Archive for the ‘LGBT’ Category

So you may have already heard about Tom Coburn’s chief of staff, Mike Schwartz, declaring that all porn is actually gay porn; I heard it first from Sir Charles at Cogitamus:

all pornography is homosexual pornography because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards. Now think about that. And if you, if you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he’s going to want to go out and get a copy of Playboy? I’m pretty sure he’ll lose interest. That’s the last thing he wants.” You know, that’s a, that’s a good comment. It’s a good point and it’s a good thing to teach young people.

(More from Sir Charles here; Amanda at Pandagon and Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet also give it the drubbing it deserves.)

Sir Charles suggests that the generational decrease in homophobia is great enough that many if not most young teens won’t be so easily deterred by calling porn gay. I agree. I’ve noticed a very significant shift in men’s attitudes toward homosexuality among the students I teach. They’re increasingly live-and-let-live about other people’s orientation, and this lets them feel more secure about their own desires. Just today, my intro class discussed this in connection with the rise of the bromance movie. Compared to guys I taught five years ago, my current male students are comfortable getting closer and more physical with their guy friends – although, as one male student hastened to add, “Not too close!” Okay, so they’re not yet perfectly secure, but hey, change takes time.

Schwartz’s argument is also ludicrous because really, he’s implying that all solo sex is homosexual. That objection probably wouldn’t faze him, because I’m willing to bet that Schwartz is also officially anti-masturbation. (What he does in private is a whole ‘nother question, and given the family values crowd’s track record on sexual hypocrisy, we can’t rule out his harboring a secret kink or two.)

Of course Schwartz’s argument is silly. But for a while I’ve thought that any porn that shows M/F couples has potentially homoerotic elements. (Note: my argument below is directed only toward visual material showing both a man and a woman; I’m not addressing fake lesbian scenes or actual gay porn.) Where else but in porn do straight men routinely watch other naked, aroused men? I understand that the viewer is intended to identify with the male porn star or imagine that the female lead might prefer the viewer over the actor; hence the prevalence of money shots and the transcendent ugliness of Ron Jeremy. I don’t doubt that such identification occurs.

Even so, imagining oneself taking the place of the male actor doesn’t nullify porn’s homoerotic elements. First, there’s its visual language. The simple fact that men have an outie and women have an innie makes the man’s genitals easier to photograph than the woman’s. And so they’re apt to loom large, even if they’re of average size (which Ron Jeremy is not, and boy, that’s a sight I’d have rather left unseen). Close-ups of blowjobs showcase an aroused cock and … a part of a woman’s anatomy that’s visible every day, an entirely public feature: her mouth. Of course, you also see her expressions of faked ecstasy, which only serve to underscore that only one participant is definitely aroused. Even in footage of intercourse, the cameramen have to work hard to find angles that show the ladyparts as clearly as the manparts.

Then there’s the structure porn creates: a lone male viewer symbolically occupies the third position in a threesome. It’s not, however, the threesome with two women that quite a few men readily admit to fantasizing about. It’s a threesome involving two guys. Now, my life is dull enough that I’ve never experienced either of those scenarios personally, so I’m relying on second-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve read,  straight men are typically less enthusiastic about a threesome involving another man – if they’re not entirely put off by it – and of those who try it, many try to avoid contact with the other man’s genitals. I know that some men do consider an MMF threesome a hot scenario, and bisexual men wouldn’t be so squeamish about other men’s genitals, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Finally, there’s the social setting in which men watch porn. Most often, they’re alone, and some watch with a female partner. Sometimes, though, they watch it together with other men. I understand this is supposed to be an exercise in male bonding, but again, what does it mean to watch material meant to arouse you while in strictly homosocial company?

Luce Irigaray’s essay, “Commodities among Themselves,” suggests one answer. She theorizes that the exchange of women as commodities – be they as wives, mothers, or prostitutes – serves to cement bonds among men, and those bonds harbor a homoerotic element that must be repressed:

The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defers its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself, of relations among men.

(Luce Irigarary, “Commodities among Themselves,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 172. The creative spelling of “hom(m)o-sexuality” is a play on words in the French, where “homme” means “man” or “husband.”)

Certainly, industrial pornography commodifies women. It commodifies men, too, though the fact that female porn actors vastly out-earn the men suggests that the main wares are in fact female – if that’s not already evident from the fact that straight-identified men are its main consumers. Applying Irigaray’s framework, pornography is one more area where repressed homosexuality and homosociality are at once enacted and denied through the commodification of women.

So no, I’m not at all suggesting, along with Mike Schwartz, that pornography turns boys and men gay. What intrigues me is a more subtle idea: that heterosexual porn featuring M/F couples allows male viewers to indulge possible homoerotic impulses even as it confirms their orientation as unimpeachably straight. I’m not saying, either, that all purportedly straight men are actually gay or strongly bisexual. I’m just speculating that porn offers a culturally safe place for any repressed homoerotic impulses to take flight, perhaps on an unconscious (and thus unverifiable) level. In order to feel “safe,” though, any such impulses have to be instantly repressed again; and so, instead of dismantling homophobia, the homoeroticism in straight MF porn ultimately reinforces it.

I could be wrong – there’s a good chance of that whenever I drag Luce Irigaray into a discussion! Plus I obviously can’t inhabit a man’s body and feel what he feels when he views porn. So I’m keen to know  what other folks make of this.

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My son the Tiger is lefthanded. He’s getting pretty good at invented spelling, which our teachers stress in kindergarten and the first grade. His classmates’ writing is often tricky to decipher, but the Tiger’s requires skills in cryptography. Or a mirror. Because if he’s not prompted otherwise, he’ll write right-to-left and produce a perfect mirror image. Just like Leonardo da Vinci!

If the Tiger had been born 30 or 40 years earlier, none of us would have been amused. His teachers probably would have beaten his lefthandedness out of him, probably quite literally. His mirror writing – a skill linked to lefthandedness – would have been cause for discipline, not fond amusement. His late talking, which I think has to do with the Tiger’s brain being wired differently than most, would have branded him as stupid. This is exactly what happened to his uncle in the early 1960s.

I can’t help but see a parallel between the persecution of lefthanders, which is now unthinkable, and the barbaric treatment of intersex children today. In both cases, the bodies of very young children are forced to fit a rigid norm. In both cases, kids’ lives were distorted and their sense of self irrevocably harmed in an attempt to shoehorn them into society’s expectations.

Obviously the analogy has its limits. Sex is binary and dichotomous; there are “two right answers.” Handedness is either right … or wrong. More seriously, the physical damage wrought by infant surgeries is irreversible. The psychic and developmental scars once routinely imposed on lefthanders can be irreversible, too, but there’s at least the possibility of undoing them through therapy and time. The Tiger’s uncle started to stutter as a result of being forced to write with his right hand, and he struggled in school, but as an adult he went back to school and has built a vibrant career.

On the other hand (so to speak), the analogy offers hope, too. I don’t know of any Western society where lefthandness is still demonized (though we still see vestiges of this in such terms as “lefthanded compliment” or “sinister”). If we can leave behind our rigid thinking about hand preference in a generation, we just might be able to do the same with intersex conditions. Maybe I’m an optimistic fool but I can see how lefthandedness is correlated with some pretty cool qualities in my son: freewheeling creativity and a talent for drawing, math, and music. I certainly don’t expect the Tiger to be Leonardo incarnate, but seeing his gifts, I can’t get too worked up about his quirky use of pronouns or his insistence on making all verbs regular. I’m hopeful that we can gain a similar appreciation for persons who just happen to be born intersex.

Darned if I know how this relates to the current uproar around the runner Caster Semenya, who was found to have undescended testes instead of ovaries. Odds are pretty high that she has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which would mean her body can’t actually make much use of her high testosterone levels; more likely, it’s almost all converted to estrogen. I’m not a huge sports fan and I don’t know how international sporting authorities should deal with intersex athletes. I just know that I’d rather live in a world in which her gifts are recognized and celebrated, instead of one where she’s treated like a freak and her medical information is publicized even before she’s informed of her test results.

Update, 9/13/09, noon: Based on comments, I can see that I took an overly rosy view of how far we’ve come in revaluing lefthandedness. Apparently there’s lots of variations in how it’s treated. I don’t know this for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those locations where it’s still discouraged also go in for corporal punishment in the schools and general, all-around conformity. Also, one point I should have made in the original post is that the shame attached to being intersex also partakes of the shame that’s still associated with genitalia, and so it’s going to be more resistant to change.

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Sometimes I’m mystified at what gets picked up and treated seriously even by bloggers and scholars I respect. Earlier this week, Courtney Martin at Feministing mentioned a post by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/Pen. Virginia Rutter is a smart, serious scholar. But I wasn’t convinced by this post, where she argues that monogamy is on the rise even as couples are talking more about potential affairs:

Are people really having less sex? Well, at the very least, it looks like they are having less sex outside of their committed relationships, according to a new study written up in Scientific American. But it also looks like people may be making up for having less sex outside of committed relationships by talking about it more. And that is good news for sex.

First the news: In each category surveyed—gay, lesbian, straight—people report fewer affairs now than in the 1970s. Everybody has changed in terms of monogamy: gay men do it (where do it means doing non-monogamy) 59% now versus 82% in the 1970s. Nowadays, straight men do it less—14%. Meanwhile, 13% of straight women and 8% of lesbians do it. As we keep seeing again and again in recent surveys on monogamy, women—lesbian and straight—still report fewer affairs than their male counterparts, but they are catching up with the boys, as UW psychologist David Atkins has shown. On the one hand, affairs overall may be on the decline because of STDS and the like; on the other hand, women may be catching up because they have greater autonomy and economic independence.

That is all interesting, but this is also potentially good news for wild, free-for-all sex. The investigators from Alliant International University in San Francisco showed that over the same period people have also increased how much they talk to their partners about the idea of sex outside of their relationship. (What’s happening in those conversations, report these psychologists, is that they are talking about outside liaisons, and deciding against them.)

But the other discovery here is about the talking. Increasingly, this study hints, people are talking about the notion of sex outside their relationship–talking about forbidden, off-the-approved-roster sex with someone who isn’t an official or legal sweetheart–even if in the end they decide against it. Conversations like that—no matter what the outcome—mean that more and more people are acknowledging, countenancing, and admitting that they and their partners are completely capable of having sexual fantasies about someone other than their official one. We all know that being in a committed relationship doesn’t change our brain structure and doesn’t stop a great, diverse sexual imagination about all manner of things, people, and situations. But when people don’t talk about it, they have to tell one another lies, and pretend like their fantasies don’t exist.

So, maybe people are saying no to the reality of sex with their hot new colleague, but if they are saying yes to a conversation about it with their partner, it might mean that those partners will be better at dreaming up their own edgier, more interesting sex. And, by the way, in a world where women have greater sexual freedom to have affairs, they also have greater freedom to acknowledge desire and have conversations about it that can lead to fewer affairs.

(I’ve reprinted the whole thing so as not to distort her argument.)

This is a utopian vision, isn’t it? People are actually communicating about sex, women’s desires are being legitimized, and everyone is having hotter sex while treating their partners with more integrity?

I don’t want to be a party-pooper. I respect Virginia Rutter immensely. When I teach about sexuality, I rely partly on the work she’s done with Pepper Schwartz. But, nerd that I am, I went to the Scientific American piece – and what I found there looked considerably less utopian.

First, the data compare a survey from 1975 to one conducted in 2000. The latest data in the comparison are thus nearly a decade old. They don’t represent “now.” Sure, there’s always a lag time between research and publication, but this one is a doozy.

What we’re seeing is not a new trend by any means. We’re simply seeing the impact of fear of AIDS. Both Rutter and the Scientific American article note the effect of STIs, but neither discusses the chronology. I’m only guessing, but I’m pretty confident that if comparable data were available from 1990, they’d look a lot like the figures from 2000. The headline in Scientific American, “Monogamy Is All the Rage These Days,” makes it sound like we’re at the bleeding edge of a new trend. That might be true on a geological scale; otherwise, not so much.

But maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly old historian, insisting we get the chronology right? Maybe the real story is that people are talking about affairs with their partners, yet deciding not to stray? Here’s what Scientific American said on that point:

It’s worth pointing out, however, that [in 2000] 43.7 percent of those gay men said they “discussed sex outside the relationship and decided that under some circumstances it is all right.” Only 5 percent of lesbians and about 3.5 percent of straight couples had a similar agreement. Again, all groups report many fewer of these open relationships than they did in 1975, when about 20 percent of straight couples, 34 percent of lesbians and nearly 68 percent of gay men agreed to forgo monogamy.

And the percentage of couples who are decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship—they discussed extra-partnership sex and decided that “under no circumstances is it alright”—just about doubled in every group (from around 43 percent in 1975 to around 80 percent in 2000) except in gay men, among whom it more than tripled (13 to 44 percent). “It was surprising to us that in all groups, the trend is toward monogamy,” said Gabrielle Gotta, lead author of the study.

(The rest is here.)

Unfortunately, there’s no link to the original study, and perhaps Rutter was privy to more information than Scientific American provides. But assuming this précis is accurate, it doesn’t even hint that Gotta and her colleagues discovered ongoing conversations about desires and fantasies. Instead, they found that people decided that extra-partnership sex was not okay. Ever. That sounds to me much more like a one-time agreement, likely struck early in the relationship. It doesn’t sound like constant negotiation and communication, much less sharing fantasies about hot co-workers.

In fact, though I realize some people get off on swapping fantasies about specific people, I’m not at all convinced that this is a recipe for spicing up sex in most long-term relationships. Fantasies are one thing; fantasies about a specific, flesh-and-blood individual are quite another. Such “extra-partnership” fantasies are liable to evoke jealousy. They can be used manipulatively, to stoke insecurities and keep one’s partner in line. People who are committed to polyamory often still struggle with jealousy. What happens to a couple who are “decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship” when one of them discloses daydreams about an affair? Will this heat up their sex life? Or will it just plant the seeds of suspicion?

So yeah, it would be wonderful if none of us felt jealousy. It would be even better if we could freely communicate our desires and fantasies without fear of being judged or hurting our partners. But that’s not the world we live in – and nothing in the description of this new study suggests we’ve edged much closer to a utopia of freewheeling desires.

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Last fall, the topic of girls kissing girls for boys’ jollies came up in one of my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies sections. I’m still perplexed at how we landed there on the very first day of class, but hey, there we were. So I asked the group, which was about 90% freshmen, how many of them had seen girls kiss girls at parties just to titillate the guys.

Each and every one of my 40 students raised their hands. For me, it was one of those moments where the students school the teacher. Srsly.

I think I had the presence of mind to ask how many had seen two guys kiss for the same reason. (Zero hands? It’s a blur, I was a bit shellshocked.) In the moment I really could have used this video:

via Sociological Images, posted with vodpod

I was struck most by the scene from Grey’s Anatomy, where the odious and (in my view) perfectly unsexy Dr. McSteamy personifies the male gaze. Very soon thereafter, Callie traded in her oh-so-slightly-butch lover, Dr. Erica Hahn, for a frilly, chirpy gal in pediatrics.

I’d like to rewrite all these scenes with Homer Simpson as the spectator. Then we might be able to talk seriously about the level of dipshittery required for women to use other women to snag a man, who is in turn manipulated by a total cliche. It’s a whole universe of userdom for both genders, where women’s real desires are subordinated to the purely transactional, and the man is believed to be about as bright as … well, Homer Simpson.

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Hint: One thing intersectionality is not? Silly.**

Here’s what intersectionality is good for. It reminds us that the same person can be both an oppressed person and an oppressor, depending on how you turn the prism. I might be oppressed as a woman, but if I refuse to pay my housecleaner a decent wage? I’m an oppressor. If I fail to teach my kids that same-sex love is just as groovy as hetero pairings? I’m an oppressor. If I reject the term “cisgendered” because I’d rather just see myself as the norm? I’m an oppressor.

So that’s the first area where intersectionality is useful: It reminds us that we aren’t the only people to face some sort of systematic disadvantage. I might not be on the front lines of other people’s struggles, but I can educate myself, try to be an ally, and at the very least try not to undermine them. I’ll surely fail, because we’re all caught in complicated webs of power/knowledge, we’re all shaped by our upbringing, and we often can’t see our own blind spots. But I’ll fail less egregiously than if I hadn’t tried.

Also, intersectionality points out how different oppressions don’t fit neatly into in separate little boxes. Apostate writes:

If and when my race and gender do “intersect” and I’m jointly oppressed under BOTH headers, I still look at them as separate offenses. He was both a racist AND a sexist to me. The two oppressions don’t somehow meld together to give a unique picture of oppression. There is simply more than one thing going on.

I’m sure this is true of her own experience, but I’m equally certain that it doesn’t describe everyone’s position. Often when two oppressions intersect, each changes the qualitative experience of the other. For example, a statement like “all women are harmed by rape” might seem unproblematic to a white woman. A black woman, however, might be leery of what the statement doesn’t mention – the racialized history of rape, which includes the lynchings of black men on threadbare suspicions of raping white women, and the myth of the black rapist – and how that history has harmed men she loves. Women of color have been directly victimized by rape, to be sure, but they’ve also been indirectly by the cynical use of “rape” as a pretext for harming the men of their community.

Apostate and the post she cites (by Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes) mention two substantitve reasons for doubting the usefulness of intersectionality. They are: the existence of individual circumstances, and the complexity of understanding multiple variables (or axes of oppression). These are legitimate and important concerns, but neither is fatal to intersectionality as concept or method.

First, Apostate and Suzie note that each individual experiences the intersection of oppressions in potentially unique ways. Patricia Hill Collins’ work on intersectionality actually addresses this point. Collins maps oppression onto three dimensions (which she borrows from Sandra Harding): 1) institutional (which includes government agencies, corporations, schools, churches, etc.), 2) symbolic (which is basically the realm of culture and language), and 3) individual (which asks how deeply each person internalizes oppressive ideas). Any of these dimensions can be sites of resistance as well as of oppression. At the individual level, a strong family member, teacher, or mentor can do a lot to mitigate the internalization of oppression.

But recognizing individual variation needn’t obscure the big patterns. Suzie worries that intersectionality, applied like a cookie cutter, can rob women of being seen as individuals living in very particular circumstances, with bad results for the delivery of essential services:

I agree that DV [domestic violence] counselors need to understand why some women don’t want to call the police. But if they assume all WOC [women of color] will be hesitant, they may deny them options or support. Also, some poor whites have little use for the police, and some poor white women don’t want to report abusers either. Ditto for some white immigrant women. Other variables include women of any race whose abusers work for, or have connections to, law enforcement, and WOC who live in areas where the police share their ethnicity. All in all, it seems like the best DV programs consider different options for different clients, without assuming one model works for white women and another for WOC.

(More from Suzie here.)

However, it’s quite possible to be aware of a general pattern of mistrust – or several general patterns, as Suzie outlines – without assuming blindly that the pattern holds true in every individual case. There will always be individual variations as well as stark outliers. Any social worker (or theorist!) worth her salt will be sensitive to those variations. The broad patterns that intersectional analysis identifies are only a starting point for further analysis or action; they’re not meant to be the end of the line.

The second objection is that analysis becomes impossible when you try to include multiple variables. It’s absolutely true that analysis becomes substantially more complex with the addition of each variable. The trick is to try to identify which dimensions are most relevant in a given set of circumstances. For sexual assault, race is definitely important, as I just noted; social class and/or sexual orientation might also be relevant. For instance, when I teach the introduction to women’s and gender studies, I make sure that race was highlighted (we’ve got a largely white student body, so they won’t always come up with this on their own) and then I let them raise other concerns. How does a poor versus affluent neighborhood affect one’s fear of rape? Who is “one” in that scenario – a resident of a poor area, or a well-heeled person passing through? How do heterosexual assumptions affect rape myths? Usually, their questions eventually explore enough different axes that they add up to an intersectional analysis. It will be imperfect, but it’ll be better-rounded than if we’d only stuck to their own personal perspective of whether to walk home alone from the library after midnight. The process is also iterative for me, as a teacher; in the months ahead, I’m hoping to do a more thorough job of drawing out (dis)ability and the special vulnerabilities of transpeople to sexualized violence.

Intersectionality is also important in my research. In my dissertation, race wasn’t a very important axis, because Germany was racially (though not ethnically) homogeneous in the 1920s, and race didn’t affect women’s experiences of childbirth. Religion and migratory status (usually, from countryside to city) mattered very crucially. The category of religion captured differences between Jewish women and others, though in many ways Jewish and Protestant women had more in common with each other than with Catholics. Exploring these different axes wasn’t just an expression of my commitment to feminist methodology. It was also the only way to write a social and cultural history of pregnancy that didn’t grossly overgeneralize or erase the experience of the most disadvantaged women. (That prismatic view also resulted in the monstrosity that no advisor encourages: a two-volume thesis. Gulp.)

So while I think that the concerns Apostate and Suzie raised about intersectionality are reasonable, they don’t invalidate intersectionality as a useful way to look at the world. Intersectionality certainly doesn’t render feminism powerless and infinitely splintered. Rather, it gives us a way to forge real alliances with other women; bonds that don’t depend on effacing our differences.

Really, the need to grapple with differences goes back to Audre Lorde’s classic formulation:

The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all people to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation and suspicion….these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

(Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” – no link, but if you google a phrase, you can find more in various Google Books.)

You might add: a single lens will never let you view the master’s house in its entirety. And so intersectionality offers a prism, which is dizzying and bewildering at times, but promises we can edge closer to truths, which will always be partial in all senses of the word.

** And Apostate, I absolutely don’t think you’re silly, but this is one time I disagreed with the more flippant part of your analysis, even while I appreciated your more considered points.

Update 7/15/09: While I was finishing up thie post, C.L. Minou posted some reflections on kyriarchy, oppression, and Bastille Day, which, um, intersects interestingly with my post. Plus she’s got a very cool animated image of a tesseract, which you don’t want to miss.

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A few weeks ago, in comments on my post critiquing the term “sex class,Lisa Harney and Sunflower both prodded me to think and write more about transgender issues. While I feel like I need to keep offering disclaimers that I’m no expert in this area, I just read something that’s so obviously disrespectful toward trans people that I’m going to stick my neck out and say: hey! this is plain wrong.

In a list of “10 Reasons to Suspect You’re Not the Fun Kind of Feminist (Part I),” redmegaera writes:

6. You don’t describe yourself as being “cisgendered” and you are a woman who hasn’t had and doesn’t plan to have sex-reassignment surgery, hormone injections or a double mastectomy for cosmetic reasons.

Although I realize that the “10 reasons” format is intended to mark the post as humorous, I’m going to succumb to the old humorless-feminist stereotype and say: That’s not funny!

As Lisa Harney writes at Questioning Transphobia, the term cisgendered is intended to shake up the norm and highlight a privilege that often goes unnoticed (by those who are privileged enough to do so, that is):

Cis is a neutral term applied to people who aren’t trans. It’s intended to decenter the notion that not being trans is the natural, default state for human beings and that being trans is a deviation, and that trans people are other.

(This is part of Lisa’s longer explanation of why it’s not okay for cisgendered people to reject being labeled as such.)

I don’t describe myself as being “cisgendered” every day, but I realize that the term describes what I am and so I’m happy to claim it. I was born with female organs, I’m comfortable with being called a woman, I appear reasonably feminine despite my incompetence with nail polish, and so I don’t experience any dissonance between my anatomy, my gender presentation, and the way the world views me. That’s a big ole privilege.

Now, back to redmegaera’s list. Just to clear up any possible misunderstaning, the term “fun feminist” is not a compliment. It’s a term that some self-described radical feminists use to question the seriousness of people whose flavor of feminism differs from theirs. I suspect I qualify as a “fun feminist” by dint of being an unapologetic heterosexual who paints her toenails, however sloppily. I don’t much care if someone wants to impugn me for being too fun. Still, I can afford not to care only because I’m privileged in multiple ways. I’m white, middle-class, heterosexual, educated, and yes, cisgendered. More importantly, my relative imperviousness doesn’t change the intent behind the term: to denigrate and insult.

Similarly, calling sex-reassignment surgery “cosmetic” trivializes the embodied experience of trans people. Those who pursue such surgery aren’t just trying to conform to some beauty ideal. They’re hoping to achieve some congruence between body and self – perhaps greater integration of body and self. However far this particular form of embodied dysphoria may be from my personal experience, I can still understand and empathize with the need to feel at home in one’s body. This seems like such an obvious point that I’m almost sheepish about making it. Yet it obviously needs to be said.

Also: Surgery, for whatever purpose, is never fun. Mocking people for needing it? Not my idea of fun, either.

Finally, here’s yet another ought-to-be-obvious point: Trans people’s rights are one facet of human rights, and they’re important to defend because every human being matters equally. However, on a more selfish level, feminists who reject the trappings of traditional femininity also have a personal stake in trans people’s rights, whether they recognize it or not. A world in which trans people can be murdered on account of their gender is also a world where “a fat, ugly, unfeminine, hairy-legged man-hating dyke” (#7 on redmegaera’s list) is also at physical risk. Radical feminists who feel no fellowship with trans people should still be able to see how transphobia harms their own interests. And maybe – just maybe – that could stir the beginnings of real empathy. (I’m not holding my breath, though.)

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The evening after Prop. 8 was upheld, I went out to dinner with my family at China Panda. The food there is pretty good, but the TVs that are mounted on the wall are a distraction, even with the sound off. The last time I’d been there, Dick Cheney’s snarling mug was befouling the ambience. (I can haz undisclosed location, pleez?) This evening, the headlines were all about Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment and Prop. 8.

The Bear, who’s now nine and a half, wanted to know about Sotomayor. Why was this such a big deal? Why were the Republicans already so riled up?

“Well, she stands for fairness and equality for all people, sweetie, including women and minorities.”

“But isn’t that a good thing? Why would they be against that?” The Bear has no mercy when it comes to illogic and unfairness. If he hadn’t gotten stuck on the Republicans, he might have noticed how the subtitle on CNN was behaving no better than the Repubs. “Sotomayor: negotiator or liberal activist?” Um, as even the Tiger knows at age five, one of these things is not like the other. I think my boys need to school Lou Dobbs.

Then the Bear wanted to know what was going on in California. He’d been paying just enough attention to be confused. “Didn’t they just say boys could marry boys in California?” So I explained the original California Supreme Court decision and how Prop. 8 reversed it. “But that’s not fair, Mama! What’s going to happen to the people who are already married?” This, with a wrinkle of his freckled nose and a withering glare at the decision’s obvious unfairness.

I’d like to stop and brag now about our wonderfully progressive parenting. But actually, that would be an exaggeration. All we’ve done is explain matter-of-factly that in the past, some groups of people haven’t had full rights, and lately that’s starting to change. My husband and I let our kids know that we believe in fairness, kindness, and generosity. But I’m skeptical that those values can be indoctrinated. They can only be modeled. Most days, we do our imperfect best.

In the end, I don’t want two little clones of me. That would be awful! I just want kids who see the world with a wealth of empathy. If they do that, we’ll still squabble about details, I’m sure, but we’ll agree on the important stuff.

Perhaps more crucially, our kids are growing up in a changing society where it’s just normal to know same-sex couples. They have a lesbian aunt. In the Bear’s grade level at his school, there are two families each headed by two women. It seems bizarre to kids that some of their friends’ parents aren’t allowed to get married. My kids aren’t oddities; I think they’re part of a growing norm that’ll embrace all sexualities and all family forms.

This is why the right wing can bloviate all it likes. And the days ahead promise to be ugly indeed, as the SCOTUS confirmation hearings heat up. It can marshal racism and sexism against a nominee who has more experience than any of the current justices had upon their nomination. It can try to scare people with homophobic TV ads crying “what about the children?”

Yeah, what about those children? It’s already too late. They’re growing up into a world – they’re helping make a world – where only fringe groups will openly espouse inequality and hate. Where anything other than equal protection will just seem weird and mean.

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Wow. As Salon’s War Room reports, Theodore Olson – who represented Bush in Bush v. Gore and served as Solicitor General under Bush – has teamed up with the opposing attorney from Bush v. Gore, David Boies. As if that weren’t weird enough, they’re both fighting for marriage equality! On behalf of two couples (one lesbian, one gay), they’re petitioning a federal court to overturn Proposition 8.

But here’s where the weirdness turns to coolness: They hope to take this challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. Their intent is apparently to set a federal precedent that would require marriage equality in all states by declaring all other arrangements unconstitutional.

Their argument? Equal protection! If both Ted Olson and I agree on it, can it possibly be wrong?

Here’s how they put it in their complaint:

More than 30 years, ago, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that “[m]arriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967). But today, as a result of the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008, the State of California denies its gay and lesbian residents access to marriage by providing in its constitution that only a civil marriage “between a man and a woman” is “valid or recognized in California.” Cal. Const. Art. I § 7.5 (“Prop. 8”). Instead, California relegates same-sex unions to the separate-but unequal institution of domestic partnership. See Cal. Fam. Code §§ 297–299.6. This unequal treatment of gays and lesbians denies them the basic liberties and equal protection under the law that are guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. …

This action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeks (1) a declaration that Prop. 8, which denies gay and lesbian individuals the opportunity to marry civilly and enter into the same officially sanctioned family relationship with their loved ones as heterosexual individuals, is unconstitutional under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution …

(The full complaint is here in pdf form.)

I teared up when I read this. I loved their invocation of Loving v. Virginia, which is more than just an assertion of the right to marry as a basic civil right; it suggests a parallel with the right to marry across lines of color or race. Whether or not that parallel works legally, it sure resonates emotionally.

If this case really does go all the way to the SCOTUS and if the plaintiffs prevail, it could do for marriage equality what Roe v. Wade did for abortion rights. That’s both good and bad. The negative is that there would surely be a public backlash against a decision imposed by judicial fiat, as there was after Roe. But that’s no reason to hesitate. The backlash is doomed to extinction. Young people already support marriage equality in overwhelming numbers. There’s no reason for today’s couples to wait another generation until public opinion catches up with basic fairness.

Update 1, 9 p.m., 5/28/09: Via Unrepentant Hippie, here’s an actual lawyer, John Dean, discussing the outlook for this approach on Keith Olberman’s show. Dean agrees that constitutionally, equal protection ought to guarantee marriage equality. However, he cautions that other supporters of it haven’t gone to the Supreme Court because it’s by no means certain how they’d rule. I’m afraid it’ll all come down to Justice Kennedy again, and that’s not reassuring.

Update 2, 10 p.m., 5/28/09: Pam Spaulding has a wonderfully nuanced discussion of Olson and Boies’ case, which pro-marriage equality legal scholars seem to consider a highly risky strategy. All the more reason to wish that the equal protection argument had been more seriously pushed at the level of the California Supreme Court.

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On this day when Prop 8 was allowed to stand in California, I’m torn between the very abstract and the very concrete. The abstractions are what we’ll need to win this struggle, eventually – legal strategies that don’t depend on whim and prejudice, and that don’t let a minority bully a majority. The concrete level – well, that’s why the strategies matter, and why I’m fuming about it.

To my mind, the killer legal argument for why gay marriage ought to be legal is the Equal Protection Clause of the federal constitution. It ought to invalidate the federal DOMA and all the nasty state mini-DOMAs. It’s pretty short and simple: “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Its interpretation has been more complicated, because the Supreme Court has denied its most stringent protections to groups other than racial and religious ones. But Sandra Day O’Connor invoked it in Lawrence v. Texas without arguing that homosexuals constituted a group requiring greater legal scrunity scrutiny (a so-called suspect class). She just pointed out that it was unfair to deny right of privacy in the bedroom on the basis of sexual orientation.

As far as my little non-lawyerly brain understands it, the California Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage relied on the state constitution’s version of an equal protection clause. Its decision today was purely on the procedural issue of whether the law required more than a simple majority to amend the state constitution to bar same-sex marriage. As far as I understand, it didn’t address the equal protection issue at all; this was never at stake.

And I don’t understand why, because last fall anti-Prop 8 lawyers were still talking about equal protection, although they were already zeroing in on that narrower procedural strategy. Here’s what Karen Ocamb reported at Alternet:

“Prop. 8, if it passes, conflicts with the equal protection clause (in the California Constitution),” [attorney Gloria] Allred said at an afternoon news conference in her Los Angeles office on Wednesday. “We will argue to the court that Prop. 8 is a disguised revision to the constitution which cannot be imposed by the ordinary amendment process, which only requires a simple majority. We believe that then the court must hold that California may not issue marriage licenses to non-gay couples because if it does, it would be violating the equal protection clause as straight couple would have more rights, by being allowed to marry, than gay couples.”

Maybe this is where my non-lawyerness seduces me into fatal error, but I don’t understand why the arguments were apparently so narrow. Why didn’t equal protection emerge as the central issue?

The thing I love about the equal protection argument is that it’s not just a legal formality. It’s not just strongly rooted in the constitution. It appeals to Americans’ better angels. Who among us is willing to stand up against simple fairness? (Well, apparently quite a few, but let’s ignore NOM and its ilk for a moment.) They totally get this in Iowa, for crying out loud! How much more heartlandish can it get?

GayMarriagePieFrom GraphJam, via Renee at Womanist Musings.

All these abstract arguments matter fiercely, because real people’s lives are being sabotaged by inequality. Last winter, after Prop 8 passed, I got back in touch with a college friend via Facebook of all things. We managed to catch up on the big things that had happened in our lives – and those that hadn’t – which, in his case, was a wedding. He and his partner live in LA. They’d hoped to get their act together for a summer ceremony. But it felt rushed and it was hard to find a date when all the relatives could fly in from Kansas and beyond, and so they decided to wait until they could have the wedding they’d imagined.

Now they’re stuck. If they’d done the deed last summer, their marriage would stand. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that the court didn’t annul the 18,000 existing marriages.) I fully realize that he and his partner are only one couple and the struggle for equality is much bigger than just marriage. But dang, I’ve been thinking about them all afternoon, feeling sad and angry.

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I realize Easter isn’t about the incarnation of Jesus, it’s about his death and resurrection. But honestly, Good Friday has always seemed so brutal to me, I get stuck on the story of his suffering and never arrive at the empty tomb. I’m too creeped out by the cruelty.

So even if it’s unseasonal, I’d rather dwell on this idea of incarnation. On Epiphany, I wrote about how much I love the idea that we all have divine potential – that we all have a spark of the divine within us. Now, having dabbled in womanist theology for my Religion, Gender, and Sexuality class last quarter, I’ve come to realize that the incarnation isn’t just a lovely idea. It’s key to transforming Christianity into a religion that would be sex-positive and free of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity.

I grew up in a pretty progressive denomination (the United Church of Christ), but even so, I remember hearing far more about Jesus-as-God than about Jesus-as-human. His miracles and perfection totally overwhelmed the idea that he was also fully human. Sure, when he was a kid he disobeyed his parents to sit at the feet of the rabbis, but we don’t hear about him sassing Joseph and Mary or getting blisters on his feet from all his travels or enjoying the water he turned into wine.

What would change if we take the incarnation literally and seriously? In Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective, Kelly Brown Douglas aruges that a great many social and personal wounds can be healed by embracing the idea that Jesus was wholly embodied. If he inhabited his flesh just as we mere humans do, then we have to regard our bodies as the temple and vehicle of God’s love. She suggests that black Christians can contest the Western tradition of body-spirit dualism by drawing on African traditions that see no contradiction between flesh and divinity.

Douglas defines “passion” not just in terms of Good Friday (geez, I can’t quite avoid it, can I?) but also as a deep commitment and enthusiasm that nourishes and celebrates life. God’s passion, she says, encompasses both suffering and ardent love/commitment to life; human passion is a divine energy that compels us toward life-affirming activities. Sexuality is not the only vehicle for expressing this passion, but it’s a very important one because it’s a sphere of life that depends wholly on our embodiment.

In her womanist theology, Douglas outlines the anti-racist implications of revaluing the body and sexuality. It can help counter vicious stereotypes that portray black men as violently hypersexual and black women as either sexless mammies or treacherous jezebels. By valorizing sexuality as a gift from God, her theology also undermines the marginalization of LGBT people in Christian churches.

As a white woman, I don’t want to facilely co-opt her arguments, which are rooted in black Christian traditions. And yet, there’s no question that dualism has been wielded against women of all colors. Denigration of the body has helped prop up sexism and heterosexism.

As someone who went to a German-American brunch today instead of attending church, I don’t have a personal stake in reforming Christianity. But maybe even we hopeful agnostics can find comfort and inspiration in the idea that our bodies and sexuality can express something greater than our own little selves? Maybe even we secular humanists can see our embodiment as a miraculous gift?

Does the very improbability of our embodiment put us in the realm of miracles and wonders? Just in statistical terms, the chances of my existing are infinitesimal. Unitarian theologian Forrest Church addresses this eloquently:

Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.

(The whole essay – which Church wrote after learning he’d been stricken with a highly aggressive form of cancer – is powerful and moving; you can read it here in Stanford Magazine.)

In the face of those odds, you can still reject the idea of supernatural design; you can embrace a scientific, reality-based view of the world. And I do. That doesn’t diminish my wonder and awe in the slightest. Our flesh and our consciousness are still great gifts, even if I don’t posit an Almighty Giver who bestowed them on me. And we can still celebrate them in this season of rebirth.

eastereggsEaster eggs dyed by mostly by the Bear and the Tiger, with a little help from their parents.

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Did you know that universities are subverting the minds of America’s young people by turning them into godless socialists? Dr. Mike S. Adams, a professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is dispensing advice at Townhall to a father who is distraught about his daughter coming home with scary new leftist ideas. Jeff Fecke (h/t) has already taken down Dr. Mike bit-by-wingnutty-bit – including his coinage of the oh-so-clever acronym STD for “Socialist Teaching Disorder.” I just want to zoom in on one little piece of Dr. Mike’s take on university life:

First of all, I want you to understand that many of the crazy ideas you hear your daughter espousing are commonplace on college campuses. Nonetheless, it must have been shocking for you to hear that she supported Barack Obama in the last election principally because of his ideas about “the redistribution of wealth.” I know you were also disappointed to hear of her sudden opposition to the War on Terror and her sudden embrace of the United Nations. Most of all, I know you are disappointed that she has stopped going to church altogether.

Now that your daughter is not going to church it will be easier to get her to accept other policies based on economic and cultural Marxism. Socialist professors like the fact that average church attendance drops dramatically after just one year of college. God and socialism are simply incompatible. One cannot worship both Jesus Christ and Karl Marx.

(If you must, you can read the rest here.)

Although I’m not a real socialist – just a fan of redistribution, thanks to my pastor when I was 14! – I am one of those freethinking university professors. Scandalously, I think it’s a good thing when my students start to examine their beliefs and preconceptions.

I just finished teaching a class on religion, gender, and sexuality that might well enrage Dr. Mike. I framed patriarchy in materialist terms and lectured on how poverty multiplies the odds that a woman will terminate a pregnancy. (Socialism!) We discussed the Gnostic Gospels and the struggle between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in Christianity. (Heresy!) We delved into the roots of the Christian valorization of virginity. (Sluttishness!)

At the end of the quarter, students were asked to write a short essay in which they discussed how their views had changed over the past ten weeks. Many of them said that the class upset their certainties. Some of them questioned their faith. How, after all, can you trust the Bible’s authority if a politicized Church hierarchy – not divine revelation – determined which books became canonical?

So yeah. Dr. Mike would hate this class. So did one student (out of 85), judging from the final exam. She objected to the feminist framing of the material. She would have preferred ten weeks of Catholic dogma. She transparently didn’t bother to engage with the material in any serious way.

The rest of the students – including many current and former Catholics – realized that they didn’t have to follow any party line. Not mine; not any religion’s. One young Catholic woman had a real crisis of faith mid-quarter. By the end of the quarter, she felt stronger in her beliefs than before. Another young woman who’s planning to become a minister wrote of her past and present struggles with her faith.

Did I turn those students godless? Not by any stretch. And that was never my intent. If a person is going to embrace faith as an adult, they’re going to have to find it themselves. They can’t just continue believing a Sunday School version of it with colorful, sanitized pictures of Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus surrounded by fluffy lambs. They’ll have to navigate their way from dogma to actual faith. That’s exactly how some of my religious students used the class. They started questions and haven’t stopped. And they have matured in their beliefs. (Interestingly, a number of them declare some affinity for Buddhist ideas, even as they remain in their own faith tradition.)

A substantially minority of my students wrote that they consider themselves agnostics or atheists. So did I convert them to godlessness? A few of them did begin to call themselves agnostics during the class, but most of them came into it already rejecting or questioning religion. Many of them felt liberated at being able to “come out” about their unbelief in their discussion groups – something they often had felt unable to do, until now.

These students took my class for one of two reasons. Some had grown up without any religion and felt they needed to close a gap in their education. Others were questioning their religious upbringing or had rejected it altogether, often in the wake of a loved one’s death. (It’s ironic and sad that religion seems so often to fail people at the very moment when it’s supposed to provide the most comfort.) Disproportionately, the students in this second group had been raised Catholic. For most of them, the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality was a serious dealbreaker, with its position on abortion and contraception coming in a close second.

This is why the Pope’s statement on gender last Christmas made me crazy. There was some controversy at the time about what the English word “gender” connotes when used in Italian (as in the Pope’s address), and I can’t speak to that as an expert. I know about a dozen words of Italian and I wasn’t raised Catholic. But the context – as well as some of the smarter commentary on this – convinced me that he was affirming the church’s teachings on the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles.

More importantly, the Pope was trying to shut down all discussion of all gender issues within the Catholic Church. This is exactly what’s driving young people out of the Church. They see the condemnation of homosexuality and the hierarchy’s refusal to even discuss it as contemptuous and inhumane.

Dr. Mike, his letter-writer, and (I’m betting) a lot of conservative parents want to short-circuit that discussion too. It’s a terrible loss, because their kids want to have it. They need to have it. That goes for everyone from the young fundamentalist to the hard-core nihilist. (And yes, the range in my class was that wide.)

If Dr. Mike were paying attention to his students, he’d realize that whatever their professors do or say, they are at an age where they’re bound to question their upbringing. A good university education should help them learn to think for themselves in a more thorough, systematic, and deeper way. It should prod them to question received wisdom and authority. It should expose them to a variety of viewpoints. (Yes, even Dr. Mike’s.)

If that’s subverting young people, then I’m blessed to be a part of it. One student sent me an email at the end of the quarter saying the class had changed her life; another said the same as she turned in her exam. I don’t personally take too much credit, because the potentially life-changing work happened in the discussion groups, not in my lectures. But even so, staying on the job full-time this quarter through weeks of illness and fear was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’d worried that my students got cheated. I blubbed in gratitude when I read that email.

Oh, and as far as I know, I didn’t convert a single student to Marxism. Nary a Trotskyist. Not even a mild-mannered socialist-feminist. I guess I’d better try harder.

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While listening to BBC radio this morning, I learned a new term: “corrective” rape. I was driving at the time, and I nearly had to pull over. (Consider this your obligatory trigger warning; I’m so upset about this topic that I almost can’t write about it, and yet I feel like I have to.)

“Corrective” rape refers to raping lesbians with the ostensible purpose of “curing” them of same-sex attractions. In “Hate Crimes: The Rise of ‘Corrective’ Rape in South Africa,” the NGO ActionAid documents a sharp rise in the incidence of this crime (pdf available here). The BBC report stated that about ten “corrective” rapes are occuring each week in Cape Town alone. (See also this article in the Guardian.)

It’s ironic that these crimes are on the rise in South Africa, because as the BBC report stated, the South African constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. In practice, however, homophobia and misogyny combine in everyday life and the justice system, making lesbians’ lives very dangerous, especially if they’re women of color. Young boys are growing up with the idea that raping lesbians is acceptable – that they are actually doing women a favor by teaching them to appreciate a real man.

ActionAid reports that the targeting of lesbians represents an intensification of the risks that all women face:

In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. There are an estimated 500,000 rapes, hundreds of murders and countless beatings carried out every year. Shockingly, it is estimated that almost half of all South African women will be raped during their lifetime. And for every 25 men bought to trial for rape in South Africa, 24 walk free. …

As part of this oppression, the country is now witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct and specific threat to the status quo. This violence often takes the form of ‘corrective’ rape – a way of punishing and ‘curing’ women of their sexual orientation. (p. 3) …

‘Corrective’ rape survivors interviewed by ActionAid say that verbal abuse before and during the rape focused on being “taught a lesson” and being “shown how to be real women and what a real man tasted like.” (p. 12)

So the hallmark of this crime is the assailant telling the woman that his attack will make her a proper woman – and yet, according to ActionAid reports, judges have balked at punishing such rapes as hate crimes. (Of course, one might argue that every rape is a hate crime since it’s an expression of misogyny.) It remains a mystery how women are supposed to learn their lesson in the numerous instances where “corrective” rape culminates in murder.

The BBC report was followed up by a discussion of whether Western media show a negative bias in their reporting on Africa. I’m not qualified to judge whether that’s so, although I agree that Americans almost never hear good news about Africa in the media. But I definitely see a danger in othering this phenomenon of “corrective” rape. We know lesbians are at risk of violence in the U.S., too, and I’m sure this crime occurs here as well, even if with (much?) less frequency than in South Africa, where violence of all kinds is so prevalent. We just haven’t had a name for it.

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A friend and colleague (who just happens to be both gay and Catholic) recently sent me this, brimming with blasphemic glee.

I’m still trying to figure out how this ad will sell insurance. If you have a theory, let me know in comments. Otherwise, just enjoy.

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Ohio’s Baffling Sexual Politics

Ohio politics mystify me. I’ve lived here for over eight years now, and the contradictions still leave me spinning. We may be known as a swing state, but don’t be fooled. Ohio is often immoderate, a patchwork of extremes. My own little town is a progressive island in the midst of Appalachia, surrounded by the tattered traditions of trade unionism, Bible-thumping fundamentalism, and plain disenfranchisement and despair.

Ohio’s sexual politics are just as contradictory. On the one hand my adopted state made the news a few days ago with an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum that promotes rape culture. My county isn’t quite within this particular program’s scope, but the curriculum does cover the large Columbus market – and public schools along with private ones. Jill at Feministe has all the gory details, including “in the end they all get STDs,” which sounds about right. One of my former students told me about a sex ed program at his high school that warned kids if they had sex, they’d likely wind up addicted to drugs, passed out in a New York train station, and possibly missing a kidney to boot.

Ohio is also the home of Derek the Abstinence Clown, another fabulously wise use of your federal tax dollars. ‘Nuff said.

On the other hand, Ohio’s Presbyterian Church just took a strong progressive position by voting to open the clergy to persons in same-sex relationships. According to this morning’s Columbus Dispatch:

The Presbytery of Scioto Valley of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 115 to 88 to delete language from the church constitution that says clergy must be in a faithful marriage between a man and a woman or be chaste.

In order for policy to change, a majority of presbyteries nationwide would have to vote to remove the old language, and so far the the results don’t look promising. If the new policy fails, unmarried but sexually active heterosexual clergy stand to lose, too. The policy change promotes sexual freedom – and removes the incentives to hypocrisy – for everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation.

Whatever happens, I’m glad that in a state where the Reverend Rod Parsley often seems to dominate the religious landscape, Presbyterians have taken a step toward the equality that any just or merciful God would demand.

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Modern-Day Sodomites?

Yeah, I know “sodomite” is a loaded term. I’m not entirely sure it can be applied meaningfully in the twenty-first century. And yet, sodomite is the word that keeps popping into my head with all the new revelations of Ted Haggard’s sexual adventures. Let me explain.

Up until the late 1800s, the category of “homosexual” didn’t exist. Michel Foucault explores the genealogy of “homosexuality” in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, showing quite conclusively that “the homosexual” is a product of modern sexual science. (Brief crib notes can be found here, if you’ve always intended to read Foucault but never quite got around to it.) Only in the nineteenth-century did practitioners of the emerging discipline of sexology declare homosexuality to be a stable, life-long orientation that defined a person’s entire sexuality. The most influential of them was Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who wrote in his Psychopathia Sexualis that homosexuality had its roots in congenital pathology. He regarded it as inborn and thus impossible to change.

Sexologists haven’t always promoted a binary scheme in which people are either heterosexual or homosexual. Alfred Kinsey’s famous 1948 report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, placed men along a 0 to 6 scale, with 0 exclusively heterosexual and 6 exclusively homosexual. All five intermediary scores represented various flavors of bisexuality. But by and large, ever since sexology invented “the homosexual,” the popular imagination has categorized people dichotomously as either straight or gay.

Before the birth of the modern homosexual, however, we had “the sodomite.” While it’s certainly the case that some people repeatedly gravitated toward same-sex liaisons, the early modern Western world didn’t pigeonhole them as having an exclusive orientation toward their own sex. It just declared sodomy a sin, and the state also made it a crime.

In early modern Europe, many same-sex-inclined people married and had a family. Some were never outed as sodomites, and so they “passed” their whole lives long.

Some of these folks did get busted for sodomy. They were then labeled as sodomites, but that didn’t destroy their other identities as wives, husbands, etc. Even then, their sexuality didn’t define their whole being, nor did homosexual acts define their sexuality.

However, sodomy – like rape – was typically a capital crime in early modern Europe. So, while the convicted sodomite wasn’t labeled a homosexual, he or she was put to death like a murderer or a witch. (The law typically did not distinguish between male and female sodomites, though practically speaking, only penetrative acts counted as sex, and so men were far more likely to actually be charged with sodomy.)

We actually don’t know much about the prevalence of same-sex erotic contacts in the early modern period. Nor were states necessarily very vigorous about prosecuting them – which accounts for the paucity of our knowledge, since historians rely heavily on court records for such information. For instance, during the 18th century the Southern German states were far more concerned with regulating heterosexuality, since pregnancy due to fornication or adultery was socially and fiscally disruptive. (For the preceding, I’m relying on Isabel Hull’s Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815.)

None of this is intended to romanticize the sodomite. People died as a result of sodomy laws. Sodomy laws (minus the capital penalties) remained in force in over a quarter of U.S. states until Lawrence v. Texas invalidated them in 2003.

What does this all have to do with Ted Haggard? Well, I think viewing him as a sodomite provides a possible framework for understanding how his wife Gayle can claim that “99 percent of Ted’s sexual experiences” were with her:

1. Ted Haggard has been married for most of his adult life and evidently functioned well enough heterosexually to father four children; his wife’s claim suggests that they did it more than those four times.

2. According to Grant Haas, the man allegedly paid hush money by Haggard’s former church, Haggard engaged in a wide variety of sexual practices, some of it decidedly non-vanilla – and some of it was with his wife.

3. Haggard and his ex-church regard same-sex eroticism as a sin.

Sure sounds like a sodomite to me! Even though nearly all of the reporting has (I think wrongly) suggested that Haggard is a closeted homosexual, all the available evidence suggests that “homosexual” is far too one-dimensional to describe Haggard’s variegated and guilt-ridden sexuality. Okay, we could call Haggard a bisexual, or polymorphously perverse (if you want to go all Freudian), but that doesn’t quite capture the self-imposed judgment of SIN.

None of this negates what I consider Haggard’s only true and massive failing: his hypocrisy. But just possibly, seeing him as a sodomite helps illuminate his sexuality better than any of our usual modern frames. (Anyone want to re-think the Larry Craig scandal through this lens?)

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Why aren’t we talking about the denial of same-sex marriage as a form of unwarranted governmental intrusion into people’s private love lives? If the state is going to sponsor the institution of marriage in the first place, why on earth should it be allowed to discriminate? I do not understand why the Equal Protection Clause (14th Amendment) doesn’t prohibit this discrimination. I’m still waiting for someone to explain it to me.

I may be a radical pinko ailurophilic feminist, but doggone it, here’s a place for limited government. It seems like my political ilk ought to be able to make common cause with conservatives and libertarians on this issue.

And what could be more intrusive than forcibly divorcing people who’ve already lawfully wedded? All those couples in California who married in that golden summer and fall of marriage equality? I saw this at Shakesville and wept:

(Video by the Courage Campaign; go here to sign their petition in favor of same-sex marriage rights in California.)

In her commentary at Shakesville, Melissa McEwan remarked that she’d once lived in fear of her husband running afoul of the INS, and so she had an inkling of how it feels for the state to hold veto power over one’s love affairs. Her story resonated with me. I’ve written about how INS officials and even customs inspectors have held my marriage briefly hostage at the U.S. border – just for giggles.

Of course, those were only transient incidents. I’ve enjoyed heteronormative privilege my whole life. I would’ve had a helluva time importing my furrin husband if he’d been my furrin girlfriend instead. While the Sungold-as-lesbian part of that scenario is hypothetical, the quandary is not. Grad school friends of mine had all sort of legal hassles, just because they were same-sex but, um, heteronational, so to speak.

Oh, and I didn’t know until now who was spearheading the campaign for mass forced divorce in California. Doesn’t it just figure! Our friend Ken Starr, hollowing out our privacy rights since 1998! And don’t assume being hetero-anything will protect you from his wrath …

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A few days ago, while I was having coffee with a colleague and friend of mine, we somehow got onto the subject of “Match Game.” I spent hundreds of hours watching that show during those long, lazy summers when I was in late grade school and junior high, circa 1975. The fact that everyone’s parents disapproved of the show’s sexual innuendo, which was as wall-to-wall as our shag carpets, only added to the allure.

My friend said, “Well, there’s a theory that Charles Nelson Reilly queered the game show!” Not her original thesis – I think it may come from Elana Levine’s Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television- but looking back, I knew immediately what she meant. Back then, however, I had no clue that Charles Nelson Reilly was gay; I just thought he was funny. (Judging from this comment thread on Pam Spaulding’s obit for him from 1997, I wasn’t the only kid who didn’t get it.)

Not that anyone used the term queer back then in the mid-1970s. It was still an insult, years away from being reappropriated. At least in North Dakota, all things homosexual were still very hush-hush, which helps explain my cluelessness.

But there was so much change in the media around that time. While people weren’t yet regularly labeled as “gay,” depictions of non-straight people were beginning to proliferate, even if Ellen DeGeneres was still unimaginable in my corner of the Upper Midwest. I grew up listening to Elton John and David Bowie. I just didn’t have a handy label for what made them different from, say, Billy Joel.

In some ways, though, the more remarkable thing was the portrayals of “straight” masculinity that really don’t look quite so straight nowadays. I mean, the hero of Saturday Night Fever was a dancer. The soundtrack was provided by the oh-so-fey Bee Gees. Luke Skywalker looks downright girly by today’s standards. So do all the teen heartthrobs of the time: David Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Parker Stevenson. (Of course, that layered-look, blow-dried haircut can’t help but be anti-macho. You have to wonder if they all had the same stylist as Farrah Fawcett.)

And then there was this commercial, which I hadn’t thought about for thirty years until I stumbled upon it a few hours after my game-show nostalgia session: “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper …” Imagine, if you can, a soda commercial today featuring a man singing and dancing like a leprechaun. (The head Pepper was, as it turns out, David Naughton, he of “American Werewolf in London.”)

I’m not saying that those singing and dancing Peppers were gay. But man oh man, did they queer masculinity!

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Control freak kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Historiann raises an interesting question of where professors experience the most control: research or teaching. In response to an MLA survey that contends professors, and especially women, may overinvest in teaching because it offers them a sense of control, she writes:

At least in my experience, research is the only area in which I have near complete control–not in the classroom, where someone else designed the rooms, and someone else determines the number of students and the number of courses we teach.

I agree completely. If I’m researching and writing, it’s just me, the sources, and my ideas. Sure, someone else will eventually judge my work, but the process feels like it’s within my own control. If I produce good work, it redounds to my credit. If it’s crap … well, there’s no one else to blame. (Hmmm … academic writing is a whole lot like blogging, that way.)

But teaching? There, the lack of control goes far beyond the conditions that Historiann mentions. Most importantly, the process of teaching escapes our control. We can steer, nudge, cajole. We can’t totally direct it, however. In fact, I’d suggest that relinquishing control is sometimes necessary for effective teaching.

Teaching women’s studies has forced me to wrestle with my inner control freak. (So has parenting, but that would be a whole ‘nother post.) Let’s just say my control freakery is not vanquished, but most days it’s, well, under control. When I was interviewing last spring for my current job, the hiring committee posed this question, which I’ve been mulling over ever since:

How has your teaching changed now that you’re in women’s studies instead of history?

The big difference, for me personally at least, is that I’ve put more emphasis on discussion. In my lectures, I’ve increasingly taken an interactive, Socratic approach. I’m actually not convinced that such an approach is at all specific to feminist pedagogy. I think it’s often just part of good teaching, period. But feminism definitely demands that the instructor repeatedly question the basis of her authority and how she expresses that authority in the classroom. This doesn’t imply the professor has no special authority, a point that the occasional student – willfully? – misunderstands, only that she’s obligated to draw on her education and experience to make that authority transparent and legitimate.

Teaching in the humanities often feels risky and humbling, anyway, because what you know is always dwarfed by what you don’t. This is exacerbated when you throw touchy subjects such as sexual violence and abortion into the mix. I’m not saying that German history (my other areas of expertise) is uncontroversial, but at least there’s a basic consensus that the Holocaust was a Bad Thing. There’s no such consensus in women’s studies.

It’s often those out-of-control moments, though, that allow everyone to learn – me included. This past quarter in one of my intro classes, when one of my male freshmen boys insisted that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” other students had to articulate why they disagreed. My role was to make sure no one got hurt – including the guy who sparked the discussion – and otherwise to keep out of the way. This, by the way, is something I learned years ago as a T.A. in grad school, the first time I had to deal with a homophobic comment: other students can be far more effective teachers than me if I stay off my soapbox. That original incident actually occurred in a history course, which underscores the point that voluntarily and mindfully “losing” control can be useful in lots of different settings.

Or take the “cunt” discussion that erupted on the last day of my other intro class this fall. I’d previously talked with my theory class about reclaiming it and other pejorative terms, such as “bitch” or “queer,” and we’d had the kind of reflective that made that group a huge pleasure to teach; they were advanced students with a basic commitment to feminist politics. But the intro class is a different beast, full of freshmen and business majors with little previous exposure to feminism. And so I was totally taken by surprise when one of my students – an outspoken Evangelical Christian feminist, and no that’s not an oxymoron – wanted to end the quarter by discussing what’s so offensive about “cunt” and why women might be able to use the word proudly.

I’m not sure I nudged that particular discussion in a fruitful direction. The other students weren’t quite ready for it, and I really was ambushed by it, myself. A few of them were visibly embarrassed. And yet … I’m willing to bet that at least one of them, sometimes in the hazy future, will think back on that discussion and feel just a bit less shame about her body.

Of course, none of this means you can just walk into a classroom unprepared. Quite the opposite. You need experience, confidence, and a pretty solid knowledge base.

And of course, I’m probably bloviating about the control issue precisely because I’m not prepared for winter quarter, which starts a week from today. :-)

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From Funny or Die via Salon’s War Room, here’s the musical mockery that Prop 8 supporters so richly deserve.

I’ve never really thought of Jack Black as a god, but he does make a marvelous Jesus. And don’t overlook Maya Rudolph and Margaret Cho among the gay-friendly earthlings. Also, I realize this is in atrocious taste, but the credits list a “Wife #1″ and “Wife #2″ for the anti-gay ringleader.

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Y’all know that I teach women’s and gender studies. You know I’d take to the streets for the right of all human beings to express themselves in whatever genderqueer manner they like – and to be safe and respected while doing so. That’s a basic principle for me.

And yet … the allure of some things just mystifies me. Exhibit A: Holly of Self-Portrait As recently linked to this feature on bras being marketed to men in Japan. (There’s video but I couldn’t see a way to embed it, so you gotta click and go there.)

As Holly said: “I don’t know what to say.” I’m not so sure I do, either, but I’ll try anyway.

First, this strikes me as the latest example of the viral nature of capitalism, especially where bodies are concerned. The beauty-and-body market for women is so swamped, it’s hard to find a new niche. Compared to women, men’s bodies haven’t been nearly so thoroughly shaped and fashioned, at least not in commodified ways. Enter the metrosexual, who spends a larger chunk of his budget on fashions, hair products, and the like than does the typical dude.

And it’s not just masculinity that’s in flux. Bras, too, have evolved tremendously since their invention just about a century ago. The bra emerged as the corset was on the wane, but it took decades to really catch on. For the flapper styles of the 1920s, the goal was to flatten, not support. In the 1930s, cup sizes became standardized and bras began to be sold as a ready-made garment, but they still weren’t universal. Only in the postwar era, with its buxom icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, did bras become a staple in American women’s wardrobe. By the 1970s, bras were in decline; though feminists didn’t actually burn them, some women stopped wearing them. The bra made a comeback again in the buttoned-down 1980s. By the 1990s you saw bras being worn as outerwear – and the Wonderbra was born.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, the history of the bra is primarily the history of its commercialization. Once the postwar market had been saturated, bra manufacturers cast about for a new market. They found one in young girls who hadn’t yet begun to develop. Allying with physicians, they convinced mothers and their preteen daughters that for the sake of health and beauty, girls needed to start wearing bras even before they had breasts.

So I’m inclined to see Japan’s new man-bra the intersection of the metrosexual with a saturated but always ravenous body-shaping industry. Engrish.com (an irreverent and not always PC blog on Japanese culture) notes that these bras are most likely targeting metrosexuals with transgender tendencies, since the bras are really too petite to be targeting full-fledged transsexual or transgendered persons. That seems pretty plausible to me: a man who’s truly trying to pass as a woman won’t settle for a AAA cup.

There may be something specifically Japanese about this product, too. Take a look at an ad for it (swiped from Engrish.com, which has more along these lines):

I totally don’t understand Japanese culture beyond what I learned from the movie Lost in Translation, but I’m fascinated by how the ads for this product harness conspicuously Western models. I know that this is a common trick in Japan (and the whole premise for Engrish.com, which chronicles this tactic gone hilariously wrong). This makes me wonder if – within Japanese culture – transnational masculine beauty standards might somehow grant greater license for transgendered behavior. Or if Caucasian models just give the product a certain metropolitan cachet. I’d love to know more.

However you slice it, the advertising for this man-bra engages in some major gender-bending. Engrish.com provides a translation:

Times like these call for a Men’s Bra:
  • Even us guys want to know how a woman feels!
  • We want to reel in our emotions! (lit. “strain/tighten our emotions”)
  • I have the body of a man, but I’m a guy who feels like a little girl!
  • I want to remember a gentle feeling.
  • I need support for my chest!
  • There are sure to be many reasons, but the most important thing is to feel gentle/tender.

So far, there seems to be a modest market for wanting to “know how a woman feels.” About 300 of these had been sold at the point when this hit the media a couple of weeks ago. That’s not a huge number, of course, but it’s definitely more than zero. I’m hoping that most of the buyers are hoping to “feel gentle/tender” rather than “like a little girl”; that diminutive sort of creeps me out, to be honest.

I guess my feelings about this are similar to my reaction to makeup for men: cool for those who really are into it. But at the same time, I’m glad my own mate won’t hope to find a man-bra under the Christmas tree – and not just because airmail won’t get it there on time. I may teach gender studies, but I guess I’m just kind of limited that way. Then again, one of the main things I’ve learned from feminism is to honor desires – my own and others – as long as they do no harm.

But the cat-bra? Now that’s where I, personally, draw the line.

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

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