Monthly Archives: August 2013

Battle hymn of the nonbelievers

Several years ago, I read an article called “The Pastor’s Secret,” written by a philosophy professor at Tufts University named Daniel Dennett. The subtitle of this article says, “What Happens when Preachers Don’t Believe?” That little tagline grabbed my attention, as I was otherwise mindlessly flipping through the magazine in which the article was printed. It’s an article that has – the word “haunted” comes to mind. This article has haunted me. And I’d like to talk about why.

Back in 2006, Dennett wrote a book titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, an “unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy” that adds to the growing body of skeptical inquiry regarding religion. While Dennett was writing this book, he came across numerous “secret nonbelievers” – clergy and churchgoers who looked very religious on the outside, yet inwardly didn’t believe a word of their church’s preachings. Taking a specific interest in clergymembers who had lost their faith (or who maybe didn’t ever have it in the first place), Dennett and his colleague Linda LaScola conducted a pilot study of five nonbelieving pastors – all of whom had entered their respective ministries as true believers, but had lost their faith somewhere along the way. For some, it happened early on, while in seminary. For others, the loss of faith occurred after settling in with a congregation. In one case, the pivotal faith-busting moment came after reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Yet even though all of them had lost their faith, every single one of them chose to remain in the clergy. Each gave different reasons for staying, but those reasons essentially boiled down to one simple truth: I’m stuck. I’m trapped. I can’t get out – at least not without serious consequences.

It’s been several years since I read this article. And yet, I have a vivid, almost photographic memory of setting the magazine aside, sinking my head back onto the couch, closing my eyes and taking some deep breaths, and, well, praying. My prayer was pretty simple – childlike, really: God, don’t EVER let that happen to me.

To me, there’s nothing worse than feeling stuck. Or trapped. Or feeling like there’s No Way Out. Some people fear being physically stuck or trapped – stuck in an elevator, on a bridge, in a tunnel, in a basement. Some have a profound fear of being buried alive. And there are some who experience significant anxiety (possibly escalating into a panic attack) in minor “confinement” situations, like getting a haircut, or receiving a pedicure, or waiting in line at the grocery store. There’s a reason why so many people suffer from claustrophobia – because, from a very basic evolutionary standpoint, being stuck or trapped threatens our very survival.

But I don’t necessarily fear those kinds of things. The pastors in this study probably don’t either. They weren’t physically trapped – rather, they were caught in a situation that challenged their integrity. They had all found ways of rationalizing their choices, but the reality is that, at the end of the day, they were no longer walking their talk. And not walking your talk – especially when it involves your core, fundamental sense of truth – is like a continual assault on the soul. That is what I fear, more than anything.

Fear calls for immediate action. When the elevator doors close, and the panic rises, claustrophobics will do whatever they have to do in order to escape – even if their escape tactics are completely dangerous. When the soul is continually assaulted, and you are constantly confronted with your lack of integrity, your soul will do what it has to do to save itself.

And when you’re fighting in a war that you don’t believe in, and you’re repeatedly ordered to do things that go against the grain of your conscience, and you see wrongs being committed that nobody’s owning up to – and, on top of that, you’re doing all this while presenting as a gender that isn’t at all true to who you are, largely because you feel like you have to – you’re likely to do some crazy things. That’s why, when I learned of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s 35-year prison sentence, and when I read the statement given by Manning’s attorney, I immediately thought of the “nonbelieving pastor” study. Stuck. Trapped. No Way Out.

David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, said this in an interview aired on Democracy Now! (prior to Manning’s public coming-out statement):

“…[Y]ou see a young man hoping that when he gets there he can make a difference. He can hopefully save lives. Hopefully get people back safely. How disheartening it must have been when he got there that it really wasn’t always the mission. And we didn’t always just kill bad people. Sometimes we just kill people because they were in the wrong place, and no one asked questions. And no one investigated to see did we do something wrong. And when we did do something wrong, we didn’t come forward with that information. We didn’t readily admit the mistake and say we’re sorry and show how we’re going to prevent this from happening in the future. . . .I think that is probably what accelerated his belief that the public needed to see this information. ”

These statements were made (prior to Manning’s public coming-out) by David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, in an interview aired on Democracy Now!  There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Manning’s actions and about the 35-year prison sentence, and I won’t add to the cacophony of angry voices on all sides. What I will say is this: to me, Manning’s story is strikingly – hauntingly – similar to the stories of the five nonbelieving pastors. And frankly, the underlying themes of these stories aren’t at all unfamiliar to most LGBTQ people – we know, from firsthand experience, the terrible toll that silencing our convictions, our identities, our truth takes on our souls. The irony, to me, is that it was Manning, not the pastors in the study, who ultimately took the big leap of faith – to find some way, no matter how risky, to maintain some sort of integrity in an integrity-lacking situation. From leaking documents to coming out as transgender, it all seems crazy to a lot of people. But if you’ve ever experienced psychological claustrophobia, I bet it actually makes sense.

Religious zealots preach often about saving the souls of the sinners. Who will save your soul if you don’t save – and honor, and respect – your own?


Filed under mental health, psychological research, religion, transgender

We all need to be the “somebody”

Coming home from vacation has to rank up there as one of the biggest letdowns of your life. Seriously. What’s fun about the end of vacation?  But one thing still excites me to no end when I come home from a long vacation, and that is the mail. Oh, GOODY! I think to myself, like a kid at Christmas. What did I get? I’m well into my forties, and I still get that way about the mail. If the U.S. Postal Service ever collapses, I’ll probably go into deep mourning, because for me, it would be like the end of Santa Claus.

So what did Santa bring me this go-around? Lots of grocery store circulars, some random junk mail, a few bills here and there. (These are like the stocking stuffers – fun to sift through, but no big deal.) There was a big envelope with information about my daughter’s upcoming school year. (That was fun to open.) But the big “under the tree” gift, so to speak, was (drum roll please) . . . a big pile of psychology research journals! 

Thank you, Santa! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! (Yes, I am a big nerdy bookworm academic.)

When I read a psychology journal, I’m not much different from a die-hard sports fan watching The Big Game. I get really immersed into each article. If I come across a study that’s well-done and methodologically rigorous, I get super-excited. (Sadly, this is not a common occurrence.). More frequently, I read a study that has at least one major flaw in it. And then I get mad. Really mad. I’ve been known to not-quite yell at the article. Dammit! Why the hell didn’t you ask THAT question? Why didn’t you include THESE people in your study? Did you get your Ph.D. by drawing Tippy the Turtle?  Then I have to restrain myself from throwing the poor journal across the room. Thank goodness I don’t read these journals while drinking beer and eating chips – then things could get REALLY ugly.

In all seriousness, I think there is good reason to get angry at the current state of psychological research. Back in the early 1990s, I distinctly remember my Introduction to Psychology professor saying that the course we had enrolled in really should be titled, “The Psychology of College Undergraduates” – because the vast majority of university-based psychological researchers use Psychology 101 students as their guinea pigs. In fact, as part of my grade for that class, I was required to participate in at least three studies that members of the Psychology department were conducting. This was more than twenty years ago – if the articles I read in my pile of published-in-2013-journals are any indication, not much has changed since then.

Here’s an example. In one study I read, researchers looked at whether sitting in a constrictive, closed posture (as opposed to an expansive, open posture) influenced women to feel more negatively about their bodies and, consequently, to restrict their eating. Given that my dissertation research focused on non-heterosexual women’s body dissatisfaction, this study was of particular interest to me. As I read through the study, I got to the “Method” section – the part where the authors describe in detail how the study was done – and it started off like this:

Following informed consent, 97 women (86.6% Caucasian, 4.1% Hispanic/Latina, 4.1% Asian, 3.1% African American, 2.1% unreported) with a mean age of 19.61 years (SD = 1.92, range = 18-29) participated (Allen, Gervais, & Smith, 2013, p. 329).

In other words, the sample included mostly young White women, with a grand total of 11 women of color. The researchers didn’t ask about mixed-race status – participants could only choose one category, even if their ethnicities spanned more than one group. The oldest person to participate was 29 years old, so age diversity wasn’t a consideration. And the participants weren’t even asked about their sexual orientation or gender status – or disability, or class status.  At the end of the study, the authors issue this statement as a “limitation” of their research:

The current studies examined young women from primarily Caucasian backgrounds with average body size, which limits the generalizability of our results. A complete understanding of constrictive versus expansive postures should consider multiple identities including comparisons with men, various BMI levels (e.g., overweight or obese), different race (sic) and ethnicities, and diverse sexual identities (emphasis mine) (Allen, Gervais, & Smith, 2013, p. 333).

I see this over and over and over again. Instead of diversifying the sample (or clarifying from the beginning that the sample is not diverse, and perhaps isn’t meant to be), psychologists use the convenience of their university’s Psychology 101 classes for their research samples, conduct and publish their studies, then apologize for the lack of diversity later. And it’s not just this study. To give a sampling of other studies published in the three journals I received, there was a study of attitudes towards immigration policies, a study of gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers, and a study of physical appearance comparisons among women. All of the participants in these studies were college undergraduates, the majority of whom were White. None of these studies involved any kind of meaningful analysis of sexual orientation. And all of them included an apologetic statement at the end, usually “somebody needs to include these populations.”

Somebody. Meaning “somebody else.” Frankly, anyone who conducts social science research needs to be that “somebody.” Period.

Some researchers will say in earnest, I’ve tried to get a diverse sample, and it’s just too hard. Believe me – having done research and working hard to get diverse samples (and to document that diversity accurately), I understand. But if we continue to use tools that were designed for privileged populations, we’re going to continue to get participants who come from a place of privilege. It’s time to get creative and radically diversify our methods.

Here’s an example: If you want to study day laborers (which was the focus of another study in one of my journals), you’re obviously going to get zilch in the way of participation if you merely hang up a flyer in the psychology department advertising your study, or if you create a web-based survey. But if you get up early in the morning, go down to the Home Depot parking lot, and ask the laborers (in the Spanish dialect they can understand), then you might actually get somewhere. That’s exactly what Lizette Ojeda and Brandy Pina-Watson of Texas A&M University did – and they got 143 people to take part in their study. Clearly, their sample wasn’t diverse (it wasn’t meant to be) – but it went far beyond the standard Psychology 101 college undergraduate base.

So listen up, all you social science researchers. Make an effort to diversify your samples – at the very least, by race and ethnicity, by age, by ability/disability status, by sexual orientation, by gender status, by class status. Be willing to use nontraditional methods in recruiting and studying your participants. Document your participants’ demographics accurately – don’t make any part of their identities invisible, just because you didn’t ask the right questions. And remember that each and every one of these participants is giving you a gift. When you publish a research article that respectfully documents their truth, you are giving them a gift too.

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Filed under intersectionality, psychological research

Welcome to my dolphin world

It’s late summer – that time of year that’s still hot (especially in Sacramento and the Central Valley). Air conditioners are working at max capacity, and fire season is kicking in at high gear. But I notice that the sun is setting just a little bit earlier, the shadows just the slightest bit longer. Summer is winding down.

As I’ve been noticing these subtle changes, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve most appreciated about my time at the beach. I love surfing, boogie boarding, and swimming anyplace where there’s water. I love to go beachcombing for shells and sea glass, and recently I discovered a beach where you can find tons of sand dollars. I love going to outdoor concerts, or just listening to the random person on the beach with their guitar, or ukulele, or mandolin, or whatever instrument suits their fancy.

But to me, the absolute best is watching the sea life. Give me a towel and a pair of binoculars, and I get into that space where I lose time, sitting on the beach for hours.

There’s been an abundance of wildlife this season. Today, for example, a sea lion swam by, not twenty feet away, as I was teaching my daughter how to stand up on a surfboard. A few days ago, an otter floated by on its back, licking its paws and grooming itself. Lately, we’ve seen flocks of literally hundreds of pelicans nose-diving into the water, going in for the kill.

And we’ve seen dolphins. Lots and lots of dolphins. Usually a dolphin sighting is an occasional treat, but this year I’ve seen them almost every day, identifiable by their graceful surface break and curved dorsal fin. They’ve come very close to shore, and usually they’re swimming in small groups. What took my breath away, though, was the day the dolphins breached the surface, playfully leaping in the air. They are absolutely amazing creatures. In fact, I feel like, in some ways, I can relate to them – especially as a queer person. And I find them to be incredibly inspiring.

