Category Archives: Saying Class Out Loud
When the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage-equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges came down on the morning of June 26th, we didn’t get so much as 24 hours to celebrate before the dissents began. Actually, we didn’t even get 24 minutes.
No, I’m not referring to the dissents by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Scalia. And no, not even to the bileful, venomous denunciations by such pillars of democratic thought as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who promised to refuse to recognize marriage equality in his state, or Ted Cruz and his seditious, treasonous call to abolish the Supreme Court.
Nor do I mean the few, scattered mayors and county clerks across the nation who, like coked-up Chihuahuas, couldn’t stop yipping about how they’d stop issuing marriage licenses altogether rather than grant them to same-sex couples.
All of that was as predictable as a Donald Trump presidential candidacy.
And all of it is ultimately just as pointless. Recall, for example, that Alabama took 33 grudge-filled years to repeal its anti-miscegenation law after the Supreme Court struck them down across the country in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and that Louisiana judge Keith Bardwell actually refused to marry a mixed-race couple in 2010. In the meantime, mixed-race couples continued to get married, including in Alabama and Louisiana. (It’s worth noting that, at the time when the Supreme Court legalized mixed-race marriage, 72% of Americans opposed it; when Alabama repealed its law, there were “at least” 1,600 married mixed-race couples in the state./1/
No, I mean the dissents written by soi-disant “progressive” activists, those eternally choleric, permanently aggrieved neoradical opponents of marriage (or of marriage equality or of queer people who get married, or of anybody’s getting married, or of political agendas that are not precisely identical to their own, or of anyone who cannot understand why every good thing is actually a bad thing, or some combination of all of the above), who had apparently been keeping their screeds on thumb drives so they could unleash them the moment the Obergefell decision became official.
Now, there are all kinds of reasons to be skeptical of marriage—as an institution, as a cultural meme, as a trope which, like “family” and “country,” can be deployed to mean whatever the user wants it to mean (usually nothing good).
And I’ll be among the first to say that Justice Kennedy’s barfy, sentimental, overblown definition of marriage in his majority opinion (“the keystone of our social order”) didn’t exactly help those of us trying to keep (you should pardon the expression) a straight face.
Whipped into a Hallmarkian frenzy, Kennedy went on to declare that: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
Well … unless those people are Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian, Dennis Rodman, Lisa Marie Presley, Mario Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, Newt Gingrich, Dakota Meyer (who almost married Bristol Palin, except that he was probably still married to another woman at the time), or Marcus Bachmann, who is now divorcing his beard wife Michele Bachmann after 37 years, or even the million or so people who legally end their “profound unions” each year.
In other words, once you get that piece of paper, marriage can be anything you want it to be, including a total farce, and the state can’t say a thing about it.
Fortunately, however, neither can neoradical, anti-marriage queers. At least not yet.
It would be tough to pick which of the anti-queer queer commentaries of the last few days is the most birdbrained and fallaciously argued, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a favorite. My nominee is Yasmin Nair and her “The Secret History of Gay Marriage,” which she presciently posted the day before the Obergefell decision: When you’re going to say absolutely nothing new, and say it less coherently, there’s no substitute for getting out ahead of the pack.
Virtually everything Nair writes in “The Secret History of Gay Marriage” is wrong, including (pace Mary McCarthy) “and” and “the.” Still, one has to start somewhere.
I’d like to start with her slippery-slope arguments, her straw-man fallacies, the total lack of evidence for her assertions, her logic-free reasoning, and the numerous facts she gets exactly wrong—all the traits, in other words, of an essay that I would sternly hand back for a rewrite if it came to me in one of the freshman-comp classes I occasionally teach.
Before I dig in, it might be helpful if you knew one thing right off the bat: Nair doesn’t like Frank Bruni. I don’t always like Frank Bruni either, so I can relate.
In this case, though, Nair got her head of steam up by skewering Bruni for a June 20, 2015 New York Times Op-Ed in which he recalled that one horror of the horror-filed AIDS years was the “constant sorrow and countless examples of gay people treated as second-class citizens. One [such example] was almost certainly this: the steadfast, heartbroken man being shut out of his beloved’s final weeks—not allowed in the hospital room, not welcomed at the grave—because some family members disapproved and no law trumped their bigotry.
Nair, who loves a straw man as she loves no other, takes exception to this because, she says,
[T]he fact that romantic partners, all husbands in waiting as Bruni’s myopic history would have us believe, were turned away from the bedsides of dying men was not the central problem with AIDS in the 80s. The far bigger problem was that men were dying of AIDS, period, and in often brutal and dehumanising conditions. But if you were to believe Bruni, the lesson of AIDS was that gay marriage would solve all the problems of the epidemic.
Okay … so let’s now go back to Bruni’s text and see where he says any of that. I’ll wait while you read his Op-Ed through a time or twelve.
Can’t find it?
That’s because it isn’t there.
I mean, I’m all for calling Frank Bruni a tool when he acts like one, but accusing him of not understanding that the “central problem with AIDS in the 80s” was actually AIDS and not hospital visitation is repulsive. Also fatuous. Also really fucking annoying.
Then there’s her assertion that Bruni writes “rubbish” when he says (in Nair’s inaccurate restatement) that “seeds” of activism by the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis permitted “the legalization of same-sex marriage [to flower].”
What Bruni actually wrote was a little broader than Nair gives him credit for:
Alfred Kinsey told Americans in the late 1940s just how common same-sex activity was. The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, appeared in 1950, in Los Angeles. The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian political organization, appeared in 1955, in San Francisco. From those seeds, the legalization of same-sex marriage flowered, and no shortage of harsh winters intervened.
But Nair knows all this is “rubbish” because, she avers without a scrap of evidence, “gay marriage … was never a topic of huge concern in the LGBTQ community until the rise of the mainstream gay organizations in the mid-1990s.”
I suppose all interpretations could hinge upon the words “huge” and “mainstream,” but it is simply historically inaccurate to say that it was not a concern for early gay- and lesbian-rights organizations. I recently finished an extensive period of study (on an unrelated project) at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, which included reading numerous issues of ONE Magazine and The Mattachine Review, and I can confirm that writers in those magazines were “concerned about” and did mention the marriage issue more than casually—even in the 1950s. (Just one example among many: “The Society We Envisage” by Edward Sagarin [writing as Donald Webster Cory] in his 1951 The Homosexual In America; Sagarin saw the option of same-sex marriage as one outgrowth of the “liberalization of the sexual mores of modern civilization” in which “some people require[d] a mate; others [did] not” but in which all consensual social/sexual relationships could exist “without social ostracism” or “fear of social consequences.”/2/)
Moreover, as earlier as 1971, the Gay Activist Alliance in New York was staging protests at the New York City Clerk’s office over its refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At around the same time, a number of early post-Stonewall documents—Carl Wittman’s famous “A Gay Manifesto” (1969-1970), Charlotte Bunch’s “Lesbians in Revolt” (1972)—discuss and confront the issue of marriage, either in demands for the elimination of traditional sex roles, criticisms of lesbian and gay male imitation of heterosexual marriage, or analyses of the nuclear family as a fundamental unit of gay and women’s oppression.
In other words, while Wittman and Bunch were both suspicious of “traditional” marriage, they raised the issue because it was on the minds of their readers and of the members of the political organizations in which they worked. Marriage equality was not their primary concern (that would have been not being arrested simply for existing or the seemingly intractable misogyny of gay male “homophile” organizations), but it did exist as one issue among others. Discussions such as these, then, were among the “seeds” to which Bruni (quite correctly) alludes.”/3/
In 1982, civil rights leader and strategist Bayard Rustin adopted his partner, Walter Naegle, because no other legal option then existed for them to formalize their long-term relationship. There were calls for same-sex marriage at the 1987 March on Washington (I was there); and the 1993 March included, as the Washington Post reported, a mass wedding at the National Museum of Natural History with 1,500 same-sex couples, “a dozen ministers, organ music, photographers and rice,” as well as, according to the Chicago Tribune, a smaller protest at the Internal Revenue Service building “for full legal recognition of domestic partnerships” for tax purposes./4/
The whole reason the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 was precisely because years of activism had already constituted marriage equality as a credible “threat” to the status quo.
Let’s be clear then: The idea that marriage equality was the cynical “invention” of “mainstream” gay-rights organizations “following a depletion of political energy post-AIDS,” and was then “foisted upon a community with few resources” who otherwise couldn’t have cared less, all of which Nair argues, is bogus and false.
That is different from acknowledging that unprecedented attention and an extraordinary number of dollars went into the marriage-equality fight. It is different from recognizing that the decisions taken by gay-and-lesbian-rights organizations to pursue such an agenda were strategic ones, and that their strategies are subject to historical interpretation and to criticism.
But it is not a fact that same-sex marriage was absent from the queer political agenda over the 50 years of the queer movement prior to the end of the 1990s, and it is not a fact that same-sex marriage was “held hostage by a wealthy few … who wanted a way to ensure that their aspirations to be seen as just like everyone else would be fulfilled.”
We can’t even really justify assertions such as these as legitimate opinions. Rather, we should call them what they are: talking points, which the entire anti-marriage-equality crowd has sucked out of the same vat of Kool-Aid.
Here are more of Nair’s talking points:
The secret history of gay marriage is that it has never been about “equality” in any real sense, but about ensuring that a small section of gay men and women are able to hold on to their wealth…. The best example of this is the case of Edith Windsor, painted by Bruni and others as some kind of brave heroine. HRC and others quietly … created a mythology around her, that she was a little old lady sitting in an empty garrett [sic] somewhere in a cold, drafty apartment in New York, striking match after match just to keep herself warm while the wolves howled at her door. In fact, Windsor is more than well off…. [S]he is far more comfortably off than many of the delusional gays and lesbians living on much, much less who fondly imagine that they actually have estates that would be affected by the DOMA ruling in any way. The central point is what we have to pay attention to: that Windsor was not refusing to pay taxes because she couldn’t afford to, but because she refused to.
I would challenge Nair to produce one—just one—example of a press release or article or other official material from the HRC or other organization involved in the Windsor case in which there was any attempt to create a “mythology … that she was a little old lady sitting in an empty [garret] somewhere in a cold, drafty apartment in New York, striking match after match just to keep herself warm while the wolves howled at her door.”
Because: It. Never. Happened.
Keeping in mind the impossibility of proving the null hypothesis, I will nevertheless submit that there is no one who failed to understand that Edith Windsor was and is a wealthy woman or that the amount of money at issue in her case was, as the Against Equality Collective put it in 2014, “more than “[m]ost people are [likely] to ever see… in their lifetimes.”
And my question is: So what? Edith Windsor never stated—nor did anyone ever state on her behalf—that she couldn’t afford to pay her taxes. To say she simply “refused to” is an incomplete statement and, thus, constitutes a fallacious argument by omission.
She refused because it was unfair and discriminatory to pay taxes that a heterosexual married couple would not have had to pay. (Windsor and her wife were legally married, by the way; the issue was that the IRS refused to recognize that marriage.)
But here’s the real point. Supreme Court decisions, including the decision in U.S. v. Windsor, extend constitutional protections to all citizens. The benefits of being recognized as a “surviving spouse” (never mind as a living spouse) are considerable, regardless of socioeconomic status.
In terms of the specifics of Windsor, it is true that the Supreme Court’s decision meant that Edith Windsor could avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes; it also meant, however, that any same-sex spouse of a deceased worker could receive Social Security survivor’s benefits, which currently average a whopping $1,083.13 per month. That’s hardly anyone’s idea of a fortune, but the logical extension of Nair’s argument, which parrots Against Equality’s most superficial cant, was this: Because striking down DOMA also potentially benefited wealthy people, the law should have been left intact to “protect” the downtrodden.
To move from the assertion that U.S. v. Windsor helped Edith Windsor avoid a fat tax bill to the insistence that the entire marriage-equality movement has been aimed at “ensuring that a small section of gay men and women are able to hold on to their wealth” is grotesque and asinine.
And this is where Nair’s argument reaches the true heights of offensiveness. Couching her argument as a defense of poor and working-class people and a criticism of economic disparity, Nair, snarled in the logical knots of her neoradical analysis, can only see the marriage-equality battle as a consolidation of the power of the “gay ruling class” and, thus, as antagonistic to diversity and cross-sectional solidarity.
And yet Nair’s analysis assumes that poor and working-class queers are entirely absent among those who are married or who might wish to be. In other words, she renders us invisible.
Nair cannot possibly know – nor has she one statistic to back her up – that the chief beneficiaries of marriage equality are or would be the wealthy. She cannot rationally maintain that queer poor people, queer working-class people, queer immigrants, and queer people of color are uninterested in marriage or are absent from the population that would benefit from entering into legal marriages if they chose to.
Not only do no facts exist to support such a position, the facts that do exist tell exactly the opposite story. As Andy Thayer reported in HuffPost,
Black same-sex couples are roughly twice as likely to be raising kids white same-sex couples, and same-sex Latino couples are more than three times as likely to raising kids as white male same-sex couples, according studies carried out the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Latino/a Coalition for Justice. So who in the LGBT community really benefits most from legalized same-sex marriage?
Quoting from his and Robin Tyler’s “The Gay Marriage Struggle: What’s at Stake and How Can We Win?”, Thayer goes on to argue that “marriage and the family are much more important to the material security of working-class people than they are to wealthier people, who are usually better able to afford attorneys to construct the intricate web of legal documents needed to imperfectly mimic the contractual features of heterosexual marriage.”/5/
Finally, after reviewing the sad history of both Republicans and Democrats efforts to derail the marriage-equality issue (you can thank a Democrat, Bill Clinton, for DOMA), Thayer comments, “So if not from the politicians of either party, where did equal marriage rights truly emanate from? Where rights have always emanated from — from regular working people.”
Take me and my husband, for instance. According to Nair, we only got married to “consolidate our wealth,” so let’s talk specifics. By filing our taxes jointly over the last two years, we’ve saved somewhere between $200 and $400 per year. If that continues, and if we put all that “wealth” into the bank, at my current life expectancy we might actually have enough to pay for my funeral.
Similarly, being married means that, if I should die unexpectedly, my spouse could directly assume the “wealth” of our nine-year-old car (the only one we own—current Blue Book, about $3000), have access to my checking account (current balance, about $1,600), and, assuming I died after reaching retirement age, receive Social Security survivor benefits (which will amount to about $400 a month), all just by providing a copy of our marriage license. My only hope is that he will manage all that wealth wisely.
And how much better it would be for us—how much better it would be for all queer working people, in fact—if none of this were possible, or if it were possible only if my spouse hired a lawyer and fought to get what little was rightfully his.
But that’s the argument Nair appears to be advancing: that discriminatory treatment should have been allowed to remain in place in order to save poor and working-class queers from themselves. Were it not for Nair’s warnings, we might fall into the “rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish pit,” whence cometh marriage equality.
In other words, it would be better for us to be denied access to marriage, should we want to be married, because Nair and her ilk can then make incoherent attacks on an invented “mainstream” for the purpose of advancing an entirely fanciful, entirely reactionary position about social institutions and economic disparity.
