Monthly Archives: September 2013


So the CEO of Barilla says he won’t allow gay people to be depicted in their advertisements, and within hours, the LGBTQ community mobilizes big time. Boycotts, Internet petitions, op-ed pieces – the LGBTQ community and its supporters have stepped up in a big, big way, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

But I do have a cynical side (if you haven’t noticed by now). And that cynical side, when I first heard about the Barilla boycott, I thought, First it was Chik-fil-A. Then it was Russian vodka. And now it’s . . . pasta? Come on now. Is nothing sacred?

The reality is, I don’t drink hard liquor. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chik-fil-A in my life. And Barilla – well, I’m not a big pasta eater, but in my graduate school days, when spaghetti from a box and sauce out of a jar was part of my regular meal repertoire, Barilla never made it into my pantry. So, for me, boycotting these companies is like giving up marijuana for Lent. If I don’t use it in the first place, giving it up doesn’t really count.

My cynicism comes from a much deeper place. There are a LOT of companies that the LGBTQ community should probably consider boycotting. Walmart, in addition to being cited numerous times for poor treatment of LGBTQ employees, recently included a book on its shelves titled Chased by an Elephant by Janice Barrett Graham (wife of LDS pastor Stephen Graham, believer of “praying the gay away”). The book description begins like this:

“Overgrown jungles? Mad elephants? Tarzan and Jane? That’s what LDS families will find in this book to help shed the clear light of truth on today’s dark and tangled ideas about male and female, proper gender roles, the law of chastity, and the God-given sexual appetite.”

Not exactly LGBTQ-friendly. That should be enough to prompt a boycott, don’t you think?

Or what about Domino’s Pizza, whose founder created an entire city – Ave Maria, Florida – devoted entirely to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Or Exxon Mobil, for failing to adopt non-discrimination policies for their LGBTQ employees? And then there’s Babies R Us/Toys R Us. Hobby Lobby. Lowe’s. Marriott. Tyson Foods. Dish Network. Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Celestial Seasonings. Radio Shack. Verizon. Curves. Purina. Gold’s Gym. Dole. Forever 21. These are all companies that engage in anti-LGBTQ practices in some way, shape, or form. And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you find this list dizzying, then you’re in good company. And in my dizzy stupor, I’m reminded of a story.

Years ago, when I was in college, a bisexual friend and I would routinely go to the gym, work out together, and then go to the Wendy’s next door for a burger and fries. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell,” we’d say to each other – not referring at all to the fact that we were devouring junk food after our virtuous workout. In fact, our secretive behavior had everything to do with the fact that the LGBTQ community (among others) was actively boycotting Wendy’s at the time, and here we were, sneaking around behind the scenes.

I’ve written about what motivates people to boycott companies in previous blog posts. In one post, I talked about a study that identified, among others, two major variables that motivate boycotts: (1) a desire to make change happen; and (2) the personal growth that comes from participating in a boycott (the researchers call this “self-enhancement”). I definitely desire change, and I embrace the personal growth opportunities activism has provided me with. And yet, here I was at Wendy’s, surreptitiously scarfing down a bacon cheeseburger. That experience has stuck with me, and since then, I’ve wondered why someone like myself, someone so heavily invested in social change, risked having my “queer membership card” taken away – and over a trayful of fast food, at that.

How you spin your message has an enormous impact on how people receive that message – a phenomenon called a “framing effect.” For example, if you tell a teenager that there’s a 1 in 20 chance that condom use will result in a pregnancy, that teenager will probably be far more gun-shy about condoms than if they were told that condoms are 95% effective at preventing pregnancy (which sounds like pretty good odds). That’s the power of the framing effect in action. So what if we apply the concept of framing effects to boycotting?

Andrew John of Melbourne University (who is one of the co-authors of the study cited above) is an economist whose research focuses largely on consumer boycotts. In his research articles, he uses the term “boycott” – but alternatively, he frequently uses the phrase “purchase sacrifice.” I think that’s a brilliant phrase – because if you think about it, participating in a boycott is really all about sacrifice. It’s a purchase sacrifice, and a time, energy, and resources sacrifice – especially when it comes to researching which companies are LGBTQ-friendly or -unfriendly. Boycotting a company or product might require buying an alternative brand that’s more expensive, or not as easy or convenient to obtain (which, for some, might be a significant sacrifice, depending on one’s socioeconomic status).  If I need to disconnect my Dish and pay $10 extra per month for DirectTV (or just tell myself, who needs TV, anyway?), forego the thick, plush towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and get the ones that feel a little scratchy from Target, stop drinking my Celestial Seasonings herb tea and either do without or make a special trip to a more expensive store to get some other brand, force my cat to eat something other than Purina Cat Chow, find some way to explain to my kid why Toys R Us is bad (and then try to find an alternative), spend hours trying to keep track of the “good” companies and “bad” companies, and then feel all guilty because I just found out that Barilla is a “bad” company after I’ve bought five boxes of pasta – if my immediate personal loss is greater than the long-term potential gain, then the motivation to boycott is likely to be low. That’s probably how I felt years ago, when I chose to cross the boycott line and eat at Wendy’s – that it wasn’t worth giving up the burger.

I wonder if, instead of using the word “boycott,” we name the action more clearly and say, “We’re asking you to make a purchase sacrifice in support of the LGBTQ community.” Would higher levels of boycott participation result? I bet it would to some extent, although I have nothing other than gut feeling to back this up. There’s something about that phrase that reminds me that I’m in the driver’s seat when I make my spending choices – and I can also be in the driver’s seat regarding what losses I’m willing or able to take. Activists love to be in the driver’s seat – or at least feel like they are, especially given the level of disempowerment and marginalization many of us have experienced.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, stereotypes

A day in the life of a queer parent

What My Typical Day Looks Like

By Gayle E. Pitman

Wake up at 6:00. Make breakfast. Make my daughter’s breakfast. Make my lunch. Make my daughter’s lunch. Remember to give my daughter her vitamin. Kiss my partner go0d-bye (she leaves by 6:45 to get to work). Empty the dishwasher (if Amy didn’t do it already). Make my bed. Make my daughter’s bed. Remind my daughter to feed the cats. Sweep up the massive number of crumbs she managed to drop on the floor (how DOES she do that every day?). Find clothes for my daughter to wear – and ten seconds later, renegotiate that outfit while she sputters in a fit of anger. Wash face, throw on some makeup, brush my teeth, figure out what I’m going to wear (sometimes resorting to going through yesterday’s laundry, convincing myself that it’s-not-THAT-dirty!). Nag my half-naked daughter to hurry up and get dressed. Comb her hair, trying not to yank too hard at what the Tangle Monster left during the night. Get my daughter to brush her teeth. Put our shoes and coats on, get my daughter’s lunch basket, my lunch bag, my work bag, my purse, inevitably forgetting SOMETHING, and get out the door.

All this, and it’s only 7:30 in the morning. I could go on, but you get the idea, and no, I’m not trying to sound like Erma Bombeck. In many ways, this is a typical day in the life of a working parent – overworked, underpaid, too much to do, too little time, blah blah blah.

But I’m not just your typical, garden-variety mom. I’m one of two moms in the family picture. And because of that, I deal with things that straight parents never have to deal with. In fact, I think I stress out about things that I bet straight parents never even give a passing thought about. Straight people, for example, don’t have to explain why their family is the way it is. Imagine if I had a dollar for each time a child asked me, “Why does she have TWO mommies – and NO daddy?” Seriously – I get asked this quite a lot, and I feel compelled to come up with an on-the-spot explanation for a situation that really shouldn’t need explaining.

To be honest, the example I just gave doesn’t really bother me so much. I get asked a lot of questions, especially from kids, and I don’t usually mind answering them. The things that take up major headspace involve what I don’t see – the quiet, implicit, subtle attitudes that may never rise to the surface in an obvious way. People might act friendly on the outside, but hold horribly negative attitudes about LGBTQ people on the inside, and I may never know it – unless they inadvertently leave little clues for me to find. Like the unanswered invitation to a play date at our house: Maybe they didn’t get the e-mail message, or they were too busy to respond. Or . . . maybe they don’t want their daughter to come to our house, because they think we might be a bad influence. Or, watching my daughter playing by herself on the monkey bars, I wonder, Is she playing by herself because she’s determined to master those bars? Or is it because the other kids don’t want to play with the girl with two mommies?

The fact that these situations could be read in more than one way points to the reality of microaggressions in the lives of marginalized people. Derald Wing Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, defines the phenomenon as “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages” that members of marginalized groups receive from people who are usually well-intentioned – and who are typically unaware of the underlying messages that they’re communicating. Microaggressions happen when people’s unconscious biases leak out in unintended ways – sometimes through what they say or do, and sometimes through what they don’t say, or don’t do. What makes the experience of microaggressions more stressful than obvious forms of discrimination is the inherent self-doubt it creates – especially because, on the surface, they seem so innocent and harmless. Is this person being homophobic? Or am I reading into it too much, or being too sensitive?  As several research studies have already indicated, that ongoing battle of self-doubt that microaggressions trigger is quite stressful, impacting both our physical and our mental health in a negative way.

Microaggressions show up periodically (I think) in all the various corners of my life. My radar is on the highest alert, however, in the school and parenting arena – with good reason, when you consider the research. A 2001 study, for example, found that one-third of students with gay or lesbian parents had been teased or bullied because of their parents’ sexuality – and that teacher intervention in these situations was either nonexistent or completely ineffective. A group of studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s indicate that teachers and student-teachers commonly held negative attitudes towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. (Transgender parents haven’t even made it onto the research radar screen in a significant way, although as an aside, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s book Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders is an excellent read.) And a recent study published in School Psychology Quarterly showed that, even when teachers or student-teachers had positive or neutral explicit attitudes towards lesbian and gay parents, their implicit attitudes (the precursor to microaggressions) towards same-sex couples – with or without children – tended to be negative. They say they’re okay with lesbian and gay parents, but their subtle actions might reveal otherwise – maybe, depending on how you read the situation. A scary reality, if you think about it, considering how much a child’s success in school hinges on the quality of the teacher-parent relationship.

I worry that my daughter will get bullied or teased – and that her teachers might not have her back. I worry that some kids might not want to be friends with her. I worry about building relationships with other parents, and wonder what they really think about us. I wonder if my daughter’s teachers are nice to us because they like us, or just because they have to be. And then I worry that I just worry too damn much.

All in a typical day of this working parent.


Filed under children, covert homophobia, homophobia, LGBT families, mental health, psychological research, stereotypes

The choice that’s not always a choice

Last week, a traveling pro-life display came to Sacramento City College, setting up shop in the middle of the campus quad and holding court for two days. The group that organized this display, Project Truth, uses images of dead fetuses, lynchings, and murdered Holocaust victims to make the case that abortion is an act of genocide. (Yes, they really say that.) We had been warned that they were coming, and many of us (myself included) voiced our concerns about their presence to the college administration.

Who invited them?

Why are they allowed to show those disturbing and offensive images?

What if people get upset or traumatized? Are we prepared to handle that?

Can’t we just tell them they can’t come here?

This is the response we got from The Powers That Be:

“Anyone with any message can come to our campus. They’re protected by the First Amendment. The only way we could keep them off campus is if their images were pornographic.”

Hearing that, the wheels started turning inside my snarky little brain. Hmmm. What if I decided to host a campus screening of Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm (which, by the way, is marketed to college campuses)? Or Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn? What if I showed the film Live Nude Girls Unite! (which my campus library owns, by the way), a film that follows the unionizing efforts of the female dancers from The Lusty Lady? What if I invited sexologist Carol Queen to come to one of my classes to show her “ex-ed” (explicit educational) videos? Apparently those films could be banned from campus, the speakers could get kicked out of my classes, and I could get into Big Trouble.

Why images of murder are acceptable on a college campus, but sexually graphic materials are not, points to the lightning-rod volatility the issue of pornography in our country. And the queer community, in many ways, has been at the epicenter of this issue.

I’m brought back to the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student living in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day, I was working as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a feminist researcher whose work focused on violence against women – and who herself was a fervent anti-pornography activist. At the time I worked for her, she was writing a book titled Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny, and Rape. My job involved, among other things, writing descriptions of pornographic (often graphically violent) images that had previously been included in her full-picture version of the book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. It was unpleasant work, to say the least.

By night, however, I was exploring the Bay Area queer feminist community, which dovetailed in many ways with the newly-emerging sex-positive movement. This movement, which featured people like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, and Patrick Califia-Rice, encourages open sexuality with few limits, embracing all forms of sexual activity and expression – including pornography and other forms of sex work. From a sex-positive perspective, the fine line between empowerment and victimization involves the critical importance of informed consent – if a woman chooses to work at a sex club, or if she chooses to act in a porn flick, that is absolutely, unabashedly her right. Many of the events I attended in the mid- to late 1990s had a sex-positive flavor, and increasingly I felt like I had a split personality. The Diana Russell-style lesbian-feminism that was helping me pay my way through graduate school was in direct conflict with the community – and the empowerment – I was finding through the Susie Bright/Carol Queen-style queer sex-positive feminism.

There’s more than one side to this issue within the LGBTQ community, though. While sex-positive feminism lends a perspective that many (including myself) find refreshing, there are numerous research studies that paint a much more sobering picture of sex work in the queer community. Consider these studies:

  • Researchers from the Public Health Institute in Oakland studied 573 transgender women in the San Francisco Bay Area with a history of sex work. According to their 2011 report, half had been physically assaulted, and more than a third had been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • In a 2010 study of street-involved, drug-using youth, researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver found that, compared to heterosexual youth, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to engage in “survival sex work” – meaning that they exchanged sex for money, drugs, or other commodities. Moreover, in conjunction with their survival sex work, LGB youth exhibited elevated HIV risk behavior, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
  • In a 2009 UCSF study, out of 151 transgender female youth ages 15-24, 67% had engaged in sex work at some point, and 19% reported being HIV-positive. Lack of social support, low levels of education, homelessness, and drug use were all significantly correlated with sex work.
  • A 2008 study of transgender women of color involved in sex work indicated that, based on their responses in focus groups, prostitution and other forms of sex work didn’t necessarily feel like a “choice.” Some were undocumented immigrants who, fearing deportation, felt as if they had no other choice. Some experienced barriers to other forms of employment due to racism, sexism, and transphobia. Most had no support from their families or their ethnic and cultural communities. All of them were aware of the significant risks associated with sex work, but knew that the immediate benefits outweighed the risks.
  •  A 2007 study that investigated the experiences of gay men in the porn industry documented the low earnings of these actors. Because gay porn actors earn so little through their film work, according to this study, most turn to other forms of sex work, like prostitution or stripping, in order to survive economically.

Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Economic exploitation. Frankly, none of this sounds really like a “choice.” In order to make choices in life, we have to have options. When no other options exist, you fall back on the last resort – which, for many LGBTQ people (especially transwomen and people of color), involves some form of sex work.

But what if other options DID exist? What if fewer LGBTQ youth ended up homeless in the first place, because their families were accepting and embracing? What if all LGBTQ youth and young adults felt safe in their school environments, increasing the likelihood of getting a high school diploma, or graduating from college? What if an inclusive form of ENDA was in place, and a demonstrated commitment was made to end workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people? If those protections were in place, undoubtedly a world of options would open up. Would sex work end up on the list as one of the viable choices?

For some, maybe. For many, probably not. Either way, the buzzwords that come to mind for me are “safety” and “informed consent” – hallmarks of the sex-positive movement. Without those, we cross the line from empowerment to victimization.


Filed under intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

Out in the middle of nowhere

Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was driving from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles to present at a graduate student conference. I made it through Pacheco Pass, a long, steep, and windy two-lane highway, and eventually hooked up with I-5, the main drag to L.A. And then about an hour and a half later, I heard a POP! My car went dead and stopped. And there I was, stuck on a long stretch of open highway.

Now, I should tell you this: At this point in my early queer life cycle, I was about as out, loud, and proud as you could possibly be. Psychologist Vivienne Cass would have said I was in the “identity pride” stage (and I would have become enraged at the idea that my complete identity could be reduced to a mere “stage”). I had the requisite short haircut, dyed a dark shade of burgundy, and Doc Martens were my footwear of choice. I had ACT-UP buttons on my backpack. And my car had, among other things, a rainbow flag sticker on the bumper. I was out – OUT – in the middle of nowhere. And I was scared. Scared enough to get out of my car and rip the sticker off, tears streaming down my face. And I waited. And waited. It was literally hours before anyone stopped.

Eventually a car pulled up next to my car on the shoulder, and five dark-skinned (probably Mexican) guys jumped out of the car, heading towards me. If I was scared before, I was terrified at this point. OH SHIT! I thought to myself. Are they here to help me, or are they going to rape and attack me? I took my chances and assumed the former – and then afterwards felt horribly racist for pre-judging them, for they turned out to be the nicest, most helpful people. One of them had a cell phone (in the mid-1990s, this was not so common) and called AAA for me, and all five waited with me until they showed up.

The AAA guy drove me to the closest town (which, considering that it took us half an hour to get there, wasn’t very close). And, approaching the town, this is the sign that greeted me:

Oh my God, I thought to myself. I felt like I was about to enter enemy territory – and I better be careful.

To me, “being careful” meant doing whatever I could to conceal my sexual identity. And I think I did so successfully, although I discovered that, in a small town like Coalinga, keeping other people out of your business is no easy task. The next morning, I walked from the motel to the repair shop to get the scoop on my car, and then I walked to the coffee shop down the street. “Oh, you’re the girl who broke down on the 5 last night,” a guy sitting at the counter said when he saw me. So much for flying under the radar. I just couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Last weekend, I was having lunch with two friends of mine, both of whom are transgender, and one of whom lives in a very rural-esque, agricultural town. At some point in the conversation, we started talking about what it’s like to be queer in rural America – and I found myself flashbacking to this experience. I started telling my friends the story I just told you, and as I was talking, I was thinking about the LGBTQ people who live in Coalinga (because, whether they’re visible or not, there are queer people who live there). I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t wait to get out. But to people who live there, it’s not nowhere. It’s home. And home might be a very, very unsafe place to be – and a tough place to escape, to boot.

If you look at what the research shows about LGBTQ people who live in rural areas, it’s clear that my fight-or-flight response wasn’t an overreaction. Rural LGBT teenagers, according to one 2012 study, tend to have higher levels of “affective distress” (such as depression and anxiety), compared to their rural heterosexual counterparts. Mothers in rural areas who identify as sexual minorities, another study shows, are more likely than heterosexual mothers to experience discrimination, and they are less likely to disclose their sexual orientation or relationship status to neighbors, teachers, or parents of their children’s classmates. (Interestingly, these mothers were more likely to be biological parents rather than adoptive parents, probably because many rural states prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children.) On the other end of the age spectrum, researchers from the University of Minnesota have found that LGBT older adults who live in rural areas (as opposed to an urban center) are less likely to be out and more likely to be guarded about their sexual identities around family and friends. They also tended to have lower household income levels than those in urban areas, a stressor that often intersects with sexual or gender minority status. For those rural LGBT individuals whose levels of distress lead them to seek out mental health services, the outlook is depressingly bleak – a 2006 study documents, among mental health providers in rural areas, a severe lack of education and awareness about LGBT issues, combined with seriously homophobic attitudes towards their LGBT clients. There are good reasons why San Francisco is full of queer expats from other parts of the country.

Not every LGBTQ person has the resources to get the hell out of Dodge. And frankly, they might not want to – despite the frigidly chilly climate towards LGBTQ people in many rural areas, they may have very good reasons for wanting to stay. Our lunchtime conversation started to veer towards this question: How do you start to create community in these areas, many of which are staunchly conservative and evangelical? And sparks started flying from the idea machine.

We talked about GOTBLISS, a Northern California nonprofit organization that serves LGBTQ people in the rural counties of Yuba, Sutter, and Colusa.

We talked about the San Joaquin Pride Center, now in its second year of operation. Although located in a well-populated city, it serves the rural communities of the Central Valley in California.

We talked about the rising success of small-town Pride celebrations throughout California – and across the United States.

We talked about the Eureka Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a small but highly active order in a very rural, conservative area of California.

And we came up with all sorts of creative, out-of-the-box ideas, ranging from  creating a national nonprofit serving rural areas to making a “Queer-mobile” out of a bus or trailer (kind of like a “Bookmobile”) and driving up and down the state, providing support and resources to rural LGBTQ people. Because there are thousands – millions, possibly – of people who are out in the middle of nowhere. But “nowhere” is home, and “out” means remaining closeted in order to survive. Fleeing Dodge isn’t going to change it.


Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, religion, San Francisco, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence