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Published in: March-April 2020 issue.


A Crucible Moment Getting expelled from high school for wearing a rainbow flag sounds harsh enough, but what if the rainbow isn’t even a rainbow? Consider the case of fifteen-year old Kayla Kenney, who celebrated her birthday with her family, after which her mother posted a photo on Facebook. Kayla is shown wearing a sweater with some colored stripes that Head of School Dr. Bruce Jacobson caught sight of, and before long Kayla had been expelled from Whitefield Academy, a Christian school in Smyrna, Georgia, for displaying a symbol of homosexuality. Kayla has denied that the design was a symbol of any kind, and a not very careful inspection reveals that it isn’t even close to a rainbow flag (um, four stripes?). The fact that school administrators thought they saw such a flag reminds one of the collective hallucination that caused people in 1690s Salem to imagine natural objects turning into symbols of witchcraft, or people seeing Jesus’ face on their toast. The habit of turning things into metaphors was a particular idée fixe of Susan Sontag, who’s on the cover of this issue and who understood well the hypnotic powers of metaphor that could cause a principal to look at a birthday shirt and see a symbol of “evil.”

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“Got a Pistol?”  An exhibition recently closed in Paris (but coming to New York!) titled Les Tasses: Public Toilets, Private Affairs, all about an institution that arose in the 1830s and lasted into the 1980s: those open-air urinals that gave men a little more privacy than peeing on trees and walls. Indeed it is the ambiguously private nature of the pissotières that makes them interesting. The exhibit pulls no punches about the obvious utility of these facilities for gay men on the prowl. Despite various crackdowns and graffiti campaigns, this hookup scene had a pretty good run. Another slice of urinal history that’s spotlighted is the Nazi occupation of World War II, when the French Résistance, along with Allied soldiers and spies, used the stalls to pass messages and weapons—which also seems obvious, though apparently the Nazis never caught on. Given these two activities, one must assume there were occasions when signals got crossed in coded queries involving guns and pipes.