Here’s what else Nair very carefully leaves out of her rageful, unbalanced attack on marriage equality: Not a small number of us got married in order to give our non-American-citizen partners access to a green card (as many as 36,000 couples, according to Immigration Equality).
Following the 2013 Windsor and Prop 8 decisions, we won freedom not only from the fear of our partners’ being deported (for couples in which one member was “out of status”) but were able to put an end to years and years of temporary visas and the terror that a layoff might mean having to leave the country or face being separated.
Someone with Nair’s righteous “progressive” credentials is surely a fan of immigration reform, so completely avoiding this aspect of the marriage-equality fight is an indication of just how dishonest her criticisms really are. Unless, of course, Nair also believes that binational couples are all wealthy.
I’m no less skeptical than Nair likely is of silly, sound-bite claims that “we” miraculously now have dignity that we lacked on June 25th. I can’t help but cringe when people get on national TV and talk about how “we” are now completely equal.
But no one is required to subscribe to any of those notions about marriage in order to be married. And that’s the essential point.
In its literal sense, marriage is nothing more than a change in legal status, but we get to be married in any way we want. It doesn’t have to be a marriage that conforms to Justice Kennedy’s “noble purpose” or “sacred intimacy,” and, thank the deities, it doesn’t have to be a marriage that Yasmin Nair would approve.
And yet we now find ourselves in a strange position. We’re caught between right-wing bigots like Mike Huckabee telling me my marriage will undermine families and destroy the country and (ostensibly) left-wing bigots like Nair telling me my marriage is an insult to the poor, the working-class, people of color, and transmen and -women, all of whom we apparently despise; that it represents an aspiration to join the bourgeoisie or a pathetic wish be seen as “just like everyone else”; and that it reflects the success of an “entirely selfish campaign carried out by rapacious, greedy and entirely selfish gay men and women.”
True radicals should be incensed that a deeply intellectual tradition of analysis and action has been coopted by spokespeople whose main contribution to the causes they espouse (pun intended) has been the social-media rant. Nair’s “Secret History” is a prime example.
Nair doesn’t know what my marriage is, how it came to be, what it means to us, or how we lead our lives. She knows nothing about my experience of being an out queer man for nearly four decades. And she has no right to act as though she does.
To put it bluntly, anti-queer, anti-marriage-equality rhetoric like Nair’s is fucking evil. And it has to stop.
1 Landers, Renée (2012). “What’s Loving Got to Do With It?” In Kevin Noble Maillard and Rose Cuison Villazor, Eds., Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, pp. 128-140, 133 and 133, Note 20.
2 Reprinted in We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan, Eds. New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 275-281.
3 Wittman’s and Bunch’s writings also appear in We Are Everywhere.
4 Wheeler, Linda (1993, April 25.). “Mass Wedding Marries Tradition and Protest.” Washington Post, < http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-943527.html>. Retrieved 28 June 2015. McRoberts, Flynn (1993, April 25). “Gays Take Fight For Dignity To D.C.”. Chicago Tribune. < http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1993-04-25/news/9304250244_1_gay-homosexuals-civil-rights> Retrieved 28 June 2015.
5 In Martin Dupuis and William A. Thompson, Eds. Defending Same-Sex Marriage:The Freedom-to-Marry Movement, Praeger Press, 2007.
Smug, Smarmy, Self-Satisfied White Guy Schools His University Colleagues on Why They Aren’t Winners Like Him
Jason Brennan, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, tells adjunct professors across the country that they could always “get a job at GEICO” if they don’t like teaching conditions in today’s Ayn Rand-approved American university system.
In an editorial originally published on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog (and since removed), “National Adjunct Walkout Day: Should We Feel Sorry for Adjuncts?” [or download a .pdf here], Brennan opines that
“[a]djuncts are people who played what they should have known, and in most cases did know, was a risky game, and lost. They are not like sweatshop workers in the third world who have no better options. They are more like formerly rich people who understand statistics, but who decided to bet the house in Vegas anyways. When they lose — even though they lose in a corrupt [and] unfair system — it’s hard to feel sorry for them. After all, they knew (or should have known) what the risks were and how bad the system is, and they played anyways. Further, there’s no reason why they have to wallow in adjunct poverty. They could just quit at any time and get a perfectly good job at GEICO.”
Brennan is the author of a number of books on capitalism, the economy, and the “free market” system that Rand Paul has admitted to using extensively in moments of private self-pleasuring, but he remains an assistant professor even after nearly eight years in academia. At Georgetown, where he has taught since 2011, tenure continues to evade him.
Still, the kind of ironclad logic that Brennan displays in “Should We Feel Sorry for Adjuncts?” has won him the accolades of tens. Take, for example, his stinging criticism of National Adjunct Walkout Day: “Fixing the [adjunct] system won’t mean that most adjuncts will get cushy [tenure-track] jobs. Instead, it would at most mean that a minority of them will get [tenure-track] jobs, and the rest will be kicked out of academia entirely. So, if you’d prefer to be an adjunct [with] bad pay to working at GEICO, then your fellow protesting adjuncts are your enemies, not your friends.
Devastating, until one considers that what the adjunct system really demonstrates is that Assistant Professors like Brennan are dinosaurs dying slowly in the poisoned air that has surrounded the planet since the collision of the neoliberal asteroid.
Adjuncts will do exactly what Brennan does and they’ll do it for a fraction of what it costs to give people like Brennan an office, a department secretary, and a healthcare plan.
Adjuncts are coming for your job, Jason, and your Libertarian overlords are going to give it to them. (If you know of something in retail or used car salesmanship that might be right for Jason after he becomes another victim of the “free market,” please contact him at Jason.Brennan@georgetown.edu.)
National March Convened
In reaction to Brennan’s editorial, organizers and protestors will travel to Georgetown in the coming weeks to meet with Brennan. After a group of ENG 101 adjunct comp professors explain the concept of the logical fallacy to him, a second group plans to kick Brennan repeatedly in the nuts.
Said one non-tenured professor, “Back in the day, I’d have kicked him in the nuts on general principles just for that look on his face.”
Added another long-time professor of political science who came across Brennan’s editorial on Facebook, “Because FB has still not installed the ‘I wanna punch a douche’ button, I just clicked ‘Like’ instead.”
Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers is officially published (and just slightly ahead of schedule)!
And it’s a little love of a doorstop: 486 pages weighing in at a pound and three-quarters!
In addition to work by twenty writers (including Rigoberto González, Timothy Anderson, Tara Hardy, Keith Banner, Carter Sickels, and Renny Christopher, to name a few); an excerpt from John Gilgun’s unpublished autobiography; a Judy Grahn story from the landmark 1981 anthology, Lesbian Fiction; and a new translation from Italian, Blue, Too includes a 110-page theoretical and critical essay that reviews the history and present of working-class queers in literature and pop culture (“Class/Mates: Further Outings in the Literatures and Cultures of the Ga(y)ted Community”), as well as the “Reader’s, Writer’s, and Scholar’s Guide” and the Annotated Bibliography (more than 500 items) I’d always hoped would be part of this project.
There’s great reading between its covers, but Blue, Too is also designed for book clubs, discussion groups, and course adoption in working-class studies, queer/LGBTQ studies, and contemporary American Literature courses.
Small-press/independent books like this always struggle a bit to find their public, so this post is also a blatant plea for your support. Please buy a copy; please review the book; please let your friends know. (I can provide discounted copies to bookstores/resellers as well as review copies.)
This project, which has been part of my life in one form or another for more than a decade, answers my need for a response—not so much to silence, but to noise and lies, a reminder of the experiences that are elided, obscured, overlooked, manipulated, disdained, misunderstood, or simply out-shouted.
As Stanley Kunitz wrote in his poem, “The Layers”:
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
I, too, am scattered.
I like the part of me that gets about as excited by a demolition derby as I do by the Tony Awards, that likes both fancy cheese and Spam. Drag queens feel like home to me because they were there in the bars I came out in, but non-cross-dressing gay boys with tweezed eyebrows and shaved chests make about as much sense to me as a screen door on a submarine (as my mom used to say).
With all due respect to the many gay pride parades I’ve happily attended, I have experienced my most profound moments of bonding with other men when I have worked in prisons and jails in Texas, New Mexico, and San Francisco, places where poor and working-class men are not the majority, they are quite simply the whole.
Nobody better say a word against Tammy Wynette or Randy Travis in my presence, yet I suspect I might have learned to like opera more if you didn’t have to pay a day’s wages to get into one. I’m proud of being the first in my family to earn a college degree, and I’m just as demoralized by ignorance as I am by the attempts of the right to make formal education seem “elitist” and un-American. At the same time, some of the most decent, intellectually astute, and politically committed people I’ve ever known hated school and got out as fast as they could.
I can’t help feeling that “my” culture has been validated when Harvey Fierstein and Billy Porter take home prizes for Kinky Boots, a story about a working-class sissy who also happens to be a marketing genius, or when Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars pretends to mistake Liza Minnelli for a female impersonator, just as I can’t help recognizing the extent to which I am being dissed in politicians’ newfound love for the “middle class,” their slimy, calculated effort to make poor and working-class people invisible all over again. As if those who aren’t participating fully in American capitalism just aren’t pulling their weight.
I’m not sure where all of that leaves me. But I do know I don’t want to be told I’m not queer enough, and I don’t want to be told I’m not working class enough. I’d never claim that my experience of either one should be anyone else’s, but I do say that the issue of “realness” ought to be left to drag contests, where it still makes some sense.
“How many points determine a line?” a dear old friend used to exclaim in frustration whenever he argued with someone who refused to concede the obvious.
The answer, as it turns out, is a lot of them.
In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, director Steven Soderbergh, whose Liberace bio-pic, Behind the Candelabra, premiered on HBO on May 26th, discussed an abandoned project dedicated to the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was the Nazi-era German filmmaker who made propaganda films for Hitler, was admired by Mussolini, and continues to be considered a genius and a visionary whose “aesthetics” are hailed by “many film histories … as outstanding.”
Soderbergh’s version of Riefenstahl, he explained, was entirely without moral judgment or commentary; he took no position on Riefenstahl’s ability to “ exalt Nazi ideals with breathtaking skill” even while living and working “in a self-created vacuum.”
It comes as little surprise, then, that Soderbergh takes an identical approach to the life and death of Liberace and, in specific, to Liberace’s odd and troubled relationship with Scott Thorson.
Nowhere in Behind the Candelabra is there much in the way of commentary regarding gay life in the late 1970s and early 1980s, on an existence in which a regimen of Quaaludes and demerol was considered a “California diet,” or on the merry-go-round of pretty, pretty boys who slept with, lived with, and were then summarily abandoned by Liberace, the lone inhabitant of an almost literal island of Dr. Moreau (Liberace used plastic surgery rather than vivisection to create his beasts).
And no wonder Liberace was lonely there. He joined nearly unimaginable excess and wealth with the despotic, neurotic power to employ and deploy, consume and dismiss other human beings who, as Soderbergh has him quite rightly bewail in the film, “only want me for what they can get out of me.” How tragic the rich are.
Indeed, there is much to be gleaned from realizing that Thorson – who famously (and unsuccessfully) sued Liberace for palimony after their five-year relationship ended – considered himself Liberace’s “son and lover” while Liberace considered him an employee. When you’re paying everyone around you, how not to question whether they really love you for your own, dear self. And how not to hate them a little.
Virtually none of this is in Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, however, a tedious, sanitized, self-congratulatory propaganda piece for the proposition that queers are basically just so darn decent and, only slightly more subtly, that life would be so much fairer if same-sex couples could get married.
To start with, Matt Damon as Thorson is too old for his part by something on the order of three decades. Thorson was 16-1/2 years old when Liberace (then 57) plucked him from his vagabond life and installed him as chauffeur, animal trainer, stage prop, phone-answerer, bodyguard, and concubine.
Damon, conversely, is 42. Perhaps thankfully, there is no attempt in the film to make him look like a 16-1/2-year-old (or a 22-year-old, Thorson’s age at the point Liberace has his thugs usher him out the door), but the choice of a much older actor for the part of Thorson was surely no accident. That’s the first thing Soderbergh’s film glosses over: the fact that Liberace liked faintly thuggish, “straight-acting,” boys in their late teens. He liked them a lot, and he liked a lot of them. Thorson was neither the first nor the last.
Anyone who is disgusted by the idea that 16-1/2-year-old adolescents have sex with men who are 40 years their seniors is going to be disgusted anyway (and is doomed never to understand Hollywood), and the righteously indignant will argue in righteous indignation that Liberace “took advantage” of a poorly educated, somewhat simple-minded, star-struck adolescent.
But we ought to be able to withhold judgment on those issues at least long enough to say this: Thorson was 16-1/2 when he and Liberace met. That’s a fact. Soderbergh’s attempt to transform Damon-as-Thorson into a paunchy ex-boy who (generously speaking) appears to be on the down slope of 30 is the director’s first and most dishonest act of propaganda.
It’s one thing to tell a gay love story. It’s another to admit that your protagonist is an ephebophile.
But there are far more serious moral and ethical questions at play in Behind the Candelabra, and Soderbergh assiduously ignores them all. Presumably he did so because, like Riefenstahl, Liberace ignored them all.
We might begin with what is often called Liberace’s “double life.” Liberace wasn’t merely in the closet (like many celebrities of his day – and of ours). To the contrary, had it been possible to put a patent on closetedness, Liberace would have gone down in history as the Microsoft of the trademark. Over decades, he constructed a Great Wall of denial that went far beyond press-release disclaimers and (successful) libel lawsuits.
He diligently paired himself with one female Hollywood star after another, wrote chapters of pure fiction in his autobiographies (including stories of unrequited hetero loves and, famously, of his deflowering by an older woman in his own adolescence), and raved on about the “woman he pined for his entire life,” the Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henie (who conveniently died in 1969).
But Soderbergh isn’t interested in the impact of the gay closet, nor in the more troubling impact of the AIDS closet. But for a coroner’s inquest, it turns out, the truth of Liberace’s death from AIDS in February 1987 might never have been known: Liberace’s PR machine, starting with the personal physician who falsified Liberace’s death certificate, deliberately attempted to hide the cause of his death.
Liberace died 16 months after the AIDS-related passing of another Über-closeted-but-everybody-knew Hollywood celebrity, Rock Hudson; in Hudson’s case, Hudson had at least had the guts to acknowledge his diagnosis shortly before his death, though he insisted on the fiction of a tainted blood transfusion. As a historical matter, his announcement did more than a little good for the world by casting a cleansing light on the callous “AIDS? What AIDS?” policies of the American government under then-President Reagan and, as the despicable phrase goes, “giving a human face” to the AIDS epidemic for the benefit of a public that was largely convinced it didn’t know any gay people.
But if Behind the Candelabra doesn’t talk about urban gay male life in the 1970s/1980s, if it doesn’t talk about closetedness or ask to what extent terms like homo/hetero/bisexuality hold any significance, if it doesn’t talk about the moral implications of lying about having AIDS at a moment when transparency would have helped, if it doesn’t talk about boy-love, if it doesn’t explore what it means to compensate people (with homes, cars, drugs, and jewelry, if not actual cash) for being your partners and then to discard them when you’re bored, and if it doesn’t take on the one truly interesting question about Liberace – how did millions of people watch him camp, drop G-rated double-entendres, and flaunt a kind of rococo high-queen drag that probably doesn’t even have a name (though British journalist William Connor infamously described Liberace in 1956 as a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love”) and yet manage to convince themselves he wasn’t gay …
… well, if Soderbergh doesn’t deal with any of those things, then what is the point of Behind the Candelabra? Taken solely as film, it is slow, aimless, emotionally catatonic, and painfully acted, so art doesn’t seem to be a motivation. (Rob Lowe, as the pill-pushing plastic surgeon, Jack Startz, a 1985 suicide, is the only actor in the film who understands he’s appearing in a farce.)
The point, quite obviously, is propaganda. Gay-normalization propaganda for the proposition that the Liberace/Thorson saga is actually not about sex, drugs, and power, but about nice, sweet, gay love. The kind that triumphs in the end, despite misunderstandings and adversity. Just like straight people have in Hollywood films. See? Nothing different here. Nothing queer.
Indeed, Behind the Candelabra has been studiously stripped of gayness, and that’s no mean feat under the circumstances. Liberace and Thorson incessantly trade bitchy barbs about sex, we see them making out and, later, we watch as Thorson joylessly screws Liberace in the ass in a scene that was nearly too macabre to watch. Damon and Douglas are uncomfortable, the characters are uncomfortable, and the only reason for the existence of those excruciating 20 seconds must be that Soderbergh suspected he’d be acclaimed for his “bravery” in depicting (sort of) buggery on television. With poppers.
As Samuel Johnson once said about a dancing dog, “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find that it is done at all.” You can almost hear Soderbergh high-fiving himself.
But perhaps what we’re supposed to see in Behind the Candelabra is a sort of homage: Soderbergh’s attempt to out-Liberace Liberace. After all, this is the director who wanted to make a film about Riefenstahl without addressing the morality of her support of Nazism (on the theory that she never addressed the morality of her support of Nazism, which, a thoughtful person might agree, is as much as to say that she did).
In a story about a man who did just about everything other than have the word “FAGGOT” implanted on his chest in rhinestones, and who still managed to convince people he wasn’t gay, Soderbergh gets two famous straight actors to fake unhappy sex right in front of you and still tries to convince you that Liberace was something other than a neurotic, avaricious, narcissistic sex addict and that Thorson was something other than a hustler (with a heart of gold?), drug addict, and petty criminal. (Thorson went on to be a witness in that indispensable 1980s D-list-celebrity venue, The Wonderland murder case, and spent a noteworthy portion of his post-Liberace life in and out of jail for things like drugs, robbery, and credit-card theft; as of this writing, he’s in again.)
For precisely those reasons, Behind the Candelabra is dishonest, revisionist, and voyeuristic. It’s frat boys kissing each other in an “I’m so straight I can make out with another guy” dare. It’s heteros in gayface. It’s the erasure of homosexuality beneath a wash of “universality.” It’s what happens when Hollywood gets into the assimilation business.
Soderbergh wants his television sleight-of-hand to be about love. Or humanity. Or civil rights. Or something. But it’s not. It’s just dogs, dancing.
 “Leni Riefenstahl.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 May 2013. Web.
 Maslin, Janet. “Just What Did Leni Riefenstahl’s Lens See?” Rev. of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. New York Times 13 Mar. 1994: n. pag. Web.
 Soderbergh also makes Thorson gayer than Thorson apparently considers himself to be. Although Damon’s character informs Liberace that he’s bisexual, the real-life Thorson told Larry King in 2002 that he was then, is now, and has always been heterosexual. Because no attraction to a woman is even hinted at in Behind the Candelabra, what Soderbergh gives us to support Thorson’s claim to bisexuality is his refusal to be fucked, an act he says he finds “repugnant.” Well, if you’ve never seen a straight boy try and fail to understand how (homo)sex works, now you have. More troubling than Soderbergh’s squeamish naiveté is his referencing of the damaging and archaic equation that being penetrated = femininity = greater homosexuality, while refusal to be penetrated = masculinity = greater heterosexual cachet. In any case, Soderbergh apparently felt that a nominally bisexual Thorson would be comprehensible and, at least in broad strokes, familiar to a very mainstream 21st-century audience, but that the concept of a man who had sex with another man for years while continuing to consider himself heterosexual was much too much like real life for television.
 The Connor article, as a result of which Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for libel in 1959, is a gem: “[Liberace] is the summit of sex—Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want. I have spoken to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity arriving from the United States for the past thirty years. They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921. This appalling man—and I use the word appalling in no other than its true sense of terrifying—has hit this country in a way that is as violent as Churchill receiving the cheers on V-E Day. He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation. Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum. Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note. There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.”
- Bakopoulos, Dean. Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc.
- Faderman, Lillian. Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Rechy, John. Beneath the Skin: The Collected Essays of John Rechy. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.
- Williams, Stanley Tookie. Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir. Pleasant Hill, CA: Damamli Publishing Company.
Questions of definition and genre are inevitable in conversations about literature, and perhaps no more so than when those conversations take place in formal or academic settings. We write and speak spontaneously, not to say carelessly, about “southern writers,” “the Black Mountain school,” “science fiction,” “the Harlem Renaissance,” or “Romanticism,” for example, even when we know full well that such terms are necessarily more pregnant with confluence and diffraction than they appear. And yet that odd sensation—one that is either postmodern or simply Lewis Carrollingian—of trying to make a simple term mean multiple things at once, of striving to indicate without interdicting, harrows the study of literature.
This is, fortunately, precisely as it should be.
A comparative newcomer to the vexed taxonomies of American literary study, the term “working-class literature” is certainly no less hydra-headed than its companions “women’s literature,” “lesbian and gay literature,” or “African American literature,” to name only a few of the Balkan states; and, like those useful, often approximate subheadings, working-class literature runs the constant risk of falling in with literary scholars who, still deep in amnesiac love with the “subaltern,” have forgotten that American literature is by its very nature “subaltern.” Or let’s put it another way: It is precisely because most of American literature is working-class literature, is women’s literature, is lesbian and gay literature, is “ethnic” literature that it is, in the widest angle of our looking glass, also American literature.
The issue of class, paradoxically, is more a matter of style than of substance in John Rechy’s Beneath the Skin, a collection that spans some forty-five years of the author’s reviews, essays, commentaries, and reportage. Rechy, in fact, the author of the seminal City of Night (1963) and more than a dozen other nonfiction books and novels, is well known as both a Chicano writer and as a gay writer, but is less frequently identified, at least by critics and scholars, as a working-class writer. Rechy, for his part, has never tried to distance himself from his roots, and the heroes and heroines of his novels are frequently working-class characters. In Numbers, for example (1967), John Rechy’s nearly eponymous anti-hero, Johnny Rio, recalls his upbringing: “[Laredo, Texas] has unpleasant memories for him (a dreary fatherless Mexican Catholic childhood; poor, poor years and after-school jobs in a laundry call-office, a department-store stockroom, and on a newspaper as a copy boy)” (22). The exaggerated, class-inflected masculinity that Rio constructs and flaunts both distances him from the “queens” who desire him sexually and serves his voracious need to experience himself as beautiful and powerful. Not surprisingly, the sensibility that created Johnny Rio is already evident in “El Paso del Norte,” the 1958 essay that opens Beneath the Skin. Rechy describes with evident passion and unstinting candor his upbringing as the child of poor Chicano parents in an El Paso, Texas, that he remembers as much for the “beautiful and horrifying” physical landscape and for the comfort of community rituals as he does for the movie theatre where the seats on the left side were reserved for “spiks.”
But if Rechy’s working-class aesthetic is, arguably, placed more directly in evidence in his fiction than in the content of his essays, it bodies forth extravagantly in the writer’s personality he deploys in Beneath the Skin: Rechy is pugilistic, defensive, cocksure, sometimes overly self-congratulatory, self-consciously highbrow. His posture—his stance—is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the vicinity of an American working-class father: part posturing, part braggadocio, and part fear that others will never fully appreciate his insights, his talent, his sacrifices, and his hard work. (Rechy was, for example, briefly involved in controversy in February 2004 when a programming error at the amazon.com website revealed that Rechy was the author of a glowing online review of his then-most-recent novel; Rechy justified his actions by noting, accurately, that amazon provides no mechanism for authors to respond to grossly inaccurate reviews or to ad hominem attacks, but he might just as well have said that he was following in the footsteps of another author afraid for his reputation, Walt Whitman, who likewise had no qualms about publishing a positive, unsigned review of his own Leaves of Grass in 1855.)
Rechy takes pointless potshots at President George W. Bush in “He Hugged Moms and Dads” and at the sexual hypocrisy of the hierarchy of the Catholic church in “Sins of the Fathers,” covering ground by now worn to brick-like consistency by the passing of so many writers; he snipes at Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), in whose book he claims to have found grammar and punctuation errors that no one else noticed; he singles out for criticism the “stumbles” and “loose writing” in the prose of Joyce Carol Oates and John Phillip Santos, unmindful of the utter incoherence of his piece on Hollywood film depictions of Los Angeles (“From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive”) or of his own ability to write perfectly goony sentences (the tortured and regrettable opening line of his novel, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, for example); he dings Bob Paris, the gay bodybuilding champion, for the narcissism in Paris’s autobiography, Gorilla Suit, oblivious to the way his bragging about his own amateur bodybuilding efforts constitutes an irksome refrain in Beneath the Skin—so much so, in fact, that Rigoberto González, reviewing the collection for the El Paso Times, got off the enviable line, “Rechy will be remembered for his body of work, not necessarily for the work of his body.”
Rechy tilts at windmills and mows down straw men nearly as often as he takes aim at more worthy adversaries, and it is in that indiscriminate use of his powers that one sees him most clearly as the wounded and venerable working-class lion—formidable, honorable, and yet frequently exasperating and occasionally even downright embarrassing (such as when Rechy takes pains to drop the names of the writers and celebrities whose sexual advances he has rejected; like Johnny Rio, Rechy wants to be wanted).
That said, Beneath the Skin contains its share of gems. Rechy’s piece on the 1968 murder of Hollywood silent-film idol, Ramon Navarro is particularly poignant (“I knew the world the two hustlers [who killed Navarro] came from,” Rechy writes, “[because I] had experienced it”), as are his reflections on the life and legacy of nearly forgotten Forever Amber author, Kathleen Winsor. His savaging of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde is well aimed and nicely leavened by Rechy’s obvious compassion for Marilyn Monroe, the subject he shared with Oates in his 1988 novel, Marilyn’s Daughter. Generally speaking, however, the best pieces in Beneath the Skin are the earlier ones—a 1971 exposé of brutal conditions in the El Paso Juvenile Detention Home, a 1966 article on American soldiers hounded and punished by the U.S. government for participating in anti-Vietnam-war protests, a 1988 defense of Carson McCullers—perhaps because the passing of time has rinsed the older essays of the odor of cant or perhaps because Rechy was, once, a writer who said things that no one else was saying.
All memoirs, in their broadest sense, tell the same story: How I got from there to here. What makes one more worthwhile than another, then, is the distance of that travel or the landscape along the way. On both counts, Lillian Faderman’s Naked in the Promised Land is a remarkable memoir. Faderman lived her early childhood in a state less of peace than of periodic cease-fire between her emotionally ravaged mother (a Jewish immigrant draper who spent her long work days standing before a mannequin in a Bronx garment-district sweatshop—sitting was prohibited—tortured in the New York summers by the live steam from the pressers’ station next to hers) and her minuscule aunt, who stayed home with Lillian, sewing piecework and singing Yiddish lullabies to her plump and precocious niece. (Faderman’s father had long since disappeared from the scene.) Returned from work, Faderman’s mother would collapse in exhaustion, importuning her daughter to “Save me from the shop, Lilly…. Become a movie star.” When Faderman’s mother and aunt moved the family to East Los Angeles in 1950, that’s just what Faderman, barely ten years old, set her heart on doing.
Faderman’s aim was slightly off. Far from ending up in Hollywood films, she embarked instead (at age fifteen) on a career as a pinup girl and later (when she had moved north to attend the University of California at Berkeley) a burlesque star in San Francisco’s infamous North Beach strip clubs. Leap ahead a few light years, and Faderman has a PhD, a position as chair of the English Department at California State University at Fresno, and a growing shelf of scholarly books.
Naked in the Promised Land, in that sense, is a story of rags to riches—rags, almost literally, and, if not strictly material riches, then at least enviable achievement as a feminist scholar and historian, teacher, writer, and university administrator. It is, at the same time, the story of the familiar guilt and unhealable sadness of the successful offspring of immigrant parents; of the resourceful child who identifies education as a means of escape, jumps at the first chance she gets, and then, far from the mythology of the working-class social climber who “never looks back,” looks back obsessively. Finally, Naked in the Promised Land is a plainspoken and respectful description of Faderman’s coming out among the “odd girls and twilight lovers” (the title of her landmark 1991 study) that was the world of working-class lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reviewing a book like Naked in the Promised Land provokes the nearly irresistible temptation to retell anecdote after fascinating anecdote, because Faderman furnishes them by the fistful. She is, to be sure, no slouch as a raconteur; and if Naked in the Promised Land is unsatisfying in any particular, it is precisely that the skein of dramatic and colorful anecdotes sometimes crowds out a deeper psychological analysis or the chance to explore a wider sociocultural context. On the other hand, Faderman handles the (many) moments of real pathos and genuine tragedy in her life with a kind of wry irony and artful humor that is reminiscent of Carolyn See’s equally wonderful memoir, California Dreaming, and which is, not to put too fine a point on things, perhaps itself a working-class trait. Sometimes, as my own mother used to say, you have to laugh—if only to keep from crying.
But perhaps one episode from Faderman’s life—just one. When Faderman moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1959 to attend the University of California at Berkeley, she did so in large part to follow the woman she had fallen in love with, the aptly self-named D’Or (née Shirley Anne Goldstein). The story of the three years they spent together—during which D’Or was employed for precisely one month—is a textbook description of the perils that sometimes harry cross-class relationships. When Faderman worries that changing her major from psychology to English will leave her unable to earn a living, D’Or lectures her that “there’s more to life than earning a living…. What’s important in life [is] beauty. Subtlety. Nuance—the things of art…. The rest is … unworthy of the artist’s sensibility.”
Though Faderman argues that the artist’s sensibility is a luxury they can’t afford, D’Or is ready with a response: “The artist is always classless.” Why, D’Or wonders out loud, can’t Faderman simply be “a natural aristocrat,” just as she is. When it becomes clear that the bills won’t get paid in any other way, Faderman accepts work as a stripper at Big Al’s Hotsy Totsy Club, though D’Or pronounces the employment “tawdry.” Later, reconciled to the inevitable, D’Or exhorts Faderman (then going by the stage name of Gigi Frost) to dance with “balletic insinuations,” to “be classy!” Faderman promises she will.
As Faderman nears her own graduation date, she discovers that D’Or, a college dropout, is actually no more than a few credits shy of finishing her degree, and she encourages D’Or to return to get her diploma. D’Or is too overwhelmed by the prospect of actually studying to consider the possibility; so Faderman writes D’Or’s term papers and even impersonates her in French class so that D’Or can earn the “B” she needs to graduate.
How is it, then, that someone of Faderman’s great intelligence and enormous pragmatism could stay with a partner who was so clearly disdainful of Faderman’s social class, who unabashedly exploited her? Faderman was in love, of course—staring into D’Or’s “beautiful gray eyes” helped her “forget, for a while, how she made me feel ugly and common.” But that explanation only leads us inexorably back to the original question. Perhaps there was something in their relationship of the strange attraction of the working class to those “natural aristocrats” whose lives seem so unconstricted and unencumbered, so open and full of possibility. Faderman treads lightly on the question of her motivations, but she must surely have made the connection between her mother and D’Or, between the woman she couldn’t save and the one she might have. Her determination to carry out repeated rescue missions in the mined terrain of D’Or’s life, in any case, is both heartbreaking and familiar.
What looms over Faderman’s memoir, in fact, is her sense of responsibility, disappointment and—why not say it?—guilt over that ten-year-old’s unfulfilled promise to “save her mother from the shop.” The more Faderman excels, the farther she seems to travel, without meaning or wanting to, from her mother’s unredeemed existence:
[My mother’s] life has been frozen, and I can’t escape seeing it…. She sits in the little living room and watches television…. She shakes her head in commiseration with some other poor woman’s troubles. ‘American children, what do they care about the aggravation they give?’ she says…. She’s had an aborted life, my poor mother. Nothing worked out for her. Not even me.
That “not even me” is the blow upon a bruise for the successful, the educated, the queer offspring of working-class parents—the terrible realization that what the child considers good fortune, freedom, self-realization, growth, even happiness, may be seen by the parent as disrespect, even outright betrayal. For those, like Faderman, who are caught in the knot of that paradox, the promised land is a place where every blessing is mixed.
At roughly the time when Faderman was leaving Los Angeles for UC Berkeley, Stanley Tookie Williams’ mother was moving her six-year-old son across country, from New Orleans to South Central Los Angeles, hoping to head off his “incorrigible behavior” and to save them both from the racism of the Jim Crow South. Her effort, as Williams reports in his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, met with little success. “If [my mother] could have foreseen the path I would follow,” Williams writes of their arrival at the Los Angeles Greyhound terminal, “no doubt we would have quickly reboarded the bus to return to New Orleans.” Sadly for both of them, they did not.
Blue Rage, Black Redemption, then, is the story of Williams’ life with the “Crips,” the murderous and autogenocidal Los Angeles-based street gang he co-founded in 1971 (when he was seventeen years old); of the scant decade he spent as its leader; of the twenty-four years he has passed since then on death-row at California’s San Quentin prison; and, in particular, of the personal and spiritual transformation that led him to be nominated, in 2002, for a Nobel Prize as a result of his efforts to create “Peace Protocols” and to broker détente between warring street gangs across the country.
Blue Rage, Black Redemption is a frustrating book to read and, reading it, one senses that it must have been a difficult book to write. A life lived as Williams lived his begs a single, overarching question, and the memoirist is more or less obliged to respond to it: What was it that caused a sweet-faced Louisiana youngster whose mother (“hard-working, serious, tough, soft-spoken, and [with] the swiftness of a cheetah”) adored and doted on him to become, in the space of a few years, a violent, sociopathic, cold-blooded, drug-addicted thug?
The reader of Blue Rage, Black Redemption might be forgiven for looking to Williams to illuminate such issues, not least because Williams, having lived both sides of the question, is positioned to provide insights that few others could. The trouble is that it isn’t at all apparent from Blue Rage that he has a clear answer to give. Perhaps no one does.
The analysis that Williams does provide, however, is exasperatingly vague: “We couldn’t afford a television, so the streets became my TV set,” he writes; his mother was “in thrall to some handed-down Black rendition of a Euro-American parenting philosophy which was in total conflict with the environment I saw around me”; Williams “lack[ed] any real knowledge of African culture”; there were no “privilege-bound” associations (such as Rotary Clubs or Yacht Clubs) in his crime-ridden, violent Los Angeles neighborhood; he received “abnormal, impaired, and diseased” knowledge from his public-school teachers and thus chose to befriend “the miscreants, the aggressors, the loners, the defiant ones”; because he was not “challenged” at school, he “acted out” against the “insipid” teachers and “boring” subject matter; school counselors couldn’t reach him because there was no “valid psychoanalytic model designed to address … the Black experience”; street gangs festered in his neighborhood because of “no employment opportunities for youth, lack of youth programs, [and] broken family units”; Williams’ “rage was nourished by the hate I saw and felt from mainstream society and White people, a hate based on my Black skin and my historical place at the nadir of America’s social caste.”
Well, at least in Williams’ adolescence, it seems fair to say, the hatred he and his fellow gang members felt directed toward them might at least occasionally have been based on the fact that they were violent, predatory criminals who terrorized people. But Blue Rage, Black Redemption abounds in this sort of broad-brush sociology.
None of what Williams writes regarding the wellsprings of his dysfunction, disillusionment, and despair, I hasten to add, sounds even the remotest note of falseness or disingenuousness. Very much to the contrary, in fact. But it does seem somehow incomplete. Indeed, what remains as a vast, uncharted absence at the center of Blue Rage is Williams’ lack of analysis of his personal attraction to the life he led, of his personal affinity for home-grown mayhem and drive-by terrorism, of his personal choice to exacerbate and then live in a state of armed siege.
Had Williams attended more to this inward sort of exploration, he may have had some useful speculations with which to answer the question that criminologist Lewis Yablonsky poses on the back cover of Blue Rage: “Why do young black men, most of whom come from dysfunctional families living in poverty, constantly attempt—with too-frequent success—to kill one another?” Alternatively, he might have shed light on a question that is no less crucial: Why is it that so many young black men from poor, dysfunctional families do not?
Indeed, though the social conditions that Williams indicts may be necessary to the ruination of the lives of young men before they’ve even begun to shave regularly, they are clearly not sufficient. Not every boy or girl who grew up like Williams is a gang banger; not every child of poverty who is raised without access to a handy Rotary Club becomes a criminal. And, although Williams is vivid on the vicious and invidious effects of racism-cum-poverty, particularly as they tend to be lived today in physical and televised proximity to the precincts of American consumer capitalism (“I believed my quest for money and drugs was the only way but failed to realize that my poverty transcended the physical,” he writes, and “I bought into the rhetoric about survival being based on the principles of accumulated wealth, force and violence. This was the American way!”), the troubling undercurrent in Williams’ memoir is the notion that poverty breeds criminality, a short step from suggesting that the poor are a criminal class. Though Williams would surely disavow such an interpretation, it is implicit in what he has written.
But human lives, as the saying goes, are lived forward and understood backwards, and what is inspiring about Blue Rage, Black Redemption is Williams’ Peace Protocol itself, included as an appendix at the end of the memoir. It is the clearest exposition of Williams’ intention to live forward, and is remarkable, among other things, for his plainspoken articulation of the uselessness of anti-crime or anti-violence campaigns that are conducted in isolation from what Williams calls a “social agenda.” Urban peace, in other words, cannot survive in the absence of education, political consciousness-raising, meaningful employment training and placement, community cleanups (Williams means a literal block-by-block “purging” of graffiti and garbage from blighted neighborhoods as a way to combat psychological indifference), and the establishment of socioeconomic commissions to encourage and sustain entrepreneurship and investment at a grassroots level. The ideas are simple (Williams articulates them in some ten pages); their execution is the work of a lifetime.
Williams dedicates Blue Rage, Black Redemption to “poor people, slaves, and the disenfranchised everywhere,” insisting that “you can bend the most oppressive circumstances to your will.” He should know. Williams’ faith, even behind bars and a short walk from the death chamber, is enormous, touching, and enviable.*
But it is fiction, paradoxically, that sometimes lacerates even more deeply than reality, and Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon may be one of the saddest novels ever written. It is certainly one of the most intensely realized, and it belongs without question among the ranks of those relatively few works of fiction—Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Frankie Hucklenbroich’s A Crystal Diary, Dagoberto Gilb’s The Magic of Blood, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and John Gilgun’s Music I Never Dreamed Of come to mind—whose organic relationship to poverty-class and working-class realities can scarcely be described by a verb in English. These books neither represent, nor transmit, nor even depict the ethos of working-class lives. In some nearly magical way, they simply dwell within them, coterminous and concomitant.
The plot of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is deceptively simple. “When I was sixteen,” explain Bakopoulos’s narrator, Michael “Mikey” Smolij, “my father went to the moon.” Over the course of several months, in fact, all of the men of his father’s age disappear from the working-class suburb of Maple Rock, an immigrant neighborhood made up of second- and third-generation Poles, Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, and other post-World War II immigrants. Some of the men go on fishing trips from which they never return and some are seen driving away, but the majority simply disappear, quietly and often without a trace. “I’m going to the moon,” writes one husband and father in a hasty goodbye note, and that seems, to those left behind, as reasonable an explanation as any.
But life demands to be lived, and so the abandoned families of Maple Rock find ways to carry on: “If we (boys) became men,” Bakopoulos writes, our mothers did, too. They took jobs. Those who already had jobs took second jobs. Sometimes a few of the mothers came to the Black Lantern [bar] and drank with us. They arm-wrestled and hollered and broke bottles for emphasis when making speeches. They were working ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day…. So what if [these strong women] acted a little out of character…? Their husbands were on the moon. Who could deny them some happiness?”
Who, indeed? But the pain of the boys and not of their mothers is the mortar with which Bakopoulos constructs the houses in Maple Rock. Indeed, what makes Please Don’t Come Back both unique and devastating is Bakopoulos’s firm insistence on holding his male characters, and particularly Mikey, inside their sadness and betrayal, their sense of abandonment and their anger. (“Don’t think for a moment that because we were good strong boys, we could handle all this,” Mikey says. “[W]e couldn’t. We almost killed ourselves with rage.”).
They are not maudlin, however, Bakopoulos’s sad and angry boys; though they love each other fiercely, they speak to each other cryptically, they neglect one another, they sit alone in their separate cars or stand in their separate yards on nights when the moon is full, and they wonder whether their fathers miss them:
Sometimes when we drank too much…, we threw stones and bottles at the moon, and we imagined that we were tearing the hearts from our chests, sending them hurtling through heaven where our fathers could see them and know this: we, their sons, were below them, bleeding.”
Later, when the boys have turned into adult men who haunt the same bars their fathers once did, drinking as their fathers did, Mikey has occasion to reflect, “When I think about you, the disappeared men of Maple Rock, I sometimes wonder if you are capable or incapable of love these days. For the record, if you are now capable of love, we consider that unfair.”
What is gut-wrenching about Please Don’t Come Back is the silence of this anguish, the interiority of it: Mikey speaks to the reader and, in a series of second-person apostrophes, to his father and the other absent men, but he and his friends say almost nothing to one another about their mutual grief. No stranger driving through Maple Rock would sense their terrible suffering, but then we often drive through communities riven by loss, poverty, suicide, hopelessness, and cannot tell that anything is wrong. So many human wounds, Bakopoulos reminds us, are invisible.
From the opening pages of Please Don’t Come Back, of course, it is clear that Bakopoulos is too honest a storyteller to give his novel a falsely hopeful, never mind happy, ending. Indeed, he cannot betray the lives and struggles of the characters he seems to care for so deeply, and so he must tell their truth: the invariability and repetitiveness and frustration of working-class lives in small American towns (“When I am thirteen,” Mikey recalls, “my father tells me that I should prepare myself for disappointment. ‘This is the way our lives turn out, Mikey,’ he says. ‘Disappointing.’”); the inhuman effort required to ignore what your insides insist is a true and accurate reflection of the entire extent of your possibilities, the complete inventory of your capabilities; the improbability of escape—unless, of course, it is the preternatural escape that comes from the moon itself, from being plucked suddenly from the surface of the earth and borne clean away.
But Mikey and his friends seemed destined to stay where they are, with all that implies: they grow up, work at jobs they don’t particularly like, dream revolutionary dreams and abandon them in favor of tending to practical matters, fall in and out of love, get married or not, have children—and they worry, as Mikey’s friend, Nick, puts it, that the moon will eventually “get them.”
Mikey, for his part, becomes a worker, a husband, a father; he drinks too much; he is inexplicably angry and suddenly sad. But family obligations and domestic life aren’t what “rattle” him, Mikey says. “Instead, I felt a profound and relentless doubt…. I believed, sooner or later, that I would destroy all of it.”
In other words, to risk the cliché, Bakopoulos’s teenage boys grow up and become their fathers. Unlike those men, however, who may have found themselves simply unprepared to resist the sudden and implacable call of the moon, the men of Mikey’s generation understand the damage they have the power to cause, and if they have stopped staring at the moon, wistfully, innocently, wondering whether it is too late for their fathers to return, it is only because they no longer entirely want them to. The bark of their lives has grown thick around the place of loss, and forgiveness is beside the point. That sostenuto note of resigned survival pierces Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.
One night, near the end of the novel, Mikey lies in bed, his wife in his arms. They watch their baby daughter as she sleeps in the adjacent crib, and Mikey finds it “almost impossible to imagine the feeling that my father or [the other men] had in their hearts the nights they slipped away.” In other words, happiness is still to be found in Maple Rock. And yet, as Mikey says in his final speech to the men who have left their sons and wives behind, even happiness “doesn’t change everything.”
Still, as Rechy, Faderman, Williams, and Bakopoulos would perhaps agree, neither does everything remain the same. The literature of the working class in contemporary America is written, as it must necessarily be, in the language of flux and of intersection, a dynamism that renders working-class writing as vigorous as it is difficult to pin down. At the same time, the frankness of the working-class writer’s gaze is an acuity to which attention must be paid. Here is Bakopoulos: “I was old enough to know a few things,” Mikey Smolij thinks to himself when his mother encourages him to continue with his writing, “and one of them was this: The Best American Short Stories weren’t written by people like me”; and this is Faderman: “In 1957 poor girls like us could seldom traverse the enormous distance to college.” Perhaps what is remarkable about such observations is that they are made in the first place, because they admit of knowledge that is more often hidden than revealed. Moreover, they illustrate what Janet Zandy describes, in her seminal “In the Skin of a Worker,” as the “foregrounded subjective landscape of working-class characters’ voices as they interact with others inside or outside their own class” (92)—in other words, the lived consciousness of class oppression that is a defining characteristic of working-class writing. Consciousness doesn’t change everything, though it is the only thing that might.
González, Rigoberto. “Rechy Retrospective – Novelist’s Vision is Loud and Clear in Collection of Essays.” El Paso Times 15 May 2005: 2F.
Rechy, John. Numbers. 1967. New York: Grove Press, 1984.
Zandy, Janet. “In the Skin of a Worker; or, What Makes a Text Working Class?” Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 84-93.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Western American Literature 40(4), Winter 2006, 449-461.
*This article was in press when the State of California executed Stanley “Tookie” Williams at San Quentin prison on December 13, 2005.