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Do We Need Statues of Real People?

1 May

Happy May 1st! The idea of “the people” and “the public square” and “equality-means-everybody” has me thinking about statues. And about historical figures and artists and everyone whose work had an undeniable impact on the world and the problem of their having also done or said terrible things that contributed to the subjugation and/or suffering and/or marginalization of many people. And I wonder, do we need statues of real people? (Or faces on coins and bills?) Germany places its statues of undisputed criminals in museums. I’d be hard pressed to find any recent statues of real people around here.

Does any society need statues of real people? The human impulse to want to learn about – and usually like – someone whose work we like is so powerful, it’s surely impossible to eradicate from our systems. Fandom is here to stay. But books, articles, documentaries and museums exhibits can/should force us to learn about the person in context, learn about everything they did, whom they helped and whom they hurt. Statues simplify people, remove context, rinse them of responsibility for any harm they caused. In turning them into idols, we place them above others, which is the opposite of equality. Do we really need statues of real people in public? What will be lost if we ended the tradition?

Imaginary figures seem fine to me, whether unnamed as in the nice big lady above you can see in Oslo, or well-known fictional characters. I don’t think there is a problem with statues of the Greek gods. Everyone knows they were jerks.

What’s Old and New about these Book Bans

6 Feb

Luis Alvaz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it wasn’t the best book I read as a teen, Richard Peck’s 1995 young adult novel about a suburban town’s attempts to shield its teens from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll certainly had the best title summing up the whole idea: The Last Safe Place on Earth. The 1990s are often thought of as a more placid era in America in contrast to today. After all, no politician from an opposing party angrily denied Bill Clinton’s electoral victories, let alone urged a mob of violent citizens to stop the congressional counts of the election results. 

But right-wing extremists embracing both anti-government and white supremacist ideologies bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people including 19 children. A total of seven women’s health workers were murdered and 13 more were injured by shootings, stabbings, bombings or acid attacks perpetrated by anti-abortion terrorists over the course of the decade. (That’s not counting attacks before or after the 90s.) I distinctly remember the day my schoolteacher wrapped up a debate about the death penalty and then soundly refused a student’s request to hold a debate on abortion. “Now way. Grown-ups can’t even handle that debate without resorting to violence,” he declared. In the 90s, the culture wars were raging as we, the kids of the Baby Boomers, sat in schools and parents fought over whether or not we should be allowed to learn anything from the feminists or the gays who had fought and were fighting for liberation. If you ever heard about a proposed book ban in schools or libraries, you could be fairly safe guessing it came from the Christian Right, opposing anything that didn’t portray premarital sex as sinful, feminists as destructive or queer kids as sick. 

The current calls to remove certain books from school libraries are novel only in part. The American Library Association provides statistics on the most frequently challenged books since 1990 and some of the titles and many of the topics on this year’s list remain the same. In 1990, Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal was the villain of the hour, while today it’s Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is A Funny Word. Comprehensive sex education has been attacked ever since it was first proposed in America and 19 states still mandate abstinence-only lessons. Last year’s miniseries Mrs. America deftly showed how Phyllis Schlafly used the power of an enormous mailing list to unite diverse conservatives and religious groups across the country in their staunch opposition to gender equality and make them into the massively powerful political force they have become. Judy Blume, who has long been the most challenged author in the United States, wrote about her experience in 1999:

There was no organized effort to ban my books, or any other books that I knew of anyway. The seventies were a good decade for writers and readers. Many of us came of age during those years, writing from our hearts and guts, finding editors and publishers who believed in us, who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world. Kids with real feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were. And young kids gobbled up our books, hungry for books with characters with whom they could identify…

Then, almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. It was the beginning of the decade that wouldn’t go away, that still won’t go away…

But the calls to remove books about the Holocaust and Ruby Bridges today are something new. I can’t speak to the experience of students in the Southern states, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought successfully 150 years ago to expunge discussions of slavery and human rights from school history lessons about the Civil War. But in the 1990s, it was very easy as a white teen living first on Long Island and then in an Upstate New York town with minimal racial diversity to think that racism existed but was mostly a problem of the past. I learned in school how heroic American soldiers had liberated the concentration camps and how heroic Northerners had helped Dr. King end segregation through non-violent resistance. Both stories had happy endings. I never learned about the U.S. government rejecting a ship of Jewish asylum-seekers during the Holocaust. Or about any of the Americans who supported fascism or antisemitism, or the two-thirds of Americans who said German Jews were either fully or partly to blame for their own persecution. Or about violent reactions to racially integrating schools in the Northern states. Or about white flight, past or present. The Oklahoma City bombing was taught as tragic, militia groups were framed as crazy, but there were no lessons about these groups’ ties to white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan faded from our history books after we finished the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.

I knew homophobia was everywhere – from my classmates (and the occasional teacher) who used slurs regularly, to national figures who called lesbians degenerate, to the outrage in the local papers over an attempt to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school. Such viciousness regarding race seemed to exist only far away. A friend and I were wide-eyed when we found violently racist graffiti on our playground. And when my mother bought a subscription to the newsletter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned there were hate groups around the U.S. But such statistics were not taught in school and they did not make the front page of mainstream papers, which made me subconsciously wonder how big of a deal they really were. No mainstream sources were asking me to question why all the neighborhoods I had lived in were all-white, or where those who had so viciously opposed Dr. King had gone.

In the 90s, intersectionality and Critical Race Theory were around but never afforded attention outside of academia. Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth called out the left for having gone soft on human rights and taking Black voters for granted, but it attracted little more than passing popularity among my classmates for its brazen gangsta talk. We wouldn’t have been allowed to watch it in high school on the grounds of foul language.

At the same moment in modern history, my partner was across the Atlantic, sitting in a Catholic high school in Germany, learning in no uncertain terms that his country was responsible for the Holocaust. Here in Germany, book bans have widely been condemned since the 1960s to be the work of fascists, as memorialized by Berlin’s Empty Library, seen in the photo above next to the plaque reading, “Those who burn books are capable of burning people.” Susan Neiman’s excellent book, Learning from the Germans, outlines how U.S. municipalities and schools could teach about our own history of racism, sexism, ableism and human rights crises in a way that precludes complacent self-congratulation and nationalism. Proposals echoing such suggestions are the target of so many of the book challenges and vitriolic debates in schools today.

The rise of voices calling out modern racism in the U.S. began in the 2000s when I was in college, where many of my fellow Millennials embraced Michael Moore and John Stewart. Such voices were regularly dismissed as fringe by the mainstream media, and you were easily dismissed as a crazy lefty if you mentioned them around certain neighbors or relatives in the post-9/11 era. A college course in genetics confronted me with the faulty science of The Bell Curve, a book I could barely believe had become a bestseller in the 90s. Barack Obama’s first run on the campaign trail left me shocked at how many white voters—both Republicans and Democratic feminists alike—openly used racist arguments to attack him and his family in support of their preferred candidates. Discussions of racism in the mainstream appeared to gradually increase over the course of his presidency.

In 2015, the year after the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the New York Times revealed in a front-page story that the village of Yaphank, a 10-minute ride from my childhood home, was once the site of Hitler Youth camps and still had a whites-only housing policy on the books. In 2018, an in-depth, 10-part report featured in Newsday revealed that Long Island’s four counties—Suffolk, Nassau, Brooklyn and Queens—top the list for the most racially segregated counties in the United States. Such mainstream media attention to racist policies that have been there all along is new, and if students in school today are not learning about it, they should be.

Even John McWhorter, a frequent critic of today’s human rights activism, has lauded this mainstream shift as an improvement:

I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism. Despite my alarm at the excesses of today’s progressive politics, I’ve never argued the simplistic notion that racism boils down to cross-burnings and white people saying the N-word. I recall sadly a conversation I had, when I was a grad student, with a white woman who was an undergraduate. She said, roughly: “So today, Black people can go anywhere they want, they can do anything they want — what’s the problem?” And she wasn’t terribly interested in an answer. Her question was more of a declaration, what she regarded as just facts, and she felt no civic impulse to even consider otherwise.

Of course, her perspective, then, is alive and well now. Yet an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids—upper-middle-class New Yorkers—casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept. I was hearing no such thing in my grad student days. Gallup polling asking “Are Black people in your community treated less fairly than White people?” in situations involving the workplace, shopping, dining out, interactions with police and access to health care, shows that from 1997 until 2021, white Americans and Americans overall became more aware of racial disparities.

Whether it’s a backlash to more probing lessons about racism or a decades-long effort to marginalize queer citizens, restrictions on libraries always threaten democracy. The current efforts to curtail human rights discussions by removing resources on history in schools in the United States is a crisis. But we should never ignore the proof that the seeds for this crisis were sown long ago.

This Blog Is 10 Years Old & Beauty Has Become So Much More Beautiful

30 Jan

Welcome to sunny side! was one of the messages I received last month on my 40th birthday. I have indeed felt a glow about the whole thing. With 40 years under my belt, I’ve decidedand tell everyone I meetthat I now know everything. Joking aside, I began Painting On Scars 10 years ago this month and I knowdown to the very core of my beingthat so many things have gotten so much better in the last decade. Yes, some things have become horrifically worse. We’re entering the third year of an indisputably wretched pandemic, and my country of origin has been sliding down the list of robust democracies, and the partisan divide President Obama sought to overcome way back when has deepened and become more vicious no matter whom you ask. (More on that some day soon.) But Peter Dinklage is starring in his wife’s version of Cyrano, which hit theaters in the U.S. yesterday, and the way the media has responded is one of the many reasons I’m happy to be alive right now.

I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering how certain human rights movements took off when they did. The way our history books in school taught it, the Civil Rights movement was a burst of anger marking the end of the placid 1950s, brought on by certain great men like Dr. King who just suddenly got the idea to end Jim Crow. We never learned about all the activists fighting to ban lynching long before Dr. King or the family of Emmett Till, and we never learned how the Nuremberg Trials and Holocaust studies facilitated conversations about racism. Minority rights’ movements always seemed to come of out nowhere, led by great individuals. Lessons in school easily led us to believe that before Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Harvey Milk, no one had ever heard of equality for Black, female or gay citizens.

It wasn’t until the social justice movements that we’re observing nowthe New Left, the wokeness or whatever you want to call itthat I really understood how a movement breaks into the mainstream from the margins. It begins in activist circles and, with success, the circles begin to expand until one day you realize those high school friends who rolled their eyes at any talk of gay rights are putting up marriage equality logos on their social media accounts. Many in the mainstream feel that all this talk about trans rights and genderqueer rights, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has been sudden, and they are not entirely wrong. The farther you are from the margins, the less likely you are to have heard the conversations that have been going on there for so long.

When I began Painting On Scars in 2012, Peter Dinklage won his first Emmy award for his role on Game of Thrones and at the ceremonies he made a brilliantly crafted plea to end dwarf-tossing. Mainstream media sources reporting on it implied via tone that the right to have one’s bodily safety and autonomy respected was not too much for men “suffering” from dwarfism to ask. But no mainstream journalist dared name any people or systems that had allowed dwarf-tossing to be seen as nothing more than a joke – like, for example, the bars that ran dwarf-tossing events, the politician who tried to remove a Florida ban to “stimulate the economy” or the creators of the hugely successful Lord of the Rings films. Dinklage was hailed as one of the best things about Game of Thrones, his alma mater invited him to give the commencement address, and Rolling Stone declared him a “Sexy Beast.” But his success was handled as an individual case. The argument that Hollywood should expand leading roles beyond its awfully short list of acceptable body colors, sizes and shapes remained at the margins. In the mainstream, it was at best acknowledged as a quaint pipe dream. Now Dinklage is on the media circuit for Cyrano and journalists are rolling their eyes with him at such passé limitations of imagination. What a difference a decade makes.

In 2012, debates about the lack of casting opportunities for actors of color and with disabilities were happening on places like feministing.com and The Patt Morrison Show. (Ever heard of it?) Not the Sunday Times. Leading men were overwhelmingly white, non-disabled and very, very, VERY not feminine. Flash forward to today and Timothée Chalamet has been hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a sex symbol, the male actor of his generation and, repeatedly, a softboi – one of many men enjoying mainstream success who feel as free as women to be masculine or feminine or a nuanced version of both. Or neither. In 2012, Eddie Izzard was the only male known around the world for wearing dresses and makeup unironically. In 2012, few would have believed an out and proud rapper could flourish outside the queer community let alone top the charts, as Lil Nas X has. In 2012, no one in the U.S. could name a transgender celebrity of any considerable renown. It would have been all too easy to imagine the producers of normcore Jeopardy! declining the application of a transgender woman on the grounds that such a contestant would be, you know, distracting. This week, Amy Schneider ended her winning streak on Jeopardy!, the second longest in the show’s 56-year-history. When she was recognized in the stands at a Warriors game, she received an ovation from the crowd. You know something’s shifted in the mainstream when basketball fans hail you as a hometown hero.

The growth in acceptance of so many different minorities signifies a broader awareness of intersectional social justice – the understanding of how different minority issues overlap. As Peter Dinklage recently told the Times, “The idea of a leading actor is changing now. Whether racially or whatever. It’s about time. We’ve been stuck with this stereotype of a leading man and it’s healthy to open that up. Love life is not the domain of pretty people – everybody has a love life.” Pretty has gotten so much prettier.

We can’t let this movement turn out to have been just a moment. And reducing bias and hate in the mainstream should never be mistaken for eradication. In 2012, five years before #MeToo, blatant sexual harassment and assault in the workplace were considered to be little more than shocking scenes seen on Mad Men, there to show how much had changed. HR departments and the women’s movement were thought to have made enough strides to render harassment the problem of just a few bad apples. Your willingness to believe a politician’s accusers fell heavily along party lines. And we were convinced of this as men like Harvey Weinstein were not only breaking into womens’ rooms at night, but doing so as his coworkers rolled their eyes and sighed, “Oh, that’s just Harvey.”

For all my pleasure at Peter Dinklage’s star treatment this month, the risk remains that he will be an anomaly among dwarf artists rather than a trailblazer. No other person with dwarfism has reached anywhere near his level of international renown in the decade since his first Emmy win. Marlee Matlin’s success in the 80s and 90s was followed by little else for the Deaf community. This fall’s acclaimed crime series Only Murders in the Building broke new ground by featuring an entire episode in American Sign Language led by a Deaf supporting character. That episode was excellent and its moment of upfront, vicious ableism made my heart jump into my throat because it rang so true. But could an entire series with a physically disabled leading man attract so much acclaim? Could it survive beyond one season, or remain a gimmick? How about several series starring disabled actors?

We can’t ever allow the comfort of success for marginalized minorities to devolve into complacency. 100 years ago, my beloved city of Berlin showed that mainstream tolerance of queer and intersex citizens could rapidly erode into tolerance for those who sent them to death camps. Explicit hate and danger remain very real threats today. And there are still far too many well-meaning but harmful assumptions left in the world to consider it equally safe and welcoming to all. For all of Dinklage’s applause for the new opportunities we’re witnessing in Hollywood, he had nothing good to say this week about the latest news of Disney’s live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

They were very proud to cast a Latina actress as Snow White… Take a step back and look at what you’re doing there. It makes no sense to me. You’re progressive in one way and you’re still making that f***ing backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together? What the f*** are you doing, man? Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soap box? I guess I’m not loud enough. I don’t know which studio that is but they were so proud of it. All love and respect to the actress and all the people who thought they were doing the right thing. But I’m just like, what are you doing? … If you tell the story of Snow White with the most f***ed up, progressive spin on it? Then, yeah, let’s do it. 

Disney claims to be “consulting” the dwarf community in order to portray the seven men as respectfully as possible. In the vein of Dinklage’s suggestion for a truly progressive spin on the story, I think Disney should take inspiration from the several living room productions of Snow White I roped my friends and cousins into that starred yours truly. What could be more radical than to have Snow Whitethe young woman considered so extraordinarily beautiful by the queen she needed to be killedportrayed by someone with dwarfism? Kids of any body type, gender or skin color who have loved the fairy tale for its drama should be able to grow up to play the star. But do we think the public’s imagination could go quite that far? Are we there yet? If not, what will it take?

Here’s Hoping You’ll Be Hearing about Ali Stroker From More Than Just Me

1 Aug

Perhaps the worst thing about the arts—at the least the performing arts—is how they’ve ended up as the most powerful perpetuator of lookism around the world. From colorism to ableism to fat-shaming, mass media bears a remarkable responsibility for ignoring diverse beauty standards and marginalizing various body types. But the best thing about the arts is the way they dodge objectivity, remaining open to reinterpretation forever and ever.

When you hear “I’m Just A Girl That Can’t Say No” sung by a waif, it sounds like the mid-century acceptance of sexiness in women as long they stay coquettish – that is to say, naïve. When it’s sung by a strong-voiced but conventionally attractive woman, it becomes the anthem of the whore – a classic character whom tradition keeps in high demand but never in high regard. And when it’s sung by a woman in a wheelchair—who is the first actor in a wheelchair ever to make it to Broadway—it’s nothing but empowerment, a sonorous TAKE THAT! to our traditions that automatically deem physically disabled women off the dating market while behind the scenes rendering them seven times more like to be sexually abused in the United States than the general population.

When I read Ali Stroker had become the first actor using wheelchair on a Broadway stage in 2015’s Spring Awakening, my first reaction was, “Wait, what?” The very first full-length musical I attended was a production of Guys and Dolls at my local high school, with a classmate’s brother in the lead as Sky Masterson. He used a wheelchair—I cannot say if it was temporarily or permanently—and the image was presented so matter-of-factly that it imbued in me a deep-seated sense of “Well, why not?” When it comes to possibilities, seeing is believing. But visions can be deceiving and I was deceived into assuming this sort of thing happened all the time. It did not. In 2019, Stroker became the first actor with a physical disability to win a Tony in Daniel Fish’s dark revival of Oklahoma! (This highly acclaimed version originated at Bard College, my alma mater.)

Stroker has spoken at length about what equal opportunity and accessibility in acting truly means. She’s called out Hollywood and Broadway’s addiction to choosing only non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters like Franklin Roosevelt and Helen Keller, likening it to blackface. This week she spoke with the ACLU about the importance of integrating her disability and her wheelchair into any character she portrays without the need for explaining the disability.

I highlight this now because Broadway is about to re-open for the first time since the pandemic and because the worst thing we could do after her achievements is to let Stroker become a one-hit wonder and remain a novelty. Marlee Matlin made history in film and television as the first widely known Deaf actor in the 1980s and 90s, and Google reveals she continues to be the only one of such renown.

Of course, long-lasting change has to be structural. As both Stroker and Anthony Ramos of Hamilton have pointed out, people long marginalized in the arts must be represented not only on the stage but in the writers’ rooms and board rooms if the power imbalance is ever to be corrected and career opportunities for all are to be really, truly equal. That’s why I hope you continue to hear about Ali Stroker and many, many other physically disabled actors until the distinction no longer matters because there are too many to count.

How Can We Decide What Makes A Female?

20 Sep

This week the world lost one of the greatest warriors against discrimination on the basis of sex and gender – the very same week that the World Athletics track and field authority ruled that South African champion Caster Semenya will not be allowed to compete in women’s sports in the next Olympics unless she agrees to take medications to lower her testosterone levels. This ruling raises not only issues of bioethics, but—as you can see in the video from Vox above—the plain fact that who belongs to what sex entirely depends upon which scientific definition you choose to go by.

Many misunderstand “intersex” to simply mean a person who has a penis and a vagina. But intersexing conditions include people with ambiguous genitalia, people with one set of genitalia but another set of chromosomes, people with hormone levels rarely found occuring alongside the set of chromosomes or genitalia they have, etc., ad infinitum. White Western beauty standards traditionally associate softer facial bone structure with females and hairier bodies with males, which has led to people from other ethnicities whose biology does not conform to this more often being suspected by Western sports authorities of being intersex or transgender.

Sports obviously matter to Semenya almost as much as her identity as a woman does, so I am in no position to say what she should do in the face of the demand she take hormones. I can only contribute to the views of a public that honors sports and competition so highly that participants have been and are willing to all but torture their bodies for them. Semenya qualifies not only as a minority by virtue of her intersex features, but by her determination to refuse to take whatever body-altering treatments the authorities demand. Perhaps she understands on a deeper level that sports are are as made up as anything else in human society.

From the judging in gymnastics to the disputed calls of referees to the regular changes in rules and scoring, little is objective and everything is up for debate. I get the joy of being wowed by what the human body can do and the feeling of vicariously living through an athlete’s victory. But I also get Emma Gingerich, an Amish woman who left her community and, when asked to name something in modern American life she could never adapt to, replied, “Definitely, games are overrated. I don’t like playing games. I think it’s such a waste of time. I would rather pick up a book.”

Sports and its ever-changing rules aren’t going away anytime soon. Nor is sexism. But the more the world opens its eyes and ears to the many, many people whose bodies defy traditional definition and have until now been marginalized for it, the deeper our discussions of fairness become.

“Somebody Was Doing the Lion King Thing…”

2 Jun

 

Leaving you this week with the above BBC video of Things Not to Say to People with Dwarfism. With candid personal stories ranging from awkward jokes to physical abuse and assault, discretion is advised. This is not your typical the-only-disability-is-a-bad-attitude public service announcement. Kudos to all involved for the honesty. And to the rest of us, what are we still doing that allows these incidents to continue and pervade?

 

 

Mother’s Day & All It Touches

12 May

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

From the Archives, updated

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 bravely chose to have someone else become a mother in your stead,

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.

 

 

Six Months After Becoming the First Country to Ban Street Harassment, France’s Minister of Equality Declares the Law A Success

5 May

 

In August of last year, France became the first nation on earth to ban street harassment – that is, “sexist and sexual violence.” While the #MeToo movement can certainly be credited with getting the law passed, many have pointed to a single video that helped in the final push (see above). In the video, a man punches a woman in the face after she swears at him in retaliation for having cat-called her. Since August, France’s police have issued just under 450 fines for street harassment. Marlène Schiappa, the Minister of Equality, says this proves both the success and the necessity of the law. As the law came into effect, she declared: “We want to preserve seduction, chivalry, and ‘l’amour à la française’ by saying what is key is consent. Between consenting adults everything is allowed; we can seduce, talk, but if someone says ‘No,’ it’s ‘No,’ and it’s final.”

I have written before about street harassment, particularly in the context of disability. Some of my first experiences with it as an adult were in France when I landed there as an 18-year-old community service volunteer, away from home for the first time. After learning the hard way that my American proclivity for smiling at strangers was almost always taken as an open invitation for aggressive men on the prowl, I asked a French woman a decade older than I was how she dealt with unwanted attention and pushy propositions. “Well, I have a fake wedding ring I often wear,” was not the solution I had been looking for.

The problem is larger than a single law can solve, but I applaud this step forward. As so many women have said before, the reason most women do not want to be approached  by strangers with any hint of aggression is their well-founded fear that the perpetrator will not take no for an answer, as in the video. And to those who worry that this prevents straight men from being real men and that seeking clear consent kills the romance, I issue more crowd-sourced wisdom from the better angels of the Internet: Straight men understand consent when they go to a gay bar. Though I might add “suddenly” to that statement, when discussing the sort of men who defend street harassment.

 

Banned Books Week Should Fight Censorship & Simplistic Thinking

23 Sep

 

Today the American Library Association kicks of its annual Banned Books Week to spread awareness of the dangers of censorship. Each year the ALA releases a list of the top ten books that were most often requested to be removed from U.S. libraries—usually school libraries—by parents and political activists alike. In 2017, the majority of the most challenged books were stories about LGBT acceptance. However, as with nearly every year, a few titles on the list were targeted for use of racial slurs.

I love Banned Books Week if anything because discussing these issues is crucial. I do believe every public library should be free to contain every book humanity has ever brought forth. But, as examined before, those opposed to censorship should not assume the solutions are simple like censors do.

When it comes to kids, you’d have to look hard to find someone who believes that no one should ever take a child’s age and developmental level into account when selecting stories for them. I save many of my favorite books for the children in my life until they are old enough to appreciate them fully because infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers can get scared or—more likely—bored if they can’t follow along. Most children in primary school do not understand sarcasm, which is why Stephen Colbert did not let his kids watch The Colbert Report.

Children are a diverse group, so of course many kids will be ready earlier than others to handle mature topics. But just as I believe it takes a mature mind to understand the  BDSM portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, I believe there is a world of a difference between an older child who is ready to learn about the nuances of racism and a young child who will likely repeat the N-word without giving it much thought, and think it’s funny if it elicits shocked expressions among grown-ups.

With all this in mind, Banned Books Week should be about debate, endless and free.

 

 

#MeToo Has to Support Men, Too

26 Aug

 

 

What a month. Asia Argento, one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein and lead the #MeToo movement last year, was accused this week by a younger man who claims she coerced him into sex when he was underage. Argento denies the charges.

Early last week, Professor Avital Ronell, who is lesbian, was found guilty by New York University of sexually assaulting one of her students, who is a gay man. Throughout the university’s investigation, many feminist academics–including superstar Judith Butler–defended Ronell and slandered her accuser in ways reminiscent of how so many women of the #MeToo movement have been.

The next day, a grand jury investigation into six Pennsylvania dioceses was released, which is the largest study by a government agency of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to date. The investigation found abuse of over 1,000 children by 300 priests over the course of seven decades. Most of the victims were boys.

In a rant that now appears astoundingly prescient, Samantha Bee kicked off the month of August by pointing to a fact that is as harrowing as it is simple: we are really bad at talking about men as victims of sexual abuse. Even if you don’t like her humor, her argument is rock-solid.

Studies range widely in the estimate of how many men and boys are raped or sexually assaulted. The CDC says 1 in 71 men in the U.S. have been raped; the National Crime Victimization Survey found in 2013 that 38% of victims of sexual violence in the U.S. were male. As with all cases of sexual assault, statistics are muddied by the vast problem of under-reporting and by variations in definition. In many jurisdictions around the world, it’s not considered rape if your partner did it, and it’s not rape if you begged your partner to stop after sex began, and it’s not rape if you’re not a virgin, or anything less than a flawless human being, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Even the more liberal estimates confirm the already widely held belief that more victims of assault and rape are women and girls rather than men and boys. But that doesn’t mean we should only afford male victims a cursory mention. Human rights means justice for everyone, no matter how rare their experience, and if you believe in equality for minorities, then you know fighting for their rights demands particular rigor because minorities are so easily shoved to the margins.

For almost a year now, the #MeToo movement has shed much-needed light on the horrors wrought up on straight, white, cis, non-disabled women. But its failure to communicate the horrors wrought upon victims of other demographics with the same frequency has been disturbingly persistent. And it’s not just because straight, white, cis, non-disabled women are the most common victims. They’re not. As shown earlier this year, disabled women are far likelier to be victims of sexual assault than the general population.

Before anti-feminists joyously insist that this just proves women’s rights activists are a bunch of dumb hypocrites, it’s important to realize that almost no one has done a very good job of talking about rape victims who are men. It’s traditional gender roles that say that guys can’t be raped by women because we should assume guys are constantly horny and would never turn down a chance for sex. It’s traditional gender roles that, at worst, find it funny when a man is raped by a man because it means he’s either weak or gay or both. It’s traditional gender roles that, at best, recoil in horror at the idea of a boy or man being forced but ultimately have no idea what to say about such a thing.

Two years ago, Raymond M. Douglas published a book, On Being Raped, about his experience and the failure of modern society to equip boys and men with the appropriate language to talk about it. Mainstream feminism has failed to tackle this problem. Now’s the time if ever.

As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke wrote on Twitter last Tuesday:

I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward. It will continue to be jarring when we hear the names of some of our faves connected to sexual violence unless we shift from talking about individuals… and begin to talk about power. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender.

And as Douglas told NPR in his advice to other victims, “The most important thing: You’re not alone. There are so many more of us out here than you think. Don’t give up.”

 

*I use the term “victim” in deference to Douglas, who says, “One of the reasons that a lot of people are a little squishy about the word ʻsurvivor,’ is that it seems to imply that once you’ve attained that status, it’s all done and dusted, it’s all safely in the past. And for a huge number of people, it isn’t and it won’t be, it won’t ever be.” It is imperative to note, however, that many other people prefer the term survivor.

I Still Don’t Believe in Leagues

12 Aug

matrioschka (Image by Maria Zaikina used under CC 2.0 via)

 

One of the most harmful and ubiquitous of all impulses is the desire to have someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves. When we are worried that we’re not winning at life—at work, at love, at health & fitness—we too often look for those we think could be ranked below us and use the idea At least I’m not like that! as a salve. Occasionally indulging in such thinking privately in our weaker moments is human, but to assert it out loud or act on it is to descend into the cowardice of a high school mean girl. It’s both socially poisonous and wholly ironic that the fear of not ranking high in a given hierarchy too often inspires us to buy more and more into the idea of the hierarchy, instead of inspiring us to question it.

Firm belief in hierarchies is the fastest path to hate and the fact that it feeds on human insecurity is reason enough to question it, as I recently did at a dinner party, attacking the idea of natural hierarchies of beauty: “Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There are no universal rules. I for one don’t find Dwayne Johnson or Tom Cruise or Jon Hamm attractive at all, despite what any magazine editor says. Johnny Depp, now he was once cute—”

“No, he wasn’t!” rebutted a friend.

“See? Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There’s no such thing as being universally attractive.”

I’ve encountered lots of arguments to the contrary, but little evidence, which is why I looked upon the recent Atlantic article about “dating out of your league” with narrowed eyes. Upon closer reading, I realized the study it featured wasn’t really saying anything new. The phrase “out of my/his/her league” is generally used to mean people can be objectively divided into ascending ranks of beauty or sexiness and that only people in the higher ranks have a chance at those in the higher ranks. It’s one of pop culture’s biggest myths. That certain people attract more people than others in a certain social setting, however, is a fact that can be corroborated by evidence. And that’s what The Atlantic was talking about, noting: “dating ‘leagues’ are not different tiers of hotness, but a single ascending hierarchy of desirability… [and] people do not seem to be universally locked into them…”  

If you follow this blog, you know I frequently use the term “conventionally attractive” instead of “beautiful” or “hot” because there is no objective measure of anyone’s looks around the world and throughout history. The phrase “conventionally attractive” means your looks and/or style are considered attractive by the current mainstream fashion of your culture. It does not mean that you will be desired everywhere by everyone, which is why people disagree over Johnny Depp and are often bewildered by the fashions of their ancestors/teenage children.

In a world that’s produced the corset, foot-binding, neck rings, teeth-blackening, and the bagel head, it’s clear any body type or feature can be striking, intriguing, wonderful. And any body type or feature can become suddenly hideous when ruined by a sickening personality. When Polish-Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked an African-American competitor’s body, I agreed with those commenters who noted that pink Northern European skin can be pretty, but it can also make you look like a pig.

Pop culture asserts that the inordinate attention conventionally attractive people receive is always positive, leading too many of us to think that being conventionally attractive corresponds directly to being successful in love. Doesn’t a throng of smitten people lined up outside your door mean that you can have your pick?

Yet if we listen to conventionally attractive people—instead of just look at them—the contemplative among them often explain how upsetting it is to have to face lots and lots of personalities they have pretty much nothing in common with but who are passionately convinced they do. As one conventionally attractive friend put it, “I am sick of casual dating.” Another spent years wondering if he had deep personality flaws since so many of his dates seemed to only want one thing. As said before, being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy. Really fast.

When we first fall for someone, we pretty much always let the thrill of romance project great expectations onto the object of our affections. But lasting partnerships are not built on the intoxicating joy of first attraction alone. Psychologists are divided as to how long the limerence phase of a relationship lasts—some say between 6 to 18 months, some say up to 3 years—but they all agree that it does end at some point. Celebrity divorce rates alone indicate we all need something more than our partner’s face, body, and charisma to keep us interested. Broadening our concepts of beauty can only help us with that.

The primary reason I don’t believe in leagues is because I know too many conventionally attractive people who have fallen hard for those who are anything but. Mainstream fashion ignores all that to our detriment. The study in The Atlantic of online dating sites in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle found white people, black men, Asian women, educated men, and very young women are considered far more conventionally attractive than black women, Asian men, women with higher education, and women over 18. Other studies have added to the list of types mainstream fashion seems to be too narrow-minded to handle like shorter men, people with disabilities, and women of color with skin tones considered “dark.” There is no good reason to let such disparities continue.

A friend recently asked me, “What if you’re just not into blondes?”

It’s fine to occasionally note your tendencies and tastes. The weakness lies in believing they are immovable or should be turned into rules. If you’re just not into blondes and date accordingly, you are simply more likely to lose at the game of love if there are one or more blondes out there who share your values, sense of humor, and idea of fun. And because values, sense of humor and hobbies do not correlate to physical features, it is statistically likely that there are such people out there in the very bodies you’ve vowed to avoid. When you decide you can’t possibly open your mind to love in a wide array of bodily forms, you miss out.

 

 

The Meaning of Louise Brown’s Birthday

29 Jul

happy birthday
(Image by Nerissa’s Ring used under CC 2.0 via)

Forty years ago this week, Louise Brown was born in Oldham, England, the first human ever conceived by invitro fertilization. Since her birth, over 8 million people have been born thanks to invitro fertilization or other assisted reproductive technology. I can attest that if you have recently become a parent after a long journey trying to become one, it is particularly hard not to get choked up at hearing the recording of “Happy Birthday” sung to Baby Louise by her family and friends back in 1978.

And yet. Brown’s parents and the doctors who helped them become parents got hate mail and death threats. The hospital received a bomb scare. Brown’s father had to arrive under police protection. To this day Brown reports she is trolled online.

Advances in reproductive technology since Brown’s birth have helped create families for people facing infertility and deadly heritable diseases, single women, and same-sex couples. All such people are targeted regularly by various political groups—some vicious, some peaceful—who deem them “unnatural.” Yet no one on earth could tell the difference between a person who was conceived via IVF and a person who was conceived via sexual intercourse by meeting them.

As examined previously on the blog, adoptive families also have a long history of facing down those with horrific ideas about nature involving the importance of bloodlines and, as one commenter to The Atlantic put it, “inferior genetic stock.” Social and medical interventions in making families are indeed complex and merit nuanced discussions. But the vitriol involved in such discussions just goes to show that there are too many out there who can’t handle the idea of families unlike their own.

Aziz Ansari, #MeToo and the Problem of Empathy

21 Jan

(Public Domain image used under CC0 1.0 via)

 

Over this past week, articles about the allegations against Aziz Ansari by a woman known by the pseudonym “Grace” were the most read articles at The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, New York magazine, and pretty much every feminist website from Jezebel to Bustle. Everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Samantha Bee to Dr. James Hamblin participated in the discussion at some level, myself included.

Do you want to know what I think? I think feminist Jill Filipovic has summed it up best. But I also think it’s far more important to note that not one of these sites picked up National Public Radio’s week-long report on the epidemic of rape and sexual assault against developmentally disabled people, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. NPR kicked off the story by calling it “The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About.” Mainstream feminism proceeded to not talk about it, proving the point fantastically well.

Why has this excellent, in-depth report gone unnoticed while Ansari and Grace could only have garnered more attention if they were running against each other for president? You don’t have to be The Huffington Post to know that readers will pretty much always prefer a story involving a celebrity than a story about ordinary people, social groups and statistics. I knew too well that just putting Ansari’s name in the title of this article would up its chances of survival. Barbara Ehrenreich has been complaining since day two of the #MeToo movement that “there are far too many think pieces about high-level actresses and far too few about the waitress at your local diner.” Readers are also more likely to click on stories involving young adults and/or sex than stories about older people and/or anything bereft of sex. Ginia Bellafante complained this weekend about the endless analyses of Grace’s night with Ansari in contrast to the relative silence about the life and legacy of Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Dr. Mathilde Krim.

Anna North, who covers gender issues at Vox, argued for the relevance of the Ansari story, saying, “I mean, honestly, my first reaction was just sort of recognition. This is a situation that I’ve heard from my friends. This is – the behavior she describes through Ansari is behavior that I’ve heard men confess to in their own lives. So I thought, like, yep, this feels real familiar.” While this does validate discussions about dates like the one Grace had, it also explains the sad truth as to why it managed to bury NPR’s story about a sexual abuse epidemic. It is safe to say the majority of young adults writing and reading stories about social progress do not react to stories about developmentally disabled people with a “Yep, this feels real familiar.” Nor do they encourage each other to.

In my experience, most young adult feminists and social justice activists limit their discussions about developmental disability to stories about volunteering in a special ed class and debates about the word “retarded.” The issue of whether or not to screen for Down Syndrome in utero is an increasingly common discussion among pregnant women and their partners, but the opinions of people with Down Syndrome rarely take center stage in that debate.

Disinterest is not the only factor to blame. Accessibility, the issue most likely to leave disabled people marginalized in mainstream society, is what also leaves them isolated from the places where most social justice activists convene. People with developmental disabilities are the minority least likely to live on college campuses, and they are more likely to be socially integrated in small towns than in metropolitan areas. Few feminist and progressive publications offer versions of their articles in Simple Language

But while such barriers help us understand the marginalization of developmentally disabled people, there is little reason why we should accept them. Human rights means everybody. Feminism rightly declares the personal is the political, but this serves as a wall instead of a bridge when the personal experiences shared by the most people dominate the discussion at the expense of others. Empathy is rightly considered the best facilitator of communication in the fight for minority rights, but minorities will suffer when empathy is expected to come instantly, without the effort of learning about experiences other than our own.

There’s no reason why the #MeToo movement can’t talk about the issues exemplified by the Ansari story and the abuse epidemic endured by developmentally disabled people. There is, in fact, plenty of cross-over. During a week when the second Women’s March has pledged to be as inclusive as ever, it would be great to start a discussion asking the women who clicked on the Ansari story why they didn’t react to headlines about the epidemic. In the multiple arguments that #MeToo should teach women to show more agency and take self-defense classes, it would be great to recognize that disabled women are one group for whom self-defense classes are rarely helpful. In the same way social justice activists are helping the long marginalized experiences of LGBTQIA+ people to broaden society’s ideas about sex and gender, they could help the experiences of disabled people to broaden our ideas about what it means to be independent, strong, accomplished and attractive.

Justice will be done when reports like NPR’s about the abuse of developmentally disabled people shock the world and in doing so make it to the The New York Times’ Most Read list. And when the online March for those with disabilities who could not join an outdoor protest actually gets mentioned in the national reports about this weekend’s Women’s March. Until that day, mainstream feminism reveals its empathy to still have its limits.

 

 

How to Insult 10 Different Kinds of Families with One Campaign Poster

17 Sep

Bundestag(Image by Michael Fötsch used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I was riding the bus home from work earlier this week through downtown Berlin when I caught sight of this campaign poster for the Alternative für Deutschland party. Featuring a white woman’s visibly pregnant belly, it reads: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves!”

Talk about a punch in the gut. At first glance, the poster appears to be promoting closed borders and “traditional” family values. But it can never be read free from the history of the Nazis’ obsession with using women to make white, Christian, non-disabled babies. Lebensborn was an association built expressly for that purpose. Women across Germany who had four or more children and who were not branded degenerates were awarded medals by the Third Reich. Anyone who has gone to school in Germany knows about all this.

It would be perverse to claim this AfD poster is more upsetting than any of the others, which target burqas, halal cooking and the idea of multiculturalism. But as a woman with both a residence permit from the immigration office and a disabled ID card in my pocket, I felt the attack personally. The deep sadness then turned to desperate hope that the poster escaped the view of those who are more likely to be targets of street harassment than I am (people of color, LGBT couples and religious minorities), and anyone returning from a fertility clinic or an adoption agency.

Germans go to the polls next Sunday. Over the last ten days the AfD has been projected to win between 8% and 12% of the vote – far behind the top two parties, but fighting neck-in-neck with the Greens, the Left, and the pro-business Free Democrats for third place. As long as they reach the 5% minimum necessary for earning seats in the Bundestag, a difference of three or four percentage points will technically have little effect on the AfD’s ability to influence policy. Because all the other political parties have refused to work with the AfD, it will not be able join a coalition. But coming in third place instead of fifth or sixth will make a big difference in the post-election narrative. Both critics and supporters of the AfD will claim that Germany is shedding some of the post-WWII taboos and political correctness that have defined its democracy for the past 50 years.

Many voters here tell me they hope the AfD’s success in next week’s election turns out to be a one-hit-wonder that quickly falls apart like so many small parties have done before. But no matter what happens on September 24th, it is important to remember that the 12% of voters who have ever been sympathetic to the AfD and its xenophobic politics have been around for a long time.

Unlike the ostentatiously angry Nationalist Party, which has never come close to garnering 5% of the vote, the AfD has sought success by branding itself the moderate voice of xenophobia. They hope to appeal to conservatives and left-wingers alike who worry about multiculturalism gone mad. Most of their voters like to think of themselves as open-minded, not hateful. They just think there need to be restrictions on immigration because they’ve heard tales of towns overrun by foreigners who don’t know how to put their garbage in the bins. They just want to ban burqas and niqabs because sexism. And Islamic holidays and symbols should not be prominent in public or in schools because Germany should be recognized as a Christian nation. They don’t mind that the AfD’s candidate for chancellor is openly lesbian. It would just be nice to put an end to all this talk about LGBT rights. They tell my friends and me that when they complain about immigrants, “I don’t mean you.” C’mon, they’re not Nazis. They’re just asking, “What about me?” If you’re gonna call it racism or sexism, then it’s the reasonable kind. The kind every person is born with. Common sense.

The short but bombastic history of the AfD proves that xenophobia in moderation doesn’t work. The party was founded by pro-business politicians who opposed the EU à la Brexit. These founders were soon driven out and replaced by the anti-immigrant populists of today. Every few months the party has had an internal war involving someone who said something that’s just too reminiscent of the Third Reich. On the outside, friends of color report more frequent street harassment since the AfD’s increased presence. The disability rights organization AbilityWatch reports the AfD was the only party who declined to respond to their issues. The gay and lesbian alliance LSVD rates the AfD the most homophobic of all the major parties despite its current leadership.

That campaign poster embodies all this. It’s what you get when you think some degree of xenophobia is reasonable.

 

Disclaimer: As noted before, no political party will ever be endorsed on this blog, but political threats to human rights and equality, both historic and contemporary, will always be analyzed.

 

 

Another Reason Why American Students Should Protest Campus Speakers If They Want To

23 Jul

Protest(Image by Jorgen Carling used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Academics across the political spectrum are debating whether or not students should protest speaking events on their campuses by controversial figures like Charles Murray, Bill Maher or Milo Yiannopolous. Murray tried to prove in his bestseller The Bell Curve that black people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than white people. Maher has made no effort to differentiate between Muslim extremists and all Muslims in political discussions on his TV show Real Time. Yiannopolous is a professional Internet troll who says to anyone who finds his arguments upsetting, “Fuck feelings.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in The New York Times that Yiannopolous should be protested and rejected by academia because “he is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.” She puts Charles Murray, however, in a different category. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue back in The Atlantic that any campus protest of any speaker is an attack on free speech and contributes to a dangerous culture of victimhood that coddles college students. Both articles make interesting points. Both articles miss the point as to why I primarily believe students should protest any or all of these speakers.  

Unlike students here in Germany, where higher education is free, college students in the U.S. are not mere pupils who have been accepted based on their academic performance with the purpose of engaging in profound discourse that benefits both themselves and the academic community. College students in the U.S. are customers that go into sometimes life-long debt in order to purchase the product that is their four-year education. UC Berkeley, where students protested Bill Maher as a commencement speaker, currently charges $29,784 for one year of tuition, room and board. A year at Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was met with violent protests, right now costs $63,917. Google why tuition in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past four decades and you will find countless theories. But the fees are real as is the fact that guest speakers are not only invited but paid by these colleges. It is thus perfectly reasonable for students to express their opinion as to how their tuition money is being spent, just as it is perfectly reasonable for consumers to launch boycotts against companies that engage in unethical practices or belittle minorities.

Furthermore, these guest speakers demand exorbitant speaking fees. Charles Murray charges between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single speech. Bill Maher charges between $50,000 and $100,000 per event. I was told by a staff member at my alma mater that his  department could not afford one speech by a well-known theorist in the field of language. His fees were lower than Murray’s, let alone Maher’s.

My college education was invaluable. And academia confronts, examines and debates controversial ideas that can be deeply upsetting to many people every day: ideas like when does life begin and end, who can be considered human, is love or attractiveness quantifiable, should blasphemy be considered hate speech, should we breed shorter people to save energy, etc. But these debates alter when someone who has made a career out of arguing for one side is paid an enormous sum to give a speech about it. Aspiring teachers, social workers, and librarians have a right to say whether they are willing to go into life-long debt so that a celebrity can earn between $20,000 and $100,000 in one afternoon on campus by firing off some rants. They have a right to say whether the hosting professor should perhaps instead use college funds to pay $25 for one of Murray’s or Maher’s books and photocopy a chapter for his class, where the ideas can then be debated over a few days if not weeks.

That is precisely how I first encountered Murray’s argument that black people are genetically predisposed to a lower IQ. My genetics course culminated with analyzing The Bell Curve and discovering how scientifically flimsy Murray’s evidence is. This absolutely endowed me with a detailed understanding of how inane the colonial belief in separate races is and prepared me to confront those who still cling to it. I am very glad for that. But would I want the tens of thousands of dollars spent on my education to have helped contribute to the wealth Murray has accrued from reiterating this intellectually weak but attention-grabbing idea? The same class addressed the fact that the eugenics movement both resulted in the sterilization and deaths of thousands of disabled people but also contributed intellectually to the early stages of genetics as a science. As someone with achondroplastic dwarfism, I found it important to learn about that. But should I have stood idly by were the college to invite and pay a eugenicist to give a speech? How about a Neo-Nazi?

That is an ethical quandary at best. One that warrants debate. And peaceful protest is a form of debate, an exercising of the right to freedom of speech. 

Not all protests on college campuses are on the right side of the issue. The dumbest demonstration I ever witnessed in my student days was against the ban on smoking in the cafeteria. This migraine-sufferer was ever so grateful to see the fumes disappear. But I wasn’t enraged at the idea of the smokers voicing their dissent. I walked by their protest without bothering to comment and later mentioned my disagreement when asked. 

I was sympathetic the following year when students held a peaceful but angry protest of the new performing arts center, which was designed by Frank Gehry and cost $62 million. Some of my friends on campus were there in part thanks to scholarships but nevertheless had to work 65+ hours a week in the summer to cover the rest of tuition. They showed up at the protests, arguing that the $62 million should have instead been spent on scholarships. Despite what many like to think of most campus protesters, they were not spoiled children shielded from dissent and far too used to getting exactly what they want in they life. They were more aware than most of the way money works in the world – a world their college claimed to be preparing them for.      

 

 

I Never Thought Marriage Equality Would Come to the U.S. before Germany

2 Jul

Berlin Pride(Image by Berolino used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I never thought the U.S., my country of birth, would enact marriage equality before Germany, my country of residence. And yet here we are. When I moved here 12 years ago, same-sex civil unions were legal across the country and the mayors of Berlin and Hamburg, the two largest cities, were both openly gay. The country was four years away from the election of its first openly gay vice-chancellor. Back in the U.S., the Supreme Court had only just decriminalized homosexuality nationwide, same-sex marriage bans were spreading across states, and the president was pushing for a nationwide ban in the form of an amendment to the Constitution. The hard-won victories we have seen since are worth every moment of celebration, but the backlash has been loud and angry.

When it comes to gender equality, Germany is hardly in the midst of such a heated culture war. Restrictions on reproductive freedom or sex education rarely make it into the national debate. Paid parental leave is generous and available to both mothers and fathers. Those who find marriage antiquated or unnecessary are widespread among Germans of all income levels and political persuasions. I know young, white-collar couples with four children and conservative couples in their 60s who have never gotten around to getting married. Among those who are married, it is not hard to find men who have taken their wives’ surnames or created a hyphenated name, like the head of the Protestant Church. Few noticed when Germany became the first European nation to add a third gender option on birth certificates. I have met my share of men here who have nothing nice to say about feminism (or “genderism,” as they sometimes call it), but I have met far more who actively embrace it. Men like the dad who famously wore a skirt in public so that his little boy would feel safe doing so.

But anecdotes about cultural values can be problematic. Personal experiences can depend heavily on the social circles you tend toward. Liberal cities like Berlin and New York both have corners where LGBTQI people are threatened. And as the geographical crossroads of Europe, Germany’s political landscape is varied. The home of the Lutheran Church is also home to Alpine and Rhineland Catholics, and atheists of the former East Germany. The loudest opposition to marriage equality here has come from Catholic bishops and the fledgling far-right, anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD has moved to challenge this week’s marriage equality law in court. Legal experts are divided as to how successful they could be. The AfD’s polling numbers have dropped to 7%. Meanwhile, 44% of its voters support marriage equality, and its current candidate for the national election in September happens to be an openly lesbian woman who is in a civil union with a woman from Sri Lanka.

A national study released this week found 83% of Germans support marriage equality. Four of the five parties represented in the Bundestag – the Greens, the Left, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the center-left Social Democrats – stated their official support before the Bundestag vote. While only 75 of the 309 members of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats voted yes, a survey of their supporters in the general public revealed that 73% were for it. This in a party named for its traditional association with the Catholic Church. All in all, support for marriage equality in Germany is widespread and significantly higher than in all but five of the 21 countries that already had marriage equality before this week.

This explains why marriage equality has taken so long here. Since the horrors of the Nazi regime as well as Communist East Germany, politicians in the Federal Republic have generally sought to be more pragmatic than ideological. Social change is usually slow and incremental for the sake of consensus-building. This is done for the sake of preventing angry backlash and deep divisions.

Of course, this gradual approach can be deeply upsetting for those waiting on their human rights. A couple in their thirties seeking to adopt wants to have a family now. A patient dying of AIDS wants the partner who stood by him to be legally protected from whatever objections his family may have now. As many politicians argued during the Bundestag vote, offering same-sex couples the right to marriage instead of mere civil unions is a way of proving that Germany not just tolerates them but accepts them. That such couples and families have had to wait for others to accept them is as much a moral problem as it is a historical fact.

100 years ago Berlin was home to the first gay rights magazine, the first LGBT film and the first LGBT neighborhood. Many have deemed it the gay capital of the world at the time and some historians claim it was on the brink of becoming the first Western jurisdiction to legalize homosexuality in 1929. But then. We know what happened. Berlin sent its LGBT citizens to death camps. The quiet street where I live is scarred by plaques naming the victims, Nazi and Soviet bullet holes, and the exact place where the Wall later stood. When I moved here 12 years ago, it was renowned for being East Berlin’s gay district. It is a conglomerate that tells a story and shows that all cultural values rely on the intersection of when and where. This is why human rights must be vigilantly protected, never taken for granted. And why every place on earth has the capacity to change.

 

 

Recommended Weekend Reading

28 May

Grand Court(Image via Arild Storaas used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Speaking of politicians belonging to historically marginalized groups, here’s some upbeat news from Ireland. It shows that minds can be opened faster than many believe. Our challenge is to keep them opened now and forever.

 

 

 

 

Never Call Something “The Last Acceptable Prejudice”

21 May

Primitive Negative Art(Image by Primitive Negative Art used under CC 2.0 via)

 

When my family moved from one the most diverse school districts on suburban Long Island to rural Upstate, I was taken aback by the prejudices locals had about the New York metropolitan area. Reactions ranged from a creeped-out exclamation of “Ew!” to concerned questions about crime and pollution. “I despise New York City with a passion!” said one little old neighbor while passing the rhubarb pie during a Sunday get-together. Deeply homesick, I was resentful of the local disdain for what to me had been a wonderful, Sesame Street-like checkerboard of cultures. And I became slowly horrified the more I began to understand that “inner city” and “crime-ridden” were all too often euphemisms for “non-white.”

When I went on to college, however, I was reunited with City kids and professors who were equally open about their disinterest in rural life. They weren’t so much passionately hateful as consistently apathetic, convinced that anything that lay beyond a one-hour radius of Manhattan was more imaginary than real. Jokes about “hicks” often sprang up at the mention of hunting or farming. Many of these urbanites also considered the sheer existence of insects to be a personal affront no citizen should ever have to endure.

Now residing in a major city, I have little patience for bigotry about either setting. The jokes are only ever good when told by those who have actually lived there. And neither group gets to claim that they are the targets of “the last acceptable prejudice.”

Comedian and political commentator Trae Crowder argues just that in The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: “You ever notice how rednecks are pretty much the only subgroup of people in this country that it’s almost entirely socially acceptable to mock publicly?” Similar assertions have been made in reviews of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Last month Bill Maher repeated his claim that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice. Columnist Marina Hyde pointed out that The Guardian has declared old, white male-bashing to be the last acceptable prejudice, The Economist has decided looking down on regional accents is the last acceptable prejudice, and Religious Studies professor Philip Jenkins pronounced anti-Catholicism to be the last acceptable prejudice. An article last year in The Independent announced, “Laughing at Dwarfism Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”

I understand the frustration behind the sentiment. Dwarfism does not get much attention as a human rights issue. Much of this is due to our rarity in the general population, but also due to the pervasive and enduring belief that our existence is too funny to take seriously. As researcher Andrew Solomon writes in Far from the Tree, “At the mention of dwarfs, [some of my] friends burst into laughter.” As I’ve written before, students in a course studying the power of language told me they would never find the word “midget” as horrifying or upsetting as the N-word or the C-word because their gut reaction was to think of dwarfs as too cute and amusing to be controversial. So yeah. It’s an uphill battle.

But that hardly means that all of this constitutes the last acceptable prejudice. What about the ubiquity of condescension toward the rural poor or the elderly or those who speak in dialect? What about the G-word for Sinti and Roma? What about crude assumptions about adopted children? What about tired tropes about identical twins? What about gingerism? How many self-identified transvestites are out, besides Eddie Izzard? How many of the 1 in 2,000 people born intersex feel safe to be out and proud about their bodies? How many overweight people have never been shamed? And for the all the complaining about PC gone mad, how many racist and sexist jokes and arguments can you find just by sifting through TV shows, Facebook comments, or political party platforms?

The phrase “the last acceptable prejudice” is often used to impart the urgency of a human rights crisis, but it can also connote competition. And it veers dangerously close toward Oppression Olympics. During the 2008 election campaign, Hillary Clinton argued, “Oppression of women and discrimination against women is universal. You can go to places in the world where there are no racial distinctions except everyone is joined together in their oppression of women. The treatment of women is the single biggest problem we have politically and socially in the world.”

Such assertions almost always betray ignorance of the oppression of people other than those you identify with. To argue that there are places with no oppression of racial or ethnic minorities is a sweeping generalization, and to conclusively prove this would be a very tall order indeed. And to argue that the treatment of women is “the single biggest problem in the world” implicitly downplays the problems of xenophobia in places like Denmark, where the current political status quo is committed to gender equality initiatives but also committed to harsh restrictions on immigrants, refugees and religious minorities. 

The only time it is useful to compare oppressions is when you want to highlight another group’s success to prove it a plausible goal for your own. When African-American men and women were freed from slavery in the U.S., suffragists pounced on the opportunity to demand why only African-American men and not women would be granted the right to vote. Both the first and second women’s movements in the U.S. stemmed from the abolitionist and civil rights movements, and the gay rights movement stemmed from both. Transgender, queer, and intersex rights movements have advanced from that, as have others addressing widespread prejudice about birth, blood and the human body. 

Yet divisive bigotries and competitive thinking survive within these movements and thrive when Oppression Olympics is accepted as fair play. Solidarity is threatened by that, which is why we would do well to agree that inaccurate, superlative phrases like “last acceptable prejudice” harm more than they help.

 

 

A Mother’s Day Tribute to a Sullivan Woman

14 May

Barbara Sullivan 1975

 

I don’t remember when I came to the conclusion that being a dwarf meant I absolutely had to care about all forms of discrimination and social injustice. It seemed to always be there. I remember at age 19 stumbling upon some closed-minded corners of the Internet and promptly firing off mass e-mails reverberating with shock and outrage about the prevalence of homophobia in the dwarf community – a community that I believed, if any, should be particularly sympathetic to the concerns of those persecuted for how they were born. Solidarity among those ostracized for inherent traits they have no choice about should be automatic and unwavering.

But plenty of people who can be categorized as minorities disagree. There is a ream of reports about homophobia among many minority advocates, racism and misogyny in gay communities, transphobia in lesbian communities, and plenty of social justice groups fall short of embracing disability rights and the openness to bodily diversity it requires. It seems we can’t go a few days without some social justice activist revealing ignorance of and/or apathy toward the work other minority groups have been doing for years. In other words, not everyone “born different” feels the same automatic solidarity I do. It’s why the divide-and-conquer strategy so often works.

And perhaps there are other reasons for why friends frequently tease me for being an “issues person.” On Mother’s Day, it would be negligent of me to ignore another influence on my worldview that has been as powerful as my dwarfism. My mother, Susan Sullivan, is a social worker after all – and she decided to become one a good 10 years before my birth brought her and my father into the dwarf community. Her mother, Barbara Sullivan, was a social studies teacher. She would be 100 years old were she still alive today. Her worldview and its legacy deserve more than a cursory mention.

The 1975 article announcing my grandmother’s retirement in the Peru Central School newspaper reads:

Mrs. Sullivan, who teaches Problems of Democracy and Consumer Education, is presently teaching her last semester…

She has taught us many things. Maybe the most important of which is the ability to empathize or put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is the foundation from which we can solve local, national and personal problems. Then she has gone one step further.

Mrs. Sullivan has opened many eyes to racism, sexism, poverty and the injustices present in our court and prison systems. Not only has she opened the eyes of her students, she has also helped her fellow teachers.

A lot of work is done in her classes but also a lot of discussions. The kind of discussions that help end individual prejudices…

You can bet she will be involved in the community projects that time has not allowed for in the past. Because that is the kind of person Mrs. Sullivan is – caring, understanding person who will always be remembered by any student who has ever taken any of her courses.

A little article cannot give appropriate thanks for all she has taught us. The best way we can show our thanks to her is to go out into the world and work toward ending the injustices that trouble her heart so much. Until we can do this, all we can say is… Thanks.

Grandma Barbara also taught the school’s first sex education class – a feat my teenage mother at the time found as impressive as it was embarrassing. But Grandma Barbara preferred interacting with teenagers over younger children, asking me with deep interest about drug use and the AIDS crisis when I entered middle school. When I was younger, the discussions were simpler but nevertheless motivated by sociological pursuit. She examined integration at my school by asking whom I interacted with, and I received my first black doll from her. She had been an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and was deeply concerned about racial injustice long after it was fashionable. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I quietly shed a few tears over the fact that she had not lived to see it. But in my head I could hear her shrieking, “Hallelujah!” with all the abandon for which she was famous among her friends.

How much her own background brought her to such conclusions about the world I cannot say. She grew up in a small town in Western New York where pets were named unprintable racial slurs. An avid reader, perhaps her relentless pursuit of knowledge helped. But her intolerance of injustice was as intellectual as it was visceral. I remember her smacking the side of her head and clenching her fist in fury during a scene in the 1994 film The Jungle Book when Mowgli is shoved about and laughed at by British officers at a gentleman’s club. Through example, she inculcated in us an inability to stand idly by while others are ostracized.

One of the first Mother’s Days in the United States was proclaimed by suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who envisioned something far different from the celebrations embodied by flowers and greeting cards we have come to know today. She called for a day when the mothers of the world would commit to peace. She firmly believed that war would end across the globe once women were given the right to vote because no mother would vote to send her son into battle. Her belief was noble, however naïve or inaccurate.

And Grandma Barbara would have appreciated the sentiment. She was in so many ways a simply loving grandmother, who spoiled my brother and me with sweets and treats, and chased us around her backyard chanting, “Tick tock! Tick tock!” in pretending to be the crocodile from Peter Pan. But her boisterous love of the world was matched by her passionate desire to repair the world. My mother and I cannot deny she passed it on to us. It is a gift for which I will be forever grateful.

Will the Netherlands Be the Next Country to Greenlight Nationalism?

12 Mar

 

 

Dutch voters go to the polls this coming Wednesday for the general election, and long-time nationalist candidate Geert Wilders has a better chance of coming in first or second than ever before. A first-place finish would be no guarantee of his becoming prime minister thanks to the multi-party coalition system in the Netherlands, but it would prove surging support for his policies. On his agenda is leaving the EU, closing the border to all refugees as well as all immigrants from Muslim countries, closing mosques and Muslim schools nationwide, and banning the Koran. He was convicted of hate speech by a Dutch court earlier this year for his utterances in the video above.

No candidate will ever be endorsed on this blog, but politicians who promise to roll back the rights of minorities will be called out and the danger assessed. In the ongoing debate over the best counter-strategy to the rise of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., James Traub argued earlier this week in The New York Times that calls to simply celebrate diversity are partly to blame for the crisis. He views right-wing nationalism as a backlash against “the unquestioned virtue of cosmopolitanism,” writing:

The answer to xenophobia cannot be xenophilia. For mobile, prosperous, worldly people, the cherishing of diversity is a cardinal virtue; we dote on difference. That’s simply not true for many people who can’t choose where to live, or who prefer the familiar coordinates of their life. That was the bitter lesson that British cosmopolites learned from Brexit.

Other critics have demanded similar compassion for the little old white lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people speaking Arabic/Farsi/Somali and wearing headscarves. Yet is she much different from the little old lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people talking in slang and playing techno/hip-hop/k-pop/whatever the kids are listening to these days? Indulging such concerns with legal action quickly devolves into infringements on freedom of expression. Society does best when citizens simply shrug at the sight of new piercings or the sound of a foreign language.

Yet no society has managed to rid itself of the Fear of the Other that convinces a good proportion of its citizenry that the new immigrants will never integrate or that youth culture is more depraved than theirs ever was. A hippie friend’s parents were regularly told in the 1970s, “If my kid ever dressed like that, I’d break his legs!” It feels strange when Americans my age try to imagine that the Beatles were ever considered a moral threat or that jazz was once branded “devil’s music.” It feels just strange when we hear comedian Dara Ó Briain tell of a British shopkeeper who suspected him of being an IRA terrorist based on his accent, or to see the 19th-century scientific articles that claimed the Irish were biologically closer to apes than humans.

Indeed, fear of the Irish was once rampant in Britain and the United States, based on the assumption that most were poor, uneducated, prone to violence at home and in the street, and/or terrorists. Their religion was also deemed a threat on both sides of the Atlantic. History has shown that isolating the Irish both as a nation and as immigrants would not have solved the crisis. On the contrary, Ireland has been one of the EU’s greatest success stories, transforming from the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. This has coincided with an expansion of democratic reforms and human rights, including gender equality. Ireland was just ranked far ahead of the U.K. and the U.S. on the Democracy Index, and in 2015, what was once one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world became the first country to legalize marriage equality via national referendum in a 2 to 1 vote.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has long led the continent in LGBT rights and, unlike most nationalist politicians, Geert Wilders has weaponized this, arguing that Muslims threaten these rights. His late predecessor, Pim Fortuyn, was openly gay and based his right-wing populism on the same ideology.

Many voters will be tempted by Wilders’ promise to protect Dutch gender equality by expunging Muslim extremists from the country. But such a policy is not only racist and undemocratic, but hazardous and hypocritical because a) it disregards both the work and rights of feminist and LGBT Muslims, and b) it says nothing about expunging non-Muslim  groups that oppose gender equality like the Christian Reformed Churches of the Dutch Bible Belt or the Neo-Nazis. If Wilders and his supporters are sincerely concerned about threats to LGBT rights, they would do well to partner with the Maruf Foundation and the European Queer Muslim network, rather than the right-wing populists of Europe and the U.S. who are far likelier to dismantle Western laws protecting gender equality than any Muslim extremist group.

Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna argue for a return to traditional gender roles. Marine Le Pen pledged last week to nullify all same-sex marriages in France. The former and current leaders of Britain’s UKIP have repeatedly galvanized homophobic sentiment. Donald Trump used the Pulse night club massacre in Orlando last summer to argue for his proposed Muslim ban while at the same time partnering with Mike Pence and other leading members of the American Religious Right, who have been blaming feminism and LGBT equality for most of society’s problems since the 1980s.

Any gender equality movement must protect and support women and LGBT citizens of all ethnicities and faiths. This can only be done with a humanitarian immigration policy. The best hope for combating misogyny and homophobia anywhere is to support human rights activists everywhere. The best hope for successfully integrating immigrants is to learn from the past how it was done before. And to understand that xenophobes throughout history pick different targets but always say the same thing.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin issued one of the very first warnings of the dangers of immigrants arriving in the United States, asking:

Why should [they] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to … never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

He was talking about immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe, whom he did not consider “white people,” classifying them along with Italians and Swedes as “swarthy” and dismissing them as “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.” The influx of Germans into the U.S. did end up flooding the country, but it did not end up destroying democratic values. The resilience of the fear of immigrants has proven time and again to be the greater threat to universal human rights. A strong showing for Wilders on Wednesday would, too.