Tag Archives: LGBT

The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.

Right?

These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.

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Filed under activism, mental health, psychological research, sexism

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

An attitude of gratitude

Several of my friends are going through a rough time right now. One is reeling from the breakup of a long-term relationship. Another is grieving the loss of both of his parents. Still another has had trouble finding a stable housing situation. And one friend was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. That’s just skimming the surface of the troubles I hear about. I don’t know if something is in the air or water or what, but a lot of people I’m close to are dealing with seriously heavy-duty stuff.

So how are they handling it, you might ask? Overwhelmingly, they’re going into gratitude. On a daily basis on Facebook, through personal e-mails, or in face-to-face conversations, they’re talking about what they’re grateful for. Several friends have been making gratitude lists and posting them on social media. As cliché as it sounds, they’re focusing on the fullness of the glass, rather than the emptiness. And what do you know – it helps them feel better. A LOT better.

Gratitude lists are nothing new – for decades, they’ve been the stuff of 12-step programs and Christianity. When sponsors tell their newly-sober protegeés to write a gratitude list, they’re trying to get them out of their negativity (“Now that I’m not drinking, life is dull and boring!”). When pastors talk from the pulpit about gratitude, they want to help people get in line with “God’s will” – an article in Christianity Today, for example, uses the story of Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem to illustrate the dangers of being ungrateful. From the Bible to The Secret (which, as an aside, is a book that I find to be dishonest and manipulative – but that’s for another post), gratitude has been a centuries-old antidepressant. It was Prozac before we had Prozac.

Given its Prozac-before-Prozac status, I’m struck by two things:

Thing 1:  The field of psychology is just beginning to pick up on the power of gratitude. Which is odd, considering that cognitive psychology (and understanding the connection between thoughts and mood), isn’t a new field. For whatever reason, gratitude is a subject that’s only now starting to appear in the research literature.

Thing 2: Gratitude is spreading through the queer community like wildfire. At least, in my circle of friends it is. What has traditionally been a cornerstone of Christian faith is gaining traction in the LGBTQ community – which I find to be deliciously ironic.

Let me expand a bit on Thing 1. Robert Emmons, a research psychologist at the University of California at Davis (right in my backyard!) is the first strong scientific voice to emerge on the subject of gratitude. He’s written scores of research articles, a handful of books (including The Psychology of Gratitude, written for an academic audience, and Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, both written for the general public). Although Emmons is a scientist, Christianity appears to have a strong influence on his work. (I don’t know how Christianity has influenced his views on LGBTQ people.)

Whatever his bias, his studies of gratitude have yielded compelling results. His experimental research shows that keeping a regular gratitude journal causes people to exercise more, to feel better physically, to feel better about their lives, to have higher levels of optimism, and to move forward in attaining personal goals. They’re also more likely to feel alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive, and energetic – the opposite of “depressed,” really. This is true even for people who are going through “heavy-duty stuff” – in one study of adults with neuromuscular disease, keeping a gratitude journal was associated with better moods, a stronger sense of connection to others, higher levels of optimism, and better sleep. Even children benefit from gratitude – according to one study, children who practice gratitude have more positive attitudes toward their families and toward school. It’s proof-positive: Gratitude is Prozac.

Now, to Thing 2. So far, no one has studied how gratitude affects LGBTQ people (or people from marginalized communities, as far as I can tell). However, I think people who engage in political activism are potentially high on the list of skeptics. (At least, I’ll cop to that.) Here’s how, at times, my thinking has gone:

Gratitude is naive, pie-in-the-sky, and unrealistic.

Gratitude will lead you down a slippery slope to complacency and indifference.

I’m suffering too much – how can I POSSIBLY be grateful?  

“Five Myths about Gratitude,” written by Robert Emmons, does a good job of addressing each of these statements. But since these arguments came from my head, I’ll share a little of my experience. Years ago, I was, well, going through some heavy-duty stuff. I spiraled downward towards the bottom of the drain. But before I got there, someone threw me a series of life preservers – one of which was The Gratitude List. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway. (I was sane enough to know that you don’t have to like the lifeline that’s thrown to you, but taking it will save you.) And it worked. It allowed me to focus on the good things in my life (which are plentiful). It also shored up my resources to address the not-so-good things in my life (which are much less plentiful, but there). Gratitude isn’t ignorance – it’s fuel to help change things for the better, both internally and externally.

So what am I grateful for today?

I’m grateful that the sun came out today. (It’s been cold and foggy in Santa Cruz County – another thing I’m grateful for, given that it’s been f%$#ing hot in Sacramento.)

I’m grateful that I have friends and family who get me and my sense of humor.

I’m grateful that it rained recently. (For those of you who aren’t in California, rain is A BIG DEAL around here.)

I’m grateful that Stephen King didn’t die. (I just finished reading his memoir, and it gave me a deeper respect for him as a writer. If you read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

 

I’m grateful that we have a run-down, falling-apart garage – because, when we save up enough money, we can turn it into an art and writing studio.

I could have mentioned the grand, sweeping things in my life. But the things I chose are honest. They ground me. They put a smile on my face. And they give me fuel to tackle the hard things.

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Filed under children, gay suicides, health, mental health, psychological research, religion, Uncategorized

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.

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Filed under bisexuality, intersex, LGBTQ, transgender, Uncategorized