No, I’m not your bear. Why words matter and self-identification must be respected (Goddamnit).

It wasn’t long ago that I was walking on the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, on the way to the wedding reception of two good friends with my partner. When we’d almost reached the venue, I noticed a truck had slowed down to a stop and a window was being rolled down.

“Cute bears!” the driver yelled out.

Before I could even think, my instant response was: “I’m not a bear,” to which the driver responded indignantly, “Yes, yes you are!”

“You don’t have the right to put a label on someone or tell them what they do or don’t identify as. That’s not how it works!” I screamed back.

“Well, uh, cute young men with beards, then,” he said timidly, before we continued rushing down the street. I needed that conversation to end immediately.

Ever since the unwanted interaction, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about my response and questioning why the words struck such a blow. It was intended as a compliment, after all, and it wasn’t exactly said in a threatening way. But, to be real, even as my retrospect dims my bright red anger about the incident, I realize now that I’d been targeted in the sort of street harassment that my female peers are forced to endure on the regular. It’s demoralizing, immature and, in many ways, barbaric. I’m sorry, my friends who regularly face this, that ish is awful.

But beyond that, what dug the most under my skin and has lived there ever since was the message, not the medium.

I have always struggled with accepting my body for what it is — husky from birth — and living a life of health within my own skin.

Between the ages of 18 and 23, I struggled to maintain a consistent weight and, at times, it was an obsession of mine. On the lower end of the spectrum — and at the height of a period of obsessive exercise and disordered eating during my senior year of high school — I weighed about 155 pounds. Less than a year later, I’d gained over 30 pounds when I started drinking the first semester of my freshman year of college. All of it was lost during my second semester of freshman year as I exercised more and ate and drank less, and I remained more or less in a healthy (by Midwestern standards, at least) range until about a year out of college.

That was when the pieces of my adult life started falling into place. I started a dream job working for a company I deeply admired and respected. I fell in love and still have yet to fall back out. And by some combination of factors I’ve yet to fully pinpoint, all the weight and then some returned. I now weigh about 235 pounds.

To say the weight gain has been depressing and, at times, immobilizing is a massive understatement. Clothing that was once among my favorite to wear no longer fit — after spending years in the back of the closet, I’d eventually consign myself to donating it so someone skinnier could wear it. Eating became a guilty activity. Leaving the house was anxiety-inducing at times. I didn’t weigh myself for years for fear of what the scale would read.

Once I finally did weigh myself and I realized (and admitted to myself) I’d reached the point where I weighed more than I ever had in my entire life, I began to feel too far gone for any amount of diet, exercise or other changes in habit to make an impact. That feeling was isolating and all-encompassing and I’ve struggled with it.

A few times over the last year in particular, anonymous Internet commenters who disagreed with my writings called me “fat,” a word that stabbed me in the gut. When I lashed back out at these strangers, others — friends I deeply respect and admire — criticized me for reacting negatively to be called something I did not want to be and was not happy being and, in their opinion, contributing to giving a neutral word negative meaning. Being essentially called out as “body-negative” hurt even more — that was never my intention and it hurt to feel almost bullied by a friend into “owning it.” What if we don’t want to reclaim a word traditionally used as an insult when it’s hurled at us? Does that, indeed, make us — the insulted, the attacked, the wounded — as big a part of the problem as the insulter, the attacker, the assailant?

This brings me back to my being (or not being) a bear. I have a deep admiration for the bear community and always have. The first story I ever wrote for a major print publication was a story on “straight bears” for the 2010 Pride issue of the Village Voice. And I’m a huge fan of the way that sub-communities within the fake monolith of the “LGBT community” can offer safety, pride, happiness, sexual currency, confidence, friendship and a sense of membership to individuals who are often othered by the dominant cultures within our “community.” It is a testament to queers everywhere that we have been able to form and sustain so many sub-communities that allow for us to truly shine as our best queer selves.

But all of that said, I have never felt a part of the bear community, nor have I ever felt welcomed in it for many reasons, but mainly: a) My lack of athletic ability or interest in sports and b) My natural femme vibes and c) Mainly, I don’t need to list my reasons why — you should just respect that. A beard does not a bear make. Being overweight does not a bear make. Blue eyes do not a bear make. To summarize: I love bears, but I am not one.

Like pretty much every other “alternative” queer sub-community that likes to tout how they welcome all types of individuals to the table with open arms, I feel the bear community falls short of that goal. Perfection is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to strive toward it in the interest of celebrating the surviving and thriving of all our queer brothers and sisters.

And I’m all in on body positivity but not when it is enforced to a degree where any dissent — i.e. acknowledging an unhappiness in one’s own body — is policed and taken as an affront to others. Such enforcement of body positivity can be dangerous, causing some to keep dangerous behaviors secret for fear of a callout. This helps no one.

Instead, we must respect all individuals’ right to self-identify and respect their protest when mis-identified — especially if you don’t necessarily believe what that individual has been labeled is offensive. Even in this era of social media overshares, you can never truly know anyone else, particularly when it comes to the inner demons they are slaying every day, every minute, every second of their lives, just by surviving. This should be celebrated and can be celebrated by giving people the space they deserve to self-identify as they choose without fear of reprisal or correction. This is the kind of community love that helps foster the self-love we all need and desire.

You are not allowed to define anyone else’s reality for them and referee when you feel they’ve incorrectly defined themselves. You are not allowed to fight YOUR battle of language and cultural norms  (as important as it may be/probably is) on the backs of others’ identities — these people are not who you should be spending your energy on.

We will all make mistakes when it comes to these issues. We will all be called out and we will all feel the urge to callout. But most important through it all is the willingness to listen to and respect each other when it comes to the words we ascribe to ourselves and others, particularly when a line is crossed and a mistake is made.

For the past three months — and two months prior to the street harassment — I’ve been going regularly to a gym and being more conscious about my eating and drinking habits and achieved some results — though the progress has been, as it is for many, slower and more frustrating than one would hope. But I feel like I’m finally on the path to happiness — or, at least, happier-ness. Writing this essay — which I’ve been drafting, editing and rewriting in my head for weeks — is a big part of that journey. Thank you for reading.


2011 in music: Favorite albums and live shows

It’s now (beyond) time for my annual listing of favorite music from the previous year. Though countless others have taken on the task of somewhat arbitrarily ranking their favorite songs from the previous year, I still deeply enjoy the challenge of acknowledging full albums worth of work that were truly excellent (in my mind). Sure, it’s a probably dying art, but to me, it’s more difficult to achieve. Especially now.

And I also enjoy the diary-like aspect of the annual challenge, cataloging each year some of my favorite jams. This will mark the fourth year I’ve ranked my top albums in some fashion or another and it’s a tradition I plan to stick to.

These are the 26 albums that made me stop for a moment. To listen to more than simply one catchy track amidst a mix on shuffle. That either made me picture a different reality or conjure my own in a way that probably wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. I’ve chosen a track from each to comprise two 8tracks mixes: Part one (#26-14) here, part two (#13-1) here. And without further ado:

  1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  2. Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
  3. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  4. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  5. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
  6. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
  7. Destroyer – Kaputt
  8. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
  9. The Weeknd – Echoes of Silence
  10. Iceage – New Brigade
  11. The Roots – Undun
  12. Beyonce – 4
  13. Pictureplane – Thee Physical
  14. Yuck – Yuck
  15. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
  16. Zola Jesus – Conatus
  17. The Kills – Blood Pressures
  18. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
  19. Shannon and the Clams – Sleep Talk
  20. Rihanna – Talk That Talk
  21. Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years
  22. Neon Indian – Era Extrana
  23. Le Butcherettes – Sin Sin Sin
  24. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
  25. Battles – Gloss Drop
  26. Planningtorock – W
In terms of live music, several experiences in 2011 will stand out in my memory for some time to come — below are very scattered notes on the stand-out concerts I was able to see this year:
  • Portishead at the Aragon — heavenly, divine, there are no words — I honestly never thought I’d have the opportunity to see Beth Gibbons live and the experience lived up to my wildly high expectations
  • Twin Shadow at Lincoln Hall — George Lewis = the next coming of Prince? almost
  • Lollapalooza — so, so, so much: Bright Eyes, Le Butcherettes, Titus Andronicus, Beirut, Deftones, Lia Ices, Phantogram, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, watching Elijah Wood DJ
  • EMA at Empty Bottle and Pitchfork — she is a force
  • The Kills at the Vic with Cold Cave opening — a sweaty, gothy night
  • Shannon and the Clams at Empty Bottle — another tremendous force
  • Pitchfork — No Age, OFF!, Deerhunter, HEALTH
  • Leslie Hall at Subterranean — perfect as always

Here’s to 2012!

A beardy challenge

I love November.

First, there’s the change of season — often as harsh as it is lovely and unpredictable. And there’s also my birthday, which arrives on the 3rd of the month.

But, in recent years I’ve also come to love the trend of “No Shave November” mustache and/or beard campaigns. As a not-particularly-athletic person who admires the many individuals who run marathons to raise money for various organizations and groups, I think it’s important to have another sort of venture that individuals can coalesce around for a good cause.

And frankly, there are some of us for whom facial hair growth is a unique talent. Sort of like calligraphy or crafting gem sweaters.

So, this year, I’ve decided to take up a “No Shave November” challenge of my own. After starting the month with an already-pretty-unruly beard, I’ve pledged to donate $5 (or the price of a really fancy cup of coffee) to the Greater Chicago Food Depository for every day I can manage to resist the urge to trim this baby down.

I will be documenting my progress both here and on my Tumblr blog.

Beardiness as of Nov. 7. Seven days in. $5 a day to the GCFD. $35 pledged thus far.

So, why a food bank rather than any other cause? A study released earlier this year estimated that just over 20 percent of Chicagoans struggle with food insecurity, meaning that are unsure where their next meal will come from or how they will pay for it. They go to sleep hungry. In some parts of this highly racially and economically segregated city, that number is as high as 40 percent. As a result, groups like the GCFD have been overwhelmed with record-high demand at a time when their support at the federal, state and individual donor levels is declining. I feel like this is an overlooked issue that could only get worse with the current state of things. I wanted to do something about it.

If you feel so inspired, I urge you to consider making a contribution of your own to the GCFD or perhaps another food bank or group working to fight food insecurity. You can even donate a certain amount for each day my beard continues to grow. If I make it the entire month and you donate 50 cents for each day I grizzle it out, that means $15 for the food bank.

Here’s hoping we can all help some folks out this month. Please let me know if you decide to join in on my little experiment, so I can give you some much-deserved props. Thanks for your support.

Playing favorites, or resisting “best of”: 2010 edition

Every December, a personal dilemma arrives: The “best of 2010” music list. To make one or not? Such lists often feel stifling, sometimes bullying, and I don’t particularly feel justified in claiming the decidedly dubious title of “tastemaker.” Last year, I chose to, instead, create a mix honoring some of my favorite musical discoveries of 2009 and did not make my personal list public. This year, instead, I created a series of 8tracks mixes to accompany a brief essay here on the blog (while I still reserve the right to devote a blog to my favorite discoveries of ’10, too!) While this still feels weirdly preachy, I welcome you to indulge my selections for what they’re worth (not much!) and possibly even discover something you may have never heard before — the best part of being a music junkie, in my book.

My personal favorite albums of 2010:

1. Titus Andronicus – The Monitorlisten to the top 10
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
3. Twin Shadow – Forget
4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
5. Jonsi – Go
6. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
7. Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
8. Owen Pallett – Heartland
9. Glasser – Ring
10. Marnie Stern – s/t
11. Local Natives – Gorilla Manorlisten to #11-21
12. Lower Dens – Twin-Hand Movement
13. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
14. Robyn – Body Talk
15. Wild Nothing – Gemini
16. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
17. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
18. The National – High Violet
19. Menomena – Mines
20. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
21. Dessa – A Badly Broken Code
22. Sharon Van Etten – Epiclisten to the rest
23. Matthew Dear – Black City
24. Beach Fossils – s/t
25. Diamond Rings – Special Affections
26. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
27. No Age – Everything In Between
28. Foals – Total Life Forever
29. S. Carey – All We Grow
**Girls – Broken Dreams Club
**Active Child – Curtis Lane
**Generationals – Trust

Honorable mentions: Warpaint – The Fool, PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station, Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Eternal Summers – Silver

2010 was a great year for music, and as such, I must add one important caveat to this list: I was fortunate enough to see several of the acts listed below live in concert and those experiences surely colored my enjoyment of their recorded material ever since. LCD Soundsystem and Titus Andronicus at Pitchfork, Twin Shadow at Schubas, Jonsi at the Vic, Local Natives at the Metro and Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall were all fan-freaking-tastic (if not brilliant, in the case of some) live shows that really spoke truth to the power of each of their albums released this year. On the flip side, I didn’t so much jive with either Sleigh Bells’ or Best Coast’s sets at Pitchfork this summer, and it soured me on their albums. I have a feeling that, were my economic situation different, had I seen a few of the other acts on this list in concert – namely Janelle Monae, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens – they likely would have been higher, but such is life.

What I really loved about albums like Titus, Jonsi and LCD’s releases were that they were able to take huge, grandiose things — in the case of Titus and LCD, some pretty epic songs; with Titus, a nerdy historical concept; with Jonsi, some pretty epic instrumentation — and made it work. They made it near-perfection, in my mind. Other albums – like Joanna’s and Sufjan’s – also had lofty ambitions and have some really glimmering moments, but on the whole, I think both suffered from their lack of editing.

The opposite extreme of the spectrum: Somewhat simple, often brief music, also really stood out to me this year. The Lower Dens’ debut album, as well as Carey and Van Etten’s, provided us with a much-needed break from the grandiose. Their voices are endearingly raw at times and it all adds up to so much more than the sum of each song’s parts.

