Monthly Archives: November 2013

A mixed-bag holiday

Oh my God – it’s Thanksgiving Day. I’ve dreaded this day for MONTHS. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t eat breakfast. Or maybe just a piece of fruit and some coffee. LOTS of coffee. And I’ll make sure to go to the gym this morning. Okay. That sounds like a plan. 

But what if I get hungry? Can I hold out until dinnertime? I’ll chew gum. I’ll drink coffee and diet soda. I’ll make sure to keep my hands busy so I won’t eat. 

And then what’ll I do when I get there? I’ll be SURROUNDED by food! Maybe I can pass hors d’oeuvres around (if I’m holding the tray, I won’t be eating what’s ON the tray). Or I can set the table. But I know that Grandma baked the pies, and she’ll be heartbroken if I don’t have a piece.

How many calories does pie have, anyway? 200 calories? 500 calories? 1000 calories???

Maybe I shouldn’t have had that piece of fruit this morning after all.

Thanksgiving is one of those mixed-bag holidays. It’s intended to be a day to give thanks, to be in a state of gratitude, and to surround ourselves with family and loved ones. But for some people, being around family just ain’t pretty, especially around the holidays. Other people (including LGBTQ people who have been rejected by their blood relatives) don’t have family to be around. Still others wrestle with how to observe the Thanksgiving holiday in a way that honors the historical and cultural realities surrounding the Europeans’ treatment of those indigenous to these lands.

And then we have, on top of all that, the 10 million Americans who suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder. For them, obsessive thoughts like the ones described above have probably been festering for days, even weeks, before the Thanksgiving holiday – and when the day finally arrives, you’re surrounded by your biggest fear for a whole entire day. To friends and family, people with eating disorders seem incredibly selfish. If you plan to take just “one small taste” of the pumpkin pie before it is served, and then you end up eating the whole thing and throwing it up afterwards, others will probably – understandably – see that behavior as selfish. But it’s not an intentional selfishness – in fact, it truly may be the only self-preservation tool the person has in their mental health toolbox. Having an eating disorder feels like being in a prison, except you’re your own jailer, and the only way to get away from the torturous, anxiety-provoking thoughts is to engage in some kind of selfish-looking, self-destructive behavior. Eating disorders do a great job of ruining a perfectly good holiday meal. For everyone.

What does this have to do with LGBTQ people? you’re probably wondering – AGAIN.

Well, two reasons. First, I’ve been there. It was a long time ago, but the memory of what it was like is clear as day. And it wasn’t pretty. (We’ll leave it at that for now.)

The second reason is more research-y, if you will. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when eating disorder research really took off, there weren’t many studies focusing on body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among LGBTQ people. What little did exist suggested that, although gay men appeared to be at a high risk for body image issues and disordered eating, that wasn’t necessarily the case for other queer populations. (Regarding transgender people, no studies existed in the 1980s and 1990s, and only a couple of individual case studies – but none with a decent sample size – have been published since then.)  Today, the research paints a very different picture, in some cases indicating that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are at higher risk than straight people (particularly heterosexual men) for engaging in eating disordered behaviors. Bryn Austin of Children’s Hospital in Boston, for example, followed 14,000 youth between the ages of 12-23, and found that compared to heterosexuals, eating disordered behaviors were significantly more common among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning individuals. Moreover, straight males were the least likely to experience body image issues and disordered eating – gay males, lesbian females, bisexual males and females, and heterosexual females all showed a comparable uptick of these behaviors. Letitia Anne Peplau, a researcher at UCLA, found something similar in two of her studies, the first involving 2,500 adults, the second drawing over 54,000 participants. In both studies, heterosexual men were unlikely to experience body image issues – in comparison, gay men, lesbian women, heterosexual women experienced a similarly high rate of body image issues.

These are all large-scale studies, in comparison to the much smaller sample sizes common to studies a few decades ago. From a research methods standpoint, the larger the sample, the more robust your findings tend to be. In other words, what Bryn Austin and Letitia Peplau found isn’t a fluke – thousands of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people indicated that they suffer from body image disturbances and engage in eating disordered behavior. When researchers begin to include transgender people in a meaningful way, I bet the findings won’t be all that different.

This shouldn’t be surprising, really. Living in a culture of oppression is like being a fish and swimming in toxic water. Swallowing some of that water is unavoidable, just like internalizing oppressive attitudes is unavoidable. It’s no wonder that so many LGBTQ people attempt suicide. Or abuse drugs and alcohol, or engage in unsafe sex practices, or self-mutilate in some way, or suffer from debilitating depression or anxiety. Or have an eating disorder. These are hate crimes committed against the self, if you want to get real about what LGBTQ people often do to themselves.

There are lots of tips out there about how to survive Thanksgiving if you have an eating disorder. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt has a good tip sheet. The Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders has a good article for family members, particularly for people who are in some form of treatment or recovery. And there are lots of ways to observe Thanksgiving that don’t have to involve surrounding yourself with food and triggers all day.

But I have this thought that I want to leave you with. As I said earlier, Thanksgiving is a mixed-bag holiday – a day of celebration and gratitude for many, a day of mourning for others. For those who have suffered oppression at the hands of others, and for those who direct oppressive practices towards themselves, I urge you to think about this:

What would it be like if oppression didn’t exist?

What would it be like if people didn’t oppress others in order to secure their own power?

What would it be like if we had the power – and claimed that power – to stop oppressing ourselves?

There would be nothing mixed-bag about Thanksgiving at all.

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Filed under bisexuality, culture, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, transgender, violence

The dangers of apathy

In my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class this week, I asked my students to identify some of the events that LGBTQ people over the age of 65 have lived through. And there are many:

The end of World War II – and the subsequent Red Scare.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – and, later, the Stonewall Riots.

The removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM.

The AIDS crisis.

During this conversation, one student made an interesting comment: “We have it so easy compared to them. They must feel so frustrated with the apathy of our generation. We click ‘like’ on Facebook and call it activism.”

Is the younger generation – known to many as “millennials” – truly in a state of apathy? If you ask Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, her answer would be an unequivocal yes. Her 2007 book Generation Me, which draws upon 14 years of intergenerational research, paints a picture of a cohort characterized by inaction, hiding behind a computer and an iPhone, expecting things to come easily – and when they don’t, for others to do it for them. Not a pretty characterization, I must say.

There’s considerable debate as to whether millennials – also known as Generation Y – truly fit this profile. However, I know that, without the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement, fighting on the front lines for our rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Compared to the activism of the 1960s and 70s gay liberation movement, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s, I think we are, in fact, living in an era of apathy today – particularly when it comes to LGBTQ grassroots activism. And, I’ll admit, I get incredibly frustrated about this. Personally, I feel empowered and energized by activism, and I can’t for the life of me understand why others might choose to sit back and do nothing.

But I don’t think it’s just the millennials who are to blame. Rather, I think it’s the time period in which we all live. Frankly, I think we’re suffering from what I’ll call a cultural diffusion of responsibility. To explain what I mean, I have a story to tell.

* * * * * * * *

One early morning in 1964, at about 3:15 A.M., a young woman got home from her shift working as a bar manager. She parked her car and started walking towards her apartment building. A man approached her. Frightened, she started to run away, but he caught her, stabbing her twice in the back.

“Oh my God!” she yelled. “He stabbed me. Help me!” An onlooker yelled, “Let that girl alone!” The attacker ran away.

And then he came back. The attacker found the young woman lying in a hallway at the back of her building. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and stole $49 before leaving her to die. The entire scene, from start to finish, spanned about 30 minutes. And during that time, no one came to her aid – even though numerous people heard or observed parts of the attack.

The woman who was murdered was named Kitty Genovese. While some of the facts of the case are in dispute, this tragic incident brought the phrase “bystander apathy” into our cultural conversation – and raised questions about what causes it to occur. A few years after this tragic incident, two researchers at Columbia University, John Darley and Bibb Latane, conducted a series of studies to try to better understand this phenomenon, two of which are relevant, I think, to our modern-day culture of inaction.

In one study, often referred to as the “smoke-filled room” experiment, Darley and Latane randomly assigned their participants to one of three conditions: either (A) the person was in a classroom alone, (B) with two other participants, or (C) with two “confederates.” Within several minutes of the study, smoke began to fill the room – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how likely they were to report it. While 75% of the participants in group A reported the smoke, only 38% in group B and 10% (!) in group C made any report.

In a second study, better known as the “seizure” study, participants were told that they would be engaging in a communication task via intercom with an individual in a separate classroom. Like in the “smoke-filled room” study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:  either (A) the participant was in a classroom alone, (B) with one other person, or (C) with five other people. During the communication task, the person they’re communicating with in the other room starts having a seizure – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how many people would respond. As it turns out, 85% of those in group A left the room to provide help. However, when other people were present in the room, helping behavior decreased substantially: 62% in group B and 31% in group C left the room to help the victim. Different study, but essentially the same findings as the “smoke-filled room” experiment: The more people that are around, the less likely people are to spring to action.

And why is that? Diffusion of responsibility. People are less likely to take action when there are other people around – because they assume that others will. I didn’t do anything because I thought someone else would step up.

People over the age of 65 didn’t have an LGBTQ community. Hell, I didn’t have much of an LGBTQ community – not until later, anyway. In 1966, when the police tried to arrest a transwoman at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, there wasn’t any “gay community” to immediately help her – in fact, she was at Compton’s Cafeteria because, at the time, transwomen were unwelcome in gay bars. During the 1980s, when thousands of people were dying of AIDS, it took a long time for those in power to step up to the plate. These are people who had to fight on their own behalf – because nobody else was going to do it for them. Now, we not only have a collection of LGBTQ communities, we have numerous advocacy and activist groups who, many think, will do the work for us – hence the “cultural diffusion of responsibility.” The reality is that, when everyone thinks that someone else will take action, the end result is that no one takes action.

* * * * * * * *

Winston Moseley was the man who murdered Kitty Genovese. He was given the death penalty, which was reduced to life plus two 15-year sentences. His parole hearing is slated to take place this month. And the woman who was Kitty Genovese’s partner at the time of her death, Mary Ann Zielonko, will probably be there.

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Filed under activism, human rights, psychological research, San Francisco, transgender, violence

Strength in numbers

Laws and policies protecting sexual and gender minorities are changing so quickly, it’s enough to make my head spin. This past April, the California Department of Managed Health Care ordered California’s health plans to remove blanket exclusions of coverage based on gender identity or gender expression – a health and insurance disparity that transgender people have battled for decades. In mid-August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) into law – and if you read last week’s blog post, you know how much reactivity there’s been in response to that law. In late August, the courts upheld a California law that was passed back in April of 2012 and then immediately challenged. That law, SB 1172, bans the practice of sexual orientation change therapy with minors.

And that’s just in California. On October 21st, New Jersey became the 14th state to legally recognize same-sex marriage. On Monday, the U. S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which, if signed into law, would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. This is BIG STUFF. And that’s not even including the Supreme Court decisions that took place this past June.

These are the policy decisions that have made screaming headlines. They involve basic human rights – access to education, health care, jobs, and relationship recognition. Because of that, conservative and evangelical groups are fighting back HARD against these policies. They see where this is all going, and they desperately want to stop the train.

And yet, a “sleeper law,” if you will, was passed a few weeks ago in California. On October 4, Gov. Brown signed SB 274, an amendment to the California Family Code that allows children to have more than two legal parents.

More than two legal parents!!!

According to Sen. Mark Leno, who authored the bill, the law enables people in non-traditional families to share custody and financial responsibilities in raising their children. It clearly benefits parents who have divorced and remarried, regardless of the sexual orientation of the people involved. But it also benefits those who are polyamorous – relationships that openly and intentionally involve more than two people. And even though there have been a few negative reactions to this law (for example, the title of one conservatively-slanted article referred to Jerry Brown as “Governor Moonbeam”), there just hasn’t been a lot of buzz about it. Which surprises me. A LOT. 

If you think about it, the anti-LGBTQ contingent’s worst fears are being realized. Back in 2004, the Family Research Council (a conservative Christian organization) published a booklet titled The Slippery Slope of Same-Sex Marriage, which lays out the argument I’m sure you’re all familiar with. If you allow same-sex couples to get married, the argument goes, what’ll happen next? Will someone want to marry their horse? (This is the example given in the pamphlet.) Will families become like frat houses with revolving bedroom doors? Will people actually think that polyamory is okay? Where will we draw the line?

Well, from their standpoint, we’ve crossed that line. But there’s no Chicken Little running around, screaming that the world is coming to an end. Surprising, particularly since their whole argument against same-sex marriage hinged on the “slippery slope” concept.

I’ve been musing on this ever since I heard about this law. Why is everyone so quiet about this?  Ironically, I think it’s because the traditionalists have hung themselves with their own argument.

Consider this: Who do conservative groups consider to be a threat to the traditional family – besides “the homosexuals” and the “gender variants”?

Single mothers. 

In July 2012, the New York Times published a controversial article titled, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’,” which compares the experiences of two women, one of whom is married with children and financially stable, the other of whom is a single mother struggling to get by. Over 1,000 comments were logged in response to this article, including the following:

Marriage builds a strong foundation financially, spiritually, psychologically and physically. Getting married is one of the most important, life-changing, and powerful steps a person can take. It’s a powerful thing to build a family.

The family is the foundation of any society and these stats painfully demonstrate that the American family is crumbling upon the quicksand of birth without marriage.

I thought that the portraits of the families were very intriguing and basically confirmed what has been known for millennia: raising children without the assistance of a partner or extended family is extraordinarily difficult. 

Whether these commenters knew it or not (and I’m very aware that readers of the New York Times tend to lean liberal), they were echoing the “traditional marriage and families” argument, and reinforcing the idea that single mothers are a threat to society. In fact, a large body of research lends credibility to that argument as well. For example, the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, a longitudinal study of single parents and their children conducted jointly through Princeton University and Columbia University, reveals a dizzying array of disturbing findings. According to findings from this data set, single parents tend to have less reliable social support networks. Single fathers who drink and who experience parenting stress are at risk for neglecting their children. Single mothers who work nights tend to have children with higher levels of aggressive behavior, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. If single mothers are depressed (which is not uncommon), their children are at risk for long-term impaired cognitive, behavioral, and health outcomes. Single parenting coupled with economic stress is associated with a higher frequency of spanking – and a greater likelihood of being contacted by Child Protective Services.

These findings are not pretty. Contrary to what the “traditional family values” people say, the researchers are clear that it’s not because single parents are bad parents. In fact, many single parents are excellent parents, but they lack the individual and institutional support that married couples take for granted. But traditionalists take this data and use it as a weapon, marking their singledom as a weakness.

The New York Times article made a telling statement, in reference to the financially stable married couple who was profiled: “The secret to their success resides in part in old-fashioned math: strength in numbers.”

Strength in numbers. If you’re a traditionalist who believes that single parents are the bane of society, and you also believe that healthy and successful families are a team effort, then how do you argue with SB 274?

You don’t. I think that’s why this law has been such a sleeper.

A new book is coming out later this month titled The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple Partner Relationships and Families. The author, Elisabeth Sheff, is a researcher who has conducted a longitudinal study of polyamorous families and their children for over a decade. For those families who live in California, SB 274 validates and gives leverage to their strength in numbers.

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Filed under children, gender nonconformity, health, homophobia, human rights, LGBT families, polyamory, psychological research, relationships, religion, same-sex marriage, transgender