Category Archives: HIV/AIDS

My love-hate relationship with Pride

A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail message from a sender I didn’t recognize. Here’s how it started out:

Dear Ms. Pitman:
I am writing on behalf of Our Family Coalition (OFC) in San Francisco. OFC advances equity for LGBTQ families with children through support, education, and advocacy. We seek to create an inclusive and just world where all LGBTQ families with children have visibility and opportunities to thrive as valued participants in our schools, institutions, and communities.

Initially, I thought this was a targeted mass mailing (which I get all the time), and I almost deleted the message. But then I read the next line:

We recently received an advance copy of your new book and WE LOVE IT!! 

No way!!! They love it!!! That’s exactly what every author wants to hear – especially when all caps and exclamation points are involved.

But then . . . the other shoe dropped:

Would you be able to join us at the Family Garden at SF Pride 2014? We thought it would be nice to have your book for sale at the event this year, and even nicer if you were there too! 

I should have seen it coming. If you write a book about Pride, then people are going to expect to see you at Pride, right? Somehow, I hadn’t fully connected those dots. (I may be bookish and intelligent, but I’m not always smart.) You’d think I’d be jumping for joy – I mean, I got invited to sell my book at one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world! But I wasn’t jumping for joy – in fact, I went from feeling totally excited (They love my book!) to feeling totally anxious.

I have a love-hate relationship with Pride. I love the idea of Pride – the festive, celebratory atmosphere; the people cheering as they watch the parade (and crying when PFLAG parents are marching in full support of their LGBTQ kids); the rainbows, the glitter, the balloons, the costumes. However, actually going to Pride is a different story. It’s usually hot. (Well, maybe not so much in San Francisco.) It’s crowded – like 1.5-millon-people crowded. People get really drunk – and I don’t love hanging around drunk people. And getting there is a Pain. In. The. Ass. (Picture thousands of hot, drunk people squishing themselves into the BART train.) For an introverted homebody like me, this is like being thrown into Room 101. (If you don’t know what Room 101 is, Google it, and click on the Wikipedia link that comes up.)

When I’m really honest with myself, though, it’s clear that my ambivalence about Pride isn’t really about the heat, the crowds, or the drunkenness. It’s about feeling like I don’t belong.  And that’s the feeling I had when I attended my first Pride celebration.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area back in 1994. I had known for a little while that I was bisexual, and I had divulged this information to just a few friends. In 1995, when I went to my first San Francisco Pride celebration, I had high hopes – in retrospect, I can see that they were unrealistic. I didn’t know a lot of people in the LGBTQ community, and I desperately wanted to meet people, to make friends, to find my place in the community. And it didn’t happen – at least, not at Pride. In fact, although I found the parade to be entertaining and festive, I felt like I was watching it through a glass window, unable to connect with the people on the other side. People talk about “feeling alone in a crowded room”  – imagine having that feeling among 500,000 people, all of whom are supposedly part of your “community.” There’s nothing worse than that.

I’ve been to several Pride celebrations since then. In the late 1990s, I went to a few Pride events in the Bay Area, including Sonoma Pride, San Jose Pride, and Santa Cruz Pride, to recruit participants for my dissertation research. In these last couple of years, I’ve attended smaller Pride events in the Bay Area and the Central Valley – Stockton Pride, Castro Valley Pride, Sacramento Pride, Fresno Pride, Modesto Pride. I’ve discovered that every Pride event has its own character. There were handmade quilts for sale at Sonoma Pride. Castro Valley Pride had a lot of teenagers, probably because it was held at on a high school campus. Lots of children were at Stockton Pride. Fresno Pride had a strong Latino presence – and a lot of HIV awareness tables. At these events, I felt much more connected than I did at San Francisco Pride – probably because they were smaller (my introverted self does a lot better in small-group situations). Plus it was easier to get involved at these smaller events, and that’s always a good way to feel like part of a larger community – especially in places like Stockton or Modesto, where there’s a strong “all-hands-on-deck” ethos.

But I didn’t get invited to Fresno, or Modesto, or these other smaller events. I got invited to big, huge, San Francisco. And I’m hearing a little voice inside me ask, “Will I find people who are like me? Will I see myself reflected in this event?”

One thing I love about the LGBTQ community is that it grows, and changes, and responds to our community’s needs. Our community is not perfect, and it definitely has its share of infighting (read “One big happy family” for some insight on this). But Pride celebrations have changed over the years, in ways that better meet the needs of the community. For people in recovery, many Pride celebrations have Clean and Sober spaces. Most Pride festivals have children’s play and entertainment areas. This year, San Francisco Pride has a 60+ Space, a Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Gathering Space, an HIV Pavilion, a TRANS: THRIVE Pavilion, a Leather Alley, an Asian Pacific Islander Community Pride Stand, a Women’s Stage, and an African Diaspora Stage, among others. If I were attending San Francisco Pride for the first time this year, I think I’d have an easier time plugging in. They’ve created spaces where you’re more likely to find your reflection, honoring the fact that we are truly a diverse collection of communities. And finding connections is how we keep ourselves strong, and keep our communities thriving.

Today is June 1st, the kickoff of Pride month. Pride celebrations are taking place every weekend in June, and at other times throughout the year. If you’ve never been to Pride before, consider going – and find a way to actually get involved, and not just watch from the sidelines. If you have been to Pride, and it’s really not your thing, consider giving it another try. I have a feeling that my second go-around with San Francisco Pride will be much more rewarding than the first time.

 

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Filed under activism, children, coming out, HIV/AIDS, intersectionality, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth

Taking the long walk to freedom

I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up during the apartheid years. I was in the eighth grade when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was in college when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a South African feminist scholar and author of Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa (which featured an in-depth interview with Winnie Mandela).

So when the opportunity arose to travel to South Africa through my college’s international studies program, I jumped at the chance. For whatever reason, international leisure travel doesn’t interest me so much. But political travel – now, that fascinates me. I wanted to learn more about the apartheid years, and about post-apartheid South Africa.

I had no idea what I was in for. So many things I experienced on that trip changed me, in ways that are hard to explain. But I’ll try and share some of that experience with you.

First, the “township tours,” which are one of the ways South Africa has capitalized on tourism opportunities. Townships, if you’re not familiar with the term, are segregated areas, usually built on the outskirts of large cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, where non-Whites were forced to lived during the apartheid years. These townships still exist, and while non-Whites can now live within city limits, these areas are still largely non-White and poor. These guided tours are controversial – some, like anthropologist Shelley Ruth Butler of McGill University, see the practice of busing wealthy travelers through a neighborhood so they can gawk at the poor and oppressed as highly problematic. (The “Real Bronx Tours” in New York City were criticized for the same reasons.) Others see it as an opportunity to bring money into the impoverished townships, while educating people about the harsh realities of post-apartheid South Africa. I can see it both ways, and although I was conflicted about it, I decided to go on one of these tours. And, I have to say, it was by far the most powerful experience I had on that trip.

This particular “township tour” took us through the communities of Khayelitsha and Langa, both of which are located on the outskirts of Cape Town. Both of them have a combined population of about 450,000 people, which is similar to that of Sacramento, the city in which I live. However, consider this: Sacramento covers a little over 100 square miles. Khayelitsha and Langa are about 16 square miles. Four hundred and fifty thousand people packed into a space that’s one-sixth the size of Sacramento.

And this is what that looks like – today. Not in the 1980s, when apartheid was in full force, but now:

Most people in these townships live in shacks made of corrugated sheet metal, usually with dirt floors. Most of them don’t have indoor plumbing or running water – instead, spigots are located every few hundred feet along the streets. Most people work in very low-wage jobs, as domestic workers, service workers (often in the tourist industry), or manual laborers. And according to Jane Battersby of Queen’s University, the majority of residents experience what she calls “food insecurity,” meaning that they don’t have consistent, reliable access to safe, nutritious food.  Through the tour, I learned that crime rates, especially crimes against women, are incredibly high – in 2012, for example, 1,960 cases of domestic violence and 937 cases of assault against women were reported. Hate crimes, particularly against lesbians, are common in the townships as well. And HIV infection rates are through the roof – it’s estimated that about 40,000 people (roughly 10% of the population) are infected with HIV. I was struck by the number of AIDS ribbons I saw displayed on billboards and banners – in fact, I saw one painted on the wall of one of a church, and another on the side of an elementary school. Apartheid might technically be over, I thought to myself after that tour, but racism and oppression are alive and well. All of this outside of Cape Town, a highly industrialized city that, in many ways, is no different from what we have here in the United States.

Later, we traveled to Johannesburg and took a tour of Soweto (SouthWest Township), a township with a population of 1.3 million people. Again, to give a comparison, that’s about the size of San Diego, which is the fifth-largest city in the United States. But Soweto packs those 1.3 million people (98.5% of whom are Black South African) into 77 square miles, while San Diego covers about 325 square miles.

Many of the houses in Soweto are reasonably well-constructed – “matchbox houses,” they’re called, four-room boxy buildings usually built out of brick or cinder block. Nelson Mandela’s former home is a matchbox house. So is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home, which is located a few houses down from the Mandela home. But corrugated sheet metal dwellings were common there, too.

Like Khayelitsha and Langa, violent crime is common in Soweto, particularly crimes against women, and increasingly hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Soweto is known for having among the highest HIV rates in the world. About 17% of the population is HIV positive. One in three gay men are infected with HIV. Three out of five women have HIV. And most of those affected live in the townships.  These statistics, in my opinion, are staggering.

I think about Nelson Mandela, sitting in his cell in the maximum security prison at Robben Island, with only a straw mat to sleep on. I think of his ongoing subversive acts – hiding news clippings in the lime quarry he was forced to work in, sharing knowledge with other fellow political prisoner-inmates, secretly writing his autobiography (and ultimately being found out – and punished for it). He devoted his life to social justice. “Real leaders,” he said, “must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

But clearly the work isn’t done. The townships of South Africa, riddled by the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, tell us that unequivocally. So do many communities right here in the United States, in fact – right in our own backyard. Mandela took that long walk to freedom – and it’s up to us to continue that walk until all of us have truly reached the destination.

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Listening to HIV

Tap tap tap. 

One of my students peeked her head through my office door. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked.

It wasn’t my regular office hour, but I always keep my office door open if I’m in there, in case a student needs to talk to me (and lately, that’s been a LOT). Usually they want to talk about their grades (the real-life version of the YouTube video “I Am Worried about My Grade” gets played out a lot). Not infrequently, probably because I’m a psychologist, they come to see me because they need help with some mental health issue. And it’s never just a little end-of-semester anxiety, or something easy like that – it’s always something heavy-duty. I had a feeling that this was one of those times.

“So I have a friend,” she said. That’s what they all say, I think to myself. But as she continued, it was clear that she was talking about a friend – and that she was very concerned about him. He’s HIV-positive. He’s in denial. He’s African-American, and has sex with men. He’s partying, doing drugs, not taking care of himself. She suspected he was having unprotected sex, although she didn’t know for sure. And she was very, very worried about him.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Twenty-four,” she said.

Sadly, this friend is a textbook example of the highest risk demographic for HIV. According to a recent report from the CDC, although AIDS diagnoses and deaths continue to decline because of the effectiveness of antiretrovirals, HIV infections continue to rise. Every year, according to the CDC, more than 50,000 people in the United States become infected with HIV. More than half are men who have sex with men, and about half are Black or African-American. What’s particularly scary is that about one-third of those who are diagnosed with HIV will develop AIDS within one year of that diagnosis – suggesting that they could have been HIV positive for as long as 10 years before they were tested and diagnosed. This young man, I thought to myself as my student was talking, may have been infected a long time ago – and just didn’t know it.

AIDS diagnoses and deaths may have gone down significantly since the mid-1990s, but HIV infection is another story. Hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done, looking at everything from identifying at-risk populations, teaching safer sex practices, working to increase access to health services, improving sex education curriculum in schools, decreasing behaviors that are associated with risky sexual practices. And over the last twenty years or so, the research paints a depressing picture. Because none of this seems to be working.

Many people aren’t practicing safer sex. Many people don’t have access to health services. Many people don’t get great sex education in school (my students have told me many horror stories about what they’ve learned – or what they didn’t learn).  And what’s the common thread behind all this?

Oppression.

If you want a concrete example of how oppression increases the risk of HIV infection, take a look at Sacramento County, where I live. According to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento County has the highest rates in California of STD infection, including HIV as well as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis – all three of which commonly co-exist with HIV infection, according to the CDC. The highest rates of infection tend to be in the poorest and the most racially and ethnically diverse areas – South Sacramento, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, and Florin. If we extrapolate from CDC data, it’s likely that many of those infected are gay or bisexual males, living in areas where there are few, if any, resources for LGBTQ people. Moreover, most clinics in Sacramento where people can get STD and/or HIV testing and treatment are located in the downtown or midtown areas – not in the neighborhoods where the highest percentage of cases are clustered. And young people between the ages of 14 and 29 are overwhelmingly overrepresented in these statistics. These are people who are poor, nonwhite, and lack access to health care, and, if they’re gay or bisexual, may also lack a direct connection to LGBTQ resources.

What’s interesting to me – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – is that this is the exact same demographic that’s at higher risk for depression and suicidality. In fact, when I asked my student if she thought her friend might be depressed, she didn’t hesitate.

“Definitely.”

Then she paused. “But I’m not sure if he’ll do anything . . . you know . . . .”

I knew.

“He’s already doing something,” I said. People who are HIV positive are thought to be seven times at higher risk for suicide than the general population – and it’s common for these suicidal feelings to be expressed indirectly through risky, self-destructive behaviors.

HIV and depression seem to go hand-in-hand. And that brings us back to our common denominator.

Oppression. It doesn’t just increase the risk of HIV infection – it increases the risk of depression as well. No wonder they coexist so frequently.

You know what’s ironic? The same day this student came to see me (November 25th), David Huebner of the University of Utah published a research article in Health Psychology that, in a nutshell, told this young man’s story. The title of the article? “Social Oppression, Psychological Vulnerability, and Unprotected Intercourse with Young Black Men Who Have Sex with Men.” With a title like that, you almost don’t even need to read any further. What this article does, in my mind, is connect the dots. Among the 1,2o0-plus participants in the study, those who experienced higher degrees of racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic distress were more likely to engage in a range of risky behaviors – unprotected anal sex, multiple partners, sex in public places, etc. What’s interesting, though, is that depression appeared to be the missing link. If racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic distress were all on board, then depression was likely to be part of the picture as well – which in turn was associated with risky sexual behaviors.

To me, looking at the equation from that perspective paints a different picture. For decades, public health researchers have been trying to stem the tide of HIV infection by focusing on risky sexual practices. But if you think about it, they’re not just “risky sexual practices” – they’re indirect suicidal behaviors. Whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, many people with HIV walk the line and flirt with danger, putting themselves and others in harm’s way. It’s a cry for help.

My student wants her friend to go to an HIV support group, although he was lukewarm about the idea when she brought it up to him. I hope he changes his mind.

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The disease of “isms”

(NOTE: This post is in honor of my friend Matt, who is doing the AIDS LifeCycle ride this week from San Francisco to Los Angeles.)

June 17, 1982. Tom Brokaw began his NBC News report with the following statement: “The lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an outbreak of a new form of cancer.” The report went on to describe two men who “suffer from a mysterious, newly-discovered disease, which affects mostly homosexual men.” It was a disease with no name, yet its deadliness was undeniable: “Researchers know of 413 people who have contracted the condition in the past year. One-third of them have died. None of them have been cured.”

I was ten years old at the time. I actually remember watching this segment. I also remember feeling scared. There’s this disease that doesn’t have a name, and nobody seems to know how you get it. But it can kill you. Anyone would be frightened by that prospect.

Understandably, many people were. Very quickly, a mass panic erupted – largely because people didn’t know how this mysterious disease was transmitted. The media initially referred to the syndrome as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency, assuming that it was a disease concentrated solely among gay males. The CDC originally called it the “4-H” disease, based on the assumption that it affected homosexuals, hard-drug users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Both of these terms, marginalizing and othering as they were, were probably intended to quell the fears of the general public (“As long as you’re not in one of those groups, you should be just fine.”). A month after Tom Brokaw’s news report, a Time magazine article introduced the term “AIDS” for the first time, which is the acronym that has come to embody the effects of oppression on the LGBTQ community. An epidemic was born.

The devastating effects of the AIDS virus are well-documented. So is the government’s apathetic response to the epidemic, and the activist efforts that arose from that apathy. Read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts – and then watch David France’s award-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague. Entire communities were dying off, and it seemed as if nobody cared. The edge communities of the day – homosexuals and drug addicts – were being completely ignored.

Thirty-one years later, and the impact of HIV and AIDS is still devastating. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are over 1 million people with AIDS (PWAs) currently living in the United States. Fifty thousand people are infected every year with HIV. And about 15,000 PWAs die each year. Of course, more people with HIV and AIDS are living longer, healthier lives, since the development of protease inhibitors and antiretrovirals. But today, we’re facing the long-range effects of the ignorance and apathy of the 1980s and early 1990s. We’re in what Carlos del Rio of the Emory University School of Medicine calls the “second wave of AIDS” – and that wave is continuing to most strongly impact people who exist on the edges of the mainstream.

Which edge communities are we talking about? For my upcoming book, I interviewed Aaron Riley, president of New Leaf Columbus, a social and professional networking group for queer people of color. “When I was doing HIV work,” said Aaron, who is HIV-positive, “we would see Black men coming into the system, progressing within 1-2 years to an AIDS diagnosis, and within another 24 months they typically were dead. We had White males who were in the system for 20, 25 years. Why are we having such different mortality rates?”

Why, indeed? “People weren’t getting tested. By the time they came in, their immune systems were so far compromised, and the virus was so far along, that there really wasn’t a lot that could be done.” Aaron paused. “I’ve watched the community respond to AIDS, or not respond to AIDS, for a really long time. The African-American church has to resolve how it’s going to deal with this issue. The church won’t talk about the issue, and in the meantime, people continue to get infected, and people continue to die.”

Kyle House, former president of the now-defunct Sacramento Valley Leathercorps, became infected with HIV in the early 1990s through an accidental prick from his partner’s medical syringe. Kyle, whose birthright includes Dutch, English, Iroquois, and Seminole lineage, had this to say: “The rates of HIV in some Indian nations are incredibly high. Astronomically high. But they don’t report. They don’t trust the government. And I don’t blame them. Plus there’s a huge stigma in the community for being gay, and for being positive. That silences people.”

People of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, are disproportionately more likely to get infected with HIV – and are significantly more likely than White people to die from complications arising from AIDS. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the CDC, risk factors for HIV infection include the following:

  • poverty
  • homelessness
  • disability
  • low education
  • being a gay or bisexual male
  • being female
  • being young
  • being transgender
  • being incarcerated.

“This disease is climbing in women, people of color, people of lower economics,” said Aaron. “Disenfranchised people are the ones being affected.”

In 2006, NPR aired a report titled, “The Changing Face of AIDS: 25 Years Later.” The Gay Men’s Health Center has a page on its website titled The New Face of HIV/AIDS. ThinkProgress has an interactive map on its site titled The Changing Face of AIDS. “There’s a phrase I’ve been hearing more and more: ‘The Changing Face of AIDS,'” said Marc Thibodeau, an International Mr. Leather titleholder who in 1992 learned he was HIV-positive. “I hate that phrase. The face of AIDS isn’t changing. What’s happening is that AIDS is spreading. It’s spreading into more and more communities.” Marginalized communities. Oppressed communities. Disenfranchised communities. The communities that are impacted by the wide-ranging constellation of “isms.”

In 1982, we were faced with a new form of cancer. Today, that cancer has metastasized – and even in the post-ACT-UP era, we still see fear, apathy, and silence within affected communities. We see young people who think, Oh, if I get it, I’ll just take a pill.  We see people of color who are afraid to get tested for fear of outing themselves. We see religious communities that have remained silent about the presence of the disease within their congregations. We see people who get infected because they were the victims of sexual assault – and who know they’ll be stigmatized if they come forward. We see people who, even in 2013, don’t have accurate information about how to protect themselves and others from the virus.

AIDS is a disease that thrives on “isms” – racism, sexism, genderism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism. If we’re going to win the war on AIDS, we need to eliminate the conditions that enable it to survive and thrive.

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Do you hear what I hear?

It was a bright, sunny, beautiful spring day. Hundreds of people were milling about. There was a band playing on the outdoor stage. It was a typical Thursday “college hour” at Sacramento City College – the name we’ve given to the noon hour, which is, for most students, a free hour between classes. On those days, when the weather’s nice, I like to take a walk up to the local coffeehouse, grab a cup of coffee, and walk back to campus through the quad, savoring the energy and the music. I have to say, it’s one of the nice perks of working on a college campus.

A few months ago, on one of those walks, I ran into an acquaintance, A.J., whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. He had never been my student, but we’d crossed paths numerous times through my interactions with the LGBTQ community on campus. He’s a fun, smart, and energetic guy, and I was thrilled to see him.

“It’s so great to see you!” I smiled. “How are you?”

He gave me a big hug, stepped back, and said, “I’m doing great!” A typical greeting, except for the fact that he also signed his response to me in American Sign Language.

“Are you taking American Sign Language?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “And I’m losing my hearing. I’m going deaf.”

Going deaf. 

That led to a long conversation that I got so engrossed in that I was almost late to class. More recently, I got to have a more extensive conversation with A.J. about being queer, hard-of-hearing, and the intersections between the two – which will become part of the narrative of my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community.

I want to make abundantly clear that I’m no expert on Deaf culture, or on the range of Deaf experiences. I know American Sign Language (with an East Coast dialect) reasonably well, although I’m very much out of practice. However, ever since my coming-out days in the early 1990s, I’ve noted again and again and again how strikingly similar the Deaf community is to the queer community.

Think about it. Deaf people, like LGBTQ people, have been treated like second-class citizens throughout history. Deaf people may not get support or understanding from their hearing family members, just as LGBTQ people may experience rejection from their straight biological kin. Both LGBTQ people and Deaf people have been subjected to efforts to protect children from them (Deaf people through forced sterilization, gay people through “Save Our Children”-type campaigns). Deaf people have been forced to “act hearing” by learning to speak and lip-read, while gay people historically have tried to “act straight” by dating someone of the opposite sex and getting married. Deaf children have been operated on without their consent in order to make them “normal” – and so have intersex babies. And both have formed communities of pride, with activism, resistance, and social justice at the heart of those communities.

But there are other ways in which Deaf communities overlap and intersect with queer communities – and not always in a pretty, nice-and-neat way. For one thing, both communities have disproportionately high rates of HIV infection. Deaf people are more likely to be HIV-positive compared to their hearing counterparts, just like some queer communities have been considered to be high-risk (most notably, gay men and transwomen). And when you look at the interaction, the statistical risks are compounded: According to one study, the gay Deaf community, compared to the hearing community, has a 40% higher rate of substance use – a significant risk factor for HIV infection. HIV infection tends to be more common in marginalized communities, and clearly the Deaf community hasn’t been immune to that.

A second observation is this: Being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t mean that you can’t oppress other marginalized people – and that’s true for the queer community as well as for the Deaf community. For example, while there are certainly safe and welcoming spaces for Deaf people within the LGBTQ community, there are online dating websites for people who fetishize deafness (or blindness, or being in a wheelchair, among others). On the other side of the coin, a 2006 dissertation study indicated that, out of 174 Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, most had at least moderately positive attitudes towards lesbians and gay men – but there were people who held onto homophobic attitudes, and they tended to be very religious. “You get people on one extreme or the other,” confirmed A.J. in his conversation with me. “Either Deaf people are very left and progressive, or they’re very right-wing conservative and religious. There’s no middle ground.”

And those extreme polarities (and intersecting identities) can make for very messy politics. Case in point: The educational epicenter of Deaf culture, Gallaudet University, found itself embroiled in controversy when Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer for the university, signed a petition against same-sex marriage. Then, when the university placed McCaskill (who is African-American) on administrative leave, the Black student community called out the university on its unresolved racism. Oh, a tangled web of diversity and oppression we weave.

Here’s a third observation. People who are members of marginalized groups often get judged for how they choose to express themselves and deal with oppression. If a gay man decides not to come out at work, he might be judged for acting straight, for pretending to be something he’s not, for “passing” in order to gain heterosexual privilege. If a transperson decides not to have surgery, that individual might be judged within the LGBTQ community for not being “trans enough.” If a deaf person decides to get a cochlear implant (which is a HUGE political issue in the Deaf community), that person might be shunned for assimilating and “playing for the other team,” so to speak.

The similarities between the two communities are striking. But you know what is most surprising to me? Almost NO psychological research exists that focuses on people who are LGBTQ and Deaf. Literally, there is a small handful of studies out there – and some of those studies date back to the early 1980s. Which is a shame. Because what I’m learning more and more as I work on my book-in-progress is this: If you truly want to understand and eliminate oppression, look for where our oppressions intersect. Therein lies a golden opportunity.

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