Thursday, July 30, 2009

From Emily: Gender Issues and Songs

Lately a few songs have stood out to me because of the issues they raise. Here's a list of some that seem especially pertinent. I've tried to include links to them so you can listen too:

1. Everyone's a Little Bit Racist from Avenue Q. If you aren't familiar with the show, Avenue Q is a broadway musical performed by live actors and muppets. It's essentially a Sesame Street for adults, complete with racy topics and a less naive outlook on life. In this song, Kate Monster confronts Princeton about a racist question, and soon all the characters are confronting one another about racism. Their eventual conclusion (that we could live in more harmony if we all admitted to being racist) is intriguing and controversial.

2. If You Were Gay from Avenue Q. Note the stereotypes of gay men, among other things. Very interesting song, though. Should friends pressure one another about something as personal as sexual orientation, even if that pressure is to "come out" ? (Also see My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada, but be forewarned that it gets a little crude).

3. The Worse He Treats Me from Little Shop of Horrors. You can tell I've been listening to a lot of musicals lately, huh? This song doesn't show up in the movie, and I couldn't even find a version of it on youtube, which is why the link goes to a sample. The lyrics are especially intriguing. In Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey (the character who sings this song) switches from an abusive dentist boyfriend to Seymour, a man who is very sweet to her. But even this switch to Seymour is a bit disturbing, since Seymour kills two men in the course of show. In most play versions he even feeds Audrey to the carnivorous plant after she dies. He only does so because Audrey asks him to as her dying request, but I don't think it's a stretch to see symbolism in her willingness to be consumed for a man she loves. Has Audrey really gained better taste in men? Also see Somewhere That's Green / Suddenly Seymour

4. I'm not a country fan in general, but I've always loved
Goodbye Earl. As funny as the song is, it describes the frightening dilemma so many victims of domestic abuse face: if they try to leave their husband, a restraining order won't necessarily protect them from even greater abuse.

5. If you like songs about women who kill their husbands for what they believe are good causes, there's also If You Hadn't but You Did sung by Kristin Chenoweth, and The Cell Block Tango from Chicago. Please note, though, that the polygamist they mention in the song couldn't have been a Mormon since Mormons haven't practiced polygamy in over a century. Not to mention, we usually don't date non-Mormons, and we most certainly don't have alcoholic drinks.

6. Along similar lines, here's Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats, which... explores the complicated dynamics of infidelity, let's say.

7. There's endless material in Rent, of course, from I'll Cover You to La Vie Boheme. If you aren't familiar with Rent, be forewarned that it's a little racy at times. Personally, though, I think it's a beautiful exploration of how people in a very difficult situation are still able to find love and happiness.

So, there you have it. A rather long list of songs that have intrigued me recently.

From Erica: the process of enlightenment

Recently, my partner and I got into an argument over something that's relatively stupid. See, we both play an MMORPG (in lay terms, we're nerds who play World of Warcraft) in which some multiplayer content, which requires 10, 25, or even 40 players to complete, is referred to as "25-man" or "10-man" content. For me, as a female-identified nerd who has a lot of female-identified and gender-bending cosplaying (costume playing) nerd friends, this is extremely frustrating. Why not call it "25-woman" content, I wonder? Of course, the males in the game would be furious. "We're not WOMEN," the cry would go, "we're MEN!" The reverse argument- that I'm not a man, I'm a woman- gets the old "this is how the English language works" treatment: regardless of its relative level of correctness, "man" has come to refer not only to people who identify as men, but to any generic, "gender-neutral" or multi-sexed group of people.

To me, what's frustrating about this- something that seems on the surface to be so miniscule and unimportant- is that the "default" human being in the US is a White, middle-class, man-identifying male. In order to be considered "just" a person, or in order to belong to a "generic" group of people, I have to subsume my gender identity and my sex to conform to the label "man." This goes in stark contrast to the fact that everywhere I go, no matter what I do, those same characteristics are overwhelmingly the first things that people notice about me (and the first things by which they categorize me). To me, being female and being woman-identified aren't invisible and aren't gender-neutral when my entire life means measuring myself by the yardsticks of male- and man-ness. Everything about femaleness screams deviance, from the fact that I get degraded if I fail to shave my legs to the fact that the basic medicines I consume- including such popular selections as Tylenol or Motrin- are tested on and dosed according to male physiology.

I tried to explain this to my partner, and he took up the linguistic defense I mentioned earlier. When I tried to explain to him how much I hated the fact that "neutral" for him was a complete identity shift for me, things deteriorated to the point of tears. He was incredulous of the point I made about drug testing, and had a hard time understanding how the "25-man" stuff could be such a big deal when it was just a word. It was, overall, extremely frustrating for both of us. Finally, I stood up, put on my shoes, and announced my intention to go for a walk. We hugged, and in that moment was when it hit me: he needed the suspension of disbelief.

The suspension of disbelief, in film and books, refers to the ability of the author or director to convince the reader/viewer to accept certain facts about the fictional world that the text represents. The basic idea is that a good suspension of disbelief can get the reader to accept, say, flying cars and telekinesis, but that a bad attempt at suspension of disbelief will make the whole text seem completely unlikely and therefore ludicrous. The way I used it in this argument, it was a repackaging of the old "walk a mile in my shoes" adage. From his point of view, the claims I was making were ridiculous and outlandish. When he stepped into my shoes, or suspended his socialized male disbelief in the insidiousness of sexism, and started to understand my argument in the context of a lifetime spent dealing with sex- and gender-based oppression, I made a whole lot more sense to him than I had before.

This isn't to say that he's always been blind and a sexist pig and a horrible person, nor to say that he suddenly saw the light and magically grew a vagina, as it were (he's cisgendered), and became completely knowledgeable about sexism and anti-oppression. Rather, I saw in him the same sort of painful self-realization that I felt the first time I was confronted with my own racist ignorance: the overwhelming understanding that there's a whole perspective out there that you never realized you were missing. For me, there were a lot of emotions that came with that- denial, shame, anger, sadness, passion to change- and while I thought I saw several of the same in him, I might have been projecting. It was as if, for a moment, he became acutely aware of his genitalia and the privileges they've come with.

I've decided to call these moments the "process of enlightenment," not because people are stupid and uneducated or any number of similar negative terms before they start this process, but because, in the most basic sense, people in positions of social privilege are ignorant. We simply lack knowledge, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that social privileges are fantastic at self-concealment. For me, growing up White in a predominately White area, it's still a shock to look around me at places like the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, see an audience of mostly White folks, and actively realize that there's a race-based social division going on. It took me a long time to understand that that kind of racial environment doesn't just happen; it took me even longer (and, in a sense, it's ongoing) to figure out that my interpretation of the overwhelming overrepresentation of White folk in the media and various public venues (such as the PSO) as "normal" was my White privilege in action. For my partner, the attention I drew to the male-centric language of our MMORPG highlighted the same basic idea: something he considered to be natural, neutral, and generic was really constructed and sexist, and the fact that he hadn't initially identified it as such was the product of the male privilege he was raised with. And to be clear, I don't want to suggest that only males can be blind to male privilege, or White folks be blind to White privilege. The pervasiveness of social privileges makes them easily internalized by anyone, until it's easy for a woman to read this post and think I was overreacting to a simple term.

The challenging thing about this process of enlightenment is that it requires us to do two things almost constantly. The first is that we need to be ready, at any given moment, to step outside ourselves. Being raised in privilege(s) means that we're vulnerable to falling back into old ways of thinking. I know I do it all the time. Think of it as living in a country whose primary language isn't yours- you might be fluent in the day-to-day world, but in your head it's a lot easier to think, count, and daydream in your first language because it comes to you more naturally. Only the stakes here aren't your competence in the new language; it's the entire social system we've got in the US and the world at large that privileges some people at the expense of others.

The second thing we have to do, which is just as hard, is to be prepared to be challenged and to be wrong. For me, this is the hardest thing, not least because I've got an exaggerated sense of pride (and thus shame). I'm your stereotypical liberal baby; I grew up believing that racism, sexism, and ableism were all bad things, but also believing that a person who was racist is a BAD PERSON, or that a person who was sexist was EVIL. The process of unlearning that aspect of my values- learning to see actions and beliefs as habits to be changed, and not necessarily as reflections on the intentions of the individual- has taken me a long time, and has been catalyzed by the occasions when I've been in the wrong. It's painful! It means a lot of self-evaluation and some brutal honesty, and goodness knows that can really bite. But, as my former supervisor used to point out to me, real change takes a lot of work and a lot of time. If it were easy, we wouldn't have counselors or therapists. And the work is always worth it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You Know You Want to Submit

You might have noticed that most of the submissions to date come from Emily or Erica, and that all of the current submissions come from women. With that in mind, we'd like to re-extend our invitation for anyone and everyone to submit. We want to hear insights from many different people from various backgrounds. We want to hear from Atheists and Baptists; Homosexuals and Heterosexuals; Men, Women and Trans folk. Whatever country you're from, whatever you do for a living, your opinion is welcome here. Please just send us line.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From Emily: Feminine Intuition

* I originally posted this on a personal blog, under the title "Visions and Dreams," but I'd like to open a discussion on various types of knowledge, and I thought the concept of Feminine Intuition would be fitting *

A few years ago my roommate's mother called her with a warning: "Whatever you and your accomplices are planning against that boy, don't do it." Apparently in a dream she saw some sort of authority getting involved. We were pretty shocked, since just the night before we had been talking half-seriously about a potential prank against an apartment of boys who were using one of our friends as a make out doll. I don't recall the details of the potential prank, just that it was the type of thing that could have gotten the police involved if they'd taken it seriously. Something about burning effigies... So, we didn't do it. But a few months later we started a prank war with a boy, and when it got out of hand it led to meeting with a different authority - the Bishop. In retrospect, it appeared that we hadn't fully heeded the warning. Another example of that roommate's mother's dreams happened recently. Her mother told her that she'd had a dream and one of them would be getting engaged in April. She couldn't tell whether it was her or my roommate, because they had the same name. Well, turns out the mother was proposed to in April, but she did not accept. Call it coincidence, call it a self-fulling prophecy if you will. Whatever it is, though, these visions and dreams never come true quite the way anyone expects them to.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because I've been trying to understand my own... gifts, shall we say. Well, I guess it's only one gift, really. I have a strange knack for sensing things about how other people fit into my life. Whether it's intuition, the spirit, or simply an unconscious ability to read their body language very well, I occasionally pick up on surprising things. For instance, when I met the first (and only) guy I am yet to fall in love with, I knew he was someone I'd probably date. Later, after just a couple dates, I sensed that things would go somewhere, but probably not lead to marriage. As it turned out, the relationship didn't just go somewhere - both Mike and I literally went places when he invited me to visit his family in SC and then traveled to NH to meet mine. But it didn't lead to marriage, and as heart broken as I was when things fell apart, I wasn't exactly shocked.

The things I sense aren't usually so profound. It's mainly that I can tell what's going on with a friend or romantic interest (in terms of how they relate to me) even when everyone else around me interprets their behavior differently and thinks I'm crazy for thinking what I do. My earliest memory of sensing things occurred at an award ceremony in sixth grade. As soon as I saw a particular teacher step onto the stage, I knew I would be getting an award, even though she hadn't made eye contact or even looked in my direction. As it turned out, she was the one to announce the award I'd won.

This knack comes in handy all the time. If I just follow my instincts I can sense surprising things about opponents in strategy games, and when I stop listening to the advice other people are giving me, I can usually figure out what to do in complex social dilemmas. But the truth is - I hate having this strange talent. For one, I can't predict whether I will or will not sense things, and sometimes it takes so long for something to come to fruition that I have a hard time telling whether what I sensed was accurate at all. In the case of my ex, Mike, we didn't become an official couple until 5 months after I met him and sensed we would date. Connected to that example, I met another ex boyfriend, Carl, at the same time I met Mike, and I had a similar sense. But Carl and I didn't actually date until a good 8 or 9 months later. Around that same time, I had a very clear sense that someone I'd recently met would become the kind of friend I could be close to and confide in, but none of that seemed to come true for months, and I often wondered if I'd imagined it. It did finally happen, but then it ended much sooner than I expected, leaving me a little sad. I hadn't anticipated the sadness either.

Part of what makes this all so confusing is that nothing comes true the way I would have imagined. I sense one thing but have no clue what else to expect along with it. After I had a falling out with a very close friend, I couldn't shake the feeling that she was still part of my life. When people leave my life, I sometimes get the sensation of a door closing, even before I have a good reason to suspect what's happened. But with Josy the door never locked, and it was like she was always on the other side, out of reach but close. But I didn't know when would be the right time to knock on that door again, and I still don't know whether I was wrong to wait as long as I did. No matter how much my heart knew Josy would still be my friend, my mind insisted she was gone. Maybe this is all a little too personal, but sometimes I think we spend so much time explaining intellectual puzzles that we ignore the other types of knowledge in the world.

Or maybe that's just me. You see, I spent years ignoring my emotions. No, more than ignoring them - suppressing them. Josy was one of my biggest supports when I decided to unleash the energy and depth that I'd compressed so neatly inside myself, and I don't think either of us will ever forget the time that I asked with a very puzzled expression on my face: "but what do you do with emotions??" I insisted there had to be a purpose, something that what I was feeling was meant to lead to. In high school I wrote poetry when I was sad, painted when I was angry, and poured the rest of my emotions into theatre. Apparently somewhere along the way I got the idea that an emotion was only a means to an end. But the most surprising thing I learned when I stopped suppressing, funneling, and using my feelings, was that I needed to let myself feel in order to draw closer to God. I couldn't feel or sense spiritual promptings without emotion. I'm not sure whether that reveals that emotion can be an end in and of itself, or just that I'm determined to make my feelings productive in one way or another.

But to return to my confusion over my personal intuition - sometimes it's a difficult thing to live with. Knowing that I can sense things about people often makes me anxious to sense things sooner. I have almost no patience for situations where I don't know what's going on and often do everything I can to trick others into revealing things to me. I become so dependent on the easy way of learning things that I don't want to communicate or trust what others are telling me through their words. Ironically, however, it's only when I'm not looking for the information that it comes. I usually don't even want to know the things I sense and sometimes try to pretend it isn't true. Maybe I'm just afraid of the unknown terrain surrounding the one object that's illuminated. But perhaps confusion is the nature of these sorts of things. You're always feeling around in the dark, and each beam of light you stumble across makes you even more aware of how lost you are. I just hope that everything will make sense if I give it enough time.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

From Erica: my body's Politik

This is a post I've been intending to write for a long time, that's very difficult to pen for a number of reasons. The first is that it requires my admission that I don't know all the answers, and that's an admission that doesn't make me comfortable. The biggest reason is that it paints my mother in a very negative light, and while I want to be honest about the things she's said, I don't want to give the impression that she's completely ignorant or oppressive. That being said...

For a number of reasons, this January I joined the millions of other Americans who made a New Year's resolution to lose weight. My primary reason was health-based; I hold the genetic key to a delicious smorgasbord of weight-related diseases and complications, and it was my personal choice to change habits now and reduce my future risks. My secondary reason, admittedly, was self-esteem-based. As a former ballerina, a former borderline anorexic, and a card-carrying member of the United States "majority" culture, I wanted to be thinner again. Seven months and over twenty pounds later, I can say that I'm successful in my venture.

But I'm not entirely happy with it.

Here's the thing. When I was at my heaviest, I never qualified for any label other than "slightly chubby." I wore a size 12, but on a 5'6" frame, that's still slender enough that any claims to fatness are little more than claims to marginalize and render invisible all the people out there who can claim that label for themselves. It's unlikely that any of the fat-positive communities, either internet-based or face-to-face, would have included me as anything other than an ally. However, being part of a society that values a certain type of skinny woman more than any other body means that I spent a lot more time engaged in size politics than in smug attitudes and designer clothes. And I learned how to be an ally to the fat positivity movement and how to call people out on their size-ism.

The problem is, there's a line of personal-meets-political that causes every ally or activist trouble. For some, it's the line that segregates their queer positivity from their ability to come out to their family. For me, it's the line of fat politics and my mother.

I grew up in a household where, for health reasons, our access to refined sugars was limited. As I grew into my teen years, my rebellions often took the form of sugar binges- eating chocolate chips at midnight, sneaking Lindt balls out of the cabinet, or going for hot chocolate before dinner (see the chocolate theme?). After a bout of crash dieting and severe weight loss when I was beginning high school, I started to gain weight. To an extent, this was necessary, as I was undeniably too thin. After a point, however, it stopped being about health and started being about my right to eat what I wanted, when I wanted to. And my mother noticed.

"You look so pale and pasty," she commented more than once. "I'm so sorry you didn't get my figure," one of my favourites, came out a couple of times. Other remarks included exhortations to lose ten pounds, to stop being "so chunky," to "slim down," or, when that didn't work, to tell me outright I shouldn't have this dessert or that snack because I was really letting myself go. These were the remarks and the attitudes that I endured for- get this- six or seven years. It got to the point that I didn't want to go clothes shopping with her, because I didn't want her to know what sizes I wore, and where I dreaded any moment she would see a recent photo of me, because she would be sure to point out how un-photogenic I'd become. And no matter how much I told her that this hurt me, or reminded her of how dangerously skinny I'd once been, she was relentless.

When I lost all this weight, that changed almost instantly. I'm refusing to go so far as skinny- I wear a size 10, which I think puts me at slender- but for my mother, it's like the world has gone from black-and-white to technicolour. "You look so good!" she said when I was home briefly in June. For three days, all the body comments I heard were positive. I looked "fantastic," "so healthy," "great," and so on. We went shopping, and even the sight of me in an LL Bean bathing suit was thrilling to her.

Here's the tricky part of my Body Politik, the thing that shames me and gives shape to my relationship with the fat positivity movement: I ate it right up. After all the years of fighting and negativity, after the crying and the self-loathing and the anger at her for her sizeist attitude, I just couldn't do it anymore. It was such a relief to know that every bite going into my mouth wasn't being monitored and judged, and to know that she was looking at my body with benevolence, that I just relaxed and fed into the attention like nothing else. It was really sickening, to be honest. My conscience, sitting on my shoulder with her porn videos (let's face it, my conscience is some sort of Slut), was so shocked she hit the "pause" button. What are you doing, she was screaming. HOW COULD YOU COLLUDE LIKE THIS???

The answer is: I don't know.

The thoughts I've come up with since then have been confusing at best. My mother's obsession with weight- hers as well as mine- points to some of the broader issues facing weight and body image expectations of White women-identified people in this culture. Even women like us who not only meet gendered expectations, but push beyond them- she with a family, an amazing career, and a PhD, and me with a partner, two master's degrees in progress, and a successful series of professional experiences under my belt- are still subject to the body pressure to the extent that it had a severe impact on our relationship for years. And it's not as though we have ever qualified as fat, either; neither of us has ever been publicly marginalized on account of our bodies. My mother, in fact, was rail-thin until she had her children, and even then has barely put on enough weight to be called thick, fluffy, or chubby. She's still thin! But for some reason she's unable to remove the culture goggles long enough to get a realistic picture of herself and our family, and continues to insist that the family (myself being the only exception at this point) needs to collectively shed its excess weight "for our health."

Another thought that's been floating around in my brain, perhaps the most bothersome to me, is how to handle the health question as pertains to weight loss. On one hand, Mom has a point, especially in light of the fact that my long-term health was the impetus for me to lose weight in the first place. No one in my immediate family is severely overweight, or even close to it, but there's something to be said for maintaining cardiac health- which is, to an extent, connected to body mass. The same long-term health concerns that I was focusing on are concerns that my father and my sister consider too, and I can sympathize with Mom in her desire to keep us all together and healthy for as long as possible. On the other hand, my dad and my sister are adults and can make those choices for themselves. They exercise and they eat a well-balanced diet, and their bodies are what they are. The health-based argument from Mom's camp basically falls apart here, and it becomes a question of appearances.

Which brings me to the troublesome aspect of this train of thought. As an errant fat politics ally, I believe that it is a person's right to determine their own level of health and their own body size, and that the two aren't necessarily connected as much as mainstream White culture wants us to think they are. I believe that every body has its beauty, and that every person has the right to be recognized, represented, and respected for who they are, as they are, without critiques or marginalization based on body size. So how, when I lose weight for my health, do I answer to the positive feedback I inevitably receive? On one hand, I'm proud of the choices I've made and the effort I've put in to my body. It feels good to have that recognized by others. On the other hand, I know that the people complimenting my weight loss don't necessarily know about the reasons I used to justify my diet, and they're just complimenting my ability to live closer to the skinny ideal. Worse, that malicious bitch inside me, the one who eats my self-esteem for breakfast, doesn't care why they're saying I look good as long as they keep saying it. And let's be fair: these compliments don't always occur in settings that make a fat politics dialogue a reasonable option.

So how do I, and how do we as a collective society, change this? For one, when dialogue is a reasonable option, I need to choose it. This goes not only for the friends and others with whom I'm comfortable opening this conversation, but also for that trickier person: with my mother. In order to make a real dent in sizeism, I need to confront not only her prejudices, but mine as well- the ones that allow me to keep silent (or to respond enthusiastically) to hers. For another, when that dialogue is opened, we need to engage not only the questions of size, but the questions of what it means to be "healthy." Let's face it: for a lot of people, "healthy" and "fat" are mutually exclusive categories, and that's incorrect. The biggest thing, though, is we need to change the value judgements that come as part of this dialogue, and that I'm sure have been sprinkled throughout this post. We need to break down the negative attitudes towards fat, but also the negative attitudes towards a person's choice about their health. The dialogue needs to be changed so that a person's decision not to jog every day ceases to be a reflection of their individual worth. And the dialogue needs to happen a lot more often, period.

Writing this has been more cathartic than I expected. Whether or not it makes sense to anyone else, it's easier for me to understand the steps I need to take to be more comfortable with who I am and what, size-wise, I am. I might be happy with my body and health now, but I haven't been entirely happy with the social results. I'm still not. But it's easier for me to see the possibilities for changing that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

From Emily: Homosexuals vs. Mormons: When Minorities Fight

Ever since the Mormon church and other Christian churches got involved in the gay marriage debate by promoting prop 8, anti-religion and anti-Mormonism in particular have been very high. In some cases, proponents of gay marriage have even sabotaged personal property or staged public protests outside sacred buildings. Although I am myself Mormon, I'm very sympathetic to both sides of this argument. In fact, when my home state legalized gay marriage recently, I felt both excited and sad all at once. But to many Mormons and Gay marriage proponents alike, anyone who opposes what they want must be morally depraved and/or hateful.

What's most sad about this fight is that both sides are minorities who have a lot in common. Both groups have been violently persecuted and at times legally denied the type of family life they wanted. Both groups are consistently listed in polls as the types of people American citizens would not vote into Presidential office. And both groups are going to Hell, according to most Born Again Christian ministers. So why are they fighting one another?

There are easy answers to that question: many gay rights advocates would say "the Mormons are fighting us because they're bigots, and we're fighting them because we believe in freedom," while many Mormons would say, "they're fighting us because they're misguided, and we're fighting them because we have to protect families." But how much direct dialogue are we actually getting between the two communities?

Frankly, I don't hear much dialogue at all, and the little I do hear sounds more like two children repeating what their parents have told them, than like mature adults trying to understand one another. Unfortunately, we're shutting down important conversations by bickering instead of conversing. Here's one example of an important conversation gone to waste:

Pro Gay Marriage: Two people in love have a right to be married, no matter their gender

Anti Gay Marriage: But gay marriage is immoral!

Pro: Your personal morality doesn't control us!

Anti: Yeah, but if we let you get married we'll have to let cousins get married too, and that's double icky.

Pro: How dare you compare us to incest?

Anti: You're the same as incest since it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!

Pro: Jesus preached love!!!!

We all know the results of this conversation: everyone walks away believing what they always believed, but with the added conviction that the other camp is unreasonable, hateful, and inflexible. But if we take a moment and analyze these arguments we find important issues that need to be addressed:

1. The Anti Gay Marriage community often brings up other types of marriage they oppose and uses the argument of "if we let you get married, we have to let everyone get married." But you can't dismiss one person's claims by assuming they'll take a mile if you give them an inch, or by generalizing them to everyone else. Everyone in the AGM community needs to listen to what the PGM community wants.

2. By getting offended when someone compares gay marriage to incest or polygamy, proponents of gay marriage unintentionally agree that some sexual relationships are immoral and reinforce the idea that a dominant group's morality can define which consenting adults get married. So, we've got to decide where morality fits in this discussion. Why not allow cousins to marry? Why not allow polygamy? I'm not saying we should or shouldn't allow those things, just that we need to really explore those topics and try to understand why the idea of a brother and sister marrying makes us squeamish. Does squeamishness even justify a law?

Personally, I like to think we can find a common ground, but as long as we skip over these important discussions and just hurl insults back and forth, we're never going to find it. I'm not taking a moral high ground here, since my reluctance to take a stance on gay marriage makes me just as responsible for these miscommunications as everyone else. But something has got to change. Two groups with this much in common have a lot to gain from one another. Besides, pitting minorities against one another is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Ruling powers have used that tactic for centuries. Who has time to fight the powers that be if you're busy shooting at your neighbor?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

From Emily: Mormonism and Male Sexual Responsibility

This week I attended a large meeting required for almost all students employed by BYU. The meeting addressed the topic of Sexual Harassment, but despite the good intentions of the presenter from Human Resources, the meeting wasn't just unsuccessful - no, for the few people who stayed awake through the full 45 minutes, it downplayed the seriousness of any form of harassment and reinforced the misperception that in more cases than not, well-meaning men are the victims of women who falsely cry "sexual harassment." The presenter (who was a man, in case anyone is curious)offered numerous examples of scenarios that were inappropriate but which were not technically sexual harassment, such as TAs asking out students and then giving the students lower grades when the students turned them down. The audience loudly proclaimed that a TA who asked a student out multiple times after being turned down was doing nothing wrong, and even after explicitly stating that it's against University policy for a TA to date a student, the presenter said, "maybe the TA's breaking a policy, but it's not sexual harassment," thus de-emphasizing what the TA was doing wrong.

The only example of real sexual harassment he offered was the hypothetical scenario of a male boss offering a female secretary a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. I'm going to note, but not discuss, the stereotypes that very scenario plays into - men as perpetrators of harassment and women as the victims, and men as employers with female secretaries, for instance. The audience was sober when he mentioned that scenario, but by giving such an extreme example of sexual harassment and then contrasting it with multiple scenarios where a well-intentioned man was simply "misunderstood" by a female co-worker, the presenter unwittingly reinforced the idea that only really, really bad people sexually harass someone, and that anything short of demanding sex in exchange for job security is just a misunderstanding. When he said he'd heard multiple complaints from people who said their supervisors were staring at them, the audience laughed and he joined in, as if there could be no credence to such a complaint. Then, when he told supervisors to be cautious about giving gifts, one of the girls sitting behind me loudly told her boss "just ignore everything from this meeting!" Incidentally, at the beginning of the meeting this same girl loudly debated with co-workers over whether a short-haired girl two rows in front of me was male or female.

I've always felt frustrated by how many people insist that little to no sexual harassment really takes place, or that most complaints just exaggerate something innocuous, such as a hug. As someone who experienced sexual harassment in high school, went to a teacher about it, and then listened to a 45-minute lecture from said teacher about how I had brought the sexual harassment upon myself by being too sensitive, I know first-hand how seldom perpetrators of sexual harassment face any consequences at all. Fortunately, that teacher was fired a few years later for sleeping with an underage student, but most people who take sexual harassment lightly aren't pedophiles - they're just ignorant or misinformed.

But there's a lot of misinformation floating around about these kinds of issues. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (commonly known as "Mormons," a nickname adopted from the name of one of our sets of scriptures), I feel fortunate to belong to an organization that empowers women and teaches the sanctity of each person's body. However, I'm frustrated by the narrow-minded misperceptions that are especially prevalent among Latter-day Saint men and women at Brigham Young University. The one that frustrates me most is the belief that women are responsible for the sexual purity of men.

I can't think of any one particular origin behind this belief. For one, it is completely at odds with church doctrine. Past and present prophets alike have said that it is each person's individual responsibility to be pure in their hearts and their minds, the most prominent of course being the Savior. But somehow the old-fashioned belief that men are sexual and women are asexual, and that women are therefore at fault if a man has a sexual thought, since men can't help but think sexual things if they're tempted, whereas women have no excuse - a belief that has no connection with LDS doctrine - has been internalized by the same Latter-day Saints who convince themselves interracial marriages and women who speak their minds are all abominations.

Many individuals who are open-minded and progressive about politics still hold women responsible for male sexual purity. One of my ex-boyfriends, for instance, often joked about his propensity for saying shocking and nearly sacrilegious things at church. But when I wore a shirt that was short enough to go up a bit when I bent over, and he saw a couple inches of my lower back, he didn't take his eyes off my body and stared at my chest for the rest of our conversation. He later informed me that I was dressing immodestly by wearing a shirt that went up when I bent over, and that my shirt had given him inappropriate thoughts. This same man later told me that he imagines himself having sex with someone about once an hour, and that he feels sexually attracted to almost every girl he sees, but that he can't help what he feels and thinks, because as a man he is simply "wired that way." When I insisted his thoughts were between him and God, and that he didn't have stewardship over my body, he warned me not to carry that argument too far, and insisted that women who dressed immodestly, such as by wearing halter tops, bikinis, or tank tops, made it nearly impossible for men to have pure thoughts. Needless to say, I broke things off, but a surprising number of my male and female friends either laughed off his insistence that I'd given him dirty thoughts, or told me to be happy he was communicating with me. My mother's response was that he was saying what other men were thinking, and that the real issue here was his lack of tact. But turning human beings into sexual objects, and then telling them they've brought it upon themselves is a serious issue.

It wouldn't bother me quite so much when people insist women are responsible for men's thoughts if they believed men were responsible for women's thoughts too, but the general attitude at BYU is that women are far less sexual than men and that therefore, while women can't so much as bare their shoulders without men losing control, men can run around shirtless and it doesn't matter. A female friend of mine who had served a mission, once told me that at Christmas her mission president wanted to show a film to all the missionaries, but since missionaries aren't allowed to date during the 18-24 months they're on a mission, he showed a movie that had few female characters. He didn't want to remind the men about dating, but he forgot that there were women in the audience, and that the film he'd chosen was about an athletic team, filled with attractive, muscular men who tended to practice with their shirts off.

Beyond what these double standards do to women, though, I find these stereotypes incredibly insulting to men. Speculations about how men are similar to other male animals and therefore incapable of controlling their thoughts contradict some of the most essential aspects of what Latter-day Saints believe. Latter-day Saints are taught to become as much like the savior as possible, and told that if they live worthily they can become like God over time. Do the very men who insist a woman in a tank top controls their thoughts believe that God's thoughts are controlled by women's clothing? LDS men are entrusted with many responsibilities: While LDS women are welcome to serve missions, LDS men are instructed that they have an obligation to serve a mission unless medical reasons stop them, and the highest leaders in the church are men. Plus, all worthy men in the LDS church are eligible to hold the Priesthood, which is an enormous responsibility and call to service. With all this responsibility, male purity had better not be controlled by how the women around them dress.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From Lux: Heckle-raising

This is a post from Lux, who keeps a political blog with her partner and tends to write insightful articles about gender theory.

"I recently bought a copy of Glamour magazine (yeah shut up they were giving away my favourite brand of mascara) and, among all the body snarking, unflattering clothes and general feminist-baiting nonsense, I noticed this golden nugget-

Hey, it's OK... secretly enjoy a construction worker's wolf-whistle, but give him the death stare anyway.

Heh, yeah. You know what else I secretly love, ladies? When an old guy is chasing me around the park when I'm in my underwear and we disappear behind a bush and when we come out the other side, I'm chasing him! So funny.

But something interesting happened yesterday. I was out in my short shorts and boots and my route took me past a building site. I braced myself for the usual nonsense when I got looked over, but then this builder did something different- he smiled at me. And, partly out of surprise, I smiled back. Obviously the guy only thought I was attractive; having never layed eyes on me before he clearly wasn't interested in my sparkling personality. But instead of reducing me to parts, he chose to treat me like a human being. I'm always going to respond better to a smile than a hurled comment like "Show us your beaver" (tragically genuine).

I've had a lot of nasty, abusive supposed come-ones hurled at me and I'm not sure how anyone expects me to respond positively to "Nice legs love, you want to wrap em around me." It took me a disturbingly long time to realise that these weren't supposed to work like that. These men didn't want to get me into bed, they wanted me to know my place. They wanted me to know that I didn't have the freedom to just walk down the street in an outfit I look good in and expect not to get hassled.

That said, I do believe that it is possible to come on to a stranger without completely objectifying them. The "humourless feminist" trope is often used to label women who resist objectification as anti-fun and anti-sex, but I know the difference between being hit on and dehumanised. The builder who smiled at me, or the man in Boston who yelled "Girl, you're looking good! Are you feeling good", were making an effort to engage with me as a person rather than just tits and ass for their viewing pleasure. And I check people out, I think many of us do. We all know where to draw the line, it's just that some of us choose not to. Like I keep saying, men are not animals. Men have control and the ability to make decisions. We just need to kick away this frame-work that allows many to make bad ones.*

There is still a problem with even the most well-intentioned heckles, though. We are so used to being accused of leading men on and this being used to defend crimes against our minds and bodies that it shouldn't be a surprise when we don't smile back. I have had pleasant conversations turn unexpectedly to forceful demands for my number, or coffee, or insistent offers of a ride, so I stopped conversing with strangers. I guy on a bus leered at me hitching my tights and after I expressed my disinterest, he loudly conversed at a girl who clearly didn't speak English well, shouting about how "nice" it was to meet a "nice girl" on a bus for once. Why should we be game and giggly when the fact of "being nice" may be taken down and used as evidence against us?

Obviously, a lot needs to change and so much of it is out of our power. The pick-up culture needs to go, the culture of disrespect, the culture of expectation and objectification. It's so ingrained and needs to be whittled down over generations as we teach our children to respect their minds and bodies and the minds and bodies of others. In the short term, we have to try to be less afraid of being called boring or frigid or no fun. Smile back or don't smile back, but don't be scared.

*There is a thought provoking comment about this article- which suggests that, if men are such uncontrollable primal creatures, then why the hell do they have all the global positions of power? You can't have it both ways, Berlusconi. I recommend this article, and indeed the site, if you like science and hate misuse of it to further unpleasant personal aims. Thanks to Paul for the link."

From Erica: Shameless promotions

So here's a really quick post to follow up on some of the racism stuff we've been mentioning here. I've got a post in the works about weight loss, body image, and fat politics (who doesn't?), but first I thought it might be good to highlight some of the blogs we've linked to on the left, particularly Racialicious, but even more particularly a post that the blog's primary author made about African American women and body ideals. The post can be found here and I would suggest reading it all the way through, as she brings in a wide variety of resources to make her point.

From Emily: a follow-up to "Unbelievable"

Before we move on to other posts, I want to take a moment and discuss the article Erica posted about on Wednesday. First of all, I echo everything Erica said. The country club is wrong, and I hope someone takes them to court over this issue, where I'm still optimistic the club will lose this battle.

On a less militant note, I'd like to address a different component of racism. The club didn't just object to the campers' complexions - the parents of white children reported feeling afraid that the African-American and Black children would hurt the other kids in the pool. If you aren't used to being around people who don't look like you, it can definitely be a disconcerting experience the first time you are, so it is understandable that some of the white swimmers felt uncomfortable when the campers joined them in the pool. But no matter how much ground we gain through expensive legal battles, we cannot overcome racism without overcoming the fear that drives it. Most people are racist because they are terrified of losing something, whether it's their life, their job, or the lifestyle they've becoming accustomed to.

So here's what I want to see: More mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, teachers, pastors, and coaches teaching younger generations to accept and love people regardless of something as insignificant as skin pigment. I want today's children to grow up knowing that dark skin is no more frightening than dark hair. While we're at it, let's also combat the very snobbery that cloaks racism in many communities that claim to be accepting. Let's teach children to love and accept kids who wear inexpensive shoes and live in a run-down apartment or a trailer park.

Posted by Emily

From Emily: Confessions from the Queen of Guilt

When I was little, I loved the bubblegum taste of ear infection medicine so much that I was always excited when an ear ache turned out to be a full blown infection. One year my mother thought my little sister's ear infection medicine was disappearing faster than usual. "Have you been drinking your sister's medicine?" she asked me. I hadn't touched it, but boy did I feel guilty. The very thought of stealing made me sick, and not in my ears.

This story should illustrate just how guilt-prone I am. If I buy airplane tickets a day before prices drop, I feel guilty. If I hold off buying tickets and the price goes up the next day, I feel guilty. I feel guilty if I say the wrong thing in class, or if I don't speak at all. If I act or I hesitate. If I give a student I'm tutoring the help they want (but shouldn't have), or I withhold the help even though I'm not busy. Not a day goes by that I don't feel guilty about something new.

I know I'm not alone. In fact, that's the very reason I'm posting this on a blog dedicated to discussing gender issues. I know many women who suffer from nonstop guilt. But no matter how prevalent guilt it, I think it's damaging, so lately I've been trying to prevent it from guiding my actions.

But where do you draw the line between feeling guilt and being careful about how your actions affect others? It's great to take others into consideration before you act, and sometimes the most moral decision is one you don't enjoy making at all but which allows you to serve a loved one. In fact, sacrificing something you want out of a sense of obligation can be downright empowering. But if concern about how others think and feel guides all your actions, you can get tangled up in dilemmas pretty quickly.

For instance, if you know that it hurts a friend to see you sad, is it wrong or right to pretend you're happy whenever you're around them? If you think another person needs you, is it wrong to keep them in your life even though you don't enjoy their company? These questions have been weighing on my mind for awhile, ever since an old roommate told me she didn't want to be friends anymore because she didn't want to be around someone as pessimistic as I had become after a recent break up. Friendship is supposed to include ups and downs, but sometimes you need space from friends. But how do you get the space you need without hurting someone else, especially if you don't know whether it's temporary space or permanent space? These questions become even more complicated in romantic relationships of course.

Maybe there are benefits to guilt that I simply cannot see, but for me guilt tends to have the effect of a straight-jacket - it constricts my movements and shrinks my emotional world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

From Erica: Unbelieveable

I just caught this link somewhere on the Internet and wow, am I ashamed. I'd suggest reading the whole story, but in case you don't: the gist of it is that a summer camp of African-American kids paid a massive membership fee to a country club for use of their swimming pool, only to be booted on their first visit because the club is concerned that these kids will "change the complexion" of their institution. There are so many things wrong with this situation, I don't know where to begin. The most obvious is that no one should be denied membership or access to anything on account of their race, especially since there are laws protecting against this sort of situation from occurring.

What it points to, however, is something far more insidious and damaging: the club not only took this action, but was so convinced that it has the right to restrict its membership on racial grounds that it didn't even try to disguise its motives for kicking the campers out. I'm not arguing that concealing racist motives is a better idea, because it's not. Rather, what I want to point out is that the bluntness with which the club handled the situation is a reflection of the status of racism, anti-racism, and the (dis)enfranchisement of people of colour in this society. A club that makes these restrictions in spite of the law is apparently unafraid of facing reprisal for its actions; either it believes that the camp (and its associated parents, grandparents, and other legal guardians of the campers) lacks the financial capital to take out a lawsuit, or it believes that such a lawsuit would be decided in its favour. Ricci v. DeStefano, anyone?

There was a lot of talk after the election of President Obama about what having an African-American president meant in terms of systemic racism, and some people went so far as to call racism dead. I never believed that, but I had hoped that the legacy of the Antebellum period and the second half of the 20th century had taught us, as a country, the basics of humanity. Apparently, I was very wrong. Not only does Obama sill have to live up to his every word in order to make future non-White presidents possible (because, let's face it, a racist society demands that he act as the representation for every single non-White person in the country), but we're so far emmeshed in racism that businesses still feel they can hang up a metaphorical "Whites Only" sign. How shameful, heartbreaking, and embarrassing.

What I want to see come of this: I want to see a lawsuit. I want those kids, their counselors, their parents/grandparents/guardians, the camp directors, and anyone else who can prove they have standing to take this case to court. I want that country club to be forced to eat their words, and I want them to be held up as an example to the rest of the country (and to the world, for that matter) that racial discrimination is unacceptable and intolerable. Mostly, I want those kids to have role models that are willing to fight, so that they can grow up knowing that this behaviour- this discrimination- is the fault of ignorant people and systems. I want them to grow up- and their White peers to grow up- proud of themselves and their identities, and dismantling these sytems of injustice that continue to allow situations like these to occur in the first place.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

From Erica: FGC is out in Uganda!

So my partner sent me a link this morning to this article about Uganda's recent decision to outlaw female genital cutting (FGC) in its borders. I'm simultaneously overjoyed and concerned. Primarily, I'm overjoyed. Having formal recognition from the political leader in a country with citizens that still practice FGC that the practice is dangerous, damaging, and pointless is a huge leap forward.

My concern has to do with the connection between law and practice. The legality or illegality of a practice doesn't change whether or not the practice is performed; it just changes the circumstances of that performance. I'm concerned that making FGC illegal will mean that families will continue to practice it, but in increasingly unsanitary and unsafe conditions. I wonder if a viable option would be an exemption for medical doctors, who could (in theory) perform FGC in conditions that minimize the risk of trauma, infection, and mistakes. Of course, that possibility also raises questions about the consent of the girls who get the procedure done, and the affordability and geographic accessibility of the procedure.

When I mentioned this to Emily, she responded that it reminds her of the abortion debates in the United States, to the extent that the law can make an unsafe procedure safer when it legalizes it under certain circumstances. Without legal codification of abortion rights, she pointed out, women seeking illegal abortions would be putting themselves at high risk for all kinds of infections, complications, and of course, death.

Obviously, the two issues are quite different in a lot of ways; the abortion example is a way of illustrating the ways in which law can protect women during procedures that are likely to continue to occur regardless of their legality. It'll be interesting to see how Uganda's law impacts the procedure over the next few years, and to see how the grassroots organizations that respond to FGC as it is (and here I'm thinking of the organizations that promote alternative rituals to FGC, since FGC has a history of being a significant ritual in the attainment of maturity of girls and young women) adapt their work (or expand it!) under the new policy.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

From Erica: A racism rant

This isn't going to be my last post on this topic, but I'm angry, so this limited post is going to be the start.

My partner's father, a White, diehard Rush Limbaugh conservative, sent me an email today that very calmly discussed the implications of the SCOTUS's overturning of prior decisions in the New Haven firefighter case. As part of this, he referred to Latino/as as "spics" (although he misspelled it). I called him on it, pointing out that that's a really offensive and derogatory term, and he fired back a reply that demanded to know why Judge Sotomayor can be racist against "old white males" and he can't be racist back.

First of all, in the most basic sense, two wrongs don't make a right. Even if you believe that Sotomayor's comments were racist, a matter I'll consider in a moment, it's completely unreasonable to argue that someone else's hateful or ignorant behaviour gives you the right to behave the same way. In White Judeo-Christian culture, at least in the United States, the philosophy is that you should always strive to be the better person; the phrase my parents used to describe it was "to turn the other cheek." This is a man who would argue that, if a bully punched his kids at school and his kids punched back, his kids deserve whatever punishment the school metes out for them because, regardless of circumstances, they committed a wrong. I know that racism can be really difficult for White folk to acknowledge and understand, even when they're being as deliberately malicious as this man is, but it's difficult not to ask myself how on Earth he can justify his actions to himself.

The second matter, which comes directly from that, is that I'm absolutely fed up with hearing people talk about "reverse discrimination" and "reverse racism" and think they're being meaningful. The reverse of discrimination is no discrimination, and the reverse of racism is no racism. Discrimination isn't solely the property of White folk. There are plenty of people in this country and around the world who are incredibly racially discriminatory and who aren't White.

Racism, in my understanding, is a specific form of discrimination. Having never been the victim of it myself, as a White person, it's entirely possible that I've got this somewhat confused. However, what I've gathered over the years from bell hooks and Audre Lourde and Patricia Hill Collins and Andrea Dworkin and Chandra T. Mohanty and a whole host of anti-oppression theorists is that racism is discrimination backed by power. Racism is when discrimination can be enforced, either overtly or covertly, through the legal, social, and political systems. What this means in practice is that an African-American woman can make all kinds of race-based judgements about me and I about her, but my judgements are the ones that are validated by our respective housing options, educational opportunities, and interactions with the police, welfare systems, and other authority or assistance figures. THAT is what racism means.

I think the most frustrating thing about this situation is that this is an email conversation that's already happened many times, albeit without the slur. We've talked about racism before, but he's absolutely not interested in even considering the possibility that there are things he could learn or even discuss. He's completely absorbed in the ideology that says that nothing's wrong, everything's fine as it is, and his privileges as a White man are completely incidental.

And I'm tired of telling him the same thing over and over again, with my arguments falling on ears that refuse to listen. My email back to him simply stated, in no uncertain terms, that his language was inappropriate and he is never to use it again. Unfortunately, the bigger issue remains unresolved, and it's something that anti-racist theorists have been grappling with for their entire careers and their entire lives. When someone refuses to listen, how do you turn them around? If turning them around is next to impossible, how do you know when to focus your energies on the people who will listen? Is it ever okay to give up hope on someone's ability to broaden their perspectives, even temporarily?

These questions are so huge, and I know there are multiple answers to all three of them (as well as to many I haven't asked here). The only bright spot I see in this is that I'm still angry, which means I'm still motivated to keep fighting.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From Erica: June in the news

I've got a few entries swimming around in my head, but since I haven't made the effort to translate them from head to paper yet, I've decided to bring some news stories to the blog that I think highlight some concerning, interesting, and cool issues and events impacting the anti-oppression paradigms we're bringing to light here and in other blogs.

The first one is a story about a woman named Betty Makoni, who was raped at age six as part of the "virgin myth" that's been circulating in countries like Zimbabwe since HIV/AIDS became an issue. The myth, for those who've never heard of it, is that having sex with or raping a virgin will cure HIV. Makoni is an incredible survivor who uses her experience to assist and empower other survivors of "virgin rape," and to draw attention to the issue to put an end to it. The full story can be found at

In less appetizing news, the Supreme Court's decision to rule in favour of the white firefighters of New Haven, CT constitutes, as one editorial puts it, "a blow to diversity in the American workplace." The majority's opinion in the 5-4 ruling argues that the decision on the part of the town of New Haven to throw out a firefighting exam that caused racially disparate results was a "race-based decision" that deprived the white firefighters of their civil rights. Racism, whether conscious or unconscious, is still a major problem in our country and in everything from our hiring practices to our housing options. The ruling of the Supreme Court fails to acknowledge this, and thus gives legal support to discrimination against people of colour. An editorial on the subject can be found at, and a news article using the term "reverse discrimination," which is a pretty stupid term in my opinion, can be found at

In related news, analysts are picking apart the rulings of the Supreme Court to get an idea of how each justice tends to rule. In a New York Times article (, analysts concluded that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is conservative, which should come as no surprise to anyone. What the article concludes, however, is that Roberts' opinions have a right-winging effect on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who tends to be an unpredictable judge. The article notes that, with such an alliance, "the Court appears poised to move to the right in the Obama era." Let's see what the addition of Judge Sonya Sotomayor does to that balance.

On the LGBT2QI front, the Obama administration is hoping to make the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law (DADT) "less draconian" in its effects by only selectively enforcing it. While the situations the administration cites include individuals who have been outed against their will (i.e. through blackmail or by "a jilted lover"), I think it's important to remember that selective enforcement of a law, at least in this country, tends to end very badly. Rather than attempting to achieve "flexibility" in the law's application by applying it only to certain groups of people, it needs to be achieved through an actual revision (or, better yet, a retraction) of the law itself. For the full story, check out

Finally, I'm linking you all to a speech by Jonathan E. McCoy, a ten-year-old African-American boy with unbelieveable oratory skills. This is a speech he wrote himself, calling for the deletion of "the n-word" from our language. While the goal is high, McCoy's speech is brilliant in its outlining of the history of the word, its effects on the consciousness of people of all colours in this country, and is incredibly persuasive. Watch it here:

That's all for now. I hope the next time I post news, there are fewer stories that have me cranky!