Category: art

HIV/AIDS, Climate Change, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

As Activist in Residence at Susquehanna University, I will speak to the Presidential Scholars, a group of honors students who meet monthly with the president of the university and his wife. They share a common reading; President Green selected Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This ancient Roman text includes fantastical stories of transformations (and lots of sordid and awful actions by gods and humans.)

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

In re-reading Metamorphoses in preparation for my talk, I was struck by the story of Arachne. A mere mortal and an expert weaver, she challenges Athena to a weaving competition. It is almost always understood that the goddess wins these sort of contests. Arachne though uses the opportunity to speak out.

Arachne’s weavings tell the stories of the many injustices and cruelties perpetuated by the gods. She may be the world’s first “craftivist,” who uses her craft to bear witness to injustice. Today we have the Craftivist Collective doing something similar.

Another story struck me because of its strong language and how it reminds me of both the HIV/AIDS Crisis and our current crisis because of pollution. In Book 7 Cephalus coming from Athens sails to Aegina and meets up with his old friend Aeacus. It’s been years since Caphalus was there. He is pleased that he is greeted by “a procession of handsome youths, all equal in age.”

But he notices that there are some missing, particularly youths older and younger than this procession.

Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash

“Aeacus heaved a sigh and sadly explained what had happened.” A terrible plague killed many of the inhabitants. This strange and powerful disease seemed to come out of nowhere and had no cure. People stopped caring for the sick because they feared contagion.

Many poor sufferers couldn’t endure their beds any longer and leapt to the floor or, if they haded the strength to stand, they’d roll out of doors on the ground; and thus each person would flee from hearth and home which seemed to them now to be haunted by death; not knowing the cause, they could only blame the house they had lived in. Some could be seen to be roaming the streets in a dazed condition, so long as their strength held up; if not, they’d be lying in tears flat out on the ground, quite still but for rolling their sleepless eyes; then, weakly extending their arms to the stars in the lowering heavens, here or there, wherever death took them, they gave up the ghost.

In addition to the physical suffering, Aegina also experienced ecological disasters. While it is an ancient story, it sounds strangely familiar to me.

In the beginning the sky weighed down on the earth in a thick, black fog which trapped the prostrating heat in a blanket of clouds; and through the time that it took four moons to wax and to wane, the south winds blew with their sweltering currents of toxic air. All are agreed that the springs and the lakes were also infected…

Both the plague and the environmental devastation echo for me today, first in my memory of the early HIV/AIDS crisis, when people still did not know how the disease was spread, and there was widespread panic and hostility. Many of the earliest victims suffered without the support of the medical community and family.

The descriptions of the environmental damage sound so much like explanations of how climate change works–with a heat trapping blanket of invisible gas that leads to unpredictable weather and poisoning of the oceans.

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

I do not suggest these stories predict either of these two crises. Rather they serve as a reminder that in times past people were concerned with some of the same things we face today. It is heavy stuff but then something thrilling and hopeful happens. We see the rise of the Myrmidons, a new race of people who emerge out of the death and destruction. The king has a dream which turns out to be reality.

Here we saw a long column of ants which were gathering grain, all bearing their heavy loads in their tiny mouths and steadily trudging along their familiar path on the wrinkled tree bark. “How many there are!” I reflected in wonder and cried, “O Father, of gods the most excellent, grant me as many subjects as these to replenish my empty walls! Then a noisy trembling came over the oak, though there wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb the branches…

The ants then suddenly grew, appearing larger and larger, until they rose from the ground and stood with bodies erect. Their thinness was gone, they had only two feet, they changed color, and their limbs were completely changed into human form.

This reminds me of what happened in the late 80s when young HIV/AIDS activists acted up! They took on government officials and public policy. They educated themselves about drug policy and manufacturing. They broke the collective silence by getting people to talk about AIDS through the films and art they created. They became a fierce, creative, compassionate force that changed the world.

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

Today I see something similar happening with the young justice-minded climate activists who boldly speak out about the immorality of a society that relentlessly pollutes and seeks unlimited, reckless growth regardless the consequences. Looking at the work of Extinction Rebellion, we see people of all ages taking part, especially young people and young adults. I see a new type of human taking the center stage. In a way they are a product of our time and a response to the suffering in the world and on the planet. They have become a force that is putting pressure on government and society. They demand big changes.

Aeacus nearly lost all hope, but then a new citizen emerged, “I called them Myrmidons after the ants the had come from. You’ve seen the bodies they now inhabit; they also preserve their original nature–a thirty, industrious people, who cling to their gains and store them away for the future. All of them young and brave, they’ll follow you into the field.”

So I cry out to the gods, grant us as many citizens, young and brave, a powerful response to our troubling times.

(Featured Photo by Veit Hammer on Unsplash)

All Ovid quotes form the Penguin Classic edition translated by David Raeburn.

James Baldwin on Art

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.
-James Baldwin


Street Art Utopia

Art, Activism, and Public Spaces.

I love this powerful combination.

If you have not spent time at the blog Street Art Utopia, do yourself a favor and visit to view the whimsical, arresting, and stirring images of street art.

We do not own the world… Quaker Advice with Photos

“We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.”

Britain Yearly Meeting of Quakers Advices and Queries, 1994, No.42

Photos taken during my recent trip to Quebec Province.

People’s Climate March Posters

Have you heard about the People’s Climate March in NYC on September 21th, 2014? Are you going??? It’s gonna be big–a massive mobilization of people demanding climate action. On their blog, organizers have lots of information. I’m happy to see that they rely heavily on art to communicate their message. They have designed beautiful and engaging posters that I am featuring here on my blog. Click on the photos to get the full view.

I plan on being at the March in September as part of an LGBTQ contingent, Queers for the Climate. We recently wrote a manifesto: It’s Our Fight Too: An LGBTQ Response to Climate Change, and I am thrilled to have my name on it along with Rev. Nancy Wilson of the Metropolitan Community Church, and artists like Alan Cumming, Justin Vivian Bond, and Lady Bunny. Even if you cannot attend the March, you can sign the manifesto and get the word out.

Lost2Found Art Exhibit Announced

Back in January I mentioned the Lost2Found website and art project. Started by a high school student near LA, it is a place where LGBT folks can share their experiences through art (both visual and written).

The big art exhibit will be Friday June 27 (a week away). If you can make it, please do so. It should be amazing. (and they may still be receiving art submissions!)

Tell Your Story Through Art

I once heard Kurt Vonnegut say,
Everyone should practice art because art enlarges the soul.

Not too long ago a queer high school student from California contacted me about a project he began for school. The idea soon blossomed and he realized that more than just his peers could participant.

According to the site,

Lost2Found is a project that aims to shed light on the journey of coming-out as well as being out in today’s society.

The project is art based, encouraging the use of any medium of art to portray the journey in all its aspects. From the hard and painful experiences, to the lighthearted and simple ones, coming-out is overlooked.

If people could see what it means to an LGBTQ individual to come-out, if they can see how we feel. How we see the world and how the world treats us, we can give them a perspective they’ve never seen before.

How so? Art. Art is a window into an artist’s soul, as many have described. Those who create art, put their emotions and messages into the pieces, passing them on to the viewer, who in turn learns from the piece.

Lost2Found is a place where anyone, anywhere, of any sexuality can show how she/he feels through their art.

A deadline will be announced where the art should be finalized and submitted, where we will create a physical gallery just south of San Francisco, CA where the project originates. We hope to change the views of people one community at a time. Please help us. Join us.

Yeah, totally join in. We all have different experiences of understanding and accepting and proclaiming who we are. This is not just an LGBTQ thing. All sorts of people experience coming out of all time.

I submitted my Grave Robbers poem that I read at the end of the Homo No Mo play.

Soooo, submit your photos, drawings, videos, poems, short stories, whatever.
Visit Lost2Found

Transfigurations–On the Eve of a Premiere

Tomorrow I premiere my newest one-person show, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. I don’t often share about my process as a playwright, mainly because I assume most people find it boring. Lately though people have asked me about how I create and build a new theater piece. If you are interested in process, read away. If not, surf away to your next blog.

I don’t actually write the play, not with pen and paper or through a word processing program. In fact, I never have a script written until after the 12th performance. I find that when I script lines of dialog, they sound bulky, clumsy, wooden. I want an authentic sound. So once I have all my basic ideas in my head, with some written notes, I create my characters, and then I have fun and play. I speak as these characters and let the words form in my mouth.

Sometimes I leave funny messages on friends’ voice mails, or I walk around the house composing lines. This is the power of the oral tradition. For many of our ancestors, most stories were told and heard, not written and read. Just like the ear can distinguish the difference between the cold digital sound of a CD and the more natural sound of a live performance or even an LP, I believe that we hear lines of dialog differently when it is scripted or when it flows out of natural speech. This may not be true for other playwrights, but it works for me.

But I’ve jumped ahead. In writing Transfigurations, I first had to discover my content and my characters. This always proceeds dialog. For the past two years I have soaked in the stories and lives of dozens of amazing trans people. I never intended to write a play at first. Instead I desired to be a better ally to transgender people. I saw how in the LGB part of the community, the T was most often just tagged onto the name of a group, but no real trans presence or deep knowledge of trans issues existed.

I began by reading blogs written by trans men, women and others who defy gender classification (by their own choosing). From there I learned about several important books written by trans people about trans issues. (see below a list of blogs and books). Then I began to meet more and more trans people face to face. Some of these I met through True Colors or the Quaker group Friends for LGBTQ Concerns. I discovered so much diversity among trans folks and began to see how misinformed I had been.

About the time I met Sarah Jones, a transgender priest in the Church of England, I decided I needed to create a play about the trans characters in the Bible. For one I have not yet discovered any book or work of art that identifies many trans Bible characters, specifically the ones that I began to see materialize on the page. Also, I process information through my art, so in order for me to really grasp it, I need to turn to art. (sorta like many teachers learn the most about their subject when they teach it).

I next began interview trans people. Interviews have played and important role in my creative process from the time I was first asked to write a performance poem for Judy Shepard when she spoke in Memphis back in 2000. In order to do that, I interviewed nearly 100 LGBT people and discovered so much about my people, this group that I had finally allowed myself to embrace and let embrace me.

Over the last year I sat with transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueer individuals who agreed to meet with me, and I listened to their stories while I took notes. Often I asked a broad, open-ended question. So tell me about your experience as a trans person? They answered how they wanted. I also asked more specific questions about family and romance and career based on what they already shared, but mostly I stuck with the broader type questions.

Apart from the play, and not at all part of any official research into trans issues, I discovered true friends and at least one soul mate. My life became fuller with each trans person I met. I dated a trans man for a time, and my time with him changed me profoundly and opened me up as a gay man and a person.

I took in the stories I read, saw in film and most importantly heard firsthand. At the same time I read over and over again the Bible narratives of the trans characters I identified in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Then I began to speak and write about the play and some of my ideas. People responded with their own thoughts and gave me vital information about the Bible stories and the original language and meanings of words in Hebrew that I would not have known. (I studied Koine Greek in college, but never Hebrew).

In May I began to share the Transgender Bible Stories publicly, first at the Courage UK London meeting then later in the year at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England and then most recently at the Colorado Regional Gathering of Friends (Quakers).

The audience reaction surprised me. One person wrote on his blog about how the material gave him the “holy creeps,” and about how blasphemous it all seemed to him. But most audience members responded enthusiastically, at least three telling me that as a result they wanted to dive into the Bible themselves after never having anything to do with it or put it down long ago.

These last two weeks I have spoken with trans friends about the play, my ideas for characters, specific parts of the plot and certain technical aspects. For instance, if I were a female to male trans person not taking testosterone, what might I do differently with my voice so that it would pass more as a male voice. How do males and females speak differently in our cultures? How would a female attack a word compared to a male?

Sometimes seemingly unrelated interests suddenly jumps into one of my plays and affixes itself to the work. I recently re-read Elaine Pagels’ book about the Gospel of Thomas. There I found all sorts of fascinating references to gender. That got me thinking about the Apostle Thomas. I knew he went all the way to India to share the Jesus message and ultimately got killed there by the sword. Thomas in Southern India got me thinking about the hijras, the eunuchs of India also referred to as the third sex. This got me talking to filmmaker and scholar Harjant Gill about hijras, their history and their current roles in Indian life. Suddenly the confluence of information gave new direction and depth to my ideas for the play. I won’t reveal how it all turns out, but I tell you all this to share some of the organic nature of the creative process for me.

The audience plays a major role in the creation of my plays. I’m always thinking about who my audience members might be and consider them in my content, characters and in crafting lines. Before I premiere a piece, I present a preview version to close friends who have seen my other work and usually a few people who have never seen any of my plays.

I come with scrapes of ideas I have, and I literally build the piece right before their eyes. They give me feedback about what worked and what didn’t. I consider their feedback, make changes and then a day or two later do another preview performance with another group of people. Get more feedback and make more changes. Even after I premiere a piece, I take in how my audiences respond and ask individuals for feedback. I continue to tinker and tune the play even years after it premieres. This is one of the reasons why I am loathed to record any of my shows. They seem to me living organisms always growing and changing.

This week I have already done two preview performances and have a third this afternoon. The piece is coming along nicely. Each time I do it, it settles into place more and more. So far the audiences have found it to be funny and moving, and for some, enlightening.

Having considered my trans audience members, I wanted to keep some of the revelations subtle, knowing that they will figure it out right away. Having non-trans folks in the audience this week helped me see that I was too subtle for them and need to spell out some things more clearly.

Tomorrow I premiere the piece at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I believe a large crowd will gather including some coming from as far as an hour away. Some dear trusted friends will be there. Ultimately I want Transfigurations to transition into a musical. I can write lyrics and have found at least two different people willing to write music.

So cross your fingers, tell me to break a leg, and hold me in the Light or shoot up a prayer if you do that sort of thing because ready or not, I am about to premiere Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible.

Here are some resources that have influenced me:

Jen Burkes’ Transcending Gender
Elliot’s many blogs including Little Bits and Boi
Alex Resare’s Across and Beyond
Diana’s Little Corner in the Nutmeg State
Jay Sennett’s newly retitled blog On Zen and the Art of Anti Assclownery

Omnigender–A Trans-Religious Approach by Virgina Mollenkott
Queer Theory, Gender Theory by Riki Wilchins
Butch is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman
Orlando by Virginia Wolfe
Beyond Belief–The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels

Special Thanks
Elliot, Alex, Ally, Diana, and Oliver Danni for your recent help!

A Terrorist, an Ex-Gay and a Thief–Oh My!

Jessica Yu, Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker and creator of the beautiful and slightly creepy movie, In the Realms of the Unreal has a new film called Protagonist. The official site for the film states,

On one level, “Protagonist” intercuts the first-person narratives of four men who seem to have nothing in common except their charisma: a former German terrorist, a student of martial arts, a “formerly gay” evangelist and a serial bank robber. But this is only the beginning.

For Yu, who looks on editing as “weaving straw into gold,” intercuts these stories not only with each other but with several different kinds of material. She has wooden rod puppets constructed by Janie Geiser doing brief scenes from the plays of Euripides, recited in ancient Greek. She has the same puppets performing scenes from the lives of these four men. And she has a dozen or so 15-second animated moments that go with single thematic words like “provocation,” “certainty” and “doubt” that function as “little bits of breathing room.”

The film did well at the Sundance Film Festival, got picked up for distribution and will be released in select theaters on November 30th.

From the trailer we learn about four men featured including Mark Pierport, a former ex-gay minister. I’ve never heard of Pierport before, but it seems we have yet another former ex-gay man coming forward to tell his story. And with Jessica Yu behind the camera, I imagine the film will present an insightful and artfully rendered presentation.

You can view the trailer for Protagonist here and you can see a interview with Yu and more clips from the film here.

Quaker Art

Art by Quakers fills my life today. Some months ago Robert Batson, a member of Hartford Friends Meeting (aka Quaker), exhibited some of his work at the meeting house. The art captured my attention, and I purchased piece. Today I brought home the 18″x24″ Untitled painting by Robert. I love the colors and the use of space and the emotions, some contrary, that piece expresses to me. (click on it for larger view)
Then after meeting we had our monthly potluck lunch where I met a visitor, a retired high school art teacher. Sadly I did not catch his name, but he offered to draw something on my journal cover. He created this dove.
Finally while sitting with Jamie Taylor, a Friend from meeting, we chatted about literature and art (and a thousand other things. A PhD candidate doing research in public policy and homelessness, Jamie embraces many interests–poetry, meditation, social justice issues, dynamics of relationships, etc. So we converse broadly)

As we talked about art and the strange fit for the artist in the Quaker community, I doodled something I have titled Quacker Worship. I think Alex in Sweden inspired me as he attended a Quaker retreat near Stockholm this weekend (note the colors).
Quaker Art–a strange fit. As a performance artist working in comedy, I find that presenting to a Quaker audiences fills me with anxiety and concerns that I rarely experience in other venues. Some Friends enjoy and “get” what I do, but I regularly meet Quakers who do not (and tell me so as they offer their critiques, suggestions and sources of offense). I find that some Quakers offend easily. Some focus so much on words that they miss the point. I do take some of what they say seriously and consider it to see if it speaks to me (usually it does not).

Art for me comes from a place of worship–it serves as worship infused with messages. It is ministry (and yes I still shrink from that word but begin to accept it). I do occasionally speak in meeting (vocal ministry). But my art is my worship and includes more than words.

At the Ex-Gay Survivors Conference Christine Bakke organized an art show, created collages of the ex-gay experience and currently curates our on-line gallery. Seeing the impact of that art on those who have viewed it reminds me that people need more than vocal ministry. In fact, vocal ministry can get stuck in the head (and we Quakers can be a heady bunch). Words get clogged and can miss the mark, but art–visual, musical, performance, dance, film–can bypass the filters and get to a deeper place in us.

Often an audience member tells me they feel moved by one of my shows, but they do not fully understand why. They sometimes hear messages that I never utter or script. Art wedded with Spirit aids our abilities to grow, heal, feel challenged and find hope.