A Man of No Importance

Over a year ago, I went to see a production of the musical A Man of No Importance. It’s not a particularly well known musical, I think, but it did win the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award. It’s based on a 1994 movie of the same name, and tells the story of an amateur theatre group in Dublin, Ireland—but mostly their leader, Alfie Byrne—as they attempt to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome against the objections of church and community. That’s the generic, reveal-nothing description found in press releases and Wikipedia pages. So, spoilers ahead: A Man of No Importance is at its heart about Alfie’s struggle as a gay man in 1960s Catholic Ireland: the conflict of his reverence for the unapologetic flamboyance of Oscar Wilde against his self-fear and the fear of the society around him.

The production was put on by the university theatre program that produced me: I went to the theater to see my friends, knowing only really the press-release synopsis of the play. The musical, rather unexpectedly, affected me deeply. We’re talking deep, gut-roiling emotion resulting in silent, ugly tears. What I call weeping. I went to two performances on successive days, and probably wept through about eighty-five percent of my time in the theater. The strange thing about about weeping, as opposed to sobbing or crying, is that it doesn’t affect my ability to watch what’s going on. I just sit there leaking my feelings.

The root of the affecting power of this musical on me felt like self-recognition more than empathy. It’s a feeling of self-recognition I don’t quite understand. Growing up when I did, with the blessedly accepting parents I had, I would say I have questioned my own sexual orientation at least more than those from previous generations. I’ve concluded that I do seem to be attracted to men more often than women. Orientation’s a spectrum, and I am somewhere on the heterosexual side of center. If you ask Alfred Kinsey, everyone’s a little bit bisexual.

So what is it in the story of Alfie Byrne—and other similar stories of gay men—struggling against his  homophobic society and the self-hatred generated by such a society, that so affects me? What is it about this story that I recognize in myself? If it isn’t the root, it must be the result.

Specifically: a self-hatred derived from your society telling you every day that you are Wrong, you are Other, you are Less Than. I have a sense, imperfect though it may be, of what it feels like to be the target of heteronormativity because I am and have been the target of malenormativity.

I am targeted every time someone treats feminism like a dirty word. I am targeted every time someone asks what an assault victim was wearing, or how much she had to drink, even as her assaulter’s swim record is lauded in the news. Every time a teacher calls on their male students statistically more than their female students. Every time women’s health is made a political issue when it would be laughable to politicize men’s access to fundamental, necessary treatments like cancer screenings.

The underlying assumption of these examples is that it is normal to be male and abnormal to be female. Male irresponsibility is expected and excused while female irresponsibility assigned and condemned where no blame should be given to a victim. Male speech is sought and female speech passed over. Male healthcare is the standard and female healthcare is the special service. I have even turned this type of thinking on myself: when my criminal law professor critiqued a justice-oriented speech I gave to the class, he told me to channel my rage even more. My immediate response was, “Yeah, but can a female advocate really show her anger without turning off the jury?” Male anger is normal. Female anger is abnormal.

Only until recently it was acceptable to refer to a generic person as ‘he’ in academic spheres, and you still won’t see the use of “he or she” in every article, essay, speech, or book you come across. Legal writing currently demands that the writer pick one or the other when speaking generally. In fact, I was blown away my senior year of college when my Hinduism professor insisted we do something I had stubbornly argued for in other, supposedly feminist-oriented, classes: use a singular “they” in our papers in order to do away with the gender binary entirely.

I’m not saying this malenormative assumption is openly expressed everywhere. Obviously the first and second waves of feminism made a lot of strides in changing systems and standards. But it is much, much harder to change hearts and minds. That is, I suppose, why the third wave of feminism is so difficult to define. Biases are hard to detect when they’re your own, and they are absorbed insidiously through the media and the people one is exposed to: one’s personal culture. It’s so insidious, that the psychological theory of stereotype threat suggests a simple affirmation about the equitable nature of a math test is enough to level the disparity between the scores of male and female test takers with equal credentials. The idea of stereotype threat is that female students (and black students, too) absorb stereotypes about their academic ability, and in a high-pressure moment their self-doubt can, even momentarily, distract them from performing as well as their white, male peers.

Our culture is malenormative in no small part because our literature, our media, is malenormative. The entire English Canon consists predominantly of men writing about male protagonists. Young girls who love books—young girls like the one I was—more often than not are invited into worlds in which the male protagonist is alive and active and vibrant, while the female characters, if they are present, are caricatured or off to one side: shrewish, or simpering, or flat. (I’m looking at you, A Tale of Two Cities). These female characters are unattractive and unrecognizable. A fully realized human will identify with a fully realized character. It is not a problem confined to books: it has made it into television and movies precisely because writers continue to be predominantly men telling stories about what it means to be human through a male lens.

How can one tell a story through any lens other than their own? Surely it must be possible.

Perhaps my recognition in the character Alfie Byrne is less perplexing than it seemed at first to me. I have, after all, been conditioned by my culture to recognize humanness in the male. Does that make me less female or less feminine? Maybe. But it has, more importantly, helped me to see humanity all along the gender spectrum.

There’s a fun little anecdote I heard once about the fantasy author George R.R. Martin: asked by an interviewer what his secret was for writing such convincing women characters in his Song of Ice and Fire books, Martin just sort of smiled and said, “You know, I’ve always thought of women as human.”

I, for one, look to the day when a young man can sit weeping with recognition in a theater while a woman+ sings on stage.

 

written 2/28/17; edited 8/24/18; published 9/16/18

You Can Run

You can run from the darkness,
Lungs burning, legs aching,
until you think you’ll fall
sprawled in the dust of the road
and no one will look for you.

You can make camp in the night,
Sitting around a fire
with hearts who know yours,
sending your laughter up
to the stars with the smoke.

But it’s only so long.
Your shoe treads wear out.
Your kindling dwindles.
Until you sit by your self
in the dust and the dark.
And no one is looking.

You can only run
from the from the darkness
so long.

 

6/8/18

Her Own Drummer

Even armed with a wristwatch,
time is something
I never learned to keep.
Always one step ahead,
one step behind,
my own syncopated drumbeat.
I tried to keep time like chickens–
cultivating it, counting it,
trying to plan
for the next three seasons.
You can’t keep time like
chickens, no––
Keep time like children.
Close to you when it’s young,
wandering in its adulthood,
until one day it comes home, and
you don’t recognize yourself anymore.

 

3/2/15

But the Tulips

In like a lion–
the skies grey
and unforgiving.
Marching on.

The woman ahead of me,
it’s 10 AM,
she’s got two
twenty-ounce
cans of Coors on
the counter.
And nothing else.

I’m holding tight
to my soda pop;
my tears tell me–
sugar’s too low.

I need the lift.
I’m addicted to my sadness.
I keep falling
off that wagon.

But the tulips
are rising–
their pale purple
not so different
from that unforgiven sky.

 

3/1/18

Synchitic Epexegeses

Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul Drawn from a Dada Hat

Moved only as one can be moved
through an encounter with the beautiful
and strange –displacement more than restoration–
the soul and the mind, he says, are not
in opposition with one another
but are conjoined: Les peintres, les compositeurs,
les philosophes, les mathématiciens,
nous savions comment marchait l’univers.
Knowing what was known before the more
that has since become known overwhelms.
The mother tongue has been lost,
dust motes and moonbeams
from her head to her toes.
Aya oh deewan’ast?! Knoh cherah chup nishastee?
The touch which does not understand
is the touch that corrupts. Until we can speak
to one another in a mother tongue,
drawn from our common humanity,
peace will never be attained.
We are so afraid of the attacks
we have forgotten our own names
and can’t even understand what we say.
Thirty-three years, long enough for Christ
to have been born and die, and only terror
can save us from ruin, only never-ending war,
save us from terror and never-ending war.
Only children with rifles, carrying stones,
can save us now. The Book says:
Let people fear the day
when they leave small children
behind them unprovided.

In the garden outside, I have planted all my dead.
Nearly every other one you meet here
is missing pieces. No thing may be made or unmade
unless Allah wills it. He fills our hearts with griefs,
to see if we shall be strong.
A garden shows us what may await us in Paradise.
One sharp goad from a terrible grief,
and the soul is waking up.
Cynics will attribute this transformation
to senescence and nostalgia, but
it’s Wisdom’s hand that switches on
the light within. The disenchanted dull detritus
of it has washed up on our culpable shores:
an extension, an adjunct, a prelude,
moving chaotically and each a language,
adding its heft and frequencies to the Universal Drift.
The present is always an awful place to be:
anything, everything can be lost.
Çu vi parolas Esperanto?
Each region has more in common
with its neighbors over the border
than with each other. The developed
and overdeveloped and over-overdeveloped
paved wasted deliquescent post-First World
postmodern city –not really a state at all,
it’s a populated disaster.
Such is the nature of these expansive times,
the thing which is must suffer to be touched.

These are not for you who neither speak,
nor read Esperanto, and who despise poetry.
This century taught the civilized contempt
for those who merely contemplate,
and it’s the lockup and the lethal injection
for those who Do.
Uncertainty kills. As does certainty.
On no official map is there ever a question mark,
and yet, La tera estis tute kovrita per neĝo.
How may we become travelers across
our boundaries, instead of tourists?
All the camels have fallen here and died
of exhaustion, of shock, of the heartache of refugees.
Invariably we seek out not the source
but all that was dropped by the wayside
on the way to the source. But always she is waiting
in the garden, speaking in a tongue
we were born speaking only to forget.
What else is love but recognition?
Love’s nothing to do with happiness.
Power has to do with happiness.
Love only has to do with home.
She wishes you to know she is not dead.

 

4/30/16