Thursday, 31 May 2012

Homosexuality, Effeminacy and the Shaw Festival

            Recently two Toronto theatre reviewers wrote homophobic reviews of Shaw Festival productions.
This must be discussed.
            Let’s get the minor matter of sexuality out of the way. One reason that the gay liberation movement was founded so many years ago was to eliminate the need for sexual categories. The movement hoped society might someday evolve to a point where such things would not matter. Unfortunately we have not reached that point. If I were to reveal that the two actors who were victimized in these reviews were gay, I know I would immediately stand corrected. There would certainly be actor denials (‘My sexuality is irrelevant, and also a private issue!’) or I would be accused of ‘outing’ them. So I won’t. However, the fact that I feel inhibited speaking about the sexuality of these actors means that we haven’t come a long way, baby. Not at all.
To the larger issues.
Richard Ouzounian’s review of Ragtime is blatantly homophobic. His remark about Jay Turvey’s portrayal of Tateh…"too often, you feel you’re watching Paul Lynde” – is quite witty – that is, for those of us long-in-the-tooth enough to know who Paul Lynde was. For those under 50, I will explain. Paul Lynde was an American comedian who was known primarily for his effeminacy. He was the closest thing to an ‘out of the closet’ gay TV/movie actor there was in the pre-liberation days of the 1960s. Ouzounian is saying that Jay Turvey’s performance was too effeminate; therefore heterosexual audience would not accept him as playing a heterosexual character.
J. Kelly Nestruck says pretty much the same thing about Steven Sutcliffe in Present Laughter, only he backs up his opinions with scholarship, and seems conscious that his remarks may be homophobic. “I realize it’s stepping into a bit of minefield to suggest that a particular actor is unconvincing as straight—in part because it’s silly to assert that gay men act one way and straight men another. But with his hair slicked back, a high-pitched flamboyant delivery and frequent swishing of his dressing gown, Sutcliffe’s Garry certainly reads as gay to a modern audience.” Nestruck not only takes on Sutcliffe’s performance, but Noel Coward, the playwright, quoting Peter Hall “What a wonderful play Present Laughter would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals.”
By these remarks, both reviewers suggest that effeminacy and homosexuality are one in the same thing. Nestruck tries to make us aware that he knows this is not true. I realize that the well-meant political correctness that controls discourse in modern culture has created quite a sticky wicket for Nestruck -- and all others who are thoughtful and well-meaning. We dare not suggest that homosexuals are more effeminate than heterosexuals, as most modern gay men spend 100% percent of their time trying to convince straights they are exactly the same as they are. Nevertheless, cultural stereotypes and prejudices exist, and the ‘general public’ --  i.e. everybody -- pretty well figures that a limp wristed male is a cocksucker. Sorry, but those are the facts, ma’am.
            Underlying these assumptions is a notion that pretty well everyone has accepted: i.e. that there’s something wrong with being an effeminate male (whether you’re gay or straight). This, I would suggest, is a fundamental transhistorical western notion, and has a lot to do with worries about male ‘begetting’ and being a warrior, two skills that are considered linked to masculinity (bizzarely, I think). However, the idea that all men should be or can be consistently masculine is inhumane, unrealistic and, well, nuts.
            Nestruck’s critique of Noel Coward’s playwrighting hints at the difficulties that arise from accepting such a premise. He’s certainly right to suggest that Present Laughter is not a perfect a play (the way Private Lives and Hay Fever are). It behooves Coward (and all gay men) to eternally write perfect plays, because if they do not, the plays will be criticized for being badly written because they author was a homosexual. Homosexuals, you see, don’t really understand straight culture, or at least understood it differently than straights themselves (i.e. there are dangerous implications to their understandings). This critique of gay writers goes back to 1958 when Robert Brustein lambasted William Inge for emasculating American males in his plays.
            Present Laughter features a beautifully written, hilarious, deep , witty analysis of the relationship between vanity and illusion, and between love and sex. It’s as if Jacques walked out of As You Like it and starred in his own play. When Coward performed the role he was much adored in the part. In1942 he was able to indulge his own effeminacy as Garry because effeminacy and homosexuality were linked secretly, but not publicly. Nowadays gay liberation has brought us to the (glad?) point where we seem comfortable openly demonizing men who are effeminate (they of course cannot be deep, they cannot help us understand life, they cannot really love anyone -- especially women) because new conservative homosexuals have colluded with the straights to such a point that they have given straights the blessing to do so.
            Well, this is not alright with me. I don’t blame Richard Ouzounian or J. Kelly Nestruck – they  (as much as Steven Sutcliffe and Jay Turvey ) are victims of a homophobic culture.
            But you know, I’m getting kinda tired of it.


Friday, 18 May 2012

What’s Wrong with The Velvet Rage

            I look around me and it seems that gay has gone away. I tried to create my own ungay movement a couple of years ago but it didn’t seem to stick. I guess I’m just too old and will always be gay.
            All around me herds of young gay men are looking frighteningly natty. They sport charming spectacles, perfectly tailored suits, bow ties, and well-kept beards. They are often to be found holding hands with their adopted children, running in Cancer marathons, or buying expensive appliances for the condo.
This is not the ‘gay’ I grew up with.  What happened?
            A young friend of mine recently gave me a copy of The Velvet Rage. Now everything is clear. This self-help book by Alan Downs Ph.D. was published in 2006 and apparently all the young fags are reading it. Many seem to be changing their lives because of it.
            I had mixed feelings about The Velvet Rage. But mostly, I hated it. On the one hand, it was nice to see a book that actually attempts to deal with homophobia and gay self-hatred. The Velvet Rage focuses quite extensively on the notion that gay men are damaged by the homophobia directed against them, and attempts to help gay men love themselves, and reach a much vaunted ‘third stage’ of self-acceptance.
            Yes it would be fabulous if we could each arrive at a place where we could love ourselves. But many of the methods this book recommends for achieving that are resolutely homophobic.
            When I teach queer theory in my classes I talk about the three most important ideas that queers bring to straight culture, which are:
a)    gender play
b)   alternative relationships
c)    camp
Gender play means the notion that men can be feminine and women can be masculine. Alternative relationships mean all the different types of bonding that are possible for loving people to engage in that are alternatives to marriage: promiscuity, polyamorousness, ménages, open relationships, the single life,  etc.. Camp is the self-defensive brittle wit that so many queers bring to their lives and ultimately to their art, which has produced masterpieces from artists like Oscar Wilde, John Waters, Gertrude Stein and many others.
            The Velvet Rage pretty well ignores male effeminacy, except to trash it. Downs buys into an age old psychiatric cliché (is he really a Ph.D.?), one I presumed went out of fashion when homosexuality was removed from the DSM back in 1973: the idea that gay men were ignored by the fathers and overindulged by their mothers.  He says we “ingratiate ourselves to our mothers, and distance ourselves from our fathers.” This is simply bullshit. There are, I’m sure millions of gay men who were closer to their fathers than their mothers – and such associations have nothing to do with homosexuality. He criticizes “the stereotype of the bitchy bitter queen…. ‘Don’t mess with me sister, cause I’ll bite back and I’ll bite back hard.’” He recommends that gay men not “act on every emotion that you feel” and warns us “others are put off by perfection.”  But most significantly, Downs does not celebrate effeminacy, and seems to see it as something to be overcome. I certainly don’t think all gay males are effeminate (or that all lesbians are masculine) but I do think that this happy gender confusion many of us embrace is something we can offer the straights. Something that will help them become more human, and humane.
            Downs also exhibits a complete lack of sympathy with (or understanding about) gay liberation. In one short paragraph he trashes The Mattachine Society and Harry Hay by dismissing the radical fairies and queer nation: “There are even some gay men, such as those involved in queer nation or the radial fairies, that suggest that gay men are not meant to be in committed relationships.” First of all, Downs gets it wrong. What I think (along with many of the original gay liberationists) is that monogamy is not for the majority of people period – gay, straight, male, female, whatever, and that we should all open ourselves up to the possibility of relationship alternatives. For Downs, only monogamy exists. This precipitates a horrible shame cycle for the many who try and fit themselves into a system that does not work for them, and never will.
            It’s all very sad really. The book seems to be working from the outside in. It’s as if the author did a poll of all the characteristics that straight people find most appalling about the gay male stereotype -- promiscuity, excessive drug use, effeminacy, crankiness, and a designer-fag mentality -- and decided to root them out of our culture.
            I really couldn’t care less if straights think we are all temperamental, gender-bending sluts. Queers with those qualities are the ones who shouted down the cops at Stonewall in 1969. They are the best we have to offer, not the worst. And, trust me, we won’t learning anything about homophobia or self-hatred by hating them, or the aspects of them that we find in ourselves.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Fascism of The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is well intentioned (or seems to be) and is getting much talk here, there and everywhere. The purpose of The Righteous Mind is ostensibly to help the American political left and right understand each other better. I don’t know if the book will achieve this. But more ominously, this book is one of a rash of modern tomes that ask us to look charitably on the views of the extreme religious right. I certainly don’t think Jonathan Haidt is a fascist, but I do think his book (like Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) could easily become the bible of a fascist regime. Haidt’s methodology is pretty straightforward; he is a psychologist who applies mostly Darwinian science to morality. What is typical of this kind of approach is that it ends up quite often being an apology for conservative right wing views.
I don’t know what Jonathan Haidt’s personal moral ideas are. He certainly makes a valiant attempt to keep them out of his book, and mostly succeeds. However he speaks briefly of a young woman overheard at a university cafeteria saying to another woman -- “Oh my God! If you were a guy I’d be so on your dick right now!” Haidt responds to her remark like this: “I felt a mixture of amusement and revulsion.” Hm. Revulsion.  I don’t get it. If I overheard a young woman speak like that I would be nothing but happy. First of all it’s nice to see someone -- indeed anyone – speak in a sex-positive manner. Secondly, it takes a great deal of bravery for a young woman to talk in such a manner when there have been historically, so many pressures on young women to appear not to be sexual (the danger being they will be demonized as ‘whores’.)
So I don’t think Haidt likes sex much, or that he understands the oppression of women.
But more importantly, let’s look at his observation in the context of his central argument. Haidt uses it to prove a very important point about morality. He says, speaking of the same girl “how could I criticize her from the ethic of autonomy?” The ‘ethic of autonomy’ refers to John Stuart Mill’s notion that people should be free individuals, and judgments about right or wrong should only be related to hurt. In other words if we believe that ethics is all about weighing the harm that one person does to another, then a girl who talks in this manner cannot be morally criticized because she is hurting no one. The only reason we would be allowed to criticize the poor girl morally (and the more I think about Haidt’s book, the sorrier I feel for this young woman!) would be if we believe morality has to do with ‘instinctive’ reactions to the sanctity of the body. Haidt wants us to know that ideas of fairness, hurt and harm are quite particular to modern western morality, and that ideas of bodily sanctity and degradation are an integral part of the morality of many ancient western and non-western religions. Haidt is ostensibly saying both types of morality are in their own way right, or at least should be accepted as equal. This is despite the fact that fairness is something that we can justify through rational argument, while ‘sanctity’ is something we cannot.
            I take issue with this. The problem with Haidt’s argument is that he is yet another ‘scientist’ (although as much as I think psychology is important, I still don’t know if it can yet be considered a science) using biological theories to bolster conservative views. His final conclusion is very revealing. The left and right are  divided in the U.S.A. because “our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often build on different configurations of available moral foundations.” Haidt’s findings are not the least bit surprising. He is definitely not the first person to suggest that we are creatures of feeling easily swayed by group sentiments. What is ‘new’ -- only in the sense that people are speaking from this position more and more these days -- is to suggest that because humans are biologically constructed in a certain way, we must therefore be tolerant of their ignorance or prejudice and perhaps not challenge them (after all, challenging them can be ‘difficult’ and we are ‘hardwired’ to be like that).  This is the same argument that many are use to justify heterosexism -- i.e. women have different brains than men, so they are programmed to act differently, so we must treat them differently. But of course no one would dare use this argument to justify racism (although that is a logically corollary of Haidt’s argument).
            Are we not rational beings? Isn’t it pretty evident that we are animals, with
irrational feelings and desires, but also (thank God) with brains that can reason (yes with difficulty) to help us to control, understand, and weigh, our impulses, tastes and prejudices? One would hope so. But a new breed of scientists (mostly Darwinians) would have us tolerate the most irrational aspects of ourselves because they are after all, part of what we inherit from the animals.
            It’s ironic that a Darwinian psychologist’s arguments could be so potently used to prop up the views of the religious right. Haidt argues essentially that we are animals programmed to have innate motions of sanctity. He makes a complex, paradoxical connection between logic and illogic.
If I were paranoid, I would say it’s all part of an elaborate plot to make some very antiquated, scary and fundamentally anti-human ideas seem modern, scientific and palatable.
            Thank goodness I’m not.

Mini-Reviews....again and again and again….

The Avengers
Sorry I still haven’t seen it yet and I refuse to review it.
Even though I love Mark Ruffalo I –
(am still conflicted tho….)

It was sure nice to see a movie that was dark and negative and smart. I think when it’s all over it’s kind of about a straight white man who is misunderstood (as so many straight white men are? Um….really? ) and that kinda bugged me.

Um this movie was very witty visually dialoguewise especially the first half and there are a bunch of quite cute men in it who get naked a lot but I’m really scared of what is going to happen when the Americans remake it and take out all the kinky sexy stuff and the violence turns mean instead of funny cartoony and there are good guys and bad guys instead of a bunch of screwed up people and the moralistic ending becomes probably all about family and babies which it already is a bit dangerously already…..
Oh well.

(I know it’s a play but Kathleen Turner was in it so I’m going to pretend it was a movie) I just have one thing to say. Wow! The actor playing the tortured young gay drug addict shaved his balls! Does this signal a trend?

Sound of My Voice
Kinda interesting but I fell asleep. I guess cults are kinda boring.

Think Like A Man
I am really happy to see a movie that makes fun of Tyler Perry who is kinda the Brent Hawkes of black politics; trying to make everything that is weird and fun about black culture just normal and boring.