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.

What Does That Really Mean? Part 1: Normal

I’m often getting into trouble for asking just what people mean when they say certain things, and in many cases it seems that people don’t really know the meaning of what they’re saying or what they’re implying by saying it. The purpose of this series is to look at some of the words we use everyday and take at face value, and while we’re at it deconstruct them so we can find out what’s really being said.

I’ll start with one of the basics of sociology and expand from there. Our first target?

Normal. This has to be one of the most abused words in the English language and one of the most misunderstood, since people use it in a variety of contexts where it doesn’t belong.

The best example of this that I can think of occurred at a workshop I went to that explored the concept of bisexuality and the myths surrounding it. A major part of this workshop involved ranking yourself anonymously on the Kinsey Scale at different points in your life, and then having your survey anonymously given to another person who stood in for you on a giant version of the scale set up in the room. At the very end we each read what our survey taker defined themselves as, and in the mix of “gay” “lesbian” “bisexual” and “straight” answers there was one “normal”, which drew negative reactions from the rest of the room.

This was a clear case of someone using the word normal as a value judgment, and given that at that point most of the other participants were some variant of LGBT the negative reaction was understandable. With the rest of this person’s responses taken into account (several of which bordered on homophobic) there was a clear implication that anyone who did not consider themselves a full Kinsey 0 like this person was wrong and somehow deficient, the irony being that within this particular group this person was actually in the minority, as the participation of the LGBT group on campus meant that most of the participants were in fact clustered towards the greater numbers on the scale. The very fact that this person felt the need to call themselves normal rather than simply “heterosexual” or “straight” demonstrates just how important this concept is to our sense of identity. But as per the title of this article, what does it actually mean, and what do people mean by it? That’s what I’m trying to answer.

On a very basic level the root of the word is Norm, one of my favorite words. A norm is, simply enough:
“A standard, model, or pattern regarded as typical.”
What I love about this word right off the bat is the fact that "regarded" is in there, telling us that it’s subjective rather than a universal, unchanging concept. You can’t isolate normal and put it in a jar, and a norm doesn’t exist until someone defines it. Additionally, trying to get people to agree on what is normal for a particular thing will inevitably produce varying results.

Another thing I love is the fact that a norm by itself has no value judgment attached to it, it’s just something that exists and can be studied. I’m about to veer into Sociology 101 territory for a moment, so bear with me so we can get that part of the definition out of the way. A norm is what a group uses to police itself and its behavioral expectations, and a law can be thought of as an elevated and codified norm, but not all norms are laws. In fact, most are unwritten and unspoken, it’s just assumed you’ll know what they are and that you shouldn’t break them.

These leads us to the other aspect that defines a norm, which is that breaking one carries repercussions, be they as formal as legal action and imprisonment or as informal as a dirty look. But once again there’s no value judgment attached to either the action or the repercussion, all that makes a norm is that someone creates a standard around something and that someone might deviate from it.

So Normal, then, being the adjective form of the word, describes a something that stays within the bounds of the norm. This can be applied to people, inanimate objects, and both conscious and unconscious behaviors. To be normal is not to be good or bad, it’s just to be within the bounds of what someone set as a norm. I know I sound like a broken record as this point, but you’ll see once again that there have been no value judgments in any of these, they’re merely saying that something is or is not part of a norm. I keep stressing this because oftentimes when people use the word “normal” they are attaching a value judgment, and it’s that part of the use of the word we’re here to deconstruct.

When you use normal to apply a value judgment you’re no longer using it just to describe the norm, and the word itself becomes a way to police the edges of the acceptable and decide what belongs inside and outside of it. This is where it has the potential to become malicious, and many of the problems in our society can be traced to reactions towards people who fall outside what's seen as the norm. These situations generally go one of two ways: a person is either pushed to change their behavior so they fall inside the norm or they are rejected and made into an outsider, a process referred to as "otherization". To be abnormal is to be looked down upon and segregated, so the desire to be normal impacts just about every part of our life and the choices we make at some level, though we are almost never aware of the fact that we’re doing this.

