Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games
Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.
As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!
The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.
A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.
Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.
Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)
Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.
Understanding the North…
As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…
When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.
Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…
Sentiments in the South…
Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?
Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?
Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.
What the future might hold
Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.
Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.
This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.
In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.
Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Fighting for equality is tiresome, fighting feminists is exhausting, yet I have no choice
The title of the post will probably be enough to rile feminists everywhere. That’s not really my intention. But I do admit the topic is a tad controversial. I’ve had an interesting online experience on Facebook the other day, and I just couldn’t get over my own reaction to it, nor how my friends handled it. So I figured the best way forward was to broaden the discussion, and see if indeed this is an issue or not. I think it is, even more so after this incident. I’ve always been a feminist, or at least for as long as I can remember. For very good reasons, so let me explain how and why first.
Male is the norm, female the deviation
The statement above alone is enough to get a feminist’s blood boiling, including my own. But simply because we hate a statement with every fiber of our being doesn’t make it any less true or valid. Yes, it’s “wrong” and awful that societies still see things this way, but it’s where we are:
- Women make less money than man, no matter what profession
- Traditionally “female” jobs (e.g. nursing) are paid less than comparable “male” jobs (e.g. engineering)
- Medical research still has the “male” as the norm, despite wide-spread proof that women respond differently to medications than men
- I could go on… and on, and on
These days, the #MeToo hashtag is shining a light on a different aspect of the plight of women around the globe, and I’ve yet to meet a single woman who hasn’t been able to use it. And it’s not just a western phenomenon, nor is this something we can blame “immigrants” or “refugees” for, as some white men try to do. It’s a male thing. Men asserting, exercising their power using sexual overtures and unwanted advances over women, and men. Yes, gay men can be swines, too, and even though cultural norms in the gay community are different, sexual harassment is still sexual harassment, as the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey show, even worse when the victim is a minor.
No, not drag, it’s a costume, big difference. Yet even this, being labeled a “queen” is a two-edged sort, it’s as much about ruling something as it is being a drama queen, a faggot, a poof. And while we in the gay community use this term on ourselves, to hear it from someone else is like the n-word. And remember, a queen, to this day, is never quite king.
As a gay man, I am acutely aware of this male norm thing, because being gay is all about being considered a traitor to my own gender, attributed all the characteristics society deems undesirable, or less worth: emotional, wimpy, femme, weak, submissive etc. Now I know that’s far from the truth for most gay men, not even the minority, but that’s the perception in society, which is what this is about. Perception, not reality. Because the gay men we see out there, the ones that everyone easily spots a mile away are the ones who fit the pattern.
Nobody bats an eyelash at the butch biker or garbage man because he “couldn’t be gay…” (too masculine, blah, blah, blah) Even in my own community, we discriminate against our own with BS labels such as “straight-acting” (and we all instinctively know what that means… sadly.) or asking for guys who aren’t effeminate. In Turkey, you’re not considered gay as long as you’re a top, because it’s the act of receiving which makes you a homosexual. #facepalm Do they even know that most gay couples never even have penetrative sex? Duh! But yeah, again, cultural norms. It’s the receiving, the submissive, perceived feminine aspect which is considered of a lesser value. In the broader LGBT community, there’s also this weird thing of gay men being “better” than lesbians or trans men being considered better than trans women. Makes you shake your head, but it’s all tied to the above: the male is valued higher at the stock exchange of life than the female.
No equality for me without gender equality
So why is feminism so important to me? Why do I fight so hard and incessantly for gender equality? Why am I being such a nag about women’s equal rights? I mean, I stand to lose, right? Being a man and all? To a degree, I might, although, I’m gay, remember, so I’m already at the bottom of the ladder… I firmly believe that we can’t even begin to dream of equality for the LGBT community as long as we see the male valued higher than the female. As long as me being a stay at home dad is seen as a bigger disappointment than a woman declining a promotion, as long as my nag for caring for others is valued less than a mathematical mind, as long as emotions are worth less than computations, as long as women aren’t allowed to vote everywhere on the planet, granted equal pay for equal work, naturally fill about half of every position available in parliaments, government etc., for as long as anything male is seen as better, I’ll keep struggling and fighting, and sometimes brushing even feminists against the grain. Because only when we no longer bat an eyelash at a boy’s decision to become a nurse or a girl’s decision to forego childbearing (to just take two examples of a million), that’s when we can talk about equality of the sexes, and that’s when we, the LGBT community have a shot at the same. Because when being gay, with all those “female” attributes we apparently exhibit, is no longer seen as less valuable, less desirable, we will already have become equals. There’s an interesting TED talk which discusses why straight families have gay kids, and it has to do with nurturing (a very female trait, a great human trait IMHO). Without realizing it, this champion of LGBT rights slapped a ginormous female sign on all our foreheads. I wear mine with pride, but society at large?
So what happened with that Facebook thing?
The new Kindle logo. I really like it, visually. I just wish they would’ve included a girl, too.
Last week, Amazon launched a rebranded app for the Kindle. A boy sitting under a tree, reading a book. A beautiful image, peaceful. Yet it rubbed me the wrong way. As an author, I know that eight out of ten readers are girls/women. And once again, they were left sidelined to the male dominant. I pointed out as much in my Facebook post, asking Amazon what they were thinking.
I got responses, though not from Amazon, but from my feminist friends:
- How do you know it’s a boy?
- I looked like that when I was a pre-teen…
- Why do girls still have to wear long hair and skirts?
- We need to encourage boys to read… (to just name a few)
Not a single man engaged in the discussion, interestingly. My first reaction was disbelief. Why don’t they see what I see? Why aren’t they as infuriated by this as I am? Then I realized it had to do with the fact that many of the people responding were not only emancipated women, but several also members of the LGBT community themselves, and used to bend gender on a daily basis. I’m glad they have reached a stage in their lives when they no longer see this as a problem. But to me, the problem is much larger (see above) and I got so upset that I began to take it out on my family, and needed a forceful reminder from my husband (thank you) to calm down. Yes, I am a drama queen at times. I get to say that, you don’t. I am really passionate about these things, and as tiny a detail, as this may seem, it’s just another piece to the grand puzzle of the world order of gender inequality, another reminder of how much work we still have to do.
I wonder: what if the image instead had been a girl under the tree, and a man had made a dismissive remark about it. How would they have reacted then?
Our son is constantly misgendered due to his longish hair. Mind you, we try hard to keep his options open should he at some point realize that he isn’t male. This isn’t about that though.
I think about little girls in Riyadh, dressed in pink by their moms before having to hide under the niqab or one of the girls I saw at that disgusting kids’ beauty pageant in Denver at the same hotel where GRL was hosted last week. Will they be able to see themselves in that boy under the tree? I bet you they won’t. And how do I know that a child in short hair, a t-shirt and jeans is indeed a boy and not a girl? Because that’s how society at large “paints” boys, not girls, it’s still pink for girls and blue for boys. Don’t believe me? Go to Costco or Walmart any day of the week.
My son is constantly misgendered as a girl due to his relatively long hair. To believe Amazon to be a feminist company that intentionally portrays a girl in a stereotypical boy look is criminally negligent to the feminist cause. Yes, I understand the question being asked, and NO, there is nothing wrong (of course) with a boy looking like a girl (or vice versa), OF COURSE NOT, duh. But that’s me, that’s feminism, that’s how the LGBT community sees the world, that’s NOT how society at large looks like. That’s NOT how most boys and girls are raised today. That’s not what they pick up in the schoolyard, that’s not what they see on TV shows, not what they hear from the current president of the United States. Sadly. And so, sadly, most boys will never see that logo, as they’ll probably never pick up a Kindle in the first place (so no encouragement), and girls seeing that logo will only be reminded of the lesser value of their sex attributed to them by society. As if such a reminder was needed.
