Monthly Archives: March 2014

The hard lessons of childhood

OK. I’ve got three totally separate strains of thought going on. Thought #1 involves writing children’s books. Thought #2 involves chickens. And Thought #3 involves the Westboro Baptist Church. Hooooo-kay, you might be thinking. How will this all come together?

Trust me. And read on.

Two years ago, an author/illustrator friend of mine launched her “Children’s Book Academy,” which included a roster of classes on writing, illustrating, and marketing children’s picture books. And she all but strong-armed me into taking her first class. “I can’t do this,” I pleaded. “I write boring academic stuff.”

“Yes you can,” she responded. “You’re a natural at this.” That little bit of praise (plus a substantial discount) was enough to dip my toe in the water.  And in the very first class, we hit the ground running. Our first assignment, given right after the first class, was to bring six copies of a picture book manuscript we had written to the next class for everyone to critique. “A whole manuscript!” I cried. “I’ve never written anything like this before!”

“You’re a natural at this,” she said. Had I heard those words before? “And it doesn’t need to be the perfect, polished final product. Bring your shitty first draft.”

So my “shitty first draft” was a story about a rooster. (I’m sure you were expecting something much more profound than that!) This rooster just randomly shows up in a city alley and makes his presence known by crowing at 4:00AM. The people in the neighborhood either love him or hate him. One feeds him birdseed every morning. Another sprays him with his garden hose anytime he comes within 100 feet of his property. The neighborhood becomes completely divided, until, through a creative plot twist, the neighborhood haters come around and learn to accept the rooster for who he is. (OK, so the social justice message is kind of obvious, but hey, it was a shitty first draft!)

This was actually inspired by reality. Years ago, I really was awakened by a random rooster who was crowing at 4:00 in the morning. Nobody ever claimed the rooster – my theory is that he was dumped by someone who had previously owned him. One of my neighbors fed him every day (just like the character in the story). Another neighbor tried to kill it with a pellet gun. (I toned it down to “garden hose” for the story.) Still another neighbor actually hired a professional to capture the rooster and take him to Animal Control – and his efforts were completely unsuccessful. The rooster still lives in the alley today. I figured, why not use that for my story?

So. Why am I telling you this?

A week ago, my daughter and I brought home three chickens for us to raise in our urban backyard. She named them Pom-Pom, Cocoa, and Greta. The first egg was laid the next day – and I promptly cooked it up for my daughter to eat. The chickens seemed happy and content in their new home.

The following Monday, my daughter and I came home to a horrific sight. Cocoa was fine. Greta was fine. But we could tell immediately that Pom-Pom was not. I didn’t let my daughter see, but I could tell that Pom-Pom had been pecked to near-death in the head – most likely by the rooster. We took her to the vet (yes, our vet treats chickens!), but the chicken’s injuries were too severe to be treated effectively, and so we decided to have her put down. And for the rest of the day and into the night, I could not stop crying. I was full of self-blame (If I’d penned them up, this would never have happened). I was flooded with the horrific image of mutilated chicken (Poor Pom-Pom!). And I was angry. ANGRY. If I could get my hands on that rooster, I’d fucking kill him! This, coming from someone who values social justice and non-violence.

This certainly wasn’t like the happy little ending in my children’s story. Picture books don’t typically involve things like a sadistic rooster who brutally victimizes a chicken. But, upon closer examination, picture books have some pretty sophisticated messages embedded in them – messages that often reveal the complexities and contradictions of real life. The popular book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Typefor example, teaches children about resisting exploitation in the workplace – even when your employer is a nice farmer. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie (and all of the other “If You Give” books) introduces kids to chaos theory – the idea that seemingly random events have an underlying order. In fact, now that I think about it, the award-winning I Want My Hat Back tells the tale of a lying, thieving rabbit – and a (SPOILER ALERT!!!) murderous bear. This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky childhood. This is gritty, complicated real life.

So this rooster that was ultimately accepted by the neighborhood has turned violent and sadistic. How do you find the good – any kernel of good – in a character that kills a defenseless victim?

Oddly enough, this is where the Westboro Baptist Church comes in.

Fred Phelps, the founder of WBC, died this past week. (If you’re not familiar with Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church, go to their website and see what they’re all about. It won’t take long.) His long-estranged son, Nathan Phelps, issued an official statement after his father’s death – and I was blown away by the integrity in his words. Read below:

“I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

“I ask this of everyone – let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”

“My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”

If Nathan Phelps can find a kernel of good in his father – a man who inflicted deep, scarring wounds on him (literally and figuratively) and on the LGBTQ community – then I can find a kernel of good in this rooster. He gave me my first story, which led to another, and another, and another – and one of them is coming out in May. He reminded me that I’m not perfect, and that I can learn from life experiences, rather than beating myself up. In an odd, roundabout way, he got me to connect with Nathan Phelps’ words in a way that I might not have had this incident not occurred. He (and Nathan Phelps) got me thinking about what it means to walk my talk, to practice what I preach. And he taught me that chickens need protection. A LOT of protection. (No, the double-entendre isn’t lost on me.)

Oh – I forgot to tell you. On the way to the vet, Pom-Pom laid her last egg.

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One big happy family

Several years ago, our local LGBT center, which at the time was called the Lambda Community Center, underwent a name change. When the new name was announced, several groups (mainly people in the bi and trans communities) began circulating a petition attempting to block the change. Why? Because the new name, “Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center,” didn’t appear to be inclusive or all-encompassing – “gay” and “lesbian” were assumed to cover everyone in the LGBTQ community. Over 500 people signed the petition – to no avail. It was only this past year that the name changed to “Sacramento LGBT Center,” and still, many people still refer to the center as “Lambda.” Years later, many still feel incredibly hurt and angry about this – with good reason.

I shared this example with my Psychology of Sexual Orientation students the other day, within a larger discussion about transgender identities. Quite a few of my students – several of whom identify as gay or lesbian – were surprised. Shocked, really. Because aren’t we a community? Don’t we all support each other in unity? Aren’t we one big, happy rainbow family?

I wish I could answer “yes” to that question. Sadly, I can give so many examples of discrimination and oppression within the LGBTQ community. Here’s a sampling of well-publicized historical examples:

  • In 1953, author Jeff Winters published an article about Christine Jorgensen in a gay men’s magazine. According to Winters, Jorgensen, a transgender woman, was committing a “sweeping disservice” to gay men by transitioning. “As far as the public knows,” Winters wrote, “you were merely another unhappy homosexual who decided to get drastic about it.”
  • In 1979, Janice Raymond, a lesbian-feminist scholar, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male (yes, she really used the term “she-male”), in which she repeatedly referred to transwomen as “male-to-constructed females.” She went so far as to say, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond wrote 1980 Congressional brief that led to the defunding of transgender medical insurance coverage.
  • Well-known sex researcher J. Michael Bailey, who is unabashedly straight but conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, at one time refused to believe that bisexuality really exists (particularly in men), saying, “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.” He only recently changed his position, but only after results from one of his studies indicated that bisexual men, in fact, are not lying.

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual writer, scholar, and activist, has this to say about the double-edged sword of biphobia: “Gay- and lesbian-identified individuals frequently view us as either confused or interlopers possessing a degree of privilege not available to them, and many heterosexuals see us as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families.” And many other edge communities under the LGBTQ umbrella experience a similar double-edged sword – they’re rejected by mainstream heterosexual culture, and they’re also denigrated within their own community.

I have a slew of examples of community infighting that I’ve observed personally. And we’re not just talking biphobia and transphobia – there’s racism, class oppression, sexism, and ableism thrown in there too. A bisexual woman I interviewed years ago had this to say about her lesbian friends:  “They basically edged me out once I started dating men. They treated me like I’d infiltrated and then bailed with the information.” A graduate school colleague, after she’d finished a presentation about BDSM, was admonished by a senior faculty member, a gay man who said, “Most of us aren’t like that.” At a conference, a gay male graduate student repeatedly used the term “rice queen” during his presentation to refer to non-Asian men who are sexually attracted to Asian men – and used the phrase like it was professional, scholarly terminology (without ever being corrected by his research advisor, also a gay man). A transgender male student of mine recently shared that, after coming out as trans, his lesbian friends completely rejected him, telling him that he was selfish and betraying his community. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These aren’t right-wing fundamentalist uber-heterosexual haters. These are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are behaving this way. Unfortunately, getting people within the LGBTQ community to take ownership of their oppressive behaviors is really hard. “How can I oppress people?” they cry. “I’m the one who’s oppressed!”

All of us within the larger LGBTQ community have experienced institutional oppression (such as being denied rights that are granted to heterosexual and cisgender people), and most of us can cite examples of interpersonal oppression. But the dirty little secret within the community is that we do it to each other, too. And I’d like to talk about a couple of reasons why.

First of all, when we stereotype, we’re falling into an “us vs. them” mentality. If our “us” identity feels shaky, then creating a “them” can strengthen that sense of identity. Committing a hate crime against a gay man, for example, might shore up the perpetrator’s insecure sense of masculinity. Engaging in biphobia might reinforce one’s exclusively gay or lesbian identity. The statement, “Most of us aren’t like that,” is essentially saying, “I’m safely over here. I’m not crazy like those folks over there.

There’s another element to this, too. One way to feel like we belong to a group is to gain acceptance from others within a group. When we engage in “us vs. them” thinking, we’re essentially creating an in-group and an out-group – and our “us vs. them” beliefs allow us to connect with others in that in-group. It’s no accident that hate crimes tend to be committed by groups of individuals, because it’s a way (albeit a sick way) of forming a connection with others who share similar attitudes. By rejecting a transgender man, a group of lesbian women might band together even more strongly. It’s a way of taking refuge within a group – and the in-group/out-group dynamic is even more likely to happen when the in-group’s status is shaky.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “A House Divided,” in which I focused more specifically on oppression directed towards intersex people, as well as racism within the LGBTQ community. And here we are again. It’s so clear to me that if our collective communities can’t find a way to hang together and stand on common ground, we’ll fall. All of us. Because when we’re fighting each other, the dominant power structure of our society goes completely unchallenged. White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege – all of that remains intact, while those of us who experience oppression bring each other down. I don’t think we can afford to do that.

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Filed under BDSM, biphobia, bisexuality, culture, disability, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, intersex, racism, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence