don’t want any faggots sneaking back on base.”

Last photo with dog tags, soon to be confiscated

Last photo with dog tags, soon to be confiscated.

Today, I wonder if that first class petty officer is still alive, and, if so, whether he thought of me when he heard Panetta’s news. I certainly thought of him.  Even now, as clearly as if before my very eyes, I can picture his hand, snatching away the plastic ID card I had placed on the desk as he ordered. Soon, instead of confiscating identification cards from queer sailors, the U.S. Navy will be issuing identification cards to queer spouses. Today, I must count that as a victory.

Today, though, I also have to wonder if congress will ever repeal Article 125 of the UCMJ. Although the 112th congress nearly repealed it in the National Defense Authorization Act, this last U.S. law criminalizing consensual sodomy between adults remains in effect, tarnishing every shining bit of progress we might celebrate. The same law once used like a cudgel to intimidate me into “admitting to homosexuality,” now consoles radical fundamentalists who resisted repeal of DADT. The same law once used to frighten recruits into sexual conformity, now indicts our careless conflation of queer conduct and queer status. How benefit queer sailors if they can tell, but they can’t penetrate, however slightly? Although some will argue that recent court decisions suggest the chain of command will limit citations of Article 125 to cases of forcible sodomy, the congress must retire the article altogether, and the sooner the better. Just as a Confederate battle flag continues to inflict harm even when used only to cheer on the Ole Miss Rebels at a football game, Article 125 will remain harmful even in desuetude, an offensive artifact of a military that not only officially hated fags, but non-procreative sex of any kind, once even using Article 125 to convict a man named Fag for receiving oral sex – from a female. Tomorrow, hundreds of new recruits will be memorizing the UCMJ, article by article, and Article 125 will yet number among them. Today, I must count that as an ongoing and regrettable defeat.

Of Closets, Beards, and Catfish

Sometimes a beard is only...a beard.

Sometimes a beard is only…a beard.

Last week, when Deadspin first broke the story that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend had never existed, I must confess that my first thought, and the first thought of the friend who alerted me to the story, was: beard! Perhaps that impulse somehow belies our generation, as my friend and I are both over fifty now. Upon further reflection, my second thought was: catfish! No doubt, my second thought might have occurred first to younger observers, even queerkind, and this shift speaks favorably of dramatic improvements in the daily lives of queer people who seek to live authentically, improvements I have experienced in my own lifetime. Whether the shift bodes well or ill for the future of human interactions is harder to predict. Perhaps the catfish phenomenon, especially in its sex-gender-flipping form as recognized in the Te’o case – if indeed Te’o’s were a case of catfish and not beard – is merely another iteration of the beard. If so, this iteration of perceived artifice may reveal the true scope of the oppressive nature of sex-gender norms in ways the perceived artifice of the beard never could; the catfish, by virtue of the scale and ease of the underlying technology, and the sense of safe distance the technology imparts, may yet complicate far more lives than the beard ever did.

I qualify these artifices as “perceived” for two important reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly in the examination of an individual case like Te’o’s, none may claim to know the mind or desires of another. After watching Te’o’s response to Katie Couric’s very direct question yesterday, I admit, I agreed with Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith and others that Te’o’s reaction raised suspicions, but fa-a-a-ar be it from me to speak for Te’o or anyone else. Beyond the obvious epistemological limitation, moreover, arise more troubling metaphysical complications. The second reason I qualify the artifices of beard and catfish as “perceived” is that the artifices themselves rely on mistaken conceptualizations of sex-gender and sexual desire, reducing the multidimensional to the linear, simplifying continuous categories into discrete ones, and accepting fluid identities as fixed.

The neuroscience of sexual desire, or sex drive (“lust”), romantic attraction (“in-love”), and long-term attachment (“loving”) has revealed three distinct but interrelated brain systems mediating these three different aspects of mammalian and avian mating, reproductive, and parenting behaviors. With the aid of new tools, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, researchers, including biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, have been charting the internal terrains of the experience of desire, and they have discovered some of the biological topography underlying desire’s multidimensionality. In Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker’s 2008 film festival favorite, Bi the Way, for example, Fisher describes how the distinctness of the three brain systems might contribute to the phenomenon of desire called bisexuality. Just consider how one’s sex drive might draw one to partners of the same sex-gender while one’s romantic attraction might draw one to partners of a different sex-gender, or perhaps one’s sex drive and romantic attraction align in such a way that short term relationships with a particular sex-gender are possible, but then the brain system responsible for long-term attachment does not align in a way that sustains a permanent attachment with that particular sex-gender. The possible combinations multiply quickly. Over this multidimensionality, layer the added multidimensionality of one’s sex-gender identity, fraught with its own chromosomal, biological, psychological, and sociological complexities, and the extent of the reductionism entailed by the commonplace contemporary discourse around sexuality becomes apparent. Even if Te’o were willing to submit himself to an fMRI scan, addressing thereby, perhaps, the aforementioned epistemological limitations, the metaphysical conundrum would remain. To be so mistaken in our abstraction of sex-gender and sexual desire will forever frustrate efforts to authentically apply those abstractions to any individual, regardless of draft position, including ourselves.

Jodie wants you to know: she's single.

Jodie wants you to know: she’s single.

That didn’t stop us from trying during the queer visibility movement of the 1990’s. Just as the die-in had been ACT UP’s stock-in-trade, the queer-in or kiss-in would be Queer Nation’s, but, although a few dozen fags and drags showing up for happy hour at the “straight” bar in an uptight neighborhood at the height of the AIDS crisis was, in itself, sometimes more controversial than many participants might now like to remember, it wasn’t nearly enough so. Only when Queer Nation started outing people was the controversy sufficient, surpassing even the controversy over reclaiming the q-word. Of course, the reason for the controversy arose not from the objection that outing applied the same reductive paradigm Queer Nation sought to overturn, a merely internal critique some eagerly answered by insisting everyone was queer, anyway, so paradigms didn’t matter. Rather, outing ignited such controversy by openly violating, and thus, in one fateful stroke, also disempowering and repudiating, the Mattachine-era dogma that held privacy sacrosanct, the paradoxical cornerstone of both gay liberation and gay concealment.

The notion of gay concealment, or, in the parlance of the last century that I hope queerkind may soon abandon, “the closet,” the original pre-condition of the beard, is itself a reduction, depending for its logic on the fixed, discrete categories of essentialism. Perhaps its deconstruction required both the strategic, universalizing mass outings as exemplified by Queer Nation’s infamous lists as well as the tactical, policy-motivated individual outings as exemplified by the unmasking of Pentagon spokesperson Pete Williams. Conversely, while the appeal of the “coming out” narrative may persist, suggesting as it does a transformational acceptance of one’s self and a commitment to live an authentic life, it may also seduce one into a linear understanding of one’s sexuality, fixed and flat, devoid the multidimensional potentialities it once promised.

Moreover, anyone old enough to have lived in the age of gay concealment will attest: even the distinction between being “in the closet” or “out” of it was a false binary, for in those days queerness readily disguised itself beneath layers of inscrutable identity to be only sometimes, slowly, and partially peeled away, depending on company and circumstance. Under this regime, the butch dykes, sissy boys and drag queens often suffered mightily for their lack of camouflage, perhaps thereby modeling for everyone else the courage that complete authenticity would require of all. Yet, such authenticity remains elusive for too many, even among those who identify proudly as “openly gay” and present themselves as “out” to family, friends, and co-workers, for these sanitized, hetero-approved ideograms guarantee no one approval for related secrets yet concealed in shame, whether an otherwise transgressing desire, a hidden habit, or a repressed belief. Sometimes, in recollection, I imagine the Queer Nation experience as one of running through the zoo to open all the cages, quickly, to free as many creatures as possible before the zookeepers discovered the plot. Once their alarm sounded, we needed a new plan.

Whether or not Manti Te’o was lying when he insisted he was “far from” gay, and whether or not his fake girlfriend qualifies as beard or catfish, and whether or not Jodie Foster is…single, matters less than the weighty costs these episodes reveal, unnecessary costs exacted upon our individual and collective wellbeing by our own inadequate abstractions of sex-gender and sexual desire. So long as we continue to blind ourselves to the wondrous diversity expressed by nature in all things, diversity that is infinite, fluid and multidimensional, we will continue to sacrifice our lives, queer and otherwise, to estrangement by closet, beard, and catfish. This blindness affects us all, whether our desire seems to conform to the mythical norms or not, for it plunges us alike into darkness, together to stumble over each other in the same undersized and outdated closet, and may the National Football League and the Hollywood Foreign Press have mercy on whomever we trample underfoot.

Seeing Pink: Discrete Categories and Queer Estrangement

Mother would be proud.

Mother would be proud.

Later today, Barack Hussein Obama will ratify his already historic accomplishment when he once again swears the oath of office as President of the United States, and, predictably, one will again hear his historic accomplishment characterized in a way that raises troubling questions about the social and cultural construction of racial identities: “first African American (read black) president reelected” is a story much easier to tell than “first commonly acknowledged multi-racial president reelected.” The president’s own statements, such as the references to his white grandmother in A More Perfect Union, his memorable 2008 speech on race, suggest the president himself wishes the complexities were more accessible. No doubt, the president understands, better than most, how systems of racial oppression depend on the vigilant maintenance of the false binary between white people and people of color, enforcing by law and custom the mistaken notion that racial differences define discrete categories, intentionally obscuring the liberating nature, specifically, of the infinitely diverse and continuous categories of racial expression, and, generally, of the multidimensionality of racial identity. A heavily reductive, and plainly racist culture seems inclined to erase Obama’s maternal ancestors, just as the slave laws of the southern states once disregarded the white heritage of the multi-racial child, sired by a white slave-owner and born into bondage. The message, straining though it does against the facts, is clear: one must be either black or white, and to be white is to be somehow pure, so that any amount of blackness negates all whiteness. Conceptually, the color line remains inviolate.

In recent decades, intersectionality theory, exploring as it does how systems of oppression operate simultaneously and interdependently across biological, social, and economic axes of sex-gender, race, class, ability, and sexual orientation, has illuminated the significance of our collective short-handing of the president’s racial complexity, by revealing the centrality of the fallacy of the discrete category to many recognized matrices of domination.

Queer estrangement circa 1992

Queer estrangement circa 1992

The insight is especially poignant for queerkind, and highlights with sadness our estrangement from one another: queer from gay, gay from lesbian, cisgender from transgender. By definition, we all struggle within the intersected tensions experienced along at least two of the principal axes on which oppression operates: sex-gender and sexual orientation. The practice of non-conformative sexual orientations entails non-conforming sex-gender behaviors, while transitional and intersex sex-genders occasion infinitude of potential non-conformative sexual orientations.

Certainly, much queer estrangement arises from justified anger, and when, as a person of white cis-male privilege, I witness a call-out, or see resentments rooted in sex-gender or racial injustices otherwise manifest, or find myself growing indignant, I try to remember what Obama said about such anger in that 2008 speech:

That anger [as had been expressed by Reverend Jeremiah Wright] is not always productive. Indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving our real problems…But the anger is real; it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.  

Importantly, just as the black women who originated intersectionality theory advanced a legitimate critique of twentieth century feminism as then articulated by white women, so intersectionality theory yet constitutes a legitimate critique of a gay movement politics that ignores sex-gender.

The fallacy of the discrete category perhaps finds its greatest range of influence and its most profound effects along the axis of sex-gender, by virtue of its universal and early application. Indeed, the question of whether one is girl or boy, a question replete with binary assumptions and tautological arrogance, greets each and every one upon birth, and the answer colors, in pink and blue pastels, a lifetime of gender expectations to come. Among the privileges attending whatever visible genitals one might then present, society has not recognized the privilege to alter, defy, disregard or escape those genitals, except to surgically enforce the fallacy of the discrete category, in this case the reductive boy-girl binary, as in the mutilation of intersex infants or the sterilization of transgender adults. Although with considerably less tragic results, this fallacy dominates even the most sex-gender-privileged among us, blinding us to the inauthenticity of the binary regime and hardening us against our more empathic impulses, impulses that might mitigate the estrangement between those who differ only in how they differ.

