11/18/11

I'm Too Sexy For This Blog

So, among the important news of the day: unemployment, the federal deficit, Occupy Wall Street, inequities in education ... y'know, the fun stuff - there's a story about how lots of fans are outraged because this man was named People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive."


This is apparently a travesty, because it's clear to said fans (who are "protesting," to be clear - not on the streets, but on various social media platforms - but are nonetheless using the scant minutes afforded to them by this little life to voice outrage on this issue in particular) that this guy clearly is more deserving of the title:


And okay.  Ryan Gosling is hot, too.  And he's got this whole Chuck-Norris-for-hipsters vibe that Bradley Cooper (the shirtless one, above) cannot match.

But here's the thing ... or rather, three things.

  1. Bradley Cooper is hot.  Sorry girls, but it's true.  Getting upset because a gossip rag calls him sexy makes you look not just shallow and seriously underutilized by the world around you - it just makes you look dumb, period.
  2. It also makes you look shallow and seriously underutilized by the world around you.  C'mon, with all the things you could be upset by, you choose this as your cause?  Seriously. Get a life.
  3. There might be something to get upset about here.  But it's not what you think it is.
People Magazine has been handing out this title since 1985, pretty much on a yearly basis with a few hiccups. All in all, 26 guys have earned the title.  Of these 26 specimens of hot-blooded testosterone, 25 of them have been white (the sole exception was Denzel Washington, back in 1996 - a full 15 years ago).

Big deal, says you.  But it is a big deal, says I.  The media has about as much influence as we collectively allow it to have - but sadly, at least in the USA, we grant it quite a bit.  And with great power, as Spider-Man would remind you, comes great responsibility.  And in this case, People has failed in its responsibility.

Mind you, I'm referring to the "Sexiest Man Alive" case, not the specific Bradley Cooper case.  Because, as I've already said (but it bears repeating, somehow), Bradley Cooper is hot. But in the larger context, People has been, for the past fifteen years at least sending a very clear message that only white people are "sexy."

Again, says you, big freakin' deal.  It's not like they're saying that white people are more intelligent, more talented, more moral, or more worthy.  Well ... except that they sort of are.  Because - at least in the North American culture - people who are perceived to be more attractive "are more successful, make more money, are more confident, have more sex, enjoy better health, receive better treatment at restaurants, hotels, and shops, are perceived as more intelligent and competent, and are happier" than those perceived to be less attractive (read the whole story here).  And if we're honest with ourselves, we can say the same thing about white people in our society.  See the connection? Who is "sexy" and who isn't matters.  It matters more than it ought to, that I will grant you - but it matters nonetheless.

And no, the media isn't solely responsible for determining the amount of sexiness we will assign someone.  Admittedly, much of this is driven by our own hormones.  There's often no accounting for why someone you see on the street causes you to involuntarily crane your neck if only to spend six or seven more sumptuous seconds gazing upon his or her gorgeous face and luscious form (not that this ever happens to me, mind you). But, at the same time, can we possibly deny how much of this is driven by the media?

Indeed, part - perhaps much - of what forces you to turn your head at the sight of some sexy stranger you spot on the street is a product of not what you believe about beauty - it's what you've learned about beauty.  We all know that one-piece polyester jumpsuits are hideous, right?  No one has to teach us that, at least.  Except that forty years ago, they were the norm - and quite fashionable at that.  So how is it that people forty years ago learned the exact opposite of what we so clearly know to be true today?  It's because we don't know anything, not really.  For a nation of such rugged individuals, we're actually quite good at doing what we're told to do - believing what we're told to believe - and slobbering over those we're told we should slobber over.  It feels very primal and visceral, but it's all learned behavior.

I think that People Magazine, so long as their annual "Sexiest Man Alive" pick is a national conversation, has the ability, in its own small way, to make the planet better or worse, by exerting what influence it has (and I believe it probably has more than we give it credit for) in an age of ever-increasing globalization to expand our notions of beauty to include more than just 16% of the world's population.  Actually, it's more than just an ability - I believe it's an obligation.  And against this particular backdrop, getting mad because some other white dude was picked over your preferred white dude is just ludicrous.

9/9/11

Return of the Fanboy

As a kid, I loved comic books. Every month, I spent my entire allowance on titles such as The New Teen Titans, X-Men, and The Huntress (who is, of course, Batman’s daughter in a parallel universe – I kid you not).

My parents discouraged this habit and counseled me on financial responsibility. But secretly, I think they were happy about it. After all, I showed no interest in sports or trucks or toy soldiers – my obsession with comics and superheroes was so stereotypically boyish that it must have provided them with some small degree of comfort.

And they’re not the only ones. A decade ago, a friend invited me to dinner with her new husband. When I arrived, she was clearly nervous, but hopeful that these two very different men in her lives would find something, anything to talk about for an hour or two. She needn’t have worried. The first X-Men film had just been released, and we were both dying to see it. We spent the entirety of the meal discussing our favorite characters and storylines, and went straight from the restaurant to the theatre, where we revisited the sense of wonder we had known as children. My friend sat between us, relieved yet befuddled at being surrounded by two such incredible geeks. I didn’t much notice; when I wasn’t lost in nostalgic reverie, I was concentrating on Hugh Jackman’s chest hair.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why characters like Superman, Spider-Man, and Green Lantern were so exciting to me as a child. It’s too easy to suggest that I loved them simply because I could see every bicep and deltoid bulging beneath their skintight outfits (though I have to admit that I can still remember the day I discovered that Peter Parker slept in the nude on page 17).


Perhaps it was their altruism. No, really – I remember carrying on long debates in my head about what differentiated super-heroes from super-villains, and why anyone blessed with unique gifts such as flight, x-ray vision, or an invisible plane would use them so selflessly. At the end of the day, what attracted me to my masked crusaders for truth and justice might have been their innate sense of decency. Because at their core, these were good, good people … who just happened to have all those biceps and deltoids.

And yet, I know there’s something else that fascinated me about these muscle-bound do-gooders. There were similarities that extended beyond self-sacrifice and a lovely silhouette. Obviously, most were blessed with superpowers that mere mortals do not enjoy (I wasn’t one of those comic fans who liked Batman best because he had no superpowers; in fact, I thought it showed a real lack of imagination on his part). Also, most had not asked for these abilities, usually attained either by freak accident or alien birth. Finally, most of my heroes employed the use of a secret identity, in an attempt to obtain a halfway normal life, as if such a thing were possible. And I wonder: could it be that my sexually repressed 11-year old self was subconsciously seeing parallels between my closeted existence and theirs?

Whatever the reason, I loved them.  Unlike my fellow fanboys, I had a special affinity for female superheroes, like Supergirl, Batgirl, and Spider-Woman (at the time, I convinced myself that this attraction was evidence of heterosexuality, but now I think it was just another form of diva worship), but like most of them, I didn't continue to buy comics once I reached high school.  Comics provided an escape that was socially acceptable for someone in junior high, but not something I could even pretend was "cool" once I entered the ninth grade.  Just before high school began, I sold my entire stash of comic books for about a hundred dollars.  It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but it was probably a fraction of what those books were worth.  That was almost thirty years ago.

Two years ago, I met a charming fellow I'll call Shorebird, who would later become my boyfriend and then my live-in boyfriend.  Shorebird is a fantastic guy, with a variety of interests.  Among other things, he enjoys "So You Think You Can Dance," The New York Yankees, and ... Wonder Woman.  Not Wonder Woman comics, per se, but the iconography of Wonder Woman fascinates him.  And since he moved into the house, we've been collecting various Wonder Woman merchandise which we've been displaying in the kitchen.  Shorebird even went so far as to have an image of Wonder Woman tattooed on his arm.  That's commitment, people.

And I suppose that inviting Wonder Woman back into my life - or at least my home - has opened an old door for me.  Recently, I was on a business trip and looking for something interesting to read, and I came across The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, a wonderful book by Mike Madrid that recounts the history of women in comic books against the context of the changing role of women in society.  It sounds really academic when I say it that way, but the book itself was funny, provocative, and greatly entertaining.  Like me, Mike always had a special place in his heart for kick-ass superheroines, and I read the entire thing over the course of four airplane trips in two days.

And, as luck would have it, this rekindling of my love of comic books is coinciding with a much-hyped "relaunch" of the entire DC Comics line: 52 series, all starting back at Issue #1.  What's more, these days I can buy a comic book for two bucks via the Apple store on my iPad.  Need you ask if I've made any purchases lately?  Is Superman a space alien?  (For those who live in a cave, the answer is yes.)  Last week, I purchased the first of the relaunched titles, Justice League #1 (no sightings of Wonder Woman yet, but she's on the cover, so I hope to see her next month) and this week, I bought both Batwing #1 (a new colleague of Batman, based in the Congo) and Batgirl #1 (my favorite of the bunch so far, but also the most controversial, for reasons I might explore at a later date).  As the month progresses, I imagine I'll be purchasing Wonder Woman #1 (naturally), Teen Titans #1 (a favorite from my youth), Catwoman #1 (meow), and perhaps even a few others.

It would seem that I'm a fanboy again.

9/1/11

We Are All Transgender

When I was a much younger gay activist, just out of the closet as a matter of fact, I was asked if I would join the Employee Resource Group at my company for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Employees. My head still spinning with the new identity I had just adopted, I was nonetheless eager to jump right in and start making a difference, and I enthusiastically signed up.

At my very first meeting, I asked what I honestly thought was an innocent question: why weren’t we including transgender people in our name and mission? The looks on the faces around the room immediately told a story: this group had been down this road before, and wasn’t eager to repeat the journey.

“We don’t have any transgender employees at this company,” I was told.

“That we know of,” I responded.

And then the conversation continued, with neither side saying anything that hadn’t been said before. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are two totally separate things,” one person said. Another chimed in with, “people already think that we’re gender-confused. I don’t think we should add to that perception.”

But, a number in my group – a smaller number – agreed with my stance, and so the debate was reborn, for an hour or so. The leader of the group eventually shut the conversation down, then gazed at me with a withering look, clearly wishing she could rescind her invitation. Sadly, the things I heard in that hour have become all too familiar to me over the years.

This is an open letter to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, particularly those who wish that the “LGBT” acronym could be forever abbreviated to “LG,” full stop. I have something to say to you.

You might think that the reason you’re hated by the haters is because deep in your hearts, you harbor a physical desire for persons of the same sex. You are wrong. They couldn’t care less about what you’re feeling. They hate you because you act upon those feelings. If you are true to yourself, you date, flirt with, sleep with, and often settle down and buy property with persons of the same sex. Some gay men walk with a supermodel’s swagger, and use words like “fierce” and “fabulous.” Some lesbians cut their hair short, and haven’t worn a skirt since high school. And this is why they hate you. They hate you because you break their rules of what a man or a woman is supposed to be. You violate gender norms they hold dear, you cross a line they don’t ever want crossed. They hate you because you’re transgender.

Maybe you don’t want to change your anatomy; most of us don’t. But in the minds of those who hate us, you have betrayed your anatomy as surely as those who do. In this way, “queer” might as well be a synonym for “transgender.” Brothers and sisters, we are all transgender. Deal with it.

And if those who hate us make up stories about us, such as we all wish we could undergo Sex Reassignment Surgery, let them. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve told lies about us. They lie about us all the time – and I know it hurts to hear those lies. But we can’t let their lies dictate our battle for civil rights, or how we plan to fight. We can’t allow their bigotry to draw boundaries around our humanity. Supporting those in our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and our schools who are transgender is the right thing to do – not just because we’re gay or lesbian, but because we’re human. And if we limit our capacity for compassion and kindness because of what Pat Robertson or Tony Perkins might say about us on the television, then we don’t deserve to be free. I, for one, refuse to take marching orders from those who want me dead.

When you were born, it’s likely that the first words spoken were either “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy!” And with those simple words, a limitless number of expectations were piled upon you, when you were only minutes old. Whoever spoke those words could only see what was between your legs; they had no way of knowing what was inside your heart. And if you’re a lesbian or a gay man, it’s likely that you disappointed someone along the way, someone who expected you to be someone that you’re not. In that way, our lives aren’t always easy. In that way, we are all transgender. In that way, we owe it to ourselves to look out for our own.

8/23/11

Good Bi (Yellow Brick Road)

Don’t know if you’ve heard about this or not, but just yesterday, the New York Times broke a groundbreaking story about bisexual men. They exist. And also unicorns.

Okay, I’m joking about the unicorns, but apparently bisexual men are real. Which will come as a shock to a lot of my friends – and when I say “a lot of my friends,” I pretty much mean the gay guys.

For some reason, gay men don’t want to believe in bi guys. We all seem to understand that female sexuality can be fluid, but the idea of a dude who gets turned on by chicks and dudes is anathema to us. I can understand this, to a degree. For many of us, the journey to GayVille included a pit stop in BiTown. Of course, the gentlemen who briefly disembarked from the Rainbow Train and donned a bisexual identity weren’t really bi – they just weren’t ready to make the whole trip in one fell swoop. And because of this, many of us are doubtful when a man takes the trip to BiTown and stays there.

The usual criticism of bi guys – beyond the fact that they’re fooling themselves and attempting to fool everyone else – is that they’re cowards. If so-called bisexual men were only brave enough to stand up to the scorn that heterosexuals dish out to the full-on gays, a certain segment of gay guys proclaim, they wouldn’t have to pretend that they get excited at the thought of a naked woman. And the proclamation usually ends there, because these are the gay guys who get nauseous whenever the notion of a naked woman enters their brains.

When the vapors recede, another criticism of bisexual men emerges: they’re just greedy. In fact, this kind of insatiable lust, one that includes both kitties and roosters, is so out of control, so ravenous, that it’s really more of a fetish than an actual sexual orientation. Of course, this is just a slight variation on the things that Tony Perkins and Pat Robertson say about us, but that’s completely and utterly beside the point … right?

The truth that is revealed by these blatantly false stereotypes is that many gay men (and by “many gay men,” I mean a completely unscientific sampling of my own friends) don’t really know any bisexual men. Or at least they don’t knowingly know them. And let’s face it – why would a bisexual man want to come out as such to a community of Kinsey Sixes? We haven’t exactly been all that welcoming.

The truth is that bisexuality is a sexual orientation, just like homosexuality and heterosexuality. Bisexual men (and women) did not choose to be bi. Like the rest of us, they were born that way. The truth is that bisexual men (and women) don’t lust after every person on the planet, in the same way that straight guys don’t find every woman attractive, and gay men can be very particular about the men that fall into the narrow category that is their “type.” The truth is that many bisexual men (and women) find a partner and settle down in monogamous or “monogam-ish” relationships. And the fact that this makes it harder for you to tell who’s bi and who’s not is your problem, not theirs. The truth is that it takes a lot of courage, not cowardice, to openly identify as a bisexual man these days.

And that, as they say ... is that.

8/19/11

Book Report: "The Help"

About a year ago, a bunch of my friends started talking about a book they had just read.  The book was called The Help.  They told me it was funny, and touching, and a real page-turner.  Then they put a button on the conversation: “You would love it,” they said – with the emphasis on the “you” and not the “love.”
The Help is a book about many things, but mostly it’s a book about race.  It’s the story of black domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, and an ambitious young (white) writer who wants to write a book about them.  It sounded interesting, and the recommendations came from friends whose opinions I trusted.
And yet … I was scared of The Help.  Because just as soon as I started hearing the accolades from my friends, I started reading about the controversies surrounding the book in the press.  If there was a lot to potentially enjoy about this book, there was also plenty to be scared of.
Most of the controversy has to do with the fact that the book is written by a white woman.  Now, there’s no rule – written or unwritten – that says that white people can’t write about race; hell, I’m doing it right now.  The stickiness of this particular situation comes from the fact that Kathryn Stockett, a white author, writes in the first person for over 90% of the book, using three narrators – two of whom are black women.  It’s one thing, Stockett’s critics would say, to write about black women – but quite another to assume that you "get" a black woman’s identity so much as to write from her perspective.  And compounding this was Stockett’s choice to write these chapters in a form of dialect – “Law have mercy” or “I sho nuff gone do it,” and the like.
I decided it was probably best for me to avoid The Help altogether.  I didn’t have strong opinions about the book; after all I hadn’t read it.  When friends would continue to ask, “Have you read The Help?” – I would say no, and when they pressed me, I would tell them why.  When they would counter with arguments of their own, I wouldn’t argue back – again, we were talking about a book they had read but I had not.  And still, I was not moved to pick up the book and read it.
Then … I saw the preview for the upcoming film.
It’s no secret that while I’m a fairly avid reader, I’m a huge movie buff.  The trailer looked funny and touching, and everything my friends told me the book was.  While the book was something I could ignore or put off, I knew I was going to see this movie at some point.  And this presented a problem for me.  If I saw the film version of The Help, I was going to have opinions about The Help, and if I was going to have opinions about The Help, I needed to know exactly what my opinions were based on.  I was going to have to read this book.
And so, I read the book.
I can confidently say that reading The Help nearly destroyed my relationship.  During the three days (yes, only three days) it took me to devour Stockett’s novel, I barely looked up from my Kindle.  Dishes went unwashed, laundry went unlaundered, and all conversation in the house ceased.  “Sssh,” I’d say. “I’m reading.”
The book was everything my friends told me it would be and nothing like I’d hoped it wasn’t.  Well … almost nothing.  While I loved the plot twists, characterizations, wry observations, and overall humanity of the story, I will confess right away that “Law have mercy” never stopped being annoying.  Every time I read Stockett’s dainty Ebonics, I wondered – what would have been missed if she had instead written “Lord have mercy,” or “sure enough” instead of “sho nuff”?  I’m fairly sure that I would have been able to detect three distinct voices even so.  I don’t have much else to say on this topic, other than I really wish that Stockett had made a different choice.
And, as annoyed as I was, I wasn’t so annoyed that I didn’t devour the book over the course of three evenings, much to Shorebird’s dismay.  Honestly, I don’t know how well Stockett captured the interior landscape of a black domestic in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, but I cannot deny that the characters leapt off the page. They reacted to their situations in complex ways that nonetheless made psychological sense.
I think what I was really afraid of was that The Help would join other works of literary or cinematic art, such as Dangerous Minds or The Blind Side, in a category of books, films, and stories that I call the Tale of the Nice White Lady.  The Tale of the Nice White Lady centers on a white woman who was born without the ability to form biases against people who are different from herself.  Unlike you or I (or the inevitable awful, horrible, evil white people who surround her), she knows in her soul that all human beings are equally human, but that some people require saving, and that she’s just the Nice White Lady to do it.  Nice White Ladies in books or movies make white people who read those books and watch those movies feel a whole lot better about themselves, mostly because they’re encouraged to identify with those Nice White Ladies, rather than examining their own privileges and prejudices.  White people who enjoy the Tale of the Nice White Lady leave the theatre (or put down the book) feeling good about themselves, but not necessarily motivated to do anything to make a difference in the world.  Nice White Ladies piss me off.
Skeeter, one of the narrators of The Help, is indeed a nice, white girl.  But unlike the Nice White Ladies described above, she’s not immune to having some blind spots around race and her own privileged position in society.  Stockett doesn’t do much to hide the fact that – at her core – Skeeter is an ambitious young writer – much more interested in publishing her first book than empowering a group of black domestics.  When she asks the maids she knows to tell her their stories so that she can compile them into a controversial book that she hopes will launch her career, she is initially surprised when they refuse.  They live in a world that she doesn’t understand and can't relate to.  When the maids finally agree to tell their stories, they don’t do it because Skeeter has persuaded them; rather, it is presented as an act of personal courage.  Yes, it helps the privileged white girl write her book – but they’re more concerned with, at long last, telling the truth.  And yes, Skeeter risks a little – her standing among her white neighbors in the Junior League – but this is nothing compared to what the black women of the novel are willing to risk.  Stockett knows this, and so do her readers.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things about Skeeter to admire.  She is the only white woman in the entire story who seems to have ambitions beyond marrying a nice white (rich) boy.  Initially, she feels very sorry for herself, mostly because she’s a woman in a man’s world.  As the story progresses, she learns that she has privileges she had never considered, and that while her oppression based on gender doesn’t make up for her privilege based on skin color, neither does her privilege make up for her oppression.  The two simply co-exist, neither one being cancelled out by the other.  Of course, the black women she aligns herself with have privilege with regard to neither race nor gender – something the reader is free (if not deliberately encouraged) to ponder while reading.
The film version of The Help was released earlier this month.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m considering going tonight.  Shorebird is even planning to join me, which is awfully big of him, considering our rocky history with this particular story.
Of course, with the film opening up, many of the controversies that were reported on when the book was initially published are being revisited.  There’s a lot of anger I’m reading about, much of it focused on the Tale of the Nice White Lady, and whether or not this story fits that model.  A lot of other folks are upset by what’s not in this story – both the book and the movie (based on what I’ve read) focus almost exclusively on a cast of female characters, which doesn’t leave room to focus on the constant threat of rape and other forms of sexual assault visited on black domestic workers from the men who employed them.  Others take exception to the notion that the central character of the film (Aibeleen, played the by the extraordinary Viola Davis) feels actual love – real, maternal, all-consuming love – for the white child left in her care. These critics note that this is a white woman’s fantasy – a white woman who wants to believe that her black caregiver loved her heart and soul, with no trace of resentment or frustration.  There’s also a sense of exasperation focused on the lack of black authors and filmmakers who get the kind of exposure that The Help has received.  In truth, there is no lack of black storytellers who wish to tell their stories, but rarely do their efforts top the New York Times Bestseller Lists or get made into Hollywood films with Hollywood budgets.
I can’t really argue with any of these points.  The story Stockett tells is likely flawed, but I truly believe that there’s a lot of artistry at work there as well.  All of these arguments together seem to wonder, “does this story tell the truth?” – which to me, is a flawed question.  There is no single truth. I think the book tells the truth as Kathryn Stockett sees it, and there are other stories, other truths we probably need to hear as well.  That most of us will never hear those stories is a fault that belongs to all of us, and shouldn’t be placed solely at the feet of Kathryn Stockett.
I won’t lie– I’m really excited to see this movie tonight, and also a little nervous.  What if it’s offensive?  What’s worse, what if it should be offensive but I’m too coddled by the film’s insidious message and my own white privilege to realize it?  Am I asking enough from society? Am I asking too much from myself? Can both be true at the same time?

7/22/11

Girls Gone Republican

The longer the summer drags on without an announcement of some sort, it seems that Sarah Palin won't be running for President after all.  Which disappoints me, only because if Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann were going to run, I was hoping we could also recruit that batshit-crazy anti-Muslim weirdo Pamela Geller into the race as well. Because c'mon, how awesome would it be for the girl-power trifecta of the modern Republican Party to feature a Sarah, a Michele, and a Geller?

But even if Palin won't be running, I think we can all agree that she'll be a presence in politics throughout 2011 and 2012, for good or ill.  Most of my friends would certainly choose "ill," and I don't blame them.  Sarah Palin was a small-town mayor and half-term governor who (let's be honest) lies a lot, and I feel fairly secure in my belief that she adds a lot more heat than light to the national discourse.

But the same can be said of lots of political pundits.  And yet, there seems to be a special kind of scorn among by leftie friends reserved for Sarah Palin, a kind of seething hatred matched only by the hot wrath that they feel for surprise GOP Presidential front-runner (if anyone can be a front-runner before a single primary) Michele Bachmann.

Okay, so let's start with the obvious similarity between these two.  Yes, I'm talking about their vaginas.  Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are, according to my highly unscientific sampling of my friends, the two most hated figures in Republican politics right now, and they both happen to be women.

But just try and suggest that one has anything to do with the other, and you'll get an earful.  A friend of mine started quite the brouhaha on Facebook by posing this very thought just yesterday, and the response was quick - and often angry.

There seems to be this belief among liberals that they absolutely, positively cannot harbor any sexist thoughts by virtue of their very liberal-ness.  To be fair, you won't find many conservatives who will openly admit to sexism either - but the denials among liberals are, to me, especially ironic.  After all, you can't find many liberals who will tell you that sexism is a thing of the past, the way conservatives sometimes like to.  Yet, there are many on the left who know it's real, but refuse to imagine that any sexism lives inside of them.

I probably don't need to say this, but I have this niggling voice in the back of my head, shouting: "Let me be clear.  I am no 'fan' of either Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann."  If this particular rant has a point at all, it's not to defend either of these women, but rather encourage readers on the left to be honest with themselves, where these two women are concerned.

It might help to go back a bit.  When Barack Obama was campaigning for and eventually became President, I found a lot of the rhetoric used against him to be tinged - nay, saturated - with racism and racist assumptions.  You can't look at that now-famous Photoshopped image of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose and deny that there is a lot of racist invective coming his way.  The very idea that Obama should be the first and only President in our history to be forced to make public his official birth certificate to prove that he's actually an American-born citizen is racist to the core.

And yet - when I was engaged in several political "conversations" (ahem) with my conservative parents during his campaign and administration, they grew very frustrated with the notion that they weren't allowed to criticize the man without being called a racist.  They had a point.  They, like almost every white person in American, probably harbor more covert, unconscious bias against people of color than they'd like to admit.  AND, they had some real concerns with Barack Obama's policies, worldview, and political philosophy.  They leveled many of the same criticisms against our last Democratic President, Bill Clinton - and no one ever accused them of racism when they did it.  It's not racist to criticize someone who just happens to be black, they'd tell me.  And they were right.

AND ... a lot of the criticism being leveled at Obama was and is racist.  But not all of it.  So it's complex.  And I think the way the left thinks about and reacts to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann is similar that way.

First of all, there's some stuff out there that is sexism in its purist form.  For instance, during the 2008 campaign, some voters were "concerned" that Palin, a mother of five, wouldn't be able to handle the pressures of being Vice President - or perhaps worse, might not be there for her children the way a good mother ought.  A man with a spouse and five kids would never hear this complaint.  It was sexist, and it was dumb.

But it's not always so obvious.

Last week, Bill Maher defended himself against the sexist charge by saying, "It's not because they have breasts.  It's because they ARE boobs."  It was a great line, and it got a lot of applause.  And I believe him when he says that.  And by that I mean, I believe that he believes it.

One denial that liberals are quick to spout when you inquire into their attitudes about Sarah and Michele is, "I can't be a sexist!  I voted for Hillary!"  Which would make sense, if sexism were as simple as we think it is.  But it's not.  Sexism is not as neat and clean as "Men good. Women bad. End story."  A lot of us (including me) loved Hillary because she was so smart.  But what's our definition of smart?  Is it possible that we assign intelligence to those who say things that we already agree with?  I'm not suggesting that our Secretary of State isn't as smart as you think she is.  She's done an amazing job at the State Dept. and in the U.S. Senate; she is clearly a brilliant woman.

The question I'm much more interested in is this: Are Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as stupid as you think they are?  What I find really curious about our feelings about Palin and Bachmann isn't that we don't like them.  We (meaning we blue-state liberals) also don't particularly care for Sean Hannity, Eric Cantor, Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, or John Boehner.  But while we think of these guys as being bad people who are wrong about so many things, we don't think of them as idiots, the way we frequently characterize Sarah and Michele.  We disagree with them all, but we do so a little differently.

Now ... are there men on the right we deride as less than intelligent?  Sure.  Are there women on the right that we respect for their ability to turn a phrase even while wishing them to their own special circle of deepest, darkest hell?  You betcha.  But by and large, there's a theme that's present when it comes to people we disagree with.  The men are bad and evil.  But the women are stupid.

Is it reasonable to suggest that a stupid woman would not have been able to turn an incomplete term as Alaska's governor into a media empire?  Am I weird to think that a woman who might very well win the Iowa Republican primary has the teensiest bit of political savvy?

Maybe, or maybe not.  But it's worth a thought.

5/25/11

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

My parents have no idea what I do for a living.  I've told them numerous times that I work in the field of Diversity & Inclusion, and my mother just shakes her head and says, "Yes, but I don't know what that means."  And the more I've tried to explain it to them, the more mysterious my career becomes.

Basically, I help organizations to become more diverse and inclusive.  "Diverse" means (yes) more people of color and more women.  But it also means, more gay people, more people with disabilities, more people from different faith communities, more transgender people, and more military veterans.  More of what you don't already have, basically.  And "Inclusive" means that you treat people well.  There are other definitions, but that's pretty much the crux of it.  Everyone might not have the same experience at work, but everyone has an equal shot.

