Cynthia Nixon, Joseph Massad, and not being an American gigolo

Many years ago, I decided never to take an interest in the sex lives of people more famous than myself. This came after hanging out with some famous people and some not so famous people, and noticing that all the excitement lay with the latter.   Anal sex with one of the stars of American Gigolo, as described to me by a friend in excruciating detail, was not nearly as innovative or arousing as the mute inglorious milkings available every night in the refreshing anonymity of the rushes in the Back Bay Fens. As of now, there are something like six billion people in the world, and 5,999,999,999 of them are more famous than I am.   The boost to my mental concentration that derives from ignoring all their sex lives is considerable.

Nixon, partner Rojo Caliente, and child: Perfect, but not by choice

Still, there’s Cynthia Nixon.   Which one did she play on TV?  I confess, I can’t even remember. Oh, Sex and the Citythat hootchy-kootchy halftime show from ancient times! —when  I caught five minutes of a rerun in a hotel last month, it seemed as dated as Baroque opera. But that doesn’t stop her from continuing to be a celebrity, and most people really do care about celebrities’ sex lives. And so most everybody noticed when she told the New York Times: 

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not. … Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive.”

Uh-oh.

The hue and cry over what you can say about your own kind has been almost as bad as what Hannah Arendt stirred up.  John Aravosis told Nixon she didn’t understand herself. First off, she’s wrong about who she is:  “What she means is that she’s bisexual, and doesn’t quite get that most people aren’t able to have sexual romantic relationships with both men and women because they’re just not into both genders.” But moreover, she doesn’t experience sexuality the way she thinks she does:

It’s not a “choice,” unless you consider my opting to date a guy with brown hair versus a guy with blonde hair a “choice.” It’s only a choice among flavors I already like … [S]o please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can “choose” their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere.  Because they can’t.  And when you tell the NYT they can, you do tremendous damage to our civil rights effort.  … [E]verything you say can and will be used against you by the gay-haters.  And when you say things like this, using incendiary buzzwords that don’t really mean what you’re trying to say – when you try to define the rest of us by your incredibly poorly chosen, and incorrect, words – you hurt us all. This was an incredibly irresponsible interview.

Or as another blogger wrote:

Is anyone else here thinking maybe Cynthia Nixon isn’t really gay? Like maybe she’s bisexual, or gay-until-retirement, or gay-until-Ryan-Gosling-calls? …  statement pissed off a lot of gay people, and not just because being gay is NOT a choice for most of them. Years of talking with gay friends over the years have taught me something important: language matters. Gay, queer, bi, whatever — people have some pretty strong opinions about what those words all mean. And Cynthia could have been more sensitive with her language.

There’s an unlovely looniness here. First of all, no one should be forced to surrender their personal identity to political obligation. That’s the antithesis of a liberal society, and has nothing to do with any campaign for human rights. Second, no one has the right to decide or define anybody else’s sexuality for them — to select, for God’s sake, what you can say about yourself. The claim that a blogger who’s never even seen Cynthia Nixon (except in her TV role as a heterosexual) can determine who she is and how she can describe herself is simply silly. But it can also be as malignant as the idea that an activist in London can intuit, and inscribe in stone, the identities of a couple of teenagers in far-off Iran, a place he’s never seen or visited. I’ve written about this kind of gay imperialism extensively. In the US, it’s simply rude and repressive. Practiced elsewhere, it can kill.

The problem is that, in the US, we — the LGBT movement — have staked all our rights claims on the analogy with race. We are a people; we have our own culture and history, even though the categories that define us (so we contend) don’t; and, most importantly, our selves, like our skin colors, cannot change.   Sexual orientation is something deep, unalterable, basic. It’s because it’s unchangeable that discrimination predicated on it is so wrong. And so we’re not defending people’s freedom; we’re defending their imprisonment in themselves. The argument goes: It’s bad enough not having any autonomy over the intimate aspects of your life. Do the state and society have to punish you for that too?

It’s when people try to escape that prison, even for a day’s parole, that we treat them as traitors to the cause.

Foucault grasping sexuality

Of course, this kind of argument is absurd — even about race. It ignores the innumerable historical experiences of “passing,” the different ways that white as well as black people have been defined, the differences in race’s definition around the world — the US conception is incommensurate with the Brazilian, for instance — the fact that the Irish were treated as a “race” in the early 19th century, and many more. To say this isn’t to deny the reality of race as a basis for injustice and a predicate for social division. But to treat it as an absolute fact, an ontological canyon separating some from others, is to ignore its history. Similarly, supposing “sexual orientation” is unchangeable ignores the fact that the category itself has changed since it was invented, and that it was only invented a hundred years or so ago.  Sexuality, as Foucault grasped, doesn’t reveal some “truth” about us. (Even if it did, Aravosis would hardly be in a position to diagnose Nixon’s.)  It reveals our shifting place in society; it’s made of ideas, dreams, opinions, not absolutes.

Of course, Nixon made it rather worse by explaining in another interview:

I don’t pull out the “bisexual” word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. … [W]e get no respect.

The thing is, though (and yes, I note how her own identity has shifted here), she’s right.   In the politics of identity, bisexuals are hated because they stand for choice. The game is set up so as to exclude the middle; bisexuals get squeezed out. in the “LGBT” word, the “B” is silent.  John Aravosis, for instance, says that if you’re into both genders, “that’s fine” — great! — but “most people” aren’t.  First off, that rather defies Freud and the theory of universal infantile bisexuality.   But never mind that. The business of “outing,” of which Aravosis has been an eloquent proponent, also revolves around the excluded middle.  It’s not a matter of what you think of outing’s ethics, on which there’s plenty of debate. It’s that the underlying presumption is that one gay sex act makes you “gay” — not errant, not bisexual, not confused or questioning: gay, gay, gay. I saw you in that bathroom, for God’s sake! You’re named for life!  It’s also that the stigma goes one way only: a lifetime of heterosexual sex acts can’t make up for that one, illicit, overpowering pleasure.  As I’ve argued, this both corresponds to our own buried sense, as gays, that it is a stigma, and gives us perverse power. In the scissors, paper, rock game of sexuality, gay is a hand grenade. It beats them all.

And this fundamentalism infects other ways of thinking about sexuality, too. Salon today carries an article about multiple sex-and-love partners: “The right wants to use the ‘slippery slope’ of polyamory to discredit gay marriage. Here’s how to stop them.”  I’ll leave you to study the author’s solution.  He doesn’t want to disrespect the polyamorists:

I reject the tactic of distinguishing the good gays from the “bad” poly people. Further marginalizing the marginalized is just the wrong trajectory for any liberation movement to take.

That’s true — although whether we’re still really a liberation movement, when we deny the liberty of self-description, is a bit doubtful. But he goes on, contemplating how polyamory might in future be added to the roster of rights:

Really, there are a host of questions that arise in the case of polyamory to which we just don’t know the answer. Is polyamory like sexual orientation, a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being? Would a polyamorous person feel as incomplete without multiple partners as a lesbian or gay person might feel without one? How many “truly polyamorous” people are there?

Well, what if it’s not?  What if you just choose to be polyamorous?  God, how horrible!  You beast!  What can be done for the poor things? Should some researcher start looking for a gene for polyamory, so it can finally become respectable, not as a practice, but as an inescapable doom?   (I shudder to think there’s one gene I might share with Newt Gingrich.)

What, moreover, if sexual orientation itself is not “a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being,” one that people miraculously started feeling in 1869, when the word “homosexual” was coined?  What if it’s sometimes that, sometimes a transient desire, sometimes a segment of growth or adolescent exploration, sometimes a recourse from the isolations of middle age, sometimes a Saturday night lark, sometimes a years-long passion?   What if some people really do experience it as … a choice?

What if our model for defending LGBT people’s rights were not race, but religion? What if we claimed our identities were not something impossible to change, but a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it?

Now I have damaged the LGBT rights movement. I’m sorry, but you know, I didn’t really have a choice. The Devil made me do it, as Flip Wilson used to say. We’ll see how that argument washes in defending me against my fellow activists, as well as against the missionaries of Westboro Baptist Church — who surely must understand that when the Devil grabs either your argument or your genitalia, it’s hard to make him let go.

I suppose I have to do something for the gays to make up for it, but I don’t know what. Oh, wait, here’s the answer!  I’ve just signed to star in Sex and the City III. Just wait till it comes out!  In this exotic, erotic, fashion-filled romp, Joseph Massad and I fly to Dubai, argue about identity while hiding from the police in full niqab, and go shopping.

November 20, International Transgender Day of Remembrance

Sunday was the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to mourn the victims of violence based on gender identity and expression.  I was on a New Hampshire mountain remote from any opportunities for commemoration. Up there, though, one has a chance to think, and I thought a bit about the incomprehensions and distances between sexual orientation and gender identity as issues uneasily sharing a movement.

So let me talk about two different lives.

Back in 2000, that innocent time, my friend Brendan Fay approached me with a proposal. Brendan has been a heroic queer activist in and out of New York’s Irish community ever since Roger Casement was a child among the ashes, or maybe since the blight first descended on the tuber. The 100th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death, in disgrace in a cheap Paris hotel, was impending, and Brendan wanted to commemorate it:  to celebrate the Irish writer as a freedom-lover, a cosmopolitan and Utopian socialist who imagined a world united by unforeseeable and unprecedented solidarities. I was then program director of IGLHRC (the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission); so Brendan came to ask if there were some urgent rights abuse in the world against which we could stage a demonstration on the anniversary, to focus attention both on the violation and on Wilde’s enduring spirit of dissent.

Vanesa Lorena Ledesma: cardiac arrest

We had one situation that we were following closely. Vanesa Ledesma, a trans woman, a sex worker, and an activist with the Asociación Travestis Unidas de Córdoba, was arrested in Córdoba, Argentina, on February 11, 2000, after a fight among patrons of a bar. She was kept incommunicado in detention, and five days later she was dead. Police attributed her death to ”cardiac arrest.” An autopsy showed evidence of beating, with severe contusions on the arms, shoulders,  back and feet. Friends released photographs of her disfigured corpse. Activists demanded a full investigation.

Thus on November 30, a small group, perhaps two dozen of us, assembled in front of the Consulate of Argentina in New York. Some carried pictures of Ledesma, some pictures of Oscar Wilde. There were several trans women and a lot of Irish people in green. I seem to remember a bagpipe player, but memory may be embellishing.

After a while the Consul General, an elegant and diplomatic man, invited us into the building to meet. I said my bit about the urgent need to investigate Ledesma’s death, and Brendan spoke about the importance of Oscar Wilde. The consul listened attentively but seemed confused about the connection. ”And are you also demonstrating at the Irish consulate?”

“No.”

“You realize that in Argentina, we are not responsible for … Irish affairs.”

“Yes.”

“And you do understand that Argentina is not responsible for the death of Mr. Wilde?”

I assured him it was a cold case.

He appeared unconvinced, and kept looking at us with tactful caution, as though we were the vanguard of an Irish plot to seize the sheep-friendly wastes of Patagonia.  As we left he shook my hand with exquisite courtesy. “I will certainly convey your demand for an investigation  to my government. And when I next see the Irish ambassador, I will tell him” – he paused, not at all sure what message could be passed on; but then he finished with a flourish of inspiration, “I will tell him there are matters he should investigate too!”

I remember this as a rather incongruous attempt to link two matters that perhaps should have stayed separate. But I also remember it precisely because of the contrast between the two lives, and deaths, we tried to commemorate. No wonder, in retrospect, that putting them together in front of the consulate was confusing.  It made me consider the fraught and difficult alliances between LGB people and that hanging T they like to attach to their advocacy, but only infrequently try fully to understand. The terms are different, the victories aren’t always congruent, and the suffering may estrange rather than being shared.

Wilde remains famous after his first century in the grave. His plays still play, his words still elicit laughter. No one outside some friends in Córdoba pays much attention to what Vanesa Ladesma said.   Everyone who remembers Wilde endows him with a psychology, with the depth and duality that are the necessary constituents of wit.  Vanesa Ladesma suffers the indignity of remaining a photograph, more vivid to most in her mutilated death than in the life she lived. I combed the Internet as well as my own files for a while, and I realized: I can’t find a picture of her while she was alive.

And this all has something to do with how we imagine sexuality as opposed to gender; the first a wellspring of mystery and power, the second an external and limiting imposition. Wilde’s sexuality was an interior fact, a reality within; he had the choice of keeping it a secret; it was his daring but also deliberate play with revelation and concealment that helped him climb to become the most famous British writer of his time; and it was his willed embrace of his truth beneath the unraveled mystery after his precipitate fall that gave him a conclusive dignity, and commends him to us and our posterity. Vanesa was branded, and hiding herself was never much of an option. She carried on her skin the marks of the contrast between who she said she was and who she was told to be. Her life was a courageous but constrained struggle against defining discourses from without.  Sexuality is something one experiences from the inside first. But gender fits you from the outside like a sanbenito of Spandex, imposed from birth.

This inflected, too, the vast differences in wealth and power between them. Wilde was born into a prosperous family, even if one in Britain’s closest colony. He manipulated the inside-outside game of appearances to amass celebrity and money (even if mostly in the form of debt); his ascent was what made his fall so shocking. Vanesa had no game to play; she was always on the outside, by class, by background, by the way she presented her body and the things she did with it.

I wrote somewhat earlier here that sexuality proliferates meanings. There are always spaces, in the way we imagine sexuality, to insinuate some new complexity or individuation or interpretation. Gender culls meanings, weeds them out. Everything has to boil down to the few available options, the old binaries, the one-two punch.

Because of that, insisting on your own authority over the significance of gender, or demanding to cross the yellow police lines laid across the territory, is one of the most dangerous things you can do. A few nights ago, I watched Woody Allen’s Zelig, for the first time in about 20 years. The hero — the nebbish as chameleon — is the ultimate conformist. He becomes like anybody he’s around, to the point where Allen’s little Jewish schlemiel, plopped down in 30s Germany, turns Nazi. He changes race, color, religion. The one thing he doesn’t alter, though, is gender. With women, he stays resolutely male.  Some shapes shift, but other transgressions remain unimaginable. Obviously there’s some squeamishness on Allen’s part about too much malleability; but then, Allen in a storm trooper’s uniform is, in a sick way, funny. Allen in a dress, in that time and that place, would have gotten killed.

Of course, I’m not trying to draw some absolute contrast between two classes of experience: to the contrary. Stephen Whittle, the grand British trans activist, once remarked that 90% of what we call homophobic violence is in fact transphobic violence.  The attackers and the haters aren’t really acting on some theory they have about what you do in bed. They’re responding to the gut sense you’re not “masculine” or “feminine” enough, that you act funny in a way that corrodes the barbed war supposed to keep the genders separate. I can’t vouch for the numbers, but this speaks to the feeling I’ve drawn from hundreds of interviews I’ve done across the world.  Sexuality is always linked to gender. But that’ s also because it’s always linked to power, and gender is one of the key points from which our understanding of power and powerlessness — that great, uncompromising binary that bisects all our lives — flows.

Self-identified lesbians and gays are also caught up in the struggle against the straitjackets of gender norms and the policing of bodies. But they try to construct their identities to give them ways and leeway to change the terms, escape the front lines, fight on their own territory. Trans people are, by definition, in the middle of the fight.

Vanesa Ledesma, by Tom Block

Part of the trans struggle, too, is clearly to reclaim the autonomy and interiority that the social regulation of the body — the control clamped down on the skin itself — tries to deny. This is a heroic fight, and it’s no detraction from its particularity to say that it’s one in which everybody has a stake: everyone who tries to maintain an identity separate from the state and others, everyone who tries to carve out a sphere of independent will in an increasingly programmed world, and then act it out with their bodies somehow and make it known. That’s why I mourn, among other things and names, the fact that I can’t find a photograph of the living Vanesa Ledesma.  I remember the iconic photographs of Khaled Said, the young Egyptian torture victim, before and after he was beaten to death; these images and the indignation they aroused helped spur a revolution. It seems a final indignity that Vanesa Ledesma has no “before.” She’s reduced to her own mutilation, defined by her death. She’s been commemorated since in paintings (available from Amnesty International for $3000); these too portray her shattered features after the police were finished with her. William Kennedy, in his great novel Ironweed, has one of his down-and-out characters reflect on an alcoholic woman sliding toward death: “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ once.”  Vanesa Ledesma was a lot before she died. The loss lies partly in how that life has been overridden.

The Trans Day of Remembrance website banners a few lines from Shakespeare:

My grief lies all within; And these external manners of lament

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortured soul …

That’s from Richard III, the probably-queer monarch mourning his imprisonment by Bolingbroke. It speaks, though, to the struggle to reclaim the life within from the pressure and oppression beating down on the body. Critics for generations have treated Richard as a flagrant instance of self-absorption, lost in acting out his emotions, the King as drama queen. It’s on a trans web page, though, that I hear in these words their special dignity and the weight of their demand. The inner life against external manners: for Vanesa Ledesma, that meant something.

And yet, again, it’s a fight for all of us.

Sex workers on feminism

It’s movie night!  This video, made by sex workers, features sex workers speaking out about women’s right “to choose what happens to one’s body and to control what happens to one’s body.” It’s a rousing defense of the right to bodily autonomy as well as sexual expression, and I particularly like the slinky music playing in the background.