Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Virginia Tech Massacre


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I really didn’t want to write about the actions of Seung-hui Cho on the campus of Virginia Tech on Monday, April 16. What is there left to say about these crazy rampages committed by students or others with too many grievances and too many guns? When the Columbine killings happened I began my editorial (Zenger’s, June 1999) by noting that the morning after, I had written in my daily journal, “Just about everybody in America is going to be tempted to seize upon the Columbine slayings to advance whatever their pet social cause happens to be.”

So it’s turned out with the Virginia Tech killings as well. We’ve heard the usual laments from what’s left of the gun-control crowd in this country about how easy it was for Cho to purchase the two guns he used to kill 33 people (including himself) on campus that Monday, and how we need new laws to keep firearms out of the hands of potential mass murderers. In fact Cho meticulously followed Virginia’s admittedly lax firearms laws, patiently waiting the required 30 days between each gun purchase — though the dealers should have known, but didn’t, that he’d spent some time as an involuntary patient in a mental institution in 2005 and refused to sell to him on that basis.

We’ve also heard from the yahoo crowd that the problem isn’t too many guns, but too few: that if Virginia Tech hadn’t virtuously declared itself a “gun-free zone” and prevented its teachers, students or on-campus police force from carrying weapons, someone might have pulled out his or her own piece and blown Cho away before he had a chance to shoot at least some of his victims. The possibility that a Western movie-style shootout in the corridors of Norris Hall might well have ended in more, not fewer, innocent people losing their lives doesn’t seem to occur to these people.

Also, because Cho was a person of color, we’ve heard Asian-Americans worry that their entire community will be blamed for this, even though it never would have occurred to anybody to blame the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine on all white people. Cho’s own family has emphasized the difference between their solid, well-grounded, high-achieving daughter and their troubled son — much the way the first President Bush defended sitting with members of Osama bin Laden’s family on the board of the Carlyle Group by saying the bin Ladens were wonderful people except for that crazy black-sheep brother of theirs who started al-Qaeda and was ultimately responsible for 9/11.

Rightists have blamed Cho’s action on the so-called “culture of permissiveness,” on the breakdown of traditional family morality since the 1950’s and the nation’s gradual acceptance of divorce, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, you name it. Leftists have blamed it all on capitalism and an increasingly individualistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog society that ruthlessly discards those who fall behind. One Los Angeles Times op-ed writer with a hyperactive imagination even suggested a parallel between Cho’s life at Virginia Tech and “reality” TV shows like Survivor or American Idol — except Sanjaya Malakar didn’t respond to being voted off Idol by sneaking guns onto the set and blowing Ryan Secrest and Simon Cowell away.

What’s most chilling about Virginia Tech has become how normal this sort of crime has become. When Charles Whitman went up into the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966 and shot down 16 people; when James Huberty went “hunting humans” at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro in 1984; when Harris and Klebold brought guns to Columbine High School and targeted their teachers and fellow students in 1999, these events still seemed shocking because they were still new. Now we hear about a massacre like the one at Virginia Tech, make a few mental gestures of sorrow for the victims and then go on about our way, saying, “Oh, we know what that is.”

In 1950, James Agee wrote a profile on film director John Huston for Life magazine in which he described a scene from one of Huston’s least-known films, We Were Strangers, set in pre-revolutionary Cuba: “A student is machine-gunned on the steps of Havana’s university. A scene follows which is breathtaking in its surprise and beauty, but storytelling, not beauty, brings it: what seems to be hundreds of young men and women, all in summery whites, throw themselves flat on the marble stairs in a wavelike motion as graceful as the sudden close sweeping of so many doves. The shot is already off the screen before one can realize its full meaning. By their trained, quiet unison in falling, these students are used to this. They expect it any average morning.”

We’re not quite at that level yet — clearly the students at Virginia Tech were not “used” to having a crazy classmate start blowing them away — but we’re getting there. What’s more, in our anguish over how often events like these happen and how depressingly similar they are, we’re proposing solutions that could be even worse than the disease. The biggest theme in the comments on Virginia Tech since the massacre has been that we should somehow try to predict which people in society will commit crimes like this and intervene in their lives before they do — which sounds good until you realize that the criteria these would-be intervenors are looking for are so broad they could easily encompass millions of people.

Through a good deal of my childhood I was a loner, a misfit, an introvert, picked on by others my age and drawn even deeper into my shell as a self-defense mechanism when I was teased or hassled. I started to pull out of that, ironically, in high school — historically stereotyped as the time a lot of introverted loners pull farther in and cut off whatever ties to the rest of humanity they’d previously maintained. I was lucky enough that my high-school years were 1966 to 1970, in which young people in the U.S. celebrated and even embraced iconoclasm far more than they ever had before or have since. What happened to me was I found other people whom I could respect as they were, and who would respect me as I was.

Before that, however, I could readily see myself fitting into someone’s idea of a “profile” of someone who could commit a Columbine- or Virginia Tech-style massacre — and what I worry about is that the post-Virginia Tech hype will lead to people being punished merely for being loners, iconoclasts, rebels, thereby making it more, not less, likely that they will explode outward into acts of violence. Indeed, the most chilling part of the print and video manifestos Cho wrote before his killing spree and sent to NBC during it (what a terrifying to-do list: “Kill people, send package, kill some more people”) was his utter indifference to whether any of the people he was targeting had had anything to do with creating the suffering he felt justified his punishing them.

As I wrote in my post-Columbine editorial, “Between the isolation and the hopelessness of the age, we’re breeding a generation of already cynical, jaded, alienated young people who’ve carefully been trained not to give a damn about anyone but themselves — and to be ruthless and unforgiving towards their weaker peers. Most of the people getting ‘picked on’ in this fashion are going to accept it calmly and die a thousand deaths every day — but a few will turn their anger outwards and create more Columbines. And whereas I would have hoped, in those first few days after the massacre, that the silver lining in the dark cloud might be a renewed understanding of teen alienation and more care and concern for those who are ‘different,’ what’s been happening instead is quite the opposite.”

The reaction of most school administrators to Columbine was to impose “zero tolerance” policies and to turn all too many U.S. high schools and colleges effectively into high-security prisons: to post metal detectors and security guards at the entrances and mount cameras in the hallways. And, if the signs so far are an indication of the future, the standard response to Virginia Tech is likely to be to single out anybody who is even remotely “different,” anyone who seems the slightest bit alienated or disaffected or afraid, and treat them as a gunman-in-the-making, adding the condemnation of authority figures to the condemnation of their peers and therefore quite possibly, in a few cases, creating the monster they are trying to prevent.


Leather, Sex and Spirituality at League of Gentlemen May 4


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

(Photo of Officer Wes by Corwin: © 2003 by Officer Wes. Used by permission.)

The Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have historically taken a very repressive position against sex. They have preached that sex is the root of all human evil and it is never to be engaged in purely for the physical pleasure it offers. At times apocalyptic movements within the Abrahamic religions, including early Christianity, have bade their followers not to have sex at all. More often, however, they have compromised their anti-sex position, though only as far as they had to to allow the human race to reproduce at all; they’ve allowed sex only between legitimately married heterosexuals and only for the purpose of making babies.

Now, this is an extreme statement of the Abrahamic tradition believed in by relatively few practicing Jews, Christians and Muslims — and actually practiced by even fewer believers in those religions. But it remains the official “word from God” as preached by those traditions, and it takes an act of rebellion for anyone raised in an Abrahamic religion to explore his or her sexuality for the joy of it — and often a lot of soul-searching before that person reconciles their sexual practices and their spiritual beliefs. What’s more, the more extreme a person’s sexual tastes — the farther removed their preferences are from hetero-normative baby-making — the harder the Abrahamic tradition is going to come down on them, and the longer and more arduous the path of soul-searching, reconciliation and finding a spiritual path that will allow them to be who they are, sexually and spiritually, will be.

The three men profiled in this interview have made that journey and will be reporting on it Friday, May 4, 7 to 9 p.m., at the San Diego League of Gentlemen meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, on Vermont Street north of University Avenue in the Uptown District mall between Terra and Aladdin restaurants. They are all Gay men who have adopted a Leather identity and various aspects of the BDSM — bondage, discipline, sadomasochism — sexual lifestyle. In this interview, they discuss some of the issues they will talk about in further detail at the meeting: how they first became interested in BDSM practices, how they struggled to resolve the contradiction between a strong religious upbringing and their sexual desires; and how they ultimately learned to draw from Eastern and pagan as well as Christian spiritual traditions, so they could not only pursue both their spiritual and sexual needs but actually bring them together.

Officer Wes relocated to San Diego from Texas in 2003 and met jeff, his current Leather slave, shortly thereafter. Both he and jeff asked that Zenger’s not publish their last names because, as Wes put it, “if we didn’t live in a fascist state, I might not [object]. But we do.” Steve Sallis, also known as “Captain Hook” for his interest in having hooks inserted into his chest and then pulled out again, suddenly and violently, as one of his particular kinks, was born and raised in rural Mississippi. Officer Wes has an extensive Web site, www.officerwes.com, which features ample information about his activities and what he calls his “Leather family,” to which jeff and Steve belong. A fourth Leatherman, Jonathon Carter, was unavailable for this interview but will join Wes, jeff and Steve on the panel at the May 4 League of Gentlemen event. For more information on the San Diego League of Gentlemen, visit www.sdlog.org

Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with you talking about your backgrounds, how you got into the Leather lifestyle, each of you in turn? Wes, would you start, please?

Officer Wes: For me, it started at age 11. I built a fort in our basement, and in this basement I had a chalkboard. On that chalkboard I drew gauges and dials. What these controlled, in my 11-year-old’s fantasy, were electrical charges being administered to other people’s genitalia. I think it was because I was picked on at that age, and I really wanted to level the playing field and to restrain those people and just torture them. At age 11, that’s where it was for me: a kind, loving S/M. When I had my basement fort, I would fantasize wearing Nazi uniforms.

I remember, too, that was the time when Happy Days was on for the first time, and I remember Fonzie and fantasizing about wearing his leather underwear. Quite where and when that morphed into having a hard-on for biker cops in uniform I’m not quite sure, but just whenever I’ve seen biker cops portrayed, traditionally they’re portrayed as sexy hunks, and that’s what got me. They got my interest, and I really always hoped to find that man to take me. That was my fantasy. And in that search, through the years, I ultimately became that man.

Which quite curiously ultimately led to that man finding me. It’s a real blessing, and my Daddy Barry and I have such wonderfully overlapping synergies. I met him on a motorcycle ride. I was riding my police Harley, and he was guarding an intersection that the group would go through, and when we stopped for lunch I said, “You know, I appreciate that thing you were doing when we pulled through the intersection and you prevented side traffic from turning into the group. What is that? Is there a name for that?” He said, “I would just call it pulling up the rear. I love pulling up rears.”

It had been years since I’d bottomed, but when I’d bottomed I’d grabbed it enthusiastically. I’d just set it aside for a period of time, so here was this handsome man, and I was on it by saying, “Oh, really? It’s been years, but I I love having my rear pulled up.” And He smiled and said, “And I love pulling up the rear.” That was it. We got together in about two weeks, and that was some years ago.

In the early 1990’s I was reading Drummer magazine and finding that the kind of electrical gear I had fantasized about at age 11 was actually available. So I started buying it. In fact, my first purchase of it was in 1992. At that time San Francisco had Leather Pride Week, which was bounded by the Mr. Drummer Contest one weekend and Folsom Street Fair on the other. So you could actually go for the whole week and have all kinds of leather things to do. Rob Amsterdam had opened a shop right then, and my partner Tom and I were their first customers.

The electrical gear was expensive, for me with my price point at that time. so I asked the owner, “Is this really worth it?” He said, “Oh, yes.” That was all it took. I had a surfeit of money at the tiem, so I said, “I’ll take one of everything.” There were steel-gold cock rings of three different sizes, dural cock rings of three different sizes. There were the urethral inserts. There was the power box itself. So that’s how the electrical started getting integrated into real life, from fantasyland.

Zenger’s: jeff, how did you get involved in Leather?

jeff: This is very interesting. My childhood memories, back to perhaps around the same age, 11 or 12, was just an exploratory time of life. I found pleasure in my genitals, and one day I stuffed something down my piss slit and found my cock. It was a matter of trying different things, from glass thermometers to even pieces of rattan broken off from my mom’s wicker clothes basket.

As that went on, too, I had a strong sense of spirit. From that time on for the next several decades, there was a struggle between sexuality and spirituality, and reconciling my sexual orientation with the rest of my life. I ended up getting married and having four kids, and when that marriage ended I decided it was time to really deal with myself as a human being, and for all of these decades I was on a conscious spiritual journey. I found my path in that in 1973, and spent my last three decades really working on that and finding a lot of growth and peace.

Then, in the early part of this decade, I met Papa Tony [San Diego League of Gentlemen founder “Papa” Tony Lindsey]. It was at Brian’s [restaurant in Hillcrest], just after a League of Gentlemen meeting. He was warm and cordial and very sweet. He wrapped those big arms around me and just pulled me into his torso and just hugged me. Over the next months and years he encouraged me to participate in League of Gentlemen, and though this interested me I just flat-out really didn’t know what it was, or was it in me.

Other than Papa Tony, I really didn’t know anybody else there, so I really felt like a fish out of water. Yet I signed up with the League of Gentlemen Yahoo group, and I’d get postings for about a couple of years or so. In 2003, I read about a presentation that was going to be done on Leather 101, and I thought to myself, “That might be a good place to start. Guys wouldn’t be expecting everybody there to know what this stuff was about.”

I read the bio of this man who was going to be presenting, somebody I had never heard of, and this guy sounded very credentialed and very experienced. His name was Officer Wes. The bio said that he was from Texas, and hewas experienced in electrical and flogging and just a wide variety of really kinky stuff. I missed the part that said he’d moved to San Diego recently.

I really thought about going to that meeting, and I had another commitment that I could have got out of, but in the end it just didn’t feel to me the right time and the right place. The day after the presentation, on Thursday the 25th of September, I read postings about what a wonderful presentation it was and what an amazing man this Officer Wes was. I had a spiritual and intuitive overwhelming sense that, for whatever reason, this man was somebody I had to know. But I didn’t know what to do, and so I put it aside mentally.

The very next day, on Friday the 26th, I was volunteering at H.A.R.P., the Holistic AIDS Response Program. I was doing an intake of a client who was in the next room filling out the paperwork. I was standing in the hallway reading something, and I heard someone coming in through the outside door, and I kept reading, and I heard footsteps coming through the hallway, and I kept reading, and then I heard footsteps coming down the hallway, and this person walked right up to me, and I kept reading, and this person came just to my right side and was standing just about a foot from me.

I thought, “I can’t continue reading. I have to look at this person.” I looked up, and there was this really handsome, sexy guy with the most beautiful eyes and the sweetest, most electric smile. He just stood there, looking at my eyes, reached up and started stroking my goatee. Neither of us said a word. We just stood there, and it felt like his heart was just reaching out of his chest and holding mine.

I knew that this man was a man of integrity, of heart and spirit. I had a sense that he was a man that lived his spirituality instead of talking about it, and if I did anything to interrupt this moment, I would regret it. I felt conflicted because I was there officially doing an intake, and I was a volunteer, and this was not entirely appropriate to the moment. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t not embrace it. After a couple of minutes in which this guy is smiling at me, and doesn’t take his eyes off mine, and we’re just locked in this, transfixed in this sweet moment, he says, “Hello. I’m Officer Wes.”

But it was very clear that he was looking for a Leather slave. He had written about what that is for him. He had links to other people’s writing about slavery and the difference between Daddy/boy and Master/slave relationships, and there was a resonance for me: “This really sounds and feels good.” But I wasn’t sure, really knowing nothing about it and never having lived in this way, if it were something I could commit to. I could not, with integrity, call him up or e-mail him and say, “This is me.”

Three weeks later to the day, there was a thread on the League of Gentlemen Yahoo! group about meeting guys and picking up guys, and I saw Officer Wes’s name on one of the e-mails. It was just a very brief posting that said, “I don’t know if this works yet, but I’ve just made up some T-shirts that say, ‘Leather boy wanted.’” And that was just enough of a signal for me to say this might be something I could do and live up to. I started to write him an e-mail and then said, no, I’ll call him. I picked up the phone, and his voice response was great surprise that I had not called sooner because he, in the moment that we met, felt very strongly that this was something that was going to move forward.

I explained to him just exactly what happened and why I hadn’t called him, and he seemed to respect that. He had me come over two days later for dinner, and that was the beginning of my Leather journey. It has been over 3 1/2 years, and I’m the luckiest slave in the whole universe. Master, Sir, thank you, Sir.

Zenger’s: And how about you, Steve?

Steve “Captain Hook” Sallis: My earliest memory is at six or seven. We were staying at my great-aunt Rose’s house in Kusciusko, Mississippi. I couldn’t have been more than seven, but I had these recurring dreams in the front bedroom where the kids stayed that I was tied down on my back, naked, in a room and people were doing things to me. But I didn’t know what they were doing. All I knew was that people were doing something to me while I was tied down. That’s the first time I remember being aware what a hard-on is, not really knowing what it was all about, but knowing that this part got hard. I thought it turned into a finger and then it turned into something else. And it scared me.

I grew up in the country, in Oxford, Mississippi. I was a country boy, and there’s bumpy roads, and there’s cuts and bruises and scrapes and falls and all that stuff. I found out early on in life that I have an extremely high tolerance for pain. I was raised Baptist, and all that awful stuff that goes along with that, and the very conditional love of a spiritual deity is what I was taught. That just didn’t work for me. I fought it from day one. I just didn’t like it. It was where I had to go on Sunday.

Fast-forward through some years in college and some years in the Navy, and a hell of a lot of not looking at myself as an individual or as an adult at all. Along the way I started experimenting more and more with kinkier and kinkier things, maybe out of a sense of boredom or just a lack of inhibition.

Wes: That reminds me. A sense of adventure?

Steve: Yes, maybe a sense of adventure, too, but always and evermore after a bigger, gnarlier, longer-lasting sex scene or orgasm or whatever. It was all very physical, though, because at this point I still didn’t consider myself spiritual, Baptist, agnostic, atheist, none of it. It was just a non-issue for me. I was very much self-centered and self-seeking all the time.

About four years ago, I got my head screwed on right and quit alcohol and drugs, and part of that self-inspection was trying to discover what a deity would be for me, what my belief system was. After a few years of tinkering around in that, and being around a group of people who were very open about their Leather and BDSM play and sexuality, it just became very easy to open up and let that start happening again.

I had done things under the influence of drugs and alcohol that most people would never even consider doing, much less do them over and over. But I did them very much out of the wrong sense. I did them out of a sense of shame and guilt and all that other stuff. It was that mean, nasty side of me that wanted to — it was all self-defeating behavior, and it was all anchored in the wrong — all the right things for all the wrong reasons.

I found out a couple of years ago, about 2 1/2 years ago, that with the endorphins, I was able to begin to connect with my God and Goddess, one-on-one, direct, no pictures, no books, no anything else. Just me and mine. Since then my spiritual journey has been one of Leather and spirit through the use of endorphins, mostly generated by me receiving play that generates endorphins, but also lately on the other side of it, the flip side of it, being the giver of these endorphin trips and actually being able to ride a bottom’s waves and takes off.

Twelve years ago, meditation was beyond my capabilities. Now I can stair-step myself into it. Having learned once how to get somewhere, I can always get back there. But it took a shock to my system to do it. My play started out with needle play with Officer Wes’s partner, and it’s gone to flogging and whippings, heavy ball play, cuttings, blood play, urethral play, shaving scenes, anything having to do with mild, moderate or some severe, some types of severe pain. I’ve found out I can’t stand to have my ass whipped, but my thighs and my back are open. It’s all fair game.

So that’s where I am today. I can choose to turn any scene into a very overtly sexual, physical scene, or I can invite spirit in and turn it into a much warmer sexual scene, or keep it on a purely spiritual level. In all of my play I make sure it’s good for me and it’s good for the person I’m playing with, and that they are cognizant and capable and confident enough to make good decisions about what they’re doing. Then I invite spirit in, in my own way. I pick up different things from different faiths or belief systems: some Baptist, some Buddhism, some Wicca, some \nature-based groups. I think we can take what we want from all of it, and discard the rest, and just build our own.

I built my own system. I built my own faith, my own beliefs, That allows me to play very openly and very freely, within my own mind, and invite anyone in that wants to come. But they don’t have to. I can do it on my own and be playing with someone who’s there strictly for the physical aspect of it. I don’t have to have that input from them. Or I can use it with their tacit approval. So that’s my story.

Zenger’s: What strikes me is that we’ve all grown up with a religious tradition that says — that is very, almost viciously, anti-sex. In the Abrahamic tradition from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam all emerged , sex is considered evil: a necessary evil only insofar as we have to allow the race to reproduce by allowing sex between two married people, just to make babies. Everything else is wrong. So how can people who’ve grown up in a society where that’s the quasi-official religion say that sex and spirituality interchange in your lives, and the one actually brings you to the other?

Steve: For me, personally, I had to throw off the yoke of what I had been told was proper behavior, and I had to discover for myself what was appropriate behavior for me. I always had a problem believing that something that felt so good as sex/orgasm/that close emotional bonding could be wrong or bad or evil. It just could not be. It didn’t jibe with the book, the Bible. So my whole focus in all of this has been to find what I believe.

Wes: It’s important, I believe, to be aware that our country was founded by Puritans. These were religious fundamentalists who believed that the way their religion was being practiced in England was not pure enough. So they were willing to come to the Colonies to have some more freedoms, which in time became removal from England and the establishment of the United States. And, in the minds of the people who founded the U.S., this meant freedom from an official religion, because these people had endured an official religion and all the baggage that goes with that.

People conveniently forget that. People proclaim that we’re a “Christian nation.” That simply is not true. There are certainly more Christians in this nation than people of any other religion, but we are not a Christian nation. By our founding, we are explicit not an anything nation. It is the law. There is no official religion.

jeff: For me, I was raised in a Protestant Christian home. My father was in the Navy, and most of my early spiritual upbringing was in a nondenominational chapel setting. So there was, I think, a sweet opportunity to learn the good of what Christianity was about without the dogma of a sect called “Christianity.” My mother was from New England, so even though the religious training at home wasn’t that sex was bad, her family was D.A.R. types, back to the 1600’s. So that Puritan ethic is very inculcated into the DNA of the family.

My dad was a naval officer who was just a tyrannical fuck, and anything that a kid might think could possibly set him off, one avoided at all costs. And that by no means meant you were safe from anything. So growing up in my spiritual life, it was really about the good things, and I believed, and I sensed the truth in, the essence of Christ’s life and Christ’s teaching. As I grew and had exposure to it, participating in high school in an ecumenical youth group, reaching out to Catholics, in time I saw that essentially there was a common sense of spirit and truth in all religions of the world.

The intent of religion is not about imposing restrictions and rules and dogma, but essentially it is to help us achieve what Steve described as making that personal connection with the divine, whatever that is for us. When I found that path in 1973 for me, it was in a church that the founder called the “Church of All Religions,” and he deliberately embraces all religions and the truth underlying them, sans dogma and doctrine. It’s a meditation-based, Eastern- and Christian-based church, that embraces those teachings specifically.

Even with that, and the liberalness of that, my Puritanical upbringing has had me really stuck for years. It was in meeting Officer Wes, and really having a sense of his spiritual nature and that truth, that I was able, in my journey as his slave, to to integrate my innate spiritual heart and soul, my spirit, and my spiritual practices with physical expressions of sexuality, of living the truth of my spiritual practices in my relationship with him as his slave, being of service.

His primary standing order for me is to go forth with my loving heart, and to spread love and joy, and to be of service. So it dovetails perfectly with my own spiritual life. It became very apparent to me early on that they’re integrated and harmonious, and really indistinguishable.

Wes: We’re living in a strange period of time right now where there are polarities that are in large part created by our government. We’re pissing off the Muslim world, and it’s very sad to me. But to keep looking back, the Oriental tradition, the Chinese tradition, the Tao and the Buddhist, is to view things as unity. That viewpoint says that everything, good and evil, is part of the same whole. Western thinking starts with duality: that there is a separation, something is “good” or it’s “evil.” And that’s how some of this bifurcation of spirit and man happens here.

Steve: It’s been my experience with the people that I’ve played with that very few, if any, people that have had a hard-core belief in mainstream organized religion will bring spirit into the play. It’ s more likely that they need something either physical, chemical or situational to take them away from all they’ve been taught, in order to be open and uninhibited. They will be as vocal about their religion as they are twisted when they get into an altered state, however they need to get to that altered reality.

I have a high tolerance for pain. I love the endorphins, but I’m not a pain pig. I’m not after the pain. I’m after the endorphins, the connection with the greater, higher power. It’s a path. It’s a mode of transport, maybe. With a pain pig, it stops at the pain. They are not after the endorphins. They’re not interested in what the endorphins can do for them. They want the pain for whatever their reasons are.

It’s been my experience that true pain pigs are usually not very happy with themselves about something. There are underlying things going on that make them into pain pigs. It’s easy to take advantage of people like that, I think, because they don’t put a lot of thought into what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. It’s an almost subconscious need to be belittled or humiliated or hurt. It feeds into their religious upbringing, because what they’re doing is inherently “wrong,” according to everything they’ve ever learned.

In my case, it was very hard to throw off the yoke of Christianity. It was much too limiting for where my imagination was going. Now I just ask myself four questions when I want to play with something new: a new kink or a new fetish. What are my motives? What are the consequences? Am I hurting myself? Am I hurting anyone else? And if all of those answers are positive, then it’s good to go.

Wes: When you were talking about how you’re interested in the endorphins as a vehicle for consciousness, it’s my hypothesis that this duality that we’re taught in America, that is sometimes brought out as “the mind/body connection,” it’s my belief that endorphins help quiet the “mind chatter,” so that we feel the divinity that’s always there.

jeff: That works for me, Sir. And if it would please you, Sir, in the 30 years I have been on a specific spiritual path, in meditation I’ve learned to connect with my own heart and spirit, and to experience bliss and joy and overwhelming gratitude. The essence of spirit is to connect with the divine. That’s a lot, because if one talks about God the absolute creator of the universe, that’s kind of impersonal and hard to wrap one’s own mind and consciousness around. You need longer arms.

Wes: It’s my experience that, as someone’s dancing partner, when I’m in top mode — when I’m in bottom mode, but especially in a top mode —having some way to help focus on the moment is very, very helpful: a way, a discipline to help quiet the mind and be fully present. On the bottom side it’s helpful as well, but the top can take you there. Master Skip refers to it as the flogger can just whack after whack, saying, “Be here NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” So from either perspective, it’s helpful to have a background in something like meditation, to help be present.

Steve: For me, it’s focus. It’s pure, unadulterated, right-here, right-now. Nothing before, nothing after.

jeff: And there certainly is an immediacy of leather biting flesh in a flogger or single-tail, or clothespins being ripped off the flesh in a clothespin-zipper; fingers pinching, twisting and torturing nipples; steel-toed boots impacting testicles; that really bring you into the moment. It is very centered. It is very focusing. It is very much in the now. It’s hard for the mind to go anywhere else but right here, right now!

Steve: The only time that I’ve ever been both selfish and selfless at the same time is in a scene. That’s my duality that I try, that I’m hunting for, is to be able to be, in being completely selfish, to be most giving, purely giving, selfless, “I want what you want. Give me what I need. Give me what I want,” all at the same time, whether I’m a top or a bottom.
“Intactivists” to Picket OB-GYN Convention May 7-9

Anti-Circumcision Advocate Speaks to H.E.A.L.-S.D. May 1


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

They call themselves “intactivists” and their cause is one most Americans don’t consider much of an issue at all: stopping the routine circumcision of U.S. male babies at birth. But a nationwide coalition of anti-circumcision “intactivists” is coming to San Diego May 7-9 to picket the annual convention of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) at the San Diego Convention Center downtown. Some of them are mounting a vigil outside the Convention Center all three days. The convention meets from 8:30 to 5:30 May 7 and 8 and 8:30 to 5 May 9, and the “intactivists” intend to be there at 8 a.m. each day and not to leave until the convention attendees do. Other “intactivists” will be inside, speaking to the doctors attending the conference and passing out leaflets explaining the case against routine circumcision.

As a warmup to the anti-circumcision movement’s annual protest at ACOG, circumcision opponent Pat Brown, a pioneer in the Queer liberation movement since 1969, will speak at the regularly scheduled meeting of H.E.A.L. [Health, Education, AIDS Liaison]-San Diego Tuesday, May 1, 7 p.m., at the War Memorial Building, 3325 Zoo Drive, room 2, on the Park Boulevard side of Balboa Park between Roosevelt Junior High School and the zoo parking lot. Brown’s presentation will focus on the ways circumcision interferes with sexual pleasure and the evidence that it increases, rather than decreases, a person’s vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections. Like many other anti-circumcision activists, he compares male circumcision to clitorectomy in women and says that, just as clitorectomy is now referred to as “female genital mutilation” and condemned through most of the world, so circumcision should be considered “male genital mutilation” and abolished.

“Respected studies published in professional journals over the past 50 years have proven repeatedly that genital cutting of both genders causes irreparable damage to the function and sexual sensation of both genders, thereby hobbling the interaction between the amputated and/or excised in the most soulful moments of the human race: the sexual act,” Brown explained. “It should be no surprise that the U.S. sells more lubricant and Viagra than any other country in the world, largely due to the fact that with the amputated foreskin go all of the nerves of fine sensation and palpations that trigger the normal apparatus.”

Brown will also challenge the current movement to circumcise millions of adult males in Africa based on research that claims this would reduce their risk of contracting the so-called “AIDS virus,” HIV, from female sex partners. The call is based largely on a much-publicized study conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in Kisumu, Kenya and Rokoi, Uganda. The trials, which began in September 2005 and were supposed to last two years, were ended early in December 2006 and claimed a 53 percent reduction in the HIV infection rate among circumcised men in Kisumu and a 48 percent reduction in Rokoi.

“Researchers have noted significant variations in HIV prevalence that seemed, at least in eastern African and Asian countries, to be associated with levels of male circumcision in the community,” the NIAID press release announcing the study results stated. “In areas where circumcision is common, HIV prevalence tends to be lower; conversely, areas of higher HIV prevalence overlapped with regions where male circumcision is not commonly practice.”

“These correlations require highly selective use of statistics,” said an analysis of the study posted on the anti-circumcision Web site www.mgmbill.org. “There are many exceptions: HIV is rare in Cuba, where circumcision is also rare, and common in Lesotho, where circumcision is common; and common among both the Zulu of South Africa, who do not circumcise, and the ¡Xhosa, who do.” The mgmbill.org analysis also pointed out that the rates of so-called HIV “infection” among the circumcised men in the study was 1.58 percent, as opposed to 3.38 percent among the uncircumcised men. “In other words,” the analysis argued, “you would have to circumcise 56 men to prevent one of them from contracting HIV in one year.”

Though the NIAID study was publicized worldwide, other research on the topic points to dramatically different conclusions. The Mishra study, presented at the 2006 international AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada, studied national health data from eight sub-Saharan African countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda — and, once statistical controls were used to compensate for sociodemographic and behavioral factors, it found a lower rate of HIV seroprevalence in only one of the eight countries, Tanzania. In the other countries, “if anything, the correlation goes the other way,” Dr. V. Mishra, the study’s head, said in his presentation to the AIDS conference. In addition, he added, “circumcised men tend to have more lifetime sex partners, so there’s some [high-risk] behaviors that go with circumcision status.”

Another study, headed by D. D. Brewer and published in the Annals of Epidemiology [17:217-226], focused on the risk that virgins could be exposed to HIV from blood left behind by unhygienic circumcision procedures. In the three countries studied — Kenya, Lesotho and Tanzania — “circumcised male and female virgins were substantially more likely to be HIV infected [sic] than uncircumcised virgins,” Brewer wrote. Though the NIAID report claimed benefit for circumcision only when done under proper hygienic conditions, the mgmbill.org analysis argued that “once the meme ‘circumcision prevents HIV’ is loose in the community, this will be forgotten and circumcisions will be done under unhygienic conditions with shared instruments, quite possibly under duress.”

For more information on the anti-circumcision actions scheduled for San Diego in response to the ACOG convention, visit http://www.mgmbill.org/events.htm#acog2007acm. For more information on Pat Brown’s H.E.A.L.-San Diego presentation, please call (619) 688-1886 or visit www.healsd.org
Film School Confidential: Student Films Still Rock


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts hosted the first Film School Confidential — a festival of films made by local high-school and college students — in October 2001, and the series is still going strong. The most recent Film School Confidential, a one-night showing on April 15, offered a wide variety of student-produced documentaries, narrative shorts, abstract experiments and animated films.

Many of the films, both documentary and fiction, dealt with the U.S.-Mexico border and Latino/a culture. Pintando la Comunidad, a production of the Teen Producers Project of the Media Arts Center/San Diego, profiled Latino muralist Victor Ochoa. Though Ochoa was a pioneering historical figure in the Latino art movement in San Diego — he was one of the first painters to do murals at Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park — this film, unlike most of the movies and news stories made about Ochoa, didn’t dwell on his past and instead focused on what he’s doing now.

Perspective was a short but moving account of a personal journey by filmmaker Kurt Jackson of California State University-San Marcos, in which his trip with members of a church group to build a house for a family in Tijuana gave him a sense of perspective about his own life and its material blessings.

An Interview with Elijio, also from California State University-San Marcos, was a 13-minute film in which opening and closing sequences depicting life in Mexico framed an interview with Elijio Gonzalez, in which he explained why he crossed the border and settled in the U.S. Shot and edited by Jesús Yanez and co-produced by him and Amparo Gonzalez, the film was beset by a major technical glitch: the musical score in the framing scenes sounded fine but the interview was virtually inaudible.

For the first half of the fllm the audience sat in rapt silence, straining to hear Elijio’s words, until the showing’s organizers made the mistake of stopping the film and announcing that they were going to run it again once they fixed the problem. They never did — most likely it was the fault of a poor transfer from the mini-DVD original to the presentation DVD all the films were put on for the showing — and the interruption gave audience members social permission to talk through the film, making Elijio’s comments even harder to hear. (The organizers promised to re-screen the film at a subsequent showing of student films Sunday, April 29 at 3 p.m., also at the Museum of Photographic Arts.)

Algesia, an ambitious 14-minute production which closed the program, was shot in Tijuana — though the locations (a suburban home, a supermarket, a laundromat) didn’t seem all that different from those on this side of the border except that the price signs in the market were in Spanish. Though directed and written by Cathy Alberich, this film was photographed and edited by Aaron Soto and was strikingly similar in style to some of Soto’s own films shown at previous editions of Film School Confidential, longer on atmospherics than plot coherence and with shocking scenes of both sex and violence, including a climax that used gore to unsettle the audience instead of just gross it out.

Whereas previous Film School Confidential showings had included movies made on a wide variety of media, all but two of the films shown this year were shot on digital video. The lone holdout for actual photographic film (Super 16 mm format) was Deacon’s Mondays from San Diego State University (SDSU), written, directed and edited by Lowell Frank, Destin Daniel and Daniel Cretton. The 19-minute drama tells the story of Deacon (Dominic Bogart), who runs a lawn mower on campus and meets an older woman (Jane Evans) who tries to bring him out of his alienation. Though the plot is pretty standard-issue stuff for a student film, it’s told in a very charming, almost magical-realist way, and Bogart proved to be a quite personable actor, reasonably good-looking without being so handsome as to make the story unbelievable.

The other film shot on a format other than digital video was Phone_Graph, a five-minute montage by C. W. Mossbinder of SDSU, made entirely with a cell phone camera. Instead of trying to work around the low resolution of cell-phone video, Mossbinder — who created his own soundtrack score as well — made it the subject of his film, and while it occasionally seemed like Cellphoneqatsi it offered an attractive display of abstraction and an inventive new use for an increasingly ubiquitous technology. (Cell phone video has already changed world history; the Iraqi government banned cameras from Saddam Hussein’s execution because they didn’t want a video record to exist — but cell phone images of the hanging got out and were broadcast around the world.)

Mossbinder had another film in the program as well: The Percussion of Strings, a seven-minute documentary about pianist and composer Laura Karpman. Karpman specializes in “prepared piano” — a piano whose sound has been altered by inserting nails or screws between the strings, topping them with bits of paper or adding other foreign objects. Karpman, like most other musicians who do this, also reaches inside the piano and strums the strings directly as well as playing normally by striking the keys. The film was especially powerful in its juxtaposition of the sounds of Karpman’s music with the sights and sounds of the beach she lives by, which inspires her.

Other films on the program focused on grimmer aspects of modern life. Beautiful Dogs, by Gary Bulkin from SDSU, was a documentary on an upscale pet-grooming service and the truly ghastly things the groomers are hired to do to people’s dogs in the name of fashion and style. Backlash, a six-minute narrative film by Torin Ladewig of Point Loma High School, like many other films in the program combines grimness and charm in its tale of a girl who gets back at the boy who’s just dumped her and the other girl he’s dumped her for; instead of just telling the events out of sequence, Ladewig also includes scenes that literally run backward — the table the heroine has tipped over magically rights itself and the mirror she broke comes back together — to make her point about the futility of revenge.

The Crayola Monologues, by Nathan Gibbs from Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute, is a screamingly funny satire on racism in which a host of talking crayons lament the color distinctions between them and the prejudices they face. Gibbs’ script includes some real-life changes the Crayola company made in the names of its crayons, including Flesh and Indian Red, to avoid accusations of racism, and a wide variety of actors (Stephan Moore, Laura Garrison, Ben Cushing, Jesse Stiles, Jonathan Lee Marcus, Rich Pell, Myriam Hammani, Amy Curley, Seth Cluett and Seana Blondolillo) supply the voiceovers that bring Gibbs’ crayons to life.

Other fllms on the program included Case Study 511 by Christopher Schnese, Eric Darwin and Josh Westbrook of California State University-San Marcos; Final Sigh by Fernando Ramos of SDSU; Shattered by Tyler Knell of Point Loma High School; and Basic Self-Portrait by Paulina Bahena of the Escuela Superior de Artes Visuales in Mexico. Film School Confidential has been curated since its inception by Beth Accomando through the sponsorship of the Media Arts Center San Diego, and this year a portion of the ticket price was donated to the Greg Muskewitz Scholarship Fund, formed in memory of a local film critic who died of cancer at 23. For more information, visit www.mediaartscenter.org

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Center Hosts Fourth Annual Transgender Empowerment Day

Event Focuses on the Positive, Honors Transgender People and Their Supporters


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos: Shane E. Caya and Amanda Nicole Watson

“We all have different roads to travel,” said San Francisco-based Transgender rights attorney Shane E. Caya during his keynote speech at San Diego’s fourth annual Transgender Empowerment Day Friday, April 6 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. Noting that a lot of people he meets get his Transgender identity wrong — they think he’s a pre-op male-to-female when he’s really a post-op female-to-male — Caya said he was more comfortable making legal arguments for the equal rights of Transgender people than telling his own story. Nonetheless, his moving account of his gender transition was one of the highlights of an inspiring evening that lived up to its title.

“When I was a little girl, about five, I used to put books inside of luggage, take off my shirt and lift them as weights,” Caya recalled. “I thought I was going to grow up to be a boy and all this nightmare girl crap would be over.” Instead, Caya lived with the female body with which nature had stuck him until, at age 39 — in the middle of his second year in law school and in a seven-year relationship with a Lesbian who was six months pregnant with what was supposed to be their child — his life changed when he heard “a gender-ambiguous voice” speak up behind him in a class.

The voice “belonged to a big guy who had the courage to go out and start transitioning,” Caya recalled. “I was really jealous and decided I wanted to transition as well.” As with many other Transgender people, the hardest part about making the change was breaking the news to his significant other. Expecting his girlfriend to support his decision to become a man, he had to deal with her anger and fear. “I had to make a choice,” Caya recalled. “I know many of you have had to make that choice, but I decided to go through with it. I was called selfish for doing that.”

In Caya’s case, the pain was even greater than usual because his partner was carrying a child that was supposed to be theirs — and he’d already lost one child to a breakup over his identity. “I have a 17-year-old kid now and I haven’t seen her since she was eight,” Caya said. Caya agreed to hold off on starting the gender-reassignment process until his lover’s child was born and for six months thereafter. He said that he and his partner “tried to work it out, but I knew it wouldn’t work for her. I knew I was going to lose my family, and I was willing to risk it.”

Using a phrase several other speakers also uttered during the event, Caya urged people there to “live their truth.” He also recalled that his “key turning point” was when a professor in his third year of law school called him “Mr. Caya.” He eventually reached a new relationship with his former partner and their child; “I no longer live with them, but I have an excellent relationship with my ex and my daughter. In fact, I will be a godparent to my ex-wife’s new child” — who was conceived with the same male donor and therefore will be a full sibling to their daughter.

“I’m really grateful I went through the process, and I know I can call you my friends,” Caya said. “:Most of you will be there for me, and I will be there for you. Not many people understand the little pains we face every day.”

Many of the pains come from the fact that in most of the United States, discrimination against Transgender people is not only socially acceptable but perfectly legal as well. The city of Largo, Florida recently fired its city manager after he announced his intention to transition to female. In another Florida case that has made the tabloids as well as Larry King Live, Jonathan Rouch sued his former wife to have his alimony obligation to her stopped after she transitioned to male. The spouse, now known as Julio Silverwolf, was represented by an attorney from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who argued that, as a woman, his client had put aside her own career for 18 years and been a stay-at-home wife, and she deserved financial compensation for that even though she was now a man. Fortunately, the court agreed.

The event’s other keynote speaker, Amanda Nicole Watson, made a welcome return to San Diego from her new home in the Central Valley. Watson had been active in the Transgender community’s two biggest political victories in San Diego, repealing the city’s antiquated law against cross-dressing and adding protection for Transgender people to the city’s Human Dignity Ordinance (HDO), which originally banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and was subsequently amended to cover gender identity as well. Watson raced through a series of milestones in Transgender history and her speech wasn’t always easy to follow; fortunately, a written handout called Transgender History was available.

According to Watson, evidence of the existence of Transgender people goes back at least to ancient Rome. The Roman emperor Elagabalus is supposed to have told his courtiers that he would give a handsome reward to anyone who could get rid of his unwanted male sex organs (though other sources describe Elagabalus not as Transgender, but as a Gay man who would go out in disguise and pick up sailors with particularly large penises). “Recently, there was the discovery in the United Kingdom of a Roman eunuch, and the jewelry and clothing she was dressed in made us think she was one of us,” Watson said. There was at least one other likely Transgender person in Roman history: Sporus, the eunuch consort of the emperor Nero. The two actually went through a wedding ceremony — which led Nero’s enemies to joke that the empire would have been better off if Nero’s father had made that sort of marriage.

Watson also cited “a Zuni priestess who visited Washington, D.C. as a cultural emissary in 1886, met the Speaker of the House and attended a theatrical benefit with President Grover Cleveland,” even though the “priestess” was a genetic male living a Transgender identity recognized ini Zuni culture as such. Nonetheless, the “official” history of the Transgender community in Watson’s presentation began in the early 20th century,when female-born New York employment agency owner and politician Murray Hall, nèe Mary Anderson, lived for years in a male identity and even married twice. (Ironically he died of untreated breast cancer.)

According to Watson, the scientific study of Transgenderism began in 1907, when pioneering sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld of Germany and Harry Benjamin of the U.S. first met. Hirschfeld coined the term “transvestite” in 1910 and set up the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in the early 1920’s. However, like all other Queer-friendly individuals and institutions in Germany, Hirschfeld and his center were brutally repressed by the Nazis when they took power in 1933. The Nazis burned both the center’s building and its library — the famous newsreel scenes of Nazi book-burnings that have been shown in virtually every documentary about Hitler and his regime were of Hirschfeld’s collection — but not before seizing Hirschfeld’s client list and subjecting everyone on it to personal persecution.

Though Watson’s outline listed a few attempts at gender-reassignment surgery in Britain and Canada before World War II, the existence of Transgender people didn’t become common knowledge in the U.S. until 1952. That year, a former U.S. soldier underwent gender reassignment in Denmark and returned to this country as Christine Jorgensen — “and was hounded mercilessly,” Watson said. “In 1960, Virginia Prince, manager of Transvestia magazine, was arrested for distributing obscene material. She got five years’ probation and was forbidden to cross-dress, but her attorney won her an exemption that she could cross-dress to ‘educate and inform the public.’”

Transgender people began to fight back against discrimination and public shame in 1966, when the clientele of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco rioted and fought back against the police when the owner called them. Like the more famous riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City three years later, the participants in the Compton’s Cafeteria resistance were a mix of Transgender people and Gay street hustlers. But, as Watson explained, though Transgender people were present at the creation of the Queer rights movement, they were still subject to discrimination and attack not only from the straight world but from Gay and Lesbian people as well. In 1973, male-to-female Transgender Beth Elliott was elected vice-president of the pioneering Lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis — only to be forced out of the group by Lesbian separatists — and the same year, at a New York Gay Pride rally, Stonewall rioter Sylvia Rivera’s speech was followed by a denunciation of Transgender people by future Lesbian activist Jean O’Leary.

“It was not until 1975 that the first Transgender rights law was passed, in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Watson explained. “We now have protections in 95 jurisdictions in the U.S., but only seven states and the District of Columbia protect Transgender people against hate crimes.” Watson attributed the slowness of progress on securing anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime laws for Transgender people largely on the disinclination of many Transgender people to fight for them. “Unlike other minority groups,” she explained. “Transgender people more and more seem content to blend into normal society after we transition. If we continue in this manner, we will continue to make younger people face this struggle. Becoming empowered means connecting with each other, releasing our anger, living and loving fully and living our truth.”

Also on the program was singer Vicki Estrada, who went through a male-to-female transition in middle age and agreed to substitute for an originally scheduled entertainer who had to cancel at the last minute. Estrada performed two songs, an original called “The Wrong Gender Blues,” with a melodic similarity to Muddy Waters’ blues classic “I’m a Man” but replacing the original’s macho swagger with a cheeky but unmistakable assertion of Transgender pride, and a cover of the Police’s “Spirits in the Material World” in which her voice and phrasing transformed Sting’s rather cynical lyric into a celebration.

The rest of the evening consisted of a long and elaborate awards presentation to various community activists, some of them Transgender themselves and some straight or Queer people who have worked to support the Transgender community and its struggle for equal rights. The Community Service Award was presented to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the recently organized San Diego branch of a group — started in San Francisco — of mostly Gay men who dress in nun’s habits and collect money for various charities. Andy LeBron received the volunteer of the year award from Project S.T.A.R. (Supporting Transgender Access to Resources), a project of the Family Health Centers of San Diego to offer health assistance, including support in gender transition and STD prevention counseling, to Transgender people.

Other award recipients included Danny Dunn, founder of the Transgender group at the Hillcrest Youth Center (“I went to the Youth Center, asked where the Transgender group was, and when they said there wasn’t one I started it,” Dunn recalled), Alana Harrison, Maricela Escobar, Greta Ashley Davis (a stunning — and utterly convincing — African-American drag performer), Jamie W., Mark Houston, Dana Latham, Deane Delaney, Miss Glenda, Valeria Fiennes, Gisele Herrera, Mather Mendez, Melissa Rees, Miss Peaches, Christina Gomez, Alex Williams, Brent Wallace, A. J. Wing, Rowe and Kelly Meyers. Herrera’s mother and Williams’ parents were present and came up to join them in accepting the awards, to some of the biggest cheers of the night.

Friday, April 06, 2007

S. Brian Willson’s Environmental Apocalypse

Peace Activist Says Global Warming Will Force Us to Build the Cooperative Commonwealth — Or Else


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The most famous thing that ever happened to S. Brian Willson occurred on September 1, 1987. He was part of a nonviolent direct-action protest for peace in Northern California that was attempting to block the movement of a train delivering arms to Right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras and the contras in Nicaragua. Only the train didn’t stop: its engineer drove right over Willson’s body, severing his legs and nearly killing him.

But that’s not what Willson came to the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice meeting March 2 at the First Church of the Brethren in City Heights to talk about. Instead, his agenda for the meeting was to tell the story of how he changed from a nice, normal anti-Communist kid in Geneva, New York in the 1950’s to the sort of man who’d throw his body in the way of a troop train — and how global warming is going to bring an environmental apocalypse that is going to kill off most of the currently existing human population and force the rest to create a cooperative commonwealth to survive.

“I grew up in a small farming community in upstate New York, with very conservative parents,” Willson recalled. “I was active in my church and a good Boy Scout. I went to college and was planning to go to seminary, but at the last minute I decided to go to law school.” The year was 1965, and one of his hopes was that being a student would keep him from being drafted and sent to fight in Viet Nam. Not that he had any conscious opposition to the war; he just didn’t want to fight in it. In just about the only trace of humor in his talk, he laughingly described himself as a “chickenhawk” —But it turned out there was a loophole in his draft deferment, and in 1966 he got his notice and decided that before he was inducted as a regular draftee he’d enlist in the officers’ school of the United States Air Force.

Like many a modern-day recruitee into the so-called “volunteer” military, Willson’s experience in the actual service was quite different from what the recruiter had led him to believe. “The first two years were easy,” he acknowledged. “Then I got ordered into the Air Force’s Ranger program. I hadn’t even known the Air Force had a Ranger program. I went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the Air Force Rangers were trained by someone who’d learned the Army’s Ranger training program at Fort Benning, Georgia, and about halfway through that training we had bayonet drill.”

Willson hadn’t quite been a model soldier to that point — “I had an attitude problem,” he acknowledged — but actually having to thrust a pointed object into a dummy while chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” over and over again and doing his best to pretend the dummy was a live human being was too much for him. “My body actually refused to plunge the bayonet into the dummy,” he said. “My brain said to do it, but my body didn’t. That was the first inkling I had that there was something different about me. I was sent to a chaplain and a psychiatrist for counseling, and I didn’t have the courage or moral insight to say that wasn’t something I would do.”

When he actually fought in Viet Nam as an Air Force lieutenant, Willson recalled, “I was a section leader of 40 men. We were attacked one time every 10 days and had to be on guard most of the time. I was so anxious and felt so over my head, I studied every intelligence report I could find, thinking if I studied hard I’d know better how to deploy my men. The South Viet Namese colonel I was supposed to be reporting to was really studious and sober. He wanted me to verify the bombings of targets by South Viet Namese pilots flying A-37’s. He had heard that his corps had been infiltrated by Viet Cong and he wanted an American officer to go verify that the targets had been hit.”

Willson’s first actual target-verification mission was on April 11, 1969. “The target was a fishing village of 115 to 130 people,” he said. “There were no weapons, and [when the bombing was finished] there was nothing left. No people were left intact, and all the water buffaloes and other animals had been killed except one that was still roaring in pain. As I took a left turn, I couldn’t walk any further, because there were [the bodies of] a woman and three children, and then another baby and another. The dead woman’s eye caught mine and I realized the napalm had burned her eyelids and most of her facial skin. I was crying, and the Viet Namese officer asked me, ‘What’s your problem, lieutenant?’ I said, ‘This woman is like my sister. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘These people are Communists. This is a great victory for our side.’”

The way a born-again Christian might date the beginning of his or her “new life” from the day they accepted Jesus, Willson dates the beginning of his own new life from that day in Viet Nam. “I’ve been on a different plane since then,” he said. The difference became apparent when, after being discharged from the military (honorably), he went back home, finished law school, passed the bar and the first time he had to try a case before a judge he had the same involuntary reaction he’d had on the practice field when he couldn’t stab the dummy with the bayonet.

“I heard the bailiff say, ‘Everybody rise,’ when the judge came in, and I heard myself say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Willson recalled. “I was struggling inside. That happened two more times in the next one and one-half weeks — before three different judges — and I decided that if my body feels that strongly about not responding to my will, I should listen to it.” What followed for Willson was a long period of study and travel during which he asked himself, “Was I meant just to follow orders and be obedient, or is there something about being a human being that predates culture, nation-states and religions? I wanted to see why I felt very contained, restricted and boxed in by what I had been led to be.”

One of Willson’s main topics of study was history, specifically American history, and he came to the same conclusions about it as have a handful of radical historians from Charles Beard at the turn of the last century to Howard Zinn more recently. He decided that the entire history of the U.S. had been based on the supremacy of a class of rich white men constantly working to expand their property. “We grew up with a social myth that we’re a democracy committed to justice, and from our origins we’ve been ruled by an oligarchy committed to expansion and exploitation,” he said. Ironically, his perception put him in at least one point of agreement with the current President Bush.

“When Bush says the Constitution is just a piece of paper, he’s right,” Willson said. “We’ve never even lived according to the principles of our flawed Constitution. When we say torture, scorched-earth policies and preventive wars are ‘not U.S. values,’ that’s disproven by our history. We’ve used them from the start.” According to Willson, America’s success and power have been made possible by three acts of genocide: the extermination of the native Americans throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; the kidnapping of Africans to be used as slave labor; and, in the 20th century, the use of military force worldwide to steal the natural resources of other countries so the U.S., which has 4 1/2 percent of the world’s population, can continue to consume 33 percent of its resources.

“We’re spoiled by our materialism, and yet the human condition is capable of making radical adaptations when it’s perceived as necessary,” Willson said. “Bush and his lackeys are not there in a vacuum, and they’re not an aberration. Bush is so brazen and obvious that his ambitions and intentions are imperial, that is a gift from the cosmic forces. But the Republican and Democratic parties are just one party with two right wings. Socialism is not considered as an alternative. Any group of people, domestic or foreign, that interferes with that exploitation and is perceived as disobedient will be eliminated, whether it’s the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. We will destroy it as a nation, and the reason we Americans cannot separate ourselves from our government is we participate in the system. We pay taxes, and we vote thinking it’s a real alternative.”

What’s more, Willson said, the “American way of life” is now totally unsustainable and threatens to destroy the planet — which, paradoxically, he presents as a source of optimism that the human race in general and the U.S. in particular will finally turn away from this acquisitive mania that has brought exploitation and imperialism into being, not because we’ll want to but because we’ll have to. Willson sees global warming as literally a blow from the universe pulling the plug on capitalism and imperialism forever. “Our way of life has literally generated too much heat, and the earth will correct it,” he said. “Our way of life is destroying our ability to live on this planet as we know it. We took petroleum that took 180 million years to develop, and in 100 years we’ve put half of it in the air. It’s stupid, but it’s an addiction and addictions are not rational.”

Indeed, Willson compared the human race’s need to get off oil and beyond capitalism to a substance abuser’s hitting bottom and going into a 12-step program. “We have the capacity to understand that our future does not rest in Washington, with impeachment proceedings or another election or another Speaker,” he said. “Our solution rests with us, with small groups of people working to resurrect their relation with the earth [and become] not a plundering society, but an earth community, living less with more and breaking our addictions so we can live.” One lesson he said he learned from the Zapatista movement is that “representative democracy” is B.S.: that unless your community is small enough that you can know the decision-makers personally and hold them accountable directly, then you don’t really have control over the decisions that affect your lives (a point anarchists have been making at least since the 1840’s).

“We need disobedience,” Willson said. “We need stepping out of the patterns of our past, which are killing us. The American way of life is the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction on the planet. The U.S. military is the largest consumer of oil on the planet. It’s so incomprehensible. It’s hard to realize that our lives are at stake.” Thanks to global warming, Willson added, “We now have a force that threatens everything on our planet, that requires 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the next 10 to 12 years. There are three sources of emissions: transportation, electricity and food. The trick is less and more: a local, sustaining economy in harmony with nature that might be bounded by watersheds.”

Willson cited Los Angeles, which “gets water from eight states to sustain an arbitrary geographical grouping of people through technology,” as an example of the kind of environment that is going to disappear as humans either make the wrenching changes mandated by the need to slash their carbon emissions by 90 percent in the next 10 to 12 years or become extinct as a species. “We have to create the new local economy,” he said, citing Mahatma Gandhi as an example because he not only organized direct-action protests against the British but also encouraged the Indians to make their own cloth and take themselves as far out of the capitalist market — and the need to buy British products — as possible.

“We’ve been living on a blip of human history — the oil society — and it’s gone, it’s finished,” Willson said. “We have the capacity to take responsibility for our own lives, to be real revolutionaries for justice. We have the capacity for empathy and equity that go way back in our DNA and allow us to live collectively and in harmony with other people. No political candidates are the antidotes. You and I are the antidotes. The only way society can be changed is from the bottom up, to create thousands of communities that can operate sustainably without inputs from thousands of miles away. Capitalism requires the latter to keep expanding and keep making profit, and we have been complicit in it. It’s time to end our complicity and become revolutionaries. The earth is begging us.”

Willson is well aware that an earth whose human population is organized the way he is calling for will be an earth with only a fraction of the human population it has now. His argument is that global warming is going to trigger a massive die-off of most of the human race, and the sooner we face up to that fact and do what we have to do to secure the survival of the human species at all, the better. “I’m sure you’re going to have a die-off and a leap in evolution,” he said. “I’m 66 and I’m ready for the compost heap.” At the same time, though he resolutely avoids words like “optimism” or “hope,” “I have tremendous belief in the capability of human beings to make these sudden shifts.,” he admitted. “People all over the planet are doing amazing things.”