Thursday, March 19, 2015

Piano, piano

I’m still trying to get my head around the anti-gay legislation that passed a couple weeks ago in Arkansas. 

A quick history.  Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas is located, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance last August 19.  Almost immediately, money started pouring in from folks like the infamous Christian media family, the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”), to pay for a fear and loathing campaign.  Shades of the California Prop. 8 campaign, pushed particularly hard by the Mormons and Knights of Columbus.  In Arkansas, where evangelicals are the major homophobic force, the pitch was even dirtier.  According to Christian mama Michelle Duggar,

I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.  

The law that was aimed to protect not just LGBT people, but other minorities as well, and not just the transgender people the religious right have now focused their particular loathing on, was repealed, 52 to 48.  

Turns out that was only a warm-up.  Arkansas then went on to pass Arkansas Senate Bill 202, with the deliciously cynical name, “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act.”  And how is commerce improved, you ask?  This bill, now law, prohibits any municipality in the state from passing a law protecting minorities specifically.  The argument?  Christians, whose religious rights are trampeled on when they are forced to serve gays and lesbians, would not want to settle in Arkansas with cumbersome laws like this, you see.  By protecting their right to discriminate, business can only flourish in the long run.

It’s an idea whose time has come.  People are freaking out over the possibility that the Supreme Court may legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.  Once that happens, it will be hard to explain to your kids that you know gays are inferior because if they weren’t they would be allowed to get married and have their relationships recognized by the state.  No parent should have to explain that to their kids, right?  At least with this anti-pro-gay ordinance, you can assure your kids that you don’t have to worry about sitting next to one of them at a lunch counter.  Or be waited on by one of them.  Or if you do, and you don’t like the service, you can at least tell the restaurant owner and get his ass fired for being gay.

And so other states are following Arkansas’s lead.  A similar ordinance, identical to the Arkansas law right down to the “Commerce protection” label, have been passed in West Virginia and Texas. 

And if you are in the American majority and get your news from Fox or CNN, you can be excused for not knowing about this.  Neither network covered the news.  MSNBC did, but they are part of the lamestream media and only hardliner lefties listen to them anyway.

This too shall pass.  It’s merely a bump in the road.  A reminder that gay liberation is a long hard slog and there will be many more setbacks before equal rights and gay dignity are universal values.

I have finally begun to tackle my out-of-control personal files of several decades of old stuff.  I’ve got utility and phone bills back to the 80s and that’s just for starters.  So I’m trying to get ruthless and clean.  It isn’t easy.

I keep coming across things I just don’t want to throw away.  Like this letter I wrote to an unknown student some twenty-two years ago.  I was teaching in an English program at Keio University in Japan and we were reorganizing the courses.  We put the word out that we wanted student input for workshops we might offer, hoping to get a sense of the kinds of things students were interested in talking about.  My colleague, Yoshiko Takahashi, came to me in some distress over a letter she got from one of her students.  “I just don’t know how to respond to this!” she said.  I told her I would take care of it.  Here’s my response:

To the Student in Professor Takahashi’s class who is afraid of gays:
 I have just seen your response to the request for new workshops.  On that response sheet, you have written that you would like a workshop to teach people how to “escape from gays.”  You included my name, in parentheses, as an example of one of the people in that category.
 I don’t know who you are, and I don’t need to know your name.  I am asking Professor Takahashi to give this letter to you.  (Or if she doesn’t know who you are, to give this letter to the whole class so you will be sure to read it.)  I cannot tell whether you are serious or joking, but in either case, since you suggested I am one of those people you would like to run away from, I would like to say something to you.
 Gay people are everywhere.  Many of your classmates and many of your teachers are gay.  Some will readily tell you this; others consider this a part of their private life which they choose not to share with you; some are ashamed of being gay.
 The world is changing, however, and more and more gay people are insisting on being recognized as both gay and human, and deserving of the respect that is due all human beings.  It will become increasingly difficult for you to “escape from gays” as you go through life.
 The question is, why would you want to?  If you are gay yourself, and ashamed of it, you will come to accept yourself in time and realize there is no more reason to be ashamed of yourself than if you are blind, or left-handed, or very short or very tall or in any way “different” from the majority of people.  If you are not gay, you need to realize most gay people have no interest in bothering you; there is nothing to “escape” from!
 If you suggested this idea as a joke, you should realize that the suggestion is not a joke to gay people.  On the contrary, it is hurtful.  Think how you would feel if you were living in a foreign country, and somebody suggested that they wanted advice on how to “escape from Japanese.”  You would then feel the oppression of bigotry and you would understand why this is not a joke.
 If you are serious, and you are suggesting that people who are gay should be removed from your sight, let me urge you to think very carefully what you are asking.  Do you also want to separate yourself from people that are different from you in other ways?  Are you afraid of people of other races?  Other religions?  Are you afraid of handicapped people?  Or is your prejudice only against people whose sexual and emotional feelings are directed toward people of the same sex?  Do you really think we should put people in jail, or in a hospital, or on a desert island somewhere because they love differently?
 Gay people, like any people who seem strange and different to you now, can turn out to be people you know, people you like, people who can teach you things, people you care about, and people you can live with, if only you take the trouble to find out more about them.
 Please take that time.  Learn about gay people, as you learn about people from other cultures.  There is no need to run from the blind, no reason to run from the French or from Chinese or from Africans, no reason to run from people with blue eyes or people who wear strange clothes or people who are gay.  The world is big enough for us all.
 You don’t need to be afraid.  As I said, I don’t know who you are and I am not going to try to find out.  But if you and your friends would like to come talk to me, I would be happy to talk with you about this or any other subject.  My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30.
 Yours truly,

I never heard from this student and have no idea of whether this letter even registered on his radar. Gay students on my campus were so closeted in the early 90s in Japan that my being openly gay worked against me.  Students who wanted to keep their gay secret avoided me like the plague, at least on campus.  Within the decade they began to get noticeably better, however, and not too many years after this, our English Department actually made a film about coming out.  

It's useful, I think, to look back.  Finding this letter put the Arkansas setback in perspective.  And reminded me of that wonderful Italian saying:

Piano, piano, si va lontano - If you're going a long way, take it slow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Abu Nawas

Future travelers to the planet Mercury, especially hedonists and perhaps the occasional LGBT historian in search of milestones,  will no doubt want to locate the crater there named after the Arab/Persian poet Abu Nawas.  Those who don’t want to wait that long may wait till the current troubles are over in Iraq and Baghdad is returned to normal.  They will then be able to stroll along the banks of the River Tigris, on one of the city’s major boulevards, which also bears the name of Abu Nawas.

And not just bisexual readers, of course.  The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies Abu Nawas as an “important poet of the early ‘Abbāsid period (750–835).”  The Abbāsid caliphate is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the "Islamic Golden Age," when "the ink of a scholar (was) more holy than the blood of a martyr."  Arabic-speakers know him as one of the greatest of Arab poets.  He is said to have spent a year living with the Bedouins to acquire the original purity of the Arabic language.  That experience would seem, however, to have lasted him a lifetime, because when he was done, he returned to write of the joys of living in the city, chiefly for the access it provided to wine and pederasty, and apparently never looked back.

His was given the full name at birth of Abū Nuwās Al-hasan Ibn Hāni’ Al-hakamī .  At some point, his Persian mother sold him to a grocer.  He never knew his father.  The experience only made him stronger, apparently, and he shows up as a character in the Thousand and One Nights, and is known to have influenced the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.  He’s also known as the first Arab poet to write about masturbation.  And how women can be complete sluts.  Which, he says, is probably a good thing.  Especially when they are not fat.

A girl who is slender, not clumsy and flabby, will show you how to rub and grind.

I mention Abu Nuwas because I’ve come across his name repeatedly in recent weeks as I’ve been reading about Islam and trying to decide whether there is any substance to the claim that of the three Abrahamic religions it’s the most violent and restrictive and puritanical.  I’m leaning at present toward the view that religion is not what its scriptures tell you God wants for you to believe so much as it is about how it spreads out through the cultures which take it in and make it their own, filtering it and molding it over time, to suit local interests and fit local expectations of how the world should be run.

One of the most interesting claims made by Hamed Abdel-Samad, which I have now found repeated in a number of places, is that the great heyday of the Muslim world was a time of great creativity and intellectual imagination not because of Islam, but despite Islam.  That if you look at the places where Islam held sway – Mecca and Medina, chiefly – you find the most stifling lack of imagination and creativity.  Only in places characterized by a multitude of cultures do you find the gold in the label, The Golden Age of Islam.  And when people speak of this gold, the name Abu Nuwas often pops us.  Not sure everybody shares the view that Nuwas is a golden contribution to Islamic culture, but how does one reach these conclusions anyway?

O the joy of sodomy!  So now be sodomites, you Arabs.
Turn not away from it – therein is wondrous pleasure.
Take some coy lad with kiss-curls twisting on his
temple and ride him as he stands like some gazelle
standing to her mate
Make for smooth-faced boys and do your very best to
mount them, for women are the mounts of devils!

I cannot be sure how much has been lost in translation.  How much better it sounds in the Arabic of 1100 years ago, where I presume there is better rhyming and perhaps alliteration and perhaps other rhetorical delights.  I doubt he achieved his reputation for world’s best Arabic poet (or one of them) for his choice of topics.

The question is, “Is it golden?”

And, of course, “Is it Islamic?”

source of Abu Nawas’ poetry: Shaykh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden, p. 24 and 37-39, cited in Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim

picture credit: Collected works of Abu Nawas (in Indonesian)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Selma - a review

Trai Byers
I went in to see Selma yesterday prepared to find an angry polemic, and defensive over what director Ava DuVernay and others involved allegedly did to LBJ’s reputation.  Instead, I found him portrayed as a man who had a grasp of the bigger picture.  For black Americans there can be no greater issue than injustice based on white racism.  For LBJ, I expect that the world was framed on the basis of political expediency.  And for that reason, watching him resist the pleas of MLK to act to protect black lives and black rights didn’t make him a monster in my eyes.  It made him a believable historical figure.  What makes him look (relatively) bad is that the story is told from a black perspective – and Lord knows it’s high time the story of Civil Rights is told without white heroes who save the day in the end becoming the centerpiece of the story.  LBJ’s legacy is intact. 

Just wanted to get that out of the way at the start.

This is one of those times when dwelling on the imperfections of a movie feels unworthy.  The imperfections here come from an artist's choice of what to film and what to leave out.  Left out are the realistic depictions of blood and guts and snot, although there is plenty of violence, because to leave that out would be not to tell the story at all.  And what comes through with powerful clarity is the dignity of MLK and the Movement.  Getting David Oyelowo to play Martin Luther King was a superb choice.  Just brilliant.  And I want to say that without slighting the performances of virtually all the rest of the main characters.

Selma is an American way of telling history – through highly stylized drama, with good guys and bad guys.  There’s plenty of that in Selma, and in one case – the J. Edgar Hoover character – they went way over the line by making him half clown/half zombie. Usually one feels the need to criticize this black-and-white American habit.  But in this story I left the theatre trying to brush from my clothes the ugliness of white people carrying Dixie flags and shouting abuse at dignified ladies with their church hats on walking steely-faced and determined, not knowing whether they were going to be tossed off the bridge into the water or mowed down by horses.  Sometimes the bad guys simply are bad guys and coming up with Hitler-built-the-autobahn rationalizations does a disservice to honest story-telling.  The physical discomfort one feels at the thought that Americans had to endure that kind of abuse in the lifetime of many of us stays with you.  I woke up today, the morning after, with a feeling of panic, imagining myself in their shoes. There are certain films I find myself wishing I could make required viewing for all the schools in America.  Milk is one.  So is the TV serial, The Wire.  And Selma is another.

The story is tight.  The pacing feels just right.  The tone is lofty (that’s how the dignity comes through).  The scene where MLK and Coretta face his infidelities brought tears to the eyes, so effectively had I been made to care for these characters by this time.  There is a sense of excitement as you spot Andrew Young and John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, the Rev. Hosea Williams and other players in the film and in real life you’ve come to know from these times.

Another powerful emotion wells up as you watch this film, and that’s the realization that this tale of an historical moment, the sacrifices made to attain voting rights for blacks in the south, is being told in a modern context in which today’s conservative forces are still at it, still trying to remove the rights forced from the hands of LBJ in the 1960s.  It brings to the film an immediacy you don’t get from every historical drama.

Selma is a well-told tale.   History come alive.  I’m concerned that black people will stay away because they think they know the story already and white people will stay away because they don’t want any more bad news.   I went to see it with a friend at the AMC Metreon, the giant theatre complex at 4th and Mission yesterday with seats for hundreds.  There were only five or six of us in the place.  It was 2:40 in the afternoon on a weekday, of course, but still…

That would be a mistake.  Selma is a must-see.

And for a review that says what I think better than I just have, try this one

Picture Credit:  Trai Byers.  He's only a minor character in the film, but I include him here because he's so damned good-looking.