What counts as “history”?

A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

Last week, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

“Your friendly reminder.”

Under that comment was an article from Everyday Feminism titled, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” The article begins like this:

Halloween is a holiday about glorifying all things spooky and scary, a day to dress up in a costume for the sake of having fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween.

Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

I read the article. I thought the argument was made clearly, simply, and expertly. And yet, that article generated one hundred and forty-nine comments, many of which had an angry, defensive, and snarky tone. My friend’s reposting of this article generated twenty-five comments, many of which were similarly angry, defensive, and snarky. It stunned me, actually, that so many people were unwilling to consider the possibility that certain costumes just might be offensive.

So. Halloween is coming up in a couple of weeks. I encourage you to read the article from Everyday Feminism. I also encourage you to read my blog post from October 2012, which I’ve reposted below. And I’d like to ask this of you: If you read the article and my blog post, and if you find yourself feeling reactive, please don’t post a comment immediately. Instead, go inward, and take some time to ask yourself why you’re feeling so reactive. Ask yourself what buttons are being pushed, and what nerve is being touched. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it with others. Sit quietly and uncomfortably with it. But don’t immediately react, and don’t immediately shut down. That will yield a much more productive conversation, one I wish had happened on my friend’s Facebook page.

* * * * * * * * * *  

Think about the costumes you dressed in as a child, or saw other children dressed in. How many children were dressed as Indians, complete with fringe and feathers? Or as a Mexican, with a large-brimmed sombrero and a brightly colored blanket? Or maybe as a kimono-clad Japanese woman, her face whitened and chopsticks in her hair?

The student images above say it all:  This is not who I am, and this is not okay.

A student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) recently launched an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – a campaign that has taken off like wildfire. College campuses across the country have begun to distribute these posters on their campuses. As of last week, these images have been shared on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr more than 50,000 times. Given that Halloween has a longstanding association with poor decision-making (think Mischief Night and college drunk-fests), it seems like a prime opportunity to convey the message to think before you do something offensive and stupid.

Extending the concept to LGBTQ oppression, the Cantu Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz has taken this campaign one step further by creating their own set of posters. Headlining with the statement, “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume,” the campaign calls attention to the fact that many people (especially young heterosexual males) consider Halloween the one time of year where it’s okay to cross-dress – to take gender identity and make it into a costume.  You can see an example of their poster below:

“Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” poster by the UCSC Cantu Queer Center, inspired by the Ohio University STARS “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign.

Frankly, when I think back to my high school experience, I can think of a LOT of boys who dressed in drag because they thought it was a big joke. In fact, I can think of quite a few people who did exactly that in college – and they, too, thought that this was hilariously funny. And it’s pretty offensive, when you think about it.

The irony, of course, is that Halloween is notorious for being a BIG gay holiday. Up until 2006, San Francisco hosted an annual “gay Halloween” street party (the party ended when nine people were wounded in a shooting, prompting the city to call off the event). Mardi Gras-like Halloween events have sprouted up in gay enclaves like Christopher Street, West Hollywood, and Key West. There are lots of reasons why Halloween has become such a big deal in the LGBTQ community. It’s a holiday with pagan roots, appealing to those who have been shunned by mainstream churches. It’s a way to be flamboyant and theatrical while still being closeted – if you’re wearing a mask, people won’t always know who you are, and this was particularly important in the days before gay liberation. But on a very basic, obvious level, doing drag and playing with gender, which is usually totally unacceptable in our essentialist two-gender system, is fair game on Halloween. In fact, in the LGBTQ community, there’s something seriously wrong if NOBODY is doing drag on Halloween.

So why is it okay for people in the LGBTQ community to do drag on Halloween, but it’s not okay for a bunch of straight male high school students? An analogy that comes to mind is the use of the word “queer.” Why is it okay for me – a member of the LGBTQ community – to use the word “queer,” but it’s not acceptable for non-ally heterosexual people to use that word?

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

When people engage in cultural appropriation, they’re borrowing aspects from a cultural group (usually a group that has been subjected to marginalization and oppression) without a true respect or appreciation for what they’re doing. Wearing dreadlocks because it’s “cool” is a form of cultural appropriation. Naming baseball teams and summer camps after Native American tribes is an example of cultural appropriation. It involves commodifying the “trendy” elements of a culture without recognizing the decidedly “un-trendy” historical oppression that group has been subjected to.

Many historically oppressed groups have coped with cultural appropriation by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. When groups engage in cultural re-appropriation, they reclaim terms and aspects of culture that have traditionally been in a disparaging way against that group. When LGB people call themselves “queer,” or lesbians call themselves “dykes,” or trans- and gender-variant people call themselves “trannies,” they’re engaging in cultural re-appropriation. Interestingly, this concept has spread to a vast number of groups – the word “fat” is used by large women and men in the size acceptance movement; the word “crip” is used in the disability activist community; the concept of “geek culture” is emerging among people who belong to said culture; various racist terms have been reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural re-appropriation is an act of empowerment – it’s saying, “We own this word – you can never again use it against us.”

To be sure, this is a controversial idea. Some people in the gay community – particularly older people who remember the sting of these epithets – find the words “queer” or “dyke” to be highly offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view any violation of gender boundaries – whether it’s by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or a group of heterosexual college males – to be a positive thing. In fact, some would say that the “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” campaign takes things a little too far, punishing them for pushing the envelope on gender boundaries.

I think it’s important to reflect on these questions: If you’re going to wear a costume, are you willing to learn about the person inside the costume? Are you willing to consider the baggage of oppression that is held within that costume? Are you willing to fully experience how others respond to you while you’re “in costume” – and to consider how it might feel to those people whose “costumes” can never be taken off?

Happy Halloween to you all.

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Filed under biphobia, Castro neighborhood, coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBTQ, racism, San Francisco, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia

Top Ten LGBTQ Books the Younger Me Desperately Needed by Dawn Betts-Green

Originally posted on Nerdy Book Club:

Educators and librarians are well aware that every child and young adult needs to find themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read.  For some this is more difficult to achieve than others.  As an LGBTQ youth just coming out in the 90s and living in small-town, rural Alabama, I sought frantically through my library’s shelves for books that would help me understand this new part of my identity.  Whether it was because they weren’t there or I just didn’t find them, I was unsuccessful, and I didn’t locate those books until I started college and discovered the wonders of my first gay bookstore.  It’s my hope that someday, this will simply be an historical anecdote that no LGBTQ person can relate to, that all libraries (school and public alike) will be stocked with multitudes of relevant books for these kids.

With that end in mind, what follows…

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What will it take for Facebook to change its policy?

Once upon a time, if you joined Facebook and wanted to select a gender option, the only options you could choose from were “male” and “female.” Several months ago, all of that changed when Facebook added 56 “custom” gender options. With that change, Facebook issued the following announcement:

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.

You could almost hear the collective “YAY!” from various queer and ally communities. With that change, Facebook became Cool. Hip. Progressive. The LGBTQ community had found a powerful ally in the corporate social media world. Or so we thought.

Now Facebook’s “real name” policy is rearing its ugly head.  If you go to the page titled, “What names are allowed on Facebook?”, you’ll see this:

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

The page goes on to describe what’s not allowed, including nicknames that bear no resemblance to your real name, titles, word or phrases in place of a middle name, characters from multiple languages, or anything deemed offensive or suggestive. This policy has been in place for quite some time, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced. That is, until a few days ago, when individuals using pseudonyms, stage names, or other names that don’t match their legal names began receiving messages saying, “Your account has been temporarily suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name.” To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s “real name” policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBT community, particularly drag queens, stage performers, and transgender people. After a meeting with Facebook officials organized by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Facebook announced that they would reinstate profiles that had been suspended and give them a 2-week grace period: either they comply with the policy, or their profiles will be removed.

In one fell swoop, cool-hip-progressive Facebook became Public Enemy #1. When Facebook expanded its gender options, it offered a welcoming, validating space for queer people –  a space where you could be your “true, authentic self.” (Remember those words?) Now, there’s considerable debate about whether to jump ship entirely. A community boycott of Facebook called My Name is Me is asking people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and switch to Google+, a social media platform that allows pseudonyms and preferred names to be used.

So I did a little “research.” I went through all of my Facebook friends, and I counted how many of them use a pseudonym. And I came up with twenty-two. I have several friends who are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A handful of friends are transgender and in transition, choosing to use a name that fits their gender identity rather than their legal name. Some transgender friends maintain two accounts – one that uses their chosen name (for friends and supporters), the other that uses their legal name (for people who don’t know about their transgender status). I know a couple of people who are drag queens and who maintain pages using that name. Some friends use a pseudonym because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual and aren’t out to their families. Obviously, you can see how the LGBTQ community is impacted by this policy.

But not all of my friends (including the 22 with pseudonyms) are LGBTQ. I have at least one friend who uses a pseudonym because she escaped a violent relationship and doesn’t want her ex to find her. Another friend is a therapist and uses a pseudonym so clients won’t “friend” her. I know people in 12-step recovery programs who don’t use their legal names because they want to stay anonymous, in keeping with the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. And several friends use pseudonyms so they can keep their “friends” list small and generally stay under the radar.

I expanded my “research” to include a bit of statistical calculation. I have 465 Facebook friends. Twenty-two people out of 465 equals 4.7%. If all twenty-two of those people decided to quit Facebook and delete their accounts, that would be a tiny drop in the Facebook bucket. But if all of my Facebook friends jumped on board and deleted their accounts, that might get their attention. If all of my Facebook friends got all of their Facebook friends to delete their accounts (and so on), I think Facebook would seriously consider changing its policy.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe this analogy will explain my thinking. After my Introductory Psychology students take a multiple-choice exam, I do what’s called an item analysis. If there’s a test question that all (or most) students got wrong, I throw the question out and credit them with the points. My students love this – they can’t wait to hear how many “free points” they’re going to get. However, what they haven’t figured out is this: If all of them hatched a plot and collectively agreed to answer every single question incorrectly, then all of them would earn 100% on the exam. Simple as that.

Actually, I don’t think it’s that my students haven’t figured this out. I think many of them have – but they’re too scared to put it into action. If I answer each question wrong, and at least one student answers at least one question correctly, then I get a zero on the exam. That’s a risk that most students aren’t willing to take, because taking the risk involves trusting every single student completely. It’s the same thing with the Facebook issue: If I delete my account, and none of my friends delete their accounts, then I’m disconnected from my friends – and Facebook is still alive and thriving, oppressive policies still in place. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons why radical social change is so hard to achieve. People know that change will happen if a critical mass jumps in with both feet – but if you end up being the only one who takes the plunge, change doesn’t happen, and you fall SPLAT on the ground.

So if you’re on Facebook, what will you do? Will you jump in with both feet and delete your account entirely? Will you just dip your toe in by temporarily deactivating your account and seeing what happens? Or will you do nothing?

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This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman

gaylepitman:

“When I saw the images of bare chested men, bikini-top wearing marchers and adults kissing, I had a strong oppositional reaction to the idea of showing this to a child however reading the discussion guide in the back of the book helped me to see that a child looking at these illustrations would not read the same sexual context that I see, into these images.”

It’s hard to see the world truly through a child’s eyes. Children don’t impose the same assumptions onto the world that adults do. But they do watch us, observe our reactions to things, and then copy those reactions. That’s one way prejudice is learned.

Great review!

Originally posted on Mixed Diversity Reads Children's Book REviews:

cover for This Day in JuneThis Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman is an easy way to introduce a child to the joy motivating people to celebrate in Pride Parades every year. Easy to follow, simple, two line rhymes in inconspicuous locations on the pages, which seem to overflow with vibrant illustrations, describe the many sights common in a Gay Pride Parade. Not a part of the sparse text, but present in the illustrations are many of the political messages that are commonly seen at a Gay Pride Parade. While the illustrations are fun, this isn’t like the books we normally review, which represent LGBT-parents leading a family. There are children in a few of the illustrations but most of the illustrations feature adults having parade fun, which means that in addition to images of people with rainbow colored hair, parade floats, flags and Carnivalesque costumes, there are illustrations of men without shirts and…

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