What happens when you don’t trust your gut

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail message from the Family Matters coordinator at the San Diego LGBT Center, inviting me to do a storytime and book signing at San Diego Pride. I wasn’t sure, however, if I wanted to make such a long trip, and I was also uneasy about the expense. The next day, I got an e-mail from Southwest Airlines advertising their $69 specials. If there’s such a thing as a “sign,” this was it - I immediately clicked on the link and booked my super-cheap flight. Easy-peasy.

What was not so easy-peasy, though, was finding a broad selection of books to bring for the storytime. I’d read my own book, of course, but I wanted to bring in other books to share – ideally, a wide range of books with diverse characters and themes. A challenging task, as it turns out.

There’s Heather Has Two Mommies, the landmark publication that launched the genre of LGBT children’s picture books. There’s And Tango Makes Three, a sweet tale (based on a true story) of two male penguins who care for an egg and ultimately father a baby penguin hatchling. There were only two stories I could find that had any kind of multicultural content: Antonio’s Card, a story about a boy celebrating Mother’s Day with his two mommies; and Best Best Colors, a story about a boy with two mommies who can’t choose his favorite color – so he chooses all of them, in a rainbow spectrum. Both of these books were written in English and in Spanish.

However, most books follow a predictable pattern. As you might imagine, there are lots of books about two mommies and two daddies. There are a fair number of books about same-sex weddings – Donovan’s Big Day and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding are two examples. And, increasingly, there are lots of books about gender-nonconforming boys (or transgender children) wearing dresses: 10,000 Dresses; Jacob’s New Dress; Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. All of these books have similar storylines, and all of them bother me immensely – not because of the gender nonconformity (this is a hugely important topic, and one that I embrace), but because all of the protagonists in these books are bullied (in 10,000 Dresses, the bullying and rejection comes from parents as well as peers). Obviously, there’s a lot of social policing that happens to gender non-conforming boys, and I understand that the bullying themes in these books are a reflection of reality. However, I often wonder if these books inadvertently teach bullying to children who might not otherwise question gender flexibility. I needed to decide whether to include any of these books, and if I did choose one of them, which one I should pick.

My gut said don’t pick any of them. My brain, however, overrode my gut. (If you’re thinking, Oh, I bet this doesn’t end well, you’re right.) This is what my brain said:

You need to include a story about gender nonconformity. 

You need a book that’s contemporary – not one that was written fifteen years ago. (Many of the books I found were, in fact, written fifteen years ago.)

The bullying really isn’t THAT bad! 

I ended up reading, along with a range of other books, Jacob’s New Dress, which I felt was the most positive of the three options I was considering. This story, written by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, is based on their experience raising their gender nonconforming son. The bully in this story is a boy named Christopher, who just can’t wrap his head around the idea of boys wearing dresses. However, Jacob’s parents are supportive and loving, and his mother even helps him sew his own dress. Jacob’s teacher is also supportive, standing up for him when Christopher gives him a hard time. I figured that exposing kids to affirming adult characters could mitigate the bullying element. And, in the end, Jacob finds the strength to stand up to Christopher, which was another plus.

Well, here’s what happened. The story opens with Jacob and his friend Emily playing dress-up. Jacob chooses the princess costume. And Christopher, the bully, says, “Jacob, why do you always wear the girl clothes? Put on the knight armor. That’s what the boy wears!”

We’re thirty seconds into the story, right? After I read that line, a little boy interrupted and said, “Yeah!!! He shouldn’t wear the girl clothes! He’s a BOY!!! EWWWWWWWWWW!!!” (Remember, this isn’t just your garden-variety storytime at the library: This is at a Pride celebration.) I stopped reading and gently challenged his opinion, but his mind was made up. As Christopher continued to bully Jacob, this little boy’s comments continued to escalate, and another child joined in. (As an aside, the more severe Christopher’s bullying became, the more my heart hurt – reading the words aloud actually made me feel like I was bullying Jacob.) After trying to create conversation around this, I eventually had to ask both of them to stop commenting, to be respectful of others, and to listen. It felt necessary, but it also felt punitive, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted to convey during the storytime. I should have trusted my gut, I thought to myself.

Obviously, the fact that this little boy voiced this opinion so strongly confirms that reactivity against gender nonconformity in boys is alive and well – which is why these themes are in these books in the first place. However, I also think that this little boy said what he said because Christopher said it first. And even though he heard the whole story, the fact that Jacob’s parents and Jacob’s teacher supported him did absolutely nothing to change this little boy’s opinion. Bullying often happens that way – children don’t engage in the behavior until they see another child doing it (or they see a character bullying on TV, or read about a character bullying in a story), and then, having been effectively granted permission, they jump onto the bandwagon.

Fifteen years ago, most LGBT children’s books contained clear and obvious themes of oppression. Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, for example, a book written back in the early 1990s, features a scene with a group of anti-gay protestors. (Interestingly, this is the only other book, besides This Day in June, that’s been written about Pride.) This can be helpful – reading children’s books that contain these themes can serve as conversation-starters and help prepare children to deal with these realities. However, so much has changed in the last two decades. The LGBTQ rights movement has gained considerable traction, and we have more visibility than ever before. And yet, we still don’t have many LGBT-themed books that are affirming, celebratory, and radically and inclusively accepting. If we’re going to end oppression, then we need to stop embedding oppression-reinforcers in our narratives – and start to reflect, affirm, and celebrate the beauty of who we are.


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Filed under activism, anti-gay bullying, children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, media, stereotypes, transphobia, violence


So I went to San Francisco Pride this past weekend. And it was an adventure.

It was crowded. I waited in line for 30 minutes to buy my train ticket – and that was at the station that was an hour away from the Pride festival. When the train arrived at our destination, it took me 15 minutes to get out of the station. It was THAT kind of crowded.

It was loud. One of the lines in This Day in June says, “Dancers jumping/Music pumping.” And the music was pumping – so much that it made the sidewalks shake. Just like another line in the book.

It was outrageous (I mean that in terms of clothing). Sequined bras, lamé shorty-shorts, rainbow tutus, platform heels, leather harnesses – I saw it all. I didn’t see complete nudity, but there were people I saw who came close.

None of this bothered me – it’s what to expect when you go to Pride (especially San Francisco Pride, which is the second largest public event held in California). And none of this would prevent me from bringing my child to Pride. After all, I wrote a children’s book about Pride – children should be able to go, right? It’s what makes Pride the fabulous event that it is.

But there were two things I saw at Pride that did bother me. A LOT. One was that a lot of people were drunk. Actually, let me specify: A lot of very young people were very, very drunk. I saw quite a few people being carted off by the paramedics because they were so drunk or high. And on the train ride home, a young woman was passed out to the point where it was unclear whether or not her friends would be able to get her off the train. (They did, but barely.)  Has Pride devolved into an excuse to get drunk? I thought repeatedly throughout the day.

You know what else bothered me, even more than the drunkenness? There was trash EVERYWHERE. You know those Burger King wrappers that everyone’s talking about, the ones that look like this?

 burger king wrapper

Well, I got to know them quite well. Because by the end of the day, thousands of them were crumpled up and tossed onto Market Street. THOUSANDS. The city was a mess by the time this was all over.

People were trashed, and the city was trashed. That upset me more than anything else. People live in this city, I thought angrily as I shuffled my way through the crumpled-up Whopper wrappers. How rude it is to come here, get trashed and trash the city, and then leave, expecting someone else to clean up the mess you left! I was seriously awake for part of that night, ruminating about this.

The next morning, I got up and I did some writing about this. (Free-writing often reveals things to me that wouldn’t otherwise be revealed by thinking or talking about them.) And I came to this: How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment. That’s the basis of ecofeminism, which links ecological destruction with patriarchal oppression under male-dominated capitalist systems. In other words, trashing a city is just like trashing an entire class of people.

Now, a major caveat emptor: A number of well-known ecofeminists, including Mary Daly, have held extremely transphobic beliefs. For example, Daly, in her classic book Gyn/Ecology, went so far as to describe the presumed “unnaturalness” of transgender people as “the Frankenstein phenomenon.” Daly was also Janice Raymond’s dissertation advisor – the dissertation that was eventually published as The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male. (That is seriously the title.) I’m in no way endorsing this component of ecofeminism, nor do I necessarily agree with the gender-essentialist idea that all women have a “maternal instinct” that is analogous with the concept of Mother Earth. But I will stick with what I came to in my writing. How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment.

Pride celebrations rose up out of the Stonewall Riots (and, if we go a little earlier in history, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots). Instead of submitting to dominating authority figures, queer people decided to rise up, speak out, and fight back. That’s why people marched in the first Pride parades – as a form of guerrilla, grassroots activism. So if Pride is about celebrating our collective LGBTQ communities, and rising up from oppression, then how does getting staggering, stumbling-on-the-sidewalk drunk (and high on E, in some cases) and violently trashing a city achieve that?

It doesn’t. And that’s probably why I was so upset. Because if that’s what Pride is all about, then we’re just reaffirming the oppression we’ve been trying to resist all along.

We reveal our internalized oppression through the ways we hurt ourselves. It’s no secret that alcoholism and drug addiction are huge problems in our collective LGBTQ communities. We experience a lot of collateral damage as a result of internalized oppression, and addictions are just one example. At the same time, we demonstrate externalized oppression by imposing our power unjustly onto someone or something else. Trashing a city that has provided a safe ground for so many LGBTQ people is a good example of externalized oppression, in my opinion.

Several weeks ago, I came across an article titled “Re-Queering Pride.” The article, accompanied by an illustration of people yelling, “Stonewall was a police riot!” captures exactly why I think Pride needs to be re-visioned. Our collective queer communities deserve a big fabulous party, that’s for sure. But if we’re going to continue the fight against heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, cissexism, racism, class oppression, ableism, et cetera, et cetera, then we need to practice what we preach. Treat ourselves with respect, treat others with respect, treat our surroundings with respect.


Filed under activism, biphobia, human rights, racism, San Francisco, transphobia, violence

Frozen, pink triangles, and revisionist history

Recently, I did an interview about my children’s book for my local NPR station on a show called Insight. Beth Ruyak, the host of the show, noted the title of my book (This Day in June), and then asked, “Why June?” I responded by telling her about the Stonewall Riots, a three-day series of protests that occurred in June of 1969. One night, the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village frequented predominantly by people who were gay and/or transgender, was raided by the police (which was not uncommon at that time). Instead of hiding, or fleeing out the back door, the patrons of the bar resisted arrest and fought back, resulting in what many consider to be the beginning of the modern-day LGBT rights movement. The following year, in June of 1970, the first Pride parades took place, in New York City and Chicago.

So I tell this story, and Beth listens to me. Then she takes a breath and says, “I know about the civil rights movement. I know about the women’s liberation movement. But I hate to say that I’ve never heard of the Stonewall Riots before.” She was clearly embarrassed, and I reassured her by saying, “You’re not the only one.” And I meant it – I wasn’t just trying to make her feel better. Because many people don’t know what the Stonewall Riots were. And many people don’t know about other elements of LGBT history and culture – because nobody ever told them.

Try this quick quiz:

1.  Why is the pink triangle used as a symbol in the LGBT community? What is the meaning of the rainbow flag?

2.  What were the Compton Cafeteria Riots?

3.  Draw a picture of the Transgender Pride flag, and identify the meaning of each element.

4.  What was the Mattachine Society?

5.  What was the Pink Scare?

If you answered all five questions correctly, then congratulations, you’re a true LGBT scholar. But if you missed one, you’re in good company. And if you had no idea what the answer was to any of the questions, please don’t beat yourself up. Because it’s Not. Your. Fault. How are you supposed to know any of this if no one ever told you? If our stories are told in ways that distort reality, or if they’re not told at all, then we end up with an entire generation of people who have no knowledge of their roots. And that, in my opinion, is very dangerous.

Let’s use a metaphor to bring this to life. One of the most popular films of this past year is Frozen, the wildly popular Disney animated feature. Before I get started, a major disclaimer: I have not seen Frozen in its entirety. Nor has my daughter. And yes, I do realize that we are probably the ONLY people on the planet who have not seen this film. We watched about 20 minutes of it during a long flight to New York, and then my daughter got bored and wanted to take a nap.

