New(ish) on Medium: Philadelphia’s Pride Flag Matters

Over at Medium, I published an op-ed that I actually submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer a year ago, in midst of backlash to their then recently unveiled version of the pride flag, which includes a black and brown stripe. In it, I use some of the research I did for my forthcoming book on African American AIDS activism alongside the Gayborhood’s ongoing problems with racism (and specifically anti-Blackness) to defend the redesign as a long-overdue symbol of the kind of queer community we should be working toward.

In any case, I found it while going through some files, and put it up on Medium. Think Queerly, a publication on the platform, offered to run it for their followers as well. Click through the image below or the link above to read it.

The redesigned Philadelphia 2017 Pride Flag. Source: Philadelphia Magazine

View at


Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Anonymous No More

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s digital exhibit Anonymous No More, about the life and times of gay psychiatrist John Fryer, is now live! I contributed the essay “HIV/AIDS, Gay Communities, and the Struggle for Gay Rights” and the exhibit also features excellent work by Christina LaroccoTimothy Stewart-WinterRebecca Alpert, and Jack Drescher.

John Fryer in disguise as “Dr. Anonymous” at the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Source: Wikipedia.

At the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Fryer delivered a speech in disguise as “Dr. Anonymous,” in which he disclosed his own sexuality as a gay man and urged his colleagues to treat their gay and lesbian patients with sympathy and understanding. At the time, the APA classified homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder—that would change the following year, thanks in part to Fryer’s activism. Anonymous No More is part of a broader series of public engagements exploring his life and legacy.

Frankly missing the point.

Read this now: Maya Rupert’s criticism of Barney Frank for using of the phrase “Uncle Tom” in his rebuke of openly gay Republicans’ continued support of a party that seems increasingly retrograde on just about everything, but especially on social issues, like, I don’t know, gay marriage.

I share much of Frank’s confusion as to precisely why members of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud stay in a party that clearly does not seem to like them very much. My best guess is that they’re relatively affluent, as white gay men and lesbians tend to be, and their party membership reflects their pocketbook politics. More broadly, perhaps their support for the GOP comes out of a dissatisfaction with the liberal welfare state and those perceived to be its “undeserving” beneficiaries. Indeed, this feeling reverberates across both sides of the aisle in post-industrial America, from Reagan’s attacks on phantasmic “welfare queens” to Clinton’s welfare “reform” to the everyday stigma that attaches to folks receiving food stamps or Section 8 vouchers.

Contempt for the “undeserving poor” has the kind of political currency that it does in part because it’s very hard to confront one’s own privilege, whether it owes to skin color, gender, heterosexuality, class, or any number of other factors. To begin with, our national mythology is premised on the notion that we are always already free and fundamentally equal. On top of that, the African American civil rights movement effectively removed the legal architecture maintaining forced inequality in the Jim Crow South. Without laws on the books banning interracial marriage or mandating “separate but equal” public facilities, it’s much harder for many Americans to grasp the myriad reasons for persistent racial inequality, from vastly disparate public school funding to the mass(ively disproportionate) incarceration of people of color to straight-up unconscious individual prejudice.

This is a very roundabout way of suggesting an uncomfortable symmetry between Frank and the “Uncle Toms” on the other side of this political war of words–all are, in spite of their political differences, more or less blind to their own privilege. As Rupert points out, Frank’s comments suggest that all forms of marginalization are essentially the same, which is admittedly different from minimalizing them or arguing that the federal government should have no role in mitigating them. But Frank’s use of “Uncle Tom” (not to mention Dan Savage’s similar use of the phrase “house faggots”) shows a remarkable disregard for both the past and present of black people in this country. The fact that he defended his comments in Huffington Post without any mention of their racial dimension underscores his blindness.

While drawing strong parallels between the black freedom struggle and the gay rights movement may be tempting and at times politically opportune, it’s a problematic move that (again, pace Rupert) flattens differences between the ways that racism and homophobia operate in American society, and puts black LGBT people in a strange liminal position between camps commonly–and errantly–understood as being totally separate. To boot, it (along with the very name of the popular gay rights blog The New Civil Rights Movement) also consigns the Civil Rights Movement–and along with it, racial oppression in this country–to the past. To say that we can have a new civil rights movement suggests that the old one is over. Complete. This is simply not true.

There’s no doubt in my mind that between the Democratic and Republican parties, Barney Frank represents the one whose vision will do the greatest good (or even just the least bad) for people of color in the United States, but that doesn’t give Frank license to throw around racially charged epithets like this one. As Avenue Q reminds us, everyone’s a little bit racist.

(apologies for the scratchiness of the audio)

How to Survive a Plague

The ACT UP/TAG documentary How to Survive a Plague, which has a theatrical release set for September 22, has an official trailer…

…as well as a tumblr of ACT UP images that also invites users to submit their own artwork about current issues. 25 years later, the posters that ACT UP and the associated art collective Gran Fury put together are not only arresting, but sadly still relevant.

Gran Fury poster from 1988. Source: How to Survive a Plague
Gran Fury poster from 1987. Source: How to Survive a Plague

All signs point to this film being an out-and-out tearjerker; the trailer alone made me cry. But the larger point seems to be not just to elegize a movement and the millions lost to AIDS, but to inspire a new generation of activists to address their own social justice concerns. In his review, Frank Bruni testifies to the film’s sense of hope for the potential of mass action to effect real change. Indeed, last year’s Occupy movement seemed to echo ACT UP in its tactics and targets, if not in the precision of its message, and the two groups collaborated on an action in April and one over the Fourth of July, and members of ACT UP Philly helped train Philadelphia Occupiers in direct action methods when the encampment was in place late last year. While ACT UP has largely faded outside of a few strongholds in the urban mid-Atlantic (ACT UP Philadelphia being the only continuously active chapter, by their own claim) the growing economic inequality in the United States coupled with the energy of Occupy protesters has some hoping that a new truly progressive politics might be possible in this country. Whether it will materialize, and whether it will in the end look anything like ACT UP or Occupy remains to be seen.

Incidentally, my goal in undertaking the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project and African American AIDS History Project is also to inspire, as well as to inform. Of course, the interviews that I conduct are a critical piece of the research for my dissertation. But beyond that, by recording voices that have been left out of many popular and academic accounts of U.S. AIDS activism and collecting digital copies of materials through the African American AIDS History Project site, we’re creating a repository of materials that will not only be available to scholars, but will hopefully inspire people to get involved with important issues at a grassroots level.

Cross-posted at the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.

Lavender scurred.

This month, University of Chicago Press is offering David K. Johnson’s excellent The Lavender Scare for free download as an e-book.  You’ll need Adobe Digital Editions to view it, which you can also download for free.  Links to both can be found on UCP’s site.

In The Lavender Scare, Johnson details the largely hidden history of the gay men and women fired from federal employment for being “security risks” during the Cold War.  He begins during the 1930s, when Roosevelt’s New Deal drew many young men to Washington, giving rise to a gay subculture in the capitol.  Moving on to the well-worn territory of the McCarthy-era red scare, he describes the close association in the public’s mind between the State Department and homosexuality, and the purges of federal employees who moved somewhat openly in gay Washington, sought out same-sex partners at the city’s cruising spots, or were merely suspected or accused of having same-sex desires.  Although the ostensible reason for their firing was that they would be susceptible to blackmail by foreign agents, Johnson unpacks the anxieties about gender, sexuality, and invasion that inhered in the gay panic on Capitol Hill.  In this atmosphere, simply having been fired from the State Department cast aspersions on one’s sexual proclivities (see above cartoon).  Furthermore, he shows that this “lavender scare” outlasted what we think of as the red scare by about a decade, lasting well into the 1960s, and that this persecution in part fostered the homophile activism that predated the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.

If you like Johnson’s book, you might also want to check out Lee Edelman’s playful essay “Tearooms and Sympathy, or, the Epistemology of the Water Closet,” which offers a more cultural studies-inflected take on the meanings behind police surveillance of gay cruising spots in Washington, D.C.  The PBS website also has a copy of a committee report on the employment of homosexuals in federal government from 1950, which gives you a sense of officials’ slippery reasoning for the firings.

Sweetie darling, no.

Via Jezebel (from which I get approximately 73% of my daily news): Absolutely Fabulous, one of my favorite television shows of all time, is coming back for a new season later this year.  The only emotion I can muster in response: ugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love AbFab.  A lot.  Like, a lot a lot.  (but not alot)  But let’s face it: this was a show very much of its time, and it doesn’t translate well to the current moment.  It’s probably true of most good shows that earlier seasons are stronger than later ones, but in the AbFab case this is compounded by the fact that the show was so rooted in the 1990s.  While it’s true that some of the shows main themes–relationships among women, class performance, and the problem of aging in a culture that fetishizes youth–remain relevant (it’s hard to imagine a world in which they aren’t), much of the show’s humor stemmed from Patsy and Edina’s unwillingness to break with the excesses of their youth in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now, twenty years on, youth and pop culture focuses our nostalgic energies on the very time in which the show debuted.  Will new episodes be able to speak to anyone not already familiar with the show’s earlier iterations?

One also has to wonder how the show will deal with the current economic climate.  I think the show’s earlier run felt very 1990s in part because of the conspicuously consumptive and self-absorbed atmosphere that matched up with the apparent economic expansion of the Clinton/Blair years.  Even then, Edina’s affluence always seemed tenuous and put-on, so will Jennifer Saunders (her writing partner Dawn French doesn’t appear to be involved, although Joanna Lumley will return as Patsy Stone) show us how she deals with the Great Recession?  Would it be gauche to do otherwise?

I’ll concede that the show was about much more than aging hipster ladies–Edina’s relationship with her daughter Saffron, and the inversion of the parent-child dynamic both fueled the laugh track and in a small way rang true for me as an only child of divorced parents growing up in household where my mother felt more like a partner in crime than a disciplinarian.  So that aspect of the show may certainly retain its relevance, and no doubt the focus on outsize, dramatic female lead characters will continue to please its fanbase of gay men and the women who love them.

Case in point:

At least the self-absorption remains relevant.  You’re reading a personal blog, after all.

McCarthy for Muslims.

This week Representative Peter King’s (R-NY) House Homeland Security Committee opened hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims.  Amid opposition from Democratic congressmen and -women, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Islamic groups, King defended the proceedings, saying that there is “nothing radical or un-American about these hearings.”  King obviously wants to avoid comparisons (too late) to Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which seriously damaged the lives and careers of left-leaning folks in entertainment and government, as well as those of (suspected) gay men and women working in the federal government.  King is also trying to fend off charges that his hearings are rooted in racism and prejudice by saying that while the majority of Muslim Americans are patriotic citizens, the small number of radicals who engage in terrorist acts warrants the committee’s investigation.  As Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) pointed out during the hearings, by that logic it would make just as much sense to hold hearings investigating the causes of radicalism among white folks:

When the Southern Poverty Law Center put out reports in 2009 and 2010 saying essentially the same thing, that white right-wing extremism poses an immediate threat to Americans’ safety and security, it raised conservative hackles that they were being unfairly targeted by left-wingers promoting a culture of fear by inflating the violent actions of a few to demonize a swath of people with similar political beliefs. (examples here, here, and here) Um, irony much?

Speaking of irony, these hearings come the same week that two NPR executives resigned after conservative activist James O’Keefe (of ACORN pimp fame) caught one of them on tape saying that the Republic party has been “hijacked” by “Islamophobic… xenophobic… seriously racist, racist people.”  The problem with this statement?  Well it’s not great from a PR standpoint, but it’s not exactly an unreasonable opinion.  Looking at the groundswell of oppositional protest by people waving signs proclaiming, “I want my country back” following Obama’s election, the sheer number of Republicans who believe that the president is a Muslim, and recent opposition to the Park51 Islamic community center, it’s a pretty easy conclusion to draw.  The rub lies in that funding for public broadcasting (including NPR) is under Congressional review with the current budget bill.

Of course, the House budget bill seems to have much more to do with settling old scores and pleasing the Republican party’s base (although who makes up that base these days is anyone’s guess) than with functional governance, and that goes double for Scott Walker’s Wisconsin clusterf***.  I wrote here briefly about the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, but Americorps has also come up on the chopping block, apparently because it makes House Republicans think of Bill Clinton and Ed Kennedy.  Likewise, Rep. King’s hearings seem to be more about fear-mongering and building political capital than preventing terrorism; King’s support for the I.R.A. in the 1980s only make the proceedings look more cynical.  But the fact remains that Republicans and a fair number of Democrats see this as a productive political discourse, or at least one to which they must pay lip service.  It’s possible that with all the battles Republicans seem intent on fighting, the American electorate will wake up to what’s going on here and throw them out in 2012, but I’m really afraid that this is actually a dark portent of things to come.

Head-desking for purity.

False, the enemy is Ross Douthat.

Want to know why monogamy matters?  The New York Times’ resident arch-conservative Ross Douthat is here to tell you, pulling together a couple recent studies to argue imply that 1) today’s young people are waiting to longer to have sex, 2) this makes them happier, and 3) abstinence-only education is responsible, and we should fund more of it.  Douthat says:

“In 2002, the study reported, 22 percent of Americans aged 15 to 24 were still virgins. By 2008, that number was up to 28 percent. Other research suggests that this trend may date back decades, and that young Americans have been growing more sexually conservative since the late 1980s.”

Really?  This has been going on since the late 1980s?  I’m going to go ahead and say that ads like this one might have something to do with it:


There’s also this one:


And another updating this theme for the texting generation:


Since the 1980s, kids have grown up with a slew of public service announcements communicating the same basic message:


Even this would be an improvement (I’m getting a little video-happy here, just roll with it):


Contrast that with this slideshow of safer sex ads from Holland and Germany, where (according to Slate) rates of HIV infection and teen pregnancy are six times lower than those in the United States.  Looking at alternative, sex-positive approaches to sex education, it’s no wonder that people who deviate from the sexual activities and expressions that American culture promotes through institutions like abstinence-only education should experience greater anxiety and unease than those who stick to the script, as it were.  Monogamy doesn’t inherently make all people happier any more than does sexual libertinism–the former might satisfy some, and the latter others.  The point is that we should equip young people with the knowledge to protect themselves and their partners should they choose to be sexually active.  That’s not cynical, that’s realistic–and looking at data from across the pond, it seems to work.  After all, the study that Douthat cites about abstinence-only education, discussed in somewhat greater depth here, only showed that fewer 12 and 13-year-olds who were given a relatively brief abstinence-only education course had engaged in intercourse after two years than those who received a similarly brief safer sex course.  Not that they had lower rates of teen pregnancy or STD infection, they simply reported having sex with fewer partners.  If that’s how conservatives measure success, they’re certainly setting their horizons pretty low.  Maybe they’re the cynical ones after all.

James Buckanan? Isn’t he a porn star?

I’ve been intermittently following the Times“Disunion” series, not to be confused with Elizabeth Varon‘s masterful book of the same title, via Facebook, and yesterday’s post by Jean Baker caught my attention.  She describes why James Buchanan deserves recognition for his extreme awfulness as a U.S. president, and she’s not alone in her opinion.  The Siena Research Institute’s 2010 poll found Buchanan in the second from bottom slot, whereas a 2007 U.S. News and World Report poll found him in dead last.  For Baker, Buchanan’s cronyism and the corruption that marked his administration are damning enough, but his Southern sympathies and failure to stave off sectional crisis really do him in.  (As an aside, it’s no accident that the bottom ten in the USN&WR ranking is populated by men who held the office leading up to or immediately after the Civil War.)  It’s worth pointing out that (anti-)slavery politics leading up to wartime were quite complicated, with a range of possible positions from anti-racist abolitionists to anti-black free-soilers to colonizationists to pro-slavery firebreathers.  Abraham Lincoln, who consistently rates at or near the top of the list of best all-time U.S. preisdents, himself moved among anti-slavery positions.  He supported plans to repatriate former slaves to Africa and to simply prohibit extending slavery into the western territories, expecting that it would die out on its own, before coming to abolitionism during the war.  Whether or not he would have been able to secure black rights during the postbellum period is impossible to say, although the historical record suggests that he was more of a pragmatist than an idealist; it is likely that had he survived, freed blacks would not have fared much better than they did in our timeline.

In any case, the article caught my attention initially because I enjoy the lacunae of popular history, but stayed with me for what Baker says at the end.  Our failed presidents, she argues, have much to tell us, and Buchanan failed “because he used that power with such partiality as an activist, ideologically driven executive.  He had chosen sides in the great crisis and did not listen.”  With an issue like slavery where morality is crystal clear in hindsight, her criticism of Buchanan makes sense, but what lessons about our current political dilemmas are we to draw from this?  Is this an implicit criticism of Obama, who many on the right condemn as just such an activist executive, or of Republican congressional leaders recently returned to power in both state and federal governments, who seem hell-bent on settling ideological old scores?  Or is this just an argument for centrism?

P.S. James Buchanan was a “confirmed bachelor” who lived in the White House with former Vice President William Rufus DeVane King, who just edges out Hannibal Hamlin for the title of Best-Named U.S. Vice President Ever.  Here he is, in all his daguerreotypic glory:


What a hottie–no wonder Buchanan couldn’t pull it together.  I think we have a new explanation for the outbreak of the Civil War: FROTTAGE.