My Weekend With Winter Guard: The Freak Flags and the Freaks That Fly Them

I’m an individual of a certain age and disposition that makes particular forms of cultural media a lens through which I see new cultural experiences. My cultural diet has over the years has consisted of parody mock-umentary films focused on social outliers, such Michael Patrick Jann’s 1999 teen comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous which easily ranks among my top 10 favorite movies (I said it was one of my favorites. I didn’t say it was exactly a cinematic masterpiece). I have a particular place in my heart for the entire oeuvre of Christopher Guest. These films are the anti-sports films, the anti-popular teen stories. For every the Rudy, there’s an Angus; for every Remember the Titans, there’s a Bad News Bears. While my more “in” peers gleefully consumed such fare as Clueless and the Bring it On franchise, I was obsessing over Welcome to the Dollhouse and anything starring Parker Posey. Teen comedies speak to particular themes relating the experience of growing up – one’s social self, one’s family and education, and even one’s socioeconomic experience and family life. For a kid such as myself who was a chronic “joiner” and whose college application resume included leadership positions in marching band, Business Professionals of America, Texas Association of Future Educators, Academic Decathlon, and theater – and who lived with both feet on the wrong side of the tracks – those teen films that featured an earnest, quirky social outlier were a natural source of appeal. And those films, and the constellation of quirky cult comedies that I grew to love, profoundly inform the way I understand social relationships and cultural practices.

Which brings me to the topic of Winter Guard.

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This last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Southwest regional competition for Winter Guard, held here in town at the Coliseum at the University of North Texas. Before this weekend, I had no idea that Winter Guard even existed. I would come to understand it as a very unique blend of Color Guard (the team behind the flag and baton choreography in a marching band), theater, and staged choreography, all dressed in costumes reminiscent of Olympic figure skaters. The sheer amount of glitter, sequins, and spirit fingers involved is staggering. Each team performs a routine to a piece of recorded music, utilizing a sometimes-elaborate set of props, staging, and narrative. It can be light and fun, like routines set to popular Broadway hits, or it can be abstract and avant-garde featuring modernistic music and spoken word poetry in the style of Judy Funnie.

So.

At the risk of unintentionally or carelessly giving offense or insult to the persons dedicated to the impressive athleticism and artistry of Winter Guard, I’ve got to be real.

The entire affair struck me in a state of fierce ambivalence. My inner fag was rejoicing in ecstasy while my inner cool-kid critic was cringing (and yes, straightie, I get to use the word “fag,” and you don’t). Admittedly that says more about me than about Winter Guard, and I’m happy to dress down that inner critic and tell him to shut up and let people enjoy things. But there’s something more going on here, something that my socializing into the logic and mechanics of off-kilter social outlier movies teaches me to pay attention to that makes my experience of this fierce ambivalence utterly delightful, because had I been in an environment where this was a possibility, I would have done everything I could to have joined Winter Guard as a high school student.

There’s a social politics at work that makes Winter Guard a thing. These kids (and adults) are from the same crop that produce band nerds, drama kids, glee club singers, dancers, and a cappella choir singers – these are not your teen flick-style stereotypical “cool” kids, as cool as these kids may be. There aren’t football players or cheerleaders. Chapters of Winter Guard most often must invest enormous sums of money into costumes, props, set pieces, equipment, and travel, not to mention the countless hours of visualizing, choreographing, rehearsing, and performing the routines that make it to the competitions, meaning that these chapters arise out of schools and communities of at least relative affluence and leisure.

And I’m gonna say it.

It’s gay as fuck.

 

This isn’t just “Olympic figure skating” gay. This is what happens when all the Olympic figure skaters form an army and forcefully take control of the opening ceremonies. There is, quite simply, no heterosexual explanation for this.

Events like marching band and Winter Guard are outgrowths of military ceremonials. Some countries, in order to boost nationalist fervor, still utilize events involving elaborate performances of brass bands, flags, rifles, marching, and choreography. Understood in its historical context, Winter Guard makes perfect sense itself as a form of parody, which is why it so strikes my parodic imagination. Winter Guard is a queered form of nationalistic display, a ceremonial reflecting the destabilization of the social hierarchies that nationalism favors and promotes, and upon which it depends. The “cool” kids in high school are best understood as “normative,” because it is they whose lives and narratives construct the wider social system of “normal” and “deviant.” It is they to whom all that is “normal” belongs, including nationalist narratives and systems of social privilege. Without the “cool” kids, in high school or beyond, there is no nationalism. There would be no system of dominance of particular groups with particular characteristics over others. We struggle with thing like bullying and violence in schools, but we’re far too often blind to the insight that the reason we tolerate these things is because they’re social pedagogy. Bullying and school violence trains, forms, and disciplines kids into living in a society based on rigid social hierarchies and systems of dominance.

