Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Soldiers

 Posted by riot.

When I was a small child, in the elementary school years, I spent a lot of time living at my grandparents' house.  They had a big back yard full of nooks and crannies that I loved to explore.  I'd construct elaborate fantasy stories and act out parts, using the trees, patio, garage, and spaces between shrubbery as my sets.  Of course, as a kid who loved watching G.I Joe, Transformers, Spiderman, and all those types of hero cartoons, many of my stories featured guns.

I remember the first time I brought a toy gun to my grandparents' house, to lend some verisimilitude to my enactments.  I was on the patio, shooting at an imaginary enemy in a tree, when my grandfather Otto came outside and took my gun.  Now grandpa was the quiet sort who didn't seem to care much for kids and their noisy play, it's true, but he generally left me alone to do my thing, getting involved only if I tried to play around his Steinway grand.  This intervention into my back yard stories was unusual enough to bring me quickly out of the realm of fantasy, so my attention was entirely focused on him as he told me that guns were not toys, he never wanted to see me holding one, and they were absolutely not allowed in his house.

Many years passed before I could understand what it meant that Otto had been a soldier in the United States Army during World War II, deployed in Europe.  Grandpa was not in the trenches, he was part of an engineering battalion that re-built bridges as the Allied forces advanced.  Nevertheless, even from a short remove, he saw enough of war to reject its trappings entirely.

I suppose heard most of grandpa's war stories dozens of times.  There was the abandoned Nazi Youth school in which he found an orchestra room full of smashed instruments, from which he salvaged enough pieces to send a clarinet home.  He played the huge Steinway concert grand there and a German opera star, who had been reduced to working the nearby fields, would come and sing for him.  There was the time he talked an Army doctor into giving him a shot of penicillin for a touch of pneumonia even though he wasn't technically sick enough to warrant it; he argued that he deserved it as much as the dozens of soldiers who were getting the shot for venereal diseases they could have avoided.  There was grandpa's deep appreciation for a bowl of soup and a cigarette, as if any one of those could be his last.  He never told me the most gruesome stories, not directly, but somehow I always knew they lurked below, too awful to speak.

Later, when my father tried to butch me up in my teens, he would force me to go hunting for birds in the wilds of Western Kansas.  There were several birthdays when I opened my gift from him to find a shotgun or rifle.  I never felt I was being taught contradictory philosophies by my elders.  I knew, even then, that my father would probably never understand me.  I wanted to be the kind of soldier Otto was, one who abhorred the job.  I wanted to be the kind of man who couldn't stand the sight of a gun.

I met Scott at a sex party in NYC a few years ago.  We had a good time, but then I had a good time with a dozen guys that day, and I didn't think much when Scott and I exchanged information.  It was a pleasant surprise when he stayed in touch, chatting with me online during the day, and calling me now and then.  I admit I was fairly clueless that he was flirting--I have trouble liking myself at times and it seems bizarre that anyone else would like me--and I was floored when one day he said he wanted to date.  I felt like the quiet girl who was asked to the prom by the popular quarterback.

None of my friends understood why an avowed pacifist, leatherman, radical faerie, and general queer freak would want to date a guy in the military and deal with all the repression that entailed.  I certainly couldn't explain it.  My feelings about violence didn't change while I was with Scott.  I cringed every time he'd talk about kicking someone's ass, even jokingly.  I kept to myself pretty much every opinion I had about his vocation and in my mind I edited out the gun I knew he must sometimes carry at work.

But in addition to being awful and antithetical to my beliefs, it was pure wonder to have my own soldier, willing to battle for my safety and honor.  He was big, loud, confident, strong, and bombastic.  He could channel violence, yes, but he was also honorable, chivalrous, and brave.  He held my hand defiantly in every part of this big city, daring anyone to look askance.  The military had taken him in when his family rejected him and it gave him a place to earn a living, get an education, and pull himself up by his bootstraps.  He was proud of his calling and after a while I began to feel proud of his dedication, his passion, and the sacrifices he made to do what he loved.

He was so brave that he risked losing everything under Don't Ask, Don't Tell in order to include me in his life.  When one of his friends in the service asked him to be in his wedding, which was held in the military-only resort that is part of Walt Disney World, he invited me along.  His friends made sure that every person at their wedding understood that this was safe space for Scott to be with me openly.  There would be no disparagement or discrimination.  Everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  On Independence Day he took me to the picnic celebration at the military base where he worked.  I was scared to death, but he assured me I could be as gay as I wanted to be--just not in his direction.  As it turned out, I had a blast.  No one said a negative word and everyone knew the score.  This bunch of soldiers and their families didn't understand anything about being gay, but they loved Scott, respected our relationship, and even seemed embarrassed that we had to be quiet about it.  I won a game of horseshoes, inexplicably, and no one blinked when I squealed and jumped up and down in celebration.

Sometimes when Scott and I would be curled up together, he'd squeeze me tight and say how happy he was to have a nerd for a boyfriend.  It was sort of weird, yes, but also endearing.  He wanted to be my protector.  It made him happy to look after a brainy, complicated, skinny guy.  Part of my mind howled at the patriarchy and high school-level roles, while most of me melted into it, feeling like the princess I'd always wanted to be, guarded by my knight.

Though I was happy and having perhaps the most open, adventurous relationship of my life, it didn't last.  Travel to Scott's home near the base required hours on a bus or train, plus more hours for him to drive and pick me up at the closest station.  For all the honor he usually mustered, there was a secretive side to Scott, little white lies and diversions that were entirely unnecessary.  These wrecked my trust.  I blame it on DADT.  Scott's life was compartmentalized and "down low" in a way that I left behind after I came out in my late teens.  No amount of bravery could overcome the military's demand that he hide his true self.  We parted amicably and remained good friends, seeing each other from time to time in our travels.

I also blame DADT for the fact that he was all alone in his home last year, between Christmas and New Years, when he passed away at 28 years old.  He had some kind of congenital defect and under stress that day, his heart stopped.  It's unfair and illogical to juggle the circumstances in my mind and thereby mete out responsibility.  I know this.  Still I can't help but wonder whether he'd be here now if the military had honored his relationships and orientation, if he hadn't needed to hide important parts of his life, if he'd simply been free to have his loved ones in his home and life.  My heart broke over again when, after his death, Scott's friends were finally able to post "gay" photos to his Facebook page and discuss the person he really was.  My soldier lover shouldn't have had to die to get the freedom that my soldier grandfather fought to protect for all Americans, queer or not.

Isaac Asimov, in his seminal sci-fi novel Foundation, wrote, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."  Wikipedia says it was derived from Samuel Johnson's famous phrase, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  I believe firmly in the former and far too often in the latter.  Though I believe that violence is abhorrent and the need for military is heartbreaking, today I remember these two soldiers in my life, who showed me nobility in the midst of the most evil necessity.  I thank every veteran for the sacrifices they have made for this country, however imperfect its freedoms may be, and ask that they view their military institutions as yet another place where all Americans should receive equal benefit of the freedoms they fight to protect.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Priests, Queers, and Bridges

Last week, as I stewed in a sticky, stinking, sad hospital bed at St. Vincent's Hospital, a priest appeared and broke through my morphine haze.

"Would you like to receive the sacraments of communion or healing?" the priest asked.

"No honey, I'm gay."

"I can still offer you an anointment for healing."

"No, thanks."

"I will keep your health and recovery in my prayers," he said, pityingly, then checked a box on his clipboard and retreated to the nurses' station.

A few moments later I began to bawl uncontrollably.  Alone, afraid, and abject, to me it seemed the massive weight of history had descended on our simple exchange, fixing in antagonism the words of two otherwise gentle, loving people.  In Greenwich Village, on the isle of Manhattan, in the heart of one of the most sophisticated cities on the planet, could we not overcome a few silly obstacles and get to the seriously important business of human compassion?

Of course I'm melodramatic.  The priest probably deals with a variety of more hostile responses, every day.  No doubt he has also held and comforted any number of queer people at the hospital.  My hospital stay, while terrible in many ways, was not a brush with death.  The titans of modern sexual philosophy did not clash in that little beige room on the 15th floor.

Yet I suspect that the devil is in the details, in the quiet moments when people are just living their lives and doing their jobs.  I doubt the priest has any problem at all with queers--in fact he may well be one--and I imagine he felt called to the priesthood at least in part because he enjoys helping others.  I certainly have no problem with taking comfort in centuries-old religious rituals, regardless of my otherwise agnostic views.

Getting ready for work this morning, I listened to another story on NPR about the embattled Pope and the ever-inflating Roman Catholic child molestation scandals.  Without minimizing the suffering of the abuse victims, I must say that I tire of the church bashing.  The perpetrators of such crimes and the willing accomplices who protected the guilty should be brought to justice.  Then, I sincerely hope, the Catholic church--and all churches--can turn their energy toward finding a way to bridge the everyday gap between those who want to help and those who need it, regardless of where our hearts find love.

We are so much more alike than different.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Justin Bond and a new blog

Photograph by Michael Hart

Hey y'all!  I'm writing for Queer New York, a new NYC magazine-style group blog.

Go read my review of Justin Bond's Christmas Spells, and keep coming back for the crazy good material from all of the contributors.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Daisy and I stopped in at Destiny after spending Halloween in White River Junction. Exploring the garden, we found that there were tons of carrots still in the ground. The deer couldn't figure out how to pull them up and eat them! Fortunately, our carrot eating techniques are quite advanced.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Last night's dinner: red lentil veggie chili, served with garlic sauteed spinach and a poached egg.

I cooked this week! Well, I cook all the time, but I haven't tried anything new or particularly creative for a while, until this week.

Chili isn't new, of course, but I tried a couple of new ingredients and techniques. Red lentils and split peas were a welcome new addition, though I think I should have soaked them overnight, rather than using the quick cook method, as they turned out a bit al dente. For the flavor base I diced onions very fine and caramelized them for quite a while, before adding in finely diced mushrooms, celery, green peppers, and bok choi. The resulting sauteed mash wasn't much to look at, but with the addition of tomatoes and chicken stock, everything disintegrated and provided a wonderfully deep and slightly sweet flavor to the chili. I only used one jalapeno, so the dish was milder than my usual chili. I'll definitely use some of these ideas again. I've never made chili that turned out the same way twice!

Garlic greens are old news as well, but I keep finding new dishes with which to pair them. They're so tasty and so good for you!

The poached egg was an experiment. I love eggs, but poaching has always been an intimidating mystery. This week I found a poaching recipe that used cling wrap to isolate the egg while it's in the boiling water, which seemed like it'd make the whole process much easier and more reliable. And what do you know? It totally worked. My only regret was that I didn't make two of them.

Earlier in the week I paired the chili with cauliflower sauteed with garlic and garam masala, which turned out really well. Cauliflower is not a vegetable I've used often, though after eating it a couple days, I can't imagine why. It's so yummy! I'm going to look for more recipes that feature it.

This is my favorite part of the cool time of year--making soups, stews, chilis, jambalaya, and every sort of big pot dish, and pairing them with new and classic sides throughout the week.

The law firm for which I work is moving to a different office building in March, so I'm enjoying my view of Autumn in Central Park for the last time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Here's a pic of Daisy and me at the Filthy Lucre opening last Saturday. We were modeling Justina's fabulous recycled fashions. It was fantastically fun!

I highly recommend stopping in to see the show. Waterfall, Rosie, Trixie, Wave, Justina, and Orange had works in the show. Agnes, Justin Sayre, and Reno all performed on Saturday. I'm sure I'm forgetting some names...there were tons of faeries in the show. And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were in the house. Nancy did a fantastic curating job.

I always complain about going to Jersey, but every time I do, I have a blast!

Friday, September 25, 2009


It's a few days old, but the Westboro Baptist Church, comprised largely of the Phelps family, is at it again, this time in Brooklyn.

I lived in Topeka, Kansas for eight years before moving to NYC. For most of those years I lived near the Phelps's "church," first owning a house in the neighborhood of Westboro, then living with a friend who lived just a couple blocks away.

(As an aside, Westboro is a gorgeous old neighborhood filled with Tudor style homes, many of them on large estate lots. If you're a gay living in Topeka, it's the place to be. The Phelps's "church" is not actually in Westboro--it sits a couple blocks North of the neighborhood boundary.)

Every day, I drove by the Phelps's compound. The family owns nearly all of the houses in the immediate vicinity of their church. There's a high privacy fence around the entire compound. A major East-West road carries a large volume of traffic by the church, so they have hung a 20 foot long banner with the offensive name of their web site on it, which I won't reprint here.

Every day, I saw portions of the Phelps clan picketing along Gage Boulevard or other main roads in town.

Every Sunday, the cult picketed Grace Cathedral, the church where I sang in the choir, yelling slurs at us as we cued up outside on nice days to process in to the sanctuary.

Every performance I attended at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, I had to walk by signs telling me I was going to hell because of who I am.

Every time a concert or event was held at Washburn University, the hate slogans were blared in bright neon and chanted loudly at children and their grandparents.

For the most part, any time a group of people of any size is getting together in Topeka, the Phelps are there to tell us how we're all going to burn in Hell.

No, I'm not afraid of the Phelps. I don't believe anything they're saying. On the other hand, I can't deny that it affected me. Reading and hearing the vitriol every day was demoralizing. And while the Phelps are too smart to physically assault anyone themselves, they are only too happy to incite violence in less visible bigots, and I am quite sure they would rejoice to hear about the countless slurs, threats, and assaults I endured in Topeka.

Unfortunately, many queers think that the Phelps are actually helping the gay liberation movement. (There's a lot more than Joe, but he's where I read it most often.) The argument is that their extreme politics polarizes those who otherwise wouldn't much care about gay rights, and as most people are sensible, they're landing on our side and supporting us.

I couldn't disagree more. First, this belief focuses on the benefits that might arise from the Phelps, while entirely ignoring the negative effects. Second, generally only those polarized to our side are vocal about it, while there is a large and largely silent group of people who go to the Phelps side, believing them to be correct and worthy of support, even if this group is quiet about their agreement.

I know first hand how difficult it is for an out queer teenager to survive high school in Kansas and I've heard a variety of horror stories from queers who attended public school in Topeka. The Phelps clan is large--young queers aren't simply encountering the hate speech on the street. Phelps kids are in their classrooms, and while they may not be carrying picket signs at school, their beliefs that it's OK to bully, antagonize, and basically do anything negative they can get away with to a queer kid, are well-known to everyone and have the effect of emboldening casual bigots and bullies. Imagine trying to learn mathematics when you know the kid next to you will be holding signs calling for your death as soon as the final bell rings and everyone leaves school property. The suicide rate in queer teens is alarming and I firmly believe that this kind of hatred is a big contributing factor.

I'm very glad the students of the Brooklyn high school being picketed took a stand. I imagine they learned an important lesson. The support they show their fellow queer students and the queer equal rights movement is touching and inspiring.

Unfortunately, such a display never happens in Topeka. The Phelps won't be picketing once and then going away--they'll be on the streets of Topeka most days this week, and the next, and the next. The police won't be keeping an eye on them. No one will be counter-protesting.

Queer middle and high school kids in Topeka are and will be on their own.

Many members of the Phelps clan are lawyers. They run a law firm in Topeka. This is part of why they are so successful--they don't mind being sued. They are happy to go to trial, risk judgments and liens, and file appeals ad inifinitum. Given their horrid reputation with all but extreme right-wingers and fundamentalist Christians, you'd think they wouldn't stay in business very long. But they have, for decades.

How? The simple truth is that many people in Topeka and beyond agree with the Phelps, even if they're not willing to be associated with their tactics. They send donations. They hire the Phelps firm. For every bit of money we raise in counter-protest, be sure that there are equal or greater dollars being sent in by wingnuts from all over the country, who happen to see a Phelps story on CNN.

Other members of the Phelps clan work everywhere in Topeka, including some high levels of state government, bringing some version of this kind of oppression to workplaces, grocery stores, churches, bars--basically all parts of daily life. Adults may be better equipped to deal with the oppression and less likely to kill themselves because of it, but they still feel the negative effects--many queers in Kansas are closeted to a great degree and suffer from the resultant depression, self-hatred, substance abuse, and other problems associated with compartmentalized, oppressed lives.

This is the part that non-Kansans easily forget: the nebulous and arguable benefits of polarization caused by the Phelps come at the price of daily, concrete, and I'd argue deadly levels of oppression for the queers of Topeka.

The needs of the many do not outweigh the needs of the few. It is not acceptable to sacrifice Kansas to daily oppression in order to gain progress on the coasts. It is not appropriate to thank the Phelpses for anything!

Please, put yourself in the shoes of those who don't have the luxury of living in NYC. Decry oppression everywhere it is found. Don't pretend that hate has any up side, or that the despicable behavior of this cult is actually a net benefit to our community. It is not.