Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I'm a side-sleeper.

Tonight something came to me. Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, in order for this particular something to come to me, I had to be drunk. Nor would I say that my having run into an ex-friend in Wal-Mart earlier this evening -- a friend with whom I had a particularly painful falling-out last week -- was requisite to this particular insight. And I would be the last one to suggest that talking to a delightful trio of lesbians on Facebook was a necessary mental catalyst for the insight. I'm just saying that, for me, all these factors seem to have helped.

How many hours per day do you spend having sex?

No. It's not a prurient question. Really. Trust me.

How many hours per day do you spend having sex? I would guess that even the most sexually heroic of us could not lay (ha!) claim to having sex more than three hours per day. That's three hours average out of every twenty-four. Feel free to call me on that. No, really. You needn't feel guilty about making me feel like a doddering old bastard. I'll just sit here in the dark with my ham sandwich...

Anyway. Just for the sake of argument, let's say that anyone who has to work for a living is probably not spending more than three hours out of any given twenty-four having sex.

How many hours per night do you sleep?

Even the craziest fucker I ever met slept sometimes. Even people like Winston Churchill took catnaps that totaled to at least a few hours out of every temporal diurnal anomaly. Even the people who make me think "Damn, how the hell can they do that?" sleep around four or five hours per night. Which leads me to conclude that...

Even the most sleep-deprived person spends more time sleeping than he spends having sex.

So that means...

I could ask you "Are you straight, gay, bisexual, other?"

...and the answer to that question would have less bearing on your life than the following question.

"Are you a side-sleeper, back-sleeper, or stomach-sleeper?"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alterité

Since my conversation with my sister, I've been thinking a lot about trying to understand people who don't share my views about bendy folk. I suppose that's why I made such an unexpected connection last night.

I was listening to Professor Jeremy McInerney lecturing* about Greece in the aftermath of the Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C. My ears perked up when he started talking about how the Greeks defined themselves in relation to their enemies.

McInerney makes the point that, prior to the Persian Wars, not even the Greeks living within the Persian Empire saw the Persians as alien. There are records of Persian rulers of Greeks in Persian territory who worshiped the local Greek gods. Greeks served at the Persian court. Greek craftsmen went, happily, to work on Persian projects.

But then, during the Persian wars, the Greek attitude seems to have shifted. They came to see the Persians as effete, effeminate easterners. War had transformed their neighbors into The Other. In defining themselves, they had taken everything they thought about themselves and projected its mirror image onto their enemies. Some historians call this process alterité.

This all struck me as a possible answer to my question "Why on earth are people -- especially people who aren't even religious -- so uncomfortable with gay folks? What difference does it make?" Perhaps the answer is "They need to strongly define themselves, and this definition includes the assignment of an opposite."

But here's the question that has always maddened me: "Why the U.S.?" Why are we, of all people, so bothered by gays? In our short history we've prided ourselves in giving the finger to authority while we give a voice to the individual citizen. Of all people, shouldn't we be the ones to proclaim that a person's sexuality has nothing to do with his worth?

Well, let's look at us in relation to the Greeks. According to the theory of alterité, the Greeks needed to define themselves in response to war. That sure sounds familiar. World War II filled America's head with visions of its Greatest Generation. Since then the American man has had one heck of an image to live up to. To fulfill this need, did he also require someone to be everything the American man wasn't?

Then, long before the guns were cool, the Russians stepped in and gave us a whopping big boogeyman: a mirror in which we saw our dark opposite. Again the American man had a foil against which to define himself and a source of paranoia. Did this make him look around himself for his antithesis?

And in the midst of all this, some of the biggest civil rights movements in history arose. Liberals became more visible and organized. New media technology showed the world images of the military being called in to enforce desegregation laws. Liberal and conservative had a new arena in which each gleefully saw in the other an evil homunculus. Did this solidify the image of the gay as everything the Real American wasn't?

"What does it mean to be an American?" Aside from the years immediately following the American Revolution, I imagine that the years since World War II have been those in which Americans have most desperately needed to answer that question.

Does our fear of gay people stem from a need to define ourselves?

That question is not academic. It bears on my work as an ally. If the answer is "Yes" then the nature of that work becomes much more clear: my job is to break down the illusion of The Other. My job is to show people that The Other is us.



*Here is a transcription of the relevant sections from Professor McInerny's lectures.

One last aspect of the modern treatment of the Greeks we need to address is that over the last two centuries, as the modern nation states of England, Germany, France, and the US, have taken shape, moving out of being earlier kingdoms or constituting themselves are republics, they developed national identities as all nations have at some point. This is created out of a duel process of a consideration of what we once were, of our past, and of what the other cultures and civilizations are around us, the ones we deal with. This is the process often referred to as alterité, where we look at another culture or civilization and see in it the opposite of ourselves. We take our values and abstract the negative onto the other.

Now in the course of this century we've certainly seen that in the way that we in the western world have looked at the Soviet Union as it one was, and now that it's gone we have much different feelings about the Russians. Yet we thought of that world as being in some sense, our diametric opposite. More generally speaking, there's been a strong notion that we, all in the west, western Europe and the English-speaking world, North America, are somehow different from the east.

This has been a product of our colonial experience and history, and has meant we've had to think of ourselves somehow as being culturally quite distinct. Part of that process of identifying what we are, as opposed to what they are, has been to think about our past and what we come from. So the whole enterprise of studying the ancient world has really often been tainted by this notion of finding some kind of cultural superiority in the west, a superiority of our way of doing things. Whereas the east could point to Confucian philosophy, the aesthetic accomplishments of China or Japan, the western version of this has been to go back to our Classical roots.

...

More importantly, not only is Greece relatively insignificant in terms of the whole expanse of the Persian Empire, this I think is really significant: there were many Greeks living and working in the Persian Empire, and who did not think of the Persians as being a completely foreign and alien people who were the exact opposite of them. We know that, for example, as Persian power increased, and as they called upon stonemasons to build their extraordinary palaces, they were importing Greeks from Ionia, who were working quite happily in the Persian Empire. We know Greeks who were actually living at the court of the great king, working for him, recording, acting as doctors for the great king and so forth.

So I think that it is a great mistake to think that, at the time that the Greeks and the Persians first came into contact, there was an immediate sense that the two were destined to a final confrontation. That's a view that is dictated by subsequent events. But in fact at the time I think the world must have looked very different indeed.

...

The victory of the Athenians, the Spartans, and the rest of the Greeks, had enormous consequences for the Greeks themselves. It's from this time onwards, really, that we find the Greeks more fully articulating a sense of their Greek identity as opposed to another identity. In this case, the Persians playing the role of The Other. You may remember in a very early lecture in this series we talked about the notion of alterité, of defining onesself in relation to another culture. From this time on, the Persians will play that role for the Greeks, as that alien other culture. In fact one very good book written on the Greeks of the fifth century is called The Mirror of Herodotus, claiming that when Herodotus looked at the Persians he was really looking, in a sense, in a mirror, seeing the negative reflection of what the Greeks liked to see in themselves.

Consequences of this victory were wide-ranging and far-reaching. It is from this time, for example, that we find the Greeks in their political discourse often using the term "eleutheria", meaning "freedom". It's quite clear that the victory of the Greeks over the Persians resulted in them more clearly articulating in their own minds the idea of what freedom entailed. And so the characteristic notion of Greek freedom, that takes root at this time, is that it is the freedom of a community to exist autonomously -- free of the influence of an outside power. And this remained a powerful idea throughout the rest of Greek history and remains a powerful idea and an interpretation of freedom even today.

An ignoble question for my bendy friends

My argument with my sister caused me a lot of pain. But my reaction to the pain actually felt worse than the pain itself, because I saw something in myself that I didn't like.

In talking to my sister I felt like I was communing with the ugliest aspects of my family. There's my uncle Frank, sitting around the table loudly proclaiming that "Wherever there are niggers in the world, there's trouble." There's my uncle Stanley sitting within arm's reach of my nephew and niece, saying something nasty about black people, in a house where I'm not supposed to say the word "gay" in front of those same children.

And there's everyone in my whole family talking to anyone but the person they need to talk to. Did person A piss you off? Well then, bitch to person B or C about it, but never talk directly to person A. And if you should actually talk to person A, make damned sure that you don't bitch about what you're really mad about. Bitch about something else. If we actually addressed our problems we might solve them, and where would we be without our anger and resentment?

This is how my sister had reacted to me. And what did I do? I went ahead and followed the same damned pattern. And when I finally let out my feelings, it was like popping a balloon: I don't seem capable of just letting a little of the air out; no, I have to let it all out in a big explosion.

In the midst of all this pain, I had a desire. I wanted to say to my gay friends "Can I have a pat on the head?" I wanted them to know what I'd done. I wanted some recognition, some appreciation, some love that would dull the pain.

That desire is beneath me. It defies everything I believe about morality: that I do what is right because it's right, regardless of whether anyone is watching. A moral act done with the thought of any reward whatsoever ceases to be a moral act and becomes nothing but service rendered for payment.

Yet I want it. I feel small and... smaller than any creature that could even warrant the word "ugly". But I want it. So I have to ask...

Is it OK that I want a pat on the head?

The Abyss Revisited

I've been feeling bad since around Thanksgiving, when I had a troubling argument with my sister while visiting the family home. It wouldn't hurt so much if the argument had been about what happened that day. But it was about something that happened over a year ago.

Last year at about this time I wrote about how my sister shushed me for saying the word "gay" in front of her children. At the time, I got furious because I felt that I finally understood her previously incomprehensible behavior: she didn't actually disagree with my activism because, as she said, "[gay people] may not want your help"; the truth was that she didn't like gay people, and she didn't want me helping them.

So for a year I've been more distant, not talking to her about it because I felt like she hadn't been straight with me. Yeah, I know. Not the most productive behavior.

So when my bottled-up resentment came out, it came out big -- and it got bigger. Because when I first mentioned my anger over her shushing me, she rounded on me, expressing her anger that I would say "that word" in front of her children. I was so furious that I wanted to say to her "You're mad at me? Well, guess what? My mad is bigger than yours!"

So I started out by saying "You want me to pretend that gay people don't exist? Well, I guess I'd better not let them know that niggers exist, either, huh?" She sputtered in shock that I would make the comparison, so eventually I switched tactics. I said "OK, how about albinos? Should I pretend that albinos don't exist? What's the difference?"

My sister kept sputtering about how albinos look physically different, but with gay people it's a sexual preference. And I kept cutting her off, driving home the point that I was not talking about sex. This point is critical to me, because I feel that the primary argument against exposing children to the notion of same-sex couples is absurd. People say that for children to read a book about Timmy's two daddies is to bring sex into the classroom. Nonsense. I say -- and I kept saying to my sister -- that if you claim that the book about Timmy's daddies is sexual, then you have to say that a book about Jane's mommy and daddy is also sexual.

Well, long story short: I told my sister that there are hundreds of ways in which I will defer to her judgment in my interactions with her children, but I will not pretend that my gay friends don't exist. I said that I don't feel that she gets to edit my conversation to that extent. She said that she thinks she does. I replied that I would not bring any agenda to a conversation to her children, but if my friend Mel and her girlfriend should happen to come up in a conversation, I would mention them. And then it would be her choice whether she wanted to cut off my contact with them.

I was enraged and indignant and frustrated that night. My frustration arose mainly from my inability to articulate the distinction between those ways in which I will defer to my sister's judgment, and that one way in which I wont. The distinction is there. It's real. I can see it in my mind's eye, and yet... I can't articulate it to myself, let alone my sister.

I feel that the closest I've come is this: My niece and nephew do not deserve an uncle who is so craven as to desert his friends. They deserve an uncle who would never pretend that his friends don't exist. And I'm going to give them that uncle, or nothing at all. That's why I feel perfectly comfortable with telling her that if she doesn't like it, she can keep me from seeing them.

During the following days my anger faded, and I was able to feel my pain more and more. I wished that I'd brought up the topic earlier so that my anger wouldn't have had a chance to fester. Maybe then I wouldn't have left feeling like I'd just had a deeply encysted wound lanced. Maybe then I wouldn't have felt bad about castigating my sister for something that happened a year ago.

Then, once I was able to think more clearly, a new thought came to me: I missed a big opportunity. Since I became an ally and an advocate, I've known that it's my job to listen to people who disagree with me, because if no one listens then nothing gets accomplished. Only when one party makes the effort to genuinely engage with the other can a dialectic begin.

I let my anger get the better of me, and I unloaded all my self-righteous rage onto my sister. And in so doing I missed a big opportunity. After all, if I can't calmly listen to my sister, whom can I listen to?

So. Next time I have some time alone with my sister, I'm going to calmly ask her to talk to my about why she feels the way she feels. Until I do that, I can't hope to understand it.