Sunday, December 22, 2013

5 Ridiculous Gender Things

Here are five ridiculous things for no reason at all.  Some related to the holidays, some not.  All related to gender, of course.

5. The "Mancave"
This term seems to have become a buzzword that nobody (or at least all the straight guys on any episode of House Hunters ever) can stop saying.  Specs for a proper "Mancave" can vary, but generally include a large, preferably windowless, room in the basement; a gi-normous television; and a healthy assortment of pro sports team fan paraphernalia.  Admission limited to those with a penis.  Heterosexuality required.

4.  Teen vitamins "for girls" and "for boys"
This phenomenon is nothing new, but the marketing associated with these things is so offensive, I experience shock anew each time I see them.  First, there's this well-known brand, advertising support for "healthy skin" for girls and "healthy muscle function" for boys:

And then there's "Power Teen," with packaging reminiscent of Monster energy drinks, and that appear to feature something called "Feminine Complex" in the girls' version (the boys' version comes with blue instead of pink-themed packaging and does not include "Masculine Complex," but rather "BlemishShield Complex."  Very complex indeed).

One thing's for sure - I feel like I'm getting a feminine complex just from looking at this shit.  Maybe it's a good thing we all just learned that vitamins are slowly destroying our livers.  Maybe next they'll offer us "his and hers" cirrhosis medication.

3. Those "He went to Jared" commercials:
All jewelry commercials are pretty bad, but these take the cake - and since the holidays are nigh, it feels like every other commercial is one of them.  If there's something on TV these days more reliant on traditional gender roles to sell a product, let's hear about it.  The thing about these commercials that I can't get over - besides the sickening heteronormativity - is that lately, they've been advertising the weirdest things, like rainbow-colored diamonds and charm bracelets for adult women, which the commercials seem to suggest should be worn to things like formal work events.  Who is actually wearing this stuff?  Does anyone even want these things?  I can't even.

2. This totally unfortunate greeting card:

Not only is this card horribly transphobic, homophobic, and sexist, it also takes aim at the Wizard of Oz, which has so many delightfully queer elements, and is an all-time favorite movie of mine.  This card is utter sacrilege.  Don't worry, Lion.  You flaunt those curls.  I've got your back.

 1. The "what your guy is really thinking" category of magazine articles and self-help books:

See above re: sexism, heterosexism, and related topics.  Found in everything from Cosmo to all parenting magazines ever, these articles can advise you on how "your guy" wants to have sex, how "your guy" is adjusting to parenthood, or what communication styles work best for (you guessed it) "your guy."  Because god forbid you could just ask him.  Or that he would just tell you.  But that, of course, would then prevent anyone from marketing "men's secrets" to women.  There must be some major conspiracy afoot in which monogamous heterosexual relationships are valued by the culture at large more highly than other kinds of relationships and the people in said heterosexual relationships are subject to immense social pressure to conform to traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, which include the supposed inability of male and female people to properly communicate with one another without the aid of advice literature meant to help women read men's minds and which they must pay good money to obtain.  Oh wait, there is such a conspiracy.  It's called capitalism.  See also: patriarchy.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Gender Book
There's a gender-tastic new book coming out, hopefully in the spring, called The Gender Book.  The project is the work of Mel Reiff Hill and Jay Mays along with, in their own words, "a whole big beautiful community."  This "whole big beautiful community" of folks have contributed both content and financial resources to the book, which is being funded via an Indiegogo campaign (you can join in the effort HERE). 

How I did not know about this project until this week is beyond me - I must have spent this whole fall with my head under a rock - but I know about it now and I have to say that I am pretty stoked.  I have been waiting for something like this for a long time.

The aim of the project is to make gender theory and concepts like performativity accessible to everyone.  The book uses original artwork along with text to convey its message that gender and sex are complex, fluid, and culturally specific.  The authors explain in plain language - but without unnecessary over-simplification - how gender is constructed, how gender differs from physical sex, how gender socialization happens, how different people express gender identity, and so on.

The Gender Book will be important for lots of reasons, but I'm most excited because I often feel that the complexities of gender theory fall exclusively within the purview of academics.  I finished my master's degree in 2009 and since then have done relatively little academic reading and writing, but some months ago I pulled a feminist studies reader from the bookshelf and starting slogging through an article on gender identity and performativity.  Having not exercised my scholarly prose muscles for a while, I was a little rusty and found myself doing that thing where you read the same sentence over and over again without absorbing any meaning.  In the end, my brain warmed up and I was able to get through it and pull out the main arguments, but not without some effort.  I sat there wondering if I - a person ostensibly trained to decipher such texts - struggled with this, how on earth would we ever convey these ideas to the mainstream?  I was worried because this stuff is so important and yet almost everything written about it sounds like academics talking to each other and nobody else.  Academic work is important - it helps push the limits of our understanding of history, culture, power, and the assumptions we take for granted, but that work is enhanced when it is also accessible to everyone.  Projects like this invite everyone into the conversation.

The finished book will be available online for free in its electronic version, but if you want to get your hands on some hard copies, you can pre-order via the Indiegogo campaign (see link above).  The campaign runs until the end of December, so there are only a couple of weeks left to contribute.  The book is projected to be completed and ready to print by March 2014.  I'll be counting the days.

For more info (and more previews from the finished book!), visit:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Let's Speak Queer

The English language does not make things easy on genderqueer folks, or on anyone who prefers the gender neutral over the gender specific (as in "mailman" vs. "mail carrier" - they mean the same thing, but "mailman" rolls so easily off the tongue that despite thinking about this stuff constantly, even I have to take a second every time to remember to say "mail carrier" instead).  English pronouns are tricky.  The sir/ma'am binary makes addressing strangers feel like traversing a social etiquette minefield (at least any cashier/waiter/clothing store clerk who has ever encountered me seems to think so).  

As a matter of fact, I got called "ma'am" and "miss" about seventeen million times the other day while buying a sandwich (Yes.  Seventeen million times.  By precise count of the official binary-O-meter, patent pending.). It threw me off a bit because that happens to me so rarely.  I've let my hair grow out a little bit in the front and I was all bundled up for winter, so I'll blame it on that.  Still, it got me thinking about how we could address strangers using words less gender-charged than "sir" or "ma'am" without resorting to the less-than-polite "Hey you," which most people tend not to appreciate.  Here's my food for thought:

1. "Friend" (In place of sir/ma'am).
You go to order a sandwich and instead of asking you, "What are you having today, ma'am?" the cashier would say "What are you having today, friend?"  This is also helpful for catching the attention of someone whose name you do not know, i.e., "Excuse me, friend!  You've dropped your wallet!"  Added bonus: In addition to being gender neutral, the use of "friend" allows you to avoid the more condescending/potentially offensive "sweetie" or "honey-pie," the awkwardly formal "sir," and the age crapshoot associated with deciding between "ma'am" and "miss." 

2. "Good-lookin" (In place of he/him/she/her/they/them)
Unfortunately, I can't take credit for this one.  A good friend of mine came up with this brilliant idea as a means of talking about folks in the third person without using gendered pronouns (and getting to compliment everyone you're talking about to boot).  Example: "Joe is headed to the store.  Good-lookin is going to pick up a few groceries for us."  Plural use is also encouraged: "My relatives are coming in for a visit.  Good-lookin are the best houseguests ever."

3. "People" (In place of women/men)
I know this one seems obvious, but hear me out - this one is less about language itself and more about gendered language as a marketing ploy.  I cannot even explain to you how excited I would be to find myself at the pharmacy and suddenly see in place of all the bodywash "for women" and deodorant "for men" a display advertising "Soap!  For people!"  I mean, seriously, since when did male-bodied and female-bodied people start needing different soap?  When I was a kid, we had one bar of soap in the bathtub at a time.  Everybody used the same soap.  Everybody got clean.  This is apparently no longer the case for many people.  Now, I do understand that some people like soap that smells like coconuts and daisies.  Some people like soap that smells like industrial-strength laundry detergent.  Still others prefer a hint of fake mountain air.  Although soap-makers assume these preferences fall along gendered lines, none of this means we must have gender apartheid in the soap aisle.  I think soap companies should consider marketing their products in ways that would expand their target audiences.  For instance, a conventionally masculine guy who likes the delicate scent of lavender probably won't buy lavender bodywash "for women," but he might buy lavender bodywash "for people who enjoy lavender," thus expanding the potential consumer base for lavender soap.  I'll be waiting by the phone for that marketing consultant job offer from Suave anytime now.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homelessness Awareness Week: Queer Youth

Queer Homeless Youth
This week is Homelessness Awareness Week.  We all know that LGBT youth are at higher risk of being bullied, harassed, and attacked.  LGBT youth are more likely than their straight and cis-gender peers to suffer from depression or attempt suicide.  LGBT youth and young adults, and particularly trans adults are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished, and unable to access stable housing.  These aren't uplifting facts, but they're important facts to remember this week and every week because LGBT youth are also at higher risk of experiencing homelessness than their straight and cis peers.  When we're talking about homelessness, it's easy to forget about the kids.  We think of the homeless military vets, and we know disability plays a big role in homelessness.  We think of homeless families struggling with unemployment or lack of affordable housing.  We forget, or at least I do, that there are kids who are homeless and all on their own.  As many as 40 percent of those homeless youth identify as LGBT.  40 percent.  

There are a lot of reasons that young people find themselves homeless.  For queer youth, the reasons often tie back to bigotry.  It's not uncommon that kids who come out to their friends, families, or churches are either kicked out or made to feel so miserable about themselves that leaving seems like the only option.  All LGBT youth, homeless or not, have a challenging road to travel.  They might experience teasing and harassment from classmates at school.  They might experience exclusion, both purposeful and inadvertent, from activities and social events that are easy and welcoming to straight and cis kids.  If they come from a religious family, they might be made to think that who they are and what they feel is an affront to god.  Worst of all, they might be told by a frustrated, angry, or fearful parent that if they are gay or lesbian or trans or queer that they aren't welcome at home anymore.

Here are the facts:*

  • As many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.
  • 62% of homeless LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
  • 58% of queer homeless young people report being sexually assaulted.   
  • 63% of homeless queer youth cite conflict at home as the reason they are homeless.

That last stat is the most frustrating because it's the most preventable problem and often the most heartbreaking.  There was a story in the Huffington Post several months back written by a woman whose gay son had struggled with drug addiction in his teens, got clean, but then had a relapse as a young adult.  He overdosed and died.  His mother describes how for years after her son came out (he told her he was gay when he was 12), she and his father tried to make him change.  They were sure he could be straight, or at least not be gay.  They were a Christian family and she admits that she and her husband used their son's faith to manipulate him into trying to "overcome" his sexuality.  They told him, essentially, that he would have to choose between Jesus and being gay.  Their son loved Jesus and his mother now acknowledges the agony that this false dichotomy must have caused him.  In telling her story, the thing she says that is most important, I think, is that at the time, she and her husband believed they were acting out of love for their son.  They did not physically threaten or hurt him.  They didn't ask him to leave the house.  They told him they would always love him.  But they quietly, carefully wore him down until he came to the conclusion that because he could not be himself and practice his faith simultaneously, god must not want him.  He turned to drugs.  Much time passed when his family didn't know where he was.  Though they later reconciled and his parents came to embrace him - everything about him - with open arms, unfortunately, we know the story has a tragic ending.    

There are some problems that families can't always solve for their LGBT kids - being bullied at school, or making sure that school officials are sensitive and accepting to LGBT youth, or ensuring that there are education policies in place that reflect the experience of all kids - queer, trans, gay, straight, cis, and everything else.  Families can work to make those things better, but there's no immediate fix.  There is an immediate fix for feeling unloved, unwanted, or uncertain at home.  When children come out, families must make their homes a haven of safety, peace, and love.  It doesn't mean the topic can't be discussed, or parents can't ask questions, but parents can approach the situation respectfully and lovingly.  Don't bully or manipulate.  If you're having a difficult time, share that with your partner, or a friend, or adult relative.  If your child is a teen, you might be able to say something like, "I feel a little scared about this because it is new to me and I have a lot to learn, but I'm sure everything is going to be fine and we can do this together."  Anything else is probably a conversation you should have with another adult and not your child.  

Fake it 'Til You Make It
The research shows that LGBT youth who feel their families accept them are much less likely to experience negative outcomes like homelessness, drug abuse, suicide, and HIV infection.  The following stats reflect the experiences of transgender folks, but the trend holds true for those across the LGBT community:*
  •  Among trans people who have experienced family rejection, 26% have also been homeless.  
  • 48% of transgender folks who have experienced domestic violence report having been homeless.
  • Among those who experienced family acceptance, only 9% reported experiencing homelessness.

This will be hard for some parents, especially those who hold religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin, for instance.  In this case, fake it 'til you make it.  Seriously.  Fake it.  Because eventually, you probably will start to change your mind about things.  At the very least, you'll want to be part of your child's life as they become an adult.  You'll see that being happy for your child makes them happy.  You'll see that LGBT folks aren't really that scary.  You'll see that your child is the same amazing person they always were.  And you'll want your child to be around for that, I'm pretty sure.  

Center for American Progress, "3 Barriers that Stand Between LGBT Youth and Healthier Futures."

"Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey."

Upworthy, "INFOGRAPHIC: One of the Biggest Challenges Facing Gay People Isn't Marriage Equality."

Linda Robertson, "Just Because He Breathes: Learning to Truly Love Our Gay Son." 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Invisible Queer Buys a Drink

Here's another one for both the "Cases of Mistaken Identity" and "Your Unsolicited Commentary is Annoying the Shit out of Me" files.  We were at the Washington Capitals game last Wednesday when I was approached by a complete stranger apparently very committed to doing his part to enforce the drinking age.  I had bought two alcoholic beverages and was carrying them back to our seats when I realized I'd forgotten my ticket at the cash register.  I turned around to retrieve it and some guy got in my way and insisted on knowing if I was old enough to drink.  Still focused on getting back to my accidentally abandoned ticket, I said, "Yes, thanks," and tried to continue on my way.  He fell into step beside me and said, "Because you look younger than me and I don't think-..." I cut him off and said, "I'm twenty-nine, actually.  Thanks." He still wouldn't leave me alone, though he expressed surprise at my answer.  I couldn't tell if he was trying to recover from his obvious first assumption that I was a teenage boy, or that he still didn't believe me.  Either way, he looked genuinely shocked at how short I was with him.

Seriously.  WTF.  One, I had obviously been sold the alcohol already, meaning someone whose business it is to ask whether I am of age had already determined that I was, in fact, plenty old enough to purchase drinks.  Second, what was this guy planning to do about his false assumption that I was underage?  Make a citizen's arrest?  I'm just not certain what the point of this conversation was.  It felt like harassment.

I have no doubt that this entire situation transpired because the guy in question had read me as male and could not seem to re-calibrate to read me as female when I informed him that I was an age that wouldn't  make much sense if I were male-bodied (namely, my voice).  To me, this indicates, as I've said before, that people just aren't looking for queer folks.  People see males and females and expect these to be two (and of course, only two) easily distinguishable categories.  Being able to see people who bend the binary, including adult masculine-presenting female-bodied folks, requires expecting those people to exist.  I've found that many people do not have this expectation.  If I see someone who looks like they could be a boy or young man, but who is exhibiting signs that are incongruent with that assumption (i.e., wearing a wedding ring or using the women's restroom or openly carrying alcoholic beverages in a manner that indicates she or he is confident in her or his legal right to purchase and consume such beverages), I would not continue to assume that such a person is a teenager.  I'd assume this person is queer or otherwise gender non-conforming.  I'm still not sure that my "friend" at the hockey arena understood what I was trying to convey to him - that I'm an adult female, not an underage male.  And if he did get the message, he seemed offended that I hadn't provided this information to him more compassionately.  I'm so tired of this.  Can we revive the old "We're here, we're queer" slogan, perhaps adding the addendum, "And some of us are not teenagers.  So stop bothering me, you irritating asshole."  Yeah, I know, it doesn't rhyme.  I'll keep working on it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

LGBT: At the Intersection of T and L

A blogger at Village Q (which you should absolutely check out, by the way...) wrote a post this summer about her preference for the term queer over "GLBT" or its numerous variations.  Although this is something I've articulated myself on numerous occasions and though I have long embraced "queer" over "lesbian," somehow, this particular piece still hit me like a ton of bricks.  Yes, I thought.  There is someone else out there speaking my language.  Because that's how I frequently feel as I try to navigate a world that resists the kind of fluidity I'm seeking at every possible turn.  When I'm around non-queer or non-LGBT identified folks, I sometimes feel that while I'm fluent in their tongue, I'm speaking the language in a way that nobody understands, though many are eager to learn a few words here and there.  When I'm in a lesbian-dominated space, I still feel like the outsider.  I don't use the right words.  I can't quite grasp the dialect.  Though I've been thinking about this for months, it's been difficult to get this post written.  I don't want people to misunderstand.  I love lesbians.  I just think I'm something else, despite having difficulty at times articulating why.  

