Now Sissy That Mouth: a Feminist’s Response to Barrett Pall

gurl.jpg

by Ryan Crawford | @YesISaidCabSauv

When I was a kid, insults spread around the school like fashion. There were trendy ways to put down your classmates: “shitbreath,” “giantess,” “lardass,” and a colorful assortment of genital-shaming quips to fling like bark dust on the playground.

But if you really wanted to destroy a boy’s self-esteem and reputation, you went for the jugular.

“Sissy.”

To be labeled “sissy” or “girly” or “fag”” was to be completely humiliated by one’s classmates. And—shocker—I was routinely labeled a sissy. I didn’t know I was gay as a kid, but apparently everyone else did. How? Because I was more feminine than other boys.

So I, like many other unknowingly gay kids, tried to butch it up. We swore. We spat. We showed our respect to other boys by calling each other “dude,” “man,” “bro,” “dawg”—anything that asserted our masculinity and reinforced someone else’s. We established “male” activities like football and playing with Pogs, and distanced ourselves from allegedly “female” pastimes like making jewelry and coloring. (Where did that leave us: the queer boys babysitting everyone else’s Tomagotchi and playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab during recess?)

We were taught early on that femininity was “wrong” for males, but it wasn’t until much later in life when I realized that this binary gender enforcement among kids is not only stupid, it’s detrimental to kids’ views of their own personalities. We police our children so much about the acceptable ways that boys and girls should behave, speak, dress, and think, that they begin to police each other in turn. “That’s a girl’s toy.” “That’s a boy’s cartoon.” Any child who doesn’t want to—or simply can’t—prescribe to these rigid gender norms is often immediately labeled an outsider, a problem, a cultural threat.

Little Tiffany would rather play kickball than braid hair? Shun and tease her. Young Brandon, on the other hand, knows how to weave a perfect waterfall plait? Beat him up.

These bullying patterns to pick off the queerest wildebeest in the herd continue into adulthood, often becoming more gruesome. Raping a lesbian to “turn her straight,” assaulting a gay man to “teach him a lesson,” murdering a trans person to “send a message”—these are all manifestations of that same seedling planted in our impressionable little minds as children: Girls Wear Pink, Boys Wear Blue.

Then I came across Barrett Pall’s blog post, GURL PLEASE: Are We Fighting a Stereotype or Perpetuating One? This post asserts, “Gurl, She, Sister, etc are all things that I totally get as playful and fun, but I feel as if they’re detracting away from our community being taken seriously.” Pall claims that using queer-popularized words like “kiki” and “werk” divides us from dominant society, and “doesn’t actually represent the smart, ambitious and successful community of men that make up our diverse and intelligent brotherhood.” In other words: taking pride in feminine pronouns and LGBT slang makes you look stupid and lazy, so assimilate to straight culture and heteronormative gender expectations. PROBLEM SOLVED, AMIRITE?

Well, GURL, let me tell you why that’s off the mark.

Firstly, feminine words don’t divide us from straight society; misogyny and homophobia do.

Firstly, feminine words don’t divide us from straight society; misogyny and homophobia do. Why is it that you can walk up to a group of mixed-gender people and call them “guys” without anyone batting an eye, but if you addressed this same group as “girls,” people would laugh at you or get offended?

Because in America, we still associate femininity in men with insult. Want to piss off an insecure straight man? Question his penis size or his ability to sustain an erection, and then cast doubt that he’s even a “man” at all. Call him a wuss, a sissy, a pansy – something associated with feminine stereotypes. If you survive the interaction, you’ll find it was an effective button to push.

What would be really revolutionary? Calling a man “sister,” “gurl,” or “she” without him flying off the handle. This goes for Barrett Pall, too. There shouldn’t be anything shameful about being associated with femininity because there’s nothing wrong with being a woman.

To say that we should stop using feminine words to address other gay men is to assert that gay men must play by straight men’s rules in order to be accepted in society. But here’s what should actually happen: everyone should accept proudly feminine gay men without telling them to change, because they deserve respect just like anyone else. (And fuck you very much Louis C.K. for saying anything otherwise.)

Now, we all have preferred pronouns and our own gender identities. If someone earnestly uses the wrong pronoun for you or confuses your gender identity, you can politely correct them. But don’t claim there’s something wrong with your fellow gays who are fine with being called “she,” “gurl,” “sister,” etc. They’re secure. That’s a good thing.

Secondly, queer-embraced jargon isn’t any more stupid than other fad words that come up in pop culture. We invent creative words to describe specific things, or we appropriate existing words into LGBT culture. If the queer community never did this, we wouldn’t be called the “queer” community at all, because that word would still mean “strange” or “weird.” And “gay?” Without it, we’d be stuck in a 1950’s lexicon trying to describe our community as “a united enclave of peaceful, well-meaning homosexuals.”

In his blog, Pall asserts that using a gay-specific vocabulary encourages straight folks to use it with us too. I hear his point: it’s fine for my straight friends to talk to me about the puppy they saw mid-kiki with a pageant queen; and it’s not okay for anyone to call me faggot.

This is why it’s important for the LGBT community to have our own common language and cultural associations. We can turn verbal weapons used against us into terms of endearment used by and for us. And straight readers: think of it like a racial slur. If you don’t identify as a particular race, obviously you shouldn’t try and use slurs as a way to bond with folks of that race. If you don’t identify as gay, learn gay vernacular from those who fought for it, earned it, and know how to use it respectfully. Then use queer colloquialisms with courtesy, and not as a way to try to look “hip” with the kids.

Pall also states, “We’re not sisters. Sisters are two women that are born from the same mother or father. We aren’t even brothers because technically we all aren’t born from the same parents.”

Well duh, literally that’s true. But I don’t see Pall calling upon black men to stop calling each other “brother” unless they’re siblings, or standing outside a sorority yelling at any Kappa who will listen, “YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY SISTERS!” Calling a gay man my “sister” doesn’t diminish my relationship with my actual sisters; it reinforces my bond with this other gay man who knows the struggle of surviving in a world in which we are incessantly expected to be more stoic, masculine, and emotionally repressed than we actually are or should be.

Lastly, gay stereotypes sometimes hold us back, sure, but gay culture as a whole is the only reason we as a people have survived this long. To tell a gay man he shouldn’t seek to adopt and contribute to gay culture for the sake of “fitting in” with straight folks is right in line with telling someone, “Go back in the closet. Your life will be so much easier if you pretend to be heterosexual, and so much more convenient for us.”

I agree with Pall that we should have common ground with straight society. In order to be accepted as equals, bridges must be built and maintained. But I disagree that taking pride in unapologetically feminine cultural norms is grounds for distance. The LGBT community deserves respect, regardless—and because of—our feminine and masculine qualities alike. And if a straight person or a gay person is too narrow-minded to accept that? Well, #byegirlbye.

Ryan Crawford is a content marketer, social media manager, and Broad City addict. You can find his writing online at Seattle Gay Scene, Jetspace Magazine, and the Mazlo blog, or printed in Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology and Gay City Anthologies 3-5. Whisky drinks him.

Why an HIV Anthology Now

by Michael Broder

The HIV Here & Now Project seeks out and publishes poems and creative prose with a contemporary take on HIV. It’s a queer project that is reaching across boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and HIV status. Its intent is both literary (to publish awesome writing about HIV and AIDS) and political (to advocate for HIV testing, treatment, prevention, and reducing shame and stigma).

My entry point to the project was the print anthology piece of it. I read at an LGBTQ event in Minneapolis in April for the annual AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, where I noticed that a few poets—including me—were reading poems about having been HIV-positive for quite some time. Indeed, I have found that it is increasingly common to find gay men in their fifties who have been poz (HIV-positive) for 25 years or more, and some of them (including me) are poets who write about that experience.

So I started thinking about an anthology that would include the voices of older gay men in that category, but also the voices of the many young queers who are getting infected every year, especially young black gay men and trans women. And I also wanted to include the voices of young gay HIV-negative men who felt the presence of HIV risk in their lives. I wanted work that explored prevention methods, like condoms and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill you can take once a day to prevent HIV infection). I also wanted to explore the choice not to use prevention methods—barebacking while not on PrEP, the who-what-where-when-why of risky behavior. Even the very idea of risky behavior, the way it operates psychologically, socially, culturally, the way it stigmatizes and creates silos of opposing groups, good sex and bad sex, good gays and bad gays, people (regardless of race, class, gender identity, or sexual orientation) who got HIV because they were “looking for trouble” versus others who are seen as “innocent victims.”

Very soon after I began soliciting work for the anthology, I realized what a hard sell this was going to be. It’s not like soliciting poets for work about, say, food or travel. A lot of writers did not think they had appropriate work. It was a struggle for me to convince poets that they did not have to be poz to contribute, and that HIV could be approached metaphorically in terms of risk, desire, love, loss, survival, etc., as well as directly in terms of a narrative voice.

That’s why I started the online component of the project, the website. I thought a poem-a-day website would keep the project in public view and allow me to solicit poets for a project that felt immediate and urgent. I needed something to hook it on, like Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s Starting Today project (a poem a day for each of Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office) or Carey Wallace’s Lament for the Dead project (a poem on the death of anyone killed by police or a police officer killed in the line of duty in the summer of 2015). In fact, 2016 marks 35 years since the start of the AIDS epidemic. The public first became aware of what would come to be called AIDS on June 5, 1981, when a public health newsletter ran an article about five young gay men in Los Angeles who had been treated that spring for a rare form of viral pneumonia and who also had histories of other viral and fungal infections that were rare among people with normal immune systems. So that became my hook: a poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016.

The website took on a life of its own, with over 28,000 views to date, an average of about 4,000 views per month since it launched in June. Our single best day was 453 views on October 4, 2015, when Lucy Wainger’s “Mysterious Skin” (Poem 121) and Stephen Ira’s “Vultures” (Poem 122) were in heavy rotation.

This project is so important right now because HIV is so off the radar of most people—both beyond and within queer circles—and because HIV is still so very deadly with 1.2 million in the US currently living with HIV and 50,000 new infections annually. I cannot state enough times that the highest rate of new infections in the US is among young black gay men, trans women, and gender nonconforming people. Worldwide, the situation is even more dire (although the balance of affected populations may differ from that in the US).

It’s also important because this is such a critical time of opportunity for ending the epidemic. If we could get all the people with HIV on treatment and all the sexually active HIV-negative people on PrEP (or consistent condom use without PrEP, whichever they prefer), we could virtually end HIV transmission within a decade. Really. It’s a matter of political will as well as a matter of adequate public and private funding for public health outreach and intervention. But it’s also a matter of cultural shift. One part of this shift is the need to end HIV-related shame and stigma so that more people accept testing and access prevention and treatment services. Another part of the shift is the need to address the role anti-black racism plays in perpetuating the epidemic. It’s no coincidence that HIV disproportionately affects black people. Racism impacts the allocation of healthcare resources as well as the level of trust (or mistrust) in the white-dominated healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Just for starters.

And this cultural shift, I would argue, is where poetry and writing can play a role. Just as ecopoetics raises awareness and shifts attitudes about environmental protection; just as the poetics of witness raises awareness and shifts attitudes about social, economic, and racial justice issues; so too can poetry and creative prose raise awareness and shift attitudes about HIV, transforming it from an issue of individual responsibility, guilt, and shame into an issue of collective responsibility, public health, and, indeed, an issue of social, economic, and racial justice.

This brief essay only begins to address what The HIV Here & Now Project implies or can potentially become. HIV is an intersectional phenomenon, something that affects people regardless of HIV status and across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as across axes of privilege and oppression. Gregg Bordowitz, a leading AIDS activist in the formative days of ACT UP, gave an impassioned speech to the general assembly of ACT UP on the very day he himself tested HIV-positive in 1988. His was addressing the membership about an action the group was planning around drug addiction treatment services. It would be the first demo ACT UP had organized to address substance abuse issues, which had long been seen as beyond the purview of ACT UP as an organization focused primarily on the impact of AIDS on the gay male community. He concluded his remarks with these indelible words (from The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986-2003):

We’ve got to ask ourselves who are the gays and who are the drug users? Who are the fags and who are the junkies? We have got to seriously question the names and categories used to separate the groups of people hardest hit by this epidemic. We have to take responsibility for these issues.

While so much has changed on the medical front of the ongoing HIV epidemic, those divisions among affected communities, by race, class, sex, gender, and increasingly by HIV status itself, remain. In some ways, they are worse, more pernicious, more pervasive, than they have ever been before, and therefore it is all the more imperative that lovers of social, racial, and economic justice fight harder than ever to tear off the masks and tear down the mythologies, the ideologies, that empower the state against its people. I conclude with these ringing words by HIV and racial justice activist Timothy DuWhite (from the essay Hunted by the State: HIV, Black Folk & How Advocacy Fails Us):

When I say the state, I am referring to the cultural pathology that positions black people as disposable, therefore worthwhile specimens for experimentation, yet unworthy of proper care and sustainability. When I say the state, I am referring to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1970s to the 1996 jailing of poor black mothers who were unwitting research subjects in South Carolina, to the 1998 infusion of poor black New York City boys with the cardiotoxic drug fenfluramine. When I say the state, I am referring to a history of bigotry and patriarchy shrouded in anti-blackness. However, more supremely, when I say the state, I am referring to a prison I rededicate myself each and every single day to abolishing!

I do not pretend that poetry and creative prose can do but a tiny sliver of that work of abolition; but it is work that must be done, and The HIV Here & Now Project stands as one way, one of many ways, to marshal words and ideas in the service of social, racial, and economic justice – a justice that includes transforming the way people think about HIV, a justice that includes ending the HIV epidemic.

Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He is the Founding Publisher of Indolent Books and the director of The HIV Here & Now Project. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman.

Originally published at daniel extra.

daniel extra logo.jpg

Empire State Pride Agenda Goes Out with a Whimper Not the Bang of Having Passed GENDA

Pauline Park piano.jpg

by Pauline Park

On Dec. 12, the Empire State Pride Agenda abruptly announced it would be shutting down the Pride Agenda — which so many people over the years have called ‘ESPA’ — and its Foundation, though its political action committee will apparently remain active.

The announcement was reported by media outlets from the New York Times (“Empire State Pride Agenda to Disband, Citing Fulfillment of Mission,” 12.12.15) to Gay City News to PlanetTransgender.com. This is big news for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, because ESPA is the only statewide LGBT advocacy organization in New York and widely viewed as its voice, especially by members of the state legislature. In its Dec. 12 press release, ESPA declared: 

The Boards’ decision comes on the heels of securing the Pride Agenda’s top remaining policy priority — protecting transgender New Yorkers from discrimination in housing, employment, credit, education and public accommodations — in the form of new regulations announced in partnership with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo at the organization’s Fall Dinner on October 22…

Of course, an executive order and even a state Division of Human Rights regulation can be rescinded by any of Cuomo’s successors as governor, so it does not have the force of an enacted statute law, and many saw this as a George W. Bush ‘mission accomplished’ moment, in particular because the Pride Agenda is closing shop without having gotten the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) through the state Senate and signed into law.

But Norman C. Simon, chair of the Pride Agenda board and co-chair of the Foundation, responded to criticism of the decision and the announcement of it by telling Gay City News:

We did not and are not declaring mission accomplished on LGBT equality. What we are saying is that our top priorities have been completed, and that the remaining work that needs to be done we will transition to other organizations in the coming months in an orderly process (Paul Schindler, “ESPA Leadership Pushes Back on Charge They’ve Declared ‘Mission Accomplished’,” Gay City News, 12.13.15).

In his story for Gay City News, Paul Schindler wrote, “Matt Foreman focused his criticism both on the way the Pride Agenda reached its decision and on the message the announcement of that decision sent,” quoting the former executive director as saying,

There was zero consultation with folks who spent their lives building the Pride Agenda. If they are going to make a decision of that magnitude, there has to be a consultative function. They need to talk to the stakeholders, to the communities around the state… This is an abrogation of a fundamental obligation that an organization has to its constituency… And, it plays into the national narrative that the job is done.

But the same could be said of ESPA’s decision to endorse Cuomo’s executive order without any consultation even with the coalition attempting to advance GENDA in the state Senate. I have been involved with what originally was called the GENDA Coalition from the beginning, far longer than all of the current ESPA staff, and I represented the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) in that coalition from its formation, and at no time was there even a conference call to discuss the executive order, which will have the effect of undermining any remaining efforts to push GENDA through the Senate. Why would the Republican majority in the Senate feel pressured to pass GENDA when ESPA and the governor are both touting the executive order/regulation as providing sweeping protections for transgendered people in the state? And the lack of even the most rudimentary consultation on the decision to endorse the governor’s executive action is why it feels to me like a backroom deal cut between ESPA and the governor rather than a genuinely community-driven policy victory. Hence the decision to settle for an executive order rather than to demand that the governor use his power and influence to push GENDA through the Senate — in which Republicans maintain a majority in large part due to Cuomo’s efforts to keep the Senate in Republican hands — is not only substantively questionable but really represents a betrayal of the transgender community and the process through which the GENDA coalition was working to achieve a legislative remedy to the lack of protection from discrimination based on gender identity or expression in state law.

The most negative reactions to the news of the shutdown of the two most important parts of the Empire State Pride Agenda empire have focused on the organization’s abandonment of its transgender legislative agenda, Kelli Anne Busey writing:

Realizing the trans community’s worst fears, the New York Empire State Pride Agenda announced the shocking news Saturday that they are ceasing operations after 25 years of operations… [executive director Nathan] Schaefer just said the job isn’t finished without saying transgender and every fucking person in the room knows that’s what he’s eluding to. (it’s their little secret) They’ll just walk. So gay New Yorkers will spend money on making sure the laws protecting them aren’t eroded but will throw the T under the bus. Nice. (Kelli Anne Busey, Empire State Pride Agenda Disbands, Screwing NY Transgender People,” Planet Transgender, 12.13.15)

On Twitter, a number of people ‘tweeted’ critical comments:

This is what superficial justice looks like: “Empire State Pride Agenda to Disband, Citing Fulfillment Mission” (Jen Jack Gieseking @jgieseking, 12.13.15)

“We got marriage equality our work is done.” “What about trans equality, we aren’t done?” “Well we are!” (Mia Marie Macy @Miamariemacy, 12.13.15)

The closure of NYC’s @prideagenda is a sad indictment of legal activism. Marriage equality does not heal all wounds. (Senthorun Raj @senthorun, 12.13.15)

I have worked with every executive director and deputy director of the Pride Agenda from 1998 onwards as well as every transgender community organizer and every coordinator of the New York State LGBT Health & Human Services Network, which Tim Sweeney founded when he was deputy director of the Pride Agenda and in which I represented Queens Pride House (the only LGBT community center in the borough of Queens), so I actually know ESPA’s history better than the current members of the board and staff. And so my perspective is the long view, informed by my experience leading the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002, in partnership with Tim Sweeney and Matt Foreman and other ESPA staff; it is also informed by my participation in the steering committee of the coalition that led the campaign for the New York State Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), enacted in 2011.

And so what I would like to do is offer an assessment of the Pride Agenda’s record from 1998 to 2015 as informed by 17 years of working with the organization. That relationship goes back to the founding of NYAGRA in 1998 and our very first meeting with another organization; several co-founding members went to the Pride Agenda’s old office on Hudson Street. In the cramped office in the West Village, we met with Tim Sweeney, then deputy director, to seek ESPA’s support for inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) then pending in the Republican-controlled state Senate after having already passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly; we also sought Pride Agenda support for transgender inclusion in the hate crimes bill, which had also passed the Assembly and was also stalled in the Senate. Tim Sweeney told us that NYAGRA should join the state hate crimes bill coalition if we wanted to have gender identity and expression added to the hate crimes bill; he also told us that ESPA was not prepared to add gender identity and expression to SONDA but that the Pride Agenda would be willing to work with us on a local transgender rights bill. As a result of that collaboration, we launched the campaign for the bill that would eventually pass the City Council in April 2002 and be signed into law later that month.

It is important to recognize that the Empire State Pride Agenda was a self-defined ‘lesbian and gay’ organization when we met with ESPA staff in November 1998; transgender simply was not a part of the organization’s mission and there was no indication that they had even considered including transgendered people in their work. NYAGRA was the first transgender advocacy organization in the city or the state, and its formation and our pressing ESPA on transgender inclusion in pending state legislation is what prompted the Pride Agenda to move toward transgender inclusion in its work.

Any assessment of the Empire State Pride Agenda has to focus primarily on legislation, because that is where the organization has made its mark, along with the founding of the Network and the funding that it was able to garner for the over 60 LGBT-specific social service providers in the state. The major legislation that ESPA played a role in getting enacted since 2000 have included the state hate crimes law (2000), SONDA (2002), DASA (2011), and marriage equality. ESPA also helped with the campaign for the New York City Dignity in All Schools Act (NYC DASA), enacted by the City Council in 2004 over Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s veto, though the organization didn’t play the leading role with that legislative campaign as it did with the aforementioned state bills.

The first and best-known charge of transgender exclusion leveled against ESPA is also the most misunderstood; it is often thought that the Pride Agenda stripped gender identity and expression from SONDA so that it could be pushed through the Senate in December 2002; but in fact, transgender-specific terms were never in SONDA; the more mundane truth is that ESPA simply refused to bow to pressure from various parties to add gender and expression to the bill when it became viable in June 2001 when Gov. George Pataki first expressed openness to supporting it. As executive director of the Pride Agenda, Matt Foreman cut the deal that secured passage of SONDA: in exchange for ESPA’s endorsement of Pataki for a third term as governor, Senate majority leader Joe Bruno allowed a floor vote on SONDA in December, with the bill passing with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans before being signed into law by Pataki.

GENDA was introduce the next year and has since passed the Assembly several times but never the Senate, where it was even defeated in a vote in committee in 2011. The bill that did finally pass the Senate in that year was the Dignity for All Students Act, the first and so far only explicitly transgender-inclusive legislation enacted by the state legislature and signed into law. But the history of DASA does not reflect unqualified support for transgender inclusion on ESPA’s part. When Moonhawk River Stone was co-chair of NYAGRA with me, we were twice approached by Alan Van Capelle, then executive director of the Pride Agenda, about a possible compromise that could satisfy the Republican Senate leadership sufficiently to allow the bill to come up for a vote in the Senate. The first was an overture from the Senate leadership that entailed stripping gender identity and expression from the bill altogether; the second a proposal by Kevin Jennings, then executive director of the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to water down the language of the Dignity bill to remove the definition of gender, which included identity and expression, and instead put ‘identity and expression of’ in front of the list of characteristics in the bill; the dubious language had never been tested in any court or even enacted by any state language. Alan Van Capelle convened a small group of transgender activists, hoping I am quite certain that we would all go along with the dubious proposal; but Hawk Stone and I stood firm and refused to put NYAGRA’s imprimatur on it. After these two overtures were deflected, the coalition continued to work on the bill, even after the lead sponsor in the Senate, openly gay Sen. Thomas K. Duane, completely lost interest in his own bill; Dignity did eventually pass the Senate in June 2010, ironically enough as a kind of consolation prize to the LGBT community for the Senate’s rejection of the marriage equality bill that would eventually pass a year later, in June 2011.

As for the marriage equality legislation itself, on the one hand, it is certainly true that it ultimately redounded to the benefit of transgendered New Yorkers as well as non-transgendered gay and lesbian New Yorkers; but many felt that those who would be the most immediate beneficiaries of same-sex marriage recognition in New York would be the relatively more privileged members of the LGBT community, including wealthy gay white Manhattan professionals who — just as Andrew Cuomo no doubt calculated they would — opened up their checkbooks to make donations not only to ESPA but also to Cuomo for his 2014 re-election campaign. The most deleterious effect of the drive for marriage legislation by ESPA and Cuomo as well as marriage organizations such as Freedom to Marry and Marriage Equality-New York was that marriage came to dominate discussions of LGBT issues in the state legislature and coverage of the LGBT community in the media for most of the decade that preceded passage of the marriage equality bill, to the detriment of discussion of virtually anything else. I can remember one media interview in which I attempted to discuss GENDA and DASA with a reporter who seemed to insist that marriage was the most important issue facing the LGBT community and misquoted me to that effect in her write-up, despite my having said the opposite. Because of the enormous media attention on marriage, even Tom Duane, the lead sponsor of both GENDA and DASA, lost interest in those bills and let them languish. Nor did ESPA do anything effective to pressure the Democrats when they were briefly in control of the Senate from January through mid-June 2011 to bring GENDA to the floor for a vote, when it would almost certainly have passed.

In a sense, then, ESPA was a victim of its own success, but one that its board should have planned for: it should have been clear even before the height of the marriage frenzy that the unprecedented donations flowing into ESPA’s coffers would fall off after the enactment of the marriage equality law...

The Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation honored Christine Quinn and Louis Bradbury at its annual fall dinner in October 2012, which was a disgraceful political act intended to ingratiate the organization with the Council Speaker when she was preparing to run for mayor; the press release announcing the honorees declared, as Council Speaker, “she was at the helm of some of our community’s most historic victories, including ensuring dignity and protections against bullying for all students, and New York’s momentous marriage victory in 2011.” Chris Quinn had little if anything to do with the marriage bill passing — the Speaker of the New York City Council has no authority in the state Senate — and she did nothing but sign her name to the New York City Dignity in All Schools (NYC DASA) bill as a co-sponsor; I was on the NYC DASA Coalition steering committee and Chris Quinn didn’t lift a finger to help us get the bill passed, which actually passed during Gifford Miller’s speakership, not Quinn’s; in fact, after NYC DASA was enacted, she conspired with Mayor Bloomberg to block its implementation by the NYC Department of Education (NYC DoE); so to give her credit for NYC DASA’s enactment is doubly false. The same ESPA release asserted of Bradbury “As Chair of the Board of the Empire State Pride Agenda, which under his leadership helped to secure passage of The Dignity for All Students Act.” I was on the steering committee of the New York State DASA Coalition and Louis Bradbury had zero involvement with that effort; the bill finally passed the New York State Senate when he was chair of the ESPA board, but enactment had nothing to do with him, and it was clear to me that he was just using his position as chair for yet further self-aggrandizement after he fired Ross Levi—ESPA’s best executive director, in my view—back in March 2012 in a sordid power struggle initiated by Bradbury that significantly undermined the organization’s credibility. Truth does not come from falsity and honoring the dishonorable only dishonors the LGBT community that the Pride Agenda claimed to represent; honoring Chris Quinn and Louis Bradbury by making false claims about their achievements was a disgraceful act.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the last words of Dido, queen of Carthage, are:

Vixi et quem dederat cursum Fortuna peregi, et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago. (I have lived and run the run the course which fortune allotted me; and now my shade shall descend illustrious to the grave.) (IV. 653)

But could one say the same thing of the Pride Agenda? Will this organization be remembered fondly or be regarded as having fulfilled its mission? The manner of one’s passing says a great deal about an individual and I think the same is true of an organization. Organizations die just like individuals, and the rather abrupt, almost hasty manner of ESPA’s passing is telling. Just as the Pride Agenda consulted with no one — not even the coalition working to advance GENDA — when it cut a deal with Gov. Cuomo to endorse his executive order on transgender discrimination and give him a platform at its annual fall dinner in October 2015, so the boards of the Pride Agenda and its Foundation consulted with no one, not even former board and staff members, on the decision to close their doors. Norman Simon’s talk about an ‘orderly process’ of winding down and collaboration with other organizations to try to parcel out its current work seems to mask something quite disorderly. Because of the secretive nature of ESPA deliberations, it would likely be impossible to get confirmation of my suspicions, but I suspect that the board voted to shut down operations for the very mundane reason that ESPA and even its Foundation were no longer financially viable operations. As Gay City News reported:

Data available through the New York State Board of elections suggests the modest role PAC dollars have played in an organization that in 2011 had a budget of more than $5 million. Contributions to the ESPA PAC reported on the state website amounted to roughly $185,000 and $148,000 in 2010 and 2011, respectively, at the height of the battle for marriage equality. Since then, that figure declined to about $100,000, $98,000, $52,000, and $41,000 for 2012 through 2015, respectively. The decline in PAC contributions is part and parcel of a larger reduction in overall support for ESPA, particularly for the non-Foundation, 501(c)(4) entity, Empire State Pride Agenda, Inc. That is the part of the organization which is unlimited in its political activities, but for which donations are not tax-deductible. In 2011, the year in which marriage equality was won, the Foundation had revenues of $2,333,673, while ESPA, Inc. had revenues of $2,731,607. Two years later, in 2013, the most recent year for which public figures are available, the Foundation had revenues of $2,129,832, while income to ESPA, Inc. had fallen to only $504,391. The non-Foundation unit was also struggling with a negative net asset value of nearly $380,000, with outstanding liabilities of just over $600,000, the bulk of which was money owed to the Foundation (Paul Schindler, “ESPA Leadership Pushes Back on Charge They’ve Declared ‘Mission Accomplished’,” Gay City News, 12.13.15).

In a sense, then, ESPA was a victim of its own success, but one that its board should have planned for: it should have been clear even before the height of the marriage frenzy that the unprecedented donations flowing into ESPA’s coffers would fall off after the enactment of the marriage equality law; instead, Louis Bradbury and his board cronies killed the messenger, firing Ross Levi abruptly for the fall-off in fundraising that he had little if any control over; or perhaps, to put it more precisely, using the fall-off in donations as a pretext to get rid of an executive director with sufficient standing in the community to give him a degree of independence from a board that wanted to micro-manage the executive director and staff, replacing him with someone with virtually no relevant experience who could be more easily controlled. If that suspicion is correct, then one can only conclude that the increasingly precarious fiscal situation of the parent organization made its closing less a matter of ‘if’ than of ‘when.’ Hence the need to declare victory and go home; hence the need to cut a deal with a governor who had not shown the slightest interest in using his enormous power and influence over the Senate on behalf of GENDA; hence the need to avoid consultation even with what used to be known as the GENDA Coalition, because a negative to the question as to whether the shoddy deal that ESPA cut with Cuomo could not be entertained.

Of course, it’s not just GENDA, as important as our pending transgender rights bill is; it’s also the scores of issues ranging from police harassment and brutality to health care access to effective implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act to more aggressive and effective advocacy for funding for LGBT social services that constitute the work left unfinished by the Pride Agenda. ESPA could have taken a different path and expanded its work to move beyond the relatively narrow remit that the organization restricted itself to; and in fact, that was the direction the GENDA Coalition was moving in, having decided by general consensus in 2014 that it would expand its work to a broader agenda of social justice and social change. But the truth is that neither the boards nor the staffs of the Pride Agenda and its Foundation had any real interest in moving in that direction; the leadership was content to declare victory and go home after having ‘done’ SONDA, hate crimes, DASA and marriage. No one could deny that the enactment of such legislation isn’t a significant achievement; but the shoddy deal that ESPA cut with Cuomo that effectively undercut the work of those attempting to advance GENDA cannot be forgotten and will not be forgiven by many; it was the final betrayal of the transgender community after the solemn vow in the wake of the SONDA debacle in 2002 to secure enactment of transgender non-discrimination legislation.

Previously published at PaulinePark.com

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and served as executive director of Queens Pride House from 2012-15; she led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002 and served on the steering committee of the coalition that led the campaign for the New York State Dignity for All Students Act that was enacted in 2011.

On Gay Male Privilege

rohin guha.jpg

by Rohin Guha | @ohrohin

In my mid-twenties, I learned that taking your female friends to a gay bar is like taking a vegetarian to a butcher shop. There is a lot of meat, a lot of prime cuts, and even a little tripe, but nothing they can eat. While there aren’t any publicly-posted placards posted to the effect of NO BROADS ALLOWED, the unnecessarily long wait times they have to endure to get drinks–watered-down drinks nonetheless–and the degree of stink-eye they receive from bartenders do a great job of conveying that same general message. Shortly thereafter, I began wearying of gay bars in general. My friends were largely women and if they weren’t being treated respectfully–and not getting decent cocktails, then what’s the use of opening a tab?

It’s a dirty secret of a subculture of the gay male world about women: That they’re essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men. Maybe it happens when gay men get too comfortable in newly-discovered safe spaces–where they get to call the shots as their proudly out new selves. Or maybe it happens through cultural conditioning. Whatever the cause is, it becomes clear: If there isn’t any kind of transactional exchange happening, then women lose their value in gay male subcultures.

When we talk about gay male privilege, it’s important that as gay men, we understand any of us could’ve been–or currently are–perpetrators of this culture, simply by being. In my earliest days of being out of the closet–and among women–I’ve definitely been that jerk in the room that feigned ignorance about female anatomy, that responded with a sneer when a discussion about women’s bodies arose; I’ve been that young gay man that had his collection of divas who wore it better than the rest–pitted them against the collections of other gay guys. When this is your entire world, you misstep, you ride the identity to its outermost limits–and when it stops making sense, you reassess.

I used to have a best friend of over 20 years who had taken to calling his closest girlfriends the b-word and that c-word regularly. He had taken to screaming at them and insulting their bodies. When prodded about his disrespect, he’d dismiss it as humor. “God, can’t you take a joke?” would be one of his favorite refrains. I say, “I used to,” because sometimes you have to draw a line about who you keep in your life and who you don’t. I couldn’t stand to be around this kind of language any longer. Because as gay men, we actually have to find ways to empathize with our female friends, not use them as props to boost our own self-worth. It turns out even gay men objectify women–but dismiss such thoughts on the basis of their sexual orientation. Guys, no. “But, I’m gay!” can’t be your excuse for anything, not in a world where entire industries now make concerted efforts to court our demographics.

Over the years, I’ve been honored enough to become best friends with strong, wonderful feminists, who in turn stirred me awake to the fact that everyday brought with it some fresh act of sexism or misogyny. As a larger, brown guy, I rarely have to worry about being followed or sexually assaulted on the street; this was and continues to happen to women in areas like New York City on a regular basis. I think that as gay men, we become so preoccupied with this idea of having to hide our personal lives from coworkers or family members or whatever that we forget that we still enjoy a lot of male privilege that our girlfriends do not.

Somewhere along the way, I also realized that gay men had allowed themselves to fall into a lazy and inexcusable rut of objectifying, demeaning, and dismissing women.

So many of us are only familiar with the idea of male privilege being the province of straight men that we discount how gay men are able to exert dominance and control over women. We may forget this because much of American history has painted gay men as victims–and as gay men, many of us blithely buy into this narrative even if it isn’t our own personal history, because it allows us an easy way to assimilate to the larger gay male culture. Only in the last decade has gay male identity become accepted into casual discourse–and normalized into our cultural diet. Before we dive too deep into this, it’s careful to delineate that for the purposes of this piece, “gay men” is a subjective, if imprecise lumping of all such men. It’s not a static grouping of such men–it’s a cluster that even included me for a time.

American subcultures that are unwelcoming of gay culture are now the exception, not the rule. With this shift, however, gay men especially are losing the single differentiator that hitherto marginalized us from our straight brethren. We are beginning to enjoy fundamental privileges women still do not have.

The Advantages of Manhood

So long as we know how to play our cards in the corporate world, we can potentially enjoy a higher salary than our female counterparts, as ours is still a culture that pays women and men unequally. Similarly, so long as we know how to wear our poker faces, we aren’t likely to get sexually assaulted as women do. It’s not perfect, but privilege is privilege.

Last summer, I was dating a guy whose friend kept making a series of rape jokes. He was proud of what he believed was wit so sterling, so sharp that it could seemingly shame even P.G. Wodehouse. It was the kind of palaver that betrayed how little he seemed to interact with the opposite sex, that he would be oblivious to what an actual, real threat sexual violence actually poses to women. Worse yet was the nonchalance of said dating prospect, upon hearing one of his long-time friends spout such jokes–he actually egged him on. It was like being stuck on Neverland with a couple of Lost Boys–it’s also the kind of gay male setting where you realize just how people can take their privilege for granted.

From the Daily Kos:

Gay men may desire the same advantages of manhood as heterosexual men, but gay men simply do not occupy the same social status and same social space as straight men. I always cringe when I see a write-up about male power and advantage because as a gay man, I simply am not privileged to those things. It doesn’t matter if I am as butch as Clint Eastwood talking about “Halftime in America” or if I am as flitty as Chris Colfer in the role of Kurt Hummel on Glee, I simply cannot be grouped with heterosexual men. Even if we passed every gay rights law imaginable at this instant, it may be decades, if ever, that I would be afforded the cultural advantages of manliness. In a sense, this diary is asking for a qualification when pundits and intellectuals comment on male power and privilege: make sure you say “straight male power and privilege.”

This was written in early 2012. Now, almost two years later, the world has become a dramatically different place–not completely different, mind you, but different enough where many gay men are beginning to enjoy some of the same “advantages of manhood” that straight men do.

There are limits and caveats. As gay men, we still have to be calculating; if we live in the right cities, look for work in the right circles, we will be allowed access to the same advantages of manhood as our straight brethren do. If we live in the wrong cities, we will be ostracized and forced to retreat into the closet. Sure, we can’t hold our boyfriends’ hands in public for fear of getting heckled or assaulted on the street; we can’t get married in more than half of the U.S. [Editor's note: When his piece was originally published, marriage equality had yet been ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.] We may not enjoy many advantages our straight brethren do, but as another writer on the Daily Kos points out, we are still less likely to get profiled against for being overweight when interviewing for jobs, don’t have to deal with putting on make up or getting our hair done, and aren’t likely to have opinions written off as “women’s troubles.” There is a world of biases we don’t have to deal with that women still do.

Perhaps that single fact is why so many gay men act out–and against women in many cases–is because they can get away with it. Mainstream culture has sanctioned gay misogyny against women as winky, as part of the package of characteristics that “gay people just have.” For the uncreative amongst us, misogyny may be a desperate way of reasserting those elusive advantages of manhood.

A few summers ago, I was at an acquaintance’s birthday party up in Harlem. Wine was flowing freely, perhaps too freely. I had asked a close friend of mine to come with the understanding that if this party sucked, we could ghost at any time and get a nightcap somewhere more reasonable. She obliged. Apart from a couple women, the guest list was largely gay men.

I was in the middle of a conversation with my friend and a couple other guests at the party. We had been congregating around the punch bowl in the kitchen. The layout of the flat was such that you had to pass through the kitchen to the bathroom–and the access was narrow. So as one of the guests excused himself to pass behind her on his way to the bathroom, our conversation abruptly stopped when we noticed a look of shock emerge on her face. She said that the guest had smacked her butt.

Later when he returned, I didn’t say anything about the incident–hoping he’d rectify the situation or at the least, comment on it and add some kind of context that would explain that kind of behavior. Time rolled onwards. When my friend excused herself to check her voicemails, I asked him to apologize to her upon her return. He agreed, but after some protestation. She came back, he apologized, and we continued bantering. Until we abruptly stopped bantering.

Apparently, he had been quietly stewing. Ten minutes later, he came to a full boil, announcing that he didn’t feel he was in the wrong over touching my friend inappropriately without her consent–but that I was in the wrong by requesting an apology from him. I was wrong–and my friend was wrong–because he was gay; because he told us what he did was not an intrusion on personal space, but a “love tap.”

Apart from re-stating his sexual orientation, he also added, “I work in theater. That’s just how we are with one another.” A lot of what-ifs crossed my mind. What if he had been a straight man? The entire party would’ve turned on him and asked him to apologize, or else leave. What if he decided to grab Idina Menzel’s or Patti Lupone’s butts at an industry event; would he try the same arguments? Or would he attempt a sincere act of contrition? Would they have a grand old laugh about it or would they back-hand him? His excuses evoked echoes of the same arguments my former best friend used to make. Apparently, my friend needed to lighten up and get a sense of humor about having her body inappropriately touched. Just like that: Victim-blaming.

I excused myself to use the bathroom and when I came back I noticed that my friend and the party guest was absent. My stomach knotted up. Another guest told me that they had gone out to the balcony to talk. I later found out that my friend wanted to use the opportunity to get some air and have a one-on-one discussion as a chance to calmly walk him through why what he did was an unwelcome act. Her efforts were futile; she could barely get a word in edgewise before he steamrolled over her, talking louder and louder to try to prove his point, until she decided it was simply not worth pursuing. Ironically he had been trying to persuade her that I was bullying him before – not aware of what he was doing to her just then.

There’s a lot of privilege associated with unapologetically encroaching someone else’s personal boundaries like this. But the victim-blaming that ensued was more perverse. Ultimately, the guest had found a way to turn the party environment hostile. When her last-ditch attempt to make him see the error of his ways failed, we both cut our losses and decided to head home, feeling the glare of the guests below burn through us.

The party host, who had been asleep throughout this whole ordeal, sent me a text the next day admonishing me for creating a scene, without asking for the full story. Then he stopped talking to me.

Cultural Proxies As Role Models

I’m not so hard-pressed to figure out when this kind of objectification became de rigeur. I came out around 2004, when TV networks had finally figured out that there was money to be made in pandering to some version of the gay demo. It was the heyday for Will & Grace, America’s Next Top Model, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Sex & the City. The Scissor Sisters were turning heads with their eponymous debut album. Rufus Wainwright had managed to graduate into a rock-pop mainstay. Culturally, the U.S. had begun entering a watershed era for acceptance of gay male identity.

However, as gay men and tokens of gay male culture were becoming normalized into the discourse of mainstream popular culture, a prominent gay male persona was becoming idealized: That of the affluencer. This persona was defined by attention to detail, upscale tastes, sartorial sensibilities, casual promiscuity, a penchant for dance pop, and being bitchy. Popular culture was teaching its consumers that to be gay was to be like Will or Jack from Will & Grace. Popular culture was teaching newly-out gay men that they could be welcomed into the heteronormative fold so long as they shoehorned themselves into these pre-approved molds of gay male identity. Unsurprisingly, this persona–vetted by mainstream media–allowed a gay men a liberal margin of misogyny, allowing them to write such behavior off as part of their identity. Gay men were allowed to say things like, “I find vaginas so alien” or more reductively, “Ew!” at the mention of female anatomy because such responses were viewed as hilarious, because the negative implications of such humor wasn’t ever really dissected.

It’s unfortunate, because many of us don’t get the luxury of role models in our formative years. Popular culture steps in as a proxy. When we see a mold of gay male identity be universally recognized as accepted, we want to try it on for size. We want to make it work. After being told in our formative years that there is no place in mainstream society for us, seeing representations of gay male identity in said society means we can finally come of age. We can enjoy a measure of equality. We can be “ourselves.”* That is, if “ourselves” falls within the prescriptive limits of the gay male identity that’s being commodified, packaged, and replicated by out gay men working in the realm of mass media.

These proxies are troubling though.

For example, in 2010, Project Runway judge and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi grabbed Scarlet Johansson’s breasts on the Golden Globes Red Carpet. When she looked visibly mortified, he retorted that he’s gay so it’s okay. Not so by her count. But when he acts so intrusively with little to no consequences, it sends a message to gay men who are still negotiating their identities and attempting to figure out how to fit into a world that still hasn’t found a way to reconcile queer identity completely.

Over at The Good Men Project, Yolo Akili writes:

At a recent presentation, I asked all of the gay male students in the room to raise their hand if in the past week they touched a woman’s body without her consent. After a moment of hesitation, all of the hands of the gay men in the room went up. I then asked the same gay men to raise their hand if in the past week they offered a woman unsolicited advice about how to “improve” her body or her fashion. Once again, after a moment of hesitation, all of the hands in the room went up.

So you have young gay men witnessing Mizrahi’s behavior; “I’m gay” gets handed down as an acceptable excuse for gay men to probe and disrespect women’s bodies. It’s endemic of a gay male culture that would sooner trot out a history of being victimized as an excuse for acting like assholes rather than taking ownership for said behavior, or better yet, correcting that kind of behavior.

Mizrahi is one example. On Will & Grace, you could create an entire drinking game around the number of times Jack recoils at the mention of female sexuality or says something about Grace’s body; it’s meant to be winky and fun, but ends up sounding like a broken misogynistic record. There are memes–like Sassy Gay Friend–which, for all their humor, reinforce the idea that it’s okay for gay men to call women “silly bitches” if it serves a comic context.

Both examples highlight the problem with the fag hag construct as well. This idea that there is a 1:1 ratio of newly-out gay men and their best female friend is objectification of the highest order; it serves neither party. It paints a picture of gay male sexuality that necessitates the role of a women–but furthermore, it paints the picture of women serving men, propping them up. Women end up objectifying gay men as surrogates for girlfriends or pretty plus ones at parties; gay men end up objectifying women as de facto therapists and punching bags, who are expected to make them feel better about themselves, all while weathering a casual deluge of slurs like “slut”, “ho”, and “bitch.” When gay men and women can rise above the gendered nature of their relationship, these destructive tendencies melt away, but it’s more likely that these relationships implode.

In Adam Goldman’s The Outs, we see this 1:1 ratio fail spectacularly as one of the series’ most riveting and relatable plots. Mitchell and Oona are presented to us as best friends, but throughout the series’ seven-episode run, they grow more and more estranged. Mitchell turns to Oona as a sounding board for his failed relationships, while Oona relies on Mitchell to act as a pretty plus one when she attends an ex-boyfriend’s cocktail party. She even commands him to take off his cardigan and “butch up.” As far as female friends to gay men go, Oona is wonderfully brash–which is why we’re able to see this relationship, premised on objectification, collapse.

Surprising as it is to many, there are also women who aren’t as brash or outspoken as Oona. In fact, the idea that female friends to gay men should be crude and loud and messy is in itself an awful stereotype that’s perpetuated by gay men as well. As gay men, many of us interpret the silence of female friends we’ve being insulted as consent. So it allows us to consider that it’s appropriate for us to treat the entire gender accordingly. At some point, a female friend might say, “That’s not okay,” or they might slap you–but you had it coming. That’s all it takes and many of us grow out of this kind of thinking. But others don’t.

It’s how you end up with countless cliques of gay men whose social lives consist almost exclusively of hanging out with other gay men. How can you learn to be a human if you’re just hanging out with clones of yourself?

Barbie Doll Packaging

Perhaps the way gay men act towards women can be summarized by how they regard women as tropes–owing in part to diva worship culture inherent in gay male identity. It’s a specific kind of thinking that permits gay men to dehumanize women–viewing them as abstract objects. It’s probably also why a blogger like Perez Hilton can so easily build an entire brand off slighting the bodies of female performers and entertainers.

In fact, in 2009, Jezebel’s Anna North compiled a partial list of Hilton’s descriptions of female celebrities. It would be easy to disregard Hilton’s comments as the outbursts of a lone internet loon if there weren’t countless gay men who weren’t already following his example. Somehow being gay has become a coded way for many men to assume there’s no wrongdoing when they talk about women’s bodies, when they jokingly use “ho”, “slut”, or “bitch” as a synonym for “lady” or “woman”–and the spriteness with which they get defensive when called out for this kind of impropriety.

An advantage of gay manhood in particular is that many of us are complicit in the way female body image is packaged, marketed, and distributed across media. We are complicit in the total objectification of female performers in entertainers by elevating them to goddesses or condemning them as flops. Diva worship is one of the ultimate forms of objectification. Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Selena Gomez, Beyoncé: These are all performers whose handlers and makers cultivate brand identities in order to make them seductive to the gay male aesthetic. It’s ironic because these stars are packaged as demigoddesses, but by making them appear to be more-than-human, they are sold to us as products, as something stripped of humanity. Divas are objects; women are not. Divas are nothing more than glorified Barbie dolls. Women are not.

Diva worship has become insidious–a way to reinforce a myth of aspirationalism wherein many gay men indicate to the opposite sex that unless they are worthy of achieving this absurdly lofty status, they are nothing more than interchangeable fag hags.

Think about the language:

“Britney is slaying!”

“Gaga is better than your faves!”

“She looks so fat in that dress!”

“She’s so fugly!”

“What a ho.”

How gay men speak about female performers contributes to objectification–whether intentionally or otherwise. We sometimes say a performer is “slaying” as a superlative way of saying she’s doing something amazingly. This is not a problem. We should always be so upbeat about female performers; the problem occurs when the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme; we say she’s a “hot mess” as a superlative way of saying she’s doing something poorly. It’s always superlative. There is no slang term for her to just be. Contrastingly, this kind of language is used rarely-to-never when discussing male pop stars–like Justin Timberlake or Drake, for example. A large part of that owes to the fact that male pop stars don’t fulfill the trope of diva worship how female pop stars do.

We are trained to idolize our pop divas as if they’re flesh-and-blood Barbie dolls. To fulfill our duties as fans, we put down other pop divas. These performers stop being women to us through the language we use–they either become goddesses or trash. This is where the nasty language becomes eminent. It all becomes more problematic when this language is applied wholesale to all women, allowing gay men carte blanche to regard women as objects physically.

Facsimiles of Femininity

Gay male culture requests womanhood when it comes in the form of some kind of frothy entertainment commodity–where we are asked not to actually think about the woman herself, but the made-up packaged product before us.

We have even identified what constitutes womanhood, like garish eye make-up, over-the-top fashion, wildly theatrical mannerisms, and so on. We’ve figured out how to weave these trappings of femininity into spectacular facsimiles of femininity without actually empathizing with these women. It’s why Ryan Murphy excels at writing Jessica Lange’s glamorous, if morally reprehensible personas on American Horror Story. We love Lange as Constance Langdon, Sister Mary Jude, and Fiona Goode, but are never convinced that she’s anything more than an enthralling anti-heroine trope.

Popular culture even largely accepts that gay men know enough about women’s bodies to design clothes for them. Something problematic that Karl Lagerfeld once said: “The woman is the most perfect doll that I have dressed with delight and admiration.”

Well, then.

To that end, it’s even universally accepted that gay men can advise women on how to wear their hair or make up, or do a proper runway walk. This is ironic when you realize that many gay men spend little actual time interacting with women or regarding them as human beings. Again, we go back to Lagerfeld’s “dolls” comment. Or furthermore, how little real world experience gay men have with women’s bodies. After all, we are defined by our desire to have sex with other men, not women.

Apart from dictating how women should dress, many gay men themselves shun feminine mannerisms. Gay male culture–as it is currently being packaged and replicated–doesn’t want to personify or lend much import to femininity. Sure you have the seemingly effeminate gay mouthpieces of contemporary entertainment culture–but as a consequence of their effeteness, they’re portrayed as virtual eunuchs. The preference in mainstream culture still skews towards the butch Brokeback Mountain-esque portrayal of gay men. Hang out in enough crowds of mostly to all gay men and you find there’s a startling, if gradual, rarefication: The “masc-acting str8" guys rise to the top–and set the rules for the game. Many will gravitate away the more feminine men to congregate amongst themselves. Many will pursue the “masc-acting str8" types. Others will likely leave.

“No femmes” is a popular refrain in the world of gay men who date one another; it is a stipulation that frequently appears in tandem with “masc-acting str8.” That such discriminatory dating bias is applied within the world of gay courtship is amusing. It’s unfortunate, though, as “no femmes” dismisses entire droves of potential friends or dating partners on the basis that their mannerisms, fashion, or cultural tastes verge on the feminine–without actually considering that, hey! these guys might actually be alright. It’s also central to the larger impulse for gay men to exercise misogyny.

Essentially, “No femmes” is an outright repudiation of femininity, of qualities that we’ve been conditioned to believe are more representative of females than males. Like many things in the world of gay men, “No femmes” is the kind of coded language that betrays a much more fundamental fault line in gay male consciousness. Actor/writer Billy Porter, hits the nail on the head:

Flamboyant gay people get more of the attention, but we run the gamut…I think that it’s a self-hate issue that’s brought on by society. You want to assimilate. The only thing that we want as human beings is to be accepted.”

It’s telling then that such a large swath of gay men view being feminine as being antithetical to self-empowerment or self-actualization–that they haven’t completely come to terms with their sexuality and view femininity as something that could undercut their masculinity.

What then happens is not only the pro-active perpetuation of misogynistic attitudes, but the rarefication of an increasingly segmented gay community where insecure gay men arch towards an idealized masculine archetype–and shun traces of feminine archetypes that they end up constructing social worlds where everyone looks, dresses, and acts like them–where women increasingly occupy the periphery.

Is It Wholesale Social Retardation?

Many of our traditional forms of social congregation have outmoded women–like the butcher shop at this essay’s outset.

Set foot inside a gay bar and you discover entire artificial meat market-like microcosms which are largely devoid of women. To be a wallflower at any crowded big city gay bar is a phenomenal experiment; it’s a vantage point from where you get to observe the politics of how men behave with each other and size each other up in a contrived context where women don’t exist.

When you have such wholesale socializing of gay men in a universe where women exist only as grand pop icons in flashy music videos on large television screens hanging above the bar, you have a culture that has become complicit in the social retardation of a sizable chunk of humanity. In these venues, women are abstractions, symbols, but otherwise not encouraged to be actual three-dimensional beings.

The boys-only vibe of most gay bars is unsettling. You have scores of young gay men who are learning from one another, but many of whom spend minimal time with women. They forget how to behave and interact with the opposite sex. If the trend is for many straight men to objectify women by oversexualizing them, for gay men, it’s to desexualize them entirely.

Over at XO Jane, Kate Conway writes in a piece entitled “Are All Gay Men Secret Misogynists?”:

I did have several guy friends in college who flirted with exemplifying certain aspects of it for a while. When I asked one about it recently, he claimed that it just felt most comfortable for him at that stage in his life. He’d just come out of the closet, he was making new friends in the queer community and elsewhere — it was easier, he said, to fall back on a relatively tried-and-true narrative until he felt more comfortable with his situation.
Which makes sense, particularly in terms of college-aged guys. If a young queer man sees a certain behavior that allows him to fit in with peers, it’s not surprising that he’d want to emulate it.

We all want to fit in, especially if we spent our adolescence aimless and only got our bearings sometime in our twenties. What’s startling is that for many young boys, bullying other queer kids in school is what allowed them to fit in; so for kids who grew up being bullied to ultimately replicate that same behavior, but to another historically marginalized group showcases an amnesiac tendency of the gay male community–one where we don’t hold ourselves accountable, but expect victims to take everything in stride.

When I wearied of the cattle call culture of gay bars, I tried an alternative: Simply hanging out with my friends–whoever they may be–inside sexually-agnostic bars. When we collectively wearied of the cattle call culture of bars in general, we took the party to one of our apartments–and its there that we began having incisive, extended discussions about humanity, about gender, about the unlikely objectification between straight women and gay men (“It runs both ways, though,” remarked one of my friends). Throughout my twenties, I tried not to be an asshole–but I realized that in those chapters of that particular era of my life spent mostly in the dark corners of gay bars with fair-weather friends, I was becoming socially retarded. You can’t exist in spaces that promote the interests of one gender above another and not end up with skewed moral values as a result.

“Queer” vs. “Gay”

A thread that runs common here is casual misogyny. When gay men congregate with women, women are frequently expected to shelve their concerns about the way their bodies are being spoken about and handled by gay men. The way gay men might call an invasive encroachment of personal space a “love tap” or men like Mizrahi regard Scarlett Johansson’s breasts as punchlines or men admonish other men at gay venues for being “too femme” are just ways in which misogyny is stealthily executed and perpetuated by gay men.

Many of us actually grow up; we actually come to terms with how horrific this behavior is. We start drawing the lines–it’s juvenile to excuse misogynistic behavior through sexuality. While many of our peers retreat further into the bubble–getting older in the world of mostly-male nightlife, diva worship, and the antiquated notion of fag hags–others then look for something more. It ends up affecting the way they connect to the culture from a larger perspective.

I was on a date recently where, absently stirring my martini, I remarked about how I had to “bow out” of the mainstream gay world a few years earlier. It all got too much. I was seeing exes everywhere. The pressure to burn both ends of the candle–and drink to the point of blackout, until my liver cried uncle–had become tedious. The fact that I could never actually carry a conversation with anyone else because (1) the music was turned up so loud we couldn’t hear our own voices; or (2) they simply had no yen or ability to carry a conversation couldn’t justify how much time and money I was spending at these establishments.

My date turned to me and nodded; it’s why, he said, he doesn’t really identify with the word “gay” anymore and aligns himself with the “queer” label. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this; I’ve had a couple friends over the past few years who have also shunned the word “gay” in favor of the term “queer.” “Queer,” which is a catch-all term for loving other humans in a variety of ways.

“Queer” is a loaded word. It is a word that makes people bristle, owing to its more recent usage as a homophobic slur. It is a word that is perhaps more inclusive than “LGBT”–because it encapsulates and allows for a variety of gender expressions. The word “gay” has become restrictive; “gay” is Modern Family, marriage equality, and fashionable, well-exercised men with tons of money and gorgeous houses. “Gay” may have been owned by the community at large before, but now the word has owners who bend it to fit their identities–men like Andy Cohen, Ryan Murphy, Rufus Wainwright, men who enjoy incredible reach and the ability to shape young gay men. “Gay” is no longer loaded–it’s been defanged enough that torch-bearers can now handle it.

Contrastingly, “queer” confounds. It confounds because it works against contemporary society’s obsession with gender taxonomy. From Wikipedia:

The range of what “queer” includes varies. In addition to referring to LGBT-identifying people, it can also encompass: pansexual, pomosexual, intersexual, genderqueer, asexual and autosexual people, and even gender normative heterosexuals whose sexual orientations or activities place them outside the heterosexual-defined mainstream, e.g., BDSM practitioners, or polyamorous persons.

“Queer” is an awesome word; it sets a place at the table for everyone, including the same “gay” identity which itself would shun most who identify as “queer” in the way it’s constructed now. What this means is that to identify as “queer” is to be at ease with your own masculinity and femininity that you’re not constantly having to fear for your own gender expression. Amazingly, when you’re not hating yourself for being a little too femme, you end up respecting women. You end up tut-tutting and even calmly correcting those brethren of yours who identify as “gay” for their “love taps.”

Like any kind of privilege, gay male privilege happens and perpetuates when people premise most of their identity and entitlements in life on a biological component of their person. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh writes in the essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”:

We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.
I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.

The crux of McIntosh’s argument focuses on male and white privilege, but is very applicable to how gay privilege is fomenting and replicating. I can understand how after decades of marginalization the torch-bearers for the gay world have become militant on self-preservation–but this is happening with a fair amount of collateral damage to those inside their ranks and those who have historically supported them.

Self-preservation should not mean expecting young boys and men coming out to shoehorn themselves into a very narrow conceit of gender expression. Self-preservation should not mean issuing prescriptive modes of behavior for people to be. Self-preservation shouldn’t come at the expense of other humans.

To identify this kind of privilege–and the discrimination and objectification that stems from it–is a start; the next step is to campaign for change. Unlike straight maleness, gay maleness is a much more malleable identity. McIntosh writes, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege,” and also this:

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

Again, McIntosh’s comments about white male privilege can be ported to gay male privilege. As gay men, we are being wholesale conditioned to believe that when we diminish women, it’s okay, because we have been victims of oppression ourselves and we’re gay and women “understand.” To question this justification is to tap into the very “silences and denials” that fuel these attitudes. While the politically correct HRC-, GLAAD-backed appropriation of gay identity means that “Everyone is welcome,” it also means that nobody talks about the way gay male privilege–which sometimes overlaps with white privilege in very conspicuous ways–disempowers women, sometimes stridently so.

We are encouraged not to address the ways in which gay men might use abusive language towards, in reference to, or even in front of women. We are encouraged not to do this to such a startling degree that when we do try to act in the interest of decency, we end up getting victim-blamed.

A makeover of the word “gay”, of this particular identity, and its unfortunate brand of privilege that trivializes women, would entail adopting a mindset that is less bent on defining identity through biology, but through shared interests. So that men are bonding not because they both have an inclination to date other men, but because they share the same world views. This takes the stress off focusing on expressions of gender, off sexuality, and emphasizes on actually connecting with humans through shared life experiences.

Break the Pattern

To redesign the current packaging of gay male identity would mean to reorient it around a love-based approach that finds gay men making a place at their table for all kinds of people–not just those they deem relevant to their interests. It would been trying to quash out this “ideal gay persona” of the affluencer; it would mean holding one another accountable as role models for younger gay men.

It would mean for many gay men to understand that while a neighborhood like Chelsea in New York City was once a refuge from heterosexist oppression, it’s now become the very maw of a similar kind of privilege its earliest settlers were fleeing–a place that may not discriminate by sexuality, but it discriminates by class and race. To improve the way we relate to the world around us, it would mean for many of us to acknowledge there are communities where we wield a lot of power–and we have the ability to make “gay” mirror “queer”–where we focus less on exclusion, on creating communities of people who look and act just like us, but rather focus on inclusion. It would also mean demanding better behavior–and expecting many gay men to understand that women do not exist to add value to gay men around them and nor do they exist in a parallel universe. Repackaging gay male identity would mean that they understand the importance of language and personal space–and that “It’s okay because I’m gay,” is no longer an excuse for any kind of lewd behavior.

It may be a slow plod towards equal rights, but it’s inevitable. as gay men continue to gain the same rights as their straight kin, it’s up to us to remember the history of suffering and marginalization–and that we are in many ways beginning to leapfrog over the very women who tend to be our earliest adopters after we come out of the closet.

We can’t pull the ladder up behind us and objectify from on top. It’s up to us to do better than the precedent set by the people who made life hard for LGBT individuals in the first place. It’s now up to us to make sure if there’s someone trying to climb up, we lend a hand and pull them up.

 

Rohin Guha is an editor at The Aerogram. His writing has appeared at Jezebel, The Toast, The Rumpus, XO Jane, Fusion, NPR, and others. He was once dubbed "The Gay World's Answer to Maya Angelou" by the blog Queerty. He lives a few towns over from Detroit, where he is hard at work on his debut essay collection.

Originally published at Medium.com

Trans Feminism: Speaking My Truth to Power

Pauline Park Trans Feminism.jpg

by Pauline Park | @PaulinePark

Is there a ‘trans feminism?' And if so, what is it? Given that feminism itself is such a charged subject and transgender identity is a contested domain, that question is a productive one even if one not easy to answer.

It was in graduate school (1988-94) that I first came to feminist consciousness, but it was unfortunate that the first feminist writing I encountered on transgender identity was “The Transsexual Empire” by Janice Raymond. In Raymond’s imaginary, transgendered women are nothing but female impersonating rapists, males attempting to ‘appropriate’ female bodies and feminine gender identity. Reading Raymond set me back several years, but when I read Michel Foucault for the first time, I understood that it was Raymond herself and not I who was guilty of misappropriation. Raymond’s pseudo-Foucauldian analysis of the ‘gender industry’ is nominally focused on the power of the ‘gender professionals’ who serve as ‘gatekeepers’ for those seeking to transition, but its real target is transgendered women and men who identify with a gender not associated with their sex assigned at birth.

The problem with the second wave feminism espoused by Raymond is that it is rooted in a biological essentialism that fails to recognize the social construction of gender and gender identity as well as sex. For biological essentialists like Raymond and Andrea Dworkin, the mere possession of a penis or a vagina alone determines character and behavior, and it is difficult for them to explain women like Margaret Thatcher (who was prime minister during the two years that I lived in England), Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, who exemplify a domineering masculinist discourse of power.

While there are certain aspects of female embodiment that transgendered women do not experience (such as childbirth, for example), there are experiences of discrimination and harassment that transwomen not only share with ‘cis-’ women but that they often find themselves even more vulnerable to. But we must also recognize that not all transgendered people are feminists; like non-transgendered women, there are many transgendered women (and men) who are in some real sense gender-conservative and who simply want to assimilate into the existing sex/gender binary.

It is also important to recognize that there are many different kinds of feminism, including liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, and the feminism that I identify with — eco-feminism, which examines the relationship of the human species to the ecosystem; ecofeminists look at the masculinist discourse of power that underlies the domination of nature by ‘man’ and the way in which we as human beings are killing Mother Earth. Some ecofeminists are interested in shamanic traditions that are woman-centered, such as the ‘mudang‘ tradition, the oldest spiritual tradition in Korean culture, which Koreans took with them from eastern Siberia when they migrated into the Korean peninsula millennia ago. In that pre-Sinitic Altaic spiritual culture, the mudang is always a woman, but not necessarily female: a significant number of mudang were ‘paksu mudang’: priests who were born male but who performed the sacred rites and rituals of the mudang tradition dressed as women; whether they actually lived as women in the sense that contemporary transgendered women do is less clear from the historical record. But the important point is that the realm of religion and spirituality is an important arena for the construction of gender and an important topic for feminist analysis and no feminist theory is complete without engaging in an examination of it.

Just as important as theory construction is praxis, and my own activism and advocacy work flows from my feminist analysis of gender and politics. I am currently chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors and since late May, acting executive director of Queens Pride House, an LGBT community center in the borough of Queens, and it was in the context of co-founding Queens Pride House that I first came out as an openly transgendered woman in 1997; it was through NYAGRA that I led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. I am the only openly transgendered president or executive director of any community center in the state as well as the only Asian American. The Queens Pride House board of directors is also half women and half people of color, and our small staff of three is entirely people of color — one gay Latino man, one transgendered Asian American woman and one transgendered African American woman. What is as important as the representation of transgendered people on staffs and boards of directors of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations is their appointment or election to positions of real power and authority, and there, LGBT organizations in the United States lag behind; and the number of transgendered people of color in such positions is negligible.

Of all the issues that I have become involved with, there are two that are especially controversial. In my closing keynote address to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in 2007, I called for the removal of gender identity disorder (GID) from the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), while still advocating for payment for and coverage of gender transition-related treatments and procedures such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS). As I said then, I do not have a gender identity disorder; it is society that has a gender identity disorder.

And just as important if not more so, trans feminism is a commitment to social justice, rooted in that understanding of power relations and experiences of oppression based on gender identity and expression.

Perhaps the most controversial of all has been my involvement with Palestine solidarity work, which only dates from March 2011, when the LGBT Community Center of New York City expelled and banned the Siege Busters Working Group, subsequently expelling and banning Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) — a group that I co-founded — in May 2011. In taking those unwarranted and unprecedented actions, the Center’s executive director and board of directors betrayed the organization’s own mission and stated commitment to inclusion and prompted me to join those working to end the illegal and brutal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Along with Darnell Moore and 14 others, I participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine in January.

What does Palestine have to do with feminism and trans feminism in particular, you might ask? There are women and transgendered people on both sides of the Green Line separating the West Bank from the territory of the State of Israel established in 1948; and equally importantly, there is a masculinist discourse of domination and militarization that is fueling the ethnic cleansing and the construction of an apartheid state in Israel/Palestine that calls out for feminist critique and challenge.

Trans feminism, then, is for me a mode of analysis that helps us understand gender in its widest sense and the relations of power that circulate throughout society that are inextricably linked with dominant and alternative discourses of gender identity and gender expression. And just as important if not more so, trans feminism is a commitment to social justice, rooted in that understanding of power relations and experiences of oppression based on gender identity and expression. Just like feminism, there will inevitably be as many varieties of trans feminism as there are trans feminists; and my trans feminism reflects and is informed by my experiences as a transgendered woman of color, an Asian American of Korean birth and American adoption, and an activist who sees herself above all as an agent of social change. As the Mahatma Gandhi would say, we must be the change we seek to make in the world; trans feminism is as trans feminism does.

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors and acting executive director of Queens Pride House. She did her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.Sc. in European studies at the London School of Economics and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This essay is a slightly edited version of a talk given at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference 2012 on June 1 on a panel on ”Trans Feminism & Trans Womanism: Speaking Truth to Power.” Many thanks to Joelle Ruby Ryan for organizing the workshop and Danielle Askini for joining us on the panel.

Originally posted at PaulinePark.com

What's Not Wrong With Us: A JAKE Chat with Eric Schneider

Eric Schneider JAKE Chat promo.jpg

 

by Daniel W.K. Lee | @danielsaudade

Welcome to our inaugural JAKE Chat podcast!

We are so happy to have the opportunity to continue the conversation started by Dr. Eric Schneider's great JAKE Talk this past spring entitled “Beyond a Velvet Rage: Constructing Contemporary Gay Relationships.” Time just didn't allow for a deeper investigation and engagement with Alan Downs' widely-read book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World so we're glad we have had this opportunity to ask Dr. Eric some follow up questions.

Eric Schneider, M.Ed., D.Min, Ph.d student in Human sexuality at the California Institute of Integral Studies is a kink and poly friendly sexologist and counselor specializing in gay men’s issues focusing on sex, love and intimacy in all of its forms.

Transgender Usage: 5 Misunderstandings About “Transgendered”

Pauline Park.com

by Pauline Park | @paulinepark

And so the great nomenclature debate continues…

I have already written about the controversy over the use of ‘transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’ as an adjective describing people (“GLAAD is wrong on ‘transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’“), concluding that ‘transgendered’ is the correct adjective to apply to people while ‘transgender’ is the correct usage with abstract concepts, such as ‘community,’ ‘studies,’ ‘law,’ etc.

In response, I’ve gotten five different responses from members of the transgender community as well as non-transgendered people who have objected to that conclusion:

1) Negative valence

The first misunderstanding about transgender usage is the most easily disposed of. I have had a number of people tell me that an adjective ending in ‘ed’ always indicates something negative or bad; clearly, even the most cursory scan of a dictionary will yield a host of adjectives with a positive denotation or connotation, such as ‘educated,’ ‘sophisticated,’ and ‘nuanced.’ And some adjectives unambiguously indicate something positive, such as ‘honored,’ ‘awarded’ and ‘commended,’ all three of which are commonly used with describe people. Interestingly, even adjectives that have a negative denotation or connotation do not automatically imply something bad about the person to whom they are applied: so, for example, I could say that I am ‘appalled’ by the acceleration of global warming, which does not necessarily say anything bad about me and may in fact suggest something good about me (i.e., environmental consciousness). What is particularly relevant here is that the very term for showing a lack of respect for one’s gender identity is ‘misgender,’ and even those who think ‘transgendered’ is always wrong are most likely to use the term ‘misgendered’ to describe someone who has been referred to by someone else with a pronoun or form of address (‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’) not consonant with that individual’s self-identification. Now on first glance, this reference might suggest evidentiary support for the objection that ‘transgendered’ has a negative valence; but in fact, it proves just the opposite, because if someone can be ‘misgendered,’ then it must follow that someone can be appropriately gendered (i.e., addressed in a way that respects the transgendered person’s gender identity); and the evident meaning of the very expression ‘appropriately gendered’ or ‘respectfully gendered’ proves the point. Nor would anyone say in idiomatic English, ‘they appropriately gender him/her’ or ‘they misgender him/her’ to indicate the past tense, because it would never be understood as such.

2) Tense

And that leads to the third objection to ‘transgendered,’ which is the misconception that such a usage necessarily indicates something that happened in the past; but many adjectives ending in ‘ed’ can be used to indicate present tense. So for example, when I say, “I’m overjoyed to see you,” I clearly mean that I’m overjoyed right now in this present moment at seeing you, not that I was overjoyed some time in the near or distant past. And of course, the same applies to adjectives cited before, such as ‘educated,’ ‘sophisticated,’ and ‘balanced.’ I try to eat a well-balanced diet in the present, and saying that the meal I’m eating right now is well-balanced is very much about the present moment. The same is true of being ‘right-handed’ or ‘left-handed.’ Nor does acceptance of the term (and concept) ‘misgendered’ substantiate the case for this second objection, because one can be ‘gendered’ in a steady state that refers to a current situation as well as one in the past. To indicate an event that happened in the near or distant past — any incident, in fact — one would have to say, “they misgendered him/her” in order to be understood. But if ‘misgendered’ is correct usage — which I have never heard any objection to — why would ‘transgendered’ always be incorrect? To say that someone was properly, appropriately or respectfully gendered in the past tense requires the ‘ed’ to be understood, otherwise no English speaker would understand the reference as referring to the past tense. So saying that someone is ‘transgendered’ does not in any way imply a past status; to do so and to be clearly understood in English, one would actually have to say, “I was transgendered but I’m not any more” (arguably a dubious notion, but grammatically correct).

3) Agency

The second misunderstanding about the use of ‘transgendered’ as an adjective is the notion that such usage implies that the person being described was the passive subject of someone else’s agency, as in violent acts such as when someone has been murdered or raped; this notion that ‘transgendered’ implies that has done something to someone else is also easily refuted, as with the above-mentioned adjectives ’educated,’ ‘sophisticated,’ and ‘nuanced.’ One could quibble about the adjective ‘educated,’ arguing that someone else did in fact participate in my education, but one could also describe oneself as self-educated; when it comes to the visual arts, that’s largely true for me, having had only one course in art history, and that in modern art. But ‘sophisticated’ seems not to indicate someone else’s agency; saying of me that I’m sophisticated does not mean that someone else actively ‘sophisticated’ me. And the same certainly goes for an adjective such as ‘balanced’ or ‘well-balanced.’ Saying of someone that s/he is ‘balanced’ does not in any way imply that someone else balanced him or her. And to return to the example in #1, the sentence, ”they misgender him/her” will be understood by any English speaker as referring to an ongoing situation in the present. If being ‘misgendered’ does represent a loss of agency, being ‘transgendered’ and recognizing oneself to be and declaring oneself transgendered can in fact be an act of self-empowerment.

4) Authority

Those who believe there is a higher authority to which they can appeal may cite the Associated Press Stylebook, but AP simply took its cue from GLAAD; more often, those who oppose the usage ‘transgendered’ will simply cite GLAAD’s stylebook; but as I argued in” GLAAD is wrong on ‘transgender’ vs. ‘transgendered’,” GLAAD itself offers no persuasive or even coherent argument for its position on the issue, simply asserting (inaccurately) that ‘transgendered’ is always incorrect and asserting further that it is also offensive; that usage doesn’t offend me, though the notion that GLAAD gets to tell me what I call myself certainly does. But the question the appeal to GLAAD begs is this: why does GLAAD have any such authority over linguistic usage? Who elected or appointed GLAAD to determine what is correct or incorrect usage? No one that I know of. GLAAD is certainly a wealthy and influential organization, but so is the Human Rights Campaign, and I have never heard anyone — at least not any transgendered person — suggest that all transgendered people need to accept the authority of HRC. Variants of this claim would be citing the New York Times, prominent celebrities or elected officials, or prominent members of the transgender community, all of which would beg the same question about linguistic usage authority. Because of GLAAD’s pernicious influence, ‘transgender’ has now begun to appear in dictionaries, but once again, no dictionary has absolute authority over English language usage; like a public opinion poll, any dictionary is simply a compendium of current usage. We have no Academie Française, and even if we did, we would be just as likely to ignore it in practice as do the French. Pour moi, ça va.

5) Consensus

And so we come to the last defense, the last bulwark of the ‘transgendered’ is always wrong crowd; at the risk of mixing metaphors, perhaps we might call it the last gasp, because it is no more persuasive than any of the other objections to this usage. The objection runs something like this: everyone uses ‘transgender’ and no one (except maybe some poor uneducated souls) uses ‘transgendered,’ so that means we all have an obligation to use ‘transgender’ exclusively and eschew ‘transgendered’ altogether. Such an assertion confuses the normative and the empirical; as anyone familiar with the fact/value distinction would realize, even if it were true that everyone did X, that would not in and of itself entail or even imply a moral obligation for any individual to do X. But of course, the assertion of universality is not true and one would not have to make that assertion at all if it were. When pressed, the person making this assertion usually falls back to something along the lines of “all my friends use ‘transgender’ and none use ‘transgendered.’” But of course, such an assertion is of no value, because the friends of the person making the assertion could themselves be the outliers. Since no one as far as I know has ever done a survey of usage, any claims to prevalence of one usage over the other can only be based on anecdotal evidence. But one only need think about the question of public opinion polling on this question to see that it is a difficult if not possible one to answer: precisely whom would one survey? The transgender community alone? The entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community? All Americans? All inhabitants of planet Earth? I suspect most would say, ‘the transgender community.’ But which one? Just that in the United States? And only those who identify as transgender or transgendered? Perhaps some might say, only those who identify as ‘transgender,’ but not those who identify as ‘transgendered,’ which of course would be to bias the response altogether. Surveys of the transgender community in the US alone are difficult to carry out, but a survey of the transgender community worldwide would entail almost insuperable difficulties, and would be seriously biased in terms of Internet access (a global paper survey being impossible in practice) and language usage. In practical terms, there is probably no way even to effectively survey the US transgender community on this question, and restricting the survey to that community of course would represent a serious cultural and even political bias. Ultimately, of course, any public opinion poll is nothing more than a snapshot of opinion at any one given moment anyway. When it comes to language, the only absolute truth is that it is always changing; indeed, the term ‘transgender’ is itself of recent origin and only became popularized in the 1990s. So insisting that the community has come to consensus on usage here in the absence of any evidentiary support is not a persuasive argument or even an argument at all.

transgendered-chart3.jpg

And so, any thorough review of the objections to ‘transgendered’ as an adjective describing people will show that all such objections are based on faulty assumptions; it is always correct to refer to people as ‘transgendered’ and to abstract entities and concepts as ‘transgender.’

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors and acting executive director of Queens Pride House. She did her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Originally published at PaulinePark.com

Challenging Gaysian America: An Interview with C. Winter Han

C Winter Han.jpg

by Daniel W.K. Lee | @danielsaudade

Following up the excerpt we published yesterday of his new book Geisha of a Different Kind, I asked Professor Han about how drag's transformative possibilities with respect to race, gender, and sexuality and the challenges we face as gay Asian Americans.

In your excerpt, you boldly claim, “gay Asian American drag queens will save us all.” How will they do that and what are they saving us from?

A while back, a number of gay Asian men started a magazine called Noodle. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking and they provided a really good forum for discussing issues of race and sexuality from a queer Asian perspective. Previous magazines that featured gay Asian men were largely run by gay white men and as scholars like Russell Leong have pointed out, were really meant for a white male readership. Because of this, they had a tendency to objectify Asian men for white male consumption.

The magazine was transformational in a number of ways. But the one issue that I had with it was that it took a route to challenging racial stereotypes by buying into the existing narrative about what constitutes “attractive” in the gay community. Certainly, they weren’t alone in doing something like this. I remember that when I was in college, a group of activists started an Asian Male calendar which wasn’t necessarily targeted towards a gay audience to challenge the stereotypes about Asian men being less masculine and less “sexy” than white men. The problem with these things is that they often try to challenge the stereotypes about Asian men by presenting Asian men who fit the model of “attractiveness” that parallel white men. So, men who are taller, men with a particular type of body, etc. In doing so, the underlying message is that “Asian men are hot too” but only because some of us look like, or have bodies like, white men. In that way, it reinforces the larger narrative that white is, indeed, more attractive. So as well intended as these things are, they nonetheless affirm the white standards of attractiveness.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t Asian men who “fit” that model. The real problem is that physical traits routinely associated with Asian men are considered less attractive, less masculine, etc. For that matter, the problem is that a very narrow definition of “masculine” comes to be considered “attractive.” If we really want to challenge the racist narrative that Asian men are less attractive, less sexually desirable, less masculine, etc. than white men, we can’t use the “master’s tools” to do that. We can’t simply put up Asian men who have “white” features and say, “We’re sexy too!” What we need to do is challenge the very definition of what constitutes “attractiveness.” We need to challenge the larger narrative about masculinity and what is and is not considered “masculine.” And perhaps equally important, we need to challenge the prevailing narrative in the gay community that men who fit a very narrow definition of “masculine” are somehow more sexually desirable than men who don’t. We need to trouble the definition of attractiveness that promotes features and characteristics normally associated with white men as being more attractive than features normally associated with men of color.

Asian drag queens do just that. Instead of trying to buy into a western standard of beauty or attempt to behave “more masculine,” gay Asian drag queens embrace the existing narratives about Asian men and use that to their advantage. So in some ways, they’re not only challenging what counts as attractive, but they’re also saving us, fundamentally from ourselves. They’re abandoning the drive to make Asian men desirable by mimicking white men – because, as I discuss in my book, that will never work – and demanding that we redefine what it means to be attractive and desirable. So as odd as it might sound, they’re saving us from ourselves.
 

In what ways, particularly with regards to performance, have Asian American drag queens been able to use existing narratives on queer Asian Americans for subversive purposes

Studies on drag queens have generally fallen into two camps. On the one hand, some scholars have argued that drag performances simply reinforce prevailing gender stereotypes and norms, thereby reinforcing the gender hierarchy. On the other hand, others have argued that drag challenges gender and sexual categories, thereby disrupting the gender binary, which can be seen as a subversive act. But whatever one’s belief is about drag, most people would agree that a “successful” drag performance, by nature, requires drag queens to draw upon existing cultural narratives about gender. Because of this, I’m not sure that drag is, or even has to be, one or the other. But more importantly, I don’t think that a “successful” drag performance draws only upon existing narratives about gender. Rather, it draws upon narratives about race and class as well. When we examine drag queens using an intersectional lens, we begin to see that narratives about race add a complicated layer to what can be considered a subversive act. In order to be “successful,” Asian drag queens draw on existing narratives about gender, presenting themselves in hyper-feminine ways. More importantly, they do so because they are aware of how Asian men are racialized to be more feminine than white men. Some gay Asian men that I spoke with for my book who don’t do drag found this to be problematic because they believed that Asian drag queens simply reinforced those stereotypes. But I think that people who believe that miss the point and fail to see the very racialized context in which drag performances occur. In the gay community, whiteness and masculinity are the currency of desirability. Unfortunately, the racialized narratives about Asian men are that they possess neither.

In Geisha of a Different Kind, I demonstrate that gay Asian drag queens consciously make a decision to perform hyper-feminine drag in order to utilize existing racialized beliefs about Asian men that they confront in the gay community. Yet by winning drag pageants where beauty and desirability are the criteria for success, gay Asian drag queens challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions about the beauty and desirability of whiteness and masculinity. In this way, gay Asian drag queens challenge assumptions about what it means to desire someone of a particular race.
 

Decades after the Stonewall uprising, queer Asian Americans are still struggling for visibility within the LGBT community and in society at-large. Though the tactics used by other racial minority groups are instructive, why have queer Asian Americans largely not been able to “break through” in both contexts?

I think the answer to this question will probably be met with a bit of hostility, for a number of reasons. But I want to give what I think is an honest response. To be frank, there are two broad reasons why this is so. One is socio-historical and has to do with the way that “gay” and “Asian” is thought about in the larger imagination. When we think about who is “gay,” we routinely think about white men. This isn’t an accident. Rather, the way that gay media presents what is “gay” equates gayness with whiteness. In my book, I talk about a number of different ways that gay media have equated gayness with whiteness, but the most telling example is an article that appeared in Out magazine titled, “How to Gab in Gaysian.” In the article, the magazine claimed to give its readers a lesson on how to translate Gaysian into English. Clearly, by implying that the readers of the magazine would need a “English-Gaysian dictionary,” the column presupposes that the readers are white, or at least not Asian.

More importantly, the tactic used by national gay organizations to win acceptance has been largely along the lines of presenting gays and lesbians as being “just like” straight people. A part of that strategy has been to present gay couples as being “just like” straight couples. Certainly, gay couples and straight couples are similar in a number of ways. But the gay media, and to some extent mainstream media, have unfortunately presented gay and lesbian couples as having very gendered relationships similar to those often found among, and stereotypically believed to be characteristic of, straight couples. So to some extent, media has presented gay and lesbian relationships as husband and wife relationships rather than husband and husband or wife and wife relationships. Often, when there is an interracial coupling of a gay white man and a gay Asian man in the media, the Asian man is presented as the wife. So in many ways, gay white men are normalized while gay Asian men are other-ed for the purpose of presenting a very heteronormative gay couple.

On the other hand, as Russell Leong has noted, the model minority myth that constructs all Asian Americans as being hard-working, studious, and family oriented, precludes the idea that Asian Americans can be both gay and Asian. So here too, gay Asian Americans are largely invisible in the way that we think about what it means to be Asian American.

But it’s not just outside forces that make it difficult for gay Asian men to gain visibility. Another big issue that I see among queer Asian American men, not so much women, is that too many of us fail to see each other as potential allies and/or potential sexual partners and see each other as “competition” for the affections of white men. Of course, this is deeply ingrained in us through the constant portrayals of white men as being more desirable sexual partners than men of color by the gay media. So a lot of gay Asian men come to see getting a white man as a measure of our own self-worth. In fact, I’ve met a lot of gay Asian men who actively attempt to distance themselves from other gay Asian men as a way of distancing themselves from the stereotypes of Asian men. So they come to see themselves as exceptions rather than coming to see the images and stereotypes as problematic. Certainly not all of us, but a significant percentage of us see the world that way. In fact, many of us have become apologists for some blatantly racist acts committed by gay white men towards gay men of color. And that makes organizing around race to be difficult.

This problem isn’t by any means unique to gay Asian men. There are numerous accounts by gay black and gay Latino writers about the problematic desire for whiteness among gay men of color. But for gay black and Latino men, there is a much larger and visible socializing along race that has the potential to lead to activism. For example, there are some visible social spaces created and maintained for gay black men and gay Latino men outside of the racially fetishized spaces where the intent is for men of different races to come and meet each other. Yes, there are organizations and clubs where that is still the intent, but for gay black and Latino men, there are alternative spaces. We don’t see this so much among gay Asian men. With Asian men, most of the social spaces that are allegedly for us are actually a platform for white men to meet Asian men. I want to be clear that I don’t think that in and of itself is problematic. But what is problematic is that there are no other alternatives. So if the primary goal of social spaces that are allegedly meant for gay Asian men is to meet white men, it further compounds seeing other Asian men as competition.

The good news is that there are, at least, gay Asian organizations that are trying to address this. When I was in Seattle, there were two groups, Q&A and YAMS that did quite a bit to build connections between gay Asian men. For a lot of the men that we reached, it was the first time that they actively socialized with other gay Asian men and these organizations gave them a safe space to voice their concerns. In many ways, they were phenomenally beneficial in that they gave gay Asian men a social space outside of bars and mainstream gay organizations that largely cater to gay white men. But these things are labor and cost intensive and difficult to maintain. Clearly, we’re all socialized in the same way and desire for whiteness, once developed, is difficult to overcome. But at the very least, we need to start recognizing where that comes from and how that privileges white men at our expense. Once we start doing that, we can begin to challenge it.

How Drag Queens Saved Us

Geisha of a Different Kind.jpg

The below excerpt of C. Winter Han's new book Geisha of a Different Kind: Race and Sexuality in Gaysian America (NYU Press: 2015) gives an overview of the ways gay Asian (American) drag culture in Seattle has problematized existing narratives of gaysians with respect to gender, race, and sexuality. Tomorrow, we will have a interview with Professor Han where we will dive a little deeper into his book and hear his thoughts on the state of Gaysian America. 


By the time the club lights come back on, the drag queens who have just competed for a crown have already changed into their post-competition outfits and have begun mingling in the crowd. The atmosphere in the room is noticeably more relaxed, as audience members and performers socialize casually and easily. As little pieces of paper, each containing a vote for a queen, are handed to pageant officials, there’s no campaigning or grand-standing. There’s no cattiness or show-boating. Instead, the queens are genuine in their affection for each other and for the people who have come to cheer them on.

Catching up with the winner, I congratulate her. “I’m glad you won,” I tell her. “Me too,” she says to me, “because I’ve got something bigger planned.” That “something bigger,” would come a few years later as she would go on to be one of the founders of the Mister and Miss Asian Pacific Islander American pageant. It would be easy, right now, in this moment inside the now well-lite nightclub, to assume that all she would do is to go on and establish yet another drag pageant in a city that already has more than its share. But that assumption would be missing the point. Tonight, the winner on stage may be easily mistaken for being just a “pretty girl,” wearing a crown. But in the next few years, she would become one of a number of gay Asian American drag queens who use their wins in drag pageants to turn racialized, sexualized, and gendered assumptions on their heads. Using the popularity and notoriety they gain by winning drag pageants, they will interrogate what it means to be gay in the Asian American community and to be Asian in the gay community. In the process, they will challenge the hierarchy of race and gender in the gay community by troubling the taken-for-granted assumptions about the desirability of masculinity and whiteness and the hierarchy of sexuality in the Asian American community by disrupting the taken-for-granted heterosexuality that has come to define the “Asian American” experience. Using the platform they earn, gay Asian American drag queens will force gay men to confront what it means to be racially desirable and disrupt the gender hierarchy that attempts to position masculinity as “better” than femininity, while simultaneously forcing Asian Americans to confront what it means to be members of a racialized community. And by doing so, gay Asian American drag queens will save us all.

Drag queens in the gay community

In recent years, mainstream media outlets have portrayed drag queens as champions of the gay community. Movies such as To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, The Birdcage, and Connie and Carla as well as television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have portrayed drag queens at the forefront of gay life and on the cutting edge of gay culture. However, these portrayals largely fail to capture the complexity of drag queens in the gay community. Rather than universally celebrated and revered, drag queens are often stigmatized within the gay community where many perceive them as failed men who embody the stereotypes of the effeminate gay male. One successful Asian drag queen told me, “I won’t really tell people that I’m a drag queen when I first start dating them because when you come down to it, there is a lot of prejudice against drag queens.”

Despite their stigmatized status within the larger gay community, there are some significant rewards for successful drag queens. Many drag queens wield considerable influence in the gay community, gain social status, and amass situational power. But the ability to gain social status and situational power within the gay community depends strongly on the drag queen’s ability to perform successfully, often measured by the queens’ ability to win various drag titles and crowns through various drag pageants. But what constitutes a successful drag queen and what factors are important in a drag queen’s ability to win various titles and crowns? For gay Asian American men to be successful as drag queens, they need to be intimately aware of how they are perceived in the gay community and the implications those perceptions have for the type of gender performances expected of them.

The nature of gay racial stigma towards Asian men

For gay Asian American men, gay racial stigma is intimately tied to how they are feminized in the gay community. Within the hypermasculinized gay culture, aversion to qualities deemed feminine stigmatizes gay Asian American men who are routinely perceived as more feminine than gay white men. Reflecting on the way Asian men are stereotyped in the gay community, one Asian drag queen explained how he capitalizes on those very stereotypes during his drag performances. According to him, “Well, being Asian, how can I be anything else? I mean, whatever I do, I’m going to be seen as exotic and femme. So yeah, I use that, I use that because it’s what they expect.” Gay Asian American drag queens understand that, as Asian men, there is an expectation that they would take on the drag queen role that requires them to perform emphasized femininity rather than allows them to use other drag forms that would challenge gender norms and constructs.

In his book Disidentifications, José Muñoz argues that queer people of color don’t create radically new narratives about themselves, but rather use existing narratives and re-launches them from their minoritized spaces. Members of subaltern groups do not live in isolation from the larger society. Instead, they are also a part and parcel of that community and are impacted by the various images and constructions found within that community. But the act of disidentification is not simply one of accepting the dominant discourse imposed on them, but a way of turning that discourse on its head, using it for entirely different purposes, and re-packing them for political purposes. Simply put, gay people of color have to work with what is already there in order to confront racism and homophobia.

Gay Asian drag queens were certainly aware of the stereotypes about Asian men. As Asian men, they understood that their range was limited. That is, they did not have the option to be campy or butch. At the same time, they understood that they could use the stereotypes about Asian men to their advantage at winning drag pageants that required more realness or feminine beauty. Winning drag titles gave them social capital in the gay community in that they became recognizable and well-known among gay men. Certainly, it provided them entry into social circles and leadership positions in the gay community that may not have been open to them in the absence of this notoriety. This notoriety provided them a public platform from which to challenge racism and homophobia.

But more important than personal rewards, successful gay Asian American drag queens were able to translate their personal gains into community gains. For many of them, having experienced and witnessed racism in the gay community and homophobia in the Asian American community, winning drag titles was not a means to personal rewards and entry into gay social circles, but a stepping stone to more active community involvement in both the gay and Asian American communities. For example, one of the most successful drag queens in Seattle, Asian or otherwise, has been the host of the Karaoke Contest at Seattle’s International District Summer Festival, the largest Asian American celebration in the Pacific Northwest, since 2005. In addition, she has also taken numerous leadership roles during Seattle’s Gay Pride Festival. Also, several well-known Asian American drag queens founded the Pride ASIA event. The annual event, first celebrated in 2012, was timed to coincide with other Gay Pride events in Seattle but held at Hing Hay Park, the symbolic heart of Seattle’s International District. Like the decision to hold the Mister and Miss Asian Pacific American Pageant at the historic Nippon Kan Theatre, also located in the International District, the decision to hold the event at Hing Hay Park was a conscious decision.

The decision to hold the main event at Hing Hay Park demonstrates a strategic use of public space by gay Asian American men and accomplishes two goals. First, it recognizes gay Asian American men as distinct from the larger gay community and the Asian American community, but embedded in both. It allowed them to utilize both the Asian public space and the gay public space defines gay Asian Americans as both gay and Asian, and helps them identify with both their race and sexuality. More importantly, it leads non-gay Asian Americans to recognize gay Asian Americans as an integral part of the Asian community while simultaneously bringing non-Asian gays and lesbians outside of the gayborhood in order to see the ways that “gay” can be constructed beyond the boundaries of whiteness. By troubling the taken-for-granted assumptions about where “gay” people should be and where “Asian” people should be, Pride Asia and the Mister and Miss Asian Pacific Islander Pageant forces non-gay Asian Americans to reconsider what it means to be gay and what it means to be Asian, troubling the borders of both gay America and Asian America. More importantly, the strategic use of space allows gay Asian American men to locate themselves firmly within gay America and Asian America, rather than be defined outside of both.

Through their community activism and intervention in both the gay and Asian communities, many of the gay Asian American drag queens in Seattle have translated their personal successes as “successful drag queens” into larger social gains for all gay Asian American men by raising the visibility of gay Asian men in both the gay and Asian American communities and demanding inclusion in both, not simply as “gay” men in the Asian American community or “Asian” men in the gay community, but as gay Asian American men.
 

C. Winter Han is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College. Prior to becoming an academic, he was an award winning journalist and served for three years as the editor-in-chief of the International Examiner, the longest continuously publishing pan-Asian Pacific American newspaper in the United States. Geisha of a Different Kind: Race and Sexuality in Gaysian America is his first book.

Depression and Its Stigma

Charlie Serotoff.jpg

By Charlie Serotoff

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while now, and have been trying to figure out how to communicate all of the anger and frustration in my head.

One of my friends ended his own life last week. It's been very upsetting and I've been angry and frustrated and I felt the need to post something to help people be more empathetic and help individuals with depression realize there can be hope.

I’m going to make an attempt to make you understand what depression is. What it feels like. Why it’s hard to address and talk about and what you can do to help.

Depression is extremely difficult to talk about it with friends or family. As some of you probably know, when you’re depressed, it can be unacceptable to feel that way to friends and family, because depression is a hard thing to understand. With the best of intentions, they want you to be happy. They don’t want you to be sad.

Our culture makes it uncomfortable for those around you to cope with the depressed or sad version of you. So, many people hide their depression. They’ll portray this happy smiling person who makes others laugh, and people love them for it. They love the false version of that person. The version they think is happy. While at the same time the depressed person is a million miles away. Often they’ll feel little to no connection to their peers, because the peers are not connected and tuned in to what’s really going on.

Being in New York City, the center of everything, with a good job and health insurance, it was still a nearly impossible task to get help when I was desperate for it.

Our fucking healthcare system sucks and people are dying because of it. There are so many systemic failures which I’ve seen can lead someone to commit suicide. There’s of course, the state of the mental healthcare system in the US, but also the shame associated with having a mental disorder, the unacceptable nature of being sad or being depressed in our culture and people in general being ill-equipped to deal with a depressed friend or loved one.

Many will say, and have said “I don’t understand why someone would commit suicide.” I’ll tell you how: For those suffering with depression and who have suicidal thoughts, it’s a terrifying and hopeless pit to be in, which is only exacerbated and made worse by people showering you with advice on how to break out of it.

What happens is you start to feel sad all of the time, sometimes because something triggers you, and sometimes for no rational reason. The trigger often sets off a chain reaction in your head for a thought process that you have developed over the course of your lifetime and all roads lead you to feeling worthless, and that there is no hope. You spiral down further and further until you’re in constant pain and hurting because everything you experience is tinted with a shade of misery. Nothing seems like it can be fun or enjoyable again.

It’s infuriating to think about or talk with friends because many times, everything in your life is fine, or good. You could have a good job, great friends, family, be physically healthy and you feel this overwhelming sense of sadness that you’ll never be happy again. In your head you know your life is good, and in your body you feel awful. This dissonance contributes to why talking about depression is so hard for many people.

You’re in lots of pain, until at one point you stop feeling everything altogether. It becomes less painful to feel nothing rather than constantly living in agony. What you feel is not really negativity or sadness anymore, it's more just this detached, meaningless fog where you can't feel anything about anything — even the things you love, even fun things — and you're lonely, but since you've lost your ability to connect with any of the people that would normally make you feel less lonely, you're stuck in the boring, lonely, meaningless void without anything to distract you from how boring, lonely, and meaningless it is.

You’re existing. You’re not living.

The progression from existing but not living to a decision to end one’s life becomes necessary, and logical. You already feel as if you’re dead. Everyday is full of suffering with each and every activity you do. You’re completely disconnected from anyone and anything you loved at one point. The transition from living and feeling like you’re dead, to physically dead doesn’t seem like a big step. It is just the next step.

For anyone out there who suffers from depression and has contemplated similar thoughts, it’s not even scary to imagine taking your own life. It just seems like its the only possible course of action as everything has become meaningless.

So this is how I felt and it’s how I realized how fucked our mental health system is. I have had depression for most of my life. Last June and July, I was at the lowest point in my life and I knew I needed help and I needed it quickly. The process it took to actually find a psychiatrist, who would listen to me and who was willing to help was arduous, and felt impossible. It took many months, thousands of dollars, and innumerable frustrating phone calls and emails to get to a place where seeing one would cost me $400 out of pocket each time I saw him. During this time, I was beyond pissed off. Being in New York City, the center of everything, with a good job and health insurance, it was still a nearly impossible task to get help when I was desperate for it. I eventually was able to find the right one for me, who was able to help, and only because I had a doctor in my own family who knew of him (thanks Mom).

It should not be this difficult for people to get help when they are seeking it. When their life literally depends on it. Health insurance companies are set up to cut benefits, make it prohibitively expensive to get the help we need, and many doctors, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, etc. still don’t even accept it. The ones who do are far and few and in between. Mental disorders, including depression, are chemical and without treatment by a professional, an individual is not going to get better.

In addition to making it easier for people with mental illness to get the healthcare they require, there’s also something everyone of us can do: we can each help to erase the negative social stigma related to having a mental health issue. When you break a bone, everyone asks what happened, and it’s almost a badge of honor. But when your mind is broken, and people ask how you are doing and you respond I’m awful, I’m depressed, I’m seeing a psychiatrist and therapist to help me. They get uncomfortable and run away. We have to stop doing this. It isolates our depressed friends and family more than they already are.

The takeaway from this is that it’s important we talk openly with one another about depression. It’s important that if a person is clinically depressed, we help them get help. Just like an infection won’t heal without antibiotics, depression won’t fix itself without the right professional help. If you know a person who has had long term depression, listen to them.

Get comfortable in hanging out in the area of sadness. Embrace them for who they are, not the happy version you want them to be. Connect to them. Love them and support them. I made it through and came out the other end ok, and ended up getting the help I needed so badly for so many years. Many people don’t. Help each other. Be there for each other. Talk about depression it openly.

You can save someone’s life by talking with them and getting comfortable in the uncomfortable.

[Editor's note: This piece was originally published as a Facebook post. Thank you Charlie for letting us amplify your thoughtful rumination.]

Charlie Serotoff is a native New Yorker who currently resides in Manhattan. He works at the internet, enjoyed playing Magic: The Gathering and doing Crossfit, and secretly has a dream to become a paleontologist one day.

Stigma & HIV Criminalization

Lector Morales.jpg

by Lector Morales

Thirty-two states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes and thirty-six states have reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting. At least 180 such prosecutions occurred from 2008 to 2013 alone.”

This is a continuing situation. The application of these laws vary from state-to-state; so do the severity of them. Human beings operate on emotion and those emotion can get the better of us. We tend to read the headlines that target emotion instead of looking at the content behind those head-turning headlines. Some of us don’t want to grapple with the more complex issues surrounding this topic. One of the chief culprits around criminalizing HIV is stigma.

Shaming and stigma around HIV/AIDS is still a big problem. Local campaigns targeting this are slowly taking root in the community but it will take time for us as HIV educators and providers to see those results. It is that stigma and shaming that has been the catalyst for a lot of erroneous personal judgements and political fodder. It is in this context that I must also remove my personal judgements as well. In my past, it would have been difficult to separate those judgements considering where I lived and the communities I had been apart of. Time and education have changed that. It is part of my job to be constantly informed of the latest trends in HIV treatment and prevention. Plus, it also helps to have a team of informed colleagues who are just as passionate about their roles in our community. Education seems to be the key towards increased understanding of many complex issues that are not always black and white. Today’s cascade of knowledge and resources around HIV and AIDS can further spotlight the inadequacies those laws. To point out this flaw in how HIV is criminalized lets look at the widespread infection of another viral infection.
 

Roughly 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV(Human Papilloma Virus) and that 14 million are newly diagnosed each year. HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.


This is from the CDC’s website regarding HPV diagnosis and treatment. There has been little action on criminalizing it and yet we know that a small number of people can acquire cancer related health issues from it. Yet the criminalizing of HPV is no where near the level of paranoia that HIV garners. The underlying factor for criminalizing HIV is fear and ignorance.


Criminalizing HIV

To understand the laws behind criminalizing HIV, you need to go to the heart of the issues surrounding it. Let me be be frank: that “heart” is the moral clause that are embedded in the various laws surrounding it. Paranoia and the fear of what HIV was once known for, has continued to be a problem in regions where lack of education and resources exacerbate the problem. When many of the laws were enacted, little was understood about HIV and AIDS let alone the latest in treatments, and prevention that are common among the major metropolitan cities around the country. All you have to do is Google regions around the country to see where HIV infections are still a problem. So many of these laws were passed with strong discord toward those who either were HIV-positive or those who were at high risk for it. There was a definite sense of homophobia, judgements, and fears toward our community. In regions where HIV transmissions were down, education and community involvement helped put the spotlight with what could be done about stigma and paranoia. With the advent of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) and PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) for HIV prevention, and TASP (Treatment As Prevention) which, with today’s advances in HIV medication, can suppress the viral load to the point of “undetectable,” the question for law enforcement and legislators across the country is simple: will these institutions seek a redress of those stoic laws or will they continue pushing forward a misguided belief that HIV needs to be contained and controlled? For those of you who are not familiar with the of criminalizing HIV, here are some noted cases regarding the inadequacies of how these laws were applied in awkward and overzealous actions:

» A man with HIV in Texas is serving thirty-five years for spitting at a police officer

» A man with HIV in Iowa, who had an undetectable viral load, received a twenty-five year sentence after a one-time sexual encounter during which he used a condom; his sentence was suspended, but he had to register as a sex-offender and is not allowed unsupervised contact with his nieces, nephews and other young children

» A woman with HIV in Georgia received an eight-year sentence for failing to disclose her HIV status, despite the trial testimony of two witnesses that her sexual partner was aware of her HIV positive status

» A man with HIV in Michigan was charged under the state's anti-terrorism statute with possession of a "biological weapon" after he allegedly bit his neighbor


I cannot be certain about the far reaching consequences of the absurd prosecutions, but it is almost a certainty that the prosecutors were overzealous in pursuit of justice. The thought process behind why they chose to pursue that course of action is complex in itself. For me, the idea of someone serving 35 years for spitting on a police officer is absurd. The fact that the defendant was HIV-positive does not change a thing. Where was the prosecution’s investigative instinct in reaching to HIV knowledgable doctors, providers, and educators? I wonder about what knowledge police officers, the prosecutors, the jury, and the judges have around it. Were they comfortable with their knowledge of it and why did it not translate well for the defendant? I am under the belief that their level of knowledge around HIV education is, at best, rudimentary.

Or what about the woman from Georgia who received an eight-year sentence for failing to disclose to her status to her partners even though they knew her status. Some would argue the issue of intent; was it really their? The stigma associated with this case and the prior case is glaring and problematic. I can only speculate that the cohort of individuals responsible for the prosecution chose not to dig further and instead chose to proceed with their course of action under a “vigilante” mentality.

The other consideration involves advocacy. With different law enforcement institutions, the ernest action of seeking out advice and guidance on how to approach a sensitive subject is extremely important. Yet law enforcement seems to only approach criminalizing HIV in a narrow scope. Utilizing an advocacy group that speaks to challenges of HIV stigma in the communities they serve has the potential of widening the lens of that scope. Education around HIV is a powerful tool that when used wisely, can generate positive feedback and knowledge for law enforcement.

The last part is more tricky to explain because it’s about public perception and opinion. It involves intent and disclosure. When we think of criminal intent, we associate it with someone who has a flagrant disregard for the life of another. We see criminal intent as those who commit atrocious acts of violence or thievery. Often times the courts and law enforcement defer to evidence against the accused. When evidence is lacking or not strong enough, the case can sometimes hang on circumstantial evidence. Most prosecutors frown on circumstantial evidence because it doesn’t guarantee them a secured victory. However, in cases that did involve criminalizing of HIV, it seemed that circumstantial evidence was routinely utilized. Overzealous prosecutor? A biased judge? Were these government employees “settled” in how they perceived knowledge of HIV? It's hard for most of us to construe the actual series of events that lead up to the encounter. Was there a discussion about each other status? What decisions were made by which safe sex measures were not utilized? Were there barriers in language and culture? Did socio-economics also have a role in determining the sexual connection between the parties? We know that stigma plays a part in the daily lives of those who are affected by HIV. Telling a potential partner your status allows for both parties to make an informed choice about the path of their sexual intimacy, but the fear and shame associated with being HIV-positive can be overwhelming for some.

Disclosure is in itself a tricky subject. It involves delineating arguments between the two parties. It alleges that one party deliberately withheld information from the other about their status. Here’s an example of something of that complexity. I have heard of persons using the term “clean” to describe themselves to their partner(s). Using this word is in itself a shaming mechanism. It demonstrates how the person(s) hasn’t fully analyzed what negativity that word evokes. I tend to gently nudge clients towards clarifying their status by repeating their statements back to them with the terminology of negative. Language matters. When I look at how disclosure is utilized by the governmental agencies mentioned, I am concerned about the lack of foresight and investigative intuition. By far not all governmental institutions act in this manner, some are progressive in their approach. Some will seek advocacy advice from local agencies and will focus staying connected with community-based organizations that have knowledge around this subject. Staying informed about your status as well as that of your partner(s) is important because it allows you to make an informed decision about your sexual connections with them.

I can sympathize with the victims in many ways. I was put in that predicament myself several years. I had been “out of the closet” for two years, but was not fully informed about HIV and stigma. Dating life for me was not great and finding someone was a bigger challenge for me on several fronts. I was a young person-of-color who was not exactly informed about gay culture and the stereotypes associated with it. When you are a person-of-color, gay men can inadvertently place flawed stereotypes about you based on your cultural Identification. Those stereotypes can hurt as they did for me. Most of my young adult life centered around living in conservative-minded states like Kansas and Texas.

I met a guy who was sexy and funny. We dated for about three or four weeks. We messed around a lot and to be honest, it was fun. One night he wanted to take things to the next level. When I said no, he became agitated. I told him we had only started dating and that we should have more time to figure things out. Unfortunately, after that night he began distancing himself from me. When I tried to reach out to him to find out why he was doing that, he just got downright cold and refused to speak to me anymore. I chalked this up to a bad experience in the dating scene and moved on. Later on I found out that a second ex I had once dated, contracted HIV. I was devastated. He meant a lot to me. When he told me who he may have contracted it from, a dread came over me. In all the interactions I had with this first ex I never once asked his status. I immediately went to a local clinic and got a rapid test. When the results came back negative I was relieve to say the least. However, I got a scolding from the clinician, even though I never engaged in the high risk activity associated with the infection. I never told the clinician who the partner was or why I was in, she just assumed I was acting irresponsibly.

Did I confront that first ex? Yes. He vehemently denied that he had HIV. I realized then that it was irrational for me to demand something of someone who either did not know their status or had larger issues to deal than HIV. I realized that for him having to acknowledge HIV in his life would have huge consequences in his personal life. Plus the clinician, though scolding me, did inform me that my risk for contracting HIV were probably low. I left him alone and tried my best to see the good in both exes: one having to deal with the initial exposure and the other having to admit to that he needed to focus on the value of his life and the value of coming to terms with the things that were holding him back.

I think it's important to educate yourself on the nuisances of HIV and AIDS. I think it is also Important to reach out and be an “educator” in your community in what ever capacity you can. Pay it forward. An informed community is one that can stand against an ignorant mob. Please be informed.


Additional Resources:

http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/resources/ending-and-defending-against-hiv-criminalization-state-and-federal-laws-and-prosecutions

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/08/1297963/-Iowa-leads-by-decriminalizing-HIV

http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/HCR/Detail.aspx?id=6541#ixzz3bHD7jHUm

http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/HCR/Detail.aspx?id=6541#ixzz3bHDo4BXk

http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/02/health/criminalizing-hiv/index.html

http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/king-county-prosecutors-say-hiv-positive-man-conti/nhKpd/

http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/resources/ending-and-defending-against-hiv-criminalization-state-and-federal-laws-and-prosecutions

http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm


Lector Morales is an HIV Prevention Counselor with Gay City Health Project in Seattle and has been with the organization for over three years. He is an active artist who works with different media as well as an aspiring writer hoping to write his first sci-fi/fantasy novel.

The Unbearable Whiteness of the Gay Rights Movement

From left to right: Ambassador to Australia John Berry, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster, Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, Ambassador to Spain James Costos and Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius. Photo credit: Blake Bergen/GLIFAA

From left to right: Ambassador to Australia John Berry, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster, Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, Ambassador to Spain James Costos and Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius. Photo credit: Blake Bergen/GLIFAA

by Peter Ward

[Editor's Note] I asked Peter to write about the above photo of the six openly gay US ambassadors, which made the rounds on social media with variations of the following line: “Everything wrong with the Gay Rights Movement.” This was before BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner broke the story on HRC's internal report on its diversity “problem.” Peter's piece remarks on two important ideas: firstly, how white privilege is entwined with the political direction of mainstream gay rights organizations and who benefits from it, and secondly, a truer human equality is a far more radical enterprise which requires the untethering of civil privileges from the institution of marriage. His questions seem rhetorical, but if you go along and try to respond along the way as you read, you may also be confronted by how our perceptions of “gay” are indeed racialized and privilege whiteness.

When you think about the gay rights movement, what comes to mind? For some, it conjures images of trailblazers leading the good fight to break down the walls of oppression faced by gays in America. It infers a sense of communal spirit, unified in its mission to expand equal rights for all. I know many people and LGBT organizations that think, or would like you to think, that this is true. However, the gay rights movement’s fight for equal rights is much less inclusive than it lets on and in my opinion, has been white-washed. The movement disproportionately represents and benefits white gay men, while excluding others. The cause of this is America’s history of white privilege. White privilege has created this monolithic image of what it means to be gay in America which is perpetuated by the media and the lack of diversity within LGBT organizations. The danger this poses to the gay community is that rather than fighting for the right to be queer, we are assimilating into the dominant, heteronormative culture in America which is led by white, gender-normative men, leaving others behind.

Decades of marginalization has led to a lack of diversity within our government and in our job markets which places the interests of white men over those of others.

Before you freak out at me for such a bold statement, think about it. White people, particularly heterosexual white men, have always had a privileged place in America. It should also come as no surprise that this nation has a sad history of marginalizing people of color and women. White men have never had to fight for the right to vote or to be free from government oppression (perhaps save for the Revolution). If you are a white, cisgender male like me (and you know what I mean by white), it’s ok to acknowledge that we have “white privilege.” What is it? White privilege is the unearned advantages white people, particularly white, cisgender men, have at the expense of those who are different. It can be hard to notice, especially if you are a white guy but if you take the time, you can spot it. All of my important holidays and dates are on the calendar. Most, if not all of my bosses have been white, my government representatives are usually white, I never have to worry about being paid less than someone of equal stature, and I can always find someone in entertainment with whom I can relate. You may not realize it, but being a white man in America has probably never hurt you or held you back. If we can acknowledge that all of this exists, why can’t we accept that if the gay rights movement is predominantly led by white men, that the issues most important to them such as marriage, are those that are front and center?

White privilege is perpetuated by our nation’s history of racism and discrimination against those who do not fit the mold of the typical American. Decades of marginalization has led to a lack of diversity within our government and in our job markets which places the interests of white men over those of others. The 114th Congress, although hailed as the most diverse yet, still has a long way to go before it is fully representative of the changing demographics within the country. The new Congress is 80% white and 80% male. Corporate America is no better. Walk into a corporate boardroom and you will most likely find white men. African American, Latinos and Asians comprise less than 7% of the boards in Fortune 500 companies. Women only hold 19%. However, women make up 50% of the US population while minorities make up a combined and fast growing 30%.

This cycle of white male dominance has bled into the gay rights movement, right into the very organizations leading the fight for equal rights. A 2008 Pipeline Project survey reported that only 4% of executive directors at LGBT organizations were people of color. I had a difficult time finding more recent statistics. However, I did find a Washington Blade article listing the salaries of LGBT organizations leaders. 58% of the 41 listed were white men. In terms of those who identify as gay in America, 4.6% are African American, 4% are Hispanic, 4.3% are Asian and 3.2% are Caucasian. It seems strange that although minorities are more likely to identify as gay, that LGBT leadership would not be reflective of that.

The lack of diversity within gay rights organizations combined with the history of white privilege has created a monolithic image of what it means to be gay in America. That image is one that we see over and over, attractive, white, cisgender males. When you think about popular gay neighborhoods, which come to mind? I immediately think of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in NY, Boystown in Chicago, and San Francisco (ok, not a neighborhood, but you know what I mean). What do all of these neighborhoods have in common? They are all predominately white enclaves! Name a gay neighborhood that is not pretty much white men? Go ahead! I’m waiting...

This white male image is perpetuated by the media. Televisions shows with gay characters such as Modern Family, Will and Grace, Glee, Looking, and Queer as Folk only seem to be interested in presenting a particular kind of homos. That type is usually white, male, cisgender, attractive, and at least middle class. Fliers for gay parties, cruises or vacations and you will most likely see a white dude looking back at you. If you want to find images of black and Hispanic queers, look no further than your nearest HIV/AIDS awareness ad. Looking for a gay Asian? Better luck finding Big Foot! Even lesbians (of all colors) are not as well represented as white men. Sure, they might play a bit part here and there, but they are rarely cast as longstanding characters on TV. While LGBT organization such as GLADD routinely monitor the media to make sure that gays are not being negatively stereotyped, they seem to have no problem with these shows. They seem to be complacent in the idea of gay meaning a white, cisgender male.

What does all this mean for the gay rights movement? I fear that it does not bode well for all of us queers. Instead of fighting for equal rights by transforming American society, we are instead seeking to assimilate into the dominant, heteronormative culture within the country. Instead of saying we are different, we trying to convince the straight world that “we are just like you.” However, the problem is that we are not. Gay rights leaders always say that being gay is not a choice. To me, that implies that if we had a choice, why would we choose to be gay rather than straight? Queers are represented by both men and women of different races and gender identities, who face multiple layers of discrimination. Although the legal “victories” recently won seem great, they don’t guarantee equal rights for underrepresented queers. Take for example the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. Although both groups have equal rights before the law, in practice, both still experience tremendous discrimination as a result of living in a nation dominated by white men. Look no further than the income disparity: ask a woman and man who perform the same job how much each gets paid.

The monolithic image of being gay and the assimilation trajectory of the gay rights movement place the priorities of white, cisgender men over others. Marriage equality is a good example. Marriage has been the leading cause of gay rights organizations for years and they have been successful in legalizing gay marriage in 37 states. While it seems and in ways is a victory for all gays, the institution of marriage benefits whites more than minorities. Marriage is an institution which allows for the transfer of property between generations and the sharing of benefits (health, tax, citizenship) between partners and their children. Research has highlighted that white people are far more likely to have employer sponsored health insurance than those of color. While people of color have full time jobs, they are more likely than white people to be employed in lower wage industries that provide limited access to employer-sponsored health insurance. When it comes to homeownership, we see the same trend. Whites are more likely to own homes than people of color due to unequal lending practices. If whites are more likely to have health insurance that can be shared with their partner and to own property which can passed down, the benefits to white men are greater than those to non-whites. The mainstream gay rights movement has been bent on achieving the right to marry as the last great frontier for equal rights. Sure, for white men who have health insurance, property and nice stock portfolios, perhaps this is the last frontier to equality for them. However, what about everyone else?

Instead of marriage, there are many more important issues facing the gay community, particularly for queers of color. How about racial justice? Discrimination against queers of color is exponentially worse than those faced by their white counterparts. LGBT people of color are twice as likely to be the victims of physical violence. Can you name a LGBT person of color who was killed in under three seconds? Didn’t think so. Now try to name a white LGBT person who was killed. Matthew Shepherd quickly comes to mind. In response to his horrific murder, Congress passed the Matthew Shepherd Act of 2009 which expanded hate crime laws to protect victims of homophobic and transphobic violence. Although most violence against gays is directed towards minorities and transgender people, the act is named after a white man and his experience. Why him? Why not an African American, Hispanic, or Asian gay? This is by no means meant to downplay the tragedy that befell Matthew Shepherd. Rather, it serves to highlight that the experiences and tragedies of white people are still revered as more important than those of people of color. To further highlight this truth, how about Meaghan’s Law or the Amber Alert?

While the media would like for us to believe that all gays are white, cisgender and middle- to upper-class men, many queers are low-income. Employment discrimination, lack of health insurance, homelessness, and other factors make LGBT people particularly vulnerable to the impact of economic inequality. Gay and lesbian families (especially the latter) are significantly more likely to be living below the poverty line than heterosexual married families, and children in gay and lesbian households are twice as likely to live in poverty as compared to children in homes with heterosexual parents. And given the legacy of racism in the U.S., the statistics are even worse for LGBT people of color.

We must also seek to empower those who identify as transgender. Transgender people are more likely to live in extreme poverty and 41% have attempted suicide compared with 1.6% of the general population. They are also consistently abused and experience discrimination and violence at larger rates than other queers. Too often the “T” is left off of LGBT initiatives.

Queer youth and transgender homelessness is another issue that matters more to queers of color than marriage. 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT in which 68% were kicked out of their home because of their sexual orientation. 65% of these homeless queer youth belonged to racial minorities.

Why is the movement so adamant about assimilating into the heteronormative culture and its institutions, especially marriage? What about those queers who decide not to be married or those who are in polyamorous relationships? Are their families not equal to those of married couples? Even if gay marriage is legalized nationwide via the Supreme Court, in order to access the benefits of marriage, those who are not entirely male or female would need to accept gender tyranny. Instead of fighting for the right to marry, true equal rights would be fighting to overthrow the current system and how benefits are dispersed. Rather, we should be fighting to extend the benefits of marriage to all people. Let’s fight for universal healthcare and for the same tax and citizenship benefits allotted to married couples. Let’s focus not on assimilating and entrenching the same discrimination within our community but rather on transforming and replacing these institutions which have historically denied us the same rights. Let’s battle racism and income inequality so that ALL queers, actually ALL people, have the same rights.

How do we do this? Well, I think the first step is to acknowledge that the mainstream gay rights movement has missed the mark with respect to equal rights. We have to acknowledge that no two queers are the same. Large rights organizations such as the HRC and GLAAD must acknowledge that gays and transgender people of color face multiple layers of discrimination that their white counterparts often do not. Secondly, let’s stop trying to be like everyone else because we are not. Let’s stop trying to convince the hetero world that we are “just like them” and assimilate into their institutions. Let’s blaze our own path and fight for the rights of all people, not just gays. We need to stop treating gay rights as if they are disconnected from other rights movement and realize that they are one in the same. We need to stop focusing on surface issues such as marriage equality and focus on the more substantive, fundamental issues that have kept minorities, gay and straight, in inferior positions to whites. We should be demanding diversity so that our government, job markets and rights organizations better reflect the changing demographics within the country. We need queers of color in leadership positions because as much as white guys (like me) try to empathize, we can never really understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. Let’s acknowledge white privilege and rather than be ashamed of it, let’s transform it into human privilege. Dignity is the most powerful tool in this world and it has the capacity to bring people together. Everyone wants to feel that their voice matters.


Peter Ward is a 30-year-old gay professional. He is a community activist and a member of the Brooklyn Changemakers, a group of young professionals seeking to advance the mission of Brooklyn Community Services.

JAKE Talks at Seattle Pride 2015 Photo Gallery

Photos of Team JAKE's contingent at Seattle's Pride March 2015. Please share with the hashtag #JakeTalks.

The Perpetual Bachelor Whose Fight for Marriage Equality is Now Over

ryan crawford.jpg

by Ryan Crawford | @YesISaidCabSauv

June 26, 2015

Marriage is a BIG deal to Italians. Like, the biggest deal. If you don’t get married, your family thinks there’s something deeply wrong with you. Your Nonna insists you’ll starve to death because you don’t have a wife to feed you. From the day you’re born into an Italian family as a boy, your parents fantasize with their friends that you’ll marry their 1-week-old daughter when you grow up, and you’ll carry on Italian culture in your blissful, fertile, heterosexual union.

So you get married. You spend way too much money on way too much wine (“Vinny, are you kidding? The Pellegrinis are coming. Order another case. ‘Samattawitchu?”) and you have to make sure the food is the best chicken cacciatore or beef parmesan anyone has ever tasted, because half of your family cooks 5-star meals without even trying. Southern Italians like my Calabrian family will also have wedding confetti: lacy wraps of candied Jordan almonds harkening back to the Greek myth of Phyllis and Demophon, representing health, fertility, happiness, wealth, and longevity. Grandpa Grab-Ass will flirt inappropriately with his own relatives, and for years thereafter, everyone will talk about how beautiful the bride was.

I grew up in an Italian-American home on my mother’s side and was taught in my earliest formative years that I would get married one day. And I would get married to a woman. And no, I could not marry my cousin Cydney for her Barbie collection.

When I realized I was gay, I accepted it of myself fairly quickly. There was no question I liked men—I just did. So I began coming out at 13 years old, and by the time I was 16 I was fully out to family and friends. I helped found my high school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, my dad and step-mom supportively brought me to PFLAG meetings, and I was starting to date actual guys instead of just daydreaming about Danny from MTV’s reality show The Real World. But this was also during the George W. Bush administration when states were rallying together to ban same-sex marriages. My home state of Oregon passed such a law, and all the excitement and self-assurance I felt by recognizing and establishing my own identity was marred by this idea that I would have a long, uphill battle with the right to marry.

When I moved to Seattle in 2004 for my undergraduate degree, it was easy to see the incredible possibilities the city offered. Lesbians holding hands on the streets, gay-owned businesses, drag performers at bars that I was so eager to get into upon turning 21: Seattle showed me that gay people can live out loud. We could live out normal lives and shake off the notion that we had to hide ourselves in shame or scurry like roaches at the first shout of the word “faggot” from assholes driving through the neighborhood. We could be a community.

In 2012, Washington State proposed Referendum 74 to grant legal marriage rights to same-sex couples. This was a particularly thrilling possibility in the wake of California’s Proposition 8, but a terrifying feat with the understanding that we had to get this passed by popular vote. This meant that even if every single gay Washingtonian voted for marriage equality, and only every single gay Washingtonian, we would still lose. We needed thousands and thousands of straight allies to take the effort to vote in our interest, and I had my doubts.

I had only ever truly thought of marriage as between opposite-sex couples—that only straight people could be good at it—and while I felt as a law-abiding taxpayer that I was entitled to marry a man I loved, I didn’t actually love any men at the time.

This was an electric time in Seattle. We were charged with this passion to climb this mountain and do everything we could to make this happen. I worked with community organizer Shaun Knittel and many other inspiring leaders to form Social Outreach Seattle, a grassroots organization committed to ensuring equal rights and safeties for the queer community. We made commercials to encourage people to vote, distributed these commercials on YouTube, and held community rallies to get the word out. And on election night in November of 2012 when we heard the Referendum would pass, we took to the streets of Capitol Hill in the happiest celebration I had ever experienced.

At the time, I was 27 years old, and was single. Chronically. I was filled with such pride for my city, my state, my community, and so grateful for Washington voters. But that unsettling anxiety I felt waiting for the ballots to be counted remained in my heart long after the last rainbow flags were swept away after our victory parties. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this general anxiety lingered because I still doubted my ability to get married. Sure, I could legally do it, but was I ready for it? Could I be the kind of guy who would make a good husband to someone? I had only ever truly thought of marriage as between opposite-sex couples—that only straight people could be good at it—and while I felt as a law-abiding taxpayer that I was entitled to marry a man I loved, I didn’t actually love any men at the time. Big points for The Movement and Our People, scary time for self-doubting Ryan who remembered sitting with the women of his family on the eve of his sisters’ weddings, cutting tulle, wrapping almonds in it, and tying it off with ribbon, thinking he’d really like this at his wedding one day.

Over these last few years the marriage equality movement and I have watched each other grow. Rapidly, fiercely, and with the help of incredible people, we have strengthened our cores and unfurled with tender slow-blooming blossoms. To say the marriage equality movement is one we should be proud of is an understatement. This is a movement has spread from state to state with a passion to be reckoned with; a movement to be replicated for the struggles that the LGBT community still faces in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and discrimination. We got America to care about us.

This fight went all the way to the top, and we continued to wait while the Supreme Court heard out our stories and the fear-mongering of people who wanted to withhold from us the simple right to equal protection under the law. And in a 5-4 decision (that’s right, the fate of same-sex marriage rested on the opinions and consciences of 5 PEOPLE), the US Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage bans, like the one I witnessed as a teenager in Oregon, are unconstitutional; that “unmarrying” a couple simply because they crossed a state border is unacceptable.

Seattle was electric again last night, as we were on that November election night of 2012, but this time it’s different. This time, the rest of the country joins us in the celebration. This time, folks in Canada and Ireland and New Zealand are welcoming all 50 United States to that oh-so-cool Marriage Equality Club. And this time, rather than an unsettling malaise of self-doubt I experienced 3 years ago, I relish this new anchoring feeling of fulfillment, gratitude, and pride. With this one decision today, I take solace knowing that gay American children born now don’t have to experience the same doubt and shame I grew up with waiting for my country to decide how it felt about my marital prospects.

30 is just a few short months away, and with it comes that skeptical seedling in my mind that I should be lawfully wed by now. I may not be ready to get married yet. But I accept that I am single, and that even if I’m single for the rest of my life, I can still be happy. Contrary to my grandmother’s worries, I will not starve to death, and lacking a husband does not make me a failure. I accept that I may get married, and it may not be on the timeline I originally imagined or to the type of man I previously dreamed of, and that’s okay.

Today, on this historic Pride weekend, I accept that I am worthy of marriage. And now Uncle Sam thinks so too.

 

Ryan Crawford is a social media maven, marketing content manager, avid recycler, and Pokémon master. You can find his fiction work in Gay City Anthologies: vols. 3-5, and his professional, including the Love and Lust in Queer Seattle series at www.seattlegayscene.com.

From Top to Bottom

Photo credit: Edwin Pabon

Photo credit: Edwin Pabon

by Ari Gold / @SirAriGold

“But if baby I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” said the great songwriter and sage, Cole Porter. Gay men obsess over these roles. I will not attempt to exhaust the very rich power dynamics written implicitly, historically or culturally, into the top/bottom dynamic. I do however, want to explore some recent personal revelations.

My recent epiphany reminded me that my own sexual liberation is not static and should always be in progress. Since coming out when I was 18, I considered myself a top. I was never against the idea of getting fucked and I actually tried it a few times (a couple being fairly successful—at least from my end—pun intended). I still identified to myself and others as a “top,” or as the Internet would have it: “Top/Vers.”

I was having a flirty and nicely charged encounter with a charming 20-something on a night on the town (Night on the town? I am seasoned!). The attraction was palpable and we both easily agreed we wanted to hang out outside the club. We decided on my place—or as the Internet would have it, I was “hosting.” Right before we were about to leave, he threw out the disclaimer, “I am a top, though.” He said this as if it were a warning that this might be a deal-breaker. My response to him was, “Does that mean if you’re not fucking me you’re not having a good time?” He said, “No, it doesn’t.” And so we went home, nobody fucked anybody, and we had a fantastic time together, old-school-meet-at-the-club take-em-home-style.

Let’s not box-in our own sexuality when homophobia has done that too us for so long.
— Ari Gold

What I recognized though, in this younger man, was me being so “top-identified” in my 20s and what that was really about. I was thankfully not victim to the school of thought that being a top made me more of a man (In some cultures only the bottom is considered “gay”). I always identified as a liberated feminist, which means I hold great regard for the feminine and the feminine top as well. And I like to think I’ve embraced my top identity in as gay a way as possible (i.e., with a military hat, a jockstrap, and Swarovski studded riding crop?).

But I identified with being a top because, without knowing it, I was being lazy: physically, emotionally, and sexually lazy. I may have even taken advantage of the ego stroke gay guys give you for the perception that being a top means you’re more of the man (even though I myself did not think that). Only after getting spectacularly fucked for the first time in years did it fully dawn on me that it is unquestionably more challenging to be a bottom than a top.

To give myself some credit, despite my admonition of laziness, I have always been creative at finding ways to have a hot time by giving and receiving pleasure without butt fucking. The emphasis on what sexual position one holds when negotiating a hook-up often belittles the possibilities outside of butt sex. Too many gay men take the top/bottom dichotomy way too literally—as if one couldn’t be bottom- or top-identified within other sexual acts (oral sex, role play). There’s also the reality that, for me, other sex acts that lead to orgasm don’t feel like a lesser version of themselves. But with the necessity for condoms (I won't risk sero-conversion for better sex), butt sex does. For those reasons, I’ve always been more invested in other fetishes and sex acts than butt fucking.

Having gotten more in touch with my inner bottom in my 30s, I have a deeper, yes, deeper, appreciation for the vulnerability of bottoming. Can we go there? A good top will always try to protect the bottom from feeling ashamed if there’s an accident while fucking. But the bottom is at the top’s mercy in that situation. An asshole top will make the bottom feel dirty, wrong, or ashamed. I prefer cleanliness for myself in both roles—no judgments for those who get into getting dirtier—it’s just not my thing. As the top I get to be the good guy if there’s an accident and go and quickly wash up or even get to be the reassuring guy that everything’s nice and tidy down there. As a bottom, after doing whatever I can to get as clean as I can be, I can only hope nobody will make me feel dirty—in the bad way. Once again, harder being a bottom.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned about the power of vulnerability and the multitude of ways the ass and my hole gives me pleasure. I will continue to spread the gospel that Dan Savage confirmed for straight men: that wanting things in and pleasure from your own ass has nothing to do with being gay. Loosen up, my straight brothers. That’s right, I said “loosen!”

My gay brothers? Loosen up on these roles! That doesn’t mean abandoning them completely or creating more judgmental attitudes towards those who hold tightly to them. Simply recognize that sometimes we think we are or like one thing and don’t yet know we are or like something else too. Sometimes, we want to be and like it all in one moment. There are even times in our sex lives when top/bottom does not even come into play and we may put more focus on touch, or fantasy, or mutuality. RuPaul always says he likes to play with all the crayons in the crayon box. We can do that for our sex lives. Let’s not box-in our own sexuality when homophobia has done that too us for so long. Sexual identity and sexual exploration doesn’t end the moment we come out as wanting sex with other men. On the contrary, it’s only just beginning.

Originally published at GuySpy.com.

"Sex Like a Pornstar" is Ari Gold's first single off his upcoming album Soundtrack To Freedom by GoldNation.

The JAKE Speakeasy Photo Gallery

Wow! Just wow.

We had so much marvelous fun at The JAKE Speakeasy and we hope that you, our terrific supporters, did too! We just wanted to share some more of the snaps by our awesome photographer Brandon Hess of Bam B Photo. Please share, tag, tweet away!

On Madonna and the Entitlement of White Women

by Britni Hopes / @britnidlc

By now you’ve probably seen the clip of what can only be described as Madonna sexually assaulting Drake onstage at Coachella. It’s gross and I’m not going to post the link here, but feel free to Google it if you’re so inclined (trigger warning for those of you going off to watch it). There are a lot of conversations to be had about this incident, and many of them are happening. An important one worth considering is how the reactions to this event would have been different if an older, (white) male artist had done this to a younger (Black), female artist, and I’m willing to bet they’d have been quite different. But the discussion that I want to pick up on right now is one I started thinking about on Twitter and one that my friend Jay Dodd touched on with his piece. I want to talk about Madonna’s entitlement, as a white woman, and how that affects literally everything about her career. Jay says:

Drake’s face was of disgust and shock. Madonna’s arrogance gleaming, almost grotesque, beside him. But she stay doing this. Madonna stay exploiting Black men/of color who serve as sexual prop for her own attempts at taboo. She stay attempting to politicized her body by positioning it near and around Blackness. She stay having this history of Black men she attempts to keep in her wake. Whether this Coachella “highlight” was rehearsed or not, the optics of this kind of dynamic is troubling.

In this case, Madonna felt entitled to Drake’s Black body, to do with it what she wanted. And that’s what she did (also read this Storify of tweets from @Blackamazon and @marcussimmonscc). But this is only the latest example of Madonna furthering her career by taking what she wants from people of color. Anything “edgy” that Madonna has ever been credited with has been stolen from other people’s cultures. So maybe it’s fitting that this incident with Drake took place at Coachella, which is basically a Cultural Appropriation Festival.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see how racist and appropriative Madonna has always been. This is not something that I ever noticed myself, and much of that is because when Madonna was at her peak, I was still totally blind to my privilege and living in my ignorant bubble of whiteness. It’s only been through listening to people of color talk about Madonna that I’ve gone back and looked at her career with a fresh set of eyesand what I’ve seen is incredibly gross.

Remember Madonna’s hit song “Vogue?” She stole vogueing from the ball culture of the Black gay community. The documentary Paris Is Burning does a great job taking a look at the ball culture in New York City that vogueing was born in. On the left is Willi Ninja, known as the “Godfather of Vogue” and star of Paris is Burning. On the right, Madonna.

Willy Ninja Madonna.jpg

Here’s Madonna in her “Nothing Really Matters” phase, which she said was “inspired” by Memoirs of a Geisha. However, I’d call this straight-up yellowface.

geisha.jpg

Madonna’s “Frozen” phase appropriated henna, which is an art form with a deep and symbolic history.

madonna-henna.jpg

She wore a grill to the Grammys one year, and has said that her reasoning for continuing to wear it is because, “It pisses everybody off when I wear my grill, so that’s why I wear it.” This response shows a complete disregard and disrespect for (Black) people who are upset by her theft of their culture.

Madonna grill.jpg

And most recently, she released images for her “Rebel Heart” album in which the artwork covers the faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Bob Marley.

Madonna MLK.jpg

This list is not remotely exhaustive, and there are countless other examples of Madonna stealing or appropriating other people’s cultures. All of this, though, adds to the larger context behind her assault on Drake at Coachella: this act is part of a larger pattern of racist, entitled behavior from Madonna in which she views the bodies of people of color as hers to consume and discard as she sees fit. It’s part of a larger pattern of erasure and dehumanization within our white supremacist culture that results in the oppression of people of color. It’s not harmless—it’s violence. And it’s something that I don’t want to see lost in the conversations that we’re having about consent and ageism in the wake of this event. Those conversations are important, and we need to keep having them, but we can’t erase race from the conversation. It’s relevant. It’s always relevant.

This article was originally published at Fiending for Hope.

Britni Hope.jpg

Britni Hope is a feminist mama, activist, social justice warrior, queer femme, former pessimist, dopeless hope fiend, super rad chick. Founding member of Safe Hub Collective and die-hard Red Sox fan, you can reach her by email at hopefiending@gmail.com.

The Love Diet

Contributor Brian Reindel shows how capitalism, via mass media advertising, conspires to keep you feeling ugly.

brian reindel.jpg
new male beauty myth banner.jpg

by Brian Reindel / @brianreindel

We’ve been talking about standards of beauty, specifically addressing the spornosexual body, an apparent trend in male “fitness” where we try to get so jacked it hurts. There seems to be consensus here that getting super jacked is simply impractical for most of the population, if for no other reason than: O hai jobs, families, lives. Getting super jacked just takes a lot of work—more time and effort than most of us can afford to give it. But hey, some people can put in those hours and build those bodies, and that’s just wonderful! There’s nothing wrong with having an absurdly hard six pack, if that’s what you want to do with your time. The problem comes when the rest of us are told we’re supposed to hate ourselves for not sharing your enthusiasm.

We know that self-acceptance is the answer to self-loathing. We all know that. We’ve talked about it. So why are we still having this conversation? Because you can’t just pull self-acceptance out of your ass. It’s got to come from somewhere.

Let’s go back to getting jacked for a moment. It takes two fundamental things to get jacked: a strict diet and a rigorous exercise routine. And possibly growth hormones. Okay three. But let’s ignore that third one for now. Basically, it’s training, and it’s discipline. It’s breaking old habits and building new ones. It’s a lifestyle. And guess what: Your thoughts and feelings work exactly the same way.

Gaining self-acceptance or learning to love, in essence, takes exactly the same amount of work as gaining muscle. It’s a lifestyle. And sometimes it even takes a trainer to keep you on track, push you further, and check your form. This “trainer” could be a therapist, a minister, a mentor, a family member or just a good friend. But if you need help, ask for it, because if you aren’t practicing love, you won’t be good at it.

Buddhist monks have known this for centuries. Some monks spend countless hours meditating on the subject of compassion. Just compassion. For hours. Daily. And neurological studies have shown that this practice does, in fact, change the structure of the brain. Now, if you want that kind of change, you have to meditate a lot. Like, a lot a lot. The monk’s practice is the mental equivalent of that dude getting jacked at the gym. In either case, they work harder than most of us have time to work, but even if we don’t have the time to get totally blissed or totally ripped, any amount of practice can change us.

And what about diet? You can spend hours at the gym and barely change your BMI if you’re not eating the right foods. And, you guessed it, the same holds true for acceptance and love. The difference is that a “love diet” is less about calories and more about culture.

I’m not talking about yoghurt here, though I certainly love me some live, active cultures. I’m talking about the kind of culture we consume through our eyes and ears. If you want to get jacked, and you’re eating nothing but lard and corn syrup every day, then you’re probably not going to get the results you’re hoping to get. If you walk through your day seeing and hearing nothing but messages that say you suck, then it’s going to be pretty hard to love yourself.

“But no matter who you are, it’s the same basic message in a million forms: “You are not good enough as you are. You can be someone better, and my product can help you become that person.”

So now we come to the root of the problem, as I see it. Here’s where shit gets real: American culture is consumer culture. Even if we don’t consciously define ourselves by the brands we wear, our most meaningful choices are often economic transactions.

We live within a capitalist economic system. The only way this system works is through its own continuous expansion. It’s a system that must grow to survive. Stagnation (non-growth) is also known as recession, and if you take this economic system for granted—which all capitalist economists do—then recession is a terrible thing. But the only way this system can grow is through increasing production, which requires increasing demand for new stuff. So what if we don’t want any new stuff? What if we already have everything we need? Producers won’t produce if there’s no demand, right? Sure. But what if they could manufacture demand itself? An absurdly high number of us are in the very lucrative business of doing exactly that. It’s called advertising.

Manufacturing demand for your product requires two basic steps: (1) The consumer must be made to feel inadequate; (2) Your product must offer a remedy to those feelings. If I already feel happy, satisfied, or content, why would I go out and acquire more things? I need to feel inadequate to go shopping, and advertisers know that. Everyone gets hungry, so we always need food, and everyone needs shelter, water, basic clothing, health care, etc. But the vast majority of the things we buy are seriously total bullshit. And we sort of know that, right? So why do we keep buying these things? Because advertisers are so, so very good at making us feel like shit.

Advertising is such a huge part of our lives, we don’t even notice it anymore. Nothing on the Internet would be free without advertising. And when you think about it, that whole “free” thing depends on your definition of “free.” Every moment you spend on the Internet is a moment your personal information is being bought and sold. Neither Google nor Facebook would be the Goliath it is without your participation in this game. And every ad man buying your information is using it for the same thing. They’re all employing the same tactic. They’re using your history and preferences to figure out the best way to make you feel like shit. But no matter who you are, it’s the same basic message in a million forms: “You are not good enough as you are. You can be someone better, and my product can help you become that person.”

We now spend almost every moment of your waking hours ingesting this message: You are not good enough... You are not good enough... You are not good enough... How can we possibly find enough love or compassion to offset that diet?

Well, I believe we can refuse to partake. In fact, I believe that if we’re going to have any peace of mind, we have to do just that. We don’t have to stop using Facebook and Google to do it, but we should certainly know what we’re getting into when we use their services. Acknowledging the problem is the first step. Sound familiar? Well, this particular exercise has only three steps, so bear with me. Every time you see an ad, anywhere, do these three things: (1) Acknowledge the hidden message (“You are not good enough”); (2) Reject it for the manipulative lie that it is; (3) Commit yourself to love (as a healthy alternative). Acknowledge, Reject, Commit. Acknowledge, Reject, Commit.

Doing it once doesn’t change very much, but if we do it every time, every ad can become a meditation. And eventually, with enough practice, we can change our emotional diets for the better. Acknowledge, Reject, Commit. Acknowledge, Reject, Commit. How many reps can you do in a day? I’m confident you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out.
 

Brian Reindel is a the creater of Bureaucrabs.

Body Realness

In this 4th installment of our series exploring "New Male Beauty Myth," a skinny boy turned fat boy, turned not-so-fat boy struggles with self-love while being far from the “desirable” image of a man. 

Jeffrey Campbell.jpg
New Male Beauty Myth.jpg

by Jeffrey Campbell

Throughout life there is a vast array of things that come into our world. Some of these things come and go abruptly, others stay for longer periods of time and go, or they come to be known in our conscience from an early age and stay with us every day of our lives.

I remember as a child the times in which I became aware of my personality traits, my interests, my “flavor” of love, and particularly my body—the way it looked and the judgment of other people cast down upon me. I was just your everyday little boy running around, getting into whatever I could get into, and scraping my knees, blah, and blah. But by seven, however, my parents divorced and my mother moved my brothers and I back to central Washington where her family was to—in her mind—raise her three boys in a safe small town environment. Up until this point, I had never been made to feel that I was chunky, a big boy, or even remotely overweight—and I wasn’t. I was a very healthy, skinny, adorable, green-eyed, brown-haired, little boy full of bright energy. By seven, going into second grade at Mt. Stuart Elementary in Ellensburg, Washington, it all changed – physically and emotionally.

Heifer. I’ll never forget how this one word made me feel, and how it changed me as a person for a very long period. I had never heard it before and I did not know what it meant. Heifer. Heifer: a young, female cow that has not borne a calf. I was 7 the first time this word was lobbed at me like the first rock of a stoning that would continue throughout my life. “Heifer” never left me. I did not know how to deal with the emotions and pain that the teasing caused. I had no one to talk to. My parents, and remote family included, heavily drilled into my head that I was a fat fuck or a fat piece of shit. So I turned to the one thing that could not talk back: food. And boy oh boy was it a comfort.

Fast forward twelve years, I weighed a whopping—well, I honestly cannot say for sure what my exact weight was because once I got to 350 lbs., I just stopped weighing myself. But there I was, 350+ goddamn pounds of Jeffrey graduating from high school.

Fast forward another twelve years to the current star date, I am no longer that person plagued with horrible eating habits, diving into the nearest Twinkie, PB&J sandwich or Pepsi, and wallowing in my depression—and I'm over 150 lbs. lighter. Although I am happier and healthier today, there is still this constant reminder that I am not the “desirable standard” of American men. I have heard many different opinions of what is the standard of male beauty. I have made decisions about how to treat myself, how to dress, smell, act, live, eat, workout; how to act more like a traditional alpha straight man, or queen out and let all my inhibitions go out the window based on—if not in reference to—this standard. I made these decisions in my development regarding masculinity, the “male image” and what I am supposed to be based on outside factors such as: the opinion and acceptance of my father, the influences from the brothers I once was close to, and friends that I once had. I also made—subconsciously and not—decisions purely based on the overwhelming amount of advertising that is slapped all over the world by major companies telling us what is to be desired, and how and why you must fit in. Yet I continue to re-evaluated the opinion of myself and maintained that self-validation, respect, and love without letting the opinions of others whittle me down into nothingness. Trust, it is not easy, especially when you come from a family of great looking people who point out your weight in some manner or another every time you see them.

“A real man to me is one that is first and foremost loves with themselves inside and out. I admit that I struggle with this, but continue to work on it every day.”
— Jeffrey Campbell

The idea that all men are supposed to achieve the body of the “spornosexual” (A word I hate, to be honest. Merely uttering it from my mouth makes me want to vomit) is just not humanly possible. So many factors come into play here and the one you ultimately can’t mess with is genetics. I have had to create my idea of what a real man is supposed to look like on my own. Granted I did ask a lot of questions of others for their opinions, but my definition of masculinity is my own. I did not have a full-time father or male figure to guide me through this world and teach me all of the things that make a man “a man.” He was not there for the emotional complexities growing up: from puberty in my adolescence to teaching me how to tie my first tie, from my first high school dance to becoming a young male. He was there however to instill an alpha male complex as much as he could. My father took hold of this component of my upbringing as soon as he could if for no other reason than a false hope that he could change me in the straight, burly Campbell family man that he so desired. It didn’t work.

A real man to me is one that is first and foremost loves with themselves inside and out. I admit that I struggle with this, but continue to work on it every day. A real man is one that approaches everything in life with an open mind with everything that he faces – whether it be love, family, career, challenges, goals, body image, etc. He is battle-tested: not one to be easily uprooted from his confidence. He is nurturing to anyone that he comes into contact with. He is a leader – makes decisions while considering and valuing the input of others and those closest to him. He is independent; he does not need another person in his life (male or female) to be happy, but he appreciates, loves, respects and truly values another (again, this is a hard thing for me to do). He is assertive and stands up for himself. He is present, honest, and welcomes adversity because he knows his self-worth. He is not afraid to ask questions. (“Let’s pull over and ask for directions, George!”) He understands that greater happiness comes from helping others, not helping himself. A real man is humble and a true, true gentleman. A real man learns from his mistakes – but he may have to take a few cracks at it. I have made mistakes, though it takes me a bit longer to get through these learning curves. This is what makes me special, and makes me who I am.

In Harris O'Malley's “The New (And Impossible) Male Beauty Myth,” he starts his article by saying “the new standards for male beauty and how the quest to live up to them has been taking a deadly toll on men” and continues to do so. I not only agree to this heavy hitting statement but can relate to in a profound manner. I, for a period of my life, was anorexic and bulimic, as well as one of my brothers.

According to O’Malley’s, there is an overwhelming desire of American men to achieve the spornosexual's stature—having replaced the now apparently “dead” metrosexual – which is supreme in beauty and epitomizes the masculinity desired by most of America. To this observation I personally would disagree. Humankind’s constant evolving physical and emotional attractions to all characteristics of another person are so fluid and ever-changing. I love and am endeared to every kind of shape, size and color of human being on this earth – most of all men. If I had to face this world like a scene from a version of Clone Wars where every gay man I have to interface with was the spornosexual – I would honestly put a bullet in my head.

Everyone live life as they see fit. As O’Malley said in his closing and I will follow suit: “Be fit, sure. Be healthy. But fit and healthy – just like beauty – comes in more than one shape.”

 

Jeffrey Campbell is a 30-year-old, born and raised Washington native. Currently residing in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle, he is one of six children. His true goal is simply to be happy.