The Evolution of Gay TV

By Maddie Braun

The representation of LGBT characters on television has come a long way since 1971, when the sitcom “All in the Family” introduced the first openly gay character on broadcast TV. “All in the Family” tackled many controversial topics in its 12-year run, but the subject of homosexuality was an especially timely topic, as the gay rights movement was just beginning at that point. The show started many conversations and brought new, heavier topics into the public eye. For five consecutive years, from 1971 to 1976, the show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which measure audience size. There was both support and disapproval for the subject matter of the show. President Nixon, for example, expressed in an interview that he did not think the homosexuality represented in the show belonged on TV. Forty four years later, the representation of LGBT characters on television has changed drastically. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report on the diversity of television characters shows how.

During the 2014-2015 season, there were 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime broadcast series. This made up 3.9% of the regular characters, up 0.6% from the 2013-2014 season. Besides these regular characters, there were also 33 recurring LGBT characters on these series. On cable series during the 2014-2015 season, there were 64 regular LGBT characters, including 41 recurring characters.

The racial diversity of LGBT characters has also broadened over the years. Interestingly, the diversity of LGBT broadcast characters mirrors the diversity shown among broadcast regular characters of all sexualities. Of all of the broadcast characters this season, the make-up was 73% white, 13% black, 8% Latino/a, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. Of the LGBT broadcast characters, 74% were white, 11% were black, 11% were Latino/a, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and there were no multi-racial LGBT characters. While the percentages of black and multi-racial characters were lower among the LGBT characters, the percentages of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander characters were slightly higher. On cable series, the racial diversity of LGBT characters was even greater. The make-up on these series was 66% white, 10% black, 11% Latino/a, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% multi-racial.

As these statistics show, diversity amongst LGBT television is growing. This diversity does not pertain just to race and sexuality. These characters represent different age categories, economic standpoints, careers, family situations, and personalities.

Of all of the broadcast networks, Fox had the most LGBT characters, with an impressive 6.5% of their regular characters being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. One of the network’s new shows this season, “Empire,” a drama about a family in the music business, depicted two young gay characters: one regular character and one recurring character. The regular character here is Jamal, the young, black son of the main characters. The recurring character is his boyfriend Michael, a young Mexican man. Jamal faces negative attitudes from his parents regarding his sexuality, especially from his father. This is a main recurring theme on the show in regard to this character. Though Jamal’s mother thinks he will have trouble in the music industry because of his sexuality, she still supports him and believes he can become a star. His father, on the other hand, disapproves completely of his sexuality. Jamal is portrayed as a smart, talented musician, but he refuses to pursue a career in the music industry, due in part to struggles he envisions himself facing because of his sexuality.

Over on CBS, “The Good Wife” presents the character of Kalinda Sharma, a young bisexual Indian investigator who is good friends with the main character of the show. The character of Kalinda is powerful and compelling. Though she is revealed to have an estranged husband, she dates and engages in sexual activities with multiple men and women during the course of the show.

When LGBT characters first began appearing on television, they had a personality and story of their own, but the storylines regarding these characters were one-dimensional and faced the same issues of homophobia and disapproval. Both of the characters discussed here, along with many other LGBT characters on TV now, are strong, unique people that are more than just a label, even as they still face issues common to the LGBT community. They represent real people, with their diverse personalities and backgrounds, but facing the same issues underneath their differences. Even so, LGBT characters still make up a small percentage of all of those on television. There is an even larger, more diverse LGBT community in the real world, whose experiences are not all represented by these few television shows.

Of course, LGBT characters have always drawn both praise and criticism. One of the most recent controversies involved the television show “The Fosters” and the youngest gay kiss in TV history. Recently, two 13-year-old male characters were shown kissing on the show. Some made remarks calling the event a “sin” and “cultural suicide,” but the co creators of the show, Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, spoke out in defense of the scene. Bredeweg explained, “When people question the scene my response has been: ‘Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you?’ Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, ‘I was 12, 13, and 14 years old,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world.'”

Bredeweg’s point is fair, and brings to mind the progress that has been made so far on television. Homosexual romances in general were once seen as a huge taboo and were criticized, though graphic heterosexual romances were seen as acceptable. Over time LGBT characters and relationships have become much more accepted in the media. The young kiss will, hopefully, mirror this progress in television. Though it has caused a stir recently, it is over an issue that has been seen many times from young straight characters of the same age. Hopefully this scene will break ground and pave the way for young gay characters’ romances to be just as accepted as those of straight characters.

So the question remains, where are we now? LGBT representation on television has shown a definite improvement over the years, but is it enough? It seems to me that the diversity of television characters could, and should, be broadened even more. Steps are being made in the right direction, but hopefully in years to come, we will be able to look back at today’s lineup and see an even more diverse and accurate portrayal of LGBT characters.

Queer in Magic: The Gathering

By Jakob Asplund

Magic: The Gathering (commonly abbreviated as MTG, or Magic) is a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, and is played by approximately twelve million players around the globe, as of 2011.

With a variety of formats and a 22 year history, Magic continues to thrive on the creativity of its players and the community surrounding the sagas contained within. Each set of Magic is a story of a magical world, with “planes walkers” as important characters who can travel between them.

Stories follow typically follow a particular theme, and can be based on real life histories and mythologies: the two most recent blocks (three sets tied together mechanically and narratively) are based on Greek myth and Asian cultures, respectively.

Despite Magic’s rich and diverse history, the community surrounding it can have its own set of challenges. As with many gaming communities, sexist and racist attitudes can permeate a predominantly white male culture, and at times, the cards themselves can support such attitudes. There are few planes walker cards, around 30 (this is out of more than 20,000 cards ever produced), and only seven are of women, with one agender (which will be discussed later). Magic has a history of good writing when it comes to female characters, but in recent years, it has done much to increase the amount of representation.

The Theros block is based on Greek Mythology, with a fairly open queer element for the time; after all, this is the culture responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, and even the gods themselves are put in queer situations: Zeus and Ganymede, his cup bearer; Artemis and Calysto, and many others. As such, I think that it is fitting that this is the first culture used by Magic to portray openly queer characters.

As such, there are two cards from this set that stand out: The Guardians of Meletis, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. The Guardians of Meletis depict two royal figures guarding a river, the one on the right wreathed in armor. The card’s “flavor text,” the italic text on the bottom of the card that helps paint the larger narrative picture, says that the two rulers were in fact lovers, not the feuding rulers history thought them to be. A fan wrote in to the blog of Doug Beyer, one of the core writers and card developers for MTG, and asked: “Are the Guardians or Meletis Magic’s first gay Couple? Or am I misgendering one of them? Also, thank you so much for Ashiok! LGBTQ representation is awesome.”

Ashiok is a controller of nightmares and information, coming from an unknown world to Theros, the name of this plane, to experiment.

A decidedly cold and cruel character, many have questioned the intent of creating such an evil “token” character. Magic weekly posts fiction written by its development team to flesh out the story, and Ashiok appears in one to torment a local king and harvest his nightmares. Phenax, god of lies and deceit, one of the rulers of this plane, appears before Ashiok and says: “When the two had first met, the figure had called itself Ashiok…..  He, no, Phenax was not sure if the mortal even had a gender, Ashiok.” Thus, even a god does not know how to describe Ashiok’s gender.

Doug Beyer, the writer mentioned previously, received another comment that asked about Ashiok’s gender. In German, the card was given the pronoun “der”, which is masculine, and Doug Beyer replied by writing: “Others may attribute gender to Ashiok, but Ashiok does not define Ashiok’s own identity that way. Some languages require the use of a gendered pronoun, just like some people’s beliefs require other people to fall into clearly-defined categories. (I think Ashiok would be amused to hear those people’s attempts at categorizing Ashiok.) The effect of language on gender, and vice versa, is a complicated issue. But whatever any text or card or pronoun might claim, Ashiok’s gender identity is up to one person: Ashiok. And Ashiok hasn’t said, and won’t. So it’s officially unknown, just like many other mysteries about this mage.”

I think this response is rather fitting for a character who fooled the god of lies; the answer is simply a mystery. This queerest of characters will keep people guessing for a while.

The most recent expansion of Magic is the Tarkir block, which is set on a world populated by dragons and warring clans and is based on historical Asian cultures. There are groups based on the Thai empire, Tibetan Monks, Persians, Siberians, and the Mongol Horde. The leader of the Mardu Clan (modeled after the reign of Genghis Khan), which is devoted to warfare and freedom, is a 19-year-old transwoman with a blade canonically “as wide and as long as her arm.”

Yeah, rock on. The story for this character, known both as Alesha and by the epithet “Who Smiles At Death,” paints an interesting image of identity. The trans identity of the character is not the focus of this story, so much as knowing one’s own identity.

The Mardu people have a naming ritual where you earn the right to name yourself, and Alesha has an interesting story to tell of hers:

“She had been so different—only sixteen, a boy in everyone’s eyes but her own, about to choose and declare her name before the khan and all the Mardu.

The khan had walked among the warriors, hearing the tales of their glorious deeds. One by one, they declared their new war names, and each time, the khan shouted the names for all to hear. Each time, the horde shouted the name as one, shaking the earth.

Then the khan came to Alesha. She stood before him, snakes coiling in the pit of her stomach, and told how she had slain her first dragon. The khan nodded and asked her name.

“Alesha,” she said, as loudly as she could. Just Alesha, her grandmother’s name.

“Alesha!” the khan shouted, without a moment’s pause.

And the whole gathered horde shouted “Alesha!” in reply. The warriors of the Mardu shouted her name. In that moment, if anyone had told her that in three years’ time she would be khan, she just might have dared to believe it.”

This is an example of extreme inclusivity I think, especially in such a seemingly hypermasculine culture that this Genghis Khan expy) seems to embody. But it is much different than that, as Alesha remarks later. Her identity is called into question by a nameless orc, who calls her a “human boy who thinks he’s a woman.” “I know who I am,” Alesha says to him, still smiling. “Now show me who you are.”

This response is fantastic, such a verification of her own sense of self, while even as it questions that of a person that she knows to be lost. Later, after the battle, she confronts the orc again, who had proven helpful to everyone around him, saving them, protecting them, allowing them to deal the final blow. But he claims he has no glory, and the dialogue continues:

“I know who I am. I am not a boy. I am Alesha, like my grandmother before me.” Several of the nearest warriors murmured their approval.

“And I know who you are,” she said. “The Mardu know you. But you—you think every Mardu must be a Backbreaker or Helmsmasher. You think your deeds are not as glorious as theirs. And you are wrong.” She let go of his armor and shoved him, sending him stumbling back a few steps.

“When you learn what your place among the Mardu is, then you can choose a name.”

This story of her triumph as an individual is not about her trans identity. In fact, while the story mentions it, this is mostly about her interaction with the nameless orc rather than the fact that she is trans. This story is about knowing yourself and loving yourself, of finding a group of people who accept you for who you choose to be, whatever or whoever that is.

Alesha vows to help this nameless orc, the person who dared to misgender his leader in combat, to find his own place among the Mardu. Because knowing yourself and being yourself is the absolute freedom.

A Perspective on Gender Seen Through Flawless Lashes

By Corey Brooke

Before hosting a party in my dorm for the first time, I spent half an hour sitting in front of a mirror trying to attach a pair of the longest fake eyelashes I could find at Target. I had no idea what I was doing, and glue dripped onto my clothes and into my eyes—but for all its power to stain and irritate, the adhesive would not keep the lashes on my eyelids. I never doubted, though, that the trouble would be worthwhile: I was going to make the lashes work, and, eventually, I did.

That night, I was in control of my body. I had fun with how others saw me and even how I saw myself. I felt self-consciously and intentionally beautiful. Nevertheless, I took nothing about the lashes seriously—I wore them sardonically, though not without personal effect, like some sort of joke fluttering up and down on my face, reminding myself and my friends that I do not have to perform beauty norms (or even gender norms) in order to have a good night and feel satisfied with my appearance. Ultimately, I freed myself in an entirely new way, reshuffling dictations about tackiness, about glamour, about gender. But what was it that freed me, and how?

Before answering that question, it is worth saying that I am not a woman, have never considered myself one, and am inclined to believe that I never will. However, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “on ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (usually translated “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), she implied that gender is not something we are but something we do. Nothing deep in my soul or biology demanded that I bat fake lashes—my own desires motivated me to play with gender, to act in a way divergent from the performances of either manhood or womanhood, and my consenting to that motivation led me to feel unburdened. So, when I ask how it is that gluing on women’s cosmetic eyelashes seemed to liberate me, I am asking about the effects of disrupting gender. For an answer, I look first to experiences of gender among drag queens and multicultural queer youth on social media.

* * *

Last October, Facebook began deactivating the accounts of those not using their legal names on the social media site, including drag queens who used their drag names in addition to Pagans and some trans people. The policy, still in place, was and continues to be controversial. What surprised me the most initially, and what I find most compelling, is that many drag queens prefer to use personal accounts, rather than public pages, to disseminate information about drag-related events, issues, and discussion. I should note that many drag personalities do act problematically, especially often for the appropriation and caricaturing of black female culture. Still, I believe that others perform an important role in disrupting our ideas of what gender means to our identities. With this in mind, why did Facebook’s deactivation of drag accounts inflame the drag community and their supporters when the use of public pages (still an option) should seem to suffice?

From the insistence of drag queens that their drag personas deserve Facebook profiles, I read a clear assertion that personhood acted out in queer, gender nonconforming ways is just as legitimate as more normative conceptualizations of identity. To rebel against the tides of “man” and “woman,” either consistently or impulsively, shifts, refocuses, and creates identity, changing the experience of being, which is, after all, an action rather than a noun.

So, when I glued lashes on my face for the first time, I changed my experience of gender and others’ experiences of my gender, indeed re-envisioning (through perhaps more glamorous eyes) my identity. Stepping outside of my habits of gender allowed me to examine other aspects of my selfhood.

* * *

I find further insight in the recent explosion of the use of “flawless” as a conceptualization of beauty. Young racial or ethnic minorities and queer peoples especially use the term on social media to describe themselves or celebrities with similar experiences of race, sexuality, and gender (for example, Laverne Cox, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama)—perhaps as an affirmation of a countercultural beauty that norms have taught them not to see in themselves or others.

An article Javier Jaén wrote for the New York Times, entitled “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” explores the background and implications of  “flawlessness,” contending that “‘flawless’ feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution….[the word] recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed.” Flawlessness reclaims and upturns beauty by one’s own terms.

Further, beyond locating marginalized peoples within the fold of beauty, the epithet “flawless” explicitly critiques beauty altogether. More than fifty years before Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”, Jaén notes that drag queen Flawless Sabrina used the term to characterize herself as “a paragon of perfection” even despite her self-attestation that she “was anything but perfect.” Certainly, it seems that “flawless” has stayed sardonic, necessarily poking fun at dominant conceptions of beauty through assertive claims of beauty from those outside of beauty norms.

So, when I decided determinedly but not seriously to spend a night in cosmetic lashes, I unwittingly partook in a queer tradition of al at once playing with, critiquing, and locating oneself within the narrow umbrella of beauty. I had made myself flawless through my own luxe-lidded eyes and, by my own terms, I had claimed an experience of beauty for myself apart from the tantalizing and destructive cultural myth of what is beautiful.

* * *

So, what can queer voices teach us about gender identity and beauty? They suggest that, gender being an act of performance that defines aspects of our experience of identity, we might as well live gender on our own terms and find our beauty through pride in that craft. For me, strings of plastic curling out from over my eyes provided a great first taste of the liberation that can come from self-consciously steering one’s gender trajectory. I do not doubt that other people might redefine their relationship with gender quite differently from how I have. Nevertheless, I believe that drag queens and marginalized youth on social media can teach us all something about the value of performing and shaping our identities through gender.

Native Americans in Queer Politics

By Justice Galvan

The place of Native Americans within queer communities is one that is often shoved under the rug. It is only recently that I have discovered a set of combinations about this topic. Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees deals with the harmful influence of scientific experiments on indigenous peoples. What I did not expect to find in this book were discussions and debates of sexuality, particularly in relation to a Native American character. Never before had I seen these two identities come together. It is true that queer identities are typically associated with middle-class white men and that Native Americans receive very little attention in any form of media, but I began to wonder why I did not see more attention placed on Native American characters who might follow two-spirit traditions. Two-spirit is an “umbrella term” that is used to encompass various gender and sexual identities, traditionally of spiritual or cultural significance in Native American tribes.

Professor LaFlamme pointed me in the direction of Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, by Scott Morgensen. While I did not finish the book, it soon became clear that I was looking in the wrong place for Native American identities. Morgensen discusses the queering of Native American people by white settlers. When settlers arrived in a foreign land with their own heteronormative patriarchal system, they used this power against Native Americans. By forcing these standards on a people that did not ascribe to them, settlers effectively queered the tribes they came into contact with. They enforced their own sexuality by arresting and executing those who strayed from norms the settlers had created. The word “berdache” came into use as a negative descriptor of two-spirit people. The etymology of the word comes from the French “bardache,” which refers to a man who is passive in homosexual practices. Of course, this ignores the complexity of the two-spirit system, as well as female sexuality.

When settlers realized that the best way to destroy native culture was through the indoctrination of children, boarding schools came into place. These took children from their families and tribes to educate them in a way that would cause them to forget their language and practices. Morgensen concludes that the nail in the coffin of indigenous sexuality is the way it has been deemed primitive, much like the rest of indigenous culture. This strategy allows native culture to have existed as a relic, a representation of life before civilization arrived; it essentially becomes a dead structure in the eyes of settler society.

White settlers queered native sexual practices, and today these practices and identities are lauded as aspects of queer politics. People who have no Native American heritage take on the two-spirit identity. The culture that was once killed by immigrants to the land is revived by the same people. Even so, this revival is not to allow native peoples to practice the way they once did or to encourage them to regain a sense of cultural pride. The adoption of the two-spirit system was at first a form of activism by Native people against berdache, which had been used by non-Native peoples to speak for sexual minorities. However, the two-spirit system was then taken up by non-Native peoples in much the same way. This is the most basic form of cultural appropriation, and part of a very clear pattern about the way Native Americans are treated. People with no Native American heritage (or who are 1/35th Native American, descended from a Cherokee princess) wear stereotypical clothing or sweatshirts with offensive sports logos on them. These images, which native people were once killed for, are now accepted only for their place on non-Native bodies.

Another problem with the cultural appropriation of two-spirit identities is the way certain aspects are chosen while others are excluded. To pick and choose from an identity that is not one’s own is to mutate it into something that it was not intended to be. At least in some tribes, a person may be designated two-spirit at birth.

An interesting aspect of Morgensen’s description of boarding schools is his account of native children. He explains that two-spirit children would be punished for the ways they dressed and identified. Modern sexual politics rarely focuses on children, and it is commonly thought that children cannot decide their own identity until they reach a certain age. Rather, they are straight and cissexual until proven otherwise. This is perhaps an aspect of the two-spirit practice that can inspire modern politics. While not necessarily designating a child two-spirit, children can be given the choice to identify as they please, whether or not this is something they wish to be later in life.

It is a starting point for cultures to take inspiration from another culture without appropriating it. We can see poor examples of this in those who claim a two-spirit identity without actually being part of the culture. Not only is it harmful to take an identity without knowing what it entails, but it is all the more harmful to take an identity that was once queered by settlers and wear it as a queer identity. This perpetuates the cycle of settler-colonialism in regards to Native American culture. I think the queer community has the ability to become more welcoming to Native American cultures. It is not welcoming to wear Native American culture as a fashion piece; a better approach is to allow Native American people to speak and practice what they wish.

Enduring the Kremlin

By Kevin Jackson

Within the past three years, the Russian Federation has managed to capture a growing amount of global media attention. A majority of this spotlight is due to the nation’s domineering response to instances of civil dissent and leftist activism. More importantly, the international community has voiced concern regarding the potential human rights violations connected with the publicized conduct of Russian authorities.

In 2012, conservative candidate Vladimir Putin won a third-term victory in Russia’s presidential election. In the wake of his re-election, thousands of protesters took to the streets to vocalize their opposition to Putin’s policies as well as scrutinize his extrajudicial political demeanor. Putin has affirmed his executive role in Russian politics since 2000 by occupying both presidential and prime minister positions as well as being the chairman of the current ruling party “United Russia.” The reactionary anti-Putin demonstrations were quickly subdued after as series of clashes between protesters and police that resulted with numerous arrests. Simultaneously, the anti-Putin effort found alternative momentum after members of the punk-rock group “Pussy Riot” were arrested while performing an unauthorized show in an Orthodox church in Moscow. The band consists of several female Russian musicians who rely on shock value and social media to spread their music, which both scrutinizes Putin and advocates for social liberalism. Their highly publicized trials and eventual imprisonment made worldwide headlines and brought global awareness to socio-political issues in Russia. More specifically, they exposed discriminatory laws and intolerant behavior towards LGBT people.

One year later, Russian authorities were accused of harassing foreign journalists and hindering press freedoms during the controversial construction of Winter Olympics facilities in Sochi. The international community also scrutinized a new law that would make advocating for gay rights to minors illegal. Putin publicly defended the ban by claiming that the intentions behind this legislative effort were to stop the exposure of “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia” to minors. A 2014 Al-Jazeera article highlighted the fact that Putin further clarified in the same press appearance that the ban would not prohibit “nontraditional sexual relations,” even though the text of the ban specifically mentions “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”.

The ban has since produced serious ramifications disproving Putin’s original media assertions. In 2014, Russia experienced a dramatic increase in social homophobia. The iconic rainbow flag has historically been a symbol for supporting gay-rights, and its public exposure is now considered illegal due to the anti-propaganda ban. GQ reporter Jeff Sharlet found neo-Nazi stickers that read “Stamp Out Faggots” in public areas across Moscow and Arkhangelsk. The ban has acted as a pretextor city authorities to ban gay-pride parades. The gay-rights demonstrations that do manage to surface come to a halt within minutes from police arrests, or in some cases, by violent, homophobic counter-protesters. In June 2013, a “kiss-in” protest was dispersed by a mob of adolescents who violently clashed with the gay rights supporters. The same Sharlet column reported that homophobic activists supposedly organized the mob because “kiss-in” protesters would be unable to fight back and would be disheartened, since young people are seen as the next generation and represent the future. This position has also been sanctified by the Orthodox Catholic Church, which is why some believe that committing violence towards LGBT members is vigilante justice. New homophobic Russian organizations have taken form over the past two years, which actively seek out LGBT members in order to publicly expose, humiliate, and occasionally beat them. These groups commonly defend themselves by claiming that their actions and intentions are meant to preserve “traditional” Russian values.  The ban’s vocabulary conflates homosexuality with sexual offenders, partially explaining why the LGBTQA community in Russia has experienced such explicitly violent attacks. It may also explain why the attackers are never legally confronted and the perceived lack of sympathy for those who are protesting.

More recently, Russian diplomats have been battling U.N. policies that would provide benefits to gay U.N. employees. The U.N. has been an international platform that participating states have used to openly criticize Russia’s approach towards LGBT citizens. Writer Colum Lynch covered this story for Foreign Policy and suggested that Russia may be adamantly against this new policy in order to justify their own national policies or further promote their controversial ban on “nontraditional sex propaganda.” Either way, their denunciation of the new policies incited immediate criticism. The U.N.’s representative for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, urged other member states to “push back hard against Russia’s backwards efforts to impose on the U.N. the same kind of homophobic attitudes Moscow promotes at home.”

When digesting this narrative timeline of LGBT issues in Russia, it is worthwhile to think of what might come next. With regards to this, journalist Mark Gevisser suggests in a New York Times column that a majority of Russians are far more tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, which defies global Western perceptions. If this majority were to speak up for and along-side the LGBT minority, this could justify queer identities as well as destroy the perceived association between sexual offenders and homosexuality.

Works Cited


Gevisser, Mark. “Life Under Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Lynch, Colum. “Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay U.N. Employees.” Foreign Policy Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay UN Employees Comments. Foreign Policy, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Mullins, Dexter. “LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games.” LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games. Aljazeera America, 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

“Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law.” Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law. Aljazeera America, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Sharlet, Jeff. “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” GQ. GQ, Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <>.

Speri, Alice. “Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi.” Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi. Aljazeera America, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.


Dark Sleep in Waking Light

By Cody Erickson

Every morning Zhang wakes up, but he is never really awake. Put to an eternal sleep by the confines of his “Great Wall” of a society, Zhang will never know what its truly like to be awake. Being awake is never something that Zhang found appealing in the first place, so he is fine with never awakening. Awakening would mean facing the chains that bind him to his humble abode of hiding and secretiveness, whose bounds stretch far beyond the borders of his mind and body: a body that has only ever known the gentle touch of another like himself biologically. Like a jail cell, his own home gives Zhang no consolation to help him deal with his dire situation.

“For what purpose, my humble abode?” Zhang demands, “do you not assist me in awaking to see the light of day?”. The house responds with a joyous plea, but Zhang hears only the criticisms of those who wish to pull the chains that bind him until he suffocates tighter. Awakening was never an option. Realizing his dire situation, Zhang finally manages to break out from the confines of his home, still asleep. Wrought of a consciousness that would now rather thrust him into imperforated darkness, Zhang moves towards the garish light: light never fails…does it…?

Light. The light seems to be a promising way to go, but was there ever really a “way” to go? Free will lives in the deepest depths of Zhang’s mind, depths that not even the devil himself would dare travel, not even for a split second. Lee yearns for the light that he knows he will never be able to grasp: a light that smolders all remorse and misery with the heat of a thousand suns, all mocking him-making him a laughing stock of shame and suffering. Even so, none of this matters; Zhang has only ever known shame. It’s his last name in a world whose only aim is to mock every second of his very subsistence. Zhang is still sleeping. He is coming to the somber conclusion that light in all of its greatness only exists to demoralize and terrorize the very being: his being. As light etiolates to darkness, Zhang begins clambering down the only other path available to him…

Darkness. Once a foe, never a friend. Zhang can’t see anything but that doesn’t matter; he has always been blind to those around him, the world, himself. But what of being blind to such monstrosities? Blindness for Zhang means those abominations around him can’t see him for what he really is…But what is he? Zhang now turns to the darkness that now envelops his soul looking for justification of himself. Him. He. The darkness’ answer is a soft, consolidating whimper of comfort and contentment. Zhang is still asleep. More dangerous than the light around him the darkness now threatens to pull Zhang, tearing his consciousness every which way through poison thorns drenched in mockery and bigotry. Seeing no way out, Zhang has made an unbreakable vow to retreat to the place from which he once came; a place of light sleep in a dark world. Slowly drifting back to the confines from which he came: Zhang finally starts to feel a tenacious sense of consciousness-Slowly, slowly maneuvering the confines of his mind, he finally reaches a place of peace and tranquility. He, for the first time in his dark existence, is awake.

* * *

Homosexuality in Asian countries has been an interest of mine ever since I came to college and have met so many international students. I always wondered how homosexuals are seen in Asian culture, as I was under the impression that many Asian cultures shun homosexuals from society. My suspicions were finally realized when I watched an online video entitled “Love and Sex in China”. This documentary gave its audience a look into the love and sex lives of Chinese people. Although there were many heterosexual couples interviewed, there was one homosexual actor who talked about his life as a homosexual man in Chinese society. Not surprisingly, the actor (whose name I will not make public) told the interviewer of a love life lived entirely in shadows, away from society in fear of being ostracized. The actor recounted the fact that his public image is very important, and that coming out as a homosexual man would ultimately shatter his reputation. Having to keep his love life hidden from the world consumes him on the inside, leaving him feeling powerless and somewhat ashamed in a strictly heterosexual society.

The Chinese term “TongZhi” might also come to mind while reading this post. For centuries, China has shunned homosexuals from society. The term “TongZhi” is essentially slang for a gay Chinese man. The irony of this term is that, in more colloquial terms it means “same will” or “comrade”, and was used in imperial China to refer to someone who has the same ideals or ethics as oneself. Many of the TongZhi in modern Chinese society find ways to hide their sexuality in fear of being shunned by family and society as a whole. Some even go to the extent of finding a homosexual couple of the opposite sex and legally marrying a partner from that other partnership just to fool their friends and family into thinking that they are heterosexual. These types of marriages are called “sham marriages”, and outlets to find these types of relationship can now be found all over the internet via gay Chinese dating sites and even “meet and greet” conventions. In this way, there are more outlets for gay peoples to meet one another, but the social stigmas that being gay carries remain unchanged.

In the past, the Chinese government has gone so far as to implement laws outlawing gay practice. One of these was called the “Hooligan Law”, which was part of the Official Penal Code in 1957. Although abolished in 2001, the aftermath of negative thoughts and feelings towards homosexuals in modern China persists. Although in the story Zhang never quite gets to the point of finding a homosexual partner, the struggles he deals with going out into the real world are testimony to the hardships gay people in China face.

Seeing this Chinese man reflect on his life’s struggles with regards to sexuality and society gave me the inspiration to write the story you see above. After doing a little bit of research on the history of gay culture in China, it made more sense why the man in the video feels the way he does about coming out. Still, I found it very sad that he has to live in a shadow of fear just because of his sexuality. This being said, I wanted to try and bring out elements that would invoke feelings of frustration, sadness and pity all at the same time. Another goal of mine in writing this piece was to make the reader feel just as lost as the character himself, searching for an answer that wasn’t there yet was always right at hand. Hopefully the story makes you think a little bit and was as fun to read as it was for me to write.

Can Jazz Be Homophobic?

By Jay Carlson

The word jazz has long been a stand-in for individuality and personal expression. Rooted in African rhythms brought to America on slave ships, jazz became one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century. Jazz gave a voice to Black Americans and, as its popularity increased alongside the Harlem Renaissance in the early quarter of the century, its players were thrown into positions of cultural influence that they scarcely could have imagined beforehand. The Beat poets of the 50s, who lived simply and wildly and who traveled the country living like beggars, dug jazz. Everyone who was anyone dug jazz. But jazz didn’t dig nobody except itself. Jazz especially didn’t dig gay jazzers.

How is it that an art form so thoroughly enmeshed in the belief that each person had something to say, was an individual, deserved rights, has been so unwelcoming to a group of people looking for an outlet in jazz?

Jazz and masculinity have a long and intertwined history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the advent of bebop in the 1940s. Bebop was badder, faster, louder, more complicated, more sophisticated, more masculine than its predecessor, swing jazz, had been. Bebop took off in isolated areas and with an isolated group of musicians taking center stage, largely a result of the frustrations of virtuosic jazzers at the number of less-than-virtuosic hacks (who were able to handle swing music) on the scene. As tempos increased and musicians became more nimble, ensembles were broken down to bare-bones combos to lose the dead weight of mediocre musicianship.

This exclusivist attitude was a product of patriarchal interpretations of masculinity; the desire and ability to assert superiority over others has long been a trait associated with successful men. Jazz musicians of my generation are passed down story after story from our teachers about the sex- and drug-fueled lives that our idols led. It was not uncommon for band members to scramble to find a horn for their leader after he sold his for drug money. It was not uncommon for jazzers to pimp out their girlfriends for drug money. And yet we uphold their legacy because they were dominant, and indeed many of the same terms that describe the doers of heroic or athletic feats are also used to identify premiere jazz musicians. But when womanizing was the post-gig talk of the night, a not insignificant number of players got left out. What of gay jazz musicians? Where were they?

As it turns out, there were quite a few gay musicians in jazz, and some were among the most lauded and innovative of the last hundred years. But as a direct result of the mentality that jazz was, first and foremost, a fuck you display of domineering intellectuality, virtuosity, and masculinity, most gay jazz artists remained closeted almost until the turn of the century, and even today many remain closeted to protect themselves from discrimination by other jazz musicians.

James Gavin’s 2001 piece “Homophobia in Jazz” looked into several influential jazz artists’ accounts of what it was like to be a gay jazz musician. Among those were pianist Fred Hersch and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Both musicians came out to the public in the early 90s and have received relatively little backlash for their sexual orientation since then (no doubt a result of their fame and influence in the jazz community).

In a landmark gathering of gay jazz musicians and friends at the Village Vanguard in New York, Fred Hersch and Gary Burton participated in a panel to publicly address the issue of homophobia in jazz for the first time. Writer Francis Davis had a question for them that they were unable to answer: How does being gay affect their jazz?

While Davis suggests that their inability to answer that question is a product of them still working out the details themselves, I would like to turn the question back on itself.

How does being homophobic affect jazz?

And so I repeat my first question: How is it that jazz–freedom, individuality, self-sufficiency–was so unwelcoming to the gay community?

Maybe what we’re listening to isn’t jazz.

Dear Cielo and Peter

By Estrella Almaguer

I know this might seem a bit strange, but just bear with me. I am composing this letter to you with the best of intentions.

Can you remember the last time Mom or Dad mentioned anything about the LGBTQA community? Probably not. Do you even know what this acronym stands for? Perhaps. The point is that you likely have very little knowledge about this group of people, and that worries me. I was once in your shoes, which is why I want to share my new perspectives and lived experiences about the LGBTQA community with you, through this letter.

Coming from a big city like Chicago, people might assume that I knew a decent amount about the LGBTQA community prior to coming to St. Olaf. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I grew up in a bustling neighborhood with various grocery stores, restaurants, parks, churches, schools, baseball fields, and a bike path that runs through the woods and stops at a beautiful lake. The smell of fresh air, fresh-cut green grass, and fresh corn on the cob fill the streets of my neighborhood. The sound of laughter coming from children playing outside, the cheering and chanting coming from the baseball fields, the ringing of bells from the paltero man’s popsicle cart, the vibrations of cars driving by, and the jingle song coming the ice-cream truck make me feel at home.

Our neighborhood is predominately Hispanic, and therefore, the Hispanic population was the majority in our elementary and middle schools. Most households in our neighborhood practice Catholicism, which is why these families are not very knowledgeable about, much less accepting of, gay and queer rights. These families are very loyal to their religion, and they firmly believe that God created a man and a woman so that these two sexes could be together. Whether or not we realized our neighborhood’s influence on us at the time, the demographics of our neighborhood played, and unfortunately continue to play for the two of you, a huge role in our lack of exposure to the LGBTQA community.

Do we have any LGBTQA relatives in our immediate family? Not that we know of. How about friends? Can we name a handful of our friends who identify with the LGBTQA community? Not really. Have you stopped to think about this? Let’s not be sheltered about the harsh realities that the LGBTQA community is facing today, such as the struggles for marriage equality, protections for transgender people, and access to health insurance.

Here is some key terminology that I learned since leaving Chicago:

LGBTQA is an acronym that replaced what was formerly known as the “gay community.” The acronym was created to be more inclusive of diverse groups. LGBTQA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and asexual or ally.

  • Lesbian: An individual who identifies as a woman and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other women.
  • Gay: An individual who identifies as a man and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other men.
  • Bisexual: An individual who is sexually and romantically attracted to men and women.
  • Transgender: An individual who identifies as the opposite sex from the sexual characteristics that he/she was born with.
  • Queer: An individual who feels more comfortable identifying with a term that is fluid and inclusive of diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Questioning: An individual who is unsure about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and prefers to identify as “questioning,” rather than adhering to a label that does not designate how they feel.
  • Asexual: An individual who lacks sexual attraction to anyone, or expresses low or absent interest in sexual activity.
  • Ally: An individual who is supportive of the LGBTQA community.

I felt so sheltered when I came to college and I wouldn’t want you two to feel the same way. I did not have anyone to brief me on these social matters. Coming to St. Olaf gave me a new perspective on the conditions that the LGBTQA community is forced to live under. I have friends who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, whom I hold dearest to my heart. These individuals have been honest and openly vulnerable with me about the stigma they feel is bestowed upon them by society every single day. These individuals just want to feel like they can be true to themselves, even if they are a little different than everyone else. Taking classes about this marginalized group of people and listening in on Wellness events that discuss issues facing the LGBTQA community has educated me on the lack of equal rights that this population experiences.

There is another important term that I want to highlight, a term that you can relate to. A heterosexual is a person who is romantically and sexually attracted to the opposite sex and/or gender. For example, heterosexual females are attracted to males and heterosexual males are attracted to females. Over the years, I have witnessed, experienced, and learned about the overwhelming pressure that society puts on us to conform to heterosexual practices. I have taken multiple classes where I have discussed the social constructs of femininity and masculinity. The word masculine, as we think it, means strong, muscular, well-built, confident, brave, powerful, robust, dominant, athletic, and independent. On the contrary, the word feminine means tender, gentle, dainty, emotional, nurturing, affectionate, submissive, weak, and dependent.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, I want you to be knowledgeable about the LGBTQA community because many of them actively challenge our society’s gender norms. Learning about the LGBTQA community can also help you understand your own sexual identity better. Whether or not you identify as a member of the LGBTQA community, these disregarded people deserve your respect and support. I encourage you to be an ally and to begin to acquire a deeper self-understanding of your own identity throughout the process, just like me.

Much love, your sister,

Estrella Almaguer

Normal: A Review

By Rachel Jackman

normal [nawr­-muhl]

  1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual
  2. serving to establish a standard
  3. Psychology:
 free from any mental disorder
  4. Biology/Medicine: free from any infection or other forms of disease or malfunction, or from experimental therapy, or manipulation
  5. of natural occurrence

The word “normal” has existed for centuries–originating first from Latin and then being incorporated into a myriad of cultures and languages. While a dictionary can contain a valid definition of the word, can anyone truly know what it means? After all, what is normal? A standard and natural occurrence can vary cross culturally, but also individually. Normalcy is never static and is incredibly personal. However, often the established standardization of normalcy overrides the individual complexity of it. It seems that in recent years, within the United States especially, gender binaries and heteronormativity have become increasingly relevant issues: in particular, our definitions of “normal” gender and sexual identities. While the vast majority of the population is cisgender, meaning that an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth, a minority of transgender individuals struggle to express themselves completely in our society that views gender in binary and immutable term. We have created a standard that gender expression is expected to match sex; anything other than that is abnormal and wrong. However, this expectation is unrealistic, due to the fact that normalcy is dynamic and greatly influenced by individual perspective and experience. The 2003 HBO film Normal pursues the question of what normalcy actually looks like not from a societal perspective necessarily, but rather an individual and familial level.

The film begins at a local church with the celebration of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Roy and Irma Applewood. At this celebration, the pastor emphasizes the love this couple has for each other and that no one could have such love. Yet, suddenly during this speech, Roy passes out; in the next scene, the audience sees Roy coming out to his wife and pastor, announcing that he is transgender and stating his desire to become a woman named Ruth. Initially reluctant to accept Roy’s identity, Irma files for divorce in an attempt to separate herself completely from her husband. However, while attending a celebration for Roy’s father’s birthday, the father tells a story of Roy as a child getting caught wearing his sister’s clothing and being forced to strip down and sleep in the barn. Brought to tears, the adult Roy takes refuge in the barn and contemplates suicide when Irma finds him and realizes the agony he must be suffering. Eventually, Irma comes to a deeper understanding of her husband and helps Ruth through her transition. Their tomboyish daughter, Patty Ann, is fascinated by her father’s transition and even pleads with Irma to “let [Patty Ann] off the hook for being the woman in the family.” However, Ruth’s son does not accept her transition initially and reacts with hostility. Ultimately, despite finding general acceptance from her family, Ruth is ostracized by many of the men at her workplace as well as her entire church community.

As the title of the film suggests, established normalcy is likely not what normal actually looks like. The film begins in a church setting, suggesting that the standardization of heteronormativity began with religious influences and persists because of the Christian faith, in particular. This is still true today: most often, trans rights are opposed by religious organizations. For example, in a recent article in the Miami Herald, opponents of a ban on discrimination against trans people likened the South, if it accepts such a ban, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, in our society, religion is so closely linked to morality that, in many situations, it limits freedom of expression for minority groups. Normal precisely captures the isolation and damnation that Christianity places on the very people it is supposed to incorporate and love.

The opposition between religion and gender expression continues throughout the film, beginning when the pastor tries to fix the marriage between Roy and Irma based on Ephesians 5:28: “for no man hath hated his own flesh.” This passage suggests that men need to look to women to satisfy themselves, and thus need women for completion. According to the pastor’s perspective, Roy is being selfish in his attempt to fill the role of the wife as well as the husband. Yet, no one in his church community can truly understand. This disconnect is ever-present in the film, as in another scene where Ruth and Patty Ann are asked to leave a service and the congregation even refuses to accept the offertory from Ruth–as if the money she offers to the church is tainted because of her “abnormal” gender expression. As Ruth continues her transition, the pastor and the rest of the congregation begin to treat Irma as if she is a widow: is there anything she needs help with around the house? Maybe they should bring her meals? As far as the church is concerned, Roy is dead. Normalcy is established through shared practice, such as religion, but if it becomes tradition, it can also lead to oppression of those individuals for whom established normalcy is abnormal.

Even though Roy desires to embrace his true female identity and finally match his sex to his gender, thus feeling complete and normal, at the start of the film he admits that his gender identity is not in conjunction with the majority of people. He proclaims that he “prayed for years for [these feelings] to go away,” and even refers to himself as having a condition called gender dysphoria. The need to describe what he is feeling through the terminology of a disorder illustrates the societal imposition of gender and sexuality norms. If anyone strays from standard gender binary, the only explanation is that they must be diseased. This belief in established normalcy is so powerful that even those individuals whose personal definitions of normal differ from it believe themselves to be wrong or diseased even when that has never been, nor will ever be, the case.

Normal is incredibly successful in capturing the difficulty trans individuals face in our society here in the United States. Because religion has fettered heterosexuality and cisgenderism to established norms, anyone who exists outside of those norms is fated to oppression or condemnation from society even if they are able to find love, understanding, and happiness within their family as Roy was finally able to do with Irma. However, as the film illustrates, normalcy is dynamic and personal to every individual and his or her closest relationships.

The Right to Intimacy

By Bridget Novak

In the article “Privacy, Dependency, Discegenation: Toward a Sexual Culture for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” Rachel Adams concisely states, “While desire may be instinctual, the rules governing its appropriate expression are cultural.” For non-heterosexual couples and for individuals with disabilities, social and legal institutions limit sexual expression. It is by society that these identities are constructed and their sexual expression restricted.

Robert McRuer, in his introduction to Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, discusses the constructed nature of heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. The construction of these categories is evidenced in their definitions, which incorporate the “opposite” identity–for an identity cannot occur socially without an opposing one. “The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] defines able-bodied redundantly and negatively as “having an able body, i.e. one free from physical disability, and capable of the physical exertions required of it; in bodily health; robust.’” The “physical exertions required” of the body are culturally determined and used to distinguish the “able-bodied” from the “disabled.” The OED Supplement definition of heterosexuality includes a normative evaluation: ““pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of the sexes; opp. to homosexual.”” Again, the incorporation of the opposite identity in the definition emphasizes the constructed nature of the identity category. These constructions and their social reification must be acknowledged in order to understand how the labels “disabled” and sexually “abnormal” determine how people’s livelihoods are dictated by society.

People with disabilities are often desexualized or assumed to be asexual. “American Able,” a photo series by Holly Norris, draws attention to this assumption. The photos imitate American Apparel ads, but incorporate a model with disabilities. Norris describes her inspiration for the project: “I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women… Women with disabilities go unrepresented…in most of popular culture,” The model, Jes, is posed in the same positions and outfits as the able-bodied models in American Apparel ads, drawing attention to how rarely images like this include people with disabilities. The photo series may result in many questions for the viewer. Is it shocking? Why? Is this an effective method to challenge stereotypes? What are the concerns people have in regards to people with disabilities participating in sexual acts?

There are systems and organizations in some countries that successfully provide sexual services to the physically disabled. In the Netherlands, an article in VICE notes, the national health system provides “a grant scheme for people with disabilities to receive public money to pay for sexual services up to 12 times a year.” In Taiwan, the NGO Hand Angel provides opportunities for sexual experiences, namely handjobs, for the physically disabled. To determine the eligibility of clients, Hand Angel assesses the client’s level of disability: “The person has to be recognized by the government as having a serious physical impairment, but can’t be mentally disabled. Once they’re cleared, the service is totally free, but each applicant can only receive three bouts of sexual stimulation.” Hand Angel provides a safe, comfortable environment for their clients to experience sexual pleasure. One client reported, “I didn’t feel I was the target of pity. The whole process was full of respect and equality. This might be deemed as controversial by society, but as long as you’re willing to look into it, what we desire is no different from others.” Organizations can provide safe, consensual environments for the physically disabled to act on their right to sexual expression.

The sexual rights of people with intellectual disabilities are restricted with this classification. Sex education and privacy are regulated, limiting opportunities for safe sexual experiences. These limitations prevent the fulfillment of what Rachel Adams calls “fundamental needs for companionship, intimacy, and the right to self-determination.”

Sex education for people with intellectual disabilities is often inadequate, which prevents them from fully consenting to participation in sexual acts. Again, in Adams’ words, “the differences of people with intellectual disabilities are cognitive, as well as physical, and claims about their sexual rights will need to account for atypical ways of perceiving, understanding, and navigation the world,” Improving sex education for people with intellectual disabilities is an important precursor to their giving of consent. Otherwise, Adams points out, “a vicious cycle arises when inadequate sex education leaves people with intellectual disabilities ignorant of the mechanics and repercussions of sexual activity, rendering them unable to establish their competency to consent,”  There is no rule to determine suitability for sexual experiences that applies to every individual with intellectual disabilities. Currently, however, deprivation of sexual experiences is the norm.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to engage in sexual acts are practically nonexistent due to a lack of privacy. For people with intellectual disabilities, Adams notes, there is “the possibility of lifelong dependence,” This often places them in the care of someone (typically a group home or a relative) who may not grant them privacy. This lack of privacy prevents people with disabilities from encountering the circumstances in which it is socially acceptable to perform sexual acts. Ultimately, Adams concludes, “sexual experience rests on political determinations about who has the right to enjoy intimacy in private.” In order to fully satisfy the basic human right to intimacy, something must change in the way people with disabilities are categorized and treated. Like other sexual minorities, Adams suggests, “the sexuality of people with disabilities is queer in that it confounds bourgeois notions about the appropriate settings and circumstances in which intimacy may occur.”