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.