Monthly Archives: November 2012

The grief that has no place

It was about 6:00 AM, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when I heard the phone ring. My partner, Amy, answered the phone, and although I couldn’t hear the conversation, I knew this wasn’t an ordinary, lighthearted call. A few minutes later, Amy came into the bedroom, tears welling up in her eyes. “He’s gone,” she said, blinking the tears back. Her father, who had been ill for many years, had died that morning.

Grief is normal. It’s what we typically experience when a significant loss occurs in our lives. And grief has many faces – sometimes, for example, when someone has been suffering from a long-term illness, we may experience what’s called anticipatory grief. (Given the length of her father’s illness, I think Amy and her family have been experiencing this for a while.) Sometimes we walk seamlessly through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance); often, our grief snubs its nose at those stages and instead takes a more complicated trajectory. We might even experience what’s called shadow grief, which is a response caused by reminders – a smell, a sound, a memory – that trigger feelings related to a more distant loss. (I might have a little of that going on, given that my own father died 15 years ago.) And yet, even knowing all of this information about grief, my own emotional reactions have caught me off-guard – especially given the fact that I’ve never had much of a relationship with my partner’s family. Although I don’t intend for my blog to be my personal journal, I’m going to reveal some more personal feelings – because I sense that, for several reasons, the homophobia and heteronormativity of our culture might provide some context for them.

For one thing, people in the LGBTQ community often experience family discord and disownment (either active or passive disownment) due to homophobia – and my partner and I aren’t immune to this. My partner’s family lives in rural North Carolina. They are regular churchgoers. They practice “Southern hospitality” – if you drop in unexpectedly, you will undoubtedly leave well-fed. They are cordial, polite, sociable – all those qualities that good Southern girls (and boys) learn early in life. And, like good churchgoers, they believe that homosexuality is a sin. They are friendly to me, but they do not acknowledge my relationship with Amy. As an example, in the obituary, the names all of the surviving siblings, children, and grandchildren were included, along with their wives or husbands. Except for mine – including my name would have revealed too much, most likely. When I first learned that my name wasn’t included, I shook it off. “It doesn’t surprise me,” I said nonchalantly after reading it. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

My response might have sounded slick, but the nonchalance was a front – a cover-up for much more complicated feelings. The reality is that I felt hurt, sad, and angry. VERY angry. Then I felt guilty for feeling so angry, and shallow for grinding my axe and making this all about me. And making someone else’s death all about you is not appropriate.

But then, grief takes on many forms, some of which look really ugly and inappropriate. In fact, it’s common enough that there’s a word for it – grief that’s “inappropriate,” or isn’t publicly recognized, is called disenfranchised grief.  Losing a pet can involve disenfranchised grief (“Oh, come on! It’s just a cat!”) Ending an affair suddenly after it’s been discovered can cause disenfranchised grief – the parties involved in the affair probably aren’t going to receive much social support for their sorrow. And disenfranchised grief, sadly, is not unfamiliar to LGBTQ people – the loss of a same-sex partner may not be treated the same way as the death of an opposite-sex spouse (as an example, the first segment of the 2000 HBO film If These Walls Could Talk 2 is one of the most gut-wrenching cinematic portrayals of disenfranchised grief I’ve ever seen). The more culturally inappropriate the grief (or the source of the grief) is, the more likely the grief process will be disenfranchised.

Disenfranchised grief probably explains a fraction of the messy feelings both of us have been experiencing. I’m not a blood relative, and I’m not accepted as a family member through marriage, so my grief process is disenfranchised, in the sense that my feelings exist in isolation, on the edges of the normative grief rituals (such as funerals, viewings, and memorial services). But Amy’s grief process is likely even more disenfranchised. Attending her father’s funeral meant missing a once-a-year visit from my mother – who is unconditionally accepting of our relationship. I imagine that, while Amy feels incredibly sad about her father’s death, those feelings are complicated by that dilemma in allegiances. Eva Reimers of Linkoping University (Sweden) addresses this issue in her 2011 article, “Primary mourners and next-of-kin – How grief practices reiterate and subvert heterosexual norms,” noting that, for many LGBTQ people, non-biological ties can be much stronger than the relationships we have with our families of origin – and those non-biological “chosen families” don’t fit very neatly into our death rituals and grief paradigms.

And yet, I think disenfranchised grief only offers a partial explanation for all these complex feelings. When I’m truly honest with myself about what my own feelings involve, I see that I’m probably not just grieving the actual loss of her father. Instead, I’m grieving a much deeper sense of loss – mostly involving the fantasies of what could have been. In his article, “Gay men: Grieving the losses of homophobia,” John Hart addresses the fact that the long-term effects of homophobia, for many of us, cause significant losses – and in our culture, there’s not a lot of open space in which to experience and grieve those losses. The losses due to homophobia are extensive – a list compiled by Warren Blumenfeld and published in his classic book Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price has been cited hundreds of times and used by numerous anti-homophobia educators. But sadly, many of us probably haven’t had the space to grieve these losses, even though we’re well aware of the toll homophobia has taken on individuals, families, and on the LGBTQ community.

Amy left on November 20 to go to her father’s funeral – ironically, the same day as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an observance that memorializes the victims of transphobic hate crimes. We have so few rituals in the LGBTQ community that gives us the space to mourn the losses of oppression, and the Day of Remembrance is one of them. And we need more of those kinds of rituals, for the only way out of grief is through the grief.

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Filed under covert homophobia, hate crimes, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, relationships, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia

Rock your world this Thanksgiving

It was the weekend before Thanksgiving. I’d just transplanted myself from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area a few months earlier. Living by myself in a new place, I didn’t have specific plans for the holiday . And honestly, I felt kind of lonely – especially since I didn’t know many people in the Bay Area, and I was very much immersed in the scary process of coming out to others. I mentioned the fact that I had no Thanksgiving plans to my upstairs neighbor (secretly hoping that she would extend an invitation  to celebrate with her family). “You should go to Glide,” she said, referring to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. “It’s a rock-your-world experience.”

Not being a particularly religious person, going to church wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But the “rock-your-world” comment intrigued me. So I called a grad school friend who was also an East Coast-transplant, and together we went to the Thanksgiving Celebration at Glide Memorial Church. And it was like no other church service I’d ever attended. The soloist who sang with the Glide Ensemble had a voice that was powerfully spirited and smooth as silk. The head pastor, Rev. Cecil Williams (the visionary founder of Glide), gave the most radical, cutting-edge, and empowering sermon I’d ever heard, naming the oppression of the people indigenous to the Americas and urging the congregation to reconsider how we understand Thanksgiving. The congregation was filled with people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender expressions, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds – from the very wealthy to the homeless. It was, in fact, a rock-your-world experience.

Sadly, many people in the LGBTQ community aren’t likely to feel the love so strongly within a church or religious environment. Compared to their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ people are less likely to attend church services regularly – which isn’t surprising, given the fact that going to church can be a very chilly experience for sexual and gender minorities. But some do attend church – and this is the population I’d like to focus on.

A new study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry revealed some interesting findings about LGB people and religiosity. For one thing, although the LGB participants reported a lower-than-average church attendance, they reported higher rates of spirituality than participants in general population samples. Notably, there were racial and ethnic differences as well: while White LGBs were extremely unlikely to report regular church attendance, LGBs who were Latino or Black were significantly more likely to attend religious services regularly, engage in prayer, and claim a religious affiliation.

In some ways, that last finding isn’t terribly surprising. Let’s focus specifically on church attendance among African-Americans. Black churches, historically, have provided cohesion and refuge to the African-American community. Given the segregationist practices prohibiting African-Americans from worshipping in the same churches as Whites, it makes sense that safe spiritual spaces for Blacks began to emerge. Slaves created “underground” churches where they could freely mix Christianity with African traditions – and where they could plan rebellions and other political actions. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black churches served as centers of the communities – and as political outposts. Over time, some Black churches were outgrowths of existing Christian denominations, while others developed purely as African-American denominations. In many ways, the Black churches provided a refuge and a haven against the debilitating effects of racism – in a 2012 study published in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Jessica Graham and Lizabeth Roemer of the University of Massachusetts, Boston found that, for African-Americans, church attendance and church-based social support have significant effects in mitigating the stress of racist experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that African-Americans – including LGB African-Americans – are highly likely to attend church and have an active religious practice.

