The Modern Gay Rights Movement Turns 40; or, Continuity and Change

Last night, at around 9:30pm, I was waiting for a bus in Dupont Circle. Dupont, for those of you who don’t know, was once Washington’s gay ghetto, and still houses many of its gay bars and businesses and the one remaining gay bookstore. It being Saturday night, the circle was filled with all sorts of people—young and old, gay and straight—out on the town.

One group whom I noticed in particular, and who spurred me to begin this post this way, was a cluster of three young African-American women who were waiting to cross the street by the bus stop. Two of them had long hair in dozens of braids, and wore short spaghetti-strap dresses and high heels; the third, who was holding hands with one of the more femmey women, had short hair and was wearing baggy jeans and an oversized polo shirt. They looked young enough to be in high school—though so do I, so that doesn’t say much. They giggled with each other as the light changed and they crossed the street, and the couple clung to each other in that way that young couples do, in my experience—so delighted with each other that they don’t realize their PDA is attracting attention. I mention these women who walked past the bus stop in Dupont last night because as I was thinking how I would write about the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I realized that they are as good a representation as any of how the LGBT world has changed since June 28, 1969, when a group primarily composed of gay men, notably fronted by a phalanx of drag queens, fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street.

People speak of the Stonewall riots as the flowering of the modern gay rights movement not because it was the first attempt at a call for fair treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender Americans, but because it was a different kind of call. The advocacy, writing and publishing, discussion, and awareness-raising done by early “homophile” groups such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (men-oriented and women-oriented groups respectively) was somewhat less confrontational, and with good cause—if these activists had published their magazines under real names, or met in anything other than secrecy, they would have lost their jobs. Some were married, with families. It was not easy to be out in 1950s and 1960s America, especially if you had any sort of professional life or standing in your community.

By contrast, the queers who rioted on June 28, 1969 were young, by and large. They had less to lose, and they were fueled by the atmosphere of direct action of student movements and the African-American civil rights movement. They added their voices to the chorus angry at the American society run by their elders for all sorts of reasons, and by fighting back they declared themselves in a “we’re here, we’re queer” way that was, as far as my sketchy knowledge of the historical timeline is concerned, a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, history does not develop in terms of discrete watershed moments; to canonize the Stonewall rioters is to give short shrift to the flowering of a larger gay culture in the late ’60s in New York and in other major cities around the country. But Stonewall galvanized the gay community—particularly in New York—in a way, I think, that few other actions or institutions had. It was a uniting event, and in the conventional narrative of queer history it began the outright fight with federal, state, and local governments and with social standards and institutions that characterized the next forty years of fighting for LGBT rights. Since June 28, 1969, LGBT activists have fought to not be fired from their jobs or ostracized from their communities; they have fought for the right to have sex and to get married; they have fought for the right to serve in the military and to have (and work with) children. They have campaigned to elect their own into office and to beat back the hegemony of the religious right. They have agitated for awareness of the AIDS crisis. And they have always fought for the basic recognition and acceptance of their existence, to be able to come out and not be disowned by their families, their friends, and their communities. They have fought to walk down the street with their significant others and not be harassed, to be depicted positively in television and film and literature, to be regarded as part of the variegated thread of American culture.

And forty years on, this is happening in a way that, I expect, it must have been very difficult to imagine back in 1969. As someone who spends a lot of time steeped in the history of this culture and this movement, it is even difficult for me to conceive of the degree of public acceptance of LGBT Americans. I see this in the federal government, where the President’s (gay) Office of Personnel Management director apologizes to gay activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from his federal job over fifty years ago; or where (gay) Representative Barney Frank—who, indeed, would have been fired from his federal job fifty years ago—holds a press conference to introduce a sexual orientation and gender identity-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House; or in the New York Times, which once had an editorial policy of not printing the word “gay,” and today included no less than three positive LGBT-oriented articles in the Sunday paper. I see this in state government, where six states have passed legislation that raises same-sex relationships to the level of recognition of opposite-sex relationships—a result that would have seemed impossible in the aftermath of November’s Proposition 8, much less on June 28, 1969. I see this on the local level, where the pride parades that Stonewall initially spurred are an annual event attended and supported by public figures and ordinary citizens—in my native San Diego, a city which trends Republican, the Pride parade is the largest street event in the city, larger than the St. Patrick’s Day or Fourth of July parades, and features prominently the Republican mayor, who on account of his gay daughter is supportive of his gay constituents. Queer folk are everywhere: on TV, in politics, and most importantly, I believe, in schools and universities. LGBT folks continue to come out at younger and younger ages; the increasing visibility of gay people in our society causes them to understand what they’re feeling; the increasing acceptance, especially among their peers, renders it possible to come out. Regardless of whether their parents or their families accept them (a serious problem, of course, that I do not wish to belittle), queer youth are no longer alone, and things have never looked so good for the promise that they will be able to live lives as free and full of possibility as straight youth can.

