Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

July 19 2016 1:08 PM

What Is a “Male Body”?

In November 2015, voters in Houston repealed that city’s human rights ordinance, known as HERO, after a relentless campaign by opponents claimed that the law would permit “men in women’s bathrooms.” The ordinance protected 15 classes of people— including transgender people— from discrimination when accessing public accommodations like hospitals, movie theatres, restaurants, and restrooms. Supporters of HERO ran a campaign that failed to effectively stand up for and defend transgender people and did not take on the insidious myth that protecting transgender people from discrimination opens the door to “men in women’s bathrooms.” As advocates for the transgender community, we failed in Houston.

We could have explained that protecting transgender people from discrimination does not increase public safety risks. We should have explained thatwhen a transgender woman uses a women’s restroom there are still zero men — biological or otherwise — in that restroom. This is straightforward:  Transgender women are women; transgender men are men.

We failed to do any of that.

July 14 2016 4:51 PM

Why Everyone Can’t Be Queer

In “When Everyone Can Be Queer, Is Anyone?” a piece that will run this weekend in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Jenna Wortham tackles the tricky meaning, history, and future of the word queer. (Full disclosure: We emailed about the topic while she was writing the article). The heart of her argument, from which the title of her piece is derived, is that “[t]he radical power of ‘queer’ always came from its inclusivity.” This very inclusivity, she argues, now threatens the meaning of the word, by making it so broad that anyone–including straight people—can take it on.

While I appreciate Wortham’s attempt to grapple with such a thorny subject, herfocus on inclusivity is a misreading of the fundamental nature of the word queer. I would argue that queer’s inclusivity is actually a byproduct of a much more salient and powerful aspect of the word: its focus on our culture’s sexual hierarchy.

July 14 2016 1:53 PM

Why Vacuous, Cowardly, Anti-Gay Mike Pence Is a Perfect VP Pick for Trump

Multiple media outlets reported on Thursday that Donald Trump has chosen Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to join his ticket in the vice president slot. Nationally, Pence is perhaps best known for signing into law a mean-spirited “religious liberty” bill targeting LGBTQ people—then revising the measure after its discriminatory purpose sparked coast-to-coast outcry. The religious liberty flap demonstrated that Pence is casually anti-gay, startlingly craven, and extraordinarily vacuous. All of these qualities make him the ideal choice for Trump’s vice president.

A refresher on Pence’s most infamous controversy: In March of 2015, the governor signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Law (known as RFRAs) sent to him by culture warriors in Indiana’s Republican-dominated legislature. He signed the bill in a private ceremony to which he invited a handful ofleading anti-LGBTQ activists. While the law largely mirrored the federal RFRA that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993, it differed in several key ways: First, it allowed a religious defense to be raised in a private cause of action, not just against the government; and second, it explicitly applied to for-profit businesses and corporations.

July 13 2016 4:30 PM

After Orlando, the Iconic Silence = Death Image Is Back. Meet One of the Artists Who Created It.

In a modest Brooklyn apartment, almost three decades of queer political art sits neatly organized in large, flat storage containers. Flipping through the seminal protest pieces—including the original “Silence = Death” poster—you can almost hear the chants. You can almost see the young men and women marching. But harder to picture would be the artist behind them all: Avram Finkelstein.

Avram’s art is pervasive, but rarely attributed. At 63, he’s dedicated his life to collective, public, and political art. He has either formed or participated in every major radical queer activist group, including Gran Fury, ACT UP, and the iconic Silence = Death collective. Now, he is a working artist running flash collective workshops around the country, in which he guides participants to craft a collaborative work to be mounted in a public space. These collectives address a range of issues, including one on immigration held at NYU, another about the Food and Drug Administration held at Yale University (the result of which was later circulated in Congress), and a recent one about bridging the HIV “viral divide” between people of different statuses. This last work, a GIF calling for “no walls between gay men,” will be projected during the opening of Art, AIDS, America at the Bronx Museum on July 13.

Avram is a dark-haired, solemn man with sharp eyes. He gave me a quick tour of his art-filled apartment when I visited on a Sunday afternoon last spring. He’d brought out the boxes of his work and was eager to get started. Soon, we were sitting on the living room floor in our socks, sifting through endless boxes of radical gay history and discussing what “queer” is, was, the history of Silence = Death, and the current state of queer political activism.

July 12 2016 3:06 PM

Republicans Hold Anti-LGBTQ Hearing on Anniversary of Orlando Massacre

One month ago Tuesday, a man walked into Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and murdered 49 people with a legally purchased firearm. His motivation was, at least in part, explicitly homophobic. Congressional Republicans blocked subsequent attempts to limit access to weapons of war like the one that slaughtered the victims in Pulse. Now, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting, the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding hearings on a vicious bill that would single out, demean, and disadvantage LGBTQ people under federal law.

The measure, misleadingly called the First Amendment Defense Act, is one of the most atrocious faux religious liberty bills yet proposed. As I explained last year, FADA is designed to legalize discrimination against gay, bisexual, and trans people—as well as anyone who has sex outside of marriage:

[FADA] would instantly revoke every federal gay rights measure ever passed and pre-emptively nullify any future measures. President Obama’s LGBT nondiscrimination order would be entirely undermined: Federal contractors would only need assert that gay sex and gay marriage violate their “moral convictions,” and they could fire gay employees with impunity. Federal grantees, such as homeless shelters and drug treatment programs, could turn away gay people at the door. Businesses could refuse to let gay employees care for a sick spouse, in contravention of medical leave laws. Even low-level government employees could refuse to process gay couples’ tax returns, Social Security checks, or visa applications.

Given FADA’s debasing and dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ symbolism, congressional Democrats had urged their GOP colleagues to delay the hearings until after the one-month anniversary of the Pulse massacre. But Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee refused to reschedule. A day before the hearings, the GOP platform committee adopted a plank supporting parents’ right to force LGBTQ children into “conversion therapy”—an incredibly harmful practice opposed by medical professionals that has been banned for minors in some states and found to be “consumer fraud” in New Jersey.

FADA’s text and purpose are strikingly similar to an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” law recently passed in Mississippi. On June 30, a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect, holding that it violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Establishment Clause, of course, is located in the First Amendment—meaning the First Amendment Defense Act very likely violates the First Amendment itself.

July 12 2016 10:25 AM

The Latest Gay Parenting Study Is a Dishonest, Gratuitous Assault on LGBTQ Families

The religious right is at it again. Despite the Supreme Court having settled the question of whether same-sex couples can marry and, by extension, raise families, we continue to see research studies popping up that claim to find correlations between having same-sex parents and suffering from a variety of ailments including depression, anxiety, suicidality, problems with intimacy, and even risk of parental abuse.

The latest is from Catholic University scholar Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest who already has under his belt several studies that make related claims. Sullins’ most recent study was published in an Egyptian-based open access journal that requires authors to pay for publication, creating a conflict of interest, since publishers who ought to perform quality control have a financial incentive to accept papers, regardless of quality. The journal’s publisher has been criticized for a lax peer-review process that’s not even overseen by a real editor.

July 11 2016 4:33 PM

Pokémon Go Battle Joins Ongoing Anti-Gay Culture War at Westboro Baptist

If you were under the impression that Pokémon Go—the mobile augmented-reality creature-hunting game that’s currently crashing the nation’s GDP—was ideologically neutral smartphone fun, you were wrong. Sure, having strangers knock on your door looking to get at that Onyx lurking in your powder room might be odd, but at least it offers a chance for connection in our bitterly divided political climate, right?

Not so at Westboro Baptist Church. The infamous organization’s headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, is now host not only to hymn singing and anti-gay funeral-protest planning, but also to a Pokémon Go gym—where there’s an epic battle raging over LGBTQ equality.

July 11 2016 8:34 AM

This 18th-Century Italian Painting Proves Gender Nonconformity Is Far From a Modern Invention

Dawson Carr had never seen anything like it. Carr, who serves as a curator at Oregon’s Portland Art Museum, was looking through a lineup of potential acquisitions in a sale at Sotheby’s New York when an unusual painting caught his eye. Bold, colorful, and strangely comic, the piece was a portrait of a male figure dressed in women’s clothes. The figure stands with a quizzical—almost pained—expression as a younger man fits him with a red coral necklace. The effect is both shocking and transfixing, an artifact from a history that is still emerging from the shadows.

Painted by Giuseppe Bonito, who was born in 1707, the portrait, known as Il Femminiello, depicts one of Naples’ femminielli, a class of male-bodied individuals who comprised a kind of “third gender” in 18th-century Italian society. Confined to the city’s Spanish Quarter, then one of Naples’ poorest neighborhoods, the femminielli were thought to confer good luck onto the households in which they were raised. People would even bring babies for them to bless.

July 8 2016 6:36 PM

The Debate Over Sulu’s Sexuality in Star Trek Beyond Should Set Off Your Red Alert

Star Trek Beyond doesn’t premiere in theaters for another two weeks, but already fans are being treated to a rather stunning exchange of phaser fire. As my colleague June Thomas covered on Thursday, John Cho—who plays Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the reboot films—revealed that his character is gay, a fact that will reportedly be indicated by a brief, straightforward scene showing him with a husband and daughter. This bit of characterization was included, according to writer Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin, as a tribute to George Takei, who famously originated Sulu in the first Star Trek TV series and who, after coming out in 2005, has become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ equality. But there’s a problem: Takei doesn’t think Sulu should be gay. In fact, he’s been inveighing against the choice behind the scenes for months now and is dismayed that his wishes went unheeded.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Takei painted the decision as a betrayal of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. “I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.” While many have interpreted Takei’s surprising resistance to having a gay Sulu in the new movie as an overzealous commitment to preserving the canon (something not unheard of among Trekkies), reading his reasoning and the subsequent response from writer Simon Pegg, it’s clear that there are far more substantial issues in question than a nerdy investment in fictional coherence—issues that get at the heart of what being “gay” means today and what queerness may or may not look like in centuries to come.

Starting with Sulu himself, Takei says he told Cho and the creative team that making Sulu appear to have been closeted until now was a mistake. From the Hollywood Reporter interview: “I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.’ ” He also pointed out, wisely, that the closet would surely be a strange concept to someone living in Star Trek’s utopian vision of 23rd-century Earth anyway. I’ll pick up on that in a moment, but it’s Takei’s phrase “a history of being gay” that’s most immediately relevant.

Analyses of this spat so far have patiently explained that because the events in Beyond and the previous two reboot-era movies technically take place before the original TV series—in which Sulu had no romantic relationships and which in any case occurs in a separate timeline due to J.J. Abrams’ mastery of quantum physics and storyboard acrobatics—there’s no need to necessarily view him as closeted. You can resolve the temporal thicket the reboot created in one of two ways: Sulu’s sexuality changes depending on the universe or he just got quiet about it in later appearances for some reason (e.g., filming in the 1960s). Pick a poison if you like, but I don’t think continuity is exactly what’s bothering Takei. The thing is, having a “gay” character doesn’t mean much—either narratively or in terms of diverse representation—if what marks him as that is the laziest of signifiers, if, in other words, he does not have a rich and well-articulated “history of being gay.” Assuming Sulu reads as straight in every other way besides the photo of a man on his console, and if that photo is only shown in passing, have you really done anything worth praising?

It would, of course, be near impossible to imbue an established character like Sulu with a meaningful gay history, a characterization that marked gayness as a serious part of his life and cultural expression—which is why I think Takei’s suggestion that a new character be created makes much more sense. But Pegg had reasons for resisting that route: “We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character,’ rather than simply for who they are,” he said in a statement, “and isn’t that tokenism?” The film’s creative team, says Pegg, did not want sexuality to be their queer character’s “defining characteristic.” And just like that, Pegg teleports the it’s a small part of me identity ideology of our time two centuries into the future.

I have written at length about the pernicious logic of “small part” thinking around queer identity, so I won’t rehash that here. Suffice to say, including a gay character in your story for whom gayness is nothing more than a boring and rarely mentioned biographical detail might not be the greatest of achievements. In fact, it might suggest that you’re not really superinterested in including queerness in your story-world after all but, rather, are looking to check a (now relatively safe) box on the good progressive representation worksheet. In fact, it might suggest that you are enacting the very “tokenism” you say you want to avoid.

It might. Anyway, it doesn’t sound like the newly out Sulu is going to be gaying up the Enterprise in any appreciable way—which brings me to the next point: Are we really sure there haven’t been gay or queer characters on Star Trek before? Because this is what they’re saying. Pegg: “[Takei’s] right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now.” Admittedly, I’m not a Trek completist. My engagement, by dint of my age, was mostly centered around Voyager and Deep Space Nine with considerable forays into TNG and dabbling in the original series and the earlier movies. But incomplete knowledge stipulated, I recall recognizing a number of obviously queer characters in the shows. I mean, does no one remember Q? He’s essentially Oscar Wilde imbued with the cosmic omnipotence of the Continuum. And what about Voyager’s holographic doctor? I don’t recall him having a husband (simulated or otherwise), but he was definitely a massive photonic queen. And that’s just off the top of my head.

The point is, the idea that a same-sex relationship, or even same-sex sex, is the be-all-and-end-all of queer representation is so horribly basic. Add all the culturally queer characters to the reams of fan fiction about Tom Paris teaching Harry Kim how to work the warp throttle, and it’s quickly apparent that Star Trek was hardly ever straight. You just had to be imaginative enough to know what you were seeing.

Of course, all this squabbling, mine included, stems from another failure of imagination: that our 2016 notions of sexual and gender identity would or should be relevant to someone living in Roddenberry’s 2216. It bears repeating, daily, that gay, not to mention queer or LGBT, are historically specific and culturally contingent inventions. Same-sex desire and gender variance have existed forever, but the categories we organize our lives, politics, and subcultures around right now are by no means stable or built into nature. I know that runs counter to our “born this way” security blanket, but it’s the truth.

Elsewhere in his response to Takei, Pegg spoke of the “magic ingredient [that] determines our sexuality” varying between timelines for Sulu, adding, “I like this idea because it suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere.” There are many ways one could describe this statement, but I will settle on misguided. LGBT-ness is not some kind of transdimensional force that graces certain lucky individuals at random points within the multiverse. It’s a peculiar and incredibly specific construct that seems more or less useful for finding community and advancing activism in a moment when “rights” may only be afforded to well-defined groups. But it’s also often dangerous for those forced to adopt it in the pursuit of social legibility, it’s hardly descriptive of the range of sexual and gender diversity human beings are capable of, and it’s certainly not where I think we want to end up on the quest for freedom of human expression. And yet, here we are arguing about whether a character in probably the most blended, utopian, forward-looking fictional universe ever created is gay.

In the end, it’s really this—that Pegg, Takei, and the rest of us insist on transposing our contemporary identity politics onto a landscape that doesn’t really need them—that’s the most dispiriting part of this whole fracas. I think that back when I spent my Saturday evenings with Capt. Janeway and her crew adrift in the Delta quadrant, I just assumed that by the time we got out there, everyone would be a lot more creative about sex and gender expression. Sure, difference and preferences would still exist, but when you’ve got a holodeck at your disposal, there’s no reason not to explore. In 2016, we still need our categories and the cohesion they allow. We, as the Sulu hullabaloo shows, are still profoundly earthbound. But after warp drive? After first contact? After we can really feel how massive the universe is and how small we are by comparison—will we really need or even want LGBTQ anymore? I sort of hope not. We’re still a long way off from that world, to be sure. But in the meantime, it would be nice if we freed our science fiction to make the leap for us.

July 8 2016 6:15 PM

Massachusetts Governor Signs Bill Outlawing Trans Discrimination

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed into law a bill forbidding gender identity discrimination in public accommodations on Friday. “No one should be discriminated against [because] of their gender identity,” Baker—America’s most popular governor—declared in a tweet. The bill bars anti-trans discrimination in a broad array of contexts and allows trans people to use the bathroom and locker room consistent with their gender identity. Baker refused to support the measure for many months but ultimately concluded that trans activists had demonstrated the necessity of further legal protections against discrimination.

One of the few high-profile moderates left in the GOP, Baker’s support of trans rights stands in stark relief to the rest of his party. The Republican National Committee has endorsed anti-trans “bathroom bills” that exclude trans people from public restrooms, and state efforts to promote such legislation has been universally spearheaded by Republicans. Eleven states have sued the Obama administration for prohibiting anti-trans discrimination in education and employment under existing civil rights law; every attorney general who joined the suit is a Republican. And on the same day that Baker signed the Massachusetts bill into law, 10 more states launched a lawsuit against the federal government’s trans-inclusive rules. Once again, the attorneys general behind the second suit are all Republicans.

Before signing trans-inclusive legislation, Baker demanded a compromise to ensure that predators will not abuse the law to molest people in bathrooms. Although no one has ever used a trans nondiscrimination law to access a bathroom for predatory purposes, the legislature complied. The bill Baker signed directs the Massachusetts Commission of Discrimination to develop a legal standard for establishing an individual’s gender identity and orders the state attorney general to create regulations under which predators who abuse the law can be prosecuted.

These compromises are both gratuitous and redundant, unless the Massachusetts legislature plans to repeal its trespass and sexual assault statutes. Still, a few questionable sentences in an otherwise terrific bill is a small price to pay to make trans inclusivity the law of the state.