to the marriage of true minds admit imediments

I'm not in a relationship. I'm not.

I don't want to jinx anything, or jump the gun, but let's just say that interactions with a certain young man have got me thinking a lot recently about relationships and what they might be like. As a member of that rare group of men in their mid-twenties who has never once been anybody's boyfriend (not in high school, not in college), I think I'm uniquely qualified to offer up a few thoughts about the phenomenon as I approach the edge of the precipice.

First: the grass is always greener. When you've never gone steady with anybody, being tied down to some particular someone seems like the fucking greatest thing in the world. You have no sympathy for friends who complain about problems in their years-long relationships. All you can think of is how great it would be to have someone who was committed to you -- just you -- and you think it will totally validate your worth as a person.

I used to always think, "All I really want is to know that there's someone out there who's always gonna be thinking of me as much as I'm thinking of them." When you're in college and you see people who are in relationships, you marvel how they both know the other's class schedule and how they plan their lives around it. It's not so much about the easy access to sex or even affection -- it's really more about the confirmation that you are someone else's top priority, that there's never an instant of the day when someone is not caring about you and wishing you were with them.

And, of course, all of those desires are pretty egocentric. They're more about charting your position on some system of existential coordinates. They're about stating, "I exist, I matter" and needing someone else's confirmation of those statements.

People do have relationships like the one I describe above (especially when they're in college) but are those actually healthy at all? The answer is a resounding no.

I used to go around thinking (and sometimes saying), "How come everyone I know is in a relationship and I never have been? I have SO MUCH love to give. I would be the best, most selfless, most generous boyfriend ever. I would totally never be petty or annoyed. I would just be so appreciative, unlike those ungrateful motherfuckers who take relationships for granted, as if you can just pick them up at the local mini-mart! I am so ready for commitment."

That was then.

Recently, I did some self-assessment and I started to wonder whether, when I die, the deepest, most profound, and most satisfying relationships in my life won't indeed turn out to have been my (numerous) friendships. I've got a lot of really satisfying friendships that I put a lot of effort into and that I get a lot out of. These aren't just people I hang out with, they're people I share my deepest desires and fears with. I'm a pretty committed friend.

I had sort of come around to accepting that reality about myself when it started to seem like maybe actually I might end up having a boyfriend after all. And I started thinking, "Whoa! How is this going to affect my friendships? How is everyone going to cope with me having someone in my life who is suddenly more important than everyone else?"

But that's bullshit.

We're taught -- by movies, reality TV, Victorian novels and Shakespearean plays (basically by works of fiction) -- to prioritize romantic relationships above all others, but not really for any good reason. In modern day America it's assumed that everyone is seeking a life partner, gunning for that marriage announcement in the New York Times (same-sex couples now included!) accompanied by a photo with just two heads in it. You and me against the world, baby. Just the two of us. When you get married, that takes precedence over all the ties that have come before. Just ask Terry Schiavo...

But isn't it possible that someone could be closer to their mother, or their brother, or their housemates or their co-workers or their artistic collaborators than the person they happen to be sleeping or even living with? There are all kinds of ways to piece together a life and all kinds of things that are important. This logic seems kind of weird; it's countercultural. It goes against the cult of Valentine's Day, for sure, and and indeed the cult of marriage as the primary social unit.

Certain pop-cultural products seem to argue implicitly for this position. I'm thinking primarily of certain types of chick flicks (like Beaches) that boil down to, "Boys may come and boys may go, but your girlfriends are what really matter!" The final episode of Sex and the City (I'm told) could be summarized in pretty much this same way, couldn't it?

But that position basically seems to me like a sort of compensation for people who are dissatisfied with failed romance. After all, when's the best time to watch a chick flick? When you've just brken up with your boyfriend!

The position I'm advancing is somewhat more radical, especially in this day and age when the term "sanctity of marriage" gets tossed around as if it were an undeniable truth. What the hell is marriage anyway? In a certain sense, it's not even very Christian. Why should I say I love this person and am committed to him or her more than to anyone else? Wouldn't it be more Christian to live with a whole bunch of people, a community, and to devote the same care and attention to all of them?

In certain other cultures (I understand) the marriage of two people is not the primary defining societal unit. Married couples get absorbed into larger extended family or even village units. The idea of marriage as the fundamental building block of siciety is a symptom of modernity. Some people would probably trace it back to the Renaissance innovation of "marriage-for-love" (perhaps best enumerated by John Milton). In other words, it needn't be so. Society would not dissove if we re-considered the ways in which we pair off.

There's something nice about the idea of having a romantic relationship -- sharing things that are not just sexual with someone, but that are emotionally intimate as well -- but not building it up and saying "This thing must by virtue of being a romantic relationship therefore be the most important thing in my life." Why can't your relationship with your boyfriend be one of many important and un-ranked attachments that you have in your life? Certainly if there weren't so many expectations and significances piled onto our relationships, more of them might work out better or last longer.

I say all this because I'm thinking about this guy and thinking that we may indeed end up saying something to the effect of "I'm going to commit to you exclusively. I'm going to pledge not to have sex with anyone else. I'm going to see you quite a bit." But that doesn't have to mean that I'm going to say, "You're the most important person in my life to the exclusion of all others" or "I'm going to share more with you than with anyone else." Maybe I will come around to saying that eventually, but if I don't there's nothing wrong with that.

We're all hindered, I think, by the idea that our lives have to fit into some kind of acceptable, easily identifiable model. That's one of the problematic side effects of our hetero-normative binary culture. One of the most beneficial aspects of the "queering" of American life has been the small but persistent challenge to the perceived inevitability of pairing off. That's why I am totally in favor of same-sex couples having the right to marry and yet still ambivalent as to whether it's a good thing to promote marriage as the ideal one-size-fits-all social unit. My aunt (a former nun, now basically a celibate sextagenarian) is not married and has never had a romantic partner, yet she's managed to forge some of the most durable, meaningful bonds with other people that I have ever seen.

We lead lives of many different shapes and our connections with others extend outward in many different ways. Haven't we advanced far enough as a species that we can embrace that multiplicity?


testing... testing...

I've got AIDS on the brain.

After reading a troubling (and somewhat overlong) article in the New Yorker last night about rising rates of HIV infection in the gay male population, I spent a significant portion of my time at work today researchig the history of GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis), the first AIDS advocacy group. This was for our June "gay pride"-themed newsletter at work. I came across this quite amazing timeline on the GMHC website. Reading about the early years of the epidemic was revelatory -- these were years that I was living through but the horrors of the disease did not at all penetrate my childhood world. I can remember the Reagan-Mondale election and the Challenger explosion but it was not until Magic Johnson's revelation that I even feel like I had any clue what AIDS was. (A result, probably, of the Reagan-Helms-et al. effort to hide/deny the reality of the disease, an effort that resulted in hugely increasing the number of infections.)

Most significantly for me today, though, I went and got my first HIV test. I am going to come clean to all of you and say that this is because I had some unprotected sex last weekend. I did not know my status at the time (and still don't -- I'll get the results next week). It was a really, really stupid thing for a "smart" guy to do -- especially considering that I was not really drunk, not on crystal meth, and work with HIV/AIDS patients at my job every day.

The thought process when you decide to do that goes something like this: "Well, I've been pretty sexually active for the past year or so but I've mostly used condoms. No one's ever penetrated me without a condom on. I was definitely negative before. I'm probably negative now. I'm giving it to him. He wants it without the condom and it's not really very likely that I'm gonna get it by giving anal sex, is it???" Not the greatest logic. But it's the sort of thing that, when testosterone is rushing into my head, I'm likely to say to myself. And I'm ashamed to say that I might well say something to myself like that again....

Before you start sending me "You're so stupid! What the fuck are you thinking?!?" posts, let me just write my reactions to getting my first test (at a free anonymous New York City testing site).

The place was in Chelsea (that's where I work), but a pretty unfashionable section of it -- nearer to the projects than the trendy clubs. The clinic opened to the public at 8:30am but when I arrived around 8:00 there were already 10-12 people who'd formed a line outside waiting. The group was somewhat amazing: young black males (a couple of whom appeared to be high), young gay white males my age (trendily dressed and reading stylish magazines), a Latina teenager talking non-stop on her cell phone, a very bedraggled and somewhat upset looking middle-aged white woman who looked like she hadn't gotten enough sleep the night before, and even a threesome of one cookie-cutter blonde gay boy and two fag hags who looked liked they'd wandered out of a Sex-and-the-City-fan-club meeting (it was hard to tell which of them was there to test -- were they all?).

We all stood for a good thirty minutes as Parks Department workers used a leaf blower to clean up the courtyard around us. It was hard to know where to look. You didn't want to stare at people too hard because you suspected that some of them were very much on edge and might think you were judging them. There was a weirdly cruisy dynamic among the three or four lone gay men peppered throughout the crowd, each of us trying to be as nonchalant and self-immersed as possible (one of the others had a Norman Mailer book with him that he was reading).

Inside, we sat for a long time in a waiting room as a ten-minute public service announcement about HIV testing played on a video screen in a continuous loop: first in English, then in Spanish, then in English again. Everyone else seemed to be tuning it out after they'd watched it once through, but I couldn't. I hadn't brought any reading material and besides I'm not good at focusing on something else when any kind of media is being projected. I waited a good hour and fifteen minutes before I was called and that video kept playing and playing. Maybe that's the point. To just drill the message in: "HIV can be transmitted by the following bodily fluids -- blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluid, breast milk..." I'm never going to forget that.

I feel a little bit uncomfortable writing this and I don't know how everyone out there is going to react to it, but getting my HIV test sort of made me feel good. And I don't mean good like the people depicted in the video who say things like, "Now at least I know -- what a relief!" (I still don't know and won't until I pick up the results next Friday.) The squeamishness and uncertainty that I felt in that ugly, ugly waiting room feels like a good thing. It brought me down a peg. It's hard to condescend to the elementary tone of the video ("Did you use a condom every time you had sex? Every time?") when you know that you're there because you did something kind of dumb.

There was an incredible frankness and a dropping of pretense in that room. People who wouldn't feel comfortable sitting next to each other on the subway were sitting there wondering lots of the same questions, experiencing the same fears. (Unfortunately, that equality doesn't extend far after someone's been diagnosed -- those with medical coverage and some money to spend on anti-retrovirals have a much easier time of things, as do those HIV positive people who live in communities where being infecting is less suspect and stigmatizing.)

When I went in to be screened by a middle aged Carribbean woman, I had absolutely no problem telling her how many times I'd given it to somebody up the butt in the last three months. It was almost as if everyone in the room had said something like, "OK, this is serious. Let's drop all that bullshit about identity and discomfort and get down to brass tacks."

People who work in HIV prevention often seem to have that bluntness; it can be jarring when you're an extremely sheltered, virginal college freshman arriving at a place where you're obligated to sit through demonstrations of how to place a condom on a wooden penis. No doubt that frankness makes aging, celibate Catholic bishops all the more uncomfortable and thus more intractible when people ask them, "Why can't you distribute condoms in your health clinics in Africa?" But when you work every day under the spectre of that disease, you don't have time for bullshit or niceties. It's all about practicality.

There ought to be a perverse solidarity about AIDS because the virus is so indiscriminate. For so long it was presented as a concern only for "degenerates," but ironically that very stigmatization helped it spread into all communities. We're all sleeping around and AIDS has made that clear. We can't hide under the veil of respectability anymore. Even we who work in social services and have to act all put together and superior to our "clients" day in and day out have to admit that we, too, make stupid choices and fuck up sometimes. AIDS ought to make us rally together, to forget all the small stuff and feel closer to one another. Unfortunately, though -- because of money, race, religious intolerance, and apathy -- that day of universal solidarity is still a long way off.



I didn't plan to write another post about Catholicism. I thought I'd just maintain a "wait-and-see" attitude on Pope Benedict XVI. Though I consider myself a political radical when it comes to issues of war, poverty and justice, I'm not a party-line secular American liberal. When it comes to consideration of the "conservative" opinions on certain thorny issues -- notably right-to-life ones -- I'm inclined to give both sides equal time.

But tonight I read Peter J. Boyer's New Yorker piece on the conservative ascendency in the Church, and it has really shaken me. There are few recent incidents in contemporary Church history that I found more shameful than the effort last year to deny John Kerry (and, as promoted by some extremists, Catholics who voted for John Kerry) communion, ostensibly because of his support for laws that keep abortion legal. I comforted myself, though, with the thought that the American Conference of Catholic Bishops had come down against the politicization of communion, had rejected in effect the single-issue morality that seems to say "one's position on abortion rights is a litmus test that trumps all other factors in determining your allegiance to the faith." The Bishops' position in the past, one to which I still adhere, is that Catholics should embrace a "consistent ethic of life," that rejects not only abortion but capital punishment, war, as well as political and economic policies that contribute to poverty.

It turns out, though, that I was wrong. In fact, as the Bishops were meeting this summer and considering their position, they received a starkly conservative message from the Vatican. This message was suppressed by the more prgoressive leaders of the conference, but was later leaked in the Italian press. It read:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to receive Holy Communion... There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia... [Politicians who support abortion rights should be warned against it, and if] the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.

At one time, that position would have rightly been regarded as a radical fringe opinion, not so much conservative as totally extremist. But the man who wrote those words (less than a year ago), Joseph Ratzinger, is now the Pope.

It's hard to describe how I felt to read that. The sentiment -- to deny the Eucharist in that way, to refuse to distribute a sacrament that all Catholics believe is "life-giving" -- is, in fact, un-Christian. It's medieval. It's despotic and it has really forced me to reconsider a statement that I have often made (without hesitation and often to the shock of liberals in the room) that I would "renounce my American citizenship before I ever renounced my membership in the Catholic Church." I don't know whether I would say that or not any more, but perhaps (according to Pope Benedict), the choice of renouncing isn't mine to make. It seems like they don't want to have me.

Here's another choice (and chilling) quote from the article. This is from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, a leading enforcer of right-leaning orthodoxy:

We're at a time for the Church in our country when some Catholics--too many--are
discovering that they've gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That's sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the Church needs.

Well, there are an awful lot of other "non-Catholics" out there who happen not only to go to Mass, but to pray, to dedicate their lives to charity, to work for social justice, to read Scripture, to spread the Good News, and to remain fervently to Jesus Christ and the saints. I suppose the Chuch would do better without all of us?


local boy

Fo the past several mornings, I have awoken to a series of news stories on WNYC (our local NPR affiliate) about the proposed re-zoning of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Every time I hear anything about this topic, my heart skips a beat. Yes, that's right -- re-zoning gives me palpitations.

Why? Because mulling over issues like that makes me feel like New York is my city. I know where Williamsburg and Greenpoint are. I know a bunch of people who live there (unfortunately, they're the type of hipster artists who are contributing to the area's gentrification). Moreover, I work for a non-profit housing developer. Housing is on my brain all the time. Food and shelter. A living wage. These are the social issues I think about more than anything else. In other words, I've gone back to basics.

On the front page of the New York Times today, there was a picture of some Williamsburg houses with a view beyond of the Manhattan skyline. On the front page of the Times. There have recently been major stories in The New Yorker about Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to built a stadium on Manhattan's far West Side and about yet another proposed stadium in downtown Brooklyn. Does anyone in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles or London really want to read about these matters? Do they care about New York real estate -- in the outer boroughs?!

I haven't read the international news pages in months. Nowadays, I turn right to the Metro section because it feels like that's where the meat of the news is. That's where I'm actually going to learn something. (I apologize for the frequent italicization.) When I was in Oxford, reading the Times online, the stories I clicked on were all Afghanistan, Israel/Paelstine, Colin Powell testifies before the UN. I was imaginatively entering the corridors of world power and filling with righteous outrage at Bush, Blair and Sharon -- inscensed that a cabal of neocons was out to reconfigure the global balance of power!

I've been filled with rage and sadness reading about the casualties in Iraq and the bungled diplomacy in Iran and North Korea. I think I got burnt out on it. John Kerry's entire campaign was fueled by that rage (not in the candidate -- he rarely expressed any strong emotions -- but in the voters who backed him because they thought it would quell the rage). The election of 2004 felt cataclysmic, but no one can live indefinitely at that high a pitch. (Well, I guess some people can, but they become less than human -- policy wonks like Tom Friedman or like many of my fellow international scholarship recipients.)

2005 is an election year, too -- the mayoral election in New York City. And I have a status that I never really had in 2004: I'm a swing voter. Really, I am. This election is so interesting to me because it's cast in shades of gray; it's all about compromise. "I like this guy for this position but not for this one." "Well, he's got a good record on that issue, but what about the stadium...?" On the local level, elections are rarely about "the vision thing"; they're about re-allocation of funds, they're about courting union support, offering goodies to various ethnic constituencies and trying to please a whole lot of different people.

My vote is quite honestly up for grabs. I like Mike Bloomberg quite a lot. There's actually soemthing genuine about a guy who says, "Well, I ran a business pretty well, why not try to run the city?" I don't think anyone believes he became mayor to move onto higher office or to advance the interests of his fellow billionaires. He's done some totally unexpected things, not least of all investing an unprecedented amount of city money and energy towards the goal of ending homelessness (that's right, folks, ending it) through new supportive housing models.

On the left, you've got Democrats complaining about the stadium and calling it a kickback for business interests. Maybe it is, but most of these local Dems don't seem beyond handing out a few kickbacks themselves. I don't know what I think about the stadium plans or all of the other proposed re-development projects. I think it's important that incentives be given for the developers to include affordable units, but then you get into arguments about 20% and 40% and you get a lot of quibbling back and forth about what's really in the city's best interest. Balancing job creation with the preservation of housing for low-to-moderate income people. And those issues can't be resolved easily. There is no clear answer (as far as I know) about what exactly the best formula for economic development is. But they're asking that question. They're asking, "What can the government do to improve the lives of people in this city?"

I'm not set on Bloomberg but I do like the confidence of his vision. I've recently become intrigued by the unfortunately-named Congressman Anthony Weiner as a possible alternative choice. The whole race makes me want to attend a mayoral candidates' forum and to really listen to what they have to say. When was the last time you approached listening to a politician with an open mind, rather than knowing from the get-go whether or not you would wind up indignant after he'd finished?

So much of what I value has to do with community. The theme is a strong throughline in my life -- it comes up in the job I do, in the place and people I live with, in my understanding of my religion. And community is tied inextricably to locality. People come to New York to escape small-town life, expecting to remake themselves in a World Capital that is the equal of Paris or Tokyo etc. etc. But New York is also a small town. Decisions that affect all of us are made by small-minded, unphotogenic career politicians in City Hall or in Albany. No matter how much globalization shrinks the world, everyone will still have to live somewhere, everyone will still have a neighborhood.

Maybe it's because I'm from Boston, but I relate to things that are parochial. I'm drawn to those things in New York that are specific, peculiar, local and not noteworthy on a world scale. Those are the things that can really become yours. They're sized to own. And it seems like the community-level, the level of the parochial is where individual people can really make a differnece.

There's something to be said for thinking small.