What’s also interesting – and disturbing – about the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry Study is that, in contrast to Graham and Roemer’s findings, LGB people of color who attend church regularly are very unlikely to experience it as a safe haven against oppression. Not only are LGB people of color more likely than their White counterparts to attend religious services, the churches they attend tend not to be LGBTQ-affirming – which, not surprisingly, is linked with higher levels of internalized homophobia among the attendees.

Of course, there are quite a few LGBTQ-affirming churches and spiritual centers that exist. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), for example, ministers and outreaches specifically to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Unity and other New Thought-based churches are typically LGBTQ-inclusive. Increasingly, more traditional Christian denominations are opening their doors to the LGBTQ community – for example, many United Methodist churches are becoming LGBTQ-inclusive “Reconciling Ministries.” If an LGBTQ person wants to find a spiritual community, there are more inclusive and welcoming spaces than ever before.

And yet, for whatever reason, the LGBTQ-inclusive churches haven’t quite gained the traction in the queer community that the Black churches have in the African-American community. However open and welcoming they may be, most LGBTQ people probably don’t consider “the church” to be the community’s safe haven or political organizing space. And, for queer people of color (African-Americans in particular, since we’re using this example), the choice of what church to attend may feel like an “either-or” decision: Do I attend a Black church, which helps buffer the effects of racism but might be quite homophobic, or do I go to an LGBTQ-inclusive church, which may be a haven from homophobia, but not necessarily from racism? Finding an open, accepting, inclusive space that’s fully and wholly accepting – not just accepting of one part of one’s identity – isn’t always so easy.

While Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday per se, the Thanksgiving I experienced two decades ago was a spiritual experience. People indigenous to the Americas suffered a violent genocide at the hands of the colonizers. African-Americans have been subjected to a long history of racism at the hands of landowning Whites (land, interestingly, that was taken from the indigenous tribes). Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterosexism continue to oppress LGBTQ people. And, as I reflect on the experiences of people whose basic human rights have been (and, in many cases, continue to be) stripped away, I’m reminded of how I felt when I first was introduced to the mission of Glide Memorial Church:

GLIDE’s mission is to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.

If that could be our human mission, in every church, in every spiritual space, in every secular space – imagine the possibilities. May I hold this possibility in my heart this Thanksgiving.

 

 

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, coming out, covert homophobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, overt homophobia, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, transgender, transphobia

Forward

This week’s election was a major coup for LGBT civil rights. Richard Socarides, former White House Special Assistant to President Clinton (and gay son of the late Charles Socarides, one of the founders of NARTH and champion of reparative therapy), billed it as “The Gay Rights Election.” Four states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – approved marriage equality ballot initiatives, a big first in American history. Several openly gay members have been added to the House of Representatives, and a number of gay candidates won a seat in their respective state legislatures. And Tommy Thompson, a major player in American politics, was defeated in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race by Tammy Baldwin, making her the first female to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, and the first openly gay person to be elected to the Senate. This was, clearly, an election of firsts.

However, now that we’re in the post-election phase, I think it’s important to prepare for the realities of groundbreaking change. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – and that’s just as true in politics as it is in Newtonian physics. In the social science and political world, this aspect of Newton’s laws of motion is referred to as a backlash – a negative, often angry, reaction to any significant progressive change. The Little Rock Crisis, the blocking of nine African-American students from entering a Little Rock, Arkansas high school, is a good example of a backlash in response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Susan Faludi’s bestselling book Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women characterizes the extreme right-wing conservatism of the 1980s as a backlash against the gains made by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. In fact, the ridiculous charges Barack Obama’s had to face regarding his birth certificate – along with numerous other racist acts directed towards him – suggest a backlash, in my opinion. Backlashes tend to erase the strides made by a progressive movement in an attempt to preserve the status quo. And the more significant the progressive changes are, the more violent the backlashes tend to be. So even though marriage equality rights (and other LGBTQ issues) may have reached a tipping point, the game’s not over yet. In fact, the game might have gotten more interesting.

The game certainly isn’t over in the U.S. Senate, either. In fact, one specific type of backlash is likely to manifest itself as a result of Tammy Baldwin’s election. By winning the U.S. Senate seat representing Wisconsin, Baldwin broke the gender glass ceiling in her state – and she broke the sexual glass ceiling by being the first openly gay person to be elected to that body. When a person from a particular minority group breaks the glass ceiling and joins the ranks of the majority, that person is likely to experience tokenism. Hiring (or electing, in this case) “token” members of a minority group usually creates a false appearance of inclusion. If an employer is accused of being discriminatory, it’s easy for that employer to deflect those accusations by saying, “What do you mean, I’m discriminatory? Look over there! I hired her, didn’t I?” The same is true in American politics – it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we live in a post-racist society because of Barack Obama’s election, or that we live in a post-sexist society because the 113th Congress will have more women than ever before. Or that we live in a non-homophobic society because, well, look over there! There’s Tammy Baldwin!

Of course, Tammy Baldwin’s sexual orientation (probably more so than her gender) makes her stand out from her peers. And that, I imagine, could potentially be quite stressful.

The stresses associated with being a token in the workplace are well described by “tokenism theory.” First articulated in 1977 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, tokenism theory identifies a number of significant problems associated with being a workplace token. For one thing, because Tammy Baldwin is openly gay, she’ll certainly be a novelty in the U.S. Senate – and because of the “novelty factor,” she may have to deal with higher-than-average levels of pressure and scrutiny. Did she get elected because of her skills and qualifications, or did she get elected because she’s gay? This question, lurking in the back of people’s minds, may put pressure on her to go above and beyond the achievements of her peers. Moreover, because of her status as “the first openly gay U.S. Senator,” Baldwin faces a choice: She can establish herself as “the gay Senator,” using her position to advocate for LGBTQ issues (and possibly be considered an “activist Senator” with an axe to grind); or she can distance herself from her gay identity and try to assimilate, or to “just be like everyone else” (and potentially be viewed as a traitor by the LGBTQ community).

So we’ve got the potential for an even stronger anti-gay backlash than what we’ve already been experiencing – which could be directed towards specific individuals (like Tammy Baldwin) or towards broader social goals (like same-sex marriage). But another possibility exists – the possibility that we’ve reached a tipping point, a point where the walls of institutional homophobia begin to crumble like a falling house of cards. It could be that we’re on the brink of massive social change, and that no reactionary responses will be strong enough to stop it.

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, “Forward,” wasn’t met with the fervor and enthusiasm of his 2008 slogan, “Yes We Can.” But, in hindsight, “Forward” was the perfect slogan. Because, in this election, we moved forward. And backlash or not, that’s what the LGBTQ community will continue to do.

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

Lessons from Sandy

I’m originally from New Jersey – the land of Taylor ham and Ring Dings, the Turnpike and the Jersey Shore, the Sopranos and the Real Housewives. If you’re a true New Jerseyan, you know what the Stone Pony is (and you’ve probably been there). You know where Jon Bon Jovi grew up. And you also know that if that piece of pizza didn’t come from a true New Jersey pizzeria, well, it just ain’t worth eating. New Jersey is a state that is full of life and full of character.

The entire tri-state area (including New Jersey) took a serious beating at the hands of Superstorm Sandy. The level of destruction captured by photos and video I’ve seen is unbelievable. And frankly, trying to focus on writing a blog post about LGBTQ issues has been a little challenging, when the effects of the storm has been taking up most of my headspace.

And then I came across a beautiful article on The Huffington Post, which I’ve chosen to re-post here. For anyone who thinks that LGBTQ parents destroy the moral values of children, you need to read this letter.  Thank you, Gabriel Blau, for writing this – and please, those of you who are reading, please consider doing what you can to help the Superstorm Sandy relief effort.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Understanding Sandy: A Letter to Our Son

By Gabriel Blau
Posted: 11/02/2012  4:25 pm
The Huffington Post

To our son:

You’re four and a half years old, and you might not remember this when you’re older, but you just lived through a natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, that has caused thousands of individual tragedies and humbled us all. You knew the storm was coming. We talked about rain and wind, we prepared the house, filled up buckets of water, purchased batteries and tested our flashlights, set out candles. The three of us looked out at the Hudson River and watched as it churned and white-capped waves began to appear. The wind threatened to scare us, and you believed us when we promised our home was strong. You were excited and a little nervous. That was Sunday and Monday.

On Tuesday you started us on a tzedakah (charity) project called “E’s Piggy Bank for Victims of Hurricane Sandy,” a campaign to support The American Red Cross, Feeding America, and the Humane Society Disaster Relief Fund. You set a goal of $1,000 and raised that in less than 24 hours. As I write, people are still contributing and we’ve raised over $1,400.

All three of us were getting a little antsy on that second full day of being indoors. We were very lucky to still have power, our water worked, and the Internet was just fine. So we began to look at photos of the damage left by Hurricane Sandy just a few miles away in every direction. You sat down and looked with us. It was a moment that, if you choose to become a parent one day you will understand, made us a little nervous. Should we let you see these pictures or just close the laptop and tell you it was nothing? But you stopped us with a question before we made that mistake. You asked what we were looking at, pointing to a photo of the burned remains of houses in Queens. You saw a photo of a flooded street and asked about the cars that were wrecked. You asked about the people that weren’t in the photos but should have been in those homes.

2012-11-02-Ewithpiggybank.JPG

We reminded you of the hurricane that had just passed and shared simply, but honestly, that people had lost their homes and all their belongings, that others were without electricity and water. You took it in, and we asked what you thought. Your answer was simple: You have money in your piggy bank that you could use to buy people new homes. You thought everyone should give their piggy banks to the hurricane’s victims. That’s how our indiegogo.com campaign started, and you inspired many of us.

What we quickly saw was that your beautiful voice was so much wiser than anything we could have planned. People were sharing the campaign, comments were starting to appear, gifts started coming from old friends we haven’t spoken to in ages, and people we’ve never met and have no connection to were contributing money. The little civics and math lesson we hoped to teach turned into something exciting and, frankly, more significant than we had imagined. The support we’re seeing is certainly about helping those suffering in the wake of the hurricane, but also about a collective excitement in supporting a new generation and the hope of a world that transcends cynicism.

As you can imagine, at four years old, you do not focus on these things the way we might. The concept of an online campaign is meaningless to you. As we check the totals, you aren’t getting excited about more money. Instead, you just take it as a given that everyone would give. And you recognize that more and more people are in fact doing that. It appears that as far as you’re concerned, it’s not your piggy bank or your campaign, it’s someone else’s piggy bank — the money of people who need it most.

One of your favorite stories is David and Goliath. You know a paraphrased version that goes something like this: A shepherd boy is known for having a beautiful voice. He comes in to sing for King Saul and the prince, Jonathan, sees him and falls in love. David stays and becomes a favorite of the King. One day, during a long and terrible war, the enemies challenge the King: If one of his soldiers can beat their biggest and baddest, Goliath, the war will be over. This small boy with the beautiful voice steps forward, and he wins.

In that moment when you offered, in your beautiful voice, your piggy bank to those in need, I saw you as the young David for whom there is simplicity in facing that which threatens the community.

Your Papa and I have many hopes and dreams for you. But the one around which all others are built is that you will be an adult that cares for others, rights wrongs, makes the world a better place in whatever ways you can. As though you know what we’re thinking, you amaze us every day, and this immediate reaction of yours — to propose how you can give to help others — filled our hearts with admiration.

2012-11-02-image.jpegGabriel Blau and Dylan Stein under CBST’s rainbow chuppah, getting legally married on July 24th, 2011 outside of the New York City clerk’s office. Photo courtesy of Jin Lee, Bloomberg / SF.

You come from many traditions. Your heritage is that of people who have faced great inequity, challenge, and pain. Our Jewish heritage has a lot to say about charity and responsibility for community. And our LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) heritage too has taught us about the need to be aware of the other, to protect, fight for, and support those in need. For our family, especially at a time when our legitimacy as a legal family is so cruelly questioned and challenged, we embrace our heritage and traditions. And you do it with the simple purity of a four year old who knows what’s right.

All we wanted to do was help you help others and learn about charity. We assumed a few friends and family members would respond to an email, some tweets, and a few Facebook posts. But you had more important things to do. You had games to play and books to read, and money to give to people who need it most. You didn’t want or need a lesson, you just needed some help getting the right thing to happen.

We were the ones that learned a lesson. We learned that sometimes we just need to focus on what needs to get done and others will follow. Sometimes it’s that simple.

With unending love,

Your Dads

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Filed under human rights, LGBT families, LGBTQ, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized