The dignity of marriage: Gays on the wrong side of history

Angel of history: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, not quite as seen by Walter Benjamin

Angel of history: Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (1920), not quite as seen by Walter Benjamin

I. Tears

Of course I cried. I cried because these nine antiquarian arbiters in funeral garb – five of them anyway, each looking about as forward-thinking and progressive as a constipated grandparent – informed me at last that I am part of this Great Community they help to govern. I cried too for the past, for all those years I never imagined this was possible, as if their words rather than repealing that suffering put it exactly in its place, just so, part of a long injustice necessary in some consoling theodicy so that justice could ultimately be done. I cried because I remembered when Bowers v Hardwick was handed down, 29 years ago. Back then five of the nine said I should go to jail, because “The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.” It was the last day of June. I spent that Fourth of July holiday holed up in a Cambridge apartment with my queer friend Charlie Fulton, getting drunk all day because we couldn’t tear ourselves from the TV; that was Liberty Weekend, the centenary of that old welcoming statue, and there were fireworks in New York harbor and endless blather about freedom and inclusion and Reagan intoning that “someday every people and every nation of the world will know the blessings of liberty.” Except us.

Not everyone invited: Time magazine cover, July 14, 1986

Not everyone invited: Time magazine cover, July 14, 1986

I cried ten years later when they decided Romer v Evans – “A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.’ I cried eight years after that when they decided Lawrence v Texas, and told me I didn’t need to go to jail after all. Of course I cried again this time. I cried because I was tired of crying. There had been too many tears.

Too many tears; yet tears are insufficient. Marriage ought to be an adult state. You can’t just think about it from the bruised vantage of’ your youthful alienations. The gay movement in the US makes a massive fetish of childhood: bullied kids, suicidal kids, kids in desperate need of role models. Why? Not just because of others’ terrible stories but because, for lots of us, childhood is where we cried our hardest tears, suffered our deepest wounds. Yet if your wonder years were your worst, it’s because for you, it got better. Those who feel that way are the lucky who emerged alive and prospered; left home, made it to a good school, won a plum job at an NGO or the New York Times, acquired a spouse, kids of their own, a house with a deck, a dog. A rich and happy adulthood sets you apart from the unprivileged whose losses persisted longer: those in jail for sex work or in immigration detention, those rejected by landlords or lovers or their own children, those who can’t get a job or health insurance, those who die young – younger than they ever should, but not young enough to qualify as poster kids, not young enough to have the prized and perfect innocence of childhood.

The week after the Supreme Court decision, the big issue in Gay World wasn’t what we’d fight next – job discrimination? violence? It was a photo of a 10-year-old boy, crying (so the caption said) because “I’m homosexual, and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.” It went viral after Hillary Clinton herself stepped in to reassure him, on Facebook, ‘Your future is going to be amazing.” This said little about the kid, or Clinton, but lots about American gay men. Their torrent of identification, a flood that obliterated questions (was the photo real? Could a 10-year-old really consent to having it posted?), came because they saw themselves as that vulnerable child, under the cracked shell of adults whose movement had just won a historic triumph. It also revealed a vision of politics. Their president isn’t supposed to be a grownup speaking to grownups, someone you negotiate or argue with; the ideal president is an indulgent parent, patting your head and crooning There, there. Such infantilization not just of selves but of a whole social movement is strange. Why should Frank Bruni, resident gay at the sober New York Times, filter his whole hazy, sentimental reaction to the Supreme Court’s ukase through “one 12-year-old boy” (“He has noticed that his heart beats faster not for girls but for other boys, and the sensation is as lonely and terrifying as it is intense”)?

This is memory politics, Proust mixed uneasily with Martin Luther King. Our rights are about more than our unhappy childhoods. They speak to our maturity, our lives now. Marriage is not just a kiss the State bestows to make it better. We are not wounded children needing solace, but adults whose lives have already taken shape. It’s in the frame of our grown-up decisions and defeats that we must measure what we’ve won, what marriage really means.

II. Recognition

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

The marriage man: Justice Kennedy

So I turned to the decision itself. What did those nine constipated guardians say to us? When I downloaded Obergefell v Hodges, the first thing that sprang out at me, honest to God, was this footnote:

People may choose to marry or not to marry. The decision to do so does not make one person more ““noble”” than another. And the suggestion that Americans who choose not to marry are inferior to those who decide to enter such relationships is specious.

That’s a good point, I thought, and wondered how it fit into Justice Kennedy’s argument. Then I realized it was from Clarence Thomas’s dissent — responding to Kennedy’s suggestion “that marriage confers “’nobility’ on individuals.”

To agree with Thomas makes me want to scrub myself. Yet it points to a problem with Kennedy’s writing, variously condemned, even by his supporters, as “gauzy,” “vague,” or “muddled.” His verbiage is a forest seemingly uncharted by any dictionary, where terms like “nobility,” “dignity,” “liberty” roam without the taming governance of definitions. It’s like being in Jurassic Park, with large words lumbering menacingly through the undergrowth; you can take their pictures, but you can’t get close enough to find out what they mean. Non-lawyers, if they like the end result, enjoy the rousing rhetoric. Lawyers, even lefty ones, may secretly sympathize with Justice Scalia, whose scurrilous dissent said of one Kennedy sentence that “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”

Waiter, there's a Constitution in my fortune cookie: Justice Scalia

Waiter, there’s a Kennedy in my cookie: Justice Scalia

Kennedy’s opinions sometimes seem not so much at odds with precedent as at an angle to it. Over the last hundred or so years, American law developed set ways of determining whether unequal treatment is lawful. These are the famous three levels of review: rational basis (for evaluating the intrusiveness of economic regulation, for instance); intermediate scrutiny (for discrimination claims based on gender); strict scrutiny (for claims based on race). In rational-basis review, courts are very deferential to what the state is doing; in higher levels of scrutiny, states need to show they have an “important” or “compelling” interest in classifying people – and they often fail. Kennedy’s decisions on sexual orientation mostly avoid referring to these standards at all. He resembles an autist savant who refuses to use either long division or short division, but solves math problems by staring at his knee. Maybe he’s right, but students learn nothing from the way he got there.

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

Animus in California: How the Grinch stole marriage

Instead of scrutiny, Kennedy introduces the idea of “animus”: when laws treat people differently based on pure dislike. Any restriction based on animus is impermissible. The problem is, though, that legislators and – especially – lower courts need to fit Kennedy’s precedents, and his language on “animus,” back into the standards of scrutiny they still use to make decisions. Obergefell strongly suggests that sexual-orientation discrimination should receive strict scrutiny, but as Scott Lemieux writes, “Kennedy inexplicably refuses to say so.” His reticence

leaves open the legal possibility that marriage is the only form of discrimination against same-sex people that is covered by the 14th Amendment. But LGBT people face many other types of discrimination – in public accommodations and in employment, for example – that now may have to be fought out case by never-ending case in the lower courts.

It seems improbable that those other discriminations will finally pass muster. But the lawyers who grouse about Kennedy’s vagueness will earn lots of money from the confusion; and the non-lawyers who celebrate should realize this sweeping decision is less sweeping than it could have been.

In fact, I am not sure that Kennedy is muddled. “Animus,” which flowered in Kennedy’s writing before marriage became an issue, nonetheless seems to capture something essential to the marriage struggles, and perhaps to some other contemporary forms of discrimination. If I pass an old-style law that makes it harder for black people to get jobs, it’s clear what I want: for white people to get more jobs. With the rash of anti-marriage amendments, it’s different: no one ever believed that less marriage for the gays would mean more to go around for others. It’s not discrimination that benefits anybody. The aim was solely to say to gays and lesbians, You don’t belong.

In targeting You don’t belong laws, Kennedy is constructing a jurisprudence about dignity and symbolic slights, where the intent of the legislation is crucial. This is a jurisprudence for a politics of recognition, in the terms that Nancy Fraser has made famous. Fraser drew a distinction between two visions of justice, dividing “the forces of progressive politics” into “two camps.” An older vision of “redistribution” draws on “traditions of egalitarian, labor and socialist organizing”; “political actors aligned with this orientation seek a more just allocation of resources and goods.” On the other side, the proponents of  “recognition” talk about diversity and difference. They don’t want goods or benefits; they want respect. It’s a politics more attuned to symbolic insult than material inequality. And 

the language of distribution is less salient today. … Claims for the recognition of difference now drive many of the world’s social conflicts, from campaigns for national sovereignty and subnational autonomy, to battles around multiculturalism… They have also become predominant within social movements such as feminism, which had previously foregrounded the redistribution of resources. Why do so many movements couch their claims in the idiom of recognition?

Hold that question. Enough for now that Kennedy couches his decision in that idiom: he addresses people who want not resources and benefits, but respect and solace. He largely imagines intangible rewards, hence the cloudy ungraspablity of his nouns; but his arguments are philosophically intelligible even if not always legally clear.

III. Liberty

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Liberty, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Liberty, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Liberty is one of Anthony Kennedy’s biggest words. As he pulls out the organ-stops it swells to an anthropological attribute rather than a political value: every person’s ability not just to do things but to decide who they are.

The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.

(This is the sentence that drew Scalia’s scorn above; but if I found that in my fortune cookie, I’d be happy.) Kennedy’s most important lines, perhaps, are those where he draws an expansive picture of the ways that liberty is implicated in the intimate realm of life:

Like choices concerning contraception, family relationships, procreation, and childrearing, all of which are protected by the Constitution, decisions concerning marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.

Elevating autonomy and choice this way is powerful. It underpins what is, for lawyers, probably the most unsettling part of Kennedy’s opinion: his preference for using a substantive due process argument, rather than an equal protection one. Substantive due process is one of the most controversial doctrines in American law. It is an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that conservatives and liberals alike have used to identify rights — “liberties” — not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. For Kennedy, the liberty to marry is one of of these. The framers didn’t mention it; but surely it must be in our founding document, mute yet essential. Whereas an equal protection argument contends the state should treat everyone equally — if some can marry, all should be able to — a substantive due process approach holds, with different emphasis, that marriage is so silently fundamental no one should be denied it. Equal protection would allow a government, in principle, to deny marriage equally to everybody across the board. But if marriage is a substantive due process right, it’s inescapable: states must let people marry. Lots of lawyers mistrust this sleight of hand and the stealth freedoms it uncovers. But it’s quite consistent with Kennedy’s belief that what’s at stake in same-sex marriage – and in LGBT rights in general – is less protecting equality than respecting every person’s decision-making power.

It’s this way of conceiving liberty that Clarence Thomas despises. He returns to old sources to assert a minimalist liberty as simple “freedom from physical restraint.” In its narrowest sense – he’s citing Blackstone here –

“liberty” most likely refers to “the power of loco-motion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.”

“Or” – he’s in the library again – “as one scholar put it in 1776, “[T]he common idea of liberty is merely negative.” In the marriage cases, nobody kept anybody from going anywhere. “Petitioners cannot claim, under the most plausible definition of ‘liberty,’ that they have been imprisoned or physically restrained.” Nothing to see here; move along.

Isaiah Berlin: Are you telling me I am not free to smoke here?

Isaiah Berlin: Are you telling me I am not free to smoke here?

This is, in fact, a very old dispute. Thomas’ cantankerousness clarifies what Kennedy is talking about. Thomas defends negative liberty, as Isaiah Berlin classically defined it: “By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. “ A long philosophical tradition distinguishes this from positive liberty, which conveys not only absence of restraint but the capacity for action, the possession of personal power. Berlin wrote:

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. … I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be a doer – deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men.

The two definitions can shade into one another, but they are different. In the one, liberty is solitude; in the other it is sovereignty. In the frame of European history, negative liberty is the freedom of the freed serf or the masterless man, no longer tied to the land. Positive liberty is the freedom of the master, endowed with authority and means to work his will in the world.

Kennedy is emphatically a partisan of positive liberty. His arguments draw strength from its strengths: its concern, for instance, for what governments and societies must do to enable independent and competent choices. His opinions are also endangered by its weaknesses. Isaiah Berlin has traced better than any other thinker the paradoxes of positive liberty: the way its exaltation of human capacities can turn into a proscriptive mandate that those capacities be properly used.

Positive liberty behaving negatively: Esprit-Antoine Gibelin, Libertas Americana (1783)

Positive liberty behaving negatively: Libertas Americana by Esprit-Antoine Gibelin (1783)

Negative liberty draws a veil over what you do with your freedom; it leaves you alone, and it’s unconcerned about the consequences as long as you leave others alone too. Positive liberty, though, closes no curtains. It presupposes that, given freedom, you will act. The question of how, of what uses you propose for this enabled freedom, becomes urgent. Left to themselves, humans will do and choose different things. Yet this offends against a belief that both values and society should be rational. Shouldn’t real self-mastery, sovereignty over the self, be the discipline of choosing the right thing, not the wrong?

Positive liberty tends to collapses into monism, as Berlin says, “the faith in a single criterion”: the belief there is one overriding value people ought to be pursuing, one that redeems their power to choose by its syllogistic superiority as a choice. In this vision

the rational ends of our “true” natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however, violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process … Kant tells us that when “the individual has entirely abandoned his wild, lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law,”’ that alone is true freedom, “for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver.” Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it.

That way lies “the vivisection of human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future.”

If Kennedy’s understanding of liberty risks sanctifying certain choices over others, it is a fortuity perhaps increased by his use of substantive due process.  One reading of substantive due process doctrine is that if certain rights didn’t actually get enumerated in the Constitution, it must be because they were so fundamental and obvious that the framers saw no need to mention them. Kennedy comes very close to saying this about marriage. If a right is that basic to being American, or human, then woe betide anyone who doesn’t use it.

How much does Kennedy’s idea of liberty remain neutral about the values people choose? How much does it regress into the faith that “All values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest” – and that true liberty consists in choosing the highest?

IV. Dignity

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Dignity, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560, – c. 1622)

Iconologia depicting the Allegory of Dignity, by Cesare Ripa (c. 1560 – c. 1622)

Dignity is another of Kennedy’s grandest words, and nowhere more than in deciding whether the government will give gays “the basic dignity of recognizing” their marriages. For Kennedy, the greatest injustice lesbians and gays have suffered is a continuous insult to their human dignity. Over generations, he writes,

many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken. Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions.

And dignity is especially at stake in the state’s regulation of couples, for “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”

Dignity is also another word Kennedy abjures defining. Nor is it a clear term of art in US jurisprudence, though Kenji Yoshino finds that the Supreme Court has used it in more than 900 opinions, and that — predictably, in an age of recognition — “its use of the word has increased.” Kennedy is “particularly drawn to it,” Yoshino writes. “When Justice Kennedy ascribes dignity to an entity, that entity generally prevails.”

Yet, as Leslie Meltzer Henry observes, for a word so often bandied about in constitutional law, “its importance, meaning, and function are commonly presupposed but rarely articulated.” Henry considers its legal uses diverse, flexible, “dynamic and context-driven.” This is a way of saying “vague.” The vagueness allows Clarence Thomas to claim that Kennedy sees dignity solely as something the government gives you. Maintaining to the contrary that dignity is innate, Thomas heads into an already notorious peroration:

[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. … The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

Dignity: Head of a Roman, 1st century BCE

Kennedy’s own idea of dignity is in fact evident enough, and stands on firmer philosophical ground than Thomas. He doesn’t see it as a state endowment, but neither does he treat it as some mystic quiddity or innere Emigration that even slavery can’t strip away. Dignity is closely connected with his philosophy of liberty as choice. The question is whether it’s threatened by the same dangers: whether his reliance on the word and concept risks undermining the legal framework of freedom he is trying to advance.

Some potted history here is useful. “Dignity” comes from the Latin dignitas, itself derived from the noun decus, which means honor, glory, or distinction — and also ornament, as in medal or decoration. Another of its descendants in English is “decent.” In Latin, writes Mette Lebech, dignitas was a function of one’s status:

In the Roman Republic as well as in the succeeding Empire, Dignitas was the standing of the one who commanded respect, whether because of his political, military or administrative achievements.

To Rome, dignity marked out difference within a hierarchy, and this remained its core meaning through the Middle Ages. The notion of dignity as a quality of all humans, detached from any particular class or role, only fully emerged in the Renaissance. Its most eloquent articulation was by the 15th-century philosopher Pico della Mirandola, in his immensely famous oration On the Dignity of Man. Dignity lay in the universal human capacity to choose and change, to decide about yourself, to shift your very status on the great Chain of Being:

The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. … [But to] Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. He fashions and transforms himself into any fleshly form and assumes the character of any creature whatsoever.

Not, however, a dignified hat: Pico della Mirandola by Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525-1605)

Not, however, a dignified hat: Pico della Mirandola, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (1525-1605)

Clearly this is ancestral to how Kennedy regards dignity; and it also suggests how he links dignity to liberty. For Kennedy, liberty includes being able to choose who we are or will become, shaping our identities rather than just taking what’s given. Dignity comes when these choices can be acted on, witnessed, and recognized. This is an understanding of human dignity employed by philosophers to the present day. I often cite Tzvetan Todorov’s remarkable study of moral life in Hitler’s concentration camps; he sees dignity as the capacity to “act out the strength of one’s own will, to exert through one’s initiative some influence, however minimal, on one’s surroundings. … It is not enough simply to decide to acquire dignity: that decision must give rise to an act that is visible to others (even if they are not actually there to see it).” The univers concentrationnaire was geared and calibrated to destroy this capacity. To decide and to act on a decision in the camps often meant: to decide to die. Yet for many, preserving some small area where dignified action was possible gave life its only meaning. For some, their last act of dignity was the only one by which they would be remembered.

In Kennedy’s marriage opinion, though, dignity plays a peculiar role. “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy,” he writes. But he doesn’t stop there. The “choice regarding marriage” isn’t neutral. The “centrality of marriage to the human condition” makes it far more than just an option. The dignity of marriage seems not to open possibilities, but to dictate one above all.

The prose is full of fulsome praise for people who decide one way rather than the other. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Indeed, marrying boosts your dignity: “The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life.”

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. … Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone … Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.

And so on. It’s like Sondheim’s Company sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With all this noise, how can any dignified person decide against marrying?

“Being Alive” from Company, sung by Anthony Kennedy and the Supremes

One can see in the contrast with reproductive rights how heavily weighted a choice marriage is to Kennedy. He calls decisions about contraception and procreation “among the most intimate that an individual can make,” and “protected by the Constitution.” These words posit procreating and not-procreating as equivalent, neutral choices, veiled by their intimacy and importance from legal and moral valuation. Indeed, the right to contraception was only established in American law through long struggles asserting it was not less dignified, not less moral or proper, than becoming pregnant. But Kennedy offers no equivalent opposite to choosing marriage. He wastes no words praising the dignity of the single life. Not to elect marriage, he says, is “to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”

Kennedy and the concepts he uses are divided, torn. His idea of liberty as self-determination collapses back toward the belief that some decisions are better than others, because they show the self’s mastery over what is irrational and wrong. His idea of dignity is the means for the implosion: it folds inadvertently into an older sense that some life-ways are superior in their rationality and rightfulness. Dignity-as-choice melts back into dignity-as-distinction. Kennedy obfuscates the difference while keeping them shoehorned in the same word.

And this again raises the question: does the dignity Kennedy reads in marriage reflect what it means to you, to me, to the society he writes for?

V. The Wrong Side of History

Angels of history, II: Meme from Freedom to Marry, a US NGO

Angels of history: Meme from Freedom to Marry, a US NGO

Kennedy talks about liberty and choice; but backhandedly he introduces the idea that some choices are better, more dignified, more “transcendent” than others. His libertarian language jars gratingly with a uncritical and coercive adulation of one particular life decision, marriage.

Frustrating Kennedy’s incoherence may be, but it isn’t accidental. It inheres in the philosophical roots of his terminology. His idea of “liberty” is historically prone to elevating certain uses of freedom above others. Above all, though, Kennedy’s legacy is a jurisprudence of recognition. “Dignity” is essential to it; the injustices he finds especially intolerable, the animus-driven laws he condemns, deny the desires of people to be recognized in their dignity, with the identities and lives they’ve made. Dignity entails decision-making power for Kennedy. But an older, hierarchical implication keeps peeping through. And when attached to marriage the word turns invidious, augmenting the dignity of some – while leaving other choices, other relationships, rhetorically in the ditch.

The twinned themes of dignity and recognition have, through marriage, become integral to gay politics. In the US as in other countries, the whole campaign for marriage has revolved round recognition, the affirmation of dignity rather than the allocation of benefits. The financial and material aspects of marriage might be crucial to actual people, and were sometimes vital to litigation (inheritance-tax rights, for instance, were central to the 2013 Windsor decision), but were downplayed by general agreement throughout the struggle, in favor of a greeting-card emphasis on “love” and its starved aspiration for due respect. Other LGBT needs that had clear material implications or implied redistributing goods or services (employment protections, or housing rights, or palpable and particular rights of citizenship like having your ID reflect who you are) were told to wait, while a goal constructed in symbolic and immaterial terms moved to the head of the line.

This preference for symbolism is pervasive in gay life now; it shows even in small ways. It’s fascinating that the gays go gaga over Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a judge of great intellectual power but one who has largely ceded the field of sexual orientation to Justice Kennedy. It’s because, unlike Kennedy (taciturn, undemonstrative, and unfriendly to unicorns), when she leaves the courtroom she says nice things about them, and even presides over same-sex weddings. She offers recognition, which is even more important somehow than tangible victories on the bench.

Dignity

Dignity

I’m not so much criticizing this strategy as asking what happens next. People are already hawking their ideas for “new priorities” for the US LGBT movement (though some precipitately want to shut it down completely); but there’s little discussion about how you can wrench it back to a focus on material goals, when the whole movement has gone off in pursuit of the ghostly allurements of symbolic affirmation. And there’s little concern that “dignity” too can be a zero-sum game, with denigration as its reverse side. The respect your decisions gain can tacitly deepen disrespect for others’.

Kennedy’s inflation of marriage into a “transcendent” choice is already echoing. It gives rise to a sudden burst of judgmental Comstockery among gay people, as though a little government attention turned them all into Southern Baptist preachers (hypocrisy included). Take, for instance, this month’s reactions to the word that the black sheep of the Palin clan was pregnant again “out of wedlock.” The gays were indignant; their first week into wedlock, and already they think anybody outside it must be a crack whore. I can’t tell you how strange it feels to see this meme all over the Internet – stranger, too, when gay friends who I know have spent their nights on Grindr flaunt it on their Facebook pages:

10390032_10155708641745043_8762877488175201191_nThis moralistic misogyny should be beneath the dignity of people who recently suffered from the same censorious opprobrium. I think Neil Patrick Harris is a nice person and Bristol Palin is not. I know, though, that neither their sex lives nor her single status have anything to do with how good they’ll be as parents. And I’m as sure as I am of anything on earth that a human rights movement enlisted in the slut-shaming brigade has nothing, zero, to do with human rights any more.

If the gays are acting blind as any right-wing pundit, it’s paradoxically the right-wingers who see clearly the multiple ways people define relationships now – even if they only invoke this variety as a drone target for their Jeremiads.

Ideal marriage (child included, dogs and pheasants optional): Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Painted by Sir Edwin Landseer (1840-43)

Ideal marriage (dogs and pheasants optional, child included): Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, painted by Sir Edwin Landseer (1843)

Consider this question: are there legal means by which the state could, and should, recognize relationships with multiple partners? The gays (and many nice, liberal supporters) wax furious if anyone suggests this might be a logical extension of the liberties in marriage: as if, having gone two-by-two into the ark, they want to hoist the gangway and let the three-way perverts drown. What’s astonishing is to see the liberals categorically deny that such relationships exist in modern societies at all. Justice Alito brought it up during the marriage hearing, trying to imagine polygamy in a contemporary context: for instance, “four people, two men and two women — it’s not the sort of polygamous relationship, polygamous marriages that existed in other societies.” The New Yorker was flatly incredulous. Such a family, its reporter wrote, is “one that exists in Alitoland” alone.

I didn’t know I lived in Alitoland. But I do know many households like the ones Alito described: the lesbian who’s bought a home (and is bringing up a child) with her current lover, her former lover, and her current lover’s former lover; the trans man – prim as your favorite uncle – who’s raised his kids with his two cis female partners; the husband who lives with his wife and his wife’s lesbian mate. You can perfectly well say these aren’t common, but you won’t know, because these arrangements tend not to turn up on census forms. It’s a strange world when a George-W.-Bush-appointed Supreme Court justice may be more in touch than the New Yorker with the way people live now.

Kennedy’s opinion, in fact, doesn’t even reflect the diversity of life choices on the Supreme Court. The pitiable, sad unmarried people whom he calls “condemned to loneliness” include two of the four justices who voted with him. A colleague of mine wonders what they really thought about this language. Probably they see it as what Scalia called “the price of a fifth vote.” I wonder rather more what Kennedy really thinks as he looks at them.

And this is what disappoints about Kennedy’s words, and the exultation greeting them. They misunderstand radically what marriage actually means in the modern world, and what made its expansion possible. Marriage has not opened to lesbian and gay couples because it is “profound” or “transcendent.” It expanded because it isn’t that any more. The marriage decision is possible because marriage means less to us, because the last scraps of its exclusionary dignity are disappearing. Marriage is becoming simply one choice among others; the rhetoric trying to reclaim its sanctity is on the wrong side of history.

Graphs show this better than prose can. Worldwide, fewer and fewer are making that transcendent choice.

Marriage rate in the United States, 1946-2010; chart by the Sacramento Bee

Marriage rate in the United States, 1946-2010; chart by the Sacramento Bee

The plunge among young US adults (aged 25-34) has been particularly steady:

Statistics across Europe show the same trend.

It’s not just the decaying West. What’s striking is that in another country I know well, highly traditional Egypt, the rate has also fallen. The decline was less stark and steady, but the marriage rate dropped from 10.8 per 1000 population in 1952, to 7.3 in 2006.

Graph from

Graph from “Marriage Patterns in Egypt,” by
Magued Osman and Hanan Girgis, at http://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91490

But the fall has been more dramatic in Egypt’s two richest urban areas; in Alexandria, the figures sank to half the overall US rate. Evidently people’s economic and social independence plays a crucial role. (The customary Egyptian explanation for the decline is that economic hardships make men reluctant to marry. For a century, in fact, Cairene intellectuals have been warning about a “marriage crisis” caused by men’s ever-direr financial powerlessness. Statistics suggest otherwise. Recent rises in Egypt’s marriage rate — a 2.7% increase in 2012, for instance — coincided with severe economic dislocation. It seems plausible that some want to postpone or avoid marriage as long as they can afford their independence, and turn to its strictures as a shelter only in hard times. When they can, they choose to be single.)

Graph from

Graph from “Marriage Patterns in Egypt,” by
Magued Osman and Hanan Girgis, at http://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91490

There are as many explanations for all this as there are ideologies. Right now it’s the consequences I care about. Marriage is no longer an inescapable value. It’s been demystified: an option, not an obligation. The sense that it is a choice is precisely what created the pressure to allow others to choose it.  The gays were on the right side of this historical process, in demanding that marriage be expanded; they surfed the graphs I’ve shown. The broadening of choice is something to rejoice in. But to continue treating marriage as a transcendent value rather than a contingent possibility is to stand on the wrong side.

People today are choosing and living in many kinds of relationships of care — and building new ones. The law’s challenge is to find how to recognize and protect these, because the law’s job is to look after the ways people actually live. Hieratic talk about the primacy of two-person marriage may postpone this, but can’t avoid the need. In the last decade a few documents outlined vast gaps in what the law recognizes: a detailed Law Commission of Canada report, Beyond Conjugalityand a manifesto by US activists, Beyond Marriage. The latter listed some of the “other kinds of kinship relationship, households, and families” that need protection: among them,

  • Senior citizens living together, serving as each otherʼs caregivers, partners, and/or constructed families;
  • Committed households in which there is more than one conjugal partner;
  • Single parent households;
  • Extended families (especially in particular immigrant populations) living under one roof, whose members care for one another;
  • Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households;
  • Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, serving as each otherʼs primary support and caregivers;
  • Care-giving and partnership relationships that have been developed to provide support systems to those living with HIV/AIDS.

Many today may want to raise their children in a community of shared responsibilities rather than a nuclear household. Many today may want decisions about their health or death made within a circle of friends, not by a single partner. Accommodating this in law is an immanent, not a transcendent necessity.

When I call the loss of marriage’s transcendence historically irreversible, I mean that in a democratic world transcendence itself cannot be sustained. It’s curious that the donnish, tweedy Isaiah Berlin should have expounded this postmodern insight with such urgency. The philosopher John Gray summarizes what Berlin saw: that ultimate values

are many, they often come into conflict with one another and are uncombinable in a single human being or a single society, and that in many of such conflicts there is no overarching standard whereby the competing claims of such ultimate values are rationally arbitrable. Conflicts among such values are among incommensurables, and the choices we make among them are radical and tragic choices. There is, then, no summum bonum or logos, no Aristotelian mean or Platonic form of the good, no perfect form of human life, which we may never achieve but towards which we struggle, no measuring rod on which different forms of human life encompassing different and uncombinable goods can be ranked.

Gray writes that this “strikes a death-blow to the central, classical, Western tradition,” with its belief that all positive values are rationally consistent – “and, it must be added, to the project of the Enlightenment.” That may be too much. Yet to recognize the pluralism of values is to realize in the most rendingly personal way that we live in a disenchanted world. No one hands us final answers. There is no “most profound” or “highest” life-way. Some people choose the vita activa, some the vita contemplativa. Some discover more purpose in public life than private life; to some, a tennis match matters more than a job promotion. Some people locate the highest value in a single uxorious relationship, some in the migratory ecstasies of sex; some will find the value of sex in mystical union, some in its market price. For some, love is the true meaning of marriage. For some, it’s taxes.

Berlin wrote:

It may be that the idea of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an idea which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no skeptical conclusions seem to me to follow. … Indeed, our very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secured in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. … To demand [such guarantees] is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow such a need to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

That rebuke to our childishness is the truth we need.

Dignity, again

Dignity, again

Julie Bindel sells her mind (not body)

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks by a white slaver

Julie Bindel is a British journalist, a fierce opponent of trans people’s human rights (they’re imitation women), and an abolitionist who wants to see sex work eradicated from the earth. Bindel is now raising money for a book she’s writing, to expose the “global ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement.” She “will outline the emergence of a powerful lobby — the sex workers’ rights movement — that works in favour of a total decriminalisation of the sex industry.” She is “planning to visit around thirty countries in order to conduct my research, taking me to the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Germany, South Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, France, New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Turkey and India”: an itinerary curiously resembling that of the mythical white slavers of old. To fund this self-trafficking, she’s crowdfunding the project, and she’s already raised £6,773.00. She’d only asked for £6,500. All systems are go.

Bindel’s project is predictable: part of anti-sex-work eradicationists’ ongoing drive to paint all sex workers speaking out for their rights as pimps and punters in disguise. (A reporter who attended one of Bindel’s talks at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that her “presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry’” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.”) Or, as Bindel herself exclaims — an old ally of my old friend Peter Tatchell, she shares his oracular way of dealing with opponents: Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM Bindel has the same strategy as rich and puissant abolitionist groups like Equality Now, who have urged “investigating” the paltry funding of sex worker advocacy with the zeal of prurient Mississippi congressmen ogling the Comintern. Those girls only seem to be ragtag sex dissidents; in fact they’re Stalin’s seed, a dark coven of subversives, “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man”! This myth of a monied, mighty plot by “sex workers” who are really pimps in drag is central to how the abolitionists think. They preen themselves on the heroic deeds of tiny Davids slinging at a sinister Goliath. All Bindel’s research and rhetoric, her travel and “tabloid-style personal attacks” and trolling, will be convenient tools to hide the basic fact: that sex workers’ rights groups are the least powerful part of the human rights movement, persecuted everywhere, unrecognized and underfunded, dissed and mistreated by governments and NGOs alike, even by LGBT activists who should share their goals of bodily liberty but sell their easy principles for the ignis fatuus of respectability. I don’t know a single sex worker’s rights movement in the global South that could easily muster the £6,773 Bindel ginned up in a few weeks. “Powerful lobby,” my white ass.

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

But here’s my question. Bindel offers benefits to people who give her money. Or as she puts it, “Those who pay will also have access to special rewards such as signed books, invites to a Q&A, and extra material.”

For £5 you get to “Access activity feed” (here’s my webcam); plus “early access to articles and” — lascivious, the ring of this — “extra content.” For £15 you get “right to ask questions individually.” (Talk dirty.) For £250 and more you get “All the below, plus coffee/lunch and a chat with Julie in London. You may also bring a friend.” Does Nick Kristof need to raid the premises and batter down the door, to rescue Julie from indentured slavery and a repulsive threesome? Should he bring Somaly Mam?

No, of course not. Back off, Nick. This enticement is fine, in Bindel’s book. She’s not selling sexual services, just mental ones. It’s only her mind that’s on the auction block.

You’ve got to get the value system straight. It’s not OK for women to sell sex, because sex is immensely precious, the essence of a woman, the cold gemstone set in her golden loins that establishes her value as a human being. (No wonder Bindel hates trans women; they lack the sex parts that make real women worthwhile.) It is OK when a woman sells her intellectual labors, as Julie Bindel does: because that’s just cheap, mass-market stuff you can find in any flea market in Brixton.

I’m glad I understand Bindel’s peculiar feminism now. Kapish. Let’s move along.

Flash-mob demo on International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Flash-mob demo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

الشرطة المصرية تلاحق المجتمع المثلي / Internet entrapment in Egypt: Protect yourself!

euro_internet_privacy_custom-480x344

الخصوصية ترقد في سلام / R.I.P. privacy

(English version below)

نحن نعلم الآن أن الشرطة في مصر تستخدم تطبيقات الهواتف في القبض على من يشتبه في كونهم مثليين أو متحولي/ات النوع الإجتماعي. مؤخراً تم القبض على رجل في طريقه لمقابلة شخص تواصل معه على تطبيق “جراولر” – و إتضح إن صديقه شرطي متخفي.

إحم نفسك! الطريق الأكثر أماناً هو أن تقوم بحذف حسابك تماماً من كل التطبيقات و المواقع الشخصية. إن لم ترغب في :فعل ذلك، الرجاء إتباع التعليمات التالي

١-لا تنسق مقابلات مع غرباء تعرفت عليهم من خلال شبكة الإنترنت فقط. التطبيقات مثل جريندر و الإعلانات الشخصية على الإنترنت غير آمنة. حتى و إن قضيت محادثات طويلة مع أشخاص تعرفت عليهم من خلال “جرايندر” أو تطبيقات أخرى، و إن بَدوا حقيقيين، ربما يستخدمون حيل لخداعك. قد يتم القبض عليك في اللحظة التي تصل فيها لمكان المقابلة.

 ٢-الشرطة تستخدم الأشياء التي ينشرها الأشخاص على شبكة الإنترنت — بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية — كأدلة ضد الأشخاص في حال القبض عليهم. لا تنشر أي صور لوجهك أو لنفسك، لا تنشر إسمك الحقيقي أو أيّة معلومات قد يتم إستخدامها للتعرف عليك. إن كنت تستخدم إسماً مستعار، حاول أن تتأكد إن لا أحد يستطيع تتبعه للوصول إلى هويتك الحقيقية.

 ٣-لا تنشر رقم هاتفك على الإنترنت بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية لإمكانية تتبعه للوصول إليك. إن كنت تحتاج لرقم لمقابلة الأشخاص من خلال هذه الإعلانات، استخدم رقم غير مسجل بدون عقد.

 ٤-قم بإزالة أي شئ يدينك — بما فيها صور عارية لنفسك أو مقاطع فيديو محرجة — من حاسوبك أو هاتفك في حال تحفظ الشرطة عليهم.

 ٥-حاول تحميل برامج الحماية لوضع كل محتويات هاتفك تحت كلمة سر حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء قراءتها. هذه البرامج قد تضع كود سري للمحادثات، و الرسائل، و المكالمات، حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء الوصول إليها. يمكنك تحميل برامج الحماية مجاناً:

 :إن كان هاتفك آي فون، قم بتحميل “سيجنال” من هنا-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد”، قم بتحميل “بوكس كريبتور” من هنا-

 :هذا التطبيق متوفر أيضاً لنظام ويندوز على الحاسوب-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد” يمكنك أيضاً تحميل “تيكست سيكيور” لحماية رسائلك-

 :يمكن أيضاً تحميل “ريد فون” لحماية إتصالاتك-

إضغط على هذا الرابط لقراءة معلومات شديدة الأهمية عن حقوقك القانونية.

:تذكر، إن تم القبض عليك

. لا تعترف بأي شئ أو توقع إعتراف، لا توقع أي شئ الشرطة تطلب منك توقيعه-

. كن دائماً مصّر على التحدث مع محامي-

– لا تتحدث أبداً عن أي شخص مثلي أو متحول الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي بغض النظر عن مدى ضغط الشرطة عليك – حتى و إن عرضوا عليك صور أشخاص.

:(تستطيع أن تجد معلومات على الأمان الرقمي في الرابط بأسفل (بالإنجليزية
بالعربية في الرابط بأسفل:

 

رجاءاً قوموا بنشر هذه الرسالة لجميع أصدقائك. تذكر أيضاً: في ظل الهجمة المستمرة على مدار سنتين، الجيران قاموا بتبليغ الشرطة عن أشخاص مثليين أو متحولي الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي أو “ليدي بوي”. أينما كنت تعيش كن هادئاً في منزلك و متحفظاً على قدر الإمكان في الأماكن العامة.

كونوا/كن آمنين/ات.

"If at any moment you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word." Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

“If at any point you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word.” Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

We now know that police in Egypt are definitely using phone apps to entrap people they suspect of being gay or transgender. Recently a man was arrested when he went to meet someone who had contacted him on the Growlr app; his “friend” turned out to be an undercover policeman.

Protect yourself! The safest thing you can do is to delete your profile completely from personals sites and apps. If you don’t want to do this, follow these precautions:

1)    Do NOT arrange meetings with strangers you only know through the Internet. Apps like Grindr, or Internet personals ads, are not safe. Even if you have long chats with people you know through Grindr or other apps, and they seem real, they may be using tricks to fool you. You could be arrested as soon as you arrive at the meeting place.

2)   Police are using the things people post on the Internet — including their personals ads — as evidence against them if they are arrested. NEVER post any face pictures of yourself. Do NOT post your real name, or any information that could be used to identify who you are. If you use a nickname, make sure nobody could trace it back to your real identity.

internet_censorship_in_india3)   Don’t post your phone number online, including in personals ads, because it can be used to track you. If you need a phone number to meet people through these ads, get a separate, unregistered number without a contract.

4)   Remove anything that could be incriminating – including revealing pictures of yourself, or embarrassing videos – from your computer or your phone, in case the police seize them.

5)    Please download an encryption program, to put everything on your phone in in a secret code so that no stranger can read it.  These programs can also encode your chat, texts, and voice calls, so that outsiders can’t intercept them. You can get these encryption programs for free:

Click here to read extremely important information on your legal rights. Remember, if you are ever arrested:

  • Don’t admit to anything, or sign a confession or anything else.
  • Always insist on talking to a lawyer.
  • Don’t talk about anybody else who is gay or trans, no matter how much pressure the police put on you – even if the police show you pictures of people!

You can find lots more information on digital security here (in English) and here (in Arabic).

Please spread this message to your friends. Also remember: in the crackdown that has been going on for almost two years, neighbors have been reporting people who are “ladyboys,” or gay, or trans, to the police. Wherever you live, be quiet in your home and be as discreet as you can in public places.

Be safe!

eye_in_computer_2
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Bird, down to the wire


Lines from Leonard Cohen: Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free

So you’ve stumbled back onto the Paper Bird website, and onto this page. Before you click off into the attractive distance, ask yourself: What are you doing here? Yep: It’s existential. I have some theories about what brought you here, or why you came back.

  1. You like good writing. You get it here.
  2. You like your sex mixed with radicalism, or your radicalism with sex. Good for you. And for your partner(s).
  3. You care enough about human rights to want a critical, not just congratulatory, viewpoint on how they’re used. And how they can be won. And made meaningful.
  4. You don’t just want to read a roster of abuses happening in the world. What you want to hear is why. 

I like to think that’s all part of this blog’s appeal. And if you’ve felt the same, consider pressing the PayPal button and giving what you can — $5, $20, $100.

Two days are left of our month-long fundraising appeal — it ends on June 5, my birthday. (Of course, you can give anytime; but you won’t be reading these requests all the time, thank God.) This blog is and will always be free as the wind, but your support will make it possible for us to grow: to bring in more diverse voices (and pay them), to do more research in more places.

Thanks for all you’ve done over the years — your readership and cantankerous engagement have kept this blog going. If you can give a bit more, please do.

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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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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.

Fundraiser for Paper Bird: Keep us flying!

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If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
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You gave this blog your attention, and I’m incredibly grateful. Now please consider giving a little more — $5, $10, $100, whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

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.

For example:

  • This blog’s 2013 story on skinhead violence in Russia was the first to explain what lay behind neo-Nazi attacks on LGBT people. It attracted more than 75,000 readers — and shaped much of the later international coverage.
  • Our report on Mona Iraqi’s raid on a Cairo bathhouse broke the news to the world only a few hours after it happened— and still delved deep into the politics and context. It drew almost half a million readers, the majority from Egypt. It helped make this a human rights issue at home, and stoked the storm of indignation that acquitted the men five weeks later.
  • Our essay on Charlie Hebdo was read a million times on this website, and reprinted from Denmark to Brazil. People defend free speech by debate, not acquiescence – and the arguments started here.

This blog can do way more. I’m asking for your support because this is still largely a solo effort. I want to give more time; I also want the blog to become something bigger, more diverse. Your generosity can fund some of my own research and travel (and help repair my old Mac, out of commission for six months now in Cairo). If worse comes to worst, it can help 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, Hindi, among other languages) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
  • 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 – my birthday, by the way – I’ll be nudging and 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. Since this is a fundraiser, I’ll throw out a cliché you’d never read on the regular pages: You, faithful readers, are the wind beneath our wings.
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 With your generosity, we can make this stop.

Fashion police

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,” Coco Chanel said, “is to rejuvenate women.” But of course that’s impossible. Mercurial and mutable, fashion rejuvenates only itself, yearly; it leaves the women behind.

Fashion is art for an era that believes in nothing but its own acceleration. Fashion is the Sublime indexed to inflation. As the world speeds up, moreover, it comes to resemble the fashion industry, which takes over all of life in an osmosis of mimesis; a business that runs on models, becomes the model for everything. Lately this is also true of human rights.

That’s my thought on the Dolce & Gabbana furor, which is a fable for our time. You know the basics. In an interview an Italian magazine published last week, the two living labels — gay, and former lovers too — announced they don’t believe in same-sex parenthood. “The family is not a fad,” declared Gabbana. And Dolce (they still seem to finish each other’s sentences) said, “I am gay, I cannot have a child.”

You are born and you have a father and a mother. Or at least it should be so. That’s why I’m not convinced by what I call the children of chemicals, synthetic children. Wombs for rent, seeds selected from a catalog. …. Procreation must be an act of love; even psychiatrists are not prepared to deal with the effects of these experiments.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

The outrage broke when Elton John took to Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’ …. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” That’s a cruel cut. And: “I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.” D&G retaliated by calling Sir Elton a “fascist.” RIcky Martin and Victoria Beckham and other celebrities jumped in to defend him. Overnight #BoycottDolceGabbana was trending. An employee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation named Peter Tatchell called for public protest:
Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 5.16.00 AM

D&G fought back by claiming, more or less, that Twitter terrorists were trying to censor and kill them.

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Comparing themselves to the dead of Charlie Hebdo tended to magnify the anger. Still, Tatchell has also recently accused his detractors of wielding Twitter to try to murder him. Maybe the pair were bidding for his sympathy.

This whole story is pregnant, by God-given or artificial means, with implications.

First, the interview was astonishingly stupid for a couple of gay businessmen who cultivate a market niche among gay men. But it wasn’t spontaneously stupid. D & G have been trying to appeal to more conservative consumers for years. The pretext for the interview, in fact, was to publicize a project the company launched in 2013: #DGFamily, inviting people to submit portraits of ancestors, spouses, kids, to an online corporate collection. “The family is our point of reference,” the project website quotes Gabbana and Dolce. (Queer families who want to protest D & G might try sending their pictures; I don’t notice any same-sex couples in the gallery.)

This touching pictorial display was about rebranding D & G as traditional, less promiscuously trendy. When Gabbana claims “the family is not a fad” — thus distinguishing it from everything they’ve made their money on — he’s invoking a timeless realm beyond the vagaries of fashion. (“There are things that must not be changed,” Dolce chimes in, sounding like an oatmeal commercial. “And one of these is the family.”) That gives the company a tinge of permanence rather than constant newness. But he’s also lying. He’s making the family a fad; it’s part of an advertising campaign. The dynamic by which the traditional becomes the fashionable, and is sold as such, is a familiar one in capitalism. Nothing is immune to commodification, no value too solemn or secure to escape subjection to the capricious humors of the market. G and D may speak of the family as a pristine cultural unit, but they treat it as a luxury D & G product. Even the line about “synthetic” or “chemical” versus “natural” children sounds like a backhanded stab at polyester. The duo may well honestly believe in the virtues of an imaginary world where superglued mother-and-father units spawn incessantly without assistance; but it’s absurd for them to pretend this is purely a “personal view.” It’s calculated outreach to a different set of consumers. Their mistake was to mouth off too much, and anger other consumers in the process.

I'll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

I’ll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

Second: People have every reason to be outraged, most especially parents who dearly wanted children, and used the “synthetic” means — assisted reproductive technologies (ART) — the designers denigrate. But since the issue for D & G is the corporate image, the most meaningful response has been from those who ricochet images back. Parents have been posting beautiful photos of kids born through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), all over social media. It’s simple and lovely and it shames Dolce & Gabbana with a minimum of effort.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.57.15 AMIs it worth more energy than that, though? Cries for boycott and demonstrations seem disproportionate to the danger. If a self-styled human rights group like Tatchell’s foundation calls a protest, they must mean a human right has been violated. How? Insulting people isn’t the same as threatening their freedoms. D & G’s offensive statements will hardly make life worse for LGBT parents or their children. The designers don’t dictate laws; they don’t deepen stigma. (Alabama, where LGBT people’s families do face profound discrimination, is very unlikely to intensify its prejudices at the beck of two Italian queers.)

A real boycott, meanwhile, is a political act. What’s the purpose here? A real boycott should have demands; and no one has suggested getting anything from D & G. A real boycott should weigh strategies and targets. Scott Wooledge, a maker of Internet memes who chases all the big gay Twitter storms, had this dialogue with a skeptic yesterday; it suggests a paucity of thought and purpose.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.01.50 AMGot that? Remember: gays are never poor, and they shouldn’t worry about the poor. The poor are interchangeable as off-the-rack clothing. They can always earn a dollar an hour somewhere, sewing purses in 14-hour shifts to buy those ugly rags they wear.

This pseudo-boycott isn’t politics. It’s celebrity dodgeball, Elton versus the Italians. In the manner of big-name grudge matches, it also attracts celebrity wannabes like Peter Tatchell, straining to scrape up leftover attention. It’s a show of muscle-flexing too, a few folks boasting, on behalf of LGBT communities they don’t particularly represent: Don’t tread on me. But beyond that, there’s no goal.

In fact, there’s one place where condemning D & G’s statements might have some political effect: back home, in Italy. Same-sex couples enjoy no legal recognition in Italy, denied both marriages and civil unions. Single people cannot adopt children — and that also bars gay people, since even same-sex partners are legally single. A 2004 law on assisted reproductive technology severely limits its use, and prohibits it for single women or couples without legal status. On the other hand, Italy’s Constitutional Court has demanded a “protective law” for same-sex couples to confer recognition short of marriage; it has also rolled back several provisions of the ART law. Parliament ignored these judgments. There’s an opportunity to use this anti-Dolce backlash to boost campaigns for tangible, feasible change in Italy.

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

But nobody outside Italy has raised this possibility. It hasn’t crossed their minds. To follow through would take the boycott-backers a bit of research — ten minutes on Google. More seriously, it would require reaching out to Italy’s LGBT movement, hearing their advice, negotiating a strategy and message. That’s the hard part; that’s politics. And it’s much more satisfying to feel you’re a solo hero, fighting the demon designers on your own, at home, Tweeting.

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

On March 5, a court in Murmansk, Russia, punished an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It fined them 300,000 rubles (around US $5000) because the group had failed to register as a “foreign agent,” the crippling label Russian law lays down for organizations that accept external funding. This came after another court, on February 12, slapped an identical fine on an LGBT group in Archangelsk, for the same crime. On January 23, a district court in Nizhny Tagil found Elena Klimova guilty of “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships,” under the famous, repressive 2013 legislation. Klimova had founded Children 404, a web project providing psychological and social support for LGBT youth. The judge denied her a lawyer and fined her 50,000 rubles (over US $800). What’s left of Russian civil society is being ground away, activist by activist, group by group.

You haven’t heard these stories, yet you have heard about Dolce & Gabbana. A year and a half ago, LGBT Russia was big news. That was when the fresh laws against civil society and LGBT speech still went largely unenforced. Yet from L.A. to London there were boycotts of Russian vodka, protests against Russian musicians, a whole hashtag storm around the Sochi Olympics. Foreigners trekked to Red Square to raise rainbow flags; celebrities like Harvey Fierstein and Elton John lamented the plight of queer Russians with Dostoevskian prolixity and pain. That lasted six months or more. Then it stopped. The same people Tweeting about Dolce & Gabbana now are often the ones who waxed loudest about Russia then; but with prosecutions under Putin’s laws launched in earnest, they’re silent. Fierstein — whose New York Times op-ed set off the 2013 frenzy — ignored the recent trials. So has Dan Savage, who back then demanded the gays swear off Stolichnaya. So has Jamie Kirchick, who became a minor star for walking off the Swedish set of Putin’s propaganda channel RT to protest homophobia. So has New York-based Queer Nation, which led many fine demos. Peter Tatchell Tweeted once about Elena Klimova’s sentence, but passed over the others. It’s deafening indifference.

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

It’s not as though Russia and Putin ceased to be headline fodder in the last year. But the Internet-fed furor over Russian homophobia was never a campaign capable of the long haul. There was never any effort to build a resilient structure, ally with other movements, or recruit students or reach into unions or explore other stories of international solidarity. There was never much strategy, just publicity. There were flash-mob attacks on labels like Stoli, which doesn’t prop up the Russian economy; there were no campaigns to get governments to stop buying Russian gas and oil, which do. There was faith that Barack Obama had some magic sway over Moscow. And there was wild over-optimism that hashtags and Embassy protests would manage, in six months, to make Vladimir Putin back down. Five days into the Stoli boycott, blogger John Aravosis exulted that they’d “pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.” This assumed Putin gave a damn, or regarded Russia as a “brand.” He didn’t. When the promised quick victory failed to come, virtually everyone gave up. Energy and enthusiasm and idealism infused the campaigning; sadly, they were squandered. The laws still stand. The trials are starting. The Tweeters have moved on.

Campaigns like this try to make it look easy. They obscure the truth: that politics is not quick or solitary, that solidarity is hard. The gays have a boycott almost weekly, steady as the Two Minutes’ Hate: it’s Barilla, or Mozilla, or Brunei, or something. Few such campaigns have contributed to any substantive social change. Many don’t even try. Boycotting Dolce without a declared goal isn’t pressure; it’s self-expression. As a result, they last only as long as it takes for people to get the anger out of their systems: the noble Russian campaign was a Methuselah compared to most of them. This erodes the patience real change requires. Our political attention span is barely longer than the mayfly’s lifecourse. Look up the mayfly, people. Do some research.

Meanwhile, some corporations do terrible, material harm to LGBT people, not just dissing their relationships but colluding with their torture. They go unboycotted. What about GE and BP, which recruited for the investment summit of Egypt’s head persecutor General Sisi, and are sinking millions into a dictator’s private economy? What about the Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat Systems, which sells Sisi surveillance equipment that can record every keystroke Egyptian queers type? Where are the hashtags? Where’s the outrage?

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Through these priorities peer some of the disorders that afflict Western LGBT experience. A fascination with celebrity runs deep in gay men’s cultures. It’s partly founded in the persistence of the closet, the years of our lives that withered in concealment; the memory breeds envy of lives led in utter exposure, the unreserved nudity of fame, stars with skin and secrets open to the world like French doors. As a result, the purely verbal sins of celebrity designers matter more than the depredation wreaked by a little-known, torture-enabling CEO. And a British comedian’s directives outweigh anything a mere activist in Russia or Italy can say.

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

But there’s also the way that gays, with identities demarcated by desire, define themselves less and less as political participants, more and more as consumers. Boycotts can be useful tools to change things, but they can also feed this apathy. I wrote in 2013, and nothing’s changed: “If the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices.” Taking sides is picking “brands”:

Is [boycott politics] a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

One last fact: there’s almost no LGBT organization with any political power in North America that’s democratically run. They’re either behemoths governed by unelected boards, or the odd authoritarian one-man show. Other activists have few ways to participate except by giving money. This fosters more and more roving Lone Rangers, accountable to no one, locked outside.

You can argue the causes; but you can see the consequences. Things accelerate, and the focus goes. Human rights present themselves as immutable values, the preserve of universals in an incoherent time. Yet as abuses multiply, politics and principle — strategy and capability — play less part in deciding which rights to defend, where to concentrate concern; taste takes their place, capitulation or whim, mass gusts of emotion across computer screens like the wind bending tall grass. This month it’s Uganda; next month, Egypt. There’s no persistence; the future erodes. Conscience is the creature of fashion. You can protest Dolce and Gabbana if you like; they’ve won already. It’s their world we live in.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it's not synthetic.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it’s not synthetic.

New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com