Category Archives: biphobia

Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

Last week, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

“Your friendly reminder.”

Under that comment was an article from Everyday Feminism titled, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” The article begins like this:

Halloween is a holiday about glorifying all things spooky and scary, a day to dress up in a costume for the sake of having fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween.

Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

I read the article. I thought the argument was made clearly, simply, and expertly. And yet, that article generated one hundred and forty-nine comments, many of which had an angry, defensive, and snarky tone. My friend’s reposting of this article generated twenty-five comments, many of which were similarly angry, defensive, and snarky. It stunned me, actually, that so many people were unwilling to consider the possibility that certain costumes just might be offensive.

So. Halloween is coming up in a couple of weeks. I encourage you to read the article from Everyday Feminism. I also encourage you to read my blog post from October 2012, which I’ve reposted below. And I’d like to ask this of you: If you read the article and my blog post, and if you find yourself feeling reactive, please don’t post a comment immediately. Instead, go inward, and take some time to ask yourself why you’re feeling so reactive. Ask yourself what buttons are being pushed, and what nerve is being touched. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it with others. Sit quietly and uncomfortably with it. But don’t immediately react, and don’t immediately shut down. That will yield a much more productive conversation, one I wish had happened on my friend’s Facebook page.

* * * * * * * * * *  

Think about the costumes you dressed in as a child, or saw other children dressed in. How many children were dressed as Indians, complete with fringe and feathers? Or as a Mexican, with a large-brimmed sombrero and a brightly colored blanket? Or maybe as a kimono-clad Japanese woman, her face whitened and chopsticks in her hair?

The student images above say it all:  This is not who I am, and this is not okay.

A student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) recently launched an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – a campaign that has taken off like wildfire. College campuses across the country have begun to distribute these posters on their campuses. As of last week, these images have been shared on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr more than 50,000 times. Given that Halloween has a longstanding association with poor decision-making (think Mischief Night and college drunk-fests), it seems like a prime opportunity to convey the message to think before you do something offensive and stupid.

Extending the concept to LGBTQ oppression, the Cantu Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz has taken this campaign one step further by creating their own set of posters. Headlining with the statement, “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume,” the campaign calls attention to the fact that many people (especially young heterosexual males) consider Halloween the one time of year where it’s okay to cross-dress – to take gender identity and make it into a costume.  You can see an example of their poster below:

“Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” poster by the UCSC Cantu Queer Center, inspired by the Ohio University STARS “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign.

Frankly, when I think back to my high school experience, I can think of a LOT of boys who dressed in drag because they thought it was a big joke. In fact, I can think of quite a few people who did exactly that in college – and they, too, thought that this was hilariously funny. And it’s pretty offensive, when you think about it.

The irony, of course, is that Halloween is notorious for being a BIG gay holiday. Up until 2006, San Francisco hosted an annual “gay Halloween” street party (the party ended when nine people were wounded in a shooting, prompting the city to call off the event). Mardi Gras-like Halloween events have sprouted up in gay enclaves like Christopher Street, West Hollywood, and Key West. There are lots of reasons why Halloween has become such a big deal in the LGBTQ community. It’s a holiday with pagan roots, appealing to those who have been shunned by mainstream churches. It’s a way to be flamboyant and theatrical while still being closeted – if you’re wearing a mask, people won’t always know who you are, and this was particularly important in the days before gay liberation. But on a very basic, obvious level, doing drag and playing with gender, which is usually totally unacceptable in our essentialist two-gender system, is fair game on Halloween. In fact, in the LGBTQ community, there’s something seriously wrong if NOBODY is doing drag on Halloween.

So why is it okay for people in the LGBTQ community to do drag on Halloween, but it’s not okay for a bunch of straight male high school students? An analogy that comes to mind is the use of the word “queer.” Why is it okay for me – a member of the LGBTQ community – to use the word “queer,” but it’s not acceptable for non-ally heterosexual people to use that word?

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

When people engage in cultural appropriation, they’re borrowing aspects from a cultural group (usually a group that has been subjected to marginalization and oppression) without a true respect or appreciation for what they’re doing. Wearing dreadlocks because it’s “cool” is a form of cultural appropriation. Naming baseball teams and summer camps after Native American tribes is an example of cultural appropriation. It involves commodifying the “trendy” elements of a culture without recognizing the decidedly “un-trendy” historical oppression that group has been subjected to.

Many historically oppressed groups have coped with cultural appropriation by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. When groups engage in cultural re-appropriation, they reclaim terms and aspects of culture that have traditionally been in a disparaging way against that group. When LGB people call themselves “queer,” or lesbians call themselves “dykes,” or trans- and gender-variant people call themselves “trannies,” they’re engaging in cultural re-appropriation. Interestingly, this concept has spread to a vast number of groups – the word “fat” is used by large women and men in the size acceptance movement; the word “crip” is used in the disability activist community; the concept of “geek culture” is emerging among people who belong to said culture; various racist terms have been reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural re-appropriation is an act of empowerment – it’s saying, “We own this word – you can never again use it against us.”

To be sure, this is a controversial idea. Some people in the gay community – particularly older people who remember the sting of these epithets – find the words “queer” or “dyke” to be highly offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view any violation of gender boundaries – whether it’s by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or a group of heterosexual college males – to be a positive thing. In fact, some would say that the “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” campaign takes things a little too far, punishing them for pushing the envelope on gender boundaries.

I think it’s important to reflect on these questions: If you’re going to wear a costume, are you willing to learn about the person inside the costume? Are you willing to consider the baggage of oppression that is held within that costume? Are you willing to fully experience how others respond to you while you’re “in costume” – and to consider how it might feel to those people whose “costumes” can never be taken off?

Happy Halloween to you all.

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Filed under biphobia, Castro neighborhood, coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBTQ, racism, San Francisco, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia

Trashed

So I went to San Francisco Pride this past weekend. And it was an adventure.

It was crowded. I waited in line for 30 minutes to buy my train ticket – and that was at the station that was an hour away from the Pride festival. When the train arrived at our destination, it took me 15 minutes to get out of the station. It was THAT kind of crowded.

It was loud. One of the lines in This Day in June says, “Dancers jumping/Music pumping.” And the music was pumping – so much that it made the sidewalks shake. Just like another line in the book.

It was outrageous (I mean that in terms of clothing). Sequined bras, lamé shorty-shorts, rainbow tutus, platform heels, leather harnesses – I saw it all. I didn’t see complete nudity, but there were people I saw who came close.

None of this bothered me – it’s what to expect when you go to Pride (especially San Francisco Pride, which is the second largest public event held in California). And none of this would prevent me from bringing my child to Pride. After all, I wrote a children’s book about Pride – children should be able to go, right? It’s what makes Pride the fabulous event that it is.

But there were two things I saw at Pride that did bother me. A LOT. One was that a lot of people were drunk. Actually, let me specify: A lot of very young people were very, very drunk. I saw quite a few people being carted off by the paramedics because they were so drunk or high. And on the train ride home, a young woman was passed out to the point where it was unclear whether or not her friends would be able to get her off the train. (They did, but barely.)  Has Pride devolved into an excuse to get drunk? I thought repeatedly throughout the day.

You know what else bothered me, even more than the drunkenness? There was trash EVERYWHERE. You know those Burger King wrappers that everyone’s talking about, the ones that look like this?

 burger king wrapper

Well, I got to know them quite well. Because by the end of the day, thousands of them were crumpled up and tossed onto Market Street. THOUSANDS. The city was a mess by the time this was all over.

People were trashed, and the city was trashed. That upset me more than anything else. People live in this city, I thought angrily as I shuffled my way through the crumpled-up Whopper wrappers. How rude it is to come here, get trashed and trash the city, and then leave, expecting someone else to clean up the mess you left! I was seriously awake for part of that night, ruminating about this.

The next morning, I got up and I did some writing about this. (Free-writing often reveals things to me that wouldn’t otherwise be revealed by thinking or talking about them.) And I came to this: How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment. That’s the basis of ecofeminism, which links ecological destruction with patriarchal oppression under male-dominated capitalist systems. In other words, trashing a city is just like trashing an entire class of people.

Now, a major caveat emptor: A number of well-known ecofeminists, including Mary Daly, have held extremely transphobic beliefs. For example, Daly, in her classic book Gyn/Ecology, went so far as to describe the presumed “unnaturalness” of transgender people as “the Frankenstein phenomenon.” Daly was also Janice Raymond’s dissertation advisor – the dissertation that was eventually published as The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male. (That is seriously the title.) I’m in no way endorsing this component of ecofeminism, nor do I necessarily agree with the gender-essentialist idea that all women have a “maternal instinct” that is analogous with the concept of Mother Earth. But I will stick with what I came to in my writing. How we oppress people isn’t all that different from how we oppress the environment.

Pride celebrations rose up out of the Stonewall Riots (and, if we go a little earlier in history, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots). Instead of submitting to dominating authority figures, queer people decided to rise up, speak out, and fight back. That’s why people marched in the first Pride parades – as a form of guerrilla, grassroots activism. So if Pride is about celebrating our collective LGBTQ communities, and rising up from oppression, then how does getting staggering, stumbling-on-the-sidewalk drunk (and high on E, in some cases) and violently trashing a city achieve that?

It doesn’t. And that’s probably why I was so upset. Because if that’s what Pride is all about, then we’re just reaffirming the oppression we’ve been trying to resist all along.

We reveal our internalized oppression through the ways we hurt ourselves. It’s no secret that alcoholism and drug addiction are huge problems in our collective LGBTQ communities. We experience a lot of collateral damage as a result of internalized oppression, and addictions are just one example. At the same time, we demonstrate externalized oppression by imposing our power unjustly onto someone or something else. Trashing a city that has provided a safe ground for so many LGBTQ people is a good example of externalized oppression, in my opinion.

Several weeks ago, I came across an article titled “Re-Queering Pride.” The article, accompanied by an illustration of people yelling, “Stonewall was a police riot!” captures exactly why I think Pride needs to be re-visioned. Our collective queer communities deserve a big fabulous party, that’s for sure. But if we’re going to continue the fight against heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, cissexism, racism, class oppression, ableism, et cetera, et cetera, then we need to practice what we preach. Treat ourselves with respect, treat others with respect, treat our surroundings with respect.

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Filed under activism, biphobia, human rights, racism, San Francisco, transphobia, violence

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

The weapons of hate

October 7, 1998. A young man by the name of Matthew Shepard is robbed,  pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence out in the Wyoming countryside. Five days later, he dies from severe head injuries.

My memory of that day is both sharp and fuzzy. I was a clinical psychology graduate student interning at UC Santa Cruz’s Counseling and Psychological Services. I had a meeting that morning with the director of what was then called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Community and Resource Center. When I got there, the television was on, and Deb Abbott, the director, was crying. I remember feeling numb and shell-shocked the rest of the day – and for several days afterwards. He could have been my little brother, I thought to myself. It wasn’t until several weeks later, when my car broke down on I-5, that I realized it could have been me.

What I didn’t know on that day was that this wasn’t the first time Shepard had been victimized. Three years earlier, in 1995, Shepard was beaten and raped while on a school trip to Morocco, quite possibly because he was gay. Shortly after that incident, Shepard started having panic attacks and began experimenting with drugs, which likely continued until his death. In fact, there’s current (albeit controversial) speculation that his 1998 murder was the result of a drug deal gone bad, and that one of his killers, Aaron McKinney, was bisexual and had a previous sexual relationship with Shepard. Either way, Shepard’s murder was a major wake-up call, galvanizing the LGBTQ community to lobby for the passage of more inclusive and expanded hate crime legislation (the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act).

So now it’s October 2013 – fifteen years later. Have things gotten better?

Last year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs published a titled “Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2011.” According to this report, the short answer to that question is: Yes and no. And the only reason I put the yes there is because . . . well . . . at least now the FBI tracks the number of LGBTQ-related hate crimes that occur.

According to the NCAVP study (which, by the way, is not based on FBI statistics), the highest hate crime victimization rates overwhelmingly involved gay men and transwomen – and both groups were more likely than others to require medical treatment after being victimized. LGBTQ people of color were disproportionately impacted by hate violence, particularly if they were young and/or transgender, and LGBTQ undocumented immigrants were at higher risk for experiencing physical violence.

Who the victims tend to be is not at all surprising to me – and FBI statistics, coupled with several additional research studies, confirm these findings. However, I think it’s particularly telling to examine who the perpetrators tend to be. Here’s what the NCAVP report found:

  • Overwhelmingly, the majority of offenders tend to be men.
  • In 2011, more than half of the perpetrators were white.
  • Nearly 20% of offenders were friends or acquaintances of the victim, and 18% of hate crimes occurred in private residences (making it the most common location for hate crimes to occur).
  • Police (yes, police) made up 9% of offenders.

Given that reality, it’s not surprising that, in the NCAVP study, half of the surviving victims chose not to report the incidents to the police. Moreover, if you look at the contrast between the victims and the perpetrators, it’s clear that people who pose the most significant challenge to the power structure are the ones who will be punished the most harshly for it. And the ones who stand the most to lose are the ones doling out the punishment.

When I talk about LGBTQ hate crimes in my classes, I sometimes get asked if I’ve ever been the victim of one – and the answer is yes, on two occasions. In 1998 (again, shortly after Matthew Shepard was murdered), someone smashed the headlights on my car. There were many other cars parked in the area, but mine was the only one with a rainbow flag sticker on the back. In the other incident, which occurred just a few years ago, someone (I suspect, for various reasons, a former neighbor) put a bumper sticker on my partner’s car that said “Chick Magnet.” Both incidents were unsettling (particularly the “Chick Magnet” thing – stupid and juvenile as it was, it was creepy to think that a neighbor who knew us probably did it). And in both cases, the police took the incidents seriously – in the “Chick Magnet” incident, the Sacramento Police Department sent the CSI unit to our house to take pictures and check for fingerprints. (I’m dead serious.) But neither incident was immediately life-threatening. I wasn’t beaten. I didn’t require any medical attention. And I didn’t become a murder statistic. Which makes sense – statistically, I don’t fit any of the “high-risk” categories.

Yet in other ways, I do fit a “high-risk” profile – and this is where Matthew Shepard’s murder comes full circle. Over the years, lots of people have asked me if I’ve ever been victimized for being queer, but no one has ever asked me if I’ve been a hate crime victim due to being female. Hate crimes routinely happen to all kinds of women – straight women, queer women, cis women, transwomen – because they are women. However, the FBI doesn’t track hate crimes due to sexism. And failing to name a reality significantly alters our perception of it.

When you look at crimes like rape and sexual assault (which, some argue, are examples of sexism-based hate crimes), they bear a chilling similarity to LGBTQ hate crimes. Males are most often the perpetrators, and while men of color are more likely to be incarcerated for these crimes, there’s evidence that indicates that White males are more likely to perpetrate these crimes against women. Rape and sexual assault is far more likely to be perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance than by a stranger, and it most often occurs at home. And most of these crimes go unreported; just like LGBTQ crime victims, many women choose to avoid being re-victimized – both literally and figuratively – by law enforcement and the judicial process.

Although tragic, Matthew Shepard’s murder broke the silence and invisibility of LGBTQ hate crimes – and paved the way for a greater sense of awareness. Yet if hate crimes are a way of keeping the existing power structure in place – the patriarchy, if you will – it’s high time for a deeper, more nuanced conversation about the powerful and the powerless.

On a side note . . . we kept the “Chick Magnet” sticker on the car.

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Playing it safe

This past weekend, I was invited to attend a performance of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. Since 1998, The Vagina Monologues has been performed around the world as part of V-Day, a global activist movement intended to raise awareness and stop violence against women and girls. Some of the monologues, such as “My Angry Vagina,” “Because He Liked to Look at It,” and “The Little Coochi Snorcher that Could,” are raucously hilarious. Others, like “The Flood,” are funny, but they’re also kind of depressing. And a few are so painful that they’re hard to listen to – that one, for me, was “My Vagina Was My Village.” Horrible, painful stuff.

For me, the most powerful monologue was the one at the end, titled “ONE BILLION RISING” (deliberately printed in all caps). According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, one out of every three women on Earth will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – a number that is equivalent to one billion women and girls. “ONE BILLION RISING” was a call to action – to get up, stand up, and fight to end the violence. It was the monologue with the strongest political message. And at the end, the woman performing the monologue raised her voice, and said:

“Raise your fist in the air!”

Almost no one did. Then she said it again, her voice louder, reverberating off the walls:

“RAISE YOUR FIST IN THE AIR!”

I raised my fist. Then she screamed, as loud as she could:

“RAISE YOUR FIST IN THE AIR!!!”

I looked around, my fist still held high above my head. Among the several hundred people in the audience, only a handful had raised their fists.

This is The Vagina Monologues, I thought to myself. Why the hell isn’t anybody raising their fists?

Maybe the audience was confused. Is she saying “raise your fist in the air” as a metaphor, or does she REALLY want us to raise our fists? It’s not typical to be at a theater performance and be asked to raise your fist in the air – in fact, it’s kind of a norm violation. But frankly, it’s a benign norm violation – by breaking the norm of sitting with your hands in your lap, you’re certainly not hurting anyone. And anyway, if the audience really wasn’t sure how to respond, you’d think that yelling at the top of her lungs so the walls shook would have cleared up any remaining confusion.

So why, then, were people so hesitant to raise their fists?

Because they’re scared. It’s easy to sit quietly in a dark theater and enjoy the performance. Merely watching The Vagina Monologues is playing it safe. Speaking out against violence, taking action, being willing to be the lone voice in a crowd – that’s much harder. So often, we’d rather be accepted by the majority than stand up for what we believe in.

Picture this: You’re a participant in a research study, and you’re seated in a room with seven other people. You are each given a card that looks like the one below:

You are then asked to look at the test line (Exhibit 1) and identify which of the three comparison lines is the same length. This is easy, you think. Obviously it’s Line A.

“Line B,” says the first participant, with confidence in his voice.

What? you think. They must not be able to see straight.

“Line B,” says the second participant, with equal conviction.

Hmm.

“Line B,” says the third participant. And the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.

Now it’s your turn. What do you say? Are you worried about sticking out like a sore thumb if you give a different answer? Are you starting to doubt yourself? Maybe I’m the one who can’t see straight, you might think.

And then you hear yourself saying, “Line B.” You decided to play it safe.

The seven other participants, as you’ve probably figured out, weren’t real participants. They were confederates in a classic study conducted by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist at Swarthmore University. Asch had coached these individuals in advance to deliberately give the wrong answer. Among the “real” participants – the ones who were in Seat #8 – 75% conformed to the group and gave the wrong answer at least once during the many trials that were administered. Almost one-third (32%) conformed every single time. They wanted to fit in and be accepted, and they were willing to give the wrong answer in order for that to happen. They, too, played it safe.

If you think about it, conformity is a powerful social tool. It’s the Great Enforcer – if social norms are going to be created and maintained, then you need some kind of social policing system that maintains law and order. Conformity is part of the arsenal of weapons that prevents – and punishes – any norm violations that might occur. Because, in our collective groupthink, nonconformity is analogous to disruption and danger – and the conformity police help to keep us safe.

But guess what?

Playing it safe is not safe.

Because playing it safe just reinforces oppressive, marginalizing, dehumanizing social norms. When we stay silent, or fail to take action, we’re essentially saying that the status quo is just fine with us. If, on the other hand, we want to end oppressive attitudes, behaviors, and institutional practices, we have to speak out and take action. And that, by definition, involves challenging and violating social norms.

If violence against women is the norm (and one billion female victims of violence sounds frighteningly normative), failing to take action to end the violence reinforces that norm.

If racism is the norm, and we choose to laugh at a racist joke rather than call out the person who made those oppressive comments, we act as co-conspirators in the service of status quo maintenance.

If homophobia, or biphobia, or transphobia are our collective norms, then remaining silent in the face of homo/bi/transphobic behaviors just maintains and reinforces those oppressive attitudes.

Lines on a card. In many ways, they’re so simple, even trivial. But they speak volumes about the powerful drive for social acceptance – and the challenges we as social change agents face. The famous essayist and poet Audre Lorde once said, “Oppression is as American as apple pie,” which is about as conformist as it gets.

But she also said this:

Your silence will not protect you.

 

 

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