Activism Failure

Lately I have made the mistake of reading several books written by members of the queer radical left (News flash: lesbian separatists are still around. And they write books. Who knew?).

Although I spent many of my formative years associating with those in the radical left, their arguments and tactics irritate and often enrage me. Their “analysis” usually boils down to “we hate successful people”. True to form, those on the queer radical left long for the good old days when homosexuality was despised. They feel contempt for white queers (especially white male queers) striving for social acceptance. They lament “straight privilege”. They go out of their way to disrupt and disgust mainstream society. So it is no surprise that they despise gay marriage. They hate all marriage because marriage is a patriarchial institution, and they especially hate gay marriage because it affords some queers a bunch of privilege and acceptance that are denied to other groups (transpeople, people of colour, and poor people).

Man, I don’t know what to think. I have said before and will repeat ad-nauseum: I try not to judge other people’s kinks, and I am genuinely happy for those blogger-buddies who find meaning and support in the patriarchial oppressive institution of marriage. But a bunch of the queer radical left arguments against middle-class gays and against gay marriage ring true to me.

Back when we were fighting for gay marriage, Dan Savage related sob story after sob story of loving partners who were denied basic courtesies because they were not married. Partners could not visit their loved ones in hospital. They could not jointly adopt bio-children. They would lose their houses when a partner (in whose name the title was signed) died, and the evil biofamily would automatically inherit the assets. It was very Stone Butch Blues. Dan Savage and his army argued that granting full marriage rights to gay couples would right these injustices.

Meanwhile, the radical left was attacking marriage. They questioned why this set of basic privileges should be granted only to those who were married. What about triads? What about polyamourous marriages? Wnat about people who had no stable partner, but who had definite wishes about giving their chosen families — and not the biofamilies that had all too often disowned them — say in what happened to their lives and assets. When these criticisms were acknowledged at all, they were often dismissed with a “marriage first, and then we will work on nontraditional arrangements” attitude.

Now we have gay marriage, and as time passes its existence becomes less precarious. I doubt even President Trump (bless his heart) is going to overturn it now. So when are we going to make sure the same kinds of sob stores Dan Savage was relating during the gay marriage fight are not happening to people who aren’t married?

Oh right. We’re not going to work on that now, because the middle-class gays have what they want, and enthusiasm for extending these privileges to other groups has evaporated. I cannot think of a single campaign seeking to decouple the privileges of marriage from the institution of marriage. Funny how that works.

It reminds me a lot of the HIV/AIDS activism fight. When successful, white, North American gay men were dropping right and left, there was a lot of energy to pour into activism. Not everybody in ACT-UP was rich or successful or white, but I would argue that the presence of the mainstream in the movement made a big difference. Then 1996 rolled around and the antiretroviral cocktails came out. Then AIDS became less of a first world middle class gay problem and more of a poor straight third world problem. Mysteriously, our enthusiasm for activism on behalf of those groups mysteriously evaporated, leaving the heavy lifting to a handful of people like Stephen Lewis. Access to cheap retrovirals overseas has been a huge issue for decades, but without the same kind of pressure ACT-UP was able to apply in North America, governments and Big Pharma have dragged their feet, at the cost of millions of lives. That is not to say that Western gays have abandoned the fight entirely; we still show up to World AIDS Day and donate to red-ribbon charities, but we have not taken the fight overseas.

The reasoning is simple: once we get what we want, our activism drops. “Respectable” gay couples wanted gay marriage, and they got it. I am not innocent in this either, of course; I am angry that nobody is advocating for non-marrieds to get married people’s privileges because I am probably never getting married, but I still don’t want my biofamily to automatically take control of my life decisions and assets when I am incapacitated.

As much as I do not want to admit it, I think the queer radical left has been accurate in its criticisms of assimilation with respect to gay marriage. Will we ever see progress on nontraditional arrangements? Unless the poly community makes it happen I do not think it will happen, and I do not see enough social acceptance of polyamory for anything to happen for a while.

But there are other struggles which have some momentum, and for which comfortable middle-class homos could participate:

  • Societal rights and acceptance of transpeople, including non-discrimination legislation and an end to using idiotic bathroom issues to wedge voters.
  • Addressing widespread homelessness and poverty among LGBTQ communities, especially with respect to non-white communities.
  • Addressing misogyny within mainstream gay culture.
  • Breaking down class and racial barriers in LGBTQ communities and organizing.
  • Advocating for LGBTQ rights where they are being suppressed, and offering sanctuary to those affected by repressive laws.

Will we take on any of these challenges? Until/unless they affect us personally, I doubt it.

Straight Pill

From time to time I read memes with questions like “If there was a pill that could make you straight, would you take it?”

I think my answer is “no”, but probably not for the usual reasons. In a previous episode I expressed gratitude that I was not straight, because our hypersexualized culture is tough on straight men. I also expressed a wish to be asexual instead. So if the question was “would I take a pill that could make me asexual”, the answer ought to be “yes” even though in practice such pills exist and I do not take them.

That is part of the problem with this hypothetical. Pills get expensive, and Big Pharma is all about the chronic disease management over full cure model. There probably would not be a single pill to make me straight; instead I would probably have to sign up for a lifetime of prescriptions.

Maybe more importantly, I have always felt fairly adamant that I do not want to have kids, and being straight increases the risk of such an outcome considerably. (One would think that getting the snip would reduce it, but in my case I think the snip got botched.)

But in some sense, I guess I would not take such a pill because I believe that some aspects of sexuality are functions of choice, and I have not made those choices. Whatever else I am, it is pretty apparent that I am not a Kinsey 6. The only sexual experiences I have had with another person were with a woman, and the sex itself was usually pleasant enough (although there were many aspects of that relationship that were less than fine). In some parallel universe I have exactly the same sexuality I do in this universe, but I have been married off to some nice girl and dutifully had enough kids to satisfy the grandparents (although whether my parallel universe spouse and kids are happy is quite another story).

Even without a pill, I could probably live a life that is considerably straighter than I do now, but I have decided not to. Instead I read too many gay blogs and too much LBGTQ literature, and I associate too much with other deviants.

Would being straight leave an empty space in my existence that would have to be filled with something else? Possibly. Certainly I have squandered a lot of time and energy towards my homosexuality. I just wish there were guarantees that instead of sex I would fill that empty space with more worthwhile pursuits. There are a lot of other interesting pasttimes in this world.

Unchristian

Sometimes I wish I was Christian.

I am fortunate to live in a social bubble filled with Mennonites and Catholic Worker types. Thus my perspective on Christians tends to differ from those who feel assaulted by socially conservative evangelical types. As it turns out, many of the people I admire most are either Christian and/or grew up with strong Christian upbringings.

The Christians I admire tend to be strong in their faiths, but thoughtful and humble. Many of them treat unpleasant, uncharismatic people as people. Working with poor people at my former job probably made me more judgemental and more intolerant; in contrast, many of my coworkers were able to maintain both realism of and compassion for the people they worked with, some of whom are very unpleasant indeed.

It is also true that I have known my share of Christians who handed me interesting tracts telling me I was going to Hell. But even many of these were genuinely good people who probably believed as much in helping those around them than they did in tallying converts.

Floundering around in my midlife crisis, paralysed by anxiety and existential angst, my life savings smoldering away as I realize I am much less employable than I originally thought, I often wish I had some clarity about what (if anything) I am supposed to be doing here, and why. Christians have that clarity. I doubt I ever will.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I will ever be Christian. Not to go all Christopher Hitchens (peace be upon him) on you, but I find the central tenet of the faith abhorrent.

Think of the person in your life you look up to the most. Maybe this person is very kind, or very compassionate, or very kind. Maybe this person works tirelessly to improve the well-being of those around him or her. Maybe this person is generous to a fault. Even the most cynical, nihilist member of my readership can picture such a person.

Now I will make you a deal. I will take this worthy person and first humiliate him or her, and then torture him or her, and then kill him or her. The blood sacrifice of this person’s torture and suffering will somehow absolve you of all the bad things you have done, but only if you believe this torture and suffering was a good thing to do.

If you refuse to believe this, then you are condemned to eternal suffering. Eternal. Like, forever. To avoid this, all you have to do is agree that the person you look up to the most should be humiliated, tortured, and killed.

The analogy to Christianity is obvious. As far as I can tell, the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to Christianity. A blood sacrifice absolves us of our sins.

But what about the resurrection? What about it? The resurrection does not absolve us of our sins. The humiliation, torture and death of Jesus is what counts. Does it make it better if your worthy person is tortured and killed, only to rise later on? Does that make the humiliation and torture and death less painful?

Christians are supposed to celebrate this humiliation and torture and death. They are supposed to see it as joyous. It puts the good in Good Friday. But I see it as abhorrent. Why should others have to suffer for the bad things I have done? How is that just?

Of course, nobody says that reality has to be just. For all I know, Christianity might be true. The deal really might be that three days of death for Jesus is worth much, much more than an eternity of suffering for me. Maybe blood sacrifice really does work. Nobody says that reality is pleasant or pretty. But this is not a reality I celebrate.

That is not the worst of it. The worst of it is many of the Christians I admire, the ones who take that central tenet of Christianity seriously, are the very ones I would least expect to agree to this blood sacrifice. Not only do they seem unwilling to sacrifice worthy people for their own benefit, they go out of their way to humanize people the rest of us see as unworthy. These Christians deal with the consequences of smelly, aggressive, inarticulate, needy, agitated, annoying people every day, but instead of hardening their hearts they open their hearts to touch the insecure, traumatized, abandoned people underneath. They develop relationships with these people. They care for their well being, even though they know full well that most of them will never “get better,” that they will screw up again and again until they are dead. I cannot imagine these Christians agreeing to condemn even the most difficult of the people they work with for their own benefit.

And yet God — who is infinitely more caring than his sheep — loves us so much he is willing to let his only Son be humiliated, tortured and killed. And then (depending on what sect you believe) God loves us so much he condemns us to Hell if we refuse to acknowledge this torture as a great gift. The distance between the tenets of Christianity and the works of the Christians I admire is difficult to reconcile.

No doubt this distance is reconcilable, and I am just too proud to see it. No doubt blood sacrifice really is joyous. But I do not (or refuse to) see it, and thus when I am dead by heart attack or diabetes or suicide, I could well be looking at eternal damnation. I can’t get my head around that concept, so I pretend to be atheist and wish the dilemma away. I ought to know better, but I don’t and I doubt I will.

When Will Beards Die?

Robert (the dear!) from The Corporate Slave recently reported on the demise of the man-bun. That should come as no surprise. Fashion trends come and go. What surprises me is that beards have managed to stay fashionable for so long. From what I can tell, it has been well over 10 years since the young cubs started sporting whiskers.

I’m pretty sure nobody sported beards in the 1950s. People got shaggy in the 1960s and 1970s, but the yuppies picked up their razors in the 1980s. Even the clones sported moustaches, not beards. It seems we are overdue for a follicular crash. Year after year I expect enthusiasm for facial hair to diminish, but it hasn’t happened yet. What gives?

I doubt this trend is permanent. Homeless people and bikers will always sport beards, but sooner or later I expect mainstream society to lose its penchant for facial hair. Big Razor cannot be held at bay indefinitely. For those of us with predelictions towards facial hair, it will be a sad time. Source material for Fearsome’s “Beard of the Day” posts will dry up. Bearish types will no longer be able to pass in polite society.

We can try to resist the backlash, but the fickle forces of fashion are not to be denied.

The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

For better or for worse, I have been heavily influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s characterization of System 1 vs System 2 thinking. Thus I tend to model my brain as a “lizard brain” (emotional, sublogical, fast at pattern matching) vs a “logical brain” (capable of logic and reason, although more often used to rationalize bad decisions made by my lizard brain). I do not know whether this model is correct, but I find it useful in thinking about sexual attraction.

To put it briefly, I believe that the heart wants what the heart wants. Sexual desire is much more a function of our lizard brain than our logical one, and the ability of our logical brains to reshape those desires is limited. Otherwise, conversion therapy would work better than it does. I think that sometimes sexual attraction can be reshaped, but I am not sure it is because we rationally convince ourselves to change.

