Archive for November, 2008

Fighting the Right for Rights.

November 9, 2008

lori-shepler-los-angeles-times

Photo Credit: Lori Shepler/ Los Angeles Times

The day before we went to the polls (and elected Obama, — whoo!), I wrote a little something on Facebook, pressing people in California to consider voting against Prop 8 and people with friends in California to consider talking with them about the need to vote no.  When the (overwhelmingly positive) responses to that piece started flooding in, I began to second-guess my decision to share, not (simply) because I’m semi-allergic to compliments (regardless of how much I crave them), but also because I wondered how truly I had represented my feelings on gay marriage. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I obviously believe that everyone has the right to choose how to express their commitments, and that no one should be denied that on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.  That’s basically a no-brainer for me, as it was for everyone else I know who voted in the state of California.  But my relationship to marriage remains more complicated than that.  On a personal level, I witnessed the deterioration of my parents’ marriage, in addition to their endlessly messy divorce (when I was eighteen), and to this day can’t really choose between the marriage and the divorce for the greater tragedy.  On a political level, I don’t really agree that the government has any right to determine which relationships “deserve” civil rights and which do not, since I know many cohabitating couples who are more commited than married folks, and many non-romantic relationships that will outlast marriages.  And while I wouldn’t impose my personal uncertainty about marriage or my political opposition to it on any other person — queer or straight — I feel that, when I wrote that piece, I played up my cookie-cutter-straight-self for the sake of an argument.  I’ve actually mentioned before that I don’t approve of this process, that I dislike the tendency in the lgbt community to try and adapt to heteronormative expectations, in order to convince the mainstream world that we are really just like them, plain American folks desperate for a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a golden retriever, but I see better now where that tendency comes from.  Reading the likelihood that Prop 8 would pass (or fail, barely) in the days before the election, I felt a little desperate to share why it couldn’t, and the argument I chose to make wasn’t a rational argument of equal rights, but an emotional “allow me to tug at your heartstrings” plea for my own future wedding (because I am, apparently, “just like you” and that is all I want.)  Granted, I’m not against an emotional punch here and there to achieve equal rights, but let me be honest: I have never picked up a bridal magazine.  I have never considered whether mine should be a summer wedding.  I have never considered colors for bridesmaids’ dresses or picked out flowers or conceived of a marriage ceremony as “my day.”  When I consider my future, although I desire relationships, although I daydream more and more about finding a girlfriend or even a partner, marriage isn’t something I picture.  It’s not impossible, but it ends up with status similar to… well… skydiving, for instance:  I won’t write it off entirely, but it doesn’t usually occur to me as an option, and I’m sure as hell not preparing for it.

Of course, the fact that it doesn’t occur to me as an option is part of a problem, the real problem, which is that as queer people, we deserve the same things granted to everyone else.  I don’t mean simply the same civil rights — which “civil unions” grant us, but also the same words, the same ceremonies, and the same social status.  Those of us who want weddings should not find the government standing in the way of that, but I struggle with the fact that I represented myself, in that piece, as one such person.  It’s the easier way to make the argument, but it’s only a partial truth.  Frankly, it bothers me that we have to sacrifice facets of ourselves — or feel we have to sacrifice those facets — in order to make progress.  David has mentioned at Love from the Asexual Underground that he represents himself as more traditionally masculine when speaking about asexuality (on talk shows, etc) than he might do otherwise, and he and I talked this summer about the fact that those places where his asexuality grows gray can be lost in a presentation he gives, because to some extent he becomes a symbol.  It’s hard for me to be comfortable with myself as a symbol, and in the days after I wrote that — I wondered whether it had been worth it.  I started to ask myself, if Prop 8 had failed, and I’d known my piece to play a part in that, would I have been ok with the way that I had fought?

