Thursday, July 29, 2010

Please Don't Give

Months have passed and I am still having a hard time losing the extra pounds that I gained during the last holiday cycle. This has meant that, with the flexibility of summer, I am trying to maintain my regular gym schedule at least until I depart for an extended trip. My time at the local sports club involves a singular vision of trying to improve my gayish figure.

My steely cold determination was briefly interrupted the other day. Two kindly older men stealthily flanked me as I scanned my membership card. If I were still in TexAss, I’d fear that they were on a mission to save my soul. Given that I was in Midwestern Funky Town, I suspected that they were on a mission to save some whales.

“Would you like to make a donation of blood today?” the eldest one asked with a pleasantly grandpa-demeanor. See? Midwestern Funky Town is so nice. “Sorry,” I responded, “I would like to, but I’m gay and they won’t take my blood.”

No sooner had the words left my mouth than a sudden wave of “stop” swept across the gym reception area. You might have thought that I had reached into my gym bag for a rubber chicken, slapped them in the face with it, and then wet the floor. They didn’t have the look of a deer in headlights. They had the look of somebody who saw a deer driving a car while smoking a cigar. Something had just been said that made no sense at all to them.

Surely many people had declined the opportunity to donate blood through the day. I couldn’t have been unique in that way. For the first time, though, they were faced with a totally unexpected reason why I wouldn’t (actually can’t) donate. They looked at me nervously before regaining their composure.

“No, that’s not true!” they exclaimed in unison. “They want everybody to donate!” Many people do not know that there is a ban on men-who-have-had-sex-with-men (MSM for short) from donating their blood. Unless you donate blood (and you should), you don't need to really think about the blood ban or be informed about it. It did surprise me, though, that the volunteers for the Red Cross were as unaware. It was at this point that I realized I was going to have a queer education moment. Man, all I wanted to do was lose a few pounds before heading to Spain. Next thing you know, I have to wade into thorny questions of health policy.

One of the nice men brought out the guidelines for blood donation. “I’m sure you’ve been misinformed,” he said to me sweetly, “All you have to do is answer these questions.” He quickly skimmed through the list and, much to his surprise, found the bit that refuses blood donations from “a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.” Now, I don’t like to brag, but I have had sexual contact with another male more than once in the era post 1977.

This measure is a hold over from the bad ol’ Reagan days. The Food and Drug Administration, reacting to some real cases of HIV infection from blood transfusion, developed these guidelines circa 1983. It’s hard to remember, but so little was known about the disease and the panic so great that the FDA’s decisions appeared sensible in the mid eighties.

Much has changed since that time. Testing and screening of blood has become much more advanced. Alas, the FDA refused to revisit the ban on gay donors this past June. It seems a darn shame to me as donating blood is one of the easiest forms of community service one can do. Trust me, I’d much rather have a needle in my arm for 10 minutes than spend hours picking up trash on some highway somewhere.

I first donated blood all the way back in high school. Back then, since I was deeply in the closet and not having sex with anybody else, I had no problem answering those questions. Once I came out of the closet and my consciousness was raised, so ended my blood donating days. If the ban were not in place, I'd be more than happy to start donating again (GayProf always plays safe and has himself tested regularly like all good little gay boys).

The FDA reasons that MSM are simply too great of a risk group. I understand the logic there and the FDA authoritatively tosses out some pretty grim statistics about the prevalence of HIV among gay men. There is a pesky problem, though, that HIV is also prevalent in other populations. African Americans accounted for over half of the new HIV diagnoses in this country for the past several years. Likewise, Latinos accounted for 18 percent of new cases. I shudder to think of the FDA announcing a policy that refused blood based on one’s racial background.

About a third (31 percent) of new HIV infections occur from “High Risk Heterosexual Contact” according to the CDC. Young heterosexual women, in particular, are being diagnosed with HIV at alarming rates. Every 35 minutes in this country a heterosexual woman is informed that she has tested positive for HIV. Many heterosexual women continue to naively imagine that “safe sex” for them only involves avoiding pregnancy. They might be surprised to learn that HIV infection was the leading cause of death for black women aged 25–34 years; the 3rd leading cause of death for black women aged 35–44 years; the 4th leading cause of death for Hispanic women aged 35–44 years. Overall, HIV infection is the 5th leading cause of death among all women aged 35–44 years and the 6th leading cause of death among all women aged 25–34 years.

Yo, stratighties -- Use a condom!

If the FDA was really interested in cutting down the odds of blood donations that might be HIV+, then they should start an active campaign targeting the population the least affected by HIV: lesbian-exclusive women. Imagine how differently the world would look if we depended upon lesbians for our nation’s blood supply. They could ask for everything from equal-pay-for-equal-work to a law requiring sensible shoes.

I won’t entirely fault the FDA and other agencies for taking measures that they imagine will reduce the risk of HIV infections in the nation. They also aren’t alone as the same standards are used by Canada and the EU (Yep, even Canada). It seems to me, though, that the ban on gay men provides a false sense of security and continues to erroneously construe HIV as being mainly a gay male issue. The policy also presumes that one’s safe-sex practices (among others) aren’t the real concern. Rather, it takes a short cut by implying that all man sex is scary and dangerous and hetero sex is a-okay (unless you pay for it).

Because acceptance of gay men and lesbians increased exponentially over the past decade, many people assume that the fight for our basic rights is basically over. It is important to bare in mind, though, that being treated as a second class citizen is not just about being denied rights for things you might want in your personal life (equal marriage, partner benefits, the ability to adopt human worm larvae). Second class citizens are also prevented from contributing to the collective whole, like serving in the military or participating in blood drives.

The volunteers were clearly a bit hurt to find out that I was right about the gay ban. To them, donating blood must have seemed like such an obvious social good that it couldn't possibly involve any political concern. It must have been like finding out that your favorite, sweet old aunt had secretly been sending money to the Ku Klux Klan for years.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

You're [Slightly Less of a] Wonder, Wonder Woman!

Many people have asked me about DC Comics’ announcement that Wonder Woman will be significantly altered, at least for the short term. When you shamelessly appropriate a beloved character as your personal avatar, it is hard not to have an opinion about such things. The horrible truth is that, despite the image from the blog, I am on the fringe of the truly loyal comic fans. I did read Wonder Woman (and other) comics as a child in the late 1970s. More recently, I have kept up with Wonder Woman, especially after her relaunch four years ago.

For those of you who don’t know, DC Comics has published Wonder Woman #600 to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. This is a tricky numbering system for the Amazon Princess as DC has decided to mysteriously count multiple volumes of the superheroine to get this nice round number, but whatever.

What is making the most news is that the new series accompanies a major costume change for Wonder Woman. I have to say, the new Wonder Woman leaves me a bit sad.

The new costume presents Diana as if she has been shopping the clearance racks at Hot Topic. Not to mention they had the nerve to bring back the horrible WW symbol. Goddess, how I hate that WW. Is she a superhero or a spokesperson for Whataburger?

See, I do have strong opinions. The eagle WW from the relaunch made perfectly good sense to me. Indeed, this is what I wear to the gym these days:

Everybody knows exactly who that symbol represents. The simple WW? Not so much.

Now I know that I am in danger of sounding like every run of the mill whiny and entitled comic fan out there. Certainly there are a lot of knee jerk reactions on the internets. Let me note that the new costume has its supporters, including none other than Lynda Carter. “She’s got an attitude, and if this is the new thing she wants to wear, well by God she’s going to wear it,” Carter stated in a recent interview, “And I like that. And I hope somewhere in the story someone mentions, where’s the old one? And she says, 'Get over it.'”

Despite the endorsement, however, the costume change is getting mostly negative reviews. Taking a look at on-line polls and (*shudder*) comic discussion threads, a clear majority despise the new look. Fox News, never one to lose the chance of sounding shrill, has hinted that the costume change smacks of anti-American attitudes at DC.

I appreciate that DC is in kinda a tough spot with Wonder Woman’s costume. Let’s face it, her original outfit looked like a red-white-and-blue Playboy bunny costume. One isn’t sure if you are supposed to salute her or give her your drink order.

Even so, I just don’t like the new outfit. Still, I read with interest that the outfit emerged because the new writer, J. Michael Straczynski, “wanted to toughen her up, and give her a modern sensibility.” That sounded promising. Well, until they released the cover image for Wonder Woman #603, which then made those ideas ring a bit hallow:

Apparently “toughening her up” means that Wonder Woman’s breasts are the size of her head. I reject that tossing on some tight leggings is somehow making this character more sensibly dressed if every panel is centered around her cleavage.

Rumors abound that they are trying the costume change as a means to possibly sell a movie character. Let me tell you, it ain’t going to work. When people think Wonder Woman, they think star-spangled panties.

What I find more interesting, though, is that the costume change has overshadowed discussions of other major changes to the character. I’m less concerned about what is in Diana’s closet than the fact that she is now going to be weaker than her previous incarnations (thus no longer making her the peer of Superman).

What is astounding about this turn of events is that it has all happened before (and, as Peter Pan would say, it will all happen again). Unlike Superman or Batman, Wonder Woman has had her basic premise reworked more times than Joan River’s forehead. Granted, DC has been more than willing to pull similar stunts with those characters. Remember when Superman “died”? Or that weird cyborg Superman? Or when Batman broke his back? Or when Batman “died”?

Nonetheless, there seems to be some key differences in how Superman and Batman are treated when compared to Wonder Woman. Comic writers often speak of the other two (and Marvel’s Spiderman) as the holy grail of the industry. They all yearn to take a crack at the helm of those books. Meanwhile, writing for Wonder Woman is treated as a chore equivalent to comic jury duty.

Sales figures for Wonder Woman are also abysmal. Superman and Batman’s names can support multiple comic titles at the same time. Yet, Wonder Woman struggles to even keep her single book afloat. I can’t help but thinking it’s because she is a girl in a male dominated industry.

I am distressed by the details announced to “reboot” Wonder Woman. In this version of Wonder Woman, Paradise Island (aka Themyscira) is totally destroyed and all the Amazons are slaughtered – again. I will leave it up to the Freudians in my audience to determine why the male writers of Wonder Woman so often feel the need to demolish the matriarchal Themyscira and kill off the Amazons.

So now Wonder Woman is raised in the United States without knowing her ancestry or learning Amazon ways of peace and love. She also, for seemingly no reason, is much less powerful than the island reared Diana. Maybe those fresh Caribbean breezes give her a little extra oomph. Who can say?

Male writers of Wonder Woman always seem to imagine that they are doing women a favor by taking powers away from Diana. It is a nice piece of reverse logic, especially given that the Amazon character started out with the exact opposite in mind.

As anybody who is obsessed with Wonder Woman most people know, the psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 as a conscious alternative to the male superheros who had sprung up during the Depression. He expressed concern that young girls lacked any significant role model and were always sidelined as merely a plot twist or an object that needed saving. “Not even girls want to be girls,” he wrote a year after he introduced Wonder Woman, “so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.” His big idea was to create a woman hero as strong as Superman, but with traits he believed to be “innate” to women (love, compassion, etc.). Even from her start, then, Wonder Woman existed as a gender contradiction. She was the fiercest warrior, but only in the name of peace. Oh, and since Marston loved the S&M in his personal life, Wonder Woman’s plots often involved bondage and ritual spanking.

Wonder Woman fit well for the war years. Women were stepping into new jobs for the war effort and they craved images of a strong woman who also contributed to the Allied cause.

But what about her costume? Well, it was sorta loosely modeled after a Greek warrior, but still recognized as skimpy even by comic standards. One of the first issues even addressed Diana’s thrifty use of cloth:

After World War II, Wonder Woman began to hit hard times. Marston, whose queer ideas about gender and sex had driven the book, died in 1947. Matters became worse when a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham created a minor frenzy after publishing Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. Comics, he claimed, were at the heart of every social ill from drug addiction to rape. He charged Wonder Woman in particular with turning young girls into lesbians. “The homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable,” he wrote, “For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal... The attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine. Wonder Woman has her own female following. They are all continuously being threatened, capture, almost put to death. There is a great deal of mutual rescuing... In a typical story, Wonder Woman is involved in adventures with another girl, a princess, who talks about ‘those wicked men.’” Yeah, where did Wonder Woman get off thinking that she didn't need a man to rescue her? She ought to get back into the kitchen making chicken pot pies where she belongs.

Faced with public backlash, DC responded by subtly altering Wonder Woman. A 1950s or 1960s version of Wonder Woman usually contained as many panels of Diana crying her eyes out over Steve Trevor as doing any actual work. She also lost all of her women friends, just to make sure that nobody could accuse her of being anything other than 100 percent hetero. Finally, she basically stopped battling human (male) villains and instead fought more mythical creatures.

By the end of the 1960s, Wonder Woman was, well, dull. DC attempted an almost identical shift in Wonder Woman’s storyline as the one they announced on Tuesday. Starting in 1968, Diana renounced her Amazon superpowers, watched as Paradise Island transferred to another dimension (or sunk into the water, or something), and ditched her swim wear for a white jumpsuit and other “mod” clothing. Like DC’s reaction to their announcement Tuesday, DC writers in the 1960s expressed surprise that feminists (including Gloria Steinham) saw robbing Wonder Woman of her powers as a betrayal. Gee, why would making a character less powerful not be seen as a step forward for women? Oh, and did I mention that she gave up her position as a ranking officer in the military in order to open a dress boutique? Without her superpowers, Wonder Woman, or, er, Diana Prince had to learn martial arts from an absurdly stereotypical character a martial arts master improbably named “I Ching” (To say that Wonder Woman and other DC comics had some problems grappling with race is a bit like saying BP dribbled some oil on the gulf).

This jumpsuit-clad Wonder Woman proved so unpopular that the return of the star-spangled panties in issue #204 included a total bloodbath of anybody associated with the previous version of the character. Everybody had to die so that the old-glory hot pants could return.

The 1970s era is one of my favorite for Wonder Woman, and not just for obvious nostalgic reasons. There is a certain period when the book allowed itself to be a bit more campy. I liked, for instance, that Diana spent some quality time debating her laundry’s freshness.

Even after the jumpsuit fiasco, the 1960s would not be the last time that an alternate version of Wonder Woman appeared. A year before the beloved Lynda Carter series started, ABC aired a pilot for Wonder Woman starring the very blonde Cathy Lee Crosby. In this version, Diana Prince worked as a secretary for a CIA-type organization. She ultimately became involved in spy work herself, put on an outfit that had little resemblance to the comic version, and seemed to mostly follow the martial arts era comics (without superpowers). Most people found it hard to see this characterization as having much in common with the character they knew as the Amazon princess.

Today, DC is again cutting down Diana’s powers and changing her wardrobe in hopes of spurring interest in the character. It seems to me that the approach smacks of desperation.

From the outside, one does get the impression that DC really wants Wonder Woman to succeed. They consider her part of their “trinity” of the three most recognizable comic characters: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They have also brought in some well known talent over the past few years to write for the series, including Jodi Pocoult (whose stories never quite worked) and the much beloved comic writer Gail Simone. The latter had some hints of great ideas (The Return of Reform Island!), but it never quite came together. Who can then blame DC executives for making the current ploy to generate interest in Diana? Let’s face it, this is probably the most people have talked about Wonder Woman in years. Still, I really don’t think making Diana weaker is the answer (or killing off the Amazons – again).

I just can’t figure out why it is so hard for DC to find a decent story arc for Wonder Woman that would renew her appeal. As I wander through Target and other shops, I am struck by how much the aisles are adorned by the many Disney Princesses. It seems to me that DC is missing real opportunities to market Wonder Woman to a younger generation. If I were a parent, I’d have a real problem buying books and dvd’s from Disney that depicted women doing nothing but sitting around singing about their hopes to find a man who could rescue them. Wouldn’t it be much better to have a woman who is strong, independent, and super smart like Wonder Woman (who also happens to be a princess)? Even if she does dress like she should be spending her days at the beach rather than fighting crime, she still has a better overall message about women being the equal of any man. But, DC is never wise enough to ask GayProf to consult on Wonder Woman’s future.