Last Friday Night

16
Dec
2012

Friday night I attended a rather odd and interesting function for gay Jews. The founder and group are attempting to integrate two very strong aspects in their lives, their Jewishness and their gayness. The form of this integration is the traditional Friday night shabbat dinner, but in a more fabulous, gay way. The events (this is the second one) raise money for good causes and this one in particular was to benefit the Ali Forney Center. Although the event is open to all, if I had to guess I would say it heavily leaned towards gay male Jews whose religious background was on the Orthodox to Conservative end of things. I was somewhat raised in this tradition (having been sent to a Hebrew school until 6th grade), and so the opening prayer (and melody) was very familiar to me from my childhood, and although I would not say it put me at ease, I still smiled a little at the connection to something so far in my past.

Anyone that knows me knows I have some complicated feelings about my Jewishness. As mentioned, I was sent to an orthodox Hebrew day school until 6th grade, had a bar mitzvah and then over the next few years slowly divorced myself from that group and sect. By the time I was 20, I was pretty done with religion of any sort.

I am Jewish, there is no removing it from me. It is a part of me and will always be. I would never try to erase it, it would be like trying to erase history. But what is my “Jewishness” composed of? Let’s start with the religion itself. Over the years, I came to realize that all the god stuff, put simply, left me cold. Despite the years of acculturation, I just never took to it. I have a theory (along with some others) that belief in a deity is partially genetic and innate, and you either feel it or you don’t. I (and most of my family to be honest) just never felt the existence of god, despite being awed by the universe and all of its natural wonders. To me, a belief in a deity is a belief in “intent” to the universe, a “plan” if you will. And because I lack this specific belief, I describe myself as atheist (others might use the term agnostic). And over the years I have come to refine that innate sense, to the point that religious ceremonies mostly seem silly to me, especially if they put an emphasis on pleasing a vengeful god.

Outside of that is the idea of  “community”, whatever that means. Growing up Jewish in Indianapolis mostly meant knowing every other Jew in the city, it is a bit of an insular community. And because my family moved away from the main part of town where almost all of them live, from high school onwards we were somewhat separated from them. I actually think this was one of the best things to happen to me growing up, and I attended a public high school with a much greater diversity than was found in the schools that community attended. This diversity was not just ethnic and racial, but just as importantly, socio-economic. This gave me a perspective that I value to this day.

Then there are the many cultural aspects of being Jewish, and I have to admit here to feeling a great connectedness to this part of my upbringing and heritage. This is what binds me to other Jews in the strongest ways. These are reflected in a huge variety of things such as foods, languages, humor, cares and thoughts about healing the world (tikkun olam), and deep questioning and debate around issues.

So putting it all together, I am both Jewish and non-Jewish at the same time. For better or worse, I am culturally that and always will be, even as I reject and refine other parts that hold no or negative meanings for me. I realize that my life has been a struggle to move towards the universal human values that bind and uplift us all. Values that transcend tribal instincts of any  group or sort whether they be religious, patriotic, ethnic or other.

Tradition

28
Nov
2009

There is a lot of gay in my family. And although all of us live far away from Indianapolis (where we grew up), we all try to come back for the Thanksgiving holiday to spend time with the extended family. And so, over the past several years, it has become a bit of a tradition around Thanksgiving to head out en masse to the gay bars some of the nights we are home.  This week was no exception, although there was perhaps a tad more drinking last night than customary. I make this judgement based on the fact that we ended up at White Castle at around 2 in the morning. As an aside, I was sorry to note (even in my drunken state) that White Castle has “redesigned” their interiors to look more like a cheap  nursing home than the formerly modern, clean, all-white look that I remember somewhat fondly from my youth.

In the Navy Blue

27
Aug
2009

A one of a kind, odd, tiring, hot and sweaty, but mostly fun day today. My friend Eric and I went to be extras in a film being shot only a few blocks from my apartment. The film, called “BearCity“, bills itself as a sort of gay(er) SATC with a group of bears as the protagonists. Most film sets are all about the waiting, and this was no different. Of the 6 hours we spent there, probably only about ninety minutes was actually blocking and filming, the rest was just standing around. My big scenes were all about me leaning up against a wall (supposedly in some sort of gay bar back room flirting with the crowd) while the various actors criss-crossed in front of me doing their sundry scenes. One of the guys that had a bit part in the film was the cowboy from The Village People. When he came swaggering into the bar, in full regalia it was obvious who he was. It really made me think a lot about how much this role must have defined his life, and how over time it must have just became his sort of permanent drag. The outfit hasn’t varied much since the late 1970s, and that is I suppose part of the reason he is still so recognizable. When he first arrived on the scene, he was introducing himself to everyone, and then it seemed important to him to school everyone in the history of gay liberation, not bothering to listen to what anyone else had to say. Then he loosened up a bit and seemed a little more relaxed and playful. Over all, he was a pretty nice guy (if slightly old school). The rest of the cast and crew were for the most part very nice and mostly having fun on the set. We would go in and out of scenes as they needed us, and just when we thought we were done someone shouted at me “Hey, navy blue” (the color of my t-shirt), “We need you for another shot”. I have to tell you it was hotter than hell in that little room where the shooting was, between the lights and the number of people and all the simulated cruising going on. They asked us to come back tomorrow or Saturday for a couple more scenes, and we may, but I have the feeling that my 15 minutes of fame as an extra bear may have already passed. Grrr…

me cowboy eric

Orgullo en BsAs

2
Nov
2008

What a gay ole time we had yesterday. It started off with the Buenos Aires gay pride parade at the Plaza de Mayo. As is the trend with this sort of event, it was pretty similar to any gay pride event anywhere else in the world, except the parade part was kinda small and one of the largest individual groups seemed to be the communists. That (according to my friend Guillermo) is because the communists crash any and all demonstrations or parades here and insert themselves into the happening, germane or not to their cause. I wasn’t sure if I admired their tenacity or was annoyed at their egocentrism, but fortunately it did look as if several of them were gay. After hanging out with the homos all day (and taking advantage of some free hugs, see below), we finished off the evening in what had to be the most appropriate way: We went to see a musical about Eva Peron. No, not that one. This is a new musical, called simply “Eva”, with all new music and with a somewhat different focus than the Broadway production. While I only understood about 50% of it, the staging and music were still a treat.

image
From Orgullo

Tango Loca

16
Oct
2008

Last night was my first introduction to Tango (actually seeing it danced live anyway). I was invited by Philippe (a friend of my friend Alok from Mumbai) to go check out a gay milonga (Tango hall) in BA called La Marshall.  The place starts out as a class early on, followed by dancing for the brave/experienced. The music, although all Tango rhythms, was quite eclectic. One of the pieces seemed so familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until…”Wait! Is that the Beatles’ Yesterday?!” and sure enough, it was the same melody, reworked for the dance. Being partnerless and a little intimidated by how complicated the moves seemed, I decided to sit this one out, but resolved to learn a move or two before leaving BA. I loved the music and the energy of this place. When one particularly sad song came on, I mentioned it to Roberto (Philippe’s partner), and he told me that all Tango music, and Tango itself, is melancholic by nature. No wonder it appeals to me, I love melancholy. It was especially interesting to see how the crowd interacted with each other. All manner of people were asking strangers to dance with them, and Philippe told me that this is how it is with Tango halls everywhere, you don’t just stick with your group or partner. And for a gay Tango place, this one was pretty mixed, with the asking and leading being done in all manner of combination throughout the evening. Some of the dancers were quite good, and I spent a fair amount of time watching their feet and trying to figure out how the moves worked.

The (accidental) Man

31
Jul
2008

My mother is a very strong woman, and very accomplished. She raised me and my brothers to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. And she raised us to believe in the human potential of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or gender. She encouraged us to look at each person as an individual, not as a member of some group, and she strongly discouraged us from stereotyping people based on their membership in any one of these categories. She didn’t want us to make limiting assumptions about people especially because such limiting assumptions had been made about her at earlier times in her life. As a Jewish woman raised in the 50s in central Indiana, she had all too often been the target of stereotypes or lowered expectations based on what was expected of women in that time and place. She realized that she had internalized a lot of these prejudices and had to work many years to finally get to the place where she could rely on her own strength and judgment to determine what her capacities were. Such has been the case with many successful women in our society. And the men have also been bound in their way to the expectations placed on their potential and ability. So we were raised with an understanding that women and men could perform any kind of task they wished in any kind of setting, and that the world should not dictate a different set of possibilities based simply on gender. In short, we were raised to treat all people equally.

So it has been with some mirth that these many years later I look on the next generation of child rearing (especially in my brother’s case) and notice a few things. On the one hand, my brother is much more present in parenting than our own father was when we were at such a young age. Our parents got divorced when I was about 8 (and my brother 6) and our biological father never really played a part in our early childhood. It was only after my mother remarried about a year and a half later that we really got a father figure, and we could not have asked for a better one. My stepfather is in all ways the father we never had as very young children, and he (along with my mother) was always there for us, guiding us, teaching us, fathering us until we were adults. He and my mother are to this day one of those ideal couples I look at to demonstrate that long term love is possible and can be wonderful. They are the rock of our extended family, and spending time with them is always a treat.

My brother has been such a doting father during these early years and it is wonderful to see how much pride he takes in his family. One also gets the sense that he takes great satisfaction in being able to provide materially for them. My brother is clearly the best in the family with financial management. My parents were never great with money and the rest of us inherited their lack of financial acuity. Not so my brother, who has the right salary, investments and accounts. As a lawyer who deeply understands tax law and its implications, my brother has a clear eye on on the future with regard to retirement, health care and education for his children, each account carefully chosen and managed with some relish. Outside of the material well being of his family, my brother is constantly spending time with his kids, teaching them things, telling them how much he loves them at every turn. He punishes them when necessary, but always with a gentle hand and an eye towards making them more caring, responsible, and sharing individuals.

Yet there has been one area of his fathering that I have watched with a touch of dismay. Despite the ways in which we were raised, despite all the evidence around him, my brother is still choosing (perhaps semi-unconsciously) to reinforce gender stereotypes with his children. The evidence is everywhere, from the ways in which he describes them to others, to the names he calls them, to the way he treats them, to the different discipline paths he expects them to follow when they enter their teen years. He will describe his son repeatedly as being “all-boy” and “fearless”, and will go out of his way to reinforce these traits with rough housing and sporty activities of all sorts. He seems to find it important to talk about all the “girlfriends” he has (he is six years old) at school, and what a ladies man he will surely be when he grows up. Although I don’t think my brother would get angry if his son decided to play with Barbie dolls, he clearly has an image of how his son should be and reinforces it with his language, attitude and body language at every turn. Likewise with his daughter who is 4 1/2. She is his “princess” and he encourages her to think of herself that way. He will often talk about how she has “daddy wrapped around her little finger” and (half) jokingly talk about killing any young man that may want to date her when she is older. He routinely talks about how he will need to “protect” her in ways his boy will not need protecting, because she is a girl and therefore more vulnerable to attack. (My sister-in-law appears to be somewhat more even handed on this subject and routinely ridicules the idea that the kids should be treated differently.)

Of course there are some biological differences between boys and girls. But biology is not destiny, and certainly reinforcing the tired stereotypes of the past will not aid children in overcoming them. My mother tells a story about her not taking an economics course until college because that was something men were good at, but not women. She became the highest scoring student in the class. Society at large and parents in particular can’t always stop themselves from seeing their children in certain ways that make them comfortable, but shoehorning them into these roles is limiting. On a public policy level, my brother is completely egalitarian. He would never accept the idea that his son or daughter (or anyone else’s for that matter) would be limited by law or custom from achieving their potential. And yet it seems very important for him in his own family to see the boy as capital “b” Boy, and the girl as capital “g” Girl. When I point out to him some of these things, he dismisses it as the observation of someone who “doesn’t have children” and thus could know nothing about it. I beg to differ. Certainly there are things about the parenting role that I do not know having not experienced it myself. But on the question of gender roles in society, I am fairly expert, having experienced these things first hand. I know how difficult society’s obsession with gender conformity has made being gay for example, and I work every day to make it easier for those who come after me. Girls and boys deserve a world that doesn’t guide them along different paths for no other reason than biology. For them to become fully realized women and men, we need to encourage them to become fully realized human beings and to understand, reinforce, and create equal opportunity for all of us.

A beautiful day

15
May
2008

The California Supreme Court wisely overturned the ban on same sex marriage in the state today. While this doesn’t give gay people all of the federal rights of marriage (which are arguably more significant) it is an important step towards that goal and a stunning affirmation of gay equality and human dignity from my adoptive state.

You know, even though I have been following these things for years in a fairly logical and detached way, I can’t help but get a little choked up as I watch the walls of official discrimination fall.

One potential cloud on the horizon is that hate groups are organizing a ballot initiative to modify to the California constitution to define marriage as only between one man and one woman, thus discriminating against same sex couples. I hope that we have reached a tipping point where this initiative will fail, but there is a lot of organizing work to do before the November election.

Luis Barragán was that way

4
Apr
2008

That’s right, it is time for another of my thrilling exposés, digging deep into the private lives of (semi)famous dead people, based on nothing other than my own sense of gaydar.

I just came back from a visit to Casa Luis Barragán, which was his home and now serves as a museum of sorts. I say of sorts, because you can only visit by appointment and tour, and they will only show you portions of the house. The quality of what we did see was phenomenal and the tour was conducted in a pedagogical manner, taking care to point out the motifs and themes present in the work in a clear way. You can go on either an English or Spanish language tour, although you will need to reserve a place several days in advance. It was a little upsetting that photos of the interior are completely forbidden. We were only allowed to take a few snapshots on the roof and in one of the interior courtyards. I was however blown away by the architecture and design, and even more fascinated by how much the house tells you about his private life. It seems pretty obvious to me after the visit that Luis Barragan was gay, closeted, conflicted as hell about it, and more than a little paranoid.

One of the first things one notices about the house is the intensely private nature of everything. This was a house that turned its back completely to the street, only opening up to its internal garden. All street-facing windows are either translucent, obscured or very small. Even the large roof terrace, which would have afforded a lovely view of the park and surroundings, was circumscribed by high walls to maintain privacy. The rather extreme lengths that Barragán went to in his own house to maintain this privacy is a bit suspect.

There is high tension in the house contrasting the simplicity and monastic quality of the architecture with the splashes of color and sometimes erotic and exotic objets d’art that permeate (penetrate?) the house.

The house itself (and other works) take some inspiration from colonial architecture, especially the architecture of churches and convents. There is a simple, monastic quality throughout the house and an attempt to recreate the massive feel of these older buildings with details that present a thicker, heavier and more permanent-seeming environment. Also taking inspiration from religious settings and Barragán’s own sense of belief, one finds the motif of the cross represented in almost every area of the house, along with many artifacts that are religious in nature (such as carvings of Jesus on the cross, paintings of The Passion, etc).

In addition, it was interesting to note that Luis probably had a bit of the prude in him, as the only guest room in the house contained a single bed in a room resembling a monastic cell. Either he didn’t approve of couples sharing a bed under his roof, or this wasn’t the only spare bedroom in the house. When I noticed that there was also a single bed in Barragán’s own room, I asked our guide about it, and whether Barragán had ever had a wife. His response was that no, Barragán did not have a wife, and that there in fact used to be a larger bed in his own room, but in the last years of his life he was stricken with Parkinson’s, and it was easier for his attendants to move him from the single bed.

There were a number of places in the house that were off limits. When we asked about them, we were told that they were “in use”. When pressed, our tour guide explained that parts of the house were still lived in, by a man in his late 50s who was “a friend and collaborator” of Barragan. Apparently the house was left to him when Barragán died in 1988. Interesting, no?

At one point in the tour we were in one of Barragán’s various private offices, and on the wall was a picture of the architect as a young man. He was a bit of a dandy, I could tell that much from the photo.

Since coming back from the house, I have combed the internet for biographies of Barragán and not a single one mentions anything about his personal life. The closest we get is that he was friendly with various artists and collaborators. His biographies are as obscure and protected as his house. From the various clues, what I can piece together is that this man was very guarded about his private life, and was probably not a little conflicted and tortured by the tension between his deeply held religious convictions, his homosexual desire, and his public or professional persona.

I wonder, if he had been born many years later and had been able to live an open life, what influence that would have had, if any, on his work. It is clear that, personal issues aside, his art was very much a product of his particular worldview and his particular place in the history of modernism. He has had an amazing impact on a great number of architects. The formal language he left behind is of incredible value, and the spaces he created impart a simple, meditative peace to those that experience them. It was most likely his personal search for this meditative peace, for a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his life, that led him to create in the way that he did.