OK, you’re probably thinking. This is probably another one of those random tangents that will eventually connect back (sort of) to LGBTQ issues. But this is really a stretch! Something in the ocean water is eating away at her brain cells.

Hang in there, my friends. I really do think I have a point here.

One of the things that fascinates me about dolphins is their sensitivity. On one level, this sensitivity is physical – while they seem to lack a sense of smell, they have an acute sense of vision, their hearing is leaps and bounds above what humans are capable of, and they have a highly developed skin sensitivity. But what I find even more interesting is their emotional sensitivity – what most of us would label as “empathy” or “altruism.” For example, dolphins will stay with animals that are hurt or sick, and, in at least one case, they have been observed to help guide injured animals to safety.  Earlier this year, a group of dolphins were observed forming a life raft in order to rescue an injured member of their pod. They will swim in circles around people in the water to protect them from shark attacks. There is even evidence to suggest that dolphins experience grief, mourning the loss of their loved one. They are the caretakers – the “deep feelers,” if you will – of the ocean world.

Although I haven’t seen clear-cut research that supports this idea, I have a sense that people who get into social justice work – especially those of us who claim “marginalized group” membership – have a similar kind of dolphin emotionality. If you think about it, people who engage in any kind of human (or animal) rights work need to be able to feel (not just understand, but feel) the pain of others in order to be motivated to do the hard work of eliminating that pain (and the injustices that cause it). Of course, most people are equipped with some kind of empathy sensor – otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to connect with and form relationships with others. However, some people can watch the news, get mildly upset at what they see, and then turn off the TV and sleep soundly at night. I’m not one of those people (and, I suspect, many other people who engage in social justice work aren’t either). We are emotionally sensitive. We feel the pain of others deeply in our bones. And that sensitivity, for many of us, is the gateway into activism.

It’s been well-documented that people who lack power in any given situation tend to be more sensitive, and possibly more empathic.  But a recent study by Sukvinder Obhi of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, reveals a possible biological mechanism behind these highly empathic responses. That mechanism revolves around what’s called the mirror system, a constellation of neurons that fire when you engage in a behavior or when you observe someone else engaging in that same behavior. For example, if I watch someone do a belly flop into the pool, I inadvertently cringe, almost as if I had been the one to smack my chest flat against the water. It’s like the brain is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, imagining that you, not the other person, is engaging in the behavior. It’s thought that some people on the autism spectrum have an impaired mirror system. It’s also thought that people with antisocial personality disorder (and possibly narcissistic personality disorder) lack a mirror system altogether. But Obhi’s research focused more on people in positions of power, compared to people who lack power. Feeling powerless, according to his research, appears to increase neuronal firing within the mirror system – correlating with a heightened sense of empathy. In constrast, being in a position of power tends to block the mirror system – mirror neurons within that system appear to fire less frequently when people are enjoying a sense of power – and their sense of empathy gets kicked to the curb.

Do people who are members of historically marginalized groups, because of their chronically powerless status, have a more active mirror system in the brain? Do dolphins, for that matter (regardless of whether they enjoy power or not) have mirror neurons that function in a similar way? I have no idea.  But the similarities in empathic responses are striking, in my opinion.

Incidentally, I also learned from reading up on dolphins that they can recover quite handily from shark bites. Perhaps resiliency is another characteristic that marginalized folks share with them – for many of us have had the experience of being bitten by the proverbial shark.


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Filed under homophobia, human rights, relationships, violence

A powerful tool, or a weapon of the weak?

OK, so LGBTQ people don’t have it perfect in the United States. Marriage equality has not been secured in all 50 states and U.S. territories. The concept of “transgender health care” remains an oxymoron for many transpeople. Congress is still engaging in a decades-long debate about whether to grant employment protections for LGBTQ people.

But you know, it could be worse. What if NO legal recognition existed for same-sex couples? What if NO laws existed that protect LGBTQ people against discrimination or harassment anywhere? What if you could be thrown in jail for disseminating educational material about LGBTQ people, or fined for something as simple as clicking a Facebook “like” button about some LGBTQ issue?

Well, that’s how it is for queer people in Russia. And Sochi, Russia is where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. In case you’re wondering, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko made clear last week that we shouldn’t expect these laws to be suspended just because the Olympics are taking place. In fact, these were his exact words:

No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.

