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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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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

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

Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right? Continue reading

Showing Up Gay

In protest of anti-gay legislation, gay and lesbian people were encouraged to “call in gay” to work today and to spend as little money as possible. The purpose was to emphasize how important gays and lesbians are to the American workforce and to the economy.

The plan makes sense, but as with similar kinds of activism, I wonder if not doing something is effective. A boycott needs to be very focused. If every gay person in a national corporation or particular industry called in gay, the impact would be more obvious. Within the entire workforce, though, it’s more difficult to make sure people participate and to show that the effort has made a significant impact.

And what would calling in gay say to my colleagues, most of whom accept and support me? What would it say to my employer, which keeps making strides to create a positive work environment for LGBT employees? Continue reading

The Elephant in the Room (No, Not the Pink One)

In an editorial published earlier this week, Leonard Pitts expresses his disappointment that “African Americans were crucial to the passage of” Proposition 8 in California. His stance is that it’s a civil rights issue. His writing is fair-minded but not lacking emotion.

My only concern is with one of his counter-arguments. Although gay people have suffered similar day-to-day injustices, they haven’t, according to Pitts, gone through the horrors of “mass kidnap or mass enslavement.” This simply isn’t true. The Nazi regime had a policy aimed at changing the behavior of homosexuals, who were taken to concentration camps where they were examined, intimidated, castrated, and, if their behavior didn’t change, murdered.

It was an extreme version (one of many) of the ways LGBT people have been oppressed in our day-to-day lives, in which revealing that we’re gay can result in insult, injury, or even death. Although the acts are against individuals, the oppression is no less systematic. Tolerance of LGBT people has depended on the kindness of strangers. It’s classic variable-ratio reinforcement, making it difficult to tell when or if you’ll be punished or accepted for standing, speaking, or being out. The more comfortable you get, the more chances you take. No harm done, if you’re lucky.

People who think they’re accepting often are not. A few days ago, while waiting for a lecture to begin, I overheard a student in the row in front of me talking about her experience in a writing workshop. She said she knew something “was wrong with” the main character in another student’s story. When someone told her the character was gay, she said she “felt, like, ‘Duh,'” because the character was reading a magazine about home decorating. She said, “I should have known.” Continue reading

The Voting Booth Doesn’t Give Change

On an election night touted as historic, some tired, old, run-of-the-mill discrimination took place. As Barack Obama won crucial swing states, voters in three states supported bans on same-sex marriage, and in another, they voted to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.

I’ve been jaded most of my life, but I still can’t get my mind around the concept of legislating discrimination. People actually devoted time and energy to making a case for limiting certain people’s rights, and a majority of voters in each of those states agreed it was the right choice. What disgusts me most is that two of these states, California and Florida, went to Obama. [Update: The California measure, Proposition 8, has not been officially decided. There are four million absentee and provisional ballots as yet uncounted.] Apparently some of Obama’s supporters want to effect change in Washington but prevent change in their home states. Or maybe they thought effecting change is like making change, as if a voting booth is like a vending machine: insert a vote for Obama and someone else’s civil rights make a clinking sound in the coin return. The change they need obviously doesn’t include the change I need.

Despite my railing, I’m glad Obama won. His victory has seemed likely for a few weeks, and as I watched the results come in last night, it was pretty clear he was going to win. Yet when the networks started calling the race in his favor, I had trouble catching my breath, and my vision was blurred by tears for a few seconds. Not a joiner, I surprised myself by the words that flashed through my mind: “Maybe we can.” (“Maybe” is as far as I’ll go with my guarded optimism.) Continue reading

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