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Friday, December 5, 2008

The sacred bedroom

I love it when I discover a new and wonderful writer...even if the rest of the country has been appreciating his voice for a while now.

Russell Wangersky has something wonderful to say about human desire and freedom that his American neighbors could learn a lot from. Read it here.

Timely, too, during Advent, when Christians celebrate an itinerant family, a single mother, and the man who married her, even though the child was not his.

Friday, September 26, 2008


It's not just Palin's daughter anymore.

The Bristol Herald Courier is one of many "battleground state" newspapers this morning calling for the presidential debates to go on--as they did during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Candidates Must Debate

This is Bristol, Virginia--and Bristol, Tennessee. Part of the Tri-Cities. Where I was born.

It's not just the Washington suburbs that are in play in this election. This is southern Virginia.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


It is another Election Year in the United States of America. Millions of Americans live outside the U.S., but many have not managed to get their votes in in the past. Anybody remember Florida 2000? No, not that part. The part where people suddenly paid attention to the counting of absentee ballots. Where the votes of Americans abroad could make the difference in an election.

U.S. and dual citizens are entitled to vote in U.S. elections, no matter where in the world we live.

One-stop U.S. voter registration

Even if you live in the States, deadlines are coming up quickly. All voters can use this link.

Every election I find many citizens who are surprised to know that they can vote, no matter if they are living outside the U.S. indefinitely, or have never lived there.

People all over the world would love to participate in our elections. Those of us who can, let's do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Nay, sir, do not complain."

"It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends."

-- Dr. Johnson, in James Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson

Friday, May 16, 2008


"We loved each other and got married," Mildred Loving told The Washington Evening Star in 1965, when Loving v. Virginia was pending. Loving, who died last month, and her husband Richard were the interracial couple whose Supreme Court case overturned U.S. miscegenation laws.

"We are not marrying the state. The law should allow a person to marry anyone he wants."

Yesterday the supreme court of California agreed with the position Loving took towards the end of her life, declaring it unconstitutional to prevent same-sex couples from marrying in that state. The opinion declared that measures designed to discriminate against gays and lesbians should be as suspect as measures designed to discriminate against a racial group, or people of one sex. This should carry some weight, coming from a conservative court.

It will bring opposition. Representative democracies, like California and the United States, do not work by simple majority. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government work together to represent the people--a system designed to protect against abuses of power. In California, all three branches of government now agree that same-sex couples should not be prevented from marrying by the state.

Groups purporting to represent the majority--assuming that heterosexuals, who are the majority, automatically oppose the rights of gays to marry--will now try to keep this decision from coming into force. They will do so by ballot measures like those that have passed in many states. Conservative voices like The Wall Street Journal have already joined in, declaring this decision an example of judicial activism and associating it with Democrats. (In fact, the California supreme court was appointed almost entirely by Republicans, while neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Rodham Clinton supports same-sex marriage.)

Do not be fooled by these shibboleths. The judiciary is only one branch of California government, and all three agree. The legislature has already affirmed gay couples' rights, and the Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has said he will not support changes to the constitution to block it. Ballot propositions are designed to force through, by simple majority, a "corrective" to decisions already made by our representatives in government.

Forty years ago, there is no doubt that a majority of Americans would have disapproved of "interracial" marriages. Even now, such couples are a clear minority, and have a hard time. But the Lovings should not have had to wait until most Americans were ready to accept their lifestyle. And Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who have been together for more than 50 years, should not have to try getting married again and again--in their 80s!--while people around them squabble about a lifestyle that, frankly, is not their concern.

That is why we have this system of checks and balances: to protect minorities against abuse by the majority.

Mildred Loving would be proud.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King

4 April 1967

This message is 41 years old today. One year later, at the age of 39, King was assassinated--40 years ago today.

The speech was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Unlike his more famous speeches, this one goes beyond the subject of race relations to address the morality of an entire country, in the middle of a controversial war. The message was not welcomed from King then, but it is just as necessary now.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Never thought I'd quote this guy

He's the governor of Arkansas, a former Republican presidential candidate, and a Baptist minister.

"As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, 'That's a terrible statement,' I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack. And I'm going to be probably the only conservative in America who's going to say something like this, but I'm just telling you: We've got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, 'You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus.' And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had ... more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me."

- Mike Huckabee, offering his perspective on the preaching of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (Source: MSNBC)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Jane Rule

For those who do not know, Jane Rule, who recently died, was born in the United States and for many years was the only openly lesbian writer in Canada. Her most famous novel, Desert of the Heart, was the basis for the film Desert Hearts.

The latest issue of Curve magazine contains a tribute to Jane by Lee Lynch. When I think of the previous generation of lesbian writers, I think of Lee Lynch, in the same way she thinks of Jane Rule. Lynch quotes Rule on the various ways in which she was identified as a writer: Canadian, American, lesbian, and six feet tall. So it seems appropriate that there is also a quote from "Canadian poet J. E. Knowles." If it was good enough for Jane Rule, why not identify as binational? Genre is fluid...

I just finished reading Rule's second novel, This Is Not For You. It's one of those times I'm glad not to be a book reviewer, because my first reaction was "Whoa." The novel is not set in Canada, has only one Canadian character, yet there's something very Canadian about it. The bleakness of the character and her outlook work in wonderful counterpoint with wry observations about human beings, so sharp I felt I could cut my fingers on the page. The book's back in print now with Insomniac Press.

A Jane Rule archive may be found at Xtra!

Friday, February 22, 2008

James Baldwin

"Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don't live the only life you have, you won't live some other life, you won't live any life at all. That's the only advice you can give anybody...."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An Innocent Time

Published in Knoxville Bound: A Collection of Literary Works Inspired by Knoxville, Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2004)

I've sojourned three times in Knoxville, twice that I remember. Both times, I felt as I feel about the city I live in now, that I was not really at home, but on loan from some place I belonged more exactly. I could not quite put my finger on the pulse of Knoxville, was not quite sure if the city had a character. Yet it stuck in my memory to a surprising degree.

On New Year's Eve, twenty-four years ago as I write now, my family was driving down from the Johnson City area so my father could begin an eight-month sabbatical at the University of Tennessee. My father and little brother were ahead in the U-Haul, and I was with my mother in our slightly-less-than-new Chevy Nova, where, at the age of seven, it was my job to "help" with my baby sister. She sat between us in the car seat. My mother was proud of the fact that Tennessee had, she said, been the first state to require infant seats.

I don't know how much help I was on the hundred-mile trip, which seemed much longer, but I arrived in Knoxville with one overpowering thought: I have to pee.

It's my first memory of Knoxville, though not the first time I'd been there. When I was a year old, I lived on a double-digit floor of an apartment building on Kingston Pike, where my mother rescued, from the garbage chute, recipe books that told how to stretch casseroles twice as far with frozen vegetables and lots of sour cream. My father had been finishing his master's degree at the time. In 1980 he was back to make a push towards his doctorate.

We left our house in Carter County in the care of people who had assured us that, although they smoked, they would not do so in the house because my mother was allergic, nor would they let their big dogs run all over the house, scratching at the door and spreading fleas. We moved into an apartment on Sutherland Avenue, L-308 to be exact. There we began what was for me the unfamiliar experience of urban living, going up and down stairs, being, if only on the surface, a "city girl."

At Pond Gap Elementary School, where I was briefly in the first grade before being bumped over to the second, I met a little boy who had never been to kindergarten. Tommy's father had taught him everything he needed to know. For example, did I know that the blue whale was the biggest creature in the world, bigger than any dinosaur? Or that diamond was the hardest substance in the world? And had I ever eaten hair? He tried it once. It sure hurt coming out. And did I know that you could keep water in a drinking straw if you held your thumb over the opening and pulled it out of the glass? I demanded proof. As Tommy performed this little marvel I glimpsed the mystery of hydrostatic equilibrium, a physical phenomenon with which I would not grapple again for more than ten years.

The year I learned about diamonds and blue whales was also the year of the Iranian hostage crisis. At the age of seven, I didn't grasp the concept of civilian hostages and was completely at a loss to understand why Iranian "students" had seized them. I thought of college-aged students as grownups. An Iranian student was someone like me, too young to seize hostages. Someone like my friend Elmira, for example.

My next-door neighbour and classmate, whose father was also a doctoral candidate at UT, spoke the Iranian language. Elmira's father was a soft-spoken man who often took both me and his daughter to school together. He had the kindest eyes and the gentlest manner of any father I knew. Because his wife was still in Iran, he and his daughter were everything to each other, and his constant presence in my friend's life intrigued me. Years later, when the American press confronted me again and again with the screaming figure of a stereotypical Muslim (first Iranian, then Arab), I often thought of this kindly man and his concern that we see him as such.

"We're Iranian," his daughter said to us. "But we don't believe in what they're doing."

Regardless, one morning my mother went out to our car to go grocery shopping and found the father and daughter packed to leave. "We're going back to Iran," Elmira said excitedly. "We're going back to see my mother. But my father tells me I can come back to America for the next grade."

Her father, standing beside her, shrugged. He did not look like a man with a choice. We never saw them again.

My brother, who was three at the time, remembers nothing about Elmira except that she taught him to eat grass. There was a large area of grass between two buildings of our apartment complex, which we called the field. To us, the distance between the buildings seemed enormous. Before Elmira left we often played softball there.

My father was the pitcher for the entire neighbourhood. I played, along with Elmira, two second-graders from the other building--one black, one white--a Japanese boy who smiled but never spoke, a British brother and sister, and another brother and sister, Nabil and May, who were Iraqi. My father was only in his early thirties, working incredibly hard to earn the third degree in English, yet chose to spend his evenings with these children, pushing my brother and the younger kids on the swings and playing softball with those old enough to be in school. The Ayatollah raged without our knowledge; Iranian and Iraqi children played softball together, and I never stopped to think that I was a white Christian. We played a good game.

Iraq was America's ally against Iran during the 1980s. But when I was eighteen, my country went to war against Iraq, and I remembered my friends from the apartments in Knoxville, who would have been about the same age. I imagined Nabil shooting somewhere in the desert, killing and dying for the government of the country where he'd been born.

The Iranian hostage crisis that year cost Jimmy Carter the presidency. I knew that my mother supported Carter and thought his opponent, Ronald Reagan, was a "clown." When Reagan was shot a year later I could not understand why she was upset. I did not yet distinguish between an opponent to be outvoted and an enemy to be shot. (Now where could I have gotten that idea?)


It may seem unlikely that I remember Knoxville as a haven of international cooperation. Diversity is not the watchword of East Tennessee, to those outsiders who can find it on a map at all. The World's Fair, which I duly visited in 1982, did not turn out to herald much progress. Who remembers where any other World's Fair in recent memory has taken place?

But after we returned to our rural home, and aired out the smoke and exterminated the fleas that had been left behind, I would find myself imagining Knoxville as this exotic locale, because it was a city, and a hundred miles away, and I had lived there. I didn't expect to live there again, but in my twenties, after sojourns in Chicago and Oxford, England, I found myself once again near the UT campus, apartment hunting with my brother.

As a three- and four-year-old, my brother had bonded well with the girls of Knoxville. My mother marvels now that children that age would run around all day in the apartment complex without their parents worrying. The past often seems like an innocent time, no matter whose past it is.

I hadn't spent much time in, or even near, Knoxville since moving north at the age of seventeen. The only thing I knew had changed in the interim was that an appeals court located in Knoxville had ruled against Tennessee's sodomy law, ultimately struck down by the state supreme court. I'd read this, of course, from the relative safety of Chicago, where a gay press flourished and gay people even had some protection in law, though not equality. It didn't change my perception that in moving back to East Tennessee I would have to remain discreet about my sexuality.

When I arrived and started meeting my brother's friends, and their friends, and others who were into art and other things in addition to the Vols, I got the impression that Knoxville was crawling with homosexuals, some far more obvious than I was. At least, they were to me. I remember an unbelievable conversation with a gay man who, given the field in which he worked, was understandably paranoid about being "found out" and driven from his job. The thing was, I have seldom met anyone more screamingly queer. He looked like he'd just come from rehearsal with the Village People.

This, I soon discovered, was how Knoxville worked. I lived there for another three years and there were people I saw every day who, to the very end, said things around me and to my face that I couldn't imagine them saying if they'd known I wasn't straight. Being back in the South, I found strangers more likely to strike up a friendly conversation than in a big northern city, but this could go terribly wrong when the stranger started making comments about blacks (usually calling them something different) which suggested they hadn't moved on from the nineteenth century. They looked at my face, saw a colour similar to theirs, and figured I thought the same. People see what they want to see, I guess.

I didn't think I'd be in Knoxville that long but I was involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman in England, and the process of getting permanent residency in the same country proved to be long and drawn-out. Even before September 11, 2001, the United States had a labyrinthine and ridiculously unwelcoming immigration system that, among other things, prevented British people from entering the "visa lottery"--but not people from Northern Ireland, which is part of the same United Kingdom. Not that I could explain this to my friends back home. Usually, once they learned of my unhappy situation, they either suggested that my partner move to the U.S. illegally (and never work or travel again?) or that I give up on the impossible and stop wasting my youth.

I didn't have a lot in common with some of these kids!

So, while we were filling out forms and waiting for a legal solution that, ultimately, took us to Canada, I worked at the circulation desk of the downtown public library. I understand that Knox County is trying to get a new main library and it probably needs one, but I'll bet it won't have such a colourful name as Lawson McGhee. It will be like the Pepsi Center or Conseco Dome. Whatever building it's in, the library will continue to play its rare and vital role in Knoxville as in the rest of American society: providing books and other resources of interest to the marginalized and isolated, holding the forces that would ban and pursue at bay. At least for now.

Knoxville isn't that big a town and I kept bumping into the same folks at musical performances and any arts-related event about town. The highlight of my Christmas season was, ironically, the Hanukkah concert at the Laurel Theatre by the Oak Ridge Klezmer Band. When they burst into "Bei Mir Bis Du Shein" or a hora, the librarians and arts folks would kick up their heels and dance, just as they did when the Irish band Solas came to the Laurel Theatre. Sometimes, I joined a shape-note group, singing a form of the Old Harp based on seven shapes (three more than I was used to), that also met at the Laurel. As much a gift to the community, I suspect, as it was as a church.

Yiddish theatre, Old Harp singing, a wedding in East Knoxville, the Pride festival in World's Fair park. The town may have changed since the days of Iranian-Iraqi softball at the Sutherland Apartments. Then again, as the French (or French Canadians?) would say, Plus ├ža change...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The wisest friend

"It's so cryptic when someone tells you to be yourself but I think you know when you're not."

I had the pleasure this week of hearing Rabbi Steve Greenberg speak. He is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, whose tagline is "Homophobia is just one room in the larger hotel of misogyny." He is also featured in For the Bible Tells Me So, which I just saw last night. It is about conservative religious folks (mostly Christian) and their gay children, who include Bishop Gene Robinson and Chrissy Gephardt (Richard's daughter). Desmond Tutu and many others are also featured in the film.

The interesting thing is that none of them gave up their faith nor are they all in the same place politically; rather, "love conquers all."
And isn't that what fans of romance believe in?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My city's gayer than yours

Appeared 2005 in Xtra!

In the gym the other day, I caught a glimpse of a trailer for Million Dollar Baby. I hadn't seen Hilary Swank since Boys Don't Cry, so the prospect of her in another challenging role (as a boxer) grabbed my attention.

In the context of a locker room it made sense to look at what a weight trainer can do for an actress whose career might have tanked after she portrayed a transgendered character. It was only when women around me started murmuring about how old Clint Eastwood has gotten that I realized I was the only queer there.

Remember, long ago, coming out and chanting "We are everywhere?" Where I'm from--not just the States but one of those Red States--that did not appear to be true. It was only too obvious that I was the only queer in whatever room I was in. But now I live in a city that seems so queer and queer-positive that it can be unnerving.

For example, after years of immigration hassles, my lover and I were happy just to live in the same country for more than months at a time. We didn't ask to be recognized as same-sex partners, so when the realities of Canadian law found us being proclaimed such in a taxman's office, it was awkward. It seemed we should be celebrating something, but how romantic is H&R Block?

We have so far held out against what some see as the ultimate domestication of wild homos--marriage. Otherwise, we aren’t a very radical couple. Before I lived in Toronto, I always figured that not being straight was radical enough for most people. If nothing else, I figured it got me off the parenting hook, as the last thing straight society wanted was for us to breed.

How surprised I was by the Toronto phenomenon of straight co-workers who actually ask if marriage and/or children are in our future. These people all know we’re lesbians; they take lesbians so for granted now that they expect us to wed and go on maternity leave. No wonder other queers look at the same-sex marriage fight and wonder where we went wrong.

In the minds of our neighbours, it seems, the girls are all getting pregnant, and the boys have all quit the bathhouses and are lining up to pose in Condo Living. I feel the need for resistance--or at least harness shopping--just to maintain some clarity in "We're all gay now" Toronto.

My lover, who seems determined to remain a woman, nonetheless has a running joke about being, at heart, a gay man. In the Pride run, she observed that never before had she been handed water by a man in a thong. She seemed so thrilled, I hope it was only the affirmation of community and not pushing the boundaries of gender. Are her fondness for men in black leather and mania for cleaning the house signs that I live with a queen? Perhaps this is the ever-queerer future for some of us.

But what do I tell my friends in America, who are fighting legislative efforts to scale back rights they already have? “Forget marriage laws, pass the latex and lube?”

Let's face it, the longer you do something the more you have to seek bigger and bigger thrills. Even committed monogamists know that a little renewal can be a very good thing. We haven't come all this way in the sexual revolution just to register at Canadian Tire.

On the other hand, we can get a bit spoiled here. After the U.S. election lesbians down south were e-mailing me wondering where to go from here, now that bashing gay marriages had been used to re-elect Bush and to take away much of what Americans have gained over the years. Beyond North America, things are far worse. We do have it better up here than down in the States, but at least they’ve got rid of the sodomy laws.

Having grown up breaking those laws myself, I was floored when a Toronto colleague said that her young daughter had been called a lesbian at school. “And the first thing I said was, ‘That's not an insult!’” I’ve heard other parents say things like that, and they seem to have no idea how remarkable it is. On Remembrance Day, I heard a client talking about the Holocaust and mentioning the homosexuals and others who also died, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. What does “natural” even mean any more?

So I appreciate those locker-room moments when I'm watching Ellen while everyone else is looking at Jude Law. Then we get in the elevator with a pumped guy and his sugar daddy, and breathe a sigh of relief. All is well. For now.