Category Archives: LGBTQ

Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

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

“Your friendly reminder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween to you all.



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

Throwing the boomerang

I developed my Psychology of Sexual Orientation course six and a half years ago, back in 2007. The first time I taught it, only ten students were enrolled – and I had to beg my dean not to cancel the class. He didn’t. All ten students stayed. And the next semester, I had a full roster with a full waiting list. It’s been that way ever since, and this semester is no exception. Obviously, sexual orientation is a hot topic these days, and enrollment for this class is bursting at the seams.

Despite its popularity, not every college offers courses that focus on sexual and gender minorities. In fact, when I started teaching my course in 2007, only one other community college in California (City College of San Francisco) offered coursework on LGBTQ issues. Now, a few more community colleges have jumped on board – but only a few. And four-year colleges and universities offer these classes only if they have a faculty member who has expertise in that area. In my college district, my school is the only one that offers this course – and I know that students from other colleges come here to take it.

I feel such a strong sense of responsibility around this course – more than I do about the other courses I teach. Every semester, I get to watch LGBTQ students experience a sense of validation and find community. I also get to witness students shift away from their feelings of discomfort, disgust, or hatred (yes, sometimes they bring that to the table) towards a place of understanding, connection, and allyhood. Some students end the semester with a lingering sense of discomfort and dissonance, but I’m always impressed when they can continue to keep an open mind and be receptive to a new point of view. I know full well that my professorial duties don’t just involve presenting information. I set the tone for the class, and hold the space for them to fumble around and move through their own psychological process. It’s a delicate dance between academic learning and a therapeutic experience, and I take it very seriously.

I know how powerful LGBTQ college courses can be – and it’s not just my gut telling me so. Scores of studies have documented the effectiveness of LGBTQ courses in changing students’ attitudes, increasing awareness, and developing an ally identity. For example, Julie Gedro, a professor of Business, Management, and Economics at Empire State College, teaches a course that helps business students gain awareness about LGBTQ issues in the workplace. Markus Bidell of Hunter College teaches an LGBT graduate psychotherapy class that helps counseling students gain cultural competency in working with sexual and gender minorities. Peter Ji and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago teach a class that teaches heterosexual students how to be allies with LGBTQ communities.  And Victoria Kintner-Duffy, an Early Childhood Education professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro teaches a course designed to help future educators work with LGBTQ families and their young children. All of these individuals have published research articles documenting the effectiveness of these courses in shifting attitudes in a positive direction – and, for the most part, my experience has been exactly the same.

Except for last semester. In one of my classes, something entirely different happened.

In many ways, that class consisted of the typical mix of students. Some were out, loud, and proud. Others were in the early stages of the coming-out process. Several were straight allies, right from the beginning. Some had little knowledge of LGBTQ issues, but were open-minded and willing to learn. The usual suspects, in many ways.

But in this class, there was also a group of male students who seemed very uncomfortable by the topic – and who weren’t particularly open-minded. They sat in the back, huddled together. They whispered and snickered during class discussions. And every attempt I made to curb their behavior and defuse the situation only seemed to make it worse. By the end of the semester, several of them had dropped the course, but the damage had already been done – and quite a few students did poorly in the class as a result. So much for that delicate dance.

Clearly, my class had the exact opposite effect on these students. Instead of changing their attitudes, shifting more towards a position of acceptance and understanding, these students dug their heels in deeper and stuck even more strongly to their original negative attitudes. It’s not a rare phenomenon at all – in fact, as early as 1953, Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, and Harold Kelley of Yale University described this as the “boomerang effect,” where the opposite of the intended effect occurs. An attempt at persuasion is made, and instead of getting the person to agree with you (or, at the very least, inviting them to open their minds to hear a new perspective), the message boomerangs, veering even more strongly into the opposite direction.

The boomerang effect can have devastating consequences. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate TA for a women’s studies class, a few of the female students vehemently opposed the idea that systematic oppression of women exists – and that firmly cemented opposition created a schism in the class. More recently, I attended a diversity training that focused on racism and privilege, and the boomerang effect took hold with such a vengeance that the possibility of any further conversations about racism and oppression was completely shut off. It’s a phenomenon with toxic effects.

So now I’m hyper-aware of the possibility of the boomerang effect. In fact, without exaggeration, I think I have a little PTSD after last semester’s experience. But I’ve had some time to reflect – and what I’m reminded of is the immensely destructive power of fear. When we feel threatened, two things can happen: We can flee (and in this case, the students initially fled into a “hive mind” mentality, and then fled by dropping the class). Or we can put up our dukes and fight – which, essentially, is what’s involved in the boomerang effect. It’s a classic fight-or-flight fear response.

So what to do about it? I’ll do what I’ve done for the last six and a half years. I’ll set a positive tone. I’ll present information. I’ll hold the space for students to go through their process, and own that process, whatever it may be. And through it all, I’ll continue to stay true to my own convictions.

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Filed under homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, racism


So the CEO of Barilla says he won’t allow gay people to be depicted in their advertisements, and within hours, the LGBTQ community mobilizes big time. Boycotts, Internet petitions, op-ed pieces – the LGBTQ community and its supporters have stepped up in a big, big way, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

But I do have a cynical side (if you haven’t noticed by now). And that cynical side, when I first heard about the Barilla boycott, I thought, First it was Chik-fil-A. Then it was Russian vodka. And now it’s . . . pasta? Come on now. Is nothing sacred?

The reality is, I don’t drink hard liquor. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chik-fil-A in my life. And Barilla – well, I’m not a big pasta eater, but in my graduate school days, when spaghetti from a box and sauce out of a jar was part of my regular meal repertoire, Barilla never made it into my pantry. So, for me, boycotting these companies is like giving up marijuana for Lent. If I don’t use it in the first place, giving it up doesn’t really count.

My cynicism comes from a much deeper place. There are a LOT of companies that the LGBTQ community should probably consider boycotting. Walmart, in addition to being cited numerous times for poor treatment of LGBTQ employees, recently included a book on its shelves titled Chased by an Elephant by Janice Barrett Graham (wife of LDS pastor Stephen Graham, believer of “praying the gay away”). The book description begins like this:

“Overgrown jungles? Mad elephants? Tarzan and Jane? That’s what LDS families will find in this book to help shed the clear light of truth on today’s dark and tangled ideas about male and female, proper gender roles, the law of chastity, and the God-given sexual appetite.”

Not exactly LGBTQ-friendly. That should be enough to prompt a boycott, don’t you think?

Or what about Domino’s Pizza, whose founder created an entire city – Ave Maria, Florida – devoted entirely to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Or Exxon Mobil, for failing to adopt non-discrimination policies for their LGBTQ employees? And then there’s Babies R Us/Toys R Us. Hobby Lobby. Lowe’s. Marriott. Tyson Foods. Dish Network. Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Celestial Seasonings. Radio Shack. Verizon. Curves. Purina. Gold’s Gym. Dole. Forever 21. These are all companies that engage in anti-LGBTQ practices in some way, shape, or form. And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you find this list dizzying, then you’re in good company. And in my dizzy stupor, I’m reminded of a story.

Years ago, when I was in college, a bisexual friend and I would routinely go to the gym, work out together, and then go to the Wendy’s next door for a burger and fries. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell,” we’d say to each other – not referring at all to the fact that we were devouring junk food after our virtuous workout. In fact, our secretive behavior had everything to do with the fact that the LGBTQ community (among others) was actively boycotting Wendy’s at the time, and here we were, sneaking around behind the scenes.

I’ve written about what motivates people to boycott companies in previous blog posts. In one post, I talked about a study that identified, among others, two major variables that motivate boycotts: (1) a desire to make change happen; and (2) the personal growth that comes from participating in a boycott (the researchers call this “self-enhancement”). I definitely desire change, and I embrace the personal growth opportunities activism has provided me with. And yet, here I was at Wendy’s, surreptitiously scarfing down a bacon cheeseburger. That experience has stuck with me, and since then, I’ve wondered why someone like myself, someone so heavily invested in social change, risked having my “queer membership card” taken away – and over a trayful of fast food, at that.

How you spin your message has an enormous impact on how people receive that message – a phenomenon called a “framing effect.” For example, if you tell a teenager that there’s a 1 in 20 chance that condom use will result in a pregnancy, that teenager will probably be far more gun-shy about condoms than if they were told that condoms are 95% effective at preventing pregnancy (which sounds like pretty good odds). That’s the power of the framing effect in action. So what if we apply the concept of framing effects to boycotting?

Andrew John of Melbourne University (who is one of the co-authors of the study cited above) is an economist whose research focuses largely on consumer boycotts. In his research articles, he uses the term “boycott” – but alternatively, he frequently uses the phrase “purchase sacrifice.” I think that’s a brilliant phrase – because if you think about it, participating in a boycott is really all about sacrifice. It’s a purchase sacrifice, and a time, energy, and resources sacrifice – especially when it comes to researching which companies are LGBTQ-friendly or -unfriendly. Boycotting a company or product might require buying an alternative brand that’s more expensive, or not as easy or convenient to obtain (which, for some, might be a significant sacrifice, depending on one’s socioeconomic status).  If I need to disconnect my Dish and pay $10 extra per month for DirectTV (or just tell myself, who needs TV, anyway?), forego the thick, plush towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and get the ones that feel a little scratchy from Target, stop drinking my Celestial Seasonings herb tea and either do without or make a special trip to a more expensive store to get some other brand, force my cat to eat something other than Purina Cat Chow, find some way to explain to my kid why Toys R Us is bad (and then try to find an alternative), spend hours trying to keep track of the “good” companies and “bad” companies, and then feel all guilty because I just found out that Barilla is a “bad” company after I’ve bought five boxes of pasta – if my immediate personal loss is greater than the long-term potential gain, then the motivation to boycott is likely to be low. That’s probably how I felt years ago, when I chose to cross the boycott line and eat at Wendy’s – that it wasn’t worth giving up the burger.

I wonder if, instead of using the word “boycott,” we name the action more clearly and say, “We’re asking you to make a purchase sacrifice in support of the LGBTQ community.” Would higher levels of boycott participation result? I bet it would to some extent, although I have nothing other than gut feeling to back this up. There’s something about that phrase that reminds me that I’m in the driver’s seat when I make my spending choices – and I can also be in the driver’s seat regarding what losses I’m willing or able to take. Activists love to be in the driver’s seat – or at least feel like they are, especially given the level of disempowerment and marginalization many of us have experienced.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, stereotypes

Some are more equal than others

Blog topics come to me in strange and interesting ways. Sometimes, I start off with a clear idea of what I want to write about, and it comes together easily. Other times, I might start off thinking I’m going to write about a particular topic, and then my post morphs into something entirely different and unrelated. And every once in a while, something random happens in my life that sparks creative inspiration, and that’s what I decide to go with.

That’s what happened this week. Actually, this time it was TWO unrelated random somethings that happened in my life. Well, not exactly random. And not completely unrelated, either.

So, here’s Random Creative Inspiration #1: The red and pink equals sign.

For those of you who have been living under a rock (or who don’t use social media), this image literally took over Facebook the week the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the two same-sex marriage cases – one involving California’s Proposition 8, the other focusing on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If you’ve ever seen the blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign logo, this image should look familiar. At one point, when I was checking my Facebook account, the few individual profile pictures that were left were submerged in a sea of red equals signs., showing an overwhelming level of support for same-sex marriage.

Now, for Random Creative Inspiration #2: Uncle Bobby’s wedding. (Note: I don’t have an Uncle Bobby.)

This past weekend, I attended a children’s book writing and illustrating conference, where one of the breakout sessions focused on diversity in picture books. One of the examples used in the presentation was Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen. It tells the story of a guinea pig named Chloe who is devastated when she learns that her uncle Bobby is getting married – her big fear being that she will no longer be her uncle’s favorite person. Eventually, as Chloe spends more time with Uncle Bobby and his boyfriend, Jamie, she comes around, and is delighted to be the flower girl for their wedding. It’s a very sweet story, with a spirit of acceptance and love.

So these two Random Creative Inspirations weave together perfectly, right? It’s time for same-sex marriage to be legalized. We’re just as normal as everybody else. Same-sex relationships are becoming as mainstream as opposite-sex relationships.

Well, that’s not where I’m going with this. As much as I support marriage equality rights, I’m going to talk about the dangers of “normalcy.”

The speaker at the breakout session I attended at this conference was an editor for a major children’s book publisher, and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding comes out of that publishing house. Although she used numerous other books as examples throughout her talk, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding was the only one she read to us cover-to-cover.  And when she finished reading, these were my thoughts:

That was a beautiful story.

The illustrations were delightful.

And, unfortunately, that is NOT how it goes down for a lot of people.

The fight for legalizing same-sex marriage has used, overwhelmingly, the sameness argument. In a 2006 article published in American Psychologist, UC Davis researcher Gregory Herek carefully lays out an argument in support of same-sex marriage rights, grounding each of his assertions in social science research. His thesis essentially boils down to these main points:

  • On most psychological measures, same-sex relationships are no different from opposite-sex couples.
  • Children raised by same-sex couples are no different than children raised by opposite-sex couples; and
  • Marriage bestows significant benefits with regard to health, financial stability, and psychological well-being.

Hence, the sameness argument. Or, to use a more political term, the assimilationist argument.

The dirty little secret about the fight for same-sex marriage rights is that there are factions within the LGBTQ community that are deeply divided over this issue. For example, the week that Facebook was flooded with red and pink equals signs, a number of people in the LGBTQ community responded by posting their own subversive versions of that image. One looked like this:

Granted, some who posted this divide sign are Religious Right-type people who are not in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But others who posted this image come from the trans* community, the poly/non-monogamous community, and others who exist on the edges of the mainstream LGBTQ umbrella.

One of the reasons some members of the trans* community chose the “divide” symbol over the “equals” sign is because of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Over a long period of time, the HRC, which is one of the largest gay advocacy organizations in the world, has committed some serious transgressions against the trans* community, the most noted being their support for excluding protections based on gender identity and expression from the Employer Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Their argument? It’ll pass more easily without the gender stuff. Just wait your turn, and be patient. (NOTE: To date, neither the exclusive or inclusive forms of ENDA have been signed into law.) More recently, at a marriage equality rally in front of the Supreme Court, a trans* activist was asked by an HRC staffer to remove a trans pride flag that had been erected behind the podium. These incidents highlight the ongoing tension between the “LGB”s and the “T”s, with the trans* community never feeling a sense of inclusion.

The divide sign highlights another very serious issue when it comes to same-sex marriage rights, and that is this: Not everybody in the LGBTQ community will benefit if Proposition 8 and DOMA are overturned.

What if you are gender-variant, and you don’t identify as “male” or “female”? So far, same-sex marriage policies haven’t included a “third gender” or alternative to the two-box binary gender system we’re so accustomed to.

What if you are in an ongoing polyamorous relationship? This, of course, is the “slippery slope” example that the Religious Right loves to whip out. Well, if we legalize same-sex marriage, then people will want to have multiple wives, or multiple husbands! Or they’ll want to marry their dog, or their horse, or their toaster! Usually, the response from marriage equality activists is this: Oh no, that will NEVER happen – because we’re just like heterosexual people.

Guess what? It happens. And when people enter into a polyamourous relationship, they are not legally protected. If a triadic (three-person) relationship splits up, there are no policies in place that guide how property and assets should be divided up. If a woman is in a quad (four people) and has a child with one of the men in the group, then decides to leave the quad entirely, how does child custody get sorted out? (Hint: She probably gets full custody, because the quad isn’t legally recognized by the state.)

I think some very serious questions are up for the LGBTQ community, and have been for quite some time. Are we fighting for equality – and if so, what does that mean? If assimilation is the goal that the movement is fighting for, then how does acceptance fall into that? Is it about fitting into the system, or changing the system? Uncle Bobby and Jamie fit into the system quite well. But that’s not true for quite a lot of us.


Filed under children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, LGBT families, LGBTQ, mental health, psychological research, relationships, religion, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia

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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