Yes, boys need to be encouraged to read, but why, WHY does that require a boy under a tree to get there? An image they won’t even see unless the encouragement’s already paid off? Why can’t a boy get to the point where he sees himself reflected in a girl sitting under a tree reading? And before you turn tables on me, I know girls can already do that, because they’re doing it every day, 24×7. Just like I, as a gay man, have been force-fed straight relationships, romance, and dramas from my birth (it still didn’t help though, didn’t turn me). I UNDERSTAND what it means to be het, I really do. I had to work really hard to get to the point where being het was no longer the desired state. It took me ten to fifteen years to accept, for myself, that being gay is as good as being something, anything else on the sexuality spectrum. I read posts on Facebook where mothers complain about a lack of role models for their boys, now that SuperWoman (is still a woman), and the leads in the latest two StarWars movies are strong women. And I’m exploding with rage: Superman, Batman, the Flash, and just about every other fucking movie still has strong male leads. And why is it expected of girls to see themselves in male role models, but boys are somehow deemed incapable of seeing themselves in a female role model? HUH? Ladies, are you underestimating your boys? Just look to sports, where to this day it’s “soccer”, but “women’s soccer”, “tennis” and “ladies’ tennis”. And why, why do my feminist friends perpetrate such standards by playing the gender bender card, which is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, a card which loses its trump value the minute we get to the desired state of “male = female” in terms of value attribution. All of a sudden, genderqueer, trans, genderfluid, intersex, gay, bi, lesbian et al will have become variations on a scale ranging from valued (male) to valued (female), rather than what it is today, valued (male) to “less desired” (female), being less desired the more on the female side of the scale you are, where trans women are at the bottom of the scale, because they can’t even pull that (i.e. a feminine look) off properly, as if the Stepford wife look is all women have to be proud of… #facepalm It kills me when I see my friends hurt, and I’ve seen pain to last me a lifetime and then some.
So what’s wrong with a boy on the Kindle logo? Nothing really. Except for everything it says about our society, our planet and gender equality. Why not a boy and a girl sitting next to each other, both reading in harmony? I’m so tired of having to fight for this. I’m tired of having to constantly correct the horrible notions my son keeps shlepping home, wondering where he gets them from, which friends are “bad” for him, not because I would ever blame a four or five-year-old, but the parents and family members behind them, who indoctrinate their sons and daughters with such awful values. I’m tired of having to fight for people who don’t want to be fought for, for people who no longer see just how underprivileged they still are. I’m “fortunate”. I still get daily reminders of just how “worthless” I am to society, from the Kremlin, the White House to the slaughters of gay men in the Caucasus and Africa, the rounding up of my kind in Egypt or Indonesia, or the man being jailed in Dubai for accidentally touching a man’s ass with his hand in a crowded bar. I may be married, but just as easily as I got that right, it could be taken away again (as could be the case in the U.S. if the conservatives get their way on the Supreme Court). I may have a son, but society may decide at any given point that I’m not a good enough parent and take him away, just look at Russia. I can never truly relax, there are so many countries I can never visit because of the death penalty on my head, currently ten. I don’t need constant reminders of why I need to keep fighting, no matter how tired I am. I’m just sad that not all my sisters get the point or seem to have lost sight of the greater goal over their personal accomplishments (of which I’m proud of course).
Either that, or it’s me, which would be easier for everybody else, of course. LOL, I don’t know. I’m tired and while I don’t mind fighting the bad guys, being cut off at the ankles by your own hurts… So what’s your take? I’ve had time to process this and I’m ready to engage in serious debate. So feel free to comment below.
