To the Water-Fountains – Notes from New Sodom

hal duncan

Was Sodom destroyed?
Aye, and Gomorrah to six miles around it.
The rivers beneath it boiled in the
street. The mountain vomited rock
on the orchards. And no one now may
live upon the place.
O my city! What city can I found? Where
now must I go to make a home?

Samuel R. Delany, Driftglass

I can’t tell you what age I was when I first read Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, And Gomorrah,” in a tattered second-hand copy of his collection, Driftglass. I have only the most random snippets of memories associated with my teen reading — a vague awareness that the first SF book I read was I, ROBOT, that I caught the bug with more Asimov, became a hardened fan with Heinlein and PKD, and an avid collector with the series of Gollancz Classics released in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure that it was picking up Babel-17 and Nova as part of that series that turned me on to Delany. Well, OK. I say I’m pretty sure; I might just as easily have read one of his short stories first in one of the umpteen anthologies I took out of the local library. Truth be told, I have a shit memory, so I’m pretty sketchy on the details, have a tendency to answer any question that begins “Do you remember…?” with, “Was it more than a minute ago?”

(Sometimes I’ll claim that I had to blank out the 80s entirely because it was the only way my sanity could survive an upbringing in the small town of Kilwinning, Scotland, overshadowed by Mutual Assured Destruction, AIDS and Clause 28, governed by Margaret Thatcher and soundtracked by Pete fucking Waterman; that if the memories ever did resurface most likely there’d be a pointy reckoning that ended up with buildings razed, ground sown with salt, and me in some asylum for the criminally insane. Sometimes, on the other hand, I’ll claim that my absent-mindedness is because most of the ROM in my brain is in use as virtual RAM — because it’s all processing power, you see, and I’m not actually just bone-idle about learning those things you other geeks call “facts.” A thirtieth birthday spent in Amsterdam, attempting to escape any pursuing sandmen a la Logan’s Run in a haze of cannabis smoke, may possibly have had some small contributory effect, but I’m sure it’s more than just too much weed and early onset senility. Really, there’s got to be more to it than that. I think I’m just not set-up for a linear existence.)

Anyway, what I do remember is being thrilled by the queer qualities of those two Delany novels, being raptured in an insistent sense of recognition. Here was sf that spoke to me not just as a geek looking for romance and logic, wild adventure and wilder philosophy; this was fiction that spoke to me as a gay geek. And it wasn’t even the blatant representation of polyamorous relationships in Babel-17 that I picked up on. No, it was an inarticulable something to the character of Mouse in Nova that I found utterly compelling. Maybe it was the way his syrinx-playing hinted of all those tasty young poets of Greek myth and history, the gays and strays of ancient days. Maybe it was the echoes of a more modern trope, the street-punk hustler with the face of an angel belied by his gutter-talk. Hell, maybe it’s just the sensuality with which Delany writes about men’s hands. Whatever it was that set my gaydar tingling, even before I came to DriftGlass and the story “Aye, And Gomorrah,” I already knew that however much of an outcast I felt in reality, the fictive future(s) of sf had a home for me — not in the escapist sense of a daydreamed refuge, but aesthetically, ideologically. I read my own queerness in Delany’s work, and knew that meant there was a place for it, for me, in this field.

That epigraph in DriftGlass just gave it a name. That’s where the whole “Notes from New Sodom” comes from, you see. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a simple answer to the questions that close it, “What city can I found? Where must I go now to make a home?”

That city is New Sodom, and we’re building it right fucking here.

