COMES NATURALLY #47
Spectator Magazine - June 29, 1996
(c) David Steinberg
Assaults on Conventional Heartland: Rodman, Ryan, Ritual, and Restraint
Dennis Rodman as the Archangel Gabriel: For Unto Us a New World Is Born
They're right, you know, these right-wing ideologues, when they say that loosening up the rules about gender, gender roles, and sexual orientation leads directly and inevitably to the disintegration of the most basic and cherished foundations of social order and propriety.
We laugh at them for their terror, but they are quite correct to be shaking in their boots, them that need to have things be just as they have always been to feel safe and secure. The times are changing as sure as my name is World Wide Web and there's nothing so terrifying as watching historical change come down the track at you like an earthquake or a twister or a hurricane or a flood. Puts us mere mortals in our place: minor players in the natural order of things.
Sure, history can be pushed around a little bit here and there by the efforts of a few Great Men and Great Women, or by the effects of consciously organized social and political movements. But history is also a force of nature, powerful and unstoppable as glaciers, the seasons, or the tides, and when it's time for one kind or another of fundamental social or cultural restructuring to happen, it's going to happen about whether you or I, Bill Clinton or Jesse Helms, likes it or not.
Sandbagging the levees to keep natural forces away from our need to subject them to unnatural controls takes what Barry Goldwater once called eternal vigilance, and a whole lot of time, money and effort besides. And even then, the rising tides have a way of triumphing over our puny efforts to make Mother Nature behave. One day you notice a little leakage from between a few the sandbags. The next thing you know a whole damned section of the levee is gone and the great weight of water that once stayed in its assigned channels is swirling willy-nilly down the center of Main Street, causing all the good dry people to get their feet uncomfortably wet and getting oh-so-distasteful water stains on their just-so shoes besides.
"Historical inevitability," Marx called it. A horrible force to be on the wrong side of. Sort of like the Wrath of God, for those who believe in such things.
Well, the way I see it, the waters of sexual and gender role change are running deep in Main Street, U.S.A. these days -- despite the Republican-controlled Congress, despite the increase in gay bashings, despite the fringoid rantings of Phyllis Schlafly, despite the Communications Decency Act. I call attention to what may well be obvious because I think we -- the advocates, promoters, and well-wishers of sexual change -- in our upset over the rear-action ballistics of sexual conservatism in retreat -- tend to lose sight of the fact that Historical Inevitability and Mother Nature, if not the God of Their Fathers, happen to be firmly rooted on our side of the Cultural War barricades.
I mean, just take a look at the Dennis Rodman phenomenon, now all over the media as the release of his #1 national best-selling memoir, Bad As I Wanna Be, coincides with everyone witnessing his spectacular rebounding as a major factor in what I assume will be the Chicago Bulls' sweep of the NBA playoffs (the last -- I mean fourth -- game of the series with the Seattle Sonics is tonight as I write this). We now have a major male athlete/role model to the youth of America being interviewed on national tv in full drag costume and make-up, and quoted all over the news media talking (albeit as coyly as his ex-sweetheart, Madonna) about his fantasies of and experimenting with being sexual with other men. And this is happening, not in some fringe outpost of leftist idiosyncrasy like South-of-Market San Francisco, but right smack dab in the courtyard of one of the few remaining citadels of conventional masculinity: professional sports.
Professional sports and basic training for the military are as rockbottom, old-fashioned masculine as it gets in this culture. That's why it's so important to the old-fashioned guys to keep the girls and the queers out of these last remaining Estrogen Free Zones. And that's why when Dennis Rodman, super athlete, steals offensive rebounds with an AIDS-awareness ribbon dyed into his hair, it's a whole different level of challenge to the gender-rigid, heterosexist status quo from, say, Billie Jean King coming out lesbian. Women who are athletes, after all, have crossed traditional gender role lines long before they begin to talk publicly about their sexual orientation. Sure, it's major for any nationally known celebrity to come out gay or bisexual. But for the public to learn that Martina Navratilova is lesbian is like finding out that Mikhail Baryshnikov is gay: surprising, but not all that surprising. Rodman flaunting himself as a bisexual crossdresser is equivalent to Miss America, archetype of conventional femininity, talking about her sexual fantasies about other contestants in the Pageant, or showing up for a tv interview with a moustache, cigar, and suit, passing for male.
That, too, will happen one of these days, perhaps even one of these days in the not-too-distant future. But Dennis Rodman is happening now, and even if Rodman is full of bullshit hype and unabashed self-promotion, he is making a deep crease in the American sexual/gender psychic landscape, make no mistake about it.
How One Crack in the Status Quo Leads to Another
Joan Ryan recently did a brilliant piece in the Chronicle about how gay men feel about Rodman. In it she quotes one gay man getting to heart of the matter. When it comes to "gay kids thinking about suicide," he says, Rodman "can change the way the look at themselves.... It helps kids not feel ashamed of what they're feeling." Exactly.
It's no coincidence that the best piece in the mainstream press about Rodman is written by a woman who has herself crossed the line of gender propriety, fighting her way into the once-exclusively-male locker room club of professional sportswriters. Ryan, for my money, is the best of the women in her field. Because she is in place as an influential commentator, because that break in the traditional gender levee came about some years ago, some real discussion of Rodman's significance now appears in print. Without a Joan Ryan around, without some perspective from outside the traditional defense of masculinity as we once knew it, people like Rodman could be dismissed with an avalanche of hype and bad jokes -- the way traditional gender roles are usually defended against occasional deviants
Thus Alex Tresniowski, writing about Rodman in People magazine, sees little more than "a fiercely proud misfit who simultaneously wants to shock the world and be embraced by it" -- one weird guy, in other words, that we don't need to take too seriously. But Ryan rejects the obligatory rolled eyes, ego-attacking rejoinders, takes Rodman seriously, and uses her journalistic smarts to ask the real questions that Rodman's existence raise. She does her homework. She seeks out at a bar in the Castro and talks with different gay men about how they think Rodman may advance, or impede, the acceptance of gay athletes by the culture at large. She gets beneath the surface glitz and glare to look at the issues underneath that are just waiting to be addressed, but are more customarily swept under the cultural rug.
"More than any other cultural institution," Ryan insists, "sports shapes our concept of the masculine ideal. Rodman is redefining what that means. He is addressing homosexuality in a way no other American male athlete has since former Dodger Glenn Burke." (Burke, by the way, was a gay ballplayer whose career was devastated by his not-particularly - concealed homosexuality, even though Burke didn't publicly come out until after his career was over.) Some of the men in the bar feel that Rodman is too weird, too flamboyant, to help mainstream America be more accepting of gay athletes. They wish he were more of a regular guy type. Others disagree, feeling that just by raising the issue publicly Rodman is performing a service. Ryan, of course, takes for granted that acceptance of gay male athletes is a positive goal, rather than a dangerous assault on all that is True and Good. She clues her readers into the fact that "a couple of former 49ers" frequent gay bars in the Castro, although she doesn't give away their names.
Drip, drip, drip. No wonder Reverend Lou Sheldon is in such a state.
...And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
Which is a weak segue to the issue of gay marriage, another attack on a once-sacrosanct bastion of the status quo. Once again, I think it's easy to miss the forest for the trees here. The thing that is most significant about the public discussion of gay marriage is not that social conservatives are pushing through Congress an ineffectual and certain to be overturned as unconstitutional law-for-show, not that Bill Clinton is ducking the issue in order to try to carry states like Texas and Illinois in the November elections. What's significant, as far as I'm concerned, is not that 63% of Americans are opposed to including gays within the privileged institution of marriage, but that fully 29% of Americans support gay marriage.
I may just be an old fuddy-duddy here, but it seems to me that even having this issue up for public discussion is a major sign of radical change. Marriage, after all, is the most conventional of all social signifiers, more rockbed (even) than professional sports. And yet, in these supposedly reactionary times, when fear of change and social disintegration is sweeping the land and everyone trembles at the supposedly omnipotent influence of the teleministry, 29% of all Americans -- that includes the folks in Dallas, Des Moines, and Muncie, Indiana -- have loosened their thinking about both homosexuality and this bastion of social tradition to the point that the genders of the people partaking of the sacrament of ultimate societal endorsement can be rendered irrelevant.
Not that there is any question whatsoever about the propriety or the simple necessity of extending the privileges of marriage to gay couples. Marriage, of course, is at least as significant legally and financially as it is culturally symbolic. It is the basis of a wide range of very substantial and material benefits ranging from income tax savings to health benefits to custody of children. Access to socially and legally sanctioned partnership is as basic an issue of first-class citizenship as equal rights to jobs, housing, or schools.
But just because something is right doesn't mean that it's popular, and yet 29% of Americans are able to think clearly about this issue, even though it puts everyone smack up against some very basic and primal social training, ingrained from Day One or so, about The Way It Spozed to Be. Tiered wedding cakes with tuxedoed grooms and long-trained brides on top. The whole bit. Millions of families have come to a state of war just over trifling with the most minute of detailed interpretation of this hardcore social issue.
Support for gay marriage may not become the codified social norm this year, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall. No wonder dyed-inthe -wool conservatives are in a panic. The lavender tide is indeed at hand. The real homosexual agenda -- not to convert the general public to homosexuality but to gain public acceptance of and respect for homosexuality -- is, in fact, coming about, as surely as the rising of the moon.
On a Smaller Scale...
I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with The House of Differences - - the delightfully user-friendly house of kink tucked away in an unassuming and probably unsuspecting neighborhood on the Southern side of San Francisco -- during their "CyberKink '96" Multi-Media Event and open house, celebrating their second anniversary. There was art and photography by Michael Rosen, Ann Sherry, Suzanna Shuback, and Jay Moyes on the walls; performance pieces ranging from scenes for show to slave dance to bondage sculpture; and the delightful company of a generally friendly, fun-loving, and unpretentious gaggle of kink enthusiasts. All mixed with a digital tour of kinky Cyberia via the House of Differences' clever little website -- www.differences.com to the technologically literate. I was sorry I couldn't stay for the whole afternoon of events, or for the play party that followed in the evening, but the easy atmosphere and good collection of folks was a real pleasure for the time I was able to be there. For more information on House of Differences, call (415) 585-9662. Of course, if there's a website there's also an email address: Elizabeth@differences.com.
One Last Addendum
Just to clean up pone piece of old business, when I put together my review of Male to Female, Vivienne Maricevic's wonderful book of photographs of transvestites and male-to-female transsexuals, I neglected to mention that information about how to actually purchase the book -- for people who don't have access to all the resources of the grand San Francisco Bay -- is available by phone at (800) 338-BOOK. You'll actually have to pickup a telephone, though; no e-mail or website address for this one.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.