Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Behalf of Our Fathers

I know that some queer men have never experienced anything less than love and unconditional acceptance from their fathers. I rejoice for them. And at the same time, I'm somewhere between incredulous, wistful, and envious as hell.

We each have our story. Our fathers abandoned us for a life elsewhere. Or were explosive, abusive drunks. Or were quiet, emotionally crippled drunks. Or told us to stop acting like goddam pansies. Or were themselves so shamed by their own bodies and desires they couldn't reassure us about our own.  Or furtively imposed their own same-sex attractions on us. Or told us we were going straight to hell if we went on experimenting with the boy next door. Or...
My own story isn't representative of anyone but me. My father was an obsessive-compulsive binge drinker, a hollowed-out emotional wreck who destroyed himself before he'd made it to 64. It's been fifty years since he died (on Mother's Day, for God's sake) when I was 8. I've spent my whole adult life piecing together a fragmentary, indirect, conflicted relationship with him.
So it was a huge grace when the week before last I experienced a flood of compassion for him unlike anything that's ever come alive in me before.  During a journalling exericse at a weeklong intensive program, I revisited the usual litany of ways he failed me. And then: thanks to a constellation of circumstances I won't rehearse here, I suddenly thought, my poor father, and spent the next fifteen minutes quietly sobbing. And knew what I had to do. I needed to say Kaddish. Non-Jew that I am.
If you're not Jewish or familiar with Jewish practice, Kaddish is the prayer you say in memory of one you mourn, and especially in memory of parents.  The most observant say it every day for a year, and then annually on the Yahrzeit--the anniversary of the death. The odd thing is, the Mourner's Kaddish never mentions the deceased. It glorifies God, prays for the speedy arrival of God's kingdom, and voices hope that peace from above will descend on us and on all. This peculiar disconnect between the content of the prayer and the emotionally charged intention with which it's spoken is a source of discomfort to many who fulfill their responsibility to recite it: they feel denied the chance to remember one they loved in all his or her individuality.
But oddly, in keeping the deceased out of it, the prayer can become a container big enough for the conflicted feelings you may have toward the dead. You don't have to wax warm and fuzzy toward the person you're mourning. You're not obliged to feel any one thing as opposed to something else. Instead, you speak this on behalf of the dead in the presence of the Holy. The deceased is representative of humanity. You're saying it for him. You're saying it for yourself. You're saying it for all humankind. If what's really going through your head as you pray is that the deceased was an empty emotional shell, or an abusive creep who made your life hell when your were five, there's room for that, and you don't have to fake the saccharine greeting-card sentiments that characterize (for instance, in my own experience) so many Midwestern Protestant funerals.
That unexpected space to feel whatever you're feeling can become fertile ground for the post-mortem healing of relationships. If you say Kaddish repeatedly, you'll experience it differently every time you do so. Your feelings will change over time, from one day to the next, from one month to the next, from one year to the next.
All this to unpack my intuitive flash, in the moment that I softened towards a man I can most of the time feel very little towards at all, who died just over half a century ago. This last week, I've continued to chew on why  a nice Lutheran boy from the Midwest would with unhesitating instinct borrow a Jewish prayer to mourn his father. Saying it linked me to my partner in his Judaism, as well as to the leader of the workshop--a man who over the last several years has given me more of what one would hope to get from a father than probably anyone else in my life.
And then there's the very fact that in borrowing somebody else's tradition, we can set aside toxic associations that our own spiritual heritage has often accrued for us as queer men. We take what we need, in ways that might not always win the approval of the keepers of the tradition(s) we pilfer. But it's not simply that I can imagine my appropriation of the prayer offending some, simply because I don't have a right to it by heritage.
It's that I recited it  in front of a five-foot Phallus in a flowering meadow. Standing before this sign of linkage between my spiritual and erotic life as a gay man, laying hands and forehead on it at the end of the prayer, I contemplated my father's woundedness as a share in the wounds all men sustain. In the midst of a circle that represented the infinitely fertile womb of the Mother Goddess, I meditated on the sexuality that links my father to me in a continuum with the embodied, desirous experience of all men--a message I desperately needed to absorb from him as a boy but never could. And then found myself giving thanks for the miracle of his orgasm that made my life possible.
I expect to go on doing the work of repairing my relationship to my father for the rest of my life. Praying a very queer Kaddish for my father,  and on behalf of my father, changes nothing of that, and changes everything.

 
GLORIFIED AND SANCTIFIED BE THE HOLY ONE'S GREAT NAME, THROUGHOUT THE WORLD CREATED ACCORDING TO  THE DIVINE WILL. ESTABLISHED BE GOD'S KINGDOM IN YOUR LIFETIME AND DURING YOUR DAYS, AND WITHIN THE LIFE OF ALL HUMANKIND, SPEEDILY AND SOON, AND LET US SAY, AMEN.
MAY GOD'S GREAT NAME BE BLESSED FOREVER AND TO ALL ETERNITY.
BLESSED AND PRAISED, GLORIFIED AND EXALTED, EXTOLLED AND HONORED, ADORED AND LAUDED BE THE NAME OF THE HOLY ONE, BLESSED BE THAT ONE BEYOND ALL BLESSINGS AND HYMNS, PRAISES AND CONSOLATIONS THAT ARE EVER SPOKEN IN THE WORLD, AND LET US SAY, AMEN.
MAY THERE BE ABUNDANT PEACE FROM HEAVEN AND LIFE FOR US AND FOR ALL MEN, AND LET US SAY AMEN.

MAY GOD WHO CREATES PEACE IN THE CELESTIAL HEIGHTS CREATE PEACE FOR US AND FOR ALL THE WORLD, AND LET US SAY, AMEN.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Shared Sexual Energy in Mid-Life and Elderhood: A Guest Post by Ken Stofft

Why is the shared experience of erotic, sexual energy an important resource for queer men in their passages through mid-life and into elderhood?

Because unless we tap into that reservoir, we miss out on some of life's vast riches.  If we don't experience our full sexual energy, which is more than the sex act, we become limited in our relationship to ourselves and to others and don't enter as fully as we can into the profound mystery of life itself. 
 

Entering my 40's,  I was in my mid-life crisis. I felt isolated and driven by fear. I read William Bridge's Transitions, which I found greatly helpful.  That book started me off onto the right path of self-awareness. Although I was still drinking like a fish,  a major self-assessment told me that something had to change. The start was full of tears, anxiety, confusion, anger, disorientation. It took me another decade to take my first step, which was to get sober.  Then the 'work'  had just begun.  I entered unchartered territory and needed empathetic ears to hear my story, and to receive witnessing from someone outside of myself as I stumbled and worked my way up from what seemed like a bottomless pit.  I felt revitalized and on my way to new beginnings.   

In my early 60s, I entered into elderhood.  I went through another major transition and am still working my way through this time, which I consider the apex of my life.  I am clearly facing my mortality and have entered into this new dialogue with curiosity and a sense of playfulness. 

Both periods of time demanded my attention, and I knew then, as I know now, that self-awareness comes gradually and is a never-ending adventure.  So, I live today with a great deal of curiosity about myself and others, and with that overwhelming mystery we call life.   

Since those early days of mid-life, I've discovered the importance of my sexual energy--my life force. It is what flows or is inhibited in me, my source of creativity and vitality. It includes sex but is far more than simply enjoying sex. It is almost impossible for me to define what it is, but I know it is what I share with all others who are nurtured and sustained by the earth. It is the way of nature.  Birth, death, re-birth, death, the endless cycle.  It is the way of nature.  Birth, death, re-birth, death, the endless cycle.  My sexual energy is the source of my creativity and my power to simply be me. 
 
I've also discovered that I need other kindred embodied spirits to join me, and me to join them, in this journey of deeper, clearer self-awareness.  I discovered my need for a 'community', people that I want to surround myself with and  want to bond with.  It is this energy that feeds and nourishes its members when such a community exists.  And when there is a sense of safety, a freedom from judgment, shame, and guilt, I can let down my guard and reveal who I am.  It has taken me decades to feel comfortable and safe in my body, and it is due  not only to my own courage to be me, sexually alive, but to the people I've met on the way, and who surround me today. 

Since mid-life, and now as an elder, I have found certain elements  need to be nurtured.  I breathe into my belly.  I sit in meditation.  I reach out to others and listen to them when I am in need.  I touch and am touched physically by myself and with/by others.  I dance, and I have playful sex. I have found that breathing into my feelings is far, far more helpful than suppressing them; living in my body with excitement and joy is paramount.  The importance of shared sexual energy in these major transitions in life is primarily about “letting go” of the armor I have accrued over a life time, giving  myself permission to be seen, heard, touched, and to witness the same with others, becoming ever more deeply self-aware, and having the courage not only to own who I am, but to revel in who I am. More often than not, it is not a matter of having a one explosion of insight, but transitions are mini-events that accumulate, sometimes subtly, sometimes surprisingly, but always opportunities to be re-born.

I've learned that sharing my sexual energy, not only in sex, but in the way I live my life with passion and as much authenticity as I can muster, sharing my emotions, sharing my touch, sharing my beliefs, sharing my emotional vulnerabiltiy, is the only way for me to live.   

I have delved deeply into my sexual energy to create my own form of yin/yang, male/female, my own masculine identity that I believe is the most authentic for me.  I lived my life in fantasy and vicariously through books. Now I live it in my body passionately.   

I believe it's my sexual energy that also afforded me the ability to create my own spirituality rather than living in a traditional religious context, which I had found suffocating and unhealthy in its denial of  bodily pleasures its negativity about sex.  When I became sober and began to open to the fact that I was indeed a sexual creature, I faced a multitude of options that could have taken me in a different direction.  If I had allowed fear to rule my life, I never would have learned more about who I am and what I need in my life to simply be me.  I'm very grateful for having discovered a liberating, self-loving path for myself. 

What do I recommend?  Each man's path is his own.  What I have found most helpful I have listed above: breathing into the belly, sitting in self-assessment, moving/dancing, bonding physically and emotionally with others, finding others who are empathic, and always bringing curiosity as a gift of wonderment.

In what ways do you express your sexual energy? What do your sexual fantasies tell you about yourself?  When you are aroused, is ejaculation important and necessary?  How are you a passionate and sexually alive man when you're not having sex?   Is there a spirituality that nourishes and feeds your sexuality? If so, what is it?  What does your sexual energy say about the kind of man you are, and want to become, as you move through mid-life and into the status of elder?
 
Ken Stofft coaches men in exploring issues related to their sexuality: www.transitionpower.com

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Miracles of Solstice

Photos courtesy of StarDancer
 

 

 





six men
six ribbons
one image of their unity
six prayers
six brothers
each voicing his prayer
each bound by his brother
each bound to his prayer
six tricksters weaving a dance
six still but drawing together
now bound as one
silly and sexy
goofy and glorious
pious and prurient
spiraling inward
weaving a tangle of color
becoming a tangle of color
becoming one
on this morning of the sun's consummation
 
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reverence at Midsummer

Photographs courtesy of William McMenniman
 

 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

As Solstice Approaches

 
 Gentle men, head for the forest.


"The Birth of Cernunnos" by St. Louis artist Philip Hitchcock: http://www.hitchcockdesigns.com/fantasy30.html

 


Icon by Robert Lentz

 

 

 

 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Erotic Generosity

 
I've read a lot of queer theory in my day. I've read a fair amount of sex-positive liberal Christian theology. And I've read a lot of porn.

But in very little of it all have I found much that really voices what people who participate in alternative sexual communities are sometimes blessed to learn among themselves: when we find safety to accept our longings as a given, without shame, with the good will and acceptance of others--when we let down our defenses----our impulses toward generosity blossom. And we beget the further generosity of others in turn.
The chance to create safe containers for such experiences is one of the reasons queer men need to find each other apart from even the most tolerant and inclusive of wider cultures--and why those containers are probably best left mostly shielded from outside scrutiny. There's not really a lot of point in wasting emotional energy on dealing with the discomfort the alternative erotic spaces and practices we create are likely to engender in the wider normative culture.
Queer theory explores the creative, liberative impulse in all this--but without much attention to the impact that pleasure and erotic encounter have on the soul. Liberal Christian moral theology focuses on how interpersonal sexual connection shapes and fulfills the soul--but mostly remains embarassed that pleasure and fantasy shape our sexual preferences and experience before deep interpersonal connection comes into it. And a lot of porn focuses unrealistically on fulfilled fantasy and impossibly perfect pleasure--while mostly pretending that good sex doesn't engage our minds and spirits.
Radical faeries know better. I get the impression from friends that leatherfolk often know better. Men who participate in networks for non-penetrative, non-ejaculatory touch know better. The characters in John Cameron Mitchell's sweet, heartfelt, funny and incredibly hot film Shortbus know better. And the men I spent a Sunday afternoon with at the New York Jacks a few weeks ago clearly knew better.
To be fair to queer theorists, theologians, and pornographers alike: it's a tall order to write about a sexual experience of one's own in a way that's analytical and reverent and hot.
There's no better word than generosity to describe what happens when a roomful of men drop down into the lively possibilities of our bodies, stop searching for the ideal partner, smile in welcome at each other, and open up to treating those we meet in the moment with respect and delight. Generosity accepts the interest and affection of men who'd never turn one's head in a bar. Generosity creates safety for us to stop judging ourselves against impossible standards of air-brushed beauty. Generosity gives us space to be a little goofy, and to stop masking our longing behind a defensive screen of attitude. Generosity is love directed not just to a circle of friends and lovers, but to a random sample of humanity. Generosity is patient. Generosity is kind. Generosity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful. Generosity is willling to experience all things, hopes all things. Generosity never ends.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Stepping Up Into Community

I know I have lots of company as a gay man who longs to be part of a culture where sexual diversity isn't merely accepted or tolerated, but celebrated as a resource for social good and spiritual growth. I want to belong to a world where I'm both at home in my own skin and where I don't have to look over my shoulder to make sure I'm not going to take flack for being seen in my skin; where I'm confident that my experience of life won't seem unsettling, strange, or scandalous.

I'm hardly a separatist, but I do believe that some of what we need we can only find among other queer men. I'm grateful for the glimpses of that world--for the experiences of intermittent community among us that I get at retreat centres and in workshops.
At the same time, I'm also aware that "workshop culture" carries the risk of turning those experiences of belonging, of spiritual integration and social solidarity, into a commodity that we shop for. I'm aware of the number of times I've heard men in such venues express the desire to find community closer to home, while they lament that they don't expect it to happen. As though the only way to find it again is to put our money on the table, buy the plane ticket, and book the next structured package where safety, belonging, and discovery will be delivered to us as a surprise crafted by expert facilitators who are gifted and accomplished as we are not. We want to feel like this back home, off the Magic Mountain, but we doubt that could ever be possible.
The problem isn't with these courses and settings per se: they offer precious opportunities and sometimes great blessings. The problem is that in a culture where everything is a product we can buy, it's incredibly challenging to remember that the magic is what happens between us, not the container in which it happens. We have to remember that we can do this among ourselves, because we're already doing it among ourselves.
If you've ever put effort into building queer men's community from the grass roots up, you've maybe found out it's easier to talk a good game and then drift away into individual agendas after the first couple of weeks or months trying to keep together. It's one thing to express a desire for the magic of deep community. It's another to stick around, tending and building the container when the payoff isn't more or less immediate.
If we're really honest, we recognize that it's not just others who fail to step up and hold space for the magic to happen. Often enough, we drop the ball ourselves. The monthly checkin we promised a circle of friends turns out harder to get to than we thought. The quarterly gathering we committed to conflicts with something else that's come up.
If you're steeped in the Christian New Testament, you might recall the parable of the rich man who prepares a banquet, only to find that all the invited guests make excuses for why they can't attend. One has just married. Another has to go inspect a field he's bought. Another has cattle to tend.
Or to put it in another key, we have to remember the words of Gandhi: we ourselves have to be the change in the world that we want to see. It's a surprisingly difficult lesson to absorb and then act on.
Caring, spiritually engaged community among queer men--a community where we dig deeper into the lessons of our shared experience, and where we explore and celebrate the differences among us--doesn't have to remain a utopian pipe-dream. It doesn't have to be restricted to the few days that we head off to a program, providing we can afford the time and money, while many of us can't. It doesn't have to remain a rare, happy accident.

True community is a dance between our individual longings and our deep awareness that we'll find what we're looking for only by being part of something bigger than we are--something that may unsettle us, knock us out of our preconceived sense of ourselves and remake us. Community is risk and adventure. It takes courage, because it opens the possibility that we can't control what will happen when we step outside ourselves.
You build community when you go to a meeting in support of a project you believe in, even though you've had a long day and just want some down time at home.
You build community when you walk into a nursing home to visit an elderly friend, even though nursing homes are probably the last places on earth you enjoy hanging out.
You build community when you respond kindly and graciously to the flirtation of men you're not attracted to, instead of shaming them with blunt rejection.
You build community when you let yourself be open to the possibility that a one-night stand might become a friend--or at least deserves a phone call to thank him for the time you spent together.
You build community when you follow through on the promise to check in with the men you met at a gathering that opened your heart, even when the intensity of that experience fades into the business-as-usual of your life back home.
You build community when you keep faith with the longing within you for a bigger, fuller, richer life: when you step up into the work of repairing your soul and repairing the world, of transforming them both, of making them both new.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Waiting for Binoculars Guy

Last fall, the second or third time I led a Lingam Puja ritual in New York's Riverside Park, a man in his sixties came up the trail a few minutes after we'd started, clearly focused on the group though still a hundred yards away. A latecomer, I thought. I smiled in welcome. He marched up and announced, "You can't do this here."

"I'm sorry--what are we doing that's against park rules?" I asked.
"You're off the path in a bird sanctuary," he said, and then added. "People do it all the time. They let their dogs run in here, but they're not supposed to."
"I didn't see any sign."
"Well, it's a rule."
"I'm really surprised I didn't see a sign. I'll look for it when we're leaving."

"You're obviously holding some sort of ritual. That's not allowed."
...and a little more dialogue after that. I think he felt heard, if not satisfied, and after a few minutes  he stalked on up the path.
The next time he appeared, a couple of months later, binoculars around his neck, he objected that we'd moved some brushwood to form the circle in which we meet. The third time he confronted us, his complaint was less focused but just as full of frustration.
This man clearly loves the park and feels called to care for it. He finds meaning in his vigilance for a greater community good. The unfamilarity of seeing a small group of men engaging in a ritual he doesn't understand raises anxiety and suspicion.
Dealing with him always knocks us off balance in unwelcome ways. The impulse to push back rears up among us all. I struggle to go on anchoring our practice despite the turmoil of my own reactions. His hostility tears at the integrity of ritual time and space, as he exercises every New Yorker's God-given right to object to every other New Yorker taking up space.
The glorious early spring afternoon of our last gathering, I braced with more than a little anxiety for his next appearance. I combed the web to print out all the relevant park regulations I could find. I recruited a friend to act as spokesman and keep him if possible out of our midst. In my introductory words  to the group, I mentioned our earlier run-ins and encouraged everyone, should he appear, to stay mindful. Could we make a conscious choice not to receive his energy full on and absorb it, nor simply to reflect hostility back to him? Could we instead hold the integrity of our space, and let anger dissipate around us?
With all this practical and emotional preparation as our talisman, Binoculars Guy never appeared.
But I don't want to be too quick to rejoice in the good luck of avoiding him. I don't want to discount the gifts Binoculars Guy has brought us. If it weren't for Binoculars Guy, we wouldn't have had the incitement to become more grounded in our response to the energies that inevitably flow through the space we take up in a Manhattan park: helicopters overhead, sirens on Riverside Drive, dog owners calling their off-leash pets back from a circle of strangers they regard with wary curiosity. He's helped us to become a more cohesive community. He's helped me to become more conscious of all that holding space for this improbable, eccentric  ritual practice entails,  to think more deeply about how to mediate between our group and passersby, to consider how we can minimize our impact on them and yet stay focused on why we're here, on who we are and who we hope to become.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Shore of Safety

Just a few hours before the beginning of Passover, one day into Holy Week after Palm Sunday, this is my twofold prayer: that queer men find resources and sustenance in the religious traditions that shaped us in our early years—Jewish and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist—and also that we claim the power to demand erotic justice from those who speak for those traditions.

My prayer is that we hold those two realties of our spiritual histories together: that we call churches and bishops, synagogues and rabbis, mosques and imams, temples, monks and priests to account; and that we refuse to relinquish to our oppressors the treasures that rightfully belong to us.

The New York Times yesterday carried an extraordinary example of the courage and integrity we’re required to show in order to do both those things at once. Page 7 of the front section was entirely taken up by an open letter to Pope Francis from Carl Siciliano, the Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan, which serves homeless lgbtq youth. Siciliano writes as a Roman Catholic, a former monk, and a member of the Catholic Worker movement. His letter offers example after damning example, drawn from his experience as director of the Forney Center, of the suffering queer kids go through when religious bigotry trumps parental love and institutional benevolence. 

What gave the letter such power was Siciliano’s willingness to go on standing with one foot inside the tradition that shaped his own spiritual life, even as he bore witness to the damage that tradition has done. It was uncompromising in its indictment of the effects of religious bigotry. It was heartfelt in its appeal to values of compassion and love over dogma that Francis’s public statements have endorsed over the still-short period since his election as Pope.

And it was savvy. Its publication coincided with the commencement of the holiest week of the Christian liturgical year. Its appeal made sense in the context of what is and isn’t possible, at least for the moment, in the evolution of Roman Catholicism. It let go of Francis’s dubious record, as Archibshop of Buenos Aires, of vociferous opposition to same-sex marriage in Argentina. It made reference to the reform of doctrine around human sexuality, but it focused on the lived human effects of intolerance, much as Francis’s own pronouncements have done since his elevation. It was sponsored (and we’re talking the cost of a full-page ad in the Sunday Times) by the high-end funiture retailer Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, in a happy reminder that the use of private wealth actually can be genuinely benign.


We stand at a time of amazing possibility. Less than fifty years after most of us would have lost jobs, homes, and friends with the revelation of our sexual difference, at least some of us have the safe space to claim the integrity of our erotic and spiritual lives, and to advocate for those who still suffer the effects of homophobic injustice. We’re the ones who’ve made it to the far shore of the Red Sea. We’re called to look back, put out our hands, and  pull those behind us up the slope to safety.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for the Knock at the Door


When somebody talks about having a calling , how do you react?
Can you relate from your own experience of being drawn to a life choice by some force outside yourself? Do you feel a twinge of envy? Are you irritated at what sounds like pious, self-justifying twaddle? Is having a calling (or claiming to have a calling) the opposite of being unsure of where you're going in life? Is a calling something that assures you you've made the right choices, and now all you have to do is play them out?
Or could having a calling mean trusting you're where you're supposed to be right now and what the next step has to be, but not having a clue about what happens after that?
When I was taking Sacred Intimacy training, one of our teachers said that before every session--once we'd prepared the space of meeting and were simply waiting for the client's knock at the door--we ought to repeat to ourselves. "I know what I'm doing. I have no idea what I'm doing."
 I've come to believe that that moment of waiting for the knock is the essence of calling: not the reassurance that it will all unfold as it ought, much less that you're confident in what you're doing, but trust, in the face of uncertainty, that this is the right place to be, and that radical availability is the right way to meet the unknown Visitor. You expect the knock will come, but you don't know for sure. You don't know what to anticipate once the door opens, can't know the full depths of the person you'll greet in that moment (even if you've met many times before), can't predict the complex swirl of emotions, longings, and history that he'll share when he comes into the room. But you trust that you need to be where you are, and that meeting him is why you're there.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Polite Forms of Address

For better or worse, having only the briefest and most limited acquaintance with almost anything has never kept me from offering an opinion about it.

So why should I make an exception for the Thai language?

After just over a week in this country, I have a very unimpressive handful of functional phrases in Thai. I don't expect I'll manage to expand my repertory much further over the next days before heading back into the ongoing grip of the Canadian winter. "Hello," "Thank you," "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" go a long way in a place where kind smiles and palms pressed together in greeting, thanks, or farewell count for as much as they do here.

Partly, I'm daunted by the writing system, which though alphabetic seems to have more exceptions than straightforward rules: 44 consonantal letters to cover 21 sounds, silent letters to represent sounds that were pronounced in earlier versions of the language (think of the phonetic mess that is the "gh" combination in English), vowels that often, but not always, have to be represented by diacritical marks above or below the letter. Transliteration into the Roman alphabet doesn't help much. I've seen "Thank you" printed (and written out) as "kob khun krab," "karp kuhn krap," and "korp kun krab."

And then, oh, God, as in most East Asian languages--the tones. Low, middle, falling, high, and rising. Asking someone to demonstrate only makes me feel more moronic, when I fail to hear the distinctions they're so patiently trying to explain.

Language geek that I am, I'm as fascinated as I am stumped. Every road sign with a Roman transcription feels like a Rosetta Stone whizzing past at 120 km an hour, if I only had time and patience.

I promise I won't go on about this much longer, but here's the kicker: in the polite register of respectful speech, you end many statements with a particle denoting esteem for the person you're talking to. But unlike English "sir" or ma'am," the gender of these markers doesn't refer to the person addressed but to the speaker: "krap" and "ka," used by men and women respectively, either one spoken on the high tone at the top of the voice register--so if you're a man exchanging hellos with a woman, the easiest gaffe to make is to imitate the "ka" at the end of her phrase instead of substituting "krap." I expect Thais who deal with clueless visitors like me must make jokes about this all the time.

Soooo----if gender really is a social role that's handed to us to perform, here's a performance that the individual is required by social nicety to repeat dozens of times a day. Is my mistaken "ka" the linguistic equivalent of walking into the hotel lobby in genderfuck drag? If it is, it's taken in stride by the endlessly kind, polite people who've served me here.

More to the point, more importantly: what kind of space do "krap" and "ka" make for folks who need, or who choose, to renegotiate their gender? I'm thinking of the endless struggle trans people face in Western countries to get it through other people's heads what third-person gender markers they prefer should be used of them. (Justin Vivian Bond's insistence on "ve," is as playfully ingenious as it is serious, but I suspect it's not going to gain wide currency.) I'm thinking at the same time of the relative ease with which trans folks seem to find space in Thai society, like the taxi driver I met yesterday, the museum attendant who waited on me earlier in the week, the guide who took us on a bike tour out into the countryside south of Chiang Mai. I'm thinking what it would be like to use "krap" and/or "ka" to say, "This is who I am. For now, at least. Get used to it." Or for that matter, "Don't get too used to it. I may change my mind. Next year. Or tomorrow."

Monday, February 10, 2014

At the Cross-Quarter

We’re way past February 2 now: a cross-quarter between Solstice and Equinox; Groundhog Day; Candlemas; Imbolc. A week ago, in Toronto, locked deep in the most tenacious winter I remember since the early 1980’s, it was hard to visualize any promise of spring. The small shrine in the corner of my back garden lay long since buried, the Shiva Lingam’s sanctity sleeping under six inches of snow and marked only by memory, the small, bronze Buddha visible from the shoulders up. (Since then, he too has vanished.)

Today is a another, happier, story—bright with the intensity of light slanting down on us from a dramatically steeper mid-day angle, flowing with rivulets melting off snowbanks , the snow itself intensifying the sun. It’s a hit of what I’ve longed for since the first week of January: the signal that it’s safe finally to stick my nose out and sniff the air, that it’s not completely insane to imagine my shrine reappearing; or even green exploding around it, six weeks further along, from the tips of waking branches. Nine days after a conscientious Wiccan would have celebrated, I can finally believe that today marks the birth of a new season.

Maybe it's not a bad idea to apply this lesson to the experience of life as a queer man in the world today. If you pull the focus back from the relative freedom of middle-class gay life in a much of the West, we’re still in the grip of a long, cold winter. India has recriminalized homosexuality. Gay men in Nigeria are subject to brutal legalized thuggery. The regime in Russia deflects attention from its homophobic witch hunts with the mass hypnotism and overblown elitist waste of the Sochi Olympics. Closer to home, violence against trans men and women hardly even makes the mainstream news.

So to sustain ourselves, to keep hope for the future, to give ourselves courage to fight for a better world, and not to rest until we see it, we need to look for those first signs of a new season's birth: Canadian cities flying the rainbow flag for the duration of the Olympics, in protest against what Putin wants brushed under the rug till the rest of the world goes home; two members of Pussy Riot speaking out against the Russian regime at a press conference in New York; activists of the South Asian diaspora protesting against India’s step backward; African activists, heroically defying personal risk, preparing to attend a conference on queer human rights, along with their fellows from all over the world, as part of World Pride in Toronto this June.


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