Category Archives: Media

My 2016 Books.

At the end of 2015, I observed that I’d only read ten books for the year, including graphic novels—a record low number since I’ve been keeping a books diary. I had been reading, a lot, but it had mostly been blogs, magazine articles, and single issues of comic books. I resolved to pick up the pace in 2016.

Mission accomplished. I read 26 books in the year just concluded, including graphic novels (but only eight graphic novels, so it’s a pretty substantive list).

The predominant takeaway for the year’s reading is that 2016 was the year I discovered The Expanse. After watching the terrific first season of the television show, I began reading the James S.A. Corey novels on which it’s based. I read the first four, as well as two of the ancillary novellas and a short story also set in that world.

I highly recommend the series to people who enjoy hard science fiction, even though technically I wouldn’t say that’s what The Expanse is. The Expanse is sort of “science fiction science fiction”; the series begins two centuries in the future in a populated solar system that’s a fair extrapolation from the technology we have today—until a particular thing happens that violates physics as we understand it. You’ll know it when it happens, and it’s a thing that will continue to influence the story, but the human characters and institutions react and adapt to that thing as they would in a hard-science fiction universe. It’s all very relatable, and super fun to read.

Each year I try to read a few literary classics that I’d never gotten around to. This year, that project led me to read Dracula, The Wind In The Willows, and Little Women.

I was surprised and delighted by how modern Dracula seems. It’s an epistolary novel, consisting of letters between Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, Dr. Van Helsing and his colleagues, etc. But the story’s also told via newspaper stories and diary entries. It’s a common storytelling technique today; I’d had no idea authors were using it in the nineteenth century.

I liked The Wind In The Willows, that classic of English children’s literature, but now that I’ve read it, I’m astounded that any children could enjoy it. It’s almost entirely devoid of action, and spends most of its pages exhaustively describing Mole and Rat’s picnics and boating excursions.

If Dracula seemed like fashion-forward writing for the Victorian era, Little Women is entirely of its time. I’m glad I read it, and I took some pleasure from the story (that Jo is a real firecracker!), but Twain and Poe were taking much bigger chances, and stretching the bounds of literature. Louisa May Alcott’s writing is safe. I’ve heard she and Twain hated each other’s writing, and I’m not a bit surprised.

In addition to those literary classics, I also read three classics of science fiction: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. Yes, I had never read Neuromancer. I can’t read everything within 30 years of when it comes out; give me a break.

Lest Darkness Fall is about a Latin-speaking archeologist who slips back in time to the era of the late Roman Empire, and begins inventing modern tools centuries ahead of their due dates (Arabic numerals, including “0”; the printing press; telescopes) to try to prevent the Fall. I love a good alternate history story, but here’s the thing: de Camp wrote Lest Darkness Fall in the mid-1930s, so reading the book today is like a form of time travel for me as well as the protagonist, because his “present-day” perspective, while much more enlightened than that of the Romans and Goths he meets, still embodies many racist and sexist assumptions that are cringe-worthy today. Which is, for me, another reason to read it. I love to see how the wheel keeps turning: up-to-date becomes old-fashioned in such a short span of time. Reading is itself a sort of time travel.

I had a similar experience reading The Man Who Folded Himself. I also found it to be profoundly creepy, and I’ll say no more about it.

Two short story collections I read in 2016 were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Complete Pat Hobby Stories and Aimee Bender’s The Girl In The Flammable Skirt. I knew about failed, skanky 1930s screenwriter Pat Hobby because of an adaptation of the stories starring Christopher Lloyd that I caught on PBS a few years ago. I love Fitzgerald, and I love stories of the golden age of the silver screen, so it was a no-brainer that eventually I’d absorb this volume. It’s a stitch! The stories are sort of a prose version of the “cringe comedy” seen in TV shows like The Office. Although the style is somewhat dated, I often found myself laughing out loud.

My partner recommended the Aimee Bender book to me; it’s part of her library. The absurdist stories reminded me of those of the late Amanda Davis in her collection, Circling The Drain. According to Google, I’m not the first person to make that comparison. Davis was funnier, though, and at times Bender gets just a little too fey for my tastes.

I closed out the year (more or less) with my annual reread of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I love it—we all know the story, but Dickens’s prose is a joy that’s lost in most TV and movie adaptations. It’s still the only Dickens book I’ve ever read. I resolve to read Bleak House in 2017.

I further resolve to read more books by and about Charles Darwin in 2017.

Not included in the list below, because I spent all of June reading it and am still only a third of the way through it, is Steven Pinker’s doorstop, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My final literary resolution for 2017 is to finish reading this fascinating, if voluminous, volume.

For those who take an interest in such things: 14 of the 26 books on this 2016 list were read on my iPad using the Kindle app.

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January

  1. From Personal Ads to Cloning Labs; More Science Cartoons From Sidney Harris by Sidney Harris
  2. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  3. Justice League Volume 4: The Grid by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, & Joe Prado.
  4. Justice League Volume 5: Forever Heroes by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, and Rod Reis.

February

  1. Forever Evil: Blight by J.M. DeMatteis, Ray Fawkes, Mikel Janin, Fernando Blanco, Francis Portela, & Vicente Cifuentes.

March

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

April

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker.

May

  1. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.
  2. Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion by Brian Buccellato, Scott Hepburn, Patrick Zircher, and André Coelhou.
  3. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

July

  1. Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey.
  2. American Vampire Vol. 5 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Dustin Nguyen.
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

August

  1. [Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing by Josh Fruhlinger & Conor Lastowka.

September

  1. Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S.A. Corey.
  2. Ame-Comi Girls Vol. 3: Earth In Crisis by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Eduardo Francisco, et al.
  3. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling et al.

October

  1. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.

November

  1. Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey.
  2. The Complete Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  3. The Churn by James S.A. Corey.

December

  1. Justice League Volume 6: Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel.
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
  3. Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones.
  4. The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender.
  5. Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey.

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My 2016 Movies.

I saw 80 movies in 2016.

Movies of every sort can be viewed in all manner of ways now. The list below includes new releases in the cinema, classics on DVD or Blu-Ray, public domain oldies on YouTube. Personally owned films. Titles streamed on Netflix. I watched the Charlton Heston adventure, Secret of the Incas, via YouTube, on my iPad, for a few minutes at a time each night while falling asleep.

In an easy walk, the worst movie I saw in 2016 was Independence Day: Resurgence. Everyone associated with this movie, from director Roland Emmerich, to the cast, to the baker who supplied bagels to the craft services table, deserves to be chased out of Hollywood with torches and pitchforks.

The best movie I saw isn’t as easy to choose. Limiting myself to 2016 movies, I’ll offer the caveat that I didn’t see too many of them. My film diet mainly consists of Netflix discs and streaming experiences; my partner and I don’t get out to the cinema as often as we’d like. We do sometimes see recent releases once they’ve hit Redbox.

