October 29, 2010

Queer Issue: Coming Out

It's been said that "coming out" is a process that can last a lifetime. Certainly, no queer has only had to come out once and only once.

When I first came out, it was in high-school. I did it during a presentation on same sex marriage and gay adoption for my participation in government class. When I gave the presentation, I explained that the reason I had chosen my topic was because I actually was gay. That was the hardest time I had coming out. Before then, I had told a few friends and family members, but that was the first time I had come out to a large group.

In college, I found it very easy to come out to people as being gay. A lot easier than in high-school at least. I cannot recall receiving any negative attention at all, for coming out while I was in college. I even gave a presentation on the implications of biological causes of same sex attraction in regards to free will. I even received plenty of positive feedback from my peers for it.

Of course, coming out in college is not the same thing as coming out on the job. Once, when I was volunteering at a place I'd rather not specify, I experienced what I felt - but could never actually prove - to be a homophobic incident.

The incident was that I was unexpectedly asked to leave by one of the regular staff members. Whilst no homophobic slurs or language was used at the time, I felt that the individual was acting on homophobic impulses, due to the way that they had been behaving that evening and their inexplicable anger at me. Afterwards, I was mortified and embarrassed. I complained to the administration and the staff member in question was subsequently let go.

While, I got over my embarrassment, the incident got me thinking about how difficult it must be in many places for LGBTQIA individuals to come out at their place of employment. Anti-discrimination laws are all well and good, but I can imagine many cases in which they would not offer adequate protection to those who would need it.

In my case, I was lucky, I was a volunteer, providing (what I would like to think) constituted a much needed and appreciated service.

"Coming Out" is not a simple one step process. Whilst I certainly experienced a great deal of personal difficulties as the result of being closeted for nearly my entire adolescence, it bears remarking that the reason for it was that I knew deep down that there would be hard consequences for coming out. My experience as a volunteer of being asked to leave, was not the first time, nor do I expect it be the last, that someone made it clear that I was not welcome because I was gay.

October 25, 2010

Queer Issue: "Hidden Voices: The Lives of LGBT Muslims"

I have just returned home tonight after attending a presentation, "Hidden Voices: The Lives of LGBT Muslims" by Faisal Alam, the founder Al-Fatiha. According to their website, the purpose of the group is as follows:

Al-Fatiha is dedicated to Muslims of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and questioning or exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (LGBTIQQ), and their families, friends and allies.

Al-Fatiha promotes the progressive Islamic notions of peace, equality and justice. We envision a world that is free from prejudice, injustice and discrimination, where all people are fully embraced and accepted into their families, faith and communities.

Alam started his presentation with a general discussion of Islamic culture, before talking about the struggles specifically faced by LGBT Muslims. To be honest, I sometimes like to think I had it rough, knowing I was gay since 6th grade, yet not being able to discuss the matter with anyone. Yet, Alams' presentation showed that what I went through was nothing compared to the difficult trials that some Queer Muslims have been forced to endure.

Another point that Alam brought up that while it is true that many conservative Islamic societies do oppress women, this is not always the case. To prove his point, Alam showed pictures of women modeling expensive clothing at a fashion show.

Alam also relayed his personal story and what led to him from being a model Muslim, to how the silence he was forced endure resulted in him founding Al-Fatiha.

At the end of the day, the experiences of non-white, Christian LGBTQIA are too often ignored. Fortunately, Faisal Alam is willing to break the silence in order to bring attention to the experiences of Muslim LGBTQIA. The world is certainly a better place for it.

October 23, 2010

Queer Issue: Normally Queer

"We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile." From Star Trek: First Contact

It has been said that America is a melting pot where people of various cultures, nationalities, and racial heritages can come together and coexist. Or try and coexist, as at times it may seem that we fail and fail to do so quite badly. With this article, I will be merely scratching the surface of a much larger issue, but I wanted to put some ideas out there get people thinking.

Let me start with a simple question. How does one maintain a queer identity within a broader social context? Or rather think of it this way, is there any such thing as a "normal" gay, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, individual? In short, is it possible to be normal and still be queer?

The reason I ask, is that in the fight for LGBTQA individuals to be accepted within society and to receive equal treatment, there has been an increasing amount of talk of "we are normal and just like everyone else". I think this claim is not only wrong, but rather dangerous. I say this on the grounds that "normality" is relative and in trying to establish it for a queer culture marginalizes those who fall outside certain boundaries.

I quoted the Borg Star Trek's most fearsome villains for a reason. The Borg - for those who never saw Star Trek: The Next Generation - are a collective of individuals, all wired into a singular mind. They take the characteristics of the individuals they assimilate and make those characteristics a part of their collective. What makes them so frightening therefore, is the complete loss of individuality and free will that occurs for those who are assimilated.

And so too it goes with the assimilation of queers into mainstream culture. I am not the first to point out that such assimilation would result in the loss of anything that makes queer culture unique. We are all unique, just like everyone else, or so the positive and upbeat divirsity promotional posters would have us believe.

But it is within here that lies the heart of the conundrum lies. A melting pot, by implication, destroys the individuality and diversity of the starting elements. Therefore, the key question arises, should an individual maintain ones' individuality at all costs or allow oneself to be melted down and assimilated into a larger culture?

We demand equality by asking for marriage to be for more than just opposite sex couples. We demand the repeal of the military's policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. At times, this seems to be the limits and focus of our drive to create a more equal society.

Don't get me wrong, these are good things to work for, but should they be all? Should we not also work towards measures that will allow for the acceptance of trans people? Shall we not accept that human sexuality and gender is a fluid concept that goes beyond the dichotomies of male/female or gay/straight? In the struggle for true equality, will we take into account the fact that people do not fall into easily defined categories?

October 20, 2010

Setting the Record Queer: Alan Turing

From xkcd by Randall Munrow.

Alan Turing was, arguably, one of the most influential queers of the Twentieth Century. Without his work on mathematics and computer science, modern computers would not be nearly as sophisticated or advanced as they are today. His Turing test, while heavily criticized and controversial, is still used as a measure of the Artificial Intelligence of computing devices. His first lover was Christopher Morcom. Morcom's untimely death lead Turing on a lifelong quest to better understand the human mind, specifically, the nature of consciousness and how human mind could survive death.

Turing also worked as a code breaker during World War II for the Allies. He was so successful, that historians claim that Turing's work on breaking German Codes most likely helped shorten the war in Europe.

Turing's life was ultimately tragic. In 1952, he was convicted of "homosexual acts", which were illegal in England at the time. His punishment consisted of chemical castration, whereby he was forced to take female hormones in order to "cure" him. He died on June 23rd, from poisoning resulting from eating a cyanide laced apple. Turing most likely committed suicide, although his family denies that he would have tried to kill himself, instead claiming that the incident was accidental.

At the time of Turing's conviction, he was unable to discuss his work as a Code breaker as it was highly classified at the time. Thus, he was unable to even bring up in court, his pivotal role in World War II. The irony here, should not be lost on anyone.

Recently, I wrote about the Nazi persecution of queers during World War II. It is easy enough to condemn the Nazis for their persecution of many different populations. Even harder to do, is to face the hypocrisy that exists in our own culture. The Bible tells us, "Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye." Mathew 7:5

I could draw further parallels, to what is going on in today's political climate, but I'll leave those to readers imagination.

Queers in History by Keith Stern
Alan Turing, Wikipedia

October 19, 2010

Queer Review: Latter Days

There are many movies I like and many movies I love. Latter Days, a 2003 gay romantic comedy, is not one of them. Maybe it's because I don't 'get' the genre, but I'm not a fan of mindless romanitc comedies, irregardless of the sexuality of the couple in question, but this movie irritated me.

To start, the characters and entire plot are stolen from Elementary Clichés 101. This might be forgivable, except that the movie is extremely shallow, not funny, nor remotely entertaining in any other way.

Aaron is your typical straight arrow Mormon missionary, who also happens to be a closeted gay. Christian is a shallow party boy, trying to make it big as an actor in Hollywood and Los Angelos. They meet when Aaron and several other Mormon missionaries move into the same apartment complex as Christian. Christian makes a bet with his friends that he can bed one of the Mormons, and targets Aaron, who in turn, starts to fall for Christian. What happens from there on out, is easily predicted, with the movie hitting all the notes that one might expect from any other romantic comedy with a similar premise.

As I said, my dislike of this movie probably has a great deal to with my dislike for romantic comedies in general. In other words, if one likes romantic comedies and does not mind knowing how everything will end once the wheels have been set in motion, one might have a more enjoyable experience then I did.

For those who share my feelings on the matter, Latter Days is not going to change any minds. In any case, feel free to put off watching this movie until later for many many days.

Setting the Record Queer: Ernst Röhm, the Gay Nazi.

Ernst Röhm was among Adolf Hitlers closest friends and supporters. That is, up until he was assassinated by Hitler on the Night of the Long Knives.

A founding member of the Sturmabteilung (SA), Röhm eventually became its commander. Reports indicate that Röhm and Hitler became such close comrades, that Röhm was the only individual that Hitler addressed with the German Familiar term 'du'. Likewise, not only was Röhm the only person who could address Hitler as such, but he alone could refer to Hitler as 'Adolf'.

Röhm had a reputation for being brutal street fighter. In addition to saying "All revolutions devour their own children, Röhm also claimed:
Since I am an immature and wicked man, war and unrest appeal to me more than good bourgeois order. Brutality is respected, the people need wholesome fear. They want to fear someone. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive.

This illustrates Rohm's theory that the most effective form of terrorism, is terrorism that targets the lower classes, rather than the rulers of a society. The idea of course, that the rulers are better protected as well as being easy to replace. However, the result of targeting the lower classes is a clampdown on their rights and freedoms, ultimately resulting in chaos. Compare that to what is going on today in the world today after 9/11 or the society created by George Orwell in his novel 1984.

Ernst Röhm eventual downfall came about from Hitler's growing belief that Röhm was his greatest threat. Fearing a possible SA take over, Hitler had members of the SA Command arrested and executed. In the case of Röhm, Hitler initially refused to order his execution, instead giving Röhm the opportunity to commit suicide. Röhm refused, famously saying "If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself!" He was executed on July 2nd, 1934.

It's important to note that Röhm's sexual orientation was well known to both Hitler and the German public while Röhm held power in the SA. This never seemed to bother Hitler as he defended Röhm, saying "the SA are a band of warriors and not a moral institution."

Furthermore, one of the often overlooked aspects of the Holocausts was that the Nazi's also targeted gay men and trans individuals, in addition to Jews, Catholics, Jehovaha Witnesses, people with disabilities, among many other groups.

Why bring this up? Because there are always new lessons that history can teach us. It appears there is nothing stopping the oppressed from becoming the oppressor. Röhm's sexual orientation was no secret, yet he still supported an organization that led one of the most vicious attacks against queers in modern history.

Queers in History by Keith Stern
Ernst Röhm, Jewish Virtual Librry
Ernst Röhm, Wiki Quotes
Ernst Röhm, Wikipedia

October 16, 2010

Queer Review: Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters is by Chuck Palahniuk, the same author who wrote the novel Fight Club. Readers of both will readily identify the extraordinarily chaotic, yet still, somehow, understandable narrative that marks each book.

The plot of Invisible Monsters is revealed piecemeal, non-chronologically, through the eyes of a former beauty obsessed model, now hideously deformed "monster", by the name of Shannon McFarmland. After Shannon's life is nearly destroyed through an unexpected accident (the lower part of her face is shot off), she meets Queen Brandy Alexander, a former male on the last stages of a gender reassignment procedure. Wishing to escape her life, Shannon joins with Brandy in hopes of escaping the hideous monster that she now has become. Because no one will now look at her, Shannon steals a chicken from a supermarket, just to see what would happen.

What follows is strange journey through America as Shannon, Brandy, and their male escort Seth, that is like Alice In Wonderland minus the fantasy elements and the weirdness raised to the highest possible level, plus a few more. In short, this book is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended.

The plot is a lot more complicated then the preceding description would imply, but there are a lot of violent plot twists and daring turns, a few of which I was able to guess at, though mostly I failed to see coming. This is the type of story that works best when one finds out those twist and turns for oneself.

There are plenty of themes and ideas that Palahniuk analyzes, deconstructs and willfully attacks, sledgehammer swinging merrily away. An ongoing theme revolves around the visibility of "beautiful people" in our culture versus the way plain people are usually just ignored, thus leading to the extreme lengths people will go to either become more beautiful or retain their good looks as old age advances. Invisible Monsters is a truly fascinating work, that says a lot about how outward appearance can shape one's inner identity and the impact of societal perceptions.

The usual cliches apply "Invisible Monsters is a real page turner" or "I couldn't put it down" or "a modern masterpiece", which is ironic in a way, as Palahniuk is not the sort of writer who deals with cliches or predictable plot points. In the end, I found this to be a rare combination of smart writing that contains more then a few visceral gut punches. Invisible, this book should not be.

October 14, 2010

Queer Issue: Bullied to Death.

I intend to talk about a very sensitive and personal issue here. I make no apologies for what I am about to say here nor do I believe that I have any reason to hide now from the public eye events that occurred years ago.

Recently, news reports have focused in on a string of suicides committed by LGBTQA teenagers. They have successfully brought to light a serious problem, one that is not new, but has existed for decades. While this issue is now in the public eye, I have decided to talk in detail about my own experiences during my senior year of high-school.

It started while I was working on my Boy Scout Eagle Project. For those who don't know, the Eagle Scout award is the highest rank in Boy Scouts.

My memory is a little fuzzy on the details. I remember that on the last day of my Eagle Scout project, which was a Sunday, I can remember making some excuse to my Mom to skip church. Once I was alone I got a knife and proceeded to try and slit my wrists.

I don't remember now, why I wanted to kill myself. Nor do I recall, what compelled me several weeks later to try and suffocate myself with duct tape on my 18th birthday. I'm not sure either, as to my motivations when I found myself in front of the garage with a plan to park my mom's car inside and leave it running.

What would drive anyone to do this?

I can come up with only one rational answer. By living in perpetual fear. By being told that being queer was something to be ashamed of. That being queer is inferior, gross, and disgusting. That queers should not be seen or heard in public. That you should never, ever tell anyone who you were.

This is the message that was not sent to just me, but sent and reinforced to every queer teen in this country by their peers, parents, teachers, social institutions, the media, and even our government. Don't ask Don't tell has been the mantra of the U.S. Military and the Boy Scouts of America. That's so gay! was the in way of expressing disdain for anything "dumb" or "stupid" for as long as I can remember.

Should I wonder now, why I did what I did? Is it any surprise, that after I found the will to stand up in front of a class of my peers and tell them that I was gay, that I never once tried to commit suicide again?

I'd like to make a few points in closing:

1) It's important to note that bullying of anyone is a problem. Children and teenagers need to understand that picking on, insulting, or intimidating their peers, is absolutely unacceptable.

2) While media attention has been pointed towards a few recent suicides of LGBTQA youth, let us not forget that this is an on going issue, involving many, many more people. And it is not limited to queer youth, but the scope and problem of bullying expands even further.

3) In my experience, society in the form of teachers, parents, clergy and other authority figures, frequently reinforce the idea to youth, that simply being different (in any way) is somehow "wrong".

And so, let us not forget about those who have gone before. Those who were bullied for being different. Those who were victims for no other reason then being themselves. That is all I ask.

October 6, 2010

Queer Review: Angels In America

Angels In America was a TV mini series, produced by HBO and based on the Tony Kushner play of the same name. The plot is an elaborate affair, focusing in on the evolving AIDS crisis of the mid 1980s and featuring an ensemble cast of fictional and non-fictional characters.

Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) has just been diagnosed with AIDS and now faces a long, agonizing slide towards death. His Jewish lover, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman) finds himself unable to cope with watching Prior die, abandons him, eventually hooking up with Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). Joe is friends with Roy Cohen (Al Pacino) who is offering Joe a high placed position, which would force him to move from New York City to Washington. When he discuses Cohen's proposal with his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) she refuses to go along with him due to her severe depression and anxiety. Joe Pitt is a closeted gay man because of his firm religious beliefs and their relationship is deteriorating as a result. Roy Cohen is also closeted, but his reasons have more to do with wanting to maintain his high social status and influence.

While all of this is going on, Prior Walter is receiving visions of Angels (Emma Thompson) proclaiming him to be a prophet. As the plot progresses it is revealed that God has abandoned heaven and the Angels blame mankind for this. Their message therefore is for humans to stop changing or "moving". Along with the assistance of his friend Belize (Jeffery Wright) and Joe Pitt's mother, Hannah (Meryl Streep) Prior must decide to whether or not to believe these visions, which have many implications for the future.

Roy Cohen is also receiving visions, but of a much more ominous type. As he too begins to die from AIDS, Cohen is being haunted by Ethyl Rosenberg (also played by Meryl Streep), who was executed for being a communist spy and blames Roy for her death. It is worth noting that Cohen and Rosenberg are based on the real life individuals who share their names.

Thematically, the movie is asking questions regarding the role of religion in a modern society that is struggling with acceptance and tolerance of all people as well as how it is possible to live when one is dying from a disease that has no true cure and results in slow, agonizing death for almost all its victims. As for the religious concepts, the movie relies a great deal on Mormon mythology, in fact all of the Pitts are all devout Mormons.

At the end of the series, a note of hope is offered up for AIDS sufferers. In a lesser movie, this might not have worked, but it does here due to the graphic and realistic way the ravaging effects of AIDS has on its victims - which was practically a death sentence at the time when treatments were less effective. I made the mistake of trying to watch the movie while eating dinner. Not since I watched The X-Files in high-school, have I found myself looking away from the screen so often while trying not to up-chuck.

The story is effective in it's portrayal of issues affecting queers - religion, acceptance and tolerance, living with HIV/AIDS. The acting by the leads is excellent, without a weak performance to be found. I was particularly fond of Meryl Streep's performances as Ethyl and Hannah and Joe Kirk as a man who has been abandoned as he faces a terrible death.

I would recommend this movie to those who are interested in dramas that portray real issues and weighty ideas, rather then simply skimming over them to get to more exploitative material. Ultimately, this is a rare gem, a well made movie with messages and themes, that is not afraid to say what it has to say.

October 3, 2010

Queer Review: Let Me In vs. Let the Right One In

The 2010 film Let Me in is an American remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One. Directed by Matt Reeves, Let Me In tells the tale of a boy being bullied at school Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the friendship that developes between him and a feminine vampire Abby (Chloe Meretz). In the Sweedish film, the characters are Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the vampire is Eli (Lina Leandersson).

Overall, the American remake is competently done and retains many of the qualities that made the Swedish version so beautifully frightening. However, it also features some rather shoddy special effects work. Furthermore, the two key relationships - those between the boy and his new vampire friend and the vampire and her guardian - are presented with less ambiguity than in the original. This is critical in the sense that it's clearer much earlier in the film what is really occurring plot wise, thus dissolving some potential tension.

Another big difference, is that Owen is less disturbed then Oskar. In Let the Right One In he is a potential serial killer or school shooter. We even see him collecting material on murders and serial killers in a scrapbook. In Let Me In, he's merely lonely and angry with being bullied.

Also of note, in the Swedish original, there's a brief shot, that suggests that Eli is not a girl, but rather a castrated boy - which follows from the back-story of the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist that the Swedish movie was based upon. However, in the American version, the shot is absent - although set up, which made me wonder if it might show up in some extended edition on DVD. Also, here in the American version, Abby is presented as much more feminine, whereas in the original, the presentation of her character was more androgynous.

With this change comes a fundamental shift of the dynamic of the two movies key relationship. In the American version, it's much, much more suggestive of a romantic relationship, whereas the original skewed more towards the main characters developing a very close friendship. Although, Abby keeps insisting (as in the original) "I'm not a girl".

One of the few upsides to the remake (besides the reduction of an annoying subplot about a woman who is turned into a vampire by Abby/Eli) is that Chloe Meretz gives an amazing performance as Abby, giving a subtle and mature performance as a hunted and ancient creature. Not that Lina Leandersson didn't give a strong performance, just that Meretz gives the more memorable one. None of the other actors in the American version, in my opinion, are better or worse, when compared to their counterparts.

With that said, if one has a choice, I would recommend the Swedish version over the American remake. Let the Right One In overall has better atmosphere and more interesting character development, with none of the embarrassing special effects work of Let Me In, thus making it a clear decision.