It's (Not Just) the Economy, Stupid

So it's been over a week, since Rep. Todd Akin made his incredibly stupid remarks about "legitimate rape" that appalled Democrats as a rule and even sent Republicans scrambling to denounce him and urge him to step out of his bid for the U.S. Senate.

And it's been twenty years since James Carville and the rest of Bill Clinton's election team used the phrase, "The economy, stupid," to mobilize voters and keep their candidate on message.

Since that time, it's become a staple of political wisdom, almost silly in its obviousness, that when the economy is in the shitter, it's a dumb idea to dwell on what we call "social issues" - things like women's health, immigration reform, gay marriage, reproductive rights, voter suppression, stuff like that.  When politicians talk about jobs and money, they're on point, but when they talk about social issues, they're clearly distracted - and it's boneheads like Todd Akin that are doing the distracting.

And it's almost taken for granted that voters who care deeply about these distractions, these "social issues," are flimsy thinkers, easily distracted, the kind of people who would buy a car because it's a pretty color with no knowledge of important things like, say, fuel efficiency, or torque.

And yet, it seems that everyone is just this distractable, as Todd Akin and his belief that magical vaginas can tell the difference between self-actualized, feminist-friendly sperm and bad, evil, rapey sperm, and will secrete spermicidal fluids when under stress shows.  That little bit of ridiculous twaddle has been distracting the entire nation for over a week now, so clearly we're all susceptible.

I personally have no problem with this.  My problem, and it's a minor one, has to do with this notion that jobs and the economy are the only issues worth discussing.  And they're important, don't get me wrong.  I'm lucky enough to have kept a job throughout the recession we've been experiencing for the past four years, but I do know how lucky I am.  Friends of mine - talented, imminently employable friends (and members of my family) - have not been so lucky, and I've seen first-hand how painful a bad economy can be.  Jobs and the economy should absolutely be on the table.

But it's a big table, and governing our country is a big job.  It seems to me that there ought to be room in the national discourse for lots of legislative issues that affect our lives.  And therein lies the problem.

Because, you see, the country is run - by and large - by straight white men.  If you have any position of power in our government or our society, you're probably at least two-out-of-three (straight, white, or male) - or you're Oprah.  And if you're a straight white man, then a lot of "social issues" - things like women's health, immigration reform, gay marriage, reproductive rights, voter suppression, stuff like that - can easily be seen as someone else's problem.  It's not easy for a lot of straight folks to truly feel the pain of gay couples who can't get married, difficult for a lot of men to empathize with women who are being threatened with less than full control over their own bodies, and hard for white people who are largely blind to their own whiteness to get too awfully excited about voter-ID laws that don't make it any harder for them to vote, or immigration "reforms" that don't require them to carry proof of citizenship at all times.

Not that all straight white men are bad.  There are a few who are downright awesome.  But most straight people, white people, and male people simply don't know what they don't know about what it is to be not straight, not white, or not male in America in 2012.  It sometimes seems that the only straight white men in this country who are truly invested in the silly superficial "social issues" are the assholes who believe that equity for non-straight, non-white, non-male people will somehow result in some sort of hostile takeover where only one kind of person has dignity, social standing, and the freedom to make their own choices - without realizing that this is exactly the world we live in and that one kind of person is them.

So here's the takeaway: social issues are not going anywhere.  They will continue to distract us for a long, long time.  Because for women, issues of women's health are life-or-death issues.  For gay people, the ability to get married means that you can visit your partner's deathbed, inherit his/her legacy without being taxed to death, or not be deported.  For people of color, Arizona's SB-1070 or Pennsylvania's new requirements for voter identification make you less valid, less human, less American in the eyes of the law.  This is really important stuff for a lot of people, even a few of the downright awesome straight white guys.

I don't feel stupid when I talk about social issues.  I don't feel like I'm being distracted from the really important stuff.  For me, it's all really important stuff.  And maybe when our politicians, our legislators, our media, and our citizenry starts treating it all like really important stuff, we can actually take a step forward as a nation.


Different, Nonetheless

I came out of the closet, to myself and everyone else, at the age of 25.  In my generation (born in 1970, I’m in my early forties as I write this), that’s generally considered a “late bloomer,” especially the part about coming out to myself, consciously realizing that I am gay.

Why I was in denial for so long and what that looked like might be another post for another day, but today, I’m struck by that moment of realization.  It was a positive moment for me, full of joy and relief.  I didn’t fear being thrown out into the streets, as I was gainfully employed and paid my own rent.  I knew that some members of my family wouldn’t be thrilled, but I never dreamed they’d reject me (happily, they did not).  In many ways, my life suddenly made sense – my seeming inability to truly fall in love with the wonderful women I’d dated, the conflicted feelings I harbored about the cute boys in junior high and high school, the fact that my best friends had always been female, even my love of old movies seemed to fit the new me moreso than the old me.

But the thing is, there was a new me.  Suddenly, I had a new identity, and unlike almost all of my other identities – white, male, employed, able-bodied, Christian (at the time) – this was lived on the “oppressed” side of the privilege divide.  Which thrilled me, actually.  My liberal guilt was actually relieved to be on the receiving end of societal hate for a change, and not always identified with the side that was dishing it out (of course, coming into real contact with homophobia wasn’t the lark in the park I expected, but that’s yet another story for another day).  And having a new identity also meant that I was part of a new club.  I had a tribe now.  And I was eager to learn more about them.

For twenty-five years (or however long it had been since I'd formed a political identity), I had identified as a socially liberal straight dude, and I had pretty much bought into the idea that gay people were just like straight people in every conceivable way, except of course who they slept with – and, by extension, who they dated, who they created families with, etc.  But in every other way, they were just like us.  Except that now, I was a “they” and no longer an “us.”  Did it follow that we were just like them?

I was able to accept the fact that being part of an oppressed minority naturally changes you.  It’s perfectly appropriate, I thought, that gay people would seek out each other’s company.  It’s safer, first of all.  Who wants to open themselves up to homophobic remarks and slights by hanging out with straight people all the time?  But beyond that, I believed, there was nothing really to distinguish us and them.

One of the first conversations I had about my newfound identity was with a lesbian couple I had met as a young actor.  One was a director and her partner often served as stage manager.  Upon hearing the news, they pretended to be shocked for about a millisecond, then immediately invited me to Rehoboth Beach the following weekend, where they’d introduce me to all of their friends, including some gay couples who had been together for almost thirty years.  It was a wonderful weekend (detailed here by Fay Jacobs, one of the wonderful women who eventually became my adoptive lesbian moms).  When I arrived in town, one of their friends, who I’d met before, gave me a hug and said to me, “Here, I want you to take this piece of paper and write down all of the words you don’t understand.”  Everyone around me laughed.  I didn’t get it.

The joke is from Auntie Mame, from the opening party scene, when Mame meets Patrick for the first time and is introduced to a glamorous collection of eccentrics he’d never encountered before.  Being part of a big gay community for the first time, I was like little nephew Patrick in a lot of ways, which is part of what made the joke so funny.  But mostly, the joke was funny because everyone in that room had seen Auntie Mame – everyone but me.

I’ve seen the movie since, many times, and I love it.  And I’ve learned that gay people – the men, especially – generally seem to love it.  It’s shocking, elegant, epic, campy, and fun – and the whole thing revolves around an indomitable, ferocious, whip-smart, self-effacing diva.  Gay men like all of these things – not all of us, but many of us – enough of us that it’s become part of the culture.

Admitting that there’s such a thing as gay culture seems to completely contradict the conventional liberal wisdom that states that gay people are just like straight people in every conceivable way, except of course who we sleep with – and, by extension, who we date, who we create families with, etc. Wrapping your head around gay culture forces you to admit that we’re different from straight people – not less than, not less worthy of dignity and equal rights, certainly … but different nonetheless.

I’ve been an out gay man for over fifteen years now, and here are just a few of the things I’ve noticed about gay culture.  This mostly applies to the guys, as that’s been my particular experience, but I’m pretty sure at least some of these apply to lesbians as well.

Shock! We as a people are known far and wide as being funny, and the world’s most famous wit – Oscar Wilde – is famously gay.  But when we’re alone, what makes us laugh more than anything else is something that we find shocking.  The jokes we tell can be unbelievably crude, but it’s not the vulgarity that excites us and moves us to uproarious laughter – rather, it’s the shocked expressions on the faces around us, and – if the joke is really good – the audible gasps. 

Diva Worship. Gay people – especially the guys – are consistently moved to fall in love with strong, fierce women who speak to our collective soul.  The divas change with each generation, but they’re always there, from Sarah Bernhardt to Judy Garland to Diana Ross to Lady Gaga.  (I’ve discussed this before – read more here if you’re interested.)

Sex, sex, sex. It’s true, we think about sex and talk about sex … a lot. Conservative gay-haters would have you believe that we’re simply sex-obsessed, and that this obsession is tied to some form of mental illness that made us gay in the first place.  I prefer the philosophy of Margaret Cho, who famously stated, “I think if you're oppressed over who you want to sleep with, when you actually go and do it, you're gonna have a really good time. If you are hated for who you like to fuck, you're gonna kick up your heels and fuck ... and it is such an inspiration to watch.”  (Psst – see the previous two paragraphs if you don’t think that’s funny and want to know why I do.)

A sense of style. There’s a reason that Charlotte took her sarcastic gay bestie Anthony Marantino to help pick out a wedding dress, and not any of her female fashionista friends.  Gay men – not all of us, but many of us, enough of us that it’s become part of the culture – know what looks good.  We can help you pick out a wedding dress, place settings, and furniture that is both modern and inviting.  And then when you leave and we’re by ourselves, we take out the glitter and the peacock feathers and the sequins and the high, high heels that are only outdone by the height of our enormous wigs.  Yes, Mama!  A dear friend of mine likes to quote a dear, departed friend of his in reference to his annual holiday decorations: “It’s not done until it’s overdone.”

The sister-walk. I’m just going to say it: some gay men act like girls.  A friend of mine calls it the sister-walk, because it reminds her of the stride also employed by her empowered black female friends.  It’s a strut that’s defined by the use of one’s hips and a certain rhythm that permits everyone who sees it to hear a disco beat (oom-ch, oom-ch, oom-ch, oom-ch) even when there’s no dance club for miles.  And it’s not just the walk, it’s a complete attitude, with an accompanying vocabulary.  It’s the freedom to blur the gender lines that comes when you realize that you’re a gender outlaw, and you’ve already broken the biggest rule of all, so you might as well have fun with your feminine side.  Perhaps it’s accentuated by a Disney-Princess culture that all little kids are subjected to, where all the stories we hear end with the girl getting the guy, which little gay boys see and immediately without thinking put themselves in the role of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, or whoever gets kissed by the handsome Prince at the end of the movie. Or perhaps it’s something even more innate, with us since before birth, that allows us to revel in femininity if and when we so choose.  Whatever it is, it’s under attack, moreso from within our own community than outside of it.  Professor David M. Halperin, author of How To Be Gay, sees more than a little danger in the ways in which we collectively are muting the fiercer, more fabulous parts of ourselves in order to be more acceptable to the straight majority around us.  “For all its undeniable benefits,” he says, “gay pride is preventing us from knowing ourselves.”  And yet, get us in a room together, and you can still watch the feathers fly.  You’ll have to trust me on that one.

I feel a song coming on.  Yes, this is the part about musicals.  Gay men love musicals.  Not all of us, but many of us  – you get the idea. And to get to the bottom of this one, I had to wrestle with the question, "what's not to love?" People love a good story, and people love good music.  When you put those things together, how can it be bad?  And I think that those who don't like musicals, both inside the community and outside of it, don't like the degree to which they must suspend their disbelief when watching a musical.  When someone is so filled with joy or sorrow or angst that an unseen orchestra begins to swell just as they burst into spontaneous, joyful/sorrowful/angst-ridden song, it's almost ... embarrassing to some.  And then there are the rest of us, who realize that this is not the way life is, but know in our souls that it's how life should be.

Our moms.  Okay, this is the one I didn’t even want to write about, because it’s so cliché and almost offensively predictable.  But whenever female friends of mine are discussing their sons and contemplating the idea that one or more of them might be gay, I’m always quick to remind them: “Well, if your son turns out to be gay, it works out really well for you: until the day you die, you will be the most important woman in his life.”  Of course, not every gay man has a great, or even tolerable, relationship with his mother. But for those of us whose mothers are still part of our lives, they retain a unique power that I don’t know is shared by our straight counterparts.  Maybe it’s because there’s a spark of truth in the quip I share with the young mothers of sons in my life.  For every boy – gay or straight – who’s lucky, his mother cared for him and nurtured him, made him feel special, and made him feel loved.  But for the straight boys, they also role modeled the kind of woman that they would eventually pair off with themselves.  For the gay boys, they are something unique unto themselves, and will never be replaced, or even asked to share the stage with anyone. 

And you know what, there’s probably more where that came from.  And I don’t have anything especially profound to offer in conclusion, except that I want to be an equal citizen in the world regardless of my sexual orientation, but I’m glad I’m not the same as everyone else.  I’m glad that I have a tribe, and I don’t believe that I need to become an ultra-masculine jock who speaks in a monotone basso profundo voice in order to have equal standing in the eyes of the law.  And if that were the only option, I wouldn’t take it.  I love my people – and myself – a little too much.


Godless, not Soulless

So, I’ve had a lot of conversations over the past few weeks about my religious identity, and I get the feeling that a lot of folks in my life have been surprised by my answers.  For the past four or five years, I’ve identified as an atheist, and that’s still the case – but I think the surprise comes into play because people believe that “atheist” can only mean one thing.  So in an effort to a) be clear, b) get my own head around where I stand on matters of faith and spirituality, and c) just to see what comments, if any, this might generate, here’s where I am.

1.  I don’t believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, unified force in the universe that guards over us and intervenes in our lives.  To most people, that means “I don’t believe in God,” so I guess that’s true.

2. I do believe in the human soul – however, what I call a “soul” someone else might just call a “personality.”  What I call “spirituality,” someone else might just call “psychology.”  I believe that there’s something within us that exists separately from our biological, physical selves that defines who we are as people.  I believe that there’s such a thing as being spiritually evolved, and that people who attain this state tend to be happier, kinder to each other, more aware of the needs and feelings of others, more able to handle life’s tragedies, and more able to put things into perspective than those who are not.  Spiritual health to me is different from psychological health, which (to me) basically just means that you’re free of psychological disease.  Spirituality is about your psychological state, but also gets into ethics, worldview, and a lot of other things.  Speaking of ethics …

3. I ascribe to a moral code.  Some of the things that are a part of my morality are found in the Bible, but that’s more of a coincidence than cause-and-effect. There are lots of things I think are perfectly moral that the Bible condemns, and plenty of things that the Bible encourages that I think are downright evil. Basically, my morality consists of two tenets: I believe that we’re all connected, and I believe that we have an inherent responsibility to care for one another to the best of our collective abilities. That’s it. When I hear about people conducting honor killings in the name of religion, bullying gay kids until they want to die in the name of sacred texts that were written during the Bronze Age, or denying health care to those in need in the name of a political ideology steeped in religious fervor, I am disappointed in our ability to collectively evolve spiritually.  And I will admit – at these moments, I believe that my moral code is superior.

4. I’m completely open to the idea of divinity. But, if there is such a thing as “the divine,” I believe that it exists within us and not up in the sky somewhere.

5. Guilt is good.  In moderation, that is. I’m all for people being kind to themselves, but only insofar as they have done their level best to be kind to others.  Forgiving yourself for your past mistakes is crucial, but so is accountability. Doing whatever the hell you want, no matter what damage you leave in your wake, then saying to the world, “I refuse to dwell in the past, so I forgive myself, la dee da” does nothing for your personal growth and pretty much guarantees that you’re going to continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again.  Being truly kind to yourself might involve doing a little digging in the darker corners of your soul (personality, whatever), bringing the muck you uncover into the light, and dealing with it.  And it’ll also result in fewer people being hurt.

6. I have nothing against religious people.  If you go to church every week, pray to an omniscient, omnipotent being so that s/he might intervene in your life, and that works for you: dandy.  If it helps you to be a better, kinder person: extra dandy; you should keep doing that. Just don't use your religion to justify unkindness.  Don't attempt to codify religious tenets that have nothing to do with ethics into law.  Don't prevent me from buying a bottle of wine on a Sunday if I feel like buying it and some merchant somewhere feels like selling it to me. Don't prevent a gay couple from getting married just because your religious leaders have an "ick factor" around sexuality and are telling you that it comes from God and not their own squeamishness. Don't restrict a woman from making her own health care choices because you think you know what's best for her. You don't. Don't be mean, and then say God made you do it.  Because that's a lie.

And that’s about it.  Yes, you can call me an atheist and I will not be offended.  But please don’t say that I have a closed mind, no soul, no sense of morality, and no purpose in life. Because I’ve done a lot of work on those things in the past five years – way more work than I did when I identified with a religious faith, I might add.

Aaaaaaand, scene.