Monthly Archives: October 2011

Under the radar

The debate over same-sex marriage is very much on the cultural and political radar screen. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most significant civil rights controversies of the 21st century. It’s one of the major issues that LGBTQ activists and allies see as paving the way towards greater equality and acceptance. And one of the most powerful arguments used in support of same-sex marriage is the “similarity” argument – the idea that relationships are relationships, no matter what the gender of the two partners. Same-sex partners love each other. We laugh together. We share common interests. We argue. We go to work. We pay taxes. We raise children. In the words of a lesbian friend of mine, “we’re just as boring as anyone else.” And while research studies comparing same-sex couples to opposite-sex couples do reveal some interesting differences, there certainly is weight to the similarities argument. Sadly, while same-sex relationships are just as healthy as opposite-sex relationships, they can be just as dysfunctional as heterosexual relationships, too – and nothing drives that point home more clearly than the issue of domestic violence.

This past Thursday, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) released its 2010 Report on Intimate Partner Violence in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the U.S., which documents the incidence and repercussions of  relationship violence in the LGBTQ community. Seventeen anti-violence programs in 14 states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, New York, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin) collected and contributed data for the purposes of this report – and the results are sobering. For starters, since 2009, the number of reported incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV) has increased by 38% since 2009. Moreover, the report revealed the following:

  • Incidents of physical violence have increased (as opposed to threats, stalking and harassment);
  • Less than half of LGBT victims of IPV who sought an order of protection received one;
  • More than a third of survivors were turned away from shelters;
  • Survivors show increased reluctance to contact law enforcement.

Before we draw the conclusion that IPV is on the rise in the LGBTQ community, I think we need to back up a little. Until recently, IPV among same-sex couples went largely unrecognized. Police officers called to the scene of a domestic dispute didn’t necessarily take it seriously. Domestic violence agencies, safe houses, and crisis lines aren’t always equipped to deal with the unique issues that LGBTQ relationship violence presents. Because of that, many victims in the LGBTQ community are less likely than their heterosexual counterparts to report IPV (and it’s been well-established that women in heterosexual relationships are often reluctant to report the abuse as well, for various reasons). Even when they do report the violence, if law enforcement doesn’t view it as a legitimate issue and fails to take a report, then the incident won’t get recorded in the crime statistics. Given the vast underreporting of IPV in same-sex relationships, the “increase” in IPV documented by the new NCAVP report may not be an increase in incidents, but rather an increase in reporting rates. And that’s actually a good thing – if we can get a more accurate picture of the landscape of relationship violence in the LGBTQ community, then we are in a much better position to take effective action to address this violence. Clearly, more action needs to be taken – as reporting rates are increasing, interventions from domestic violence agencies and law enforcement are woefully inadequate.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Help spread awareness about intimate partner violence in the LGBTQ community.

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Filed under LGBTQ, relationships, Uncategorized, violence

Warm or chilly?

At Sacramento City College, where I’m a professor of psychology and women’s studies, we have a fairly active LGBTQ student population. The Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) is one of the more recognized student organizations on campus. We celebrate National Coming Out Day every October with an open-mic event, where people can recount their coming-out stories – or come out for the first time. We offer LGBTQ programming through our Cultural Awareness Center. We have a couple of courses on the books that focus on LGBTQ issues (including my class, Psychology of Sexual Orientation). And there are a handful of faculty and staff who are out and visible. Not bad for a community college, given that very few community colleges offer any resources for LGBTQ students at all.

And yet, when you scratch beneath the surface, the rosy picture gets a little darker. While some faculty and staff are out, there are many people who have chosen not to be out to anyone other than their close colleagues. When the QSA puts up posters and flyers announcing events, they routinely get torn down or defaced. Students who are LGBTQ  (particularly trans students) experience verbal harassment – sometimes openly, although more frequently in the form of whispered comments and giggles. And every once in a while, an LGBTQ student is the victim of a more serious hate crime – a couple of semesters ago, a gay male student was attacked just on the outskirts of campus.

In 2010, Campus Pride, in conjunction with the Q Research Institute for Higher Education released what is now the most recent LGBTQ campus climate survey, titled “2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People.” Quite a few LGBTQ campus climate surveys have been conducted over the years, and all of them have yielded sobering results – enough so that education policy experts have deemed the campus climate for LGBTQ students to be “chilly,” at best. The goal of these surveys, of course, is to utilize findings in order to implement measures that will help build acceptance and pride for LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators. After two decades of these kinds of studies, the 2010 Campus Pride survey was awaited with a sense of hope and accomplishment. And, in his foreword to the report, George D. Kuh noted that the survey yielded “uniformly disappointing results.” Shane Windmeyer, the executive director for Campus Pride, called the report “a loud reminder that we still have work to do” (emphasis in original).   

Based on results from surveys returned from 5,149 LGBTQ participants, the report revealed the following:

  • One out of four respondents had experienced harassment based on their sexual identity, and about a third of trans- and gender-nonconforming people had been harassed because of their gender status;
  • LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators were significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have a negative perception of their campus climate;
  • LGBTQ respondents were significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to observe others being the victims of homophobia, suggesting that heterosexual privilege might shield straight people from seeing these forms of injustice;
  • LGBTQ respondents of color were significantly less likely, compared to their White counterparts, to feel comfortable in their classes, in their work environment, or with the overall campus climate;
  • LGBTQ faculty were more likely than LGBTQ students to rate the campus climate as negative and hostile, and they were more likely to have seriously considered leaving their institution.

Like other campus climate reports, the Campus Pride survey ends with a comprehensive list of recommendations and best practices – the same recommendations that all the other campus climate surveys have issued over the last twenty years. Although we’d like to think that college and university environments have improved for LGBTQ students and employees, these survey results suggest otherwise.

And yet, perhaps things have gotten better. Published in 2006, The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students – written by Shane Windmeyer (yes, the same Shane Windmeyer who led the above-mentioned study) – profiles the top 100 LGBTQ friendly colleges and universities in the U.S.  Based on 5,000 online interviews with students and 500 online interviews with faculty and staff, Windmeyer profiles the 100 colleges and universities with the top “Gay Point Average” which is calculated using criteria such as LGBTQ-affirmative policies, campus events, queer studies programs, LGBTQ housing, and so on. To me, there seems to be two parallel truths occurring – LGBTQ students and employees still face a chilly reception, and there are more resources than ever before for LGBTQs at colleges and universities.  

How can both of these realities exist simultaneously? The spin that’s put on the issue may have something to do with it. Cognitive psychologists talk about framing effects, noting that the way that information is framed can powerfully influence how we interpret that information. If a survey question asks you to describe the forms of anti-LGBTQ harassment you’ve experienced, you’ll get a very different picture than if a survey question asks you to describe the ways your LGBTQ identity has been supported and validated. Campus climate surveys typically utilize a negative frame, whereas college guides for LGBTQ students are more likely to use a positive frame. Probably both forms of information are necessary in order to get a complete picture of what’s going on at U.S. higher education institutions.

A group of us at Sacramento City College are in the process of putting together our own LGBTQ campus climate survey. To date, there haven’t been any large-scale studies that put community colleges to the test, so this will yield extremely valuable data. Even with no statistical data at our disposal, based on anecdotal experience, it seems as if these parallel truths are occurring here as well. Stay tuned.

To purchase a copy of “2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People” and The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students, go to http://www.campuspride.org.

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Filed under anti-gay bullying, biphobia, covert homophobia, hate crimes, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, overt homophobia

We are the 3.5%

I’ve been fascinated by the Occupy Wall Street movement. A few weeks ago, when a former student who now lives in New York City contacted me on Facebook asking for my reaction to the Zuccotti Park protests, I had no idea what she was talking about. Now, of course, I know EXACTLY what she was talking about – and so does most of the rest of the nation. Now we’re seeing protests springing up in cities across the U.S., including in sleepy little (or mid-sized, actually) Sacramento. While the media is critiquing the movement by stating that the “99 percenters” don’t seem to have a clear message or agenda, I would actually argue quite the opposite. Informing people that 1% of the U.S. population controls 80% of the wealth has been an extremely powerful message – powerful enough to kick many of my students, colleagues, and friends out of their apathy and into action. People’s frustrations with these longstanding economic disparities have reached a tipping point, and now we’re seeing a critical mass of people who are willing to put themselves on the line and take serious action. The most powerful aspect of this action, I believe, involves putting a name, face, and story to the people who are impacted by these inequities. It’s about making the invisible visible.

The Occupy movement has sparked my thinking about possibilities, particularly with respect to LGBTQ rights. What if the LGBTQ population in the U.S. decided to take significant action against homophobia? Many would argue that significant action has already been taken (and is still continuing). We’ve achieved significant gains through legislation, judicial action, and voter-driven initiatives. Many of us have lobbied in our respective workplaces to develop non-discrimination policies and to offer domestic partner benefits. And yet, relying on these processes  has only gotten us so far. We have a long way to go. So what could a grass-roots movement against homophobia look like?

Yesterday, in my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, we discussed the coming-out process for LGBTQ individuals. As part of this discussion, I made the point that coming out, while potentially risky, can ultimately help to reduce prejudice and discrimination against people. When a person has the opportunity to have significant contact with an LGBTQ person they care about, such as a brother, daughter, or close friend, that person is more likely to develop positive attitudes about lesbians and gay men in general (this idea is often referred to as the “contact hypothesis”). If, on the other hand, the person’s only knowledge about LGBTQ people comes from homophobic stereotypes and inaccurate media portrayals, then that person is much more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people. Coming out, therefore, is a powerful weapon against homophobia.    

What if everyone who identifies as a sexual minority decided to come out and live fully as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person? And how many people are we really talking about? Although survey results vary, the general consensus is that about 3.5% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Of course, “We Are The 3.5%” doesn’t pack very much punch. However, even though 3.5% doesn’t sound like a very significant percentage, note that we’re talking about almost 11 million people. That DOES pack some more punch. (Keep in mind that this is a conservative estimate; not everyone who completes a demographic survey is willing to give an honest answer about their sexual orientation.) If 11 million people decided to come out and live openly and unapologetically as an LGBTQ person, that would probably get a lot of people’s attention. Eleven million people could really make something happen in this country.

National Coming Out Day just took place on October 11th. Eleven million people. Think of the possibilities.

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Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBTQ, Uncategorized

Major trans-formation: The new WPATH Standards of Care

Two weeks ago, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH, formerly known as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association [HBIGDA]) released a newly-revised edition of its well-known (and much-maligned) Standards of Care. First issued in 1979, this new revision of the Standards give the trans community cause for celebration, as they completely change the landscape of transgender health care. In order to understand just how momentous these new standards are, however, it’s important to give a little background regarding the barriers transpeople have faced within the health care system, and within the general public arena.  

Transpeople have endured a long history of having to prove themselves to the powers that be. Neo-Freudians believed that gender-nonconforming people were unable to resolve their Oedipal (or Electra) issues in childhood, and that years of psychoanalysis might help them overcome these conflicts. Behaviorists rolled out a laundry list of causes of gender-nonconformity, including reinforcement of gender-inappropriate behaviors, punishment of gender-conforming behaviors, and the absence of adult models (parents in particular) who are the same sex as the child who can demonstrate appropriate gendered behaviors, suggesting that Pavlovian and Skinnerian therapies could help these individuals change these “maladaptive” behaviors. Radical feminists argued that transwomen, or “males-to-constructed-females,” as Janice Raymond put it in her anti-trans manifesto, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male, are part of a male patriarchal conspiracy to overthrow the feminist movement. And many people in the medical, psychological, and lay communities argue that people who identify as “trans” don’t really have a nonconforming gender identity within a wrong-gendered body – instead, they have a serious disorder that needs to be treated through some form of gender-reparative therapy.

And transpeople have continued to have to prove themselves to their health care practitioners, telling the “right” story so that they will receive the care that they desire – and this is where the Standards of Care come into play. Although the intent behind the Standards of Care has always been to ensure “lasting personal comfort with the gendered self in order to maximize overall psychological well-being and self-fulfillment,” they have also created a gatekeeping system that has been frustrating (at best) and invalidating and harmful (at worst) to many transpeople. Before starting the gender-reassignment process, a transperson needed to begin by seeing a mental health professional, receiving a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, and beginning a long-term course of psychotherapy. While meeting regularly with a supportive and caring therapist during the transition process isn’t a bad idea, being given a psychiatric diagnosis kicks the process off to a very pathologizing start. From there, the Standards regulated that transpeople jump through several other hoops, including obtaining a letter from a health care professional before starting any hormone therapies, being evaluated according to a specific set of requirements to determine eligibility for any type of surgery, and living full-time for one year as a member of the sex they wish to live as before becoming eligible for genital surgeries (often referred to as the “Real-Life Experience”). These Standards have been met with mixed reception in the trans community, often being referred to as bureaucratic, pathologizing, and disempowering. Moreover, in order to obtain “permission” to undergo the sex reassignment process, transpeople needed to tell their health care practitioners a particular kind of “story” – a story that may or may not be the entire truth, but was a means to an end.  In fact, the “transsexual narrative” – the “I’m a woman born in a man’s body” or “I’m a man born in a woman’s body” story – emerged directly from the expectations of the health care system. It’s an accurate depiction of some, but not all, transpeople’s experiences. And this, among other things, has figured into the surge of activist efforts to transform these standards.

That transformation has now occurred, and the changes are significant. As WPATH revision committee chair Eli Coleman stated, “We’ve set a whole different tone. It’s more about what the professionals have to do” and not about transpeople having to jump through hoops and prove their health needs to the professionals. The most significant changes include the following:

  • elimination of the Gender Identity Disorder requirement;
  • eliminating the psychotherapy requirement, although therapy is still encouraged;
  • strong affirmation that attempts to change gender-nonconforming behaviors through reparative therapy are unethical;
  • a strong focus on an individualized care approach, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan;
  • clear acknowledgment that “gender-nonconformity” and “gender dysphoria” are two different things, that a broad spectrum of gender identities exist, and that “gender-reassignment” may take a number of different forms;
  • guidance regarding treatment for gender-nonconforming children and adolescents;
  • more flexible standards for hormonal and surgical treatment, so that interventions can be tailored to the individual;
  • information and guidelines involving non-medical treatments, including voice coaching;
  • near-elimination of the Real-Life Experience, with the exception of some genital surgeries.

Although I don’t think most people are even aware of these Standards of Care or the recent changes that have been made, I do think that this recent revision is going to have a very significant impact in our culture. These Standards allow for more freedom of gender expression, more room for “genderqueers” who don’t necessarily fit clearly into the standard “transsexual narrative,” and more flexible and varied health care options. Because these Standards make room for a range of gender expressions, I think they set the stage for a more complex and nuanced conversation about gender identity. At the same time, I think that the trans community and the trans-positive health care community had better be prepared for a powerful cultural backlash against these standards. Some might harbor uneasiness about the elimination of some of the previous stopgap measures. Others might react against the idea of supporting a gender-nonconforming child or teenager (rather than changing their behavior). We’ll have to wait and see what unfolds.

If you would like to read the revised WPATH Standards of Care in its entirety, go to http://www.wpath.org.

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Bisexuality exists!

Psychology is like the classic George Orwell novel 1984. Yesterday two plus two equaled four, but today two plus two equals five – and once five is declared the correct answer, any historical record of two plus two equaling four is wiped out. The psychological analogue to 2+2=4 is the idea that “you’re either gay, straight, or lying” – the idea that bisexuality, at least in males, doesn’t really exist. This belief has very effectively invalidated bisexuality, cheapening the experience of bisexual people and rendering their sexual identities invisible. And, up until very recently, the existing biological evidence supported the doubters. A highly-publicized 2005 study indicated that, among the male particpants who identified themselves as bisexual, arousal patterns in response to watching videos of same-sex activity were directed exclusively towards one sex or the other, usually towards men – but not towards both. While female bisexuality has been documented more extensively, this study appeared to be the nail in the coffin for bisexual males, cementing the idea that men who identify as bisexual must be lying, in transition, or just plain confused.

I think it’s important to be clear that the assumptions that we hold about people – particularly about members of historically oppressed groups – aren’t just benign thoughts held by individuals. Our assumptions contribute to a belief system. They provide a filter through which we view the world. And they leak out into our cultural consciousness – the media being one example of a convoy of cultural beliefs.  The idea that bisexuals are liars, or that they’re concealing their true homosexuality, shows up over and over and over. Sharon Stone’s character in the 1992 film Basic Instinct embodies the stereotype of the murderous psychopathic bisexual. Fast-forward to 2011, and we have Kalinda in the popular show The Good Wife. Kalinda is a private investigator for a law firm, and her personal and work-related ethics are more than a little bit sketchy. She has sex with married men – and with married women. She manipulates people to get the information she wants. She’s a moving target – you never really know whether or not you can trust her. (Add to the mix the fact that Kalinda is also a woman of color, and this media portrayal becomes all the more negative.) Of course, both of these examples involve women, and the idea of female bisexuality has been a little easier to digest. We don’t really see media portrayals of bisexual men – because, don’t you know, there’s really no such thing as a male bisexual.

Now, another study – interestingly, by some of the same Northwestern University researchers who conducted the 2005 study – suggests that, in fact, bisexuality in males is a true phenomenon. In what the New York Times referred to as “an unusual scientific about-face,” researchers found that bisexual men, as they were watching videos of male and female same-sex sexual activity, experienced arousal responses to both videos, whereas their gay and straight counterparts did not. While many men who identify as bisexual are probably jumping at the chance to say, “I told you so,” I’m sure these researchers are eating more than a little bit of humble pie – although I give them credit for their willingness to question their original findings in the face of criticism. This is not the only study to document these findings – an earlier study published in March of this year yielded similar findings. Of course, the researchers are reporting what people who identify as bisexual already know – that they do, in fact, exist, and that their sexual and emotional feelings and desires are legitimate.

Whether we like it or not, science adds legitimacy and credibility to our personal, anecdotal experiences. And I actually think that scientific findings, when made accessible to the general public, have the power to change our perceptions and reshape our culture. Studies investigating the possibility of a “gay gene,” or of differences in brain structure, or of the effects of sex hormones, have convinced more than a few people of the viability of the “born that way” theory of sexual orientation. More importantly, these studies have established a launchpad for LGBTQ public policy efforts, providing the most solid legal argument in support of LGBTQ civil rights that we’ve ever seen. Will these findings be one of those cultural re-shapers?

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, LGBTQ, media, psychological research