Monthly Archives: February 2012

Attack of the Cookie Monster!

Last week, in a letter sent to House Republicans, Indiana state representative Bob Morris called for a block to a proposed resolution honoring the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America. In his letter, Morris referred to the Girl Scouts as “the tactical arm of Planned Parenthood,” populated by “feminists, lesbians, and Communists” and promoting the “homosexual lifestyle.” Morris’ letter (and later statements in its defense) comes on the heels of the YouTube video posted by a group called HonestGirlScouts.com, which is calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies in response to a Colorado troop’s decision to allow a 7-year-old transgender child into its troop.  

That same week, a report was published in the journal Pediatrics by Dr. Norman Spack, founder of the Gender Management Services Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, which provides medical and psychological services for transgender youth. The topic of Spack’s report is “pubertal suppression” – use of hormone-suppressing agents to delay the onset of puberty. Since the 1990s, according to Spack, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of pediatric gender patients presenting at the clinic, and pubertal suppression is just beginning to take hold as a viable treatment option.

All of this is bringing the issue of childhood gender dysphoria onto the cultural radar screen, and clearly we can’t get any more polarized than this. On the one extreme end of the continuum, we’ve got people like Bob Morris, who believe that the behavior of transgender children shouldn’t be encouraged. Or people like Debbie Schlussel, a conservative political commentator, who, in response to the popular children’s book My Princess Boy, said the following:  “[T]he tolerance of turning America’s boys and men into pink-encrusted powder puffs, isn’t tolerance or ‘acceptance’ at all. It’s the absorption, the digestion of the absolutely absurd–the complete abnormal– into our definition of what is okay.  And it’s not okay.  It’s just the further defining of deviancy down that continues to afflict and destroy America.”

And on the other side, we have people like Norman Spack, who believe that offering pubertal suppression treatment can be a lifesaver for many transgender kids. Without treatment, these children might engage in self-mutilation to try to change their anatomy. They face verbal and physical abuse from their peers. And they are at significant risk for stress, depression, and suicide attempts. Withholding treatment, given these realities, may do much more harm than good.  

I’ve had transgender students in my classes ever since I began teaching at Sacramento City College eleven years ago. And, I have to say, I’ve witnessed quite a shift in that period of time. In the early 2000s, the few transgender students I knew (all of them transwomen) were typically in their 30s or 40s and perhaps just starting to transition. And none of them passed well. They desperately wanted to be seen as women – not as transwomen, but as women. They wanted to blend in. But, with deep voices and Adam’s apples, there was no way that would ever happen.

Fast-forward to the present, and the landscape changes dramatically. The transgender students I know (both transwomen and transmen) are quite young – some in their late teens, many in their 20s. This cohort is far more likely to have experienced some level of acceptance and support from their families. Quite a few are on pubertal suppression treatments. And, while each student I know is at a different point in the transition process, they tend to be happier, more socially connected, and more at home in their bodies. And many of them pass incredibly well. 

The trend towards incorporating pubertal suppression into treatment, while utilized for years in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, is just starting to gain some traction in the United States. However, not all medical professionals are fully on board with this, citing ethical concerns, possible side effects of hormonal suppression, and the motives of parents in choosing this form of treatment. All fair concerns, to be sure, although pediatric endocrinologists who treat gender conditions follow careful guidelines and engage in comprehensive evaluation before any hormone suppressants are administered. According to Spack’s report, which details 97 girls and boys treated between 1998 and 2010, the children and families receive psychological counseling and are monitored until the first signs of puberty emerge. This is when puberty-blocking drugs might be administered, allowing time for children to mature emotionally and to be sure that they want to proceed with permanent sex reassignment. The beauty of these drugs, according to Spack, is that their effects are fully reversible, in case a child decides to opt out of permanent reassignment.

I’m sure Bob Morris would recoil in horror at all of this. It challenges our conventional wisdom about what it means to be “male” or “female.” And it also raises issues about how we, collectively, deal with the discomfort that gender nonconformity can provoke. Do we silence transpeople and make them conform in order to deal with our transphobia (a.k.a. the “Bob Morris” approach)? Or do we practice acceptance of others, and handle our discomfort on our end (the “Girl Scouts” approach)?     

Enjoy your Girl Scout cookies. Personally, I’ve always liked the Thin Mints.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, LGBT families, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Black History Month: Gay Edition

February is Black History Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the people and events that have shaped the African-American experience. It’s an opportunity to honor the significant civil rights milestones that have been achieved on behalf of the African-American community. And it’s an opportunity to acknowledge that true social justice and equality haven’t yet been achieved – particularly when it comes to the intersection between racism and homophobia. Homophobia exists in the Black community, particularly in the Black religious community. Racism, both overt and subtle, continues to be perpetrated in the LGBTQ community. And as a result, many LGBTQ people of color feel as if they exist on the margins, not feeling fully accepted by either the black community or the gay community.

So how does one find a sense of acceptance when neither community fully accepts you? Eduardo Morales, a clinical psychologist at the California School of Professional Psychology-San Francisco, has developed a multi-stage model chronicling the identity development process of LGBTQ people of color. Anchored in the fact that a strong polarization exists between the gay community and many communities of color, Morales focuses the crux of his model on the issue of selecting an allegiance. Should they align with their ethnic or cultural community, or should they side with the gay community?  Some may cope with this conflict by compartmentalizing their identities – perhaps creating a circle of Black friends, and a circle of gay friends, but never allowing the two circles to intersect. Others may choose to side exclusively with one group, particularly if it proves to be too messy and challenging to keep various circles separate. According to Morales, the healthiest resolution to this dilemma involves being able to develop a more fluid and contingent identity, moving from one community to another and maintaining an intact yet flexible identity.  

That last note sounds great, right? I think all of us would like to move freely through the world, experiencing acceptance from within, while adapting to the demands of whatever environment we happen to be in. And many of us learn to do exactly that. However, for members of historically marginalized groups, acceptance doesn’t just come from within – in fact, that’s why communities develop in the first place. We seek community because we want acceptance and validation from others. We seek community in order to bind together in solidarity. But the challenge for LGBTQ people of color is that no one community will necessarily guarantee unconditional acceptance. One aspect of identity is accepted and celebrated, while another is devalued and denigrated. It’s a huge challenge to develop a sense of internal integration when our external communities are far from integrated.

All that said, I think change is in the works. Consider these comments made by Joy Freeman-Coulbary, published last week in the Washington Post in honor of Black History Month:

“I am African-American. And . . . I find it highly ironic that such a large contingent of my fellow African Americans oppose another minority—those who identify as gays and lesbians—having the right to marry and access all of the benefits and rights this institution confers. Such opposition is counter to the basic tenants [sic] of equality and human rights.”

And consider the following, excerpted from a letter printed this week in the Kansas City Star, written by Rev. Gerald M. Palmer:

“Today I call for the church to be the voice of equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. The same elements of the church that sheltered the weary from the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination are there to shelter and comfort those facing prejudice and discrimination because of their sexual orientation. They are ready to again serve as echo chambers of voices calling out for love, social justice, equality and the end of religious-based homophobia. Homophobia leads to anti-gay violence, the fueling of HIV, the high rate of suicide among LGBT teens and other social issues that make life difficult for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender neighbors. That is why during this Black History Month, I lend my voice to the others who are calling for a new day.”

I, too, lend my voice in the calling for a new day.

2 Comments

Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, racism

Where is the love?

A friend of mine is the senior minister for a church that follows the principles of Science of Mind. She always begins her services with this statement: “Every action is a call for love or an expression of love. No exceptions.”

No exceptions. None? No exceptions?