Of course, Prop 8 didn’t fail, and mistakes are supposedly some of our best teachers, so I’m looking now at how I might have done things differently, and how we as a community might consider doing things differently.  Ily asked in her post on the matter if the lgbt community should consider re-focusing for awhile on other issues, perhaps bringing the world (or even the larger queer community) up to speed on trans issues, which –  let’s face it — we’ve thrown under the bus for some time now in favor of that cookie-cutter homosexuality we hope the normies will find easier to stomach.  A friend of mine in Florida — one of the three states that banned gay marriage this election — tells me that’s her sense of what needs to happen there: a sort of “wait and see” approach that gives an adolescent country time to mature.  My first concern with that strategy is that I’ve rarely seen time heal much, or even help it progress.  I don’t think we managed to elect Barack Obama this past Tuesday because over two-hundred years have passed since slavery; I think we elected him because of strong social action that has taken place during that time.  My second concern has to do with my own experience with that kind of social action, which has taught me to harness energy when it comes, and right now there is real energy behind marriage equality.  Gay marriage may not be my number one issue, or even my number one goal for queer rights – it may not be anything close to that — but right now, people across the country (and the world), gay, straight, bi, ace, poly, and beyond are horrified about discrimination over marriage.  People are taking to the streets, to the courts, and to cyberspace trying to change this, and I don’t think that’s something we should quell.  I think we should use it.  Sadly, there’s some truth to the idea that nothing unites people more quickly than a common enemy, and given that, I think the right-wing was stupid to help this pass, simply because they’ve given us such a clear enemy.

At least… I thought it was clear.  I thought it was clear that our fight here was against injustice, that we wanted not revenge but a restoration of our rights.  Instead, I’m finding fingers pointed at people, with a reported mentality that looks something like “let’s find out who was to blame, and let’s punish them.”  I don’t know how accurate this perspective is, how representative the articles really are that say we — as a community — blame people of color or blame the Mormons.  I know that I personally think these arguments are completely ridiculous and seriously flawed (respectively).  Last I checked, the vote cast by a person of color has never counted more in this country than the vote of a white person.  (Less, yes.  But more?)  So, I’m thinking that — regardless of color — the people who voted for Prop 8 are responsible for passing it, with the caveat that some of those people were talked into voting for it by the aggressive Yeson8 campaign, which was funded largely by outside interests, including a large number of Mormons.  I’m not going to claim I have not been pissed at “the Mormons” during the course of this battle.  You don’t supply an anti-lgbt campaign with (reportedly) more than $20 million, without garnering a portion of animosity from this particular ‘dork, and I did spend a day or two walking around asking people how long it’s been since the Mormon community practiced polygamy, and whether that really goes along with this notion of “traditonal” marriage between one man and one woman.  (Don’t get me started on how non-traditional that definition really is.  We’ll save that entry.)  Eventually, though, I realized that anger wasn’t doing anything, and that the best outlet for my frustration is action against its true source.  That source really isn’t Mormons, or any other particular group.  Rather, it’s the denial of rights by a government I expect to protect them. 

It may very well be valuable to look into who supported Prop 8, and in that regard, to whatever extent that religious communities played a part, religion needs to be considered.  But it does not need to be looked into so that we can start flogging Mormons in the streets or force the secession of Utah.  It needs to be considered so that it can be addressed.  I’d rather identify issues than individuals because issues can be discussed and resolved.  Whether it’s religious doctrine or a certain interpretation of religious texts, whether it’s pressure from leaders they have given authority or the reality of never having known an out gay person, information about what happened in California (and Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas) strikes me as significantly more valuable than a list of the people I need to hate.  I understand the desire to hit back with equal energy, and I do think we should launch a campaign to repeal Prop 8 as strong as the Yeson8 campaign was, if not stronger.  But ultimately, I’m not interested in fighting fire with fire.  I’d rather fight fire with water, and actually put out the flame.  I’d rather invest my anger and my energy in action that could secure for us the rights the government refuses to secure on our behalf.

And I want to keep in mind that President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama (I will never grow tired of saying that) spoke of gay people as a part of the American community immediately upon being elected.  Since then, he has stated that hiring for the new administration will not discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and that said administration will pass a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  I believe that we are making progress.  I want to believe that we will go still further, and that when he said these words on November 4, he wanted us to hear them as our own:

To all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright –tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.  For that is the true genius of America — that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

The hope Obama symbolizes is not something I’m willing to surrender quite so soon.  So, as a community, let’s continue balancing our hope (our disappointment, and our frustration) with a heavy dose of social action.  And let’s orient that action toward our true goals and the issues that stand in the way of them, so that our victory –when it comes — is not further division, but instead the renewed right to love as we love.

Ask Me about My Agenda.

November 2, 2008

Image Ganked with Gratitude from EverydayCitizen.Com

You don’t have to be a California citizen to know that, on top of the presidential election that has most of the nation (and a large portion of the globe) holding its breath, Tuesday has huge stakes for Californians specifically.  As an absentee voter, I’ve already seen the ballot, and as a social policy geek, I found myself defensive when I saw that particular art/ science so misused in the various propositions presented to California voters.  (I address California’s in particular because that’s the ballot I shared this time around, but I hardly expect it’s much better anywhere else.)  Prop 8, which is hardly the only ill-informed measure seeking approval (and which Melissa Etheridge’s son has officially proclaimed lame), seeks to ban same-sex marriage, legally defining marriage as between a man and a woman.  You probably already know that.  And you may remember that, despite California’s largely progressive reputation, same-sex marriage has actually only been legal in California since mid-May, when the state’s Supreme Court declared that sexual orientation was not “a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”  Although where I’m currently stationed in America’s “heartland,” California is perceived as something like that radical black-sheep uncle, who — when family functions come around — is conveniently left off the invitation list, the chances that Prop 8 will pass remain strong, stronger actually than my stomach does considering them.  California did elect the Gubernator, remember, and although I’m the same girl often in trouble among her engaged friends for stubbornly insisting she has no desire to marry, I am waiting for Wednesday with an uncomfortable amount of nerves.

I want to talk a little bit about this so-called piece of legislation, not to persuade anyone to vote against it (if I know you, you read this, and you have a vote in CA, you’re already opposing it, to my knowledge), and not because I think people are unaware of this issue, but because the way the debate is being framed speaks to an issue I see surfacing again and again in the queer community — the gay and lesbian community specifically — that really frustrates me, even though I feel I understand the impulse guiding it.  On a surface-level, it has to do with confusion and conflict between essentialist and social constructionist perspectives, but more basically, it remains a simple fundamental fact of fear.

Let me offer a simplified lesson in perspectives for anyone new to these terms.  (I promise you’ll have encountered the ideas behind them, even if the words for those ideas are new.)  An essentialist perspective basically states that people are born with certain personality characteristics, which are hard-wired into their biology and their genetic make-up.  So, if an essentialist is looking at gender, she or he is likely to tell you that boys are born more aggressive, more rowdy, and more active than girls, who are born more nurturing, more polite, and more passive.  A hard-core social constructionist would completely disagree with that notion, saying that at birth we are basically blank slates, and we learn gender (or whatever characteristic we’re discussing) through social rules, imitation, reinforcement, reward systems, et cetera.  The social constructionist would say that most girls prefer to play with dolls because they’re encouraged to do so, while most boys dislike playing with dolls because they experience a negative response from others when they do.  Although a lot of people believe in a middle ground between the two ideas (not entirely negating the role of biology or the fact that it does, in fact, interact with environment), there remains a sense that certain aspects of self are simply hard-wired, and that this hard-wiring somehow makes them more legitimate.  I think of it as similar to physical versus mental illness.  In the States, a physical illness is considered “real” in a way that mental illnesses rarely are, at least by the general population.  Character traits are often the same: in order to be legitimate, they must be proven biological.

The same goes for sexuality.  As a pretty strong social-constructionist, I don’t believe that I was born gay, a fact which often shocks people I’m talking to, partly because it puts me in a minority (within a minority) and partly because the majority of society has only considered two options regarding “alternative” sexualities: Either we were born this way or we chose it.  To suggest that sexuality is a choice, when the reality of it — given the times — can result in anything from divorce to death, is entirely unfair.  I don’t believe that, even slightly.  But I also don’t believe that I was gay as an infant, that I have a gay gene, that straight people don’t have a gay gene, or that they were born straight.  (What about bisexual people?  Do they have a less-active gay gene?  How does this work?  No, wait.  Don’t answer that.)  What I find interesting is that, when we’re inclined to legitimize or de-legitimize certain sexual orientations, we embrace a weirdly conflictual combination of essentialist and social constructionist perspectives.  For instance:

The multi-million dollar “Yes on 8″ campaign has aired a series of ads, one of which suggests that if the proposition fails, California children will be taught about homosexuality in the classroom, from a very young age, which will undermine heterosexuality and marriage as institutions, and — basically – ensure the impending Apocolypse.  Never mind that there is nothing about education in the proposition, never mind that no sex ed starts as young as we’re supposedly planning to target these kids, and never mind that you can’t teach someone a sexual orientation.  One would think the failure of so-called reparative therapy would have proven that by now, but apparently it hasn’t.  The scare tactic they’re employing is the same one employed by opponents to gay parents adopting: if we have access to children, we will replicate our “pathology.” We will somehow “teach” or “convince” kids to be gay.  (Because it’s so much fun.  Ok, actually it is.  But not so much during election season.)  What’s interesting about this is that almost none of the people who believe this believe they learned, were convinced, or chose to be straight.  Since hetero is the “natural” / default sexuality, the homophobic population for the most part presumes that it’s an essential trait, the way they were born, and the right way to be born.  (Unquestionable essentialism, right?)  But in the same breath, they can turn around and say that a minority sexuality was constructed by a certain kind of environment, that we must protect “our kids” against these kinds of environments, and that homos must have their sexualities re-constructed through appropriate therapies.

The only way this makes sense, to whatever extent it does, is to acknowledge that the majority of these lgbtq opponents believe that homosexuality is some sort of pathology, which could develop in a fundamentally different way than a “healthy” heterosexuality develops.  So, that’s their excuse for the hypocrisy, which I can shake my head at it and dismiss.  But… speaking from the queer minority, what’s ours?

Because, let’s be clear here, we do it, too.  We may be more consistent, but as a population we’re not supporting a social constructionist viewpoint.  In fact, we’re terrified to do so because we recognize how dangerous it is for us.  The idea that I wasn’t born gay leaves me vulnerable to a slew of arguments.  “Well, what happened?”  (I don’t know.  What happened to make you straight?)  “Then how is it natural?”  (Who said biology was the only legitimate science?)  “You mean you chose it?”  (No more than you chose to be het’ro.)  “Isn’t that an argument for reparative therapy?  I mean, if you were turned gay, couldn’t you be turned straight?”  (I never said I was “turned” gay… for all I know, we’re born neutral, or perhaps with predispositions in favor of something that can shift in time.  The fact that it wasn’t hard-wired at birth doesn’t mean it isn’t hard-wired now, and I could no more easily turn myself straight than a straight person could turn themselves gay, which most of the homophobes are willing to admit is a toss-up between “not bloody likely” and “frikkin impossible.”)  All of these arguments are arguments I use; they are — to an extent — my arguments, ones I’ve adopted and shaped and written as conversations have replayed (with different people) again and again over the years.  But they’re flawed arguments as well, and from my perspective, the overall argument of the queer community that we were born queer is equally flawed.  Bill Richardson crashed and burned in the HRC/ LOGO forum with the Democratic presidential candidates because he suggested people weren’t born gay.  He wasn’t trying to be radical; he fumbled an easy question and later claimed jet lag — but the fact that it was intended to be an easy question is telling.  The formation of sexuality is not uncomplicated; it’s not something we understand entirely, but the queer community, having been put on the defensive, has simplified it tremendously.  We’ve gone in search of a gay gene, we’ve carved in stone a narrative about having known from childhood that we were different somehow, we’ve decided our queerness is biological to protect its validity, and in doing so, we’ve entirely ignored the real argument we need to be making.

It doesn’t matter why… because it isn’t wrong.

Seriously.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if I’m gay because of my genes, or my brain chemistry, or the state that I live in, or the way I was raised, or the friends that I have, or the air that I breathe, or the books that I read, or the time I was born, so on and so forth beyond infinity.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter how I got to be the way I am (interesting as it can be to speculate and study possibilities) because who I am does not need validation.  My sexuality doesn’t need a biological basis in order to be approved.  An environmental basis doesn’t make it any less real, any less fundamental, or any less an active facet of who I am.  My sexuality is not a pathology.  Not mine, and not anyone else’s.

Look at those earlier questions again.  What if the answer to “What happened?” was “I don’t know, but I’m happy it did!”  What if the answer to “How is it natural?” was “because it feels like a fit”?  What if, when people asked me if I chose this, I could safely admit to them that if I had received a “select your orientation” form growing up, (which I can assure you I did not), I would have chosen the sexuality I have.  Because I like it, it fits for me, it works.  It’s right for me.

As for reparative therapy, we’re making the wrong argument there, too.  We’re arguing, constantly, that sexuality can’t be changed and that it’s psychologically damaging to try.  The part about psychological damage is true; the part arguing against sexual fluidity is more problematic for some people.  But we could just as easily be arguing that it doesn’t matter whether these “therapies” work or how well.  There’s no pathology for them to cure.  Why treat something that isn’t wrong?  It’s a waste of energy.  You might as well treat me for preferring cookie dough ice cream to mint chocolate chip.  Your ability to re-wire my preferences is irrelevant.  It’s the goal itself that’s wrong.

On Tuesday, Californians are voting on Prop 8, and hopefully they’re voting in favor of an individual’s right to love in the way they see fit.  But in the meantime, we’ll continue hearing all these bullshit arguments about the biological basis for marriage.  Having to shake my head at them for that is one thing.  But having to shake my head at us for playing the same essentialist game, without having questioned the rules?  I’ll proclaim that one lame myself.

Making Mirrors for the Wall.

November 1, 2008

Photo Credit: MontessoriTraining.Blogspot.Com

Once, when my sister and her Boy were traveling through Europe, they grew so homesick for their own language that they began watching MTV in the hotels at night, simply to hear something familiar.  My hatred for MTV aside, I think I’m starting to relate to this.  One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Erin was here is the importance of representation, but I haven’t mentioned yet my theory of why (minority) sexualities become so all-encompassing, so constantly expressed, explored, and made relevant to the more apparent “topics at hand.”  Partly, I think it’s simply a strategy to avoid heterosexist assumptions.  (If I don’t want to be presumed straight, I must constantly communicate, verbally and nonverbally, that I am not.)  But partly, I think it, too, is an issue of representation.  If I want to see myself represented, in a community so decidedly non-queer, I must be the one to represent.  If I want to hear my language spoken, I must be the one to speak.

The result is less than comfortable.  In my case, I feel myself losing dimension, feel myself contributing to the perspective that I am the “token lesbian” by constantly being more “lesbian” and less myself.  My first response, more and more often, seems to be as the mouthpiece of the queer community, and as awkward as I find that fact, I submit to it to avoid the alternative.  Right now, in my current setting, the alternative is having no one be that voice, and — in the tradition of lousy sacrifices to which Erin has recently helped me bear witness — for the moment at least, I’m willing to temporarily surrender the vast majority of my identity to avoid living in a culture as oblivious to queer existence as this university would be otherwise.

This is not to suggest I don’t envy (more often than not) the classmate I’ve recently learned is more “privately” homosexual: closeted on-campus and out beyond it.  It’s not joyful for me to emphasize this fraction of myself so constantly that other people’s false impression (that sexuality = self) is confirmed.  But it’s the choice I made given the options presented to me, just as the pivate homosexual made her choice.  And, similar to Erin’s situation, I don’t really question the “rightness” of those choices.  I challenge them as our only options.

I would like to think that the work the GSA is managing, specifically the recent steps we’ve taken toward opening the eyes of the administration and finding more allies in the faculty and staff, are moving us in the direction of new options.  When I graduate, I don’t want the LGBT mouthpiece at this university to fall silent.  However, I’m equally unwilling to view that mouthpiece as a bullhorn that I must pass to the next Queer Example.  My hope is that, by the time I graduate, the goals of our GSA will be goals that allies across campus — faculty, students, staff, and administration — are working toward, so that the burden doesn’t fall on the shoulders of an individual (or handful of individuals) again any time soon.  Whether or not that’s possible, it’s what I hope we’re moving toward.

Because, put plainly, the alternative sucks.

It’s not that I dislike being openly queer.  It’s not that my Halloween costume (Lesbian stereotype, — because stereoytpes are scaaaaary — complete with flannel shirt, single feather earring, tool belt, and mullet) doesn’t appeal to me.  It’s that, eventually, I start to lose track of who else I am.  What more is there to me?  I ask, knowing there is more.  What take would I have on an assignment, what joke would I crack, who else would I be, if Teh Gay were covered somewhere else, by someone who wasn’t me? 

On the train home from San Francisco this summer, I encountered a guy about my age, who was having a very intense conversation.  It seemed logical enough, until the person I’d presumed he was talking to exited the car, and the man in question continued talking.  Eventually, I stole a glance at him and found that his words, including questions — You know what I mean?  You know what I’m saying, don’t you? –were actually directed at his reflection in the window of the car.  That story is many things — proof that we need better mental health care, for instance, and in another conversation, I might tell it for that reason.  But right now, to me, it speaks to the desperation we all have to be represented.  We are all desperate to have someone who “looks like us” say that yes, they know what we mean.  We are desperate to the point we will hold up mirrors and speak with our reflections.  We will make our queerness so hyper-visible that even we — inside of it — catch sight of it sometimes… not because this is all we are, but because it’s a part of who we are that we need to see reflected, and which — more often than is bearable – we don’t.


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