Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

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The Princess Problem

Sept. 15, 2016

As a dad and a feminist, I don’t really know what to make of this princess thing. It’s a huge industry. (It would be ironic if it was just a “cottage” industry.) I didn’t notice it until I became a parent, but there a princesses freaking everywhere!  Want to take you daughter on a “Disney Princess Cruise?” Your son probably will skip that one for a roll in the mud. But there is a pushback against the “princess narrative,” so I’m trying to figure out how to fit my daughter into it and still keep a smile on her face.

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I know that I never played “prince” as a little boy and all the storybook princesses I knew just waited around to be rescued by Prince Charming. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your damn hair!” One might guess the Brothers Grimm didn’t know many bad-ass chicas who could escape the castle on their own. Or maybe stories of heroines just didn’t sell in the early 1800s. The Nazis really loved those Grimm fairy tales, so that should tell you something.

The Brothers Grimm published Cinderella in 1812 so you’d think 204 years later this princess thing would be played out, right? Au contraire mon frère, it’s bigger than ever. Just take a trip to the “pink” isle at any toy store or the Help Wanted ads at Disneyland. “Help wanted: An anorexic girl to dress as Sleeping Beauty and smile for 8 hours a day in the Anaheim sun. Previous princess threw herself under a pumpkin.”

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This gets a mention because suddenly one of my daughter’s precious vocabulary words is “princess.” I was hoping “theoretician” would come first, or even “OBG/GYN.” But there it is. “Princess!” with a squeal of delight. She has a CD from the Disney TV show Sofia the First and the good thing is that she learned how to work the CD player in her room so she could play it. (It’s playing as I write this and Cozy is dancing in her Minnie Mouse dress.) The bad news is these are the lyrics:

There are many things princesses do

Like hosting balls and dancing too

Or Wearing gowns of pink and blue

That’s what we like to do

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There are many things that princes like

Jousting polo and taking hikes

Suits of armour with lots of spikes

That’s what we really like

We do princess things

And we do princely things

And no-one crosses in between

We stick with our routine

Not very gender queer. To be fair, Sofia believes that anything can be a “princess thing,” but it’s an uphill battle, not a given that she’s already liberated from her princess routine.

The princess tales seem to fall into two categories, one is the girl born into royalty but the more common version is the peasant girl who is “lucky” enough to be launched into royalty. What’s better than being rich? And they are all hyper-heteronormative. How many little girls grew up singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from Snow White, thinking the story ends when he (or a reasonable facsimile of Prince Charming) shows up. The fairy tale leaves out the part that after the “happily ever after” part when he’s banging the milkmaid and won’t even think about letting his “queen” take night classes at the kingdom’s community college.

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Little girls seem to think the life of a princess is all peach pudding and party dresses. Bud Light pitch girl Amy Schumer has a brilliant skit about the reality of the medieval princess forced into arranged marriages with cousins so she can get busy birthing male heirs to the throne. Every girl should see it before asking for a princess party for her next birthday.

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Earlier this week, Andrea and I were at the Disney Studios in Burbank visiting a good friend and pretending that Hollywood was ready for us. We stopped by the employee store to pick up some Minnie Mouse swag for Cozy. (It’s just too cute when she says, “Minnie Moush.”) When I saw all the princess dresses from all the Disney films I could just imagine our daughter exploding in screams. I resisted the urge to buy her a Belle dress and bought her an Incredible Hulk t-shirt instead. (Disney owns Marvel now.) But I know what she would really want.

Let me say Disney princesses have come a long way since Snow White. There are princesses of every shade these days, including Elena, the Latina princess. And Merida, from Brave, isn’t exactly a damsel in distress and didn’t even have a romance with a brutish boy. But if you survey the list of Disney princesses, they pretty much are all teenage girls who are awarded with a dominant male at the end of the tale. They are less passive than Sleeping Beauty but their goal is still to end up like a Mrs. Trump.  I’m going to encourage Cozy to avoid all that. The princesses tale is exactly what not to wish for.

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We’re not raising a demure princess in this house, looking for her Beast. She’s not a kitten who needs to be rescued from a tree. (As Ani DiFranco once sang, “Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down, whether or not you ever show up?”) If she wants to live in a palace, she can invent an app or something. But she can pretend to be whoever she wants to be. Who are we going to be today, Cozy? Ariel or Harriet Tubman? Oh, Princess Leia? We’re good.

 

We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee

April 21, 2016

I used to love North Carolina, the beauty of the artist nook in Asheville, the cool cranny of a rock scene in Chapel Hill. I’ve spent a lot of time crossing the state and enjoying its wonderful nooks and crannies. That was until North Carolina became the new Mississippi, the bastion of backwards bigotry. Ever  since its governor, Pat McCrory, signed HB 2 this month, the rest of the world (including Bruce Springsteen!) now knows the truth about the Tar Heel state. And the truth is North Carolinians are convinced that in those nook and crannies are hiding… transexuals. Transsexuals who want to attack them in restrooms!

Even bonafide bigot Donald Trump thinks the new law goes too far. He is a businessman after all (and wouldn’t want to alienate Caitlyn Jenner). The ongoing boycott and recent appeals court decisions will doom the law before Ted Cruz and “Christian” hate-mongers will be able to claim it as a victory for “religious freedom,” or “decency” or “safety.” After all, if kids are going to be molested in bathrooms, it should be by someone with the same genitals. Gawd!

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The right needs to manufacture a continuing parade of bogeymen to project their fears on. Trump’s “rapist Mexicans” sort of backfired when Republicans realized Latinos were lining up in record numbers to vote against the entire GOP slate. “Who haven’t we kicked around yet? Transexuals! After all, you are your genitals!”

We are ignorant of so many things. It’s understandable that so many people don’t understand the challenge and reality of being a transexual person. The DSM-V has moved from the term “gender disorder,” to “gender dysphoria,” but there is still a stigma of “sickness” among many who are in the dark about the population. Fortunately, I have friends who are transitioning or have transitioned from both male to female and female to male identities and I can say they are probably the most “not mentally ill” people I know. (Some of my Republican friends, though…)

I don’t have it in me to do another lecture on the innate difference between biological sex, gender performance, and sexual orientation. Maybe later. Let me just invite the good-hearted people of North Carolina and other shit-holes of bigotry (which might be in your own home) to talk to a human being who is transsexual and ask them about the basic right of using the bathroom that conforms to your gender.

The right like to pretend that this is about “safety.” As if they care. Women are raped outside of bathrooms everyday. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them (unless it’s done by an “illegal alien”). Every day seven kids are killed by guns. They could care less about that. But the weird scenario where a perverted man dresses as a woman solely so he can assault a woman or a girl in a public restroom is sufficient reason to change the law and screw over an already marginalized part of our American family. How Christ-like. Maybe a law that keeps ministers away from children, I mean, if you want to base legislation on actual documented sexual assaults.

Let’s be clear. There is no documented cases of a transgender person assaulting anyone in a restroom. There are, however, multitudes of reports of transgender people being assaulted in restrooms. And violence against the transgender people is on the increase. The legacy of the ignorance coming out of North Carolina.

So let’s break this stupid law down. The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act says people have to use the public restroom or changing room that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.

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First, how the hell is this enforced? Will the state fund an army of crotch monitors to check the junk of anybody using the restroom. “Excuse me Miss, I need to verify that you have a vagina.” And will this enforcement be administered fairly? I know some pretty butch ladies and some femme boys that may be asked to drop trou more often than Biff and Tiffany. And how will I know that the genital monitor in the men’s room who is verifying the presence of my penis does not have some alternative motive? And what about folks who have had gender reassignment surgery? Are we going to have to carry our birth certificates with us into the john? I know you really need to go, but can you prove RIGHT NOW what YOUR sex at birth was? (And can someone please tell me where intersex people in North Carolina are supposed to take a leak?)

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Secondly, despite the drag queen stereotype of Flip Wilson dressed as Geraldine (a reference for us old timers), it’s not exactly easy to identify a transperson. So what this law does is forces a lot of guys (who have vaginas) into the ladies’ room and gals (who have penises) into the mens’ room. I’m not sure that’s going to make the transphobic folks of North Carolina feel more “safe” while they pop a squat.

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I secretly think that there might be a hidden agenda here. I know plenty of people in the trans community and those are some good looking folks. Often the transmen (born female) are very masculine and transwomen (born male) are very feminine. What North Carolina lady wouldn’t want a hunky macho guy? Who wouldn’t beat her! And what curious NC boy wouldn’t want a glamour girl? Who knows what a man really wants! Maybe this is the Tar Heal state’s “tearoom trade,” and there is a secret desire to queer “chance meetings” in the toilet. Hey, a cis-boy can dream. (But it would be helpful to know how many people from NC cruise trans-porn websites.)

And third, this law obviously exposes transpeople to even more violence. Imagine a high school girl who was born male being forced to use the restroom with teenage boys who already use words like “fag,” and “pussy” as a put down. And how are women in the locker room at the gym going to react when dude comes in (who happens to have a vagina) to change clothes? The result will be to push people away from the gender expression that they feel most comfortable in. Just like the bigots who want gay and lesbians to just “act straight,” this is another dictatorship of the majority designed to force people to act in a way that doesn’t make the bigot feel uncomfortable. What ever happened to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? But instead we are likely to see more suicides because of North Carolina’s move backwards.

But I like to look for the light. Look how far we’ve come in a short time on the issue of gay marriage. Public attitudes have flipped. Well-meaning people realized that gay folks just want to have the same right to enter into disastrous (and occasionally successful) marriages as they do. They didn’t want to get married so they could molest children in churches and rose gardens. At some point even the backwards people of North Carolina will realize that when it comes to really having to pee, we are all the same.

But in the mean time, I would encourage a little civil disobedience by my friends in North Carolina. If you identify as female (whether you are transgender or cisgender), every time you enter a public restroom or changing room, announce, “I do not have a vagina!” And if you are a male entering the men’s room, exclaim, “I do not have a penis!” Then wait for a law enforcement officer to verify your crotch situation. You could be the Rosa Parks of genitals.

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I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting

January 20, 2016

This is a piece I’ve tried to figure out how to write for a while. It could simply be a meditation on something that every parent has thought about. Or it could be just plain icky. This could go either way. Here is something that every parent of a young child can relate to or here is something that screams for state intervention. Okay, here goes. There is a sensual element to parenting a child.

Before you get on the horn to DHSS, there is a difference between sensual and sexual. If fact, as I’ve written about before, being a parent can really interrupt the sexual. We’ve come to refer to our wonderful daughter as the “great cock blocker,” as we reminisce about the good old days when we were crazed weasels who, well, you can guess. All the time.

There’s still weasel action but there is also this other thing. Someday I will write about the increase in connection with a person you’ve had a child with, but this is the trickier area of the relationship between father and child. I was thinking about what to write about today when Cozy, now 17 months, started stroking my hair. I don’t know if she was doing it to be nice to her stressed-out dad or she was assessing how much conditioner I needed, but it felt nice. And I realized how many moments we have like that. Moments where we just snuggle or give kisses or just look into each other’s eyes and I wonder how bizarre it is that I’ve played a role in the existence of this beautiful creature.

It shouldn’t be creepy to be routinely humbled by how soft baby skin is. It’s like as if there was a freaking baby panda that was actually a cloud. I feel like like a chewed up piece of 80 grit sandpaper compared to even the bottom of her feet. There’s a whole industrial machine that sells “baby soft” products, but they can’t even approach my baby’s bottom. Since much of the time is spent holding or changing my daughter there’s a lot of skin to skin contact. Sometimes that’s depressing (“Honey, your father is not the Crypt Keeper, he just grew up in Georgia.”) but often it’s awe inspiring. Did we all start off so perfect and unblemished?

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My ethnic heritage on my father’s side is Czech. Czechs tend to be moley people. Cozy was born this wonderful Czech-Mex mix. Her blue eyes turned brown after about a week. And a week after that she got a little mole on her butt. It just appeared like a message from my ancestors. Every time I change her, I’m reminded of that genetic line. Also when she runs around the house bottomless. Hey, sometimes you’ve gotta air your business out.

I grew up in a weird time and space, the South in the 1970s. On one hand it was the Bible Belt so there were plenty of people who thought bodies were dirty things to be covered (because of that bitch, Eve). On the other hand, it was the height of sexual liberation and people were walking around their homes naked with copies of Playboy and Our Bodies, Our Selves on the coffee table. (My parents were from Ohio and midwesterners just ignore anything sexual.) I have to think those mixed messages didn’t do the psyche of my generation any good.

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Cozy bathes with her parents fairly regularly. She and I had a shower together this morning. It’s really just a way to be efficient. I can watch her if she’s in the tub with me and we can save water on the probably much-needed booty hose down. It is perfectly innocent but I am aware there are some very uptight people who would see it as inappropriate. I know at some point one of us will grow out it, but it’s a nice thing we share. I’ve got friends that showered with their kids into the double digits (in Georgia!), so maybe I’m too worried about the Bible thumpers and their cousins in ISIS.

It is funny when she waddles into the bathroom when I’m standing there peeing. She has this confused look on her face as she tries to figure out what my penis is. I always feel uncomfortable and sing this little song I made up.

What are you looking at Baby B?

What are you looking at, what do you see?

What are you looking at, you’re looking at me.

You better not be looking at my pee pee.

You can’t not have an intimate relationship with a child after you’ve changed thousands of diapers. I know her vagina better than I know most of my family members. And that thing is as clean as a field hockey coach’s whistle. (Wait, that sounds rather dirty.) As a stay-at-home dad, I am the primary agent of her undercarriage management. I often joke that I am on “Butthole Patrol,” because you don’t want to let a kid sit in a dirty diaper too long or you’re gonna need a power sprayer to do the job. (How I envy the French and their clever bidets.) As much as I want the kiddie potty to take over my job, their is something bonding about the diaper change ritual. Eye contact and mutual trust, and a song from dad. (This week it’s been David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.”)

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Freud, Foucault and Judith Butler all have written about the psychic damage done to boys who have to be weened from their mothers and switch their identification to their fathers. In this new age of stay-at-home dads there is the interesting question about daughters who have similar intimate connection to their fathers. How will Cozy’s psycho-sexual identity be affected by all this time we spend together, including the showers and diaper changes? Perhaps not at all, or perhaps she’ll have a solid sense of self that is not defined by one idea of gender or genders.

I do know it has affected me. Besides the protective “papa bear” mandate it fuels, I also feel more like an actual human being. This is a true connection between two people. She might not remember any of it, but I’ll never forget any of it. Before I put her to bed, we have a little dance to some soft music and she puts her head on my shoulder and I make a wish that this dance never ends.

How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

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But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

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For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

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In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

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Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

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He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

December 15, 2015

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It’s funny how we look for gender clues in toddlers. When Cozy wears my old baby clothes or the Atlanta Falcons gear my dad bought her, people don’t hesitate to make her male (although he did also buy a Falcons cheerleader outfit for her). When she’s pretty in pink, it’s all good in the Ladyland hood. As a sociologist of gender, I keep looking for it and wonder what, if anything, is innate about gender. She watches her dad cook and clean house. Will she see those as male activities? I’m the nurturer, wiping her butt and a face every five minutes. Her Mexican mom is much sterner so there’s the authority in the house.

Cozy turns 16-months-old in a few days and she’s fully into imitating behavior now (which means I need to watch my fucking mouth). The three-year-old girl on a flight to Atlanta taught her Peek-a-boo and that’s her jam now. She imitates me washing dishes (that’s a good hobby), but she really loves to imitate her mother. Especially when it comes to make-up. Maybe it’s the just the feel of the brushes on her face, but when mom is at her make-up table, Cozy is wrapped up in a lesson from the master.

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The other night Andrea was at an art gallery, hanging out with some beatniks and Cozy and I were home. Cozy climbed up on to mom’s vanity and looked at herself in the mirrors. She picked up different lipsticks and brushes and I could see it starting. “This what I do to be like mom.” Now, first of all Andrea doesn’t have to do any of that but she’s an artist and has really created an amazing look for herself. And secondly, a little boy of the same age could also find his way to mom’s make-up table and be as fascinated by all the candy-colored treats.

I found myself wanting to pull her down and shove her beloved Elmo doll under her arm. Say what you will about Sesame Street going to HBO and PBS running only the too-short 30 minute versions of the show (Abby’s Flying Fairy School just got gentrified the fuck out of this neighborhood), there is salvation in Elmo. Elmo is my daughter’s security blanket and a link to something close to baby bliss.

Elmo first stumbled on to Sesame Street in the early 1970s as “baby monster,” so the little red thing should be firmly in its 40s by now, instead of perpetually 3-and-a-half. But the one thing that’s consistent about Elmo is Elmo’s non-gender (and maybe the fact that Elmo bizarrely is unable to refer to himself or herself in the first person). Most see Elmo as a boy monster but there are plenty of little girls who see Elmo as a girl monster. Elmo is gender-queer. I was just in New York City and saw four Elmos in Times Square. Were there males or females in those costumes? It really doesn’t matter as long as they were fairly sober.

Elmo is a blank slate that we write gender scripts on to. In a patriarchy, the fallback assumption is male and Sesame Street exists in patriarchy so there are some who refer to Elmo as “he,” but are you really sure about Elmo? He/She doesn’t wear pants so there should be some extra red fur down there. Yeah, you might see Elmo dressed like Indiana Jones but also wearing a tutu. Singing hard with Elvis Costello and later singing softly with Norah Jones. Elmo doesn’t expect Elmo to be masculine or feminine. Elmo is just Elmo, free of gendered norms.

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So, even though her Elmo doll is probably made in a Chinese sweatshop, I’m happy Cozy feels a connection to the little red monster. Her Elmo is not a baby doll with lessons about mothering or a Barbie Doll with a dozen problematic messages about body image and heteronormativity. Elmo comes with one message, Elmo loves you. Elmo’s like Jesus but a lot cuter. Maybe if Jesus was a genderless furry monster baby, some of his followers would stop shooting up women’s health clinics and closing doors on refugee families and just being, in general, dicks. Elmo would never do that shit.

Cozy imitates her mother in many wonderful ways. She likes to draw and cuddle and she’ll take off my mopey music and put something Latin on so she can dance. And she knows when I’m trying to BS her. Her hat obsession comes from me, but her love of boots comes from mom. And someday Cozy and Andrea will have long discussions about how to do your eye liner like Amy Winehouse.

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For now I’m just gonna try to keep her in the Elmo zone for a little bit longer, though, if that’s okay.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a Black Girl?

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free!

 

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

June 25, 2015

I’m glad that transexual folks are getting some love these days. It makes the fact that, still, almost each day a transperson is murdered tinged with a little more hope. (If only they had Caitlyn Jenner’s money.) It’s a topic I want to write more about, but the link here is that it has opened a wider discussion about the fluidity of gender, and as a promoter of Queer Theory, I think that is much needed.

When we found out that Cozy had a sex (female) we started thinking about her gender (who knows). A big part of me didn’t want to know her sex before she was born to avoid the temptation to start the gender socialization before she was even out. Andrea and I had a conversation about at least putting the kibosh on all things pink. We painted her nursery a calming aqua blue.

It didn’t matter. Waves of pink stuff came in. At the baby shower and afterwards. We inherited secondhand baby girl clothes that were pink. And after I’d done a few loads of laundry, pretty much everything was pink. But my mom had sent a bunch of my baby clothes (from the days of the Johnson Administration,  Andrew Johnson) so she’s worn plenty of boy clothes as well. It’s funny how when she’s not in pink, people refer to her as “he.” “Oh, he’s such a cute boy.”

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There are really four or five parts to your gender. The first is biological. That’s your genes and whatever you’ve got going on between your legs. Add to that sexual orientation. Do you like the other sex, your sex, or a bit of both on a Saturday night? But then there’s how you see  yourself. Some people feel they are born in the right body, but there are a lot of people who feel they are other than the gender society has labeled them. These are our trans friends. After that is how we present our gender to others. Are you more “Butch” or “Femme”? Sloppy dads are somewhere in the middle. Finally, you can add the gender presentation you are attracted to.  As a child of the seventies, I’m a sucker for long, flowing hair (unless I’m watching women’s World Cup soccer). This can sound really complicated, but there’s a great exercise called Gender Gumby that makes it easy.

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The point is that everybody is a bit different where they plot themselves on Gender Gumby. And because Gumby is flexible, each of us can be different everyday. Occasionally, I like to butch it up and put my Doc Marten boots on and blast some Slayer. Then there was the first time I saw Soundgardern play and stared at Chris Cornell for an hour. Flexible! Lots of queer folks have to play it down on occasion and the straightest Conservatives can get super kinky behind closed doors.

OK, back to the baby. Cozy has a sex but no gender yet. She’s 10 months old and I’m in no hurry to push her into that bag. She is beyond gender and it’s really cool to see that freedom. She doesn’t “act like a girl” in any way, but it’s fun to see the “gendered” behavior that could be ascribed to her.

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Cozy likes to climb. She’s like a little tank. She climbs over everything, including Mom and Dad. I’m sure if she was a boy, people would say, “He’s just being a boy.” Cozy likes to slap dad. She thinks it’s funny. Sometimes in restaurants she likes to be loud. Actually, she likes to be loud a lot. She and I have the occasional screaming contest. Boys will be boys. There is a baby doll in the house. I don’t know where it came from. She doesn’t have much interest in it and would rather play with Dad’s box of dominoes. (For the record, I had dolls named Raggedy Andy and Dapper Dan.)  She has a little “car” that we call the Cozymobile. She just loves to go fast as she can in it. Give this girl a fashion magazine and she will rip it to shreds in minutes. That’s my little feminist.

She sees Dad cooking and Mom working on her paintings. I don’t think I have to worry about her home environment, but at some point peers and media and school and religion will send her messages about more traditional gender performances (aka “patriarchy”), but for now she is completely blurring, or “queering,” the gender lines. In the past we called this being a “tom boy” but in the future we will call it being a girl.

Babies don’t really have a gender. They are asexual little blobs of joy that we shape into mirrors of our own fears and insecurities. Any armchair analysis of the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras will tell you that. Or dads forcing their kids to play the sports that they failed at. But there is also a chance to free our children of the suffocating constraints of oppressive gender rules. Every parent that has told a boy not to “cry like a girl” has deeply wounded that child in a way that is life lasting. The same goes every parent that tells their daughter that she is pretty and that’s enough. Let’s raise whole children, not ones from Venus or Mars.

And in 2019, Cozy and I will be glued to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. But for now, Go USA! Beat China!

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