Monday, January 28, 2008

Protesting "fag enablers"

Westboro Baptist Church is trying to find out where Heath Ledger's funeral service is being held. Apparently, they are only interested in protesting the funerals of truly innocent victims of crime (Matthew Shepard) or people who are courageous enough to have done something worthwhile with their lives (soldiers fighting terrorists, actors promoting understanding about homosexuality). Maybe it's an honor if they show up at your funeral. Should any of us dare to hope they would show up at ours?

One of the signs they are allegedly planning to bring says "God Hates Fags and Fag Enablers." Now that is the first time I've heard the term "fag enabler." In the '60's they called whites who marched with blacks in the civil rights movement "n----- lovers." By employing the derogatory term for an African American person, the term is supposed to make you, as a white person, feel ashamed.

I have had to deal with this kind of assault from people who were trying to make me feel as ashamed of myself as they were ashamed of me for associating with gay and lesbian people. But I never encountered any standard schoolyard term used by straights to try to cut me down along those lines. Not that people haven't had plenty to say, but it's as if they can't agree on one label. The fact that Westboro Baptist Church can only come up with something as relatively benign as "fag enabler" does surprise me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

I felt sick hearing the news this afternoon. So far it sounds like an accidental overdose. It's hard to imagine any other explanation for an actor who was at the top of his game like Heath Ledger was. Anyone who has landed the role of The Joker has to be at the top of his game (and the clips of him in The Dark Knight trailer looked terrific).

When I first saw Ledger in The Patriot I wasn't impressed. I assumed he was just another pretty boy who couldn't act. When I heard he had the lead role in Brokeback Mountain, I would have written the film off if I didn't have so much respect for the director, Ang Lee. Ledger's performance blew my mind. I had seen the private pain and struggles of so many closeted gay men, but never imagined I'd see it portrayed so compassionately up on the cinema screen, let alone by someone I had written off as a B actor. It was a gift to anyone who could see his own life's story in the character of Ennis Del Mar.

I respected Ledger not just for that performance but for proving me wrong. I was so looking forward to The Dark Knight. I still am, but after this news how can it not be painful to see?

I wrote a review for Brokeback Mountain shortly after I had seen it in the theater. You can read it here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Self-Made Man

I finished reading Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent, a former columnist for the L.A. Times who quit her job to write this fascinating book. Vincent is a lesbian who grew up a tomboy and thought it might be fun to write a book on what it would be like to go undercover and live as a man. She felt she was in a good position to pull it off, and she did so successfully. For a period of eighteen months as "Ned" she joined a bowling league, dated women, went to strip clubs, worked in sales, and even lived in a monastery for her research.

She did not do this as a transsexual (someone who believes he is a man trapped in a woman's body), or as a cross-dresser (someone who enjoys dressing as a man). Rather she had to endure tremendous psychological and emotional stress to keep up the act, disguising her speech, mannerisms, feelings and body language (not to mention her appearance) to complete her transformation as Ned. Aware of the common feminist complaint that men have a cushier lot in life than women, she was eager to experience male life for herself and report back with her findings. She writes:
At the beginning of the project I remember thinking that living as a man and having access to a man's world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside. I expected everything to be big and out in the open, the real deal live and three feet from my face, instead of seen through a glass darkly.

Yet what she discovered completely surprised her. Instead of living large once she was freed from the social expectations of femaleness, as a male she felt she encountered only a different type of repression, a different set of problems. She learned that the only socially acceptable emotion Ned was allowed to express was anger ("As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range"). She found that women were immediately hostile to Ned on the first date ("'Pass my test and then we'll see if you're worthy of me' was the implicit message coming across the table at me. And this from women who had demonstrably little to offer"). Among men Ned was always on guard against doing anything that might get him labeled a "fag."
Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. White manhood in America isn't the standard anymore by which women and all other minorities are being measured and found wanting, or at least it doesn't feel that way from the inside. It's just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.

The entire book, in fact, could be summed up as a politically incorrect critique of radical, anti-male feminism. And no one is in a better position to pull it off with greater credibility than this free-thinking lesbian intellectual. Norah Vincent's message to women is: Men aren't what you think. Her message to men is: You have it harder than people know. Far from thinking that the line between male and female can be obliterated into some sort of androgynous human existence, her experience of having lived as Ned brings her to quite the opposite conclusion:
I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can't help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in a parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects.

As a woman and a lesbian, Vincent can get away with raising issues no conservative male could without sounding reactionary, sexist and defensive. And, of course, the irony is that by run-of-the-mill conservative standards, when it comes to dealing with feminist viewpoints on sex and gender issues, a lesbian is automatically relegated to the enemy camp.

Yet not only did Vincent use her lesbian angle on life to her advantage in doing the research, coming to some surprisingly conservative conclusions, but she pulled it off at tremendous personal cost. The strain of maintaining her male identity for eighteen months and shutting off her female self resulted in a breakdown that landed her for a few days in a mental hospital. The fact that she could, in the end, recover from her ordeal and write such a winsome and compelling account is a testimony to her personal strength, as well as her compassion and commitment in trying to understand both sides of the male-female divide. Considering her book is not likely to be embraced by either conservative traditionalists or liberal feminists, she has paid quite a price. I hope she gets the credit and recognition she deserves.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Japanese American

Sometimes people ask me, "If you're not gay yourself, why are you so interested in their cause?" I used to think to myself, As a Christian why wouldn't I be? It's a clear case of social injustice, and much of the blame falls upon the Christian community. Naturally as a Christian I'd want to do everything possible to help salvage the credibility of my faith and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But lately I've been thinking along different lines. Maybe this cause hits home with me because I'm also a fourth generation Japanese American. I often discount my ethnic background as having anything to do with "me." Aside from going to family gatherings, I don't hang with other JA's. I'm not involved in the JA community and I have no JA friends. But even in my free-floating, culturally-detached state, I wonder if I've been more affected by my community and family history than I realize.

My grandfather was a 30 year-old American-born citizen living in Los Angeles when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Grandpa had been born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, California. His ambition was to go to UCLA and become a doctor. But money was tight, his own father was a useless alcoholic, so Grandpa become the main provider for his three younger brothers, even succeeding in putting one of them through med school instead. Having given up his own college education, he never left celery farming. He was married to a young Japanese wife and raising two young children of his own (my aunt and my dad) when America went to war against Japan.

As a Japanese-American farmer, Grandpa soon received a government notice assuring him that if he supported the war effort by stepping up farm production, the U.S. government would acknowledge his loyalty. So he bought a new tractor, even though he couldn't afford it. Probably sunk all his savings into it. Then a mere two months later he received another notice telling him he and his family would be bussed off to Manzanar Relocation Center. So much for getting a chance to prove his loyalty.

I don't know what he and Grandma did with all their stuff. They only had two weeks to prepare for relocation. Many JA's sold their belongings dirt cheap while neighbors descended like vultures for a bargain. I'm sure it was no different for my grandparents. Grandpa locked up the new tractor in a storage barn and asked a neighbor watch over it until they returned. He didn't know how long they'd be in Manzanar. Maybe one month? By the time Grandpa and his family returned from camp, three and a half years later, the barn had been broken into and the tractor ripped off.

They stayed in army barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards. They were among the first to arrive, allowed to bring only what they could carry on their backs. Manzanar is a windy, dusty wasteland, rolling with tumbleweeds and banked by a mountain range at the far end of the camp grounds. My grandmother later told me that dust constantly blew up into the barracks through one-inch spaces between the floorboards. Three families were squeezed into the one-room barrack and they all had to hang up bedsheets for privacy. The toilets in the women's bathroom had no partitions for privacy either. They stuck up in the middle of the floor so that everyone could watch you do your business.

After the war was over, the government dumped Grandpa and his family off in L.A. so that he and Grandma could start over again in bitter poverty. Celery farming doesn't exactly rake in the bucks. And when you've had everything taken from you, and you have to start from scratch with everyone else sneering at you as one of those "Japs" fresh out of camp, you don't exactly get the breaks.

I don't know all this stuff because I grew up hearing about it. Grandpa never said a word about it, and Grandma wasn't understandable since she spoke in Japanese. I did gather from my dad's childhood stories that Grandpa stewed in a silent, sometimes violent rage for a couple of decades, though I wasn't clear on the reason. Only when I reached college and interviewed my grandparents for a paper I did for an Asian American Studies class did I learn the details of what they went through. Otherwise, the matter wasn't spoken of.

Maybe Grandpa's pride wouldn't allow him to speak of the injustice. Sometimes words seem to cheapen the suffering you've been through when you try to explain it to others. And when you know your words will only be received with sneers and disdain, you don't even want to bother. The last thing you want to hear people say is, "It was justified," "You deserved it," or, "Why are you complaining? It could have been worse."

Even though times have changed, I see how the older members in my family, particularly my grandpa's and my dad's generations, still operate with the sub-conscious awareness that some people might think being Japanese American makes you lesser. It is important, in my family's view, to do well in life, get an education, be successful, and behave appropriately. Whatever you do, you must not be an embarrassment. If you do draw attention to yourself, let it be because of excellence and not because you are acting like an idiot. It is also important to integrate yourself into the mainstream and contribute something positive to society. Because you aren't a threat to society, you never were, you are an asset to America if only people would give you a chance, and they were wrong, so very wrong to have treated us otherwise. But we won't say it, we won't have to if our lives and our conduct prove it.

Nobody said these things out loud, but I now realize all the vibes were in the atmosphere I grew up in. I guess it's no surprise, then, that I naturally recognize these feelings in others when I see them grappling with similar situations. Some gays and lesbians are very vocal about the injustice they suffer, but many are not. Certainly in the conservative church most gay people remain silent, hoping that if they are found out, their conduct and contribution would prove they are not a threat, and that they don't deserve to be treated as such. I'm afraid I know all too well what that struggle is all about.