In her lyrical, coming-of-age memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed—a heartfelt exploration of family, identity, and language now available from Beacon Press—Daisy Hernández chronicles what the women in her Cuban-Colombian family taught her about love, money, and race. Nicholas DiSabatino, publicity assistant at Beacon, recently spoke with Hernández about her new book, her literary and cultural influences, and the process of finding herself, both within her immigrant community and within the new, queer life she created for herself.
I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, the Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity (“You can have eggs, bacon, and spam; spam, eggs, spam, and sausage; or spam, spam, spam, and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature, and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation, and perceptions of harm or offensiveness have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship, and name changes.
Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico came to Boston last fall to read from their new book, “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. The book confronts some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about LGBT life and people. Myths, such as “All Religions Condemn Homosexuality” and “Transgender People Are Mentally Ill,” have been used to justify discrimination and oppression of LGBT people. Others, such as “Homosexuals Are Born That Way,” have been embraced by LGBT communities and their allies. In discussing and dispelling these myths—including gay-positive ones—the authors challenge readers to question their own beliefs and to grapple with the complexities of what it means to be queer in the broadest social, political, and cultural sense.
While waiting for the event to start, we had the opportunity to ask the authors about some key myths affecting the cultural landscape of LGBT people, and about LGBT parents in particular, a demographic sure to rise given marriage equality’s gaining acceptance. As the authors say in the book, “The often bitter debate that swirls around LGBT families cloaks the larger discussion: how do we all create a culture that nurtures all children, in all kinds of families, to grow into happy, loving, successful adults?...Until we create new ways for parents and children to live healthily together, neither will grow and thrive, especially as families.”
J. D. McClatchy, Ben Klein, Stephen S. Mills, Essex Hemphill, and Adrienne Rich
I often feel that poetry gets the short end of the stick when celebrating LGBT literature. There are so many rich options that it can often be overwhelming to know where to begin. My first real brush with LGBT poetry was the Everyman’s Library Pocket Series anthology Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems, which gave me an introductory and historical look at the challenges and loves of LGBT poets within the last century. While thinking about books to recommend in honor of Pride this June, I wanted to offer some classic choices alongside brand new ones that might someday be part of the canon of celebrated LGBT poetry. These collections offer everything from lusty hookups to images of domestic bliss with a long-term partner to frustrations over the current state of LGBT rights. There’s even an image of gay icon “Little” Edie Beale of Grey Gardens. I hope you enjoy.
Michael Shelton wrote Family Pride: What LGBT Families Should Know about Navigating Home, School, and Safety in Their Neighborhoodsas a resource for queer parents, their families, and allies that emphasizes community safety. While the national focus remains on the mistreatment of LGBT people in schools, the reality is that LGBT families also face hostility in various settings—professional, recreational, and social. Drawing on his years as a dedicated community activist and on the experiences of LGBT parents, Shelton put together a few concrete strategies culled from his book that LGBT families can use to intervene in and resolve difficult community issues, teach their children resiliency skills, and find safe and respectful programs for them.
Growing up queer and a heavy reader, I can’t help but envy today’s teens the ever-growing number of books written for their demographic that feature central LGBT characters and themes. When I delve into these titles, I devour them. I read them gluttonously, vicariously re-imagining the trajectory of my own coming-of-age had these characters and their voices been available to me at the time. Because of this, I can—unlike some—fault no one for avidly reading young adult literature on into adulthood. It’s uplifting to see that not only does “it get better” as you grow up, but the very process of growing up seems to be getting better, too. Young readers have more role models and better access than ever to proof that they are not alone, and that’s a wonderful thing.
So for June, for Pride Month, I’ve put together a short list of reading recommendations for LGBT youth, or those seeking some literary insight into their experience.
We in Massachusetts have had an illustrious history of progressiveness, justice, and pride. It was the first individual state to write a constitution declaring universal rights; Horace Mann led education reform here; we have the Kennedys and the Red Sox and Emily Dickinson. And we were the first state, ten years ago last month, to legalize same-sex marriage.
This is the real reason I am proud to be from Massachusetts. Same-sex marriage is now legal in sixteen countries and nineteen US states, including all of New England. National support for marriage equality is at 59%, an all-time high. And we helped elect a president who vocally endorses same-sex marriage. It might be bold to say, but from the looks of it, our progressiveness and acceptance are making international rounds.
In November of 2003, when a Massachusetts court declared the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in that state, Catherine Reid was left with an unexpected choice: to get married, or not. As the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts approaches, Reid, in this excerpt fromFalling Into Place, takes us back to those heady early days of victory and apprehension after the first marriage licenses could be issued to same-sex partners.
We have sixty days to take action before the marriage certificate expires, less than thirty before our blood tests will no longer be valid. We still have time to change our minds, and we consider backing out often, though now that we’ve agreed to do this with two other couples, we’ll be considered traitors if we develop a case of cold feet. Besides, my short list of excuses—how to deal with the bizarre notion of “wife,” or the difficulty in telling my ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, or the support this lends to the institution of the privileged—can’t compare with the number of reasons to go through with this, which became longer with an unexpected Sunday-night phone call.
“As a father of two children,” the automated voice begins, “I am horrified at the changes about to take place in our country.” Despite my own horror, I don’t hang up; I want a phone number, I want to register protest. “We urge you to support Article 8,” the voice insists, describing a bill that will empower the legislature to repeal “activist judges” and prevent married homosexuals from tainting our nation’s moral character.
On February 20th of 1980, I was pushing through the most gruesome of training sessions, running—really racing—stairs (nine flights per set, six to ten sets per session) in hot pursuit of my dream: a berth on the U.S. Rowing team scheduled to compete in at the Moscow Olympics in five months. As I reached the top landing, gasping for breath, I huffed to my workout companion, Sally Fisher, “Why are we doing this? Today is Carter’s deadline: the boycott’s official.” Sally shrugged, “I know. But we have two more sets,” and started back down the stairs. Of course I had to keep up. Politics or not, I had a workout to finish.
Those stairs made me strong, and my dream came true, committed beyond reason as I was to that outcome, driven by my passion for rowing—the feel of a fast boat skimming across water, the belief that I could move a slender racing shell faster than anyone else, and the longing to represent my country honorably at the incomparable global celebration of human achievement known as the Olympic Games.
I was no different from today’s Olympians, those who have spent the past two weeks at Sochi, pursuing their dreams of Olympic hardware, driven by similar compulsions. But the ending of their story is a happy one, whether they come home with medals to savor or memories to share, whereas mine was not. They got to compete, but I had to stay home.
About 10 percent of people are gay or
lesbian. Homosexuals are born that way. All religions condemn homosexuality. There’s no such thing as a gay or trans child. All bisexual men are actually gay; all bisexual women are
actually straight. Coming out today is easier than ever
before. Hate crime laws prevent
violence against LGBT people.
We’ve all heard (and repeated) statements like these
before. But, are any of them actually true? According to Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico, these are common myths and misconceptions about lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender life and people. And in their new book, "You Can Tell Just by
Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People they take us through some of the most enduring myths, providing historical background and examining the
social and political factors that gave rise to and inform each myth. The myths covered here aren't just those that have been used to justify discrimination against and
oppression of LGBT people, but the authors also examine those that have been embraced by the LGBT community and their allies. We hope the book will challenge readers to question their own beliefs and dispel some of the false assumptions many of
us (even some of us at Beacon) have been carrying around for years.
Read on to see what the authors have to say about ten of the myths covered in "You Can Tell Just by Looking."
Although Beacon has not primarily been known to publish poetry, we have always had a select list of exceptional poets who reflect the values at the core of our mission, including, for many years, the premier poet of the natural world, Mary Oliver, and, of course, the inimitable Sonia Sanchez, who represents a vibrant tradition of oral interpretation that blends and bends the lines between verse and music. Sonia has famously performed with rap artists and memorably with Sweet Honey in the Rock and other artists, including Diana Ross. Sonia has been on a mission for decades of using poetry in public schools and she makes it a rule that wherever she’s invited to read for an adult audience, she also tries to visit a local school and read to and engage with the students. We are enormously proud of her work.
We are also proud to have on our backlist several books of Spanish-language poets in bilingual editions, including a wonderful volume of Lorca and Jimenez, and one of Neruda and Vallejo, both translated by Robert Bly.
On the left, previous editions of James Baldwin's Jimmy's Blues and Gypsy. On the right, Beacon's forthcoming edition of Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems
Russia's new anti-gay law has a loophole: The law, which has led to numerous arrests, beatings, and bans against LGBT people, specifically prohibits the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," but homosexuality is as traditionally Russian as vodka and caviar.
Where does one begin the list of prominent LGBT Russians? Peter Tchaikovsky, one of Russia's foremost composers; Nikolai Gogol, one of its leading writers; from the world of dance, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Nureyev; not to mention members of Russia's ruling classes, including Grand Duke Sergei Romanov, brother to the czar and mayor of Moscow from 1891 to 1905.
What could be more "traditional" than this list? Indeed, so "traditional" was Russian homosexuality that it was even seen as a distinctive symptom of Russian decadence by some revolutionaries. Indeed, none other than Ivan the Terrible (1538-1584) and Dmitry 'the Pretender (unk.-1606) were known to be homosexual, or at least to have had male lovers.
In fact, what is nontraditional is the suppression of sexual diversity, not its expression. Following the Russian Revolution, the regime under Lenin formally legalized homosexual acts (along with divorce and abortion), but Stalin criminalized them in 1933. So they would remain until 1993: officially illegal, yet tolerated on and off, depending on those in power. Which of these legal regimes is "traditional" and which is "nontraditional"? Is Stalin more traditional than Lenin?
The reality is that, as everywhere, sexual diversity in Russia is entirely traditional and entirely natural. Of course, contemporary labels -- "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender" -- are culturally specific and of relatively late vintage. But the existence of same-sex relationships goes back as far as Russian history itself. Indeed, a few years ago, a 600-page volume containing 69 biographies of famous Russian lesbians and gays was compiled by Vladimir Kirsanov, editor of the gay magazine Kvir.
Now we all know that Vitaly Milonov, the most vocal of the anti-gay bill's sponsors, had homosexuality in mind when he introduced the bill. But a literal reading of the bill's actual language, coupled with even a passing glance at Russian history, does not agree.
Of course, it's unlikely that a Russian jurist will really read the law so cleverly -- although doing so would provide an "out" for moderates seeking to control the damage it has caused, which now extends to calls to boycott the 2012 Winter Olympics, Russian vodka, and Russian performance venues.
Yet even if such a literal reading never finds its way into a judicial decision, it serves as an important reminder that although homosexuality goes by different names in different places and at different times, it is a traditional part of every culture that the human race has ever created. Sexual diversity is, like other forms of diversity, an intrinsic, natural part of the human experience. Alas, so are efforts, like Russia's, to deny it.
Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Dr. Jay Michaelson is vice president of the Arcus Foundation and the author of five books and two hundred articles on religion, sexuality, ethics, and contemplative practice. His most recent book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
The "Scalia Dissent" has been a particular subgenre of legal discourse for two decades now, amply studied in the academic and popular literature. Vitriolic, hyperbolic, littered with witty bon mots and invective against faulty reasoning (i.e. any reasoning with which Justice Scalia does not agree), it is something one now comes to expect in any high-profile Supreme Court case decided in a more liberal direction.
But Justice Scalia's dissent in U.S. v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act case, feels different. Scalia pulled out the same rhetorical flourishes as ever, but he seems remarkably oblivious to context: the lives of millions of Americans. Windsor was not another case about crèches in the public square (the occasion of some of the earliest Scalia rants) or obscure administrative procedures. It was the case that decided the fates of tens of thousands of families, and, more broadly, established that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, regardless of one's personal views on the subject. Agree or disagree that same-sex families are marriages or not -- they certainly are families, and certainly are made up of human beings. Justice Scalia's contemptuous dissent is contemptuous of these millions of Americans' humanity.
The majority's opinion in Windsor was clear enough, and exactly what most legal experts had expected. After dispensing with the issue of standing, the majority noted that marriage is a matter of state, not federal, regulation. Thus a couple married in New York is duly married, whether same-sex or opposite-sex. To discriminate against a married couple requires a secular interest which was lacking in the Defense of Marriage Act -- on the contrary, the legislative record showed evidence of bias. Thus, such discrimination violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
This reasoning is what Justice Scalia termed "legalistic argle-bargle."
Really? Argle-bargle? The term doesn't appear in my dictionary, but I take it to mean an incoherent ramble, the equivalent of gibberish. And to apply it to the legal arguments that a generation of lawyers and legal scholars have debated for years is, itself, offensive. It is offensive to those lawyers, of course, but even more so to people like Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old plaintiff in the case, suing to not be penalized that her legal spouse was a woman and not a man. It is offensive to my friend who can now apply for a Green Card, finally, after living apart from his husband for a year. Context matters, a Scalia Rant in this context is deeply offensive.
Of course, no one expected Justice Scalia to strike down DOMA. Yet ironically, the reason we all knew this is that, over the years, Justice Scalia has shown himself to be a duplicitous legal reasoner when his legal ideology meets his political or religious ones. That is, he argle-bargles. For example, for years Scalia waved the banner of state's rights -- until Bush v. Gore, in which he suddenly voted to overturn a state supreme court's interpretation of its own constitution. Indeed, just one day before Scalia's impassioned defense of deference to Congress in Windsor, he voted to overrule Congress in Shelby County, the Voting Rights Act case. So what is the principle here? We defer to Congress when it discriminates, but not when it bars discrimination? Is there a principle? Or is there, rather, just argle-bargle?
We also know Scalia is bargling in Windsor because of his many extra-judicial comments about what was at issue in the case. Shockingly defiant of the principle that justices not comment on cases before the Court, Scalia said only a few days before the decision was handed down that the case, like Lawrence v. Texas, was about "consensual sodomy." Sodomy - an act. Not sexual orientation, not what millions of people are telling us about their lives; not friends and neighbors and family members - but a sexual act. As if opposite-sex marriage is about cunnilingus.
Ironically, this clear contempt for and ignorance of LGBT lives is precisely the sort of animus Justice Scalia says we should not impute to DOMA's backers. In the same words with which he complains of being called a bigot, he writes like a bigot.
The ignorance of the lives of gay and lesbian people is not unique to Justice Scalia, of course. Others, too, cover up their ears when they hear about lesbian ministers, or gay boy scouts. No, they insist, there are no gay people -- only gay acts, only sodomy, only a "lifestyle."
But this is ignorance of the facts. The facts are that gay people exist, that many (though not all) say they were 'born that way,' that same-sex families are families. And while such ignorance may be expected among the extremist rabble, it ought to have no place in the Supreme Court.
Indeed, even if Justice Scalia still denies the humanity of gay people, one might've hoped that he would have recognized the gravity of the moment and of his role as a Supreme Court justice, and held back from ranting, just this once. But instead, by demeaning the people whose lives were at stake, by dismissing with an invented slur the articulation of their hopes and aspirations, their very sense of what it means to be an American, Justice Scalia has demeaned the institution he is meant to serve.
As for the LGBT community, we will not be brought down to his low state. At a rally in New York's Tompkins Square Park, a beloved artist and performer named Donald Gallagher -- a man who was present at Stonewall, who recently lost his partner of 40 years to cancer, and who once laboriously painted the entire ceiling of his church in Jersey City -- proclaimed that, in the secret language of the ancient gay elders, "Argle Bargle" really means "Joy to All." Argle Bargle! the crowd shouted. Argle Bargle!
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America's foremost writers. His essays, such as "Notes of a Native Son" (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he primarily made his home in the south of France.
His novels include Giovanni's Room (1956), about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country (1962), about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in much savage criticism from the black community. Going to Meet the Man (1965) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.
The following essay opens Notes of a Native Son, a collection considered by many his most influential work. We publish it here today in conjunction with an essay by Eboo Patel about the impact this essay had on his life and work.
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting
novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my
childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it
with the restrained observation that I certainly would not
consider living it again. In those days my mother was given
to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As
they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a
book with the other. The children probably suffered, though
they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way
I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and
over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about
everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.
I must also confess that I wrote—a great deal—and my first
professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to
be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts,
when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution
won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church
newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady
editor, though I don’t remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a
letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry,
about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted
by all these goings-on, but my father wasn’t; he wanted me to
be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher,
and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with
the world of commerce and industry—I guess they would say
they struggled with me—and when I was about twenty-one I
had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When
I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned
out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews—mostly, as it turned
out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of
my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book,
in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about
the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly
the same fate as my first—fellowship, but no sale. (It was a
Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had
decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem—
which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print
than it was in life—and I packed my bags and went to France,
where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he
was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal
to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world
looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that
any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as
I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced
from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only
because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to
be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is
tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
When one begins looking for influences one finds them by
the score. I haven’t thought much about my own, not enough
anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of
the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech—and something of
Dickens’ love for bravura—have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable
people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose,
the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has
been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by
the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and
this is not special pleading, since I don’t mean to suggest
that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro
problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan
under the weight of information, and everyone therefore
considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce
traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only
two—For or Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to
say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly
aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however
motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better
than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—
to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the
source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly
inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price
a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at
length, with nothing to be articulate about. (“You taught
me language,” says Caliban to Prospero, “and my profit on’t
is I know how to curse.”) Consider: the tremendous social
activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and
Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working
to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters
troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro’s
progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or
not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for
clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful
sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In
the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks,
for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to
look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible
for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own
development came when I was forced to recognize that I was
a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my
past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this
meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I
brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of
Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them
in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper;
this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other
heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly
been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them
mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special
place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any
scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was
forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself,
which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as
the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white
people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the
contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to
produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world.
And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-
destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.
Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this
experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.
This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out
of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty
then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was,
in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too
closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don’t think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I
do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life,
and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by
Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because
it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write
about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in
America can be even discussed coherently without bearing
in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions,
customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the
country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to
the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this
the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to
speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in
the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly,
in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings—at
least—of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison,
by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to
utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and
irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the
morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make
experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love
to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve
scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it’s impossible
to eat enough if you’re worried about the next meal)—and I
love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too
profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I
don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither
do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for
contempt. I love America more than any other country in
the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right
to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect,
that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may
even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must
find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through
the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than
this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
It is an historic day for marriage equality in the United States. The Supreme Court decision in US v. Windsor struck down the Defense of Marriage Act; and the more limited ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry effectively moots Prop. 8 in California. Beacon has been publishing books that promote valuing all families, including but not only through marriage equality, for a long time. Take, for instance, What is Marriage For? by E. J. Graff, which we first published in 1999, and is considered by many "the bible of the same-sex marriage movement."
This excerpt from What is Marriage For? explores that public/private intersection of our definition of marriage. We hope that this book continues to inspire people to fight for LGBT equality across the country and around the world.
Inside Out or Outside In: Who Says You’re Married?
One of the most basic tensions in the history of marriage is between those two interlocking sides of marriage: marriage as a publicly policed institution and marriage as an inner experience.
Which one turns your bond into a marriage: a public authority or
your heart? Are you married when the two of you decide to care for
each other for life, a decision you live out day to day, a decision only
afterwards recognized by your community? Or is it the other way
around: does the family, or church, or state pronounce some words
over your head, write your names side by side in a registry, and bestow upon you a marriage, a license and legal obligation to carry
out the responsibilities of a¤ection and care? This may sound like
one of those faces/vases illusions, and for good reason: marriage
doesn’t exist unless both parts happen—two human beings behave as married, and everyone else treats them as such. But it does
matter which side you think counts more: the decisions made
about individual marriages will be quite different if you think marriage is a publicly conferred status or an immanent state. And each position’s internal contradictions can—and have—caused social
havoc when unchecked.
In history, this debate is almost inextricable from the debate
over which authority rules marriage. Who decides where the enforceable marriage is made—in your heart, or in a registry—and
why? That decision might be less complex if the only people who
have to recognize your marriage live within twenty-five miles,
when the people who see you two behaving as married are also the
ones who oversee the granting of the widow’s dower. And it might
be more complex in our world, in which each of our daily lives goes
beyond our circle of acquaintances to touch dozens of strangers
and anonymous entities, from the motor vehicles registry to our
children’s schools. The story of the public/private marriage line is
therefore also a story of how marriage has shifted, in comparative
legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon’s words, from custom to law.
Roman marriage was the immanent kind: when challenged in
court (over, say, whether a widow inherits or whether a child is legitimate), a marriage could not be proved by anything so simple as
a public registry. A judge had to investigate whether the two lived
together with affectio maritalis, ‘‘the intention of being married.’’
To be married, all a couple had to do was ‘‘regard each other as man
and wife and behave accordingly.’’ What does that mean, ‘‘behave
accordingly’’? The Romans may never have defined it, but (like
Americans and pornography) they knew it when they saw it. A
judge sized up the couple’s ‘‘marital intentions’’ by such signals
as whether she’d brought a dowry, or whether he openly called her
his wife. Augustine and his concubine, for instance, were living
together without affectio maritalis, since he was intending a later
power-marriage. But had the same pair intended to be married—with no change in their behavior—they would have been. Marriage
was a private affair: the state could police only the consequences,
not the act.
While the Jewish configuration changed over the millennia,
what remained central is marriage as a private act: only bride and
groom could say the magic words that turned them into husband
and wife. After many centuries the rabbis inserted themselves and their seven blessings into the ceremony, before the big feast, but
even they knew they were not essential: the pair made the marriage
within themselves. Which is why, in Jewish law, a court could neither ‘‘grant’’ nor refuse a divorce. If a husband’s inner willingness
to be married evaporated (sometimes hers counted but often it did
not), then the marriage itself had evaporated: the rabbinical court
or bet din could merely decide questions of fault and finances.
Christianity, as we know, wanted nothing to do with marriage
for centuries. When asked, some priests might come by and say a
blessing as a favor, just as they’d say a blessing over a child’s first
haircut. No one considered marriage sacred, as celibacy was: marriage was one of those secular and earthbound forms rendered
unto Caesar. But as centuries rolled by, an increasingly powerful
Church saw that marriage was central to ordering Europe’s civil
and political life—not so much those few called to sainthood, sacrifice, and martyrdom, but the many ordinary folk who needed to be
told how to behave.
And so the Church launched a battle for power over marriage’s
rules, a battle that lasted roughly a thousand years. Today we have
the peculiar impression that Catholicism has always had one vision of marriage, but for every marriage rule eventually imposed
on Europe, the Church’s own debates were abundant. It first formally ruled on marriage in 774, when one pope handed Charlemagne a set of writings that defined legitimate marriage and
condemned all deviations. After another five hundred years of
struggle, the Church came up with a marriage liturgy and imposed
its new and radical rules—the ballooning incest rules, the one-man-one-marriage rule, and most controversial, the girl-must-consent rule—on the powerful clans. ‘‘It is clear,’’ writes one historian, ‘‘that this attempt to impose order on matrimonial practice
was part of a more ambitious plan to reform the entire social order. . . . regulating the framework of lay society, from baptisms
to funerals,’’ the most intimate acts of most people’s lives. The
Church’s push to rule marriage was slow and uneven but very determined. Here and there it would issue a decree and struggle with
local nobles over whether it would be observed; now it would retract a bit to permit a lord to marry his dead wife’s sister or annul
his existing marriage; then it would push forward again.
It was not until 1215 that the Church finally decreed marriage a
sacrament—the least important one, but a sacrament nonetheless—and set up a systematic canon law of marriage, with a system
of ecclesiastical courts to enforce it—and had a fair amount
of people willing to observe those rules. By 1215, the year that
the Fourth Lateran Council issued its matrimonial decrees, the
Church had ‘‘broke[n] the back of aristocratic resistance . . . after
lengthy individual battles with the nobility, kings included.’’
And according to the Church, what turned two individuals into
a married couple? It was—drumroll, please—the couple’s private
Why a drumroll? Because the Church insisted that a private
promise was an unbreakable sacrament—that marriage was an immanent experience, a spiritual reality created by the pair’s free and
equal consent. That was practically a declaration of war against the
upper classes, a radical and subversive idea emphasizing the sacredness of the individual spirit. Marriage, the Church insisted,
was not just about land and power and wombs, but about human
There are many striking aspects to the Supreme Court's DOMA ruling, but perhaps the most compelling is the role that children and their well-being played in the court's reasoning. For the last twenty years, same-sex marriage opponents have claimed that marriage must remain an exclusively heterosexual institution in part because doing so purportedly promotes the welfare of children. Opponents have contended that children do best when raised by their biological mothers and fathers and that society has an interest in promoting heterosexual marriages because they are the "optimal" way of raising children.
Unfortunately for opponents of gay marriage, there is a wide consensus among developmental psychologists and other experts that children are not harmed in any way by having lesbian or gay parents. But even putting that issue aside, it is deeply ironic that defenders of "traditional" marriage, in purporting to promote the best interests of children, have consistently ignored the needs of the tens of thousands of children who are being raised by lesbians and gay men.
This was an issue that Justice Anthony Kennedy raised during the oral argument in the Proposition 8 case last March. Kennedy asked the lawyer defending California's same-sex marriage ban whether it was not the case that the children of same-sex couples were harmed when the state prohibited their parents from marrying. The attorney responded by claiming essentially that whatever harm might exist was a constitutionally permissible price to pay for promoting "traditional marriage."
Justice Kennedy, in writing the majority opinion in the DOMA case, clearly disagreed. Kennedy emphasized that when the federal government treats state-sanctioned same-sex marriages as "second-tier marriages," it humiliates and stigmatizes the children of those marriages. DOMA, Kennedy explained, made it "difficult for children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and their daily lives."
Kennedy also emphasized the financial harm that DOMA caused the children of same-sex marriage. He noted, for example, that DOMA made paying for health care more expensive for families because it required the federal government to tax the health benefits provided by employers to their workers' same-sex spouses. DOMA also denied Social Security benefits to a surviving same-sex spouse to care for the couple's child.
The Supreme Court's opinion in the DOMA case illustrates how it is the marriage equality side that truly has had the best interests of children at heart all along. No child of a heterosexual couple is harmed in any way when the government recognizes same-sex marriages. In stark contrast, when the government refuses to recognize same-sex unions as marital, it harms the children of lesbians and gay men in tangible ways. The Supreme Court understood this, and that is one of the most compelling reasons why it struck down the federal government's unequal treatment of married same-sex couples.
All month, we've been celebrating LGBT Pride here at Beacon Press. Now, that's nothing out of the ordinary for us: Beacon publishes some of the best books around about queer history and the fight for equality under the law; gay/lesbian/transgender memoir; religion and homosexuality; and LGBT families, so we don't need a special month to celebrate. But, like many of you, we just want to wave a rainbow flag and throw confetti from a parade float every year when June rolls around. It's a time to shout a little bit louder about some books and authors who are very dear to us.
So, in honor of Pride, we're giving a special discount of 25% off all our LGBT titles at Beacon.org on orders using the Promo Code PRIDE placed during the month of June. This discount includes some amazing recent books:
It also includes some books considered classics or quickly becoming so:
And it evens includes preorders of any forthcoming LGBT title on our site:
It is in many ways appropriate that the Supreme Court will be issuing its two same-sex marriage rulings—one challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and the other California’s Proposition 8—by the end of the current LGBT Pride Month. Although it is difficult to predict what the Court will do, it is likely that the Court will grapple in some way with the relationship between recognizing same-sex marriages and the well-being of children.
One of the most telling moments during the oral arguments in the two cases that took place last March was when Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may very well cast the deciding votes, noted that there were about 40,000 children in California being raised by same-sex couples and that these children were vulnerable to an “immediate legal injury” when the government refuses to allow their parents to marry. Kennedy then asked Charles Cooper, a former assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration and the lead lawyer defending Proposition 8, whether it was not correct that “the voices of those children is important in this case.”
Cooper’s answer revealed much about the internal contradictions and moral limitations of the arguments raised by marriage equality opponents. Cooper’s response to Justice Kennedy’s question was twofold: first, he claimed that there was “no data” showing that the children of same-sex couples are harmed if their parents are not permitted to marry; second, Cooper argued that a law, such as Proposition 8, can “be sustained even if it operates to the disadvantage of a group, if it…otherwise advances rationally a legitimate state interest.”
There are (at least) two problems with Cooper’s response. First, there is a deep contradiction between contending, as marriage equality opponents routinely do, that the most important reason why society recognizes marriage is to promote the well-being of children, and then suggesting that whether same-sex couples are permitted to marry has no impact on their children. In fact, the federal judge who heard the evidence introduced by both sides during the Proposition 8 trial concluded in 2010 that the children of same-sex couples benefit in meaningful ways when their parents are permitted to marry. Even David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, and the only witness called upon by Proposition 8 supporters to testify during the trial about child welfare considerations, acknowledged that “adopting same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children.”
Second, Cooper’s response illustrates how marriage equality opponents are willing to use the children of lesbians and gay men instrumentally, that is, they are willing to use them as means to promote (what the opponents believe is) the social good. Cooper essentially told the Court that even if the 40,000 children of same-sex couples in California were harmed or disadvantaged because the state prohibited their parents from marrying, that was a constitutionally permissible price to pay in order to promote “traditional” marriage. Although such a cavalier attitude toward the well-being of children would be troubling in any context, it is particularly so coming from a lawyer representing a movement that supposedly seeks to “defend marriage” based in part on the need to promote child welfare.
One hopes that the Court keeps children and their well-being in mind when it rules on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and DOMA. If the Court does so, it will be marriage equality opponents who will be at greatest risk of losing the cases.
June. Pride Month. Cities are exploding with rainbow flags and pockets of celebration; the world seems utopian, fluid, full of non-judgment and unity. In days a parade will rumble through Minneapolis’s main thoroughfare and we will cheer for progress made with the recent vote for marriage equality in the state.
As this month’s Pride festivities unfold, I think of a tiny town in North Dakota of barely 200 people where I attended my most recent parade during a celebration called Uffda Day. The little town’s motto is, as it turned out, “Pride of the Prairie;” and the street I happened to be standing on for the parade is named “Gay Street.” The town seemed its own utopia of sorts—though not, to my knowledge, of the gay sort.
I stumbled upon this particular Pride of the Prairie town when I was on a “small town tour” that I had mapped for myself to visit several of the towns near where I had grown up. At the time I was in my native North Dakota to experience the unfolding of harvest, where the earth smells of corn and combine lights flicker on the horizon into the dark hours of the night. Something about harvest had always felt mystical to me; like a renewal; a resetting; a time of transition. And I wanted to experience this transition, in full, as an adult.
The Pride of the Prairie town, with a thriving general store and café, made it feel alive in a way different than its neighboring towns, which resembled the growing inventory of North Dakota ghost towns whose buildings are sunken, paint chipped, and vibrate with memories of times long past. The people I met in this town were generous, open, and welcoming. I was so enamored by my visit that I returned a few days later to experience the town’s yearly celebration, which is how I found myself at Uffda Day.
During Uffda Day the little town was bustling with people. Several buildings held craft displays; the VFW showcased a lefse station and an accordion player; the streets were crowded with antique tractors and horse drawn carts. As I wandered through the town, I was struck with nostalgia for the bi-annual “Crop Show” that took place in my own hometown. We were known as the “Corn Capital of North Dakota” and during the Crop Show the school transformed into a wonderland of adventure, or at least it seemed that way to my young mind. Candy flowed freely from agricultural-based exhibit booths; each classroom held an activity, including cakewalks, chili contests, photo displays, and 4-H craft exhibits; glass cases filled with pristine crops also lined all of the school hallways. The Crop Show, like Uffda Day, was a time to celebrate a shared place and identity with neighbors; much like, I now realize, Pride.
I found Gay Street in the Pride of the Prairie town during the Uffda Day parade; this discovery caused an ironic smile to spread across my face as it likely would anyone who is gay, from North Dakota, and home. I didn’t ask anyone about the origin of Gay Street because my inability to talk about being gay, while in North Dakota, had become a life-long practice that I didn’t yet know how to break. I feared that if I were to be honest, I would suddenly appear to people as a foreign entity in our shared rural world. Therefore, I roamed the land I loved feeling partial, sadly knowing that my inability to talk perpetuated the myth of my difference.
My fear of being out as a lesbian back home had often seemed to me a leftover childhood insecurity, borderline ridiculous even. Then, last February, the North Dakota legislature rejected an anti-discrimination bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in the workplace, housing, and government; this means that in my beloved home state, you can be fired for being gay.
My fear of rejection suddenly seemed not so ridiculous.
In a twist of coincidence, during the time this bill was brewing, my memoir, Prairie Silence, was published. The book is, in part, about the challenge I had being open about my life when I returned home. I had written for years out of a love of writing, and I didn’t quite think through how I might feel upon publication, when my secret would obviously no longer be under wraps. And so during what should have been the pinnacle of joy in a writer’s life—the publication of one’s first book—I sunk into a state of miserable anticipation, awaiting my home state’s reaction. I even joked to some about how I wished I would have written a preface thanking people for buying the book, but asking those who lived in the zip code of 58081 to please not turn another page and, instead, to give the book away.
While I writhed in a state of dueling excitement and misery, I started to hear from my classmates, old neighbors and friends, and even my elementary principal; I heard from pastors and state senators; I heard from people with connections to North Dakota and other rural places. With each email, or Facebook post, or phone call, I took a breath and braced myself for the inevitable rejection—but it didn’t come.
Rather than ostracize me, people wrote about their own experiences. They shared with me their personal thoughts about the push and pull of home; they talked about their challenges in revealing secret parts of themselves to the people they loved; they offered their opinions about changes in rural areas; and they reflected upon their journeys of evolution around issues of identity and faith. I also heard from LGBTQ people who live in rural areas, some who even live close to my hometown; their stories conveyed challenges, but mostly acceptance. With each story I felt increasingly connected to people through our shared fears, struggles, and journeys. By the time I finally did hear that a handful of anti-gay people had complained to a local paper that ran an article about my book, I was largely unscathed; I had been fortified by the gift of other people’s stories, gay and straight alike. I knew I was not alone in my search for belonging and self-acceptance.
As I experience this year’s Pride celebration in Minneapolis, I want to imagine a time when Uffda Days, and Crop Shows, and Pride parades will overlap; when Norwegian accordion players, and crafters, and antique tractor collectors, and drag queens, and young gay families, and dykes on bikes, and champion corn growers, and quilters, and chili cook-off winners will join in a celebration of shared humanity. Sometimes this blending of utopian worlds feels close, and sometimes it feels far away; but I do believe that someday, perhaps sooner than I think, I will be able to stand on Gay Street in that North Dakota town with a new and amazing sense of what pride of the prairie can truly mean.
About the Author
Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, where she spent her childhood wandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. Her work has been published in several literary journals, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. Melanie lives in Minneapolis and works for Teach For America. Learn more about her work at melaniehoffert.com.