Sunday, February 17, 2008

Another young person killed because of conformity

A teenager in California was killed because the student not only came out to classmates, but also wore clothing and jewelry that was simply unacceptable to those who want boys to boys, and girls to be girls.

Since the horrific shooting, many pundits have spoken about the need to implement sound laws that will put these attackers in their place. And while I believe in consequence, I also think we should focus strongly on ideology:

“Safe schools laws and policies are vitally important, but simply having a law is not enough,” one respondent in the article said. “Schools need to implement staff development and trainings to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. Schools also need programs that teach young people respect and tolerance. Every student deserves to feel safe in school. We must take action and take responsibility for our inaction.”

Gender F'n

(Assignment completed for my Working With LGBT Clients Class):

I love “masculine” women. The walk, the talk, the dress, the personality. All of it. Mainly this attraction stems not from the traditional male role, but rather from the brevity one must endure as they do such things as taking the clippers to their head. In our patriarchal world women are meant to be calm, pretty, mothering, straight, and also strong willed. Creating the new categories of what a woman can be like is provocative – it’s hard work that I admire. Leslie Feinberg’s “Trans Liberation” piece talks about this courage: “I don’t think the point is why are we different? Why have we refused to walk of two narrow paths, but instead demanded the right to blaze our own? The question is not why we we’re unwilling to conform even when beaten to the ground by ridicule and brutality.” A very important question I think because that strength is one that should be modeled.

As a feminist I have molded myself in to this person who wants to eradicate gender roles – or at least the requirements men and women have placed on them if they want to be seen as normal in our society – because the barriers hide the true identity of all of us. We are not simply black or white – the gray in between is a continuum of color, blending, meshing, and creating new palettes with time. As much as I want to be self-assured, I have to step back and ask myself is this who I want to be. Is this what I want to look like?

On the one hand I would like to say that my own independence trumps society’s creation of what is normal, but then I wonder if I myself contribute to the perpetuation of conformity each time I shave my legs, wear a low-cut shirt, twirl my hair on my finger, or take part in other stereotypical interpretations of my gender. Do those markers make me feminine? What about the other times when I wear my sneakers to a club, wear a baseball hat, cheer on sports teams, goggle over beautiful women, and emit confidence? Do those markers make me masculine? It seems that as much as I try to depart from gender roles, the more I find myself doing stereotypical things to affirm them.

Newton’s search for the “right” role seems to be typical. Many lesbians I talk to think about these roles, and moreover, once they settle on an identification or representation, many work hard to keep it up. Newton points out how people fall into these roles because of the normalization of them in society – gay couples end up modeling heterosexual couples; where the concept of feminine and masculine are huge factors in the relationship hierarchy. She quotes a line from a documentary she watched that seems to describe this ongoing struggle to fit into labels that either we choose, or society places on us: “A woman not much taller than a fire hydrant tells the impartial camera how at first she had recoiled from joining an association of little people because ‘I was horrified when I saw them. I had to tell myself you don’t look like that.’ ”

If I put myself in to a category of femme then I compare myself to other femme lesbians…how do they walk, talk, dress; and how does that compare to me? Same goes with when I decide that I am just kind of gender neutral; I look at other neutral-looking lesbians and decide how I compare to their looks, personality, etc. Actually, just writing such a thing reminds me of the privilege I have to be able to maneuver through these identifications. I have the mind frame and desire to be on this continuum, which may make it easier for me to “pass” in the world – being a butch woman would limit this flexibility, I would imagine.

The same goes for trans people. Last week in class we talked about including transgender people within the context of sexual orientation, because we questioned the obvious: that gender is something that does not mean straight or gay. I believe after reading the “Trans Liberation” article by Feinberg, the idea of gender most certainly should be included because it plays such a large role in our sexual being. The gender binary effects all people – no matter straight or queer – and people run across all sexual orientations. Within sexual orientations are people who identify as male, female and many points in between. If sexual function and intimacy are important elements in normal human life, the way one represents themselves freely is crucial to healthy development.

So folks need to examine this, and advocate for the abolishment of gender oppression.

Barb Burdge’s “Bending Gender, Ending Gender” article explains the way social workers should advocate for this expression, and I agree because as noted in the beginning of this written assignment, I noted my own love and appreciation for people who fight off the masses in order to be who they want to be. Not being able to do this is oppressive, which is why it amazes me that the National Association for Social Workers does not have gender listed as a status that is oppressed. How could the founding doctrine of a profession that values “self-definition as a matter of self-determination ad social justice,” as stated in the Burdge article, not recognize the need to eliminate gender-based oppression?

Maybe this exists because of the ill-conceived notion that gender is something that is only “acted out” but not something that is real and ever present, such as noted in the Burdge article: “From this perspective, gender is a performance for which every person alters outward appearances to align with an internal sense of gender identity.” Esther Newton appears to negate this finding: “This masculinity, my masculinity, is not external; it permeates and animates me. Nor is it a masquerade. In my own home, when no one is present, I still sit with my legs carelessly flung apart.”

Newton points out that butches are “laughable to straight people," and I think this is because so many people are caught up in this idea that all relationships have to have one male and one female gender expression (which in the straight world means one man and one woman). They marginalize and oppress butches for this. Unfortunately many never stop to think whom it said that only biological women can be feminine and that only biological men can be masculine. Who wants to live like that, and really, is it even possible to be 100 percent all feminine or all masculine? I say no because current definitions of either gender identification means that a woman can basically never be assertive, have direction or goal, be confident, wear a cropped hairdo, etc. That would make this person robotic almost because I believe that humans require the need to lead AND to follow (which seem to identify both male and feminine trait).

Thus, I fully support and agree with Burdge’s call for gender advocacy: “We cannot end gender oppression by ignoring the inherent oppressiveness of the hierarchical gender binary. Social workers can work to disrupt the traditional gender binary and advocate for gender rights – the freedom to one’s authentic self.”

Friday, February 15, 2008

Heterosexual Questionaire

(This is a useful tool to show the other side of the coin...because LGBT folks are still being asked these type of questions:)

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2. When and how did you decide you were a heterosexual?

3. Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase that you may grow out of?

4. Is it possible that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

5. If you have never slept with a person of the same sex, is it possible that all you need is a good gay lover?

6. Do your parents know that you are straight? Do your friends and/or roommates know?

7. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can't you just be who you are and keep it quiet?

8. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?

9. Why do heterosexuals feel so compelled to introduce others to their lifestyle?

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual. Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual teachers?

11. Just what do men and women do in bed together? How can they truly know how to please each other, being so anatomically different?

12. With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships between heterosexuals?

13. Statistics show that lesbians have the lowest of sexually transmitted disease. Is it really safe for a woman to maintain a heterosexual lifestyle and run the risk of disease and pregnancy?

14. How can you expect to become a whole person if you limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive heterosexuality?

15. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?

16. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don't you feel that (s)he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of his/her own orientation?

17. There seem to be very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that might enable you change if you really want to. Have you ever considered aversion therapy?

18. Would you want your child to be heterosexual, knowing the problems (s)he would face?


Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Class and Being Out

The who, what, where, when and why’s of the coming-out process is incredibly intense. It is different for each and every person. For some it may happen at a young age; other people may not utter a word until they are elderly, and still others may never really come out at all. No matter how it happens, a recent slew of articles for my Working With LGBT Clients class point out the sort of ever-going process that happens – each life stage seems to spark another need to muster up the courage to self-identify and take part in disclosure.

As a white gay woman I found these ethnic and cultural articles to be very interesting and thought provoking. The years leading up to my own coming-out discussions were not marked with the same fear that the articles’ authors allude to. I have to question why this is, and moreover, I need to recognize the privilege that I hold. My mom always taught me to be independent, and it always seemed as though economic stability meant more than maintaining familial or cultural traditions. Thinking back, it seems that my siblings and I didn’t have much pressure at all to relegate our motives or actions towards the satisfaction of our family. Often the leader of my friends, the one to question my role in society, a feminist, and a lover of all, I was able to process my connection to my sexual identification in a very independent way. One article author, Althea Smith, points out how the established coming-out process is a white, middle-class ideal, that picks on people who do “not make public pronouncements about their sexual orientation, [and who are then] presumed to be negative and less then healthy psychologically and [are] characterized by negative terms such as hiding, being in the closet and being closeted [if they don’t come out].” I realize that I don’t feel I have to “hide” because I have the color of my skin to protect me (although having a vagina takes away some of the protections that a white gay man may have), and this privilege gives me more freedom to unveil my identification to the world.

Even my role models are a privilege, because while there is not enough LGBT representation in the media via TV shows, general news articles, film, etc, the ones that are have been white. And this is important because Smith notes that “some of the common themes and feelings [those who are struggling with identification] may bring up in therapy include guilt about sexual attraction to members of the same sex; self-hatred; depressive affect or suicidal ideation; rejection from the family; alienation, and difficulty in interpersonal relationships because of mistrust and suspicion, and the realistic need to be careful about what is disclosed to whom.” If my middle-class, non-religious, non-cultural, capitalistic family focuses more on being successful and paying the bills, then I have to realize that as a child I could watch a show such as “Ellen” and see myself, and therefore not focus on a fear about what everyone would say if/when I finally piped up about my identification.

Contrasting this to a black male who may or may not come out to the world as identification other than heterosexual, my privilege is once again highlighted. Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s article about the Down Low points out the ways race identification trumps sexual identification because in a world where racism is still very much in the forefront of marginalization and oppression, black men have a cultural obligation to be straight. He writes, “Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.” Moreover, the societal pressure to conform to the “norm” is heightened because not being white means a constant struggle to overcome stereotypes. “If you’re white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it’s not like if you’re black and gay because then it’s like you’ve let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride.”

My individual culture and history does not mirror this. That is not to say that my family’s legacy is not important to perpetuate, and being a lesbian may make it a bit more difficult to carry on our name, and that it wasn’t damn hard to find the strength to come out to my family and friends, but still I feel like my coming-out was made easier because I felt sure that I could be alleviated of the society’s normalcy to be straight. That being said, I cannot believe how sad I felt after reading the article on the Down Low. Not only are folks unable to fully identify with who they are – some may not even realize they are gay because they simply won’t allow their minds wonder to this place because it is unsafe and unacceptable – it appears that being uber masculine also means being misogynistic, and this effects me.

To people on the Down Low, being gay means acting female; “I’m masculine, there’s no way I’m gay; gays are the faggots who dress, talk and act like girls.” Again, the way that gay men and women are labeled and created in this country have profound effects on the ways people identify or not; the way they come out, or not. It appears that not only do people not want to slap a label on themselves, because that may mean living up to a pre-determined physical and emotional standard, there seems to be an all-out dislike for people who live outside of their “normal” gender role. Men on the Down Low want to be “tops,” meaning the one in control during sex, because being a bottom is being a “bitch,” which according to the Denizet-Lewis article means being second-class, i.e. a woman. Same goes with kissing: “Gay people kiss; DL thugs don’t kiss.”

The interpretation of who one is in a same-sex relationship is fascinating because it means that coming-out is a process that not only declares an orientation other than straight, it also means having to choose if one is male or female, and how does that decision determine who they would like to date, who they are attracted to, how they will dress, who will pay for dinner, who can be sexy, etc. All of these stereotypical barriers are set up through mainstream media culture that perpetuates the role of culture, race and gender roles. At the end of the day these articles remind me that coming out is not a black and white issue, it is indeed very complex and individual, and something that we all should take a closer look at.