Sunday, December 5, 2010

Your Holiday Giving and Navigating the Nonprofit Sector

Since moving to Washington D.C. and deciding to pursue a Master of Public Administration degree with a focus on nonprofit management, I have been to a lot of job and internship interviews at nonprofit organizations. As is the case with any job or internship search, some of these interviews have proven more fruitful than others. But what I have found to be the case (although this was not really something I thought about much going into the process) was what an eye-opener this process has been. As the holiday season approaches and many people prepare to give their annual donation to whatever organization or cause they feel is important, I invite you to ask yourself a few questions before you write that check this year.

1.) Is the organization an advocacy group or a direct service provider?
Chances are, if you're giving to an organization, you know what they stand for. They stand for "saving the environment" or "women's rights" or "LGBT equality" or "eliminating global poverty." And you, being a good person, stand for those things, too. That's great but it doesn't answer the question of what the organization does. What is their strategy for accomplishing this goal?

For example, some organization engage in direct service provision. Community health clinics, domestic violence shelters, libraries, and food banks are all classic examples of this type of nonprofit. They provide some kind of direct service to individuals. Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services (birth control, physical examinations, STD testing, pregnancy testing, the HPV vaccine, and in some cases abortion). The Ronald McDonald House houses the families of sick children while they receive medical care. Your local homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter provides homeless people or victims of abuse with somewhere to go during difficult times. To find out how well organizations like this are fulfilling their mission and what quality of services they are providing, you can ask those they serve. You can even offer to volunteer at some of these organizations to see how well you think they're serving the individuals they claim to serve. If the group helps those far away, see if you can find independent online testimonials about how good (or not so good) the group is at fulfilling its mission to them. In any event, it is oftentimes not too difficult to get a picture of the end product of these organizations' work because they interact directly with those they are helping.

However, some organizations do not engage very often in direct service provision. They serve as advocates for causes they think are important. When these organizations do intervene directly for individuals, it is in the hopes that their work will have a wider impact. Examples of organizations like this include the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Rights Campaign. It can sometimes be difficult to tell how effective these organization are in achieving their mission. When organizations like this are effective, they can create massive amounts of change. When they are ineffective, they can hold back social movements and causes, diverting money, talent, and energy away from more effective means of advocacy. It can be hard to know who to ask about these organizations as well. The average LGBT person probably cannot tell you how well or how poorly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force represents them. Only the most political and informed gun owners may have a sense for how well the NRA is representing their interests and this sense may not be entirely well-informed. Thankfully, there are ways to measure impact that will be discussed in greater depth later.

2.) What exactly does the organization do and how effective are they at doing it?

First of all, I would look on an organization's website to get a sense of how they impact their cause of choice. Are they a direct service provider? Are they an advocacy group? Do they do both? If they are a legal group, do they do their best to help all individuals needing a certain kind of legal assistance (battered women, indigent populations, etc.) or do they focus more on impact litigation (like the ACLU)?

For direct service providers you will want to ascertain exactly what programs the organization has and how easy they are to access. A good question to ask yourself in these cases is "If I was in the population this organization serves, what services could they offer me, how important to me would they be, and how easy would they be to access?"

Figuring out what an advocacy group does can be a little trickier. A poke around their website can be helpful, but there are better ways of measuring a group's impact when they are of this type. I would argue that media coverage can be significant. When an issue is discussed on the news, in newspapers, or in magazines, how often do certain organizations receive a mention? If they are mentioned frequently, they are probably recognized as providing a definitive voice on a certain topic.

Secondly, I would do some research into how the organization effects policy change. If they go through the courts, do their legal challenges tend to be significant and successful? If they lobby legislators, how successful have they been in this endeavor? How much access do they really have to leaders with the power to effect change? For example, the effectiveness of some lobbying groups is legendary. (For example, AIPAC, the Israel lobby, is well known for being extremely effective.) The most effective lobbyists not only convince leaders, they are involved with writing the legislation they want. Some organizations (I am sad to say that all of the national non-legal LGBT groups fall into this category) are much less effective. They never really gain much access to the halls of power. And while money can sometimes buy more effective lobbyists or strategists, oftentimes it simply allows for the continuation of ineffective tactics and non-responsive leadership within nonprofits. If an organization's list of accomplishments is much smaller than their operating budget should indicate, then perhaps it is wise to find an organization with a stronger track record. Here it is instructive to think of Christ and his parable of the talents. If someone can do a decent amount with what little they have, they can be trusted with more. If they are given a lot and do little with it, then it is unlikely that continuing to give to them will be very fruitful.

Thirdly, I would look at some hard numbers. What percentage of a group's budget goes toward their staff's salaries? I certainly think that it is important to pay those working in the nonprofit sector well and oftentimes with advocacy groups, the staff include lobbyists or litigators who are responsible for the success of the cause itself. But if more money seems to go towards paying staff than anything else and the group doesn't seem to be very effective, then I would give elsewhere.

3.) What is the relationship of an organization's activities to the end goal?

Some organizations seem to do a poor job of connecting their current activities to a clearly defined end goal. Sometimes the end goal (eliminating global poverty, ending all racism) is so broad and unattainable as to be laughable. Other times the goal is more reasonable (providing shelter for all of our city's homeless who wish to utilize it during the coldest months of the year, achieving racial parity on a certain standardized test in a given number of years) but the means of achieving it seem to bear little relation to the end result.

For instance, let's say that an organization wants to help lessen the prevalence of STDs in a community. Providing a free or low cost health clinic in the community that everyone knows about is a good start. So is providing free classes on STD prevention and treatment. Handing out cheap condoms that will probably break to people on the street is silly. It is a one time, ineffective solution to the problem.

This is my problem with Teach for America. We can disagree about how best to improve the education of our nation's youth. However, I am fairly certain that sending small numbers of inexperienced teachers into  communities they know nothing about for short amounts of time is not a practical or sustainable solution to the problem. While it may make the volunteers feel good about themselves, it is not going to make a big dent in our nation's education-oriented problems.

I want to end this piece by saying that giving is important, especially if you know of an organization that does good work, that has helped you or someone you know, and whose work seems to be effective. I encourage all of you to give, if you can, to nonprofits this holiday season. But be wise about where you put your money and be mindful of what strategies you may be supporting with your cash. Happy Holidays!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Relativism: The Stupidest Thing That Smart People Believe

Throughout history, otherwise intelligent people have held incredibly stupid ideas. In America, the worst of these ideas - like the validity of racism, sexism, and homophobia - are for the most part dying out among the aforementioned intelligent and educated people. While they may continue to exist more or less unchecked among the more ignorant vestiges of our society, someone espousing the idea that women should submit to their husbands, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites, that race mixing is a crime against nature, and increasingly, that two people of the same sex should not be allowed to marry one another would be shouted down in most graduate school classrooms. This is good, wholesome, and as it should be.

However there is one self-evidently stupid idea that many otherwise bright people seem to hold. I noticed it among professors and students at Florida State University and I notice it now as a graduate student at American University. This is approval of the dangerous nonsense that is cultural relativism.

Now many people use the terms "cultural relativism" and "multiculturalism" interchangeably. I do not believe that they are the same thing and I will not use them here as such. Many people claim to be opposed to "multiculturalism" and I do not necessarily share their views. There are certainly problematic aspects of multiculturalism (which I may explore in a later blog post) but right now I want to distinguish myself from many thinkers, especially philosophers on the right, who are opposed to multiculturalism.

First of all, there is no inherent value in assimilation for its own sake. I am a bisexual woman and am intensely involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. While I feel that it is important for LGBT individuals who choose to do so to be accepted into mainstream society, there are unique aspects of LGBT identity that I think have value and ought to be preserved despite not being acknowledged to the same extent by mainstream heterosexual American culture. This includes healthier attitudes towards sexuality, a sense of significance attached to the concept of a chosen family (as opposed to a strictly biological family), and a comfort with subverting traditional gender roles. However, these things are not valuable because they are shared by a minority community. They are valuable because they lead to positive outcomes and perhaps ought be adopted by society as a whole. And there are other aspects of LGBT culture such as rampant promiscuity among many gay and bisexual men (more common historically than today) that are not positive and lead to negative outcomes for all involved. Again, this is not because we are a minority community but because these things tend to be bad ideas no matter who puts them into practice.

However, despite my lack of support for assimilation for assimilation's sake, I am not a cultural relativist. The fact is that some societies are much better than others at maximizing the welfare of those in that society. Some cultures engage more often in more practices that are objectively bad than other cultures do. These practices include:
-killing people for supposedly dishonoring you,
-forcing or coercing people into marriage against their will,
-aborting children on the basis of sex,
-child genital mutilation,
-locking people up in prison for exercising free speech rights,
-forcing individuals to have abortions against their will,
-devaluation of the rights of persons with disabilities,
-killing people because they engage in relationships with members of the same sex,
-teaching hatred based on caste, class, or ethnic differences,
-severely physically punishing people based on their defiance of traditional gender roles, and
-killing people based upon religious beliefs or identification.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it should give you an idea of what I am talking about. While these things are not unheard of in any society, they are more common in some than in others. And no amount of wishing that we were all equal in terms of our adherence to values based on human rights, reason, science, and the worth of all persons makes it so. These values - the values of violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and denial of agency - are more common in India than in the United States, in Somalia than in France, in China than in the Netherlands, and in Yemen than in Sweden. And if you are not a racist and at your core acknowledge that human beings are essentially similar in what they find intolerable out of life, you must reject cultural relativism wholeheartedly.

Now, any actual education concerning non-Western cultures tends to make one less of a relativist and not more unless a.) one has not thought deeply about the issue, b.) one is largely unintelligent, c.) one is reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways, or d.) one is intellectually dishonest. Because many people I have heard defend cultural relativism are relatively intelligent people who I do not think are fundamentally dishonest I prefer to think that they are either not thinking deeply enough about the issue (which we all do sometimes with some issues) or that they are reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways (another practice we all engage in at times). This may mean they're not bad or stupid but it does not make them correct.

Interestingly, the thinkers that cultural relativists seem to dislike the most in my experience are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. I am more familiar with Ali's writings than those of Manji but I am somewhat familiar with the ideas of both. I will state that both women sometimes espouse ideas that I disagree with. (For instance, I think what Ali tends to characterize as a Muslim problem is a more general non-Western problem.) That said, for the longest time I did not understand why these two women drummed up such rage in those opposing cultural relativism, especially when Euro-American thinkers espousing similar ideas did not seem to outrage them to the same degree. However, I realized that these two women put the lie to the relativists' worldview in a way that equally eloquent thinkers like Sam Harris, Michelle Goldberg, or Martha Nussbaum never could. Here are two women - one of them gay - from non-Western backgrounds that did not like all of the aspects of their cultures that non-Western people are supposed to cherish the most according to the relativists. At least some individuals in these other societies find the same things intolerable that most of us would find intolerable were they foisted upon us. This infuriates relativists in the same way that perhaps slave owners in the antebellum South were angry when their slaves refused to know their place. And while this is an interesting observation it does not explain why any otherwise bright and good people hold this belief system.

I think that part of it lies in a fallacy termed polylogism which asserts that logical rules apply differently for different groups of people. Since these differences are not biological givens but instead are social constructions this is a patently false idea. It could also be due to the fallacy that since all human ethnic groups are more or less equal in human capacity, then all human groups are more or less equal in terms of the current state of their cultural development. This is a tragic misreading of the situation, no more so than for individuals in underdeveloped cultures themselves.

So what does my understanding of the situation prescribe for public policy in the United States? First of all, the viewpoint I have outlined here is often co-opted by those seeking to turn, for example, American Muslims into straw men. By and large, American Muslims are a relatively well integrated group of individuals. Our nation is in no current danger of being forced into practicing sharia law. Honor killing is not rampant in America. However I do think that in Europe, societies that have wholeheartedly embraced multiculturalism, are more secular than America is, where Muslims are less well integrated, and where larger numbers of immigrants have poured in may face some serious problems. Furthermore, the problems outlined above are not unique to Muslims and are more unique to contemporary non-Western cultures in general.

For the average American, the evil of cultural relativism is not its threat to us but its threat to others. It is not evil for what it encourages us to do but for what it encourages us not to do. It prevents us from standing in solidarity with and from providing material and moral support to human rights defenders, feminists, LGBT persons, children, and political dissidents in societies that need our support the most. It encourages us to turn a blind eye and even support situations for others which we would find intolerable for ourselves. My favorite example of this is the time I listened to an American lesbian defend the practice of arranged marriages (in practice as often coerced or forced as merely arranged) in India. When I later explained this amusing (if sad) anecdote to a young Indian-American lesbian she could not grasp the logic involved in this statement. It only makes sense if you realize that for whatever reason, this individual has so thoroughly "othered" Indians that she could not understand them being unenthusiastic about a practice she would no doubt have not want tried on her.

We need to stand up to the evil that is cultural relativism not for the selfish and sometimes quite silly reasons we are often given (impending jihad now!) but for the less selfish and not at all silly reasons that are often ignored - we care about the welfare of individuals fundamentally similar to ourselves who deserve the same opportunities in life to exercise their human capabilities that we all do.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of Liberty?: The American Left and Its Fear of Talking About Freedom

It seems that the Democratic Party and the American left in general has a problem with talking about "liberty" and "freedom." Sometimes words like "choice" and "rights" are applied euphemistically to this end, but framing issues from the perspective of individuals struggling for self-determination in their lives has been a theme entirely given over to the right for quite a while now. Issues from reproductive rights to LGBT issues to immigration reform are framed almost solely in terms of "justice" or "equality" when they should all be at least partially framed in terms of "freedom." Meanwhile, those who are unafraid to talk about "liberty" (such as libertarians and a number of conservatives) win the hearts and minds of Americans who value personal freedom, even if the right wing conception of liberty is superficial at best. In order to win over those voters who value the rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit, the left is going to have to start talking about liberty once again.

   The reasons for the left's liberty deficit seems to be two fold. First of all, the concept of personal freedom is often used as a way for those with power and money to feel little or no guilt about riding roughshod over those without it. Business owners may feel that they are at liberty to treat their employees however they choose and that those employees are then at liberty to work elsewhere if they do not like it. Parents may feel that they are at liberty to raise their children as they see fit even if said children are denied opportunities to grow and learn that would allow them to live normal lives and to benefit as individuals. Someone may feel that he or she has the liberty to cease paying taxes even though by doing so, they would be denying all members of their society the ability to use services that are vital to their well-being. And so on and so forth. The reason that people on the left rightly find these hypothetical claims so unconvincing is that the liberty given up by the business owner, parent, and taxpayer in these scenarios is much less than the liberty gained by the worker, child, and ideally the consumer of government services. A good non-hypothetical example of this is the American with Disabilities Act. While this forces individual business owners to give up a little bit of liberty by requiring them to make their places of business more accessible for the handicapped, the liberty that disabled individuals acquire by being able to travel more freely in a world accessible to them outweighs any collective inconveniences to America's business owners. Sure, all of these issues are issues of "equality" and "justice" but they are also issues about "liberty," just a more complicated sort of liberty than that promoted by those on the right.

   LGBT rights seems to me to be a particularly strange issue to frame in terms of "justice" and "equality" as opposed to "liberty," seeing as for the most part the demands of LGBT people infringe very little, if any, on the rights of others. Perhaps this is just part of a pattern on the left of framing issues in terms of the former and not the latter and it is being repeated even in those cases where it make comparably little sense. Instead of riling up Americans against the savage injustice of putting individual rights to a popular vote and putting the government in charge of who can and cannot make what commitments to one another, the left has meekly spewed mealy mouthed platitudes about "equality."

   However, there is more at work in the left's (and especially the Democratic Party's) fear of talking about freedom than just how the term is often inappropriately used by those on the right as an excuse to ignore social justice and personal liberty for some of those most marginalized by society. It also has to do with the establishment left's own role in perpetuating gross violations of individual rights. The war on drugs, while not a wholly left wing enterprise, has been and continues to be at least a partial one. And the American left has never been completely comfortable with the notion of Americans owning firearms for self-defense. Many violations of individual rights and ultimately of people's freedom have their roots on the left. By embracing terms like "liberty" the American left will have to come to terms with its own continuing betrayal of this ideal.

However, in the final estimation of things the American left and the Democratic Party are going to have to learn how to talk about freedom. From the Declaration of Independence to the "Don't Tread on Me" flag to rock and roll to jazz, America's best traditions have had at their heart an appeal to the American love of freedom. Americans are used to framing issues in terms of freedom and will respond to whatever political party or movement is best able to appeal to this basic human and very American desire. As long as American liberals have trouble articulating what freedom means to them they can expect to lose elections and ultimately to lose ground in the court of public opinion.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sexism, Heterosexism, and What All This Has to Do With Lindsay Lohan

Linsday Lohan has broken a lot of rules: rules about drug use, rules about driving under the influence of intoxicating substances, rules about showing up for court mandated substance abuse classes. And in different ways, she has paid for breaking all of these rules both personally and professionally. But in the world of Hollywood, where substance abuse and running afoul of the law are nothing out of the ordinary, Lohan's main transgression in the eyes of America was perhaps not her all too familiar troubles with alcohol and other drugs. It was her wanton disregard for a prevailing narrative about women, femininity, and sexuality that Lohan has refused to adhere to. It is for this supposed sin, more than any other, which she is currently being made to pay.

When America was introduced to Linsday Lohan, as a precocious child star, she was intended to symbolize wholesome family values in her film choices. In movies like "The Parent Trap," "Herbie: Fully Loaded," and "Freaky Friday" Lohan was the all American girl. She dated Wilmer Valderrama of "That Seventies Show" fame.

Then came Samantha Ronson and the ultimate Hollywood transgression. In 2008, Lohan began publicly dating the butch lite DJ, speaking publicly about their relationship and stating that while she was not a lesbian, she was very much into Ronson and did not want to classify herself sexually.

Now when it comes to today's Hollywood, there are a number of narratives that a female star may embrace when it comes to same sex attraction and relationships. Firstly, there is what I will term the "lesbian option" in which a female celebrity, usually somewhat older in years than many stars and closer to the butch end of the spectrum than the femme one, declares herself to be exclusively homosexual and then proceeds to date exclusively members of her own sex. This is the path forged by Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, and to a lesser extent, Cynthia Nixon. While this is perhaps received in middle America with a certain amount of requisite bigotry, this is rarely a big shock as the celebrity in question was often assumed to be gay anyway or at the very least not likely to be sexually attractive to normal heterosexual men.

Secondly, there is what I will term the "pseudo-bisexual option." Embraced by everyone from Madonna to Christina Aguilera to Britney Spears to Anna Paquin to Drew Barrymore to Lady Gaga to Megan Fox, this involves a young, popular female celebrity, assumed to be sexually desirable to average heterosexual men, who announces or hints in an ostentatious way about being bisexual. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways from French kissing another sufficiently femme woman on an awards program or by simply declaring to a tabloid that the star in question has always felt herself attracted to both men and women. However, it is never expected that these admissions of desire for women will lead to the celebrity in question having a publicly acknowledged romantic relationship with a member of the same sex as herself. Instead, she is expected to date men exclusively and probably to eventually have a heterosexual marriage with a sufficiently heterosexual man. This allows the star to cash in on the rebellious, sexy mystique associated with female bisexuality without actually accumulating the baggage associated with engaging in same sex relationships or identifying meaningfully with the gay (or especially with the lesbian or bisexual) community. The primacy of heterosexual relationships or relationships with men goes unchallenged. While the star may fantasize about women or occasionally kiss one, she would never really choose one over a man. This is the meme immortalized in Katy Perry's hit song "I Kissed a Girl." The narrative is reassuring for heterosexual men and much of American society because it serves to trivialize female bisexuality and to a lesser extent, lesbianism.

But Linsday Lohan did not adhere to this narrative. She did not come out as "lesbian" or "gay" or "homosexual." She did not muse emptily to Rolling Stone or Cosmopolitan or The Star about how "everyone is really bisexual" or about how she sort of kind of had a crush on a girl one time. She did not stick her tongue down the throat of another female celebrity on national television. She simply had a very public relationship with a woman without ever renouncing either her heterosexuality or her homosexuality. As one of the most sexually desirable women in the country, she willingly chose a relationship with a woman over a relationship with a man without qualification or apology, without even being a lesbian. It is for this transgression that Lindsay Lohan is expected to pay.

Other dynamics are at work in Lohan's reception by the public as well. As a friend of mine so eloquently stated it "It seems to me that when a woman defies the law she is impudent; when a man does it, he is a rebel." While the antics of Robert Downey Jr. or Lil Wayne or Eminem (or even more famously men like Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur or James Dean) are romanticized as the behavior of sexy but troubled outsiders at war with a hostile society, Lohan and other women like her are seen as frivolous, selfish, and incompetent. While men like Michael Jackson or Gary Coleman are rightly seen as being exploited by uncaring parents, thus leading at least in part to their adult troubles, Lohan is solely responsible for her myriad personal and professional shortcomings despite the crass and opportunistic way in which her parents have exploited her looks, money, fame, and talents over the years.

Of course, Lindsay Lohan is an adult who is responsible for her own actions, especially when she recklessly risks the live and health of others. Of course driving under the influence of alcohol or any other drug is often a dangerous and poor choice. But the vitriol leveled against Lohan is unique and has its roots in the sexism and heterosexism at the heart of much of society. And we do all of us a disservice when we pretend otherwise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Problem with Politics

   For the past season, I have been involved with a local theater group in Tallahassee, Florida known as the Mickee Faust Club, in particular their production of a cabaret designated "Queer as Faust 3" as it revolves around a number of songs, skits, and performance pieces that primarily document the culture of the queer community and the individuals within it. One piece in the show in particular speaks to me. The piece, "Leadership Has Its Privileges" revolves around the premise of an LGBT rights activist, a conservatively dressed gay man, accepting an award on behalf of his Human Rights Campaign-style activism. In the course of the piece, a disabled lesbian woman and then a transwoman excoriate the activist for "using his dick to lead us from one political asshole to another" as opposed to creating a more inclusive vision for the LGBT community in which more than middle class gay men who want to marry, adopt, and/or join the military are seen as having issues that deserve to be addressed. Poignantly, the skit ends with the stage empty of people except for two individuals. One says to the other "I guess you were right, Pastor Rick" and Pastor Rick then proceeds to respond "It's easy. Put them in a room together and they'll tear each other apart." On the whole, the skit does a good job of bringing out the tension between the reality that many voices in the LGBT movement are not listened to that should be with the companion reality that queer people will always have greater enemies than one another as long as the religious right is a force that wields considerable power in our society, above and beyond that which ANY faction of the queer coalition wields.

   Seeing this piece practiced and performed for many nights in a row has caused me to think a lot about the many problems with politics, both in a queer context as well as in a more general sense. I'm familiar with the "political assholes" to which the skit refers. Perhaps more importantly, I know where they come from. I've sat in rooms filled with young people in their late teens and early twenties who, contrary to the stereotype of young political types as idealistic do-gooders filled with a passion for any number of causes, were already cynical in their assessments of what was possible in a political context. Most disturbingly of all, they seemed to care little for ensuring that the end goals of politics were accomplished (in the most general terms, ensuring liberty and justice for all); instead politics was an end in itself. As long as their chosen party or candidate was elected (and getting said party or candidate elected was a task in which no sense of principle or decency was to be spared), it mattered little to them if the party or candidate actually hewed to any meaningful agenda while it office.

   Having been involved at different points in time with both Republican and Democratic party politics I can attest that there are in my experience very few differences in worldview between the sort of young wannabe politicos that make up the young corp of "youthful idealists" in both parties. Instead I have found both groups of politically active individuals roughly my age to be arrogant, insecure, power hungry, elitist, and to have spent their lives largely insulated from the realities of policy decisions that affect many people's lives in meaningful ways. For them, politics is a game as opposed to a way of creating positive changes in the lives of people (or for that matter even preserving things they deem positive about the status quo). Whether sending soldiers off to war, deciding who (and who not) to incarcerate, or making long term decisions about environmental issues, the name of the game is to keep thoughts of the repercussions of your policy choices for actual human beings as far from your mind as possible.

   Some of this is probably compounded by programs of study in political science at the university level. In all of my classes, I cannot recall ever being asked to consider the ethical implications of a policy question but I was often asked to consider how popular or politically feasible it was. Some of this is also partly due to the ignorance and/or bigotry harbored by voters and their unwillingness to hold leaders accountable. However, I think a bulk of it can be accounted for by the sort of people who self-select for political careers in our society. It takes a certain strange combination of arrogance, shamelessness, and a desperate desire for approval from mass numbers of complete strangers to choose to run for political office. (These qualities also exist in spades in many of those who work behind the scenes assisting would be and current officeholders in their projects.) And these qualities do not necessarily make one a wise person or a good person or a kind person. They do not necessarily mean that, once in office, an individual will govern well. But they do tend to assure that those elected to public office will be the least likely to make wise but unpopular choices because those elected are those Americans most desperate for the approval of the electorate. These individuals that comprise our political class, enamored of power themselves, are unlikely to respond to the concerns and needs of those lacking power - the poor, the sick, the disabled, the queer, the young, prisoners, women, foreigners lacking in human rights, etc. Sadly, it is these very groups of individuals who could most benefit from constructive attention from our nation's policymakers.

   There are no easy solutions to this problem. While many of us who would never otherwise consider running for office might want to think about doing so, there are ways that the LGBT movement in particular can make sure that we do not solely rely on the agendas of the most "politically savvy" among us to guide our priorities. We can start by admitting that when we only focus on same-sex marriage, adoption by LGBT parents, and ending Don't Ask Don't Tell as our primary goals there is an opportunity cost associated with that and it is born by our brothers and sisters with the least power.

   It is borne by our youth, kicked out of their homes and mistreated at youth shelters. It is borne by those of us who need medical care but are mistreated due to our sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It is borne by LGBT individuals denied the right to interact freely with their own children for no good reason. It is borne by those of us who are unemployed, those of us who are fired from our jobs for being queer, and those of us afraid to live out and proudly because of the impending threat of losing our jobs. It is borne by those of us in prison who are mistreated by fellow inmates and staff. It is born by students in schools, harassed by both teachers and fellow students. It is borne by intersex infants unnecessarily mutilated when they are too young to consent. It is borne by bisexual and transgender people whose issues are always considered under the rubric of "gay rights" even when they don't belong there. It is borne by victims of HIV/AIDS and other diseases - both physical and psychological - that disproportionately affect us.

   I am strongly in favor of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, assuring same-sex couples the right to adopt, and making marriage a legal option everywhere in America for every couple that wants it. But these are not the only or even the most important issues facing LGBT people as a group. To pretend otherwise is dangerous. We cannot model our priorities on those of politicians and other political types. Because what is politically expedient, politically popular, or politically correct is not always the most pressing concern. And we are foolish to think that men and women so desperate for the attention and approval of strangers that they are willing to beg mass numbers of them to cast a vote in their favor are always going to put our best interests first. Let us not be led "from one political asshole to another" but instead let us chart our own course in a spirit of inclusiveness and justice for all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Keep the Wild in Your Heart, Not in Your Home

I recently watched a a fine documentary miniseries on the Animal Planet channel entitled "Fatal Attractions" which profiles individuals that keep animals such as big wild cats, chimpanzees, and reptiles as pets. In this series, interviews with current and former pet owners, those who knew deceased pet owners killed by their animals, and experts on wildlife issues are interspersed with personal footage of owners with their wild pets and footage of the animal species in the wild. The show is fascinating in partially the same way a program like "Hoarders" or "Intervention" is fascinating. It provides a window into the psychological makeup of the individuals who make these risky choices and allows the viewer to evaluate his or her motives and behavior.

However, I feel like what really sets this documentary miniseries apart is its willingness to shed light on a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly normalized in the United States and perhaps elsewhere: the keeping of non-domesticated animals in one's home, often with tragic consequences for the human beings involved, almost always with very unfortunate consequences for the animals involved.

Being a miniseries comprised of three one-hour documentaries, "Fatal Attractions" steers towards the sensationalistic in its coverage of animal attacks: the man whose giant lizards ate off his face and ended his life, the woman whose chimpanzee attacked and nearly killed her friend, the woman whose tiger ate her. However, the experts interviewed on the program usually also take care to point out that a human home is not the proper environment for the optimum thriving of the wild animals themselves.

In "Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction," David DeGrazia, a university professor and ethicist that has written extensively on animal rights issues, writes that it is ethically unsound to keep any animal other than a cat or a dog as a pet in one's home as the animal's species typical functioning will be impeded. (Domesticated cats and dogs are an exception because they co-evolved with human beings as domesticated species.) Because rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish did not co-evolve with human beings as domestic animals and because the conditions they are kept in almost always severely restrict their freedom of movement, there is no reason someone should keep such an animal in his or her home for purely recreational purposes.

Moreover, any non-domesticated animal (and even domesticated animals under stress) can prove dangerous to humans. I have had my finger turn nearly black from a pet store bite from a hamster around the time I was in ninth grade. Obviously such a creature was not comfortable in its environment and unhappy with the attentions of humans so perhaps it should not have been sold as a pet.

Additionally, the folly of keeping snakes in one's home has led to something of an ecological mini-crisis in the Florida Everglades, where large constrictors have replaced many natural predators at the top of the food chain. These snakes, whose owners often decide for whatever reason that they can no longer handle them as pets, are released into the wild to the detriment of society. The saddest part of this cycle is that the snake never should have been kept as a domestic pet to begin with. (As someone particularly fond of snakes since childhood but who has never acquired one for reasons of ethics and safety, I can understand why someone would want to keep such a beautiful animal in their home. However, I think that a mature adult should be able to understand the ultimate folly of such a course of action and put the welfare of both humans and animals ahead of the temporary joy of owning such a creature.)

One point that "Fatal Attractions" does a good job of underscoring is the principally selfish nature of those who would keep animals other than dogs and cats in their home. (I would add to this that even domesticated farm animals such as horses, ponies, pigs, cows, bulls, sheep, chickens, alpacas, donkeys, goats, etc. are also a selfish acquisition if one does not have ample space to keep them on and/or forces the animal into an inappropriate role as a house pet.) Because in-breeding is all too common and these animals are almost never released into their natural habitat, the goal of conservation is almost never achieved in these situations. Furthermore, the goal of education is defeated when these animal owners send the impression that keeping a wild animal in one's home is anything but detrimental to both animals and humans.

The Captive Wild Animal Protection Campaign provides several fine educational resources to underscore to the public the unwisdom of keeping wild animals in one's home. Their website ( is a valuable resource anyone thinking about acquiring such an animal owes it to themselves to check out first. An expert on such matters exhorted the audience of "Fatal Attractions" to "Keep the wild in your heart, not in your home." This is an exhortation we would all do well to heed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why I Won't Be Queering My Census

I received my Census tonight in the mail. And even before I received it, I had contemplated the question that many politically engaged LGBT people have been contemplating: to queer or not to queer? And I have to say that I fall squarely on the "not to queer" side of the issue.

Let me start off by saying that I think the census questions asking same-sex couples in committed, partnered relationships about their living arrangements are a step in the right direction. I urge all persons in such relationships to fill their Census out honestly and to make sure and include this information when appropriate. But what I cannot endorse is the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's deeply misguided campaign to "queer the Census."

It pains me to publicly state this as I have a lot of admiration for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In contrast to some LGBT organizations, they seem to have a relatively genuine commitment to serving the needs of bisexuals, trans folk, gender variant persons, LGBT youth, LGBT elders, disabled LGBT persons, and other LGBT subgroups who are often marginalized by mainstream organizations that supposedly exist to meet our needs. And I commend them for their willingness to think outside of the proverbial box when it comes to new ideas to engage our community and further our cause. Nonetheless, for a multitude of reasons, "queering the Census" is a bad one.

For those of you not familiar with this concept, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is urging LGBT people and our allies to affix a hot pink sticker to the front of our census envelopes with the heading on it "ATTN: US Census Bureau: It's Time to Count Everyone!" Below this heading one can check one or more boxes labeled "Gay," "Lesbian," "Bisexual," "Transgender," or "Straight Ally." Beneath these boxes is the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force logo and the statements "Everyone deserves to be counted. It's time to"

There are a number of things that make this concept problematic. It should be obvious that nothing is more likely to invoke unfair but pervasive stereotypes about LGBT people in the minds of wary Census officials than a hot pink sticker with the word "queer" emblazoned on it. But that is still the least of the issues that a reasonable person could take with said sticker.

The categories themselves are problematic and if the content of the sticker is supposed to function as a guide for what the Task Force thinks an ideal question about LGBT identity should look like on a hypothetical future Census form, then a troubling lack of thought has been put into this proposition by the Task Force. Let's go down and list and analyze the terms one by one.

"Gay" - First of all, "gay" is in many ways an umbrella term but in other contexts it has a very specific meaning. "Gay" can be used to refer exclusively to homosexual men, to refer exclusively to homosexual and bisexual men, to refer exclusively to homosexual men and women, to refer exclusively to all LGB people, and as a term to refer to all LGBT people. While all of these uses are highly contested, all of them are a contemporary and/or historical reality. In the context of the Census, would I count as "gay" as a woman? As a bisexual person? Would gay men of a certain era identify with it that may prefer now anachronistic sounding terms like "homosexual"? How about younger men that may prefer "queer"?

"Lesbian" - "Lesbian" is another highly contested term and one that not even all homosexual women identify with. I have heard women that others would most likely identify with the term explain that they disliked it for whatever reason and preferred "gay," "queer," or some other label to describe their sexual orientation. Would anyone that was "lesbian" automatically count as "gay" as well? How about men that may choose to identify as lesbians for cultural reasons? Are they committing Census fraud? (And, yes, this is apparently a real phenomenon, if a pretty rare one.)

"Bisexual" - Along with the "transgender" label this term seems to me to be among the most potentially troublesome. It is important to note that many individuals that express and enact attraction to both men and women strongly dislike this term for a number of reasons. Reasons I have heard expressed for this include the term's debt to the concept of a gender binary, derogatory associations among both gays and heterosexuals, and the term's waning popularity relative to newer labels like "queer," "pansexual," or "fluid." Add into the equation "gay-identified bisexuals" and "lesbian-identified bisexuals" and you have a recipe for mass confusion in counting this population. Additionally, a high number of people may identify as "bisexual" in some contexts but not in others. For instance, they may have engaged in same-sex (or opposite sex) experimentation or experienced same-sex (or opposite sex) attractions without consistently or seriously pursuing a bisexual lifestyle. Such individuals and their identifications would prove an additional gray area in counting America's LGBT population.

"Transgender" - The best definition of the term "transgender" was one I encountered courtesy of Dr. Petra Doan at a panel discussion of employment and housing discrimination issues facing LGBT people. To paraphrase the professor as I understood her remarks, "transgender" is an umbrella term encompassing two spectra: the male to female spectrum and the female to male spectrum. On one end of these spectra, the professor continued, lay those with somewhat gender non-conforming identities. These folks include gender-variant LGB as well as heterosexual persons. Some of these folks may cross dress, engage in drag performances, or exhibit other gender non-conforming characteristics. On the far end of the spectra lay transsexual people who live full time as a member of a sex other than the one assigned to them at birth. Many trans persons also identify with the terms "gay," "lesbian," and/or "bisexual" although not all trans persons will. And, of course, the way individuals use these terms to describe themselves and others vary widely. I have heard of trans men that continue to identify as lesbians even after their transitions, for example. On another note, some people identify intersex people as falling under the transgender banner although not all intersex people embrace this identification with the transgender community. Not all intersex persons are even aware of their condition. Lumping such a diverse population under one vaguely defined umbrella term is obviously not going to be revealing of much of anything and may actually provide misleading pseudo-information.

"Straight Ally" - I cannot imagine the Task Force seriously imagining a category to denote "Straight Ally" on any actual hypothetical future Census. I suppose it is included on this sticker solely to enlist heterosexual, cissexual people who may want to show their support for the program. Nonetheless, on a hypothetical future Census form that asks about sexual orientation and/or gender identity, it is likely that one will be asked to affirm a heterosexual identity if he or she feels it to apply to them. Which leads to more interesting questions. Could a bisexual person, feeling uncomfortable with that term, simply check both "gay" and "heterosexual"? Would any trans persons be allowed to count as heterosexual?

By this time it should be obvious that these terms are almost nonsensical from a demographic perspective. They would prove confusing in this context for LGBT and non-LGBT persons alike. But, even putting aside the truth of this fact, there are deeply philosophical objections to requiring people to denote their sexual orientation and/or gender identity on a government-mandated Census form.

The first of these objections is that gender identity and sexual orientation are much more fluid concepts than we often like to admit. And whatever journeys we take as individuals to arrive at our preferred labels are highly personal and often fraught with confusion and questioning. Many people who later come to identify as gay or lesbian go through periods beforehand of exclusively dating members of the opposite sex. Some people who later come to identify as heterosexual may even go through periods where they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Many bisexuals in particular have an especially uneasy relationship with labels denoting sexual orientation.(It should be noted that, more often than not, this is not due to a higher than average sense of confusion on the bisexual's part but due to the inadequacy of existing labels to describe our attractions, allegiances, and experiences.) An individual trans person may also go through periods in which they identify as members of one sex, then another, or even outside of the gender binary altogether at different points in time. But when it comes to filling out an official government document that one is required to fill out by law as honestly as he or she can, these factors can causes real problems for LGBT and even heterosexual, cissexual people. In a worst case scenario, they could perhaps even lead the government to prosecute people for "lying" on their Census forms when it comes to these issues.

The second of these objections relates to the second class citizenship our government currently forces on LGBT persons. In the current political climate, it is entirely possible that coming out on our Census forms could be used against us individually and/or as a community. It would seem to me to be deeply inappropriate for our government to deny us the right to form families of our choosing, to serve in our nation's military as openly LGBT persons, and to work, go to school, or seek housing free of harassment and discrimination but force us to out ourselves on our Census forms. It could be especially problematic for rural LGBT persons who may be one of the only LGBT persons or even the only LGBT person in their communities when this demographic data is published, potentially outing them to their communities without their full consent.

Allow me to illustrate one more problematic aspect of this "queer the Census" business with a personal story. In her beautiful book "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity," writer Julia Serano explains that she has never identified her sex or entered a gendered space in an unselfconscious way in her entire life. And when it comes to sexual orientation, I can relate to her experience. When I first joined Facebook my freshman year of college, I did not check either the male box or the female box to denote "Interested In" because I was not yet comfortable embracing a bisexual identity but did not want to embrace a solely heterosexual identity either, because it felt dishonest. When I later applied to law school my senior year of college, I was in a transitional period regarding how I identified my sexual orientation. I was out as bisexual to only one friend. It was a term I was slowly beginning to feel belonged to me, but I did not yet claim it fully in the sense that I do now.

On one particular law school application I was asked to check a box if I identified as LGBT. There was no opt-out option; no box to check if you just weren't comfortable with the question and preferred not to respond. At this point in my life - when I had yet to date a woman, when I had yet to involve myself to any great extent with the gay community, when I had yet to tell my parents or aunt or most of my friends or to make things public on Facebook - to identify as LGBT seemed to me to be on some level dishonest. Similarly, not to check the box would mean to deny something I knew about myself on a molecular level and to essentially identify myself as heterosexual - a term I have never felt applied to me since I was thirteen years old. So I just didn't apply to that law school.

As members of the LGBT community, it is vital that we insist that no one be forced to come out except on his or her own terms - not on the terms of the government, not on the terms of the LGBT community, not on the terms of a heteronormative society, not on the terms of schools or families or churches or jobs. On terms they set completely for themselves as individuals.

There are many important aspects of our identity - such as religious affiliation - that the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask us about and I venture that sexual orientation and gender identity should be among them. It is entirely possible that, as LGBTI people, we comprise such a diverse rainbow of sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and physical characteristics that there are no boxes in this world that we can or should be forced to fit into.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Militias and the Rise of a New Right Wing Movement

Recently, like most Americans that attempt to follow news of a sociopolitical nature, I have become aware of stories that report on the phenomenon of various right-leaning militia groups forming in the United States. Loosely affiliated with Tea Party and 9/12 Movement ideals, these groups seem to have especially attracted coverage in the wake of the controversial health care reform bill that passed and was signed into law by President Obama just weeks ago. Not unsurprisingly given the polarized state of our nation's politics, the narrative that emerges about these groups depends on what news source you are watching, listening to, or reading.

On MSNBC, the general position tends to be that anyone that has ever so much as looked at a gun is a racist religious fanatic that wants to kill you and your family. Meanwhile, politicians and pundits on the right have rushed to rationalize even the most extreme statements from those in these organizations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find balanced portrayals of the individuals involved in these movements in the media as such individuals are nearly always portrayed as either dangerous psychopaths or as uncomplicated defenders of the American way - with little room for nuance on either side. I believe that the situation is more complicated than that and that we owe it to ourselves as Americans, regardless of our political beliefs, to examine the motivation for those who have decided to align themselves with the milita cause.

First of all, it is important to note that both left-wing and right-wing forces in this country have an occasional history of violence. On the left, the terrorist activities of the Weather Underground in the 1960s provide an example. On the right, terrorist acts like the recent murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder and the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 are prominent cases in point when it comes to extremists that turn violent. For reasons such as this, it is important that when organizations or persons of any political stripe begin espousing violent rhetoric, we as citizens are right to look on them with, at the very least, some measure of concern. History has shown that these groups and individuals can at times prove to be a legitimate threat to our personal and collective rights to life, liberty, and property. However, the question then becomes "When should concern turn into government action?" At what point should surveillance and circumscription of civil liberties be the prescription for such persons and groups as opposed to a last resort option lingering on the back of our nation's collective mind?

At the outset of any discussion of this issue it is important to understand that for many individuals, there has been a worrying erosion of Second Amendment rights going on in this nation for quite some time. Most of these individuals are not particularly prone to violence but they do share some not uncommon concerns about a fundamental Constitutional right being watered down to the point of irrelevance. (Perhaps the best analogy I can think of from a left-wing perspective is the way that despite Roe v. Wade guaranteeing abortion rights, these rights have been gradually stripped away by lawmakers so that they are in some ways toothless.) For some, they situate this trend in the broader context of increased government intrusion into our society. Many of these individuals are fiscal conservatives who take a libertarian view of government and are concerned about the right to self-defense so that they may be able to protect themselves from both government injustice as well as from other people who may mean them harm. In fact, I have even heard some with this point of view draw parallels between women's reproductive rights, civil rights for LGBT people and racial minorities, and the right to bear arms as a series of important individual rights that all must be in place for us to live in a free society. Granted, this is not the most common rhetoric among gun rights advocates but nor is it unheard of.

Nonetheless, what for some remains a legitimate commitment to the right to self-defense is for others an excuse to involve themselves in what is not unlikely to turn into violent extremism. For individuals already predisposed to violence or mental illness, the militia movement may provide them with a ready made set of grievances against the government and the training necessary to enact violent fantasies against their fellow human beings. The Southern Poverty Law Center currently tracks militia organizations and reports that within the last two years fifty new militia groups have formed across the nation. Which of these entities provides an acceptable outlet for individuals to learn to defend themselves and which of these entities contains the seeds for violence against others remains to be seen. It is obvious that some of the acts of vandalism and threats against the lives of specific lawmakers that occurred in the wake of the healthcare bill's passage should be investigated and taken seriously. Those responsible for these acts should be held accountable by the criminal justice system.

In the way of policy prescription, I would close this piece by saying that it is still important to remember that holding controversial and even extreme political, social, and/or religious views is not and should not be a crime. Owning a weapon and getting together with others to learn to use that weapon (even amidst a backdrop of heated political rhetoric) is not and should not be a crime either. It is probably for the best that groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-governmental organization, tracks and keeps an eye on these groups lest some of them begin to present a threat to others. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that when it comes to any radical organizations - including but not limited to very conservative Muslim groups, extreme anti-abortion protesters, and some of the more fiery of the militia groups - it is vital for all of our civil liberties that officials err on the side of protection of the rights of persons with controversial positions. Leave it to NGOs like the SPLC to monitor these groups, to citizens to be vigilant and honest with themselves about what they're seeing when these groups begin to cross the line into incitements to violence, and to our local, state, and federal governments to step in promptly as soon as (but not a moment before) it becomes clear that these groups pose a threat to the life, liberty, and property of persons or towards government institutions. In a free society the state must be neutral towards the political positions of private groups and persons or else we begin to stop living in a society in which any of us can count on the protection of our rights on a day to day basis.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Intersectional Analysis of the Constance McMillen Debacle

There has recently been a lot of talk in the media about the whole sad, soap opera-esque saga that has been the Constance McMillen prom debacle. It is generally agreed by reasonable, decent people that what happened to her was cruel and deeply lamentable. It is generally agreed, athough not without some dissent, that Constance would do well to leave Fulton, Mississippi after high school graduation and never look back. But what has repeatedly amazed me is that, for all of the LGBT and feminist blogosphere's talk of intersectionality when it comes to issues of ethnicity, an intersectional analysis of the Constance McMillen debacle has thus far not been forthcoming - at least not from Feministing or the Bilerico Project, which is the primary place I would expect to read those sorts of things.

While a term like "intersectionality" is all too often used in vague and nearly meaningless ways that lack specificity, I do believe that it has some value in analyzing many situations in which discrimination against an individual or group of individuals is primarily supposed to operate due to one or two primary characteristics but in actuality operates due to a confluence of factors that define the identity and/or experience of a person or group of people.

To make this a little clearer: Constance McMillen is a young rural Southern lesbian woman. Let me repeat this again for emphasis: Constance McMillen is a young rural Southern lesbian woman. And that is different, and in many ways infinitely harder, than being a young LGBT person in most places in America.

In much of the Northeast and on the West Coast, as well as in many other areas around the country, it is becoming not unusual and perhaps even fashionable for young people to embrace an LGBT identity in middle and high school. There are Gay-Straight Alliances, LGBT community resource centers, and high school performances of the Laramie Project to facilitate their transitions. There are networks of other LGBT people, both their own age and older, in the community to serve as allies. Should these young people choose to pursue dating and relationships with members of their own sex, there are at least several others in the community they can choose to partner with.

This is not the world Constance McMillen is from and this is not the world I'm from either.

Perhaps the biggest difference between LGBT people who come of age in relatively urban, upper class communities (largely Northeastern and West Coast) and those who come of age in relatively poor rural communities (largely Southern and Midwestern) like Constance's and mine is how they experience the struggle for LGBT rights.

The difference in mindset breaks down something like this: For LGBT people in the former communities, their struggle is largely one of dismantling institutional discrimination against LGBT individuals and the LGBT community. In this struggle, issues like adoption rights and the legal recognition of same sex marriages by the state loom large. Relatively large LGBT communities mobilize around these issues and others, assuring that almost everyone in the larger community recognizes the existence of these subcultural communities. And while, unfortunately, bigotry is still a regular part of the lives of most LGBT people in America to some degree, the people in these areas a.) perceive themselves as belonging to an LGBT community with other LGBT people that can turn to for friendship, support, and potential romantic partnerships and b.) they recognize that while some heterosexual individuals and heteronormative institutions are their enemies, they also have some allies in the wider community and that opinion about LGBT issues within their wider area is relatively diverse.

Now let's look at LGBT people in the latter communities, communities like Constance's and mine. In these communities, institutional discrimination against LGBT people is still acknowledged by LGBT individuals themselves, but more likely they experience their discrimination as largely a product of hegemonic social and cultural forces. In such a context, issues like same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples start to look nearly meaningless for many. After all, what's the use of a state acknowledgment of your marriage in a community where none of your neighbors will ever acknowledge it anyway? What's the use of adopting a child with your same-sex partner when all parties involved will face ostracism and bigotry?

Furthermore, even finding a same-sex partner can prove an insurmountable challenge in these communities where there are very few openly LGBT people. Finding friends to share your common experiences and challenges as an LGBT person is not a given, either. In these communities, there are no LGBT resource centers, no Gay-Straight Alliances in middle and high schools, no performances of the Laramie Project. LGBT youth are as likely to bullied by their teachers as their peers. Religious institutions play a seminal role in perpetuating bigotry against LGBT people and their influence is widespread. Young people are rarely openly gay, bisexual, or transgender in middle and high school. Both the forces of government and the forces of civil society appear allied against LGBT people in such a context and acts of resistance often have a feel of futility about them.

This is why the story of Constance McMillen cannot be understood without also understanding the context of coming out and living out in communities like hers. And while it now obvious that her age, sexual minority status, and regional heritage played a role in this situation, we must all consider the fact that her femaleness may also have played a role in her situation, in particular the pettiness of sending her and her date to the "fake prom," a pettiness of the sort all too often seen in middle and high school girls attempting to ostracize another girl. All of this is why intersectional analysis is a useful tool to understand the dynamics in any given instance of discrimination.

Of course, the obvious question then becomes: what to do about the dire situation of LGBT Americans in rural communities in the South and Midwest (or for that matter, anywhere else)? Encouraging LGBT people to come out in such communities no matter the personal costs to themselves or their families seems an awfully high sacrifice for those on the outside to ask of them. It is also one all too often made without a real understanding of what would really be involved in this isolating, ostracizing, even physically dangerous experience. Similarly, as the Constance McMillen case has taught us, getting national organizations like the ACLU or the Human Rights Campaign involved won't solve all of our problems either. However, two approaches seem to me to be potentially useful on this front. LGBT organizations should be encouraged to do community outreach in these areas that focuses on community building, organizing, and counseling. The logistics of this are difficult and would vary from situation to situation but it is imperative that there be a presence for LGBT people in these communities. Secondly, the media has an important role to play in these areas. While people in these communities may know very few openly LGBT people, the media still have a role to play in making sure that all of us - lesbian women, gay men, bisexual men, bisexual women, trans men, trans women - are portrayed positively and respectfully because they speak for us where we can't speak for ourselves. Organization like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation must be vigilant about protesting media misrepresentation of all of these groups, in particular bisexual and trans folks, who are still all too often seen as acceptable targets in the popular culture.

I will close this post as saying that for all of those individuals who have suggested that at some point in time Constance attempt to make a home for herself in Fulton have no idea what they're talking about. No one can ask another person to be martyred, and ineffectually at that, for a wider cause. In doing what she did, Constance has already done all of us a great service and we should simply support her and be grateful. We have no right to ask her for anything more ever again. She has paid her dues and if she does nothing else for LGBT issues in her life - if she later decides to marry a man and live in the suburbs with two children and a dog - she has still done us all a great deed and she will still deserve to go down in history as a great champion of LGBT rights.

Secondly, I will note that I realize this post does not speak to all LGBT experiences. I have not commented on the experiences of those LGBT persons living in urban inner city areas or in U.S. immigrant communities or in any number of other contexts. Other LGBT people will have to fill in that gap with their own analysis. But I hope that this post has highlighted the importance of a truly intersectional analysis in understanding the problems of LGBT people.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Introductory Message : About "A Heavy Load"

First of all, I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to introduce yourself to my new blog. I am looking forward to seeing the direction this project will take in the days to come and I'm looking forward to all of you sharing this new journey with me.

The concept of starting a blog has been on my mind for some time now and after thinking over the issue for a number of months I've decided to take the plunge with a renewed appreciation for the courage and openness it takes for anyone to put their views out there on a forum for the world to see - rather those particular views are personal, political, social, cultural, or economic in nature.

This blog aims to be all of those things. Although I plan to put less emphasis on the "personal" aspect of things I realize that by definition any blog which I produce will be in a large part "personal" as it will be informed by my perspectives, experiences, and even prejudices. While I have not ruled out the prospect of having guest bloggers contribute to this space later on, as of now I have no definite plans to do so in the foreseeable future. Principally, this blog will be a forum for me to write about many of the issues which I find interesting or important.

The name of this blog "A Heavy Load" is a tribute to the poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and in particular his poem "Harlem" which is reprinted below:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

So much about this poem speaks to the human experience whether the desire of historically marginalized groups for opportunity and liberty or the yearning any individual feels for his or her most deeply held desires. Today many scholars believe Hughes was bisexual or gay and in this poem, one can see a window into the LGBT experience in America. The long march to legal equality for LGBT people as individuals and as members of couples seeking validation of their relationships within society is mirrored in this poem (whether or not this was a possible meaning the author intended). The yearning that any LGBT person in the closet feels to live an open and honest life in which he or she pursues their desires free of social stigma comes through beautifully. As someone who came out to friends and family as bisexual at the age of 22, thereby affirming something I had known about myself since the age of 13, this poem speaks to me about a very personal "dream deferred," perhaps one I even share with the poem's author and one that I know I share with millions of people around the world.

But this is not the only dream I have deferred. The dream of leaving the small, rural community I grew up in was a dream deferred until I turned 18 and graduated from high school. In times of sickness when I have struggled with kidney stones and their resulting complications the dream of wellness and health has often been deferred as well.

And as I stated earlier, my interest in this poem is largely due to its ability to speak to dreams deferred across generations: the dreams of African-Americans and women in the United States for equality, liberty, and justice in a society which recognizes their human dignity; the dreams of those in poverty who want desperately for their offspring to have a better life; the dreams of those living in oppressive societies and/or under oppressive governments around the world who long for a more just social order.

It is my fervent hope that in some way this blog is able to challenge many of the wider social forces that defer our individual as well as our collective dreams. I also hope that it challenges its readers to think, laugh, question, and make their own voices heard.