Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Butches in Hollywood

Terri Polo & Sherri Saum as lesbian moms in The Fosters
"Do you have any celebrity crushes?" my friend Natalie inquired one evening.

"Of course!" I said reflexively...but then could only list one woman, Jordana Brewster from the film D.E.B.S. After that, I could only think of rougeish and/or prettyboy male actors. Natalie also could not name any female celebrity crushes and we agreed was a sad state of affairs when avowed lesbians like us couldn't think of any celebrity women that were really crush-worthy.

The problem for us, and no doubt many many other queer women, is that we like butchy-ish beautiful women. But to Hollywood filmmakers and TV producers, this group of women does not really exist. When lesbians or bisexual women are portrayed, they must be traditionally feminine with long hair, tight clothes, hourglass figures and make-up.

Anna Silk and Zoie Palmer in a scene from Lost Girl
Heather Morris & Naya Rivera on Glee
Even some of the most contemporary films and tv shows and those that are actually written by lesbians, bisexual women and gay men don't show us anywhere near to the full range of queer women. Cases in point The Fosters, Glee, Lost Girl, and The L-Word, which all have LGBTQ writers and/or creators.


The central cast of The L Word

Adepero Oduye as Alike in the film
Independent films like "Pariah" are able to take the risk of a multi-dimensional butchy protagonist because they're seen as fringe--by queer people for queer people--unlike the shows that feature queer women but are required to have mass appeal and therefore must hyper-feminize its queer women. The closest we've gotten in the TV world is Tasha and Shane on the L Word (first from left second from the right in the L Word cast photo, respectively), Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow, but I wouldn't go so far as to call any of them full-out butch--they're just not traditionally or hyper-feminine.

Photographer Meg Allen's recent portrait project shows us starkly what we are missing by excluding butch women from mass media. Her photos profiling butches in the Bay Area show us confident, quirky and sexy butch women. As Meg Allen writes on her website, there are costs for these women being themselves:
"These portraits are of butches who are used to being heckled for the way they look; they are used to the lack of acceptance and disapproving gazes from everyday onlookers; they are used to hiding themselves and avoiding too much attention-- attention that has sometimes warranted violence. But it’s 2014. I am proud of who I am and who they are. It’s time we are given room to look the way we look. We aren’t dangerous. We don’t want to rip down the fabric of the natural world. We just want to be the way we are."
Meg Allen's portrait of Keiko, http://megallenstudio.com/#/butch/
We may think of TV shows as trivial, candy for consumption, but the shows and films that Hollywood produces certainly have an impact on what forms of dress and gender expression our society sees as appropriate or worthy. Lipstick lesbians rock, and should absolutely be featured in our media, but we shouldn't be okay with how masculine or butch women are conveniently edited out of the vast majority of our TV shows and films.

Vive la butch!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Exploding the Binary: Hida Viloria and Intersex Activism

The fantastic Hida Viloria, http://hidaviloria.com/
In this historical moment, our U.S. society is really into binaries. We're used to check-boxes and
opposites, and clear yes or no answers about identity. Multi-racial people, trans and genderqueer people, bi/pan/omnisexual people, and intersex people confuse our media, our schools, our government records. Folks in these communities are constantly fighting for the right to be accepted just as they are; are constantly asked to defend or justify their existence; and are constantly asked to contort themselves to fit into rigid identity categories.

For intersex people--as intersex activist Hida Viloria explained in a recent lecture, "Intersex People: Beyond the Binary"--efforts towards intersex visibility and acceptance are currently where lesbian and gay rights efforts were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, intersex people are pathologized and seen by most non-intersex people as abnormal and in need of medical treatment--just as "homosexuals" (can we stop using that word now?) were seen at the beginning of the lesbian and gay rights movement. As I discussed in a previous post, part of that pathologization of intersex people is un-medically necessary surgeries on infants' genitalia at birth so that the infants can better "fit" doctors' determinations on what a "normal" size penis or clitoris is.

Hida, who is the Chairperson of Organisation Intersex International (OII) also shared that there is no evidence that "normalizing" surgeries and hormone treatments benefit intersex people, and in fact they are often irreversibly damaging to intersex people. She explained in her lecture that intersex people are medically pathologized for cultural reasons, not medical realities.

We have a lot of work to do to right those wrongs. A huge first step is working on awareness--Hida shared the helpful statistic that intersex people are just as common as people with red hair! Both constitute 1.9% of the population (according to Anne Fausto-Sterling's research in "Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality"). But because of the physical invisibility of many intersex people's intersex identity (many of the 40 intersex categories are not visible, more info here) and the discrimination intersex people face when they are out or outed, many intersex people (understandably) choose to keep their intersex identity a secret.

We need to be talking more about intersex people and their importance in LGBTQI movements in our LGBTQ Centers, our classrooms, our homes. Making those spaces safer for intersex people to come out is a crucial first step. Then together we'll get to the rest of the list: institutions and society at large!

To do more self- and community education, check out:
Hida's awesome videos
OII's Brief Guidelines for Intersex Allies
OII-USA's list of online resources

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Seductive Outliers

The seductive outliers come in different forms.

There's British pop star Lily Allen, who told an interviewer, "Feminism. I hate that word because it shouldn't even be a thing any more. We're all equal, everyone's equal so why is there even a conversation about feminism?"

There's Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, ascending the political ladder and demanding respect.

There's the science professor who told me it has never been difficult for her to be a woman in science, nor was it difficult to have children and then return to academia.

There's something to celebrate in each of these cases--these are women who have made it. These are women who are at or close to the pinnacle of their fields. These are women who have influence and power.

And yet they are not the norm. They are all white. They are all straight. They all have some form of class privilege. They have bucked the trends to come out on top. So what do we do in these kinds of cases where there is much to celebrate about their individual accomplishments, but there is also the danger of erroneously generalizing about the experience of women in these fields at large?

Let's drill down into the case of the professor. I was surprised and delighted to hear that her career as a science professor has been a fulfilling one. She told me that she has not felt that she has faced barriers due to her gender, she has not felt less than as a female scientist, and she is proud that she took time off to raise children and then was able to come back into academia without issue. Further, in at least two of the STEM departments at her college, female professors actually outnumber male professors. All this is amazing, and such a boon to the female students studying science at her college--it means that they see many different models of women in science, and may be more likely to pursue a degree and a career in science than if they were taught exclusively or mostly by men.

And yet, her experience and her school are nowhere close to the norm. This fall, the New York Times Magazine published an extensive article, "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" and the first thing it mentions is a study showing that when presented with female and male candidates with the same qualifications for the same job, (both female and male) physicists, chemists and biologists were significantly more likely to hire the male candidate. That then makes it unsurprising that only 14% of physics professors in the country are women, and percentages of female professors in other STEM fields are not much higher.

It reminded me of what my partner B., also a scientist, says about her experiences studying and working in science: She has been passionate about various forms of science since she was a child, has always excelled in science and math, and really nothing was going to stop her from being a scientist. Yet she notes that for other women thinking about majoring in or careers in science, the experience of being one of three female students in engineering classes, or only having male advisers to choose from, or constantly second-guessing yourself about speaking in class because female students speak so infrequently, it could be very easy for talented women who like science but are also interested in other fields to just decide that the STEM route isn't worth the hurdles.

The outliers are so seductive because they would make it so much easier. If we could just accept Lily Allen's assessment that we've achieved equality, if we could just extrapolate Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi's success as proof that women have just as much political power as men, if we could see the science professor's experience as the changing of the guard in STEM fields, we would be done, right? We could just praise the women who did the good hard work in the '60s and '70s, and we're off the hook as a culture. (And of course, note that this 'it's-all-good-now' analysis conveniently leaves race and class off the table.)

But the truth is, practicing feminism on a daily basis is hard, even for women. It's so easy to insult women in our culture, it's so acceptable to trivialize a woman's appearance or intelligence, and call her "crazy" or a "bitch" instead of actually debating her perspective analytically or philosophically. Even in this essay, the low hanging fruit would just be to hate on Lily Allen as a person rather than elucidating how her dismissiveness of feminism erases the challenges that the majority of women in this country still face, even if it is her valid personal experience that she has been able to do all the things she's wanted to do, regardless of her gender.

Because if you're really a feminist, then you don't throw women under the bus to benefit yourself, or to benefit your feminist line of reasoning. So I do not want to minimize cases like the science professor or Nancy Pelosi, I want to celebrate them. But I believe that it is possible to celebrate the outliers, while calling attention to what they are--incredible, motivated, lucky, talented, brilliant women who have successfully navigated systems that are not set up for them to succeed.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Violence at Home: What Torture in Nigeria Has to Do with LGBTQ Americans

Arrests and torture of gays and lesbians in Nigeria have increased this month leading up to and in the wake of the "Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act" being signed by President Goodluck Jonathan on January 7th. According to this NPR story, the Act is a "political football" to distract citizens from other governmental goings-on and encourage people to scapegoat and abuse LGBTQ people--people who are already under siege given that homosexual sex is illegal in the country. In some parts of the country, it's punishable by death.

It can be a very American impulse to gasp at this terrible news and shake our heads at the 39 African countries with laws against homosexuality and think 'well thank goodness we are nothing like that in America.'

And while we absolutely should condemn all abhorrent violations of human rights like those happening right now in Nigeria, we certainly cannot give our country a pass. Because the fact is, while LGBTQ people have certainly gained many rights in the last few decades, we too are still disproportionately under siege for all kinds of violence, particularly against LGBTQ people of color and transgender women.

Reported Anti-LGBTQ Homicides in 2012 (NCAVP)
Looking at the statistics above gathered by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) on reported anti-LGBTQ homicides is sobering, all the more so because the total number of homicides is very conservative--including only homicides that could be confirmed by police as being hate-motivated.

In 2012, there were also 2,016 reports of anti-LGBTQ violence in the U.S. that did not result in death, according to NCAVP's report. Over two-thousand instances...that works out to over five acts of reported violence against LGBTQ people every single day of the year.

What's difficult to capture numerically is the volume of violence LGBTQ people experience that does not result in a police report. LGBTQ victims may choose not to report violence they've experienced for many valid reasons, often because they fear for their safety from the police and/or retribution from the perpetrator if they report the crime.

I was talking about the spike in anti-LGBTQ violence in Nigeria with a friend of mine who is in his mid-sixties. He agreed that anti-LGBTQ violence in the U.S. often gets dis-remembered or ignored. He said that three times in his life people have tried to kill him because he is gay. Once as a young adolescent, a group of boys tried to drown him in lake. As a young adult, a man invited my friend to his house for lunch and then with an accomplice, tied him up and put a knife to his throat, only not stabbing him because his accomplice urged him not to. As a parent, he was in his home with his child when a cluster of bullets came whizzing through the wall of the house. He strongly suspected it was a homophobic neighbor of his.

Throughout his life, he has been a target. But he is American. And white. And cisgender. He is a relatively privileged member of the LGBTQ community yet he has had to endure extremely traumatizing events as punishment for his gay identity. Can you just imagine what it must be like for even more marginalized members of the LGBTQ community? The stories they would tell about what they've survived?

We are not so different from other countries. We are not off the hook. And we should not be satisfied with changes just made in law books. LGBTQ people around the world deserve better than this.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Writing Privilege on My Face

I found it eerily beautiful when we unveiled the twenty large photos at the gallery opening of "The
Privilege Campaign," an educational effort a group of my colleagues and I have been working on. Each photo has an administrator's or faculty member's individual face staring out at you, with writing on their image. Eerie because it's jarring to see words written on a person's face, but beautiful because each person was making themselves vulnerable, by writing about the privileges they experience and having them transposed onto their image.

The goal of the campaign (based on the incredible Un-Fair Campaign) was to start with employees of the College. So often in higher ed, it's only students who we ask to be vulnerable. We ask them to speak their minds in classroom discussions, write personal essays, participate in campus dialogues, and work together with each other in student organizations. In contrast "The Administration" of the College is often seen as a monolithic authority, with little humanity to it. So my two partners and I decided that we needed a proactive campaign to talk about issues of privilege, oppression and identity.

We reached out to some of the employees students see the most on campus--res life, certain professors, security, campus life, campus activities, etc.--and 20 people agreed to participate for this first installment of what we hope to be a multi-year campaign. To participate, folks had to write both a "face statement" and an "artist's statement." The face statements had to be short and to the point, and had to focus on the person's privilege. But we all know that our privileges and identities are more complicated than a couple statements, so the artist's statement was a way for each participant to expound on the tangle of their privileges and lack of privileges. Here is my image and artists's statement:
"I chose to focus on my white privilege for the Privilege campaign because it’s the part of my identity in which I experience the most unearned privileges. I also wanted to interrogate my white privilege because my whiteness is a part of my identity that I don’t ‘see’ unless I really focus on it. In contrast, I find that my class privilege is a form of my identity that I can ‘see’ more clearly—I see it in the places that I work, in my interactions with my upper middle-class family, in my clothes and in my hobbies. My racial and class privileges have hugely influenced the access I have to resources, networking, and all different kinds of opportunities.  
Directing the LGBTQ Center and the Women’s Center means that I wear some of the identities in which I don’t experience privilege on my sleeve—they’re right in my job title. Because of the insulation my class privilege provides, the discrimination I’ve experienced as a queer-identified woman has mostly been structural—I’m limited in where my partner and I can live and be considered equal citizens, for instance. But because of my class, I can choose where to live and what kind of jobs to have. In contrast, the discrimination I’ve experienced being a female-identified person has been insidious for my whole life. Once I learned the word “microaggression” a couple years ago, I thought, yes! That’s exactly the right word for what I experience. Micro-misogyny feels ever-present to me. It’s there when people use “crazy” as a go-to word to describe women. It’s there when male-identified people take up significantly more verbal space than women in meetings and classrooms. It’s there when people condescend about women’s sports. Each individual act of bias is small, but a lifetime collection of them can sometimes weigh me down."
In the spring, we will up Campaign participation to anyone at the College who is interested--students and other administrators, faculty and staff. Just as in this first round of the Campaign, participants will go through a workshop led by the director of our multicultural center and me. In the workshop we discuss racial identity models, the different kinds of social identity groups, and ask people to think about what identities make it particularly easy for them to move through the world. For this first installment, people talked about race, sex, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, citizenship, religion--it was really an amazing array of experiences and perspectives.

And the next big question I am asking myself and I hope other participants are asking themselves is--okay, now how do we act on this knowledge? Now that some of our privileges are more visible to us, how are we going to contest them? How are we going to talk to others about the privileges that we share and do the hard work of dismantling them? I guess I'm hoping this blog post is at least a start.