Monthly Archives: June 2014

Frozen, pink triangles, and revisionist history

Recently, I did an interview about my children’s book for my local NPR station on a show called Insight. Beth Ruyak, the host of the show, noted the title of my book (This Day in June), and then asked, “Why June?” I responded by telling her about the Stonewall Riots, a three-day series of protests that occurred in June of 1969. One night, the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village frequented predominantly by people who were gay and/or transgender, was raided by the police (which was not uncommon at that time). Instead of hiding, or fleeing out the back door, the patrons of the bar resisted arrest and fought back, resulting in what many consider to be the beginning of the modern-day LGBT rights movement. The following year, in June of 1970, the first Pride parades took place, in New York City and Chicago.

So I tell this story, and Beth listens to me. Then she takes a breath and says, “I know about the civil rights movement. I know about the women’s liberation movement. But I hate to say that I’ve never heard of the Stonewall Riots before.” She was clearly embarrassed, and I reassured her by saying, “You’re not the only one.” And I meant it – I wasn’t just trying to make her feel better. Because many people don’t know what the Stonewall Riots were. And many people don’t know about other elements of LGBT history and culture – because nobody ever told them.

Try this quick quiz:

1.  Why is the pink triangle used as a symbol in the LGBT community? What is the meaning of the rainbow flag?

2.  What were the Compton Cafeteria Riots?

3.  Draw a picture of the Transgender Pride flag, and identify the meaning of each element.

4.  What was the Mattachine Society?

5.  What was the Pink Scare?

If you answered all five questions correctly, then congratulations, you’re a true LGBT scholar. But if you missed one, you’re in good company. And if you had no idea what the answer was to any of the questions, please don’t beat yourself up. Because it’s Not. Your. Fault. How are you supposed to know any of this if no one ever told you? If our stories are told in ways that distort reality, or if they’re not told at all, then we end up with an entire generation of people who have no knowledge of their roots. And that, in my opinion, is very dangerous.

Let’s use a metaphor to bring this to life. One of the most popular films of this past year is Frozen, the wildly popular Disney animated feature. Before I get started, a major disclaimer: I have not seen Frozen in its entirety. Nor has my daughter. And yes, I do realize that we are probably the ONLY people on the planet who have not seen this film. We watched about 20 minutes of it during a long flight to New York, and then my daughter got bored and wanted to take a nap.

Here’s a synopsis of Frozen, written by Walt Disney Animation Studios:

Fearless optimist Anna (voice of ‘Kristen Bell’) teams up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of ‘Jonathan Groff (II)’) and his loyal reindeer Sven in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom.

What isn’t stated in this plot summary is that Frozen was inspired by a fairy tale called The Snow Queen, a story written by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a lengthy tale, told in a series of “stories.” The fairy tale begins with a “magic mirror,” created by a troll, that makes everything beautiful look ugly and bad. This mirror breaks, its shards falling down to Earth. Fast-forward centuries later, and we find ourselves with Kay and Gerda, two friends who like to play together. One night, the Snow Queen throws a piece of the mirror into Kay’s eye and another into his heart, causing him to be mean, negative, and nasty. Later, the Snow Queen lures Kay to her ice palace, and the rest of the tale involves Gerda’s journey to find the ice palace and rescue Kay. After escaping a witch in an enchanted garden, being ambushed by robbers and rescued by a robber maiden, traveling by reindeer, and being given a magic potion by a Laplander, she is transported to the ice palace, where her love for Kay becomes the weapon that defeats the Snow Queen.

OK. So let’s compare Frozen to The Snow Queen.  Both involve a journey and a rescue. Both have trolls and a reindeer. Both have, well, snow and ice. But in terms of similarities, that’s about it. A lot of creative license was used in Disney’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale – they chose to tell the story that they thought would make money, rather than preserve the integrity of the original. As a result, Frozen really is nothing like The Snow Queen. Most children have no idea that Frozen was based on a classic fairy tale – and that the original story included themes of loyalty and the power of love, vivid metaphors (the shard in one’s eye and heart, for example), and a refreshingly feminist girl-rescues-boy storyline (rare for fairy tales, which usually involve weak females being rescued by a prince). Ask a child to tell the story of The Snow Queen, and I’ll bet money that they’ll look at you with a blank stare. But you better believe that pretty much every kid (except mine) has seen Frozen – and can sing the songs and recite the dialogue. While the popularity of this film rises, a piece of classic literature is slipping away. Because no one is telling children about it.

Just like no one told you about the pink triangles and rainbow flags.

Just like no one told you about the Compton Cafeteria Riots.

Just like no one told you about the Mattachine Society, or the symbolism of the Transgender Pride flag, or the Pink Scare.

If you didn’t know the answers to some (or all) of the quiz questions, look them up. Then tell someone else about it. Because the only way to preserve history is to pass it on.


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My queer feelings about Twitter

At a conference session that focused on book marketing, the presenter made the following point:

“If you want your book to succeed, you should get on Twitter.”

A colleague of mine, over lunch, recently said to me:

“You’ve got great ideas. You should get on Twitter.”

At the end of this past semester, the feedback one of my students gave me was this:

“Your class was great. But you should get on Twitter.”

All snarkiness aside, I will say this: I LOVE Pinterest – it dovetails well with my crafty/home-decorating/gardening/DIY/fun kid stuff interests. In contrast, I really have no idea what Tumblr really is. (I hear that’s a generational thing. And it bothers me that the word “Tumblr” is missing an “e.”) I do know what Twitter is – and a web article I came across captured my feelings about it exactly:

“Twitter promotes a culture of narcissism and attention-seeking. In combination with the 140 character limit it also promotes stupidity and dumbs down conversation.”

Needless to say, even though Twitter was developed during the first wave of social networking (along with Myspace and Facebook), I never bothered to join. On a gut level, I suspected that, in addition to enabling narcissism and dumbing down society, Twitter was creating a false sense of connection – a dangerous thing for people who are already socially isolated. (Like at-risk LGBTQ youth, for example.) At some point, however, I realized that my “promotes a culture of narcissism” attitude is contempt prior to investigation. And I began to consider the very real possibility that I could be missing out on something big. Plus I was feeling like a bit of a hypocrite, deriding Twitter but constantly losing myself in Facebook (a social network that probably promotes a culture of narcissism  – just in a different way).

So I bit the bullet, and I joined. I created a Twitter handle (@GaylePitman, if you’re interested). I started following people. I began to tweet (although I much prefer true birdsong). I learned what a hashtag is (the thing #thatlookslikethis), and I started to use them. I started GETTING followers.

And, because I’m an intellectual geek, I started reading about the psychology of Twitter. Would you believe that over 650 scholarly articles have been published about Twitter? Here’s a comparison: Use “gay African-American” as your search terms, and you get 502 articles. Search for “LGBT aging,” and you get 109 articles. More studies have been done on Twitter than on African American gay men and LGBT aging combined. The sheer amount of research that focuses on Twitter is mind-boggling, to say the least. And as I’ve been combing through this research, I can see the utility of Twitter, particularly for marketing purposes. However, I also think that Twitter can be dangerous. (Yes, I used the word dangerous.)  Especially for youth, including LGBTQ teens and young adults, who rely heavily on social networking platforms as a means of staying connected.

As I read through the research, three major concepts jumped out at me. The first, which emerged in many of the early studies of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms, involves what’s called “self-monitoring” and “impression management.” In a nutshell, these terms refer to the ways people self-police what they post. They want to look good, and they want people to like them, so people craft their posts (or tweets) in a way that will potentially be appealing to others. As a result, “friends” or “followers” aren’t necessarily getting a true or genuine picture of you – rather, they’re getting the cleaned-up, packaged version that you’re deliberately presenting.

The second concept involves what’s called “parasocial interaction,” a term coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. When an interaction is parasocial, it’s imbalanced, one-sided, and non-reciprocated. Psychotherapy is an example of a type of parasocial interaction; ideally, the client is the one who’s revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and while the therapist is listening and responding, he or she isn’t reciprocating. If you love Prince William and Kate Middleton, you undoubtedly know a whole lot more about them than they do about you. Although you can have a conversation with someone on Twitter, typically a tweet is a type of parasocial interaction.

The last body of research involves what many researchers refer to as “herd behavior.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Nietsche called it the “herd instinct.” Kierkegaard called it “the crowd.” Sigmund Freud developed what he called “crowd behavior theory” – and many people today on social media refer to it as the “hive mind.” All of these terms describe how people in large groups become deindividuated, losing their unique perspective and converging into uniformity. Some historians believe that Hitler capitalized on the herd phenomenon – it’s purported that, at his speeches, he planted German officers disguised as civilians within the crowd. These officers would then clap and cheer for Hitler, causing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. A related concept is what’s called the “spiral of silence theory,” which describes how people who hold a perceived minority opinion choose not to speak up, for fear of being criticized, threatened, or rejected.

OK, let’s recap. Social networking platforms (1) encourage the presentation of a false self, and discourage good-bad-and-ugly realness; (2) facilitate one-sided relationships, rather than exercising those give-and-take relationship muscles; and (3) trap you into the pit of the hive mind.

Let’s bring this back to LGBTQ issues. When I was coming out back in the mid-1990s, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Hell, there was barely an Internet. (I know, I sound rigid and crotchety, but bear with me.) In many ways, this sounds like a terrible disadvantage, given the numerous information pathways that have opened up in the last 20 years. However, it forced me to get out of my house and meet real people. And I did. I met a lesbian woman who was an animation artist. I met a gay man who worked in the fab at Intel and wore one of those big bunny suits. I met a woman who danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I met a woman who had been exclusively attracted to women – and then was caught off-guard when she fell in love with a man. I watched people get into relationships, stay in relationships, and leave relationships. These were not stereotypes. These were not carefully crafted Twitter or Facebook profiles. These were real people, with all of their imperfections and vulnerabilities. And it was a true gift, because it allowed me to see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of embracing your queer identity.

So I’m still on Twitter. It is actually a very useful marketing tool – if you have a need to market a product or an idea. It does get information out quickly – if you have information that’s useful to others. But for relationships, for connections, for community? I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Use Twitter for what it does well. Get out of your house and meet people if you’re looking to break isolation.


Filed under mental health, psychological research, relationships, stereotypes

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.




Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia

I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW: Three Picture Books You Need for Your Collection This Very Second

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Here’s an experiment: Try sending out a message to all of your friends that goes like this:

We are finally set to move this Saturday! Please come and help us – we need all the help we can get. 

Now, watch all your friends scatter like mice.

Two friends of mine who are strong LGBTQ and trans activists really did move this weekend, and they really did make a request similar to the one I posted. To be fair, not all of their friends did the scatter dance – in fact, quite a few of us showed up and did some heavy lifting. But “who shows up to help you move” is a good metaphor for identifying your close-knit, go-to community. Think about each of these questions:

If you needed moving help, who would you call?

If your house caught on fire, who would you stay with?

If you had a crisis at 2 o’clock in the morning, who would you call?

If you were arrested and thrown in jail, who would you call? (You can only call one person, so this person REALLY needs to step up.)

Who shows up for you no matter what, even when it’s inconvenient, expensive, uncomfortable, or scary?

For most of us, the answer would most likely be: My family. Because family members step in when our needs are out of the friend zone. (Well, not that kind of friend zone.) Even the most devoted friends have limits – they’ll help you in a crisis, but maybe not at 2 A.M. And that’s when we turn to our families. However, for some of us in the LGBTQ community, friends are the only family we have.

Many of us have great relationships with our families. Today, in 2014, it is far more likely that families will have a more positive and accepting response if their child comes out as LGBTQ. However, schisms are still common among LGBTQ people and their families. Your family may have outright rejected you, or your family environment may feel chilly and hostile. You might have moved away so you could live in a more LGBTQ-friendly environment, and so your family might not be geographically accessible in a crisis. (Having moved from suburban New Jersey to California 20 years ago, I feel the effects of this routinely.) So when we have an urgent need, or when we’re experiencing a crisis, we have to rely on a different kind of social support network – assuming that one is in place.

Back in the early 1990s, anthropologist Kath Weston wrote a book titled Families We Choose, which described the kinship networks lesbian and gay people often form in lieu of biological family ties. Back then, it was much more common for LGBTQ people to be cut off from their families in some way, and friends took the place of family. In fact, the word “family” has become a code word in the LGBTQ community: I think he’s family translates into I suspect he’s gay. And it’s common to see friends in the LGBTQ community stepping up in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily see in straight culture. For example, in the documentary film Gen Silent, Krys Anne, a transgender woman dying of lung cancer, is cared for by members of her local LGBTQ community, some of whom she’d only known for a few weeks – because her biological family had disowned her.

It’s beautiful and romantic to think about the LGBTQ community as a close-knit network that fills all of the needs of biological family. For some people, that is an absolute reality. For others, though, especially for those whose LGBTQ identities are more fringe-y, it’s a less likely reality. Consider these anecdotes (all of which actually happened):

A woman leaves her polyamorous quad relationship and sues the remaining triad for full custody of their child, claiming that polyamorous relationships are sick and the work of the devil. The triad pleads with their local poly community to publicly support them. No one comes forward, and the judge rules that the triad are unfit parents because of their polyamory.

A woman is taken to court by her ex-husband, who is suing for full custody of their son. She is in a BDSM relationship with her new boyfriend, and her husband is claiming that she is an unfit parent. Her BDSM community stays silent, and the woman loses custody.

In both of these cases, the people in question were heavily involved in their respected communities. They had, in many ways, “chosen families”  – people they spent holidays and celebrations with, people they turned to in times of need. But when it got hard, these “chosen family” members retreated, probably for self-protection.

Recently, I read an article written by Belinda Campos, who is a researcher at UC Irvine. In this particular article, she wrote about a concept called “familism,” which involves respecting the role of family in one’s life, and prioritizing the family over the self. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you always get along, or that you always agree on everything. It’s more about showing up, physically and emotionally, even if you don’t feel like it. It’s about not making things all about you.

This concept is the cornerstone of Latino culture, which revolves heavily on la familia, and it is also a strong value in Asian cultures, which tend to be highly collectivistic. Based on her research findings, Campos noted that people with higher levels of familism had (1) higher perceived social support, and (2) better psychological health. Moreover, even though familism was more common among Latino and Asian participants, White/European participants with high levels of familism had these same outcomes. Feeling like you’re part of a team, and having people in your life who are willing to take one for the team, so to speak, has social support benefits and psychological health benefits.

As we march through Pride month, I think about this with respect to our collective LGBTQ communities. Do we have a sense of “familism” among us? Are we willing to go to bat for each other, even when it’s hard, scary, inconvenient, and uncomfortable? Or, when the Pride parade is over, and life gets hard, do we scatter like mice?

I will leave you with those questions. And, if you are an LGBTQ person, or if you identify as an ally, how do you contribute to a sense of “familism”?



Filed under activism, BDSM, culture, polyamory, psychological research, transgender