Our editors and correspondents write a great deal of the magazine’s content as well. (See Beth E. Wilson’s interview with MacArthur “genius” grant-winning artist Judy Pfaff in Portfolio, page 44; or read Harold Jacob’s report on how The Artist’s Palate is raising the bar on more than taste buds in the 300-block neighborhood on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street.)
Some pieces come through contests and calls for submissions, like the poetry printed in these pages, inexhaustibly edited by Phillip Levine (page 64). This month also features a runner-up from our fall fiction contest, Brett Bevell’s tale of a Little League manager familiar with the Major Arcana, “The Holy Baseball Tarot Deck”; the story is illustrated by poet, performer, and cultural czar in exile Mikhail Horowitz, who has spent the last 20 years designing a baseball card tarot deck for just such an occasion (page 66).
And some pieces just drop in out of the blue, one of the handful of stories we choose to print each year out of the daily tide of unsolicited queries that washes up in our Inbox, like this month’s News and Politics feature, “Conduct Unbecoming."
A writer we had never worked with before, Christopher Ferraro, queried us last November, pitching a broad investigation into discrimination against gays and lesbians and women in the armed forces. These practices—summary dismissal due to sexual orientation; prohibitions keeping women from certain combat and combat-related jobs, which are resume necessities for high-ranking leadership roles in the military—would be illegal in any US workplace. In the armed forces, they’re government sanctioned. (Early in the development process for “Conduct Unbecoming,” in order to clarify the piece’s vision, we removed discrimination against women from its focus.)
For gays and lesbians, this discrimination looked to be going the way of the dodo early in the Clinton administration. The president seemed intent on fulfilling a campaign pledge to let people serve openly in the military regardless of sexual orientation. The resulting compromise, however, gave gay rights advocates little to cheer about. Crafted in tandem with those who opposed any lifting of the gay ban in the military, like “centrist” Democrat Sam Nunn, then chair of the Armed Services Committee, the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” directive of 1994 codified a Plessy v Ferguson-like separate-but-unequal rule. In brief: The military won’t ask if you’re gay; therefore, it cannot harass you for being gay. If you tell someone you’re gay, however, then you will be forced from the service for it.
(“Don’t ask, don’t tell”: These four words were just half the original catchphrase crafted by Prof. Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, the principal author of the policy. The second half—wisely dropped by proponents of DADT—was a seeming preemptory injunction against cruising: “Don’t seek, don’t flaunt.”)
Based as it is on such unsound conceptual moorings, it’s no surprise “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a failure. For one, it has not stopped soldiers from being discharged from the military. As Christopher Ferraro reports, 6,300 military personnel were thrown out for homosexuality between 1998 and 2003. Nor has it prevented violence against homosexuals or prevented gay and lesbian soldiers from having to lead double lives in the armed services. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the perfect piece of anti-discrimination posturing for a homophobic society.
As above, so below.
Or: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Just below the fold on the front page of its February 8 edition, the Kingston Times ran an odd adjacency: A picture of about 100 people standing in the cold, anticipating the ribbon-cutting at the grand opening of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ center, and next to it, the words “Perverts among us,” headlining an unrelated story about sex offenders in Kingston.
Strangely, some readers took exception to the newspaper’s layout choices!
In the February 15 edition of the weekly, in an editorial titled “Apologia,” Kingston Times editor Steve Hopkins chalked up the brouhaha to “something we wags in the newspaper business call ‘cognitive dissonance.’” (For those readers not lucky enough to be wags in the newspaper business, cognitive dissonance refers to the uncomfortable tension caused by holding two conflicting thoughts at once.) Hopkins noted the “understandable knee-jerk reaction” of those who suffered a different form of cognitive dissonance than was supposedly intended—disbelief that a newspaper editor would be so juvenile.
Hopkins also apologized: “I shudder to think that with that unfortunate story placement I induced even one person to think, ‘Oh, wait; that’s it—gay people are perverts!’” He also claimed a number of best friends who are gay and a general embrace of alternative lifestyles, even going so far as to mention winning “a lesbian karaoke contest in Park Slope.” (Again, for those not in the know: Park Slope is a hotbed of Sapphic embraces. )
What Hopkins did not do was admit that he was wrong. In fact, he wrote that he was “secretly pleased at all the fuss. Because despite the fact that it was inadvertent, the unfortunate juxtaposition got people talking, and thinking.” (Let’s put aside the fact that Hopkins had admitted he knew exactly what he was doing—this play at cognitive dissonance—and then he goes on to humbly submit: “I’ll probably screw up and do something like it again.”)
Hopkins’s front page did get people talking—although I noted more silent shakes of the head than actual discussion. Or maybe he is referring here to the numerous angry phone calls he received. As for getting me thinking—Hopkins is right, and I thank him. It got me thinking we still have a long way to go toward social justice when an editor can make a joke in the poorest of taste on the front page and not only keep his job but laugh all the way through his apology.