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This is how I’ll be consciously protesting the Nazi march through the streets of Gothenburg tomorrow
In our lives, it’s often difficult to discern good from evil. Life isn’t black and white, it’s mostly shades of gray. We all know that. However, there are some notable exceptions, and Nazis are one of them. You needn’t be a historian to understand that the genocide of more than six million Jews, Gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses & mentally disabled people was a defining moment for humanity, unparalleled in its industrial approach, its cold-hearted planning and faithful execution by the German Army and the various police forces of the era. It’s evil, pure and simple. The hatred against minorities, be it religious (e.g. Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses), ethnicity (Roma, Africans, Asians) or otherwise (disability, sexuality) is nothing new, and most certainly not a German problem. And the simple method of scapegoating is perpetrated again and again, in every country challenged by today’s complex world.
Gothenburg, my home town. Photo: Daniel Sjöström, CC
Sweden is, sadly, no exception. We’ve long prided ourselves for our open and welcoming society, and in recent decades, much like America has been in times past, we’ve welcomed immigrants to fill the jobs our own refused to do: clean toilets, look after the sick and elderly, janitorial services etc. On the other hand, our educational system is failing, after countless attempts by far too many politicians hellbent to leave a mark and fix a system that was geared toward graduating everyone “because they tried”.
We’ve had three (!) completely different grade systems in the 25 years I’ve lived in this country. Young Swedish males (they are primarily male) who fail school, don’t have much of a life to look forward to, they’ll find it difficult to find partners if they live in rural areas (because young women are more likely to get educated and more likely to move to university cities), jobs, and they often look to explanations outside of themselves. Racism (be it the socialist version we call Nazis or the conservative version that is fascism) provides all the easy answers. If only we didn’t have them, we‘d have plenty of jobs… If only they‘d assimilate, we wouldn’t have to rape to get women… Their sense of reality as warped as it can be.
This Saturday, the most active Nazi group in Sweden, The Nordic Resistance Movement, is going to conduct a march through the streets of Gothenburg, do demonstrate while the Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden’s largest annual cultural event, takes place. Loads of international media on site, Yom Kippur on Saturday as icing on the cake, and thus plenty of opportunity for great press (according to the motto: “all press is good press!”) They’ve already conducted an impromptu march a couple of weeks ago, taking everybody by surprise, as they hadn’t sought approval for a march. According to Swedish law, you can demonstrate any time, anywhere in public, as long as you don’t disturb the peace. To seek approval only gives you first dibs to a specific time and place. The route of the demonstration is still disputed in courts, and the Nazis have claimed to ignore any official ruling. The Police have built make-shift lock-ups for hundreds of people underneath police HQ, and the extreme left have vouched to bus people to our fair city to stop the Nazis from marching. Violence begging for violence.
Gothenburg, an open, inviting and international city, built by immigrants for free global trade, from day one. Photo: Rob Sinclair, CC
Gothenburg is a vibrant city. Sweden’s second largest was built on clay soil and swamps by primarily Dutch, Scottish and German engineers after King Gustav II Adolf decided he needed a fortified city on the west coast to protect the nation against attacks from primarily neighboring rival Denmark in 1632 (we are now very close to our Danish neighbors, just saying.)
Today, greater Gothenburg is home to some 1.5 million people from over one hundred cultures. Our weather isn’t the fairest, but we have a vibrant cultural scene and my city, which was already once plagued by Nazis in the nineties (see my book Last Winter’s Snow), when even I was once attacked by VAM, raised itself above it all, and will host EuroPride 2018 together with Stockholm. It’s a diverse city, for sure, home to some very large global companies like Volvo Cars, AB Volvo, SKF, SCA, Essity, Mölnlycke Healthcare, AstraZeneca and many others, companies who all rely on experts from around the world, companies who are home in almost every corner of the world.
For weeks, I was determined to stand alongside the march, draped in a Swedish and a Rainbow flag, the symbol of universal love, to show those monsters that there is another story of Sweden, a story of Sweden where color plays no role, where love is universal. I was determined to not sit idly by when the symbol of our nation (our flag) is hijacked by a group of thugs and criminals (the majority of the leaders of NMR are convicted felons according to research by local newspaper GP.) They don’t scare me as an individual group, but I am of course concerned with the wider implications of the rise of “white power” across Europe and the United States. Have we already forgotten the sacrifices of our grandparents?
There are several demonstrations planned against the Nazi march, some by individuals on the extreme left who are just as unpalatable, re “only a dead bourgeois is a good bourgeois…”, “kill those capitalist swines!” No, I would never join any of those groups, but I was looking forward to my silent protest, as scared as I was that it might provoke the Nazis to physically attack me. Despite the largest police contingency planned since the fateful 2001 EU summit, it doesn’t take much to hurt someone. But, as you can see from my use of time, I was going to protest on site. But an article in today’s Metro changed my mind. The authors of that article are spot on: the Nazis want attention, they’re first class attention whores, which is why they’re doing this now, while the world is gathered here for the Book Fair. Instead, the authors propose that we actively turn our backs, not physically in situ, but by staying away from the streets they’ll be marching on. Remember the 1980s peace movement mantra: “what if there was a war but no one showed up?” Kind of the same thing. We should instead actively protest their idiocy by spending time with our families, our children, our friends, do loving things, and suck the oxygen away from those thugs. The city of Gothenburg has also begun to fly the rainbow flag across town, as a strong symbol for love and our city’s diversity. When I dropped off a guest in front of the fair grounds and saw it fly I almost cried. It is a potent symbol for love, universal love.
My grandparents. I miss them very much, and I am proud of their stance and accomplishments during the WWII Nazi plague. Photo: private
Allow me to share an anecdote from my own family. I have German ancestry. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side emigrated from Imperial Germany to Switzerland, where my grandpa was born in 1907. My grandpa was my childhood hero. He was the operator at one of my hometown’s theaters. I loved him and grandma to pieces, spending every childhood summer at their place in St.Gallen. Grandpa was no saint, far from it, but he did one thing right: he refused to join the Wehrmacht (Germany’s army) in 1938 when he was drafted. He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in camps, as free labor on Swiss farms, far away from his family who suffered enormously of famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in the family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in internment camps, providing free labor to Swiss farmers, far away from his family who suffered enormously from famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in our family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have (willingly) participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
The author of this post in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017. Photo: Alina Oswald.
I have to honor my grandpa for his choice, I have to honor my grandmother who worked tirelessly to shelter, clothe and feed her four children born during the war without any help from her husband, I have to honor my uncle and my aunts who suffered from the long-term effects of malnutrition their entire lives. The tragedy of WWII, and the horrors bestowed upon us by the Nazis linger.
I have a four-year old son. I have a responsibility to make sure that his friends at his international school, Nigerians, Somalis, Iranians, Indians, English etc. all have the same shot at a happy life, regardless of the color of their skin, their creed or who they might eventually end up falling in love with.
This Saturday, Gothenburg has a choice to make when the Nazi march through our city takes place. We let them, because it’s part of our system of free speech and freedom of assembly, but we don’t have to let them do so without showing how pitiful, small and insignificant they are. There are no two sides to this! Will you be with me? Will you stay away from the Nazi march through town, not ogle them, not demonstrate against them, most certainly not use violence against them, but spend time with your loved ones, and demonstrate (as in showing) that Gothenburg and indeed the world, can be a kind place, a loving place, a place where infinite diversity can peacefully co-exist in infinite combinations (to lightly adapt a Vulcan proverb).
Thank you and have a wonderful weekend. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Hans M Hirschi
author, husband & very proud father
Hans, tell me, why do you write gay literature?
Actually, I don’t. I write stories (whether they qualify as literature is for others to judge). I write stories about life, stories to depict the human condition, showcase our humanity, the challenges we face, the struggles, the ups and downs of our lives. A long time ago, I had this discussion with my father about why I chose to write about gay characters (which isn’t the same as gay literature) rather than commercially more viable het characters. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with every time I write a new book, for five years straight.
I’ve always said that I write about gay characters because there aren’t enough stories for us, stories where my people are depicted, not as villains, clowns or freaks, but as human beings, just like everyone else. Here’s how my latest character, Hunter, a journalist, views is. An excerpt from Disease:
Disease, my new novel, about a father in his “best years”, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
However, since I’m apparently not a “normal” parent, according to Connor, I have no clue how “normal” parents travel with their kids. I decide to call Emily. She’s “normal”—married to lovely Keith, a pleasant enough forty- something guy with a fully developed dad-bod, and they have two kids just a couple of years older than Amy. Emily is our sports editor. She travels, too. I’m sure she knows what it’s like when “normal” people travel.
“Sports desk. Emily speaking.”
“Hey, Em. It’s me, Hunter.”
“Hunter, hey. How are you doing? What can I do for you?” “It’s the assignment on travel Connor has me working on.
He wants me to write this piece on gay travel with kids. He seems to think we’re special somehow. And since I can’t figure out how, I thought I’d call you. You’re sort of normal, aren’t you?”
“He said what? That man is such a homophobic jerk. Shoot, what’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how straight, sorry, normal people travel. I mean, I always travel gay—on gay airlines, in gay economy seats, eat gay snacks, drink gay soda and gay beer. What does a heterosexual meal taste like? Are your heterosexual hotel rooms any different than ours?”
“Testy today, aren’t we?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get caught in the middle of this. It’s just that it’s such a moronic assignment. How am I different as a father than Keith? Do you know?”
Yeah, not easy, is it. The story is about Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s doesn’t make a difference between gay patients or het patients, it doesn’t distinguish between Asians or Africans, Mexicans or Germans. It affects us all. It’s a human disease, and it’s growing, as the global population ages. However, society, and the way we are treated as we get sick, that’s different. Here’s how Ethan, Hunter’s partner, writes to us at some point in the story:
Just imagine, we could have finally gotten married. You have no idea what I would have given to turn Hunter’s fantasy wedding in Amalfi into a reality—to fly our family and friends out to Italy to wed the man of my dreams, the love of my life.
Just imagine Hunter finally being able to adopt his daughter, Amy, finally being able to say that his girl was truly his in every sense of the word, even legally.
Alas, it was not meant to be. The day when the Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling that marriage equality was indeed the law of the land, and the entire land—Michigan included—was forced to start handing out marriage licenses to LGBT couples.
On the day itself, Hunter had a really bad day. I think that somewhere, deep within him, he instinctively felt that for us, this day would be of no consequence, as we would not be allowed to get married, anyway, as Hunter was no longer “of sound mind”— a prerequisite to enter the sacred state of matrimony. To ignore the day, to retreat into his own mind, was a coping mechanism of sorts.
No, I never envisioned writing “gay literature”, but I think I just had no choice. Our lives, our existence, to this very day, is so different from the rest that when a character is LGBT, so much around us changes, radically. And while my story doesn’t show a worst case scenario by a long shot, it could’ve been worse, as some U.S. states allow doctors to refuse LGBT patients care, or that simply being LGBT is lethal or illegal still, to this very day, in many countries across the world, and even in our protected “west”, there are political parties, groups and religious organizations who wish us ill.
No, I never wanted to write gay literature. I have a responsibility to highlight the ongoing discrimination against my people, my family. I am privileged. I have freedom of speech, I have the ability to put my thoughts in writing, and therefore the responsibility to speak up. It is, after all, still, to this very day, a matter of life and death.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend.
PS: Tomorrow is Bi-visibility day. My publisher has a great sale going on with all their books with prominent bi-characters. There’s also a great giveaway. Check it out, right here.
Individualism and society: is there a balance that allows us to combine the two?
We (in the west) live in societies where the “I” or the “me, me, me” is more important than ever. Call it entitlement, “human rights”, “civil rights” or whatever you find fitting for the situation (and I do NOT equate the terms). We are extremely individualistic societies, where each individual’s drive to maximize their own dreams and hopes are at the core. So far so good. However, sometimes, our drive to maximize our own “gain” or freedom clashes with what is best for society, that which all of us share together. Question is: is there a way to combine the two?
Allow me to exemplify: when I grew up, society and societal pressure was everywhere. It kept our societies relatively homogenous, individualism was frowned upon. Our freedom to express ourselves was limited. I recall the first wave of fashion with torn jeans, way back in the 1980s. I had just purchased my first pair when a lady on a bus glared at me and asked if I “couldn’t afford a whole pair of jeans?” I never wore them again. When two girls joined us at the central station of Zurich to depart on a four week language adventure in St. Malo back in 1983, both cried, having just been chewed out by their parents for having colored a lock (!) of hair, one in pink, the other in blue. A lock of hair! Not the entire head, mind you, just a lock. They were barely allowed to board the train. Over a colored lock. Today, nobody would bat an eyelash, for either things. Men color their hair, and even people my age still get to wear torn jeans. Nobody cares.
However, when it comes to other things, our liberal societies still find themselves in crosshairs. When two men or two women want to get married, the Christian right suddenly believes their own existence to be threatened. So there seems to be an aspect of individual liberty that affects others, or does it? I’ve followed the marriage equality debate in twenty-four countries, and the arguments are always the same. We are a threat to the very fabric of society, yet oddly, in the twenty-four countries who have marriage equality, nothing’s changed, no marriage has been adversely affected. The world is still spinning. The same will be true if and when Australia joins the civilized world as the twenty-fifth country, unless beaten to the punch by Chile…
On the other hand, there are things that disrupt society, and oddly they are often small things, such as parents not looking after their children in public, allowing them to behave pretty much any way they like, vandalism, feet on chairs on public transport etc. The English tried to make this illegal during the final Blairite years, and went too far (outlawing hoodies in public, duh!), but they were on to something important: have we, as societies, sacrificed our duties toward each other, the common good, for our individual, egotistical reasons? Because it’s too uncomfortable to tell a teen to take their feet off a chair on a bus, or to make sure our children don’t vandalize, or to make sure that we go to work, even if we don’t feel like it?
What do you think? I offer no solutions, but this is certainly something I think about a lot. Yesterday, we were picking mushrooms in a forest, and I saw this dump of old VHS tapes and DVDs, in the middle of the forest, some 50 ft from the nearest dirt road. Why? Why dump in the middle of nowhere? The poison released into the ground is just… #facepalm
Ross is bisexual, and most certainly a handyman I warmly recommend to anyone! 50% off this week as part of the #bivisibility week…
How can we draw the line between the “common good” and individual rights? Has the pendulum swung too far toward individualism? Curious to hear what you think…
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility this week, in literature, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility day on September 23, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
There’s also a great Rafflecopter giveaway you may want to enter to win some great books:
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Great offer, eh? Take advantage and find amazing reads. I know several of the authors and I can vouch for the quality! So what are you waiting for? 😉 If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week.
Facial Recognition, right or wrong?
I was one of many who watched the Apple keynote on Tuesday. It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us, and needless to say, ten years after the initial iPhone launch, we were more than curious to see what they’d come up with. Ten years ago, I was still 100% based in PC land, with an Ericsson phone (yeah, right? Seems forever ago…) in my pocket. But the iPhone, when I first saw one live in early 2008, had me convinced, and my husband and I bought the 3G version. We’ve upgraded every two years since. The iPhone X with facial recognition instead of fingerprint ID looks amazing, and as Apple fans, we’re excited. However, that same week, we’d read articles in the news about a Stanford study of an algorithm with an uncanny “gaydar”, with up to 81% chance of identifying gay men from a picture.