These complexities, unfortunately, like the complexity of the president’s racial identity, challenge our comprehension, remaining inaccessible beyond a shroud of commonplace misperception. To see through the veil is to perhaps glimpse the turning of Yeat’s falcon in the widening gyre: first-wave feminism discounting the intersection of race and sex-gender, then, more recently, the gay movement discounting the intersection of sexual orientation and sex-gender, and now, this latest controversy of estrangement between second-wave feminism and twenty-first century transgender politics, in which feminism twists itself into a defense of essentialism, as if to discount the intersection of sex-gender with itself, or stated another way, as if to discount the intersection of the complex of traits we commonly consider to determine a person’s “sex” and the complex of traits we commonly consider to determine a person’s “gender.”  Perhaps no other intersectionality better reveals the error of essentialism and the fallacy of the discrete category, the very tools historically chosen to subjugate all females.

In her recent book, Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class, and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics, Urvashi Vaid writes with insight and compassion about the very complexities which now seem to estrange queerkind, and the practical realities, for the queer movement, of what theorists call intersectionality. Vaid, herself no stranger to the complexities of intersectionality, either in her personal life as a queer woman of color born to the immigrant working class, or as a leading light of queer liberation, marshaling resources and organizing people in empowering ways for more than three decades, convincingly argues that “…justice means intersectional practice…” and that to truly succeed, the queer movement must expand beyond the narrow pursuit of equal legal inclusion in the established norms to instead transform the norms themselves. Having taken her title from a quote by Toni Cade Bambara, Vaid writes in the introduction:

For me, an irresistible revolution is one in which the LGBT movement deploys the power it has gained to challenge and change traditions of ignorance, violence, poverty, and authoritarian control that continue to dominate the world. This moment calls for a renewed progressive and feminist politics defined not by narrowing but by expansion. It calls on us to answer the question posed by the Indian gay advocate and lawyer, Arvind Narrain: “Is the imagination of queer politics merely about access to rights for queer citizens or also about questioning structures which limit the very potential of human freedom?”

Since Karl Marx first described the materialist approach to understanding history, movements for social, legal, and economic change have paired these words: revolution and transformation. Vaid uses the words seemingly interchangeably, as have I, even in these pages. But the disambiguation of the two words might guide the queer movement well as it navigates “this moment,” for while any transformation can be revolutionary in some sense, not all revolutions are transformational in any sense. Writer and activist Starhawk, in what may be her most powerful book, Dreaming the Dark, uses these words seemingly interchangeably as well, but she also cautions against the revolution that merely replaces one complex of external power structures with another, the revolution that merely comes full circle, the revolution that alters the order of power structures without transforming the structures themselves. Transformation, after all, is about changing the form (e.g. the institution of marriage itself), not the content, (e.g. whom law and custom permit to marry) and revolution, too often, while changing the faces of those exercising power-over, leave the old shapes of external power structures intact. The story of the non-transformational revolution, therefore, is, for Starhawk, a story of estrangement as much as the story of apocalypse, the story of good against evil, or the story of the fall, all instruments of culture employed to the singular purpose of domination.

I agree with Vaid that to succeed in any meaningful way, our politics must stretch to the transformational, not merely the revolutionary. To do so, we must begin, individually and collectively, to open our minds to the complexities of our inner selves and our public identities. We must recognize that a queer movement that fails to address issues of race, class, ability, and sex-gender will fail to transform, regardless what revolutions it might accomplish. We must act according to principles of justice that transcend the profuse and continuous and fluid categories of identity we wrongly perceive as few and discrete and fixed. We must unite in a coalition dedicated to racial justice and economic justice and sex-gender justice no less than queer justice because “…justice means intersectional practice…”

All of these concerns are connected already, in the fallacy of the discrete category, whether we connect as allies to unseat it or do not. All of these causes have essentially always been one, an age-old lurching away from domination, whether we work as one well-networked coalition for global justice or do not. Failing to recognize these connections in our puzzle of intersectionality is more than a mere conceptual mistake, however, because movements for social and legal and economic change are not mere abstractions. Exclusion of people of color, or transgender people, or lesbians, or differently-abled individuals, or any of our queerkind from circles of queer power, and exclusion of their concerns from the movement’s agenda also constitutes a tactical mistake because the movement depends on popular support from an ever more demographically diverse population (both in the sense that once predominantly white nations like the US are ever more demographically diverse over time and in the sense that as the movement expands globally, it encompasses ever more demographically diverse populations around the world) for success. These same exclusions constitute a strategic mistake because they force a narrowing of the movement’s sense of collective purpose, deprive it of the innovation and evolution that arises from collective thinking and collective action in diverse groups, and imperil its long-term sustainability. Moreover, and perhaps most troubling to me personally, these exclusions constitute an ethical mistake because they betray queer moral values of authenticity, empathy, and mutual care. Only by reclaiming these values do I believe we can overcome our estrangement from one another. Only by reclaiming these values do I believe we can forge a politics of transformation.

Estrangement for all.

Estrangement for all.

Throughout his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sometimes expressed his ambition to be a transformational president, and he alienated many progressives when he elevated Ronald Reagan as his example. Perhaps, even after eight years, history will not credit Obama with changing the shape of anything, but if even a handful of people recognize in the president’s racial complexities, and our collective short-handing thereof, the falsehood of the discrete categories under which they struggle, then I must believe that a transformation is indeed underway.

Send in the Marines

A few years ago, I was growing medical marijuana on a nine-acre farm in Northern California as part of a small patient collective. Every fall, our collective invited everyone we knew who might be available to help us harvest, trim, cure, and jar our medicine for the year. It’s a tedious process, requiring great care if one intends, as we did, for the conserved medicine to retain its full therapeutic powers until the next harvest. Once cutting has begun, the success of the project depends on completing the work in a timely manner, so extra hands were always welcome.

As everyone sat around the large worktable, scissors snipping furiously, meticulously trimming away any leaf matter to leave only perfect nuggets of potent flower-buds ready for their second curing, we talked about everything – music, farming, philosophy, cooking – and as these crews were usually diverse in many respects, the topics of choice often steered to the queer. So I wasn’t surprised when one worker’s mention of the recently commemorated Veteran’s Day and my partner’s interjection that I was a veteran led to a discussion of the imminent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). But I was surprised when this femme-dyke, whom I had known for years, asserted that, because I had enlisted in the military, I couldn’t legitimately identify myself as queer. “There’s no such thing as a queer in the military,” she said.

" deserving as Mrs. Colin Powell."

“…as deserving as Mrs. Colin Powell.”

I remembered those words when I read about Ashley Broadway. She’s the legally married spouse of Lt. Col. Heather Mack (US Army) who was denied admission to the officers’ spouses club at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (Apparently, Mack and Broadway are queer enough by Army standards.) The controversy garnered more coverage yesterday when the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Marine Corps has advised its legal staff that spouses clubs operating on its installations must admit same-sex-gender spouses if they wish to remain on base. According to the AP, the Marine Corps commandant’s Staff Judge Advocate referred to the “stir” at Fort Bragg in his emailed instructions: “We do not want a story like this developing in our back yard.”

Interestingly, the Marine Corps’ top lawyers cite the existing non-discrimination policy applicable to such clubs, language that does not specify protection for sexual orientation. According to the AP, the emailed memo explained, “We would interpret a spouses club’s decision to exclude a same-sex spouse as sexual discrimination because the exclusion was based upon the spouse’s sex.” Perhaps that explanation will satisfy defenders of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law plainly intended to enforce complete non-recognition of queer military spouses, even the lawfully wedded wife of a Lieutenant Colonel.

I think my femme-dyke critic made a fair point in one logical sense: Militarism is the norm, and queerness, by definition, exists outside the norm, and therefore, “There’s no such thing as a queer in the military.” It’s also true that I didn’t self-identify as queer per se before the Navy kicked me out for being, well… per se queer. Yet, I must challenge her criticism on the larger question of the meanings of queer and queerness, especially their meanings in contrast to other terms of static identity deployed on the battlefields of identity politics.

I believe that queerness is not merely a more extreme or radical expression of non-conforming sexuality, not merely extra-gayness, or far-left anti-military and socialist gayness. Rather, queerness is the rejection of conformity as a norm. To be queer is to embrace diverse non-conformity as the only norm, to acknowledge the multi-dimensionality and fluidity of desire and sex-gender, and to cultivate a world free of the boundaries prescribed by norms of desire and sex-gender. Queerness is a reflexive idea, its all-encompassing inclusion applying even to itself, so that anyone, everyone can be queer. Queerness is an expansive, liberating idea, an idea rendered most powerful in circumstances, like military service, most dominated by norms of conformity, so that otherwise quite conventional soldiers and sailors and marines assume queer power by the most subtle of nonconforming thoughts and actions. Indeed, the military is full of queers. It always has been.

QueersFightBack2In the early years of the queer visibility movement, I lived across the street from the Marine Corps Barracks at 8th and I Streets in Southeast Washington, DC, where I earned the distinction of a place on the out-of-bounds list, local addresses marines were ordered not to visit. My experiences there corroborated my earlier suspicions, initially formulated during my active duty service, that the Marine Corps are the most homoerotic, potentially the queerest of the service branches. The corps’ subsequent, and even recent resistance to the repeal of DADT seemed to further confirm my suspicions, as the resistance itself suggested an unseen pressure, perhaps, one could say, even a latent institutional homosexuality. Of the four branches of service, the USMC has always seemed most to embody the attributes of the closet case, jarhead violence against queer neighbors once so common as to spark demonstrations like the one we staged outside my doorstep in the summer of 1990. Two decades later, the marines, at last, are peaking out of their closet, defying DOMA to queer the corps, and leading the way for the other branches of service to finally begin to acknowledge the spouses of Americans willing to die for our right to be different. And to them, my inner sailor and my inner queer can only answer: outstanding!

Queer Fears, Queer Hopes


When the United States Navy discharged me for homosexuality in 1987, I returned to a civilian world in which I identified as gay, but I was almost immediately uneasy with that label, and as the decade drew to its close, I found myself ever more likely to call myself queer. AIDS had a lot to do with it, no doubt. Gay, conveying as it did the merry lightheartedness explicit in its dictionary definition, hardly seemed appropriate in a community so devastated by illness and death. By 1991, the word itself seemed to catch in my throat. I was angry, I was grieving, and I was serious, but I was most especially not merry. My friends and lovers were most especially not lighthearted. The whole world could see: we were not gay.

At the time, I believed my entire generation was rejecting the identity of gay. We would all be queer, now, nevermore to be gay again, no going back. In the words of a Queer Nation slogan, words I used myself: the queer revolution had begun. Our shared tribulation in the era of AIDS, I thought, would propel us beyond the old labels of identity politics, beyond the restrictive branding of visibility politics, beyond the special interest agendas of a myopic political movement, and beyond even the constraints of a binary understanding of sexual desire and gender.

I don’t intend to revisit the last thirty years of history, gay or queer, in the pages of this blog. Neither do I mean to debate whether I was mistaken, in 1991, when I declared along with others the beginning of a queer revolution. Nor do I propose to relate herein my own queer experiences of the last half-century. (I’m writing a book to attempt those hurdles.) Rather, with this blog, I intend to look humbly and skeptically forward, perhaps to seed the future with little bits of queerness in hopes they will someday sprout into nonconforming splendor, and to add my own queer voice to all those who continue to resist assimilating trends and hetero-normative expectations in the ongoing struggle that may yet, indeed, reveal itself as a queer revolution.

To begin, then, I would share with you my greatest fears and hopes for our queer future, and I will try to explain them in the context of the current movement for marriage equality. I’m not a lawyer, or an academic philosopher, or even a queer studies scholar. I’m just a self-educated thinker groping for answers, unable to account for his own contradictions. Please accept what follows in that spirit.

My greatest fear is that the gay movement will be successful in achieving legal and social inclusion through a mere expansion of the shared conventions around sexuality and desire, rather than by challenging the very paradigm of acknowledging such conventions at all. I won’t argue against the far-reaching successes of the gay movement in my lifetime; I have contributed to those successes, and I applaud those successes as possibly necessary steps to a queerer future. However, if the essence of queer power is derived from the unique perspectives and diverse potentialities arising from the experiences and circumstances of non-comformity, how do we retain that power once same-sex-gender desire has become just another kind of normal? In other words, I fear that achieving the acceptance to be gay will rob us of the power to be queer – a staggering loss, not only to queerkind, but also to humankind. My other fear, closely related to the first, is the likelihood that any expansion of shared conventions will never be adequate to encompass sexuality and desire in all its diverse expressions, so that all frameworks of legal and social inclusion mapped to sexuality and desire will ultimately prove to be exclusive. To define a convention is to create the unconventional.

Thus, the movement for marriage equality presents a real problem for me. My queer conscience tells me that the institution of marriage is deeply flawed – historically, legally, and culturally flawed. My queer conscience tells me that no amount of gayness will ever rescue marriage from its religious, sexist, and elitist past. My queer conscience tells me that the proper role of the state is not to choose whose consensual adult relationships are suitable and whose are not; adding same-sex-gender couples to the list of approved relationships doesn’t overcome that very troublesome objection, and doing so will not extend the indicia of marriage to all. My queer conscience tells me that humans, queer or not, have not evolved to mate exclusively for life, and to mate exclusively for life is the very definition of marriage, by law and by custom, even according to those friendly courts whose recent decisions seem to favor us. My queer conscience tells me that marriage, as we know it, is fundamentally wrong.

My greatest hope is that the expanding socio-cultural conventions around non-conforming sexuality will create an environment of both freedom and security for the next generation of faggots and dykes and freaks of all stripes: the freedom, possibly, to be queer in some altogether yet unimagined way that, needing no name, abandons the static labels ever encroaching on desire, together with the security, hopefully, to be fully included in family love and civil life, regardless of labels or lack thereof, an inclusion protected under law and implemented through a healthy secular culture. 2013 may well be the year the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rules the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. DOMA’s repeal, combined with the 2012 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) promises a future when queer sailors, soldiers, and marines will enjoy the same spousal benefits enjoyed by service members in traditional, that is to say, different-sex-gender marriages – something I myself once demanded in a manifesto distributed at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights, when such a possibility seemed an unlikely and distant dream. Only once this long overdue expansion of benefits to queer service members is realized can we truly say we have lifted the ban, and such a clear victory for queer economic justice will undoubtedly signal a new, more accepting era in American life.

Thus, even as I object to marriage for important reasons, my queer conscience tells me many will benefit directly from the expansion of benefits promised by full marriage equality, and many more will benefit indirectly from the legitimating affect it likely precipitates. My queer conscience tells me marriage equality will bring the most deeply felt change where change is most needed, in those conservative subsets of our society, like the military, or communities of faith, where queer youth are most likely to feel isolated, afraid or desperate. My queer conscience tells me that although gayness may not suffice to rescue marriage from its religious, sexist, and elitist past, queer values of authenticity, empathy, and mutual care can illuminate its future, helping to shape an institution that is more secular, equitable and democratic. My queer conscience tells me that by overcoming the heterosexist barriers to marriage equality for lesbians and gay men, we provoke questions about all the heterosexist barriers to a richer queer life. My queer conscience tells me, after all, that even I might want to get married some day.