Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What's an apology worth?

It's an unfortunate stereotype about Canadians that we are a compulsively apologetic people. Americans love this trope. Canadians have embraced it, too. In embracing it, I think perhaps we are telling more than maybe we mean to.

When I was in Manhattan last year, a woman bumped into me in a revolving door. Instantly, reflexively, I said "Oh! Sorry." To which she replied "That's alright." I was surprised by how viscerally offensive her response was to me. How dare she have the nerve to tell me "that's alright." Didn't she know that she was supposed to reply "sorry" in return? But alas, Americans are not known for their politesse.

I share this story because I think it tells us something funny about the constitution of the Canadian apology. The apology is automatic. Expected. Perfunctory. It serves the function of a social cauterizing agent by burning away any potential bad feelings on the wound of an uncomfortable social interaction. Canada is a deeply passive aggressive country, after all, and the perfunctory apology is the purest expression of that passive aggression.

What makes the apology passive aggressive is what was missing from my story: the expected, reciprocal apology. I am sorry. Then you are sorry. Having acknowledged our friction in the most superficial way we move on with our lives. "Sorry" is mandatory, superficial and final. The potential conflict is acknowledged without really being addressed. And now that we've apologized, of course, it would be rude to discuss it any further.

So 'sorry' is a very useful word in Canada when you would like to put a subject to bed, as the current government is attempting to do with its apology for the historic bad treatment of LGBTQ public servants. It is one of the favourite words of the Canadian government, and has been since the 1980s, when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. The Canadian government's decision to confiscate the property of an identifiable ethnic minority then imprison them in internment camps created an uncomfortable parallel.

To emphasize the sincerity of its apology, the Canadian government paid $21,000 to each surviving internee, $12 million for a Japanese community fund, and $24 million to create a Canadian race relations foundation. This noble gesture was almost undoubtedly cheaper than fairly compensating the survivors for their displacement, trauma and property seized by white governments and citizens. Significantly, it began the era of the official apology.

Since then, Canadian governments have apologized repeatedly: for the Chinese Head Tax, for turning back of the Komagata Maru, for the demolition of Africville, for the detention of Ukrainians during the First World War, for the Indian Residential School system and more. It has future plans to apologize for turning away the Saint Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. The Saint Louis was ultimately returned to Europe. 500 were returned to Germany, half of whom did not survive the Holocaust.

In many of these cases, as in the case of Japanese internment, the government has offered financial compensation. Sometimes this is merely a grant made available to members of the affected community. In other cases it is a lump sum payment to affected individuals. This ranges from $20,000 or so in the case of the Chinese Head Tax or Japanese internment, to the complex formula used to determine the cash value of trauma suffered by former students of the Indian Residential Schools system.

The compensation is better than nothing. It is also grotesque to think that the experience of being targeted for abuse, expropriation or exploitation by the government could be made right by a simple cash settlement. Such settlements are inadequate for three reasons. The first is that you simply cannot assign a dollar value to trauma. The second reason is that such settlements rarely come close to compensating for the actual financial harm caused. For the Japanese fishermen and farmers who lost their livings, a mere $21,000 payout is a far cry from the real financial losses they suffered.

But the third thing that makes cash settlements inadequate is by far the most profound. They aren't accompanied by meaningful change. Sure, the Canadian government no longer levies a head tax on Chinese immigrants - but it does let wealthy migrants jump the immigration queue. And no, the Canadian government no longer forces indigenous children into residential schools - but provincial child welfare services continue to rip indigenous children from their families and place them in foster care with all too often white parents. And while we might like to think that Canada has become a haven to refugees, we turned away 1/3 of refugee claimants in 2016 - a number that doesn't include claims abandoned or withdrawn by claimants waiting in bureaucratic purgatory. This number is also a high - under the Conservatives, the number of refugees admitted hovered around 30%.

What are we to make of this kind of apology? Lenore Walker, American psychologist and founder of the Domestic Violence institute, developed a model describing cycles of abuse. The cycle begins with rising tension, followed by abuse, followed by reconciliation and finally a period of calm.

The Canadian state is very good at being sorry. It knows that a public apology and a compensation package will quiet the anger and sense of injustice that grows as people become aware of its abusive behavior. It waits for public scrutiny to die down and then it goes right back to its abusive behavior - deporting its citizens to be tortured, stealing indigenous children and persecuting minority groups. Even as Justin Trudeau weeps for reconciliation, his government fights in the courts to avoid investing in the well-being of indigenous children.

There is another kind of apology possible. I was brought up to believe that to apologize, you begin by hearing the person you have harmed. Then you acknowledge the harm you have done without making excuses for yourself. Next, you need to make meaningful restitution. And finally - perhaps most importantly - you stop doing the harmful thing!

The Canadian state is good at looking sorry. It knows how to make a show of listening and seeming contrite. It seldom does the exact same harmful thing twice. But for all its apologies, it seems unwilling to make the structural changes necessary to prevent the same kind of problems from happening over and over. In its ongoing pattern of white supremacy, the Canadian government's apologies aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There are more shops for dogs than for poor people

When I was ten years old, my parents packed up their red brick duplex by the river, and their three young children, and moved the lot to Westboro. At the time, Westboro was a particularly underwhelming place; a mix of pensioners, light industry and the greatest concentration of used car lots in the city.

Today, I have come into Ottawa to help my parents move. A friend dropped me off outside and I saw the door open, but the car away. 'Well', I thought to myself 'one of them must be out.' They were both out. Inside, I discovered an energetic Quebecois woman ritually scourging the dusty furrows of the crown moulding. "Your parents just went out for lunch," She informed me "For your father's birthday." 

It's a good thing she told me, or I would have betrayed my complete ignorance when he got home.

We have never had a cleaning lady. I am familiar with the bizarre upper middle class tradition of cleaning up in preparation for the cleaning lady's visit. We have our own version of cleaning the main floor because company is coming. Our rooms, as private spaces, were exempt. Thank heavens for that, because I always had too many books to impose even a loose semblance of order on them. 

To say that Westboro has changed in the twenty years since we arrived would be a felonious understatement, actionable by anxious realtors. Westboro is transformed, but instead of turning from a sick semi truck into an equally sick anthropomorphic robot, it has turned from a rather run down inner suburb into an apocalypse of gentrification. 

When I was in university I would visit Westboro and play the condo game. I would point at parking lots, used car dealerships and motels of uncertain provenance, and guess how long it would take for them to become condos. They are all condos now, except for the motel, which must be owned by a biker gang because I cannot otherwise explain how it endures behind a brand-new condo tower.

Westboro was never a poor neighborhood; only boring. But I have watched it gentrify and seen it go from a place where people could live boring, affordable lives into a kind of monument to the absurdity of middle-class striving. 

It began with the Mountain Equipment Co-Op. The building was ecologically friendly! It was open concept! It drew aspirational outdoors types out of their cul-de-sacs and second storey walk-ups. And it must have worked some sinister magic on them because they came to transform the neighborhood. And here I am using transform as the same kind of polite, middle class euphemism as 'bowel movement' or 'living outside our means'. 

There are now more yoga studios than I am able to count. First there was a posh Italian restaurant but it has been replaced by a luxe Italian restaurant. There is a store especially for breastfeeding accessories. There are more shops for dogs than for poor people. 

When the first of the new bars opened up in Westboro, I imagined that as pubs proliferated they would come into competition with one another, forcing down prices. This was naive - Westboro operates by a topsy-turvy set of economic laws where businesses compete not by lowering their prices but by raising them. Following a successful book launch I went out with my colleagues at one such bar, and found that we had spent the entirety of our earnings and then some on a few meagre pitchers of mediocre beer.

I have never liked these changes. I am not a posh person. I will buy used what I cannot get for free. I will pack my life into a car sooner than I will spend money on rent. I panic when I see square plates at a restaurant because they mean you are paying for style. I cannot afford to pay for style. 

My parents - eccentric, university educated historians with leftish mores - fit very well into the old Westboro. They were the appropriate kind of shabby-genteel then, and they have grown only a little more respectable with the passage of time. Their house is too full of books. There is more furniture than you would find in the home of someone really modern. Everything looks like it was inherited from a childless Victorian uncle and in many cases, it literally was.

There are corners in this house where the dust has won. Much of the furniture reeks irreversibly of cat pee. The garden does not know if it is ornamental or agricultural but it produces some very acceptable tomatoes every year. Whenever my parents set out to de-clutter, they succeed only in shifting the clutter around. There are boxes of my deceased grandfather's pension performance statements, as well as his childhood toys. 

It is a house for people who live a life of the mind, supplemented by an irresponsibly large cheese budget. It is the kind of house where you grow up without realizing that you are rich because you have not yet been subjected to the brazen daylight robbery of a university book store, and so you do not realize that every bookshelf represents hundreds if not thousands of dollars. 

It was not a perfect childhood home although I think those faults belong to the inhabitants rather than the structure. But it has been an oasis of a kind of unaffected post-Victorian WASPishness for the sort of socialist who hangs a portrait of the late Empress of India while deploring her politics. I have moved from basement suite to roach-infested hellhole without a care in the world because my home has always been here.

But things slip away from us bit by bit. History has a nasty trick of moving whether we mark its passage or not. And so my neighborhood has been overrun by feral packs of yuppies, resplendent behind their luxury prams and immaculately groomed beards. They coo and preen and delight in the cultured decadence of a neighborhood with not one but TWO roof-top patios on which they may sip caesars and discuss pension prospects, mountain biking and the ever-present bugbear of the Phoenix pay system.

Even my parents feel pushed out. They have picked a very fine Victorian home in the country where they can shed their boomerang offspring and finally live in the kind of sentimental gentility that middle class socialists love - surrounded by books and thoughtful people. I can't blame them for wanting to get away.

But it is very strange to come home and see that room by room, our house is losing its excess furniture. That cardboard boxes, having sat unopened on shelves for twenty years, are suddenly hurried away into storage. That the dust and the spiders, too comfortable in their long entente with my parents, are being chased away by the astringent chemicals of the cleaning woman. 

The house is to be sold by a 1980s ski villain with lopsided blond hair. He has told them to take down everything personal - paintings, keepsakes and family photos - and they reluctantly comply. He tells them they will get more than twice what they paid for it, and this seems definitely immoral to my parents. They were hoping to get out of the rental market and maybe have something to retire on. They did not set out to be speculators.

But my parents belong to a different world: an era of steady government jobs, robust social democratic institutions and a boundless optimism that the horizons of rights, freedoms and prosperities would go on expanding in every direction. They have grown up and grown old with a faith in the value of our civilization.

But that world - by no means universal at its height - is falling into the widening gap between rich and poor. Either you are programming apps that put taxi drivers out of work or you are doing the job of a taxi driver with none of the expertise or security. Either you are sub-renting six apartments on AirBNB or you are living in a decaying SRO in some converted hotel. As I said - the logic of the economy in these places is topsy-turvy.

I don't fit in this new version of my parents' house - without clutter or character. It is so depersonalized that I am not even sure of my own personhood. It all seems to cry 'abandon ship' and of course, that is exactly what they intend. But their new home in the country is a retreat into a sentimentalized ideal of their own childhoods, just as their house is a sentimentalized ideal of my own. I cannot retreat into an interbellum nostalgia haunted by the ghosts of Victorian idealism. And I have no hope of hiding any longer in my own childhood, now in the process of being sold out from under me.

When I was growing up I believed the pendulum would swing back. That the world would return to how it was. Stability and government jobs will be had by all, or at least, all of us who live in the first world. I would have a pension and summers in Europe and great comfort in knowing that I was not alone in prosperity. In short, I imagined that the Bush-Harper years were ephemeral, that 9/11 and all its children were a bad but fleeting dream.

But here we still are. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing. The shackles of the security state tighten around our wrists. Pop songs get simpler and louder and we dance harder because we know we need to keep moving. But what are the movements? 

Good riddance to Westboro. Everything I loved about it died a long, slow death. I cheered its death but now the corpse begins to rot and I realize what I was celebrating. I do not want to hang on at the periphery of some colony of the rich in a swamp of urban blight. I am not going to live in a poured concrete box in the sky. 

The death of Westboro is the story of my past. The sale of my childhood home is the ending of that story. But it's time for new stories. Stories about doing things differently, not longing for the past. Stories about pushing back instead of giving up. Stories about winning because do we even know what winning feels like? 

I want to make sure that all of you do, so I promise to tell all the stories I hear. You just have to promise to keep living them.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Not-straight, or anything else for that matter

 *Trigger warning - the following contains discussions of male sexual violence*

  There is already one gay marriage in my immediate family. I have every expectation that there will be another in the next few years. So let’s break out the fancy cocktails and Erasure B-sides, already. In a lot of ways, gay marriage was the political issue I cut my teeth on as a baby activist, turning up at rallies to shout down the infamous Pastor Phelps. Not that he had the decency to actually turn up. But then, decency wasn’t really his strong suit.
                From the outside, my sexuality looks like a much more straightforward thing. I have had a long string of flings and committed relationships with women, settling finally into what is beginning to look suspiciously like a lifetime partnership with my darling Nicole. This is the story that I have generally preferred to put on display for public consumption. It’s less work and maybe not for the reasons you might think.
                It’s not particularly a secret that I’m sexually attracted to men, insofar as I really understand ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to be static categories. In fact, I am mostly taken in by tertiary sexual characteristics common to humans regardless of physiology: charm, tenderness, compassion and respect. When pressed for a description I’ll usually tell people that I’m ‘omnivorous’ or retreat into teenage clichĂ© by protesting that labels are for tin cans. Again, that’s easier than explaining, but explaining is exactly what I’ll do here.
                I doubt I’m letting any felines out of captivity when I say that most men wouldn’t know consent if it pepper sprayed them outside a nightclub. Sadly, my experience is that this is true of men no matter who they wanna fuck. It’s my experience that I’m speaking for so please don’t climb down my throat about ‘not all gay men’ because not all the men in these stories are gay and it’s not my problem anyway.

                Let’s begin at the beginning. When I was 17 I had my first serious girlfriend. I wore skirts to High School because fuck you, that’s why. Along with what I described as my bisexuality, this convinced her that she could never trust me. I was always going to be ‘missing something’ that she couldn’t give to me. Like if I didn’t have a smorgasbord of genitalia to graze on, I would melt into a glassy puddle. I guess the following story didn’t help.
                She had a gay confidant. He took an interest in my livejournal, a monument to my inanity that you’ll never find, so don’t go looking. He wanted to meet me and sent flattering messages to that effect. I was young, vain and stupid. We met for dessert in the Byward Market, where we exchanged adolescent musings on love, loss and the meaning of life. He bought me pie. It was cold out but we went for a walk down into Strathcona Park. He had hand knit a scarf. It kept my ears warm. He liked me. Like, liked me liked me. I had a girlfriend. He was her confidant. But she wasn’t his, I guess, because ‘she doesn’t need to know’, he insisted as his hand crept up my thigh. As his face drew close to mine. As every ‘no’ that passed my lips only seemed to spur him on. These days he works for a national student organization. I’ll let you guess which one, but here’s a clue, it’s the one that loves lawsuits.
                He was the first boy I ever kissed. Not because I really wanted to. It felt disloyal. But because he made me feel sorry for him. Guilty. Like I owed him something that I was withholding out of some perverse sense of spite. I didn’t feel like hey, I have a partner and I told you no repeatedly, get the fuck out of my face. I didn’t have a framework to do that in. I knew what it was like to long to be touched. So I didn’t want to touch him, but at least I could do something for him. He had made that abundantly clear.
                My older brother was newishly out of the closet. When he heard this story he chose to respond by telling me that I didn’t have to kiss men just because he did. It’s hard to describe in words how shitty and invalidating it felt to hear what I know was only a thoughtless quip. Along with the experience surrounding the kiss, it threaded two of the longest strands in my attraction to men. When they desired me, men would pursue physical contact insistently, even aggressively. When I expressed my ambiguous feelings around this interplay of desire and disrespect, my sexuality would be dismissed, defined, policed. It was a piece of my sexuality that I was going to have to fight for. I’m sorry to say I had chosen surrender.

                I lived in residence with two openly gay men. One of them was a friend but I was leery of getting too close. I didn’t totally understand why I balked at his invitation to sneak a bottle of wine into a movie theater at a time when I was all about that shit. Seems pretty obvious in hindsight; I had already learned to be afraid of men’s interest in me. He was actually a sweetheart. Or maybe he just figured I was straight. Certainly the other gay guy who lived in res had come to that conclusion.
                “He says he’s bisexual but he hasn’t slept with either of us.” This fine specimen of a human being remarked to my friend, the other openly gay guy in residence. He couldn’t get his head around the idea that I might be too picky to fuck two whole dudes. I doubt he could have figured out that I might be afraid of being touched, grabbed, kissed against my will. Afraid that once again my ‘no’ would be interpreted as ‘try harder’. That was all too complicated, I guess. I wouldn’t fuck them so I was a faker.

                Maybe it’s not an easy thing to understand. Later, when I was living with an ex, she came home from the bar with a gay male friend. I was sober but tortured and sought to dissolve myself in physical contact with both of them. When I felt in control it was a comfort or at least an anesthetic. At a certain point I think my ex felt that a line had been crossed and she withdrew. Before I knew how to react, her friend reassured her.
                “That’s ok. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Hugh will fuck me in the ass. You can watch.”     
                My turn to stiffen; to recoil. He could register her discomfort and respect her boundaries because she wasn’t an object of interest. The idea that this proposed sex act would require my input, much less my consent, didn’t seem to occur to him. I fled, slid into safety behind huge oak double doors. Shut in my room I tried to make sense of what had happened. I hadn’t put the pieces together when he started yanking on the door rollers, trying to force them open. I froze, helpless in bed, as he forced his way into my room. He was drunk, enormous, apologetic. My ex was with him. He was sorry, good hearted, but didn’t understand how making assumptions about my consent was scary to me. Never mind the sound of him forcing his way into my room for a conversation I wasn’t ready to have. He also thought he could talk me into coming back out and picking up where we’d left off. Forgive my cynicism but “Are you ok?” doesn’t sound as sincere when the clear subtext is “Chill out so I can fuck you.”

                That put the whole same sex thing on ice for a while. My next girlfriend was convinced that even my straightest friends were secretly angling to fuck me. While that was flattering, I’m afraid that my raw animal magnetism is more of a cooked animal carcass. In other words, they weren’t biting. Again, I didn’t help matters by speculating that her best friend must be gay and kissing an army captain in front of her. I guess when he caressed my thighs under the table of the pub while keeping eye contact with her, to maintain dominance, maybe it gave her cause for concern.
                The next thing that stands out in my little chronicle of consent is at an activist event. I’d been on my feet 18 hours a day for weeks and my back was way beyond the ‘sore’ that I complain about when I am desperate for some pretext for human contact. It ached something awful. I went into a tent with a more experienced activist. He was urbane, cute, funny. He was a hothouse flower in the social justice spotlight. I felt lucky to attract his attention. He always seemed to be in front of a crowd or camera, his name on the lips of everyone I looked up to in the community. He had been leaning on me all night at an emergency meeting.
                He didn’t ask before he straddled me, but sometimes that’s just the mark of an extremely capable massage. I was sore, tired and beyond vulnerable. I was prepared to let it pass. But when he started grinding his pelvis into my ass, well, that was less ambiguous. I was confident enough to protest, to indicate I wasn’t interested in anything sexual. It could have felt like a breakthrough. It didn’t.
                “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
                Maybe our bodies speak different languages, but if I grind my pelvis into someone it either means that I am initiating sexual contact or else goofing around with some very old, very straight friend. He acted like it was no big deal. The backrub stopped. He didn’t feel compelled to explain himself, much less apologize. I was frustrated. Confused. Disempowered. I hadn’t been pressured into anything, sure, but I felt like I was the crazy one. Whatever the reality of the situation, by refusing to acknowledge that he’d crossed my boundaries without seeking consent, he took a large part of my power away. It felt like I’d just been told ‘no one will believe you, so don’t bother saying anything.’
                Of course, I’ve got a mouth that could swallow the moon. So I told plenty of people. I guess that was around the time I began to have a supportive community of people – inevitably women – who could help me contextualize these experiences. They didn’t tell me I was ‘asking for it’. They didn’t call me a tease or roll their eyes at what others might have assumed was one more phony bi attention whore who got what was coming to him. That meant a hell of a lot. Still does.

                The following year I was riding in a cramped car that reeked of cigarettes and the irrepressible charm of an international documentarian of mystery. Also present was a locally infamous gay activist famous for self-anointing as an ally. I guess that was only one item on a long list of ordinations he felt qualified to perform, because the one cock I’d sucked wasn’t enough for him when I identified as ‘queer’. It had a comfortable fluidity to it. By that point I had been with people whose sexuality was less of a ticked box, more of an expository paragraph with light pencil sketches. I had begun to understand some of the ways in which my own sexual identity was complicated by the politics of consent, of gender performance and mental illness. ‘Bisexual’ hadn’t fit for a long time and just when I thought I could fit the tufts of my disheveled hair into the many jeweled prongs of the ‘queer’ tiara, this arrogant prick snatched it off my brow and ground it under one metaphorically high heeled foot. It was queeny in the worst sense of the word and sweetie, you know how anarchists feel about monarchy.
                It wasn’t the last experience like that. Another gay comrade at a recent party told me I didn’t fit the bill and I just said ‘fair enough’. I can take a hint. I can pass as straight so I don’t get to be proud. That’s ok, as Groucho Marx sez, I would never join a club that cares where I stick my member. So I gave up on queer and got evasive when people asked about my sexuality. If you’re clever enough, people think don’t realize your stonewall wit is really a thin gauze over all but open wounds. No one wants to hear about all the times you, a man, have had your boundaries violated. That’s what I had figured anyway. Certainly no one thinks it’s a good excuse for why I don’t put out.

                If there was a nail in the coffin of not wanting to get nailed, it happened a few summers ago. I went out dancing with a friend and his perennial crush, along with her charming gay roomie. He was a small town splash of cottage country lake-water in a muscle shirt. But he had the coy cosmopolitanism of the country boy made good and since he also had a boyfriend I figured it was safe to dance. Safe for everyone else, at least, you don’t want to see my dance flails (I hesitate to call them moves.)
                When he suggested we all go back to their house for pomegranate mojitos, how could I resist? It was on my way and I never say no to a well-mixed cocktail. Soon we were like mint and pomegranate in his backyard hammock, cuddling and watching the sun come up round 5am.  I snuggled into his shoulder and told him that he made me feel safe. I told him how often men had ignored my boundaries and treated me like a prize. I said in all the words I have – that’s a lot of words, for those of you following along at home – that I was so grateful that he wasn’t trying to fuck me. It seems pathetic in hindsight.
                “Hey, thanks for not being a rapist.” But that’s where I was at, in not so many words. I was pitifully grateful to be held and treated tenderly by a man who I found attractive. I felt like I might finally be evaluated for my personality first and my sexual availability only later. Plus, he had a boyfriend. What could possibly go wrong when he asked if I wanted to sleep over? Besides, he couldn’t have been clearer:
                “We can just sleep.” God, finally. I could feel my heart melting just enough to admit that maybe I was ready to consider being involved in a sexual relationship with a man if only I could find a queer single guy as decent as this dude. It was the kind of hallelujah breakthrough that the movies rarely nail, an intoxicating mixture of trust, longing and opening up.
                That, is, until we climbed into bed and he rubbed his hard-on against my thigh for the better part of 10 minutes before finally giving up. Surprise! Even after explicitly telling me that I could sleep over and he wouldn’t try anything, the first thing that this upstanding model of respect and consent did was strip off his jeans and rub his stiff cock against my exposed flesh. But this time I knew better than to say anything; I didn’t want to hear whatever shit he was going to feed me. I just waited for it to be over. I honestly think if he’d kept at it long enough I would have slept with him just to get it over with.
                The most horrible part was that it turned me on. Even as I felt disgusted, disappointed, verging on heartbroken, my body reacted. My consent was a border crossed so regularly that my nausea couldn’t completely quell arousal. I breathed an inward sigh of relief when he stopped, and crept out into the dawn as soon as he was asleep. Later that week I went out for drinks with my supportive lady pals. I told them this story. They all had a similar one, no, several similar ones. Christ, men are pigs.

                So here’s the point if it ain’t at all apparent. I love people, and for that reason, I love fucking. When it creates a moment of intimacy, a temporary teardown of barriers, that’s bliss. I want to be able to feel that way with anyone I have chemistry with. I want to be able to feel that with men. But I don’t generally fuck queer men because in my experience, no just means ‘try harder’. “Stop that” is an invitation to gaslight me. Explaining at length that respecting my boundaries earns my trust apparently writes ‘fuck me’ across my thigh in legible glitter. So yeah, I don’t generally fuck men because I don’t trust them not to try to rape me. And I don’t trust them to think that maybe that’s the reason that I don’t fuck men, even though I’m attracted to them. I guess it’s easier to climb into the tree fort and shout ‘no fake queers allowed’ than it is to accept what a problem sexual aggression is whenever men are involved.
                These aren’t all my stories about sexually aggressive men. Just the ones that I have curated: a cozy museum of disrespected autonomy. These also aren’t all my stories about gay men policing the boundaries of my sexual identity. I haven’t bothered to talk about the shitty way people like me are often discussed in queer media or pop culture at large.
                I also haven’t talked about my own history as a sexually aggressive man. So full disclosure: in past relationships with women, I have done things every bit as bad as these men, and worse. That’s a subject of another article. I’m holding off on writing it because I am still not sure what to say about it. For now, let me just say that toxic masculinity is an intoxicant as well as a poison. It teaches you to understand human relationships in terms of power, and to see them as successful when you get what you want without giving up more than you’d like. This is a lethal attitude, I know. I am going to spend the rest of my life flushing it out of my system.

                Let’s not end on that note. It’s not the whole story. Not all my experiences are bad. Here’s a good one. When I was in university I had a dear male friend. We made out at parties. We flirted and bickered like reluctant fiancĂ©s. I fantasized about him and pretended he drove me crazy when really I would have liked to get him alone. He essentially defined what I thought of as an attractive man, other than smoking a barrel of cigarettes between lectures and having some hella questionable politics.
                Near the end of university, we were joking around about ‘experimenting in college’. We teased out the prospect of sleeping together. What would we do? Who would we tell and how would we tell them? We were delighted by the scandal of the whole thing. At least on my end, that was a convenient veil to throw over the deeper feelings that lingered with the longing to be physical.
                So, when we had made sure we both wanted it, when we had an understanding, we went to it. He was a lot more experienced than me. He was gentle, guiding but never forceful. He was cautious, thoughtful, clear in his needs and boundaries. I felt comfortable to do the same. I won’t elaborate but suffice to say I still blush when I think about it. Afterwards we took a shower together and nuzzled in the shower. Then we laid down in the bed and cuddled. We haven’t done it again, but I think that’s been half a question of timing. He has given me every reason to trust him and that is the space where I am open to intimacy with men. I’m not sorry about it because it is fucking beautiful like skipping stones on a still lake on the last day of your life. I’ll take that over pomegranate mojitos any day.
                So no, I’m not bi. There is no binary.  I’m apparently not queer either, as I haven’t sucked enough dicks to get my card punched as a Political Queer™. With a lifetime of crushes, deep romantic feelings, kisses and sexual fantasies about men, I’m sure as hell not straight. I guess you could say I’m a lover. I love people, no matter what they have going on between their legs, if they give me the space to let them. Sounds a lot less shitty than ‘omnivorous’, doesn’t it? Maybe I’ll stick with it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What I saw in northern Manitoba

This is an incomplete attempt to spill out a small portion of my experiences in Northern Manitoba this past week. It is a personal reflection as much as anything and I am sharing it because I am not going to have time to have every conversation I would like to. My heart is full to bursting.

All the background you need on this piece is to understand that since the 1960s, Manitoba Hydro has run roughshod over the treaty rights, human rights and wishes of indigenous communities across northern Manitoba. They have flooded hundreds of square kilometers of Cree territory, destroyed sacred sites and polluted the waterways of the province. The Cree are doing their best to confront this situation but the greed, rapacity and dishonesty of Manitoba Hydro and successive provincial governments (many of them NDP) has made it a difficult task. For more information, watch Green, Green Waters.

                There are really no words for what I saw in Northern Manitoba, which is awkward, because I was engaged to come on the trip in my capacity as a writer. Unlike words like ‘self-involved’, ‘pretentious’ or ‘alcoholism’, ‘humility’ isn’t a word generally associated with writers. For me personally, it’s also a word I might know socially but rarely have into my home unless I am making a general invitation and it would be rude to exclude it. But this is a trip that humbled me. So I guess that’s the first word I have for it: humbling.

                I know the kind of poverty porn that people expect to read about the north. I am sure I could do a very credible imitation of George Orwell writing ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ if that’s what I wanted to do. Why not wax poetic about the evils of modern life and how it has ruined the pristine wilderness? If so inclined, I could tell a tragic tale about a simple, honest folk ruined by the sinister machinations of industrial civilization. But I have another word for that: no.
                That is not the story I am going to tell because it is not what I saw in the north. That isn’t to say things aren’t bad in ways, up there. But it would be a faithless thing to spin a sad story for guilty southern consciences. People in the north live for themselves, after all, not to provide fodder for human interest stories. So here is what I saw:

                Hope. I can’t count the ways that this is the word I have carried south with me. I am the kind of person who, if confronted with a stubborn jam jar, will give up on croissants altogether. In northern Manitoba I met people who were fighting their own band councils, the provincial government, the provincial hydro utility and the federal government all while coping with the legacy of the residential school system and the damage caused to their way of life by the flooding of the north. Croissants were not even on their radar.

                I will say very plainly that I saw more fight in any given pair of eyes up there than I usually see at a year’s worth of protests and demonstrations in Toronto. For me, determination is when the liquor store is closed and I have to walk the extra few blocks to the Beer Store.

                If I am in the process of applying for a job and I see that their ideal candidate has a qualification I don’t possess, I get discouraged and lie down to nap in a pile of comics books. If animals returned to my trapline after a long absence only to be driven off by Hydro cutting another fucking power line corridor through the heart of the boreal forest, I'd be done. I would not keep fighting.  If my cousin was out on the lake my family had fished on for generations and died when he hit a tree left there by the ecological disruption caused by hydro dams, I would never go back on that lake. If there was an international scientific debate raging about whether or not the level of mercury in the fish I caught would kill me, I would likely pre-empt it by drowning myself in a river of gin. I would not keep fishing. I would not keep trapping. I would not keep fighting. But there in the north, so many are doing exactly that. How, I can’t help but wonder, do they do it?

                So there’s another word for you, though it’s just my pet theory: community. When I was a little boy I would see my aunts and uncles, my nana and papa, at Christmas, Easter, etc. I did not live every day with them. They were not a part of my immediate family or community. In the north I saw older children minding younger ones, grandparents caring for grandchildren, elders treated with the quiet reverence that they’d earned in their long lives.
               I come from a world where many people couldn’t tell you their grandmother’s maiden name. I came across a collective memory that stretched back almost to contact, where family was an essential fact of life in the same way as food and shelter. In some of these communities, food and shelter were less of a given than family. When you are living in a world where the state is pursuing a deliberate policy of kidnapping your children, severing their ties to the community and sending them to grow up with strangers, I think family must take on an importance it is difficult for us to understand – especially when that genocidal policy has been in place for generations.
        This has been an emotionally exhausting trip, but it has also been very encouraging. When we filed into a school auditorium to hear fiddling, watch square dancing and subsequently cram our faces with moose stew and bannock, it was a comfort. There were parents and grandparents attending the assembly, held indoors due to inclement weather. The kids watched eagerly and as attentively as kids can manage. The adults beamed with pride. I felt at ease and there wasn’t even an open bar!

                At another school, we watched a keen music class work their way through the Cree Hymn (I think?) on violin. They begged the teacher to be able to perform, maybe because their former pottery teacher and all around art world rock star K CAdams had made a triumphant return to their lives. She was practically mobbed by eager children as we made our way around the school accompanied by the the acting chief and a councilwoman. I have spent more time smiling in the past week than the rest of the year to date.

                Truthfully, I think the kids had a lot to do with that. They were everywhere we went, in people’s homes and public buildings, playing and swimming and ever in abundance. Even where they weren’t, the children and grandchildren occupied a place of importance in political discussions. There was mourning for what had been lost, and acknowledgment of traumas endured. But nothing seemed so important to elders and activists as the future, and the children to whom it would belong. In our society I think that ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ is a sneer at moral panic. In the communities we visited it was a sacred trust. I wish I could have brought it south with me.

                There’s a word for all that, even though it’s awful old fashioned: love. So mostly that is what I saw in the north, because it filled my eyes in a way that made all the pain and hardship and crimes of the south seem ephemeral. I did my best to bear witness and maybe I got the wrong idea but I that I sincerely believe that the love I saw in those communities – love for each other and for the land – is going to win out over whatever bullshit the south ships north. Do what you want with that.
                So that’s what I saw in the north. If you want to know what I heard in the north, there are two things I’d suggest. The first is to wait for us to publish our comic on hydro-impacted communities in the north, so you can read what I heard elders, activists and damned decent people say about their communities and the history there. The second is to listen for the sound where you expect a waterfall to be, but hear only silence.

Monday, April 29, 2013

You Only Wish Your Mother Wore Army Boots

                In city streets, or more accurately down alleys, one sees from time to time the figure of a crust punk picking through dumpsters for a bite to eat.  To take an archetype, the figure is clad head to toe in black, blanketed in patches that range from anti-fascist agitprop to punk band logos.  Between the hoodie and black bandana, there’s scarcely a face to be seen.  Piercings, stick and poke tattoos and black combat boots round out the ensemble.  This is probably pretty close to the popular image of an anarchist.

                One sometimes sees a different sort of figure – collared shirt underneath a sweater, pressed slacks and a generally immaculate presentation of middle-class respectability, marred only by a pin or two.  This is where I fit into the spectrum and it is more common than one might expect, although infinitely less visible.  I have taken flak from some crustier comrades for my pinstripes and paisley approach, being advised that it is impossible to be an anarchist without making your outward appearance a rejection of the values of capitalism.  At the same time, I have sometimes said no one should be allowed in front of a camera without getting a haircut.  

                If a rose by any other name smells as sweet, surely we all have the same reek of rebellion and stale cigarettes, regardless of our clothing.  There is a certain temptation to construct a polarized debate around the issue, then wave the black and white flag in favour of ceasefire.  It won’t be much of a movement if we implement a dress code.  I’m reminded of the lyric “Is this resistance or a costume party – either way, black with bandanas is a boring theme.”  Needless to say, requiring we all get decked out in business suits and preppy chic is batting for the other team.  

                The reason for the debate is that it is self-evident that clothing is political.  If the argument for dressing like a punk is to make an outward statement of defiance against conformity, then the counterargument is that doing so makes us permanently marginal.  People will be so put off by the aggression of our wardrobes they won’t be prepared to engage with our ideas.  I think there is some merit to both of these perspectives, but I also think there is a weird authoritarianism about saying *this* is the way anarchists should dress.  Such a matter of elementary self-expression is best left to the individual.

                Still, I do think there is a way anarchists should dress: honestly.  We don’t all think any one way – we can barely agree on what anarchy means!  Why should we all adopt a uniform, whether it’s covered in studs or ornamented by cufflinks?  Personally, I’ve never been to a punk show, and in leather and chains would be a baboon in a tuxedo more than an insurrectionary anarchist.  Conversely, I’ve seen some of my scummier friends squirm underneath collared shirts.  But there is more to it than that.  If the point of having a debate about clothing in anarchism is to control the representation of anarchists in popular media, then diversity is a thing to be celebrated!

                An anarchist should wear scrubs to the hospital.  They should wear hip-waders into the marsh.  They should be recognizable across the construction site in their bright orange helmet.  They’re fine in blue jeans and a mustard-stained white t-shirt, watching the game after a day at the factory.  The only thing an anarchist needs to look like is themselves, whatever the hell that is.  We’re people, not caricatures.  The punk thing is a media-hyped caricature of what anarchists should look like and if you wanna dress that way, that’s cool.  The suit thing is an embarrassing mimicry of the bourgeois crooks whose rule we aim to overthrow.  Arguing for either one as a dominant mode of sartorial expression is insisting on being caricatured.   The way we ought to look is like people.

                I think there is something to be said for visibility. Whether you stitch a patch into your leather jacket, slap a bumper sticker on your 18 wheeler or stick a pin through one lapel, having the circle A somewhere on your person is a great way to increase the visibility of the movement.  This is especially true in your workplace where it helps to differentiate the obtrusive branding of your employer from your identity as a worker.  Of course, it might also get you fired.  That’s the class war for you.

                It does strike me that the central issue of representation of anarchism in media is something we’ve left to corporations.  There is a political attitude among many anarchists that the media is inherently biased against them, that it’s impossible to get good press, etc etc.  This hasn’t been my experience, but I do also think there’s a limited amount we can do within the confines of corporate media.  My broader point is that anarchists seem almost totally disinterested in the problem of publicity.  Given that politicians, corporations and – particularly worrying – the police all have public relations divisions, this seems like a strategic oversight.  I don’t know if there’s some swelling moral belief among anarchists that we represent the little guy and so we can count on them to know that they’re being lied to.  I think that’s a cop-out.  Our public relations efforts don’t need to look like theirs, but it doesn’t mean we can afford to turn our noses up at the idea.

                I’ll have more to say about how that might look another time.  It relates to clothing in a fairly immediate way, though.  If we can show people that anarchists are workers, parents, artists, homeless and everything else in between, we can contest the narrative that we are some kind of culty fringe movement with an exclusivity complex.  Mind you, I’m not convinced there aren’t some anarchists who don’t like it that way.  There is always the anxious virus of individualism at play in people’s motives, and I suspect there would be a lot fewer teenage anarchists if they had to go to pickets with their moms.  For the rest of us, though, I think it’s probably best to dress like yourself.  Just make a little space in that to let people know that your ‘self’ includes anarchy.  No gods, no masters, no problem.