Category Archives: Transolution

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.

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.

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.