Monthly Archives: June 2013

Fast and furious – but not over

Blocked.

That’s how I’m feeling as I try to write this post. Blocked.

Why do I feel blocked? It can’t be because there isn’t anything to write about. Two major Supreme Court decisions have resulted in a tectonic shift in the LGBTQ rights movement. The federal government no longer defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. Same-sex couples in California can get married if they wish.

And now, sitting in front of my computer, I feel . . . blocked.

It’s not just the Supreme Court decisions that are rendering me speechless. It’s the fact that so much change has been happening so quickly. Think about what’s happened – just in 2013:

On January 21, Barack Obama became the first president to discuss gay rights in his inaugural address.

On April 13, Jason Collins became the first professional athlete to come out of the closet.

On June 19, the Board of Directors of Exodus International, the largest ex-gay ministry in the world, announced last week that it was shuttering its reparative therapy operations, issuing an apology to the individuals who had been harmed by attempts to treat their homosexuality.

And on June 26 – well, you know the rest.

These are events that have impacted three of our country’s major social institutions – religion, professional sports, marriage – just in this past year. If we cast our net wider and look at state-by-state events, we continue to see significant institiutional change. California, for example, recently issued a ban on insurance discrimination against transgender patients. In addition, the California Assembly passed a bill that would provide transgender students equal access to facilities and programs based on their gender identity. And a week before the SCOTUS decisions, Colorado’s state civil rights division ruled that, by preventing 6-year-old transgender student Coy Mathis from using the girls’ restroom, the Fountain-Fort Carson School District acted in a discriminatory manner and needlessly created a harassing, hostile environment for her.

I could go on and on and on. It’s like a house of cards, with one critical card holding up all the others. Once you pull out that card, the entire house comes tumbling down. And that’s probably why I’m having this deer-in-the-headlights reaction – because even though change has been happening for a very long time, there’s been slow movement, then gradual acceleration. Now it’s like a roller coaster that’s just started zooming down the hill that it’s worked so hard to scale, and the ride is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

Social psychologists – and political pundits – call this the bandwagon effect. As more people come to believe in something, others become more willing to “hop on the bandwagon” and join in that belief system. Malcolm Gladwell re-branded and popularized this concept in his 2002 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. A “tipping point,” according to the book description, is “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

Have we hit that tipping point?

If we examine public opinion data on same-sex marriage in the United States, I think we can see the bandwagon effect – or tipping point – in pure, living color.  Ten years ago, according to Gallup Poll data, 39% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Five years later, in 2008 (the illustrious Proposition 8 election year), 40% said that same-sex marriage should be legal. In 2012, that number jumped to 50%. And last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that 55% of Americans support same-sex marriage. Going from 39% to 55% in a ten-year span is a HUGE change – especially when it involves such a controversial, value-driven, institutionally-ingrained issue. No wonder I’m feeling so shell-shocked.

But I think there’s another reason for this rare I-have-nothing-earth-shattering-to-say moment. Since the decisions were issued on Wednesday, a lingering question has been in the back of my mind: Where will we go from here? The movement has been so focused on marriage equality, and while full marriage equality obviously hasn’t been achieved yet, I fear that our community will rest on its laurels, assuming that the fight is over. But the fight is anything but over.

This past Thursday, I participated in an event at the San Joaquin Pride Center in Stockton, California. When I got there, I had a conversation with Nicholas Hatten, the director of the center. In the midst of our discussion, he said to me, “I hope that people in our community don’t decide to pack up and leave. I hope they don’t stop speaking out and contributing money. Because if they do, we’re dead.”

My thoughts exactly.

We can shift our collective LGBTQ community energies to planning our respective weddings – choosing wedding attire, selecting the perfect venue, figuring out who to invite and where to seat them during the reception, planning the honeymoon.

Or we can roll up our sleeves and focus our energies on moving towards equality, justice, and acceptance for all LGBTQ people. We can reduce the rates of LGBTQ youth depression and suicide. We can ensure that our LGBTQ students are in a safe, affirming, and inclusive educational environment. We can work towards ending victimization of LGTBQ people. We can fight for the right of intersex people to make decisions about their own bodies. We can demand full health care for all. We can push Congress to pass an inclusive Employer Non-Discrimination Act. We can fight for immigration rights in our community. We can work towards racial justice for all. We can ensure that our LGBTQ aging population is treated respectfully, fairly, and equitably. We can work towards full accommodation of LGBTQ people with disabilities. There is still work to be done, and I haven’t even begun to name all the issues.

My block is gone. I’m ready to move forward.

 

 

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Pick a side, and don’t flip-flop!

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas. Their mission was to announce the end of the war and the immediate abolition of slavery. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in September of 1862, and officially took effect in January of 1863, many Confederate states ignored it, and there weren’t enough Union troops to enforce the policy. On this day in June, Major General Granger said this:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

That day became known as Juneteenth, a mash-up between “June” and “nineteenth.” Juneteenth celebrations began the following year, in 1866. Today, forty-two states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or special day of observance.

* * * * * * * * * *

Early in the morning, on June 28, 1969, New York City police conducted a routine raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Although raids of gay bars were common at that time, this incident was different, in that the transgender and gay patrons of the bar fought back. The police initially beat the crowd away, but the next day, a crowd of over 1,ooo people returned to the site of the raid. A series of violent demonstrations took place over several days, marking the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.

One year later, on June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Today, most large and mid-size cities host LGBT Pride celebrations, many of which take place in June. Moreover, the federal government has declared June to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two major historical events, both occurring in June. Two events, both celebrating freedom and resistance from the binds of oppression. Two events, both sharing similar underlying roots – and both of which often end up competing with one another. Here in Sacramento, for example, the Sacramento Pride parade took place on June 15 at 11:00AM. The Sacramento Juneteenth Emancipation Parade took place on (drum roll, please. . . ) June 15 at 11:00AM.

If you’re strongly queer-identified, and strongly Black-identified, this poses a problem. It’s like a kid having to decide, “Do I go to Best Friend #1’s party, or Best Friend #2’s party?” Either way, you lose out on one of the parties, and on top of that, you possibly betray one of your friends. Especially if Best Friend #1 and Best Friend #2 hate each other.

Feeling caught in the middle like this is pretty familiar territory for people whose identities span across multiple groups. For queer people of color, the homophobia that often exists in their communities of color collides with the racism that often exists in LGBTQ communities. Throw in the fact that our culture struggles with people who don’t fit into nice, neat, non-overlapping categories, and you’ve got the seeds of some serious stress.

Psychologist Eduardo Morales was the first to put a name to this experience – the divided loyalties that many multiply oppressed people routinely experience. At the heart of his five-stage model of sexual identity development among ethnic minorities is the concept of allegiance.

The stages go like this: In Stage 1, the individual experiences a period of denial – possibly because that person hasn’t come out of the closet yet, or it may be that the coming-out process has begun, but the individual is experiencing a honeymoon period. It’s in Stage 2, where a person grapples with whether they’re exclusively gay or lesbian, or if they might be bisexual, that we see the first conflicts in allegiances. It’s not uncommon, according to several researchers who study sexual orientation in ethnic minority populations, for people to initially come out as bisexual, in order to soften the blow within their racial and ethnic communities. By doing that, allegiances to both communities are maintained – at least for the time being.

By Stage 3, the trials of pacifying both communities begin to take their toll, and the individual begins to experience intense conflict in allegiances. A young black gay man, for example, might be out to his friends, but not to his family. During the week, he might go to school and be active in high school or college LGBTQ activities. In the evenings and on the weekends, he might go to church with his family, or participate in other activities in the African-American community. And on June 15, when his friends are going to Pride and his family is participating in Juneteenth, the jig is up. He has to pick one or the other, but not both.

Enter Stage 4 – choosing one side or the other. Am I gay, or am I black? Morales refers to this as “establishing priorities in allegiances.” Maybe he decides to go to Pride with his friends, knowing that he’s taking a risky step with his family. Or maybe he decides to go to Juneteenth – and his friends might accuse him of being too chicken to stand up to his parents. A prisoner’s dilemma. It’s either Best Friend #1, or Best Friend #2. Either way, somebody’s going to get pissed off. And our young black gay man sees, in living color, the homophobia that lives within his ethnic communities and the racism that breathes within LGBTQ communities.

Stage 5, in which the individual finds a way to integrate both communities, and as a result synthesize all aspects of their identity, is a logical, albeit pie-in-the-sky resolution to this identity development process. Ideally, the individual is able to move seamlessly between communities, grounded in both a strong queer identity as well as a strong ethnic identity.

Sounds good, right? Happily ever after, with a nice neat bow tied on top.

The reality, however, is that this doesn’t always pan out. Some people may choose to stick with one community – either being out and involved in the queer community, but downplaying ethnic identity issues, or being involved in their ethnic community, but being discreet about their sexuality. Some, however, would like to integrate both communities, but don’t have the opportunity. This young black gay man might be very involved in his church, but there’s no open and affirmative discussion about homosexuality – and certainly no groups for LGBTQ African-Americans. This young black gay man might be very involved in his local LGBTQ community center, but there are no groups, activities, or events for queer people of color. And so the dilemma of allegiances continues.

What happens in a world where we have the freedom to live fully as we are, without having to choose sides, make people angry, alienate entire communities? Audre Lorde articulated this vision better than I ever could:

My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all  my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition.

 

 

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The healing power of art and activism

Years ago, I took a class at Sacramento City College called “Psychology of Creativity, Intuition, and Problem-Solving.” The reading list included a book titled The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which was a book I’d heard of. In fact, at one point I had actually borrowed the book from the library, but I never got around to reading it. I had signed up for the class because I’d sat in on a class session to do an instructor evaluation (I teach at Sacramento City College in the psychology department) – and after half an hour in the class, I was more than a little intrigued. I knew I’d be in for a ride, but I really had no idea how much I’d be transformed by the healing power of the creative process. I also had no idea how creatively blocked I was – and how that block was impeding my effectiveness as an activist.

After just a few weeks of being in the class, a river of creativity opened up for me – and amazing things started happening. I created a painting of a woman on a beach, leaping boundlessly through the surf. (I’ve never taken any art classes – unless you count the once-a-week public elementary school art.) And then I painted some more. I went to music clubs and danced. I bought wool sweaters at thrift stores, felted them, and made all sorts of creations from the results. I knitted. I sewed. I dyed things in Kool-Aid. I made sidewalk chalk and drew all over our patio. And from these seemingly superficial creative endeavors, things really started happening for me. Things that had a much stronger personal and social impact – like creating a course focusing on sexual and gender minorities. And writing a book (and then another one) about edgy LGBTQ issues. And deciding to have a baby. Things like that.

I began to speak up more, and speak out. I took more risks in various areas of my life – and, through that process, I began to experience the power of my own voice, in its many forms. Not that this was completely new to me – it’s been over 20 years since I was first introduced to feminism, queer activism, and social justice work. But most of my prior work had been left-hemispheric stuff – logical, rational, scholarly, cogently argued, well-researched. When I started drawing on the right side of the brain (a shameless plagiarization of Betty Edwards’ title), something shifted. And I think that shift has something to do with anger.

Yes, anger.

Those of us who are members of oppressed groups have good reason to be angry. If you’ve been silenced, if you’ve been swept aside, if you’ve been made to feel in any way that you’re not okay the way that you are, whether it’s because of your race, or your body size, or your gender expression, or your sexual practices, or your offbeat geeky personality – these are the seeds of oppression that fuel some serious anger.  In fact, it was when I read this passage in The Artist’s Way that I started to connect the dots between anger and oppression, art and activism:

Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people, and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.

When Julia Cameron wrote this passage, she was referring to the anger that blocked artists are likely to experience. People who are artistic and creative – and who go to any lengths to pursue those drives – are often told: You’re being irresponsible and impractical. You won’t make any money. You’re living in a fantasy world. You’re crazyIt makes sense that people whose creative energy has been policed into conformity would experience a deep well of anger. But when I read this passage, I wasn’t just thinking about artists. I was thinking of those of us who have had to conform in order to survive and be accepted. And if we resist, we risk being told: You’re crazy. There’s a lot of anger that comes from living in a crazy world, and being told again and again that we’re the crazy ones.

Later in that same passage, Cameron goes on to say this:

Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. But a very, very loyal friend. It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us when we have betrayed ourselves. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.

Anger is not the action itself. It is action’s invitation.

Activism is healing. And in some cases, activism is a literal lifeline. Case in point: Jeff 4 Justice is an LGBTQ activist who lives in his vehicle – initially by choice, currently by necessity. He has no money. He has few friends where he’s currently living. He suffers from periodic bouts of depression – and he has no money to get treatment for it. For him, activism is the thread of hope and empowerment that keeps him hanging on. “Activism has therapeutic value,” he said. “Everything I do as an activist, it’s not always about winning, it’s not about convincing people. Sometimes what I do as an activist is keeping my damn self sane by expressing myself how I want to express myself.”

If your selfhood has been blocked, and your creativity has been blocked, dislodging those stones opens up a wide, flowing river of potential – an opportunity to channel that suppressed anger into transformative action. And art is a powerful tool in that process. We have people that Susan Lundy of UCLA calls “Aerosol Activists” – political graffiti artists in Oakland, California whose work evokes themes of racism, war, poverty, colonization, and cultural resiliency. We have the guerilla theater tactics used by groups like ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers – as well as by college students who, in a class taught at Westminster College of Pennsylvania, demonstrate against sexual violence through unannounced public performances on campus. We have members of the homeless community, described in Frances Kaplan’s book Art Therapy and Social Action, who create masks and exhibit them as a way of conveying their sense of invisibility, fear, anger, and disconnection. These are actions that heal our communities – and that heal our souls.

One of our Sacramento Pride events taking place this coming weekend is called “Art on the Edge,” where trans*, queer, and ally artists and creatives are invited to display their work and to engage in on-the-spot creativity. Out of all the Pride events taking place in my city this weekend (and there are many), this is the one that I’m the most excited about. It’ll be expressive, creative, energetic, empowering – and healing. Those of you who live in Northern California, I hope you’ll join me there.

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The disease of “isms”

(NOTE: This post is in honor of my friend Matt, who is doing the AIDS LifeCycle ride this week from San Francisco to Los Angeles.)

June 17, 1982. Tom Brokaw began his NBC News report with the following statement: “The lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an outbreak of a new form of cancer.” The report went on to describe two men who “suffer from a mysterious, newly-discovered disease, which affects mostly homosexual men.” It was a disease with no name, yet its deadliness was undeniable: “Researchers know of 413 people who have contracted the condition in the past year. One-third of them have died. None of them have been cured.”

I was ten years old at the time. I actually remember watching this segment. I also remember feeling scared. There’s this disease that doesn’t have a name, and nobody seems to know how you get it. But it can kill you. Anyone would be frightened by that prospect.

Understandably, many people were. Very quickly, a mass panic erupted – largely because people didn’t know how this mysterious disease was transmitted. The media initially referred to the syndrome as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency, assuming that it was a disease concentrated solely among gay males. The CDC originally called it the “4-H” disease, based on the assumption that it affected homosexuals, hard-drug users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Both of these terms, marginalizing and othering as they were, were probably intended to quell the fears of the general public (“As long as you’re not in one of those groups, you should be just fine.”). A month after Tom Brokaw’s news report, a Time magazine article introduced the term “AIDS” for the first time, which is the acronym that has come to embody the effects of oppression on the LGBTQ community. An epidemic was born.