I also believe that somehow we imprint on the things we find sexually desireable. Maybe we have some choice in this and maybe we don’t. I believe the objects of our sexual attractions can (and often are) culturally determined. I am confident that there are people in the world who have imprinted on Sleestaks, from Land of the Lost. But Sleestaks did not exist before 1974. Consider the people who would have otherwise been attracted to Sleestaks, but came of age before 1974. What did they find attractive? Nothing? Or did they imprint on something else?

If you agree that the heart wants what the heart wants, then blaming people for having the wrong sexual preferences is kind of stupid, because that attraction sits in the subrational lizard brain, and there is little that people can do to change it.

Unfortunately, this causes all kinds of awkwardness, because we live in a society where we expect logical brains to prevail. People get hurt when others don’t find them attractive, and that makes our logical brains upset.

This is as good a point at any for Shocking Disclosure of Sexual Perversion #2: secondary sex characteristics. I tend to find guys who exhibit lots of secondary sex characteristics — body hair, facial hair, big muscles, broad shoulders, deep resonant voices, even male pattern balding — sexually attractive. If Tumblr is to be believed, I am not the only one with this perversion.

The dark side of this is: “straight-acting”. On the whole gay men who are “straight-acting” are prized more highly than gay men who are not, and many people express this preference in their dating profiles (“no femmes!”). It is a common criticism that gay men who gravitate towards “straight-acting” are expressing internal homophobia, and that gay men who are well-adjusted are attracted to less masculine men. In recent times this criticism has been extended to transmen (“Transmen are men, so if you are attracted to cis men but not transmen then you are transphobic.”)

The irony, of course, is that lots of homosexuals (myself included) are not particularly “straight-acting”. So a lot of people who are looking for love get rejected a lot because they cannot fit somebody else’s masculine ideal, and a lot of perfectly innocent straight men have to deal with the discomfort of being lusted after by homosexuals.

Is it true that the heart wants what the heart wants? Should we accept that the widespread preference for “straight-acting” men a function of our subrational lizard brains? Or should we accept that this preference is hurtful, and that gay men who prefer “straight-acting” men sometimes end up falling in love with effeminate gay men instead, that this preference for “straight-acting” men is harmful and not okay and needs to be moderated? And isn’t it funny that many of those who are most vehemently against conversion therapy are those who are most adamant that being attracted to “straight-acting” men is homophobic and unacceptable?

I don’t think I am presenting a false dichotomy. There is a genuine tension here. But it also seems that both sides of this argument are true to some degree. Disentangling these sides is the difficult part.

Homoliterature

To take a break from the firehose of LBGTQ-themed reading material I usually consume, I went to the library and signed out Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, published in 1974. I was expecting a nice heteronormative science fiction war memoir, and it started off really well. There were boy soldiers and girl soldiers and mandatory bed pairings for everybody. But by the middle of the book the homosexual agenda reared its ugly head, and three quarters of the way through things got intense.

It’s probably just confirmation bias (or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?), but it seems that I rarely pick up reading material without running into something LGBTQ-themed. Modern science fiction and fantasy is obsessed with including LGB (and increasingly T) characters. But even classic literary literature often (sometimes?) includes surprising cameos by The Gays, or at the very least surprising references to homosexuality.

I do not know that all this homosexuality is necessarily a bad thing. And I am sure that if I looked hard enough I could find some red-blooded exclusively heterosexual fiction. It’s just surprising, given that our existence was supposedly whitewashed out of history.

At the same time, I am not convinced that exclusively-straight fiction is a problem. As uncomfortable as it may be to contemplate, straight people exist in the world, and they deserve to have adventures too regardless of whether we make guest appearances. Furthermore they have the right to write about their bizarre sexual practices, and if that makes us squeamish we should close our eyes or skip over those parts. I feel uncomfortable with the notion that exclusively heteronormative literature is somehow deficient or politically incorrect.

Incidentally, I feel this way about other attitudes that we find offputting. Asimov is still a great writer, even though his sexism really rubs me the wrong way. I do have my limits (Stories of the East by W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most flamboyantly racist books I have ever read) but in general I love old writers and old writing and old ideas, and stories from the past have a lot to offer even if the writings are socially and politically incorrect now.

Incidentally, The Forever War is pretty great. It is definitely worth a read.