Monthly Archives: January 2013

A house divided

OK, I know I’ve already devoted precious blog space to deconstructing the “normalcy” of NBC’s television show “The New Normal,” which features a gay male couple. But here it is, registering on the radar screen once again. A few weeks ago, the January 8 episode of “The New Normal” contained a scene that was highly offensive to intersex people. The beginning of the scene features Gary, the director of the surrogacy agency that’s helping Bryan and David (the gay couple) have their child. Gary, depressed and despondent, is lamenting the fact that he’s single and that he keeps ending up with “losers” every time he goes on a date. Cut to a scene at a restaurant, where Gary is on a first date with a man who says, “And then, at age 6, I learned that I’m intersex.” Insinuating, of course, that Intersex = LOSER. (You can watch that scene here, at about 5:35 minutes.)

If that line was meant as a joke, the intersex community certainly didn’t laugh. A couple of days after the episode aired, Organisation Intersex International (OII) put out a call on their Facebook page encouraging people to report this episode to GLAAD as an act of defamation. “With intersex babies being subjected to nonconsensual infant surgeries proven to be harmful every day b/c of prejudice against those that do not conform to sex and gender norms,” their site read, “the last thing intersex people & their families need are jokes portraying them as inferior to others.”  Especially on a show that’s intended to show how “normal” gay people are.

Of course, pitting one oppressed group against another isn’t anything new. The LGBTQ community itself has seen its own share of infighting. (Should we include the “B”? Or the “T”? Oh wow, now we have to add this “I” thing?) But lots of other us-vs.-them dynamics have cropped up as well. A week after the episode aired, Nico Lang wrote a piece for the Huffington Post charging “The New Normal” with racism – or “gaycism,” a term coined by a GQ writer describing the trend of gay TV writers/producers of finding creative ways of embedding racist stereotypes in their programs. “Hipster racism,” they call it – using blatantly racist comments in a satirical way in order to sound edgy and, well, not-racist. Ellen Barkin’s character, for example, makes all sorts of overtly racist comments – and the other characters respond by rolling their eyes and ignoring her, because her comments are so ridiculous, and because we’re so 2013, so beyond petty forms of racism.

Except we’re not. In fact, this form of racism can be even more covert, insidious, and dangerous than anything the Westboro Baptist Church says. People can read Stuff White People Like and think they’re making fun of White people (oh, we who shop at Whole Foods, listen to NPR and TED talks, and take a year off in order to find ourselves), showing just how post-racist they are. But they don’t see that they’re potentially offending people of color, suggesting that they aren’t interested in eating healthy or pursuing intellectual interests, and failing to recognize that class-privileged activities like taking a year off (and shopping at Whole Foods, for that matter) might be highly desired but financially inaccessible. To use the words of Nico Lang in his piece, it’s “using mock racism to disguise plain ol’ racism.”

I see two problems (at least) with these forms of marginalization. One is that the use of “hipster racism” (or any form of racism, really) seems to lower the threshold for other offensive behaviors. To me, the intersex comment on “The New Normal” was so obviously out of line – but to a regular viewer who’s accustomed to the edgy and satirical [racist] humor on the show, the intersex thing could easily fly under the radar and be seen as funny. What’s more, not only does one form of oppression open the door for other forms, they can then start to feed off of one another and contribute to an overall belief system – an “intolerant schema,” as psychologist Allison Aosved and her colleagues refer to it.  If racism is fair game, according to the “intolerant schema” concept, then so is sexism, sexual prejudice, class prejudice, and religious intolerance. And intersex-phobia, if the January 8 “New Normal” episode is any indication.

Back in 1983, Audre Lorde had this to say in her famous essay, “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression”:

Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.

That brings me to my second concern, which is based on the simple truism uttered by Abraham Lincoln a century and a half ago: A house divided cannot stand. If one marginalized group is pitted against another, both will fall – and the dominant group will remain in power, untouched. The National Organization for Marriage, it was revealed last year, deliberately used this strategy in their campaign to block marriage equality efforts in Maine. Check out the statements below, which were taken word-for-word from NOM’s internal campaign strategy documents:

The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…

The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote, and will be so even more so in the future, both because of demographic growth and inherent uncertainty: Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.

A house divided. Divide and conquer.

How easy it might be to think, Well, “The New Normal” was making fun of intersex people, but at least they’re showing a gay couple. But the reality is this:

Every act of racism hurts the LGBTQ community.

Every act of sexism hurts the LGBTQ community.

Every act of elitism and class oppression, ageism, ableism (the list goes on) hurts the LGBTQ community.

And even one little joke about intersex people hurts the LGBTQ community – and all other oppressed groups, too. As Audre Lorde said in her same essay, “When they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

May we remember these words, and hang together united.

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Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, overt homophobia, racism, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized

Realizing the dream

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those who were enslaved in Confederate territory.

One hundred years later, on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, galvanizing support for civil rights legislation.

Today, nearly fifty years later, we commemorate the birth of Dr. King, who would have been 84.

And today, fifty years after Dr. King gave his speech, is the official inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the office of the United States Presidency. Rev. Luis Leon, whose parish welcomes openly gay members, will deliver the benediction at the ceremony. Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams will deliver the invocation. And Richard Blanco, who is a Cuban immigrant and openly gay, was named the inaugural poet.

Imagine the possibilities.

Today, I invite you to read the full text of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I’ve included below. Better yet, I invite you to watch Dr. King deliver his speech. And I invite you to use today to reflect on what actions you can take to help realize this collective dream.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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Queers in the ‘hood

Picture this: You’re a sexual- or gender-variant kid, and you live in a low-income, ethnically diverse part of a large city. Your family has rejected you, and you don’t have a consistent place to live. The other kids at school verbally (and sometimes physically) harass you on a daily basis. Your teachers don’t seem to have your back – in fact, some of your teachers actually join in on the harassment. What do you do?

You could stop going to school. You could get totally depressed and suicidal. You could start experiencing anxiety attacks. You could turn to drugs and alcohol to drown out the pain. These, of course, are common behaviors among LGBTQ youth who have been subjected to ongoing abuse and harassment.

Or you could get in their face and kick their asses right back. Better yet, you could round up 50 of your closest queer friends and collectively gang up on them. Literally.

Last year, Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post wrote a piece titled, “Gay black youth go from attacked to attackers,” which identified a “gay gang” that had formed in Washington, D.C.  This gang, called “Check It,” was described by Milloy as follows:

Depending on whom you talk to, they’re just a bunch of mischievous gender benders and drama queens, vulnerable gay youths seeking safety in numbers. Or, they’re one of the largest, more aggressive gangs in the city.

One of the most aggressive gangs in the city? Stereotypically, the words “gay” and “gang” shouldn’t even be in the same sentence, right? Just watch Blaine and Antoine on In Living Color’s sketch “Men on Film,” and tell me that black gay guys snapping and talking with a lisp are aggressive. Flaming and flamboyant, maybe. Aggressive, no.

In reality, the idea of a gay gang shouldn’t be surprising at all.  People who are members of marginalized groups often find ways of banding together, forming community, and looking out for each other – especially if you can’t count on the police showing up and helping you. Back in the 1970s, women who wanted to escape a violent relationship couldn’t go to the police and expect that they would respond positively; instead, they relied on an underground network of women. Low-income people of color, who are often targeted unfairly by the police, have learned to develop their own systems of support, community, and justice. Although many of these networks and support mechanisms don’t involve violations of the law, gang culture certainly provides an alternative (albeit highly destructive) system of justice. Interestingly, although the D.C. police have labeled Check It as a gang, several members who have spoken to the press feel like they’re anything but a gang. They’re the LGBTQ youth who were kicked out of their homes, ostracized from their families, and taunted and bullied in school. And, in their minds, if it takes a collective community armed with brass knuckles and stun guns to protect themselves from violence, then so be it.

Recently, as part of my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I spoke with Daddy Kyle House, who is the current president of the Sacramento Valley Leathermen, an old-guard, brotherhood-based BDSM organization here in the Central Valley. Most of our conversation focused on the history of the organization, along with the stringent rules and protocols associated with BDSM culture. But some of our conversation focused on the, well, “system of justice” that he and the other Leathermen have developed. “We provide security for the gay prom here,” Kyle said. “People know better than to mess with us.” Then he went on to say, with a glimmer in his eye, “The Sacramento PD has me on speed dial. We have a really good relationship with them. If something’s going on in Lavender Heights, and they can’t get there quickly enough, we’ll take care of it.”

We’ll take care of it. He didn’t give any more detail than that. But when he said that to me, I thought, This sounds just like the mob.

Or, perhaps, like a gang. System of justice. Taking care of your own.

There are girl gangs, which have been around for a number of years, and now we’ve got an example of a gay gang (which, according to recent reports, has turned away from the “gang lifestyle” with the help of a D.C. police task force in partnership with other local community groups). But most gangs are not girl-identified, or gay-identified – they’re regular, male-only, garden-variety gangs. And guess what? Queer youth find their way into the ranks of these gangs as well.

Why is that? Why on earth would queer kids want to join a group whose members would probably kill them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were revealed. Mark Totten, a sociologist and gang expert, conducted an ethnographic study of 15 male gay, bisexual, and transgender (GBT) gang members, attempting to answer exactly those questions. And most of these answers aren’t surprising. Most of these youth had been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and so they found a surrogate family in the gang. Some joined the gang before they knew they were gay – and later had to find ways of concealing their sexual or gender identity. On the other hand, many of them joined the gang in order to provide a wall of safety – because, of course, who would ever suspect a violent gang member of being gay? Some adopted a hypermasculine persona as an added wall of safety. All of them had participated in severe, public beatings of people the gangs thought were gay.

The irony, of course, is that if this happened in Lavender Heights in Sacramento, they would have the Leathermen to answer to. And that could be worse than getting hauled off to jail by the police.

Whether they end up in Check It or the Crips, these kids are looking for community. More than community – for family. And to some extent, they find it. But either way, they’re also likely to end up in jail. Or end up dead.

If that’s not a wake-up call about the need for resources for LGBTQ youth – in all communities, from all ethnic groups, from all economic classes, in all schools – then I don’t know what is.

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Filed under BDSM, gay suicides, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, Lavender Heights, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, stereotypes, transgender, violence

Freaks, geeks, and queers

High school. Ahh, high school. For some, it holds the fondest memories. For others, high school was a complete nightmare. High school can be one of the most complicated and challenging social landscapes that exists in American society. And our ability to navigate that landscape depends largely on whether you can plug yourself into a social group.

Back in the day, when I was in high school, we had the jocks, the cheerleaders, the drama/chorus crowd, the “brains” (that was me), the deadbeats, the rich kids, the computer techies. Those of us who were able to find our people generally did okay. But there was no identifiable place for The Queers. Although there were quite a few gay and lesbian kids at my school, nobody was out. Nobody. And with good reason. I know one kid who got taunted and beat up regularly by some members of the football team – and he wasn’t even gay. He just fit the part – he sang, he was part of the drama group, he didn’t do sports, and he hung out with quirky, creative people. In my high school, unless you had that kind of winning personality that made you popular no matter what (and there were some people who were like that), if you were queer, you were doomed to be an outcast.

What’s amazing to me is that, despite the fact that gay and lesbian kids at my school were in Deep Closet mode (at least in public), they managed to find each other and form their own social group. There was no such thing as a Gay-Straight Alliance, at least not in any official sense. But The Queers found each other – and a high school subculture was born. And that seems to be at the core of human nature – find others who are like yourself and stick together, and you will be okay.

Besides being called “gay,” or “queer,” or “faggot,” or “dyke,” what’s the worst thing you could possibly be called in high school?

Nerd.

Dork.

Dweeb.

Geek.

These are the kids who are socially awkward. They like really uncool things. They’re obsessed with computers and technology. They read science fiction, and they like gaming. Back when I was in high school and college, they would have played D&D; now it would probably be World of Warcraft. Their clothes are decidedly unfashionable. Nowadays, a lot of these kids get diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a syndrome that’s considered to be part of the autism spectrum. (With the publication of DSM-V, it looks like the diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder will disappear, and be subsumed under Autism Spectrum Disorder.) Regardless of whether or not these kids qualify for a psychiatric disorder (that’s a whole other discussion), being a geek also gets you ostracized, shunned, and potentially beat up. A worst-case scenario in high school.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve noted three interesting things:

Interesting thing #1:  Like queers, geeks have developed a “culture.” People now talk about “the geek lifestyle” and “geek culture,” and the word “geek” itself has been culturally reappropriated – reclaimed as a positive identifier, rather than used as a tool of verbal harassment. Geek fashion, with horn-rimmed glasses, high-water trousers, and collared button-down shirts, was a trend for a while there. But geek culture is more than a fashion trend – it’s a constellation of identifiers that allow geeks entry into a social network. Find the people who enjoy sci-fi and fantasy, computers and technology, comic books and Renaissance fairs – the common interests that bind people together – and you will get a glimpse of geek culture.

Interesting thing #2:  Almost no psychological research has been done on geek culture. Which, given the prevalence of the Asperger’s disorder diagnosis, and given the rates of victimization against geeks, is really surprising to me. There have been a few articles written in cultural studies journals about geek culture, and several general-audience books have addressed the subject, including Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People. UCLA’s Center for Mental Health in Schools has even developed a comprehensive fact sheet titled “About ‘Nerds’ and ‘Geeks’ as an Identified Subculture.” Although the list of references at the end of this fact sheet is extensive, almost none of those references come from the psychological empirical literature. If anyone in psychology wanted to study and learn more about a historically marginalized subculture, here’s a golden opportunity.

Interesting thing #3:  Geek culture and queer culture intersect at various points. Since I began conducting interviews for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I have noticed this over. And over. And over again. Bisexuality and geek sometimes intersect. BDSM and geek sometimes intersect. Polyamory and geek often intersect – an anecdotal observation Janet Hardy talks about in her book, The Ethical Slut (and which she also brought up during our interview). A colleague of mine recently introduced me to the concept of object sexuality (where the target of one’s attractions is directed towards objects, rather than towards males and/or females) – noting that object sexuality (and other non-mainstream sexualities) is not uncommon among people who are on the autism spectrum. An interesting form of intersectionality, this combination of “queer” and “geek.”

In many ways, this isn’t surprising, the overlap between geek culture and queer culture. Even the words “geek” and “queer” bear similarity to one another. “I’m a geek,” said Dany Atkins, a writer who also identifies as bisexual, kinky, polyamorous, and genderqueer, during our interview. “And I’m queer. I was queer before the LGBT community took the word ‘queer.’ I’m ‘queer’ in the sense that I’m weird, different, not like everybody else.”

And yet, Dany has survived by finding her people, both within geek culture as well as in queer circles. Janet Hardy has found her people as well. (If you’re looking for other polyamorous people, it obviously helps if you write what many consider to be the Bible of polyamory.) Whatever you are, no matter how marginalized you are, it helps immensely if you can find your people. We look for allies and bind together. And we find ways of empowering ourselves in order to disarm those who hold power over us.

Even in high school.

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