Monthly Archives: December 2011

Killing the buzz

New Year’s Eve is not one of my favorite holidays. Drinking and staying up late are really not my thing, so that cuts out the majority of New Year’s Eve activities from the list of possibilities. Frankly, I’m grateful that I live on the West Coast, where I can watch the ball drop in Times Square on the ten o’clock news and then go to bed. On this iconic night of revelry, I’m a major buzz-killer. 
 
Obviously, alcohol and New Year’s Eve celebrations tend to go hand-in-hand. And many people are able to enjoy a drink here and there without a problem. However, alcoholism has a longstanding and destructive presence in the LGBTQ community. Several studies indicate that alcoholism is three times more common in the LGBTQ community than it is in the general population, and that up to 45% of LGBTQ people abuse alcohol. Although recent studies indicate that these statistics are inflated, and that alcohol abuse among sexual minorities is on the decline, the fact remains that alcoholism – and substance abuse in general – is a significant problem in the LGBTQ community.
 
Given that gay bars are still central to the social life of many LGBTQ people, these statistics aren’t surprising. For decades, gay bars were the only places gay and lesbian people could go to escape from the homophobia and heterosexism of everyday life. Closeted by day, authentic and free by night – that’s the safe haven that gay bars have been able to offer, especially in areas where it’s not safe to be out and where there are no other social opportunities for LGBTQ people. Throw alcohol (and, more recently, crystal meth and other drugs) into the mix, and you’ve got a mood-altering experience combined with a social lubricant – perfect for LGBTQs who might be harboring internalized feelings of guilt, shame, anger, fear, sadness, and loneliness. No wonder substance abuse has become such an issue in the LGBTQ community.
 
It hasn’t taken long for researchers to zero in on the significance of homophobia and heterosexism – and countless studies have connected the dots between alcoholism and the oppression of sexual minorities. For example, in a 2008 study conducted by Genevieve Weber of Hofstra University, lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants who had a serious drug or alcohol problem were significantly more likely than their non-drug-and-alcohol-abusing counterparts to have experienced heterosexism and internalized homophobia. This past year, a study led by University of Washington researchers Keren Lahavot and Jane M. Simoni indicated that, among lesbian and bisexual women, substance abuse was significantly associated with experiences of victimization and internalized homophobia. And findings from the 2010 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions suggest that the combined experience of homophobia, racism, and sexism quadruples the risk of a substance-use disorder for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Combine sexual minority oppression with the absence of other social opportunities besides gay bars and clubs, and you’ve got a public heath disaster.
 
Thankfully, many LGBTQ communities have taken significant strides to address alcoholism and substance abuse within their ranks. Most urban areas offer a range of social opportunities in addition to lesbian and gay bars. The Internet has allowed LGBTQ people, particularly those who live in non-urban areas, to connect with others. Increasingly, LGBTQ youth have social opportunities in the form of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their high schools. And being in recovery for alcoholism or drug addiction (and choosing not to frequent gay bars and clubs) isn’t grounds for having your gay card taken away – in fact, it’s fair to say that there is now a sizeable LGBTQ recovery community.
 
For anyone reading this who might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, or for anyone who might know someone with an alcohol or drug problem, check out www.gayalcoholics.com. This site provides information about alcoholism and recovery for gays and lesbians, and it includes links to gay Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as LGBTQ-friendly treatment centers.   

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No room at the inn

Earlier this month, several gay rights organziations called for the boycott of the Salvation Army’s iconic red kettle drive, and instead to donate money to LGBT-friendly charitable groups. Of course, this isn’t the first time that LGBTQ civil rights organizations have called attention to the “homosexuality-as-sin” philosophy the Salvation Army espouses. It also isn’t the first time that the gay community has urged people, in support of LGBTQ rights and acceptance, to donate their money elsewhere during the holiday season. For any readers who might be unfamiliar with the Salvation Army’s stance on homosexuality, the following passage is an excerpt from the Salvation Army’s position statement on this issue:

“Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. . . . Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse. In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation.”

Essentially, by denouncing both homosexuality and mistreatment of others, the Salvation Army takes the position of “hate the sin, but love the sinner. “And because the Salvation Army swaddles their anti-homosexuality stance with some degree of compassion (note the above statements regarding mistreatment), the general public has reacted with some hostility to the red kettle boycott. Take this comment, for example, posted on MSNBC’s website by a self-identified “supporter” of LGBTQ civil rights:

“I support the right of homosexuals to marry and live their lives as they please. . .it hurts no one. But urging people to stop donating to a group that helps people in need, well, that seems stupid to me.”

And this comment, suggesting that the gay community is angrily targeting the “good guys”:

“The Salvation Army isn’t perfect, but it is widely regarded as one of the best-ran charities in the world and has been consistently ranked in the top 5 large charities for efficiency, low administration costs and for providing transparency and accountability for its fundraising efforts.”

And this – a statement that insinuates that, when you’re homeless and starving, sexual orientation doesn’t matter:

“I do hope you are never on the street hungry and broke. You would run to the nearest SA soup kitchen. When you go in, they ask for your name, and if you have a place to live, and if you are working. Then they feed you, give you a place to sleep if you need it. That’s all. No who do you have sex with, what church do you go to, or what political party do you vote for.”

But sexual orientation DOES matter. In 2007, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a report titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” a comprehensive review of the available academic research and professional literature on LGBTQ homelessness. According to the report, 26 percent of LGBTQ teens are kicked out of their homes upon coming out (or after being outed by someone else). LGBTQ homeless teens are at significant risk for mental health issues like depression and suicidality, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors and “survival sex” (sex in exchange for money, drugs, food, clothes, or a place to stay), and victimization (LGBTQ homeless youth are 7 times more likely than their heterosexual peers to be victims of a crime). One in five transgender people need or are at risk of needing homeless shelter assistance. Obviously there are many factors that contribute to homelessness, but numerous studies indicate that homophobia is a significant force that drives LGBTQ youth out onto the streets.

Several studies, a number of which were cited in the Task Force report, indicate that LGBTQs commonly have negative experiences in the shelter system because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. To me, this isn’t surprising, given that we live in a homophobic and heterosexist society. However, the issue is likely compounded by the fact that many homeless services are run by faith-based organizations that oppose LGBTQ civil rights – such as the Salvation Army. Even if the attitude is “love the sinner, hate the sin,” I think it’s fair to say that LGBTQ homeless youth – particularly those who have been traumatized by the homophobia of their families – would rather starve, or sleep on the streets, or prostitute themselves for money or a place to stay, than stay in one of these shelters. They are, in a sense, chilly, inhospitable environments for LGBTQ youth. And this is why gay rights organizations have called for the boycott of the red kettle campaign.

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn“(Luke 2:7). People who belong to historically marginalized groups know exactly what this feels like. In our culture, where homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterosexism are in the water we drink and in the air we breathe, LGBTQs often feel like there’s no room at the inn. In my opinion, that’s a very powerful reality to reflect upon during this Christmas season. And it’s the change we can collectively work towards – a culture that embraces all people.  A culture in which, when oppression comes knocking at the door, the “No Vacancy” sign starts flashing.  

Merry Christmas, and peace on earth to all.

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Sports – the final frontier

In the sports world, the holidays are all about football. On Thanksgiving Day, many families in America watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, gorge on turkey and all the trimmings, and settle in for a day of watching – football. On Christmas (at least among Christians and other Americans who celebrate Christmas), everyone wakes up at the crack of dawn, spends the morning tearing through Christmas stockings and wrapping paper, and zones out all afternoon watching – football. For a die-hard baseball fan like myself, spring can’t come fast enough.

And for a die-hard baseball fan like myself who is also an advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, I’m waiting for the day when an openly gay athlete can play comfortably side-by-side with his or her teammates. A pie-in-the-sky goal, I realize, for homophobia in sports is such a longstanding, entrenched tradition. Many families urge their children (particularly sons) to play sports because it builds character, fosters team spirit and collaboration, and teaches life lessons about hard work and fair play. And more than a few parents push their sons into sports like football, baseball, or basketball to shore up their masculinity – and to protect them from “becoming” gay. The more aggressive the sport, the better – there’s a reason why Billy Elliot’s father encouraged boxing and discouraged ballet dancing. In fact, not playing sports can cause suspicion among a boy’s peers that he might in fact be gay. And girls and women who play sports aren’t immune – even though a number of lesbian athletes are out, “lesbophobia” seems to be alive and well, particularly in women’s team sports. The WNBA, for example, offers its rookie players courses on make-up and fashion tips as a way of ensuring that their players maintain a “feminine” persona – not surprising, given that lesbianism is often assumed in sports like softball and basketball. 

