Recently, a famous and much-lauded writer whose Substack I follow wrote a post on writer etiquette, which included a list of questions, asked on book tours, that they said are ‘annoying’. Where do you get your ideas, etc. Later, another list of ‘What should I not say to a writer?’
The audience for this post was unclear. Was it written to non-writers, who may not understand what writing/being a writer is like, or was it for not-yet published writers? ‘Are you wanting to become a serious student of writing, and/or are you one already?’ this writer asks at one point, suggesting the latter, which reveals the post’s just total ickiness; the underlying message is ‘A lot of unsuccessful writers just don’t get how hard it is to be successful.’
That this ‘advice’ was framed as etiquette seems downright Trumpian.
This is a strain of social media complaint I have no time for (and I love a good complaint). I recall another writer years back tweeting how they had to go to the grocery store (can you believe it?) to finally buy a pair of socks, because they’d been on a book tour for so long they ran out of socks and didn’t have time to do laundry.
You may have heard anecdotally that the percentage of authors who get to go on book tours is measly. I’ve published 2 books, and any touring I did I had to book and pay for myself. And even that, I recognized, was an enormous privilege—bookstores around the country said Okay to me coming there to read from my book, which they did the work of buying copies of.
Anybody on their book tour is not an aggrieved party. Does traveling suck at times? Yes, for every traveler ever. Do people ask annoying questions? Yes, at every party across the land.
Relatedly, authors like to complain about their Goodreads and Amazon reviews, without understanding the wonderful luck and privilege of getting to be reviewed. I would shave my mustache to have 50 1-star reviews of my book. What a luxury!
What none of these writers complaining about success seem able to imagine is the misery of utter silence. Imagine writing a book that nobody reviews. Imagine arriving at a bookstore where nobody shows up to hear you. Imagine sitting there on your phone, hoping someone arrives late so you can sell at least 1 copy before you need to drive 8 hours to the next stop on the tour, and scrolling to see someone complaining about how ANOTHER person at a packed reading asked them whether they write on a computer or by hand.
When you go on book tour, when you do a reading, nobody is there for you. You are there for them. Sometimes they’ve even paid for the privilege of getting to listen to you. Maybe they do have questions about how you balance your time as a writer and as a mother, and maybe this question is utterly sexist in how nobody asks dads how they do it, but that person in some form or another needs help, and they’ve come to you for it.
Here’s my favorite example of a writer handling an annoying question, not at a book tour, but in a televised live interview:
What Morrison does there takes courage, but also compassion. It seems also to call for a level of respect, Morrison seeing a clear ignorance in the mind of her interviewer and respecting her enough to correct it, to trust that this person is correctable.
Now: Morrison is not trying to sell a book and build a career; she’s got a Nobel at this point. It’s a far different position from the writer needing to be ‘likable’ to sell books and get invited back places. And so maybe this is one way we can understand complaining about success: even for writers whose work (or whose careers) you might envy, their success doesn’t feel to them like success.
Is it inevitable? Is it human nature to take on all the trappings and attitudes of the managerial class as soon as we’re given access to it? I remember getting drinks with a friend shortly after I began my job as director of the MFA program I teach in. ‘You’re like Zadie Smith!’ he said, only a bit tongue-in-cheek. (Smith at the time was the director of the MFA program at NYU.)
I was not like Zadie Smith, in that my last book didn’t get reviewed, and twice, in two different tours, I’d shown up at a bookstore for a reading and nobody’d come to hear me. He meant more in terms of the position of power I had, or privilege? It reminded me of the number of people who’ve told me I have a ‘dream job’: tenured and teaching graduate students in San Francisco, getting a course release such that I teach just one class session a week. I’ve achieved a lot of success in a field adjacent to writing-publishing. Do I complain about it?
I complain about how this job forces me to think like an administrator: bottom-line myopia, 7-page syllabi that read like user agreements, etc. I complain about the energy it takes away from my writing. I complain about the time it takes away from my teaching, and getting to work with students in an educational context rather than an administrative one.
These complaints usually come from my feeling unfit, or my feeling this job is unfit for me. I’m just a guy who wants to write, is the story I tell myself. I just want to write and talk to students about writing.
