Thursday, December 2, 2010
Sarah Vowell gives us a history of the Puritans written in a style meant to appeal to mass popular culture while chastising Americans for their distorted notion of their nation as a “Puritan nation,” because, unlike today’s Americans, “Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary” (13). Specifically, The Wordy Shipmates covers the period between 1629 and 1640, focusing on John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson as a means to explain the origin of concepts such as American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, freedom of religion, and equality for all along with major themes in political and civic discourse such as the ongoing debate over public and private which have haunted the country since that period. Many readers accustomed to more rigorous histories will find The Wordy Shipmates controversial; ultimately Sarah Vowell produces a good read but she commits a myriad of factual errors and fails to use a historical lens when approaching her subject. This leaves room for doubts concerning the rest of what she says, especially since nothing is cited. I feel she does not accomplish what she sets out to do due to the lack of structural clarity, lack of a strong thesis, or a well constructed argument. Sarah Vowell’s argument lacks the accessibility she brings to her text, which ultimately renders her book confusing.
In The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell highlights the inconsistency she sees in our seeming obsession with being a “Puritan nation” given the fact that the Puritan movement was a scholarly, academic movement while the current state of our nation’s knowledge of its own history is anything is not. Perry Miller, one of the few sources Vowell actually acknowledges in her book, wrote that “Puritanism was a learned, scholarly movement that required knowledge and a respect for the cultural heritage” (15). Ms. Vowell goes on to contrast that Puritan mindset with the contemporary public’s knowledge of its own history, mostly learned from the mass media of the Boomer Generation, the Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Mr. Ed, or what Ms. Vowell refers to as the “Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history” (20). Ms. Vowell’s point here is that this is not a recent sin, but one which has been with us since at least Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish”, and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” both of which are full of historical inaccuracies. So part of Ms. Vowell’s project is correcting the historical mythology through her own mass media version of the story of the Puritans. The question then becomes, how accurate is Ms. Vowell’s interpretation?
Ms. Vowell warns us to be careful of judging the Puritans, to realize they were born before the Age of Reason, and to therefore use a historical lens when pondering their thoughts and actions (22). If only Ms. Vowell would take her own advice. Ms. Vowell ponders how often politicians reference the “City on a Hill” passage from John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon, especially politicians such as Sandra Day O’Connor and John F. Kennedy who, as Ms. Vowell puts it, would cause Winthrop to roll over in his grave if he knew such people (a woman and a Catholic) held power. Ms. Vowell seems to have forgotten what she had reminded us of earlier, that times and attitudes do change. Ms. Vowell also decides from reading Roger William’s and William Wood’s thoughts on native life, that being a native woman in seventeenth century New England must have been harder than being either a white woman or a native man. Her opinion is based on the fact that native women did all of the agricultural labor and apparently were so accustomed to extraordinarily heavy labor that for them, childbirth was not difficult at all. As Carol Berkin explains in her book, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, this is an entirely white Eurocentric view which has been discounted by historians who have learned that they must handle cautiously what was written by Europeans about Native Americans, viewing them as artifacts of European’s adjustments to cultural diversity rather than as true guides to native cultures (57).
The second motif of Sarah Vowell’s book is the concept of our nation as a chosen people, a beacon of righteousness as an example for the world. Ms. Vowell claims the most obvious and most used example is the “City on a Hill” passage from Winthrop’s sermon, which Ms. Vowell tells us was not published until 1838, just in time for John L. Sullivan to declare that the United States had a right to all of Oregon due to America’s “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us . . .” In fact, as Ms. Vowell points out, Winthrop’s sermon created absolutely no stir in 1630 when he delivered it to the Puritans who were New England bound (35). The problem with Ms. Vowell’s rendering is that John L. Sullivan was not even born until 1858, and then went on to become known as the Boston Strong Boy and the first heavyweight boxing champion of the world. It was John L. O’Sullivan who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in the July/August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.
That glaring error aside, Ms. Vowell’s point is that we dig no deeper into Winthrop’s sermon than the City on a Hill passage. Winthrop’s call was for a communitarian ethos where everyone works together and gets along, where everyone is responsible for each other and where some must be rich, some poor. Not exactly what our founding fathers had in mind 146 years later when they declared that all men are created equal. It is also an ethos which has a darker side . . . especially the part about being responsible for each other when you consider everyone needed to live up to Puritan moral standards. Nor do we critically analyze our own hubristic project in the world. The Puritans’ arrogant view as being God’s chosen people was tempered by the Puritan self-loathing sense of reckoning and the Calvinistic urge to watch over themselves and each other. As Ms. Vowell puts it, “the United States is still a city on a hill; and it’s still shining--because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation” (72). There are moments like these in Sarah Vowell’s book which are truly brilliant.
Another such seemingly brilliant moment is when Ms. Vowell discusses Anne Hutchinson’s project for moving Protestantism further towards a more personal relationship with God, not only linking the democratization of religion to political democratization but also linking the shedding of the need for authority (the idea one need not listen to a clergy to achieve salvation) to a dangerous disregard for expertise. This anti-intellectual impulse, persistent throughout American history at least since the Jacksonian era, leads us to elect leaders who are “wisecracking good ol’ boy[s] . . . instead of a serious thinker who knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed” (215). I ask myself if these are really Ms. Vowell’s ideas. This passage sounds remarkably similar to one of Richard Hofstadler’s theses in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (74).
In the end, Sarah Vowell tells us that it is not too late to begin again by quoting John F. Kennedy’s speech to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Kennedy told us he was guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates and “ask[s] for y[our] help and y[our] prayers, as I embark on this new and solemn journey” (248). This, Ms. Vowell reminds us, was a new beginning and Kennedy was not alone. If only she had stated this at the beginning of her book, or at least on page 24, where she tells us the most important reason she is writing what she does is because “the country I live in is haunted by the Puritan’s vision of themselves as God’s chosen people.” Ms. Vowell seems to use her book as a series of long essays in which she develops her arguments and then arrives at her conclusion, a way of writing which tends to leave the reader somewhat baffled. Fortunately, Sarah Vowell is a good enough writer that she is able to string the unwary reader along.
Ms. Vowell admits she is a fan of the Puritans and finds them fascinating. She has some excellent notions regarding our national fixation with the Puritans, our national self-image, and the reality of our current situation. I fear that is not enough to redeem The Wordy Shipmates. A major problem with Ms. Vowell’s book is its multitudinous factual errors and failure to use a historical lens. I am left wondering how many other errors occur in her book that I am not aware of. Additionally, while Ms. Vowell admittedly is tackling a complex subject (a historical overview of the Puritan’s Great Migration based on John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson as well as a critical analysis of our nation’s relationship with the Puritan ethos) she fails to present a strong thesis up front, so she is therefore unable to develop an understandable argument and seems to come to a conclusion by way of writing her book. I would hand this book back to Ms. Vowell, asking her how this is an example of her intellectual vigor, and demand a re-write.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
It’s quiet after the gays go home.
Early Sunday morning finds me at work at my job as a waiter in a small “family” run 24-hour diner in the heart of San Francisco’s famous Castro district, a position I have held long enough to see the neighborhood slowly evolve from being 100 percent gay male to being what it is now, a historic district and tourist destination as well as the home of a few long term gay residents and many more newly arrived, young, privileged, white, mostly heterosexual couples with strollers and children. My first table this Sunday morning is a couple, a black man and a white woman, both young, they sport a hip look, he with short cropped dread-locks, her wearing crystals and amulets along with her diaphanous silk pastels. Approaching their table, I great them with my standard, “Good morning, how are you today?” The man looks at me, smiles broadly, and replies, “Great, I love Sunday mornings, it’s always so quiet after all the gays go home.”
Now, I am sure I am not “straight acting,” to use the parlance of homosexuals who seek a certain “type” of masculine male. I, who sport a shaved head, a full grown long beard, a rather large septum piercing, three-quarter inch earplugs, and always wear a kilt or skirt and a phallic crystal around my neck, could never be mistaken for an assimilationist nor, I think, a heterosexual. I just do not pass. And I do consider “the Castro” my home, having migrated here over three decades ago in an attempt to locate a Queer community, a Queer safe space I could call home. This man’s statement, then, as to why he loved Sunday mornings so much sent me off into an exploration a series of events which occurred over the course of the previous few weeks, events which by themselves had caused me some caution, some reflection, some despair.
Being called a faggot in my own neighborhood
One of the people I have become since my migration to the Castro is a nudist activist. As a nudist, I believe that our bodies are gifts, aspects of our humanness, which we have managed to lose touch with, not something to be seen as obscene or shameful. Our bodies are our primal connection to nature and an important aspect of what should be part of our social dialogue with all of nature, with the living biosphere, which we have managed to shut ourselves away from with the compulsive wearing of clothing. To be ashamed of our bodies, to insist on the mandatory covering of our bodies, is the height of self-hatred. So I have begun to go about naked, as there is no law in San Francisco banning public nudity. When the weather is nice, I will remove my clothing when leaving work and walk home naked, or when I have errands to run in the neighborhood, I will do them naked. I, and others like me, have managed to overcome initial police resistance and seem to have managed to educate them to the fact that being naked is not illegal and, in fact, a citation will not result in a prosecution by the district attorney’s office. Of course I receive a wide range of reactions when I go about naked, most of which I am happy to say are positive. It is the negative that always stand out, however.
I was walking home from work on the Saturday prior to hearing this black man’s statement about why he loved Sunday mornings so much, naked, when I heard “Faggot,” yelled at me from a car traveling down Castro Street. As I reached the corner, a gay man walked by me and exclaimed, “That’s disgusting.” I think I am safe in assuming a heterosexual yelled, “faggot”. I have encountered this reaction in the past. Initially I thought how funny that simple nudity would be a signifier of gayness for some heterosexual body-phobic. On further examination I arrived at the conclusion that in actuality what was being addressed with the epithet “faggot” was my deviation from the perceived normative path. By walking down the street naked, I was queering what it meant to be a citizen in public on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, the violence inherent in the epithet did not go unnoticed. But the remark from the gay man saddened me in a way the violence of the word “faggot” could not. For a gay man to be so challenged by Queerness speaks volumes to the state of disarray I perceive in the LGBTQ community today.
Queer bashing in the news
That week’s news had been filled with articles stressing the grief, horror, and outrage over the recent spate of teen suicides by LGBTQ youth as a direct result of bullying and heterosexist attacks. I use the term heterosexist rather than homophobic, as a phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something. I do not believe these attacks and violence are motivated by irrational fear as much as by disgust as well as being a method of policing behaviors. Following these reports come news of a man beaten during a heterosexist attack in the restroom of the Stonewall Inn by two men and finally, nine men kidnap, torture, and sodomize three men because they assume they are gay. As much as I empathize with the pain and the outrage being felt over these deaths and attacks, the historian in me must articulate the long history of LGBTQ youth bullying, violence, and suicide which has been largely ignored by the media until now and I must ask myself why? Where was the concern, the media attention before?
Media coverage, media outrage springs from acceptance
An indifferent media was not the only problem in the past. An indifferent police force existed as well. We have witnessed a very gradual, decades long shift of police tactics away from raiding LGBTQ spaces to one of responding to violence directed at LGBTQ people. This shift in the institutional treatment of LGBTQ people came about only after resistance from LGTBQ people along with a demand for acceptance by LGTBQ people, a resistance and demand that are still occurring. Along with this resistance and demanding came visibility and knowing. Heterosexuals came to know LGBTQ people, and with that knowing came gradual acceptance, and progress. Over the past few decades, there is no question that much progress has been made for LGBTQ people.
But it is an acceptance that is gained on heteronormative terms. An acceptance which demands what Lisa Duggan refers to in her book, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack On Democracy, as “homonormativity, . . . a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them.” It is a homonormativity which demands gay men tell me my naked public body is disgusting; which demands all gays and lesbians support the political movement du jour, marriage and the military; which demands LGBTQ folks become consumers of a corporatized market seemingly tailored for them but which in actuality seeks to reshape the LGBTQ community to a malleable corporate citizen which does not question corporate capitalist violence. It is a homonormativity that has rendered Queer space invisible; destroying once vibrant Queer neighborhoods in favor of bland, touristy neighborhoods of “historical significance” inhabited by young, urban, wealthy, and predominantly white heterosexuals and homonormative homosexuals.
I have witnessed this shift occur in the place I call home, the place which had been my safe Queer space. It has become less tolerant, less a safe space in which to be Queer while it has instituted a capitalist led program of redefining what that space is in an attempt to lure tourist and consumer dollars. Daily sweeps of the new Castro Commons, soon to become the “Jane Warner Plaza,” named after a special patrol officer much beloved by the merchants who was known for bullying Queer homeless youth, clear any persons of questionable desirability from using the tables and chairs placed there for public consumption. A constant struggle is maintained between traditional LGBTQ stores’ rights to display erotic wares in their windows and parents desire to keep such images from their children's sight. The Castro neighborhood has become a “destination” for teenage shoppers with the introduction of corporate anchor stores such as Diesel, Pottery Barn, Levi’s and Sunglass Hut, teenage shoppers who feel the necessity to assert their heterosexuality in the gay Castro with public displays of affection not usually seen in most mainstream malls or shopping districts. These heterosexual youth and adults come to our LGBTQ neighborhood asserting their heterosexual privilege, unaware of its meaning, unaware of the fact that while they are free to assert their sexuality wherever they please, we, as LGBTQ folks, are still not able to do the same.
Accused of heterophobia
I, in the course of my work, find myself waiting on these shopping teens more and more. Some are perfectly fine and friendly, but I have come to be able to identify the ones who seem to not be aware of their privilege. The males usually are silent, sullen, unable to look me in the face, the females overly compensate for the males sullen attitude by being over friendly, smiling, answering for the male. They cling to each other, and usually as soon as my back turns they begin petting and hugging and kissing while making quick glances around the diner to see how they are being received.
Two weekends prior to waiting on the table who “liked the Castro after the gays went home,” I waited on such a couple, the sullen man and over eager women. This couple were in their mid to late twenties. The man never did speak to me, nor look at me. As soon as I left them they began the usual routine of displaying their affection. This is a difficult position for me, as I am not one to discourage displays of affection or sexuality. I do not relish the thought of thinking that I can second-guess someone’s motivations either. Perhaps they feel more freedom to do this in Queer space because we have done the work of making Queer space a safe space for such displays. I would truly like to believe this. When I witness it, however, I always end up feeling robbed, feeling like my space is being subverted, taken over, and compromised. Well, this day I had had enough. I went back to this couple and suggested that they should leave and come back when they learned how to treat me like a human being. They asked me what I meant. I replied that they came in here, the man could not even look at me let alone talk to me or answer my questions, and then they have the nerve to shove their heterosexuality in my face. Yes, I had lost it. Years of suppressing my feelings welled up and were vented on this couple, who got up and left the restaurant.
Not surprisingly, I received a phone call from my boss the following day wanting to know what had happened. Apparently the woman had filled a complaint with him, threatening to sue the restaurant for discrimination and heterophobia. I explained as best I could. My boss wanted to know what I thought we should do about it, how in fact, I could explain my actions to this woman. As it turned out, I did not have to, as he never heard anything more from her. I was frightened, by her reaction, by my reaction, but mostly by my confusion and inability to sort and make sense of my feelings. Am I heterophobic? Many young Queer folk have told me over the years that Queer space must be accessible to everyone, that the days of gay bars inhabited by only gay men and lesbian bars inhabited only by women are an anachronism, that the very idea of a gay neighborhood is a thing of the past.
A professor once said something about Black people that rang true for me. “The reason that Black people don’t want white people in their spaces,” she told us, “is not because Black people hate white people, it’s because when ever they let white people in, the white people try to take it over and make it about them.” This is how I feel about heterosexual people invading Queer space. Heterosexuals move into Queer space expecting it to be modified for their comfort. As Sandra Bernhard once said when Times Square was in the process of being made “kid safe,” “Don’t they have the rest of the country?” As the homonormative push for acceptance stresses homosexual acceptability, Queers are expected to become homogenized and accept the status quo, no matter the cost to individuality. I became excited two years ago when I heard a “kiss-in” was being planned for Union Square. I went with very high hopes, fondly dreaming of past days of Queer Nation actions. There might have been a half a dozen LGBT people there, none of which would kiss me (I was too old). One very cute young guy was there offering kisses for a donation to St. James Infirmary. Most of the men said they couldn’t kiss him as they were “married” and their boyfriends wouldn’t like it. Is this what we have “progressed” to? In spite of this homogenization, this acceptance of heteronormative behaviors, we still are being beaten and harassed to the point of killing ourselves. Our president makes promises and then orders his promises to be fought against in courts of law.
And I feel old, and I feel beaten. And I smiled and I served the black man and his white female companion at my job in the “historic gay Castro neighborhood” and they were happy because all the gays had gone home and it was quiet.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
"We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough."
~Henry David Thoreau
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Thursday, September 2, 2010
This bulletin is to clarify the requirements for arrest, cite and release of persons violating Penal Codes 314 or 372.
Penal Code 314 states: Every person who willfully and lewdly, either:
- Exposes his person, or the private parts thereof, in any public place, or in any place where there are present other persons to be offended or annoyed thereby; or,
- Procures, counsels, or assists ant person so to expose himself or take part in any model artist exhibition of himself to the public view, or the view of any number of persons, such as is offensive to decency, or is adapted to excite to vicious or lewd thoughts or acts, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
. . . .
When presented with a similar situation where lewd conduct is not an element of the offense, officers should consider Penal Code 372, Public nuisance; maintaing; committing; breach of duty of removal, which states:
Every person who maintains or commits any public nuisance, the punishment for which is not otherwise proscribed, or who willfully omits to perform any legal duty relating to the removal of a public nuisance, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
A public nuisance is defined as:
Anything which is injurious to health, or is indecent, or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as the interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood, or by any considerable number of persons, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake . . .
Arresting for PC 372 will require a private persons arrest as detailed in DGO 5.04.
The incident report should describe the following if applicable:
- The public nuisance
- The amount of people present and how many of them were children
- A specific statement (written if possible) from the offended person
- A description of the location where the public nuisance occurred
This is from the bulletin handed to me today by the LGBT liaison from the Mission Street police station who claimed he was responding to a complaint. I was sitting
in the Castro Commons, naked, reading a book. At first he attempted to inform me that I was guilty of indecent exposure, Penal Code 314, showing me his bulletin and telling me he had received a complaint. I proceeded to inform him that I knew that was not the case, and that it was my understanding that the new police directive advised officers that there must be lewd conduct involved and simple nudity did not co
nstitute lewd conduct according to the California courts rulings. He then pointed out the code stated willfully and lewdly and I was willfully. I cautioned him as to the meaning of the logical conjunction ‘and,’ that in fact it did not say ‘or.’ He then pointed to the part about Penal Code 372, public nuisance. I would have to get dressed or risk arrest.
By this time a slender female officer approached who said she had informed the complainant that in order to be indecent, there had to be lewd conduct; that in fact simple nudity was not against the law. She said the complainant told her he did not know that and would withdraw the complaint. Bless you my dear! I responded with, “Then I guess I am free to get undressed.” The LGBT liaison admitted that technically that was the case, but as soon as he received another complaint he would be back to arrest me. I said that I would just agree to get dressed again. He responded that no I would not, I had already been warned and in fact, the next time there is a compliant about me being naked in public, I would be arrested.
He proceeded to tell me how HE did not have a problem with public nudity, but in fact, the neighborhood had changed since the days it was a gay ghetto. Now there were families who lived here with children. At the monthly public meetings held at the Mission Police Station, he claims they have been receiving dozens of complaints every month from MUMC (Merchants of Upper Market and Castro) as well as people outraged over the naked guys in the Castro, demanding to know why the police do not put a stop to it? He said that those complaints filtered up the chain of command and this new bulletin was the result. He said, “The Castro is not just a gay neighborhood any longer.”
I told him that this was not about being gay, had nothing to do with being gay. He seemed a little surprised by that, asking me how so. I responded that this was about the freedom to not be ashamed of our bodies, that which makes us human. That there was nothing indecent or wrong with our bodies and as nudists we believe that we have the right to appear in our bodies just as others have the right not to.
I wonder if PC 372 is really prosecutable in this instance. It does state, “. . . so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood, or by any considerable number of persons, . . .” (italics mine). It seems that that would be awfully hard to prove, and seems rather vague. However, I have other priorities at the moment, namely me education, to have to risk arrest and court appearances to challenge this. I truly wish that were not the case.
I often think in terms of religion, as in freedom of. What if we were Jain Digambar monks, who do not wear any clothing? In today’s world the obscenity seems to be the renunciation of our humanness, the hatred of our bodies, the view that our most precious possession is dirty, immoral, and filthy. I truly believe we need to be back in touch with our bodies, our humanness, our nature; it is our only hope for saving ourselves.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
There comes a time when circumstances call out for one to stand up for what one believes in. How far one is willing to go to support one’s beliefs then becomes the question. I believe that our bodies are beautiful blessings, gifts which should be celebrated, not hidden under compulsory coverings. Society’s conceptions of our human bodies as indecent objects which must be kept from public view is one of the most extreme forms of self-hatred I can imagine. This belief that our bodies are indecent has allowed us to be controlled and manipulated by those very societal institutions which impose it, the church and the state. It has served not only to separate us from nature but to elevate us over nature, thereby giving us the seemingly unlimited ability to control, modify, and destroy nature for our own ends. This insistence on our indecency keeps our true selves diverted into production, consumption, and conformity. Mandatory clothing forces us into social stratification, becoming a symbol for our power or the lack thereof. We become naked heads talking above hidden bodies, having the effect of enlarging in our imaginations that which is hidden. We then have sold back to us an airbrushed, gym-toned, surgically enhanced view of our bodies which for most of us is unattainable, all because we are forbidden to see the natural beauty inherent in each and everyone of us. In challenging and rejecting these beliefs we challenge and threaten those very institutions which imprison us, just as our clothing imprisons our bodies.
Freedom of expression and freedom from censorship are intimately entwined with that freedom that we who call ourselves Americans seem to cherish most, freedom of speech. George Davis, who stood for San Francisco mayor against incumbent Gavin Newsom in 2007 is now running for the district six supervisor position in San Francisco with a platform which includes freedom of expression and freedom from censorship. George Davis has a history of nudist activism dating back to 2004 when he began practicing naked yoga at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Now George is incorporating public nudity into his political campaigning to demonstrate those freedoms which he is campaigning for. I was privileged to be able to accompany George Davis on one of his campaign walks through San Francisco’s premier shopping district, Union Square on Wednesday, August 18. After an hour of campaigning, we were approached by a San Francisco police officer who told us to cover up, as there were “women and children” who could see us. He suggested that we should go do this “somewhere else.” When we refused to cover ourselves, as there is no law banning nudity in San Francisco, we were not being lewd, and George was campaigning for political office, the officer decided to have us cited and charged with indecent exposure. At that time, I and two others decided to cover, but George remained adamant. “I do not get dressed,” was all he said. So off George went, naked and in handcuffs, to jail. I and my two fellow campaigners were left behind with orders to appear in criminal court Monday, August 23 at 1:00 PM on charges of indecent exposure.
The day of our court appearance I admit feeling a little apprehensive, even though I knew what I was doing was not indecent. I also knew that of the many citations issued in the past for indecent exposure regarding simple public nudity in San Francisco none have ever been prosecuted, but this was my first time. Arriving at the court we found the doors still locked for lunch. At 1:00 a sheriff appeared to inform us that even though our citations said to appear at 1:00, the court did not actually open until 1:30 and we were to form a line along the side of the building. About five minutes later the same sheriff re-appeared, called my name and the names of my nudist companions, and said the judge asked him to tell us the district attorney was not prosecuting our cases, all charges were dropped, and we were free to go.
George Davis and I proceeded back to the Castro Commons area at Castro, 17th, and Market streets were we removed our clothing, found some chairs to sit on, and George proceeded to place some phone calls to police officials to try to gain assurances that this sort of harassment would not happen again. George discovered a new police directive had been issued the Friday before our court appearance directing officers that when they are issuing citations for indecent exposure there must be lewd conduct involved. The California courts have ruled that simple public nudity does not constitute lewd behavior. It would seem we have made some progress.
Many nudists or naturists feel that by being confrontational we do more harm then good to the nudist cause. They would encourage us to work for areas set aside for nude recreation, such as free beaches. That is all well and good, and I certainly support that. I believe, however, that nudist space must be made accessible to everyone. If we as nudists and naturists truly believe that our bodies are not immoral or indecent, then what could be more right than having nudist space everywhere? Only then will we be able to confront and challenge those beliefs that imprison us and by doing so openly and publicly, we can challenge our fellow citizens to question their own assumptions, beliefs, and prisons.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
The lexical data base for English at Princeton University shows gross’s semantic relations as crude, earthy, gross, vulgar (conspicuously and tastelessly indecent), but also as megascopic, gross (visible to the naked eye (especially of rocks and anatomical features)), and also, interestingly enough, gross, porcine (repellently fat).
I thought about what constituted the state of grossness. Obviously, peoples’ perceptions of what is gross vary to some degree. I would also hazard that those perceptions are learned and cultural specific, what we might find repellant other cultures possibly find acceptable. Here was a man, because he was protected by his Mercedes, able to opine on my being and escape due to the power of his internal combustion engine.
Owning an automobile costing anywhere from $34,000 to $110,500 depending on the model in a city where the poverty rate is 10.5 percent and the poverty threshold for a family of three is $18,310 of income a year and the average yearly rental rate per room is $20,400. Yes, that is per room. To my way of thinking, that seems gross. Of course, I don’t fault the man behind the wheel of the Mercedes . . . entirely. One must ask questions, however. Is he aware of his privilege, does he give back to help correct the social wrongs, does his job contribute to the well-being of society or does it profit from the exploitation and creation of problems. These are questions which, of course, have no ready answer but which I feel bear asking considering the ease with which he passes judgement.
But what was it that elicited such a visceral response from this man? Readers who are familiar with me will have likely guessed the answer by now. Yes, I was walking down the street, naked, except for my shoes, hat, and backpack. I find it extraordinary that he, or anyone, can have such a strong reaction to the sight of a naked body. What is it about the exposed human body which elicits not only a negative response in some people, but one which is almost always rabid.
I am reminded of a short story from Howard Fast’s book, Time and the Riddle: 31 Zen Stories entitled “The Sight of Eden” in which seven astronauts discover an earth-like planet on the far side of the universe which is beautiful beyond description. They find planet to be like the garden of their dreams, filled with fragrance, music, and color to delight their every moment. After three days they finally meet a man in a robe able to read their minds named Smith. Smith tells them that this particular planet is a park for the children in this part of the galaxy. Smith’s people have been watching the Earth’s inhabitants for a long time and he has been sent to talk with them about their sickness. The seven Earth astronauts argue with Smith and defend their state of civilization; they are scientists, doctors, teachers. Smith opens his robe, lets it slip off, exposing his naked body to them. They turn their heads in shock and shame. “‘In all the universe,’ Smith said, ‘there is only one race of man that holds its bodies in shame and contempt. All others walk naked in pride and unashamed. Only Earth has made the image of man into a curse and a shame. What else must I say?’”
Indeed, what else must I say?
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The Castro Commons is located at the terminus of the San Francisco Muni’s Historic Streetcar line which connects the Castro neighborhood with the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf, bringing hundreds of tourists into the Castro neighborhood every weekend. Obviously, the neighborhood’s business leaders, the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, or MUMC, have an interest in making the Castro Commons a safe and welcoming space to introduce tourists to the area.
Every weekend morning, long before the first influx of tourists arrive on the historic streetcars, a few men can be found resting at the tables and chairs of the commons. One can tell these men’s economic situation just be looking. Some are there with all of their worldly possessions stashed in a cart. Some just have to look that one soon acquires from living on the streets after awhile. Every weekend morning, like clockwork, a San Francisco bicycle patrol officer appears and engages these men in conversation. This officer never bothers to speak with other, more affluent Commons users, only those whose status is apparent by their dress.
It is a mystery what the officer says to these men, but the conversation always continues until, one by one, the men finally leave, after which the officer leaves. Perhaps the officer is directing these men to city services where they may receive food or housing. I don’t know. What is clear is that every weekend morning, after the officer comes through the Castro Commons, the area is clear of these homeless men.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Today being Saturday, I was of course at work at my job in the Castro. My nudist friend CJ showed up about ten minutes before I was due to be finished. I finished my shift, did my end of shift duties, walked out the front door of the restaurant, removed my clothing, and joined him at a table on the Castro Commons. While we sat there enjoying the sun and the air folks would occasionally come over to us to ask what we were doing, why we were doing it, or just to take pictures. We happily obliged them all, CJ is quite a spokesperson for the civic nudist cause. After about an hour two police officers approached us. By now there were perhaps four or five people with cameras talking to us and three of our other nudists friends had joined us.
“Good afternoon gentleman,” the one officer said. “How are you guys today?” We responded that we were fine. He proceeded to explain that they were there because they had received several complaints that nude men were in the Commons and there were lots of families around the area. The officer than said that he could see we were not breaking any laws, that indeed there was no law against just being nude in San Francisco and he observed that we were just out getting some sun. He then asked us if we were having any problems, if anyone was harassing us. We replied that everything was fine, to which he replied that they were only responding to the complaints and that they observed that we were in fact, not breaking the law. He then told us to enjoy ourselves and left.
I cannot begin to express to you how wonderful and empowering this felt to me. In fact, my friend CJ was preparing to leave to get some food and I was planing to head off home. CJ put his clothing on to go into the restaurant where I work. We said our goodbyes, and I walked down Castro Street and up Eighteenth Street, naked, my head held high in the knowledge that I had the backing of at least two of San Francisco’s police officers.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
After a quick dinner we, Randal, my partner John, and I, made our way back to the Castro to see a double feature at the Castro Theatre, Mildred Pierce followed by Leave Her to Heaven. While we were driving down Eighteenth Street at Castro, we noticed a spectacle taking place in the bus stop. A homeless man was down on his hands and knees picking up what appeared to be little pieces of blue paper scattered all over the gutter. Standing in front of their patrol car, side by side some seven feet away from him with their legs slightly spread and their arms crossed, were two patrol officers. Presciently, Randall mocking said, “Now you pick everyone of those up,” as that is what we soon heard one of the officers exclaim. The pathetic man replied, “I just don’t want to be run over by he bus,” as he crawled around in the gutter picking up the trash.
After finding rock star parking directly in front of the theatre, I spied my friend Eric walking up the street, naked. He stopped to say hello and tell how one of the Castro Street Patrol officers had just been harassing him, telling Eric that every time we nudists were out he gets tons of complaints. Eric inquired as to whether he had gotten any complaints specifically addressed to him that evening. On replying no, Eric moved on, naked. While we were chatting a man a half block away started yelling very loudly, “Put some clothes on.” As he approached us he continued to yell, “How do you expect to gain acceptance if you insist on acting like that?” He then played the children card, telling how there are children around, especially on weekends when “you nudists seem to want to come out in force.”
There seems to be an intensified effort of late to police not only behavior but also the sort of people who are permitted to remain in the Castro since the Castro Commons, as the new plaza space at the Seventeenth Street, Castro Street, and Market Street intersection is ironically referred to. In the past week I have noticed four such incidents myself, the two described above, and two more which involved the police apparently engaged in persuading persons who appear “homeless” to move along, one was a transexual woman on the sidewalk in front of the Walgreens Pharmacy at Eighteenth and Castro Streets very early Sunday morning whom the police confronted and later that day, a black woman who had spent the past four hours dancing in the Commons to the music only she heard made the mistake of asking on of our upstanding Castro residents if she could purchase a cigarette from him. That request alone was enough to impel this citizen to make a call to the police.
When the police arrived, the Castro citizen who lodged his complaint insisted the officer press charges. After talking with the woman and running a check on her identification, the officer concluded that, even though the woman had been drinking, since she agreed to move along after finding something to eat it would be much more disruptive to arrest her than not. Not being appeased, the complaining Castro resident stood his ground, approaching the officer three more times to demand the satisfaction of an arrest. In the end the officer prevailed, the woman moved on, and the resident had fodder for the ongoing narrative of negativity which stigmatizes certain persons and the behaviors of persons who frequent our neighborhood.
Are we as a community that desperate for acceptance by the larger society that we are so easily willing to sell out and marginalize our own diversity to accomplish that narrow agenda? Are we really willing to become as intolerant and restrictive as our oppressors against whom we fought back at Stonewall forty-one years ago? As we live in a world were it is plain that the status quo will no longer work for the future, a world that will not be sustained by the never ending growth, extraction of resources, and dumping of pollution unbridled capitalism requires, a world were we will need to look and work locally to sustain ourselves, we in the Queer community have an opportunity to use our collective creativity and imagination that our very diversity can manifest to help achieve the change required. Sadly, we seem to be failing miserably.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Thursday, July 1, 2010
In spite of these risks a few homosexuals banned together to protest for equal rights prior to 1969. The Mattachine Society was one such homophile organization which was involved with picketing Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965. The pickets were required to wear dresses or suits and ties in order to look just like ordinary Americans. A participant told how she felt as though they were all in a fishbowl, entertainment for all of the ice-cream eating tourists, and she would not do it again.
By 1969 the mafia was in control of any gay bars which existed; being the only ones possessing the network necessary to pay the police off and keep the bars open. A gay community had formed in New York City’s West Village made up of those who already had little to loose: people of color, drag queens and transsexuals, and homeless and run-away youth. These were the clientele of the Stonewall Inn and these were the people who resisted the police raid on the first night of rioting, June 28, 1969. Although the police faced a crowd outside the Inn of between one hundred and one hundred and fifty who were attracted by the sounds of the police cars, the noise and commotion; a crowd which soon would grow to between five and six hundred, it was the crowd of lesbians, drag queens, transvestites, and effeminate queer youth inside the bar who first resisted arrest by refusing to be searched for gender conformity or to produce identification when so ordered by the police.
The rioting would continue the following night, drawing even larger crowds. Not everyone was happy about the turn of events. The Mattachine Society posted a sign on the boarded up window of the Stonewall Inn which read:
We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine
When this image appeared in the film, many in the audience showed their disapproval vocally with boos and hissing. Following the uprising, the Mattachine held its now annual Philadelphia Independence Day protests. This time, however, two women decided to hold hands. The organizer of the event quickly broke them apart, saying, “None of that.” One of the lesbians who had been at Stonewall convinced about ten couples to hold hands which made the organizer from Mattachine furious, but earned more press attention than all of the previous marches combined.
The theater showing Stonewall Uprising was packed with gays, lesbians, and trans people. They all seemed to love the film, as did I. Even though I live in San Francisco, it was really quite nice to be in a venue surrounded entirely by other queer folk; to be in Queer space. It seems that lately Queer space has become so compromised through gentrification, assimilation, and acceptance. Most times it seems as though one can not truly be ones true queer self anymore but must always police ones actions.
I worked in the middle of the Castro neighborhood all Pride weekend, which was beautifully warm; warm enough that both days after work I was able to exercise my rights and walk around the neighborhood naked, enjoying the sun and the warmth and the crowds. Sunday, the day of Pride, following work I again went naked and made my way to the Civic Center. Each year I miss the parade but make the Civic Center after work were I like to relax in the Faerie Freedom Village, a commercial free Faerie space which is, like the theater, Queer space, but even more so, as everyone is in a celebratory mood and the costumes, glitter, dancing, and nudity overflow!
Monday morning, early, as I was walking home from my boyfriends house I noticed for the first time the signs which had been taped to many of the utility poles in the Castro.
However, please note that, contrary to what you may have heard from the hordes of homeless people around here claiming to be victims of racism/sexism/homophobia/capitalism (y’know: bums), the sidewalks and streets of the Castro are NOT:
- A trash can
- A garbage dump
- An ashtray
- A vomit basin
- A toilet/urinal/latrine
- A bed, chair, sofa, or yoga mat
- A whorehouse/crystal meth distribution center
- An off-leash dog-run
- A used chewing gum repository
It was rather difficult to miss these signs, not only by their number but also because they were the only signs still posted. For the past decade or so, there has been a concerted effort by self-appointed guardians of the Castro to take down any posters as soon as they appear on poles. Posting of poles has been a traditional way of communicating community events since the late 1970s. Which raises the question, who IS “the management”? The same self-appointed keepers of the utility poles? And what of the “hordes of homeless”? Having lived in the neighborhood for almost thirty years, I have witnessed the homeless situation escalate and decline on and off over the years and it certainly is much better now then it has been in the past.
The Castro has had an uneasy history with homeless people, instigating several concerted efforts to rid the neighborhood of panhandlers by sponsoring “Create Change” programs in which businesses urge customers to help the homeless by not giving them spare change, but rather contributing to charitable organizations or donating their time. One among the many problems with such campaigns is that the “community leaders” sponsoring such campaign s simultaneously fight against the establishment of outreach centers for homeless LGBTQ youth in their neighborhood.
Many of these youth are homeless for the very same reasons the youth who fought back at the Stonewall Inn were homeless and marginalized that June night in 1969, they are the victims of homophobia and transphobia within their families and hometown communities. They come to neighborhoods such as the West Village in the 1960s and the Castro now, seeking a space where they can safely express their gender and sexual identities only to find themselves devalued due of their positioning in social categories: young, urban, racial-ethnic minority, and poor, which leads the dominant white male capitalist gay culture to reject them.
One youth tells of finally realizing the Castro community, which they had considered themselves to be a part of, did not want them when they witnessed Officer Jane Warner, notorious among homeless youth in the Castro for constantly telling them to “move along,” engaging in a conversation with a gay man while standing in front of the youth. When asked how work was going and Officer Jane replied very well, the man said, “yes, it’s nice - hardly any homeless at all.” Turning to the youth he said, “except for that one right there.” It is obvious that this man and Officer Jane were treating the homeless youth as an object, as something they could feel free to discuss within earshot without worry about this homeless youth’s feelings or needs.
It is parodical to see these signs posted on the poles in the shiny, well tended Castro neighborhood lined with chain stores such as Levi’s, Diesel, and Pottery Barn selling high end merchandize to folks who are paying exorbitant rents and mortgages to live here, and remember the jeering, booing, and hissing which greeted the image of the Mattachine sign on the Stonewall Inn which pleaded with “our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.” Today we do not have to wear suits and ties and dresses and not hold hands to be acceptable. All we need be are consumers with disposable income, a place to live, and an interest in marriage and the military. However you read it, it is still assimilation, it is still settling for acceptance on heteronormative terms, not queer terms. Today it seems the careful, closeted, assimilationist Mattachine project has won out over the more revolutionary uprising that was Stonewall.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Monday, May 31, 2010
Yes, it makes me proud to be an amerikan -- happy memorial day! I know this is why those brave soldiers fought and died.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Today was one of the better days; beautiful, gloriously warm San Francisco weather. I finished work and heading out the door I spotted my two nudist buddies strolling down the street -- naked. I called to them and proceeded to join them on their naked stroll. We received many admiring compliments and high fives. One mother with two children in a stroller, when asked by one child why those people were naked, replied, “Because some people like to be naked.” I seemed perfect, this is the way life should be. Ah, but it was to good to last.
After a good hour and a half of strolling and chatting with people in the neighborhood, we were walking down Castro Street preparing to end our excursion, when a police cruiser pulled up to the curb. Two officers got out and one asked us if we would please cover up. I responded as I wrapped my kilt around my waist, “Yes, of course, as long as you understand you that we are not breaking the law.” That was not the response this officer wanted to hear. He replied that we were in fact breaking the law, that we were indecent. I responded that there was no law against mere public nudity in San Francisco, that the courts had established what constituted indecent exposure, and it was not mere nudity. He replied that he was not a judge, that they had received complaints, and as soon as some one complains we are considered indecent. He then asked me if I would like to be handcuffed, arrested, and taken downtown. At this point I am fully clothed. I replied, ”No, I would not like to be arrested, but I do want to make sure you understand that I know we were not breaking the law.” He replied that he had been doing this for twenty-three years, so I should not tell him what the law was, and then started to walk away. I responded that perhaps he might want to speak to the district attorney about it, at which point he again asked me if I would like to be cuffed and arrested. “No,” I repeated. He said, “Don’t tell me to talk to the D. A. then.”
After he left my two nudist friends told me that the police, when responding to a complaint, must provide you with a copy of it on request. I wonder if one can be arrested for requesting a copy of the complaint? Clearly, this officer was not having as good a day as I was.
Friday, May 28, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
The Millet - Butt Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C., memorializing two men, the American painter, Francis Davis Millet, and the military aide to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, Major Archibald Butt, who both drowned in the sinking of the Titanic and who were both homosexuals and best friends. Millet had lived with Charles Warren Stoddard in Venice in the 1870s and apparently had a romantic and intimate life together. According to Edith Kermit Roosevelt, Archibald Butt was a not-so-in-the-closet homosexual and her best friend and confidant. Millet and Butt were best friends, and were returning from a vacation in Europe, traveling together on board the Titanic. Millet did marry Elizabeth Merrill in 1879. Archibald Butt never married.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Africa's Oil Spills Are Far From U.S. Media Glare
by Joe Brock
LONDON - Oil gushing from an undersea well in the Gulf of Mexico has damaged BP's reputation and share price but accidents involving other companies in less scrutinized parts of the world have avoided the media glare.
In this Dec. 22, 2005 file photo, people evacuate their homes by boat, as they pass smoke and flames billowing from a burning oil pipeline belonging to the Shell Petroleum Development Company, across the Opobo Channel in Asagba Okwan Asarama, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. (AP Photo/George Osodi, File) Investors have knocked around $30 billion off BP's value since an explosion at a drilling rig killed 11 people and began an oil spill the London-based major is struggling to plug nearly a month after the accident happened.
The U.S. media and political machine has turned its full force on BP and U.S. President Barack Obama has set up a commission into the leak which is sending an estimated 5,000 barrels per day (bpd) into Gulf of Mexico waters.
In contrast, the international media has largely ignored the latest incidents of pipeline damage in Nigeria, where the public can only guess how much oil might have been leaked.
The most recent damage in Nigeria, which has not been attributed to militant attacks that have preyed on Nigerian oil infrastructure for years, forced U.S. operator ExxonMobil to relieve itself of contractual obligations by declaring force majeure on its exports of Nigerian benchmark crude.
The light sweet crude is particularly well-suited for refining into gasoline and is regularly supplied to the United States, the world's biggest oil burner.
Exxon declined the opportunity to give details of the damage, clean-up or repair work.
An industry source, who declined to be named, said 100,000 bpd of oil had leaked for a week from a pipeline that has since been mended.
"If this (the BP spill) were in the Niger Delta, no one would be batting an eyelid," said Holly Pattenden, African oil analyst at consultants Business Monitor International. "They have these kind of oil spills in Nigeria all the time."
SHARE PRICE IMPACT
BP's share price has fallen around 18 percent since news of the fire at the drilling station on April 20, while Exxon shares were largely unchanged after the force majeure announcement.
The largest operator in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell has clashed with the Nigerian government for decades following numerous spills in Africa's largest energy producer.
Shell said in a statement on its website that its Nigerian joint venture cleans up oil spills as quickly as possible, no matter what their cause, but is sometimes delayed by security concerns or because some communities deny access.
The Anglo-Dutch major said the volume of oil spills in Nigeria for its joint venture was almost 14,000 tonnes last year, the equivalent of around 280 bpd, mainly because of militant attacks on facilities.
"It (the U.S.) is without doubt the worse place for BP to lose their political capital," said James Marriott, oil and gas analyst at environmental organization Platform.
"If the U.S. administration gets aggressive against BP, then it's a problem for them offshore, onshore in terms of shale gas, for conventional gas, refining, some cross-border projects with Canada and further afield."
In the United States, BP's massive spill and the risk of an environmental catastrophe could have implications throughout the industry as it has reopened the debate about deepwater drilling.
Analysts say, however, the world is hugely dependent on deepwater drilling to secure oil supplies.
The ExxonMobil force majeure relates to shallow offshore oil, but much of West Africa's crude production, like that in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, is deepwater.
Analysts say it is unrealistic to veto deepwater drilling if the world's oil needs are to be met.
"Perhaps in terms of health and safety regulation (things will change), but not in terms of drilling," said Angus McPhail of Wood Mackenzie consultants.
"It is not really feasible to stop drilling altogether as long as there is good demand for the product.... It would be total economic madness."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in London and Randy Fabi in Abuja; editing by Anthony Barker)
© 2010 Reuters