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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community.

Balancing on the Mechitza Transgender in Jewish Community Edited by Noach Dzmura
North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California
250 pages $16.95

The transgender issue became a reality for me sometime in the 1970s when I met a guy in a Philadelphia public library. After going for coffee, we went to my place to become intimately acquainted. Almost immediately after disrobing and settling in under a number of quilts (it was a cold February) I noticed that George had what resembled emerging breasts. Since some male breasts contain excess fatty tissue which gives them the appearance of the female bust, I assumed that George had the fatty “gene” and left it at that.

No sooner did I think this then George looked at me and asked, “Would you mind calling me Becky?” His body stiffened at the question, as if he expected me to make a mad dash for the door.

I lied and told George that I didn’t mind while inside I did somersaults: I wanted a George and not a Becky. But since a name, after all, is just a name, we continued our romp without any mechanical difficulties. When it was over, it was over: I never saw “Becky” again.

Twenty years later a similar situation occurred when Milo, a twenty-four year old music student, answered a personal ad of mine. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build, agreed to a blind date and asked if I would meet him “halfway” at a local subway station. When I met Milo that October night, we boarded a bus for my house for an evening of pizza and movies. Three hours later, sitting side-by-side on my sofa, the truth came out. Although agreeable enough when it came to holding hands, when I later made the transition to “holding” Milo’s leg, he stiffened and became uncomfortable.

“I have to tell you something,” he announced. “I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t.”

The announcement made me think of Becky, only this time I was actually making moves on a woman. “If you want me to leave, I will,” Milo said. I told her to stay because I wanted to hear her story. In fact, we remained seated for another hour or two talking about her transition, although the hand holding stopped. When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles came to the fore: I walked and waited with Milo at the bus stop. Of course, I never saw her again, despite mutual promises that we would remain friends.

I mention these experiences because when the book “Balancing on the Mechitza, Transgender in the Jewish Community,” crossed my desk, I thought of Milo and how quickly the hand holding stopped once the sofa “mechitza” was firmly established. That division didn’t exist when we were operating as two males, but once the gender difference was announced, my attitude towards Milo changed considerably. Milo, you see, was a woman interested in becoming a man so that she could have relationships with men as a gay man.

The twenty-five contributors to this anthology include trans men and women from diversified backgrounds. Genderqueer activist, professors, Talmund scholars, rabbis, and seasoned writers reveal their personal stories in this book that will no doubt become a ‘must read’ in trans gender literature.

“Perception is crucial to Jewish notions of gender,” writes FTM Mechitza editor Noach Dzmura. “In fact, one minority Orthodox ruling on the ‘true gender’ of a postoperative transsexual is based on the idea that perception carries halacha. According to this possuk (rabbinic legal decision maker), a transsexual woman is a woman.”

Here we get into the nuances of ancient Jewish law, such as when Dzmura reminds readers that transgender people “force us to confront gender in a more complicated way, tacitly or overtly positing a hard to define ‘third space’ that exists outside the gender binary. It can be hard to categorize a person in a gender category, and harder still to remain certain about gender as a person transitions.”

I’ll say. After all, once Milo revealed his true sex, I didn’t know what to do. I was disappointed that there’d be no hot date, but on the other hand I knew there was a good story coming. It helped that I genuinely liked Milo.

Many times during the reading of Mechitza I found myself double checking the gender of the authors of the essays, proof positive that I had fallen into Dzmura’s “third space” where I had to figure things out.

In Jewish antiquity, for instance, something called the Mishnah Androgynos proscribed religious duties for a person with two sexes. As Dzmura notes, “True hermaphroditism is mythical…but intersex conditions (genitalia that exhibit some aspects of both sexes) are quite common. “ Hence (according to Dzmura) it is fitting to categorize some trans people in the same category as intersexed, meaning that although the authors of the ancient text may not have envisioned it that way, “there’s nothing to prevent readers of that ancient text today from thinking that way.”

Essayist Beth Orens writes, “…There was a time when I looked over the mechitza from the men’s section and wondered at the strangeness of a world in which I was trapped on the wrong side.” For Orens, transitioning within the Orthodox Jewish community was the only option; for her there simply was no option for an “easier” transition in the secular world.

“The thing about being Orthodox is, the law is the law, even when it’s inconvenient. I’d started electrolysis treatments, but the only way I could show my face in public without stubble or shadow being obvious was to apply what my friend called ‘big, thick, tranny makeup.’ But that sort of makeup wasn’t something I could use on Shabbat. So for eleven months, I spent every Shabbat alone, in my apartment,” Orens writes.

In ‘Queering the Jew and Jewing the Queer,’ Ri J. Turner, who was once “a frilly little girl,” writes about cultural stereotypes, how Jewish women and girls are thought to be assertive, argumentative and intelligent while the men and boys are seen as “shrewd, short, small-penised, and hopelessly awkward on the playing field.” Ri, who went through many transitioning stages (including shaving her head bald), writes that she never felt “quite female.” The only bra she could get herself to wear was a sports bra. She admits to having “failed” in “the girl department.”

