Comes Naturally #85 (July 2, 1999):
Celebrations of Diversity


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COMES NATURALLY #85
July 2, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg

CELEBRATIONS OF DIVERSITY

SHE HAS A GIRLFRIEND NOW

It's about as All-American as it gets in Santa Cruz: the year-end talent show at Branciforte Junior High, one of two in the Santa Cruz city school system. "Party of the Millennium" it's called, and by the time we find our way to the gym early in the afternoon, the energy is already bouncing off the walls. Five hundred seventh and eighth grade students swarm through the rather narrow gym doorway, carrying with them a smattering of parents variously negotiating the undertow. There are a mere two weeks left in the school year. The race to the finish line is clearly on, energy rising.

At the door, a cheerful eighth-grader with very red lipstick is handing out programs. She explains politely and earnestly that parents are to sit only in the last two of the many rows of seats laid out across the vast gym floor. The rest of the seats are for the students. Parents are welcome, but definitely peripheral, at this celebration of "musik, musik, musik." So be it. This is a show by the students for the students, although to get on the program, each of the bands, musicians, singing groups, comics, and dance ensembles has had to audition before a screening committee of adults.

We have arrived a bit early, so we get to watch as the place fills up with noise and pubescence -- the girls darting from small group to small group, the boys more quiet and reserved, preserving their cool. It is, I am reminded immediately, a genesis time of life, a time when everyone is busy inventing or borrowing roles, styles, and personae, anxious to discover which fit and which pinch. A lot will happen in the next few years for each of these boys and girls -- these emerging men and women -- that will shape who they will be, how they will think, and what they will do for the rest of their lives. It is a cusp time with regard to a long list of life issues, with sex and gender definitely at or near the top of the list.

After a while the show starts, under the direction of three extremely energetic girls with a lot of both stage presence and poise. With Aretha's top-volume blessing, a line of students runs across the front of the gym carrying letter signs that spell out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, each letter subtitled with some officially sanctioned character trait: responsibility, enthusiasm, politeness, courtesy, trust -- those sorts of things. It is one of the more hopeful national mantras to come out of the Columbine High School eruption: encouraging respect for people who dress, behave and think differently from you. Respect me or I'll kill you, you might say, a peculiarly American route to a universal goal.

A few more students run across the stage, holding big signs that say "APPLAUSE." The assembled students, parents, teachers, and administrators of Branciforte Junior High are happy to oblige.

After a few opening remarks, jokes, and exaggeratedly pseudosexual dance moves by the trio of emcees, the program begins. The opening act is a ska band of five boys called The Skankin' Monkeys that happens to include my 13-year-old stepson, Daniel, playing trombone. They are enthusiastic if unpolished, very much in the spirit of the moment where the watchword is energy, not subtlety. The keyboardist plays I-VI-IV-V over and over, Daniel's horn section holds together reasonably well, and the girl who's singing with the band leans into the microphone with conviction:

She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
Guys don't do it no more for me.

Everyone under 15, it seems, knows this Reel Big Fish song. They're bouncing and singing along as unanimously and patriotically as if we're singing the Marine Corps Hymn. On the other hand, I have to notice, what we're hearing is not the Marine Corps Hymn at all.

She said she found someone who's gonna hold her hand
She said she found someone who's gonna understand
She don't need nobody to be her man
She has a girlfriend now.

I look around the room at the students, the teachers, the parents. Not a ruffled feather in the house, as far as I can tell. The group is back to the chorus now, leading us in a collective, school-sanctioned celebration of girl-girl love:

She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
Guys don't do it no more for me.

Before too long, some 20 or 25 of the girls in this audience will, indeed, have girlfriends, sexual girlfriends, and will be dealing with all the emotional, sexual, and social implications of that, whatever they may be. Some of the girls in the room (and their boy counterparts) may even be dealing with all that already.

The first time each girl enters into that love-sex experience with another girl will certainly be a big deal, no matter how casually everyone seems to be treating this song in the abstract. But, unlike (for example) Kelly Peterson at Salt Lake City's East High School, who went through years of isolation, clinical depression, and repeated suicide attempts before she found the courage to come out as a lesbian, these particular girls will probably realize that they are not heathens or immoral aliens from another planet because of the nature of their sexual feelings. I mean, if everyone at a very public public school event can sing joyfully about teenage girl-to-girl love and desire as one more matter-of-fact part of daily reality, just how weird can it be?

She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
She has a girlfriend now,
Guys don't do it no more for me.

After the show, I ask Daniel if the group got any flack from the school's powers-that-be for singing this particular song. He shakes his head nonchalantly. Daniel's cool. "But they didn't know which song we were going to sing, either," he adds with just the slightest gleam in his eye. "On signs around the school they had it listed as "HE'S Got a Girlfriend Now." A week later, I ask him again if there had been any fallout from the school, objections from parents in the audience. Apparently there was none.

Now, obviously, what happens in liberal Santa Cruz, California, doesn't necessarily speak for what's happening in other parts of the country. When Utah's Kelly Peterson organized the Salt Lake City Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school, and successfully sued to defend her organization's right to exist on campus just like any other school organization, the SLC school board banned all student organizations rather than provide official school recognition of anything as immoral as homosexuality. Peterson said she was sure that someone was going to kill her for coming out as a lesbian. That's the other side of the coin.

But the news is not that there are diehard reactionaries in Salt Like City. The news is that this coin does in fact have two sides -- an easy thing to forget when all the antisexual, antidiversity protests and outbursts have a way of dominating the media. Indeed, if the national Clinton-Lewinsky yawn is any indication, these days the coin comes down on the Santa Cruz side about two flips out of every three.

The times, as I have said in this column many times before, are definitely a-changin'....

* * * * *

OTHER SIGNS OF CHANGE

As recently as 1960, every state in the union sported some sort of anti-sodomy law, regulating what people could and could not do in the privacy of their bedrooms. Today, after successful repeal campaigns in 25 states and state Supreme Court actions in seven more, there are only 18 anti-sodomy states left, with legal challenges to anti-sodomy laws pending in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The latest state to embrace people's rights to engage in what used to be called sodomy was Georgia. Last November, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a law that had been on the books since 1833, typically prohibiting "any sexual act involving the sex organs and one person and the mouth or anus of another."

Lou Sheldon, chairman of the staunchly antisexual Traditional Values Coalition, is predictably and righteously upset when courts that have the audacity to allow what he calls "incestual relationships and moral indecency" to occur in the name of state-sanctioned privacy. Sheldon apparently has trouble sleeping at night because he can't keep himself from fantasizing -- I mean, thinking -- about what other people are doing with their sex organs, mouths, and anuses at the very moment that he is being so good about keeping his hands, mouth, anus, and (other) sexual organs to, or from, himself and everyone else.

Sheldon's sleeplessness was undoubtedly compounded a month or so ago when a federal judge overturned a recently-enacted Alabama law prohibiting the sale of vibrators and anything else "primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith ruled that the issue of how, when, and with what devices people chose to stimulate their genitals, their mouths, their anuses, or any other parts of their body, lacked what he called any "rational relation to a legitimate state interest." That's in Alabama, mind you.

Adding to Reverend Lou's discomfort on yet another front, the board of the American Psychiatric Association recently overturned Gender Identity Disorder as a psychiatric diagnosis, a major victory for transsexual activists. According to the APA board, the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder can itself be problematic because it creates the notion that atypical gender identity is a disease rather than just one more way of defining yourself and relating to the world.

The APA is the accepted authority on who is and who is not mentally ill. It's revered "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" categorizes mental illness into an elaborate scheme of categories that become the basis for a wide variety of legal, medical, and financial determinations, ranging from psychiatric commitments to insurance settlements. Getting GID out of the DSM is no small thing.

(As of this writing, Lou Sheldon Syndrome, a source of extreme emotional distress to an increasing number of people, sometimes resulting in highly antisocial and self-destructive behavior, has not yet found its way into the DSM.)

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF DIVERSITY....

There's a documentary quietly making the limited release rounds that is a bold, thoughtful, and gloriously human statement for diversity in another form, a film that sheds light on yet another group of souls both ridiculed and reviled for daring to differ from the mainstream. The 90-minute production by director Roger Nygard is called "Trekkies," and I'm serious when I say that you should make a serious effort to catch this film before it disappears. No, I'm not some kind of Star Trek fanatic myself. But "Trekkies" is a brilliantly made exploration of the Star Trek counterculture, and it has a lot to say about such fundamental issues as being public about deviance, the wonders of obsession, and the importance of standing up for being who you really are, no matter what the people around you may think.

Of course Trekkies (or Trekkers, as many Star Trek fans prefer to be less derisively called) are hardly in the same boat as gays, lesbians, or transgenderists when it comes to social persecution. Trekkies don't threaten the sexual or gender bedrock of the nation. As a result, as far as I know, no one is getting bashed or murdered for having the nerve to display their Star Trek fascination in public, which means that making derogatory jokes about the get-a-life set is not the same as making derogatory jokes about queers.

But the film rises above a myriad of cheap-shot possibilities and touches on issues of acceptance and diversity that have significance far beyond the realm of Captain Kirk and his admirers. Instead of confirming my preconceptions, the film got me to acknowledge (and even identify with) Star Trek fanatics as delightfully warm, caring, enthusiastic, creative -- if definitely eccentric -- folks, committed to an alternative lifestyle and banding together to develop the heart and soul of their common passion in the face of grand ridicule from dismissive outsiders.

To its credit, "Trekkies" neither minimizes nor sensationalizes its subjects -- some of the more colorfully obsessive members of the far-flung Star Trek family. We meet Barbara Adams, the Arkansas Whitewater juror who boldly wore her Federation uniform to court every day because she felt she owed it to herself and her fellow crew/club members to be her true self while discharging her civic duty. We watch Orlando dentist Denis Bourguignon and his assistants competently work on a patient's cavities, dressed in full Vulcan uniform, in the context of the elaborately theme-decorated office that Bourguinon calls "Starbase Dental." We listen in on a group of students conjugating verbs in Klingon. We accompany a group of elaborately costumed Klingons as they descend on a local McDonald's, fully enjoying the opportunity to have every day be Halloween. We are escorted through a Star Trek convention by charming, 15-year-old Gabriel Koerner, who shows us his special world of meticulously-designed uniforms and collected memorabilia with completely lovable (and articulate) adolescent fervor, while his father beams with paternal support and pride. We hear the members of one Trekkie club explain with genuine humor and warmth what a good time they all have, getting together -- adults and kids -- to indulge their mutual obsession.

What's wrong with being different? these people ask, again and again. And what's wrong with being obvious about being different in public? If it gives people pleasure, if it doesn't hurt anyone, if it is grounded in warmth, compassion, creativity, and imagination, why all the ridicule? And if it brings a sense of personal fulfillment, isn't it important to transcend the ridicule and proudly celebrate being who you really are?

While "Trekkies" shows some fans who get rather glassy-eyed about their particular Star Trek niches, most of the people just seem to be enjoying their obsession without any grand loss of social perspective. For the most part, it is a film about real heart, creativity, interpersonal connection, and the fulfillment that comes from embracing one's passion to an extent that outsiders are likely to find extreme and discomforting.

We see parents loving their kids, kids appreciating their parents, all sorts of people essentially being very good to each other and enjoying the pleasure of each other's company. We see people understanding that, when you're radically different from everyone around you, it's a good idea to gather together for both interpersonal and cultural support. We see cheerful, intelligent, creative people who not only have lives but who clearly have lives that are richer and fuller because they have chosen self-expression and personal fulfillment over social acceptance and conformity.

All in all, the principals in "Trekkies" come across as courageous rather than pathetic, complex rather than simple-minded, committed rather than commitable. They seem, for the most part, to have their passion in perspective, to have both their obsession and their lives in the world. They are able to laugh good-naturedly about themselves and the unusual places their world takes them, and also to laugh or sigh at the closed-minded outsiders who simply don't understand what they feel obliged to deride.

"Trekkies" probably won't be around very long -- no one seems to be making much of a fuss about this film. But if you miss it on the big screen, it's the sort of no-frills film that will be perfect to watch on video. As Castaneda's Don Juan was fond of saying, in the end all paths lead nowhere, so the real question is whether a path has a heart. Much to this non-initiate's surprise, the Trekkie world seems to be full of heart indeed, with a strong lesson about the celebration of difference.

[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 eronat@aol.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)
eronat@aol.com


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