All that stipulated, Arrival was probably the best of the thirteen 2016 movies we slogged out to the cinema to see. Amy Adams is a personal favorite actor, and I just love science fiction that’s smartly written, eschews tedious chase or fight scenes, and isn’t afraid to present big ideas without spoon-feeding them to its audience. Arrival provided all of this, and it’s the one movie of 2016 that I was still thinking and talking about days after I’d seen it. It was sticky in my head. I ate it up with a spoon.

A close runner-up was Sully. I don’t know how much truth is in this “true story” of the commercial pilot who dead-stick landed his plane on the Hudson River with zero fatalities, but it’s a terrific white-knuckle adventure story regardless. Tom Hanks perfectly embodies another real-life captain (after Captain Phillips in Captain Phillips and Captain Lovell in Apollo 13), and Clint Eastwood never disappoints. I loved every frame of Sully.

Another “true story” we saw this year was Snowden. Again, I don’t know just how true it is, and it doesn’t matter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did his career best in it, conveying all the odd mannerisms and speech patterns of Ed Snowden as well as showing us his inner moral turmoil.

Another year, another brace of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. I really enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. Doctor Strange was time well spent, but it’s heartbreaking to see Rachel McAdams as yet another Oscar-worthy actress relegated to playing “the girlfriend” in a Marvel movie (after Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man films and Natalie Portman in Thor). We need a Marvel super-heroine movie! Or a half-dozen of them!

In a year in which Krysten Ritter killed it on the small screen in Netflix’s Jessica Jones series, is it too much to ask that female-starring super-hero films can become a more regular thing? I don’t think it is. Yeah, I know Captain Marvel is in the works, and that’s great. There still should be a Black Widow movie. And maybe a She-Hulk movie? Wouldn’t that work? I was shocked to discover, today, that the last super-hero movie starring a woman was 2004’s Catwoman with Halle Berry. No one remembers that one fondly, if at all. Maybe when DC’s Wonder Woman breaks the drought this year, we can hope for more female-centered comic book projects.

I saw Zootopia, like everyone else, and thought it was hilarious. I saw Ghostbusters, like many other people, and did not find it hilarious.

The Accountant was fun, but dumb. It had plot holes you could drive an Airstream trailer through, and it pretty much wasted the talents of Anna Kendrick and John Lithgow.

Atlanta-filmed Passengers (which, clearly, wasn’t set in Atlanta) was thought-provoking, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The “what would I do in that situation?” questions can lead to lively conversations, but the “why would a ship with 5,000 souls aboard it only have one autodoc?” questions just frustrated me.

Whit Stillman only comes around every few years. In 2016 he brought Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny with him in Love & Friendship. It’s like every other Whit Stillman movie: if you like this sort of thing (as I do), you’ll like this.

I only made it out for one movie of this year’s Out On Film festival, and that was the documentary The Trans List. Janet Mock interviewed 11 prominent transgender Americans about their lives. I wish she had interviewed fewer people and spent more time with each of them, because I hadn’t heard of several, and their stories of activism and triumph over discrimination were well worth exploring. Stonewall activists, immigrant-rights crusaders, and legal pioneers were among them. Oh, and Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner for the film, which is good, because I don’t think Ms. Jenner has gotten much press coverage since she came out and transitioned.

Rounding out the list of 2016 movies we saw in 2016 were Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and La La Land. I liked them both, neither was perfect, and I’ve nothing interesting to say about them.

In addition to feature-length movies, I saw many shorts in 2016. My partner and I always go to Landmark Midtown Cinema to see the Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts each winter, to get ready for the Academy Awards. There are always some gems there. Also, she got me the Blu-Ray boxed set of Les Blank’s quirky documentaries for Christmas in 2015. I’ve spent the past year dipping into them whenever I’ve had a few minutes to share. Blank’s movies are a lot like Stillman’s in their idiosyncrasy: If you like them, you’ll like them. Personally, I love them.

Anyway, here’s my full list:

January

  1. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary. Personally owned Blu-Ray.
  2. Holiday (1938). Directed by George Cukor. Starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Netflix DVD.
  3. Nothing (2003). Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Comedy starring David Hewlett and Andrew Miller. Netflix DVD.
  4. The Last Waltz (1978). Directed by Martin Scorsese. Documentary about and starring The Band. Netflix DVD.
  5. Smitty (2012), Directed by David M. Evans. Starring Peter Fonda, Mira Sorvino, et al. Netflix DVD.
  6. Summer of Sam (1999), Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, et al. Netflix DVD.
  7. Spellbound (1945), Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Netflix DVD.
  8. Back In Time (2015). Directed by Jason Aron. Documentary.
  9. The Music Box (1932), Directed by James Parrott. Short. Starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. YouTube.

 

February

  1. Life Itself. (2014). Directed by Steve James. Documentary. Netflix streaming.
  2. All The Little Animals (1998). Directed by Jeremy Thomas. Starring Christian Bale and John Hurt. Netflix DVD.
  3. Lambchops (1929). Directed by Murray Roth. Starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. Short. YouTube.
  4. Ave Maria (2015). Directed by Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  5. Shok (2015). Directed by Jamie Donoughue. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  6. Alles Wird Gut (2015). Directed by Patrick Vollrath. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  7. Stutterer (2015). Directed by Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  8. Day One (2015). Directed by Henry Hughes. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  9. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). Directed by Chuck Jones. Short. Starring the voice of Mel Blanc. dailymotion.com.
  10. Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941). Directed by Edward F. Cline. Starring W.C. Fields. YouTube.
  11. Sanjay’s Super Team (2015). Directed by Sanjay Patel. Short. Starring the voice of Brent Schraff. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  12. World of Tomorrow (2015). Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. Short. Starring voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  13. Bear Story (2014). Directed by Gabriel Osorio Vargas. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  14. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (2014). Directed by Konstantin Bronzit. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  15. If I Was God… (2015). Directed by Cordell Barker. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  16. The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse (2015). Directed by Camille Chaix, Hugo Jean, et al. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  17. The Loneliest Stoplight (2015). Directed by Bill Plympton. Short. Starring the voice of Patton Oswalt. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  18. Catch It (2015). Directed by Paul Bar, Marion Demaret, Nadège Forner Pierre-Baptiste Marty, Julien Robyn, and Jordan Soler. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  19. Prologue (2015). Directed by Richard Williams. Short. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  20. Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary short. Blu-Ray.
  21. Like Dandelion Dust (2009). Directed by Jon Gunn. Starring Mira Sorvino, Cole Hauser, and Barry Pepper. Netflix DVD.
  22. Ex Machina (2015). Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  23. Westworld (1973). Directed by Michael Crichton. Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James Brolin. Netflix Blu-Ray.

 

March

  1. Children of the Century (1999). Directed by Diane Kurys. Starring Juliette Binoche. Netflix DVD.
  2. Bridge of Spies (2015). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. Zootopia (2016). Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush. Starring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  4. The Big Short (2015). Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Directed by George Miller. Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Directed by Robert Wise. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, et al. Netflix streaming.

 

April

  1. Brooklyn (2015). Directed by John Crowley. Starring Saoirse Ronan, et al.
  2. The Grey Zone (2001). Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, et al. Netflix DVD.
  3. Cloverfield (2008). Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.

 

May

  1. Waitress (2007). Directed by Adrienne Shelly. Starring Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly, and Nathan Fillion. DVD.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Directed by the Russo Brothers. Starring Chris Evans, et al. Redbox.
  3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Netflix streaming.
  4. Galaxy Quest (1999). Directed by Dean Parisot. Starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, et al. Netflix streaming.

 

June

  1. Trainwreck (2015). Directed by Judd Apatow. Starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  2. Trading Places (1983). Directed by John Landis. Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. Captain America: Civil War (2016). Directed by Russo Brothers. Starring all the people. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  4. Creed (2015). Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Redbox Blu-Ray.
  5. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). Directed by Sam Liu. Animated. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  6. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984). Directed by Leonard Nimoy. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy. Netflix streaming.

July

  1. The Red Shoes (1948). Directed by Powell/Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook. Netflix DVD.
  2. Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). Directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring CGI. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  3. Love & Friendship (2016). Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Regal Tara Cinema.
  4. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013). Directed by Jay Oliva. Animated. Netflix streaming.

August

  1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1984). Directed by Leonard Nimoy. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley, Catherine Hicks, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  2. Ghostbusters (2016). Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Kristen Wiig et al. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  3. Men With Guns (1997). Directed by John Sayles. Starring Federico Luppi. Netflix DVD.
  4. The Dirty Dozen (1967). Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, et al. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  5. The Lobster (2015). Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. Redbox DVD.

 

September

  1. Snowden (2016). Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  2. Sully (2016). Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. AMC North DeKalb 16.

October

  1. The Trans List (2016). Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Documentary. Landmark Midtown Cinema.
  2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Batfleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  3. God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance (1968). Directed by Les Blank. Documentary short. Blu-Ray.
  4. Strange Days (1995). Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett. Netflix DVD.
  5. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015). Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen. Documentary. Netflix streaming.

 

November

  1. Rescue Dawn (2006). Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Christian Bale. Netflix Blu-Ray.
  2. The Accountant (2016). Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick. Regal Hollywood 24.
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Denholm Elliott. DVD.
  4. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). Directed by John Hughes. Starring Steve Martin and John Candy. Netflix DVD.
  5. Arrival (2016). Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Abbott and Costello. AMC North DeKalb 16.
  6. Doctor Strange (2016). Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch. AMC Sugarloaf 18.
  7. Secret of the Incas (1954). Directed by Jerry Hopper. Starring Charlton Heston and Thomas Mitchell. YouTube.
  8. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). Directed by Marcel Ophüls. Documentary. Netflix DVD (2 discs).

 

December

  1. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Directed by David Yates. Starring Eddie Redmayne. Regal Hollywood 24.
  2. Love Actually (2003). Directed by Richard Curtis. Starring all the Brits. Netflix streaming.
  3. Muppet Christmas Carol (1993). Directed by Brian Henson. Starring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog. DVD.
  4. Passengers (2016). Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence. N. DeKalb 16.
  5. La La Land (2016). Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Regal Tara Cinema.
  6. Goodbye, Lenin (2003). Directed by Wolfgang Becker. Netflix DVD.

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Senators Debate “Religious Freedom.”

Tuesday night at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, state senators Greg Kirk (R), of Americus, and Vincent Fort (D) of Atlanta kicked off a series of four debates that will take place around the state on the subjects of “Religious Freedom, the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.”

The other debates will be on the same subjects, and will take place (or have already taken place) this week in Macon, Tifton, and Savannah.

Senator Kirk, a former Baptist preacher, was the introducer of the “First Amendment Defense Act” during the last Georgia legislative session. He was also a proponent of the “Pastor Protection Act” and the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Parts of all three bills were incorporated into HB 757, which was vetoed by Governor Deal this past spring.

Senator Fort, the minority whip in the upper chamber, is a former history professor who has been a strong supporter of the LGBT community for many years. I saw him speak at an event while my lawsuit was ongoing; he recognized me without introduction, gave me his card, and encouraged me to reach out to him if there was anything he could do to help.

You’d think Deal’s veto would mean that we’d seen the last of these anti-LGBT bills in the Peach State. You’d be wrong; Kirk and fellow Republican Sen. Josh McKoon have both pledged to re-introduce such bills during next year’s legislative session.

Turnout to the debate was light; there couldn’t have been more than sixty people in the pews. I should note that Saint Mark is a liberal Methodist church in the heart of Midtown, so its leadership and congregation are either LGBT themselves or are solid allies. I think the debate wasn’t promoted well; I learned about it from a Georgia Equality email, and after the fact some people told me they wished they’d known about it.

What’s next? Polygamy? —Sen. Greg Kirk

Content was also light; if you’ve been following the emergence of these “religious freedom” bills as they’ve been festering in statehouses around the country, you know what they’re about, and you wouldn’t have learned anything new at this event. Below are some quick takes, borrowed from my own live tweets during the debate. Any erroneous details are due to my own poor recollection.

Sen. Kirk claimed the “Pastor Protection Act” would ensure that clergypeople cannot be forced to perform a wedding they object to on religious grounds.

Sen. Fort retorted that no pastor can be forced to perform any wedding he or she doesn’t want to, on any grounds, religious or not.

Kirk argued that bills such as these are simply “common sense”; they’ll protect the religious without affecting anyone else.

Fort’s retort was that they offer no protections that aren’t already guaranteed by the Constitution and they will expose Georgia to boycotts and other economic harms like what’s happening in North Carolina in the wake of HB2’s passage.

When a moderator asked Kirk if same-sex couples should be a protected class under the law, Kirk admitted that post-Obergefell, that is a matter of settled law. But then he did the usual “slippery slope” scaremongering by asking, “What’s next? Polygamy?”

In the question and answer portion of the program, an audience member asked, “Senator Kirk, you keep saying ‘traditional marriage.’ Define that.”

He took the bait, and said “traditional marriage is marriage as defined in the Bible”; the questioner pounced, reminding him that the Bible pretty much celebrates polygamy. Kirk backpedaled, explaining that he’d meant traditional marriage is what most Christians believe it to be. Slippery slope, indeed.

Senator Fort won raucous applause when he declared that Georgia needs a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. This was definitely his crowd. I wonder how his message will be received in Tifton.

I’ll close by noting that Fort and Kirk were both unfailingly polite to and respectful of each other, of the moderators, and of the audience. Anyone who turned out hoping to see a Republican primaries-style uglyfest would have been disappointed.


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A Sharp ReDuke!

It would be hard to remake The Dukes of Hazzard today, because much of the iconography of the classic TV series is evocative of the racist past of the American South.

I think I’ve hit upon a solution: move the story to England!

It will be called “The Dukes of Hampshire.” Beau and Lucas are actual dukes, and their cousin Margaret’s denim shorts are neatly hemmed and creased.

Their car is still a Dodge Charger. But the steering wheel is on the right, obvi, and instead of being named General Lee, it’s called Field Marshal Montgomery. A Union Jack is painted on the roof.

A constant thorn in the Dukes’ side, despite their “never intending any distress,” is Council Leader Hogg and his crony, Police Constable Coltrane.

The theme music’s lyrics, rather than calling the young troublemakers “good ole boys,” describes them as “right jolly chaps.”

You may all thank me in the comments.


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Transgender characters in comic books.

alters72dpiThe New York Times recently reported about Alters, a new comic book from a new comic book company, Aftershock Comics, that’s launching in September.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”

Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.

The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.

I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simplyultra-humanite3 part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.

The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.

Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.

DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.

Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.alysiayeohcomposite

Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.

You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”

Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).

And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.

There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.

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Jenner Again.

Caitlyn Jenner, the most famous transgender person ever (so far), has put her foot in her mouth again. In a recent interview with TIME magazine, she said:

I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

Outrage came from all corners, including the transgender community itself. Jenner gets a taste of her pedicure with practically every sentence in that quote. If you haven’t done much thinking or reading about these matters, it may not be obvious why these words were so inflammatory. I’ll take each misstep in turn and unpack them for you.

“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role.”

Jenner meant by this that life is easier for a trans woman or trans man if his or her looks conform to what the general public assumes cisgender women or men “should” look like. What she described as “authentic” is more often called having a “cisnormative” appearance.

authentic_stamp

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

There’s no such thing as “authentic” when it comes to a person’s gender expression. People look the way they look, and there’s nothing wrong with that, cisnormative or not. A woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips (and there are cisgender women shaped like this) is no less “authentically” a woman than a petite woman with an hourglass figure (and there are transgender women shaped like this), and to imply otherwise is to indulge in the reductive biological-sex-equals-gender essentialism that’s at the heart of transphobia, especially phobia against trans women: i.e., “you don’t look like a woman to me, so you’re really a man.”

But the biggest howler in that sentence is the three words, “plays the role.” Jenner seems here to conflate transgender people with drag artists. Trans people are not “playing a role.” Our gender is not a costume that we peel off when we arrive at home after a long day of applying for jobs, arguing with an ex-spouse over visitation rights with our children, or giving testimony in the trial of punks who assaulted us. Transgender women are women, down to their bones and 24/7. Transgender men, to paraphrase West Side Story, are men all the way. Caitlyn Jenner knows this, or at least should know it, after a full reality-show season of being lectured on such matters by Jenny Boylan and other luminaries.

“[W]hat I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease.”
“[I]f you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.”

I assume by these statements Jenner means that she strives to present herself to be as cisnormative (feminine) as she can manage. There’s nothing wrong with this; many transgender women present themselves in a hyper-feminine way, either by nature, or as a celebration of the identity they’ve finally learned to embrace, or—maybe more often—as a survival tactic, because transgender women who look cisnormative are less likely to be victims of physical assault. As Jenner said, it puts people at ease.

But it’s not the job of transgender people to put anyone at ease. It’s a free country, as the saying goes, and if the way we look makes people uncomfortable, that’s their lookout, not ours. To say otherwise is nasty and ignorant, the same as telling women not to dress in a manner provocative to rapists, or asking someone with a chronic disease to cover up her medication port, or suggesting a Sikh leave his turban at home because he might be mistaken for a Muslim and shot. Who we are is only our own business, and if haters are gonna hate, they’re welcome to suck it.Caitlyn_Jenner

Naturally, Jenner quickly walked back these remarks and apologized after the predictable backlash. Good on her for that; she has always been contrite after her podiatric oral intrusions. I don’t fault her for saying such foolish things; she’s new into her transition, and that’s a time of learning for all trans people.

The problem is that, newly transitioned or not, she’s looked to by the media as a leader, icon, and spokesperson for all transgender Americans. Her pre-transition fame makes that inevitable. She’s the person people will turn to for keynote speeches, diversity awards, and sound bites, and when she says something ignorant or dumb, the general public will assume she speaks for all transgender people.

This is something of a pattern with transgender people who get a little bit of notoriety early in their transition. Back in the middle of the Aughts, Susan Stanton made similar “man in a dress” remarks in an interview.

Susan Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida. She was quietly and privately transitioning when she was unwillingly outed and then fired by Largo’s city council, in an outrageous (and never punished) act of transphobia. This thrust her prematurely into the public eye, and reporters sought her out for interviews and quotes before she’d had time to work out for herself what it means to be transgender, or how to talk about such matters with sensitivity and grace.

Susan Stanton.

Susan Stanton.

When Lambda Legal accepted me as a client and we launched our lawsuit, Glenn v. Brumby, one of the organization’s conditions was that my interactions with the public had to go through their media relations department. This frustrated me at the time, because Lambda Legal was very careful about choosing which interviews and public events would be good for me or for the case. I wanted to talk to everyone about the unfairness and pervasiveness of the kind of discrimination I had suffered, but I wasn’t allowed to.

That parsimony is probably part of why the important legal precedent we set is still little-known today, but on the flip side, Lambda Legal definitely saved me from committing howlers like Stanton and Jenner’s. During those four years, I listened more than I spoke; I wasn’t thrust unprepared into a leadership or spokesperson position.

By dint of her pre-transition fame, Jenner didn’t have the option of a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight transition, even if she had wanted one (and, with the second season of her reality series greenlit, she doesn’t seem to want one). Like her or not, gaffe-prone or not, she is American media’s reigning go-to transperson, and will remain so until and unless someone even more famous transitions.

Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this.

As I’ve written before, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has been enormously important for the transgender community, and has accelerated the cause of civil rights and public acceptance, probably by years. That shouldn’t be denied. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t highly problematic at the same time. Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this, and give cisgender America an impression of our lives that is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous.

Which puts the rest of us on alert. We need to stand ready with our metaphorical mops and buckets, ready to leap into action and correct the record the next time a Cleanup on Aisle Caitlyn is needed.


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Bruce Jenner.

Here’s a panel from Mad Magazine’s parody of the 1970s “Incredible Hulk” TV show, which appeared in issue No. 204 in 1979:

ElloBruce

Wait long enough and everything becomes ironic. Last Friday, April 24, after months of gossip, speculation, and some rude and unkind jokes, Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. It’s a big deal.

The viewing audience was told Jenner prefers to use male pronouns until he begins presenting as female in public. That’s what I’ll go with here.

Jenner is not the first famous transgender American; there’s a small crowd of them now. But he’s the most well-known by far, especially within that small club who transitioned after they were already famous. Apart from Jenner, I can only name three: Alexis Arquette, Lana Wachowski and Chaz Bono.

It’s silly even to call these three “famous” compared to Jenner. I’d bet everyone who reads this will have to look up at least one of those names. Bruce Jenner has been in the public eye for decades, and is better recognized than anyone else I’ll mention in this post, including Diane Sawyer. He’s known as an Olympic gold medalist, businessman and TV star. That’s why his journey has garnered such intense scrutiny. We’ve never seen this scenario play out on this level before.

Source: US Magazine

Different days.

Many LGBT people I know, especially in the transgender community, are enraged by the attention, and hurry to observe how easy his transition has been.

It’s true; Jenner has every advantage one could wish for. He is white, wealthy, surrounded by supportive family (even his ex-wives have been spirited cheerleaders), and resides in the most progressive state in the nation. His transition will be smooth sailing from start to finish.

He won’t have trouble meeting transition-related medical or surgical needs. He won’t be hassled by a county judge when he goes to complete his legal name change. The TSA will never single him out for a humiliating body cavity check if he tries to fly while his identity documents don’t match his appearance. If his children were still minors, their other relatives wouldn’t try to take them from his custody, citing his gender dysphoria as the sole and sufficient reason.

His circumstances don’t put him at higher risk for suicide. He has the means to protect himself, so he has no reason to fear homicide at the hands of violent transphobes.

He won’t get fired from his job. In fact, he’ll probably make money off his transition, if his new reality show is a hit.

All those horrors have happened, and continue to happen, to less fortunate transgender people—especially the ones who are women, or impoverished, or nonwhite minorities—or who are all three. Follow the links. After the interview aired, while Lady Gaga and other celebrities were tweeting their praise to Jenner for his “bravery,” Ashley Diamond, a black transgender woman, continued to languish in the Georgia men’s prison system, where she has been mocked and misgendered by other inmates and corrections officers, denied hormone therapy, and repeatedly raped. In the unlikely event Jenner must do prison time for the fatal accident he caused back in February, it’s a certainty his straits will never become as dire as Ms. Diamond’s. The two may as well live in different universes.

Source: General Mills

Were the photos really in black and white back then?

Life isn’t as bad for all of us as it has been for Ms. Diamond, but it’s bad enough, for enough of us, that to call Jenner brave is like praising my cat for all her hard work in curling up on a warm cushion and sleeping all day. It’s not right that we’re so taken with him, so impressed, when so many others are forgotten or maligned or thrown away to die.

And yet, that’s exactly why Bruce matters so much. Yes, of course the public should care more about transgender people who aren’t white or famous or rich. But they don’t. That’s human nature. We sympathize better with others we perceive as being like us. For the white, middle-class majority, that’s someone like Bruce Jenner. Because he’s like them, they can’t dismiss his transition as some bizarre, foreign otherness; something only “those people” do. He’s bringing gender dysphoria into the suburban house next door.

The male image of Bruce Jenner is in people’s heads. Soon it will be joined by the female image. People will be forced to reconcile one with the other, and to comprehend that all the things they appreciated about the previous version are still there in the update.

Everyone goes through this process when a friend or relative comes out as transgender. Now, through Bruce, everyone who hasn’t had that experience will have it by proxy. And when they realize it’s okay for him to be transgender, they’ll realize it’s okay for everyone else as well.

This is what we’re striving toward: a society in which being transgender by itself isn’t remarkable, and we can earn distinction instead through our unique achievements. As author Jennifer Finney Boylan says, we’ll know the fight for acceptance is over when “[W]e are as boring as anyone else.”

A version of this post also appears this week as a column in Georgia Voice.

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Transparent.

Last month Amazon.com’s Instant Video service debuted its new TV series, Transparent. All ten episodes went live to stream via the Internet in a model copied from Netflix, with its many original series.Transparentposter

Transparent, a comedy/drama, is the creation of filmmaker and television writer Jill Soloway. It stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a Southern California transgender woman who has lived most of her life as a male and is now, late in life, beginning her transition to female. She has an ex-wife and three adult children. The show is about her transition and the effect it has on herself and her family.

Jeffrey Tambor is not a transwoman, of course, and this fact has made Transparent the subject of some controversy in the transgender community. In July the pilot episode was screened in Los Angeles at the Outfest Film Festival, and in the panel discussion afterward, a transgender blogger criticized the casting of Tambor in the leading role, calling it “transface” and insisting a transgender actress would have been a better choice.

Soloway defended her casting decision thusly:  “Maura is coming out late in life. A lot of people in that situation do not physically transition. At this point in the story, it’s possible to have a cis male play the character.” She added, “Jeff was in my head before the issue became politicized to me. I didn’t see a controversy.”

I’m guessing by “do not physically transition” she meant that for someone so old (I don’t know exactly how old Maura is supposed to be, but Tambor is 70) hormone replacement therapy does little to affect a transwoman’s appearance. Breast growth will be minimal, and facial features won’t soften and become more feminine in appearance as they would for someone who transitions earlier in life. It was an odd way for Soloway to phrase it, but if that’s what she meant, she’s probably correct. And she’s not without experience in these matters; her own father came out as transgender in 2011. Transparent is fiction, but it’s informed by her own family’s experiences.

My partner and I have seen the first three episodes so far. Maura’s experiences in the present day, and especially the flashback scenes set in her repressed and closeted past, dredge up powerful emotions in me, so it’s not the sort of show I could binge on. But I’m enjoying it, and I think it’s fine that Tambor was cast in the part.

I agree it’s usually best to cast an actor who is a member of a particular race, minority, or community when making a film or TV show about a character in that category, when possible. Transgender people should play transgender people; Asians should play Asians; actors with Asperger’s should play people who have Asperger’s.

Not a Chinese actor.

Not a Chinese actor.

This is especially true when the minority in question has a history of being marginalized by Hollywood. I’m thinking of the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, who notoriously was played in all of his popular movies by white actors. Caucasian actress Donna Reed played Sacajawea, who was Shoshone, in The Far Horizons. A year later, Shirley MacLaine played an Indian princess in Around The World In 80 Days.

All outrageous casting choices, and I’m certain they were a result of the racist assumption, which I hope is going away, that Caucasians are the “default” race in the U.S., and they’re who Americans wanted to see as protagonists on screen, even in roles that aren’t Caucasian.

watermelonman

Not a Caucasian actor.

But sometimes the story makes it impossible to cast authentically. Melvin Van Peebles’ great comedy Watermelon Man was about a racist white man who spontaneously turned into a black man overnight. Since one actor played the role both before and after the transformation, would it have been “right” to cast a black man or a white man?

Sally Potter’s movie Orlando is about a person who lives 400 years, half as a man, then half as a woman. Whomever Potter cast would have to play against sex and gender for 50 percent of the scenes. She cast the great Tilda Swinton; should she have cast a male actor?

Not an actor.

Not an actor.

Another example that comes to mind is Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. His character, Lt. Dan, lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. Sinise has both his legs; the director painted them out using CGI special effects. Ideally, you’d hire an amputee actor to play an amputee, but Lt. Dan’s story begins in the time before he lost his legs. Casting Sinise was a practical choice. An amputee couldn’t have played the character with legs as easily as Sinise played him without legs.

If Transparent were set entirely in the present day, and Maura were past her transition, I’d also have been critical if a transgender actress hadn’t played her. That’s not the case. Maura is just beginning her transition; in the first episode she hadn’t told her loved ones her secret and still presented as male most of the time. Furthermore, many scenes are set in the past, in the time when Maura, still Mort to everyone she knew, was still learning how to cope with her gender dysphoria.

A transgender actress could play those scenes, sure, but it would be a lot to ask of her emotionally (I know I couldn’t do it), and could be a makeup and special effects challenge, depending on how different the actress looked from her pre-transition self. I remember thinking how brave it was of Laverne Cox to play her character’s pre-transition self in flashback scenes in Orange Is The New Black; later I learned it hadn’t been her, but her (formerly identical) twin brother in those scenes. That was a brilliant casting move, but one that wouldn’t be available for most productions.

Tambor is good in the part because we still see so much of Mort in the show. He’s also good, I’d argue, precisely because he’s not transgender.

Much of the U.S. still thinks transgender people are bizarre, exotic, even mentally ill. There’s a whole lotta Othering going on. Jeffrey Tambor is a well-known actor who has been on TV screens for decades now. People know him and like him, and know he’s not transgender himself. That makes him the perfect guide to take audiences along on this journey, to show them that, just as Jeffrey Tambor is an ordinary, sympathetic individual, so is Maura, and by extension, all transgender people.

Parenthetically, Tambor was also in the cast of Arrested Development a show I enjoyed, but which was guilty at times of some shockingly transphobic attempts at humor. So another good reason for Tambor to play Maura is so he has a chance to pay off that karmic debt.

Yes, casting Tambor to play Maura meant a transgender actress didn’t get the job, and it’s fair to guess unemployment is even worse among transgender actresses than for transgender women in general. But Soloway’s not ignoring the transgender community. According to this New York Times story from August 31:

Soloway enacted a transfirmative action program, favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones. It wasn’t just a corrective to the trans community’s high rates of unemployment. Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day. ‘I really want it so that there’s no moment, on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.’ As of this writing, 20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.

She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.

Those two consultants are Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who know as much about being transgender as any three people, even though they are only two.

Transparent is doing right by us. It is respectful, carefully thought out, and thoroughly researched, and by her life experiences and by her hiring, writing, and production decisions, Jill Soloway has shown she has the authority and credibility to tell her story the way she’s telling it. It’s not transphobic in any way, least of all in the casting.

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A Wasted Life

Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church (that’s the Wikipedia link; I find it distasteful even to type the WBC’s actual website name), is at death’s door. He may already have died by the time you read this.

It’s fair to say he won’t be missed by the general public. Under his leadership, WBC has been a single-issue activist group, and that single issue was its hatred of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. The church’s antics, most infamously including picketing military funerals with hateful, homophobic messages on their signs, are sufficiently well-known that I won’t detail them here. They’re nasty people, and especially nasty if you’re LGBT. They’re so nasty that even mainstream conservatives, themselves openly homophobic, disavow them.

Phelps was excommunicated from the WBC, which he founded in 1955, last year. I’ve seen it speculated that he was kicked out because he has softened his views and was calling for the church to take a “kinder approach.”

That’s not accurate. According to Nathan Phelps, Fred’s estranged, atheist son, Fred was calling for church members to be kinder to each other, after a power struggle that ousted his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper from command (I don’t know how Nathan came by this information, estranged as he is, but the church members themselves aren’t talking, so this is the best information we have.). We don’t have any reason to assume Fred isn’t still hatin’ on the gay people just as hard as he ever has.

At least two Facebook groups are preparing to celebrate Fred’s passing. I strongly condemn such actions. Death is a horrible thing, and I don’t think anyone’s death should be celebrated. For one, while it’s a cliché to say that would bring the celebrants down to the level of their antagonists, it’s also true. Yes, it’s not easy to take the high road with such an odious person. That’s why it’s called the high road. If you’re opposed to the beliefs and tactics of Westboro Baptist Church, you should actually be the better person you think you are.

For another, the death of a human being is also the death of learning. Any chance that Fred Phelps ever had to see the wrongness of his beliefs and repent will die when he does, and that is something to be regretted, not celebrated.

Phelps’s legacy is more complicated than most people realize. Yes, he’s an icon of homophobia. However, as an attorney in the 1960s, he also played a significant role in several civil rights advances. He fought against racial discrimination and sex discrimination, and in the 1980s opposed sending an ambassador to Vatican City on separation of church and state grounds. He and his law firm even won commendations and other awards for this work.

When I first learned about Fred’s past prosocial work, I wondered if he might have had a “Phineas Gage” experience. Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad worker, survived the passage of an iron rod through his brain. In popular lore, it reversed his personality, changing him from a hard-working, kind man into a shiftless, quick-tempered drunk. The truth is more nuanced than that, but similar things have happened to other people. Might Phelps have had an undetected stroke or aneurysm that caused his shift from tolerance to hate?

In interviews, Phelps has claimed there’s no dissonance between his homophobia and his support for racial and gender equality. Certainly, he wouldn’t be the first clergyman who managed to thread that needle with his theology, and in any case, Phelps’s church has stood behind him the whole way, so unless every congregant has suffered the same traumatic brain injury, we probably shouldn’t assume any such thing.

Westboro Baptist Church’s mischief continues without Fred Phelps, so when he dies, it won’t end. So that’s not another reason for anyone to cheer. There’s no reason for anyone to cheer.


Ellen, Liza, and Jokes.

At the Oscars ceremony Sunday night, host Ellen Degeneres made a few jokes at Liza Minnelli’s expense.

“I have to say one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have seen in my entire life,” Ellen said as she approached Minnelli’s aisle seat. “Just really, seriously, good job, sir.”

I’ve been asked if I thought this joke was transphobic. I don’t, but I’d be in good company if I did. Here, let me Google it for you:

Search term “ellen liza”

This one’s simple. Liza Minnelli, like her mother Judy Garland, is well-loved by Friends of Dorothy, and consequently is a very popular character for drag queens and female impersonators. Here are a few examples.

If Ellen had made this joke about a transwoman trying and failing to “pass,” it would have been transphobic and unkind, no question. That’s not the case. Drag queens are performers, and they leave their female identity on the stage. They’re men. It’s okay to call them “sir.”

The humor in Ellen’s joke wasn’t drawn from the idea that “men dressed as women are funny.” It was drawn from Liza’s popularity as an impersonation for drag queens.

The joke wasn’t even on Liza, for that matter. It doesn’t imply Liza looks masculine. It’s the opposite; it suggests Ellen mistook a drag queen for the real Liza because he was so convincing. It takes nothing away from her.

Hypersensitivity isn’t good for any of us.

My next post will be about Jared Leto and his Oscar win. There will be plenty of justifiable outrage in that one.


Flawed Reporting

Katie Couric’s interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera and transgender actress Laverne Cox has been getting shared hither and yon all over the series of tubes lately. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but today three things came together and happened and I realized I need to weigh in about them.

1. Katie Couric is a twit. Yes, everyone is saying that now, because of her sensationalist, insensitive treatment of Carrera and Cox, and that’s good. But I don’t want anyone to forget that she has always been a twit, a bad journalist, and not a terribly good person. One thing I will never forget is her reportage of the death of Richard Jewell in September of 2007, when she anchored CBS’s evening news. Here are her exact words (which I found online at multiple sources):

Back in 1996, the FBI investigated Richard Jewell, an Atlanta security guard, in connection with the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Richard Jewell died today of complications from diabetes. He was 44. Jewell was never charged with any crime.

If you’d never heard of Richard Jewell, you’d listen to that and think he was somehow involved in the Olympic Park bombing, and not the hero security guard who found the bomb before it went off, shooed people away from its proximity, and then alerted the authorities.

Yes, he was briefly suspected of involvement in the bombing. He was investigated, treated very badly by the press, and then completely exonerated. Religious nut Eric Rudolph was later caught and convicted of the Olympic Park bombing and several other bombings in the Southeast (a couple of lesbian bars and an abortion clinic were among Rudolph’s other targets). This rather important fact was left out of Couric’s obituary of Jewell. Because she’s horrible, and could not leave poor Mr. Jewell alone even after his untimely death.

2. The second thing is, the version of this story that’s getting shared the most is from Autostraddle (the one linked above), which it seems is one of those clickbait and listicle websites everybody likes to share from nowadays. This is the headline:

Flawless Trans Women Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox Respond Flawlessly To Katie Couric’s Invasive Questions

“Flawless” is a term used in the drag community. It’s used to describe drag queens (or drag kings, I guess) who “pass” undetectably as cisgender women. It’s not a polite term to use for transpeople, since it implies that transwomen who “pass” have some sort of legitimacy not achieved by transwomen who don’t. This certainly isn’t the case. Not every transwoman cares how well she passes. The ones who do try as hard as they can, and it’s a gratuitous and mean-spirited insult to suggest they’re in any way “flawed.”

The writer of that Autostraddle story is a transwoman herself. I asked her on Twitter (@lunchinthepark) if she also wrote her own headline (they’re usually written by editors). She hasn’t confirmed that she did, but she hasn’t denied it either. I’ll be disappointed if I learn she did; she should know better.

3. A friend of a friend, a cisgender woman commenting about this story, expressed amazement that Carrera and Cox are much prettier than she is. This observation carries with it the presumption that transwomen by default are expected to be hideous, I’m guessing. God forbid that we could be individuals, I suppose.

Now, folks, I know it’s still novel to see transpeople sitting down at the cultural table and taking part in society just like anyone else. I know most of you are still used to seeing us only in circus sideshows, or in Doc Robbins’s morgue on CSI, or throwing folding chairs on Maury Povich. We’re glad to cut you some slack while you get up to speed. But get a move on, would you? You’ve known since the 1970s not to say of an African-American that he is a “credit to his race.” You don’t ask Jews “do your people eat oatmeal?” You no longer speak more slowly to Asians in case they don’t understand English. You get that these people are just people, like you, and want to be treated the way you’d treat anyone else. Transpeople want that too.

You all need to start learning not to be so stupid about us. Don’t ask us what our genitals look like. Don’t be amazed when we don’t look like bell-ringing monsters. Don’t praise us just for being ordinary people.

Just do your thing, and let us do ours, okay?


The Dickens You Say

Every holiday season, beginning on or after Thanksgiving, I reread Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a newly-minted tradition, because I’d never read the book at all until about four years ago.

I was finally moved to read it by the realization that the story pervades the culture of Christmas in the United States and the United Kingdom more completely than just about any other work. There are other big ones: Dr. Seuss’s book and animated short How The Grinch Stole Christmas; the movies A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life; the Peanuts television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”; various seasonal songs and carols; and of course Haddon Sundblom’s paintings of a red-suited Santa.

We’ve ritualized our annual consumption of all of these, and it’s common to hear people say “It doesn’t feel like Christmas season has begun until I’ve read/seen/sung ______.” Some version of “A Christmas Carol” is king of these, and it’s one of only two that has contributed a word to the language, “Scrooge” (meaning miser). I have three favorite movie adaptations of my own:

  • Scrooge (1970): The idea of a musical adaptation of Dickens is as logical as asking “please sir, may I have some more?” And “Thank You Very Much” is a beloved song from my childhood.
  • Scrooged (1988): This surreally funny version isn’t well-loved by critics, but as a person with a degree in television, I love the update, and the cynicism, which isn’t entirely deflated by the end of the story as in Dickens’s story.
  • A Christmas Carol (1951): When Dickens wrote his story, I feel certain the Ebenezer Scrooge he imagined looked and acted just like Alastair Sim. At the end of the story, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he’s almost unhinged in his childlike, giddy joy. Alastair Sim does this part of the story better than any other actor who’s taken the role.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): The greatest innovation of this adaptation was hiring Gonzo the Great to play Charles Dickens as an on-screen narrator. This let them include Dickens’s beautiful prose, which most other adaptations have to omit. It was listening to Gonzo’s narration year after year that finally inspired me to read the book. Kermit and Robin are perfectly cast as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively, and Michael Caine really commits to Scrooge; he plays it straight and serious, which is the only right way to work with the Muppets.

People are suckers for stories of redemption. I think that’s why “A Christmas Carol” is so popular. We want to believe bad people can be saved, and Christmas is the time we want to believe it the most.

That “A Christmas Carol” is in the public domain is another reason why we’re subjected to endless adaptations and works derived from it year after year after year. Just about every television show ever on the air has done an “A Christmas Carol” episode (well, maybe not Meet The Press), from Family Ties to Dora the Explorer to Xena: Warrior Princess. Almost all of them are wretched and unwatchable. They’re lazily written, and the shows’ existing characters have to be awkwardly mapped onto the book’s characters, usually to unsatisfying ends. It’s hard to bottle lightning.

I learn something new from the book every year. Last year I learned that “Walker!,” which was shouted by the little boy Scrooge asked to buy the giant turkey for the Cratchits’, was an exclamation in Dickens’s time that essentially meant “You’re shitting me!” Another year I discovered that Scrooge told his nephew, Fred, to go to hell when Fred invited him to Christmas dinner. But you have to read between the lines to know that’s what was said; Victorian readers probably didn’t have the stomach for such a blunt profanity.

This year I realized that reactions to Scrooge’s meanness are maybe gendered. The women in his life—Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife—give up on him. Contrariwise, Marley’s ghost, Bob Cratchit, and Fred himself, seem to cling to a hope, ultimately rewarded, that the old man can be saved. I don’t know yet what, if anything, that means, but I love that I’m still discovering new things to ponder, year after year.

“A Christmas Carol” isn’t a full-length novel; it’s only 70 pages in the edition I own. I bet most people could read it in a day or two. I highly recommend it.


On Manning

For several days after the revelation that Private Manning is transgender and is now Chelsea Manning, I did my best to avoid all reportage about the case. I was certain the press was going to become a whirlwind of jeering, mocking, deliberate and vicious mis-gendering, and ignorant pontificating (here’s a taste of the latter).

At first, it looked like that was the way things were going to go. Right-wing pundit Erick Erickson has been predictably philistine in his reaction. You can see more of the same here. These responses were the sort of thing I dreaded, and which I thought were going to typify the media response.

I’m happy to say I was wrong. While NPR initially told the New York Times it would refer to Manning with male pronouns and her original first name, the public radio network did a hasty about-face just a day later. The AP, Huffington Post, the New York Times itself, and many other reputable news providers have changed their style appropriately. Some have offered the caveat that they’ll mention her former name, Bradley Manning, because that’s how she was best known until recently. This seems fair.

Here’s an update (as of yesterday) on who’s still calling her Bradley and using male pronouns. Few surprises there.

I’ve seen much cynicism around the timing of Chelsea’s coming-out, on the heels of her sentencing to 35 years in prison. “She chooses now to transition?!” was a friend of mine’s remark. That’s the cynical response, I guess: that she’s using her need to transition as an argument for clemency.

That she is transgender is beyond question. That was established at least three years ago. Timing aside, this isn’t a whim or a legal maneuver. If the timing is meant to exploit her gender identity dysphoria to shorten her sentence, that doesn’t invalidate it.

And it definitely could shorten her sentence dramatically. I read this Slate piece by Fred Kaplan (who, incidentally, is married to Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On The Media) about the likelihood that Manning will serve very little time behind bars, beyond the three and a half years that she has already served. She would have been eligible for parole after less than seven more years anyway; if she can argue successfully for clemency based on the fact that she’s transgender and therefore needs better medical care than she can get behind bars, she could be released after as little as three years, and she’s already served three and a half. So she could walk as soon as the clemency determination was made.

I wouldn’t say that’s not what’s going on; I really don’t know, and only Manning herself and her representation could say for sure. But every transperson deserves the benefit of the doubt that the time they choose to transition is the exact right time for them.

That age has been getting lower, thanks to the improved access to emotional support and information made possible by the Internet, and because of the example set by recent famous transitioners. So it’s entirely plausible that this is the age at which Manning would have transitioned regardless. It’s no one’s business to question that.

It certainly isn’t germane to Manning’s crime. I don’t have much to say about that, except to observe that it’s become very hard to be a soldier since the Nuremberg trials. Back in the day it was acceptable to say one was “only following orders”; now, it’s drilled into military personnel’s heads that they must disobey “unlawful orders.” This dichotomy can create moral quandaries in the best of people, and they aren’t given nearly enough training to respond wisely to them. I’m surprised cases like Chelsea Manning’s and Edward Snowden’s don’t happen more often.


In The News

As mentioned previously, I subscribe to a news group that aggregates and emails me all or most (near as I can tell) news stories that mention transgender, transsexual, and marriage equality issues. I see stories from all over the world, from every type of news outlet, and I’ve begun to get a feel for how the subjects are treated by these differing points of view. They fall into three general categories.

Most news stories are very respectful of trans people and LGB people and write about us with sensitivity; the gay press, Huffington Post, and Daily Kos are especially good.

The bad ones…well, you’d expect to find Fox News and Washington Times on such a list, but there are others I’d never heard of, and their names are innocuous. Their bias and bigotry are clear in their reportage, though, and this usually starts right away with the headline.

The third group is the websites of small newspapers who don’t cover our issues often. They may be well-intentioned, but their ignorance allows them to drop the ball in various ways.

Here’s a sampling of headlines from the feed and what’s good or bad about them:

Tinkering With Children’s Lives, Again–I’m not sure why the word “Again” is in this California Catholic Conference’s headline. The story is about a bill (since passed into law) in California that would allow transgender school kids to use the restrooms and play on the sports teams of the gender they identify as. The word “tinkering” implies that accommodating transgender kids is a harmful social experiment, rather than a compassionate civil rights advancement. Said “harm” is nowhere substantiated in the story itself.

Tranny Toilets–Classy, huh? This is a poll from lunatic fringe site World Net Daily, which, to calibrate your nutjob detector, has been the pacesetter in the production of “birther” stories since 2008. This story is about the same California bill, and the headline both uses that hateful slur against transpeople and suggests that the bill is related to bathroom panic. Bigots have wanted their bathrooms to themselves since the Jim Crow era.

Calif. transgender students to pick restrooms–Staying with the same story about the new law, this Baptist Press headline is slightly more subtle, but the verb choice, “pick,” makes the clear implication that gender is a choice, not an inborn fact, and further that it’s a choice made on little more than a whim.

Stage set for molestations, privacy violations in Calif. Schools–One News Now is the news arm of Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, the anti-gay and anti-pornography ministry. Their headline about the California law foregrounds the editors’ (unfounded) concerns. In the story itself, they say the law “enshrines” transgender rights; no news story is ever in favor of something it describes as being “enshrined.”

Transgender woman returns home in Milford–Here, the Stamford Advocate, a small-town Connecticut paper, is just ignorant. The missing (happily found) person in the story is a transgender man, i.e. female-to-male.

I’ll come back to this and do another roundup in a few weeks.


Jeffrey Tambor Plays a Transwoman

Jeffrey Tambor has signed on to play a transitioning transwoman with three children in Transparenta pilot for a new Web streaming TV series for Amazon.com.
(Off topic, I note with some amusement that the Australian news site linked above “corrects” Tambor’s last name in its headline to the Britishy “Tambour.”)
The pilot was written by Jill Soloway, who has a solid TV pedigree through her work on respected shows such as Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, neither of which I’ve ever seen. I hope this will be a sensitive and insightful look at the process of transitioning and how it affects an older person with a family. I know Tambor best from the Fox (and Netflix) series Arrested Development. I like AD, but it’s not at all progressive on transgender issues. But I don’t blame Tambor for that. He’s a good actor and I’m interested to see how he does with this role.
If the pilot is good, and if it gets made into a full series, then we can pair it with Laverne Cox’s realistic depiction of a transwoman on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and call it a positive trend.
I’ll keep you all posted.