How I Became a Sodomite

I’m a bit of a rubbish gay, I have to confess, more retrosexual than metrosexual. If you say, “Burroughs,” I think William rather than Augustin. I think Wilde was witty, but if it’s scathing ripostes you want, I go with slaughtering your enemy and dragging their carcass ten times round the walls of Troy. It’s the music on the gay scene that alienates me most of all, I suspect, the insufferably anodyne pop and crappy club remixes that give, “Hey ho, let’s go” a whole nother meaning to what The Ramones intended. The nearest I get to Madonna is the statue of the Virgin Mary on my mantelpiece (repainted with black skin and robes of scarlet and purple, natch). Sure, I may have a soft spot for musical theatre, but I blame that on early exposure to (and identification with) Parson Nathaniel from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and Judas Iscariot from Jesus Christ Superstar as role models in their rabid rantifying. Personal grooming? I’d rather smell like wet dog fur than flowers. (Honestly, I would.  Wet dog fur has a bad rep.)  Fashion? OK, so I can appreciate a bit of Dior Homme, but Hedi Slimane is rock’n’roll, man, and you gotta look good for the hot young hipsters. And, really, I’ve never been convinced by the whole Queer Eye thing anyway. If it were true… well, as flags go, red or black is classy, but rainbow colours? Baby, how the fuck do you co-ordinate with the whole visible spectrum?

So, no, the whole gay culture thing is a train that left me on the platform waving goodbye. I hear the words “gay village” and I see myself running down a beach pursued by an enormous white weather balloon, shouting, “I am not a disco number! I am a free man!” And yet…

And yet, as much as I’m inclined to be a feral mutt, skulking round the outskirts of the gay community at the best of times, over the last month or so I’ve somehow found myself a fully integrated member of a bona fide pack. There are badges and banners for blogs and LiveJournals. There’s talk of t-shirts and suchlike malarkey. We even had a frickin Pride Day on September 1st, which I was proud to participate in — and this coming from the man whose last Pride March ended with him trying really really hard to get shit-faced on vodka jellies while a dodgy Freddy Mercury impersonator did an extended set because Atomic Kitten had failed to turn up (thank fuck).

When the fuck, I ask myself, did I become a joiner?

A mere day or two, it seems, after the Outer Alliance was set up towards the end of August, to bring together a group of writers and their associates within the strange fiction communities, all of them (all of us) committed to the advocacy of queer issues, both in fiction and outside of it, their (our) aim to support, celebrate and educate. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there was a damn good reason for what was — and is — loosely envisioned as a queer analogue of The Carl Brandon Society; in the preceding weeks a fairly successful — if not Big Name — sf writer had posted a vitriolic rant on his LiveJournal, using words like “homosex” and “abomination,” and explicitly comparing homosexuality to paedophilia, necrophilia, incest and bestiality. (You can find it if you go looking; I’ve said quite enough about it myself already.) Happily — and actually quite suprisingly, given the pattern of recent blogospheric blow-ups over similar issues — while that post did set the interwebs ablaze, a defiant positivity was born amid all the outrage, a refusal to be merely reactive, a determination to fucking well build something from it.

Some people focused on the support might call that something a “safe space,” while others focused on the education might call it a “base of operations.” Some people might think of it as a clubhouse for a community, while others might think of it as an office for a political organisation. Some people might think of it as a home.

I think of it as a landmark in New Sodom.  Something anyone might see the benefit of.  A place folks might hang out, but not closed-off, hidden away.  No, out in the open.  Like a water-fountain, say.

The Elders of Sodom had to have a representative in the Outer Alliance, of course. And being “THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” (yes, that’s with four ellipsis points and two exclamation marks,) I knew I was pretty much signed up even before it started.

I guess I was signed up when I offered my own response to aforesaid vitriolic rant, in the form of an open letter from the Elders of Sodom. No, scratch that. I was signed up maybe a year or so before, when I gladly accepted the label “THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” in a response to the hatemail that addressed me as such. (Cause, you know, all those capitals, the superfluous ellipses and exclamations… that’s a handle with cojones, mi amigos. Even the Outlaw Josie Wales wasn’t “THE…. Outlaw Josie Wales!!”) Or maybe I was signed up before that, when I posted an earlier open letter from the Elders of Sodom, in response to a fly-by blog commenter’s screed titled “Opposing the Homosexual Agenda”; when I figured why the fuck not just reveal the truth of our Protocols, fess up to the great international conspiracy of queers aimed at nothing less than the total reconstruction of society. Or maybe I was signed up when I posted the “Homosexual Agenda” blog entry that drew that fly-by comment in the first place, an attack on an Alabama Senator who was trying to get Section-28 style legislation passed to exclude queer writers and their works from school libraries.

Fuck it, truth is, I was probably signed up when — most likely very near the time Section-28 came into force in the UK, prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, banishing all works that might be deemed supportive of my sexuality from all school libraries, decreeing that my queerness had no place, no home, even in fiction — I read that epigraph that opens Driftglass. And I understood that my city had been destroyed, that I lived in exile. When I understood that the last question was the most important: “Where now must I go to make a home?”

That, I guess, is when I became a joiner — cutting paragraphs into shape, sanding rough edges off sentences, hammering words together to build, if nothing else, a caravan to travel in, in my search for the answer.

 Shitstorms and Spring-Cleaning

There’s probably some of you reading this who’re thinking that I’ve gotten a tad grandiose with the whole “rebuilding Sodom” thing, that I’m bringing out some over-stated bolshie rhetoric over some unimportant people who said some ultimately unimportant things. So a writer of moderate renown spewed some blather that probably lost him a shitload of readers? So a handful of loons send emails or post blog comments that reveal their own idiocies more than anything else? People on the interwebs say fucktarded things. This is hardly the Spanish Inquisition burning the sexual deviants at the stake.

Hell, there’s probably some of you reading this who despise the fucktards as much as me, who absolutely support the idea of organisations like the Outer Alliance, who know that even in our community of freaks and geeks there’s prejudice to be tackled, but for whom the field seems… well… a relatively progressive place, inclusive and welcoming. Intolerance is a bad thing, you quite agree, but generally speaking acceptance is the rule, and the exceptions are… well… nutjobs to be dismissed.

Now, it’s not that I reckon you’re wrong per se about the extent of the problem. It’s just that I’m not sure terms like “tolerance” and “intolerance” are sufficient, not sure the issue packs the same emotional punch when you’re not a member of an abjected social group; intolerance isn’t nice, but it’s not bastinado.

For me though, when I found out about the Outer Alliance, it seemed to me an idea whose time had come. For sure, there’s already the Lambda Literary Foundation, Gaylaxicon and the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, the Tiptree Award, Lethe Press, even magazines like Icarus that are wholly focused on gay speculative fiction or magazines like Strange Horizons that explicitly invite it. These are some of the structures of this New Sodom we’re building, some with their foundations dating back a good way, others with the paint still fresh on the walls. So it’s not that the sf community is a harsh and unwelcoming territory in which all us queers are foreigners in exile. But within the first month of its existence the Outer Alliance has proven its value, shown the need for such an organisation, and made an audacious start, I’d say, in fulfilling that need. Because within the first month, it’s been put to the test.

Coming right on the heels of the blogospheric explosion over that vitriolic LiveJournal rant, while the first few hundred members of the Outer Alliance were still making their introductions, Bart Leib, editor of Crossed Genres, with no small amount of reticence, opened a discussion on an ethical dilemma he was faced with. With a special LGBTQ issue of the magazine in the pipeline, Leib had been placing adverts with various sites, trying to rustle up a good whack of submissions. Unfortunately one site, which he wasn’t yet sure he wanted to make public, had refused the ad as “sexually-themed.” The advert itself being far from explicit, it had seemed to him the presence of the acronym “LGBTQ” was the nub of the problem for the editor, and in a few emails back and forth the editor had pretty much confirmed this. In those emails, he’d outlined a conservative moral stance that rejected some fairly fundamental queer rights on the basis of the usual religious beliefs, a stance that, more importantly, extended to an unspoken editorial policy against “message” stories that sought to justify homosexuality. As polite and open as the communication was, and as loathe as Leib was to make such private correspondence public, where an editor was averse to queer content it seemed highly arguable that the writers who might be submitting to that market had a right to know upfront. So should he or shouldn’t he go public?

In many ways, the Outer Alliance didn’t offer much more than a platform for discussion, and support for Leib regardless of his eventual decision. In other ways, the existence of the network, the foreknowledge of what was coming when Leib decided to reveal the market as Flash Fiction Online, the whole discussion running up to it, may well have played an important part in preventing yet another demoralising shitstorm. This is not to say the word didn’t spread quickly and widely, that there were no harsh words of condemnation, entries on blogs and LiveJournals that angrily challenged, for example, the casual — if caveated — linking of homosexuality and paedophilia in Jake Freivald’s last email to Leib. But in place of another fucking FailFail, what we ended up with was not just a host of impassioned but level-headed criticism and statements of support, but tangible positive outcomes, with the rejected ad being displayed on scores of blogs and journals and free advertising space being offered by at least one major site. No shitstorm. No FailFail. This was a Win.

You might well agree; I sincerely hope you do. Or if you disagree, I hope it’s because you’re a bolshie motherfucker yourself, and think that shitstorms are exactly what’s called for in the face of prejudice. That’s fair enough. Still, even amongst those who agree, I’m kind of curious, to be honest, as to how much these sort of issues hit others in the gut and how much this sort of result just gives… a warm glow of affirmation that, yes, we can all be nice to each other and make the world a nicer place. How much of the struggle is, for many, about a gradual quantitative improvement in tolerance and not a radical overhaul, a comprehensive dismantling and rebuilding? Not so much rebuilding Sodom as spring-cleaning all the houses of the present-day city of the soul?

What I mean is, to put it into perspective, an editorial policy opposed to queer content isn’t just a matter of a lack of tolerance, of homophobia wired deeply into religious dogma such that even basically decent folks can end up with the most fucked-up prejudicial mores. The word intolerance is inadequate. Even words like homophobia and prejudice are easy outs in some ways, allowing the right-thinking (or rather left-thinking) ally of all who are abjected to see the problem as a matter of mentalities, the intolerant mindsets of individuals who just have this… poison of nastiness within them. And of course that’s wrong. Of course we need to stand up to that sort of nastiness. Of course we should be against intolerance.

But for me that sort of editorial policy has a label less insipid than intolerance: I call it segregation.

  How We Build New Sodom

The psychological process of abjection — recoiling in revulsion at that which is/was a part of oneself (i.e. blood, shit) — is a core component of prejudice, I think. For all that we might have green eyes, an ability to roll our tongues, a dislike of bananas, for all that we are different from each other in so many ways, it’s only certain markers of difference that lead to some being classed as deviant in contrast to the default, “abnormal” in contrast to the “normal”. The default is not white, straight, able-bodied, and so on because anything else is just plain weird, but because skin colour, sexuality and disability are the markers of difference we base abjection on. These are the markers that lead to an exclusion of that which is a part of society as being Other, with associated irrational revulsion. This is why “green-eye content” in fiction is not an issue, why “queer content” in fiction is.

Discomfort at that which is abjected leads to its absence; it leads to the twin pillars of segregationism: on the one hand there is the insistence that “I don’t mind queer content as long as it’s important to the story,” while on the other there is the insistence that “I don’t mind queer content as long as it’s not shoved down your throat.” It’s OK as long as it matters in plot-terms. It’s OK as long as it’s not a “message” story. Where does this leave us when the story is a plot-driven adventure and it doesn’t matter a jot to all the high-jinks and shenanigans that the love-interest is the same gender as the hero? Where does this leave us when sadly, as Section-28 and suchlike rhetoric — from legislative policies to LiveJournal rantings — have so eminently demonstrated, simply presenting queerness as not essentially problematic will be construed by some as promoting homosexuality, as a “message” that it is no big deal?

Between these two an exclusion is enforced, the first asserting that queerness isn’t just a quirk to be thrown in as part of a fully-rounded character — that you can’t just make your Kojak a sucker of cocks rather than lollipops, say — the second asserting that queerness is allowed in only on condition that it remains discreet — that your queer content doesn’t start getting all uppity, in people’s faces (even where “uppity” simply means “open”.) God forbid we present gay cowboys as kick-ass (and fuck-ass) gunslingers saving the poor villagers from the evil bandits… rather than furtive lovers doomed to misery because their (true, inner) lives revolve around a sexuality deemed unacceptable in 1960s Wyoming. God forbid we present Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in a Hollywood blockbuster just to make the point that faggots can be fucking fearsome rather than flouncy… rather than stripping away any such “message” with a constant stressing of their “cousin” relationship.

Of course, segregationism doesn’t say that fiction breaching these strictures shouldn’t exist — simply that there’s no place for it here, in this venue. There’s other places you can go if that’s what you’re looking for, right?

Sorry, that just ain’t good enough.

In the city of the soul, the city that is our culture, a television channel, a movie studio, a publishing imprint or an online magazine is a neighbourhood, and segregationism is the system whereby in certain neighbourhoods we simply don’t belong. No, better yet, in the city of the soul, every venue of fiction is a water-fountain. We all thirst for stories that speak to us, you see, thirst for the fiction that replenishes the soul, whether it’s solemn or silly, the “elitism” of “High Art” or the “populism” of “Low Art.” Whether it aims to entertain or enlighten, fiction is always aiming to quench our thirst. And those of us who belong to a group abjected on the basis of some marker of deviance from the default, we thirst for stories in which we are represented. It’s all very well if we have our own water-fountains — queer television, queer cinema, queer fiction — venues we can go to for stories that deal with our lives, our issues. But as long as we’re excluded from certain water-fountains, this is segregation. As long as we’re allowed into certain neighbourhoods only when it is “important to the story,” as long as we’re required to remain silent when it comes to the inequities in those neighbourhoods, this is segregation.

It’s not simply that this city would be a much nicer place if we all just get past the homophobia, the prejudice, the intolerance of those few backwards individuals who don’t get it. It’s not simply that the mindset of those who don’t get it is nasty, a Bad Thing to be condemned. It’s that the practical reality of the system they support is one in which the abject, the deviant, is considered essentially Other. It does not belong unless it conforms to certain criteria. At worst, it is allowed in only to carry out set roles in service of the white, straight, able-bodied heroes and heroines — as Magic Negroes or as Gay Best Friends, say.

The Magic Negro in a work of fiction is a house-maid, coming in from the ghetto to clean a house that is not theirs, in an all-white neighbourhood where all too many houses have such servants. So too is the Gay Best Friend. We do not live in these movies and shows, novels and stories; our homes are elsewhere. We are not the masters and mistresses of the households, the story revolving around us and our lives, because that would be a “message” story, even if the “message” is only that we live the same stories as everyone else, that our skin-colour or sexuality not the defining essence of our existence. No, we are strangers in these neighbourhoods, allowed in only to fulfill our appointed task, as and when it is “important to the story” — when the hero must be given counsel by some latter-day medicine man, or when the heroine must be given consolation by some gossipy confidante. These are the day-jobs we work in the neighbourhoods of the privileged before we go home, at the end of the day, to the ghetto.

That’s the system that emerges between those twin reticences as regards representation, where the inclusion of characters in some abjected social group — based on skin colour, sexuality or whatever — is seen as something to be done only in certain circumstances and only in certain ways. That’s the system perpetuated wherever those fitting the default — white, straight, able-bodied, etc. — fold their arms and frown at the idea of such inclusion taking place when it’s “not important to the story” or when it ruins the nice safe story with a political “message”. That’s the system supported by those who complain about Straw Liberals pressuring for “political correctness” and “quotas.” And the reality of what we want instead of that system? The level of inclusion we want to see when it comes to queer characters (and characters of colour, and so on)? What we actually want rather than some paranoid conservative’s fantasy of queer characters crowbarred into fiction on some proportional quota system?

It’s called integration.

This is why I see the work towards that aim as rebuilding. Not just a superficial improvement in terms of tolerance, but a restructuring radical enough that it calls for the metaphor of New Sodom. Those venues of fiction aren’t just the houses of this or that individual where some poor faggot might walk in and meet a frosty welcome from a home-owner poisoned with prejudice, a nasty person who… well… makes us all feel kinda righteous in comparison and kinda cosy when we all gather to agree that, yes, they really oughtn’t to be like that. No, those venues are fucking water-fountains out on the streets, and if they don’t have signs up saying “Straights Only,” they do have signs that say “Queers Only If…”

“No Negroes unless Magic and accompanied by a white hero.”

“No Gays without female protagonist supervision.”

Stripping those signs from the water-fountains isn’t just giving the city a face-lift.  It’s changing the entire fucking system, building a little corner of New Sodom here, a wide boulevard there. It matters to me as much as it mattered back in the 80s, reading Delany and seeing my first glimpses of that city of the future.  And it should matter to us all, I think, just as much, with all the weight of history that the word segregation carries.  The city of the past, the Sodom we’re rebuilding, it’s not just a symbol of queerness.  This isn’t just about sexuality.

Read between the lines of the Bible and you find the city of Sodom as one of those bastions of pagan polytheism so reviled by their monotheist neighbours. You find the neolithic culture of temple prostitutes and homosexual priests, whores and faggots, scorned for their fornication. You find the crass commerce of the Phoenician city-states — Sidon, Tyre, Byblos — the culture of merchants who don’t give a fuck about who or what is abjected by the moralistic monomaniacs for some random difference; because everyone is a customer. You find Canaan and Babylon as painted women in fine linens and silks dyed scarlet and purple (one possible derivation of Canaan is, I believe, from a word for the purple dye obtained from the porphyr shell, the same dye used to colour the robes of Roman Emperors.) You find the soft “decadence” of settled civilisation so despised by herders. You find the heterogeneous diversity of the cosmopolitan metropolis, the melting-pot of humanity. You find the Sohos of London and New York. You find the neighbourhoods that do have a strong ethnic focus, but you also find those that are entirely mixed-up. You find the gay villages in every city that has one, not as ghettos where all of a certain type are sealed up, but as open markets where anyone from any district can come.

Or at least I do. Granted, the true crime of the Sodomites if you take the traditional interpretation — because as I understand it, the Jewish reading is sod all to do with buggery and everything to do with lack of hospitality to strangers — is pretty much the exact opposite of the integrated heterodoxy I’m representing with New Sodom. (One feature of abjection as applied to social groups is, you know, the projection of one’s own faults onto that Other — c.f. the brutality projected onto black men by whip-wielding slave-owners.)  So the metaphor ain’t perfect.  No metaphor is.

But being an inveterate subverter of myths and legends, I like to imagine that it wasn’t just Lot and his household who survived, that there were Sodomites left to lament their fate, to cry out, “What city can I found? Where now must I go to make a home?” I like to imagine that those survivors, the Elders of Sodom, spread out around the world in their search for a new home, having learned their lesson the hard way. I like to imagine that as strangers themselves now wherever they might go, those wandering Sodomites swore that wherever they might settle, in whatever city they might found, all would be welcome in their home. That they would treat no-one as a stranger, as Other, no matter how they might differ. That they would speak up wherever they saw such strangers being abjected on whatever basis — skin colour, sexuality, disability, anything — defend the rights of those strangers against all who would deny them, against all attempts to segregate them out and make them subject to discrimination. That they would lead such strangers to the water-fountains and say, “Drink…”

“You’re welcome here.”

Because that’s how we build New Sodom.