Monthly Archives: October 2013

The power of fear

Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266), which provides protections for transgender students by requiring schools to allow students to participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities (such as bathrooms and locker rooms) that match their gender identity. Almost immediately after the law was signed – surprise! – several groups began to fight to overturn it. Their tactic is similar to what they did with Proposition 8 – gather at least 500,000 signatures so they can get a referendum on the ballot, and then convince people to vote to overturn the law. And they’re moving fast – signature-gatherers, both paid and volunteer, have been spotted throughout the state of California, mostly on college campuses and in front of Wal-Mart stores and other shopping centers.

Who are these people? They’re the usual suspects. Frank Schubert. The Capitol Resource Institute. The Pacific Justice Institute. If you followed the Proposition 8 battle, you might be familiar with these names. Frank Schubert was the political strategist who successfully ran the Proposition 8 ballot campaign. The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) is a conservative legal defense organization that, in addition to unsuccessfully defending Proposition 8, has also unsuccessfully opposed bans on sexual orientation change therapy. The Capitol Resource Institute (CRI) is a conservative watchdog organization that was another one of the Proposition 8 players. Now Schubert is directing the anti-AB 1266 efforts, and PJI and CRI are contributing money, manpower, and bandwidth. (As an aside, Frank Schubert was born, raised, and still lives in Sacramento. Both the PJI and CRI are also in Sacramento. These people are in my freakin’ backyard.)

These groups lost the Proposition 8 battle. And they lost hard. Now they’re turning their attention to the transgender community – and they’re out for blood. You see, they might have lost, but they learned some important – and dangerous – lessons along the way. Probably the most important thing they took away from the 2008 campaign is that fear is a very effective persuasion tactic. So effective that, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, it was parents with children under the age of 18 who were most likely to change their minds and switch to a “yes” vote. And why was that? Because the Proposition 8 supporters saturated the airwaves with fear-based television ads targeting children – and more than 687,000 voters changed their minds because of those ads.   

So now, with AB 1266 under fire, these folks have now upgraded to Fear Tactics 2.0. A perfect example of this is the site launched by PJI called, which provides information about the “School Bathroom Bill,” and then supports that “information” with the following vignettes:

Picture this … your 7 year-old daughter comes home from school in tears. You ask her what’s wrong and she says she’s afraid to go to the bathroom at school because a boy comes in while she’s there. Outraged, you call the school to demand an explanation. You’re told that your daughter is telling the truth, but because the boy says he wants to be a girl, their hands are tied. “It’s the law.”  Sound far-fetched? Think again. This is exactly what lies ahead under new legislation pending in the California legislature. But there’s more … much more. 

The next section is titled “Camping Nightmares,” and the scenario goes like this:

Imagine your 12 year-old son goes on an overnight camping trip with the Boy Scouts. The Scout troop leader nervously tells you that one of their newest members has been assigned to his tent, and even though she has lived most of her life as a girl, everyone needs to treat her like just another Boy Scout, since that’s now what she wants and “it’s the law.” 

The last section is titled, “Dreams Shattered,” and it states the following:

Finally, think about your teenage daughter … a star athlete whose basketball team is poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Until, you learn, their main rival has recruited a hulking center who decided he could break more records and block more shots by identifying as a girl.

Think this could never happen? That’s exactly why it’s happening. Frustrated citizens have tuned out their lawmakers, fed up with politics as usual that only seem concerned about taking care of special interests and big donors. But now we have reached a line in the sand—a degree of insanity that calls for action. We can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. We have to let our lawmakers know that we’re not going to let them destroy the last remnants of common sense through mindless “gender identity” mandates. 

These people are pros – and they’ve been doing their homework. Their tactics are a textbook example of Michigan State University communication professor Kim Witte’s Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), a theory of the effectiveness of “fear appeals” – scare tactics, if you will. If a fear-based campaign is going to be effective, according to this theory, the first thing you need to do is scare the daylights out of people with a tangible threat. Then you have to (1) give people a sense of self-efficacy –  essentially convince people that they have the power to do what’s necessary to eliminate the threat; (2) give them a perception of response efficacy – that taking action will be effective, and not a fruitless waste of time; (3) create a sense of susceptibility – that the threat is likely to impact them personally in some way; and (4) convince people of the severity of the threat.

