Last weekend, I was hanging out with a sweet young faglet, and it became clear that many of my boyfriend and my film references were flying over his head. I take my queer culture and queer acculturation seriously, so while we were all watching Victor Victoria, I set out to write a list of a movies that every queer boy should see. It got long.
Almost 20 years ago, an older gay man made a similarly themed, though much shorter, list when I said that I had never seen All About Eve. This was after he had recited the entire opening monologue from memory. He had just used it in a promo he’d written for WGBH, where he wrote, among other things, Vincent Price’s banter for Mystery. He was what was called a “non-resident tutor” at my college residence house, and he came to dinner a couple times a month and sat with the gay resident tutor and told stories. Oh, the stories!
I’ve always found exceptional value in the words, wisdom, wit, and stories of older gay men. Queers are rarely raised by other queers, so when we come out, we have no culture. We have to learn it. And gay culture is rich, weird, and intensely important. It’s also, contrary to Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Harris, not remotely dead.Read More
This is the last scene of “Longtime Companion.” I’ve posted this on World AIDS Day before. Here it is, again. It’s a fantasy; it will never happen, of course, and it is only in the film to make you cry, to create a false catharsis that once recognized as a lie will make you very angry. And so, it is required watching. “AIDS is not over” is a cliche, but it’s repeated over and over because it’s true. People continue to die of AIDS everywhere, not just in countries where the government cannot afford to help pay for either HIV drugs or the needed healthcare infrastructure, but also in the United States, the richest country in the history of humanity, where the federal and several state governments believe it is perfectly fine to have more than 3,500 people on wait-lists for the drugs that they need to keep them alive. There is more than enough money to treat every person on the planet with HIV. However, there isn’t enough moral will to make it happen. That is what World AIDS Day means to me.Read More
Today is the first Harvey Milk Day. After a long battle, and probably only because the film Milk gave Milk so much new publicity, which in turn (probably) led President Obama to award Milk a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, our governor signed Mark Leno’s bill making Harvey Milk’s birthday a
state holiday “day of recognition.” It’s not like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday or Cesar Chavez’s; schools and state agencies aren’t shut down. And the law, SB-572, simply “encourage[s] public schools and educational institutions to conduct suitable commemorative exercises on that date.” Whatever that means. Well, it means that if you live in a county whose school board is run by anti-intellectual bigots, you’ll never learn about Harvey Milk.
This week, ABC News did a segment of their “What Would You Do?” series on anti-gay harassment. They put some actors in a diner in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and had them act out an egregious display of homophobia: A bigoted and hostile waiter told gay a couple and their kids that they were abnormal, wrong, gross, and then asked them to leave. They did the scene with both a lesbian couple and a gay male couple. And ABC had set up a hidden camera to see who would intervene. Some did, and wonderfully. The vast majority did nothing: “It’s none of my business.”
As I watched the first of these videos, I burst into tears, because of the callous disregard for the cruelty on display and the very weak responses from those who bothered to speak up. And then I continued crying during the second video, which shows some powerful interventions, one from a very righteous young man (who was suffering from nicotine withdrawal, but still) and one from the son of Holocaust survivors.
The videos bring up some interesting issues, to say the least. One is that, well, ABC News did not hide their pro-gay standpoint. The explicit assumption of John Quinones’s narration, editing, and choice of expert analysis is that the people who intervened are good and those who did not are bad. The first person who intervened was praised, and then ABC showed that he was still rather homophobic in a scathing gotcha moment. ABC News is right to be boldly declaring their position against anti-gay discrimination. I think that, like all people, journalists have an ethical duty to support human rights and human dignity. This does not mean that journalists should report with bias on all things, but rather that there are some things about which they should have a bias. They should be biased against racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, and cruelty. What is particularly heartening is that three decades after Harvey Milk was assassinated, that sort of bias — good, moral bias — is pervasive across much of the mainstream news media. Hooray for secular intellectuals.
However, of the 100 people who witnessed these scenes, only 12 spoke up. While this is probably 9 or 10 more people that would have spoken up during when Milk was in office — and yay for that — it’s still an appallingly low number. Now, I’m sure that even if it was an explicitly racist scene, less than half of the people would have said anything. After all, this is the city (and the country) of Kitty Genovese. But even if we can get half of Americans to be in favor of banning certain types of anti-gay discrimination — averaging out those who favor ENDA, oppose DADT, and are in favor of same sex marriage — actively and selflessly defending gays and lesbians is another thing entirely. There are well over a hundred million people in this country who don’t give a flying fuck about our rights and our oppression.
To wit: Earlier this week, the governor of Minnesota and future presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would give same-sex partners the right to make burial decisions for their deceased spouses. He’s quoted in The Minnesota Independent:
Pawlenty said the bill “addresses a nonexistent problem” saying that same-sex couple must simply draw up the appropriate paperwork. He also said that a “surviving domestic partner” should not be “afforded the same legal recognition” as a spouse.
“Marriage — as defined as between a man and a woman — should remain elevated in our society at a special level, as it traditionally has been,” said Pawlenty in his veto message. “I oppose efforts to treat domestic relationships as the equivalent of traditional marriage.”
Yes, thirty years after Harvey Milk was assassinated, it’s both politically expedient and morally upright to insult and denigrate gay and lesbian couples at their most trying time. Thirty years later, a hateful bigot is governor of Minnesota and a viable presidential candidate. (At least the hateful bigots who run Arizona and used to run Alaska are not considered serious national politicians by other serious national politicians.) He believes that the Bible — or rather, select passages of the Bible as interpreted by other hateful bigots — should govern our actions. He believes that it’s okay to hurt minorities in order to gain popularity among other hateful bigots who he needs in his quest for power. Thirty years after Milk’s death, people vote for people like Pawlenty all of the time.
And then there was the sad story of Dr. Jonathan I. Katz. President Obama, via the Department of Energy, had appointed Katz to the team of researchers and government scientists who are charged with figuring out how to stop the epic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Katz, a physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is more hateful than Tim Pawlenty by several orders of magnitude. He is the author of the essay titled “In Defense of Homophobia,” in which he writes about the “innocent” people who died of AIDS, “These people died so the sodomites could feel good about themselves.” This a rather standard, if despicable, trope, but he makes a new (or new to me) argument is in a postscript he wrote:
Post-Script October 9, 2005: In recent weeks this essay has been the subject of controversy at, and even beyond, Washington University (see, for example, recent issues of Student Life). A number of critics have asked if monogamous homosexuals are also culpable. Quite apart from the question of the definition of monogamous (sexual contact with only one person in a lifetime? serial monogamy? some cheating? etc.), I suggest the following analogy: A man joins the Ku Klux Klan. He is not violent, and would never hurt a fly; he just wants a safe place to express his racist feelings. Is he culpable for the Klan’s past acts of violence? I believe that even though he is not criminally responsible for acts that occurred before he joined, he is morally culpable for joining the Klan. The Klan has blood on its hands, and anyone who joins must share the guilt. So, too, with the homosexual movement.
Yes, Katz claims that being gay is like being in the KKK. This man is a famed scientist, and he wrote an essay using logic that wouldn’t pass muster in a first-year comp class. His use of evidence, or lack thereof, wouldn’t pass muster in a junior high comp class. And morality would only pass muster in, well, the KKK.
In his petition against Katz’s appointment, John Aravosis made a very good point:
President Obama would never appoint a “proud racist” or a “proud anti-Semite” to a panel of experts, and showcase him as one of the best minds in our country, and he shouldn’t appoint a proud homophobe either.
After reading Katz’s essay and John’s comments, I felt physically ill. I cannot believe that no one googled Katz before appointing him, so at least someone in the Obama Administration decided that his bigotry was irrelevant. (And they also weren’t bothered by the fact that he’s against doing anything to stop climate change, which is perhaps even stranger.) And this is depressing in a stomach-churning way. For while the outcry against Katz from the gay left got him fired from the commission, it took outcry to do it.
But that’s what outcry is for. That’s what teaching about homophobia is for. This is why we tell our stories, and march, and vote. And pass along videos like the ones I’ve posted here. And why we intervene, because one person intervening is better and than none, and one person intervening will lead to more people intervening. Or that’s the hope anyway.Read More
I think I’ve pissed off some of my friends and colleagues over the last couple days by not being as quick to boycott Amazon for their newly discovered “policy” concerning “adult” books. Well, it probably wasn’t my reticence that annoyed. I may have pissed off some folks by playing Devil’s advocate with my typical Internet snark. (Sorry, Alex! I love you!) But I want to explain in a central place my feelings on the matter, and I want to provide some evidence to back up my assertions that this new policy is not a policy whatsoever, but rather an actual glitch, if one very wacky — and deeply problematic. In other words: Folks, simmer down now. Or not.
Here’s the background:
Over the weekend, the writer Mark Probst wrote a blog post that exposed a strange situation at Amazon.com. His sales rank no longer showed up on the page for his books. Weird. So, he emailed Amazon and asked why. The following is the customer service email heard ’round the world:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
Oh, Ashlyn. This sounds bad. Very, very bad. Because Probst does not write porn. He writes tame gay romance. And it turns out that other books affected by this “policy” are, basically, every gay and lesbian themed book on Amazon. Meanwhile, Hitler’s work and every straight and sexy book remain unaffected. There’s a fabulous list of the books de-ranked and not de-ranked (and a rundown of the events) over at Jezebel, which managed to be all over this story on Easter.
Probst’s post resulted in a firestorm on the Internet, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. On the latter, the hashtag #amazonfail became the number one tag in the Twitterverse. And when an actual PR rep at Amazon told Publishers Weekly that it was not a policy but rather a “glitch,” the harshtag #glitchmyass became increasingly popular.
I first read about this via DogPoet’s feed, which led me to this blog post, which is full of unfounded hysteria about Amazon killing literature. Oh, the conspiracy theories! Oh, the nonsense. I got annoyed and started doing searches to see if books were actually missing. I discovered that a bunch of the famous books that were de-ranked were still very easily found; I posted a bunch of screengrabs to prove that. Read through the comments to see how some people reacted to my questioning of the hysteria; it is reminiscent of when I was called a collaborator during the Prop 8 campaign. (Go here and scroll down to “Anti-Ted Flaming.”)
As the day wore on, it became clear that the searches were turning up totally bizarre results, and they were different for everyone, logged in or out. And they made no sense. For example, if you type in “boys men,” the results had softcore gay porn as the #5 result, and the Kindle version of our book was #27. But the print version of the book was nowhere to be found. It had been de-ranked, and pretty much hidden.
The fact that only print books were affected by this “policy” tells me — being a rather rational person — that this was not an anti-gay policy, but rather a glitch. A weird one, but a glitch nonetheless. And there’s growing evidence that this is the case. On the list-serv for LGBT anthropologists, a professor sent out an email about the situation and pointed out that all of the queer studies books — basically any academic book about LGBT issues, including Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet — had been de-ranked. And he linked to the rationally written petition (which I’ve signed, by the way).
The first response on the list-serv was very interesting. C. Todd White, whose Pre-Gay LA: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights is forthcoming, had discovered his book was de-ranked and now hidden. So, he called Amazon:
After being routed to three different people, I at last had a very interesting discussion with a woman on Amazon’s customer service team who said that the entire organization had been blindsided by this. It seems that they had reconfigured their system to isolate erotica, and the new program or “algorithm” has caught far more in its net than they had intended.
I was assured that Amazon was on the problem and that they had not intended for academic books, esp., to have been so affected. I pointed out that censorship in any form is always a slippery slope; the woman answered that she totally agreed and then informed me that she was “a member of the club.” She assured me that she will be working very hard within Amazon to see that works such as those Tom has listed will be included in the sales rankings and in “best of” lists, as they were before. She also said, however, that she was afraid for her job if indeed it WAS a policy from higher ups; but she doubted that was the case as no one in her division had heard that such a “policy” was being implemented. She was pretty amazed, though, that when she tried, even searching my book by its title failed to yield the text. She had to search by my name to find it. [NOTE: I had to google the book to find it. When I typed the title into Amazon, it didn't come up.]
For what it is worth. I still think we should shout LOUDLY and sign the petition. However, it might indeed have been an accident. Let us hope!
Unless Amazon has an incredibly devious staff capable of amazing amounts of manipulation, I find it very, very hard to believe that this event was the result of a new “policy.” It sounds much weirder. I think there are two possibilities. One is that the algorithm was so wacky that all the gay books were actually tagged as “adult.” Another is that there’s a homobigot at Amazon who had access to the databases. (Or a hacker! Also, here.) I do not think it is possible that Amazon has anti-gay corporate agenda. It simply does not make sense considering its long history as a progressive company and its high scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate index.
So, I think a boycott is a ridiculous over-reaction to this situation. If it remains as a “glitch” for more than a few days, then, yes, we should act. But many people in the Twitter mob are acting as if Amazon should be put in the same club as, say, Exxon or Wal-Mart. And before we even have any facts beyond the email to Probst, the “glitch” comment, and a bunch of weird search results. In a moment of exasperation, I wrote a comment that said, “I hope everyone deleting their Amazon accounts also never buy gas at Exxon, never buy anything at Urban Outfitters, never watch anything made by a network or studio owned by News Corp, and didn’t vote for Obama because he was for civil unions, not marriage. Purity above all!” (And, yeah, I know I screwed up the subject-verb agreement. It was late.)
As I write this, it looks like some of this is being fixed. For example, Heather Has Two Mommies has a ranking again. Others do not. However, there are a couple lessons to be learned here. One is that, WOW, Twitter can make shit happen. Here’s a good, brief article on that. Two is that, ruh-oh, algorithms can be result of homophobic practices and ideologies. The esteemed Mary Gray, of Indiana University, wrote a couple of great emails to the aforemention list-serv that she has allowed me to reprint:
Actually, I love thinking about the “glitch” question in relation to filtering software often bundled with K-12 computer facilities in U.S. schools: The majority of commercial filtering software programs on the market tag and block websites with the word “sex”–this is a default setting of these programs. Blocking access to porn or “adult content” usually means filtering “gay” “lesbian” “bi” “trans” and a host of other words that produce porn when you plug them into a search engine. Ironically, one of the ways young people get to info about LGBT issues is by searching sites like Amazon (the filtering software doesn’t limit access to Amazon’s search engine).
Amazon’s ability to remove the sales rankings on books it deems “adult” is, effectively, bound by the same filtering logic — it probably couldn’t do a systemwide “filter” of adult content without ensnaring LGBT titles because it likely linked LGBT titles to sexuality (their way of sorting us in the HQ section of their libraries).
Glitches are arguably the residue of politics and policies meant to manage inclusion/exclusion (what I’m starting to call the “cyberinfrastructures of subjectivity). As interesting as the intentions of Amazon in this case might be (did they mean to distance themselves from “Heather has Two Mommies” by tagging it as adult
content?) odds are the associative labeling that linked “Heather” with “erotica” in their massive relational database happened 14 years ago when Amazon launched in 1995.
I just checked: “Heather” has its ranking back on Amazon.
I wrote back mentioning that, among other things, “I hope someone is looking at the reaction to this from an anthropological point of view. The speed at the which Twitter made this into a now international internet/business event is amazing.”
And then Mary wrote another email:
I’m arguing that the glitch itself is a manifestation and circulation of structural heterosexism/sex-negative cultural mores (I’m hesitant to use “homophobia” for reasons that I hope will make sense in a second).
So, like Stuart Hall’s argument (in the essay, Whites of Their Eyes) that racism operates through individual intentions but more powerfully through institutional structures (including language) that privilege whiteness, I’m arguing that the “glitch” is both/and (to paraphrase Burke)–it’s both a culturally influenced algorithm and an act of policy–intentional or not. At any time in it’s database management, Amazon could have chosen to prioritize changing its tags to avoid this “glitch.” Priority lists in information management are as political as any policy statement (at least that’s my argument).
In fact, I’d argue that the mundane story of databases and why Kindle might not have filtered these titles while Amazon’s print book market did is a much more rich terrain for investigation than the popularity of this tweet on twitter. Twitter, after all, is watched closely by newsmakers (bloggers, publishers, and journalists) to see “what’s hot” in the hopes of breaking the next “big story.” Is it really that surprising that authors and publishers concerned with their sales rankings and the implications of content-filtering came out in force (on twitter) to push back and make this news (the industry writing about itself)? That’s interesting (and important) but twitter is still a relatively underutilized social media tool. Amazon and the consequences of its database management impact far more folks.
So, just like every other small moment of discrimination, the “glitch” is actually part of a vast cultural problem rich for analysis. How has the embedded heterocentrism (etc.!) of our language become embedded in our oh-so-important information systems? Amazon as a company may not be trying to hurt gay people, but the cultural remnants of homophobia have found their way into its databases, somehow. How do we fix that? By not simmering down, I guess. That said, I’d prefer that we fought the power with a little more intelligent boil. And that said, the boil of the last few days exposed what Mary eloquently explained. So I guess it was useful after all…
UPDATE: Amazon has put out an actual “oops!” press release. But, as you can tell from the comments on the Seattle PI, nothing short of a guillotine will suffice. You’d think Jeff Bezos was behind Prop 8 or something.
On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail.
Thousands of people were angry that gay-themed books had disappeared from Amazon’s sales rankings and search algorithms. The number of Tweets on Sunday afternoon that had the term “AmazonFail” surpassed even those with the words “Easter” or “Jesus.”
By this time, Amazon.com had upgraded the problem to Sev-1. (Amazon.com breaks down its operational issues in terms of severity levels. Sev-3 means a problem affects a single user. Sev-2 is a problem that affects a company, or a lot of people. Sev-1 is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level.)
“People got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke,” the employee said. “It was just a screwup.”
Amazon.com employees are on call 24/7, and many began working on the problem from home. It didn’t take much digging to realize that there was a data error.
Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)
“It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said.
This is going to be like the Tonys, when the four nominees for each category are chosen from usually about eight shows. Sometimes only five new musicals open, and four get the benefit of claiming that they were nominated for Best Musical. Ridiculous. Just like the winners of the 2008 Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Books. I only read seven works of fiction this year; I started four others and plan on finishing two of those. As for nonfiction, I read a heck of a lot of academic stuff but only a couple books that someone might read for, say, fun. So, take these Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Books with a grain of salt, whatever that means.
Most Excellent Book That I Wish I’d Never Read.
Rob and I joined an ill-fated book group last year, and three of the books we read are on this list. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the best book I read in the last 12 months. But I wish I could forget it. This is what I wrote in my Goodreads review: “When I was about 100 pages in, I wrote on here, “This book is freaking me out.” It continued to. McCarthy constructed some of the most disturbing images I’ve ever read, but what most, I think, upset me was how seemingly plausible his imagined post-nuclear war world is. And as personalized through the story of the father and the son, this world becomes emotionally, not just intellectually, real. I finished it at 2:30 am, and burst into tears. I will probably be haunted by the book for some time. ”
Most Excellently Awful Use of Authorial Branding.
Michael Chabon is the Prince of modern American fiction. I don’t mean he’s royalty; I mean he’s like Prince Rogers Nelson, who cannot stop recording and releasing music and has no ability to judge whether something should be released with fanfare or deleted from the hard drive forever. Last year, Chabon published The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is a fantastic postmodern hard-boiled detective novel that belongs on the same shelf as Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Unfortunately, Chabon has another shelf with pretty crappy genre stuff, like retread of Sherlock Holmes, a weird and awful Harry Potter wannabe, and not-so-good comic books. On that second shelf, we will put Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, which I read last winter simply because Chabon wrote it. Dumb of me. What a truly terrible book. Chabon’s elaborate prose was un-edited and out of control, his pacing and plotting weird and lazy. It felt like something he spit out one weekend after watching “The 13th Warrior” on Showtime in the middle of the night.
Most Excellent Wish Fulfilment.
Perry Moore’s Hero is about a gay teen-ager who becomes a superhero. I mean, dude, I wish that had been my life. Well, except for the death and destruction. But still. A relatively well-written, well-paced YA novel, it’s not really “good,” but, boy, did I like reading it. The other folks in the book group loathed it. Of course, they all liked A Thousand Splendid Suns. So whatevs.