Reflective Thinking

I feel unsettled, not necessarily by anything occurring around me, but by the amount of time I let pass before deciding to write something new for the blog. Part of my purpose in creating this space was to challenge myself to keep up on my writing and reflections, even as I have managed the multiplicity of tasks surrounding my Ph.D. work. It’s been easier said than done. I last wrote a piece in June, not far removed from a winter season that seemed to drag me (and everyone around me) into the depths of a frozen ennui. Today – heh – Jaxon and I could barely bring ourselves to walk the dogs on this frigid November Monday, when I can’t help but wonder if summer really happened.

Yet, I know it did. On multiple occasions, I meant to write about some key occurrences, each hitting an existential note in some way. To sum up:  Read More

From Anger to Inspiration?

I spent last weekend at the National Conference on Social Work & HIV/AIDS, a nicely organized event that seems to attract the kind of people around whom I want to be—smart, dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic about their work, and self-reflective. The audience is part academic, part professional; in other words, a good place to test out the concepts behind my dissertation research. It was gratifying to see echoes of my topic—organizational change in community-based AIDS organizations—throughout the presentations. I was also pleased to find others who share my own interest in history, both in the development of these services and in their origins within the gay and lesbian community of the 1980s and earlier. (I say “gay and lesbian” here knowing that our current nomenclature—GLBTQIA—recognizes a much broader spectrum of identities.)

The conference also afforded me the chance to see How to Survive a Plague, a documentary using original film footage of ACT-UP, the grassroots movement led by HIV-positive activists, which radically altered the trajectory of America’s response to the AIDS epidemic. I have to confess, I’d avoided seeing the movie before this, even though plenty of friends had recommended it to me. My response to it was as emotional as I’d expected. It was probably a mistake to watch it right before my own presentation, but on the other hand, it grounded me back in the reality of my research question: How do services founded by and for the grassroots HIV movement experience change in the age of ACA?

Anyway, I digress. The film mostly focused on the years 1989 to 1995, from the first Bush presidency up to the introduction of combination anti-retroviral therapies, which seemed almost immediately to bring patients back from near death. Much of the film depicts the push and pull of grassroots politics at the time—people screaming to be heard, to have their fears and outrage acknowledged not just in the hearts and minds of bystanders, but in the policies and practices of government, medical research, and the pharmaceutical industry of the time. As Randy Shilts noted in And the Band Played On, the usually deliberate pace of clinical trials, testing, and approval for market use were not going to cut it when the world faced a pandemic of this scale. It took bold confrontation, impassioned actions, and dedication from those facing almost certain death to move the status quo to change. The fact that some of the original ACT-UP activists—including the legendary Larry Kramer, among others—today have survived speaks loudly to their accomplishment. Medical science today is winning the battle against HIV in controlled lab settings, but a social movement that connected these institutions to this deeply affecting human narrative was absolutely necessary to prod our civic leaders to move faster, with any urgency that no one would have believed necessary in previous decades.

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Finding Randy, Part 3

There is so much to say about my time in California last month, and I’ve had so little time and energy to say it. I meant to get to this post sooner, perhaps even while I was out in San Francisco, getting intimately familiar with boxes and boxes of Randy Shilts’ personal papers. Sometimes life doesn’t work that way though, and a return to Minnesota has meant for me a return to dissertation, research, and teaching (not to mention cold weather and snow, up until the end of last week).

I thought about writing about some of the juicy tidbits I found, and there were a number of them. But, right now the more meaningful experience comes from trying to understand how it feels to get to know a person I will never meet. Reading a person’s diaries and correspondences in his own handwriting is an incredibly intimate experience. The moments of loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration from his college years and early adulthood are plentiful. While it’s perhaps easy to write it off as the anxieties so many of us feel in our youth, here too I found moments of insight and poignancy that resonated across the years of his too-brief life.

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Finding Randy, Part 2

I’m not intending this discovery process to become the sole focus of the blog, but when I’m writing about things that interest me (and are interesting in my life), well, right now this is at the top of my list (dissertation notwithstanding).  San Francisco and Randy’s papers are less than a week away, but in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to catalog his early work in The Advocate. There are so many details to pore over that I’m just skimming the surface as I take pictures and make notes for later study. But, here are a few interesting things I have found so far:

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Finding Randy, Part 1

“Introducing Randy Shilts.” There he was, younger than I’d ever seen him, staring up at me from the weathered pages of a long-ago publication. The seed of an idea dropped into my mind two years ago, when I was poring through old copies of The Advocate for a historical research project in my Doctoral program. As I perused back issues from the mid-1970s, his name started to appear more and more frequently. I knew who Randy Shilts was—I’d read The Mayor of Castro Street and of course And the Band Played On. I knew about Conduct Unbecoming, but I’d never had the energy to tackle its enormous length. I knew that Randy Shilts was a journalistic force in his time, capable of melding enormous amounts of detail to deep-seated emotions and wielding his story in a way that would move readers to reflection, appreciation, and even outrage.

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Summer’s Labors Lost (and Won)

With the pride and satisfaction that comes with homeownership, there are also those inevitable moments of despair, self-doubt, and trepidation at the mountain of work that accompanies a disaster. During the summer of 2013, in the midst of what I had proclaimed would be “the good year,” Jaxon and I were tested twice—“consecutively” might be the better term—by our 1886 farmhouse, a home that has always been more a source of joy than vexation. But, this summer almost tipped those scales. As the year comes to a close, and as I kick myself a bit for not writing more on this blog, memories like this are important for reminding myself what, exactly, I was doing other than writing.

The first setback, though worse than we had expected, had been anticipated. Last year, we noticed water seeping in underneath the French doors that open out onto the backyard from our bedroom. Exploring things a little further, Jaxon found that the back deck, which had been attached by a previous owner, was pulling away from the house. We planned accordingly, knowing that we wouldn’t see the full extent of the damage until the entire wooden structure—deck and pergola—had been dismantled. But, the warning signs were pretty glaring, including a steady stream of carpenter ants into our kitchen during a very wet spring.

What we found

What we found

After the fix

After the fix

In mid-summer, we started the arduous task. On weekends, we began pulling off the lumber, discovering to our annoyance that it had been tacked together with an assortment of different screws and nails, most of which had begun to corrode since they were apparently not galvanized. Flush against the limestone foundation sat a pile of leftover hardy board side, left to rot and thus seep moisture into the basement walls. When it was all stripped away, we gazed in silent horror at a small, soggy gash in the side of our house—the rotted flesh of 300 year old redwood, with ants pouring out onto the sunbaked dirt on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon in July. The immediate tears and sagging shoulders gave way, though, to a plan of action. A contractor friend helped us with the work—replacing the damaged rim joist, installed a new sliding door, and adding a support beam in the basement that, inexplicably, had been removed at some point in the house’s past. The worst was over within a matter of a few weeks, and by mid-August we actually were excited about the prospect of re-imagining our backyard before snowfall. Not so fast.

The second disaster was a total surprise, and a demoralizing one at that. Just a few days after the sliding door had been installed, we both arrived home late in the afternoon, another high heat day when we planned to do some cleanup in the backyard and maybe grab a swim at the beach before nightfall. Instead, we were greeted by a cascade in the basement, a gushing stream of water that actually didn’t show a trace of damage behind the wall where it originated—everything just poured straight down through the floor.

What could we do? In short order, we tore out the wall, removed the sink and toilet, and found a plumber in the neighborhood who would repair the damaged piping. It was clear, though, that if we just patched the leak, we would be doomed to future recurrences, given the age of the galvanized pipes behind the wall. So—although exhausted already from the backyard and having spent most of our reserves already—we had little choice but to plunge into rebuilding and remodeling the bathroom. Another two months passed, but thanks to Jaxon and our plumber’s due diligence, the job was done right and the wall was rebuilt. Jaxon took his time to beautifully tile the bathtub and shower walls, and we hung a new sink (replacing the ancient fixture with a wobbly hot water tap that liked to splash our crotches). The wooden floor, slightly worn and burnt from the soldering of the pipes, was stained to look like planks from an old barn. In mid-October, with much relief, we moved back into our bathroom. I had no idea that such a displacement—sharing the upstairs facilities with our housemates and seeing our dining room filled with various toiletries for week after week—could have such a psychological effect. And, as is true with everything my beloved partner does, the end result was far better than what we’d had before the damage.

