Monday, May 19, 2014


A child should be embraced in loving arms as the first container of life outside the womb.  This is a given of survival.  Even before birth the child is experiencing and creating the contents of his own brain/body which are interwoven through the process of being alive, centered in the bony chalice of the brain, flickering chemical/electrical neurons weaving patterns that are the floor of the rest of identity.  By the time the baby gets to language, the patterns are entrenched and unconscious.

What the circumstances of birth and the ensuing years will establish to the rest of society is what category to put you in.  The first decision will be “like me” versus “other”.  Then “others to be feared,” and “others who should fear you.”  What all that means in terms of attitudes and behaviors is the source material for novels and psychotherapy.  Some distinctions are so subtle they are hard to understand for those outside the system: can you tell a Hutu from a Tutsi?  Even they had to resort to documentation.

The attitude of separation ends in differences in survival and encourages the polarizing of continuums into binaries.  Lately we’ve been challenging the binaries of gender identity, not least because such dichotomies underlie prejudices that damage the whole culture and destroy lives, even entitling murder directly by violence or indirectlys by withholding the basic needs for life, not excluding meds, but including food, shelter from weather, basic cleanliness, safe sleep.

I’m talking about the category of “boys.”  

Big and little, blonde or black, thin or thick, cheerful or morose, “nice” or “wicked.”

There is another set of binaries that controls how we react to these differences. Among a myriad of reactions is the idea that we will kill the bad ones.  Or we will “save” them by taking them home and making them be like us.  We will use them for our own purposes, whether chimney-sweeping or as sexual objects.  We will consider them toys, playing with them so they are made fools or maybe in "good" play so that they pass small hurdles that improve their skills.  We can teach them to belong to us or to belong to themselves.  But they are not belongings.

We are slow to realize that it’s possible to be a mix of boy/girl -- anatomically. hormonally, psychologically.  A “boy” can feel he is really a “girl” or a “boy” can actually have the nuclear DNA code for “girl”.  More than that, there are many dimensions to being one gender rather than another:  physically, boybrain-shaped (yes, there are differences), and testosterone-powered boys might nevertheless be disinterested in what the culture thinks a male should be, which is to say:  physical to the point of violence; competitive; scientific; dominating; tolerant of grease, dirt and pain; indifferent to aesthetics and nurturing; constantly “up” for sex.  All these are arbitrary markers for the cultural container we call “men” or “boys.”  Conan the Barbarian fits, but the man who invented the character of Conan does not.

A certain kind of man -- obviously an aggressive, powerful, competent person -- might have a son who is thoughtful, even poetic, slight, better at reading than manual labor -- and might interpret that son as “girlie.”  Using the only tools he has, he might try to shape the boy as a blacksmith shapes metal:  hot rage, steady pounding.  Since boys are not horseshoes, the result might be a smashed container for a life.

Now that we’re beginning to accept the container we call gay, we still have a lot of sorting to do in terms of other sub-aspects.  Consider the possibilities.

A boy who is physiologically an outlier on the spectrum of possibilities: an “elf” or an “orc.”

A boy who simply doesn’t match the culture that contains him.

A boy who reaches adolescence and -- when his hormones turn on -- finds his desire is atypical or low-powered or uncomfortably high-powered. 

A boy who realizes that his sexual desire is focused on his own sex instead of the opposite, but not other gays -- only straight guys.

A boy who is abused so much that he is confused about whom to love, how to love, how desire is different from love, which is different from the expectations of the culture.

A boy who desires sex with one gender but prefers forming bonds/attachments of intimacy with the opposite gender.  There are other ways of dividing up the dimensions of gender distinctions among different cultural “containers.”  Aggressively physical in dance instead of sports; delicately creating porcelain objects instead of welded steel public art.

Some aspects of this will be considered transgressive by the culture, at least one culture, and may be punished.  For instance, drug-taking or sexwork.  The punishment may be overt, like confinement by this incarceration-crazed society, the ultimate idea being that containing is what imposes order.  Or it can be exclusion from all containers, even locking the dumpsters that are a source of food for street people.  Like other feral and wild mammals, these boys are forced to find or make burrows, nests, out of the debris of a culture so rich that it cannot help excreting, dumping, trashing -- people as well as objects.  People forced to BE objects in solitary confinement that empties their bone chalice skull, snuffs out the fire that burns there.

Then there are the diseases, but none of diseases is specific to males.  NONE.  (Maybe sperm diseases.)  Microbes don't care about human sex.  They are opportunists of skin, blood, bone and flesh.  TB, Hep C, Herpes, and, of course, HIV.  

Containers can be protective or destructive.  Most are unconscious and managed by metaphor, but if those metaphors are examined -- often through art -- they can be brought up to the surface for moral reflection.  Which assumptions are necessary?  Which walls need to be taken down?  Why do we think a wall will keep people from migrating or smuggling in the first place?  Why do we think that a walled community will guard us against trouble when we are most endangered by those inside with us?  Like our families.

What Lakoff and Johnson try to get us to “see” is that in order to change these categories that punish boys for who they are, we must EXPERIENCE who they are.  More than that, we need to see what they see.  Luckily -- as organizations like Real-Stories Gallery, Smash Street Boys, and Show Me Your Life -- have discovered, there is a container that can do this: digital screens.  Forsaking words as too many levels removed from raw sensoria, the boys themselves are able to take you into their worlds -- both internal and of the streets.

Boys who desire males and identify with that.  (Gay, one style or another)
Boys who do sex work because their bodies are all they have. 
Boys who have been so abused and confused that they are drifting, letting anything happen.
Boys with infected and deprived bodies.
Boys stigmatized, marked as victims and constantly in mortal danger.
Boys who have lost the boundaries of behavior that signal to the larger culture that they are    safe to others.
Boys who challenge and try to smash every attempt to contain them because all of them have meant confinement, torture, invasion.

Why should we embrace them?  Because we are the ones who made them that way and because we know what we need to do.  We just don’t want to.  Asking the reason for the refusal is the most dangerous question of all.  The answer has to be action, resources.  From ALL of us.

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