Countless people have suffered badly from the pseudoscience called phrenology. Including the Sami people of Scandinavia, as I’ve described in Last Winter’s Snow. Does this mean that Facial Recognition is going to be as bad? Photo credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) and Wikimedia Commons.
This morning, I read an article which draws parallels between facial recognition software and nazi-time phrenology, where people’s abilities were supposedly determined by the shape of their skull. Debunked fake science, for sure, but even I was taken aback by the Standford study. Do we have reason to worry? First of all, let me just say that I’m surprised that this hasn’t been in the news before since Samsung and many android powered phones have been using facial recognition for some time. I guess this shows just how powerful Apple still is perceived to this day with their decisions to adopt a technology or not. Maybe it’s true that they are better than the rest. With regards to the use by Apple and the iPhone, it’s a matter of trust. Do you trust that your face measurements stay within the phone and aren’t transmitted to Apple servers? I can only answer that question for myself, and my trust in Apple is greater than my trust in say Google, whose entire business idea is based on extracting money from “data collection”…
But what about Facial Recognition per se? Well, I see it primarily as a tool, and just as any tool, it can be used to do good (protect my data, make my purchases more secure, allow me entry to another country etc.) or evil (the Stanford algorithm in the hands of evangelicals or Putin for instance). in the U.S. questions have been raised about forcing people to look at their phones by law enforcement to unlock their phones. Well, yes, that is obviously a threat, and legally, this isn’t resolved. Not there, not anywhere really. The technology is too new. However, law enforcement, if they have probable cause, can already search our devices, and the San Bernardino case shows that it is possible to even hack a relatively secure iPhone to get the data they want, even if the supplier (in that case Apple) doesn’t co-operate with the authorities for reasons of principle (which again goes to the whole trust issue).
Retina scans, facial recognition and other biometric features in e.g. passports have been in use for years. We don’t even flinch when we have our picture taken and our fingerprints scanned for our new passports, and when you use a kiosk to e.g. enter the U.S. or the EU, that data is scanned from live pictures and compared to the data stored in your passport, making it less likely that a passport is used by the wrong person. As the Stanford study shows, algorithms are better at comparing data than humans are. Changes in facial hair, hairdo, glasses etc. all have an impact on how we visually appear to an immigrations officer. Algorithms are less gullible.
As bad as nuclear weapons are, this is a photo of the planet’s first nuclear explosion, we also use nuclear power to power our Teslas… Just saying. Photo credit: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project.
But as easily as algorithms can be used for good, so is their potential for use for nefarious purposes. The Manhattan Project is just one example for that. As a member of the LGBT community, I worry, of course, that countries, where we are persecuted, are going to use such technology against us. Ethics should always be discussed. However, using facial recognition in a phone won’t change that, either way. We don’t stop using knives to cut our food even though that same tool can be used to cause terrible harm to others. It’s illegal, period.
The problem with facial recognition or the Stanford algorithm isn’t the algorithm (which quite to the contrary actually proves that the gaydar is a real thing…) per se, it’s the fact that homosexuality and members of the LGBT community are still illegal and persecuted. It’s the legislation that is problematic, not a tool to identify us. Throughout history, nefarious groups have always found ways to “identify” us, even without technology, through e.g. infiltration etc., while we’ve found ways to try and hide, e.g. through marriage.
I welcome the advent of facial recognition and the applications it offers to us. Immigration kiosks shave valuable time off my entry to other countries, and the new iPhone technology will allow me to pay in stores, log into my bank account and other secure applications much more easily and securely (according to Apple, facial recognition is 20 times less likely to be fooled than a fingerprint). It makes my life easier and simpler. I welcome that. As for the threats, and I don’t deny their existence, they haven’t become any worse because of Apple’s adoption of the technology. We need to call out bigotry, homophobia, transphobia etc. wherever we see it.
What is your take? Curse or blessing?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.