My Own Private Guantanamo

Pranks, Power and Pop Culture


Home for the Holidays

December 26, 2011

The other night in Half Moon Bay, shitkickin’ country band Barfight got a surprise Christmas visit from an old friend. Photos courtesy of Mike Browne.

If you’re in San Francisco, check out Barfight at El Rio on January 4th.


December 21, 2011

Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.

But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.

I was Tits.

He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.

As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.

When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.

As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming– that I was too cool for the pool.

By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.

The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.

So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.

In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”

I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.

Keep it classy, Gawker

I’m reminded of this today, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker and Slate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.

While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”

One of the many comments Huffpo didn’t delete.

Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)

We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?

We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.

With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.

PETA is a habitual offender

Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.

I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.

I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)

There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.

I am Tits. Got a problem with that?

City Hall as Trojan Horse:
Lessons from Occupy LA

December 17, 2011

The Overland Journal asked me to write a piece about Occupy LA.
I welcomed the chance to get off my duff (well, to get off Twitter for a moment) and write something a little more substantial. I have mixed feelings about Occupy LA, but I hope there are some observations here which will be helpful to the movement as Occupy 2.0 takes shape. Thanks for reading.

While protesters in Oakland, Portland, Boston, New York and cities throughout the US faced riot police with tear gas canisters, their comrades in Los Angeles enjoyed a much cozier relationship with the City and its police. From the very beginning, organizers of Occupy LA made a decision to work closely with the city government and the police, using liaisons, in an effort to avoid the kinds of confrontations seen in other cities. As media team organizer Lisa Clapier put it in characteristically New-Agey prose, “[We] chose collectively to remain in our integrity and NOT break the law, unless doing so WAS in integrity.”

Though initially gathering in Pershing Square, a large public space near many financial institutions, organizers quickly opted to set up camp in the grassy park surrounding City Hall, just a stone’s throw from LAPD headquarters. The LAPD set up a command post inside City Hall, allowing for easy surveillance of the park and assigned twelve full time officers to the protest. The activists, for their part, toed the line, dutifully moving their tents to the surrounding sidewalk each night at 10:30, in keeping with park rules. It was, as one skeptic noted, an “occupation by permission.”

This chummy relationship with city officials initially paid off for the activists. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dropped off ponchos for the activists to help them during a rainstorm. City Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilman Bill Rosendahl toured the encampment and met with the protesters. Garcetti told them to “stay as long as you need to.” LAPD officers were seen dropping off supplies for the campers, including snacks and sunscreen. As the LA Weekly opined, “This random outpouring of love and acceptance is, frankly, unnerving…[A]re protesters,” they wondered, “cuddling up to the enemy?”

The unusually cordial relationship extended to the demonstrations as well. During the marches in the Financial District, Occupy LA protesters kept to the sidewalks, obeyed police orders and eschewed civil disobedience. For the first several weeks, the only arrests at these demonstrations were of union members and anti-war activists, not occupiers, a fact carefully underscored by the Occupy LA media team. After a coalition demonstration, an Occupy LA blogger wrote:

“This protest was organized by an unknown group, most of whom appeared to be people who arrived for that march from elsewhere… No members of Occupy Los Angeles were arrested.”

Occupy LA’s desire to appear cooperative with police and to avoid even a whiff of confrontation caused it to distance itself from allies who chose to risk arrest.

These Occupy LA media reps also took pains to praise the police for their restraint, sometimes revealing an odd belief that the cops were actually on their side. “The police are a part of the 99%” was a popular refrain. Police were praised for “letting” the protesters demonstrate. Occupiers were encouraged to keep their eyes open for “agents provocateurs,” a class of villain so broadly defined, that anyone advocating unlawful civil disobedience was deemed suspect.

Those disagreeing with this rhetoric were often shouted down, as in this extraordinary clip of LAUSD teacher Ron Gochez being booed by protesters. Gochez noted with irony, “I had never seen cop-loving anarchists before. It was very strange.” Occupiers who were critical of the use of police liaisons formed a subcommittee against police brutality, and were subsequently smeared as agents provocateurs in flyers circulated at the camp. Mario Brito, acting city liaison for Occupy LA, participated in a radio debate defending the decision to work closely with LAPD, and distancing the group from police critics.

When it was announced that the City Council had passed a unanimous resolution endorsing Occupy LA, the protesters celebrated their victory as evidence of the wisdom of working within the system. The Atlantic hailed it, not as a protest, but as a lesson in civics. A closer look reveals that the vote was a cynical attempt by city politicians to co-opt the movement’s popularity. After hearing testimony from bankers, the City Council stripped the resolution of its only meaningful component, a responsible banking measure, which would have increased scrutiny on the city’s financial dealings. The Los Angeles City Council, the highest paid in the country, was thus given a chance to make a toothless “endorsement” of a popular grassroots political movement, without making any meaningful reforms of its own. The unanimity of the vote was also par for the course.  (A recent study on the influence of money in Los Angeles politics found that 99% of City Council votes are unanimous.)

With this neutered resolution passed, the City slowly began to cool toward its new friends. Protesters stopped moving their tents to the sidewalk at nights, becoming more entrenched in the park. City officials started to complain about the dying lawn. The LAPD absurdly claimed that the violent crime rate in the area had tripled as a result of the encampment. Bill Rosendahl, who three weeks earlier, had visited the protesters and introduced the City Council resolution endorsing Occupy LA, now said, “They’ve made their statement. I agree with their statement, but it’s time to move on…It’s time to go.”

As many from the downtown homeless population sought out food and shelter at Occupy LA, the encampment faced new challenges and the City began to make noises that the camp had become a blight. Occupy LA itself became a microcosm of Los Angeles, organized along class lines, with a well-heeled area of the encampment unofficially dubbed “Westwood” and a predominantly homeless section called “skid row.” Lacking a direct confrontation with the City and its police force, and divided over petty issues like the right to smoke pot, Occupy LA seemed in danger of eating itself from within.

Then something changed. Perhaps inspired by the successes of Occupy actions in other cities, Occupy LA seemed to find a new sense of purpose in mid-November. One afternoon, protesters briefly shut down traffic and later occupied Bank of America Plaza, owned by Brookfield Properties (the same company which owns Zuccotti Park,) leading to the first mass arrests of Occupy LA protesters. This time, at least, Occupy LA did not disown those who were arrested, and actively worked to bail out their comrades.

A few days later, the media reported that the city had naively offered Occupy LA 10,000 square feet of office space and some farmland if they would agree to decamp. The terms of the deal were murky, and while the protesters voted at their GA to reject it, the city was already withdrawing the offer.  The days of cooperating with City Hall were over.

There was one final echo of the old spirit of cooperation. On Thanksgiving Day, an LAPD commander donated two stuffed turkeys to the encampment. In a mixed message, the police also began placing signs throughout the park indicating that they would begin enforcing park hours. It was a darkly funny reminder of the First Thanksgiving– first we share this food together, then we drive you from the land.

Unfortunately for the LAPD, the tranquilizing tryptophan had already worn off by that Sunday, when they made their first attempt at an eviction. Police amassed with plans to give the protesters the boot, but were overwhelmed by large numbers of supporters who filled the streets in solidarity. The real eviction came two nights later, when an estimated 1400 police swarmed the encampment in less than three minutes, many of them pouring out of City Hall itself. This tactic was dubbed a “Trojan Horse,” an apt metaphor, given the fact that City Hall had been placating the protesters from day one.

Mayor Villaraigosa gushed with pride for the LAPD’s handling of the eviction, calling it “a shining example of constitutional policing.” While the media largely swallowed the hype, some disturbing stories emerged. Reports trickled in about the police beating and kettling protesters in the streets while the handpicked “pool media” were being distracted by the choreographed eviction. Photojournalist Tyson Heder was beaten on live TV. Patrick Meighan, a writer for The Family Guy wrote a harrowing account of his arrest during the raid, which immediately went viral. All told, 292 people had been arrested, many held in inhumane conditions, deprived of food and bathroom facilities, and saddled with punitive bail amounts of $5000 or more.

The LAPD subsequently admitted to placing a dozen undercover cops in the camp, citing the alleged presence of “domestic terrorists” from the fringe Black Riders Liberation Party and Sovereign Citizen movements. And, bizarrely invoking colonialist parallels, the LAPD also claimed that protesters were fashioning bamboo spears to defend the camp. The LAPD have produced no evidence to back up these claims, and the media has largely ignored evidence of police abuses in the wake of the eviction. Meanwhile, the LA City Attorney has suggested that he might seek a restraining order against 46 of the occupiers to keep them away from City Hall, shamelessly comparing the activists to husbands who beat their wives.

Despite all of these betrayals, Occupy LA has continued to work with the city on passing another feel good resolution — a unanimous rejection of corporate personhood. Occupy LA’s faith in the police seems to have survived intact too. As stories of police abuse from the raid began to flood the #OccupyLA hashtag on Twitter, one member of the organization’s media team warned against “engaging in a campaign against law enforcement… (we) can instead build bridges with LAPD and encourage them to lay down arms against us.” While Occupy LA seeks to build bridges, I suspect that the City is already hard at work building its next Trojan Horse.