Monday, December 19, 2011

Unconscious Bullies

Blatant bullying and harassment of LGBT youth is an obvious problem.  For a long time, the prevailing wisdom on bullying has been that it’s a fact of childhood that cannot and perhaps should not be controlled by policy.  This thinking is reflected in the widespread beliefs such as “boys will be boys,” a harmful notion that has long sanctioned violence and harassment among children and absolved many boys (and the adults around them) of responsibility for their actions.  Such “wisdom” has left many LGBT and other historically marginalized youth completely alone in the face of their tormentors.  For some this has meant having to endure day after day of verbal or physical harassment.  For others it has been a death sentence.  Tragedy, however, presents us with certain opportunities.  It appears that many educators and families have begun to reach out and grasp the present opportunity to make schools safer, and life better, for queer children and teenagers. 

This is good.

I hope, though, that our recent focus on schoolyard bullying does not blind us to the ways in which LGBT youth (and adults) are subliminally and constantly bullied in many situations other folk might misconstrue as “safe.”  

Let me further elucidate my point.  I know many adults who would self-identify as allies to LGBT people.  These are people who would mourn the suicides of gay youth, strongly support anti-bullying legislation, affix rainbow bumper stickers or HRC equality decals to their cars, favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, and love gay high schooler “Kurt” from Glee.  However, many of these same people engage in the subliminal bullying of queer people on a daily basis.  For instance, how many of us have heard well-meaning friends joke that someone’s adorable baby boy is going to “get all the ladies” when he grows up or that a charming baby girl will “have the boys lined up around the block”?  How many of us have said anything to counter the assumptions implicit in such jokes?  

I always have the same question when I hear these kinds of comments – What if the baby is gay?  What if the baby is trans?  We might not know the answers to those kinds of questions for some years, and while an infant or toddler may not completely understand the things adults say, they can and do absorb the subliminal messages, which nearly always reinforce conventional gender norms. When we joke that a baby boy is going to be a “ladies man” when he grows up, we send the message to those around us that this is normal – that it is good for men to date women, and that it’s abnormal and undesirable for them to date men.  These messages are compounded every time children see a television show that pokes “benign” fun at the notion that a character might be gay, or every time they are told that certain clothes or certain colors or certain toys are for boys and others for girls and never the two shall mix, or every time a relative asks a teenage girl if she has a boyfriend or a teenage boy is he has a girlfriend without thinking that these may be the wrong questions.  

People might say I’m being too sensitive or too critical, that I’m pursuing political correctness to a point that limits even light-hearted banter.  I am sensitive about this issue.  I am critical.  Queer youth are significantly more likely than heterosexual youth to run away from home.  They are more likely to struggle academically, abuse drugs, and experience low self-esteem and depression.  LGBT youth attempt suicide at four times the rate of their non-LGBT peers.  Why? The isolation and depression experienced by queer youth is often the result of physical bullying, but it is also the result of uncertainty and fear about their identities and their futures in a world that, when not outwardly hostile towards them, constantly fails to affirm them in the way that heterosexual youth are affirmed.  Queer youth fear physical assault at times, for sure.  But they also fear disappointing their parents.  They fear losing friends.  They fear being judged by teachers and peers.  They fear loss of respect from adults they value.  They fear being lonely.  I would wager a bet that these fears preoccupy LGBT youth into the wee hours of the night as much as fears of more “conventional” schoolyard bullying do.  

The social and familial pressure to be “normal” exerts itself on queer youth whether or not they are subject to physical and verbal torment.  Just like racism is not solely defined by blatant acts of hatred such as those perpetrated by groups like the KKK, and sexism is not solely defined by acts of deliberate discrimination or physical harassment against women, homophobia and transphobia are not solely defined by physical and verbal abuse.  Things like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and the gender binary are rooted in our institutions, and in deeply ingrained cultural biases.  This makes these “isms” rather difficult to pinpoint and fight against, but it also means that every individual has the power to stand for justice.  Everyone is complicit, so we all have the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences and begin to eliminate subliminal racist, sexist, and heterosexist behavior from our lives. Each of us must reflect on the ways in which we have been an unconscious bully of LGBT persons.  Each of us can become a better ally and we have the power to do it immediately.  

Being “politically correct” (what an absurdly sterile term to describe manners of speech and behavior that reflect respect and caring for all people) is not my end goal.  My agenda is the creation of a truly safe and affirming world in which all young people can discover themselves safely, and with the joyfulness that should accompany youth.  So the next time someone says that your baby girl (or your niece or godchild or friend’s daughter...) is going to have a million boyfriends someday, it may make you uncomfortable to say, “Or girlfriends,” but when she  grows up and tells you she was able to make it through because she knew you were always on her side, I bet you’ll say it was worth it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gender makes me paranoid

Actually, let me revise. It's not gender per se that makes me paranoid - it's homophobia and homophobia's close-yet-evil-cousin, transphobia. There are the obvious reasons why bigotry against queer folks makes my skin crawl - like the fear of verbal and physical violence or the disillusionment that comes from being a citizen of a country that openly refuses to extend to you all of the rights that other citizens enjoy.

And then there are the reasons why homophobia and transphobia cause me such great anxiety that while possibly obvious to other queer folks, may not be obvious to even the most progressive-minded ally. I hate homophobia and transphobia because they limit my ability to give others the benefit of the doubt. Despite my ridiculously optimistic nature, I find myself expecting the worst from people and hoping for the best instead of expecting the best and preparing for the very rare occasions when the worst happens. In my last post, I touched on my love/hate relationship with travel through the rural U.S. This anxiety stretches beyond rest stop bathrooms. Earlier this fall, my partner and I spent a weekend in rural Pennsylvania where I had a mild allergic reaction that turned out to be nothing, but for a few tense moments, we debated whether and where to take me to a hospital and worried what would happen when we got there. It may be that hospitals in rural southern Pennsylvania and the folks who work there are totally open-minded and wonderful and our concerns unfounded. But I was fearful of the experience - not necessarily because I expected the very worst, but because I expected the very awkward and extremely unpleasant. Gender makes me paranoid.

My paranoia extends to the economic realm. I'm currently what I would call "under-employed." I work full-time, but I say I'm under-employed because although I am doing work I enjoy for a worthy movement, I'm not paid near what my work is worth because I am stuck in some kind of intern limbo, or "interngatory," as I like to call it. I digress. The point is, my under-employment spurs me to be in a near-constant state of job application. Over the past fourteen months, I've had a number of interviews after which I've been told that I was very close to being hired (second choice in at least one case), but have been offered no permanent employment. This may be due to no other reason than that the economy sucks and there are literally hundreds of individuals with similar qualifications to mine applying for every job I've sought. Still, I can't shake the feeling that people are put off by my gender ambiguity when I show up for interviews. My partner, Barbara, and I have had a few conversations about this. I hate feeling this way because it makes me bitter and mistrustful of others, and may be totally off-base. But racism and sexism frequently happen in employment application processes because people like to hire folks who are similar to themselves. Why would heterosexism and transphobia be any different from other forms of institutional discrimination in this regard? I imagine that seeing an openly queer, gender non-conforming person show up for an interview makes some people uncomfortable, even if they would never voice that discomfort. I worry that it's easier for prospective employers, who are almost universally cis-gender and largely white and straight, to establish a rapport with cis-gender applicants, even if they can't quite place the reason. I worry that though some employers say that they welcome LGBT applicants, deep down they don't want someone who looks like me representing their organization. Gender makes me paranoid.

Unfortunately, "paranoia" doesn't fully reflect the ugly reality that I'm not actually paranoid. Paranoia implies a tendency towards hyperbole and irrationality on the part of the paranoid. I'm not exaggerating, nor do I think I'm irrational. My fears are based not just on my experiences, but on queer people's collective experiences. Consider the following:

  • Transgender individuals are unemployed at twice the rate of general population. Trans folks of color are unemployed at startlingly high rates. As of 2009, 26 percent of black trans folks could not find work.
  • 97 percent of transgender folks surveyed in 2009 reported being harassed or mistreated at work. NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT.
  • 9.4 percent of lesbian-headed families with children live in poverty as opposed to just 6.7 percent of heterosexual married couples with children. This gap is even more pronounced for elderly lesbians compared to elderly heterosexuals.
  • Between 22 and 64 percent of transgender individuals reported annual earnings of less than $25,000 per year in 2007. In 2009, 15 percent of trans folks surveyed lived on an annual income of $10,000 or less per year - twice the rate of the rest of the population.
  • 83 percent of heterosexual report being in good or excellent health. Only 77 percent of people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and only 67 percent of people who identify as transgender can say the same.
  • Queer folks are significantly more likely than heterosexuals to experience psychological distress in their lives.
This stuff doesn't make me paranoid. It makes me freaking pissed off.

You can find all of the stats referenced above and more by checking out the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2009 survey here and the Center for American Progress here and here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cases of Mistaken Identity

Any gender non-conforming person has experienced instances of what I like to call "mistaken identity." For me, this usually occurs when I get "sirred." Usually being "sirred" is followed by that awkward moment when people hear me speak and then waiver back and forth between wanting to call me ma'am or sir. Their anxiety over the situation is so great that they keep apologizing, fishing for my forgiveness for their astonishing faux pas. At times I find their horror rather amusing. They act as if I should be just as shocked and horrified as they are that they thought I was a sir when in fact I have ma'am parts. They don't seem to consider that perhaps I am dressed the way I am and have my haircut the way it is because I don't mind being a sir sometimes. At a minimum, given the preponderance of mirrors in American society and that it is usually apparent to these folks that I don't suffer from blindness, you'd think the assumption would be that I've seen myself and understand that yeah, I look kind of like a dude, and thus am not shocked when other people think so too. At any rate, as part and parcel of their apology, they press for the correct answer with an increasing urgency ("Is it 'sir' or 'ma'am'? Is it 'sir' or 'ma'am'!?") that is totally unsatisfied by my insistence that either is fine. The frantic questions turn into probes for explanation, either for my appearance or their reaction to it - usually centered around the fact that people seem to think I look young ("Are you in high school?" "No." "College?" "No."). By this time, the conversation has usually gone on too long and I'm getting annoyed. It seems that my outward appearance is at times so confusing to others that they insist on inviting themselves into a conversation with me about my life without realizing that their insistence on continuing the conversation is far more rude than their initial "mistake," which I already informed them did not offend me. I'm a friendly person. I like people. I like to tell stories. I like connecting to things that are going on in other people's lives. But I don't like doing those things to make strangers feel better about their own discomfort with gender ambiguity. Still, these situations seem unavoidable. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes awkward, sometimes scary, and sometimes downright confusing for everybody involved.

Some notable moments from the archive of my own experiences:

The Funny: "Honey, how old are you?"

About five years back, I was standing in the snack aisle at the grocery store when a woman passed by, eyeing me carefully. She finally exclaimed, "That's a little girl! That's a little girl!" With a slight drawl, she asked me, "Honey, how old are you?" Now, during this time in my life, I was in fact having some difficulty remembering how old I was. I was past 21 but nowhere near 30, and all those years in between just seemed all mushed together in my brain. I thought for a moment and then said, "Twenty-two - no - twenty-three... Uh, no, twenty-two..." The lady was now staring at me as though I were completely insane. I trailed off and looked up and she looked me in the eye for a long moment and then said, slowly, "You don't know. You can't remember." Then she turned and walked away.

The Awkward: "Is this your son?"

This happens to me ALL. THE. TIME. Most recently, it happened at a conference I was at for work. Between workshops, some colleagues and I were sitting around, getting ready to debrief the day. While one co-worker and I were sitting at a table chatting, someone who knew her came up to us and loudly asked, "Is this your son?" which then necessitated the familiarly awkward explanation. I would also like to point out the fact that I had just met this same lady the day before.

No less awkward was the woman in the hotel elevator at the same conference who asked me if I was Justin Bieber. I need a haircut STAT.

The Scary: "Son, you've got to learn to read better"

I love road trips. I love road trips that involve rest stops with family/unisex bathrooms even more. It may be stereotyping on my part, but I think that my heightened anxiety over gender-segregated public restrooms in places like rural Indiana is not without cause. On a road trip two summers ago, my partner and I stopped to use the bathroom somewhere in the rural Midwest. As I was walking towards the women's room, two burly-looking middle-aged guys standing outside the bathrooms started calling after me, "Hey, that's the women's bathroom." I ignored them and kept walking, assuming that once I walked into my selected bathroom and didn't come running right back out embarrassed, they'd realize they were mistaken and shut up about it. Wrong. I used the toilet, washed my hands and headed back outside and those guys were still standing there. As I was walking past them back to my car, they took a few steps towards me and said, "Son, you've got to learn to read better - that was the ladies' room." I could have just kept walking to the car, but I was really annoyed and despite my gay-bashdar rapidly escalating to high alert, I felt strangely bold. I turned around and said firmly, "I don't actually think it's any of your business which bathroom I use." To the dudes' credit, they were sorry - though not very gracefully - and we were on our way, but it's made me nervous about rest stop bathrooms ever since.

The Confusing: "Where's the rink!?"

This story isn't first-hand. It happened to a friend of mine, and it's pretty illustrative of what happens when people are so sure of what they're seeing and trying so hard to be helpful that they aren't actually listening to anything you're saying. I play on a women's ice hockey team and every winter we have the opportunity to play a fun game with a group of "mighty moms" at an outdoor rink nearby. The rink is a little hard to find and one of my teammates got lost on the way to our match last year. When she finally arrived at the right location, she couldn't find the rink itself, so she asked a lady in the parking lot for directions.

The lady told her, "Oh, the men's locker room is just over there," to which my friend responded, "Thanks, but where's the rink?"

The lady pointed and said, "Well, the men's locker room is right there."

My friend said "But where's the rink?"

The lady said, "You can see the men's locker room right there."

"That's nice," my friend said, "But where is the RINK?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Introduction: Transgender without Transition

When it comes to gender and sex, mainstream public sentiment is pretty clear - there are two sets of options: boy or girl, male or female. Despite our generally more expansive notions of gender, I think trans and gender queer folks are frequently backed into the same corner. The medical establishment, for one, has an easier time understanding an individual who says they feel like a "woman trapped in a man's body" or vice versa, than they do understanding a person who, as at least one trans activist has put it, doesn't necessarily feel trapped in the wrong body, but just feels trapped.

This is my problem. The truth is, I don't feel trapped in the wrong body. There are things about my body that I'd like to change, sure, but for the most part, I think my body reflects who I am. It's got plenty of gender ambiguity built right in. It's mine and I like it the way it is. It's other people's perceptions of me in this body and how they act on those perceptions that I don't like. Sometimes others read me as a teenage boy. Sometimes as a young woman. Sometimes a butch lesbian. I am none of these things, at least by my own identification, and there was a time when I felt tremendous pressure to physically alter my body in order to make other people understand me better. But I resent the idea that the world doesn't want me as I am - that I'd be more palatable to everyone if I would either resign to identifying as a masculine lesbian or go ahead and take the testosterone plunge so everyone could squarely fit me into either the female or male box. Screw that. Who says I can't embrace the term "queer" over "lesbian"? Who says I can't change my name to whatever I want even if I don't transition? If I ever become a parent, who says I have to be called "Mama" just because I hang on to my female pronouns?

In my mind, "transgender" is more often a verb than a noun. Transgender means to transcend the established rules of gender. The idea of transcending gender has been liberating to me - that rather than be stuck with only two options – either to embrace femaleness or transition from female to male, I can transcend the rigid definitions of both. I could be a transcender. I have no doubt that this makes a lot of folks - queer, straight, trans, and cis-gender - uncomfortable. On a daily basis, people attempt, often via dirty looks or uninvited commentary, to reinforce the notion that in order to be a good person, one must be identifiable as a man or a woman. I would like to make clear to those people that their discomfort and hostility towards gender ambiguity calls into question not the quality of my personhood, but theirs.

I offer this blog as a forum to explore questions about being transgender without transitioning in greater depth... transcending of the gender line.