On that glorious August day...

On that glorious August day…

Better than before

Better than before

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

As for the backyard, we piled up the leftover lumber, shored up our temporary back steps, and let it sit until next spring. We’ll take the time to think through a more complete vision for the space, and then we’ll do it the right way. (I still want a hot tub.) I can’t help but love this house even more than before. Despite the best efforts of the shortsighted humans who have owned it over the years, this old structure—with bones of redwood—continues to endure and survive these slights. Part of why we both want to grow old here is the sense of obligation we feel toward this humble but grand old house. According to the abstract, the original structure was classified as a barn in 1886. In 1894, it was completed as a homestead. In 1897, the foundation and basement were added. Plumbing and electrical wiring were installed in 1907. A great deal of the original woodwork remains intact, and it’s beautiful. Moreover, our relationship to the house, and to each other, continues to grow richer both from the work we put in (especially Jaxon), and by the stories we gain from taking what was left to us and turning it into something better than we had before.

Places Like This Do Exist

To get myself back in the habit of writing, I’m using the next few entries to write about some meaningful moments of the last few months. I find that it’s easy to lose track over time of the events and encounters that make a season memorable. They tend to blend in easily with past years, with autumns that came and went, and with other seasons that start to look alike over time. I don’t want that to be the case, so, appropriately, the first recollection I am writing takes me back to Labor Day weekend, when it started to feel like the seasons really were about to turn. Keep in mind, these are brief reflections– not too deep, not too long. 

In 2013, I made my first-ever trip north for Duluth – Superior GLBT Pride. I’d heard good things for years from others: a strong sense of community and togetherness, spirited but not massive crowds, beautiful sights, and generally speaking, a combination of “small city” and “queer” that maybe gets lost in the glitzy overproduction of so many major metropolitan Pride festivals these days. I had been curious for years, and I finally had the opportunity to make the trip with some friends.

All of what I’d expected was there, but the striking memory for me is still one event: the Friday night bonfire on Lake Superior. I grew up in a Great Lakes state, not far from one of the major bodies of water. Earlier this summer I even had a chance to revisit some of those places, which evoked a mixture of memories on which I still chew six months later. I remember scenes like this from my youth—dark nights where suddenly a hot, fiery glow rises up from the woods and dunes, illuminating a glassy background where cool waves slosh against the beach; a sizeable but not huge crowd gathered around the flames, some on towels and others huddled in beach blankets, with coolers packed with beer scattered across the sand; easy conversation between friends; and the occasional chitchat offered up to strangers like me, a city dweller who remembers these scenes vividly from twenty-some years ago, but who never quite felt like there was a place for me in small town settings.

But here, the fact that it was a Pride event, populated with boyfriends, girlfriends, old, young, partnered, and single, made that life seem so easygoing for at least one night. A young, twinkish type stripped down to his yellow bikini briefs and, after insisting he was going to swim, put his bravado out for all to see and showed he meant it. He shivered as he warmed himself afterward in front of the fire, his proportions nicely featured by the bikini now soaked to the skin. He took his time, and clearly no one minded. It was a dark and clear night, not too cool but not the heat of summer anymore. It was an easy visit, a moment I found myself pondering all weekend as I took in the celebrations of a town where I do not live.

Photo by Nick Vasquez

Photo by Nick Vasquez

The Gen X Conversation

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to understand the social systems we create. After an adolescence spent trying badly to fit into the peer groups around me (and failing), I found a particularly meaningful role for myself by embracing my “outsiderness,” even as I became part of the burgeoning queer activist circles at Michigan State University, and later in Minneapolis. My abilities as a writer, thinker, and charismatic leader have served me well at times within existing paradigms, but really I have been at my best when creating new pathways, bringing together people who have felt marginalized in their own experiences and developing interesting ways to depict and respond to the world around us.

I start with that brief intro because I’ve been sitting for about a week on writing a response to this recent article by Sara Scribner on There are parts that resonate with me, and parts where, as a younger but fiercely proud member of Generation X, I can’t help but push back. I don’t disagree that we collectively may appear more distrustful of authority figures and reluctant to “step up” and lead as the Baby Boomers edge closer to senior citizenship. But, I also think there are important counters to consider. I’m not in a position to generalize, but let me offer some of my own experiences as examples.

Systems Include, Systems Exclude

My first counter is this: I agree with the author that there are good reasons to think we may be distrustful of authority figures because of how Gen Xers experienced divorce, scandals, media, etc. in our formative years. I find, however, that I am more distrustful of the systems that authority figures are expected to maintain, usually because it doesn’t take long to discover those who have been excluded versus those who are accepted within these social environments. My childhood, for example, was filled with moments where success in school undoubtedly brought me praise and acceptance by authority figures (my parents were teachers, so my teachers were their friends), but also led to some painful ostracism from kids my own age. Throw into it the fact that I was a heavier kid, a farm kid, and an exuberant sci-fi fan (Doctor Who and Star Trek!), and it’s safe to say I didn’t have many friends my own age.

I offer this not as a way to pity my socially awkward years, but to illustrate that for a kid like me, the existing social systems didn’t offer much in the way of understanding or empathy. Life was in many ways a struggle to “fit in,” which often involved enormous self-scrutiny in order to not attract any more negative attention than I already received from kids my own age. My mistrust of authority figures came less from my witnessing their own personal failures, and more from the fact that I viewed them as maintaining and often safeguarding social systems that had been created with a certain set of people in mind, but did not well serve those who didn’t fit in.

Systems Are Meant to Address Gaps

This leads in part to my second counter. By the time I arrived at Michigan State in the mid-1990s, I had come out and found my first small group of gay friends. My social circumstances had flipped from rural isolated white kid, to urban gay teen whose friends were mainly young, gay, and black. It had been, in a word, tremendous, and the acceptance I experienced at MSU came in part, I think, from the incredible amount of enthusiasm and confidence I was now sharing with those around me. The existing queer activist community had a lot to offer in terms of discussion groups and social events, but it was the lack of a shared creative outlet—a common medium for discourse around our identity. The magazine I co-founded was a success in part, I think, from our ability to offer safe space for people to write, draw, and think about their “otherness.” We touched a nerve that encouraged those who resonated to contribute in kind. Although for me personally, the experience paved the way for other future endeavors, for the community at MSU I believe the magazine played a key role in helping queer students connect to each other in that campus’ vast residence hall system, which supported the development of new channels of activism (neighborhood caucuses) that continue to the present day. Let me say that again—a new endeavor, based on the observation of what was missing in the current system of supports, contributed to the creation of new and different supports for queer students on the MSU campus.

Maintaining Openness = Not Achieving Adulthood??

My third counter comes from my experiences in community-level social work. I have never held a social work license, and I have never practiced therapy. But, my skill has always been the ability to look at the systems we create to help each other—and specifically for me, in queer-focused community building—and scrutinize the extent to which these approaches succeed, as well as how they inevitably function to keep certain people out.  Being able to connect with folks in organizing HIV prevention activities and later managing a large volunteer program taught me that to connect with a range of people—not just those who fit the exact description of what we’re seeking—I  had to maintain an open and affirming stance that helped me to relate to each person on his or her own terms. Not surprisingly, I found that this approach has helped me as a college instructor because I have to remember that each of my students is applying the coursework differently according to the work they are doing in their own lives. Without a doubt I still have to maintain a rigorous standard but as a student told me last year, “Wow, you are really tough but you are so laid back! You are right there with us the whole time.”

Now, true to my own Gen X leanings, I have no idea what I want my life to be like after I finish my Ph.D. The idea of focusing on one narrow but potentially lucrative career path and abandoning the many varied interests that have made me a well-rounded person feels like cutting off my fingers in order to showcase my nose. Where Scribner quotes Neil Howe as saying, “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options,” my rejoinder is that to be a fully actualized, wholly developed human, we must each take into account the aggregation of all our attributes and bring them to bear in our home, work, and social lives.

My experiences so far as an activist, organizer, writer, scholar, and thinker tell me that despite my lack of credentials as a leader in any one field, I have brought about change that others notice when they consider their own choices in life moving forward. How these contributions are recognized is fairly muted, but as I have often said, I’d rather be well known than famous. Too often, I have witnessed people who were mentors to me—the majority of them Baby Boomers—who accepted the notion that success in life comes from narrowing options and becoming increasingly single-minded. In very few instances have I seen these mentors sustain either individual happiness or professional effectiveness for the long haul. Rather, I have found people coasting on their previous accomplishments as others tried sympathetically not to upset them, and I have seen people hit their “red Ferrari” years and lash out pointedly at the families and jobs that have expected them to carry significant burdens for long periods. Scribner’s article seems to suggest that for Generation X, the midlife crisis represents a mere continuation of the myriad crises we have experienced since childhood. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch to imagine, then, that we may also possess an incredible capacity for coping that renders midlife more manageable and less visibly disruptive than what came to characterize (or even caricature) the generations before us.

Reading Between the Lines 

I offer these counters not to disprove what Scribner wrote about Generation X, but to challenge her and those she cited to read between the lines. If the popular question is to ask, “When will Gen Xers grow up?” I suggest that a number of us already did so, at a younger age and in a way that escaped notice in the popular culture because it involved seeking out and recognizing commonalities with people who had similarly experienced “otherness.” Some of us faced adversity early in life, learned from these struggles, and adopted a perspective that values this “otherness” as a way of changing our culture, less by engaging with existing political and social systems that we’ve experienced as exclusionary and self-perpetuating, and more by engaging with the people we find where genuine, mutually beneficial work can occur.

Maintaining the stance of the empathetic outsider has helped me to help others, both as individuals and as creators and maintainers of their own social systems. Scribner makes a point in her summation that, “If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves.” To the extent that I agree, I also think it is fair to ask, do we now “become” leaders by inheriting the roles left to us by Baby Boomers, who continue to linger in the systems they built (and which we may have experienced as exclusionary and reductionist)? My perception is that instead of following this more obvious approach, a number of us have shifted the focus of our leadership in scale and scope—forming our own self-selected families, affinity-based collectives, and/or urban tribes– so that, as we grow and change throughout the next phase of our lives, we continue to learn and draw strength from the crises that defined our formative years.

Beyond Same-Sex Marriage?

Following the victory parties of May and the Pride parties of June, in Minnesota the wedding parties begin this week on August 1. Jaxon and I won’t be doing ours for at least a few years, but the sight of so many people celebrating, many who have been in relationships for decades, was incredibly moving. For me it was especially worthwhile to see the work started by activists in decades past—Jack Baker here in Minnesota, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon even before that—come to some fruition. Amid all the celebrations though, reflecting on this historic achievement has me fearing that for some, the achievement of marriage equality (both here and across the nation) represents the high point or ultimate goal of all those years of work. I fear that other important issues brought to light by GLBT organizers and advocates may be overshadowed, when history tells us something very different about the “homosexual agenda” in total.

A year ago, I did some historical research on the efforts of gay and lesbian activists to establish their own community centers and social services between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. I looked at news articles between 1969, when Stonewall occurred, and 1976, by which point it’s presumed that HIV had entered the U.S. and was spreading rapidly among gay men. Almost everyone who advised me on the project said, “I don’t think you’ll find much information.” Their assumption was that in the era of militant activism, bathhouses, and bars, far less attention was paid to the community’s health and social service needs. The article is due out in a journal this fall, so I won’t say much more about what I found. But—needless to say, I came across plenty of material. Almost from the moment Stonewall occurred, the impulse to build community spread across the nation, fueled in part by coverage in The Advocate and a small handful of other national publications as the time. The focus on human rights undoubtedly led the way, but it felt essential for many gay men and lesbians at the time to build space—community centers, gay-identified treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, sexual health clinics, and more.

What does that history tell us about today? I think it signifies that gaining acceptance in mainstream society is not enough. Queer communities still need spaces imagined, built, and opened for queer-identified people across a spectrum of ages, identities, and experiences. I had a respectful disagreement earlier this winter with a gay service provider, about ten years older than me, who said that among today’s youth, “It just won’t matter, everyone will be accepted. They don’t care if their friends are gay!” The limited information I’ve seen from queer youth studies—especially transgender youth—says something very different. School-based supports were helpful, but in at least one study, Asakura (2010) found a persistent desire among youth to have their own, dedicated queer-identified youth spaces. A recent report on the experiences of older LGBT adults in long-term care facilities details some of the difficulties our elders face as they experience declining health combined with the struggle to be “out” in the world of senior care services. There are still numerous unmet needs out there, and plenty of people who don’t have the support of a middle-class income, an affirming community, or family who welcome their GLBT identities. Marriage equality without a doubt helps many, but not all of us.

The campaign to gain marriage equality (and in Minnesota the preceding fight to oppose constitutional discrimination) served a valuable purpose in educating the larger public about the all-too-human challenges of living a queer-identified life in a heteronormative society. I think, however, there is more to learn. GLBT-identified support services gained their reputations in the community by emphasizing nonjudgmental, empathetic care delivered by people who could relate to the challenges their clients faced. Even in the age of Obamacare, reform of the health care system doesn’t guarantee that someone will find medical or social service support that is knowledgeable and affirming of a GLBT identity. If stigma and discriminatory attitudes among providers already play a role in determining whether queer people utilize the health care system (they do), then reforming the market system alone is not likely to diminish the numerous health disparities queer people still face. For me, the health and human service sector is the realm with the most immediate examples, but I know there must be others as well—social discrimination in the workplace, for example. But, I’ll save that for someone who is more knowledgeable in that arena.

So, beyond same-sex marriage, what is there for GLBT communities to do? Keep building, for starters. Despite the advances of social media, there is still a need for physical spaces, where our more vulnerable members can find safety and acceptance. There are organizations tackling a plethora of issues (HIV, sexual health, substance abuse, homelessness, etc.) that need volunteers, cold hard cash, and energy and imagination. Marriage equality has altered the course of history, in Minnesota and 11 other states at least. People of all ages have the opportunity to learn about the real ways we struggle and triumph in the context of non-traditional relationships. But, I humbly suggest we consider this to be a moment to celebrate before getting back to the long list of challenges still ahead.

The Mid-Summer Reboot

The last time I wrote an entry for the blog, we were in the middle of what seemed like an endless winter. I was writing the specialized paper that would eventually form a major chunk of my dissertation proposal. With the support of my chiropractor, new doctor, and partner, I was starting the hard work of losing what now stands at about 45 pounds of weight through dietary changes and building strength. I was balancing a number of teaching obligations with writing grant proposals on the side, and taking my final elective as a graduate student (ever!). In other words, things got busy.

It’s now mid-summer, and even though we had high heat last week, it already feels to me like August, with the warmth tempered by cooler breezes as I sit working on our porch. Regrettably, the heavy amounts of academic and professional writing have kept me from diving into the more reflective thinking I like to do when I blog. I passed my orals and defended my dissertation proposal in mid-May, finished teaching my summer course earlier this month, and took a rare weeklong vacation in northern Michigan that may inspire a few posts in the coming weeks. But—it took a while to recharge the batteries, and since I should be starting my data analysis soon for the dissertation, I’m not sure how often I will feel like doing my own reflective writing in the coming months.

Still, this space feels important to me, important enough to update now so that I can at least remind myself of the space provided here for conversation (even if it’s mainly with myself). I have a few topics I want to explore, hopefully in the weeks ahead:

– A queer agenda beyond same-sex marriage (and how there has always been one)

– Mentors, protégés, and Doctor Who

– Striking a balance between quality of life and the need to reinvent my career every 4 or 5 years

– Etc.

We’ll see how I do with keeping this up.

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