Friday, April 29, 2011

The Scourge of Domestic Violence

Lori, aka Lmbr Timber Onu of Emerald Coast Roller Derby, was victim of a severe domestic violence attack on April 23, 2011. Lori is having surgery to repair broken eye sockets, nose and cheek bones. She faces a long recovery and mounting medical bills with no medical insurance. -- Lori Aid

1.5 million women are subjected to domestic violence each year in the United States. That is one out of every hundred women in the country. Women are subjected to domestic violence at three times the rate that men are; trans individuals at an even higher rate. Such a vast problem can be hard to conceptualize -- until it affects someone you know.

When it does affect someone you know, it is of paramount importance not to blame the victim. Many will ask why she didn't leave, as if it were that easy. In fact, abusers are most likely to kill their victims when they try to leave; not leaving can be a survival strategy. Some will wonder how she got involved with him to begin with, forgetting that sociopaths can be very charming at the beginning of a relationship.

To reduce the incidence of domestic violence (and other forms of abuse, and rape, and stalking), we need to address the perpetrators, not the victims. We need to figure out why so many abuse their partners, and turn that around. Fortunately, there are people trying to do just that; one example that springs to mind is the Good Men Project.

We also need to support victims, obviously. To help Lori with her completely unaffordable medical bills, visit the above site; a PayPal account has been set up for donations. If you can give, please do, and if you do not already support universal health care, consider how it can help people like Lori in the worst moments of their lives.

Net Neutrality is a Feminist Issue

I feel like the internet might just be the closest thing there is to a meritocracy. If an audience for a topic exists, they will find or create an internet resource for that topic, and the best-written ones often float to the top. Since anyone can theoretically go to the public library and create a website for free, small interest groups can connect, exchange ideas, and grow more easily than in a print-only age. (Not that this erases class privilege; I'm able to blog as much as I do because I own a computer and because my education enables me to write quickly, to name just two advantages.)

Right now the internet operates on a principle of net neutrality; your ISP doesn't distinguish between this humble little blog and, say, Amazon. You have access to data from each at the same rate, and any difference in speed should be server-side.

Internet service providers, on the other hand, would love to be able to dictate access. Without net neutrality, they could offer faster access for a price, or block competitors entirely. This could potentially trickle down into search engine rankings; slower loading sites will be less preferred by users, and may then drop in rank. (Note, however, that I do not know enough about Google's rankings system to say that this will in fact happen.)

Last December the FCC upheld net neutrality, albeit with some troubling potential loopholes. Cell phone wireless providers, who struggle to keep up with the demand for high-speed internet access, seem to be granted more leeway in determining what sites get speedy access and what sites get blocked.

And so the battle for net neutrality continues. As mobile devices rule a larger and larger share of our online lives, the precedents we set now will become extremely important. If unrestricted access to all of the internet is as important to you as it is to me, consider contacting your favorite congressperson.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gender Equity in Sports: Apparently WAY More Complicated Than We Realized

The New York Times reports that college athletic programs are being manipulative in order to meet Title IX requirements.

Essentially, what is happening here is that big schools are listing male athletes as rostered on women's teams in order to boost the numbers, allowing more slots for male athletes on male teams. They are also listing women on the roster who are not actually team members, and may not be aware that they are rostered. Go read the article, I'll wait.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Higher education can resemble big business in a lot of ways, and athletic programs - men's in particular - are a money-maker. That's not quite good enough for me, though.

I have a few problems with this. First, I really detest this underlying assumption that women aren't as good at sports as men are. I know a lot of very athletic women who would have problems with that assessment.

But I don't think it's really about whether men or women are better athletes. It's about who people would rather watch in a sporting event. And the answer to that appears to be men, clearly. People always forget that the US has a women's soccer team that has been extremely successful - more successful, frankly, than the US men's team. But they get much less attention. Why?

I don't have the answer to that, but I suspect it has something to do with gender. There is an expectation that men are rougher, tougher, and more physical. Women aren't meant to be out there beating each other up. Fuck that, I say. Women aren't less able to handle contact sports than men. Any attempt to justify the greater attention to male sports based on feminine weakness is grounded in sexism, full stop.

Second, this whole ordeal is about manipulating women's sports to help men's teams. It shows how marginalized women are even in women's athletic programs. There is no argument made that women's teams benefit from having men practice with them (I can't see how such an argument would hold water, but if someone wants to point me to such a study, go for it). In fact, this is explicitly about using the women's teams as an end-run around Title IX, if you'll pardon the pun.

There is no way to justify this that isn't sexist. Women are considered to exist primarily to benefit men in far too many ways, from taking on the majority of domestic responsibilities at the expense of their professional lives to being expected to accept lower pay and crappy treatment by corporate employers.

Finally, I think this listing of men on women's rosters is just really weird from a gender perspective. The article says that women who practice with men's teams are counted as female athletes. This could use some exploration. For one thing, it's certainly buying into the idea of gender binaries that I don't subscribe to. For the purposes of college athletics, which are gender-segregated according to these unrealistic binaries, though, why are we okay with counting men as women but not women as men? There are plenty of people worried about the crisis of masculinity right now - are they worried about labeling men as women? Of course, it's FOR SPORTS which MEN PLAY [better than women]. And, of course, it wouldn't help men's athletic programs to roster women as men, when the whole point of this shell game is to make more room for male athletes. I wonder what the men themselves have to say about it, given the context of anxious gender-policing our society is just soaking in.

Anyway. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"I Don't Want to be Pregnant" is Reason Enough

As I said Friday, I'm really tired of hearing about how abortion should be rare. In that post I demonstrated that even if you're careful and use two methods of birth control (or practice abstinence), the cumulative risk of pregnancy over many years of use is pretty high. As a result, we should expect a fairly substantial demand for abortion.

Since writing Friday's post, I've had a couple conversations with people who identify as pro-choice, yet maintain that even with the fairly high birth control failure rates, abortion should be rare. Which means they think that abortion is okay in some circumstances but not others (and we're not talking about trimesters here.)

That's not exactly what I'd call "pro-choice." It's more like begrudging choice. Like, "I'll let you get this abortion, technically, but I'm totally going to judge you and shame you for it." That's not cool. And it's going to scare some folk out of getting an abortion who want one.

"I don't want to be pregnant" is a good enough reason. It will be my reason, should I ever get pregnant. I'm healthy. I'm financially comfortable. I even think I'd be a decent parent. But I do not want to give birth, and so I'm not going to. Please keep your judgment to yourself. It's my medical decision to make, and implying that I shouldn't have an abortion is, frankly, anti-choice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Next Frontier? Queer Teachers in K-12

We have made progress in queer rights over the course of history, but we still have a long way to go. For instance, it's still difficult in many places to be out as a K-12 teacher. There is a lot we can learn from history to help explain why this is such an enormous hurdle. Before we dive into it, I want to note (again) that progress is not inevitable. Queer spaces always have to be contested, and even though 53% of Americans are in support of gay marriage doesn't mean that the 20-40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ are good to go. Right? Anyway.

