Tag Archives: Human Rights

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Tax Day!

9 Apr

HELLO! HUMAN RIGHTS (Image by Andres Musta used under CC 2.0 via)

 

As Tax Day approaches in the United States and here in Germany, everyone will have an opinion as to which entities deserve public funding, and which are impractical, immoral, or evil. It is perhaps easier for me to remember that taxes not only support disabled people. Through health care, medical research, social work, education, and the justice system, they keep many alive. And they also help lessen the everyday physical pain experienced by some of us.

Even banal subsidies can make a substantial difference. As a German resident classified with a “Grade 50” disability, my ticket for all public transportation in the Berlin metropolitan area is subsidized so that I pay a fraction of the normal fee. This discount offsets the extra costs I regularly incur by needing to use taxis or a car rental for distances most other 35-year-olds would either walk or bike. By relieving me of this financial burden, I can have as much money saved as a pedestrian does to spend on food, clothes, rent, movies, music, houseplants, hair curlers, napkin rings, bubble gum, sealing wax, bath toys, or presents for my loved ones. Alternatively, it saves me the extra time I would have to spend walking and then recovering from the pain of walking – time which I can use to be more productive, which helps me qualify as a taxpayer capable of paying it forward to others in need of subsidies.

I have been called a freeloader. A disabled friend was told she should realize “what we have to do for you” – “we” being the non-disabled taxpayers. Many political theorists argue that the extra costs faced by disabled citizens should only be offset by privately run charities funded by donations from those who actively choose to be so morally upright. Others go so far as to advocate Social Darwinism, which would be a death sentence for many disabled people.

The intricate relationship between government and tax structures have occupied economists, political scientists, academics, philosophers, monarchs, and politicians since the legend of Robin Hood, and I have no intention of tackling it in its entirety here. But amidst the myriad points and counterpoints, one truth remains clear to me: A society that agrees to ease some of the burdens disproportionately placed upon disabled people is agreeing to ensure the existence of disabled people. And by doing so as the general public in a mandate to itself—instead of leaving it to the “good will” of a few individuals—this society tells disabled people they should be no more grateful to be alive than anyone else should. That message is crucial. While we all have varying abilities that shift in value throughout time and space, equality means that no one is altogether more important than anyone else. We must believe this if we want to claim to believe in human rights.

 

 

Happy Birthday, ADA!

26 Jul

 

This week marks the 25-year anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As others have noted, the law was ground-breaking not only because of its international ripple effect, but because it recognized disability not as an issue of health, but of human rights.

Author of the bill, Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr. writes in The Washington Post why this was so necessary:

People with disabilities were routinely denied rights that most members of our society take for granted, including the right to vote (sometimes by state law, other times by inaccessible polling places), to obtain a driver’s license, to enter the courts and to hold public office. Many states had laws prohibiting marriage by, and permitting or requiring involuntary sterilization of, persons with various mental or physical conditions, particularly intellectual disability, mental health conditions and epilepsy. A number of states restricted or denied the right of people with mental disabilities to enter into contracts. Several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Columbus and Omaha, had what became known as “ugly laws” that banned from streets and public places people whose physical condition or appearance rendered them unpleasant for other people to see. These laws were actually enforced as recently as 1974, when a police officer arrested a man for violating Omaha’s ordinance.

In some instances, discrimination threatened the very lives of individuals with disabilities: Lifesaving medical treatments that would routinely have been made available to other patients were denied to patients with disabilities; in 1974, the New York Times cited an estimate that unnecessary deaths of babies with disabilities in the U.S. resulting from withholding of medical treatment numbered in the thousands each year.

Things have improved substantially, which is cause for celebration. But not complacency. Which is why NPR’s article “Why Disability and Poverty Still Go Hand-In-Hand” is well worth your time, as is the above TED Talk by the late, great Stella Young, whose unexpected death last winter was a tremendous loss to the disability rights movement and to anyone who enjoys a good dose of sarcasm with their social critique.

 

 

“We’ve Never Lived in Such Peaceful Times”

4 Jan

Time allowed(Image by H. Kopp-Delaney used under CC 2.0 license via)

 

“Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?” This is not a subjective question, but it is all too often answered by entirely subjective findings. Do you watch the local news and listen to a police scanner? Do you see graffiti as street art, or cause to clutch your valuables and not make eye contact with anyone? Do you know someone personally who has been robbed, attacked, or murdered?

The objective answer to the original question, however, is no. The world is in fact safer than it has ever been in human history because we humans have become drastically less violent. Never before has there ever been a place of such high life expectancy and such low levels of violence as Western Europe today. Around the globe, there are lower rates of war and lower rates of spankings. There is no guarantee that the decline in violence will continue. But most of us have a hard time even believing that it exists at all.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker proves that the human emotional response to perceived danger—especially danger towards ourselves or someone with whom we can easily empathize—always risks distorting our perceptions of safety. One of the problems of empathy, he argues, is that we more readily feel for those we perceive to be more similar to us. This results in our investing more time, money and emotion toward helping a single girl fighting cancer if she speaks our language and lives in a house that looks like our own than toward helping 1,000 foreign children fighting malaria. We are more likely to disbelieve a victim of abuse if we can more quickly identify with the accused, and the same is true for the reverse scenario. And if you have been the victim of a horrendous crime or are struggling to survive in any one of the countries ravaged by war this year, you may become angry at any suggestion that the world is getting better, lest the world ignore the injustices you have suffered.

Those of us working in human rights must beware these problems whenever we trumpet a cause. Every activist’s greatest enemy is apathy, and fear of it can lead us to underscore threats while downplaying success stories in order to keep the masses mobilized. But any method founded on the claim that we have never lived in such a dangerous time is spreading lies.

As Pinker and Andrew Mack report in a recent article:

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? … We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it.

There is a risk that some will see the decline in violence as reason for denying crime (“Rape hardly ever happens!”), dismissing others’ pain (“Quit whining!”), and justifying their disengagement (“See? We don’t need to do anything about it!”). Pinker and Mack, however, claim the decline can be attributed in the modern era to the efforts of those in the human rights movements. In the example of violence against women:

The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still…

Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

The decline of violence undermines the arguments of those who invest their energy in fear-mongering (“People are evil and out to get you!”), self-martyrdom (“I’ve tried for so long—I give up!”) or indifference (“There’s no point to even trying.”). In his excellent book, which is well worth your time, Pinker demonstrates that all humans are tempted to use violence when we are motivated by feelings of greed, domination, revenge, sadism, or ideology (i.e., violence for a greater good), but we have proven that we can overcome these temptations with our capacity for reason, self-control, sympathetic concern for others and the willingness to adhere to social rules for the sake of getting along. There is much work to be done, but the decline is ultimately cause for hope. 

Happy New Year!

 

 

What To Do About Sochi?

9 Feb

 

Opinion is split over the best way to protest Russia’s new homophobic laws that legalize the persecution of its LGBT citizens. Some are boycotting the Olympic Games in Sochi and urging advertisers and spectators to do the same. Others are pointing out how gay the Winter Games are to begin with. The Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion has released a video about it. President Obama has sent a delegation of openly gay Olympians to represent the U.S. Germany’s heads of state are staying home while sending their athletes in suggestive uniforms. In his opening ceremony speech Friday night, IOC Chairman Bach stated, “It is possible—even as competitors—to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” (This comment was edited out of the broadcast seen in the United States. The National Broadcasting Corporation claims it was merely “edited for time.”)

Fashion commentator Simon Doonan at Slate declared the opening ceremonies the “gayest ever”:

The ceremony started and my sense of impending doom evaporated immediately. As soon as I saw the smiling Olympic Snegurochka snow princesses with their huge filigree headdresses and their vampy runway walks, I relaxed. Why? Because I was reminded of the deep and profound gayness of Russian culture.

How gay is Russia? Sorry, Vlad, but it’s far gayer than you might acknowledge or wish. Russia is Tchaikovsky gay. Mussorgsky gay. Nijinsky gay. Ivan The Terrible gay. Diaghilev gay. Eisenstein gay. Erte gay. When I say gay, I mean the very best of gay. I mean inspired, dramatic, flamboyant, theatrical and fabulously haughty. I mean Rudolph Nureyev gay.

The gay (and therefore glorious) moments of the Sochi opening ceremonies came thick and fast…

Meanwhile Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas, who is openly gay, has flashed her rainbow gloves in protest at the cameras.

Whatever tactic seems most effective to you, it is crucial to remain aware of the law and its very real consequences for everyday Russians:

The Health and Human Rights Journal finds rates of violence and suicide among LGBT Russian youth are rising.  From Human Rights Watch:

 

As the Games kicked off on Friday, four activists were arrested in St. Petersburg after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on any form of discrimination. They were detained on Vasilevsky Island, where I lived 12 years ago during a summer language course.

As a longtime russophile, I am accustomed to seeing protests of this terrible legislation, or any of the Federation’s anti-democratic institutions, devolve into snarky racism against Russia or Russians. As one blogger observes: “Russia; foreign enough for you to characterise the homophobia as uncivilised, white enough for you to care about the victims.”

Criticism of a nation’s human rights record should never slip into complacent xenophobia. That the homophobic law is attracting so much international attention is a wonderful but all too recent phenomenon. No one protested the 1996 Olympic Games when they were held in Atlanta, where homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment. How would Americans have reacted had Western European human rights organizations demanded a boycott of the Games back then? International condemnation of an entire culture usually does little from the perspective of those who live in that culture – on the contrary, it usually galvanizes nationalistic sentiment.

The professor who taught me my first semester of Russian was also in charge of our school’s LGBT Studies program. Every year his memorial award goes to a student who demonstrates dedication to the field of Russian and Eurasian studies.  For him, there was no contradiction in passionately loving a culture and speaking out against its greatest crimes. The Live and Let Love project of Sweden also appears to understand this, having released this video last month:

 

Ten protestors in Moscow did the very same on the opening day of the Games. Unlike Tilda Swinton, they were promptly arrested:

 

 

 

They Don’t Care That We’re Angry

29 Sep

Capslock is NOT persuasiveHere’s a shocker: North Americans don’t like activists, especially feminists and environmentalists. Results from a study featured in The Pacific Standard show that these groups are associated with an abrasive, in-your-face approach to politics, and this repels more people than it attracts. Reporter Tom Jacobs urges these groups to change their tactics if they want to get anything done, while Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing has taken umbrage at any call for women to “hush up.” Jacobs has my attention. As someone who’s constantly clogging her Facebook friends’ Newsfeeds with social justice editorials, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can tell me how to entice more people to join the discussion.

Activism is recognizing injustice and inequality when you see it, and taking the time to ask, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be angry. But several of my friends echo the results of the study, saying they’re turned off by the way so many activists—feminists in particular—walk around like ticking time bombs, ready to explode at anyone who dares disagree with a woman ever. One of these friends cited a feminist who once told her, “The problem is people don’t like my writing because I’m just too controversial for them.”

I can see how that kind of self-righteousness would fail to impress, and I can also see where it comes from. Emotions run high whenever we try to talk about injustice and inequality because these are issues that threaten personal safety and pride. Debaters on both ends of the political spectrum all too often tend toward the obstreperous, topping off their arguments with the age-old threat: “You don’t want to make me angry.”

To which I must say, You’re right. I don’t. Because you can be rather boring when you’re angry. Speaking up requires some degree of bravery, but simply getting angry requires no talent whatsoever. A toddler can get angry. (Calling someone a Nazi requires even less skill.) Hollering until your opponent cowers may feel like you won the debate, but it usually means you’ve humiliated them, which will cause them and their supporters to hate you and your beliefs more than they did prior to the encounter. If you’re concerned with no one’s opinion but your own, then your activism isn’t about seeking justice. It’s about seeking attention. And anyone can play that game.

That said, it is unfair of anti-feminists to use a few belligerent narcissists as an excuse for dismissing an entire movement, for denying inequality and injustice exist, for refusing to listen to anyone who speaks up about it. In reaction to this year’s spate of female celebrities claiming “I’m not a feminist, but—”, the great Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote:

Ladies, it is OK to say that you’re a feminist, full stop. You don’t have to twirl your hair and stamp your toe delicately into the ground and sweet-talk that maybe you guess it’s OK that men and women be treated equally…

You can call yourself or not call yourself whatever you want, but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what “real” women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much…

A woman will usually strike me as rather petty if she trashes the entire feminist movement just for the sake of making sure no one thinks of her as unattractive or unlikable. And a man will usually strike me as rather creepy if he downplays the importance of women’s rights or refuses to see the ways in which feminism benefits men tremendously. Complacency is just as self-righteous as belligerence.

There are many people who opt out of activism for very good reasons. Some have had terrible experiences with prejudice and for them, avoiding political discussions means avoiding deep and harrowing pain. I myself have had days—sometimes years—when I just did not want to think about my dwarfism in any political way. Constantly reminding yourself of all the narrow-mindedness out there is not a lot of fun. To those on the receiving end of bigotry, it’s perfectly fair to want a break from the tough stuff.

It’s also fair to take a more nuanced approach to politics, to believe in an idea but not the execution, or to question the usefulness of labels like “feminist” or “environmentalist.”  But we would look cock-eyed at anyone who said, “I’m not into human rights, but—” And so I react with the same “WTF?” to anyone who goes out of their way to disassociate themselves with feminism, or any other social justice movement. In the words of my husband, “Why would anyone explicitly say they don’t like feminism? That’s like saying you don’t like democracy.”

And to those who still think feminism is inherently humorless and activism is overly serious, I direct them to a story featured in The New York Times in 1990, wherein feminist activists broke into toy stores and switched the computer chips of Talking Barbie and Talking G.I. Joe, which left the blonde roaring, “Vengeance is mine!” and the soldier musing, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”

(And for those of you who like your jokes a little bluer, there’s this and this.)

I very much want to reach those participants in the study, that majority of North Americans who associate activists with repugnant rage. This issue is of particular concern to me because, among my closest friends and family, no one has ever called me soft-spoken.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I got wind of a rumor that I was going to be voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook. As soon as I heard about this, I campaigned for it. “You’re not voting for me? Why the hell don’t you think I’m the most argumentative?!” In jest, of course.

But not without truth. I had published my first angry letter to the editor at 14, followed by a couple more over the years. I spoke at school board meetings and political rallies. When I heard a speech I gave described by a family friend as overflowing with “righteous indignation,” I could not have been more pleased. It felt in part like a revolution against old-fashioned gender roles—because everyone knows a woman who talks too much is castrating, while a guy who can command the room is powerful—but mostly it just felt like me. When I like something, I love it to pieces, and when I don’t, everyone braces themselves for a rant. Assertiveness over insecurity. Honesty over likability. I don’t care what you think, anyway. I am woman. Rar.

Years later, as I began writing for wider audiences, I began wondering if my Medea-like rage had ever changed a single mind. Righteous indignation sounds passionate to those who already agree with you, but what if my I-HAVE-NO-TOLERANCE-FOR-INTOLERANCE approach had actually scared off someone who may have been willing to hear my argument in lowercase letters? I refuse to back down, but I don’t want to threaten anyone, either.

Make no mistake, I still love to argue with righteous indignation at all hours of the day with anyone willing to engage me. (As I explained to my sleepy-eyed partner in the middle of a rant about cultural appropriation one morning before work, “Sorry, honey, but you married a walking manifesto.”)  But whenever it comes to public debate, I try to remember to put on the brakes and ask myself, Do I want to silence my opponents or convince them?

And if the answer is the latter, then Desmond Tutu certainly said it best: “Don’t raise your voice—improve your argument.”

 

 

Equal Treatment Means Special Treatment, Right?

1 Sep

(Via)

 

Recently overheard in a library: “They just hired some incompetent disabled person. Equality is a nice idea and all, but I can’t turn my whole world upside down in order to always be thinking about what some other person needs. I have to think about my needs.”

To which this disabled person shrugs, “Ditto.”

 

 

 

Liberty and Justice For All

30 Jun

(Via)

 

The Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are dead. Less than nine years ago on Election Night 2004, when eleven states banned gay marriage in one fell swoop, I would never, ever have dared to think that change could come so rapidly. Of course, marriage equality does not yet exist in thirty-seven of the fifty United States, but with young people around the world overwhelmingly and increasingly showing their support, it is coming. Thank goodness, in the best sense of the word.

There are those—gay, straight, bi and queer—who are saying, “I can’t be happy about this after what happened to the Voting Rights Act this week.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until full equality is granted to trans citizens.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until the AIDS crisis gets more attention.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until we realize that single people deserve federal benefits, too.”

And every one of these people has a valid point. It’s a common political strategy in such triumphant moments to grab the opportunity to shed light on other civil rights abuses while you have everyone’s attention. Drawing attention to other injustices—especially the attention of those whose privileges put them at risk for remaining oblivious to such issues—is crucial because no one is free when others are oppressed. This is why I am always willing to discuss the latter half of any of the above statements.

But I do take issue with the first half: the too-cynical-to-celebrate attitude that is begging to be called out for its hipster glass house. Because marriage equality is a victory for everyone.

Anyone familiar with the history of minority rights in the U.S. knows that granting civil rights for one group has had an undeniable domino effect on other groups. Not long after debates about slavery, segregation, and voting rights culminated with the nation’s belief that all men are indeed created equal, women asked, “Why just men?” And not long after so many women proved that straight relationships can be egalitarian, gay and lesbian citizens asked, “Why just straight ones?” And somewhere amid gays and lesbians proving that the way they were born hurts no one, trans people asked, “What about how we were born?”  And somewhere in between all the discussions about genitals and bodies and skin color and size, disabled people asked, “What about our bodies and brains?” Because no one is free when others are oppressed.

Likewise, when one kind of inhumane prejudice gets knocked down, all the others are under threat.

This is not to take attention away from the people most directly affected by this week’s momentous legal decision. Friends of mine in Massachusetts can suddenly enjoy concrete federal benefits now while my husband and I have always enjoyed these benefits simply because we’re in a straight relationship. I am so happy for them, and so sad one of my dearest friends never lived to see this day.

But the victory is truly for everyone – even those marriage equality opponents who fail to see how they will benefit from a society that is a little bit freer, a little less fearful, and lot less lop-sided. Because this is a victory for anyone who has been bullied for traits they never had any choice about. This is a victory for anyone with something that has made them stand out in their family. This is a victory for all the couples who have choked back tears when someone said that marriage is all about a man and a woman being able to procreate. This is a victory for all the parents who have tried to teach their children to never grow up thinking they are more important than anyone else.

Congratulations to all of you out there.

 

 

 

Define “Active”

16 Jun

(Via)

 

New York City has begun using a new design of the international symbol for disabilities this week. (See above.) Featuring a forward-moving, self-propelling wheelchair user, the new symbol has garnered praise from the mayor’s office and Professor Lisa Wade of Occidental College for portraying disabled people as “active and independent,” instead of “passive and helpless.”

I support the move 99% because it signifies the changing perceptions of what it means to be disabled. Altering our default descriptions of non-ambulatory people from “wheelchair-bound” to “using a wheelchair” sheds much-needed light on the fact that many disabled people are indeed differently abled. Wheelchairs, sign language, and Braille are not just substitute ways of moving and communicating but means of moving and communicating that require skill. If you’ve ever witnessed someone try to use a wheelchair for the first time, you know it’s like watching Bambi on ice.

That said, I am hesitant to embrace any idea that insists that physically “active” is preferable to “passive” at the risk of impugning those who cannot help but be dependent. Just as Little People of America’s motto “Think Big!” inadvertently suggests something undesirable about being small, an over-emphasis on being active—and defining “active” as the ability to physically move yourself forward—inadvertently suggests something humiliating about the thousands of medical conditions that preclude physical independence. All people have agency, and this absolutely bears repeating when we talk about human rights and portrayals of disability. But not all of us are independent.

Disability reminds us, perhaps like nothing else, that we can never hold every member of the human race to the same standard. This does not mean we cannot demand everyone strive for excellence, try their hardest, or be their own toughest critic. But it does mean we should be wary of promulgating rigid definitions of excellence.

As a friend with lupus once said, “What’s wrong with being weak?  What’s wrong with trying to do something and doing it badly?”  

Competitive cultures wince at weakness and I must say that America can be a very competitive place.  Even the most progressive human rights movements have embraced competitive, grandiose language when talking about empowerment.  Two years ago on Love Your Body Day, Chloe Angyal of Feministing wrote an article wherein she wanted to “ take a moment to appreciate the things my body can do.” She went on to list her favorite things:

My body can stitch itself back together when it gets cut. This never ceases to amaze me.

My body has an organ in it that can stretch to accommodate a small human being. I don’t want it to do any stretching or accommodating any time soon, but the capacity is there, and that blows my mind.

More than a decade after it was cool (was it really ever cool?) my body still has the muscle memory to do the Macarena. That one is kind of embarrassing, but still kind of great. Mostly embarrassing.

My body can orgasm. Enough said.

My body can do [a flip], and for that, I love it.

What can your body do?

I had been, and still am, a huge fan of Angyal’s writing. As a feminist, an athlete and someone who has struggled with disordered eating, her contributions to the discourse on body image have been invaluable. But this time around, I wasn’t inspired to join in her Love Your Body Day exercise. I hesitated to say so because I understood the noble intentions behind her article, and what kind of person wants to rain on a Love Your Body Day parade?

Apparently someone like me, because I ultimately couldn’t help but write this response:

I realize the very good intentions of your post: celebrating our bodies as they are. But the emphasis on what you can “do” (= ability) still made me quite uncomfortable as someone with disabilities.

Usually when one writes a piece meant to buck oppressive, judgmental thinking and celebrate the way we are, the author writes about a quality that is ostracized – a skin color, sexuality, a body size, physical features considered to be deformities, etc. It’s the honesty of the author in spite of adversity that inspires. You instead decided to celebrate things about your body that mainstream society does not ostracize at all, but in fact agrees with you are wonderful. So for those of us who cannot dance, have children, heal cuts, or do gymnastics, this post simply reminds us of this and it’s hard not to take it as bragging. (I know that wasn’t your intention.) You did invite us to list our own things we love about our bodies, but I don’t think there’s anything my body can do that yours can’t…

Angyal wrote back to me personally and apologized. From there we started a dialogue that resulted in my writing guest posts for Feministing and our exchanging lots of praise for each other’s work. I had been frustrated by the lack of disability awareness on leftist forums and simultaneoulsy self-conscious of appearing too negative or narcissistic. This made her response to my critique all the more inspiring.  She has both privileges and experiences of marginalization that I do not, just as I have privileges and experiences of marginalization that she does not. The same goes for those who can move their own wheelchairs and those who cannot.

Overlooking our privileges and inadvertently denigrating others happens all too easily, as all 7 billion of us strive for excellence and recognition of our various capacities for excellence. Trying to include everyone in the conversation, all the time, can be exhausting.  But admitting the danger of these missteps is imperative to the idea of truly universal human rights because that idea insists, over and over again, no matter what the circumstances, that everybody matters.  There is no way around it if we want to move forward.

 

 

Who Should Have To Expose Themselves?

5 May

(Via)

 

If you live anywhere in the West, you know this transphobic joke.  Girl and guy go to bed.  Guy wakes up and finds out somehow that his lover was not born a woman.  The moment of realization is sketched out across his face in excruciating slow-motion, and then he runs away in horror/vomits his brains out/gets very, very, very angry.  The message? 

1)      A trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, she’s a freak.

2)      His being attracted to her somehow makes him less of a man.

3)      Most importantly, he’s been duped.

Feeling duped is the bedrock of transphobia.  Those who feel indiscriminately upset at the very idea of transsexual and/or transgender people usually say something along the lines of, “They’re deceiving people!  I’d be pretty pissed if I found out my girlfriend/boyfriend had had a sex change.”  This feeling is usually enshrouded in the myth that transitioning into the opposite sex is done capriciously, just for laughs and the thrill of going undercover.  This mentality never ever acknowledges the fact that many transsexual and transgender people feel as uncomfortable in the body they were born in as cis people would feel in a body they were not born in.  And it fosters the view of cis people as victims of trans villains, ignoring that trans people in the United States have a suicide rate 26 times higher than the nationl average and that worldwide one trans person is murdered every three days.

This all too common belief that trans people are deceptive, and maliciously so, has now reached new heights as two trans men in the U.K. have been charged with and convicted of sexual assault.  Their accusers claimed that the men’s failure to disclose their gender at birth before they slept with them was a form of fraud and thus the consent the women gave to sex was under false pretenses.  I am in no position to make a final judgment about these two specific cases.  Perhaps they involved many other factors revealing coercion and predatory behavior.  I cannot speak for the defendants or the accusers.  But I can and will speak out against the widespread belief that the freaks of the world are obliged to warn everyone they know about their atypical features and histories before they dare try to get close to someone.

My husband thought I must have been in a car accident years ago when we met for the first time at a birthday party.  I was wearing a sleeveless top exposing the lavender scars that traverse my upper arms.  I know I told him soon after, on our first date, about my long medical history, but that was because we were having an intellectual debate about the role of the media and I decided to use my childhood experiences as an example.  I decided to do so because I liked him and trusted him in a very special way.  It was not because I felt that anyone I was interested in romantically “deserved” to know.

What do potential sex partners deserve to know?  Do they deserve to know I had my calf bones removed?  Do they deserve to know I had my tonsils out?  What if I had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant?  What if I used to weigh twice as much, or half as much, as I do now?  What about veterans or cancer patients who have lost body parts normally only seen by sex partners?  Is it fraudulent of a cancer survivor to wear a prosthesis that would suggest she still has both breasts?  

Indeed, the moment I read about the British cases, I was immediately reminded of a poem by Robert Hass about a woman who is abandoned at her doorstep by a young admirer after she tells him she has had a double mastectomy.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t think I could,” he mumbles before he turns his tail and runs.  I do not know what it is like to be a cancer survivor or transsexual, but surely many of us know what it is like to fear being rejected for something we never had much of a choice about.

In reponse to the British accusations of sexual assault, law professor Alex Sharpe has asked, What if a potential sex partner appears white but is in fact of mixed race – is a failure to map out your entire family tree grounds for prosecution?  Of course not.  He points out that individuals are not legally obliged to reveal to sex partners that they are bisexual, married, divorced, have a past criminal record…  The list is endless, and thus he argues: “Given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Of course, any counselor or psychologist will tell you that trust, openness, and honesty are necessary for a healthy relationship and true intimacy, but the right to privacy and personal dignity are also necessary for any community founded on justice.  And there can be no genuine trust when certain people reveal personal information only because society’s hang-ups about gender, sexuality, or atypical bodies demand they do. 

Everyone is entitled to their sexuality.  No one should ever be pressured into a heterosexual, homosexual or pansexual relationship.  Open and honest dialogue about this is essential.  But the more we blame minorities for upsetting our delusions of normalcy just by being who they are, the more we tell jokes implying that any normal person would be disgusted by their physiology, the more we insist that their identities are a perversion of ours, the more difficult we make it for them to be open and honest with us.

 

 

Germany Rules on Male Circumcision

26 Aug

Justice(Image by Viewminder used under CC license via)

 

We’ve been waiting all summer for this decision.  On Thursday here in Berlin, the German Ethics Council ruled that male circumcision is legally permissible without a doctor’s order, but several conditions must be met:

    • Both parents must be in full agreement.
    • All possible risks to the procedure must be explained in full detail.
    • Local anesthetics must be an option.
    • The procedure must be certified by a medical professional.

Some of these requirements, especially the last two, go against what some fundamentalist religious leaders mandate.  Why all the fuss?  In Europe, where female genital cutting is illegal, male circumcision is only common in Muslim and Jewish communities.  Last year, a German court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of an underage male constitutes aggravated assault and battery, and the debate has been raging ever since.  It has split the nation into two parties: Those that see the procedure as cosmetic at best and mutilating at worst, carried out on patients too young to give consent, versus those that believe any ban on age-old rituals and tribal markers constitutes religious and/or ethnic persecution.  That the ritual German lawyers sought to ban is a Jewish custom makes it a particularly sensitive case here.

When we hear stories of female genital cutting in Africa, Westerners are generally horrified.  But few in the United States understand that many Europeans gape at our 60% rate of male circumcision and consider it to be of course not quite but almost as cruel.  “How on earth could parents do that to their baby boy?!” is the reaction I get from the vast majority of Christian and non-denominational European males I talk to.  They are much more prone to believe studies citing the problems it can cause—for example, a supposedly higher rate of dyspareunia for women who have intercourse with circumcised men—than studies that downplay such fears.  I usually admit to them that, because it is so very common where I come from, I’d never given it much thought beyond those pop culture jokes about what looks better.

Which just goes to show how powerful cultural customs and values can be.  One culture cringes as the other shrugs.  Both female and male genital cutting involves groups that say we should protect the parents’ right to choose what they think is best for their children without government interference, while the others say the government should protect children from procedures that offer no medical benefit before they are old enough to decide for themselves, regardless of what their parents want.

I’ve written before that as someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I know how complex decisions about body alteration can be.  Determining an appropriate age of consent for surgery can be even more complicated.  But also due to my experience, I wince along with Jessica Valenti when parents choose procedures for their children that offer no real medical benefit.  While discussing circumcision, my European friends argue that patients should reach the age of consent before undergoing any procedure that, unlike limb-lengthening, does not become more medically complicated with age.  Should courts ever rule this way, this will inevitably lead to bans on juvenile nose-jobs like the one Valenti cites.  But then what about ear-piercing? 

Years ago, I was a panelist at a conference called “Surgically Shaping Children” at the Hastings Center, a think tank for bio-ethics, where we addressed elective procedures such as limb-lengthening on dwarfs and determining a gender for intersex children.  After a two-day debate and a resulting book, we concluded that the best way to prevent parents from making decisions that could be damaging to their children is to keep both the parents and their children as informed as possible about every issue that’s at stake: medical facts, cultural identity, individual identity, and agency.  The German Ethics Council’s ruling also implies that such comprehensive understanding is necessary. 

I think a ban on circumcision would have created more cultural resentment than understanding.  But the scientific community, and society as a whole, should take the place of the legal system in helping parents understand all the complexities of altering a child’s body without a medical purpose.  There may be no easy answer, but the discussion has got to keep on going.

 

 

Interpreting History Part II: Oppression Has Never Been Universal

5 Aug

(“Samurai Kiss” via)

 

Nothing divides a country quite like a national holiday.  When I was studying in St. Petersburg ten years ago, there was as much apathy as there was celebration on the Russian Federation’s June 12th decennial.  German reactions to Reunification Day every October 3rd are anything but united.  And on the United States Fourth of July last month, Chris Rock tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day, the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.”

Amid the outbursts of “unpatriotic!”, conservative blogger Jeff Schreiber shot back, “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #GoFuckYourself.” 

Schreiber has since written a post on his blog, America’s Right, apologizing for cursing and conceding that the slave trade was unconscionable.  But for all his insistence that he never intends to diminish the horrors of American slavery, he adds that President Obama’s policies are now “enslaving Americans in a different way.”  (Real classy.)  And for all his reiteration that slavery was always wrong, he still hasn’t straightened out all the facts skewed in his Tweet.

“Slavery existed for 2,000 years before America.”  He uses this supposed fact to relativize the oppression, as if to shrug, “Well, everyone was doing it back then.”  His tweet implies that the ubiquity of the slave trade makes America’s abolition of it exceptional, not its participation.  This argument hinges on fiction.  Slavery did not exist for 2,000 consecutive years.  In the West, it was pervasive in Antiquity and the Modern era, but it was downright uncommon in the Middle Ages.  (While anathema to our modern ideas of freedom for the individual, medieval serfdom was not slavery.)  Slavery was re-instituted in the West roughly 500 years ago with the advent of colonialism.  And the United States held on to it long after most other colonial powers had abolished it.  Critics can say what they want about the effectiveness of Chris Rock’s rain-on-a-parade tactics, but his argument did not distort history.      

In my last post, I argued the risks of concealing the human rights abuses of the past for the sake of nostalgia, if anything because it is the height of inaccuracy.  But portraying history as an unbroken tradition of straight, white, able-bodied male dominance like Schreiber did is also inaccurate.  The universal human rights movement in its modern form is indeed only a few decades old, but the idea of equality for many minorities can be found all over in history at various times and places.  The Quakers have often been pretty keen on it. 

And almost no minority has been universally condemned.  People with dwarfism appear to have been venerated in Ancient Egypt.  Gay men had more rights in Ancient Greece and in many American Indian societies than in 20th century Greece or the United States.  Muslim women wielded the right to divorce long before Christian women.  English women in the Middle Ages were more educated about sex than their Victorian heiresses.  Much of the Jewish community in Berlin, which suffered such unspeakable crimes culminating in the mid-20th century, were at earlier times better integrated into the city than Jewish people were in many other capitals of Central Europe.  In short, history does not show that racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and our current beauty standards are dominant social patterns only recently broken by our ultra-modern culture of political correctness.  The oppression of minorities may be insidious and resilient throughout history, but it has never been universal. 

Downplaying the crimes of the past by claiming everybody did it is both historically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.  It is perverse when such misconceptions fuel arguments for further restrictions on human rights.  In 2006, Republican Congress member W. Todd Akin from Missouri claimed that, “Anybody who knows something about the history of the human race knows that there is no civilization which has condoned homosexual marriage widely and openly that has long survived.”  Even if this were true, the argument is absurd.  (It appears that no civilization has regularly chosen women with dwarfism for positions of executive power, but does that mean it’s a bad idea?)  But the argument collapses because it relies on facts that are untrue.

Granted hyperbole is a constant temptation in politics.  Stating things in the extreme is a good way to grab attention.  In an earlier post on sex, I asserted that mainstream culture assumes women’s sex drive is lower than men’s because female sexual expression has been “discouraged for millennia.”  Patriarchy has certainly been a major cultural pattern around the world and throughout history, and we cannot emphasize its power on both the collective and individual psyche enough.  But patriarchy is by no means a cultural universal.  Ethnic groups in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal continue to practice polyandry into the present day, while history shows many others that have done the same at various times.  These exceptions question the biological theory that heterosexual male jealousy is an insurmountable obstacle to sexual equality.  And prevents any conservative excuse that insists, “Everybody’s been doing it.”    

They haven’t been.  Xenophobia has never been universal.  Humans may have a natural fear of the unfamiliar, of what they perceive to be the Other, but our definitions of the Other change constantly throughout time and space, as frequently and bizarrely as fashion itself.   This makes history craggy, complex, at times utterly confusing.  Like the struggle for human rights, it is simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  But whatever our political convictions, we gotta get the facts straight.

Despite what Stephen Colbert says.