Monthly Archives: May 2014

Valuing “women’s work”

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “This Day in June is released TODAY!!!“, which explored the reasons people tend to downplay and dismiss their creative instincts. (To state the obvious, my post also announced the release of my new book.) Several people posted comments, which was great – when no one comments, I’m left wondering, Is anybody out there? Is my post like the socks in the dryer, lost in the world of cyberspace, never to be seen?). But one comment struck a chord in me. The commenter, in a nutshell, said this:

When I was 13 my mother and aunt taught me how to do embroidery (more like stitching and cross-stitching). . . . [E]ver since then I’ve grown a passion for embroidery and I always look for clothes with embroidery because I’m fascinated with it. . . . I never told anyone about it because I was afraid people would criticize me for doing something that seems “boring” or “not for my age” (emphasis mine). 

Ever since she posted this, I’ve been thinking: Is this just about hiding our creativity in order to protect our fragile egos? Or is there something more to this? The possibility of “something more” has been rolling around in my brain ever since – but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Now, fast-forward: The other night, I had a parent meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten. Her school is hosting a fundraising auction in a couple of weeks, and, per tradition, each class creates a gift to be auctioned at the event. Our class gift is a collection of puppets, and the parents’ job at the meeting was to sew them. I was thrilled, frankly, because I LOVE to sew. Most of the parents, however, did not seem thrilled – in fact, several looked panicked, and at least one looked as if she’d try to bolt for the door when no one was looking.

It was at that moment, in that parent meeting, that I had my “a-ha!” moment, realizing what the “something more” was. Most public schools don’t teach sewing anymore – or cooking, or anything related to “home economics.” And why not? Because they’re “frivolous.” It’s traditional women’s work – and modern women just don’t do that sort of thing. That viewpoint – that modern, liberated women just shouldn’t have to learn those skills – is dangerous, in my opinion, and downright sexist, because it equates “feminine” with “bad.” I think the person who posted the comment feared criticism not only for being creative, but for being too feminine.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. I was a first-generation Title IX kid, and in early adulthood I strongly identified with the third-wave feminist movement. Largely because of Title IX (and other feminist achievements), I had a broad-based public school education. I played sports. I went to college, and then to graduate school. In contrast, my grandmother, who in 1925 was privileged enough to attend college, was allowed to major in one of two things: teacher education or home economics. When you compare the options available to women today, we’ve obviously come a long way, baby.

Before the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, home economics was a mainstay in schools for girls – but not for boys (NEVER for boys!). When I was in the seventh grade in 1983, home economics was still a requirement – but because of Title IX, everyone was required to take these classes. Girls took wood shop, drafting, and computer classes (remember the TRS-80?) alongside the boys, and boys took sewing and cooking classes with the girls. This was equality, liberal-feminist style.

But somewhere along the way, home economics started to disappear. Some schools did away with it altogether, reacting to the sexist ways home economics had been presented in the past. (Read “How to Be a Good Wife,” an excerpt from a 1954 home economics textbook, and you’ll see what I mean.) Others replaced “home economics” with the less fluffy-and-feminine term “Family and Consumer Science.” (Calling something a “science” places it squarely in the “not-feminine” arena.) Courses in “interior design” or “apparel design” replaced the homely sewing classes; courses in nutrition, with a strong emphasis on chemistry, replaced the more humble cooking classes. Home economics was for housewives; “Family and Consumer Science” was for scholars and aspiring professionals. There’s even a sizable body of academic literature in Family and Consumer Science, with journal article titles like, “Establishing a research base for the expanded food and nutrition education program.” The bottom line was this: Either home economics disappeared entirely from schools, or it morphed into something more slick and professionalized – into the “not-feminine.”

Sewing is not bad. Cooking is not bad. Learning how to clean your house, iron your shirts, develop a household budget, sew a button, create embroidered designs – none of these are bad things. But in a society that loves to categorize things into boxes, all of these activities go in the feminine box.  If we’re banishing the feminine, and telling girls (and boys) that these feminine pursuits are frivolous, unimportant, and unnecessary, we’re contributing to a very dangerous cultural climate. Think about this: We live in a culture where:

  • Women are more likely than men to be victims of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence;
  • Lesbians who identify as femme commonly experience in-group discrimination, or femme-phobia;
  • Men who are effeminate (whether they’re gay or not) are more likely than their more masculine counterparts to have been bullied in school, and are at a higher risk of being the victim of a hate crime;
  • Transgender women are at a staggering risk of being physically assaulted or murdered (particularly transgender women of color, according to statistics from the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal);
  • Transgender women, largely because of their feminine presentation, continue to experience various forms of oppression, largely at the hands of radical feminists (a group often referred to as TERFs).

What’s the common denominator that’s under fire? The feminine. Garden-variety sexism, reaching its evil tentacles into various queer communities  – and elsewhere. Anytime we denigrate the feminine – even if it’s something as inocuous as home economics – we begin the slippery slope to a far more dangerous form of oppression.

If we truly valued the feminine, men could cry without feeling like their man-card was about to be revoked. Same-sex attracted women could adorn themselves however they want without being told they’re “straight-acting.” Transgender women could live with a reasonable degree of safety. Imagine the possibilities.

All this from a comment about embroidery.

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Filed under anti-gay bullying, culture, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

The gift of writer’s block

Writer’s block, I’ve come to learn, is my friend. It’s not a nice friend. But it is honest – brutally honest. Unfortunately, my writer’s block tends to communicate in code. It’s not always clear what it’s trying to say – but if I take the time to listen to it, to understand it, it always, without fail, helps me to be a better writer.
OK, you think. She’s written a nonfiction book (Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research). She’s working on another nonfiction book (Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community). And she just released a children’s book (This Day in June). Boom, boom, boom – one book project after another. Where’s the writer’s block? At first glance, it looks like my writing has taken off like wildfire. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll see a much different picture.
In 2009, I was granted a semester-long sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities in order to write a textbook for college classes on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was a huge gift, given that sabbaticals aren’t easy to come by in the community college system. However, instead of hitting the pavement and getting right to work, I stalled. I could not make myself write. In fact, for eight weeks straight (almost half of my sabbatical time), I did everything BUT write. It was very scary – I felt like a fraud and a cheat, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make good on my sabbatical agreement.
But then, I had a breakthrough. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect. When I asked her a question about the research she’s done over the years, she laughed and said, “There’s a story behind every research study.” At that moment, I realized that the book I had originally planned on writing (and was now avoiding) wasn’t the book that actually needed to be written. That insight was a game-changer – something opened up, and the writing flowed like a rushing river. Instead of writing a textbook, I started telling the stories behind sexual orientation research (which is way more interesting, in my opinion). No wonder I had writer’s block – who really wants to write (or read) a textbook, anyway? It was all but grabbing me at the throat and shaking me, yelling, DON’T WRITE A TEXTBOOK!!! WRITE SOMETHING MORE INTERESTING!!!
Now, over the past two years, I’ve been working on Fringe, which focuses on the experiences of people who claim membership under the LGBTQ umbrella, but because they’re not young, white, middle-class, exclusively gay, cisgendered, thin, educated, and/or able-bodied, they experience marginalization within that communityI interviewed about twenty people, including intersex activist Hida Viloria, BDSM and polyamory/non-monogamy expert Janet Hardy, transgender activist Jamison Green, disability researcher Rhoda Olkin, and former NCAA athlete Kye Allums, to name a few. I’ve collected a wide range of amazing, inspiring, and gut-wrenching stories. And, as Yogi Berra would say, I’m experiencing deja-vu all over again. Because now it’s time to write . . . and I’m having trouble writing. I’m blocked – again. And it’s scary.
However, I do know this: With Backdrop, I learned that, in time, the reasons for the writer’s block will be revealed – and that revelation will move creative mountains. But with Fringe, the mountains just ain’t moving. I try to write, but I’ve gotten stuck – and stayed stuck. For much longer than eight weeks.
And then the insight came. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect (deja-vu all over again, right!).  I asked him to sum up his discipline in one sentence (he’s a history professor), and he responded instantly by saying, “Who gets to tell the story?”
Who gets to tell the story? Do I get to tell the stories of people whose experiences I don’t necessarily share? Or should I sit down, shut up, and let people speak for themselves? This is what writers call First Voice – letting people speak for themselves (especially those whose stories have been stolen, revised, and re-told by those in power). Children’s book author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez describes this concept in her essay titled “Polka Dots, Self-Portraits, and First Voice Multicultural Children’s Books“:
At a conference I looked at a large collection of Multicultural children’s books. With each book I picked up I could sense if something felt original and authentic and when something felt somewhat discordant. Each time I sensed a lack of resonance, I looked more closely at the author and artist and each time I found that they did not originate from the community they were representing. It is not that their books lacked merit, by no means. But it did feel different. And each time, I got this funny feeling in my gut, it reminded me of educators, professors, experts, ethnographers, authors and artists who were telling me about me or my people or my culture. I did not feel felt. I felt studied, categorized, defined and documented by outsiders. I did not feel that I belonged. I felt separate.
In this quote, Maya Gonzalez was specifically referring to the experience of people of color. However, the LGBTQ community also knows what it feels like to be defined by those who hold power, to have our stories told by those who have not experienced them. Psychologists and psychiatrists diagnosed same-gender-loving people with the disorder of “homosexuality” – and treated them using psychoanalysis, shock therapy, medication, and, more recently, religious conversion. When anthropologists studied the people indigenous to the Americas, they used the term “berdache” (which many Native Americans consider to be marginalizing and othering) to describe gender non-conforming Native men – many of whom were ultimately wiped out by European colonizers. When doctors encountered babies with ambiguous genitalia, they called them “hermaphrodites” – and then proceeded to operate on them so they would conform to society’s gender standards. Their stories were appropriated, and told through the voice of the oppressor – often mangled in ways that caused irreparable harm to those communities.
I don’t consider myself to be “the oppressor.” However, I do have to acknowledge my privilege (unlike Tal Fortgang, for those of you who might have read his inflammatory piece dismissing his own privilege). Even though I’m a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t exist on the “fringes” of that community – not in the same way that many of the people I interviewed do. Even if I practice allyship with the trans community, or the intersex community, or with LGBTQ communities of color, or the BDSM community, does this make it okay for me to tell their stories for them?
I don’t know the answer, to be honest. But I think I hear what Writer’s Block is telling me:
They gifted you with their stories. Handle them with care.
Consider – really consider – whether you should be their storyteller.
And if you do assume the role of storyteller, don’t privilege your voice over theirs. 

Writer’s block. It’s my friend. Not a nice friend. But an honest one.

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Filed under BDSM, disability, gender nonconformity, intersex, polyamory, racism, transgender, Uncategorized

This Day in June is released TODAY!!!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday, dear This Day in June!

Happy birthday to you!

TDIJ cover

 

 

You may think I’m very weird for singing “Happy Birthday” to my new children’s book. But you have to understand: Today is Book Release Day. Which, if you’re a writer, is a Very. Big. Deal. It really is like the day you gave birth to your child (if you have a child, of course). And writers do all sorts of things to celebrate The Big Day. Some throw a party for themselves. Some go to a bookstore and buy their book – because that’s just a cool thing to do. Some go out to dinner.

And some worry. Will anyone buy my book? Will it get a horrible review – or LOTS of horrible reviews? 

I’m one of the worriers.

So many of us have amazing creative talents. We write. We paint. We sculpt. We sing, or dance, or design, or craft. But for many of us, especially those of us who are “professionals,” those creative talents are hidden. Because it’s one thing to have our guilty creative pleasures. It’s another thing to go public with them, and celebrate our creativity with exuberance and pride. Why? Because it’s scary.

Consider these examples:

A few days ago, I complimented a little girl at my daughter’s school on her outfit, which was colorful and wildly creative. Her mom, who was standing next to me, whispered, “I wish I had more time to sew. Maybe when my kids get older.” As it turns out, she had made the outfit, but she didn’t want to admit it – probably because she didn’t want to brag and look like she was full of herself.

A few weeks ago, a student came to talk to me because he was concerned about his grade. When he opened up his notebook to show me how he takes notes, there were beautiful, intricate drawings in the margins. “Those are amazing!” I said to him. He blushed. “Oh, that’s just doodling. Instead of wasting my time on that, I really should pay more attention in class.”

A few months ago, at a party, I met someone who had a lot of tattoos, one of which was especially striking. “Where did you get that done?” I asked. She told me, and then, lowering her voice, she said, “I designed it myself.” She paused. “It’s really not that hard.”

All three of these individuals clearly have unbelievable creativity. And when they told me that they had sewed the outfit, drawn the doodles, designed the tattoo, they each found a way to downplay it – dismiss it, really. But honestly, I think all three of them wanted me to know that they were the creative force behind their awesome works of artistry. And you know what? I am no different from them. I love to sew, and do all things crafty. But when I sew a doll and give it to a child as a gift, I never tell anyone that I made it – even though I’m always in awe of each doll I make, because each one is so cute, and each has its own unique little doll personality. When someone asks me if I made it, I’ll tell them . . . but in a lowered voice, because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging. It’s the same with writing: When a children’s story I write gets published, on Book Release Day I want to jump up and down and share with every single person I see my excitement about this exuberant and celebratory picture book. But a little voice in my head tells me I should be Humble and Reserved. That I shouldn’t share my excitement, or brag a little bit (or a lot), or throw myself a big party – because that’s narcissistic, you know.

Personally, I think that voice is Fear. Because if we don’t share our creativity with others, then nobody can criticize it – or criticize us. However, when we bravely put our creative work out there in the world, we’re revealing our bodies and baring our souls – and opening up our deepest pools of vulnerability.

When I kick Fear to the curb, here’s the truth that’s revealed: I’m more excited about This Day in June than I am about anything else I’ve ever created. The story itself is fun to read. Kristyna Litten‘s illustrations are simply outstanding – they capture perfectly the essence of Pride, and there are lots of intriguing little details embedded in each two-page spread (including an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to me – see if you can find it!). At the end of the story, the cultural and historical elements that are referenced throughout the book are explained more fully, and there’s a section that offers guidance on how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation (because, oddly enough, there are no books out there on this topic).

You know the biggest reason I’m so excited about This Day in June? Because our children deserve a beautifully fabulous book about Pride – and I’m thrilled that I got to do it. It’s long overdue.

So how will I celebrate? I will go to work, as usual – but on my way home, I’ll swing by my local bookstore (The Avid Reader, in my case) and purchase my book – even though I already have several copies. (I’ll buy the Kindle version too, while I’m at it.) Maybe we’ll go out to dinner, but I might just prefer a quiet dinner at home. I’ll have a launch party – just not today. (Stay tuned on that one). And I’ll read This Day in June to my daughter before she goes to bed.

This Day in June is available today from Magination Press, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore.

 

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Filed under children, Uncategorized

The “other” mother

When you’re a two-mom family, and your daughter’s school has a Mother’s Day event and a Father’s Day event, what do you do? Should both moms go to the Mother’s Day event? Should one go to the Mother’s Day event, and the other go to the Father’s Day event, so they each get their own special day? Should they stage a protest, recruit all of the families that are something other than one mom/one dad, and demand that the school adopt an all-inclusive “Parent’s Day”?

This is exactly the dilemma my family has been talking about this week. The Mother’s Day tea is this Friday. The Father’s Day breakfast is in early June. And all week, we’ve been discussing how to handle this. What’s interesting is that, for me, there is no dilemma. I’m the birth mom, and I’m planning to go to the Mother’s Day tea. Amy, on the other hand, feels quite conflicted. Because she’s The Other Mother. It sounds so Newhart-esque: “Hi. This is my mother. And this is my other mother.”

I joke about this, but it’s actually a source of mild stress in our family. As the non-birth parent, Amy tends to be perceived – and treated – differently than I am. Lots of times, we’ve been in situations where I’m clearly seen as “the mom,” but it’s not entirely clear where Amy fits into the puzzle until we explain it. Even when I was pregnant, Amy and I had lots of conversations about what our child would call her. It was clear that I’d be “Mommy” or “Mama,” but it wasn’t clear what Amy would be. (She came up with “Maddy” – a mash-up between “Mommy” and “Daddy.”) She has a different relationship with our daughter than I do – largely, I think, because of her non-biological status. In fact, from an institutional standpoint, because we had our daughter before same-sex marriage was legal in California, there was a short period of time where Amy had no legal tie to our daughter. That’s an incredibly othering experience – and it’s hard not to internalize that.

I have had lots of conversations with other two-mom families about these issues. We talk, for example, about the cultural script that exists for families who consist of The Mommy and The Daddy. Mommies do certain things, and Daddies do certain things. In the days of traditional gender roles, those scripts were more constricted, at least among middle-class families. Now that strides have been made towards gender equity, you’d think that those scripts in heterosexual couples would have evaporated – but they haven’t. Even researchers who talk about “modern marriage” note that gender roles still persist in even the most progressive heterosexual relationships. Mothers tend to do more housework than fathers – even when both spouses work full-time. Mothers are more likely than fathers to manage their children’s social lives – driving to sports practices, scheduling playdates, and taking children to birthday parties, for example. Even for heterosexual couples who are non-traditional and believe in equality, the tendency is, at least to some degree, to fall into these roles.

For us two-mommy families, however, those scripts just fly out the window, because gender doesn’t anchor us into specific roles. Because of that, same-sex parents (both two-mommy and two-daddy) are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have egalitarian relationships. In our house, for example, both of us alternate taking our daughter to school and picking her up. We take turns doing the food shopping and cooking. Amy cleans the house. (She’s better at it than I am.) I do the finances. (I’m better at that than she is.) Amy does most of the handyperson stuff, although I’m no stranger to DIY home improvement projects. I do most of our daughter’s social scheduling (it’s amazing how crowded a six-year-old’s social calendar can get!). Amy is usually the one to read stories to our daughter at night and put her to bed. We do what we do not because our culture provides a handy script for us. It’s just how we’ve figured out how to do things.

I’ve had many conversations with queer families about family roles and household tasks. And I’ve seen quite a few studies that focus on household and parenting roles among same-sex couples. However, there are almost no studies focusing on the ways The Other Mother – the non-birth parent – feels, well, “othered.” The thing we talk about the most is the issue that has been studied the least.

There is one study, by Kira Abelsohn and her colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Using qualitative data, she and her colleagues identified a range of factors affecting the mental health and well-being of non-birth moms. These include the following:

Having a biological tie. Many two-mom families find a way for the non-birth mom to have a biological relationship to their child. I know several couples, for example, where the birth mom was inseminated with the sperm of a male relative of her partner. In one case, it was a brother; in another, it was a cousin. The presence of a biological connection, according to Abelsohn’s findings, increased the non-birth mom’s sense of connectedness and relatedness, which, in turn, was associated with better mental health and well-being.

Social recognition. For non-birth moms, being seen as a legitimate parent is associated with higher well-being and mental health. If, on the other hand, one is seen as “The Mom,” and the other is seen as “something else,” that tends to undermine the non-birth mom’s sense of well-being. This social recognition is important on an interpersonal level, but it’s particularly important on an institutional level. Many states, even today, prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children – and many lack second-parent adoption processes. Having those protections in place, in addition to providing a legal tie, offers significant mental health benefits to the non-birth parent.

Social support. Having a community of people who support and validate your role as a mom helps tremendously in terms of positive well-being. That community could be anyone – family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors – but it’s especially helpful to have a network of n0n-birth moms who might share similar experiences.

Amy doesn’t have a biological tie to our child. She does have a lot of social support, and she does enjoy a good amount of social recognition (even with the differential treatment she sometimes gets). However, non-birth moms (and other parents who don’t fit neatly into the heterosexual template) will continue to feel “othered,” I’m sure, until our society moves beyond seeing the one-mom, one-dad family as “standard,” and everything else as “alternative,”

Regarding our Mother’s Day/Father’s Day dilemma: Last week, when Amy pulled one of our daughter’s teachers aside to talk about this, the teacher leaned over and whispered, “You could double-dip if you wanted to.” She may, in fact, do just that.

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Filed under children, LGBT families, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized