Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Work

Some recent work: "A Resourceful Woman," an Instagram essay published on Longreads. This is the work I've been most invested in these past couple of months, the kind of reporting that brought me to the genre of literary journalism in the first place, the kind of reporting that's almost impossible in most magazines.




I published six related shorter Instagram essays, installments, in a sense, in a larger essay called "#Nightshift," in a number of venues: LongreadsGQ's blog, Killing the Buddha, and Hobart. This one, also called "#Nightshift," is itself a two-parter, the second part of which makes the case for "snapshot journalism."


"Instagram's Graveyard Shift," a short essay that is, in an indirect sense, about instagram essays, in The New York Times Magazine. I also contributed a short essay on Pete Seeger for The New York Times Magazine's annual "Lives They Lived" issue.



The March issue of GQ will feature a long in-the-works report titled (by the magazine), "Are You Man Enough to Join the Men's Rights Movement?" Subscribers should receive it any day. I'll post a link when it's online. 

GQ story I published last year, "Inside the Iron Closet," just won the National Magazine Award for Reporting, which made me inordinately happy.


Because of that story, I was asked to write an introductory essay for Misha Friedman's new photo book, Lyudmila and Natasha: Russian Lives. The essay isn't online but I can't recommend the book enough.






Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Creation Myth of 20th Century Fundamentalism

The other day I met the head of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told me about a talk they'd hosted, a biologist skewering creationism in comic fashion. I admire AU, but I told her I don't find the secular response to creationism very interesting. It misses what's usually at stake -- class -- and ignores the real history of the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." What did I think that history was, she asked. As it happened, I'd written about it briefly for my 2008 book The Family, but I ended up cutting it. I always meant to come back to it.


The oft-told tale of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial, the creation myth of 20th century fundamentalism, is usually taken as the last stand of a know-nothing faith from a vanished America. It’s true that a few old Bible thumpers retreated to their prayer closets never to re-emerge, that the death knell of prohibition was rung eight years before the fact when the judge in Dayton, Tennessee banged his gavel on the close of this case of antique epistemology, that the charms of mass media would thereafter seduce nearly every American, fundamentalists included. But these were not fatal wounds for fundamentalism. The faith healed quickly and grew stronger after Scopes, remaking itself not along the old lines of moral propriety but those of a social movement, a cultural wave, the third Great Awakening of America—a revival so vast and enduring that we are living in it still. That secular America did not see it at the time—that secularism cannot see it now—has much to with the post-Scopes split of American fundamentalism into two, parallel movements, one quiet and elite, the other popular and steadily increasing in volume with the decades.
            In 1925, the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union, seeking a test case with which to overthrow Tennessee’s anti-evolution law before it spread to other states, persuaded a small town school teacher named John Scopes—a robust “parlor socialist” who took the cause on for a lark as much as for politics—to break the law by teaching evolution. The stage was set, and on it strutted two of the greatest public speakers of the times. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, a bow-tied balloon of a man with the lungs of a whale and a monkish fringe of grey hair on his giant black-browed dome. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, a stony-faced courtroom killer with a wit so quick he had talked his way into the national life of the country with the kind of radical views that got less-glib men sent to jail for “subversion.”
            The tiny courthouse of Dayton, Tennessee could hardly hold all the locals who crowded in for the fight, much less the massive clot of reporters eager to file dispatches from the battle between “science” and “religion.” So the court borrowed a get-up used by traveling revivalists and convened on the most crowded days out on the front lawn, beneath a blister-hot Tennessee sun that set the big man Bryan to sweating as lean Clarence Darrow danced around him.
            But neither Darrow nor Bryan was as nimble as the famously acid H.L. Mencken, writing for The Baltimore Evening Sun. Mencken, who called Tennesseans “yokels” and much of the rest of the American public “boobs,” and who had five years previous defined Puritanism—by which he meant Christianity in general—as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” hardly represented conventional wisdom. But his commentaries on backwoods behavior were so funny and ferocious that they tended to set the tone for reporters of lesser abilities. “Poor half wits,” he called Dayton’s local Christians. That was Mencken being sweet. Of a holiness camp meeting, he wrote that it achieved

such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real…. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun…. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled.[i]

            A “squawk”—that was the sound of fundamentalism to secular America, and Mencken’s rendition of it, slightly diluted, was the only story that came out of Dayton, the last gurgle-gurgle of a religion no longer relevant to a nation enraptured by the “New Nakedness,” the Jazz Age fashions of that year. Summoned to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible, Bryan, decades past the heyday of his oratorical powers, could give no better account of his faith than could Mencken’s preacher speaking in tongues. It was Darrow who shot words like bullets. Instead of asking Bryan about evolution, he demanded that the old man explain the literal truth of the Book of Joshua, in which God is reported to have made the sun stand still. 
            Bryan had no good answers, and the questions kept coming. Darrow was killing the old man. Bryan’s ideas were old, his mind was slow, his words lacked strength. By the end of Darrow’s attack even Bryan’s supporters guffawed at him. Five days later, Bryan died in his sleep. “Well,” Mencken remarked on hearing the news, “we killed the old son-of-a-bitch.”
            The Scopes Trial was the moment at which reason put old-timey religion in its grave—or so goes the official story. That myth has been burnished for decades, in the press of 1925 and in movies and plays and novels and even now, in the pages of thoughtful magazines that reprise the wholly fictional 1955 drama Inherit the Wind as if it was history.  A myth’s power lies not in its details but in its meaning, and the essence of this story was so immediately plain that even fundamentalists conceded its central claim: Something had indeed been lost in Dayton, even as their champion, Bryan won the trial (a detail often forgotten).
            Maybe it was Bryan himself who had been lost. Victorious judgment in hand, he stood alone in the minutes after the gavel sounded, as the crowd—his crowd, rural folk, believers—flocked around Darrow. Bryan had won the trial but Darrow had won the war, tricked Bryan into stumbling over his own doctrine, into revealing his faith for what it was: the confused ranting of an old fool, his once-beautiful trombone of a voice honking and sputtering, unable to answer simple questions.
            Then he died. Silly supernaturalism breathing its last, announced the press, pleased with the tidy ending. But Bryan’s death didn’t mean the end of fundamentalism. It was Bryan’s faith that expired. “The Great Commoner,” the man who as the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 ran the most radical major party campaign in history, declaring miners and farmers and factory workers the real “business men” of America and decrying capitalism’s “cross of gold” on which, he roared, honest laborers were crucified: Bryan was the last champion of fundamentalism’s now-forgotten justice tradition. He hated evolution not because he feared science but because he feared its applications; particularly its political ones. The high school textbook that provoked the trial, George William Hunter’s Civic Biology, taught eugenics as evolution’s logical extension and offered a cure for criminality, mental retardation, and even epilepsy: “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”[ii] Bryan saw in such prescriptions not a foreshadowing of Hitler—who could have known?—but a cheapening of life. In our times fundamentalists restrict the term  “life” to fetal concerns, but to Bryan life meant the right to earn a living, and “a living” was not simply a wage and a store to spend it in but an equal standing before God and mammon for both the weak and the strong.
            The second half of that ambition faded from fundamentalism after 1925. The movement split in two, one visible and seemingly weak, the other invisible and strong. One fundamentalism—the movement of the masses, the revivalists, the “yokels”—retreated, backed up into the hills, and in the safety of its own enclaves began rebuilding. The other fundamentalism—the key men, the educated men, the rich men—stepped over Bryan’s body and moved on, quietly, free of his concerns. The Monkey Trial was like a rock in the river, the point at which the movement divided. The elite tradition and the populist tradition went off on different courses. Both flowed rightwards.