Here’s a synopsis of Frozen, written by Walt Disney Animation Studios:

Fearless optimist Anna (voice of ‘Kristen Bell’) teams up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of ‘Jonathan Groff (II)’) and his loyal reindeer Sven in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom.

What isn’t stated in this plot summary is that Frozen was inspired by a fairy tale called The Snow Queen, a story written by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a lengthy tale, told in a series of “stories.” The fairy tale begins with a “magic mirror,” created by a troll, that makes everything beautiful look ugly and bad. This mirror breaks, its shards falling down to Earth. Fast-forward centuries later, and we find ourselves with Kay and Gerda, two friends who like to play together. One night, the Snow Queen throws a piece of the mirror into Kay’s eye and another into his heart, causing him to be mean, negative, and nasty. Later, the Snow Queen lures Kay to her ice palace, and the rest of the tale involves Gerda’s journey to find the ice palace and rescue Kay. After escaping a witch in an enchanted garden, being ambushed by robbers and rescued by a robber maiden, traveling by reindeer, and being given a magic potion by a Laplander, she is transported to the ice palace, where her love for Kay becomes the weapon that defeats the Snow Queen.

OK. So let’s compare Frozen to The Snow Queen.  Both involve a journey and a rescue. Both have trolls and a reindeer. Both have, well, snow and ice. But in terms of similarities, that’s about it. A lot of creative license was used in Disney’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale – they chose to tell the story that they thought would make money, rather than preserve the integrity of the original. As a result, Frozen really is nothing like The Snow Queen. Most children have no idea that Frozen was based on a classic fairy tale – and that the original story included themes of loyalty and the power of love, vivid metaphors (the shard in one’s eye and heart, for example), and a refreshingly feminist girl-rescues-boy storyline (rare for fairy tales, which usually involve weak females being rescued by a prince). Ask a child to tell the story of The Snow Queen, and I’ll bet money that they’ll look at you with a blank stare. But you better believe that pretty much every kid (except mine) has seen Frozen - and can sing the songs and recite the dialogue. While the popularity of this film rises, a piece of classic literature is slipping away. Because no one is telling children about it.

Just like no one told you about the pink triangles and rainbow flags.

Just like no one told you about the Compton Cafeteria Riots.

Just like no one told you about the Mattachine Society, or the symbolism of the Transgender Pride flag, or the Pink Scare.

If you didn’t know the answers to some (or all) of the quiz questions, look them up. Then tell someone else about it. Because the only way to preserve history is to pass it on.


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My queer feelings about Twitter

At a conference session that focused on book marketing, the presenter made the following point:

“If you want your book to succeed, you should get on Twitter.”

A colleague of mine, over lunch, recently said to me:

“You’ve got great ideas. You should get on Twitter.”

At the end of this past semester, the feedback one of my students gave me was this:

“Your class was great. But you should get on Twitter.”

All snarkiness aside, I will say this: I LOVE Pinterest – it dovetails well with my crafty/home-decorating/gardening/DIY/fun kid stuff interests. In contrast, I really have no idea what Tumblr really is. (I hear that’s a generational thing. And it bothers me that the word “Tumblr” is missing an “e.”) I do know what Twitter is – and a web article I came across captured my feelings about it exactly:

“Twitter promotes a culture of narcissism and attention-seeking. In combination with the 140 character limit it also promotes stupidity and dumbs down conversation.”

Needless to say, even though Twitter was developed during the first wave of social networking (along with Myspace and Facebook), I never bothered to join. On a gut level, I suspected that, in addition to enabling narcissism and dumbing down society, Twitter was creating a false sense of connection – a dangerous thing for people who are already socially isolated. (Like at-risk LGBTQ youth, for example.) At some point, however, I realized that my “promotes a culture of narcissism” attitude is contempt prior to investigation. And I began to consider the very real possibility that I could be missing out on something big. Plus I was feeling like a bit of a hypocrite, deriding Twitter but constantly losing myself in Facebook (a social network that probably promotes a culture of narcissism  - just in a different way).

So I bit the bullet, and I joined. I created a Twitter handle (@GaylePitman, if you’re interested). I started following people. I began to tweet (although I much prefer true birdsong). I learned what a hashtag is (the thing #thatlookslikethis), and I started to use them. I started GETTING followers.

And, because I’m an intellectual geek, I started reading about the psychology of Twitter. Would you believe that over 650 scholarly articles have been published about Twitter? Here’s a comparison: Use “gay African-American” as your search terms, and you get 502 articles. Search for “LGBT aging,” and you get 109 articles. More studies have been done on Twitter than on African American gay men and LGBT aging combined. The sheer amount of research that focuses on Twitter is mind-boggling, to say the least. And as I’ve been combing through this research, I can see the utility of Twitter, particularly for marketing purposes. However, I also think that Twitter can be dangerous. (Yes, I used the word dangerous.)  Especially for youth, including LGBTQ teens and young adults, who rely heavily on social networking platforms as a means of staying connected.

As I read through the research, three major concepts jumped out at me. The first, which emerged in many of the early studies of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms, involves what’s called “self-monitoring” and “impression management.” In a nutshell, these terms refer to the ways people self-police what they post. They want to look good, and they want people to like them, so people craft their posts (or tweets) in a way that will potentially be appealing to others. As a result, “friends” or “followers” aren’t necessarily getting a true or genuine picture of you – rather, they’re getting the cleaned-up, packaged version that you’re deliberately presenting.

The second concept involves what’s called “parasocial interaction,” a term coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. When an interaction is parasocial, it’s imbalanced, one-sided, and non-reciprocated. Psychotherapy is an example of a type of parasocial interaction; ideally, the client is the one who’s revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and while the therapist is listening and responding, he or she isn’t reciprocating. If you love Prince William and Kate Middleton, you undoubtedly know a whole lot more about them than they do about you. Although you can have a conversation with someone on Twitter, typically a tweet is a type of parasocial interaction.

The last body of research involves what many researchers refer to as “herd behavior.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Nietsche called it the “herd instinct.” Kierkegaard called it “the crowd.” Sigmund Freud developed what he called “crowd behavior theory” – and many people today on social media refer to it as the “hive mind.” All of these terms describe how people in large groups become deindividuated, losing their unique perspective and converging into uniformity. Some historians believe that Hitler capitalized on the herd phenomenon – it’s purported that, at his speeches, he planted German officers disguised as civilians within the crowd. These officers would then clap and cheer for Hitler, causing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. A related concept is what’s called the “spiral of silence theory,” which describes how people who hold a perceived minority opinion choose not to speak up, for fear of being criticized, threatened, or rejected.

OK, let’s recap. Social networking platforms (1) encourage the presentation of a false self, and discourage good-bad-and-ugly realness; (2) facilitate one-sided relationships, rather than exercising those give-and-take relationship muscles; and (3) trap you into the pit of the hive mind.

Let’s bring this back to LGBTQ issues. When I was coming out back in the mid-1990s, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Hell, there was barely an Internet. (I know, I sound rigid and crotchety, but bear with me.) In many ways, this sounds like a terrible disadvantage, given the numerous information pathways that have opened up in the last 20 years. However, it forced me to get out of my house and meet real people. And I did. I met a lesbian woman who was an animation artist. I met a gay man who worked in the fab at Intel and wore one of those big bunny suits. I met a woman who danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I met a woman who had been exclusively attracted to women – and then was caught off-guard when she fell in love with a man. I watched people get into relationships, stay in relationships, and leave relationships. These were not stereotypes. These were not carefully crafted Twitter or Facebook profiles. These were real people, with all of their imperfections and vulnerabilities. And it was a true gift, because it allowed me to see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of embracing your queer identity.

So I’m still on Twitter. It is actually a very useful marketing tool – if you have a need to market a product or an idea. It does get information out quickly – if you have information that’s useful to others. But for relationships, for connections, for community? I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Use Twitter for what it does well. Get out of your house and meet people if you’re looking to break isolation.


Filed under mental health, psychological research, relationships, stereotypes

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.




Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia