Search Results for: susan straight

In the Country of Women


Susan Straight | In the Country of Women | Catapult | August 2019 | 38 minutes (7,573 words)


To my daughters:

They never tell us about the odysseys of women. They never say about a woman: “Her passage was worthy of Homer . . . her voyage a mythic quest for new lands.” Women don’t get the Heroine’s Journey.

Men are accorded the road and the sea and the asphalt. The monsters and battles and the murders. Men get The Iliad and The Odyssey. They get Joseph Campbell. They get The Thousand Faces of the Hero. They get “the epic novel,” “the great American story,” and Ken Burns documentaries.

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Some Inland California History Begins with an Orange

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

For Riverside native and author Susan Straight, citrus and camaraderie were once the ties that bound people in the part of southern California called the Inland Empire. This area includes the many cities east of greater Los Angeles, and west of Palm Springs, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. New arrivals used to plant lemons, tangerines, and oranges in their yards, as well as figs, persimmons, avocados, and loquats, and they shared their bounty with friends and neighbors. For California’s public broadcasting service KCET, Straight writes an evocative essay that mixes regional history with personal history, and celebrates the way these imported fruits have shaped the social fabric and local economy. She has an 80 year old apricot tree growing on her property. Even though this arid region isn’t known for its timber, Straight calls its planted gardens “non-native woods” and sees them as paradise, because they helped provide many people what was truly a piece of the good life. “The groves are nearly gone now,” Straight writes, “housing tracts named for what they’ve erased.” But locals don’t give up these traditions.

Eliza Tibbets started the first two seedling navel orange trees. A statue of her was recently unveiled in downtown Riverside, and it seems a fitting time to remind ourselves of the woman who transformed California’s landscape, not just with daring but with generosity. (I still drive past the Parent Navel Orange Trees, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues, every week.)

She was married three times, an abolitionist (her third husband, Mr. Tibbets, campaigned as a “Radical Republican” who tried integration in Virginia), a suffragist who tried to vote in 1871, a spiritualist who led séances in Riverside when she got here. But in 1873, she sent to Washington’s new Bureau of Agriculture for the first two seedling trees of a new variety of seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil, and planted them in her yard in Riverside. She kept them alive with dishwater, shared the fruit and more cuttings, and changed the economy and the very look of Southern California. (Neither she, born in Cincinnati, or the seedlings, were natives.)

By 1886, entire towns like Rialto, Bloomington, Corona and Redlands were laid out around groves of Washington navel orange trees. Packing houses for Sunkist Growers and other cooperatives were built, the Santa Fe Railroad took boxcars full of fruit all over the nation, and oranges were shipped around the world. By 1895, Riverside had the highest per capita income in America, thanks to the citrus industry.

The faces of Southern California changed with citrus, too.  Chinese laborers, Italians and Mexicans and Japanese and African-American southerners, Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado — all picked and packed and trucked oranges.  I grew up with their kids.

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Five Quarters of the Orange: A Sense of Place in the Inland Empire

Longreads Pick

Author Susan Straight was born in Riverside, California and still lives in Riverside. For her, residents’ citrus trees and commeraderie are the ties that bound people in Los Angeles Metropolitan Area’s massive interior, and they’re what can sustain them through future hard times.

Source: KCET
Published: Sep 7, 2011
Length: 5 minutes (1,491 words)

‘To Be Polite By Ignoring the Obvious’: Jess Row on Unpacking Whiteness in Literature


Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,662 words)

Despite the recurring cycle of conversations on topics such as the need for fully-funded MFA programs, the financial challenges of sustaining oneself as a writer, and the lack of diversity in all levels of media, the issue of whiteness in publishing — and the privileges that come with being white in publishing — continues to justify our scrutiny. We are aware that white people hold much of the power in the literary world, but how do we assess this fact critically, understanding that whiteness is not just a factor in the economics of writing, but in the writing itself? Novelist Jess Row investigates this question in his latest book, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. In his own words, “American culture has evolved a theory of the white psyche that rarely, if ever, considers racism as a direct or even proximate cause of its disorder and distress.” Read more…

This Is the Excellent Foppery of the World

Image by Zeeveez via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humans: we like explanations for things, and we like it when things are not our fault. To the stars! In The Baffler, Lauren Oyler writes with both great care and great wit about astrology, why we’re drawn to it, why it’s seen a resurgence in the past seven or eight years, and how we find identity (and social media content) in the skies.

It’s difficult to write about astrology—the idea was to write about astrology, to examine the nature of its trendiness right now—because the two questions the topic brings up most are “Is she serious?” and “Who cares?” A friend points out that my Gemini moon is likely to blame for my inability to settle on an argument here, but regardless: I don’t really know how to answer either question because the latter depends on the former, and because determining the seriousness (or not) of a person’s professed viewpoint requires a detailed checklist, one that takes into account author, subject, context, and micro-context (what jokes are popular on social media that day). The horoscopes women—mostly women—read today also take themselves pretty seriously; they’re much more elaborate and astronomically informative than the ostensibly personalized fortune cookies once found in the backs of newspapers and magazines, which were easy enough to justify as meaningless daily ritual. The authority of the contemporary astrologer is alternately expert (Susan Miller’s long-running Astrology Zone, Broadly’s Annabel Gat), speaking in friendly, straight-talking tones about things like Jupiter’s position and geometric aspects, or mystic-poetic (Astro Poets, The Cut’s Madame Clairevoyant), as if written by a medium in Los Angeles receiving garbled messages from Elizabeth Bishop. The popular Co–Star app—which uses your birthdate, place, and time to algorithmically generate lengthy, “hyper-personalized,” koan-like forecasts for you in each of ten (ten!) life-areas (transcendence, innovation, love & tenderness, thinking & communication, intense transformation, responsibility & limits, sex & aggression, ego & identity, emotional world, growth & progress)—combines the two. It also allows you to compare your natal chart—a diagram of the relationship of the sun, moon, and planets to your place of birth at your time of birth—with friends’ charts to assess your compatibility in all the life-areas. The daily horoscopes it produces are so long that I usually do not finish reading them, though they often contain gems like “The present moment is its own hellscape,” which it served me on my birthday when I had woken from a night of short, drunk, bad sleep in an un-air- conditioned apartment in Berlin, which was experiencing a heat wave.

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Down the Rabbit Hole: A Psychedelic Reading List

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“On psychedelics,” Dr. John Halpern, head of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told The New York Times Magazine, “you have an experience in which you feel there is something you are a part of, something else is out there that’s bigger than you, that there is a dazzling unity you belong to, that love is possible and all these realizations are imbued with deep meaning. I’m telling you that you’re not going to forget that six months from now.” That rings true to me.

For the record, I’m not encouraging anyone to take psychedelics. Powerful substances such as LSD, D.M.T., and psilocybin are not for everyone, and they are illegal. That said, these substances behave in the body very different than opioids, alcohol, and cocaine, and they offer what many people view as the possibility for enlightenment, for constructive personal revelations, and insight into the cosmos. The stories collected here offer insight into this idea.

Not long ago, residents of affluent Western countries began traveling to the jungles of South America to have profound psychedelic experiences with the hallucinogen ayahuasca. And workers in Silicon Valley started taking small doses of psilocybin and LSD, called microdoses, to enhance their work and creativity in tech. Tripping got trendy. It also received more scientific attention. As Lauren Slater wrote in her New York Times piece, a new generation of researchers are studying the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances and their potential for treating everything from depression, alcoholism, and PTSD, to confronting our own mortality. These researchers have differentiated themselves from the questionable, Timothy Leary-style drug studies of the ’60s. It’s exciting to live in a time when scientists are taking a serious, objective look at the way psychedelics work on not only the human body, but the human experience. After the legalization of cannabis in many US states, activists are now working to legalize psilocybin mushrooms. Like all outlawed psychoactive substances, psychedelics come with a lot of cultural baggage. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan stated that “anyone that would engage or indulge in [LSD] is just a plain fool.”

For those who haven’t tripped and want to understand the experience, or those who want to relive past trips without having to fit new six-to-ten-hour journeys into their adult work and parenting schedules, this reading list is for you. For those who prefer to never to ingest psychedelic substances, these stories will take that trip so you don’t have to. It’s nice to travel into another dimension from the comfort of your own couch, especially now that COVID-19 keeps most of us indoors at home. Anyway, shelter-in-place isn’t the best time to trip. Psychedelics are better suited to nature, if not a camping trip then at least a city park. Apartments are too small. They smother the cosmic consciousness we’re trying to expand. Also, things get weird in familiar environments, especially familiar environments where family portraits hang above piles of dirty laundry that need washing. (Hi Mom, my face is melting!) Maybe the best trip now is one others have already taken. Either way, safe travels my friends. See you on the other side.

* * *

The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale” (Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, September 5, 2016)

The ancient South American hallucinogen ayahuasca has become America’s psychedelic drug du jour, with everyone from Baby Boomers and Millennials to the Silicon Valley set seeking its potent revelations about harmony and interspecies unity. To hear the plants speak, all you need is money and some strength of mind.

One at a time, we went into the front room to be smudged with sage on the wrestling mats by a woman in her sixties with the silver hair and beatific smile of a Latina Mrs. Claus. When she finished waving her smoking sage at me and said, “I hope you have a beautiful journey,” I was so moved by her radiant good will that I nearly burst into tears.

Once we were all smudged and back in our circle, Little Owl dimmed the lights. “You are the real shaman,” she said. “I am just your servant.”

When it was my turn to drink the little Dixie cup of muck she presented, I was stunned that divine consciousness—or really anything—could smell quite so foul: as if it had already been vomited up, by someone who’d been on a steady dieta of tar, bile, and fermented wood pulp. But I forced it down, and I was stoked. I was going to visit the swampland of my soul, make peace with death, and become one with the universe.

Tourists of Consciousness” (Jeff Warren, Maisonneuve, April 29, 2011)

Before The New Yorker spotted ayahuasca as a subject, the Canadian quarterly Maisonneuve covered the increasing popularity of hallucinogen tourisism. Jeff Warren’s reporting makes a fascinating companion to Ariel Levy’s above.

As if on cue, the Estonian psychologist, Alar, vomited into his bucket, setting off a domino effect of throaty purges around the room. Susan began humping the air. The Mountie groaned and raised his arm, as if to ward off an assailant. Someone else started barking. The Finnish professor—also in his sixties—came spinning in from the sidelines, hair shocked upwards in an Elvis-style pompadour, and pranced around Susan’s undulating body.

It was all too much. I struggled to my feet, teetered, and fell sideways over a chair. On my hands and knees I managed to crawl to the bathroom, where I was noisily ill. I spent the next two hours slumped next to the toilet, disappointed by my lack of visions, but also giggling at the whole bizarre circus. Behavioural reality, at least, was beginning to shift.

How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death” (Lauren Slater, The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2012)

Researchers are exploring whether certain drugs can help patients cope with fear of death. Pam Sakuda, who was given six to 14 months to live, was administered psilocybin — an active component of magic mushrooms.

Norbert Litzingerremembers picking up his wife from the medical center after her first session and seeing that this deeply distressed woman was now “glowing from the inside out.” Before Pam Sakuda died, she described her psilocybin experience on video: “I felt this lump of emotions welling up . . . almost like an entity,” Sakuda said, as she spoke straight into the camera. “I started to cry. . . . Everything was concentrated and came welling up and then . . . it started to dissipate, and I started to look at it differently. . . . I began to realize that all of this negative fear and guilt was such a hindrance . . . to making the most of and enjoying the healthy time that I’m having.” Sakuda went on to explain that, under the influence of the psilocybin, she came to a very visceral understanding that there was a present, a now, and that it was hers to have.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop by the Office” (Emma Hogan, 1843, August 31, 2017)

Emma Hogan reports that in Silicon Valley, microdosing LSD is the new “body-hacking” tool everyone from engineers to CEOs are using to boost productivity and creativity. Interestingly, while apparently everyone is doing it, users are reluctant to have their real names appear in print.

San Francisco appears to be at the epicentre of the new trend, just as it was during the original craze five decades ago. Tim Ferriss, an angel investor and author, claimed in 2015 in an interview with CNN that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Few billionaires are as open about their usage as Ferriss suggests. Steve Jobs was an exception: he spoke frequently about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life”. In Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the Apple CEO is quoted as joking that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates, its founder, had experienced psychedelics.

As Silicon Valley is a place full of people whose most fervent desire is to be Steve Jobs, individuals are gradually opening up about their usage – or talking about trying LSD for the first time. According to Chris Kantrowitz, the CEO of Gobbler, a cloud-storage company, and the head of a new fund investing in psychedelic research, people were refusing to talk about psychedelics as recently as three years ago. “It was very hush hush, even if they did it.” Now, in some circles, it seems hard to find someone who has never tried it.

The Trip Treatment” (Michael Pollan, The New Yorker, February 2, 2015)

Research into psychedelics has been demonized and shut down for decades. But recent psilocybin trials from Johns Hopkins and New York University are helping researchers reconsider the therapeutic potential of the drugs.

The Trippy Science of Psychedelic Studies” (Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, Elemental, August 22, 2019)

Psychedelic substances show great promise treating everything from cancer to depression, anxiety to alcoholism. To help understand this burgeoning field of inquiry, one writer participates in a study. Tripping taught her as much about the promises as the dangers of medical psychedelics.

The brain on psychedelics is not only susceptible to cues, but it also exaggerates their meanings. And here’s the problem with that: We can debate what’s real and what is an illusion, but we can’t ignore the power of the drugs, or the power of the people who administer them to us, and we can’t ignore our own vulnerability to both. This is what chills me.

The Plot to Turn On the World: The Leary/Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy” (Steve Silberman, PLoS/, April 21, 2011)

As the public faces of the psychedelic revolution, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg made a dynamic duo. The charming, boyish, Irish Harvard professor and the ecstatic, boldly gay, bearded Jersey bard became the de facto gurus of the movement they’d helped create — father figures for a generation of lysergic pilgrims who temporarily jettisoned their own fathers in their quest for renewable revelation. (Note that this piece, originally published at PLoS, is no longer available there. Some digging discovered it online at

A Psychedelic Murder Story” (John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times, June 19, 2015)

Ayahuasca tea has long played a religious role in Brazil, but did it also contribute to the brutal death of a celebrated Brazilian artist? A dark twist on the question for enlightenment.

There have been many other reports of mental and physical healing following ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as occasional stories of delusion, cultism and worse. Early last year, Henry Miller, a 19-year-old Briton, died after apparently taking part in a shamanic ayahuasca ritual in Colombia — a terrible accident which played in the British press as a cautionary tale of a gap-year adventure that went horribly wrong. And then there is Glauco’s story, largely unreported outside Brazil, although it is one of the most curious cases of them all.

Riding the Highs and Lows with My Mom” (Valentina Valentini, Longreads, August 21, 2019)

Valentina Valentini’s life-long role-reversal with her mother gets up-ended one psychedelic night in the Hollywood Hills, giving her the chance to become the daughter, once again.

She handed me the pipe. I politely refused. We went back to listening to the girl croon.

Not many minutes later I began to feel lightheaded. And warm. I knew it would get hot in that tiny room. My first thought was that I might be inhaling some second-hand smoke, therefore creating a bit of a contact high. I wasn’t altogether opposed to that, so I sat still a little while longer. Then my eyes started to feel heavy. Very heavy. I whispered to my mother that I was going to take a step outside and get some air. She seemed concerned, but only mildly. I assured her I’d be fine, snuck through the haphazard chairs with swaying wannabe hippies in them, and stepped out the shop door.

The Trip of a Lifetime” (Laura Miller, Slate, May 14, 2018)

In the context of some reads on psychedelic drugs, Laura Miller looks at Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In it, Pollan says that drugs such as psilocybin and LSD got a bad rap after some flawed scientific experimentation and images of burned-out, ’60s counter-culture hippies soured Americans on exploring the medical benefits these drugs might offer, suggesting that their mind-altering abilities might help free us from cognitive patterns that are holding us back.

If How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will, it will be by capsizing the long association, dating from Leary’s time, between the drugs and young people. Pollan observes that the young have had less time to establish the cognitive patterns that psychedelics temporarily overturn. But “by middle age,” he writes, “the sway of habitual thinking over the operations of the mind is nearly absolute.” What he sought in his own trips was not communion with a higher consciousness so much as the opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life.” He felt that the experience made him more emotionally open and appreciative of his relationships. Both Waldman and Lin report similar effects, even though Waldman never actually tripped. The promise of hyperlight travel, revolution, and spiritual transcendence be damned: If psychedelics can help cure the midlife crises of disaffected baby boomers and Gen Xers, then it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to pick them up with a prescription at our local pharmacy.

The Queer Generation Gap

Express Syndication / Invision / Associated Press / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

Should I be married to a woman? If today were yesterday, if all this sexual fluidity were in the discourse when I was coming of age in the ‘90s, would I have been with a woman instead of a man? It is a question that “The Bisexual” creator Desiree Akhavan also poses in the second episode of her Hulu series, co-produced with Channel 4 because no U.S. network wanted it. Akhavan directed, co-wrote, and stars in the show in which her character, Leila, splits with her girlfriend of 10 years, Sadie (Maxine Peake), and starts having sex with men for the first time. So, Leila asks, if the opposite had happened to her — as it did to me — and a guy had swept her off her feet instead of a woman, would things have turned out differently? “Maybe I would’ve gone the path of least resistance,” Leila says. Maybe I did.

This is a conundrum that marks a previous generation — one that had to “fight for it,” as Akhavan’s heroine puts it, and is all the more self-conscious for being juxtaposed with the next one, the one populated by the fluid youth of social media idolizing the likes of pansexual Janelle Monáe, polyamorous Ezra Miller, undecided Lucas Hedges. Call it a queer generation gap (what’s one more label?). “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the Internet,” 32-year-old Akhavan explains to a younger self-described “queer woman” in her show. “I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality in a really good way, but in a way I can’t relate to.”


This Playboy bunny is chest out, lips open, legs wide. This Playboy bunny is every other Playboy bunny except for the flat hairy chest because this Playboy bunny is Ezra Miller. The star of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald calls himself “queer” but it’s hard to take him seriously. What was it Susan Sontag said: it’s not camp if it’s trying to be camp? And for the past few months, while promoting the Potterverse prequel no one asked for, this 26-year-old fashionisto has been trying his damndest, styling himself as a sort of latter day Ziggy Stardust — the monastic Moncler puffer cape, the glittering Givenchy feathers — minus the depth. Six months ago, Miller looked like every other guy on the red carpet and now, per his own request, models bunny ears, fishnets, and heels as a gender-fluid rabbit for a randy Playboy interview. Okay, I guess, but it reads disingenuous to someone who grew up surrounded by closets to see them plundered so flagrantly for publicity. Described as “attracted to men and women,” Miller is nevertheless quoted mostly on the subject of guys, the ones he jerked off and fell in love with. He claims his lack of romantic success has lead him to be a polycule: a “polyamorous molecule” involving multiple “queer beings who understand me as a queer being.”

The article hit two weeks after i-D published a feature in which heartthrob Harry Styles interviewed heartthrob Timothée Chalamet with — despite their supposed reframing of masculinity — the upshot, as always, being female genuflection. “I want to say you can be whatever you want to be,” Chalamet explains, styled as a sensitive greaser for the cover. “There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine.” Styles, on brand, pushes it further. “I think there’s so much masculinity in being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be feminine,” the 24-year-old musician says, “and I’m very comfortable with that.” (Of course you are comfortable, white guy…did I say that out loud?) As part of the boy band One Direction, Styles was marketed as a female fantasy and became a kind of latter-day Mick Jagger, the playboy who gets all the girls. His subsequent refusal to label himself, the rumors about his close relationship with band mate Louis Tomlinson, and the elevation of his song “Medicine” to “bisexual anthem”– “The boys and the girls are in/I mess around with them/And I’m OK with it” — all build on a solid foundation of cis white male heterosexuality.

Timothée Chalamet’s sexuality, meanwhile, flows freely between fiction and fact. While the 22-year-old actor is “straight-identifying,” he acquires a queer veneer by virtue of his signature role as Call Me by Your Name’s Elio, a bisexual teen (or, at least, a boy who has had sex with both women and men). Yet off screen, as Timothée, he embodies a robust heterosexuality. On social media, the thirst for him skews overwhelmingly female, while reports about his romantic partners — Madonna’s daughter, Johnny Depp’s daughter — not only paint him straight but enviably so. Lucas Hedges, another straight-identified actor who plays gay in the conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, somewhat disrupts this narrative, returning fluidity to the ambiguous space it came from. The 21-year-old admitted in an interview with Vulture that he found it difficult to pin himself down, having been “infatuated with” close male friends but more often women. “I recognize myself as existing on that spectrum,” he says. “Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.” That he felt “ashamed” for not being binary despite having a sixth-grade health teacher who introduced him to the range of sexuality suggests how married our culture is to it.

As a woman familiar with the shame associated with female sexuality, it’s difficult to ignore the difference in tenor of the response to famous young white males like Miller, Styles, and Chalamet and famous black women like Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson not only discussing it, but making even more radical statements. Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in May, Monáe said straight up (so to speak): “Being a queer black woman in America — someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” The same age as Desiree Akhavan, 32, Monáe identified as bisexual until she read about pansexuality. She initially came out through her music; her album, Dirty Computer, contains a song called “Q.U.E.E.N.” which was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R.,” while the music video accompanying “Pynk” has actress Tessa Thompson emerging from Monáe’s Georgia O’Keeffe-esque pants. While neither one of them has discussed their relationship in detail, Thompson, who in Porter magazine’s July issue revealed she is attracted to men and women, said, “If people want to speculate about what we are, that’s okay.”

The mainstream press and what appeared to be a number of non-queer social media acolytes credited Chalamet and Styles with redefining their gender and trouncing toxic masculinity. “[H]arry styles, ezra miller, and timothee chalamet are going to save the world,” tweeted one woman, while The Guardian dubbed Miller the “hero we need right now.” Monáe, meanwhile, was predominantly championed by queer fans (“can we please talk about how our absolute monarch Janelle Monáe has been telegraphing her truth to the queers thru her art and fashion for YEARS and now this Rolling Stone interview is a delicious cherry on top + a ‘told u so’ to all the h*teros”) and eclipsed by questions about what pansexual actually means. While white male fluidity was held up as heroic, female fluidity, particularly black female fluidity, was somehow unremarkable. Why? Part of the answer was recently, eloquently, provided by “Younger” star Nico Tortorella, who identifies as gender-fluid, bisexual, and polyamorous. “I get to share my story,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s a privilege that I have because of what I look like, the color of my skin, what I have between my legs, my straight passing-ness, everything.”


When I was growing up sex was not fun, it was fraught. Sex was AIDS, disease, death. The Supreme Court of Canada protected sexual orientation under the Charter when I was 15 but I went to school in Alberta, Canada’s version of Texas — my gym teacher was the face of Alberta beef. In my high school, no one was gay even if they were. All gender was binary. Sex was a penis in a vagina. Popular culture was as straight, and even Prince and David Bowie seemed to use their glam sparkle to sleep with more women rather than fewer. Bisexual women on film were murderers (Basic Instinct) or sluts (Chasing Amy) and in the end were united by their desire for “some serious deep dicking.” I saw no bisexual women on television (I didn’t watch “Buffy”) and LGBTQ characters were limited (“My So-Called Life”). Alanis Morissette was considered pop music’s feminist icon, but even she was singing about Dave Coulier. And the female celebrities who seemed to swing both ways — Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Bijou Phillips — were the kind who were already acting out, their sexuality a hallmark of their lack of control.

“I think unrealistic depictions of sex and relationships are harmful,” Akhavan told The New York Times. “I was raised on them and the first time I had sex, I had learned everything from film and television and I was like ‘Oh, this isn’t at all like I saw on the screen.’” Bisexuality has historically been passed over on screen for a more accessible binary depiction of relationships. In her 2013 book The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo describes what has become known as “bisexual erasure” in pop culture: “Outside of the erotically transgressive realms of art cinema and pornography, screen as well as ‘real life’ bisexuality is effaced not only by what I’ve named compulsory monosexuality but also by compulsory monogamy,” she writes, adding, “the assumption remains that the gender of one’s current object choice indicates one’s sexuality.” So even high-profile films that include leads having sex with both genders — Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carol, Call Me By Your Name — are coded “gay” rather than “bi.”

Despite the rise in bisexual women on the small screen like Annalise in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Syd in “Transparent,” and Ilana in “Broad City,” GLAAD’s latest report on inclusion cited continued underrepresentation. While 28 percent of LGBTQ characters on television are bisexual, the majority are women (75 versus 18) and they are often associated with harmful tropes — sex is used to move the plot forward and the characters scan amoral and manipulative. This despite an increase in the U.S.’s queer population to 4.5 percent in 2017 from 3.5 percent in 2012 (when Gallup started tracking it). A notable detail is the extreme generational divide in identification: “The percentage of millennials who identify as LGBT expanded from 7.3% to 8.1% from 2016 to 2017, and is up from 5.8% in 2012,” reported Gallup. “By contrast, the LGBT percentage in Generation X (those born from 1965 to 1979) was up only .2% from 2016 to 2017.”

Here’s the embarrassing part. While I am technically a millennial, I align more with Generation X (that’s not the embarrassing bit). I am attracted more to men, but I am attracted to women as well yet don’t identify as LGBTQ. How best to describe this? I remember a relative being relieved when I acquired my first boyfriend (it was late). “Oh good, I thought you were gay,” they said. I was angry at them for suggesting that being gay was a bad thing, but also relieved that I had dodged a bullet. This isn’t exactly the internalized homophobia that Hannah Gadsby talked about, but it isn’t exactly not. My parents and my brother would have been fine with me being gay. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the standard I grew up with — in the culture, in the world around me — was not homosexuality, it was heterosexuality. I don’t judge non-heterosexual relationships, but having one myself somehow falls short of ideal. For the same reason, I can’t shake the false belief that lesbian sex is less legitimate than gay sex between men. The ideal is penetration. “That’s some Chasing Amy shit,” my boyfriend, eight years younger, said. And, yeah, unfortunately, it is. I have company though.

In a survey released in June, billed as “the most comprehensive of its kind,” Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News polled 880 LGBTQ Americans, almost half of whom were between the ages of 18 and 29, and found that the majority, 46 percent, identified as bisexual. While women self-described as bi four times as often as men (79 to 19 percent), the report did not offer a single clear reason for the discrepancy. It did, however, suggest “phallocentrism,” the notion that the penis is the organizing principle for the world, the standard. In other words, sex is a penis in a vagina. “While bisexual women are often stereotyped as sleeping with women for male attention, or just going through a phase en route to permanent heterosexuality,” the report reads, “the opposite is presumed of bisexual men: that they are simply confused or semi-closeted gay men.” This explains why women who come out, like Monáe and Thompson, are considered less iconoclastic in the popular culture than men who even just make vague gestures towards fluidity — the stakes are considered higher for the guys. In truth, few feel comfortable being bi. Though the Pew Research Center’s survey of queer Americans in 2013 revealed that 40 percent of respondents identified as bisexual, this population was less likely to come out and more likely to be with a partner of the opposite sex. Famous women like Maria Bello, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristen Stewart have all come out, yet none of them really use the label.

“Not feeling gay enough, that’s something I felt a lot of guilt over,” Akhavan told the Times. It is guilt like this and the aforementioned shame which makes it all the more frustrating to watch the ease with which the younger generation publicly owns their fluidity. It is doubly hard to watch young white men being praised for wearing bunny ears in a magazine that has so long objectified women, simply because the expectations are so much lower for them. “I’m not looking down on the younger experience of being queer,” Akhavan said, “but I do think that there’s a resentment there that we gloss over.” In response, many of us react conservatively, with the feeling that they haven’t worked for it, that it is somehow less earned because of that. This is an acknowledgment of that resentment, of the eye rolling and the snickering with which we respond to the youth (ah, youth!). In the end we are not judging you for being empowered. We are judging ourselves for not being empowered enough.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Brown Girl with Bubblegum

Illustration by Loveis Wise

Lisa W. Rosenberg | Longreads | August 2018 | 11 minutes (2,676 words)

My fifth birthday was approaching, and I had one goal: to blow big, beautiful, pink bubbles out of real Bazooka bubble gum. I’d seen it done many times in person as well as captured in storybooks and on television. Bubble-blowing, I understood, was a critical marker of American girlhood — alongside hopscotch, Barbie dolls, and long hair with bangs you could flick out of your eyes with a toss of your head. I remember one image from a magazine: two girls riding bicycles up a tree-lined suburban street, their long, blond hair streaming out behind them in the wind, heads thrown back to relish the dappled sunlight. From the lips of each girl floated a pale pink bubble-gum bubble, half the size of her head. The girls were white, of course. In the ’70s, magazines didn’t show many little brown girls like me — with wild, free-form, biracial hair. I remember gazing and gazing at the picture, admiring those perfect girls with their flawless, pink bubbles. Somehow, someday, that would be me.

Julie Meyers — a girl in my class who was tall, with older siblings, and therefore worldly — could blow bubbles. She had long, straight hair that she was forever sweeping out of her eyes. We weren’t allowed gum at school, but a sister or brother had slipped Julie some Bazooka one day and she was showing off. The bubble she blew was so big, Julie didn’t notice Peter Rothman sneaking up on her — or when he raised his hand to pop it. Bits of bubble gum got stuck in Julie’s hair, which made her cry, but this did nothing to detract from my adulation.

Every day my mother would brush out my curls — like you’re not supposed to do with hair like mine. But Mom was white with short, straight hair and I didn’t have any black female relatives she could ask for advice. Dad was black, but all he knew hair-wise was his own shallow ’fro, which he tended with a pick. Fearing I’d get a headache if she braided my hair too tightly, Mom would work my woolly tresses into two low, loose pigtails. These would hang nicely past my shoulders until about 10 a.m., at which point they’d rise like yeast-laden sourdough, puffing past the bounds of their elastics into misshapen clouds of brown frizz. Maybe I’d never know the delight of my hair streaming out behind me in the wind, but one day, I promised myself, I’d blow bubbles so big and pale pink that I couldn’t see past them. As passersby exalted in their beauty and my skill, I’d suck the gum back into my mouth with a loud crack, and begin again.
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Orwell’s Last Neighborhood

Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, Scotland. (David Brown)

David Brown | The American Scholar | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,796 words)

It’s hard to know what would be a good place from which to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure up a dystopia?

Apparently not.

We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

This was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. It was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, and couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Orwell lived here for parts of the last three years of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and a boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanatorium or hospital.

I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single-malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, where Orwell’s landlord had lived. I was not on a literary pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 235 residents remembers Orwell. Read more…