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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.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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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

Aaron Sorkin Needs to Apologize for Wasting Space

In a response to criticism about a Newsweek editorial that argues gay actors (especially men) can’t convincingly play straight, Aaron Sorkin sort of defends the writer, Ramin Setoodeh, mainly by urging Setoodeh’s critics to direct their energy toward the “pig-ignorant bigots” in Congress. Apparently, fighting ignorance and bigotry conveyed through mainstream media is not a good use of resources.

Sorkin says the editorial isn’t homophobic, just incorrect. However, one of Setoodeh’s main points is that once people find out an actor is gay, they don’t feel convinced when that actor plays characters who are straight, even if we found the performance convincing before we found out that the actor is gay. In my opinion, that’s the kind of irrational thinking that is part of homophobia, so it’s difficult for me not to see that editorial as homophobic.

If that term is inaccurate, fine, but to say Setoodeh’s editorial is merely wrong doesn’t get at the bigger issues. For one thing, such a reading of a gay actor’s performance says a lot more about viewers than it does about the actor. Why does it matter to audience members whether or not the actor playing the role has the same sexual orientation as the character he plays? Have they considered that some gay actors don’t play straight convincingly because, rather than lacking some inherent ability to perform heterosexuality they are simply bad actors?

Also, why is the topic being covered at all, and what is the occasion for covering it now? Will a piece on actors’ unwillingness to do their own stunts be next? Of course, gay bashing is provocative, getting the attention of those who agree and those who don’t. And Newsweek could use some attention.

Another point Sorkin gets wrong is that you can’t play gay or straight, just femme or butch. I sort of get what he means, but this comment is based on the assumption gender and sexual orientation have clear relationships, i.e., that gay men perform effeminate behavior and that lesbian women perform butch behavior. What about butch gay men who like to kiss other men? A straight actor playing a butch gay male character must perform the appropriate behavior convincingly, e.g., not appearing grossed out as he approaches the other male actor and and willingly opening his mouth at least a little bit when they kiss. Whether or not the actors actually touch tongues, they should make it look like it happens, but I realize I should leave this up to the director. Continue reading

Phobe-Reduced Weddings

My last screed dealt with weddings as systemic insult. Despite the many positive responses I’ve received, some friends think it’s unfair to blame our friends for celebrating that they have and we don’t. Such is the nature–and reality–of privilege, which makes us complicit with misuses of power.

You’re looking at me, thinking I’m a hypocrite for not admitting all the ways I have privilege. Okay, fine. I’m complicit in a lot of ways. I’ve got work to do on that, and I’m doing it. I could easily dismiss my lack of privilege in regard to sexual orientation by saying, “Hey, I’m white; I’m middle class. I’ll just smile and nod so my straight friends will like me, maybe soak up a little of their privilege.” Yeah, well, I’ve done enough of that.

The insult is not only way up there in The System. It drips along the strands of the social-cultural web and sticks to me. It’s not just what weddings mean that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve grown to hate how I feel when I’m at or in them. Invariably, someone in the wedding party or one of the guests tosses out a homophobic slur. At one wedding, a brother of the groom toasted him with, “I’m glad you didn’t marry a guy.” He was young, you say, so don’t hold it against him. He didn’t know what he was saying. It was just a little levity to break up the tension, right? If I’m fed up with being invisible (which, in case this point is not clear: I am), I’m doubly sick of my identity and relationship being used as a source of comic relief.

And of course at almost every wedding I’ve ever been to, there are Bible verses, and, just as often, bastardizations of Bible verses that emphasize the importance of male-female bonding while completely ignoring or misrepresenting the important same-sex relationships in the Bible. It’s their faith, you say, and I should respect that. While I respect their right to worship as they wish, I also have every right not to respect the content. And being a curious person, I have to wonder if they’ve considered how much they really know about their faith and that it’s telling me something about them that they might not intend for me to know.

And there are the petty insults. Continue reading

We Decline with Regret, or Why My Partner and I Won’t Go to Weddings Anymore

In an open letter posted on his Facebook wall, my partner, Doug, informed our heterosexual friends that we will no longer attend weddings or send wedding gifts. He says many things, but unless you’re his friend on Facebook, you’ll have to settle for this key quote:

We have many lovely, caring friends. If you truly value us and agree we should have the same rights as you, please don’t let the excitement of planning your wedding overshadow the reality that we are without the more than 1,138 federal rights that accompany civil marriage, with some additional 300 to 600 per individual state.

Actually, the idea to essentially boycott our friends’ weddings came from me a few months ago. He originally hesitated, and I understood why, because I was not comfortable with the idea either. We’ve been talking it over for a while.

An engaged couple we know visited us recently, and we talked to them about our idea. They said they understood and wouldn’t feel offended if we decided not to attend, even though they would miss us being there. Their support didn’t surprise us, and we quickly retreated. Would not attending their wedding really send a message? The people we worried about offending would understand, but the people who don’t care about or are against marriage equality probably wouldn’t even miss our presence.

It’s ironic that Doug and I can’t get married considering we met while performing in an improv show about a wedding and reception. For 100+ performances, vows were taken, toasts were given, the bouquet was thrown, and we were there for all of it, making sure everything ran smoothly and that the “guests” had a good time.

Our show dramatized what is arguably the most widely produced cultural experience in Western culture. The guests/audience knew what to expect, and we quickly figured out how to fulfill their expectations. The show was not about me or Doug or most of the rest of the performers. Our job was to direct attention back to the bride and groom, who went their separate ways during the reception–ritually, and because they bickered. Would their beginning become their end? Of course not. Continue reading

Compulsory Heterosexuality (But You Knew That Already)

In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe writes about how depictions of sex by the “Great Male Novelists of the last century” have changed since the 1960s. Although she mentions that all of the authors she writes about are American, she says nothing of them in regard to other aspects of identity, e.g., (duh…) sexual orientation.

Given that all of the examples Roiphe offers are of male characters having sex with female characters, it would seem that the changes she describes say something about heterosexual male characters and the writers who create them (who, in these examples, are also het). Her essay is published in the straight-white-male-canon-worshipping NYT, so apparently the straightness of all involved is supposed to go without saying.

What should go without saying is that such a default position is bullshit. If my gay ole opinion isn’t important enough (but, oh, it most certainly is), consider that not all straight dudes are alike, not even sexually. (Duh…)

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