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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Standing on Larry Kramer’s Lawn

In a very recent interview to promote the revival of his play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer accuses young gay men today of not caring about their history. Thomas Rogers challenges Kramer’s suggestion that lack of concern for history is unique to this generation, and offers his own experience to indicate that youth’s ignorance isn’t necessarily willful.

What’s surprising is that Kramer, who has a history of accusing people they don’t care about gay history, seems to get Rogers’ message, and the interview becomes an interesting and (kind of) endearing conversation about such macro-yet-micro topics as marriage equality and the difficulty older gay men face finding sex partners. And there’s a fascinating exchange about Kramer’s ongoing feud with Ed Koch, who lives in his building. Clearly, Kramer holds grudges, and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his famous anger stems from his personality rather than injustice. But I sense there’s more to him, that maybe he’s not simply shouting at the youth of today (read: anyone younger than he is) to get off his lawn.

The problem with gay men today, Kramer and Rogers come to agree, is that we currently lack a widespread life-or-death problem like HIV/AIDS was in the early 80s. Kramer remarks that there was a “special glow of importance” during that time, and Rogers says that, after seeing Kramer’s play, he felt a “perverse nostalgia for those early AIDS years [I] never lived through. They were obviously utterly terrifying and filled with sadness, but there’s also something appealing about having this galvanizing issue to unite gay men. We don’t have that as much now.”

This kind of myth is common and powerful, and not just in the LGBT community: Once upon a time, our group (pick any group) had a common enemy, and we united to fight it/them. We worked hard. We didn’t fight among ourselves. Life was beautiful then, but now, we’re a mess. The distance created by elapsed time or lack of firsthand experience really fucks with people’s depth perception.

I have some firsthand knowledge of those days that time hasn’t let me forget. I remember a lot of confusion and pain. We worried about stopping the spread of infection, although we weren’t sure that HIV was really the cause of AIDS. We resented that no one in the mainstream seemed to give a shit about the disease until kids became infected through transfusions.

Those of us not at the head of the movement who hadn’t had the resources and/or cowardice to flee mid-size cities or rural areas, lacked the “special glow of importance” Kramer recalls. We just wanted to keep our friends from dying. We wanted the luxury of taking them for granted rather than savoring every mundane moment in case it was the last.

Far from there being a glow, we lived in a shadow of suspicion of everyone, straight and queer, as if no amount of prophylaxis or abstinence would prevent us from contracting the disease. We struggled to push away the belief that we were worthless faggots who deserved to die. Continue reading

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Empathy and Civility? Those Are Just Words, Right?

I attended a panel discussion that was set up to respond to the suicide of a local high school student. As a result, I don’t want to say I’ve lost all hope in society’s ability to deal with this problem, but my hope has taken a painful, debilitating blow.

The principal spent a lot of time and energy insisting that bullying will never end. It happens everywhere, not just her school, and fighting bullying requires everyone’s involvement, not just hers. Every so often, she emphasized that she didn’t mean to sound defensive, although it was hard to read her mostly well-intentioned comments as much more than an attempt to gain control of the story that the local media and rumor mill (hard to separate those forces) have painted.

Fine. We’ve all got to be committed to solving the problem. I agree. Any halfway responsible person can agree with that. So what does she recommend we do, based on her experience? The principal told a story about going to a parade at her son’s school. As her son passed on his float, another parent who didn’t know this administrator said her son should have been killed at birth. What did this administrator, this trained professional, do? She froze. After demanding that we audience members avoid standing by and letting bullies get away with their offenses, she gave us an example of her doing that very thing.

To be fair, it was a shocking comment, and when she told that part of the story, audience members let out a collective gasp. But I really expected to hear that she collected herself and did something, either immediately or shortly after the incident. I hoped she might have told us the story to illustrate the difficulty of anti-bullying work and to encourage us to prepare for such situations, to anticipate how we might feel and plan what we might say, to do role-playing to rehearse those moments so we’re not caught off guard as she was. I would have given her a standing ovation if she’d had a rhetorical purpose other than playing the I’m-a-parent-too card. If educational professionals are also parents, they are, apparently, supposed to be forgiven for inaction because they, too, have feelings. But if the feelings for one’s own child doesn’t inspire action, Maybe we weren’t supposed to notice that she did offer no clear solutions from either perspective.

There was also a police officer on the panel. He preached the gospel of structured behavioral training. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he meant. He spoke about the effectiveness of dress codes, saying that it gives children one less thing to have to worry about. When educating children, we should set high standards of behavior, the most effective height to be determined by him, apparently. He gave examples of ideal educational environments, such as private schools and a summer camp he’s involved with where parents drop of their kids so he and other law enforcement professionals can “hammer them all week.” The rigid structure he recommended doesn’t give kids room to misbehave. While I agree that not giving kids choices is an extremely effective way to modify their behavior for a time, such an approach doesn’t do much for helping young people learn to make responsible choices when rules aren’t clear. Furthermore, the imbalance of power and the repeated, aggressive approach he recommended are key features of bullying.

For all the railing I’ve heard about how “kids today!” have become desensitized to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Continue reading

The Queer Kids Are Alright. But They Deserve So Much Better.

As advisor to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my university, I have to judge when to stay out of students’ way and when to step in to advise. They do great work on their own. For example, a few years ago they decided to change the name from Gay-Straight Alliance to recognize that many students were coming out as trans and genderqueer. But when they want to host an event with a famous speaker, I can help them find funding and coordinate PR. Basically, I don’t really run anything, but I’m pretty much always available if they need help.

Following the heightened awareness of LGBTQ suicides in mainstream media, I’m more attentive if not necessarily more concerned about queer students on our campus. (I’m pretty much always already in concerned mode.) I usually observe when I attend events, although for the Coming Out Day SpeakOut, I shared a story as most everyone else did. What struck me was that my students’ experiences haven’t necessarily been better than mine. Although my mother loves me unquestionably, she said some unkind words as she adjusted to the news that I’m gay, and a generation later, parents still have trouble dealing with the news that their children are queer.

More to the point, their problem seems to be that their children aren’t heterosexual, and sharpening that point even more, there’s disappointment that their expectations for the child’s future aren’t going to be met. It’s not that parents don’t support their queer kids, but there’s a break in the support. For those of us lucky enough to have trusting relationships with our parents, it’s painful to watch them for that moment–maybe longer–and wonder if unconditional love is no longer guaranteed. Our relationships with our parents are changed forever by that experience. If all goes well, the break results in a stronger bond, as with a bone. But it was clear as I listened to my students’ stories that a few of them are still waiting to find out if their parents love them as much as they used to. Continue reading

Want to Stop the Bullies? Stop Acting Like One.

Does anyone else find it ironic that Dan Savage and Perez Hilton have become so vocal against bullying? Bullying is integral to their personae. If they were devoted to calling out hypocrisy in a kind of Dexter-style verbal assassination approach, they might have more credibility, but I question whether their motivations are even that honorable.

Whether providing sex advice or standing up for gay rights, Savage throws slurs against trans people, people he judges to be too heavy and others. Until spring 2009, he even used that mainstay of middle school culture, “retarded,” although by the request of a reader promised to start using “leotarded” in its place. Of course, Perez Hilton’s fame is the result of his daily attacks on celebrities, regardless of how much power or sanity they have.

I have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate that some people make money doing things like they do. But I have enough plain ole sense to question their motivations and whether their efforts deserve much support. To be clear, they aren’t the worst offenders. They’re not stalking particular college students and blogging about them or posting video of their private lives online. But the bullying inherent in the work they do to make considerable amounts of money has become insidious in our culture. They didn’t cause the problem, but they certainly support it, which makes it hard for me to believe they can be part of the solution without undermining it.

Of the two of them, I keep looking for reasons to respect Savage. Maybe that explains why I’ve spent so many words questioning his significance in my last post and this one. When he’s at his best, he ditches the naughty sex-columnist act and just gives straightforward observations with an unapologetic tone that is far more provocative than anything he’s ever said about cock-sucking. But then he makes a wisecrack, apparently to entertain Keith Olbermann, and softens the blow. It’s as if he doesn’t take himself seriously. Continue reading

Want to Help LGBTQ Youth? Act Like a Grown-up.

I’m not a fan of Dan Savage. He seems like one of those celebrities who’s trying to prove something to himself but feels compelled to work things out in public. He makes provocative, unsubstantiated, and sometimes just cruelly ignorant statements, such as, “You can have too much sex. It is possible–gay people proved it in the 70s–to literally fuck yourself to death.” Comments like this one cause me to cringe every time he’s chosen to be the go-to gay pundit. With misinformed friends like him, who needs enemies?

Although he’s got no sympathy for old, dead queens, he’s apparently got a soft spot for LGBTQ youth. His latest effort, “It Gets Better,” is a YouTube channel where those of us who have survived and thrived can upload videos to encourage LGBTQ youth to persevere. To get things rolling, Savage posted a video of his partner and him talking about their individual experiences of being bullied before they met and building a family. They seem like a pleasant couple, but the video is self-indulgent and so boring I had to turn it off about halfway through, but if one kid finds some hope in it, it’s worth the effort. And presumably Savage’s celebrity will draw enough interest that there will be something for everyone on the “It Gets Better” channel.

It’s a nice idea, although ironic, given Savage’s recent use of a trans slur to attack a politician. But Savage deserves a nice word or two for this effort. But it’s important to acknowledge a collection of outreach videos aren’t going to do much to address this enormous problem. Kids need someone in their lives to stand next to them and guide them to the light at the end of the cliché.

Sadly, LGBTQ youth continue to feel great shame as they try to come out. Ellen and Will and Grace haven’t made things that much better for them. Various studies indicate that 1/4 to 1/3 of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Supporting LGBTQ youth should be the central issue in our movement. Fighting for equal rights in our personal lives and the workplace is important–definitely–and youth need to feel assured they’ll achieve equality as part of “the system,” not in spite of mainstream culture working against them. But we must keep people alive and help them feel empowered, not ashamed, so they’re equipped to stand up for themselves.

Yes, a lot of us who are adults now managed to hold on, day after day. But how many of us are still fighting the overwhelming feeling of shame that did almost kill some of us? In fact, some LGBTQ adults still feel such isolation and don’t feel safe to come out to certain people in their lives. Do we really believe it’s okay for our youth to suffer like we did/do? We may believe they watch the DADT and marriage equality battles and feel encouraged by the rights they’ll get to enjoy. However, that time is a long way off for them. And knowing that we’re not exactly winning right now probably doesn’t bolster their spirits as slurs and fists are thrown at them and friends and family turn backs on them.

LGBTQ youth need the adults in their lives to act like grown-ups. So if you’re already fighting for our rights, don’t forget to help the kids you know and support the efforts already set up to help them. The Ali Forney Center provides housing to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention services, including a national hotline. And PFLAG, GLSEN, and The Matthew Shepard Foundation offer a wide range of national and community-based educational services to promote acceptance.

Build on these important efforts, whether you use the information they provide to help one kid or decide to start similar services in your own community. LGBTQ youth aren’t waiting for Dan Savage or some other celebrity to come and give them hugs. They need to know that people in their lives care about them. Don’t know any queer youth, you say? Then challenge the homophobic messages coming from the people in your community. Standing up to individuals you know can be scarier than marching past strangers in the street. Doing the little things is a bigger deal than you may realize.

Stand for Equality

While it seemed that everyone else at the National Equality March in DC wanted to see Lady Gaga, my Starstruck Moment happened when Lt. Dan Choi’s personal space overlapped the orbit of mine. There are a lot of people I respect, but I usually don’t lose my shit over any of them. Choi’s a rockstar. His golden aura blasted through my sunglasses, I shit you not.

Approaching the Capitol--Natl Equality March 2009

Approaching the Capitol--Natl Equality March 2009

The person I’ll remember most held a sign that stated, “This Straight Woman Stands With You.” As I remember, she held the sign above her head. The vertical presentation struck me; she looked immovable. But she was alone. No one around her interacted with her. She appeared pleasant but unremarkable, someone I could pass in the grocery store and not give a second thought. The people near me cheered, and I cheered with them. The straight woman who stood with us gave a smile but seemed shy about the attention.

She made an impact on me, but I had to keep going. The day was about travel: By van and train and foot. From central PA to DC. From McPherson Square to the White House and on to the Capitol. From separation to unity. But not from discrimination to equality.

The March inspired me, but it’s too early to say what sort of historic significance it will have. If those who are throwing that term around believe it was precedent-setting, I’d argue it was decidedly unhistoric. Continue reading

Which One of You Guys Is the Woman?

The debate over marriage equality centers on the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Opponents claim that our relationships are not natural.

I’m less and less convinced that all of them are that concerned about sex. Sure, imagining two men or two women having sex may be a big gross-out for some, but those people–a specific cohort of puritans, I would guess–believe it’s wrong for anybody to have any fun. They have imagined every possibility of what-goes-where and have generously overestimated the sexual repertoires of most everyone, regardless of orientation.

The cause of marriage equality is not well served by stereotyping our opponents, most of whom are probably more concerned than terrified. They feel that marriage can only be valid between a man and woman and is the basis of our society. Their feeling is strong enough that they resist reconsidering the definition, and are unwilling to consider the historical significance of same-sex relationships. When the divorce rate in the U.S. is mentioned, they claim that it has been grossly exaggerated. Etc. Etc. Since feelings motivate them, believing is seeing, and data is suspect.

What confuses many opponents of same-sex marriage is that our relationships are about a lot more than sex. Continue reading

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