That’s a pretty formidable warning, in my opinion. And my sense is that it’s not just the government that would hold people accountable. According to 2013 polling data, public support of same-sex marriages is at 16% (compared to about 54% in the United States). Additionally, 74% believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Given those attitudes, I wouldn’t just be afraid of law enforcement; I’d be wary of how I might be treated by the locals.

So it’s not surprising that there’s been a call for the United States and other nations to boycott the 2014 Olympics. The rationale is three-fold: to protect the safety and well-being of LGBTQ athletes and spectators; to make clear that anti-LGBTQ policies won’t be tolerated; and to pressure the country of Russia to consider repealing these oppressive laws. But this call to action is hotly controversial. Some say it’s a necessary move. Others think it’s pointless, and won’t make a difference. And still others feel as if the athletes are the ones who end up being penalized the most.

So is it pointless, or a necessary move? It’s true that certain conditions need to be present in order for a boycott to be effective. According to Brayden King, a researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, if a boycott is going to pack any kind of meaningful punch, the company, organization, or entity they’re targeting (in this case, the Russian government) needs to be vulnerable to change. For example, the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was effective because (1) it hit the city of Montgomery below the belt financially, and (2) it was, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel’s back, propelling the country into the modern civil rights movement. Montgomery, Alabama – and the United States – were vulnerable to change.

But is Russia vulnerable to change in the same way? Given that several of their anti-gay policies were passed very recently – and given the low level of acceptance of LGBTQ people in the general populace – my answer would be no. In fact, Vitaly Mutko issued his statements directly in response to the International Olympic Committee’s call for non-discrimination of sexual and gender minorities. Clearly, Russia stands by its laws, and is prepared to defend them. If the goal is to get Russia to eliminate its anti-LGBTQ policies, it’s doubtful that a boycott would have any effect whatsoever in achieving that goal. In fact, if we use history as our guide, the only thing the Soviet Union did in response to the 1980 boycott was to go tit-for-tat and boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Moreover, there’s concern about how a boycott would affect the athletes themselves – the people who have spent enormous amounts of time, energy, money, blood, sweat, and tears training for their shot at Olympic gold. According to researchers Jane Crossman and Ron Lappage, who interviewed 24 Canadian coaches about the effects of the 1980 Olympic boycott, being denied the opportunity to compete caused the athletes considerable distress. They were angry. They experienced grief reactions. They felt powerless – especially because the Canadian government had made the decision for them. They felt like they were cheated out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and being told that they could participate in alternative competitions was hardly a consolation prize. Fast-forward to the present, and we already have several athletes – including figure skater Johnny Weir – who have made quite clear that they oppose a boycott and want to compete.

So I don’t have a clear answer as to whether or not a boycott is the way to go. But I do have several thoughts. So here they are:

Thought #1: Activism can occur in many forms. A strategically planned boycott can be very effective. Yet, to borrow the words of researcher Brayden King, “Boycotts are a weapon of the weak” – a passive form of activism, in his opinion. In contrast, consider openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup’s decision to go ahead and compete in Sochi – and to wear a rainbow pin while doing so. It’s a risky move, to be sure, for simply wearing a pin could land Skjellerup in jail. But it’s brave, bold, honest – and certainly not weak. Bringing your same-sex spouse to the Games and holding hands publicly would be a seriously bold move.

Thought #2: The effects of activism aren’t always immediately apparent. There may be zero interest on the part of Russian officials to repeal anti-LGBTQ laws. However, if the U.S. ultimately decided to boycott the Olympics, and if enough nations join in and generate good momentum, the resulting bandwagon effect might effectively advance pro-LGBTQ policies here in the U.S. and in other nations.

Thought #3: Some action needs to be taken – whether or not it involves a boycott. What if the entire U.S. Olympic team decided to join forces and collectively wear rainbow pins? What if a large-scale LGBTQ ally movement took place in Sochi during the Games? The possibilities are endless. But it’s clear to me that silence in the face of oppression is unacceptable.

Activists are creative. We find ways of getting the message across. And if the message isn’t heard in one form, we find another way to convey it. It might occur in the form of a boycott. But it might also occur in the form of something even more creative, powerful, and effective.

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Filed under homophobia, human rights, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized