Monthly Archives: September 2012

Take a look at yourself, and make that change!

We all know what it feels like to be judged. Sometimes it’s just a look, or a facial expression. Maybe it’s the person’s body language – a flinch, or a step backwards. Perhaps it’s their tone of voice, or choice of words – or a blatant, stinging criticism. Or maybe the person just drops off the radar screen and disappears from our lives, without a clearly articulated reason.

If you are an LGBTQ person – particularly if you’re also in a “fringe” community – then you know exactly what this feels like. We can say over and over again, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But that’s not the reality. Names hurt. Rejection hurts. And when we’re hurt, we hurt. We hurt ourselves – and we may hurt others.

In some ways, internalized hate is like a cancer that metastisizes. The more we hate ourselves, the more that self-hate travels throughout our bodies and our psyches, expressing itself in a variety of ways. And there’s concrete research data that supports this idea. Studies have shown a link between internalized homophobia and relationship problems, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse, eating disorders, physical health problems, stress-related disorders, and a host of other problems. According to a 2010 study published by Brian Mustanski, a researcher at Northwestern University, internalized homophobia is significantly linked to “internalizing mental health problems” such as depression and anxiety. Research from the Family Acceptance Project, headed by Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University, confirms this pattern – according to her research, LGBTQ youth who were rejected by their families were more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes, such as depression and suicide attempts, illegal drug use, and unprotected sex. When we hate ourselves, we act out in hateful ways against ourselves – and in ways that can potentially injure other people.

And in the LGBTQ community, it’s not just homophobia we’re talking about. A bisexual woman may feel ashamed that she passes as heterosexual – and that her life is easier – when she’s with a man.  A person who’s bisexual and non-monogamous may feel shame for reinforcing existing stereotypes of bisexuals. A transperson may feel shame and embarrassment because they don’t pass well (or guilt because they do). Or a transperson may only feel like a “real” transgendered person if they’ve had the bottom surgery. The ways we judge ourselves negatively are endless. And it’s these statements that ultimately lead to depression – and worse.

If we pay attention, and listen carefully to the negative judgments we inflict upon ourselves, it becomes more clear that the things we say to ourselves weren’t created in a vacuum. We repeat (or reinvent in more creative ways) the things that we heard from our families, our peers, the media, our teachers, our mentors. If a fish is swimming in toxic water, it’s inevitably going to drink some of that poison, whether it wants to or not. And no matter how resilient of a person you are, the toxic effects of societal hate are going to have a trickle-down effect into our psyches.

Obviously, eliminating societal hate is powerfully effective in reducing internalized homophobia (I wrote about this extensively in a previous blog post, “There Oughta Be A Law.”). In the meantime, however, how do we learn to practice unconditional acceptance of ourselves? How do we inoculate ourselves from the individual, institutional, and cultural judgments that surround us? I wish I had a simple answer to that question.

There is, however, a passage from Alcoholics Anonymous (known to AA members as “The Big Book”) that I’d like to quote as food for thought. It goes like this:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

Practicing acceptance of everyone – even those who hate us – is a tall order. And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean resigning yourself to accept the unacceptable. When a queer person is the victim of a hate crime, that criminal act is completely unacceptable. Subjecting ourselves to self-inflicted abuse – abuse stemming from our intolerance towards ourselves – is also unacceptable. However, those of us who have been victims at the hands of others, or who have victimized ourselves, need to remember that the victim is not to blame. But we also have the power to effect change – and that change begins with ourselves.

What if, for today, I choose to accept this person – myself – as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment? Instead of feeling overwhelmed with the monumental task of changing the world, what if we started with ourselves? What if we really listened to the words of Michael Jackson (who probably understood judgment better than anyone) – and actually heeded them?

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that . . .

CHANGE!

If you are in the Sacramento area on Saturday, October 6, please join Julie Interrante, MA, and Gayle Pitman, Ph.D., for Born This Way, a workshop that begins to explore the idea of changing ourselves and our world through radical self-acceptance. For more information, visit http://www.elements-sacramento.com.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, covert homophobia, gay suicides, hate crimes, health, homophobia, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, media, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, racism, relationships, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Lessons in acceptance

When people refer to California as “the land of fruits and nuts,” they’re usually talking about the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the places that has most strongly welcomed people who are LGBTQ – or in any way different from the mainstream. San Francisco hosts the annual Bay to Breakers race, where people wear wildly creative costumes – or nothing at all. Just across the bay, Oakland is home to the Black Panther Party and Occupy Oakland, and the 1960s Free Speech movement and student-led Vietnam War protests took place at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. As of this week, Berkeley (or “Berzerkeley,” as a conservative radio announcer referred to it the other day) is the first city in the U.S. to officially recognize Bisexual Pride Day (which is today, September 23). Questioning authority, challenging convention – that’s the Bay Area.

But no other event challenges convention more, in my opinion, than the Folsom Street Fair.

The Folsom Street Fair is the third largest event held annually in California (the other two being the Tournament of Roses and San Francisco Pride). It attracts all sorts of people, ranging from members of the leather/BDSM community to sightseers and tourists, with a considerable number of “gawkers.” And every year, there seems to be some sort of major controversy associated with the event. One year, Catholic church officials spoke out against the official poster artwork for the fair, which featured several well-known LGBTQ and BDSM community members, clad in fetish attire, seated around The Last Supper table. The table was draped with the Leather Pride flag, and various sex toys and other BDSM paraphernalia were scattered across the table. Another year, a photograph of two twin toddlers attending the fair, clad in leather attire, sparked a call for boycotting the Miller Brewing Company (a major corporate sponsor of the fair). The event has been criticized for public nudity and flogging, potential harm to children, and general debauchery.

The Folsom Street Fair was the first event I attended when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1990s. I was still on my own coming-out journey, and I was searching for community. Had I known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have chosen the Folsom Street Fair as my initiation event, so to speak. I attended that event very naively, knowing almost nothing about BDSM, and being a relative newbie to the general LGBTQ community. But, in hindsight, I’m glad I went, because it opened my mind in ways I never would have expected. And I’ve learned, since then, that the BDSM community can potentially teach us a lot about positive, healthy relationships, communication, and acceptance.

As part of the research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I’ve interviewed several people who are involved in the altsex community in some way. All of them have felt powerfully drawn to BDSM and kink, despite the fact that these practices are so strongly pathologized. Even though homosexuality has been removed from the DSM, kink and consensual BDSM have not – sexual sadism, sexual masochism, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism are among those still included. In fact, most therapists know little or nothing about BDSM, and most of them continue to view it through a pathologizing lens. One 2010 study indicated that, among people who aren’t part of the BDSM community, strongly negative and pathologizing attitudes continue to persist. And still, despite that negativity, people are drawn to these communities.

One of the most popular booths at the Folsom Street Fair is the Spanking and Flogging booth, hosted by the Society of Janus, which is the second-oldest BDSM group in the United States.  Their website gives a brief history of the organization, as well as the origins of their name:

There were three basic reasons why we chose Janus. First of all, Janus has two faces, which we interpreted as the duality of SM (one’s dominant and submissive sides). Second, he’s the Roman god of portals, and more importantly, of beginnings and endings. To us, it represents the beginning of one’s acceptance of self, the beginning of freedom of guilt, and the eventual ending of self-loathing and fear over one’s SM desires. And third, Janus is the Roman god of war–the war we commonly fight against stereotypes commonly held against us (emphasis mine).

Can you imagine a society where we all – every single one of us – experienced complete and unconditional acceptance of self, freedom from guilt, and a release from self-loathing and fear over our desires, sexual or otherwise? How ironic it is that people who are “erotic minorities” – people who are marginalized furthest from the mainstream – are the ones offering us this vision? I think that’s a powerful thought to reflect on.

If you plan to go, enjoy the Folsom Street Fair. And happy Bisexual Pride Day.

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Filed under BDSM, bisexuality, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, relationships, San Francisco, stereotypes, Uncategorized

Is gay the new normal?

This week, NBC aired a new network show called “The New Normal.” This show, which received solid reviews in its first week, is about two successful gay men, Bryan and David, who seemingly have it all – except for a child. Enter Goldie, a single mom and waitress from the Midwest, who ultimately becomes the couple’s surrogate – and a future two-dad family is born.

At one time, not very long ago, the only television show featuring a gay character was “Ellen.” Now, if you type “lists of television shows with LGBT characters,” you come to a page filled with these specifiers (I included the hyperlinks in case you want to check out these lists):

Obviously, we’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?

Let’s go back to “The New Normal.” In some ways, this is the perfect title. Believe me, I know first-hand that once you have a baby, you are forced to adjust to a “new normal” – and, ironically, your life will NEVER be normal again. But “The New Normal” also reflects a major cultural shift. National polling data, including Gallup Poll data as well as statistics from the General Social Survey, reveals that, since the 1970s, attitudes towards homosexuality have grown increasingly more favorable over time.And for the first time in history, polls show that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Gay couples, in the minds of many, have become “the new normal.”

But what, exactly, do we mean by “normal”? Do Bryan and David reflect the typical same-sex couple? To answer this question, I scoured the research literature to see if I could find a study that focuses on gay male couples who have used a surrogate to become fathers – and I found one study. That 2010 study, titled “Gay men who become fathers via surrogacy: The transition to parenthood” and led by Kim Bergman, provides a demographic profile of gay men who choose the option of surrogacy to father children. Moreover, the study explores the changes in the lives of these men as a result of parenthood – changes in work, finances, relationship dynamics, self-esteem, and self-care, among others.

Let’s start with demographics:

  •  Eighty percent of the 40 participants were White – three were Asian (specific cultures weren’t noted), three were Latino (again, no specifics were provided), and two were Middle Eastern. None were African American, Native American, or mixed-race.
  • The average annual household income was $270,000. That’s the AVERAGE. The lowest income in the sample was $100,000. The highest was $1,200,000 – far more than what most people make in a year.

Does this sound “normal” – or “average” – to you?

Let’s continue by talking about the changes that these fathers experienced:

  • As a result of becoming parents, 65% reported experiencing occupational changes;
  •  70% had changed their work life in terms of travel, hours, and career path;
  • 53% had sacrifices, losses, and missed opportunities in work life.

Moreover, more than half of the participants experienced changes in their financial situation since they became parents. Since having children, the annual household income of these fathers decreased, on average, by $75,000 (these decreases ranged from $20,000 to $200,000). These changes were primarily due to an increase in expenses, a partner quitting his job to become a full-time father, or a partner earning less because of cutting down work hours.

For most of us, losing out on $200,000 per year – or even $20,000 per year – just isn’t an option. It isn’t considered to be disposable income in most households – that $20,000 might be what pays the mortgage and keeps the lights on. But what I think is also important to note is that the income reported by these fathers in the demographic portion of this study is their post-child income. Even after having children, these men continue to live an upper-middle-class to upper-class lifestyle.

This makes sense, if you think about it, considering that men who choose surrogacy are a very unique population. According to The Surrogacy Source, an agency based in Irvine, California, using a surrogate will cost couples a minimum of $60,000. Only those who are very well-off are going to even consider surrogacy as an option in the first place.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The myth of gay affluence,” which describes the other side of the coin (so to speak) regarding the economics of being LGBTQ. Of course, there are people like Bryan and David, urban professional couples who earn a lot of money. But there are also many within our ranks who live in abject poverty – and who aren’t represented anywhere in the media. There are no Bryan and Davids on TV who receive free or low-cost health care at their county clinic, or who pay for groceries using food stamps. For that matter, we don’t really see Bryan and Davids who worry about losing their home or their job. We don’t get a true depiction of the economic diversity of the LGBTQ community.

Television is a powerful medium. It’s a form of entertainment and escape. But it also transmits values, and provides us with a gold standard to which we can compare ourselves. If we’re comparing ourselves to “The New Normal,” which is in fact anything but normal, then how can we feel normal ourselves?

 

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Filed under intersectionality, LGBT families, LGBTQ, media, psychological research, stereotypes, Uncategorized

Sticks and stones may break my bones . . .

Last week, during my commute from work, I heard a segment on the NPR show “Talk of the Nation” that addressed the use of security cameras in public schools. Several administrators participated on the panel, most of whom sang the praises of these cameras, and they noted that the cameras were intended to reduce harassment, violence, gang-related activities, and drug-related issues. Although many thoughtful points were made, and it was a generally well-rounded discussion, not once was LGBTQ-related bullying and harassment addressed. So we’ll address it here.

This past week, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released The 2011 National School Climate Survey, which presents data collected from 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20. Specifically, the survey documented the experiences of LGBT students with regard to (1) indicators of negative school climate, such as verbal or physical harassment; (2) the possible negative effects of a hostile school climate, such as poor academic performance; and (3) the degree to which supportive resources, such as GSAs, were available in schools.

The findings presented in this report are extensive, and not particularly surprising, in my opinion. While things do seem to have gotten better over time, in that more resources are available for LGBTQ students, the school climate for many LGBTQ youth continues to be chilly. What’s interesting to me, though, is that a lot of the harassment that LGBTQ youth experience is the kind that’s unlikely to show up on security cameras. Consider these specific findings, for example:

  • 84.9% of students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
  • 61.4% heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often.
  • 71.3% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often.
  • 55.2% of LGBT students were victims of electronic harassment sometime in the past year – usually through things like text messages or postings on Facebook.

If someone makes a negative comment under their breath, just within earshot of the target of that comment, it’s unlikely that a teacher will catch it – and it’s unlikely that the security cameras would be sensitive enough to pick it up. And when it comes to cyberbullying, security cameras are useless – which is probably why electronic harassment has escalated in recent years.  One of the panelists on the “Talk of the Nation” segment said it best: “If students who are misbehaving are certain that they’re going to get caught, then they won’t misbehave.” Students who mutter homophobic or gender-phobic comments under their breath, or who wait until they’re in a noisy, crowded hallway to make comments, or who restrict their harassing behavior to cyberspace – those students are pretty certain that they won’t get caught. And thus the culture of anti-LGBT harassment persists.

The effects of what I’ll refer to as “stealth harassment” are powerful. For example, a recent study published in the American Journal of College Health titled “’That’s So Gay!’: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students” found that, among the 114 LGB young adults surveyed, hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” was associated with feelings of isolation, headaches, poor appetite, and eating problems – all of which are classic signs of stress and anxiety. With those anxiety-related symptoms, it’s no wonder that homophobic remarks like this have the potential to mark the beginning of a slippery slope, leading to absenteeism, poor academic performance, continued social isolation, and possible depression and suicidal ideation. All from three simple words.

Students aren’t the only ones who contribute to a chilly climate. In fact, it’s very common to see teachers and other school personnel engaging in what I’ll call “passive homophobia.” When a student says “That’s so gay,” and a teacher says nothing, that’s passive homophobia. If a student tells a joke that makes fun of LGBTQ people, and a teacher laughs, that’s passive homophobia. Failing to challenge the issue perpetuates the problem.

But it’s also common for teachers to engage in “active homophobia.” According to the GLSEN survey, 56.9% of students – more than half – reported hearing homophobic remarks and/or negative remarks about gender expression from their teachers or other school staff. These school employees are making conscious, deliberate statements – and if these are the school employees who are reviewing the security camera footage for anti-LGBTQ harassment, then we’re in trouble. In fact, Neal Conan related this incident on “Talk of the Nation”:

When a dean saw two girls kissing in the hallway, he shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They pulled her out of school. 

 Whether the harassment is active or stealth, it’s still clearly woven in the fabric of our schools. And, based on the data, if all we did was eliminate the use of the phrase “That’s so gay,” that alone would have a tremendous impact on our LGBTQ youth. So here’s my call to action: next time someone uses the phrase “That’s so gay,” tell that person to stop.

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Filed under anti-gay bullying, covert homophobia, gay suicides, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, transphobia

The gift of Chai

This month’s issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide features an interview with Chai Feldblum, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Feldblum was appointed in March 2010 by President Obama as the first out lesbian commissioner on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Feldblum, in my opinion, is a rock star when it comes to LGBTQ activism. Although her activist efforts have fanned out in various directions, she’s probably best known for her role in drafting and advocating for an inclusive form of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which, if passed, would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. This – the topic of ENDA – was the major focus of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide article.

But there’s much more to Chai Feldblum than ENDA. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (her father was a Holocaust survivor), Feldblum’s social justice work began early in her career. She clerked for Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade majority opinion (and who also wrote the dissenting opinion in the Bowers v. Hardwick anti-sodomy case). She served as Legislative Counsel to the AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was the legal director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group which lobbied to overturn policies forbidding gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the U.S. military. And just five years after she graduated from law school, she was the lead attorney on the team that drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Of course, Feldblum herself, who is an avid tweeter, provides the most concise biographical sketch (in 140 characters or less):

First out lesbian EEOC Commissioner (and with a disability); Georgetown law prof (on leave); tweets on civil rights; discrimination buster.

In Feldblum’s Twitter profile, her disability status is included as a parethetical. In the Gay and Lesbian Review article, it isn’t mentioned at all. If you Google “Chai Feldblum” along with “disability,” you’ll find lots of information about her role in developing the Americans with Disabilities Act – and you’ll learn about other ways she’s been active in disability rights. However, the only place you’ll find anything about Feldblum’s own disability status is – you guessed it – in her Twitter profile. It’s not mentioned on her EEOC page (which isn’t surprising, since personal information like that isn’t typically included on federal government websites). But it’s also not mentioned in most LGBTQ publications that have written stories about her.

In the political sphere, keeping visible disabilities on the down-low certainbly isn’t a new thing. During his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public appearances were carefully choreographed in order to conceal any evidence of his disability. But this disability down-low isn’t unique to the political arena – in my opinion, the LGBTQ community is not particularly disability-inclusive. Few LGBTQ disability organizations exist – some have fizzled out entirely (such as BFLAG, for blind LGBTQs), others are entirely volunteer-run (such as the Deaf Queer Resource Center [DQRC]). And yet, disability is something that the LGBTQ community needs to be paying attention to.

For one thing, LGBTQ people are certainly not immune to disabilities. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, Hyun-Jun Kim, and Susan Barkan of the University of Washington found that, in a large-scale population-based sample, the prevalence of disability is higher among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults than among their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, according to Debra Harley of the University of Kentucky, it’s estimated that 11% of LGB individuals – about 4 million people – have a disability. In more than a few cases, homophobia may have a direct causal link to one’s disability. Being victimized by a violent hate crime can result in a temporary or permanent disability. Being subjected to the chronic and ongoing stresses of homophobia is thought by several researchers to be associated with various autoimmune conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Disability status and sexual minority status, it seems, share some common ground.

Even though the rates of disability are high in the LGBTQ community, there isn’t really a climate of inclusiveness for these identities. The fact is, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia exist in the disability community, and stigmatization against people with disabilities occurs in the LGBTQ community. Because of this, LGBTQ people with disabilities might face an allegiance dilemma: should I identify as “disabled,” align with the disability community, and get involved in disability rights – or should I identify as queer and fight for LGBTQ rights? There is great pressure for people with multiple minority statuses to reduce themselves to a single identity – a dehumanizing force that contributes powerfully to social isolation.

The irony in all of this is that disability politics probably aren’t all that different from LGBTQ politics. People with invisible disabilities face the dilemma of whether to “come out” about their disability status. The disability community, like the LGBTQ community, debates whether the disability rights movement is best served through assimilating into mainstream, able-bodied culture, or by demanding acceptance of differences. The disability rights movement – just like the LGBTQ rights movement – has relied on both legislative actions and various forms of radicalism and civil disobedience. And, even with these striking similarities, the LGBTQ community has done little to align itself with disability rights.

In Hebrew, “chai” means “life” – a word and symbol that is a cornerstone of Jewish culture. I think Chai Feldblum has lived up to her name – her activism continues to breathe life into both the LGBTQ rights and disability rights movements. And if anyone understands the lived experience and challenges of intersectionality, it would be her. If I get lucky enough to secure an interview with her, you’ll be hearing more about this lived experience in my upcoming book.

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Filed under biphobia, disability, health, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, psychological research, transphobia