23 February 2023

Trans liberation and policy

I have had arguments with opponents of trans liberation countless times, and their policy proposals are always bullshit.

We have to keep trans women out of women’s prisons so imprisoned cis women will be safe from rape and other violence? We have to keep trans women out of women’s bathrooms so those cis women will be safe? Trans women are dangerous to cis women because they are “really” men, so we must enact with trans women … the measures which we now use to “protect” cis women from cis men?

These suggestions are so absurd that it would be laughable were they not so horrifying.

You actually want to protect women from rape and other violence in prison? Address prison conditions, the guards, the pervasive jokes about rape in prison. You actually want to protect women from rape and other violence at large? Deputizing everyone to police who looks masculine or feminine enough to be allowed in a bathroom is not going to help.

I will not claim that TERFs are Not Feminists but I will say that these misdirections are contrary to the most elementary lessons of feminist thought, which registers how the “protections” The Patriarchy offers women against violence from men not only do not work, they enable violence.

Since this blather from opponents of trans liberation about “protecting women” does not respond to real dangers, what is it about? All of it is framed to suggest that the mere presence of trans women is “violence”. For them the existence of trans people is disgusting and a threat. This is simply bigotry. We call it “transphobia” because it is a phobia: a cocktail of dread and disgust.

They will not be satisfied with any of the policies they demand, as they do not advocate those policies on the merits. They propose measures which they hope will sound reasonable to inattentive people, as an instrument to recruit others to the same bigotry which grips them. No practical “safety” measures, no spaces exclusive to cis women, no cruel insults to trans people will suffice for transphobic bigots. Only a world entirely rid of all trans people will do.

One can hear it clearly if one actually listens to what they say. This ultimately genocidal fantasy is what animates the narrow group who are literally trans-exclusive radical feminists, animates the “gender critical feminists” who inherit the arguments of TERFs, and animates their theocrat & reactionary & fascist allies … who want to also eliminate everyone queer and then go on to the countless others who disgust them until there is no one left to help Niemöller when they come for him.

This is why their anecdotes and news stories and statistics and arguments keep turning out to be bad faith misrepresentations, even fabrications. They are not honest, not doing a risk analysis, not presenting the facts which motivate them. Every bit of it is propaganda intended to recruit others to bigotry.

There is no “reasonable compromise” to be had with opponents of trans liberation.

I grant them nothing.

06 February 2023


Around 1990 I went to a talk by Ram Dass and he retold a story about the nature of dharma. I suspect that I do not have all the facts right, but I know that this story is true. It was told to him by a doctor who worked on smallpox vaccinations for the World Health Organization in the 1970s. (I do not recall him saying so, but I believe it must have been Dr. Larry Brilliant.)

The WHO sought to completely eliminate smallpox from the biosphere. (They eventually succeeded.) This was one of those things where reaching 80% of people was 20% of the work and reaching the remaining 20% of people was 80% of the work. Eventually there were just a few pockets of unvaccinated people whom the WHO had mapped.

One of these was a small, remote village in India where the people refused to accept the vaccinations. The doctors had come to the village and explained about smallpox vaccination and the people were horrified by the prospect: they regarded contracting smallpox as a blessing from the goddess शीतला माता.

Being the kind of people who join a WHO project to vaccinate people around the world against smallpox, the doctors feel deeply torn about what to do. On the one hand, they know all the horrors of history which they would be evoking by violating the deep cultural and religious commitments of an isolated, pre-industrial village “for their own good”. On the other hand, eliminating 99.9999% of smallpox and eliminating 100% of smallpox are categorically different things, and enormous human suffering was at stake.

The WHO team spent a long time trying to find a way to get this community to accept the vaccinations, but nothing worked. They were at a true impasse.

The WHO team eventually landed on the side of The Needs Of The Many and went to the village to vaccinate everyone by force. They brought soldiers with them because the plan was to literally grab people and hold them down. They brought a lot of soldiers because they were determined to do this without anyone getting hurt. The process was every bit as wrenching as one would imagine. There were people running and screaming and thrashing as they were held, desperately trying to avoid the vaccination.

In time the deed was done and everything went quiet. What now? The story goes that there was a long moment in which a village elder whom the doctor had talked with at length looked him in the eye, with an emotion he could not place. Not anger. Not sadness. Something else. The old man retreated to his hut and returned with an edible gourd and a large knife. He used the knife to split the gourd. He offered the bigger half to the doctor, and said:

“It is our dharma to know that smallpox is a blessing to be sought. It is your dharma to know that smallpox is a curse to be prevented. Today all of us lived our dharma well. And there are many more of you than there are of us.

“This is what we all knew must happen.

“So now we celebrate.”

And the village held a feast at which the doctors were honored guests.

I am blessed that it was my dharma to go to the talk where Ram Dass told me that story.

03 February 2023

Never feeling hot

This is a re-post of a linkrotted article which I consider important.

It requires a strong caveat. The author, Hugo Schwyzer, was for a time a prolific commentator on the pop feminist internet. I read a fair bit of that body of commentary at the time when it was new. Schwyzer’s contributions struck me as mostly familiar and uninspired; discussing his high profile at the time, a friend suggested that it was largely a matter of the novelty of a fella saying these things at all. And it turned out that he is a thoroughly terrible person. He came close to killing an ex-lover in a drug-soaked murder-suicide attempt, a classic misogynistic abuse pattern. He used his teaching position to sleep with his students. He also used his fame and teaching position as instruments to meet and bed porn performers, which is less morally irresponsible but distinctly tawdry, demonstrating the disingenuousness of the way he used his soapbox. There are numerous credible accounts of his abusive personal behavior in examples large and small. It is unmistakable that he cultivated his position as That Famous Feminist Guy insincerely, to manipulate and exploit people around him.

(I have to also say — though it is not as important as all that — as a fella who endeavors to cultivate a feminist understanding and to live as feminist life as I can, I have a very personal disgust at figures like Schwyzer who sow distrust of men who are sincerely trying to step up.)

And yet. I have a hunger for men doing feminist-informed criticial reflection on the ways that The Thing Feminists Are Talking About When We Say “The Patriarchy” harms men. Out of wariness that this move can be used to dismiss the way the blade of Patriarchy harms women more, we tend to handwave when talking about the edge which does cut men. We need to do better. A feminist aphorism says that in our encounters with sexuality in our culture, we face a profound gulf of incomprehension between women who are drowning in being constantly sexualized versus men walking through an arid desert. Schwyzer has a contribution to that question which I do not entirely agree with, but consider worth one’s time to consider.

Of never feeling hot: the missing narrative of desire in the lives of straight men

I’ve been thinking this week about the experience — or lack thereof — of being the object of other’s desire. Two different posts got the wheels turning: Girls, Both Real and Otherwise by Daisy B., and Figleaf’s Unforseen Consequences of Men Believing Themselves Unseen. Both Daisy and Fig, in different ways, talk about alienation from their own bodies, at least as they appear to others (and, in a sense, to themselves). I recommend both posts.

In feminist circles, it’s common to talk about the tremendous damage that objectification does to women of all ages and adolescent girls in particular. Many young women remember a moment (painful, terrifying, or, perhaps less often, full of wonder) when they realized that they were the object of another’s sexual desire. Even more women have memories of being sent the mixed message of how both to entice desire (lessons on how to apply make-up, how to dress “sexy” taught at a young age) and how to avoid appearing either “slutty” or “ugly.” (the distinction, of course, is a shifting and elusive one.) For better or for worse, most young women grow up with a cultural awareness that their generally speaking, women’s bodies (though perhaps not their own) are intensely desirable to boys and men; strategies for managing that desire are much-discussed facets of women’s magazines, the advertising industry, and conversation.

But we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful as well as functional. Our cultural discourse about young men teaches that managing their own (presumably insatiable) sexual desire is the defining task of their adolescence. A “jock discourse” that encourages young men to “score” with as many women as possible and an “abstinence discourse” which encourages young men to restrain themselves heroically have essentially the same perspective: your job as a man is to channel your libido, either into sexual conquests or radical restriction. Both discourses center male desire, just as most discourses aimed at young women teach teenage girls how to gain, manage, and direct that same titanic force. The missing element, of course, is the idea that female desire can be directed towards men in general, and towards their bodies in particular.

There’s some explicitness below the fold. Use your own judgment about proceeding.

At first glance, it seems that this argument is oversold. In my high school youth groups and gender studies classes, women — when the environment is safe — often admit to “looking.” There are spaces, more and more perhaps, in which women can acknowledge that a visually-stimulated libidinousness is not solely the province of the be-penised. Television shows like “Sex and the City” and “Gray’s Anatomy” make female desire a central feature of the dialogue — though of course, and this is critically important, the men who are obviously longed for are strikingly good-looking in some fairly obvious ways. Most young men grow up with what might be called the “Brad Pitt Discourse”: the idea that a small subset of particularly attractive men are the objects of women’s desire. But despite the abundant evidence that women’s desire is directed towards an extraordinarily diverse set of physical “types”, few men in our culture grow up with the sense that their bodies could be longed for and wanted.

Gay male desire, of course, is desire directed towards other men. Young gay men will, presumably, sense what it is to be wanted in a way that their straight peers will not. Of course, both gay men and women have been taught to be very careful about being obvious about their desire for straight men — the very real threats of homophobic violence and slut-shaming serve as effective controls, controls which (among many other things) rob young straight men of the strangely wonderful, albeit often disconcerting experience of being wanted.

I’ve written before about my sexual past with men. Most of my fleeting adolescent experiences with guys were with men considerably older than myself. And one of the things that drew me to them was, of course, my attraction to their obvious attraction to me. In high school and even in college, I felt clumsy; nerdy; awkward. Even after I had a girlfriend and a budding sexual history with women, I had never seen and felt obvious and intense desire for me from a female partner. I remember that the first time an older man made me — geeky Hugo — feel wanted, even craved, I felt a rush of elation and relief so great it made me cry. The sex I had with him was not based on my desire for him; rather, I wanted to make him feel good out of my own colossal gratitude for how he had made me feel with his words and his gaze. I was a bi-curious straight boy who had never felt someone ache for him — and the first time that happened, I was floored. Afterwards, this man (about the age I am now, a thought that discomfits me a bit) ran his fingers across every inch of my body, murmuring flattery of the kind I had never heard from a woman’s lips.

My early sexual experiences with men and women were deeply affected by these discourses about desire. I knew my first girlfriend and I were “in love” before we ever slept together; our sex, initially fumbling, became both easier and much more fulfilling over time. But when I thought about what made our sex good for her, I assumed that it was a combination of her emotional attachment to me and my own burgeoning proficiency as a lover. In other words, I assumed that my skill and our shared romance worked together to “make her have” an orgasm — because that’s what the discourse taught me. Neither of us had a vocabulary for anything else. She said encouraging things like “You make me feel so good.” When I first was with this older man, he said something that rocked me: “You’re so hot, you make me want to come.”

What a mammoth distinction between those two phrases! The idea that I could be sufficiently attractive to someone that his own desire could overwhelm him was beyond flattering — it was truly revelatory. And when I replayed what had happened between us, all that remained in my memory for years was my recollection of those words and how they made me feel. That distinction between how these two people described what was happening sexually isn’t unique, I think — it captures something real about the ways in which our cultural attitudes shape our vocabulary and experience of desire and being desired.

It took me years to unlearn these discourses, and years before I would experience being desired — in the most obvious visual sense — by someone other than a gay man.

In a men’s group a dozen years ago or more, I first read Delmore Schwartz’s famous The Heavy Bear, a devastating poem about what it is to be embodied. We read it to stimulate a discussion about male self-loathing; every lad in the room identified, at least in part, with what it meant to go through puberty feeling “in love with candy, anger, and sleep”, feeling the grossness and imperiousness of the body, a body which distorts the real self, making it into a “stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” We teach our sons that it’s okay for boys to be dirty, to be heavy, lumbering, hungry bears. Feminists often frame that, rightly, as male privilege — it’s easier to live as a slave to impulse than to deny it altogether, as girls (who must be “everything nice”) are forced to. At the same time, many young men grow up with a keen sense of their own awkwardness, their own clumsiness, their own sense that their bodies are repulsive. The idea that someone could long for all of that shaking, raging, farting, sweating bundle of energy seems impossible; who could possibly want to touch this? Who could possibly be turned on by something so evidently unappealing?

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired and longed for for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their tongue or their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but worthy of longing. As Fig points out:

Since (the) Rules of Desire are problematic, and since they conspire to make us (men) feel undesirable for any reason but the worthiness of our accomplishments or status (largely, I believe, as a byproduct of accommodating other of men’s preferences), it’s just one more barrier that needs to fall before gender equality is really gonna work. And not because men should be objectified equally to women (wrong direction) but because not understanding that we can appear as physically attractive leads us to go a little overboard on the worthiness front. From which much hilarity does not ensue.

Indeed. The very real hurt, the very real rage, that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and very destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego. The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted. That was precious indeed, and far too few men have known it.

01 February 2023

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

I once had a dream in which someone explained a secret theme in the final episode of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”, and when I woke it was still a good observation.

(Mild spoilers for the episode, and for M*A*S*H in general.)

I grew up watching M*A*S*H, and stumbling across it again in recent years I find that it holds up better than a lot of old TV. The laugh track now seems awkward, and the sexual harassment of the nurses is gross, but the stories and jokes still mostly work if you can get into its groove.

I accidentally stumbled into seeing the final episode again a while back, for the first time since it was originally broadcast in my early teens. It dazzled me when it was new, but I expected to be disappointed.

I was not. It is amazing, one of the the very best things I have ever seen done for broadcast television.

M*A*S*H was always transparently a drama about the Vietnam War disguised as a sitcom set in the Korean War. (They eventually made that actual show.) In the final episode M*A*S*H magically, seamlessly lifts one of those veils and turns from a half-hour sitcom into a feature-length drama. That this works at all is some of the craftiest TV ever done, and it works well.

M*A*S*H was made in the era of rigorously episodic television: at the end of the episode its story is over, but the core characters and their situation remain suspended in stasis, never changing. “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” recruits the entire series to treats it as just Act I, following through to closure for each of the principal characters. The cleverest of these is the story it gives to Klinger, a one-gag character in most episodes, who gets a beautiful, surprising final act.

What I only realized years after seeing “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was the meaning of Hawkeye’s story. We start with him in a mental hospital. (I remember my mother half-joking that it was small wonder, since he had gone through eleven years of war.) He has had some kind of breakdown, and beloved occasional recurring character Sidney The Shrink is there trying to sort him out.

Sidney employs a style of talk therapy which only exists in plays, TV shows, and movies. He has Hawkeye talk through the Key Incident That Broke His Mind again and again, seeking an elusive hidden truth which once revealed will enable therapy to restore his santiy. Each time Hawkeye tells the story, it plays out a little differently, getting him closer to him facing the truth of what happened. In the first telling, Hawkeye is on a bus with a bunch of people passing around a bottle of whiskey, everyone having a high old time. Sidney The Shrink calls bullshit. Wait, that was not a bottle of whiskey; that was a bottle of plasma for a wounded soldier. Then again. They were not happy, they were terrified.

I won’t spoil the final truth that Hawkeye eventually remembers. It is brutal, one of the gutsiest things ever put on broadcast television.

Here's the thing I realized, decades later: Hawkeye's realization that he wasn't on the party bus, he was on the horror bus? That is M*A*S*H. War is not a sitcom. War is horror. Before bringing down the curtain, the show admitted that it had been lying all along, giving us what we could handle.

Right there in plain sight.