Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions for 2009: Remembering Those Before Us

I don't really do New Years Resolutions in the material sense. I don't resolve to go to the gym 3 times a week or anything that could be viewed definitvley. I try to have my goals be more all-encompassing, focusing on changes I want to make in my general outlook and approach to life.

During my last week at GLAAD I helped to draft some opinion pieces on the life of Brandon Teena, all which focused on the the fact that this New Year's Eve is the 15th commmoration of his murder. With that, New Years becomes a day filled with multiple meanings - it is the symbolic end to old things, and the chance to make new beginnings – but it is also the anniversary of one of the most infamous hate crimes in US History.

When I was working with the authors to draft their letters and articles we focused on the idea of resolving to end hate, vioelnce, and discrimiantion against transgender people in 2009. This is a good thought. It's a noble and worthy thought. But since then at least three people have died due to anti-transgender violence.

Just before Christmas, on Dec 23 I learned that Leeneshia Edwards , a transwoman from Memphis, was shot in the face and now lies in critical condition in a Memphis hospital. This is the same city Duanna Johnson and Ebony Whitaker were murdered in, the same state that the amazing Dr. Marisha Richmond works in with the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. My heart and thoughts go out to the transgender people and allies of Memphis who must be terrified of the city they love.

And only a few days ago we learned that Taysia Elzy and Michael Hunt were murdered in Indianapolis. Avery was a transgender woman, and Micheal was her boyfriend. Michael's death is like the death of so many SOFFA's, often undocumented as anti-transgender violence so often focuses on transgender people, and not those who love and ally with us. A good resource from the Transgender Aging Network can be found here.

These deaths, these brutal and purposeful acts of violence, are overwhelming. But we can not let them overwhelm us. On New Years Eve my resolution will be to work even harder to stop hate violence and transphobia through education, outreach, and surviving day-to-day as a transgender person. I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years, and I hope that we are all surrounded by our friends and the family we choose to be with. Let us find strength and joy in each other and our survival in 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Framing Discussions of Mental Health

This post is really only half thought-out as it is a recurring issue for me that I still haven’t properly settled in my mind. As many of you know, transgender people are considered to be suffering from “Gender Identity Disorder (GID)”. This diagnosis is crucial to pursuing things as basic as competent medical care, name changes, and at times proving discrimination lawsuits. Yet the majority of transgender people abhor this diagnosis as it suggests that transgender people, unlike cisgender men or women need someone else to tell them who they are, and that this identity must be done in the purview of the institutions of medicine.

I agree with this position – there is nothing disordered about me, or about being transgender. However, when trans folk talk about getting GID out of the official manual of the DSM-V there tends to be an undertone of ableism that I simply can’t shake. The premise for many of these actions is that transgender identities aren't disorders. However other folks with mental health disabilities could just as easily argue that their identites aren't disordered either, so I worry that these reforms reinforce the divide between folks with cognitive, developmental, or emotional disabilities and those who are considered to be able-bodied.

I am stuck in my theorizing on this issue. Transgender identity is not a mental health issue, but the effect of living in a transphobic world force many transgender people and allies into needing assistance mentally surviving. However, as long as GID remains in the DSM-V it will be used against those who are the least able to defend themselves – predominantly youth and people without the means to communicate with other transfolk. I recently heard Pauline Park speak on this subject and her remarks on the ways in which transyouth are suffering (corporal punishment, electric shock therapy, isolation etc.) made me question the narrowness of the movement to remove GID from the DSM-V.

Clearly transyouth can’t be the only group manipulated by medical industrial complex. As if to prove this point to me, the book I’m reading Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide has provided me with ample clues as to how racial constructions of mental health have been used as justifications for medical mistreatment and experimentation on indigenous people across the globe, and folk of color in the US. She writes “[Colonialists believed that] Indians lacked the language that would allow them to comprehend God…” Smith goes on to link this colonial belief to the ways in which choices have always been made for American Indians with the belief that they are “’in an arrested state of social development’” unable to care for their land or children. Thus, they are experimented on medically and for several generations children are forcibly removed from Indigenous homes, all due to the racist and colonialist concept that American Indians aren’t mentally healthy.

Therefore, it would be wrong to suggest that GID should be removed as it is the only incorrect diagnosis in all of the DSM-V. Clearly many other diagnoses are based on issues of racism, sexism, and capitalism. What I’m still trying to frame is this: how do we remove the disability categories based in racism, homophobia, and sexism without reifying that mental disability is stigmatizing or somehow wrong?

I do not believe – cannot believe – that transgender people are misinformed or not able to know who they really are. But neither do I believe that people with cognitive, learning, or mental disabilities are misinformed or unable to know who they are.

It is becoming certain in my mind that the only choice is to overhaul the entirety of the health care system as it can not possible assist us in our needs when we are not considered right enough to know our own needs. The diagnosis of not being able to care for oneself is rooted in capitalism – that bodies only have value when they “meet capitalist expectations of self-sufficiency and productivity”. Folks who might finish a task in a different way due to different cultural norms, or who might take longer to finish a task aren’t considered valuable under the structures of the DSM-V. In order to best serve the needs of folks who may require mental health assistance perhaps the only logical – and obvious - conclusion is to have the folks with needs to be met write out these standards of care.

I am still thinking on this subject, and clearly I’m not the person who should be making these demands, but I have become so annoyed by the ableism in the organizing against GID in the DSM that I needed to at least put down some semblance of my thoughts.

* Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End Press: Mass, 2005. p. 52 & 57 (quote from Pat Robertson) & 87.

Thoughts on the Privilege of Employment

There was a long gap on this blog where I wasn’t posting (I’m sure you noticed) for almost the entirety of December. There were many reasons for this – most pertinently my job search. My previous job at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was a contract position that ended in December. As the economy got worse and worse I decided to kick my job search into overdrive at the end of November and felt too guilty to write until my job search was over.

I’m incredibly happy to report that after four months – which in this economy I know is nothing – I have found a position as the Transgender Services Coordinator for the Long Island GLBT Services Network. As I live in Brooklyn the commute is definitely a big change for me, but I’m excited to be working one-on-one with transgender folks again. Generally I would go for months at GLAAD without physically encountering a transgender person beyond the few at work, which sometimes made me feel incredibly lonely. Sure, I saw all my transgender and genderqueer friends, but I was never really allowed to just go out and meet with someone whose story needed to be told. So I’m excited to be back in a grassroots small change position.

Job hunting opened for me multiple issues surrounding ideas of race, class, and safety. I realized I had a lot of desires generally classified as “bourgeois”, although I think they are standard desires that have been reclassified as bourgeois due to the persistent desire of class-privileged people to embrace the “romance” of poverty. I didn’t want to work multiple jobs, I wanted at least the possibility of a normative week, and I needed to make enough money to pay off my student loan and credit card debts and I’d like to move into a neighborhood that has a sense of identity to it…The expense of living a comfortable existence is absurd and directly related to our capitalist values system.

While I was job-searching though I, I’m sure like many people in similar positions, began to have an employment crisis. The more time went on the less sure I was of what my skills were, what kind of job I was looking for, and what I really wanted to do with my life. To exemplify the entirety of this crisis, days before I heard back about my new job I began to work on an application for the TransJustice Coordinator for the Audre Lorde Project . The Audre Lorde Project is an amazing initiative that is staffed by folks of color to serve folks of color in the NYC area. Everything from political rallies to anti police violence is housed out of the ALP offices, and their performances, gatherings, marches, are an amazing vision of solidarity. ALP is exactly the kind of place wherein I knew I would flourish. Committed not only to populations of indigenous, immigrant, and of color communities, but also to low income folks, they value the voices that are “too complicated” for most other LGBT organization. Moreover, they are organized in non-hierarchical formations where individuals of all backgrounds and educational levels are welcomed.

I know that ALP serves the people I want to work with in ways that I find affirming and encouraging. However, in order to do their work – in order to reach out to communities of color they need to be staffed by folks of color. White folks, even those whose commitments to anti-racism are as clear as Tim Wise’s (although I have some issues with his understanding of sexism), disrupt a lot of the balance in the office. I'm not saying that folks of color and white folks can't work together in communities of color, but paid full-time staff jobs shouldn't go to those whose ties in the communities aren't as pervasive as others. Here I think of Malcolm X’s statement that white folks can raise consciousness in their own communities, but they cannot come into communities of color and patronize the people with their knowledge of oppression. I desire to work with organizations like ALP deeply, but I know that I have too much to learn and too much baggage to truly be of assistance in any of their efforts. So instead I volunteer, donate, and attend events in order to be as active and a s informed as I can possibly be.

When I realized this – that while I was qualified I simply could not apply to the organizations I most admired – I was at first incredibly embittered by my position of despising the agonizing whiteness of non-poc specific organizations while being unable to leave them. Finally, though, it dawned on me that my work was not only to advocate for transgender people, but also to encourage more complicated understandings of whiteness among my white colleagues, and to reposition the way we view work specific to communities of color.

My time at GLAAD taught me that while an individual department’s work may be fulfilling and positive (I believe I, and many of my colleagues, did do important work at GLAAD) the overall organization needs to be invested in the same – or at least similar – ideals as you. GLAAD did not integrate what was deemed “cultural” programs well, meaning that programs specific to communities of color were treated as untouchable by people not entirely identifying with that community. Moreover they were perpetually understaffed and not integrated into general work, all of which solidified the assumption that lgbt folks are defacto white. There were amazing exceptions among GLAAD’s staff, folks who continually bucked the system in order to do the best possible work. Those co-workers are going to be my examples as I try and take the lessons about whiteness into my work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reach out to Queer Imprisoned Populations.

In early December we heard some extraordinary news! The NY Appeals Court reversed Venice Brown's conviction. You can read the entire decision here. Unfortunately for Venice and her family this means she’ll have to go through a new trial, just like Renata Hill, but the new trials for both women could mean positive things. To find out more about what’s going on go to the Free NJ4 blog.

For Patreese Johnson the NY Appeals Court ruled that her trial had tried her fairly and affirmed her conviction, although they did reduce her sentence from 13 to 8 years. If you want to keep her spirits up, feel free to send her cards and care packages. I know how this is not an economically stable time for anyone, but sending a letter or a note can be a lifeline:

Patreese Johnson
#07-G-0635
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 1000
Bedford Hills, NY 10507


I’ve been writing a lot about the women known as the New Jersey 4 on my blog, and I don’t mean to imply that these women are the only queer folks of color worth fighting for – I realize that for every public case like NJ4 (which really isn't even all that public) there are women, men and gender non-conforming folks who suffer alone. I hope to use this blog to shine more light on the experiences of folks incarcerated in the criminal justice system, and I will try to do so whenever possible. To find out more about queer folks in prison visit the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or Black & Pink.

Also, check out SRLP’s amazing publication It’s War in Here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Helping Duanna Johnson's memory

First off, via Questioning Transphobia, Duanna's family needs money for funeral expenses:

"The balance for Duanna Johnson’s funeral is $1195 and the funeral home is requiring Mrs. Skinner (Duanna’s mother) to pay it by tomorrow (11/14). The cost is a hardship, so we are asking anyone who can to donate. Please send any donations to:

N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home
12 S Parkway W
Memphis, TN 38109
(901) 948-7755.

Please forward this to as many people as you can!! Thanks!"

Also, I found this press release from the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center beautiful:

"Duanna bravely confronted the Memphis Police Department officers who brutalized her while she was in police custody. At great personal cost, Duanna was the public face of our community's campaign against racism, homophobia, and transphobia. There was no justice for Duanna Johnson in life. The Mid-South Peace & Justice Center calls for justice in the investigation and prosecution of Duanna's murder."
Also, several organizations are carrying on Duanna's memory such as the Memphis charter of Stop Police Brutality.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Memory: Duanna Johnson

[Image Description: a color photo of Duanna. We see her from the shoulders up, she is resting her head on her hand, making direct eye contact with the viewer. She is wearing a bright red shirt with matching red nail polish. She has shoulder-length black hair.]
As many of you already know, Duanna Johnson was found murdered earlier this week. Duanna was a beautiful Black transwoman living in Memphis, Tenn. She had the courage to speak about a brutal beating by local police that occurred earlier this year. She was beaten by two cops who assailed her anti-transgender and anti-gay slurs, clearly linking her beating with her transgender identity. Duanna made national headlines for her refusal to believe that she deserved to be treated in that manner because of her transgender identity.

Monica, over at Transgriot, has more on her murder. Apparently, her lawyer will continue with the lawsuit against the Memphis police Department. I hope that the lawsuit overhauls the way the MPD treats transgender people, and commemorates Duanna's bravery in speaking out.

This has been an incredibly brutal year for transgender people, and Duanna's death is overwhelming.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Refuting Medical Claims on Transgender Identity

Pop science sources have been slowly buzzing with the news that scientists may have found a link between transgender women who seek sex reassignment surgeries and their genes. This follows on the heels of a highly popular theory that the brains of transgender people are washed in either extra testosterone or extra estrogen while en utero.

Many people are excited about this, and I can understand why. In many ways, to have a biological basis for your identity makes it theoretically more difficult to discriminate. It suggests a fundamental physical proof of identity. Being transgender can no longer be seen as a choice, and medical access should no longer be denied due to the “cosmetic” nature of hormones, surgeries, or therapy. We can prove that we are who we say we are, and that our lives are pre-determined.

However, before we get too excited I’d urge transgender people who might not be as directly involved in these groups to recall the struggles of folks in disability communities and in LGB communities. We might belong to both these groups, but for trans folks who don’t know these histories as well, it could be prudent to review them.

Certain folks with disabilities have the physical proof of their disability readily available, yet that doesn’t mean that folks with disabilities have an easier time when dealing with medical procedures, in fact from what I’ve come to understand most folks have a more difficult time as doctors are resistant to doing any more than the bare minimum to ensure health and comfort. Moreover, medical professionals are inundated with the idea of “normal”. Many try to “fix” things that might not actually need to be touched, resulting in multiple surgeries for an issue that isn’t an issue for the patient. Folks in the disability rights community can show trans folks (who can of course belong to the disability community too) that relying on science to justify your existence is a dangerous and stigmatizing route.

LGB rights advocates suffered from the search for “the gay gene” back in the early 2000s as studies began to suggest that pre-natal searching for this supposed gene might result in targeted abortions. In the end, any possible gain of proving we exist by finding a gay gene was dismissed by the potential of seeing the gene as either an unfortunate detriment or a reason to target pregnancies.

Moreover, for me at least, I dislike this emphasis on scientific “proof” of transgender identity as it implies that out mere existence isn’t enough, the world needs proof that we are who we are. It takes our stories and puts them in the hands of other people. I understand the immense privilege that comes from working for an LGBT organization. I don’t need to justify my existence quite as often. I don’t need to hide who I am for fear of violence. I still need to constantly educate and correct. I still fear for my job, as many people don’t seem to understand why my position is important. I worry about what is said behind my back, and I grimace at the complete lack of understanding most of my colleagues have on transgender issues.

Understanding the privilege of being employed, and being employed in a mostly affirming environment, I still feel strongly that there is no true need for an explanation of transgender existence. Maybe our brains are washed in hormones. Maybe we are born with a gene predetermining our identity. Maybe it’s part of a supreme creator’s plan. Whatever. For me, the important thing is that we do exist. Folks who doubt our existence will not be swayed by science or theory as their doubts are based in prejudice and ignorance, not in any need for logic. From the 2008 book Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power:
“If geneticists find a variety of genes that they have been hunting for some time now – the genius gene, the criminal gene, the gay gene, the mothering gene, the super-athelete gene, the warrior gene – will this really put a smooth end to a variety of ideological and sociological debates..?”**
Until we are free from discrimination on the job, violence in the streets and at home, bigotry on all levels, ignorance and malice in medical establishments, and a lack of understanding or care in the criminal justice system, until all these things are carried away I really don’t care why I am the way I am. Moreover, I don’t need to justify it to anyone else. I don’t need to prove to you that I do exist, because I am right here in front of you. And hundreds of thousands of my people have stood here before me and will continue to stand here after me.

It’s tempting to desire a certificate of identity, a “proof” that our struggles are real, but we shouldn’t be looking for this acknowledgment outside of ourselves.

** Unger, Donald N.S. “Judging Fathers: The Case for Gender-Neutral Standards.” Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power. Ed Shira Tarrant. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 210

Friday, November 7, 2008

Video Submissions and updates on the NJ4

As I say in my last post – electing Barack Obama isn’t the end of our work for social justice. Indeed, it is only the beginning. As you could tell in his speech it was less victory than an acknowledgement of the long roads we have ahead. In the spirit of struggle then, I wanted to give an update on Renata Hill. Renata is better known as one of the New Jersey 4 – four Black lesbians who refused the advances of men, and responded to their sexual and physical harassment by defending themselves, and subsequently ended up in jail. I posted about her trial about a month back urging readers to write to the District Attorney to let him know how we felt about the lawsuit.

I received an update recently informing me that over 500 people wrote to the DA. The retrial has been pushed back to November 20th, which gives her advocates more time to put pressure on the legal system to do the right thing. *

In wonderful news Venice Brown was released on bail on October 7th! Venice’s 21st birthday was a few weeks ago, and it’s wonderful to think of her being able to see the faces and feel the support of her family on her birthday. Her appeals will be sometime in November.

Patreese Johnson is still locked and facing around 9 years of sentencing. According to the blog freenj4, she is feeling very alienated. Please write to her and send her some much needed love and encouragement.

Patreese Johnson #07-G-0635
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 1000
Bedford Hills, NY 10507

Terrain Dandridge was released back in June – I heard she spent her first day out of prison visiting with Angela Davis…I don’t know if that’s true but I love the image!

In the spirit of continued activism, I also want to highlight this call for youth media producers from the Human Rights Watch and Adobe Youth Voices.

“The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in partnership with Adobe Youth Voices seeks youth-produced media works on human rights issues for its second annual YOUTH PRODUCING CHANGE program to screen in our New York, London, Boston and San Francisco film festivals in 2009-10.

We are currently seeking film, video and animated works on human rights issues created by youth ages 19 and younger. For information on how to submit your film, please click here.

Feel free to be in touch with Jennifer Nedbalsky at 212/216-1247 or nedbalj(at)hrw.org if you have any questions or would like further information.”

*November 20th is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I find this ironic as there is no doubt in my mind that the violence that causes transphobia is linked to the violence against Renata and the many other lesbians who refuse the advances of men. Violence against women often comes, I feel, from not confining to rigid gender roles regarding what a woman should and should not do. When these women defended themselves they defied our gender stereotypes, which many transwomen, transmen, and gender non-conforming people also do on a daily basis.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

After the Election


I keep finding myself in tears.

Which is ridiculous because I know that Obama is not the answer to all of our struggles. I know that government is not the answer to almost any of our struggles. But I can’t help but look at the news and find myself awestruck by what we achieved on Tuesday.

I took the day off and called voters in Florida and Pennsylvania reminding them of where their polling place was and how to vote. Which, as one person I called put it, seems “pretty damn obvious”…except it wasn’t. On Tuesday, and this weekend when my partner and I went to Philadelphia to door-knock, we encountered a staggering number of voters who didn’t know how to vote. They wanted to, though. They wanted to stand in line for hours so that they could tell future generations what they did during one of the most crucial elections in our country’s history. I was so glad that Amanda and I were able to help them find their polling place, tell them how to use the machines, remind them of what IDs they needed, provide them rides, and even provide numbers to call should they encounter any discrimination. Volunteering for the Obama Campaign felt like community building… I haven’t really felt that since leaving Minnesota. (Image description: The Obama “Hope” poster. In deep red, pale blue, and a yellow cream color an artist has rendered a profile image of Barack Obama gazing towards the horizon. Underneath we see “HOPE” in large letters.)

Clearly a lot of other people felt that way as well. Amanda and I colored in maps of the US as we watched election coverage come in, and the streaks of blue we saw across the states filled me with a sense of community that shook a lot of my presumptions and prejudices. I was raised in Indiana, and I never thought I’d see it go blue, but as my brother put it in an email to me “we were always blue…it just took someone special to bring it out!”

I didn’t vote for Obama because he’s a man, or because he’s Black, or because he grew up in poverty. I’m male and grew up in a lower economic bracket than many of my friends, but that doesn’t mean I only want leaders who reflect my background. I voted for him because he took his experiences with racism, poverty, and male privilege and decided to do something with what he had learned. His policies reflect his understanding of how the majority of people live their lives, and how governmental policies can often oppress more than they uplift. I voted for Obama because he had substance behind his rhetoric, and because he surrounded himself with people who fit his vision for the US, not people who would give him political uplift.

Moreover, my vote wasn’t for or against any single issue. I looked at his overall plan and knew that issues I disagreed with could be dealt with individually. In a depressing series of discussions with gay co-workers and friends, many pointed to Obama’s lack of support for marriage equality as a reason not to vote. As if marriage was the only thing that mattered, or if a person’s lack of support necessarily translated into being against something.

Despite that, voters across the US connected with what Obama had to say…with the belief in the strength of grassroots organizing, of the value of individuals, of the need to respect and listen to all people. Overwhelmingly, despite the media’s insistence that Black voters voted for him because of his race, Black voters responded that they voted with him because he had the policies that would untie our country and help the majority of the people. Even in his acceptance speech Obama emphasized this, saying he would listen to the concerns of voters who had gone with McCain.

I believe he will. I certainly hope he will. After all, Obama’s presence in the White House is only one of many steps we need to take to bring across real change. At the end of the day, Obama is still a politician, and he is still just one individual. We have to work in our neighborhoods, in our local communities talking one-on-one with each other. We have to challenge Obama administration policies, push for appropriate visibility, and continue to work to overcome discrimination and prejudices. Obama’s presence may make some things easier as we see a House, Senate, and White House more open to acceptance and justice…but governmental justice can look very different than real justice.

But for now, for these next few days, I’m riding this flood of emotion. Feeling overwhelmed, awed, and impressed with my country I will be savoring these moments when I encounter, as I’m sure we will, opposition and prejudice in the future. I am bundling up this feeling of community so that I can unfurl it in darker days and wrap myself in its warmth.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Vote Tomorrow!




My partner sent me the first video of this, and it was terrifying enough for me to feel that I have to pass it on. You can send these videos to folks who might need to see them here.

In case you want to review the policies, Barack Obama has his entire Blueprint for America online as well. Which is something Obama has always been for, since his first days in politics - he has always advocated for transparency in government. That's just one more reason why I feel that my vote on November 4 is the first step in the increasingly active role I'll be playing in politics for the next 4 (or 8!) years with Obama as President. He's going to encourage us to care about what happens to our communities and our neighbors - both next door and around the world - in a more active way.

This is a thrilling time. But it's also crucial - please vote for Obama on November 4. If you are worried vote with a friend, or contact someone from the Obama campaign they'll drive you to the poll and insure that your vote will count.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Info for Voters Facing Discrimination!

A lot of folks are worried about voters being disenfranchised this Election Day. There’s a good precedent for being worried – if you’re a historically marginalized person chances are your vote will be extra-difficult to cast. So here are some options come November 4:

If you’re transgender contact the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund between 6AM and 7PM EST. They will have lawyers staffing their hotline to respond to callers who experience discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression at the polls.

The number to call is: (646) 862-9396.

If you were convicted of a felony, and are trying to register the ACLU has a great form to fill out here. There’s also a very informative read about why folks convicted of felonies should have the right to vote re-instated. Otherwise, the ACLU recommends calling Election Protection which is below.

If you’re a voter with a disability, there are several options. Almost every state has a Disability Law Center that is providing some form of Service to voters on Election Day. However, one of the best national groups is the National Disability Rights Network. Their main page has loads of info in Spanish and English. If you experience discrimination due to your disability they urge voters to contact the people below, Election Protection.

Election Protection is a national non-partisan campaign to ensure that people can vote successfully. If you’re discriminated against in any way contact Election Protection at any time between voting hours in your state. People can call the hotline if the polls are closed when they should be open, if they are turned away for "wrong" ID, or for whatever reason they are not allowed to vote.

The number to call is 1-866-Our-Vote (which is also 1-866-687-8683).
Or you can e-mail: help@866ourvote.org

Election Protection is accepting volunteers, too. You can sign up for training and a volunteer shift at their website.

I’m gonna urge you to store these numbers in your cell phone or have them written down in advance of voting. These processes seem to work best if you call from the polling place.

Voting is not the most important thing we’ll ever do, and it’s most def not the only way to participate in politics. But if you choose to vote no one should take away that right because of discrimination and prejudice. I’m already worried about my vote (first election I’m registered as male) and my partner’s vote (she’s inexplicably “inactive”) so I know there must be countless others nervous about being disenfranchised on election day. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to pass these resources around widely.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Social Justice: Learning from Love

A lot of hate is spread on the Internet - which in many ways is therapeutic and democratizing – but often the hate can grow unchecked and come from places of pure ignorance. I’m excited that the Internet can bring marginalized people together so that safer spaces can be created for discussions, however I get wary when too much space is spent on hating other people and not a lot of space is spent celebrating and thriving. At times, particularly on LGBT blogs, I notice a certain desire to ignore the struggles of others and focus solely on how oppressed a specific identity group is, rather than realizing that all struggles are interconnected. I see a pattern of ignoring the validity of a person or group's struggle.

When I began Coffee and Gender, I never wanted my blog to be a space where unchecked hatred would be allowed. I try with incredible difficulty to never completely dismiss the works of other people, and I attempt to always see the viewpoint a person I disagree with is coming from. Especially when the individual is an outspoken advocate for many issues and simply hasn’t yet understood certain prejudices. There’s a balancing act of not forgetting an individual or organization’s prejudices and acknowledging that no one person has an easy life in our capitalistic white supremacist hetero-patriarchal ablest world.

It takes a lot of courage for people to speak out about oppression. So even when they get the message wrong, we should support them and try to gently guide them towards a more nuanced understanding (Also, entertain the notion that we could be wrong too. Perhaps our statements are too sweeping, etc.). A good example of this is the murder of Matthew Shepard. A lot of folks are angry at Matthew’s memory for getting the attention he received after his death. Advocates point towards the ridiculous lack of coverage for folks of color, women, transfolks, sex workers, and working class people and ask why they don’t get a national outcry as well. However, sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “why did Matthew get that coverage?” which suggests that he didn’t suffer enough or give enough or feel enough oppression to be cared about.

There’s no doubt that Matthew’s whiteness, his class privilege, his cisprivilege and maleness got him more coverage and respect. No doubt. But that doesn’t mean we should spend our time hating his memory, or as too often happens, saying awful things about him. Instead we should turn our anger to media corporations, LGBT organizations, community officials and religious organizations etc and ask why didn’t you cover the murders of Sanesha Stewart, Simmie Williams, Sakia Gunn and so many others? But hating Matthew doesn’t make us stronger or happier or more whole. Hating Matthew has us turn our hate against our own community. And that’s troublesome and destructive.

Now, bringing up his brutal death to make a point may be a little disrespectful, and I want to acknowledge that. His suffering shouldn’t be used for my gains – but I wanted to illustrate how a tragic event can become twisted because the organizations we work with and the organizations we rely on (the media, our elected representatives, doctors, etc) have become so de-compartmentalized. Gay groups don’t focus on women or folks of color, trans groups forget about sex workers, etc. And then those of us who exist within multiple identities (which is most of us) have unfiltered anger that we are never seen or fully acknowledged in our chosen social movement spaces. Often times we use that anger against our allies, or we make sweeping statements that suggest anyone of a specific identity group can’t possible understand our struggles.

These attacks make logical sense. They even feel good, too. I couldn’t tell you how many disparaging comments I’ve made about straight people, people born into class privilege, and folks without transgender or gender non-conforming experiences. Too many times when I am frustrated by the systems I work in I regress to name-calling and sweeping statements that make me temporarily feel good. But I know that’s wrong. I know as a transman and as a white person that my experiences of privilege are nuanced and that I struggle against them everyday. I shouldn’t be given sympathy or pity, or an easier time because of that – but neither should I be completely dismissed because of my privilege. Being a person with privilege doesn't make a person a jerk, the excercise of that privilege in the face of udnerstanding how it is oppressive makes them a jerk. Consciously not understanding other histories, languages, or traditions should make someone disliked, not a reaction to a perceived identity.

Consider how many other organizations dedicated to social justice specifically ask that members of majority populations or historically oppressive populations participate in consciousness-raising efforts. What this does is encourage these individuals (such as myself) to engage our privileges while still telling us “we need you in this fight too”. Including men – or white folks, able-bodied folks, folks with class privilege – in a movement towards social justice allows for total community growth. Alice Walker’s definition of womanism* is specific to black communities** but I feel that all of us can learn and grow from this strong term that places the oppression of women at the center of a larger discussion that is fundamentally inclusive.

Walker specifies that men – young and old alike – need to be included in any discussion of gender equality, specifically when you consider the racialized oppression of men of color. If you consider the definition of womanism as the basis for understanding interconnected oppressions and identities then it makes pinpointing individuals or specific groups as “the enemy” incredibly difficult. When you consider that all social justice movement is inherently interconnected – that we have to talk about all of our needs in order to address any of our needs – it makes no sense to bash any group or specific sub-groups.

I’ve written about this in previous posts, but I believe it is worth discussing again as all of us will inevitably encounter people still dealing with inherent privilege – such as myself – and it’s good to have a strategy. From reading the Combahee River Collective Statement, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Gloria Anzaldua, Zachary Nataf, Cherrie Moraga, and countless others I have concluded that the best forms of social change happen because of a personal connection to the experiences of oppression. The love that we feel for another person can become radicalized – to use Sandoval’s term*** – when we use it to make our world better.

When we use our love to explore our privileges, our oppressions, our intersecting identities and to join and listen to leaders across social justice movements. In order to create this love, however, we need to treat those who disagree with us with respect and courtesy. We need to understand that no single person comes from a place of absolute privilege. I made that mistake several times early on in my activism, and I probably continue to make this mistake from time to time. But we can try not too, without becoming Polyanna's, all of us cans till approach each other as potential allies and friends - placing our movements on equal terms and realizing that all of us in specific justice movements need the other movements in order to thrive.


* Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Santa Rosa, CA: Harvest Books, 1984.

** Alice Walker doesn’t capitalize Black, so in talking about her definition I won’t either, although I normally would.


***Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Racism Encouraged, Racism Ignored

This is a very brief post, brought about because I’m simply upset at the way some of the current political discussions have gone surrounding the presidential campaigns. I am not someone who focuses a lot of time on federal politics – I prefer to act locally and look towards alternatives - but I cannot deny that the current presidential campaigns have revealed a deeply disturbing part of America.

Surprisingly, it is not that so many people in the US are racist and sexist or that people allow their racist and sexist feelings to move them towards violence. Anyone who has experienced racism or sexism – whether on a daily basis or to a life-threatening degree – is aware that these prejudices are alive and well in our country. What shocks me is that we have candidates running for the public face of America who would allow racially motivated attacks and violent attacks against another person to go un-checked in their campaigns.

Whether or not McCain and Palin are themselves racist (and seeing that McCain has an interracially adopted child and Palin is married to a man with Indigenous Alaskan background, I hope for the families they are not) you would think that the covert smarmy political choice would be to renounce acts of bold-faced racism. After all, we know that our political system is encouched in a racist structure and that racist politicians are routinely elected on a local level, and that our previous presidents have behaved in racist (and sexist, classist, homophobic, and ableist) behaviors. There’s really no other word for the welfare reform, treatments of Katrina, current immigration policies, etc etc than prejudiced. But those are veiled (however thinly), and it seemed to me that no national political figure would actually encourage overt racism from their fan base. My surprise is directly connected to my privilege yet I have found many friends to be equally shocked by the overt nature of this campaign. McCain and Palin not only encourage this behavior, they refuse to apologize for it.

Keith Olbermann sums up many of my issues in this beautiful video (kudos to my partner for finding it)



If you want to know more about John Lewis check out Monica Roberts’s blog post about him and his comments.

Also, in this New York Times op-ed by Frank Rich

In this New Yorker column by Hendrik Hertzberg

Finally, in this piece from The Press Registrar by Michelle DeArmond

The friend who forwarded me this last piece, and my partner whom I showed it too both had the same reaction: “people make me sick”. It’s telling that these horrific images can only be discussed in the realm of the physical – the literal desire to purge oneself of the evil just witnessed.

To try and end this on a more hopeful note – I have been volunteering with the Obama campaign to register voters and I am overwhelmed by the number of new registrants who have not voted since the 1980s, 1950s, and even a few from the 1920s. People are clearly responding to the issues brought up by these campaigns in a way that they have never responded to any individuals before. Whether or not Obama delivers on his end, I hope people continue to see their own involvement and importance in these discussions: and moreover that complacent white folk wake up to the every da realities of racism. I believe that we will rise to the challenge and work more to educate each other and ourselves on racism and ways of anti-racism.

Fabulous Opportunities In Disability Studies

I want to re-post two items, first, and TONIGHT:

Images of Epilepsy in Literature

Thursday, October 16, 2008
6-8PM
VISIONS @ Selis Manor
135 West 23rd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenues)
RSVP to ernesto@dnnyc.net or at 212/284-4160

Also, this call was recently sent out again - the deadline is tomorrow - and I wanted to encourage more people to apply for this scholarship, I think it’s fantastic and potentially incredibly helpful. It’s quite specific in the demographic you have to fit, but just imagine what could be done!

Through the generosity of Loreen Arbus, New York Women in Film & Television is offering a $2,500 scholarship for a woman with a physical disability who is studying film, television or communications in the Tri-State area. Students enrolled in an established technical program, community college, college or university are eligible. Students enrolled in graduate programs are also eligible.

The funds may be used for tuition and fees or for production costs for a student film or video project. The deadline for application is Friday, October 17, 2008.

To apply for the scholarship, send a resume and a written 2-4-page description of your current work and goals as a filmmaker. If funds will be used for a film or video project, and a work-in-progress is available, a DVD should be included.

Applications should be sent to:

New York Women in Film & Television
Loreen Arbus Scholarship
6 East 39th Street, Suite 1200
New York, NY 10016

The deadline for application is Friday, October 17, 2008. If you have any questions, please call Sue Marcoux at 212-679-0870, ext. 25.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Images of Epilepsy in Literature: Oct 16 in NYC!!

Just yesterday I saw that I had received an amazing e-mail from the Disabilities Network of New York City regarding an upcoming event. This event looks brilliant - and I am very personally honored that I would get this e-mail. This looks like a really unique chance to discuss the intersections of disability especially disability representations, which I know are the chagrin of so many people. Race, gender, religion, and sexuality will be discussed in connection at this lecture, and if you check out the link below you'll see that Dr. Ozer has written some pretty amazing stuff and she's been a big contributor to the Disabilities Network's work. I think it is a brilliant example of the kind of events we should be supporting with our presence! I hope to see lots of people there - don't worry I'll be reminding people throughout the week!

Also, for ASL Interpretation or other accommodations see the bottom of the event description.

Images of Epilepsy in Literature

Thursday, October 16, 2008
6-8PM
VISIONS @ Selis Manor
135 West 23rd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenues)
RSVP to ernesto@dnnyc.net or at 212/284-4160

People with epilepsy appear in literature as far back as the Bible and other early works. These writings reveal the most deeply ingrained negative stereotypes and idealized myths about people with epilepsy, from the violent, frothing epileptic possessed by the devil to the ethereal visionary.

Join the Disabilities Network and Dr. Irma Jacqueline Ozer in a discussion about what these images say about societal perceptions of epilepsy and other disabilities, and how they are changing.

Dr. Ozer has published nationally and internationally on disability in law and literature, specializing in epilepsy. As a Ph.D. in German literature, she wrote her thesis on mental illness in the work of female fiction writers.

*****Space limited! RSVP to ernesto@dnnyc.net or at 212/284-4160. Don't miss out!

*****ASL and other accommodations available upon request. Requests must be made by October 9 to ernesto@dnnyc.org
or at 212/284-4160.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Help the New Jersey 4's Renata Hill!

The below is from an e-mail I received today from Bay Solidarity concerning the upcoming re-trial of Renata Hill. To help, you must get this letter out before October 14th when her re-trial is scheduled. I'll be sending mine out tomorrow morning!On June 14, four African-American women—Venice Brown (19), Terrain Dandridge (20), Patreese Johnson (20) and Renata Hill (24)—received sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to 11 years in prison. None of them had previous criminal records. Two of them are parents of small children.

Their crime? Defending themselves from a physical attack by a man who held them down and choked them, ripped hair from their scalps, spat on them, and threatened to sexually assault them—all because they are lesbians.

The mere fact that any victim of a bigoted attack would be arrested, jailed and then convicted for self-defense is an outrage. But the length of prison time given further demonstrates the highly political nature of this case and just how racist, misogynistic, anti-gay, anti-youth and anti-worker the so-called U.S. justice system truly is.

You are needed to help stop the re-prosecution of Renata Hill, of the NJ4. Below is a sample letter addressed to Robert M. Morgenthau, the District Attorney of New York County, in which we state our goals of ending the prosecution of Renata Hill. Please send your letter immediately.

On Ocober 14th, Renata Hill, one of the New Jersey 7, is scheduled to face her retrial. We are in support of her desire to not have to go back to trial, and demand that the charges against her cease.

Please send this letter, or one similar in your own words, to the address listed. After sending in the letter, please let us know so that we can tally how many letters have been sent. (freenj4@yahoo.com)

Forward widely. We will be in touch to follow up with where we are in pressuring the DA or the possible need to escalate pressure.

For Our Defense,
Bay Solidarity

Below is my letter, and you should feel free to use it, or to write your own that reflects more of what you feel about this case.


Robert M. Morgenthau
District Attorney
New York County
1 Hogan Place
New York, NY 10013

October 7, 2008

Re: People vs. Renata Hill

Dear Mr. Morgenthau:

I am writing concerning the case of Renata Hill, who is currently awaiting a retrial on charges stemming from an incident that occurred in August 2006. Her original conviction for Gang Assault was recently overturned on appeal, and I want to encourage you to stop any further prosecution and to release Ms. Hill.

Ms. Hill has already served two years on charges resulting from a street altercation that she did not initiate. While she was incarcerated, she was separated from her young son. She also suffered the death of her mother, whose memorial she was unable to attend. Since their convictions on Gang Assault charges, the felony convictions against both Ms. Hill and one of her co-defendants were overturned by the appellate courts. The two other defendants are currently awaiting their appeal hearings.

Notably, the complainant in this matter has commenced a multi million dollar lawsuit and runs a website, Dwayne Buckle Foundation for Justice, seeking donations to his cause based on virulent anti-gay and lesbian attacks. Prosecuting Ms. Hill further sends the message that attacking gay and transgender people is acceptable, and that the act of self-defense is reprehensible. It also furthers the stigma against women who defend themselves against their attackers, as Ms. Hill clearly did in this case.

I believe that further prosecution and incarceration of Ms. Hill would be unjust. She has been punished enough for her role in the event – both by actual imprisonment, and in the impact that imprisonment has had upon her life. We do not need any more young people brought up separated from their parents. I appreciate any assistance you can provide in preventing any further injustice.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Mik

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Realabilities: Every Time You Look at Me

Last weekend my partner and I indulged in the new Cohen brother’s Burn After Reading, which was above and beyond what the reviews had led me to suspect. However, it opened with a PSA for Down Syndrome Awareness Month featuring multiple people with Down syndrome and their friends and family. At first, I was excited to see in this packed multiplex a celebration of disability. However, I quickly realized that this was no celebration. The folks with Down syndrome did not speak once the entire PSA. Their friends and family members spoke for them. Now, I have to say that I don’t have any friends with Down syndrome now, but I did growing up. And in elementary school – before I succumbed to the ableist segregation that kept me apart from visible disabilities for years – my friends were able to clearly state basic desires such as “don’t make fun of me”. I don’t see a reason why the participants in the ad couldn’t advocate for themselves, or at least in conjunction with their families and friends. Which brings me to the movie Every Time You Look At Me. I saw this amazing (and sadly under-produced) gem at the Realabilities Film Festival two Tuesdays ago.

If I had to only watch five movies for the rest of my life, Every Time You Look At Me would be an easy add to the list. I’m unsure what the other four would be, but I know that the heterosexual paradigm of love-conquers-all would get old after a while, so I wanted to bring some realism to this review. That aside, I could watch this movie on repeat for quite a while. The film stars Mat Fraser and Lisa Hammond as lovers with extraordinarily oppositional views and upbringings. Lisa’s character, Nicky, is a little person who is vocally proud of her disability and extravagant about her identity to often crass ends - a necklace she wears in one scene reads “great tits”. Mat’s character, Chris, who describes himself in the movie as a “thalidomide-affected individual” has grown up in a family that refuses to see his disability (perhaps because of some guilt associated with it) and has blended himself into upper class aspirational culture as much as is possible.

One of the largest critiques disability advocates have of the movie industry is that able-bodied actors often portray actors with disabilities. This complaint is often answered with self-produced short films or low-budget movies that don’t sufficiently illuminate the fact that a disability doesn’t impede an ability to act. What was absolutely brilliant about Every Time is that Lisa Hammond and Mat Fraser can act the pants off most Hollywood stars. Which is crucial for delivering this film. In one of the rare instances where an analogy across identities works, what is said about women and folks of color is equally true for people with disabilities. You have to be twice as good in order to get as far as an able bodied person.

This film is also, despite its clear adherence to the romantic comedy plot-lines that always leave me in tears, very difficult in terms of its subject matter. Nicky and Chris don’t have an easy time of it, and despite several instances where the filmmakers could have concluded on a happy up-beat note that love smoothes every difficulty, they choose instead to make visible the difficulties that people with disabilities face. At several points the idea of Nicky and Chris being together seems impossible, especially in one poignant scene where Nicky is seen in a hotel bathroom surveying the shelves and appliances that are beyond her reach. The writers are clever, however, in their refusal to make Nicky and Chris poster children for disability awareness. While Nicky has a strong support group around her, and we often see her at what looks like a mother-daughter social events for little people, she does not legislate for access or rally in the streets to end stigmatization. This breaks the code that someone who belongs or claims a particular identity is either going to be an expert in it or have that identity consume their life. I generally despise the line of "we are just like you" and this movie manages to mostly avoid it, showing the ways Nicky and Chris are not like an able-bodied viewer, while making their lives as normal and boring as anyone's - disabled or able bodied.

Nicky also has a fabulous Black best friend who is given a good amount of screen time, and who even has a present family and Black friend base that we see in later scenes. This impressed me as well as most Black-best-friends come devoid of families or other friends of color in Hollywood films.

My favorite part of the movie was watching Lisa Hammond dance. Never before had I seen a person so excited to be in her own body, so comfortable with the fact that people might be staring, pointing, and laughing and not giving too much thought to it. Although we learn later on that Nicky has some extreme self-esteem and body issues that are only brought out when her tough exterior is cracked (have you seen that before?) I genuinely believe that her dancing is an act of liberation.

While the character of Nicky and I have little in common, we do both share a love of dancing that I’m sure we both had to develop. I remember trying to make moves that were more masculine, studying the butch women on the dance floor for cues on how to “move like a man”. I imagine the character of Nicky watching other women dancing thinking of moves that would defy stereotypes of little people. The discovery of quality clubs that allow for serious dancing was perhaps the best discovery of my twenties. I knew people were staring, pointing, and talking, but I also knew they did that to anyone brave enough to dance. As soon as I realized copying other's moves didn't make me happy, my dancing changed and helped me to feel more free. I imagine the character of Nicky stepping up to the challenge of dancing in public at an early age. She basically asks club-goers to notice and acknowledge her existence with her dancing, which she clearly also does because it makes her feel invisible to the stares that more than likely permeate her daily life.

Which is similar to what the movie is asking of its viewers, to acknowledge a presence...and then to let it be. Not to make folks with disabilities invisible, but neither to bring disability into the realm of metaphor and myth.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Support the Memoirs of Homeless Queer Youth

My good friend, and soon-to-be published author Sassafras Lowrey is on a mission to bring the lives of homeless queer youth into the spotlight! As a former homeless youth hirself, Sass is very personally tied to this mission and committed to presenting the lives of queer youth in as an authentic voice as ze can. To that end Sass has compiled an anthology called Kicked Out that features stories written by youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.

As much as I would like to think that people are lining up to buy his book I know that in many ways it will be a hard sell. Despite the fact that homeless queer youth make up 40% of the homeless population, members of the LGBTQ communities show hardly any concern about them. So it will be difficult to convince non-LBTQ folks, and folks who don't have a history in homelessness to become interested. Therefore, Sass is embarking on a huge publicity campaign beginning with Public Services Announcements made by either former or current LGBTQ homeless youth or allies to these youth. I'm scheduled to make one myself, where I'll talk about being an ally and how I stayed in the closet until I could more-or-less support myself on my own for fear of my family and school's actions.

All PSAs will be subtitled into English and Spanish, and ze welcomes videos in any language. You can find out how to make your own PSA by going to hir website Kicked Out Anthology. Please consider doing this, Sass's book is going to shed a lot of light on an overlooked subject that affects many of my peers - it'll only take a few moments and it could do so much good! Below is a video of Sass explaining the project and one of the PSAs.



[In this video we see the author from the waist up. Sass is a white genderqueer
fat high femme who talks directly to the camera. Ze is surrounded by bookshelves
and dressed in a black tank top.]





[In this video Tauret Manu, a rider with Soulforce sits in a white T-shirt next
to a white wall talking directly to the camera about why she is an ally. Tauret
identifies as a Black queer fat femme. ]

Monday, September 22, 2008

Scholarship for women with Disabilities & Call for LGBT Workshops

From Loreen Arbus and the New York Women in Film & Television comes this scholarship focused on women filmakers with disabilities:

Through the generosity of Loreen Arbus, New York Women in Film & Television is offering a $2,500 scholarship for a woman with a physical disability who is studying film, television or communications in the Tri-State area. Students enrolled in an established technical program, community college, college or university are eligible. Students enrolled in graduate programs are also eligible.

The funds may be used for tuition and fees or for production costs for a student film or video project. The deadline for application is Friday, October 17, 2008.

To apply for the scholarship, send a resume and a written 2-4-page description of your current work and goals as a filmmaker. If funds will be used for a film or video project, and a work-in-progress is available, a DVD should be included.

Applications should be sent to:

New York Women in Film & Television
Loreen Arbus Scholarship
6 East 39th Street, Suite 1200
New York, NY 10016

The deadline for application is Friday, October 17, 2008. If you have any questions, please call Sue Marcoux at 212-679-0870, ext. 25.


...and from the National Gay & Lesbian TaskForce comes this call for workshops for the 2009 Creating Change conference. The proposal is very long, so I'm only going to link to it - but he deadline is September 30th and the benefits of presenting are amazing. Creating Change is the short-hand for "The 21st National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change". The conference is a political, leadership and skills-building site for the LGBT movement. It's been going on for over 20 years and has been the place where "thousands of committed and passionate people have developed and honed their skills, celebrated victories, built community, and been inspired by visionaries of our and other movements for justice and equality." Sounds pretty hot, huh?

Restoring Value, Meaning, and Accessibility to Language

I have been extremely mindful in this blog about the power of language, and a lot of my posts are focused on how language has the power to inform and shape opinion and understanding, and likewise has the ability to keep people out and aggravate situations. I recall, very vividly, one of the first times the power of language was shown to me. In college I was an intern and volunteer with NARAL – the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. During that time rumblings began about the possibility that President Bush would sign the “partial birth abortion act”, which was publicly described as being an act banning at-birth abortions. However, those of us who were immersed in the issue knew that the title of the bill and the public description of it were akin to Orwellian New Speak – labeling something the exact opposite of what it is. At-birth abortions were already illegal, and the bill had multiple add-ons that would severely limit access to reproductive rights medical care, and abortion access specifically. When I realized the amazing lack of actual truth in the language and descriptions given the public concerning this bill I was shocked – how many other bills did I know so little about, and how many other policies or legal issues were I taking at name value without thoroughly investigating them?

After overcoming that initial shock I became incredibly invested in being precise and purposeful in language use. As numerous incredible women of color feminists have written, people who experience precise oppressions can often not explain their experience until certain terms are discovered. Most recently for me, I read Cherrie Moraga’s Loving in the War Years where she describes the relief she feels when she is able to name the specifics of her experiences: “All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words “class” and “race” to the experience did my feelings make any sense.” I imagine this is akin to me learning the term “genderqueer”. Hearing the term for the first time was like feeling a warm heat fill my body – I knew I had tapped into something distinctive that would illuminate my on feelings of difference.

Around the same time, I also became annoyed at the lack of accessibility most writings are to the public. When I came home and had to debate my feminisms or my anti-white supremacy feelings with friend who were not reading the same texts I found the words and terms I was quoting clumsy and uninformative. I wanted to be able to break down my thoughts while still keeping the new ideas I was having – and few of the books I was reading were preparing me to disseminate information in that way. While my blog is certainly not an easy read, I think writers go down the wrong path when they confuse ease of reading with accessibility. The idea of “dumbing down” writing goes about the act of translating language accessibly in the wrong way. Language can be made more accessible without diluting the thoughts or ideas that are being expressed, or treating the reader in a patronizing way. In such a way complex thoughts are still kept in their entirety. When I use a term that might be confusing, I explain it and I flush out my conclusions so that my train of thought can be easily traced. It’s very difficult, and I certainly haven’t mastered it but I have wonderful teachers before me, most specifically bell hooks who first came up with the idea of “translating” language.
“I was conscious of the desire not to ‘talk down’ to the audience in any way. I wanted to keep the same intellectual level I would have in the college-classroom lecture. With this in mind, I began to think in terms of translating – giving the same message, using a different style, simpler sentence structures, etc…A feminist essay with revolutionary ideas written in a complicated, abstract manner using the jargon of a specific discipline will not have the impact it should have on the consciousness of women and men because it will probably be read by only a small group of people.” **
If we follow hooks completely, some theorists who have had a tremendous impact on the way Western Culture views race or gender would be considered un-feminist in their approach. The race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant and the gender theorist Judith Butler use incredibly convoluted language and write in a very abstract manner, yet their writings are considered cornerstones for 20th century understandings of race and gender. Yet their work is incredibly important. The answer of how to fit the specific abstract ideas they discuss into a feminist framework was explained to me by Scott Morgensen, my outstanding Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies professor. He explained that even in Butler’s difficult prose explanations and examples were given to all of her writing. The difficulty was that professors assigned too much text so that students couldn’t bask in the writing, reading slowly and purposefully is often considered being lazy, and then, like me explaining my new consciousness to my friends back home, students find they don’t have the explanatory language – ust the catchphrases.

I’m writing this as a prelude to some thoughts I’m having concerning phrases or euphemisms that I find incredibly offensive: terms like “small town” that are used euphemistically to refer to certain classist white supremacist values systems without specifically naming them, despite the fact that small towns are often paragons of diversity and democratic values. Other terms I am concerned about include “Holocaust” and “rape” that are used to describe almost anything. This dilutes the power of actually discussing the Holocaust or an actual rape (trigger alert). Which, when you consider that one on every four women (and that statistic doesn’t include transgender people or men) will experience rape in her lifetime is incredibly terrifying. How does a survivor describe her, his, or hir experience when the word “rape” has no meaning? When, in many instances, it is used as the punchline to a joke? Finally, the term "retard' has been on my line. I don't think I could write anything more in-depth than this, so I am linking here to an excellent Salon.com essay that addresses how we use the term.

*Moraga, Cherrie. “La G├╝era”. Loving in the War Years. South End Press: Massachusetts, 2000. p.46

** hooks, bell. “Educating Women: a feminist agenda”. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press: Massachusetts, 2000. p.112-113

Monday, September 15, 2008

Transender Survey from NCTE & NGLTF

The National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce (where my boo now works as a Vaid Fellow!!) just released their survey for transgender and gender non-conforming folks. Now the Taskforce does amazing work, and whenever I have a question such as “can I be denied equal access to housing in Tennessee because I’m transgender?” I go straight to the Taskforce, where the answer is always easily accessed. (Answer: depends where you live, and if you want to argue the "sex stereotypes" issue or the transgender issue.) The Taskforce has a wonderful history of using their research for inclusive and diverse purposes, since the early 1990s they have never been inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming folk and for as long as I’ve been aware of the TaskForce issues of age, race, immigrant status, and gender identity have been included in all of their efforts.

The end result of this survey will be a report that offers up definitive statistics concerning the discrimination and abuse transgender people may face in terms of housing, employment, medical care, public accommodations, and education. This survey also marks the first time violence against transgender people will be looked at through a lens that it solely interested in the ways that we, as a very diverse group, experience violence.

So I encourage all of you who live in the U.S. to fill out the form if you are a transgender or gender non-conforming person, or to forward it on to any friends who consider themselves to be transgender or gender non-conforming. The Taskforce is particularly concerned with documenting the experiences of transgender folks who often are invisible in daily politics such as rural transgender people and transfolk of color. Through bringing issues of invisibility to the forefront the TaskForce will be able to fully address the many ways in which transgender and gender non conforming people experience harassment and discrimination, as well as support and encouragement.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sexism in Politics

[Image Description: This is a photograph with the artist centered on a white canvas wearing a black suit jacket, white shirt, and blue stried tie. The artist's hand is in the foreground of the photo pointing towards a horizion, the artists' face follows the line of the hand and the artist has a visionary look. To the right the words "Yes We Can!" are printed in large blue font following the shape of the artist.]
Barack Obama has been my candidate of choice for quite some time, although I often refrain from discussing politics in public. Inevitably political discussions of national issues are doomed to enter an area that causes emotional disagreement. Most recently, of course, has been the re-emergence of sexism. Issues of sexism and misogyny played a huge role early on in the campaign, and there were multiple times when Senator Obama upset me by choosing words or policies that failed to be as complex as sexism is. Nevertheless, the misogyny of governments and politicians was brought forth only because one of the candidates was female. Should Hilary Clinton not have ran for President issues directly and most primarily affecting women would still have been discussed, but they would have been handled without the delicacy needed when there is a woman debating the issues on the same stage. In other words, no one would have said “feminist” “sexism” or “misogyny” without a female candidate. Which is ridiculous, as sexism still exists when women are not present. Indeed, Clinton’s presence helped to begin these discussions in many ways as women are often made invisible in politics and the ways that policies might affect women differently are rarely discussed.

This latest discussion of sexism, however, has completely baffled me and not because Obama is my candidate. As I said above, Obama has made sexist remarks, but this claim in particular is so depraved and convoluted that it completely baffles me. Obama’s comment is taken completely out of context, and it has been so successfully hidden from that context that it took me around eight hours to find the basic content of his speech (the video is put up by a McCain supporter, I'd avoid the comments section) so that I might judge for myself what the tone of the statement was.

Raised in Indiana, I heard the phrase “lipstick on a pig” used for everything from the difference between democrats and republicans to the very excuses we school-kids had for not finishing our homework. Here in New York, no one seems to know the phrase and I feel that, in part, the colloquialism may be part of the problem. Regardless of the fact that I firmly believe Obama meant the statement as a comparison between Senator McCain’s policies and President Bush’s policies, and that no misogyny was intended, I do believe it illustrates a general lack of awareness when it comes to sexism.

Any claim of sexism from the Republican Party isn’t worth addressing, as it’s clearly spurious and not being made from any space of real concern for women. After all, Senator McCain used this exact phrase to describe Senator Clinton’s health care policies back in October 2007 and May of 2008. Indeed, these very claims of sexism were mocked in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch where Amy Poehler's Hilary Clinton said she was "frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about," sexism. For Republican pundits, or the Clinton supports who threw "sexism" at everything that moved, the actual acknowledgment of sexsim as a still-relevant concern has never mattered. However, these claims are still important. After all, had there been someone forefront in the campaign with a more feminist consciousness such a gaffe would have never happened. This is especially true if there had been someone who had understood the history of feminist movement in the U.S. and knew about the forms of assault that women aligned with the movement in the 1960-80s faced which were incredibly vicious and verbal, where comparisons such as this were not uncommon. From such a history springs the automatic reaction we’ve seen, a reaction that is very sensitive to deprecatory remarks such as what this comment is supposed to be. I’m not labeling this reaction as un-thoughtful, either. Given the amount of sexist or anti-female comments made since Clinton announced her candidacy it’s clearly possible that a candidate could have made this comparison fully understanding the sexist nature of the phrase.

After listening to the speech in full I began to wonder if any of Obama’s female staffers had reviewed the script, or if any of his male staffers who have a background studying feminism had gotten to see it. Any political speechwriter should have seen the glaring mistake of using the phrase “lipstick on a pig” so close to the Republican female VP candidate’s use of the phrase “pit-bull in lipstick” as a self-descriptor. But of course…are there any female staffers who are interested in feminism? Are there any male or gender non-conforming staffers interested in the dismantling of misogyny and patriarchy? Or, like Obama, would they be ideologically aligned with the big issues but liable to miss the smaller instances of discrimination?

Here I don’t mean to point out a lack of intricate understanding as a definitive short falling. Obama has shown his dedication to many different issues that effect women and many issues that effect men and women. No one person is supposed to specialize in every single issue, it defeats the purpose of specialization, and presidents aren’t supposed to be solely informed on every issue, hence the importance of a cabinet. Moreover, strong women surround Obama at home, and I wouldn’t take his remarks or previous comments as coming from a place of misogyny. Rather, I think they come from a lack of complete focus on feminism due to a focus on other areas.

What the incident illustrates to me is that sexism still isn’t a central concern for Democratic or liberal candidates. This doesn’t make Obama’s campaign anti-female nor does it make him a sexist person. It does, however, bring Obama-supporting democrats down to a certain level where we realize that yes, even with Obama we will need to be vigilant. He has shown a lack of understanding on the intricate levels of feminism, and I hope he proves his commitment to women and feminism by appointing cabinet members who have focused more specifically on women’s issues. By doing this he will be acknowledging his lack and acknowledging the importance of centering issues of sexism in political discussions.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

All Around the Blogosphere

It’s the shame of every blogger, but the reality for so many of us, is that staying on top of blog rolls is incredibly difficult. I have about 40 blogs linked on the side here, and there are about 10 more that I know should be linked but keep forgetting to update – not to mention my attempts at reading multiple papers, magazines, and books. It becomes incredibly difficult for me to stay up to date on blogs. As much as I dislike these posts on other people’s blogs I’m going to point readers to a few posts by friends of mine that really spoke to me recently. Most of you, being far better people that I, will have already read these. But here they are:

I haven’t written about Tropic Thunder specifically because I haven’t seen the movie. I often choose not to see movies, buy books, etc because I’ve already decided I won’t enjoy them, and that’s as it should be! I read reviews or see trailers and am able to discern for myself if it’s worth my money. However, I won’t make everyone else listen to my uneducated opinions of media I haven’t seen/read/listened to. Which is why I’m linking to an essay by Lawrence Carter-Long posted to Disaboom on the treatment of the Tropic Thunder protests, and what media professionals and bloggers are missing in the discussion.

MissCripChick also wrote about the Tropic Thunder protests. Here she discusses why parallels to Civil Rights activism are not right and actually a divisive move. I have a friend who recently started compiling a list of articles that compare or include a quote comparing gay liberation to Civil Rights movement – he’s calling it “Gay is not Black”. What MissCripChick wrote hit a lot of things for me – both because I agree with what she’s saying and because I also agree that the realm of developmental or mental disability is still incredibly unknown to many people who consider themselves “progressive”. It’s very thoughtful.

Also from Ms. Crip Chick I found a link to a Blog Carnival around women of color and beauty. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but it sounds amazing. There are about 13 blog posts connected here, which range from discussions of hair beauty to issues of hair touching. Bloggers comment on colorism and dating inside, outside, and around the color line. I can’t wait until I have a moment to really read these.

On Black Looks this stunning post by Mia Nikasimo discusses being a transgender lesbian of Nigerian descent. She touches on the exclusion of transfolks within LGB communities, the exclusion of folks from the African diaspora in LGBT communities, and her pride in who she is. She challenges people to educae themselves and start dialogues on challenging subects.

In two related posts, bfp and Jess H. of Feministe and make/shift touch on organizing feminist movement. Jess H., who is posting her final guest blogger post, discusses her encounter with “unfolding feminism” online, and hones in on surface discusses of intersectionality. This is a very intense post with lots of outside links…I’m still working my way through it but already I’m getting excited by what she’s laying out here. bfp discusses how organizing intersects with capitalism, and the need to be accountable as feminists to a feminist movement: we need to believe in it. There’s a really fascinating analysis of Oprah’s investment in her girls school in South Africa here. She ends her blog with a list or organizations that are accountable (thank you!). Of note, one of these groups is INCITE! Which has also put out this press release on collecting funds for survivors of Hurricane Gustav. INCITE! is an amazing organization, all of their books have inspired me and provided me with insight I previously didn’t have. They do work that I believe in, and I would give to them now if I could.

As I read the INCITE! press release I thought back to Hurricane Katrina, and remembered how I failed at being aware of and understanding what was happening in Louisiana and surrounding areas. During that fall I was incredibly depressed – I dropped out of two courses at my college and I was fired from two jobs because I couldn’t get out of my bed. So I agreed with commentators who examined the racism and classism of the way Hurricane Katrina was handled and covered – but I didn’t know why I was agreeing. I simply went along with these analyses out of a sense that everything was already racist, so why not Hurricane Katrina, too. I failed to understand that simply saying “that’s racist” doesn’t address the actual issues of racism nor does it pinpoint the institutional ways in which racist systems function to create the situation we’re in. I didn’t have any facts or analysis of Katrina, just a general notion that it must be classist and racist, too. I didn’t even begin to have an understanding of the ways in which Hurricane Katrina affected people with disabilities or criminalized immigrant families, either. I’m just beginning to catch up on my understanding of everything that happened, and is now happening in the exact same area. I want to ensure that I don’t repeat my mistake of repeating without comprehending.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Genderbending with Strangers

I always thought that the most important part of my transition, now that I live full-time as male, would be keeping my male identity fully recognized at all times. Gradually, though, I’ve found that enforcing a male pronoun comes second to being treated with respect. That might sound maudlin, but I had equated respect with recognition of my male identity. Over time however I’ve learned to appreciate the way that people pay special attention to my partner and I when they read us as a female couple.* In the back of my head I equate this behavior with an attempt to show off how non-sexist or gay-friendly a person or establishment is, but I wouldn’t want to get snarky about the treatment. After all, if folks are going out of their way to be polite to female couples, that illustrates a knowledge that acceptance of female couples is rare – and the individual wants to be seen as accepting. The person my partner and I order burritos from goes out of his way to remember our names and order, and the lady I collect my laundry from clearly thinks my partner and I are the only lesbian couple in our neighborhood. If I wanted to create a close, long-lasting bond with either of these folks I would correct their perception, or perhaps they would correct mine. Being that we exist in a service-provider relationship, I really don’t care what they think and am simply pleased that despite the fact that both have seen us holding hands and kissing, and both refer to me as being female, they treat us incredibly well.

Now, to be clear, I never agree that I’m female. If someone calls me “ma’am” in person I give the individual an amused but baffled look, and my partner will use male pronouns despite the female pronouns of the server. However, neither of us takes the time to explain the situation, as we really don’t need to advocate for male pronouns when being male shouldn’t figure into how I am treated. The decision to stay in a genderqueer area when it comes to people who I don’t run into on a daily basis, correcting their perceptions only when it becomes an issue (i.e. bathroom use) was challenged recently when I went on one of my first trips to the beach as male. On my first trip in July my greatest fear was being read as female – and I went to great lengths to ensure that I was looking as masculine as possible despite the need to be covering my chest. I asked several friends – transgender and cisgender – about their feelings towards men who wore shirts on the beach, and all told me it was a fairly routine occurrence.

Except, of course, on gay beaches. I realized quickly that keeping a binder and a tank top on only made me look like a butch woman, as all the men on the beach had their shirts off. Moreover, almost all the women were topless due to an amazing 1992 New York City law that lets women go topless wherever men can go topless. As I walked along the beach on my first visit I scanned for other folks wearing shirts, coming upon masculine women again and again. Now, some of those women could have been transmen like myself, or even transwomen early on in their transitions. Regardless of how my partner or my friends saw me on this gay beach, I would be read as female by every stranger.

As we waited by the bus stop on the way to the beach recently two young women of color whom we had observed kissing and cuddling on the train earlier came up to my partner and I to ask for directions to the beach. Of all the people standing at the stop they approached us – and I think it’s both because my partner and the young women clearly shared a similar racial background, but also because they also saw us as a female couple. I’m male identified - there’s no question in my mind that if I genderbend I bend away from my primary identity as male. I realize as well that I choose to leave female spaces because of the way I felt, and that I have immense responsibilities in continuing feminist practices. I’m glad, though, that I was read as female by those young women because it did remind me of the possibilities of queer identity that used to excite me in college. Regardless of how these young ladies read me, or what they thought my relationship to my partner was, I’m glad that in certain circles my appearance can bend itself to fit many circumstances

After thinking about this for about a week I decided that if everyone on the beach was going to see me as female anyway, then why was I causing myself to be unhappy by covering up my body? I went through a long and hard fight to accept that I’m male. I also went through a long and hard fight to accept that I’m a man who doesn’t need extensive surgery or 100% assimilation in order to be male. If the people I come to the beach with – my partner, my friends, and myself – accept that I’m male then no anatomy is going to change that. If a stranger thinks I’m female, well so what. Strangers think many things about me and I can’t control or respond to every inaccuracy.

So these days I lay on the beach wearing my blue men’s board shorts but without a shirt. The many masculine women at the beach give me mini head-nods as they pass, and I always nod back. For strangers I’m temporarily back at that awkward space that’s neither male nor female, and I enjoy it. After all, I lived in that space for many years as a masculine woman, and am now living in it in a different way as an effeminate man.

* In contrast, when I am treated as female on my own, it only serves to remind me of why I am a feminist, and why there is still so much work to be done to address sexism.