Tag Archives: biphobia

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

One big happy family

Several years ago, our local LGBT center, which at the time was called the Lambda Community Center, underwent a name change. When the new name was announced, several groups (mainly people in the bi and trans communities) began circulating a petition attempting to block the change. Why? Because the new name, “Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center,” didn’t appear to be inclusive or all-encompassing – “gay” and “lesbian” were assumed to cover everyone in the LGBTQ community. Over 500 people signed the petition – to no avail. It was only this past year that the name changed to “Sacramento LGBT Center,” and still, many people still refer to the center as “Lambda.” Years later, many still feel incredibly hurt and angry about this – with good reason.

I shared this example with my Psychology of Sexual Orientation students the other day, within a larger discussion about transgender identities. Quite a few of my students – several of whom identify as gay or lesbian – were surprised. Shocked, really. Because aren’t we a community? Don’t we all support each other in unity? Aren’t we one big, happy rainbow family?

I wish I could answer “yes” to that question. Sadly, I can give so many examples of discrimination and oppression within the LGBTQ community. Here’s a sampling of well-publicized historical examples:

  • In 1953, author Jeff Winters published an article about Christine Jorgensen in a gay men’s magazine. According to Winters, Jorgensen, a transgender woman, was committing a “sweeping disservice” to gay men by transitioning. “As far as the public knows,” Winters wrote, “you were merely another unhappy homosexual who decided to get drastic about it.”
  • In 1979, Janice Raymond, a lesbian-feminist scholar, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male (yes, she really used the term “she-male”), in which she repeatedly referred to transwomen as “male-to-constructed females.” She went so far as to say, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond wrote 1980 Congressional brief that led to the defunding of transgender medical insurance coverage.
  • Well-known sex researcher J. Michael Bailey, who is unabashedly straight but conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, at one time refused to believe that bisexuality really exists (particularly in men), saying, “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.” He only recently changed his position, but only after results from one of his studies indicated that bisexual men, in fact, are not lying.

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual writer, scholar, and activist, has this to say about the double-edged sword of biphobia: “Gay- and lesbian-identified individuals frequently view us as either confused or interlopers possessing a degree of privilege not available to them, and many heterosexuals see us as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families.” And many other edge communities under the LGBTQ umbrella experience a similar double-edged sword – they’re rejected by mainstream heterosexual culture, and they’re also denigrated within their own community.

I have a slew of examples of community infighting that I’ve observed personally. And we’re not just talking biphobia and transphobia – there’s racism, class oppression, sexism, and ableism thrown in there too. A bisexual woman I interviewed years ago had this to say about her lesbian friends:  “They basically edged me out once I started dating men. They treated me like I’d infiltrated and then bailed with the information.” A graduate school colleague, after she’d finished a presentation about BDSM, was admonished by a senior faculty member, a gay man who said, “Most of us aren’t like that.” At a conference, a gay male graduate student repeatedly used the term “rice queen” during his presentation to refer to non-Asian men who are sexually attracted to Asian men – and used the phrase like it was professional, scholarly terminology (without ever being corrected by his research advisor, also a gay man). A transgender male student of mine recently shared that, after coming out as trans, his lesbian friends completely rejected him, telling him that he was selfish and betraying his community. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These aren’t right-wing fundamentalist uber-heterosexual haters. These are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are behaving this way. Unfortunately, getting people within the LGBTQ community to take ownership of their oppressive behaviors is really hard. “How can I oppress people?” they cry. “I’m the one who’s oppressed!”

All of us within the larger LGBTQ community have experienced institutional oppression (such as being denied rights that are granted to heterosexual and cisgender people), and most of us can cite examples of interpersonal oppression. But the dirty little secret within the community is that we do it to each other, too. And I’d like to talk about a couple of reasons why.

First of all, when we stereotype, we’re falling into an “us vs. them” mentality. If our “us” identity feels shaky, then creating a “them” can strengthen that sense of identity. Committing a hate crime against a gay man, for example, might shore up the perpetrator’s insecure sense of masculinity. Engaging in biphobia might reinforce one’s exclusively gay or lesbian identity. The statement, “Most of us aren’t like that,” is essentially saying, “I’m safely over here. I’m not crazy like those folks over there.

There’s another element to this, too. One way to feel like we belong to a group is to gain acceptance from others within a group. When we engage in “us vs. them” thinking, we’re essentially creating an in-group and an out-group – and our “us vs. them” beliefs allow us to connect with others in that in-group. It’s no accident that hate crimes tend to be committed by groups of individuals, because it’s a way (albeit a sick way) of forming a connection with others who share similar attitudes. By rejecting a transgender man, a group of lesbian women might band together even more strongly. It’s a way of taking refuge within a group – and the in-group/out-group dynamic is even more likely to happen when the in-group’s status is shaky.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “A House Divided,” in which I focused more specifically on oppression directed towards intersex people, as well as racism within the LGBTQ community. And here we are again. It’s so clear to me that if our collective communities can’t find a way to hang together and stand on common ground, we’ll fall. All of us. Because when we’re fighting each other, the dominant power structure of our society goes completely unchallenged. White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege – all of that remains intact, while those of us who experience oppression bring each other down. I don’t think we can afford to do that.


Filed under BDSM, biphobia, bisexuality, culture, disability, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, intersex, racism, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Take a look at yourself, and make that change!

We all know what it feels like to be judged. Sometimes it’s just a look, or a facial expression. Maybe it’s the person’s body language – a flinch, or a step backwards. Perhaps it’s their tone of voice, or choice of words – or a blatant, stinging criticism. Or maybe the person just drops off the radar screen and disappears from our lives, without a clearly articulated reason.

If you are an LGBTQ person – particularly if you’re also in a “fringe” community – then you know exactly what this feels like. We can say over and over again, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But that’s not the reality. Names hurt. Rejection hurts. And when we’re hurt, we hurt. We hurt ourselves – and we may hurt others.

In some ways, internalized hate is like a cancer that metastisizes. The more we hate ourselves, the more that self-hate travels throughout our bodies and our psyches, expressing itself in a variety of ways. And there’s concrete research data that supports this idea. Studies have shown a link between internalized homophobia and relationship problems, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse, eating disorders, physical health problems, stress-related disorders, and a host of other problems. According to a 2010 study published by Brian Mustanski, a researcher at Northwestern University, internalized homophobia is significantly linked to “internalizing mental health problems” such as depression and anxiety. Research from the Family Acceptance Project, headed by Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University, confirms this pattern – according to her research, LGBTQ youth who were rejected by their families were more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes, such as depression and suicide attempts, illegal drug use, and unprotected sex. When we hate ourselves, we act out in hateful ways against ourselves – and in ways that can potentially injure other people.

And in the LGBTQ community, it’s not just homophobia we’re talking about. A bisexual woman may feel ashamed that she passes as heterosexual – and that her life is easier – when she’s with a man.  A person who’s bisexual and non-monogamous may feel shame for reinforcing existing stereotypes of bisexuals. A transperson may feel shame and embarrassment because they don’t pass well (or guilt because they do). Or a transperson may only feel like a “real” transgendered person if they’ve had the bottom surgery. The ways we judge ourselves negatively are endless. And it’s these statements that ultimately lead to depression – and worse.

If we pay attention, and listen carefully to the negative judgments we inflict upon ourselves, it becomes more clear that the things we say to ourselves weren’t created in a vacuum. We repeat (or reinvent in more creative ways) the things that we heard from our families, our peers, the media, our teachers, our mentors. If a fish is swimming in toxic water, it’s inevitably going to drink some of that poison, whether it wants to or not. And no matter how resilient of a person you are, the toxic effects of societal hate are going to have a trickle-down effect into our psyches.

Obviously, eliminating societal hate is powerfully effective in reducing internalized homophobia (I wrote about this extensively in a previous blog post, “There Oughta Be A Law.”). In the meantime, however, how do we learn to practice unconditional acceptance of ourselves? How do we inoculate ourselves from the individual, institutional, and cultural judgments that surround us? I wish I had a simple answer to that question.

There is, however, a passage from Alcoholics Anonymous (known to AA members as “The Big Book”) that I’d like to quote as food for thought. It goes like this:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

Practicing acceptance of everyone – even those who hate us – is a tall order. And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean resigning yourself to accept the unacceptable. When a queer person is the victim of a hate crime, that criminal act is completely unacceptable. Subjecting ourselves to self-inflicted abuse – abuse stemming from our intolerance towards ourselves – is also unacceptable. However, those of us who have been victims at the hands of others, or who have victimized ourselves, need to remember that the victim is not to blame. But we also have the power to effect change – and that change begins with ourselves.

What if, for today, I choose to accept this person – myself – as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment? Instead of feeling overwhelmed with the monumental task of changing the world, what if we started with ourselves? What if we really listened to the words of Michael Jackson (who probably understood judgment better than anyone) – and actually heeded them?

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that . . .


If you are in the Sacramento area on Saturday, October 6, please join Julie Interrante, MA, and Gayle Pitman, Ph.D., for Born This Way, a workshop that begins to explore the idea of changing ourselves and our world through radical self-acceptance. For more information, visit http://www.elements-sacramento.com.


Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, covert homophobia, gay suicides, hate crimes, health, homophobia, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, media, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, racism, relationships, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

Save Our Children

In my last couple of blog posts, I’ve been looking at the concept of framing effects – the spin that’s put on research findings, depending on how you want those findings to be interpreted by others. When we frame “the gays” or “the lesbians” or “the queers” as “the problem,” that results in a very different conversation than when we shine the spotlight on homophobia, heterosexism, transphobia, or biphobia.  For decades, anti-gay activists have argued that “homosexuals” are dangerous to children, and that has been a very powerful political tactic, both in the past as well as with current LGBT civil rights initiatives. And yet, a very different conversation results when we address the impact of homophobia – not homosexuals – on children.

Before I continue, let me back up and give a little bit of history.  After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a groundswell of political activism on behalf of the lesbian and gay community began to take hold, and throughout the 1970s a variety of efforts to grant legal protections to lesbians and gays rippled throughout the country. One of these efforts, an ordinance passed by the Dade County Commission in Florida that outlawed discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and public services, was, for many anti-gay activists, the straw that broke the camel’s back – and Save Our Children rose out of the embers of that backlash.

The figurehead behind Save Our Children was Anita Bryant, a singer and former beauty queen who made it her mission to overturn the Dade County ordinance. Save Our Children was based on fundamentalist Biblical preachings regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality, although it was their message regarding the influence of homosexuals on children that packed the strongest political punch. Homosexuals teach children immoral behaviors. Homosexuals recruit children into their lifestyle. Homosexuals are sexual predators and child molesters. Bringing children into the mix was a wildly successful tactic – on June 7, 1977, the ordinance was repealed, and Bryant took Save Our Children on the road, leading several other campaigns throughout the country to repeal anti-discrimination ordinances.  The message was sent – homosexuals are dangerous and harmful to children. They shouldn’t be allowed to have any influence on children – not as teachers, not as Scout leaders, and certainly not as parents.

And yet, here in 2011, many same-sex couples have children. In fact, according to the recently-released report titled “All Children Matter,” over 2 million children are currently being raised in LGBT families. And, based on thirty years of social science research, children raised in LGBT families are just as happy, healthy, and well-adjusted as children who are raised by heterosexual parents. Contrary to what the Save Our Children campaign preached, gay and lesbian parents aren’t harmful to children at all. In fact, some studies indicate better outcomes among children raised by same-sex parents – for example, the Bay Area Families Study, led by Charlotte Patterson of the University of Virginia, found that kids who had two moms were more emotionally expressive than kids raised by a mom and a dad. The National Lesbian Longitudinal Family Study, led by Nanette Gartrell at UC San Francisco, found that teenagers raised by same-sex parents were more socially and academically competent and exhibited fewer behavioral problems than children raised by heterosexual parents. Clearly, these are children that don’t need to be saved – they’re doing just fine, thank you very much.

But what happens if we put a different twist on the “save our children” message? What if, instead of looking at the impact of homosexuality on children, we examine the effects of homophobia? According to the “All Children Matter” report, even though children raised in LGBT families are incredibly resilient, they are powerfully impacted by the obstacles created by stigma and. In many states, children are denied legal ties to both parents. They may not be protected if their parents split up or if the biological parent dies. Because of the way the U.S., state, and local governments define “family,” children who live in poverty may be denied access to government safety net programs. Children in LGBT families may not have adequate access to health insurance, and they may face unwelcoming health care environments. These are the very real effects of homophobia, which undoubtedly have an extremely negative impact on their well-being. And given that the highest percentages of children raised by LGBT families live in the states that offer the fewest legal protections (Mississippi, Wyoming, Alaska, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, to name a few), we’re talking about a LOT of children who are experiencing loud-and-clear-style homophobia.  

If we’re going to “save our children,” let’s protect them by doing all we can to eliminate homophobia. Let’s make sure that every state offers protections that ensure stable and loving homes, economic security, and quality health care. Let’s ensure that children are protected from bullying and harassment in school.

To read the entire “All Children Matter” report, go to http://www.children-matter.org.

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Filed under children, LGBT families, Uncategorized

Bisexuality exists!

Psychology is like the classic George Orwell novel 1984. Yesterday two plus two equaled four, but today two plus two equals five – and once five is declared the correct answer, any historical record of two plus two equaling four is wiped out. The psychological analogue to 2+2=4 is the idea that “you’re either gay, straight, or lying” – the idea that bisexuality, at least in males, doesn’t really exist. This belief has very effectively invalidated bisexuality, cheapening the experience of bisexual people and rendering their sexual identities invisible. And, up until very recently, the existing biological evidence supported the doubters. A highly-publicized 2005 study indicated that, among the male particpants who identified themselves as bisexual, arousal patterns in response to watching videos of same-sex activity were directed exclusively towards one sex or the other, usually towards men – but not towards both. While female bisexuality has been documented more extensively, this study appeared to be the nail in the coffin for bisexual males, cementing the idea that men who identify as bisexual must be lying, in transition, or just plain confused.

I think it’s important to be clear that the assumptions that we hold about people – particularly about members of historically oppressed groups – aren’t just benign thoughts held by individuals. Our assumptions contribute to a belief system. They provide a filter through which we view the world. And they leak out into our cultural consciousness – the media being one example of a convoy of cultural beliefs.  The idea that bisexuals are liars, or that they’re concealing their true homosexuality, shows up over and over and over. Sharon Stone’s character in the 1992 film Basic Instinct embodies the stereotype of the murderous psychopathic bisexual. Fast-forward to 2011, and we have Kalinda in the popular show The Good Wife. Kalinda is a private investigator for a law firm, and her personal and work-related ethics are more than a little bit sketchy. She has sex with married men – and with married women. She manipulates people to get the information she wants. She’s a moving target – you never really know whether or not you can trust her. (Add to the mix the fact that Kalinda is also a woman of color, and this media portrayal becomes all the more negative.) Of course, both of these examples involve women, and the idea of female bisexuality has been a little easier to digest. We don’t really see media portrayals of bisexual men – because, don’t you know, there’s really no such thing as a male bisexual.

Now, another study – interestingly, by some of the same Northwestern University researchers who conducted the 2005 study – suggests that, in fact, bisexuality in males is a true phenomenon. In what the New York Times referred to as “an unusual scientific about-face,” researchers found that bisexual men, as they were watching videos of male and female same-sex sexual activity, experienced arousal responses to both videos, whereas their gay and straight counterparts did not. While many men who identify as bisexual are probably jumping at the chance to say, “I told you so,” I’m sure these researchers are eating more than a little bit of humble pie – although I give them credit for their willingness to question their original findings in the face of criticism. This is not the only study to document these findings – an earlier study published in March of this year yielded similar findings. Of course, the researchers are reporting what people who identify as bisexual already know – that they do, in fact, exist, and that their sexual and emotional feelings and desires are legitimate.

Whether we like it or not, science adds legitimacy and credibility to our personal, anecdotal experiences. And I actually think that scientific findings, when made accessible to the general public, have the power to change our perceptions and reshape our culture. Studies investigating the possibility of a “gay gene,” or of differences in brain structure, or of the effects of sex hormones, have convinced more than a few people of the viability of the “born that way” theory of sexual orientation. More importantly, these studies have established a launchpad for LGBTQ public policy efforts, providing the most solid legal argument in support of LGBTQ civil rights that we’ve ever seen. Will these findings be one of those cultural re-shapers?

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, LGBTQ, media, psychological research