As we know, teaching became more feminized in the common school movement. (I'd recommend reading that post and this one if you haven't before, because it's helpful background information, I think.) It also became explicitly tied to values, in that education was meant to instill the values in children that would make them good republican citizens. And good republican citizens, apparently, don't rock the boat as far as gender goes.

We don't have a lot of good data on LGBTQ teachers in the 19th century, but there have always been queer people - although queer liberation movements only became even minimally potent in the post-WWII era, and did not become a mass movement until the 1960s.

The sexual psychopath laws of the 1940s-1960s came out of the medicalization of homosexuality, and further limited the freedom of gays and lesbians. A pervasive hostility, expressed through religion, law, and science, kept homosexuality submerged and constrained queer people from openly acknowledging their presence in society. This made it more difficult to come out and find communities, so that when LGBTQ people were harassed, they could not rely on community outcry to provide support or help prevent future occurrences.

The 1950s were especially difficult for LGBTQ people, including teachers. A rising tide of anti-communism turned on gays and lesbians, as the danger posed by "sexual perverts" became a keystone of right-wing partisan rhetoric. Joseph McCarthy latched onto the idea, and other anticommunist crusaders also thought of LGBTQs as just as dangerous as communists.

In Florida, the 1950s and 1960s were especially hard on queer teachers, thanks to the Johns Committee, which I've already quickly explained here. That book whose cover is pictured above is about this, and you should definitely read it if this is of interest to you. Anyway, the Johns Committee was a witch hunt meant to keep queer people out of schools, operating under the old "you can obviously tell who's gay and they are sneaking under the radar ready to recruit your kids" paradox. Anita Bryant used the same thing in 1977 with the Save Our Children campaign, and we're seeing it again now: We're in yer schools, indoctrinatin' yer youth.

But we live in The Future. We can use our phones to find a nearby vegan restaurant and then call it to see if it can deal with gluten-free while in a strange random city. We have Derby Earth! So teachers can totes be out and queer and have no problems, right?

Of course not. Because I always worry that long posts will make Kyrie sad, and because there are dissertations that could be written on this issue and I have to figure out how to tackle it, the deal on the ground now is gonna have to be Part Two. Have something to say that you want included? Holla at me. Everyone else, stay tuned.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fun with RSS Feeds

It has come to my attention that relatively few of my friends use RSS feeds, so maybe NWF readers are in the same boat. I do not understand how you read blogs without them. Does your brain actually store the names and URLs of the dozen blogs you read?

My brain sure as heck doesn't, and also I am lazy, and also it's much more than a dozen blogs in my case. So, I pipe everything into an RSS reader, which stores and sorts all unread blog posts in one spot. You can get operating system-specific software to do this, but I prefer to use Google Reader.

Once you've decided on a reader, you can start adding RSS feeds to it. You can do this a couple of ways using Google Reader. One way is to look for the RSS symbol on a blog you like. You should see one on the right side of this very page; it's a small orange rectangle with three white arcs in it. You can choose to receive updates when there are new posts ("Posts") or whenever a new comment appears. If you click on it, your browser will try to figure out where you want it to go. Firefox has no trouble adding things to my Google account. The second method is to do so from within Google Reader.

If you read a lot of stuff on a variety of topics, it may become useful to subdivide your feeds into categories ("Feminism", "Fashion", "Humor", "Tech", etc.) If you have a mobile device, you may want to get an app; I use Reeder on my iPad and ReadItLater for things I want to read again and again.

I mention this because it is, of course, a good way to get the latest Nth Wave Feminism posts. But I really find it most useful for blogs that are updated infrequently or irregularly, or ones for which it takes longer to type the URL than read the material, like webcomics. Without RSS feeds, I would drive myself nuts checking for new material written by the funniest person on the internet, but, as it is, I can instead be pleasantly surprised when a new post from her shows up in my feed reader.

The Typical Use Failure Rate of Abstinence

Last Friday I wrote a post about birth control effectiveness. I wished to demonstrate that even a careful user of birth control has a fairly high probability of becoming pregnant, and the assumption that all persons seeking abortions are pregnant because they screwed up their birth control is just plain wrong.

If you missed the last few paragraphs, though, you might think I was building up to some sort of abstinence-only argument. Even if its failure rate were zero, I would not argue that abstinence is a good birth control method. If you want to have sex, I am sure as hell not going to tell you not to.

But the typical use failure rate for abstinence is definitely not zero. Good statistics are hard to come by, but most attempts at quantifying the failure rate of abstinence rank it worse than condoms.

The most optimistic non-zero value cited for the failure rate is 26%. Time for another plot!

With these numbers (which are admittedly much more poorly constrained than the failure rates I discussed on Friday), a person using abstinence as their main form of birth control has a roughly 70% chance of getting pregnant within 5 years. Definitely not a great method for preventing pregnancy. I cannot emphasize enough how useless I find abstinence-only sex ed.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Birth Control Math

I learned about contraception at a reasonably early age (around 12, I think); I know that many kids are not so lucky. I don't recall where I got my information, but it was probably a combination of health class, my parents, and these pamphlets I got in the mail along with feminine hygiene product samples. In any case, I knew about condoms and the pill and that they could protect against pregnancy.

On the other hand, there was relatively little discussion of the odds. Numbers are important; to make informed reproductive decisions, you need to know how likely you are to get pregnant from a single sexual encounter, how likely you are to get an STD, and how effective the various forms of prevention are.

I still don't have the answers to all of these questions, though I have been able to find some other usable data (odds of getting pregnant in one year of unprotected sexual activity? 85%. Scary.) When I first saw exactly how effective the various birth control measures were, it took my breath away. If you use condoms, for instance, you've still got a 15% chance of winding up pregnant by the end of the year. This means that "use a condom" is woefully inadequate advice.

It gets worse when you consider the cumulative probability of getting pregnant over multiple years. Let's stick with condoms for the moment. The probability that you're going to avoid getting pregnant that first year is 85% (or 0.85). But the probability that you're going to avoid getting pregnant two years is 0.85 x 0.85. Each year, multiply by 0.85 again. That number gets small fast. After 5 years, it's more likely than not that you will end up pregnant at least once. The longer you play the odds, the worse it gets. In fact, if a person with a uterus of average fecundity uses only condoms for the 30 or so years they are ovulating, they can pretty much count on getting pregnant at least once:

Of course, we all know that condoms are not the only way to prevent pregnancy. Let's next compare a few different methods, the effectiveness of which I have simply copied from Wikipedia:

MethodFailure Rate
The pill8%
Copper IUD0.8%
Tubal ligation0.5%

The failure rates listed above are "typical use failure rates", or the percentage of the time that people using each method get pregnant after a year. With so-called "perfect use", the effectiveness of many of these methods improve, but are you really going to choose your birth control assuming that you're going to be better at it than everyone else? I'm sure as heck not.

Anyway, for each method, you can repeat the analysis I did above:

Or, if you prefer equations, for a birth control method with a failure rate of x% used for y years, the probability that you'll get pregnant at least once during those years is given by P%, where:

If you're just trying to delay pregnancy or not get pregnant quite so often, then great, these methods should work for you, but if you are, like me, dedicated to childlessness, these odds are not good enough. So, the next obvious thing to try is doubling up on methods:

I realize that most of my readers are adults and thus probably have made their birth control decisions. But if you're in a position to educate youngsters, please share this information with them. The more you know, etc.

There's a second point I want you to take away from these plots. Many of the most effective methods, such as IUDs and sterilization, are regularly withheld from young and/or childless women by doctors who won't believe their patients really don't want children. This is a symptom of our reluctance to let women make their own reproductive decisions, and it means that the most effective methods (and the methods that are most difficult for a partner to tamper with) are the hardest to obtain. The pill and the condom, both temporary methods that must be continually reapplied, are thus the most common choices in the U.S.

Many a cautious individual will choose to use both the pill and condoms. Even if these methods are continually used from menarche to menopause, the purple curve in the above plot shows that there is a 30% chance at least one pregnancy will occur during that period. At that point, to remain nulliparous, they will need to obtain an abortion.

To continue this thread of logic, this means that even if everyone doubles up on birth control methods, there will still be a not-insignificant need for abortion. And that assumes everyone can double-up; in reality, not everyone can take the pill or use latex condoms. Even if everyone in the country is extremely responsible about using birth control, there will still be a substantial need for abortion. I do not want to hear about how abortion should be rare. Unless your ideal involves widespread, compulsory sterilization, I just don't see how that's possible. Abortion is an important health service for everyone with a uterus, and should not be "rare" unless significant advances are made in birth control technology.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Does It Get Better?

When I was at the education conference last week, I went to the Queer Studies SIG business meeting. It was more interesting than it sounds like it should be, because the leaders of the meeting opened it by showing some It Gets Better videos, holding a panel discussion on them, and taking questions and comments from the crowd.

The panelists pointed out many problems with these videos. For instance, a couple of people noted that the videos tend to have a white, middle-class perspective, and a higher representation of cis gay men. White middle-class cis gay men are great, of course, but they make a disproportionate number of the videos. I'm not sure why, exactly. Thoughts?

There are also some discursive contradictions in the videos. One, for instance, features two queer teachers who have their faces covered by bandannas and wrote their message on paper. They were afraid of losing their jobs. Is that a sign that it gets better?

I think we need to ask whether the bullying goes away once we leave high school. It's quite true that leaving the nightmare that is high school can make the bullies a less immediate presence in a person's life. But the video I link to above of the two teachers is a good example of how bullying can still work to keep people closeted or confined even after they become legal adults.

The anti-gay bullying is really easy to see. Check out Kobe Bryant, Exodus International, plenty of government officials and public figures, churches (and not just Westboro), the National Organization for Marriage, the Republican Party, fast food restaurants, big box retailers, and so on.

These people and institutions make it easier for kids to bully each other. Especially in the case of Kobe Bryant, whom many kids who like athletics and perhaps aspire to being professional athletes themselves have cause to admire. But they also are defending the rights of homophobes to beat up on queer people at the ballot box and in public, going to a lot of effort to make queer spaces harder to create.

So anyway, I'm not convinced that it gets better. I think people get stronger, and they, I hope, develop some ability to fight back. One of the criticisms leveled at the videos by the people on the panel was that it's much easier to feel that it gets better if you have some money and aren't facing the prospects of joblessness and an inability to have basic needs met. With such a high percentage of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ, basic needs are an issue. Life and death, folks.

I don't want to imply that everything is all doom and gloom all the time forever. I think there are ways in which we can improve our lives as we gain autonomy. Having resources and access to education certainly helps with that. And seeing the ways in which the queer community can organize to support each other is powerful. I saw a lot of that at the education conference, and it was a fantastic experience. I think it's probably easier to find other people who accept you once you're out of the psychological experiment that is K-12 schooling.

So, what are we going to do about the problems of bullying from legislators, athletic superstars, and international religious organizations? A big question, I know, but when a person's identity is constantly under assault by legions of the world's jerks, it's clear that bullying hasn't quit. It's the same phenomenon, but as adults, we have more agency.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Women of East of Eden

I love Steinbeck and I love old movies, and yet somehow never watched East of Eden (the one with James Dean) until this week. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, I'm going to talk about it now, so major spoiler alert for both book and movie.

Of course, it's a great movie, and James Dean is super hot and everything, but what got my attention was the way Cathy/Kate, his character's wayward mother, is portrayed. In the book, she is PURE EVIL. She tears through the novel wreaking havoc just for the hell of it. She starts out by burning down her house with her parents inside. Later she marries Adam (the book's protagonist), then cheats on him, then abandons him and their children, shooting him in the process (he survives). She returns to a life of prostitution, seemingly because her life was insufficiently depraved, and of course sex work is evil.

The movie corresponds to only the last third of the novel, and omits the parent-burning and infidelity. It also gives Kate a voice, which she uses to explain the husband-shooting:

Kate: I shot him because he tried to stop me.

I could have killed him if I'd wanted to, but I didn't.

I just wanted him to let me go.

Cal: Why?

Kate: Because he tried to hold me.

He wanted to tie me down.

I'll admit it, at this point I stood up from the couch and cheered. Shortly after this she lends her son (the movie's protagonist) a chunk of money because she finds it humorous that money from her brothel will support her highly religious estranged husband. You guys, this is pretty awesome. This movie took a character that, in the book, was basically the embodiment of evil and turned her into a fiercely independent, flawed woman with a sense of humor.

And the female love interest (Abra), often a fairly empty role in movies, has depth as well! Though, on the surface, she seems very much a "good girl", she alludes to wanting a more physical relationship than her boyfriend (Cal's brother Aron) does, and wonders if this makes her "bad." She also has this bit of dialogue:

The way I figure it out...

Aron never having had a mother...

he's made her everything good that he can think of...

and that's what he thinks I am.

That's who he's in love with. It's not me at all.

Ahem. There may have been more standing and cheering in my living room at this point. It's probably a good thing I do most of my movie-watching solo.

Again we're talking about a supporting character, but Abra's motivations (sexual frustration and the feeling that she's not seen for who she is) are clearly established. She pursues Cal specifically because he is a good match for her, and she takes the initiative throughout their courtship despite feeling conflicted about it.

For all I go on about the Bechdel test, it's this sort of thing I really want: women portrayed as actual people, with both flaws and virtues, character backgrounds, who are doing/have done their own soul-searching, and have agency. That is what so many movies lack, and fixing it is likely to fix the representational problems that the Bechdel test highlights. If female roles are fleshed out like male roles, then movies will likely have more of them, because audiences like watching characters they can understand and identify with. Furthermore, female characters will have more substantive conversations with each other, because they'll come into contact with each other more frequently, and they'll actually have things to talk about.

Unfortunately, while the character of Kate was altered for the better, in my opinion, the character of Lee was completely excised, leaving only white characters in the movie version. It's too bad, because it is Lee's ideas about free will that shapes the novel and motivates the ending. He also has some things to say about racism, which would have been nice to have in the movie. Omitting him was really an unfortunate decision, and one I do not think was necessary.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Do You Know About Asexuality?

I know very little, myself; no one I know has identified themselves as asexual to me, and I can't recall reading anything written by someone who has. At least, until now; S. E. Smith has written a post briefly describing asexuality and the range of expression it can take.

One of the problems I encounter trying to write about intersectional issues in feminism is that I am a member of exactly zero minority groups. While this undoubtedly makes my life easier in a lot of respects -- no one's trying to evict me from my apartment, for instance -- it also means I lack a certain amount of perspective. As a result, first-person accounts from within a minority group are incredibly useful to me.

First-person accounts from within a group that is normally completely invisible are what I consider mandatory reading. I'm not even going to summarize Smith's post because you should go read it. And, ideally, the links within it. Doooo it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Are There So Few Statues of Women?

The Washington Post's Cari Shane notes this week that there are very few statues in America that commemorate women's contributions to American history. Indeed, less than 8% of statues in the nation are of specific women (as opposed to anonymous ideals like Liberty, which may be represented by a female-bodied statue, but aren't about the history-making of actual women).

Shane and the people she interviews make several good points about why this might be and why this is a problem: men are the only people historically considered to be contributors to history in any meaningful way; most statues are political or military, fields that are only open to women relatively recently; that "hero" has a masculine ring to it; that women might be doing things other than working to see themselves in statuary. They also note that if girls can't see women memorialized, they might not be able to see themselves as history-makers.

This idea that men are the only ones who have done anything is not an accident. We already know that there are strong cultural forces pulling people towards hetero-patriarchy. Check out the religious right sometime - they're not huge in number, but they sure do have a lot of influence. If men are the people most likely to have official power in the government, if they are the ones who are seen as world-changers, we only continue this narrative that downplays the accomplishments of women.

It is true that women were excluded from the public sphere for much of history, and many people will point to that as a reason for this imbalance: if women haven't been out there in public, how are we supposed to memorialize them publicly? But in fact, many women were not waiting around for permission to act. Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ella Flagg Young, Sojourner Truth, Ida Tarbell, Harriet Tubman, Lucille Ball, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Betty Friedan, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald - I could go on listing people all day. So could you. The point isn't just to show that there are women who have done stuff, because if you're reading this blog you already know that.

One of the biggest problems here, I think, is that we have "history" and then we have "women's history" (the same can be said of black history or Chicana history or almost anything that isn't white-male centric). So we don't need to build lots of statues to women, because that isn't really important, it's not on the FCAT. And goodness knows, we wouldn't want to build statues that only women care about, right? We can all relate to Abraham Lincoln, but men don't care about Betty Friedan, or so the story goes. It's the same justification used for making children's movies, most of which have boys as the main character. Girls will go see movies with boys in them, but boys won't go see movies about girls. But the thing is, boys could stand to see that they're not the center of the movie industry, or our cultural experience, or our history. And girls need to see this, too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Transagenda: Lessons from the Oppressed Cis Majority

Today in "Let's All Remember to Breathe," we have this gem from The Washington Examiner. In it, author Stella Morabito loses her shit because now she has to consider whether gender is a thing or not.

Her problem is that the Maryland Senate will likely pass House Bill 235, adding discrimination protections for transpeople, essentially. Let's quote:

The most interesting and Orwellian thing about this bill – and so many like it across the nation -- is its stealthy use of language to redefine our humanity.

OH REALLY? Hang on a sec, folks. I need to go scream into a pillow so that I can write about this with some kind of rational thought.

The only way I can find into this is to go back to queer theory and gender theory and talk about how language has been used to define our humanity all along. That's Jacques Derrida's whole project, right? So this lady, Morabito, is hung up on the word "assigned." We'll come back to that in a minute. First I want to talk about "gender."*

Morabito is upset that this whole concept of assignment "requires everyone to accept the idea that our sex is a social construct, relative and changeable, and to reject it as a genetic or a physical fact."

Well, exactly. Some people separate "sex" from "gender," because "sex" implies "assigned at birth," or the reproductive organs a person has or doesn't have. This is clearly tricky for intersex people, so we already know it's not so simple. Then we have Gender, which is a language, a meaning system that comes with symbols and rules and punishments. Derrida criticized language's built-in problems, because it tends to favor sameness through naming the things that are common to a speech community. Therefore, anything unique or private goes unnamed. One of the most private things is our sense of our own bodies and our gender experiences, so language, with its inherent and deliberate limitations, can be inaccurate to many peoples' experiences.

But the thing is, language works through exclusion. By that I mean, we have created the meaning of "woman" by excluding everything that is non-woman - same thing for "man." Anything that doesn't fit into the templates for the entirely masculine or entirely feminine is excluded. Because the meaning of "woman" or "man" depends on excluding what is Not "woman" or "man," this binary is unstable. We know that it is unstable, because the things that signify masculine and feminine have shifted over time. It is now possible for women to develop ripped arms or carry guns and still be feminine. But because our social Discourse is so invested in these binaries, we have to move them and redraw the lines. [I'm using Gee's definition of Discourse here: basically, collective understandings or patterns of behavior - I posted more on that here, and also read Emma's amazing comment.] Now it's hot for a woman to have big muscles or, hell, play a contact sport like roller derby. In 1950, do you think a female construction worker could still find a space in "feminine"? No.

So we can see that these binaries are false, and that language already has been defining humanity. Morabito isn't picking up on anything new here, she's just demonstrating her straight cis privilege. She's never noticed how our social Discourses have been operating to keep people corralled into one gender identity or another, with only two acceptable options. It goes beyond this, though. Bodies that queer the act of gender through combining meaning are excluded altogether - people who identify as butch, trans, intersex, etc.

I think Morabito thinks that language just describes the real world. It's all out there, and we have these handy words to define things, but language is not so easy or transparent. There are no positive or affirming - or even neutral - words in the Discourse for those who don't fit the stereotypes or the binary. Language is political. It is meant to work against you in these circumstances. Riki Wilchins describes this "fascism of meaning" as "an assault of meaning that forces people to live as gendered impossibilities." If there is no language for you that affirms you, you don't really exist.

Morabito is worried about the word "assigned." She's really concerned because this means that it isn't inherent, has never been inherent, that M and F have been choices forced upon us. She's exactly right about that. She and I just differ as to our reactions to this. I think changing gender from a check-box to a text field is a great idea. She sees it as a threat to her identity, as though she couldn't continue to refer to herself as a woman. No one is trying to take that away from her, but she sees these things as zero-sum. If we get to have freedom from gender binaries, she loses the construct she is so invested in.

Her closing argument is this:

Most insidious about this legislation is that by acting to redefine the humanity of us all, it is a gross violation of the trust of the governed.

Again: The gender Discourses we already have define and redefine our humanity. And she does it here, too: the governed, in her mind, apparently only include the people invested in the binaries. Everyone else isn't among the governed, isn't among the people. Who is redefining humanity now?

* If this is all new to you, go read Riki Wilchin's Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, like right fucking now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching on the Edge

I teach undergraduate history of education at my university, and I really love it. My students are smart, engaged, and interesting. They have a lot to say about just about anything that comes up, and I'm very lucky, every semester, to get to work with the students here.

One thing we do in my class is talk about queer issues. I refuse to participate in my own invisibility by never bringing up queer history out of fear. I don't raise my own queer identity on the first day of class or anything, but if (when) it comes up, it comes up. I believe in being my authentic self, and that this is doing the work of creating space for other queer people in my classroom. Other people have done the work to create that space for me. I hope I tell those people this enough, that I'm not sure I could really exist here without them. The only thing I can really do is pay it forward.

Today, we talked about the Johns Committee. Briefly, this was a committee started by Florida State Senator Charlie Johns in 1956. It rode the coattails of McCarthyism and focused on ridding the state government of queer people. Johns went after K-12 teachers first, as they are meant to be the standard-bearers of morality in US society.* Hundreds lost their jobs, their families, their lives. Before long, Johns came to the University of Florida, and was welcomed by the administration with open arms. Queer professors were fired, students expelled. It only took an accusation of homosexuality to ruin everything.

I think this was challenging for some of my students to think about, that this kind of thing happened in their own back yard. I understand why. I thought it was important to emphasize that persecution and discrimination are real problems for the queer community today. Marriage rights are a fine goal, but when we have something like 50% of homeless youth in some areas identifying as LGBTQ, we need to address matters of life and death. You know? So I'm out to my class, though we don't talk about me. They're here to learn history, and that's what they need to do, I keep the focus steadily on that. Honestly, I think students like that I'm not lying to them, or at least, that's what they tell me. But being out to them means relinquishing some power. They can use that as ammunition if they ever want to.

My beautiful friend Dierdre told me a story a couple of days ago, from When Things Fall Apart, which I have not read, about a little girl who had to fight Fear. She didn't want to fight Fear, but she had to. So she went to Fear, prostrated herself, and said, "How do I beat you?" Fear thanked her for showing that respect, and said, "I will yell and get in your face and do everything I can to be loud, and you can acknowledge me, but if you never do what I tell you to do, you will win."

Fear tells people, I think, to avoid talking about issues of queer identity and queer history in their classes. It's hard to point to your own institution and say, "This is what has gone wrong here, this is what is still going wrong," because it could so easily come back to get you.

This creating-spaces project is not easy to do. I know some of you have dealt with this, too - not necessarily just with queer issues - and I want to know what your strategies are. Can we talk about this?

I really need to write something about queer teachers in K-12 classrooms. It's coming. I think I just had to get this out of my system first, and I want to talk to some people about their experiences before I post. Please do volunteer if you have something to say about that.

* If this interests you, go read Karen Graves's marvelous And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida's Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers. Karen is one of those space-making mentors of mine, and I have so much still to learn from her for as long as she's willing to teach me. Also, check out Jackie Blount's Fit to Teach: Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century. Jackie, too, is someone I deeply admire as a human being and is quite an inspiration to me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why I Watch So Much Television

I watch way more television than movies these days. Halfway through grad school I "discovered" television, and thought, "OMFG, look what I've been missing!!"

(Maybe I should clarify that I don't actually watch television on a TV. It's all Hulu/Netflix/Japanese YouTube. It's a slightly different experience involving few commercials and no channel-flipping.)

I watch an order of magnitude more television than movies (measured in hours). This is for a multitude of reasons; for example, I find it easier to commit to a half hour of television than two hours of a movie. I also grow attached to the characters.

But (and you may be wondering why I'm writing about this on a feminist blog), a lot of it is about the women characters. Most movies have few women, and those women are isolated like the raisins in raisin-bread: they rarely interact. You may have heard of the Bechdel test: to pass the test, a movie must
  1. have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

Shockingly few movies satisfy these criteria. And even if a movie does pass the test, it in no way guarantees that the movie isn't still a sexist piece of garbage.

Television series go on for years, though, and it's kind of hard to keep their female characters isolated that long. I only realized this within the past year, but I think that it's a major factor in my general preference for television over movies. Relatable female characters are a big deal.

And now I'm sure you're wondering what my favorite shows are! Currently I watch Archer, True Blood, Parks and Recreation, Vampire Diaries (I just like vampires, yo), and RuPaul's Drag Race. They're not all terribly feminist, but they all have women (or drag queens) who interact with each other.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Street Harassment

Being at professional conferences can be both invigorating and draining. So you'll have to forgive me if my posts are short, but I promise I will get back to my normal over-write-y self soon.

First: If you're a new reader from AERA, welcome!! I'm glad you're here. Keep in mind that we are always on the look-out for a guest post.

Anyway. Yesterday I was walking down the street in broad daylight with my friend Nashwa. Some dude sidled up to her and got all creepy, and so I said, "Back off now," and kept walking. Nashwa told me that he looked stunned that I was so blunt, and that she usually just tells people she's running late.

I think that it makes sense to use the "Sorry, gotta run" approach sometimes, particularly when it feels unsafe to be more confrontational. But I am really bad at not being as blunt as possible at any given moment, and I'm also used to this kind of thing from strange dudes, being a woman in America. But the fact that he looked stunned means that he's not used to hearing it. I think that's a problem. People should not bother each other on the street like that, and, given the way power works in our culture, men especially need to be careful about how they approach women. This guy was not asking for directions, you know? I'm not sure what he wanted, exactly, but I deeply do not care. When you act like a jerk first, you get what you get, and feel lucky that all that happened was I told you to fuck off. Right? There is a social contract for a reason.

Street harassment has GOT to stop. It is not okay that men have this power over women, and that they can exert just the slightest pressure and throw off a stranger's whole day. This particular instance didn't get to me that much, but if a man can, just by walking too close to someone and saying three words, make a woman feel unsafe... well, we are not in a post-feminist world, are we?

And while we're up, I think we need to address the way women are socialized to be quiet and non-confrontational. Sometimes we need to confront people, to take ownership of the situation. I think the more women do this, the less likely men will be to harass us. What do you think?

Oh, and check out Hollaback! If I had been quick enough, I'd have gotten this guy's picture. Note to self: carry phone in hand while walking down the streets in New Orleans. If it happens again, I'll be prepared.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Don't Walk Me Home

This is a tricky post to write, because the people who offer to walk me home are friends who like me enough that they want to trade their own time and convenience for my safety. That is incredibly nice, and if one of said friends is reading this: your affection and concern are noted and I am not ungrateful. I'll usually turn down these offers, though; it's one part stubborn independence and three parts political statement.

I am zealously protective of my freedom. That freedom is severely curtailed if I adopt the viewpoint that I need an escort to walk around at night. Women need to be able to wander around by themselves, to take the late bus home after getting drunk downtown, to stroll over to friends' houses after dark. They shouldn't have the additional economic burden of having to have a car just because they're female. It's not fair or reasonable.

Part of our fear is due to a common misconception about rape. American women are frequently subjected to sexual violence, but it's not from crazy men jumping out from the bushes. It's at the hands of men they know. Really, a woman is safer walking home alone than she is with a male friend.

There's also a frequent worry about "bad" neighborhoods. Now, if you actually have statistics that X neighborhood has an unusually high rate of stranger-rapes and muggings, that's one thing. But mostly people just equate black neighborhood with "bad" neighborhood, and I refuse to participate in that.

It's up to each of us, obviously, to decide when and where we feel safe. I happen to feel safe walking home alone after dark in Gainesville. After all, they caught Danny Rolling.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Utility of Anger?

A couple years ago, I took a class called critical pedagogy. This class tends to be geared towards teacher educators, of which I am not one (I do history of education, and while I might be teaching future educators, my class doesn't deal at all with pedagogy). I didn't necessarily understand exactly what critical pedagogy meant going in, and the class spent a lot of time talking about it. The bottom line is, there isn't complete agreement between critical pedagogues, which already sounds like a parody of the ivory tower. The definition of critical pedagogy I most closely adhere to is that described by Peter McLaren:

The critical pedagogy which I support and practice advocates non-violent dissent, the development of a philosophy of praxis guided by a Marxist humanism, the study of revolutionary social movements and thought, and the struggle for socialist democracy. It is opposed to liberal democracy, which only serves to facilitate the reproduction of capital. It advocates a multiracial and anti-imperialist social movement dedicated to opposing racism, capitalism (both in private property and state property forms), sexism, heterosexism, hierarchies based on social class, as well as other forms of oppression. It draws its inspiration from philosophers of revolutionary praxis such as Paulo Freire, Raya Dunayevskaya, and other philosophers, social theorists and political activists and supports all those who yearn and struggle for freedom. Critical pedagogy is opposed to both state terrorism and individual acts of terrorism. As Freire writes in The Pedagogy of Freedom, "Terrorism is the negation of what I call a universal human ethic." Critical pedagogy is driven by the engine of class struggle in both national and international arenas.

In order to sign on to such a worldview, I believe, a person needs some anger. I have lots of that. Lots and lots. Anger - or rage, as we called it in the critical pedagogy class - comes pretty easily to me. But one of the things we talked about in the class is the combination of rage and hope. I struggle more with the hope part, because it's hard to see how our capitalist overlords committed to the permanent reign of white cis hetero Protestant men is ever going to change.

Hope might just not work for me, as a concept. Gideon Levy - someone with reason to have a great deal of anger, and also a hero of mine - said that you have to be rational enough to believe in miracles. As he says, things don't happen on their own, but the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, and South African apartheid have fallen. Mere months before those events occurred, they looked impossible. Without a lot of anger, would they have happened? I think I like "rational enough to believe in miracles" more than "hope," even though I'm an atheist. The miracle here is that humanity will get its shit together and stop kicking each other around, and the rational part is important to me. What I really want is a more rational world, not one in which people find stupid and arbitrary reasons to kick others out of their sandbox.

We also talked about love in that class - specifically, radical love. Understand that I am not always a very squishy person, but I really love people. Well, some people, and that's where my problems with radical love come in. Am I supposed to love transmisogynists and Exodus International? I try to be empathetic and to humanize them, which is more than they will ever do for me, but I'm not sure that's enough. But loving my people comes easily for me, I'm not afraid to tell people that I love them, and I think that's also the source of my rage. When I hear someone tell me that her mom kicked her out when she was in high school, or that his brother is raising children to be homophobic, or if someone harasses one of my friends on the street, it cuts me deep, and I want to fly into a rage. I'm not good at hope in those moments.

You know who's really good at love, though, is Cornel West. What an inspiration. He can refer to people I would rather have a root canal than deal with as "my dear brother/sister." That instantly humanizes people, and isn't that the goal here? But it's never that simple.

Nic (again! I'm telling you, between Nic, Kyrie, and you, probably, I am never without genius people) encourages me to think about anger as not just anger but a set of complex emotions, and that is completely right. Anger is just part of the mix. Love and sadness are also involved. I'm just so sad that some people - my loved ones, yours, someone else's - are badly treated, and that those doing the mistreating will never understand what amazing people they are. The way Nic put it was great, so I wrote it down: "Anger is energetic anguish."

I think anger is something I see expressed a lot by some of the feminist writers I most admire . I have friends who I think find my tendency to anger endearing, and certainly reliable. People post links on my Facebook wall that they know will piss me off because they want to see what tapestry of profanity I will weave. Other times, I think they want genuine reactions (more so since Kyrie and I started this blog - now we both get requests to write about various issues, which we are delighted to honor).

Anger, I believe, is really important to social justice work. There is the basic level of "that pisses me off, I want to change it," without which social justice work cannot happen. But anger, for me, sustains my commitment to social justice and feminism. It keeps me from slacking off or writing things off as other peoples' problems. It's not just Nic's problem if someone tries to run her over on the street - it's my problem, it's your problem, because that's a human being we're talking about. Without anger, or rage, or whatever you want to call it, it's easy to lose motivation and sink into a depression because people you care about or will never meet are being targeted for the dumbest reasons imaginable. I've been depressed before, and let me tell you, I was completely unproductive. Not only could I not do anything for anyone else, I could barely get my own shit done. When I began to understand that one of the reasons I was so depressed was because the world is so fucked up, I started to feel a lot better, because I could focus on action. Now I try not to allow myself to sink into despair. Rage keeps me from doing that.*

If you're an activist, is anger something you deal with, and if not, what sustains your activism? If you don't consider yourself involved in social justice work, what is your perspective on this?

* I have a derby friend named Rage, so this is kind of a funny sentence for me to look at. But she keeps me from sinking into despair, too. Love her.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Heard on the Plane

Dude on the phone:

"I almost missed my connection. I was so stressed out -- you should have seen it. I was like an emotional female, crying and everything."

For real, and there was one empty seat between us. I glared at him, and was pretty sure he saw, but I so regret not interrupting his phone call and demanding an apology. Traveling is stressful enough, I shouldn't have to be subjected to this shit.

I get the impression that some people think sexism isn't that big a deal these days, and that disparities in pay are just because women have babies. But If you just listen, you'll hear crap like the above all the time. The real problem is not our life choices (or lack of choices, as the Republicans would have it), but that women are subjected to these damaging stereotypes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Religious Right: Pro-Bullying

Sometimes I hear about something some politician is doing, and I think, "That cannot possibly be controversial." Usually these are kid-related (though as Lesley Kinzel has brilliantly pointed out, Michelle Obama's child obesity concerns are very problematic indeed). So when I heard that Obama was holding an anti-bullying summit, I thought, "Word. Everyone will be able to deal with this, because no one wants kids to be bullied!"

I know, right? It's like I just fell off the turnip truck or something.

Religious-right* monsters like Glenn Beck are calling it a "Big Brother" initiative - these are the same people who want to control uteri, and would be happy to use federal power to do so, remember - because they think that it's about teachers and principals Facebook-stalking students.

In fact, as Media Matters reports, the DOE is trying to help schools and parents prevent and handle bullying. All Facebook is doing is allowing users to report harassing comments to Facebook and safely alert a trusted community member to the problems, as online harassment is often a mirror to the off-line world.

Statistics show that LGBTQ kids are FAR more likely to experience harassment and bullying than straight-identified kids. The National Education Policy Center reports that "over 85% report being harassed because of their sexual or gender identity, and over 20% report being physically attacked." LGBTQ students have a suicide rate 3-4 times higher than do their straight classmates, and that statistic goes up to 8 times higher if their parents are not supportive. GLSEN, an organization of which I am a member despite having some problems with its name, reported in 2009 that 9 out of 10 LGBTQ students experience harassment in schools.

So now - for the last four or five months, and honestly, for years and decades - right-wing activists and lawmakers are calling this anti-bullying program part of the "homosexual agenda."

Go listen to Johann Hari's most recent podcast, in which he talks about how a kid in England killed himself recently by lying on train tracks, because he was bullied for being gay. As Johann so rightly points out, the only homosexual agenda is to get this kind of treatment of people to stop.

Dan Savage has said something along the lines of, "Adults bully queer people quietly at the ballot box, but teach their kids to do it in schools." If it becomes harder over time for adults to bully us at the ballot box, that means they're only going to turn up the heat on children in schools. They need a safe space to be assholes, you see. I can relate to Dan's anger on this, even if sometimes I think he says problematic things.

This really started to get bad back in October, when Focus on the Family launched a campaign called "True Tolerance," arguing that anti-bullying strategies are really meant to promote homosexuality in kids. This is the same "gay agenda" shit we've been hearing since Anita Bryant. It would be nice if these lunatics could at least be creative.

As Al Franken said in The Advocate, it's "unbelievable that anyone would suggest that bullying is not a problem." Nonetheless, the Minnesota Family Council has been ramping up their anti-anti-bullying campaign since October. In fact, in a classic moment of victim-blaming, the head of Americans for Truth about Homosexuality blames LGBTQ groups for the bullying, because more students have been coming out of the closet.

Listen: A kid doesn't have to be out of the closet to be bullied. A kid doesn't even have to actually be LGBTQ - other kids only have to perceive her or him that way. I was bullied plenty in K-12, and I wasn't out. It just doesn't work that way. I have a friend whose first-grade son loves the color pink. But at school, he tells people his favorite color is yellow, because the other kids harassed him mercilessly until he changed his tune. I have no idea how this kid does or will identify, and that isn't the point. The kids are policing his gender signifiers.

But now the anti-queer people have their fee-fees hurt because they're being told they need to stop picking on queers. This is fascist! It is indoctrination! How DARE you tell us who we cannot drive to depression and suicide! THIS IS AMERICA.

(Speaking of America, these people want to rewrite history so that they can more effectively use it as a weapon. In a really fun revisionist moment, Gary Glenn claims that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been an anti-gay activist. I think he forgot about Bayard Rustin. Also, I'm not sure Glenn is on the side of confronting issues of social justice for racial minorities, either.)

Things really started to sound violent to me, though, when Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber got on ye olde radio on March 28 to say that “kids who are engaging in homosexual behavior often look inward and know that what they are doing is unnatural, is wrong, is immoral, and so they become depressed and the instances of suicide can rise there as well.”

You do not need me to tell you this is insanity. But this is why LGBTQ kids who are bullied actually do have it worse sometimes. Any given straight kid might have it worse in school than a queer classmate, but they don't have to listen to the whole of society, including their religious leaders and maybe even their parents, talking about how their very existence is wrong.

I have a hard time when I hear stuff like this, because I get really angry and feel like I'm flailing around. I think the problem with these people is that they are used to being at the top of the heap, but in order to justify continuing to get everything they want, they have to front like they're somehow oppressed. I really cannot figure out what else it would be. What are they so afraid of, that they blame children for their own suicides? There is something wrong with them. There is no good reason that this anti-bullying initiative should be controversial, but I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the bullies themselves are fighting it.

What do you do, to keep the bullies from getting to you?

* No, not everyone on the right is religious, and not everyone religious is on the right (in fact, probably most religious people aren't, just by the numbers). But to deny that the religious right is a powerful voice in American culture and tends to be very much in favor of preserving the status quo I so loathe is misguided, I think. The right wing of the American political spectrum is loud, louder than its numbers suggest it should be, and also very wealthy. Complicate the notions of right wing and religious all you want, but write them off at your peril.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's High Time for a Post About Roller Derby

First things first, you may be wondering WTF is Alsica? We (Jess and Kyrie) sometimes like to write posts collaboratively, but Blogger won't let us both be authors on a post. So we took parts of our names unused in our nicknames and created the blogging entity/silly beast called Alsica.

So, both of us play roller derby, a fact that we've alluded to in several previous posts. Friend/spouse/commenter Bill has suggested that we devote an entire post to derby, which we are all too willing to do. So, without any further ado, we present:

Reasons We Love the Shit Out of Roller Derby
  1. It's all about the ladies. Women are far too often ignored and/or not taken seriously when it comes to sports. Roller derby, I think, is a good candidate for changing that. Though there are some men's and coed teams, derby is dominated by women. Most teams are amateur, so it's something that is truly created by women, for women.
  2. This focus on women is particularly great if you work in a male-dominated field. Don't get us wrong, men are awesome. But it's important to have lady-friends, too, and derby provides them in spades. In fact, derby is responsible for bringing Jess and Kyrie together, and, by extension, for this blog's existence.
  3. It's an opportunity to unleash your inner badass. There aren't a lot of socially acceptable ways to go around knocking people down.
  4. On a related note, it's a great way to develop good sportsmanship. Women send each other flying across the track, and, unless it's a douchebag illegal move, there's no reason for anyone to get upset.
  5. It builds positive body image. Constantly being around fit women of all shapes and sizes will rewire your brain regarding what's normal, healthy, and attractive. Finding out what you're physically capable of can boost your opinion of your own body, too.
  6. It's something of an instant community. That is not to say that everyone is friends right away - that isn't the case. In any group of people, some will get along better than others. But you have a common set of goals within the team. And you can relate to other people who don't live near you on the basis of your shared love of roller derby.
  7. It's kind of a queer subculture. That isn't to say that all derby players are queer - though many are. It also tends to be a queer-friendly crowd. But beyond that, it's a place where gender norms are shifted. There is no expectation that femininity means weakness or delicacy, or that they need men to tell them how to play their sport. Derby is queering athleticism in some ways.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Femme is a Feminist Issue

I've been sitting here trying to write a post for awhile now, and all I seem to be able to come back to is that I know some pretty brilliant, beautiful people and that that makes me a lucky person indeed. As I'm about to spend a lot of time with some of them at a conference, expect to be hearing about how excellent and thought-provoking they are.

I had a conversation on Friday with one such brilliant, beautiful person. It lasted hours and was, for me anyway, beyond intellectually fulfilling. I'd imagine I'll write more here about other aspects of this conversation, because it brought up a lot of ideas. My friend's name is Nic Bravo, and she identifies as a queer trans femme dyke (and someday she WILL go to bed before 11. I believe in her). Look for her to write some posts for us here soon.

Anyway. As a queer (cis) femme myself, I've been struggling a bit lately with my place in the queer community, for various reasons. I get the sense sometimes that some people think I'm not quite queer enough to hang out.

As Nic said, so elegantly: "Fuck that. No, seriously, fuck that."

Nic's super smart (please go read her tumblr, which has really pushed me to think hard about things in the ways graduate seminars rarely have), so I feel good about being able to have these conversations with her. One of the things we talked about is the difficulties and political issues around being femme in a queer community. For a large number of queer people, including those who identify with butch, this isn't a problem. My friends tend not to be concerned about it (they're my friends, after all, and we have other things to worry about, like roller derby and smashing the patriarchy). I certainly do not want to give the impression that butch and femme people are at odds with each other. Indeed, in many people,* you find aspects of both identities. There are no lines in the sand here.

That doesn't stop some people from saying, essentially, "You're doing it wrong." They might not mean to do that, or they might be trying to challenge femmes in the way people who respect each other often do, to think about things in new ways.

But there it is, nonetheless: a contested territory about anything involving traditional expressions of gender. And I dig butch, and I get its appeal for people. I really like genderqueer in general. Anything to fuck with the patriarchy, really. But at the end of the day, I'm femme. It is, I think, part of the range of human experience.

Lesley Kinzel (also a self-identified queer femme), in one of her countless moments of genius, said that "Femme is interrogated femininity." It's about more than the way a person dresses or the length of a person's hair. It's about how we relate to queer (or straight!) identity. It isn't the opposite of butch, or something that butch is defined against, or vice versa. She suggests that femme could be thought of as a reclamation or ironic performance of the feminine, and I really relate to that. I like my long hair, I like eyeliner. These are surface issues to a certain extent, but if you know me, you know that I do not embody the faithful reproduction of the feminine. I say fuck way too much, just for starters. Plus, you know, roller derby. One thing I want to be very clear about is that there is no wrong way to identify. So if a woman wants to be feminine and not interrogate it, that's fine. Here's the deal: You can't tell much about a person by looking at them - whether they're healthy, happy, secure, queer, whatever. If you don't get to tell me how to be queer, I don't get to tell you how to do your identity either. I wouldn't want to. The world would be boring, right?

It's easy for Nic and I to reach out to each other in queer femme solidarity, but as she rightly pointed out, we didn't have any butch perspectives in our conversation. Still, there is something so valuable about that kind of solidarity, I think. We all need to find our people. But that shouldn't result in people circling the wagons around the people they feel comfortable with to the exclusion of everyone else.

The point is this: I don't love the idea of policing other peoples' gender identity expressions, and one of the things Nic prompted me to think about was why defending femme is something I (we? weigh in, mama) have to do. As America's favorite drag queen, RuPaul, has been known to say, "What other people think of you is none of your business." If that's true, and if I refuse to sit in judgment of anyone else's identity signifiers, then what does it matter to me what others think about my own queer identity?

Femme is a feminist issue, in my mind, because it has to do with seeing the choices women make about their appearances as their own - for the same reason, butch is a feminist issue. But it seems, to me at least (and to Nic, too, if I understand her correctly) that there are people who think being femme at all is somehow buying into harmful patriarchal prescriptions about what gender should look like. If my hair is long, my clothes are feminine, and I wear makeup, am I somehow selling out?

I don't think so. In fact, I think that requiring people to express their identity in any particular way is oppressive,** like I said in my rant about the transmisogynist I ran across on Facebook. I think butch is super hot. It just isn't who I am, or who Nic is, and as she said, that's okay. It might take people longer to process either of us, because some immediate signifiers aren't there, but can't that be kind of great?

One of the other things we talked about was how it's okay to be processing ideas, and these are clearly ideas that I'm still processing, probably always will be. I know some of you have opinions on all of this. What do you think?

* Including me, to be completely honest with you. When I say that I am willing to get in a fight to defend you, I am not being feminine, am I? I think I have butch aspects to my personality.

** This includes men telling women they think they're hotter without makeup or whatever. I like makeup and I don't care if you don't. Fortunately I'm married to the person in the world who cares least about whether I'm wearing makeup or not, or shaving, or whatever.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Jess just reminded me that today our blog has been up for one month. We started this blog mostly for ourselves, and have been pleasantly surprised to find so many of our friends reading, enjoying, and commenting on it. Thanks, everyone! Also, our blog stats seems to indicate that we may have a dedicated reader in Hungary, which is awesome. Welcome, Hungarian friends. Please comment some time; we'd love to hear from you.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Guest Post: Ariel Speaks Out Against Fat Shaming

This is a guest post from our friend and teammate Ariel.

Hello there, internet! I’m Ariel, and I’m a white, cis undergrad student who, not coincidentally, also plays roller derby.

Since about a week ago, when Jess suggested I contribute a guest post, I’ve been turning over ideas about what to write. After all, internet debuts are serious stuff! (Un)luckily, the topic of this post was essentially chosen for me by the reaction I saw to a comment my professor made today. As he told the class about his time spent studying in France, he noted that the remarkable difference he saw between France and the U.S. was the number of obese people walking around in the U.S. He followed that up by saying that there are, of course, obese people in France but “they don’t tend to go outside during daylight hours” because it’s socially unacceptable to be heavy there. If that statement wasn’t enough to make you cringe, the subsequent laughter of the majority of the 40+ students in that class sure would have been.

Now, I can’t comment on whether or not what this professor said is true, having never been to France myself (one day!), but that isn’t particularly relevant. What IS relevant is that most of the people in an upper-level university psychology course find the idea of human beings shamed into not leaving their homes because of their size funny. They find it perfectly appropriate, even humorous, to literally remove fat people from the public sphere.

Maybe the students who laughed wouldn’t openly announce that they hate fat people (though I suspect at least a couple of them would), but clearly, they all have internalized that same message. Fat hatred is societally condoned, from the constant weight-loss ads we’re bombarded with to the standard media portrayal of fat people as struggling/failed dieters (Mike and Molly, anyone?). This has created an environment in which discrimination and self-hatred are the norm, and hardly anyone in a classroom full of educated adults bats an eye at the idea of subhuman treatment of a person based on their size. And to put it simply, that shit is not okay.

The Last Action Heroine

Feast your eyes on that ripped specimen of womanhood to the right. As you should know, that's Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator II, one of my very favorite movies. It's also one of the only depictions of a female action hero that I actually buy. Hamilton went through intense physical training not only to develop those bulging muscles but also to learn how to handle weaponry and just generally kick ass. The result is a highly memorable role in one of the best action films of all time.

Though Hamilton achieved both an amazing physical transformation and an excellent portrayal of a guerrilla warrior, unfortunately her role's memorability must be partly ascribed to just how rare it is for action heroines to have muscular physiques. Though it is certainly possible to be strong in a wiry kind of way, willowy women are routinely shown kicking ass alongside men three times their size, and it just makes no sense.

It's not like women can't bulk up. I'm no body-builder, but in just six months of roller derby training, I've put on two pant-sizes worth of pure muscle. We do have some rather thin women on the team, but massive freaking thighs are the norm. Female Olympic athletes are generally visibly muscular, though this does admittedly depend on their sport. And, perhaps most to the point, there are highly underutilized muscular actresses out there who could totally rock an action film role; Chyna is at least as good at acting as Vin Diesel.

The problem is that action heroines are usually there to serve as lust objects for straight men, and not so much for compelling the audience's admiration. Sometimes I suspect that ultra-thin women are chosen for these roles partly because the cognitive dissonance induced by a woman wielding firearms that weigh more than she does places the film firmly in the realm of fantasy, allowing dudes to ogle her without feeling remotely threatened. This, like so many other problems with mainstream cinema, will only be solved when Hollywood takes its head out of its ass and finally starts serving up female roles with real substance and depth, and when more men realize that it's okay to identify with women, rather than objectify them.