Posts Tagged ‘enda’

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.

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The Transgender/ Asexual Easter Bunny.

July 15, 2008

So, I have this friend.  (And I don’t mean one of those hypothetical friends people use when discussing themselves in the third person.  This is a non-hypothetical, flesh-and-blood friend of mine.  Or possibly a very believable hologram.  But I digress.)  And once, maybe over a year ago now, she told me that although she supports gay folks, she simply doesn’t “believe in transgender people” — meaning their very existence strikes her as suspect, as somehow not yet legitimized.  This kind of comment, in a new relationship, would probably establish a person firmly in the “acquaintance” category for me, but given that I’d grown used to valuing her friendship by the time she told me this, saying sayonara didn’t seem like my most compelling option.  Instead, I said my piece and hoped that eventually, she would meet some cool trans folks who, purely by existing as real people in her life, would help her understand the reality of transgendered experience, so she might move from a position of ignorance into one of alliance.  I also vented to a friend about the comment — which struck me as horribly misguided and hurtful — who sparked a hearty laugh when she replied, “What?!  Are trans people like the Easter Bunny now?” 

Seriously.  What is it about certain identities that makes people in positions of privilege feel threatened to the point that they deny the legitimacy of those identities entirely?  Why must the trans population and the asexual population — (which I suspect faces this response just as often) — constantly be given the same lack of status as the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or our old pal Santa Claus?  There is nothing about another person’s sexual orientation (or gender identity) for the rest of us to believe or disbelieve.  We aren’t talking about a debate issue or a religious doctrine; we’re talking about an individual’s personal identity, and I don’t believe anyone else has a right to step in there (with the potential exception of a skilled team of therapists with a real understanding of gender identity and orientation issues and a real acceptance of all people.)  In the one instance I can think of when I have found it incredibly difficult to believe that a person who came out to me was “actually” a lesbian, I still advocated for her right to identify that way, despite the fact that her decision to do so (when what she really meant seemed to be more like “manhater” and the identity seemed to allow her a place to hide out and not deal with her violent dislike of 1/2 the population) was rather painful to me personally.  I chose to support her right to identify as she chose because even if I did somehow, telepathically, understand why she was choosing to use this term (and even though the term was one I personally adopted in order to stop hiding out), what right did I have to question the legitimacy of her own self-assertion?  Even if there were a large population of lesbians whose relational/ sexual orientation had more to do with their distaste for men than their taste for women, what right would I — as a peer of theirs — have to judge that, to claim that their lesbianism was somehow less valid than my own?  I have no idea what caused my own (a)/sexual orientation.  For all I know, the reasons could be just as ignoble as this girl’s were, or they could seem that way to others (as hers seemed to me.)  More and more, I believe that the “why you are how you are” conversation only matters to people who take issue with how (read: who) a person is.  The members of the LGB community currently searching for a way to prove a biological basis for sexual orientation often fail to recognize that the problem, really, isn’t the contention that sexual orientation is a choice but that anything but heterosexual orientation is considered the wrong choice and pathologized, demonized, and punished as such.  (I’m not saying I believe I chose to be gay or that I could change my orientation if I was so compelled, but honestly, which is the more powerful statement: that I didn’t choose to be a lesbian or that I *wouldn’t* choose to be otherwise?  The first option suggests that a non-hetero sexual orientation isn’t choiceful, while the second suggests that it isn’t wrong.  I believe both of these statements, but if I’m picking one to shout from the rooftops, I’d choose the latter without question.)

Unfortunately, in my experience, a large portion of the world doesn’t seem to feel as I do.  They don’t seem to have the same respect for people’s right to live as they are.  The amount of evidence one must choose to ignore in order to believe that a transgender identity or an asexual orientation are not valid (but rather misguided responses to trauma, etc) astounds me, and at the same time, I think it pales in comparison to the fact that one has to ignore *actual people* and refuse their stories the weight that they deserve.  How do you tell someone that their experience doesn’t matter?  I don’t care if you’re the most repressed, mentally ill trauma surivor on the planet (well, I do, actually, but it doesn’t affect my opinion that), you still have the right to be who you are without anyone else saying, “I don’t believe you.”  If a year from now, I came out again as straight, (not bloody likely, mind you), I suspect I would still be angry with people who had not supported me as a lesbian… because I think the need to be supported overrules the need to be right.  What gives people the impression that their “duty” to correct someone’s mistaken view (of their own identity) wins out over their duty to support another human being?

A few months back, when I was talking about asexuality to basically everyone I knew, (while of course, leaving out the rather pertinent fact that I recognized something of myself in this identification), I lent a copy of Bitch to a (somewhat skeptical) professor of mine so that he could read KL Pereira’s article “Do Not Want.”  To his credit, he was significantly more open to the idea of asexuality after he finished it — (kudos to Pereira for that; this is a man who still thinks a bisexual’s “true” orientation is revealed when they settle into a long-term relationship, thus ending their ambiguous experimentation phase) — but his resounding question afterward was actually, “When does it stop?  If a group as tiny as one percent of the population” (allegedly; raise your hand if you don’t believe it’s more) “starts to form a community, when is it ever going to be too few?”  Basically, he was trying to suggest, by way of a slippery-slope argument, that at any moment we would be seeing two- and three-person communities of people with a valid sexual orientation not yet recognized by the larger population.  “Why can’t we just be individuals?” he asked me.  I simultaneously saw and did not see his point.

The not-seeing was the more intense response so I’ll start there.  My own question, in response to his, was why does it matter?  If there are actually two or three people out there so committed, so well-organized, and so intently focused on getting the word out about their experience (which I think anyone in any “movement” would agree is basically required) that they can do so successfully despite their small numbers, what about that is potentially negative?  I don’t understand what we (meaning those outside the population in question) stand to lose by others speaking up about their experience.  I desperately need someone to explain the threat to me. 

I think people have dissected this, in terms of transgender identities, pretty thoroughly and the resounding response is that “we” (if not the we I’m personally a part of) feel a tremendous need to protect the strict gender binary, the one that looks like check-boxes outlined in bold lines (rather than a spectrum of varying hues.)  We will sacrifice people for the sake of preserving this (false) sense of gender, (excuse the strong social constructionist bias, if you please), rather than recognizing that gender has no purpose without people to serve.  …But what of asexuality?  What leaves some sexuals feeling so threatened that they must insist asexuality is a fantasy, a pathology, or some other invalid way of relating?  I haven’t heard anyone really begin to sort this out yet (no real surprise, given the lack of research being done on the more basic questions), but as I consider it, I’m reminded of something my mom said to me today, during an extensive and unexpected discussion about LGBT rights following an encounter with some HRC volunteers on a sidewalk corner.  (They were trying to raise money to help in the fight to pass anti-employment-discrimination lesgislation.  I listened to the guy’s spiel and told him, sincerely, that when his superiors decide to support a trans-inclusive ENDA, I’ll give what I can.  He told me, I hope also sincerely, that they’re working hard on it, that they “got a lot of flack” for supporting the non-inclusive version.  Well, duh.  I almost told him that while I was glad to hear they were working on it, I would prefer they work on it because they finally recognized the importance of doing so and the supreme ethical misstep of their former position and not because they were being harassed by trans folks and their allies.  I wanted to say “that ‘flack’ was justified, Sir; if it weren’t, I’d be on this corner with you.  Why do you think I’m not?”  But I digress again.

Sufficeth to say that my mom, (who is a tremendously progressive person and a huge supporter of gay rights/ my rights/ etc but nevertheless — or perhaps as a result — always attempts to see the other side of things, if only to better build bridges between the polarized edges of a debate), suggested that one of the reasons certain people might argue for same-sex couples having all the same rights as straight couples, minus the actual word “marriage,” was that they value the uniquely heterosexual experience and fear losing it in a sea of other experiences.  Obviously, I don’t believe that heterosexual couples have any more right to marriage than the rest of us, but I do believe that heterosexual relationships — like any other kind of connection– have unique aspects that are exciting, powerful, inspiring, et cetera, and have just as much right (but no more) to be validated by society.  This concept (finally) brings me to the second point I wanted to make to my professor, which was basically that if he really sees the continual surfacing of new populations and movements as a negative occurence, perhaps the most viable “strategy” to help reduce the need for such communities is to validate the experiences people have as individuals.  If the addition of statistics — (“but there are x many asexuals in this room!  but x in y of the people you know are transgender in some way!”) — weren’t required to convince people to listen to an experience and take that story seriously, we might be less inclined to gather them.  If our stories were being heard (truly), we might be less inclined to tell them in unison, as a united front.  Basically, if I mattered to you enough as a person (singular) that you could honestly tell me “I believe in, respect, and support who you are” than I might have less reason to show you there are others like me.  Why spend the effort to legitimize an already legitimate experience?

Of course, in the meantime, why be so anti-community?  Or anti-movement, for that matter?  Personally, I think it’s past time that all of us — me, my friend, the HRC volunteers, and everyone in between — have the sense to believe in, respect, and support each other.  Personally, I believe it’s past time that everyone stand up to acknowledge the existence of the Easter Bunny.