Friday, April 13, 2012

Independence in the Land of Conservatism

"Sometimes I'm glad I became a social worker. Other times I wish I had simply become a ninja."
When my cousin gave me this bag, I nearly peed myself because it's so true.
I've written previously about my brushes with values conflicts in Colorado, so I'll try not to repeat myself. The simple summary is that I'm a radical, queer-rights-loving, abortion-rights-supporting, sex-positive person who has landed smack-dab in the middle of the conservative capitol of America (example: our district overwhelmingly went to Santorum in the Colorado Republican primary). It's led to many a headache and tear of frustration, to be sure, and has given me cause to reexamine my preconceptions about how social change occurs.

For many activists, and I suppose those who study them, the grand understanding that true change begins with small steps is taken for granted. Consider Margaret Meade's quote about small groups of thoughtful and concerned citizens, Betty Reese's quip on mosquitoes as bedmates, meditations on first steps, and similar sentiments that reassure us that all of us tiny people, working together, can and will change the world. As a social worker, trying to make change through individual acts of direct service, I often feel like the Starfish Story is a direct metaphor for my job. There's something heartening about knowing we can make a difference in one person's life, but something equally disheartening in knowing that individual acts of good can't compete with an overwhelming tide of need.

Living and working in Colorado Springs has meant too that my individual work- domestic and sexual violence intervention- is done against the cultural backdrop of an extension of the Bible Belt, mixed with an enormous military population. So many of my clients are stay-at-home moms, or came here for their husband's career, or hold so tightly to what the pundits have told them about their religion (overwhelmingly Christian) that they have no room for alternate interpretations of scripture. They face the same obstacles that any other victim or survivor faces when leaving, only theirs are compounded by a city (and a state) that believes more in bootstraps than in social assistance. "Go get a job!" they hear every day, only they're facing an incredibly stagnant economy that's already overflowing with people who need work; even the minimum-wage jobs, like the stereotypical McDonald's burger-flipping position, are filled. Add to that the constant message they receive from their communities that they're doing something wrong for leaving their husbands, for not staying at home with their children, for being pregnant out of wedlock, for wanting an abortion when their husbands threatened to kill them...And this doesn't even begin to touch the crap my clients get when they're in same-sex relationships, or God forbid men being abused by women. My agency lost a good chunk of its state funding when it opened its safehouse doors to anyone who identified as a woman, cisgendered or not. That's a lot of money- salaries, maintenance, supplies- to have to sacrifice in the name of doing what's right.

I think what challenges me the most about activism here is that so many facets of my life actually meet the expectations of the local, socially-conservative culture. My partner and I are both cisgendered, we're married, and we came here for his career. He's the breadwinner (by a long shot; I don't think I could support us both on my nonprofit salary). Though my values conflict with local ones on a routine basis, I'm technically a Christian. We're both White and Anglophone. In short, there's nothing that stands out about us as being anything other than your run-of-the-mill, socially (and possibly financially) conservative Colorado Springs residents. For me, it's pretty depressing.

What it has meant, though, is that the whole "little things add up to make a big difference" philosophy has become a necessity for survival. When my husband and I shop or eat out together, for example, I pay. It doesn't matter in terms of finance- it's a shared account- but it does matter in terms of challenging the tacit assumptions on the part of every single cashier and server out here that a heterosexual-looking married couple should always pay their cheque via the man. I kid you not; I find myself having to reach for the bill rather frequently. I've become no stranger to correcting financial and social institutions that assume that Nick and I share a last name, although I'll admit I get a good laugh when they assume that my name is his. I have to be very conscious about my use of the term "partner" because, the second I use the word "husband," a palpable transition occurs and suddenly I feel like the secondary representative of my Husband-Headed Household (this was a particular problem when doing our taxes). These may seem like little things, but the overwhelming message I get is that I exist via my husband- and I'm reasonably sure we left 1950 behind a long time ago.

It's exhausting to feel the constant pressure to represent ourselves a certain way in public, and to be completely fair, we have met some wonderful people out here who don't fit the mould any better than we do. They ask for our names, they put the cheque in the middle of the table, and they treat both of us like human beings. How novel! More often than not, however, I feel the same overwhelming sense of despair when I realize that each time I pay the cheque, it's just one tiny gesture against a very deeply-rooted values system. What I want to do is go to the Capitol and petition/yell/pontificate until my point is made and things change; unfortunately, not all social change can be accomplished through a policy avenue. Individual minds can't be legislated to think new things, and so much of what I feel I'm fighting is a belief structure. Such independence is gained, it appears, through day-to-day struggle.

What I think this means for all of us is that "the good fight" doesn't just happen during massive street protests or the collective crafting of genitalia. It's the little things we do with our actions, whether we're facing a majority culture of conservatism or living the dream in an equality-based city, that shape the way people think. Assumptions are the stuff of social training; what we can do, through our tiny behaviours, is reprogram those instincts.

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