Posts Tagged ‘2005’

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Everything I Know about Desire I Learned from Politics

2010.February.10

[First in a series of Creating Change follow-ups…]

It’s only natural that the scope of my desires should expand as I am feeling more politically active than at any time since I left D.C. Both inclinations were squelched during my time in college, then redefined as I worked for social justice in Washington. By the time I left that job–that life–it was because I was as sickened by my own acting out against monogamy as by the self-righteous gridlock down on Capitol Hill. I learned “transparency” as a political term before I applied it to my relationships, and I learned “polyamory” from a political mentor long before I had embraced the concept of having multiple (even conflicting) political loyalties.

It was maintaining the politics and sex I already had that took me to D.C., but it was searching for the politics and sex I wanted that brought me back to Texas. In the four years since, I have found the sex I want, found the words I need, found the love I deserve, mostly while acting like politics was not pivotal to my being. When I was hired on by a campaign, I did not tell my employers that I was poly or sex-positive or a former condom-slinger, even though they were openly gay and (rumor has it) had at one time run a “novelty” shop themselves.

Campaigning helped me feel connected to politics again–to the extent that I could considering how annoyed I get by political parties, even (especially?) while working within one–but this time sex became secondary. Politics became a convenient excuse to resign myself (yet again) from confronting tough questions about my fulfillment (what would those sweet little old ladies for Obama think?). Only in 2009, after the elections were out of my purview, could I once again take up dating in earnest. I had many prospects in mind, but I kept politics out of my sex and vice versa.

After attempting a political hiatus for the year, fate drew me back in as an old friend got bitten by the activist bug himself and started calling on me for fledgling advice while organizing for LGBT equality. I was honored at the chance to be useful and to strengthen my role as an ally, but I consciously remained in the shadows. I was straight, and this was clearly a place where I should have as little input as possible–it had to be community-led, I told myself. I helped my friend get on his feet as an organizer, attended a few marches, and accepted (without being told) that I had to be a silent partner because I didn’t sleep with men.

2009 was the Year of Queer, though, because even as I was scaling back involvement with my friend’s organizing, I was trying to be more active in preparing the upcoming Creating Change conference, to be held in Dallas. Creating Change had been pivotal to my time in D.C.: I had made some of my first contacts around the conference, did some of my best outreach, and forged important friendships–without having ever attended. Concurrently, the mentor who had first taught me about poly fell in love at Creating Change and expanded my fly-on-the-wall education by sharing tidbits of the courtship.

By 2009, four years after I had last seen her, that mentor was working and facilitating for the conference, so I had to get involved if only for the chance to catch up. I joined the host committee and helped them build an outreach database, but I forswore sending any communications myself. “I’m straight, so it wouldn’t be authentic.”

If there’s a third leg on which my desire now stands, it is community. I joined the DFW Poly group early last year and have always found it to be supportive, but my later encounters with the Austin Poly group were nothing short of empowering. There were large, multi-layered poly families with integrated childcare and unashamed sex parties and political awareness–and not from divergent corners, but overlapping, integrated, enthatched, with roots throughout a broad and active community. Lovers old and new gave me the strength to go places I wasn’t sure I belonged and seek out my own niche. I was safely and patiently invited into a relationship that blurred those clearly defined boundaries of straightness further. I had by this time started calling myself “heteroflexible”, but it seemed woefully understated. Who knew that I was so dependent on labels? Standing in so many gray areas had me at a complete loss for self-identification.

As 2010 began, with Creating Change and other political opportunities dominating the horizon, I was struggling with relationship structures and–more importantly–with my tendency to create them unnecessarily. I recognized in myself a fear of freedom that had been squelched by focusing on more formal relationships rather than untethered connections (even as I knew I craved both). I stopped worrying about how others would see me (including my political employers and even my own partners) and resolved not to try to turn every connection into something that is deep and emotional in a mono(gamy)-normative way.  Most of my ongoing relationships thrived, and more time became available to explore. My eyes were wide to all the new possibilities, and I celebrated many of them over a timely weekend in Austin.

Back home, I was invited to work another campaign, solidifying the role of politics in this year once again–but first I was going to Creating Change. You’d think with all these affirmations flying left and right, I would have been relaxed and open to anything, but when I entered the Sexual Liberation Institute on the conference’s second day, I was a wreck. I was set off by mere questions of identifying desire and almost cried when another terror-struck attendee spoke on the malleability of words. The mentor mentioned above was facilitating, but I forced myself to focus inward, sit through everything patiently, and to deal with it alone or with the strangers around me rather than count on her for shortcuts.

Halfway through the morning, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to lunch, but by the end of the day I didn’t want to leave. I liken the experience to being a hard-boiled egg whose shell was cracked, cleared away, and then reconstructed. It was the cracking that was most terrifying, the clearing that was most nourishing, and the reconstruction that was least inhibiting. It still took a few days for me to feel comfortable being myself at the conference, but it was always about how I saw myself, not how I saw others or how they saw me. It was one of the safest spaces I have ever known, which only encouraged me to further confront my own ambivalences.

Embracing the term “Questioning” as not only encapsulating the moment but perhaps also identifying the path ahead, I discovered a lot about my desires each day. I look forward to writing more about them somewhere down the line, but for now, I need only add this:

The more comfortable I felt with my own sexuality/orientation/expression (however ill-defined), the more open I was to the political moment happening all around me. My desires, embraced, translated into clearer thinking, better planning, and exponential rejuvenation of my writing, my relationships, and my dedication to understanding, inside and outside the political sphere.

Talk about transformative…

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Who Is Savannah?

2009.March.31

[I thought I posted this yesterday… anyway, it’s here at last!]

The pertinent reason for my Birmingham disclosure was that my traveling companion had a similar moment of self-discovery in Savannah. Without going too far into telling someone else’s story, I will share that she is another White Southerner (though from a different part of the South as me), for whom Savannah highlighted a personal conflict: ambivalence in one’s personal heritage, taking pride in some-but-not-all elements (both traditional and subversive) and shame in others.

The Savannah I saw in 2009 was very different from the one I had seen in 2005. This year, I saw little-to-no evidence of conspicuous segregation between White and Black – quite the contrary in fact. Many shops (and even our motel) were surprisingly integrated, with customers and staff inclusively White, Black, and even occasionally Latino. Only River Street, Savannah’s most densely tourist district, matched what I had seen before; the color line there was almost literal, with the waterfront populated almost entirely by Black buskers and the cityfront lapped by waves of White tourists meandering in and out of shops and restaurants. I was, as before, engrossed by the atmosphere and attitude of SCAD, even as its urban sprawl reminded me of NYU in The Village and its funky White eclecticism belied the rest of downtown’s pleasant integration. Generally, there was a lack of visible tension or ominousness like in just about any other downtown, so much so that it seemed the economic downturn had not hit Savannah very hard (yet).

Downtown Savannah seemed less mysterious than the Spanish moss might lead one to believe, but then we took the time to watch “The Movie”, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film and its source crime narrative are largely responsible for tourism in Savannah since the 90’s. I was once told that the fascination with ghost tours and gothic statues did not really exist before The Movie’s 1997 release, but seeing the film raised a lot of questions about its prominence, especially since the film’s supernatural aspects are more ambient than relevant, and there is rarely in downtown any open reference to any of the story’s character or events.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a lightly fictionalized account of an actual murder that happened in Savannah in 1981, when a wealthy, middle-aged antiques dealer killed his gay lover in the historic home of Johnny Mercer while the victim was high and possibly threatening. The story unfolds from the perspective of a visiting magazine writer from New York City, who has befriended the dealer just before the slaying. The New Yorker is sympathetic, but suspicious; he turns his personality profile into a murder investigation, relying heavily on a mischievous transsexual performer and a sexy blond neighbor to navigate his way through the lifestyles of the Rich and Southern. Wackiness ensues, but under dark and foreboding cinematography.

The Movie was interesting, but more as a cultural phenomenon than as art or entertainment. As I said above, Savannah has wrapped a not-small segment of its tourism around this film, yet signs and solicitations never make direct reference to the movie’s subject matter. The scenery is all Savannah (that city looks like no place else!), but the story as told could have been set with different accents in just about any city in the U.S. (or many others around the world). Local celebrities living semi-closeted lives, having to explain to some out-of-stater the way things are done ’round here (and how can a writer from New York City be so naïve about drag queens anyway?), mutual suspicion and derision between the out-of-stater and his smug, amused hosts…

There seemed to be many swaths of rich material, but no hems to fit it all together; more to the point of this blog, where were the race and class issues? The accused makes a point of explaining that he is nouveau-riche, and his lover was clearly working class, but these tidbits don’t seem terribly relevant to the course of the story. Similarly, the two Black characters are vaudevillian for their entertainment value and receive much critical camera time, but neither exerts much direct impact on plot. Perhaps their roles could have been expanded, to redirect the film toward a study not of a murder investigation but of the quirky community around it – but then it would lose what little was credibly left of the Southern Gothic motif. Conversely, the superfluous parts could have been trimmed (I daresay cut) to allow for a more straightforward narrative, but then it would have lost pretty much all entertainment value (Lady Chablis, who convincingly played herself fifteen years after the actual murder, was the best part of the film). I hope The Book was better.

But even if The Book and The Movie are great works (and I’m no expert, plenty of others seem to think so), it still surprised us that Savannah has so wholly embraced them. Sure, Midnight conveyed Savannah’s haunting beauty, but what did it say about the city and its people that can be such a source of pride and draw to Savannah? Uppity and aloof people of wealth gossiping impersonally over alcohol? Nothing unusual there. Thriving but underground gay culture? Not your usual source of pride (well, not in the lower-case, non-parade variety). A place where Black Americans are not defined by their race, but by their skills as drag performers and Voodoo priestesses? Entire classes could be taught on what’s wrong with that… Was it the notion that eccentric Southerners can charm any Northerner into relocating without really trying?

Actually, let’s think about that. Because the trial, the denouement that follows… those were anticlimactic. They’re kind of benchmarks to let you know the story’s almost over. Really, they’re just props, no emotional reaction. And all those lovely, eccentric, one-and-a-half-dimensional characters who stretch the film out well past two hours… most of them are kind of props, too. The mistrust, the culture-clash, the anticipation of twists and turns that never quite materialize… these are the most powerful elements, and the film isn’t over until the narrator tells his new love interest that he’s not going back to New York. But he’s still little more than a prop. That plot I was kind of ragging on? Prop. The gay community and its thin closet, the Black characters (and lack thereof), the rich and the poor – they’re all just props.

The real protagonist of the story is the city of Savannah. Between dialogues, the city calls out to viewers and lures their eyes away from the foreground with beautiful townhouses and creeping Spanish Moss and says, “Look at these crazy people. Only a real city could produce a story like this. Someplace with history and beauty and tragedy behind tired eyes that you’ll never see because I am too gorgeous to let you in on the baggage. I can’t change who I am. I can’t change my history and I’m not sure I would if I could, so I’m just going to put it out there: the eccentric, the ostentatious, the best and the worst of myself, and I dare you to assume that’s all there is to me.” This city puts on a fabulous show of everything it is and everything it wants to be but can’t and celebrates that which it cannot hide with undulating flair.

Savannah is a drag queen.

But not just any drag queen; Savannah is THE drag queen of The Old South. In a good economy, you can’t even tell black from white, happy from sad, any part of any dichotomy from its opposite, because all the polarities are just jumbled up around you and inviting you to savor the blend. As the economic shifts catch up, well, we’ll see who gets invited into the next, more meager concoction, but for now Savannah bears whatever scars it must without trying to hide them, neither flaunting nor obscuring, just getting by on personality and hotness and hoping they will keep you from asking another one of those questions it’s already tired of answering.

On the drive to our next destination, we stopped at a 24-hour Starbucks near Auburn University for warm beverages and people-watching. We couldn’t decide how to feel about the strange blend of gymnasts and debutantes, hipsters and hicks; was it all too illogical or simply our own lives flashing before our eyes? At least it seemed integrated. There’s a lot to be said for how easily it comes to people my age and younger, even here in the South.

Any other day, we would have been talking about that Starbucks for hours, but Savannah had already stolen the show. We would talk about those two days for weeks to come…

Sights: Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens, E. Shaver, Bookseller, River Street, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Topics: Speculating on the political leanings of employees and clientele at E. Shaver, cheap toilet paper at expensive hotels, how great it would be to live in Savannah for a month while writing a book, gender, race, class, acceptance vs. tolerance.

Soundtrack: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Martha Wainwright, Placebo, Simon and Garfunkel

We were a bit late heading out of town, but it was okay. There was very little to see in Montgomery.

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What Is It about Savannah?

2009.February.18

[apologies for the delays in getting the last few out… they’re just as important, I assure you!]

I had been to Savannah once before, on a business trip with the now-defunct Leadership for a Changing World program. I remember being sucked in because it was my first Southern city to explore as an adult and by that time, I was already beginning to miss my roots (non-progressive though they were). We had stayed in a supposedly four-star hotel downtown, where the garish decorations could not disguise a bug problem and blatant segregation on the staff. I got the feeling on that first trip that Savannah was a beautiful town in its own right but that it had a bit of an identity crisis going on. It was hung (possibly for a long time) on the precipice of choosing an identity, like a beautiful cheerleader who is too compassionate to let the jocks pick on the nerds, but too popular to intervene. At one time, Savannah was one of the richest cities in the world, but of course with that wealth came the injustice and indignities of slavery. Especially after I took a ghost tour, which (White-) washed all of Savannah’s rougher history in favor of stories of lost (White) love and bitter (White) family disputes, I got the sense that Savannah was in denial of a history they could not ignore. That first visit was in 2005, and I hadn’t even seen Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil yet.

Sights: Tybee Island Lighthouse, exhibits at the Savannah College of Art and Design (including a graphic narrative display that featured The Devil’s Panties among others), Gallery Espresso Coffee Shop.

Topics: lots of picture-taking, love of lighthouses, the ill-likelihood of finding the perfect book for my research in a lighthouse gift shop, that book when I found it, the exhilaration of being around artists, how segregated River Street seemed, how un-segregated everywhere else seemed (compared to 2005 especially), getting lost on the two US80’s, art in the bathroom, was mayonnaise crossing the line in the sexy-woman-objectifies-self-with-food paintings for sale, the concept of “meta” and the likelihood of its inherent pretentiousness, how well we do or do not learn American History in school and elsewhere, Whiteness of SCAD, Jennifer Leigh Dunlap.

Soundtrack: just talking, navigating, and the radio.

We got around to watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (thank you Netflix) that night, which just confused us all the more…

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