Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Revival of Jew-Hatred, for dick's sake

There are many ongoing discussions about the ritual of circumcision. We could talk about its place in Jewish cultural heritage, in Islamic cultures, in gender identity and role, in social privilege and tribal participation. Serious conversations -- in Jewish communities, seminaries, and families -- about body rituals, penises, foreskins, adults, children, parents, babies, and authority already occur. It is fascinating to hear queer, sex-positive voices talking about genitals, community, and God. There is a lot to be said about a millennia-old ritual, its practice and its impact in the 21st Century.

Those conversations are happening and will continue to happen.

However, the central anti-circumcision crowd in the Bay Area has fully disqualified itself from participating in any of that conversation. They have chosen not to engage in the conversations, either among Jews or between Jews and non-Jews. Anyone allied with Matthew Hess and mgmbill.org has chosen to have a different conversation: They have declared a kind of war on the Jewish community that I couldn't have imagined. It's not that I haven't seen it before, but I haven't seen it this close, recently, this ugly, and this unabashedly Hitlerian before, and in liberal camouflage. They want to talk Aryan domination and white supremacy. They clearly don't want to talk about circumcision.

The creation of the "Foreskin Man" comic -- which would be an Onion- or SNL-style absurdity under the best of circumstances -- actually conjures Nazi and classic anti-Semitic imagery of Aryan heroes and sallow-faced, vampirical Jews. No one should have to look at this poison, but everybody needs to see it. It's that scary, that venemous.


The idea that our Jewish cultural heritage should be on the ballot for a non-Jewish majority to vote on should already terrify us. The decision not to distinguish among Jewish, Muslim, and American cultural communities -- basically subordinating two religious minorities to a Protestant American norm -- is already an anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim act. Resorting to the Eurocentric archetypes of blond Nordic goodness and dark Jewish evil, though, is a call to restore the gas chambers. (And to be sure, these people want to disrupt the practice among the Muslim community, too, but strangely, they haven't penned that comic yet. I bet that one will be hateful and vile, too, when they write it. They did, however, go anti-Jew first.)

I can't believe how I sound. I never talk this way. But I haven't seen this in my own back yard before, and certainly not seen it creeping in under the guise of liberalism. That's it. I've never seen left-wing, anti-Semitic fascist propaganda before, and it confuses me and scares me

Any organization that chooses to throw the Jewish community under the bus or to use anti-Jewish imagery to achieve its goals, cannot be trusted in anything. They are not reliable advocates for any baby boys anywhere. Abortion foes who advocate killing clinic doctors are clearly not "pro-life." Anti-circumcision activists who promote Jew-hatred are clearly not "pro-justice."

Before they get to enter a discussion about the practice of circumcision and the ritual of brit milah they need to clean up and atone for their assault on the Jewish community. The atonement needs to be way louder and more profound than their offense, and that will take them a while. Then and only then might they have a right to speak up about anything else.

Please join the real conversation about circumcision. Go to www.stopcircban.com . Stop the promotion of classic anti-Semitism in any community.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Disappearing Queer Culture / What it means to be marginal

This past week witnessed the final shutting of the doors at two significant San Francisco queer institutions: A Different Light bookstore, and The Eagle tavern. A major gay bookstore in the heart of the Castro and the city's biggest leather bar, where everyone was welcome.

ADL authored its own demise to a large degree, by making a daily case for its own irrelevance. They stocked mostly crap (a lotta rainbows, a lotta poppers, a lotta bad porn) and very few books. There was no breadth or depth to what they put on the shelves, no creative programming, and ultimately it had nothing going for it but its location.

The Eagle had its following, mostly for its Sunday afternoon "beer busts" which in good weather packed hundreds of people in quite cozily and raised funds for countless San Francisco charities. Other nights it was much quieter, a few folks sipping at the bar or shmoozing in the shadows.

What made both of these institutions particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and shifting culture, though, is that they were long-term tenants in leased space. They didn't own their own property.

Having just lost my own out-of-fashion shirt when I sold my condo in Amherst, I don't romanticize property ownership for anyone. I am now determined never again to own anything larger than a toaster-oven. However, gay culture has a historical pattern of not owning, and we become very vulnerable therefore to cultural erosion.

I remember being shocked when the LURE in New York got booted from its space. To my mind nothing else has replaced it in the NYC gay scene, but I'm not there very often. All I could think was if all of us who'd drank or played there over the years had chipped in we could have raised the money to buy it, figured out a way to run it as a collective. It's not how bars and play spaces generally operate, but why not say "This is part of my culture, my civilization, and I want it to survive"?

Distinct from straight patriarchal culture where land has always equaled power, Gay culture grew up in the crevices and forgotten spaces of the straight terrain. We found the low-rent buildings in the warehouse district, the T-rooms in larger public buildings, the paths in the park that no one was policing too often, and we congregated there. We were always using other people's space, with or without their consent, and we established traditions of ritual gathering, practice, play, recreation and creation that persisted over generations. But we didn't buy or own.

We started on the margins, in the shadows, and we found safety for centuries in being present but being insubstantial. We could scatter and vanish if danger approached. By the time we were secure enough to buy, we had gotten into the habit of renting, and at the mercy of our landlords.

This is all my bullshit theorizing, but if AIDS hadn't devastated my generation and drawn all of our energies and monies into activism and patient care, and if all those men who would now be 45-75 years old hadn't disappeared and taken their earning potential with them, my guess is that we'd have started investing in our culture. Buying the properties for our bars and bookstores, we would have been staking enduring claims in the urban landscapes we enriched and inhabited.

On Rock River, outside of Brattleboro, VT, is a gay swimming hole where, if you walk 20 minutes into the woods on any sunny day from May to October, you will eventually run into a bunch of naked men on a beach. The whole beach area would have been too much to buy, but the men of Rock River as a collective bought the pathway. Money was collected, we all contributed, and we own the land, we maintain the walkway (which everyone of every gender and orientation uses when they walk the woods). The guys who do the work help protect the pathway, the culture, and the community from erosion.

Let's look for these opportunities before one more queer ritual or meeting space gets lost. Rentboys no more.

Judeo-fagbashing at CUNY

The scandal of CUNY's refusal to offer Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate surprised me in the intensity of its unevolved Jewish conservatism. I was shocked (yes, shocked, I tell you) that CUNY, of all places, would be so vulnerable to this brand of provincial Jewish politics. But one can smell the fear emanating from that board room, the kind of fear that makes people do profoundly stupid things really fast. The special smell of panic sweat.

The first thing that needs addressing is the illiterate Israel politics. This isn't even an instance of "Israel Right or Wrong!" insanity, or even "Israel, Fictitious or Actual!" madness. This is "What Someone Might Have Meant About Israel but I'm Not Even Bothering to Check!" mishegos. The Jewish world, if it really wants to hold onto its People of the Book sobriquet, has to stop mouthing off without actually reading. It's just embarrassing to watch the board of a major academic institution be misled on Jewish grounds by a Jewish man who hasn't done his Jewish homework and then panic like that.

We also need to call out the gay-bash aspect. I have no idea whether Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld is gay or straight. But his tactics here are what I label a "straight-boy bullying" approach. Move into a space, bluster and threaten, squelch discourse and investigation, and grab what you want. It's a style favored by bank robbers wielding big weapons, whether or not there are bullets in the gun.

In a subsequent interview with the Times, Wiesenfeld "said he was surprised to get enough support from other trustees to block the Kushner degree. He had thought, he said, that he was going to register his dissent for the record and move on." In other words, he just had to wave the damn gun in the meeting, nobody even dared him to pull the trigger.

In the same interview, though, he interrupted the reporter's questions and refused to listen or answer. “I want to say something,” Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld said. “The question is offensive. Before you even finish.” Luckily, the New York Times gets to have the next, if not the last, word. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/nyregion/opponent-of-honor-for-tony-kushner-criticizes-palestinians.html)

I don't think it's insignificant that Kushner is at once the most intellectually gifted American playwright of his generation, gay, and an energetic leftist (to say the least). His style is interactive, inquisitive, purposefully provocative, and brilliant. The right-wing, gay-bashing, too-lazy-to-think boys always respond to those qualities with bluster and arrogance and emotional excess (think of how Dick Cheney deflected questions about his gay daughter as being too personal, hinting they'd be cause for a fist-fight if anyone persisted, while pushing through the laws that deprived all of us of our rights). Horrifyingly often the press and the public panics and backs down. We panic and back down. "What if it were to come to a real fight? What then?" we cower.

Jews need to stop ranting ignorantly about the threats to Israel as if no more nuanced information were available to them, and other Jews especially have to call them out for it. Men -- straight or gay -- need to stop shifting into straight-boy gear and bullying and bullshitting their way through the world, and we, everybody else, have to stop letting it happen.

Decades ago in Dallas, I worked with a very funny gay designer who needed the Dallas Opera costume shop to get it together in time for the dress rehearsal. His line to us was, "Don't worry, darlings! They'll be fine, but I need to head in there and swing a handbag a little!" The next time one of the right-wing, straight-boy bully types pulls a Wiesenfeld and tries to bluster us into submission, I'd like to think I and all of us will have the presence of mind to swing a handbag in his direction. Because it's 2011, and their day should be long over.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"One thing you can say for masturbation..."

...you certainly don't have to look your best." (Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band)

[Something I wrote this week for the Queer Sexual Ethics course I'm taking this year at Pacific School of Religion. Reflecting a little Michael Warner, a little Foucault, a little Judith Butler....]

Unless we are content to be sexual absolutely alone without relationship or even the random dirty picture, our erotic selves cannot function without dependency or impact on others. Beyond the individuals whom we invite into bed or backroom, our sexual choices create cultural currents of power, privilege, and precedent.

The awareness I've gained from these few weeks of study is of the levels of responsibility we have towards one another as we Queer folk claim our space and our rights in the world. For most of us, the circles of impact are much wider than we think. Even when we have flagrantly public sex (woo hoo!), we don't really imagine universal visibility. Somehow we suppose there's a limit to who sees us and who is affected by our actions.

But by tracing a caress onto the skin of another person we indent the earth enough to guide heavier currents that might inscribe a channel and divert (subvert, pervert) the ways of the world. Once we move past solitary self-pleasure (and become concerned with how we look) there is no such thing as casual sex. Everything matters. (Thank God we don't teach this reality to children, or we'd really scare them into a life of abstinence, so don't tell the pope.)

The universe is expanding, and we are helping it along. We are doing what we need to do for ourselves (and that is good!), but have we the slightest clue what we're doing to each other? By Queering the known topography, are we heading into further chaos, or into a newer, more functional structure of relationships? Will more people be recognizable, or will more of us become less known to each other? If we aren't demanding "normal" of each other, exactly what do we require?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's really not being asked or told? Hint: It's not the shower, stupid.

About this whole DADT business....

The concern is not about showering with the homo. Can we all please be clear about that? I'm also pretty sure it's a boy thing, only. The voices that are sheltering naked straightness are really only interested in keeping males from feeling uncomfortable. And that's the part I want to talk about now.

People know perfectly well that public showering means being seen, possibly, on a good day, being appreciated. It's true in grade school, high school, college, summer camp, the beach, the pool. It's true everywhere. And consider, wouldn't it be sadder to be stark naked after painstakingly building your body to be "Army strong" and then have nobody appreciate it? Seriously.

The fear is not of dropping terry-cloth in the locker-room. The fear is of dropping homo-hate rhetoric everywhere else. Straight male culture isn't scared of being ogled for being strong; in fact, it likes that. It's scared of acknowledging two things:

First, that it is weak enough to need "faggots" as necessary points of orientation (don't you love that?) in order to define itself. People who are scared of Queer people don't really care who looks at them. They just want some non-straight other against which to define themselves. Otherwise they won't know where to find themselves on the map. Scary, that.

Second, straightness has no exclusive claim on strength and manliness. That's right, God was a fairly equal opportunity distributor of power. It's only patriarchy that has felt the need to hoard and deny it. (I have no idea whether straight women's culture has a correlative need to scapegoat lesbians -- I imagine not, but would love to hear feedback on this question.)

Can the DADT crowd be content with themselves as men if they can't console themselves by saying "Well, at least I'm not a homo..."? What does it mean to be a marine, if you don't idolize (and fictionalize) your butchness? John McCain doesn't want to admit that a man doesn't have to be straight to do what he did.

The fear is not about welcoming faggots in the lockerroom. The fear is of ushering "Faggot!" out of accepted cultural vocabulary. That's the work that requires genuine leadership and some genuine strength.

The recent survey makes clear the troops are ready to do their work. Is military leadership ready to fulfill its role?