Tag Archives: LGBT rights

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.

 

 

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A Challenge for Supporters of “Traditional Marriage”

13 Apr

(Via)

 

I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigoted. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.

But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly revolting about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.

My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the global population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in the world. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.

Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.

Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties, no matter how hard it may be, while others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.

Because Ive said it once and Ill say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.

Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and racism and aristocratic inbreeding and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.

Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing society for the better—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.

Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”

 

 

Wear Whatever You Want – We Can Handle It!

2 Sep

(Via)

 

This family portrait of a father and son in a small town—deep in the province and deeply religious—in Southern Germany has been traveling around the world.  When his five year-old boy expressed a love for dresses but found himself alone on the playground, Nils Pickert writes in Emma magazine that the only way to make sure his son knew that he supported him 100% was to be a role model of self-confidence and don a skirt himself.

“Yeah, I’m one of those fathers who believes in liberation when it comes to parenting,” he writes.  “I am not one of those academic dads who ruminates and lectures about equality between the sexes, and then, the moment a child arrives, slips back into the old comfortable gender roles: He does his own thing by having a career, she takes care of the rest.”

When he switched to a new kindergarten, the teasing got to be too much and the author’s son stopped wearing dresses to pre-school.  But he turned to his father and asked, wide-eyed, “Papa, when are you going to wear a skirt again?”  So Dad made sure to keep wearing his skirt out in public.  He writes, “I’m very grateful to the woman who stared at us on the street until she walked into a lamppost.  My son roared with laughter.  And the next day, he fished a dress out of his closet again.”

I don’t have much to add to this story besides the smile it brought to my face.  And a hope that someday these two will be models for a poster that will take its place in history alongside Rosie the Riveter.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out

29 Jul

alter ego(Image by Bob May used under CC license via)

 

Anytime my partner and I don’t know what to do or say, one of us asks, “What’s in the news?” and we dive into a political discussion.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve become somewhat embarrassingly addicted to Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  The news media has been (unsurprisingly) critical of a show founded on the idea of chastising the news media.  Feminists have been (sometimes rightly) critical of its portrayal of women.  The show has almost countless strengths and weaknesses, but I find myself still obsessing over the brilliant, captivating opening scene that kicked off the series.  If you can’t this clip, it basically boils down to a flustered news anchor named Will McAvoy overcome with disgust at the state of the nation and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s: “America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he sighs.  “We sure used to be.”

We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests…  We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars, acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence.  We didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior…  We didn’t scare so easy.     

“Nostalgia” literally means “aching to come home.”  It’s the temporal form of homesickness, time rather than place being the source of pain.  We all do it.  It can be oddly soothing at times to be in awe of another era, especially the one you were born in.  But Will McAvoy should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for proof that nostalgia is an ultimately futile pastime that every sad sack of every era has hopelessly indulged in.  (If “things were better back in the day,” then how come every generation says this?)  But since McAvoy’s nostalgia is an earnest, political battle cry, heaping laurels on the good old 1950s and 60s when the leaders of the day did their job right, I’m more inclined to have him watch Mad Men.  Or just open up the 1960 children’s illustrated encyclopedia I found at my great aunt’s house, which states, among other things: “The Australian aborigine is similar to the American negro in strength, but less intelligent.”  Didn’t scare so easy, indeed.     

The problem with nostalgia is that it is far more emotional than intellectual and thereby lends itself to inaccuracy all too easily.  America was indeed doing great things sixty years ago.  And reprehensible things.  We hid our disabled and gay citizens away in institutions, asylums and prisons.  We enforced the compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled and Native American women.  We took decades to slowly repeal segregationist laws that the Nazis had used as models.  We maintained laws that looked the other way when husbands and boyfriends abused their partners or children.  In short, we handed out privilege based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental capabilities with far greater frequency and openness than we do today.  Perhaps we were the “greatest country in the world” compared to the others.  (Europe and East Asia were trying to recover from the devastation of World War II, after all, while other nations were trying to recover from the devastation of colonialism.)  But McAvoy’s wistful monologue is much more a comparison of America Then with America Now.  And that is hard to swallow when considering that a reversion to that society would require so many of us to give up the rights we’ve been given since then.   

Am I “another whiny, self-interested feminist” out to bludgeon the straight, cis, WASPy male heroes of history?  Am I “just looking to be offended”?  No, I’m struggling.  Next to literature and foreign languages, history has always been my favorite subject.  And pop history always touches upon this question:

“If you could go back to any period in history, which would it be?” 

From an architectural point of view?  Any time before the 1930s.  From an environmental point of view?  North America before European contact.  From a male fashion point of view?  Any period that flaunted fedoras or capes.  From a realistic point of view?  No other time but the present.  Because if I am to be at all intellectually honest in my answer, there has never been a safer time for me to be myself. 

Last year, I read The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity To Social Liberation by Betty Adelson.  Despite my love of history, I hated almost every minute of it.  Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen had helped me understand how so many black American students feel uninspired by U.S. history and the figures we hold up as heroes because so many of those men would have kept them in shackles.  But it wasn’t until I read The Lives of Dwarfs that I understood how nasty it feels on a gut-level to face the fact that most of history’s greatest figures would more likely than not consider you sub-human. 

With the exception of Ancient Egypt, my own lifetime has been the only period wherein someone with dwarfism could have a fair chance of being raised by their family and encouraged to pursue an education and the career of their choice, as I was.  At any other point in Western history, it would have been more probable that I would have been stuck in an institution, an asylum or the circus (the Modern Era before the 1970s), enslaved by the aristocracy (Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or left for dead (Ancient Greece).  Of course inspiring cases like Billy Barty show that a few courageous/decent parents bucked the trends and proved to be the exception to the rule, but that’s what they were.  Exceptions. 

I am fortunate to have been born when I was and for that reason, nostalgia for any other period in time can never be an intellectually honest exercise for someone like me.  The moment someone says, “Yeah, well, let’s not dwell on odd cases like that.  I’m talking about the average person,” they’re essentially saying, “Your experience is less important than mine.”

Everyone is entitled to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the era in which they grew up.  If any period can put a lump in my throat, it’s the 1970s.  The Sesame Street era.  The boisterous, primary-colored festival flooded with Williams Doll, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, inner city pride à la Ezra Jack Keats, and androgynous big hair all set to funky music can evoke an almost embarrassing sigh from me.  Donning jeans and calling everyone by their first name, that generation seemed set on celebrating diversity and tearing down hierarchies because, as the saying goes, Hitler had finally given xenophobia a bad name.  Could there be a more inspiring zeitgeist than “You and me are free to be to you and me”? 

 

But I’m being selective with my facts for the sake of my feelings. 

Sesame Street and their ilk were indeed a groundbreaking force, but it was hardly the consensus.  Segregation lingered in so many regions, as did those insidious forced sterilization laws.  LGBT children were far more likely to be disowned back then than today—Free To Be You And Me had nothing to say about that—and gay adults could be arrested in 26 states.  The leading feminist of the time was completely screwing up when it came to trans rights.  Although more and more doctors were advocating empowerment for dwarf babies like me, adult dwarfs faced an 85% unemployment rate with the Americans with Disabilities Act still decades away.  And Sesame Street was actually banned in Mississippi on segregationist grounds.  When the ban was lifted, its supporters of course remained in the woodwork.  We have made so much progress since then.  It would be disingenuous for me to ignore that simply for the sake of nostalgia. 

To be fair to Sorkin, it’s a hard habit to kick.  We have always glorified the past to inspire us, no matter how inaccurate.  Much of American patriotism prides itself on our being the world’s oldest democracy, but we were not remotely a democracy until 1920.  Before then, like any other nation that held free elections, we were officially an androcracy, and of course we didn’t guarantee universal suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “androcracy” signifies how little attention we afford our history of inequality.  But we have to if accuracy is going to have anything to do with history.  A brash statement like “We sure used to be [the greatest country in the world],” as a battle cry for self-improvement is asking to be called out on the inanity of this claim. 

Everyone is entitled to appreciate certain facets or moments in history, just as everyone is entitled to look back fondly upon their childhood.  Veracity falters, however, with the claim that not just certain facets but society as a whole was all-around “better.”  This is never true, unless you’re comparing a time of war to the peacetime preceding it (1920s Europe vs. 1940s Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans in the 1990s), and even then the argument is sticky (Iraq during the insurgency vs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein).  In the words of Jessica Robyn Cadwallader, concealing the crimes of the past risks their reiteration.  Whenever we claim that something was socially better at a certain point in history, we must admit that something was also worse.  It always was. 

But such a sober look at the past need not be depressing.  It reminds me how very grateful I am to be alive today.  My nephews are growing up in a society that is more accepting than almost any other that has preceded it.  That is one of helluva battle cry.  Because what could possibly be more inspiring than history’s proof that whatever our missteps, things have slowly, slowly gotten so much better?

 

 

When It Comes to the Sexes, Ignorance Is Bitterness

1 Jul

 

“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?”  In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question.  And you can probably guess what my answer is.  With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time.  It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other.  And that’s a big deal.

According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative.  Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy.  As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.”  When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship.  Oh, puh-lease.

“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender.  Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you.  And everyone else around you.  I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth.  Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties.  I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends.  Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present.  They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths. 

It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters.  But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them.  Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical.  Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective. 

Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary.  In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:

  • Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
  • Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
  • Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
  • Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.

We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for.  Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s.  Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.”  (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… )  Bonding over common experiences is easy.  Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress.  This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome. 

Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying.  As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent.  Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment.  Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it.  Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship.  Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away.  That’s what friends are for.   

But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect.  In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples.  Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate.  But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical. 

As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals.  Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most.  People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender.  (“Women are incapable of being on time!”  “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”)  The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes.  It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.

But things are getting better.  Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels.  Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history.  Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told.  In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”  Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.

 

 

Celebrating Even What’s Long, Long Overdue

12 May

Equality, Difference(Image by Nikole Handel used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

—Cornel West

Unless you’ve somehow managed to ignore all Western media except my blog this week, you know that Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to voice full support for marriage equality.  As expected, opponents of the cause are united in their outrage, while supporters are split between those who see a social victory and those who see mere political calculation. 

I understand the cynical/frustrated reaction.  When it comes to any issues of equality and civil rights, the idea that At last the president considers you a full human being! can feel like ice cold comfort.  The idea that you have to “wait” for a majority to grow to accept you as you are, that support for your rights is considered politically “risky” or “courageous” is supremely depressing.  The idea that you should be “grateful” to anyone for believing that the way you were born is as valid as the way they were born can be soul-crushing.  I love my parents to pieces, but I don’t like thinking I should thank them for not dumping me in an institution or an orphanage at birth, as so many other parents of dwarfs have done.

But to see the struggle toward justice only in these harsh terms, however true they may be, is to ensure that the entire process will be nothing but painful.  It is the right of any disenfranchised person to do so, but they should always understand that when others celebrate, it’s comes from self-preservation, from the need to transform pent-up fury into explosive joy when an opportunity finally arises.    

When Obama was elected, it would have been entirely valid to view the historic moment only as a cruel reminder of America’s long history of injustice: What kind of a nation takes 230 years to consider someone with a certain skin color electable?!  But very few Obama supporters—black or white—saw it this way.  When the votes came in on November 4th, 2008, when the state that had only 41 years before fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep interracial couples apart ended up swinging left and ensured that night that the next president would be the son of just such a couple, we were shocked.  And the shock felt fantastic.  All the exhausting work that went in to combating those 230 years of injustice had to come out somehow and most felt they had little choice about the tears streaming down their face.

That’s why I’ve found myself beaming at this week’s headlines emblazoned above the president’s likeness.  I did the same in the summer of 2003 when my radio told me that nine judges had just ruled that gay men and women were no longer allowed to be arrested anywhere in the United States for simply being gay.  Sure it was sickening to consider that just two decades before, nine judges had ruled the other way, upholding Georgia’s right to imprison two men who had been happened upon in their own home by a police officer.  But as I stopped my car to take it all in, I reveled in the fact that, no matter the political calculation or nit-picking bureaucracy involved, bigotry had lost that day.

Whatever his personal beliefs, of which we will never be certain, President Obama has just placed himself on the right side of history.  If one interprets this in the most cynical way—i.e., that he only did it to fire up his base and win votes—it’s our democracy in action, indicating that the majority is leaning toward equality.  (And thank god he didn’t use that phrase “I’ve learned not to judge gays and lesbians,” a cop-out that implies there is something morally ambiguous to judge.)  Bigotry is an inexcusable force that has been obstructing equality for far too long, but it’s losing the battle.  And I can’t think of any better reason to stop, if only just for a moment, and celebrate.



 
 

The Gender Police

5 May

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last Sunday, Pastor Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina gave a sermon on gender:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is 4 years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’

Harris used the sermon to voice support for an upcoming proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.  North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriage.  The constitutional amendment would simply make it ever more so, as well as ban same-sex civil unions.  Update on 9 May: The amendment passed.

The hostility Harris invoked is one of the absolute best arguments for the opposition.  Play his sermon on a loop next to the 2010 study finding American children of lesbian parents report the lowest rate of abuse and repeat: Who’s advocating happy, loving families here?  But it should concern not only those who believe in same-sex marriage or non-violent childcare, but anyone who believes in equality and a non-threatening approach to character development.  Because, unfortunately, Harris was merely saying directly what children, teens and adults are told stealthily almost every day.  

In the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, religious scholars and sociologists conclude that the reason socially conservative religious groups target same-sex marriage so passionately is because it disrupts patriarchy.  Indeed, Harris’s rant embodies the two most arbitrary, constricting rules for heterosexual women and men in dating that endure today.  That is, nothing is worse for a guy than seeming effeminate, and nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.

Most readers may agree that these rules exist but certainly not to the extreme that Harris advocates.  Rarely does Western society openly invoke the violent, threatening imagery he did.  But these rules take various forms, often masquerading as indisputable facts about innate gender differences, and are reinforced in films and magazines, and as mantras in everyday conversation. Many of the following probably sound familiar to you:

1) Women constantly want to constantly shop the way guys constantly want to get laid.

2) A woman should ultimately let the guy pursue her lest she emasculate him and, in any case, she should want to be pursued.  Because every woman is a princess and every guy is a hunter.

3) Guys can’t be sexually assaulted by women.  They can only be grossed out by the advances of ugly women.

4) She can play sports or join the army, but she needs some makeup to be attractive and should always take care of her looks more than a guy should.

5) But she shouldn’t wear heels if it makes her taller than her man.

6) While many men can expect conventionally attractive women to overlook their gray hair, baldness, wrinkles, and/or chubbiness for their success or sense of humor, a woman cannot expect a conventionally attractive man to do the same for her.  Beauty and the Beast was about the woman seeing past her lover’s looks, not the guy! 

7) Guys don’t cry, but women do.  A lot.  Because guys use assertiveness to get what they want, while women show their vulnerability to get what they want.

8) Guys don’t cuddle with each other.  That’s gay.  But women cuddling is either sweet or hot.

9) He’s castrated if she asked him out, she’s physically stronger than he is, he earns less than she does, he takes her surname, or she talks more than he does at parties. 

10) And he’s gay if he’s interested in dresses, skirts or makeup.

11) Or if he enjoys books or films about women’s experiences.

What silliness. Exiling the very real horrors of LGBT persecution to the peripheries for just a split second, how many of you nearly choked yourself laughing at Harris’s order to “get outside and dig a ditch because that’s what boys do”? 

Nothing should be off-limits to anyone unless they honestly, independently have no interest in it.  Most of us are probably disinterested in or uncomfortable with some of the aforementioned behaviors, but the disinterest should arise from self-awareness, not authoritative training.  And I’ve met enough self-aware, self-confident individuals to know that these behaviors do not fall along gender lines, but personalities. 

My neighbor loves ponies as much as she loves repairing cars.  My husband’s buddy plays rugby and knits.  My guyfriend loves arranging flowers and wearing skirts as much as he loves target-shooting and watching Formula One.  I love arguing politics and watching figure skating with my mom and dad as much as I cringe at discussing shoes or watching football.  All of us are encouraged by our partners, demonstrating that our fears of persecution for such gender-bender are usually reinforced not by the opposite sex but, as Ashely Judd so eloquently pointed out last month, by our peers. 

Many men try to talk their girlfriends out of wearing makeup, while many women are supportive of—and often intrigued to the point of being attracted to—men who adopt traditionally feminine activities.  (If it weren’t the case, “Too bad he’s gay!” wouldn’t be the famous expression it is.)  Despite this, women thrust ludicrous beauty standards upon themselves, making catty comments about each other’s supposed failures, while men police one another with gay slurs.  That these cultural rules bear so much repeating signifies that they are indeed rules, not facts.   A glance at history and across cultures demonstrates that they are fashions.  That enforcing them requires scare tactics—“You’ll never get laid!” “You’ll never land a man!”—should land the final blow to their credibility.