Category Archives: Queercology

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.