Category Archives: culture

99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.

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Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

What counts as “history”?

A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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My queer elevator pitch

It was lunchtime. I was at a day-long picture book workshop, and at the break a group of us sat down to eat together. I hadn’t met any of them before, so we introduced ourselves and started making small talk. Then, the inevitable question arose:

“What do you write?”

A logical question, considering we’re all attending a writing workshop. But a loaded one – for me, anyway. In my experience, if I say, “I write LGBT-themed books,” I get one of two responses. Usually, people are excited and interested. But sometimes the response is stark, uncomfortable silence. Picture book writers tend to be white, female, heterosexual, and middle-aged, a demographic that could swing either way in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. When I give that answer, I’m simultaneously preparing myself for any possible reaction – much like LGBTQ kids and young adults do when they’re coming out to their parents.

The other issue with the what-do-you-write question is this: Saying “I write LGBT-themed books” isn’t a complete answer. I’ve written lots of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ community – and they don’t fit neatly into some category or genre. One story is about weaning from breastfeeding. Another is about Humpty Dumpty getting fixed. (That’s called a “fractured fairy tale,” where a traditional fairy tale is told in an entirely different way.) I’ve written stories about cats, dogs, roosters, seagulls, and toes. (The toes story is one of my favorites.) Sometimes I write stories because I want to infuse some deeper meaning into them. But often I write stories just because they’re fun to write.

So often people have to market themselves in order to be successful. If a person is looking for a job (or looking for a publisher), they’re told to develop a thirty-second “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes who you are and what you’re all about. It’s part of a larger process commonly referred to as “personal branding,” which is how you package yourself as a marketable asset. The book Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, first introduced this idea – later,  the 1980s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  used the concept of “visioning” to modernize this idea. Hundreds of studies in business, marketing, communications, and psychology have been conducted on the power of personal branding. If I were to brand myself, I could say, “I am a community college professor and author who specializes in LGBTQ issues.” That’s a short, sweet elevator pitch.

But just like the what-d0-you-write question, that pitch doesn’t even come close to telling the full story. Labels and categories rarely do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I don’t have a quick, easy answer that is complete and honest. When people ask, “What do you do?”, my elevator pitch doesn’t tell people that I’m a licensed psychologist (who currently doesn’t practice), a mom, a crafter, a crazy cat lady and chicken keeper, a swimmer and lover of the ocean, an obsessive scrimper and saver – and lots of other things. If anything, my elevator pitch allows people to pigeonhole me into a category. It encourages stereotyping.

No wonder so many people in queer communities have resisted being labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, or elevator-pitched. Labels can help us find each other and form communities. Labels can also help others understand who we are – to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story. When I’m asked, “How do you identify your sexuality?”, I don’t have a quick, easy answer. If I say “bisexual,”  which is the most technically accurate term, I’m aware that a particular vision of bisexuality is likely to get conjured up – and that vision might not be who I am. If I say “lesbian,” that matches my long-term relationship status, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve had relationships with men (and potentially could again in the future, although I’m quite happy with my partner).  The fact that I don’t look “bisexual” or “lesbian” (most people who know me will tell you this) complicates things even further. I don’t have an elevator pitch that conveys a “sexuality brand” – and frankly, I don’t think I want one.

Alison Hearn, a professor of Media and Information Studies at Western Canada University, has written many articles about self, identity, and branding – and essentially what she says is this: When we engage in self-branding, we’re constructing a “narrative of the self” (which may or may not accurately reflect the real self). This narrative comes from what she calls an “outer-directed” form of the self (giving people what they want, in the service of capitalism), rather than an inner-directed self. This is not a new idea – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D.W. Winnicott, talk about the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. If you think about it, this is the opposite of  what feminists, anti-racism activists, and social justice advocates have been working towards – creating space for our true, authentic voices and selves to be heard and seen. The idea of an outer-directed self is not new – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D. W. Winnicott, have identified the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. It’s not something that people in radical social justice communities want to participate in, I’d say.

I’ll end with a funny story. During lunch at this picture book workshop, when I shared more details about the kinds of things I write about, someone said to me, “You write great stories! They just aren’t a good fit for what mainstream publishers are looking for.” I laughed and said, “Even my stories are queer!” And then I realized: That’s my elevator pitch. I write stories that speak to people, but they don’t fit neatly into a category or niche, which, ironically, is often how my queer identity plays out. If I’m going to have an elevator pitch for my writing, that is one that’s subversive enough for me to live with.

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Filed under activism, bisexuality, coming out, culture, human rights, media, psychological research, racism, stereotypes

Familism

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”?

 

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

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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