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Misremembering What “Great” Looked Like

2 Apr

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_(workshop_of)_-_Portrait_of_Isabella_of_Portugal(Public domain image used via)

 

How much of a story about life in the good old days is fact and how much is fiction? In the HBO miniseries John Adams, a mob of Patriots attack a British customs officer, strip him naked and cover him in tar and feathers. The scene shows the victim slathered in asphalt tar – a substance that did not exist in the 1770s. Mobs instead used pine tar, which is brown instead of black, but filmmakers of course knew that modern viewers would not recognize it as easily as they would asphalt.

Such artistic license is arguably negligible and John Adams deserves distinction as a period drama that is predominantly accurate, rendering its characters and indoor scenes as gray and as musty as life was before electricity and indoor plumbing. Most filmmakers prefer to embellish period dramas, opting for audience appeal over historical accuracy. In the 2002 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Victorian protagonists serenade their beloveds with an upbeat jazz number, which is the equivalent of playing disco music in 1945. And for most of the story, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett look like they always do – that is, clean-shaven and donning boyish coiffures they previously wore in romantic comedies set 100 years later. While parasols and top hats abound, no one in the film is flaunting the glistening hair gel and heavy handle-bar mustaches of the play’s original stage production in 1895.

Directors almost always decide that lovers and heroes in period pieces should adhere to contemporary fashion rules from the neck up, lest audiences be less likely to swoon. Thus pretty much any film set in Ancient Egypt, Rome or the Early Modern Era pretends that men never wore eyeliner or lip rouge. (And that all the good guys looked white.) Films set in the Victorian era correctly leave cosmetics off the men but wrongly apply it to the female characters, who would have been insulted by anything more than face powder. (Makeup was for actresses and prostitutes, and Victorians didn’t see much difference between the two.) Even though Queen Elizabeth II is the most famous woman in the world, the actress who portrays her in the award-winning series The Crown has a far daintier nose and jaw, with eyebrows plucked to evoke the cover girls of today. Filmmakers who wish to forego such historical inaccuracies face an uphill battle, according to John Adams director Tom Hooper: “Wherever possible I wanted to do things that weren’t about making people beautiful. The truth is there’s a whole machine of filmmaking that’s all about making people look great. And you have to really intervene in every department to sort of say, ‘No, I don’t want that. I don’t want people to wear any makeup. You’re not allowed to wash people’s hair.’ ”

Hollywood takes such liberties in the hopes that the audience will barely notice. Viewers watch period dramas in order to oo and ah at the finery, and imagine that they could easily slip into an earlier era and have a grand old time. They can imagine this because they are protected from unpleasant information such as the fact that the powdered and painted aristocrats of Louis XIV’s courts regularly relieved themselves in the gilded corridors and behind the velvet curtains of the palace. Horace Walpole noted the stench at the time, but Hollywood has yet to. The audience’s comfort comes at the expense of the opportunity to learn that standards of attractiveness, cleanliness, and morality are far from universal, shifting continuously throughout human history. Likewise, it is an opportunity to learn that our feelings of disgust are often not innate but a product of where and when we grew up.

A handful of films and plays have thrived by underscoring the changes between then and now. Mad Men earned critical acclaim and a loyal following not only for its meticulously authentic fashion but for subtly laying bare the secrets of everyday life in the early 1960s that TV shows of the era had omitted: rampant infidelity, casual racism, sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, misogyny, covert homosexuality and vicious homophobia, legal date rape, domestic violence, and health hazards as far as the eye can see. Hamilton has been a Broadway sensation for deliberately altering the facts and urging the audience to take notice – wanting all to be fully aware of the historical significance of people of color portraying national heroes who owned slaves.

Mad Men and Hamilton have garnered attention precisely because they deny audiences the escapism so commonly peddled by period pieces. Escapism can be innocuous, but not when it warps our sense of reality and the world as it is, once was, and should be. When wildly popular stories like Gone with the Wind and Song of the South portray plantation life as merry, influential social conservatives argue that African-Americans had no complaints before the Civil Rights Movement. When populist politicians inform voters who pride themselves on a lack of “elitist knowledge” that they can make their countries “great again,” difficult truths about the past remain problems unsolved. Too often our glorious history as we like to think of it is more fantasy than fact – which is why sociologists call it The Way We Never Were.

 

 

“Sometimes It’s Better to Deal with a Terminal Illness Than to Live with a Dwarf for the Rest of Your Life”

19 Mar

body(Image by Anthony Easton used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A Sydney woman has been declared fit to stand trial after being charged with murder for the 2010 death of her infant daughter. The judge has concluded that before the child died, the mother was “obsessed with perfection,” and was panicked that her daughter had achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. She insisted that skin tags, a flat nose, and the shape of the baby’s forehead were proof of the condition, and subjected her to rigorous x-rays and genetic tests, which all came back negative. The Sydney Morning Herald reports: “When one friend got ‘fed up’ and told her she wasn’t dealing with something like cancer, the mother replied: ‘Sometimes it’s better to deal with a terminal illness than to live with a dwarf for the rest of your life.’ ”

That her daughter did not have achondroplasia is wholly irrelevant. Neglecting or harming a child on the basis of a bodily deformity she did or did not have is tragic no matter how you cut it. It sends two extra shivers down my back stemming from the fact that I have achondroplasia and would have a 50% chance of passing achondroplasia on to any children I were to have biologically. In several previous articles, I’ve examined the complicated issue of children with rare conditions and parents who lack the skills to give them the support they deserve. I am equally preoccupied with what it means for the child and what it means for the parent.

I’m not interested, however, in judging the accused woman personally because we can draw few accurate conclusions from the reports of her case. Many will argue that her schizophrenic disorder was the sole catalyst of her actions, while many experts on mental illness have tried to convince the hard-to-convince public that having schizophrenia does not make someone more likely to commit murder or manslaughter, and bigotry against achondroplasia is certainly not a symptom of the illness. Schizophrenic disorders are complex, and armchair diagnosis is a dangerous game far too many of us like to play. The temptation is best left resisted.

But it is safe to say that the likelihood of incidents like these would dramatically decline if our society saw nothing wrong with looking like a dwarf. Humans have a long history of parents abandoning or murdering deformed or disabled children. It goes as far back as Ancient Sparta and was codified into law here in Germany under the Nazi regime. And even in cultures where disabled or deformed citizens have generally not had to fear a death sentence, being humiliated or abandoned for having a certain body type is horrid enough. Firm belief in bodily hierarchy can be found in countless corners of modern society, from the glossy pages of lifestyle magazines, to Nobel Prize winner James Watson’s lectures on inherent attractiveness, to capitalist icon Ayn Rand’s arguments about who should be considered subnormal. 

Yet while the long history of ableism and lookism may be a daunting fact, it is also a fact that fashion is constantly in flux. Humanity’s habit of relentlessly coming up with new ideas for how bodies should look is a cause for hope. Not because a woman with achondroplasia winning a beauty pageant could ensure our universal acceptance once and for all. It couldn’t. But by understanding how utterly diverse beauty standards, athletic standards, and intelligence standards really are throughout time and space, and by facing the very real dangers of xenophobia in extremis like the horror in Sydney, we should be able to agree that we’re all better off never being “obsessed with perfection” when it comes to bodies.

 

 

High Heels Are A Civil Rights Issue

26 Feb

king_charles_i_after_original_by_van_dyck

(Public domain image via)

 

Last week there was much discussion on the blog about the social ramifications of height, but what about high heels? The Women and Equalities Committee of the U.K.’s House of Commons recently found that employee dress codes that require heeled-shoes for women are violating laws banning gender discrimination. The Committee reviewed the matter after receiving a petition signed by 138,500 people and started by Nicola Thorp, a London receptionist who in December 2015 had been suspended by her employer without pay for violating the company’s dress code for women by showing up for work in flats.

I personally find high heels frequently quite becoming. I also personally find them physically hazardous. Pretty much anyone with any sort of orthopedic disability has been advised by their specialists again and again to limit the time they spend in heels to a minimum. While reporting on the U.K. ruling, NBC News let women in on “an essential secret — carrying a pair of trainers in your handbag.” This is cold comfort to those of us who know that back pain is also caused by carrying more than 5% of your body weight in your handbag. One twentysomething friend with an invisible disability was told by her spinal surgeon that she should wear heels pretty much never. Thorp was right to sue on the basis of gender discrimination because only women are required by some employers to toddle about on their toes, but a case could be made on the basis of disability discrimination as well.

That disabled women could be fired—or simply looked upon unfavorably in the workplace for “not making an effort”—is indeed a social justice issue. We in the West have come to regard heels as a sign of female beauty and professionalism not so much because they are inherently smart looking, but because they were invented to signify wealth.

Heeled shoes were designed to be painful and inefficient if you walked around much because the upper classes around the world have traditionally used their fashion statements—from foot-binding to corsets to flowing robes and fingernails—to prove that they were wealthy and didn’t need to labor to survive like the lowly workers. Prof. Lisa Wade offers a wonderful break-down of the history of the high heel at Sociological Images, pointing out that they were first considered manly because men were the first to don them to display social status. Women began wearing them to imitate this status, which led to men abandoning them. Wade explains:

This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction. Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference. Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc. Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable. Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).

Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men. (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men). With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.

What brought heels back for women? Pornography. Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.

In many moments in the history of many cultures, extra pounds of body fat have also signified high social status because wealth was needed to keep someone well-fed. The price of sugar and of meat plummeted in the 20th century in the West and were soon no longer considered delicacies only the wealthy could afford. This coinciding with the eugenics craze in the early 20th century brought about the birth of our modern preoccupation with not just longevity and bodily cleanliness but physical “fitness.” These shifts are why modern fashion dictates that those who wish to project high social status should dress inefficiently, like a traditional aristocrat, while remaining physically strong, slim and active, like a traditional laborer.

High-status men are now encouraged to wear expensive attire in addition to building and maintaining a muscular physique that can get down in the dirt – something the manly dukes and earls of yore would have considered horrifically common. High status women are now encouraged to diet and exercise to be “healthy” in addition to wearing heels to hint at sexiness in their physique via the historical association with both princesses and porn stars – at the risk of breaking down their bodies as they rush off to work and back like the peasant women of yore.

Indeed, our modern fashion rules for professional women are ever so young because upper class women who worked were an anomaly in the Modern Era until the 20th century. The First and Second Wave feminists successfully fought for our right to vote and become actors, bankers, flight attendants, and politicians, but we have yet to expunge the idea that a woman who suffers for beauty is admirable, rather than irresponsible. Nicola Thorp’s petition, however, has dealt it a blow.

Women should feel free to wear heels almost whenever they wish, but disabled women should not have to suffer social consequences for choosing to protect their bodies. True equality may also come when men can wear heels like Mozart and Louis XIV without fear of gay bashing, as long as such a fashion shift does not harden into a fashion decree. If it does, then disabled men will have to use their right to petition against discrimination.

No matter how you personally feel about them, just remember that modern ideas about fashion, gender/sex, class, and disability all meet whenever we consider a pair of high heels. That’s why we call it intersectionality.

 

 

 

How Much Does Height Matter To You?

19 Feb

Mann und Frau
 

As I wrote on Facebook after I saw friends posting them, I really don’t like those #TinyTrump memes. I’m not outraged. I’m just really, really uncomfortable whenever human size is used as an insult or a sight gag. (And yes, I have had friends and admire several human rights activists who are almost as short as Trump appears in those memes.) Being physically small isn’t hilarious or humiliating. It just is.

200 years after Napoleon, political discourse is still rife with the insidious concept of small man syndrome. Male acquaintances still report conversations coming to a screeching halt on Tinder after they answer an interested woman’s inquiry after their height. So here is an old, popular post on the subject that is just as apt as it was when I first published it:

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I did not undergo limb-lengthening to “look normal.” I did it to function better in everyday life with less difficulty and less pain. Height has mattered tremendously to me as an issue of accessibility. But as an issue of social interaction, I tend to find it only slightly more significant than eye color.

Throughout high school, I had a Yoko Ono quote taped to my bedroom wall: “You call me ‘little,’ but I have a universe in my head.” Every teen needs role models. I got excited when I lived for six months in southern France, where I encountered several women my size. There is something inexplicably pleasing about being at eye-level with someone. Which is what made the moments when guys have gotten on their knees to dance with me utterly touching.

But my husband stands at 6’5” (1.96 m), more than a foot taller than I am. Being at eye-level with someone can feel important, but it’s not that important.

And we’ve gotten compliments for being such a striking couple due our height difference. (Should we thank John and Yoko for blazing the trail?) But as said before, when we tell our loved ones what exquisite hair or adorable hands or gorgeous eyes they have, it’s more a display of affection than a statement of what we require to be intrigued. When we tell someone, “You are so beautiful,” and we mean it, it’s a testament to the sum of their parts.  To the entrancing union of their perfections and imperfections. Height is what you make of it.

I generally find a preoccupation with height amusing. When my father-in-law, who is from the Black Forest, married my mother-in-law, who was from Stockholm, they had their wedding photos shot only in close-up, so that you can’t tell that he was standing on a box.

When I was undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I explained to one of my teachers, “I’ll never be super-model tall. The muscles tighten up when you stretch them and that’s why there is a limit to how far you can lengthen your legs.”

“Well, that’s actually good for you as a girl,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, you wouldn’t ever want to be too tall and end up walking alongside a man who’s shorter than you!”

I looked at her quizzically and then smirked to myself. Sure. That was my first concern about undergoing limb-lengthening.

Eighteen years later, as I prepared my wedding, I came across a discussion on a forum for brides-to-be about the ubiquity of complaints about heels that were too high.

“Why am I hearing so many comments about not wanting to be taller than your husbands?” the main commenter wrote. “I mean, seriously? This is the 21st century. We’re all liberated about LGBT rights and feminism and healthy body image and equality, but we’re still convinced it’s unfeminine for a woman to be taller than her husband?”

Nine out of ten of the replies all said, “Well, I don’t want to look like some freak.”

This week, HuffPost Live features an interview in which dwarf reality TV star Ben Klein reveals his past struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts due to social isolation and bullying. Earlier today on Germany’s ZDF Sundays morning news show, opera singer Doris Michel revealed that no man has ever been able to get over her dwarfism and see her as a romantic partner.

It’s easy to shake our heads and feel sorry for these individuals, and then to be inspired by the courage they have demonstrated in overcoming such hardship. We praise them for raising their children to be self-confident enough to face adversity. But when the adversity is inflicted by our society’s lingering attachment to something as silly as height, it is crucial that we own up to our collective responsibility for it.

We have to ask ourselves, Is my daughter the type to trash other girls’ bodies? Does she look up to women who do? Would my best friend snicker at dwarf-tossing? Would the guys I hang out with shout at a dwarf in the street? Would I be brave enough to call them out on it? Have I ever accused someone of having a Napoleon Complex? What do I think of when I think of a freak?

Surely if Klein and Michel can overcome bullying and denigration, we can overcome any hang-ups we have about size.  And in the nature vs. nurture debate, we gotta stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture” because it takes more than one set of parents to change the world.
 
 
 

 

From the Frontlines of the Women’s March in Berlin

22 Jan

berlin-00

 

German newspapers currently estimate 2.5 million people worldwide—on every continent, including Antarctica—took part in yesterday’s Women’s March.

Earlier this week there was a debate about the mention of disability in the official platform of the March on Washington. Disability advocate Emily Ladau wrote:

My heart sank when I read it.

The first time the word “disabilities” is mentioned, it shows zero recognition of disability as a social justice issue:

We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work — caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities — is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society.

I also recognize that women of color disproportionately take on the caregiving as a job, that caregiving can be extremely demanding work, and that fair compensation is imperative. But you know what it says to me that this bullet point is one of only two places where disability is mentioned in the entire platform released by the Women’s March? It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a “burden.” My existence as a disabled woman is “work” for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter.

Disability is mentioned only one more time in the entire platform… And considering that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, disability rights deserve more than a cursory mention in the official Women’s March platform.

This touches on two problems: the vast swaths of feminism that ignore the discrimination burdening disabled women, and our macho culture’s fear of men taking on caregiving roles or any jobs done primarily by women. While feminists continue to fight for mandated paid maternity leave, mandated paid paternity leave is widely considered a bridge too far in the United States. Only 12% of American men offered it by their employers take it. Some economists have tried to explain away the election of Donald Trump by talking about the emasculated feelings of male workers facing a paucity of management opportunities in the American Rust Belt and that the only way to appeal to them is to give them jobs that make them the primary breadwinners in their homes once again.

While fair wages and economic inequality should be a paramount concern of any human rights movement, the insistence that men must be the primary breadwinners and will never be satisfied turning to “pink jobs” like caregiving is not highlighting an indisputable truth about all men – it is highlighting a problem in white male American culture.

Those who say the male ego simply cannot budge on the issue need only look to American black men, who pursue caregiving jobs at a rate 3 times higher than white American men do. Or look over here to Germany, where 1 in 5 students in caregiving programs are male. (Eighty percent of German men also took some form of paid parental leave—which is mandated by the government—in 2013.) Or look to the the Dulais Valley coal miners whose true, history-making story was the inspiration for in the 2014 film Pride. In that film, the problem of emasculation is recognized when one of the strike leaders argues against accepting donations from a gay and lesbian group: “Think of the men! It’s bad enough that their wives are financially supporting them, but now they’re relying on a bunch of gays and lesbians?!” Spoiler alert: By the end, the men they’re talking about open their minds. Or demonstrate that they were never concerned about it to begin with.

The Women’s March stated loud and clear that it’s on all of us to open minds about gender roles until our entire culture changes. We feed the denigration of women—not to mention all other forms of xenophobia—when we agree that white men should feel denigrated to do anything traditionally done by women. We need women who would be embarrassed to date a man in a traditionally feminine job to abandon such thoughts. We need men who are tempted to belittle a guy for going to nursing school to prove he is braver than that, until the man who does snicker is the one feeling out of place. And everyone needs to agree that caregiving is freakin’ hard and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

Yesterday’s Women’s March was a resounding success. Despite Ladau’s valid complaints—as well as earlier reports of friction among some white, middle-class feminists and feminists belonging to other minority groups—the day ended up awash in calls for combating injustice faced on the basis of disability, gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity/religion, immigration status, and appearance. In Washington, Gloria Steinem demanded a moment of silence for those who could not be at the March because they had to work in underpaid jobs. Tammy Duckworth got up out of her wheelchair and onto her crutches to demand unwavering defense of the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Angela Davis seemed determined in her speech to mention every single marginalized group in the United States and overseas. And when the crowd in Berlin began chanting, “Black lives matter!”, one black woman at the center began singing for joy with tears in her eyes.

There were many signs and songs that not every protestor immediately embraced. One marcher who identifies as queer told me he disliked the portrayals of Donald Trump in drag because being trans or feminine should never be a source of shame. Plenty of marchers of all political stripes expressed unease with blatantly owning the sexualized slurs so many women are the target of. Those of us who are fans of cyborg feminism cringed at gender essentialist references to “Mother Earth” or “natural” womanhood. Others winced at all the swear words. But democracy is hard work. And it was a victory for democracy that millions were willing to march together and engage in an international conversation that sometimes made them uncomfortable. A willingness to leave one’s comfort zone is the first step toward fully embracing and protecting universal human rights.

 

 

Blaming the Election on the Minority Rights Movement Is Flawed and Dangerous

20 Nov

 

It’s a trick you’re bound to encounter if you work with issues of diversity: Someone comes along and insists that he’s got nothing against any particular minority—in fact he’s all for progress!—but lots of people feel left out by diversity awareness so people should really stop talking about it. Now. I was told on Election Night by a voter that bringing up racism or homophobia is “divisive.” Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times this week that an over-emphasis on minority identities at schools and universities is what has caused the backlash seen in the recent U.S. election. 

This argument pushes the fallacious color-blindness approach to human rights, calling on us to “focus on our commonalities and not our differences.” Most people our society designates as minorities would love to be able to do this. We would be thrilled to live in a world where your race, nationality, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, cognitive ability and appearance are considered no more remarkable than whether or not you’re right-handed or left-handed. Such a world is the final goal in the struggle for social justice. But the insistence that the only way to achieve such a world is to start pretending we live in it already demands we kindly stop filing complaints of inequality, underrepresentation, harassment and abuse.    

Dr. Michael Ain says in the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale, “When you wake up in the morning, and you do what you have to do, you don’t think you’re different. When I woke up this morning to go to work, I don’t think, ‘I’m short.’ It doesn’t approach me when I look in the mirror. It doesn’t cross your mind until someone makes it apparent.” He then talked about how many doctors tried to block his efforts to apply for medical school on the basis of his physical appearance. “The first guy I interviewed with told me I couldn’t hold the respect of my patients because of my stature,” he reports.

Many of the proponents of the commonalties-not-differences approach are noble in their intentions if naïve in their conviction that such cases are tremendously rare and best left viewed as isolated incidents. But other proponents are simply irritated when attention is afforded to injustices other than those they personally have suffered. I have encountered many arguments placing blame on the “entitled, whining” attitude plaguing minorities, who are too obsessed with their own victimhood to learn about hard-work and self-reliance. Nine times out of ten, supporters of this view then argue that straight, white men actually have it harder than anyone else thanks to the social justice movements of the past 50 years. Which begs the question: Wait, who’s really acting like a victim here? Who’s blaming others for their lot in life?

Minority rights groups contain many people also guilty of such self-centeredness: Blacks who suppress Jews, Jews who suppress women, women who suppress trans citizens, etc., ad nauseam. Which is why it is crucial to reiterate that if we’re going to support the rights of one group, we have to support them all. Your identity matters far less than your willingness to think beyond your personal experience and understand the diverse sorts of harassment and Othering experienced by citizens of all identities.

And speaking of commonalities, I am done reading lectures from professors, pundits and princess experts that claim those of us in the minority rights movements are elitist and don’t understand the “white working class.” People who could be lumped into the “white working class” include many of my friends and family. Some of them join overly educated hard-liners in blaming immigrants and minorities for society’s problems, and some of them are leading the discussions on human rights. Some of them are massively insecure and will lash out if they have to hear anything about xenophobia, and some of them listen to diverse points of view better than anyone of any political conviction. And a tremendous number of them are LGBT, disabled, immigrant and/or non-Christian. Many of them are fully accepted by their peers for who they are. Many are not. Reducing human rights discussions to attacks on—or defenses of—“rednecks” ignores and insults the diversity of that group. Human rights discussions must always cross class lines. Those of us who base our work on intersectionality have been saying this for decades.

Writing and teaching about diversity awareness can be exhausting when even the classiest behavior is accused of divisiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this and so does Brandon Victor Dixon, the star of Broadway’s smash hit Hamilton, who made his now famous appeal to the incoming vice-president of the United States on Friday night. See the video above or the transcript here:

Vice-president elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few more moments. [Some audience members begin to boo.] There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. We’re all here sharing a story about love. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations. 

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum are reprimanding Dixon for making this plea. After all, isn’t Pence accepting all Americans by attending a play with a diverse cast like Hamilton? 

As many others have pointed out, Pence is a politician recently elevated to a position of tremendous influence who has given many Americans good reason to worry that his acceptance of them does not extend much beyond tolerating their presence on a stage. He has successfully fought for the right for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers and is an advocate of gay conversion therapy, which has been widely condemned as psychologically damaging by medical professionals. In his 2000 bid for Congress, Pence sought to defund any AIDS support organization that did not urge patients to repress their sexual orientation. 

Both stars of Hamilton are openly gay and one is HIV-positive. In a just world, they would have no reason to worry about their health under any presidential administration. But we do not live in that world yet, and Dixon’s appeal to Pence was as justified as it was polite.  I implore anyone who thinks otherwise to try changing their sexuality before they make a call for an end to diversity awareness.

 

 

While Facing A Trump Presidency, We Cannot Afford to Let This Slide

13 Nov

Ku Klux Klan(Image by Martin used under CC 2.0 via)
 

It’s been a good week for anyone who believes white Christian straight men deserve more power than anyone else. Donald Trump was elected to the most powerful office in the world with the support of extremist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Family Research Council. Many have felt validated by the electoral victory to voice what they really think of minorities. Graffiti found in Durham declared, “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to document and prevent hate crimes, reported over 200 incidents in the first three days after Election Day, mostly at K-12 schools, universities, and businesses. 

None of this is surprising to those of us who documented the uptick in celebratory hate crimes in the U.K. after Brexit and who have witnessed Trump do nothing to discourage supporters screaming Nazi slogans at his rallies. His long history in the public eye gives no indication he would start any time soon.  

Trump launched his political career by spreading fear that America’s first black president is not a U.S. citizen. Back in the late 1980s, he injected himself into the notorious case of the Central Park Five, wherein a group of black teens were pressured under duress by investigators to confess to raping and beating a female jogger nearly to death. Trump took out a full-page ad in the Times, calling for New York State to reinstate the death penalty because “THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” In 2001, a lone man confessed to the crime and DNA testing proved the likelihood of his guilt to be 6 billion to one. As recently as last month, Trump insisted the Five were still guilty.

Trump has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual harassment and/or assault, and a leaked tape recording caught him bragging about forcing himself on women. Sexual violence prevention groups know that most sexual predators are serial offenders, and therefore the more people accuse someone, the more likely it is that he is guilty. It may be important to acknowledge that in the United States one is innocent until proven guilty. But the Central Park Five know that if you’re a black man in Donald Trump’s world, you may be declared guilty even after you’re proven innocent. Trump throwing a black supporter out of his rally upon assuming he was a “thug” has done nothing to ease worries about the way he likes to govern.

Many Trump voters have been joined by those who didn’t vote at all in calling for national unity now that the election is over. They take offense at any assumption that their political choice was based in such bigotry. The best response to this has come in a post by Michael Rex that’s gone viral:

I believe you when you say you didn’t vote for any of these things. Most of America wasn’t thrilled with the choices we had in this election. But… If you’re tired of being called a bigot, then you need to use the same voice you used on Tuesday and speak out against these things fully and clearly. It’s not enough that you didn’t say them yourself. You need to reassure your friends and family members who feel like they no longer have a seat at the table that you still stand with them, even if your priorities were different on Tuesday. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you have no right to call for unity.

Mark Joseph Stern writes this week at Slate, “I Am A Gay Jew in Trump’s America. And I Fear for My Life.” And rightly so. Not only are hate crimes on the rise in the U.S., but nationalist movements that blame immigrants, minorities and gender equality for their problems are gaining power here and in the U.K., Australia, France, Sweden, Germany and in Eastern Europe. In the countries where democracy is younger than I am, voters are reverting to authoritarians with little interest in the processes and institutions that protect human rights. Non-whites, religious minorities, women, LGBT citizens and those of us with disabilities know that the concept of universal human rights is younger than many people they know. A few wrong turns and authoritarians could turn all the progress of the past 50 years into a mere moment in human history when the law offered to protect us against violence, harassment, medical abuse, and other existential threats.

Trump hasn’t had a chance to change any laws yet, and the Alternative for Germany is only polling at 20%. But hate groups around the world have been feeling empowered for a while now. Neo-Nazis, Klansmen and any other people willing to beat someone up for the way they were born commit their crimes when they think they can get away with it – when there is a high number of people who aren’t violent but still share their views, combined with a high number of people who don’t care either way about human rights discussions.

A pregnant, non-white German woman was recently punched at a train station near a friend’s house for being a “lousy refugee.” An acquaintance in a wheelchair was told by a stranger on the street, “We should gas your kind.” Perpetrators are less likely to do any of this if they fear not just legal consequences but their friends and families shaming them for such despicable behavior. Which is why it is on all of us to support the watchdog organizations that aim to expose and combat hate crimes, to speak up for those who are being told that their place in the new world order is at the bottom, and to convince the people who don’t care about any of this that they absolutely must summon the bravery to.
 

  

Disability & the Politics of Shoe-Shopping

16 Oct

Fashion(Image by Thomas Hawk used under CC 2.0 via)

 

“I like them,” I said, eyeing the smart and slinky black sneakers in my hand, “but my orthotic inserts don’t find inside.”

The saleswoman shook her head sympathetically. “These doctors just don’t understand. They make it so difficult for women looking for shoes.”

Um, I don’t think that’s who’s making it difficult, I said to myself. Because she isn’t the one flooding the market with shoes that discriminate against disabled bodies, it didn’t feel necessary that this one saleswoman be confronted with the issue. But we as a society probably should.

If I don’t wear my orthotics, I burden my achondroplastic back in very unhealthy ways. The same goes if I wear heels regularly, instead of only occasionally, as my orthopedist advises. When I was younger I would often flout the rules, but my tolerance for pain-inducing shoes has lessened since I turned 30 and needed back surgery to avoid paralysis, as one-third of all people with achondroplastic dwarfism do. A friend who has undergone a few operations on her spine absolutely cannot wear heels. Yet wearing orthotics every day is not seen as being healthy and responsible in the same way that, say, running a marathon is.

Will chronic pain management never be seen as bad-ass because it lacks the thrill of breaking records or leaving others in the dust? Or is it because it defies the “no pain, no gain” rule? In which case, foregoing orthotics and swallowing the pain would seem to be the bad-ass choice.

“Oh, I rarely ever wear my orthotics!” two non-disabled women told me years ago.

Eat something sugary or fattening and you can easily attract disapproving looks or even commentary. (“Do you know how many calories/toxins are in that?!”) But risk back pain in a pair of stilettos that make you teeter like a giraffe and you’re suffering for beauty like any self-respecting woman would.

Why? Is it because, as Jessica Valenti wrote last year, too few woman are willing to endure “the social consequences of aesthetic apathy”? Does bodily beauty always require some degree of discomfort? Even the love-your-body yoga crowd pushes the back-to-the-earth barefoot aesthetic, which can be supremely painful for many disabled people.

Fashion is fickle and ever-changing. In a world where humans can find beauty in everything from body-builder biceps to heroin chic, and switch from viewing heels as manly to sexy, it seems possible for us to stop marginalizing and perhaps even some day tout medically responsible choices as fashionable choices. Why haven’t we managed this yet? What will it take to get us there?

 

 

Auf Augenhöhe – A Film about a Boy’s Search for His Father Who Happens to Have Dwarfism

9 Oct

  

Auf Augenhöhe (“At Eye Level”) is a German film by Joachim Dolhopf and Evi Goldbrunner currently playing in theaters across the country, starring Jordan Prentice and Luis Vorbach. Michi (Vorbach) is an 10-year-old foster child living in a home. He’s at the age where put-downs and one-upmanship are conversation-starters both at breakfast and on the basketball court. Dissing your opponent’s family is standard fare, but it carries extra weight for him and his housemates, many of whom were neglected or abused by their parents. Michi was raised as a toddler by a single mother until her death. Since the identity of his father is unknown, he can and does make up stories about how cool his dad must be whenever he needs to swagger in front of his friends.

Early on in the film he discovers a letter at the bottom of a keepsake box addressed to his father, Tom Lambrecht, who lives not far away. Michi heads to his house and leaves a letter under his door, explaining who he is and inviting him to meet at the foster home. On his way out, a neighbor points him in the direction of Tom’s rowing team. Michi heads over and hears someone utter his father’s name. The man who answers to the name is curly-haired and 4 feet tall (1.24 meters). Michi runs away.

Previously unaware he ever had a child, Tom is shocked to discover his son’s letter and worries about the prospect of meeting him. He is fearful of how his son might react to his size. “And what if he’s short-statured, too?” he asks a friend. “He’ll blame me.”

“Well, it means he’ll already know all about it,” his friend shrugs.

Tom shows up at Michi’s foster home and in this moment Michi’s world of pre-teen posturing transforms into a nightmare right out of Lord of the Flies. He and his father are shoved, screamed at, mocked, grabbed and pelted with chips until neither of them can hide their tears. The scene is painful because no amount of Tom’s attempts at being the adult in the situation can protect either of them. After Tom leaves, the bullying remains and takes on more sadistic forms. A garden gnome hanging from a noose outside his window drives Michi to run away and show up again on Tom’s doorstep, insisting he live with him. Tom agrees, but their problems are far from over.

Michi blames Tom for ruining the life he had by entering it. Tom is riddled with guilt and endures his son standing 10 feet away from him in public. Kids from the foster home show up and spray-paint “Verräter” (“traitor”) on their apartment building.

It’s reminiscent of another German film, Young Törless (1966), which like Lord of the Flies sought to pinpoint the roots of the Nazis’ cruelty by examining bullying at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for boys. Auf Augenhöhe adds the emotional problems of young people failed by neglectful parents into the mix. But it doesn’t let non-orphans off the hook either.

Because an even more painful scene soon follows when Tom is at the gym with his rowing team. Two gawking men creep up behind him to snap a photo—a common humiliation for people with dwarfism today, as I’ve written before—but his teammates come to his defense. They are successful in getting an apology out of the perpetrators because there are only two of them. The moral of this film, Young Törless and Lord of Flies could well be that no good comes of allowing the mature to be outnumbered by the immature, no matter their age.

After the incident, Tom lashes out at his friends, accusing them of only defending him out of pity. This was the hardest scene for me to watch because I could understand both sides of it. No matter how self-confident you are, the knowledge that a good deal of the world can’t handle your Otherness feeds paranoia. In moments when people in power strike you down, that paranoia can rise up and reign supreme, making you doubt the open-mindedness of everyone around you. Yet to act on such paranoia is rarely helpful, and Tom later apologizes at the next rowing practice.

Hours later in the bar, his friends insist that they should apologize. “I’ve got to admit I always assumed things were easier for you than they actually were,” one of them says. “And yet if I’m really honest with myself, I am glad I don’t have to deal with the problems you do.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” Tom nods.

Michi is also granted such honesty from a few peers over time. And of course he and Tom gradually warm to one another as odd couples in film are wont to do. Auf Augenhöhe has been marketed as a family comedy, and for that reason I had feared a predictable schlockfest of sight gags, height puns and an overly simplistic sing-song that we’re all the same inside! But the film is more contemplative than that. It’s heavy on dialogue, largely avoids clichés, and the acting is excellent.

There aren’t even that many jokes. Scenes of Tom standing in a streetcar, nearly smothered in the crotches of other passengers is presented soberly, not for laughs or tears. A young viewer sitting next to me smirked at the image of Tom using a step-stool to look through a peephole, but the film presents the adaptations in his car and around his apartment so matter-of-factly that any air of novelty quickly fades away. The biggest play on height comes when Tom turns it around to his advantage. When he lets Michi drive donuts in an empty parking lot, a police car pulls up. Tom switches back into the driver’s seat and puts on Michi’s hat before the police officer opens the door and is surprised to find an adult at the wheel.

“Honestly, officer, that we dwarfs are so often mistaken for children is quite humiliating. I think I’m going to need another session with my therapist to get over this,” Tom deadpans.

The officer issues his sincerest apologies before walking away and leaving father and son to burst into giggles.

That Luis Vorbach and Jordan Prentice develop such a chemistry on screen is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Canadian Prentice delivered all his lines in English, which were then (almost seamlessly) dubbed over in German. I don’t know what that says about the state of job opportunities for German actors with dwarfism today, but in this case, the result is a cast of characters who are completely believable. This is no small feat when we consider just how many triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity films take the easy route with angelic and diabolical caricatures we only ever see in our fantasies. And Prentice redeems himself as an actor after his role in In Bruges (2008) and all the failures of that film to avoid freak show humor.

Three-quarters through the story there is another plot twist that borders on soap-opera. I won’t say anything about it other than that foster children or social workers may want to contest its credibility. But it gets a point across, and it’s a good point to make.

Glancing at the six other families in the theater with me at the screening—all of their children roughly the same age as Michi, some of them visible ethnic minorities—I wondered what kind of film they had been expecting. Were they drawn by the subject matter? Or by the trailer that makes the film look a lot goofier than it is? No matter what they were hoping for, I’m glad they saw it.

 

 

It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month!

2 Oct

x-ray of a dwarf(Image by Lefteris used under CC 2.0 via)

It’s October, so you know what that means. Here’s one of the most popular pieces from the Archives:

 

October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. This means you should be aware of the facts and experiences regarding people with dwarfism for the next 25 days. Then you can stop and go back to life as usual.

We have picked this month because it has Halloween in it. This way we can ensure that no one will offend us through drunkenness or choice of costume. This plan is foolproof.

We realize that October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, LGBT History Month, and Polish-American Heritage Month. Given that a month can handle only one minority at a time, we urge you to side with us. I myself picked my dwarfism over my Polish heritage and I promise you, the choice was easy. Anyone who chooses otherwise is a self-hating dwarf and the reason why we haven’t had a dwarf president yet.

In order to become Aware Of Dwarfism (A.O.D.), you can read up on it under the FAQ’s, read about some of my dwarfish opinions here or here or here, or consider any one of the following facts:

To begin with, Peter Dinklage is the best dwarf. Everyone agrees on this.

We love being photographed on the street. (Thank god for camera phones!) It is every dwarf’s dream to end up on Tumblr or Instagram someday. Either that or in a Peter Jackson film.

It is true that all dwarfs are magical. But especially homosexuals with achondroplasia. They are dwarf fairies.

We love it when you ask about Lord of the Rings. Please keep asking us about Lord of the Rings. We’re currently in fierce competition with New Zealanders over who gets the most LOTR questions.

Mini-Me is even better. It is the height of originality. We can’t get enough of it.

Please keep telling us that we must be really good at hide-and-seek. We don’t quite believe it yet, so your pointing it out is helpful.

Tossing a dwarf will make you more of a man. This has been scientifically proven by evolutionary biologists.

Adding a dwarf or two to your fantasy/cabaret/oddity story will make you a sophisticated artist. In his little known essay “L’art mystérieux du nain,” Toulouse-Lautrec wrote that World War II would have been prevented had there been more dwarf figures in 1930s song and film. (Terry Gilliam and Amanda Palmer are currently in a bidding war over the rights to the essay.)

In China and Russia and other evil countries, limb-lengthening is a cruel form of torture. In America, limb-lengthening is a miracle.

Liberals say a dwarf who has had limb-lengthening is destroying the dwarf community. Conservatives say a dwarf who has not had limb-lengthening is destroying their own future. Realists point out that dwarfs are destructive by nature.

Indeed, there are three dwarf personality types: belligerent, cute or nefarious. That is all. If you have met a dwarf who is contemplative or sarcastic or boring, that person is a not a dwarf. He is a fraud. I mean frawd.

Garden gnomes are frawds.

Midgets are left-handed dwarfs. Munchkins are elves in disguise. Oompa-Loompas are related to Pygmies, but less racist, so when in doubt, say Oompa-Loompas.

Dwarfs are happy to answer any of your questions about their sex lives. Just remember that if you don’t laugh at some point, we will be offended.

Dwarfs cannot have normal children. Like our great-great-great grandfather Rumplestiltskin, we are always on the lookout for normal children to kidnap. If you see a dwarf with normal children, contact the local authorities immediately.

Remember these facts and you will be officially A.O.D., which means no one has the right to accuse you of being insensitive from here on in. Better yet, you can recite these facts at dinner parties and lecture your friends with your newfound expertise. It is very important to be the expert on a subject at a dinner party. It proves you are a grown-up.

It is also important to spend as much time as possible this month making up height puns. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a challenge as many of the best puns have already been taken: Thinking Big; Don’t Sell Yourself Short; Even Dwarfs Started Off Small; Little People Big World; In Our Hearts We Were Giants. I suggest aiming for slightly more abstract sayings like, “All dwarfs have high voices. Ironic, isn’t it?” But make sure you say “high” emphatically or it will be lost on people. (Oh, and I’ve found that saying, “Achondro -paper or -plastic?” confuses most supermarket cashiers.)

And finally, sometimes it’s spelled “dwarfs” and sometimes it’s spelled “dwarves.” We get to decide. It’s the best part about being a dwarf.

 

 

Originally posted in October 2013

On Catcalls, Body Types & Lasting Love

25 Sep

My latest article, “Disabling the Male Gaze: ‘Longing’ to Be Objectified Won’t Shatter Narrow Beauty Standards” is featured this weekend at Salon. It’s a rebuttal to a recent piece in The New York Times ongoing series on Disability.

 

 

Frozen Sperm & the Slippery Idea of Increased Risk

21 Aug

Hanging bodies(Image by Gillie Rhodes used under CC 2.0 via)
 
As long as people do not want to have children, or certain types of children, they will search for a way to avoid it. In a recent CNN report on reasons why a small but growing number young men have been freezing their sperm, achondroplasia was listed as one of the conditions the risk for which is associated with advanced paternal age. While the report cites single studies finding an increased risk for various conditions and disorders, many studies over the past two decades have linked achondroplasia to advanced paternal age. (Perhaps Mick Jagger should educate himself, if he hasn’t already.)

Most people with achondroplastic dwarfism are born to non-achondroplastic parents like mine. (“Are you parents little, too?” is one of the most common questions I get from strangers.) Most of us grew up told that our genetic mutation could not be traced to any known source. That is now changing, as news networks repeat the link to advanced paternal age.

My father was 28-years-old when I was born, hardly what we in the West think of when we envision advanced paternal age. All but one of my friends with achondroplasia have parents that were roughly the same age as my own when they were born: that is, late 20s or early 30s. And the majority of my friends with achondroplasia are first-borns.

