Interview with Writer/Director Stanley Bennett Clay

I don’t read a lot of novels, but when I read a good one, I definitely have to pass it on. Recently I read Looker, written by Stanley Bennett Clay. The novel’s basic story is of two black gay men, best friends, living in Los Angeles who struggle to find love—or to run and hide from it. But the novel is so much more than that. It’s a complex read of how Black people negotiate their own sexuality and inner desires through a lens that is often distorted by all the isms and phobias—class, race, age, (trans) gender. Some of the characters find sexual liberation. Some do not.I had a chance to talk to the author, Stanley Bennett Clay, a couple weeks ago. Clay has received three NAACP Image Awards for writing, directing and producing the critically acclaimed play Ritual, as well as the Pan African Film Festival Award for the film adaptation. He is the author of three novels, Diva, In Search of Pretty Young Black Men, and of course, Looker.

KF: I just finished Looker, and thought it was a really amazing novel. Can you tell me what inspired it?

SBC: I guess it was a part of my whole process of writing stories about the gay scene in Los Angeles and gay people in Los Angeles. I found oftentimes in reading a lot of black gay stories, there were few times when there was a discussion of the Los Angeles scene, and most of the stories were set back east. And being a really fanatical Los Angeles kind of person, I really wanted to put a spin on it and show the differences as well as the uniqueness of black gay life in Los Angeles, especially middle class black gay life. And just getting the landscape out there and introducing it to the readers.

KF: One of the things I really liked about Looker was that it explored people’s inner desires, particularly their desires around sex and sexuality, in a way that’s really complicated. Why did you decide to take on sex and sexuality in such an explicit way as you did in this novel?

SBC: I think that’s probably a trademark one would find in all my writing…I’ve always had a sort of a problem with America’s timid-ness and immaturity in regards to sex. I find it interesting that we live in a world were a movie can be shown and we can see dozens of people killed and maimed and mutilated and that gets a PG rating, but if you see a couple, a married couple, making love, and that gets an R rating or even an X rating depending on what is shown. There’s just this thing that really ticks me off which has to do with the way America views sexuality. I look at sex as very normal, and as this God-given thing, so I just show it very normally.

KF: I want to ask you specifically about the Black community and sexuality. For me, on one level through hip-hop videos and other kinds of media, you see a lot of overt sexual imagery of black people, but at the same time in the community you have a very conservative attitude or response to sex and sexuality. The characters in Looker deal with the full spectrum of that—either liberation or shame around his or her own sexual desires. So what do you think the take away is for the black community on sex and sexuality.

SBC: I think it goes back to slavery in a lot of ways. We don’t want to seem out of line with what society sees as acceptable, and because of that we have a tendency to be even more conservative when it comes to sex for fear that the white man is looking. And we don’t want him to do that we are doing some of these things. It comes back to the old cliché that there are black people who are ashamed to let people know that they eat watermelon simply because of the old stereotype, or who won’t buy a Cadillac because of the old stereotype of it being a pimp-mobile. We have to liberate ourselves from that sort of belief, and to be free enough to express ourselves any way we want to. Continue reading

Politics Aside: Find Some Place to Party Tonight!

With all the heavy-ness and seriousness of the world right now–primaries, violence in Kenya and proposed troop surges in Afghanistan, remember to find some space for you to have some fun! Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers said it best: “Though the world cruel and blind/Let’s have a good time.”

Even though I have decided to embrace my passion for politics in my blog and do much less entertainment fluff, that doesn’t mean I don’t need to find ways to decompress. I am looking to get my party on tonight! For me, there’s nothing better than house music, and house-heads to truly shake off the oppression, violence, and degradation we are forced to encounter on a daily basis. S

o after going to see Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Trojan Women, I’ll be headed to the NYC’s Sullivan Room for the in2Deep party, with Roger Sanchez and Ace House Nation on the turntables serving you beats and vocals.Tonight, as Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite once said, I JUST WANNA HEAR A GOOD BEAT!

So so does everbody. Including news anchors. NBC’s David Gregory couldn’t resist shaking it to Mary J. Blige’s irresistible new single (and guaranteed dance floor classic) Just Fine, when she recently performed on the Today Show. And he ain’t doin such a bad job either. Stay fierce, stay sane, and find your space to breathe.

NH Drama: Did Voting Machines Skew Victory to Clinton?

The blogosphere is awash today with rumors that there were major voting irregularities in New Hampshire–paper ballots count Obama as the winner whereas Diebold electronic machines count Clinton as the winner of the presidential primary. I tried to cut to the chase and go to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s website to see if the results were posted as such, and thus far, they haven’t posted the results all of the counties in the states. And they don’t list whether the ballots were hand counted or Diebolt AccuVote Machines (recently renamed Premier).

But here’s what’s being said.

Presscue.com:

Hillary Clinton’s victory celebrations in New Hampshire were short lived after Internet bloggers uncovered that the former first lady did better in precincts where the votes were counted by the much maligned Diebold voting machines, whereas in precincts where votes were hand counted, her rival Barack Obama was the clear winner.

Illinois Senator vying to become the first black President of the United States has already conceded victory and congratulated Clinton, but the blogosphere is buzzing with allegations of vote fraud directed at the Clinton camp.

Obama garnered 38.7% of the hand counted votes to Clinton’s 36.2%, but Diebold machines gave Clinton 40.7% of the vote against Obama’s 36.2%.

Bloggers have highlighted the fact that the candidate placed second from each method got exactly 36.2% of the vote. (view their handy chart showing the difference between the handcount and the voting machine count)

Today, Tribune Co. columnist Bob Koehler had this to say in his column today:

Did the Hillary campaign really defy the pollsters? She had been trailing Barack Obama by 13 percentage points, 42 to 29, in a recent Zogby poll, as election watchdog Brad Friedman pointed out. And the weekend’s “rapturous packed rallies for Mr. Obama,” as the New York Times put it, “suggested Mrs. Clinton was in dire shape.”

So when she emerged from the Tuesday primary with an 8,000-vote and 3-percentage-point victory over Obama, perhaps — considering the notorious unreliability, not to mention hackability, of Diebold machines — the media might have hoisted a few red flags in the coverage, rather than immediately chalk the results up to Clinton’s tears and voter unpredictability. (Oh, if only more reporters considered red flags patriotic.)

The fact is, whatever actually happened in New Hampshire voting booths on Tuesday, our elections are horrifically insecure. For instance, Bev Harris, of the highly respected voting watchdog organization Black Box Voting, recently wrote that the Diebold 1.94w optical scan machines used in some 55 percent of New Hampshire precincts (representing more than 80 percent of the state’s voters) are “the exact same make, model and version hacked in the Black Box Voting project in Leon County (Florida)” a few years ago. They haven’t been upgraded; the security problems haven’t been fixed.

National, or at least media, denial about this situation doesn’t say much for the strength of our democracy.

Interesting. But not altogether surprising.

Bitten By The Obama Bug: New Hampshire Be Damned!

I’ve been obsessed with the election. I admit it. I guess that makes me a bad radical. Good revolutionaries (at least in America, for some reason) aren’t supposed to be concerned with elections and the political process (I think leftists in Venezuela, Kenya, and Iran–to name a few–would beg to differ.). But I have been somewhat bitten by the bug. My cynicism is somewhat on hold, and I am trying real hard to show some restraint and not run out and get one of those “Barack The Vote” hoodies I saw for sale. Maybe that’s what’s different here–elections as commodity, politicians as celebrity. But I am joining my homie The Black Snob and am allowing myself to get caught up. Fuck it!

Well, CNN and the Associated Press have just declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the New Hampshire primary. So I guess white people in New Hampshire got in that voting booth and pulled a stunt! Barack is now addressing the audience in NH. He asked them to give Senator Clinton a round of applause–did she do that for him when she lost last week?. He’s dreamy!

It’s interesting because he’s still using the “there’s something happening in America” line. Instead of using it to refer to his historic candidacy, he’s using it to talk about the new dawn of American politics that are about compromise and not about screaming matches. He is calling his voters, and America by extension, “the new majority.”

They clearly love him. They’re chanting O-ba-ma with such fervor! I do have to say it is interesting to see a candidate that inspires so much hope in people.

To my fellow readers, friends, admirers, comrades: I haven’t lost my mind. I don’t agree with everything he says, but hell, I don’t agree with half of what you all say or think half of the time! I am worried about what his role as “Commander in Chief” is going to mean in terms of militarism and policing and prisons and what not. But I do feel inspired by a vision of something less arrogant, less violent,. Can I have that, please? LOL! I feel like I am betraying the $11,000 debt I just racked up for J-school (so I guess I’ve officially given up a conventional career in journalism. The one progressive news outlet I was trying to write for, blew me off, so the hell with it) by publicly supporting a candidate, and betraying my leftist community by being involved in electoral politics, which is a movement faux pas, from what I understand.

He ends his speech with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” The pundits on CNN seem to think it was a funny thing, given the fact that he didn’t take the #1 slot (he’s now only 2% points behind with 79% of the vote–not exactly a blowout) Clinton’s speech is good, but she’s not fire like Obama, who seems to be on nothing short of a mission.

Speaking of speeches? Wanna know something about the editor behind Obama’s speeches? Read this Newsweek story.

NYT Article on Gay Youth and HIV Draws Mostly Misinformed Analysis

(originally written for Prevention Justice.org: The blog of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project)

Want the good news or bad news first?

I’ll give you the bad news.

Sex columnist Dan Savage whose syndicated column Savage Love is read weekly by millions in alternative weeklies around the country, wrote a blog entry for the Seattle news site The Stranger about the NYT story on rising HIV infections among young MSMs. His blog post was his usual snarky self, but horribly misinformed. He writes:

” so long as gay health educators refuse to level with gay men–there’s no “moderating” your meth use; you can suck too much cock; anal sex isn’t a first-date activity and having anal sex with hordes of anonymous partners, even with condoms, is sure-fire way of contracting HIV–these new campaigns won’t have much of an impact. And so we’ll be reading this story again in a couple of years, yet another story about HIV infection that makes tragic heroes of guys like Javier Arriola and goes on to suggest that straight talk about HIV infection is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Though Savage is very clever in his use of 4-letter words, he actually contributes to a problem of stigmatizing gay men who are HIV+ and/or in higher risk categories, but he also doesn’t understand the role race plays in all of this. CDC Behavioral Scientist Greg Millett recently published a meta-analysis of studies of Black MSMs and found that “…the assumption of higher risk behavior among black MSM-as measured by unprotected anal intercourse, total number of sex partners, and commercial sex work-was not found to explain the differential in infection rates relative to non-black gay and bi men. This conclusion was based on a review of more than 25 separate studies (Gay City News).”

The Washington Blade’s News Editor Joey DiGuglielmo tries to respond to Savage in their blog, but actually perpetuates a lot of the misinformation Savage spreads in the first place. DiGulielmo writes:

“…what HIV experts have often told me is that gay men who contract HIV in the ’00s almost always have done so by taking needless sexual risks. My friend Dane, who’s also well read on the topic, has even said that any gay man who contracts HIV these days is pretty much always making irresponsible sexual decisions.”

What? “My friend Dane who is well read on the topic?” I know he was writing for the blog and not the paper, but how does that pass as substantive expertise? Is the blog not held to similar standards as the paper? Doesn’t the news editor have access to sources (in DC, land of the policy wonks, to boot!) who could answered some quick questions on this? Even dropping by the CDC’s website would have given more useful information and data.

So that’s the bad news. Literally, and figuratively.

The good news, you ask? Thank GOD for GMHC Executive Director Dr. Marjorie Hill’s letter to the NYT’s story, which sheds some real light on a few contributing factors to the rising numbers.

Young gay men need real support and education before they have been infected and when they are at greatest risk. Research shows that key resiliency factors for gay youth are family acceptance and school-based interventions, such as gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying initiatives.

Sadly, when the New York City Council passed the Dignity for All Students Act ensuring these protections, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed it. When the Council overrode his veto, Mr. Bloomberg chose not to carry out the law.

Our political leaders bemoan the continued spread of H.I.V. Yet when faced with real opportunities to address homophobia and other root causes of the epidemic, these same leaders fail us. It’s time that we recognize antigay bias for the public health threat that it is and seek its eradication.

All this could have been avoided if the original news story had gone one step further in explaining the structural interventions that would be useful for young Black and Latino gay men, and less stigma and blame.

Iowa Part 2: Thoughts on Barack’s Victory

Last night I gathered with some friends in Brooklyn to watch the Iowa Caucus’ unfold. Mostly black queers, and mostly Obama supporters. We all talked about his candidacy, this election, and what the word is on the street from friends and family members about Obama.

Almost all of us shared stories of knowing other Black folks who thought it would just simply be impossible for him to win–that many white people would simply not vote for him.

Well that was proven wrong, in what can be nothing short of an upset: Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus. Not only did he win, but he beat the second place John Edwards by 8% points, and Hillary Clinton by 9% points. The fact that he won in a state with only a 4% black population is incredible.

According to the pollsters, it was the youth and Black vote that supported Obama in Iowa. The older you were on the Democratic side, the less likely you were to vote for Obama. There were apparently twice as many people who showed up to caucus than in the previous presidential election, and they carried some serious weight on the Democratic side. Also, more than 40% of independents voted for Obama. People forget Obama was an community organizer, and it seems as though his team’s strategy to turn out their voters was a huge success.

While it is true that no other Black candidate has been able to win Iowa and his victory is historic, I hated listening to the CNN anchors talk about his win. They talked about his being a “uniter, and not angry or bitter” which are code words for being the “right type of negro” who doesn’t threaten white people. They’re so glad that they can call an end to Black people being mad at them. NOTE: Listen to William Bennett’s commentary on CNN.

Well I hate that that’s the narrative he’s riding in on–being the person whose going to unite the country and all. But has he stated implicitly or explicitly that he is trying to distance himself from traditional Black leadership or struggle? Or is the media forcing that interpretation? Undoubtedly there is a schism happening in the Ole’ Civil Rights Leadership about Obama. Perhaps they resent the media’s notion that they’re just nagging white people about problems that are long ago solved. I have many problems with the old civil rights leadership and wish that most of them would just retire and get out of the way so some new work can be done (the only thing they love to do more than march is to gate-keep). But I can understand why they’d be pissed at hearing how everything their friends fought and died for is irrelevant all the time.

But I actually think some of their early support for Hillary Clinton is more insidious than that (I think the same can be said for the unions backing Clinton as well, but that’s another article entirely). I think they feel slighted that Obama doesn’t bow to them–the same thing has happened to me with that generation of movement men, and I know they feel that every Black person born after 1965 should kiss their ring and ask for permission to do any work. More importantly, they will actually hold on to power, and have continue to enjoy their place as interpreters for the race, which they do not have (I am assuming) with Obama. They see Barack, perhaps, not as the culmination of their work, but as the signal that their status as racial middle men is over. Integration, like it or not, meant that there’s a lot more Black people who’ve been socialized around white people. (It’ll be interesting to see how they all position themselves if Obama wins more states–especially South Carolina.)

But whatever they may think of Barack’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement, his victory speech last night bore the distinct character of someone who’s been studying the rhetorical style of Dr. Martin Luther King very closely.

Want more analysis of the Obama win?

The Black Snob

Mother Jones

The Nation

New York Times

The Politico

What Is the Iowa Caucus to The Black Radical?

Every few years, at election time, I feel very conflicted. I was raised to understand the importance of voting, and more directly, Black people lost their lives for the right for me to do so.

My mother made sure me and my sisters watched Eyes On The Prize on PBS. That documentary chronicled all the different ways Black people in the 1950’s & 60’s organized to fight desegregation (of which protecting/restoring their right to vote unencumbered was a part), and the myriad number of ways white citizens, the states and the federal government were involved in keeping them disenfranchised.

So with a heavy heart full of gratitude and sagging with the debt of my ancestors, I usually find myself treading into some mildewy church basement or pissy school gymnasium to exercise my God-given right pull the lever–an excercise meant to turn the tides of 500 years in one fell swoop.

And so here we are. It’s 2008 and not only can we now vote (mostly), but we have the first viable Black candidate running for president. Barack Obama’s ascendancy to this place, seems rife with all right thoughts of “fulfilling the dream” and “keeping America’s promise,” which has certainly been helped by his PR machine. That’s not to say he’s a phony or a fraud. I have never met him but I do, like most of the people who seem prepared to cast a ballot his way, seem to trust he believes what he says most of the time, which is more than I can say for any of the other frontrunners.

But there are others who feel that this very narrative, the Moses/Jesus/Lincoln/MLK-like prophet come to deliver the people and the nation, is the thing they despise about what he represents most. There are people who feel as though his election will say to the nation and the world, “The US is now beyond race (at least beyond the black & white paradigm). Racism is over. They’ve gotten the Presidency. Now, stop complaining and get to work. Come On, People!”

There are others who feel that he, whose “Black genes” trace most directly to Kenya and not Kentucky, is not Black enough to be even considered the first Black president.

There are more of us, knowing too well that he is Black, who feel he faces the certain and decisive bullet of an assassin if elected.

There are some of us who simply feel the US Presidency will never be a place to transform the United States. Some of us would in fact, rather undo it.

So, if his election may be fraught with such tension, hope, ambivalence or disillusionment for Black people in America, why should I vote? Why should any Black person in America vote?

I don’t honestly know the answer to that question. I don’t know why I do vote most of the time. But I know that there isn’t an easy answer to how the descendants of chattel slaves should position themselves trapped as we are in this strange paradigm. But as much as I feel–in the deepest core of my being–somewhat anxious about Obama and wanting to see him do well, I am under no delusion that his Presidency (nor Clinton nor Edwards nor any of ’em) will save any of us.

And so I will watch the Iowa Caucus tonight, and all the other election broughaha over this year, with a good deal of hopefulness and anxiety, highly skeptical that freedom can ever be found in a ballot box, but knowing full well that budgets, laws, and public policy can shrivel or spread misery.

The choice is yours.

May the ancestors be with us.