Book giveaway!

This month, I’m hosting a Goodreads book giveaway for my recently-released children’s book, This Day in June. Five copies will be given away, and the winners will be randomly picked on August 23, 2014. Click on this link and it will take you to that page!

TDIJ cover

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Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense

It was the first day of swim lessons. My daughter was ready to go, adjusting her swim goggles and trying to guess who was going to be her swim teacher. As we waited, a woman approached us, little boy in tow, both of whom looked uncertain and more than a little nervous.

“Is this the Seahorse Swim School lesson?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I don’t know how he’ll do,” she said anxiously, pointing to her son. “He’s terrified of the water. His uncle tried to teach him to swim by throwing him in.”

“I think they’ll be able to help him,” I said. “We’ve had our daughter do lessons here for a while. They’re really good.” We chatted for a few more minutes before the lesson started. After the kids went off into the pool, the woman walked to the other end of the pool to watch. Amy took that opportunity to lean over and whisper, “She’s one of us.”

“Yup,” I said.

Now, how did we know that she was “one of us”? She didn’t sport any of the obvious indicators – no rainbow jewelry, no buzz cut, no keys on a carabiner attached to her belt loop, no T-shirt that says Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian. But somehow, we intuitively knew that we were playing for the same team. She must have had the same feeling about us – there were LOTS of other families there, but somehow she zeroed in on us. (Lest you think our relationship status would have been obvious, you’d be surprised how often people think Amy and I are sisters. Or they think I’m Amy’s mother – although I’m younger than she is, I’m significantly taller than her. Once someone assumed I was the grandma, Amy was the mom, and our daughter was Amy’s biological kid. No kidding.) Anyway, we were right – the next week, the other mom showed up at swim lessons with the little boy – and if we’d had just a mere inkling about Mom #1, Mom #2 set off loud, jarring alarm bells.

I’ve written about gaydar before – that “Spidey-sense,” as Urban Dictionary refers to it, that somehow allows people to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. For decades, it was considered to be an urban legend – researchers who studied gaydar in the 1980s declared it to be a complete myth. However, since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a growing body of research focusing on the phenomenon. For example, Gerulf Rieger, a researcher at the University of Essex, has mostly focused on childhood masculinity and femininity to see if that’s a predictor of later sexual orientation in males. (He says it is, but I have my doubts. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.) Nicholas Rule, who is at the University of Toronto, has done some fascinating studies that involve isolating facial features, showing them for a split second, and determining how accurately participants can determine the sexual orientation of the person in the image. (The answer, by the way, is “amazingly accurate.”) When it comes to “gaydar” involving women, Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University, and Mollie Ruben, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, both have conducted separate studies indicating that queer women are very good at pinging other queer women – and they do a much better job of it than straight women do. (At the risk of arguing by anecdote, it was a straight woman who assumed I was our daughter’s grandma, and that Amy was the mom.)

Clearly, gaydar is a thing – at least, according to a handful of studies that demonstrate statistical significance. But while these studies tell us that gaydar exists, they don’t really tell us why it exists. Obviously, if you’re looking for a same-sex partner (sexual or not), gaydar is helpful – and my guess is that, for most people, this sufficiently answers the why-does-it-exist question. But for me, that’s not enough. I actually think that gaydar potentially serves MANY purposes, one of which I’ll try to describe.

Let’s go back to the swim lesson. When this incident happened, I wasn’t on the prowl at a bar – I was with Amy, at a swanky beach and tennis club, waiting for our daughter’s lesson to begin. This woman walks in with her son, and because of her son’s swimming phobia, she’s a heartbeat away from an anxiety attack. She sizes up this unfamiliar environment, realizes she’s in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA, starts freaking out even more, and when fight-or-flight kicks in, she scans the area, looking for her people.  Her gaydar kicked in because she needed support. Our gaydar kicked in because we wanted to provide it (and perhaps we wanted a breath of queer familiarity in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA).

Gaydar might help you identify a potential partner – there’s no doubt about that.

Gaydar might help you find friends.

Gaydar might help you find community.

And if you’re a member of an oppressed group, and you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, scared, or threatened, gaydar might help you rally the troops, so to speak. Interestingly, I find myself doing that without really thinking about it – if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, my gaydar signal starts unconsciously sweeping the area. Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m looking for my people.

Yesterday, when my daughter and I were leaving her swim lesson, I ran into the woman and her son. “Hey!” she said. “It’s so good to see you! We’re doing private swim lessons now, and that’s working out so much better!”

“That’s great!” I said. “I’m so glad he’s getting more comfortable in the water. Good to see you too!”

BFFs we are, now. All because of gaydar.

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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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Trashed

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.

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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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