Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From Erica: in the news lately

After my unexpected absence due to intense legal term papers to write, I'm back! With some recent news items, no less. Check them out:

The Episcopalian Church has elected a lesbian woman to be the new bishop for the archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is causing a massive schism in the broader Episcopalian community. You can imagine my two cents on the issue: homophobia is far from over in our country, and extends way beyond the issue of gay marriage. But another question that comes to mind when I consider the issue is this: why are people of faith so much easier to convince of the veracity of an interpretation of a religious text when it's interpreted in a hateful, bigoted, or restrictive manner?

In acronym-land, news organizations and scientists are starting to pick up on yet another letter in meaning of LGBTT2IQQA. While for most people the acronym is just LGB or LGBT, the long version (standing for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual"- and it's STILL underinclusive) has acknowledged for a long time that there are folks out there who simply aren't interested in sex, or sex with other people. Science is finally catching up as researchers acknowledge that asexuality is, in fact, a real state of being. Welcome to the 21st century, science, where sexuality isn't as easy as looking for biological imperative.

In Orlando, Florida, a trans teen was harassed by the manager of a McDonald's to which she was applying when she was forced to check male or female in an optional application question. The manager apparently thought it was acceptable to point out that the sex she checked and her gender presentation didn't match his idea of the binary, and used various slurs to refer to her before kicking her out. Thankfully, Zikerria has a spine of steel, and has sued for discrimination. The manager's been fired, and hopefully her lawsuit draws attention to the continued inequalities our society forces upon trans folk. Good luck, Zikerria- you'll need it.

We also highlight a whole can of worms when we celebrate the fact that Huston, Texas is the first major American city to elect an openly lesbian mayor. Not only is she a lesbian, but she's also conservative- which may seem like an oxymoron, but is exciting solely for the reason that it demonstrates to the broader populace (we hope!) that sexuality and politics are not synonymous. The newspaper that brings us this story also brings us a summary of the year's landmark events for "gay rights," as they call it, from Proposition 8 to this mayoral election. It's been quite a year, folks, and while we've brought a lot of visibility to queer rights, we've also lost a lot of ground.

Finally, Nevada state officials have approved a method for testing male prostitutes for STIs, which means that soon male prostitutes will be able to be work with a license. The current regulations permit prostitutes to do sex work if they are approved for licensure, and the license requires regular testing for STIs- that is, it requires regular cervical testing. The new law permits urethral testing for men, which sounds quite uncomfortable but is a step in the right direction for protecting males who wish to be sex workers. I have to admit, though, I'm curious why the language had to be so specific in the first place as to require cervical testing. Did the legislators of the state renowned for its Sin City honestly think that they didn't have trans or male prostitutes?

That's all for now, folks!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

From Emily: Female Authority in the Classroom cont.

This is a post I just wrote for my personal blog, but I thought I'd share it here too:

Sometimes I grow so used to talking about gender amongst my like-minded friends that I forget how foreign some of my ideas will seem to those who oppose the premises that drive feminism. I forget that as soon as I mention the word "feminist," or explain that "gender" is by definition only culturally derived, the people I am speaking to will assume everything I say and do goes back to my hatred of men and my firm belief that men are out to get me. And then they will interpret everything - yes, everything - I say, through that lens.

Today I had some friends over from my home ward (if you're not LDS, what I mean is that they're from the same congregation I attend back in New Hampshire). One of my friends, Meghan, is dating a boy whose name I am sad to say I do not remember. He is a chemical engineering student, and the first time I met him, he offended me by explaining that English is a useless subject for him. He informed me of this immediately after I had learned that he was signed up for a class that I am team-teaching with a professor next semester.

Well, I should have kept my mouth shut, but I'm in the middle of some heavy revisions on a paper about the male returned missionary phenomenon at BYU, and how that affects power dynamics in sections of first year writing, when they're taught by young, female, grad students. I've been reading through You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen, a psychologist who explains a lot of male-female miscommunication with the concept that men see relationships in terms of hierarchy and women in terms of intimacy. While I take issue with Tannen's readiness to generalize these patterns, these patterns provide a helpful explanation behind the seemingly bizarre classroom dynamics I've encountered with my students.

I brought this topic up at the Ward Reunion because I was curious what the two men present (my sister's husband and Meghan's boyfriend) had to say about the idea of seeing relationships as hierarchies. And the way Meghan's boyfriend responded backed up everything I've been theorizing, along with everything Tannen argues. As soon as I mentioned gender, I saw Meghan reach over, and pat her boyfriend's knee. I started feeling a little apprehensive. But being me, I went ahead with the conversation anyway.

His response? He made a few different points, and I'd like to put them in list form, just because they're easier to process that way:

1. "I had a grad student for my 150 teacher after my mission, and I had no problem with a peer teaching me. We called her by her first name, and sure she was grading me, but we were still peers, and I liked it."

2. "It's fine [in reference to me team-teaching his 316 class]. I took one of my engineering classes early, so I'm the TA for people who are my peers or even my TAs in other classes. So I'm used to having peers teaching me."

I then pointed out that I have my students call me Ms./ Miss and then my last name. And his responses changed a bit.

3. "Well, I'm older than you. If I were in your class and you wanted me to call you Miss, that wouldn't seem right since we're peers."

I then said, "well, none of my students are older than me right now. What if you were 21, straight off the mission?"

4. "We'd still be peers. You're a grad student, not a professor, and if I knew my teacher wasn't really a professor and was trying to be authoritative anyway, that'd bother me. That might be your problem. I can see why that would bother some of your students."

Me: My students are not my academic peers

Him: Yes, they are. You've taken some more classes, but you're still peers.

Me: Not in that setting we're not.

Him: Yes, you are.

Me: Your responses have backed up everything I've found in my research. This is amazing!! [ overly excited, to try to remove any tension, with my childlike enthusiasm].

My sister's husband: I'm comfortable with accepting that even if in a different setting a 150 teacher isn't more advanced than me, they have more expertise than their students in that setting. I'm very comfortable with that as a student, regardless of their age, etc.

At first I just wanted to cry over how frustrating the whole conversation was, because I meet this kind of resistance to feminist-informed ideas everywhere I go. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to tell whether my logic is flawed, or whether I'm simply up against anti-feminism. But if I apply Deborah Tannen's research and theories, here's how I can interpret the struggle that played out in that scene: as a woman, I'm not thinking in terms of hierarchy, where I'm above my students, or better than them because I'm their teacher. I'm thinking in terms of the kind of respect that I deserve in the specific teacher-student relationship we have. So I maintain "I'm not your peer," by dressing professionally, asking them to call me Ms.____, and maintaining a professional distance. I do this to maintain the appropriate distance.

As men, however, they see that in any other context, I'd be their peer. We're both students, we're about the same age, and we're both in a church where we could easily be ward members together. In fact, they could receive church callings that put them in stewardship over me. If they see relationships in hierarchy, then by refusing to act like a peer, I am telling them that I think they're lower than me. That seems like a falsehood to them, so they resist it and act up in ways designed to return me to their status level. The more polite students try to come up to my level, while the seemingly rude students try to drag me down to theirs.

As a woman who is very much steeped in female perspective, I perceive their behavior as an attack on me as a person and on our comraderie as teacher and student. I see their rejections of my authority over them in this area as evidence that they don't respect me as a person, or as an expert. When the students try to join me at my level, however, I see them as validating the relationship of reciprocated respect that I want to have between myself and students. They do their assignments on time, are kind to me, and maybe even take the time to say "hi, how are you?" and get to know me as a friend. I still maintain a bit of a distance there, but I appreciate what I see as a gesture to deepen the personal connection between teacher and student. But perhaps their main goal is to make sure I am no longer their superior.

Also, now that I think back on it, the male students most likely to even the score through diligence and politeness are the students whose work I praise and grade highly. By scoring their work high, I express admiration for them as students instead of highlighting my position above them in a hierarchy. In fact, the rude responses I've received from male students have usually come when my position above them in a hierarchy was highlighted through a low grade or my refusal to budge on one of my policies. While they might not like being lower on a hierarchy in general, they'll especially bristle if I remind them of their position, when they see no evidence that I have a right to be above them in that hierarchy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From Emily: Female Domestic Abusers and Male Victims

I just came across an article about a couple who signed an agreement to limit a wife's abuse of the husband to once a week

I thought it fit in nicely with the recent media craze over Tiger Woods, and this lovely SNL video about Tiger Woods, which makes light of domestic abuse perpetrated by a woman against a man.

It should go without saying that any type of person can experience abuse at the hands of any other type of person. And movies or shows that consistently make light of a woman's ability to commit abuse against a man reinforce the extra burden of shame a man might feel over admitting that he's a victim of domestic abuse. Nobody, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, level of physical able-ness, religion, etc. etc. deserves abuse. Abuse is always a problem, no matter who commits it and who experiences it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

From Emily: The Gender Spotlight and the Classroom

Why have Erica and I have fallen off the face of the planet recently? Two words: term papers. They have arisen as suddenly as we should have expected from the beginning of the semester, and yet boy can they be consuming! One of my term papers, however, relates to our ongoing gendered discussions, so I want to briefly introduce some of those ideas.

I'm currently a grad student at BYU, and along with taking classes, etc. I am teaching first year writing. All new instructors take a composition pedagogy class, which is where this term paper comes in. For my term paper, I decided to look at an issue I'm passionate about, but where I'd also like to find a solution.

The issue I've chosen is the "gender spotlight" (as a male friend put it) that often inconveniences female teachers. Students often don't treat female teachers with the same level of respect as male teachers, and in my classroom I found that my female students showed me much more respect than some of my male students. Female students never criticize my policies in front of the entire class, or speak to me with a rudely sarcastic tone, or deliberately and repeatedly call me by my first name, even when I've asked the class to call me Ms._______ (sorry, not revealing my last name). If a female student doesn't like her grade, she'll usually come and ask me how to make her writing better in the future, whereas a male student will get annoyed and think I've graded him unfairly.

There are exceptions to this, of course. But as I've been writing this paper, I've honed in on something that's unique to BYU: the male returned missionary. If you're unfamiliar with LDS culture, here's a brief breakdown: for men in the LDS church, it's considered an obligation to spend two years as a volunteer missionary, provided the man's health doesn't prevent him from going. Usually men go when they're nineteen and then come back when they're twenty-one. While they're on their missions, they don't date. They spend all of their time assigned in pairs with other male missionaries, which builds a strong bond between all the male missionaries but also saturates them with male communication. In terms of leadership, they answer to a male mission president, in addition to local male church leaders. When women serve missions, they usually go when they're 21 or older. But within the mission, the leadership positions missionaries are called to, where they're in a position of authority over other missionaries, are always held by male missionaries. Which means that some returning missionaries may be used to having authority and stewardship over women who are a couple years older than them, without having answered directly to a female authority figure for two years.

I'm not saying it's wrong that the LDS church has such a high percentage of male leadership, but there are certainly some repercussions. In BYU's case, what this translates into is an environment where men who take first year writing (FYW) after the mission are at least 21, while many of the graduate instructors are women in their early- and mid- twenties. Sometimes recently returned male RMs have no recent experience answering to a female authority figure, let alone one so close to their age. They may not even have spent much time working with women as colleagues, since male and female missionaries don't spend a ton of time together. While I don't want my students to tremble in awe when I walk in the room, they do need to show me respect in basic ways, such as not texting in class (especially not when they're sitting in the front row!), not demanding that I "frickin'" do anything, and recognizing the fact that at the end of the day I do indeed determine the grade their work has earned.

As luck would have it, I happen to have an unusual number of male RM students, which creates very unique classroom dynamics. I'd say about half of them are very respectful, a quarter are rude, and another quarter skirt the line. What is interesting to me is that the ones who are most respectful still treat me more like a peer. Which I don't mind at all - I think that's great. I think it's possible to be respectful but also feel comfortable and friendly. These students do their work on time, they earn good grades as a result of doing their work well and on time, and on the occasion that something goes wrong (printer meltdowns, etc.) they don't demand that I make concessions for them. They recognize that there are consequences to everything, even if they also request a little mercy. There's a huge difference between "I'm so sorry I missed my conference slot. Is there any way I can make it up?" versus, "I had a mandatory meeting for x campus organization, so I would hope I'll still get credit for the conference." Especially when no documentation is ever provided, excusing the student because of x obligation.

In my term paper, I focus on trying to find solutions for the male RMs who seem uncomfortable with female authority, but I think there are many other important questions about gender and power relations in the classroom. For one, I've been fascinated by how my name factors into power relations. The male students who are straight out of high school, and all the female students, call me Ms.____. The male RMs usually avoid calling me anything at all. They simply don't address me in emails or in class, though one student will in a half-joking tone call me "teacher." A couple of the male RMs have a habit of trying to call me by my first name, but whenever they want something and need to be on my good side, they'll switch back and call me Ms._____. I can't help but wonder if it's a conscious decision.

I could speculate on why they do these things forever, but the truth is that I can't read their minds. All I know is that my term paper is still calling my name. There's a ton more I could write on this topic, but you really don't want to hear all of that. One amusing bit is how confused some of my colleagues have been as I've tried to use the term "cisgendered" in my paper. Even though I explain in the paper what that means, some of them have such a polarized conception of gender to begin with that it's unthinkable to even define a school of thought where gender is polarized. The thought that some see gender as more of a continuum is simply unthinkable. Interesting how language and our grasp of concepts interact, huh?

If anyone has similar, different, contradictory experiences, etc. I'd love to hear them.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From Erica: Gender neutrality, androgyny, and the invisible gender

NB: There are many academic articles that have been written on this subject, and I have copies of them all- in my parents' basement. Thus, many of the ideas from "some theorist" in this post are referencing a real author whose name I can't see to cite from.

When I was in my undergrad at McGill, a lot of my friends liked to play with gender. Many identified themselves as genderqueer or genderfuckers, some identified as trans, and a few identified as people who liked to play for the sake of performance. Some of them maintained their assigned pronouns, and some didn't. One thing struck me though: of all of the gender-queering folk I was friends with, only one of them queered in the direction of femininity. Everyone else- including the friends who chose to present as gender-neutral as possible- presented many characteristics that are very strongly associated with masculinity. Short hair, pants, "men's" work shirts, ties...the list goes on. And for many of these friends, their assigned gender identity had been feminine for most of their lives, so for them masculine traits were a new experience, a realm for exploration, and the complete opposite of what they'd been forced (in one way or another) to present and pretend to own for a very long time.

But for me it begs the question: what happened to gender neutrality? One of the theorists I read in my undergrad days pointed out once, in discussions of oppression, that the key to maintaining a hegemony, a dominant group, is to make the dominant group invisible. In this view, White/Caucasian isn't a race, male isn't a sex, heterosexuality isn't a real sexuality, and masculine isn't a gender presentation. Well, they are, but no one perceives them that way; race, sex, sexuality, gender are all things that belong to people in Other categories. Thus, People of Colour have race, females have a sex, queer folk have a sexuality, and femininity is a possessed gender presentation. Another way of phrasing this is to say that people who are members of the dominant categories are often completely unaware of these characteristics that they have that are used to marginalize the people who do not have them. Think about it: how many straight folk are aware of their straight-ness or are conscious of how they indicate it? Often, unless they've mistakenly wandered into a queer club, they're oblivious.

The thing is that masculinity has not only been coded as invisible, but it's been coded as androgynous. With the one exception, every genderqueer person I knew at McGill played with masculinity to express their gender neutrality; the only friend I had who used femininity to genderqueer got all kinds of flack from outsiders for "doing it wrong," in lay terms. Somehow, too, this wasn't just connected to the assigned genders and sexes of the people who were playing or identifying with genderqueer presentations. It wasn't a situation in which formerly cis women were playing with masculinity and formerly cis men were playing with femininity- and, to be honest, I don't know (and don't care to know) what everyone's assigned genders and sexes were. Some folks kept their assigned sex (including pronouns) while playing with gender, and enjoyed disclosing it, while others did not. But it seemed that the universal consensus was that femininity was only gender-neutral when done in certain ways- a shaggy "boy" cut, dark eyeliner and/or lipstick, breasts that weren't bound- and masculinity should be presented otherwise. In that community, the general idea was that androgyny looked like a Goth cis-boy.

This isn't something that's particular to my own favourite community, though. Even in other areas, where genderqueering isn't exactly the expected, trending towards masculinity has been a big thing. Another theorist I read had a field day with cis-women's fashions and bodies in the workforce. Her argument was that since the early 1970s, especially for White women, expectations of bodies and clothes have been getting progressively more masculine- especially in the workforce. Of course these clothes and ideals maintain SOME element of femininity- God forbid our culture should fail to distinguish between men and women!- but, overall, the expectations are shockingly non-neutral. Power suits, for example, have become coded for women as well, especially with pants. Women in the workforce shouldn't wear ties, but should buy blouses with ruffles at the neckline and down the bosom- the feminine version of a tie. Of course, too, women should be skinny, and while they should maintain a certain amount of their curves- a push-up bra is a must- they absolutely shouldn't have an obvious hourglass figure or "flaunt" those curves in any way. In short, they should look boyish and masculine-professional, but not so masculine or so professional as to destroy the male-dominated gender-binaric power structure we've got going on in the US. Can you imagine the ruckus that would go up if some cis-man on Wall Street wore a skirt to be professional? Pants have become universalized- and this isn't a bad thing, because they're so comfy and practical- but have been coded as neutral while feminine articles, such as skirts, have not.

In majority culture in the US, we continue to believe that many things are neutral that really aren't- as Emily pointed out a few days ago. And, to a certain extent, I understand why so many masculine traits have become absorbed into the realm of the neutral while many of the "higher" feminine traits have not: high heels, skirts, fitted shirts, highly stylized hair, jewelry, and "unnaturally natural" makeup are all inconvenient, expensive, and occasionally painful. At the same time though, they can be a lot of fun, and they can look great on people. As my femme-leaning genderqueer friend proved time and time again, feminine characteristics can be worn and manipulated in ways that are flattering, phenomenal, and still a big middle finger to the gender binary. So why can't we get over the assumption that gender-neutral necessarily means masculine?

My theory, at least in part, is that the feminine traits we're foregoing in our cultural attempts to achieve neutrality- or, as in the case of the business world, to achieve some sort of reasonable "anyone can do it" professional standard- are not only traits that don't belong to the Golden Standard of masculinity, but are traits that belong to a group of people that have historically been marginalized, abused, and oppressed. Wearing a skirt and high heels isn't only occasionally uncomfortable; it's also a signifier of a particular power position in majority US culture. It's as though our fashion choices are revealing our decision: to be powerful, to be in control of our lives and identities, we have to be masculine. And- as a card-carrying cis-woman who enjoys her heels and skirts from time to time- I don't intend to deplore femme presentations, but these are historically the signifiers of victimhood. Of subordination. Of powerlessness. Heels make it harder to walk or run. Skirts limit the length of your stride. If you're worried about your makeup or your hair, you're not likely to do anything to get you messy.

The thing is, they don't have to be. While most of the cultural examples of kick-ass personalities in high femme getup are still sex objects intended for heterosexual male desire- fictional and real, and here Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind- they're still kick-ass. They're not being victimized- except in a broader cultural sense, as I just mentioned- and they've earned themselves high amounts of respect. Who would call Michelle Obama a victim at this point in her life? Aside from the fashion magazines that are constantly picking on her for having arm muscles or wearing a sleeveless blouse or whatever fashion faux pas they're accusing her of now, she is influential and highly respected- and wearing heels and skirts.

I'd love to see that sort of dynamic be extended into the realm of gender neutrality or gender universality. Where it doesn't have to come from masculinity in order to be neutral or universal. Because as long as we're saying it does, or acting as though it does, we're implicitly saying that, in our gender-binaric culture, any cis-man who wears a skirt is giving up his right to social power and control. Femininity is only okay as long as it's performed by cis-women, and only as long as they understand that they're second-rate. I'd love to overturn that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

From Emily: Facebook, how could you?

I was a little perplexed when this showed up as one of my facebook updates:

Deb Clark wants to put your birthday on his calender [- Accept -] 4 hours ago

I couldn't figure out who this man could possibly be. I really didn't think I knew a man named Deb. So I clicked on the name, and up popped a picture of Deb, a lady who happens to be my first cousin once removed. Now, I remember how awkward it was when facebook first started trying to add in pronouns for people who hadn't specified a gender or sex. "John is enjoying its classes," and "Carly is excited about its birthday" are problematic for obvious reason. But I thought we'd progressed past assuming that male pronouns are gender neutral.

I'm doing some research for a paper on gender in the classroom, and one very interesting thing I encountered was a discussion of some studies that had been done with terms that don't mention gender at all, and terms that were based in masculine words but that were argued to have historically been gender-neutral. How the study worked, is they gave half the subjects gender-free terms such as ancient people, or humanity and asked them to draw a picture. They then asked the other half to draw a picture of supposedly gender neutral terms like ancient man, and mankind. The findings? The terms that were linked to men but that were supposed to be gender neutral in fact drastically increased the number of subjects who drew male-only drawings.

So the next time you think gender-free pronouns, or more inclusive pronouns (such as "he or she," "s/he" or "ze") are pointless, remember the drawings.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Emily: Brigham Young University closes the Women's Research Institute

Dear Readers,

It's difficult to express how heartbroken I am over BYU's recent decision to shut down the Women's Research Institute and move the women's studies minor to the college of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. I love the social sciences, but I see no way that an interdisciplinary field can be successfully housed within a single discipline. As an alumnus of the women's studies minor who graduated with a BA in English, I am grateful that the minor was interdisciplinary while I took part in it, and I am anxious over the loss of the interdisciplinary collaboration that is so essential to work in the field of women's studies and gender studies.

If you're unfamiliar with the history of this decision, let me explain what I do know. According to a press release BYU put out last week, the WRI will be shut down in just six short weeks, at the end of this very semester. The press release so cheerily glosses over important details that some have compared it to George Orwell's Animal Farm. While the press release refers to the closing of the WRI as a mere reorganiztion of the program and claims that dispersing the 85+ scholars involved with the WRI will "streamline and strengthen" the program, the press release provides no explanation as to how this dispersion will not tear apart a field that is by nature collaborative and interdisciplinary.

A group of faculty affiliated with the WRI have posted an impressively diplomatic eulogy for the WRI on squaretwo.com, detailing its history and some of the spectacular accomplishments it has produced in the 31 years since its birth. I highly recommend clicking on the above link, and I'd particularly like to draw your attention to the post's statement that only about a third of the WRI's funding came directly from BYU, and that the funding from BYU "amounted to the average salary of a full-time professor." What's even sadder, is that BYU's press release proudly claims BYU will increase funding into women's research. How? By putting a mere $25,000 into a fund for faculty grants. But how on earth does such a small fraction of the funds the WRI put towards research increase funding? Whatever the press release says, logic dictates otherwise.

Initially BYU tried to keep this matter hush hush, as evidenced by their delay in announcing this decision. The WRI will close at the end of this very semester, the instant students leave campus in December, and yet the decision was only made public on October 29th. Since the public outcry occasioned by this announcement and through the work of a vibrant facebook group however, the Utah press has begun paying attention, with notable articles published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, and BYU's newspaper, The Daily Universe. Online commenting on these articles has gone through the roof, and a facebook group in support of saving the WRI has gained over one thousand members in just a few days.

Hundreds of students are writing letters and emails, and calling and visiting the Academic VP, John Tanner, to ask him how cutting funding and closing this important location for interdisciplinary collaboration will in fact "streamline and strengthen" the program. And how does dispersing the many faculty members affiliated with the WRI streamline the program? Dispersing and complicating a program does anything but simplify it. Today John Tanner emailed a link with his response to the many emails he has received on this subject, but as you can see this response leaves these important questions unanswered and provides no clear reason behind why the WRI is being shut down.

I sought Dr. Tanner out in person today after receiving his email link and told him I still had questions. He told me he had too many appointments to talk to me, but that it was nice to meet me and shook my hand. He seemed like a nice man, and I'm sure he had the best of intentions in approving this decision. But the decision is nevertheless a horrifying and thus far unjustified mistake. When so many people outside the LDS church mistakenly think that the LDS gospel (and Christianity in general) oppresses women, we need organizations like the WRI to demonstrate to the world that that simply is not true.

If you aren't affiliated with BYU, maybe you're wondering what any of this has to do with you. Why should you care? Well, according to the squaretwo article, "Within the last twenty years of record-keeping, no other university in the country has eliminated its center of research concerning women." Just think about that for a moment: this is the first documented case of a university shutting down its center of research concerning women in the last twenty years. Though the BYU press release claims this move does not stem from an effort to conserve university funds, I am terrified that other universities will follow their lead for financial reasons.