All of these albums helped me through the difficult times this year and if you haven’t heard any of the above artists before, I’d highly recommend you check out the mixes and if you like what you hear, head out and buy their album, see their show the next time they’re in town and tell your friends about what you’re listening to. I highly doubt you’ll regret it.

Election redux

It’s undeniable that many of the developments from this Tuesday’s election were disappointing to Democrats and progressive folk around the country. But I must admit that I had to pause this time before announcing another (mostly empty) threat to leave the country entirely, now that I – once again – live in one dark blue county surrounded by a sea of red.* That’s right – put the whiskey down, my friend: Contrary to the mainstream media narrative comparing the GOP takeover of the House and theoretical shutting down of political productivity in Washington to a tsunami, I think there are a few positives to take from Tuesday’s election results.

To be sure, the disappointments are there too, and there are many. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, known best as the lone dissenting voice against the Patriot Act, was blown out of the water by his heavily-financed-by-out-of-state-$$$ Republican competitor Ron Johnson in my home state. Vehemently anti-war and a friend to the LGBT and immigrant communities, Feingold was a unique politician who truly voted with both his heart and mind — not always with his party. He will be missed dearly.

In Iowa, out-of-state, anti-gay dollars to the estimated tune of at least $600,000 squelched any hope of three state Supreme Court judges there to retain their jobs, collapsing under the weight of a far-reaching campaign to oust them following their affirmation of same-sex marriage in 2008. Brian Brown, leader of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the anti-gay organizations that bankrolled the campaign against the judges, is touting their successful campaign as “sending a powerful message to any judge who thinks they can impose gay marriage by judicial fiat against the wishes of the people.” NOM spent, all told, $7 million on this and other races in the name of “protecting marriage,” rendering mixed results but solidifying its status as the leading, most well-funded anti-gay group in the country.

Another important, mostly under-the-radar development is the likely death of net neutrality — a principle that blocks Internet service providers and governments from having too much influence on the Internet as we see it or creating tiers of “premium” access at different price points. Out-of-state funding here contributed to every single one of the 95 House Democrats who stood against net neutrality losing their races. Al Franken has called this the “First Amendment issue of our time” and, given Tuesday’s results, that may not turn out to be too broad of a hyperbole.

It was further saddening to see Penn. Congressman Patrick Murphy lose his race to Mike Fitzpatrick. Murphy was one of the leading voices in the House for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and was growing into a strong ally for LGBT people there on any number of issues. The fact that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann earned over 50 percent of the popular vote statewide for the first time in her re-election is also somewhat troubling. Bachmann has consistently described gay people as having “sexual identity disorders” among any number of troubling positions on a number of social and economic issues. She stands a good shot at becoming the GOP’s Conference Chair.

But there is a glimmer of good news for LGBT activists. For the most part, candidates who campaigned on a fringe perspective, embracing anti-gay rhetoric to be used toward our communities and families, lost. And they did so from coast to coast: Senatorial candidates Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Gubernatorial candidates Carl Paladino and Bill Brady in California and Illinois. I repeat: They all lost.. except for South Carolina’s Senator Jim DeMint, who has said that openly gay and sexually active, unmarried straight teachers should be barred from teaching children.

Perhaps now more than ever, public homophobia has become a political liability, unless you live in South Carolina apparently. But that’s not to say that politicians (both parties included here) are going to march, lock in step, toward endorsing equality for LGBT Americans or any other minority group. It seems just as likely that while public disgust with gay people may wane, that bigotry may continue its shift toward open racism against Muslim Americans and immigrant communities. And chances of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or comprehensive immigration reform passing during the lame-duck Senate session appear incredibly slim.

As of earlier this year, a higher percentage of Americans reported having negative feelings toward Muslims than reported opposing same-sex marriage. And while many politicians who utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric during their campaigns lost their elections – including Angle and Paladino who, notably, were also mentioned two paragraphs above – in Oklahoma, a ballot initiative successfully barred judges from “considering Islamic or international law when making a ruling.”

Indeed, bigotry remains alive and well and it would appear that any checks of the growing corporate influence on our politics, culture and lives will continue to be difficult to come by. It’s funny, over the course of this column those glimmers of “good news” have lost some of their sparkle so.. take that for what you will.

I’ll leave you with a song that feels appropriate as a lullaby to progressives everywhere today: Metric’s Emily Haines’ Winning.

*If you don’t already know, I attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, based in Dane County, one of only a handful of counties that did not vote to elect former president Bush to his second term in 2004, which marked my first time voting in a presidential race.