Anecdotal evidence is often rife with bias, so I cannot officially dispute the researchers’ findings. Perhaps my friends and I are simply exceptions to the rule just like every smoker can name someone who beat the odds and puffed their way to age 95. But my personal experience easily invalidates any argument that men who freeze their sperm in their 20s or 30s are on a clear path to avoiding fathering a child with achondroplasia.

Bioethicists are divided on whether or not to advise men to freeze their sperm to avoid various conditions. Regardless of the answer, men should hear that the statistics on achondroplasia and age risk imbuing them with an inflated sense of control. One could say most forms of genetic counseling do.    

 

 

Can Playing R2D2 Be Taken Seriously?

14 Aug

R2D2(Image by Dr. Case used under CC 2.0 via)
 

British actor Kenny Baker, best known as the puppeteer who operated from inside the costume of Star Wars’ R2D2, passed away yesterday. Baker performed in six of the Star Wars films. His death is the second this year by a dwarf actor who performed a fairly well-known, non-human character. Michu Meszaros, who appeared on screen as the walking version of the alien Alf, passed away in June.

A tribute to Meszaros’s work in Germany’s (highly regarded) Süddeutsche Zeitung sparked an outcry among the German dwarf community. The offending lines include:

Meszaros was only approximately 84 cm tall. Such little people were a topic of discussion even way back in Ancient Egypt.

Dwarfs give us a thrill because they emit a fairytale-like magic. Because they give the impression of an adult that’s been stuck a child’s body. Because they move just as funnily as the gawky Stan Laurel or Jacques Tati. Because their voices squeak as if they had inhaled helium.

Dwarfs’ pitch is usually higher than women’s. This is impressive to anyone who has overcome their own voice cracking.

A backlash went viral with the hashtag #keinZwerg (“not a dwarf”). While the sentiment of the movement was nothing but admirable, linguistic differences rendered the issue a bit more complicated for this bilingual woman with dwarfism. (More on the politics of the word “dwarf” here and here.)

And perhaps predictably, the lesson learned by the offenders remained superficial rather than deeply reflective: The Süddeutssche Zeitung issued an apology for using the word “Zwerg” and replaced it with “Kleinwüchsige” (“short-statured”) in the online version of the article.

Most tributes to Baker today have simply stated the facts of his life and death, with a quotation by George Lucas:

Kenny Baker was a real gentleman as well as an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances. A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him.

I have written before about my visceral discomfort with the type of work Baker did, because such roles do not combat the stereotype of people with dwarfism as little more than props. But Lucas speaks of Baker’s work with the same respect the Jim Henson Company has expressed for the actors who have romped around in their outrageous costumes in order to portray the likes of the Ghost of Christmas Present and Big Bird.

Which begs the question: Can a career in circus performing and puppeteering based on body type elicit respect from the general public? Or will it be doomed to elicit smirks and giggles, from the open to the suppressed?

 

 

What’s the Point of Nationalism?

3 Jul

 
Brexit(Public Domain Image from Freestocks.org)

 

The National Police Chiefs Council reports hate crimes in the United Kingdom have increased fivefold in the days following the vote for Brexit. A Polish waitress was asked by two customers, “Why do you look so happy? You’re going home.” A German woman found dog excrement thrown at the door to her home. Bilingual cards reading, “Leave the EU – No more Polish vermin” were distributed in Cambridgeshire. Some Central Europeans and non-white Britons have been harassed on the street, others have had to evacuate their residences after threats. 

Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds told The Guardian:

There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism…  People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.

While politicians argue about whether or not such incidents accurately represent the Brexit movement and its anti-immigration platform, no one can deny that belligerent nationalists have felt empowered by Brexit to say what they have been feeling about foreigners for a long time.

It may be nigh impossible to publicly reason with extremists – such as those who fire-bombed a halal butchery and the white supremacist who murdered Jo Cox. But it is essential to engage with anyone in the mainstream who may agree with their politics if not their tactics. So in the wake of all this, not to mention the Fourth of July, it bears asking, what is the point of nationalism? 

British political scientist Benedict Anderson called nationalities “imagined communities” because being American or German or British is all in the mind. No Briton will ever manage to get to know—let alone meet—all of his other 65 million fellow British citizens. In fact, he won’t ever meet a majority of them. But nationalism urges him to feel connected to them, and specifically more connected to all of them, across the country and overseas, than to anyone in Ireland or France, or to any Polish or German or Japanese people who live two doors down from him.

Sociologist Patricia Hogwood argues there are two models of nationalism states can choose from: the Nation of Culture and the Nation of the Constitution. The Nation of Culture, first made popular in the 19th century, determines citizenship by supposedly uniting millions through a common language, religion, arts, sports, holidays, traditions, and appearance. To be German means to speak German, belong to the Lutheran Church, read Goethe and the Grimm fairy tales, love beer and sausages, celebrate Christmas and Oktoberfest, and be tall and blond.    

With an exception made for those who are short with thick dark mustaches. And those who love döner kebab and hate Oktoberfest. (It’s Bavarian after all.) And those who speak Sorbian or Swabian as their first language. Not to mention those millions who are Catholic. Or Muslim. Or Jewish. Indeed, Nazism and the Holocaust was nothing if not a crisis of German identity, an attempt to dictate who was allowed to live in Germany on the basis of culture.

The Nation of Culture is a fallacy because no nation on earth is monocultural. Even bite-sized Luxembourg has three official languages, plus 30% of its residents are immigrants whose first languages is Portuguese, Italian or English. For all the jokes about the superiority of the Queen’s English to the American variant, the British Isles contain 11 living indigenous languages. Not long ago speakers of many of those languages faced the same sort of adversity documented in the past week in Britain against Central Europeans and non-whites. A Nation of Culture encourages the touting of one set of traditions, fashions and physical features while ignoring, or silencing, all others.

In a Nation of the Constitution, membership is defined by one’s adherence to the laws and rights guaranteed by a government’s founding documents. Which is what the European Union aims to be: an unabashedly diverse union of states united by a commitment to democracy and the European peace project. (Access to the European single market, the world’s largest, is ideally the reward, not the goal.) Member states must ensure the rule of law, freedom of the press, free trade union organizations, no capital punishment, equal protection of all minorities, and for all citizens the guarantee of freedom of personal opinion, the right to a secret ballot in free and fair elections at every governing level, and the rights listed in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

While many of these rights have long been preserved in Great Britain, they are less than 50 years old in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and the former Soviet Bloc countries. (And, contrary to common knowledge, the E.U. has expanded rights for women in the U.K. as well.) Turkey and Albania are both candidates for E.U. membership. A cultural model of membership might block their applications on the basis of their Muslim populations, while a constitutional model of membership instead demands improvement on their human rights records.

The E.U. has plenty of work to do in improving its implementation of human rights protections and anti-corruption laws, as in cases like Greece. But it is unwavering in its demands that members must openly recognize and celebrate their cultural diversity without clashing over it, in the same way New Yorkers can make fun of Californians for being loopy, passive-aggressive, granola-crunching, up-talking airheads and Californians can make fun of New Yorkers for being tactless, aggressive-aggressive, materialistic, shouting hotheads without going to war over it. Indeed, the most enthusiastic supporters of the E.U. often speak of its members some day becoming as open and close-knit as the fifty States across the Atlantic.

Generation Euro is, as one New York Times journalist put it, one that thinks nothing of “growing up in one country, studying in another, and living in a third.” When such intermingling does not outright prevent someone’s xenophobia, it forces them to confront it head-on. As reported in 2014, one million children have been born since 1987 as a result of the European study abroad program – that is, these children were born to parents who met because one of them was taking part in the program. This leads to multilingual families with multicultural social circles who bring diverse perspectives to the table when politics and the solutions for the world’s problems come under discussion. 

It may sound idealistic if not saccharine, but a mere glance at the last 1,500 years on the continent—battle after bloody battle of Protestants vs. Catholics, capitalists vs. communists, fascists vs. democrats, Belfast vs. Belfast, Nazis vs. everyone—should forever be a reminder that the European peace project can never be taken for granted. It’s a project that makes a lot more sense than any model of cultural nationalism.

 

 

Can Hobbits Be Human?

12 Jun

homo_floresiensis(Image by Ryan Somma used under CC 2.0 via)
 
Homo floresiensis or “Florian Man” is an extinct species of hominin, named after the Indonesian isle of Flores on which remains have been found. Its precise evolutionary origin and relation to humans remains an issue of ongoing debate, most recently continued in this week’s issue of Nature. Reports in the mainstream media refer to Homo floresiensis not only as “little humans” but as “Hobbits,” on account of their characteristic short stature.

Wikipedia attributes this nickname to the ubiquity of Tolkien fans in the scientific community, while the Tolkien estate has sued scientists for using the name in lectures and documentaries on the grounds of copyright infringement. Despite court rulings, the pop science media as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History continue to refer to Homo floresiensis as Hobbits.

There are plenty of cases of scientists tending toward the glib rather than the professional when it comes to naming. The famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis was dubbed “Lucy” after the Beatles song that was playing on the archaeologists’ radio as the remains were discovered. But Homo floresiensis qualifies as having dwarfism according to scientific, medical and social definitions. Dwarfism can be identified in humans, animals, and plants, but referring to them as “Hobbits” implies an Otherness that is non-human. Does this work as long as they remain mere relatives of humans, and not fully human?

Plenty will protest that “dwarfism” itself also has its origins in mythology. Which is why there are those who seek to dissociate all human medical conditions from fantasy jargon. The German Federal Association for People of Short Stature never uses “dwarf” (“Zwerg”) to avoid connotations brought on by fairy tales. The Intersex Society of North America rejects the ancient Greek term “hermaphrodite” because it spreads scientific misinformation and attracts fetishists.

Yet others embrace these terms in an effort to confront the confusion brought on by the mythological terms head-on. It is a means of declaring: We are the freaks you read and write about. Why are you so interested in making up stories about us? Are you willing to listen to our real-life stories? Humans with dwarfism have been around a lot longer than any of our known myths and legends, regardless of how we define Homo floresiensis.

Many have rightfully argued that when it comes to grouping people, labels often cause more trouble than they’re worth. But others also correctly argue that the words we use to talk about something or someone demonstrably shape the way we think about them. And the desire to study Homo floresiensis and all humanoids is rooted in a desire to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

 

 

The Bathroom Debate and the Pursuit of Personal Comfort

5 Jun

gender_neutral_toilets_gu(Public domain image via)

 

Cisgender people have been sharing bathrooms with transgender people throughout history, whether they have been aware of it or not. So when conservative groups across the United States mobilized this spring to draft bathroom bills, demanding all citizens use public facilities “according to the sex on their birth certificates,” most people I know responded with a head shake and a shrug, summed up best by this meme.

Comedian Stephen Colbert declared on his show, “To all those lawmakers out there who are so obsessed with who’s using what bathroom and what plumbing they’ve got downtown? Newsflash: You’re the weirdos.”

Here in Berlin, unisex bathrooms have been on the rise over the past three years in parts of the city and federal buildings. (As seen in the image above.) Some citizens have expressed their outrage to reporters. Most have shrugged.

But in the U.S., the issue has been taken to court. When North Carolina became the first state to pass a bathroom bill in March, the federal government sued the state for non-compliance with anti-discrimination laws, and the Department of Education issued guidelines to schools nationwide for compliance regarding bathrooms and locker rooms. Attorney General (and North Carolina native) Loretta Lynch argued:

This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community. Some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown, and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change. But this is not a time to act out of fear…

Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.

Conservative groups have fired back. Eleven states are suing the federal government. Matt Sharp, the lawyer for a faith-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom argued on National Public Radio:

And so we’ve got several families there that the Obama administration came in and forced the District 211 to allow a biological boy into the female’s restrooms. And so these girls are telling stories about how when they’re in their locker room changing for PE, they’re now uncomfortable knowing that a boy can walk in at any time under the school’s new policy. They talk about how one girl in particular does not change out of her gym clothes but rather wears them all day long, wears them after going to gym, after getting them dirty and nasty through PE class and then just puts her clothes on top of it because she’s so nervous about the possibility of having to change and shower and whatnot in front of this boy. And we hear stories like that across the country of these girls speaking out and saying, look, we don’t want this student to be bullied or harassed or anything, but we also want our privacy protected. And we just want to know that when we go into these lockers and shower rooms that we’re not going to be forced to share with someone of the opposite biological sex. That’s all these girls are asking for.

If we want to “protect” women in bathrooms and locker rooms from the presence of people who could be attracted to them, then we have to pretend lesbians do not exist. Or stamp out homosexuality altogether. We’ve tried both. Many times. It didn’t work. And countless people suffered.

If we want to assign people to bathrooms and locker rooms based on “the gender on their birth certificates,” then we have to pretend that intersex people don’t exist. Approximately 1 in every 2,000 people are born with sex characteristics that do not correspond with the traditional Western categories of male or female. Surgeries intended to “normalize” the appearance often cost the patient sensation and function. That few of us ever learn about the prevalence of such bodies in our biology classes at school—let alone anywhere else—is a testament to the Western World’s strong tradition of ignoring the evidence that questions the gender binary.

While conservatives argue on the shaky basis of common sense and personal comfort, our personal comfort is so often inculcated in us by our culture. Multiculturalism can increase conflict, but also open minds on both sides. In 2013, a devout Muslim student sued her school in central Germany over her right to be exempt from co-ed swim class on religious grounds. The court ruled that the right to religious freedom includes the right to adhere to a Muslim principle of modesty by wearing a burqini, but that it does not extend to being exempt from swim class and the knowledge of what boys look like in swimming trunks.

Here in the former East Germany, nudism is widely accepted at the beach. It’s not uncommon to see teens and senior citizens alike strip down for a quick dip in a lake at a park. While West Germans often find that a bit strange, they shrug at the fact that public saunas are unisex across the nation. Visitors from around the world, from Japan to the U.K., famously have a hard time accepting this.

Which is why I do not believe all of America will embrace such liberal values any time soon. And yet, 100 years ago mainstream American men and women alike were aghast at the idea of bare female ankles. And bathing suits looked much more like burqinis than anything the mainstream dons today.

After all, if you want to make a Northern European laugh, just tell them that mermaids in the U.S. are always depicted wearing seashells.

When society’s traditions clash with a person’s reality, one of the two will have to change. The moral question is: Who suffers more in the change? Demanding a trans woman use the men’s bathroom because she has an x and a y chromosome puts her at very real risk for harassment and assault. And any person, cis or trans, who is denied their gender identity is at risk for a wide range of horrific experiences. For society to change, we must learn to accept the unalterable fact of human gender diversity with a willingness to learn about it, so that our descendants may someday look upon it the same way we look upon exposed ankles. History implies we are capable of that.

 

 

On Using the “I Have A Friend/Sister/Coworker Who Is A…” Argument

29 May

light parade EXPLORED! (Image by Ashley Norquist used under CC 2.0 via)
 
It was one of those conversations where you bare all because you feel you have nothing to lose. A recent, unexpected statement about my dwarfism voiced to me by someone in a position of power had brought me to tears.  Three decades of being insulted both directly and behind my back by people I know, and indirectly by many of my heroes—from John Lennon to Stephen Colbert—had left me thinking that I had heard it all and was above it all. But this had left me shaken. My friend Dee, who does not have dwarfism, cracked open two beers and examined with me the best way to deal with the insidiousness of certain prejudices.

Those of us with achondroplastic dwarfism are roughly 1 in every 40,000 people, but Dee himself has heard demeaning comments about dwarfs with far greater frequency. When confronting such remarks, he argued:

I wouldn’t use the “I have a friend who is a dwarf” argument. Because it would sound like I only care about the issue because I have a friend who could be hurt by it. It doesn’t convince other people because it doesn’t force them to examine why the idea is cruel. It just makes them think, “Well, I’ll be sure not to say that around him anymore because he’s touchy about it because of his friend…” Instead I play dumb. I keep asking them, “Why? I don’t get what you’re saying.” And they can never explain why.

I had never considered this before. Many people use the “I have a friend who is…” argument in the hopes that this might illustrate to the ignorant that such people are everywhere – that they are our friends and siblings and partners, not just oddities we get to abstractly pick apart in headlines and on TV. Yet that’s not what others hear.

And members of a given group often do not appreciate exaggerated claims of expertise on the issue via association. Madonna and Bill de Blasio, both white parents of non-white people, have been lambasted in the past year for publicly cracking black jokes that fell flat. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates explained it best when she wrote:

Even though you’re dearly loved by and even related to black people, you aren’t black. You are NBA — Negro By Association — and that gives you props for knowing the culture and lots of little intracultural folkways. But it doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail card for using phrases like C.P. Time. Especially in mixed company, in public.

The Kinfolk Kollective has argued that white parents of adopted black children must always be ready and willing to understand a perspective they simply do not have and to stand corrected when necessary. When such a willingness is absent, the issue is not at all about opening minds but the desire for insider expertise.

And “I’ve dated someone who is…” is not a solid argument—neither in defending the minority in question nor one’s own character—because simply having dated someone is no guarantee of true understanding. Not only are exes the last kind of people we tend to regard fairly, but so many people of minority status must face the risk that their date sees them as little more than a fetish – as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!” 

And yet, in order stop rampant prejudice in its tracks, these issues must be talked about by those who are not experts. Journalists and writers like myself speak on behalf of all sorts of groups without belonging to them. The results are, of course, mixed.  

In the film, Stories We Tell, producer Harry Gulkin argues that the truth about any issue cannot be found by giving equal weight to the perspectives of everyone involved in any way. There are, he argues, three circles of knowledge: The first, innermost circle comprises the people who are the players involved in the issue, the second comprises those who are directly affected by the players and their actions, and the third comprises those who tangentially know about it because they have heard accounts from those in the first or second circle. This theory applies easily to the experience of someone considered Different by their society and the other lives affected by the attention society affords it. Using the example of disability:

First Circle: The person who is disabled

Second Circle: Their parents, siblings, partners, closest friends (who are not disabled)

Third Circle: Relatives, friends, coworkers (who are not disabled)

The people in the Third Circle are most at risk for spreading misinformation, regardless of intention. It is noble, for example, to fight the good fight in the bathroom debate because you know someone trans whom you really like. But it doesn’t mean you won’t misinterpret their thoughts and feelings, or give in to temptation and reduce some of their story to gossip.

The people in the Second Circle, as Madonna proved, are also at risk for such blunders. And too many partners, close friends and immediate family members err by letting their darkest fears and most selfish impulses lead them to say or do something terrible to the person in the First Circle. But on the flipside, much of the best work in minority rights has been produced by partners and parents of frequently marginalized people. And the experiences of the caregiver and their place in society is another kind of knowledge altogether.

Returning to Dee’s approach, the goal should not be about personal relationships and expertise, but about the most effective way to open minds and halt the spread of misinformation. 

Meanwhile, the More-Enlightened-Than-Thou game should be restricted to the smallest of circles. This was perhaps best elucidated to me by my friend Bill. Shortly after having come out, he mused to me, “I’ve decided you’re more open-minded than I am.” 

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you have lots of friends who are gay.  I only have one friend who’s a dwarf.” He took a sip of his Coke and smiled out of the corner of his eye. “And I’m thinking of dropping her.”

 

 

Muttertag

8 May

Mother and Son(Image by Andy415 used under CC 2.0 via)
 

A very happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I have had the pleasure of knowing, not least of all my own.

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

And to those of you who had to take care of your mothers (and yourselves) much earlier than the rest of us had to,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what neighbors (or politicians) may have said,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what nature ultimately decided,

And to those of you who are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

On Teaching Kids (and Ourselves) Not To Assume

24 Apr

Televisión escolar(Image by Antonio Jose Fernandez used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I was about to help a 5-year-old remove her tricycle helmet when we were cut off by a man staggering slowly down the street. Unnerved by his sudden presence and unusual gait, she stepped back and did a double-take. She stared at him and then turned to me. “He walks strange.”

I smiled but waited a few more beats until he seemed to be out of earshot. In the meantime, I wondered what to say to her. The adult/cynic in me was responsible for my gut feeling that he must be struggling with drugs or alcohol.

But then I considered how useful gut feelings really are in such situations. Annette Funicello complained of being accused of drunkenness when she was struggling with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. I have had enough questions about my sway back and achondroplastic gait to the point where I can only guess how many people aren’t bothering to ask me and simply making their own silent assumptions.

And while some have claimed gossip can be beneficial, it is so often responsible for misinformation and arrogance – the bedrock of ableism.

“He might be sick,” I said to her. “But we don’t know. He hasn’t told us. Sometimes when you’re sick your legs don’t work right. Do you remember when I had a brace on my leg last year?”

She nodded, and then peered once more down the street at him. “I think it’s ‘cuz he’s old! He has a gray beard and lots of old people have gray beards…”

 “Some do!  Like Santa Claus, right?”

 She nodded.

 “And my dad has a gray beard and lots of people call him Santa Claus!”

 She laughed.

 “But [my husband] has little gray whiskers, too, and he’s not really old yet, is he?”

 “No… ”

 “Does your daddy have little gray whiskers, too?”

 “One or two… ”

 “Yeah. Do they scratch when he gives you a kiss?”

 “Yup!”

Neither she nor I will ever be fully liberated from the temptation to silently classify many of the strangers we encounter throughout our lives. But the idea that we can remind ourselves that we ultimately cannot know for sure, and that such conversations need not be engulfed in tones of complacency or pity is an idea worth considering. 

 

 

And If Someone Thinks You’re Plus-Size, Then What?

10 Apr

Untitled(Image by Daniela Goulart used under CC license 2.0 via)

 

The tiff between comedienne Amy Schumer and Glamour magazine this week has reached the media coverage level of Big Deal. In an issue featuring plus-size models on its cover, Glamour listed Schumer under “Inspiring Women We Admire” alongside Melissa McCarthy and Adele. Schumer took to Twitter to complain:

I think there’s nothing wrong with being plus size. Beautiful healthy women. Plus size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and an 8. @glamourmag put me in their plus size only issue without asking or letting me know and it doesn’t feel right to me. Young girls seeing my body type thinking that is plus size? What are your thoughts? Mine are not cool glamour not glamourous.

The Glamour editors apologized for hurt feelings, while emphasizing their respect for Schumer and that they didn’t actually mean to suggest she is plus-size.

The public has divided in two, with Schumer’s supporters claiming she has helped to question not only the definition but the very idea of “plus-size.” After all, as the children’s book You Are (Not) Small shows, size is relative. “Plus size” is, to be sure, an utterly made-up idea, necessary to absolutely no one on earth.

The other faction has criticized Schumer’s seemingly contradictory praise for plus-size models in the same breath that she insists she doesn’t belong with them. While I am not interested coming to any conclusions about Amy Schumer’s true personality and values, her actions thusfar represent an all too common problem in the body positive movement. The problem leaves women who larger than a size 6 or 8 to fend for themselves not only against the hideousness of lookism in general, but against the implication that their smaller sisters are all quietly consoling themselves with the mantra, “At least I don’t look like that!

Spend decades working to pick apart body image and lookism, and you’ve heard this all before. A woman—usually a woman—is an out and proud feminist, ready to rar about restrictive beauty standards while cracking jokes about her curves, but she cannot and will not stand anything less than compliments on her looks from others. In some cases, she goes fishing for compliments as much if not more than your average beauty pageant queen:

“I’m not short!”

“He called me ‘Ma’am!’ I’m not old!”

“The test rated me as obese. I’m not obese! Obese is…”

Instead of questioning what’s wrong with being old, she rages against the implication that she is. Instead of questioning what exactly would be so wrong with strangers not liking her looks, she argues that they would in a just world.

The reason so many of us end up doing this is because we like to be thought of as confident, yet we behave based on fear. We fear being called ugly, we fear not having broad appeal, and we do nothing to confront those fears. We talk openly about them. And stop there. And in doing so, we spread them.

We don’t face up to the fact that “winning” the beauty pageant game by having fashionable looks is no guarantee of lasting love or happiness. Instead, we keep on envying the winners and ever so quietly echoing the Mean Girls we met in high school: It is very important that most people think you are attractive. Beauty contests matter. Hierarchies matter, at least a little. No one wants to be last. You need someone to look down on in order to build yourself up. That’s natural. It’s a mess of a message to women and men, young and old alike. And it helps no one.

Sometimes it helps to switch from the high school mindset to an even less mature one. Spend a lot of time around pre-school children, and you know you can’t control what they notice:

“I think you’re pregnant!”

“Your skin’s all wrinkly!”

“Why are you so short?”

“Why do you walk so funny?”

“This hair is gray!”

“What’s that stripe on your arm?”

“What are those dots on your face?”

“Twenty-two is old!”

Pre-school teachers will fail—let alone make it through their first week— if they let such comments get to them. The best response, of course, is to engage the child and together examine the bodily feature they want to understand. If you don’t have the energy for a teaching moment, however, you simply shrug it off. Or say, “I am short/scarred/disabled because that’s just how my body looks. I like it that way.”

And if you want them to believe that—or anyone to believe that—then it helps if you believe it, too.