[i] H.L. Mencken, “Mencken Likens Trial a Religious Orgy, With Defendant a Beelzebub,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 11, 1925.
[ii] Quoted in Larson, Edward L. Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 27. Larson’s book is the most accessible and thorough account of the trial. A more nuanced and provocative reading of Scopes, however, is found in anthropologist Susan Friend Harding’s examination of the narrative strategies at work around the trial in The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2001), a brilliant and lively study of how fundamentalism constructs meaning. Extensive selections from the trial transcripts and the press coverage of the period are also available online, allowing almost anyone to interpret the case to their own satisfaction – an outcome of which I imagine Bryan would approve.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Don't Be a Book Killer

And another thing: It's time to say no to Amazon. It was time years ago, but because so many of us are dense, Amazon's been making it easy for us by putting on a black hat, smoking a cigar, and twirling its mustachios. That is, by waging war on a publisher, Hachette -- one of my publishers -- through attacks on its authors. I'm ok, but a friend of mine has a new book coming out from a Hachette imprint, a big one for him, and Amazon has taken down his page. That's just one of the thousands of horror stories now emerging from this thug of a corporation. Amazon is a book killer.

"Yeah, I know, but they'll mail it to me, and I don't live near a bookstore..." Etc. I've bought books from Amazon, too. But the line has been drawn. I mean, it's been drawn with a paintbrush, and then underlined, and then Amazon put arrows pointing to it, with a neon side that blinks, "Which Side Are You On?" That is: Do you believe authors and people who make books should be gouged so that Amazon can sell more electronics? Do you want to abandon stories for discounts on blenders?

Or do you like books? Would you like them to continue to be made?

Indie bookstores will mail your books to you, too. A decently-paid human being, invested in the success of a small bookstore serving its community, will take your book off the shelf and mail it to you. It will cost more. Because books cost more. When you pay less, you're not saving money; you're ripping off the author. Don't be a book killer.

Tonight I'm reading at my local bookstore, Norwich Books, in Norwich, Vermont. I hope you can come, but you're probably nowhere near Norwich. So I hope you'll buy my new book, Radiant Truths. And I hope you'll buy it from Norwich Books. It will cost you more. But instead of doing evil, you'll be doing good. Sometimes, it is that simple.

I'm reading tonight

Vermonters, New Hampshirites -- I hope you'll join me if you can tonight at Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, VT, at 7 pm, where I'll be reading from my new book, Radiant Truths.

Here's a link to the store, from which you can buy the book, or other books.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Snowden Prophecy, 1991

My father, preparing to move, has been sending me boxes of old papers. Today's prescient find: a nonfiction story I wrote for Michael Lesy's literary journalism class at Hampshire College in 1991. 1991--23 years ago, 22 years before Edward Snowden's revelations.

The prescience isn't mine but that of a college friend I'll call "Kyle." Kyle, Lorraine, Steve, and I had driven several hours north to what we thought was going to be a sizable drug deal, several pounds of pot that'd transform our lives. But it didn't work out that way.
"I don't like this," Kyle said, lighting another cigarette. "The FBI have aerial surveillance. They could be watching us right now, waiting for us to buy the pot so they can bust us." 
"Christ," I said, "why would they care?" 
"Because," Kyle said with complete seriousness, "it's a war on drugs. They can track down anybody. The CIA stole this software that tracks dissidents. They can use it to keep tabs on anybody, anywhere." 
"That's ridiculous. How can they track you on a computer if you don't use a computer?" I asked. 
"You don't have to use a computer! Wherever you go you leave traces. Phone conversations, bank transactions, receipts; they have access to all the video cameras filming you when you go into a store! You can't exist in this society without them knowing. If you're a dissident, they'll find you anywhere." 
"Shut up," Steve said.
Kyle smoked a lot of weed, ate a lot of acid and read a lot of Philip K. Dick. I didn't believe him that day, or awhile later when he tried to describe something called "the web." When he withdrew from college to deal with some mental health issues, I thought the verdict was in: just crazy talk, all of it.

Sorry, Kyle. You saw it coming.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My New Book, Radiant Truths


My new book, Radiant Truths
published April 29 by Yale University Press




Read an excerpt, "This Mutant Genre."

Buy the book.

"Rare is the collection of other people’s writing that coheres into something new and original; and rarer still is the one that takes on meaning because we read it through the eyes of the collector. Radiant Truths is exactly that rarity."
            --Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Review of Books

Radiant Truths an important book. I know people say that a lot about all kinds of books, but this one really is important, particularly if you take into account a couple influential trends in American culture.... Radiant Truths features some of America’s best writers, well known and not, at the top of their game, attempting to explain the unexplainable. And Sharlet is an excellent guide showing how, in almost every case, the writers he showcases get close to that impossible goal of literary journalism, "perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise.                                                                                                                         --Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, The Daily Beast

Sharlet assembles a highly literate potpourri of writings about religion, faith and other manifestations of “the production of social life.” 
The phrase, notes the author in his introduction, is a commonplace of cultural anthropology, describing the narratives that enable us to live in the world: Jesus died for our sins, America is an exceptional nation blessed by God, and so forth. Interestingly, Sharlet’s chief criterion here is to gather pieces that speak to “what happens when we say ‘religion’ out loud.” The collection begins and ends with Walt Whitman: At the start, he is praying and singing with wounded Union soldiers in a Washington hospital, while at the end, writer Francine Prose is moved to tears on seeing his words, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” on a sign above the Occupy Wall Street encampment, inspired to resist “the awful isolation and powerlessness of knowing we’re being lied to and robbed on a daily basis.” Between those Whitmanesque braces are numerous pieces that are not widely enough known, such as pioneering journalist Abraham Cahan’s report from the streets of New York on the suicide of a Jewish man at Purim... Meridel Le Sueur’s almost supernaturally charged account of the Minneapolis strike of 1934, a Woody Guthrie song come to life (“the walking, falling back, the open mouth crying, the nostrils stretched apart, the raised hand, the blow falling, and the outstretched hand drawing me in”); and H.L. Mencken’s dismissive analysis of the fundamentalism that propelled the Scopes Monkey Trial: “Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.” 
...Readers will find plenty here to sustain questions—and perhaps even a few answers—of their own.                                                                                                                                               --Kirkus

Sharlet is an astute commentator on and questioner of American writings that investigate belief and disbelief, popular culture, and the meaning of religion and politics in American life. Here he gathers and comments on pieces composed from the Civil War through Occupy Wall Street. The collection is eclectic, in the best sense, and includes works from a broad spectrum of writers such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Meridel Le Seur, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Francine Prose, and others to discuss "things unseen" and the meaning of an engaged conversation about religion. 
VERDICT: Sharlet's important and thought-provoking book is highly recommended for readers who are interested in our country's culture (both religious and political), creative and literary nonfiction, and well-written, well-argued writing.—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence                                                                                                                         --Library Journal

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Read Wisconsin Death Trip


The following are reading notes I made for my Dartmouth College course "Raising the Dead," a creative writing and reading course in experimental nonfictions. I teach one of the books that introduced me to the genre, Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, who taught me as an undergraduate 20 years ago. Back then, my classmates at Hampshire College and I were puzzled by the book, enthralled by it. I remain both puzzled and enthralled. First time I taught it at Dartmouth most of my students dismissed it out of hand. "It doesn't make sense," they said. "True," I agreed. "That doesn't make sense, either," they said. The problem, I came to suspect, was that they had little experience with a text without a plot, a text without an argument, a poem that does not look like a poem.

So I made these reading notes, about one of the first images in the book. This horse. The first time we see the horse, we get only the body. Emphasis on the mane. Emphasis on the phallus. Turn the pages, and the whole emerges. How to account for this? There are many possibilities. These are a few of them.




We begin with a horse. Or rather, a cropped photograph of a horse, a picture of part of a horse. Which part? Not the head, not the eyes -- the part of every animal we look to first.

Instead, a dichotomy: the mane and the phallus. The mane, an extraordinary mane, can’t be ignored; the phallus, meanwhile, has been made the focal point by the cropping of the image. So we look first at the mane and tally the obvious: long, white, wavy. Perhaps Rapunzel comes to mind. As for the phallus, there’s nothing so whimsical; just the fact of it.

In the text that follows, Lesy alerts us to his interest in archetypes. So we can read his cropped photo, his selection, in “traditional” terms: the mane is the feminine, the phallus is the male.

If that seems too simple, too reductive—as it should—just wait.

We read the introduction. We learn that there will be photographs of horses because the photographer, Charles Van Schaick, was paid to take photographs of horses. We learn that the photographer’s intentions were banal; at least, the ones he knew about. We learn that Lesy believes we have more intentions than we know about.

Then we turn the page, past the big numeral one—and again, the horse. Same picture. Right side of the page. Just the horse and nothing but the horse and not even the whole horse. Look at this horse! says Lesy. Because, after all, it seems to be a remarkable horse.

I mean, have you ever seen a horse like that?

“The thing to worry about,” Lesy has just told us, “is meanings, not appearances.”

Perhaps you, like me, are worrying about meanings. Perhaps you’re worrying, looking at this strange horse, that you don’t get it.

So you turn the page.  Ah! The whole horse. The horse depicted as a horse should be depicted, standing in profile, its most wonderful feature – that mane! – restored to its proper place as the focal point of the image, no longer in tension with the phallus. Now we know where to look and how to read the picture.

Nice horse. 

But what’s with this horse on the next page? 


Cropped, again. (In the book, we see just the body.) The whole head chopped off. (A horse head? The Godfather?* When did that come out? To Wikipedia: 1972. And Wisconsin Death Trip? 1973. Is it possible? That connection? But to what end? The horse head: chopped off. A warning?)

What’s left: Ribs. A reflection of the white horse’s mane, a photo negative. The glorious flamboyance reflected as bone against flesh. Mortality. Lesy’s told us what to look for: Life and death. Here we have it.

Turn the page. (Same image, cropped even tighter.) Closer now, the ribs, mortality, death, but the “camera” – Lesy’s cropping, our gaze – moves, up toward the head, almost to the head, almost to the eyes. Almost but not quite. Almost to the eyes looking toward the text, the page, our destination. Our eyes move there; we complete the horse, become the horse, the horse’s ribs become our ribs, the white horse’s mane our beauty, and now we’re in, animal observers of the stories that follow.

But how to read these stories? NOT STRAIGHT THROUGH. You’d die of terror or boredom or numbness. It’s worth paying attention to the title: A death trip. The drug allusion is deliberate: The book is a product of its times even as it stands outside of normal time. Now, I know none of us have any experience with mind-altering drugs, but we’ve seen the effects in the movies, so we know the experience isn’t linear or even narrative, precisely.

It may help us to turn to the definition of the “lyric essay” offered by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, champions of the form: “Lyric essays forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. . . . [The lyric essay] might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic.”

“Sidewinding poetic logic.” A poetic logic by which we give attention to repetition and pattern; a sidewinding logic in which we look for these patterns not by plowing from A to B to C but by jumping from A to K to G.

In other words, read enough of Wisconsin Death Trip straight through to start picking up patterns; then start jumping around.

And I do mean jump around – that means you jump backwards as well as forwards.

But all along, you're paying attention to the text to which Lesy calls our special attention. The passages of his writing – the full page italics, the conclusion, the boxed prose poems of themes in various years – and the passages of his commentators, as defined in his introduction.

The clippings are just that, clippings, no more no less. Read them, but not all of them; mark them not for information but for the moment when juxtapositions begin to make sense.

ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE: Return to the pictures. That’s the death trip. Note Lesy’s manipulations, his commentary in the form of line drawings. Don’t try to decode them; try to inhabit the pictures and the mind of this strange person, “Michael Lesy,” who has gathered them for us.









* You may be wondering what The Godfather is. That’s ok. That’s how allusion, intended and accidental, works: not by directing us only to texts we’re familiar with but by sending us off toward texts we don’t know, by developing a context, a landscape. It’s ok if we don’t catch all the allusions. They’re just there. Or they’re not.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Moscow & St. Petersburg: Queer Pictures


GQ hired a first-rate photojournalist, Yuri Kozyrev, to take photographs to accompany my story in the February 2014 issue, "Inside the Iron Closet." As a form of notes, I took snapshots with my phone. Following are a few of them, along with some of the stories I couldn't fit into the magazine
***



My translator, Zhenya, and I met Nikolai at a small basement gay club called Ice. Sometime soon I'll publish our whole conversation, but I was able to get this much into the magazine:


I don't think there is homophobia in Russia," he says, "because I always carry a gun."The logic takes me a moment. He means they can't hurt him, because he will hurt them first. His father, a "criminal," he says, found Nikolai on a Grindr-like app once. He said he was coming to kill Nikolai. Nikolai wrote back: "I'm waiting for you." His father never came. Nikolai is waiting. He taps one side of his head and then the other, to show the path of the bullet he'll put through his father's skull.
But I couldn't include as much as I wanted to about the next club we went to that night:

“I’m going to Secrets,” says Nikolai. Another club. He says it’s 20 minutes away. “Will you give me money for a car?” If he’ll take us with him. It’s around 2 am and the street’s empty, but we flag down an old Soviet rustbucket and Nikolai haggles until the driver waves us in. It’s a long ride down small streets and smaller, until Nikolai directs the driver into a deeply rutted dirt alley. At which point Zhenya says maybe we shouldn’t be here. “Da!” says Nikolai. “Da! Da!” I’m looking at his puffy coat. I don’t really see where he could have a gun. Then we come around a bend and Nikolai says, “There.” He points. A small black metal rectangle tied to an iron gate with a piece of wire, “SECRET” written on it in plain English letters.


Beyond it, a beat-up parking lot that’s a study in night colors: a row of fluorescent-lit windows in another building turning the lot green beneath a cloudy city-lit sky bruised purple and yellow, in the corner of the lot one of the branches of a leafless tree incompletely wrapped in Christmas lights, red as a wound. Beneath it, an open door into what looks like a shanty, a corridor glowing redder. The corridor twists and turns, a big man in a black suit pats us down leaving no margin of error—Nikolai checks his coat first so I still don’t know about the gun, I never will—and then we come around another corner into the club.


And it’s kind of wonderful. Three times as crowded as Ice, girls and boys, some of them chiseled and rippling and beautiful, some of them fat and pimply and gorgeous, all of them dancing together or dancing alone if they want to, the music loud but not fully club-loud, we can hear the shouted greetings as Nikolai’s friends gather round and hug him. There’s a big banner across the back wall that says “Secret Lives” in an English font transported from the ’80s, Flashdance sans serif. Only there was a hiccup in translation, so it says “Secret Lifes,” which is even sweeter.
It is a place not so much of secrets as of compromises, hiding and not-hiding at the same time. Zoya Blanche, the 29-year-old halter top cop go-go girl dancing on a platform dressed as a sexy policewoman, lives with her parents, who know what she does for a living—she’s a pro, in every sense of the term—and accept it so long as when she leaves the apartment and when returns she’s a man. “So long as they don’t see me,” she tells me afterwards, relaxing by the dark room.

We meet a boy, Kirill, who says he’s 18 and out to his family and his friends. “Absolutely everybody knows,” he tells us over drinks at a little table on the second floor. Kirill’s built like a giraffe, long spindly legs and an even longer neck, unblinking dark chocolate eyes. “Everybody is talking about homophobia, but when I walk down the street I don’t feel it.” He shrugs. “I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine. We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He’s heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He doesn’t need to. “All of my friends talk about it and everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. I love Moscow. This is their experience, not mine.” 




* * *




It is too late for Harry Ben’Ka to hide. He has been out since he was 15, and now he is 17, which means our conversation in a little café near the center of the city is probably illegal: Propaganda to a minor. But Harry would just confuse the police. He is not homosexual, he says, he is asexual, currently biromantic. In short, a sweet, queer kid who loves everybody. He calls the organization he started, a network of about 70 Moscow teenagers like him, Typical Queer. Typical; normal; it’s that very modest ambition again. Very modest, very brave. Harry realized he wasn’t straight when he was 13. He had two fun years, he says, of being a party boy. Then, at 15, he began to take up his responsibilities. He heard about a meeting of an organization called the Rainbow Association. There were maybe a dozen activists there, Harry by far the youngest. They thought that was cute. This was before the law, which makes it illegal.
Harry missed the next meeting, which was just as well. A group of men in masks broke in and attacked the activists. Nothing serious, says Harry. He smiles, a real Chesire Cat grin, this one, and sips his tea. He has bleached blonde hair and four silver studs beneath his lip, tight red jeans and a scarecrow’s frame. He sits most comfortably folded like origami, his long legs twisting and his skinny arms reaching across one another. But there is nothing defensive about his manner as he explains to me his typical queer life: his early fascination with anime, learning how to sneak into clubs, boyfriend trouble; leaving home and finding couches to sleep on, learning how to evade police, discovering that with numbers, sometimes, maybe, he can stand his ground.
He has plans for a café nearby. Its owners don’t know it yet, but soon, says Harry, it will be queered. More typical stuff, a group of teens taking over a diner or a café. Typical anywhere but here. 
Harry is writing a fantasy novel about an imaginary city that sounds a lot like Amsterdam, but he doesn’t want to leave. He still feels like he has just arrived. “As long as they don’t kill me,” he says, “I’m going to keep living here.” He smiles. This, to him, is a happy thought. Standing his ground. “It is not yet ours,” says Harry of the café he plans conquer. “We have not occupied it.”
I want to ask him to take us to his club that is not yet a club, to let us help him occupy this little piece of his dream, but his long answers are growing shorter, his hands rising from his lap to make a point and then collapsing. It’s time to go. I’ve saved the most difficult question for last. It’s about the grey scars and long red scabs figure skating around his left arm. I fumble the question. “I can’t help but notice,” I say, smiling like an idiot, dipping my chin in the direction of the wounded arm, which happens to be lying across his crotch. Harry looks confused. He has already told me has had only one lover, and he has been coy about him; maybe just a boy with whom he fooled around. And he has already told me that there will be no more of that, at least for the time being. He has told me his heart is broken. I can see his brow wrinkle, his mouth begin to twist.
I try to clarify, “I wanted to ask”—and I point at the scars, at his lap. Harry looks at Zhenya. Does the stupid American think the damaged queer youth of Russia are souvenirs?
Zhenya, thank God, understands. He tells Harry in Russian that I’m trying to ask—and then Zhenya also balks. There is an easier way. He pushes up his sleeve and points to the white stripes welted across his wrist like barricades.
Oh! Now Harry understands. He laughs, and waves his hand and his own red stripes. No, he reassures us, his are not a matter of suicide. Just reminders. “As long as they don’t kill me,” he says, “I’m going to keep living here.”
“A little while ago,” he continues, “at an event for Typical Queer. I was not there, but my friends were. And so were some Nazis. And the Nazis were asking for me!” They asked for him by name. Harry Ben’ka! Where is Harry Ben’ka?

Not long after that they caught Harry on the street. He grabs the collar of his own jacket as if to hoist himself up. They pinned him to a tree, shook him, slapped him, shouted at him. Once Harry realized this bunch wouldn’t going to kill him, he began to smile. “I felt like a V.I.P.,” he says. He waves the thought of fear away with his red-slashed arm. “I think these Nazis,” he says, “they have showed their weakness.” They weren’t willing to kill him. So for now, Harry wins.
               
                                                              * * *

From "“To Slavik,” by Dmitry Kuzmin, one of Russia's very few out writers -- out since the last days of the Soviet Union and the early days of the "New Russia," when he edited a queer literary magazine that doesn't exist anymore.


…and once, when you thought I was asleep,
you whispered: “I don’t want to part with you” –

– midnight in Bryansk,
the Russian border, passport control, and for some reason
there is music at the station, the trackman’s crow-bar clinks
shunting the switch, a lantern from the platform
gives light to the guy on the lower berth who is finishing his Perumov
across the aisle a plain cadet is undressing,
the pattern of his chest-hair repeating yours;
oh now I would —

That’s how it ends: blank spaces.

* * *


In April 2013, six agents of the Russian Justice ministry, all men, raided the tiny offices of Coming Out St. Petersburg under the pretext of a new law that allows the government to investigate and prosecute any NGO suspected of being a "foreign agent." Anna Anismova was there with a coworker. The agents began tearing the office apart. And they began flirting, Anna says, who by then was alone with them. "Making dirty jokes." We must protect the children, they'd say, rifling through Coming Out's brochures for LGBT parents. Why do you homosexualists need children? They laughed. For this! they said. They might as well have pointed at their crotches. They knew what lesbians really want. 

Anna wanted to scream, but she laughed. "I was trying to behave very like an easy person and making jokes as well with them. Behave as if nothing serious is happening. That I'm not scared." She couldn't stop them from taking Coming Out's records, but of herself, her true self, she would give them nothing. They stayed for seven hours. After they left, "I went home and cried." 


* * *




I wrote a great deal about the astonishingly courageous Elena Kostyuchenko -- one of the steeliest journalists I've ever met, who'd be a human rights hero for life-on-the-line reporting even if she wasn't an LGBT activist, too. I wish I'd had room for this, too:


Elena is not a believer, but when she was nine, in the cancer ward, she tried to make a deal with God. What she wanted was to walk once more on the boulevard. Just the one outside the hospital. When she could still get out of bed, she’d enjoyed sitting by the window, watching the women in their summer dresses. She wanted to go get some yogurt. Also, if possible, she would like to be admitted to heaven. Her friend Yulia in the next bed, with whom she’d played a game of plucking flower petals, loves me, loves me not, had gone before her. Elena wanted to follow. She thought if she if she made her request small God might listen.
“We were scary and we were dying,” Elena would write years later in her journal, sometime in between Lisunov’s beating and the attacks that have followed. “Why write this now?” she mused. She wanted to remember the Christian children who brought her the flowers, not Roman Lisunov, not the babushkas who shriek Sodom and rip her dresses. She prefers the flowers, she holds on to the flowers. She will not hide in her anger. “No fucking way,” she says.
Only it’s Zhenya who says it like that, in English, adding italics. She grins, because what she has said is so much more vulgar. Literally, “no dick,” but that doesn’t get the half of it. There is nothing outside of Russian, Elena and Zhenya agree, that can capture her meaning—the depth of her determination. “It is so beautiful,” says Elena, repeating this vulgar phrase, both of them giggling. “No fucking way!” says Zhena. He slaps the table. Elena applauds. No fucking way. It’s 3, 4 in the morning, we’ve been talking for hours and we’re giddy.
That’s not right; what we’re feeling, Zhenya and I will agree later, is relief. Because Zhenya and I, man, we’re tired, we’ve been doing this for a week already!  Collecting these sad stories. And it’s a real burden for us, listening to other people describe all these beatings. Especially if, like Zhenya, you have beatings of your own. “The badge of the gay,” he said my first night in Moscow, grinning and pointing to his broken nose, and Igor Iasine—remember him? The broken jaw?—sitting next to him, a stoic man, Igor smiled and pointed to own. It’s sort of what brought them together.
No fucking way! It’s fucking joyous.  


I was going to post some of my photographs of the "bad guys" -- oh, hell, they don't need scare quotes, they're very scary people -- but I think I'll leave it there, with this happy picture. Or maybe, actually, with this video Elena pulled up on her phone shortly after it was taken.

It begins with video of a demonstration at which a queer activist who'd had enough of the homophobic goons who'd showed up to attack him decided to throw a punch of his own. The hater on the receiving end is outraged! He is a victim! He says, Zhenya translated for me, "I am a simple Russian guy! Attacked by a homosexualist!" Two queer kids thought that was so funny they turned it into a song. It was around 3 am when we watched it in this cafe -- right around the corner from one of Pussy Riot's old hideouts, as it happens. There were still a few customers left, but we thought it was so funny we played it over and over, and then we began to sing, pounding the table, "I am a simple Russian guy! Attacked by a homosexualist!" Elena -- whose childhood dream had been to be the next Alla Pugacheva, the Madonna of the USSR -- stood up and belted it out, Zhenya and I collapsing in laughter. It really was fucking joyous.

So I'm ending this with the bad guys, after all -- reduced to proper size.