How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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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.

Ode to a Gay Bar

June 15, 2016

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On Monday afternoon I was walking along the Mall in Washington, DC, looking at all the flags at half mast in remembrance of the massacre in Orlando. It was powerful to see our nation’s capital honoring 49 people killed in a gay club. But I don’t think the weight of the thing really hit me until the following day. I was listening to a story on NPR about how the city had hired Spanish translators to explain to the parents of some of the victims, who had been killed at “Latin Night” at Pulse, the city’s biggest gay club, what had happened to their children. Many of the parents were confused at why their “straight” child had been at a gay bar. The fact that the victims had to come out after their murder was like an emotional sledgehammer. Such a common story.

I could talk all day about the shooter and the reactions from the bitterly gun-obsessed, Islam-hating right-wing narrative inventors. But I want to talk about the crime scene. More specifically, the importance of the gay bar in America.

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Friday will be the one year anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina where another hate-filled man killed nine black worshipers. A black writer that admire (I can’t remember who), penned a piece about the meaning of the racist killer invading a space that was sacred to many African Americans in more ways than one. The black church is historically a sanctuary from the racism outside the church doors, a place to be in the majority and bond over common struggles. Dylan Roof invaded a safe space that had been invaded many times before.

Omar Mateen did the same thing.

As a kid in rural Georgia, there were stories about gay bars in places like San Francisco and New York City. (We didn’t know about the Stonewall Inn, just Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”) It wasn’t until, at age 16,  I started going into downtown Atlanta to hang out in punk rock clubs, like 688, that I discovered the thriving underground world of Atlanta’s gay bars. When the rock clubs closed at around 2 am we had a few options; Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue (“Hot Doughnuts Now”), the Majestic Diner, also on Ponce (“We never close but we’re often rude”) or the gay dance bars that seemed to serve drinks until dawn.

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In the early 1980s, that was mainly Backstreet in Midtown, set back far enough from Peachtree Street that it felt like a secret mission just to find the door to get in. I first went with a bunch of friends in 1981. I was 17 and still schooled in the homophobia of the South but also aware that I never fit in that Southern culture. It didn’t take long to learn that the “queers” were a part of my tribe of misfits. That was the beginning of the end of my homophobia.

All I knew was that the cool kids were at the gay bar, dancing to Two Tons of Fun or Grace Jones, smoking cigarettes and bitching about rednecks. That first night I was sure I was gonna get hit on as I entered the door with my crappy fake ID. By the time I left I wondered why I didn’t get hit on. Did I not rate? I felt insulted but welcomed at the same time. One one hand we were the straight crowd invading somebody else’s space but I always got the feeling that it was appreciated that we were loose enough to be there without starting some stupid shit.

It felt dirty and dangerous and liberating. It was clear people were risking life and limb to be there, to find a community in the shadows. There were cops and hustlers and straight thugs and repressed thugs all itching for a chance to play Smear the Queer right outside of the bar’s door. Just a block away, “straight” men from the suburbs and the sticks were cruising Juniper Street for a quick gay hook-up. (Georgia license plates have the county of registration on them so when you saw Mr. Coweta County on Juniper, you knew what was up. They just kept it on the down low.) There was an air of constant danger. And my mother always thought I was staying over at a friend’s.

Maybe most important was the simple fact that people there could be who they actually were. So many LGBT people are forced into double lives. Their true sexual selves and the persons their religion or community demands they must be. This was certainly true of the 1980s Bible belt and I am quite sure it was the case for Omar Mateen. For many, all they had or have is the gay bar on a Saturday night and then it’s back to the big lie Sunday morning. You felt like you were in an oasis of sanity and disco lights.

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But it was in those clubs that a movement from the fringe to the mainstream was born. Like at Stonewall in 1968 and Pulse in 2016. This was the flash before AIDS changed so much. It became the routine to see the Now Explosion (Atlanta’s even gayer B-52s) perform at 688 then follow the crowd, Ru Paul leading the way, to Backstreet or Weekends and dance until our legs gave out.

I’ve written about how I worked at the Turtles Records in Ansley Mall next to Piedmont Park (where it was more than rumored that gay men were having sex in the bushes). I thought I’d ask co-worker Ronnie Holland what those days were like. In many ways he my translator of Southern gay culture in the early 80s.

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Backstreet was a safe haven.  It didn’t feel safe getting there, in the early days of 79/80, we would park off site on the side streets cause we didn’t want the police to get our tag numbers and the streets weren’t particularly safe either, but once we got inside, it was total freedom.  You were accepted, regardless.  Now, that didn’t mean there wasn’t attitude and cattiness and cliques, but everyone just dealt.  To have grown up thinking you were different and strange and somehow wrong, and not ever being able to talk to anyone about it, to find a “tribe” of people who had similar experiences was “otherworldly”.  You didn’t have to explain the journey, it was a common one.

I would have to say that, for my group, the bonding was intense.  Drugs probably helped with that, but the experience of being in a group of people on the dance floor with the music building to a frenzy and everyone being a part of the same experience, was very similar to a sort of “religious” frenzy.  The music and the closeness of the bodies and people losing inhibitions and the lights and the joy……I can see how people would feel a comparison to a church like experience.  It became tribal and transcendental. You lose yourself into the group.

The gay club became an extension of our underground scene and it grew as the climate evolved. By the 1990s, Ru Paul was hosting events at Velvet, a club in the heart of downtown. But it was never completely safe. In 1973, a gay club in New Orleans was the target of an arson attack that killed 32 patrons. In Atlanta it was the bombing of The Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road in 1997. The lesbian bar was the targeted by Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, a “Christian patriot” who used a bomb full of nails to maximize the carnage. Fortunately, no one was killed but the terroristic message was clear. You can’t even feel safe in your safe spaces.

I was listening to Washington Post writer Justin Torres talk about the Orlando shooting two days afterwards. His first thought on seeing the news was, “Oh, my God. These are my people.” Then he spoke, in almost reverent terms, of the gay club severing as a “queer church” that rejuvenates souls. “So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. Safe space is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it,” he said.

To have your church attacked by someone who had been welcomed into it with open arms, just like what happened in Charleston a year ago, is a deep wounding that cannot heal easily. Where can you feel safe if not there? And for every big city gay club with armed security (a lot of good that does) there is a small town gay bar hoping to survive a firebombing or having its patrons followed home and harassed. Can a brother and/or sister just have a drink in peace?

I have a friend named C. Ray Borck. Besides being a much loved sociology professor, he is transgender and came of age in the gay clubs. He posted a powerful homage on Facebook to those clubs less than 12 hours after the news about Orlando broke, writing:

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I have been remembering the countless nights I’ve spent in gay clubs, especially the Latinx ones, and I keep discovering moments of solace in the memories and magic of those places, as early as last week on Cherry Grove. A gay dance party is always a good time. The sexy lighting and incessant beats. Excessive drinking and cigarettes after everyone else had kids and quit. Loud fashion and incisive wit. Watching men be tender with each other and feeling like that’s the revolution. Sweating and yelling and laughing. Telling coming out stories, stories about our youths and our parents, our backwards communities and schools, having found each other in the city streets.

I didn’t need the gay bar because my heterosexuality was celebrated in every corner of my world. But I did need the gay bar for other reasons. Not because it was a “safe space” for “gender non-conforming” kids like me and my punk rock gang. Yes, we were the target of gay-bashings as well. (A guy once drove up next to my car on Piedmont Road and said, “You look like a fag from England,” and then started whacking my Gran Torino with a 2 X 4). We needed it for our friends so they could simply have a space to breath and dance and not be “gay,” but be human beings. Some were gay outside the club and some did their best performances of a “heterosexual lifestyle,” but the either way, their guard was always up. That must be why those clubs are open so late. Just one more dance, please. One more song before I have to again hear how gay people are going to burn in hell or that gay people need to be killed. And make it the extended disco mix.

Wherever your local gay bar is, you don’t have to patronize it but protect it. People you love need to be able to breathe.

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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.

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!

 

Sweet Jesus, I hope my daughter is gay.

November 2, 2015

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I got to spend a day last week with Matthew Shepard’s parents. Shepard is the University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in 1998 because he was gay. I was invited to participate in a Department of Justice hate crime training of law enforcement officers in Salem, Oregon. I’ve talked about the “Matthew Shepard case” since it happened, but after hearing his parents talking about their son and seeing his face in theirs, I felt like I finally got to know Matthew himself. The pain of losing a child must be insurmountable. The pain of losing him or her to a hate crime only ads to the weight. The training was held on the sixth anniversary of President Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. So much of that was to due to the hard work of Dennis and Judy Shepard.

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Listening them talk about how far we’ve come was encouraging. Gay people now have the same right to marry in all fifty states, thanks to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation in most states is illegal (although it’s still legal in Wyoming). “Homosexuality” has gone from shocking (Does anybody remember Billy Crystal’s character on Soap or Jack Tripper’s flamboyant caracature on Three’s Company) to Ellen DeGegerenes spending her afternoons with middle-class housewives. Some famous athlete or actor comes out of the closet and you can hear the crickets chirp.

But lord, we’ve got such a long way to go. In 2013 there were over 1,200 reported anti-gay hate crimes (and countless unreported attacks). Homophobia is still part of the mainstream youth vernacular (“That’s so gay.”) and there is a presidential candidate who thinks going to prison makes you homosexual. (Can there be a prize for the dumbest brain surgeon in America?) I could go on and on but it’s too depressing. For example, gay kids are still 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. But we’re on it. We are way on it.  It’s a good day to be gay in Portland, but it still has to suck in Omaha.

The point is it’s getting better. There is a crack in the heteronormativity of our culture. Not only are there Gay-Straight Alliances popping up in schools all over the country (even Mississippi!), many parents with kids are not just assuming their children are straight. When I imagine dancing with Cozy at her wedding, it might be her marriage to a really awesome woman! Who knows?

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So while I was watching the Shepards talk about the murder of their son, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, I became lost in thought. There were two things stuck in my head that I thought would be important to say out loud.

First, Andrea and I don’t really care if Cozy is gay, straight, transgender, bisexual or any of the other letters. I think most parents worry that their queer child will just face more obstacles (including being victimized by hate criminals). Sure there are a few idiots who think their kid will burn in hell because of their “choice.” (What if Mike Huckabee has a gay kid?) But most just mourn the loss of freedom that child will experience in a homophobic society. My great hope is that when Cozy is a tween, coming out for gay kids won’t be any more dramatic than coming out for straight kids (and straight kids do come out).

She’s not going to have to wait for the right moment to break it to mom and dad. (Like most parents) we will already know. I’m more worried about finding out she’s left-handed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Nobody should waste one second of their lives in the closet. (I’m looking at you, Mike Huckabee.) All she’s gonna get from me at the announcement is, “Meh. Have you done your homework? Oh, and I love you, bug face.”

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The other thing is there’s at least some good news for lesbians. Because men can be such pricks and are not good about talking about their feelings and shit, heterosexual couples have it rough. They fall into all that Mars and Venus gendered discourse. (Just read any book by Terrence Real.) These “traditional marriage” blowhards don’t seem to worry much about how most straight marriages end up in the dumpster. But research shows that since women are much better at talking to EACH OTHER, Cozy’s lesbian marriage has a much better chance of lasting until she’s an old lady riding off into the sunset (because that’s what lesbians do, I’m told).

Of course the added bonus to all this is that it will limit her exposure to douchebags. I’d prefer her having a soccer-playing girlfriend to a video game-playing boyfriend.

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At the least my gay daughter would be forced into taking up the fight against all the oppression that will still exist. She won’t be free to sit on the sidelines and just worry about her queer friends. As I’ve mentioned, it took me way to long to join this fight. Hopefully, she’ll be sitting in her fourth grade civics class in 2024 and reading about the bigoted morons that hogged the limelight in 2015.

And to paraphrase Heathers, one of the best movies ever made, I love my (possibly) gay daughter.