Category Archives: movement building

Johnny Weir Comes Out: Why We Need a Queer Movement

“We’re here, we’re queer, get over it!”

This used to be a rallying cry for the gay and lesbian liberation movement, but I think it’s high time we appropriate it for something different.  “Liberation” is supposed to be a lofty goal, a formative moment in the life cycle, but in fact it’s become a prison cell.  The more I hear from the gay and lesbian movement, the more disillusioned with it I become.  It’s time for something new.

Johnny Weir Comes Out, Gay Media Pitches Fit

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  For years, the gay media has been annoyed with American figure skater Johnny Weir for refusing to self-define as gay, while mainstream journalists can’t say one sentence about Weir without a cutesy comment about fashion or mannerisms–all code for “wink wink, he’s a big ole homo.”  In fact, I’m looking over my shoulder right now, waiting for the Associated Press to issue me a fine for not including the adjective “flamboyant” in front of Weir’s name in this blog post.

Yesterday, Weir finally “came out” when selections from an upcoming issue of People magazine were leaked.  What did said gay media, waiting all this time for Weir to finally stand up and be counted, feel about this revelation?  Well, relief, of course, because Johnny Weir coming out means that the gay media can  finally “write about [and] appreciate” him.  After all, without making a public statement about his sexuality, “[h]ow could he be considered a role model?”

Talk about damning with feint praise.  What I find so insidious about that After Elton article, and others like it, is that any closet around Johnny Weir is entirely constructed around Weir by the same gay media that criticizes him for not coming out of it–as well, of course, as the mainstream media that describes his competitors’ talents and masculine strength in an Olympic report while only mentioning Weir’s love for Lady Gaga or his hairdo.

It’s important to note that Johnny Weir never said he was in a closet.  He never said that he was straight or gay.  He consistently uses quotation marks around the word closet, and in response to the leak he Tweeted the following:

I don’t remember ever pretending to be something other than I am, nor do I remember living with my coats inside a wardrobe. I just live.

In a world where heterosexual is normal, queer celebrities are necessarily “in the closet” if they don’t discuss their sexuality in public.  When a celebrity says nothing, the assumption is that he or she is trying to imply straightness. What I find such a shame is what Weir said in the People article about how he was talking about his sexuality now in part because he wants to be a role model to the queer adolescents that are considering suicide.  I find it devastating that someone would have to use the word “gay” to be a role model, but I also see exactly where he’s coming from.  Kids are raised in this black and white, homosexual/heterosexual world.  Even bisexuality is misunderstood, not to mention pansexuality, queerness, and differing gender expressions.  Weir is out there being himself, doing what he wants to do, being a role model for kids–but society’s blinders say that he’s closeted, send a message to adolescents that I doubt Weir himself would ever approve.

Johnny Weir has become one of my role models because he does blur lines of gender and sexuality.  As a genderqueer person coming to terms with my own gender, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a public figure being so defiant, refusing to let others put a box around his neck.  I love the way he demands that the focus be put on his interests, his projects, his creativity, and not his identity labels.  Even in the People article that tries so hard to fit him into a typical coming out narrative, he stirs that up a bit by talking about different aspects of himself, the things he loves, the traits that transcend a simple gendered picture.

Again: we’re here, we’re queer, get over it.  It’s time for those of us who don’t fit in boxes to start our own movement.

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On Activism Beyond Your Interests

I was thinking today about some of the areas of activism that I’m interested in, and how I found them “boring” or just not important to me several years ago.  One thing I’ve learned as an activist is that not only is intersectionality important, but it’s a good idea to get involved with things that don’t necessarily seem “interesting” to you, or like “your topics.”  Here are three reasons why:

  1. Internalized prejudice. We all have nasty little prejudices that we don’t like to think about.  We may have learned them from the media, our parents, our education, or religion, or almighty “society.”  We may therefore bump certain issues off the priority list because they don’t concern us, when in fact it’s that nasty prejudice talking.
  2. Ignorance. On a highly related note, often we’re not interested in things we know nothing about.  For example, I didn’t care much about fat activism, eating disorders, disability, or immigration for a long time because those things didn’t affect me directly.  They became issues I care about because the more I read about those issues, the more I could see how problematic mainstream views are and how much those issues really do push my buttons.  Not only can you learn interesting things about another culture, community, or problem by doing “unfamiliar activism,” but you might find a new perspective for looking at your own life and your current activist goals.
  3. Coalition building. Activism lives and dies by the passions of those involved.  It’s difficult to work for a particular goal when you only involve people who are directly affected by a problem, know that they are affected, identify strongly with the group, and have the time and energy to work towards the goal.  We all need to get involved in each other’s causes, and when we work for our own, we need to be aware of the needs and interests of everyone working towards a cause.  I’ve seen some activists claiming to be focusing on a “tight goal” or “narrowly defined cause” shoot themselves in the foot when they later get the deserved label of a white feminist movement, or a transphobic queer group.  A similar problem happens in academia when researchers don’t tell it like it is–if you’re investigating the health of straight white middle class women, for example, be frank about your population.  Don’t claim to represent everyone if you’re only focusing on a limited group.

Fighting to Gain Equal Access to Problematic Institutions

I’ve been encouraged by the recent outpouring of feeling and response from politicians, community leaders, and “regular people” regarding queer teen suicide.  Of course, part of me thinks “wow, what a big fucking case of too little, too late” and another part can’t help but notice that none of the trans or intersex teen suicides seem to be making the headlines.   But I think it’s important that we recognize that every day, the basic rights of queer people are violated.  For years, the most important “gay issues” to me have been suicide, hate crimes, and discrimination.  But those haven’t been the “sexy issues,” and they don’t get talked about.

I seem to spend half my time in queer activist circles ranting about marriage and the military, but in reality, the problem I have with privileging those two issues goes beyond the issues themselves.  Whenever any group is working for equal rights, there comes the question of what people in that group want equal rights to. When the answer is access to an institution, the equality fight can be problematic if the institution itself is problematic.

I personally have big issues with both marriage and the military as a radical, a pacifist, a feminist, and someone who believes in community action and organizing but can be suspicious of state involvement in private lives.  The US military is an imperialist machine, while marriage is a patriarchal institution that grants the state control over interpersonal relationships and gender relations.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with an individual wanting to marry, or to join the military.  It falls along the same lines of being pro-sex workers, but anti-exploitation.  Of course, equal access means equal access to our society’s most problematic institutions, as well as those we most fervently believe in.

From an organizing perspective, this means that there are going to be some challenges.  My response is to privately support queer people who want to join the military or marry, while avoiding those issues professionally and choosing queer rights issues that I can wholeheartedly get behind.  At the same time, part of my response is to be an activist against patriarchy and imperialism, for feminism and racial equality and peace.  Part of that is creating options that accommodate people who do want to join the military or marry, for example by coming up with creative solutions for state recognition of a greater diversity of relationships or by creating opportunities for young people to make a living and attend college that don’t require unjustified violence against people of color.

Why Is Same-Sex Marriage a Priority?

I know I’ve mentioned here before that I get frustrated by the emphasis on marriage and the military in the gay rights movement, two issues that don’t really matter to me personally and in some ways seem less important than other issues (like decriminalization of sodomy around the world, like HIV prevention, like hate crimes prevention, like non-discrimination laws). But aside from that, I was just wondering, why marriage? Obviously it’s an important institution in our society, but I find it interesting that it happens to be the marker of how the gay rights movement is progressing around the world. A lot of countries in Latin America, for example, have really impressive laws about hate crimes and non-discrimination, but that doesn’t get emphasized in the news at all, while a new country getting same-sex marriage is automatically a big deal.

We interrupt this long radio silence for some breaking news…

Eeeee!  The IGLHRC has UN lobbying accreditation!  This is huge, y’all!  Despite my total lack of confidence in LGBT rights in my own country, it seems like the world is really starting to move.  I love the creative activism going on in Latin America, especially, but really all over the world.

More from me soon, I promise.  A new job and some personal exploration have put me out of commission for a bit, but I’m not dead yet 😀

International Women’s Day

I don’t actually have much to say specifically this year for International Women’s Day, but here are some suggestions of easy things you can do to advance the rights of women.

  • Arm yourself with information.  Read a book about a group of women you’re not familiar with, or about a particular area of women’s rights, or read up on an activist organization working to advance the rights of women.
  • Volunteer with a local organization. Planned Parenthood often does phonebanking or needs volunteers to serve as escorts.  Women’s shelters are always looking for folks to serve food, clean up, or serve in more long-term capacities.  If you have some extra time, consider a long-term volunteer gig or unpaid internship where you can develop skills and contribute simultaneously.
  • Get creative with activism. Identify an a cause you can get behind at school, at your workplace, or in your community.  Maybe it’s raising money to get clean birthing kits for refugees through the Marie Stopes Foundation.  Maybe it’s lobbying for unisex bathrooms to support transgendered individuals at work or on campus.  Maybe it’s distributing information about safe sex.
  • Talk to your family. Speak up about women’s rights issues with your loved ones.  If someone says something sexist and doesn’t know, call them on it.  If you’re a parent, teach your children (male and female) about consent and sexuality.  Defeating rape culture starts at home.

On Being Out at Work and Other Thoughts

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rachel Maddow’s success, and some of that talk has involved the fact that she’s an out lesbian.  In lesbian circles, some of the talk has involved the fact that her lesbianism isn’t discussed more, and how that’s a good thing.  

I was thinking about coming out in a high profile position, because it’s a thought I’ve had in the past.  I’ve asked for advice before about disclosing my sexual orientation in relation to any possible future political role, but I’ve never felt all that serious about the question.  The fact is that I am out, and I’m never not going to be out, and I’m young enough to believe honestly that my orientation will not disqualify me for any serious position in an organization like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, or others for which I’d like to work.

I do think that there is a timing thing to how people feel about being publicly out, and my guess is that more out politicians and policymakers will show up in the near future.  Some have commented on how Obama’s transition website includes a hiring policy that mentions non-discrimination based on orientation or gender identity.  I agree that that’s great.  I also expect more people to take advantage of it.

I was born smack dab in the middle of the 1980s.  I grew up in the 1990s, a time when a lot of bad stuff was happening to gay people – legislatively as well as in schools and communities – but also a time when gay people were suddenly very visible.  I know that I used to joke “he’s gay” or “she’s gay” and think gay people were gross up until 13 or 14, but I also remember seeing gay people on TV and being kind of silently curious.  Not with relation to myself, but gay people seemed glamorous and interesting.  The image I recall is of shirtless men in cut-off shorts with cool haircuts holding hands in California or somewhere.  I have no idea whether it was the news or a TV show or what, but gay seemed at least borderline acceptable.

The beauty of my generation’s timing is that we had some inkling that gays were coming out of the woodwork, and that gay just might be a bad thing, but we were young enough not to know about those bad things that were happening.  Anita Bryant and AIDS panic didn’t mean anything to me, really.  By the time I found out just how bad things are for homosexuals in our country, I was an out and proud lesbian.  Even through my teenage and college years, I honestly believed that though there was discrimination in my home region, this country generally was starting to really accept gays.  I believed that gay rights had come a long way and that we were pretty much home free.  A lot of that comes from the fact that allies in my parents’ generation, including my parents, have the impression that gay rights have come a very long way, and they have a point.  My mom recognizes that we have a way to go, but she grew up in a time where there would be no way to have a job and be openly gay at the same time.  

I was thinking about Harvey Milk, and the openly gay Durham councilman whose name I can’t remember, and the few scattered gay and lesbian politicians.  I think that there will be more.  Everytime I hear about a gay person in politics, I’m shocked.  I’m used to gay actors and singers by now, but politics is a new playing field.  I think we’re slowly beginning to inhabit it, because we do have non-discrimination policies, and we have people who are willing to hire us.  And then there are people like me, who just don’t think anything of it anymore when we “come out.”  We see ourselves as already out.  A classmate the other day told me that he couldn’t believe my courage for coming out in class the other day, and I was confused.  I had mentioned my own orientation as a tangent to make a point, and didn’t think anything of it.  I am gay.  Nothing’s going to change that, and I wouldn’t want anything to.

Still, I recognize the challenges behind us and the challenges ahead.  I think of the Southern minister who did so much selfless work for his community and was unable to share his sexual orientation during his lifetime because people wouldn’t get it.  I think of a mentor who couldn’t disclose his orientation as a public school teacher in North Carolina because non-discrimination policy or no, it wasn’t worth the risk.  I think of the high school friend who was beaten to within an inch of his life because it never occurred to him to seek closets when there was a wide open stage and an audience waiting to witness his talent.  To me, being open about who I am is no great heroic act, but I recognize that to some it is a struggle, and to others an insurmountable obstacle.  I hope that the openness and tolerance of some men and women will allow me to gain a position where I can effect change one day, so that other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people are able to seek employment or public office without even giving a thought to whether disclosure is prudent.  

I found it difficult to be optimistic on Wednesday morning, when I watched our rights wash away with the coming of the tide, but this is a new week, and I’m ready to put my best foot forward.  Two steps forward, one step back, but eventually that amounts to progress.

I close with a snippet from a friend’s e-mail.  I hope he won’t mind my sharing:

My great great grandmother was a slave, my great grandmother was a sharecropper in Louisiana, my grandmother got an eighth grade education in segregated schools and worked in the cafeteria of the “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA, my mother went to the segregated “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA and I went to the high school in the same building that was built as the segregated “Black high school” Alexandria, LA. I never imagined I’d see a day like Tuesday, 5 November 2008. And yet, it happened in my lifetime.

Yes it did.  And I have hope that many more great things will happen in mine.

Thoughts on essentialization, rights, and hopes for LGBT Americans

Throughout the coming year, I’ll probably be bouncing around thoughts on this space as I prepare for my Student Note with the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice.  Tonight, I have some observations in three areas.

The first deals directly with gay rights, and it was a bit of an emotional crisis I had the other night.  I had been receiving some conflicting messages about the extent to which our Notes can pertain to an international issue.  That’s since been cleared up, but at the time I was asking myself – can I write a domestic issue?  Well I could write about a domestic issue.  So I started doing some searches in legal databases for the issues to see if there was anything interesting I could write about.  I’m not saying that there isn’t, but a lot of what was coming up were the same issues – marriage, adoption, IVF, the military, discrimination, hate crimes, immigration.  All important topics that I believe in.  So why do I find it hard to write about domestic issues?

It’s like putting a bandaid on a corpse.  I believe, and I am a pessimist and sincerely hope that I’m wrong, but I believe that each of these issues, though solveable, will not help the situation in this country all that much.  They will provide individual solutions for individual problems.  People will be able to get married, or serve in the military.  But this will not change the systemic hatred, intolerance, violence, ignorance, and annoyance towards LGBT Americans.  The discrimination is persistent, it is terrible, and it is real.  It may be more obvious in certain pockets of the country, but it exists everywhere.  Everywhere, young LGBT Americans are terrified to come out to their peers.  Adults experience the same fear, and with just reason.  When I started thinking about the possibilities, it only made me upset.  Of course LGBT people face discrimination all over the world, but this is so close to home.  This is my own experiences, my communities, my adolescence.  It’s hard to look in the eye.  Like other minority groups, I think this struggle will take us hundreds of years, and it may never fully be over.  That’s difficult to think about.

Another thought I had when thinking about my Note topic was how I wrote in my application for the Journal about the essentialization of identity.  I’m wondering if I haven’t started to essentialize my own identity.  The more out I become, the more I make myself a poster child for lesbianism.  I’ve been able to embrace being the gay one in the room.  I’m cool with that.  But it becomes “my issue,” and other parts of who I am – female, Southern, etc – disappear into the background.  It doesn’t change the fact that I want to write about an LGBT issue, but it does make me wonder what I’m missing by “zooming in” so much.

Finally, just a general observation about human rights.  I’m seeing two complementary views of human rights that I hadn’t before, and I’d like to share them.  One, which I’ve understood and held very dear for a while, is the concept that rights do not have to be enjoyed by anyone to exist.  People say “but if human rights are universal, there must be very few, since people don’t really have most of the rights on the list.”  My response is that they have the rights, they just aren’t recognized or enforced.  African slaves had the fundamental human right to liberty throughout their enslavement in the United States, but that right was violated.  Women have the right to be treated humanely and not discriminated against, but they do not fully enjoy that right in many places.  It doesn’t mean they don’t have it.  The second view, however, is an interesting one that I haven’t thought about as much.  That view is that rights can come from practice, even where they are not recognized by the law.  A scholar on Mexico, Speed (Sharon, I think?), makes this point in relation to the Zapatistas in Mexico.  They took over their communities and implemented human rights, and then told the government that they didn’t need to negotiate for legislation protecting them.  They had the right and so they were going to implement it themselves.  Interesting food for thought.

ps – Lesbian Book Club folks, I’ve posted my thoughts on Stir-Fry here.  Feel free to chime in if you’ve read it, and if you’re reading or planning to go at your own pace and post your thoughts whenever you get to it.  No pressure.  (Don’t forget to log-in to access the link).

Recognizing and Working Against Internal Racism

I would by no stretch of the imagination consider myself a racist, but like anyone I have internal prejudices, whether a product of socialization, education, experience, or whatever else.  When I was a teenager, I would say that “no!  I would never have a racist thought!” and then feel terribly guilty when I had one.  I do from time to time have such a thought now, and feel guilty, but I’m trying to figure out more productive ways to address and confront my own racist thoughts so that I can be more effective at fighting against racism externally, whether in the gay community or elsewhere.

I’d like to note, incidentally, that any racism on my part has nothing at all to do with my parents.  They raised me to be colorblind, and to respect everyone.  As I got older, I learned to go beyond colorblindness, and to embrace and respect and learn from everyone’s backgrounds, whether race, nationality, ethnicity, hometown, etc etc.  I’m sure I got some racist messages from school and the media, but for the most part it’s a couple of unfortunate experiences that I tried hard to block out, and wonder now if I should in some way confront instead.

When I was a kid, I went to a school in a neighborhood where I was in the minority, and I was a perfectly happy camper.  Most of my friends were black or Latina, and I didn’t really understand race in elementary school.  I told my mom that one of my friends was black, and the other was “brown,” because I was just analyzing how their skin tone physically looked to me.  My best friend in the neighborhood was also black.  Unfortunately, after that experience, I went to two schools that were probably 97% white.  One was a magnet school, and the other was a charter high school for academically gifted kids.  

One of the negative experiences I had was when I was eleven, and a fourteen-year-old boy upstairs who was black became my friend and then wanted to be my girlfriend.  I should point out that I said yes, so he wasn’t doing anything wrong, really.  Nothing was his fault, personally.  I just didn’t know how to say “no.”  So we kissed a couple of times, and I felt uncomfortable, and then when we were with another friend of his (that friend was white, incidentally), he touched my breast while the other friend smirked and the guy’s six-year-old brother looked rather embarrassed.  After that, I was extremely freaked out, and started having nightmares about rape.  Again, no fault of that individual whatsoever, I just didn’t know what I was doing and unfortunately it triggered a negative association.  I shoved the memory down into the recesses of my brain, but as a teenager I ended up having a generalized fear of black men.

The second incident involved a coworker, also a black man, who flirted a lot, kept trying to get rides with me, would occasionally attempt a grope, and also happened to be a cocaine dealer.  Now he did do something wrong.  He shouldn’t have been trying to touch me.  But that said, I do think it fed into my stereotype.  I have a bad habit, when I pass someone who has a certain look – usually but not always black or Latino, wearing certain clothes, smirking in a certain way – to be frightened.  I smile, but I walk a little more quickly.  I should note that I’ve had several great black male friends since that time, and one adult black male role model when I was an undergrad, and so it’s not so much that I’m afraid of black men.  It’s just a certain “type” that gives me the heebie-jeebies, and I want to try to get that out of my head.

So I’m wondering – any suggestions?  Anyone else been able to successfully combat this sort of internal racism, or do any people of color have any thoughts?  I’m starting to write and talk more about how lesbians of color have been marginalized in the gay community, but I feel that it’s unfair to accuse others of racism when I haven’t dealt with this problem in my own head.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, another slam poem, this one much more safe for work, and more on the humorous side.

Right to Pride

I’ve been reading some great books about gay history, and more on that later, but for now I just wanted to re-post a comment I made on Queers United‘s blog about the question of what we say to straight people who ask us why we have to have a Pride celebration:

Like many things dealing with sexuality, it depends a lot on the individual. Some people center their entire lives around sexuality, or around the broader concept sexuality represent (some lesbians, for example, pride themselves on a woman-identified lifestyle, live in a self-sustaining all-female commune, create with women artists, etc). For others, sexuality is only a small part of identity. Some may consider other parts of their identity a bigger deal (nationality, race, sex, gender identity, etc etc). 

Personally, I consider my lesbianism to be a big part of my life. This is because I am active in gay and women’s rights, I think a lot about those subjects, I read about them, and I’m involved in the gay community to some extent. But I think the thing about the Pride question, specifically, is that there is a better answer than “this is just one part of our lives.” My answer would be that we have a parade because we have been attacked by the straight majority, and straight culture does not ALLOW many of us to celebrate on an average day. Most people do not have the luxury of kissing on the street or even holding hands like straight people do. Pride is also a celebration of our history, of our struggle. It grew out of Stonewall and a time where gay people said “we won’t take it anymore.” I don’t say to straight people “this is just one part of who I am,” instead I say “being gay is a more important part of my identity than being straight is an important part of yours, because I am forced to think about it.” Being straight is a default. It isn’t an issue. Sure, straight people can celebrate if they want to, but the fact is, they do – they celebrate in their weddings and anniversary parties. They bring their partners to events and no one asks any questions. All I’m asking for is one day of the year to feel normal. That’s what I’d say to a straight person who attacks our right to pride.