Building New Sodom
Afternoon, I'm THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!! That's capital T H E dot dot dot dot Sodomite Hal Duncan exclamation mark exclamation mark, so named in a lovely piece of hatemail from one whose linguiphilia, shall we say, shone through in their exuberant overuse of excess capitalisation and spurious punctuation. Not just some Sodomite, not just the Sodomite, but THE Sodomite. And not just the customary three full stops to signify a pause for effect, but four! Clearly being a queer, there's just a little extra... drama in my dramatic pause. Not just a single sad solitary exclamation mark either, but two, standing solidly together, upright and firm, proud as the morning glory of two cocks in frottage.
So... THE... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!
I guess that means I speak for Sodom. Fair enough. We have no ancient homeland to return to, we Sodomites, just a wasteland of salt, but I'll speak for the New Sodom that's being built in every gay village in every city in every corner of the world, in every online community where we connect with others like ourselves. In every gathering like this, in every heart in this room. Take a look around you, at your new neighbours.
Welcome to New Sodom.
Brothers and sisters--no, siblings, citizens, we who were born into exile are tasked with the reconstruction of a city in which every faggot is welcome. No, every freak. The New Sodom I'm talking about is not just for the queer in terms of sexuality. To be queer is to be deviant from a default, from a normative Us defined by the exclusion of an abject Them. Even white is an artificial default defined thus, a pretended absence of colour, an identification of all who have darker skin as deviant from the default, exotically Other, ethnically queer. If default can mean white, straight, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, male... we only have to look at the exclusion of women to know that this default, this normative, is not even always the majority. What unites us as citizens of New Sodom is not that we are members of one minority or of various minorities. What unites us is that we're queer, in whatever respect. And we are many.
Being many, we have the power, I truly believe, to build this New Sodom, in our culture, in every progressive work of fiction, on the page or the screen. To reconstruct the city of the soul--call it Babylon or Byzantium or Birmingham--to rebuild it as a place of social justice. As audience or artist, we're always already rebuilding the city we live in, in the narratives we construct and consume. This is why I want to talk today about one specific problem in the fiction that has built and is still building a city that is not New Sodom, a city in which the abject continues to be misrepresented and excluded. I want to put a name that you will recognise to the system we're living in, in which members of myriad abject groups are not welcome at the heart of narrative, where they're allowed in only to perform certain roles of service to the normative protagonist--as the Gay Best Friend, the Magic Negro.
I say it's time to raise the sword of a word, to bring it sweeping down and cut the Gordian Knot of tangled discourse, to cut the crap and call this system what it is:
The status quo in the media, in our narratives, is segregation. It’s a state in which members of abject groups--black, queer, whatever--are deemed to not belong as main characters. This is the segregation of not being able to sit at the front of the bus. The abject may be allowed in as an exception if this “serves the plot” if there's a reason for the character’s gayness. This is the segregation of being stopped in a white neighborhood and challenged on your purpose in being there. The abject may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist. This is the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.
It’s segregation for the readers too. They may be able to go to a little corner of the genre where the stories speak directly to them--a gay imprint like Lethe Press, a magazine like Icarus, queer cinema, black fiction. This is the segregation of the ghetto. While this holds, for all that the abject may appreciate much in the narratives they’re written out of, the constant awareness of their erasure from these narratives is a barrier that prevents full enjoyment, an unwelcome sign that says, “No Blacks” or “No Gays” which they must choose to ignore. This is the segregation of water fountains at which the abject cannot drink and be refreshed as the normative can.
Segregation. I do not use this word lightly. I use it literally, not figuratively. I'm saying that segregation can be enforced normatively rather than legally, that prescribing the role you can play in a narrative is no less segregation than prescribing the seat you can take on a bus. And as these fictional narratives we construct and consume shape our readings of the world around us, segregation in them plays out in practical, physical limitations on where you can go without challenge.
What happens when narratives are segregated like the buses of Alabama in 1963? A kid coming back from the shops with Skittles gets followed by someone who can only see him in the role that segregated narrative has prescribed for him. That kid gets challenged because narrative after narrative says he doesn't belong in this neighbourhood. He gets shot and killed because narrative after narrative has allowed in black male teens only in a certain seat at the back of the bus, in the shadows, as a threat. And his killer walks free because all the jurors have read or watched that same narrative over and over again, so many times they actually consider the paranoid fear of a kid with Skittles to be reasonable.
This is what happens when your narratives are segregated, excluding the abject from protagonist roles, boxing them into bigoted clichés, thugs in hoodies.
This is what happens when your cheap and easy hackwork consistently erases the permutation in which the abject is central subject, the PoV character to whom the stalker in the car is the threat.
This is what happens when you blithely construct a culture of narratives in which it's second fucking nature to cast Muggers No.1, 2 and 3 with black skin.
This is what happens when you can't even write a black cop without giving him a stereotypical gang kid backstory---like his innately violent nature has to be "redeemed."
This is what happens when systemic segregation in narrative wires the bigoted clichés so deep, it defines how real life scenarios are read and in a vicious circle defines the stories real life inspires you to write.
This is what happens when every single Hollywood movie on a 2011 IMDB official list of the Top 50 Sci-Fi movies has a white lead:
The Empire Strikes Back
A Clockwork Orange
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Back to the Future
Return of the Jedi
V for Vendetta
Children of Men
Bride of Frankenstein
Planet of the Apes
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Iron Giant
This is what happens when you lie to yourself that segregation doesn't exist, or that you're not swayed by its constant agitprop.
This is what happens when you think you're "not racist," but you don't even notice the absence of the abject on lists like the one I've just rattled through.
This is what happens when you resist pressure for social awareness in your subculture with denials, excuses and rhetoric of "PC fascism."
This is what happens when you blithely dismiss the import of bigoted clichés in fiction because that fiction pleasures you like a ten dollar hustler.
This is what happens when you automatically write a black male teen into the narrative you're constructing in the cliché role allotted him: threat.
This is what happens when you just don't, can't, won't construct your narrative with the black male teen in the central role, protagonist imperiled, a kid walking home from the shops, with a creepy-ass cracker as the true threat in the story.
What happens is murder with impunity.
I'm talking about race here because it's the obvious inroad to treat of segregation in racial terms. And because as a queer man, I feel solidarity with people of colour in a struggle that's shared in the abstract even if it's very different in the specifics of the prejudices. But most of all, as a white queer man, it's not my responsibility to fix your homophobia. It is my responsibility to fix my racism. When I talk about building New Sodom, desegregating narrative to stop refusing the abject protagonist roles, stop boxing them into bigoted clichés, it's not just about me as a queer man claiming seats for queers at the front of the bus; it's about me as a white man refusing to countenance the exclusion of people of colour from such a seat. Or people of disability, transgender, women, whatever. This is the ideal I mean when I talk of building New Sodom.
Still, being where we are, let me give a queer example of the sort of segregation to be found in fiction right now.
Only a few months back, from the pen of David S. Goyer, writer of the Chris Nolan Batman movies, Starz gave us Da Vinci's Demons, a fantasy adventure TV series based real loosely on the Renaissance painter I like to call THE.... Sodomite Leonardo da Vinci!! Here's a quote from the historical Leo:
"The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions."
Not a lover of the vagina, methinks. If you're not convinced, Leo also said this:
“A man who is ashamed to show or name the penis is wrong. Instead of being anxious to hide it, man ought to display it… with honour!”
I don't know about you, but to me... arguing for men to get their cock out, trying to persuade a bloke to drop his britches in the fifteenth century equivalent of a Tumblr selfie... it bespeaks a certain motivating orientation. Come on, man. Don't hide that cock away. Put it on display. Get that glorious virile member out for us all to admire. R U cut or uncut? Can you self-suck? SHOW COCK BB! When people talk about the gay agenda, I gotta say, destroying traditional marriage, undermining the fabric of society... not really priorities. Seeing the cock however. Ass is even better in my book, but hey, I guess Leo was a bottom. To each their own.
So, THE... Sodomite Leonardo da Vinci!! Cock-hungry power bottom. But in a system of segregation, the queer doesn't belong in that seat at the front of the bus, in the role of hero. This is so established, so enforced by our notions of the normative, that when news of Da Vinci's Demons hit, did anyone for a second expect the character not to be straightironed? Not me. Even before clicking through the link to the first trailer, I knew that Leonardo would have his sexuality erased, reset to the default. I expected this.
What I didn't expect--foolishly--was to see the queer snuck back aboard, to the shadowy back seats where the Predatory Pederast sits beside the Castrating Bitch, the Bitter Cripple, the Scheming Jew... and the Gangbanging Nigger, the vile lying spectre of a narrative role into which Zimmerman and the jury thought it was reasonable to place Trayvon Martin. What I didn't expect was for the erasure of Da Vinci's sexuality to have its flipside in the creation of not one but two Evil Predatory Pederasts. In the first ten minutes.
First, after a brief flashforward, in what's basically the opening scene, we get the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Mario Sforza. A short while later, we get Pope Sixtus the Fourth. If the system of segregation makes it eye-rollingly predictable that the hero would be straightironed, it's interesting to note what's done with these two characters, particularly the first, the Duke of Milan, who... well...how can I put this delicately? No, fuck that shit. Let me put this indelicately. The historical Duke of Milan was a cuntfucker.
I mean this both literally and figuratively. On the one hand as a simple natural analogue to cocksucker--which I'll happily own. On the other hand, figuratively, as a combination of cunt and fucker that combines the force of the two while transferring the contempt from a perfectly lovely piece of female anatomy to the fucker who approaches it with contempt. The point is, if ever a man was fit to be called a cuntfucker, it's Sforza who, according to Wikipedia, was as keen on putting the peepee in the vageegee as Leo was against it. In the figurative sense too, he was as cruel as you could ever want a character to be for narrative purposes. He had a poacher force-fed an intact hare with its fur still on. Another man he nailed alive to his coffin. Actually, he combined the two senses of cuntfucker into the perfect storm of cuntfuckery, in his reputed tendency to rape the noble wives and daughters of Milan. Not a nice man, in short.
So, how do we meet this monster in the opening scene of Da Vinci's Demons? How is his depravity demonstrated? We see him naked at the window of his palatial bedchambers, pissing in a chamberpot, turning back to his canopied bed, to pull aside the curtains...
"Out you go, boy." he says disdainfully, and tosses clothes to the naked young man revealed in his bed. He slaps the pretty youth's ass as the boywhore toddles to the door, tosses a coin or two, and turns away in utter disregard. In an instant, we know that he's a debauched powermonger of debased lusts, an amoral user of people, taking what he wants, throwing scraps of coin in contempt--less in payment than as sign of his ownership of your ass. In the phrasing used later, he's "a pig of epic appetites." A cuntfucker, as I say, and what better way to show this than to signal it with sodomy as subjugation?
If Da Vinci has been straightironed, the historical queer refused a seat at the front of the bus, not belonging there unless and until rendered straight, then Sforza has been gaybent, the historical straight not seated at the back of the bus until put into the blackface of a wholly fabricated queerness. Goyer takes this murderous misogynistic rapist, ignores his crimes, and flips his sexuality in order to render him instead as a stereotype of a vicious sodomite, this sin of subjugating sodomy an offhand narrative shortcut for the character's moral turpitude.
I can only guess that cramming a live hare down a man's throat just wouldn't do to establish Sforza's credentials as a man of vice. I can only surmise that nailing a man to a coffin was inadequate to purpose. To me, an act of brutal torturing cuntfuckery seems a pretty good way to establish brutal torturing cuntfuckery. Surely then, there must be some other narrative purpose an historically accurate Sforza would fail to achieve. Whatever might that be?
Where the historical Sforza fails is simply in advancing the segregationist cause. What the gaybent Sforza achieves is not just the visceral contempt of bigotry invoked in the audience. As an ersatz example of the abject being despicable, the gaybent Sforza offers a double-whammy: the validation of that contempt, justifying the bigotry such that subsequent exploitation is all the more likely and all the more effective.
So, only a few minutes later, we get another Predatory Pederast. In the centre of a large indoor pool, submerged with only their heads and shoulders exposed, are Sixtus and another pretty young naked man. Sixtus is embracing him from behind, a Freudian knife at the lad's throat, poised to penetrate tender flesh. As Sixtus plays rapey power games we get a clear shot of the youth's genitals, shaved to boyish hairlessness, flaccid in his vulnerability. They're off-screen when Sixtus grabs them, but we're left in no doubt that he does so, in no doubt that the evil rape-faggot Sixtus is fluffing that cock, forcing a physical response even as he threatens murder. Which is shortly performed.
Sforza was just an opening act to the this full-fledged monster--murderous, manipulative, a sadist who's gone so deep into the heart of Sodom he's found himself in Salo. It's a henchman that does the deed, Count Riario, but just for good measure, just in case we forgot which sexuality belongs in which narrative role, he's a queer predator too. He gazes admiringly upon the lad, no small sincerity in his voice as he draws his sword--"I am truly sorry"--and wades into the pool to slaughter the boywhore. Another sodomite, it seems, favourite of his papal uncle--buttfucked by him, I'll bet, into his black-hearted wickedness.
This is mainstream television. This is a series renewed before it was even aired, written by the man who scripted the fucking Dark Knight movies. This is agitprop being forced down the throat of every single viewer tuning in for some harmless hokum. It would barely be more blatantly so if it were a TV show on the World War Two adventures of Alan Turing which rendered him as a red-blooded womaniser, and opened on a scene of a black Hitler and a Jewish Himmler murdering a blond Aryan rentboy they'd just spit-roasted.
But the point of this is not to accuse David S. Goyer or Da Vinci's Demons of homophobia, as if these bigoted clichés were only spewed out here and there, whenever this writer or that work fell victim to their own prejudice. The point is, the driver and the bus may well be simply going along with the prejudice of the system. It's segregation that sits the straight guy in the front seat as hero, with the driver not even noticing. It's segregation that sits so many queers at the back of the bus that, as the villain takes his seat in the shadows, the driver automatically paints him queer in his imagination. And every time this happens, with every segregated narrative, with every journey we take as readers or viewers along for the ride, we're being taught to apply that segregation to the narrative of reportage or courtroom testimony.
We may have progressed to the point where the fabulousness of all those Gay Best Friends at least undermines the fear loaded into all the Predatory Faggots. The gay panic defense was thrown out of court for Matthew Shepard's killers. Not so with the black panic defense, successful last month, sustained in a court of law by every fictive iteration of the Gangbanging Nigger trope. It's not just a vague and nebulous racism that led to Trayvon Martin being killed and his killer being acquitted. In the culture of narratives that we create and consume, there is a mechanism, a system, nurturing specific paranoid prejudices, sustaining bigoted clichés that filter our vision.
Only by recognising that system for what it is can we deal with it, as we must and as we can. If we can desegregate the buses, we can desegregate narrative. When it comes to fictional representation of the abject, if we can understand what we are striving for as desegregation, articulate it as such, there is no argument against this. Otherwise? Simply demand better treatment for queer characters, and they'll say we're demanding special treatment; they'll call it political correctness. They'll say we want leather armchairs at the back of the bus. Simply demand more queer protagonists, and they'll say we're demanding quotas. They'll say we want seats set aside for us at the front, even at the expense of some poor old white fart called Art.
Demand desegregation, and all this straw man bullshit is exposed for what it is. As citizens of New Sodom, what we are asking for is only the dismantling of the system's constraints. This is not a politically correct demand for quotas. We do not want a queer character in every TV show, only to know that we are as likely to find them there as elsewhere, as likely to find them there as in reality, and not in service to the straight white hero, not as second-class citizens of the imagination, but as equals. We do not want a set number of seats allocated for us at the front of the bus. It is simply that we will no longer tolerate being sent to the back. We will not tolerate segregation.
Segregation. I know that for me this word resounds in my head and heart with a note so deep and loud it rattles the soul. Its toll is that of the heaviest of bells, for its weight is its own history, and all that history echoes in every utterance. In 1963, the Birmingham Campaign formed to fight segregation in Alabama. Fifty years on, and it is long past time that segregation was ended even in its subtlest, most insidious forms, even where it's prescribing narrative roles rather than bus seats. People of colour, queers, whatever, we can no longer countenance the abject being allowed into the gated neighbourhoods of our narratives only in the uniforms of service that segregation demands. We will no longer see our citizens-- siblings or selves--turned away from the water-fountains.
What we're asking for is not special treatment. It is no more and no less than that when we are thirsty for the stories that replenish the soul--because this is what all art does, high or low--that when we are thirsty for a tale that can speak to us as much as to any other, we are not turned away from the water fountains of the normative, forced to walk across the street to special water fountains set aside for us, to quench that thirst. If we will not be sent across the street to drink in silence, then we must gather at those water-fountains where the signs still hang, and call our exclusion and misrepresentation for what it is, and cry out for desgregation until those signs are torn down. We will no longer be turned away from the water-fountains, for this water is the water of life, and it is and must be for all who are thirsty.