Archive for December, 2010


Trans-initiative

Now that the first of my group of friends have officially settled down and started having kids, I’ve begun thinking more about the obstacles faced not only by younger LGBT people, but by their parents as they try to navigate an intolerant and often resource-deprived world for their LGBT kids.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon Gender Spectrum, a support, counseling, and education community for parents ofgenderqueer/trans/questioning kids.  They host a conference every year on the subject, as well as offering online resources for parents to peruse.  This is a very good start, but it’s shortcoming lies in the same place that most LGBT services fail- they only offer information to parents who ACTIVELY seek it out.  In today’s world, 99% of the time, a parent-to-be is more concerned about a myriad of other issues- prenatal vitamins, getting a bedroom prepared for the baby, regular sonograms and checkups, the pain of delivery, etc- that gender identity issues are not something they plan to self-educate about.    Reasonable?  Yes.  Problematic when the doctor tells you that your baby has ambiguous genitalia and will operate to “repair” your baby’s equiptment and you haven’t read a thing about the subject.  MAJORLY.

There are so many aspects of maternal health and preparation that have become rote in today’s society; mothers read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” take lamaze classes, and learn about how to feed and care for their child.  Wouldn’t it make sense to start gender counseling at this critical stage?  Perhaps it’s a sensitive issue to broach- no one wants to believe their child will turn out “abnormal,” but with widespread educational programs aimed at eradicating stereotypes and educating parents, the ideas of normal/abnormal should slowly dissolve, right?

I’d love to hear some other takes on this idea, but also please use this space if you have other resources to share with LGBT people and their parents about these tough issues.

(In other news, I’m off to Kenya in T- 3 days!  Hopefully I’ll get one more post in before then, but otherwise, I’ll see you in 4 months!)

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Christmas and Gender Stereotypes

Merry Christmas fellow queer kids!

As much as I hate using my friends as fodder for this blog, one of my good friends’ comments touched on a subject I think is really important, but perhaps I’ve glossed over in the past: the conflation of gender roles and sexuality.  My friend mentioned how she didn’t like Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates of the Caribbean because he acted too “gay” to be a pirate.  Ironically, I thought this role was the absolute highlight of his career, specifically because he made the atypical, perhaps slightly effeminate and uncourageous male attractive.  Though the role of Jack Sparrow was never meant to be played that way, Depp’s ability to transform the stereotype of a male pirate into its complete opposite while maintaining his personal sex appeal was nothing short of amazing.  However, my friend’s contrary viewpoint brings up an important concept.

Sexuality and gender presentation are not perfectly correlated, and that is primarily because gender roles are so highly constructed by society.  We talk about this a lot in my Rainbow Speakers Bureau presentations at school- society’s idea of what constitutes a “manly man” or a “womanly woman” is constantly evolving and is very much relative to the culture surrounding it.  This is incredibly evident in many areas, from sports to modeling to high school Proms, but I want to focus on two areas in specific- movies and dance.

Though Johnny Depp is a prime example to the contrary (as he is straight as a pin in Pirates), most of the images we are fed in the media conflate homosexuality with femininity in men.  The examples are less prevalent in the opposite direction for women (as the success of shows like The L Word illustrate), but there are still very clearly defined ideas of what women vs. men should do, act, and say in relation to one another and their sexuality.  To illustrate this, I’ll use The Bechdel test, created by lesbian writer Allison Bechdel, as a criteria for what movies she would go watch relative to women’s gender roles.

Rules:

The hag from Princess Bride thinks the Bechdel Test is tricky business

  1. There must be more than one main female character
  2. Those female characters must talk to each other
  3. …About something other than a man

It’s incredibly surprising how many movies this eliminates from the Hollywood schema.  But how does this relate to sexuality and gender roles?  Well, let’s put the pieces together- if a woman in a Hollywood movie is primarily concerned with talking about and attracting another man, this prescribes both a gendered role for women (to get men using their feminine wiles) and also a sexuality- straight.  There’s no room in this paradigm for a lesbian.  THEREFORE, because women do A, B, and C (and present themselves in the manner that is consistent with others who do A, B, and C), they are presumed straight.  And by extension, those who do not do A, B, and C, (and who present themselves differently), must be gay.

Similarly with men- a straight man has specific objectives in a given movie (although they tend to be wider-ranging than women’s) — they are tough, strong, confident, independent and have a very clearly defined way of behaving.  Men who act contrary to that (swashbucking, ragingly-sarcastic pirates among them) are considered effeminate and gay.

My point with all this is not simply to say, “well, gosh, that’s annoying, but you should already know this and let’s get on with Christmas already.”  Instead, I want to point out the way this conflation of sexuality and gender roles is poisoning one of our great art forms: dance.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the show “So You Think You Can Dance?”  The show pairs off mostly professionally-trained and rigorously-auditioned dancers to learn routines and perform weekly for a panel of dance critic/teacher/producer/judges.  It’s a very intense process, and the routines incorporate all styles of dance, from contemporary to jazz to ballet to….ballroom.  And here’s where the poison hits.

So You Think You Can Dance has always emphasized the importance of strong, manly physique for its male dancers and made crucial the ideal of an intense, confident, very masculine dance presentation.  This is often very important for contrast with the female dancers, however, it can also be very limiting.  In this season, due to a new competition format, many of the female competitors were eliminated early, leaving a preponderance of male dancers.  When the inevitable ballroom number came up, the choreographers and producers had two options: to embrace traditional gender roles or break them down.

You can figure out from the video which they chose.  For me, this is the poison of conflating gender and sexuality- it becomes so impossible to allow the male to be sensual, to be feminine, to be “other,” that art loses its flexibility.  Which is why I LOVE LOVE this article about Gay Ballroom Dancing in the Gay Games.  It brilliantly illustrates how two men can adapt the idea of gender roles to suit their own needs.  In same-sex ballroom dancing, the lead for the dance often changes between and within numbers- there is fluidity in the roles of the dancers, and thus, the interaction is more organic, more unique, and more vibrant.  And in the case of “Gay Ballroom Dancing,” the emphasis is on gender, not sexuality.  You do not have to be LGBT to dance with same-sex partner, only willing to relinquish your standards of what constitutes male and female roles.  But because society still holds so much stock in the masculine-male, feminine-female dichotomy, it’s unlikely to see much more of this outside of LGBT spaces.

It shouldn’t, however, discourage you from going out and trying some dancing on for size!  The art will only evolve if people push it forward.  So go exert your influence!  I won’t turn you down if you ask me for a dance.  🙂

16-year Old Sex

Through the course of my blogging, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what information I would have liked to have about sex as a teenager.  In doing so, I stumbled upon Bad Bad Girl, one of my new favorite sex bloggers, who wrote quite eloquently on the shaming and lack of information that most high school students are confronted with.  She highlights the stigma her family tried to instill in her about sex and why that hurt her as a sexual being.

“I see my mother try to influence my son… telling him that he will get his girlfriend pregnant if they have sex. That he best NOT do it. My brothers tell him that if people see he and his girlfriend kissing and such, people will thing she’s a slut. That if they have sex and people find out, guys will think she’s easy.   These are the same things they told me, 23 years ago. I remember being terrified that my mother would find out that I was sexually active, giving blow jobs to my boyfriend and the other things that friends my age were not doing yet. I was afraid she would be disappointed with me. I was scared that my brothers would thing I was a slut. My mom tried to suppress my sexuality so much that I went the other way, but always felt ashamed of it.”

I agree whole-heartedly with her point, but the question- “What information to give”- is very hard for me.  Though I’ve now found a lot of important lessons about self-acceptance, the hurt involved in sexual shaming, etc., when I was in high school, I don’t know how ready I was for any of that in high school.  I have a hard time figuring out what I was willing to hear and what would have benefited me at the time.

So let’s do an exercise… Think back to your sophomore or junior year.  What were your thoughts about sex?

It was probably something you didn’t have a whole lot of experience with- you might giggle about it or brag and make up stories or listen in awe at your more “experienced” friends, but you might not have been able to contribute much.  Maybe you weren’t thinking about it at all.  The unifying notion we had as high school students was that “the talk” with your parents was awkward and to be avoided whenever possible.  The idea of discussing sexuality with our parents was…weird.

But within that framework, I have to ask, if I wanted more information, but I wasn’t willing to get it from my parents, where was I supposed to go?  The obvious answer is the reason I’m writing this blog in the first place: the internet.  The internet was a gold mine of information, but it was also overwhelming and misleading.

 I think this is where our system really went wrong.  We, as students, put our parents in a double bind.  We had so much that we didn’t know about our sexuality that our parents often had learned and could have shared.  However, we were too ashamed of our parents’ sexuality, the same way they were ashamed of ours, to the point that neither of us were able to approach the other.

My childhood was a lot better than most in that respect.  My mom was conscientious enough to keep our communication lines open, made sure I got on the pill BEFORE I started having sex, and talked to me about the basics long before the school district got involved in my sex ed.  However, there’s other stuff I really wish I had known, but I’m still not sure I would have accepted when I was young enough to need it….  Stuff like, “Sex is really important in determining whether you’re compatible in a relationship,” “Speak up if he/she/ze is doing something that hurts you or makes you unhappy,” “Never have sex because you ‘feel like you should,'”  “Sex doesn’t have to be just for one person, just for marriage, or how the movies portray it,”  and more than anything, “Have a sense of humor- sex never has to be perfect.”   (**And to give my mother credit, a lot of this stuff came up later -after I’d started having problems- but I didn’t really believe her, which is really evidence for my original point.)

So what are the takeaways here?

  1. There’s still too much shaming of sex (inter- and intra-generationally)
  2. We have a double-standard about who can have sex and who can talk about it
  3. We might not know everything
  4. Our parents might actually be able to tell us something about sex if we were willing to listen…
  5. but society has structured our attitudes about sexuality to prevent that
  6. Bianca isn’t sure she has the answer to this one…

 

So who’s heard the good news?  In a surprise move after the rider on the defense budget was struck in the Senate/House reconciliation of the bill, the House of Representatives introduced a stand-alone bill which dealt exclusively with repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  It passed the House last week and the Senate on Friday, officially ending the long-standing discriminatory policy.

But what does this mean?  For right now, the symbolism behind the act is HUGE, but the actual impact may be minimal for several more months.  There’s been a big push for a complete implementation of the policy within the first quarter of 2011 and an 80  page manual for dealing with the policy implementation has been published by the Defense Department.  These are good first steps, however, the way the repeal bill is written will slow the process for beginning implementation.

The New York Times explains: “Under the terms of the legislation that passed the Senate on Saturday and the House earlier last week, the Defense Department will not carry out the repeal until Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates , Mr. Obama and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “certify” that the military is ready to make the change. After that, the legislation requires a 60-day period before the change takes place.”

I highly recommend you read up on the language of the bill and how it handles procedural and policy decisions regarding soldiers in this same article.

Regardless of the stall in implementation, I’m incredibly thankful that we have senators courageous enough to take on this bill as a stand-alone and finally allow LGBT men and women to serve openly in the Armed Forces.

Sex Stats

As I’ve written before, one of the most common questions/concerns that people today have in a society starved for honest and open dialogue about sex is “AM I NORMAL?”

And of course, my answer has always been, “There is no normal.”

But for those of us where that isn’t an acceptable answer, here are some statistics the Daily Beast posted about America’s sex habits.

Out of Africa

There are a few reasons that I feel I need to write a serious blog post to you today.  First, I am leaving for Kenya in just shy of 3 weeks, and I am absolutely terrified and beyond excited.  Second, while I’m gone, this blog will go inactive, unless someone is there to care for it.  So three, I am scoping out caretakers for the site until I return.

This isn’t a big obligation, but if you ever felt like blogging about sex, sexuality, or the like, this is your shot.  I’ll be gone for four months and internet is spotty in Kenya, so I probably won’t have time to upload any content.  If you want to put something here, just email me at bonkiep@gmail.com or comment on this thread (or facebook me, if you must), and I’ll get it up there.  Your help will be greatly appreciated.

As for the actual post, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about homophobia on the international stage.  While I am in no position whatsoever to try and sum up what the nearly 200 countries in this world have integrated legally and socially into their codes against LGBT people, I can offer a few handy links to give you an idea.

The best source I’ve found to-date about the legal discrimination placed against LGBT people is this pamphlet issued by the International Lesbian and Gay Association called “State Sponsored Homophobia.” It goes state-by-state, listing all the applicable sodomy and obscenity clauses in national documents which apply to gay people.  The problem, of course, is that the document does not even begin to touch on the traumas, trials, and tribulations of transfolk in foreign countries, which is often an even more torturous road to travel.  As I’ve written before in my article on Queer Literature abroad, the story of Randa the Trans illustrates how even in the relatively progressive state of Lebanon, there are incredible hurdles for transpeople to clime in living the life they want, and if so desired, changing their body to fit that life.

As a queer person who is about to travel abroad, this reality terrifies me.  Queer activists in many countries, especially Russia, the Middle East, and Africa, are harassed, beaten, and stalked for their affiliations and beliefs.  They are murdered as examples to the LGBT community.  They are beacons towards a world of tolerance often swallowed up by the waves.

I am a person who despises injustice in all its forms and idolizes the people who fight for equality by putting their lives and futures on the line.  Yet, as a foreigner, I find myself worrying about my own personal safety.  What if I slip up and mention my girlfriend?  What happens if I attend a meeting for LGBT people in Nairobi?  Will there be angry mobs outside my door?  Will I be watched?  Vilified?  For me, perhaps this is an over-reaction- I am insignificant on the bustling streets of the city.  But am I really?  I’m a mwanza, a white person, sticking out like a sore thumb.  A white person in a black country means something, even when it means nothing.  People pay attention.  I do not honestly know how safe I am.

Now imagine that being your entire life.  Imagine always wondering who is watching you, who is checking the people you let into your apartment at night, who is noting where you go for drinks in the evening, who you dance with.  It’s an ugly, unnerving feeling, to be unsure who is out there and what their intentions are.

For the starkest picture, compound this constant alertness with the fear that strikes every woman at some point in her life: rape.  In many countries, most notably South Africa, civilian vigilantes still use “reparative rape” as a means of “converting” LGBT people back to normalcy.  And rape itself is not an unusual problem.  This article from BBC highlights the threat of gang rape in public latrines in Nairobi slums.  These are all issues staring me in the face during my study abroad.  The focus of the program isn’t ecology or African literature- it’s sustainable development.  That means addressing the structural problems of HIV/AIDS, rape, discrimination against women and LGBT people, the devastation wrought by poorly-run government programs and the slow decay of urban slums.  All problems are linked.  One cannot isolate one issue from another.

I can’t offer a solution to any of this yet, but perhaps after some field work, I’ll be able to report back with some perspective.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me to, but I know where it starts.  When I began my studies in International Relations, I thought there was no room for LGBT and sexuality studies in Africa, that other problems came first: water, access to medical care, etc.  But everything is interconnected, and I see now that the hardest and most obscure battle to be fought may be the one that needs the most help.  In closing, let me remind you to be thankful for your freedoms, but also never to compromise.  Always push for true acceptance, for real equality.  The battle is to be fought everywhere.

((side note: the bill to get rid of DADT just passed the house.  If it gets through the senate before the end of the year, President Obama will sign it and the discriminatory policy will be no more!))

Map your Sexuality

I consider myself to be fairly well-informed and open-minded when it comes to sex.  Even if I don’t engage in particular practices, I’m generally ok with the idea of someone else doing them, as long as it’s mutually consensual and is done safely.  But occasionally I run across something that reminds me how limited even my view of sexuality can be.

Enter: The Human Sex Map.  If any of you follow XKCD comics, this is reminiscent of his Online Communities Map, only the Sex Map is interactive.  You can mark activities you liked, didn’t like, want to try, or simply like to fantasize about.

But this map…made me feel incredibly square.  I will admit that I had to look up AT LEAST half a dozen of the terms on the map, just to be able to have some idea what they were.  While a few, like “bastinado” and “figging,” I’ve heard of but simply couldn’t remember what they were.  But others, like dacrylagnia or hotwifing, I had no idea even existed.

I filled out the map and was almost…disappointed in my preferences.  Seeing the array and variety of ways that sexual expression can manifest, my few pinpricks on the maps seemed almost comical for a woman whose devoted so much of her attention to a blog ABOUT SEXUALITY.

But to each his/her/hir own.

Anyway, if you’d like, please use the comments to mention anything you aren’t familiar with, or are vaguely familiar with but would like to know more about, and I’ll write about it.  Also, I challenge you to fill out the map to the best of your abilities and look at all the other aspects of human sexuality, trying to suspend judgement.  It’s harder than you think.

I wanted to wait a little while to post about the rash of gay suicides because of all the media attention that was suddenly focused on them that obscured so many of the details in their stories.  So now that it’s “over” and most of the world has forgotten about Tyler Clementi and Billy Lucas, I want to return to the real problem associated with gay bullying, and it has little to do with bullying at all.

I will admit that in a way, I used the gay suicides media blitz for my own benefit.  Capitalizing on the sudden outpouring of support that world gave to these teens, I submitted a proposal to my local high school aimed at creating a more tolerant and thoughtful student population through a 18 week Gender and Sexuality studies elective for juniors and seniors.  While the response was positive (my curriculum will be recommended the next time the Social Studies dept. undergoes curriculum review, probably in 2013), many people in the school’s administration cited ongoing anti-bullying campaigns as a way of helping promote tolerance of LGBT students.

This strikes me as slightly laughable.  Though my high school has one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying programs in the state, it didn’t stop my peers from tearing down GSA posters and putting up homophobic slogans in their place, nor stop them from complaining to the principle of “gay propaganda” during Gay History Month announcements.  Our anti-bullying program never once mentioned LGBT students as a population not to pick on, and so, it seems, they’ve been exempt from protection.

So many problems, including the suicides of these young boys in the past months, stem from this silence.  The Nation’s correspondent Richard Kim wrote an amazing piece about this phenomenon– how “gay bullying” isn’t a villain contained by the school yard, but one that’s fed by our insecurities in talking about LGBT issues.  And the response to these suicides shouldn’t be a push to punish the students who precipitated them by bullying, but to tackle the society-wide silence which allows them to bully.

“When faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it’s easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called “anti-gay bullying” and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard.”

Harry Potter Stands Up for Gay Rights, Won't You?

Harry Potter Stands Up for Gay Rights, Won't You?

As if I hadn’t said it enough, the problem is so easily solved by TALKING.  Gay intolerance seems like an insurmountable problem until you break it down into component parts.  Even if your child is bullied at school, told by the media that he/she/ze is inadequate or moral wrong, if you- just you, the parent- can reach out, say it’s OK, be a pillar of support at all times, then suddenly there’s a ray of  hope in the world for that child.  This is exactly the kind of issue where just one person can save a life.  If you are a student, reach out.  If you are a parent, reach out.  If you are a teacher, administrator, store clerk, employer, day-care worker, REACH OUT.

Gay teen suicides may come in rashes, but they don’t disappear.  If a child identifies as LGBT, they are 400% more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime.  Even when the news isn’t covering it, it’s happening.  Don’t turn a blind eye.

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