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Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day.  Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out.  The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years.  So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.

Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act

Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)?  Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.

I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish.  She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely.  To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone.  But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes.  (Other than that, I loved her talk!)

Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish.  She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me.  Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents.   (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.)  Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.

So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families.  And, a queer person is selfish if they come out.  I guess.  Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?

Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish

I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.

That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth.  A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.

When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.”  At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity.  We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”

Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance.  Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out.  It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.

More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different.  The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work.  So, the big guns have to come out.  We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc…  Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted.  Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity.  Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.

Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions.  The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.

Thinking Critically

As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context.  In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society.  Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).

As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities.  For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out.  For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.

So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.

Concluding Thoughts

My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people.  But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out.  Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to navigate survive in this world.  There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences.  Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out.  Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not.  And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.

Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make.  If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people.  We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!

Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.

Resilience: It Gets Better Because We Make It Better

Hope

Sociologist Tey Meadow‘s recent op-ed at Huffington Post makes an important point.  It is critically important that we acknowledge and address the bullying, harassment, and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming youth that, in turn, results in their elevated risk for suicidality, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, among other threats to their health and well-being.  However, it is also of critical importance to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways in which LGBTQ youth are surviving and thriving, embracing their individual and community resiliency.

In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?

This call for broadening our focus on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ youth comes after yet another tragic suicide of a queer teenager.  Eric James Borges took his own life last week.  What makes this tragedy more unsettling is that he interned for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicides, and created his own “It Gets Bettervideo.  As Meadows makes clear, we must continue to change the current social and political climate that demonizes LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities — this means society at large, as well as in schools, the military, families, places of worship, the medical system, etc.  But, we must not allow bullying, harassment, suicides, isolation, and the other negative aspects of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic society; we must not allow LGBTQ youth to be equated with suicide and victimization.

LGBTQ Resilience

Advocates and researchers have made great strides in highlighting the hostility LGBTQ youth and adults face in the United States and world wide.  This includes theoretical and empirical developments that help us to understand how prejudice and discrimination create and maintain health disparities, for example, the minority stress paradigm.

One area that needs much more work is resilience among LGBTQ individuals and communities.  Each individual has the capacity for resilience, as defined by Psychology Today:

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.

Indeed, as health researcher Ron Stall points out in his calls for better understanding resiliency among LGBTQ people, those who live today in our homo/bi/transphobic country maintain some level of resilience.  In his words, given the effect of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment on LGBTQ individuals health and well-being, we could envision a world with the majority of LGBTQ people suffering, abusing drugs, harming themselves and their bodies, and engaging in unsafe behaviors.  Yet, despite elevated risks for mental, physical, and sexual health problems among LGBTQ people compared to heterosexuals and cisgendered people, most LGBTQ people are in good health.  As he explains, there must be, at both the individual and community levels, a great deal of resilience that prevents these homo/bi/transphobic forces from becoming every LGBTQ person’s inevitable reality.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

In addition to identifying factors that promote resilience among LGBTQ individuals and for LGBTQ communities, it is necessary to continue to understand and address the social forces that impede on the lives of LGBTQ people.  I, like many others, have supported giving young LGBTQ people a message of hope, for, in the words of Harvey Milk, hope is necessary to carry on through the day when all seems difficult or impossible.  But, we must continue to fight against transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia — we cannot simply hope for the day when it gets better.  We already know that it has gotten better because we have fought to make it better.  Fighting for our rights and our lives is, arguably, one of the strongest forms of resilience because we take an active role in challenging inequality.

Thinking More Critically, Thinking Globally

Another point that I like about Meadow’s op-ed is the emphasis on recognizing the institutional and societal manifestations of oppression faced by LGBTQ people.  Like good sociologists, we must push attention to the bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ youth to who is doing the bullying and harassment and how society and various institutions condone or promote such behavior.  This includes highlighting the failure of schools to promote acceptance, inclusion, and safety of all of its students, yet also, attending to the actions and attitudes that disparage and demonize LGBTQ people at home, in the government, in religion, and so forth.

A second shift in our attention is to better understand how homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia intersect with other systems of oppression.  Too often, the priorities of LGBTQ communities misses the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ people who are multiply disadvantaged: women, transpeople, people of color, people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, people with disabilities, religious minorities, immigrants.  Arguably, the well-being of LGBTQ people is only as strong as its worst-off members — those who are often invisible in society and even in LGBTQ communities.

Third, and finally, I echo calls to reconceptualize LGBTQ rights as human rights.  Such a move forces us to think globally about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people.  While some places, especially Western nations, are relatively tolerant of LGBTQ people (I use the term “relatively” strongly, here), other countries keep homosexuality on the books as a crime punishable by death and, even if not, such punishments are carried out daily by everyday citizens.  We cannot become complacent with mere “tolerance” in places like the US, Canada, and some counties in Europe while LGBTQ people face severe violence and repression elsewhere.

It gets better… and already has… because we’ve made it better, and will continue to do so.

Gender Equality … Sort Of

I cringe when I hear the suggestion that gender equality has been achieved, or that we are now living in a post-gender society, or something of the sort that suggests that women now occupy an equal status to men.  But, I do acknowledge that major gains have been achieved for women, inching further away from an exclusively subordinate status and, sometimes, closer to an equal status to that of men.  (I do not, however, buy arguments that men are now a disadvantaged, subordinated group, even if women numerically outnumber men in some contexts, like college.)

Gender Equality For Which Women?

If we learn only one thing from Black and multicultural feminism, third world feminism, lesbian feminism, working-class feminism, and other strands of feminism that challenge the narrow perspective and actions of mainstream (white, heterosexual, Western, middle-class) feminism, it is that the category of “woman” does not consist of one universal set of experiences, needs, and interests.  Acknowledging this point, I regularly correct people who suggest that women began entering the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rather, white heterosexual middle-class women in the West were beginning to enter the labor force upon the weakening of the societal norm that a woman’s place is in the home.  Women of various disadvantaged backgrounds would have experienced the freedom to stay home as a luxury, for they were/are forced, either due to enslavement in our ugly historical past or poverty in our ugly contemporary present, to work to support themselves and their families.

As such, it is crucial that we attend to whether all women have achieved equal status in society, or at least inched closer to it.  In many ways, gains toward gender equality are realized for the relatively privileged class of women but not others; worse, sometimes those gains are experienced at the expense of disadvantaged classes of women.  (Who do you think is taking on housekeeping and childcare responsibilities while white middle-class women are off working full-time jobs when they aren’t doing it themselves?)

Equality For Two

By virtue of their gender identity and expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not treated as equals in our society.  Rather, transphobic people, groups, and institutions attack, exclude, and belittle transpeople in ways that suggest more than a subordinate status — their humanness itself is challenged.  This is seen in the resistance to acknowledging individuals who occupy spaces outside of the female-male/woman-man sex/gender binaries, resisting individuals’ right to define their own gender identity and expression, and, in more subtle ways, like referring to transpeople as “it,” as if they are inanimate objects.

Liberating Gendered People, But Not Gender

Yes, gains have been made for women and, to a lesser extent, transgender and gender non-conforming people.  But, what we usually miss in our assessment of the presence or absence of gender equality (besides thinking of equality/inequality in binary terms) is whether all components of gender have moved toward equality.  There are a number of dimensions of gender: gendered people, sexed people, gender identity, gender expression, among others that I likely have missed here.  We typically focus on the full and equal inclusion of gendered people.  For example, we attend to whether equal access exists for women and men in education and the labor market, and whether household labor is equally divided between female and male partners in heterosexual couples.  (Again, note that transpeople are regularly excluded from these assessments, seen instead as a special case or even a matter of sexuality rather than gender.)  Now that we think about gender instead of sex, we seem to fail ask about the inclusion and treatment of particular sexed people.  One need only to look at the treatment of intersexed people to see evidence of this reality.

