Tag Archives: Maya Christina Gonzalez

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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Filed under BDSM, disability, gender nonconformity, intersex, polyamory, racism, transgender, Uncategorized

Girls, boys, and the rest of us

In my Psychology of Women and my Psychology of Sexual Orientation classes, we spend a good chunk of time talking about intersex identities. In most cases, after this particular lecture, if a student wants to talk to me after class, it’s usually for one of two reasons: (A) they knowingly have an intersex condition and want to tell me about it, or (B) they suddenly realized during class that they probably have an intersex condition, and they’re freaked out and upset by it. Scenario (B) happens far more commonly than Scenario (A); in fact, in my 12 years of teaching, I’ve had more than a dozen students come to me visibly upset and shaken, trying to digest the strong possibility that they’re intersex – and that no one ever told them about it.

Intersex conditions are not all that uncommon. According to most medical experts, obvious atypicalities in the genitals occur in about 1 in 2,000 births. However, many intersex conditions don’t involve clearly identifiable genital anomalies, so this is a pretty conservative estimate. If you cast the net wider and consider people whose bodies differ in any way from standard male or female, the number jumps to 1 in 100 births. From a statistical standpoint, it’s almost guaranteed that we know someone who is intersex.

So if intersex is so common, why does Scenario (B) happen so often? In her 2006 interview on Oprah, intersex activist Hida Viloria said this: “Intersex bodies have been systematically eliminated.”

What does she mean by that, “systematically eliminated”? If a newborn baby has obvious genital anomalies, medical protocol typically involves assigning a sex, performing “normalizing” surgery on the infant’s genitals, and raising the child as a “normal” boy or girl.

No more intersex.

Systematically eliminated.

Activists in the intersex community use very powerful words to refer to these practices. Genital mutilation. Intersex genocide. Powerful words to describe practices that are powerfully damaging.

If you want to see just how damaging these practices are, look no further than Cheryl Chase. An intersex activist and founder of the Intersex Society of North America, Cheryl was born with ambiguous genitalia and originally labeled as a boy. At 18 months, doctors reassigned her as a girl and performed a clitoridectomy, and evidence of her intersex condition was concealed from her. Later in her adulthood, amidst bouts of suicidality, Cheryl gained access to her medical records and learned the truth about what had happened to her. And thus began a lifelong goal of trying to prevent this from ever happening to another intersex child.

Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America twenty years ago, in 1993. Since then, intersex activists have fought tirelessly to bring visibility to intersex people, and to protect them from unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries. Thirteen years later, in 2006, the journal Pediatrics published a letter titled, “Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders,” which recommended that surgery should only be done on patients who are able to make an informed choice; that children should be assigned a gender at birth, but parents should be prepared for the possibility of a gender transition as the child gets older; and that parents should provide clear and honest information with their children about their condition.

So now it’s 2013 – seven years after the Consensus Statement was published. Have we come a long way, baby?

I’m not so sure that we have.

In researching my upcoming book, I’ve been looking for information about intersex people that’s geared towards kids. Anything – websites, educational materials, children’s books, you name it. There’s lots of stuff out there about intersex conditions and intersex politics, but it’s written for adults (and, in many cases, highly educated adults who can decipher academic gobbledygook). There are websites and children’s books about trans* identities and gender nonconformity. But there are almost no kid-level resources out there about intersex – which I find to be incredibly disturbing. If intersex kids can’t find information about themselves, and if they still don’t see themselves reflected in the culture in a positive way, then I don’t think we’re that far away from Cheryl Chase’s childhood experience.

The one exception is a book written by Maya Christina Gonzalez titled The Gender Now Coloring Book, which is an activity book that helps to bring a child-friendly awareness to gender. This book introduces the concept of multiple genders to young children, it gives examples of various gender forms in nature, and it includes images of a wide variety of bodies – male, female, and intersex. It clearly defines the words “intersex” and “transgender,” and it gives examples of ways for young children to talk about gender – for example, a “girlboy” could be a way to describe a girl feeling inside a boy body, and a “boygirlboy” could describe a boy feeling inside an intersex body that is more girl.

If you’re thinking that’s too complicated for a young child to comprehend, think about this: I interviewed Hida Viloria for my upcoming book, and during our conversation, she said, “If you taught every toddler that there are male, female, and intersex people, it’s done. That’s it. They totally get it.”

They TOTALLY get it. At least, when I test-drove the book on my daughter, she got it. She knows that she has a girl feeling inside a girl body. She knows that I have a girl feeling inside a girl body, and that her other mom has a mostly girl feeling inside a mostly girl body. To her, this is not weird or complicated at all.

The other day, my 5-year-old daughter came home from a trip to the library holding a copy of the children’s picture book Chowder. She said, “Mommy, I think Chowder is intersex.” (Chowder is a bulldog, for any of you who might be wondering.)

Hmm. “What makes you think that?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “I just do.” She handed me the book, indicating that I should read it to her. I opened the book and looked at the first page.

Chowder had always been different. His owners liked to think of him as quirky, but most people thought he was just plain weird.  

It’s clear to me that kids understand things on more levels than we give them credit for.

It’s one thing to be different. It’s another to be totally shut down, silenced, and, well, systematically eliminated. In the end, Chowder gets to be himself, and others come to accept him. My beacon of hope lies in these happy endings.

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Filed under children, gender nonconformity, human rights, intersex, transgender, Uncategorized