Something about Winter Guard, and the spirit behind it, disrupts the system of symbols used to legitimate nationalism. Rifles become wooden toys for tossing and spinning. Flags become flying steams of color and frivolity. Military-level precision, discipline, and physical exertion becomes, instead of an expression of power, an expression of play. Winter Guard replaces the stars and stripes with sequins and glitter, and the lethal force of an infantry brigade with the deft handling of a rifle toss with a behind-the-back catch. Ultimately, it represents a cloud of possibility: if these symbols can be turned around to frivolous ends, what about nationalism itself? What about militarism? What about social power systems?

For the many people who participate in Winter Guard, and its many fans, I’m sure very few of them don their tights, pick up their dummy rifles, and devote countless hours of practice and physical exertion for the sake of disrupting a power system. To them, it’s fun. It’s meaningful. It’s a way to work toward something with a group of other people, and to compete and strive for something beautiful and exciting. Their focus is on the thrill of perfecting that saber twirl and that coordinated hand off on the downbeat of the music, as the audience cheers when each rifle lands safely in the hands of the one who tossed it. Like the lion’s share of worthwhile endeavors, the magic of it can’t be intellectualized or summarized by a critic or an academic.

But for this raging homo whose academic streak dukes it out regularly with the kid who grew up watching dark teen satires, I like to think that maybe those brightly-colored freak flags are doing something more than just twirling in the air. I like to think of them as a form of blissful resistance and defiance, as they take these deadly serious trappings of nationalized, militarized power and turn them into something that would make most “cool,” “normal” kids cringe, as if to take the gun out of a soldier’s hands and, bedazzling it and using it as a parade baton, telling him, “Oh, yeah hunny, this isn’t for you anymore.”

Here’s to the freak flags, and the freaks that fly them.

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Why the Academy Hates Talking About Sex

Several years out of the closet and into the ivory tower has taught me at least one thing.

The academy hates talking about sex.

For all of the hysteria surrounding a supposed left-wing agenda corrupting the minds of youth and poisoning them with thoughts of libertinism and women’s and gender studies, academic departments across most universities tend to be very uncomfortable, regressive, and even prudish about sex. Sure, it comes up as a political topic. It arises in the study of cultural artifacts. But in the actual topics of analysis and dissemination, sex is conspicuously absent, suppressed even, as those who dare to broach the topic risk being devalued as “unprofessional,” “erratic,” “prurient,” or, perhaps most damaging of all, “unobjective.”

Right now, sex cannot arise as a genuine phenomenon of inquiry because the discourse of academic culture precludes it on the basis of its extreme personalism. Very few people can speak about sex merely objectively – our very bodies and the passions they house make that impossible. Thus, in order to discuss sex, we discuss sex-uality (the concept itself an abstraction), and invent ways to talk about sex while making sex itself – fucking, sucking, touching, tasting, writhing, convulsing, sweating, heaving, breathing, pulsing, thrusting, throbbing, flushing, nudity, genitals, pleasure, orgasms – invisible. But we run into a paradox with this censuring. By striving to shield our objectivity from the passions these issues stir, we become staunchly un-objective. Jean Baudrillard once noted that what we call “obscenity” – that which polite and civilized academic culture attempts to suppress – is itself actually an objectivity, in the visible. [1] Abstractions shield us from the visible, and let us pretend to be objective in the invisible.

This bothers me, not because of some pedantic concern about epistemology or some prurient desire to raunch up the classroom. It bothers me because this invisibility literally kills people, and the people it kills the most are women, queer people, and vulnerable minorities across the board.

It kills women daily when invisibility about the “visible” features of women’s sex lives, physiological realities, etc. takes over policy making decisions, leaving the public only abstract ways to deal with questions of women’s reproductive health, access to family planning, and abortion services.

It kills LGBTQ persons daily, even as it did in the 80’s, when forced invisibility about the sex lives of gay men led to silence, inaction, and the intense stigmatization of those dying from AIDS by the thousands. Even today, efforts to combat the spread of HIV through community outreach, PrEP, and educational programs find themselves stymied by social stigma, indecision, apathy, and even malice by those in government.

I could go on.

There’s this “gap” between sex as a topic and sex as a phenomenon. Sex as a topic talks about the biological and neurological aspects of sex, and gets into how sex forms identities, impacts communities, and even how it influences the way we relate to people. It even tells us how it affects the way we read a book. But what sex as a topic does not do is point us, teach us, and guide us into fuller ways of knowing – and experiencing – the realities that underwrite and give meaning to sex. This gap is the source of the endless disconnect between the theoretical, moral, and academic dimensions of sex, and the “real” dimensions of sex. This is why theology, philosophy, and the greater portion of the constructive humanities can only address “sexuality,” and rarely if ever the actual sex lives of actual people, and even more rarely, doing that well.

A 2002 documentary film about the late philosopher* Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, featured a seemingly mundane (in my opinion, inane) question concerning past philosophers: “If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher – Heidegger, or Kant, or Hegel – what would you like to see in it?”

His response is revealing.

Their sex lives. Pourquoi? I’d love to hear about something they refuse to talk about. Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work? Why have they erased their private lives from their work or never talked about anything personal? There is nothing more important in their private life than love. I’m not talking about making a porno film about Hegel or Heidegger. I want them to speak about the part that love plays in their lives. [2]

Derrida Hegel Heidegger

I don’t think anyone is, Jacques. I don’t think anyone is at all.

I may have gone into the ivory tower straight out of the closet, but in reality, the ivory tower is itself a form of closet. I cannot exist in the academy if I am visible in my reality. I must strive to appear (to simulate) an asexual frame of mind, placing the queerness of my own sex life – along with the queerness of actual asexual individuals – under erasure for the sake of “objectivity” that is really not an “objectivity” toward anything visible or real. This is what philosophers have done for centuries, and what philosophers do, so too will the rest of the academy follow.

What I seek to do is to do theory as a sexual person. I seek to embrace the so-called “obscenity” of the visible and real and totally fuck up the pretense between the distinction between objective and subjective. I want to talk about actual sex and the knowledge that it discloses. I want to begin a foundation for an actual sexual phenomenology that queers, that fucks, that shocks the so-called phenomenologies of straight white men and their so-called sex lives (and conspicuous lacks thereof).

I came out of the closet too many times to trap myself in the ivory tower.

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The porno pairing that Jacques Derrida was allegedly not talking about

  • I have serious doubts that Derrida himself would have been comfortable or accepting of the title of “philosopher.” He has noted on several occasions the impossibility of doing philosophy, and the way that the term itself relates specifically to the tradition of metaphysics in the Western tradition. One may argue that he’s a Socratic anti-philosopher. In any case, one cannot do any semblance of justice to Derrida without making such a disclaimer.

Sources:

[1] Mike Gane, ed. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. New York: Routledge, 1993. 60, 62.

[2] Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Derrida. Zeitgeist Films, 2002.

Some Books, a Bear, and a Lot of Bemusement

Every mind is a hodgepodge.

You can quote me on that, because I’m a mess. Thirty-one years of sorting through my own mingled yarn of faults, virtues, and jumbled cogitation has left me with the conviction that there’s not a single person alive whose mental coherence can long withstand the pressure to produce a fully cogent image of itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – that’s just how we humans as a lot are. What it does mean is that our obsessive desire for certainty, rationality, and mastery most often proves our own undoing. This is as true for us as individuals as it is of entire civilizations; pushed past its own feeble limits, the compulsion for order and stability often leads to chaos and downfall. The art of living deliberately – Socrates’s noble “examined life” – consists in navigating the poles of order and chaos: never avoiding, while never fully embracing, one or the other.

So, as from the hodgepodge responsible for the creation of this blog, such an effort is what I promise. This blog is born from the twin desires to make sense of and to make chaos of an astoundingly weird, complex, and confusing world, while being an astoundingly weird, complex, and confusing person.

The reason I’m such a mess – the reason no one person can ever fully present themselves in a fully cogent image – is because we live between vacillating, opposing forces pulling us in different ways at different times. We aim for authenticity, and we aim for integrity, which is to say we aim to choose the “right” impulses that express the best of who we are, and we aim to do this consistently in every circumstance. Authentic self-expression is tricky when you have multiple authentic selves. I’m at once a philosophizing, scholarly, cerebral (and sometimes insufferable) know-it-all and a red-blooded, queer, passionate gay man with a penchant for food, leather, and the bear scene. I’m bookish, and I’m a bear. I’m a bookish bear.

And unless I put these two sides of myself in conversation with one another, I’m not likely to attain either authenticity or integrity. This is a challenge, as these two personas don’t always care for one another. The bookworm likes quiet, needs space to think, craves time enough to get lost in an inner world of solitude and ideals, whereas the bear loves the company of others, the more salacious side of life, subverting norms, and taking enjoyment in the present. In the bookworm’s space, the bear often has to hide in the closet; in the bear’s space, the bookworm has to hide in that same closet. I am my own odd couple.

This blog is by and about a bookish bear. At times reflective, discursive, and autobiographical, my aim is present my thoughts, my work, and life to the outer world.

This blog is, like my mind, a hodgepodge, but one that weaves (okay, maybe tangles) culture with religion and the humanities. I have no interest in being merely abstract, abstract as I may be. I believe in thought as a means of entering into deeper relationship with the outside world in the search for wisdom, insight, and meaning. I’m a phenomenologist in training, experienced in practical theology and social-political theory. I’m also a butch queen vers who looks damn good in a harness and combat boots and knows the precise length to cut a pair of jeans to make an enticing pair of cutoffs (hint: you’ve got to reveal enough to get their attention, but keep enough covered to leave them wanting more).

Whatever rhetorical device I use to present the apparent contradictions of myself, I am at heart one person.

 

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