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[561] The Velvet Rage – Alan Downs

velvet

” Becoming a fulfilled gay man is not about trying to become ‘not gay’, but has everything to do with finding a way through this world that affords us our share of joy, happiness, fulfillment, and love. ” (Introduction, p.3)

The snappy title that slips ironically into gay lexicon and the little boy in pink tie catch my attention of this book, but I have very mixed feelings about how Downs sees gay men as being inherently shame-driven. Anything a gay man does is because of an underlying motive rooted in shame. The Velvet Rage is aimed to help gay men rid of the shame and cultivate authenticity. It is based on the specific anger Downs encountered in his gay patients—whether it was manifested in drug abuse, promiscuity or alcoholism and whose roots are found in childhood shame and rejection by peers and parents.

We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival. The naked truth about who we are wasn’t acceptable, so we learned to hide behind a beautiful image. We learned to split ourselves in parts, hiding what wasn’t acceptable and flaunting what was. We learned to wave beautiful, colorful scarves to distract attention from our gayness . . . The truth is that we grew up disabled. Not disabled by our homosexuality, but emotionally disabled by an environment that taught us we were unacceptable, not “real” men and therefore, shameful. (Ch.2, p.21)

According to Downs, “velvet rage” is the deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment, predominantly one in which heterosexuality sets the norms, when one learns that who he is as a gay man is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable. To gain such validation a gay man has to chase affection, approval, and attention doled out by others, and in so doing, he often has to hide his real self. This is valid point. I have my share of fear and shame as well growing up being the chubby and quiet geek. But Downs has gone too far seeing homosexuality as a product of shame over inadequate masculinity. One by one he discredits attributes of gay culture, breaking its element and flipping it on its head. Seeing achievement as embellishment, he discredits gay men who are supremely knowledgeable of culture, fashion, arts, and books, and those in admirable physique.

Resolving the crisis of meaning is all about reaching the place of honest and radical authenticity. It’s about no longer needing to compensate for shame and living your life without needing to gild it with the extraordinary. (Ch.10, p.106)

This theory is both controversial and radical. The sole argument is that feelings of worthlessness can be created in childhood quite intentionally, and they lead gay adults to search for an unachievable perfection. This “perfection”, as Downs claims, is deeply awash in narcissism, because the drive to it creates a gay culture that is, in most senses, unlivable. To try to achieve that really makes gay men miserable.

While the author does make good and original point about foreclosure and resolution when it comes to coping with life (either foreclose on the present issue only to find us in a similar situation later, or act on resolving the issue), the sample he reviews, patients from his therapy practice (affluent, successful white men who can afford the therapy) is by no means representative of the larger population. Growing pain of being gay is shared by most gay men, but not all gay men will struggle in the ways that Downs portrays. Not all gay men are affluent and Greek gods, nor are all the men attending White Party cruising for sex. The book is too generalized and oversimplified. Many gay men will struggle for reasons that Downs overlooked or not addressed. The Velvet Rage is spot on about the pathology of the need to conform, and validation out of pretense, but Downs does not blast at the social homophobia that causes shame and stigma in the first place. The narrow demographic that the book’s analysis serves does not make the argument objective. Worth a read, but don’t shape your attitude entirely upon it.

212 pp. Da Capo Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Velvet Heart

velvet1

It’s been said that looking in retrospect often affords a sharper clarity. Reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs certainly puts me in sharp perspective of how I grew up being he little boy with the bug secret. I was lucky that the other boys never bullied me or called me names, but at a very early age, I knew I was different. This “different-ness” is not a preference for a ice cream flavor, but more intrinsic, something that will cause me to lose the love and affection of my parents. So in a way I grew up “disabled”, because I was trying to avoid situations that would invoke shame but to solicit validation. Unfortunately, validation for boys came from where I dreaded the most—the playground and sport field. It is on the playground that I probably first began to consciously think about how I was different from other boys. I didn’t want to play the same games as other boys. I was ignored (at least not taunted) by the more athletic, aggressive boys who always seemed to win the positive attention of their classmates and even the teachers. Unbeknowst to me at the time of course, I was operating on a defense mechanism that ensured survival. Perhaps I learned that I could win approval by becoming more sensitive than the other boys. What caused all this? The answer is often embarrassing: The fear that there was something about me that made me unlovable. This is exactly what Alan Downs addresses. The book really hits the spot. As I read, I keep bumping into my self, hopefully my old shelf.

[550] Mapping the Territory – Christopher Bram

territory

” The human race is full of sin, but conservatives have somehow decided that the gravest sin is homosexuality. Since they’re not homosexual themselves, they can feel assured they are among the righteous, even if they sometimes think impure thoughts, cheat in business, cheat on their spouses, neglect their children or skip church on Sunday. ” (A Sort of Friendship: A Few Thoughts about Gay Marriage, p.225)

Mapping Territory is Christopher Bram’s first collection of non-fiction over his thirty-year career. These essays range through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, and the vicissitude of lower Manhattan. As befit and instinctive of a novelist, into these autobiographical piece, arranged more or less in chronological order, imparted Bram’s love for books and literature and how they help him address his sexuality as well as allow him to read his own desires. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life. This is certainly a revelation to me who comes out two generations after the author did, but still confronting a society in which “culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual.” (A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, p.22)

Sex is intensely subjective anyway, full of built-in guilt and anxiety. No matter what you do or don’t do, it often feels wrong. During my first years in New York, I felt that I’d failed as a gay man if I didn’t have X number of partners over Y span of time . . . Monogamy was considered a blind aping of heterosexuals, despite the fact that the sexual revolution made fidelity less mandatory for them as well. (Faggots Revisited, p.105)

Mapping Territory does not just reach out to real readers—hungry, curious, open-minded readers of fiction in particular and good books in general, although these people, gay and straight, Bram sadly notes, are a minority. Beside a didactic discussion on what contributes gay literature and a critical review of Larry Kramer’s sex-renouncing Faggots, which continues to hit a nerve of the gays and provoke anger, Bram writes about coming out in Virginia, his stoop in West Village, the life of Henry James, the different appeals between books and movie tie-ins, the egotistic straight male fiction, and gay marriage.

That is my chief problem with most straight male fiction: authorial egos are so insistently, domineeringly, present. In too many novels I feel locked in a jail cell with just one other person, either a solitary sufferer or all-knowing puppeteer. Other people, other points of view, barely exist—even other male points of view. (Can Straight Men Still Write? p.176)

It is not until Bram makes this observation of his reading blind spot that I realize the straight male authors have accounted for less than a tenth in my reading. Authors he named emotionally thin and stylistically opaque are ones I have also long abandoned! This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine, even down to his craving for erotic literature written with seriousness and craft. What Bram’s essays do for me is exactly why gay men and women search out for such literature: to find the much needed mirrors of reality. Woven throughout this endlessly entertaining book is Bram’s elegant use of the English language. The book also gives me fodder for my reading list.

256 pp. Alyson Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Sexual Awakening

” The culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual. Movies, television, popular music, and advertising are about almost nothing else. But gay men and women, at least until recently, have had only books to help them find or invent or test their identities. ” –Christopher Bram, Mapping the Territory
bram

When you were a 11-year-old boy who just arrived in America, who were surrounded by an incomprehensible culture, and who was gay, who could to you confide in all your fear and confusion? Despite the advent of civil rights for the gays, I’m surprised at how much Bram and I have in common our experiences of being a young homosexual. In Mapping the Territory, a collection of essays that falls into the autobiographical zone, Bram mentioned the books that made him as a person. Mr. Bram and I are two generations apart, yet we are both at the mercy of books, which offer the most diverse set of tools for an individual to find his self. I could be prejudiced here, but I believe literature provides a looser, broader, more varied medium in which to explore one’s identity than movies and television do—even now as gay and lesbian images make their way into mass media. A book has a delay factor, that is, the time taken to finish from cover to cover is way longer than watching a movie. Back when financial resources were limited, I read my way into homosexuality. I remember stopping by two bookstores on the way home from school, Doubleday on Sutter and Bretano’s in the San Francisco Shopping Center on Market, where I lost myself in a forest of books. I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a literary construct, but the love of books was already stamped into my being before I realized I was attracted to men. I loved books before I loved bodies—the bodies didn’t appear until junior high. Ina society where all voices are pro-heterosexual, homosexual thoughts are strictly taboo, let alone the lust. I don’t remember the title of the psychology book I stumbled upon in the bookstore, that gave me the first usual piece of information, about most adolescents go through a homosexual phase. Bookstores were heaven for this solitary and private, self-sufficient and bookish kid who wanted to read up for being gay. Books were magic: I found myself entering a dialogue with them. I use them to address my sexuality, a safe place where I can try out different roles. More important, I see through books the kind of life that I would have learned to want through my reading.

Stonewall Inn Editions

I have only been enlightened to the Stonewall Inn Editions when I recently read The Coming Storm by Paul Russell. Stonewall Inn Editions is a trade paperback line founded at St. Martin’s in 1987 by editor Michael Denneny and to this day it remains the only gay/lesbian imprint at a major publishing house. St. Martin’s is one of the 10 largest book publishers in the United States. One part of St. Martin’s overall publishing program is a long-term commitment to quality gay and lesbian interest titles.

Since A Different Light, the GLBT bookstore, went under two years ago, books in this genre lack a central venue for publicity. Back in the days A Different Light would feature staff recommendations and new titles on the wall immediately to the left when you enter the store. Now bookstores claim to have LGBT titles but they are buried to the back of the store and most titles are either out of stock or out of print. I’m glad to discover this series devoted to the subject matter. Among the more generally known authors they have published include Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and The Mayor of Castro Street.

Upon consulting the fiction list I have added these titles to my acquisition:

Another Mother by Ruthann Robson
“Angie Evans–an attorney specializing in lesbian legal issues, partner in a committed relationship, and mother to an adopted daughter–seems to have the best of all worlds. But she is caught in the contradictions that make up her life. As she fights to make sense of the labels that have been applied to her, Angie finds her crisis of identity boiling over.” –Book description

Boys Like Us by Peter McGehee
“A genuinely delightful gay domestic comedy so full of tangy dialogue and wacky situations that it screams for the stage or, better yet, the screen.” –Booklist

The Dream Life by Bo Huston
“Told in alternating narrative voices, this is a daring novel about love between a man and a boy by one of the finest writers of the past decade.” –Book description

Joseph and the Old Man by Christopher Davis
“The flamboyant town of Cherry Grove, serenely situated along the beach of Fire Island, is the setting for this unusually poignant and joyful love story. In this cozy little summer community, the old man, a world-famous novelist, young at heart and beloved by everyone, lives with Joe, some thirty years a younger man, sleek and tan, who loves the old man and considers himself lucky to be living with him for the last ten years (unaware that friend consider the old man just as lucky).” –Book description

Tangled Up in Blue by Larry Duplechan
“A story of three people bound together by ties of love, passion, and friendship until a crisis for one threatens to destroy them all.” –Goodreads

Valley of the Shadow by Christopher Davis
“With simple clarity and undeniable power, Davis tells a story of great love and great tragedy; of AIDS and of two young men; of flawless summer days and starlit nights; of parents and children; and of the tangled web of love and loss and loyalty that is life itself.” –Goodreads

Winter Eyes by Lev Raphael
“Loneliness, separation, desire and the struggle with gay identity are the leitmotifs of Lev Raphael’s new novel. What distinguishes [Winter Eyes] is Raphael’s handling of grand themes, and his ongoing exploration of worlds both Jewish and gay and how they intersect, daring himself and his readers to contemplate wholeness.” –Jenifer Levin, Forward

Simon Says: Gay Men Don’t Get Fat

Simon Doonan is stylish and funny. The Barney window announced his book launch party at the store. How can I miss this after looking at the fabulous window? This book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, a take-off of French Women Don’t Get Fat, is full of Simon’s snarky humor as he imparts his wisdom on how to live a fabulous life. Don’t read this book expecting a guide to losing weight. This is neither a weight loss guide nor a fitness handbook. Instead, read it prepared to laugh out loud at Simon’s sense of humor as he laments the state of the wardrobes and lives of most straight women.

The book is just hilarious. “If you want the skinny on style, then ditch the diluted frogs and follow the gays,” says Doonan, who has no qualms about offending anyone standing in his sashaying way. “We, not the Françoises and Solanges, are the true oracles. We are the chosen people. We, and only we, know how to enhance your tawdry, lackluster lives.” “We” means the gays; the gays are the chosen mavens of style and food. Doonan does offer advice, but this is mingled with his own history, instead of some quick dietary pointers in bullets. He doesn’t linger on dietary suggestions, just enough to note the differences in eating habits between straight and gay men.

I nod my head off at the part how he makes fun of the ever-expanding sizes of men’s clothes in America. The small has just got bigger over the years to accommodate the bodies that fill them. At an all-heterosexual barbecue where the only designer duds to be seen were an ocean of Tommy Bahama, Doonan had to restrain himself from screaming, “Stop it, girls! Just stop it” as the tropically attired “slubberdegullions” (Simon’s own word) emptied calorie-laden bowls of guacamole. (Laugh Out Loud) It’s all fun raillery.

Out Magazine Recommendations

The Reader’s Digest of Out Magazine has a lit year round-up of literary favorites. I always keep my eyes on this special column for books/reading ideas that keep my gay card up-to-date. The 2011 selections have been culled by John Waters (director of Hairspray and A Dirty Shame), Edmund White (my literary guide to Paris), and Tarell Alvin McCraney (author of the Brother/Sister plays).

To support the local indies, I bought the entire haul from neighborhood bookstores:

Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany Rudolph Herzog. Was anything ever funny if you were a Jew under Nazism? A quick riffle through this book decides that it’s for keep. Don’t be misled by the title. This is seriously and sober study of the most historically notorious event.
Full Frontal Feminism Jessica Valenti. Critic says this book should be “feet-wetting for everyone, especially men” because it explores how we see, distort, treat and undermine ourselves into gender.
The Pregnant Widow Martin Amis. I have avoided Amis because of his increasing popularity. That Edmund White calls this a rapturous, Nabokovian account of a horny teen’s summer closes the deal for me.
The Lazarus Project Aleksander Hemon. The classic story of a contemporary Bosnian in Chicago who tries of sort out the story of one of his fellow countrymen who was mistaken for a dangerous anarchist. The man was shot to death by the city’s police chief. This sounds like a very gripping read.
My Prizes: An Accounting Thomas Bernhard. Never heard of the book nor the author. But bought it anyway since, out of coincidence, both Out and the indie recommend it.
The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst. This is the one book that I most look forward to reading. Booker Prize winner Hollinghurst is known for lyrical, sumptuously descriptive, and contemplative prose. The new novel, his first since The Line of Beauty, actually covers English history for over 100 years. It concerns with the recipient to whom an important is dedicated.

Could This Be It? Book Group

Mann

As well-read as San Francisco claims to be (it’s the, let’s have a roll of drum, third most bookish city in the United States after Washington DC and New York City in terms of book sales; Seattle has the most bookstores per capita), book groups are hard to come by, at least for me. I’ve been on a mission to look for one that partially meets my reading taste, that is, a mixture of classics and contemporary literature, and one that is open to explore new, ethnic, and gay and lesbian writers. I have overheard conversations of coworkers, friends and coffee shop regulars over their book clubs. That none of them have extended an invitation has convinced me that most book groups are probably tight-knit social gathering that are exclusive to a group of people who have developed long friendship over the years. They are comfortable to chat over their kids and family gossips over glasses of wine in addition to their bookish pursuit. Recently, I read about the SFLGBT Book Club on the newsletter of Books Inc, a local independent bookstore. For their next meeting on August 12, they will be discussing Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m so there! On every last Wednesday of the month, they also host Classics I Forgot to Read Book Club at a different location. The upcoming selection is The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, which I read about two years ago. My question for you, my fellow blogger, is do you belong to a book group? Does your book group read books that are outside of your genre?

歌依舊,6年逝 | Tribute to Leslie Cheung

lesliesummer87Until the winter of 2003, I almost never paid attention to the Mandarin Oriental in Central, one of Hong Kong’s most luxurious. Leslie Cheung 張國榮 (1956-2003), aliased gege (elder brother), one of Hong Kong’s greatest singers and movie stars of the last quarter of the century, fell to his death in a presumed suicide jump from an upper floor of the hotel on April 1, 2003, the year of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak. My first reaction to the news was utter disbelief, dismissing it as a vicious April fool joke. But breaking news on the satellite TV confirmed it as his heartbroken fans, dismayed by his death at the relatively young age of 46, stood vigil for many days outside the hotel. The hotel made every allowance for their right to mourn Cheung’s premature passing. Having beguiled his legions of fans by his extensive filmography and discography, my memory of Cheung will be continue to be cherished, as he was among the first pop-singers I became familiar and mesmerized with.

Perpetually boyish in looks but able to embrace roles ranging from smolderingly intense to breezily comic, prudishly proper to teasingly salacious, Cheung was best known to gay U.S. audiences as a hopelessly smitten gay Peking opera singer in Chen Kai-Ge’s Golden Globe-winner, Farewell My Cocubine, and as half of a dysfunctional gay couple in Wong Kar-Wai’s visually sumptuous Happy Together.

leslieconcubineAn outstanding artist, one of his greatest screen roles was as a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer in the 1993 Chen Kaige film Farewell My Concubine. It is 1925 when young Cheng Dieyi is palmed off to a sadistic Beijing Opera academy by his mother. While at the school, the boy falls in love with the rough-and-tumble Duan Xiaolou. As adults, the pair become opera stars best known for their performance of Farewell My Concubine, the story of a consort who commits suicide for her vanquished king. The problem, though, is that Cheng (played by Canto-pop diva Leslie Cheung) actually wants to be the idealized concubine, a role he delivers in high drag.

lesliehappytogetherHappy Together (1997) is what cemented director Wong Kar-wai’s international reputation as one of the leading filmmakers of our time. The film is an exercise in emotional estrangement—from one’s lover, one’s homeland, and oneself. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung are the lovers whose tumultuous relationship is a process of breaking up and making up. The two decide to start over in Buenos Aires, but true to form their bickering dissolves their relationship. Never reaching the waterfall they intended to visit in the first place, they go their separate ways. Somehow they find themselves back together, and the slow burn of their disintegrating love provides more exploration into the lives of lost, lonely souls that is Wong Kar-Wai’s never-ending obsession. This film paves the path of Cheung’s coming out to the public.

Looking back in Cheung’s career, my obsession with him weighed on his many pop albums that made him roughly equivalent of an Elvis or a Lennon in local Hong Kong terms. Many of his disco tunes from the 80s still dominate my most-played-track chart in my iPod. Known offscreen and onstage as a flamboyant bad boy, Cheung was finally ready to publicly discuss his sexuality, which I have pondered for quite some time over the years, in a 2001 interview, where he claimed, “It’s more appropriate to say I’m bisexual.” He made waves at concerts by donning drag (designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, no less) and professing love to his partner of 18 years, Daffy Tong (whom fans dubbed “Tong Tong”). A 2001 music video, “Dreams to Inner River,” was banned for its sexy depiction of Cheung and a male Japanese dancer. His coming out as queer himself was courageous.

歌依舊,6年逝; 張國榮10首歌 Beloved 10 Singles
10 | 左右手
09 | 情感的刺
08 | 柔情蜜意
07 | 少女心事
06 | 無心睡眠
05 | Monica
04 | 今生今世
03 | 不羈的風
02 | 有誰共鳴
01 | 有心人

Please tell me, please tell me your history tonight; please whisper to me, please show me, your history tonight.

Milk: A San Francisco’s Story

“My name is Harvey Milk, I want to recruit you…”

milkEnsconced on the window seat of a cafe on Castro Street, I’m looking at the now empty space across the street where filming crew decorated it to be Harvey Milk’s camera shop. In the space of just a few weeks last March, the crew descended upon the Castro to film Milk – a biopic about Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street” (a book with the same title that I plan to read soon) and the first openly gay man to win office just about anywhere. Sense of gala quickly percolated the neighborhood during filming. I couldn’t help but walk wide-eyed every day through the set, as it were, of Castro Street circa 1978.

The film begins as Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) makes a recording on November 18, 1978 to be played in case he is assassinated. The two-hour movie follows Milk from New York to San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop on Castro Street and used his political savvy and a surging liberation ideology to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Less than a year after being elected, Milk was shot and killed in City Hall by the recently resigned supervisor Dan White, played by Josh Brolin in the film. The film tells its story in fatefully somber, operatically enhanced flashback, with Milk speaking into a tape recorder in eerie anticipation of his possible assassination.

milk1The movie opens with real jump-cut scenes of police’s raids in bars, arresting homosexuals. Then Milk begins the recording with his meeting of Scott Smith (James Franco) in the New York subway, and we get the first of the series of flash-backs (which eventually become flash-forwards) that are the film. Milk and Smith become lovers and move to the Castro Street area of San Francisco. They open a camera shop, but are quickly disillusioned with their bigoted reception by straight store-owners. Milk longs to make Castro Street a haven (and a safe place) for gays in San Francisco, and decides to run for office, which he does three times with slowly increasing success and hand-wringing. He enlists the help of friends, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and after local and national setbacks, is finally elected.

Penn’s physical resemblance to the late supervisor Milk is uncanny. He exhaustively disappears into the title role, but what’s more striking is the spiritual transformation. Penn gives us a man who was once closeted and now, as if in response, lives his life completely in the open. He challenges everyone on his campaign to come out. He’s spontaneous as Penn has never been spontaneous. He’s emotional, vulnerable and generous with his laughter. Penn plays him as an utterly liberated man, and this liberates Penn as an actor.

milk2Van Sant’s goal in Milk is to give the gay rights movement the grandness and impact of the civil rights movement. To do that, Harvey Milk must be made into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr., who led a moral crusade, fully knowing that he might be murdered along the way. The scene that speaks to me most is when he tries to solicits endorsement from the then owner of Advocate magazine, who in turns advises him to back down and not to invoke an anti-gay backlash. Milk asserts that his running for supervisor is neither for personal nor political gain. It’s a movement for gay rights and civil rights. The movement represents the gay people, not himself.

Indeed, history came back home to where it started three decades ago. On the night of Milk‘s world premiere, The Castro Theatre vibrated with gay rights past and present. As the creators and stars of the film and local politicians ran the red-carpet press gantlet, a throng of people across the street waved “Vote No on Prop. 8” signs and shouted at every passing car that honked. The measure will eliminate the right to same-sex marriage in California if it passes next week.In truth, the King comparison only goes so far. Yes, Milk led a crusade against the Briggs Initiative, led by John Briggs and fueled by Anita Bryant (Proposition 6)  that involved physical risk, and the real Harvey Milk did make tapes (in 1977) to be played in the event of his assassination. But it would be stretching things to say Milk was killed because he was gay. His death was more like a fluke, part of a macabre workplace crime that also robbed the city of its mayor. It’s evidence of the film’s effectiveness, its power to incite emotion, that Milk’s death is made to feel like the inevitable consequence of his being a visionary. What really comes across from watching the film is the feeling of compatriots and being family that we felt as a community.