Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Maddening pleasures, subsequent silence

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

March Madness is just kicking off, and ESPN has already predicted that this year’s tournament will see over $9 billion in bets and gambling.

MarchMadness-confettiFrom offices to college campuses, March Madness continues to attract more and more constituencies in ways that other sporting events, even the Super Bowl, cannot. This time in March and April is often marked by explicit displays of collegiate allegiances and intense and passionate rivalries within the institution of higher learning, a kind of ‘madness’ that is unmatched in any collegiate setting across the globe.

Yet, there is something very particularly American about this event. This is very much a United States phenomenon. In many ways, March Madness tells us about ourselves, and the values we interject into collegiate sports, and March Madness, in particular. It is this matter of values—and how sport reflects us, as an American society—that I am interested in. Specifically, I want to focus on student-athletes in two respects: the male basketball collegiate players and the women’s NCAA tournament.

While March Madness is a time to celebrate alma maters, there is a way in which the iconicity of the athletes, the power and recognition of coaches, and the transcendental nature of sport intersect to create quite a venomous concoction. American studies scholar, Nicole Fleetwood, in her elegant and sophisticated analysis of the visual plane of black iconicity in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, asks that we critically evaluate how iconicity and icons fail to address either the messiness of social life or its major contradictions. Likewise, the iconicity of coaches, such as Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, along with number of collegiate players, hides significant problems within the realm of sport. In the midst of sheer athletic movements, creative plays, intense and intimate camaraderie, and shows of sportsmanship, many other questions and points will remain, at best, minimally discussed and, at worst, completely brushed over.

With so much of the focus on the athleticism of the young men in the men’s national basketball tournament, there is little time to reflect on their lives outside of sport and in classes, in the collegiate physical environment, and in the larger social landscape. As I have taught in big and small institutions of higher learning, in Division I and Division III schools, and I have myself played and coached at the collegiate level, I recognize that the student-athlete has become a source of capital in ways that the “student” is extracted from the “athlete.” The hyphen connecting and demanding a peaceful, synchronized, holistic existence does not exist in present-day sport. Rather, our collegiate (as well as other forms of amateur) sports are a mere show in ideals, but the reality is much more troublesome. “Student” is often treated as an adjective to athlete. With that, as the games proceed through March Madness, I ask this first question: What are ways to create a fantastic learning experience for student-athletes? What type of support is there and where is the support for the student-athlete? The athlete has become the pariah within the realm of students, as if his/her natural place is often assumed to be only on the court, the field, the pool, or the mat. My encounters with student-athletes have shown the precarity of their lives and various forms of alienation within institutions of higher learning.

There has been a trend to let out a big sigh of frustration upon hearing of a student-athlete in one’s class, especially if he is a basketball or football player (read as African American). Although instructors might take great joy in the feats of the athletes on the playing field, the same type of energy does not surface in the face-to-face interactions with student-athletes. As a result, some student-athletes that I have met expressed their alienation in the class setting. They felt like disregarded, like scrap metal. Especially for working-class African American student-athletes, as I discuss in my book, there was the everyday experience and dilemma of already being overdetermined as athletes and sporting bodies. Scott Brooks, in Black Men Can’t Shoot, and Rueben May, in Living through the Hoop, attest to the difficulties of poor young black basketball players. This over-determination meant that their excessive bodies were seen as lacking mind and other key elements of the academic experience.

In the place of this crevice within the college experience for athletes are academic counselors, advisors, and tutors. This seems like a good substitute. However, would anyone substitute John Calipari with a non-sport professional who does not have any of the training, experience, and strong basketball pedigree? Why then would it be okay to insert advisors and tutors who do not have the training and expertise as the professors teaching the courses? The providing of such tutors, counselors, and advisors is important, but it is a double-edged sword, cutting deeply on both ends. For one, it fails to manufacture a positive learning experience and relationship with faculty in the classroom. Instead, what we need are fewer classes so that student-athletes can enjoy classes like the rest of the student population. Taking only two courses a semester would free up time for student-athletes to engage the material fully. They would not feel overwhelmed and feel like studying is a losing battle especially with the demands of the sporting field.

The athletic academic counseling structure justifies an entire cottage industry of sport services professionals within higher learning without providing a greater critique of collegiate and amateur sport. Several football players would be so worn out that staying awake in class took greater energy out of an already exhausted body. When I asked them why they were tired, a few of them spoke candidly that their coaches take every bit of energy out of them. Each coach, assistant coach, and trainer is there to take out all that if left in the athletic body. The student-athletes secure jobs and income for a wide assortment of sport professionals yet their lives reveal such insecurity. An injury could derail the entire collegiate experience. Yet, these students are pushed to the limits, and when demands are made for large stipends or paying student-athletes, the response is always, “They are lucky to be here,” “The scholarship is their payment,” or “The scholarship is the greatest gift.” Really? Is it this simple? Or have we become so blinded to the corporate regime of college sports?

The student-athletes barely have time for anything other than sports. Yet, they have to manage their work day (sports training) with their full-time class schedule. How many students, other than student-athletes, have to travel long distances for work, miss classes (and holidays and family events), and train for the entire course of the year? While we watch March Madness and take in all the joys that come with it, we have to ask whether the traditional student would have to put in the same hours and labor without pay as student-athletes. Student-athletes cannot even enjoy other experiences of the college environment, such as partying, studying abroad, holding part-time jobs, and securing important professional internships. With each round that goes by during March Madness, we should be obligated to ask how to equip and provide support for all of our students, including our student-athletes. As jobs increase around sports like coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and even scholars of sport like me, we owe it to fair play in sport that we give our student-athletes a fair play in academia with stipends and an unlimited commitment to fund the scholarship for student-athletes, even many years after their playing days.

While we talk about guaranteeing college futures for male student-athletes, we need to also interrogate why men’s collegiate basketball appears in sports media as just “basketball,” while women’s basketball foregrounds the gender category of woman as an adjective, appendage, and an addition to basketball. Basketball, as my research has shown, was already taken for granted as “masculine”—a sport to be practiced by men. As such, March Madness stands ubiquitously for men’s basketball. While filling out the men’s bracket, there is little engagement in sporting communities for filling out the women’s bracket. Accordingly, the iconicity of men’s basketball reduces sport to a male arena and celebrates male sporting accomplishments. In the process, female athletes, like female basketball players, are relegated to a realm where they are outside the language of everyday basketball talk. There will be little to no discussion of how Title IX does not guarantee equity in the field of play. (See Deborah Brake’s brilliant book, Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sport Revolution.) Rather, one sees equal numbers of men and women playing collegiate sports—but this metric does not translate into equal access to resources, nor does it mean that the voices of women players are heard as loudly as men’s.

This disparity is also prevalent in sponsorship opportunities and the minimal funding for women’s teams. There is frequent talk about the greatest collegiate basketball coaches, but rarely do coaches of the women’s game like Pat Summit, Dawn Staley, and Geno Auriemma enter that conversation. Likewise, there are many men coaching the women’s game, but no women coaching (as a head coach) the men’s game. Furthermore, as the case of transgender athlete Kye Allums shows us, there are few spaces in either the men’s or women’s game for gender-non-conforming or trans athletes. To add, another disturbing fact is the gendered and sexual violence within women’s collegiate sports. None of this, or very little of it, will be the subject of conversation during March Madness. The sexual violence that is normalized on college campuses seeps into and destroys women’s athletics as well. As basketball is rendered as a game for men, the violence against female basketball players is not always fully investigated. This is also because the women’s tournament becomes a side-show, not the main attraction. As a result, the storylines and issues within women’s sports are not legitimated and made visible.

There has to be a national discussion about sexual violence and it must also take place within the confines of collegiate sport. We need that discussion to begin now. In the late 1960s, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards played a critical role in organizing African American student-athletes against racism locally, and within the larger Olympic Games. We know of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. There is a foundation, although we cannot always see it, to use sport as one of the key arenas for creating livable, fair, just, and equitable worlds. Sport, as the great scholar C.L.R. James has argued in Beyond a Boundary, is not apart from the real world but intricately connected to it. Sport provides various forms of reprieve from the outside world but that does not mean that we can forget about how power operates in sporting cultures. Through sport, we can harness new social arrangements and social justice principles that then truly make sport the most utopian social site.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).

It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality

—Jane Ward

[This piece was originally posted at The Conversation.]

If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?

Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.

The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.

Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished between effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.

With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.

The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to be undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”

Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants. As I document in my forthcoming book, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.

Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.

One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.

Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.

But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.

It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).

Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Queer Christianities: A new conversation

—Michael F. Pettinger, Kathleen T. Talvacchia, and Mark Larrimore

“Queer Christian lives are wildly, deliciously varied.”

With those words, our co-editor Mark Larrimore captured the most compelling reason for editing a book like Queer Christianities. He also hit on the greatest challenge we faced as editors. We wanted to start a new conversation, one grounded in the lived experience of individuals who consider themselves queer and Christian. The problem was that the delicious variety of their lives resisted any easy organizing principle.

So how do you give structure to a queer Christian discussion without closing out some voices and locking those included too rigidly into place? We thought about dividing it along denominational lines – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. But would there be space for people to talk across those divisions? We considered arranging it according to different sexual identities. But the number of such identities was indefinable and fraught with potential conflict. Was there room at the table for heterosexuals? If we included gay and lesbian Christians who opt for heterosexual marriage or celibacy, would we alienate those who see these choices as a surrender to oppression? And what about the divergent methodologies that such a discussion would inevitably call upon – could theologians, theorists, philosophers, historians, sociologists have an intelligible conversation? If they are scholars who practice a tradition, how do they integrate their academic and religious commitments?

What we were looking for was a language accessible to both theologians and social scientists of religion. It would have to be a language useful to individuals from a broad range of sexual identities. And last of all, it would have to be a language that the contributors could use to answer the underlying question of the book – how do individuals reflect upon their erotic relationships while living in traditions that are often explicitly hostile to them? How do they put those reflections into practice? And how do those practices shape their lives and the lives of their communities?

The solution came almost as a joke, at the end of a long afternoon spent tossing out ideas and shooting them down. Why not borrow the language of the Christian states of life? We could have three parts – one on matrimony, another on celibacy, and a third on whatever else is left over.

At first, the idea seemed slightly ridiculous. After all, weren’t these “states of life” precisely the sort of tidy, stultifying taxonomy that queerness tries to resist? Weren’t the terms old-fashioned even among Christians? And what exactly is contained in the category, “whatever else is left over?” Does such a thing even have a name? Is it a name that anyone would want to claim?

In order to open these concepts to the many lives we wanted to explore, we had to queer them. As abstract singular nouns, “Celibacy” and “Matrimony” might name suffocating monoliths, but in the plural, “Celibacies” and “Matrimonies” point to the myriad ways in which specific individuals resist, reimagine, and reinvent these forms in their own lives. These plural nouns called for another plural to name the third part. After repeated discussion, we chose “Promiscuities,” a word that evokes the multiple forms of exclusion that have haunted the history of Christianity, while pointing to the many types of erotic relationship that queer Christians are reclaiming.

The states-of-life model proved capacious in ways that we could not have anticipated. Not only did it make it possible for theologians and social scientists of religion to speak with each other about queer Christian lives, it also opened the way for queer Christians to engage the academy on their own terms. Rather than creating three separate conversations around three static topics, the model allowed voices addressing one state of life to echo or respond to what was said in another. Indeed, the tracing of ideas between the three parts of the book mirrors the lives of queer Christians, as individuals transitioned from one state of life to another, and even inhabited multiple states simultaneously.

This surging dynamism is perhaps the single most important thing we have discovered in editing this conversation. As Mark pointed out, the lives of queer Christians “can be expected to keep pushing the limits of normalizing structures of all kinds.” The resulting harmonies and dissonances suggest further possibilities for queering and Christianity. This book is not a conclusion. It is only the beginning of a new and lively conversation.

Michael F. Pettinger is Assistant Professor in the Literary and Religious Studies programs at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Kathleen T. Talvacchia is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Mark Larrimore is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. They are co-editors of Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (NYU Press, 2014).

How not to react when your child tells you that he is gay

—Bernadette Barton

I actively avoided watching “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He is Gay” for a little while. A former student Facebook messaged me the link. I saw it pop up on other people’s Facebook walls. Dan Savage commented on it. And then my spouse Anna added it to our Plex queue and made me watch it on our television, though there isn’t much to see, just a lot of skewed shots of carpet, and later, a bunch of limbs tumbling.

So I listened, nervous, full of creeping dread, secretly overhearing, along with, at this point, 100,000 YouTube others, a violent family reaction to their son’s coming out. When our protagonist speaks, he is careful with his logic, even while his voice is strained and angry. He explains that he did not choose to be gay, he was born this way, right out of the uterus. His family members, especially his mother, respond that it is a choice, that he is choosing to shame them, and she tells him that they will no longer support him in his sinful lifestyle if he continues to choose to be gay.

The conversation begins with an ultimatum: if he does not try to change, with the help of an ex-gay organization, he is to leave. The listener enters at this point, and can track the conflict as it escalates and his family members physically attack him, yelling obscenities and insults.

And then the clip cuts off and we don’t know what happens next, although we can imagine it—the boy escaping out the back or front door with just the clothes on his back, or the boy subjected to a long, protracted period of testifying, or the boy submitting to his family long enough that they calm down and allow him to stay until “Thursday at midnight” to collect his belongings and find a place to live.

This disturbing clip, this painful moment captured and frozen in a person’s life, identical in so many ways to the stories shared by Bible Belt gays in my book Pray the Gay Away, frankly makes me queasy. The verbal accounts I collected with IRB approval, tape-recorder in hand, generously shared some time after the worst of such family abuse had receded is easier to process than the raw anger, hurt, and rejection expressed, indeed secretly recorded, here.  The trauma of familial abuse—being deliberately hurt by those who claim, and who are expected to love one the most—makes me dizzy and unsettled. I wonder how it is affecting all those who have experienced some version of it in their past.  Do they click on this YouTube offering unaware what is in it, try to avoid it like I did, or suffer through it reliving the trauma, purging it, feeling angry, unsettled, surreal, I wonder?

I want to wrap up this boy’s story on a hopeful note. As reader, viewer, voyeur, and story-teller, I crave a heroic ending, and perhaps it is this: even as his own family members were physically and verbally attacking him, our protagonist continued to assert that there was nothing wrong with him, there was something wrong with them. Doing so, he illustrates that he is not participating in his own oppression. He may be permanently estranged from his home and family, but he sounds aligned with himself, and perhaps that is powerful enough, for now.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

Pride Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters

The parades are over… the fight for equality is not. 

As LGBT Pride Month comes to a close today, we invite you to read this Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trapin which she discusses the shift from gay pride to tolerance, the trouble with same-sex marriage victories, and what it might look like on the other side of the rainbow.

Who doesn’t like tolerance? As you write, “It seems to herald openness to difference and a generally broad-minded disposition.” Looking a bit more deeply, what does “tolerance” really imply?

Suzanna Danuta Walters: Well, tolerance is certainly better than outright hatred for sure!  But think about it: we tolerate things we would rather do without (an irritating neighbor, a boring movie, a meeting that never seems to end) – we rarely speak of tolerating the things we enjoy (a delicious meal, a vibrant party, a sunny day.)  So tolerance is a very low bar to set when we are pondering the real and robust inclusion of a minority group into full citizenship.

Out gay and lesbian celebrities, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the end of sanctioned discrimination in the military… Are these not good things?

Of course these are good things – I would be the last person to deny the very real changes that have occurred in the past 15 or so years.  Things are undoubtedly better.  But three points need to be made here:  they are not better enough (we still have disproportionate numbers of gay youth on the streets, we still don’t have ENDA passed, we still have only a handful of openly gay politicians and national leaders).  Second, those gains—out celebrities, gay marriage, and military inclusion—are not the “end” of the struggle for full inclusion. Gay marriage does not = gay rights. And, third, the framing of gay rights around “tolerance” and acceptance forestalls addressing the deeper and more challenging questions posed by full inclusion.

Social movements usually evolve through various stages over the course of years or decades. What stages has the gay and lesbian movement gone through, and where are we now?  What would success look like to you?

True, some of what we are seeing now is the inevitable “normalizing” and mainstreaming of a social movement. But I do think there are some peculiar twists that the gay movement and gay rights has taken. I think “tolerance” as both a means and an end is NOT, in fact, what most social movements have centered their work around.  So feminism didn’t demand “tolerance” for women, but full inclusion and rights and— more importantly—a sea change in cultural attitudes about gender. The civil rights movement asks not for “acceptance” but for a robust re-imaging of race and an historical reckoning with slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve had a wonderful and radical history of gay rights and gay activism—and that has by no means disappeared—but I think we are now threatening that progressive potential by buying into the tolerance trap.

What did “gay pride” used to mean? What does it mean now?

Oh gosh, I still feel a little tingle at the parades, but it does seem it has become more of a rainbow food court than a righteous rally. I do think “pride” is actually a very different affect than “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If we actually got back to that old way of thinking of pride (evidenced in slogans such as “gay is good” and “glad to be gay”) we might begin to shift away from the tepid language of tolerance.

Can you talk a little about how coming out has come to be seen as the master narrative of a gay person’s life? In what ways does the mainstream, at least as represented by conventional wisdom and popular culture, get it wrong?

Coming out has long been both our master narrative but also the way in which gay identities and lives are seen and even “measured” by straight “audiences.” But coming out stories are complicated. For example, in much of popular culture, coming out tales focus more on the reaction of the heterosexuals than on the actual feelings and lives of gay people doing the telling. It often serves to give straight folks a pat on the back for tolerating their gay brethren but often asks little of them in terms of real shifts in attitudes.

In whose interest is it that gay people become “just like everyone else”? What does the gay and lesbian community stand to lose if this assimilation becomes complete?

I actually don’t think it is in anybody’s interest. Assimilation surely might help some (wealthy, white, married) gay people find a home in this country, and it might give comfort to some anxious heterosexuals who don’t want to be bigoted but also don’t want to themselves have to change. But we all—as a nation—lose out when the rich difference of gay life and history and culture are stripped away in the march toward tolerance.

As a progressive (and a lesbian), you are obviously not against marriage equality. And you admit to certain sentimentality about the very fact that gay men and lesbians can now marry their partners in many parts of the U.S.  Yet… you suggest that gay marriage is “the perfect Trojan horse for the tolerance trap.” [p. 177] Tell us more.

Of course I am for marriage equality in the sense of opposing any restrictions on basic civil rights. But what I mean buy “Trojan horse” is that I think gaining marriage rights produces the appearance of full inclusion and equality—it sneaks it through the gages so to speak, and thus allows everyone to pat themselves on the back for their tolerant acceptance of gayness.

Some people may not realize that there has been a healthy debate within the gay and lesbian community for decades about the wisdom of fighting for marriage rights.  Give us the argument against marriage.  What would a more progressive family rights agenda look like?

Same-sex marriage has been won largely by making one totally kosher claim and two (well, many more actually…) hugely problematic ones. The legit claim is the simple one of equal treatment under the law. A no-brainer. Easy to support. But the other two…not so much. The first, used in amicus briefs throughout the country, is that gays should get their marriage because they are “born that way” and therefore their immutable homo-ness puts them in the same category as other groups with supposedly immutable qualities. So “we can’t help ourselves” is the identity argument at the core of much of marriage argumentation and indeed pro-gay discourse more generally. The second claim is that legalizing same-sex marriage won’t affect straight marriages at all (because we’re just like you). To which I have to say: if it doesn’t change gender normative, often abusive, deeply unequal, heterosexual marriages, then why does it matter at all? If queer marriages DON’T alter straight sensibilities around gender and intimacy and family then they are strangely not queer at all. And not worth all the fuss.

I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are told that this is the culmination of the long march of progress and soon we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove. Lawyers and plaintiffs alike claim this decision makes us “more equal” and our families “more legitimate.” Gee, I thought we were pretty legitimate without marriage, and that our children weren’t torn apart by the agony of unmarried mothers. My nineteen-year-old feminist daughter (of a single mother to boot!) widened her eyes in horror at that old anti-feminist canard being trotted out and declaimed with nary a whiff of irony.

Love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging.

Also, many of us fear a few other things:  that we will now see a division between the “good” marrying gays who deserve tolerance and those recalcitrant gays who are pushed even further outside of the field of respectability.  So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged not to take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory. I am sickened by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters.

What is on the other side of the rainbow?  Give us a picture of how things have changed, not just for gay and lesbian Americans but for all of us, when gay and lesbian people truly belong?

We can’t know in advance what that will look like but I can say that gay belonging will mean assuming that heterosexual business as usual gets upended.  If you really reject the tolerance trap—and all that goes with it in terms of “born that way” ideas and odes to acceptance and assimilation—you open the door to a re-imagining of intimacy, family, sex, and love as unmoored from gender certitudes and assumptions. It might be pretty fun.