We can get into trouble, especially in the USA, by connecting the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, or gay persecution to the NAZIs. “Racism” in the USA means the prejudicial attitudes and actions of white (Caucasian) people against black (Negro) people. All other racial prejudice is hyphenated, labeled something else, or best left out of the discussion. Very often gay activists have linked the gay struggle for equal rights and recognition to the US Civil Rights struggle of the post-World-War II era. Just as often black activists have objected, insisting that the humiliation, injustice and suffering of black people is unparalleled in human history, or at least in US history. In similar ways Jewish activists object to the mention of gays and lesbians in the same breath as the NAZI Holocaust. The Holocaust was a Jewish event. What the NAZIs did to others is of a different order.
My suggest is that we leave the defining moments of history to those defined by them. The Holocaust was a threshold event for world Jewry and the modern history of Judaism. One outcome is the modern state of Israel. Jewish identity, how a Jew thinks of himself or herself, has the Holocaust as an aspect of it. It is mystical but powerful. The US Civil Rights Movement abolished institutional and official segregation from American society, and installed black citizens into social and political processes to such an extent that the USA now has a black President. The US Civil Rights Movement was a coming-of-age or re-identification process that changed almost everything for black people in America.
The merits of my suggestion notwithstanding, there are connections, and they keep popping up. August 28, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of THE EVENT of the Civil Rights Movement, the “March on Washington” with its highlight, the iconic “I’ve Got a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ossie Davis, the master of ceremony for the event told the throng on the Washington Mall that Bayard Rustin was “the man who organized this whole thing.” He was the key thinker behind the whole Civil Rights Movement, as well. The Civil Rights Movement was so successful that twenty years after the march Rustin commented:
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change…. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
Like much of Rustin’s life, his comment was controversial. It was also prophetic…like so much of his life. Rustin was a black activist gay advocate for social change. Last year he would have been 100. Last week he was posthumously awarded the US Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, this decade’s most influential advocate of gay civil rights.
Black rights, gay rights: Rustin is a link.
Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel, The Hungry Ghosts(Doubleday Canada, 2013), like his impressive first novel, Funny Boy, and like the author’s life, is set in Sri Lanka and Canada. Both stories are utterly dependant on the assumption that the author has accurately portrayed Sri Lankan culture and the tragic political situation that has beset the country. There is no reason to doubt the author’s authority in this regard. His multi-sensory descriptions are too precise and his notes of particular events on specific dates and addresses need not be a matter of conjecture since it is hard to imagine how they would skew the plot even if, as must happen in novels, some of them are fictitious.
The Hungry Ghosts is an ambitious cross-cultural undertaking. The structure of the novel is built on the final day before the hero is to return to Sri Lanka to accompany his grandmother back to Canada so his mother can take care of her as her health declines. Every step on that last day triggers flash-backs to the hero’s life in Canada as an immigrant, his earlier life in Sri Lanka plagued with tragedy he needs to put behind him, and Buddhist morality and ghost stories, which eventually are the key to why the novel must end as it does. It is indicative of Shyam’s development as a novelist that the conclusion cannot be guessed until the very last page.
It is long before the last page, not long after the first page in fact, that something seems not quite right. A reader, at least this reader, is coaxed to feel this will clear up. But in this case it is not all cleared up. One continues to wonder how the hero can continue to be so spiritually dysfunctional. Shyam tries to have us believe ghosts are behind this. Without the influences of an untold karmic past and the influence of ghosts the only explanation for the hero’s behavior is that he is irrational or perhaps depressed. Shyamgives us plenty of fuel for the depression theory. That’s what made me initially wary of it. I was not wrong to be suspicious. It was the ghosts, in this case supposedly manifested as unresolved conflicts, that had to be dealt with, that is they needed to be resolved. There are no ghosts after all. That was a false lead.
A Canadian readership wouldn’t have gone for it anyhow.
But then we are thrown back on the conclusion that it all has to do with the unresolved issues the hero has with, well, everybody. The big one is with his grandmother. And that is where the novel, in my opinion, does not fly. I would be wrong to say much more and spoil the mystery. But I will say this: I do not think the story is realistic; it never works to try to solve one conflict by creating two others. No, no. The real dynamic is not conflict resolution. But without the ghosts there is no conclusion what it is that sets the hero off.
Ellie Hall, a staff writer for the Internet service, Buzzfeed, listed 28 things that J.K. Rowling said happened after the final events in Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows. These have been culled from appearances and interviews Rowling made. It is interesting and somewhat provocative that the editor of these quotes did not mention any sexual or gender diversity among the magical characters. They all got married and produced one or more offspring. All of them.
So what of the other Hogwarts staff? To the contrary, none of them are married in any of the 4,175 pages of the Harry Potter books. Not one. There is no indication that in the entire first thousand years of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry any professor had ever been married. However, Hall tells us in item #25, that as an afterthought, Rowling says the latent hero “Neville Longbottom became Hogwarts Herbology professor. He married Hannah Abbott, who became the new landlady of The Leaky Cauldron.” So that makes one confirmed married Hogwarts professor.
As in muggles (non-magical) society, marriage and families are standard for the magical world. As in adolescent society, romantic involvements and teenage angst are frequent throughout the seven volumes of Harry Potter. So, then, must be the LGBTIQ spectrum.
Was the magical world as homophobic as the muggles world? Is that why nothing gay appears? There is no way to tell for sure. There is nothing LGBT about any of the characters, except what we might deduce in retrospect.
Wait a minute. One of Rowling’s most controversial quotes was from Carnegie Hall where she drew an ovation for mentioning that she had always thought of Dumbledor as gay. This was not mentioned before that disclosure.
Heterosexuality is portrayed, a little, in the positive image of the Weasley family and the negative one of the Dursleys. Would it have hurt sales too much to have an identifiable homosexual or two?
It is statistically probable that some of the readers of the 450 million sold volumes of Harry Potter were gay young people needing a little positive reinforcement. The best we can say is that they do not find negative stereotypes of themselves in Harry Potter, unless the narcissistic Gilderoy Lockhart was as much of a gay queen as I have always thought him to be.
Here is a little unsolicited advice, for what it’s worth, if you are thinking about moving from the “friend” level to “boyfriend”. This advice is about cross-cultural relationships. To be specific it is about “westerners” (Caucasians, frankly) called farang here in Thailand, who may think about becoming attached to a Thai fellow romantically.
First, know that you are about to acquire a relationship with an entire clan. You cannot avoid this, nor should you want to. But it tends to complicate things. The clan has “issues” and expects everyone to be involved in appropriate ways. This sometimes takes time and energy that may not seem convenient. But it is a two-way street. When you need help they’ll be there for you if you have bonded with them.
Second, you will never be an insider. You will probably be more “in” than you are now, but it is best to be aware that you will always be different, and one of the most aggravating aspects of this is to be perpetually treated with exclamations of surprise whenever you do anything really Thai. Eating Thai food, going to the temple, speaking Thai colloquially are forever going to be surprising to people. But those things will be a source of pride to those who include you as one of them. Hopefully those groups will be your boyfriend’s clan and his circle of friends. When you eat insects with them they will just glow with happiness…and watch to see what you spit out.
Third, you will have to forfeit a measure of your privacy. Especially if you live in a village setting, everybody will want to know what’s going on. People will drop in unexpectedly and stay or leave according to plans and signals you will only slowly learn to grasp. This is very much governed by relative social status, which is an area of mystery that takes longer to learn than Thai language does…indeed the learning is linked. It is probably best just to adopt the attitude that “my house is your house”.
Fourth, (how shall I put this?) you will be entering a moral milieu that you cannot control. Ambiguity is a hard concept for outsiders to grasp, but it is a key to social success in Thailand. “Just what is going on” is not going to be obvious right away, and it is best not to need to know right away. You will be much happier if you sort out what you need to know(and keep that list very short) from what you do not really need to know. I think most Thai-farang romantic relationships fail on this very issue.
Finally, it is best to start off tentatively and ever so gradually work toward something more lasting. Every relationship is different, but I’d say three or four years would be a minimum trial time before investing any large amount of your heart and resources. The boyfriend has a desperate need to provide for his mother, but if building her a house is something that pops up at the beginning, beware. Anyhow, there are stages beyond “boyfriend”. Take it easy, the climb can be steep and the path fairly long.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.