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I Can’t Save You… I Can Barely Save Myself

feminists of color

It’s 11am now — typically the 2- or 3-hour mark into my work day.  But, on this day, like many of the days over the past two weeks, I have been awake and working in some capacity for 6 hours now.  I can assure you that I did not intentionally rise at 4:30am, not over summer, not ever.  I blame the anxiety, the growing uneasiness about an impending move from apartment to house — that is, while interrupted by attendance at an academic conference on the other side of the country.  Anxiety about my partner’s ongoing job search on the eve of taking on a mortgage.  Frustration that I’ve poured hundreds of dollars into acupuncture, personal training, nutrition, massages, and therapy, plus the free yoga class at my university’s gym, only to gain weight and feel just as anxious as I did months ago.  Even the supposedly easy way out — taking anti-anxiety medicine — doesn’t seem to be enough these days.

Oh, and should I mention the recent slew of hate-motivated assaults and murders, state-sanctioned executions on the street, and terrorists attacks on places of peace against people like me?  Black.  Queer.  Trans.

Meanwhile, the 2016 election circus, which seems to now be in its second year, serves as a perverse laugh track to news of death after death.  Murder, execution, and genocide are obvious in their disruption of our lives.  Increasingly, researchers have documented how even experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and microaggressions wears on our health and well-being.  The effects on entire communities — namely fear, distrust, alienation, and trauma — come at a cost, too.  Even hearing news about all of this violence wears on us.  For the most unfortunate, death comes quickly; for the rest of us, death is slow, like being poisoned over decades.

After the queerphobic terrorist attack on Pulse in Orlando, FL, I felt okay, but was probably numb.  Marriage equality, pushed hardest by those who benefit most from it (i.e., middle-class white gay cis men), did not prevent the senseless murder of 49 people, mostly Latino gay men.  Oddly, I heard a voice in my brain say, “see — it was only a matter of time.  Marriage didn’t liberate us.”

After the televised executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought I was okay. I tried to avoid watching Diamond Reynolds’s video of her fiance (Castile) being murdered before her and her four-year-old daughter; but, thanks to my school’s gym, I couldn’t help but catch it playing over and over on the big screens airing CNN and MSNBC. I wept while walking on a treadmill.  But, I generally felt I was okay. 

I jumped into high gear with doing more anti-racist advocacy while others pulled back, overcome with grief.  I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart the Sociologists for Justice initiative, and successfully scheduled a forum for the group at the upcoming American Sociological Association annual meeting.  I started an associated Facebook page for the initiative, now kept active by several sociologists of color.  Weeks before, I had created Sociologists for Trans Justice, an associated Facebook page, and scheduled a forum for this group at the ASA annual meeting to advance transgender rights through sociology.  Did I mention that I run a blog, Conditionally Accepted, that features weekly essays by marginalized scholars?  And, that I am now co-editing a book on academic bravery among women of color scholars?

Maybe taking on initiative after initiative, project after project, was just a means to distract myself from the weight of the world.  But, it certainly did nothing to help me outrun it.  My sleep has been interrupted more and more over the past couple of weeks.  I feel incredibly overextended, yet surprisingly isolated and hopeless.  A bit of intense organizing, largely within the walls of the ivory tower, doesn’t feel like much; and, it certainly did not shield me from the nausea I felt after seeing a picture of Sterling’s funeral on Facebook.  My mind screamed, “Emmett Till,” and I promptly logged off, keeping a low profile online thereafter.

I’m in the thick of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity‘s (NCFDD) “bootcamp” — Faculty Success Program — right now.  This week, our homework is to lower our standards and expectations, hopefully calling out those among us who are perfectionists.  Would you know, perfectionist describes me well.  So, I brought the issue of being controlling to my therapist yesterday.  Surely, the need to control things and other people, to make everything neat, to tidy up loose ends, are all at the core of my anxiety.  It now seems to me that I will continue to be anxious until I get to these root issues.  I was a bit disheartened to hear my therapist say that that’s just who I am, and that the lifelong goal is maintenance — to keep the need to control in check.

But, we made some progress during the session, specifically engaging my need to perform at a high level.  I have a tendency to work so long as there is enough energy to get out of bed.  I have convinced myself that I have perfected the 40-hour workweek, not counting the time I put into blogging and other forms of service and activism.  But, now I am being forced to reconcile with a limited capacity for productivity.  I can’t do it all, even without suffering from mental illness.  But, with the ongoing symptoms of anxiety, I certainly have to scale back on all that I do.

It is hard, though, because what seems to be the most appropriate level of concern, labor, and advocacy is just barely outside of myself, envisioning concentric circles of concern here.  I have a limited capacity to concern myself with what’s going on in other people’s lives and what’s going on around the world because I’m overwhelmed just managing my own life — at least until I can learn to scale back.  My starting point for responding to tragedy in the world can no longer be, “what can I/we do?!”  Rather, it has to be, “what do I need right now?”  (Sshhh, internal critic; self-care is not selfish.)  I admitted to my therapist that this felt like resignation; I feel like the kid with asthma who is stuck in the house, watching other kids run and jump outside of my window.

What seems even harder is that the situation was already bleak for me as a Black queer non-binary person.  Think about the trauma inherent in being queer in the midst of ongoing queerphobic violence, or of being Black in the midst of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against communities of color.  If you can even fathom it, imagine being at the dreadful intersections among racism, heterosexism, cissexism, and sexism.  (Fuck intersectionality.)

I haven’t been as attuned to this baseline of oppression, distracted, instead, by the unique oppressive reality of academic institutions.  I’ve been working through and writing about the trauma inherent in my academic training.  Maybe I was already traumatized by this oppressive society.  Maybe every social institution is already set to crush me, just as graduate school did and, on some days, as my current institution does.

I don’t have much to offer.  I’ve resisted the temptation to just yell “Black women rule the world!” on Facebook and Twitter, and then deactivating my social media accounts.  For my own survival, I’ve got to back off for a while.  Unfortunately, I can’t save anybody else, since I’m barely hanging on myself.

Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic?  I appreciate these efforts.  And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate).  In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.

Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy.  Coming out.  Refusing to hide.  Refusing to conform.  Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence.  Refusing to tolerate the status quo.  Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples?  Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.  Straight, cisgender people, get used to it!  That is some brave, bold shit.

Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave.  Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute.  Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex.  Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families?  How do we navigate our communities?  How do we navigate the law and institutions?  All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media.  All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.

Sometimes, the well runs dry.  Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship.  The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon.  Maybe you are naive to hope for better.  Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world.  Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.

Fuck.  That.  Noise.

My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical.  It is radical if equality is radical.  We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting.  When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them.  By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations.  It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.

So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them.  And, I am honoring the fallen.  Fight on.  Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

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.