Saving Lesbian Films From Themselves

Did you hear the one about the cute girl who goes to a lesbian film with another cute girl and they walk out of the film, hand in hand, thinking they’d love to see that same film again only this time without nails holding their eyes open? Yeah, me neither.

I’ve been a semi-professional lesbian film watcher for decades now. (Woah. Did that sound pathetic). But as a kid growing up on a tiny island in the middle of a Canadian version of the Bible-belt TV and the VCR really kept me going. Watching Angelina fight her way through fashion faux pas in Gia, or cheering Xena and her redheaded friend on as they warrior-princessed me into oblivion gave me an outlet for my not-so-hetero-thoughts. Even La Femme Nikita (not the new version filmed on my street, the old one with the very tall and very tall—did I mention tall?—Peta Wilson) made me smile and feel less afloat as the only gay in the village, or so it felt. Especially when she wore thigh high boots and black spandex. These women were my secrets; they got me. But that was in the 80s and 90s and, for me, the expectations that I would find a version of myself on TV, or see something that resonated with my life, my worries, my fears, and my desires on the big screen was not as pressing. I was simply happy to watch women run around. And the bad lesbian films out there later on were fine too. They were nice as a start.

But it’s now 2012 and I’m old enough to need substance in my lesbian films. I need lesbians who can deliver a line without my ears imploding. I need a soundtrack that won’t make me hear Ani Defranco, or trumpets, or ABBA and vomit in my mouth. Records on fire, most of the stuff on screen now for lesbians is, well, shit.

I wrongly presumed the options for young women seeking narratives about the

everydayness of lesbian love, joy, longing, loneliness, and sex would get better with time, like wine. Instead, the plots seem to get emptier and the dialogue more predictably cliche. We’ve all heard the one-liners that are as see-through  as Harper’s ethics. Name the film: “We were actually only best friends, until [it happened]: ‘I want you to be my lover. I know I’m not the only one who feels this,” or, “women aren’t supposed to hurt anyone,” or “you left me to be with men. You broke your own heart, and you broke mine too.” Sound familiar? Ugh.

On my quest to find a decent film for my scholarly “research,” and my obsession with all things woman, I have watched a boxload of flicks that are marketed as good lesbian films. Trust me, way too many. When I was in younger version, I was forever sneaking past the chaps I knew at the counter of our local That’s Entertainment video store to try and find the tiny section called “erotic/foreign,” scanning shelves for anything with Catherine Deneuve or Susan Sarandon. Then Amazon started sending me weird lists of films that they (whomever that might be) had chosen based on my book interests. Friends soon began alerting me to LGBTQ and Queer film festivals. And on my own I have downloaded, uploaded, and unloaded titles that would make even Sylvia Plath sound happy in comparison.

I keep seeing them and they keep sucking donkey butts.

The question is why? Is it that my expectations are too high? Well, if that translates into the fact I have any expectations at all than perhaps, but I wonder what else could be going on. Why are quality films about lesbians just seemingly out of reach?

Before I get too far here I want to provide you with what I consider a lesbian film to be because there are many films out there with pseudo-lesbian characters, or kinda lesbian plots that I am completely disregarding. So what is my definition of a lesbian film? First and foremost, there are lesbians in the film. And when I say in the film, I don’t simply mean on the periphery in waiting for her pay check. I don’t mean those films where a gal has been cast as the odd, moody, Emo chick in school who has one line delivered through her clenched teeth and mystic chants (Mean Girls). Or where a woman is cast as the neighbor who the rest of the hetero-gals suspect is a lesbian but she is so funny, kind and harmlessly conventionally unattractive that she is left alone to take care of the kids and puppies (shout out to Bridesmaids). I really don’t mean the films where there are female obsessions, where we presume the psycho character/murderer is a lesbian because she wants to, literally, become the heroine (Single White Female anyone, but Jennifer Jason Leigh was delicious; Crack [which is interesting]), or the flicks where there are littered- about lesbian characters who act as best friends and foils for the main, heterosexual muse, so she can find her man (Sandra Oh in Under the Tuscan Sun). And I really don’t mean films about the girl whose heart gets ripped away so that the mainstay can realize that she really wants a penis and just needed a lesbian-one nighter as a reminder (Chloe). I’m convinced these above films were made to titillate a heterosexual audience, especially women who like to play with their Kinsey spectrums every once in a while, getting giddy to Katie Perry’s “I kissed a Girl and I Liked it” while their boyfriends swig beers out back.

No judgment from me gals; I kissed a girl and liked it too and you can love whomever you wish. But for this post, I want to concentrate on films that have full-on lesbian plots (I am using “plot” loosely) and full-on lesbian characters who are either out and proud, or coming out and a bit messed up about it.

Also, the films I’ve chosen are neither porn nor erotica movies. I say this only because with lesbian films there seems to be a sense that if there is delicious sex within it, the plot must be nil. Or, if the plot is actually pretty alright, there can be no sex. I’ve seen some lovely lesbian erotica, and have watched some salacious, licentious lesbian porn (made by lesbians, for lesbians. Sorry, no male mullets or gals without any body hair gyrating on their veiny love sticks) but I’m concentrating on the less sexually explicit narratives for lesbians in order to figure out what goes missing when sex shows up in these films?

But first, the players.

[DISCLAIMER 1: For those who are still reading, I will also give a list at the end of this post of some great, pretty unknown, lesbian films.]

[DISCLAIMER 2: Kissing Jessica SteinHigh ArtLove and SuicideLost and DeliriousClaire of the Moon, Bar Girls, Chasing Amy, Loving Annabelle, The Girl, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Girl Play, Mango Kiss were each awfully hard to survive but we all know that already and we need to forgive budgets and time. If you have yet to see these, this weekend you really should grab five bowls of popcorn and have some fun. You might need Kleenex and lube. Kleenex for the crying you’ll do because of how terribly done these films are, and then lube to moisten your body after you finish watching the dryness of both The Girl and Chasing Amy.

Ok: The top 5 worst lesbian films that usually don’t make WORST EVER lists. These films should have been better because they had the budgets, the support, and the writers.

1. Bloomington

I want to be brutally honest here. If I could put Bloomington on this list 5 times, I would. This was hands down, by far, no questions asked, the most horrendous lesbian film I have ever seen. And I watched A Marine Story sober.

My lovely pal and I went to see this little number because it was being highlighted at the Inside Out film festival. The type-up seemed perfectly luring: Professor and undergraduate student fall in love. Done.

What they don’t tell you is that the Professor, Catherine, is a wayward psychologist who is obsessed with Freudian slips and who has a habit of “sleep[ing] with her students.” Trying to be kind here, she might have gotten her education from a Coles’ notes version of psychoanalysis written by Dr. Phil.  She asks: “How does that make you feel? What do you think?” so often you want to drive a fork into her mouth so she’ll eat more and speak less. The young heroine, Jackie, who looks no older than 13, is a child-actor who works on a children’s series about space travel called Neptune 26. Oh fuck.

At the theatre, we all knew we were in trouble when 10 minutes into the first scene–which was situated at the University’s first day meet and greet–we thought it was a dream sequence. And it wasn’t.

The young heroine is eyed up by the Abnormal Psychology Professor who saunters up to the girl, at school, surrounded by their peers and colleagues, and tells young Jackie they should get out of there and go back to her place. WHAT?!  The entire audience thought we’d mised half the movie, you know, where we actually meet the characters, start to care for them, see them begin to be interested in one another, get some foreplay. Nope. It was not a dream or a projector glitch. It was the plotless plot, and the audience started laughing. 

And we kept laughing through what were meant to be dramatic scenes about love and loss, presented to us instead as terrifying, offensive, counseling sessions where the Professor uses her psychobabble to woo, hurt, confuse, manipulate, and anger the child actor.  Terrible script. Really awful acting. Crazily offensive plot (and I’m not talking about the intergenerational relationship. That was the only redeeming aspect to this film.)

There are creepy maternal, Freudian scenes, where the Professor is washing her young lover in the bathtub, acting like her mother (asking her about her homework) that makes the audience cringe. At one point, trying to bring up the other students Catherine has slept with, Jackie says, open-woundedly: “Am I different?” To which Catherine replies, trying to pull a Sharon Stone open-leg moment in Basic Instinct, “Would you believe me if I said yes?”

There were other scenes where the Professor’s immaturity was so hard to take a lot of the audience walked out.  The ending was a drip that left you wondering how you just lost 2 hours of your life.

And there was no sex. At all. I think I saw panties, once.

Do I need sex in a lesbian film? No. But if the film is this utterly horrible, than yes if only not to have to hear the two women attempting to exchange forced dialogue for a few moments. I’d take moaning over bad psychoanalysis any day.

AfterEllen actually reviewed this film and raved about it. This is “a refreshing, unique lesbian drama that gets things ‘right’ in every department” the reviewer claimed, which has made me refuse to ever listen to a review on AfterEllen again.

I’ll try to be kinder from here.

2. Itty Bitty Titty Committee

This film held so much promise. Like Obama. The plot begins with a young, likable, overly-parented teen who has a perfect heterosexual sister who is about to get married. The heroine is distraught because her family’s cultural traditions don’t reflect her own desires and she feels trapped and alone.

She then meets a group of sexually liberated feminist activists who all gather at this utopic, underground warehouse (for sexual play and feminist debate) that seems cut out of the fantasies of young lesbians everywhere. Jenny Shimizu is there. Need I say more.

Their motto (and Audre Lorde’s): “We can not bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools,” makes us want to believe.

The problem with this rambunctious drama is the crew’s leader Sadie. She is a young, blonde, smoker who is in a relationship with a much older woman whom she doesn’t love and who she is using for money and stability. The film paints this older woman as a pathetic pariah and academic, who is disgusting for even loving a younger woman, and, therefore, deserved of the ill treatment she receives.

The rest of the plot is laid out as follows: traditional girl, Anna, falls for the young Sadie and ends up being hurt by her because of her belief that love actually means something more than a one night stand can offer. Sadie goes through a stirringly calcified metamorphosis and remains an arrogant heroine who spouts theories about non-monogamy and sexual intimacy as though she were a third grader writing poetry. The only saving grace here are the other friends within the group, including a wildly funny bisexual woman who chastises the entire bunch of lesbian disasters as being “closed minded” when they see her making out with a man and then see her making out with a woman in the same few days.

3. The Night Watch

What to say. Read the book? It’s miles and miles better. Other than that I will say that the director somehow managed to take the sensuality and complexity of the post World War 2 characters in Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch and devoid them of any intrigue.  The mainstay of the book was its concentration on the deliciousness of the everyday, ordinary experiences of women and men in love. However, the film steals that beauty away and presents us with a trite portraiture of a lonely woman, Kay, who wanders around town in her men’s suits pining for something she never really had and depressing the hell out of all of us.

The main lovers in the film, Helen and Julia, who in the book were courageously explored as two women who loved one another through not only the ordinary domestic experiences of trying to live and love together–fighting, sex, making dinner, reading books– but also through a war, are presented here as characatures of nothingness.  They’re boring and not well rounded. The film concentrates much more on the male character, Duncan’s, love affair with men and the heterosexual characters in the novel.

Sorry, this film really was crap. The book leaves you wanting more. The film leaves you wanting less.

4. Bandaged

I had to put this film here because it was so disturbing I almost loved it. Until I watched it through. I will now never think of a hospital bed in the same way.

Lucille, the daughter of a creepsville doctor who is mourning the death of his wife, is cloistered away in her room until one day she decides to commit suicide. Rescued, but terribly burned, her father replaces her mangled face with one that resembles his dead wife’s (Yep!) and then puts the bandaged, immobilized daughter in the care of Joan, an around the clock nurse. Lucille falls in love with her caregiver and wow if you thought the plot was creepy before, it really goes gremlin from here. Enter S&M, evil aunts, bloody nipples, and used bedpans stage left. That’s the best part!

What the issue might be is that there is no chemistry between the two leading ladies, which is unfortunate, because there are quite a lot of sexual scenes with gory climaxes where faces wither away (literally), skin peels, eyes roll back, and yet these ladies seem to be bored, as if the pins they are playing with would be better used for knitting. They are as uncomfortable pretending to be enamored with one another as we are trying to believe in this plot.  This one held promise. But it couldn’t deliver.

5. Lipstikka

Ok. This film angered me. We are presented with very politically charged subject matter that is being tokenized and completely mishandled in order to sell movie tickets. How can I say this?  At the movie’s release we all met the very pompous, arrogant, ill-informed director Jonathan Sagall who, when asked time and time again why he set his lesbian love affair within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict answered, angrily, “it’s just a movie.” When asked why the female heroines were treated so stereotypically awfully he laughed that we didn’t understand his vision. When he was asked if he would like to explain, from his point of view, why the heroines needed to be lesbian at all if not to appease the male gaze he scoffed and refused. Gem.

Set in contemporary London, two Palestinian women reunite after years of separation. One, Lara, is married to a man (who cheats), is an alcoholic, has a child, and is miserable. The other, Inam, is a frail, odd, beautiful, suicidal woman who Lara mistrusts. They have a torrid past. Cue flashbacks to Palestine where we get a disjointed, American sense of the Israeli, Palestinian unrest in very basic, quick scenes filmed on random dirt roads, where we meet the younger versions of Lara and Inam (played by an actually super talented Moran Rosenblatt): two friends always straddling a fine line between being lovers and being best pals. Inam is a sexual misfit we are led to believe—she uses her body to get what she wants and needs from men. Lara tags along behind her, wishing for more of Inam. After a difficult hour and a bit where we suffer through hard to watch scenes where Inam (young and older versions) is taken advantage of by men in order to save Lara, tries to commit suicide, wanders through Lara’s house naked, wishing for some love and compassion from her long lost friend, we learn that Inam is not only mildly disoriented, she is actually an escaped client from an institutionalized sanatorium.

This film does all of the things to lesbian women that we don’t want to see: hurts them, rapes them, uses them to get an audience, abandons them in mental institutions, accuses them of sexual deviancy, punishes them for independence, renders them alcoholics and drug-addicts, makes them the spectacle for male desire. Worse, it uses an intricate political issue and makes it the backdrop to a failed love story without ever paying homage to the actual complexities of the Israeli/Palestinain conflict.

Each of these 5 tempting films adhere to all of the stereotypes that have made the conceptualization of lesbianism forever entangled in notions of unhappiness, death, suicide, tragedy, mental illness, poverty, and negative affect. Or the inversion where lesbian intimacy seems beholden to extreme elation, arduous joy, happy coincidences, implausibly privileged experiences, progressive success, neo-liberal passion for patriarchy and militancy.

A lot of lesbian films are being made out there that are bargain basement, labors of love, that cannot afford certain luxuries that come with the privilege of larger budgeted, hetero movies. Producers for these films are often friends, ex-lovers, the directors or actors themselves. Having said, the movies I have chosen each had a lot of financial backing comparatively. And I have seen some fantastic, art-house, low-budget lesbian films, that were incredible. Plot doesn’t take a lot of money. And a lot of money does not necessarily make a good film. Point in point, has anyone seen Waterworld?

Laura Doan and Sarah Waters respectively suggest in their article, “Making up Lost Time” that it is now more than ever necessary to explore intimate spaces of belonging for lesbians that forge new possible directions and places for desire. They question whether or not our drive to forge a “lesbian pedagogy” (a drive conditioned by the pressure for queers to have marked origin stories and locatable positionings) has left contemporary moments where we try and capture lesbianism in narratives confined by a frantic desire to have a history to take ownership of. A desire that leads us to hold onto universalizing tropes (such as the idea of the suicidal lesbian, lesbian dead-bed, lesbians returning to men, lesbians being mentally ill, violent, murderous, sociopathic). This means that even if the histories are unreliable or fantastical, or support political structures that seek queer erasure, the pressure to hold fast to the archive is immense enough to continue stereotyping us.

The “burden of lesbianism,” then, might be that there is an inherent responsibility for lesbians to teach and reconfirm origin stories for contemporary generations of women, while, simultaneously configuring new narratives for lesbians that speak to our every day experiences. And that’s what I want people! The films don’t have to be filled with boobies and hairless bodies. Actually, if a plot could show up that reflected what it is like to live as a lesbian today, I’d even forgo nudity all together.

On a good day.

In closing, as promised:

5 recent and great lesbian films that were fantastic:

1. Tomboy

2. The Secrets

3. Elena Undone

4. Trigger 

5. Spider Lilies

Why are these films good? They are ordinary, great stories about women you’d meet on the street or at the bar. They don’t depict lesbian lovers on a murderous rampage throughout the city like Godzilla trying to wipe out all men and women who’d done em’ wrong. They don’t try to turn the reality of women loving other women into a game that can only be survived by one. They don’t try to turn lesbianism into a metaphor for decline, death, lost hope, lost children. They give us well-rounded characters who are at times total jerks and are at other times lovely figures attempting to negotiate what it means to be in a world with others while trying to protect your heart. Some of the characters are narcissistic but also compassionate; some of the girls grow to realize that the fantasies they’d told themselves were actually not as good as the realities they could live; some of the endings are sad but reflective of the way life tends to be. Happiness, then, is not flagged as a burger we need to consume. If it’s there, it’s supposed to be. If unhappiness or loneliness is there, its presence is necessary and teaches these characters something about themselves and the way they love others.

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My New Year’s Resolutions

Hi friends and those who somehow stumbled upon this blog (and thank you for that). Happy (many versions of) holidays (and festivuses, or plain old times to just get drunk, or moments to wish for better families, or a family at all, or a dog that talks). Hope you’re all safe and merry.

For those of you who do know me personally I’m sure you would not classify me as someone who would get all teary eyed or jingly balls around this time of year. And you’re right, I am dead inside. Well, maybe just in an affective coma. Don’t get me wrong, I too have a screenplay somewhere in a locker of memories that I believe could rewrite the Christmas story, only in my head the wisemen would be 3 hot professorial brunettes in overalls who would also finish my thesis, the baby Jesus would be my twin nephews who call me Feist, and mary and joseph would be licentious ladies dressed in black Doc martins who refuse marriage but really want a party with moonshine and Judith Butler quotes instead. Now that’s a good time.

My mother (I’ll call her lil’ Betty) and I were just chatting away over toast and tea and she asked me what my resolutions were this year. I refuse to have any, I told her. Why? she asked me, annoyed and inflected like she gets when she thinks I’m about to launch into something political. I don’t believe in them, I said. Well I do, she quipped and listed a bunch of her own self-sustaining prophesies for 2012.

It’s true I’m a dorothy downer when it comes to making new year’s resolution, and not because I too don’t feel that affective urge, like bad bacon in the tummy, that says this is the chance to start anew, to shower away the excessive dirt I rubbed all over myself in the year past. I too get romanticized by the thought of a rebirth. In years past I’ve given up doughnuts, chocolate, the Bible, fruit, pop, hoping the Globe and Mail will get better, chips, fries (and chips again), the Liberal party, babysitting, reading Kant, playing with my sister as a child (easy one), True Blood, Pole dancing (never liked it anyway), speaking in tongues. But really I felt empty and confused as to why I’d promise to give up something I only vaguely did anyway in order to buy Karma, or to prove I too could suffer like someone I was convinced was actually a lovely, lonely woman with a beard who ran an occupy movement somewhere hundreds of years ago.

I felt cheap. Or as though I were so busy concentrating on myself and what I was going to do for myself in the future year, I was forgetting to live in the moment, the Now, that required me to think beyond my own chocolate cravings.

Today, it’s the lingo surrounding the resolutions that reminds me that something feels fishy about these declarations. Something that conjures up images of contracts, deeds, and investment banking:

For 2012, I____________, resolve to partake in (FILL IN BLACK: More gyms, more fruit, less gambling, more writing, less worrying, more love, less sex, more work, more saving, more friends, more traveling, less weight, less carbs, more biking, more sleep, more time with family, less driving, less smoking, more health, more yoga, more calmness, less Oprah, more Oprah, less CNN, less love, more fiber, blah blah blah) for 365 days.

Humbug.

The fact that the new year begins with an albeit contemplative, but almost narcissistic obsession with the “I” and what the “I” needs and wants to be happy is a tad nauseating.

Generally speaking resolutions could be summed up as promises or betrayals of the same rhetorical thinking we all had last year, or, evidence of a “more me and less you” mentality. In 2012, the notion that “less” and “more” define the next year’s actions terrifies me right out of my plaid. I sit here with my mother, imagining Stephen Harper, or Newt Gingrich, or Michelle Bachman, or Nickleback (ahhh!) making their resolutions along these self-absorbed lines and I cringe.

Walk with me there:

Top ten (fabricated) New Year’s Resolutions from the people we all wish would stop needing to prove themselves: I’ll give you a list of some of the people who make me angrified; try and match them with their resolution: MARGARET WENTE, MICHELLE BACHMAN, STEPHEN HARPER, ROB FORD, SARA PALIN, PETER MACKAY.

1. After successfully pulling Canada out of Kyoto and refusing to sign the G8 petition for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, this year I want even more power to screw up with, and less annoying protesting voices. So I resolve to declare Canada mute. Except for me.

2. After having gone Rogue and putting the Christ back in Christmas, I need more vanity. So, I’ll run for the republican leadership once the boys in front totally blow their chances, just by opening their mouths.

3. This year I want more pictures of myself. I’ll once again use the Maritimes to make me look as though I am a ‘salt of the earth’ kinda person, maybe even putting out a picture of me and my dad on a farm I never worked on, wearing rubber boots my assistant bought for me at Holt Renfrew, and I’ll take the military helicopter to deliver useless promises of federal aid for the have not provinces.

4. I want less gays. To get this, I’ll claim that a good old fashioned Bible can help you pray away the gay, and that queer children, although they are being bullied by homophobes and succumbing to suicide, really don’t need care, they need more hatred waged against them.

5. This year I want to be even more public and less informed. I’ll write horrendous pieces that are conservatively touched and filled with poor research, in a paper that continues to publish me, somehow, and then I’ll get so many people fired up with my spectacular decrees, my popularity will skyrocket. Worked for the dudes on Jersey Shore.

6. This year I want to read even less than I did last year which brings me into the negatives. I want less libraries, less social services programs, less occupiers, less bike lanes for people trying to be healthy and environmentally conscious, less assistance for the poor, less vegans, and for sure less free speech. And I really want more UFC in schools, more bromances, and more taxpayers who live in the burbs.

How did you do?

This year I think I’ll try something new. A queer, lonely, optimistic resolution to not do resolutions. Maybe then I will actually start making this moment the day to change the present, and the everyday a day for thinking about someone else who might need me to give or offer or make or say or do or lend or sing or cook something. Ok, not cook. Then we’ll all really be fucked.

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Glitterfesto and the power of Queer Confusion

Ok friends. As I promised, back to queer optimism. 

I can say this without lying: I’m an optimistic lonely gay. I know this sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true. Optimism is part of my politics of loneliness, a queerly delicious politics that shuns the empty promises of happy, happy capitalism, or the negative emotional associations with the conservative rage that is used to egg on battle cries, legitimating wars on countries we know nothing about, nor take time to listen to. Or perhaps worse, there is republican love. Have you ever seen the republican boys in office “bonding,” tapping their butts, arms around one another, all singing out against homosexual marriage? Please. Love is a tad more complicated than the exclusive policing of it by men afraid to feel suggests.

I can almost taste the sarcasm on John Keats’ tongue when he talks of the economy of happiness in his famous poem Ode on a Grecian Urn: “More happy love! More Happy Happy Love!” It seems he didn’t need a crystal ball to predict our current moment, one caked in middle-class angst and upper-class greed, and iced with the fingers of those who we’ve all betrayed. Happy times! These two beautifully creeptastic photos of Stephen Harper’s familial love evidence what I see as the modern day Grecian Urn Keats might be thinking about. These two portraits have gotten a lot of media attention these past coupla days. One, although a carbon copy of the other with a different scenic back flair, is in fact last year’s Christmas card photo. The other, this year’s.  Some wonder if Harper was so cheap to have simply had the photographer take two shots last year so that he wouldn’t have to pretend to be merrily happy again. Others wonder if he and his family are actually real people, or a sad, scary bad acid trip dream.

I, however, love the twin shots! The fact that his children have not aged, and their clothes are the same as last year provides a fantastic portrait of what I see as a Happy Canadian moment. This facade of smiles reminds us of our sad inability to get Harper out of office and captures our calcified feeling of pessimism. His frozen grin and his wife’s tense smile make us groan because tis shot speaks to our own disastrous lack of optimism. We’ve yet to figure out that we must work to make change happen over top of this horrendous man’s coifed hair. While dancing.

This year alone, as Canadians, we’ve allowed Harper to pull our complacent asses out of Kyoto (WHAT THE FUCK!!!) and have become the only country to openly support Israeli apartheid. Ooops! His merry elves have also been hard at work. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, the Ford boys, have single handedly turned Toronto into a yet unflushed toilet cutting funding to anything compassionate from houses for the homeless, art museums, bike lanes, to AIDS funding. We, as Canadians, have somehow become “tax payers” instead of people. 

There’s more! Our city has split gay penguins up so they can be productively straight; we’ve somehow employed Christie Blatchford and given her a computer to spread such joyful cheer as her recent article that, in an age of ramped homophobia and bullying, actually tells men and boys that they need to “stop hugging” and become more manly, not “sissies.” Heather Mallick has said that Canada has gone “tabloid.” I think we’ve gone to shit! Not only is this sort of pretty little happiness the conservatives are spreading ugly, it’s dangerous. Happiness seems to be something only the “normal” “taxpayers” are entitled too. This version of Canada is about as unqueer as one could possibly imagine.

But, there is hope. This is a post about optimism after all. Aside from the fantastic Margaret Atwoods or the Elizabeth Mays, and the numerous public figures attempting to fight for change we have everyday wonders to dance a jig to.

The Occupy movements all over North America have provided a glimmer of pizazz for us all. While there are many happy pessimists who would try to shadow the incredible achievements of these various movements, I find this hilarious. The ever eloquent Margaret Wente has tried her best to pee on the tents and vegan bodies of this movement, calling the protesters in Toronto “bitter” and the “author[s] of [their] own misfortune,” blaming the 99% for being too optimistic, and wanting to do “transformational world-saving work” instead of corporate slogging. They are over educated activists who don’t know how the real world works. 

Eric Brauer, another gem, was from the get go concerned about the vagueness of the Occupy message. Wanting a portfolio, or a list of demands, Brauer, like many, believed the willingness to be both confused and confusing about the plot points of Occupy was what caused the “failure” of the movement. As a fragmented whole it could not be cohesive. It would appear many critics were more preoccupied with their own feelings of discomfort surrounding not knowing what the occupy movement was about than actually learning how to get out there and do something: “The movement needs the involvement of the public at large, and not merely their passive sympathy,” Brauer stated, and for him “vagueness of message is a poison, and miles away from the clarity of the 99% meme.”

But did the occupy movement fail? No, of course it didn’t. No protest that gets thousands, maybe millions of people interested in finding out more about corporate greed, classism, racism, sexism, real democracy and trying to reimagine a new social realm can be called a failure. I would actually call the Occupy movement a fantastic example of queer misfits getting optimistic.

Queer optimism is not a banal smile that wins out or succeeds because we make happiness law; rather, it is what results from doing the work necessary to make positive changes in this rather negatively inflected contemporary moment. Not changes that reflect a desire for perfection or more financial progress, but the small, everyday changes that makes the Now shine with ethical, political potential.

Being queerly optimistic is harder than it sounds. In a cultural climate that sees us in the constant pursuit of happiness and fulfillment any feeling of lack is understood to be humiliating. I, though, am asking that we rethink our own lack. I have a ton of it and see it as necessary. Lack is not financial deficit, it is power. My lack is called loneliness, and loneliness is humiliating– a rarely desired trait in the Western citizen who is supposed to be socially bloated, whole, and rich. However, I think we need much more humiliation, something that has been lost on Western society. What concerns me most is that the western-democratic society we supposedly inhabit is emphatically and unapologetically not willing to concede to humiliation, humbleness or apology. And it’s not social; it is individualistic. Loneliness, then, is that feeling of discomfort one tastes on our tongues when we hear our Prime Minister speak about staying in Iraq just a wee-bit longer, or we hear about how Canada got a failing grade in human rights at the past G8 summit. Or when we here that Health Care in Canada is at the bottom of the rung globally for compassion, service and aid. As a socially altruistic country, we’re failing globally and we’re failing ourselves. Loneliness, and the lonely identities that pronounce it, are our reminder that something is very wrong in Canada and we’d best get to changing it.

Queer optimism is lonely because it promises nothing other than hard work, unreciprocated care, restless love, uncomfortable feelings, and chaos. As Michael D. Snediker says: “queer optimism can be considered as a form of meta-optimism: it wants to think about feeling good, to make disparate aspects of feeling good thinkable.” But a queer dis-ease with perfected Happy Canadiana is what we all really need to embrace if we want to stop the Harpers and Fords and Wentes from occupying any more space at our kitchen parties.

So, let’s be the “feminist killjoys” Sara Ahmed has asked for! Let’s be the Grinch who stole Christmas back from the capitalists who decided to enable an economy that turns away from love and rescues only the wealthy from themselves. And one way to do this? Embrace a different consciousness, one filled with glitter!

Enter Glitterfesto stage left, an open ended movement dedicated to change and ethics that was created to create. Yes, there’s a new movement afoot and Glitterfesto asks us all to aim high, not in a capitalistic way waving our credit cards and wagging dogs in purses; rather, this movement asks us to reach for the glittery stars of potential, and what the fabulous activist, glittery cellist and thinker Jasmine Rault has called “utopic aspiration.” Saying yes to a “euphoric utopian striving” instead of settling for a bloated, blinded, and deadened happiness with the moment we occupy, Rault pushes us and our feelings further, beyond the quarters of corner offices and self-help gurus. Take a chance on change, she challenges, and do it with a dance, a hug, lots of color, and lots of compassion.

Rault’s partner in crime is the bedazzling artist, thinker, and activist T.L. Cowan who calls us all in the western audience to get up and occupy our spaces, to take up room, to remake art and play political. To laugh and kiss and get sexy. Because politics is incredibly beautiful,  and should be curvy in its confusion, soaked in its potential to gather, help, and hold you. So what we need, T.L. Cowan has said, is a “cabaret consciousness” which she explains without explaining anything too rigidly, “is a way of knowing and being that privileges variety, risk, challenge, radical politics” and perhaps above all, confusion. Produced by the cabaret form, the fantastic costumes, acts, misacts, misfits, and bamboozle of the art of cabaret captures for Cowan a vagueness that labours, that does work, that asks questions without already claiming to know the answer, and that seeks to reclaim “confused” feminist and queer affect. And like the occupy movements, both Rault and Cowan argue against clarity, and for queer optimisms that are always “for something” but never comfortably settled or solidified on approach.

If you’re looking for a 12 step program as to what Glitterfesto does, you’re out of luck. Which is the point of a movement that wants to get all people moving. “A public declaration of affinity” Glitterfesto travels through debates, creeps along borders and Stay Out signs, permeates the impermeable, and cracks a lot of jokes that keep people laughing and caring about making a difference. Although “glitter” refuses to “stand for anything” it does indeed stand up for anyone who needs a reminder that there are good people out there waiting to be there for you as you begin the work needed to make large, small, everyday, committed demonstrations and “glitter-based performances” of affect for change.  Glitterfesto asks that you shake things up a bit, to take art seriously, and to fight for artistic spaces that can transform realities.

And to be sure Glitter begs us to take a chance on ourselves and our friends, on saying the “wrong thing” to the Right people, on offending our conservative minded neighbors–mentioning to the cabbie that when he calls the last guy in his cab a “fag” that you’re offended and then bopping him with some kind glittery options for him next time. Glitter has no pride and no shame which makes it humble and accessible to everyone. It understands that change requires conversation and time. That’s why Glitter feelings are resilient; they stick to you which makes them possible to share, toss, lick, spew, and dance in because “social justice is fabulous.”

Glitter is a “public definition of affinity” as is this post, in homage to Glitter and those behind it–Rault, Cowan, you, me, that guy over there, that hot lady with the bra outside of her clothes–anyone who wants to become queerly optimistic. So let’s get messy together!

Posted in activism, humour, lesbianism, loneliness, popular culture, queer politics, social justice, social politics, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonah Mowry and A Million Little Lies

It’s Friday and snowing and I am feeling oddly optimistic. This is a feeling that is unusual for me. I don’t trust optimism really and have always carried my pessimism around like a favorite toy.  I’ve often been called and referred to, lovingly and at times for certain lovers angrily, by friends as a sarcastic twit. I’m writing a dissertation on loneliness, they say. I research and present work on queer suicide, they point out. I live alone and eat a lot of 711 meals, they laugh. I scour newspapers and social media sites and get angrified daily about the relentless inabilities of us all, they remind me. My panties are more often than not knotted with vagina-dentata-like fury. It wouldn’t take a jury long.

Ok, I get it. I am a tad sarcastic about the political moment I find myself surfing and, at times, sifting through. And here in the west there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Like, for instance, the fact that my city is being held together by duct tape and burger grease by a man who thinks Margaret Atwood is the name of a new, probably queer, STD. But my next set of blogs are going to be about what I see as a queer optimism slipping in and out of the tidy pessimistic spaces we inhabit. Why? Because I have been realizing over these months that pessimism is really easy and often legitimates inaction. What I mean by queer optimism will become clearer and more confusing in the posts to come but today I’ll get the conversation started. To do so, I’m going to talk about queer, teen suicide. Again. Way to be optimistic.

Friends of mine have been fantastic in making my various social media pages confirm the already lurking observation that I am the most pessimistic, cranky academic in my cohort. Daily, while other people get E-cards, or jokes about boobs and poo, I get posts and emails about queer suicide, murder, loneliness, queer oppression, depression, Margaret Wente speaking about anything (which causes me to seizure) and so on. And I cherish every post, every melancholic song, every terrifying study. Without my surrounding support I would know nothing about what is going on in the world. Because I am lonely, and never leave my house! Not true of course. The real reason is that I cannot negotiate the mass amounts of information out there on how loneliness is being taken up politically, culturally, economically, and socially, alone.

The most recent post from my friend Dingo that really affected me was the video diary of Jonah Mowry which has become a sensation on the internet. If you have yet to see this video, take time. If you have seen this video, watch it again. This youtube clip has gotten over 8 million hits, and has become the topic of discussion for countless people, including celebrities, politicians, teachers, parents, and other kids who related to young Jonah’s message about what is feels like to think about suicide daily, and how it feels to decide not to make that choice.

You name them Jonah found his way into their hearts.

World Wide people were eager to lend their sympathy and hope to this struggling kid. This video came out at a moment when we in the west have been mourning the recent suicides of  so many queer teens including Chantal Dube, Jeanine Blanchette, and Jamie Hubley, whose deaths have sparked fears that suicide is fast becoming a contagious epidemic. Desperate to do something to stop the bleeding, hearing about Jonah Mowry, a kid who was still alive and suffering from homophobia, struck a nerve and an almost obsessive impetus to act right away.

Spearheading this campaign was, not surprisingly, Perez Hilton (and for those who have read my previous post on lesbian suicide, we all know what I think about that celeb). Following suit were twittering tweeters like Lady Gaga, Paula Abdul, Rosie O’Donnell, Nick Jonas, Ricky Martin and Zooey Deschanel who each felt compelled to get a message to Jonah that life was, indeed, worth living.  That he was loved.

What interests me most about the video by this adorably attractive kid with bad spelling and sad eyes that could make the Grinch grow a real heart is not so much his message– sadly, I’m not surprised at all that a gay teen has been treated so cruelly by his fellow peers and by a society that is supposed to protect him. Rather, it is the extraordinary outrage from his viewing audience that surfaced after another video of Jonah was released months later. This second updated video (instead of showing a boy alone, wearing tears and headphones, holding cards with messages about how he has contemplated suicide up to a camera) shows a smiling, jokey, gum chewing boy with his best friend by his side. Jonah is boisterous and showy, a bit cocky, and incredibly optimistic about the new school he has entered that had terrified him so much months earlier.

The reaction from the public to this updated video is appalling.

Calling the 14-year-old boy a fake– a boy who got us all feeling terribly about queer teen suicide, got us all rethinking our own privilege, who gave us an immediate, temporal snap shot of what it feels like to be repeatedly bullied by heterosexist peers through the actual lens and bodily reactions of the bullied before it’s too late–seems ridiculous and disgusting. I ask here: what is wrong with us? What goes on in our heads that we in the west think we have the right, the entitlement, to give care to a struggling kid and then rip that care away the moment we feel betrayed or short-changed. Lied to.

Relationally, this is how we tend to treat people socially. This “I love you but…” can be seen circulating as a “normal” social response to let-down in families, school playgrounds, political meetings all over the west. The idea that I will care for you if, and only if, you give me something in return, and only while you continue to uphold my expectations from you is all too common. Jonah gave us hope, a second-chance to not ignore a bullied kid, and yet the second it appeared he was happier than we knew, that he got help or found strength in self-reflection, we freaked out.

I want to say this clearly: Jonah Mowry owes us nothing. He was not put on the earth to fulfill some desire we have, or to fill up a lack or a void we have in our own thinking. The notion that we believe relationships are meant to work in this investment, reciprocation way, is what is sick or fraudulent.

I will now turn to Oprah, whose extreme privilege and lack of responsibility for her privilege as an icon makes me gag. Do you remember a little memoir called A Million Little Pieces?  I bet James Frey and Oprah do. The book about a recovered drug-addict who painstakingly explores, in gory detail, the life he lived through as a homeless man trying to get through life made Oprah weep. She loved the book and singlehandedly made it a huge success.

But then she found out the book was embellished at moments. 

That when Frey said he was in jail for months, he actually was only in jail for hours. That when he said he had his teeth pulled with no anesthetic, he actually meant he had laughing gas and nothing else. Oprah got very angry with these discrepancies. After all, she had endorsed the book as a thing of beauty because it was a true story, and when she found out there were bits and peices, of the million little, that were not play by plays she felt she had given the “gift” of millions of readers to Frey blindly:  “I feel really duped” she explained on air when she brought Frey on to explain himself, to hold himself into account. “I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

She, like her viewers, demanded to know if Frey saw himself as “the man who conned Oprah.” As viewer, Marie, stated: “I can’t help but to feel completely deceived.”

I don’t care that Oprah was saddened or miffed by the realization that memoir, which is what this book is, remains opaque in its claims to authenticity. That’s a discussion for another day. What troubles me, however, is the fact that Oprah decided to have a temper tantrum about her hurt pride on air. And because Oprah got all aflutter on air, in front of her millions of viewers, her millions of viewers (and their friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, dogs, unborn children) got angry too, putting Frey, and the book that actually did the job of changing people’s lives in very positive ways, on the hot seat, almost ruining the man’s career.

Returning to Jonah Mowry I am worried by reactions to his second video–his healthy and happy kid video.  So enraged have viewers of this later video been that there have been hate campaigns created against Jonah chastising his joy. Accusations that he lied about being bullied and being afraid of being openly queer have prompted some people to call him a “fame whore” who “trolled” the public for money. His video has even spawned parody videos that are generalizing and kinda pathetic, not in their attempts to poke fun at the plights of bullied teens– “because only unhappy people get a lot of attention” as Serge does in his youtube video– but because these videos further evidence the increasing entitlement to homophobia people seem to harbor. One video upload in particular by Hai Dair evidences this hatred most effectively.  Good luck reading these comments without pulling your own hair out.

Now, to be fair, the heterosexist and homophobic responses were appalling but predicable. It doesn’t take much for homophobes to come out of their holes. Here are a few reactions to Jonah just to get your blood boiling:

ZEPIfriedchicken said: “You talk like a fucking homo.”

TheRogersRangers spewed: “why the fuck are you here faglet? go do something useful and have yourself chemically sterilized, that would do the whole world a favor.”

narutoninja2007  commented: “Any who was gullible enough to believe the first video deserves to feel deceived after this, none the less this guy is scum.”

But it is the reactions from a public who knows better, is smarter, that bothers me most even though they too are predictable.

Commenter, Jackdanielsmoorman, reviled Jonah for performing affect. For selling him a story about sadness and then, after Jackdanielmoorman bought it, for changing the story. JDMM states:

“You think this is some sort of joke, don’t you? I feel very bad for you, the fact that you can smile at something like this that you dare poke at something as sacred as this. Have you no shame? As for the girl beside you saying “I’ve seen them they’re real” I’m sorry I don’t trust children because they tend to lie when they want something, in this case attention. I hope you can live a decent life despite you needing to pose as somebody that’s been hurt. You are a terrible actor too take lessons.”

It’s as though Jonah becomes a public failure because of his emotional success. That JDMM is so invested in their own feelings and pride that helping someone else feel ok is only fruitful if a good return on their investment comes forth.

Robert Muñoz piped-up right away with his pessimism about the public reaction to Jonah saying, “and it begins, the public crucifixion of a human being for not meeting their preconceptions.” Mowry’s mother Peggy Sue Mowry (who just barely learned her son was gay, and learned it from the actual video) had to go on ABC news and explain her son’s video to people, ensuring them that it was not at “fraud” and pleading for leniency. She exclaims, softly, like a deer caught in headlights: “[Jonah] is sick over all the horrible posts and so are we.”  Even Anne Rice, yep the vampire author!, felt compelled to defend Jonah to the public, blogging: “He doesn’t say he lied at all. He’s obviously a kid wrestling with the overwhelming problems that face all adolescents, trying to sort out his emotions and the responses he got to his earlier video. His earlier video deserves the attention it is getting.” Jonah Mowry himself responded to his critics and to our obnoxious demand that he do so. His letter to the public is lovely and well thought out, but for me that’s not the point. The reality that we required that type of response from him in the first place is brutal.

My concern is our public expectation of both teens and their affects. What I see running throughout these narratives is a desire for “true” feelings that are dependable, expendable, and unwavering. And to be honest, calls of authenticity that require a purist, all or nothing understanding of emotion scare me.  I wonder though what this says about the way we do affect? What does it mean when a tragically bullied gay teen takes time to let people “out there” know what he is feeling “in here,” risking further persecution or ridicule, further feelings of worthlessness or shame, and we, the sympathetic public embrace this child only to throw him to the waste side when we find out, months later, that he is actually feeling better? Are we really into punishing children for being fluid and playful with their emotions? In their reactions to life-situations? What is it that we want from one another’s affects? What is it that we require or need to occur in order to be affected enough that we do something about the ways in which we are treating one another? And is our affect so tenuous and fickle that our feelings of compassion can be deterred or shut-down when we see that a boy like Jonah can, while experiencing pain, suffering and alienation, also, simultaneously, experience joy, comfort and care?

Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t the entire It Gets Better Project  (a project I have had hard times with but at least recognize was put in place to try and help suicidal queer kids) trying to convey the message that life gets better? So what exactly are we thinking, as a society, when we get upset with Jonah Mowry when he feels better?

In my next post I’m going to continue looking at these questions through the lens of the politics of optimism. Trust me!

Posted in activism, bullying, dan savage, humour, loneliness, popular culture, social justice, suicide, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Getting Better for Lonely Young Lesbians

Hi all! I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to be a guest blogger this week for Fedcan (The Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences) at: http://blog.fedcan.ca/

I’m alongside some great scholars and thinkers like Bobby Noble, Doreen Fumia and Catherine Taylor and feel pretty lucky to be included. This particular entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirit) peoples. Hope you like it!

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On Friday, October 4, 2010 the lifeless bodies of 21 year-old Jeanine Blanchette and her 17 year-old girlfriend Chantal Dube were found in a wooded area behind a social services building in Orangeville, Ontario. Immediately deemed a double-suicide by police, the lesbian couple’s disappearance and their eventual deaths drew little attention from the local or national media and even sparser attention from the Orangeville Police Department. In fact the authorities assured the families that the girls had simply run off together and that their disappearance was an attention-seeking attempt at feminine manipulation. After all, girls just do this—they run away. By the time the police decided to begin the search it was too late. Jeanine Blanchette’s cousin, not the police, found the two girls lying together, dead already, nestled in a blanket of trees.

Other than the negligence of the OPP, what I find especially problematic  with this story is that when the girls were eventually found their deaths (although understood to be undeniably tragic) were described by the media as losses that were inevitable. Foreshadowable because of the girls’ presumed lonely unhappiness, rather than contextualizing the lives they’d lived together as a young couple the lackluster coverage of their suicides weighed in on the lonely affective dispositions of Blanchette and Dube, effectively creating a narrative that narrowly focused on the girls’ shifty emotional states.  It is this odd (non)reaction to these young adults’ deaths that speaks to what I understand to be a western fear of both young lesbianism and negative emotions.

In 2011, an age of presumed tolerance that portends a particular acceptance of diversity (if only a compulsory one), culturally we have taken a turn towards regulating our fear of hyper-emotion (sentiments that are considered excessively depressive and, therefore, unproductive) by obsessing over gleeful, positive emotions. Happiness is most certainly at the forefront. Consequently, unhappiness and loneliness have gotten misappropriated and stapled onto young lesbians while their difficult feelings are being reconfigured as symptoms of more manageable mental illnesses and wayward sicknesses. The suicidal lesbian body, therefore, becomes the new body to dismiss—a place to house the already ramped happy-anxiety that is fast becoming the benchmark of western sentiment.

In response, I seek to make a political space for the unhappy lesbian misfit by exploring the following: how have lesbians become perceived as singular threats whose feelings are dangerous to society’s collective joy? What is at stake politically and culturally by the lonely sentiments that get stuck to lesbians?

In a disturbingly stoic post by Canadian media mogul Perez Hilton he surmises that the reason Blanchette and Dube took their own lives is simple: they were brutally depressed and mentally ill. He states: “it sounds like both these young women suffered quite a bit from depression, and it breaks our heart that despite their best efforts, they couldn’t find the strength within themselves or each other to hold on.” Hilton’s presumptions surrounding the girls’ deaths privileges “our” public “heart” and collective strength while dismissing Dube and Blanchette as a hyper-feminine “them” who were too weak and too melodramatic to fight for survival. In choosing to spectacularize the two girls with two particular close-up photos—each depicting the young women in eerily solemn (in the case of Dube), or hyper-emotional (in the case of Blanchette) affective moments—the girls are presented as though they are actually on trial for being emotive. In not surviving, they failed; Hilton’s near happiness in his personal assessment is distressing.

I also see a troubling and confusing gender bias surrounding the social reaction to queer teen suicide. Not only are lesbians being used as unhappy scapegoats in this current war on rogue emotions, but while lesbian youth are dismissed for being suicidal, gay male youth are being martyred. Focusing attentions around why and how young gay women commit suicide, rather than on changing the ways in which society views their sexuality, social reactions to lesbian suicide passively condemn and shame without introspection. And yet, western society is more than eager to revere and make heroes out of gay, male youth who die by suicide, heralding them as brave victims of homophobia.

For instance, here in Canada in 2007, 13 year-old Shaquille Wisdom took his own life after being endlessly bullied by classmates at his school in Ajax, Ontario. However, the social reaction to Wisdom’s death was scathingly different from public reactions to the Dube and Blanchette suicides. Described by the media as a murderous example of external gay bashing, Wisdom’s death initiated a strong social response throughout Canada as people rallied against what they saw as the growing pandemic of social and cultural homophobia, a rally still ongoing. The idea that a young man would be driven to take his own life at the beginning of his potential left a Canadian public heart-broken, and his death prompted a public outcry for Canadian education reform against homophobia in schools. Moreover, Wisdom’s death became entrenched in the larger conversation surrounding the increased suicidal ideation of queer youth throughout Canada and the US in much the same ways that Jamie Hubley’s recent death has prompted people like Rick Mercer and Bob Ray to start talking about what we can do to combat homophobia once and for all. 

I’m not at all suggesting these deaths were not atrocities and horrendous examples of the disgusting power of homophobia. However, I can’t help but wonder here why, for Wisdom and for Hubley, did the media coverage speak tragedy and loss, attributing the death of these boys to the violent hatred of others, while Dube and Blanchette’s deaths were construed as the unhappy inevitability of their personal flaws? In other words, why do we believe external homophobia attacks gay-male teens, while lesbian teens are believed to be the conduits of their own demise?

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” (IGB) project highlights what I see as a specific example of a cultural forum that evidences a widespread lack of political information, care, and sentiment for young female queers, especially those deemed unhappy. Beginning as an online site where queer and LGBTQ adults could post their supportive video messages to queer youth who might be struggling with bullying and homophobia, Savage’s IGB created a safe space in order to speak out against suicidal ideations. What quickly becomes clear when exploring this site, however, is that while this campaign professes to speak to all LGBTQ youth, young lesbians are being paradoxically hailed by Savage’s project but are never actually the intended audience. Separating the boys from the girls and, more strategically, the rational, successful gay boy from the hyper-emotional, lost gay girl, what emerges is a narrative about lesbianism that suggests its frivolousness.

What I also see within this and other cultural scripts is the continued feminization of unhappiness which points to the ways in which lesbian desire, especially the intimacies between lesbian youth, is rendered both invisible and affectively ugly—sentiments that are not becoming of a good girl. Shockingly, gay male youth are affectively configured as emblems of a stolen happiness whereas lesbian youth are misconstrued as those who might steal happiness and infect it with loneliness. As such, lonely, unhappy girls are neither expected to survive their unhappiness nor thought deserved of survival.

Even in the queer community there seems to be a lack of awareness about lesbian youth, as well as a growing lack of desire to critique the privileging of happiness. Available support networks specifically targeting young lonely lesbians are sparse and often homonormative. While online initiatives similar to the “It Gets Better” project such as Autostraddle’s “23 lesbians, 10 animals, 2 children, 1 message” attempt to compensate for the privileging of white, middle class, gay men in the social media these narratives also create and beckon “happy” lesbian identities to them—dog loving, middle-class, monogamous and devout lovers who revel in domestic bliss, social networking, and corporatization. Narrativizations that promise a return to some lost happiness are in abundance on this site and they are so without any critical thought going into what this happiness is, to whom it is available, or where it resides.

I propose here that what we queer activists and feminists need is an understanding of an unhappiness with happiness, a lonely unhappiness that does not necessitate a sadness with oneself; rather a pleasurable loneliness which addresses the sadness we have with a western politic that uses happiness to oppress others. What is important to remember here is that lonely feelings call into question our stark obsession with western happiness, and our dependency on political policies that choose which affects are beneficial to nationalist discourses and which are threatening to this ideal. I argue here for a loneliness that is neither recuperated as happy, nor a loneliness that validates negativity. Neither of these binaries are fluid enough for this lonely emotion. Instead, I put forth that this beautifully ugly emotion must work to reimagine happiness, a challenge necessary to a reclamation of political lesbian agency.

It is because of its misfittedness that loneliness can be understood as a present, ordinary, everyday affect that lets us know social change is necessary and continual, emotions are powerful, and ethical connections require work, care, and compassion, not empty smiles. In this way it might just be the lonely young lesbian who is strong enough to stir things up, muddying our comfortable waters. Her unhappiness is not something that makes her expendable, and her loneliness within this particular moment can be made political. She can become the agent of radical change.

After all, lesbianism’s power lies in its ability to constantly re-envision itself, never falling prey to a happy stability.

For kids like Chantelle and Jeanine, we can’t forget that.

Posted in activism, bullying, dan savage, lesbianism, loneliness, queer politics, queerness, sexuality, social justice, social politics, suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

No Glee for Queer teens

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Sorry I’ve been a tad slack. I’m apologizing to myself, my inner-guilty narcissist, Jesus (not the big One, the “false icon” on my subway who perpetually asks me for smokes even though he always has one hanging out of his mouth, unlit) and my few loyal followers who have actually been so sweet as to ask me for more posts. Unfortunately, I went to Montreal. You know how it is. That city, the political fervor, the fantastic people, the dancing, the baguettes! But I’m back. So here I go.

I was coming back from a hike and heading to buy Junior Mints when I came upon a rummage sale with piles of magazines littered across a table on Queen. There I stumbled across an older 2011 Entertainment Weekly issue where I was met with two shining, polished faces belonging to the t.v. show Glee‘s Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) on the cover.  Included in the Entertainment Weekly article was the declaration that a “new class of young, gay characters” on T.V. were “changing hearts, minds and Hollywood.” I was confused, per usual. Given the particular moment we are living in here in the west, where queer teen suicide is being called a pandemic across Canada and the US, I wondered how on t.v. being gay was considered amazing, almost a Disney-dream, whereas there have been countless proclamations of the violence against, and alienation of young gays outside of the t.v. world.  Intrigued by this act of making a particular brand of gayness visible, I started researching.

At first glance, the list of  shows that now have gay teens as characters seems encouraging. Even though the stats surrounding how many t.v. shows have series regulars who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans are still pretty low (2.9%, down from 3.9% in 2010) considering how many characters there actually are on t.v., I guess as queers we’re supposed to be happy we are being included at all.

Some of the shows that have cropped up with homosexual youth characters are: 90210 (bisexual character Adrianna-Tate Duncan and Teddy, though Adrianna’s character’s sexuality is barely discussed, and Teddy’s sexuality has gotten him reduced to a recurring character role when he was originally cast as a regular); Glee‘s Kurt and Blaine, and lesbian Santana and her bisexual pal Brittany; Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s Adam Torres who is the only recurring trans, FTM character, also known as teen Nick; TrueBlood‘s bisexual Tara; Pretty Little Liars‘  Emily Fields and her ex-girlfriend Maya.

Of note is that overall the numbers of teen queer characters is dropping. Still, their visibility on these popular shows has been paramount to offering hope to alienated queer teens who are in desperate need of role models and accurate representations of their lives. Jamey Rodemeyer and Jamie Hubley who each died by suicide this year were both huge fans of Glee.

And queer audiences become very invested in and passionate about what they expect in these gay-teen representations, perhaps because of their sheer rarity. As Heather Hogan states, “if your favorite lesbian character stops resonating with you, you can’t just channel-flip until you find another one. Nothing is scarier or more enraging than feeling like your own reflection is being smudged or stripped away.”

I’m not unhappy with the fact there are finally a few queer teen characters on television. I’m afraid of the ways in which queerness is being represented and at times rewritten on these shows. Overwhelmingly, these t.v. portrayals of queerness share one thing in common: a happy toleration for queers by heterosexuals. But this tolerance is inflected with an expectation of sameness and a dequeered gayness where homosexuality (complete with the perfect hair, clean-cut Prada clothing, and soprano poetry voice) is represented as an identity that can only be celebrated when it is “not different” from heterosexuality at all.

Robert McRuer explores the idea of tolerance and its relation to heterosexuality arguing that tolerance has become the new fad word. He outlines that “the [accepted] subject must demonstrate [. . . ] a dutiful (and flexible) tolerance toward the minority groups constituted.” So, while in the past representations of queerness tended to “demonize” it, today there is a movement towards flexibility that stresses the beauty of “diversity” and of “working with” queer people and their issues. The aim of these t.v. shows, then, is to deliver us a hyper-tolerant, flexible heterosexual society and to deliver us a gayness that is thriving, that fits into the hetero-universe flawlessly and seamlessly, and that strives and succeeds without the pains of hetero-homophobia, ostracization, or the violent hate we see everyday in the non-Gleeful world at large.

These shows are showing us that queer teens are exactly like their incredibly tolerant straight friends, and that bullying, abandonment from parents, and judgment from teachers, are no longer issues. Further, these gay characters show us that for queer teens there is no messiness; there is no sex; there is no depression or fear. Instead, there are love songs, sporadic dance numbers, financial successes, and a lot of cuddling and hugging from heterosexual pals.

What’s wrong with this? What is at stake by portrayals like this? On the surface, maybe not too much. But if we actually take a moment to negotiate who is watching these shows, what the message within these depictions of queerness suggest, things get murkier.

Wendy Peters, a scholar I met at a recent conference, delivered a fantastic paper on the television series 90210 and the representations of gayness therein. Focusing her attention on closeted character Teddy (Trevor Donovan), and his homophobic attacks against openly gay character Ian (Kyle Riabko), Peters argues that what is becoming common place within story lines that feature gay characters is that the only homophobia that is ever present comes from closeted queer teens themselves.

She furthers that, overwhelmingly, the school settings, families, and peer groups surrounding gay characters are depicted as spaces and groups comfortable with homosexuality, supportive to all characters who are gay, and “shocked” to find out that there is homophobia at all. In other words, these shows present a post-homophobic world where it is only the not-yet-out, self-hating, gay character who is hurtful to homosexuals. And somehow within these shows it fast becomes the duty, then, of the heterosexual youth to teach the closeted homophobic youth how to accept their own sexuality.

Here’s another example. On Glee, Kurt is openly gay but his homophobic-hater, Dave Karofsky, is closeted. After a lot of homophobia ensues from Dave, Kurt finally figures out that Dave’s violent tendencies against him stem from the fact Dave himself is gay and is trying to cover it up.  It becomes Kurt’s job (as the happy, out, talented gay) and the rest of the heterosexual community in Glee, to help Dave feel accepted.

Great. But what does it imply when we find out that the mean, violent, homophobe is closeted Kurt?

Charlie Condou of Coronation Street fame explores this phenomena of portraying the closeted queer teen as homophobic. He states: “ironically, I suspect that the gay character that most closely reflects reality in Glee is not the out and proud Kurt, but the closeted jock bully, Karofsky, who is struggling in denial over his sexuality.” Suggesting that it is much more difficult to create characters on a television series that actually mimic everyday life, rather than a romantic ideal about gayness, Condou’s assertion that Dave, the bully, is a more accurate representation of queerness might be so. The trouble with this presumption though is that homophobia is fast-becoming understood in these shows, and by audiences, as a queer problem.

If closeted-gays are the only ones hateful enough to be homophobic bullies, than heterosexuals, and the social systems that enable their “normalcy” are completely exonerated of any responsibility for homophobia. This is a dangerous message to be encouraging.

Furthermore, Condou is happy that these T.V. shows are presenting us with well “integrated” gays who “are most often seen dealing with the same everyday life issues as the straight characters” calling shows like Glee “political, but in a non-confrontational way.” However, my fear is that the idea that sexuality should be quietly politicized rather than rabidly argued actually borders too closely on the practices of silencing and assimilation.

If this is T.V.’s message for their gay-teen revolution we’re in trouble

Rick Mercer too argues on The Current that he didn’t think it pertinent to talk about his own sexuality because his profession, as a comedian, was to talk politics. But isn’t sexuality always political?

These shows are perpetuating assimilationist rhetoric while at the same time applauding a Western audience for their open-mindedness and tolerance of homosexuality. And yet, the reality of the situation is that homophobia is a huge concern for young teens today and bullies come in all shapes and identities. These shows are also perpetuating a myth that being gay is celebrated when in actual fact, in many corridors, locker rooms, malls, parking lots, houses, homophobia is continuing to undo young teens.

Intriguingly, what these television shows also proliferate is a space where homosocial bonds (those “bromances” we see all over the television between male pals who are straight but nuanced in their masculine affections) are strengthened and made completely safe. As Wendy Peters argues, western heterosexual society gets the added bonus of not being held accountable for the everydayness of homophobia while at the same time benefiting as their bonds between each other get stronger. And kids like Jamie Hubley keep dying.

Posted in queerness, lesbianism, loneliness, bullying, suicide, humour, sexuality, activism, queer politics, popular culture, social justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Matt’s Safe School Law,” and Michigan’s many phobias

60.

What the hell is in the water in Michigan? Okay, not that I was heading there to vacation any time soon, to, you know, get away from things for a while, but seriously what the fuck is going on within that state these past few months?

Sorry Michigan; I’m feeling ranty.

1) First we have Andrew Shirvell, the blatant homophobic district attorney who used his personal online blog to target and completely bully University of Michigan’s openly gay student- body-president, and cutie, Chris Armstrong. Why? Shirvell is an awful piece of work. Why else? An anti-abortionist, conservative, religious fanatic Shirvell was convinced, one might say obsessed, with the idea that Armstrong was using his political position at the university to recruit and transform previously “normal” heterosexuals into gays.

Shirvell was so taken by his own fear of Armstrong’s gay-influence, he picketed outside of the young man’s house, harassed his friends and family, and continuously used the social media to publicly name Armstrong and accuse him of strong-arming unsuspecting youth to join him “in the cult that is homosexuality.” Using swastikas and calling Armstrong “unnatural,” it took months before Shirvell was finally asked to take a leave of absence (translation: he was fired) from the district attorney’s office, after Anderson Cooper, a CNN reporter, explained to him on national T.V. what the terms “cyberbully” and “bigot” meant. Shirvell seemed a tad confused.  Uh, even CNN got it!!

To be clear about the bizarre and disparate homophobia Shirvell spread, on his blog “Chris Armstrong Watch” Shirvell poetically stated for all to see: “Parents of University of Michigan freshman beware: the university’s first openly ‘gay’ student body president, Chris Armstrong, is actively recruiting your sons and daughters to join the homosexual ‘lifestyle.’

And to think this guy was a government appointed employee to the District Attorney’s office.

2) Next in Michigan we suffered through yet another year of the always confusingly transphobic Michigan womyn’s music festival, notorious for excluding transgendered and transexual women from their yearly summer celebration of, well, women.

Co-founded by Lisa Vogel, her sister Kristie, and Mary Kinding the festival has vehemently defended their “womyn born womyn” only policy, arguing that it is not transphobic at all. And Vogel continues to support her festival’s enforcement of the “no penises on the land” law 30 years later by suggesting that all women are entitled to a “woman only space” for seven days of the year. All women, that is, except for trans women. Huh?

To help me keep this all straight women like Sarah Palin (who coined such oxymorons as “the new conservative feminist movement,”  and who stands by her decree, without cracking a seal puppy-eyed smile, that the current “leftist” feminist movement is run by a “cackle of rads” who “highjacked” the term feminist in their devious plot to get women rights and stuff) is more than welcome at the Michigan womyn’s festival. As is Michelle Bachman who once stated at a Republican convention: “what a bizarre time we’re in, when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn homosexuality is normal and you should try it.” Great. I’d love to share a shower with her at Mich fest. And so too is Shirley-Roper Phelps welcome whose offensive gems about queerness include “God Hates Fags” and “USA = Fag Nation.”

Okay, I’m not really picky about who I’d roast marshmellows with around a fire, but I sure as hell would rather be at a festival with women who weren’t going to roast me in my sleep, and who were actually caring, compassionate, and intelligent, not simply big-mouthed bigots with boobs.

Still,  I’m not saying that women like Palin, Bachman, or Phelps should not be permitted to go to Mich fest. Christ, the world might be a better place if these ladies loosened up a tad, ran topless in the woods, sang a few folk songs, and learned a thing or two about freedom of expression and sex. But what is apparent in these peoples’ understanding of sex, gender, and what it means to be a woman is that too many self-professed feminists, lesbian feminists too, are ignorant and transphobic.

Somehow, using the language of feminism and sporting it like a hot butch’s denim coat, Vogel and her supporters have selectively reenvisioned their way right out of open-minded, leftist, feminist thinking. Consequently, Vogel’s Mich-fest seems less about celebrating all things woman and more about gender exclusion, privilege, and hatred under the guise of carving out a space “for people who suffered a girlhood.”

But I suppose if Palin can call herself a feminist, Vogel and her supporters too can pretend they are “sisters in struggle” working to create a world where “we stand shoulder to shoulder as women, and as members of the greater queer community.” But if that’s the case, I’m choosing to eat hotdogs and drink beer with the queer feminists who understand that while we all live through different narratives and tensions, oppressions, successes and fears some queers have had, and continue to have, much harder struggles than I because of their lack of Vogel-privilege.

If I have a point at all it is that feminisms in 2011, of all varieties, can neither be alienating nor profess to include while excluding passively in the name of sisterhood. To say you support all women means exactly that. If Vogel needs a refresher course, or insists on continuing to fight for a “separate womyn-born womyn space” I have a few *choice* suggestions about where she can go.

3) Finally, Michigan has offered us the “Matt’s Safe School Law.”

14 year-old Matt Epling succumbed to suicide in 2002 after surviving months of  homophobic bullying from his classmates. On his last day of eighth grade he was publicly assaulted by older students and threatened endlessly online and absolutely nothing was done about it. The incident was dismissed as a normal, public “hazing.” 40 days later he took his own life, on the eve of his parent’s meeting with police to press formal charges against the kids who hurt their son. 

Prompting pro-queer supporters to rally for anti-homophobia training in all Michigan classrooms (spaces Gary Glenn, president of The American Family Association of Michigan, once referred to as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda”) the “Matt’s Safe School Law” was amended last Wednesday.

Sounds promising right? Hold on. Once again, the language of equality and liberation is being touted here, but when we open Pandora’s box we find that this bill that proclaims to protect all kids against being bullied at school, in actual fact protects bullies. How so? The state’s Senate Republicans have “added” a clause into the anti-bullying legislation that actually permits homophobic bullying in the name of protecting “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Religious exemption for all bullies. This time using the terms “freedom of religion” to advocate hate and hurt, this new bill works to ensure homophobia continues in schools, and vanquishes any responsibility for this homophobia.

Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer has called her Republican colleagues unconstitutional, accusing them of attempting to create a space for “consequence-free bullying. “ Whitmer states:  as of today “bullying kids is okay if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.” Similarly Amy Sullivan of Time Magazine points to the ridiculousness of the exemption when she argues: “The same religious conservatives who applaud the religious exemption in Michigan’s anti-bullying bill would be appalled if it protected a Muslim student in Dearborn who defended bullying a Christian classmate by saying he considered her an infidel.”

So what is Michigan telling us lately? Well, to blame Michigan for any of this would be irresponsible. What is certainly clear is that although this state seems particularly visibly homophobic, transphobic, and just phobic, the fact that we are all complacent in maintaining cultural paradigms of oppression is made that much clearer now.  How are we to go about unlearning homophobia, or, in Jen Gilbert’s opinion, teach our kids how to stop homophobic and transphobic thinking from becoming commonplace in the classroom when the classrooms themselves foster and support it. Actually no, worse, cater to it, expect it, even want it?

What also really upsets me here is the momentum of frankness that conservatives and pseudofeminists feel entitled to in regards to other people’s lives and struggles.

One can almost hear in Lisa Vogel’s supposition that “since its inception, the Michigan Festival…always has been an event for women, and this continues to be defined as womyn born womyn” her silent wind-up: “let me be frank.” And the frankness in the Republican voices who actually stood there and argued that a bill meant to protect kids like Matt Epling from homophobia actually should be edited to protect homophobes from persecution makes me sick.

Here’s what I think about frankness: it’s a disgusting and privileged attribute that enables people to be mean. That’s it. There’s being honest, and there is being forthcoming, which are two different and useful ways of communicating. But when someone says to you, “let me be frank” they really mean: let me be a huge douche-bag , treat you like crap, and hide behind my words as though they were well-meaning. So, without being frank, I think that Michigan is a warning to us all that we need to get ahold of the persons in control of important public policies and reteach them about care and ethics before we’re left with a western world filled with frank idiots who can actually ruin people’s lives with a couple of votes.

Posted in activism, bullying, queer politics, social justice, social politics, suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lonely malls, Voldemort, and motorized wheelchairs

51.

Today, I am outing myself. Again.

I am omega lonely. I am my own lonely archive. I am the material I have accumulated. And I say this in happy-humiliation.

Where has this realization come from? Well, the easy answer is doughnuts. The tougher answer is that I returned to Hamilton, Ontario yesterday (my old dwelling) and realized right away that walking around the town I felt real lonely. I’ve got a great family, spectacular friends, a swank apartment–that currently smells like mothballs which sucks–a few jobs, yet I am hilariously lonely. And Hamilton seems to just get it.

Wandering around the downtown core by Jackson Square Mall in Hamilton (a mall busy with motorized wheelchairs (that are sharply bedazzled with bobble-head toys and plush bears), teens skipping school and smoking by the liquor store, elderly folks walking about for exercise, toddlers wobbling throughout stores with their mums) one notices a tension between absence and clutter/ collectivity and loneliness. On the one hand, empty spaces, demolition rubble, abandoned warehouses and stores proliferate this urban centre reminding me of the empty promises of progress. The lies George Bush spouted when he, after 9/11, said: “get out there and shop,” as though a new handbag would erase the image of The Falling Man or the eviscerated Twin Towers.

As Imre Szeman says, Hamilton is a town of  “lost splendor and frozen energies.” The skeletal remains of buildings that used to be successful restaurants and shops stand side by side, held up now only by the artists’s hope for government grants. “The brick buildings are so pretty,” everyone seems to say, and yet they crumble and tumble from years of neglect.

To be sure, Hamilton, like many industrial towns, seems a bit forgotten and overlooked–the middle child who isn’t thought cute enough or smart enough to be noticed. Box-like buildings penetrate the city like rusty nails in its side. Perhaps most visible are the phallic box-like structures that have become the model for low-income housing in Hamilton’s downtown. You can’t miss them; the streets are like a virtual labyrinth where each twist and turn leads to one of these solid, yet dreary containers. Made of grey, brown, dirty-white, stained concrete these buildings (with their uniformity and perfectly proportioned metal balconies) resemble a poor-child’s simulacrum of Lego-land, where all of the colored building pieces have been used to make shiny cars, houses, and cottages in Lego-suburbia, leaving the throw away scrap Lego-blocks for the urban spaces on Jackson, Main, Markham, and King Street. Hamilton is literally a tale of two cities.
The effect is eerie as one looks up into the skyline and sees a synthesis of windows staring into the city like the compound eye of a single fly.

And holy shit is there a lot of trash. The place is overwrought with junk that dresses the space in a virtual garbage-skirt made of Pepsi cans, McDonald’s packages, cigarette boxes, Red Bull cans, diapers, and piles of boxes. Litter is found everywhere (in the middle of the street, on roof-tops, under cars, stuffed inside newspaper carts). No one hides it here. No one piles waste up in segregated sections of the city; no one categorizes and orders it; garbage blows around the downtown like tumbleweeds.

Of course this is the case though. Corporate chains and businesses continue to move into Hamilton; however, they are careful to stay far away from the downtown centre, choosing, rather, to set-up shop in proven prosperous areas such as Dundas, Ancaster, or The Mountain. Yet, not shockingly, these same corporate chains like Starbucks also manage to push independently owned, local establishments into the downtown where they have few customers to sustain them.

This telling narrative speaks to the frustration many urban Hamiltonians suffer from as they battle to negotiate their desire for affordable housing projects, jobs and respectability alongside governmental initiatives that seems duplicitous. At once caught between forcing Hamilton’s downtown core into becoming a profitable metropolis for the middle-class “yuppie” (driving the urban classes elsewhere) and abandoning the downtown altogether, there seems little hope for the average urban person.

The reality for most people downtown is that the buildings are shackled and torn apart, businesses are closing by the day, and people are unemployed and turning to the very products that will ensure Hamilton’s demise – drugs, trash, depression.  It would seem as though the city is stuck in a war with its own loneliness, uncertain whether to be pleasured by it, or succumb to its madness.

However, loneliness and the fear of wasted potential that surrounds it in the urban core carries within it its own charms and intrigues, demanding that we take a second look.

I think the loneliness in urban spaces like Hamilton is filled with combinations of anxiety and pride. The downtown refuses to be assimilated or dismissed, tossed left or right, and somehow, without money or intervention, it operates in its own lostness.

What I’ve learned about my own loneliness is that it has been greatly misunderstood by academics, health care professional, politicians, and popular culture. There is a presumptive almost fearful sense that surrounds loneliness as scientists and medical professionals tell us all that we must keep a watchful eye on loneliness, especially in cities where there is a panic about what loneliness does and where it leads.

This presumption that loneliness is an ‘it’ that can be expelled and fixed can be seen through the literature (medical, memoir, self-help, academic) available that is supposed to help lonely-people reassemble. Take a moment and look loneliness up online and you’ll be bombarded with images of sad, sorry, saps who cant seem to find friends. A taint of vice always clouds it.

A belief also persists that one’s loneliness has the power to infect others, interrupting the healthy mental or physical stability of the body as though it were as potent as SARS or West Nile. In this case, loneliness becomes a dangerous setback to one’s own and all others’ sociability. It’s a real downer at any party.

If depression is the Harry Potter Voldemort of our time, loneliness is thought to be its visible marker, and symptom. 

Granted, loneliness is alienating at times, but that alienation stems as much from shame and societal judgment as it does from loneliness itself. Perhaps this is because loneliness is too often conceptualized as a disabling attribute that is only distinguishable through its effects – sadness, and longing. It’s as if western society believes that if we can catch a scent of someone’s loneliness and follow a trail to its causation, we can treat and control it.

Since loneliness is understood to be unsocial, manic, and depressive–the fault of the lonely person– than it is also presumed that the lonely can only be re-embraced by the social sphere (returned to it) if they give up their loneliness and ‘become’ not-lonely. Or happy as it were. But what if the lonely chap doesn’t want to give up their loneliness?

It is this notion of giving up that I’m trying to think through here as I negotiate sexuality studies’ current shift towards looking at the importance of emotion to the daily lives of people. I wonder how loneliness (as a feeling, act, and queer identity) might enable a politics of lostness, recognizing that there is something wonderfully pleasurable about loneliness’ changeability and unpredictability.

Susan Sontag asserts that within a culture that values interpretation and knowing what’s what, “identity is everything.” However, what remains consistently intriguing about exploring urban spaces like downtown Hamilton is the fact that one loses all sense of self there. I become many “I'”s, eating my hot dog, stumbling around and seeing the impossibility of one collective, coherent identification. Lonely selves do exist in the downtown core, but there is a sense too that all is confused and chaotic, and that’s ok.

It just might be that in a place like Hamilton or Toronto or Halifax, wherever, loneliness, instead of taking something away from us, could actually give us the gift of an ill-at-easeness, opening up dialogues about “homeness,” strangeness and belonging while offering an alternative way of being-in-the-world with others. It is in this way that loneliness sounds very queer indeed.

           

Posted in activism, humour, lesbianism, loneliness, popular culture, sexuality, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rick Mercer versus Gay Teen Suicide

48.

In recent months there has been much emphasis placed on queer youth suicide, jump-started, perhaps, on October 2010 when 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped off of a bridge to his death after his sexual encounter with an older man was filmed and streamlined across the internet by his roommate. Dahrun Ravi sent a Twitter to the entire school with the following warning to perspective viewers: “I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again” It is this intimate “it’s” that Ravi was convinced was so humiliatingly shameful that he had a right to share it with the world.

After the recent death of 15 year-old Ottawa high school student Jamie Hubley (who took his own life after being continuously bullied for being queer by fellow students) there has been an outpouring of rage against the homophobic youth who taunted Hubley to death, as well as questions about how the communities we foster enable these kids’ emergence.

I’m wondering here though if given the social parameters that privilege heteronormativity, whiteness, wealth, and masculinity can we really expect anything different? The answer I need is yes, we must expect something different.

Trying to figure out how we, queer or heterosexual, adults can step up and actually do something to make things better for queer youth I need to first realize what our queer youth are up against.

While there are a plethora of ignorant arguments insisting upon the negative effect of homosexuality on society one stands out like no other—that of pastor Fred W. Phelps. Opposed to what he calls “dyke liberty” and “the filthy fag agenda,” Pastor Phelps has a way with words so poetic that during a sermon in his church, he preached the following:

“Same-sex marriage, by any name, civil union or otherwise, is the ultimate smashed-mouth in-your-face insult to God almighty, and you think he’s going to let England and America and the rest of this evil world get by with it? God almighty has not joined fags in holy wedlock. God no longer keeps America safe, America is doomed. We’re getting the pants beat off of us, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. God is now America’s terrorist. God duped you into starting a war, so he could punish you [. . . ] You’re going to eat your babies! God himself duped Bush into a no-win war, and he did that by the technique of putting a lying spirit in the mouth of all his trusted advisors, to punish America.”

Okay. Now, what Fred W. Phelps is most concerned about here is seemingly:

1) God abhors gay anything and anyone who supports it.

2) God is a terrorist.

3) As homosexuals, we eat our own babies.

On a basic level, Phelps is in idiot. And I want to dismiss him and yell “Hey, Fred! Judas called and wants his role back.” However, the sad fact remains that Phelps and people like him exist and they are listened to. It’s dangerous to forget that.

There have been a variety of suggestions on  what can be done to stop queer kids who are hurting from both continuing to be hurt in places that should be safe (like school), and from turning to suicide after encountering people like Phelps and his rhetorical spawn.

In an impassioned video to his television audience Rick Mercer makes a rare personal plea, from one gay man to an audience of listeners, demanding that homophobes be called into account for their terrorization of queer kids. He argues that rather than simply relying on grief counsellors who only come into a school after a tragedy like Hubley’s death occurs, all adults, especially public-figures who are gay, must create and enforce a no-tolerance environment for homophobia, starting with “the old fashioned assembly [. . . ] where the cops show up and there’s hell to pay.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh1jNAZHKIw).

He demands to know why we, as a Canadian society, are coddling homophobic abusers when we should be protecting at-risk kids. “We have to make it better now,” he argues with a sense of urgency, as though he knows all too well that if we don’t do something “better” soon, we’re not going to have any queer kids left to make it up to.

Mercer is right, of course. As gay adults we need to come out and help in a big way. Ready to be there. Because sometimes showing up is enough.

Matthew Pearson also makes a fantastic suggestion as he discusses the homophobic bullying he suffered as a teen growing up in Ontario. He outlines “the arithmetic of shame” that he accredits with saving his life.. Showing up to school with enough treats to hand out to his aggressors, and offering to drive his taunters around the town, Pearson survived high school by trying to appeal to his peers’ materialism and, maybe even, their guilt. He hoped daily that if he was kind enough, gave these people enough stuff, they’d stop pushing him into lockers and calling him a fag. I get that. I survived my high school life in much the same way. Like Pearson, I lived with “this secret [that] I never shared out of fear that it could destroy everything.” And when you’re 14, this “everything” seems to insurmountably resemble the social sphere in high school–the cafeteria, the hallway, the bus, the bathroom, the parking lot.

And you’re stuck there for three years without the experience or the knowledge that it will change. Like Pearson who calls on “heterosexual men” to wake up, what I needed were heterosexual adults to get it. They didn’t but I needed them to.

But there’s much more necessary.

We need to make it better and stop waiting for someone else to do it. The notion of the “bystander effect” that has popped up over and over again in the media surrounding the death of 2-year-old Wang Yueyue in China also holds true here. While we can stand in judgement of a group of 18 people who willingly watched a dying baby on the side of the road slip away without picking her up and carrying her to safety, we overlook the fact that each one of us is standing by, watching as our teens are slowly murdering those who they think are just a bit too different to be allowed to walk down the hallways unscathed.

And worse, these teens are our children, our babysitters, our soccer stars, our students, our neighbors. They mow our lawns and sell us chocolate bars for school trips. They’re the same kids we used to hand treats out to on Halloween, who used to pee the bed at our kids’ sleepovers, who used to suck their thumbs until their teeth bucked out when they were in Elementary school. We pass them often on the street, and cheer them on at hockey games and concerts. With the exception of a few perhaps, these homophobes are not monsters. If only. That would be a lot easier to understand. Instead, they are you and they are me. And they are unquestionably our fucking responsibility.

I do wonder too if Mercer’s observation of the western adult is not a bit idealistic. He says, with a huge heart, that as “adults, we don’t need role models, kids do.” And when he describes how he reacted to a Youtube video of Hubley singing Lady Gaga tunes with his friends, he states: “as an adult you look at that and go, ‘you know what? That kid’s going places.'” I would love to agree with this, but what strikes me here is the confidence Mercer has that by virtue of us being adults we’ve made it, or, we no longer need to learn how to be better people. Yet the Fred Phelps of the world snap me awake pretty easily.

I need a role model. I need one that can help me understand the feelings of utter disgust I feel towards 12 year-old kids who hate other kids because a little boy might like ballet, or a girl might wear a backwards hat to school. I need a role model I can call that can speak to me clearly about why, in 2011, we’re still fighting to have queer sexuality education in every classroom, not as an-add on but as a part of everyday sexuality studies. I need a role model to stop me from showing up at schools and kicking these homophobic kids right in the arse.

The fact of the matter remains that a lot of adults don’t see a beautiful kid like Jamie Hubley and think, “he’s going to be a star.” They see red. And then they raise kids who see red too.

As Sarah Silverman brilliantly puts it:

“Dear America, when you tell gay Americans that they can’t serve their country openly, or marry the person that they love, you’re telling that to kids too, so don’t be fucking shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves because they’re different. They learned it from watching you.”

Dan Savage has offered that “sometimes the damage done by hate and haters is simply too great.” He might be right, but the worst thing we can do as adults is enable this type of statement to render us complacent or helpless.  I’ll stick with Rick on this one that “we have to make it better now,” and that we can’t afford to be “invisible anymore.” Our coming out stories might be very different from the teens today who are experiencing a world where the color of someone’s shit can make the front-page of yahoo news, but that doesn’t mean we can let them go it alone and meet us at the bar when they make it.

Homophobia is a crime, not a misunderstanding. But it’s not a crime being committed by a bunch of evil kids who don’t matter. They’re our kids doing this and they’re hurting others before we sit and eat with them at dinner, and after we drop them off at the rink to free-skate.

I completely agree with Sarah Blackstock‘s statements that”we must go after the homophobia,” but I think we have to also go after that part of ourselves that explains away homophobia as a notch on a belt that we suffer through on our way to gay.

And we need to do that now.

Posted in activism, bullying, dan savage, humour, loneliness, popular culture, queer politics, social justice, suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Newt Gingrich on the Sacred

45.

In his article “Eight Ways to Divorce Proof You Marriage,” relationship coach and author of Treat Your Man Like a V.I.P: Topless Tactics You Were Never Taught Xxavier T outlines what he argues are necessary tips for any wife who is trying to save her heterosexual marriage from collapse.

T warns his female readers that their feminine “manipulation[s]” (such as “withholding sex,” “fake[ing] an orgasm,” or “compet[ing] with the people/things that [her husband] loves”) will ruin her marriage. What we can surmise from this is that A + B = C. If the marriage ends the reason is because the naggy wife wouldn’t let her deserved husband play pool with the boys at the strip club down the street while she sat at home with his cold, dead dinner.

Similarly, in her treatise Grading on a Curve: The Marriageability Factor, Tiffany Green offers three compelling steps that both women and men can participate in to secure a happy hetero-marriage. Green suggests that love interests should “write down twenty things that [they] strongly believe [in].” NOTE: These things can vary from the pair’s religious beliefs to the sorts of diarrhea medications they would strongly recommend one another in a pinch. Once the lists are made Green next advises that couples gently scroll through their top ten “pet peeves,” (such as the picking of one’s “teeth in public”) circling their most egregious annoyance. Lastly, and finally, Green instructs the couple to return to their two previous lists and “cross out” the areas that each are willing to “compromise” on–such as the important social issue of  whether or not they should engage in the “hiring of a maid.”

And who says romance is dead in North America.

Both of these authors write for the website marriagepartner.com, a page dedicated to helping lovers find one another and avoid the pitfalls of divorce, a plague that the site claims is overtaking North American marriage. What I noticed, however, is that while the site provides these emphatically helpful tips on how to avoid the demise of heterosexual marriages, the sources omit any trace of advice for same-sex partnerships.

When I looked for similar sites that would help me procure and secure my future gay marriage, I was left bumbling my way through Christian Fundamentalist and political pages that didn’t seem incredibly helpful to me. Mostly because of the hatred and the misspellings.

These hater websites seemed easily chucked into two categories. They either bombarded me with images—usually put to song—of flashy crosses, catchy homophobic-slang, and asinine tips on where I could go for a fancy gay-exorcism—to PRAY AWAY MY GAY—or they sent me to links that recommended I talk to my local politician about gay marriage debates. Have you met Stephen Harper? Oy.

Aside from some sites about the pros and cons of monogamy and more than a few pages on raunchy lesbian sex (NOTE: never type the terms ‘farmer’s daughter’ into your web-browser), my search for an informative and compelling website on how-to-do-gay-marriage-properly came up empty.

Sorry my fellow gays, it seems we’re going to have to figure out how to ruin our own marriages ourselves.

Still, if our current cultural interpretation of the traditional marriage tells us anything at all about how we North Americans understand heterosexual unions, then one thing is for sure: our conceptualization of traditional marriage is certainly intriguing. With marriage shows such as Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, no one would dare question that traditional marriage is important in North America. Important and costly. Marriage has become such an expensive adventure that The New York Times recently estimated an average heterosexual union in 2010 cost at least $28,000, without rings. The same was true of Canadian weddings. Coupled with the shining examples of matrimonial bliss we have witnessed between such celebrities as Renee Zellweger and Kenney Chesney (whose marriage lasted a whopping 124 days), Eddie Murphy and Tracy Edmonds (which lasted two weeks), and Britney Spears and Jason Alexander (which lasted an entire eight hours) it has certainly been proven beyond any doubt that getting married in the West remains a seriously sacrosanct business.

And today I wake up to the news that Troy Polamalu, an NFL football player, just got fined $10,000 for calling his wife on the sidelines during one of his world-changing games, to ensure her that he was okay after he suffered a really dangerous tackle. He’d been concussed numerous times before and he knew his wife would worry that this one was serious. So he called her to say I love you.

It seems to me, and correct me here for sure if I’m wrong, that three seriously incongruent points are clear surrounding what we value about hetero-unity: 1) we say the bond between a man and woman must be safeguarded from selfish indulgence, and yet we are punishing a guy many dollars for doing a good thing by calling his wife (pretty close to free) to stop her from having an anxiety attack. 2) we say hetero-marriage is above-all else the most important bond to protect. So much so that a lot of people can’t give most gays the chance to enjoy it. And yet we are charging some dude $10, 000 (who for him is pocket-change) for an act of caring. 3) we say marriage is priceless, yet we’re dishing out 30,000$ minimum, without rings, to do it over and over again. $10,000 people, for a fine, or a ring, or a church rental, is ludicrous.

That money could seriously transform the lives of so so many other people globally. (Here’s a little chart just to show in what ways 10, 000$ might be better spent:

$100 — could send a Darfuri child to school with books, food, and shelter for one year. $1000 — can outfit an entire school of 2000 kids in Africa with sports equipment. $10,000– could treat ten HIV patients in Africa for a full year including their medical costs, all drug costs, and constant on site support and care.)

Given this evidence, I think it’s safe to say at this point that we can surmise the following about traditional marriage in the West: it is indicative of a special bond between a man and a woman that has been grown and nurtured over time (except when it hasn’t been); it is only recognizable by the eyes of God (except when it is being filmed in a an NBC studio by a camera man named Bob for a reality show); and that such unions are always already flawlessly forever (except when they fail in eight hours).

Makes perfect sense to me.

A crystal example: Newt Gingrich, one of the most stalwart anti-gay marriage supporters and a candidate for the next Presidential election has been married three times. Having left each wife (when they were seriously ill) for younger, (up)tighter women, he still claims to know how important it is to protect the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. I’m just wondering which marriage of his was the most sacred? Is there a scale for such things Newt? Call me.

While I do agree with the famous philosopher Chris Rock, who in a typical moment of astute philosophizing, states: “People always say we can’t have gay marriage ’cause marriage is a scared institution, it happens in the church, it’s sacred. No it’s not; marriage aint sacred. Not in America [. . . ] Shit, gay people have got a right to be as miserable as everybody else,” I am also prepared to close my left eye, accept the facts, and find other dreams to chase. Plus, I’ve already screwed myself out of a marriage to Michele Bachmann I suspect.  

To be sure, it’s not our desire to marry that freaks out the freaky, it’s our desire to love each other that keeps them up at night. As Michael Foucault suggests:

“To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another—there’s the problem [. . . ] Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relations short-circuit [these institutions] and introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.”

So what’s a lonely gay to do?

What we have learned during the theatre of war we’ve been living through is that the best way to forgo ethics and lose sight of compassion is to become married to our own opinions surrounding what constitutes justice and freedom, right and wrong, evil and good, progress and stagnancy.

Gays have seen and lived the effects of such dualistic thinking for much too long already. It must also be remembered by queers everywhere that our ability to disturb, to be misfits, to choose the unchoose-able is what keeps us strong and ready to stand up in opposition to oppressions of all sorts. Our queerness, coupled with our refusal to stop loving one another because of it, is what is so scary to those who seek to police and condemn. If we marry, wonderful. If we do not, wonderful. We just can’t lose site of the potential spectacle of any of the choices we make, or take ourselves so seriously that we’d actually choose to spend $10,000 on a cake that looks uneatable anyway, than $10,000 on lunches for dying, impoverished children we don’t know but should care about.

So instead of trying to find marriage, I think I’ll step back and continue loving. If you wanna join me, I really like red wine and talking about things that are considered a major buzz-kill.

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