And so now we come back to the three young women I saw last night at the bus stop in Dupont, and the realization that, for many young people—people my age—being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is incidental. For urban teenagers and young adults, being gay has a status of normalcy it didn’t have in 1969; gender fluidity is also accepted in an entirely new way. The overwhelming majority (we’re talking 80%, according to some polls on some issues) of young Americans support social and legal equality for LGBT folks. And without putting words into the mouths of the three young women, I think that it must not have been too consequential a decision for the one woman to cling to her girlfriend. I think that such an action would not have seemed important to her, any more than it does when a girl takes a boy’s hand, because her culture does not distinguish between the two actions. And I know that because it’s my culture too, and I know that because so often it is difficult for my peers to understand why I react with wonder at every step forward for LGBT recognition. It is more surprising, I think, to many young, urban men and women that things have not come further by now.

This is the generation which came of age not just after Stonewall, after gay liberation, but after AIDS ceased to be labeled a “gay” disease, and after the influence of the Moral Majority began to wane. This is the generation—and I can speak for it, because I am of it—which came of age after Ellen and Will and Grace, which voted for the very first time in an election that chose the first black president, and attended its very first protest rally in the wake of Prop. 8. This is the generation that has put more effort into mocking the National Organization for Marriage and its “gathering storm” than it has into seriously opposing or supporting that group’s stance. This is also, though, for all that political and legal questions dominate the discourse of LGBT civil rights, an apoliticized group, a group which, because it does not seek to get married or have children or get health insurance for its domestic partners or file taxes jointly, can focus on the now-so-uncomplicated tax of simply being out. It can benefit from the work of its forebears to establish LGBT community centers with youth programming, to establish Gay-Straight Alliances in middle and high schools and queer student groups on college campuses. This is a generation which does not only not have to fight back at a police raid of its social space, but can be publicly affectionate with its significant others as it takes full possession of its no-longer-ghettoized social space.

As we observe the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, and as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago (among other cities, I assume) hold their annual Pride celebrations this weekend, LGBT civil rights are in the news more than they have been in the past decade. Outrage continues at President Obama for his hesitation in acting on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act; the House with its three gay members is working on legislation, while the major mainstream gay activist groups continue to lobby and fundraise and raise awareness. The more distributed, non-Washingtonian LGBT rights movement continues to debate strategy and fight for state-based marriage rights and consider the merits of a march on Washington. But my judgment of where we stand forty years after the beginning of the modern gay rights movement is that the truest sense of acceptance of LGBT Americans, their relationships, and their lives will not come with the repeal of DOMA or the passage of a hate crimes bill; it will not come with a march on Washington. It is coming even as I write this in the hearts and minds of the young people—who forty years to the day after they fought back at Stonewall can walk down the street holding hands (yes, in Dupont, but even that couldn’t have happened forty years ago). Speaking personally, it is an exciting time to be 19 years old and queer, a declaration I could probably not have made at any other time in American history.

And where will we be when the modern gay rights movement turns fifty? Well, I suppose my generation will be the ones to decide that. Good luck, millenials: we’ve got an awesome legacy to live up to.

Bringing History to the Masses

Last Saturday, finding myself at loose ends, I decided on a whim to go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I adore museums and I adore American history, so I thought it would be a good combination—and I was also interested to see how the museum would present America’s story to the incredibly diverse public that presumably passes through the Smithsonian’s museums. As the National Museum of American History, this place has something of the responsibility of defining how America sees itself, if that makes any sense. It’s how America perceives its own story. I was interested to see how a museum could reduce aspects of American history that—my first year of college has taught me—are incredibly nuanced and sometimes controversial down to a series of visually enticing displays. And, wow. It was an interesting experience.

By and large, I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which the museum represented a diverse set of American experiences and a balanced view of politically controversial time periods such as the Cold War and Vietnam. I was expecting something along the lines of the elementary-school version of history where everything has a happy ending, and so it was refreshing not just to see the museum own up to issues such as how the government’s treatment of African-Americans cast its ideals of freedom and democracy into question for hundreds of years, how Native Americans were forcibly relocated from their homelands, or how women were systematically disenfranchised or relegated to housewife/”helper” roles. Of course, most of these concepts were presented in ways which ended in the eventual triumph of freedom and democracy and the presumption that the same issues of race, class and gender that have always plagued America do not persist. However, the overall historical narrative didn’t by any means gloss over those issues, and even incorporated some interesting stories that traditional sequences of events gloss over: the litany of Civil War battles I learned in 5th-, 8th-, and 11th-grade US history didn’t mention the role of women as spies for the Confederacy, or the role of male nurses in addition to their female counterparts like Clara Barton—but the museum’s Civil War section certainly did. I saw echoes of the classes I took last semester in displays on Cold War culture in the Nuclear Age or on the advent of the Pill and its role in the sexual revolution. I would never have dreamed, somehow, that I would see an entire wall of birth control pills in a national museum, alongside a copy of the Hair libretto—but there they were. At every stage in the museum, I deeply regretted having neglected to bring my camera.

But, because of the nature of this blog, and the nature of me, and the nature of my single-issue political focus, I have to say that the most incredible thing I saw at the museum was its Archives Center’s display—which commemorated Stonewall and Pride Month in general. One case contained some pictures from Stonewall and some issues of One magazine (considered to be the first pro-gay magazine, founded by members of the Mattachine Society, and the subject of a landmark 1958 obscenity case), which were particularly cool. Another case contained some documents from a particular researcher’s AIDS oral history project. It was wonderful and incredibly validating from my perspective to see that such an august institution saw LGBT history as part of America’s history, and I didn’t even let the disgusted comments of a couple standing behind me as I pored over the exhibit (“Why are they showing this stuff? This is ridiculous”) irritate me, just because I was so glad that the museum saw fit to feature this aspect of our country’s history, this group of its citizens.

But, on the other hand, I had my substantial share of issues with the military history exhibit—which came down overwhelmingly on the side of those who had thought all the wars were a good idea. This is natural when you’re talking about the Revolution or the Civil War or World War II, the so-called “morally justified” wars, but somehow the logic of a one-sided approach seems harder to justify in light of the others. I skimmed through the wars of expansion section in my desire to reach the 20th century, but I was a little bit surprised that the (admittedly brief) World War I display said nothing about that war’s large conscientious objector movement; I was also surprised by the lack of criticism of anti-communist hysteria. There was a picture of McCarthy but little explanation of it; one blurb said that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested and tried in the course of a “legitimate search for spies.” That struck me as bizarre: while I know that many historians these days are saying that at least Julius was likely guilty, it seemed strange to ignore the degree to which the Rosenbergs’ trial—and, indeed, the use of the death penalty—was motivated by the absolute craziness that characterized much of the politicking during that period. The Vietnam exhibit did a good job juxtaposing the actual land war of military strategy with the social war going on at home, but while it addressed criticisms of actions such as the killing of protesters at Kent State, it didn’t really explain why people might have opposed the war, or even so much as caption the litany of iconic images of peace signs and Woodstock and dead and dying Vietnamese people that covered a wall. Yes, the vast majority of people to come through the museum probably have some familiarity with the events of Vietnam—statistically speaking, a good number of people to come through were probably alive in the ’60s and ’70s and aware of the events as they happened. But someone my age—or one of the great many younger children in tour groups whom I saw that day—doesn’t know these narratives, and may not even have a preconceived notion of who was on what side or what the social discourse was like during the Vietnam period. If this museum is telling the American story, it has a duty to explain.

On the other hand, though, things just felt progressively weirder to me when I entered the next section of the exhibit, about the post-Vietnam wars. There was a display from the first Gulf War, with uniforms of desert camo, that threw around jargon like “liberate,” “coalition forces,” and “Support the Troops” that were eerily reminiscent of our present war. And then, in an adjacent display, a thick girder of twisted and rusted steel hung suspended from the ceiling—it was a piece of the World Trade Center. Schoolchildren and adults alike crowded around it, all telling each other (for the umpteenth time, no doubt) where they were on 9/11. One girl was clamoring for attention so that she could tell her family how her teacher had known someone who had died in the WTC, and it was just so mind-boggling bizarre to see the style of historical distance imposed by the exhibit juxtaposed with the living memory of a 16-year-old. The other display cases in the room enshrined photographs and military memorabilia from Afghanistan and Iraq, and I was reminded again of a question I thought about all last semester: how do you historicize events that exist within recent memory, that in fact are still developing? We still don’t know everything surrounding the Bush administration’s strategy, reasoning, and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we likely won’t for several years. When I looked at one display of a collection of anti-Bush political buttons and recognized some that I have in my reasonably vast collection, I had a brief sense of how my parents must feel about endless documentaries and nostalgia and exhibits about the period of their youth. But I’m still in my youth, and these wars are still going on, and it felt somehow unreasonable to place them in the context of an exhibit that told the stories of all the major wars in our nation’s history. Yes, on the one hand, there is no received narrative, like there is for the Revolution or the Civil War—the museum has the privilege of being able to truly tell the story anew as it thinks it should be told. But political tensions still run high; we certainly still do not know all the facts. The labels on the artifacts were necessarily brief, the captions depoliticized. But how much information does that truly offer, when the scholars who wrote the text of the exhibit don’t have the freedom to present any complete sense of the facts?

I truly believe that anyone who studies history has something like a solemn duty to educate the public—particularly if the historian in question is studying the history of the society/culture in which he or she lives. It is critical to remind the public of past mistakes, so that they are not repeated; it is critical, particularly in our modern period in which minority and underprivileged histories are emphasized in scholarship, to make sure that everyone’s stories are heard. It does us no good, for reductive example’s sake, for something like LGBT history to be an emerging hot new subfield in academia if no one outside the discipline has heard of Harvey Milk or Stonewall—and that’s why I was so excited to see the Pride Month/Stonewall anniversary display, and to note the care and respect and detail with which the exhibits described the history of minorities, women, immigrants, and working-class people that runs counter to the history of the privileged who serve in government and wrote the histories for hundreds of years. But while some of my preconceptions were dispelled by my day at the museum, others were not—and at times I felt myself very much back in the black-and-white world of grade-school social studies, frustrated by what was left unsaid. Yes, it is difficult to be all things to all people, but to tell all stories, to represent all sides, and to showcase dissent—even if it is, say, anti-military—is truly the most patriotic course of action for America’s museum to take.

Dispatch From Our Nation’s Capital

This is my fifth night in Washington, DC, where I’m spending the next 10 weeks and three days. It’s been seemingly as major a move for me as the move to college back in September was; at least, then, I had my mother to help me move in the first two days, and a built-in support structure to help me and the other 1,250 members of my class in our first few weeks. And yet the first half of fall semester was still depressing and scary and lonely and all those things that a radical change in environment is, for me. Needless to say, these past few days have been a period of rough adjustment for me. I miss Princeton—my friends, the campus, the daily routine—almost every minute. I miss it when working 9-6 every day means that places where I need to run errands are closed by the time I get off work. I miss it when I come home in the evening and immediately grab my computer and set off again to the Georgetown University library (three blocks away), because I don’t have Internet access in my apartment. I went to CVS and bought a cheap little AM/FM radio so that when I am in the apartment, I can keep NPR on nice and loud. My roommate hasn’t arrived yet, and it’s lonely there without other voices.

I like my neighborhood, were it not for the Internet issue. Georgetown is disturbingly like Princeton, with its upscale commercial drags, its large university, its student ghetto filled now with toolish interns who are probably not too different from the people who inhabit it during term-time. I even, in some cruel twist of fate, live on a street called Prospect. But I have precious little time to enjoy it: by the time I get home in the evening, after battling rush hour on a bus, it’s usually starting to get dark, and the streets are filled not with strolling shoppers or people walking their dogs, but with drunk interns. It’s a little like the other Prospect Street I know, and just like Princeton, it makes me feel out of place in a location I love in theory.

This is all redeemed by my day job, though. The whole reason I’m in DC is that I’m an editorial intern at Campus Progress, and I’m reasonably certain that a better internship does not exist. One of my guilty pleasures in the past week or so has quickly become the DC Interns blog, and the ridiculous stories posted thereon make me realize how good I have it. Hill interns answer phones and stuff envelopes and run errands and give tours. I write and report, and spend a lot of time reading blogs and newspapers trying to piece together what I’m going to write and report about. Today, I called Sacramento to interview someone whose name isn’t well-known, but who is reasonably important in the context of the article I’m working on about the California budget crisis. I got a little rush saying “Hi, this is Emily Rutherford from Campus Progress….” Most interns don’t get to do that; most interns don’t get to do things that are fairly similar to what a real person working in their field would do. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

But at the same time, doing it has made me realize that, by shifting my focus away from journalism, I’m making the right choice. I couldn’t live in this world full-time. The 20-something professional world seems so very different from the 20-something grad school world I’ve gotten to know at Princeton, and each of these worlds leads to a radically different career track. I know which track I want to be on, and it’s definitely the one where you get your own office, and where you don’t ever have to leave university campuses. I realize that one of the things I’m homesick for is not just my friends, but the idea of university, the irregular working hours one can and does keep, the rhythms of the semester instead of the work week, and just some indefinable cultural ethos that means I unquestionably fit in. I really feel, on campus, as if it’s my world. I don’t feel like I own Washington, DC.

I don’t regret this summer, and I think I will come through it having enjoyed it. I think that, after a couple weeks, I will get in a rhythm, and maybe I’ll think about Princeton a little less constantly. But as of now, all I can think is that it’s 93 days until I’m back on campus, where the nerds like me belong.

High School

My high school is having its prom tonight. It’s deeply weird to think that a year ago it was I who was a graduating senior, who was so stressed about the whole enterprise of finding a date and a dress (I went with a friend and bought one for $30 at a discount store) and with the deeply weird and alienating experience of shaving my legs for the first and as yet only time. I know some folks who graduated my year or the year before who are going to prom with friends and significant others who are seniors, and I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves—but I wouldn’t do it again if you paid me. I certainly don’t regret going, when I was a senior, to what was my only high-school dance. But I appreciate now the distance that college provides, and the contentment and self-assurance. Once I was so desperately concerned with the concept of going, with how pathetic and outcast I would feel if I didn’t. Now I think I do tend less to worry about those kinds of things.

Last night, I went back to my high school to see its advanced drama class perform The Laramie Project, which is a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. High schools do it pretty frequently, and I think it’s because the play is very careful to represent all the perspectives of the citizens of Laramie, whether tolerant or intolerant. Parents can’t complain that their children are being force-fed the gay agenda, because there are characters in the play that complain about that too. And yet I was still incredibly surprised when I learned that The Laramie Project was being produced at my high school, a place I associate with homophobia, ignorance, and immaturity, where the health teacher once said that she would like to teach about LGBT issues in her classes, but that she was too worried about the complaints she would get. And so I broke my usual rule about stepping away from my high-school life and bought a ticket to come back, because I wanted to make sure they knew that folks supported this production.

As it happened, my friend in the cast told me that he hadn’t heard of any backlash or objections to the show; the house was the fullest I’d seen it in a few years. A fair number of alumni had come back, and there were plenty of parents in the audience too. I had to wonder what they all were thinking: I looked around the audience and saw friends’ parents who I knew for a fact had voted in favor of Prop. 8; I saw a kid who had once told me that God didn’t approve of my lifestyle choices. One of the characters in the play is a college student who talks about how his parents objected to him performing in a scene from Angels in America because they believed homosexuality was a sin. I wondered whether there was anyone in the cast whose parents had expressed similar opinions.

I am always dubious as to whether young casts have the maturity or life experience to pull off a show as weighty as The Laramie Project, but the script—as I discovered while watching; I wasn’t familiar with the show before—is brilliant, and it’s pretty hard to ruin it. The cast was obviously trying very hard, and a few performances in particular were incredible—at points, I was genuinely moved. I don’t mean to sound surprised, but it’s always great to see something you were cynical about turn out well. I didn’t think that the high school for a neighborhood that’s overwhelmingly right-wing, and that surrounded me with Yes on 8 signs last year, would have been able to do this; I didn’t think they would have attracted a crowd. They did.

Obviously I’m sitting here stewing about this, and I know a few other folks have—I saw some Facebook notes go up with people’s reactions to the show, and I’m very glad it provoked reactions. Theater should. Now, of course, most of the cast—if not all—is even as I type at a hotel in downtown San Diego, wearing fancy clothes and dancing and celebrating the end of high school. I wish them well—and I hope they treat this show as more than just their last time on the high-school stage. I hope it made a difference to them, and to their families and classmates in the audience. I think it’s probably too much to hope that an advanced drama class production could change anyone’s minds, but hey, I’m still surprised there wasn’t a substantial backlash. Maybe there’s a chance; baby steps are still progress. I may have left high school and all its trappings very firmly and decisively behind, but not so much that I can’t say I’m so very, very proud of these kids for taking on a serious and relevant subject, and doing it maturely and sincerely. Well done.

A Year of College

I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my family’s house back in the California suburbs, after a year of college. It’s almost culture shock, even though I haven’t really been out of the house yet—all I can think about, when I look out the window, is how few trees there are, and how big the sky seems, the things I remember my mom first remarking on when our family moved out west ten years ago. It’s weird (though certainly a pleasant change) to go downstairs to the kitchen, instead of walking across a courtyard and swiping into the dining hall. It’s so different to see my parents and my sister, instead of my friends and my professors and the college staff. It’s particularly bizarre to think about how going anywhere—the movie theater, the bookstore, restaurants, Starbucks—now involves getting in a car. I haven’t driven since I was last here, at spring break, and as I remarked to my dad last night, I have been in a car exactly three times since then. I hate driving. I don’t miss it.

But the culture shock is more than the physical, apparent differences between being at home in the suburbs on the west coast and being on a college campus in a small (admittedly suburban) town on the east coast. I have changed so much since this time a year ago, when I hadn’t yet graduated from high school. I may not quite be an adult, but I am by no means a child anymore. My world is now so much larger than these California suburbs, than my high school. My circle of friends has widened to include people from all over the country and all over the world, from many different backgrounds and many different outlooks. Last summer, I worked for minimum wage at a movie theater, driving five days a week to a strip mall that is the perfect embodiment of gaudy American materialism. This summer, I’ll be living on my own in Washington, DC, interning at Campus Progress. It’s a change, and it represents how far I’ve come, and the degree to which my center of perspective has shifted from west to east, from suburbs to cities.

I’ll also be doing some research-assistant work for one of my last-semester’s professors, learning as I do so what a history professor actually does, and whether I’m making the right decision in focusing so single-mindedly on that as my life goal—oh yeah, last summer I feared that academia was an inevitable career path for me, but kind of regretted that I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter. Now I welcome it, and I think about all the steps I will have to take to get there. I know I’m going to study history and American studies now, in college; I talk to my parents about grad schools. On the flight across the country, in between wading through historical documents for the research-assisting and dozing off while listening to Ginsberg recordings, I suddenly thought of a senior thesis topic: a way to do Ginsberg in the context of history/AMS and work in the LGBT theory and cultural stuff I’ve gotten so passionate about this semester. I’m not ready to really explain it yet; I don’t even know if it’s a viable project. And it’s a little early, anyway. But it’s a start, a very first step on the road to becoming the person I want to be, to being an academic and a writer and a public intellectual and never leaving the college campuses. I may be looking outside right now at the cacti-and-succulents-decorated backyard my parents are in the process of fixing up (very nicely, I might add), and I’m glad for the brief vacation being here provides. But mentally, I’ve left the suburbs, and I hope for good.

I was telling someone about what’s changed in my outlook in the past year, and particularly the past semester; how I feel as if I’ve mentally realigned myself to a world beyond these suburbs and that high school. And he sat, and listened, and said, “I think this year has been empowering for you.” And I nodded vigorously. That’s exactly it. My world is large. I’m full of the things I want to do and accomplish and study and learn. I feel so very self-assured right now, not ready to let anyone make me feel inadequate, not caring how I compare to the folks whose performance I once would have measured myself against. Mentally free of the suburbs, I feel as if the demons I once battled are gone—or, at least, that they’re different. Because I know I’m on the right track, I know I’m making good choices and responsible choices, and I know I’m getting back what I put in. In everything from my grades to my friendships, I’m seeing the results of a year of self-discovery.

In the next three months, I’m going to miss my campus desperately; already I can’t wait for fall semester, to see my friends and to be in classes again, and to take up residence in my secluded little fourth-floor room (I’m really excited about that part). But mostly I’m just excited about everything. Life at this point feels limitless and I feel like I can do anything. My god, everyone should leave the suburbs and move across the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

h2g2

My whole life used to be devoted to h2g2, the Douglas Adams-founded, now BBC-run, alternative Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It predated Wikipedia, and is different in that it places a premium on authorial voice. Entries in the Edited Guide are subjected to a fairly rigorous peer-review process, and go through a couple additional rounds of editing. It’s as good a way as any to produce a high-quality, yet whimsical selection of encyclopedia articles written by amateurs on the Internet.

But h2g2’s Edited Guide is also surrounded by its rich community, which not only produces the UnderGuide (fiction, poetry, etc.—basically anything that wouldn’t be suited to the EG) and The Post (the community newsletter, which I edited for two years), but also fantasy football and cricket, philosophical and political discussions, and deep, rich, lifelong friendships. People who have met on h2g2 have gotten married or become best friends. Hootooers, as they’re known, meet up in real life frequently, especially in the UK, where a large number of the site’s users (known as “Researchers”) are located.

h2g2 got me through high school—I discovered it at the very beginning of 9th grade, and I quickly absorbed myself in the community. I made friends, I got stalked by one of those Internet creepers sensationalist cable news warns you about, I wrote half a dozen entries for the Edited Guide and sub-edited several dozen more, and for two years, as I said, I edited The Post. h2g2 taught me most of what I know about how to edit, how to manage an amateur publication, and how to talk to adults—I was one of the youngest people I knew on the site, and most of my hootoo friends were adults. I’ve always gotten along better with people older than me, but it’s easier when you’re just a username and aren’t inhibited by a small body that isn’t allowed in pubs.

I left h2g2 towards the end of senior year—I was burned out by putting The Post together every two weeks, and I was getting ready to start college. I thought of h2g2 as an aspect of my teenage life that I was putting behind me, particularly since I was starting to write for money and couldn’t make the time to do too many things. I barely thought about h2g2 at all through this busy school year, but in the past couple months a few incidences have come up to remind me, most of them related to my Anglophilic tendencies and my relative cultural literacy about UK stuff. Since a disproportionate number of h2g2’s Researchers are British, and since the site uses UK style, I’d learned to write in a British way and became familiar with the names of politicians, celebrities, TV programs (or programmes, as they would say), and all sorts of other things. I learned the basics of cricket and became familiar with the concept of the Eurovision song contest (which happened today, and that’s a whole nother post). Believe it or not, editing for UK style does teach you how to write as if you’ve been in British schools all your life pretty damn fast. To this day, I can go back and forth pretty easily. Thanks to h2g2.

I’ve been checking the site every couple days, the past week or two—not with the multiple-times-daily frequency I used to have, but certainly more than I have in the past year. And I’m thinking about writing entries for the EG again, because I thought about it this way: every entry is really just a mini-lecture. It’s an opportunity to present information in a way that’s easily accessible and interesting to a fairly wide audience, and you don’t even have to have any academic credentials to do it. I was writing for the EG when I was 14—I can certainly do a better job now, at 19, after a year of college and vast improvements in my writing skills. So. I’m turning over entry possibilities in my head, thinking about how I would approach them—how I would “teach” something like “Howl” or Hair or anything else I know about. It’s a very different style from the academic papers, creative non-fiction, or news analysis I usually write, but it’s worth doing.

But more than anything, it’s weird to think how one comes full-circle. In part, this is peculiar to h2g2—the folks on the site like to quote the Eagles, saying “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” and it’s true—very few folks I can think of who left the site in my time there really left for good. How can you just write out something that was such a huge part of your life? I know I can’t? But it makes me happy, and relieved, that this is just one of a number of things from the first half of my teenage years that I’m returning to. It means that all that time, all that energy, wasn’t pointless.

Studying Ginsberg

If you know me at all, you’ll know how much I love Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. As I wrote in an essay once, the day I read “Howl” I was head over heels in love with the language of a man who captures the simultaneous exuberance and insecurity and exultation and insanity of youthfulness. The man who foreshadowed the counterculture through his poems of the mid-’50s and who did so with such beautiful words.

I’m discovering Ginsberg again this year, because I’m picking up a little queer theory as I go along, and I’ve started rereading a lot of the poems and seeing stuff I never saw. Taking my Gender and Sexuality in Modern America class, and reading all of Chauncey’s Gay New York, has given me a much wider understanding, too, of the world Ginsberg was living in—it’s relatable, for sure, but you can’t just assume that his experience would have been like someone in today’s minority sexuality communities. It was a difficult time to be gay, and yet the communities were there, and they were supportive—and all this comes through in the poetry, as he both praises his many loves from Neal Cassady to the boy he sees walking by on a street in Paterson, and wrestles with his inner turmoil, feeling as if he should get married (to a woman) and have children.

And so I’m sitting here, it’s 2am, I’m rereading the poems he wrote in San Francisco in the mid-’50s, the ones around the time of “Howl”—the best period of his output, in my opinion. And I’m filling in the gaps, looking up Whitman allusions, just now tracking down a Catullus allusion, looking at the Latin, trying to see connections. And I’m wondering why, exactly, I’m doing this; why I made a pilgrimage to Paterson last month, why I keep chasing Allen Ginsberg. First of all, he’s just a dead writer. Just like any other dead writer. How many dead writers have I ever read, who weren’t the least bit special? And second of all, I’m going to study history, not literature. I agonized through an essay on Milton today, hating every sentence I spit out about the literary techniques Milton uses, and trying desperately to relate it all to British history where at least I’m on solid ground. I don’t want to close-read Ginsberg. I just want to understand him. I want to pick up on all the allusions (and the liberal arts education is helping; I totally bet Ginsberg wrote an essay on Milton too, when he was a Columbia English major) and more than that I want to understand what Ginsberg was feeling. I want to know why he was writing the things he was writing, and that does fall into the remit of history—understanding the culture he lived in is absolutely necessary, because writing reacts to the times and the circumstances of the writer’s life. Doesn’t it?

So can one study literature as history? Should one? Is that what I’m doing, as I wade through the poems? I’m not sure. Probably someone could tell me; probably someone has written a dissertation on this stuff, and the answers to all my questions are in some library’s off-campus warehouse. (I discharge dissertations every day to be sent off to Princeton’s warehouse at my library job.) But after writing two essays about Ginsberg this school year, after growing my collection of Ginsberg books, after reading Whitman and Blake and Kerouac and now, apparently, Catullus in order to understand Ginsberg, I’m starting to wonder. Someone once told me that in order to make it as an academic, I need to find a set of texts that I’m so passionate about I could spend the rest of my life with. Is this it? Is this my set of texts? Is it more than some adolescent flirtation, some phase that every teenager passes through when the counterculture seems swoon-worthy? And if it really is something that I could study and study and never tire of (and if it hasn’t been written on overmuch, which I’m sure it has), how do I do this? Is there a place for studying literature as history? Is there a place for me in the world of history, a place where I can do this without literary theory?

In truth, it’s certainly a little early to say—I’m a college freshman, FFS. I think I just kind of want to be reassured that I’m not wasting my time, that there is some redeeming value to reading so much Ginsberg, and to taking his writing so seriously. People tend to dismiss Ginsberg as tacky, as not a very good poet. I want to know that I’m not wasting my time and my cultural pretensions to be so passionate about a man who so perfectly reflected his time and his culture—and singlehandedly altered them as well.

The “Kink” in “KinkForAll”

Regular readers of this blog, if there are any, might recall that I wrote before about KinkForAll, an open-source, “unconference” model dedicated to fostering dialogue between members of the kinky, queer, and sex-positive communities. The first iteration of KinkForAll was held in New York City in March, and the next is going to happen in Washington, DC this summer. The folks putting that together haven’t announced a date yet, but since I’m going to be in DC for the summer, I’ve signed up to attend (as should you, if you’re interested in this sort of thing).

Anyway, the process of deciding to attend and eventually attending the New York KFA caused me to do a lot of thinking about the philosophy behind this whole “unconference” thing, and a “kink” conference in particular. What is the role of the “conference” model? How do you make something like that, which seems so intrinsically academic, accessible to a wider community that hasn’t had an academic background? How do you bring together a lot of disparate communities who have little in common but a penchant for talking about sexuality and get them to have a conversation? What form should that conversation take? There’s a lot of politics to be dealt with here, particularly when considering the role of the BDSM community in all this: a lot of the folks who attended KFANYC came from within New York’s BDSM community, but that’s a largely underground space, without the level of public visibility, public comfort, and publicly-constructed community identity that, say, the LGBT community has. It’s tricky. Very tricky.

Part of what’s tricky is the name “KinkForAll” itself, and actually in listening to one of KFA’s primary unorganizers and evangelists, maymay, talk about this, I’ve been able to develop my understanding of what that word is doing there. When I initially heard that the name had been chosen to include the word “kink,” I was dubious, because to me “kink” was synonymous with “BDSM,” and I had to wonder how this conference model was going to include and address other sexuality communities, and how it would be different from your average BDSM workshop. (I also had to wonder where I, whose realm is primarily queer identity and politics, would fit in.) Well. Folks who have been to a KinkForAll (and hopefully that number will start to grow pretty rapidly!) will know that it is quite different indeed.

Maymay says all this better than I do, so I recommend you read his blog; I won’t even try. I’ll just point you to something he said in a recent podcast where he spoke about KFA (which is what prompted me to write this post): “The BDSM community is so focused on these, like, extreme sports-style skill sets that we forget, often, that’s not necessarily the most important thing… especially for people who need to know more about the world in which we live in [in order] to come out to our world.”

That’s exactly right. Much as there was a time when the gay community was criticized for being overly focused simply on sexual practice, and not on larger, more abstract or theoretical questions about identity and community, so too (from what I’ve heard; I can’t speak as an insider) does the BDSM community seem to struggle with this problem. KinkForAll is addressing that, and here I think the word “kink” is actually key: I’ve come to see this word as encompassing any non-mainstream sexuality, maybe a further broadening or development or evolution of “queer.” I think we can use it that way; it’s not as if it’s a word that actually connotes a specific sexual desire or practice in the way that the B, D, S, and M of that acronym do. From a sociological perspective, I have to say that KFA is a perfect opportunity to watch this community evolve and shape itself, and the questions that KFA has posed to me make me constantly reconsider how minority sexuality communities continue to place themselves in relation to the majority. As the LGBT community becomes increasingly mainstream and increasingly integrated into a “straight” (for lack of a better word) paradigm, what takes its place as the radical outlier? Maybe “kink” is the new “queer”; one of the concepts I saw threading through KFANYC was that what almost seemed more important than any specific sexual preferences was a radical ethos, a prevailing notion of being outside the mainstream, of DIY, of grassroots. I don’t think it’s erroneous to draw parallels to gay liberation, when a minority sexuality community decided it was going to establish its own boundaries (or lack thereof), and not allow the law or the medical profession or anyone else to do that for them.

I think I may have lost the point of this rant, except to say that, well, all this is critically important. In my classes and my own reading, everything is about progress, and acceptance, and mainstreaming; today in my lectures in the last week of class, sociological data on the younger generation’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality went along with my history professor’s discussion of progress on the same-sex marriage front. And that’s all well and good, but I think it’s still wise to address the sexuality counterculture, whatever that may be at time of writing. They lend an uncertainty to the whole model, the possibility that maybe relationship paradigms and societal standards will continue to shift and change and blow our minds. That’s why I’ve signed up to attend my second KinkForAll, anyway.

Holy Crap, Clothing is Gendered

I’m sure that statement will come across as relatively obvious to anyone who lives in the real world—but, well, I don’t. It’s been quite a while, probably since my last appearance in youth symphony almost a year ago, that I’ve had to think about a dress code that differentiates male and female attire. But today I got an email from someone at the organization where I’ll be interning this summer, telling us that we’re required to wear business attire to work, and giving us a list of what that comprises—separately for men and for women. Of course, this isn’t particularly surprising; everyone knows that fashion dictates that men’s suits are different from women’s suits; even when women wear slacks and button-down shirts, their styles are different from men’s slacks and button-down shirts. But, well, it struck me that there we are still putting our dress codes on two lists—what is appropriate for men, and what is appropriate for women.

I don’t think my office will much care whether I wear a men’s button-down and slacks or a women’s button-down and slacks. I have both in my wardrobe. Maybe I’ll go back and forth. And if I go outside the office, if I have to go to meetings where more formal attire is required, I’ll wear women’s clothes. I don’t really dare do otherwise; it gets too complicated. But it’s still, I think, an issue worth considering.