I don't believe it's a terribly difficult concept to grasp.  Admittedly, I've been thinking about it every day for the past thirteen years, and maybe that's why - but doesn't everybody know that we live in a society wherein people who are Black, Latino, Asian, female, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, athiest, Sikh, Hindu, or possessed of a disability have to take a lot of shit that other people don't have to deal with?

Honestly, I think that most people "get" that there are those in this world who are unjustly disenfranchised.  What they don't get, or don't want to get, is the flip side of the coin - that people who are white, straight, Christian, or temporarily able-bodied have this thing called "privilege."

Privilege is like the untouchable third rail of the Diversity & Inclusion conversation.  Nobody wants to admit that it's there - and yet, if you think about it, it must be there.  If someone is "less than," it begs the question: less than who?  If someone is down, then by definition someone else is up.  Simple, right?  Not for some people - and by "some people," I'm usually talking about some white people.

For those who are new to the concept of white privilege, the best resource I could possibly point you to is a classic essay by Peggy McIntosh called "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."  It's a really short read, and it spells out the issue plainly and concisely.  In it, McIntosh reflects on why it was so difficult for her to get the men around her to admit that their penises entitled them to all kinds of free stuff that society made women work really hard for - and how she started to wonder if she got any free stuff that other people had to work really hard for.  And she started to make a list.  And it turned into a pretty long list.  It included things like, "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented," and "Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability," and "I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race." And as the list got longer and longer (she stopped at 26 items, but could have clearly gone on and on and on), she realized she was onto something.

For me, the most powerful thing about McIntosh's essay isn't the laundry list of free stuff that society gives to white people, it's that she (like most white people) was completely blind to her own privilege before she made a conscious decision to focus on it.  That's the tricky thing about privilege: not only are we unaware of it, but we're encouraged to be oblivious.  And ignorance is often just as difficult to confront than out-and-out hatefulness.  Because like the proud bigot, the ignorant are fiercely protective of their ignorance.  They don't know and they don't want to know, because knowing makes a person accountable, and it's a whole lot easier to live in this world if racism (and sexism, and ableism, and heterosexism, and all the rest) is somebody else's problem.

Privilege is why we have stupid-ass words like "reverse racism."  Terms like "reverse racism" are, to put it simply, complete and utter bullshit.  It's like saying, "I can totally understand racism against them, but racism against me is totally fucked up; like, it doesn't even make any sense."  When people talk about "reverse racism," here's what usually happened: 1) members of an oppressed community have expressed resentment toward those more powerful than they, and 2) a white person within earshot gets his or her feelings hurt because after all, they never individually owned slaves (never mind that they reap the benefits of their skin privilege each and every day, as I do, often without even realizing it).

Privilege is why no one on Fox News can admit that some members of the Tea Party are clearly and abjectly racist (see this and this and this and this and this), but can freely and easily use the racist tag to describe Barack Obama.



Not only is this accusation profoundly unfair and untrue, but it illustrates the key point about privilege.  When Glenn Beck thinks that he's the victim of racism, he feels it.  But when the world conspires to make him feel more intelligent, more patriotic, more moral, and just plain better than anyone who's a shade darker than he is, he can't feel that at all.

And I get why white people cling to the belief that they are more victimized by racism than anyone else; I do.  Owning your privilege is tough.  It requires you to reflect on your entire life, and realize that you've been the beneficiary of a lot of free stuff over the years.  And we Americans would like to believe that earned all that stuff.  And you might have earned some of it; I won't take that away from you.  But I guaran-damn-tee you that if you grew up white in America, you got some of that shit for free.  You didn't earn it all.  And once you get it through your thick head that your skin color (or your penis, or your heterosexuality, or your Christianity, or your temporary status as an able-bodied person, or the HIV-negative blood coarsing through your veins, or whatever else) has given you a place of unearned privilege, it's sort of incumbent upon you to level the playing field a little, in whatever way you can, even if that's just educating yourself whenever the opportunity arises.

When I started doing diversity and social justice work, I was motivated by the oppression I felt as a gay person, and I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't really prepared to deal with my skin privilege.  And yeah, at the beginning, I did take the weight of the world onto my shoulders, and I felt a lot of guilt.  And getting through the guilt (but remaining knowledgeable and accountable) wasn't easy. You know what's easy? Playing the victim.  Playing the victim is easy, and it's actually a lot of fun, especially when you get to keep all the free stuff.

5/24/11

Jim Daly: We Lost Marriage.

Much has been made of recent remarks by Focus on the Family President/CEO Jim Daly regarding his organization's quest to keep same-sex couples from marrying.

Here's some of what he said to World Magazine:
We're losing on [gay marriage], especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age, demographers would say probably not. We've probably lost that. I don't want to be extremist here, but I think we need to start calculating where we are in the culture.
And he goes on to outline what future FoF messaging around marriage might look like:
"The piece of paper that you get at the state to recognize your marriage is worthless. It's like registering your car. But if you're going to be a part of this church and you're married, you're going to be committed to your marriage. There's no easy way out."
Is it possible that I like this guy?

Probably not, because he makes his living moralizing, while looking to written artifacts of Bronze Age nomads who had no understanding of human psychology, biological evolution, or a round planet as the best guide we have to a moral life.  And you know what else: it's easy for him to say that the "piece of paper" that is one's marriage license is "worthless" when it's something that heterosexual couples can so easily take for granted.  But for same-sex couples who desperately need marriage rights in order to share property, protect their children, sit at the deathbeds of their spouses, and inherit from them without being gouged by crippling tax burdens (among 1,000+ other rights and responsibilities), that "piece of paper" can be incredibly valuable.

Still, I like the direction this guy is going.  If nothing else, he seems to finally understand what the LGBT community has been saying for years: we don't want to take over your religions; we only want that piece of paper, and why the hell do you care so much?

Why American Christians have for decades been hell-bent (yes, I chose these words carefully) on preventing loving and committed couples from protecting their families under the law - while the scourges of war, genocide, hunger, poverty, and disease remain unabated around the planet and here at home - is frankly beyond my understanding.  And if there's a sign that they're no longer going to do that, well ... fine with me.

5/23/11

Sticks and Stones

I originally wrote this in 2007, but I liked it and wanted to post it again.  So there.

Last night, I was driving home and listening to NPR, and there was a story about a sock factory in Honduras. And every time Melissa Block said the word "sock" in oh-so-serious tones (because this industry is apparently very important in Honduras), I was reminded that "sock" can at once mean a snuggly thing made of cotton or yarn that keeps your feet warm, but it can also mean a fist in your face.

And my mind wandered to other words that indicate violence, and it seems that they all have alternative, mostly postive meanings as well.

"Hit" could mean a pop song that everyone is listening to right now.

"Punch" could mean a fruity concoction served in large glass bowls at parties.

"Strike" could mean a group of workers collectively standing up for their rights, or even better, hitting all your bowling pins with just one roll of the ball down the alley.

"Belt" could refer to that strap of leather that holds my pants up (always a good thing).

"Stab" could mean a brave attempt at something you've always wanted to do but never tried before.

"Box" could mean a lovely brown paper package tied up with string, which is indeed one of my favorite things.

