Sunday, June 19, 2016

Family.



We were in Indiana at my Dad’s house the morning of the Orlando massacre.

We spent the weekend with my Dad, my sister and brother and their families. C’s mom and dad, with his brother and sister-in-law, passed through to pick us up on their way from North Carolina to a family gathering in Wisconsin. Our two families spent Sunday evening together, and then Monday morning we joined C’s family in their RV and continued up to join C’s father’s siblings and their families at C’s aunt and uncle’s cottage on a small lake in farm country a few hours west of Milwaukee.

This morning, a week later, we’re waiting in the Indianapolis airport, on our way home after a week jam-packed with reunions of various branches of both sides of the family. Families within families within families.

I remember the first time I heard the word “family” used to note that someone was gay. My ex-boyfriend, the man I lived with for six years in my twenties, and I, along with a lesbian couple, close friends, were on a weekend getaway in the Poconos at a rustic gay retreat in the mountains. There was a small lodge, a few log cabins, a pool. The place had seen better days, and the other guests were mostly older than us. I think it was called Rainbow Ranch. Even at that time, the late 1980s, this place felt like traveling to a time when gay people had to hide in the woods. I was eavesdropping on a conversation among a group of women sitting by the pool, discussing, I think, a co-worker, and one of them, smiling slyly, said something like, “I think he’s family.”

This was during my strident Queer Nation days, when a quaint code word for gay felt like a slightly embarrassing relic. Around this time, gay and lesbian organizations were starting to put the words “gay” and “lesbian” in their names, rather than the more coded “lavender” or “rainbow” or “lambda.” But we, in our 20s, full of indignation and full of ourselves, were OUT. We didn’t need code. We were not only out of the closet, we had blown up that closet and we were blowing up other people’s closets while we were at it. Looking back, I think our chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” was directed not just at the straight world but at that older, more timid generation of queer people. Our elders. Family.

I am sad and deeply ashamed to think now of how I sneered.

I don’t know if younger queers use the expression “acquired family” still like we did. Since we are born into families that, to some extent, reject us, we make our pilgrimages to cities, to gayborhoods, to gay bars, clubs, bowling leagues, where we make friends with people who share our experience, and those friends have, historically, been more reliable in times of crisis, times of celebration, sickness, fear. They are the ones we truly share our lives with when our biological families hold us at a distance. It's not everyone's story, but it's the story.

Gay marriage, the argument goes, allows us to be integrated into our biological families in a way that lessens the need to go off somewhere and create a new family. By emulating heterosexual family arrangements, we become recognizable as normal members of traditional families. And I’m married, so I know that that is to some extent true. To experience that has been a deeply moving surprise. Yet, despite the completely unforced outpouring of love and support I have felt from C’s family, I still take a deep breath every time he introduces me to a new member of that family. “This is my husband, Steven.” The word husband feels like driving fast up a big hill not knowing what’s on the other side.

When I read Sunday morning that 20 people had been shot to death by a man with an assault rifle in a gay dance club in Florida, I felt like I couldn’t breath. And then it was 50. (I still can’t figure out if the media is saying 49 now instead of 50 because they decided the gunman doesn’t count as a victim.) And then I was having breakfast, and then C’s family was there and we all ate pizza and played croquet and in a house of very mixed political leanings you don’t talk about current events, especially not one that simultaneously brings up the topics of terrorism, gun control, and homophobia, and then we were in a big RV headed to Wisconsin to spend a week on a lake with a house full of Catholic Republicans.

The only place -- besides the odd stolen private moment with my husband --where I felt like I could relax and be honest about what I was feeling was on Facebook, and even that forum became fraught with danger when a family member started posting snarky NRA memes mocking calls for stricter gun control laws, which drew me into an argument about gun violence statistics, which is not how I want to mourn.

I hope I don't sound ungrateful for the generosity, the company, the love of my in-laws. C's aunt and uncle's Midwestern hospitality is a wonder. His aunt, who is in her 70s, rarely stops moving, cooking, serving, fetching something you need, something you might need, something she thinks you should have. And they all have the accent of my mother's people who are also from that part of Wisconsin and Illinois. Deep inside somewhere I feel at home there, with family. And the lakeside practically begged you to sit in a lawn chair with a book, and I was moved by the Sherman Alexie stories I was reading, so I cried a little. And then you know how it is: once you start, your brain looks for other things to cry about.

Queer people of my generation and older talk about the death of gay culture, a casualty of online hookups, increased visibility and acceptance, civil rights victories, integration into our biological families, gentrification, new ways of seeing ourselves that make things like drag and park cruising “problematic” for some younger queers. As we become folded into mainstream culture, we lose urgency to make our own. Gay bars and bookstores and bathhouses keep closing and closing.

