Posts Tagged ‘usa’

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“An American Dream”: Eulogy for Ed Hodson

2017.February.18

I want to tell you about The American Dream: I don’t believe in it.

I don’t really think I’ve ever had the chance to believe in it, and neither have most of my peers from Generation X or the Millenials (I was born right in-between).

We younger people have seen so many great institutions crumble and cower,

that there has never really been the opportunity for most of us to buy in.

 

I have not grown up in a world where you leave a family farm to serve in the military,

you go to war but come back in one piece,

you marry your sweetheart, you spend your entire life working for one company;

you save your money, buy a car, build a home, buy a nicer car, put a little something back,

and then you retire, you get a cat, and you start wearing clothes that even you admit are “kind-y loud”.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the American Dream is real,

— I DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE AMERICAN DREAM —

but I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

And the greatest thing about Ed Hodson was how he could make you believe in yourself, too.

 

I think every person here knows that it would be impossible for me

to stand up here and talk about how great Ed was,

how generous and patient, how good-humored and impossible to anger,

it would be impossible to talk about how great Ed was without talking a lot about myself.

Our fates have been closely linked since long before I served as his caregiver for, oh,

5 years, 12 weeks, 5 days, and, let’s say one hour…

or even longer than the nine and a half years we lived together after E passed away…

You ask me to tell you what all I think Ed has accomplished?

I may as well just print my resume in your programs!

 

(That’s J-E-F-F-R-E-Y… yes, R-E-Y. Not E-R-Y.)

 

I’m going to try very hard to ignore the obvious and talk about the truths underneath.

That way, you don’t have to make sense of any of the weird things I do,

you only have to see the ways Ed has acted the same toward you.

 

I think we can all agree he was just about the nicest person we’ve ever met.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was calm and he was giving — and he was these things all the time.

Did you ever meet someone so reliable?

He worked hard, and he wasn’t afraid to learn something new.

He accumulated an impressive nest egg and then he

SPENT IT ON EVERY PERSON WHO WALKED THROUGH HIS DOOR.

He was shrewd yet he was humble.

He didn’t have a thousand talents, but whatever he had to do, he did it well.

If you proved him wrong about something, get this, he’d admit it!

He wanted your best because he wanted everyone’s best.

He might ask questions, but he didn’t talk down to you

and he genuinely seemed to have your best interest at heart.

 

(I’m told the guys at GM used to say Ed was the only person who could chew your ass out and you’d thank him for it.)

 

I never saw him raise his voice at anyone,

except during E’s last days.

Sleep-deprived and miserable, but still utterly devoted to her,

I heard them snap at each other the way some couples say hello,

but I knew it was fatigue and grief talking.

It wasn’t really Ed,

because I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

Over twenty years ago, I gave my mom some random questionnaire

(how well you know each other or something)

and it asked who your hero was.

I didn’t even have an answer, really, but Mom came back with “Ed”

and it was obvious she was right.

I scored her double on that one.

 

But ever since that day, I’ve been trying to pin down exactly what it was that has made Ed my hero.

Was it because he was so good to me?

because he was so good to everyone?

or both?

 

Or was it just that he made it all look

so

easy?

I learned one of his secret weapons over the last 5-10 years,

but it isn’t any secret at all.

Behind the scenes, there was always E.

You may have heard of “devotion” in marriage, but no one did it like Ed.

E was the decider for most of their marriage, and he followed her instructions faithfully.

And I mean, like, it didn’t matter if he gave you a twenty-dollar bill and told you

it was just between the two of you,

you can guarantee E had put it in his hand.

 

But I don’t just mean that E was the brains behind the operation.

I mean that Ed was able to be calm and generous because he was so deeply,

so comfortably, so securely

in love.

There are a thousand ways that we’ve all seen someone — maybe even ourselves —

say that everything would be perfect if only this

or if I could just that,

or if those people over there would stop doing whatever,

but deep down some part of us fears that we don’t deserve it

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

Or–or!

We all know someone — or have been someone —

who thinks we deserve something so much,

that we are so talented and lovable and clever,

that we may as well not even try, because that thing we want is just going to fall in our lap

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

 

Ed led the charmed life of never thinking too little or too much of himself and doing

EVERYTHING HE WANTED with it.

All he wanted was The American Dream: wife, home, career

— and the part they don’t tell you about the American dream —

to do it all while staying friendly

and effective.

Friendly and effective.

That’s the dream of America, isn’t it? Not just having it all, but having it all and remaining humble.

When we think the best of our country,

we want to believe that we deserve it because we are friendly and we are effective.

Well, I’ve already told you I don’t believe in the American Dream,

but I believe in Ed Hodson!

 

Do you know what Millenials call a straight-A student? The kind of kid who carries around a lot of books and studies all the time and is in a thousand clubs and never sits still?

A “try-hard”.

Like that’s a bad thing. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s the opposite of a back-handed compliment,

an open fist or something?

Well I tell you that Ed didn’t have to try hard at everything

(Ed didn’t have to try hard to love E and devote himself to her, for example),

but when he did try hard, he succeeded.

And when he succeeded, he kept on trying

and he encouraged others to do the same.

Maybe Ed was the original Try-hard.

 

Ed only ever had two regrets in his life. I say two regrets, but it was more like one regret

and one mystery.

The first regret was that he never used his G.I. Bill to get a college education.

It wasn’t a sad regret, like he was secretly building a time machine to go back and fix something,

just one of those lessons you learn the hard way and pass on so you can spare others.

Still, he gladly took every training GM ever sent him on (or the Navy before that),

he worked his way up the ladder until there was no room for him to grow

not without a college degree.

So that was his big regret, that he never got his college diploma.

The original try-hard wanted to TRY HARDER.

 

(Same, to be honest.)

(I believe in Ed Hodson.)

 

Ed’s other regret, that one great mystery out of life, was after E passed away when he’d say,

“I don’t understand why the good Lord would take away one spouse

and leave the other one behind.”

Ed Hodson, the original Try-hard, was sixty years into a relationship

— and six years into day-and-night caregiving —

and he wanted to TRY HARDER.

He didn’t think he could take her pain away, and he didn’t sit around waiting for a miracle or for someone else to do it. He just gave everything he had

because he believed in E

and he believed he was better with her.

 

Imagine living life so well

that you already knew when the best part was over.

 

If I were to write a book on how to live, it would be called “The Book of Ed.”

I have no idea what I’d say in it, but there’s probably be a chapter on loving people completely, and being open-minded about people (even people you don’t like), and there’d have to be one about how to eat all that sugar without gaining weight or becoming diabetic.

 

(I believe Ed Hodson had an excellent metabolism.)

Here’s something I said at E’s funeral.

It still fits.

 

In E’s final hour, Ed turned to us, tears in his eyes, E’s hand in his, and said, “I hope you all are lucky enough to have a 60-year love.” And I know E would agree.

For theirs was a love for sharing,

a love that cannot help but spread beyond the two people who build it,

a love that has lived and will continue to live within each of us who has been touched by it.

It has traveled with us to corners of the world where neither Ed nor E ever set foot.

It touches and soothes people whom Ed and E never met.

But we are not burying that love here, today. When generations have passed and Ed and E are ancient figures, possibly forgotten altogether, their love will still touch people, as it has for 60

[now 70]

years, through our actions and the actions of the people we meet, and those they meet, and so on.

So whatever your odds are for finding a 60-year love, remember, that you’ve already been a part of something that grand, and that it is yet a part of you. E

[and Ed] would be proud to know that this is [their] finest legacy,

to spread joy and love for having known someone so rare that you can’t help being changed forever.

 

And so here, today, 2017, I’d like to leave you with something Ed would say to me in his “Golden moments” over the last fifteen months. There were days when I left Ed and I was almost in tears, but there were days when I just felt invincible, and it was because of these words.

When he had a pretty good sense of what was going on,

and a pretty good sense what I was doing, he’d take my hand

and grip it tight,

and Ed would tell me, “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be alright. You go live your life.”

I believe in Ed Hodson,

and Ed Hodson believed that we shouldn’t worry about him and that we

— you, me, the old, the young —

“You go live your life.”

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The Taller They Are… (A Tall Tour Dispatch)

2016.May.2

[Stop me if I’ve told this story before…]

When I was in high school drama, I won the lead in the first play where I tried out. It was a one-act play for competition. Having won the role, though, my follow-through was a bit lackluster. I had a crush on my “mother”, I “joked” about being forced to get along with my exes on cast, I put no time into memorizing the script, and I left our preparatory retreat (several hours away, maybe over Spring Break?) for some other extracurricular activity — a jazz band performance I think. When I called to schedule my return, the teacher told me it would be okay and just to stay home and he’d see me Monday. I was like, sweet! Unexpected free time! When I arrived at class that Monday, though, he pulled me aside and told me he was pulling me and his assistant director would take my place. He made it clear that I had the natural talent, but that I failed to demonstrate the necessary commitment. To the extent I understood what he was saying, it was bolstered because my band director, too, had grown negative about rehearsals pulling me out of band practices. I brooded over the ampliphied message: that I liked to do too much and I was almost talented enough to get away with it. Talented, but not disciplined (a word I’d internalized from my dishonorably-discharged step-father, who in general served as a role model of everything to NOT become, except for this goddamned scary word with no real meaning behind it). I swore I’d never forget.

When I’d gotten my “QUIX_TIC” tattoo back in 2010, it was intended at the time as a friendly warning to myself and others: I like to commit fiercely to all endeavors, even those that are insurmountable or misguided. I congratulated myself for this as self-awareness, another point in favor of balance, of empowerment through self-knowledge, of tempering my earnest effort with informed caution.

So by design, I started The Tall Tour with some pretty simple stuff: a weekend in Austin here, a visit to Denton there, running around the Metroplex trying to keep up with Lillith Grey‘s latest exercises in community affirmation (seriously, she’s amazing). I negotiated which trips would be solo, and which would be accompanied (and by whom). For my first multi-day road trip since the summer of 2011, I set what I thought would be a reasonable itinerary: no more than 8 hours of driving per day, arriving the night before the con officially starts, warning friends who offered to host about medical issues that may have affected our timeline…

If caution is changing one’s approach in the face of known challenges, though, I don’t know the first thing about it. I take calculated risks all the time, but only because I calculate them to be very small risks (however others might see them). I look for ways to reduce risk (my famous “creative solutions”) but I turn down risks that cannot be calculated and/or mitigated. Because I assume my risks to be mitigated, I have trouble taking new information quite as seriously. But my math was terrible about Chicago.

It was in Kansas City, late on the morning of the second day, as we were seriously considering turning around and going home, before I confronted the fact that I had not adequately accounted for my travel partner’s health concerns (she was already experiencing pretty severe migraines and had been unable to sleep due to all the light in our host’s apartment). It was the second night, after we’d canceled on our second host and just checked into the con hotel early (exhausted and frazzled amid a steady stream of new arrivals, and hemorrhaging money all the way) that it occurred to me how arriving only one night before the con officially started (but already missing some pre-events and facing more as soon as we could open our eyes) might not have given us enough time to regroup. But it wasn’t until the third or fourth day, wandering the Tolkien-scale hotel with a minor case of hives and a major case of social anxiety that I recognized that I had never combined a road trip and a con before, and that doing so (along with the other medical and logistical challenges) may have been biting off more than I (we) could chew.

Maybe I never did learn…

We started to find our groove about the time we had to check out, and then made the return trip much more sensibly. The relationship survived and I managed not to make myself sick on humble pie, but there remained this big question of how to learn from a mistake when that mistake is in my very nature.

Clearly, it’s not a new problem. There was high school drama. There was my effort in college to join over a dozen clubs, then later to pack one semester with four intensive literature classes at a time I was lucky to get through 100 pages a week. There was my commitment to maintain a vigorous social life while working 50-60 hours a week on a disheartening political campaign in 2010 (that led to a $4000 car accident) or to remain relevant as a poly ambassador (disillusionment and heartbreak, 2013-2014) and anti-racist activist (bitter burnout and social alienation, 2014-2015) during my most intense days of caregiving. There was my attempt to serve as 24/7 caregiver itself, with almost no breaks and only the support I demanded of those whose love of my generous nature allowed me to bleed their sympathy dry.

I know it’s wrong to take on too much, to over-commit myself (and especially others, to say nothing of over-committing myself at the cost of others), but other than outright denying myself of most any opportunity (which contradicts a completely different life lesson from my quarter-life crisis) I simply don’t know any alternative.

I suppose for clues I’m looking to my personal treatment for white guilt and unchecked privilege, because I think they’re related. One reason I try to do everything is that I was one of those privileged kids who got told, “You can do anything you set your mind to if you’re clever and work hard,” without all the mixed “Not you” signals that kids with less privilege also got. To the extent I’ve known about my advantages, I usually tried to apply them to the liberation of all, but more recent discoveries are pointing me more in the direction of letting go of ambition and shutting the hell up (more on that in a future post). If I double-down on being a “leader” for “change”, I’ll just repeat the same mistakes, frustrating myself and perverting my relationships with anyone who gets dragged along on these misadventures. If I turn away from this path and start saying, “I cannot be anything I want, even if I am clever and work hard,” I’ll potentially shirk the responsibility to share my advantages rather than merely checking my privilege. (This would be a good place to remind folks that privilege has everything to do with how others see and treat you, not how you see yourself; exiting an oppressive system can be just as privileged a position as taking advantage of it, which is why I seek ways to question and subvert assumptions from within the systems that privilege me.) What I actually need to do is redefine what it means to be “clever” and make sure what I set my mind to is useful to others (especially or exclusively those without my access or advantages — and on their terms, not mine), and that my approach to “hard work” features a concerted effort at self-effacement (internal and external) to countermand society’s efforts — often unconscious — to elevate me, whatever I say or do against it. This is what I’m doing to bring my values and my station in life to closer alignment. In this context, a propensity to take on too much and get by on luck and talent hardly seems innate but rather learned, don’t you think?

Innate or not, it seems possible that correcting my “over-bite” will be a lifelong struggle, that self-awareness and trusted counsel will only go so far, and that every decade or two until I die the same lesson will creep up in profoundly predictable ways. I remain hopeful, though, that other possibilities will come to me as I continue to ponder this particular clusterfuck of selfhood and gauge its inevitability with future insights.

It’s worth noting that after I had been booted from the high school play, I considered my drama teacher a tremendous friend, even more so once I went away to college and found out how special I was not in the context of white men who had more wealth, health, stability, and learning (and perhaps discipline) than I. Had I actually applied the lesson immediately, found some way to self-instill discipline (or something less militaristic that at least resembled a work ethic), my college experience might have been far less mediocre — but then, maybe that would only internalized further all the exceptionalism I’m still working to dismantle — after all, for every performance teacher who told me I should be doing more, there were between 10-100 telling me I was going to do great things. It’s entirely possible that the disconnect helped me gain perspective, that having had to learn to work hard AFTER so many people had already complimented me for my hard work created enough cognitive dissonance to keep me from buying any more into the ambitions and sense of entitlement that so often befall my privileged peers. My drama teacher may not have done a very good job of instilling discipline, but he did a great job of instilling fallibility.

Whatever trajectory got me there, I was wide-open to criticism on the way home from Chicago; for each misstep, I could trace the disaster back to some choice I’d made and the mistaken assumptions behind it. I could, theoretically, know better in the future. I’d rather be humble late than never. Humility offers a safer, more calculated risk in the future; obstinacy merely foreshadows a harder lesson to come. Time will tell whether I have learned enough to avoid such disasters for the rest of my Tall Tour.

In the meantime, I do have a heaping pile of new lessons learned, most of which will color future travels (and the Tall Tour itself). Have a gander and let me know if any of them are helpful to you:

  • Don’t just listen to travel partners when they express concerns over health (theirs and your own); make sure they FEEL heard, that they feel you have taken their concerns seriously, and that you have multiple contingencies in mind.
  • Actually look at how big of a “bite” a big travel plan entails and ask yourself if you’ve done anything of that scale before. ESPECIALLY double-check the allotment of downtime from past endeavors.
  • Don’t update your phone’s operating system the night before a long trip. That’s a gumption trap you don’t need, and one that will come up repeatedly.
  • Pack strategically, but don’t take all day. Time and effort saved during the trip won’t matter much if you leave so late that the trip itself is compromised.
  • You’ll forget something, but you probably won’t need it as much as you think anyway.
  • But don’t forget the musicals. Voice practice just won’t be the same without two unbroken hours of belting out every part.
  • You’ll feel better once you hit the road. Once you start getting frustrated and feel thwarted at every turn from getting underway, all that matter is throwing things in the car and driving away. It’ll work out.
  • Don’t over-estimate your travel partner’s familiarity and comfort with potential hosts, especially if zie is an introvert. Try to arrive early enough that everyone has time to get better acquainted before we steal zir couch/guest room/bed for the night.
  • Check in with travel partner and self regularly about expectations and where the minimum/maximum experiences lie. Refresh your mind with alternative approaches often.
  • Don’t drive more than one day away for a multi-day con unless you have ample time and space to rest in between.
  • Don’t ever put Alfredo sauce over rice noodles, and don’t let anyone else do it, either. Just don’t.
  • Don’t make exceptions to your religious aversion to commuter tollroads. Believe it or not, there are entities out there more evil than the NTTA…
  • Speak early and often with potential hosts about ongoing medical issues, so they know when an itinerary is endangered (this one I actually managed to do and it was definitely the right call; we had to cancel on two very dear friends, three times collectively).
  • Don’t go to a con alone; ideally, know multiple people going besides your travel partner (in case one gets sick — healing thoughts, Cathy!) and maybe make some online contacts BEFORE you even arrive.
  • Remember that social media is always optional and always a crapshoot for meeting new people once you’re there. [Waves at new friends who offered hugs at times when I wasn’t checking Twitter. Next time, yall!]
  • Don’t forget those detours! (Like my trip to Austin a while back, the most important encounter on this trip was a one-hour lunch with someone I barely knew, but whose caregiver experiences so powerfully resonated with my own that for that hour we were able to share things we couldn’t process with anyone else!)
  • Remember that your heroes might be too busy for you and you might just have to take whatever face time you can get between workshops.
  • Whatever else you compromise, make sure to try the local specialty food. (Our single greatest travel triumph was finding and trying gluten-free deep dish pizza on Chicago’s north side. It was the best pizza I’ve ever had.)
  • Remember that your body, only six months out of full-time caregiving, is still very much a mystery to you (like a movie where a straightforward murder investigation leads to corruption or conspiracy or the Da Vinci Code or some other convolution…). It’s going to do weird, unfamiliar, sometimes awkward things and you’re going to have to deal with them on the fly.
  • Drink a lot of water, before, during, and after travel. Your body will hate you a little less. Pay attention to who has filtered water on tap and refill there, since unfamiliar water might “taste funny”.
  • When all else fails, find a distinctive comic book store and spend an afternoon there.
  • It’s hard to focus on pinball whose theme you don’t recognize. (This could probably be some kind of profound metaphor for specialization and familiar territory, but in this case I literally mean if you’re going to play pinball that is themed to a TV show, make sure it’s a TV show you know so you can pretend what’s going on makes sense.)
  • Beware Wichita, Kansas. There’s just a lot wrong with a town that white, that dusty, and its little courtyard that too closely resemble the set of a Six Flags gunfight…
  • (Not necessarily a travel rule, but certainly relevant to this trip for REASONS:) people (especially those socialized as women) tend to under-state the importance of things to themselves and others. Find ways to gauge what matters without asking point-blank, because direct communication just isn’t encouraged/available to everyone.
  • Don’t tell your friends and family back home how excited you were to not have to specify “unsweet” tea in Midwestern restaurants. Them’s is fighting words.
  • Travel will cost more than you think, especially if you fail to account for mistakes, surprises, and human frailties along the way. Budgets are important, but at some point they can become mere kindling to the fire of getting home in one piece. This is both something to relax and accept in the panicky moment and something that will come back to haunt you if you ignore it altogether.
  • Separate blogs about the travel from blogs about the con itself. (Because the discomforts of Catalyst Con were quite different from those for which I could take blame. Watch this space for more…)
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Our Worst Selves (or as I Like to Call Them, Our Selves)

2016.April.13

[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]

Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:

“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”

I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).

The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:

“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.

I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.

But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.

For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.

As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.

And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.

Okay, too silver, let me fix that…

I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.

Awkwardly.

(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)

The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.

Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.

And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.

People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.

For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.

Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!

The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.

I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.

These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)

 

Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.

There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.

The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.

Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.

It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.

At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.

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How Dyadism Ruined the Best Moment at SexTalk

2013.February.12

Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas

— wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:

Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.

And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.

For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).

After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.

(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)

Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.

Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”

Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.

We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.

Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.

Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.

By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.

Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.

In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.

I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”

Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.

It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if  there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.

We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?

When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.

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Dear Boy Scouts:

2013.February.1

My name is Jeffrey Lawson and from 1987-1992, I wore the uniforms of a Scout, from Bobcat to Tenderfoot (I even completed my requirements for Second Class, but after I stopped attending). I am writing to request that you do what is honorable, helpful, and morally straight: reverse the BSA’s policies barring gay and atheist members. This sort of exclusion hurts boys and it hurts Scouting.

I would like to be able to say I am a good man because of Scouting, but the truth is I never fit in very well there. I was more of a bookish, indoor kid; without Scouting, I could have avoided learning how to swing a hammer, fold a flag, or make something with my own hands. I wasn’t really into all the father-son stuff, either (since I never knew my own father and my stepdad and I were never close); without scouting, I might never have seen what healthy fatherly relationships could look like. I grew up in a house of apathists and never had much use for Christianity; because of Scouts, I had to learn how to sit quietly and respectfully when other people prayed and recognize how important faith could be to others.

And since I’m being honest with you, I’ll tell you that the prospect of gays in our troop created a pretty uncomfortable setting. In fact, it made me quite uncomfortable, because some of the other kids thought I was gay; while I was never Mr. Popular at school, I got teased, called “faggot” or “gaywad”, and otherwise harrassed more in the Boy Scouts than anywhere else in my life. I also got into two of my only three fights ever (outside of those with my brother, of course) at Scout meetings. As a Scout, I learned about stealing and lying, I learned to run from my mistakes, and I learned to do what was popular over what was right because that’s what my peers were teaching.

It seems strange to me now that I don’t have more positive things to say about Scouting after it was such a big part of my life, but then it was all I had for a while. My mom was a workaholic, especially in those years. The Troop 12 Scout Hut was only three blocks from our house, and it was the only activity my parents could afford (and only barely… I dreamed of how $100 at the Scout Store in Arlington could make me a better camper). One to three nights a week (and one weekend a month) were reserved for Scouting because it was what I did.

The most positive thing I can say about Scouting was that it showed me a wider range of people than I would otherwise have known: cheesy over-active dads who were friendly to all, older men with low voices who could command our attention with their story cadence, older scouts who wanted everyone to participate proudly, kids with more than us who could earn a swimming merit badge in their own back yards, kids with less who dropped out before they ever bought uniforms. None were perfect, but none were all bad either. It was a place where bullying ran rampant, yet I still had to work alongside those bullies and they alongside me. We got along, sometimes even well, so I always felt like an unpopular Scout was still a Scout.

I’ve never understood why the BSA doesn’t share this experience with every child in America. There is a need for exercise and hands-on, intergenerational learning. There is a need for thoughtful values and outdoor exploration. There is a need for storytelling and camaraderie (even if it is sometimes forced). There is a need for everything that the Boy Scouts stand for, but it will not take root beyond Scouting if it cannot first get a better hold within Scouting. The weaknesses that existed when I was a Scout are even worse now because the Scouts have taken sides with bullies instead of letting every boy find his own way.

Twenty years on, I prefer the romantic company of women to men (well, I could say more, but I doubt you’re ready for the gender & sexual fluidity merit badge quite yet) and I still shake my head at some of the things my peers got away with back then. I wish I could tell you that everything I experienced as a Scout was a positive, nurturing experience, but a Scout is honest and the truth is less simple. I have come to see Scouting is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Scouting opens doors that are otherwise unavailable to new experiences and new people, but it is up to the individual Scout to embrace the opportunity. Sometimes they go well, sometimes they do not, but at least Scouts get the chance. Now the BSA needs to embrace the opportunity to practice their inclusive, patient, collaborative ideals a little bit better and stop looking for excuses to exclude people. I’m pretty sure I served with some gay Scouts, and they were not the ones who hurt me. I’m pretty sure I served with some atheist Scouts, and they never tried to recruit me. We all tried to live and let live; once in a while, we even succeeded, and those were very good days.

Scouting deserves more good days, don’t you think?

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Notes from the Road: Sorted Lives

2011.February.8

What Else Is Out There?

Whenever I travel, I try to meet with locals at sex-positive gatherings. In the four weeks surrounding my Western States road trip, I attended dinners, discussions, and parties in Austin, Denver, Boulder, Los Angeles, and Dallas. This itinerary gave me a taste of the best of the other towns, but it also raised questions for me about DFW (that is, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex). The contrast between the Dallas and Denver Churches in particular sparked questions about deeper differences between various alternative sub-communities. Some urban reputations seemed to be reinforced in poly circles. Austin was more hippy-ish. Denver and Boulder were more homogeneous. L.A. was more shallow (though interactions there were limited). And Dallas, well it is more…

What is Dallas, anyway? The community I know best also happens to be the hardest to describe. I’m not saying that my stomping grounds are uniquely complex, but the Metroplex does call for a certain specificity: which DFW subversives? Polyamorists? Fetishists? Democrats? There are plenty of people around here who identify as some combination of polyamorous, kinky, bisexual, burner, DIY, non-Christian, and/or liberal — regarding which only the Democrats usually limit themselves to one. Each descriptor I’ve listed (and there are more) gets its own local sub-community, yet however often the labels overlap, the communities themselves rarely do. For every five kinky poly bi pagan artists, one will dedicate zir time to the kinksters, one to the poly group, one to a pagan group, one to the art scene, and one to sex- or gender-progressive activism; there will be little in the way of doubling up or cross-over.

There is something about Dallas that encourages alternative folks to choose one sub-community to the exclusion of all others. Everyone is specialized, focused, and so busy with their One True Community that they start to feel uncomfortable anywhere else. And yet, once that choice is made, the community doesn’t really take over their day-to-day lives and social spheres, only their leisure time. I can’t help but contrast this against Austin or Denver, where more folks manage to make time for each group that fits. I doubt anyone would attend four sex-positive events in a single week, but a sizable portion would probably attend two, maybe even three — and their groups meet more often.

It was through visits to Austin that I had first begun to perceive that sub-communities could be better connected. Every person there seemed to be active in at least one other subversive lifestyle group, be it kink, burner, pagan… Austin’s kinksters and polies didn’t just double up and intermingle, they managed to integrate their “alternative lifestyles” into their actual lives. They organized discussions, workshops, and retreats to welcome newcomers and advance community topics. They maintained and kept track of intricate, healthy chosen-family trees that included friends, lovers, coparents, and everything in between. They were sustained by active, passionate people who could deftly jump from swapping poly parenting tips to plotting sex parties to unpacking their latest self-awareness meditation, and they could do it all without shame, hesitation, or lengthy backstory. Austin’s pervasive sense of community made Dallas’ alternative domain look like a closet of half-hearted hobbies, or worse: dirty little secrets.

Then I went to Colorado. Even Austin, it seems, could learn a thing or two from Denver and Boulder. The alternative communities of the Mile-High City and its radical hideaway neighbor share strong ties and deep integration of politics into their lifestyle. Whereas Austin’s sex-positive types tend to be very personal with their politics — pushing themselves and their communities on issues like the environment, but steering clear of Austin’s aggressive activist contingent — sex-positive Coloradans engage in direct political action as an extension of their intimacy. Denver featured more polies, kinksters, and pagans who participate in campaigning and advocacy than any other town I’ve visited. They also ally with local nonprofits, attend national conferences for everything from grassroots organizers to kinky Rennies, and are coordinating a Boulder satellite to Seattle’s Center for Sex-Positive Culture. I found the connection personally affirming; since politicos and polies in DFW frequently want nothing to do with one another, my occasional campaign work often results in a wearying degree of self-segmentation.

Colorado’s greatest surprise has to be its integration of all sexualities. While bisexual and, to a lesser degree, gender-non-conforming (GNC) people are welcome and active among Dallas and Austin’s hetero-centric subversives, it was in Colorado that I first witnessed self-identified gay and lesbian participants in a poly community. They organized, attended, and played right alongside everyone else, with nary a squick to be seen; the Boulder Poly group even holds events at the Boulder Pride House and organizes charity drives for LGBT causes. I had heretofore seen only a strict, unspoken segregation between those poly folks who required same-sex relationships and those who were hetero, heteroflexible, or bi (with strong emphasis on girls playing with girls, then coming home to a man). While I recognize that convenience, comfort (for both sides), and no small amount of latent homophobia make such integration a non-issue to most polies, I was heartened to see that it was possible.

Growth Potential

Polies in Dallas and other communities often fail to see how their own lifestyles tie to the legislative, cultural, and personal struggles of LGBT people because — despite being almost universally progressive on social issues — many prefer to avoid politics altogether. It is usually less of an ideological choice than a decision to avoid wading through yet another cultural quagmire where one’s lifestyle is in question; an apolitical stance requires less justification, faces less challenge by others, and results in less disappointment. A similar attitude is common among many young LGBT voters.

I have long theorized that the inability to contextualize themselves reflects a lack of maturity in DFW’s sub-communities — not that the individuals involved are immature, but that the communities themselves are. For example, the poly group, which meets only once a month for an informal dinner, faces a revolving door of newbies and draws only a fraction of the people in DFW who identify as polyamorous. The group is not terribly old; it has no structure, no leaders (no volunteers to become leaders), and very few regulars who have been actively poly for more than 3-5 years. Those seeking to develop their understanding must look elsewhere: written and online resources, Austin’s two poly groups, or even the local kink community. Indeed, while some polies eschew community or are just afraid to attend a function in public, the more-developed kink community is Poly DFW’s biggest siphon.

However hard sexual subversives in North Texas try to distinguish themselves (even in private) from the populace at large, the communities actually have a very Dallas mentality in some ways. Dallas is a fractious but powerful city; it has always been contentious, always conflicted, and eternally brash. Today’s elite are much like the cocksure wealthy from the eponymous 80s soap, except with better PR and worse writers. Fortunately there is a counterbalance from stronger Black, Latino, and LGBT neighborhoods, but working the existing system has trained their leadership with some of the same bad habits. Their drives have become pervasive, infecting residents across the entire Metroplex.

You see, Dallas is a diverse city whose people are, far and wide, pre-occupied with image and control, two motivations that are hungrily coveted, weighty when obtained, and burdensome to defend.

