Monthly Archives: April 2012

Stand up and be counted!

Research excites me. And I’m not just talking about interesting and thought-provoking findings that get reported as sound bites in the media. At the risk of outing myself as a total geek, I have to say that the actual research process is just fascinating to me. Designing research studies, crunching numbers, analyzing statistical findings – I love that stuff. And this week, the U.S. Census Bureau, in its report titled “Households and Families: 2010,” offered up the perfect opportunity to play with methods and statistics, particularly as they pertain to the LGBTQ community. This report includes, among other things, information about same-sex couples in the United States. Unfortunately, the procedures used by the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the prevalence of same-sex couples were, in my opinion, pretty weak.

To delve into this in some more detail, I’m reprinting, in its entirety, a brief sidebar included in the report titled “UNMARRIED PARTNER HOUSEHOLDS.” I know this will probably bore you to tears, but it highlights the serious methodological errors the U.S. Census Bureau committed in collecting data on the LGBTQ community. To make this a little easier to digest, I’ll break down each section of this sidebar and offer up some commentary. Here goes:

UNMARRIED PARTNER HOUSEHOLDS

An “unmarried partner household” consists of a householder and a person living in the household who reports that he or she is (1) an unmarried partner of the householder and of the opposite sex; (2) an unmarried partner of the householder and of the same sex; or (3) a spouse of the householder and of the same sex. Procedures for the 2010 Census edited same-sex spouse households as unmarried partner households, and these households appear as such in published Summary File 1 tabulations.

Obviously, checking the “unmarried partner” box doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gay or lesbian, because many straight couples are unmarried. To determine how many people who checked the “unmarried partner” box are part of a same-sex couple, the U.S. Census Bureau went back and determined how they answered the gender item. If both partners checked “male,” or if both partners checked “female,” they were assumed to be part of a same-sex couple. This is cumbersome, though – why not just ask if they’re part of a same-sex couple? Or, to get even more basic, why not include a question that asks about sexual orientation? Not asking about sexual orientation (1) renders single gay and lesbian people totally invisible, and (2) renders bisexuality totally invisible, since many bisexuals are in different-sex marriages. 

Problem #1: There are no questions in the U.S. Census that specifically ask about one’s sexual orientation.

It’s important to note that same-sex couples don’t have the option to check “married” on the U.S. Census. In fact, there is no “married” box – the option that exists for heterosexual married couples is “husband and wife.” This isn’t surprising, given that the federal government defines marriage as between a man and a woman. However, the U.S. Census Bureau assumes that all same-sex couples would know to check the “unmarried partner” box, even though that might not be the most accurate descriptor. But who knows – some people in same-sex relationships might check “husband and wife,” or “other relative,” or “housemate or roommate.” So that bring us to . . .

Problem #2: The options available in the U.S. Census do not accurately reflect how same-sex couples define their relationships.

Now let’s bring gender identity into the mix:

During the review of the data, counts of same-sex spouses appeared inflated due to mismarking errors in the gender item on the census forms. Up to 28 percent of the total number of same-sex unmarried partner households may actually be opposite-sex households: 62 percent of reported same-sex spouses were probably marked in error compared with 7 percent of reported same-sex unmarried partners. This report presents data both for same-sex households as shown in Summary File 1 tabulations and for a set of “preferred estimates” that attempts to remove statistically same-sex households that are likely opposite-sex households.

“Mismarking errors”? Essentially, they’re saying that a LOT of people who reported that they are a same-sex “husband and wife” probably marked the gender question incorrectly. It’s entirely possible that some of the reported same-sex spouses weren’t marked in error – even if that couple lives in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, they might have chosen “husband and wife” because they consider themselves to be married, and since there wasn’t a “married” box, that left – you guessed it – “husband and wife.” This points back to Problem #2. However, the Census Bureau is correct in that the gender item probaby did yield some errors – but not necessarily because people cluelessly marked the wrong gender. Picture this scenario: If you don’t fit the standard identity of “male” or “female,” and there’s no opportunity to identify yourself as “transgender” or some other non-standard gender identity, then which box do you check? And, depending on the box you check, is your relationship status going to be recorded accurately?

Problem #3:  There are no questions in the U.S. Census that specifically ask about gender identity, gender expression, or transgender status.  

I realize that the inclusion of “unmarried partner” was a big step for the U.S. Census Bureau, and that this option yielded data that will greatly benefit the lesbian and gay community. However, the 2010 U.S. Census data is woefully inadequate in bringing the LGBTQ community into visible focus. This is a big deal, given that the U.S. Census is probably the largest scale and most ambitious data collection effort in the world, and that the data are used in a wide range of policies, initiatives, and funding decisions. And what’s really sad to me is that the methodological errors in the U.S. Census probably weren’t just dumb mistakes – in fact, I bet every word was very carefully chosen. If anything, we’re seeing the fallout from the political tug-of-war that our country is experiencing regarding LGBTQ issues.  

The “Households and Families: 2010” report can be found here: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The natural law of gay sharks

“I think that it’s … unnatural. I think that it’s detrimental, and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” – Kirk Cameron, discussing his views on homosexuality with Piers Morgan.

Kirk Cameron certainly isn’t breaking any new ground with this viewpoint. In the Laws, written in 360 B.C.E., Plato considered same-sex sexuality to be “unnatural,” even calling for legislation banning homosexual acts, masturbation, and procreative sex. Later, in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from his Christian beliefs as well as his grounding in Aristotelian philosophy and ethics, stated that the only type of moral (and “natural”) sex act is vaginal intercourse, since it can potentially result in procreation. These ideas are the foundation for the modern-day understanding of “natural law” adopted by the Catholic Church and other denominations, an understanding that for centuries has been used to criminalize, pathologize, and demonize homosexuality. 

How has this “modern-day understanding” of natural law affected LGBTQ rights? Let’s start with Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy law. In his written opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger described homosexual sex as an “infamous crime against nature,” concluding that, “[t]o hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching.” When sodomy laws were eventually overturned by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Antonin Scalia, in a scathing dissent, wrote, “This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation,” concluding that the Court “has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.” Obviously, while natural law has its roots in philosophy and religion, it has had an extraordinarily powerful influence in the political sphere. And today, natural law is one of the central arguments that’s used to oppose same-sex marriage rights.   

So how do you get around the “natural law” argument when advocating for LGBTQ rights? Well, one thing you can do is look to the natural world. And the natural world – the animal kingdom, to be specific – has numerous examples of behavior that is homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, autosexual/masturbatory, non-monogamous, polyamorous, hermaphroditic, fetishistic . . . need I go on?  

For simplicity’s sake, let’s limit our focus to homosexual or bisexual behavior. According to one source, non-heterosexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species, and is well-documented in 500 species. The story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who nested, brooded, and raised baby Tango at the Central Park Zoo, was immortalized in the popular (and controversial, in some circles) children’s book And Tango Makes Three. Bonobo monkeys engage in same-sex and opposite-sex activity. Female cattle frequently mount one another. Certain types of male bighorn sheep are known to scientists as “effeminate sheep” because of their sexual proclivities.  And dolphins – well, anyone who watches Glee knows that they are “just gay sharks.”

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth have been studying these “gay sharks” extensively – 120 bottlenose dolphins, to be more accurate. This March, they published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, where they documented periods of extensive bisexuality juxtaposed with exclusive homosexuality. This isn’t a radically new finding – homosexuality and bisexuality have been documented in several dolphin species, but particularly among bottlenose dolphins. However, the fact that this study has received national media attention is very interesting and timely, in my opinion. In fact, the last time homosexuality in animals was newsworthy enough for the national media was back in, oh, 2002, 2003 – coincidentally, when Lawrence v. Texas reached the U.S. Supreme Court docket. And it’s notable that evidence of homosexuality among animals was one of the compelling arguments that convinced a majority of justices to deem sodomy unconstitutional. In this political, social, religious, and cultural climate, where we have a senior Catholic cardinal who cites “natural law” in his comparison between same-sex marriage and slavery; where we have conservative political and religious leaders using the “natural law” argument in their North Carolina campaign to define marriage as between one man and one woman; where, despite his repeated infidelities, we have Newt Gingrich defending the sanctity of marriage based on natural law – it’s no wonder we’re seeing a resurgence of evidence supporting the idea that homosexuality and bisexuality are very much a part of nature. 

Noting the dolphins’ “complicated alliance relationships,” “intense” social lives, and “constant drama,” scientist Richard Connor, one of co-authors of the Proceedings report,  was quoted as saying, “I’m glad I’m not a dolphin.” Given the complexity, intensity, and constant drama surrounding LGBTQ issues in our society, I find that comment to be highly ironic.   

2 Comments

Filed under bisexuality, human rights, LGBTQ, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

Silence = death

Homophobia is a powerfully destructive force in our culture.  And it is most deadly when it is met with silence. For some reason, this week I’ve noticed several disturbing examples of silence, committed by individuals who have significant power to reduce and eliminate homophobia in our culture.

Barack Obama is one of them. Although his administration has made powerful strides in advancing LGBTQ civil rights (repealing DADT, for example),  his “evolution” regarding same-sex marriage rights has been painfully slow. And this week, Obama refused to add sexual orientation and gender identity to an executive order that would prevent discrimination by federal contractors. With a simple stroke of the pen, Obama could have granted protections for a lot of LGBTQ people. But he chose not to take that action – probably because he doesn’t want to ruffle feathers during an election season.

 So, in order not to ruffle feathers, Obama stays silent. And the LGBTQ community gets to bear the costs.

But it was another act of silence that I found myself reacting to more strongly. Nearly forty years ago, then-president of the American Psychiatric Association Robert Spitzer took a powerful – and potentially risky – stance when he led the effort to depathologize homosexuality by removing it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Spitzer is not gay, and was never previously involved with any form of gay activism. But he used his position of power and made a decision in the service of social justice that impacted millions of people. He could have remained cloaked in his heterosexual privilege, as many people do, and chosen not to implement this change. Instead, he took the path of a straight ally, speaking out and acting with courage and integrity.

But the story doesn’t end here.

Almost thirty years later, at the annual APA convention, Spitzer presented a paper based on 200 interviews of lesbians and gay men who had undergone some form of reparative therapy, mainly through ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, or with therapists affiliated with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). This paper, titled, “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” revealed that 66% of male participants and 44% of female participants had achieved “good heterosexual functioning,” and that “89 percent of men and 95 percent of women said they were bothered only slightly, or not at all, by unwanted homosexual feelings.” Spitzer’s attempts to soften these damning statistics, noting that “only 11 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women reported a complete absence of homosexual indicators, including same-sex attraction,” were ineffective and weak. Despite the fact that the APA issued an official disavowal of the paper, and despite the fact that numerous criticisms had been made of the study, the damage had been done. For the first time, a researcher who was not affiliated with NARTH, or the Family Research Council, or Focus on the Family had determined that sexual orientation change was possible. And it wasn’t just any old researcher – it was the researcher who had removed the homosexuality diagnosis from the DSM in the first place. To add insult to injury, Spitzer even took an active step forward with his research – he submitted his paper to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a highly respected scientific journal, and it was published two years later in 2003. If anything could have felt a complete and total betrayal to the LGBTQ community, this was it.

Spitzer’s been interviewed numerous times since then, and he’s consistently stood by the findings of his study. And even though he’s recognized and acknowledged that his paper provoked feelings of tremendous anger and betrayal from the LGBTQ community, he’s never made a public statement of apology.

Until this week.

In an interview with Gabriel Arana, who wrote an article titled, “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” Spitzer talked about how troubled he was by how his study was received. He noted that his goal in conducting the study in the first place was never to provide ammunition for reparative therapy groups – it was merely to assess whether sexual orientation change was even a possibility. He acknowledged that the criticisms that were lodged against the study were “largely correct.” He said that he had spoken with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior and asked them to print a retraction, but that the editor declined the request. And, at the end of his interview with Arana, Spitzer asked if he would print a retraction, so, in his words, “I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Why didn’t Spitzer push harder for the retraction of his paper? Why didn’t he speak out when NARTH used his study for political purposes? Instead of issuing a second-hand retraction via an online article, why didn’t Spitzer attempt to get a retraction into a more academically rigorous publication?

It’s easy and convenient to blame the victim, and to try to burn Spitzer at the stake. However, I don’t think we can ever underestimate the powerful silencing effects of homophobia. Homophobia wants LGBTQ people to keep quiet and disappear. And homophobia knows that when powerful people speak up and speak out, change happens. So homophobia goes to any lengths to suppress the voices of powerful people.

But if we know what homophobia is capable of, and we know the tactics that homophobia will use to achieve its goals, then we have powerful ammunition against it. Silence is the ally of homophobia. Our voices and actions are the allies of social justice.

You can find Gabriel Arana’s article, “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” at http://prospect.org/article/my-so-called-ex-gay-life.

Leave a comment

Filed under biphobia, covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, same-sex marriage, transphobia, Uncategorized

God is watching us

Thursday afternoon. Spring Break was just hours away for most of my students. And although all of my students behaved politely, their facial expressions belied their true feelings. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock – will she EVER stop talking and let us out of here??? 

When my students get like that, I think, Movie day.

The movie of the day was 8: The Mormon Proposition, a powerful and controversial film about the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in the passage of California’s Proposition 8. Some reviewers called the film “outstanding” and “highly emotional,” others referred to it as “propagandistic” and “heavy-handed.” To me, the film revealed the well-organized, high-powered, strategic tactics that were launched in order to pass the initiative. What snagged my attention the most, however, was the astronomical amount of money the campaign was able to raise – to the tune of $22 million. No other statewide initiative has generated that much money – to borrow a phrase used in the film, we’re talking “Obama money.” And when you consider the fact that there are only about 750,000 Mormons living in California (just shy of 2% of the population), the numbers become even more staggering. How, you might ask, did such large sums of money stack up so quickly?

One word comes to mind. Tithing.

Members of the LDS church are very accustomed to tithing. A 2012 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 79 percent of Mormons said they practiced tithing – meaning that they gave about 10% of their income to their church. Once a year, families who are active members of the LDS church meet with their bishop and discuss their donations – at which point they may be encouraged to increase their contribution. Moreover, when Proposition 8 qualified for the November 2008 ballot, LDS churchgoers were encouraged to give even more. On June 29, 2008, in a letter titled “Preserving Traditional Marriage and Strengthening Families,” Mormons were told that “[m]arriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children.” The letter went on to say:

“We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time [emphasis mine] to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.”

Means and time. Tithe your money, tithe your time. No wonder the LDS church was able to raise $22 million in such a short period of time.

Most people don’t give anywhere near 10% of their income to ANY cause, religious or otherwise. According to one study, members of Protestant churches give an average of about 2.38 percent of their income to their church – a decrease over the last thirty years, despite an increase in prosperity. If we expand our definition of “tithing” to include charitable giving, we find that Americans are actually quite generous; in 2010, individual charitable giving totaled over $200 million. However, if we dig a little deeper and consider a range of data sources, we find that:

  • half of that money went to churches and faith-based causes;
  • people who are religious are far more likely than their non-religious counterparts to make charitable donations; and
  • only about 3% of LGBTQ people donate to LGBTQ-related causes.

Yikes. That last statistic is sobering. Clearly, when it comes to charitable giving, it’s hard to ignore the God factor. While many LGBTQ people believe in a God-concept, very few actually go to church on a regular basis – probably because, in most cases, the church climate is pretty chilly for LGBTQ people. So what is it about believing in God – or going to church – that factors into financial giving?

Whether it’s a belief in God or regular church attendance, the God factor was the focus of a recent study published in Psychological Science. The title says it all: “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game.” The primary researchers, Azim F. Shariff and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that people were more likely to allocate money to anonymous strangers when God concepts were implicitly activated than when neutral or no concepts were activated. In other words, when people thought that God was watching, they tended to act better – at least when it comes to financial generosity.

I’ll admit openly that, although I do have a God-concept, I’m not a regular churchgoer. I’ll also admit openly that the form of tithing I practice involves a little money here, a little money there, but not with any kind of regularity – and DEFINITELY not 10% of my income. But, I have to say, when I learned that only 3% of the LGBTQ community contributes to LGBTQ causes, that gave me pause. What if the roughly 11 million LGBTQ people in the United States (to give a conservative estimate) contrinuted 10% (or 5%, or 2%, even) of their income to, say, the Human Rights Campaign? Or the Trevor Project? Or the Lambda Legal Defense Fund? Or to your local LGBT community center? Mountains would be moved.

4 Comments

Filed under same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

Ain’t I a woman?

All week long, the media has been all atwitter about Jenna Talackova’s disqualification from the Miss Universe Canada pageant last weekend. A 23-year-old Vancouver native, Talackova was disqualified, according to Miss Universe Canada officials,  because “she did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form.” And what requirement, pray tell, did she fail to meet? Talackova was born male, knowing by age 4 that she was a female. She started taking hormones when she was 14, and she underwent gender reassignment surgery at age 19. Although her genitals look female, she wasn’t born with them. Hence the disqualification.

Of course, this is not the first time that transwomen have been asked to stay away from cisgendered female spaces. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for example, is a well-known example of a “womyn-only space” – and their “womyn-born-womyn” policy effectively excludes transwomen from this space. Emerging during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, women-only spaces were intended as “safe zones” for women – places where women could experience freedom from the patriarchal dictates of femininity and womanhood. In women-only spaces (theoretically, at least), a woman is free from the objectification of the “male gaze.” She won’t have to worry about her voice being ignored, trampled on, and silenced. She won’t have to appropriate a masculine persona in order to be heard. And she’ll have the freedom to be who she is on her own terms, rather than defining herself in relation to men. Even the term “womyn” was a linguistic step away from the binds of patriarchy, conveying the idea that one doesn’t need “man” in order to be “womyn.”

From this standpoint, not every woman is a “womyn.” Inside every transwoman is a man, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Cisgendered women were born female, raised as girls, and socialized under the dictates of patriarchy. Transwomen were born male and raised as boys, experiencing male privilege along the way. That alone, argue advocates of women-only spaces, makes transwomen not-women. In her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, radical feminist scholar Janice Raymond repeatedly refers to transwomen as “male-to-constructed-females,” powerfully revealing her belief that transwomen are really anything but women.

So here’s what I find interesting about all this. So many of us think that, biologically speaking, there’s “male” and there’s “female” and that’s all there is to it. But Anne Fausto-Sterling’s classic article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” in which she focuses on intersex conditions, suggests otherwise. “Intersex” is a general term used to refer to conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit into the standard definition of “male” and “female.” In one of these conditions, called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a person who is genetically male (with one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to male sex hormones. Despite having the genetic makeup of a man, a person with AIS typically has some or all of the physical characteristics of a woman. In fact, in many cases, AIS individuals look like model-perfect females, with a tall stature, slim figure, voluptuous breasts, long legs, and clear skin. It’s no wonder that more than a few women with AIS find their way into the modeling industry – the same industry that has blackballed Jenna Talackova. And even though women with AIS have an XY chromosomal pattern – and in many cases have undescended testes – you don’t hear about women with AIS getting kicked out of beauty pageants.  

Come to think of it, you don’t really hear about AIS women at all. In fact, some women with AIS don’t even know they have it, because that information has been concealed from them – or, in some cases, information was fabricated in order to hide the truth. Eden Atwood, a model, actress, and singer with AIS, was told by her doctors that she had twisted ovaries and that removing them would result in infertility, when in fact her “twisted ovaries” were actually undescended testes. In fact, historically medical protocols have called for constructing intersex children into one sex or the other. And why is the truth hidden from view? Because the truth calls the male-female binary into question.

 So what is a woman? Are transwomen really women? Are AIS women really women? Am I, a cisgendered female, more woman than Jenna Talackova, or Eden Atwood?

Leave a comment

Filed under intersex, transgender, transphobia