If you go back and read the vignettes from, you’ll see clear attempts to induce fear and to encourage all four response factors. If all four factors are present, the outcome, according to Witte, is danger control. And danger control is exactly what the anti-AB 1266 people are after.

I’m not a fear-based person – rather, I tend to live in the realm of optimism and empowerment. However, I am a realist, and I know that LGBTQ activists, advocates, and allies can also learn a thing or two from the Proposition 8 battle. Two lessons, right off the bat:

(1) Don’t get complacent. Supporters of marriage equality really didn’t think Proposition 8 was going to pass – until it did. Even if gathering 500,000 signatures before November 7th seems like an impossible task, don’t let that be an excuse for inaction. More than one million people signed the petition to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. Anything can happen.

(2) Don’t ever assume that someone else will fight the fight for you. Get out there and get active. Carry flyers with you – the Transgender Law Center has a good one – and be prepared to hand them out if you see signature-gatherers. Join the Facebook group “Support All Students. Decline to Sign!” and use the flyers posted there, which are very clear and to the point. Check out the resources available at If you’re a college student, go to your campus LGBTQ group and get them active.

The bottom line is this: If we don’t do what it takes to prevent people from signing that petition, we’ve got another Proposition 8 on our hands. And the opponents of AB 1266 aren’t willing to lose again.

How’s that for a scare tactic?

Leave a comment

Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, psychological research, Sacramento, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

The weapons of hate

October 7, 1998. A young man by the name of Matthew Shepard is robbed,  pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence out in the Wyoming countryside. Five days later, he dies from severe head injuries.

My memory of that day is both sharp and fuzzy. I was a clinical psychology graduate student interning at UC Santa Cruz’s Counseling and Psychological Services. I had a meeting that morning with the director of what was then called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Community and Resource Center. When I got there, the television was on, and Deb Abbott, the director, was crying. I remember feeling numb and shell-shocked the rest of the day – and for several days afterwards. He could have been my little brother, I thought to myself. It wasn’t until several weeks later, when my car broke down on I-5, that I realized it could have been me.

What I didn’t know on that day was that this wasn’t the first time Shepard had been victimized. Three years earlier, in 1995, Shepard was beaten and raped while on a school trip to Morocco, quite possibly because he was gay. Shortly after that incident, Shepard started having panic attacks and began experimenting with drugs, which likely continued until his death. In fact, there’s current (albeit controversial) speculation that his 1998 murder was the result of a drug deal gone bad, and that one of his killers, Aaron McKinney, was bisexual and had a previous sexual relationship with Shepard. Either way, Shepard’s murder was a major wake-up call, galvanizing the LGBTQ community to lobby for the passage of more inclusive and expanded hate crime legislation (the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act).

So now it’s October 2013 – fifteen years later. Have things gotten better?

Last year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs published a titled “Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2011.” According to this report, the short answer to that question is: Yes and no. And the only reason I put the yes there is because . . . well . . . at least now the FBI tracks the number of LGBTQ-related hate crimes that occur.

According to the NCAVP study (which, by the way, is not based on FBI statistics), the highest hate crime victimization rates overwhelmingly involved gay men and transwomen – and both groups were more likely than others to require medical treatment after being victimized. LGBTQ people of color were disproportionately impacted by hate violence, particularly if they were young and/or transgender, and LGBTQ undocumented immigrants were at higher risk for experiencing physical violence.

Who the victims tend to be is not at all surprising to me – and FBI statistics, coupled with several additional research studies, confirm these findings. However, I think it’s particularly telling to examine who the perpetrators tend to be. Here’s what the NCAVP report found:

  • Overwhelmingly, the majority of offenders tend to be men.
  • In 2011, more than half of the perpetrators were white.
  • Nearly 20% of offenders were friends or acquaintances of the victim, and 18% of hate crimes occurred in private residences (making it the most common location for hate crimes to occur).
  • Police (yes, police) made up 9% of offenders.

