The Duggars: Sex and the police

Madonna of the multiplication tables: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

Lady Madonna: Michelle Duggar with her newborn 17th child in 2007, surrounded by her family

I knew nothing about the Duggars until two days ago; and, as Karl Kraus might say, now that I know all about them I feel much less well informed. Apparently in America you can become a tourist attraction just by giving birth on schedule. Michelle Duggar did it at year-and-a-half intervals for 27 years, like a fertile Old Faithful, and she parlayed it into her own TV show. The Duggars spawned 19 children; they monogrammed the kids, all their names beginning with “J” (for daddy Jim Bob, or maybe Jesus, or the life-inciting jism); Mom has spent 144 months pregnant, 12 years of her life; they go through 16 boxes of cereal, 7 gallons of milk, and 40 loads of laundry a week. This isn’t a family, it’s a factory. They don’t give love, they produce shareholder value. Learning about them is like leafing through Enron’s glossy annual reports before the fall. The facts and figures impress, but don’t inform; their accumulation teaches nothing. Now that I’m familiar with the Duggars, I’ve diminished rather than increased my useful knowledge about the world.

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars' dining table

Love on the assembly line: Bible before breakfast at the Duggars’ dining table

A gossip magazine made me taste, in matters Duggar, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Last week In Touch reported that eldest son Josh Duggar “was named in a police report as the ‘alleged offender’ in an underage sexual abuse probe.” It’s been nonstop furor since. Josh, 27, was a rising right-winger, a lobbyist for the wildly homophobic Family Research Council. He takes after his hardshell Baptist parents. From their Arkansas home, mother Michelle did robocalls last year opposing a local anti-discrimination law, warning parents it would allow trans people — “males with past child predator convictions” — to “endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.” The scandal and the hypocrisy practically mandate gays and their friends to gloat.

I have no patience for the Duggars’ homilies, or for their show, which I never watched. (Their channel pulled it from the air tonight, endangering those breakfast bills but possibly forcing them to earn an honest living.) It’s the schadenfreude I question — and fear. Is demanding Josh Duggar’s head a blow for liberation? Or is it surrender masquerading as a victory? Does it give an inadvertent imprimatur to the punitive laws and the punitive state that have spent decades making LGBT people their victims? In playing along with moral panic, is it ourselves we hurt?

There’s plenty of “gleeful, gotcha-style excitement,” as Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it, out there.

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 11.34.33 PMAnd there were a lot of unfunny jokes displaying zero sympathy for the alleged victims.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.00.58 AMBut what’s the truth? In Touch has now released the 2006 police report on Josh Duggar, their only evidence. It’s on their website, heavily redacted by the local constabulary. (They’ve blacked out not only names, but, weirdly, personal pronouns that are completely obvious from the context. It’s a pathetic attempt to make it seem police are protecting the Duggars’ privacy, when in fact they’re putting the ordeals of minors on display. In quoting, I’ve restored the missing pronouns in brackets where possible.)

The report is bureaucratic and boring, yet a wind of paranoia blows through it from the blanks and deletions, a window ajar on a menacing wilderness. A Victorian atmosphere of fear, silence, and suddenly forced speech cohabits with sunny split-level certainties, as though a Gothic novel had mated with The Brady Bunch. Start then with how the Duggars governed their brood. They were all homeschooled. The kids had limited contact with life outside – with what hardcore evangelicals call “the secular world.” All their curiosities and impulses had no object but each other. Sexual stimulation was an intense source of fear. The whole family had to wear “modest dress,” even in the swimming pool, as Mom Michelle explains:

[W]e felt like we needed to be covered from our neck to below our knees … [W]e don’t want to play peekaboo so that there’s a visual element that might defraud someone. For us the definition of the word defrauding is to stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled.

Wholesome wear: Duggar girls model their undefrauding swimsuits

Swimsuit issue: Duggar girls model their wholesome, undefrauding swimwear

And amid this, in March 2002, one of the children told Daddy Jim Bob (as Jim Bob later told police) that Josh had been sneaking into a common bedroom and touching one of his sisters “on the breasts and vaginal area … this had occurred 4 or 5 times.” The victim herself only “remembered one time when [she] woke up and [Josh] was taking [her] blanket away, but [she] did not remember anything else.” This was definitely not righteous fulfillment. Jim Bob confronted Josh. At least two anguished family meetings followed, warning everyone about “inappropriate touching.” But in July of that year, Josh confessed to his father that he’d also touched the breasts of a girl from another family, while she was sleeping at their house, on the couch. “About 9 months later,” in March of 2003, according to Jim Bob, “there was another incident”; Josh touched one of the girls, who was sitting on his lap while he read to her. And, “sometime during this time frame,” while another daughter “was standing in the laundry room,” doing one of those 40 loads, Josh “had put [his] hand under [her] dress.”

Josh was born on March 3, 1988; this all happened when he was 14. The redactions in the report conceal how old the alleged victims were. From the details that slip through, I’d guess they ranged, when interviewed, from perhaps 10 to 16; since the police investigation happened over three years after the acts (I’ll get to that in a minute), that means they might – I stress this — have been 7 at the youngest, 13 at the oldest, at the time.

That’s a big gap. But it is also important to look at exactly what the police learned from these interviews. The children went one by one to the Springdale Children’s Safety Center, for an intimidatingly formal encounter with the cops. In each case, the report says, officers “started the interview by getting to know them”: by offering an anatomical diagram, perhaps a discomfiting icebreaker for a child.

Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Fundamentalist fiction: Four of the Duggar daughters on the cover of their tie-in book

Start with the girl on the couch. She told police she remembered nothing except that she “half way” woke up and felt Josh “trying to take the blanket.” She “stated that [she] did not know what [Josh] had done until later,” when he “confessed that he had done some things wrong.” Josh “asked for forgiveness for touching [her] improperly” and for “having wrong motives.” The detective asked “if [she] had any worries, concerns, or if [she] was scared. [She] sad [sic] no.”

The girl guest in the Duggars’ house similarly had no memories of being touched. “It happened when [she] was asleep. … approximately three and a half to four years ago [her] parents got a phone call from Jim Bob and Michelle. [She] said they told [her] parents that they needed to talk … the Duggars came and apologized [to her. She] said that [they?] told [her] that [he] touched [her] while [she] was sleeping. [Josh] said it only happened one time.”

What the interviews do suggest is that after those family meetings, the whole clan was on sexual alert, especially though perhaps not exclusively where Josh was concerned. Police interviewed another daughter, whose story Daddy Jim Bob had apparently not mentioned to them. It’s not clear it shows abuse; it shows an atmosphere of intra-family suspicion where physical contact instantly received strict scrutiny. “Inv[estigator] Taylor asked if something happened. [She] said some thing happened a long time ago.” Josh “had touched [her] inappropriately … [She] said [he] felt bad about it.”

Inv. Taylor asked what happened to [her. She] said [she] did not remember much … [She] said she was walking through [?unknown] and [he] started scratching [her] back. [She] said her clothes were on, but [he] was scratching [her] back on [her] skin. [She] said [he] pulled her shirt up and touched [her]. [She] said [she?] felt bad about it and told their parents. [She] said [she] told them that he had touched her chest.

“He touched me inappropriately” sounds like repeating a parental warning. Specifics of the touch are vague, though. After pointing to breasts and vagina on an anatomical chart, “Inv. Taylor asked if anyone had ever asked [her] to touch them or make [her] do anything she did not want to do. [She] said no.”

Arkansas modernism: The great room of the Duggar's house

Fundamentalist modernism: The great room of the Duggars’ house

Another daughter described the reading incident. “it happened once when [Josh] was reading all the kids a book.” Seemingly all the children were in the room, and the girl was sitting on the arm of his chair. “ Josh “dropped the book and ran from the room.” Another sibling, it seems, “called their parents and told them what had happened.” Josh, the interviewee says, had

touched her on the skin … [she] was sitting down and had pulled [her] dress up because it had a hole in it. [She] said [she] had pants on under the dress and [he] pulled them down. [She] said [he] touched [her] private. [She] said it felt weird.

Inv. Taylor asked [her] to point to where [Josh] touched her on the anatomical drawing. [She] pointed to the buttocks and said it happened on the outside.

This incident seems weird indeed, not least because it happened in front of all the children. It’s not clear where he touched or how. But beneath the blurred details it’s reasonably clear that any “touching “Josh did by then, even under everyone’s eyes, could incite an indefinite but collective alarm.

Finally, there’s the girl in the laundry room.

Inv. Taylor asked if [she] knew why [she] was there for interview. [She] then started to cry. Inv. Taylor handed [her] a tissue. [She] said that [Josh] did something to [her] four years ago. [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done exactly. [She] said all [she] remembers is that [she] was on the washing machine and [he] picked [her] up and did something to [her]. … [She] said [she] did not remember what [he] had done. [She] said he had stuck [his] hand up [her] dress, but did not remember what [he] had done.

Her tears echo with me. But why was she crying? We don’t know. Was it because she was recalling a traumatic memory? Or did the trauma stem from being forced, in an institutional setting, to revisit for police an ambiguous incident that derived part of its meaning from family division, mistrust, and fear? Was the trauma in the event, the context, or the compelled retelling?

There are many things we don’t know about these stories, and many ways to read them. Something happened. Josh confessed at the time to “improper touching” and “wrong motives”; he “acted inexcusably,” he said in his ritual mea culpa this week. But how? He was never charged with any crime. (For more on why, see the Note at the end of this post.) I can only offer one subjective view.

Clearly Josh Duggar was a troubled child: an adolescent discovering his desires in repressive confines that gave them neither legitimacy nor outlet.The gamut of possible rubrics for his reported acts runs from odious to “merely” creepy. Why, though, is everybody sure the first recourse should have been criminal law and the police? There was no penetration, no intercourse, no incest, no violence, no force. There’s no clear sign that anybody suffered trauma, or any other harm. Most of the five girls remembered either nothing, or something too vague to be categorized, much less criminalized: a palimpsest of a seemingly minor experience and its subsequent panicked redescriptions. And even the number of his offensive actions remains indeterminable. Several of the later stories could be the product of a family environment already prone to moral paranoia about sexuality, and now perpetually on watch. We know too little to decide.

Photo depicts Josh Duggan at 27. Headline describes  Josh Duggan at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

Photo depicts Josh Duggar at 27. Headline describes Josh Duggar at 14. From Intouchweekly.com.

The media are full of pictures of portly, 27 year-old Josh with the headline Child Molester. These deliberately obscure the fact that when it all happened, he was a child. Originally the “child molester” label meant menacing adults despoiling innocents. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to believe that innocence is under threat from the innocents themselves.

And here, I think, the Duggar story melds with deep contemporary anxieties. Judith Levine has analyzed the rise, in American popular culture since the 1980s, of “a new ‘epidemic,’ the ‘sexualization’ of children; a new class of patient, ‘children with sexual behavior problems’; and a new category of sexual criminal perpetrator, ‘children who molest.’” Forms of sexual exploration that for decades or more, in a liberalizing society, had been unproblematic or normal for kids suddenly met a sharp punitive backlash. The very economic and social freedoms that many (middle-class) children enjoyed made parents fearful. “Experts” discovered danger in ever more private, domestic, and previously innocuous actions. Kids became the darkest threat to other kids.

As Roger Lancaster reveals in Sex Panic and the Punitive State, reports of child sex abuse in the US rose from 6,000 in 1976 to 350,000 twelve years later – a fifty-eight-fold increase. Was abuse exponentially growing? Were hundreds of thousands of survivors stepping forward? Or was the country in the grips of a panic, seeking sex and imagining abuse in gestures and conduct where they’d never been seen before?  Likely, the latter. The panic was also helpful to a Reagan-era state fortifying its police powers. The pedophile in the house, Lancaster writes, “circulates fear of crime beyond the inner city and into the outer suburb. He thus fosters security measures and watchfulness in places far removed from any crime scene. He anchors the culture of control firmly within the far-flung redoubts of the white heterosexual middle-class family.”

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to

Panic is a wave of articles: Google NGram graph of references to “child sexual abuse” in books published 1940-2008

Creating the child pedophile proved a particularly potent trigger for fear. Levine cites a welter of stories:

In 1996, in Manchester, New Hampshire, a ten-year-old “touched [two girls] in a sexual manner” (he grabbed at them on the school playground) and was charged with two counts of rape. In New Jersey, a neurologically impaired twelve-year-old who groped his eight-year-old stepbrother in the bath was compelled to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, a mark that could stigmatize him for life. In 1999, the newspapers briefly bristled with reports of a “child sex ring” in York Haven, Pennsylvania, in which “children as young as 7 .. taught each other to have sex.” An eleven-year-old girl was convicted of rape.

A single mother in Long Island, New York, tracked me down in 1999 to ask for help for her thirteen-year-old son, Adam, who had been accused of sexually rubbing against his eleven-year-old sister (she had boasted of her sexual experience to her friends, who were urged by her to report him to a school counselor). Adam was arrested, handcuffed, threatened with prosecution on adult felony charges, then placed in a youth sex offenders’ program in an austere Catholic residence (he was Jewish), where he was paroled after a year on the condition that he undergo at least another year of outpatient treatment.

A grandmother told Levine how a sex-offender institution kept her 11-year-old grandson locked up, despite pleas to release him. His refusal to confess, they said, showed he was “in denial.” After four years of incarceration for demanding what he was too young to call due process, the child killed himself.

Of course children can be violent; they can abuse and rape. And abusive sex within families is real. Accusations of incest have racked families I’m close to, even related to; I know how traumatic both the stories and the consequences can be. But Duggar was not accused of incest or violence or rape: only, and ambiguously, of fondling other children. Maybe we’ll learn something – some new story, from some new victim – that limns a conclusive horror. Till then, though, we need to ask the LGBT people piling on his case why they think he should be treated as the worst kind of criminal danger – and why the brand of “sex offender,” based on stories from his fourteenth year that led to neither charges nor conviction, should irrevocably make him a pariah a decade after the fact.

It’s clear what Duggar’s critics want to see: jail time, or worse.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 10.07.21 AMPresumed innocent? Forget it. Delusionary activists confuse the police report with a court conviction; without even a criminal charge, Duggar’s guilt is “confirmed.”

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 9.57.08 AMEven supporting the guy merits prison:

So did his defenders

And Dan Savage weighs in:

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 2.51.52 AM

Just pause there. Savage wants Child Protection Services to descend with their full panoply of powers on the parents twelve years after – not on the alleged abuser, who’s grown up and doesn’t even live in the house. (Of course, police already interviewed almost half the children without parents present.) Presumably he wants the law, after inflicting its own brand of trauma on the kids, to ship them all to foster homes. Savage endorses the principle behind sex offender registries, with a vengeance: that “sex crime” accusations deprive you permanently of your civil rights, along with everyone around you. A teenage misdeed marks you for life, and your blood relations. This is a new stage in Savage’s transition from self-proclaimed “sex radical” to exponent of middle-class paranoia at its most unthinking. He takes what authorities do to gay men as a model; he just wants it done to everybody else.

The premise here is that the parents led a “cover-up.” And the basis is that when Daddy Jim Bob first heard his son might have fondled his sister – an act she didn’t remember – he should have summoned the police immediately. Here the underlying fear becomes clear: when children have problems and sex is involved, it’s a criminal matter first and above all. The law’s the best and only remedy for troubled children; the overwhelming danger they present demands the most draconian intervention. It’s all quite odd. Plenty of liberal Americans admit that our cops are racist torturers, our prisons are overpacked, our courts are warped and broken, the system runs on retributive fantasies – until they come up against a crime involving sex. Then those courts are paradigms of fairness, those brutal police our best friends; then it’s lock them up and throw away the key! And they seem almost triply eager to entrust human lives to the corrupt and unscrupulous system when the accused is a fourteen year-old child.

Crime control, as Lancaster writes, has become “the ‘pivot of governance’” in America; and sex is central to it. The specter of sexual predation dominates American culture, more dangerous than almost any other threats – economic disaster, political disempowerment, even the violent crimes we used to fear. Only terrorism rivals it. It’s a mythic, not material, peril. Innocence, Lancaster says – “a euphemism for child sexlessness” – has become the “new watchword, apparently more valued than children themselves. And offences against this childhood innocence have become a crime capable of inflaming opinion, inciting juries, and inspiring rash actions.” It’s natural that these invisible wrongs become the place par excellence where the police recover their respectability, the law its utility, the state its power. What we don’t notice is how our secular fear of sex replicates the Duggars’ religious strictures.

I challenge anybody to say, if they were Josh’s parent, the first allegation would have led them to call the police. Daddy Jim Bob alerted the rest of the family, in what seems to have been a effort to protect them. Apparently he immediately contacted the parents of the one alleged victim outside the family – appropriately: that is, he put the choice of whether or not to summon the police in their hands. All this is not a “cover-up,” though it does reflect a reluctance to send his son to prison. Where his response failed conspicuously was in finding a therapeutic solution. Jim Bob consulted his church elders, he claims; mistrusting secular programs, he sent Josh to “a Christian program in Little Rock which they felt more comfortable with.” He doesn’t seem to have considered therapy for his daughters. And the program, if it existed (the details are vague) was probably awful. If the boy derived any benefit – the accusations did stop after he turned 15 – it may have been simply from leaving home for a slightly less hothouse environment.

Reportedly, the Duggars’ homeschooling courses used materials from Bill Gothard, a Christian pseudo-educational guru whose model curricula include discussions of sexual abuse like this:

CFoory8UkAAh7mK(There’s a whole website, recoveringgrace.org, devoted to people damaged by Gothard’s teaching materials; and this page offers more insight into how his minions view abuse.) If that’s true, it suggests any therapeutic response to Josh’s deeds that the Duggars endorsed might have only have added to the problem.

But paranoia about sex is not exclusive to Christian-right therapy. Neither is the replacement of rehabilitation by stigma, shame, and blame. Levine writes how, in respected programs for supposed child offenders,

the distinction between punishment and treatment is becoming more difficult to discern. A great deal of what passes for sex-offender treatment (such as an increasing number of “emotional growth” and other behavior-modification programs for misbehaving and violent youths) has been challenged as dubiously therapeutic and even abusive in itself. Moreover, unlike kids whose sentences are meted out by the juvenile justice system, those who become entangled in the mechanisms of “cure” are denied the legal protections afforded even adult perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

One program she visited, she says, was “surely not the worst”:

But it was typical of youth sex-offender “therapy” today: steeped in conservative sexual values, behaviorist in approach, and employing classic good cop-bad cop manipulations by staff. … the practice was anything but consensual, and the rights of both children and parents were all but disregarded. The minute a child touched his neighbor’s penis or buttocks, he had been assumed devoid of moral faculties; there was simply no debating whether what he did was wrong. A patient received no due process: as long as he protested his innocence, he was “in denial” (the psychotherapeutic equivalent of “in contempt”) and could be dropped from the program that was a prerequisite of reunification with his family. Or worse: His treatment, unlike a jail sentence, could go on for years, during which he relinquished his own and his friends’ rights to privacy. Anything he said could be reported to the authorities, and in many programs he was required to furnish the names of everyone he’d had sex with.

Is this child abuse? What’s certain is that it shares with the Duggars’ ideology a deep, disabling fear of sex. The fear is turned in different directions, but it’s equally overpowering. And it’s kids who suffer.

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes her delivery to People magazine, while Rock Hudson looks on in alarm

The next generation; Duggar daughter describes childbirth to People magazine last month, while Rock Hudson watches, unimpressed

The other aspect of the cover-up charge is that the Duggars kept this from the press. Presumably the fact they’re on TV created obligations to their inquiring audience; their kids’ juvenile offenses became fair game like any other minor star’s misdeeds. Even hypocrites and homophobes, however, have a right to privacy. In fact, the way this case became public followed a typical, invasive trajectory for juvenile sex cases: through gossip and suburban ressentiment. In 2006, an outraged 61-year-old neighbor e-mailed Oprah before the Duggars were due to appear on her show. Her missive seemed spurred more by jealousy than concern (“THEY ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM TO BE … JIM BOB LIES TO HIS CHURCH AND HIS FRIENDS TO MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD”). Oprah’s company passed the message to Arkansas authorities. The investigation ended without charge, but local rumors about Josh continued to swirl; that prompted In Touch to file a Freedom of Information request for his police records.

There is no rational excuse for releasing these records to a gossip magazine. However, as protections for accused juveniles in the justice system have eroded, so has respect for their privacy. A 1996 survey of “Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States” by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention noted stoically that

Until recently, State laws and judicial norms were established with the understanding that the preservation of the privacy of juveniles adjudicated in the juvenile court is a critical component of the youth’s rehabilitation. Today, however, in the face of increasing public concerns over juvenile crime and violence, government agencies, school officials, the public, and victims are seeking more information about juvenile offenders.

In this case, of course, the alleged “offender” wasn’t even formally accused. There were no charges, and the case never reached a court. An Arkansas judge yesterday intervened and ordered the police record destroyed: too late to protect the privacy of any of the juveniles involved.

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

Back in the days: The Brady Bunch, reaching less than one-third the Duggar family dimensions

I’ve no interest in defending the Duggars. Their ideology repels me, and their sexual anxieties are likely to demolish all their children’s lives. But neither are they a unique, deplorable freak show, detached from the pattern of American life. Their program lured a cult following among Evangelicals, but its bizarrely distended family dynamics had a wider appeal. For decades now, American audiences have been drawn to shows depicting super-sized families: The Partridge Family (five kids), The Cosby Show (ditto), The Brady Bunch (six), Seventh Heaven, Eight is Enough, John and Kate Plus 8, plus movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and many more. 19 and Counting was by the far the biggest, but its grotesqueries suggest what the fascination is about. For the Duggars, the family isn’t just a consumption unit, the way we’ve all been trained to feel. It’s a place of production, a factory of souls. Real work is done there, and that’s how it justifies its value in a fallen world. I remember what Joan Didion wrote, visiting the industrial barons’ palaces in Newport:

The very houses are men’s houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways … Somewhere in the bowels of “The Elms” is a a coal bin twice the size of Julia Berwind’s bedroom. The mechanics of such houses take precedence over all desires or inclinations; neither for great passions nor for morning whims can the factory be shut down, can production – of luncheons, of masked balls, of marrons glacés – be slowed.

There are no marrons glacés in Duggardom, but the apple dumplings carry the same idea. Everybody produced, in Duggardom. Most of the toil was exploited and underpaid, 19th-century style; the kids got 3 cents per chore. Jim Bob calculated that “all the family members combined have worked approximately 39,000 total hours building their new house” – a figure that Qatar could envy, and that helps explain how the Duggars remained so proudly debt-free. Sex, too, was chained to the wheel of labor. The “Quiverfull” version of Christian Patriarchy to which they subscribed was all about maximizing reproduction; it turned women’s wombs into production sites for manufacturing little Christians – lots of them. The Duggars harnessed desire to the assembly line. Of course this Fordist vision of the family couldn’t last; desire escaped its bonds, disastrously. But you see their appeal; they gave an answer to anomic Americans wondering why the family should survive at all.

“Family” is, of course, a word to conjure with in gay life now, as marriage equality advances. And needless to say it doesn’t mean to us what it does to the Duggars. Our socially accepted intimacies aren’t production sites but proofs, a visible demonstration that we belong. Ours is the family as spectacle. It’s where you show the world you’re respectable, as good as them.

A family meant to be watched has to be kept in line, though. Opinion, gossip, the prurient side of publicity are enforcers of conformity. They punish the recalcitrant, the outliers. (It’s no coincidence that some of the most prominent gay men in America today – Michelangelo Signorile, Michael Musto, Perez Hilton – started as or still are gossip columnists.) But beyond chastisement by headline lie more brutal forms of power. Families in the US are zones of correction. They’re less and less private, more and more subject to surveillance, more and more ruthlessly criminalized when they go wrong. The law forces “deviant” famlies to conform. And childhood is no refuge from the law. To the contrary: get ‘em while they’re young. The US has more of its youth in jails and prisons than any other country in the world.

Chart-2When gay activists rage against the Duggars and demand draconian punishments for childhood fondling, they aren’t just taking revenge for the hate the Duggars aimed at them. There’s schadenfraude, but there’s something more. Everyone should, of course, have deep concern for Josh Duggar’s alleged victims. That doesn’t require relying on the prison-industrial complex to right the wrongs. The gays are putting themselves on the side of power as it works in the US today: on the side of the jailers, the side of privacy invaded, on the side of moral panic and against its victims.

There are plenty of reminders out there of how rumor and panic coupled with police power can destroy people, Just last week, a Texas appeals court finally overturned the convictions of Dan and Fran Keller. The couple were victims of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic of the 1980s, a witchhunt that saw hundreds jailed on charges ranging from ludicrous to insane. Terrified parents and eager police induced children at the Kellers’ day care center to tell stories of “videotaped orgies, of murder and dismemberment by chainsaw, of cats and dogs tortured and killed, of shark-filled swimming pools and a mutilated gorilla in Zilker Park, of corpses dug up and desecrated … of blood-soaked satanic rituals and of day flights to Mexico, where soldiers molested them before they were flown back to Austin in time to be picked up by their parents from the Kellers’ day care.” In 1992, they were sentenced to 48 years in prison. They served 21. They were finally freed in 2013, when the only physical evidence against them collapsed: an emergency room doctor untrained in pediatric forensics recanted, admitting that the signs of sexual abuse he’d supposedly seen on a girl’s body were actually normal variations. Voiding their convictions, the appeals court still refused to find them innocent. The Kellers, now in their 70s, remain under a permanent stain.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

Fran and Dan Keller embrace outside the Travis County Jail on the day they were freed, December 2013. Photo by Debbie Nathan, who worked in their defense for years.

And there are cautionary stories that, for gays, should hit closer to home. Who remembers the boys of Boise? In 1955, in Idaho’s capital. police arrested three respected citizens for having sex with teenage boys. Local media seized the story to trumpet a threat to all the city’s children. “Crush the monster,” the Idaho Statesman warned. It went national: Time magazine claimed that a “widespread homosexual underground” had “preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” Police hauled 1500 men in for questioning over the ensuing weeks. 16 eventually faced charges of “lewd conduct” or “infamous crimes against nature”; courts convicted all but one. Most got sentences from five years to life in prison. No children were protected; lives were ruined.

Then there’s Arkansas, the Duggars’ home. Three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, 16, 17, and 18 respectively — were charged in 1993 with the rape and ritual murder of three 8-year-old boys. Suspicion started because they listened to heavy metal music. They were queer, outcast, unmanly kids, the Devil’s brood. Media and churches wove a story of Satanic ritual abuse around the killings. In five to ten hours of intense interrogation, police pressured Misskelley into confessing and fingering the others. After their inevitable conviction, Lancaster writes, “New DNA evidence … established that the teens were not present at the crime scene. Forensic analysis concludes that the grisly dismemberments were the post-mortem work of wild animals, not ritual abusers.” In 2011, they won their freedom: the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to overturn their convictions, but resentenced them to time served. They had spent eighteen years in prison, with Echols on death row.

I’m sure the Duggars endorsed the kids’ ordeal; Satan is real for them. That’s not the point. Gays need to remember how panics work. When proof and privacy, doubt and due process disappear, it’s the deviant, weird, and unwanted who suffer most. Falling for the blandishments of power, you forget the people like you it hurt.

Promo for MIchael Signorile's radio show on the Duggan scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Promo for Mike Signorile’s May 2015 radio show on the Duggar scandal. Ecstatic gays seem to be dancing in the background.

Note. Why did the Springdale police not press charges against Josh Duggar in 2006? The police report peters out with a detective writing that he “had not been able to locate an offence inside of the statute of limitations of three years.” In the last week, this roused Twitter outrage that the statute of limitations was so low:

Screen shot 2015-05-24 at 2.43.13 AMIt’s more complicated. In Touch, breaking the story, claimed that “The charge being pursued while Josh was a minor was sexual assault in the fourth degree,” according to “multiple sources who have seen the police report and are familiar with the case.” Other media parroted this. But it’s wrong. The police report says differently: the most serious charge it lists is sexual assault in the second degree. Under Arkansas Code § 5.14.103 paragraph 6 (available through LexisNexis), that applies if “ Being less than eighteen (18) years old, the person engages in sexual contact with a person not the person’s spouse who is less than fourteen (14) years old.” (Arkansas Code § 5­.14­.101 defines “sexual contact” as “any act of sexual gratification involving the touching, directly or through clothing, of the sex organs, buttocks, or anus of a person or the breast of a female.”) In that form, second-degree sexual assault is a Class D felony, meaning it should have a statute of limitations of three years. There’s a catch, though: Arkansas Code § 5.1.109 stipulates that second-degree sexual assault has no statute of limitations “if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.”

If I’m reading this right, then, the police were wrong about the statute of limitations. It’s possible they just didn’t know the law. Sex law in Arkansas, as in most places, is a confusing mess: a baroque welter of legal classifications imposed on impulsive acts. There’s another possibility, though. It should have been clear to any police officer, looking at the evidence from their interviews – the edifice of stray touches and forgetfulness — that this was a very flimsy case to bring to trial. Of course, in many sex-crime cases, evidence hardly matters; rumor is enough to prosecute. It’s possible, though, that they used the statute of limitations excuse to avoid admitting that what they’d found simply couldn’t sustain a high-profile prosecution.

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Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

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It’s midway through this month of fundraising for A Paper Bird. Please consider giving $5, $10, $100 — whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll agree: it gives a bit more than most blogs do. That’s why it’s been cited, and praised, from the New York Times to the Nation

It shines light on injustice. News about the crackdown on trans and gay people in Egypt has largely spread from here: we’ve been an indispensable source for journalists and human rights activists alike, inside and outside Egypt. We helped stoke the storm of indignation that freed 26 men in the most publicized Egyptian “debauchery” trial – an unprecedented victory.

It gives you facts behind the slogans. For analysis of why ISIS murders “gay” Iraqis, or what made Putin put Russia’s activists in his sights, or what’s the truth underlying rumors from Iran — you can turn here.

It asks the hard questions. What’s the real impact when the World Bank links preventing maternal mortality to LGBT rights? How do Western leaders’ bold promises to defend queer Africans play out on the ground? What does it mean when “vulture fund” bankers support gay marriage internationally? What are the hard choices we make in fighting for free speech?

This blog is still mainly solo work. I want it to become something bigger, more wide-ranging. Your generosity can help fund some of my own research and travel. If worse comes to worst, it can pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

  • Support some of the people who have been helping with research and translation (from Russian, Arabic, Farsi,and Hindi, and more) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
  • Help bring guest writers and new voices into the blog. The writers I’d like to see are activists from the South who don’t enjoy the cushion of time and leisure that lets Westerners opine for free. They deserve to be recognized – and reimbursed.

From now till June 5 – that’s my birthday – I’ll keep cajoling you to give a little to a site that gives you facts, scandals, sex, shocking pictures, snarky captions, stories of rights and wrongs, and ways to fight back. Press the Paypal button. Do what you can. And, as always, thanks!

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Tweet for Egypt on IDAHOT: Why it’s important

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Image by Amr Okasha for http://www.correspondents.org/ar/

It’s the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT, for short). Here’s one important thing you can do. Tweet, or post on Facebook, or write on your blog with a message of support for trans and gay and lesbian Egyptians. Use the hashtags #Antihomophobia, or in Arabic #ضد_رهاب_المثلية . Or the hashtag #انا_مش_مجرم_انا_مختلف‬ — in English, it’s #‎Am_not_aCriminal_Am_just_Different‬ . Read more about the campaign here.

I’m usually sceptical of online activism: the conflation of clicks with change, the absence of any light at the end of the carpal tunnel syndrome. Twitter and Facebook, though, mean something different in Egypt. They didn’t create the Revolution — that was corporate propaganda — but they were spaces where possibilities opened. In the years of mounting discontent before 2011, when expressly political movements opposing Mubarak had mostly fragmented, dissident Facebook groups let people complain, communicate, and know the growing cyber-weight of their own numbers, During the Revolution itself, social media made news travel instantly: vital news, like which bridges were blocked, where snipers were lurking. (That’s why, on January 28, 2011, the government tried to shut the whole Internet down.) And after the Revolution, they were ways for an amorphous, acephalous movement to discuss itself, not exactly democratically but with anarchic exhilaration. (In the summer of 2011, the military rulers indicated a willingness to meet with a few activists; some ad-hoc leaders of the ongoing sit-ins in Midan Tahrir nominated a bevy of men. Women revolutionaries seized the highly public megaphone of Twitter to object, and debate the whole issue of representation.) None of this was problem-free. Dependence on virtual spaces distracted people from political organizing after Mubarak was overthrown. Tahrir activists’ inability to ally over the long term with rebellious labor movements, wildcat strikers, peasants, and others neither versed nor interested in Facebook debate was a devastating failure. This wasn’t any secret at the time: already in the summer of 2011, the famous dissident Alaa Abd el Fattah and others started organizing “#TweetNadwa,” face-to-face meetings among major revolutionary Tweeters (a phrase only imaginable in Egypt), to prise strategic discussions away from the smartphone screens. But I remember a story I heard from a leftist doctor, who helped bring some wounded young people to a hospital during the Ittihadiyya clashes in December 2012 — angry protests outside Mohammed Morsi’s presidential palace. The victims were bleeding, the emergency room nurses ignored them, and she started shouting for help. Two well-known revolutionaries stood in a corner, fixated on their smartphones. “Would you mind keeping it down?” one said. “We’re Tweeting.”

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a smartphone and Twitter

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a phone and Facebook

No: Twitter isn’t enough to change things. But it remains a start, a step. In Egypt, social media helped create alternative public spheres, which at certain points — when the regime was jailing opposition politicians in the late 2000s; when young people wanted to share their indignation at torture and corruption, as in 2008-2010 — were vital. During the Eighteen Days, when State Security went about slaughtering people on the streets, those alternative public spheres merged with the real, habitable public sphere in towns and cities across Egypt, the imaginary and the actual melding, and their accumulated strength — like a string’s vibration magnified in an enormous echo chamber — brought a dictatorship down. And now?

Public space in Egypt is shrivelling. You can go to jail for half a decade for joining a peaceful protest, and that’s if you’re lucky. If the stars align against you, police will murder you where you stand. Civil society is cowed, the press fawns fecklessly, political movements cringe and comply. You feel the contraction in smaller ways too, in the police harassment of downtown cafes and street salesmen, the message — punctuated by truncheons — that sidewalks and sociality are targets of surveillance and control. Social media are more and more important to people who still dissent; they’re places where you can still find others who either think likewise or are bold enough to argue back. After Mona Iraqi’s raid on the Bab el-Bahr bathhouse last December — a time when everybody I knew was convinced we were all going to be arrested soon — it genuinely was critical for embattled LGBT people that veteran revolutionaries, intellectuals, leftists and liberals expressed their outrage at the abuse, over and over, on Facebook and Twitter, in the only spaces left them. It meant solidarity; it told the government that its pursuit of victims and publicity had breached a barrier of fundamental decency; it gave the indispensable gift of courage. It almost certainly led to the men’s acquittal — an unprecedented retreat by a regime that tosses out guilty verdicts like confetti. It’s important this support not abate. It’s important to keep affirming, at the last extremity, the indivisibility of human rights.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

IDAHOT is essentially about the kind of public world we’re building. It was started in 2004 by Louis-Georges Tin, a French academic and activist, a sometimes difficult man but one who conceived a hugely persuasive idea. The day caught on with LGBT groups (and people) around the globe because it captured a grating dissatisfaction with the compulsory celebrations that Prides entail, the drumbeat message that everything is getting better and better and better. No, it isn’t. Hatred and violence persist. Creating specialized, carnival spaces to congratulate ourselves offers an escape but not necessarily a solution, and the more commercial demands shape those spaces — the more they’re about money and exclusion, the more you pay to party — the less they adumbrate the equal, diverse, and democratic public sphere that so many movements once had the temerity to dream. IDAHOT asked why homophobia and inequality flourish in the larger world, why public space still isn’t safe for us, and what we can do.  (Of course prejudice and violence are powerful and cruel in what we curtain off as the “private” sphere — families, homes. But we can only learn about that and respond to it adequately in a public world that’s open for argument.) Its festivities tend to feature discussion panels rather than discos. Sometimes, of course, this stifles politics as much as any Pride can. Listening to a self-appointed talking head lecture is no more intrinsically empowering than staring at a shirtless twink dancing in a cage. And if the head belongs to some droning government hack or politician, it’s not hard to figure out which to prefer. But the aspiration remains. And the question of what the public sphere should be like, and who belongs there, is crucial in a place like Egypt.

A lot is happening around the world this May 17. Take this IDAHOT video from Iranti, a South African queer activist group with a focus on visual media. It’s part of a campaign against imposed gender roles in schools — the way school policies, and school uniforms, reify kids into “masculine” and “feminine” roles. And the kids themselves speak:


Or watch this video, an interview with Kenyan activist Solomon Wambua, about families and coming out. It’s one of an extensive series produced by None On Record, an LGBTI digital media group documenting queer activism in Africa.


In Russia there’s a range of events, mostly hoping to evade the police, including rainbow flashmobs from Archangelsk to Tyumen. You can find a rundown here. (Check, too, the moving photo campaign that Russian trans activists organized for IDAHOT last year, to support depathologizing transgender identity.) And read this publication of the international Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, with reflections on freedom of expression by young queers from Romania to Nepal.

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

But remember Egypt, too. Tweet or post. You don’t have to be only a passive consumer of others’ activism. You can participate, in however seemingly-small a way, and help defend what public sphere remains. Yesterday the Egyptian regime, which is in love with death, sentenced the democratically elected president it overthrew to die, along with more than 100 of his supporters. A court declared that the Ultras — groups of football fans, children in their teens or youth in their twenties, whose only politics is a deep hatred of the thuggish police — are “terrorists.”  In North Sinai, already bleeding from a years-long civil war, gunmen attacked a bus carrying a group of judges to a court session, and massacred four of them. The regime loves just such deaths. This morning, the country woke to find itself in an intensified state of emergency, “maximum alert,” with ramped-up security patrolling the streets. A Tweet can’t do much against such violence, such repression: true. But it’s a small blow for space and speech, against silence. Where silence is in power, every word is precious.

Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

No; but a Tweet may help. Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

 
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Remembering the Queen Boat, fourteen years after

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, Cairo, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

The night of May 12, 2001 – fourteen years ago today – I worked in my office late. Back then I was program director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a US-based NGO. Sometime after midnight an email snapped me out of drowsiness, from someone in Egypt who called himself “Horus.” The evening before, police had raided a dance club on a boat moored in the Nile. They’d arrested dozens of men whom they accused of being gay. The stranger’s roommate was among them. He was afraid they were being tortured. He sent messages to all the human rights organizations whose addresses he could find. In the end, I was the only one who answered him.

His real name was Maher Sabry, and he effectively broke that story to the world. Police arrested thirty people on the Queen Boat on May 11, 2001, and threw them into cells with a dozen others whom they’d seized on the streets in the preceding days. They concocted a scandalous case of conspiracy, perversion, blasphemy, with obscure political motives behind it. The trial dominated Egyptian headlines for months. All the men’s lives were ruined. In the next three years, police raided parties and private homes in search of “debauchery”; undercover cops entrapped victims over the Internet; judges sentenced hundreds or thousands more to jail.

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Fourteen years have passed. Last week in Egypt, police in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh arrested a 26-year Jordanian citizen “wearing women’s clothes,” and charged the victim with “sexual perversion.” Al-Youm al-Sabbah, mouthpiece for the government’s ongoing moral panic, carried pictures, probably taken from her phone or laptop. The case went to prosecutors; it’s not clear whether she’ll be deported or sent to prison. Sharm el-Sheikh was where Generalissimo Sisi held his celebratory investment fair in March, to underwrite his brutalities with foreign money; perhaps, back then, the victim saw US Secretary of State John Kerry cruise by in a limousine. Major General Hatem Amin, head of the provincial security directorate, presided over the investigation. When Amin got his job in July 2014, he declared that one of his responsibilities (in addition to torturing alleged terrorists, which in Sinai goes without saying) would be to “finish the bridge of trust between citizens and police.” Trust is built over the bodies of the despised; this is a lesson from Sisi.

Egypt’s new rulers know how to commemorate an anniversary.

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

These banal numbers and blurred photos are about people’s lives. A 22-year-old who was arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001 told me what happened at the police station that night:

This officer who I think was a psycho came over to us. He started shouting abuse at all of us. He said to us, “I want the khawalat [faggots] to one side and the ordinary people to the other side. “ He was silent for a minute. “Of course, you don’t have any normal people, you’re all khawalat.”

Other officers came over and this officer called us out one by one. They looked us over. I was one of the first to be called out. I was well-dressed but he thought my clothes looked “girlish” though I was just wearing a tight T-shirt top, and a jacket, and pants with a little flower stitched on them, around the cuff. They all thought I was effeminate, all through this ordeal, so I was singled out for special attention. After that, he made me take my pants off to see what I was wearing underneath. … He told me, “Of course you are a khawal.” I said, of course not. And then he started beating me terribly. … He used fists and a hose. He beat me on my back with it. Over and over. I’ll never forget that.

This man, now my friend, eventually escaped to France. Another friend of mine, who lived in the provincial town of Tanta, told me how the police arrested more than eighty suspected khawalat in the city in 2002, after a gay man named Adel was murdered. They were all tortured to get information:

[One man] was hung up for four days without food or drink, by cuffs in the window … They tied [another man’s] hands and feet, and put him on a metal thing with two legs — a kind of metal sawhorse — and tied him so that he was hanging under it. He was blindfolded and naked. They attached wires to him and electroshocked him all night. They electroshocked his tongue. The next day they brought us in to him. He was lying on the floor in the office of the chief of detectives, where the torture happened. His tongue was swollen and hanging out of his mouth. I recognized his fingers and toes as they brought me in to him—there wasn’t much else I could recognize. I could barely understand him when he tried to talk. … An officer came in. He said, “Write down the names of all the khawalat you saw in Adel’s apartment in the last ten years.” He had shown him to us as a warning.

And here is the testimony of a young trans woman who talked to me last year. She and three friends were arrested in April 2014 in an apartment in Cairo, thirteen years minus a month after the Queen Boat:

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” … An informer [plainclothesman] said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat.” The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes.” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently … The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” … A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

.التكرار يعلّم الحمار  Or, as they say elsewhere: plus ça change

Egypt's finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

Egypt’s finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

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Note: The testimonies from 2001-2002, along with many other stories, can be found in Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.

Mother’s Day

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Two women raised me, and here in Cairo, I don’t even have a picture of either. Perhaps that’s good. It’s better to rely on the salvages of memory. None of us will survive in photographs, compressed to two dimensions; we only persist in the frailty of a human touch. At some point in life you start to realize you’ve become the custodian of a strange museum, the last protector of a small sodality of people who have died, now starting to fade and crumble like bolts of old fabric as those who remember them join them among the dead. The guardian of memories has a terrible responsibility, the keeper of fragile afterlives: as if a dusty butterfly collection in an attic, impaled on frayed velvet, were actually an array of souls entrusted to your oversight, and you still couldn’t keep the friable wings from dissolving in the sudden, stabbing light. Eventually I too will survive only in someone else’s memories. And I too will erode away, though there will be moments — panicked as a dream where you grope for an invaluable penny, indistinguishable from any other, that you’ve stupidly given away – when the custodians of me will clutch their pockets to seize a recollection they feel escaping, and, wanting it desperately, the precision and detail, will realize they can’t hold on. It all vanishes. Then they’ll feel guilt, as I feel guilt: a failure to sustain the dead in the half-life left them.

Then that will pass.

I remember my great aunt’s skin. On her face it was reddish and rough, but still yielding. Age hadn’t creviced her with wrinkles; she remained soft, with an inner softness as though you could sink into her like a pillow. The smell of talcum powder always underlay her perfume, as though it were the scent of that ease of giving. She was tall (anyway, to me). She’d acquired a curvature of the spine that gave her back a sort of bulbous hump, but it never affected her determination to stand upright and elegant, and it would have taken great courage to suggest any physical inadequacy in her. But the straightness and the strength existed so that she could lean forward, take you in. They weren’t the contradiction of tenderness, but its condition. She was my mother’s aunt. I remember my mother’s skin, too, pale and somehow stretched thin. Mostly, though, I remember her eyes. They were grayish and could flash angry, particularly when she saw something unjust, or delighted when she saw someone she loved; but much of the time they were sad, a candid quality imperfectly caught in photographs, where her spectacles (she was given to that Gary-Larson-schoolmarmish style) glassed them in a fixity unfriendly to emotion, as if on ice. Somewhere there are some photographs I took of her a few weeks before she died. While she could not have had a premonition of the heart attack that would kill her, her eyes looked so immeasurably sad in those: they were like spirit photographs, where the plaintive ghost, invisible at the time, only emerges when the negative is developed. We’d just replaced our old refrigerator, a huge thing that had been a temple of my childhood, with a newer model. I’d taken some photographs of the old one before it was carted away, for nostalgia’s sake; and then I took some pictures of her. She suddenly said, apropos of nothing: “You care about the past. You want to remember it. Don’t ever lose that, Scott.“ At the time, it was strange. In retrospect, it seems a mandate or a plea, telegraphed from the borders of death. Whenever I think of that, I start to cry: not least because I remember what her look then meant, but not the precise angle and detail of the look itself. The exactitude has worn away, and the word “sadness” is left, pasted over it in palimpsest. I cry because I’ve betrayed her.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XI

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XI

My mother was Ernestine Wilson Long; my great aunt, Leila Wilson. A few years before I was born, my parents moved from Ohio to Virginia. My mother invited her grandmother, then almost ninety, and her aunt to come live with us – it didn’t seem wise for them to stay alone in an isolated Ohio farmhouse. This meant a surfeit of strong women in my childhood. My mother’s family had been farmers for generations, and she was the first child ever to go to college. Everybody said she was brilliant. She wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor; but in the rural Midwest, these were unheard-of aspirations for a woman, and immediately got translated into schoolteacher or nurse. She became a teacher. In Virginia, she rose to an elementary school principal. My aunt, living with us, took on some of the work of raising me, which freed her to hold onto her career. They shared in mothering me; they saw me to adulthood. They died within two years of one another, my mother when I was seventeen and my aunt when I was nineteen. Whatever I’ve become (some mornings, in the Egyptian heat, it seems an open question) is largely their doing. What, Yeats demanded, is a life’s final product? What does it mean to

Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
The finished man among his enemies?

Living, being a finished person, is the paltry coin of tribute you can pay to those who shaped you – the unknown instructors, Yeats called them elsewhere. It is mainly a way of doing some credit to what they made me.

Caldwell, county seat of Noble County, Ohio, in a photograph from ca. 1886-88

Caldwell, county seat of Noble County, Ohio, in a photograph from ca. 1886-88

My great aunt (till the day she died I called her “Nany,” which was the way I spelled “Nanny” when I learned to write) was born in 1908. She married when she was about twenty-two; pregnant with a son, she left the man not long after to return to her parents’ farm. He disappeared from the family lore, never attended the family funerals which were our main reunions. When I asked her about him, I got the curt impression that he drank, or gambled, or both. She raised her son with her parents’ help; she also raised her niece, my mother, through a complicated castling on the family chessboard. On top of that, she got a job. She became an assistant as well as best friend to the woman who ran the most elegant clothing store in the vicinity — the only Jew, so far as I can make out, in Noble County, Ohio. None of this can have been easy. To flivver from the fields daily to a small-town dress shop that was a little cosmopolitan island in a Depression-era sea of gray – to shuck off farm work in the morning to become a working woman in the afternoon – took great courage and daring. It also meant a transit between local and larger horizons that few people around there ever managed. (Lena Alter, her boss, famously travelled to New York once a year to bring back fashions from the Great World to that rural corner.) In the 1920s, when anti-Catholic nativism swept the Midwest, my great aunt’s father had succumbed, even briefly joining the Ku Klux Klan. He can hardly have been happy when his daughter joined the employ of, and befriended, an immigrant Jew. My great aunt stayed completely confident in herself, serenely proud of the connection. Lena Alter, who died when I was two, became a legend of my childhood: through stories of her, I learned about the vanished Austria-Hungary where she was born. Vistas opened of an imagined eastern Europe, a mélange of consonants and countries that became real much later, when I lived there. So she too – unmarried and childless – survives in me, though I never knew her. From my great aunt I learned about independence, and a cosmopolitan flower of friendship that could blossom defiantly in the unlikeliest dust. I also learned that you could be strong and independent and still full of love. These weren’t copybook lessons; putting them in words only weakens them. But I also remember some things my great aunt thought important enough to tell me. A lot had to do with justice, the weak and the strong. “The lowest thing on earth a man can do is to hit a woman,” she’d intone. I assumed this had to do with her truncated marriage; I knew she felt it urgent that I learn it. It was important for me to know that strength in the wrong hands could be dangerous; also, that independence had costs.

Railroad crossing at South Olive, Ohio, the village where my mother grew up. The building on the right was my great-great uncle's Samuel Harper's store.

Railroad crossing at South Olive, Ohio, the village where my great aunt and my mother grew up. The building at bottom was my great-great uncle Samuel Harper’s store.

My father beat my mother. He didn’t do so regularly; just at intervals, in argument, when his inarticulateness felt cornered by my mother’s way with words. Once or twice I tried to step in to defend my mother, but I was too small. Mostly I’d run to my great aunt, screaming in terror; and she would intervene, shouting and cursing down the incarnate powers of manhood in incantatory rage.

My mother knew about sadness. I learned many things from her, but one was that sadness was also compatible with love, could indeed become its ground. She loved me sadly, because she felt the constraints on her life, and wanted me not to experience them as a condition. There were many things she couldn’t give me: she couldn’t, for instance, make the nights my father beat her go away. She could, however, give me a sense of justice. This sense was lambent in her, shining almost visibly under her skin. Nothing made her angrier than to see a wrong being done to someone else; her ferocity at such moments almost scared me. I could trace this throughout her life. A Northern liberal, she’d followed my father’s job and moved to the mountain South in 1959. She was determined that Southern racism not get its talons in my mind or in our house. The year she was hired as a principal, she presided over the desegregation of her school. “Desegregation” in our corner of Virginia meant that the one decrepit African-American school in fifty miles – the weirdly named Christiansburg Institute — was closed down, and its teachers and pupils distributed across the county.  A new arrival, my mother understood perfectly clearly that segregation was ideology as well as a system, older than Christiansburg Institute (which was almost a century old); a legal gesture could diminish but not destroy it. At school, she fought intensely to make sure those teachers and pupils felt as little as possible of its persisting effects. Outside the school, our house – the principal’s house – was always full, from my earliest memories, of my mother’s African-American colleagues and students. It may seem small, but her social invitations sent a covert message to the other staff and students and parents. Yet it was simple, and natural. To me, a child, it was ordinary – my mother insulated me from the hatred roiling outside; only later did I understand the meanings her decisions had taken on in that time and place. (My family was snubbed by a lot of white neighbors for decades.) My mother would never have made an issue of any this – she was never patronizing, much less self-congratulatory; the naturalness was the point. But she had a passion for making sure that no one ever felt unwelcome or unwanted, and while this could inform political acts, it rose from generosity, personal in a way that preceded politics. She was shy herself, but I remember her walking into any room – a party, a wedding, a wake – and seeking out the shyest, most excluded person there, and doing everything she could to bring them in the circle. This was a form of justice, but it was also a form of love.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XX

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child XX

Mother’s Day used to be a gift to the greeting-card industry. Now, when all our emotions have moved to cyberspace, it’s a social-media carnival, a virtual Saturnalia. Once you sent flowers to your mother alone; this Sunday, though, everyone’s posting photos and memories on Facebook, as if they need to share their filial piety with all their five thousand friends. Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! It’s strange, this impulse to make the personal collective. I keep thinking of those who are left out: the orphaned or abandoned, those who grew up alone, those who haven’t spoken to their families in decades, who lost their mothers not to death but to alienation or hate, who flinch at the mocking thought of parental love. Is there a Facebook post, a flower, a kiss, for them?

No; but there’s a word.

At the climax of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus finds his ghostly mother, dead of cancer, among the booze-fueled hallucinations of Dublin’s Nighttown. He is riddled with guilt; it’s an antic staging of James Joyce’s own deep guilt over his mother’s death. He cries out to the grotesque resurrection:

STEPHEN (Eagerly.) Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.

THE MOTHER  Who saved you the night you jumped into the train at Dalkey with Paddy Lee? Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? … I pray for you in my other world. Get Dilly to make you that boiled rice every night after your brain work. Years and years I loved you, O my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb.

“You sang that song to me,” she says, “Love’s bitter mystery.” She has already said the word, and so has he.

The great privilege of my childhood, which ended when I was nineteen, was that I knew what it was like to be loved unconditionally. Love like that is strong, but it has no superhuman strength. It is vulnerable, like everything that is alive. Its mystery is bitter, its kiss reserved only for the smallest corner of the world; it can only give so much; it cannot overcome its time, its place, its limits. My mother and my aunt couldn’t promise me that their love would protect me forever, or that it would bring me justice or redeem my wrongs. They couldn’t even protect themselves. They could only tell me that unconditional love is possible. That was enough.

Most of my friends do work that invokes the big words of our world: they labor for peace, for justice, or, like me, for human rights. The terms take their force from their legal nicety. Yet the experience of justice and the experience of having rights are different from the legalisms. They’re instinctive knowledges, understandings in the bone of when one is treated rightly or when one belongs. That knowledge is Utopian – no one enjoys the experience fully or unhindered; the paradise of belonging lies in an unapprehended future. Yet it also lies in recollection. We recognize it from the moments in the past when we were loved without condition: for ourselves, for our failures, for our weaknesses, for our insignificance, for our strength. Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? … Years and years I loved you, O my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb. Hope is a memory; we learned it from what we lost and are still losing, from the frailty of the disappearing past. This I gained from my mothers; it will remain as I fade away.

Van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

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When I started writing here back in 2011, I thought of it mainly as a place for my own cantankerous, informed, but often infuriating opinions. It still is. It’s become something more. Paper Bird is no parrot. It’s escaped the cage of my intentions. The site is irritant, forum, megaphone. With your constant prodding, it’s analyzed and argued about faith, fraud, fashion, debt, the inequities of global economy, citizenship, migration, militarism, and much, much, more — not to mention sex; there’s always sex. It’s told urgent stories many people would never know of otherwise.

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Icons

Madonna and fanboy, I

Madonna and fanboy, I

My friend Mauro Cabral, the great trans activist from Argentina, wrote this week on Facebook:

An American journalist wants to chat with me about Bruce Jenner’s story. She wants to know if I expect this new global leadership to help trans people in my country.

I told her that, to be honest, I am not following the story.

She asks me if I have good access to Internet.

Bruce Jenner has worn the two greenest laurels American life bestows, as sports hero and reality TV star. When he comes out as transgender, in an interview seen by one-twentieth of the country’s population, surely the world must be watching. The only holdouts are in the Stone Age caves of Buenos Aires, where people communicate by smoke signals.

For Mauro, this is the old American imperialism, sure that whatever happens in the 50 states shakes the planet. But it’s not just about foisting a new “global leader” on us. For me, an American, it also reveals a naïve confidence that the way we do politics is universal. Americans have given the globe a new kind of social transformation: change without action, progress without movements, transformation in the passive voice.

It used to be that when you dreamed of transforming society, you dreamed of deeds. Revolution was a name for that kind of action. Revolutions were compendia of great acts: manning barricades or withstanding massacres, the journées of bravery and danger, the assault on the Winter Palace, the confrontations with kings. Paintings or photographs preserve the figures of that age, in static and stylized tableaus; but even under those stiff cemented poses you can feel the taut muscles still pulsing, bursting through the flatness into our time and dimensions, like the withers of great horses straining to break free. They made oaths, which mortgaged their lives to future action; they pledged their fortunes and their sacred honor, or plighted an immortal solidarity on a disused tennis court. Of course, there was a lot of talking. They spoke and spoke. But when Patrick Henry cried out “Liberty or death,” or Trotsky shouted to the sweaty soviets about the dustbin of history, the words themselves became as hard as deeds. “The words fell like hammerstrokes,” people said. They meant that in the tension of transformation everything became an act. Each syllable forged a weapon. History was not what happened, but what you made: the energy of a common workman suddenly pounded time itself into shape as if it were molten steel.

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Everybody knows revolutions are over. Their time is past. Now we have Social Change. Social Change is committed by NGOs, furtively, like masturbation. Progressive donors who fund progressive NGOs working on Social Change often have something called a Theory of Change, to help decide whose change is theoretical enough to get the money. If you talk to such a donor, they may ask what your Theory of Change is. Usually they don’t expect you to have taken time off to think of one. They want to know you’ve read their website, and come with something enough like their own Theory to pass. A plausible Theory of Change might go like this. People need empowerment. This doesn’t mean appropriating anybody else’s power (or money; donors can be sensitive on this point). It means making them feel better about themselves; which means talking about rights and giving them role models. The role models are vital; power flows from their fingertips. A few celebrities can charge the world with change like electric current purring through great powerlines. They stand alone like latticed steel towers, strung together by their own strength. They do the public work, while the NGOs wank in private. Change happens so seamlessly that it never even slipped into the active voice. You can imagine trying to sell something like this to the Parisian sans culottes, or the Communards. But they lived in an age of darkness, with resources infinitely inferior to our own. Our lives touch the stars; we have satellite TV. The Theory of Change is a theory of the celebrity interview.

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Bruce Jenner is a decent person, who wants his life to mean something; but his image, now as before, is out of his hands. “We’re going to change the world,” he told the cameras (in all the discussion of his use of pronouns, no one asked if the “we” was royal or collective). And everybody agreed. He’ll change the world by being himself, and doing it in public. The word for such a sedentary world-changer is “icon.” An icon is, of course, a religious image; it’s necessarily inert. It answers prayers through the power of our faith in it, without lifting a painted finger.

Madonna and fanboy, II

Madonna and fanboy, II

And now he’s a transgender icon, an “icon of change.” “I couldn’t think of a stronger icon,” said one trans activist in Canada. “I’m team Bruce all the way.” In a New Zealand concert, Demi Lovato “dedicated her track Warrior to transgender icon Bruce Jenner,” “an American hero.” (“This whole fame thing starts taking over and people know your name and then all of a sudden – boom – you’re in rehab,” she warned him, apparently forgetting he went through that crucifixion before she was born.) There are no iconoclasts. Even people who don’t like him don’t dispute the icons’ power. “Trans people need an icon,” one op-ed read. “But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice.”

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, III

These aren’t metaphors. They’re manifestoes. They offer a strategy as clear as anything in Rules for Radicals or What Is To Be Done?  The panoply of ideas that icon-worship brings has become our essential jargon: the “teachable moment,” the “national conversation,” the importance of “awareness.” These goods are the intangible benefits celebrities can give us, just as healing radiates from the icon’s frame. The politics are magical and royalist. The “awareness” is entirely about the celebrities themselves, not of material facts that lie beyond their lives. Jenner took pains to emphasize in his interview, “I am not a spokesman for the community.” And he went on to list a lot of issues the community confronts: discrimination, health care, murder. But what sticks in the memory are the “simple goals” the cameras coaxed out of him: “To have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”

Under the nail polish, here are some figures about other transgender lives.

  • A 2011 survey of almost 6500 trans people in the US found they were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
  • One-fifth said they had been homeless at some point. Those are roughly the same figures that a 1997 city investigation found in liberal, protective San Francisco.
  • Only one-fifth had been able to update all their IDs to match their lived gender, and one-third had no matching ID at all.
  • One-fifth had no health insurance (as opposed to roughly 16% for the general population at the time). 18% had been verbally harassed in a medical setting, and 19% had been denied care because of their gender identity or expression.
  • Trans people reported four times the national average for HIV infection — trans women, eight times. Trans African-Americans were ten times more likely to be HIV-positive than other African Americans.
  • 16% of trans people overall – 21% of trans women – reported they had been incarcerated; among African-American trans people, that crested to 47%. In 2014, the US government estimated that 40% of trans people in prison have suffered sexual assault or abuse. That’s ten times the numbers among other prisoners. In California, studies of state prisons found that 59% of transgender women held in men’s units had been sexually assaulted by other inmates. 14% had been sexually assaulted by staff.
  • Of the 6500 trans people surveyed, 41% said they had attempted suicide: almost thirty times the figures for the US population overall.

Bruce Jenner can put a face on some transgender lives. But after that? A comforting face can easily hide comfortless facts. What you’re left with is a trickle-down theory of consciousness: that fame rubs off; that visibility is contagious; that Jenner has the strength to change the “national conversation” because his image was on a Wheaties box once. What is this redemptive power of breakfast? In the South, where I grew up, generations of white folks started their day eating pancakes blessed by a happy black woman smiling generously from the label: Aunt Jemima, an icon of love. It didn’t stop them from getting up from the table and going off to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

The politics of icons strikes me as one of the great gifts the gay movement proffered to America as a whole: so it’s natural that trans folk too should be expected to embrace it. (Remember, “transgender people need an icon,” even more than they do IDs.) “Gay Icon” actually has a Wikipedia entry; so do “Madonna As a Gay Icon” and “Cher As a Gay Icon.” Resilience, suffering, “triumph over adversity” nearly always figure in the definitions: “It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned [Judy, you idiot] Garland her status as a Gay Icon.” Drug addict! Fat girl! Multiple divorcée! Or as RuPaul says:

People always ask, ‘What makes a gay icon?’ People who have been ostracized or pushed outside of society relate to other people who have their exact same qualities and personality traits. The spiritual being having to dumb down to fit in.

I disagree, though. There’s a historical confusion here. When I was a kid back in the Middle Ages, learning to read by the light of burning witches, we had “divas,” not icons. Those indeed were famous women who had suffered and survived: Judy, Joan Crawford, Callas, Billie Holiday. Gay men identified with them because they offered a pushed-to-extremity version of what pop culture (or certain corners of high culture) promised to do: provide figures so immense, so superhuman, so intense in experience and emotion that they could contain all of us, like Whitman’s pan-American ego, and redeem our subjection to our grinding daily injustices by making it grandiose, gorgeous, unforgettable. Their sufferings were infinitely direr and more stylish. There was a tragic side, but this wasn’t catharsis: it was transfiguration.

Very few of these stars ever said anything in public about gay people. If they did, it was far from sure to be supportive. (Bette Midler was one of the only players before the 1980s who openly embraced a gay audience — and gay causes. That helped keep her more a cult figure than a major star. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, last of the disco divas, supposedly told a gay crowd that “AIDS is your sin … God loves you. But not the way you are now.”) But that was fine, because their usefulness wasn’t political but personal. They were tools to forge imaginary selves, means to endure the everyday by sublating it, the dialectic as redecorated by Douglas Sirk.

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, IV

The first top-rank, A-list star I remember who publicly exulted in her gay audience was Madonna. It’s hard to recapture how, as they say, transformational it was. She was the first real gay icon: somebody who promised not just inner triumph but the hope of everyone accepting you, loving you. There was no tragedy to her: neither in persona nor in person did she suggest suffering, being “pushed outside of society.” She did her own pushing. And she evoked not identification but adoration. Loving Madonna was an affair with the unattainable; fame was intrinsic to her being, and because she was famous she was radically different from you. There could be no question of her encompassing your problems. She was beyond all that.

Madonna-In-Bed-With-Madon-401853When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there was a young gay undergrad named Alek Keshishian, dying to be famous. I didn’t know him personally; his name showed up once on the student list for a section I was teaching, but he never appeared, and later he dropped the class. For student theater, he memorably staged a rock opera version of Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff were rock stars, trying to deal with the pressures of fame. (Alek sent invites to reviewers from all the Boston papers, and got some favorable notices. This unheard-of self-advertising roused indignation in the dining halls: student theater was supposed to be for students.) Some of the songs he used in the opera were by Kate Bush and some were by Madonna, and when he contacted Madonna’s people to get the rights he managed, through sheer pushfulness, to speak to her. She took him on as fanboy and protégé, and after that he was in Fame Heaven. Straight out of college he started filming her tours and the backstage drama, and in 1991 he directed Truth or Dare  also known as In Bed With Madonna – which became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Its fame was transoceanic. I was living in Budapest by then, and if I mumbled half-mendaciously to somebody in the city’s one gay club that “Madonna’s director was my student,” my chance of getting laid increased twelvefold. Fame does rub off, in a long-distance frottage.

Alek never really did anything outside Madonnaworld. The rest of his career comprised music videos and the like; most recently he co-wrote a film with her, about another couple dealing with the pressures of fame, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you Google him, he turns up on a page called “Today in Madonna History.” His story seems to me a parable of the period: not Wuthering Heights, but Great Expectations.                      

Madonna and fanboy, IV

Madonna and fanboy, V

You cathect to icons, but in a different way from divas. Divas once summed up your life; icons are imperial beings vastly above it, who bless it just by being there. Sorrow doesn’t touch them – Kylie MInogue said that divas “usually have some tragedy in their lives, but I’ve only had tragic haircuts and outfits.” The icons aren’t the drug addicts or the fat girls made good. They’re the rich kids who picked on the drug addicts and the fat girls. They’re emblems for an era where failure is the unforgivable sin. (B. J. Whiting, the great medievalist, used to ask his Harvard students at the beginning of every year to name the Seven Deadly Sins. A few always listed poverty, sickness, and unemployment.)

The fascination with celebrity is ingrained deep in Western gay life. Partly, I think, it comes from the debilitating experience of the closet, which despite the premature triumphalism of outness still shapes our lives. The wounds of self-concealment breed a fetish for completely public selves, all crevices open to the klieg lights.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

These days, we justify this star-fucking by saying that young queer kids need role models. They do; but role models they can’t speak to and can never hope to be? No lonely trans or gay youth seriously thinks he’s going to become famous as Tom Cruise or rich as Tim Cook. Children dream, but they’re not delusional like adults. They know the destinies of the stars lie beyond their grasp. Most of the hyper-successful win through inheriting looks or money, or through pure random luck in the Babylon lottery we inhabit. Their triumphs aren’t imitable. Some have real prowess, as Jenner had. (There’s an argument that Americans indulge the immense salaries of sports heroes because it’s almost the only field of American life where you can’t fake success. You either make the touchdown or you don’t – unlike corporate CEOs, who can cook the books more ways than Julia Child.) But that prowess came as much from genes as from the gym; it isn’t readily replicable, any more than you can get Oum Kulthoum’s vocal range by practicing your scales. We all bought Wheaties with Jenner’s picture when I was a kid, but we didn’t buy the line that we’d become him. Icons don’t reveal possibility. They embody inequality. It’s no coincidence that celebrity politics flowered in the Reagan era, which didn’t just cement inequality but celebrated it as US society’s vital principle.

tony

I’m not gay, but if George W. asked me, how could I refuse?

But the icon appeals in a different way to the insecure and unwanted: it makes them feel accepted by the big guys, the in crowd, the Mean Girls or Heathers or the playground bullies. Icons are about how the powerless love power. (In the UK, Gay Times named Tony Blair, the warrior god, “top gay icon” of the last 30 years. No one would dare call you a fag if you could destroy a country.) My old friend Lisa Power, a distinguished British queer campaigner, is researching how activists identify their role models. The celebrity fixation, she wrote me, is “about approval and validation, proving that popular people want to hang with us.”

She added: “One of the longstanding activists that I interviewed said, ‘Icons? In my day we didn’t have icons, we had each other.’” And that rings true. The need for icons also suggests some terrifying loneliness that all this liberation we’ve undergone has yet to repair, has perhaps made worse. We hung together more when we knew we needed each other. Now, so full of borrowed hope, we’re hopelessly alone.

Madonna and Fanboy, V

Madonna and fanboy, VI

If the gays, adoring their celebrities, played a critical part in creating celebrity politics, it has spread beyond them. Oh, how it’s spread! True, no other social movement has succumbed quite so completely to the idea that celebrities in themselves can get you justice. Most movements simply use the famous for what they can extract. But the model’s seductive, corrupting. Women’s rights campaigns in America look increasingly like red-carpet photo ops: think of all those stars reading the Vagina Monologues. The more riddled with implausibilities the cause, the more likely it is to enlist celebrities for their power to blot out doubt. Nick Kristof’s neo-feminist “Half the Sky” brand  – a book, a film, and a PR package that calls itself a “movement” — relies on Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, and Eva Mendes to help him raid brothels, humiliate sex workers, and buy women “freedom.” The paradigm of this is Kristof’s protégé, the anti-trafficking icon and master brothel-raider Somaly Mam, whose vanity foundation collected stars’ endorsements like Pokémon cards: Susan Sarandon, the inevitable Oprah, Ashley Judd and Ashlee Simpson, Katie Couric and Bill Maher. Mam was a money pit  for “celebrity philanthropy.” Even after she was caught “publicizing her efforts with fabricated, lurid stories about herself and the girls in her shelters, which sex trafficking experts say dangerously misconstrued the problem at hand,” Marie Claire, the beauty magazine, took up the cudgel to defend her. Diane von Furstenburg stands by her. Image is all.

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I played a refugee once: Jolie at the UN

For all its US foundations, moreover, celebrity politics more and more goes global. The United Nations, since the 1950s, has called on “Goodwill Ambassadors,” famous people brought in to publicize its agencies’ work. But now the truculent stars insist on being more than spokesmen; they want credit for the work itself. The moon’s pale fire eclipses what used to be the sun. Angelia Jolie has graduated from “Goodwill Ambassador” to full-fledged “Special Envoy” on refugees; she speaks at UN meetings with a Method-acting look of expertise. Alain de Botton, a celebrity philosopher, defends the primacy of celebrity activism like hers: “Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions.” Jolie, he says, is one of these directions (along with Alain de Botton). She goes to Congo or Rwanda “to help people who are in great need. But more than anything, what she does is make Africa ‘sexy.'”

In 2012, on Human RIghts Day, the UN held a panel discussion on LGBT people’s human rights, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself attending. Three activists travelled to New York to speak: Olena Shevchenko, a feminist and queer rights defender in Ukraine, Blas Radi from Argentina who had helped draft the groundbreaking bill on gender identity there, and Gift Trapence, who had bravely defended imprisoned trans and gay people in Malawi. But the main speakers were two queer-friendly performers: Latino corazón-throb Ricky Martin, and the South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, both somewhat superannuated to say the least. (One nice thing about becoming a gay icon is that your healing power can bring your dead career back to life.) The officials there spent their time fawning over the stars. Ban praised Chaka Chaka as “the Queen of Equality.” The Dutch diplomat moderating the event called Ricky Martin “the King of Equality.” (Royalty and equality, of course, are not usually linked.) The people who had actually worked for human freedom were treated as second-class opening acts, their comments cut short and their accomplishments slighted in favor of a chanteuse and a former member of Menudo. The activists felt useless. The show said nothing substantial. The UN, stealing a bit of lunar light from the stellar celebrities, got the publicity it wanted. Everyone who mattered was happy.

Madonna and Fanboy, VI

Madonna and fanboy, VII

Puzzle as you like over why celebrities dabble in humanitarianism – principles or PR? It can’t be grasped on the level of personalities. A Marxist could tell you what “celebrity activism” is, how the whole game works. It’s not a way of transforming society. It’s a way of transforming needs felt at the base into the abstract language of the superstructure: of turning anger and desperation into safe and culturally acceptable representations. The concrete, material needs that people and communities experience – for health care, jobs, access to medicines, protection from violence – are surrendered for immaterial gains on the level of “culture”: for “awareness,” publicity, “public consciousness,” “teachable moments,” “conversations.” The scraps of those needs that survive the translation are there for celebrities to turn into entertainment; your rage becomes a show, your hunger a commodity for somebody else to consume. The gains for the poor are purely ghostly, a few flickers of light. Those who get something tangible out of the game aren’t the communities, it’s the celebrities – and, overridingly, the corporate system within which they work, the machinery of capital that makes them. Profits flow up and only representations trickle down. And the nature of the system is that we are all trained to feel good about this; even the activists and malcontents among us.

This is simply how things are in the late-capitalist United States; everything material evaporates into its own signification. Or as Nancy Fraser would say, people who want redistribution of resources quickly learn to settle for symbolic “recognition,” for genuflections and formal respect, for the small satisfaction of seeing themselves in a movie — because it’s all they’ll get. There’s a limit to how much any activist can fight back against this system of images and fictions. We’re all convinced now that the only way to get any material needs met at all is to play the “cultural” game, to translate them into symbolic terms. You act nice, you tamp down your anger and your desires, and you recruit celebrities to “raise some awareness.” But we have never calculated, and may in fact be structurally unable to calculate, what we lose for a pottage of allegorical and evanescent gains: how many demands are abandoned, how many needs left unrecognized and unmet, in the distortions of this mistranslation.

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Sometimes the fabric of these fictions ruptures. Of course revolutions don’t happen any more; except they do. I drive each day in Cairo through Midan Tahrir. It’s a mound of earth. The military government is digging up the central traffic island for some unexplained project, like a bomb shelter; they’ve already planted a gratuitously gigantic flagpole there, plinthed on a grotesque sarcophagal stele. It’s all to keep it off-limits, keep you from gathering, fence the people away because they fear the people; the leaders live in the lightning-fringed apocalyptic dread that opens Pilgrim’s Progress; they fear the wrath to come. The people still want bread. What happened once can happen again. And then there’s Baltimore. In Baltimore the cops kill someone, and you know your own life has a use. In Baltimore they no longer wait or want to be spoken for, they don’t believe that change comes stacked in theories like eggs in cartons, they don’t believe that justice trickles down from absconded gods in the airwaves or the clouds. They know reality isn’t raw material for reality TV. Hunger and anger won’t submit to being translated. The pain that’s actual and unseen has more power than all the images some satellite, lost in the smear of stars, can absorb.

But the rest of us survive differently. Gay politics always talked of honesty, authenticity; but what’s left? To be queer now is to be caught trying to assert your own reality in a world that is more and more unreal. You are driving down a long straight highway in a desert, through bright sun flecked with strange-angled shadows, past painted yellow mesas flat as stage sets. A wind from the obverse of the sky blows over you, and hardens the beads of sweat on your face to diamonds. The towering props that mimic stone tremble in the air like aspens. You think, I could live like this: and the wind uncombs your hair.

Madonna and fanboy, IX

Madonna and fanboy, IX

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Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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Indiana: It’s more than marriage

Indiana_Road_SignThe furor over Indiana’s on-and-off “religious freedom” law is a strange one. Left and right argue about not only the bill, but whether it even matters. If you’re against it, this is a historic battle, Selma all over again. If you’re for it, like Indiana’s hapless governor, it’s just a tiny little law, a trivial pointless bill that doesn’t actually have any effect at all, so insignificant it’s hard to see why they bothered to pass it.

Of course this isn’t Selma. March against Mike Pence all you want; you won’t get shot. If the one side is prone to over-dramatizing itself, though, the other flat-out lies. Trivializing the law is deeply mendacious, and even the right wing can’t stay committed to the fiction; for,behind the shoulders of the soothing temporizers waggle the true believers, screaming out dirty secrets like the madwoman in the attic: the Bryan Fischers, babbling that minus absolute license to discriminate, white Christian people will be slaves. Yet you still hear that the act’s only impact would be making it mildly harder to find a florist. This is exactly what’s most dangerous about the bill: the claim that it isn’t so dangerous at all.

Structural transformation of the public sphere:  A London coffee house, by William Holland, 1798

Structural transformation of the public sphere: a London coffee house, by William Holland, 1798

The Indiana law is dangerous because it chips away at core values of American law: how we define public life and public space, and rights within them. The word that counts is “public.” For Jürgen Habermas, whose theories comprise not quite a history but a coherent mythology about our era, the eighteenth century saw the creation, for the first time in modern Western societies, of publicsnetworks of (mostly) men who cultivated spaces outside both home and government to debate, discuss, and form solidarities around questions of mutual moment. This sociable Eden immediately suffered a Fall: on the one hand growing governments tried to constrict it, and on the other burgeoning capitalist forces demanded all concerns of the commons be economized and made private ones. Habermas’ myth is true enough to be useful. It encapsulates a sense that the bounds of what’s “public,” the realms of free communication and confrontation and elective solidarities, are increasingly endangered. The United States is the world’s first fully capitalist country; it’s also chafed for a century or more under an ever-more secretive government, hating transparency, hoarding information. And it has been ground zero for just these battles.

A long struggle pervades American history, to reclaim life from both “private” enterprise and the state like land won back from the sea, to expand and defend the “public” realm, the  possibilities for public decision. Edward Snowden’s revelations are consistent with this theme; but so was the whole civil rights movement. This history is varied and it’s violent. The attempted Indiana law was a small step back. But it was a dire precedent.

What’s at stake is not access to geraniums or wedding chapels. The debate is definitional; it’s about how rights and spaces will be allocated. It takes place, ominously, in a society that economic and cultural forces and the Supreme Court are all making more “private” once again. Too bad so many activists condemn the law without calling out its context, or clarifying what its corrosive evasions mean.

Back to Harvard, face to the future: Sumner's statue in the Square

Back to Harvard, face to the future: Sumner’s statue in the Square

1. Public accommodations

To talk about the public sphere in the US, you need to talk about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Signed five decades ago, when I was one year old, it shaped my life. It didn’t protect me, a white kid in the South, from discrimination; it protected me from myself. It did not end but it shook the terms of a former world where inequality was the normative form of existence as soon as you locked your front door behind you. It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much outrage it evoked at the time; for most of us, the law’s principles are now integral to American public life. But their prehistory goes back at least another hundred years, to the aftermath of the Civil War.

The prehistory was a battle for a new definition of what was “public” in American law and experience. That definition came in answer to American slavery, which had made human beings possessions, as private as any other legally protected property.

For years, I walked almost every day past a statue of Charles Sumner, morosely moored on a traffic island in Harvard Square, the site a symbol of his isolation in life, his oblivion after. Fierce abolitionist, Massachusetts Senator from 1851 till his death in 1874, Sumner was eloquent, contumacious, principled, perpetually enraged. In 1856, after he gave an anti-slavery speech, a South Carolina Congressman tried to beat him to death on the Senate floor. Sumner suffered from the wounds for the rest of his life.

Uncompromising and uncollegial, Sumner was given little role in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which in 1868 put equality before the law in the Constitution. The Amendment left Congress to codify what it meant. In 1870, Sumner introduced sweeping legislation to do that. To him, repairing the effects of slavery required guaranteeing African-Americans open access to the public sphere in its widest definition. Legal equality was not just a right against the government, but a right across public life; or, to put it differently, the right of equality the Fourteenth Amendment affirmed was not just an obligation on how the government should treat people, but should shape all public services and places. `Even “private” businesses and associations, as long as they served the public, would have to be realms governed by rights.

Thomas Nast, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner," Harper's Weekly, November 1869. An integrated if slightly awkward dinner party sits down to celebrate equality before the law and universal suffrage.

Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, November 1869. An integrated if slightly awkward dinner party sits down to celebrate equality before the law and universal suffrage.

Sumner’s bill mandated that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment” of all public accommodations, regardless of “race and color,” including  “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement”: and schools and — imagine this in the current controversy — churches. The scope remains astonishing. English common-law tradition had given government some powers to ensure that institutions calling themselves “public” (like inns or “public houses”) should actually be open to the public.  Few previous laws had ever used such powers so sweepingly, and with the specific end of preventing invidious discrimination. (See the endnote below.) It was an especially remarkable assertion in a laissez-faire era, in a country with laws largely designed to facilitate, not regulate, a capitalist economy. It involved defining an expanded public sphere ruled by rights rather than the market, of which “private” businesses formed a subordinated part. Sumner explained this in debate with a Georgia Senator:

The Senator may choose his associates as he pleases. They may be white or black, or between the two. That is simply a social question, and nobody would interfere with it. The taste which the Senator announces he will have free liberty to exercise … but when it comes to rights, there the Senator must obey the law and I insist that by the law of the land all persons without distinction of color shall be equal in rights. Show me, therefore, a legal institution, anything created or regulated by law, and I show you what must be opened equally to all without distinction of color. [emphasis added]

Contemporary engraving of "The Death of Charles Sumner," complete with weeping African-American seated by his foot

Contemporary engraving of “The Death of Charles Sumner,” complete with weeping African-American seated by his foot

Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act in 1875, a year after Sumner’s death. (The dying Senator had begged a visitor: “Take care of the civil rights bill … don’t let it fail.”) It was the last civil rights law for 82 years. The final version omitted churches and schools —  and cemeteries. The bill’s enforcement provisions were weak. In any case, national Republicans — who owed their rule after the corrupt 1876 election to compromises with the South — soon lost interest in enforcing it at all.

In 1883, in an amalgamation of suits known as the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court overturned the law. With only one dissent, it found the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the Federal government power to regulate private commerce in the name of equality. The Court thus semaphored its approval of racist segregation, affirmed thirteen years later in Plessy v FergusonMany at the time compared the decision to Dred Scott. African-Americans and their supporters held “indignation meetings” in city after city to protest, vainly. An new system of intensified oppression was settling across the country.

News report on an 1993 lynching. Exactly sixty days later, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act.

News report on an 1883 lynching. Exactly sixty days later, the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act.

Eighty years later, pressed by a massive social movement, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its “public accommodations” provisions resurrected and expanded the terms of the 1875 Act; it added a ban on race- and sex-based discrimination in most employment. Proposed by Kennedy, passed under Johnson, this is probably the last half-century’s most significant US law. It has hugely influenced the torrent of equality laws passed worldwide since. Though many of them far transcend its protections, the vision of a public sphere including “private” enterprise remains essential.

President Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after signing the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964

President Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after signing the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964

Unlike the 1875 Act, the Supreme Court found the 1964 one constitutional. (A Georgia motel owner sued immediately on its passage, claiming Congress had no “power to take away the liberty of an individual to run his business as he sees fit in the selection and choice of his customers.” A unanimous Court held against him.) But this was because Congress grounded the law in its Constitutional powers to regulate interstate commerce, a basis for broadening federal authority at least since the New Deal — and not just in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never overturned its racist and restrictive 1883 decision in Civil Rights Cases. As Akhil Reed Amar observesCivil Rights Cases has never joined Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson in the American anti-canon of rejected judicial errors. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the Court has never acknowledged a Federal power to regulate the “private” sphere based on the Equal Protection Clause. (In fact, conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist approvingly cited the Civil Rights Cases in his 2000 majority opinion denying Federal protections to victims of gender-based violence.) Second, as the Court turns rightward, it has gradually chipped away at Congress’s powers to regulate business under the Interstate Commerce Clause as well. Corporations have been given free speech rights and now rights of religious conscience beyond the reach of Congress. (Rehnquist’s 2000 decision also denied that violence against women had a “substantial” enough effect on “commerce” to be a concern for Federal courts.)

Ensuring public equality should be a settled principle of US public life. There is just enough slight wobble in its foundations in US law for an unreconciled and unreconstructed right wing to sense an opportunity.

2. Religious freedom

Such a pretty little plant to cause so much trouble: Peyote cactus, domesticated

Such a pretty little plant to cause so much trouble: Peyote cactus, domesticated

Congress passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had held that a Native American tribe had no right to violate drug laws by using peyote in religious ceremonies. (Justice Scalia, for the majority, wrote: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”) The bill partly rolled back that decision, requiring courts to apply strict scrutiny to apparently neutral laws in deciding how they should affect religious practices. Let them eat cactus, Congress said.

The bill’s drafters evidently didn’t envision it could permit actions harming others or restricting their rights — for instance, otherwise unlawful discrimination. The Act licensed actions indifferent in their effects on the rights of others. (In the context of the peyote case, the Act tacitly affirmed that “illegal” drug use had little impact on anyone except the user.) But they didn’t draft well. Constitutional lawyer Marci Hamilton writes, “Civil rights groups were blind (or deceived) … when the first RFRA was enacted.” Even Congress closed its eyes to what was coming.

In 1997, the Supreme Court decided the Act did not apply to the states. As a result, 20 states passed their own versions, effectively identical.

State versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with dates of passage, as of 2014

State versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with dates of passage, as of 2014

One defeat and one victory for the religious right set off the current furor.

Martyrs: Owners of the New Mexico photography shop make witness to the world

Martyrs: Owners of the New Mexico photography shop make witness to the world

a) The New Mexico case.  New Mexico has an RFRA (since 2000) but also a legal ban on sexual orientation- and gender identity- based discrimination (since 2003); it’s one of only 17 states to include “public accommodations” as well as employment in the latter. Nobody really thought these would come head to head; but in 2006, a same-sex couple planning a commitment ceremony filed suit when a wedding photographer refused their business. The photographer claimed religious freedom. In 2013, the state Supreme Court found the business liable. (The next year, the US Supreme Court refused to review the decision.) The New Mexico courts held the state RFRA didn’t apply, since it only limited government actions, not suits between private parties. Dissed but endowed with a new set of martyrs, the right started plotting to strengthen the RFRAs.

b) Hobby Lobby. In 2014, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the Obama Administration’s requirement that employers cover certain contraceptives for female employees. Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, had sued because it didn’t like birth control. The Court held the Federal RFRA protected the religious opinions not just of individuals, but of corporations — “closely held” ones, at least, where a few stockholders predominated. Like robots feeling the inward dawn of A.I. in a sci-fi movie, companies tingled to the neural thrill of personhood surging through their circuits: first free speech rights, now religious conscience. I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. A business has beliefs, and can claim they trump the law, no less than a church- or mosque-goer can.

AI: I am a $90 billion corporation, and I love you, Mommy

Artificial personhood: I am a $90 billion corporation, and I love you, Mommy

The Indiana law was framed to fix the first case, and take advantage of the second. Although the hypocritical governor lied that the law was no different from all the other RFRAs out there, its drafters made it stronger in precisely these two ways:

  • It allows religious freedom as a defense “regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding” — that is, in private lawsuits;
  • It explicitly lets for-profit businesses claim rights based on “the free exercise of religion.”

Fears over same-sex marriage gave the excuse for passing this law. But was the right wing sincerely worried about perverts forcing the hands of florists? Or is that a pretext, fig-leafing for some other motive?

Indiana has no statewide protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. 11 cities and counties do have local anti-discrimination ordinances, but those come almost without enforcement powers. Indiana’s new RFRA would make those laws even less enforceable; any attempt by victims to complain could be blunted by a religious-freedom claim. In the rest of the state, though, it would just confirm that LGBT people already have no recourse. It might encourage employers to discriminate more, knowing the law supports them; but you can’t take away rights that aren’t there.

Far less discussed are its possible effects on other discrimination claims. Indiana has its own civil rights laws covering the usual suspects — race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, age, disability — and its own Civil Rights Commission. So what if someone has a religious objection to equal treatment on these grounds?

Back off, Jews, out of my bakery: Icon of St. Gavriil Belokstoksky

Back off, Jews, out of my bakery: Icon of St. Gavriil Belostoksky

What if your faith forbids renting to interracial couples, or hiring the disabled? What if God doesn’t want you letting Muslims in your establishment? 2 Corinthians 6:14 is clear on the subject: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” Meanwhile, one of the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church is the child Gavriil Belostoksky, canonized in 1820 after Jews ritually slaughtered him — so goes the pogrom-provoking story. If a Russian bakery in Evansville declines to serve Jews, lest they sprinkle their blinis with the holy blood of infants, who is to gainsay the sanctified exclusion?

Let’s be clear: probably none of these would succeed. Indiana’s RFRA wouldn’t “overrule any [and all] existing anti-discrimination laws,” as some shriek. But it would complicate them. It would confuse the cases, leaving legal fog behind it, giving a potential basis for the discriminators’ defense. It would shift the burden slightly toward the government (or someone pressing a private lawsuit), forcing them to show, over and over, why there’s a compelling interest in overriding these factitious claims of faith in this particular case of discrimination, and why there’s no less restrictive way to stop it. It would encourage people to come up with divine mandates for despicable behavior, and it might make a few people think twice about pressing discrimination claims, given the extra firewalking they could be compelled to do. It would chip away at existing protections in the law. If you hate the whole idea of equality in law, that’s a victory. This confusion, this incremental erosion, is the point of the new-style RFRAs.

Indiana, of course, is reeling from bad press and boycotts; now it’s passed a “fix” for the law, a weird sort of partial victory. The retreat leaves businesses as well as individuals their “enhanced” religious liberty claims, but only if they don’t discriminate in services, housing, or employment. And sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned as reasons not to discriminate, for the first time in Indiana law. Except this doesn’t give LGBT people any rights. You can still discriminate; you just can’t claim religion as a pretext — but then, you don’t need to. What’s the point of mentioning LGBT people at all?

For other identities, a political ambiguity persists under the legal clarification. Discrimination was made easier for a few days, and even if the new language partly retracts that, the fact survives the furor. Somebody out there will feel freer to act on his prejudices, or make them quiet company policy. This very ambiguity is also the point of the new-style RFRAs.

Public accommodations II: "Sorry, but you have an incurable skin condition." Herblock cartoon, Washington Post, 1963

Public accommodations I: “Sorry, but you have an incurable skin condition.” Cartoon by Herblock, Washington Post, 1963

The Indiana outrage has shown that lots of Americans will stand up for LGBT rights, even as lots of others oppose them. It’s also shown, though, that there’s no broad coalition to defend the principle of equality. They attack it piecemeal — and we defend it the same way. The gays treat reproductive rights as irrelevant; they had little or nothing to say about Hobby Lobby. But the threats Indiana’s law posed to women also went unnoticed. The RFRA-makers use same-sex marriage as the thin end of the wedge. But they mean to carve out space for every kind of discrimination: to undermine every equality claim they can, including those confirmed in the national canon of civil rights protections.

And it still could work. As Marci Hamilton notes, fifteen years ago “it was widely assumed by the civil rights community that Title VII” — the gender-equality section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — “would be a bulwark” against attempts to use the Federal RFRA to roll back women’s rights. “Hobby Lobby proved that they were wrong.” The threat is serious, the defenses fragile, and that’s why the focus on florists is reductive. Even for gays, discrimination generally goes beyond geraniums. As Garrett Epps writes, “public accommodations are not usually about wedding photos—they are about pediatricians, about pharmacies, about daycares or private schools for your children. They are about being able to shop and eat in public without exclusion and humiliation.” That’s where the Indiana law gave scope for discrimination. And in fact, as these laws keep coming, the legal threats to queers in public space turn physically painful. Texas, for instance, is trying to write an “enhanced” RFRA into its constitution. But three bills before its legislature would also criminalize both trans people who enter the wrong” toilet, and business owners who fail to “verify the gender of individuals using their restrooms.” That’s a direct threat to trans folk’s ability to hold jobs, go outside, access the public world at all.

Yet the LGBT fixation also ignores the breadth of the threats, the potential range of victims. Sure, you could find another florist. And an African-American whom some godly proprietor kicks out could find another lunch counter, or job, or home. It’s not that these stories are equivalent; they aren’t. But the principle is the same. It’s Sumner’s principle, again endangered: that the public sphere should be for everyone.

Public accommodations II: "The White traveller has no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different." The Negro Traveller's Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, to help African-American tourists in the segregation age find places to stay, eat, shop, or use restrooms -- "without encountering embarrassing situations."

Public accommodations II: “The White traveller has no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different.” The Negro Traveller’s Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, to help the small numbers of African-American tourists in the segregation age find places to stay, eat, shop, or use restrooms — “without encountering embarrassing situations.”

3. Equality

An uneasy coalition of libertarians, social conservatives, and open racists has been fighting this battle since well before 1964. Their goal isn’t to protect “religious freedom.” They want to change and chain up public space, close off access, put paid to the principles of American civil rights law. “Religious freedom” is just a way to make the effects of inequality seem minimal, its appeal seem broad.

If religious freedom doesn’t turn you on, that’s fine. Already they’re thinking way beyond it. They’ll defend unequal treatment as a First Amendment issue. When you refuse a Jew a room in your hotel, you’re really just saying, “I am unfavorably disposed toward Jews,” and that’s free speech. Or they’ll claim they actually defend difference in the public sphere, by letting some folks drive it out. “Civil society is where life happens; we want it to be as rich an ecosystem as it can be,” Jonah Goldberg writes in National Review, not previously known for defending either diversity or ecosystems. “All RFRA was intended to do was to give millions of Americans a little space to be and do what their religion tells them they must.” Or they’ll claim everybody should have the right to discriminate, not just the godly. If the non-religious can’t discriminate just like the religious do, that’s discrimination against them:

As vital as religious liberty is, what about the rights of the 25 percent of Americans who have no faith? The safe harbors that these laws attempt to dredge should not, themselves, discriminate against nonbelievers. … What if you are an atheist who really objects to gay marriage? Must you still bake cakes for gay weddings, or will pro-shariah Muslim bakers be the only ones who can walk into court and ask to be excused from doing so?

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Cover of NAACP pamphlet explaining the Civil Rights Act

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident rightist, warns that protections for LGBT people take the tools used against racial discrimination much too far. “In the annals of American history, both Jim Crow and the means we used to destroy it are, well, legally and culturally extraordinary.” If that’s true, public equality for women and the disabled is overreach too. The Supreme Court already gutted the Voting Rights Act. Should the Civil Rights Act of 1964 go next?

Not likely. Not yet. But that’s what they want. The battle is about what public space will look like, who’s empowered to appear. Reactionary partisans of the ancien régime dream of driving out everybody who’s occupied their territory in the last fifty years.

It’s similar to the struggles in eastern Europe over LGBT Pride marches, brutalized by skinheads and banned. Many of those countries decriminalized “sodomy” in the 1990s under EU pressure, grudgingly giving gays bedroom freedoms; but conservatives draw the line in public, at access to the streets. With the rule of law underdeveloped there, though, violence displaces legislation as the curb of choice. More salient as a parallel are the measures against Muslims in some western European nations. In France, there’s been the drive to ban the veil and other emblems of religious identity in public; in the UK, the constant intimidation and surveillance — by government and by “human rights” vigilantes — of Muslim communities, speakers, NGOs, mosques. Both reveal revulsion against an unfamiliar immigrant-borne identity, among older, whiter groups who thought they had sole tenure on citizenship: in particular, an insular and arrogant secularism that strives to stamp out any alternatives. Many gays and Muslims might might reject the analogy. But it suggests how this controversy too isn’t about freedom of religion, or freedom from religion. It’s about power. It’s about control.

Police arrest a woman under the new law against wearing the niqab in public, Paris, April 12, 2011. Photo: European Press Agency

Like being trans in Texas: Police arrest a woman under the new law against wearing the niqab in public, Paris, April 12, 2011. Photo: European Press Agency

From the purely queer perspective, you have to ask: how did Indiana happen to us? What makes these backlash-fed attempts at rollback possible is this: while same-sex marriage swept the country, most of us still have no defenses against discrimination. 36 states permit marriage now; less than half that many protect LGBT people in work, housing, public accommodations. The backlash against the former thus finds people’s material well-being easy prey. Would things be different if the priorities of American’s institutional gay movement had been different? If, instead of such a single-minded focus on weddings, they had fought hard for civil rights laws in employment and public accommodations — for tangible equality?

Why didn’t they? Equality is such a touchy term. It’s far easier to get it when it doesn’t cost anything. Marriage has the advantage of making few demands on either government or business, unlike anti-discrimination laws. (The alleged burdens it places on non-juring florists are so nugatory that nobody even imagined them before the right dreamed them up). But real equality always costs; its implications are economic. The language of civil rights protections often veers into abstract realms of legal formalisms, but few who fought for those standards forgot their tangible impact: not just offering discursive recognition to people, but redeeming livelihoods and lives. Lyndon Johnson, telling a gaggle of governors why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was needed, burst into a manic oath of uplift to all the country’s wretched and poor: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.” Clean up the language, take away the self-pity: what politician today would dare commit himself like that? Promises to the poor make the rich angry. To pass a civil rights bill now, you’d have to swear on the God of Genesis that it wouldn’t actually help anybody at all.

Compare Hillary Clinton. “Extreme inequality has corrupted other societies,” she warns. But:

Mrs. Clinton was vague when it came to solutions. …. Though she derided the Republican practice of cutting taxes on the wealthy, she made no mention of tax increases or more aggressive measures, like capping the pay of chief executives or modestly taxing stock market transactions.

Any nerve Clinton ever had is Novocained now by Wall Street money, which pulls the teeth of both her policies and prose. Speaking of inequality to a “well-heeled crowd,” she said: “We have to have a concerted effort to meet a consensus about how to deal with this.” What brave rhetoric! It’s George W. Bush on Quaaludes.

Inequality? Two of us are equal, and the third, she's trying. Hillary Clinton and billionaire Bill Gates, with billionaire Howard Buffett (Warren's son) between them

Inequality? Two of us are equal, and the third, she’s trying. Hillary Clinton and billionaire Bill Gates, with billionaire Howard Buffett (Warren’s son) between them

That’s the fix we’re in. We imagine equality as an invitation-only ceremony: let them eat wedding cake. But others are starving outside, and at any moment we could join them. The deeper implications even of a fiasco like Indiana’s evade us.

Why are the gays ecstatic when corporations side with us? True, their clout makes a difference when properly put to use: the ebb of investment forced Indiana’s governor into full retreat. But it’s opportunistic friendship they’re offering, not a marriage proposal. Apple and Walmart object to religious-discrimination laws because they know it’s good business to be open to all consumers. But none of them complained about the Hobby Lobby decision, which quashed a requirement to give workers benefits. Those cost money. Tim Cook wrote no op-eds defending women’s rights to birth control.

Corporations may sometimes use their power for human rights, but corporate power is still a problem. And when Tim Cook intones “we will never tolerate discrimination,” he’s making a sales pitch, not a promise. Apple benefits plenty from inequalities in the labor market. There’s a reason it subcontracts work to high-tech sweatshops in China, where the wages are risible, the exploitation rife. Meanwhile, in California, Cook’s corporation bars construction contractors from hiring workers with criminal backgrounds. Blanket employment bans based on criminal record can violate Federal law — according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mark Ames writes,

Discrimination against ex-offenders is a major ongoing problem that exacerbates poverty, inequality and racism; in an incarceration-mad state like California, Apple’s policy imposed on construction companies it hires means worsening inequality and cycles of poverty for a problem that disproportionately affects people of color.

For all his invocations of his Alabama childhood, if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 comes under attack, I doubt Tim Cook is going to defend it.

The decades after Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v Ferguson were the Barbarian Ages of American law — and not just for racial freedom. Courts refused to use the equal protection clause to make government protect the disenfranchised and the lynched. They used the due process clause to keep government from protecting anyone else. During the so-called “Lochner era” in the first forty years of the twentieth century (named for a Supreme Court decision overturning limits on the work week), judges rejected child labor laws, health and safety laws, almost any restriction on the all-mastering, untrammeled market. Racism dominated the political world, laissez-faire indifference the economic. Together they subjugated the public sphere, under the dual rule of prejudices and prices. The expansion of Congress’s interstate commerce powers that made the 1964 Civil Rights Act constitutionally possible grew as a tool to reverse the Supreme Court’s sacralization of private business.

No one thinks the dark era of counter-Reconstruction could return in full; but there are echoes. New laws chisel away at civil rights principles. States are stealing voting rights, while the Supreme Court lops the Federal government’s authority to intervene. Corporations assume personhood, then human rights, then oligarchic powers. The gay movement indulges gauzy wedding fantasies; in the real world, run by Walmart and Apple, inequality metastasizes. A qualified victory came out of Indiana. But meanwhile the freedom to access the common world recedes. A long American struggle strove to create a broad public sphere governed by rights. That sphere is shrinking. No temporary triumph will last unless we defend the principles of public life, as political beings, together.

Equality at bay: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, 1856, from a contemporary engraving

Freedom at bay: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, 1856, from a contemporary engraving

NOTE. English common law imposed duties on certain private entities that offered services to the public. Lord Chief Justice Holt’s 1701 dissent in Lane v Cotton definitively formulated the principle:

If on the road a shoe falls off my horse, and I come to a smith to have one put on, and the smith refuses to do it, an action will lie against him, because he has made profession of a trade which is for the public good ….If an innkeeper refuses to entertain guests where his house is not full, an action will lie against him and so against a carrier, if his horses are not loaded, and he refuses to take a packet proper to be sent by a carrier.

A certain idea of non-discrimination lies latent here. However, the American context of comprehensive racist restriction drew forth responses applying that governmental power specifically to inequality. In Massachusetts, Charles Sumner himself helped argue Roberts v Boston in 1849-50, a failed attempt to bring about school integration by litigation. The failure led, however, to Massachusetts enacting the first school integration law in the US, and — in 1865 — to the first statewide law prohibiting race discrimination in public accommodations. These in turn were models for Sumner’s national civil rights bill.

Most of these were measures expressly couched against property rights. They led to a conservative backlash expressly associating property rights with discrimination. Robert C. Post and Reva B. Siegel note

Although Anglo-American common law had imposed on at least some business owners the duty to serve customers on a nondiscriminatory basis, the linkage of property ownership with the liberty to discriminate found increasingly forceful expression in the decades after the Civil War as white Americans invoked racial notions of associational privacy to justify practices of racial segregation in both public and private spheres.

Post’s and Siegel’s analysis of the arc leading from Reconstruction to measures against gender-based violence amply repays reading. My thanks to Danish Sheikh, of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, India, and Mindy Chateauvert for their guidance here.