Category Archives: San Francisco

Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

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

“Your friendly reminder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween to you all.

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

Trashed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 burger king wrapper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dangers of apathy

In my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class this week, I asked my students to identify some of the events that LGBTQ people over the age of 65 have lived through. And there are many:

The end of World War II – and the subsequent Red Scare.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – and, later, the Stonewall Riots.

The removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM.

The AIDS crisis.

During this conversation, one student made an interesting comment: “We have it so easy compared to them. They must feel so frustrated with the apathy of our generation. We click ‘like’ on Facebook and call it activism.”

Is the younger generation – known to many as “millennials” – truly in a state of apathy? If you ask Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, her answer would be an unequivocal yes. Her 2007 book Generation Me, which draws upon 14 years of intergenerational research, paints a picture of a cohort characterized by inaction, hiding behind a computer and an iPhone, expecting things to come easily – and when they don’t, for others to do it for them. Not a pretty characterization, I must say.

There’s considerable debate as to whether millennials – also known as Generation Y – truly fit this profile. However, I know that, without the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement, fighting on the front lines for our rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Compared to the activism of the 1960s and 70s gay liberation movement, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s, I think we are, in fact, living in an era of apathy today – particularly when it comes to LGBTQ grassroots activism. And, I’ll admit, I get incredibly frustrated about this. Personally, I feel empowered and energized by activism, and I can’t for the life of me understand why others might choose to sit back and do nothing.

But I don’t think it’s just the millennials who are to blame. Rather, I think it’s the time period in which we all live. Frankly, I think we’re suffering from what I’ll call a cultural diffusion of responsibility. To explain what I mean, I have a story to tell.

* * * * * * * *

One early morning in 1964, at about 3:15 A.M., a young woman got home from her shift working as a bar manager. She parked her car and started walking towards her apartment building. A man approached her. Frightened, she started to run away, but he caught her, stabbing her twice in the back.

“Oh my God!” she yelled. “He stabbed me. Help me!” An onlooker yelled, “Let that girl alone!” The attacker ran away.

And then he came back. The attacker found the young woman lying in a hallway at the back of her building. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and stole $49 before leaving her to die. The entire scene, from start to finish, spanned about 30 minutes. And during that time, no one came to her aid – even though numerous people heard or observed parts of the attack.

The woman who was murdered was named Kitty Genovese. While some of the facts of the case are in dispute, this tragic incident brought the phrase “bystander apathy” into our cultural conversation – and raised questions about what causes it to occur. A few years after this tragic incident, two researchers at Columbia University, John Darley and Bibb Latane, conducted a series of studies to try to better understand this phenomenon, two of which are relevant, I think, to our modern-day culture of inaction.

In one study, often referred to as the “smoke-filled room” experiment, Darley and Latane randomly assigned their participants to one of three conditions: either (A) the person was in a classroom alone, (B) with two other participants, or (C) with two “confederates.” Within several minutes of the study, smoke began to fill the room – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how likely they were to report it. While 75% of the participants in group A reported the smoke, only 38% in group B and 10% (!) in group C made any report.

In a second study, better known as the “seizure” study, participants were told that they would be engaging in a communication task via intercom with an individual in a separate classroom. Like in the “smoke-filled room” study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:  either (A) the participant was in a classroom alone, (B) with one other person, or (C) with five other people. During the communication task, the person they’re communicating with in the other room starts having a seizure – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how many people would respond. As it turns out, 85% of those in group A left the room to provide help. However, when other people were present in the room, helping behavior decreased substantially: 62% in group B and 31% in group C left the room to help the victim. Different study, but essentially the same findings as the “smoke-filled room” experiment: The more people that are around, the less likely people are to spring to action.

And why is that? Diffusion of responsibility. People are less likely to take action when there are other people around – because they assume that others will. I didn’t do anything because I thought someone else would step up.

People over the age of 65 didn’t have an LGBTQ community. Hell, I didn’t have much of an LGBTQ community – not until later, anyway. In 1966, when the police tried to arrest a transwoman at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, there wasn’t any “gay community” to immediately help her – in fact, she was at Compton’s Cafeteria because, at the time, transwomen were unwelcome in gay bars. During the 1980s, when thousands of people were dying of AIDS, it took a long time for those in power to step up to the plate. These are people who had to fight on their own behalf – because nobody else was going to do it for them. Now, we not only have a collection of LGBTQ communities, we have numerous advocacy and activist groups who, many think, will do the work for us – hence the “cultural diffusion of responsibility.” The reality is that, when everyone thinks that someone else will take action, the end result is that no one takes action.

* * * * * * * *

Winston Moseley was the man who murdered Kitty Genovese. He was given the death penalty, which was reduced to life plus two 15-year sentences. His parole hearing is slated to take place this month. And the woman who was Kitty Genovese’s partner at the time of her death, Mary Ann Zielonko, will probably be there.

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Filed under activism, human rights, psychological research, San Francisco, transgender, violence

The choice that’s not always a choice

Last week, a traveling pro-life display came to Sacramento City College, setting up shop in the middle of the campus quad and holding court for two days. The group that organized this display, Project Truth, uses images of dead fetuses, lynchings, and murdered Holocaust victims to make the case that abortion is an act of genocide. (Yes, they really say that.) We had been warned that they were coming, and many of us (myself included) voiced our concerns about their presence to the college administration.

Who invited them?

Why are they allowed to show those disturbing and offensive images?

What if people get upset or traumatized? Are we prepared to handle that?

Can’t we just tell them they can’t come here?

This is the response we got from The Powers That Be:

“Anyone with any message can come to our campus. They’re protected by the First Amendment. The only way we could keep them off campus is if their images were pornographic.”

Hearing that, the wheels started turning inside my snarky little brain. Hmmm. What if I decided to host a campus screening of Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm (which, by the way, is marketed to college campuses)? Or Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn? What if I showed the film Live Nude Girls Unite! (which my campus library owns, by the way), a film that follows the unionizing efforts of the female dancers from The Lusty Lady? What if I invited sexologist Carol Queen to come to one of my classes to show her “ex-ed” (explicit educational) videos? Apparently those films could be banned from campus, the speakers could get kicked out of my classes, and I could get into Big Trouble.

Why images of murder are acceptable on a college campus, but sexually graphic materials are not, points to the lightning-rod volatility the issue of pornography in our country. And the queer community, in many ways, has been at the epicenter of this issue.

I’m brought back to the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student living in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day, I was working as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a feminist researcher whose work focused on violence against women – and who herself was a fervent anti-pornography activist. At the time I worked for her, she was writing a book titled Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny, and Rape. My job involved, among other things, writing descriptions of pornographic (often graphically violent) images that had previously been included in her full-picture version of the book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. It was unpleasant work, to say the least.

By night, however, I was exploring the Bay Area queer feminist community, which dovetailed in many ways with the newly-emerging sex-positive movement. This movement, which featured people like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, and Patrick Califia-Rice, encourages open sexuality with few limits, embracing all forms of sexual activity and expression – including pornography and other forms of sex work. From a sex-positive perspective, the fine line between empowerment and victimization involves the critical importance of informed consent – if a woman chooses to work at a sex club, or if she chooses to act in a porn flick, that is absolutely, unabashedly her right. Many of the events I attended in the mid- to late 1990s had a sex-positive flavor, and increasingly I felt like I had a split personality. The Diana Russell-style lesbian-feminism that was helping me pay my way through graduate school was in direct conflict with the community – and the empowerment – I was finding through the Susie Bright/Carol Queen-style queer sex-positive feminism.

There’s more than one side to this issue within the LGBTQ community, though. While sex-positive feminism lends a perspective that many (including myself) find refreshing, there are numerous research studies that paint a much more sobering picture of sex work in the queer community. Consider these studies:

  • Researchers from the Public Health Institute in Oakland studied 573 transgender women in the San Francisco Bay Area with a history of sex work. According to their 2011 report, half had been physically assaulted, and more than a third had been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • In a 2010 study of street-involved, drug-using youth, researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver found that, compared to heterosexual youth, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to engage in “survival sex work” – meaning that they exchanged sex for money, drugs, or other commodities. Moreover, in conjunction with their survival sex work, LGB youth exhibited elevated HIV risk behavior, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
  • In a 2009 UCSF study, out of 151 transgender female youth ages 15-24, 67% had engaged in sex work at some point, and 19% reported being HIV-positive. Lack of social support, low levels of education, homelessness, and drug use were all significantly correlated with sex work.
  • A 2008 study of transgender women of color involved in sex work indicated that, based on their responses in focus groups, prostitution and other forms of sex work didn’t necessarily feel like a “choice.” Some were undocumented immigrants who, fearing deportation, felt as if they had no other choice. Some experienced barriers to other forms of employment due to racism, sexism, and transphobia. Most had no support from their families or their ethnic and cultural communities. All of them were aware of the significant risks associated with sex work, but knew that the immediate benefits outweighed the risks.
  •  A 2007 study that investigated the experiences of gay men in the porn industry documented the low earnings of these actors. Because gay porn actors earn so little through their film work, according to this study, most turn to other forms of sex work, like prostitution or stripping, in order to survive economically.

Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Economic exploitation. Frankly, none of this sounds really like a “choice.” In order to make choices in life, we have to have options. When no other options exist, you fall back on the last resort – which, for many LGBTQ people (especially transwomen and people of color), involves some form of sex work.

But what if other options DID exist? What if fewer LGBTQ youth ended up homeless in the first place, because their families were accepting and embracing? What if all LGBTQ youth and young adults felt safe in their school environments, increasing the likelihood of getting a high school diploma, or graduating from college? What if an inclusive form of ENDA was in place, and a demonstrated commitment was made to end workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people? If those protections were in place, undoubtedly a world of options would open up. Would sex work end up on the list as one of the viable choices?

For some, maybe. For many, probably not. Either way, the buzzwords that come to mind for me are “safety” and “informed consent” – hallmarks of the sex-positive movement. Without those, we cross the line from empowerment to victimization.

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Filed under intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

Out in the middle of nowhere

Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was driving from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles to present at a graduate student conference. I made it through Pacheco Pass, a long, steep, and windy two-lane highway, and eventually hooked up with I-5, the main drag to L.A. And then about an hour and a half later, I heard a POP! My car went dead and stopped. And there I was, stuck on a long stretch of open highway.

Now, I should tell you this: At this point in my early queer life cycle, I was about as out, loud, and proud as you could possibly be. Psychologist Vivienne Cass would have said I was in the “identity pride” stage (and I would have become enraged at the idea that my complete identity could be reduced to a mere “stage”). I had the requisite short haircut, dyed a dark shade of burgundy, and Doc Martens were my footwear of choice. I had ACT-UP buttons on my backpack. And my car had, among other things, a rainbow flag sticker on the bumper. I was out – OUT – in the middle of nowhere. And I was scared. Scared enough to get out of my car and rip the sticker off, tears streaming down my face. And I waited. And waited. It was literally hours before anyone stopped.

Eventually a car pulled up next to my car on the shoulder, and five dark-skinned (probably Mexican) guys jumped out of the car, heading towards me. If I was scared before, I was terrified at this point. OH SHIT! I thought to myself. Are they here to help me, or are they going to rape and attack me? I took my chances and assumed the former – and then afterwards felt horribly racist for pre-judging them, for they turned out to be the nicest, most helpful people. One of them had a cell phone (in the mid-1990s, this was not so common) and called AAA for me, and all five waited with me until they showed up.

The AAA guy drove me to the closest town (which, considering that it took us half an hour to get there, wasn’t very close). And, approaching the town, this is the sign that greeted me:

Oh my God, I thought to myself. I felt like I was about to enter enemy territory – and I better be careful.

To me, “being careful” meant doing whatever I could to conceal my sexual identity. And I think I did so successfully, although I discovered that, in a small town like Coalinga, keeping other people out of your business is no easy task. The next morning, I walked from the motel to the repair shop to get the scoop on my car, and then I walked to the coffee shop down the street. “Oh, you’re the girl who broke down on the 5 last night,” a guy sitting at the counter said when he saw me. So much for flying under the radar. I just couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Last weekend, I was having lunch with two friends of mine, both of whom are transgender, and one of whom lives in a very rural-esque, agricultural town. At some point in the conversation, we started talking about what it’s like to be queer in rural America – and I found myself flashbacking to this experience. I started telling my friends the story I just told you, and as I was talking, I was thinking about the LGBTQ people who live in Coalinga (because, whether they’re visible or not, there are queer people who live there). I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t wait to get out. But to people who live there, it’s not nowhere. It’s home. And home might be a very, very unsafe place to be – and a tough place to escape, to boot.

If you look at what the research shows about LGBTQ people who live in rural areas, it’s clear that my fight-or-flight response wasn’t an overreaction. Rural LGBT teenagers, according to one 2012 study, tend to have higher levels of “affective distress” (such as depression and anxiety), compared to their rural heterosexual counterparts. Mothers in rural areas who identify as sexual minorities, another study shows, are more likely than heterosexual mothers to experience discrimination, and they are less likely to disclose their sexual orientation or relationship status to neighbors, teachers, or parents of their children’s classmates. (Interestingly, these mothers were more likely to be biological parents rather than adoptive parents, probably because many rural states prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children.) On the other end of the age spectrum, researchers from the University of Minnesota have found that LGBT older adults who live in rural areas (as opposed to an urban center) are less likely to be out and more likely to be guarded about their sexual identities around family and friends. They also tended to have lower household income levels than those in urban areas, a stressor that often intersects with sexual or gender minority status. For those rural LGBT individuals whose levels of distress lead them to seek out mental health services, the outlook is depressingly bleak – a 2006 study documents, among mental health providers in rural areas, a severe lack of education and awareness about LGBT issues, combined with seriously homophobic attitudes towards their LGBT clients. There are good reasons why San Francisco is full of queer expats from other parts of the country.

Not every LGBTQ person has the resources to get the hell out of Dodge. And frankly, they might not want to – despite the frigidly chilly climate towards LGBTQ people in many rural areas, they may have very good reasons for wanting to stay. Our lunchtime conversation started to veer towards this question: How do you start to create community in these areas, many of which are staunchly conservative and evangelical? And sparks started flying from the idea machine.

We talked about GOTBLISS, a Northern California nonprofit organization that serves LGBTQ people in the rural counties of Yuba, Sutter, and Colusa.

We talked about the San Joaquin Pride Center, now in its second year of operation. Although located in a well-populated city, it serves the rural communities of the Central Valley in California.

We talked about the rising success of small-town Pride celebrations throughout California – and across the United States.

We talked about the Eureka Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a small but highly active order in a very rural, conservative area of California.

And we came up with all sorts of creative, out-of-the-box ideas, ranging from  creating a national nonprofit serving rural areas to making a “Queer-mobile” out of a bus or trailer (kind of like a “Bookmobile”) and driving up and down the state, providing support and resources to rural LGBTQ people. Because there are thousands – millions, possibly – of people who are out in the middle of nowhere. But “nowhere” is home, and “out” means remaining closeted in order to survive. Fleeing Dodge isn’t going to change it.

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Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, religion, San Francisco, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence