The worst are full of passionate intensity

THE SECOND COMING

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand; 
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out 
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; 
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it 
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds. 
    The darkness drops again but now I know 
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

~ William Butler Yeats, 1919

 

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in the aftermath of the first World War (and the Russian Revolution), but it’s hard not to think of the events of the past two weeks — the murder of Dr. Tiller, the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum — when one reads his words.  Violence, specifically hate violence, meant not just to injure or murder one person but to frighten — or to be more precise, to terrorize — a whole group of people into submission, has dominated the news.

The phrase “domestic terrorism” is now on peoples’ lips in a way it hasn’t since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  Which is to say: we’re talking about American citizens, terrorizing Americans.  And there’s no debate over who is pulling the trigger: people in the extreme right-wing.   (The Department of Homeland Security’s April report on Rightwing Extremism was pulled in May following hue and cry over it by conservatives. People for the American Way is now calling for its re-release, in light of recent events.)

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The first thing I read Wednesday morning was news of an attack on the Executive Director of San Diego’s LGBT Pride. He was waving a large rainbow flag at an intersection in Lemon Grove, California, as part of the day’s “Equality Torch Rally,” commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. He was beaten by a man who stopped only when local news cameras began to film the attack.  The story’s here.

Then I heard of the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The news about it had been prominent all day, and elicited a statement from President Obama.  Most will know that the guard who was injured in the shooting died of his injuries that night.  Here’s a New York Times article on the shooting. The guard — Stephen Tyrone Johns — was not Jewish, but black.  

All this layered itself on top of a pretty steady stream of news of assaults on queer and particularly trans people, (the most recent of which is here). Some statistics on trans murders internationally are kept here.  If you have some time and a strong stomach, you can read, bullet point-by-bullet point, the terse, just-the-facts style accounts of the documented assaults and murders of dozens and dozens of LGBT people in hate crimes over  the past decades at this Wikipedia page. You can only imagine how many more such assaults and murders have not been reported or recorded.  In the U.S. in this year alone — and this is just the Wikipedia entry, mind you, not an LGBT civil rights organization’s listing (bracketed numbers link to the Wikipedia citations):

  • •  On February 18, 2009 two men were arrested in Stroudsburg, PA for the stabbing death of gay veteran Michael Goucher.[157]
  • •  On March 1, 2009 in Galveston, Texas three men entered Roberts Lafitte bar and attacked patrons with rocks. One of the victims, Marc Bosaw, was sent to the emergency room to have twelve staples in his head.[158]
  • •  On March 14, 2009 a gay couple leaving a concert in Newark, New Jersey were attacked by 15 teens. Josh Kehoe and Bobby Daniel Caldwell were called “faggots” and beaten. Caldwell suffered a broken jaw.[159]
  • •  On March 23, 2009 in Seaside, Oregon two gay men were attacked and left lying unconscious on a local beach. The men regained consciousness and were treated at a nearby hospital.[160]
  • •  On Monday, April 6, 2009, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11 year old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts, hanged himself with an extension cord after being bullied all school year by his peers. His peers said he “acted feminine” and was gay. [161]
  • •  On Saturday April 11, 2009 a gay man in Gloucester, Massachusetts was attacked and beaten by as many as six people outside a bar. Justin Goodwin, 36, of Salem suffered a shattered jaw, broken eye socket, broken nose and broken cheek bone.[162]


Anyone watching the news recently would also note that on April 16, 2009, Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old Georgia boy, committed suicide in much the same way and for essentially the same reasons as Carl Walker-Hoover.  My post on his suicide: “Masculinity in Crisis.”¹

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After reading the MSNBC online coverage of the DC Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting, I turned to a piece looking at the broader, very pressing issue of the rise in domestic hate groups (“Homegrown hate groups increase in number”). It began with a profile of the National Socialist Movement, “the nation’s largest neo-Nazi group”:

Its ultimate goal is to whitewash America. If they had their way, U.S. citizenship would be limited to “those of pure white blood”; minorities would live in the country as guests. All Jewish people and gays would be forced to leave and immigration would be prohibited.

And this is where I had to stop.  Again.

The logic of the National Socialist Movement collapses in on itself, since Jews can be “nonwhite,” and whites can be gay.  In fact a good number of us are.  It’s just a fallacy, the notion that identity can be boiled down to some single pure thing, something which separates us from others.  The center does not hold, because there is no such thing, not in this way.

We are all children of Lucy; our ancestral home the Olduwai Gorge, Tanzania, Africa. Our multiplicity, the utterly inextricable, tight weave of the various parts of our selves, ramifies in every direction. We are able-bodied until we are disabled; we are young until we are old; we are free of tragedy and hardship until we are struck with them. My father enjoyed enormous privilege as a white male leaving the service after World War II: the G.I. Bill was his ticket to the higher education on which he based his long, productive career as an employee of the state of California.  Yet now, as a man of 87, he is nearly as vulnerable in a public place as one of my kids.  

Audre Lorde, in her influential talk “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” given in 1980 and printed in her 1984 essay collection Sister Outsider, described the “mythical norm”:

In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within society.

I have read Lorde’s “mytical norm”  here to mean two things.  On the one hand, it is a myth that this collection of facets of identity is the norm demographically speaking (even in 1980, but surely not over 25 years later). These facets of identity are routes or tickets to social power, and they get to function in this way more effectively, more under the radar, so long as they continue to masquerade as the “majority” or “de facto” American identity.   

And on the other hand, a great many of these facets of identity are mythical because they are conditional. Conditional on employment, conditional on good health. Some (like race) are impossible to change, others (like sex) very arduous, at the least.  Others, like, say, one’s religion, may be inborn, but mutable — certainly more mutable than sexual orientation. Others, like age, are both dynamic and outside our control: we watch ourselves move from a position outside of power, as children, into more power, as young adults, and then slowly, certainly, out of power again, as elders.

We are fortunate if we are respected thoroughly throughout that whole long walk. For many, young men of color in particular, the irony of leaving childhood is that because they are framed and read so relentlessly as threats, the relative powerfulness of their adulthood is shot through with contradiction.  I think of Oscar Grant when I write words like that.  

We are fortunate indeed if that walk is long at all.

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When I read that the anti-government, anti-Semitic, white supremacist terrorist opened fire and murdered a black security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I was put to mind of something I heard from one of the most impressive  civil rights activists I’ve ever had the honor of meeting, 14 years ago.  Wanda Henson and her wife Brenda — that’s what she called her: her wife, back in the early 1990s, when no gay marriage was legal anywhere —  are two workingclass white women who founded Camp Sister Spirit, a folk school and retreat center in the Pine Belt of Southeast Mississippi, not far from Ovett. Their work is to:

eradicate division and misconceptions through building understanding, developing acceptance and teaching tolerance via social, academic and spiritual education of the individual, community fellowship and workshops with our sisters and brothers across Mississippi and beyond. [from their web page]

They do this by providing everything from shelter to education to food. Anti-poverty work is a very, very high priority: they started a bookstore and resource center — Southern Wild Sisters, the first of its kind in the region — only to find out that hunger and domestic violence and illiteracy kept people from being able to reap the most it had to offer. So they founded Camp Sister Spirit to dig deeper at the root.  Their story is really immense, impossibly moving, and way beyond the scope of the remainder of this post. Part of it is told in the June, 1994 issue of Off Our Backs, which I found archived online here. A shorter and more recent piece is here, from DC’s Metro Weekly in 2003.

But let me at least convey here what brought me to them a dozen years ago. They had endured what’s really best described as a campaign of terror to keep their folk school and retreat center open, nearly immediately following its founding. Gunshots, bombs, a dead dog (shot) on their mailbox, with a note reading “Die, bitch.” That was one form of persuasion.  Death threats came by phone and by mail. A lawsuit was brought against them by local opposition, attempting to pry them off the land based on phony claims of unzoned land use. Feminist and lesbian community coast-to-coast galvanized to support them, coming to Ovett to help build structures on the land, to raise awareness and support.  Lesbian Avengers nationwide (including the Minneapolis chapter, of which I was a very active member) did local fund- and consciousness raising for Camp Sister Spirit, and Southern Avenger groups — such as the Austin chapter and the Tampa Bay chapter — sent gals to Ovette to bank some sweat equity.

The beloved and I paid the Hensens and Camp Sister Spirit a visit the summer of 1995 — just a few months after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing — bearing checks and warm tidings from the north. Wanda and Brenda toured us around the place, fed us copious amounts of good food, and graciously sat for a lengthy interview. They had much to say about social justice work, about the critical need for omnibus federal protections for LGBT people (it was only with the intercession of Janet Reno and the FBI that they were able to begin to push back the siege). The year before, Wanda had said this before a congressional subcommittee: “We do not seek tolerance and acceptance. We seek freedom from oppression, intimidation, and harassment. We seek justice and a legal system that is capable and willing to defend our rights.”

It was abundantly evident, in their folk school’s daily life, why this was necessary. I hadn’t thought a great deal about the law’s role in gay liberation work up until my conversation with them that afternoon (odd as it may seem; I was working on cultural fronts as an academic and an activist). I certainly hadn’t thought about marriage rights as inclusive among them.  But they made a strong case. (They married on their 20th anniversary in 2004 in Massachusetts; Brenda died of colon cancer in February 2008.)

Of that afternoon, two things stay with me most. First: these women were the embodiment of lives lived in absolute, direct contact with everything they believed in, and it was inspirational. Second: Wanda told of an incident in nearby Hattiesburg. They were well-known in the area, and when one particularly vitriolic man recognized her on the sidewalk, he wanted to spew an epithet at her, but was at a loss as to what to call a white lesbian.  “You– you– you damned faggot!” he told her. “You damned n****r!”  Tough as nails, she wasn’t fazed. But she was bemused by what happened in his mind. And careful to point out that he went to the place where all his hate resided.  It mattered not that she wasn’t a gay man, or that she was white.  His hate, in that moment, felt all the same to him.

Which is what I thought when I read that the DC Holocaust Museum guard who was killed by the rabid anti-Semite was a black man.

The beloved and I stayed hours later than we planned, talking to the Hensens past sundown.  And as we drove back to our friends in New Orleans that night, in our city-slicker Honda with the out-of-state license plates and the rainbow sticker, we looked at each pair of headlights in the rear view mirror with a keen attentiveness.  Scared, because of stories we’d just heard (particularly of rage at the “element” from outside the area that Camp Sister Spirit had drawn).  But also grateful, frankly, for the lives of ease we were driving back to.  

No matter what tide is loosed, there are those who do not lack conviction.  They simply cannot; I would even go so far as to say some are hard-wired with it. The Hensens are such folk. So are all survivors. And so must we be: possessed of conviction.  It might help to remember that the image of the lumbering menace that came to the speaker in “The Second Coming” issued from a shared consciousness — spiritus mundi, spirit of the world, the world’s collective, active mind.  That shared consciousness — our sense of our selves in collectivity, our palpable sense of common lineage, tracing back through near-genocides (fratricides!), from the Shoah to the Middle Passage, back to that gorge in East Africa — fuses us at the cell.  And it’s the best, maybe the only thing we’ve got going for us.

 

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¹By the end of the year, if hate crimes against LGBT people follow trends in recent years, the FBI will have recorded over a thousand such incidents of anti-gay violence. Statistics for  hate crimes in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, show that most hate crimes are committed on the basis of race (half of all hate crimes; of which over two-thirds were directed against African Americans). The next greatest number of reported hate crimes are committed on the basis of religion (18%; of which over two-thirds were directed against Jews). The third greatest number of hate crimes were committed on the basis of the victim’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (17%; of which nearly 60% were directed against gay men). From my layperson’s read, it seems as if the statistics attempt to track “multiple bias” incidents or intersectional violence, but I don’t know how well it accomplishes this.   Some say, for very good reason, that the numbers reflecting anti-LGBT violence are chronically low. Regardless, it’s on the rise.  Others note that anti-LGBT ballot fights are directly correlated to spikes in anti-LGBT violence.  Not , given what’s coming up on the political horizon.

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6 Responses to The worst are full of passionate intensity

  1. annz June 12, 2009 at #

    This is simply an astounding piece of writing. Thank you.

  2. Dana June 12, 2009 at #

    Wonderful, thoughtful post, Polly. As always, you manage to tell it like it is, with just enough hope to keep me from despair. Onward, with conviction. . . .

  3. directorgrrl June 12, 2009 at #

    wow. thanks.

  4. angelina...in oakland June 12, 2009 at #

    Amazing, and inspiring, and of course, beautifully written. Thank you for what you do, and thank you specifically for this piece.

  5. schmutzie June 12, 2009 at #

    You are being featured on Five Star Friday!
    http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2009/06/five-star-fridays-edition-58.html

  6. Chumpy June 12, 2009 at #

    Beautiful poem; wonderful post. Sometimes, I think how you blog has ‘turned and turned’, and is different. And yet, the centre does hold and still you provide food for thought.
    This week two far-right politicians were democratically elected to UK posts in the European Parliament: another violent act if ever there was one.

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