Friday, February 19, 2010

Now this whole gendering thing has gotten ridiculous...

Courtesy of Sociological Images, Cupcakes For Men.

I thought gendering socks was ridiculous, but food? And cupcakes of all things?

The most hilarious part is that the very idea of "Cupcakes For Men" implies that cupcakes are inherently feminine. Last time I checked they were food, an inanimate object. The most feminine thing about them is the egg that comes from female chickens.

I'll just be in the corner with Captain Picard.

(Incidentally one commeter on the linked post reminded me of the Men's Pocky my mother and I discovered a few years ago. It's actually quite good, though the idea still cracks me up.)

Tiger, Responsibility and Public Harm, aka Who Gives a Crap

Everywhere I look today it’s all about Tiger, and I don’t mean Tony. I’ve only been following the story peripherally but know the gist of it: He cheated on his wife, got caught, and now there’s a big brouhaha as he apologizes on live TV. The last time I checked space shuttle launches were not given this much attention.

You have permission to dismiss this opinion as excessively cynical, but really, at the end of the day, who gives a crap? You could say that since it’s all over the news someone must, but then we get into a chicken-and-egg thing where you wonder if it’s only news because the media tells you it’s news. You can’t go into a supermarket or open up a major news website without seeing someone’s body, character, clothing or politics being held up for public scrutiny, and all signs point to it being a lucrative business.

But really, this whole Tiger Woods is just another example of a story we’ve heard dozens of times before. People cheating on their significant others is not news, and every year we get the same story with different names about people in high places behaving in tawdry ways that pretty much tells us the same thing, and yet we’re still expected to be shocked and appalled.

I don’t get it. Perhaps I’m just an unusually private person in this day and age, but I neither care nor particularly want to hear about people’s personal affairs, nor would I want my own plastered all over the front page for people to scrutinize. There are a few instances where I find it more justified, but those have specific conditions. I thought that the media coverage last year when the Governor of South Carolina ran off for a few days to visit his mistress it was a bit more legitimate, since when a head of state vanishes it is cause of concern, but after he was found the story devolved into the usual hand-wringing about men and power and the hypocrisy of a social conservative “family values” man engaging in an elicit affair. I’m willing to give the media a bit more slack with this one, since it was an elected official who engaged in this sort of behavior, but an athlete? That’s when I draw the line.

An elected official who has the power to make and enforce laws is also under public scrutiny as far as their character is concerned, since people want to know if the person they give their vote to is honest. If they cheat on their significant other and engage in hypocritical behavior it’s within the voter’s right to withhold their vote or vote for an opponent, but a golfer? Tiger Woods is famous because he can play golf well, and whether or not he cheats on his wife or not doesn’t affect that. Several of his sponsors have dropped him in the wake of this in order to preserve their image, but at the end of the day this really isn’t going to affect the lives of everyday people?

That’s the thing that bothers me about this “apology” to the American people. “Apology” implies that harm was done, but was anyone (other than his wife) really hurt by his actions? I’m not counting the sponsors who may have lost money on him, I’m talking about a more philosophical concept of harm. I know my reaction to this was to roll my eyes at both him and the media, but I have to wonder, is he apologizing because he’s honestly sorry or is it because there’s an idea that we “own” part of him, or is it the “I’m sorry because I got caught” apology that seems everywhere these days? We can debate his intentions and thoughts all we want, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t pass muster for me as something I should give a crap about. And where do we get off taking a clearly hurtful event for this family and shining a spotlight on them when we really have no stake in the outcome? Looking at all of this, I have to wonder if that's where the real harm in all this is occurring and if in fact it falls on us.

The question I’m continuing to ask as all this unfolds (and there is no indication that it will go away any time soon) is whether it is worth our time and attention, but all I have to do is glance at a magazine rack and see that a decent amount of people think it is.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Two Hats: Or, Don't Cross the Streams

I fundamentally wear two different hats on this blog, the first is a sociologist, and the other is a philosopher. I enjoy studying both of them, but it's also important to understand that though I may combine the two to form my worldview and opinions they are in fact very different disciplines with their own set of rules and focuses.

There's something of a stereotype out there of sociologists that I'm sure people are at least tangentially aware of. On Saturday Night Live Nora Dunn played a man hating lesbian sociologist, and though this concept was played for laughs it still struck close to home in terms of how many people see the field and the people in it. Mainly, that we are always talking about how the system is oppressive, the patriarchy is the enemy, the little guy needs to stand up, etc. etc. This often gets us painted as far leftists, anarchists, or radicals, and I've had to shake this sort of image off when I talk about my field of study many times before because I am none of the above, my passion for LGBT rights notwithstanding (I actually tend to think of myself as fairly moderate on most issues in the sense of not being militant).

Well, I hate to tell you this, but if that's the way the typical stereotype of a sociologist thinks they aren't following one of the cardinal rules of sociology. It's sometimes easy to forget that sociology is in fact social science, meaning that while there are a number of abstract concepts and theories floating around they are still grounded in the concepts of science, and the sort of political proselytizing that goes on has no place in the discipline. That's not to say that it can't be used, there are in fact many ways to apply it to the real world and use it to push for social change, but the sociologists themselves should not be doing that while presenting it under the guise of science, because it isn't. It's politics and, more to the point, philosophy, which is where my other hat comes in.

A sociologist fundamentally looks at the how and in some cases the why, for instance we can wonder how racism came about and why it keeps existing, but when it comes to actually making any value judgments about it that is out of our league. To put it simply, if we go in looking for an oppressive system we are going to find it, and our results will be skewed. It's impossible to escape this bias completely (we are human after all) but we shouldn't actively look for it either, and this is the mistake so many people make when walking under the banner of sociology. We are not tasked to explain the injustice of someone losing their job to outsourcing, all we do is say why it happens and what happens when it does. As cold as it sounds, we have to remove the person who lost their job from the equation, because we fundamentally are not concerned with the individual, we are concerned with the system he or she lives in.

When you want to talk about injustice that's where philosophy comes in, and that's my other hat. Now I'm very much guilty of crossing the two as well, but at least I'm aware that the two modes of thought are different.

It's my belief that you need both to have a complete understanding of the world. Scientists can sometimes become so detached from the actual people that they can be unethical, while philosophers can lose their grounding in reality and become caught up in abstracts. Both need to compliment the other, but they have to remain a proper distance from each other to keep their integrity.

To put it simply, science is the way to find out about the world, while philosophy looks at the ramifications in an abstract sense. Crossing the two is a mistake, since it compromises what both are supposed to do, and while I can and do apply both to my worldview, I have to switch my hats in order to get the whole picture.

So as the Ghostbusters said, don't cross the streams. In the movie it did work out for the better, but the chances were vastly in favor of it exploding spectacularly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yuri-service in Anime: Delivering The Goods

Yuri-service. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with anime probably knows what I’m talking about. If not, picture this: Two girls, staring at each other passionately, fingers intertwined with flowers blowing around them. This is an increasingly common sight in a variety of genres, but rarely does it go beyond that and turns into an actual lesbian relationship. Real life lesbians like myself tend to gnash our teeth at this, but practically since anime was first becoming known in the United States this has been a major component, but there’s a growing sense of discontent among fans of Yuri that can be summed up in one sentence:

Stop teasing us.

The problem with most of the subtext these days is that it’s just that: subtext. It exists purely to titillate and make fans think about characters being in a relationship, but it rarely if ever delivers. One blogger I follow recently proclaimed that shows should “stop being half-assed about the lesbian aspect”, and this seems to be a growing opinion among those of us who like our girls love.

This is hardly new phenomenon in anime. In 2001 Noir became the newest of these shows imported to the United States and the first major exposure I had to anime as a whole. In my opinion, it was a great series that kept you on the edge of your seat and had an interesting and complex story, but the main draw was the relationship between the leads, Kirika and Mirielle, and how they grew to care for each other in the end. We could debate until the cows come home about whether it really was a Yuri series since there was never definitive "proof" that they were lesbians, and indeed people have been fighting about that even though it’s been over 7 years since the show was on the air. But even if you think there was no romance to speak of between the female leads you have to agree that they loved each other in a very deep and emotional way.

But what made Noir different from the Yuri-service shows these days was that the girls and their feelings were not just fanservice, they had an actual impact on the plot and real, visible consequences. In fact, you could even read it as being one of the driving forces behind the plot. These girls had real emotional investment in one another and were willing to fight and die for it, and there’s a strong indication at the end of the show that this relationship is going to continue and grow into something more, be it romantic or not.

Revolutionary Girl Utena was a 1997 series that similarly used the not-necessarily romantic but certainly passionate relationship between its female leads to drive the plot and question the very meaning of gender and relationships, but trying to summarize Utena like that is leaving out about 90% of everything else that went on in it, and we don’t have all day. The point is that the reason these shows are so loved is that the Yuri was not just service, it was a major component of the story and was given just as much attention and thought as any other part of the plot.

Nowadays? Not so much. There are a few examples that stand out like Aoi Hana, but they're mostly for niche audiences and rarely get much attention outside of these circles. In mainstream works these characters are mostly limited to side roles and don’t have much of an impact on the story itself. And there’s the classic “bait and switch” tactic which consists of setting up a girl/girl pairing and then having one or both end up with men in the end. This infuriates fans for two reasons, first it means that all the hints and subtext was just a tease, and second it sends the rather homophobic message of “look but don’t touch” or that a girl/girl relationship is okay when you’re young, but “real” women grow up and have husbands and families.

Granted, we are talking about shows that come from Japan, a country that has very different social values from our own, so what we see as an unfriendly message may in fact be perfectly acceptable to them, and the above message is considered acceptable by most Japanese viewers at this point in time. But putting that aside, in the United States there’s another part of this that seems to be irritating an increasing number of people.

Mainly, the fanservice aspect, which depending on the show can range from mildly annoying to downright disrespectful. By “downright disrespectful” I mean “these characters exist only in the show to provide breast and butt shots” and have no character or purpose besides their connection to another girl and the risqué situations that result in them being in the same room. While certainly not free of subtext, Noir and Utena generally stayed away from this, and in the case of Utena much of the sexual content that would be fanservice in any other series was intended to be and managed to be quite disturbing given the circumstances. The movie of Utena is another story, and is best left to its own post, but even it contained the suggestion that sex is not all its cracked up to be no matter who is doing it.

Nowadays the Yuri fanservice is generally played completely straight. Given that most of the viewers of these shows tend to be young males this might not be surprising, as someone else pointed out that to a lot of men the appeal of seeing a pair of lesbians can be summed up as “1 + 1 = 2”. But there's only so much teasing a person can take before they start to get fed up and want the real thing, and the fact that even the men these shows are supposed to appeal to are getting tired of it might indicate that a sea change might be needed if these fans want to be retained.

I predict that in the future these feelings will also crop up in Japan, though probably at least several years from now. The Americans watching, on the other hand, may turn to their own country’s works in the meantime as long as the teasing continues to be just that: teasing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Access to Bathrooms and Gender Identity

One issue that frequently comes up when discussing gender identity and transgender and transsexual people has to do with access to bathrooms, an issue most of us never think twice about. We take advantage of the fact that in a public setting we can walk into the gendered bathroom of our choice and not face retaliation or even a second look. But if you're a person who identifies otherwise an essential part of daily life becomes a stressful ordeal each and every time you have to use the bathroom.

The Advocate covered a story about a transgender woman was was barred from using a Denny's restroom consistent with her gender identity until she had finished transitioning, and the question now is whether or not she has the right to sue the company. Denny's denied the charge of discrimination, saying that "allowing a biological male to use the female restroom despite gender identity will pose a direct threat to the health and well-being of staff and customers". The story goes on to use the "slippery slope" argument, arguing that someone with "devious intent" could take advantage of any concessions.

There's a growing body of literature on this issue and a growing awareness of the issues in and outside the LGBT community, with sites like safe2pee compiling city-by-city lists of gender neutral or single bathrooms, and several college campuses have started instituting gender neutral facilities to help transgender students.

Before the end of the school year I was interviewed by two students in a media class who had been interviewing students about the proposed introduction of gender neutral bathrooms on our campus. After I did my spot, where I argued that since every middle class home in America already has a gender neutral bathroom without issue this should not be that big of a deal, I was told by the two students that in taking interviews they had found the female students more receptive to the idea, while the male students expressed nervousness at the idea of women being in the same bathroom. This surprised me, but it got me thinking.

Why is this such a contemptuous issue shows that it's an intersection between gender, sexuality and social norms, as well as bringing in issues of privacy and access. In some ways bathrooms represent the last significant and formal gender divide in our society, so it's understandable that it causes people to react strongly to it no matter where they stand on it. But when it comes to denying people access to the bathroom of the gender they identify with it crosses into human rights and privacy, since it opens up large avenues of legal issues. Whether the person who needs to use the facility has more right than a person who may be uncomfortable with the idea of a person who is still biologically another sex using the same facilities is a philosophical debate that I can't fully cover here, but it's a fight that we usually aren't aware of.

I was in a multiple -stall gender neutral bathroom at an LGBT conference last year, and while I was a bit startled when a man walked in it didn't seem especially weird. Just about everyone was some variant of LGBT at that conference, but the point still stands. It doesn't seem like this should be as big an issue as it is, but one thing I've found is that whenever an issue like this is brought up people's reactions are unpredictable and sometimes very revealing of how deeply we hold certain sociological norms.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

As far as Storms go, we're already at the Eye

An article in today's edition of The Economist took a look at the spread of gay marriage and the potential sociological effects of it. The tone generally seems to be “so what?” and it suggests that this is increasingly the public’s response to the issue. I also saw an article about a Maine Bishop calling gay marriage a “dangerous sociological experiment”, a phrase that made me raise an eyebrow. Despite the so-called “Storm” that has been brewing, this issue is not new in a sociological sense.

First off, gay families have existed for quite some time already, this is nothing new. All current legislation does is formally recognize them, so in a strictly literal sense not much changes when marriage is legalized. Most of the benefits of being married do not take directly visible form, so a gay couple who is married will more or less continue to live the same way, so there will be very few visible effects on the community they live in.

Similarly, even though there are prohibitions in place to prevent gay couples from adopting in several states gay people have and will continue to give birth to and adopt children. Though it’s hard to measure the exact statistics of gay adoption, the fact is that gay people do have children one way or another and there’s little that can be done to prevent it. The whole “protecting children” argument also hits an iceberg, since it's been shown that the children of same sex couples have better mental health when their parents' union is recognized, as reported by the Vermont Psychological association.

The tired out argument that gay marriages threaten traditional marriage and the nuclear family hits its biggest pothole when you realize that those two concepts - traditional marriage and the nuclear family - are at this point in history already an endangered species. What always bugs me when this argument is made is that it undermines the experiences of people who have been raised in single parent households for generations. While it is true that children in single-parent families live disproportionately in poverty, society has adapted to cope with these situations, and now even the President of the United States is the product of such a family, so it can't be said that a single parent put a child at an automatic disadvantage.

Likewise, the argument that children need both a mother and a father hits a similar logical snare when you take single parents and other family situations into account. The first linked article makes an interesting point about how even in gay families there tends to be a "mom" role and a "dad" role, but this may be applying gender roles that don't entirely fit the situation. And if we look at the pure concept of "mom" and "dad" as social roles we can also see that these have been changing for quite some time, since there is no longer a strict divide between the two now that most households have two working parents rather than a single breadwinner.

In short, if they've been trying to prevent a storm they're far too late, if anything they're at the eye already.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The LGBT Community and Minority Recognition

The other day I was having a discussion with someone I know when gay rights came up. I try not to shoehorn the subject into my conversations, but it happened to come up then because of the whole Miss California debacle. Somehow during the conversation I ended up mentioning something about LGBT people being a minority, and this person (who happens to be Hispanic, but that’s not relevant to the topic) objected to me classifying LGBT people as a minority.

Once I managed to avoid going into huffy mode I tried to ask what she meant by minority versus what I meant, and it got me thinking about how this seems to be a pervasive topic. When legislation is introduced in wider non-discrimination causes to protect LGBT people it often raises people’s hackles, and a lot of work in the LGBT community has revolved around building to community’s strength and having it be recognized as a minority. But what does it really mean to be a minority, and what are the criteria for being a “real” minority?

In a purely descriptive sense LGBT people are a minority in the sense that they are not the majority. Depending on who you ask the percent of LGBT people in the United States is anywhere between less than 1% and 10%, and it’s nearly impossible to nail down exactly how many LGBT people there are both in and out of the closet. But in the United States to be a “minority” carries with it a special status and certain implications. We don’t consider people with blue eyes to be a minority, but we consider people of African descent to be. So it can’t be said that minority status is just based on physical characteristics, instead there has to be some consequence to belonging to a particular group for it to be a recognized minority.

These consequences don’t have to be as formal as institutionalized racism and homophobia, but those are certainly forms they can take. It seems that we only get a recognized minority when there’s some system in place that splits people up along lines of belonging or not belonging, which usually takes the form of race or ethnicity. Now we have laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on race, but it does not stop all of it. Now you just can’t be formal about it, it has to take more covert forms.

I think we’re all familiar with how race and racism manifests in our society, but when it comes to sexual orientation some people get up in arms about classifying LGBT people as a minority. I can only speculate, but I imagine that it in part has to do with the fact that some people don’t like that in asserting themselves LGBT people are “intruding” on a space that used to be reserved for races and ethnicities. Since there are still a large number of people who think that you “choose” to be gay that may also impact whether they consider LGBT people a minority. We don’t, for instance, consider as small group of Democrats in a mostly Republican town to be a minority in the same sense that a community of color would be, since you choose which political party you affiliate with and can change it relatively easily. It gets complicated when you get into religious minorities, since they are often closely tied to ethnicity and cultural identity, and historically persecution of religious minorities has been a vigorous as the persecution of races (the repeal of the Edict of Nantes is a perfect example of how this sort of religious persecution can take a concrete form).

There’s no doubt that LGBT people are persecuted in formal and informal ways. One needs look no further than Proposition 8 to see the extreme form this can take, when people spend millions of dollars of their own money to prevent one group from having a right. Persecution can also take the form of lack of protection, and this indeed the case in many LGBT issues. Hate crimes are a way of recognizing minority status, but there has been much opposition to widening the umbrella of what’s considered a “hate crime” since in declaring that an attack against one group is a hate crime minority status is implicitly granted.

So there’s little doubt that LGBT are indeed a minority in the strictly numerical sense, and there’s little doubt that systems exist to deprive LGBT people of rights and liberties and formal and informal settings. But there is still resistance to recognizing the LGBT as a legitimate minority despite this, and this is where we get into the meat of it.

The idea that you can only be “born” into a minority may contribute to why it’s so hard for the LGBT community to assert itself as a legitimate minority. The vast majority of LGBT people I know say that they were born that way, but that’s not a widely held view at this point. Since a person can also hide their orientation this may also contribute to the idea that LGBT are not a “real” minority, since it’s not like skin color or bone structure and short of passing for another race one cannot “change” their race.

In the wider sense I think the reluctance to recognize the LGBT community as a minority stems from the fact that calling a group a minority grants them a certain amount of legitimacy and power, especially in the legal arena. To recognize the LGBT community as a minority means that anti-discrimination laws have to be enforced in the case of discrimination based on orientation or gender identity, and it forces judges to apply equal protection statues to cases involving LGBT issues.

This naturally opens up a whole slew of issues that opponents of marriage equality and LGBT rights do not want this to happen, since it not only grants rights they want taken away but frames them as bigots going after a persecuted minority and undermines the legitimacy their authority and cause. They become bullies, and at that point it becomes harder and harder for them to justify their actions to the public. They clearly do not want this to happen, so a large part of their campaign works to frame LGBT people as a dangerous “other” who threaten the minority by their existence and in the process deny the very real discrimination that they perpetrate against a community that has few protections against their actions.

As for my friend, I do not believe she meant any ill will, but she was a good demonstration of why it is so hard for the LGBT movement to gain ground when we’re still struggling to even be recognized as a minority whose rights are being impeded on.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hannah Montana and Metaphorical Closets

Like most people over the age of 14 I can best describe my opinion of Hannah Montana as tepid, if not outright negative, but I've been able to ignore it for the most part. I did watch it once while at a relative's house with my younger cousins, and I found it to be fairly bland sitcom fair full of the usual cliches. The music grates on my nerves and musical sensibilities, but it seems fairly harmless compared to other things out there at the moment. I'm sure there are elements from my early adolescence that appeared the same back then, but one blog I follow brought up an issue with the new movie that made me raise an eyebrow.

The Sinister Hidden Message of Hannah Montana by Mark Blankenship, while obviously mostly in a tongue and cheek tone, did bring up an aspect of the movie that I find troubling as a gay American. I gather that the basic premise of the show is that Miley Stewart leads a double life as the pop start Hannah Montana, and in the movie she starts to tire of it and considers showing her fans who she really is. At the climax of the newly released movie, after Miley manages to save her hometown with a benefit concert put on by her alter-ego, she takes off her wig to reveal her true self, but the residents of the town tell her to put in back on and be Hannah again.

"Put on the wig, or you'll never have a normal life!" one person calls, and they all promise not to reveal her identity to the rest of the world so she can be "happy" and so her fans won't "lose their dreams" and find out that Hannah isn't real. To my gay ears that sounds uncomfortably close to telling someone that they should stay in the closet rather than come out, but I know I have a tendency to read too much into things like this. But even outside that, is that really what we want our kids to learn, that it's better to live a double life than be true to yourself and risk being rejected? Considering that the latter was largely a message in the media of my childhood this strikes me as rather backwards looking.

To quote Blankenship:
As written, the conclusion tells viewers that being yourself is acceptable when you're with a very intimate circle, but otherwise, it's preferable and even honorable to lie about who you are. Hannah Montana: The Movie suggests that we can make people happy by always being who they want us to be, so we should maintain a performance at all costs. What's a little personal integrity when the entire world will be placated by our perpetual public disguise?
I know I'm disturbed by the implications of this and what it's telling our kids, and it certainly seems like a screwed up moral to say that lying about yourself is okay, whether you're gay or not.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Outing, Privacy and The Frank Rule

Despite the fact that, to put it mildly, I’m thrilled that the number of states where I can get legally married doubled in a little under a week, I haven’t had much to say on here lately, mostly because of end of the semester work and general life craziness. But the occasional philosophical and sociological trains of thought do come up, it’s just a matter of whether or not I have the energy to write them down after everything else that's on my plate. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep this going with the occasional update, of which this is one.

In my Philosophy of Race & Gender class we had a discussion about the outing of gay, lesbian and bisexual people (and presumably trans people as well, though this was not discussed in this particular case) and whether it is appropriate to out these people and under what circumstances. My position is that under most circumstances it's not appropriate to out someone without their permission, since outing a person who is not ready to be outed is fundamentally taking the control of that event away from them, and I can say from personal experience that the process of outing is terrifying, and being outed without your permission increases that terror substantially. But I disagree that outing is bad in all circumstances, especially in the case of a politician who engages in gay behavior in secret but uses their political power to persecute other LGBT people. In this discussion I cited The Frank Rule, coined by and named after the Congessional Representative from my home state and the chair of House Financial Services Committee, the one and only Barney Frank.

Congressman Frank is famous for several things: First, being grumpy, second, having a razor sharp sense of humor, third, for being a stanch critic of government spending, and fourth, being openly gay since 1981 and an outspoken LGBT advocate, and I've had the good fortune to meet Congressman Frank in person at a talk he gave at the University of Massachusetts many years ago. My father took me to this talk, and though I was too young to really understand what he was talking about or what the fact that he was gay really meant, I remember he was funny, and that despite my expectations I was not in fact bored by what he was saying. I mention this because I've also had the dubious honor of interrupting fellow Massachusetts Congressman John Olver at a talk he was giving, though I was even younger at the time and Congressman Olver is by all accounts both incredibly intelligent and extremely boring.

Back to the subject, The Frank Rule can best be summed up by the Congressman himself:
"I think there's a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy. And people who want to demonize other people shouldn't then be able to go home and close the door and do it themselves."
It's a simple enough concept, don't be a hypocrite. I think we can all agree that there are few things worse than someone who crusades against something one minute and participates in it themselves the next. But what stuck out to me in light of today's class was how Congressman Frank makes a distinction between privacy and secrecy, which was one of our topics.

It has been interpreted that we right to privacy guaranteed in our Constitution, and in the LGBT rights movement this has been key to throwing out discriminatory laws and practices that intrude on that right. Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated all the remaining sodomy laws in the U.S. and basically said that the government has no right to regulate the sex lives of two consenting adults. I could go into just what "sodomy" is, but that's another "What Does That Really Mean?" post on its own. When it comes to privacy in the case of outing, it becomes a philosophical and normative question, which happen to be my specialties.

"Privacy" in the purest definition of the word is simply to be free from unwanted intrusion. When you compare this to the idea of "Secrecy", or the intentional concealment of something, it becomes clear that why most secrets are considered private not all private things are secret. I may have privacy in a bathroom stall, but it's no secret what I'm doing in there. When you approach outing as an issue privacy and secrecy overlap, and if someone does not want to be outed the question then becomes whether that part of them is considered private or if it's a secret that is fair game.

In most cases I'm inclined to say that no one has the right to out you without your permission. One analysis I read on the issue tried to address the points of privacy and secrecy, but in it the author failed to acknowledge the vast and varied consequences the process of being outed carries with it. You can lose your job, be thrown out of your home, disowned, beaten up, and even killed, and because these events are far too common the process of outing carries with it an extreme fear. LGBT people have to navigate their lives based on who they are and are not out to, and with just about every relationship there's the question of whether it's safe to be out to this person. I have another post in the works that discusses issues like this and how they're symptomatic of heteronormativity, but that's for another day, and all we need to know now is that it's a downright scary concept.

I'm in no way suggesting that politicians and other public figures who are outed do not face these same issues, but because of their positions their lives are already in the in-between space between public and private, and the issue becomes more complicated. Politicians especially are meant to represent the values of the communities they represent, so intentional deceit and secrecy on their part has an element of power abuse that goes with it.

In cases where a closeted politician is staunchly anti-gay it takes on an even more malicious bent, and besides deceiving their constituents a closeted anti-gay politician creates a cycle of self destruction through their actions that enables further discriminatory action to take place. While politicians are not exempt from a right to privacy merely because of their positions, their privacy is of a different sort and carries broader consequences, especially in cases of deceit. As awful as it is to lie to your family and friends, when you lie to your constituents and work to demonize and disenfranchise an already vulnerable group while engaging in that same behavior yourself the weight of the hypocrisy becomes much greater. As much as I realize that these politicians must go through great mental anguish because of their hatred for themselves, my sympathy stops at the point where they channel that hatred towards causing harm to people in the same position, and I believe they should be accountable for their actions if they are indeed shown to be engaging in hypocritical behavior as they would be in any context where their behavior is shown to be contrary to their rhetoric.

In short, I agree with Congressman Frank. I have no right to out someone without their permission, but in cases of hypocrisy and abuse of power the right of the people to know what their representatives are doing outweighs their right to keep secrets as long as we want an accountable and transparent system of government. You can do what you want with your life, but once you start using your own issues to restrict mine I draw the line. Or to quote the Congressman:
I take it personally when people decide to take political batting practice with my life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Schools, Normative Language in Policy and Gender

Coming of the heels of my first “What Does That Really Mean?” post about the word Normal, we have a story about dubious application of norms and normative language coming off the wire.

Justin Reynolds, a gay male student in Florida, was removed from class after coming to school in a v-neck shirt, blue jeans, high heeled boots and jewelry. He did it so he could make a presentation about transgender rights. He checked with his teacher first, and though the teacher discouraged him they did not explicitly tell him not to do it. Later in the day was removed from the school due to a dress code policy that states that student’s clothing should be "keeping with their gender", and that a student can be removed if their clothing is "inappropriate" and "disrupts the school process".

Besides issues about whether under that logic girls shouldn’t be allowed to wear typically “male” clothing (and I can tell right away that would get me in trouble), there’s a clear application of norms here, and since they never actually define what clothing “keeping with their gender” is there are huge assumptions at play here. You’re expected to know what your gender is supposed to wear, and I suppose if you come from a country where it’s different or reversed you’re out of luck.

There have been similar cases in the past, including one in Massachusetts in 2000 that tackled the issue of whether Pat Doe, a biologically male student who identified as female, was allowed to wear clothing matching her gender identity to her high school. The court ruled in favor of Doe, and rejected the idea that the harassment she was receiving from her peers constituted a “disruption” to the learning environment and grounds for her to be forced to wear “male” clothing. Justice Linda E. Giles’s opinion on this facet of it the case was particularly succinct:
"To rule in [the school's] favor in this regard, however, would grant those contentious students a 'heckler's veto’… This court trusts that exposing children to diversity at an early age serves the important social goals of increasing their ability to tolerate such differences and teaching them respect for everyone's unique personal experience in that 'Brave New World' out there."
Of course, that’s Massachusetts, and this case clearly isn’t identical. However, it does raise some interesting points about whether what Justin did should be considered educational as well, since he was doing it for the express purpose of giving a presentation. And is this issue really about what he wore, or is it about whether people respect each other enough to not care what another person wears? There’s an interesting cause-and-effect relationship here, and several of the students interviewed for that particular article didn’t seem to think he was disruptive, if anything it seems that it was the staff who had a problem with it.

The attire worn by Justin doesn’t strike me as especially “male” or “female” – it’s just jeans and a shirt, though he did pad a bra to give the illusion of breasts and wear eyeliner and mascara, though in the case of the latter two many men who aren’t in drag wear it as well. A bit of personal bias is about to creep in here, but I personally prefer clothing that’s gender neutral. I’m also critical of clothing and products that are gendered when I don’t feel they have to be, like slippers and socks. Part of this is because I happen to have very wide feet and am not fond of high heels, but also it’s because I really don’t think it’s needed in some cases, and it just complicates things when all you want are things to keep your feet warm. Now, would he have been considered disruptive if he'd just worn it without trying to make a point? The policy is so unclear that it's hard to tell, though other things about this school make me think that they would have done it anyway.

I don’t think there’s much about what he did that could be considered inappropriate or disruptive, since trying to make a point is not the same thing as being disruptive, though they can overlap. It’s been my experience that school policy tends to use very ambiguous language, and it tends to result in issues like this. What do "disruptive" and "inappropriate" mean? To whom is it disruptive? Is it still inappropriate if only one person feels that it is? If they change their mind does it stay disruptive, or can it stop being inappropriate? As you can see it gets muddy, and this is the danger of using subjective language in policy, especially when it's normative language, and the administrators at Dunnellon High School have fallen right into it.

Justin says he’s not planning on pursuing the issue any further, but maybe this will make them rethink their policies and what they're really saying in them, since from the sound of it they don't know themselves.