Mourning in the LGBT Community

There’s an assumption that gay men are more emotional than their heterosexual counterparts, that we feel our emotions more strongly than straight men. Inversely, there’s an assumption that gay women are often butch, and that they feel emotions in a similar, closed-off fashion to straight men. Any assumptions along these lines – for straight, gay, bisexual, or any given sexual orientation – are ridiculous. The only real differences in how any person experiences strong emotions like grief come down to their personal genetic make up, the way they were raised, and perhaps the communities they live in. That doesn’t mean that the average LGBT person doesn’t have more to grieve over than the average straight person does.

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s sticks with the LGBT community, and though the majority of the country thinks the disease is a thing of the past, over 1.5 million US citizens currently have HIV or AIDS. By the end of the 1990’s, nearly 430,00 US citizens had died from AIDS, and the majority of those victims were gay men. We lost a lot of people within our cultural group, and that kind of loss sticks with us – even those of us who weren’t alive to experience the epidemic first hand.

There was a mass hysteria over the epidemic, a stigma that was aimed at our community and painted us as sexually promiscuous and unsafe. Not only were we grieving the loss of our loved ones, our partners, but we were being attacked by society while going through the ordeal. People like Princess Diana and Magic Johnson have done wonders to destigmatize the disease, and thus destigmatize gay men as a whole, but the negativity lingers to this day.

It’s not just the memory of AIDS that the LGBT community has to grieve over. There are still hate crimes happening against our community left and right. The Pulse night club shooting ended with 49 deaths, most of which were gay men. Suicide among LGBT people is disproportionately high compared to straight people. The murder of LGBT people over their sexuality and gender happen constantly. These are modern losses that directly affect us. And we grieve, just as we grieve when anyone we know dies. We grieve like black communities grieved the loss of Trayvon Martin. We grieve like other humans grieve, but we’re especially affected when we personally identify with the victims.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the rainbow is the de facto gay symbol. Rainbows are a sign of a calm after a storm. The LGBT community has survived tremendous pain and discrimination, only to come out on the other side as a beautiful sight. Rainbows, as a symbol, have turned into simulacra, going through the sign-order process so many times that we no longer think about the original symbol and its metaphorical qualities. It’s a wonderful symbol of unity and hardship. It represents us as a whole – we’re different, but we’re beautiful together. Though even the gay community has often lost sight of exactly why we used the symbol in the first place, it continues to be appropriate for us. Like any good symbol, rainbows aren’t tangible, but they stand for so much more than their visual representations. What it stands for – the LGBT community – is very real, and though we are merely symbolic to some, we’re going to survive regardless of what life throws at us.

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The Humanism of Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals is a seminal piece of Native American cinema. In fact, it’s one of the only Native American films written, directed, and produced by Native Americans that has been absorbed into the Western canon. Based off of various short stories from Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (another piece of Native American art that’s been critically accepted), the film’s plot is contingent on modern Native life. The thing is – the “Native American-ism” present in the film isn’t what makes it great. The characters and their relatable, endearing qualities of pain and healing make them human, and this human core is what makes the film great.

Victor, the main character of the film and arguably the main character in “…Fistfight in Heaven,” is in pain. His pain stems from his father Arnold’s departure from his family and reservation – Arnold “disappears,” which he claims is the only thing he’s ever been good at. Victor consistently takes this pain out on those around him, particularly Thomas, a boy that’s intrinsically linked to him by his father.

Victor and Thomas are dichotic opposites – where Victor is violent, Thomas is peaceful; where Victor is popular, Thomas is an outcast; where Victor was raised by his parents, Thomas was orphaned as a baby. Thomas being saved by Arnold is a complex factor in Victor’s life, and is perhaps the primary reason for his long held distain for Thomas. Thomas has happy stories of Arnold, but Victor only has memories of pain and abandonment of his father. When Victor is told that his father also saved him from the fire, he refuses to accept this because his negative construct of his father was wrapped around this abandonment and perceived favoritism of Thomas. Ultimately, Victor seems to accept that his father started the fire on accident, an event that shaped the lives of everyone involved. The fire also explains Arnold’s pain and why he felt the need to disappear from the reservation for so long. Victor is ultimately healed when he gives a portion of his father’s ashes to Thomas and spreads the rest into the river.

Thomas is in pain as well, but his adjustment to being orphaned and ostracized by much of the tribe is different from Victors’. Instead of turning to anger and violence, Thomas tells stories to explain his own pain and the pain of those around him. Instead of striving for popularity and entertainment, Thomas focuses on his grandmother’s wellbeing. Thomas is marginalized by a group of marginalized people; an outcast among outcasts. Thomas is eager to please, and is hurt when other’s don’t accept him, but he rarely changes his own behavior for the sake of others. He foots the bill to collect Arnold’s remains not only because Arnold is an important figure in his own life, but because he wants to get closer with Victor – someone who, I’d wager, he sees more as a brother than a friend. Thomas’ healing comes, as always, from helping people, and part of his healing came from Victor relinquishing part of his father’s ashes.

There are numerous Native American symbols in the film, but hair is one of the more intriguing ones. Hair serves as a symbol of being Native; the longer and freer it gets the more of a Native you are. Arnold chops his hair off after starting the fire, showing his rejection of himself as a member of the tribe. Victor cuts off half of his hair after accepting his father’s death, either as an act of solidarity with his father or as an act of change in his own life, a break away from the past. Thomas unbraids his hair when Victor convinces him that’s what a real Native should do, but reverts to his standard braids and suit following the car crash. Likewise, fire, alcohol, fry bread and more all serve as interesting, complex Native American symbols present in the film.

Smoke Signals can be, and has been, praised for being Native American to its core, but its true strengths lie in the relationships between characters and their respective growths throughout the film. Some characters are perhaps a bit one dimensional, but the theme of pain and healing permeates the film and makes it what it is. Smoke Signals isn’t just a good Native American film – it’s a damn good film outright.

 

Wicked Problems in the LGBT Community

Wicked Problems, as outlined by Martin Carcasson, are technically without solution. This is because there are always competing underlying values on two typically dichotomized sides. Carcasson also offered a three step solution to these problems via the “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making:” divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. In order to work through this three step solution, both citizens and government must constantly communicate and problem solve with one another – an optimistic, but workable, solution.

What Carcasson didn’t do much of in his article was give a whole lot of examples of what Wicked Problems are, though any American citizen could list off dozens of them that are gridlocked in government at this very moment. There’s the Wicked Problem of abortion, which has such strong ideological stances on both sides that reaching a solution without the three steps seems impossible. Then there’s the Wicked Problem of government spending, where both sides have equal but unflinching merit, and without solution we’re constantly stuck in a stand-still that doesn’t offer much to the country in terms of progress. There’s even the Wicked Problem of climate change, where one side has almost no merit, but the strong ideologies of both sides make it impossible to move forward without radical change in discourse.

There are Wicked Problems involving the LGBT community as well. For a long time, gay marriage was a Wicked Problem where, despite the total constitutional legality for same sex couples to get married, it was still argued against based on religious reasoning. This Problem wasn’t solved by constant communication between government and citizens, rather it was solved by the Supreme Court in a sweeping decision.

There’s the issue of transgender bathroom use, where one side is concerned about the safety of non-trans people using bathrooms, and the other side is concerned with not only safety for trans people, but for the ability to fulfill their chosen gender roles. It’s a Problem that won’t be solved easily, and could use more critical and group problem solving, particularly in the third and final stage.

There’s even a Problem with gay men donating blood. Though the law was recently changed for men who have had sexual interactions with other men being banned for life from donating blood, there’s still a ban that states gay men can’t donate blood if they’ve had sexual interactions with another man within the past 12 months. A married, committed gay man who has proven to be STD free can’t donate blood with this rule in place, and the Problem isn’t going to change because people on the other side of the ideological spectrum have safety concerns. It’s another Problem that could use extensive discourse.

Wicked Problems are tricky, but everything has a solution. It’s tough being part of the LGBT community when there’s a huge swath of the population that will be against us no matter what, but this constant communication, this dynamic discourse is certainly enticing, and I hope it’s considered by both government and citizens moving forward. Even though it’s hard for me to hear out the other side of the argument sometimes, I think it’s healthy for both sides of any Wicked Problem to come together and suss out a solution,  no matter how hard that may be sometimes.

The complex alpha-male structures in Pixar’s “UP.”

The original concept of the “alpha-male” in today’s society is beginning to fade away. No longer is it seen as a term of status and power, but rather a term connected with male privilege, hyper-masculinity, and perhaps even rape culture. I found Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden’s article “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar” to be fascinating in a landscape that has changed drastically even in the last decade.

Because Gillam and Wooden wrote their article in 2008, there are now 8 new Pixar movies that they were unable to analyze through their “post-princess lens.” I thought it would be interesting to use this lens on newer Pixar films. Because “Brave,” “Inside-Out,” and “Finding Dory” all have female protagonists (a step in the right direction,) I’m only going to analyze one of the remaining 5 films: “UP.”

In their article, Gillam and Wooden assert that “Woody from Toy Story, Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles, and Lightning McQueen from Cars experience a common narrative trajectory, culminating in a common “New Man” model: they all strive for an alpha-male identity; they face emasculating failures; they find themselves in… “homosocial desire”and a triangulation of this desire with afeminized object; and, finally, they achieve (and teach) a kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man.” The newer Pixar movies move towards even more complex, less traditional character arcs for their protagonists.

In “UP,” the majority of protagonist Carl Fredricksen’s life is compressed through a brief montage in the beginning of the film. In this montage, he grows old with his wife Ellie – they grow through adolescence, get married, buy a house, get pregnant, suffer a miscarriage, enter retirement, and ultimately, Carl outlives Ellie. From that point on, Carl’s only goal is to use his flying house to reach Angel Falls in South America, a destination which he and Ellie always planed on moving to at some point or another before life got in the way. He speaks to Ellie throughout the film, sometimes he speaks to her empty chair, sometimes to old photographs of her, and sometimes to other objects in the house that remind him of her.

It could be argued that Carl does have a sort of “alpha-male” complex, and that this side of him precipitates a position that is “fraudulent, precarious, lonely, and devoid of emotional depth,” as Gillam and Wooden described for earlier Pixar protagonists. Indeed, all of these words could be used to describe Carl’s state throughout the film, but he’s much more complex than some of those earlier characters. He unintentionally becomes the de facto caregiver of secondary characters Russell, Doug, and Kevin, and though he doesn’t at all fit the role at first, he becomes a much more successful caregiver by the end of the film by building bonds and letting go. It could be argued that these actions demonstrate that kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man, but ultimately, Carl’s strength comes from the memory of Ellie herself, and from literally letting go of the things that attached him to her in order to lift off and save Russell and Company from danger in the film’s climax. Not only does Carl’s progressed age set him apart from most alpha-male caricatures, but his lack of romantic pursuit paints him in an interesting light – instead of desiring a female character, he longs for his wife’s missing company.

“UP” can be sifted through some of Baudrillard’s theories to interesting effect. Pertaining to the simulation of history through cinema, he wrote, “The great trauma (of the period between WWII and the Cold War), is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution – today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.” In the beginning of “UP,” Carl and Ellie are children who are obsessed with the adventurer Charles Muntz, whose films showed him adventuring around the world in search of new discoveries. They spend their lives trying to save up enough money to move to South America, where Muntz was reported to have gone missing. By the end of the film, Carl discovers that Muntz is still alive, and that he’s the villain trying to capture Kevin the bird by any means necessary – this drastic disparity between expectation and reality caused by cinema in Carl’s mind causes a system-shock of sorts. Carl’s nostalgia of Muntz’s adventures created a “hyper real” representation of history in his mind, and he chased it throughout his life. However, in poetic fashion, Muntz has been unable to let go of the past like Carl was, and as they fought throughout Muntz’s museum filled with his life’s work, they destroyed many of the artifacts that Muntz had spent his life discovering. Carl and his ability to move on in life defeats Muntz’s inability to grow, and ultimately, Muntz’s alpha-male tendencies become his own undoing.

What is considered “alpha-male” becomes complicated in the gay community, particularly in gay relationships, as pre-constructed notions of dominance and submission in such a relationship aren’t established by gender constructs. In my opinion, this is a wonderful advantage that gay couples have, as societal structures don’t force certain norms upon these couples. They are relatively free to construct their own, personal structures within a relationship, without the complications of certain alpha-male roles getting in the way. It would be interesting to see what Pixar would do with a gay protagonist (no, Dory doesn’t count,) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them explore that territory in the future.

 

 

Homophobic Scripts

There’s a script for every marginalized group in America. There’s a script that leads citizens to expect black men to be criminals, a script that expects women to be submissive, a script that expects muslims to be violent. What we don’t know about others, we naturally fill in with the scripts that society has set forth. This, of course, also applies to the LGBT community.

In Gilliam and lyengar’s “Prime Suspects,” they assert that scripts naturally allow observers to “fill in” the gaps of knowledge they don’t necessarily possess. The gay “script” leads people to assume gay men are sexually promiscuous, that lesbians are inherently masculine, and that transgender people are mentally unstable. In fact, almost all of the gay script can be traced back to the notion that homosexuality is a mental disorder, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders didn’t remove from their pages until 1973.

In this sense, scripts are simply structures that people assume for others, and are formed and reinforced by stereotypes. In Travis Dixon’s “who is the victim here,” he asserts that “…stereotypes are cognitive structures or categories that affect the encoding and processing of information. These structures or schemas direct attention to some stimuli and away from others, influence categorization of information, helpus ‘fill-in’ missing information, and influence memory. The activation of a stereotype increases the likelihood that this knowledge will be used in subsequent judgments.” All of this, in effect, explains the psychological process that allows people to make racist, sexist, or homophobic assumptions about any given person, despite not actually knowing said person.

In Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation,” he discusses the concept of the Panopticon. The basic concept suggests that the mere idea of an authority figure is enough to make people behave as if said authority actually exists. I believe this idea can relate back to concepts of God/a higher power, wherein though no empirical evidence of such a being exists, it’s enough to make people live their entire lives on the chance that it does, and that they will be punished if they don’t act accordingly. This can be tied to the historically religious condemnation of homosexuals, and how gay people have lived their lives in shame, thinking anything they do, regardless of if it’s actually observed by outside parties, is a damnable sin. I lived much of my life this way, thinking that if I acted on my natural desires it would be seen and I would be punished for it. That, of course, is ridiculous, but being raised in a religious household has made it that, even as comfortable in my lifestyle as I am, I still feel uncertainty in my own actions for no discernible reason. A bit of a stretch, I know, but it was a thought that crossed my mind while reading Baudrillard.

JMC Media Festival – Communities, Cultures, and Connections

This Friday I attended the JMC media festival at CSU. The panel I attended was “Communities, Cultures, and Connections: Making Engaging Media.” It was moderated by Dr. Rosa Mikeal Martey (a CSU professor) and the panel was comprised of Cristal Silero-Dukes (a PR specialist), Ama Arthur-Asmah (a photojournalist), Izzy Abbass (a communications consultant), and Eugene Daniels (A digital content producer). A fifth speaker, Vanessa Nettingham, was unable to attend the panel.

The panel was largely informal, but it centered around how communicating with and creating content for different communities and cultures should be handled. The panel was racially diverse, and they were able to speak of personal experiences in their respective fields where either their own backgrounds were used to engage an audience, or when they had to engage audiences that were different from themselves.

I spoke to most of the speakers following the event, and even grabbed a couple of business cards. Though I don’t intend on working in Colorado after graduating, they all had unique and useful perspectives on how to handle covering different groups, whether they be divided by race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.

One thing that struck me about the panel is that it was racially diverse and had an even number of men and women, but the majority of the panelists were young, able, and presumably straight. They touched on diversity in age, ability, and sexuality, but they spent the majority of their time on the topic of race. Of course, this makes sense, as the panel was intended to be racially diverse, and finding a small panel that includes diversity in every regard is unrealistic.

The most important thing I learned is that you should do your research whenever you’re engaging a community different from your own. One of the speakers talked about how he was helping start a TV station in Hungary, and they were about to name the station something that sounded fine in English, but in Hungarian it sounded very similar to a Communist holiday – this, of course, would have been problematic, and they only had three weeks to change the name before the station launched.

There was also a focus on basic humanity when it comes to understanding different cultures and communities. “Humans are humans,” Eugene said. When it comes to journalism, everything is about telling stories, and the best way to tell any story is to focus on the human element in each story, regardless of race, gender, religion etc. Ultimately, we’re all the same, but our differences should still be embraced.

Trying to Recognize my White Privilege in a Gay Relationship

After spending the better part of an hour reading and rereading Bell Hooks’ article “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” I felt myself actively trying to let my guard down and learn something new. All-in-all, I learned some things about post-colonialist lenses and overtly racist themes in the media. But after looking long and hard at my own system of beliefs and convictions, I still can’t get on board with her views on the white-male desire to “consume” the Other – or those of a different race.

To make my point, I’m going to have to relay a rather large portion of her writing, so buckle up. In the article, Hooks writes, “For white boys to openly discuss their desire for colored girls (or boys) publicly announces their break with a white supremacist past… They see their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality… Unlike racist white men who historically violated the bodies of black women/women of color to assert their position as colonizer/conquerer, these young men see themselves as non-racists, who choose to transgress racial boundaries within the sexual realm, not to dominate the Other… they believe that their desire for contact represents a progressive change in white attitudes towards non-whites… One dares – acts – on the assumption that the exploration into the world of difference, into the body of the Other, will provide a greater, more intense pleasure than any that exists in the ordinary world of one’s familiar racial group.”

I am a white man, and I am currently dating a man of mixed race. He isn’t some sort of exotic object to me that I’m consuming to feel better about historical aggressions of whites towards “the Other.” I’m not interested in him because our pairing represents a progressive change in race relations. We aren’t together to raise ourselves up as some sort of racism-defying trophy for the world to see. I’m, frankly, bewildered by Hooks’ reduction of any white man who is romantically/physically involved with anyone who isn’t white. For the record, she even goes out of her way to say that sexual orientation makes no difference in this matter.

As it turns out, I happen to like my partner because of his sense of humor, geniality, and intelligence. We, coincidentally, share a lot of the same interests and hobbies. We understand each other on a personal, intimate level. To suggest that his race is paramount to my desire to be with him, that I have this urge to right some past racial wrong, is abhorrent. I am physically attracted to him, and his genetic roots obviously gave him some combination of facial features and other visible qualities that I find pleasing. His race is obviously some part of the equation for my draw towards him, but it isn’t the whole picture. I recognize my own inherent racism as much as I can, but I simply cannot read her views and bob my head politely.

Still, I have to try not to be so reductive towards Hooks’ statements. In many ways, her rationale can be filtered through Baudrillard’s views on how referentials can combine with their discourses in an endless cycle, and often flip positions. He writes, “Not so long ago, sex and work were fiercely opposed terms; today both are dissolved in the same type of demand. Formerly the discourse on history derived its power from violently opposing itself to that of nature, the discourse of desire to that of power – today they exchange their signifiers and their scenarios.” In a sense, Hooks may see this conscious shift of white men (who once had power) now denouncing racism as an inevitable flip of the paradigm. It seems that she assumes this shift is predicated on guilt, self-riteousness, or both, but she recognizes that for some white men, the conscious shift has occurred. Whether she feels this is progress, I simply cannot tell.

Racism and Gay Culture

So. This is the inaugural post to this blog. As you may have assessed from the title, this blog is all about using my specific critical lens as a gay man to analyze and critique pieces of media that I come across. It’s a bit awkward for me to be doing this, in all honesty. I’ve written blogs before, but never anything quite like this. I’ve blogged about video games, creative writing, other hobbies of mine, but nothing that’s intrinsic to me. Like my sexuality, for instance. I’m white, upper middle class, male – pretty much all of the boxes I check on forms are privileged. But then there’s the combo breaker of sexuality that I’ve barely let myself explore in my 20+ years of life. So without further ado, let’s talk about racism. (Great segue, right?)

In the article “Racism Without Racists,” the author heavily discusses “abstract liberalism” in pertinence to racism. They write, “By framing race-related issues in the language of liberalism, whites can appear ‘reasonable’ and even ‘moral,’ while opposing almost all practical approaches to deal with de facto racial inequality.” This thought process can also be extended to sexuality, though of course the paradigms of race and sexual orientation are entirely different.

People of any sexual orientation other than “straight” know this line of thought all too well: you can marry now, you’re equal, you’ve gotten what you’ve wanted so now you can stop protesting. Yes, it’s wonderful that people in the LGBT community can now get married, but there’s still plenty of inequality out there. This abstract liberal notion of equality is a falsity, and every minority group knows it. Just because one thing has changed for the better doesn’t mean there isn’t mistreatment of gays in the workplace, it doesn’t mean that violence towards transgender people has disappeared. It’s destructive for anyone to assume one solution has suddenly fixed every problem, as it slows down the process of fixing the problems that still need fixed.

The article “Enlightened Racism,” which focuses on the effects that The Cosby Show had on American perceptions of the black population, made strikingly similar points. It suggests that the hyper clean-cut image of the Huxtable family skewed the image of what the average African American family was. In reality, the Huxtable’s wealth was a rarity for the African American community, and it possibly made white audiences think such disparity was nonexistent. I’d argue that it simply normalized the possibility for a black family to be wealthy and successful, just as shows like Modern Family normalize gay relationships.

I’ve begun reading Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which I believe in many ways can apply to sexuality. There are various images in gay culture that attempt to encapsulate the solidarity of the LGBT community – the rainbow, in particular, stands out to me as a complex symbol, and perhaps even a simulacrum. In theory, the rainbow represents a diverse group of people (i.e., different colors) that coexist in harmony – just as the LGBT community hopes to do. It also references the very nature of rainbows, wherein they appear after rough storms as a beacon of hope, so to speak. Now, however, the image of a rainbow has been stripped of these meanings, and instead simply represents the idea idea of the gay/LGBT community wholly. You see a rainbow, you think gay. The two have become intrinsically linked, but perhaps at the cost of deeper meaning.

As a quick aside, Baudrillard (or at least the translation of Baudrillard) made a reference to homosexuality that I perceive as a poorly thought out slight. He wrote “Today it can discharge a very good simulator as exactly equivalent to a “real” homosexual, a heart patient, or a madman.” In this logic, he’s equating homosexuality with disease and insanity. I understand that the early 1980’s were a different time, but I find this comparison to be unnecessary and undercooked. Just thought I’d throw that out there.