Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prop 8: The Hate That Ate California

For my last post of the year, I debrief one of the more contentious battles of 2008—gay marriage and Proposition 8. And not over yet, by half. After seeing the film Milk, which covered a lot of the same geography and time period as I lived, I was inspired to revisit my own LGBT history in search of a personal perspective on how we got here. The sentiment "may you live in interesting times" has more than ever characterized this last year. A curse or opportunity for change?

Best wishes to all for 2009.

The Closet

In high school I read The Diary of Anne Frank—twice. It was not an assigned book at any time at my all girl's school. For our civil rights education we were assigned Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I didn't understand what Ellison was on about because I didn't get why being invisible was bad. I read Anne Frank because she kept a diary as I did; I was the same age as she was when she wrote her first entry. I read it again in my senior year because by that time I well understood what it meant to be persecuted; to be forced to hide your self for fear of dire consequences.

After Yes On 8 passed, a black woman on the radio said that calling gay rights a civil rights issue was a slight to the black civil rights movement because black people had been killed for the color of their skin and that wasn't the case for gay people. To that sentiment I pose the question "What were your parents reaction when you told them you were black?"

The Closet is an insidious form of persecution hidden as it is within a medical model of mental illness or worse, spiritual damnation while seeming to offer a choice. I was 15 when I came to terms with it. To be cherry picked for persecution, solo like this, at so young an age, leaves scars. The line between self-hatred and liberation, a war zone littered with barbed comments and conversational landmines through which I could only scurry for cover. I was lucky that my religious background did not also damn me. The Thais believed I was paying a karmic debt from a previous life, nothing serious. In the US I knew my choices—stay hidden or risk social ostracism and likely economic exclusion. Only later would I understand that this "don't ask, don't tell" policy qualified as political oppression.

The payoff of coming early to such self knowledge was a heightening of emotion that was so focused it took you to the edge of a precipice with the excitement of it. Two others were drawn to my erotic awakening—classmates at my school. We exchanged notes—cryptic prose and Rumi poems—folded into tiny packages, handed off discreetly in class. Hidden corners of campus revealed their erotic potential as meeting places where we could exchange searching looks and a single whispered feeling. Rare sleepovers were tense with anticipation of a possible caress, always in danger of being discovered, the space between us a treacherous crossing.

The Jewish one shared her love with joy; the daughter of the Christian fundamentalist tormented me with her refusal to be the queer. It was I who was sick, she implied and told me I would not survive in the real world, not the way I was, so obviously butch like this.

Recently, while channel surfing, I caught a few minutes of a wildlife show on tigers in captivity being released into the wild. For the tiger in question it was too late for he passed his days in the wild pacing out a piece of ground the dimensions of the cage he had originally occupied in the zoo. There, I thought, is a thing of beauty that has been too long in the closet.

The Personal Is Political

I was surprised to learn later that very few lesbians of my era came out in high school, oblivious of their alien feelings until someone brought them out in college or much later after husbands and children. How could they miss something like that? I felt more affinity with gay men. My sexual tastes too, traced the erotic arc of men meeting anonymously in public places, exchanging looks, a furtive whisper, the urgency and pleasures of prominent boy parts I imagined onto my own. What was penis envy, exactly, when the power of the mind made this so accessible? I eroticized the black leather, the military uniforms, the power plays of top and bottom, the glamour of drag queens.

While San Francisco was galvanizing the gay movement by electing Harvey Milk, our first openly gay politician, a celebrity Christian was busy persecuting us with an open hatred of the act of gay sex. The public and the media did not speak out in our defense. We would duke it out on our own with the help of an underground of left leaning progressives, boycotting Florida orange juice. It worked. Anita Bryant's career was in the toilet, gay power was born (again), but the hatred was not doused.

The lesbian community was deeply immersed in the ideology of feminism. I was too much of a style queen to settle for such rigid political correctness. Where was the glamour of it? Sex was hardly mentioned. That was the realm of the men and their numbers game racking up sexual encounters. Gay men and lesbians stayed largely separate. "Fishboats" a man called me and my bisexual girlfriend, as we walked down the Castro. How culinary and picturesque.

I wove into my persona a black leather jacket, zip up the side leather pants, black steel toe construction boots and a motorcycle and rode with the Dykes on Bikes in the parade in 1981. The first year we rode, the organizers put us at the middle of the parade instead of the front. It was an attempt to tone down the event of the pervert aspects of the gay community in the hopes of becoming more acceptable. This included drag queens, us and that naked guy wearing the boa constrictor. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic to be so out in the open cheered like a returning hero in a ticker-tape parade.

The following year we were back at the head of the parade. The notion of acceptability having been found hollow. Who were we fooling? And what of the hypocrisy of restricting our own people of the diversity of sexual expression? There was, I believed, a power in sexual energy; why else would it be taboo, unfairly suppressed by an authoritarian culture pouring cement over the expression of the divine life force. Somehow it would break through like a weed in sidewalk paving.

Soon after that we were wearing black ribbons to mark the appearance of AIDS. The hostility between the gay and lesbian community fell to the wayside. Ideology gave way to caretaking. Women gained ground in political status and leadership positions, while the men adopted healing practices and taught safe sex. Most everybody learned something about the dying process.

I visited an early display of the AIDS quilt covering a floor of the Moscone Center. A cemetery for a war, I thought afterwards, so devastating was the loss, entire squadrons of gay men shot down in their prime. There were so many ways to die of AIDS, most of them hideous. Our sexual landscape was now paired with early death by fate (as opposed to suicide). The disease infiltrated the culture with tragic love stories, nihilism, more self-hatred and finally a healing spirit as the community learned to survive. The message, like Harvey's, was again to come out, to which was added living a healthy lifestyle and working for the cause. Guidelines I would carry to environmental activism.

The Christians claimed the disease as God's punishment for the homosexual lifestyle which logically would give lesbians a free pass, but that didn't factor into their dialogue. I was getting tired of the Christians being on our case, like toxic family members, the way they were always with us, harassing us.

AIDS paved the way for the movement to take up the cause of gay marriage. Pressing issues—visiting rights at hospitals, control over a dead lover's property, protection from the hostile family members of our lovers replaced the urgency of sex. Coupling for life becoming the model of the gay community as well as the lesbian community.

Separation of Church and State?

I was glad to have domestic partnership rights. It made me feel more secure, less transitory, but gay marriage itself made me wary. I knew the Christians would take us to the mat on this, so biblical was their hatred of us. I feared a divisive abortion-issue style lock down of the political process and refused to put energy into it. Our response, I knew would suck up all our resources, monopolize the culture and ultimately co-opt our message. We would mirror the agenda of the Christians; wrestling over this into eternity. We would deserve this enemy.

All those pictures of married gay and lesbian couples beaming on TV. How wholesome we were, how much we wanted what everyone else wanted; we looked exactly like straight people. Where were the drag queens, transgender people, butch leather daddies and bisexuals? Where was the sexual fluidity and border crossing liberation from a heterosexual paradigm? Maybe I'm just old fashion—as passé as an old hippie hanging onto a faded culture of my youth.

Still, I want rights that are separate from a religious institution, inclusive of all people single or married, divorced with children, unmarried with aging parents. I want universal healthcare for all, tax breaks for multiple property owners no matter what their relationship, the right to live un-harassed no matter who we are.

My client with a gay daughter debriefed with me the week the No On 8 campaign failed. We listened to the radio show about the betrayal of the black vote.

"I worked so hard on this," he said about the campaign, "I keep thinking maybe we should have framed it differently. Was it because we called it marriage?"

"They just hate us," I said simply. He told me about a handmade sign he had seen from the opposition. "I (icon of) heart to hate."

"What difference should it make to them?" asked my mother as if their objections to gay marriage were merely a result of flawed logic.

We are the devil incarnate, I told her. My very existence as a liberated, openly gay person is as good as saying I don't believe all that crap you are spewing about sin and going to hell. You and your beliefs don't exist. Poof!

We cannot make gay marriage okay in their eyes because sex itself is a problem unless for procreation. And gay sex is the most evil of all because it is the spilled seed. Gay sex is the elephant in the middle of the room. Our culture is generally squeamish about sex, but even more so about men having sex together. How completely gratuitous. (The same could be said of lesbians, but we are relegated to porn fodder for men, harmless turn-ons, our eggs safely contained, as it were. Independent women are still a threat; they'd rather a woman be safely beholden to the authority of a man, but that would diffuse their campaign against the greater threat of gay marriage.)

No, the Christians are not rational, but queers aren't rational either. We are fabulous. As fabulous as a fruit bearing plum tree spitting its pulpy mass onto the ground. As fabulous as all manner of botanical wonders flaunting outrageous expressions of life, spilling seed every which way, every where—inside of a bird, nestled in the coat of a fox, down the drain, shrink wrapped in styrofoam—food for all comers, procreation an afterthought.

What possible scientific rational is there for queers?

I'll go with stimulating the creative juices with outrageous, bold imagery. I'll go with mediating for straight couples as the Native American berdache did. I'll go with the need for a non-dualistic perspective; heck I'll even go with nothing, after all I'm here, I'm queer. Isn't that reason enough?

The religious traditions that actually celebrate sexuality, as far as I know, are the earth-based ones. Sex as a celebration of fertility and renewal. The Priestess in the temple performing the sexual act with a ritually chosen man, for all eyes to see, so as to elevate everyone's sacred connection with the life force. Christian power sought to cut off personal access to the divine. Only priests were allowed to speak to God—a monotheistic, jealous, punishing god. All else cast into the realm of profanity. The priestess became a whore, sex the downfall of mankind, original sin licensed by marriage for procreation purposes only.

The only argument left to justify the existence of gay coupling is love. That is the argument I gave to my high school girlfriend's Christian fundamentalist mother when I was 19.

"That's not love," she spat at me thus convincing me of who was truly dangerous.

A people who will not allow others to love have something deeper at stake, possibly their entire universe. They are capable of believing that gay marriage will call out the four horses of the apocalypse. They are not going to be won over by the earnestness of normal looking gay couples. They will do whatever it takes to stop this blasphemy; this pagan weed that threatens to render them irrelevant, free the faggots, call off control of women's bodies, promote masturbation and push them down the slippery slope of theological arguments from manipulative metaphors, to misinformation, to out and out lies until their dogma poop falls into the dustbin of obsolete mythology.

Now that Prop 8 has won, we can work to separate church from state, agree that it is against our social contract, our sense of justice, to allow the constitution to be used by one group to take away the rights of another group. Some may reflect on how they will override the sex negative bias of our culture. The fundamentalists, meanwhile, deserve a backlash for having institutionalized their hate and reminding everyone of the roots of fascism. Meanwhile we queers can go back to figuring out how we can reintegrate our own diversity.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Apeakalypse Now

In March when I returned from Thailand, the situation with the subprime mortgages unnerved me. I had heard too many stories from Thai farmers about the impact of personal debt on their lives. How they had to dig themselves out and rebuild a new life while still paying back thousands to the old one at the rate of five dollars a week. This during a currency devaluation that halved the value of everyone's bank account and an economic slow down that halted construction jobs mid-project. Stop down was more like it.

Workers went home to their family farms. What they did next made me realize that these farmers were rich, much richer than I felt living here in the US. They had land, enough rice stored to feed everyone for some time and skills to rebuild along with a renewed sense of self-reliance. They were also committed to being sustainable in a way that actually seemed possible. The lessons of the boom and bust had taught them to rethink their wants and their dreams of wealth while their immediate needs were taken care of.
The culture shock I felt upon my return was so severe I was in a stupor for a month not knowing how to direct my life. I did not feel safe sitting in a house with a mortgage. I did not feel safe in America itself. I saw a nation of people carrying massive amounts of credit card debt and few practical skills. They had less of a safety net than a Thai farmer. How would they fare in a future that seemed to offer nothing, but apocalyptic scenarios? Peak oil, peak natural gas, peak metals, peak food, peak everything. And climate change already upon us, too. This forward tilted perspective made me feel I was slowly going mad while all around me people continued as if life was normal. Catherine wanted to remodel the bathroom.

"Do you like this tile?" she asked me showing me photographs of expensive natural stone from Italy. I suppressed a snickering chortle. What's natural about it I wanted to know, having spent ten days touring houses made from earthen bricks dug from the soil underfoot. I couldn't take a first world remodel seriously. I felt anachronistic. I used to be a designer interested in how things looked together, but now I was useless.

When world grain prices shot up Catherine let me buy two 25 pound bags of rice. I stored them under the guest room bed, then started a collection of dried beans. I sold stuff—including my father's Leica camera, a family heirloom I had used in college.

This severed me from the past and funded my survival kit—a solar panel to recharge flashlight batteries and electronics, an expedition size camp stove and a field grade water filter I had seen at the Doctors Without Borders refugee camp exhibit. The stove would come in handy during our kitchen remodel next year, I justified. (The water filter, however, was seriously over the top.) And because I had always wanted one I picked up a treadle sewing machine on Craig's List and a recumbent bicycle. Oh and a slide rule.

Catherine hired an interior designer and gave me a stern talking to about how estranged I had become. I told her of my fears. Fears of "what if things don't work out the way they are supposed to." I sounded unduly paranoid, but she was sympathetic.

"Well, at least we did the best we could," she said, sitting as she was, on 17 years of equity in the house and having scored the best interest rate possible on the most recent refi. Really what was there to worry about? Oh just a complete economic collapse.

I willed myself to be supportive of a bathroom remodel. I could see how happy it would make her not to have to look at the moldy grout and the badly set tile. It was not a well designed bathroom in the first place. I gave my opinion. Yes, on grey tile and dark wood cabinets. Yes on a glass shower and a skylight. And no on recessed ceiling lights that act as chimneys robbing the house of heat.

To please me, Catherine agreed to have the house envelope sealed and the insulation in the attic doubled. The day it was done the house was so airtight and snug it made us feel different in it. There were no more drafts. The heater only had to be turned on for ten minutes in the morning to chase the chill away. I felt better. Now I wanted a wood stove. One can always find stuff to burn, I thought, picturing the scene from Dr. Zhivago when they burned chairs in the fireplace to keep warm during the Russian revolution.

Then the stock market did its heart stopping dive. When I stopped wanting to scream, I felt downright cheerful, my fears were confirmed. My how quickly the world financial system was unraveling. It gave new, capitalist, meaning to the term Domino Theory.

The Ecology of Money

Just as the tide going out reveals an awesome array of flora and fauna living in hidden tide pools, so too did the economic crisis reveal an amazing array of creatures I had no idea existed. As writers poured explanations into articles that would have been too dry to read a few months ago, I stumbled upon a body of knowledge that constituted a major Missing Link in my quest to understand how the world works.

As the tide of bailout money flowed out of the US treasury, pulled like gravity by the weighty mass of companies too big to fail, questions tugged at me. Money doesn't grow on trees we all know, but now apparently it does. Possibly more trees than can grow on the earth. Trillions and trillions. Was money now infinite? Surely there were consequences. An online comment sent me to a site that gave me answers. Surprisingly simple answers, but so unbelievable my mind repelled the information. Money doesn't grow on trees, it grows on loans. You could say it is wished into existence.

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," said my English grandmother in response to my eight-year-old wishes. I was entranced by this curious answer. I had seen plenty of beggars on the streets of my home in Bangkok, but I had only seen horses at the racetrack. Why would beggars want horses unless you had to have one in order not to be a beggar? Oh, I realized, it's a word puzzle from history! About people, like me, who don't have money for things that they want. My grandmother had as good as told me that money must be earned before wishing can begin or I would be no better than a beggar.

But as it turns out, upwardly mobile beggars wishing for horses could take out loans. In the US banking system loans are a signal for money to be printed. By a privatized arm of the system—the Federal Reserve. Thus, if certain beggars make wishes, money appears and both can ride. The beggar on his horse and the money on the interest paid back. Meanwhile the loan is paid back with money exchanged for actual things produced in the physical world (or services utilizing same).

The implications of this suddenly hit me. We are under contract to fleece the planet! The fractional reserve banking system is designed so that it must keep on giving out loans just to stay solvent, but there aren't enough resources in the world to be sold for all the money that needs to be paid back.

I once had a long-winded snail mail correspondence, back in the '80s, with John Mackay, the founder of Whole Foods. He put out a newsletter then. In one he insisted that wealth was infinite. I was prompted to challenge him. Technology, he insisted, would find ways to split our resources into ever more useful bits that could only improve our productivity and efficiency. And that is probably as good an example as any of why concepts like ecological limits had little impact on my generation.

Our money system had limits once, when it was a representation of something finite and physical—gold. People borrowed money to create things that allowed them to use resources more effectively just as John Mackay was trying to tell me, but gold had limits just as the earth had limits. Wars upset the balance, for wars required unreasonable amounts of money to make things, which were then blown up, destroying more things in the process. Wars did not make society more productive. (One could say the same for disposable convenience items, MacMansions, assorted consumer addictions and planned obsolescence.) Nixon took us off the gold standard in order to pay back the foreign loans that financed the Vietnam War. Our money supply could now inflate beyond all physical limits; too much money, and not enough things available to buy, equals inflation. Fortunately for the planet, eventually the currency will destroy itself by collapsing under its own weight.

And that's what it's scheduled to do. The chart on inflation, at the Chris Martenson site, showed the now familiar hockey stick configuration that Al Gore introduced regarding emissions that lead to global warming. Here was another impossible to sustain growth factor leading to collapse. This time in the form of hyperinflation. Insert here, picture of wheelbarrow loaded up with money to buy a loaf of bread. (You'd get more caloric value from it if you burned it in my new wood burning, low emission, fireplace insert.)

Journey's End, Journey's Beginning?

How to prepare for such a kaleidoscope of possible collapsing futures? There are too many variables. We know the why, but not the when and the how or even the where or which one first. Even the next six months seem iffy. If inflation rules the day everything will become extremely expensive so you should buy what you need now. If it's deflation, because no one has any credit to buy what's out there, then stores will lower prices as we go along and big ticket items will fall in price too in which case you should sell all your assets, including your house, and buy them back later at the lower prices. Whoa doggies. I came on this journey to understand How Things Work not to have to figure out What Will Happen Next. It's against my religion. I am not Cassandra. I just read her notes.

So was this the end of my journey? Could I do nothing more than wait to see what happens?

At the Bioneers Conference in October, I was at a lost as to which workshops to attend. Should I seek inspiration in native foods, bio-mimicry, the wisdom of indigenous tribes or the social networking tools of the Internet. I kept going to one and wishing I had gone to another. Finally at the last session of the last day, I went to the one where I heard the most laughter and which had the most comfortable seats.

Inside, the theater auditorium a man named Michael Meade was telling stories and playing a drum—no PowerPoint presentation, no hockey stick charts, no data, nothing. Just this comfortingly wise, happy voice telling a story about the ancient cave of knowledge where the Old Woman of the World was weaving a most beautiful garment only to have it pulled apart by a black dog just as she was putting on the final touches. She then surveyed the destruction, picked up the threads and began intently to weave it whole again with a different, more fitting design.

Ah, I thought relieved, so the world is supposed to fall apart. This end of the world feeling was an archetypal story! I wasn't crazy after all. But maybe going a little mad was an appropriate response.

Michael continued. When the end seems near it's because the mythic sense and creative imagination are missing and we have lost track of life's meaning. To have real vision, he said, you have to have a period of despair.

"We must suffer in a way that generates meaning," he said, "Myths make meaning. The world can't end unless it runs out of stories."

Really? So stories do have a purpose. I grabbed onto this lifeline. The world would certainly not end on account of my not telling stories. Perhaps what I feared was that the story I was following was too big to fit into the humble parameters I had set for myself. (Of course, trying to explain How The World Works was not exactly a small-minded task, but I was only doing it for myself before.) My stories are already long enough as it is. But better metaphors make them digestible. And what were myths, but more efficient metaphors.

We need stories, Michael was telling us. And inside the story of the world is the story of the individual. We need mythic stories to connect our imagination to the eternal. A mythic imagination can hold the ends and beginnings together. This connection will show the path to renewal.

It sounded like a New Deal for artists. What did we have to loose? We sure needed something that would pull us together. Leaving the theater I walked through the campus to find Catherine. She was already at our meeting place smiling and eager to tell where she'd been.

"I just heard the most amazing talk. I hadn't even planned on going to it... He was this poet telling stories with a drum…"

Michael Meade is the author of The World Behind the World: Living at the Ends of Time. Also CD of his workshop The Great Dance: Finding One's Way In Troubled Times.

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