Why Kim Davis Matters

I’m a late bloomer. I finally came out to myself, my closest friends, and family about 11 years ago, when I was living in Ohio. It was – and still kind of is – a difficult scrabbling out of the darkness. I was lucky: my friends and both parents and sibling unerringly expressed their unconditional love, even if they took a while to process the whole thing.

Most others, particularly in the Bible Belt, but really across the nation, are not quite so lucky. LGBT youth are disproportionately likely to be homeless and victims of suicide – a result not primarily of their inner turmoil but of the rejection and bullying of those who are most responsible for protecting and nurturing them.

11 years ago, at least for traditional romantics like me, coming out included mourning the “life that could have been” – picket fence, 2.5 children, vacations to Disney World, evenings rocking on the porch watching your grandchildren. While you could go on and have a reasonably happy life, the life you grew up expecting was to be forever out of your reach.

But some people fought back, fought for the notion that love is love, and family is family, and the concrete evidence that such was the case mounted up. Eventually, after years of struggle, the Supreme Court itself ruled that marriage is marriage – not redefined, but reinforced.

Not unexpectedly, people like Kim Davis showed up, the embodiment of every bully who beat us up in school (luckily not me, but I wasn’t out at the time), every supervisor whose comments required you to hide yourself, every radio personality who railed against your existence every day, every constitutional amendment author who placed the motion on the Ohio ballot to get Bush reelected.

The rare moment that the state has our back, Kim Davises step up and remind us that the hate will be never-ending, and that the powers-that-be will be powerless to stop the daily injustices. We have to live with that, but don’t ask us not to be angry, indignant, or to have a little Schadenfreude that we can now pretend she is a cast member of Orange is the New Black.

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Ducking the Issue

Daffy!

Much ado is being made about the remarks of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, that he gave in an interview by Drew Magary featured in the January issue GQ magazine.  In words that have already become viral, he said:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

Later, when asked to elaborate on what sin actually is:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

So, GLAAD and other organizations complained to A&E, the network that hosts Duck Dynasty, and Phil Robertson has now found himself suspended from the show indefinitely.  (He also claimed that in his experience blacks were perfectly content in the pre-civil rights-era South, so LGBT organizations were not the only ones to come knocking).  Cue the right wing panic factory decrying how gays, liberals, and Muslim-lovers are bullying Christians into submission and silence.  Sarah Palin, Boddy Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Terry Jones (of Qur’an-burning fame), among others, have all weighed-in, and we can expect this to overshadow the “War on Christmas” (or Megyn Kelly’s war on black Santa, depending on your viewpoint) for the next day or two at least.

Wow.  I can’t believe I’m about to side with Sarah Palin on something.  Although, to be fair to my reputation as the embodiment of everything the Tea Party despises, I’m not actually siding with her, because she’s framing it as a constitutional or free speech issue, which is ignorant and silly (I will, for now, refrain from speculating on Ms. Palin’s dietary habits.)  But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is fairly light fare for a supposedly homophobic tirade, and maybe we on the left are over-reacting in ways that actually hurt the ongoing struggle against homophobia and other forms of hate.

A few disclaimers: I do find his remarks offensive, but just not enough to suspend him, were I A&E.  I also think A&E can suspend whomever they want whenever they want if they feel it’s in their (or their advertisers’) interests.  It has nothing to do with the government, the Constitution, or free speech.  It’s about money.  To be honest, this controversy will probably be GOOD for them and the show, because more people are arguing passionately about it now than they were last week (I even suspect the whole thing to be somewhat orchestrated by A&E’s publicity department – you want to tell me they don’t get to look at the GQ interview beforehand?) Another disclaimer: I do not watch the show.   Not only do I not watch any reality TV, but I also suspect that a show focusing on an ultra-conservative, wealthy hunting business family in Louisiana would have little appeal for me.  A lot of people like it.  I hear they’re funny, brutally honest, and can laugh at themselves.  I’ve also read that their contract with A&E forbids the producers from trying to create and fan rivalries among the family members.  Given that family turmoil is usually the bread and butter of reality TV (one of the many reasons I hate it), I’m glad that the Robertsons stuck to their guns (so to speak) and that their decision has actually bolstered their popularity.

Phil Robertson, if you can see him!

SPEAKING WITH THE ENEMY

I think we’re having the wrong conversation.  We’ve started lumping anything vaguely critical or questioning of homosexuality together under the homophobic umbrella.  We’ve put Alec Baldwin in the same box as Pat Robertson (no relation to Phil that I’m aware of).  Doesn’t that strike anyone as bizarre and absurd?  That’s not to say we shouldn’t express our displeasure and hurt at Baldwin’s outbursts, but Alec Baldwin is hardly the poster child for the “burn the gays” faction, in fact, quite the opposite.  We should call it out when we see it, but we don’t need to “get medieval on their ass” every single time.  It weakens the sense of outrage when it’s really called for.

There are many prominent and influential Americans out there who with a straight face spout vitriol that gays, lesbians, and other queer folk should be imprisoned, castrated, gathered into concentration camps, or forced to undergo shock therapy.   You also have “family” organizations working hard to prevent LBGT legal rights to marry, adopt, and make medical decisions for partners.  Even as there has been progress in the Americas (North and South!) and Europe, we have Uganda considering the death penalty for gays and Russian skinheads kidnapping gay kids and torturing them for all to see on YouTube as Putin looks on with warnings to representatives of Western “gay propaganda.”  While not solely responsible, many American “family” organizations have gotten into bed with Putin and right-wing leaders in Uganda (insert plug here for God Love Uganda).

But Phil Robertson didn’t suggest any of these things, although he might sympathize in private, which is his right.  His public statements have more to do with his theology and his ideas about sexual “mechanics.”  After all, Robertson begins his comments by trying to wrap his head around something that would baffle pretty much any straight person.  How does that gay thing even work?  Socrates said that wisdom begins with recognizing what you don’t know, and if it weren’t an interview, that would have been a great opening for a conversation.  For all his bluster, Phil Robertson seems like a reasonably thoughtful person for a reality TV star.

George Takei (the King of Facebook) has succinctly suggested that casual homophobia derives primarily from the “ick” factor – the desires and pleasures of gays and lesbians don’t make intuitive sense to heterosexuals.  Why should they?  It’s kind of what makes them heterosexual, poor things.  The idea of sex, or even a kiss (because come on, real gay people are not having any more sex than anyone else, i.e. not very much at all) with someone of the same gender makes them queasy.  It just feels inherently disgusting.  This is a human, visceral response, but this revulsion can be remedied in most cases with a rational and friendly conversation.  Food and entertainment choices make good, if inadequate, comparisons.  If you don’t like broccoli, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat it or that you can’t have a certain abstract respect for both broccoli and the broccoli eater.  But the best you can hope for is that it’s heavily salted and smothered in melted cheddar.  And  . . . eventually the analogy breaks down, but it’s a perfectly normal 21st century conversation.

As for his theology, Phil Robertson cannot be blamed for sharing a view of Christianity and the Bible that are shared by many, many people.  Be warned, I’m about to walk out onto some thin ice with my liberal theologically-inclined friends.  When I’m inclined to find divine inspiration in scripture, I find the readings of Leviticus or the Sodom story (both the Biblical and Qur’anic versions) from liberal Biblical and Qur’anic scholars largely persuasive.  The abominations of Leviticus emphasize the creation of clear categories that protect a certain idea of the body, personhood, and community.  We are not like the pagans.  We keep our bodily fluids under control.  We don’t eat foods that are conceptually icky (Ewwww, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp are basically sea spiders.  Pigs . . . yuck!).  None of these need be binding under the dictum from Acts that call nothing God has made unclean.  And the Sodom story is much more about betraying hospitality and raping guests than specifically male-on-male sex.  If you read the full story, which is filled with pillars of salt (for the sin of what, nostalgia?), fathers offering daughters to be raped, daughters raping fathers to get babies, and all sorts of really weird shit, you could be excused for thinking the authors of Genesis had been pilfering hallucinogens from their dirty pagan neighbors.  All joking aside, the logic of Genesis and much of the rest of the Torah is profoundly and disturbingly alien to a modern reader, and this might not be a bad thing.

But let’s be honest.  The idea of finding the “pure, original” meaning of Scripture is kind of what got us into this whole mess in the first place.  Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but the notion that you can understand the Bible in isolation from the many thousands of educated others seems rather . . . how shall I say?  Protestant?  The bare fact of the matter is that most interpreters of the Bible and Qur’an over the past millennia have nearly universally condemned homosexuality, based, rightly or wrongly, on scripture.  I don’t think this means that Judaism, Christianity, or Islam are inherently homophobic, but I also don’t think that tossing a pro-gay interpretation – no matter how based in the text – into the pile of ages will convince enough people to truly change things.

This doesn’t mean dialogue isn’t possible.  After all, “love the sinner, not the sin” is certainly a step up from “burn the heretic on the nearest tree.”   Scriptures are complicated, and different parts have been emphasized in different times.  Compassion, the dignity of persons, the importance of love and complementarity in marriage, love your neighbor, don’t judge lest you be judged, blessed be the meek, etc.  These are all concepts that can lead to more open religious communities, and more and more are taking that plunge.  But tackling the interpretations of the ages won’t convince people if A) they hold stock in the interpretations of the ages, or B) they reject the interpretations of the ages and would rather embrace an idiosyncratic version that looks suspiciously like the interpretations of the ages.  In short, the theological solution isn’t in reinterpreting Sodom, but rather in sidelining it.

I’m somewhat encouraged that Phil Roberston didn’t limit his concept of sin to homosexuality.  There’s actually a discernable theme – adulterers, people who sleep around, prostitutes, slanderers.  Taken with what we know about his conditions with his contract with A&E, the heart of sin for him seems to be betrayal.  I think we can, and should, respect that.  Lying to people about your fundamental nature or relationships is the worst thing.  This, too, is something to work with.  Certainly in Biblical times, most homosexual activity would have constituted an extra-marital affair.  In some times and cultures, extra-marital affairs with either sex were tolerated, but they were still, fundamentally, extra-marital dalliances.

This is what is incredibly different about the present moment.  The idea that individuals of the same sex can form long-lasting, stable, monogamous (or at least honestly open) relationships is truly radical and new.  We can maybe find isolated examples of sanctioned same-sex relationships in the historical record, but the scale and normalcy of the idea belongs distinctly to us.  What I find most ironic about the “family values” vs. “gay rights” debate is that both sides share a core of concepts about what constitutes family and marriage.  It’s just that the “family values” crowd is focused on a history in which homosexual relationships were, by definition, violations of marriage and stability.  The fact that many in the gay community eschew marriage equality efforts as collaboration with the conservative establishment is additional evidence that something has changed.  The values of Phil Robertson are not alien to many gay people.  They have more in common than either would like to admit.  It is truly tragic that they don’t see the common ground under their feet.

The War on Christmas!!!!!!

PC vs MAC

Political Correctness has a relatively loose definition.  Typically, we understand it as a liberal attempt to enforce “diverse” standards in the media and higher education.  Don’t assume a narrator is male, and what not.  Although I’m a card-carrying liberal, gay, Muslim-loving, intellectual type, I’m not a big fan of many of the tactics associated with PC these days  (Bill Maher, despite being “politically incorrect,” displays some of the worst sides of PC).  But, I think it’s important to point out that long before political correctness became a concept, there have always been subtle and not-so-subtle ways to censor and channel public discourse in ways favorable to one or another political or economic class.  The press seems to censor itself, or at least it used to.  And individuals learn which opinions are not good to express in the company they’re keeping.  This has good and bad sides.  Try saying that you think German is an awesome language in 1943.  By the way, I can say that German is an absolutely amazing language (Übernachtungsmöglichkeit, need I say more?  Look it up!), but I’d hold my peace in the corridors of power during WWII.  In short, PC isn’t a conspiracy, but a social dynamic we’ve had from the start.  That Stanley Fish put a name to it simply allows us to talk about it more openly, in theory, at least.

There are, however, several new dynamics added by the internet age, and more specifically, the social media age.  Every public utterance by every public personality, no matter how banal, has become a matter of intense scrutiny.  Granted, GQ is a relatively high visibility venue, but do we really require Phil Robertson to censor his speech 24/7?  Or Alec Baldwin?   And even if we criticize them for their inappropriate comments, do we need to lobby to remove them from their source of income (albeit not the only source of income for these examples)?

I think public discussions about homophobic, Islamophobic, and racist comments can be very valuable.  Megyn Kelly’s comments about white Santa and Jesus are repulsive, but are actually pretty typical for FOX.  I have no desire to see her fired.  She is giving voice to real people, no matter how bizarre and ignorant they may seem to those of us who shy away from FOX news.  But I do have a desire to talk about her comments.  We need to analyze them, pull them apart, learn more about how off-hand media comments shape our national conversations about race, class, and sexuality.  Most importantly, we need to engage these people and take their assumptions seriously, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.  Censoring them and pushing them to the margins actually does us gay-Muslim loving liberals a disservice.  Right now, the focus seems to be on Phil Robertson, but I actually think he represents people that are principled, but open to persuasion or, at least, dialogue.  We’ve become such a divided nation, I really think it’s important to pinpoint possibilities to bring us back together.  As repugnant as we might find Robertson’s comments, he actually offers an unusually open nexus of discussion.  It’s worth taking advantage of.

Boycotting Buggery

Ender’s Game the film comes out in the US in November

I’ve often said on this blog that science fiction and fantasy – imaginative literature – when it’s at its best, makes use of the Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht’s term for deliberately stylizing drama to create a sense of distance between the audience and the action) to encourage its readers/viewers to reflect on the human condition, ethics, or society in a new way. Growing up, perhaps no science fiction work caused me to ruminate on “the meaning of life” as much as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Its protagonist, the young Ender, is a brilliant, earnest child, violently and brutally bullied by his siblings and peers and cynically manipulated by adults (and a military) who wish to shape his fate and talents to their own desires and needs. The character has spoken and continues to speak to angsty teenage nerds everywhere.

But the central engine of Ender’s Game and its sequels runs on a profoundly ethical problem. At the story’s climax, Ender believes he is participating in a simulated war game, when, in fact, his commands are being passed down to a real military force in the field. Using his strategy, the fleet proceeds to annihilate the homeworld of an alien species (the “Buggers”), perceived by some in the human military as an existential threat. Ender becomes the Xenocide, “killer of the Other,” hero of the militarists but despised by himself. The rest of Ender’s saga develops from his desire to atone for the killing, however inadvertently, of an entire sentient species. Enders’s Game and its sequels highlight and explore the concept of empathy at its roots. How can you learn to feel ethically responsible toward even the most strange and alien of creatures, no matter how repulsive their customs and habits?

The story also raises interesting questions about military and political ethics (which might be why it’s often assigned in military training): How responsible was an average guard at Auschwitz for what went on there? Was the Hiroshima bomb justified, and even if it was, what kind of ethical responsibility still falls on those who dropped it? How do you balance the need to make a soldier a killing machine with their humanity? And can we act ethically in a society that is guided by military-industrial priorities?

From the Marvel Comics version of Ender's Game

Would you let your mother marry this bugger? Ahem . . . I mean, would you let your mother defend this queen? Ahem . . . no, well, this is embarrassing. Orson Scott Card says, “Just don’t do it!”  Wait, do you see the muscles on that dude?  Ahem  . . .

Given the theme of the stories and the impact they had on a blooming xenophile and quasi-pacifist such as my teenage self, it was with some distress that I learned in later years that Orson Scott Card is one of the most noxious, homophobic writers in America. He has felt strongly enough on the issue to produce numerous screeds, advocating, among other things, that homosexual behavior should lead to the revocation of citizenship, that homosexuality is the result of abuse, that same-sex marriage will lead to the downfall of America and civilization as we know it, and that right-thinking Americans should rebel against any government that seeks to legalize it. He has even become a board member for the National Organization for Marriage, one of the more powerful anti-gay hate groups currently active. To be honest, in the context of NOM none of his arguments are particularly original, although he’s a talented-enough writer to convey his utter apoplexy at the thought of gay people existing. But it does kind of hurt to hear this kind of stuff coming out of the mouth of an admired author.

There have been calls to boycott the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game, starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and some promising younger talent. Card has been the target of similar boycott campaigns in the past. Only recently, he was dropped as writer for a series of Superman comics when fans and the project’s lead artist protested. Card has recently asked people to not boycott the film because the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA renders his opposition to gay marriage “moot.”  He adds, obnoxiously or willfully ignorant of what the word tolerance means,  “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”  Many in the blogosphere have resisted calls for boycotts, saying that he’s just the product of a Mormon upbringing (as if every Mormon out there campaigns for NOM) or that a boycott may backfire in unpredictable ways.

I’m on the fence about boycotting, in part because I’m not all that big on boycotts anyway, but also I’m on the fence about the growth of the boycott and retribution culture we seem to revel in these days. I think Card is an interesting case, because the degree of his involvement with anti-gay causes makes his case different from, say, Paula Deen’s racist remarks and fantasies. Likewise, since Ender’s Game is not particularly a story about sexuality (it’s striking in its asexuality, in fact), the work itself doesn’t seem to be wound up in the ideologies of its creator in the same way Wagner’s Parzival extols racial purity in the face of the Wandering Jew. I think it’s worth exploring why Card’s case may be different from both.

Kermit knows it’s not easy being green.

IF YOU CAN’T TWEET SOMETHING NICE, STFU!

In our instant social media existence, the slightest offhand tweet or Facebook post by a celebrity inevitably leads to canceled advertising contracts, insincere public apologies, and the endless analysis of 24-hour news channels that have long since given up spending the money to bring their audiences information about the actual world beyond the bubble. The recent flap about Paula Deen is a great example, I think, of our boycotting culture. Her frequent, albeit non-public, use of the N-word and planning a wedding reception that had an ante-bellum costuming theme (complete with racially-accurate servants) are indeed pretty disgusting. But she has lost many, if not most, of her contracts, as a result. I agree she should be ridiculed and taken to task for her casual racism (and that her brother should be taken to court for his alleged racial and sexual harassment), but that could have been a starting point about a conversation about what exactly is “casual racism.” Instead, the focus seems to be on destroying her career. Now, if it turned out she was a leading figure in the KKK, if she had stolen all her recipes from an unknown and uncredited African-American cooking genius, or even if she had a public Gibsonian drunken meltdown, some of these responses might be warranted.

Unfortunately, this sort of overkill vengefulness often results in a backlash that brings the episode to a disturbing denouement. At the end of the news cycle, instead of thinking to themselves, “Gee, Paula really shouldn’t have said that. I hope she can rise above her racist background,” the American CNN-viewing public will more likely respond, “Hey, back off! Paula has a right to be racist!” In the hands of the right-wing media, you then get the sense that using the N-word is a way to exercise your patriotic duty to speak freely or the would-be-funny-if-not-so-sinister claim that “creepy-ass cracker” is a reverse-racist equivalent of the N-word.

Let’s take another, contrasting example, Chick-Fil-A. Some of us had been aware of reports of discrimination against gay customers and employees going back years, but their stance became more public when they decided to co-sponsor a “marriage” conference in 2011. This led to calls by some LGBT organizations to boycott the chain. This was followed by an un-boycott, as evangelicals flocked to consume fast-food in the name of Christ. This case is different from Deen, in my opinion, because Chick-Fil-A decided to make their bigotry part of their public image, and have been pursuing that agenda consistently for a long time. If you patronized the restaurant, you knew that a portion of what you spent there would go to certain ultra-conservative causes (They claim that they no longer donate to anti-LGBT organizations, but the owners, the Cathy family, are still visible and vocal in those circles).

Many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters felt that calls for a boycott amounted to a restriction of free speech. Obviously, such people haven’t thought about the Constitution much beyond what Bill O’Reilly tells them is in it, but they do raise an interesting question, even if it’s not the one they thought. As a consumer, to what degree do I feel the need to patronize only places of business owned by people I agree with politically? Will I buy a drink from a bartender I know voted for Bush? What if he talked about how much he likes Bush to his customers? What if he volunteered for the Bush campaign? What if he liked to talk about how stupid Democrats are? What if he were Bush’s chief policy advisor? What if he was even the one who invented hanging chads? Somewhere along that line, I would stop wanting to buy his beer, but I’m not sure if I could come up with a hard and fast rule for the exact point where bygones-be-bygones becomes get-off-of-my-lawn. If I boycotted local businesses whose owners belonged to the NRA, I’d have to start raising my own food.

I do boycott Chick-Fil-A (and had before 2011), but, to be honest, I never ate there anyway nor had any desire to. Essentially, I’m taking credit for doing something politically I would have done apolitically anyway. I also boycott Lowe’s, although I feel kind of bad about it. They had advertised on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim, which had as its task the depiction of the banal day-to-day lives of ordinary Muslims in America (Episode One: Khadija buys laundry detergent!). But the American Family Association threatened to boycott them for supporting a program that dared to suggest that Muslims were normal and not terrorists lurking in our backyard (How that’s a “family values” issue, I’m not sure, but if there’s one thing these folk hate more than gays, it’s Muslims. Fun trick: Tell them you’re a Gay Muslim Socialist and catch their facial expression with your cellphone – Priceless!). Lowe’s pulled their ads. So now, I’m boycotting them for having a really weak spine, which isn’t completely fair, since they’re only secondarily involved. But if you can’t stand up to something so pernicious, what good are you? It balances out, because the AFA boycotts Home Depot for sponsoring Gay Pride events. As long as everyone can get their fluorescent light bulbs replaced somewhere, it all works out, I guess.

However, I don’t boycott Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, or Apple, even though they have some very questionable labor practices at home and abroad. Nor do I boycott Facebook, even as it colludes with (and actively designs algorithms for) the NSA and FBI to subject us to constant invasive surveillance. Apparently, it boils down to whether a boycott would constitute an inconvenience to me. I guess I’m not as ideologically committed as my conservative relatives think I am. But I think I’m probably not that different from the average consumer, in this regard. At least I thought about boycotting them. Does that count for something in the karmic wheel?

Wagner’s Parzival Act 3: A little soda water will get rid of that little stain of Judaism, don’t you worry!

WAGNER FEARED JEWISH COOTIES

The other contrast I wanted to make with Card and Ender’s Game is the case of Wagner – no, not that The Case of Wagner, my overly erudite readers, although Nietzsche’s observations about anti-Semitism and the relationship of the creator with the creation make a good starting point. One of the first things you learn about Wagner if and when you study him in Music History is that he was a rabid anti-Semite. Not only did he write about it, but there are several plainly anti-Semitic characters in more than one opera. In Das Rheingold Alberich the money-hungry dwarf renounces love to claim the eponymous gold, thereby starting the chain of events in the Ring that brings down the gods. (Ever notice that depictions of Tolkien’s dwarves have exaggerated hook noses right out of a 19th-century anti-Semitic caricature?). And then there’s Kundry in Parzival, a very literal depiction of the Wandering Jew legend, condemned to wander the Earth deathless until the Second Coming for mocking Christ on the Cross. The Wandering Jew motif shows up in less literal fashion in Der Fliegende Holländer. Hitler loved Wagner and these operas, and for this reason, many have boycotted Wagner over the years. Whether Wagner would have approved of the extremes Hitler embraced remains an unanswered question, but without a doubt Wagner and his work contributed, in more than small ways, to an environment in which German National Socialism could come to power.

But I love Wagner. I think his operas are on par with of some of the best imaginative fiction of more recent times. He presents the surrealism of mythology, framed in the incredibly stylized conventions of opera, and explores love, sacrifice, human destiny, and religion in thoughtful and moving ways. Admittedly, Wagner is an acquired taste, and one needs to spend many, many, many, many hours to develop that taste. But he knew the power of a booming score and flaming explosions more than a century before Michael Bay. Hollywood owes a lot to his production philosophy and aesthetics. Unfortunately, he skipped the class of storytelling called “show, don’t tell.” Wagner characters spend a lot of time describing their life histories in rhyming couplets in the middle of what ought to be incredibly gripping scenarios. “I’m here to murder you, foul temptress! But first, sit down and listen to me recount the story of my mother’s long and tragic tale, after I remind you of the underlying philosophical structure of the cosmos.”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but knowing of Wagner’s anti-Semitism deepens my enjoyment of his operas. Deconstructing an author’s psyche is part of the fun of great art and literature, isn’t it? You can watch Birth of a Nation and appreciate its visual storytelling, even if you find its themes disturbing and bizarre. But is that enjoyment a function of the cushion of time? The era of virulent German Anti-Semitism is (mostly) past. The Ku Klux Klan, while still extant, is largely viewed as a de-fanged fringe group. I do have to say, however, that recently re-watching the film Red Dawn (the original) made me feel icky. I didn’t quite grasp this in my youth, but it goes through all the NRA talking points (evil gun registries, commies might invade YOUR town tomorrow, etc.) over the course of the movie, and it’s been a great recruitment tool for the militia movement. I am glad, though, that I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, even if the thought of boycotting it crossed my mind. The ideas were worth engaging, even as a more antagonistic audience member.

Maybe he just needed to be bullied less as a kid.

CARD’S GAME

Ender’s Game, however, is yet another category. Although many have searched for homophobic themes in Card’s work (more prominent in some than in others), it’s not a story thematically linked to anti-gay bigotry in the same way that Parzival relies on notions of racial purity. The odd attitude of Card and his characters to sexuality and the body are certainly worth deconstructing, but they are hardly part of heavy-handed propaganda. I think in many ways, the product is separable from its creator. Perhaps it even deserves to be rescued from its creator.

This is true of Ender’s Game more than most. Ender is raised to hate the Other. The inhumanity (literally, in this case) and danger of the Buggers has been reinforced by Ender’s commanders, the politicians, and the media his entire life (comparisons to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are apt up to this point). But then, catastrophically, devastatingly, Ender learns that all of that has been wrong. He comes to believe that the Other has intrinsic value, simply by being, and that the right of Others to simply be is worth struggling to preserve. Ender dedicates the rest of his life to that end.

I have to recognize that reading Ender’s story as a kid contributed, in some way great or small, to my ethical formation and that of many others, such that we can see Orson Scott Card’s virulent, over-the-top hate for what it is and reject it. I find it tragic that Card himself cannot see the bitter irony. Assuming it gets halfway decent reviews (I’ve been burnt before), I will not be boycotting the film, but I will see it affirming what the story can stand for rather than what its author has chosen to stand for.

P.S. I have to pat myself on the back for my choice of title, just in case no one else decides to do so. It’s a triple entendre!

“But I’d Rather Just Sing!” Homoeroticism at Court

This may be a bit of a meandering post, but it does have a destination (I swear!) and manages to touch on nearly all of the themes of this blog:

I’ve been working my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin and its attending Game of Thrones TV series (on DVD, since I’m resistant to subscribing to HBO for just one or two shows, but I don’t particularly like piracy either).  One of the characters, Renly Baratheon, is in a same-sex relationship, implied strongly in the novels (we never really see the narrative from Renly’s point of view) and made explicit in the adaptation.  Judging by the various fan forums, the fan reaction to this ranged from homophobic rage at the inclusion of gay characters to waxing poetic about Renly’s “manscaping” scene with his lover Loras.  Others like me have had more ambivalent reactions, uncertain of whether this is a perpetuation or a satire of an old trope (or both).  The camping of Renly can’t really be lain at Martin’s feet, whose writing is unusual in the forefronting of gender non-conformists.  I chalk it up more to HBO’s desire to add gratuitous and “boundary-pushing” (i.e. actually rather banal) sex scenes and nudity in all of its series to justify its “premium cable” status.  But while Renly’s likeable character is certainly not as egregious as the depiction of Edward II in Braveheart, the homosexual or effeminate noble is an easily recognizable trope in both imaginative literature and in historical literature.  It’s not a random trope, though, and delving into the history of it reveals some very interesting things about the intersection of perceptions of homosexuality, social class, and foreignness (and Muslim-ness in particular).  (See my definitions page for how I’m using the terms homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and gay).

Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony): a real man’s man with royal power, but doomed to die of excessive special effects in the second act.

Central to my discussion is the historical connection between adab (courtliness, belles lettres) culture of middle period Islamic courts and the courtly or chivalrous ideology of the European medieval period.  Until recently, the connection was denied, in part because of European (and particularly Franco-era Spanish) refusal to acknowledge Islamic influence on European culture.  But most European historians now acknowledge that the European tradition of courtly etiquette and courtly love (i.e. romance, in its original sense) owes a lot to Islamic court mores and practices (which itself had roots in Greco-Persian court practices).  European and Islamic court cultures were, of course, not identical, but the connection between the two is concrete and traceable, even to the point of European individuals who spent time at Spanish Islamic courts.  The era of the Crusades only increased this effect, as fanatic knights returned home with more nuanced conceptions of “civilized” behavior.  This is not to say that the European courtly traditions were adapted cookie-cutter style or exclusively from their Islamic equivalents, but the influence is now considered undeniable and not insignificant.

Interestingly, the attitudes toward same-sex desire and homosexual activities at court played out along similar lines in both Islamic and European cultures.  The reactions among the religious classes and sometimes the common classes associated the tolerance of homosexuality to either an upper class libertinism or to the influence of foreign or ancient (pre-monotheistic) indulgences.  Christian Europe came to connect same-sex desire with Islamic influence, in addition to ancient Greco-Roman hold-overs.  Obviously, medieval European attitudes toward same-sex desire are complex, and I’m only attempting to shed light on one dimension here.

HOMOSEXUALITY AS A LUXURY

Narratives set in real or fantastic medieval contexts often make an implicit link between social privilege, insufficiently martial masculinity, and libertinism (as well as implicitly defining homosexuality as an expression of libertinism), which derives in part from the construction of an isolated social circle by courtiers themselves.  From the medieval Islamic perspective, it is not uncommon to find a distinction between the elite (khass) and the common (‘amm) folk.  Sensually-oriented poets and intellectuals at court used the elite/common distinction to suggest that Islamic Law (shari’a) could be interpreted differently or more loosely for different social classes.  Wine-drinking was exceedingly common at Muslim rulers’ courts in the middle periods and was referred to in matter-of-fact terms even in the most proper of political etiquette texts.  Even the ascetic Sufis, only some of whom may have indulged in actual wine-drinking or same-sex love, made use of intoxication and homoerotic imagery as a metaphor for the overwhelming emotional power of God’s presence and love.

While the elite/common dichotomy may have justified religiously deviant behavior, the scimitar cut both ways.  The career of Abu Nuwas (a nickname meaning “Father of the Flowing Locks,” d. 814) is a prime example of the ambiguous status of courtly elites who experimented with the limits of sexuality.  His poetry is sharp, biting, blasphemous, and unapologetically raunchy:

Satanic Pride

I quarreled with my boy – my letters
Came back marked ‘Unknown at This Address – So Bugger Off’
In solitude & tears I damply prayed – to Satan:
 
‘Weeping & insomnia have got me down to 90 pounds –
Don’t you care that I’m suffering?
That I’m so depressed I’ve almost run out of lust?
This obsession’s getting in the way of my duty to thee;
My sinning’s half-hearted – I feel a fit of repentance coming on!
Yes!  Thou hadst better stoke up some love for me in that lad’s heart (you know how!)
Or I’ll retire from Sin: from Poetry, from Song, from pickling my veins in wine!
I’ll read the Koran!  I’ll start a Koranic Night School for Adults!
I’ll make the Pilgrimage to Mecca every year & accumulate so much virtue that I’ll . . . I’ll  . . .’
 
Well, three days hadn’t passed when suddenly my sweetheart came crawling back
Begging for reunion.  Was it good?  It was twice as good as before!
Ah, joy after sorrow!  Almost the heart splits with it!
Ah, overdose of joy! . . . And of course, since then I’ve been on the best of terms
With the Father of Lies.
 

– Trans. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, cited in Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Robert Irwin (pg. 125)

Abu Nuwas was tolerated, even celebrated, at the court of caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Amin, but al-Rashid’s other son, al-Ma’mun, was rather more disapproving of Abu Nuwas, although it is unclear whether his sexual proclivities, his acid tongue, or his support of al-Amin during the civil war between the brothers was the chief cause of his imprisonment and death – his critics cited all of these.  That being said, his odes to the beauty of young cupbearers are considered the best of the genre.  The very existence of whole poetic genre revolving around erotic encounters with pages is telling in itself.

The 10th-century Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave and beloved Ayaz: Mahmud is celebrated in courtly and mystical poetry as the proverbial slave of a slave

For the sake of accuracy, it’s important to issue several caveats to avoid projecting our modern concept of “gayness” onto this material.  First, adabi homoeroticism was typically, but not exclusively, asymmetrical, like the predominant structure of Ancient Greek and Persian homosexual relationships.  The “active” partner was generally of a higher age and/or social class.  Young male servants not yet married were the “passive” partner.  Socially equal relationships were not unknown, but they would probably have been the minority and carried more of a stigma even at court, particularly if you were the “bottom.”  Second, these homosexual relationships were not expected to preclude heterosexual marriages and relationships.  It is likely that not all participants in these relationships preferred the same sex, and there was not an identity marker (like the modern term “gay”) to distinguish those who truly preferred the same sex from those who participated in homoerotic relationships or behaviors for the sake of pleasure alone.  In fact, homosexual liaisons were considered more similar to extra-marital liaisons with female servants or mistresses than to sex in the context of marriage – for those at court, sexuality and marriage were not coterminous.   And third, not all of these relationships would have been sexually consummated.  Many thinkers considered the erotic admiration of the male form praise-worthy in itself both aesthetically and morally, as long as it didn’t overstep the idealized form – not unlike the chivalric European knight taking on a female patron, to be adored but not touched (Lancelot crosses this line, bringing doom upon the kingdom).

In both the Christian and Islamic contexts, disapproval of same-sex relationships was often connected to a critique of class privilege and lax religiosity, and usually subordinated to it.  Such critiques usually came from religious leaders (even as other religious leaders participated in court culture).  The elite somehow escape the consequences of disobeying the religious law, it would be lamented.  Sexual deviancy came to be connected to other infractions of the law: drinking, adultery, inappropriate contact between the sexes, wearing silk, etc.  This is not to say that homosexual behavior among other classes didn’t happen – it certainly did – but this rarely attracted the attention of chroniclers more interested in the exploits of rulers and courtiers (such as themselves).

HOMOSEXUALITY AS FOREIGN

An interesting subtext to both the medieval Islamic and Christian critiques of homosexuality was the idea of its inherent foreignness.  Arab critics attributed the practice to pre-Islamic Persian courts.  Christian writers attributed the practice to Muslims and Jews.  From the perspective of the critics, homoeroticism at court was not just a function of coddled privilege; it was also a matter of “foreign influence,” a betrayal of native purity.  (It is an irony-drenched irony that Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a Persian Muslim, has denounced homosexuality as the export of European colonialism.)

In medieval Islam, figures like Abu Nuwas were embroiled in a cultural struggle to define the civilization.  On the one side were those who felt the spartan martial values of the Arab Bedouins had been diluted by centuries of effete city living among diverse peoples.  On the other were those who believed that the adoption of the urban lifestyles of the ancient empires (particularly the Persian) was the best thing to happen to Islamic society (guess where Abu Nuwas came down).  A late expression of this tension can be seen in the theory of the venerable ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who believed that the cycle of history was driven by waves of nomadic peoples with purer social values and stronger sense of tribal solidarity conquering decadent and diverse sedentary peoples, only to succumb themselves over time to the strength-sapping temptations of the conquered cultures.

Islamic courtly homoeroticism existed well into the 20th-century (and beyond, if certain rumors are true), but so did the discomfort with it among certain religious scholars.  The Egyptian traveler Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi, who visited Paris in 1826, reveals his ambivalence as he notes the absence of same-sex love in French society (He perhaps wasn’t looking hard enough):

“Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in their poetry for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.  One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone with the same sex.  Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulam), for that would be unacceptable and awkward wording.  Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying the translation: I loved a young female (ghulamah) or a person (dhatan).”

– cited in Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World (pg. 2)

While homosexual acts were condemned and punishable in Islamic Law (although the death penalty was rarely a punishment on the table – it was not considered adultery since it did not violate a husband’s exclusive sexual rights to his wife), there is little evidence for an institutionalized response to homosexual activity beyond the criticism and lamentations from the religious scholars.  The European response, however, was often brutal and systematic.  The Spanish Inquisition, designed to enforce the orthodoxy of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity (as a condition for keeping their homes or sometimes their lives), often specifically targeted those suspected of engaging in homosexuality, seen as a mark of retaining the values of Islamic culture.  Among the crimes attributed to the heretic Cathars and Templars included homosexuality.  Even if such accusations were unfounded or exaggerated, the association between sexual activity and the dangerous other is clear.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Serpent Charmer (1880): fatefully used as the cover art for Edward Said’s Orientalism

The popular association of Islamic culture and sexual permissiveness up into the 20th-century has been well-documented by historians of Western Orientalism.  The “Islamic culture” under discussion, however, is court and elite culture more specifically. It is interesting to note how the contemporary Western imagination has shifted its image of Islamic sexuality 180 degree in the last fifty years or so, which perhaps says more about the West than it says about Islam.

THE TROPE LIVES ON

Spoiler: They’re really crab people from beneath the Earth plotting the overthrow of surface dwellers

While there are many dimensions to modern American attitudes toward homosexuality over the last century, the perception of it as an elite luxury and as a “foreign” practice persist, particularly in the popular association of gay culture with the performing arts and Hollywood.  Traditional American understandings of masculinity could be characterized as aggressively heterosexual.  Up until recently, gay characters in popular media were typically relegated to subordinate or support roles to the leading man – in effect, courtiers: hair stylists, costumers, interior designers (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy annoyed many gay rights advocates for this very reason, even as it contributed to a trend of positive and non-threatening media depictions of gay people).  Just as the association of homosexuality with court, the association of homosexuality with Hollywood is not a baseless connection.  Until recently, show business had the highest proportion of out constituents.

But it’s here that I would like to flip the narrative.  Is the “luxury” of being openly gay a function of elite cultures encouraging the abandonment of traditional morality or is it rather that social power grants “relative” immunity from the social and physical sanctions that attach to being gay among other social classes?  In other words, courtliness might not be the dividing line between gay/not gay but between visible/invisible.  Projecting the origins of homosexuality onto others – economic others, religious others, ethnic others – has allowed certain assumptions about “authenticity” to persist: real men, true Americans, right-thinking Christians.  Perhaps the true revolution in the past several years has been the disintegration of this trope and the undermining of the illusion that “there are no gays in these here parts.”

One of these things is not like the other! Or is it?