If that’s the case, then what is homophobia? Or racism? Or sexism, or any other form of oppression? Isn’t homophobia a form of fear-based hate, discomfort, and disgust? Wouldn’t this be the exception? It certainly would be interesting to reframe homophobia as a call for love (or, as hard as this might be to swallow, an expression of love), rather than as an expression of hate and disgust. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, this idea is what I’d like to explore in this week’s blog post.  

Gregory Herek, a social psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has conducted an impressive body of research on sexual prejudice and stigma. In one area of his work, Herek explores the functions that anti-gay attitudes serve, theorizing that sexual prejudice must have a significant payoff for the person who holds these attitudes – particularly if the person hasn’t ever had any experiences or interactions with LGBTQ people. The payoff that Herek identifies is self-affirmation – by establishing ourselves as a certain kind of person, and then distancing ourselves from (or even attacking) people who represent the kind of person we’re not (or don’t want to be), we reinforce our self-esteem and self-worth. In other words, we step on others in order to stand taller. To use the language of Science of Mind, it’s a call for love from others and an expression of love towards ourselves – primitive as these mechanisms may be.

Let’s get a little more specific. Sometimes homophobia serves what Herek refers to as a value-expressive function. All of us hold values that are tied strongly to the kind of person we think we are. If I am a devout follower of Christianity, and if I believe that following the teachings of the Bible is associated with being a good, moral, upstanding person, then believing that homosexuality is an abomination serves a value-expressive function. It reinforces the “I am a good Christian” identity.  

Sometimes homophobia actually connects people to one another, serving what Herek calles a social-expressive function. If a person’s family holds homophobic attitudes, challenging those beliefs could rock the boat and potentially weaken those family ties. However, harboring sexual prejudice might be an avenue for that person to experience acceptance, approval, or love from their family. This can also happen within a person’s peer group, church, or other source of valued personal connections. Given that humans are innately social creatures, and that we thrive through our connections with others, this social-expressive function of homophobia can be extremely powerful. Being socially ostracized has painful consequences.

When a person is using homophobia as a defensive function, that person is likely engaging in a last-ditch effort to preserve any shred of self-esteem he or she may have. Defensive homophobia reduces painful feelings (such as anxiety) that are triggered by gay people or homosexuality. For example, in the 1999 film American Beauty, retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts is an angry, blatant homophobe, subjecting his son to a beating after accusing him of being gay – only to reveal later in the film his own same-sex attractions, and the shame and disgust he feels about his homosexuality. For Col. Fitts, homophobia clearly served a defensive function – it allowed him to hold onto the idea of himself as a strong, masculine military man, distancing himself from painful, uncomfortable feelings that conflicted with that identity.

So, on a very basic, primitive level, homophobia may well be a call for love or an expression of love. It can reinforce values that are intrinsic to our identities, it can connect us with other like-minded people, and it can protect our fragile sense of self from painful emotions. But sometimes our love comes from a truly respectful, loving, and altruistic place, and sometimes it comes from a place of self-preservation and fear. And fear-based thinking and behaviors often causes tremendous damage to others.

This Valentine’s Day, whatever your sexual identity or relationship status, and whomever your loved ones may be, I urge all of us to examine our motives behind our calls for love and expressions of love. Am I motivated by self-respect and respect for others, or am I motivated by self-preservation? Are my loving acts truly loving, or do they incur negative consequences towards others?  

 

2 Comments

Filed under biphobia, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

Don’t say gay

Last week, Senator Stacey Campfield (R-TN) made the news (again) for being kicked out of a Knoxville restaurant because of his views on homosexuality. Campfield rose to notoriety back in May of 2011 when a bill he co-sponsored (SB 49/HB 229), the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, passed in the Tennessee Senate. This bill bars teachers from discussing homosexuality in K-8 public schools and limits instruction in public classrooms “to any age-appropriate natural human reproduction science.” The bill is back on the docket in the Tennessee House and was expected to be presented to the House Education Subcommittee on January 18th, but was delayed because several committee members “needed more time to understand its implications.”

Ironically, two days after HB 229 was re-introduced, a 14-year-old gay student named Phillip Parker committed suicide after experiencing daily harassment and bullying at school.  That’s a pretty severe implication to me.  

Instead of focusing on the severely problematic nature of silencing homosexuality, however (which I think is obvious – and which I explore in a previous blog post, “Is ‘neutrality’ really neutral?”), I’d like to offer Campfield up as an example of what happens when we fail to use critical thinking when considering psychological research. Several days before the restaurant incident, an interview with Campfield was published on the Huffington Post, where he made the following comments:

“I just think there are situations where some kids maybe sexually unsecure [sic] in themselves or sexually confused and don’t necessarily know clearly what direction they are. If someone, a person of influence, says maybe you’re gay, maybe you should explore those things — maybe the child, who is young and impressionable, says maybe I am gay.”

“Homosexuals represent about 2 to 3 percent of the population yet you look at television and plays and theaters, it’s 50 percent of the theaters, probably more than that, 50 percent of the theaters based on something about homosexuality.”

“Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community — it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.” 

“My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex…very rarely [transmitted].”   

“What’s the average lifespan of a homosexual? It’s very short. Google it yourself.”

Where is Campfield getting his information? This is a critical thinking question I ask my students routinely, so I think Campfield, who is in a powerful position to influence public policy, should be held to the same standard.

The idea that adults can influence our highly impressionable, sexually confused young people to take a wrong turn towards homosexuality isn’t supported at all by the psychological research – in fact, it sounds like it comes straight out of Anita Bryant’s playbook.

While Campfield’s estimate of the prevalence of homosexuality (2-3%) isn’t out of the ballpark, he certainly hasn’t been keeping up with the annual GLAAD reports tracking the number of gay characters on television (which actually declined in 2011). Of course, theater – particularly musical theater – has often been associated with homosexuality, although no clear statistics exist regarding the prevalence of gay characters or themes in theatrical productions. If anything, these statement seem to reveal Campfield’s fears of “the spread of the gay.”

In support of the idea that HIV transmission via heterosexual sex is rare, Campfield himself cited a web article dated – no, that’s not a typo – 1988. Since then, many public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, warn that the main route of HIV transmission for women is through heterosexual sex.

The idea that homosexuals have shorter than average lifespans than their heterosexual counterparts likely comes from Paul Cameron’s 1994 “gay obituary” study – which has been discredited by many well-respected scientists. If Campfield had Googled it, he would have discovered that himself. He would have also discovered that Paul Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical infractions, and the American Sociological Association and Canadian Psychological Association have both accused Cameron of misrepresenting social science research.

And the screwing the monkey thing? On his blog, Campfield cited a Wikipedia article (NOTE: Wikipedia isn’t considered by most academics to be a rigorously scholarly source), which links to an article about Gaëtan Dugas, a flight attendant and alleged “Patient Zero” who is thought to be one of several highly sexually active men who initially triggered the spread of HIV throughout North America. No mention is made in the article about Dugas ever having had sex with a monkey.

Coming full circle, probably the most serious critical thinking infraction involves Campfield’s “don’t say gay” bill. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist, right? That’s what we call “magical thinking” – the idea that our thoughts and beliefs have a direct effect on the world. If we don’t talk about it, maybe we can control the spread of the “gay issue.” If we don’t mention it, maybe it will just disappear altogether. Freud considered magical thinking to be a childlike, immature cognitive state. And the opposite of a magical worldview is a scientific worldview, where hypotheses are either supported or falsified through the rigorous collection and analysis of evidence.

Let’s raise the bar and require our public servants to use social science research accurately, ethically, and responsibly. And let’s ask our public servants to engage their constituents in a thoughtful and intelligent level of critical thinking and conversation.

 
 
   
 

Leave a comment

Filed under anti-gay bullying, children, gay suicides, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, media, overt homophobia, psychological research, stereotypes, Uncategorized