The devastating effects of the AIDS virus are well-documented. So is the government’s apathetic response to the epidemic, and the activist efforts that arose from that apathy. Read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts – and then watch David France’s award-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague. Entire communities were dying off, and it seemed as if nobody cared. The edge communities of the day – homosexuals and drug addicts – were being completely ignored.

Thirty-one years later, and the impact of HIV and AIDS is still devastating. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are over 1 million people with AIDS (PWAs) currently living in the United States. Fifty thousand people are infected every year with HIV. And about 15,000 PWAs die each year. Of course, more people with HIV and AIDS are living longer, healthier lives, since the development of protease inhibitors and antiretrovirals. But today, we’re facing the long-range effects of the ignorance and apathy of the 1980s and early 1990s. We’re in what Carlos del Rio of the Emory University School of Medicine calls the “second wave of AIDS” – and that wave is continuing to most strongly impact people who exist on the edges of the mainstream.

Which edge communities are we talking about? For my upcoming book, I interviewed Aaron Riley, president of New Leaf Columbus, a social and professional networking group for queer people of color. “When I was doing HIV work,” said Aaron, who is HIV-positive, “we would see Black men coming into the system, progressing within 1-2 years to an AIDS diagnosis, and within another 24 months they typically were dead. We had White males who were in the system for 20, 25 years. Why are we having such different mortality rates?”

Why, indeed? “People weren’t getting tested. By the time they came in, their immune systems were so far compromised, and the virus was so far along, that there really wasn’t a lot that could be done.” Aaron paused. “I’ve watched the community respond to AIDS, or not respond to AIDS, for a really long time. The African-American church has to resolve how it’s going to deal with this issue. The church won’t talk about the issue, and in the meantime, people continue to get infected, and people continue to die.”

Kyle House, former president of the now-defunct Sacramento Valley Leathercorps, became infected with HIV in the early 1990s through an accidental prick from his partner’s medical syringe. Kyle, whose birthright includes Dutch, English, Iroquois, and Seminole lineage, had this to say: “The rates of HIV in some Indian nations are incredibly high. Astronomically high. But they don’t report. They don’t trust the government. And I don’t blame them. Plus there’s a huge stigma in the community for being gay, and for being positive. That silences people.”

People of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, are disproportionately more likely to get infected with HIV – and are significantly more likely than White people to die from complications arising from AIDS. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the CDC, risk factors for HIV infection include the following:

  • poverty
  • homelessness
  • disability
  • low education
  • being a gay or bisexual male
  • being female
  • being young
  • being transgender
  • being incarcerated.

“This disease is climbing in women, people of color, people of lower economics,” said Aaron. “Disenfranchised people are the ones being affected.”

In 2006, NPR aired a report titled, “The Changing Face of AIDS: 25 Years Later.” The Gay Men’s Health Center has a page on its website titled The New Face of HIV/AIDS. ThinkProgress has an interactive map on its site titled The Changing Face of AIDS. “There’s a phrase I’ve been hearing more and more: ‘The Changing Face of AIDS,'” said Marc Thibodeau, an International Mr. Leather titleholder who in 1992 learned he was HIV-positive. “I hate that phrase. The face of AIDS isn’t changing. What’s happening is that AIDS is spreading. It’s spreading into more and more communities.” Marginalized communities. Oppressed communities. Disenfranchised communities. The communities that are impacted by the wide-ranging constellation of “isms.”

In 1982, we were faced with a new form of cancer. Today, that cancer has metastasized – and even in the post-ACT-UP era, we still see fear, apathy, and silence within affected communities. We see young people who think, Oh, if I get it, I’ll just take a pill.  We see people of color who are afraid to get tested for fear of outing themselves. We see religious communities that have remained silent about the presence of the disease within their congregations. We see people who get infected because they were the victims of sexual assault – and who know they’ll be stigmatized if they come forward. We see people who, even in 2013, don’t have accurate information about how to protect themselves and others from the virus.

AIDS is a disease that thrives on “isms” – racism, sexism, genderism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism. If we’re going to win the war on AIDS, we need to eliminate the conditions that enable it to survive and thrive.

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