Monday, March 24, 2008

“Those People”


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s been a month in both national and local politics that shows how screwed up this country and its people still remain on matters of race and sex. New York governor Elliot Spitzer was driven from office in three days — near-warp speed the way these cycles usually go — from the revelation that he was the mysterious “Client 9” who had spent up to $4,300 apiece for at least seven tricks from a shadowy “escort” service called the “Emperors’ Club.”

Republican political operatives, talk-show hosts and the other maniacs of the radical Right thought they’d found the way to do in Barack Obama the way they destroyed Mike Dukakis with Willie Horton and John Kerry with the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies — and it was in the statements of his long-time minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who in his sermons said things like “God damn America … for killing innocent people, God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” and that the 9/11 attacks were “America’s chickens … coming home to roost.” (Readers with longer historical memories than most Americans — including most American journalists, apparently — would have recognized the “chickens coming home to roost” line as what Malcolm X said about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.)

And here in San Diego, veteran community activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez reported in his column in the March 13 Gay & Lesbian Times that a board member of a local nonprofit Queer community organization had said “she feels uncomfortable receiving donations from the Leather community.” Though he didn’t use these words in the column itself, when Murray-Ramirez presented this story at the Leather Titleholder Appreciation Dinner at the Balboa Park Inn March 13, he said that this woman had referred to the Leather community as “those people.”

The fact that those two mean-spirited words are still part of our language — and I’m assuming Murray-Ramirez correctly reproduced the woman’s tone, with that sneering emphasis on the first word — and that a member of one oppressed community can say something so prejudicial and bigoted about another oppressed community shows how far a distance we still have to go to treat each other as truly equal human beings. And the likelihood that that board member’s negative attitude towards Leatherpeople was determined by the kinds of sex they like to have — or at least her fantasies thereof, which are probably considerably more lurid than the reality — shows how far we are as a society from accepting the variety and diversity of sex practices and the legitimacy of anything two or more adults choose to do with each other as long as it remains, in the mantra of the Leather community, “safe, sane and consensual.”

There’s a lot of confusion about whether Leather equates to what’s become known by the cumbersome but evocative acronym “BDSM” — which stands for three things in succession: Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sado-Masochism. Certainly there are people for whom wearing leather garments and sticking various-colored handkerchiefs in their pants pockets are merely fashion statements. Indeed, I’ve heard Leatherpeople express frustration because they’ve approached such people thinking they were dressing that way to signal their sexual preferences — and instead they were just doing it because it looked cool. And no doubt there are plenty of people practicing BDSM who don’t wear leather and don’t feel any need to do so.

But most Queer folk who aren’t part of the Leather community probably do assume Leather = BDSM and react accordingly. Those who are comfortable with their own sexual choices can accept Leatherpeople as individuals and become friends with them whether they’d ever want to have sex with one or not. Those who aren’t, or those who have this annoying human tendency to want to elevate certain sexual lifestyles as “right” and all others as ‘wrong,” start throwing around the judgments. Often they’ll say the words, “I don’t understand … ”, words which in the right context can be the beginning of communication and education, but too often are used with an unspoken subtext of, “ … and I don’t want to understand, and I’ll never bother to make the effort to understand, because I’m just saying ‘I don’t understand’ when I really mean ‘I don’t approve.’”

For a journalist — a good one, anyway — realizing that you don’t understand a particular part of human behavior is a challenge. It makes you want to seek out people who are that, or do that, and start on the path to understanding by asking them to explain it. And it means building understanding not only in yourself (the first step) but in others by writing articles about it and sharing the information you’ve obtained. I couldn’t understand Transgender people — having no doubt about my own gender identity I couldn’t fathom why any man would want to be remodeled into a woman (or vice versa), either through actual surgery or simply by assuming the dress, manner and persona of the other gender — until I started talking to them. I’ve had Transgender people on the cover of this magazine and I think I understand their struggle as well as anyone can who isn’t directly living it.

Likewise with Leatherpeople. I’ve been writing about the Leather community since 2001 and I’ve been involved with a Leather organization, the San Diego League of Gentlemen, since 2004 and there are certain things I still don’t understand. I’ve learned how BDSM works overall and how its practitioners get the satisfactions they seek out of it. I’ve learned about the thrill certain people get from giving up control and letting someone else dominate them in the bedroom, and about the physical basis by which the pain of being spanked, flogged or whipped turns into a very powerful and desirable form of pleasure. I still don’t “get” why a person would voluntarily choose to live as someone else’s “slave” (and the only reason I put that word in quotes is that in the Leather community it means something very different from what it does in the outside world) not only in the bedroom but 24/7.

But the beauty of our common humanity is that I really don’t have to “understand” why other people are the way they are in order to accept them. I don’t have to comprehend fully the trauma of realizing that you “know” you belong to the gender opposite to the one of the body you were born into (the definition of the term “Transgender”) to accept that Transgender people a) have to struggle a great deal over that fact, and b) shouldn’t have to and wouldn’t in a truly just society. I don’t have t understand the appeal of every kinky sex practice (“kinky” being an all-purpose word that in practice usually means “any sort of sex I don’t like or think I ever would like”) I hear about from my friends in the Leather community to accept that they can get pleasure from these activities and will do them in a spirit of mutual responsibility and care.

The degree with which I’ve struggled to understand the most marginalized and misunderstood members of my own Queer community has made me sympathetic to Barack Obama when he’s tried to explain to white America why an African-American minister would make the kinds of statements from the pulpit that have been quoted ad nauseam lately — and why he would sit through the services and listen to comments with which he strongly disagreed.

“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” Obama said. “That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Many of Obama’s critics on talk radio, Fox News and elsewhere on the Right have said, essentially, “If he disagreed with Rev. Wright, why did he keep going to that church?” It’s an extraordinary statement that says that merely listening to someone else’s message necessarily constitutes approval. It explains why George W. Bush, John McCain and Hillary Clinton can be so angry at Obama’s promise, if he’s elected president, to seek a meeting with the president of Iran. When Bush recently went to Africa, he said he would visit only those countries of whose domestic and foreign policies he approved — as if a visit from an American president were a benediction to be conferred only on the morally “worthy.”

Anybody can talk to people who are basically like themselves and will likely agree with them. It takes guts to reach out to people who are different and who are going to say things likely to make your skin crawl. I’ve made it a personal rule in writing for this paper that if I’m covering a speech and the speaker makes a comment that strikes me as so off-base I want to scream with anger, I make sure that comment is quoted in my article. It’s my way of making sure I am presenting the person’s message fairly and not intentionally or unintentionally editing it to make it more like my own. I think that’s what Barack Obama was doing during a lot of those Sunday mornings in Rev. Wright’s church: taking what genuinely inspired him about the sermons — including that marvelous phrase, “the audacity of hope,” that Obama used as the title of his second book — and probably slinking in his chair and thinking, “Here we go again,” when Rev. Wright went into one of his anti-American tirades.

We make so many assumptions about each other: about what’s the “right” way to look, the “right” way to believe about God (I don’t believe in God at all, and in the U.S. that’s definitely considered “wrong” by the overwhelming majority of the population), the “right” color to be, the “right” people to have sex with and the “right” reasons for doing so. As much as I believe that if my heterosexual friends can have the right to marry the people they care about and want to share their lives with, I should too, I worry that much of the strategy by which the marriage equality issue is being pushed is to try to sell straight America on the idea that we are as narrow in our sexual practices and desires as they are; that we’re all looking for that one other person who can make us happy and that we too dream of turning off any sexual attractions and desires towards anyone else. I fear that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, people in our community who don’t choose to live that ideal — or at least pay lip service to it — will be as ostracized as straight people who choose not to get married are now?

And there are a lot of people — straight as well as Queer — who don’t live that way. At least five 20th century American Presidents — Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — have been reliably documented as non-monogamous. (There are probably more of them, but those are the ones we know about for sure.) The fact that Elliot Spitzer’s fall was so rapid at least partly reflects his political weakness — long before he turned up on the Emperors’ Club’s client list, The New Yorker had run an article about how his arrogance had largely sabotaged him politically — and it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t have the broad popularity and affection that allowed President Clinton to ride out a similar scandal. But it also showed how narrow-minded we are about sex and how the U.S. in particular remains hamstrung by its Puritan heritage and by taking way too seriously the original Christians’ condemnation of any sort of sex that wasn’t between married heterosexuals and undertaken solely for the purpose of reproduction.

As the one race that matters — the human race — we have a choice. We can continue to be judgmental, prejudicial, hateful. We can continue to maintain bigoted attitudes that within a local community can lead to a board member of an organization turning down contributions that can help her group do its job, and between nations can lead to anything from long, destructive wars and occupations to the mutual annihilation of a nuclear holocaust. Or we can grow to accept each other in all our almost infinite variety of races, religions, genders, sexual desires, abilities — and get over the prejudices and refusals to “understand” that have led us for too long to stigmatize those we don’t like or know, and often don’t like because we don’t know, as “those people.”