Our Easter Egg
This may not have been the breakout week for US marriage equality that all the pink = signs on red backgrounds are asking for. The US Supreme Court verdict will not come out before June, but observers think the court will probably end up letting states decide who gets married, as has always been the case. According to the complex logic of US Constitutional law, marriage might not be a “federal issue”.
The problem is that federal benefits and taxes are federal issues, and the federal government has distinguished between married and unmarried people in allotting them. For example, the case before the court involved a plaintiff who had to pay $360,000 in estate taxes to take over the property she had inherited from her dead lesbian partner of many decades. Had the Federal Government recognized their marriage she would not have had to pay the taxes. They were married in Canada, so it’s not like they were not married. If had been a heterosexual couple there would not have been any taxes. Another example is Pramote and me. We were married in Iowa on October 7, 2009. As things stand when I die he will not get any money from my accumulated deposits in the US Social Security program because the Federal Government does not recognize our marriage. Neither does the Thai government. If the Supreme Court overturns DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, then, apparently, Pramote and I will be able to claim certain rights and get him some protections and survivor’s benefits.
I do believe a lot of progress was apparent over the past week, which, coincidentally, was Holy Week for the Christian world. TIME magazine says marriage equality is a done deal. US public opinion is moving in our favor faster than was believed possible. Even foreign countries are noticing, including Thailand.
Meanwhile, it’s kind of disappointing. My fault for not finding out what the fuss was about before the pink = signs began appearing in red boxes on Facebook. I got too excited, too soon.
Still it reminds me of Easter when I was a boy. The big, most enticing chocolate Easter egg was hollow.
Trust the People
Here in the land of sunshine and smiles this is the weekend before things happen. It is the last weekend before the summer term starts at the university. Or if you are working, this is the weekend before the long-awaited month of multiple holidays and vacations. Or if you are Christian this is Palm Sunday. There are other things about to happen in the coming month: US Supreme Court cases and decisions, spring or fall (depending on your hemisphere), the annual draft lottery here in Thailand, new things to become enraged, enthusiastic or passionate about on Facebook.
I have a feeling, but it is a pervasive and powerful feeling, that things are shifting and in transition. There is no one thing you can put your finger on (well, I can’t anyway). The US economy is losing its lifting power? China is emerging as the next military-industrial giant? Gay rights are changing the way societies around the world define themselves? There’s a new Pope with a track record of ability to be expedient even on boundary issues, maybe? Thailand is not moving toward civil disorder over its support of basic institutions? The Church as I knew it and was committed to is withering before our eyes? All my childhood friends are gone, one way or another, out of my life or somewhere? Nothing is what I was sure it was?
Now comes the undermining of another basic assumption: that “We the people” (as the preamble of the US Constitution begins) can be trusted.
It comes as a democratic assumption that the masses can be trusted, unless they are tyrannized and subjugated. Give “the people” freedom and they will guide themselves toward the best. I grew up on that idea.
Palm Sunday is as good a day as any to scrutinize this assumption. According to tradition, on the first day of Passover week (that being a Sunday) Jesus entered Jerusalem to an enthusiastic welcome. His popularity with the people was at an all-time high. 5 days later he was dead, abandoned by even his most loyal followers and ridiculed by his detractors. So much for trusting the people.
The chink in my basic assumption about the trustworthiness of the people was leaking even more last week as I noticed a posting about gun control on Facebook. It was inflammatory. Without thinking, I responded with a short comment before scrolling on to other issues. Ten minutes later I checked back to see if there had been any response to my comment, and I could not find it. Comments were flooding in to this posting at the rate of ten per second. My comment was too far buried for me to locate it. By the end of the day I noticed more than 23 thousand postings; most of them had deteriorated to name calling and threats of violence or suggestions about how appropriate it would be for someone to do something difficult or despicable to themselves.
This was not confidence inspiring in the trustworthiness of the people. If that’s the level of discourse, and the fight of choice, where is the US headed? Back here in Thailand we have our own concerns that, by the way they are handled, tend to undermine confidence in the trustworthiness of the people, as well. Meanwhile, across the border there is a developing popular movement among Buddhists to attack and murder Muslims, leading to yet another outflow of refugees; this confounds the consensus that Buddhism is alone among the world religions to unfailingly advocate peace.
I am just a little pessimistic heading toward Easter.
Ban Den Friends
Ban Den Friends: Gay Experiences in Thailand is the title of a novel I wrote based on real and imagined gay and transgender characters. It is an anthology of anecdotes in a random sequence, tied together by the friends having celebrations which unite them. All sorts of gay issues in Thailand are mentioned: coming out, breaking up, getting married, going into business and into show business, coming to terms with life, suicide, living with HIV, commercial sex, deception, transparency, reconciliation, sugar daddies, sex change, coming of age, promiscuity and more. The characters are varied including: teachers, priests, minor royalty, professional gamblers, school-age guys, foreign residents, villagers (Ban Den is a village), masseurs and entrepreneurs and more.
James Barnes, editor-in-chief and major domo of OUT in Thailand magazine has published Ban Den Friends as an e-book. It came out on March 1. He is also serializing part of it in OUT beginning already with the March issue.
Here are two samples:
New Year’s Eve dawned clear and cool, but Tick wasn’t conscious of it. He and Bank were sound asleep in the curtained-off corner of the large costume rental shop Tick owned in the Chang Puak area of the old walled city of Chiang Mai. They had been busy until after midnight helping a dance team at the university through three costume changes before Tick and Bank exhausted themselves in an hour of frantic lust, ending naked on the fold-out mattress. Now in full daylight, one had to venture beyond the curtains for their bath towels. Bank made the dash.
“Is it 10?” Tick croaked. “Omigosh, Noom’ll be here any minute. He’s always on time.”
Their tiny toilet was barely large enough for a man to urinate standing, yet both managed to shower at the same time, anyway. They were almost fully dressed when the little Mazda pulled up to the door.
Jan, Noom, Suwit, Noi and Berp were there for their evening gowns. Goong and two others had come the day before. Tick had a cupid costume arranged for himself, complete with feathered wings and a bow and arrows. Bank planned to show off his pulchritude in a diaphanous garment. The costumers were ready for the evening’s events. (Page 39)
“Remind me again,” Supot said, with just a hint of a lisp, “what is your name?”
“Anand, khrap,” the fellow said, looking into Supot’s eyes, his own gleaming like polished onyx in the lamplight.
Supot Nettiphan was one of Chiang Mai’s earliest gay leaders to “come out.”
There was no use for a person who dressed and acted as he did, to try hiding. He had layers of social and economic protection. He was from one of Chiang Mai’s aristocratic families. Being the only child with no offspring made him the last twig on his branch.
His life revolved around two pivots: his aging mother and his role as the founding director of the Royal Institute, a large humanitarian foundation dealing with social and human issues. Being an impresario of gay social events was a side line, one he thoroughly enjoyed.
“You are very good looking,” he whispered.
“Would you like to see more?” Anand teased him.
Supot neither agreed nor disagreed. There was no need. Anand stood up next to the wide teak bench and slipped down his shorts. Then he slowly pivoted so Supot had an unobstructed view of all sides of elegant Anand. (Page 59)
Ban Den Friends is available from James at www.out-in-Thailand.com/shop. The preface to the book is in the March 2013 issue of OUT which you can access for free at www.out-in-thailand.com.
King of Angels
King of Angels is a novel by Perry Brass with a deceptively simple coming-of-age plot that operates on several levels. In addition to adolescent identity and gender issues, it is about creating and assembling one’s own theological construct, as the title of the book presages. It is also a metaphor about the transition of conservative southern USA society on the threshold of the civil rights era. Of course, it is a gay manifesto as well.
Essentially the story is about 12 year-old Benjamin Rothberg falling love with a boy and over the next two years having to deal with it and an avalanche of other issues. His family is part of the elite of Savanna, Georgia, or at least they belong to the comfortable upper crust. It looks as if all Benjy has to deal with is being an inter-religious son of a not very religious Jewish father and a very not religious Christian mother, and his discovery of sex and love. His home setting is on a white, upper middle-class island, and he is enrolled in a Roman Catholic military academy. But Benjy’s issues multiply as he has to deal with:
As the perils mount and Benjy’s situation deteriorates, a languorous maturity process is out of the question. The very precocious boy has to grow up quickly, and the adults who are supposed to (and who try to) undertake various roles in his nurturing and guidance all falter. They do not fail completely. Each makes a contribution, but none fully succeed in their role. All the care-givers have issues of their own that undermine their dependability. In the end there are two who help Benjy the most in coming to terms with the disappearing lovers in his life: a teacher, Brother Alexis, who is driven, in the process of helping Benjy, to confront his own identity and commitment issues squarely, and a dysfunctional friend and sometime-mental patient in whom Benjy recognizes the most honesty and integrity of anybody. (This fellow, incidentally, is quite unfairly identified as crazy because of his homosexuality).
One of the ways Benjy deals with his collapsing and menacing situation is to create a theological construct of his own devising. Without being inside any faith system, but being on the periphery of two powerful ones, Benjy manages to extract enough bits and elements to keep himself spiritually viable and thereby to have the courage to challenge and joust with his most significant adversaries and the agility to handle and avoid others.
Benjy’s biggest challenge was to pull together a bar-mitzvah that had meaning for him, was fulfilling to his father, acceptable to the Catholics who hosted it, and not obstructed by the conservative rabbi who refused to conduct it. Both the Jewish and Catholic sectors of his life proved, like the adults in his life, to be unable to assimilate Benjy in his “abnormality”. Both in their way were actually threatening to his integrity and even his welfare. Benjy had to create his own theological construct and find ways to avoid those that would not work for him. The big issue for him was that to be either truly Jewish or fully Catholic he would have had to be born into its entire ethos. In other words, by the time of his “bar-mitzvah/confirmation” full identity and incorporation in either of those religions was no longer possible.
His final synthesis was that his dead lover, whom he failed, and his dead father, who failed him, both of whom he loved and by whom he needed to feel loved, were angels residing with Jesus, the King of Angels, whose identity became clear to Benjy in a Nativity pageant.
As readers, our greatest challenge is to accept the analysis of everyone in the story that Benjy has wisdom far beyond his years, and that even at his tender age he exceeded almost everyone in his ability to understand whatever information he managed to acquire, and he had the energy and maturity to demand that information that was systematically being withheld from him, ostensibly for his own good but inevitably to protect the reputation and comfort of those who held onto the truth and bend it to fit their own needs. This, in the end, is the author’s expectation, that we will suspend our disbelief that a thirteen-year-old boy facing such challenges with such courage, perseverance, insight, instincts and sensitivity could really have existed in Savanna, Georgia between 1962 and 1964.
I liked this book. I did.
Find King of Angels by Perry Brass, published by Belhue Press in 2012 on the Internet or from Amazon.com. For more information, please go to www.perrybrass.com
The Venerable Dr. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (the first Thai woman to be ordained as a monk (rather than as a nun) in the Theravada Buddhist tradition), and the Rev. Marjorie Thompson (Presbyterian, American author, retreat leader and specialist on Christian spirituality) delivered three nights of inspiring and informative Buddhist-Christian dialog, February 20-22 at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The topic of the final night was “The Role of Women in Buddhism and Christianity”. The following is an open letter to these two remarkable lecturers:
First and most prominently I want to join the several voices who thanked you for preparing and delivering these lectures, demonstrating once again, how valuable sincere, intelligent discourse can be.
Second, I want to congratulate you both for your contributions to the improvement of gender status in our two religious faiths, including your hardy endorsement on the last night of the role of women and your encouragement to believe progress is being made.
Third, I want to say that those of us who represent and champion the rights of diverse genders were also encouraged and inspired. When women make progress against male hegemony, we do too.
Fourth, I would than like to draw your attention to what I believe will increasingly be understood as a flaw in the final topic and in both of your discussions of it. You and the lectureship organizers declined to depart from the assumption that all sexuality is binary, and thereby you implied that that is how genders legitimately function in religious organizations. What is to be done and is being done, you said, in effect, is to allow women to participate equally and to include the feminine perspective which is unique and valuable.
Fifth, it is my belief that the binary theory of gender is false and it is collapsing. The Lord Buddha was clear, “Women can be enlightened.” Jesus and even Paul were ahead of their time, “There is neither male nor female….” The strategy of advocating female status in Buddhism and Christianity is therefore both helpful and flawed. It is helpful to have the male advocates of heterosexual masculine dominance deprived of their exclusive fealty, but it would be more progressive and scientifically valid to recognize that the basic problem is that there are more than two gender orientations. Indeed, the more carefully it is looked at, the more diverse are the genders. The binary assumption is unhelpful, obstructive and unsustainable.
Finally, just as the scientific and medical communities’ acceptance of the givenness and immutability of one’s sexual orientation mandates a change in theological stances, so will the eradication of the rigid binary theory. As this happens the notion will seem insufficient that righteousness can be fully satisfied when such things as bhikkhuni are ratified and a feminine perspective in spirituality is accepted. The need is more radical than that. Feminists who cling to the heterosexual theory are allies with the intellectual bias that led to masculine misogynists. To oppose male supremacy is to attack the effect rather than the cause. Although it has been an effective strategy producing remarkable results, it is now time to raise consciousness about the more basic issue. Ultimately the thing to be opposed is not male dominance and exclusion of females, but the very idea that dividing reality into male and female is valid.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.