Monthly Archives: April 2013

Playing it safe

This past weekend, I was invited to attend a performance of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. Since 1998, The Vagina Monologues has been performed around the world as part of V-Day, a global activist movement intended to raise awareness and stop violence against women and girls. Some of the monologues, such as “My Angry Vagina,” “Because He Liked to Look at It,” and “The Little Coochi Snorcher that Could,” are raucously hilarious. Others, like “The Flood,” are funny, but they’re also kind of depressing. And a few are so painful that they’re hard to listen to – that one, for me, was “My Vagina Was My Village.” Horrible, painful stuff.

For me, the most powerful monologue was the one at the end, titled “ONE BILLION RISING” (deliberately printed in all caps). According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, one out of every three women on Earth will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – a number that is equivalent to one billion women and girls. “ONE BILLION RISING” was a call to action – to get up, stand up, and fight to end the violence. It was the monologue with the strongest political message. And at the end, the woman performing the monologue raised her voice, and said:

“Raise your fist in the air!”

Almost no one did. Then she said it again, her voice louder, reverberating off the walls:


I raised my fist. Then she screamed, as loud as she could:


I looked around, my fist still held high above my head. Among the several hundred people in the audience, only a handful had raised their fists.

This is The Vagina Monologues, I thought to myself. Why the hell isn’t anybody raising their fists?

Maybe the audience was confused. Is she saying “raise your fist in the air” as a metaphor, or does she REALLY want us to raise our fists? It’s not typical to be at a theater performance and be asked to raise your fist in the air – in fact, it’s kind of a norm violation. But frankly, it’s a benign norm violation – by breaking the norm of sitting with your hands in your lap, you’re certainly not hurting anyone. And anyway, if the audience really wasn’t sure how to respond, you’d think that yelling at the top of her lungs so the walls shook would have cleared up any remaining confusion.

So why, then, were people so hesitant to raise their fists?

Because they’re scared. It’s easy to sit quietly in a dark theater and enjoy the performance. Merely watching The Vagina Monologues is playing it safe. Speaking out against violence, taking action, being willing to be the lone voice in a crowd – that’s much harder. So often, we’d rather be accepted by the majority than stand up for what we believe in.

Picture this: You’re a participant in a research study, and you’re seated in a room with seven other people. You are each given a card that looks like the one below:

You are then asked to look at the test line (Exhibit 1) and identify which of the three comparison lines is the same length. This is easy, you think. Obviously it’s Line A.

“Line B,” says the first participant, with confidence in his voice.

What? you think. They must not be able to see straight.

“Line B,” says the second participant, with equal conviction.


“Line B,” says the third participant. And the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.

Now it’s your turn. What do you say? Are you worried about sticking out like a sore thumb if you give a different answer? Are you starting to doubt yourself? Maybe I’m the one who can’t see straight, you might think.

And then you hear yourself saying, “Line B.” You decided to play it safe.

The seven other participants, as you’ve probably figured out, weren’t real participants. They were confederates in a classic study conducted by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist at Swarthmore University. Asch had coached these individuals in advance to deliberately give the wrong answer. Among the “real” participants – the ones who were in Seat #8 – 75% conformed to the group and gave the wrong answer at least once during the many trials that were administered. Almost one-third (32%) conformed every single time. They wanted to fit in and be accepted, and they were willing to give the wrong answer in order for that to happen. They, too, played it safe.

If you think about it, conformity is a powerful social tool. It’s the Great Enforcer – if social norms are going to be created and maintained, then you need some kind of social policing system that maintains law and order. Conformity is part of the arsenal of weapons that prevents – and punishes – any norm violations that might occur. Because, in our collective groupthink, nonconformity is analogous to disruption and danger – and the conformity police help to keep us safe.

But guess what?

Playing it safe is not safe.

Because playing it safe just reinforces oppressive, marginalizing, dehumanizing social norms. When we stay silent, or fail to take action, we’re essentially saying that the status quo is just fine with us. If, on the other hand, we want to end oppressive attitudes, behaviors, and institutional practices, we have to speak out and take action. And that, by definition, involves challenging and violating social norms.

If violence against women is the norm (and one billion female victims of violence sounds frighteningly normative), failing to take action to end the violence reinforces that norm.

