• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    The bed’s too big / The fryin’ pan’s too wide

    Posted by Sean at 02:45, May 17th, 2004

    Andrew Sullivan has a new piece out on gay marriage, headlined Integration Day in The New York Times (registration required, as if you needed to be told). Sullivan’s writing meant a lot to me when I was coming out in the mid-’90’s and most gay writers were in the vein of, like, Michelangelo Signorile. But Girlfriend is really starting to annoy me something fierce.

    Get a load (heh-heh) of this:

    I remember the moment I figured out I was gay. Right then, I realized starkly what it meant: there would never be a time when my own family would get together to celebrate a new, future family. I would never have a relationship as valid as my parents’ or my brother’s or my sister’s. It’s hard to describe what this realization does to a young psyche, but it is profound. At that moment, the emotional segregation starts, and all that goes with it: the low self-esteem, the notion of sex as always alien to a stable relationship, the pain of having to choose between the family you were born into and the love you feel.

    One wants to just whisper in his ear that when Margaret Cho said the best reason for gay marriage was that it was inhumane to deny a gay man a bridal registry, it was a joke. But, fine…what he’s saying isn’t that superficial. It’s still, despite his unremitting complaisance as a writer and public personality, offensive.

    I like having people’s respect and approval. Resilient as my ego is, my nerves are not sheathed in titanium, and having my friends and loves and the life we cherish referred to as perversion all over the place gets me down sometimes. But either you claim control over your own life and mean it, or you slaver for people’s approval and give them the ability to define your worth. No fair congratulating yourself about being willing to take an unpopular stand out of moral conviction and then informing people that they will love you for it. That maneuver makes me as nauseated as…as…John Derbyshire in a roomful of Muscle Marys.

    Just to be clear: I’m not downplaying the hardships of being gay, and I give guys and gals who are just coming out quite a bit of leeway in finding their way at first. I have a more privileged life than a lot of people, but coming out was deeply painful. I didn’t think I would make it through; I don’t consider it whiny for anyone at that stage to be having difficulties getting it together and needing a lot of accommodation from supportive people. If I thought there were a policy proposal that would magically make that hurt unnecessary for future gay men and women, I’d be agitating for it in a second. Also, no one is going to stop me from being a thoroughgoing homo: being in love with a man, feeling that thrill when a cute guy comes into my field of vision, hanging out and being queeny with friends, and (what have I missed?…oh, yeah) mind-altering screwing. I know my own mind, and that’s where it’s at. I wish that didn’t present an obstacle in getting along with some people, but reality is, it does. Though I’m grateful that people cut me lots of slack when I needed them to, now that I’ve righted myself and become a sovereign adult, I deal.

    All of this blather about how our need for marriage is connected with [yaks all over freshly-cleaned floor] self-esteem and not making us feel so alienated just reinforces the charge that our real problem is arrested development. To the extent that psychologists can even determine whether self-esteem is a useful concept, my understanding is that their idea of where it comes from is pretty old-fashioned. Encouragement from others is part of it, but most of it is meeting and overcoming obstacles, fulfilling one’s obligations, and paying one’s debts. For that reason–much as it galls, galls, galls me that hetero convicted felons, multiple divorcés, and deadbeat dads are free to indulge in messed-up marriages without interference, while we’re told that we’re going to spell doom for the concept of the family–I don’t trust our own high-profile crew of dissolute, flim-flamming party animals with marriage any more than Rick Santorum does.

    Most of us are not that caricature, including, I presume, Sullivan and the like-minded Jonathan Rauch, whose book Gay Marriage I eagerly pre-ordered and ended up being disappointed by. Like Sullivan’s latest article, Rauch’s book leans heavily on the idea that marriage brings community pressure to be good, which helps keep married couples stable and benefits everyone. Rauch does raise the question of whether this will apply to gay marriages if a lot of people regard them as counterfeit, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t really address it.

    If we’re going to be using marriage as a cure for the low self-esteem and alienation of “emotional segregation,” though, the answer matters. And the answer is: Those who wish us well and want our relationships to sustain us and bind us to the community are already treating us that way; people who see our relationships as illegitimate will keep doing so no matter who has a license for what. That means that even if gay marriage becomes a long-term fact, we’re initially going to have to be strong for each other, through our formal and informal institutions, every bit as much as we are right now. It may never be the case that everyone is brought around to our side, but to the extent that it happens, it will happen because people can see gays taking charge of our own lives and not bleating, two decades into adulthood, about feeling left out.

    I could also say something about DC-based political journalists who, while they may favor small government, still have the irksome habit of seeing the role of what the government does do as the conferring of legitimacy and Making things Real, rather than serving as a vehicle for the will and collected resources of citizens, but I’m too tired to get into that just now.

    Added on lunchbreak, 19 May: Brian Tiemann has a bit more temperate response to Sullivan, raising some of the same points (and including a penis pun) but giving them more context.


    Posted by Sean at 14:19, May 3rd, 2004

    My favorite fellow Asia-Pacific Island-based blogger, Amritas, responded to one of Joanne Jacobs’s frequent commenters, one Stephen, who characteristically took the opportunity to use this thread about race relations at UCLA to talk about how wonderful his wife’s traditional Asian femininity makes their domestic life. Joanne has already done her usual, wonderfully motherly throwing of cold water, and Amritas is great as always when he gets fired up.

    And yet…Stephen’s comments (he shows up a lot) always frustrate me because there’s usually a very good point buried beneath the self-directed ego stroking: that gay promiscuity in urban areas has been very destructive and that lots of people who reject traditional femininity in a jeering way are insecure about their own life choices seem to be the major ones.

    A point that no one in this conversation seems to make is that in a free society, traditional femininity requires both parties to be willing to hold up their ends of the bargain. Since I don’t know the gentleman personally, I can only assume that his wife, like most American women, would quickly make her latent female power overt if he started treating her poorly–no matter to what degree she identifies with flowers. That’s not always an option women have in countries in which sex roles haven’t been liberalized as they have in America. Japan is politically one of the most free countries on Earth. (We just celebrated its Constitution Day yesterday, and while it’s mostly treated as just a bank holiday, I found it very moving, as a proud American partial to constitutions.) But the status of women here, while it certainly facilitates “femininity,” can be appalling. The median age for marriage has been pushed up to near 30 in the last 20 years. It’s not just that women want to spend their free time shopping instead of taking care of children; they don’t want to be forced to look after men whose idea of a “helpmeet” is a combination of maid and brood mare.

    All of which means that if it adds frisson to a middle-aged couple’s relationship to imagine a ring of vaginismus-afflicted harpies detesting them for their delight in tradition…well, good for them. But it’d be nice if students at a major research university, who are supposed to be in the process of forming their view of the world, could talk about their differences and assess why and in which contexts some attitudes work better than others.

    BTW, the name I officially use in Japan is a transliteration of Sean:

    紫苑 (shion)

    It means “aster.”

    Japanese women’s names sometimes do use flower kanji, but only occasionally does one see a name with a stem pronounced Yuri- (“lily”) or Hana- (“blossom”) or Fuji- (“wisteria”). Japanese women’s names can have any number of kanji, but many pronunciations cluster around a handful of meanings: Mari- (“truth”), Nori- (“law,” “order,” “constancy”), and Aki- (“light,” “clarity”). None of these seems to make their bearers more stern and sententious than those named after flowers or jewels.

    Something in the water?

    Posted by Sean at 02:38, April 14th, 2004

    So my boyfriend gets packed off to darkest Kyushu, and I seriously need the sensible, even-keeled advocates of gay acceptance to remind me that all the shit you go through is worth it because we’re collectively getting our act together, and they pick this week to be slipshod and waffly.

    Their slipshod waffliness is even accessible all in one location: a day of posts over at Steve Miller’s Culture Watch on the Independent Gay Forum. Miller inexplicably approves of Andrew Sullivan’s swipe at Randall Terry, whose adopted son (1) is a messed-up parasite and (2) is gay. He also implicitly praises Jonathan Rauch’s performance in a debate with Bob Enyart, conservative Christian radio host out of Denver.
    Sullivan says of Terry

    Christian right leader, Randall Terry, has a troubled gay son. Dick Cheney has an untroubled gay daughter. Anti-gay crusader Pete Knight has a gay son. Charles Socarides, the chief proponent of reparative therapy for homosexuals, has a gay son. Phyllis Shlafly has a gay son. When will these people begin to understand that being gay is not a “choice”; it’s a fact of human nature?

    And Miller adds, linking Sullivan, “Growing up gay in the Terry household, it’s no wonder the kid is ‘troubled.'” Yeah, sure, that’s probably part of it. Maybe not, though. My parents made it clear emphatically and often that they thought homosexuality was disgusting and sinful. But they were also the ones who taught me that each of us has the responsibility to weigh the lessons of history, the counsel of our elders, and the cause-effect relationships we can detect in our own experience to determine what we believe the right path is. My decision to come out didn’t thrill them, but they know that I didn’t just fall into it because I find it easier to chase orgasms than to live a responsible life. Unless Sullivan or Miller has inside information on what went on in the Terry household, isn’t there another more likely environmental factor in his son’s behavior? To wit:

    In March 1988, my then-wife and I took Jamiel and his younger sister as foster children. He was 8 years old. We adopted them when he was 14. He came to us a wounded boy, from an incredibly troubled home. He was literally born in jail. By age 8 had learned a lifestyle of deceit and been a victim of treacheries that would mar him for life.
    Jamiel was adopted when he was nearly 15, not 5. To gloss over the tragic events of his youth is deceit. Many homosexuals want to ignore the causes of their sexual behavior; they want us to believe it is genetic, not behavioral.

    We’re not talking about a child who spent all his formative years in Terry’s household and ended up screwed up in the head. His mother was jailed (unless her water broke during a visit to her incarcerated husband/boyfriend). Who knows how many foster families he saw before the Terrys? And the delay in adopting him means either protracted proceedings or a wait-and-see position on the Terrys’ part. Isn’t that a likely enough explanation for why–gay, straight, or hermaphroditic–he’s turned out be an untrusting and untrustworthy manipulator? And don’t untrustworthy, manipulative, immature people use every weapon at hand to stick it to people they resent? Not all of them have their homosexuality to use against a parent who founded Operation Rescue, but I daresay they all think of something to capitalize on. The Sullivan/Miller line (“Them socially-conservative Christians fucked him up!”) strikes me as no less sententious and questionable than the Terry line (“His mental problems are part and parcel with his homosexuality!”).
    Jonathan Rauch wasn’t being sententious in his radio appearance, but he also wasn’t answering the questions very well. It frustrated the hell out of me, because just about everything he was challenged on was covered–and covered well–in Gay Marriage. I can only assume that he figured it was a good idea to stay on message and say over and over that marriage will help keep gays from behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others, but the effect was that he sounded evasive. Sincere and well-intentioned, but evasive. There was a particularly strained point at which Enyart was trotting out the usual figures about suicide rates, mental disorders, crime, and domestic violence among gays. In fact, he didn’t even bring up figures; he just pronounced that rates are higher among homosexuals. Rauch didn’t point out the self-selecting nature of sample populations when gays are studied. He didn’t point out that the urban areas that are more accepting of gays also have higher crime for reasons that may be unrelated. He didn’t point out that (given how many gays are still closeted) committing a sex or domestic crime is a great way to pack the books with known homos who are criminals.
    When Enyart came up with the bumper sticker-worthy “Heterosexuality produces life; homosexuality produces death,” Rauch didn’t point out that what produces death is promiscuity, or that what makes us a human civilization is that we have people who are stewards over the production of artifacts, not just new people. Okay, fine, Rauch was giving the interview, not me. Monday morning quarterbacking, and all that. But still: these questions have answers, and Rauch knows them. I wish he’d spoken them as well as, for the most part, he writes them.

    The all-night DJ serenade’s the only company that I keep

    Posted by Sean at 12:36, April 12th, 2004

    I love most things about living in Japan, but here’s one that I don’t: if you work for one of the stodgier companies, you can be informed in March or September that you’re being transferred to another office, effective in a week or two. It’s kind of an extension of the practice of having new management track hires do rotations through sales and operations in their first few years; you belong to the company as if it were your clan, and it gets to tell you what to do. Depending on your organization, you can be moving every two to four years until you’re middle aged.

    And so it is that Atsushi was told on 10 March that he was leaving Tokyo for the far end of Kyushu on 24 March. He’d worked at the same office for four years; he’s still single in his mid-30’s; he’s already done a two-year stint abroad. We knew he was an obvious target for relocation somewhere outside commuting distance from Tokyo. Like a lot of people who’ve been stationed here for several years, he owns an apartment. There was no question what had to happen: I moved into his place from my pied à terre three stations away so we’ve got a household for him to return to on monthly visits. That we couldn’t live together while he was here because his parents and colleagues would have started to wonder what was going on, but it’s perfectly fine for me to live here now, in the guise of a helpful friend who’s sparing him the necessity of letting his house to strangers, precisely because he’s not here, is not one of life’s little ironies I’m inclined to find humor in right now.

    But trust me–lots of others have it worse. There are married couples with children in this very situation twice a year. The opportunities for education in Tokyo (the power center in politics, economics, and culture for Japan–imagine DC + New York + Cambridge in one megalopolis) are superior to those in the provinces. Also, it’s hard to unload an apartment in an existing building–partially, I think, since the construction industry is still building as if the bubble hadn’t burst 15 years ago, but that’s a topic for another day. All of which means that a number of couples have husbands who are off working in Sendai, or Sapporo, or wherever, while the wife and children hold down the fort in Tokyo and see him once every six weeks or so when he flies back. It’s such an unremarkable thing that there’s a word for it: 単身赴任 (tanshin funin), or “going unaccompanied to one’s assignment.” Perhaps it’s not as difficult as we’d imagine as Americans: a lot of childrearing here is done by the educational system, and the friend/closest companion model of marriage isn’t traditional. But for couples who think of themselves as a team, even if romance isn’t part of the psychological support they rely on, it has to bite. It sure sucks plenty for me, and I have a flexible enough job that I’ll be able to see him twice a month or so.

    This kind of thing happens all the time. I don’t mean my boyfriend’s moving away to Ultima Thule; I mean simultaneously admiring the way the Japanese subordinate themselves to collective goals and thinking they’re crazy for doing it. What I’ve described is certainly not as hard to bear as what military families go through when the enlisted parent is deployed somewhere, or what poor families go through when Dad has to spend months out of the year up in mining country to keep everyone clothed and fed. The thing that makes it so…weird…both in the conversational sense of “strange” and in the original sense of “spooky”…is that this is what graduates of elite universities, the people with the most mobility and choices in the power center of the second-largest economy in the world, think perfectly normal to sign onto at the end of college, knowing exactly what they’re getting into. Yes, things are changing somewhat–switching jobs is much more common here than it used to be. And people who feel stuck are far from unknown in America. But the distribution of such attitudes among people with the resources to choose is very different. If I were a sociologist, maybe I could write the millionth book trying to explain Japan to a Western audience.


    Flamin’ Norah. Interrupted by the nightly call from the man himself: he left the office at 11:45 for the fourth day in a row. That’s another thing about being transferred: you get to spend quality time getting to know your new clients during the first few weeks. What that poor darling goes through to keep me in the style to which I’ve become accustomed. Time for me to get back to devising saucy new color combinations in decorative fabrics so he has a beautiful apartment to come home to.

    For three days in May.