It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The first durable gay organization, the Mattachine Society, arose in 1951. It was the brainchild of Harry Hay, a cross-dressing Southern Californian who went to high school with John Cage and taught music classes at the People’s Educational Center, in Los Angeles. Hirshman, in “Victory,” delights in the fact that Hay took inspiration from the writings of the virulently homophobic Stalin, and in particular from Stalin’s definition of nationhood as a “community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” Hay decided on these grounds that there should also be a gay nation; he took the name Mattachine from Renaissance bands of dancers dressed as fools. Hay’s radicalism soon caused internal discord, and the Mattachines moved in a less confrontational direction. In public appearances, they made a point of looking respectable, wearing coats and ties. Members of the Daughters of Bilitis, a like-minded lesbian organization, were urged to abandon mannish clothes.

The way the gay-rights story is usually told, things got moving only in 1969, when a fed-up phalanx of bull dykes, drag queens, and street youths rioted at the Stonewall Inn, in the West Village. One advantage of Hirshman’s book—breezily written, but kinetic in its storytelling—is that it honors the activism of the pre-Stonewall era, when any public exposure required considerable courage. Political and legal advances, such as a 1958 Supreme Court decision ruling that the gay magazine ONE was not obscene material, were modest but hard won. Hirshman also highlights the work of Glide Memorial Church, a liberal Methodist congregation in San Francisco. When police intimidated attendees at a gay ball on New Year’s Eve, in 1964, ministers denounced the incident as “the most lavish display of police harassment known in recent times.”

The leader of the Mattachines in Washington, D.C., was Frank Kameny, an astronomer and an Army veteran who had lost his government job during the gay purges of the fifties. In the early sixties, he began sending the Mattachine newsletter to the office of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As F.B.I. files reveal, an agent informed Kameny that Hoover wished to be removed from the mailing list. Kameny replied that he would put the matter to his board, and his associate added that the director was welcome to attend the next Mattachine convention. The mailings continued, and the Mattachines’ veiled taunt of the most feared man in Washington went unanswered.  read more

ART: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

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Winter always comes too soon. This year was the worst I can remember, except when I was five years old. Pushed open the front door, got lost in the snow

November 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Gay marriage, as framed in the United States, is the ultimate neoliberal fantasy, in that it allows for a politics of the personal to masquerade as a necessity for policy change. In the process, it serves to distract us from the very real issues facing millions of U.S. citizens and residents. For instance, a primary argument for gay marriage has been that it would allow gays and lesbians to acquire health care and other benefits via their spouses. But this claim ignores the fact that the United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care to its citizens, and that approximately 50 million Americans are without health care. The ability to marry would not help the millions of gays and lesbians without health care in the first place.

As law professor Nancy Polikoff points out in her comprehensive book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, the United States is unique in the way that it draws such sharp distinctions between the married and the unmarried. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada do treat gay and straight relationships equally in that they permit marriage, but what’s often ignored by U.S. gay marriage activists is the fact that these countries also treat married and unmarried people in equal ways. In other words, in Canada, you can be unmarried and still have health care and, in various instances, you can name a person who is not your romantic partner as the beneficiary of your estate. In the United States, however, your marital status is, increasingly, what determines your legal status as well as your legitimacy as a subject of the state.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment accorded to single mothers on welfare. Following the egregiously named “Welfare Reform” package of 1996, poor women in particular have been subject to the kind of state intervention in their lives that would be held as unconstitutional if exerted on any other segment of society. With the collusion of the Religious Right, single mothers are required to undergo marriage counselling in an effort to get them to marry the fathers of their children. The stigma against unmarried people swirls around in U.S. culture at large, with an overwhelming array of messages in the media about single people as desperate, lonely souls who need to find their lifemates if they are ever to be considered as human beings. It is no coincidence that such a widespread delegitimisation of single people comes at a time when fewer people in the United States are getting married—currently, less than 50% of U.S. citizens are married. Divorce rates are higher than ever among those who do get married, sparking great anxiety on the part of the Right.

While the gay and lesbian community is widely seen as a liberal/progressive one, its rhetoric around marriage often mirrors the discourse of the Right on the need for marriage as a stabilising force. Gay marriage activists have taken to deploying the strategies of the Right in asserting that marriage is necessary to cure a host of ills, for instance even going so far as to claim that not having marriage increases the social stigma faced by the children of gay couples. But surely we live in an age where the children of unmarried straight people are not considered “bastards,” and are not disallowed from inheriting property or from receiving parental and state support because their parents were not married. In such claims to moral standards, gay marriage advocacy hearkens back to the conservatism of the 1950s and earlier eras. It’s this conservatism that allows for a blinkered distraction from the other, and more pressing, issues that face queers who are not, after all, immune from the ravages of the world.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Anni Leppälä

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