That’s “Unprofessional” Part 1: Body Policing in the Workplace

•May 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Answer me this question: at what length, exactly, does a skirt become unprofessional?  At what point, exactly, is a shirt “too low cut” for work?  And why is it, while we’re on this subject, that dress codes are gendered in a way that necessarily makes it so that anyone who is not a cis man is perpetually forced to question whether or not they are dressed acceptably for work?

Before anyone gets in my face about the woes of trying to get dressed as a cis man: please do not.  If you have never looked at your wardrobe and pulled out a button down shirt and wondered “can I wear this to the office without it being a problem”, this post is not about your struggle.

The reality is that dress codes are just another form of body policing and the policing of gender presentation and, often, female sexuality.  I’ve written on this subject before when discussing high school dress codes, but the truth is, social expectations surrounding clothing is problematic in the workplace as well.  To be perfectly clear: professionalism is a social construct, which means that it’s socially enforceable, but it’s not inherent to the practice of business.  What’s professional in LA may not pass in New York, and what’s professional in the West may not be correct anywhere else.  Writing for Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios explains that professionalism as a social construct values white maleness above all else: what we think of as “professional” defaults to a masculinized, female-shaming, middle class ideal of what it means to participate in the labor force.

There are a couple of reasons this is true.  First of all, in order to navigate the often unspoken rules of professional dress and behavior, one needs a certain level of social capital in the form of a middle class knowledge base as to what “professionalism” looks like.  This means that if you have never worked in, or seen your parents or neighbors work in, a “traditional” work environment (read: an office environment), you might not realize exactly what the rules are.  That’s how you get problems like the scene in Erin Brokovich where Julie Roberts’ character is chastised for dressing unprofessionally, in short skirts with low-cut shirts.  But the other problem is that those are the clothes that the character owns, and as a single working-class mom, she can’t really afford a full wardrobe makeover just to take on a new job.  Often, in order to break into the world of the traditional 9-to-5, you have to come from it, because “business” clothes tend not to be the cheapest things to get ahold of-~-and, fine, a moment of recognition for white cis men who come from socioeconomic backgrounds that make suits prohibitively expensive.

But the other problem is that the rules are complicated and reinforce gender-specific expectations that are problematic for genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans, and cis-female individuals (in varying ways).  I’ll start with the perspective of cis women, because as my lived experience, I know it best, but I’ll acknowledge right off that it’s even harder if you fall into any of the other categories I just mentioned.  If you have long legs or large breasts, good luck finding traditional work attire that fits “appropriately”: from button-downs that gape open or pull too tightly, to skirts that aren’t quite long enough, it can be annoying enough to try to manage getting dressed without worrying where on the spectrum of professionalism something falls: is it business formal?  Business casual?  How casual is too casual for business casual?  V-necks are theoretically okay, but they can’t be too low-cut; where is that line?  Clothes don’t have to fit like potato sacks (in fact, that’s probably “unprofessional” too), but heaven forbid something is “too tight”-~-and I’m not sure where that line is, either.  Add in a racialized element regarding the fetishization of women of color, and you have an extra layer of problematic when non-white women try to get dressed for work.  Oh, and there’s also always the problem of pockets.

To be clear, when women dress “unprofessionally”, what we usually mean is “in a way that can be sexualized”.  It’s the same philosophy that guides school dress codes: if women dress in a way that could be deemed sexual, then men “might be distracted” and it’s “inappropriate”.  While I’m at least willing to acknowledge that it’s not as though men are being allowed to show up at work in short-shorts, the specific issues around gendered dress codes still make it more likely that women will fall out of line and be punished, either socially or by management.  And the solution isn’t necessarily to dress in an overly masculine way; Rios points out that this, too, can have social consequences in the workplace.

This issue of navigating gender expectations falls even more harshly, however, on those who do not conform to the gender binary. In a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional, and Unafraid”, genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia writes:

For years, professionalism has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. In the workplace, the gender binary can be absolute, unfaltering and infallible. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by coworkers, losing promotions or even losing your job. And if you are discriminated against for being transgender or genderqueer, you may not even have access to legal recourse, because in many states it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gender non-conforming employees.

This is all too true, and frankly, completely unacceptable.  A college teammate of mine recently lost their job as a result of this same discrimination, and though they are seeking legal recourse, it is unclear what will happen.  Only 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, have employment discrimination laws that protect individuals on the basis of gender identity, and clothing is a big part of one’s ability to “pass” or otherwise display gender identity, impacting interaction with those laws.

Ultimately, both our behaviors and our presentation at work are expected to fall in line with socially derived expectations that default to a power structure that favors white, middle class, cis-gendered men.  At the end of the day, though, everyone’s work, abilities, and ideas should be respected, and every person should be respected, regardless of how they are dressed.  Respectability politics are just another way to punish those who aren’t privileged enough to know how to play the game, and they’re hurting us socially, politically, and yes, economically, as we lose talented people who are pushed out of the system by oppressive gendered expectations.

What’s more important, really: if I can do my job, or I can successfully conform to a dress code that no one even bothers to spell out because it’s just assumed that if you’re in this office, you’re already privileged enough to know what to do?

Abortion, the Life of the Mother, and the Politics of American Motherhood

•May 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Let’s talk about this 20-week abortion ban the House just passed, shall we?

The bill, which is an updated version of the previous “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, passed in the House yesterday, and is going to move on to the Senate for consideration.  The “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” was dropped earlier this year after GOP women came out in opposition to the bill, specifically citing the mandatory reporting clause that would force women to report their rapes to the police in order to qualify for exemptions for abortion.  The new version has removed that clause, but let’s be clear: the bill is still terrible, and it should not be signed into law.

joshymansickofcongress

The good news for opponents of the bill is this: the White House has already come out against the bill, calling it disgraceful, and President Obama had already promised to veto the bill’s previous incarnation back in January.  But don’t be fooled, folks: just because I’m not convinced this bill will ever become a law doesn’t mean no broad abortion ban might ever be signed into law, and this issue is still very much worth discussing.  My concern is frankly this: Republicans in Congress are still catering to the desires of the more extreme right of their own party, skewing legislation, and they are pretty clearly looking to create a meaningful constitutional challenge to Roe.  With the Court likely to change in the next couple of years, as several Supreme Court justices age towards retirement, I hope that those who feel strongly are watching this issue closely, and paying attention to what is happening both regarding the presidency and the Senate.

Back to this bill, though: this bill would functionally ban abortion, something American women already struggle to access, after 20 weeks.  Never mind that the courts have repeatedly struck down 20 week abortion bans (which is what leads me to believe that Congress is really pushing to challenge Roe); this bill is just the latest in a series of unnecessary attempts to politicize the practicing of medicine.  According to Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s leading abortion providers, approximately 99% of abortions occur before 20 weeks; the remaining abortions are usually performed under more extreme and complicated circumstances which require doctors and patients to be able to use every tool in the toolbox.  And while this bill technically does include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, I want to be clear: I do not believe that pregnant people will be able to access this care if necessary under these exemptions in a large number of cases, and rights only matter if they are accessible.

Why am I so unconvinced? As I’ve previously said when writing about rape exceptions, these kinds of exemptions tend to put survivors on trial, and require survivors to be able and willing to recognize and disclose their sexual assault in order to access much-needed care.  And given the backlash that we have seen against survivors of sexual violence, who can really blame survivors if they are reluctant to come forward? Should that jeopardize their medical care?  Their mental health?  I don’t think so, and I can’t see any good argument as to why it should.  Alternatively-~-and again, like I said in my previous posts on the subject-~-if there aren’t requirements to substantiate claims of rape, survivors are likely to be accused of lying to gain access to abortion, which is problematic as well.

But it’s not just rape exceptions I’m skeptical of at this point: it’s the idea that we allow exceptions to “protect the life of the mother”, which I am confident we are determining through a narrow medical definition.  I’m not just worried, though, about pregnant people who might experience medical complications that endanger their health or their life; I’m concerned about the broader conditions which impact pregnant people in the United States and which can place them disproportionately in danger.  When we ignore the dynamics around an individual’s life in an attempt to reduce them to basic “medical” facts, we often miss a lot of what is really going on, major trends that can impact people’s health and potentially endanger their lives.

Let’s start with the big one: homicide, particularly spousal homicide, is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women in the United States.  In fact, rates of intimate partner homicide in the US are staggering: approximately one third of all female homicide victims in the US are killed by their intimate partner, and pregnancy is among the most common times for this to happen.  I haven’t had a chance to track down and read the exact text of the bill, but I wouldn’t bet on Congress having included the likelihood that a pregnant person will be murdered by their intimate partner when they determined what qualifies as an exception to protect the “life of the mother”.  On top of that, trans individuals who become pregnant and for whom pregnancy does not match their gender expression could be outed and targeted for violence; given the statistics on violence against trans individuals in the United States, I am going to go ahead and say we should be doing anything we can to protect the lives of trans people, and we should certainly not be creating situations which exacerbate their risk just because Congress wants to have a political field day with the issue of reproductive rights.

But on top of that, there are just too many people who don’t have sufficient say in what is happening to them who will be disproportionately impacted by a law like this.  Many individuals in domestic violence situations and other abusive relationships may be experiencing sexual coercion, which our laws do an abysmal job of treating as a sex crime, or may have partners who interfere with or destroy their birth control, leaving them with little control over their reproductive outcomes.  Individuals who are economically reliant on their partners are even less likely to leave bad situations when faced with a pregnancy; our narratives about family push people to stay together even when doing so is not in their best interest, even when it endangers their safety (please, look no further than any time marriage incentives are included in discussions of welfare). Poorer individuals who cannot afford to take time off, and even middle class individuals who cannot afford to take time off because of the United States’ embarrassing lack of paid maternity leave may need access to abortion, and may face personal complications like a partner dying or leaving before the baby is born that make parenthood an untenable option for them, partway through the pregnancy.

At the end of the day, though, the bottom line is this: abortion is a complicated decision that needs to be made by pregnant people in consultation with their doctors, without politicians trying to stick their noses in.  The fact that Congress is willing to gamble with people’s lives to score political points with the far right is disgusting and embarrassing; pregnant people in the United States deserve protection and support, not increased threats of criminalization and higher barriers to medical care.  I look forward to watching this bill die on its way to President Obama’s desk, but I am watching anxiously: this won’t be the last attack on reproductive rights by this Congress.  Not by a long shot.

Why I’m Tired of Being Polite

•May 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I like to think that, at least in the beginnings of things, I am generally a polite person.

As a woman, I have unfortunately been socialized to prioritize politeness, even when being polite is problematic.  I’ve been socialized to be friendly, even when I want people to go away, or to stop talking to me.  I’m socialized to stay quiet, when all I want to do is yell at someone that they’ve invaded my personal space and could they please move over two inches.  I’m socialized to be less confrontational, because confrontations cost me social capital; remember, women who call people out are “bitches”.

The problem is, I’m tired of being polite.  Being polite isn’t getting me anywhere.  And when polite conversation fails, I think the reality of the situation is that sometimes, you have to start yelling.

Bitches get stuff done

Soraya Chemaly wrote an incredible piece where she talks about the ten words all women need to learn to say: “Stop interrupting me”, “I just said that”, and “no explanation needed”.  In it, she talks about the ways in which women are frequently interrupted and ignored, how our perceptions about gendered talkativeness create the illusion that women are hogging conversation time when really they are being spoken over by their male colleagues, and how men tend to “mansplain” things to women.  In particular, she cites a story that Rebecca Solnit included in her fantastic 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”, wherein Solnit listens to a man go on and on about this important book that had come out, while her friend kept interrupting him to say that it was Solnit’s book.  And as both Solnit and Chemaly point out, almost every woman has a story like this, a situation where a man was given credit for the work they did, a case where someone kept explaining things to them even though they knew more than the man who would not stop talking.

Solnit raises an incredibly important point at the end of her piece: at the core of the feminist movement is a battle to make women and their stories credible, so that we will actually hear them when women speak their truths.  This is the most fundamental part of work to reduce and combat sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and other major issues disproportionately impacting women.  The problem is that even today, as we continue to battle to make women’s voices heard, and make our stories be taken seriously, we are being talked over.

We are being talked over by money, reputation, perceived social value.  We are being talked over when individuals like Bill Cosby and Charlie Sheen are permitted to have massively successful careers in spite of allegations and convictions which demonstrate that they are abusers.  We are being talked over when we celebrate and protect male student athletes at the expense of female student survivors.  We are being talked over when very real issues regarding consent education and the need for better response mechanisms at universities are overshadowed by schools desperately blaming institutions like Greek life.  We are being talked over when survivors are still being functionally put on trial because they need access to services, or simply want justice.

It sometimes feels, in fact, that I can only talk to people close to me about issues related to intimate partner violence, or even just to other survivors, because I’m sometimes unsure if other people will even take what I’m saying seriously.  That is unacceptable.  The movement has tried to be incredibly reasonable, pushing for better tools to help individuals cope with trauma, pushing for reforms to make the system more accessible, working to combat major media issues regarding reporting on sexual assault.  We’ve tried to be reasonable as we calmly point out why rape jokes are not funny, or how trauma impacts individuals in the classroom, only to receive push-back from the broader community, only to be told that we are overreacting.

I’m tired of having to be polite about these things.  Rape jokes are not funny; they legitimize the actions of rapists, if not in the eyes of outsiders than at the very least in the eyes of rapists, and that is not a joke.  Being triggered is not overreacting, nor is it psuedoscience (I’m looking at you, New York Times); it is a very real psychological phenomena wherein an individual experiences an uncontrollable reaction to their trauma, even though they are no longer in danger.  No one is telling soldiers who have survived in combat zones that their PTSD is illegitimate; it’s only survivors of things like intimate partner violence whose narratives and experiences are still being questioned.

I’m tired of having to defend the idea that I, as a woman, and as a survivor, have a right to exist in professional, social, and academic spaces, without fear that I will be personally attacked simply for existing.  I’m tired of feeling like I have to apologize for having lived these experiences, for caring about them.  I’m tired of having to apologize for being “rude” or “bitchy” when I call people out for belittling me, for minimizing my experiences or the experiences of others, for writing off intimate partner violence as if it does not matter.  It absolutely matters, and pretending it doesn’t is further proof that one exists in a place of privilege where they can afford to minimize an experience that has managed not to impact them or those they love.

Being polite isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m ready to start being blunt.  I’m ready to start being sharp.  I’m ready to be called a bitch.  The truth is, I don’t care what you call me, because a blind reluctance to engage with the ideas I am putting forward, a stubborn insistence that simply because an issue has not impacted you I am “overreacting”, is the worst kind of intellectual cowardice. It’s a refusal to deal with a problem that you on some level know exists but for which confrontation would make you uncomfortable.  I want you to be uncomfortable-~-and why shouldn’t I?  (After all, you want me to be uncomfortable so you can have “meaningful intellectual debate” about issues that impact my daily life).  Recognizing that an issue is uncomfortable means that you’re noticing that something isn’t right here, and now maybe, finally, we can talk about ways to change it.

An Open Letter to Nick Jonas, Or Whomever Writes His Songs

•May 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been a Jonas Brothers fan, but I’ve never actually disliked them, either.  To be completely honest, I’m not overly familiar with most of their music, and I’m not overly familiar with most of the gossip surrounding their careers.  I haven’t heard much about them in the last few years, but I think it’s fine that Nick Jonas, in the absence of a career focused on his family and their singing, is working on a solo career.  Wonderful.  My problem is the songs he is using to do so.

Let’s talk about “Jealous” for a moment, because this song has stirred up a lot of feelings for me, and for others I have talked to about it.  Jealousy as an emotion is fairly normal; I’m not faulting anyone for their occasional insecurity or jealousy in a relationship.  I think it’s a relatable subject, and if that were the core premise of the song, I’d probably be all for it.  The problem is, it’s not.  The song hinges around the lyric “It’s my right to be hellish, I still get jealous”.

You have a right to your emotions, generally speaking.  You do not have a right to take your feelings out on other people, including your intimate partner.  That’s where my problem with this song comes in: this song is about possessiveness (Nick Jonas even says so in the lyrics).  This is a song about a so-called right to ownership over your partner.  It is, in short, a song about glorifying emotional abuse.  Long-time readers of this blog can start, at this point, to imagine the number of problems I have with this as a premise.

Back in February, I had written up a post about how popular culture had normalized abusive relationships, particularly popular media targeting younger people.  This is a frequent concern of mine, given that approximately one-third of all teenagers report experiencing some form of intimate partner violence, and in particular because emotional abuse has become relatively common and is often hard to identify and even harder to combat.  In the absence of actual physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse in and of itself does not technically constitute a crime in most of the country; it is difficult to gain access to the systems that might otherwise protect an abused individual.  Emotional abuse generally speaking doesn’t correlate with lethality, at least not in the sense that the abuser is likely to kill their partner, but I haven’t had much luck finding much data linking emotional abuse to suicide rates, eating disorders, or other high-risk behaviors which might increase the likelihood of significant health harms among those subjected to said abuse.

So when celebrities like Nick Jonas come out with songs that seemingly glorify emotional abuse, painting it as sexy or otherwise “cool”, it strikes a nerve.  He’s the kind of artist primarily listened to by younger individuals, people who are at a high risk of emotional or other abuse (and it’s worth remembering that emotional abuse is often used in conjunction with other kinds of abuse to keep the victim from leaving).  He’s essentially helping to entrench a problem that is becoming worryingly widespread, and participating in a system that necessarily tells individuals, and in particular women, that controlling, possessive behaviors are normal and reasonable.  They are not.

In case this seems like a one-off issue, let me just mention that Nick Jonas’ other recent single, which I now hear frequently on top 40 stations, also seems to glorify emotional abuse.  The entire chorus is simply, “You got me in chains for your love, but I wouldn’t change this love […] try to break the chains but the chains only wring me”.  What does that translate to? Nick Jonas is saying he feels trapped in a relationship which is clearly unhealthy, but he…wouldn’t change it?  This is, again, not the kind of relationship we should be celebrating.  Relationships that make you feel trapped, stagnated, or otherwise constrained or endangered are not sexy, or cool, or worth emulating.

It’s troubling to me that these songs have become so popular.  I get that they are catchy, but much like “Blurred Lines”, they propagate a truly problematic message that further entrench societal norms around dominance and abuse that make it difficult for survivors to meaningfully identify their situations and gain access to resources.  I’m honestly sick of watching our society celebrate relationships that demean and endanger individuals, while putting down messages of hope, or artistically created testimonials of survivorship.  While Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” is considered catchy, Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” was considered whiny-~-because we are, generally speaking, inclined to prefer the celebratory narrative of the abuser, instead of the emotionally raw, potentially troubling testimonial of the survivor (and if you don’t think that “Dear John” tells a story about an emotionally violent relationship, go listen to it a couple more times).  (Please note: I’m not trying to slap the label “abuse survivor” on Taylor Swift-~-I don’t know that she identifies that way, and that’s 100% her business; I am only saying that the situation described in “Dear John” reflects many of the major characteristics of emotionally violent/abusive relationships).

The reality is that until we stop accepting emotional abuse as normal-~-or, worse, as something we should find flattering (looking at you, Nick Jonas), we are never going to see it decline as a pattern of behavior in the United States, which means that we will continue to face all the repercussions which come with this phenomena.  I think that people deserve better-~-better than humiliation, belittlement, or fear of their partners.  Better than having to worry that innocent relationships with other individuals will be used as reasons to hurt them.  Better than having to worry that the person most likely to harm them in our society may well be the person they care for the most.  This is not something to celebrate-~-it is something we need to fight against, to reject at every level.  Something worth, at the very least, turning off the radio for.

Gay Marriage Has Nothing To Do With Love: Anti-Assimilation and a Radical Vision of Queer Revolution

•May 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

This piece was a guest submission written by Matt Massaia. Matt is a New York-based poet, artist and activist who writes about queer identity, long-form poetry, cultural hegemony, and the liminal nature of sexuality in Dionysian ritual.

After both the legalization of same-sex marriage in my state of New York in 2011 and the repeal of DOMA in 2013, friends have categorically asked if I’d ever get married. My answer remains: “I love weddings and I hate marriage.” I think public declarations of love are awesome. I also believe that the marriage equality movement has nothing to do with love. One self-labeled “ally” found this disturbing, recently remarking to me: “But we’ve been fighting so hard for marriage equality and now you can get married! There are so many benefits to marriage!” And that’s true. Married couples receive that the myriad partnered, dating, and single among us do not. To name a few: the ability to hop on your partner’s healthcare plan, more comprehensive end of life planning, filing joint income tax returns, an easier route for non-citizen spouses to traverse the byzantine immigration process. Who wouldn’t want all of that?

I’m not going to spend much time on “the benefits of marriage equality,” as many other people have written on that and I personally find it redundant to explain them all again. What I do want to address is why we’re fighting for marriage as “the way” to expand access to these benefits to a few more people. What I do want to talk about is inclusion, about our queer identities, and how the fight for marriage is a half-assed attempt at what could very well be a political and sexual revolution.

Why is it that a large part of our community thinks that marriage is going to fix all of our problems? That if we’re able to get married legally and have our marriages recognized everywhere, suddenly, all of our issues will go away. The Supreme Court of the United States is in the process of deliberating Obergefell v Hodges, the latest landmark federal suit in a long slew of cases assessing the inclusion of gays and lesbians in civil marriage. Always the focus is on this idea of “inclusion,” this we-are-just-like-you. The assimilation of queer people into the heteropatriarchal institutions of marriage and military is not what I’d consider a success.

We should be questioning why married couples get these benefits and why they aren’t accessible to all people instead.

Civil marriage is a coercive state mechanism for policing your family structure and sexuality. The movement for marriage equality ignores our right to self-determine what our families can be. Rather, it extends the bourgeois nuclear model which fails time and time again. It excludes those of us who are polyamorous. Civil marriage is state-backed monogamy. If the Supreme Court rules that all states must recognize same-sex marriages, what victory has the queer community won with thousands of homeless queer youth, with people of color subjected to murder and violence from the same institution that recognizes their marriage, with hundreds of thousands of undocumented queers struggling to survive, with the transgender community fighting for their lives and access to healthcare.

All people should be entitled to healthcare, regardless of their marital status and their partner’s insurance plan. All people, regardless of their marital status, should be able to move between countries without having to worry about laws that make them unable to legally work or reside where they want.

Inclusion is not liberation. Assimilation is not liberation. Why is it that our goal is assimilation into the hetero-patriarchal institution of marriage? The marriage equality movement has attempts to depoliticize the inherently political nature of living as a queer individual into a discussion centered more often than not on whether or not it is “right” to be queer. We’ve wasted so much time arguing with people about the morality of our identities that we haven’t been able to take a step back and assess why and if we want to get married in the first place. We are unable to engage in the discourse on whether or not marriage is the battle we should be arming ourselves for because we are too engaged in the cultural litmus test of affirming that, yes, it’s okay for two men to want to sleep with each other. Our celebrities—our Macklemores and Lady Gagas—profit off exploiting pro-marriage positions. Young queer people are drawn to this because it gives them an illusory sense of political agency. This rhetoric of “same love” encourages queer assimilation into state-sponsored monogamy.

Is marriage equality the battle that we should be fighting while there are white gay men, young and old alike, demonizing uprisings in response to police brutality happening in Baltimore (not 50 miles away from Antonin Scalia’s saggy rear) who have seemingly forgotten their own history—that the first Gay Pride was a riot? That the Gay Liberation Front, named to resonate with anti-imperialist movements in Vietnam and Algeria, worked in solidarity with the Black Panthers and working class people around the world? That demands for our dignity as queer people, our right to be both erotic and romantic, was intimately bound to anti-capitalist struggles for economic justice and racial justice?

When the Supreme Court heard the case of United States vs. Windsor, they entertained the interests of a handful of affluent gay people. Edith Windsor’s case was heard because she didn’t want to pay nearly $400,000 in estate taxes when her partner died—a sum of money that most of us will never see. The marriage equality movement benefits the few wealthy (mostly white and male) gays by allowing them a capitalist avenue to for inclusion.  During the AIDS crisis, queer people wanted to get married because marriage would have allowed us see out partners on their deathbeds. Why is it that we didn’t demand to have our families respected without being under the auspices of government-backed monogamy? Why do the dying not have the right to their own last wishes, regardless of the nature of their family?

We must realize that fighting the battle for gay marriage is neither radical nor progressive. It is an assimilationist and ultimately conservative fight to want to be included in an institution that privileges those who enter into state-sanctioned monogamous relationships. My vision of a true queer liberation movement does not include us having to register our relationships with the state in order to ensure our access to citizenship and healthcare. Why are we not fighting for our right to self-determine what our families are? We often run into the slippery-slope conservative talking-head question “If two women want to get married, then who’s to say three women won’t be able to get married?” To this I say, go right ahead.

We’re too occupied with comforting paranoid straight people that their marriage won’t be affected should we choose to marry that we don’t seem to understand that marriage is a political institution. We live in a culture where marriage between straight, cisgender people has no apparent political consequences. We need to understand that there are political consequences to our all of our identities, that our cultural has normalized certain decisions that are otherwise political. What do I mean by normalized? I mean depoliticized. Should our goal really be to depoliticize the way we organize our lives, the way we choose to love who we love? The way we structure our lives carries inherently political consequences. Pretending that we can exist in any arrangement that doesn’t have ramifications outside of ourselves is a disservice to our communities. Our culture emphasizes that it is only a political decision when it deviates from “the norm.” The idea of a mother, a father, two kids, a dog, and a house in the suburbs appears to be an apolitical family arrangement, especially when compared to queer relationships, which are viewed as part of political conversation. There is nothing less political about taking part in this lifestyle as compared to any other. If I walk down the street with my boyfriend and I hold his hand or if I kiss him in public, we are—whether we like it or not—making a political statement. To not acknowledge the power of such statements, to pocket ourselves into little bubbles that desire inclusion over revolution, is to ignore the true potential of our political agency.

Marriage makes gay people more palatable for straight people. If we get married and enter into state-sponsored monogamy, we’re just like them. We’re safe. We’re not scary, rainbow-splattered faggots roaming the streets rabid from orgy to orgy. We’re not demanding economic justice. And we don’t treat it like that. Where is the desire for massive social overhaul? We’re eating marriage equality like we’re dogs eating scraps off of the floor. We’re being placated and I’m sick that this is the direction our discourse turned. Gays and lesbians bartered this arrangement by leaving out in the cold the rest of our community, the trans community, queers of color, the undocumented, and others who won’t benefit from a capitalist system of state monogamy.

What kind of justice is the marriage equality movement pushing for if it only wants to let us be just like everyone else, robbing us of who we are? A truly revolutionary queer movement must not be one in which gays rush off to get married with South African blood diamond rings on their fingers. We must demand economic justice. We must fight for freedom of mobility and work for all people regardless of citizenship or gender identity. We must demand true universal healthcare, not an insurance marketplace. We have a right to be erotic. We have a right to love who we want and a right to enter into sexual/romantic relationships with people who want the same. The struggle for asserting our queer identities must be a struggle that asserts our desire to not have wars to fight in, not to be just be included in the military. We must protest imperialism. We must combat misogyny, transphobia, and racism while amplifying the voices those whose very existence is oftentimes an act of rebellion. We have the potential to create a powerful revolution. How can we think about marriage at a time like this?

Marriage Equality Is Only The Beginning

•April 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

In two days, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Obergeffel v Hodges, what will likely be a landmark decision regarding same-sex marriage that is expected to focus on equal protection and the right to full faith and credit. Activists and members of the community are eager for the Supreme Court to hear arguments and release their decision, which will hopefully be a major victory for proponents of marriage equality.  I am with them: it seems absurd, in 2015, to still have to be arguing that people who are in loving, committed relationships should have access to the benefits of state-sanctioned monogamy, or that those rights should be transferable across state lines.  Marriage equality will be a victory, but it is just a battle, not the war.

Marriage equality will be great, but I think the problem is that focusing on it has detracted from some of the even more important issues facing the LGB community.  I say this as someone who does not necessarily identify with the community, but someone who has listened to many of the concerns articulated by those who do: bullying in schools, a refusal to discuss sexuality in health classes, discrimination in the workplace and the housing market, access to appropriate and sensitive healthcare, hate crimes, and suicide among the LGBT community are also major concerns facing the community, perhaps even greater concerns impacting an even wider range of rights violations, that will not be solved when SCOTUS rules on Obergeffel v Hodges.

Let’s talk workplace discrimination, arguably the next area where progress has been seen for the LGB community, but where said progress has still proven insufficient.  It is currently illegal for the federal government or for federal contractors to discriminate based on sexual orientation, but that is a fairly recent development.  Under current Congressional rules, House staffers can be fired or refused promotions on the basis of their sexual orientation. A vast majority of states lack any law protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, and even fewer protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a piece of legislation that would serve as a federal-level prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it has yet to be introduced by the 114th Congress.  And this is an issue on which we are arguably seeing progress-~-a sad statement on this country’s level of tolerance and acceptance of the LGB community.

If that lack of tolerance is pervasive, it starts early: a 2005 survey of teens in the United States revealed that the number two reason why adolescents are bullied is because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.  Approximately 9 out of 10 LGBT teens report having been bullied at school, with fairly devastating consequences: students who identify as LGBT are on average five times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, and about 28% felt forced to drop out of school altogether.  That same study indicated that LGBT teens were two to three times more likely than their non-LGBT counterparts to commit suicide. Those numbers might be a decade old now, but the 2011 numbers are not any better: the CDC’s data indicate that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGB peers, and the numbers are much worse for LGB youth coming from non-accepting families.

All of that is just focused on LGB-identified individuals, without taking into account the statistics relevant to the trans community, where things are equally bad if not worse. Marriage equality might be a step towards acceptance for cisgendered LGB individuals, but it does nothing to address transphobia or protect the rights of trans individuals in the United States.

The reality is, we have a long way to go, even beyond the issues of bullying and workplace discrimination, and equating “marriage equality” with “equality” does more harm than good.  It makes it seem like the other problems will just go away, or that they are less important, if the courts rule in favor of same-sex couples in this upcoming case.  But consider a few things: violence against the LGBT community actually increased in 2013, and though I don’t have the numbers for 2014, I’d guess they don’t look good either.  A very large number of LGBT youth have been harassed, or feel unsafe, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  LGBT youth are still at particularly high risk of homelessness, and are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.  Violence against trans individuals, especially trans people of color, is inexcusably frequent in the United States.

I’m as excited as anyone (well, anyone not directly effected by the decision) by the possibility that the Supreme Court may rule in favor of same-sex couples, giving a large number of individuals access to the rights and privileges of matrimony in the United States.  But marriage equality is a battle, and I’m scared that when we win it, we may well lose sight of the war.  LGB Americans deserve more than the ability to apply for a marriage license; they deserve to feel safe in their homes, in their schools, and in their communities.  They deserve education, including sex education, that addresses their needs and their lived realities.  They deserve legal protection when hate crimes are committed against them, and they deserve a country that promotes tolerance such that those crimes cease to be committed.  They deserve access to their religious and spiritual communities of choice, and they deserve to be able to be themselves at work without fear of being fired or denied opportunities for advancement.

If we win this court case, take a moment and celebrate.  And then remember that there is more work to be done.  The fight for equality is far from over, and we all need to be in it, to the very end.

Balancing Safety with Intellectualism: On Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Challenging Comfort Zones

•April 15, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I keep coming across this article from the New York Times, “In College And Hiding from Scary Ideas”, and as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been realizing that there have been few really nuanced discussions of the issues related to safety in intellectual spaces.  This article actually does try quite hard, and I’m fully willing to give credit where credit is due: if universities cannot bring controversial speakers onto campus, if students insist that their colleges become liberal echo-chambers, then our intellectual growth as a nation is likely to stagnate.

College-~-especially liberal arts colleges-~-should be about broadening your horizons and challenging your assumptions.  That necessarily means being exposed to ideas you don’t necessarily agree with, and ideas that make you uncomfortable. It might mean challenging your privilege or being forced to defend something you don’t think you should have to defend-~-I’m totally okay with that.  I’m okay with the idea that if I want to talk about rape culture, I may have to defend the idea that rape culture exists and is a problem.  I’m okay with the idea that things like abortion are controversial issues and may make some people upset or uncomfortable, I’m okay with the fact that not everyone has the same ideas as I do about HIV prevention or sex education or care labor-~-part of being intellectually rigorous in my activism means that I should be able to articulate not only my ideas but my justifications for them. My dad always says that being a reform Jew or a conservative Jew is harder than being an Orthodox Jew because you have to actually think critically about and defend to yourself why you accept the practices you engage in, because you aren’t just accepting everything about the religion on face.  That critical engagement is necessary if we’re to make progress on important issues and debates.  We should be having these debates, because people need the opportunity to engage with ideas that are different than those they encounter every day.

I’m also okay with the idea of speakers at special events tackling issues like rape culture and critically examining whether or not many of the ideas that the feminist movement promotes are based on valid assessments and assumptions about society.  You know why?  Because special events are voluntary.  Wendy McElroy should have been given the space to articulate her viewpoint at Brown, and Jessica Valenti should have had the opportunity to refute her, without the very existence of the debate being controversial in and of itself.  Students who might be triggered by this debate have the option of simply not attending, which means that they already have the ability to protect themselves.

Where I think this New York Times article-~-and the criticism of efforts to protect trauma survivors more generally-~-goes a bit too far is where the author starts to attack trauma survivors themselves for their “hypersensitivity”.  The author references an essay Judith Shapior, former president of Barnard College, wrote for Inside Higher Ed, in which Shapiro suggests that students self-infantilize and that this trend towards reducing triggers or creating safe spaces is a part of that trend.  I’m not sure where I stand on this self-infantilization issue-~-I simply haven’t looked at it enough-~-but when the Times dismisses trauma as “quasi-medical”, I think it runs the risk of completely dismissing an entire branch of psychology and counseling that deals with the very real experiences of survivors of traumatic experiences.

I think that universities do need to offer trauma survivors the tools to take care of themselves-~-but don’t necessarily need to do all of that protecting for them.  I think trigger warnings fall on the safer side of this line.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: trigger warnings are not about protecting students from content they may find potentially offensive, it is about helping survivors of trauma to brace themselves or avoid situations where they might be forced to partially relive their trauma.  They may not be perfect, but they are at least something, and though I have had individuals tell me, time and again, that trigger warnings violate the intellectual freedom of those forced to use them, I can’t tell you that I agree: trigger warnings don’t say you cannot discuss a subject.  They are just a tool to allow students who might be disproportionately impacted by the discussion to prepare themselves.  A survivor of relationship violence, I work with other survivors of relationship violence every single day as a domestic violence counselor; but I am prepared for their stories, prepared for the environment in which I work, so I am still able to focus, and I have tools in place to ground myself if necessary.  Allowing students to opt out of special events like debates or presentations if the content may be triggering is another good way to let students protect themselves without compromising the intellectual nature of the university.

I get that we all want universities to be safe spaces for ideas to be freely discussed.  I also get that it’s useful, important even, for survivors to confront their trauma, to talk about these issues.  I’m not at all convinced that every context is the right context at any given time for every survivor, and a class discussion or academic debate about sexual assault may do more harm than good.  And before you dismiss trigger warnings as stupid and trauma survivors as “hypersensitive”, ask yourself this question: have you ever had a dissociative episode in class, or started shaking and crying in public, because you were blindsided by a trauma reaction? A little warning actually can go a long way, and if you haven’t experienced a trauma trigger, consider that there may be more to the issue than you’re necessarily able to see from where you stand.

As an advocate, I work off of what the victims services sector calls an “empowerment model”: that is, I don’t make decisions for my clients, but rather give them the information and resources that they need to make decisions for themselves regarding their safety and well-being.  That’s the model I’d love to see universities shift towards in dealing with trauma.  We should be teaching trauma survivors good coping mechanisms, through support groups or general trainings on how to ground someone who is having a traumatic episode, the same way we would teach safe space trainings or bystander intervention trainings.  We should be offering resources so that survivors can pick up the pieces of their lives and decide what they need to stay safe.  We should be offering students the opportunity to adequately prepare themselves if they are going to encounter triggering content so that they have the chance to really engage in the discussion without incurring pain unnecessarily.  And as for the safe spaces the New York Times article initially sets out to critique: I don’t have a problem with giving students the resources to ground themselves and take a breath if necessary after they confront opposing and potentially triggering discussions.  If we don’t allow for students to take care of themselves after putting themselves in disquieting situations, the odds are they may disengage altogether-~-which is, in this author’s opinion, just as great a barrier to getting the intellectually rigorous, mind-opening debates that universities claim they want.  I think there’s a balance that can be achieved here, and I think we need to be cautious in which tools we implement in our quest to achieve it.

 
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