Monthly Archives: February 2014

Labels, labels, labels!

This weekend, I attended the LGBTQIA conference at the University of the Pacific, a biannual event that draws hundreds of people from throughout California. At this conference, I presented an overview of findings from my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community. The room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor. I stayed for half an hour after my session ended to talk to a line of people. “I don’t think they liked it very much,” one of my colleagues joked afterwards.

Then there was The Question. The one I didn’t have a great answer for. “Did you consider interviewing someone who identifies as asexual?” she asked. I had not. Because, in fact, I don’t know anyone who openly identifies as asexual. I didn’t at that particular moment, anyway. Throughout the conference, I met several people who identify as asexual. I met another person who is a demisexual panromantic poly female. I met another person who described herself as an “amoeba.” I heard the terms “gray-A,”, “nonlibidoism,” and “queerplatonic.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote these terms down and Googled them later, because I had no idea what they meant – and, like entering Narnia through the back of the wardrobe, I was introduced to a whole new nomenclature.

There aren’t a whole lot of studies focusing on asexuality, and I could only find one that addressed the question of how common it is. Out of a community-based sample of 18,000 participants, 1% identified as asexual – which doesn’t sound like much, until you crunch the numbers. One percent of 18,000 is 180. One percent of the U.S. population is over three million people. That’s a lot of people.

Other studies focus on who is likely to be asexual. Morag Yule and Lori Brotto, researchers at the University of British Columbia Sexual Health Lab, have conducted several studies investigating whether other characteristics are associated with asexuality. Interestingly, asexual men and women are more likely to be left-handed, according to one study. One of their studies focused on birth order – asexual men, according to their findings, are more likely than non-asexuals to be later-born siblings, while asexual women are more likely to be first-borns. People who are asexual are more likely, according to yet another study, to have alexithymia – an emotional blindness, detached from any experience of feelings. Not surprisingly, Laura Gilmour, a researcher from Grant MacEawan University in Ontario, found a higher-than-average rate of asexuality among people with autism spectrum disorders – which often involve some form of alexithymia. The asexual community seems to have made this connection on its own – one blogger calls himself  “Amoebageek.” (“Amoeba” is a slang term used to describe asexuality.) Another calls herself “LadyGeekGirl” and posts semi-regularly about asexuality. Like so many things in the queer community, I bet if an asexual-identified person read these studies, that person would say, “Well, I could have told you THAT!”

All of that came from about five different studies. No joke. In fact, the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature – at least, not yet. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), on the other hand, provides an overview of asexuality, a series of FAQs, stories of the experiences of various asexual-identified people, a newsletter, and an online forum.  In fact, some people identify as “AVENites” or “AVENistas,” meaning that they are a member of the AVEN forums. It’s clear that AVEN is a strong fixture in the asexual community, and it’s chock-full of great information.

As I was reading through AVEN’s site for the first time, what intrigued me was their strong, repeated focus on research ethics. Emphasis on the word STRONG. Their “Rules for using AVEN for research,” for example, provides researchers with an extensive set of guidelines for recruiting participants or using existing data from AVEN. This is as rigorous as a university Human Subjects Committee, I thought to myself as I read through these documents. In addition to their lengthy guidelines, AVEN also asks researchers to read their “Open Letter to Researchers,” a document drafted in 2011 that provides further recommendations for conducting research using online asexual communities. 

Why so much focus on research ethics? Remember what I said earlier – that “the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature.” Part of that is because asexuality is just starting to register on the radar screen. But part of it is that asexuality has already been extensively studied – but in an abusive and pathologizing way. You see, most researchers have assumed that asexuality is a psychological disorder. They get diagnosed with “HSDD” – hypoactive sexual desire disorder (or, since the publication of DSM-5, “SIAD” – sexual interest/arousal disorder). And then they get treated for it – well, subjected to reparative therapy, really. Sound familiar?

Think about it. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people continue to be subjected to reparative therapy, even 41 years after the “homosexuality” diagnosis was removed from the DSM. Transgender people often are expected (or forced) to undergo some form of gender-reparative therapy, often after being diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” (or, since DSM-V, “gender dysphoria”). And here it is again. While there truly are people who suffer from sexual dysfunctions and deserve to experience relief from them, AVEN – and a growing group of researchers – makes clear that asexuality is not the same thing as HSDD or SIAD. It’s a sexual orientation. And attempts at changing people’s sexual orientation via reparative therapy techniques – well, you all know how that goes.

At the conference, the question about asexuality wasn’t the only one that got the gears of my brain turning. Shortly afterwards, another student approached me and asked, “What do you think about labels?” (Actually, before asking the question, he prefaced with a series of comments about queer theory, post-structuralism, and radical deconstructionism. I won’t go into all of that here.)

What do I think about labels? I had to think for a minute. Years ago, feminist psychologist Laura Brown wrote a book called Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy, which influenced my thinking enormously. One chapter in the book was titled “Naming the Pain,” and it focused on the politics of diagnosis – a form of labeling, if you will. The Cliffs Notes version of that chapter is that diagnosis, as we all know, can be incredibly pathologizing and shaming. But it can also be liberating. Knowing what it is that you have enables you to talk about it, to find community, to experience some sense of relief.

The same goes, I think, for sexual and gender identity labels. Finding a word to describe your experience can be enormously empowering. Once you find the word “asexual,” you’re more likely to stumble upon AVEN – and find a large community of others like yourself. But labels can be hijacked by others (or they can create their own labels), and used to suppress and control. Sexual and gender minorities are all too familiar with this, I must say.

One conference. A semester’s worth of new information. Try it sometime.

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Filed under bisexuality, human rights, intersectionality, psychological research, relationships, reparative therapy

Little broken hearts

It was a dark and stormy night. (Really, it was!) My daughter was born at 2:17AM on January 9, 2008. Our midwife, Ruth, placed her on my chest, and I could feel her heart beating on mine. Her little broken heart, as it turns out.

Ruth was the one who caught it. “Hmm,” she said, her stethoscope pressed to my daughter’s chest. “Sounds like she has a heart murmur. There’s some sort of a whooshing sound.” She paused and lifted her head. “You should go get that checked out.” The very next day, we did exactly that. Two weeks later, we found ourselves in the office of a pediatric cardiologist, who diagnosed her with a rare condition called pulmonary valve stenosis. Specifically, she had a blocked pulmonary valve, a leak in that same valve, and a hole in her heart. (The hole was what caused the whooshing sound.) “We’ll keep an eye on it,” the cardiologist said to us reassuringly. “We’ll need to fix it at some point, but probably not right away.” Two weeks later, at our follow-up appointment, not right away turned into as soon as possible.  By the end of March, we were at UCSF Medical Center, where our daughter underwent a procedure to repair the blockage.

I don’t think I can convey how scary that time was for me. Before the procedure, I’d lie awake nights listening for irregularities in her breathing. I was terrified that she’d develop cyanosis, a common result of valvular heart diseases. Because congenital heart defects are so common, I know I’m not alone in stressing out like this – in a 2012 review of 25 studies, Priti Desai and her colleagues at East Carolina University found that parents of children with congenital heart defects report “a great deal of stress” throughout their health care experience. A great deal of stress. That pretty much sums it up. And the stress isn’t just about the CHD itself. It’s reasonably common knowledge in the CHD community (and well-supported by numerous research studies) that infants who undergo surgery for CHDs tend to have poorer cognitive, motor, and emotional development outcomes compared to their non-CHD counterparts. Now there’s something for parents to stress out about.

My experience really was the best-case scenario. Our midwife caught the irregular heartbeat immediately. Our pediatrician referred us to a cardiologist – immediately. Our cardiologist sent us to UCSF, one of the best medical facilities in the nation, even though my daughter’s procedure could have been done here in Sacramento. And every single health care professional we interacted with was knowledgeable, respectful, kind, and, well, professional.  It couldn’t have been better. And now, my daughter is fine.

That’s the way it should be for everybody, really. And increasingly, it is that way for LGBTQ people. If you look at research studies from the 1980s and 1990s, the data paint a really dismal and ugly picture. Doctors, nurses, and medical students expressed outward hostility and disgust towards LGBTQ people. Most felt that patients should keep their sexual orientation to themselves, and not mention it to their health care providers. And, as a result, many LGBTQ people just didn’t go to the doctor on a regular basis – because who wants to be the victim of homophobia or transphobia, especially while wearing a paper gown in the doctor’s office? Today, the research tells a different story. More lesbian, gay, and bisexual people come out to their health care providers, and most report positive health care experiences. Increasingly, providers are receiving training about transgender health care issues, and while many transpeople still experience the doctor’s office as hostile territory, there is positive movement happening on that front. And according to a large-scale literature review published in 2012, LGBTQ parents seeking health care for their children generally appear to have a good, respectful experience.

However, a question posted by a friend on Facebook got me thinking about why LGBTQ people might be having more positive experiences. Here was her question:

I was perusing the Kaiser website and found this: “Are You Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning? Kaiser Permanente can help connect you with a doctor who is supportive and knowledgeable about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender health issues.”

Are they saying that they know most of their doctors are not supportive and that’s okay? Let us direct you to the few who are supportive. Are LGBT health issues really that much different than anybody else’s? 

One of the reasons LGBTQ people are having better health care experiences, according to researchers, isn’t just because doctors are becoming more informed and accepting. In large part, it’s because we do our homework. We know that NOT all doctors are supportive and knowledgeable about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender health issues – so we go out of our way to find the ones who are. Years ago, when I first moved to Sacramento, I chose the short-haired female OB/GYN whose computer profile indicated she was a Sacramento Monarchs fan – because that’s all the information I had to go on. (My gay-dar, by the way, was completely on target with that one.) When I was pregnant, I had a different OB/GYN who wasn’t particularly accepting of LGBTQ people (among other things) – so I ditched him and chose to work with a midwife. When we were choosing a pediatrician, we pored through numerous online doctor profiles and chose the one (the ONLY one) who specifically said she was knowledgeable about LGBTQ issues. My patterns of choosing doctors seem to fit with the research – a 2011 study out of Michigan State University shows that, in addition to disclosing one’s sexual orientation and having open and supportive communication, a patient’s ability to choose their health care provider was the strongest factor in predicting positive health care experiences.

But you can’t always choose – which brings me back to my friend’s Facebook question, and to our CHD experience. I could choose my midwife. I could choose my daughter’s pediatrician. But once there was an identified health issue, a specialist was brought on board – and we couldn’t choose the specialist. In fact, in our case, the pediatric cardiologist who worked with us was the only one in the entire Kaiser Northern California region. It was him or nobody. And if he (or anybody else involved in my daughter’s care) wasn’t “supportive and knowledgeable” about LGBTQ people, then we were screwed. For that reason, all health care providers need to be trained in working with the LGBTQ community – because all providers are inevitably going to work with LGBTQ people. Or children of LGBTQ people.

CHD Awareness Week kicked off on February 7th, and ends (not coincidentally) on February 14th. If you want to learn more about it, go to http://www.tchin.org/aware/.

 

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No big deal

Several years ago, I took a book out of my neighborhood library titled The New Gay Teenager, written by Cornell University researcher Ritch Savin-Williams. I read it quickly (I didn’t want to pay another library fine) and didn’t give it the level of thought it really deserved. The professional reviews of the book rated it as groundbreaking, well-researched, thought-provoking. Now, eight years after its original publication, I purchased the book and read it slowly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly. And this time around, I found the book to be totally disturbing.

Disturbing. I know – it’s a strong word.

Maybe it’s because some time has passed since the book first came out. Maybe it’s because, this time, I actually read the book in a slow-thoughtful-thorough way. Whatever the reason, I think Savin-Williams completely missed the boat.

Let me give you a brief synopsis. Savin-Williams, who is a developmental psychologist specializing in LGB (but not transgender, really) issues, argues that, for most teenagers today, sexual orientation just isn’t an issue anymore. It’s no big deal. “The new gay teenager,” Savin-Williams writes in the first chapter of the book, “is in many respects the non-gay teenager. Perhaps she considers herself to be ‘postgay,’ or he says that he’s ‘gayish.’ For these young people, being labeled as gay or even being gay matters little. They have same-sex desires and attractions but, unlike earlier generations, new gay teens have much less interest in naming these feelings or behaviors as gay” (p. 1).

If being gay is no big deal, then coming out, labeling yourself, having your first same-sex sexual encounter – these “milestones” (or what were once considered to be milestones) are really no big deal either. What teens really want, argues Savin-Williams, is to be just like everyone else, and for the focus on their sexual identity to fade completely into the background.

Now, Savin-Williams is no small-time researcher. He’s been at Cornell for twenty years, and he’s won numerous prestigious awards for his work. IN fact, The New Gay Teenager was awarded the American Psychological Association Division 44 Distinguished Book Award. And Savin-Williams’ academic pedigree comes through in his writing. Throughout the book, he painstakingly describes (and unpacks) studies of coming out, identity development, sexual behavior, and mental health. He delves into research focusing on bisexuality, and accurately notes that the term “bisexual” is an umbrella that can mean a range of different things. And he’s clearly well-versed in the LGB developmental psychology research, citing veteran researcher Anthony D’Augelli most frequently. He knows his stuff, that’s for sure. And all of this focus on research in the book is in the service of proving that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or whatever – well, it just doesn’t matter that much to teens. It’s almost irrelevant, really. And that, to Savin-Williams, is a very good thing.

Okay. So compared to Savin-Williams, I’m way over here playing minor league ball. I teach at a community college, not within the hallowed walls of the Ivy League, and I don’t do research – at least, I don’t think he would consider what I do to be “research.” But I’m stepping up to the plate anyway, because I’ve got some serious reactions to his commentary and conclusions that I’m going to throw out there.

There are lots of things I could focus on, but I’ll save them for later blog posts. What fueled my ire more than any other part of the book was the last chapter, titled “Refusing and Resisting Sexual Identity Labels.” Why? Because the chapter isn’t just about refusing-and-resisting-sexual-identity-labels – in fact, “resistance” is the furthest thing from his point. In this chapter, Savin-Williams makes clear his belief that gay teens are assimilating into mainstream society, and that assimilation – “banality” is the term he uses at the end of the book – is a good thing. A really good thing.

I totally disagree with that. In fact, I think that viewpoint is very dangerous. And here’s why.

Savin-Williams steps out of objective-scientist mode in this chapter and challenges the group we’ll call the “anti-assimilationists.” These include people – activists, really – like writer Sarah Schulman, (one of the founders of the Lesbian Avengers), Michelangelo Signorile (involved in ACT-UP and co-founder of the offshoot group Queer Nation), and Larry Kramer (one of the original founders of ACT-UP), who, according to Savin-Williams, “rants against accommodating gays who he says are losing themselves in the massive, vanilla-heterosexual culture” (p. 196). Lumping these individuals together, Savin- Williams says, “The potential of leading a normal life is not what they want. Their romantic ideal is being transgressive, being the rebel” (p. 195). This, however, is not what LGB teens want, according to Savin-Williams. They want to be normal, boring – just like everyone else.

I think it’s important to offer some perspective. These three individuals – and others – are grassroots, guerrilla activists. They put their lives on the line in the service of LGBTQ rights (and, in many cases, other human rights issues). The night ACT-UP was formed at the LGBT Center in New York City, Larry Kramer gave a speech and ended with this statement:  “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” This call to action resonated for a lot of people – not long after this speech was given, Michelangelo Signorile was arrested at the infamous “Stop the Church” protest staged by ACT-UP at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sarah Schulman was also arrested during an early ACT-UP demonstration, and she organized the Dyke Marches that now often take place the night before Pride celebrations. These truly were acts of resistance and liberation, orchestrated by people who were keenly aware of the power of oppression. But Savin-Williams cuts these radical acts down to size in one fell swoop by saying, “Nothing could be more foreign to young people today than these senior perspectives” (p. 197).

What if it’s not foreign? What if, instead, we’re witnessing a rising third wave of LGBTQ activism, not unlike the third wave of feminism that followed the 1970s women’s liberation movement? What if LGBTQ youth are realizing that the work is not done, that our history is being buried and ignored, and that the movement is not over? What if LGBTQ youth are reinventing the movement, creating space for trans voices, intersex voices, poly voices, kinky voices, bi voices, people of color voices, interlocking voices and in-between voices? This is what I see. 

This weekend, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is hosting the 2014 Creating Change conference. It’s billed as “the nation’s pre-eminent political, leadership and skills-building conference for the LGBT social justice movement.” Over 3,000 people are attending, many of them younger than me, and all of whom, I presume, think that LGBTQ issues are a very big deal.

 

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