If racism is the norm, and we choose to laugh at a racist joke rather than call out the person who made those oppressive comments, we act as co-conspirators in the service of status quo maintenance.

If homophobia, or biphobia, or transphobia are our collective norms, then remaining silent in the face of homo/bi/transphobic behaviors just maintains and reinforces those oppressive attitudes.

Lines on a card. In many ways, they’re so simple, even trivial. But they speak volumes about the powerful drive for social acceptance – and the challenges we as social change agents face. The famous essayist and poet Audre Lorde once said, “Oppression is as American as apple pie,” which is about as conformist as it gets.

But she also said this:

Your silence will not protect you.




Filed under anti-gay bullying, biphobia, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, psychological research, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

From boys to men

Boston and the Boy Scouts. All week, I’ve been contemplating whether to write about one, or the other. And suddenly, when it was getting down to the wire, it hit me: I’m going to write about both. Because, in my mind, the two issues are actually related. So here goes.

I lived outside of Boston, in the Medford/Somerville area, while I attended Tufts University. I remember the importance of Patriot’s Day. I never ran the Boston Marathon, nor have I attended it as a spectator. I have, however, gone to Fenway Park on Patriot’s Day (even though, as a die-hard Yankees fan, I hate the Red Sox) – and I’ve wedged myself through the marathon crowds on the T, coming home from those games. It’s a day that, for Bostonians, is a very big deal.

So when I heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, I was stunned. Stunned because it was such an inconceivable act of violence. Stunned because I know the finish line area well, and could easily picture in my mind what the scene must have looked and felt like (and this was before seeing any actual imagery). Stunned when I heard that the entire city of Boston and the surrounding areas (including Tufts University) were going on lockdown. And then, when a neighborhood in Watertown became the site of gunfire, explosions, and an intense door-to-door search for the suspect, I thought, I know these places. I know plenty of people who live in these places – Boston’s Back Bay, Cambridge, even Watertown. The whole thing was surreal – and terrifying.

Even though these events have been deeply upsetting to me, my cynical mind remained surprisingly intact. And that cynical part of me zeroed in on one word that I kept seeing in the news, and hearing on TV, over and over again.



Two men – not people, but men – were responsible for this violence. When the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place last December, the fact that a man was responsible immediately came to mind – and galvanized my thoughts about the link between violence and our culture’s definition of masculinity. (If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out my December 16, 2012 post titled “Naming the obvious.”) Now another senseless, massively destructive act of violence has occurred, and I’m not seeing much discussion about how this event might be part of the epidemic of male violence in our country.

Of course, it’s not that these discussions aren’t happening. There’s Jackson Katz, whom I mentioned in my December 16th blog post. There’s Michael Kimmel,  Distinguished Professor of sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook and author of Guyland: The Perilous World where Boys Become Men. There are quite a few pro-feminist men’s groups – the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), Men Can Stop Rape, the White Ribbon Campaign, and the Men’s Resource Center for Change (which started in 1981 at Tufts University, interestingly). Clearly, there are resources for men who wish to move beyond stereotypical – and limiting – definitions of manhood and masculinity.

But what exists for boys? The American-as-apple-pie answer to that is . . . the Boy Scouts.

For decades, the Boy Scouts of America has been considered the go-to organization to teach boys good values, citizenship, and character. In spirit, the Boy Scouts has the potential to offer some alternatives to stereotypical forms of masculinity – for example, Scout Law includes, among other things, being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind. But a major goal of the Boy Scouts involves teaching boys to be men, in the very traditional sense of the phrase.

Case in point: Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park, conducted a study published in the journal Gender & Society in which she compared gender messages in Boy Scout and Girl Scout handbooks. According to Denny’s research, girls and boys are still being fed traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity. For example, girls were offered fewer scientifically-oriented activities, while boys were less likely to be directed towards artistic endeavors. Boys’ badge titles used more career-oriented language, while Girl Scout badges tended to use diminutive language (“Sky Search” rather than “Astronomer,” for example). But what’s particularly interesting is this: in their respective handbooks, Girl Scouts are taught to think creatively, engage in protests, and defend their beliefs, whereas Boy Scouts are encouraged to be obedient, loyal, traditional Americans. And for a Boy Scout, being a traditional American means being a man. A real man.

No wonder the Boy Scouts have resisted allowing gays into their ranks for so long.

If we examine the Scout Oath, we can delve even more deeply into these traditional American masculine values. Let’s unpack this, line by line (with a little bit of cynical commentary added):

On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

Obey Scout Law. Obey God (and certainly don’t question whether God exists in the first place). Do your duty. (“Be a good soldier” comes to mind for me.)

Help others. Be the knight in shining armour. (Benevolent sexism, anyone?)

Be strong. Remember that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Michael Kimmel calls this the “fallacy of misplaced attribution,” which is a form of proving your masculinity through endurance and physical prowess. Tough it out. Play through the pain.)

Stay focused. (Because, you know, women are the weaker sex because their emotions take over.)

And stay morally straight. (In the Boy Scout lexicon, “morally” and “straight” go together like peanut butter and jelly. “Morally” and “gay” – NEVER.)

All roads lead back to traditional masculinity. And traditional sexism, and traditional homophobia. The triad of oppression.

In the wake of the tragic events of the past week, I think the city of Boston can offer us hope for change. The April 22, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated features a powerful image of three Boston police officers standing over a fallen marathon runner. The officer on the far right is Javier Pagan, an openly gay member of the force, LGBT Boston Police Department Liaison, and a long-term member of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL). In 2005, Boston’s LGBT chamber of commerce awarded Pagan an Award for Excellence for Outstanding Service.


The city of Boston holds firmly onto its traditions – Patriot’s Day, the Red Sox, the Boston Marathon. Sports Illustrated represents the longstanding traditions of professional athletics. But institutions change. Traditions change. Let that be a lesson to the Boy Scouts. Granting membership to gay youth is a step in the right direction. Upholding the ban on gay adults who would like to be of service is not.


Filed under homophobia, psychological research, religion, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence

Girls, boys, and the rest of us

In my Psychology of Women and my Psychology of Sexual Orientation classes, we spend a good chunk of time talking about intersex identities. In most cases, after this particular lecture, if a student wants to talk to me after class, it’s usually for one of two reasons: (A) they knowingly have an intersex condition and want to tell me about it, or (B) they suddenly realized during class that they probably have an intersex condition, and they’re freaked out and upset by it. Scenario (B) happens far more commonly than Scenario (A); in fact, in my 12 years of teaching, I’ve had more than a dozen students come to me visibly upset and shaken, trying to digest the strong possibility that they’re intersex – and that no one ever told them about it.

Intersex conditions are not all that uncommon. According to most medical experts, obvious atypicalities in the genitals occur in about 1 in 2,000 births. However, many intersex conditions don’t involve clearly identifiable genital anomalies, so this is a pretty conservative estimate. If you cast the net wider and consider people whose bodies differ in any way from standard male or female, the number jumps to 1 in 100 births. From a statistical standpoint, it’s almost guaranteed that we know someone who is intersex.

So if intersex is so common, why does Scenario (B) happen so often? In her 2006 interview on Oprah, intersex activist Hida Viloria said this: “Intersex bodies have been systematically eliminated.”

What does she mean by that, “systematically eliminated”? If a newborn baby has obvious genital anomalies, medical protocol typically involves assigning a sex, performing “normalizing” surgery on the infant’s genitals, and raising the child as a “normal” boy or girl.

No more intersex.

Systematically eliminated.

Activists in the intersex community use very powerful words to refer to these practices. Genital mutilation. Intersex genocide. Powerful words to describe practices that are powerfully damaging.

If you want to see just how damaging these practices are, look no further than Cheryl Chase. An intersex activist and founder of the Intersex Society of North America, Cheryl was born with ambiguous genitalia and originally labeled as a boy. At 18 months, doctors reassigned her as a girl and performed a clitoridectomy, and evidence of her intersex condition was concealed from her. Later in her adulthood, amidst bouts of suicidality, Cheryl gained access to her medical records and learned the truth about what had happened to her. And thus began a lifelong goal of trying to prevent this from ever happening to another intersex child.

Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America twenty years ago, in 1993. Since then, intersex activists have fought tirelessly to bring visibility to intersex people, and to protect them from unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries. Thirteen years later, in 2006, the journal Pediatrics published a letter titled, “Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders,” which recommended that surgery should only be done on patients who are able to make an informed choice; that children should be assigned a gender at birth, but parents should be prepared for the possibility of a gender transition as the child gets older; and that parents should provide clear and honest information with their children about their condition.

So now it’s 2013 – seven years after the Consensus Statement was published. Have we come a long way, baby?

I’m not so sure that we have.

In researching my upcoming book, I’ve been looking for information about intersex people that’s geared towards kids. Anything – websites, educational materials, children’s books, you name it. There’s lots of stuff out there about intersex conditions and intersex politics, but it’s written for adults (and, in many cases, highly educated adults who can decipher academic gobbledygook). There are websites and children’s books about trans* identities and gender nonconformity. But there are almost no kid-level resources out there about intersex – which I find to be incredibly disturbing. If intersex kids can’t find information about themselves, and if they still don’t see themselves reflected in the culture in a positive way, then I don’t think we’re that far away from Cheryl Chase’s childhood experience.

The one exception is a book written by Maya Christina Gonzalez titled The Gender Now Coloring Book, which is an activity book that helps to bring a child-friendly awareness to gender. This book introduces the concept of multiple genders to young children, it gives examples of various gender forms in nature, and it includes images of a wide variety of bodies – male, female, and intersex. It clearly defines the words “intersex” and “transgender,” and it gives examples of ways for young children to talk about gender – for example, a “girlboy” could be a way to describe a girl feeling inside a boy body, and a “boygirlboy” could describe a boy feeling inside an intersex body that is more girl.

If you’re thinking that’s too complicated for a young child to comprehend, think about this: I interviewed Hida Viloria for my upcoming book, and during our conversation, she said, “If you taught every toddler that there are male, female, and intersex people, it’s done. That’s it. They totally get it.”

They TOTALLY get it. At least, when I test-drove the book on my daughter, she got it. She knows that she has a girl feeling inside a girl body. She knows that I have a girl feeling inside a girl body, and that her other mom has a mostly girl feeling inside a mostly girl body. To her, this is not weird or complicated at all.

The other day, my 5-year-old daughter came home from a trip to the library holding a copy of the children’s picture book Chowder. She said, “Mommy, I think Chowder is intersex.” (Chowder is a bulldog, for any of you who might be wondering.)

Hmm. “What makes you think that?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “I just do.” She handed me the book, indicating that I should read it to her. I opened the book and looked at the first page.

Chowder had always been different. His owners liked to think of him as quirky, but most people thought he was just plain weird.  

It’s clear to me that kids understand things on more levels than we give them credit for.

It’s one thing to be different. It’s another to be totally shut down, silenced, and, well, systematically eliminated. In the end, Chowder gets to be himself, and others come to accept him. My beacon of hope lies in these happy endings.


Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, intersex, transgender, Uncategorized

Some are more equal than others

Blog topics come to me in strange and interesting ways. Sometimes, I start off with a clear idea of what I want to write about, and it comes together easily. Other times, I might start off thinking I’m going to write about a particular topic, and then my post morphs into something entirely different and unrelated. And every once in a while, something random happens in my life that sparks creative inspiration, and that’s what I decide to go with.

That’s what happened this week. Actually, this time it was TWO unrelated random somethings that happened in my life. Well, not exactly random. And not completely unrelated, either.

So, here’s Random Creative Inspiration #1: The red and pink equals sign.

For those of you who have been living under a rock (or who don’t use social media), this image literally took over Facebook the week the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the two same-sex marriage cases – one involving California’s Proposition 8, the other focusing on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If you’ve ever seen the blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign logo, this image should look familiar. At one point, when I was checking my Facebook account, the few individual profile pictures that were left were submerged in a sea of red equals signs., showing an overwhelming level of support for same-sex marriage.

Now, for Random Creative Inspiration #2: Uncle Bobby’s wedding. (Note: I don’t have an Uncle Bobby.)

This past weekend, I attended a children’s book writing and illustrating conference, where one of the breakout sessions focused on diversity in picture books. One of the examples used in the presentation was Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen. It tells the story of a guinea pig named Chloe who is devastated when she learns that her uncle Bobby is getting married – her big fear being that she will no longer be her uncle’s favorite person. Eventually, as Chloe spends more time with Uncle Bobby and his boyfriend, Jamie, she comes around, and is delighted to be the flower girl for their wedding. It’s a very sweet story, with a spirit of acceptance and love.

So these two Random Creative Inspirations weave together perfectly, right? It’s time for same-sex marriage to be legalized. We’re just as normal as everybody else. Same-sex relationships are becoming as mainstream as opposite-sex relationships.

Well, that’s not where I’m going with this. As much as I support marriage equality rights, I’m going to talk about the dangers of “normalcy.”

The speaker at the breakout session I attended at this conference was an editor for a major children’s book publisher, and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding comes out of that publishing house. Although she used numerous other books as examples throughout her talk, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding was the only one she read to us cover-to-cover.  And when she finished reading, these were my thoughts:

That was a beautiful story.

The illustrations were delightful.

And, unfortunately, that is NOT how it goes down for a lot of people.

The fight for legalizing same-sex marriage has used, overwhelmingly, the sameness argument. In a 2006 article published in American Psychologist, UC Davis researcher Gregory Herek carefully lays out an argument in support of same-sex marriage rights, grounding each of his assertions in social science research. His thesis essentially boils down to these main points:

  • On most psychological measures, same-sex relationships are no different from opposite-sex couples.
  • Children raised by same-sex couples are no different than children raised by opposite-sex couples; and
  • Marriage bestows significant benefits with regard to health, financial stability, and psychological well-being.

Hence, the sameness argument. Or, to use a more political term, the assimilationist argument.

The dirty little secret about the fight for same-sex marriage rights is that there are factions within the LGBTQ community that are deeply divided over this issue. For example, the week that Facebook was flooded with red and pink equals signs, a number of people in the LGBTQ community responded by posting their own subversive versions of that image. One looked like this:

Granted, some who posted this divide sign are Religious Right-type people who are not in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But others who posted this image come from the trans* community, the poly/non-monogamous community, and others who exist on the edges of the mainstream LGBTQ umbrella.

One of the reasons some members of the trans* community chose the “divide” symbol over the “equals” sign is because of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Over a long period of time, the HRC, which is one of the largest gay advocacy organizations in the world, has committed some serious transgressions against the trans* community, the most noted being their support for excluding protections based on gender identity and expression from the Employer Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Their argument? It’ll pass more easily without the gender stuff. Just wait your turn, and be patient. (NOTE: To date, neither the exclusive or inclusive forms of ENDA have been signed into law.) More recently, at a marriage equality rally in front of the Supreme Court, a trans* activist was asked by an HRC staffer to remove a trans pride flag that had been erected behind the podium. These incidents highlight the ongoing tension between the “LGB”s and the “T”s, with the trans* community never feeling a sense of inclusion.

The divide sign highlights another very serious issue when it comes to same-sex marriage rights, and that is this: Not everybody in the LGBTQ community will benefit if Proposition 8 and DOMA are overturned.

What if you are gender-variant, and you don’t identify as “male” or “female”? So far, same-sex marriage policies haven’t included a “third gender” or alternative to the two-box binary gender system we’re so accustomed to.

What if you are in an ongoing polyamorous relationship? This, of course, is the “slippery slope” example that the Religious Right loves to whip out. Well, if we legalize same-sex marriage, then people will want to have multiple wives, or multiple husbands! Or they’ll want to marry their dog, or their horse, or their toaster! Usually, the response from marriage equality activists is this: Oh no, that will NEVER happen – because we’re just like heterosexual people.

Guess what? It happens. And when people enter into a polyamourous relationship, they are not legally protected. If a triadic (three-person) relationship splits up, there are no policies in place that guide how property and assets should be divided up. If a woman is in a quad (four people) and has a child with one of the men in the group, then decides to leave the quad entirely, how does child custody get sorted out? (Hint: She probably gets full custody, because the quad isn’t legally recognized by the state.)

I think some very serious questions are up for the LGBTQ community, and have been for quite some time. Are we fighting for equality – and if so, what does that mean? If assimilation is the goal that the movement is fighting for, then how does acceptance fall into that? Is it about fitting into the system, or changing the system? Uncle Bobby and Jamie fit into the system quite well. But that’s not true for quite a lot of us.


Filed under children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, LGBT families, LGBTQ, mental health, psychological research, relationships, religion, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia