Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 4

In the previous part, I discussed the fact that Asian American issues are almost totally ignored outside of their short chapter, as well as the (non)representation of Latino and American Indian people. In this part, I was to talk about a major change in San Francisco involving Asian-Americans which the book totally misses.

Okay, it manages to briefly mention one piece of the tranformation:

But the neighborhood’s quaint exterior masked a social tempest. Following the immigration reform law of 1965, which eased the longtime anti-Chinese quotas, a new wave of immigrants came flooding into San Francisco’s Chinatown, West Coast capital of the Chinese diaspora. The neighborhood’s dreary tenement buildings, welfare hotels, and public housing barracks were soon stuffed with families from Guangdong Province and other Asian regions that were the chief exporters of human capital to America.

In my opinion, this paragraph understates just how big a deal this was. I am not an expert on the post-1965 Asian immigrant wave to Chinatown, but even I know that it changed the language of Chinatown itself – before the dominant language was Toisanese, and during the 1970s, the Cantonese became the new dominant language.

However, there is another part of this story which the book does not make any reference to, and it is a part of the story which has had more of an impact on my life growing up in San Francisco than any of the many things which the book says about the Haight-Ashbury, even though I grew up within walking distance of Haight and Ashbury streets, and I spent much time in the Haight-Ashbury in my youth. That is the integration of Asian-Americans into the western neighborhoods (which are also known as the “outside lands” and “the avenues”, but in this post I’ll simply call them the ‘western neighborhoods’).

The book occasionally mentions the western part of the city as being the a set of conservative neighborhoods full of people who vote as homeowners and taxpayers. Even today, the these neighborhoods are the stronghold of middle-class (as opposed to upper-class) conservatism in San Francisco (though, of course, someone who is a conservative by San Francisco standards may not be considered a conservative in many other parts of the USA).

For many decades, the these neighborhoods was almost entirely white – by design. There were many measures which a) ensured Chinese people (specifically) could only settle in Chinatown and b) in the neighborhoods themselves, there were mechanisms such as covenants which forcefully kept Asians (and other disliked groups) from buying homes in an area. Failing those measures to keep Asians in their place … well, the first Chinese family which ever settled in the Richmond district found a landlord which was willing to rent to them, and then they received a great deal of harassment from their neighbors (their landlord was also harassed). Somehow, they managed to hold on, since as of 2010, when I learned about this family, they were still living in that location in the Richmond district.

However, today, these neighborhoods are just about 50% Asian-American. How did this happen? Many of the measures which forced Chinese people (and to a lesser extent, other Asians) to live only in certain parts of the city broke down during the Civil Rights era. The combination of greater freedom and the increasingly crowded conditions of Chinatown inspired many Asian-Americans to settle in other neighborhoods, particularly the western neighborhoods. And this was going on during the years that the book covers.

The western neighborhoods cover roughly a third of the city (it depends on how you define the borders). A third of a major American city was converted from segregated whites-only neighborhoods into racially mixed neighborhoods within the span of about two decades – is this not a major transformation? And why does a book which claims to be about radical change in San Francisco from the 1960s to the 1980s fail to mention it at all?

In the next part, I address two factors which may have caused to be biased in the way that it is – the white-black binary, and what I call “Neighborhood Tunnel Vision” (actually, I’ve never called it that before, I made up that name right now, but it is a concept I have thought about for a long time).

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Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 3

In the previous part, I focused mainly on the very short chapter about Asian-Americans in the book Season of the Witch and its shortcomings.

However, in my opinion, was is even worse than the shortcomings of that chapter is the fact that Asian Americans are hardly ever mentioned elsewhere in the book. Going through the index, it seems that the only Asian-American who is ever mentioned outside of that short chapter is Wendy Yoshimura, who is briefly mentioned as being a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the person who was arrested with Patty Hearst. It’s as if the book decided to segregate the Asian-American history of this era in San Francisco, squeeze it into a short chapter, and almost never let them be outside that chapter.

A lot of the book focuses on the music scene of San Francisco of the time, which was dominated by white people. Yet they were not entirely white, and not all of the non-white people were black. There was Benjamin Fong-Torres, the first senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who was also active in the San Francisco State College protests, and was a DJ at KSAN-FM, one of the radio stations mentioned in the book. Was it absolutely essential to include Ben Fong-Torres in the book? Probably not. However, given that I know a lot less about San Francisco’s rock-and-roll history than Bryan Talbot does … the fact that even I can name an Asian-American who was seriously involved in that history, and Bryan Talbot did not in a 400-page book … is somewhat sad.

Even if the writer did not find any Asian-Americans who were compelling enough to include in the rock-and-roll angle of the book, at least the dominance of white people deserved comment.

And generally, the book ignores how Asian-Americans were involved in or impacted by the events and issues discussed.

The book does this much better with black people – black people are not just in the ‘African-American’ chapters, they can be found in various chapters which are not focused on African-Americans. There is a sense that there are black people in San Francisco, and that they are connected to the narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the book is even better at representing white people than black people. Way better.

Even though Asian-Americans are the largest non-white racial group in San Francisco, and thus their under-representation is most glaring, I think it is also worth examining how the book addresses Latinos and American Indians. I am going to quote everything I can find about Latinos in the book:

The Castro district and the Noe Valley neighborhood were working-class Irish, though the Irish in the adjacent Mission district were giving way to Latino immigrants. (Chapter 2, “Dead Men Dancing”)

In the beginning, he trawled for items at the city’s swanky Nob Hill hotels and the more colorful watering holes down below, like Shanty Malone’s – whose massive floor was marked out with white lines like a football field – and the Black Cat, where drag diva José Sarria would lead patrons each night in a rousing version of “God Save Us Nelly Queens, sung to the stately tun of the British anthem. (Chapter 10, “San Francisco’s Morning Kiss”)

José Sarria, a hometown boy who plucked his eyebrows, slipped into a basic black dress and a pair of Capezio stilettos, and began singing torch songs at the bohemian Black Cat in the 1950s, was the first to politicize the drag world. In between songs, he started preaching that “gay is good,” and at the end of each performance, he had the audience stand and belt out a parody of “God Save the Queen” – “as a kind of anthem,” he later recalled, “to get them realizing that we had to work together, that … we could change the laws if we weren’t always hiding.” In 1961 Sarria took his campaign public, running for the city’s board of supervisors with an early gay pride message. The campaign fell short of victory, but the gay genie was released from San Francisco’s bottle. (Chapter 12, “The Palace of Golden Cocks”)

Some of the organizations that the SLA requested to coordinate the food give-away, including the Black Panthers and the United Farm Workers union, refused to play a role, with Panthers leader Huey Newton proclaiming that he wouldn’t be a party to SLA “extortion.” (Chapter 19, “The Revolution Will Be Televised”)

The temple worked its mojo on dozens of community organizations, from small groups like the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association to higher-profile ones like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Farm Workers. (Chapter 25, “Slouching Toward San Francisco”

Many of the attackers were from the heavily Latino Mission district that abutted the Castro – a neighborhood that had shared the Mission’s Catholic family values until gays displaced the Irish. Some of the young thugs were wrestling with their own sexual confusions. In June 1977, on the first warm night of summer, Robert Hillsborough, a thirty-one-year-old city gardener known as Mr. Greenjeans to the kids at the park where he worked, was jumped by four young men as he walked to his apartment with his boyfriend. A nineteen-year-old Latino named John Cordova pinned Hillsborough to the ground and plunged a fishing knife repeatedly into his chest and face, screaming “Faggot, faggot, faggot!” It was an intensely personal and physical way to kill a man. Cordova, it was later revealed, led his own secret homosexual life. (Chapter 30, “A Tale of Two Cities”)

That, as well as Santana’s song “Samba Pa Ti” appearing on the list of best songs recorded by San Francisco bands 1965-1985 – is everything I could find in this 400+ page book about Latino people. You may judge for yourself.

The only place in the book where American Indians are mentioned is Chapter 19 – “He sat down for a four-hour lunch meeting at a Hilton hotel in San Francisco with suspicious American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, who – after making their bodyguards taste the meal – agreed to help with PIN.” Since American Indians were less than 1% of San Francisco’s population at that time, their almost total absence from the book would be easily excusable – if it were not for the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz island. I was surprised that that event was not mentioned at all in the book.

In the next part, I will discuss a major transformation of San Francisco in the 1960-80s which a) totally involves Asian-Americans and b) is totally missed by the book.

An Asexual Perspective on the play IN LOVE AND WARCRAFT (Part 3)

In Part 1 I introduced the play and its protagonist, and in Part 2 I focused on Evie’s relationship with her new boyfriend Raul. Here, I get to the heart of why I think this play sends a harmful message to people who are sex-averse or otherwise prefer not having sex. In other words, I think this play supports compulsory sexuality.

The playwright discusses the play in this video. I recommend watching the whole video, but if you can’t/don’t want to, here are the quotes which I wish to discuss (emphasis is mine):

But the irony of that is that she is so terrified of intimacy that she has never been in a real relationship herself…

… And she’s happy in her own little bubble until she meets this guy, who comes to her first as a client, but then she falls in love with him, and he really challenges her to get out of her shell and get her from her Warcraft world, and to be with him, and to be intimate, you know, go past those boundaries that she set on herself

…I want them to come away with the feeling that whoever they are, and whatever they feel, whatever their own desires are, um, whatever they want for themselves, in terms of relationships, in terms of sex, in terms of, I guess, life, is that it’s okay to want that, and that it’s also okay, and I also want them to understand that sometimes the ideas we have about ourselves are often not based on what we want or what we feel, but are based on fear, fear of trying something out, fear of being different, fear of trying to push back against the boundaries that you’ve set for yourself. So I hope that they have a good time, and that they are kinder to themselves when they leave.

Somehow, when the playwright is talking about people having to get over their fear of trying something different and pushing against their boundaries, I don’t think she is talking about Raul challenging himself by entering a sexless romantic relationship.

Having seen the play, I can tell you that ‘intimacy’ is just a euphemism for ‘sex’. Evie seems perfectly fine with every kind of non-sexual intimacy (for example, cuddling) which is addressed in the play.

The playwright talks about how “sometimes the ideas we have about ourselves are often not based on what we want or what we feel, but are based on fear.” First of all, fear is a feeling, so I don’t get how something which is based on fear is not based on a feeling. Second of all – and this is a point which I hammer again and again in this post – is that the playwright implies here that Evie actually wants sex and feels a sexual impulse, and that she is mistakenly basing her idea about herself on “fear” rather than her feelings (which somehow don’t include fear) … YET the playwright never bothers to actually depict Evie wanting or feeling inclined toward sex (until the very last minute of the play – I’ll get to that later). For 99.9% of the play, Evie’s feelings about sex seemed to be entirely fear, repulsion, or, just maybe, indifference.

In the version of the play I saw, Evie does not have a single reason to have sex which is not based on fear. The only reasons, as far as I could tell, for Evie to have sex are a) because of peer pressure (embodied by Kitty), b) because she’s scared of losing the new boyfriend she likes and c) because she considers herself broken for not wanting sex. Do any of these seem like a good reason to have sex?

Again, I would interpret this very differently if Evie were shown as having any reason to have sex which is not based on fear – such as experiencing sexual desire, or seeking thrills, or curiosity, or wanting to make a baby or … something positive.

I am sure the playwright could have written a very entertaining scene where Evie has a supremely unrealistic sex-fantasy, and then her attempts to make that fantasy a reality with Raul are sabotaged by her insecurities and lack of experience. Such a scene would have indicated that Evie feels sexual desire.

Given that the play offers no other reason for Evie to want sex, I must conclude that the playwright thinks either that a) everybody automatically wants sex (and thus asexuals like myself, and many of the sex-averse people who read this blog, aren’t real people), so there is no point in showing why Evie would want sex (aside from peer pressure and self-esteem issues) or b) peer pressure and a sense of being broken are excellent reasons to ‘push against’ sexual boundaries one has put up for oneself. Both of those thoughts are toxic. If anyone who has seen/read the play can think of a non-toxic explanation, please comment.

Yet another real life example of a sex-averse geeky young woman who has had boyfriends is Queenie, and she’s written about how the assumption that everybody is going to have sex has created trouble for her romantic pursuits. A passage from that post:

What made everything more confusing is that, when I was a teenager, my mum gave me a lot of those oh-no-you’re-hitting-puberty-and-you’re-getting-all-these-weird-feelings-and-growing-hair-in-awkward-places books, which would inevitably say, “Don’t have sex if you don’t want to. Just say no.” The thing is, the scenarios the books would present were:

A. a skeezy guy walks up to you at a party and says, “Hey, girl, let’s have sex in a suitably grubby place and probably without any protection,” and you say no

or

B. your boyfriend (always your boyfriend, because apparently none of your Weird New Feelings could be directed toward ladies) is pressuring you to have sex and you ask him to wait until you feel ready. Do you see the issue here? You are asking him to wait until you feel ready. The implication is that there will be a time that you feel ready and that then you will have sex, because this is what people do in romantic relationships. Saying “please wait” is not saying “no”; it is saying “maybe later.”

And this is a Problem.

To be fair, there is one scene in the play which possibly could have been construed as Evie acting on sexual desire … in a different production. In the production I saw, the acting showed that Evie was acting sexually because she was afraid of losing Raul – it did not seem like she enjoyed or wanted it at all. If the playwright did not want it to be performed that way, she should have been more explicit about Evie experiencing sexual desire so that it would not be misinterpreted.

If Evie wanted sex for a positive reason, I would accept the playwright’s talk about how people should “push their boundaries.” However, given Evie’s intense sex-aversion and lack of any reason to want sex for her own good, I interpret the playwrights comments about ‘boundaries’ as “If you have boundaries such as ‘I do not have sex’, you should push those boundaries, and capitulate to social pressure to have sex.”

If anyone reading this thinks that I am bringing up an academic point – I am not. As an active participant of both an online and a “real life” asexual community, I can tell you that it is very common for people to become hurt and unhappy because they and the people around them said that it was wrong for them to avoid sex, and once they realize that it is OK to not want sex and to live without having sex, they become much happier. I would have included some real life examples but, unsurprisingly, people who have had particularly difficult personal experiences are reluctant to write about it online, and even if they are online, I would not want to bring such personal experiences into this discussion without their permission. If you want to find out about these kinds of personal experiences, leave a comment, and I’ll see what I can do.

If Evie is meant to be a person who actually wants sex for a positive reason, you know what would have been a great plot device to show that? Let Evie go to an asexual meeting, like the ones organized by Ace Los Angeles (to be fair, I don’t know whether or not Ace Los Angeles itself was active when the play was written, but I am pretty sure there was some asexual group based in Los Angeles which was active at the time – the play is less than five years old). If Evie met with the asexuals, she would have a) found out that she is not broken (!!!), and b) either found out that she does not want sex (and is possibly sex-averse and/or asexual), OR that unlike many people who go to ace meetings, she does want sex. Just as the playwright contrasted Evie with the Christian bride, the playwright could have contrasted Evie with the people who show up at asexual meetings.

Yet another reason putting an asexual meeting in the play would have been good is that it would help asexuals in the audience. First of all, if they did not already know that asexual communities exist, it would have told them that, and then they could look up their local asexual groups, or look for online groups. Second, even if they already knew about asexual communities, seeing ourselves acknowledged in media feels good, especially since good portrayals are rare (portrayals of asexual groups are even rarer – here is a discussion of asexual groups represented in media). Third, even if Evie ended up being totally into having sex, the asexual meeting would demonstrate that people who don’t want and don’t have sex are still totally OK.

Ah, I haven’t spoiled the ending of the play yet, have I? Well, at the very end of the play, Raul says he wants to continue the relationship even if there is no sex, and Evie says that she just might want to rip off his clothes and have sex with him. The End.

What?

Again, the play gave no reason which I understand for Evie’s change of heart. Why, when she was so sex-averse throughout the entire play, and never had any reason to have sex which was not based on fear, would she suddenly have a change of heart. If she avoided sex only because of her fears, what dispelled her fears, or how did she over come them? I don’t get it.

Also, assuming that Raul is not pretending to be okay with a sexless relationship like he had earlier in the play … what changed his mind? My best guess is that he missed Evie so much while she disappeared that he decided that he is willing to have a sexless relationship with her if that’s what it takes to stay together. If that’s the case, I wish he had said so.

Anyway, back to Evie. Maybe Evie is a sex-averse demisexual who does in fact want sex with the rare person she is sexually attracted too, and it took a while for her to become sexually attracted to Raul, or maybe Evie is actually arcflux, or maybe … I could keep going, but considering the lack of context which supports such explanations, I consider them improbable.

The only probable explanation which I can think of is, once again, compulsory sexuality. Evie must finally want sex, because everyone wants sex eventually (except those of us who don’t, but oh well, I guess acknowledgement of our existence is too much to ask for).

The theme of the play is that we should get out of our imaginary world and face the real world.

The irony here is that, for many of us, the ‘imaginary world’ is the world where we are all late bloomers who are waiting for the “right person” to sweep us off our feet and turn on our sexual natures. A long time ago, I myself believe this about myself. For us, living in the ‘real world’ has been about realizing that we are different, that we aren’t going to be sexual like other people, and coming to terms with that reality.

That said … this play came very close to depicting this kind of situation well. Even if Evie’s last line had been changed – if instead of talking about how she might want to rip off Raul’s clothes, she is totally floored by Raul’s willingness to have a sexless relationship that she composes an awesome oral love letter to him on the spot (after all, he became interested in her in the first place because of how she writes love letters, so it would have been an appropriate ending), my perspective would be different. I would have still preferred having asexuality at least mentioned in the play, but I would not be saying that this play supports compulsory sexuality. I also thing this kind of ending would have better affirmed the idea it’s okay for people to be who they are and want what they want.

Irritating as I find compulsory sexuality, I am not particularly concerned about people like me who are already well versed in asexuality. I am concerned that some 20-something-year olds who have never had sex, feel very averse to having sex, and feel broken because of that, have been in the audience of this play. They may have seen themselves in Evie … only to see that, in the end, instead of Evie reaching out to other people like herself and realizing that it okay to be the way she is, or at least discovering that she can be happy and get what she wants as a sex-averse person, it is strongly implied that she was just a sexual butterfly who ‘needed’ to come out of her cocoon. And I am afraid that some of those audience members may continue to feel broken because, after having seen this play with a character who seemed so much like themselves, they still feel isolated, and they still feel like failures because they haven’t acheived Evie’s metamorphosis. It for people like them that I have written by far the longest post ever on this blog to date.

***

If anyone wants a good fictional example of couple consisting of a geeky young woman who does not want sex getting into a ‘relationship’ with a nice young man who is interested in pursuing sex, I suggest the novel Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson.

***

EDIT: If you are a theatre company who is planning to produce this play, I have some advice: reach out to sex-averse and/or asexual people. One of the top suggestions I have for how this play could have better presented people-not-wanting-sex is to mention asexuality – you can do this without changing the script! Include in your program information about local asexual groups (if any), as well as links to online asexual resources. You can invite a local ace group, if there is one in your area, for post-show discussions. Heck, if you offer them a group discount, I suspect a lot of them would be willing to buy tickets. Get your cast (especially whoever is playing Evie) to talk to real 21+ year old sex-averse people who have never had sex so they can better understand the experience. This play has ambiguity with regards to how it presents sex-averse people and their relationships, so there is some leeway in how a theatre company presents it. I think it possible for the producers of this play to significantly reduce the negative impact it could have on audience members who see themselves in Evie.

An Asexual Perspective on the play IN LOVE AND WARCRAFT (Part 2)

In Part 1, I introduced the play and Evie, an obviously sex-averse protagonist who may possibly also be asexual. Of course, must of the play revolves around Evie’s relationship with her new ‘real life’ boyfriend (as opposed to her World-of-Warcraft boyfriend).
Raul is originally one of Evie’s clients – he commissions her to write a love letter to his ex-girlfriend so they can get back together, and then decides, based on the letter, that he would rather have Evie as his girlfriend instead.

Evie, on her part, seems to genuinely like Raul, and is happy to start dating him. Sex happens to be a red line for her. However, her “best friend” roommate Kitty keeps on pressuring her to have sex (hmmm … this reminds me of how my mother “lost her virginity” at the age of 22), and Raul is clearly unhappy about not having sex with Evie.

At some point, Evie makes it explicit to Raul that she does not want sex, and he nominally accepts it … but it’s clearly not okay with him. He is also upset that Evie spends so much time playing World of Warcraft. They strike the bargain that, if Evie stops playing Warcraft, the Raul won’t have sex with her.

That is a disturbing bargain, isn’t it? The bargain basically says “If you refrain from this activity which does not involve me at all, then I agree to not do this activity which involves your bodily autonomy.”

Okay, I get it, having someone spend an excessive amount of time playing a computer game instead of investing in a personal relationship can be a problem. That said, it is much less of a problem than trying to violate someone’s personal boundaries. They should not be treated as equivalents.

And the fact that Raul asks Evie to quit Warcraft completely rather than just asking Evie for more time to spend together or to not play Warcraft when they are hanging out together … is worrisome. Why does Raul care if Evie is playing Warcraft when he isn’t around anyway? EDIT: Actually, Evie also has an (ex-)boyfriend in World of Warcraft. Even so, I think if that is what’s bothering Raul, he should be content with Evie breaking up with Warcraft-boyfriend, not tell her to stop playing Warcraft altogether. If he does not trust her … well, that is something they need to address.

A real-life example of a geeky sex-averse young woman who dated a young man who did want sex is luvtheheaven. Her boyfriend was very respectful of luvtheheaven’s personal and bodily boundaries, and never pushed her into sexual activity she had not consented to.

I cannot say the same of Raul. He never goes as far as Kitty – who had made out with Evie without her consent – but he definitely does start small sexual things with Evie which she clearly did not consent to. Raul only makes brief apologies, no apologies along the lines of “I crossed your boundaries and bothered you, and it’s not cool that I did that.” Then again, Kitty never apologizes for what she did to Evie, so I guess that puts Raul on ethically higher ground.

Kitty, of course, keeps on telling Evie how lucky to is to have such a boyfriend, and that most boyfriends would be gone as soon as they heard the no sex part, and she shouldn’t throw away her great opportunity and have sex wit him already. Never does Kitty ask whether sex would make feel Evie happy.

The Evie-Raul relationship can be seen as an embodiment of one of the most common ways to invalidate asexuality or sex-aversion in young people – “you haven’t met the right person yet”. “You haven’t met/been with the right man” is the most common way that people try to invalidate my asexuality and disinclination to pursue sex (I am not sex-averse). People like me who don’t even try are told we should try, even if we reckon it’s unlikely to be worthwhile. People who do try this type of relationship and find it doesn’t work out / does not “fix” them are told they tried it with the wrong person, and they should keep banging their head against a wall trying until they find the “right” person. Raul is supposed to be Evie’s “Mr. Right” who will “fix” her sex-aversion. Except he does not, which is consistent with the experience of most asexuals and/or sex-averse people who enter potentially sexual relationships.

Like many of the characters who are cast in the “Mr. Right who will teach Geeky Girl who Does Not Want Romance/Sex that She Really Wants It After All” role, Raul is depicted as a mere ‘Generic Nice Guy’. Compared to Evie, Kitty, Evie’s online boyfriend, the gay Latino barber, the Christian bride, or even the guy with the girlfriend whose ass is “uhn uhn uhn”, Raul’s personality is blank. It not until very near the end of the play that we find out that he is a closet cross-dresser, which is the first sign that he is not in fact a Generic Nice Guy. By the way, there already is a fictional story about an asexual who gets a heterosexual cross-dressing boyfriend.

At one point, after Evie finds that a) Raul has an erection and that b) he thinks of her sometimes when he get erections, she suddenly tells him that it’s okay if he has sex with other people. Later on, Evie walks in on Raul right after he’s had sex with Kitty, and she’s upset, and she accuses him of cheating on her. Raul, reasonably, points out that Evie gave him permission to have sex with other people. This is one instance where I have to agree with Raul – he didn’t do anything wrong by having sex with Kitty under these circumstances.

The fact that this incident of Evie telling Raul that it’s okay for him to have sex with other people, only to get very upset when he does have sex with somebody else, is a sign of a serious problem in their relationship skills. She did not give ‘permission’ to Raul after proper reflection on her boundaries, feelings, and insecurities – she gave permission out of fear, fear that she will lose Raul if he doesn’t let him have a sexual outlet. This jump-into-nonmonagamy-because-of-fear reminds me of how these characters from a webcomic started an “open” relationship (spoiler: it leads to this and then this). Though Evie is ultimately responsible for this incident, all of the pressure Raul and especially Kitty put on Evie to have sex encouraged her to feel this fear in the first place.

On his part, Raul should have been more honest about how not having sex made him feel, rather than passive-aggressively hiding it and then pushing Evie to do things like give up World of Warcraft.

So, how do Raul and Evie resolve their communication issues? Answer: They don’t. Even though at the end they decide to stay together, nothing in the play indicates that they have learned how to communicate with each other better, or even that they know that they need to work on their communication skills. Okay, Raul does start playing World of Warcraft, and understands Evie better in that sense, but the whole incident about whether or not it was okay for Raul to be nonmonagamous and, for that matter, whether or not Evie is comfortable having sex, isn’t about Warcraft. Intimate relationships between sex-averse people and people who consider sex an important parts of their lives can work, but I can think of no instance when it worked without really good communication skills, including a high degree of self-awareness. Without that, I cannot see how Evie and Raul’s will work out any better than it already has.

Near the end, when Evie said that she used to think that love was all about using the right words, and that it’s not about words after all, I cringed inside. Perhaps they don’t need to use more, but they definitely need to use better words, not less words. Bad communication is the path of hurting each other and hurting themselves.

I thought I could finish this in two parts, but it turns out that properly unpacking what this play has to say about sex-averse (and potentially asexual) people and their relationships takes more effort than I originally thought, so in part three I will address how this play says that sex-averse people are broken and shouldn’t respect their own boundaries.

An Asexual Perspective on the play IN LOVE AND WARCRAFT (Part 1)

Last week I saw In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar performed by The Custom Made Theatre Company. Overall, I think Custom Made put on a good production. There is a lot I can say about the play, but given the audience of this blog, I think my readers are most interested in an asexual perspective on the play, so that is what this post is going to be about.

For starters, here is the blurb from the Custom Made website:

Evie Malone- gamer girl, college senior and confirmed virgin- has it all figured out. Not only does she command a top-ranked guild in Word of Warcraft with her online boyfriend, she also makes a little cash on the side writing love letters for people who’ve screwed up their relationships. Love is like Warcraft, after all. It’s all about strategies, game plans, and not taking stupid risks.

Well, that’s what she thinks… until she actually falls for a guy. In Real Life. And no amount of gaming expertise will help her out when she finds herself with a non-virtual, totally real, and incredibly cute boyfriend, who wants more from her than she’s willing to give.

Based on this blurb, I thought the ‘confirmed virgin’ bit probably meant that Evie was so heavily geeky that she never got the social skills / confidence to pursue sex, love-letter-writing gig nonwithstanding. In other words, I expected Evie to be like Clive as described in this post about the documentary 40 Year Old Virgins. Nonetheless, I am even older than Evie, yet I have never had sex, nor had an orgasm, and though I have never played Warcraft, I am just as geeky in my own ways, so even though I was not expecting her to be an asexual character, I figured we’d still have common ground.

Instead, Evie is much more like the way Rosie is described in that post about the documentary – someone who genuinely does not want sex, is pressured by her peers to have sex, and feels ‘broken’ because she does not want sex.

[THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE PLAY IN THIS POST, AND THIS IS THE LAST WARNING]

I honestly did not expect Evie to be so much like, well, a sex-averse asexual. The sex-averse part is ridiculously obvious – she not only does not want sex, it’s really clear that the prospect of having sex upsets her.

It is less clear whether or not she is asexual, but she has an uncanny tendency to say things which sound like they were pulled straight off a list of things asexuals say before they realize that there are people out there who identify as asexual. At one point, when asked about whether she sexually prefers guys or girls, she says (I have to paraphrase because I don’t have a copy of the script) “I’m not really interested in either of them.” Short of actually saying “I am asexual!” that is one of the strongest possible ways to imply that one is asexual. In fact, there were multiple points in the play when I expected Evie to burst out and say “I AM ASEXUAL!!!!” because it seemed liked the most logical next line.

More than anything, it was Evie’s sense of being broken which made me think of my fellow asexuals. I belong to the minority of asexuals who never felt broken, but I don’t think it’s possible to have even a casual connection to the asexual community without being very familiar with other people’s feelings of brokenness. Evie uses the word ‘broken’ to describe herself multiple times. I don’t know that Evie is asexual – I strongly suspect she’s at least under the umbrella, but it’s also possible that she’s not. However, her experience of ‘brokenness’ is so similar to the asexual experience that I am sure she would benefit immensely from contact with either online or ‘real life’ asexuals, even if she ultimately concluded she was not one of us.

This is what I want to say to Evie - image courtesy of Asexual Archive

This is what I want to say to Evie – image courtesy of Asexual Archive

Also, I think pretty much every asexual in living in American culture (as well as a number of other cultures) is wearily familiar with the reactions other characters have to Evie’s aversion to sex. There are rehashes of the “Just Try It” argument. Her new boyfriend asks her if something happened to her to make her that way (though he did not explicitly mention sexual abuse, it was implied, and it’s a bad idea to suggest that somebody isn’t interested in sex because of sexual abuse). Her “best friend” roommate suggests that maybe she is just a lesbian and then proceeds to make out with Evie without Evie’s consent to turn her into a lesbian/bisexal. The same “best friend” roommate also tells Evie that a lack of interest in sex can be a symptom of hypo-thyroidism – and it’s pretty clear that the roommate isn’t sincerely concerned that Evie actually has a life-threatening illness, she just wants to pathologize Evie’s disinterest in sex (as longtime readers may know, I have some personal experience with thyroid issues). Evie even goes for a pelvic exam – which clearly distresses her – to find out what is wrong with her (the doctor does not find anything ‘wrong’).

One thing which is embarassingly realistic about the play is the type of ‘love letters’ Evie writes for her clients. Evie is an English-literature major, and she writes love letters based on the literature she’s read rather than her own experience, which, when it comes to romance, she doesn’t have. It’s embarrassing for me because, in fact, a lot of how I think of romance is based on fiction. I’d like to think that I would not write love letters like Evie, but then again, I would not bother writing love letters for other people in the first place.

One of my favorite scenes was where Evie was writing wedding vows for a Christian who has been waiting to get married before having sex. I’m not qualified to judge how accurately it represents Christians who refuse to have non-marital sex, but it is consistent with the things I have read about those Christian communities – that they actually think sex is awesome, and everybody should get married and have wonderful sex lives celebrating God’s gift (here and here are posts by asexuals who grew up as Christians about this). The contrast between the bride’s eager anticipation of her wedding night and Evie’s wish to not have sex at all makes it clear that she is not holding back her sexual desires, she does not have sexual desires to hold back.

And then there is Raul, Evie’s “real life” boyfriend, and the relationship they have. I will get into that in Part 2.

SPECIAL NOTE: I don’t plan to post Part II until the San Francisco run of this play is practically over (the final performance is on December 19), so if you are considering seeing it, I have this to say – it’s a good production, and it’s overall a very entertaining show, and as someone who has seen and read an awful lot of plays, I can say that it’s rare to see a character who is as much like a sex-averse asexual as Evie is. That said – and I plan to expand on this in Part 2 – it supports compulsory sexuality, and encourages people who feel broken because of sex-aversion/lack of interest in sex to continue feeling broken unless they can stop being sex-averse/start wanting sex. Overall, I recommend seeing it if you are in the region and have the means, but with the reservation that I think the play has a harmful message.

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 2

In part 1, I discussed the under-representation of Asian Americans in a panel about the book The Season of the Witch. In this part, I look at the book itself.

First of all, I’ve noticed that, out of all of the reviews of the book on Goodreads, the one with the most likes is this review.

I think Talbot paid a little more than lip-service to the African American community – there are two entire chapters focused on African-Americans, and there are a number of other chapters where African-Americans are dicussed, heck, the book even mentions Sylvester, a prominent queer African-American (though it only mentions Sylvester on two pages and almost does not mention that he was African-American, while having an extended discussion of Sylvester’s white colleague Hibiscus), but I otherwise agree with the reviewer about the book’s “white scope”.

However, in a book that is over 400 pages long, Asian-Americans only get serious discussion in one 9-page chapter “The Empress of Chinatown” (one of the shortest in the books), and that chapter is mostly about Rose Pak, Ed Lee, and Gordon Chin, and does not even really describe how Rose Pak “was able to protect her own community from suffering the same fate as the Fillmore district.”

Speaking of the Fillmore district … the book gives the “negro removal” in the Fillmore district quite a bit of attention, as it should, and one the audience members who got the microphone also made a big deal about it, yet the book – nor anybody at the panel – even mentioned that Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed from the Fillmore District before African-Americans were. It is yet another example of how relevant Asian-American history got ignored.

I was also really surprised that destruction of the International Hotel only got three paragraphs (in that same short chapter – “The Empress of Chinatown”). The book puts a lot of emphasis on the radical leftist groups in San Francisco, especially the Symbionese Liberation Army, so why not mention the radical leftist groups which were involved in the struggle over the International Hotel? Also, there are multiple chapters about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple – why not mention the role he played in the International Hotel saga? I certainly think the International Hotel merited its own chapter in the book.

The book discusses various racial conflicts in San Francisco … where Asian Americans are conspicuously absent. The only thing the book has to say about Asian Americans and the Zebra Murders (which, according to the book, nearly caused a rupture in racial relations in San Francisco) is:

When the city was convulsed by the SLA and Zebra, Chin and his fellow activists just kept their heads down. “We knew all that stuff was just a passing circus,” he reflected. “We were committed activists who were in it for the long haul. We weren’t out to overthrow the American government or even city hall.”

Okay, so that was Chin and his colleagues’ take on the Zebra murders, but what about the Chinese-American community in general, or other Asian-American communities? Also, just because Gordon Chin and his associates were not so interested in revolution, that was not true of all Asian-American activists – one of the groups which was most active in the struggle over the International hotel was a Filipino-American communist organization with ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines, which was (and still is) waging guerilla warfare against the government of the Philippines (there is more information in the book San Francisco’s International Hotel by Estella Habal).

Speaking of Jim Jones again, much is made of the interracial nature of his church, Peoples Temple, yet nothing is said about where Asian-Americans fit into this. Were Asians significantly represented in Peoples Temple, or not? If yes, that should have been mentioned. If no, it should have been mentioned that the People’s Temple was not appealing to a major racial group in the city. Someone in the book is quoted in the chapter “The Reckoning” as saying “I still think the goals of the Peoples Temple was beautiful: black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, all coming together.” Asian-Americans are not on the list.

I continue in Part 3 with more thoughts on the way the book presents Asian-Americans, as well as Latinos and American Indians.

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco

In early November, I attended a panel which discussed Season of the Witch by David Talbot. The cover of the book says “In a kaleidoscopic narrative … David Talbot tells the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982 – and the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.”

Four of the people on the panel (including Mr. Talbot himself) were white, and one, Belva Davis, was black. Unsurprisingly, it was Belva Davis who started the conversation about black people in San Francisco, specifically that only about 5% of the population of San Francisco is black today, whereas it was much higher in the past. Then the white people started talking about how, yes, things are bad for black people in San Francisco. I do not recall seeing any black people in the audience – there may have been some, but if they were there, they did not make public comments. Would the topic even have come up if Belva Davis had not been there? I’ll never know.

One thing which was glaringly missing from the panel discussion were Asian Americans. The only Asian American mentioned in the entire panel was Ed Lee, and there was no discussion of what he did during 1967-1982 – it was just references what he is doing now as the Mayor of San Francisco, and the results of the election that week (in which Ed Lee won a second term as mayor with 56% of the first-round vote).

Here’s the thing. You do not have a serious conversation about race in San Francisco unless a) it is a discussion of a very specific sub-topic and/or b) you include Asians in the discussion. Today, Asian Americans are about one-third of the population of San Francisco. I do not remember seeing any Asians at the panel. There may have been some, but they were definitely way less that 1/3 of the audience, and they were 0% of the panel speakers. Belva Davis did bring up a specific subtopic, and I have no objection to what she said – I am more concerned with the way to discussion progressed, in which people treated it as if talking about black people meant they were having a comprehensive conversation about race in San Francisco.

To be fair, during the years that the book covers, San Francisco had a smaller Asian-American population. According to the 1970 census, only 13% of the population of San Francisco was Chinese, Filipino, or Japanese (other Asian-American groups were not listed on the 1970 census). That said, they still outnumbered black people in San Francisco in that year’s census results. The story of black people being driven out of San Francisco is relevant to the story of San Francisco; the story of Asian-Americans increasing as a population is just as relevant. And I think the absence of Asian-Americans in both the discussion at the panel and the audience is … noteworthy.

Yes, I recognize that time was limited at the panel, an I probably would not bother writing a post about this if the book Season of the Witch itself had not also under-represented Asian-Americans… which I will discuss more in Part 2.