Times of economic trouble have a history of further marginalizing and breeding antagonism toward minorities. Already I've heard reports that African American Studies programs are being slashed across the nation. As Erica and I are constantly saying on the blog, we need collaboration and healthy discussion between all groups of people, but especially between minority groups. Though I am positive that BYU decided to close the WRI with good intentions, this decision will shut down discussion of issues that concern women and gender and may perhaps provide a springboard for individuals hoping to derail years of progress in de-marginalizing minority groups in the United States.

My plea to all of you, whether you have any direct connection to BYU or not, is to write letters and make phone calls to the administration at BYU. Respectfully and articulately explain how this decision will negatively impact you and many others. The BYU administration needs to know the truth of how much damage this decision will cause if it runs its course unchecked.

Here are some links to other blogs that express sadness and dismay over the dissolution of the WRI:

A response by a former WRI employee

Hidden Domestic

Feminist Mormon Housewives

"BYU is out to get me" by Sarah, who has been a power house in organizing everything.

"BYU does it again"

Third-Wave Mormon

the bee in your bonnet: "streamline and strengthen"

Is BYU all about parity?

By Common Consent: "Goodbye Women's Research Institute

Dissenting in Part: "Another BYU snafu"

A wannabe malingerer: The WRI

Schrodinger's Cat: Closing the WRI = Bad Idea

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From Erica: in the gay news

So, readers, in the last week we've had some interesting things crop up in the news, especially as they pertain to LGBTQI folk and their civil rights. I thought I'd link a couple of them here.

First, after his talk to an LGBQ pride group- during which he was criticized for not making good on his campaign promises for our civil rights- Congress passed and Obama signed the revised Hate Crimes Bill, which now identifies sexual orientation and gender identity as categories under which someone can be targeted for a hate crime. This has been a long time coming, folks.

Second, the Ryan White Care Act, which provides a lot of funding for HIV- and AIDS-based programs throughout the country, including treatment for about 500,000 folks who can't afford treatment on their own, was reauthorized in the House last week and should be headed to Obama's desk soon. Is the bill perfect? No. It doesn't provide a lot of the medical subsidies until a person's immune system qualifies them for AIDS, at which point treatment becomes a lot more expensive and complicated. By way of contrast, Canada's medical support system starts treating those with HIV much earlier in the diagnosis, which significantly slows the virus's progress through the body and reduces costs in the long term. At least the law in the US will increase funding somewhat, rather than cutting it back as has been happening for the past several years.

Finally, the sad news I woke up to this morning: Maine voters turned out against gay marriage yesterday, overturning the bill that had been passed earlier in the year. I can't even begin to tell you all how sad this makes me. In the LGBTQI camp, there's a lot of discussion about whether marriage is something "we" even want- it perpetuates discrimination against polyamoury, it's a system set up by a heterocentric society, it expects us to buy into the "one perfect person for everyone" line- but beyond these arguments, I think, is the most important fact that underlies the whole debate: whether or not we "need" our relationships validated by the state, having so many people turn out against us is disheartening because that's representative of how many people think our relationships are wrong, are worthless, aren't good enough. That's the number of people who believe it's okay- or, in some cases, morally right- to deny us access to legal rights and parental rights that should be ours as people and as citizens. I'm confident that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn the laws that bar us from getting married, but I'm getting tired of waiting for that day.

That's all I have to say for now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

From Erica: oh, Catholicism

In light of the recent news that the Pope is extending a relatively warm welcome to disgruntled Anglicans and their clergy- a reaction to the Anglican Church's ever-warming attitude towards female and openly gay clergy- I think it's time to talk a little bit about faith life, disappointment, and hope.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a practicing Catholic. I was born to parents who are Catholic, who baptized me when I was three months old, and I've attended Mass on a relatively regular basis for the vast majority of my life. At age 9, I wrote a letter to the Pope demanding that he allow women to become priests so I could be one. At age 16, I made the choice to be confirmed in the church, and have stuck with that decision in spite of the numerous differences between my personal politics and the many professed politics of the global Catholic community.

The thing that's been challenging, at least for me, is the fact that many people- especially in the feminist community- completely fail to understand how I could espouse the politics I do and continue to participate in an organization that, to them, is entirely oppressive, backwards, and wrong. At best, I'm delusional, and at worst, I'm a hypocrite. To be honest, this logic is the reason I left the Feministing community in Fall 2008 and started Not Another Wave a few months later. Not that Feministing didn't have other, equally troublesome biases going on; but this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I think the most bothersome thing about such polar thinking- either you're with them or you're with us- is that it shows a complete lack of understanding of how identity works. Identity isn't an all-or-nothing process, and it's not a static thing. Group membership hardly ever functions on the notion that all members believe identical things at all times. Look at American politics- most of us, for better or for worse, accept the identity of American, but that identity means very different things to each of us. And the identity's meaning will not only vary from person to person, but also from location to location, and situation to situation. There have been times in my life when I've been extremely proud of my national identity, and many times (especially since 2000) that I've been utterly ashamed of it. Ambivalence, I would argue, is a hallmark of the identity process, no matter how much you can argue that your identity is a choice.

Let's get back to the example of Catholicism. For me, there is a lot of shame associated with the broader politics of the Catholic Church. I spent a lot of time being enraged about Pope John Paul II's refusal to reconsider the church's stance on birth control, even in light of the incredible influence that Catholicism was having in regions of Africa that were being stricken by HIV and AIDS; the fact that my sex and gender identity meant that, at age 9, I was told by my mother that I couldn't use the priesthood as a means of effecting social change still upsets me; and the church's stance on abortion rights makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Even more than that, there are many individuals- clergy and non-clergy alike- who would read this post and what else I'm about to say and tell me that I'm a sinner, I'm going to Hell, I'm not really a Catholic, I'm a bad person, etc. These are people that I'm supposed to feel in community with and feel an ability to confide in. This is the part of the church, and of my Catholic identity, that I despise with the most bitter loathing I've ever experienced.

But, by way of contrast, let me tell you about the church in which I grew up and came of age. It's a relatively small community- about 700 folks from a broad geographic area in New Hampshire- and very close-knit. Many of the members were there when my parents first moved to the area in 1984, and will be present at my wedding next summer. When my parents went through medical crises, the community was there. When my sister left school to work for the Obama campaign, the community- even the members who were McCain fans- supported her. Whenever I walked the 3-Day for the Cure, the community supported me with warm wishes, thousands of dollars, and offers for rides, training, and help fundraising.

The priest in my church for many years was Fr. Daniel St. Laurent- or, as we call him, Fr. Dan. During his decade with us, he connected us to an incredibly impoverished community in Honduras- San Francisco de la Paz- and got our communities networking to begin Project Eden, which is a grassroots project in Honduras that simultaneously prevents soil erosion, provides sustainable farming for the community, and raises money for local students to go to school. Fr. Dan's example of how to be a Catholic- how to recognize the problems of poverty and inequality in our world and how to respond to them ethically- extended to many of the other members of our community as well. When I was preparing for confirmation, my sponsor- a woman who had spent years doing education with incarcerated women- brought me to my first Habitat for Humanity project and volunteered alongside me. The man who will be officiating my wedding is a former priest (his wife is a former nun) who provides pastoral counseling in a local hospital and, on the weekends, co-facilitates support groups with my father at the federal prison.

Growing up, it was instilled in me that being a good Catholic and, more importantly, being a good person meant dedicating my life to social justice, equality, and the freedom and empowerment of all. My particular career choice (social work) has nuanced and shaped those values, but the overall themes remain the same as they were when I was a little girl at St. Thomas More parish. In my community, abortion wasn't the problem- the social conditions that made abortion desirable, such as rape and a lack of social and medical support were. Sexuality wasn't the problem- the ostracization of sexual minorities was. And while no one actively encouraged sex before marriage, or abortion, or queer relationships, no one prayed for the restitution of those folks' souls. No one preached about those folks' sins. For us, the church was about loving kindness. And this is the part of Catholicism that brings me a deep pride and joy, and that I see as consistent with my politics and choices.

Over the years, I've gone from insisting that "I'm not THAT kind of Catholic" to learning to distinguish between the values I support and the values I reject. Instead of seeing the perfect church as being taken over by evil conservative zealots, I see the church for more of what it is- a faith body with incredible flaws and incredible virtues. Given its role in shaping the justice-seeker I am today, and given the peace I gain from many of its rituals, communities, and prayers, I could no more leave it- in spite of the pain it often causes me- than I could leave feminism. So instead of turning my back on it in frustration and sorrow, I choose to remain with it and advocate for its change. Audre Lorde had a point about social change when she wrote that "the Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house," but I also think that ignoring or denying the "Master's house" isn't any more effective in bringing it down. Belonging to an institution that has so often been anti-feminist and anti-progressive is an incredible challenge. But it doesn't make me ignorant or a hypocrite.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

From Emily: Modern Black Face?

I just saw “this photo of Obama” on facebook.

Anyone disturbed by the similarity to “black face”?

I have no problem with people expressing their view that Obama is a fascist (no matter how misguided that particular view seems to me). But this kind of photo is unacceptable. I don't care if they're really trying to say he's acting like a clown, or just that he's wearing a mask. It's insensitive, and it perpetuates racism, whether they know it or not.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From Emily: How to Help Survivors and Victims

About a year ago, a good friend of mine sent me a message on facebook. She said she was having a hard time knowing how to help a lot of her friends. She said that many of her friends were survivors of abuse, and that it bothered her to see how depressed those friends were, that they didn't seem to see the beauty in life. She also said (and this is the point where a red flag went up for me) that she couldn't convince some of these friends to forgive their former abusers, that she couldn't convince them they were only giving the abuser more power over them by staying angry.

My response then, and my response now, is that you have to be extremely careful how you talk to victims and survivors. Seriously - be very careful. Here are some informal rules I'd recommend you follow:

1. DO NOT criticize the victims/survivors. In general, these are people whose sense of self worth is struggling, and who are having a difficult time trusting others. If you start telling them "you're wrong, and you need to change," you run the risk of destroying the trust they've established with you (and they must trust you at least a bit if they're confiding in you). Also be aware that many victims/survivors do, indeed, learn to blame themselves for the perpetrators abuse. If you start telling them how bad it is for them to be unforgiving, you run the risk of reinforcing a mistaken belief that the situation is or was their fault.

2. Accept Victims and Survivors as they are, no strings attached. You're not their counselor, you're their friend. So be a supportive and accepting friend. Don't threaten to cut off your friendship (or in other words, to punish them) if they stay with the abuser. That may seem like an excellent way to help them, but what you're doing is adding to the controlling nature of the abuse. Express your concern about the abusive behavior of the perpetrator, but don't make the situation worse by manipulating the victim. Tough love works wonders in some situations, but helping out abuse victims is not one of them. I promise you, a listening ear and accepting nature will do a lot more good for the victim or survivor in the long run.

3. Recognize that forgiveness is a process. And part of that process requires a victim/survivor to recognize the abuse for the abuse that it truly is. If a person has spent years blaming him- or herself for behavior that he or she was in no way responsible for, he or she may need awhile to get used to the idea that a) the abuse was not his or her fault and that b) it was indeed wrong. So if you're around a survivor who suddenly wants to talk about how wrong the abuser was to do all the things he or she did, don't freak out. Don't judge him or her. Accept this as part of the cycle of forgiveness. After all, if a person doesn't first recognize that a wrong has indeed been done, how can he or she forgive the perpetrator of that wrong?

4. Focus on behavior patterns. As Erica said the other day, you should focus on your concern about the behavior of the perpetrator when you're talking with a victim/survivor, rather than simply criticizing the perpetrator. Let me share an anecdote that I hope will help illustrate this: last year I was living with a couple of very good friends. We had a bit of a falling out, and my then friends/roommates essentially ganged up on me. They constantly criticized my character, blamed me for everything that went wrong in the apartment, and even justified not giving me a say about anything that happened in the apartment by insisting that bad things about me negated that right. When I confronted them about how they were treating me, they insisted that their behavior was my responsibility, and explained why in great detail. If you've been following along this week, you'll probably recognize this as a classic description of abuse. (If you didn't think roommates could become abusive, think again).

A lot of people that I told about the situation just said, "they're jerks," or, "something is wrong with them," or my personal favorite, "they sound like poison." But that kind of feedback left me feeling guilty about complaining. After all, these girls had been my friends for years, and I didn't want to think poorly of them. However, when I told Erica about the situation and she recognized that what they were doing was emotional abuse, she was able to emphasize how dangerous their behavior was and stress her concern for my emotional well-being, without criticizing them. Her emphasis on how dangerous and wrong their behavior was allowed me to recognize that I could forgive them, but that for my own emotional and psychological well-being, I couldn't remain in contact with them.

Look at it this way: if you've been close to a person for years, you know both their weaknesses and their strengths. You know they can be a jerk, but you also know how wonderful they can be. Even in the midst of abuse, a perpetrator will occasionally be nice or sweet to a victim. So, if you depict the abuser as all evil, the victim is going to know it's not true, and you will now sound misguided, judgmental, and wrong. The victim may not know how to accept your advice if you seem so confused about the "true" nature of the perpetrator. When you focus on specific behavior patterns, though, you can emphasize that those behavior patterns are dangerous, despite whatever good behavior patterns are still going on. Your emphasis on behavior patterns will also show the victim how well you understand human nature and make him or her more likely to trust you.

5. Validate the victim/survivor's perspective. While you should emphasize behavior over general criticisms of the perpetrator, be understanding if the victim or survivor doesn't. Do not, do not, do not tell the victim/survivor he or she is wrong about how bad of a person the perpetrator is or was. In addition to everything else a victim/survivor is struggling through, he or she may have a very difficult time trusting his or her own judgment. In many cases, a victim has spent years with an abuser who insists "you're stupid, you're wrong, you're not worth anything," and any number of other lies. If a victim/survivor says, "I think my abuser was evil," let him or her know how much you empathize and can understand that perspective. If you respond with, "Well, I don't know. I mean, evil's a strong word," you're just reinforcing the idea that the victim/survivor cannot trust his or her own judgment. So, always validate the emotion, even if you disagree with the statement.

6. Above all else, be a reliable friend.

Hopefully those guidelines are helpful. For more tips, check out Erica's post on this subject.

From Laurel House: A guest post on the impact of Farrah Fawcett

NB: This post comes to us from the blogs of Laurel House, a non-profit domestic abuse organization in southeastern Pennsylvania where Erica spent a year doing counseling with survivors of domestic abuse.

With the passing of Farrah Fawcett yesterday, it's easy to remember her for the 70s icon that she undoubtedly was. But it is her later work, first in the play Extremities and the 1984 groundbreaking movie The Burning Bed that is significant.

Her portrayals of women affected by violence and domestic abuse allowed others to become educated and aware of the signs of domestic violence.

This was in a time when domestic violence was talked about in a whisper, if at all. The Burning Bed was a controversial movie for the heavy issues contained within.

It was a role that many other actresses might not have felt brave enough to take on, but which Farrah did. And by making a contribution to erase the stigma of rape and domestic abuse, she became a champion for women whose voices were silent. Finally, they were beginning to be heard.

They were heard on the hotlines, and The Burning Bed was reportedly the first such movie to include a toll-free domestic violence hotline at the closing credits, that of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which continues to be available for people in crisis at 800-799-SAFE. Farrah later became a board member of NDVH, and identified with the issue of domestic abuse.

There's no way to measure how many women Farrah touched by her portrayal of a battered wife. But if she saved only one life, or inspired only one woman to seek help and find her way out, then Farrah becomes more iconic in a way that deserves our remembrance, honor and gratitude.

Monday, October 26, 2009

From Erica: How to Help

The question of how to help a friend, family member, or acquaintance who's dealing with intimate partner abuse comes with a lot of answers, not all of which are necessarily wise or effective. When I used to talk to adolescents about this, for example, their first suggestion was always to tell their friend to dump their abuser or to punch the abuser in numerous unpleasant places. Their suggestions were usually funny, but effective? Not so much.

"Why isn't that effective?" you might ask. "They're in danger and their abuser's evil. They need to leave." That is often true, but think back to how a victim often perceives their abuser- someone who does bad things, but truly needs and loves the victim in spite of all that. When you tell a victim to just leave, it can sound a little bit like you don't understand what's going on and are insensitive to the needs of the victim and their abuser.

"Okay," I can hear you saying, "if you're so smart, what are better ways to keep my friend safe?" Well, I'm glad you asked! Here are some tips and suggestions for how to support someone who's being abused.

Criticize behaviours, not the person. Instead of calling someone's abuser a jerk or an asshole, consider discussing particular behaviours that concern you. Telling your friend that it worries you when their partner won't let them go out with friends, or that you're scared for their safety because the abuser says threatening things, is going to go a lot farther with your friend than straight-up insults. Remember that your friend loves their abuser to a certain extent, and also bear in mind that the abuser might've been spreading rumours about you to your friend.

Reassure your friend that you believe them. A common tactic of abusers is to tell their victims that no one will believe them if they seek help. If you can reassure your friend that you believe their story, that's a great first step to breaking the cycle of abuse.

On the same lines, reassure your friend that the abuse isn't their fault. Many abusers blame their victims for the abuse, and over time that becomes difficult for victims to disbelieve. Helping them to gain perspective on who's to blame for abuse is another good step in helping them break the cycle of abuse.

Listen to them. Remember that, as dangerous a situation as your friend might be in, they might not be ready to leave. This can be extremely difficult to deal with as a friend of a victim, but it's a reality that you need to be prepared to handle. Don't stop making sure your friend has access to hotline numbers, but don't put undue pressure on them to leave if they're really not ready.

Get informed! Over the past month we've offered you some information about abuse and the legal and social organizations that deal with it, but there's always more information out there. We can't encourage you enough to check out the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A few don'ts:
  • Don't deal with the abusers directly, if at all possible. It might feel gratifying to yell at the abuser, threaten them, or tell them you know what they're up to. But it's a really bad idea! Not only does it put you in danger, but it also increases the likelihood that the abuser will use your behaviour as an excuse to hurt your friend even more.
  • Don't offer to let your friend stay with you unless you can be sure that the abuser won't come looking for them there. The last thing you need is an angry, dangerous person showing up at your home, looking for your friend. A better idea? Offer to help your friend get to a shelter or a safe drop-off point.
  • Don't become your friend's advocate. By "advocate," I mean the person who assists them in navigating the legal and social barriers to safety. If you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, they can connect you (and your friend!) to local advocacy services that will guide your friend through the legal system. Not only does this mean that your friend is working with people with a lot of experience in this area, but it also means that you can take a step back and do what you're good at- being a good, supportive friend.
So this brings us to the end of our formal Domestic Violence Awareness Month posts. Later this week we'll have a spotlight article from the Laurel House, a domestic abuse organization that serves Southeastern Pennsylvania

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From Erica: in the news this past week

Here are a few more items I found in the news this week that had me intrigued, critical, thoughtfully upset, and enraged, respectively. Here they are, for your enjoyment!

The first item is an article from the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, that discussed the meltdown of "supergirls"- the middle-class, White, seemingly ideal adolescent females who find themselves struggling with all kinds of psychological problems as they deal with the enormous pressures of their lives. I find it intriguing for several reasons, my personal experiences with such meltdowns notwithstanding. One worrisome trend I've noticed in anti-oppression work, from theorists and activists of all sorts, is the tendency to minimize or deny the very real problems that privileged folks can (and do) have. And while it's important to acknowledge the fact that some problems might appear to be objectively more pressing or serious than others, a complete denial or de-legitimization of someone's distress is unhelpful and wrong.

The second item, from CNN, looks at the mixed reception to Mattel's latest line of African-American Barbies. The dolls were created by an African-American designer who wanted to offer African-American girls the chance to play with mainstream toys that more accurately reflected their own appearances. The dolls have thus been designed with fuller lips, curlier hair, and other features that are typically defined as African in origin. The controversy now a-brewing is that the dolls aren't viewed as being "Black enough" by some folks, mostly because the dolls retain a lot of Caucasian-influenced features (especially, as one person described it, "long, straight hair"). My two cents? African-American children (and children of Colour in general) grow up in the US with fewer toys available that offer them reasonably accurate, culturally flexible, and positive representations of themselves and their identities. This needs to change. That being said, it's not like Barbie's always been a positive representation for White children, either. While White kids can expect to buy a Barbie with their combination of hair and eye colour, they can also expect to buy a Barbie that idealizes and fetishizes the female form into some gross parody of humanity. Bottom line, Barbie's problematic. As usual.

The third item comes out of Australia, where the government is considering what to do about a proposed ban on Uluru climbs. Here's the background: Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock, is a monumental...well, rock in the Great Australian Desert. It's a popular tourist site, but more importantly, it's a sacred space for the Aboriginal groups who live in the desert. For a long time, the Australian government has permitted tourists to climb Uluru in spite of Aboriginal protests, and this ban would seek to restore the sanctity of the space from its current tourist status. I'm highlighting this controversy for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the all-too-common story of struggles between original inhabitants of an area and current dominant groups using the area for their own purposes. I visited Uluru when I was seven, and even at that age it was impressed on me by my parents- who tried to balance our tourism with a respect for the sacredness of the space in Aboriginal cultures- that, no matter how much money we paid for our tickets to be there, we were guests of the Aboriginal groups who valued Uluru, not the Australian government. Since I know not all tourists tried to strike that balance- and it can be argued that being a tourist there eliminates all possibility of balance- I would argue that a climbing ban, out of respect for the traditions of the Aboriginal people who live there, is completely reasonable.

Finally, again from the UK, we have a story about a Muslim woman who was denied entry to Burnley College because she wears the burkha. As usual, the readers of the Daily Mail felt compelled to comment on the article, or rank the comments in accordance with "agree" or "disagree," and overwhelmingly their opinions were bigoted, narrow-minded, and ignorant. Between cries of "go back to the Middle East!" and "you should just adjust to Western life!" were other remarks about how no self-respecting woman could choose the burkha, how her choice of dress is a safety concern because of what she could be hiding "under there," and how we can blame liberals (especially Prime Minister Gordon Brown) for this issue. I suppose this makes another victory for hate-mongering, Islamophobia, and a bipartisan view of the world. How depressing.

That's it for the news of the past week, at least as far as I felt like bringing it in. Tomorrow will be our final Domestic Violence Awareness Month "how-to," and we'll bring in a couple of extra posts on the side for that. We're also looking forward to bringing in a guest contributor sometime in the next few weeks as well. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From Erica: genital restructuring survery for survivors of female genital cutting?

This morning, I woke up to an email from my partner with this link included. The article, published by Newsweek, talks about a doctor- a doctor who happens to have undergone genital restructuring surgery herself as part of a male-to-female transition- who has started working to adapt the procedures used to "create" the labia, clitoris, and vaginal openings for use on women who have (often forcibly) undergone female genital cutting.

Of course, there are some problems with the article- for example, the prevailing assumption (both from the writer and from the article's main interview subjects) that a person needs the full complement of normative female genitalia in order to be a "real" woman- but it also did a wonderful job of highlighting the myriad of roles that genitalia and sexuality play in broader human experiences. Whether it's in attaining a genital look and feel that have been taboo in one's culture, or whether it's changing the body to match one's expectations of gender and sex identity, the possibilities for effective genital restructuring surgery are broadening.

So too, as the article mentions, are the ways in which cultures can respond negatively to those feelings of empowerment that (may) come with newly restructured genitals. The article discusses the possibility of rejection that their interview subject might experience as a result of stepping away from the cultural tradition of female genital cutting; of course, negative judgement isn't limited to "Other" cultures, and while people in the United States are likely to respond positively to this particular person's surgery, trans folks in America get the short end of the stick when they pursue similar procedures.

As always, it's an interesting world out there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

From Erica: Domestic Abuse and the Law

Apologies that this post is going up late...this week has been a very hectic one!

So part of what's made domestic abuse a unique issue, particularly in the last 20 years, is that it hasn't been legally recognized as a problem in its own right. Prior to 1994, when the Violence Against Women Act was passed and signed into law in the United States, abuse-related problems such as stalking, partner rape, and manipulation were considered individually by the courts instead of as a whole. This is partially due to the fact that there were no interventions for domestic abuse at the grassroots level, either- the first domestic abuse shelters didn't open in the US until 1970.

What this post is going to do is take readers through the four basic components of domestic abuse law that tend to affect the most victims. I'm going to point out some of the biases beforehand, just to get them out of the way. First, many of these laws presume that couples are heterosexual, and are more difficult to enforce when the victim and abuser are the same sex, genderqueer, or otherwise sexually marginalized. Second, some of these laws are only applicable to marital partners or people who share children, and thus might not be anywhere near major concerns for other victims. And, of course, many of the laws presume that the victim in an abusive situation is a woman.

But, shortcomings aside, here are four basic legal areas to be familiar with!

The Violence Against Women Act
VAWA was originally passed in 1994, with subsequent revisions and renewals in 2000 and 2005. You can find a comparison of the three versions here, in PDF format, which illustrates what has and hasn't changed over the last 15 years. The initial legislation is impressive in and of itself, given the fact that nothing of its sort had really been passed before. Among other things, VAWA
  • Created funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and subsequent state coalitions
  • Developed training programs for law enforcement personnel who respond to domestic abuse calls
  • Developed special advocacy programs for child victims of abuse
  • Implemented community education programs for adults and youth
  • Permitted immigrant women who were abused to file for resident status independent of their partners (husbands at the time)
  • Made marital rape a crime
Since then, in its subsequent revisions, the scope of social research that VAWA funds has expanded. It has also been changed to grant immigrant victims of partner abuse an automatic legal resident status, and offers a legal resident status for victims of trafficking. More restrictions have been placed on perpetrators of abuse as well, including restricting who can apply for a spouse's green card and making it a felony to cross state borders to commit an act of intimate partner violence. VAWA has also been updated to be more queer-friendly as well, although the implementation of queer-friendly policies is still variable.

In short, VAWA has made anti-abuse efforts what they are today, and has made it possible for individuals to leave abusers and have the protection of the law. While it's not a perfect piece of legislation, and certainly needs more funding, it takes us a far cry from where we were 15 years ago.

Divorce Law
Divorce laws are rather tricky to talk about in general terms, because they're set on a state-by-state basis. Many states distinguish between fault and no-fault divorces (i.e. when a divorce occurs because of infidelity vs. when a divorce occurs because two people are no longer happy together), and the presence of abuse in the relationship can affect that.

The most useful thing to say about divorces in relation to domestic abuse is that victims must often be prepared for protracted legal battles. In many states, the process begins with a petition for divorce, goes through an investigative period, undergoes divorce mediation (where it can end if everyone agrees about the settlement), and, if all else fails, will be decided in divorce court. A more thorough description can be found here; particularly where abuse is concerned, however, remember that the abuser often does not want to relinquish control of the victim in any way. The abuser might fight the original petition, or may drag their victim's name through the proverbial mud in an attempt to avoid alimony. They might make the legal battle go on for years, just to keep the victim from being able to start a new legal relationship, and often exploit as many legal loopholes as they can in the process.

Many domestic abuse advocates are trained in divorce proceedings, and while they aren't lawyers, can give victims state-specific information about the process and can offer support as victims go through it.

Custody, again, is determined on a state-by-state basis, and it is best to seek a lawyer or legal advocate when beginning the process. The proceedings may happen in conjunction with divorce proceedings, or may happen when unmarried parents are separating or when a parent (often the father) wants custody rights that zie doesn't yet have.

For many states, when deciding custody cases where abuse has occurred, the deciding factor about custody or visitation will be whether the children have experienced the abuse themselves. Someone who abuses their partner but not their children will often get visitation or partial custody rights, often regardless of whether the children have witnessed the abuse. This is a tricky situation for victims to find themselves in, and is unfortunately very common. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the victim that the abuser will continue to abuse and manipulate the victim through the children, or will switch the abuse to the children themselves. Furthermore, in cases where the victim is afraid for hir own safety, there isn't always a safeguard in place for keeping the situation safe while the children leave one parent and go to visit the other. Some states such as Pennsylvania have programs that provide safe visitation sites, but it's not a universal in the US.

The other problem with custody laws that many victims fail to consider is the fact that many violations thereof are often civil matters, not criminal. An abuser who fails to pay child support isn't committing a criminal act, and neither is the abuser who fails to show up for visitation. However, failing to return children to the primary guardian on time can lead to criminal charges, especially if there's documentation of the arrangement; the same is true of arrangements to take children out-of-state if both parents reside in the same state. It is of utmost importance that any irregularities in the custody arrangement- any decisions to bring children to visit relatives in a neighbouring state, or decisions to leave children with their non-primary guardian when it's not the usual time- be documented and signed by both parties if possible. Charges of kidnapping might sound ridiculous, but can be brought under these circumstances under the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act.

Restraining Orders
As with the other two areas of law we've discussed so far, restraining orders ave a state-by-state component to them. In New Hampshire, for instance, victims need to file for restraining orders either on the basis of stalking or on the basis of domestic abuse. At this point, most states recognize that restraining orders are valuable resources for people who are experiencing abuse, but who may not be being abused by an intimate partner. Therefore, many restraining orders are available to victims of abuse by current partners, former partners, sexual intimates, other parent of children, or family members, and a marital arrangement is not a necessary condition.

Whether or not someone gets a restraining order is, of course, not nearly as straightforward as the law would make it seem. For most states, petitioners for restraining orders have the burden of proof, and must be able to demonstrate that their circumstances meet the minimum legal criteria to be eligible for the order. These criteria involve evidence of physical harm or a reasonable threat of physical harm, a reasonable fear for the victim's safety, and the relationship criteria mentioned earlier. Many states also allow for psychological abuse in restraining orders, and include criteria such as threats of suicide, stalking, the use of coercion, or harassment.

To have the best odds of winning a restraining order, victims should gather as much evidence as possible of their abuser's behaviour. Phone records, medical records, photographs, the testimony of neighbours or other potential witnesses, and police records are all acceptable forms of evidence that can help victims. Many states offer temporary restraining orders for victims who call the police in immediate danger, and these can also be used as credible evidence that a threat to the victim's safety exists. Victims should keep in mind, however, that defendants are allowed to counter-file for restraining orders; victims who have fought back against their abusers might be surprised to find that their abusers have also been documenting the psychological and physical harms that have been done to them. Not all judges will recognize (or be able to tell) the difference between abuse and self-defense.

This has been an incredibly brief overview of some very complicated topics, and I strongly encourage all readers- whether experiencing abuse or not- to do more research on the subject. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (at 1-800-799-7233) isn't just there for victims! It can refer callers to the legal resources they need for further information, and can connect callers to state coalitions for state-by-state information.

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Friday, October 16, 2009

In the news...

Here are some stories that have been making the news recently:

First, in Louisiana, a judge refused to sign a marriage license for an interracial couple, saying he was "concerned for the children" of such a marriage because "most interracial marriages don't last." He then went on to assert that his decision isn't racist because he is willing to do "ceremonies for Black couples right here in [his] house." News flash, Judge Bardwell: being willing to marry People of Colour but not interracial couples doesn't make you non-racist. It just makes you a eugenicist.

Then we've got the "Rape-Nuts" issue. Seen in this clip, Jon Stewart discusses the shocking news that 30 Republicans want the government to have the right to do business with companies that require employees to sign away their rights to sue over gang rape.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

I'm almost speechless over this issue, especially since New Hampshire's very own Judd Gregg was one of the congress members to vote against the bill. This kind of hypocrisy just underlines the disjoint between how we respond to crimes that involve money and crimes that involve the types of abuse we associate with "domestic disputes." Frankly, I think it should be illegal for a company to place that kind of clause in their contracts in the first place. If the company was in any way responsible for the gang rape, they should be held accountable for it. But this bill wasn't even trying to prevent companies from creating these kinds of contracts - it was just trying to prevent the government from doing business with them if they choose to practice such unconscionable methods.

Then, finally, we get the deliciousness that is the GOPs recent attempts to revamp its image in America- especially its image with African-Americans and other racially marginalized groups. Not only did they mistakenly list Jackie Robinson as a "great Republican" and then fail to address their continuing stances on projects that act to the detriment of marginalized Americans (i.e. maintenance of the current health care system; laissez-faire approaches to education and the economy; idealization of a heterosexual, two-parent family format), but they do so in a way that clearly aims to recruit as many young, marginalized people as possible- sick of your "old white guy" image, Republicans? Snappy website design isn't enough to fix your problems.

We'll be back, I'm sure, with more news as it happens.

From Erica: Meet the Garcias

There's a new documentary a-brewing from CNN, according to syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. Called "Latino in America," the documentary seeks to explore the variety of lifestyles and cultural mixes that people of Latin, Hispanic, Mestizo, and Chicano/a heritage live in the United States. For Navarrette, the point of the documentary:
For those of us in the Latino community who worry that those of us in the media are missing the best and most nuanced stories about America's largest minority because we're too busy harping on stereotypes and accentuating the negative -- "I'll take an order of high school dropouts, with a side of gangbangers and mix in some gardeners and housekeepers" -- there was a concern that CNN would blow the assignment.

At least the cable network had the courage to take it on. Many of its competitors -- ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. -- still broadcast in black-and-white and haven't grasped the absurdity of producing Sunday morning talk shows where journalists and pundits gather for roundtable discussions that touch on Latino issues without a single Latino at the table.

He goes on to articulate a strong desire that the documentary illustrate how,
following the script laid out by the Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews who came before them, Latinos are learning English, having smaller families, starting businesses, moving to the suburbs, joining the PTA and sending their kids to college. Many of them are just -- like the Irish, Germans and Jews who came before them -- trying to find ways to do all that while still preserving their culture and heritage.

In the meantime, many of them are in a kind of holding pattern. They're considered too Mexican or too Cuban or too Puerto Rican to be Americans. And yet at the same time, were they to visit their ancestral homelands, they'd be considered too American to be Mexican or Cuban or Puerto Rican.

So the documentary- which deliberately gave all its characters the last name "Garcia"- aims to illustrate, as realistically as possible, the positives and negatives of life as a person in a society that hates your heritage.

I'm interested to see this documentary, which was produced by Soledad O'Brien, and see how it tackles the question of assimilation in particular. For Navarrette, who described the moment as "time to exhale," the documentary apparently did a decent job of representing the ambivalence of assimilation for the folks who have chosen that route. And I'm glad that he, and hopefully the documentary, brought up the historical connection between majority America's current witch-hunt for Latinos and majority America's treatment of just about any large group of people with a particular heritage.

I find it worth asking though, in advance of the documentary, what the socioeconomic (and geographic) influences are on a person's decision of how much to assimilate. Given the high amount of pressure for Latinos to have smaller families, learn English, and behave like mainstream majority middle-class Americans, I would imagine that the decision to assimilate is in part determined by the amount of social and economic power one wields. A person who's highly respected in the majority eye- who probably has done their fair share of assimilating to be there or to stay there- might have a better chance of assimilating and being "allowed" to do that without harassment than the person who has to work two full-time jobs in order to survive. I would imagine, too, that geography plays a role in assimilation choices, given that overt acts of racism and exclusion (particularly "round-ups" for deportation) are more common in certain areas of the country and are generally targeted at Latino/as who don't meet majority definitions of "American."

Regardless, I'm looking forward to this documentary, and I'm interested to hear about the responses it will get from the folks who view it. At the very least, I hope it begets a positive change in the way people of Latin descent are portrayed in majority (especially White) culture.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Erica: here, queer, and apparently invisible

So on October 11, 2009, there was a 75,000-person rally held in Washington, DC to promote the rights of LGBTQI individuals to serve openly in the US military. This is the first I heard about it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
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Political HumorRon Paul Interview

That's right. The first I heard about it was on a comedy news show the next day. Not only on a comedy news show in general, but on a segment on that comedy news show that was poking fun of news networks (particularly Fox) for failing to give the event any coverage at all. And three days later, neither Google searches nor searches on individual news websites turn up anything more than a few short articles or minute-long video segments about the march (I'm looking at you, ABC, CNN, and Fox).

When the tea parties were being hosted across the US to protest Obama and his push for health care reform, the media couldn't get enough of it. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is getting some media coverage, but apparently 75,000 queers and allies on the Washington Mall listening to discharged military members speak passionately about the need to reform the government's homo- and bi-phobia isn't enough to get all of us hot and bothered.

We're here. We're queer. But 15 years after the signing of Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, you still can't stand to let us have our voice.

From Erica: Roman Polanski

As usual, I'm spitting and fuming over the things I find on the Internet, and today's specimen is none other than the comments posted in response to Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic for today. Here's the comic for those readers who don't follow it regularly. I've linked it back to its original location on the Doonesbury website, for those who want to see the storyline from the beginning.

Here's the thing. I've been hearing a lot of opinions about what Polanski did or didn't do, and how much of a crime it was or wasn't. And while the primary evidence appears to be the transcript of his then-13-year-old victim's testimony, which has been posted on The Smoking Gun, the basic facts of the case are as follows: in the 1970s, he had a 13-year-old girl take off her clothes while he photographed her, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, and vaginally and anally penetrated her. Two weeks later, she testified against him, he submitted a plea bargain which was rejected, and he ran away to France.

Since his return to the United States a few weeks ago, a media storm has erupted over what should or shouldn't happen to him. Some celebrities are leaping to his defense, most notably Whoopi Goldberg, who described his behaviour as "not rape-rape." And while others have been advocating for the resuming of his trial, a new trial, or simply forcing him to serve the sentence that the Superior Court judge was probably going to give him, I'm more than horrified at the way the focus has been shifted from Polanski's responsibility for his actions onto the victim and what she should or shouldn't have done (and, more frighteningly, what she did or didn't want).

Here's a relatively representative comment from the boards in response to Doonesbury's storyline:
"And anyone [sic] of you who doesn’t think that a 13-year old can be seriously into sex (not saying that this one was) must never have taken a look at 13-year-olds lately, if ever. I knew a 13-year old when I was in middle school who would sleep with just about anybody. She later became one of the high school’s snooty elite. I talked with her long after the fact, and there was no coercion, no abuse - she just liked sex, period."
Thank you, Farren, for that gross generalization. Clearly, since there are 13-year-olds who like sex, any and all 13-year-olds are out to get some from anyone they meet. Never mind the substances that are introduced to their bloodstreams, never mind the ages of the people they have sex with, and never mind their individual preferences about whether they should be sexually active or not. As another poster put it, "If Roman Polanski committed rape, then does the age of the victim matter? Is raping a thirteen-year-old worse than raping a 33-year-old or a 63-year-old?" (Thank you, DavidDow, who leapt to Polanski's defense repeatedly through the internet flame war).

I'll admit to flaws in my post. First, the internet is renowned for its disproportionate representation of poorly-expressed opinions and its ability to bring out the mean, cruel, or stupid in all of us (and I most assuredly include myself in that category). Second, 20 comments after a comic does not a movement make. However limited my sampling may be, though, this isn't the first time I've heard or read these sorts of opinions being expressed en masse in a public forum, and as such I think I can use them as a small representation of a much broader category.

This whole side of the Polanski affair perpetuates many of the worst stereotypes about sexual assault that anti-oppression activists have been working to correct for years and years, and highlights how little many of us know about our laws and the purposes that they represent.

First: when someone's been given drugs and alcohol, they aren't in a position to consent, no matter how they feel when they're sober. Even the US military- a group not exactly renowned for its victim-friendly policies or practices- holds that one drink is enough to impair a person's reasonable ability to consent to sexual activity. And when you combine alcohol with Quaaludes (also called methaqualone, which is a sedative similar to barbituates), you're talking about someone who's going to be extra-sleepy, extra-out-of-it, and extra-unable to consent.

Second: adolescents are frequently sexualized. That's normal. With all the hormones surging through their bodies, of course they're talking about sex, thinking about sex, and some of them are having sex. Some states recognize this, and have established age of consent laws that protect the rights of adolescents who are sexually active by removing statutory rape charges from situations where the partners are close in age. That doesn't even begin to cover a situation like this one, though, where one of the people involved was three times the age of the adolescent. At that point, it doesn't matter how much she thought she consented: it wasn't her legal right. According to the state, she couldn't consent. Period.

Third: adolescent sexuality may be common, and may lead to situations where the adolescent(s) in question pursue sexual relationships with people to whom they can't legally consent, like Polanski. I don't think that's the case here at all, but I think it needs to be addressed. However, part of the distinction that the law makes between sexual minors (under 18) and those of sexual majority (18 and older) is the capacity to be responsible for one's actions. And with the age of majority comes a maxim of US civil code: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Someone of Polanski's age and experience, according to our social and legal standards, should not be having sex with a 13-year-old.

The idea that Polanski would be overcome by his victim's seductive wiles, as some comments have suggested, is simply a revitalization of the idea that rape victims "asked" for the assault by dressing provocatively, walking alone at night, or going to a party. Whether she could have protected herself better by not accompanying him, or being more forceful in saying no, is beside the point. The fact remains that Polanski is an adult, with adult responsibilities, and he alone is responsible for the choice to violate someone's lack of consent.