That I have not had much success with my writing (again, success complaints: I’ve published 2 books and have an agent) fuels my complaining about my job. And, as you’ve likely long noticed by now, fuels my complaining about successful authors’ complaining.
I don’t have a way out of this post. I’m overdue this morning to start working on the memoir I’m so slowly writing. Maybe this is a way to end:
Last night, I saw Natalie Diaz in conversation with Hilton Als at City Arts & Lectures. Toward the end of the night, Als asked Diaz about her teaching, and Diaz said (I’m paraphrasing) she’s relatively new to teaching, and at this point she’s given up trying to change the institution, to decolonize the university. Because the institution is too resistant to change. It won’t change. So now, Diaz focuses on making the kind of space she wants to make in the classroom for her students, to direct her creative energies there. Will it change the institution? It may (but unlikely), but more importantly it makes a space where students are harbored from the ills and evils of the institution.
The downsides of a successful life of writing will likely not change, no matter how much we try to correct them by writing about etiquette. So regardless of what successes we enjoy, here’s a reminder to make your space what you need it to be, and flourish there.
In sixth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, which is about a young boy in the Ozarks with two dogs. In the story, he gets in a fight with a neighbor, who falls on an axe and is killed on the spot. Later he watches a mountain lion kill one of his dogs. The other dog dies of grief. I remember WTRFG as being a Good and Important book, and I think I felt this because it was one of the first books that led me through grim deaths and how it felt to grieve somebody.
It was also the first violent book I remember reading. I was 11 years old, the sort of kid who avoided any fight I saw coming on the horizon. You could say, then, that WTRFG violentized me—if, that is, we had a word for such a process. But we don’t, because we don’t believe such a process exists, because we understand that since Cain slew Abel, the capacity for violence lives in every human body.
We don’t believe the same about sex, and children are worse off for it.
As you may know, I’m on Substack now. The platform has an app for reading-on-the-go-toilet, and in looking for good Substackers I browsed last night around the Faith & Spirituality category, because I wanted some new ideas and there’s only so much I can read about books and literature. There, I found ‘Unashamed with Phil Robertson’, with a pic of one of the guys very carefully groomed a decade ago to make a lot of money on TV as part of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ franchise.
The post I tapped on had an irresistible title: ‘There’s Nothing Progressive About Sexualizing Children’. Phil talks about a public school teacher fired for showing her students ways to access books online which had been banned by their school district:
[F]rom what I’ve been able to determine, some of the e-books she made available for her high school kids to read were far from harmless. For example, a book entitled “Gender Queer” graphically depicts a character performing oral sex on what I will politely call a prosthetic male sex organ. […] Truthfully, I’m not shocked that we’re talking about some public-school teachers encouraging our kids to fill their pliable minds with moral filth. But I am saddened by it. I can’t think of a single good thing that could come out of hypersexualizing people who are only just beginning to blindly navigate their own sexuality.
My emphasis there. Gender Queer is a memoir-in-comics about a nonbinary adolescent. Phil is correct about there being a scene of a teenager going down on another’s strap-on dildo. What’s fun about the Gender Queer controversy is that it began in my home county of Fairfax County Public Schools, which initially banned the book after one mother got enraged in a meeting, but then reinstated it after reviewing the book’s contents.
To break down Phil’s argument, children are born asexual, and then in adolescence they begin—blindly, note—to become sexual (like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I guess is the metaphor). This is a ‘natural’ process that happens booklessly, on their own. If a child reads a book that depicts other children ‘navigating their own sexuality’, that book has somehow adulterated this natural process of a child finding their own sexuality. The book has, thus, ‘sexualized’ what was not yet (ready to be) sexual.
Of course the argument can’t stand on its own, specious at every point. But the counterargument I need to stress here is that when Phil imagines children blindly navigating their own sexuality, he’s only imagining cis-hetero kids. Those kids are never blind to what has surrounded them: a culture of stories that repeat and affirm cis-hetero sexuality.
When Cinderella or Star Wars or Genesis fail to tell you stories about who you are, when even the story of your family is false to your lived experience, you grow up feeling shitty, wrong, and suicidal. Phil and the millions of parents caught in these false moral crusades have no fucking clue what this kind of adolescence feels like. If you can survive that adolescence, and if you’re a creative person, you feel impelled to make art that might fill the void you grew up in and help others feel less shitty, wrong, and suicidal.
That’s the progressive identitarian argument for queer books in schools. But I’m here to write about ‘hypersexualization’. You can’t sexualize a child anymore than you can sterilize rubbing alcohol. It’s already done.
Not by porn, that is. A counterargument you hear often is that porn / the internet are sexualizing children far earlier than library books can. It’s (a) not necessarily the case with all kids and (b) just providing additional fodder for Puritans on censorship crusades. And it leads me to want to make a distinction between two notions of ‘sexualization’:
Sexualizing1 = turning a child into a sexual object legible as such by an adult Sexualizing2 = initiating in a child a desire for sexual activity (i.e., ‘turning them into’ a sexual subject)
S1 is what right-wing folks are talking about when they use the word ‘grooming’—though as manyhavepointedout, what is posing as a warning about pedophilia and child trafficking is actually just old-fashioned anti-queer hate. I’d argue that more grooming goes on in the apparel industry with the advent of the child-size bikini, or in the fashion photography industry. Shutterstock.com has 14,917 photos of ‘young child bikini royalty free images’ you would not want to be caught scrolling through at work.
S2 is what, I imagine, Phil et al. believe happens ‘naturally’ around the time that children start to discover masturbating to orgasm. Or maybe it’s even as specific as when cis-male children start to want to put their penises inside vaginas. Or likely it’s more innocent, as when cis-children want to hold hands and go on a date and maybe kiss a child of the ‘opposite’ sex.
S2 is hormonal and biological, goes I think the argument and the fact. But two things happen when we take a narrow view of what constitutes ‘sexual activity’:
We fuck up the health and well-being of queer and trans kids.
We blind ourselves to sex enough to create the ‘blind navigation’ Phil et al. understand.
If that’s what ‘sexualizing’ means, then what does ‘hypersexualizing’ mean? It means queer sex practices. That’s all. Queer sex in the duck-dynastic imagination is not another form of sex—with its own values, shapes, procedures, and paraphernalia—but something beyond sex, something outside it. A perversion. ‘Hypersexualizing’ is anti-gay bigotry as old as the fucking hills.
Which brings me back to violentizing kids. It becomes a foolish concept the moment you see a 2-year-old push another kid out of the way to get what they want. We can see that violence as being not just different in degree from shooting an AR-15 into a crowd, but different in kind and still categorize it as violence. Violence inheres in us, and we do our best to teach its proper place and time.
Sex inheres in us exactly the same way. When I played doctor with little girls, or dared boys to show their wieners, or rubbed the cup of my athletic supporter for a while before pulling up my baseball pants, or humped my dick on the mattress, or put little objects up my butthole and pulled them back out again—all before the age of 13—I was doing things with my body solely to make my body feel good, while also making my heart feel good about how my body felt good.
That’s being sexual. Your kids are doing it the way you did it. The fear of sexualizing kids is a Puritan ignorance of what sex is. If we don’t want our kids to enter adulthood blindly, learning what sex is from porn, let them have the tools they need to see.
When you feel that who you are as a person is not okay, shame is that feeling. Shame is the whole affect comprising the thoughts surrounding the feeling (e.g. ‘I just wish I could be less ____’), as well as the behaviors and habits that come as a result. Shame makes a person lie when the truth threatens to reveal values, beliefs, or attributes they find (or worry are) unacceptable in themselves.
Guilt does this, too. When asked, ‘Did you sleep with that person?’ the guilty adulterer says no. The ashamed adulterer, however, says no to the question, ‘Do you want to sleep with other people?’ Desires cleave to identity in the ashamed self.
This Shame 101 recap is helping me get at some thoughts I had while catching up on old New Yorkers and reading two pieces that addressed the ways shame works online. The articles covered the facts and events of episodes of online shaming, and they began to explore why they happened and what they meant, but something in their analysis felt off, or missing. I’m here trying to fill in the gaps.
But before I do that, let’s go back to that ‘okay’ in the opening sentence. A very good way to work through shame is to clearly define that ‘okay’ from your perspective, and then sniff out who defined it that way for you. Who or what set the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Our society and its culture do this at all times (e.g., ‘Thou shalt not have a limp dick during sex’, ‘Thy BMI shall not be above this number’), and because we believe in the necessity of morals and ethics in maintaining that society, the question is what we do when someone crosses a boundary.
Too often, we shame. It’s a verb, too, unhelpfully. Shaming comprises everything we do (to others and ourselves) to induce the feeling of being not okay. Shaming goes beyond ‘you crossed a boundary’ to assert ‘you are bad at heart for having crossed the boundary.’
Because shame is a means of enforcing whatever values are operative in a given society, whether it proves salutary hinges on the merits of the moral system in which it is deployed, at least according to Flanagan. He admits that shame has too often been conscripted as a weapon against the oppressed—as when women and queer people have been encouraged to suppress their sexual impulses. Nonetheless, he calls for shame to be enlisted in the service of social justice, as it was when a concerted social-media campaign ejected the Hollywood producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein from power.
Shame can punch up, is the book in question’s basic argument. And shame sure can, but it should not expect results, which is how Rothman seems to conclude (again, my emphasis):
Shame, as Flanagan sometimes appears to forget, is an effective weapon only when it’s brandished against those who already inhabit a shared ethical universe. If politicians on the other side of the aisle strike Flanagan as shameless, that’s not because of any shame shortage but because they are not bound by the norms he favors. When Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, remarked that ‘anyone who denies the truth of what happened on January 6th ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ the Fox New commentator Tucker Carlson countered that she was the one who ‘should be ashamed.’ A mere increase in the total volume of shame in circulation would not result in the social betterment that [Flanagan] envisions; big feelings do not guarantee big changes.
She’s right, but I don’t think for the right reasons. Is shame an effective weapon to bring about change, even when brandished against those sharing our ethical universe? Spoiler alert: this writer says no way.
I, as versed in shame as anything in this world, can think of three ways one responds to shaming, self- or otherwise.
One: You shut down. Shame is very good at lying affirmatively about the self, such that when you feel bad about, say, how much you enjoy sweets, it feels like something as deeply innate and intractable as the shape of your genitals or smell of your armpits. Shame doesn’t allow for the fact that you’ve made (and can unmake) certain choices, or fallen into certain habits (and can climb out of them): shame convinces you that this is who you are. And it’s even more scarily good at convincing you that who you are is also easily ashamed, making you ashamed, again, of feeling ashamed, angry and disgusted at yourself for once again shutting down in shame, and thus begins a shame spiral. Down and down and down. It happens especially when you share the values of the people who are shaming you. They’re right about me. Jesus Christ they’ve found me out. Shaming is thus a very effective way to prevent even the possibility of change ever happening.
Two: You act out. There’s something that often feels deeply unfair about being a bad person, when you assume (falsely) that everyone around you is a good, or at least better, person. Like: why me?Why can’t I etc.? Compound this with the notion of intractableness above, and you start saying Fuck it. If I’m bad, let’s be B A D. Or, similarly, you fight back against the shaming with the assumption (again, false) that the opposite of acting shamefully is acting shamelessly. Like that ‘cash me outside’ girl. Or perhaps a more useful example is owning the libs. When you hear that who you are (i.e., poor, rural, conservative, etc.) is not okay, there is so much joy and liberation (often false, but the feeling is real) to be had in doing things that would piss off the people you believe have set the standard. ‘It’s really fun to see the other side lose,’ is how professor Khadijah White puts it, in this NY Times article about D. Trump’s fans being less in support of him than aligned against his critics. White is speaking about the pleasure in doing things that don’t help you, and may even harm you, as long as they trigger the outrage of those you feel are trying to shame you. This is a trap just like the spiral above; in acting out, you double-down on the thing you’ve been shamed for (or felt ashamed of), and so good luck effecting change.
Three is where you understand you’ve been shamed, and little if anything true about you has been said, so you move on.
(Three is like a superpower I’m writing a whole book to try to acquire.)
Let’s look next at this profile of Orna Guralnik, the star of Couples Therapy, a show I’ve never seen before and would personally only ever want to watch the homosexual segments of. Toward the end, the article mentions one couple, Annie and Mau, the latter of whom became something of a villain:
[Mau] insisted that his needs were not merely straightforward but rational, normative. He considered sex to be a daily necessity. He had been displeased with a birthday orgy that Annie had planned for him and, after Annie said that he disrespected her, responded with sophistic, “I’m sorry if you feel that way” reasoning, resisting Guralnik’s interventions at every turn.
Here we have a shameless man, or a man about whom many would say he oughta be ashamed. Whether Mau has worked through shame toward self-understanding and -acceptance—or whether he’s just a dick—I can’t say. My guess is he’s a dick, but I was surprised and then somewhat enlightened when the reporter asked Guralnik about him:
‘I actually enjoyed working with him a lot, even though he wouldn’t enter my field,’ Guralnik said. ‘I really respected him. People became kind of obsessed with ragging on him. It was a little upsetting, actually.’
I’m trying to get at the place where her respect is coming from. I think it lies somewhere between stubbornness and self-esteem, or between assertiveness and arrogance. Maybe it has something to do with being a clear communicator about your needs, no matter how outrageous or unfair they may seem to your partner. Or to Reddit, which the article reports went apeshit over Mau and started a thread called ‘Somebody smack Mau please’. They called him a dick. They diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder. They shame-hated on him so much that Mau appeared on the thread in an attempt to explain himself, which you can imagine how that went.
Well you don’t have to. Mau wrote that he’d wanted, on the show, ‘to express complex and interconnected dynamics’ and Reddit called him a dick. Mau then deleted his post and moved on. In the moment of his online shaming, he took option no. 3. And nothing, in anybody involved, changed.
The most useful metaphor I’ve come to in trying to express what shame feels like is a hall of mirrors. (I’ve written about this before, in a post about shame spirals and how to get out of them.) Well it’s like a hall of those warped, distorted funhouse mirrors that make your body look funny. In shame, all you can see is various distortions of your self. You’re too fat. Too slutty. Not smart enough to publish with the intellectual big dogs. Not enough of ‘an alpha’ to pull off’ that jacket. Too lazy etc. etc. You turn away from one image and another is there to lie to you again about who you are. Key thing: that’s all you can see. There’s nothing else in a shame spiral but ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’ ‘You’.
The way out of there is Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else Somebody Else.
Acting shamelessly is not the way out, because you’re still bound by shame’s grip—the way wearing an HRC ‘Make America Gay Again’ hat [JPG] is not a form of #resistance because you’re still agreeing to use the tyrant’s language. People who act shamelessly often have fun, but rarely have the best perspective on their actions, and those actions’ consequences. Shaming them usually just adds more fuel to that fire.
Consider instead being a flat mirror, a more accurate mirror, reflecting what the other person is doing. This is Psychobabble 101: When you do X, I feel Y. A cliche because it works. Or doesn’t: Mau on Couples Therapy likely heard a lot of mirroring statements, if Guralnik is as good as the profile said. He likely clearly heard her and Annie, didn’t get defensive or act out shamelessly, and he likely didn’t care enough to change or do anything about it. The shock of that may hurt deeply, especially if you love the person, but you’ll also be getting a clear message of your own: I don’t share your values. Best to understand that’s often going to be the case on this overstuffed planet, and move on.
Maybe a better construction is When you do X, you hurt mostly yourself in this way. Take it from a person who nearly lost everything at his most shameless: being shown how your actions actively impede your goals and dreams is highly effective in starting the path toward change. There’s nothing kicky or fun about this kind of talk. You get no points in ‘owning’ anybody. But of course we know that. Shaming is always less about effecting positive change in the shamed than in helping the shaming self feel better. Another funny trap.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
And when you, on the ‘other side’, perform the intended outrage, this is Feeding The Trolls 101. You don’t feed the trolls. You should not expect positive results from anybody when you get on Twitter and feed the trolls.↵
You better believe I practiced the speech, to be delivered in their hotel room on their first visit to me in Nebraska, four months after I came out to myself. It started like this: ‘I wanted to tell you guys that [pause for a sec] I came out to BJ last spring.’ BJ was my oldest friend, my ‘brother from another mother’ as our mothers had often put it. So there was a familiar friend amid what I assumed would be, for them, overall bad news.
But also there was the past action, the fact (L. facere: ‘a thing done’). I made sure to deliver them the fact of what I’d done in lieu of the fact of what I am. ‘I’m gay’ sounded in my newbie ears like an explosion, a slap in the face with the hand of my difference, which would highlight what might feel like a sudden departure from the family mold.
Mine is a history of acting not for or from myself, so much as acting to minimize others’ disapproval I imagine being always at the ready. When I told my parents, ‘I came out last spring,’ that was for them.
What I needed to say, for me, was something like, ‘I’ve always been gay. I’m only now strong enough to say it.’
The Parental Rights in Education bill Florida’s governor signed into law yesterday has a number of provisions to uphold ‘the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children,’ but the big one is this: ‘Classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.’
A recent Politico poll showed that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of this bill, or at least of what it prohibits. The rest of us have nicknamed this the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, because, I imagine, we’ve read George Orwell and know the work it takes to cut through the lies of political language. You score many points in the game of amassing political power when you affirm ‘parental rights’—witness the racist SF school board recall and Terry McAuliffe losing the Virginia governor race after stating what sounds to me a basic truth of how education works to develop a child into a free-thinking adult: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.’
52 percent of Virginia voters believed that parents should have ‘a lot’ of influence over how school teach children. I can’t find stats on what percentage of parents talk to their children about sexualities and gender identities, but it’s safe to assume the number is scary low. And ‘scary’ meaning dangerous: ask anyone working with sex education, pregnancy/STI prevention, queer/trans youth etc., and they will all agree that talking less about sex and sexuality creates more suicide, more unwanted pregnancy, more date rape.
You can’t pass a bill that aims to hurt more children—queer or otherwise—but you can very easily pass a bill that gives parents more power, because people love power. (The Parental Rights in Education bill even lets parents sue schools, with state-refunded attorney’s fees, when they feel taboo topics have been addressed.)
To be clearer: Florida’s bait-and-switch has been to tell parents they deserve more control over their own children, and that schools are trying to take that control away from them. In whipping up this frenzy, they’ve found another way to long-term fuck up the lives of queers and trans folks they fear getting political power.
Three things I knew when I was in 2nd grade: (1) what my dick was for, other than peeing, (2) what I wanted to do with the dicks and butts of other boys, (3) 1 and 2 were disgusting and I should hate myself for them and keep it all a deep, deep secret. This is what parental control over my education got me. No teacher ever said ‘gay’ in all the health/sex ed classes I took.
I survived, but barely. If you want to talk about the longterm damage of never being told my sexuality was okay, buy my forthcoming memoir (please).
Some counterarguments, to keep thinking about this. Florida hasn’t prevented sexuality or gender being taught, just being taught ‘in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate’. Setting aside the obvious problem that no queers or trans folk are being given the power to define ‘age appropriate’, it seems we have in this country a fundamental unwillingness to accept that children are sexualized at birth. Gov. DeSantis expressed this as clearly as anyone after he signed the bill: ‘As the parent of three kids that are age 5 and under, thank you for letting me and my wife be able to send our kids to kindergarten without them being sexualized.’
No school has ever ‘sexualized’ a kid. It’s not how sex works. It’s not how normative sexual development in children works. Like most heteros, DeSantis hears ‘sexuality’ and thinks about intercourse, because he’s another undereducated American. Nobody working in comprehensive sexuality education mentions sex practices to kindergartners. Instead, younger children (the Netherlands starts sexuality education at age 4, and fewer Dutch teens regret their age at first intercourse than do U.S. teens) talk about crushes, and they learn about bodies and difference, and they learn about boundaries and good-touch/bad-touch distinctions.
When I think about this, I go right to regret and ager. I think about all the years of needless pain I put myself and others through because of what I had been taught—directly and indirectly—about what I was. There is never an instance in which less education is the answer. America needs more education—on everything, including sex, which fewer U.S. students get now than they did in the early 2000s. (Abstinence-only education is not education, it’s lies.)
Another use for the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ nickname is how it connects this bill to Russia’s 2013 bill ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, which forbids—anywhere in the country, not just in schools—talking or acting in any way that might argue that homosexuality is normal. Neal and I were very much aware of this bill when we visited St. Petersburg in 2019, as foreigners who broke the law (by, say, our holding hands in public) could be arrested and detained for up to 15 days.
More and more it seems the GOP’s dream is to enact a future as authoritarian and ‘tough’ as Russia’s. Their hate is relentless. The laws they pass—against race education, against medicine for trans kids, against women’s autonomy over their own bodies—are fascist by simple definition: they lie about a culture in decline, point to an Other as the cause of that decline, and promote authoritarian rule as the solution.
We have little reason to believe the work of radically restoring justice will take less time than the long history of white men in power denying equal treatment under the law to others. It’ll be a long, slow, difficult struggle to upend the structures we older folks grew up inside and felt that we survived without much stress. I get it, straight parents: you didn’t need anybody telling you about sex when you were 7. This isn’t because sex isn’t a part of a 7-year-old’s imagination. It’s because every day, in everything you saw and heard, your sexuality was already being told to you, in positive terms. Every day you got this message: You are normal. You are okay.
It often seems like silence is neutral, that nothing good or bad is being said. But children fill any silence with whatever they have at hand—usually it’s other children, who’ve heard in silences the untruths of other children, on and on like a dangerous game of Telephone. All I know from my own experience is that lack of affirmation didn’t feel that different from being called a faggot, and worrying about what the other boys saw in me, and what I’d somehow become.
Imagine every day learning the opposite of what straight and cisgender kids learn. You are wrong. You are not okay. You are a problem. When you’re mad about change, or about losing some form of control—or when faced with a poll or ballot—try to put yourself in that mindset before you find your voice, the voice you’ve always been allowed to have.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
ABC News found that 62 percent of Americans opposed measures that would prohibit sex education in elementary school, and it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t exactly what Florida has banned. You can teach sex and gender in 4th grade, just not 3rd.↵
And women. A woman wrote Russia’s anti-gay bill, after all. As Hilton Als put it in a recent Instagram post on Ginni Thomas, ‘I’ve sat across from some version of this woman my entire professional life. And had to pretend I didn’t feel her rage at my being in the room. She hasn’t always been white. But she has always believed in one source of power: His. And I don’t mean Jesus.’↵
I. I took another personality quiz the other night; I find these irresistible. This one was part of an online course a magazine article on happiness had directed me to, and the quiz’s 96 questions of the “How well do you feel this statement applies to you?” variety, promised to rank 24 attributes in order of my personal strengths and weaknesses. Here, in order, were what the course called my “signature strengths” (i.e., the top 5 most applicable):
Love of Learning
These felt accurate, by which I mean they flattered the things I like to pride myself in (when I feel I’m able to). I noted the image of the person they pointed to; he’d be most comfortable in an ivory tower. Out of curiosity, I looked at the rest of the list to see what, at #24, was the attribute ranked last among all possible attributes.
It was Love:
Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.
I thought two things when I saw that: I’m not surprised, and then, Shit is this a wake-up call?
Follow up to yesterday’s post, because things I was asserting about safety in certain sectors of Flyover Country haven’t sit well with me. I mean, I don’t think I have it right. What I said was that Texas (which I’m going to continue to include in Flyover Country only because I get to imagine how indignant it would make Texans) wants the non-Texanness of you to get the fuck out of there, and the Deep South will be very polite and hospitable to you without actually liking or even respecting you if they don’t know your people or where they hail from, but the Plains are a place of nice people, and their famous “Minnesota Nice” is real.
George Floyd’s murderer is from Minnesota, I seem to have forgotten. And Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson are from the Deep South.
Whenever I want to assert a thing about a people or a place, I should remember that I’m in dangerous rhetorical territory, particularly as a person who has vocally stood as an exception to whatever nonsense others were peddling about his current home state. So whatever is leading me to feel unsafe in other parts of the country reveals things about me, not those parts of the country.
In other words, I need to write, alas, about history.
History was my worst subject in school, and I’ve never really cared for it or bought into its dictum about being doomed to repeat it, so I’ll keep this quick. The history I have in the Plains is long and all those memories are (chiefly) fond ones. I continue to have people I love and miss who live here. This isn’t (as) true in other parts of Flyover Country, or F-150 Country, or the Bible Belt.[*] I feel about the Plains the way I can tell a number of the grad students I taught in Alabama feel about the Deep South, a place I endured for three years until I could get out, and a place they had four of the most fulfilling years of their lives in.
With the right friends and family in the right places, you can feel safe and home everywhere. Even Boston, a city I’ve many times called the Angriest City In The World, which has plenty of its own Texas-style Get The Fuck Out Of Here vibes, but it’s also where my old college friend Jay lives (well, he lives in Quincy).
Boston has a big history of rebellion, given all that tea they spilled. Texas too, Jesus. I know so little of history, but I know that the Six Flags of those amusement parks refer to the 6 nations that have owned/stolen Texas throughout its history: Spain, Mexico, France, Texas Itself, the U.S., and the Confederate States of America. And the Deep South still claims its failed rebellion as its heritage. It remains important to them that they once tried and failed to hold onto a way of life that needed to enslave Africans to survive.
The Plains, on the other hand, was an empty land of bounty when the people my friends and family here claim cultural/ancestral connections to first showed up. The Missouri Compromise instilled slavery in one part of the Plains, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled it outside of Missouri, but when people think about the Civil War we’re not looking at Flyover Country. What rebellions seemed to be waged here involved populist, pro-agrarian, William Jennings Bryan-style demands for fair labor and wages. (Right? I don’t know my history, I only know what I picked up after 7 years of living here, which is that it’s an exaggeration to call Plains voters “fiscally liberal, socially conservative” but like only a little.)
Every time I’m in Sioux Falls, I make sure at the HyVee to grab all the free magazines off the rack in the store’s vestibule: etc. for her and Sioux Falls Woman and The 605 and the rest of them. These are glossy monthlies printed here in what they call “the Sioux Empire”—i.e., the city of Sioux Falls and its suburbs. Print media is thriving here. And in the articles I read in those magazines about the history of this place, they always begin the story with the first settlers, which I don’t need to tell you means the first white settlers.
The Plains, like all of the U.S., are a site of Native American genocide. It’s probably going to take a while for South Dakota to see what’s psychically and historically wrong with the phrase “the Sioux Empire”, because if people don’t turn to denial and willful silence when confronted with their shame, they turn to anger. Neither emotion is good for growth. I recognize how it must read to have essentially a Plains Tourist like myself tell people whose people go back generations here to grow up, but maybe one way to end this post is to admit that it’s advice I need to take, too. We all do.
As much as people want to make the Civil War our country’s greatest conflict, a better one (well, “better” is a poor word here but you get what I mean) is our centuries-long genocide of Native peoples and theft of their land, “better” because it happened everywhere, it’s likely still happening, and in happening everywhere it can unite us as a country. The Native genocide isn’t a red/blue state conflict. It’s not contained in Flyover Country. San Francisco, where I live, was stolen from the Ramaytush speaking people, one of eight nations now referred to as Ohlone.
The South Dakotans I know grew up with Native Americans as neighbors, as a lived and seen reality. (How they treated or considered Native folks varies depending on who you talk to.) In Virginia, Native Americans were something out of history. Here they make history, like in the blocking of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If, as a Plains Tourist, I can have a dream for a state I only visit once or twice a year, it’s that South Dakota lead the nation in first acknowledging the tragedy of Native genocide and then working to restore Native lands and equitable treatment.
In the Deep South and Texas I feel like an outsider to their conflicts of two centuries ago. In the Plains I remember I’m another American, thriving from the spoils of genocide. If you’re curious which Indigenous people the land you live on belongs to, you can find that info at native-land.ca.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Once, in grad school, I asked my officemate where the Bible Belt was exactly, because nobody had ever depicted it on a map for me. Was it the strip that runs north from Texas to North Dakota, or did it go laterally along the South? I felt it had to be the former, because a belt (I’m a very literal person) bisects a body right around the middle. But which middle? “Well, it actually starts just east of Seattle and goes along the Canada border, then it sweeps down at the Dakotas, runs all the way to Texas, and then goes over to Florida and Georgia, and sweeps right up to Maine.” It was a good joke for 2007 and probably a better joke in 2021.↵