"Kick" could mean an extra bit of spice (or alcohol) in that dish (or cocktail) you're currently enjoying.

"Bash" could mean one hell of a party.

"Batter" could be a delightful blend of ingredients used to make waffles or pancakes.

"Blow" could mean lightly exhaling onto a liquid soapy material to create bubbles that joyously float away, and um ... let's just leave that one there for the moment.

The only word I could think of that indicates physical violence and cannot be used to describe something lovely and pleasant is "clobber," but even that is very similar to "cobbler" and there's nothing more lovely or pleasant that a warm blueberry cobbler placed next to your Sunday morning cup of coffee.

I don't really have a point, except to ponder this: if language is all we really have to help us make sense of the world, and if this is the language we're using, then is it any wonder that we're so screwed up? Just sayin'.

5/21/11

It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

So, this is it.  Today, the world ends, according to Harold Camping, an 89-year old preacher and biblical scholar with a large following on the radio.  You may not think his following is so large, but compared to, say ... this blog, for example ...

Anyway, at 6pm, there we go.  Actually, which 6pm has been a matter of some dispute.  As the bronze age nomads who wrote the original text of the Bible didn't really have an understanding of time zones, a notion that it can be evening in one place and necessarily must be morning someplace else, as a by-product of the whole the-planet-is-round thing, which in itself came from the we-live-on-a-PLANET thing, the biblical clues left for Mr. Camping simply say 6pm somewhere, which of course could mean anywhere.  I'm pretty sure that as I type this on a Saturday morning in Washington, DC, it's already been 6pm in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, or any of the predictable Biblical locations.  Then again, many Evangelical Christians believe that, sometime around 1776, Jesus began favoring the United States of America above all other nations (the institution of slavery being so in sync with that whole turn-the-other-cheek business), so it might be that we all just have to wait until Central Standard Time or something.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I don't put much stock in this particular theory.  And yet, I find it fascinating that amid all the talk, mostly jokes in my circle of friends, about the (cue threatening music) impending rapture, even I've had fleeting thoughts of "But what if they're right?  What if people really do start floating skyward? Won't I feel silly then?"

And if the power of suggestion works so well on me, I can only imagine that those who are already inclined to believe that the Bible is the sanctioned word of a Supreme Being don't have to make that much of a leap to believe it's all going to happen.  And yet - if doubt can so easily invade the mind of a set-in-his-ways non-believer like me, I have to believe that Mr. Camping's followers experience moments of doubt, too.  But evidence would suggest that at least some of them - those that have already quit their jobs and made post-rapture arrangements for their dogs and cats (unable to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and therefore unworthy of heavenly assumption) feel 100% sure about Mr. Camping's biblical number-crunching.

And the question I've heard most of all is, "What will they all say/do/think on Sunday morning if/when the world doesn't end after all?"  And I guess we'll have to wait until Sunday morning to find out.  I'm hoping that no one commits suicide, and I think it's a real threat.  I'm not sure how Mr. Camping in particular will be able to summon the nerve to show his face in public again after being so wrong about this.  (Then again, he's done it before.)

As for myself, I'd like to rise above it all, but there's probably one more day of lighthearted joking about an apocalypse that I really don't think is coming.  Y'know, meeting people on the street, with a "Happy Rapture Day!" and having a good laugh about it.  And while I obviously don't see the need to do a lot of repenting today, perhaps I will take special care to really enjoy myself today, to live as the cliche would direct us, as if it were actually my last day on Earth, squeezing the joy out of every moment, comfortable and secure in the belief that I probably will still be around tomorrow.

5/20/11

Friday Jukebox: I'm In Here (Sia)

Has anyone been watching The Voice?  I have, and I've really been enjoying it.  Mostly, I'm enjoying seeing really talented singers who actually deserve a national platform, but I'm also getting a kick out of the judges: Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Blake Shelton.  Currently, the show is doing four weeks of "Battles," wherein the judges are cutting their teams in half with the help of trusted advisors.

Christina Aguilera's trusted advisor is an Australian singer/songwriter named Sia - who looked really familiar to me as soon as I saw her in the show, and I quickly recalled that she sang this amazing song over the heartbreaking final montage of Six Feet Under (still the best HBO Original Series ever, in my humble opinion).

So, for this week's Friday Jukebox, I did something unusual and sought out a song I didn't already know.  I was curious to see what Sia was up to these days, and I found this.  I listened to it once, and I liked it.  And here we are. Enjoy.

5/19/11

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

This was originally written in July, 2007.  It's from my old blog, one that I'll likely delete once all of my favorites have been republished.

So I learned today that Steve Martin got married in a surprise ceremony at his home in L.A.

Which is totally weird, because Steve Martin is my closeted gay lover. No, seriously.

About three years ago, I had the most vivid dream I can ever remember. It was like a movie; it encompassed several scenes, and the story it told spanned years.

It was all about how I met Steve Martin in a crowded gay bar in Rehoboth except that I was the only person who knew who he was (give me a break; it was a dream). Flash forward to a few years later; Steve and I have been carrying on a torrid affair, and we're talking on the phone. I'm begging him to come out of the closet and be free (altho' even in the dream, I think I really wanted to move to Hollywood and be his arm candy -- suck it, Anne Heche!!) and he's telling me that he can't because he has a career and a publicist and not even his publicist knows he's gay, and blah blah blah, and it's all so boring. Anyway, we resolve the situation by me quitting my job and him buying me a huge mansion in Rehoboth, where we met. And while Steve is off making movies and attending premieres and awards shows without me, I'm hanging out with my adoptive lesbian moms and beach friends and having a fairly good time except when they ask me how the hell I make enough money to live in an enormous mansion while not working and why I always make excuses when someone tries to set me up on a date. And in my dream, I love Steve, I really do, but because of our relationship, I'm now in the closet too. The last scene of the dream took place in a movie theatre. Not a premiere in Hollywood, no -- but the Midway Theatres on Route One in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Steve is munching on popcorn and really, really happy but I'm angry, probably because I'm a closet case and it's all Steve's fault, and he decides that he's going to cheer me up ... by going down on me in the movie theatre. So he's kneeling on the floor and unzipping my fly, and ... well ... you know ... and I'm just staring at the paint peeling off of the ceiling of the movie theatre thinking, "Damn you, Steve Martin, you made me the shell of a man I am today."

Is that completely f#%ed up or what??!!

Freud or Jung or someone said that everyone in your dreams is actually you, and that the conflicts that arise between "characters" in your dreams are actually facets of your personality warring with each other. To this day, I haven't located my inner comic-genius-movie-star-tortured-by-living-a-lie-and-risky-public-sexual-encounters, so I have no idea what my Steve Martin dream was supposed to resolve.

The other night I had an equally vivid dream. I was in a car with my family (sister, father, mother), driving away from somebody's wedding reception (not sure whose), and my father is having a heart attack at the wheel (literally), my mother is yelling at me for getting drunk at the reception, my sister is saying nothing, and I'm defending myself from my mother's baseless accusations (I was so not drunk; I was being funny, and she has no sense of humor -- in the dream) while trying to get everyone to notice that hello, my father is having a heart attack while driving the car that we're all inside of!!

A friend told me that "you are the car and the chaos within is your mind fragmenting between duty to family approval and duty to your own life." And I'm all like, "Yeah ... but isn't everybody?"

All I know is, when I was carrying on a three-year closeted love affair with Steve Martin, he always got my jokes and never thought I was drunk (when I wasn't).

5/18/11

Skin Deep

I have a confession to make.

I'm not proud of it.

I've told a couple of people, but for some reason, it's difficult to put it in writing.  Not that I can't find the words, but y'know ... once things are written down, it's more difficult to deny them.

But there's really no denying it.

(sigh) ... Here goes.

I think Paul Ryan is kind of cute.

Yeah ... that Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin who has become the darling of the Republican party after writing that infamous budget proposal that basically dismantles MedicareThat Paul Ryan.

Also, the Paul Ryan who a friend described as "looking vaguely like a Muppet."  My friend meant this as a dig, but I agreed with her - in outcome if not in intent.  He does look sort of like a Muppet ... in the sense that he's, well ... kind of adorable.

I've always had a "thing" for guys with sad eyes.  Paul Ryan is probably the poster boy for sad eyes.  When he frowns, he looks very sad indeed, and even when he smiles he looks like he could use a hug.  My boyfriend has sad eyes.  So does David Duchovny, who was my principal celebrity crush of my youth.

And now I must make it clear - I abhor Paul Ryan's politics.  As I was writing the above paragraph, the more principled voice inside my head was screaming at me, "And when he kicks your Grandma in the gut, what does he look like then? Huh??!!"  If I lived in Wisconsin's 1st district, I would not vote for Paul Ryan; in fact, it's safe to say that I would actively campaign against him (and could conceivably contribute to his next political opponent's campaign, should s/he have even a slim chance of winning).  I know what I believe in, and I have very strong convictions.  I absolutely know where I stand.

But I wonder: what's happening to me when I'm paging through Time Magazine, and stumble upon a full-page image of this guy, vaguely reminiscent of a Muppet, but also somewhat evocative of Superman - and I find myself staring at it.  And staring. And staring just a moment more, willing myself to turn the page, reminding myself of why this guy is the personification of everything that's wrong with the overprivileged frat house that is the modern Republican Party, but unable to deny myself another moment gazing at someone who can't be that bad, c'mon just look at him, isn't he cute??!!

Eventually, I do turn the page, but I continue to berate myself.  If I were a better person, I say, my repugnance of this man's value system would trump the pleasing arrangement of his features and render him downright homely.  But clearly I'm not this paragon of virtue I will myself to be.

And I'm reminded of all the guys I've been attracted to in the past, guys I've developed actual crushes on - only to get to know them (oftentimes by dating them) and discovering that their sad eyes, great teeth, and square jaws did not translate into the gentle-hearted, strong-but-silent, full-of-integrity personalities that I had assumed they would be.  And I think about all of the wonderful people I'll probably never get to know because upon first glance, they look sort of ... mean.  Or stuck-up.  And I wonder where I (we?) evolved this tendency of assigning personality characteristics to people based on facial features and body type and how we might possibly learn to evolve our way out of it.  And like most things that lead me down these winding roads inside my head, I'm left with more questions than answers.

But I do know this: Paul Ryan is dangerous.  Even if he is kind of dreamy to look at.

5/2/11

Blind

Another blast from the past (Summer, 2007).  Enjoy.

In many of the diversity classes that I teach, I often begin the day by asking people why they registered for the class and what they hope to learn. A fairly common response (always from a white person, and usually from a white man) is that they want to learn to be "color blind."

And I'm always a little stumped by this response.

First of all, I'm not sure it's possible. When I meet someone with dark skin, African features, and kinky hair, I tend to notice that he or she is black. I can't imagine anyone meeting my office mate, for example, and saying the next day, "Was she African-American? Huh. I didn't notice." And if anyone did say such a thing, I don't think I'd respect them for it; I might actually wonder if their low levels of observation border on mental deficiency.

But of course, this isn't really what people mean when they say "color blind." They mean that they want to evolve to a point where race doesn't matter -- where they see people as people, not making assumptions about anyone based on their race. And that's a lovely thought, truly. Except that it usually doesn't work that way either.

If and when a white person (and I feel okay about picking on white people, because I am one and because it's always a white person who makes this statement in my class) acheives this type of color-blindness, he or she might believe that they're just seeing people as people -- but in my experience, they're really seeing everyone as a white person, whether the person is white or not.

The thing is, race isn't just skin deep, and underneath, we're not all the same. Growing up in a black family isn't the same is growing up in an Asian family, which isn't the same as growing up in a Latin family or a white family. These differences are compounded when you grow up in a predominantly homogenous community (Ever been to a black church? ... I've been only a few times, but the experience is 180 degrees from going to a staid, solemn mass with my folks). And even if we were all the same on the inside (which we're not), the external experience of being a person of color is different than growing up as a white person. People of color experience institutional racism nearly every day -- they learned how to survive in a racist world since they could walk and talk -- and a lot of well-meaning white people have no idea what life as an oppressed minority is like.

So -- when these well-meaning white people see everyone as "just people," they often do not have the skills or knowledge to see anyone -- white, black, Latin, or Asian -- as anything other than "just like me." They convince themselves that race is a purely cosmetic condition with no deeper cultural implications, and begin to expect everyone around them to see the world the way they see it, to value the same things that they value, and to behave the same way that they behave. And to a person of color, that looks and feels a whole lot like racism.

As a gay person, I deal with some of that frustration when interacting with lots of well-meaning straight people who want to believe that I'm just like they are, only I'm attracted to guys. The truth is, being gay provides an interesting lens through which to see the world. My thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on a myriad of topics, not just love and dating, are affected by my identity as a gay man. Off the top of my head, living the big gay life has significantly changed the way I view the role of women in society and the dynamic that exists between science and religion, and my feelings about going to five weddings each summer, where I plan to go on vacation (or dinner, for that matter), the G.I. Bill, and how long I'll stay at the office happy hour at the T.G.I.Friday's down the street (not very, in case you were wondering).

And if I ever heard a straight person say, "I keep forgetting that he's gay; it's just not an issue for me," they'd likely be giving themselves points for open-mindedness, while I'd likely think to myself, wow ... you really don't know this person very well.

So I'd like to do what little I can to help people realize that metaphorical blindness is not a virtue; rather, it's just ignorance - except that it's worse, because it's willful ignorance.  And it doesn't help society as a whole; the irony is that it only helps the ignorant, ever more comfortable, not having to think about things which otherwise might give them pause.  Because, y'know ... thinking is hard.

4/29/11

Friday Jukebox: Shape of My Heart (Sting)

For this week's Friday Jukebox, I decided to step into the way-back machine.  And yes, I picked this song partly because he's singing about clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds - but it's always been one of my favorites.


Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), this song was recorded in the days before every single that was sent to the radio stations got the "full" treatment on video.  Some, like this one, were mostly shots of the performer sitting with the band, and singing.  The imagery in the lyrics could have been translated into some amazing visuals, I think - more than just a few random (lovely, but random) shots of the English countryside). And I always pictured Sting playing the lonely card player he's singing about here.  But watching Sting simply play a guitar and sing is never a bad thing either.

4/28/11

The American Nightmare

So yesterday, Barack Obama unveiled his birth certificate.  He's the first President in our history to do so.  And if that weren't sickening enough, Donald Trump followed up with a press conference of his own, congratulating himself for forcing Obama's hand.

I've read a lot of opinions in the last 24 hours about both men, in newspapers and on the blogosphere.  But most of these opinionators dodged what I feel is the most important question.  It's a question that was posed to me by a colleague who I think might have been fighting back tears when she said to me, "Why the f*ck does anyone care what the hell Donald Trump has to say, anyway?"

And the sad truth is that ... we do. We. Us. All of us.  Love him or hate him (and please, count me in the latter camp), we're interested in what he has to say.  And this is a sad truth for one sad reason: he's loaded.

I blame the American Dream.

Folks in this country generally understand "The American Dream" as the belief that if you work hard enough, you can be as successful as you want to be.  It doesn't matter where you were born, or who your parents were, or the color of your skin, or whatever challenges life has thrown your way.  And because this is America, we generally understand "successful" to be synonymous with "rich."  Believing in the American Dream is important to us, and there's no denying that it works for some people (Exhibit A: Oprah.  Exhibit B: Barack Obama, himself).

But we, as a nation, need to do some growing up when it comes to the American Dream.  Because we've confused the idea that it's possible with the notion that it's possible for everyone.  I've often wondered why so many working class Americans consistently vote against their own economic interests in favor of the billionaires, and I'm beginning to wonder if it's because they're voting in the interests of their perceived futures.  After all, they're all working really hard.  And this is America.  So who's to say that they won't be billionaires themselves someday?  Except, of course, that they won't all be.

And there's another downside to the myth of the American Dream, and it's this: we've bought into the notion that intelligence, work ethic, and character will make you rich in this country, and have slowly come to believe that the reverse is also true: that riches are a sign of intelligence, work ethic, and character.  And it's simply not true.

Let's take for example, The Donald.  Donald Trump is the very opposite of a self-made man.  He made a fortune by being born to rich parents.  Period.  Now, I'm not suggesting that people who inherit money are automatically arrogant, ethically misguided, stubborn assholes with bad hair (although that's certainly true in Donald's case).

What I am suggesting is that the size of your bank account has no correlation to your intelligence or character, whatsoever - no matter how you made your money.  I'm suggesting that we, as a nation, should judge who merits our attention based on a person's words and actions, because a person's words and actions are a much better gauge of a person's intelligence and character than the size of his/her bank account.  And using this test, Donald Trump fails miserably.  As James Poniewozik so astutely noted yesterday ...
Trump's remarks literally began, "I am very proud of myself." Because of course he is. Because who wouldn't be proud to have cynically embraced a toxic nutjob theory, on the basis of no good evidence, questioning the President's legitimacy, then having his suspicions shown to be an Al Capone's vault? Who wouldn't be proud to have turned himself from a national punchline into a national punchline with a shot at a Presidential nomination, through sheer, up-by-the-bootstraps pandering to Internet conspiracists? That takes talent, folks!
And there you have it.  Donald Trump has a ton of money.  That doesn't make him worth your time, or mine.

4/27/11

A Closet with a View

“I just don’t understand why anyone has to talk about their sex lives at work,” she said. “I don’t talk about my sex life at work.”

She was a participant in a diversity class, and the topic of sexual orientation in the workplace had just been raised. As a workplace diversity educator, her statement was one that I’d heard many times before. She didn’t have anything against gay people, she said, but why did they have to bring such a private thing into the workspace? Isn’t it possible, she wondered, to show up, do the job, and wait until quitting time to be gay?


It was tempting for me, someone who has been openly gay in the workplace for over a decade now, to respond with, “well, I don’t know … couldn’t you just show up, do your job, and wait until quitting time to be straight?” But she wouldn’t have understood. To her, and to most of America, being straight isn’t sexual; it’s normal. Being gay, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. And it is different, I suppose. But not entirely.

And so, in situations like this, I tend to take a couple of steps back and approach the situation with perhaps more gentleness than necessary. While it might be oddly comforting and infinitely more satisfying to simply tell this woman how ignorant she is and how bigoted she sounds, my goal in teaching these courses is not to emerge victorious, but to create change.

“Let’s say that it’s your first day on the job,” I propose. “And let’s say that it’s very important to you that no one at your new workplace knows for a fact that you are heterosexual.”

And she looks a little confused. Why on earth, she must be wondering, would she want to do that? And her reaction is telling. Some of the more progressive thinkers in the class give her a knowing smile – pointed, but not condescending.

“Just play along,” I say. “You don’t want anyone at your new office to know, for a fact, that you’re straight.” There’s a slight pause, to let the concept sink in. “What do you have to do differently?” I ask. “What steps must you take to ensure that your secret is safe?” And now, she suspects where I’m headed with this, but is still silent. So I make a gesture, opening the question to the entire class.

And the answers come quickly. “You couldn’t discuss your husband or wife,” one participant offers. “If anyone asks what you did over the weekend,” another replies, you’d have to talk around the fact that your spouse even exists.”

“You couldn’t even talk about your kids,” a young woman in front offers. There’s actually some resistance to this point, as many in the class correctly point out that lots of people, straight and gay, are raising children these days. “Yes,” she offers, “but as soon as you open that door and start talking about your family, it would be really hard not to acknowledge your co-parent at some point. I think it would be better to just leave all that stuff at the door, so you’re a professional and nothing more.”

“What else,” I ask. You couldn’t take personal calls at work. You’d have to take your wedding ring off. (“And how does your spouse feel about that?” I ask. And the class acknowledges that, even knowing the reasons why, that would be a particularly painful negotiation to conduct.)

One gentleman in the back of the class offers, “you’d have to ‘gay it up’ a little.” People laugh, but I pursue the comment. I ask the man what he means. “Well,” he says, “if I didn’t want people to know I was straight, I’d want to throw them off track a little, you know … act sort of gay.” Even if that’s not who you really are, I ask. Yes, he replies, even then.

Finally, the young woman in front speaks up again. “You’d have to find one or two people at work that you really trust,” she says. “That way, you could tell them and at least feel like someone at work has your back.”

“But this is a big secret,” I note, “and once it’s out, it’s out. I mean, that’s some pretty good gossip right there. So first of all, how could you be sure that these one or two people are absolutely trustworthy? And even if they are, is it really fair to them, burdening them with this secret of yours?”

“Well,” she says, “I mean … well … it wouldn’t be easy, I guess.”

“So,” I say, “this is now your life at work; this is your reality. Are you happy? Do you like your job?” There are no words, but several people are shaking their heads from side to side. “Do you like the people you work with?” Again, no one speaks, but there are more than one shrugging of the shoulders, as if to say that there’s no liking or disliking anyone that you never really get to know. “Now let’s say you’ve been at this job for a year, and your first performance review is happening. Your boss likes your work, but tells you that you’re going to need to do a better job of networking. ‘Building relationships,’ she’ll say, ‘is really important at this company, and people don’t really feel like they know you. Just open up a little,’ she says. What do you say?” And again, there is silence.

“I quit,” says the gentleman in the back. And people laugh. But my attention has now turned back to the woman who raised this issue to begin with. She’s not laughing. And I think, maybe, that now she gets it.



This essay also appears at Pam's House Blend and the blog The Human Race Horses.