The other night, a friend and I were heading to a happy hour hangout at one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco—a detail I open with because this post is trying to understand some things about gluttony, restraint, money, pleasure, and virtue. We were equally wary and excited. ‘For the record, I’m dressed like I’m about to go mow the lawn,’ I texted her beforehand, and she said, ‘For what they charge they should give us clothes to eat in.’
They did not give us such clothes, but nor did they seem to sneer at my raglan T advertising a vintage jockstrap company. We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S. A related question: how much of the war against smoking cigarettes in the last few decades has been about public health, and how much about another victory for puritanism—defined loosely as the belief that the purpose of having a body is to keep it ‘clean’ and ‘holy’?
I imagine all of us have our own answers to that question. I’ve got a number of friends and former students who are sober, and I have every reason to believe they’re happier. I’m not any kind of authority on the reasons behind that form of doing without, but I am curious about some things that I’m here to try to work out. Namely:
What was the exact nature of the conflict between those people at the writers conference?
At what point do your habits, behaviors, and commitments become an identity you hold up alongside or against others?
In making heroes out of hedonists, in siding every time to the pursuit of pleasure and excess over restraint, am I indicating something of my overall values, or is it just because pleasure is easy and I can’t handle difficult feelings?
More nights than not, I drink more than the doctor-recommended 3oz of spirits. Am I drinking too much, or am I allowing myself a pleasure for its own sake? That seems to be the basis of hedonism, an ethos that seeks to maximize pleasure in its isolated form, meaning that the pleasures we get from donating our time or money to a cause we believe in, or the mild euphoria I feel after swimming a mile first thing in the morning—these are not the pleasures of the hedonist. These are ancillary pleasures.
Sometimes I feel this is the point of life: to ever increase one’s ongoing pleasure without causing increased pain in others. But pleasure has a cost. Booze at a certain amount does things to my digestive system I pay for later. All drugs and consumable vices carve themselves on the body in some fashion, and so we have the motto of temperancers everywhere: All Things In Moderation.
Temperance and moderation have its own pleasures, I imagine. But don’t feel. That is, when I provide myself temperate pleasures—when I say no to a(nother) vicious thing I enjoy—that pleasure is tinged with Good Boy status. I feel like I’m in school hoping for the gold star on my ditto. What I still, in my 40s, have not yet found a way to do is undertake and enjoy temperate pleasures for myself, and not for the approval of some (ghostly, but pressing) judge.
Hedonistic pleasures likewise carry a naughtiness to them. Oh this is really gonna piss my parents off.
Let me change gears here.
Sex Addicts Anonymous has this phrase they use: Keep working your circles. It refers to the central understanding of sobriety in SAA. Sex is part of being alive, and so abstinence can’t look the way it does in AA, say. Much of the early work a new SAA initiate goes through with their sponsor involves sorting their sex practices and behaviors into two circles: the Inner Circle, which holds all the things they did that brought them to SAA, all the stuff they feel bad about after; and the Outer Circle, which holds all the sex stuff that makes them feel good.
This is a psychosis, and here’s why: Everyone’s circles in SAA are different. Hiring sex workers can be in one person’s inner circle, because it’s what brought them to SAA, while it’s in another person’s outer circle, because they feel ‘addicted’ to masturbating alone to porn, and hiring sex workers is a great way to engage their sexuality with another person. Sex with sex workers, then, is neither good nor bad, it’s something in SAA that causes some of its members shame.
AA has the chemical process of addiction to base its work around. SAA has the emotional process of shame. If shame marks the boundary between the sex you feel good about and bad about, your troubled relationship to sex will not be improved by stuffing that shame into a closet. Sorting your circles accepts that shame is an augur, a useful tool. Let me accept and trust my shame to better have the sex I want, says the temperate SAAer.
But why not accept the sex you want to have to better understand shame and its effects?
When I asked that question and saw in its answer a far deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, I left SAA.
Another way of relating the above to the topic at hand: What does it take for someone to put every sex practice under the sun in their outer circle? (That’s the good one, confusingly; let’s just move on from the fact that SAA makes one’s ‘Inner Circle’ a thing to be avoided, bucking all idiom trends.) What happens to your identity after you dissolve the boundary, vis-a-vis your vice, between yes and no, have and have-not?
I said earlier that the point of life seemed to be increasing pleasure without increasing pain, and yes I see in that balancing act sneaky temperance waving at me, but I’m noting here the pain and harm side of all this. What makes hedonists chiefly gross figures in our myths? I’m thinking here of Des Esseintes, or Midas, or even Hedonismbot:
It’s likely a failure of my imagination this morning, forgetting some hedonists of humble means, but the key factor seems to be money. As I said before, hedonism costs—and more than the health and well-being of the hedonist’s hungover body. Vices aren’t free, and so the lesson we teach over and over again is that hedonism will lead to corruption as absolutely as absolute power. Decadence. Human trafficking. Hunting ‘the most dangerous game’.
A more everyday example is the city I live in. San Francisco—at least in terms of climate and landscapes, but also in terms of employment levels and social services—is a pleasureful place to live. For some. Creating and maintaining that pleasure requires a workforce too underpaid to afford to live among it, especially since San Francisco opted in on becoming a bedroom community for tech workers employed elsewhere. So when you go out to eat, there’s always the question of what has it cost the person who made your food for you to eat it at this price you’re willing to pay?
Which is why I was happy to pay the high prices at Che Fico, which recently added a 10% service charge to every dine-in check—paid in addition to, not in lieu of, the standard tip. Tips get distributed among the whole kitchen staff. Line cooks there reportedly make $72,000 a year.
Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm. In this formulation, we can bring hedonism in among the other virtues, which—if you believe Montaigne—are found only through some form of pain:
[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful, and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.
from ‘On Cruelty’
So maybe hedonism is just another way we chase after holiness.
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.↵
I’m late to this book. I was early to it, having picked it up in 2018 (in the original printing!), but I couldn’t finish. The novel, as I wrote in a blog post on abandoning books, was ‘about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.’
I don’t know what I was thinking.
Andrea Lawlor’s novel—about a boy named Paul who can transform his body’s size, shape, and even sex organs—is the queer narrative I’ve been looking for for ages. I want to try to figure out what changed, within me as a queer and/or a reader, that made me so grateful to be reading a book I had very little patience with 4 years ago. I always knew I would return to it (the reviews alone, from friends and the literati, suggested it was better than I was seeing), but I figured I’d do so as a bit of homework, housekeeping. Okay, I read it and I get why everyone loves it.
Instead, I’ve now read it and I need everyone to understand why it’s great.
‘Paul was never very good at having friends. If he liked someone enough to get to know them, he’d want to suck their cocks or even just make out after weeks of prolonged staring. That might be his favorite.’
Paul Polydoris is full of doubts about who he is and who he should be, who he should be with, what he should be doing with his life, etc.. He’s a very classic post-teen except when it comes to sex, about which he has few if any doubts. Paul is ‘good at sex’ in ways that have nothing to do with prowess or maneuvers in bed, and everything to do with knowing himself and what he likes or wants to try and not feeling ashamed about it. Here’s a passage from when Paul takes the titular form of Polly at Michfest:
Paul was naturally curious about girls; he didn’t know how to find a boyfriend; and sex was sex, he thought. Later, other gay men would find this remarkable; they would make their endless fish jokes, or confess proudly their inability to get hard with some cheerleader. Paul didn’t understand that. What was sex but newness? And sensation and conquest and intrigue and desire and romance and fantasy, and specific people sometimes, sure, but not always. Having sex with Heather Federson had been hotter than sucking off the fourth guy he’d ever gone down on. Not as hot as the first three, the newness there trumping their less-appealing qualities. Fucking Heather Federson had been scary and dangerous and even humiliating, and he’d felt brave to do it and protective of her and scared of her and all of that was fun, right? […] She didn’t love him either, and wouldn’t. She was proving something on him too. Boys were harder, easier, more dangerous, and mostly Paul just wanted them more, but something was better than nothing, when it came to sex, and always, always he was curious.
Note the line ‘other gay men’—one of Paul’s many gifts is his ability to stay himself (a gay man) even when he’s fucking his girlfriend with his girl genitals. In Paul, the bounty of queerness multiplies and shifts as his body does, or his whimful desires do. He’s a total hero to me in this way—not in that I wish I could also have female genitals to explore lesbian sex with, but because Paul doesn’t let any categorical identity dictate his choices and desires.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to read a novel about a queer character who just likes sex, and in liking sex acknowledges the reality of HIV (this story is set in 1993, by the way), but for whom sex doesn’t become a question of identity, destiny, or self-worth. It feels revolutionary, but maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong novels lately….
Another of Paul’s gifts is having grown up in thickly queer circles, which has given him sharply hewn opinions on art and aesthetics. Before I get to some examples, and why I love that the novel makes room for them, I want to first point out how remarkable this is. There are plenty of novels about gay men—going all the way back to Giovanni’s Room at least—that stick their protagonists in relative isolation. These novels tend to be tragedies, and even humorless ones, which I’ve always found strange given how funny gay people are. When you yourself are a queer kid in isolation—no queer friends, no clubs at your school, etc.—these novels seem to affirm the lies you can’t help tell yourself (well, you’ve picked them up from the air around you): your difference is going to be painful, and likely leave you loveless, if you don’t commit suicide by the end of your short narrative.
Here are some representative passages I marked:
[Paul] crossed the street and used all the change in his pockets to buy two Boston cremes. He leaned on the counter, eating his donuts out of the bag. Paul liked any food that exploded into his mouth: grapes, Freshen-Up gum, soup dumplings. There was something pleasing, something orderly, about swallowing a mess.
[Paul’s friend] Jane was alternately drawn to and horrified by Darwinism, and often found herself attributing phenomena to the unseeable (hormones, pheromones) despite her strict identification as a social constructionist. This was one of her sore places. Was biology destiny, in fact? That might really fuck up not only her identity but her dissertation.
He ostentatiously returned [Patti Smith’s] Radio Ethiopia to the rack…. He made it to the shop on time, took the key from Madge, the owner, who was off to scout rural Salvation Armies. Paul settled into the big leather chair to think, because no one bought expensive snap shirts before noon. Patti Smith—why was she such a genius? The cover of Horses was tacked to the shop wall. He tried to imagine the day Mapplethorpe took that picture, what Patti Smith had been thinking. He wished he had a cigarette. He thought about the smell of piss baking on the August streets of the East Village. he imagined drinking Patti Smith’s piss, then Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Then Jean Genet’s. Then River Phoenix’s.
This was the stuff that I think originally made me put the book away. Nothing was happening. Paul didn’t want anything specific, and there was then no clear obstacle to get in the way of that pursuit. Etc. Etc. But lately I’ve been looking for queer narratives that are queer in form and not just in the characters involved—which, when they perpetuate ancient narratives about queer sex as tragic or disease-bringing, or even worse, when they mirror Austen-style love & marriage plots but with gays!, makes me think of the inevitable season of The Bachelor that’s the exact same show but just with men.
I think I’m done with queer representation inside hetero forms. Lawlor’s consistent trust in association, digression, and tangents (best illustrated in the Patti Smith passage above), delivers a narrative as fluid and shifting as Paul’s body. The engine that drives whatever plot is here involves moods and ideas, and in this way it reminded me of maybe the queerest novel I’ve ever read: Huysmans’s À Rebours.
If you’re looking for a good story in the classic sense of plot and pacing and resolution, PTTFOAMG will disappoint you—as it did the me I was in 2018. But if what you want in a novel is to transport you into a body and a mind you can live inside for a while, and read their world through that perspective, this novel is for you. It’s for everyone. I’m so glad I returned to it.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I know I’m not getting very deeply into the explorations and arguments about gender this novel pursues, mostly because it’s not exactly my beat and others have already written more smartly about this than I could. But here I do want to point you toward a really smart essay Lawlor has in Mutha on becoming a parent and seeking a new term for themselves.↵
I’m thinking here of Lie with Me, A Little Life, most of Garth Greenwell, likely other renowned novels I as a gay man do not need any more of (but which I’m also not sure I’m the intended audience for, which is a post for another time.)↵
I woke up in Santa Monica feeing depressed because I read that my fellow San Franciscans elected to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, after millions of dollars from fearful white conservatives told them to do so. Those of you who don’t live in the Bay Area who are reading this, when you hear a conservative lament ‘liberal San Francisco’ or however my city gets used to scare the base, they are trolling you.[*] San Francisco is to our conservative country what Mardi Gras is to shoring up the Catholic Church’s authority: a sanctioned, boundaried exception that proves the rule.[†]
Readers of this blog will likely be tired now of my complaints against recall elections. Twice this year, ultra-wealthy people bought recalls to remove progressive public officials the people of San Francisco elected. And twice now they’ve won. I fear a field day is going to commence; the same 60 percent of voters who recalled Boudin also refused to pass Proposition C, which would make undemocratic recall elections more difficult in the future.
San Francisco might be America’s brokenest city, and in true American fashion, most of us have been led to believe that the free market will fix things. And any time we try to vote in a progressive, the money will come storming in to remove them as swiftly as possible.
I’m now drinking my coffee and trying glad to be out of there. I don’t know how well Santa Monica works as a city. My assumption is that plenty of people who need to work here can’t also live here. Of the top 15 cities with a greatest income inequality gaps, California holds 7, which indicates we need to have broader conversations about the extent to which my state is a progressive one. We have some pretty good laws, mostly that protect liberties, but given the enormous numbers of rich people in this state, we’ve got a ton of laws that protect property and wealth. California can’t pass statewide rent control. We can’t pass single-payer healthcare. We struggle to maintain a ban on assault rifles. I’m proud that we openly present ourselves as a sanctuary—to migrants and refugees, to women in terrorism states seeking safe abortions—but what kind of haven can we offer such people once they’ve come here?
At any rate, I’m here for 3 weeks, and then for the Fourth I fly to Omaha (like its Rust Belt/Midwest neighbors, one of the least unequal cities in America), and between then and now I have a chapter of my book to finish. In a whole book that fills me with shame at every page, this chapter might be my shamefulest. It’s a time that calls for something of a retreat from the world, from the disappointments of my fellow voters, and from the (imagined, I know) chorus of judgemental, right-thinking upright literary citizens who will be disgusted and dismissive of this memoir I’m compelled to write. (Or worse: silent and uncaring.)
Today I put them all away. If you’re reading this blog, I imagine you might want to read another book from me, and I know you’re real and out there. This month, I’m writing to you, and I thank you for being there for me.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Kinda. San Francisco is as neo-liberal as they come, given the priority put on money, not taxing corporations, and maintaining the status quo. And let’s not forget this city is represented—still, for God’s sake still—by Nancy Pelosi.↵
This idea is Lewis Hyde’s, from Trickster Makes This World: ‘The stock anthropological and literary understanding is that carnival celebrations, despite their actual bawdiness and filth, are profoundly conservative…. Mocking but not changing the order of things, ritual dirt-work [i.e. Folsom, ‘In This House’ signs, anti-Trump candidates, etc.] operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.’ Whereas Mardi Gras is a temporal carnival, San Francisco is a spatial/cultural one that helps mask the country’s deep conservatism. Las Vegas (‘What happens there stays there’) does similar work on the notion of everyday greed and gluttony.↵
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.’↵
The title for this series of posts (read Part I here) was taken from Bill Fay’s song “Pictures of Adolf Again”:
In the papers, on the TV screens
Pictures of Adolf again
As sure as I sit here there will appear
Pictures of Adolf again
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
If you say Adolf he won't come
OK deny representation
By leaders of all nations
But have you got, have you really got
Anyone to replace them?
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
OK then who's gonna come?
Christ or Hitler? Christ or Vorster
Christ or all the Caesars to come?
That's the choice, that's the choice
Sooner or later
That's the choice, that's the choice
You're gonna have to make
Fay is singing, on an album filled with second-coming hopes, about the perils of placing politicians in the role of heroes and even anti-heroes. He’s asking us to think about what happens when we idolize men whose chief aim is power, even when we believe they’ll use that power for good.
Fay’s choice is Christ, whose aim always is to eschew power, give everything away, love all equally. Our answer need not be so Christian, but I’m trying to ask similar questions about what happens when we perpetuate images of men we loathe, and we continually tell stories about how these men we’ve caught are predators. We likely don’t look closely enough at those predation dynamics—who is hunting whom, who is in the strong position and who is in the weak—because we may soon find that the evil one, the predator we both hate and fear, is us.