This year, things have been changing – all because of the “F-word.” When Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, in two separate incidents, used the “F-word” publicly, the NBA came down hard and fined both players heavily. In response to the fines, iconic former basketball star and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said the following:  “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play. Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person … I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.” In addition, a number of former professional athletes have come out of the closet, either as gay or as allies.  As quoted in an interview for New York magazine, Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of OutSports, said this: “Something has happened in the last year. It’s almost like homophobia is no longer considered cool in sports.” And the data seem to confirm this – several studies conducted by Eric Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Winchester, reveal that homophobia, at least in college sports, appears to be on the decline.  

Not only is homophobia becoming uncool, it also violates newly-implemented labor agreements. On November 22, 2011, Major League Baseball announced that their new collective bargaining agreement adds “sexual orientation” to its section on discrimination. Earlier this year, the NFL made a similar change in their collective bargaining agreement, adding sexual orientation as a protected class. And just this past week, a senior vice-president for the NBA, in perfect tipping-point style, announced that “non-discrimination language was added into the agreement that protects players from discrimination, including based on sexual orientation. The NHL and Major League Soccer have also added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies. In my opinion, I think it’s fair to say that, in 2011, we’ve witnessed more significant change in professional sports regarding LGBTQ civil rights than in any other American institution. And that includes the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. 

And still, we don’t have an openly gay male active professional athlete in any of the major U.S. sports franchises. When that happens (which, given the changes that have been taking place in rapid succession, may be sooner rather than later), if his sexuality is going to be accepted by his teammates and, more importantly, his fans, he’ll need to be a superstar – a player with All-Star status. In the words of John Amaechi, quoted in New York magazine, “I came out three years after finishing a reasonably average career, and everybody freaked out. Imagine if I had been good.”

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Legalize gay!

Last Tuesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton (yes, I’m talking about Hillary again) made a groundbreaking speech on behalf of LGBTQ human rights that caused reverberations around the world. Never before has such a high-level government official delivered such a bold and powerful statement calling for the unabashed support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. Clinton kicked off her speech with a brief history lesson:

“At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

She continued by linking gay rights to human rights with this statement:

“Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human.”

Later, she poses a direct challenge to anti-LGBT cultural and religious values practiced throughout the world:

“. . . [W]e came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.”

And, towards the end of her speech, Clinton issues an impassioned call to end passive discrimination and oppression:

“The LGBTQ community needs allies. Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message.”

I’d say that this was an historic moment in modern world history.

But I’d actually like to focus on one specific part of her speech that I thought was particularly notable (which I haven’t really seen discussed anywhere else – and I’ve been paying attention, believe me).  The statements that caught my attention were these: “But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.” Whether Clinton is well-versed in theory and research in social psychology, or whether she has especially astute powers of observation, is a question that’s up for grabs. However, what I find notable is that her words echo almost exactly the ideas of Gordon Allport, psychologist and author of the classic 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Her comments also reflect the findings of cognitive-developmental theorist Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his research on moral development. Both of these scholars concur that laws shape our moral compass – not the other way around.

Allport makes a distinction between stateways (legislation, court rulings, and other public policy efforts) and folkways (culturally-driven attitudes, beliefs, and worldviews), suggesting that social and cultural norms are most powerfully affected by stateways. When we pass laws, we create a new norm. And as a rule, people tend to shy away from non-normative behavior. In fact, our collective human desire for law and order is reflected in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. According to Kohlberg’s research, most people tend to rely on an “authority and social order maintaning orienatation” (as opposed to some universal set of ethical principles) when making moral judgments. In other words, people use laws, rather than an internal set of guiding principles, to make decisions about weighty moral issues. So if we want people to support LGBT human rights, we need laws and policies – both domestically and internationally – that guide that support.

Of course, there are laws, and there are laws. What happens when governmental law conflicts with Biblical law? Frankly, I think this conflict is at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s own evolving attitudes regarding same-sex marriage probably reflect this dissonance. Ideally, Biblical law and laws passed by government entities would support reflect one another – but obviously that’s not always the case. It’s an issue I explore in my book, Backdrop, in some detail, and I’d like to explore it further in a future blog post. Stay tuned.   

To watch (or read the text of) Hillary Clinton’s speech, delivered December 6, 2011, go to http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/watch-hillary-clintons-amazing-speech-on-lgbt-rights-full-text-and-video/politics/2011/12/06/31329.


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Getting to Zero

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first reports from Los Angeles of gay men dying of pneumonia, cancer, and other strange opportunistic infections. One year later, Tom Brokaw and Robert Bazell of NBC News reported on a  “mysterious, newly-discovered disease” that afflicts mainly “homosexual men” – a disease which quickly came to be identified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by the human immunodeficency virus (HIV). Now, HIV and AIDS are part of our common everyday nomenclature, but back in 1981, news reports containing those enigmatic initials evoked incredible fear in the public – with good reason. The death toll over the past thirty years has been staggering – more than 25 million people worldwide have died from the disease, 600,000 in the United States. In the early years, most died because no treatments were available. In 1987, approval of the anti-retroviral drug AZT offered the first ray of hope for people with AIDS (PWAs), representing a major breakthrough in the treatment of AIDS. Now, with the development of several classes of drugs that block the virus, “combination therapy” is now the medical treatment of choice – allowing HIV-positive people and PWAs to live fairly long, fulfilling lives.  As the old advertisement says, we’ve come a long way, baby.

Yet according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control, HIV and AIDS are still significant public health issues. Worldwide, about 34 million people are HIV-positive, 1.2 million of whom are in the U.S. And in the U.S., one in five people with HIV have no idea that they’re infected with the virus – potentially creating a risk for further transmission. We may have made significant strides regarding treatment of HIV/AIDS, but our efforts at prevention – even with the surge of safer-sex workshops that were conducted during the 1990s – are pathetic at best.

In her November 8 address, borrowing from the phrase “combination treatment,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed her goal of an “AIDS Free Generation” by outlining a three-pronged “combination prevention” strategy. First, given that one in seven new HIV infections occurs when a mother passes the virus on to her child, preventing mother-to-child transmission would have a significant impact, particularly among poor people and in underdeveloped countries. The second prong of her strategy involves voluntary medical male circumcision, a low-cost procedure that, according to controlled clinical trials, reduces the risk of female to male transmission by more than 60 percent. Lastly, using anti-retroviral treatment for people living with HIV can reduce the risk of transmission up to 96 percent. Using these three strategies, according to Clinton, “we will be on the path to an AIDS-free generation.”

With all due respect to our Secretary of State, I’d like to suggest two more potentially powerful prevention strategies. According to the Centers for Disease Control, sexually transmitted diseases and infections are on the rise. By age 35, 50 percent of the U.S. population will have some type of STD/STI. Half of new STDs occur in adolescents and young adults. And increasingly, middle- and high-school students aren’t receiving comprehensive sex and relationship education – in one of my classes, a student told me that the extent of safer-sex education she received was this: “Use a condom.” More chilling is the fact that, because treatments for HIV and AIDS have improved so dramatically over the last decade, young people don’t typically consider it to be a serious health issue – and as a result, they are engaging in riskier sexual behaviors. If we can provide our young people with accurate sex education, they will be better equipped to make healthy choices for themselves.

The second prevention strategy I’d like to suggest involves elimiation of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. The World Health Organization cites stigma as the main reason why people don’t get tested, why they don’t disclose their HIV status, and why they fail to take (or don’t have access to) anti-retroviral drugs. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, “Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action. It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.” If we don’t address stigma – homophobia as well as disease-related stigma – there is no way we’ll ever see an “AIDS Free Generation.” In the words of ACT-UP, Silence = Death.

World AIDS Day was this past Thursday, December 11, and the theme this year was “Getting to Zero.” Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.

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