Monthly Archives: February 2013

Skeletons in the closet

Monday morning. February 11. My alarm goes off at about o’dark hundred. I shut my alarm off, reach for my phone, and hit the “News and Weather” app. (Yes, I’m an up-and-at-’em kind of gal in the morning). And what pops up?


Can he do that? I think to myself. As I learned later, that wasn’t a totally ignorant thought, given that a papal resignation hadn’t happened in 600 years.

Immediately after the announcement, it seemed like a tidal wave of reactions started rolling in, ranging from appreciation and reverence from Benedict’s supporters, to “Hallelujah!” from his critics. On the “Hallelujah” side of the continuum, this is what Sister Eve Volution, speaking on behalf of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, had to say:

[Benedict] has turned out to be such a reactionary Pope on so many different levels and seemed intent on leading the Church backwards when it comes to LGBT issues and the role of women in the Church, among other issues. The recent institution of a such a conservative Archbishop to San Francisco, who was one of the architects for Yes on 8, shows just how out of touch the Vatican is to its laity. Coupled with his hand in the cover up of worldwide sex-abuse scandals when he was in charge of the Inquisition, now known as The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he seems to be ill suited in leading the Church. 

What jumps out at me when I reflect on Sister Eve’s comments? Homosexuality and pedophilia. Whether Pope Benedict likes it or not, his papal reign has been marked significantly by those two things. It’s not just Benedict that conjures up these words – if you ask someone to free-associate to the phrase “Catholic Church,” chances are good that “closeted homosexuals” and “child molestation” will show up somewhere on the list. And the Catholic Church has been very effective at using one of these issues to explain the other.

Of course, the media has been guilty of conflating pedophilia and homosexuality (gay priests, to be more specific) for quite some time. A 2004 report titled, “Subtle Stereotyping: The Media, Homosexuality, and the Priest Sexual Abuse Scandal,” analyzed the content of 1,326 news articles reported in the Boston Globe during the first year of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. According to the report’s authors, Glenda Russell and Nancy Kelly, an average of two articles per week were published in the Globe linking homosexuality and child sexual abuse in the year after the sex abuse scandal first broke. More recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who is a candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI had this to say when asked about whether a sex abuse scandal could occur in Africa: “Not in the same proportion as we have seen in Europe. Probably because African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa, homosexuality, or for that matter, any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society. So, that cultural ‘taboo,’ that tradition has been there. It’s helped to keep this out.”

It’s helped to keep this out. When Turkson says “this,” does he mean child molestation, or homosexuality? Or both? (I think he probably meant both.) In the eyes of the Catholic Church, if homosexuality is present in the church, and pedophilia is present in the church, then homosexuality must cause pedophilia. (A little Research Methods 101: This is what researchers refer to as a spurious correlation – a false presumption that, if two variables coexist, one must certainly cause the other. You will undoubtedly fail Research Methods 101 if you do not understand this concept by the end of the course.) If you do even a cursory search of the research literature on pedophilia and sexual abuse, you’ll find that heterosexual men are by far the most likely perpetrators.

Obviously, the Catholic Church hasn’t been successful at keeping pedophilia out. And even though it’s not talked about very openly, they haven’t really kept homosexuality out either. A 2002 Los Angeles Times poll of 1,854 priests reported 15% who identified as homosexual. Other sources report higher rates, as high as 58%. Although this is a wide statistical range, even if we err on the side of conservatism and go with the 15% rate, we’re still talking about a significantly higher rate of homosexuality in the Catholic Church than in the general population. And yet, very few studies exist that focus on the experiences of gay priests – probably because of the potentially steep consequences associated with coming out. One study, conducted by Stephan Kappler of John F. Kennedy University, indicated that internalized homophobia among gay priests is associated with depression, poorer overall psychological health, and less integration of their sexual identity. Which, to me, isn’t one bit surprising, given how strongly homosexuality has been denounced – vilified, really – in the Catholic Church. In fact, what does surprise me is that, for the most part, the gay priests in this study tended to be pretty well-adjusted and psychologically healthy, and that it wasn’t necessarily the norm for the priests to have high levels of internalized homophobia. But regardless of their high levels of psychological health and low levels of internalized homophobia, these priests, understandably, are deeply closeted – for coming out would undoubtedly lead to their dismissal.

Homosexuality and pedophilia. They’ve been linked together in a presumed cause-and-effect way. They’ve both been the focus of scandals within the Catholic Church (the latest word on the street is that Benedict stepped down after hearing about a “gay priest scandal” within the ranks of the Vatican).  But what I find striking is this: both homosexuality and pedophilia are treated like skeletons in the closets of the Catholic Church. And the mentality of the Vatican reeks of deep denial: If we don’t see them, then they must not exist. And if we do see them, we have to find a way to make them go away. Make sexual abuse “go away” by sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t happen. Make homosexuality “go away” by forcing priests to remain closeted, or dismissing them in humiliation if their sexuality is exposed.

Homosexuality isn’t going away – nor should it. And sadly, I don’t think pedophilia and child sexual abuse are going away anytime soon either. But my (perhaps utopian) wish is that the next pope is willing to lead the Church towards acceptance and accountability, rather than oppression and silencing.


Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, religion, same-sex marriage, stereotypes, Uncategorized

Prosperity and good luck for all

Last Sunday marked the first day of the Lunar New Year, the most important of the Chinese traditional holidays. Prosperity and good luck, cleansing and renewal, and honoring your elders and ancestors are all part of the Chinese New Year tradition. It is a highly anticipated holiday, with much preparation, symbolism, and tradition. And children raised in the Chinese culture learn to behave impeccably on this day, for what happens on Chinese New Year day may foreshadow future events. Say the right thing, do the right thing, and think good thoughts, and all will be well.

The impeccable behavior, the deep spiritual, philosophical, and historical symbolism, the level of preparation – all of this occurs within a highly collectivistic culture. Even Hong Kong, which was under British rule for many years, is significantly more collectivistic than the United States – and the rural, outlying areas of China are even more deeply collectivistic. People from collectivistic cultures tend to see themselves not so much as individuals, but as part of a larger interconnected web. The harmony and stability of the larger group, from a collectivistic standpoint, is far more important than any one individual’s goals or preferences. In China (at least from a traditional perspective), the seventh day of the New Year is a collective birthday, given a much higher level of importance than any one person’s individual birthday. Sharing dishes at a restaurant or at home is another illustration of collectivism. In my opinion, the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is one of the most powerful examples of collectivism in action – perfectly choreographed and orchestrated, with every single participant acting as part of a larger, cohesive whole.

Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) LGBTQ people often face significant challenges within the context of collectivism. Years ago, when I was completing my dissertation research, I interviewed a Chinese woman from Hong Kong about her experience with homophobia, and this is what she had to say:

In Hong Kong and Asia the family ties are a lot stronger, and you don’t want to upset your parents. It’s a cultural thing that they don’t talk about it. They think homosexuality is wrong, and they base it on family and traditions and how nature is supposed to be, and because of propagation.

She was not out to her family, and she had no plans whatsoever to come out to them. Essentially, what she said boiled down to this: You honor your elders. You respect tradition. You get married and have children. And, above all else, you don’t bring shame to your family by dishonoring them.

These are deeply rooted Chinese traditions. The Confucian tradition of filial piety, the first virtue of Chinese culture, is all about respect to one’s family and one’s ancestors. Taking care of your parents, conducting yourself properly so as to bring a good name to your family, behaving obediently and avoiding rebelliousness, and ensuring male heirs by getting married and giving birth to male children – all of these are part of that core tradition. And from a traditional Chinese standpoint, being LGBTQ goes against all of that. If you dishonor your family in any way, you will be shamed – which is why being out, loud, and proud is so hard for many LGBTQ people in AAPI communities.

So if you hold these cultural values deeply, how does that impact one’s LGBTQ identity? In 2010, Pizza Ka-Yee Chow and Sheung-Tak Cheng from the Hong Kong Institute of Education published a study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology titled, “Shame, internalized heterosexism, lesbian identity and coming out to others: A comparative study of lesbians in mainland China and Hong Kong.” Shaming, according to Chow and Cheng, is an incredibly powerful tool often wielded by Chinese parents, and LGBTQ people are more likely than their straight counterparts to experience shaming at an early age. If, in a traditional Chinese family, a young girl snubs her nose at expectations of feminine behavior, or if a young boy is far more feminine than masculine, then shaming by their parents and elders is inevitable. As quoted by Chow and Cheng in their article, “Conforming to these [gender] norms is essential for maintaining harmony in collectivistic societies” (Chow & Cheng, 2010, p. 93). In their study, people who had been subjected to the longstanding cultural tradition of shame – particularly those who lived in mainland China, in contrast to those from Hong Kong – were not commonly out to their families. They had high levels of internalized shame. And they were more likely to be negatively influenced by the homophobia of others, which was associated with high levels of internalized stigma about lesbians. As Chow and Cheng put it, “They are the ones who see themselves in more negative ways globally, and when they encounter prejudice and discrimination from others, they are more ready to incorporate such stereotypical views into their already negative self” (Chow & Cheng, 2010, p. 101).

Given the longstanding traditions of honor, respect, and harmony, being out, open, and proud of who you are as an AAPI LGBTQ person is potentially a steep challenge. Yet I am continually awed and amazed by the resiliency and creativity of our people. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, for example, the LGBTQ community has introduced a new tradition of bringing a queer contingent to march in the Chinese New Year parade, a powerful symbol of the progressive alongside the traditional. Red envelopes containing money might be exchanged among same-sex couples for good luck. Or, these envelopes, containing “the money used to suppress the evil spirit” (loosely translated) might be presented to a local gay and lesbian center or marriage equality group – groups that could use the money to “suppress the evil spirit” of discrimination and oppression. Or a family photo could be taken in front of the home – whether it’s a same-sex couple with their children outside their house, or a “chosen LGBTQ family” photo taken outside of a community meetingplace. The possibilities of finding ways of being visible and honoring tradition are endless.

The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is this Saturday, February 23. Gung Hay Fat Choy. May prosperity be with you.

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Filed under coming out, culture, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ, relationships, religion, San Francisco, Uncategorized

Valentine’s Day, the activist way

Valentine’s Day. For some, it’s like heaven on earth – particularly for those who are experiencing the infatuation and bliss of a new relationship. But for others, frankly, Valentine’s Day is sheer hell. If you’re in a relationship, you’re eventually hit with the harsh realization that the picture-perfect Valentine’s Day – complete with flowers, chocolate, candlelight dinner, and amazing sex – is merely a commercialized illusion. If you’re single, you feel like a big loser because you’re alone. If you’re not in a relationship, or if you don’t have Big Plans for Valentine’s Day, then there must be something wrong with you.

There must be something wrong with you.

Over the years, I have learned that whenever the voices inside my head tell me there is something wrong with you, the voices are actually speaking in code. (For the record, I’m not talking about hallucinatory voices. I’m talking about the general background noise of cognitive chatter we all have going on in our heads.) Those voices are not saying what I think they’re saying. Rather, they are the collective voices of oppressive cultural attitudes that have become lodged within my psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up, or I don’t fit in, or I’m too this, or not enough that, those statements are not the truth. The reality, in contrast, is that the standards of “normalcy” and “okay-ness” in our culture are incredibly restrictive and marginalizing. If you fall outside the box, it’s not that there’s something horribly wrong with you. Maybe, instead, the box is too small and rigid.

So let’s unpack the small, rigid Valentine’s Day box in our culture. What is so oppressive about this holiday?

Let’s start with sexism. For some reason, Valentine’s Day seems to give the media license to run amok with sexist stereotypes., for example, published an article titled, “An Aphrodisiac Valentine’s Day” that included the following quote:

An all aphrodisiac dinner is bound to delight and may just turn a standard Valentine’s eve into a scorching hot love fest.As the 1960s Pillsbury TV ad boldly claimed, ‘Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.’

The Pillsbury ad (and the catchy jingle) is a good example of 1950s traditonal, old-school sexism. Fast-forward to 2012, and we have Teleflora’s Super Bowl commercial, which insinuated that buying a woman flowers will get her into bed. Or Zales Jewelers, whose ad suggested that buying a woman expensive jewelry will . . . well, you know the rest. Respecting and empowering women doesn’t seem to be a part of the commercialized Valentine’s Day narrative.

Of course, for many years women have found ways to subvert, reclaim, and take back Valentine’s Day. Some choose to celebrate Singles Awareness Day, which, interestingly, isn’t necessarily gender-specific, but their suggestions on their website for how to spend the day are VERY gender-specific (“Why not schedule a hair and nail appointment at your favorite salon? Or consider getting a massage or other spa treatment that you have been hold off on [sic] for whatever reason?”). But others have seized the opportunity to put Valentine’s Day on notice for its inherent, embedded sexism. One of the most political examples of Valentine’s Day subversion was the establishment of “V-Day” in 1998 by Eve Ensler, a day where performances of The Vagina Monologues raise consciousness about the prevalence of violence against women. In conjunction with its 15th anniversary this year, V-Day has launched a more ambitious global campaign called One Billion Rising, an invitation to one billion women and men to “WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND” an end to violence against women.

Why am I devoting so much blog space to sexism, when I’m really supposed to be talking about LGBTQ issues? Because homophobia (and heterosexism) are tools that keep sexism in place.

Think about it. In her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr describes how she asked a group of workshop participants the following question: “What would the world be like without homophobia in it – for everyone, female and male, whatever gender identity?” These were the responses she got:

  • Kids won’t be called tomboys or sissies; they’ll just be who they are, able to do what they wish.
  • People will be able to love anyone, no matter what sex; the issue will simply be whether or not she/he is a good human being, compatible, and loving.
  • Affection will be opened up between women and men, women and women, men and men, and it won’t be centered on sex; people won’t fear being called names if they show affection to someone who isn’t a mate or potential mate.
  • If affection is opened up, then isolation will be broken down for all of us, especially for those who generally experience little physical affection, such as unmarried old people.
  • Women will be able to work whatever jobs we want without being labeled masculine.
  • There will be less violence if men do not feel they have to prove and assert their manhood. Their desire to dominate and control will not spill over from the personal to the level of national and international politics and the use of bigger and better weapons to control other countries.
  • People will wear whatever clothes they wish, with the priority being comfort rather than the display of femininity or masculinity.
  • There will be no gender roles (Pharr, 1988, p. 7).

See how much of this is about sexism? If we’re going to effectively address homophobia and heterosexism, we have to see that those forces – combined with economics and violence – converge again and again to reinforce women’s subordination and uphold patriarchy.

So what can you do this Valentine’s Day that supports and empowers women and LGBTQ people? You could participate in One Billion Rising and speak out against violence. You could engage in HIV/AIDS awareness, protecting our right to engage healthy, informed sexual activity. You could attend a marriage equality event (of which there are many scheduled on February 14th) and support all loving relationships. The possibilities are endless – and far more empowering than buying flowers. And the most powerful action you can take is to remember this: I am exactly as I should be.


Filed under gender nonconformity, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, relationships, same-sex marriage, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence