Sunday, December 28, 2008


This is a terribly sad post with which to end the year ... I have been avoiding finishing it for days. But it has been a hell of year ... a year of enormous loss. So with that ...

I spent the day wandering today ... I wanted to spend some time thinking about the film that my oldest friend, Ian Mackenzie, showed us last night. The film is called The Last of the Nomads, and it is part of a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) series called The Adventurers. (Bizarrely, the full version of the film is only available in Canada; if you are in Canada, see it here.) The film won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The film is about Ian's 15-year work with the Penan people of Sarawak; Ian has some further material on the Penan and his work here.

The essence of the film is about loss ... in this case, the loss of language, heritage, and way of life of a people who practiced harmony in a land of plenty for countless generations. The loss is cruel, and heartless, the result of the immoral greed of the ruling caste of Malaysia that enables the rape of the primeval rain forest which is the ancestral home of the Penan. They tried to stop the bulldozers in the 80s with their bodies, but they were carted away. The film documents the moment when Ian discovers that the last of the nomadic Penan have settled and sowed crops.

There is no doubt that this was "inevitable" in the sense of the conflict between industrial power and greed against a people armed with sticks and time. Social structures morph and change, and they can come to an end. Countless nomadic societies have settled ... not only now but for thousands of years. But the inevitable aspect of this cannot mask that it did not have to be such a guillotining ... that a rational approach to forest resources could have allowed sustainable extraction and continued forest-living for the peoples who, by any standard of dispassionate justice, "own" that forest.

But this film is about loss ... about an execution ... about the terminal act in the assault of a government on one of its people who were in the way of greed.

So I took a large part of the day to think about loss both in the broad, historical context of what Ian showed us about the Penan and in a more personal sense. I went to Three Wells in Mill Valley, a place where a seasonal stream cascades through a forested gully. My old friend June grew up in Mill Valley and played there as a child in the 30s long before Mill Valley became the preserve of a rich liberal caste who seem to shun you as you walk the back roads ... perhaps a projection of my imagination since I have long observed how the rich look askance at those who invade their preserves without invitation. June showed Three Wells to our mutual friend Kurt, who was a mentor and best friend, and who perished of the plague in 1992. Kurt and I went to Three wells on several occasions to sit by its cascading waters and examine the Universe, as he would call our discussions.

Loss is everywhere in human existence ... it is the sine qua non of progress and change and both personal and social development. That is not praise for loss, nor does it equate one loss with another. We cannot hold back the hands of time, as it were, and the hands of time are driven by loss. My education in loss, as I have addressed from time to time in these scribblings, was AIDS ... "the Deaths", I have called it ever since ... and I had to come to grips with the unendurable. Not unique ... and I not so much comforted myself as assuaged my fears by thinking of other more horrible losses that at least someone survives.

Remember the 2004 tsunami. Ian was in San Francisco when it happened, and together we consumed the news insatiably. We had traveled together in Aceh, and knew some of the scenes. Watching the footage was addictive, not only because of the sheer horror or it, but also because of the vicarious participation in loss ... trying to fathom the unimaginable, trying to settle your mind on top of something that cannot be endured.

But, of course, it is endured. As one reads history, that is the remarkable thing about our species, that we endure against all odds. The results, let alone the causes, are not always pretty ... and there is endurance against that which cannot be controlled and endurance against that which ought never to have been.

There is also the less panoramic but more personal loss. Three local institutions emblematic of an earlier period in the history of the Castro (the San Francisco neighborhood where I live and where the defining early events of gay liberation occurred) ... Welcome Home, a hippyish greasy spoon that was a haven for gay clones in the 70s and 80s; All American Boy, a long-time clothier who supplied the clones with plaid shirts and jeans back in the day; and Gay Cleaners, the Chinese laundry run by the strangely cinematic and curiously named Gay family, apparently kicked out with a month's notice after 30 years by a greedy landlord who evidently does not read the Wall Street Journal. I am cranky about these losses because they signal the yuppification of our gentrified neighborhood, and I loathe all the cell-phone toting yuppies with their dumb-struck boyfriends in tow. I fear the loss of my neighborhood.

What sort of a loss is that by comparison with a people who lose their homeland or their way of life. Our society turns over at a furious pace ... an unsustainable pace, one might argue, but we still wait for the final proof on that. One has to be careful to balance one's sense of outrage at loss against the greater losses that we witness daily in the New York Times.

Loss. No future without it. Indeed, there is not past without it. One cannot address lass without thinking of one of my guiding aphorisms ... to whit, that there is no such thing as a zero sum game.

I won't spend a lot of time thinking of a loss from which greater gain was had ... do we have modern Europe without the guillotine, Napoleon, the Franco-Prussian War, the two great wars? Probably not, although that is not to say that all the horrors were the sine qua non. Could it not have gone another way? It turns out that there is not a lot of support in history for a flower child notion that history would have been much better if only everyone just got along.

But that is never a justification for the horrors of the moment. It is no argument that we cannot "at this moment, at this time" (paraphrasing Obama) apply reason and find ways for all sides to benefit. I think of Gaza in that sense.

And I think of those poor last nomads, Ian's friends, living in a forest hut yards from their more settled cousins, wistfully and sadly, if not bitterly, contemplating a loss whose contours even they cannot fully measure. There is no good reason for it; only greed ... a well-known historical reason. I quibble with Ian about how he records the oral texts of this people before they disappear. But I admire his courage in being willing to witness up close the agony of people unjustly stripped of their heritage, and to be willing to bear witness so that people in the future may remember these last nomads.

As I thought about this and watched the water in Three Wells, I remembered old Kurt, dead these 15 years. I remembered talking with him about issues just like this as we together watched the water swirl at Three Wells. Loss, and the future, and the unimaginable that comes true no matter what.

Photos by Arod of Three Wells, Mill Valley, California.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Christmas Day

On Christmas Day, the rain stopped and the sun took over long enough for my annual long walk in Christmas Hat through Golden Gate Park, and especially to remember my friends at the AIDS Memorial Grove. The Christmas tree above is from the east circle below the main entrance to the Grove. Every year, some group of gnomes puts this tree up, and I added a few ornaments today. As I did, a woman of roughly my age entered the circle, and quietly kissed a specific name among those engraved. We each sat silently and thought our thoughts ... and I wished her Merry Christmas as I left her alone.

My friend Kurt reintroduced me to Christmas in 1988 when he invited me along with Tom to cosponsor "A Victorian Christmas Party" in his home. That event is the genesis of the annual party I have co-hosted with various people ever since ... though I did miss two years for reasons that seemed important then but not now. Embracing Christmas is a little like sports to me ... you choose it or not, and when you choose it, you dive right in, you make it your own. I do not believe that there is only one way to do Christmas, and I try to enjoy everyone's different take.

For me it is about Santa Claus, and the deep northern traditions that this composite and evolving character embodies. Of course, there is plenty in Santa Claus that can be laid at the doorsteps of less northern climes ... but what attracts me is the notion of a wizard distributing presents and punishing the wicked all at once. These days, we remember the gifts, of course, but pay less attention to the willow branches and canes with which earlier eras were well acquainted.

The most fun of my annual walk is using the excuse of my silly hat, pictured to the left, to wish any one I pass a jovial Merry Christmas. The more run-o-the-mill middle class the folks are, the less likely they will return the gesture. There are quite a few "You too's" which is not quite the way one is supposed to do it. The appropriate response is "And a Merry Christmas to you also." I find older black men and folks with Russian accents are the most likely to respond in kind ... just an anecdotal survey from about a decades experience. Homeless people often response with a Merry Christmas, though I admit that I tend not to engage the more insane looking of these poor souls. Today I had a Ward and June Cleaver type family that chimed back in unison a cheery Merry Christmas; I thought maybe I had stumbled through a wormhole and I was temporarily in Indiana.

This evening, I will have dinner with my best friends at Solin and Winfield's ... we've done that most every year for over a decade ... excepting the several years when they wre recovering from a nasty fire that was the fault of their neighbor. Sad tale ... but suffice to say that they recovered and their magical home is intact and more beautiful than ever. It is one of those places where Christmas feels native and natural, and the spirit of the season shines.

And we eat and drink and make merry. On Christmas Day.

When we were children, we used to put on a Christmas play every year that we spent with our maternal cousins. It took a lot of doing, and coming and going ... I wish I still had the scripts. There are no photos or videos that I know of, but it was all-consuming, a magical interlude. Sooner or later there would be a little criing and all that, but the day the summit of the year.

Still is for me ... I try to capture the magic in my mind to review it from time to time during the long grind until next year.

So I will leave it at that, and say only this ... Merry Christmas to all!

Photos by Arod ... except the one of me, and I do not remember who took it. The other two are from the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Milk ... and Gay Rights Right Now

We saw Milk last night at the Castro Theater ... certainly the best place to see it given that most of the events happened within two blocks of there. I went with Ian and his lover Andrew and with my sainted ex, Richard. Ian and I were in gay liberation together in the 70s in Vancouver, BC. (I used to call Ian by the pseudonym Frobisher in the blog, but I am not sure why I am so circumspect and I am changing that effective now.)

What to say: it was a great movie, I was near tears from beginning to end, clutching at air. Sean Penn's Milk is perfect ... the only time I forgot he was not actually Harvey Milk was when he had his shirt off and when they showed his backside as he spoke in front of San Francisco's magisterial City Hall ... Milk just was not that buff. The Cleve Jones character was perfect ... I know Cleve, though never well and not recently.

The one historical complaint which must be made is that it failed to show the gay movement. In reality, Milk did not invent the movement, but he did ride it and to some degree inherit it. It was not Milk or Jones running from bar to bar that got those thousands of gay people to march at different times. It was the broader movement and the broader mobilization. When things happened, people knew to go to Castro and Market. At the time of the Briggs Initiative, the main local organization, never mentioned in the film, was BAGL (Bay Area Gay Liberation) ... I googled it and found virtually no references to it, although an obit for the recently deceased activist Hank Wilson mentions the name in passing. BAGL was a mass organization with a very sharp curve from nothing to everything to nothing again. It is natural for a heroic film to slide on the history in this fashion; it is more than a little painful given that the history of this era is being written by the few survivors and often by those opposed us at the time given the terrible toll from AIDS.

But aside from this problem, the film masterfully recreated the feel of the era. The apartments felt real ... disorganized and eclectic ... the meetings were real ... chaotic and sui generis. The street was like it was. Toad Hall, the bar that the cops raided ... I loved that bar. It was the hippie bar, sylvan and dark and magical sexy. The film was nostalgia on that level; I want those heroic moments of discovery and creation back ... that's what it said.

Worth noting too that the film did not "PC" the scene ... Gay Liberation was overwhelmingly a movement of gay men and of us, overwhelmingly white. We could not get women involved both because of the open hostility of feminism and because of the unfortunate tendency of the political lesbians of the time toward non-activist lesbian separatism. I do not have a straightforward answer for why more black and Asian gays did not get involved ... one cannot lay it solely at the door of community hostility because white gays also had community hostility. But the fact is that gay men made Gay Liberation, and without us it would not have occurred. There is no shame in that, notwithstanding the ceaseless and vitriolic and dismissive rewriting of history that we have to endure. Not sure how accurate the character of Anne Kronenburg is (I'll check the spelling later), but there were always one or two lesbian gay liberationists who were often shunned by mainstream feminism. In Canada, we had the recently deceased Chris Bearchell; that was pretty much it!

San Francisco was ground center of the movement. Notwithstanding that the modern movement was invented in New York. The key events occurred in very short order here. (I was an activist in Vancouver through this period in an organization called the Gay Alliance Toward Equality, GATE; we were in ready contact with San Francisco through our friend Michael Merrill, who is pictured with Harvey Milk in the immediate previous post on to this blog, and through various other activists including Howard Wallace who is still "on the pavement", as it were.) I was chilled again to see and hear Anita Bryant, the boogey man if ever there was one; I return to her below. She succeeded in turning around our gains in Dade County and in Wichita, and also in Eugene and St. Paul which then and now were viewed as liberal. You see, then as now, it was legitimate to hate us alone ... you're allowed to do it even if you cannot openly hate almost any other group; nowadays Mexicans come close to us, but still the haters have to be careful with them and refer to their immigration status not their national name.

The Briggs Initiative almost certainly failed because of how far it over-reached. But we beat the damn thing, and that was our first electoral victory, and still one of very few. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the film in Milk's role in defeating the initiative. At the time, I was a lefty, radical gay activist (never actually a GLFer ... see previous post ... though I tended to have knee-jerk ultraleft sympathies which were kept under control by Maurice Flood, about whom I have written before). I saw the victory then as the work of the BAGL type organizations and the mass mobilization. It is obviously more complex than that. All that said, the victory was euphoric.

And then the assassination ... it seems so natural now, like it was always fated. But it was a thunderbolt. Remember that the gay explosion had the feel of an extension of the counterculture because it took place in that context and often in that milieu. We felt we were part of the new history, irresistible, always moving forward, inevitable, unbeatable. Milk's assassination brought us back to the world like an airplane slamming into a mountain. Like so many turning points in history, it was a bit of an accident. What if Milk had gone to the bathroom and White couldn't find him. What if he had delayed or had a meeting. White didn't know any of that. He went there to kill Moscone, and then take out the fag. Shots were heard, people were wondering what was happening. What if someone had raised the alarm.

That is not how it occurred and its inevitability of is bolstered only by the fact that it did occur.

But the lesson of the film is this ... as I wrote yesterday ... Gay Liberation has always been about civil rights. And the civil rights of gay people are revolutionary because they challenge the dominance of religious control of morality and the state. True then, true now.

So in the spirit of Harvey Milk, I am going to take up once more the debate in which I was involved yesterday in regard to Bob Ostertag's frankly retrograde and compromisist approach to the gay marriage struggle. It has quickly devolved into what evidently started it ... a way for gay ultralefts to provide cover for a centrist president-elect who threw us under the bus. That's how I see it. I support this centrist president-elect, and I believe that a rational centrist is precisely what we need in this country. But the celerity with which he betrayed us must be noted, and we have a moral duty to ourselves and an ethical duty to everyone to point it out loud and clear. Whether that is a protest at the inauguration or through the ample public space for debate and demonstration is up to those who choose to make their voices heard. It is not up to a cadre of compromisers peddling half-truths and shibboleths. Sorry Bob ... I have nothing but respect for you ... but you are wrong-headed on this.

I somehow got onto a mailing list on Facebook ... I assume because Bob and I are friends ... which illustrates this underlying point. One person pointed out that Melissa Ethridge if giving cover to Rick Warren; this is what someone wrote to this mailing list (spelling errors not corrected):

Check out Huff Post. Melissa Etheridge is in our camp!

We can stop GAY. Incs and Andrew Sullivan's plans to
disgrace us at the obama inagural.

Gawd noze what "WAR IS OVER" means. But I do have to point out that the success of the gay marriage protests were precisely because activists went over the heads ... or under the feet ... of the official gay organizations and organized for themselves in a modern, more-electronic version of the same stuff we did in the 70s.

Milk would have been on the side of the activists, not the ultralefts.

Then this note today on the same mailing list:

One last thought. Obama lent his image and quotes to the No on 8 campaign. He did not have to do this, it was a huge favor to our community and probably one of the reasons we did not lose in a landslide.

East Bay black politicians like Wilson Riles, Keith Carson and Maudelle Shireek have been raising our cvil rights issues for a long time in front of audiences where there wasn't a gay person in the room. I wonder what they would think of a protest at Obama's inaugural.

So some decide to thank him for this by protesting a 60 second speech by an evangelical who's mind can be changed. That is if you believe change and personal growth are possible. A friend of mine, J.-P.-, i have no idea of her sexual orientation but i know she has a mighty fine spirit, is marching in the inaugural parade and will carry Jamiacan and rainbow flags in support of us. I would hate to have a predominantly white group rain on her parade or embarrass her. It was at my behest she carry a rainbow flag rather than an HRC flag. We'll let Andreew Sullivan do that. Obama is a bigger person than I. I would be thinking "what a bunch of $#%^ing ingrates.

Hard to know where to begin with something like this ... the inventions about East Bay politicians are particularly laughable. I am not identifying the author because some day he should be ashamed of this, and he is a well-known and respected street-level AIDS activist whose entire career bespeaks courage and commitment; I respect him deeply. But his views here are, in a word, reactionary.

What Milk taught us by his example is that we must speak truth to power. Not when it is convenient for the powerful, but always. Not when it is comfortable for us, but always. Every time. Without exception. Gay Liberation is not about race and cannot be subsumed under race. It is not even about gender, in my view, though certainly the trans-folks raise compelling issues about social constructions of gender. It is about loving whom you want to love and having sex with whom you want to have sex. It is about gay people being full human beings in every sense, and having inalienably the same rights as are inalienably a part of every other free person.

So back to Anita Bryant ... as I noted above, it was chilling to hear her voice and remember how her hatred spread its dark wings and cast a shadow over our lives. There is not a whit of difference between Anita Bryant and Rick Warren ... he has himself said that he entirely agrees with the positions of James Dobson, a virulent homo-hater, except in "tone". And that alone is what distinguishes the Anita Bryant homo-haters from the Rick Warren homophobes. Tone. Nothing but tone.

Tone and the smile of a preacher will get you a kick in the teeth. That's what Obama gave us, and it has been crushing. He should have known better, but he did not. Who is going to show him what we mean and what we demand?

What would Harvey have done?

On my way to a Christmas party at Richard's ... I will try to illustrate this with some photos tomorrow or on Boxing Day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gay Liberation Has Always Been about Civil Rights

My friend Bob Ostertag, who blogs for the Huffington Post, has written a piece against the gay marriage strategy, and I must beg to disagree.

The essence of Bob's piece and similar approaches (see the Facebook group "I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal") is that there are larger battles and that gay marriage traps us into a conservative agenda when we should be reaching out to people of color, other oppressed people, and evangelicals themselves to fight for more important issues and for more or less everything all at once. Bob's piece is considerably more eloquent than the tired cant of the Facebook group linked above. Here is his key paragraph:

"Gay marriage" turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making. Yes, married people get special privileges denied to others. Denied not to just gays and lesbians, but to all others. Millions of straight people remain unmarried, and for a huge variety of reasons, from mothers whose support networks do not include their children's fathers, to hipsters who can't relate to religious institutions. We could be making common cause with them. We could be fighting for equal rights for everyone, not just gays and lesbians, but for all unmarried people. In the process we would leave religious institutions to define marriage however their members see fit.

This is actually an old debate in gay liberation that dates to the earliest struggles within the movement immediately after Stonewall. Was gay liberation about equal rights for gay people or was it about the Revolution? The former view became institutionalized in the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), the latter in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The fact of history is that the GAA-type organizations led the fight for gay liberation, and the GLF organizations produced manifestos and begged the radical left to accept them. The radical left of the 70s spurned us, but we made a revolution anyway. And the freedom that gay people enjoy today in the West is a result of the activists, not the liberationists.

Applying Bob's logic to Stonewall, we could have argued ... and no doubt many GLFers did argue ... that the riot that started it all was about people going to bars. And going to bars "turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making" ... one could say that the right to get drunk is not as important as civil rights for everyone.

But wars are not won in some vague general fashion. Wars come down to battles, and battles are conjunctures formed both by the broader conditions and by the particulars of the moment. Ceding the battlefield because everything is not at issue all at once guarantees defeat. Fortunately, our movement never followed the advice of the GLF types. The freedoms we enjoy today are a result of that choice.

Our enemies in 1969 understood that letting fags associate in public was a crack in their armor. They fought it then. It is noteworthy that New York Times famously downplayed the event, and refused to use the word "gay" for a long time thereafter (until years into the AIDS epidemic). Gay liberationists viewed the New York Times as an enemy; eventually it came around. Like so many of our enemies who should have been our friends from day one, they came around because we organized around civil rights, not because we had colloquia on the downfall of capitalism.

Gay Liberation has always been about civil rights. It was then, and it is today.

I can agree with Bob that marriage is conservatizing. It is the most conservatizing institution in society. But if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us. And if there are changes in marriage, as indeed there are, we want to participate in those changes just as anyone else would. We want that choice; we want our voices heard; we want to be full participants in society. It is not for radicals to determine what choices people get to make. And, indeed, when radicals eschew gay marriage, they cede that institution and the changes it is undergoing to our enemies. Bob argues that openly ... and he is wrong, because he thereby advocates sailing away from the vast masses of society. It is a sort of chosen isolation from the society in which we seek engagement. The argument, applied to anything else, is absurd. Wall Street is corrupt ... well, let's leave Wall Street to its own devices and create a barter economy among our friends because not everyone believes in the stock market.

In that sense, the reactionary aspect of this argument is precisely to cede the notion of marriage to the religious bigots who have always led the charge against us. Again, this is a debate that has bedeviled the gay movement even before Stonewall. The ultralefts, as we called them in the 70s, argued against our supporting Leonard Matlovich, the first soldier to come out publicly, in 1975. People pointed out that he had been a racist, that he was a converted Mormon, that we should oppose the military in general. But Matlovich was a personal demonstration of why the civil rights "strategy" was the only road to freedom for gay people. Not only did his gay self-awareness make him an activist, it also changed him personally. Are we to say to gay soldiers that we do not support them because the military is wrong in Iraq?

If it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us; and if it needs changing, we want to be part of the change just as they are part of the change. Allowing ourselves to be sidelined is surrendering to our enemies. Pretending that our civil rights are unimportant because the world is not yet perfect is precisely what our enemies want us to do.

It is worth noting that Trotsky always thought that organizing the soldiers was key to revolution. He was right, regardless of how that whole thing turned out.

So back to gay marriage. There is a very touching photo essay in the LA Times that illustrates the following point. The general civil right we demand is the right to love as we choose. It is not the right to love as others choose for us. When the left decides that it is an error to seek equality in the choices available to us, it seeks to determine how we love. The fact that some straight people choose not to marry is a red herring. Compare it to abortion ... the right to abortion does not require abortion. It says that the choice about child-bearing is up to the individual. Compare it to black civil rights ... nothing in the civil rights movement for blacks said that they must be exactly like white people; it only says that they must have the same choices. The ultraleft black movements also eschewed the civil rights strategy in the key decades of the 60s and 70s; but it was the civil rights activists who led the victories that changed America. It is upon the backs of their efforts that Obama finds himself where he is.

So to Obama. It would certainly be an error for gay people, gay leaders, and gay organizations to boycott the inauguration or to step away from Obama because of his error in picking the religious bigot, Mr. Warren, to give the invocation. This was an error for Obama not because Warren is more than a homophobe ... sure he has socially appropriate positions on AIDS in Africa. It is an error because Prop 8 changed the landscape, and Obama missed that. More significantly, he chose to assume that he would not lose us and that he could disempower a significant reactionary religious opposition to him by embracing Warren. In other words, the fags and dykes have to come with me, but the evangelicals do not. So I will feint to the evangelicals, and wink to the homos.

That's an error. It is also deeply depressing. It is our job to point out the error. It is our job to call on liberal Christians to get out of their comfortable pews and fight their co-religionists. It is our job to remind our "allies" that our civil rights were taken away at the ballot box. And it is our job to get back to winning this battle.

More than anything, the success of gay marriage as an issue is that it speaks precisely to the hopes and fears of so many people, gay and straight. It cuts through the lies and shows that we are part of society with the same hopes and fears, needs and demands. I was deeply impressed at the vocal participation of young straight people at the several demonstrations that I attended. They see it. They see the simple fact that civil rights must be defended wherever they are threatened. They see that old union saw that an injury to one is an injury to all.

We cannot allow our movement to be sidelined by some amorphous call to think about global warming instead, or about homeless people, or about you-name-it other oppression. That is the essence of the latter part of Bob's argument ... that we must enlist evangelicals because some of them agree with some of the things that we agree with. Fine. Work with them on global warming, stand by them in soup kitchens. But we have to fight them when it comes to gay civil rights. They are wrong and ... we need to be clear ... religious opposition to gay marriage is bigotry. Period. Every one of us knows that in our gut, and we are right. Bob writes "We have now come to the point that many unthinkingly equate opposition to gay marriage with homophobia." That is not "unthinking" and that little word, my good friend, is a sly slight. I have been a gay liberationist since 1972, and I have watched them and how their arguments evolve. There is nothing unthinking about pointing out that Anita Bryant and Rick Warren are of a piece. They are homophobes, and we know that because they oppose our civil rights.

The history of homosexuality for a thousand years is the history of how our enemies silence us. That still is their strategy. When the black preachers of hate complain that they are disgusted by our comparing our struggle to the black civil rights struggle, they are trying to silence our history. When Rick Warren compares the right to marry to incest or polygamy or pedophilia, he seeks to obfuscate and to drive us back into the shadows of the hateful myth making that they have practiced against us. (Of course, the Bible is full of incest, polygamy, and pedophilia, not to mention gay love ... but they like to slide by on that one.)

I recently re-read Boswell's Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe ... must reading for everyone frankly, but especially gay people ... and I refer to his complaint as to why it is homosexuality that "dared not speak its name". Murder spoke; rape spoke; war spoke; hatred spoke. But gay love should shut up. Every time someone tells us to shut up, we need to shout out. That is what the gay marriage fight is about. Shouting that we are here to stay and you cannot force us back into the closet. We won't go.

At bottom, the ultralefts never had a significant influence on the struggle for gay liberation. And I do not believe that Bob's piece or the Facebook group will amount to anything. It has always been about civil rights, it still is, and I think we will win this one and move on to the next battle. But we must make the point that refusing to fight cedes the battleground to our enemies who are no doubt already planning their next assault against us.

Photos by Arod. Top and bottom photos from the Sacramento demonstration against H8; second one is of a photo of Harvey Milk (and I believe that the man behind Milk's elbow is my late friend, the gay liberationist and Buddhist Marxist, Michael Merrill); third photo of a Christmas tree lot at 15th and Dolores. More anti-Prop 8 demo photos here and here.

The Christmas Party

Wow! This year's event just blew my mind. Not entirely sure why, but we had double the folks we had last year ... RL, roommate and co-host, figure around 90 people. And the food ... it was a tsunami of food that literally blew us out of the kitchen. It is so hard to predict how much food will arrive ... but lots of good food is clearly the preferred approach. We have already made some commitments on adjustments to handle the food better next year ... a helper, some additional table space, and we will finally get it together on the garage and recycling bin front.

But all that, no matter how fabulous, pales beside the deeper joy that I find in this event. Those six hours are a sublime transport for me from everyday life. We labor greatly to make our home into the Christmas fantasy, and all our wonderful friends bring that fantasy to life through their camaraderie and joy. Christmas for me is about the thoughts and fears about renewal that the solstice inspires, and it is about gathering against the gloom of the seasonal darkness into the light which human beings create together. Christmas is artifice in the best human sense ... making light and merry no matter the cold and dark which nature provides.

So now a few more days until the day itself when we gather to eat and celebrate and love each other. And then 10 more days of living in the Christmas house before we return to the long year and all our struggles and endeavors, refreshed and invigorated by sharing something essentially human ... gathering and hoping and rejoicing together.

Photo by Arod of last year's Christmas tree. I will have photos of this year's decorations a little later. I have a Flickr site of photos of attendees; if you know me, drop me a note and I will send you a guest pass.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Carol

This is the other time of the year when my OD kicks into gear ... OD being obsessive disorder in the sense that I may be obsessive, but gawd dammit I am not compulsive ... the one time to produce the course catalog at MRU (that major research university for which I toil for wages) and this time to produce the annual Christmas Party that my roommate and I offer up in celebration of the "season" or by way of marking the solstice or for the love of Santa Claus. This is the 19th time in 21 years that I have been the host of this party, in various combinations with various people over the years. The roommate aforementioned is working from home today, but he just made a brief appearance to prepare a cup of hot peppermint chocolate in order to ward off the truly cold cold that has enveloped us here. So I will take advantage of this big mug of chocolate to blog a wee, not having posted for over two weeks.

I am on vacation for three weeks ... the present week to prepare for the big party and then the following two weeks because MRU is closed for the winter break. Of course, I will read email every day, and I have a series of very compressed one-pagers that I volunteered to create ready for day one of that truly New Year, 2009. There is no rest from work in modern work world ... but whatever pissiness I might have had about that in the past pales before the indubitable fact that having a job is something for which one must give thanks as the dubya era slithers into raw and uncompromising memory.

My good friend Roy and I attended for the 13th consecutive year the American Conservatory Theater's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. What a romp. This is the new version, that meaning that this is only the third season for the present version. There is not much to say other than that the performance, and Roy's and my outing to it, always marks the beginning of Christmas, and it is such a sheer unadulterated joy. So rather than review, I will reproduce below a little piece that I wrote a number of years ago on Scrooge.

But first, a few notes ...

I mentioned in my last post that I did not know the issues behind the Thai disturbances. It turns out ... and I thank my good friend Frobisher for pointing this out ... that the reason that very few, including folks like me who have a long background in Southeast Asia, know the background is because of a deep state-run plot to hide it from the world. It is all about the monarchy and its role in covering for the elite who benefit from the rigid caste-like character of modern Thai society. The lèse-majesté laws in Thailand are ludicrously out-of-line with its projection as a democratic country, and foreign journalists who run afoul will find themselves unceremoniously booted out. It is only The Economist which, albeit without a byline, had the guts to publish the facts ... here and here. And now, after years of disturbances reminiscent of the Republican riots in Florida in 2000, the elite classes finally have their guy in power. Perhaps the peasants have had enough, and they in turn will march off to the airport. If they do, believe that the government will not be so chary of force as it was when the housewives of privilege were the opposition.

And then, in a whoddathunkit moment, tossed shoes are the thing of the day. In his interviews afterward, dubya looked like the broken lump of trash in the dustbin of history that he is. Street art at its finest. My friend Bob Ostertag, who blogs at the Huffington Post, has a Throw My Shoes Too project. Check it out.

So on to Scrooge ... and my thoughts thereof from 1997 (give or take a year or two).

Bah, Humbug!
The illustration is by Ronald Searle, from A Christmas Carol, 1960.

It is no surprise that Christmas brings out the inner curmudgeon as surely as it brings out the inner child. Most of the year, I cultivate a certain, shall we say, gay curmudgeon in myself. But I stow it away come Christmastime. Others find Christmas to be the ideal season during which to display their humbuggery, taking ample opportunity to guffaw and harrumph.

The greatest of the humbuggers is, of course, Scrooge. And in Scrooge we find a proof of my thesis here because his story is the central myth of the Victorian Christmas as we know, remember, and practice it. (Both this year and last, my friend Roy took me to the American Conservatory Theater's exquisite performance of "A Christmas Carol." If you live in San Francisco, by all means make plans to see it!) In other words, is it not curious that this great Christmas story addresses humbuggery, even if humbuggery meets its match.

Humbuggery, then, is as much Christmas as sleigh bells and wassail. But, the humbugger is not even so much our alter ego as our familiar. He participates with us as we play our Christmas games. He searches Christmas out so as to have a venue to humbugger. The twinkle of lights inspires him as it does us. And, most importantly, he understands and believes that behind Christmas is something greater than what stands before us.

Modern humbuggers often ramble on about the commercialization of Christmas. Of course, they would equally rail against the commercialization of life itself in a larger sense, but that would undermine the special holiday pleasure of taking Santa Claus's name in vain. Modern humbuggers often snicker at all the lights and sweetmeats and specificities of Christmas, averring that it is all hollow or meaningless. But they too line up, demanding, "We all want our figgie pudding" just as do dedicated Christmas sprites.

Because humbuggers merely celebrate the season of warmth and giving in a different fashion ... and we must give them the same courtesy and acceptance as we give all the various Christmastime celebrations. Let them grumble by the raging fire, and pass them another mug of wassail.

Now, some will say that they truly hate Christmas, perhaps because of some childhood trauma, or because they despise what they see as its phoniness, or because the season as we presently enjoy it devotes insufficient time to religion or ideology.

There are two arguments we can make here. The first is that this is a season whose very message transcends the specific religion or ideology or practice to become a greater reflection upon the qualities which draw us together, which make us better people. That this celebration is associated with a specific tradition or culture is no surprise, nor should it be. Surely it is a great social good that we carve out a season of the year to remind ourselves directly that there are greater goods and larger purposes, that goodwill is a facet of human being to be cultivated. The humdrum of our everyday lives does not provide the same collective venue as a designated season for higher reflection. So we use the opportunity of an ancient, syncretic tradition to remind ourselves of the currents of warmth and kindness that course through even the Scroogiest of us all.

The second argument, not unconnected to the first, is that all is not what it seems. We might say that the phoniness of Christmas masks its inevitable ability to inspire. We might say that the bright lights enable the Scrooge to contemplate human kindness while attention is focused elsewhere. We might say that the "phony" displacement of attention from the intractable problems of this terrible species to which we belong enables reflection otherwise unattainable. We might just say simply that a pause for joy is good for you, so take your medicine whether you like it or not.

Which, I think brings us back to poor Scrooge. He was cured of his humbuggery by ghosts who scared him into jolliness. We often think of poor Tiny Tim, or the efficacy of ghosts, or even the terrible effects of the promise of inevitable death. But I say, think back on Scrooge. Were not the ghosts creations of his own mind? Did he not reflect upon his own life, his own choices and the effects of those choices on those around him? Did he not find Christmas within?

So Scrooge is just like our putative humbugger ... a man of goodwill and joy unwilling for whatever reasons to express those qualities in the very season which epitomizes them. So the next time your mean Uncle Al or your surly Aunt Bess grouses at all the trouble, hand them a glass of Christmas ale with a smile and a pat on the back.

And say this: Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.