Friday, March 26, 2010

LGBT Youth: Back By Popular Demand!

I was overwhelmed by the positive response to last week's posting about LGBT youth issues, especially about the wonderful book by C.J. Pascoe about sexuality and gender in high schools today, with its eye-catching title, Dude, You're a  Fag. So here's the full review, boys & girls, and everyone outside or in between. Enjoy!

The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Jan/Feb 2008
Be Butch or Be Bashed
Review of Dude, You’re a Fag by C. J. Pascoe
University of California Press. 227 pages, $19.95
by Brent Calderwood

“Cheering students filled River High’s gymnasium. Packed tightly in bleachers, they sang, hollered, and danced to loud hip-hop music. Over their heads hung banners celebrating fifty years of River High’s sports victories. The yearly assembly in which the student body voted for the most popular senior boy in the school to be crowned Mr. Cougar was under way, featuring six candidates performing a series of skits to earn student votes.”

Thus begins Dude, You’re a Fag, which has the accessible narrative tone of a coming-out novel but is actually an incisive, well-researched, fascinating ethnography of a year in the life of students at a suburban, working-class public high school in Northern California. C. J. Pascoe, who now teaches sociology at the University of Puget Sound, did a year of fieldwork at the pseudonymous River High while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkelely. It’s a tribute to her skill as a storyteller that in this opening scene, and mostly throughout, Dude reads more like a novel, or even a screenplay, than like a master’s thesis.

For most gays and lesbians, the thought of returning to high school for a year rates on a par with taking a hiking trip through Siberia. Many of us have doubtless wondered, though, exactly how—or if—high schools have changed for gay youth in the last decade. Never mind Stonewall—how have the Internet, Brokeback Mountain, and The L-Word changed the way gay kids grow up today? By spending a year in trenches, observing students in their native habitats—the classroom, the weight room, the quad, the parking lot, the principle’s office, school assemblies—Pascoe shines a light on these and other questions.

For native Californians like myself, who came of age and came out in the early 1990s in a high school eerily similar to River High, Pascoe provides clues about the real-life location of the school where Pascoe did her fieldwork: “Riverton’s approximately one hundred thousand residents are over half white and about a quarter Latino or Hispanic. The rest identify in relatively equal numbers as African American or Asian [American].”

Aside from protecting the identities of the young people Pascoe interviewed, the anonymity performs a neat trick, recasting River High as what it most resembles—a typical Middle American high school, complete with pep rallies, cheerleaders, Homecoming dances, and Cougar pride. This “everyschool” aura convinces the reader that the sexual harassment Pascoe witnesses is a nationwide phenomenon.

Pascoe makes a convincing case for the notion that masculinity, above all, rules the high school roost, and that establishing, guarding, and proving one’s masculinity is a full-time job for those who are willing or able to do the work. With a nod to queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick, Pascoe points out that while homosexuality is no longer pathologized, gay male effeminacy is pathologized, and that the same edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “that erased homosexuality as a diagnosis in the 1970s added a new diagnosis in its wake: Gender Identity Disorder”; to merit this diagnosis, a girl must “actually assert that she is a boy…whereas a boy need only display a preoccupation with female activities.”

For boys, the main way to protect and defend their fragile masculinity is through what Pascoe terms “fag discourse”—the omnipresent back-and-forth lobbing by boys of the word fag and its permutations “in a verbal came of hot potato, each careful to deflect the insult quickly by hurling it toward someone else.” Girls, although they are constantly prey to sexual harassment from boys (which, in her whole year at River High, Pascoe never saw disciplined or reprimanded), are immune to the fag epithet, which as Jeremy, a Latino junior says, is “the lowest thing you can call someone.” Girls do monitor each other for behavior that is appropriately feminine—i.e., sexually passive and non-agentic—but not to the level that boys monitor each other: “the word slut (or its synonym ho) appeared one time for every eight times the word fag appeared.” (Pascoe slyly dubs this obsessive masculinity game “compulsive heterosexuality,” a clever nod to Adrienne Rich’s influential concept of “compulsory heterosexuality.”)

Ironically, at River High, lesbians are the main beneficiaries of this “crisis of masculinity.” Rebeca, an African American member of the women’s basketball team, is by all accounts one of the most popular girls at River High, admired by boys for her attractive, curvaceous physique and ability to attract other women, and admired by girls for her strong, dominant personality. Moreover the senior class president—and Homecoming Queen—is a masculine-identified, slacks-wearing, Asian American lesbian named Jessie. Pascoe is quick to note that masculinity, though traditionally ascribed to male bodies, is a mutable construct, one that girls can adopt to gain status while simultaneously reinscribing and reinforcing notions of masculine power.

 As mutable and fragile as masculinity is revealed to be in Dude, Pascoe reminds us that there are some boys who are unable to move the “fag discourse” off of themselves: “For the one boy who permanently inhabited the fag position, life at River High was not easy.” For the gentle, effeminate Ricky, who enjoys choreography and wears make-up, the “double transgression of sexual and gender identity made his position at River High simply unlivable. The lack of protection from the administration meant facing torture on a daily basis.” Ultimately, Ricky, bereft of a supportive family or community, drops out of River High and moves to a nearby city to perform in local drag shows.

Pascoe is at her strongest in analyzing all of these and other stories through feminist and queer theory, quoting greats in those fields like Sedgwick, Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler. But from a political standpoint, there is much, much more that remains to be said about Dude and about the adolescent zeitgeist it portrays.  Exposed as never before to media representations of gays and lesbians, students at River High are able to elect a lesbian of color as Senior Class President, and even to say about gay men that “[b]eing gay is just a lifestyle. It’s someone you choose to sleep with. You can still throw around a football and be gay.”

Today’s teenagers, familiar with the heteronormative images of gays they receive from television, film—and, arguably, from the   mainstream LGBT political movement—are now able to tolerate gay men who toe the gender-role line, but fags like Ricky remain fags always. This is what Riki Wilkins has termed the “Eminem Exception”—a reference to the rap artist Eminem, who has attempted to absolve himself of the label “homophobe” by claiming he uses the term fag for men who are weak and unmanly, regardless of sexual orientation.

Dude, You’re a Fag provides persuasive proof that gender identity should not be seen as an expendable addition to employment nondiscrimination laws, nor as an auxiliary to gay liberation—an optional T in our LGBT community. Gender identity is not a side issue; it is the issue. Until we get this message, which Pascoe’s book so clearly spells out, boys like Ricky will be jettisoned, and only those gay boys who can throw a football and those lesbians who comply with notions of masculine supremacy will be able to enjoy the dignity that all humans deserve.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Beards Are Back: Is Obama to Blame?

[SF Chronicle Says "No You Can't," Bears Say "Yes We Can!"]
Published in San Francisco Bay Times: March 18, 2010

By Brent Calderwood
     Recently, columnist Caille Millner’s provocatively titled “Young Men Need Jobs, Not Beards” incited a minor uproar among San Francisco Chronicle readers, and especially among the bear community, a subset of the gay community of which I am a proud member. Self-described bears like me emerged in the early 1980s and pride ourselves on embracing hairier models of male beauty than those offered by mainstream American culture. Fur flew when we read that “Taliban-esque beards make [young men] look about half as attractive as they really are.”

     Millner, who often writes for the Chronicle on issues of race, class, and gender, has been accused by many of her readers, hirsute and otherwise, of missing the mark about a fashion trend that’s emerged, she said, “over the past two years” among young men—presumably among young, straight white men..
     Millner opens her article by positing that newly unemployed men “feel insecure and inadequate, and may lack the emotional freedom to handle these feelings in a constructive way.”
     “Psychologists,” she goes on to say, “often point to these factors when it’s time to explain why there’s more domestic violence during a recession. These factors may also explain why there’s more hair.”

      “Psychologists?” Which psychologists? Millner doesn’t say. As someone who has studied Social Work at UC Berkeley and has worked as an intern social worker and therapist in inner-city agencies, it looks to me like a nod to former prison psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan MD, who, in his groundbreaking 1996 book Violence, eloquently put forward the theory that “different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are feelings of shame.” But then, Gilligan says nothing about men growing beards to hide their shame, and besides, Gilligan has a beard—at least his NYU faculty photo does—so Millner can’t mean him.
     Perhaps she meant to mention Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? If so, why would she let an opportunity to drop old Siggy’s name slip through the cracks? One reason stands out: Freud also had a beard.
     In fact, Victorian Englishmen of all classes wore beards with pride. Bears did not start the trend; we merely reclaimed it. The mid-nineteenth century spurt in beard popularity was even given a name—the Beard Movement—a reaction to the smooth-jowled Regency Period, a permissive but corrupt ten years during which a young, clean-shaven, dipsomaniacal divorcee called George ruled by proxy while his father, George III, went gradually insane. Saddled with a a “Bush-league” sovereign who wasn’t much interested in ruling by the book, the Regency Period was an era of excess, waste, and war (sound familiar?).
     Once the Regency regime ended, Victorians let loose (in their subdued Victorian fashion) with facial hair of all kinds—mustaches, burnsides, mutton chops, Vandykes, Piccadilly Weepers, and full, bushy beards. To the Victorians, beards meant various things: artistic sensibility, intellectualism, rugged individualism, virile masculinity, even radical politics and sympathies with the working class.
      Predictably, thirty-four responses to Millner’s article, many by bears I know from my own San Francisco community, have appeared on the Chronicle’s website since March 1.  In addition, on other sites, scores of bloggers and Facebook friends of mine, most of whom identify as “bears” and others who describe themselves as “working class,” are filling the Twittersphere with expressions of outrage and disappointment that a progressive columnist should launch her editorial missiles at what could by liberal eyes be viewed as innocent populations: unemployed men, young men, men with beards.
     One anonymous online respondent, whose pithy comment earned more “thumbs up” on the Chronicle website than any other posting, said simply: “Wow. This could have been written in 1967 and would have been just as vapid then.”
     And there’s the rub. Whether we identify as “bear,” “person of color,” Muslim or Christian, some combination or none, who among us, especially those over the age of 40, hasn’t seen recent images of shaggy young men without involuntarily thinking: “hippie,” “counterculture,” or “flower power”? I’m reminded of the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, who came back, burned and bewhiskered, from India in 1968, and whose photo I would have loved to have seen run with Millner’s editorial last week.
      Even in late March 1968, with youth counterculture at an all-time high, with massacred My Lais only ten days buried and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ten days away from assassination, the public nearly panicked when they saw Paul’s full, bushy beard—rumors that he was dead and that his music had influenced Charles Manson’s violence would soon follow.

     When Marvin Gaye grew his beard for the cover of 1971’s “What’s Going On,” it marked his graduation from clean-cut crossover heartthrob to introspective truth-seeker. “What mattered,” said Gaye, quoted by biographer David Ritz, “was the message. For the first time I really felt like I had something to say.” By then, the public was prepared to accept beards without hysteria or condemnation, and “What’s Going On” became Gaye’s first top 10 album in the U.S. Even though I wasn’t born till 1975, I resonate deeply with McCartney, Gaye, and so many others who chose to “go natural” for political reasons.

     Perhaps bears like me today, rather than trying to pull the wool over our faces, are simply choosing to make spiritual, artistic, and political statements, much like Victorians and hippies before them. Perhaps, excited as most young men in the U.S. are by the election of Barack Obama after eight years of Bush’s excess, waste and war, they would rather align themselves with Marvin Gaye, Che Guevara, Jesus, Mohammed, the Beatles—or even with Rip Van Winkel, who, as the story goes, woke up at the end of a decade to find that the American Revolution had been won, and American would no longer be browbeaten by a tyrant named George.

Brent Calderwood’s essays and reviews have been published by New American Media, The Chicago Sun-Times, and Bay Times San Francisco. He has edited for The Princeton Review and taught writing at John Jay College. He blogs on culture, class, race and gender at “The Defibrillator,”

Oh, and P.S. I can't figure out a delicate way to include the following link, so here is a site dedicated to sexy young men with beards. If you have other links to contribute, please note them in the comments, or look at my profile here to find my contact info, send them to me, and I'll post links myself. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

LGBT Youth Fighting for Basic Rights,
Then As Now

The fracas I blogged about on Sunday in Mississippi over a lesbian high school student having the temerity to want to take another girl to her prom—and the school's ensuing decision to cancel the whole darn thing!—reminded me of the famous hubbub caused by Cumberland, Rhode Island high-schooler Aaron Fricke, who in 1980 had to file suit in a U.S. District court in order to take a male date to his senior prom. That was 20 years ago, but to many modern ears it sounds ridiculous, as well it should. Fricke attracted national media attention including, famously, Donahue, and later wrote a tender, moving book about his experience, Reflections of a Rock Lobster

Over 10 years later, in 1993, my Livermore, California high school considered canceling its prom after the Oakland Tribune announced I would be taking a male date. Luckily for the school, my absences and truancies—I was cutting because of death threats and attacks—made me ineligible to graduate and attend anyway, so the prom went on without a hitch. 

But the resulting melee led to more death threats and more news stories, even national TV appearances. But then, that was 1993, the year when there were literally more talk shows on TV than any other before or since. Corny catchphrases were legion ("You go girl!" and others), and even Jerry Springer tried to make his show stand out by ending each hillbilly slugfest with a "Final Thought"—a trite aphorism here, a pinch of advice on how to change the world with nonviolence there. Silly. Lesbian author Linnea Due, author of the wonderful lesbian teen recovery novel High and Outside, said it best when she interviewed me and wrote in her informative 1995 study Joining the Tribe: Growing Up Gay & Lesbian in the '90s:

"There are very few gay youth activists, and even fewer who are willing to talk to the media. Half the Queer Nation members I interviewed in '91, though four or five years older than Brent and already safely ensconsed in college, would not allow their names to be used in the [East Bay] Express.... Prepared for violence, he was unprepared for the fact that being willing to talk about it, particularly if he used clever turns of phrase like preferring to be bashed by others than by himself, would set talk show hosts salivating like Pavlov's dogs." —Linnea Due

Does anyone even remember Gabrielle, the short-lived talk show distributed by Fox (sorry!) with Gabrielle Carteris, the actress who played what seemed to be LA's only brainy Jewish girl (oddly, about 30 years old in real life) on 90210? I was flown to Burbank and appeared on an episode with the family and friends of the late Brandon Teena, whose story was eventually made into the film Boys Don't Cry. Also on the show was Mary Griffith, whose son Bobby, tortured by his family's conservative religious judgments about his own budding homosexuality, threw himself from a California freeway overpass and died instantly. Mary and I had a wonderful teary-eyed three-hour conversation over cigarettes in the airport diner after the show, waiting for the same plane back to the Bay Area, in which she told me about a book she was writing which later became a book and then a film with Sigourney Weaver called Prayers for Bobby. (Why is this film not available for sale? Does anybody know?)
Even the Oprah Show called, but, inexplicably, my school's principal didn't feel like being confronted by me and Oprah in front of millions of veiwers, so the idea was dropped (that was back when Oprah was still blantantly naughty—remember?). I wasn't told straightaway, but a week or two later, the Oprah staff sent me a conciliatory XXL T-Shirt which I still have in a box somewhere (why so large, people?). I guess instead of "Oprah" in big purple letters, it should have said: "I risked my life to be famous enough to be on the Oprah show, but all I got was this lousy T-shirt."  Crestfallen about years of high-school harassment and not getting to meet Oprah, I got my GED, moved to San Francisco, and became a journalist.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and a lot of the same old stuff is going down. Sadly I left most of my old clunky VHS tapes, some of which held footage from those talkshows, with an old boyfriend during a transcontinental move I made back in 2006, and shortly thereafter, during our predictable breakup, he threw out all those precious tapes, in a fit of that kind of ungentlemanliness that many among us have been susceptible to during breakups. (Does anyone have suggestions for how to track down the Gabrielle show, for instance?)

I'll wrap up now with exerpts from a longish review of a very important  contemporary book, Dude, Youre a  Fag. These exerpts, by yours truly, appear courtesy of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide:
          Today’s teenagers, familiar with the heteronormative images of gays they receive from television, film—and, arguably, from the mainstream LGBT political movement—are now able to tolerate gay men who toe the gender-role line, but fags like Ricky remain fags always. This is what Riki Wilkins has termed the “Eminem Exception”—a reference to the rap artist Eminem, who has attempted to absolve himself of the label “homophobe” by claiming he uses the term fag for men who are weak and unmanly, regardless of sexual orientation.
            Dude, You’re a Fag provides persuasive proof that gender identity should not be seen as an expendable addition to employment nondiscrimination laws, nor as an auxiliary to gay liberation—an optional T in our LGBT community. Gender identity is not a side issue; it is the issue. Until we get this message, which Pascoe’s book so clearly spells out, boys like Ricky will be jettisoned, and only those gay boys who can throw a football and those lesbians who comply with notions of masculine supremacy will be able to enjoy the dignity that all humans deserve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mississippi School Axes Prom to Avoid Lesbian Dancing, while Stars on Ice Drops Johnny Weir

My friend Bea, all the way in Groeningen, Netherlands, contacted me to alert me to this story by sex columnist and Seattle Stranger editor extraordinaire Dan Savage: High School in Mississippi Cancels Prom to Prevent Lesbian Student From Bringing Female Date—and Potentially Invites Violence Against Lesbian Student 

That may seem like a long title, but it gives activist Googlers and savvy readers (the only kind of readers The Stranger has, as far as I can tell) the info they need in a nice compact package. "Click to learn more," the headline beckons.

It's the 21st-century version of phone trees—a calling system activists like Harvey Milk (beautifully photographed, here and elsewhere, by legendary San Francisco photographer and activist Daniel Nicoletta) used pre-Internet to get their messages about rallies and protests out as quicky as possible: one person calls ten, each of those call ten, who each call ten, until a united front shows up to scare the bejezus out of the pigs. Already, the article has gone viral in the Twittersphere, and amassed over 172 comments on the original site (the average article in The Stranger or on similar news sites gets about 20 comments in a good month).

Now that a lot of "mainstream" folks—LGBT and otherwise—are out of work too, many middle-of-the-road Americans suddenly feel the way some people from disenfranchized groups, and many students, have always felt—that our politics and our ideals are the only things we reliably own.

That's my theory for why more people are getting angry about injustice of all kinds, from the persecution of LGBT children to music censorship and racism to advertisers of the upcoming Stars On Ice tour deeming gay artist and credit-to-skating Johnny Weir "Not Family Friendly Enough" to include in the extravanza tour, a major source of income for many athletes. (What, too gay for Ice Skating? Too many breathtaking, showstopping Lady Gaga tribute numbers?)

For shame, Smuckers, sponsor of Stars on Ice, for your Bible-Belt-pandering. I guess that's what we get, LGBTers and gay-savvy straight folks, for having switched to Polaner All Fruit, a corn-syrup-free preserves we found more salutory and palatable, decades ago. Now Smuckers is punishing all us urban sophisticates for our glucose-eschewing habits by choosing to disavow what should be their pride in one of the greatest athletes and charismatic artists to grace Ice Skating in a long, long time.

Evidently, Smuckers likes their Ice Shows to be as cloying and flavorless as their jams and jellies. And c'mon guys, Smuckers? You call yourselves "Smuckers" and you think Johnny Weir isn't family friendly? You sure provided my brothers and I with our share of naughty jokes in the breakfast nook growing up.

Anyone who thinks this is "just an ice skating issue" is just plain wrong. This is about gender roles and assimilation versus all of us embracing our unique gifts and contributions to the world as "queer" or somehow "deviant" or "different" people.

Get angry, people. Get very angry. Then contact GLAAD, and find out more about possible solutions. In the meantime, I suggest throwing out any stray jars of Smuckers you've been serving to undiscerning guests or using to hold up the wonky shelf in the bathroom cabinet.

So, other than raising my hackles, what's the connection between these two stories? Gender. Two girls dancing together freaks the heck out of some parents and principles in Mississippi, and the Smucker's guys' real fear is that Weir is too effeminate. Being a gay man is OK as long as you're masculine—even Eminem says so—but people can't stand a man who's feminine. Masculine's the thing to be in the U.S.—it's even OK for women and girls, as long as they know their roles at home and on the dancefloor.

But more on all that tomorrow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lady Gaga!
Is Lady Gaga the New Laura Nyro?

When it comes to pop culture, I'm always just a few days behind the curve. I know, I know—I shouldn't tell you that. After all, this is a blog about culture, and blogs are supposed to be au courant.

But hey, who'm I fooling? My first blog entry (at least here; I do have other blogs y'know) was about Judy Holliday and Blossom Dearie, after all. I freely admit it—though I'm only in my mid-thirties, I have the aesthetic tastes of a 60-year-old gay man living in 1955. Luckily, my politics place me somewhere around 2012, the year we'll get Universal Health Care in the U.S.—or, to be more historically accurate, my politcs place me in Amsterdam circa 1985 (remember, that year's a good thing in some places; the Dutch didn't have Reagan and Bush Sr. to gum up their windmill gears).

Anyway, I finally watched the new Lady Gaga-Beyonce collaboration video, and I can hardly tell you how impressed I am—the ironic-chameleonic fashions (glasses made of cigarettes, hats made of nursery-room telephone dials, lavender funeral veils), the countless pop culture references (Kill Bill, Thelma and Louise, Britney Spears' snatch shot, and more), the winking product placement (a telephone of course, but flashed only while Gaga swaps spit with a soft-butch cellmate), and yes, I even loved the song (well, at least Gaga's half). Nevertheless, this blog is a publication of sorts, not a mind-reading game (that's what relationships are for, right? Or so I hear from my married friends), so I will tell you out loud how impressed I am. Very. I am very impressed.

Someone I know campared Lady Gaga to Elton John and Andy Warhol. When he first made that analogy before I'd seen her on Youtube and before she'd become the "It-Girl,"* I thought he was being ridiculous and hyberbolic (I admit it, I thought this, in these polysyllables no less, but I don't say things like this out loud), but now I have to agree with his comparison.

Lady Gaga has not only brought "sexyback" from farther away than Justin Timberlake did, she's helped make "sexy" and "smart" synonyms that even ad-addled and Twitter-pated post gen-Xers find refreshing and cool. And she's brought performance art into the mainstream, in a way it hasn't been since the Factory days of Warhol and the Sex Pistols. To extend Adam's analogy, I would also compare Lady Gaga to the very quirky Roches and the brilliantly eccentric Laura Nyro, with a dash of Blossom Dearie thrown in for sweetness.

Laura Nyro, whom Gaga most resembles physically and maybe musically (if you don't believe me, compare these two videos filmed over 30 years apart) is such a cult figure among artists "in the know" that even the notoriously (and justifiably) vain Joni Mitchell doesn't mind being compared to her.

All are very New York, so witty and worldly that all have been mistakenly assumed to be 100 percent Jewish, even by critics, even though some weren't Jewish at all. And among NY artists and intellectuals, such an assumption is a high compliment indeed.

If Warhol, Nyro, and the Roches are apt comparisons, then my only fear is not that Gaga's artistry won't continue to blossom with age—she'll be 24 on March 28!—but that Gaga may burn too bright too soon. A facile fatalists' fantasy, perhaps, but many of the above did peak early, falling afterwards into critical disfavor or cult obscurity.

Lady Gaga is the best new artist to shimmy onto the scene in a long time, and we need her to stick around more than she needs us—I was amazed that this year's Grammys (as you know, I think awards shows can be a real joke) actually honored her as Best New Artist. I am convinced that her award will not be a death knell (as it was for Milli Vanilli, Lisa Loeb  and others) but merely an early signpost on a long and illustrious career path. Barbara Walters even called Gaga one of the "10 Most Fascinating People of the Year" (in a year that gave us Octomom and Balloon Boy no less). During her interview, Gaga forthrightly responded to Walters' coy questions:

"I do like women. I've only been in love with men ...but ...the song [with lyrics like "fluffin the muffin"] was about why,...when I was with my boyfriend, was I still fantasizing about being with women?...I've certainly had sexual relationships with women, yes. [The biggest misconception about me is] that I am artificial and attention seeking, when the truth is that every bit of me is devoted to love and art, and I aspire to try to be a teacher to my young fans who ...  feel just like I felt when I was younger.... What I'm trying to say is I want to liberate them, I want to free them of their fears, and make them feel that they can create their own space in the world."

Words that could even make someone without tear ducts weep, but Walters and her producers followed up Gaga's frank, honest avowal with a slick, jump-cut montage of Gaga's sexiest dance moves overdubbed with these granny-pandering words: "Kissing women, bizarre outfits, and scantily clad perfomances: Not exactly a father's dream for his little girl."(What?! C'mon Barbara, you're not really the prude you play on TV: you dated that slutty Walter Cronkite, who's fluffed umpteen muffins, for crissakes.) 

Luckily for people like me who take two or three days to find out about the latest gidgets and gadgets, Gaga has already overcome the main newbie pitfall, especially for stars so wildly adored by gay fans—cult-status balkanization. Heck, if Madonna and Beyonce are slavering to get pokerface-time with you, you've moved past cult status. Gaga is so real and so hip that by her very presence with those ladies on SNL or the new "Telephone" video made them hip and relevant by osmosis. This month, she even lends her considerable cred to Cosmo, that hoary arbiter of mainstream female fashion and sex. Look, she smirks from its cover, I'll be wan and pretty for your magazine, but only if I can stare knowingly into the lens, and only if I can wear my un-prettiest granny panties while I'm doing it.

In an age when artists moan about MP3 pirating of their work so they can justify allowing Madison Avenue to use said work to hock everything from apps to alchohol, we need more stars like Gaga—sure they'll try to sell you stuff you don't need to pay their bills and make their DIY couture, but they'll snog with girls on TV while they're doing it—and they'll have real talent to boot. 

Happy Birthday, Lady Gaga. Thank you for making our wishes come true.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Boy With Flowers: Transformative poetry by Eli Shipley

Review by Brent Calderwood for Lambda Book Report:

Boy with Flowers, selected by Carl Phillips for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, is one of the most assured collections by a first-time author to appear in recent years. Touching, lovely, and at times harrowing, Ely Shipley thrills the reader with snapshots of childhood, family, relationship, the inner life of the outsider. Often Shipley acts as ace war reporter, focusing his lens on the skirmishes waged at the borders of gender and sexual idenitity, using his precise craft to measure the toll exacted on those who cross those borders. 

Section 1 looks acutely at childhood, and its closing poem, “Magnolia,” offers up pungent proof of Shipley’s skill. Shipley conveys the magical realism of childhood, but from the outset, the idyllic scenes are suffused with tension:

In the cul-de-sac shaded
by trees, Marissa and I
played all summer where magnolias
hung, hands withering over us

“Magnolia”’s lilting language and neat four- and five-line stanzas belie the chaos just under its surface, a surface that’s finally broken. When the stepfather comes home early one day, liquor on his breath, “each syllable a balled-up / fist,” Marissa asks the speaker not to return to the house. She offers the speaker a parting gift, a magnolia blossom, its petals “darkening everywhere / they’d been touched.”

Throughout the collection, flowers are used to great effect, as in the title poem, in which the speaker is cajoled into wearing a dress for an aunt’s wedding. Asked to be the flower girl, the speaker replies “I’m not / a girl” but agrees to “throw rose petals // onto the aisle,” in exchange for the right to “wear anything / I wanted after: army pants, a sheriff / badge, cowboy hat, and pistols.” Avoiding facile happy endings, Shipley brings the reader to a present in which the past lingers:

            --  my lover is tracing fingertips
around two long incisions in my chest. Each sewn tight
with stitches, each a naked stem, flaring with thorns.

The final poem in Boy with Flowers, “Etymology,” investigates the beginnings of things.

Strange that you’d let me
give birth
to my own body
even though I’ve always been
a boy, moving
toward what? Manhood?
  --a thick needle 
filled with your fluid, thrust every
two weeks the rest of my life
into my thigh.
With “Etymology,” Shipley not only shines light on the shadows of masculinity–what it means to be a man, what is essential, what gets performed–he also gamely employs line breaks such that, for instance, “two weeks the rest of my life” conveys the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal, weaving in and out of the liminal spaces in time and gender.

As transporting as Boy with Flowers is, it adroitly brings the reader full circle. The speaker recalls being an “eight-year-old boy,” picking a flower and putting it in his dictionary, a gift from his father. When he removes it after it has dried, there is a stain left on the page, “the handprint of / a child / quieting the words.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Poll: Who Did You Miss in the Oscars "Memoriam"?

Fur is flying over Farrah Fawcett's snub, as well as Bea Arthur's—"Mame," anyone? I mean, if the gay production staffers who lobbied to get Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper onto the same stage (and thank you boys, whoever you are) can't remember Bea Arthur in "Mame," then what's Hollywood coming to? 

I especially wish I'd seen the winsome Blossom Dearie, who made beautiful music for films and TV for over 50 years, including the jazzy "Figure 8" and "Unpack Your Adjectives" for Saturday Morning's Schoolhouse Rock. But hey, you win some, you lose some (sorry, I couldn't resist). 

It's no coincidence that all three ladies made their mark in TV more than film, and although "Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" includes television,  and the Academy broadcasts its awards show on television, AMPAS has always been biased against the upstart medium.

And FYI: Carl Malden's mug was shown last and longest only because he was a bigshot Academy bigwig. Malden's hyper-real, Method-influenced work was amazing in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and scores of other films, especially in sensitive portrayals of working-class men, but his most famous act in recent years was campaigning for his buddy Elia Kazan to get a Lifetime Achievement Award, even though many Academy members objected on grounds that the information Kazan had supplied to Senator McCarthy in the 1950s helped ruin the careers of many an artist, not to mention the fact (OK, I will mention it) that he'd already won several Oscars for his achievements!

Among the artists whose careers were damaged by Hollywood informants were Zero Mostel, Disney animator Art Babbitt (who made mushrooms dance in "Fantasia"), and the great Judy Holliday (who took home an Oscar for her first starring role as a ditzy blonde in "Born Yesterday" but actually posessed a genius-level IQ. You can read more about Judy Holliday at my other blog, Pansy Craze). Holliday's story is especially tragic, considering that shortly after the Blacklist was lifted, she died of breast cancer.

But hey, if McCarthyism hadn't hit Hollywood so hard, Arthur Miller might not have written "The Crucible," and maybe that made it OK to Malden and others at the end of the day.

In Hollywood, only two things are political—awards, and death.

OK, enough with the rants already, who did you miss in the Oscars Memoriam? Tell me in your comments below. (Or, alternatively, what would have been a more appropriate song and singer to accompany the montage?)