I trace the personality of Dallas first to politics. Austin, Denver, and Boulder have similar political environments to one another because they have all long been liberal oases in conservative states (though Colorado is trending purple of late). LA, well, the communities there were pretty un-inclusive, so I doubt I’ll have much to say about them.

Dallas’ liberal majority is new and inconsistent at best; far more dynamic racially and economically than Austin, Denver, or Boulder, Dallas’ diversity has helped left-leaners to gain a political foothold without really quelling culture clash. Self-segregation thrives city-wide, and affluent corporate interests who favor the profitable status quo remain strong. The struggle between such disparate powers is exhausting and polarizing, leading even more residents (sex-positive and otherwise) to check out entirely. I suspect such tension compels small communities to attempt to be more impressive or, at the very least, to blend in amicably. For sex-positive sub-communities, blending in openly is unlikely; better to hunker down incognito than face an unpopular image and risk losing what autonomy (control) exists. This struggle is faced at all levels — by individuals, families, and communities — and I believe it is behind the “immature”, disconnected quality of DFW’s sex-positive folks.

Overlooking what qualities they share, each insular group avoids getting too close with the others, quietly judging them for nuanced differences like sects of a schismatic church. Dallas polies can be quick to dismiss swinging as degrading to women and blanketly denounce monogamists for reinforcing love as “possession” (justifying their own ubiquitous OPPs all the while). Many bi activists, who are fighting for visibility and acceptance from both hetero-dominant culture and the gay and lesbian alternative, distance themselves from non-monogamy rather than being seen as reinforcing the stereotype that bisexuals just can’t choose. Pagans and irreligious types denigrate Christian domination while growing dogmatic about the structure of their own dis/belief. Certainly these kinds of behaviors are present in alternative communities across the country, but they seem particularly common in Dallas and particularly rare in Austin and Denver.

How Good Could They Be?

But surely Austinites and Coloradans keep their eclectic sensibilities private! Well, yes and no. From what I’ve seen, it’s a matter of scope. DFW folks tend to hide their lifestyle choices from everyone who does not share them: coworkers and neighbors, family and exes, even friends and roommates. As I said above, Dallasites who feel the need to segment their lives (which is most of them) center one large fragment around work, family, and the home and a smaller one around their weekend sub-community; it is as if they maintain full-time secret identities to cover for their part-time hobbies.

By comparison, sex-positive folks in Austin, Denver, and Boulder can be surprisingly forthright, living visibly across a much larger swath of their lives and promoting awareness at every chance. Those who maintain double lives might regard work (and perhaps judgmental relatives) as a part-time secret identity, but come home to their real lives full-time. By focusing on authenticity rather than how they are perceived and what they control, they have found a better grip on both; and though I can’t say for certain that it is related, they also seem to be more successful at finding work that fulfills them beyond a mere income.

There is a sex-positive beacon of hope for DFW in the Dallas kink scene, which offers a terrific well of wisdom, training, and resources from which to draw — so long as you are open to it. Dallas’ propensity to play up image makes the fetish community hard to enter gradually. While kinksters do address topics like polyamory, self-reflection, and activism expertly (especially at the Leather community’s two annual conventions), they usually do so along the periphery of kinkier topics and in highly charged settings; the displays of power can be overwhelming to those without a strong interest and open temperament toward whatever one might see. Without a thoughtful, supportive introduction, a quiet person can easily get the (wrong) impression that the entire community is unapproachable; for the eager, it is easier to get laid and diverted than to get the type of knowledge one might seek (and who has ever entered such a sub-culture knowing exactly how much they needed to learn?).

Dallas’ fetish scene is the single biggest community for sex-positive people in the area, so large it becomes easy to assume that all sex-positive people are universally kinky (which is not the case here or anywhere else). Even the kinksters are divided into sub-sub-communities (no pun intended) by interest. Thanks to frequent major events and strong online networking at FetLife, there is better overlap amongst these groups — including kinky segments of the LGBT community — than all other Dallas sub-communities combined; unfortunately, the benefits of interconnection are impenetrable outside of those settings. Anyone not interested in BDSM or unable to afford the often-pricey suggested donations has no direct access to the vanilla knowledge available there.

Well, What Do You Suggest?

Sex-positive DFW can continue to look to the kink community for guidance, but we risk irrelevance if we expect it to remain the centerpiece for all local development. The socially conservative culture has fostered a growing generation of sexual subversives who merely want the freedom to explore on their own terms; as long as these disparate groups remain focused on their own back yards, that exploration will be stifled and alternative lifestyles will stay relegated to our extracurricular activities. We will all continue to guard our dirty little secrets as if there’s something wrong with us.

Fuck that.

Instead, I propose the sex-positive people of DFW begin a conscious effort to develop our little communities of weekend deviance by strengthening our connections to one another. I’d like to see more poly events on the Fort Worth side of the Metroplex. I’d like to hear more discussions about strategies in politics and seeking out new relationships. I’d like to swap more stories about the places we have visited to hear what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to attend a workshop on some sex-positive topic without having to fill my gas tank or bring my own rope. Austin and Denver succeed in areas where Dallas doesn’t even know there are areas, but it is not because they are better or sexier than us; they just got a head start. As a result, their events range from facilitated classes and discussions to chosen-family reunions to hot, hot private parties. They nourish their communities because they are not just protecting their hobbies, they are protecting their lives. We can look to them for inspiration, but it will be up to us to forge our own way, hopefully a way built on something more than just image and control.

In academia, what I seek would be considered Interdisciplinary Studies: identifying and cultivating the intersections between unlike subjects. We must take time out to reflect on what our communities share with one another and build on that. We must recognize that politics reaches into our daily lives and if the system isn’t speaking to us we must speak to it. We must develop better self-care techniques and encourage them with our friends and loved ones. We must discover exactly how much we don’t yet know as a community, develop that knowledge, and share it widely.

A few months ago, I told someone on the local poly email that if they wanted to make more events happen, they had to step up, take the lead, and be ready to fail a few times before anything caught on. So I’m not proposing this stuff empty-handed; I am ready to step up, and I’ve already got some other folks involved on some new things coming down the pike. But we don’t want to drag everyone to something they don’t want to do. Help us. Guide us. Join us. Or blow us off and start your own events — it’s not like we know what we’re doing. Just help us make something happen.

The only incentive I can offer is better sex — no — better sexuality. How much could we better understand ourselves and each if we had more of the community watching out for each other? How many newbies could we keep around if we could figure out what to tell them at their first appearance? How much of our time together is wasted relearning the same things someone else has already gone through?

Let’s show that Dallas isn’t just a hobby city any longer, but an integrated community that is ready to grow.

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Notes from the Road: Church vs. Church

2011.February.1

Imagine my surprise when my friends in Denver invited me to attend the local Goth club. Not the invitation itself, but the destination: a Goth club called “The Church”. That’s funny, we have one of those in Dallas, too.

So, of course I have to write a comparison and contrast. It’s pretty much required of we suckers who got English degrees (cc: Princeton from Avenue Q).

Now, I’m not going to declare one or the other to be the definitive Church experience (especially since the Dallas Church freely admits to being “inspired” by another club in Miami), nor am I going to delve into a hundred years of city records to parse out the venues’ minute histories, but I think a quick look could be revealing.

Commonalities

Aside from the obvious (name, resonant playlists, sustained devotion to a dying faction of freakdom), both Churches host primarily on Sunday nights, with a smattering of special events on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Both have big stages, lights and videos, and excellent sound systems primed to pump the acerbic basslines of industrial and a thousand offshoots directly into your cardiac muscles. They laugh in the faces of high school segregation by hosting 80s music in special rooms. Each has been around for over a decade and are facing upstart competitors on alternate nights (Dallas has Cafe Excuses’ Panoptikon, Denver has The Shelter), and while the old guards reign the old venues in both towns, the newer clubs have been more successful in drawing newer, younger regulars (more on that later).

The Scene…

Dallas’ Church is dark, loud, and successfully moody. Housed in a former trolley repair shop and dinner theater, every surface across four rooms is black and/or velvety – unless it’s metallic, like the club’s famous and fingerprint-y stripper pole. Equally important are the two wood-planked patios, which offer respite from the crowd for smoker and non-smoker alike. (I’ve heard rumors that Joan Jett & the Blackhearts shot the video for “I Love Rock & Roll” here; I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and I’m more inclined to believe it was shot at Gilley’s or somewhere in Deep Ellum – if in Dallas at all.)

Dancing is the main attraction; regulars go to the uppermost platforms (see above re: stripper pole) to show off, the stage to meet people, and the pit to move. And yet everything about this Church is built on a foundational control of visibility; you come to watch, to be watched, or to disappear entirely (if this last part makes no sense, you have probably never experienced the bittersweet individuality of being too beautiful, too hideous, or too bodily-modified to blend in anywhere but a Goth club). Newbies and voyeurs linger along the outer railing, or in the cushy chairs behind. Each patron of the Dallas Church gets to decide for zirself whether to be a wallflower or a spectacle, and there is no expectation that either choice is a lifetime commitment. To emphasize this freedom all the more, the main room has an upstairs balcony with a full view of the stage and dancefloor and just enough lighting for the bouncers to make sure no one is actually having sex on the decadent velvet armchairs.

An outlying fixture through the death and gentrified rebirth of Deep Ellum, The Church (Dallas) recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. This Church rewards loyalty and is rewarded in kind. Regulars can buy dogtags that earn the wearer free admission on Thursday nights (when the Goth angle is downplayed and the music and looks focus more on hard industrial) and discounts to other events, and for many Church-goers, the question is never whether one will return, but when.

The first thing you notice about Denver’s Church is – holy guyliner, Gothman! – it’s located in an actual, honest-to-weirdness, goddamned stone-and-mortar church!

I’ll let that soak in.

Legend has it that the Saint Mark’s Parish Church was an active parish until a priest committed suicide there (I don’t want to meet the Goth whose pants don’t cream at the thought of shuffling steel-toes across such un-hallowed grounds). And while the temptation is probably there to revamp the building (dig a moat, put in more ornate crosses, and paint it black), the exterior is pretty much untouched from its days as a house of God (it will remain that way, thanks to the church’s 1975 placement on the National Register of Historic Places). It is only at night – when club lights escape through the stained glass and thuddy basslines demand your attention – that its true, nefarious purpose is apparent.

Once inside, it’s hard to just think of Denver’s Church as a club. Every detail seems to remind one of the importance of one’s environment, and with good reason. It’s a club in a fucking church. Unfortunately, the crowd on the night I visited was too small to justify opening the main room – the big, church-iest hall, where once were pews and hymnals and Easter pageants and big metal collection plates – but that big empty space was just visible enough to further enhance the atmosphere, like it was a forbidden hallway to some dark lord’s throne room and only the most malevolent dark minions were allowed.

You could spend an entire night examining the little nooks and crannies, gasping at the Goth-y-ness of it all, and walk away satisfied at the end of your night. On a quiet night like the one I attended, hell, that might be the best idea. Without a lot of people to watch, one can be forgiven for walking the walls for deeper and deeper appreciation, until you finally decided to touch each brick tenderly and ask how it feels to be a mindfuck.

So What About the Congregation…

While I know of no holy suicides at Dallas’ Church, plenty of messed up people and events have passed through on their way to oblivion – and I mean that in the best way possible. My first time, a regular showed me around; she’d had to pick WHICH Gothic outfit to wear, and everyone knew her by her profile name on the Church’s website. That summer night back in ’05, even the rooftop patio was crowded, and I felt overwhelmed and underdressed by all of the costumes and the flaunting – oh, the flaunting! Of skin! Of personality! Of deviance! Of rubber and leather and metal (or cheap approximations thereof)!

The legendary Sunday night freakshows managed to convene dark horse DIYers, up-and-coming fetish models and photographers, mischievous barely-legals who worked last-minute Wal-Mart lingerie purchases like they were stomping a Parisian catwalk, and lurkers of all ages who redrew the line between creepy and sexy before Edward Cullen was a gleam in Stephanie Meyer’s eye. Innocent that I was at the time, my personal Virgil had to drag me into the women’s room to show me how unimportant was gender here – thanks to the cadre of drag queens, transvestites, and royal genderfucks who held court there.

It was all so fucking hot. And while the best days of Dallas’ Church were behind it before I’d ever set foot inside, it is still the place to go for events that belong in Dallas (but not anywhere visible in Dallas). The Church regularly hosts open fetish parties ranging from latex fashion shows to baby’s first spanking bench; concerts featuring industrial anti-heroes of Europe, the mid-’90s, and, well, the late ’90s; and old-guard reunions for early loyalists who want to break out the trip pants and the steel corset to scare off some errant frat-boys or tell out-of-towners about the good ol’ days.

Denver’s Church offered a superficially similar experience: I danced a bit, I stepped out on the smokers’ patio for a phone call, I had a drink and went to the restroom… but it just never quite got to feeling like a club. Amplified, it could have felt like anything from a loud Christian youth lock-in to a stealth rave, but everyone was just too damned chill. People were sexy, perhaps even sexier than in Dallas, but they were not as sexual. I couldn’t help thinking of when Denver DJ Fetish Dolly came to Panoptikon (Dallas’ other Goth club) few years back: she wore fabulous latex that did all the work, played good (not great) music, and flirted across the dance floor without the slightest indication of what she might do if someone were to flirt back. I wondered then what she would have thought of the ladies room at Dallas’ Church; these days I wonder how she’d fair at the hands of one of Dallas’ expert sadists.

And while the Denver folks probably had more square yards of black textile than a Dallas crowd twice as large, that was as deep as the Goth went. No one was particularly lascivious. No one was creepy. There weren’t huge groups to join or avoid. I didn’t feel like a voyeur, here; I felt like a 16-year-old attending my first Teen Night, trying not to be disappointed that THIS was what all the fuss had been all about.

Worshipping Online

That Goth communities have endured this long is, in large part, thanks to the concurrent development of online networking, and few businesses of leisure have ever milked that opportunity as brilliantly as Dallas’ Church. Since before there was Facebook, or even MySpace, The (Dallas) Church’s three websites offered a community where DFW’s lost young adults could grow from bad poets to bad dancers to bad-asses who, at long last, know the strength of numbers – the strength of belonging – and also might happen to make their own leather goods.

The homepage boosts information, events, and highlights content from sister sites. For visitors of all stripes who go to see or be seen, there’s The Church Pictures, which posts pictures from special events and other nights. Dallas’ Church has long capitalized on their voyeuristic allure by welcoming professional photographers and local models at every event, stamping their pics for credited sharing, and encouraging Church-goes to share their own. Before the advent of Facebook, hard-core fiends went to The Church Boards, a third website where even the most sporadic visitor could feel like a regular  (socializing is easier to manage typing to a screen than shouting into the darkness).

Although The Boards appear to have fallen, the Facebook page is active, updated, and well-administered. Dallas’ Church has always stayed at the forefront of online social networking, luring newcomers via MySpace, Facebook, and even Twitter, while avoiding niche sites like Foursquare and LinkedIn that are, frankly, irrelevant. Somehow, the club rarely panders too hard, yet it maintains a strong online profile. And while most of the Dallas fetish community might not be in regular attendance, they do follow the local Church on Fetlife and can attend kink-themed events without embarrassment or irony. (An opposite cross-over posture is maintained by Dallas’ thriving fetish model community, most of whom are only kinky when the camera is on but know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.)

As for Denver’s Church… um, they have a Facebook, I think? One that, despite having three times as many fans as the Dallas page (ooo, dems is fightin’ words!), exhibits only a minimal online presence. Seriously, I did an online search for “Church Goth club”. Out of the first 10 links, 6 are for Dallas, 2 are for Denver (none of them an official homepage), 1 is for yet another “Church” in Ohio, and the last is to SecondLife. Need I go on? No wonder there was no sense of community…

Deviation from Deviance

Despite its infamy, Dallas’ Church has experienced a steady decline in attendance for about as long as I’ve been old enough to attend. The O.G. scene (Original Goths, or at least “original” within my lifetime) got older and had to move on when work got tiring, babysitters wouldn’t work Sunday nights, and the clothes at Hot Topic just didn’t seem to fit any longer (sometimes figuratively, sometimes horizontally). It didn’t help that Deep Ellum was crashing and burning under the willful oversight of late ’90s and early ’00s City Hall.

But the thing about anachronistic subcultures: eventually, they simply fade away. It is a credit to the fetish, burlesque, and even steampunk aftershocks that Dallas’ Church still gets its two nights a week; Friday and Saturday nights, the building is known as The Lizard Lounge, a decidedly non-alternative club predating (and technically operating) The Church and catering to kids who would have gone Greek if they hadn’t gone to community college. The more The Church loses its infamy, the more these heretical brats show up on the wrong night, degrading the once-proud costumes of black, royal purple, and red wine with just a few too many white polo shirts and (Goth forbid!) ballcaps.

In Denver, I didn’t have to step into the swank (and empty) cigar lounge and eye the (brilliantly idiosyncratic) sushi bar on ground level to suspect the same thing might be happening there. But I suspect these quirks make sense to folks in Denver, and there are definitely some upsides. The Church in Denver is only ever The Church; there are no aliases, no frat nights, no Invasions of School Girls that I can tell (all fishnets aside, Dallas, there’s nothing Gothic about plaid skirts when their invasion is timed perfectly with Spring Break). Denver’s Church gets concerts in the great hall that stretch the boundaries of “Gothic/industrial” to include even rap; this probably says less about Denver’s Goth community than it does about Denver’s entire population, which is generally more laid back, homogeneous, and Caucasian than is Dallas’.

The fact of the matter is, Denver’s Church has everything it needs to throw a good party – namely, a smaller prevalence of white ballcaps.

In Summary (A Slow Night…)

I wish I’d had more than one brief night to draw from in writing about Denver, but little things tell a lot. The setting is incomparable, but that can only go so far. I get the sense there’s room for more interesting people – and therefor more potential for a resurgence – in Denver. Dallas appears to have the better crowd, but the well of black gold is nearly exhausted, and their absence just makes slow nights more painful. A slow night in Denver would probably just mean more room to dance and a better chance of hearing your friends, while a slow night in Dallas could mean a run-in with a drunk rich kid or a decidedly underwhelming visual adventure.

What I’d really like to see is a Goth-exchange program; just once, let’s take a busload of Dallas freaks up and invade Denver’s Church for the greatest night Goth America has ever seen.

And then, when we get home, let’s all bury the NIN T-shirts, give leather back to the S&M community, and start creating some new ways to access the darkness of it all so the up-and-coming moody teenagers have something to aspire toward that is more original, authentic, and revolutionary than sparkly vampires and girls who only make out with girls when their boyfriends are watching.

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