Finally, what I find most ironic about traditional assessments of gender equality is that we fail to ask about individuals’ freedom of gender expression.  To be frank, it appears that women are increasingly welcomed in traditionally male-dominated spaces if they become men — not to literally transition their sex to become males and gender to become men, but to become masculine.  Women are freer today to express themselves in masculine ways (e.g., wearing suits, jeans); however, men are not substantially freer today to express themselves in feminine ways.  In fact, femininity is devalued, even at times when women themselves are not.  The policing of gender is sometimes seen in the most surprising places: the “no femmes” and cultural femmephobia seen in gay male spaces, women criticizing other women for being too feminine or “girly” especially in male-dominated space, men snapping at other men to “man up,” and so forth.  Further, society still expects gender conformity.  This means for women, in particular, the double bind of needing to behave like men to get ahead in life, but the expectation to be women at the end of the day to avoid any challenges to their woman-ness and sexual orientation.

What’s My Point?

My overarching point is that we must acknowledge the complexity of gender equality and gender inequality to comprehensively assess whether they are reflected in society today.  This means fully understanding the complexity of gender itself: there is no universal category of “woman,” nor are humans limited to the two gender categories of women and men.  We must acknowledge the experiences, needs, and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as women of various racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and religious backgrounds to begin to assess equity.  We must also acknowledge that there is no universal category of “man,” a point that reflects that men of disadvantaged backgrounds do not fully enjoy the privileged status as men.  Finally, we cannot miss the absence of full liberty to express one’s gender freely without risk of harm or consequence.  For to see women and transpeople equally valued while femininity and gender non-conformity are devalued is only halfway to equality.

Legal Progress is Good, But Don’t Forget About Cultural Progress

I can relate to some of the disappointment with either the inaction, slow action, or counteraction of the Obama administration regarding sexual and gender equality.  Over a year ago, then-candidate Barack Obama made a number of promises that he, now as President, has either backed down from, disregarded, or moved in the opposite direction (like on the Defense of Marriage Act).  While it’s nice to have a friend in the White House, we need not forget that much of the work it will take to realize full equality in a legal, social, and cultural sense will be our own doing.  Though my generation was not around for the Stonewall riots and gay liberation, and was too young to understand any of the emergence of AIDS and the mobilization for better treatment and prevention options, we have to remember the power we hold as people to create change for ourselves.

My concern is that we’ve become increasingly obsessed with making changes to laws and policies, thus depending upon politicians and fellow voters, and have forgotten about the importance of cultural change.  For example, the government may recognize our marriages and families as real and equal, but the majority of the country will still view these as immoral or, at best, alternative.  This is reflected in voting patterns – we lose too often to continue to cross our fingers and hope that a future Prop 8 won’t happen.  (Heck, the fact that it happened in 2000 and then in 2008 in California of all places says that we need to rethink our game plan.)

I cite, for example, the removal of laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying by the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision.  Within the context of the law, interracial relationships were no longer treated any differently from intraracial relationships.  But, in my quick skim of the 2002 General Social Survey, a nationally-representative sample of adults in the United States, I see that nearly 10% of respondents still thought that there should be a law prohibiting interracial marriage.  That was in 2002!  That was 35 years after the law changed!    The General Social Survey’s 2006 survey revealed that 55% of their respondents for that year viewed homosexual sex as “always wrong” compared to 33% that said that it’s “not wrong at all”.  What good is legal marriage equality if more than half of the country thinks that our sexual and romantic relationships are immoral and abnormal?

Often times, when keeping up with my favorite blogs, I skim over posts about kiss-ins, sit-ins, and other forms of protest for the sexual equality.  But, it recently hit me that these political actions are just as important, if not more, as new bills that are introduced in congress, new decisions handed down from the courts, and new orders coming out of the White House.  The most recent I came across was the formation of “A Day in Hand”, a group in the UK encouraging same-gender couples to hold hands in public.  I’ve also seen a number of posts about the nation-wide kiss-in that was planned.  I guess a part of me shrugged because I do not currently have a honey to hold hands with and kiss, either publicly or privately.  But, I’m all for promoting others to do so.  It is these forms of actions that send a reminder to the world that we exist, we’re happy, and we’re healthy.  I’ve come across a number of studies that found that attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are much more positive when they actually know such people.  I know that this sort of advice comes with the potential of fear of harassment and violence, and the potential for being victimized, but we have to start somewhere.  Sometimes the greatest force keeping us from being out and proud is the fear that we’ve internalized.