My queer elevator pitch

It was lunchtime. I was at a day-long picture book workshop, and at the break a group of us sat down to eat together. I hadn’t met any of them before, so we introduced ourselves and started making small talk. Then, the inevitable question arose:

“What do you write?”

A logical question, considering we’re all attending a writing workshop. But a loaded one – for me, anyway. In my experience, if I say, “I write LGBT-themed books,” I get one of two responses. Usually, people are excited and interested. But sometimes the response is stark, uncomfortable silence. Picture book writers tend to be white, female, heterosexual, and middle-aged, a demographic that could swing either way in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. When I give that answer, I’m simultaneously preparing myself for any possible reaction – much like LGBTQ kids and young adults do when they’re coming out to their parents.

The other issue with the what-do-you-write question is this: Saying “I write LGBT-themed books” isn’t a complete answer. I’ve written lots of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ community – and they don’t fit neatly into some category or genre. One story is about weaning from breastfeeding. Another is about Humpty Dumpty getting fixed. (That’s called a “fractured fairy tale,” where a traditional fairy tale is told in an entirely different way.) I’ve written stories about cats, dogs, roosters, seagulls, and toes. (The toes story is one of my favorites.) Sometimes I write stories because I want to infuse some deeper meaning into them. But often I write stories just because they’re fun to write.

So often people have to market themselves in order to be successful. If a person is looking for a job (or looking for a publisher), they’re told to develop a thirty-second “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes who you are and what you’re all about. It’s part of a larger process commonly referred to as “personal branding,” which is how you package yourself as a marketable asset. The book Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, first introduced this idea – later,  the 1980s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  used the concept of “visioning” to modernize this idea. Hundreds of studies in business, marketing, communications, and psychology have been conducted on the power of personal branding. If I were to brand myself, I could say, “I am a community college professor and author who specializes in LGBTQ issues.” That’s a short, sweet elevator pitch.

But just like the what-d0-you-write question, that pitch doesn’t even come close to telling the full story. Labels and categories rarely do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I don’t have a quick, easy answer that is complete and honest. When people ask, “What do you do?”, my elevator pitch doesn’t tell people that I’m a licensed psychologist (who currently doesn’t practice), a mom, a crafter, a crazy cat lady and chicken keeper, a swimmer and lover of the ocean, an obsessive scrimper and saver – and lots of other things. If anything, my elevator pitch allows people to pigeonhole me into a category. It encourages stereotyping.

No wonder so many people in queer communities have resisted being labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, or elevator-pitched. Labels can help us find each other and form communities. Labels can also help others understand who we are – to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story. When I’m asked, “How do you identify your sexuality?”, I don’t have a quick, easy answer. If I say “bisexual,”  which is the most technically accurate term, I’m aware that a particular vision of bisexuality is likely to get conjured up – and that vision might not be who I am. If I say “lesbian,” that matches my long-term relationship status, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve had relationships with men (and potentially could again in the future, although I’m quite happy with my partner).  The fact that I don’t look “bisexual” or “lesbian” (most people who know me will tell you this) complicates things even further. I don’t have an elevator pitch that conveys a “sexuality brand” – and frankly, I don’t think I want one.

Alison Hearn, a professor of Media and Information Studies at Western Canada University, has written many articles about self, identity, and branding – and essentially what she says is this: When we engage in self-branding, we’re constructing a “narrative of the self” (which may or may not accurately reflect the real self). This narrative comes from what she calls an “outer-directed” form of the self (giving people what they want, in the service of capitalism), rather than an inner-directed self. This is not a new idea – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D.W. Winnicott, talk about the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. If you think about it, this is the opposite of  what feminists, anti-racism activists, and social justice advocates have been working towards – creating space for our true, authentic voices and selves to be heard and seen. The idea of an outer-directed self is not new – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D. W. Winnicott, have identified the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. It’s not something that people in radical social justice communities want to participate in, I’d say.

I’ll end with a funny story. During lunch at this picture book workshop, when I shared more details about the kinds of things I write about, someone said to me, “You write great stories! They just aren’t a good fit for what mainstream publishers are looking for.” I laughed and said, “Even my stories are queer!” And then I realized: That’s my elevator pitch. I write stories that speak to people, but they don’t fit neatly into a category or niche, which, ironically, is often how my queer identity plays out. If I’m going to have an elevator pitch for my writing, that is one that’s subversive enough for me to live with.

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An attitude of gratitude

Several of my friends are going through a rough time right now. One is reeling from the breakup of a long-term relationship. Another is grieving the loss of both of his parents. Still another has had trouble finding a stable housing situation. And one friend was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. That’s just skimming the surface of the troubles I hear about. I don’t know if something is in the air or water or what, but a lot of people I’m close to are dealing with seriously heavy-duty stuff.

So how are they handling it, you might ask? Overwhelmingly, they’re going into gratitude. On a daily basis on Facebook, through personal e-mails, or in face-to-face conversations, they’re talking about what they’re grateful for. Several friends have been making gratitude lists and posting them on social media. As cliché as it sounds, they’re focusing on the fullness of the glass, rather than the emptiness. And what do you know – it helps them feel better. A LOT better.

Gratitude lists are nothing new – for decades, they’ve been the stuff of 12-step programs and Christianity. When sponsors tell their newly-sober protegeés to write a gratitude list, they’re trying to get them out of their negativity (“Now that I’m not drinking, life is dull and boring!”). When pastors talk from the pulpit about gratitude, they want to help people get in line with “God’s will” – an article in Christianity Today, for example, uses the story of Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem to illustrate the dangers of being ungrateful. From the Bible to The Secret (which, as an aside, is a book that I find to be dishonest and manipulative – but that’s for another post), gratitude has been a centuries-old antidepressant. It was Prozac before we had Prozac.

Given its Prozac-before-Prozac status, I’m struck by two things:

Thing 1:  The field of psychology is just beginning to pick up on the power of gratitude. Which is odd, considering that cognitive psychology (and understanding the connection between thoughts and mood), isn’t a new field. For whatever reason, gratitude is a subject that’s only now starting to appear in the research literature.

Thing 2: Gratitude is spreading through the queer community like wildfire. At least, in my circle of friends it is. What has traditionally been a cornerstone of Christian faith is gaining traction in the LGBTQ community – which I find to be deliciously ironic.

Let me expand a bit on Thing 1. Robert Emmons, a research psychologist at the University of California at Davis (right in my backyard!) is the first strong scientific voice to emerge on the subject of gratitude. He’s written scores of research articles, a handful of books (including The Psychology of Gratitude, written for an academic audience, and Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, both written for the general public). Although Emmons is a scientist, Christianity appears to have a strong influence on his work. (I don’t know how Christianity has influenced his views on LGBTQ people.)

Whatever his bias, his studies of gratitude have yielded compelling results. His experimental research shows that keeping a regular gratitude journal causes people to exercise more, to feel better physically, to feel better about their lives, to have higher levels of optimism, and to move forward in attaining personal goals. They’re also more likely to feel alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive, and energetic – the opposite of “depressed,” really. This is true even for people who are going through “heavy-duty stuff” – in one study of adults with neuromuscular disease, keeping a gratitude journal was associated with better moods, a stronger sense of connection to others, higher levels of optimism, and better sleep. Even children benefit from gratitude – according to one study, children who practice gratitude have more positive attitudes toward their families and toward school. It’s proof-positive: Gratitude is Prozac.

Now, to Thing 2. So far, no one has studied how gratitude affects LGBTQ people (or people from marginalized communities, as far as I can tell). However, I think people who engage in political activism are potentially high on the list of skeptics. (At least, I’ll cop to that.) Here’s how, at times, my thinking has gone:

Gratitude is naive, pie-in-the-sky, and unrealistic.

Gratitude will lead you down a slippery slope to complacency and indifference.

I’m suffering too much – how can I POSSIBLY be grateful?  

“Five Myths about Gratitude,” written by Robert Emmons, does a good job of addressing each of these statements. But since these arguments came from my head, I’ll share a little of my experience. Years ago, I was, well, going through some heavy-duty stuff. I spiraled downward towards the bottom of the drain. But before I got there, someone threw me a series of life preservers – one of which was The Gratitude List. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway. (I was sane enough to know that you don’t have to like the lifeline that’s thrown to you, but taking it will save you.) And it worked. It allowed me to focus on the good things in my life (which are plentiful). It also shored up my resources to address the not-so-good things in my life (which are much less plentiful, but there). Gratitude isn’t ignorance – it’s fuel to help change things for the better, both internally and externally.

So what am I grateful for today?

I’m grateful that the sun came out today. (It’s been cold and foggy in Santa Cruz County – another thing I’m grateful for, given that it’s been f%$#ing hot in Sacramento.)

I’m grateful that I have friends and family who get me and my sense of humor.

I’m grateful that it rained recently. (For those of you who aren’t in California, rain is A BIG DEAL around here.)

I’m grateful that Stephen King didn’t die. (I just finished reading his memoir, and it gave me a deeper respect for him as a writer. If you read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

 

I’m grateful that we have a run-down, falling-apart garage – because, when we save up enough money, we can turn it into an art and writing studio.

I could have mentioned the grand, sweeping things in my life. But the things I chose are honest. They ground me. They put a smile on my face. And they give me fuel to tackle the hard things.

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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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