I'm often uncomfortable in lesbian spaces and in lesbian community.  Despite the fact that I am female-bodied and have a woman-identified female partner, I don't embrace "lesbian" as a means of describing myself.  Queer, yes.  Lesbian, no.  I don't feel a strong connection with woman-ness and "lesbian" has always felt all wrong whenever I've used it in reference to myself.  I also don't identify as transgender in the sense that I don't intend to physically transition my body, though I often feel a greater affinity and sense of identity with trans folks than I do with lesbians.  Still, my community is largely composed of people who do identify as lesbians.  The world at large (when not lumping me in with teenage boys) also tends to read me as lesbian.  This feeling of being at a crossroads of identities is what led to the creation of this blog.

The past two summers, my partner and I have spent a number of weekends in Rehoboth Beach, which is a pretty gay-friendly place.  There are a bunch of gay and lesbian bars and hangouts that we've occasionally dropped by.  I feel so out of place in these places.  I'm always there with my partner and with our friends, so it's always fun.  It's not a feeling of being out of place that is always unpleasant, but it does feel like there's the expectation from strangers and acquaintances that I'm part of what's going on - that I'm fluent, so to speak, in this language and culture.  And I'm not.  There are land mines to avoid, too - like my masculinity.  I'm not butch at all, but rather place myself somewhere on the trans-masculine spectrum in a way that feels very different to me than being a butch lesbian.  While not generally an issue, this is sometimes problematic among lesbians who prefer exclusively female company, or women-only spaces.  The assumption is that I'm on board with that and I'm not.  It makes me feel a bit like panicking. 

This is what feels problematic to me about "LGBT" as an acronym for the group of people that all of us queer, gay, trans, etc... folks are.  Where am I in there?  When I say it all together - "LGBT" it feels maybe OK, but take apart the letters and I'm lost.  I'm not L.  I'm not G.  I'm not B.  I'm not T.  Or at the very least I'm not only any of those things, though my life experiences reflect all four.  I've been part of many communities of both largely queer-identified and straight/cisgender-identified folks where I have not felt stuck at this particular crossroad.  I feel stuck at it now and it's caused me to do a lot of thinking about how to navigate this and how to be clearer about what I feel and what I want out of community with others in a way that's not off-putting to people who feel very differently about their identities than I do. I want to be in community with lesbians, but not at the expense of my sense of self. Like the Village Q blogger, the simple thing that feels most right to me is to clearly identify myself as "queer" rather than lesbian, or some variation on "LGBT."  The language of identity is complex and it's my hope that we can strive to become a more multi-lingual community - keep on talking.

Rethinking the Definition of "Cis-gender"

I recently came across the following piece from blogger Emi Koyama.  Although I find some of the ways she articulates this idea problematic, Koyama presents an intriguing call to rethink the definitions of both "trans" and "cis" and the divide we sometimes create between them.  These categories, along with experiences of both sexism and transphobia, are often more complex than we imagine.  

Find the full post here: "'Cis' is real - even if it is carelessly articulated"

What do you think?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Work Drag

Sometime ago I heard an acquaintance use the phrase "work drag" to describe another friend's professional attire (which was much more feminine than her regular not-at-work clothes).   Other friends in earshot, mostly lesbians and older than me, seemed deeply familiar with the term - and at the fact that the friend in "drag" wanted to go change immediately before joining us.  I got the meaning but was also fascinated by the concept - I'd never heard the work clothes conundrum described in this way.    

At the time, I was privately struggling with work and interview wardrobe issues of my own.  I recently wrote a post on gender codeswitching - the ways in which queer folks often must adapt their behavior to the circumstances they're in, either to protect their physical safety, or for professional or other reasons.  Clothing is a substantial piece of this, since clothes play a hugely symbolic role in our social interactions.  Regardless of sexuality or gender identity, everyone uses clothes to send signals to others - about what sports teams we favor, what kind of work we do, how much money we have, whether we're outdoorsy or bookish, or both.  We use clothes to convey personality - an outgoing person who likes to experiment and bend the rules might wear loud, mismatched colors together.  Someone who prefers to blend into the scenery might choose more muted colors.  In addition to conveying information with our own clothing, we also try to gather information by observing what others are wearing.  Uniforms often indicate an official role in public safety or health.  People often interpret dirty or torn clothes as a sign of poverty or homelessness but the same could also mean the person has a job as a painter, carpenter, or gardener - occupations in which fancy clothes would be inappropriate.

For queer folks, clothes can simultaneously be a haven of self-expression and our worst enemy.  In relation to work, I've found this to be true especially in situations where I have to dress up - interviews, fancy dinners, meetings with Important People.  I'm fortunate to have a job at the moment where relatively casual attire is the norm - jeans or slacks and a button-down shirt fits the bill for pretty much any day.

Dressing up is another story.  I don't mind it - and have actually come to enjoy it - when I'm dressing up for an affair with good friends.  They get me and aren't usually surprised when I show up in a tie or the like.  At a fancy work event, or worse, at an interview, what to wear requires a delicate calculus.  A couple of years ago, when I was applying for full-time permanent positions in earnest, I spent a lot of time agonizing over how out I wanted to be when going in for an interview.  I'm always out in the sense that I don't hesitate to refer to my partner and I don't purposefully hide things, but clothing also conveys a certain message.  If I go to an interview in a men's suit and tie, that's a very different way of being "out," especially in terms of gender identity than going to an interview wearing a more gender-ambiguous outfit.

I don't think this is an issue with simple answers - it's part of the world queer and gender-non-conforming folks must navigate.  For those of us who feel we're at a crossroads or identities, there are few places where the gender binary becomes more obvious than when it's time to dress up in nice clothes.  My partner is an attorney and has found that some judges are very particular about this.  Some essentially require female attorneys to wear skirt suits in their courtrooms (rather than pantsuits).  I've never worn a women's pantsuit and imagine I'd be fairly uncomfortable in one.  But a skirt suit?  No way.  I don't know what I'd do in a profession like that.  Where do those of us in the middle fit?  If a skirt is "dressy" for women and suits are "dressy" for men, what about the rest of us?  Who gets to be told they look nice?  So much of that is gendered.  When we're surrounded by other queer folks, it's easier.  In the wider world, not so much.


Monday, August 19, 2013

"I'm Not Racist, But": Colorblindness, Privilege, and Humor (or lack thereof)

"I'm not racist, but..."
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone start a story with that caveat and then go on to say something completely offensive and inappropriate, I'd be rich.  What gets under my skin most about this turn of phrase is that, at least in my experience, it is largely used by white folks while in the company of other white folks to give some example of their discomfort with people of color (or immigrants, or neighborhoods where the white population is very small or "in transition," or people for whom English is not a first language, and so on...) while still following the social rules of the colorblind era.  Even while following the "rules" of colorblindness, these kinds of stories convey a sense of uneasiness with colorblindness.  I can't help but feel when this happens that white folks are trying to create a space for themselves to say things that they know are a little (or a lot) inappropriate - things they wouldn't say if people of color were within earshot.  It makes me feel like white folks in exclusively white company believe themselves to be in a momentary White People Club and are testing whether those around them are also members.  It's white folks' code for "I want to say this really problematic thing that is questionably funny and almost certainly not OK, but you're white, too, so you won't mind that I say this."  But I do mind.

I am white.  As a result, despite the fact that I try on a regular basis to make clear that I am in fact not "colorblind," but actively anti-racist, white folks still try to tell me their "I'm not racist" stories so that I can be in the White People Club and, I can only imagine, assuage their fears that what they're saying might actually be racist.  But you know what I mean, I can almost hear them say.  I can't do it.  I don't want to be in the club.  It's easy for folks to say they're not racists when they define racism as outward expressions of prejudice, a la the KKK or Bill O'Reilly, but in truth we're all racists in that we were raised in a systematically racist society (see the following re: race and mass incarcerationsegregation in the cafeteriawhite privilegerace in the mediaAmerican perspectives on the "third world," and for good measure, I think it never hurts to re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X.).

We may strive as individuals to combat inter-personal prejudice and we may find overtly hostile expressions of racism like violence, name-calling or legal segregation repugnant, but we are steeped in a culture of bias and marginalization.  Escaping that isn't impossible, but it will take more than hoping that having a black president has erased systemic discrimination, or folks like Paula Deen tearfully begging us all to understand that despite what she said in the past, she's not racist.  We struggle with this.  I think the recent internet "meme-fication" of African-Americans being interviewed on local news stations is a prime example (Think Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, or Charles Ramsey).  These things have a tendency to go viral in a way that suggests we've lost track of the line between humor and mockery.  A while back, Slate posted an article called "The Troubling Viral Trend of the 'Hilarious' Black Neighbor" exploring this notion, and it's been a topic of discussion on NPR, as well.  What's most troubling about some of these "memes" is that the gravity of the stories is forgotten.  Dodson and Ramsey were both doing good deeds under frightening circumstances - Dodson by helping his sister fend off a rapist who had broken into their home and Ramsey by helping three trapped women and a child escape imprisonment in his neighbor's house.  Brown, of course, was the victim of a house fire.  As children we're taught that a joke is funny when folks laugh with you and cruel when folks laugh at you.  I get the distinct feeling that neither Dodson, Ramsey, nor Brown are laughing.

This post doesn't have a neat and tidy feel-good ending.  There's no easy way to wrap this up with some kind of simple, here's-how-we-fix-this message.  The obvious things to do are, for white folks, to abandon the "I'm not racist" caveat.  White folks or other folks in positions of privilege can also challenge these stories when people tell them.  There are lots of ways to express discomfort - I try to accomplish this by either refraining from laughing at jokes that aren't funny even if others are laughing, or explaining why these kinds of stories and jokes make me upset, or simply getting up and walking away to indicate I'm not interested.  But I've also engaged in things I'm not proud of.  After the Antoine Dodson auto-tuned video came out, I certainly watched it more than a few times.  I laughed.  I showed it to others.  I've learned a lot since then.  I've done some self-reflection about why I thought that video was so funny.  I've stopped watching.  I've stopped singing the song.  I think we could probably benefit from more interrogation of things like this both inter-personally and on a national level.  We divide things into rigid categories - racist, or not racist.  As individuals, most people do their darndest to separate themselves from any notions of outward racism.  Because it's much harder to identify, we rarely consider our contributions, whether explicit or implicit, to systemic racism.  We're easily offended when anyone suggests we do participate in such a system.  This isn't helpful and we can do better.  So let's stop saying we're not racist.  Let's stop taking it personally when someone points out that the past and present marginalization of people of color in the U.S. and elsewhere globally has something to do with us.  Let's forget colorblindness and set ourselves on a path towards actual equality.  They say admitting you have a problem is half the battle.  I have a problem.  I benefit from a racist system.  If you're listening, I'd love to tell you a story about that.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Invisible Queers: Age and ambiguity in the gender binary

I've mentioned before that I'm often mistaken for younger than I am.  Just a few years ago, being mistaken for a teenage boy was a common - sometimes near daily - experience for me.  More recently, that's lessened a bit, which has been a relief.  Still, it happens often enough to be frustrating, and the ways in which it happens lead to further frustration, since people's assumptions often come across as awkward at best and rude or insensitive at worst.

Just the other night, I was out with my partner and a friend of ours and our friend ordered a bottle of wine for the table.  The waiter said nothing to any of us about our ages when we ordered the wine, but when she was bringing us glasses, she hesitated to give me one.  As she was putting the glasses down, she looked at me and said, "Um, do you get one, too?"  Exasperated and totally out of patience for this kind of bullshit, I provided a rather curt response (which I later felt bad about - the result of my Midwestern upbringing and my sympathy for the fact that food service is hard, hard work...).  The waiter fumbled for words and ended up telling me I look young in an attempt to turn her faux pas into a compliment.  After my table-mates and I got over the awkwardness of the moment, my partner pointed out that her approach to the situation was not only awkward and offensive to me, but also had the backhanded effect of implying that my partner and our friend looked old (or at least too old to be carded).  All bad.  The unfortunate waiter could have easily solved any doubts she had from the get-go by asking everyone at the table to show ID when we had first ordered the wine.  Perhaps it's not common practice for her to do so, but given our waiter's confusion about me, doing so in that case seems like an obvious solution.

In other posts I've expressed frustration about this same sort of "mistaken identity" that I'm often the victim of.  I've been mistaken for my younger brother by friends of my parents, mistaken as the son of more than one co-worker by others, and mistaken for a "kid" in all manner of places.  I've come to realize that aside from the fact that there are usually simple solutions folks could employ to determine my status as an adult before inserting both feet directly into their mouths, the real reason I get angry when this happens is that people might more readily see an adult when they look at me were they expecting to see queer bodies in their midst.  When people look at me and see a boy or a "kid" it's not just because I look young or chose to wear a baseball cap or a t-shirt that day (plenty of other adults look youngish and wear hats and short sleeves everyday), but because they aren't looking for genderqueer folk.  It's almost hard to get mad at the individual people who do this because their brains are on autopilot.  They are looking for adult masculine (enough) men and adult feminine (enough) women.  Anyone who does not fit obviously into either category must be a child or youth.  Even people who know and love LGBT people don't always seem to have interrogated their assumptions on this.  People just aren't looking for gender non-conformity.  So where does that leave us gender ambiguous folk - especially those of us who have yet to earn the wrinkles and gray hair that come with age?  For the time being, it seems to leave us relegated to the margins of adulthood.  I used to largely ignore people who mistook me for a teenager or kid, but I've resolved to stop doing that in an effort to signal that not only do I exist, but that they should be on the look out for me and others like me.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Post-Wedding Industrial Reflections

I got married earlier this summer and it was lovely.  I wasn't a great sport about the planning process (and had great fun mocking all of the wedding-industrial pitfalls we encountered), but it was great.  For the most part, all of our my wife's careful planning went off just as we'd envisioned.  Still, there are always a few things that pop up right at crunch time that you realize you didn't think all the way through.  You can add these to the list I started earlier this year...

We kind of had flowers after all  
So, this falls into the category of not thinking things all the way through.  After our initial hullabaloo about not wanting cut flowers at the wedding, we started brainstorming about what else we could put at the center or the tables.  We came up with the brilliant (we thought) idea to fill mason jars with different veggies.  We felt very warm and fuzzy about this idea for many weeks.  We bought the jars.  We bought some rustic, twiney-looking ribbon to decorate the jars.  We talked about putting candles around the jars.  We talked about what vegetables should go in the jars.  We forgot to talk about what to do with the vegetables afterwards.  Our wedding was in Ohio.  We live in DC.  Neither of our parents live in the city where we had our celebration.  Most of our friends and family were from out of town as well.  Unless we were going to just waste a whole bunch of random vegetables, our idea was sunk.  We already had a purple theme going, so ended up having the (actually) brilliant idea to use lavender instead of veggies.  After being talked out of a plan to go to a lavender farm and harvest our flowers myself, I ordered some dried lavender bunches from a lovely old man who has a farm somewhere in Washington or Oregon (those two states blur together in my brain.  I seriously can't tell you the difference).  Thing is, you apparently need to notify folks when an order is for a wedding.  Or a set deadline of any kind.  A few days before we were set to leave for Ohio, our lavender had still not arrived.  I called the farm.  The sweet old man said "Ah, yes, I marked that order as shipped, but we had some problems that day and nobody made it to the post office."  Problems?  A whole slew of them apparently.  He described to me a perfect storm of bad weather, flat tire on the pick-up truck and somebody quitting their job all on the day our lavender bunches were supposed to be mailed.  Wonderful fellow that he was, he sense my distress and asked me if this was for a wedding.  I said it was.  He ended up overnighting us another box of lavender for free.  As luck would have it, both boxes arrived the same day.  On that note, if anyone needs any dried lavender, um, let me know.

Follow up on the name game...  
A friend recently asked me for advice on this, which motivated me to write about it.  This is another item in the "not thought all the way through" bucket. I think I've mentioned before that I typically go by a different arrangement of my birth name than the one I grew up with, though my parents and family still call me by my given name.  Which means I have two names, kind of.  Prior to the wedding, I had some anxiety about this - I couldn't decide which name to use on invitations, for gift registries, at the ceremony...  We ultimately went with what my partner and I were both most comfortable with, which is the name I use now.  I was worried my family would be confused.  As it turns out, it wasn't much of an issue at all and nobody really batted an eye.  Most of my family members are friends with me on Facebook where I use my "common use" and not my given name, so they knew who people meant when they called me "Sumner."  What I didn't think of pretty much until zero hour, was friends who had never known me by my given name.  It suddenly occurred to me that people would be using my given name - I assumed my dad would make a toast, for instance, and call me "Lindsay" and folks would think he was nuts, or talking about the wrong person, or something.  We had always planned to put a little note in the program explaining the name thing (that I am called by two names and that both are fine), but we had imagined it more for the benefit of family.  It turned out, I think, to be more for the benefit of friends.  Go figure.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Respect Trans

The DC Office of Human Rights has a campaign to improve general understanding of gender and gender identity, and in turn, the lives of trans and gender non-conforming folks.  You can find out more here:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Cost of Racism

Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman has been found not guilty of murder.  He was not convicted of manslaughter, either.  In fact, despite having shot and killed a person after an incident initiated by Zimmerman himself, the state of Florida did not convict him of any crime.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Martin and Zimmerman engaged in a scuffle or fist fight prior to the shooting.  About whether or not Martin hit Zimmerman or whether or not Martin had pinned Zimmerman to the ground prior to Zimmerman firing his weapon.  About whether it was Martin or Zimmerman who was heard calling for help.  The problem is, none of that is the point.  None of that is the story.

At its core, this is a story about an unarmed teenage boy traveling on foot who was followed and then approached by an adult male who was not only driving a vehicle, but was packing a weapon.  Let me repeat that because it may take a moment to really comprehend the gravity of such words: This is a story about an armed adult who confronted and killed a child walking alone at night.  

I can think of three main circumstances in which it is appropriate for an adult to approach an unattended child whom they do not know:
1) The child appears lost and is too young, or otherwise unable, to sort the situation out alone.
2) The child is in imminent physical danger.
3) The child's actions have the potential to place those in the vicinity in immediate bodily harm.

With a few possible exceptions, I can't think of any other reason why an adult would need to follow, speak to, or otherwise interact with a child or teenager they don't know, particularly in the manner that Zimmerman approached Martin.  Put yourself in Trayvon Martin's shoes.  You're seventeen years old, running an errand on foot at night.  It's dark out, but you don't see any reason not to be walking through the neighborhood on your own.  You notice an adult you don't know who seems to be following you in a car.  The further you walk, the more you're convinced this guy is definitely following you.  You might start feeling nervous, but convince yourself it's nothing and keep moving.  Maybe you pick up your pace.  The car keeps tailing you.  You're on a call with your friend and you tell them you think someone is following you and that you're going to get off the phone.  You hang up and the guy has gotten out of his car and is coming towards you.  You're angry, and probably anxious.  You ask why he's following you.  He asks what you're doing here.

When I was seven years old, my best friend and I were playing in my front yard.  We were approached by a strange man who asked us if we knew anyone named John.  Being little kids and eager to help and not sensing any danger, we said we didn't know anyone named John, but that we had a friend Jonathan who lived across the street.  The man left, but must have gone around the block because he came by again, from the same direction, this time to show us some pictures.  We didn't know anyone in them.  He came around the block a couple more times.  My friend and I were getting irritated with him because he kept interrupting our game, but we weren't particularly worried.  My parents were right inside and hers were just down the block.  But the last time the guy came around he said the magic words that set off all the stranger-danger alarm bells in our little second-grade heads.  He said he wanted us to meet him around the block at his car.  Thankfully, he walked away again and we ran directly into my house and told my parents, who called the police.

When Trayvon Martin was approached by George Zimmerman that night in February of 2012, he was seventeen, not seven, and likely very aware of the potential threat he was facing.  Martin was also a black male teenager, and had probably already experienced first-hand the realities of racial profiling - both by the police and by others around him.  I have no doubt that as soon as he became certain that Zimmerman was tailing him, alarm bells were going off loud and clear in Martin's head.  I have no doubt that he must have experienced an acute mix of emotions - fury, frustration, and fear.

Zimmerman and Martin may have fought.  Martin may have lashed out.  He might have indeed struck Zimmerman.  Given the situation - being a seventeen year old black male approached by a strange adult with a gun - no one should be surprised if that's the case.  Martin's options would have been pretty limited.  He could run or he could fight.  Either way, Zimmerman would still have a gun.  And a car.    

We don't know exactly what happened in the time between Zimmerman getting out of his car and the moment when Martin was shot.  But we do know what happened first and what happened last, and I frankly can't think of anything except racism that explains how an armed adult can confront an unarmed teenager, end up shooting and killing the child, and get away with it.  Those of us who had hoped for a guilty verdict spoke of "justice for Trayvon."  Truthfully, even if Zimmerman had been found guilty, there would still be no real justice for Trayvon.  He experienced the most egregious injustice there is - the senseless loss of his life.  But there might have been justice for all the kids that will follow him - we might have found comfort in knowing that this jury, and this system, would protect children and young people - all people - from assholes like Zimmerman.  I'm still processing everything that this verdict means, but I know what it means in terms of freedom - kids like Trayvon will have less of it going forward and guys like Zimmerman - grown men whose sense of masculinity and self-worth are found by "guarding" their neighborhoods with firearms - will have more.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Social Justice Dictionary

Ableism - Discrimination or prejudice towards people who are differently-abled, such as those who use a wheelchair or cane to get around, or who experience a developmental or mental challenges.  Ableism often serves to isolate able-bodied people and people who experience physical and developmental challenges from one another.

Cis-gender - When a person's gender identity matches her/his/their perceived physical sex.

Civil Disobedience - A form of direct action, protest, or activism that directly challenges the status quo by breaking a rule or law, usually in a non-violent manner.  Civil disobedience is often used to prevent something unwanted from occurring, or to draw attention to an injustice by prompting the mass arrest of those participating in the action.  Civil disobedience has been used by social justice groups in the United States for many years.  Examples include lunch counter sit-ins to end segregation in the South, anti-war activists blocking traffic or railways to stop delivery of military equipment or to otherwise disrupt regular life, or people occupying buildings or urban space to preserve things like affordable housing.

Colorblindness - Colorblindness is a dominant cultural ideology in the post-Civil Rights era that denies the significance of race in our lives.  Some people point to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, the legal de-segregation of the South, and more recent events like Obama's election to the presidency as evidence that race no longer matters in the United States.  When people say things like "I don't see race," they are engaging in colorblindness.  This is problematic because both structural and inter-personal racism continue to be facts of life.  Colorblindness prevents us from being able to meaningfully engage the problem of racism and come up with real solutions.

Heteronormativity - The assumption, either systemic or personal, that all people are heterosexual.  Asking a male acquaintance about his wife, or a doctor asking a female patient how she's preventing pregnancy without finding out if her partner is male are examples of heteronormativity.  Queer folks are likely to encounter heteronormativity at work, school, at the grocery store, while walking down the street, while planning a wedding, at the doctor's office, on the phone with utility service providers, while looking to rent or purchase housing, and while traveling.

Inclusive Language - Use of language in a way that fully reflects a diversity of human experiences and the contributions of many kinds of people to society.  Examples of inclusive language include the use of "firefighter" or "mail carrier" instead of "fireman" or "mailman"; referring to children as "kids" rather than "boys and girls"; saying "parents" in place of "mom and dad"; the use of "spouse" as a general term for married partner rather than "husband" or "wife" and the use of gender neutral terms like "people," "folks," or "friends" in place of "ladies" or "you guys."  In the context of religion, inclusive language can also mean referring to god using a mix of female and male pronouns, or without gendered pronouns at all.

Intersectionality - The idea that people have multiple identities and thus intersecting experiences of oppression and marginalization.  For instance, African-American women may experience sexism differently than Caucasian women because black and white women have different experiences of racism and race privilege, and as a result, may have different experiences of being female.  Intersectionality is important to acknowledge because posing situations as "women" versus "blacks," for instance (as was frequently the case during the Democratic primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2007 and 2008), serves to erase the experiences of women of color.

Labor Union - A labor union is a collective group of workers employed by the same company or organization who join together to improve or protect their working conditions, pay, and benefits.  This is also called democracy in the workplace.

LGBTIQQA - An acronym that stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, and Allies.  This acronym is more frequently used in its shortened versions, typically LGBT or GLBT.  

Love - That which binds us and simultaneously propels us forward to seek peace, justice, and community.

Pansexuality -  Refers to attraction to individuals of any gender expression and/or physical sex.

Privilege - Un-earned advantages accrued to people in positions of relative power.  Common examples include white privilege, male privilege, cis-gender privilege and heterosexual privilege.  Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" is a standard read for those wishing to better understand white privilege.  Similar lists have been generated by others to illustrate the effects of male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and so on.  Like oppression, privileges can intersect.  For example, a queer male person of color will experience male privilege differently than a white, straight male (see above re: "Intersectionality").

Queer - A term used by some gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people to describe their sexual and social identity.  Some prefer "queer" over "gay" or "lesbian" because it is not tied to the gender binary.  "Queer" can refer to both sexual orientation and gender expression.  In the past, "queer" used as a derogatory term, but has since been reclaimed by many LGBT folks.

Reverse-racism - This is not actually a thing.  Racism is both inter-personal and structural and is intimately tied to power, privilege, and oppression.  All people are capable of bias and prejudice, but because white privilege still means that whites disproportionately hold political office, high-paying professions, college degrees, and personal wealth in the United States, prejudices held by whites towards people of color carry different meaning than prejudices held by people of color against whites.

Transgender - A person whose gender identity or expression differs from her/his/their perceived sex or sex assigned at birth.  Alternatively, a person who transcends gender boundaries.

Xenophobia - Fear or hatred towards people of different national origins or ethnicity than oneself.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Music Monday: Coyote Grace "Summertime"

A favorite summer-themed gender-bending tune from Coyote Grace for your Monday morning...

"Girls Like Me (Summertime)":

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Pledge Allegiance to Justice

Today as on every 4th of July, I pledge allegiance to the Civil Rights movement, to women's suffrage, to queer rights, and to organized labor. I pledge allegiance to Gabriel Prosser, Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Leslie Feinberg and the multitudes of un-named fighters and sometimes, martyrs, for justice to whom we owe most of what we have today, and who give us inspiration to keep fighting for the rights and freedoms we are still denied. Whenever I hear the Star Spangled Banner, these are the people I think of.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Men Don't Get Manicures

When we were young, many of us were told by parents or other adults to learn to ignore hurtful words from others - that physical blows could cause us pain, but we could learn to withstand teasing and verbal harassment.  Sometimes that's true, but as bullying becomes a topic of national conversation and we begin to understand the impact of both bullying and social pressure on queer and gender non-conforming children, as well as kids from other historically marginalized groups, we're also coming to the realization that the old adage ending with "words can never hurt me" may be a falsehood.  Words can hurt.  They create and reify boundaries.  They give power to people who fill verbal space and produce knowledge and they create silences where marginalized people ought to have voice.

My partner and I are avid watchers of the show, Top Chef.  During the most recent season, the show aired a brief scene between a few of the final contestants making fun of one of their fellow (male) chefs for getting a manicure.  One of the other (male) chefs said, "Where I come from, men don't get manicures," after which everyone else laughed.  This comment was made jokingly, but it is a common and not ineffective means of policing gender.  I have not been able to get it out of my head.  The comment implies, of course, that a man who gets a manicure is not masculine enough - is perhaps not a "real" man.  He might be gay (with the implication being that gay men are not "real" men), or he might be trans (the implication here being that men who depart from normative masculinity might actually be women - offensive both to trans folks and to cis women, since the deeper implication is that to be a woman is to be less than a man).    

I've written before about my feelings on the kind of gender policing that comes in the form of cheap jokes about queer and transgender folks.  (Check out here and here).  I hate when comedians do it, I hate when sitcoms do it, and I hate when regular people do it.  Jokes at the expense of transgender and queer folks (or any other marginalized group) are almost never actually funny, especially when they're told by someone not identified with that group.  They win cheap laughs by going for shock value or playing on people's inner nervousness about gender.  But these jokes also carry power.  They are a form of upholding the status quo - for instance, male privilege and female subordination - by implying that the idea that a male-bodied person might want to engage in "feminine" behavior is laughable.  And yet people say these things all the time - jokes about men getting manicures, or women with too much hair in the "wrong" place, or women who look like men, or men who want to wear makeup.  Sitcoms are probably the worst offenders, but I hear these kind of jokes from ordinary people on a daily basis.  Rarely are they challenged.  People do not see these kinds of comments as problematic or transphobic - or more likely, few people see transphobia as problematic.  Rather, they see it as a source of humor.  It's not.  It is hurtful and offensive and threatens to silence any gender non-conforming people within earshot.  It also reinforces the message to children who are immersed in this strict binary that straying outside the bounds of their designated gender or sex won't be tolerated.

It also means that stuff like this becomes fodder for news outlets:

Men dressed up as women, or vice versa, is meant to come across as funny.  I'm not saying that people can't play with gender - I obviously think they should, but this strikes me as dehumanizing.  When we make mockery of trans and gender non-conforming people, we send the message to people that would do queer folks physical harm not only that the basis for their anger is legitimate but also that we likely won't intervene.  Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think most people actually feel this way.  I don't believe that most of those folks who believe homosexuality is a sin or who fail to understand the fluidity of gender actually intend bodily harm to queer people.  But some do, and our failure to consider the effect our words have on not just queer or marginalized folks, but on those who would do them harm, can have deep, and sometimes fatal, consequences.  There are ways to transform the way we talk to, and about, each other.  I challenge us all, the next time someone jokes that "men don't get manicures" or anything in that vein, to ask, "Why not?"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Gender Round-up

Some interesting gender-related stories from around the web in the past few weeks...

More indications that socialization might shape biology (see my previous thoughts on this in Gender and Sex 101, The Toy Binary, and Children and Gender):
NPR: "Young Girls May Get More 'Teaching Time' From Parents Than Boys Do"

Social pressures and challenges facing transgender youth athletes:
New York Times: "Changing Sex, and Changing Teams"

And this delightful gem rapidly becoming beloved by theory nerds across the web:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Help Make All DC Single Stall Restrooms Gender Neutral!

Calling all Washington, DC residents and visitors:  The DC Office of Human Rights requires that single-occupancy restrooms in the District be gender neutral.   Some DC bars, restaurants, and shops are already in compliance, but many are not aware of this requirement.  YOU can help make sure that everyone follows the rule!  If you live in or are visiting DC, check the bathrooms of the places you frequent.  If you encounter single-occupancy bathrooms that are marked "Men" or "Women," send an e-mail to, or call 202.681.DCTC (202.681.3282) with the name and address of the establishment and the date you were there.  

For more details, visit the DC Trans Coalition website:    


Saturday, May 11, 2013

"One Guy, Two Women"

Some people are possessed of a bizarre compulsion to engage strangers in awkward chit chat on the elevator. One of my early posts on this blog details a number of cases of what I call "mistaken identity."  In that post I alluded to an instance on an elevator when a woman I'd never met asked me if I was Justin Bieber.  This kind of thing happens a lot, particularly on elevators - not my being mistaken for Justin Bieber, which for the love of god I hope does not happen again, but strangers trying to make conversation that for whatever reason, seems to frequently relate to gender or age in some way.  I understand that because of my gender presentation, it's normal for me to get "sirred" or for folks to assume I'm a dude.  People also tend to assume I'm young.  What I don't understand is why people can't just make normal chit chat, like commenting on the weather or talking about how painfully slowly the elevator is moving.  Just this morning, my partner, a friend of ours, and I were in a hotel elevator when an elderly heterosexual couple got on.  Out of the blue, the husband glances briefly at us and says, "One guy, two women.  That's the benefit of being young.  When you get older, you'll settle for one."  His wife nodded and said, "You'll only be able to handle one."  I said nothing, since my voice would likely give me away as female, and I wanted, for some inexplicable reason, to spare this poor old man embarrassment.  My partner tried to fill the silence by saying something neutral, without encouraging him to say anything more.  You'd think the whole exchange would have ended at that point, but no - the old man keeps talking (and of course we're all still trapped together on the elevator.  See above re: painfully slow elevator rides).  The man takes stock of the group again and adds, "Good-looking women, too."

We got off at the ground floor, and were still awkwardly stuck with this couple as we all made our way through the lobby, out to the parking lot, and finally, to the safety of our car.  We tried to deconstruct the conversation.  Our friend had not realized the man was referring to me when he said "One guy, two women," and had been extremely confused as a result.  We considered how this man arrived at the decision that his comments were appropriate ones to make to strangers.  Male bonding attempt?  Obviously he had assumed that I was not only male, but also much younger than I actually am - was he joking with me the way one jokes with a teenage nephew or grandson?  Still, we returned each time to the same question I always have in these kinds of situations - no matter what his assumptions about who or what I am, why say anything at all?  What compels people to joke like this with strangers?  Even if I was a teenage (or twenty-something, for that matter) guy, that whole conversation would have still been awkward and uncomfortable.  It's not nice.  It's not particularly funny.  It makes me wonder about people who can't seem to filter their thoughts well in public.  Like the folks who ask interracial families if their kids are adopted in the grocery check-out line (or worse - where they "got" the kids and how much it cost), or the folks who ask strange women if they're pregnant, or the lady who wanted to know if I was Justin Bieber.  It seems that sometimes otherwise mature, grown people just say the first thing that pops into their heads without regard for either logic or boundaries.  How someone else's family was formed is none of your business.  Whether or not a stranger is pregnant is also not your business.  And on what planet would Justin Bieber possibly be riding a random elevator by himself at a conference center outside Orlando, FL while wearing someone else's nametag?  Use.  Some.  Sense.  Common sense.

So, for the record: if you're a random stranger, as follows are the topics I am open to discussing with you:

  1. The weather.
  2. The location of the nearest gas station/restaurant/coffee shop/highway entrance/random landmark
  3. Elevator speed.

I am open to a limited number of topics beyond the above-mentioned so long as they do not relate to any of the following:

  1. My/your/the general public's dating or mating habits.
  2. Justin Bieber.
  3. My age (or your uninformed estimation of such).

Now that we've got that cleared up, I look forward to spending our next elevator ride together deep in blissful conversation about those rain clouds rolling in.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Gender Codeswitching

NPR has this great new blog called Codeswitch ( that explores peoples' different uses of language and other forms of communication based on cultural context.  Last week, the blog's writers posted a fascinating piece on the use of a gender neutral pronoun, "yo" among youth in Baltimore (read the whole story here).

But the Codeswitch blog as a whole is not limited to language.  It expands on the linguistic notion of "code-switching" to reflect the way people navigate identity and culture in a diverse and complicated world.  In the blog writers' own words, "We're looking at code-switching a little more broadly.  Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time.  We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of own identities - sometimes within a single interaction."  This interpretation of codeswitching got me thinking about other means of expression and communication beyond language - particularly the ways in which genderqueer and transgender folks might codeswitch in different situations either to fit in, or be read correctly, or out of self preservation.

I know that I sometimes alter my gender presentation or my gender expression to fit certain situations - particularly ones in which I feel at risk of being harassed or bothered.  I do this frequently in public restrooms.  When I enter a women's room in a strange place - especially when I don't have a female friend or ally to accompany me - I pitch my voice higher, narrow my stance, zip up my jacket so folks can't see that I'm wearing a men's button-down shirt.  I pull my hair carefully to one side - out of my eyes, and try to smooth it down to make it look like I comb it (which I do not).  After I wash my hands, I hold them carefully and delicately away from my body, and over the sink until I locate the hand dryer or paper towel dispenser, which I use, also carefully and delicately, even though my instinct is to wipe my hands on my jeans and saunter out the door.  I smile and greet people as I enter and exit, so as to convey that neither I, nor they, are in the "wrong" place.  I essentially try to act out my interpretation of femininity as best I can.  Sadly, on my part, this may come across as more of a poor imitation of an effeminate gay man than an approximation of a short-haired modern lady.  Either way, I hate it, but acting this way makes me feel safer and more in control of my environment when I'm in a public restroom, which is a place that causes me significant and regular social anxiety.

"We're looking at code-switching a little more broadly. Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction." - From NPR Codeswitch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity

I'm not the only genderqueer person I know who codeswitches in this way.  My partner and I recently went to see musician Tylan Greenstein (from the group Girlyman) perform a solo show.  I don't know exactly how she identifies herself, but Tylan has an undoubtedly masculine gender presentation.  During her between-song banter she described her own women's bathroom woes, particularly at rest stops while she's on tour.  As she tells the story, she pulls a neon pink plastic barrette out of her pocket and clips it in her hair.  She looks ridiculous, but she says, "When I put this on, I suddenly have no troubles at all."  She's half joking, half serious.  And I completely believe that if she's actually tried this, it works.

On the flip side of the women's bathroom is the scenario in the men's clothing section of the department store, which I also frequent.  Several friends and I who identify as queer or somewhere on the transmasculine spectrum, have learned the ins and outs of shopping for clothes alongside cis men.  We've joked that men don't take a lot of time perusing the options in the sock and underwear aisle.  They know their size, they don't care much about the color.  You go in, grab a package of undershirts and boxer briefs and get out.  Lingering there is not considered socially appropriate.  If you're trying on jeans in the dressing room on the men's side of the store, you don't make eye contact.  You don't talk.  In these situations, I have no idea if I'm being read as a teenage boy or a 30-year-old lesbian, but either way, I do almost the opposite of everything I do in the women's bathroom.  I widen my stance, don't smile, don't talk, and try to mess up my hair as much as possible.  I'm more personally comfortable with this presentation of gender, but the situation always feels charged anyway because I am still aware of my crossing into space that is not supposed to belong to people like me. 

Gender is like language in many ways.  It is one of the primary ways that we communicate to others, both verbally and not, how we wish to be perceived and where we think we belong.  Gender codeswitching takes place in many more places than in public gender-segregated space.  We codeswitch with our families, with our friends, at work, on the phone with electric company, at school, and with romantic partners.  Gender queer and trans folks, in particular, must often be fluent in the total language of both mainstream femininity and masculinity in order to function and sometimes to evade harm.  The need to codeswitch can cause queer and trans folks a certain level of anxiety and possibly paranoia that cis folks don't experience, but I also hope that the more we explore the boundaries of gender and blur the edges, the sooner we'll arrive at a point where gender codeswitching can be purely for fun, rather than for survival.    

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Surviving the Wedding Industrial Complex

I'm getting married in one month.  My partner and I are pretty excited about it, though for a long time, we thought we would never get married or have a wedding because we feared the wedding industrial complex.  But in the end, we liked the idea of celebrating our relationship with our family and close friends.  We went to our siblings' and cousins' and friends' weddings and they were all like mini family reunions, or friend-unions, with food and drinks and happy dancing, so we finally said screw it, we want a party, too, and got down to planning.  In doing so, we have learned the following about weddings:

1. Balloons.  You must have balloons accompanying the sign announcing your wedding at the hotel where your guests are staying.  Signs without balloons are insufficient.  Guests are incapable of navigating a modest sized hotel lobby without the guidance of balloons.  If you do not have balloons, your guests will become confused and may leave the hotel believing themselves to be lost.  Hotel staff agree that this is non-negotiable.  You will be permitted to choose the color of your balloons.  

2. Name.  You should know what name you plan to use in advance.  It is not advised to have multiple names.  If your family and friends know you by two different names, you must reconcile this prior to your partner calling to book various wedding vendors.  If you become upset at any confusion caused by lack of clarity around which name to use for which purpose, you should become irate and immediately blame your partner for not reading your mind and knowing your every thought at all moments.

3. Flowers.  The belief that a wedding cannot occur without flowers is prevalent.  Some vendors seem to be under the impression that when you say "we do not want flowers," you mean "we are too cheap to buy flowers and we would be willing to consider flowers if they are not very expensive."  These people are not exhibiting good listening skills.  If you explain to a vendor that you don't want flowers and they respond by nodding and jotting down "$500 budget for flowers," you should not hire this person.

 4. Heteronormativity.  If you have a female voice, everyone you talk to over the phone will ask who is the groom.  Even when you are both standing there in person, people will ask about the groom.  This is called heteronormativity.  It is a common problem in the wedding industrial complex.   You will also encounter this problem pretty much everywhere else ever.

5. Vegetarian Food.  Many people will try to impress upon you the virtues of either the portabella mushroom or something called "deconstructed lasagna."  If you are not a fan of portabella mushrooms or if you do not understand what was wrong with intact lasagna, you will prove challenging to some vendors.  Luckily for you, the local foods movement means you will be able to find a trendy, earth-crunchy caterer who is aware that the only substitutes for meat in a meal are not piles of cheese or giant fungi.  Even in the midwest this miracle is possible.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gender and Sex 101: There's No Such Thing as Male and Female

Gender is constructed
The single biggest idea that blew my mind in college was the notion that not just gender, but sex, too, is socially constructed.  I had been previously well-versed in the now familiar idea that sex is biological and gender is social.  This idea is simple.  People are born with a biological sex, male or female.  They are then socially conditioned in ways that reflect cultural expectations about how male people (men) and female people (women) should act.  Certain behaviors and characteristics are associated with masculinity, and some with femininity.  These behaviors are not necessarily biological or the same across cultures, but are absorbed by virtue of growing up in the place we're from and around the people in our communities.  I was developing a clear sense that gender was quite fluid, possibly existing on a spectrum and that anyone who said there could only be two genders was either lying or didn't know any better.  Still, I believed there were only two biological sexes.  I had no reason not to.

Sex is constructed, too
During my senior year of college, I took Sociology of Gender and learned that biology is just as complicated and confounding as all the expressions of gender and self that the human mind can produce.  I learned that while we may interpret our bodies as representing a biological binary, nature has other ideas.  Science has associated certain physical traits with biological maleness and femaleness.  When babies are born with penises, we call them male.  When they're born with vaginas, we call them female.  But that doesn't mean that everyone comes ready-made with the exact "right" set of those physical features that places them squarely in one category or the other.    What floored me most was what happens when science, or medicine - which is stuck like a stick in the mud on the notion that binary sex is a biological fact - is confronted by people whose bodies defy the sex binary.  The idea that all people are either male or female, and that these categories are strictly defined by specific body parts, is so ingrained that even when the medical field is faced with a newborn infant whose penis is "too small" or whose clitoris is "too big," doctors will surgically alter those infants to make them fit in one or the other category.  There's no room for a third (or fourth or fifth or sixth...) option.  There's no waiting for the infant to grow up enough to state its own preferences.  These are medical doctors presented with what appears to be a medical problem - a child that is not clearly male or female.  Instead of responding by considering whether we were wrong about there being only male and female sexes, we make those children become male or female.

I recently read a news article about small children, gender, and play in which a psychologist was quoted as saying that boys are "born with stronger connections in the area of the brain where visual spacial abilities are centered, and girls have stronger connections in areas where language and fine-motor skills are centered."  That statement struck me as both problematic and just plain wrong.  I happen to have spent a fair amount of time looking at studies on early childhood brain development and actually felt pretty confident that babies are born with most of their brains' neurons in place, but not the synapses - which are in fact the connections between neurons that form as we grow and allow us to engage in complex human behaviors.  My understanding was that while tons (actually, most) of a child's synapses, or connections, are formed very rapidly in the first few years of life, they're not really on the radar pre-birth or even at the moment of birth.  In other words, I wondered what the eff this psychology woman was talking about.  What did she mean that boys were born with more of certain connections and girls with others?  I started to doubt myself, since after all, this was a trained psychologist being cited in a major national newspaper, so I looked up some of the newborn brain stuff again, and not to toot my own horn, but from all I can tell, I was right.  Some synapses are in fact formed at birth, but very few - mainly the ones dealing with basic new baby functions - breathe, eat, sleep, poop.  I'd say it's a stretch to say all boys are "born with" more brain connections related to spacial abilities and all girls are "born with" synapses related to language and fine motor skills.  Maybe the psychologist means that baby boys' brains and baby girls' brains have different measurable capacities for certain skills, but I'm pretty skeptical about that.   But this idea persists - that boys and certain "natural" tendencies and girls have others.

"You know it's all around you, but it's hard to point and say, there"
Around the time they begin preschool, many - though not all - girls start demanding head-to-toe pink outfits, princess Barbies, and all things related to kittens and unicorns, while many - though not all - boys demand trucks, blocks, sports gear, whatever...  Even the most gender-conscious parents sometimes throw up their arms at this stage and wonder if biology really does play a role here.  They see all of the things they've done to challenge gender stereotypes and can't understand why their children haven't followed suit.  Gender is socially constructed, but it is a powerful construct and it permeates our every interaction and relationship.  Children don't just interact with their parents - they are exposed to gender norms everywhere they go and everywhere they look.  They absorb all of this.  Sex and gender norms are pervasive, but nearly invisible to most folks most of the time.  The point is that people witness the phenomenon of young children acting these norms out and chalk it up to biology.  That psychologist from the news article is probably right that there's evidence that later on, young boys do have more synapses related to spacial awareness and girls more synapses related to language, etc... but since synapses are formed (or not) as a direct result of infant and early childhood experiences, couldn't we also conclude that boys have greater spatial skills because we encourage boys to play with a lot of blocks and balls?  Couldn't we conclude that girls' greater language and fine-motor skills are the result of encouraging them to play with dolls and arts and crafts rather than some biologically-determined capacity they were born with?  

"Natural" Facts
Facts are not the only things that shape science.  Social pressures and norms shape science, too.  The subtitle of this post is misleading because there is such a thing as "male" and "female" - but these categories exist because we have named them so, not because they are biologically undeniable categories.  All throughout history, we have believed things that we now dismiss as awful - things that  were once accepted by the medical community as scientific "facts" - that women are less intelligent than men, that removing the uterus cures "hysteria," that people of color have smaller brains than caucasian people, and that African-descended people are "naturally" better athletes than people of other ethnicities.  For our generation, and maybe another few generations left to come, perhaps it's the idea that there are only two biological sexes, male and female, that one day our great-great-grandchildren will remember with shock and disbelief.