A quick search on Amazon reveals that over 603,000 books have “normal” in their titles, and though these days many of these books are about deconstructing the idea of normal, the average layperson, like that participant in my panel, believes that being normal means to be right and good, so clearly as a society we’re a long way from understanding what it really means. I tend to not only ask what people do when faced with certain questions, but also what they don’t do, since that’s as important if not more important than what actually occurs. And since we tend to take norms at face value no one ever seems to ask who came up with those norms or why, and the process of trying to define and analyze them is a fundamental principle of sociology.

So, the next time you hear the word “normal”, take a moment to consider just what’s being implied by it, and whether it’s being used to simply describe something that’s viewed as typical, or if it has another purpose and is being used to classify people as good or bad.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Transsexual Rights, Social Order and Political Compromise

Recently in the news it came to light that the Human Rights Campaign has adopted a policy on the inclusion of trans-inclusive protections in the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), and have said that they will not support the Act if it does not include trans protection. This is a reversal of a 2007 decision to support the Act without trans protection, and the backlash over the original decision was immense, leading to the resignation of several prominent members of the HRC and intense criticism from the LGBT community.

The HRC’s official statement on the matter is that the 2007 decision was a “one time exception” made because of the political climate of the time and the belief that ENDA would pass with sexual orientation defined and the trans protections left out. Though they have been lauded for this new development and the fact that they've rescinded their original policy, the memory of their 2007 stance is still fresh in the minds of many, and is symptomatic of a major rift in the LGBT community between the LGB and the T.

Within every social movement and political movement there are lines drawn and loyalties defined, and inevitably someone is left out or seen as expendable. In this case the transgender communities felt betrayed by the HRC’s refusal to push for inclusion in ENDA, and as in this case very often the ones who are left out are also the most vulnerable. This was nearly the case in the Women’s Rights Movement and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment, and lesbians almost found themselves thrown under the bus for the sake of political advancement, though it was thankfully averted at the last moment, and perhaps because of that the Amendment died in the water. And now some gays have similarly turned on the trans community when passage of ENDA is so close, but it doesn't have to be that way.

A way of understanding this phenomenon can be found in the social order theory, which states that certain groups move upwards as they gain more prominence and acceptance within society. I grew up near a town that was a perfect example of this theory in action: The top of the hill was the most desirable place to live, and through the decades the ethnic makeup the area changed from white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to Catholic and Irish and later people of color, first wealthy African Americans and then Asians. At the moment the people below the hill are mainly Hispanic and Caribbean, though some of them have begun to advance up the hill. Within that town we see a snapshot of American culture and cultural acceptance, with those at the top of the hill being “true” Americans while those below are still struggling to assert their place within our society.

The state of the LGBT community can similarly be seen as tiered. At the top are “regular” gays and lesbians, people who can “pass” for straight and are seen as culturally acceptable by Americans who don’t mind a gay person as long as they “act straight” (note the quotation marks in the last sentence and throughout this article). This is the type most commonly seen in the media and the least likely to arouse extreme hatred. Following these are the ones seen as flamboyant or behave outside their expected gender role, and in this level the possibility of retaliation is much higher, and jokes and stereotypes about this group are more widely accepted. Following them are bisexuals, and besides facing persecution within the LGBT community, many people still doubt the existence of true bisexuality and not just “confusion” or “indecisiveness”. This is also expressed in media, which has a continuing reluctance to accept that some people are attracted to both men and women and are under no obligation to "choose" a "side".

We then get to the T, and even below them are the Is, the Intersexuals. While it can be said that most people have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of transsexuality the same cannot be said of Intersexuals, who sometimes find themselves subjected to persecution by transsexuals. No one is talking about intersexual rights at the moment in any national venue, so instead it's the transsexuals who most often find themselves left out and discarded for the sake of “advancing the cause” and securing rights of the “majority”.

Perhaps in the case of transsexuals (and by extension, intersexuals) a certain amount of this can be attributed to just how deeply rooted the concept of a binary male/female gender system is, so by extension those who cross gender lines are seen as a threat by people who might accept gay men and women as long as they act like men and women respectively. Mainly, though, this can be seen as another manifestation of the social order, and the desire for one group to advance itself even if that means sacrificing some of its allies.

This is in no way meant to excuse that behavior, as I said the most unjust part of this is that those who are the most vulnerable are the ones left behind, but it is simply in the nature of our current political system for the fringes to be discarded. In presidential elections both parties will attempt to distance themselves from the far right and far left once they clinch the nomination in an attempt to reach for the all-important center and the majority in the national election. Any group that enters the national stage will eventually do this, but in cases such as this the abandonment of the vulnerable should rightly be thought as sickening and threatening to the very purpose of the group itself, which is to ensure protection for all people regardless of any personal qualities or identity. What the HRC did in 2007 was a betrayal, plain and simple, and though they are now making a valiant attempt to rectify it the memory won't fade any time soon, and the HRC's reputation will remain low within the LGBT community until they show that they will not do this again.

I end with an applicable and well-known quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

New Layout and Relaunch

Thanks to my friend kawakiisakazuki of TrueFork.org we now have a proper banner, complete with a chibi version of myself. Looking a bit more professional now, and while I was at it I changed the layout to better match it.

So, in light of that I declare this the second launch of this blog. I have a few posts in the works that I'll try to get out between end of the semester work, as well as the launch of a new series, "What Does that Really Mean?" along with the usual stand alone posts.

So, new look, new content, let's get started!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

LGBT College Students and Roommate Problems

I actually wrote this piece a while ago, but having just served on a panel for a higher education class where I brought up this issue I’ve been thinking about it again. Hopefully some of the people in that class will took what I said and try to apply it to their careers.

Growing up as an LGBT kid in the U.S. is largely defined by fear. Fear of what might happen if you come out to your parents, your extended family, your friends or your co-workers, and a sense of having a Sword of Damocles over your head that could drop if you come out to the wrong person or are too public about your orientation. A major way this comes into play occurs in the transitional period of moving to college, when LGBT students usually find themselves rooming with strangers who they know little about and who know little about them. The worst fear of any LGBT kid is that they could end up with a homophobe who will be violent or negatively affect their college experience, and there have been far too many cases of LGBT students leaving college altogether because of harassment from roommates and peers to simply dismiss these fears as overblown or unimportant, but in my experience the responses by administrators to this problem tend to be nonexistent, lackluster or outright dismissive.

This is a personal issue for me, since I worried about it at the beginning of my freshman year, to the point that I sent a letter to the people in charge of room assignments stating my concerns and making it clear that should a potential roommate have a problem with me I would gladly allow them to live with someone else. I never heard a word back from them and spent a good deal of time worrying about it both before and after moving in, to the point that it negatively affected my relationships with the first group of people I roomed with, who eventually moved out for unrelated reasons still not knowing that I was gay, since I'd been too scared to come out to them. I’m glad to say that the second set of roommates I ended up with were very accepting, wonderful people who also turned out to be LGBT allies, but I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve heard enough stories from my LGBT friends to say that I was far from alone when it came to roommate concerns, and in most cases the only time the issues was addressed was after something had already happened, in most cases leaving behind a level of trauma for the LGBT student and leaving them feeling unsafe in their own dorm rooms.

I’ve thought about ways to relieve this sort of stress, and probably the simplest solution would be for the usual questions about your lifestyle (what time you go to bed, whether you like to study in your room with music on, etc.) to include something along the lines of “Would you be comfortable living with an LGBT student?” with Yes and No checkboxes. It’s brief, painless, and it allows people who would have serious concerns to get them out in the open.

But despite how seemingly simple this would be to implement, several times when I’ve suggested it to people who work on the dorm staff they’ve reacted negatively to the idea, and as far as I know no college currently uses a question of this kind on their applications. I realize that their are logistical and privacy issues involved, but even with that in mind some of the responses I've gotten have been downright dismissive of the very problem a method like this would be trying to address. A justification I heard for not including it from one person in an administrative position was that college is a learning experience, so it’s good for kids to live with people who aren’t like them and have different backgrounds. This year I've had the opportunity to live with two people of very different ethnic and social backgrounds than myself, and that has been positive and eye opening experience, but I draw the line at the point when my physical and emotional safety is considered less important than someone else’s “learning experience”, not to mention the fact that it diminishes the very real fear that an LGBT student faces when they’re forced to live with someone who might hurt them.

One criticism that I’ve seen leveled at LGBT students who bring this up is that they should just come out and state their orientations right from the start, but this is a case of things being much easier said than done. I made it a point to state my orientation on my Facebook profile for precisely this reason, but other people clearly don’t pay as much attention to the “interested in” line as I do, since I still meet people I’ve added on Facebook who react with surprise when I say that I’m gay and dating another girl. Clearly that method doesn’t work at getting the information out there, and it puts an unfair burden on us to have to check with each individual person we might live with when what we should be doing is concentrating on enjoying our college experience. Forcing us to “take responsibility” for our safety in our own dorms only marginalizes us further and increases the fear that if something happens to us we’ll have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We’re not asking to be coddled, all we want is to have our fears acknowledged and have some way to address them before something happens to us.

Besides that, the process of coming out is extremely scary, and I’ve compared it to dealing with a live landmine to try and get across how you just never know how people will react. Practically all the people I’ve chosen to come out to have had absolutely no problem with it, but there’s always the fear that there might be someone who would do serious harm to you out there, and just as you can never tell if someone is gay until they tell you it’s equally hard to spot the violent homophobes. We all know the stories of the Matthew Shepards and the Gwen Araujos, and the last thing we want to worry about is becoming a victim in our own dorm rooms, and I’ve heard far too many horror stories to dismiss homophobia on college campuses as being either uncommon or isolated incidents.

What I’m proposing wouldn’t solve all of the problems LGBT youth face on campuses, but it would help relieve a fear that no kid should have to go through when they begin their college careers. I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation to be able to feel safe in the places where we live regardless of our orientation.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A step forward for International Gay Rights

It appears that the U.S. is finally starting to catch up with the rest of the Western world on human rights and LGBT people. President Obama has said that the U.S. is going to sign onto a U.N. Gay Rights Declaration, stating that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under international human rights protections. This act also calls for the universal repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality and other so-called “Sodomy Laws” that allow for the prosecutions and murders of gays, lesbians and transgender people around the world.

It should be noted that earlier the Bush Administration did not sign onto this declaration under the justification of “technical legal grounds concerning federal and state jurisdiction over gay rights.” Excuse me while I roll my eyes at that and the suggestion that the states should be allowed to decide if they can execute me for being gay.

Over 60 other countries signed on to this declaration at the time it was proposed, and the ones who haven’t are places like Egypt, The Vatican, Uganda and other countries I won’t be visiting anytime soon. There are also some people using the old “Slippery Slope” argument to justify not signing it, but that’s an issue for another day.

Gender Identity, Intersexuality and Sports

There was a story in The Advocate yesterday about the controversy surrounding Sarah Gronert, a tennis player who was born with both male and female genitalia (also known as being born intersexed). This semester I’ve been in a college course about the Philosophy of Race and Gender, and one subject we’ve looked at is the way intersexed people are treated in our society. Gronert is facing controversy because some people are claiming that she’s not a “real” woman because of her physical strength, and that shouldn’t be allowed to play against other women as a result. To me this is a perfect example of the way our society treats intersexed people and the issues they face in our society.

Among the people who fall under the ever-growing umbrella term of LGBTQI, intersexed people get the least attention and have the least known about them by the general public. Historically intersexed people have often had to pick a gender role and are not allowed to express their identity for fear of retaliation. There have been cases of intersexed people being put to death if they refuse to conform, and it's an accepted practice for an intersexed baby to undergo surgery to "correct" their genitalia before they are old enough to give consent, and it's claimed that this is done to insure their quality of life. But despite the fact that Gronert has undergone surgery to become more female she's being treated with hostility, and as this story shows, some people are going to so far as to claim that she’s “really” a man despite legally identifying as a woman and living as a woman.

Do other people have the right to define who you are? This has been a fundamental question posed in my class and in this story, and I cannot in good conscience say that other people do have that right. From a sociological standpoint the forcing of intersexed people to choose a gender identity is a way to reinforce gender norms, since by their very nature intersexed people call our strict male/female gender dichotomy into question. In this case the idea that she’s a “threat” to the convention is made clear by the reactions of other people to her, but whether or not she does have a physical advantage because of her body structure I think is irrelevant compared to the way she’s being treated and how people are trying to define her identity for her.

I’ve posed the question of whether it really would be so bad to allow intersexed people to live openly and express their identity, but the recent elections have shown that we still have a long way to go when it comes to just tackling male/female gender differences, issues surrounding homosexuality, and the treatment of transgendered people, so unfortunately it appears that any sort of intersexed movement that might tackle issues such as this will have to wait for a time when they can make their voices heard.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dora the Explorer, Tomboyism and Gender Policing

A minor event that caught my attention this week was the unveiling of at “Tween” version of everyone’s favorite bilingual elementary schooler Dora the Explorer, and the resulting kerfluffle started by parents over it. But besides allegations of turning her into a mini street walker, a thing I didn’t see people focusing on were some of the wider implications of this new look and what it tells our young girls. It’s being touted that she’s now 10 and “grown out of” being a shorts-wearing tomboy and is now obsessed with fashion, friends, and all the things girls are supposed to obsess over at that age. I grew up in the late 1990s, and was by most accounts a tomboy myself, and even back then I noticed that once I hit middle school it suddenly became unacceptable for a girl to be a tomboy, we had to “grow up” and start acting like “real women.”

A necessary disclaimer at this point is that I am not, for the most part never have been, and do not try to be what’s considered a “proper” girl or woman, in part because I happen to be dating another very wonderful girl at the moment, and that tends to put a bit of a crowbar between me and conventional definitions of femininity by default. I’m also what would usually be classified as butch, though I do have my feminine aspects and am not afraid to embrace those. I think I’m a healthy distance from the usual expectations as a result, so I tend to look at these things with a sociologist’s eye and try to figure out just what function they serve in society. Back when I was 10 to 12, however, I tried to fall into what was being touted as correct for my gender and tried to get into fashion and makeup, or to quote a friend of mine, “Let the programming begin!”

Now of course if you refuse to go along with it the insults begin, and at about the same time I realized that being a tomboy at that age was culturally unacceptable I had my first experience of homophobia. In retrospect the girls who first introduced me to the term “lesbo” were absolutely right, but we didn’t know that at the time and it doesn’t change the fact that they were using the term as a slur, a way of categorizing an outsider and a deviant.

Girls who refuse to conform to the expectations of femininity and continue being tomboys after the acceptable age often find themselves accused of being lesbians, and by extension defective women. This is what’s referred to by sociologists as “boundary policing”, and this sort of behavior extends beyond gender and racial definitions into all sort of groups that seek to define themselves against others and decide who’s in and who’s out. This in itself isn’t bad, but this behavior can very often be used to reinforce existing norms of behavior and allow them to go unquestioned, even if they’re in drastic need of a reevaluation.

So what does this have to do with Dora? The media is possibly the largest source of boundary policing in our culture, and it plays a huge role in shaping what we think we “should” look like, feel like and act like. The extent of the reaction against the image projected by this new Dora doll shows how many parents rely on this character to help their children through childhood, so there’s little doubt that Dora’s influence is huge. I’m not disturbed by the feminizing that Dora has been subjected to in and of itself, but rather it’s the idea that a little girl not unlike what I used to be like might be given this doll and start to doubt herself and her puddle hopping and frog collecting hobbies and trade them in for makeup and fashion not because she wants to, but because she thinks she has to.

I eventually said “screw this” to what was expected of me and chopped all my hair off when I was 15, but in my middle school years I felt that I had to become obsessed with makeup, fashion and boys, and when I found that I didn’t really care for any of those I started thinking something was wrong with me, which no doubt contributed to the depression I was already struggling with.

So my main questions about this “new” Dora are about what it’s really trying to accomplish, and if the little tomboy girls who have followed this character are about to find themselves pushed into a box that they don’t necessarily fit into, and if parents really want to enforce such a strict definition of femininity.

A brief introduction

I supposed a brief introduction is in order. I was raised in Massachusetts and am currently attending college in Boston, I'm a sociology major and a philosophy minor, both of my parents were journalists, I am a brunette, a gay woman and I wear glasses.

This blog will mainly serve as a place I can put the various musings I have on subjects like gender, sexual orientation, politics and whatever else happens to catch my fancy. Since I'm being trained in sociology I tend to look at things through that sort of lens, so expect to see a lot of talk about norms and societal expectations. It will likely update sporadically, but since my thoughts about these subjects happen frequently they'll likely be new material fairly often.

So, have fun, play nice, and let's see what I manage to come up with!