“I didn’t wash my face often enough to wear mascara regularly. I was too short, too dirty, I was too informal, I shared too much information, I was too sexual…..And my nose was ugly.”

Today, Turner dresses in men’s clothing with her hair cropped very short. “I don’t attempt to pass as male, nor do I usually desire to,” she says. “I continue to feel shame and discomfort about my body and gender….My gender is certainly not ‘finished.’”

Jhos Singer describes himself as a “transgender person who as a child survived the 19060s,” who’s been a “tomboy, a firefighter, a butch dyke rock drummer, a deckhand, a neo-Hasidic androgyne, a Jewish lesbian spiritual leader….”

Singer’s journey, like the other personal stories in Mechitza, is about relationships—with the world and with God.

“Knowing who we are in relationship to the world and/or God and having a clear understanding of what is around us are flip sides of the same coin, and I would argue that being transgender is as well,” Singer writes.

Five thumbs up for a marvelously honest no-holds-barred anthology.

****** This review drew some fire from one or two or three online trans activists. They objected to my "treatment" of Becky and Milo. They stated that I should have referred to "Becky" as "she" (because that was "Becky's gender choice) rather than (the given) biological "he." Ditto for Milo. I was told that I was trans-ignorant and trans-phobic because I referred to Milo as a "she" when Milo told me that "he" was a "she." But I met "Becky" in the 1970s when trans issues were still in formation. "Becky," in fact, wanted to be referred to as "Becky" only in the bedroom, not in real life. We had a discussion about this then. When Milo told me "she" was in transition, the implication was that this process was still in formation, and that "he" was still a "she." There was no talk or mention of me calling Milo a "he" as we concluded our evening together. In fact, we got along quite nicely. I even castigated myself somewhat in the original story for falling back into conventional gender roles, and treating Milo like a woman who needed protection (walking her to the bus stop).

Unfortunately, the mysterious (and nameless or first name only) trans activist overseers did not even read the rest of this review. Had the trans activists read the full review, he/she would have walked away with a different feeling about the review. Calling me trans-phobic was a wake-up call. This sort of shrill paranoia and over-the-top paranoia doesn't do anything for dialogue.
Perhaps the trans movement has no place under the gay/lesbian civil rights umbrella.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cat Hoarding in Fishtown (From this week's STAR column)

When I wrote about feral cats in this column over two years ago, a friend of mine expressed his displeasure at my choice of topics, and said, “Cats! Why are you writing about cats?” I was shocked at the vehemence of his tone, but later discovered the reason for his objections: He was allergic to cat dander, and hated cats. To each his own, of course, although I find it ironic that the second my cat Zoey entered my life, this friend went out of it, as if some unseen feline force had ushered him away on a slippery sliding board.

It’s no secret that cats and dogs are big business in the neighborhood. When I walk to Wawa every morning for my 24 ounce cup of Costa Rican coffee, I encounter innumerable dog walkers. Some of the dogs are big boned Border Collies, Huskies, Weimaraners and Boxers. These are dogs you’d expect to see in the country because big dogs need a lot of space. To my mind, however, a large dog in a small city house is comparable to stuffing a full grown carp into a gold fish bowl. It’s inhumane, but so is cat hoarding.

Cat hoarders have delusions of grandeur. By seeking to house as many feral cats as possible, they ruin the living environment for humans and inevitably destroy a quality life for the creatures they say they love.

Hoarding, of course, always begins as an altruistic measure to save one homeless kitty. Inevitably that one kitty becomes two kitties, and so on. In a house not too far from my own, I counted 11 cats. Among this collective of diverse sizes, calico, black and long hair, there’s of course a first among equals, the King Ferdinand or Queen Bee cat who gets most of the owner’s affection. And while the owners of these 11 cats more than likely can distinguish among the various feline personalities, a visitor would just see a room filled with multiple cats and then compute that as a confusing mass—or mess.

Having just one cat can be a handful, but seeing the unleashed pandemonium that I witnessed when visiting this house, made me realize the insanity of hoarding.

Walking through the door caused three cats to run upstairs, two to race under furniture, two to leap onto the dining room table, three to head for the kitchen and the rest to claw up the side of a dining room cabinet and then plunge into a hole in the ceiling, where they could then be heard racing back and forth under the ceiling tiles.

I don’t know about you, but all this reminds me of a terrible B-movie I saw as a kid titled “The Shrews,” in which armies of furry rodent-like creatures terrorize a family on an island.
I tried not to judge my friends too harshly. “Maybe these cats have to get used to me before they calm down and do the sniffing thing,” I thought. When this didn’t happen, I knew there was a permanent disconnect between these cats and their owners. I could plainly see that this community of felines didn’t really need the owners when it came to affection. They don’t need people because they have one another. At least with my single cat at home there’s an “emotional” connection, but with this hoard the resident humans were merely feeding and kitty litter “devices.”

The scene in this Fishtown house reminded me of the Philadelphia Zoo’s once notorious Monkey Mountain, an outdoor rock sculpture about as big as a skating rink with planted grass and trees where scores of monkeys and their young could enjoy the outdoors as visitors watched their antics from a side amphitheater. In the 1960s, Monkey Mountain was the Zoo’s most popular exhibit because you got to see how monkeys behave in large groups-- without human interference. What visitors to the zoo saw was not always “family friendly,” however. Indeed, much of it countered socially accepted codes of human behavior, especially “normal” notions of acceptable sexual conduct. Eventually, Monkey Mountain was abolished for smaller, more sterile cages. The monkey shenanigans show was over.

In this house of cats the air was thick with dander and kitty litter. Fur balls lined the rugs like rolling tumbleweed in the West. I began sneezing and itching. My hosts, oblivious as the day is long, dutifully watched cable TV, with one of them periodically throwing pieces of chicken (from a bag of Kentucky Fried) onto the floor for three kittens took this as a game of catch. Unfortunately, the floor was rife with thrown food particles that somehow didn’t make it into the cats’ mouths.

Sitting there, I tried to understand why anyone would want to create an overcrowded feline farm, especially in this economy (the occupants, by the way, had an empty refrigerator). Having eleven hungry felines to feed is no cheap endeavor.

Having said all this, I was not ready for what came next—fleas.

Through osmosis, or a transfer from one of the occupants’ trouser legs, Zoey was re-infested with fleas. Almost a year ago I wrote in this column about Zoey’s persistent flea problem, so the reoccurrence brought me to the edge of an emotional cliff.

“You have too many cats!” I told the occupants, “You need to trim them down to 2, or I will order everyone in your family to disrobe and put on zoot suits whenever you visit my house!”

You’d have thought that I was calling for the extermination of their grandmother, or an aged aunt who supplied them with weekend beer.

“I couldn’t live without my babies,” the biggest and strongest of the two sons said, scratching a flea bite on his arm. “I would cry and cry!”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

School Bullies? Blame Teachers and Administrators--and Parents.

My first experience with a school bully occurred in the fifth grade when a red haired classmate took an instant dislike to me. At recess he’d wait until I was in a remote corner of the schoolyard, then force me to the ground and sit on my chest. He never held me down for long, since there were always strict (religious habit wearing) Saint Joseph nuns patrolling the yard. But the experience was humiliating.

When I finally worked up enough nerve to tell my father about the incident, he taught me several methods of self defense. He said the next time the bully sat on my chest I should bring my legs up behind him so I could then wrap them around his neck and bend his body back.
“Then you’ll have him trapped, and you can escape,” he said. Together my father and I tried this exercise until I could do it in my sleep.

Lucky for me, the school bullying stopped before I got to use Dad’s Repel-a-Bully trick. Still, I had waited too long before asking for Dad’s help. Years before, I’d been taunted by another bully, an angry kid who was also into “applied pressure” chest sitting. Like the school bully, the neighborhood bully attacked me one day for no apparent reason. He’d chase me down like a rabid German Shepard whenever he saw me in the neighborhood. Telling my parents about him was not an option because boys were expected to handle their own affairs without getting adults involved.

“Just sock him one,” my brother told me once, but I could never do that.

Fighting one bully is hard enough, but in schools today there are often many bullies who gang up and attack one student. Bullied students are attacked for many reasons: Obesity, race, gender, and sexual identity are the most common reasons. In many cases, the kids who bully are aping the attitudes and opinions they hear around the family dinner table. This suggests that bigoted parents can do just as much harm to a kid’s mind as the worst sort of Internet predator.
The epidemic of bullying incidences in the news today suggests that many parents are not doing enough to teach their kids civility, tolerance, and respect for differences.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia School System’s passage of an anti-bullying policy in September put Philadelphia way ahead of the federal government when it comes to addressing the problem. On a statewide level, Senator Bob Casey has even co-sponsored a Safe Schools Independent Act because of the situation. Senator Casey’s bill would require schools getting federal money to have effective bullying prevention programs, as well as codes of conduct that would eliminate or diminish harassment.

But new laws can only do so much. Like some parents who may unknowingly help their kids become bullies, teachers and administrators must also look within and begin to speak up when they witness blatant examples of bullying. In the past, too many teachers have looked the other way.

When 26 Asian students were repeatedly attacked in South Philadelphia High School in 2009, where were the teachers and administrators? The inclination to “not want raise uncomfortable issues” can often have tragic consequences. It’s fortunate that this did not happen at South Philadelphia High School, but it took a U.S. Justice Department investigation to shake up that school’s status quo.

Too many times in the past, teachers and administrators have been reluctant to speak up when students are bullied because they’re lesbian or gay. Some fear addressing the problem because they don’t want to mention the “dreaded” ‘g’ or ‘l’ word. They do not want to anger the religious conservatives who believe that any mention of “gay” or “lesbian” is an attempt by the school system to influence young people’s view of homosexuality.

But this is like saying that mandating a policy of anti-bullying for obese kids is an endorsement of obesity.

As for that bully in the fifth grade, I should mention that a couple of years ago while attending a pharmaceutical convention in CC with a physician friend, I discovered that one of the on- site representatives was none other than my chest sitting tormentor. His red hair was a little faded but his childhood snarl was turned upside down into an unmistakable, handshaking smile.
But all bully stories don’t end so happily.

A Friend's Wedding Day Surpirse

I may be getting superstitious, but it seems to me that after a reading engagement at Port Richmond Books, I receive some sort of “surprise.” Last year, after I read from my Star columns and various published books, I received word that my novel Spore was accepted for publication.

This year I was hit with another surprise, even if the good crowd that came out to take part in manager Greg Gillespie’s Spore reception of soft Philly pretzels, cold white wine and beer, was surprise enough. The other surprise, however, was major.

It all began when somebody at the bookstore asked me why I was dressed in a suit. The black suit, which I bought at a top drawer thrift shop in Center City (“Immortal”) has served me well for several years, even if some people joke that it makes me look like I’m going to a funeral.
“I’m going to a wedding after this,” I said, “a good friend is getting married.”
That good friend is a woman named Dolly.

Dolly attended last year’s reading. I met her years ago when we both worked as low level supervisors for a university fund raising center. At the time, Dolly was in med school but spent her free nights confirming telephone pledges that came through the calling center. On Friday nights after work we’d often team up with a few other co-workers and head to a local restaurant where we’d munch on bacon omelets, hot turkey sandwiches, or hamburgers.

Dolly, as a single lady in search of a husband, would call me and tell me about the men she was dating. “Do you think I’ll ever get married?” she’d sometimes ask. “Of course I do,” I said. “When it happens it will be like a thunderclap, fast and furious.”

When Dolly finished med school a couple years ago and became a practicing psychiatrist, I was glad she hadn’t lost the sweet, vulnerable quality that made her ask me what I thought her future would be.

The best way to describe Dolly is to imagine a person who never seems to get angry or carry a grudge. Imagine someone who laughs a lot, who puts up a funny, superficial front but who’s as smart as a whip.

At last year’s reading she told she was dating this guy who drinks too much beer. She was worried that he may be alcoholic. “He drinks more than a six pack every day,” she said. Dolly, whose family hails from Pakistan, was never much of a drinker herself. Her love is diet Coke. Years ago at work she told me she was a Unitarian but that her family was Hindu. Dolly, however, always made it a point to wear a small gold cross necklace.

After leaving the bookstore, I jumped into a friend’s car and headed to Dolly’s wedding. Forty minutes later we were inside a party room at the Palace of Asia restaurant. There was Dolly in a full Indian sari, covered with thick gold ornamental jewelry, her face framed by a long free flowing veil. The man standing beside her in a bejeweled Nehru jacket did not look like a beer guzzler by any means. In addition, the “wine” they were serving at the pre-dinner reception was not wine at all but sparkling apple cider as well as a variety of fizz juice drinks that mimic champagne.

Before leaving Port Richmond Books, Greg joked about a “dry” Mennonite wedding he attended years ago. Listening to his story, it never occurred to me that Dolly’s wedding would be just that. “Well,” I told Greg, “Dolly’s Unitarian.”

Unitarians, as far as I can tell, are free to believe and do almost anything they want.
“Hey, something’s different here,” I said to the friend who accompanied me to the wedding. I was referring to all the women in the hall wearing exotic head scarves. As if on cue, my confusion ended when a man in a suit introduced himself as the Inman and went on to explain the rubrics of a Muslim wedding.

Like the Spore wedding scene I’d read to the audience at Port Richmond Books, where the bride leaves her husband during their honeymoon trip to Honolulu, an even more radical U-turn had occurred in Dolly’s life.

Dolly’s mother told me that her daughter had converted to Islam two weeks before the wedding. As for her husband, no, he was definitely not the out-of-control beer guzzler but somebody she’d recently met in Chicago. “Things clicked between them very fast. They both knew….” Dolly’s mom added.

The thunderclap I’d predicted for my friend had come!

As happy as we were that our friend had finally found a mate, a small group of us felt that apple cider, as delicious as it is, doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to wedding toasts, and so, just like Greg at the Mennonite wedding, we found our own fizz tributes in another part of the Palace.
Alla salute!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Philadelphia: Can the Nation's Poorest City also be a World Class City?

When I was in Montreal last month I read in the local newspapers there that there was no recession in Canada and that unemployment was low. “What a difference a border makes,” I thought, even if the view outside my hotel window told a different story.

Every morning I’d see a group of street beggars, all young adults in their twenties, congregate in front of a McDonald’s so that they could ask passerby for change. Some wore their bedding on their backs (heavy blankets), while others seemed to be part of the heady youth culture on Saint Catherine Street.

A closer look at the group revealed what they really were: drug addicts scoring either drugs or money to buy drugs. Indeed, the scene outside my hotel window every morning reminded me of the people (mostly men) I see begging outside the neighborhood Wawa or Thriftway in search of money to buy heroin. The local vagabonds have it tougher than their neighbors to the north. Sometimes they sleep on large flattened cardboard boxes behind the fence that runs along East Thompson Street. These sleeping enclaves were not there last year, but this year, as Philadelphia dips in status to the poorest city in the nation, the area has become a rustic bedroom community, home to users, alcoholics and the jobless.

Another “tent” city is located under I-95 near Cumberland Street and the Girard Street turn. It was a booming “It takes a village” operation during the warm summer months.

When the U.S. Census Bureau rated Philadelphia as the poorest city among the ten most populated cities in the nation, my first thought was what kind of impact the rating would have on Philadelphia’s desire to become a world class city.

Can a world class city also be the country’s poorest city?

Detroit suffered for years with the label, “America’s poorest city,” despite the recent transformation of that city’s waterfront area. Detroit’s chronic poverty caused it to suffer population loses until it was no longer even qualified to be included on the list of America’s top ten largest cities. Today, it is number 11, and poverty there hovers around 33%.

Will Philadelphia suffer a similar fate twenty, thirty years down the road? Will home owners here one day bolt, and head for the Pocono’s, Johnstown or Altoona?

“Philadelphia’s poverty rate has been growing for thirty years,” noted University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice Professor, Roberta Iversen. Iversen blames job losses in manufacturing, but she also points to the “relegation of minorities to dense neighborhoods of moderate to high levels of poverty and very little job creation.”

But does this explain the poverty in (mainly) non-minority populated Fishtown and Port Richmond? While I agree with Iversen that the poorest sections of the city are “isolated socially,” poverty today has become trans-racial. Indeed, as the U.S. Census notes, one out of four Philadelphians lives below the poverty line, compared with the national average of one in seven.

Ironically, the designation of Philadelphia as the nation’s poorest city is not the public relations nightmare it could be when one considers that the city’s main tourist attraction is Center City. Center City is its own tidy town, with its Friends of Rittenhouse Square Balls, its Old City horse and carriage rides, overcrowded sidewalk cafés, transient students, and wealthy retirees. Slide into most of the neighborhoods surrounding Center City, however, and you see another city altogether. What you often see is a city that is hurting.

But there’s another factor here that is being overlooked. Philadelphia’s land mass is a relatively humble 135 square miles, while other cities in the top ten list have land masses of 300 square miles. As demographics experts have noted for quite a while now, if the land masses of the other cities were reduced to 135 square miles, their poverty rates would be as Philadelphia’s. Other major cities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, have extended their borders in order to incorporate the surrounding suburbs (where there’s a comfortable middle class). These municipal “swallow ups” can change a city’s “most populated” rating overnight.

Unfortunately, no suburb in Philadelphia’s multi- county region is likely to turn over its suburban keys for a city classification (this is a phenomenon common in the West), so it looks like Philly is stuck, for the time being anyway, in the 135 square mile bracket.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Last Word (Thom Nickels) from ICON Magazine

The global economic crisis has put many of the world’s skyscraper projects on hold. In Philadelphia, architects Gene Kohn and Bill Louie of Kohn Pedersen Fox architects, creators of the city’s Mellon Bank Center with its iconic pyramid top, will have to wait a while before their 1,500 foot high American Commerce Center becomes a reality.

The project, which was to include a 26-story hotel and 6-stories of street accessible retail along 18th and Arch Streets, not to mention a striking 300 foot spire (described by most who have seen the design as “iconic and breathtaking”) that would make it taller than the Empire State building, is now in the limbo of lost skyscrapers. The American Commerce Center joins a number of “on hold” skyscrapers worldwide.

Included on the “on hold” list is the 72-story Torre Gran Costanera in the Chilean capital of Santiago, which was slated to become one of the tallest buildings in the southern hemisphere. Another shelved skyscraper, the 150-story or 2,000 feet tall Chicago Spire, was slated to be completed by 2012, but the only thing visible to date is the building’s completed foundation, a hole reminiscent of an archeological dig.

The global building crisis is also affecting a city like Dubai, where there’s always been a happy, unending money flow: the city’s 0.6 mile high Nakheel Tower has been put on ice until conditions improve. According to Emporis, a German Company that tracks development, 11% of the world’s skyscraper projects (29 of 301 U.S. projects) have been tabled.

For Philadelphians excited about the prospect of mega-skyscraper as potentially changing Philadelphia’s reputation from a “connecting” city to New York and Washington to a world class destination, this is not good news. The project’s resumption in the near or distant future (barring a complete global collapse, of course) will provide over 2,000 construction jobs to the city over the 3-year period.

Philadelphia developer Garrett Miller, Vice President of the Philadelphia division of Hill International, Inc., told me that when the ACC finally gets built, it will create a dynamic new environment for Philadelphia.

“Cities are dynamic environments,” Mr. Miller said. “They either improve or they get worse. Philadelphia needs to put itself in a position to change for the better. Although we have a great historical past that we should respect, it’s important for us to realize this and embrace our future. Cities don’t stay the same. When you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose a dynamic area that is always evolving.”

After the tower’s proposal a small but formidable opposition group was ACC’s biggest problem. These were mainly older Center City residents who wanted the height of the tower reduced significantly. Opponents feared a taller tower would block views of the city from their Kennedy House Blvd. windows, or cast “unsightly shadows.” The group also suggested that the building’s height was out of scale with the neighborhood, despite the fact that the proposed project was not in the Fairmount neighborhood but smack in the middle of Philadelphia’s financial district.

The global skyscraper squeeze has created a fair amount of frustration. Mr. Miller, for instance, didn’t have much to say on the present inactivity surrounding ACC.

“Who knows what’s going on with the economy and with the American Commerce Center,” he said. “When will the economy come around? When will the world get better? Who knows…!”

But one city’s skyscraper Requiem is another city’s hallelujah chorus.
In New York City, Anthony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, asked New York City officials to block the construction of a 1,216 foot skyscraper at 33rd and 7th Avenue, less than ¼ of a mile from the Empire State Building. Malkin wanted Vornado Realty Trust, creators of the new project, to scale the building back to 825 feet and put a 17-block buffer around the Empire State Building to protect its viewing province. While Malkin never mentioned “shadows,” he doesn’t want the iconic structure that many know as “King Kong’s perch” to be outdone by a competitor.

But Vornado Realty Trust, unlike the city of Dubai, seems to have no worries about money. They just want to build.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, the voice of ill-reason on some issues, encapsulated sound logic when he said, “One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building. I’m sorry, that’s not the real world. Nor should it be.”

The Social Security Trust Fund is a vulnerable baby: imagine Moses lying in a crocodile-filled Nile.

That’s the feeling I get anyway when I read of the attacks against the system that Franklin Roosevelt initiated on August 14, 1935. Assaults against the Trust have been mounting steadily since the presidency of George W, Bush. The arrows no longer only come from Republicans, either. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, for instance, joined forces with House Minority Leader John Bolhner, in calling for a higher retirement age of seventy.

The suggested age of seventy years is perhaps a comfortable concept for workers in offices where there’s no physical labor involved, but for blue collar workers in the restaurant and construction fields, roofers and house painters, working so many years may be far beyond what the physical body can endure.

President Obama’s bipartisan 18-member Commission that’s slated to come up with a solution for the nation’s public debt (the report is due in November) is expected to recommend cuts to Social Security. The suggestion of cuts is expected because the Democratic co-chair of the committee, Erskin Bowels, a Wall Street CEO, is on record as saying, “Well, we have to cut Social Security.”

But according to Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Nothing needs to be done about Social Security.” Baker told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that the program could pay all scheduled benefits “well into the future, at least twenty-seven years into the future,” and even then “it could still pay the vast majority of benefits, assuming that nothing is done.” While Baker believes that something will have to be tweaked somewhere down the road, the idea that the sky is falling is absurd. “People have paid for those benefits. So, in effect, what we’d be doing is defaulting on the bonds that are held in the trust fund to pay people their benefits. Nothing,” he repeats, “needs to be done.”

If that’s true, what’s all this talk about a new retirement age and cuts to the system? And where is Maggie Kuhn when we need her?

Kuhn, if you recall, argued that politicians who wanted to cut or do away with Social Security had created an intergenerational war over federal funds in order to divert public attention from the nation’s real financial issues: extravagant tax breaks for the rich and overspending on the military.

A march on Washington, or something far more drastic, should be employed if President Obama’s Commission gets its way.

Baker said: “…You have people running around Washington saying, ‘You know, we can’t do anything on healthcare, because we tried that and the insurance industry was too powerful, the pharmaceutical industry was too powerful, so therefore we have to cut Social Security.’ This should have people, very, very worried.”

In the 1970s, Europe agreed to trade crude oil with Arab countries in exchange for promises of unchecked immigration (Strasbourg Resolution 492, 1971). As controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci noted in her book, “The Rage and the Pride,” after the agreement, the streets of her native Florence were flooded with immigrants selling pencils and chewing gum.” Likewise, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands also permitted unchecked immigration from Morocco, North Africa and the Middle East. This was not a sensibly paced immigration process, but an open door policy that led to the establishment of large Muslim enclaves in progressive, modern democracies. Unlike other immigrant groups, the new citizens tended to avoid assimilation into the culture of the host country.

Bruce Bawer, author of Surrender, Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, noted that that this transformation “went almost entirely unmentioned in the American and European media,” although it was first spotted in the Netherlands by Pim Fortuyn, author of Against the Islamization of Our Culture. Fortuyn, before his assassination by a religious fanatic, was a candidate for the Dutch parliament and made it a point to state that fundamentalist Islam would always be irreconcilable with Western democracy. Fortuyn warned his countrymen to rethink government subsidization of Muslim schools, mosques and community centers. For this he was called a fascist by multicultural progressives, and he was often compared to Hitler.

In the United States, objections to the Ground Zero mosque and Islamic Center have had multicultural progressives up in arms. Fairly predictable “America means freedom of religion” editorials have appeared both in The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. These editorials implied that anyone who objects to the Ground Zero mosque is an Islamophobe or a neocon.

But nowhere in these oatmeal-laden tomes is it suggested that Islam prove its love of peace, fellowship and world harmony by allowing Christians and Jews in predominately Muslim countries the freedom to worship or openly wear crucifixes or the Star of David.

Nowhere is it suggested that Islam give a few inches in return for the respect that it demands, even if that means that the Reverend honorable Imam Rauf of New York, in a gesture to win the hearts of skeptics, offer to rebuild the tiny Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicholas, the only Ground Zero-based house of worship destroyed on 9/11.

Perhaps a gesture like this would go a long way in defusing some of skepticism around the building of a House of Prayer near Ground Zero.

Thom Nickels

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Homosexuality as an Import Item

The idea that homosexuality can be imported from one country (or continent) to the next like a bag of exotic coffee beans, is a persistent fairy tale that won’t die. The myth has especially strong roots when it comes to the continent of Africa.

We’ve all heard the charge: Africa never had a “problem” with homosexuality—e.g., there were no African gays and lesbians—until those nasty French and English colonists, decked out in those imperialist safari hats, “planted” sodomy seeds on the continent. This persistent argument, coming, as it has, from the lips of otherwise intelligent (and perhaps well meaning) African race relations “experts” and politicians, has more to do with prejudicial views of homosexuality than with objective truth.

As long as people refuse to see homosexuality as a universal component of human nature, occurring everywhere from Antarctica to Australia to Bombay to Providence, Rhode Island, there will be crackpot researchers who view homosexuality as a kind of “imported” product.
“Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS,” by Marc Epprecht, explores how Africa’s singular identity as a heterosexual continent came about.

Mr. Epprecht’s 230-page explanation, however, is far from simple. Rather, it is a Kafkaesque labyrinth of the stories of researchers who either ignored evidences of African homosexuality, or were in fact blind to it or chose to gather the data and then suppress what they found because of the hostility in research circles to “the truth.” Field data suggesting widespread homosexual or lesbian activity was at one time thought to be in league with the forces of sexual perversion. Combine this fact with the “character” of the African continent itself—a huge world of tribal secrets (regarding homosexuality) that are not supposed to be revealed, especially to foreign researchers with note pads and pencils, and you have a real conundrum.
The idea of homosexuality as a carry-on piece of luggage, like a foreign virus ripe for implantation on new soil, is hardly a new one.

“Gibbon,” as Mr. Epprecht explains, “made the point in a passing footnote to his explanation of how ‘the primitive Romans were infected’ with homosexuality by the more civilized Etruscans and Greeks. Gibbon had never been to Africa, and knew virtually nothing about it…”

But you get the idea…..

The early explorers to Africa saw the continent through a Rousseauesque lens: Africans were seen as barbaric and sexually savage but only in a raw heterosexual sense. “The missionaries had their hands full challenging the array of what they regarded as heterosexual immoralities in African societies, including polygamy, child betrothals, marriage by cattle, female genital cutting….More secretive and presumably rare homosexual practices fell low on the list of priorities,” Mr. Epprecht writes.

In other words, adding the homosexual ingredient would have brought the stew to a nasty boil.

Mr. Epprecht tells of researchers like Ferdinand Karsch-Haack, who investigated hunter-gatherers in Angola and Namibia, and who came to the conclusion that homosexuality was innate to all humankind. “We should finally give up the fiction that Sodom and Gomorrah are only in Europe and that everywhere else holy customs reign….The most unnatural vices, which we regard as the most recent ways of stimulation of an over civilized culture are practiced there in the light of day, in the open, as common practice.”

Slivers of truth like this were all too often buried under avalanches of other “research” that hid the facts because of the fear of [homosexual] glorification.

On one level, the depth of sexual secrecy among Africans when it comes to homosexuality calls to mind contemporary African American manifestations of living life on the “down low.” This link certainly begs the question: Are there certain “cultural” propensities inherent in the African mind set when it comes to homosexuality? Might that be something along the lines of, it’s okay to “do” the deed but one must go mum when it comes time to talk about it?
What I gathered from Mr. Epprecht’s book is that discerning the truth about African homosexuality is really a researcher’s nightmare. On one hand, researchers reported uninhibited African sexuality in the heterosexual world— a total acceptance of “outrageous” heterosexual behaviors outside normative definitions of respectability, but then attitudes clam up—Salem witch burning-style-- when it comes to same sex behaviors.

But since nothing is simple in Africa, one cannot even take reports of heavy persecution at face value. “Universalist claims about extreme intolerance of sexual diversity or gender variance clearly flew in the face of considerable other work,” Mr. Epprecht writes.

Fortunately, the evidence for this positivism is significant.

Mr. Epprecht writes of mine marriages of males among migrant labor Africans, in southern Africa, French North and West Africa.

“In mine marriages men took younger men or boys as servants and ‘wives’ for the duration of their employment contracts….These temporary male-male marriages often served to strengthen traditional marriage with women back in the rural areas. Boy wives allowed the men to avoid costly and potentially unhealthy relationships with female prostitutes in town.”
When HIV/AIDS became well entrenched in Africa a couple decades before the disease surfaced in Europe and the United States, Africans knew that both men and women were equally affected, especially in Central Africa.

“The equal ratio between men and women in Central Africa thus suggested a very different and far more dangerous pattern than that in Europe and North America,” Mr. Epprecht writes.
While the HIV/AIDS crises brought the African lgbt population into the limelight, it also had a negative effect.

Mr. Epprecht: “Visibility in turn precipitated a flurry of demagogic attacks on gays and lesbians by African leaders. By so dramatically raising public debate and by so implausibly linking African lgbt to Western gay imperialist conspiracies, these attacks stimulated new research into same sex practices in Africa.”

This is not a book that one races through in a week, and one could hardly call it a page turner. In sober academic prose riddled with statistics and referential footnotes, the reader ploughs through sentences much the way a farmer tills difficult soil after a harsh winter.

Sugar House Casino

Hours before the teeming crowds filled Sugar House, I did an early morning walk around the place. I was there to inspect the Sugar House trolley that would take gamblers to and from Center City (the trolley does not go into Port Richmond). After years of writing about the casino, first as an opponent, then as a supporter, it was good to finally see the building up close.

My first impression wasn’t especially terrific. The all-silver façade with the slots-inspired logo gives the impressive of a bowling alley or warehouse. The silvery exterior, like the sheen on a polished apple, has a mild handsomeness but it’s a cheap handsomeness that won’t age well. It’s my impression that within five years the building will begin to look like the rusted factories that used to populate the waterfront area. In addition, the structure has a temporary look, as if the planners envisioned replacing it in the future with a bolder structure. The present timid design suggests that the architect didn’t want to make too blatant a “gambling” impression.

One local architecture critic complained that Sugar House’s parking lots take up too much space. But given the amount of traffic into the casino, the design is the best that one could expect. The lots, in fact, are more elongated (hence, more graceful) looking that the wider Ikea area shopping mall lots further up Delaware Avenue. Also, given the large numbers of people taking Septa to Sugar House, bus routes like the 43, which currently run on a leisurely schedule, will have to up the ante to accommodate the 40 or more people who pile into the 43 every time it stops at Sugar House.

Last week, the “morality” of Sugar House was also a topic in the news.

This casino, despite the promulgations of Casino Free Philadelphia, is a good thing for Philadelphia. As I walked the new sculpted garden paths behind Sugar House that border the Delaware, I thought: “This is the real beginning of the beautification of the waterfront.” For years, decades even, all the experts seemed to do was talk about implementing a plan “sometime in the future” to reconfigure the waterfront. Sometimes, however, it takes an annoying catalyst (in this case, a casino) to get the ball rolling. If Philadelphia had rejected Sugar House and left all riverfront development to the academic planners, we’d still be waiting for some kind of “action” from “the Ivory Tower.”

When I moved to the area eight years ago, the Sugar House site was a wasteland, an industrial graveyard, a dumping ground for garbage, appliances, tires, trash and even chicken heads from nighttime rituals (yes, I saw these with my own eyes). Chatter about riverfront development droned on like the babble one sometimes encounters at cocktail parties. All the classy seminars with diagrams and cold chardonnay couldn’t do what it took two casino moguls to do: stop talking, and build something.

As expected, there were protests surrounding the opening of Sugar House. Casino-Free Philadelphia held a so called Memorial Service a day or two before the official opening where an Episcopal priest and two Lutheran ministers spoke and prayed about the calamity about to befall Philadelphia. Protestors in the crowd held up signs that read: “6,000 people will attempt suicide,” and “1,600 jobs will be lost every year.” Let me tell you, what the protesters didn’t see, but which I saw as I made my solitary walk around the casino on the morning of the 23rd, were happily employed Sugar House kitchen workers going to work.

At the Memorial Service, white flowers were passed out as a token of Philadelphia’s spiritual depravity.

“Grieve with me for the loss of prayerful vision that marked the founding of our city centuries ago,” the Episcopal priest said. “Grieve with me for the lack of love and care and service that has brought Sugar House to this site and this opening…”
“Gone is the city’s imagination of more life enhancing understanding of development,” the Lutheran minister intoned. “We want jobs, but we want real jobs,” another pastor added.
Try telling Sugar House kitchen employees that their jobs are not real jobs.
Or how about the security guys Sugar House has patrolling the casino on bicycles and go-carts. Can you imagine someone shouting, “Get a real job, dude!”

Symbolic memorial services that mourn tragic events are beautiful when appropriate, but this Memorial Service bordered on the absurd, especially when one considers the real issues that could be better served with such a display.

“Why, I don’t even think that I’ve seen that much public sadness when it comes to protesting abortion-on demand,” a woman friend of mine quipped.

It was over-the-top, alright.