Given that reality, it’s not surprising that, in the NCAVP study, half of the surviving victims chose not to report the incidents to the police. Moreover, if you look at the contrast between the victims and the perpetrators, it’s clear that people who pose the most significant challenge to the power structure are the ones who will be punished the most harshly for it. And the ones who stand the most to lose are the ones doling out the punishment.

When I talk about LGBTQ hate crimes in my classes, I sometimes get asked if I’ve ever been the victim of one – and the answer is yes, on two occasions. In 1998 (again, shortly after Matthew Shepard was murdered), someone smashed the headlights on my car. There were many other cars parked in the area, but mine was the only one with a rainbow flag sticker on the back. In the other incident, which occurred just a few years ago, someone (I suspect, for various reasons, a former neighbor) put a bumper sticker on my partner’s car that said “Chick Magnet.” Both incidents were unsettling (particularly the “Chick Magnet” thing – stupid and juvenile as it was, it was creepy to think that a neighbor who knew us probably did it). And in both cases, the police took the incidents seriously – in the “Chick Magnet” incident, the Sacramento Police Department sent the CSI unit to our house to take pictures and check for fingerprints. (I’m dead serious.) But neither incident was immediately life-threatening. I wasn’t beaten. I didn’t require any medical attention. And I didn’t become a murder statistic. Which makes sense – statistically, I don’t fit any of the “high-risk” categories.

Yet in other ways, I do fit a “high-risk” profile – and this is where Matthew Shepard’s murder comes full circle. Over the years, lots of people have asked me if I’ve ever been victimized for being queer, but no one has ever asked me if I’ve been a hate crime victim due to being female. Hate crimes routinely happen to all kinds of women – straight women, queer women, cis women, transwomen – because they are women. However, the FBI doesn’t track hate crimes due to sexism. And failing to name a reality significantly alters our perception of it.

When you look at crimes like rape and sexual assault (which, some argue, are examples of sexism-based hate crimes), they bear a chilling similarity to LGBTQ hate crimes. Males are most often the perpetrators, and while men of color are more likely to be incarcerated for these crimes, there’s evidence that indicates that White males are more likely to perpetrate these crimes against women. Rape and sexual assault is far more likely to be perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance than by a stranger, and it most often occurs at home. And most of these crimes go unreported; just like LGBTQ crime victims, many women choose to avoid being re-victimized – both literally and figuratively – by law enforcement and the judicial process.

Although tragic, Matthew Shepard’s murder broke the silence and invisibility of LGBTQ hate crimes – and paved the way for a greater sense of awareness. Yet if hate crimes are a way of keeping the existing power structure in place – the patriarchy, if you will – it’s high time for a deeper, more nuanced conversation about the powerful and the powerless.

On a side note . . . we kept the “Chick Magnet” sticker on the car.

Leave a comment

Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, overt homophobia, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

The healing power of story

Every year, the college where I teach hosts a “Coming Out Stories” open mic event, in honor of National Coming Out Day. And every year, the room is packed.  Some stories are hilariously funny, others are gut-wrenchingly sad. Most have told their stories many times before. A few get up the nerve to tell their stories for the very first time. It’s a very raw, emotional event, and one that I look forward to every year.

But this year I wasn’t looking forward to it. Actually, I dreaded it. Because, you see, I was asked by one of the organizers of the event to share my story – and I said yes. I’ve shared my story several times before, but for some reason I woke up that morning thinking,  I really don’t want to do this. My story is not an entirely happy one, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take myself into that emotional space – especially at work, with classes to teach right before and right after the event.

From a purely academic, intellectual standpoint, I know that there are many benefits to sharing our stories with others. Years ago, I read a book written by a researcher named James Pennebaker, who is a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This book, titled Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, explores why we feel such a need to share our stories with one another – and why putting your deepest, darkest experiences and feelings into words and sharing them with others is so powerfully healing. In contrast, keeping feelings and experiences bottled up, according to Pennebaker’s research, is linked to psychological distress, depression, and suppression of immune system functioning.

Pennebaker wrote this book back in 1997.  In 2004, he and his colleague Janel Sexton of California State University, San Bernadino published an article that focused on how personal narratives – coming-out stories, if you will – can counteract the stresses associated with marginalization and oppression. Telling our stories, according to Pennebaker, can improve our physical health, connect us to others, and solidify a sense of strength and pride in identity – particularly for less-visible populations like the queer community.

I’ve followed James Pennebaker’s research for years, and I’m a true believer in it. I get that telling our stories is a good thing. I’ve experienced it firsthand, many, many times.

But I still didn’t want to do it. Perhaps if I share my coming-0ut story, you’ll see why.

I started to question my sexuality when I was in college, and I started coming out to my friends as bisexual during my senior year. I didn’t, however, contemplate telling my parents until I moved to California, 3,000 miles away from my hometown. I began to see a therapist, and for six months we developed a game plan – when to tell them, what to say, and where to go if it didn’t go well. Two days after Christmas, at the dinner table, I said it: “Mom, Dad, I have something I need to tell you.” They paused. I paused. And then I said it: “I’m bisexual. I’m attracted to both men and women.”

My father let his breath out, and then said, “Oh wow – I thought you were going to tell us something BAD!” (I kind of thought I was telling them something bad, but I let that slide.) Both my father and my mother then proceeded to tell me how much they loved me, no matter what my sexual identity – and I thought, whew! That went much better than I expected.

Except the story doesn’t end there.

Even though my parents voiced their acceptance in that moment, from that point forward, our interactions were increasingly chilly and tense. Talking about that part of my life was frequently met with uncomfortable silences, with comments like, “Why do you have to talk about this all the time?” Months passed, tensions became, well, more tense, and that following Christmas, I decided for the first time not to come home. I didn’t call my family for weeks.

That spring, I got a phone call from my uncle (my father’s brother). “My birthday’s coming up in June,” he said. “I want you to be there, and I want to surprise your dad with your presence.” Oh, he’ll be surprised all right, I thought. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to rock the family boat any more than it already was. So I went. My parents were surprised. It was awkward – but okay. I stayed with my parents for a few days afterwards, which was uneventful, but still riddled with a low-grade tension.

The night before I was scheduled to fly back to California, my dad and I were watching Law & Order together. When the show ended, I got up to go to bed, and it was my dad’s turn to say to me, “Sit down. I need to tell you something.”

Uh oh. 

What he proceeded to say was the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. He told me that he loved me, but that ever since I’d come out to him, he’d been really uncomfortable with the whole thing. He made a point of watching Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres’ 1990s sitcom), particularly the coming-out episode, and told me about the impact it had on him. He apologized for the way his negative attitudes had leaked out, and he told me how much he loved me. And he cried.

I wish I could tell you that I embraced his apology with open arms. I didn’t. His response surprised and touched me, but I was still angry. I wasn’t ready to open my heart completely. Instead, I said in a tight voice, “Thank you for your apology. I’m not ready to talk about this right now. I need to go to bed.”

That is the last conversation I ever had with my father.

A month and a half later, I got a midnight phone call from my mother telling me my father had been in a freak accident. I jumped on a plane and flew home. He died three hours before my plane landed.

And that is why I didn’t want to tell that story. I didn’t want to kick up all that pain again, especially in the middle of the workday, sandwiched between teaching two classes.

But you know what? I told that story, and by the end half the room was crying. And afterwards, I felt better. It’s like when you know you’re going to cry, and you’re doing everything you possibly can to keep it from happening, the point right before the tears start flowing is what feels the worst. Once you’re done, you feel calm, relieved, peaceful. I think sharing our stories often works like that, too.

National Coming Out Day is recognized every year on October 11. All of us have things that we keep hidden in our personal closets. They’d freak out if they knew THAT about me! we think to ourselves. To me, it’s a perfect day to reflect on what might happen if we crack the door open, even just a little bit.


Filed under bisexuality, coming out, homophobia, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized