Tag Archives: Gregory Herek

Some are more equal than others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a beautiful story.

The illustrations were delightful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Alphabet City

Lately I’ve seen a lot of discussion in various Internet forums about the “gay alphabet” – the ever-increasing initials used to describe the queer community. While at one time the word “gay” or “homosexual” was the only available terminology, we have now, in the spirit of inclusiveness, dramatically expanded our nomenclature. Just to give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a sampling from UrbanDictionary.com’s “gay alphabet” entries:

LGB:  Lesbian, gay, bisexual.

LGBT:  adding “transgender” (probably the most utilized initials). 

LGBTQ:  adding “queer” or “questioning.”

LGBTQI:  adding “intersex.”

LGBTQIA:  adding “allies.”

LGBTQQIA:  adding “queer” and “questioning.”

LGBTQQIAAP:  adding “asexual” and “pansexual” – someone who is attracted to the qualities of a person, regardless of that person’s gender identity and presentation.

LGBTTIQQ2SA:  distinguishing between “transgender” and transsexual”; adding “Two-Spirit” (2S; a term derived from various Native American/Indigenous traditions of gender and sexual fluidity).

Whew! It’s hard to keep track of such a rapidly increasing list of initials. And, not surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of reactivity within the LGBTQ(QIAAP?) community. In fact, UrbanDictionary itself includes “gay alphabet soup” as an entry, with the following definition and commentary:

Going over-board with adding letters to the traditional “GLBT (Gay/Lesbian/Bi-sexual/Trans)” acronym (sic) to attempt to include every non-homophobic possibility. GLBT alphabet soup can become a very long, nonsensical acronym (emphasis added).

Now I’ll take the opportunity to weigh in on this, and to offer a counterpoint. It’s not the changeling, tongue-twister-like qualities of these initials that bother me, although I will admit that they don’t roll off the tongue very easily. I will also admit that it’s humbling to be teaching a class and using one set of initials, only to be outed by a student as not being on top of the latest nomenclature. But this doesn’t upset me so much. Rather, what’s unsettling to me is the venom behind the critiques of the initals. For example, let’s look at an exchange between two commenters responding to a Huffington Post blog about the “gay alphabet”:

 Wouldn’t pansexual be bi? I mean, there are only two genders.

 Actually, there are not two genders. Gender is a spectrum, not an either/or. There are people who identify at just about any point between male and female. Thus, pansexual includes genderqueer individuals, genderfluid individuals and others.

 Oh, WHATEVER (emphasis added). 

So here’s an attempt to educate a commenter about the diversity and complexity of our community, and the response is “oh, whatever.”  That, in my mind, is far more disturbing than any unwieldy set of initials. It’s a dismissive statement, and it reveals an unwillingness to accept the fluidity of our community.

Two issues come to mind for me. One is that visibility is critical to our community. Coming out and being open about who we are, if we consider UC Davis professor Gregory Herek’s research, has been one of the most powerfully effective tools in reducing homophobia, both on a personal level as well as on a cultural level. But, in my opinion, not everyone in our community is given the same opportunity to be open and speak their truth. Intersex people, for example, have been silenced by the medical community’s attempts to assimilate them into one singular gender category. The queer community still wrestles with whether to include the “I” in its nomenclature, largely because, well, they don’t fit easily into our existing paradigm. The queer community also wrestles with the inclusion of the “T,” even though it’s generally been included in the alphabet roll call for quite some time. Some see the “T” as the proverbial ball-and-chain of the queer community – if we use the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as an example, adding gender identity protections ended up being a deal-breaker in the 2007 Congressional vote – and it divided the LGBTQ activist community, some of whom saw the trans community as stalling the path of progress.

I’d like to segue into another idea, and that is that visibility is not enough. If we’re including more initials so we can earn our political correctness card, but we’re unwilling to really listen to and be present for the issues of that community, then we are doing far more harm than good. In Geneva Reynaga-Abiko’s 2011 review of the book Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Queer Psychology by Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis, Elizabeth Peel, and Damien Rigg, published in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, she correctly notes that the terms “bisexual” and “trans” are included in the title of the book, but each of those identities receives only a few paragraphs’ worth attention in the entire book. Giving lip service isn’t enough. If we’re going to include the “T,” it needs to really be included. Sometimes there may be reasons not to include the “T,” or only to include the “T,” depending on what kinds of issues we’re focusing on. But these decisions need to be made intelligently and respectfully, not just as a way to appease our discomfort.

Several months ago, I wrote a couple of blog posts on the “don’t say gay” policies implemented by several public school districts. These policies have something of a “see no evil” mentality behind them – if we don’t talk about it, we won’t see it, and if we can’t see it, then it’s not an issue. If we make the gays go away, then life will be easier. If we make the ever-increasing list of initials go away, then life will be easier. In a community that is complex, fluid, and ever-changing, sometimes keeping things simple just doesn’t work. Instead, I’d like to see our community use the growing list of initials as an opportunity to connect, to listen, to ask questions, to learn, and to work towards ending invisibility, marginalization, and oppression of sexual and gender minorities.


Filed under bisexuality, intersex, LGBTQ, transgender, Uncategorized

Where is the love?

A friend of mine is the senior minister for a church that follows the principles of Science of Mind. She always begins her services with this statement: “Every action is a call for love or an expression of love. No exceptions.”

No exceptions. None? No exceptions?

If that’s the case, then what is homophobia? Or racism? Or sexism, or any other form of oppression? Isn’t homophobia a form of fear-based hate, discomfort, and disgust? Wouldn’t this be the exception? It certainly would be interesting to reframe homophobia as a call for love (or, as hard as this might be to swallow, an expression of love), rather than as an expression of hate and disgust. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, this idea is what I’d like to explore in this week’s blog post.  

Gregory Herek, a social psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has conducted an impressive body of research on sexual prejudice and stigma. In one area of his work, Herek explores the functions that anti-gay attitudes serve, theorizing that sexual prejudice must have a significant payoff for the person who holds these attitudes – particularly if the person hasn’t ever had any experiences or interactions with LGBTQ people. The payoff that Herek identifies is self-affirmation – by establishing ourselves as a certain kind of person, and then distancing ourselves from (or even attacking) people who represent the kind of person we’re not (or don’t want to be), we reinforce our self-esteem and self-worth. In other words, we step on others in order to stand taller. To use the language of Science of Mind, it’s a call for love from others and an expression of love towards ourselves – primitive as these mechanisms may be.

Let’s get a little more specific. Sometimes homophobia serves what Herek refers to as a value-expressive function. All of us hold values that are tied strongly to the kind of person we think we are. If I am a devout follower of Christianity, and if I believe that following the teachings of the Bible is associated with being a good, moral, upstanding person, then believing that homosexuality is an abomination serves a value-expressive function. It reinforces the “I am a good Christian” identity.  

Sometimes homophobia actually connects people to one another, serving what Herek calles a social-expressive function. If a person’s family holds homophobic attitudes, challenging those beliefs could rock the boat and potentially weaken those family ties. However, harboring sexual prejudice might be an avenue for that person to experience acceptance, approval, or love from their family. This can also happen within a person’s peer group, church, or other source of valued personal connections. Given that humans are innately social creatures, and that we thrive through our connections with others, this social-expressive function of homophobia can be extremely powerful. Being socially ostracized has painful consequences.

When a person is using homophobia as a defensive function, that person is likely engaging in a last-ditch effort to preserve any shred of self-esteem he or she may have. Defensive homophobia reduces painful feelings (such as anxiety) that are triggered by gay people or homosexuality. For example, in the 1999 film American Beauty, retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts is an angry, blatant homophobe, subjecting his son to a beating after accusing him of being gay – only to reveal later in the film his own same-sex attractions, and the shame and disgust he feels about his homosexuality. For Col. Fitts, homophobia clearly served a defensive function – it allowed him to hold onto the idea of himself as a strong, masculine military man, distancing himself from painful, uncomfortable feelings that conflicted with that identity.

So, on a very basic, primitive level, homophobia may well be a call for love or an expression of love. It can reinforce values that are intrinsic to our identities, it can connect us with other like-minded people, and it can protect our fragile sense of self from painful emotions. But sometimes our love comes from a truly respectful, loving, and altruistic place, and sometimes it comes from a place of self-preservation and fear. And fear-based thinking and behaviors often causes tremendous damage to others.

This Valentine’s Day, whatever your sexual identity or relationship status, and whomever your loved ones may be, I urge all of us to examine our motives behind our calls for love and expressions of love. Am I motivated by self-respect and respect for others, or am I motivated by self-preservation? Are my loving acts truly loving, or do they incur negative consequences towards others?  



Filed under biphobia, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, sexism, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized