Q&A with Jane Ward, author of Not Gay

Interview conducted by the Sexual Cultures series editors, Ann Pellegrini, Tavia Nyong’o, and Joshua Chambers-Letson.

Not Gay focuses on straight white men who have sex with other men, but who do not identify as gay. You carefully explain why you take their assertions of straightness seriously and do not just call them closet cases or diagnose them as in denial. Why aren’t these men simply “bisexual”?  As if there is anything simple about being bisexual – or straight or gay, for that matter!  

JW: What I think many people have misunderstood is that my book isn’t about a special subset of white straight men; it’s about all white straight men. I make the argument that the very culture of heterosexual masculinity—or white manhood as a cultural institution— produces a striking number of opportunities for men to touch each other’s anuses and penises, and to think of these encounters as non-sexual. Just as mainstream culture allows for straight women to have sexual contact with women and maintain a straight identity— straight men also have these opportunities, but they look different from women’s opportunities.  For straight-identified women, sexual contact with another woman is often a performance for male spectators, but for straight men it is also a performance for other men—expressed as a form of vulgar and homophobic joking, hazing or initiation, or daredevil stunts. So the actual mechanics of the behavior are basically the same for men and women, but the cultural narratives that justify it are different.

When lesbians see two straight women kissing each other on a dance floor to excite their boyfriends or when we see straight women licking each other in hetero porn, we don’t say, “Oh, look at these poor lesbians or bisexual women suffering in the closet! They need to come out already.” Why? Because we understand the heterosexual context in which these women are touching each other. Even if they are completely turned on, we recognize that they might be turned on for heterosexual reasons, like pleasing the men who are watching them. In contrast, essentialist interpretations of men’s sexuality have not only blinded us to the prevalence of straight men’s homosexual contact with other men, they have made it nearly impossible for us to see that sometimes straight men have sex with men for heterosexual reasons.

Interestingly, I have heard from bi-identified readers who want to argue that calling someone “straight” who has had sex with women and men is a form of bi-erasure; and that since what I am really writing about is bisexuality, I have committed a form of epistemological violence by writing about the subject without being bi-identified myself. But if we are defining bi so broadly (i.e., anyone with the capacity for attraction to both men and women, regardless of how they themselves identify), then I am certainly bi. And frankly, I think all humans are bisexual by this definition. Of course it is useful to point out that human desire is more expansive than we are taught, but I don’t think it’s productive to expand the category “bisexual” to all—or most—humans. Bisexuality, to me, is a queer identification, one that resists the hetero/homo binary.

I have also been surprised by some critics’ claims that the book is somehow defending or honoring straight men by allowing them to remain straight; some readers have implied that anyone engaged in homosexual sex should be forced, I suppose, to identify as bi or gay. Or at the very least, I should be forced to write about them that way. I think this is coming from the still common belief that being straight is always easier, better, more enjoyable than being queer, and therefore to identify as straight while sometimes having homosexual encounters is to pillage queerness while reaping the endless benefits of heteronormativity. But I offer a different perspective in the book, which is that straightness has been so damaged by sexism and the gender binary that to be straight is far more miserable, especially for women, than the dominant culture wants us to recognize. As I say in the book, I find heterosexual culture quite distasteful and I would never, ever want to be straight. So if some men who have sex with men want to identify as straight, I hardly think that allowing them to stew in the juices of heteronormativity is a reward.

How does whiteness/white privilege function for your argument and for the men you write about?  Does whiteness offer greater permission for them to have sex with other men without losing their status as straight? 

JW: Yes, this is precisely what I argue in the book. In the last fifteen years or so, social scientists, public health workers, and journalists have been quite interested in straight men’s homosexual encounters, but this interest has centered almost entirely on Black men. Black men “on the down low,” regardless of their own self-identifications, have been characterized as closeted gay or bi men who lie to women about their sex with men—and therefore represent a serious public health threat. Many commentators have suggested that when straight-identified Black men have sex with men, it has everything to do with race. Most often, the argument is that Black culture is so hyper-homophobic that Black men cannot be honest about their ostensibly real sexual orientations. Many scholars working in Black queer studies, like C. Riley Snorton and Jeffrey McCune, have offered brilliant critiques of this discourse. I hope my book adds to those critiques by pointing to the ways that white men have completely flown under the radar of these discussions about sex between straight-identified men. Psychologists and sexologists have been much more generous and forgiving with their interpretations of straight white men’s homosexual encounters, allowing for the possibility that they are developmental, circumstantial, and compelled—and therefore not indicators of straight white men’s sexual essence. And certainly no one has suggested that when straight white men have sex with men, these encounters might be happening in racialized ways that are specific to white culture! But of course, they are, and I offer numerous examples.

It’s become something of a cultural cliché (not to mention a staple of pornography and pop culture – think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for one notable recent example) to say that women’s sexuality is more flexible or “fluid” than men’s. Does your book show that straight men’s sexuality is more flexible than commonly thought? 

JW: It seems straight men will never be tired of the girl-girl fantasy, and I think that’s precisely the point. We are inundated with images of straight women in sexual scenarios with other women because these images appeal to many heterosexual men. So it’s generally much easier for people to see how girl-girl sex might, in some cases, be about heterosexuality more than it is about lesbianism. But mention the possibility of straight dude-on-dude action, and you’re met with guffaws. Straight men deny that it happens, and gay and bi men seem to want to claim that even a single sexual fantasy about another man signals a tortured life in the closet. So it’s certainly time to unpack and examine this double standard.

With respect to the term “fluidity,” many people posit that sexual fluidity is a capacity we are either born with or we’re not. I am not saying that straight men are sexually fluid at their core, or that straight men are actually bisexual or pansexual but they just don’t know it yet. Instead, I’m shedding light on the fact that straight men touch each other’s penises and anuses a lot, often in hyper-masculine environments like fraternities and the military, and in many cases they don’t understand this touching to be sexual.  Since they are often doing it as an expression of homophobia, or to prove exactly how hetero-masculine they are, I don’t know that “fluidity” is the most useful term for understanding the meaning of straight men’s sexual encounters with one another. Instead, it’s more productive to think about this in terms of the erotic flexibility of heterosexuality.

Congratulations, you have a cross over! Do you find that the feminist and queer critique your book offers is somehow being overlooked amidst all the positive coverage, though? Many responses seem caught up in the nominalist controversy of whether or not someone can have sex with someone of the same sex and still “be” straight? How would you hope the book might be received differently say, in a classroom setting? What might Not Gay be contributing to Queer Studies at this juncture?

JW: My hope is that I’ve made a case for theorizing heterosexuality differently, not as the absence of homosexuality but as a distinct mode of engaging homosexuality that is animated by very creative hetero-erotic alibis, performative disidentifications with queerness, and a fetishized relationship to heteronormativity. Of course I also hope students in queer studies will understand that I am not congratulating straight people for their imaginative efforts at having homosexual sex in sexist and homophobic ways! Instead, I am asking queer people—and especially gay men—to let go of the desire to claim all instances of homosexual contact as ours, or within the purview of queerness. I have to say that in many ways the response to the book is almost better fuel for classroom discussion than the book itself is. The onslaught of misogynist attacks from gay men has been telling: “you’re an idiot who needs to have your degree revoked;” “what could a lesbian possibly know about this subject;” “you must have been raped by a man and therefore your trauma accounts for this misandrous attack on white men”–and it goes on and on. That the book has gained the attention of gay men outside of academia, and then elicited this kind of response from them, is, I think, illustrative of the fact that gay men have largely controlled the dominant narrative about what it means to be gay, in the broad sense that includes “gay women,” and this book challenges that narrative. Queer women are rarely central in telling the story about the meaning of sexual identity categories. I have read several sound critiques of the book, but I do think a lot the push back, coming almost exclusively from men, reflects gay men’s investment in the heteronormative and male-centered premise that it’s almost always easier to be straight and that the benefits of being queer don’t outweigh the costs. Perhaps it’s often better for men to be straight, but if we keep in mind the abuses many women experience in relationships with men—domestic violence, sexual assault, unequal division of labor, etc.—then one could certainly argue that the homophobia women experience as lesbians or bisexuals is no worse than the sexism they experience in heterosexual relationships. I write from this perspective, my own perspective as a dyke who would be absolutely devastated to be straight.   What all this indicates to me is that it’s time to invest in Lez Theory, or a queer theory centered in the lezbo/dyke/lezzie experience.

The subjects of your book — straight white men — are decentered in most feminist and queer studies syllabi, and justifiably so. So what does bringing up the topic of straight masculinity, specifically within the context of feminist and queer studies, achieve? Does it have the capacity to address the question, for instance, of whether or not Queer Studies is dependent upon a reflexive antinormativity?

JW: Straight white men are often the invisible reference point used by science when it turns its pathologizing gaze toward the sexuality of men of color and women. So it can be incredibly helpful to look closely at how that reference point is being reproduced, what the stakes are for everyone else, and how we might want to resist. But with regard to antinormativity, taking sex between straight men as our point of departure can certainly helps us think more extendedly about how we want to define antinormative sex practices, for instance. I agree with Maggie Nelson when she asks in her memoir The Argonauts, “how can rampant, ‘deviant’ sexual activity remain the marker of radicality? What sense does it make to align ‘queer’ with ‘sexual deviance’ when the ostensibly straight world is having no trouble keeping pace?” By most accounts, the kind of sex I describe in Not Gay—straight white men eating potato chips out of each others anuses and the like—is deviant. It’s not subversive, certainly not consciously, but it’s deviant. In the book, I describe the erotic force of heterosexuality as a kind of fetish for heteronormativity, one that can incorporate no end of sexual deviance. But what we see is that these sex acts are nasty and naughty in the service of normalcy! Because the current imperative is to have a more or less “hidden” sexual freakiness that is reigned in when appropriate, exemplified by the heteronormative dictate to be a “lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets,” Nelson is absolutely right that freak sex is not a singularly queer domain. What I think is queer is to be a freak in the streets. What straight people want to view as meaningless, incongruent, non-subjectifying, and private, queers treat with sincerity, reverence, and a sense of collective pride.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015). Visit her website at janewardphd.com.

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]

Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


Playing (anti-)blackness: Expanding understandings of racism in sport

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

dengThe National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Atlanta Hawks entered the 2015 playoff run as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and with one of the best records in franchise history. Even with injuries, to key defender Thabo Sefolosha, role player Demarre Carroll, and bull’s eye shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ efficient offensive attack and stifling defense propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Hawks, there was much to rejoice for the Hawks after a very successful season of winning streaks. With their rewarding season, however, came a type of forgetting, or even worse, a limited understanding of race. As the Hawks did well, the racial violence within sport became an invisible background to their stories of sporting success. In this essay, I will demonstrate how narrow versions of blackness (as seen in the case of Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Civil Rights icon Andy Young) marginalize the black migrant, queer, and trans person which further de-politicizes and de-legitimates anti-racism campaigns.

During the recruitment period in the summer of 2014, General Manager of the Hawks, Danny Ferry was on a conference call with other team executives to discuss potential free agents. Ferry, a white male and former NBA and Duke University player, looked through his data on South Sudanese American player Luol Deng, and stated that Deng “has a little African in him.” With regard to the inflammatory comment, Ferry admitted to perusing through various sources of material gathered on Luol Deng and added, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

Danny Ferry’s comments remind us how the anti-black racism in larger American society seeps and bleeds into the very fabric of sport. The presence of black athletes in the NBA does not make mainstream American sport “post-racial.” These comments and the events that followed them not only demonstrate the presence of racism but also the containing of blackness as identity and politics. In present-day U.S. society, we must carefully evaluate the immediate history of anti-black violence and interrogate it, if we seek to fully understand the ways in which blackness is contained.

The loaded and vile evaluations of Luol Deng resulted in Danny Ferry taking a leave of absence. Many individuals came to the support of Danny Ferry. The support, as I will argue further, gives us a problematic understanding of blackness that is out of touch with the Black Lives Matter movement and the trans women color organizing. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project link anti-black racism to xenophobia, anti-immigrant practices, and U.S. imperialism. We do not yet fully see this expansive social justice campaign in sport. Instead, after the leak of Ferry’s comments, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (who was named 2015 “coach of the year”) iterated that it was the genius of Danny Ferry that played a part in the Hawks franchise’s success. This affirmation of Ferry as a professional genius and not a racist—unlike former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was pushed out by the league for his racist comments about black people sitting in his seats—is part of a new terrain of expressing race that is simplistic in its compilation of blackness and in privileging of whiteness. As Luol Deng was African, he was somehow outside the respectable bounds of care and thus not able or allowed to speak against racism. Certain types of representations of native-born blackness become iconic, while the black migrant Other is seen as duplicitous, dodgy, and untrustworthy.

To both my shock and expectations, former Atlanta mayor and civil rights legend Andy Young, a leader in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to the side of Danny Ferry. According to ESPN staff writer Kevin Arnovitz, when asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell no.” Young said that had he been the decision-maker in the Hawks executive offices, he would have encouraged Ferry to stay on. He added that he doesn’t believe Ferry is a racist. To make matters even more complicated, he substituted himself into this equation to free Ferry of any blame: “No more than I am,” Young told the Atlanta station. “That’s a word that you cannot define, ‘You are a racist.’ You can’t grow up white in America without having some problems. You can’t grow up black in America without having some subtle feelings.”

Andy Young’s comments, although disheartening in their disregard for the harrowing experiences of racial violence, should not be seen as exceptional. Rather, it is part and parcel of the projection of African American identity through which certain nefarious alliances are made between black and white elites. Accordingly, a version of blackness is created through Young comments; it is a narrow, constricted, and limited understanding of blackness that elides and dismisses entire groups of people. This version of blackness contains threads of xenophobia that justify racist acts against immigrant black individuals like Luol Deng.

I believe Young’s support of Ferry keeping his job is tied to a clearly bounded blackness with specific national contours. Deng’s refugee status and African identity underwhelmed claims to blackness and anti-black racism. In the process of constructing what black is by stating who is not—in this case, Luol Deng, we see the parameters of blackness and ideas of respectability come to the surface. By not condemning Ferry’s statements and supporting his dismissal, Andy Young manufactures and engrains versions of blackness that make the victim of racism the middle-class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian African American man.

Not seeing Ferry’s racial statements as problematic, Young defines blackness and subsequent experiences of racism in limiting ways that fails to account for the heterogeneity and contradictions within blackness. The overemphasis on the black Atlantic is prevalent in how we think about race, racism, and activism. Roderick Ferguson, in his chapter in Strange Affinities, asks us to imagine a blackness that complicates our understandings of Africa and accounts for various diasporic African populations on U.S. shores. Instead of centering western Africa, he asks for black studies to include work on east Africans in the United States. For example, there are large Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Somalian communities in Atlanta. In fact, the Lost Boys of Sudan (the young Sudanese who fled across nations and refugee camps at the height of the civil war in 1980s Sudan) have a strong community in Metro Atlanta and there is a large African refugee community in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston (see the fabulous book Outcasts United by Warren St. John).

When Andy Young dismisses the problematic discourse that ostracizes black refugee and immigrant bodies, this might be part of a larger societal discourse of blackness that does not attend to interconnected issues of racism, immigration reform, poor black communities, rising xenophobia, and the entrenchment of Islamophobia (see Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims and Ahmed Afzal’s Lone Star Muslims). In many ways, his encapsulated and static understanding of race is easily worked into the anti-immigrant logic that sees immigrants, especially African immigrants, as non-subjects and not within the discourse of race and racial justice within the United States. As a result, the broken leg sustained by Hawks Afro-French player Thabo Sefolosha is not attended to by persons like Andy Young. Although the details have not surfaced as to how Sefolosha broke his leg in the encounter with police, Young’s conceptualization of blackness already projects Sefolosha outside the logic of racial communities and care.

To go back in time and come back to the present, the blackness that was central to the Civil Rights Movement could not and did not always accommodate blackness in radical ways. The mainstreaming versions of the Civil Rights Movement struggled and failed to attend to LGBTQI and immigration matters in the movement. Andy Young’s version of blackness and respective productions of social justice are therefore not expansive. Luol Deng did not fit enough to the middle-classed, light-skinned, and American-centered version of blackness. Young’s version of blackness was not as expansive as the Pan-African claims by Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, and many other scholars and activists. As we have increasing numbers of African players in the NBA and other professional sports, how will blackness account for the far reach and radical possibilities that move beyond our shores?

Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry plays into the xenophobia that governs how we think about U.S. identity and African American identity. There are many examples of how the histories of Africans, African diaspora communities, and African Americans have not always led to collaborative work. There are instances of tension between these groups, but “blackness” must be an open concept in order to create true change.

As a high school student in Atlanta, I came across the contradictions and entrenchments within blackness. One morning, in 1990, the students and teachers arrived to find anti-black racist graffiti sprayed against the walls at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. This deeply affected the souls of my African American classmates and a few students of color. We had an African student at our school and he was an exceptional soccer player. Despite the racist happenings at my school, on many occasions, the African student heard racialized comments from African American young men stating that he should go back to the “jungle,” “take care of the goats,” and other such matters. Instead of building a coalition with what the Civil Rights Movement called “Pan-African” connection through an expansive concept of blackness, there continues to be black bleeding, but in isolation and silence. Africans were outside the scope of respectability based on certain bodily comportments, phenotype, name, accent, smell, and desires that defined blackness in Atlanta. This logic, I believe, is evident in Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry. In the process, the Atlanta Hawks can use the iconicity of Andy Young and his blackness to leverage support and wash away the racist structures within Atlanta Hawks management. Thus, we have to ask: Why is there silence regarding Sefolosha’s broken leg? What does that silence tell us about Black Lives Matter when it took place during an encounter with New York police?

When we continue to figure violence only in terms of those people who we think are embodiments of the best of our community, we fail to see the true reach of racism. We fall into the trap of recognizing only certain persons as respectably human and worthy of attention. What does respectability have to do with that? Why should it be a concern? When respectability becomes the crux of why we care about certain deaths and bodies over others, as evident in Lisa Cacho’s wonderful book Social Death, we account for the horrific murder of the nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston. This tragic event has spaces for empathy as the dead included teachers, professionals, and respectable church-going people.

As we mourn the deaths of the nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, we have failed to collaborate to interrogate the haunting and continued silence concerning the killings of trans women of color. So many black trans women have been murdered since the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Yet, the campaign to combat anti-black racism generally does not account for these persons. Trans women of color, especially, are marginalized, feel the wrath of poverty intimately, daily encounter the police state and racial profiling, and have little resources for survival. As organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and various others open up the category of blackness, the same must be true in all aspects of society, including sporting cultures. At the ESPY awards for sporting figures, Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage and service. There was great applause and a superficial demonstration of unity. Although this moment brought much-needed visibility to the anti-trans violence, it continued to drown out the activism of Kye Allums, a trans man of color who has been a fierce social justice advocate with sporting cultures for the last 5 years.

Furthermore, with the continued violence against poor African American women, will Andrew Young and the misogyny of the civil rights leadership corps account for the everyday struggle of poor black women? Will this blackness accommodate the young black homeless women like the ones described in anthropologist Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters and Between Good and Ghetto by sociologist Nikki Jones? If not, then what we have is similar to the blackness that South Asian American athletes consume and appropriate in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams. It is a blackness that is sellable in the larger marketplace but devoid of fierce political fires. Yet, some South Asian American men consume cultural blackness as a way to critique U.S. society and the racial stratification of immigrants. There are other possibilities and openings for blackness that Andy Young and the larger Black Lives Matter movement must attend to in order to create a society for all.

We see how the politics of respectability plays out with regard to organizing against anti-black racism. Racism is expansive, fluid, and recruits a wide spectrum of black victims, yet the responses can be shallow, myopic, and limiting. Racism has always been tied to stratification, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and imperialism. Blackness as a point of identification and as a compass for change must not have gatekeepers but infinite openings that make the category a vision and praxis for a just tomorrow.

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, 2015).

Genocide denial by default

—Nicole Rafter

The great centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide is almost over. With parades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, massive rallies in Argentina, prayer services in Washington, D.C., historical displays at the Library of Congress, and a formal remembrance by the European Union, Armenians and their supporters have kept alive memories of the atrocities of 1915.

In Boston, over three thousand gathered at the Armenian Heritage Park to honor the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by the Turks, a genocide that saw men tortured and shot, women raped and beheaded, and children forced to jump into the Black Sea to drown. Pope Francis recognized the event as “the first genocide of the 20th-century.”

Trouble is, the Pope—although admirable in his intentions—was wrong. So were others who memorialized the Armenians as the first 20th-century victims of mass atrocities.

The first victims of 20th-century genocide were in fact the Herero, a group of semi-nomadic tribes in South-West Africa (now Namibia). Before colonization by Germany began, in the 1880s, the Herero’s tribal confederation consisted of about 85,000 people. Caught up in the “scramble for Africa,” Germans settlers moved into South-West Africa as if by right, taking the natives’ cattle, building railroads on their grazing lands, raping and shooting women, and flogging men to death until the Herero decided to rise up.

The Herero knew they could not possibly win a fight against the Germans settlers and their army. “Let us die fighting,” counseled one chief, “rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment, or some other calamity.”

The surviving son of a Herero leader said his father “knew that if we rose in revolt we would be wiped out in battle because our men were almost unarmed and without ammunition. The cruelty and injustice of the Germans had driven us to despair, and our leaders and the people felt that death had lost much of its horror in the light of the conditions under which we lived.”

In response to the uprising, the German emperor put the colony under military rule and sent in Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who had already brutally suppressed rebellious blacks in East Africa. Delivering his opinion of “race war” with Africans, von Trotha declared that “no war may be conducted humanely against nonhumans.” To his soldiers (as to the general himself), Africans seemed more like “baboons” than human beings.

Hung, burned, shot, starved, and driven into the desert to die of thirst, few Herero survived von Trotha’s extermination order. More than three-quarters died, while survivors became virtual slaves to the German settlers.

Germany held onto the colony for another decade but was forced out by an invasion from South Africa during World War I. After that, the British took control of what had once been Herero lands.

This was the first genocide of the 20th-century. If the Herero genocide is more obscure today than the Armenians’, it may be because of race, location, and geopolitics. It is wonderful that we have, in the Armenian case, monuments and memorials commemorating white people who were targeted for extermination partly because the Turks wanted their land. At the same time, we should remember these black people who were targeted for extermination because Germany wanted African land.

Genocide denial comes in many forms. We are familiar with the brazen dismissals of Holocaust deniers. We are also familiar with Turkish insistence that their country did nothing but “relocate” the Armenians. A more subtle but equally insidious form of erasure is genocide denial by default—by inadvertence or ignorance.

Unfortunately, the Pope’s claim that the Armenian genocide was “the first genocide of the 20th-century” marginalizes and ignores the near-extinction of the Herero.

This too is a form of genocide denial.

Nicole Rafter is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. She is the author of Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture (NYU Press, 2011).

How email ruined my life

—Catherine Zimmer

I got my first email account the fall I started graduate school, in 1995. Even then I had an inkling of the pressures that would come to be associated with this miracle of communication. My entry into grad school coincided with a relationship transitioning into a long-distance one, and what at first was a welcome mode of remaining tethered soon enough became a source, and an outlet, of demand, anxiety, guilt, and recrimination.

This early experience of the pressure and affective weight of email faded into memory alongside that relationship, and certainly at the time it did not occur to me to hold the medium responsible for the messages. But over the past couple of years, now that I am lucky enough to be firmly cemented in an academic job and stupid enough to have taken on an administrative role, that experience has reemerged for me as something of a retroactive portent of the place email would come to hold in my life. Because as anyone in an even remotely bureaucratic environment will tell you, “email” is no longer simply a way of communicating with others, though periodically a message gets through that is significant enough that the medium becomes momentarily transparent. Email is now an entity in and of itself—a gargantuan, self-perpetuating and purely self-referential monstrosity that I do not “use” but barely “manage,” a time-sucking and soul-crushing mass that I can only chip away at in an attempt to climb over or around to get to an actual task.

From epidemic-level ADHD and eye fatigue to degenerative spinal conditions at younger and younger ages—not to mention my self-diagnosed early-onset thumb arthritis—constant interaction with digital devices has arguably had widespread health consequences. It is also fraught with an expansion, intensification, and perversion of the emotions associated with that first email account. But while then I attached those affective elements to a romantic relationship, they are now purely indicative of my relationship to email “itself”: the phenomenon that makes constant and growing demands on my time, attention, and energy, requiring that I devote at least a modicum of substantive thought to each individual expression of its enormous, garbage-filled maw. Time spent on email has grown to hours every day. This is not a measure of increased “productivity.” In fact it is just the opposite, as answering email has become the forest I have to machete my way through just to get to the things that actually constitute my job. And while I do get angry at the jaw-dropping idiocy of certain student emails (Hi Mrs. Zimmer can u send me the syllabus because the final is tomorrow and i missed the last eleven weeks of class) and irritated at the endlessly accumulating details of academic work (Dear Dr. Zimmer, this is a friendly reminder that the due date for the Learning Outcomes Rubrics Departmental Self-Assessment Model is March 23rd) ultimately each one of these individually maddening iterations is just a sign of the incomprehensible sprawl of the medium. And when factored in with texting, messaging, social media, streaming television, and any number of other incoming and outgoing information flows, the sense of being “overwhelmed” seems unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

Email is of course inseparable from the character of any digital labor and the economy of which it is a part: it thus becomes a useful metonymic device to understand how convenience has become so profoundly debilitating. Though no one explicitly states it (because it would sound insane), the demand that we keep up with and process this level of information, and communicate coherently in return, is a demand that the human brain function closer to the speed of digital communications. Needless to say, it does not. Thus the unparalleled levels of prescription of amphetamines and pain medications are not merely the triumph of the pharmaceutical industry, but an attempt to make the human brain and body function alongside and through digital mediation. The relative ease of communications, the instantaneity of information exchange, does not make our lives simpler: it means that we are asked to attend to every goddamn thing that occurs to the countless people we know, institutions we are a part of, and every other organization whose mailing list you have been automatically placed on simply by having a single interaction with them. It’s like being able to hear the internal mutterings of both individual people and cultural constructs: a litany of the needs of others and the expectations of the social sphere (not to mention my own neurotic meanderings when I have to construct a careful response to someone, or an email I have sent goes unanswered). Finding it increasingly impossible to recognize and affectively react only to the articulations of each missive, I respond instead to the cacophonous noise of the whole damn thing. That noise is now constant, while its volume ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the work year. As the only constant, email becomes an end in itself. Email never goes away. Email is an asshole.

It is not surprising that this self-perpetuating mode of interaction comes alongside a proliferation of (self-)assessment and (self-)documentation—talking about what you will, have, or are doing instead of just doing it. Thus the ability to communicate about everything, at all times, seems to have come with the attendant requirements that we accompany every action with a qualitative and quantitative discourse about that action. Inside and in addition to this vast circularity are all those things that one’s job actually entails on a practical, daily basis: all the small questions, all the little tasks that need to be accomplished to make sure a class gets scheduled, a course description is revised, or a grade gets changed. Given how few academic organizations have well-functioning automatic systems that might allow these elements to be managed simply, and that my own university seems especially committed to individually hand-cranking every single gear involved in its operation on an ad hoc basis, most elements of my job mean that emails need to be sent to other people.

Once I send an email, I can do nothing further until someone sends an email back, and thus in a sense, sending that email became a task in itself, a task now completed. More and more it is just a game of hot potato with everyone supposedly moving the task forward by getting it off their desk and onto someone else’s, via email. Every node in this network are themselves fighting to keep up with all their emails, in the back and forth required before anything can actually be done. The irony of the incredible speed of digital mediation is thus that it often results in an intractable slowness in accomplishing simple tasks. (My solution has been to return to the telephone, which easily reduces any 10-email exchange into a 2-minute conversation. Sidenote: I never answer my own phone.)

In case it isn’t already clear, such an onslaught of emails, and the pressure of immediacy exerted sometimes explicitly but mostly by the character of the media, means that we no longer get to leave work (or school, or our friends or our partners). We are always at work, even during time off. The joy of turning on our vacation auto-reply messages is cursory, for even as we cite the “limited access” we will have to email (in, like, Vancouver), we know that we can and will check it. And of course we know that everyone else knows that it’s a lie. Even if we really do take time away from email, making ourselves unavailable (not looking at email, not answering our texts) does not mean email has not been sent to us and is not waiting for us. And we know it, with virtually every fiber of our being. Our practical unavailability does not mitigate our affective understanding that if we ignore email too long, not only will work pile up, but there will be emotional consequences. I can feel the brewing hostility of the email senders: irritated, anxious, angry, disappointed.

Even if I start to relax on one level, on another my own anxiety, irritation, and guilt begin to grow. Email doesn’t go away. It’s never over. It’s the fucking digital Babadook, a relentless, reflexive reminder of the unfathomable mass underlying every small transaction of information.

The nonstop stream of communication and its affective vortex are in part what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and now many others) have described as “societies of control,” distinguished not by discipline but by the constant modulation and management of the flow of information. Ultimately we are exhausted by the endless negotiation of this unmappable terrain, and our personal and professional labors increasingly have the character of merely keeping ourselves afloat. Which is not to say that discipline no longer functions: those excluded from the privilege of control will often find themselves subject to the sharper baton of policing and incarceration.

There does appear to be increasingly widespread recognition that email is having a significant effect on both the amount of work one does and the increasing threat of that work to health and well-being. A widely and enthusiastically misreported news story that France had instituted a ban on sending work email after 6:00pm provided a much-needed salve for the idea that there is no outside to the onslaught. Never mind that this was a wishful, apocryphal version of a French labor agreement that in reality didn’t cut off email at any hour—the story still allowed France to perform its ongoing service as the English-speaking world’s fetish of a superior, butter-drenched, bicycle-riding quality of life, a life in which steak frites is now accompanied by possible escape from a particularly maddening incarnation of digital labor. That life is apparently now the stuff of internet rumor and media fancy.

The range of feelings I associate with the era of my first email account roll on through now and then as I check my inbox, and I could probably name them, though perhaps they were never discrete. And I understand that it is my job as a participant in digital culture to respond to email, and text, and instant messaging—in writing and in sentiment. But the truth is that I am just really tired. Perhaps the vacuum in affect attested to by the accumulation of emoticons and emojis has little to do with the flattening effect of digital communication. Maybe feelings are simply exhausted.

Catherine Zimmer is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies and English at Pace University in New York City. She is the author of Surveillance Cinema (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted on Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books channel.]

‘Fun Home’ and Pride

—Amber Jamilla Musser

MotheralOn June 7th, 2015, the musical Fun Home emerged triumphant. It won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The significance of these wins cannot be overstated. A musical based on a graphic memoir featuring a lesbian, her gay father, and the rest of the family has been thrust into the purview of mainstream America—and really, who can resist having ALL of the feelings when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys?” Moreover, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have made history as the first women to win a Tony for best songwriting team.

It is clear that Fun Home gives people many reasons to be proud, especially in a month when we traditionally celebrate LGBT pride. One of the things that I find most moving about the musical (and the original graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) is the way it actually subverts traditional narratives of pride and shame based on particular understandings of identity and masochism.

One of the conventional understandings of Pride is that it exists to celebrate triumph over homophobia and prejudice against LGBT people. That this narrative privileges a particular form of progress and has been easier for particular segments of the LGBT population is something that has been written about extensively by other queer studies scholars. In this post, I’m more interested in mentioning the ways that this conventional version of identity politics shores up a particular vision of masochism. One of the main arguments in my book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is that the framework that we’ve been using to understand the relationship between individuals and power is masochism. In the book that means various things, but in the context of Pride, it has meant reveling in the wounds that produce LGBT identity—triumph would not be possible if there were no obstacle to overcome and the more wounds that are available, the more visible the triumph and the more celebrated the identity/person.

While I am not the first to describe this relationship between identity, woundedness, and masochism, I argue that this narrative frames our understanding of what it is to be an individual so that those with the privilege of appearing wounded are able to do because they are already part of an assumed arc of redemption and celebration while those whose wounds are less affective and more structural in terms of access to resources cannot access this arc in the same way (see last year’s post on Kara Walker as an example).

On the surface, it would appear as though Fun Home could fall easily into this particular trope, but it smartly sidesteps the arc of progress. In her retrospective gaze at her family life and its relationship to her father’s gayness, Alison (the oldest version of the character that we see) doesn’t pity her father or frame his suicide as the effect of a bygone prejudice that she has been fortunate to avoid. The question is not what would have happened to Bruce Bechdel had he lived in an era when he could live freely as a gay man. Neither is the focus on Alison’s ability to come out as a college student and live as a butch because things are better now. The universe of the musical understands these characters as inhabiting different modes of queerness, but it doesn’t ask us to do a comparison (despite the fact that Bruce commits suicide, which would seem to be the ultimate masochistic act).

Instead, the character whose life we imagine might have been different is Bechdel’s mother, Helen, played achingly by Judy Kuhn, whose song near the end of the show, “Days and Days” is a tearjerker —not because she is self-pitying but because she is resigned. This is structural difference at work. She knows that her suffering does not connect to later progress or triumph, but it does not diminish her work or her pain.

Where does this lacuna of feeling lie in a world structured by suffering or triumph, a world where the individual is a masochist in order to receive redemption through pity? Throughout the musical, we see so many moments when the semi-closeted world that Bruce inhabits that his daughter so desperately wants to remember and connect to, is not uniformly sad; there is fun—a dance with a casket, a furtive sighting of a kindred spirit (the butch that Lucas sings so movingly about). In all, it is not a play about moving through masochism to find identity, but about recognizing the many different notes being played at the same time. The arc of identity need not be neat or masochistic (so as to end in triumph), but it makes one feel, and gives reason for finding different narratives of individuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014).

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.


The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).