Ironically, sadly, I take heart knowing that, though it might transform, gay culture will not die. I’m bad at math, but I feel pretty confident, even with more and more queers raising children, most of us will continue to be born into families who don’t understand us, don’t recognize us, don’t want us, we will always have the need to grope our way to those who do, people who share our experience of being different, misunderstood, dismissed, unsafe.

Our biological families may, over the great expanse of time, come to be less freaked out, love us more, but right now, even families like mine and C’s, who love us without condition and welcome our marriage don’t understand what it feels like to listen to our right to live in safety and dignity debated in the media every day, what it feels like to grow up knowing that we are still considered by the people and the laws of vast swaths of the U.S. to be unworthy of equal rights, knowing that there are a good number of people in nearly every crowd who find us disgusting, knowing that there are places here and all over the world we can’t visit for fear of being shouted at, beaten, shot, or thrown off the top of buildings. Most of Africa, the Middle East, and Mississippi are not safe for us to visit.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my friends and I would survey the crowd at Pride events, the old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets, the aging disco queens drinking Bud Lite, and say, “This is the gay community? What do I have in common with these people?” But all week and right now, I am depleted of the energy it takes to act like I feel safe because I don’t want my whole life to revolve around the drama of my persecution. I’m tired of listening to people who don’t understand. What I wouldn’t give for a couple of old lesbians in rainbow tie-dye and mullets to cry with. I want to be with my family.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Change.

I don't have anything particularly insightful to say about this, but these 3 items about my neighborhood appearing simultaneously this morning was striking:

Katz's sells its air rights for a lot of money. The rest of the block is doomed.

And this about religious freedom and elevators.

And this from our Co-op Facebook group:
This is how East River's Orthodox community celebrates Earth Day in our park. These people are religious fundamentalists who only care about their own community. Nothing else matters to them. They lied to us telling us that they would empty & return the trash cans to their original locations. They certainly cannot complain about the loss of their religious freedoms. Their arrogance is repugnant. Tomorrow is Friends of Corlear's Hook Park's first clean up day of the season. Now we have no trash cans for our event.

Friday, April 15, 2016

What Am I Afraid Of?

I've been insisting that this primary vote, for me, is not just a matter of deciding whose values align with mine (that would be Sanders) but rather a process of contemplating different possible consequences of a Clinton or Sanders presidency. A good friend asked me what I'm afraid of with a Sanders presidency, which is a good question and here's my answer:

This is what I’m afraid of:

He’s unable to pass any of his legislative priorities in Congress because of GOP opposition, which will be fierce. I guess it’s possible he learns how to compromise and he gets some laws passed, but that would infuriate his diehard supporters to whom he promised no compromise.

So either because of anger over a diluted agenda, or disillusionment because nothing gets done, he loses his core of support which, to my eyes, is based on the idea that we elect him and he’ll ride into Washington on a white horse and make everything good again.

Having lost faith in the very idea that voting can change anything, his former supporters don’t vote in 2018, and the GOP lockhold on Congress is further entrenched. And they stay home in 2020 because they no longer believe that electing a “progressive” president can break up the banks, ban fracking and Monsanto, overturn Citizens United, make peace in the Middle East, send Wall Street into a giant sinkhole, and deport the Koch Brothers, McDonalds, and Walmart. The left in general loses support, loses steam.

And we end up with Cruz or someone similarly grotesque as president in 2020, all 3 branches of the federal government are controlled by theocrats and every small gain liberals have made in the last century or two are rolled back one by one, and on and on till the day I die.

That’s pretty much what I’m afraid of.

Of course all the above puts aside the question of who has a better chance of defeating a Republican. People have strong opinions on both sides. I happen to think Clinton has a much better chance, but it's really all guesswork at this point.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Succumbed?

When Mom died, I felt like I was the only one saying the words "died" or "dead." The words felt harsh coming out of my mouth because everyone was avoiding them. It's sort of how I felt when I moved to Tennessee from New York and had to stop saying "fuck" because people would react like I'd shot them in the face with a squirt gun.

I've gotten used to people saying "passed away," but I don't really like it. It reminds me of how people supposedly often fart upon dying, which Mom did not do -- her lower bowel was not connected so no gas had passed through it for 2 years. The woman died. Can we just say she died? Euphemisms rob the event of its seriousness, its profundity, its finality.

When Mom was sick, I hated all the military metaphors people slip into when someone has cancer. As I saw it, she wasn't battling cancer, she was treating a disease so she could live longer and better. The point was to live longer in order to enjoy her life, not to be locked in battle with a deadly foe. But after she died, the metaphor made perfect sense to me. She had fought like a dog for her life, no doubt about it. She had an ugly, painful disease and she beat it back valiantly for years. Years in which her appreciation for her life deepened and in which our appreciation for her and each other deepened. It was a battle well fought. And I feel like she won it.

This article is not as interesting as it could be, because it only considers obituary language, which is determined by factors like whether or not people pay for their obits so they can submit something written by the family, or whether only a "death announcement" is allowed. Also, newspapers have style guides that I would think maybe limit the expressions allowed. It's not everyday language. I mean, "entered eternal rest"?

It makes me smile to remember Mom so often, sitting at the kitchen table in the morning, reading the obituaries in their local Muncie paper and snickering at things like So-and-so was called home to Jesus, or So-and-so was carried on the wings of angels up to her Lord and Savior."

I inherited my mom's love of laughing at the hicks and though I don't necessarily love it in myself I embrace it as a sometimes necessary survival tactic, especially in rural Indiana, the land of compulsory Jesus-is-my-best-friend Christianity.

Monday, April 4, 2016

North Carolina Wants Less Gay? We'll Give It Less Gay.

I haven't been able to find information about whether or not other writers are joining Stephen Schwartz's boycott of North Carolina. I hope they will. Some of us might be boycott weary -- I know I felt like we jumped the shark with Target -- but this one is, I think, perfectly targeted and worthwhile. (I don't have any prospective productions in North Carolina, so I haven't been faced with this decision.)

This is serious stuff. It doesn't just mean the Broadway tour of Wicked -- which alone is huge, since those tours bring tons of jobs and revenue to cities. It means no high school productions of Godspell. No community theater stagings of Pippin. Stephen Schwartz's shows get produced a lot.

I feel for the commenter on this blog, a North Carolina theater producer, who says the boycott unfairly targets theater people, who are "compassionate of and fight for the equal rights of everyone." I'm sure it sucks for them to be the target of so much vitriol right now, and to be worried about the financial effect of a boycott on their institutions. But then he says later, "There are more compassionate, educated people in North Carolina than there are morons who want to set the state back fifty years." If that's true, then a boycott is asking you to prove it.

Seeing a boycott through the lens of who is being punished misses the point. Boycotts are not punishment, they're a call to action. They're meant to put pressure on people to change things. All you "compassionate, educated people in North Carolina": write letters, make phone calls, protest. And vote the morons out of office. We can't do that from here.

The comparisons to South African apartheid and Jim Crow are dramatic. Some may find them over-dramatic. But I doubt it seems that way to transgender people in North Carolina who are by law now prohibited from using public bathrooms.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

I Don't Know About You, but I'm In The Mood To Keep Talking About Susan Sarandon.

People are tired of hearing about the Susan Sarandon interview, I know. My feelings won't be hurt if you roll your eyes and skip this post. Well, my feelings would probably be hurt if I saw you do it, but I won't even know.

I'm sick of it, in a way, too. But what irks me is how far already the commentary has gotten from what actually happened in that interview. Because, to me, it was a moment when the lights came on suddenly and briefly. It was jarring, upsetting, and very disheartening.

But let me first take apart this essay, which is pretty typical of the quick spin the Sanders campaign has put on this interview, the damage control, the effort to discredit anyone who is critical of Sarandon as a liar.

It starts with an example of Hillary Clinton lying. The narrative of Hillary as a liar is important, so the idea that she may have just been mistaken is off the table. See, she’s a liar? Here she is lying. Now I have proved she is a liar.

Then a charge of “inaccurate reporting” on the Chris Hayes interview. This is the most frustrating aspect of the post-brouhaha Sanders campaign spin. A few outlets ran false clickbait headlines misquoting Sarandon as saying "Vote for Trump!" (which is easily refuted by listening to the short video clip), so they dismiss all negative reaction as “a lot of inaccurate reporting.”

No, Sarandon did not say “Vote for Trump!”

She said a couple of times that “a lot of people” can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton, which is true. And then Hayes asks her if she herself will vote for Hillary if she is the nominee:

SARANDON: I don`t know. I`m going to see what happens. 
HAYES: Really? 
SARANDON: Really. 
HAYES: I cannot believe as you`re watching the, if Donald Trump… 
SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know explode. 
HAYES: You`re saying the Leninist model of… 
SARANDON: Some people feel that. 
HAYES: Don`t you think that`s dangerous? 
SARANDON: I think what`s going on now. If you think it`s pragmatic to shore up the status quo right now, then you`re not in touch with the status quo. The statue quo is not working, and I think it`s dangerous to think that we can continue the way we are …. 

Then she restates the usual objections to Hillary's record (militarized police, privatized prisons, death penalty, low minimum wage,  income disparity, and so on) ending with “I don`t like the fact she talks about Henry Kissinger as being her go to guy for the stuff that`s happened in Libya and other things I don`t think is good.”

When I watched this clip (maybe an hour or so after the broadcast, a friend posted it, before I saw all the spin and social media amplification) I reacted with disgust, not because she said “I’m voting for Trump and you should, too.” Obviously she didn’t say that. What she said is that she didn’t know if Trump would be better or worse than Clinton, that in fact “some people” (and these “some people” being clearly, in this context, Bernie supporters) think he might be better. And when asked if she thought that was a dangerous notion, she answered with a statement of how  dangerous she feels Clinton would be. 

It is not necessary to exaggerate or misquote or in any way distort these comments to find them reprehensible. It doesn't matter that the next day Sarandon tweeted that of course she won't vote for Trump. What matters is that she floated the idea that Trump might be better than Clinton and then dug in her heels and refused to critique it. (An interpretation this essayist calls “stupid." So much for dialog.)

The rest of the essay is a point by point examination of Susan Sarandon's case against Clinton: Monsanto! Rich people! Banks! Wall Street! Fracking! Kissinger! Every time I or anyone is critical of Bernie Sanders or his followers, the response is this list. Question: "What do you think of this thing Bernie Sanders said that I don't think is quite true?" Answer: "Oh my god, how could you say that? Hillary Clinton is a monster!" All these charges against Clinton are interesting, often troubling, many times true, but sometimes they're not what we're talking about.

Just for good measure, he ends with a gendered insult about “what sort of woman” Clinton is compared to “what sort of woman” Sarandon is. And I'm sure he would respond: "Stop talking about sexism.  Criticizing Clinton doesn't make me sexist!" No, saying sexist things makes you sexist.

Anyway, this writer's point  I think, is that it is reasonable for Susan Sarandon, and by extension Bernie’s supporters, to say anything that might defeat Clinton because look at what a horrible president she’d be based on the fact that she’s a crook and a liar and war-monger.

So here are my thoughts, this morning, on the Bernie Sanders campaign:

It is a campaign, a movement, based on the idea that political integrity can be popular, can rally votes, enough to win the presidency. Its base assumption is that our government is corrupt and that we, the honest people, must take back power by calling out corruption wherever we see it, insisting on transparency at every turn.

It’s a powerful idea. The dark side of the coin, though, is that this idea creates a crowd who must believe in their own moral unassailability. They swallow whole anything presented as evidence of corruption. ("Clinton is corrupt because look at this evidence of corruption" "How do you know the evidence is true?" "She's corrupt, so the evidence must be true.") Transparency is hard work and I think often impossible when it comes to evidence of corruption. Most people don’t have the expertise, let alone time and energy, to analyze campaign finance law, or bank regulation, or tax law. Yet, from listening to Sanders's followers, it seems like we have a whole movement of experts on all these subjects, as well as foreign policy, geopolitics, and history. Or maybe it's just that they’re susceptible to demagogues who may or may not be experts, and may have good intentions, but they are politicians with agendas. “Follow the money” is good advice, but it's painstaking work, and there are always many lenses through which to interpret these numbers. It’s more complex than a Facebook meme.

I get the sense that Bernie Sanders is a good man of high ideals. I know no such thing about most of his followers. I don’t trust populists because I don’t trust the populace. Bernie Sanders seems to want to bring honesty and compassion to government. What many of his followers seem to want is power and a humiliated enemy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Archaeology.

I have a birthday coming up in a couple weeks. 55. Which feels harsher than 50 did, those 5's ganging up on me now.

My mom's death last year hit me with, among other things, an inescapable feeling that there's not a lot of time left, and most of the anxiety of that realization clusters around my work, my career. Just when I've only in the last few years begun to have some grasp on my talent or power or ability, the future no longer stretches out beyond seeing.

Big thoughts!

On that subject, I've been looking at songs and songwriters that have been models for me, conscious or unconscious influences, and I was reading the New York Times review of Disaster! this morning in which Charles Isherwood mentions the K-Tel compilation albums that were ubiquitous in the 70s and I remembered one in particular that I was obsessed with as a tween -- called Good Vibrations, it had a sort of acid trip yellow cover -- so I Googled it and it turns out it was Ronco, not K-Tel, but y'know culturally speaking more or less the same thing, relentless TV commercials hawking these albums with scrolling song titles over excerpts from the songs, only available by mail order.



Reading this playlist, suddenly everything about me as a songwriter makes sense. I was 12 when I got this record. It predates Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Heart, it predates Judy Garland and Joan Baez, musicals, it even predates The Partridge Family (all those Wes Farrell songs I always kind of thought of as my earliest musical influence).

Two songs on this record still play in my dreams: If You Don't Know Me By Now, and Melanie's Peace Will Come. And the Association's Darling Be Home Soon. Handbags and Gladrags. All the Young Dudes!

Possibly the momentousness of this is lost except on me, but I feel like Mary Leakey discovering the Lucy bones this morning.