Category Archives: transgender

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

What will it take for Facebook to change its policy?

Once upon a time, if you joined Facebook and wanted to select a gender option, the only options you could choose from were “male” and “female.” Several months ago, all of that changed when Facebook added 56 “custom” gender options. With that change, Facebook issued the following announcement:

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.

You could almost hear the collective “YAY!” from various queer and ally communities. With that change, Facebook became Cool. Hip. Progressive. The LGBTQ community had found a powerful ally in the corporate social media world. Or so we thought.

Now Facebook’s “real name” policy is rearing its ugly head.  If you go to the page titled, “What names are allowed on Facebook?”, you’ll see this:

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

The page goes on to describe what’s not allowed, including nicknames that bear no resemblance to your real name, titles, word or phrases in place of a middle name, characters from multiple languages, or anything deemed offensive or suggestive. This policy has been in place for quite some time, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced. That is, until a few days ago, when individuals using pseudonyms, stage names, or other names that don’t match their legal names began receiving messages saying, “Your account has been temporarily suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name.” To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s “real name” policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBT community, particularly drag queens, stage performers, and transgender people. After a meeting with Facebook officials organized by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Facebook announced that they would reinstate profiles that had been suspended and give them a 2-week grace period: either they comply with the policy, or their profiles will be removed.

In one fell swoop, cool-hip-progressive Facebook became Public Enemy #1. When Facebook expanded its gender options, it offered a welcoming, validating space for queer people –  a space where you could be your “true, authentic self.” (Remember those words?) Now, there’s considerable debate about whether to jump ship entirely. A community boycott of Facebook called My Name is Me is asking people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and switch to Google+, a social media platform that allows pseudonyms and preferred names to be used.

So I did a little “research.” I went through all of my Facebook friends, and I counted how many of them use a pseudonym. And I came up with twenty-two. I have several friends who are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A handful of friends are transgender and in transition, choosing to use a name that fits their gender identity rather than their legal name. Some transgender friends maintain two accounts – one that uses their chosen name (for friends and supporters), the other that uses their legal name (for people who don’t know about their transgender status). I know a couple of people who are drag queens and who maintain pages using that name. Some friends use a pseudonym because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual and aren’t out to their families. Obviously, you can see how the LGBTQ community is impacted by this policy.

But not all of my friends (including the 22 with pseudonyms) are LGBTQ. I have at least one friend who uses a pseudonym because she escaped a violent relationship and doesn’t want her ex to find her. Another friend is a therapist and uses a pseudonym so clients won’t “friend” her. I know people in 12-step recovery programs who don’t use their legal names because they want to stay anonymous, in keeping with the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. And several friends use pseudonyms so they can keep their “friends” list small and generally stay under the radar.

I expanded my “research” to include a bit of statistical calculation. I have 465 Facebook friends. Twenty-two people out of 465 equals 4.7%. If all twenty-two of those people decided to quit Facebook and delete their accounts, that would be a tiny drop in the Facebook bucket. But if all of my Facebook friends jumped on board and deleted their accounts, that might get their attention. If all of my Facebook friends got all of their Facebook friends to delete their accounts (and so on), I think Facebook would seriously consider changing its policy.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe this analogy will explain my thinking. After my Introductory Psychology students take a multiple-choice exam, I do what’s called an item analysis. If there’s a test question that all (or most) students got wrong, I throw the question out and credit them with the points. My students love this – they can’t wait to hear how many “free points” they’re going to get. However, what they haven’t figured out is this: If all of them hatched a plot and collectively agreed to answer every single question incorrectly, then all of them would earn 100% on the exam. Simple as that.

Actually, I don’t think it’s that my students haven’t figured this out. I think many of them have – but they’re too scared to put it into action. If I answer each question wrong, and at least one student answers at least one question correctly, then I get a zero on the exam. That’s a risk that most students aren’t willing to take, because taking the risk involves trusting every single student completely. It’s the same thing with the Facebook issue: If I delete my account, and none of my friends delete their accounts, then I’m disconnected from my friends – and Facebook is still alive and thriving, oppressive policies still in place. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons why radical social change is so hard to achieve. People know that change will happen if a critical mass jumps in with both feet – but if you end up being the only one who takes the plunge, change doesn’t happen, and you fall SPLAT on the ground.

So if you’re on Facebook, what will you do? Will you jump in with both feet and delete your account entirely? Will you just dip your toe in by temporarily deactivating your account and seeing what happens? Or will you do nothing?

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Filed under activism, coming out, gender nonconformity, media, transgender, violence

Familism

Here’s an experiment: Try sending out a message to all of your friends that goes like this:

We are finally set to move this Saturday! Please come and help us – we need all the help we can get. 

Now, watch all your friends scatter like mice.

Two friends of mine who are strong LGBTQ and trans activists really did move this weekend, and they really did make a request similar to the one I posted. To be fair, not all of their friends did the scatter dance – in fact, quite a few of us showed up and did some heavy lifting. But “who shows up to help you move” is a good metaphor for identifying your close-knit, go-to community. Think about each of these questions:

If you needed moving help, who would you call?

If your house caught on fire, who would you stay with?

If you had a crisis at 2 o’clock in the morning, who would you call?

If you were arrested and thrown in jail, who would you call? (You can only call one person, so this person REALLY needs to step up.)

Who shows up for you no matter what, even when it’s inconvenient, expensive, uncomfortable, or scary?

For most of us, the answer would most likely be: My family. Because family members step in when our needs are out of the friend zone. (Well, not that kind of friend zone.) Even the most devoted friends have limits – they’ll help you in a crisis, but maybe not at 2 A.M. And that’s when we turn to our families. However, for some of us in the LGBTQ community, friends are the only family we have.

Many of us have great relationships with our families. Today, in 2014, it is far more likely that families will have a more positive and accepting response if their child comes out as LGBTQ. However, schisms are still common among LGBTQ people and their families. Your family may have outright rejected you, or your family environment may feel chilly and hostile. You might have moved away so you could live in a more LGBTQ-friendly environment, and so your family might not be geographically accessible in a crisis. (Having moved from suburban New Jersey to California 20 years ago, I feel the effects of this routinely.) So when we have an urgent need, or when we’re experiencing a crisis, we have to rely on a different kind of social support network – assuming that one is in place.

Back in the early 1990s, anthropologist Kath Weston wrote a book titled Families We Choose, which described the kinship networks lesbian and gay people often form in lieu of biological family ties. Back then, it was much more common for LGBTQ people to be cut off from their families in some way, and friends took the place of family. In fact, the word “family” has become a code word in the LGBTQ community: I think he’s family translates into I suspect he’s gay. And it’s common to see friends in the LGBTQ community stepping up in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily see in straight culture. For example, in the documentary film Gen Silent, Krys Anne, a transgender woman dying of lung cancer, is cared for by members of her local LGBTQ community, some of whom she’d only known for a few weeks – because her biological family had disowned her.

It’s beautiful and romantic to think about the LGBTQ community as a close-knit network that fills all of the needs of biological family. For some people, that is an absolute reality. For others, though, especially for those whose LGBTQ identities are more fringe-y, it’s a less likely reality. Consider these anecdotes (all of which actually happened):

A woman leaves her polyamorous quad relationship and sues the remaining triad for full custody of their child, claiming that polyamorous relationships are sick and the work of the devil. The triad pleads with their local poly community to publicly support them. No one comes forward, and the judge rules that the triad are unfit parents because of their polyamory.

A woman is taken to court by her ex-husband, who is suing for full custody of their son. She is in a BDSM relationship with her new boyfriend, and her husband is claiming that she is an unfit parent. Her BDSM community stays silent, and the woman loses custody.

In both of these cases, the people in question were heavily involved in their respected communities. They had, in many ways, “chosen families”  – people they spent holidays and celebrations with, people they turned to in times of need. But when it got hard, these “chosen family” members retreated, probably for self-protection.

Recently, I read an article written by Belinda Campos, who is a researcher at UC Irvine. In this particular article, she wrote about a concept called “familism,” which involves respecting the role of family in one’s life, and prioritizing the family over the self. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you always get along, or that you always agree on everything. It’s more about showing up, physically and emotionally, even if you don’t feel like it. It’s about not making things all about you.

This concept is the cornerstone of Latino culture, which revolves heavily on la familia, and it is also a strong value in Asian cultures, which tend to be highly collectivistic. Based on her research findings, Campos noted that people with higher levels of familism had (1) higher perceived social support, and (2) better psychological health. Moreover, even though familism was more common among Latino and Asian participants, White/European participants with high levels of familism had these same outcomes. Feeling like you’re part of a team, and having people in your life who are willing to take one for the team, so to speak, has social support benefits and psychological health benefits.

As we march through Pride month, I think about this with respect to our collective LGBTQ communities. Do we have a sense of “familism” among us? Are we willing to go to bat for each other, even when it’s hard, scary, inconvenient, and uncomfortable? Or, when the Pride parade is over, and life gets hard, do we scatter like mice?

I will leave you with those questions. And, if you are an LGBTQ person, or if you identify as an ally, how do you contribute to a sense of “familism”?

 

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

Valuing “women’s work”

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “This Day in June is released TODAY!!!“, which explored the reasons people tend to downplay and dismiss their creative instincts. (To state the obvious, my post also announced the release of my new book.) Several people posted comments, which was great – when no one comments, I’m left wondering, Is anybody out there? Is my post like the socks in the dryer, lost in the world of cyberspace, never to be seen?). But one comment struck a chord in me. The commenter, in a nutshell, said this:

When I was 13 my mother and aunt taught me how to do embroidery (more like stitching and cross-stitching). . . . [E]ver since then I’ve grown a passion for embroidery and I always look for clothes with embroidery because I’m fascinated with it. . . . I never told anyone about it because I was afraid people would criticize me for doing something that seems “boring” or “not for my age” (emphasis mine). 

Ever since she posted this, I’ve been thinking: Is this just about hiding our creativity in order to protect our fragile egos? Or is there something more to this? The possibility of “something more” has been rolling around in my brain ever since – but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Now, fast-forward: The other night, I had a parent meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten. Her school is hosting a fundraising auction in a couple of weeks, and, per tradition, each class creates a gift to be auctioned at the event. Our class gift is a collection of puppets, and the parents’ job at the meeting was to sew them. I was thrilled, frankly, because I LOVE to sew. Most of the parents, however, did not seem thrilled – in fact, several looked panicked, and at least one looked as if she’d try to bolt for the door when no one was looking.

It was at that moment, in that parent meeting, that I had my “a-ha!” moment, realizing what the “something more” was. Most public schools don’t teach sewing anymore – or cooking, or anything related to “home economics.” And why not? Because they’re “frivolous.” It’s traditional women’s work – and modern women just don’t do that sort of thing. That viewpoint – that modern, liberated women just shouldn’t have to learn those skills – is dangerous, in my opinion, and downright sexist, because it equates “feminine” with “bad.” I think the person who posted the comment feared criticism not only for being creative, but for being too feminine.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. I was a first-generation Title IX kid, and in early adulthood I strongly identified with the third-wave feminist movement. Largely because of Title IX (and other feminist achievements), I had a broad-based public school education. I played sports. I went to college, and then to graduate school. In contrast, my grandmother, who in 1925 was privileged enough to attend college, was allowed to major in one of two things: teacher education or home economics. When you compare the options available to women today, we’ve obviously come a long way, baby.

Before the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, home economics was a mainstay in schools for girls – but not for boys (NEVER for boys!). When I was in the seventh grade in 1983, home economics was still a requirement – but because of Title IX, everyone was required to take these classes. Girls took wood shop, drafting, and computer classes (remember the TRS-80?) alongside the boys, and boys took sewing and cooking classes with the girls. This was equality, liberal-feminist style.

But somewhere along the way, home economics started to disappear. Some schools did away with it altogether, reacting to the sexist ways home economics had been presented in the past. (Read “How to Be a Good Wife,” an excerpt from a 1954 home economics textbook, and you’ll see what I mean.) Others replaced “home economics” with the less fluffy-and-feminine term “Family and Consumer Science.” (Calling something a “science” places it squarely in the “not-feminine” arena.) Courses in “interior design” or “apparel design” replaced the homely sewing classes; courses in nutrition, with a strong emphasis on chemistry, replaced the more humble cooking classes. Home economics was for housewives; “Family and Consumer Science” was for scholars and aspiring professionals. There’s even a sizable body of academic literature in Family and Consumer Science, with journal article titles like, “Establishing a research base for the expanded food and nutrition education program.” The bottom line was this: Either home economics disappeared entirely from schools, or it morphed into something more slick and professionalized – into the “not-feminine.”

Sewing is not bad. Cooking is not bad. Learning how to clean your house, iron your shirts, develop a household budget, sew a button, create embroidered designs – none of these are bad things. But in a society that loves to categorize things into boxes, all of these activities go in the feminine box.  If we’re banishing the feminine, and telling girls (and boys) that these feminine pursuits are frivolous, unimportant, and unnecessary, we’re contributing to a very dangerous cultural climate. Think about this: We live in a culture where:

  • Women are more likely than men to be victims of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence;
  • Lesbians who identify as femme commonly experience in-group discrimination, or femme-phobia;
  • Men who are effeminate (whether they’re gay or not) are more likely than their more masculine counterparts to have been bullied in school, and are at a higher risk of being the victim of a hate crime;
  • Transgender women are at a staggering risk of being physically assaulted or murdered (particularly transgender women of color, according to statistics from the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal);
  • Transgender women, largely because of their feminine presentation, continue to experience various forms of oppression, largely at the hands of radical feminists (a group often referred to as TERFs).

What’s the common denominator that’s under fire? The feminine. Garden-variety sexism, reaching its evil tentacles into various queer communities  – and elsewhere. Anytime we denigrate the feminine – even if it’s something as inocuous as home economics – we begin the slippery slope to a far more dangerous form of oppression.

If we truly valued the feminine, men could cry without feeling like their man-card was about to be revoked. Same-sex attracted women could adorn themselves however they want without being told they’re “straight-acting.” Transgender women could live with a reasonable degree of safety. Imagine the possibilities.

All this from a comment about embroidery.

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Filed under anti-gay bullying, culture, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

The gift of writer’s block

Writer’s block, I’ve come to learn, is my friend. It’s not a nice friend. But it is honest – brutally honest. Unfortunately, my writer’s block tends to communicate in code. It’s not always clear what it’s trying to say – but if I take the time to listen to it, to understand it, it always, without fail, helps me to be a better writer.
OK, you think. She’s written a nonfiction book (Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research). She’s working on another nonfiction book (Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community). And she just released a children’s book (This Day in June). Boom, boom, boom – one book project after another. Where’s the writer’s block? At first glance, it looks like my writing has taken off like wildfire. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll see a much different picture.
In 2009, I was granted a semester-long sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities in order to write a textbook for college classes on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was a huge gift, given that sabbaticals aren’t easy to come by in the community college system. However, instead of hitting the pavement and getting right to work, I stalled. I could not make myself write. In fact, for eight weeks straight (almost half of my sabbatical time), I did everything BUT write. It was very scary – I felt like a fraud and a cheat, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make good on my sabbatical agreement.
But then, I had a breakthrough. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect. When I asked her a question about the research she’s done over the years, she laughed and said, “There’s a story behind every research study.” At that moment, I realized that the book I had originally planned on writing (and was now avoiding) wasn’t the book that actually needed to be written. That insight was a game-changer – something opened up, and the writing flowed like a rushing river. Instead of writing a textbook, I started telling the stories behind sexual orientation research (which is way more interesting, in my opinion). No wonder I had writer’s block – who really wants to write (or read) a textbook, anyway? It was all but grabbing me at the throat and shaking me, yelling, DON’T WRITE A TEXTBOOK!!! WRITE SOMETHING MORE INTERESTING!!!
Now, over the past two years, I’ve been working on Fringe, which focuses on the experiences of people who claim membership under the LGBTQ umbrella, but because they’re not young, white, middle-class, exclusively gay, cisgendered, thin, educated, and/or able-bodied, they experience marginalization within that communityI interviewed about twenty people, including intersex activist Hida Viloria, BDSM and polyamory/non-monogamy expert Janet Hardy, transgender activist Jamison Green, disability researcher Rhoda Olkin, and former NCAA athlete Kye Allums, to name a few. I’ve collected a wide range of amazing, inspiring, and gut-wrenching stories. And, as Yogi Berra would say, I’m experiencing deja-vu all over again. Because now it’s time to write . . . and I’m having trouble writing. I’m blocked – again. And it’s scary.
However, I do know this: With Backdrop, I learned that, in time, the reasons for the writer’s block will be revealed – and that revelation will move creative mountains. But with Fringe, the mountains just ain’t moving. I try to write, but I’ve gotten stuck – and stayed stuck. For much longer than eight weeks.
And then the insight came. I was having a conversation with a colleague whose work I very much respect (deja-vu all over again, right!).  I asked him to sum up his discipline in one sentence (he’s a history professor), and he responded instantly by saying, “Who gets to tell the story?”
Who gets to tell the story? Do I get to tell the stories of people whose experiences I don’t necessarily share? Or should I sit down, shut up, and let people speak for themselves? This is what writers call First Voice – letting people speak for themselves (especially those whose stories have been stolen, revised, and re-told by those in power). Children’s book author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez describes this concept in her essay titled “Polka Dots, Self-Portraits, and First Voice Multicultural Children’s Books“:
At a conference I looked at a large collection of Multicultural children’s books. With each book I picked up I could sense if something felt original and authentic and when something felt somewhat discordant. Each time I sensed a lack of resonance, I looked more closely at the author and artist and each time I found that they did not originate from the community they were representing. It is not that their books lacked merit, by no means. But it did feel different. And each time, I got this funny feeling in my gut, it reminded me of educators, professors, experts, ethnographers, authors and artists who were telling me about me or my people or my culture. I did not feel felt. I felt studied, categorized, defined and documented by outsiders. I did not feel that I belonged. I felt separate.
In this quote, Maya Gonzalez was specifically referring to the experience of people of color. However, the LGBTQ community also knows what it feels like to be defined by those who hold power, to have our stories told by those who have not experienced them. Psychologists and psychiatrists diagnosed same-gender-loving people with the disorder of “homosexuality” – and treated them using psychoanalysis, shock therapy, medication, and, more recently, religious conversion. When anthropologists studied the people indigenous to the Americas, they used the term “berdache” (which many Native Americans consider to be marginalizing and othering) to describe gender non-conforming Native men – many of whom were ultimately wiped out by European colonizers. When doctors encountered babies with ambiguous genitalia, they called them “hermaphrodites” – and then proceeded to operate on them so they would conform to society’s gender standards. Their stories were appropriated, and told through the voice of the oppressor – often mangled in ways that caused irreparable harm to those communities.
I don’t consider myself to be “the oppressor.” However, I do have to acknowledge my privilege (unlike Tal Fortgang, for those of you who might have read his inflammatory piece dismissing his own privilege). Even though I’m a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t exist on the “fringes” of that community – not in the same way that many of the people I interviewed do. Even if I practice allyship with the trans community, or the intersex community, or with LGBTQ communities of color, or the BDSM community, does this make it okay for me to tell their stories for them?
I don’t know the answer, to be honest. But I think I hear what Writer’s Block is telling me:
They gifted you with their stories. Handle them with care.
Consider – really consider – whether you should be their storyteller.
And if you do assume the role of storyteller, don’t privilege your voice over theirs. 

Writer’s block. It’s my friend. Not a nice friend. But an honest one.

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