Seeing Milk, teaching Milk, celebrating Milk

Yesterday afternoon, I gave my last exam of the year; my History 24F (Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History) class drew the lucky (or unlucky) slot of being my “final final”. After the test was done, I went with those students who were able to join us for an early evening showing of “Milk” at a nearby theater. They’ve been a particularly wonderful group this term, and I wanted to take in this important film as a class. (Thanks are due to Laemmle theaters, for selling me discount group tickets, and to Stephanie and Taylor, two of my students who work there.)

If I hadn’t wanted to see it for the first time with my GLBTQ class, I would surely have gone to see “Milk” as soon as I could have; I waited impatiently for last night, knowing that it would be so much better to take it in in the company of so many young people whom I love and admire. I was not disappointed.

Much has already been written about the film, and about Sean Penn’s magnificent portrayal of Harvey Milk. The supporting cast — especially Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and James Brolin — is superb, with nearly every actor bearing an uncanny resemblance to his or her real-life counterpart. And though I had shuddered when I heard that Gus Van Sant was directing this film, as I normally don’t enjoy his style, I loved this movie. Just as another director I don’t like much, Spike Lee, was able to get out of his own way and produce the brilliant and near-perfect “X”, so too Van Sant never gave us the sense that we were supposed to sit back and watch his genius at work. He gave us a wonderful, deeply moving, timely and immensely inspiring film.

Let me say, of course, that everyone who has not seen “The Times of Harvey Milk”, the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary about Harvey, ought to see that. Van Sant clearly drew inspiration from that film (and some archival footage as well), and it helped strengthen the picture. I’ve shown “The Times of Harvey Milk” to many classes over the years, and could probably recite most of the film by heart. (Now that I think about it, there are perhaps no other films ever made — documentary or otherwise — I’ve seen as often!)

Like a great many people, I feel as if I have a personal stake in the story of Harvey Milk. I was eleven years old, and in the sixth grade at Carmel Middle School, when he and George Moscone were assassinated. I had heard of Moscone; my family, living on the Monterey Peninsula, had many connections to what all my life we have called simply “the City.” I only vaguely knew who Harvey was; I was an unusually politically aware eleven year-old, however, and had done some precinct walking against Proposition 6. (As the movie shows, Prop. 6 was the measure that was defeated in November 1978 that would have banned gays and lesbians from serving as teachers). Harvey had led the fight against Prop 6, and as a result, I knew his name, but somehow hadn’t grasped that he was a San Francisco Supervisor. Continue reading

Your loyal blogger…

… has had his dubious recent distinction publicized in this piece in the Pasadena City College paper. And of course, I hate the picture they took of me.

I have been teased all day at school by colleagues and students alike. Part of me loves it, and part of me feels humiliated, and part of me wonders in what particular way I am supposed to parlay this trivial but interesting distinction into something useful. It’s the sort of thing that one probably doesn’t want in one’s obituary, so I’ll simply have to accomplish enough to ensure that there’s no room to stick this “triumph” in there. But I’m not so embarrassed that I won’t note it here, and enjoy the fleeting notoriety.

After “in loco parentis”: some disjointed thoughts on student mentoring and sex education

It’s always dangerous to write about books one hasn’t read. Still, I find that I learn a lot from book reviews. For as long as I can remember, my mother has subscribed to the New York Review of Books. Since I started graduate school nearly twenty years ago, she’s given me a gift subscription every year. I can’t say I finish every article, but I read it loyally. Like Ms. Magazine and the Economist, the New York Review is one of those staples of my youth upon which I rely still as an adult. And I learn a great deal from reading reviews about books I will never actually pick up.

I don’t read the very conservative Touchstone very often; run by what seem to be an ecumenical bunch of right-wing C.S. Lewis aficionados, most of what appears in its pages are less eloquent versions of the sort of screeds I prefer to read in First Things. (I mean, I’m not a reactionary, but if I’m going to spend time exposing my eyeballs to 14th century ideas, I might as well make sure those ideas are well-written). Still, I managed to come across this book review recently: Ploy Meets Girl, by Nathaniel Peters.

Reviewing three new jeremiads about the “hook-up culture” on American college campuses, Peters takes the predictable tactic of lamenting the ways in which feminist bogeywomen (the omnipresent forces of darkness in contemporary social conservative discourse) have misled young coeds about the proper understanding of sexuality. But to be fair, his review offers more than the usual wails about youthful promiscuity. Rather, Peters looks at the ways in which colleges do — and don’t — provide mentoring and sexual education to students.

Though even the average secular adult would argue that sex should be about more than just the physical experience, colleges and their students focus only on sexual performance. Universities with no creedal convictions feel ill-equipped to help students address metaphysical questions like the meaning of sex. They can answer only the physical questions, and those end up being the only ones discussed.

At my freshman orientation at Swarthmore College five years ago, we were told about the Sexual Health Counselors, peers who advertised the ability to help with sex toys, contraception, or intriguing permutations of positions and partners. But the college offered no help to those who might ask deeper questions, or even to those who wondered what to do the next morning with the person beside them.

That’s not entirely fair. I’m nearly two decades older than Mr. Peters; I came of age sexually in the Reagan years, when the media predicted a full-blown heterosexual AIDS epidemic. But in those conservative times known as the mid-1980s, I worked as a sexuality educator at Berkeley. Yes, we taught folks how to use condoms, and we even “demonstrated” the not-always ridiculous dental dam. We talked about masturbation and STDs and gave little primers on what was then known as HTLV-III (the forerunner, by name, to HIV). But we also talked about values, and about relationships, and about feelings. We faciltated discussions in dorms and sororities and co-ops about faith, ideals, and romantic longing.

I remember helping to lead a panel discussion (back in 1988 or so) on the question “Why Have Sex?” It was a strange title, and it drew a good-sized audience. The premise of the talk was that too many discussions about sex talked about why folks shouldn’t have it (at least until marriage), or about how to have it properly — but no one was talking about the perfectly reasonable question of why one ought to do it in the first place. The easy answer, of course, was “it feels good.” But that raises the question — what feels good? Is it arousal? Is it anticipation? Is it emotional closeness? Is it orgasmic release? What one person likes best about sex isn’t always what the person they’re being sexual with likes best. Continue reading

One more Prop 8 post-mortem

In my Gay and Lesbian American History class, we spent an hour yesterday sorting through the mixed emotions in the aftermath of the election. I chose not to lecture, and turned the first half of the class into an open forum for venting and discussion about the passage of Proposition 8 and the new ban on same-sex marriage here in California. In the second half of the course, I offered a series of reasons for why the results came the way they did, based on analyses of the two campaigns and upon the exit polling data.

I had wondered if some in the class — the majority of whom identify as non-heterosexual or non-cis-gendered — would be very sad. There was sadness, to be sure, but also anger and enthusiasm. One young woman, just 18 and in the process of coming out to her family as a lesbian, said “More than ever, today like I feel like I’m part of a movement that really has to fight.” Many students said that they had simply assumed that Prop 8 would be defeated; indeed, several admitted that they had been more anxious about Barack Obama than about same-sex marriage. One said “This is California; we always do the right thing here. I was worried the rest of the nation was racist and wouldn’t vote for a black man. And it turns out Obama wins easily and Californians are bigots!” There was some nodding when that remark was made.

I know a few of my students, several of whom are budding or even seasoned activists in the gay community, had done some phone-banking against Prop 8. But I know that in general, they spent far more time working for the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Only one student had given money to the “No on 8” fight; seven reported having made small donations to he who is now our president-elect. It isn’t the fault of the Obama campaign that they ran such a marvelous grassroots operation that inspired the young — but inadvertently, they may have “sucked a lot of the air” out of the room, leaving fewer resources than usual to fight for gay and lesbian rights here in California. I know a great many young progressives who traveled this past weekend to Nevada to work at GOTV (get out the vote) for Barack Obama; at the same time, the Mormons and other large church organizations brought outsiders in to California to do precinct walking against gay marriage. Progressive energies were not all where they might have been. Continue reading

A long post about Western Civilization, story telling, my mother, Robinson Jeffers, and rejecting narratives of exceptionalism

In this post last week, I suggested that I was going to take a couple of months away from blogging about animal rights and veganism. I asked for suggestions as to what I ought to blog about, and my former student Paul threw in “Western Civilization.” (I just threw back the famous, and perhaps apocryphal, Gandhi crack about it being a very good idea.)

Each semester, I teach six classes, and offer four different subjects. Every term, without fail, I offer women’s studies and a second Humanities or Gender/Sexuality history course. I also teach my Ancient Western Civilization and Modern Europe courses. These latter two are my “bread-and-butter” offerings, and between the two segments of Western Civ, I have far more students in these intro level classes than I do in my two (slightly more advanced) Gender Studies courses. But I don’t blog very much about teaching Western Civ.

I grew up familiar with the traditional narrative of Western Civilization. My mother taught philosophy, humanities, and religious studies at Monterey Peninsula College until her retirement in 2003. For nearly thirty years, she was a key component of MPC’s legendary Gentrain program. Gentrain (General Education Train of Courses) was and is an interdisciplinary program in Western Civilization, from its Mesopotamian origins down more or less to the present day. My mother started teaching in the Gentrain program in the mid-1970s, when I was about eight years old. And like so many teaching parents, she gave her children the same lectures she gave to her students. On long car trips (in our 1975 Ford Pinto), my mother would regale my younger brother and me with stories she had learned from her colleagues in the program as well as her own material. I don’t know what other kids heard on their car rides, but we heard lectures about Socrates, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, and even Abelard and Heloise. (The last of these became my favorite of my mother’s lectures. For better or for worse, I have a heavy dose of Peter Abelard in my soul.)

My father and mother were both professors; they had met in the graduate program in philosophy at Berkeley in 1962. My father thought very deeply; his lifetime work was on the philosophy of language, and he wrote papers (and one well-received book) on Kant, Wittgenstein, and nearly impenetrable topics like “Sentience and Apperception.” My mother, a Gemini like her firstborn son, was and is a generalist — she liked great sweeping narratives. Though she wrote a fine dissertation to get her Ph.D (on Hobbes), she loved teaching intro classes in Western Civ more than anything else. And she passed that love on to me.

Of course, we never had any sense growing up that there was something superior about Western Civilization. Unlike many of the reactionary voices one finds in academia today, my mother never suggested that 5th century BC Athens or 15th century Florence or 18th century Paris were somehow more important than their counterparts outside of Europe. I never got lectures from her on medieval Mali or the Han dynasty, but she made clear that was because the West was her area of expertise. For my mother, bless her liberal heart, familiarity did not breed delusions of superiority. And it was from that tolerant but focused perspective that I narrowed in on European history in my leisure reading as a boy. Continue reading

Rights, obligations, and the long arc of struggle: some thoughts on gay marriage, the election, and priorities

In my Intro to Lesbian and Gay American History class, we talked a bit about gay marriage yesterday. The course is structured chronologically, and as we approach the middle of the term, we’re just now getting to the 20th century. (I’ve been lecturing on the likes of Karl Ulrichs, Karl Benkert, and the great Magnus Hirschfeld.)

But a rigid attachment to chronologies is a dangerous quality in a history teacher. And though the outline of the class dictates we shouldn’t be talking about gay marriage until the final two weeks of class, the upcoming vote here in California on Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex unions, is a good reason to fiddle with the time-table for my lectures.

We don’t get into much discussion in class about our own sexual identities. Some of my students are “out” to me, others aren’t, and others are presumably heterosexual. But almost to a man or a woman, they’ve followed with deep interest the current struggle to protect marriage equality in California. I see “No on 8” buttons and bumperstickers on notebooks and bags and shirts. When I brought up the subject of the election yesterday, the sense of excitement and anxiety was palpable.

I didn’t turn the lecture into a political sermon. Instead, I asked a question that a great many folks in the gay and lesbian community once asked — but ask more rarely now: Why marriage?

I asked my students what other major pressing issues faced the LGBTQ community besides marriage equality. Even my students who are out and proud and actively involved in campus organizing looked blank. For young gay and lesbian activists, lately it’s been “all marriage, all the time.” An entire movement has poured virtually all of its financial resources and political energies into winning one particular issue. And I suggested, gently but firmly, that there is a cost to such singlemindedness.

One bright young man asked: “But what other issue is there?” I get why he asks. Visit the webpage of the Human Rights Campaign, the best-known and best-funded gay and lesbian rights organization in America. On the front page, what other issue appears? If you click on the issues button, other topics (health care, ageing, the military) pop up — but you’ve got to do a bit of hunting about to find anything beyond “marriage, marriage, marriage.”

I teach women’s history classes too. Every semester, inexorably, the number of young women in that class who say that they never want to get married, or imagine that it is likely that they will never marry, increases. Demographers tell us that record numbers of Americans are turning 30, and 40, without being wed. And as countless radical activists in the GLBTQ community have pointed out, it’s more than a little odd that same-sex marriage has become the be-all and end-all of contemporary gay activism. Just as heterosexual Americans, perhaps particularly young women, become increasingly cynical about marriage as an essential component of future happiness, gay and lesbian Americans are told that winning “marriage equality” is more important than fighting workplace discrimination, getting better health services, immigration and tax issues, and so forth.

My students, of course, are not all eager to marry. But like most idealistic young people, they worship at the altar of “freedom of choice.” They say things like, “It’s not that everyone needs to get married, it’s that everyone should have a choice.” What inflames them about opposition to gay marriage is a sense of inequality — and many of the most inflamed are often those who say that they “can’t ever imagine” getting married themselves. Continue reading

“Perfomative Ambiguity” and heterosexual privilege: on being a straight man teaching Queer History

I’ve posted before on the advantages, disadvantages, and “unearned privileges” of being a man who teaches women’s studies. See here, here here , and here. Those four posts cover most of my feelings and experiences as a man who has taught women’s history for a decade and a half.

I’m thinking today about a somewhat related topic: the role of a heterosexual man teaching gay and lesbian history. (I first taught my “Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History” course in 2001, and am offering it for the sixth or seventh time this fall.) My maleness is obvious, of course. But sexual orientation is not always as easily definable as gender identity (depending on the person, of course). And though I doubt anyone thinks I’m biologically female, I know that quite a few of my students over the years have “wondered” about my sexuality — particularly because of the various gender studies courses I teach. The stereotype that “only a gay man” would teach women’s history (much less gay and lesbian history!) is an entrenched one, perhaps particularly so among the sort of first-generation college students who make up a majority of the students on the Pasadena City College campus.

I generally don’t tell my students my reasons for teaching my gender studies courses at the beginning of the semester. It’s usually towards the end of the term, after we have (one hopes) developed a good classroom rapport, that I share with the folks in the course my reasons for teaching this particular subject. Because I’d love to raise up future gender studies professors, I share with them a bit of my own academic and personal narrative, and talk to them about the special challenges that those who choose to do gender/sexuality work will face. (Starting with questions from parents about one’s sexual orientation, and segueing quickly to worries about how the heck a living can be scratched out with a Gender Studies major!) And at some point in my gay and lesbian history courses, I talk about what it was like to grow up surrounded by a great many lesbians and gay men who played nurturing and important roles in my youth. (See this post.)

My students know I’m married (I occasionally mention my wife, and I am never without my wedding ring.) I sometimes make self-deprecating remarks about my previous divorces, though I do so less often than I used to. But I’m aware the possibility hangs in the air that my sexuality might still be more unclear than my married status would suggest. I wear more jewelry (necklaces and bracelets) than your average WASP, and my fondness for pink shirts does not go unnoticed. And though I am of course never flirtatious with students of either sex, seeking always to project a clear and unmistakable aura of professionalism and unavailability, I also am aware that some of my body language and mannerisms are direct violations of the rigid expectations of American masculine culture. Call it “perfomative ambiguity”, if you will. It’s not an act, because I come by what the media calls “metrosexuality” honestly. But I am not unaware that it does raise questions in the minds of those students who are inclined to contemplate the sexual habits of their gender studies professors. Continue reading

From friend to mentor: a short note on teaching and boundaries

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve had a whole new batch of “older men/younger women” relationship emails come by way. Perhaps it’s seasonal: in the spring, a young man or woman’s fancy turns to love and baseball; in the fall, it turns to age-disparate relationships and boundary violations? One wonders.

I can’t post about all the emails I get, and those that simply repeat old queries are better off looking at my growing archives under older men/younger women, or perhaps student crushes. But there’s always something new to think about; “Kay” wrote to me last week:

I have (a) professor whom I adore and who I know is keenly interested in my future…he has said before how much he enjoys my being his student. I have nothing but platonic interest in him (your posts on understanding the difference between mental and physical arousal have been VERY helpful). I’d really like to be his mentee as well…but it would be more of a big brother connection as he is only 34.

The reason I am writing in is because I am not sure how to re-route our initial relationship building. The first time I slapped eyes on him last year I thought “peer.” He was still an adjunct, finishing his PhD, and applying for the asst. prof. job he currently has. He’s the same age as many of my friends, and we have a lot in common. I have previously invited him to go play trivia with a group (he declined), and when I swing by his office I talk about movies and music instead of the DSM-IV. I was trying to make him my friend, not my professor and I am embarrassed when I think of the transparency of my motives.

So, the question: What can a young female student to do help build the best and most appropriate mentor-mentee relationships? I’m sure I’m not the only person who has, after a time, realized that their initial motives in relationship-building were slightly askew. More specifically for my situation, how can I let him know that “friend” is off the agenda? Any advice would be helpful…I’ve been feeling as awkward as arse around him lately.

It’s a good question Kay asks. In both graduate school and undergrad, mentor/mentee relationships are vitally important to both students and faculty. There are few aspects of my job from which I derive more deep and enduring satisfaction than the opportunity to mentor young men and women. And looking back on my own days at Berkeley and UCLA, I’m eternally grateful to the men and women (Fred Tubach, Scott Waugh, Marilyn Adams) who served as my academic advisers and guides. Students need to be encouraged to seek out mentors from the ranks of the faculty, and professors need to be reminded that nurturing students’ intellectual and personal growth, while not always among our stated tasks, is our moral responsibility.

Where a student and professor are close in age, each can be tempted to adopt a “friend” approach to the mentoring relationship. And on one level, there’s nothing wrong with that! I talk about music with my students, I talk about veganism and politics and fashion. I understand well how “small talk” (as if veganism could ever be “small talk”!) serves as a lubricant for social interaction. A discussion of common interests doesn’t need to obscure the healthy hierarchy at work in a mentor/mentee relationship. At the same time, new junior faculty in particular need to remember that their own common unease and uncertainty about their newly acquired status doesn’t mean that the power they now exercise isn’t real. Kay’s prospective mentor has gone from being a graduate student to tenure-track faculty in the same department in which she studies — and he, as well as she, needs to be keenly aware that that upgraded role has a real impact on everyone.

If Kay’s professor seems unclear about his role, it’s not her job to set the boundaries for him. At the same time, Kay can do a lot to make clear how she sees him. Little things can set the tone: visiting him only during his listed conference hours rather than meeting him for coffee. (There’s nothing wrong with students and teachers having coffee together, of course — but usually that’s best after a very clear line of demarcation has been set up. And that line is best set up initially inside, rather than outside, the office.) While calling him “Dr.” or “Prof.” when she has previously addressed him by his first name is probably a step too far too soon, directing the conversation onto academic rather than personal topics ought to do the trick. Continue reading

Shame, suicide, sex education and the unwitting incentivizing of abortion

My old debating buddy and men’s right activist Glenn Sacks sent me a note about this post of his: Girl Commits Suicide After Being Expelled from School for Having an Abortion. Here’s an excerpt or two:

Last night my wife and I attended the 15-year-reunion for a Catholic School where I once taught. I taught most of the attendees World History as sophomores.

It was quite a way-back machine. I remembered some names and I recognized some faces, but didn’t do too well at connecting them. Still, many of the students remembered me (fondly, believe it or not), and I enjoyed seeing them again.

One student I wanted to see was Elena, who had been one of my favorites. She and her boyfriend Darian, who was also in my class, were expelled from the school in mid-year because Elena had gotten pregnant and had an abortion at Planned Parenthood.

The day they were expelled from school I had been out sick, and I was later told that they had come to my room after being expelled to see if I could defend them and get the expulsion reversed. I always felt a little guilty about having been out that day, though of course there was nothing I could’ve done about the expulsion anyway. It was quite a surprise–I had no idea she was even pregnant…

I was looking for her at the party last night and when I couldn’t find her I asked Cathy, who organized the event, if she knew whether Elena was coming. She got an odd look on her face, and told my wife and I:

Elena was very depressed after being expelled. She was cut off from her friends and the life she had. She got depressed and her life spiraled down.

A few years later she hanged herself. I was dating a guy whose brother was a friend of hers and he was the one who found her and cut her down.

My jaw dropped. It’s still on the floor. I guess we’ll never know to what degree her expulsion led to her suicide, but it certainly seems that it was a major factor. And however one feels about abortion, I’ve always opposed making pariahs out of scared girls who find themselves in a bad situation.

Glenn, more than most who beat the drum for the cottage industry known as the “men are victims too, and it’s mostly feminism’s fault” lobby, takes a liberal line on certain issues. He’s caught flak from some of his normal allies, who lean well to the political right, for standing up time and again for gays and lesbians. And I welcome the concern he expresses in this piece.

It’s a good time to talk again about teens and abortion. The initiative that won’t die is back on the California ballot this fall: Proposition 4, which requires parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. We beat two earlier incarnations of this proposition (73 and 85) in 2005 and 2006, but its wealthy conservative backers are nothing if not relentless. Given the stakes that they perceive to be at play, I admire their tenacity even as I reject their basic premise. (For more on parental notification, read this old post of mine opposing the identical proposition 85 a few years ago. And check out Mermade’s piece from just this past weekend.)

The story of what happened to Glenn’s old student is desperately sad. My initial inclination is to hold the school which expelled her accountable — at least in significant part — for her suicide. My more right-wing friends would reject that notion, and might even argue that guilt over the abortion was a prime instigator for Elena to take her life. But if guilt was a motivating factor in the suicide, that guilt was something externally imposed on to Elena rather than her own organic response to terminating a pregnancy. Of course, in the absence of a very detailed suicide note, folks on both sides of the abortion divide could argue about this until the proverbial cows wander back into the barn. It’s axiomatic that we come to these painful anecdotes, all of us, with our own prejudices. We interpret a tragedy in a way that fits not only our worldview but our deepest instincts about sexuality and ethics. Continue reading

“Elitism”, privilege, and competition: some thoughts on the new Deresiewicz article

Marian, a periodic reader, sends me a link to this William Deresiewicz article in the American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It was almost exactly a year ago that I responded to another Deresiewicz American Scholar article in this post.

As with his essay on consensual faculty-student relationships, Deresiewicz in his current piece on academic elitism takes a good idea and promptly takes it just one step too far. His basic thesis this time around: an Ivy-league education makes you incapable of connecting with ordinary folks. His first bit of evidence? His own inability to connect with a plumber standing in his kitchen.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this.

I know I’m often accused of making universal applications out of my own experience, but I don’t think even I have done something quite so risible as what Deresiewicz does here. The idea that a first-rate education somehow renders the recipient of that education clueless about the real world is a classic American slur; anti-intellectualism is a potent force in American politics, and has been at least since the Andrew Jackson Administration. It’s disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, that some academics who ought to know better find themselves joining the chorus of those who decry the “useless” nature of top-notch higher education.

It’s all too easy to offer counter-anecdotes. Barack Obama went to Harvard Law, for heaven’s sake. There are many criticisms that might be made of him, but an inability to connect with those who were not similarly well-educated is not one of them. And though I’ve never sent a transfer student to Harvard undergrad, I have had former students of mine go on to graduate school at that most famous of American universities. I’ve had exceptional students here at Pasadena City College who have transferred to other Ivies, such as Cornell, Penn, and Columbia. I’ve seen first-generation students from working-class Mexican-American families go “back East” and come home to put the education they received to work within their communities. Most of my colleagues could say the same. Continue reading