Monday, August 20, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gay

I'm a choir teacher for a living, and a tenor in my free time for fun. I don't really follow sports, especially the big three--football, basketball, and baseball. I have an earring and hair that could reasonably be described as fabulous--well, at least on the four days a year when I haven't just gotten it cut, or desperately need to have it cut. Coincidentally, lots of people incorrectly assume that I'm gay. If I dressed better, or could remember that chartreuse isn't some sort of red-ish color, it's possible that I could be actively copulating with a woman and still not be able to convince her otherwise.

Before I continue, I must define some terms, and invoke some disclaimers. First, I haven't yet read the book that I reference in the title. It's not a prude thing (I just finished Portnoy's Complaint and Sacré Bleu) or a macho thing (I'm currently reading I Don't Know How Se Does It), I just haven't been able to get it from the library, maybe because of this. Also, I will be using the word "gay" at times to refer not only to actual homosexuality, but larger aspects of what I perceive to be gay culture. However, I never use the word "gay" to mean "bad," though my students do, even as I consistently scold them for it. By the way, my clever title yields 119,000 hits on Google, so my plagiarism is blatant, but also spread out a bit.

All of that said, I do believe that while gay and straight are pretty clearly definable, most people fall somewhere along a spectrum, at least with regards to the cultural stuff.  So, I submit to you: Fifty Shades of Gay (Slacker edition, so you know, like, twelve):

Gay - Prefers to have sex with someone of the same gender.

Gay, but bigoted  - These people are just awful and there are far too many examples (see also: here) of the phenomenon for it to be merely coincidence. My guess is that sometimes when people are gay by inclination, but refuse to be so in life, they assume that the rest of us are harboring the same sorts of confusion. It starts as self-righteousness--look how straight I'm being, everyone else should be so upstanding--and too often descends into raw cynicism--since I can't openly enjoy the fulfillment of my desires, I'll fulfill them in private and make sure that everyone else must do the same. Note to these people: some of us are straight, and it is no effort whatsoever. Don't give us so much credit--if things were reversed and homosexuality were the norm, we would have the alternative lifestyle.

Big gay priest - We all know about the priest sex-abuse scandal, but I'm not talking about that. Pedophilia is not correlated to homosexuality, and the Church's claim that it is is either obtuse, or intentionally evil. However, since the Church requires its homosexuals to be celibate (don't hate the sinner, hate the sin, they say) and requires its priests and religious to be celibate, it doesn't take a genius to start to see this as vocational counseling.

Gay at midlife - These are some of the saddest stories on the continuum. Marrying a beautiful girl, having some kids with her, and then suddenly discovering that you need to be with men is a great way to destroy lots of lives. It's really no better than marrying a beautiful girl, having some kids with her, and then deciding that you need to be with a 25-year-old Hooters waitress. If this was an impulse you were able to keep under control in your twenties, maybe you should hold on until, you know, death like you promised.

Gay for a while - Traditionally college, but I guess any dramatic lifestyle change could bring it on, or bring it to an end. It takes a while, I guess, to distinguish which direction these folks are heading, and whether they will maintain that trajectory. When you're young and playing the field, it seems that sometimes you want to check out all of your options.

Gay while drunk - I've heard <cough> that at some parties everyone gets drunk enough that they try to get the pretty girls to kiss each other. Okay, I've actually seen that. I've heard that this also applies to guys at some point, but either our parties were more tame by comparison, or we were more closed-minded.

Non-practicing homosexual - This one comes from John Irving, in A Prayer for Owen Meany. These may be the guys that the Catholic Church is picturing when they insist on a celibate priesthood. In my experience they are competent, kind, industrious, intelligent, and knowledgeable--maybe this is what all men would be like if sex weren't always getting in the way. Some argue that the proper term for this is asexual, but I think this misses an important element of denial inherit in the type. They don't seem to be tortured by it, but neither does it seem that they are just devoid of any sexuality at all.

Bisexual -  It is argued (yes, by my students--the GSA meets in my room, and my non-GSA students and I end up talking about this sort of stuff on those days because we lack access to the piano for twenty minutes in a row) that these people are somehow more promiscuous or selfish than the rest of us. While it is true that a truly bisexual person has 100% more options available, nothing says that they indulge those options more freely. If you do indulge more freely, we have words for that too, but it's not "bisexual."

Straight except for athletics - As a non-sports guy, I don't really get this one, but there seems to be a lot of ass-grabbing among guys and girls in sport. Personally, I preferred co-ed sports and activities, hoping for similar action, but was mostly disappointed.

Straight except for... - Hugh Jackman, Johny Depp, Natalie Portman, Helen Hunt, Apollo, Starbuck. Come on, there's someone of your own gender who gives you a moment's pause. Right? No?? Uhm, forget I mentioned it.

Metrosexuals - Not gay, but choose to take on some of the grooming and taste habits nonetheless. Good for them, but it seems to give away some of the advantage that men have enjoyed that help keep women oppressed (see also: shoes).

Straight for religious college - probably straight for other colleges as well, but there are lots of guys who attend some nearby schools, which will remain nameless, who present as gay to my admittedly very clumsy gaydar, yet choose to live straight lifestyles. This is perfectly fine, unless it persists too long (see: Gay at midlife, above).

Straight for high school - It turns out that lots of the guys that I competed with for the general affection and companionship of girls in high school (and college) are actually gay--no one likes hanging out with girls quite as much as girls, me, and gay men, or so it appears. In the '80s and '90s we were brutally cruel to gay people, on the assumption that there were no such thing as gay people, and besides, that's gross (very evolved, I know). However, even in our more enlightened age, I do think some high schoolers stay deeply in the closet waiting for a more civilized age--chronological or geological, whatever it takes.

Beta males - Not gay, but somewhat spared the testosterone poisoning of our alpha male brethren.. I've discussed them here, but the whole concept is plagiarized from Christopher Moore, so check out Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job. Condensed version: we, like alpha males, like women very much, thank you, but instead of clubbing them over the head and dragging them to our cave, we tended to cook for them, watch their kids, and sing them songs. It seems a losing strategy, I know, but we're still around, which may be proof that it worked out just fine.

Straight -Prefers to have sex with someone of the opposite gender.

Okay, so fifty shades may have been a bit ambitious, but I do believe that gay is a spectrum, and this is merely a terribly shallow analysis of some highlights along the spectrum as I perceive them. If I managed not to offend you, I've probably missed your specific type. Please feel free to correct me in comments.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

The other day I watched a playdown fall entirely apart at the Pennsylvania Suzuki Strings Institute. I have also watched many hours of Hershey Symphony Festival Strings over the four years that my daughter played, and eventually served as concert master, under maestro Sandra Dackow. There is a reason I'm bringing this up now (in addition to the fact that I tend to work my daughter's musical life and accomplishments into as many conversations as possible--see also: here). These two experiences have allowed me to entirely figure out the presidential race.

Explain? Okay, but it's so obvious you're going to feel silly for asking.

I believe that conducting can serve as an illuminating study of leadership. In essence, it is an attempt to exert influence over a group without being able to talk to them or touch them. You're thinking that conductors talk to their ensembles all the time--they do, but when they do it's rehearsing, not conducting.

True conducting is a form of mind-control: a non-verbal language by which you can ask for things, and provide feedback on what you're getting, through subtle aspects of facial expression and gesture. For example, if a conductor's beat is just ahead of the ensemble, the ensemble should speed up. If the gesture suddenly becomes small, the players should get quieter. Sometimes a section is brought in with just a look or a raised eyebrow. The gestures you see from the audience are rarely the ones where the real communication is going on.

Suzuki leaders are essentially doing the same thing, with the slight advantage of also making sound with their instruments. When the groups get large enough, however, this is a tiny advantage indeed. At some point it's more the movement of the bow and facial cues at work. Although the players very near the leader can use their ears as well, and the players closest to them can extend this range to those around them and so on, this all causes tiny delays that can slow the tempo if visual cues aren't also applied. 

What I've seen Sandra Dackow do in rehearsal lots of times, and saw the Suzuki cello leader do at the playdown, is to exhibit such strength-of-will that she'll let the whole thing fall apart around her, even with people watching, rather than yield to the wishes of the group. The truth is, most of us who conduct enter into a bargain in which we promise not to do anything too strange, and the group agrees to allow us to think we're in control. If we identify a spot where we plan to request more flexibility, this can be negotiated, but in my experience the conductor most often does what the ensemble wants--even if he/she was the one who determined what the ensemble was going to want. In most cases, the control over the ensemble happens in rehearsal, and conducting is reduced to an elaborately choreographed dance to encourage things along.

Gov. Romney and the President are engaged in a similar dance with the American people.

The truth is, these two men seem to be much more alike than different in the ways they deal with this stuff. Mr. Obama worked out where the winds were blowing on marriage equality, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the withdrawal from Iraq and then showed the strength of character to act or speak out. I don't mean to suggest that where he ended up on these things was bad, just that he wasn't particularly brave in the timing of when it all went down. Mr. Romney apparently found negotiating room on healthcare, tax policy, and abortion. It's possible that these men really did have their minds changed. In fact, I don't think politicians should always be vilified when this happens, given that the alleged purpose of discourse is to try to persuade people to change their minds. However, I seen in these examples a particular style of leadership:

"There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, French politician (1807-1874)

Perhaps equally puzzling and frustrating are times when they ignore us and act (or fail to act) against our express wishes. For Romney, this can most easily be seen with the tax return mess, where even people on his own side have been hammering him. Obama isn't immune either, though. His signature healthcare plan was shoved through before anyone was quite ready for it, and it's full-up with Republican ideas (see also: here, and here). He is/was similarly happy to ignore us on financial bailouts, climate change, and education.

If it sounds like I'm criticizing both men for both approaches, well, I guess I am. It begs the question: what else is there?

The difference between the Sandra Dackow crashes and the the Suzuki playdown one is that Dr. Dackow has spent years developing a relationship with her orchestras, earning their respect and fierce devotion. The students (as well as the adults in the Hershey Symphony, I assume, though I haven't observed much of their rehearsing) desperately want to follow. When they don't, it is typically incompetence, not defiance. In the other example, she stood her ground on the basis that she was the named leader, and had pretty much the biggest instrument (if anyone was inclined to measure).

Somewhere in there is the difference between true leadership and basically abusing power by indulging an obstinate streak. So far, I think what we've seen from both political candidates is a tendency to try to position themselves deep in the center of their own constituency, while occasionally ignoring us completely to show how independent they are. Both things are worthy of criticism, because they stem from the same failing--seeing our position on these things as fixed and unchangeable.True leadership would be meeting us where we are and moving us in a better direction.

I can't claim to be confused by this. We've gotten the political system that we deserve, in that we don't really elect people, we elect a collection of ideology. The result so far is a highly partisan Court, a dysfunctional Legislature, and a President who can't really accomplish anything due to the two other branches. Any politician who doesn't act exactly the way we want, or at least mostly the way we want, is out of a job. It means that true moderates are a dying breed, and we're devolving into an ever-coarsening national conversation. Leaders aren't so much leading, as they are advertising their positions to the people who will vote for them, send them money, or both. Debate--on the floors of the houses of Congress, or in presidential races--aren't actually an effort to change minds as much as joint/dueling press conferences and extended political ads.

Hey, I said I'd figured it out; I never said that I'd solved it.