Friday, October 31, 2014

Sylvia Plath, Unconventional Gay Icon

Gay icons, as regularly defined, are frequently campy, eccentric women in the entertainment industry. The first that comes to mind is Cher and, more recently, Lady Gaga. But they are far from the only ones. My favorite gay icon is Sylvia Plath. If identification with the self is what ultimately makes a gay icon, Plath is a no-brainer for me. The two of us struggled with bipolar disorder, a failed suicide attempt, and possessed an compulsion to pack every minute full of productivity. This spurred us onward, but came at a great cost, hers more than mine.

While in college, I routinely drove from Birmingham to Atlanta to visit a friend who was enrolled in art school. The school provided recording equipment to its students and was deserted during the weekend, allowing the two of us nearly unlimited access to the premises. On Saturday mornings, we lugged my amp, two guitars, and a bass guitar up temporary wooden scaffolding. The adjacent art museum was being remodeled. The art college was housed in the same building as the symphony orchestra. It seemed like an odd place for students to congregate, much less take classes.

A new musician proficient on the keyboards joined us during one marathon session that started early and ended shortly before the building closed for the night. He was openly gay. When I launched into an impromptu spoken word version of "Lady Lazarus", he immediately joined in with me, word for word, much to my surprise. Around the same time, I viewed the US version of the Showtime television show Queer as Folk, which identified Plath as an especially important influence upon the lives and consciousness of queer men.

In my role as unofficial Plath scholar, I've read several biographies of Sylvia Plath, some sympathetic, some not. Second-wave feminists of the 1960's and 1970's saw her life and situation as tragic, one ended early because of her husband's infidelity and heartless behavior. This is an enticing proposition and I understand their beliefs, even if I might disagree somewhat with their conclusions.

Ted Hughes was far from an angel. That much is true. He was physically and emotionally abusive from time to time, a demanding partner. And yet, some believe that this rough treatment was perversely what she wanted. During his life, women's rights activists defiantly interrupted Hughes' poetry readings until being quickly escorted out. Those with the same beliefs have chiseled her married name "Hughes" from Plath's tombstone on at least three separate occasions. Hughes did himself no favors, and his own erratic behavior and poor judgment at the time of his wife's death did nothing to exonerate him from any culpability in his wife's death.

And yet, to show Plath without any fault herself is incorrect. She could be curt and spiteful, sarcastic, and utterly tactless, but to excuse her neuroses would be oversimplifying matters considerably. It is curious that a strong personality like hers possessed sexual fantasies and desires that might seemingly be more in keeping with someone else. She had always fantasized about being physically dominated by her partner, but boyfriends prior to Hughes had taken a submissive role. Sylvia really wanted to be picked up bodily by a strong, virile man and to be completely ravaged by him in bed.

One wonders if she had lived in a time where topics like BDSM and consensual sadomasochism were more commonplace, whether she would have articulated her desires with more detail. Prior to Hughes, relationships terminated and began at her insistence, not theirs. Most of the men who courted her fell madly in love, and she resisted committing solely to any of them, instead bouncing back and forth between three or so at the same time. What Hughes meant to Plath is somewhat unclear, but he brought out animalistic impulses in her. Upon their first meeting, she famously bit his cheek hard enough to draw blood.

But to return to this question of gay icon, one I have raised before, there must be some sort of commonality that draws us to the same faces and motifs. Words and concepts alone may be insufficient explanations. Plath's tragic death has overshadowed almost everything else. Her confessional brand of poetry, best expressed in the style used in her last batch of poems entitled Ariel, would lead the reader to believe that her primary means of poetic expression was macabre and haunted.

Her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, has moments of mirthful humor mixed in with an intense account of the mental breakdown that nearly kills her protagonist, Esther Greenwood. To call Plath a ticking time bomb is unfair to those who struggle with mental illness. I have undergone my own tragedies, but they did not break me. Instead, they made me stronger. Plath never had the opportunity to defend herself or explain her motives. Few external factors have pushed me to the breaking point. I have made no suicide pacts and I possessed the strength to cry out for help when I was at my worst.

The controversial 2003 movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, shows a conversation between Ted Hughes and Sylvia's mother, Aurelia Plath. In it, Aurelia implies strongly to Ted that her daughter is emotionally unbalanced, referencing her earlier suicide attempt. She is to be watched closely. Aurelia wants Ted to know her full medical history before committing to a relationship with her daughter. This desire to humanize Hughes likely never happened.

Hughes' infidelity, according to the conventional wisdom, was the end of his wife. She flew into a rage, plowed through all the stages of grief, and felt thoroughly betrayed. It is possible that this time-honored theory is entirely correct, but there are others. It is true that she was left to care for two small children by herself during the worst winter in decades. It was only at the very end of her life that she began taking antidepressant medication, which take weeks to work effectively. Plath was at the end of her rope by then, disinclined to wait any longer.

Mental illness can be triggered by stress and cruelty, but the circumstances that led to my own near-death experience came out of nowhere. About the same time my first episode began, when I was 16, my mother told me that she knew something was wrong with me almost immediately after I was born. I cried too frequently, I was too tightly wound, I would get easily overstimulated, and I startled easily.

Plath was never formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but because she kept an extensive letter correspondence with many people, especially her mother, it is possible to make a more-or-less accurate posthumous diagnosis. Records indicate several periods of debilitating depression. Stress lowered her immune system's effectiveness and led to a series of sinus infections. Depression and physical illness often occur simultaneously.

I ask again. What is so entrancing in the queer mind about someone who left behind great promise, who never even reached middle age? Is it her defiant femininity, or the ferocity of her writing? I identify routinely with the feminine side of myself, finding something compelling about unorthodox women with unique talent. Sylvia Plath is that, for certain.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Space Oddity

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom (Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (Five, Four, Three)
Check ignition and may God's love be with you (Two, One, Liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare

"This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today"

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do

Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go

Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Can you "Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Manuscript Progress

News arrived from the editor of the literary journal where I submitted a short story. The editor remains interested in the piece, but I have additional work to do prior to publication. She made two key suggestions. It was her judgment that my story read more like an essay than conventional fiction. Additionally, she highlighted instances in the text that, in her opinion, told rather than showed. According to her guidelines, the story will need to be completely reworked.

I'm left with a bit of a quandary. I began blogging eight years ago, whereupon the short essay was the preferred medium. First person narrative is my strength, and now I've been asked to go outside my comfort zone. I'm unsure of precisely how to proceed, but I've been giving it thought. This same story is in competition elsewhere in its current form. I have faith in my original vision. Being that I have other options available to me is my ace in the hole.

Telling versus sharing was of paramount importance to me when I was in college writing workshop. Believe it or not, I began my writing career as a poet. My mentor while in undergrad was a poet by trade, and I took two of his very challenging workshops because I respected him so highly. My natural form, I quickly came to understand, is prose rather than the poetic form. And yet I have retained my affinity for clever wordplay and irony.

For the next few weeks, I'm going to post here a little less frequently. I have a thousand loose ends to tie up. In particular, I spent yesterday taking a one-page outline and expanding it to a four page story draft. I have about five rough outlines that need completing, most of which I post here in embryonic form. That said, away I go.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Speed Trials

He's pleased to meet you underneath the horse
In the cathedral with the glass stained black
Singing sweet high notes that echo back
To destroy their master

May be a long time 'til you get the call-up
But it's sure as fate and hard as your luck
No one'll knows where you are
It's just a brief smile crossing your face

Running speed trials standing in place

When the socket's not a shock enough
You little child what makes you think you're tough?
And all the people you think you're above
They all know what's the matter

You're such a pinball yeah you know it's true
There's always something you come back running to
Follow the path of no resistance

It's just a brief smile crossing your face
Running speed trials standing in place
It's just a brief smile crossing your face
Running speed trials all over the place

Monday, October 27, 2014

Transgender Lives, Transgender Rhetoric

I am proud of my house of worship in many ways, but its progressive stance towards LGBTs is a major reason why. Organized religion has unnecessarily wounded many queer attenders to Worship, but I have long believed that God is available to all and draws no distinctions based on sexual orientation or gender identity. My Meetinghouse is located in an area that began life highly affluent and trendy, grew rough and became a gay ghetto, then returned to prominence in more recent years. I work with several people who identify as LGBT and will continue to do so as frequently as I do now.

Over the past several weeks, I've gotten to know three transgender Quakers, seeking an emphasis upon active listening. I don't want to be praised for doing my homework, but I do want to continue being an effective ally. Everyone's story is different, but there are many commonalities between each of us that I seek to underscore in this dialog.

Transsexualism has become increasingly politicized for at least the last decade, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, liberal activist overkill should be avoided whenever possible. Midway through my discussions, which I hoped would prove me intensely literate on the topic, one transwoman cut our talk short. I don't really want to talk about being trans anymore. It wasn't said nastily, but matter-of-factly instead. She changed the subject and our conversation took a very different direction from there.

I was, of course, embarrassed with my choice of topic and how I had persisted. I had hoped this command of subject would make her feel that I genuinely cared. I even apologized, but was told that apologies were not necessary. It was an awkward moment for me, since I have slowly stored up knowledge of those who do not easily fit into the narrowly defined parameters of male or female. In Gender Studies terminology, we might call that behavior gender non-conforming. For many activists, throwing oneself into a crusade is easy enough, but crusades can become us versus them without much difficulty.

For a moment, I felt as though I'd become the personification of the good, back-patting, well-meaning liberal. One of my favorite movies is called Fritz the Cat. The first X-rated cartoon, it gets in some effective digs on white progressives who want to be praised for their virtuously tolerant attitudes and are unintentionally condescending in spite of themselves.

I have slowly come to terms with the fact that my gender has no clear association with either male or female. A brief glance at my exterior would seem to negate that view. I'm six feet tall with broad shoulders, a long torso, and copious body hair. Nothing about my physical presentation is feminine in the least. Engage me in conversation, however, and it is possible to have some understanding of how I am neither male, nor masculine.

The transwoman I referenced earlier began taking Estrogen around a month ago. Her voice has dropped an octave since then. Prior to transition, I would have called her gender ambiguous, so her path towards passing as a woman would be far easier than my own. A second transwoman is two inches taller than me and has the same sort of broad shouldered physique that I do. But it is a testament to her diligence and outward work that I never made the connection of where she began until someone else let me know.

I seem to have gone in the exact opposite direction. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with hypogonadism, which in laymen's terms is a medical state of abnormally low levels of testosterone. I inject testosterone in oil form into the muscles of my thigh once a week. Testosterone Replacement Therapy converts some T into Estrogen. Because of this, I take a pill to lower my Estrogen levels to manageable levels.

What I have been taking is a regimen a female-to-male transsexual might pursue. When picking up the prescription for the Estrogen reducer, months ago, a pharmacy worker responded to me in a hostile, or at least sarcastic fashion. My pharmacy ID was typed in wrongly, and I have been registered as Ms. rather than Mr. in their computer system for the past six years. I could have had it changed, but a part of me feels comfortable being female, so I have no intention to make a correction.

Whatever it is you call yourself, said the jaded pharmacist, handing over another month's worth of medication and a receipt. It's difficult to assign true motives to a total stranger, but I surmised that he felt that insurance shouldn't cover medication for those undergoing transition. I rarely encounter transphobic attitudes, but I live in an overwhelmingly blue city. Deep into Virginia or Maryland, respecting gender identity would not be assigned the same priority.

In the meantime, I'm still learning about myself. One of the transwomen I spoke of earlier said that the more she stuffed down and denied her gender dissonance, the stronger those desires came back. I'm not sure this describes me entirely. Gay men and women routinely identify as the opposite gender to their own, even going as far as wearing clothing designed for the opposite sex.

One of the lesbians at Meeting stands out because she's a ravenous football fan and wears the jersey of her favorite NFL team every Sunday. If I had more courage, I might add additional elements of women's clothing beyond those which I do already. And if this ever became a topic for discussion with someone else, I could keep it going for hours, if necessary.

Analysis is my stock in trade, but I do recognize that focusing on specific part of a person's identity becomes a presentation of facts, figures, conjecture, and emphasis. Personal anecdote is more important, because it makes our understanding three-dimensional, not the two-dimensional world of continued emphasis and keystrokes.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quote of the Week

"I am not bothered by the fact that I am not understood. I am bothered when I do not know others."-Confucius.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Legalizing Marijuana in Washington, DC

In ten days, disillusioned Americans will be privy to a low-turnout election, one that will showcase massive voter apathy. The ballot in the District of Columbia will elect a new mayor, retain and replace city council members, and elect shadow representatives who would take power immediately upon the passage of DC statehood. Turnout here is likely to be as light as in many polling precincts in the country.

One portion of the ballot has created some buzz in the city, at least, if not in the country. Initiative 71, if enacted, which is likely, would further decriminalize marijuana. DC's proposed initiative would not go as far as Colorado's, because it does not legalize dealing, establish places to purchase the drug, or set out the means to accumulate a stockpile of pot with the intent to distribute. The major rationale for passing the ordinance would be to prevent youth of color from being jailed for minor offenses.

This initiative, if passed, will make it lawful under District of Columbia law for a person 21 years of age or older to:

possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use;
grow no more than six cannabis plants with 3 or fewer being mature, flowering plants, within the person’s principal residence;
transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older; and
use or sell drug paraphernalia for the use, growing, or processing of marijuana or cannabis.

Being that growing one's own marijuana would be the only legal way to obtain it, many DC residents will no doubt try their hand. Those who grow pot illegally recognize that marijuana can be a fussy crop needing lots of care and attention. The average citizen may find himself or herself quickly frustrated. Marijuana is not a house plant, though for a time I predict it will grace the window sills of many apartments and houses.

Opinion polls have showed the measure sailing through into enactment without much difficulty. Being that the District of Columbia is under the ultimate authority of the U.S. Congress, some speculation holds that Congress will strike down the law. Whether it does or not is unclear. Initiative 71 does invalidate federal drug policy, by strict definition, but Congress is wary of seeming high-handed in city politics.

A poll in January of this year showed a clear majority for legalization/decriminalization. 63% approve, while only 34% oppose. One wonders if the next legislative step, whenever that might be, would fully legalize marijuana. I myself will vote Yes, even though I have not used pot for recreational purposes in ten years. I don't imagine I will resume my earlier practice for the rest of my life, as it is associated in my mind with being a teenager and, following that, being a college student.

Obtaining the drug legally, under the current language, will be a pain and it provides only hollow consolation. It would still be possible to be arrested for purchasing marijuana from someone else, or making overtures to an undercover cop. One expects that the police might be inclined to turn their head and focus on other business when it comes to the sale and purchase of marijuana. Indeed, in my own life, being assigned a low-priority by law enforcement is the only way I likely escaped being arrested on several occasions for simple possession.

Cannabis was integral to the counterculture of the Sixties, and like many children of baby boomer parents, few of us see much wrong with the practice. One of my few reservations is a concern over the tar inhaled by the smoker, which vastly exceeds that of tobacco. Other, healthier ways of consuming cannabis exist, but this country must first be willing to acknowledge the extent of the hypocrisy of its drug policy. It goes much deeper than this so-called gateway drug.

I agree that young black men are bait for an overzealous prison system, but this argument has always appeared like a half-measure. I would like to believe that fewer drug convictions would unclog the wheels of justice and remove the log-jam, but the cynical side of me questions whether one single ballot initiative can make even a dent. Progress will come slowly to many states and regions and the scourge of racism combined with drug policy is a complicated one.