Category Archives: human rights

My flip-flopping stomach

 

Monday morning, 6:15AM. I stumbled into the kitchen, tired and bleary-eyed, and I headed straight for the electric teakettle. COFFEE!!! I NEED COFFEE!!! Somehow, my brain doesn’t fully kick into gear until I have a few sips of coffee in my system. While I waited for the water to boil, I picked up my phone and scrolled through my messages and updates. The e-mail from Jess is the one that catches my eye.

Congratulations on the Stonewall! it said.

Now, let me backtrack. Jess isn’t a close friend of mine. I know her because she works in my city councilmember’s office. In fact, I got to know her because she was trying to help me catch a stray rooster that was terrorizing my chickens and waking up the neighborhood at 4 AM every morning. (I’m not making this up. I swear. I actually wrote a children’s story about this rooster, but I scrapped it when the real-life rooster turned horribly evil.) So, on many levels, this was a totally bizarre e-mail message to be getting from her.

So I replied. Did I win the Stonewall? I hadn’t heard.

The next thing I knew, my Twitter account was pinging and dinging all over the place. My children’s picture book, This Day in June, had in fact won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award. The most prestigious LGBT book award, as a matter of fact. Since then, my brain has been buzzing, and my stomach has been flip-flopping all over the place. I’m still in a state of disbelief about it. And I haven’t really had time to digest this – a few minutes after I found out, my daughter woke up, and the frenzied before-school routine was set in motion.

So now it’s Tuesday, and I’m at work, and I have a window of time between checking things off the to-do list and teaching classes all afternoon. Now I have a little time to process this. And what better way to do that than writing about it?

So. How do I feel about this?

I feel excited. Make that EXCITED!!! I’m excited about the award. I’m excited about the possibilities that come with it. I’m excited to see This Day in June getting national attention. And I’m excited that I have another reason to wear a dress I bought for an upcoming black-tie event. (I know, how shallow!)

I feel anxious. Sick, almost. Why, I don’t know exactly. Maybe because this is unfamiliar territory for me? I just know that my stomach hasn’t really settled down since I got the news. I feel jumpy and restless – to the point where I didn’t really want the coffee I’d made that Monday morning. (That’s a first for me.)

I actually feel a little guilty. Why? Because there are so many authors who have been writing much longer than I have whose books have not won the award. Me, I’m a first-time children’s book author, and my book gets the award. It’s a huge honor, for sure, but it’s also very humbling.

I feel energized. I want to write. I haven’t blogged for a while, mostly because I felt like I was running out of things to say. But now the words are coming back. And I’m realizing that you can never run out of things to say, just like you can never run out of stories. But sometimes, you have to take a breath in between before the next thought comes.

I feel hopeful. The ALA had diversity on the radar screen this year – the Newbury and Caldecott Award winners were books with diverse content. And not only was This Day in June the first picture book to receive the award, it’s a book that pushed the envelope in many ways.  (It’s not every day that you see children’s picture books featuring drag, leather, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.) The ALA sent a message this year, and that message was this: Get out of the box, and start taking diversity seriously.

All kinds of feelings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But even just a few minutes of writing has settled my stomach a little, and grounded me. Amazing, the power of the written word.

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Filed under children, human rights, LGBT families

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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Distorted

When I drive through the Central Valley on I-5 or Highway 99, there’s a stretch of freeway where I can’t get clear reception from either the Sacramento or the Fresno NPR stations. In fact, on my way back from Fresno this weekend, the clearest signal I could get on the dial was a conservative talk radio station. So I tuned in – just out of curiosity. (This isn’t the first time my curiosity has led me to conservative talk radio stations. Regular readers of The Active Voice probably know this.) This particular station was airing an interview with Chelsen Vicari, a young millennial who was talking about her new book, Distortion: How the New Christian Left Is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that Christianity is being hijacked by leftist apologists and homosexual sympathizers, and that Christians need to reclaim their faith and take back the Gospel. Here are some examples of what Vicari had to say:

On the issue of the “evangelical left”: When I say “the evangelical left,” I’m really talking about those within the church who are pushing a political, leftist agenda cloaked in Christianity. And when I say “cloaked in Christianity,” I mean using the Bible and twisting it to justify a leftist political agenda that actually goes against what Scripture talks about in many ways, for example, marriage, and life, and liberty.

On the issue of homosexuality: It is arguably the biggest, most hostile issue millennial Christians are faced with. Whenever we talk about same-sex relationships, we are either labeled as bigoted or uncompassionate, or we’re dismissed if we hold a view of marriage that is between one man and one woman.

On challenging the evangelical left: I absolutely believe that we can have revival, not just in the evangelical community but the church at large. But to do that, it’s going to start within our homes. It’s going to start by teaching our children exactly what Scripture says and how to defend it. Oftentimes the millennials are willing to compromise because, honestly, they don’t know enough about their faith to speak up about it.

So I’m listening to this, and the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I wasn’t at all surprised by Vicari’s beliefs – listening to conservative talk radio is an exercise in redundancy. No, the thing that was getting me weirded out was that her arguments sound exactly the same as what you’d hear from an LGBTQ social justice activist. Except just a little different. Consider what Vicari was essentially saying in her interview:

1. People are taking our Scripture and twisting it around to satisfy a political agenda. (Just like people who fight for social justice argue that the religious right twists the Bible to fit their beliefs.)

2. If we “come out” as Christian, we face intense discrimination, especially if we state our true beliefs about marriage, homosexuality, and abortion. (Coming out and discrimination? Those terms have their roots in the LGBTQ community.)

3. If things are going to change, we have to stand up for what we believe in, and teach our children how to do the same. (We are a community of experts when it comes to teaching our LGBTQ children – or children growing up in LGBTQ families – to accept themselves unconditionally and to stand up for who they are.)

You listen to this stuff long enough, and you almost start to believe it.

This is an old manipulative tactic. A defense mechanism, really, if you want to use psychological language. Melanie Klein, a neo-Freudian whose work dates back to the early 1900s through the 1940s, described a complicated phenomenon called “projective identification.” Here’s how it works: First, a person (Person #1) engages in projection, which is the unconscious act of attributing a negative, distressing part of ourselves onto someone else (Person #2). In other words, we see in other people what we can’t see in ourselves. But then, it goes a step further – Person #1 manages to manipulate the situation so Person #2 actually feels what’s been projected onto them. They’re stuck holding the bag of feelings that wasn’t even theirs in the first place.

Here’s how Vicari does this in her book (and in her interview). Instead of seeing how she and other evangelicals are twisting the Bible for their own purposes, she attributes this behavior to the “evangelical left.” Instead of acknowledging how the religious right has engaged in systematic institutionalized oppression, she turns it around and frames the religious right as the oppressed and the “evangelical left” as the oppressors. And instead of making amends and practicing restitution, Vicari says that true evangelicals need to stand up and fight back against this appropriation of the Bible.

Crazy stuff. But believable, if you listen to it long enough. And that’s why projective identification is such a powerfully effective defense mechanism. You can get rid of your shadow self, throw it onto another person, and make that person believe that the shadow self was theirs all along. It’s ironic, really, that Vicari chose the word “distortion” for her title. While her readers may begin to believe that liberals, leftists, and social justice activists are distorting the truth, the truth is that Vicari is the one who’s the master distortionist.

For those of you who are college students taking an introductory psychology class (or thinking about taking it in the future), I have some advice for you. When you get to the Freudian stuff, listen up – even if you think he and his followers were complete whack jobs, snorting cocaine and talking about sex all day. (There’s some truth to that.) It will give you powerful tools to understand the dynamics of the oppressor. What I just described above is a perfect example.

 

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Filed under activism, coming out, homophobia, human rights, religion, same-sex marriage

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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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