Monday, January 30, 2012

These kids are alright

It was noteworthy enough when I went to the Rose Hills Theater at Pomona College was two weeks ago and found it packed with students. They were there on the evening before the first day of the semester at the colleges here in Claremont. This was certainly a far cry from when I was in college and would pile into the dorm at 10 p.m on the last day of a break.

They were all there to hear Tony Porter, a guy from New York who apparently goes all over talking about violence against women and why men, good men, like those in the audience, let it happen. He spent most of the time discussing what is in “the man box,” especially attitudes towards women and, just as importantly, acting like women. Very effective. The evening was sponsored by two student groups, including a fraternity. (Those interested in finding out more about Mr. Porter’s work can google “a call to men.”)

What was even more remarkable than all of this was when, at one point during the highly interactive presentation, he had three guys who had indicated that they were in love join him on stage and asked them who they loved and why. It turned out two of the men loved men.

There was no gasps, no giggling, no double-takes. Porter proceeded calmly with his questioning, just as he did with the guy with the girlfriend, and the two guys gladly and proudly explained why they adored their boyfriends.

Like nothing happened.

Yes, but, as I was reminded as I sat there all but breathless, things happen, and things change - things always change - and, for those who wait, are getting better and better.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Queer is bigger

I like Neil Thomas for a lot of reasons. When I went to see him on Sunday, he was funny, smart and quite charming. He is also gay and good-looking, and he said, with a grin, that he’s “available.” And that British accent, as almost always, didn’t hurt.

The other thing I like about this Metropolitan Community Church minister is that he said what I’ve been saying. Or trying to say. He just said it so much better.

Born and raised and trained in England, Reverend Thomas is Senior Pastor of MCC, Los Angeles - the founding church in the progressive, inclusive Christian movement - and is well-known in England and the U.S for his social activism. He has been instrumental in numerous service programs, including for LGBT youths and people with HIV/AIDS and with alcohol and drug addictions, and is currently President of California Faith for Equality, promoting the legalization of same-sex marriage. On Sunday, he spoke to a LGBT-and-allies group that meets monthly at the congregational church here in Claremont.

After talking about coming out and being sexually active at 15 in a supportive if concerned family, with a very strong mother, and in a country that is somewhat more liberal than America, which was, as Thomas cheekily pointed out, founded by puritans who fled England, he went on to discuss queer theology, the subject of his Ph.D dissertation.

Like me, Thomas likes the word “queer,” whereas many people feel that it is more of a slur. I have always felt, though somewhat vaguely, that “queer” connotes a sense of comradery and a sense of empowerment, and this turned out to be Thomas’ point.

He explained that gay theology, such as is found at MCC, sees the Bible through a gay lens. Likewise, feminist theology sees the Bible through a feminist lens, and liberation theology sees the Bible through an impoverished people’s lens. To Thomas, this is all well and good, but it is limiting.

Thomas posited that all these people - LGBT, feminists, impoverished and others - are queer, in that they go against the grain of society. Moreover, it is these people that Jesus reached out to and defended, and it is these people who now illustrate Jesus’ message of radical love and inclusiveness. And all these queer folks can be stronger - and take back Jesus and his message which has been hijacked by the religious right - when they get together.

In answering a question, Thomas stated that progressive Christians are now where evangelicals were 50, before they started getting together and when they were seen as a weird fringe group. He also said that the problem progressive Christians have is that they’re too nice to each other - “You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe” - and then can’t speak up and say anything.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Facing the new year in a small town

Following are my latest two columns in the Claremont Courier, the first published last Wednesday and the second published today. I think, together, they tell their own story and don’t need any explanation.

“You could just picture it, and this was in conservative Claremont.”

Yes, well - and some of us think Claremont is pretty cool. I’m always hearing it said that Claremont is an oasis in a white-bread suburban Hell. Kind of like Austin in Texas.

But I also hear people say that Claremont drives them crazy. A friend recently told me she would go nuts when she would visit her parents in Claremont “and the sidewalks would roll up at 5.”

Sometimes the people who say that Claremont is cool are the same people who say it makes them crazy. (I’ve been known to be one of them.)

Maybe my friend was visiting her parents here around 1970. That’s the time Rebecca McGrew, a curator working at the museum at Pomona College, was referring to in the quote from an interview in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago. She was talking about when Judy Chicago, the renowned feminist artist, gave a lecture at Pomona College in February of that year and refused to answer questions from the men in the audience.

“The audience went crazy,” Ms. Chicago said in the same interview.

Judy Chicago, now 72, will be back at Pomona College later this month to, as her husband Donald Woodman says, “blow up” the football field. The spectacle will be an attempt to recreate an early fireworks piece - something like when she lit flares on Mt. Baldy in 1970, as documented in photographs and a video in an exhibit at the museum this last fall. The exhibit was the first of three this school year at the museum - “It Happened at Pomona” - in conjunction with the Los Angeles-area Pacific Standard Time showings spearheaded by the Getty Foundation.

Claremont can’t be all that conservative if it has world-class provocative artists coming here to stir things up and blow things up. Especially over 40 years ago.

And if nothing else, the story of Judy Chicago, the creator of the iconic “Dinner Party” installation, and her relationship with Claremont should brighten up our January. It is a reminder, after the bright and warming holiday lights have been taken down when the nights are still their longest and coldest (although the days might be quite warm), that Claremont has more than its share of lights that shine forth.

I am constantly amazed by how many people who get things done or do some much-needed shaking up are in Claremont or associated with Claremont. For example, I was looking at the Op-Ed page in the Los Angeles Times one day this last Fall, and there was a piece by Michael Shermer, arguing that God is wrongly given credit for making America great and Americans free and safe. This is pretty strong stuff in a country where God is invoked in the national motto and forever being called on by politicians.

I knew that Michael Shermer was the publisher of Skeptic magazine, but I didn’t know that, as cited in the biographical note, that he has been teaching at Claremont Graduate University.

Then, not long after this, I was watching the PBS NewsHour, and there was Philip Clayton, a Claremonter, being interviewed at the Claremont School of Theology. Mr. Clayton was talking about his work in heading up the school’s new Lincoln University, established to train Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy-persons together so that they can better work together. Pretty cutting-edge stuff.

I am always seeing professors at the Claremont colleges quoted in the news. Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, is a regular, and, just last week, Pomona College Latin American history professor Miguel Tinker Salas was quoted in an article, again in the L.A Times, about a Venezuelan television production company trying to export shows to the U.S.

And I also saw Claremont’s lights shining up north one morning a couple weeks ago in a funky pancake joint in Albany (Sam’s Log Cabin CafĂ©), just north of Berkeley. A teenaged girl and her mother sat down at the table next to me. The girl had a hefty college guide and talked excitedly about how, of all the Claremont colleges, Pitzer was the best fit for her (“environmentally concerned, socially conscious...”).

After a while of grinning over my grilled cakes, I couldn’t contain myself and mentioned that I’m from Claremont. Mother and daughter were quite pleased. It turned out that the daughter is a senior at Berkeley High and Mom is a Scripps College graduate. Claremont was the place to be in their eyes, even though the mother did mention that her daughter “thought it was Hell” when they passed through town last Spring and the colleges were on break.

Yes, Claremont has plenty of lights shining - good to remember now that the holidays are over and we face a new year. But “there is still work to be done.” This is what a friend said when I showed him the vandalism - the police label it a “hate crime,” according to the L.A Times - done on Christmas morning on the nativity scene in front of the Methodist Church on Foothill Boulevard featuring same-sex couples.

My friend said, “There is still work to be done.” That was all he said. He didn’t need to say anymore.

Suddenly, I wasn’t angry anymore. Or not just angry anymore. Suddenly, I knew what to do.

Suddenly, I knew that just being angry was doing no good.

I had been angry all that week. Good and angry. Sitting with it. Stewing in it. I had been ranting to friends and whoever would hear me and not hear me - and it seemed that a lot were not hearing me.

That’s why I had my friend with me. It was New Year’s Day, and, as I mentioned here last week in writing about how there are plenty of people in Claremont that shine forth after the holiday lights have been taken down in the dark of winter, I was showing my friend the vandalism done on the nativity scene in front of the Methodist church on Foothill Boulevard a week earlier, sometime during the night before Christmas morning. The vandalism had been labeled a hate crime by the police, and I wanted my friend, who was from out of town, to be angry like I was.

The vandalism was striking - truly a hate crime, much more than an ugly random hit - precisely because the nativity scene, created by John Zachary, was so striking. It featured same-sex couples.

The piece was more abstract than usual, consisting of three large neon-lit boxes. One box showed a man and a woman holding hands, one box showed two men holding hands and the other box showed two women holding hands. Above the boxes were a neon-lit star and large sign proclaiming, “Christ is born.” In front of the boxes, also neon-lit, was a small sculptured tree and a small sign explaining Jesus’ message of love for all, especially those who are marginalized.

As I saw on Christmas Eve, it made quite a strong statement and made it boldly.

When I went by the nativity scene that evening, I was expecting to see something provocative. For some years now, the tableaus in front of Claremont United Methodist Church, all evidently designed by Mr. Zachary, have been far from traditional and, to say the least, very interesting. There have been scenes set in a homeless encampment and a jail cell. One featured Mexican illegal immigrants.

As Mr. Zachary explained, “The nativity scene has been done hundreds of thousands of times, and everyone has that beautiful fourth century version of the Nativity in their minds. I thought we should do something in a more contemporary context that people can relate to. Something that would represent what it would be like if Christ was born today.”

I was indeed looking forward to this year’s scene. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the brave, striking, brightly lit message that I saw. It was definitely out there - in every sense. I sat there, stunned and moved, in awe.

The next morning, I began telling friends to go by and check out the nativity scene. I took a friend by in the afternoon, wanting to surprise him, and, instead, I got a surprise.

It was not a nice Christmas surprise. Something was wrong.

The “Christ is born” sign and star were ripped off the top, and the boxes were askew. It could have been wind damage, but it had not been particularly windy. I couldn’t help but have a bad feeling, a sinking feeling. There was something not random about the damage.

Why was it that just the box with the man and woman was left standing in place? And the star had been carefully placed over the sign explaining Jesus’ radical message of inclusive love.

No, I thought, this was vandalism. Anti-gay vandalism.

But, then, what bothered me - even more than the ugly vandalism - was the silence. I didn’t hear or see anything about what had happened. Not only did I see or hear no mention of the vandalism, there was no reaction, no outcry.

I assumed that a big part of this was that it was over the holidays, a quiet time with most people “off” with their family and friends, doing pleasant, enjoyable things. It wasn’t time for disturbing things. Then - likewise - two days after Christmas, I went out of town for five days.

It wasn’t until I returned the following Saturday when I saw any news of the news, in a link to a Los Angeles Times article that a friend had sent out through Facebook. (When I go away, I really go away, not looking at e-mail or going on-line.) I felt validated and not crazy. The story said that the act had been labeled a hate crime, and I was glad to see that there was a vigil held, with about 150 people in attendance, on the Thursday evening while I was away.

The next day was New Year’s Day, when I took my friend from out of town to see what had happened. This time, I knew what had happened, that it was vandalism, that it was a hate crime.

I wondered if more vandalism had been done since Christmas Day. The box with the two men had been knocked over on its side. (Why hadn’t the box with the two women been knocked over?)

But other changes had been made. The star was no longer covering the explanation. And there was a spray-painted cardboard sign attached atop the knocked-over box, the one with the two men holding hands. The sign said, “Choose love.”

Yes, there is work still to be done, as my friend said. We were also reminded of this with the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. What is the work we need to do to choose love and make Claremont shine all the brighter?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sticking it to the disabled

Early last month, there was an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about an author named Peter Winkler. Fine. I always enjoy seeing the arts and artists - and especially writers - get some attention. So much the better if it’s on the front page of the paper.

It was clear enough, however, that the reason why Winkler was featured on the front page isn’t so much that he is a fine writer. No, what was worthy of the front page was that, because of being disabled, he wrote his recently published biography of Dennis Hopper (“Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel”) by using a chopstick to type out one letter at a time. Not only that, but Winkler’s agent didn’t know of his rheumatoid arthritis and that he puts so much physical effort into his writing.

Indeed, the article is titled “Really sticking to it” and doesn’t just say that Winkler is disabled - he “increasingly is trapped,” “ravaged by arthritis,” which “has battered him for 48 of his 55 years.” That he doesn’t make this a big deal - he didn’t tell his agent of his disability and says that tapping one key at a time with a chopstick is “not so bad” (“He’s gotten pretty fast, and anyway, ‘I was always a two-finger typist.’”) - only makes it more of a big deal, suitable for the front page.

My first reaction when I read this story was: why doesn’t this guy use a word-prediction program like the one I use? I too type one key at a time, and I have been using this program (SoothSayer) for the last four or five years, and it has made writing - and my life - so much easier. Indeed, I wish I had it years, decades, ago!

Then I thought that if Winkler had such a tool, it would be less likely that there would be a big article about him on the front page. After all, there are thousands of disabled folks who use word prediction programs and other tools and not many (I hope) who use a chopstick to write. It also occurred to me that if Winkler really doesn’t consider his disability and his chopstick-typing a big deal, he wouldn’t have gone along with this article, which included photographs.

This situation - Winkler typing with a chopstick - is another example of how society makes life harder for the disabled, of how society disables people. Yes, there are many wonderful devices and technologies that make life easier for the disabled, but they are too often not easy to get.

What’s more, in a weird twist, as this article illustrates, this is used as a source of inspiration. And - trust me - being an inspiration is oh-so attractive.