Monthly Archives: January 2014

Throwing the boomerang

I developed my Psychology of Sexual Orientation course six and a half years ago, back in 2007. The first time I taught it, only ten students were enrolled – and I had to beg my dean not to cancel the class. He didn’t. All ten students stayed. And the next semester, I had a full roster with a full waiting list. It’s been that way ever since, and this semester is no exception. Obviously, sexual orientation is a hot topic these days, and enrollment for this class is bursting at the seams.

Despite its popularity, not every college offers courses that focus on sexual and gender minorities. In fact, when I started teaching my course in 2007, only one other community college in California (City College of San Francisco) offered coursework on LGBTQ issues. Now, a few more community colleges have jumped on board – but only a few. And four-year colleges and universities offer these classes only if they have a faculty member who has expertise in that area. In my college district, my school is the only one that offers this course – and I know that students from other colleges come here to take it.

I feel such a strong sense of responsibility around this course – more than I do about the other courses I teach. Every semester, I get to watch LGBTQ students experience a sense of validation and find community. I also get to witness students shift away from their feelings of discomfort, disgust, or hatred (yes, sometimes they bring that to the table) towards a place of understanding, connection, and allyhood. Some students end the semester with a lingering sense of discomfort and dissonance, but I’m always impressed when they can continue to keep an open mind and be receptive to a new point of view. I know full well that my professorial duties don’t just involve presenting information. I set the tone for the class, and hold the space for them to fumble around and move through their own psychological process. It’s a delicate dance between academic learning and a therapeutic experience, and I take it very seriously.

I know how powerful LGBTQ college courses can be – and it’s not just my gut telling me so. Scores of studies have documented the effectiveness of LGBTQ courses in changing students’ attitudes, increasing awareness, and developing an ally identity. For example, Julie Gedro, a professor of Business, Management, and Economics at Empire State College, teaches a course that helps business students gain awareness about LGBTQ issues in the workplace. Markus Bidell of Hunter College teaches an LGBT graduate psychotherapy class that helps counseling students gain cultural competency in working with sexual and gender minorities. Peter Ji and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago teach a class that teaches heterosexual students how to be allies with LGBTQ communities.  And Victoria Kintner-Duffy, an Early Childhood Education professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro teaches a course designed to help future educators work with LGBTQ families and their young children. All of these individuals have published research articles documenting the effectiveness of these courses in shifting attitudes in a positive direction – and, for the most part, my experience has been exactly the same.

Except for last semester. In one of my classes, something entirely different happened.

In many ways, that class consisted of the typical mix of students. Some were out, loud, and proud. Others were in the early stages of the coming-out process. Several were straight allies, right from the beginning. Some had little knowledge of LGBTQ issues, but were open-minded and willing to learn. The usual suspects, in many ways.

But in this class, there was also a group of male students who seemed very uncomfortable by the topic – and who weren’t particularly open-minded. They sat in the back, huddled together. They whispered and snickered during class discussions. And every attempt I made to curb their behavior and defuse the situation only seemed to make it worse. By the end of the semester, several of them had dropped the course, but the damage had already been done – and quite a few students did poorly in the class as a result. So much for that delicate dance.

Clearly, my class had the exact opposite effect on these students. Instead of changing their attitudes, shifting more towards a position of acceptance and understanding, these students dug their heels in deeper and stuck even more strongly to their original negative attitudes. It’s not a rare phenomenon at all – in fact, as early as 1953, Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, and Harold Kelley of Yale University described this as the “boomerang effect,” where the opposite of the intended effect occurs. An attempt at persuasion is made, and instead of getting the person to agree with you (or, at the very least, inviting them to open their minds to hear a new perspective), the message boomerangs, veering even more strongly into the opposite direction.

The boomerang effect can have devastating consequences. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate TA for a women’s studies class, a few of the female students vehemently opposed the idea that systematic oppression of women exists – and that firmly cemented opposition created a schism in the class. More recently, I attended a diversity training that focused on racism and privilege, and the boomerang effect took hold with such a vengeance that the possibility of any further conversations about racism and oppression was completely shut off. It’s a phenomenon with toxic effects.

So now I’m hyper-aware of the possibility of the boomerang effect. In fact, without exaggeration, I think I have a little PTSD after last semester’s experience. But I’ve had some time to reflect – and what I’m reminded of is the immensely destructive power of fear. When we feel threatened, two things can happen: We can flee (and in this case, the students initially fled into a “hive mind” mentality, and then fled by dropping the class). Or we can put up our dukes and fight – which, essentially, is what’s involved in the boomerang effect. It’s a classic fight-or-flight fear response.

So what to do about it? I’ll do what I’ve done for the last six and a half years. I’ll set a positive tone. I’ll present information. I’ll hold the space for students to go through their process, and own that process, whatever it may be. And through it all, I’ll continue to stay true to my own convictions.

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Filed under homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, racism

The people in your neighborhood

If you’re a regular reader of The Active Voice, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging as regularly as in the past. I’m usually predictable; every week, like clockwork, I publish a new blog post on Sunday mornings. In my first year of blogging, I don’t think I took a single week off.  But lately, I’ve missed quite a few Sundays here and there, and I wanted to take some time to explain why.

You see, I have this neighbor that lives a few doors down from me. I’ve mentioned this neighbor in passing in a few of my blog posts. However, I’ve not talked about him openly – instead, he’s lurked in the shadows of my writing, but never making an overt appearance. So here he is, out in the open: He is mentally ill, drinks a lot, and doesn’t take his medication regularly. Some of his behavior is just irritating – for example, he hoards junk in his yard (and occasionally his junk spills over into the alley we share). Often, his behavior is completely distracting – a couple of Saturdays ago, for example, when I sat down to write a blog post, I threw in the towel because my powers of concentration couldn’t compete with his yelling. Sometimes he yells at his dog, sometimes he yells at actual people, and sometimes he yells at I-don’t-know-what. On a few occasions, his behavior has been just plain scary – without going into detail, let’s just say that I’ve gotten to know the patrol officers in our neighborhood quite well. I’ve taken time off work because of it. I’ve lost sleep because of it. And, as you all can attest, I’ve missed blog deadlines because of it. It’s a situation that’s been draining, to say the least.

Many of my close friends know about this. All of them have expressed concern, sympathy, empathy, and anger. And more than a few have asked the obvious question:

“Have you thought about moving?”

Given what we’ve experienced, it’s a fair question. However, I often find myself reacting with irritation to that question, and to others like it. Variations on this question include, “Have you considered moving to the suburbs?” Or “Wouldn’t you like to live out in nature?” All of these questions are embedded, I think, with an implicit, unstated assumption. What’s really being asked is, “Have you thought about moving to a safer neighborhood?”

Safer. What is a “safe neighborhood,” anyway? Many people use crime mapping as a way of getting a feel for neighborhood safety. If you check out your local police jurisdiction’s crime mapping tool, and a bunch of red dots pop up in your zip code, that often causes people to hit the panic button. It’s even worse if you look up your local sex offender registry – and a bunch of red dots pop up in your zip code.

The “broken windows” theory is another way many people gauge neighborhood safety. Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist at Stanford University, first tested this theory in 1969 by abandoning two cars – one in the Bronx, the other in the affluent community of Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was completely stripped within 24 hours. The Palo Alto car? It sat for more than a week, untouched. The broken windows theory encompasses not only windows but litter, graffiti, unkempt yards, peeling paint – anything that points to what Zimbardo called a “no one cares” attitude. If people don’t care enough to maintain their own property, the reasoning goes, then they’re not going to care enough about the safety of their neighbors, either. (Of course, there’s always the possibility that the residents care very deeply about their neighborhood, and have a strong sense of pride in their community, but they don’t have the money, or the physical capability, or the time or bandwidth to fix up their property. Just sayin’.)

So we’ve got crime mapping, and we’ve got broken windows. The thing is, if I want to find a neighborhood that is accepting of LGBTQ people – or accepting of diversity in general – neither tool is going to be particularly helpful. In fact, these tools are likely to detract me from the very neighborhoods that accept and embrace diversity the most.

Consider this: In 2008, the majority of voters in every city in Sacramento County (except for Sacramento itself) voted Yes on Proposition 8. Voters in Placer County, which is adjacent to Sacramento County (and which boasts towns and cities that are considered to be “very safe”) voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8. The same was true for voters in El Dorado County, another seemingly-“safe” suburban outpost of Sacramento. If you’re queer, and you lived in those areas in 2008, your neighborhood would have been littered with “Yes on 8” signs. Frankly, that wouldn’t make me feel very safe. Sacramento, in contrast, has one of the highest LGBTQ populations per capita (and, in 2008, lots of “No on 8” signs), and many LGBTQ residents are concentrated within specific neighborhoods. Including my own.

Let’s add race to the mix. On the average, less than 25% of residents in the “safer” suburbs of Sacramento are people of color. In contrast, people of color comprise more than 55% of the residents within Sacramento city limits, often with concentrations in specific neighborhoods. These numbers have a significant impact on one’s perception of racism (or lack of perception, as it may be). According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, compared to Whites in diverse urban areas, White people who live in ethnically homogeneous suburban or rural areas are highly likely to say that none of their community’s institutions treat African-Americans less fairly than Whites – that racism just doesn’t happen. In other words, Whites in the “safer” suburban areas didn’t see racism – even though it was probably occurring right under their noses. If you’re a person of color looking for a place to live, and your potential neighbors think racism doesn’t exist in their community, they might not have your back if an act of racism does occur. I imagine that might not feel so safe.

So my perception of “safety” is a little different than what the typical, traditional benchmarks tend to be.  My neighborhood has its share of red dots on the map, enough to scare some people away. As for the “broken windows” thing, while many houses are well-kept, others are, well, not. But my neighborhood also has Pride flags and prayer flags (REAL ones, not flags hung by people who think they’re cool), knit-bombed streetlights and ethnic markets, pink houses and front-yard vegetable gardens. One neighbor watched the 1969 moon landing with his buddy in what is now my living room. Another was born in the 1920s in the house she currently lives in. And another, of course, struggles with alcoholism and mental illness.

So, to answer the question: No. I’m not moving.  And no, I haven’t dropped off the radar – I still plan to continue writing. Thanks to all of you who read so faithfully, and who pick up even after I miss a week or two.


Filed under LGBT families, racism, Sacramento

So, you’re a writer, huh?

Writing has kept me very busy this week. I’ve written an article that was published online, and another that will be published next week in a print magazine. I’ve been plugging away – slowly – at my book-in-progress. I’ve been blogging regularly (mostly) for more than two years. At some point, I think I can actually call myself . . . a writer.

A writer!

Imagine this: You meet someone at a party, and that person asks you, “What do you do for a living?” If you say, “I’m a writer,” then the logical next question is, “What have you written?” If you’ve actually written a book (which many “writers” haven’t), they’ll ask, “Who was your publisher?” They’re sizing up your pedigree. Unless you’ve written for the New Yorker, and your book was published by one of the Big Four houses, the person drilling you with all these questions is likely to roll their eyes and, well, write you off.

When can you say you’re a writer? When you earn your master’s in creative writing? When you’ve actually published something? When you quit your day job in order to write full-time? When you win an award? When you’ve written one million words? (If you Google, “When can you call yourself a writer,” each one of these guidelines pops up.)

I don’t have a master’s in creative writing. I didn’t even take English Composition in college, having scored high enough on the English AP exam to place out of it. (No formal training in writing, huh?)

I’ve written a book – and published it under my own imprint. (She self-published it!!! That certainly doesn’t count.)

I blog. (Hmmph. That has about as much credibility as self-publishing.)

I’ve written a few magazine and newspaper articles, mostly for small publications. (Like, how small?)

I’ve done quite a bit of academic writing, such as journal articles, academic book reviews, and ancillary materials for textbooks. (Oh, how exciting.)

I have a children’s book coming out this spring – with a REAL publisher. (That gets people’s attention, especially the “real publisher” part. Although really, a CHILDREN’S BOOK? How hard is that?)

I’ve won some awards for my writing, mostly for my, ahem, self-published book.

I’ve written more than one million words – if you combine my blog, book, articles, dissertation, and ongoing morning pages.

I haven’t quit my day job.

So, how does my pedigree stack up? Some might say I’m a bona fide writer. Others would say I’m a wannabe, like those poor souls on the American Idol auditions who think they’re good, but no one’s had the heart to tell them that they suck.

Frankly, the “pedigree” isn’t a great measure of a person’s writerly-ness – instead, it’s an index of economic and career success, measured by the standards of other people. I think, in order to be “a writer,” there are only two things you have to do:

1.  You have to call yourself a writer.

2.  You have to sit your butt down and get words on the page. A LOT.

The first one – calling yourself a writer – is harder than it sounds. It’s almost like coming out, because once you “out” yourself as a writer, you’re potentially a target for other people’s judgments. And staying confident in your “writer” identity in the face of criticism can be very challenging. It takes practice, but like coming out, it gets easier the more you do it.

The second one – getting down to business and writing, writing, writing – is also harder than it sounds. I don’t write every day, but I write several times a week. A lot of it, for those of you who are familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, are of the “morning pages” variety (although in my case, I don’t necessarily write them first thing in the morning). Once a week I spend a couple of hours pounding out my next blog post. And a couple of times a week, I work on my book-in-progress.

With both guidelines, the bottom line is this: If you love writing, then do it – and call yourself a writer. Writing this frequently takes commitment with a capital C. And getting good at writing – really good -takes practice. If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, you’re undoubtedly familiar with what he calls the “10,000 hour rule” – the idea that the key to success in any area is practicing that task for at least 10,000 hours. While not a scientifically validated concept, the 10,000 hour rule is a good way to look at the relationships between hard work, commitment, and success. If I’m going to put that many hours into something, I have to love it.

It’s not just about enjoyment, though. I write because I find profound healing power in it. I can think about things, and I can talk about things, but there’s something about putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper that connects the dots for me in a different way. And it’s not just me – unlike the 10,000 hour rule, there’s considerable research backing the psychological benefits of expressive writing. Start by reading James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, and you’ll just be scratching the surface of the vast literature on this topic.

So why am I spending so much time talking about writing, when this is a blog about LGBTQ issues? Here’s why:

I have a friend who is a very creative and talented children’s writer. She’s written several wildly creative stories, but so far no one’s been interested in publishing them. Last time I talked to her, she’d stopped writing new stories altogether, and she’s nearly ready to throw in the towel.

I have another friend who is transgender, and who has lived a very difficult life. She has toyed with the idea of writing a memoir, but hasn’t really moved forward with it. “Who would want to read it, anyway?” she asks.

I’ve had scores of students (and faculty, actually) approach me – especially since I published my own book – wanting to talk about their book idea. Their ideas are wildly creative – a gender-bending science fiction story, a queer comic strip, a screenplay about a polyamorous family, a YA novel about a closeted gay kid in a gang. They light up when they describe their ideas. But so often, they’ve already talked themselves out of it.

“I’m not a good writer.”

“It’s too big of a task.”

“No one will be interested.”

“You don’t think it’s dumb, do you?”

It breaks my heart to hear this internalized writer-abuse going on. Because that’s exactly what it is.

So, to all of you, remember my Guidelines #1 and #2. If you love writing, then call yourself a writer, and sit your ass down and write. A lot. And quit worrying about what other people think.


Filed under psychological research