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A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road. One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard. The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez. Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”
Oh, wait… that happened to me. When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker. I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men. I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.
Eventually, I caved to the pressure. The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance. I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately. While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming. Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.
I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer. And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being. But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life. So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man. “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?” “I hope you are using condoms. You can die from AIDS” “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”
Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People
As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny. In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.
Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways. The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread. Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers. Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized. Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay. Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.
Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities. While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.
I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder). So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws. Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.
Post-racism my ass!
Parents And Racial Socialization
In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses. One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected. Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children. Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.
Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized. This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride. So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.
But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate. In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963). The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness. Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.
Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today
What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)? Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty. Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March. My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.
What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)? It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade. While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote. Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system. While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.
Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime
But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective? Yep. Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009). This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).
Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010). Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities. But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.
For, what unfolds is much worse. With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied. And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black. In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).
The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend. From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).
And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this? That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color. And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated. How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25? How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?
And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17? Told him to lay off of junk food? Don’t walk alone at night? Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends? Or, stop being Black? Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).
When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?
It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”
Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.
Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown. 2006. “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.
Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.
Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman. (2004). “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.” American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.
Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.
Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody. 2010. “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.
Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.” International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.
Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.
Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.
Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.
Over thirty years ago, Black feminist scholars and activists began emphasizing the importance of recognizing every identity and status of which each individual is comprised. We are not merely a particular gender, nor race, nor class. In fact, the crux of the perspective known as intersectionality is that we must account for the intersecting nature of our identities and statuses. For example, a full understanding of the lives of Black women cannot come from considering their lives as Black people only, as women only, nor as the sum of these two sets of experiences.
Fortunately, sociologists like myself are beginning to recognize that it is crucial to examine intersectionality in our research. But, it seems one key component of the theoretical framework of intersectionality is often overlooked. Black feminist scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, called not only to examine the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexual identity, but, more importantly, to focus on the intersecting and mutually reinforcing relationships among systems of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity.
In my own research on the health consequences of discrimination, I have noticed that almost every one of the hundreds of studies on discrimination and health focus exclusively on one form of discrimination – especially racial discrimination. There is solid evidence demonstrating that one’s experiences with discrimination are consequential for one’s mental and physical health; however, these studies have not examined whether the relationship between discrimination and health depends upon the number of forms of discrimination individuals experience. Could it be the case that individuals who face sexist and racist discrimination fare worse in terms of health than those who experience sexist discrimination or racist discrimination only?
In a study I published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that the answer is yes, at least among youth. Using a sample of 1,052 Black, Latina/o, and white youth aged 15-25 from the Black Youth Culture Survey of the Black Youth Project, I found five important patterns.
- First, disadvantaged youth report more frequent exposure to their status-specific form of discrimination. Black and Latina/o youth report more frequent race discrimination than white youth. Girls and young women report more frequent gender discrimination than boys and young men. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report more frequent sexual orientation discrimination than heterosexual youth. And, youth whose families have been on welfare or state assistance report more class discrimination than youth from wealthier families.
- Generally, more frequent exposure to each form of discrimination is associated with worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms in the past month.
- Multiply disadvantaged youth (e.g., Black working-class boys, Latina lesbian and bisexual girls) report facing more forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination overall (i.e., the sum of the frequency of exposure to the four forms of discrimination).
- Youth who face multiple forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination report worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms than youth who face fewer forms and less frequent discrimination.
- Multiply disadvantaged youth experience worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms compared to their more privileged counterparts. This is due, in part, to their disproportionate exposure to multiple forms of and chronic discrimination. That is, exposure to multiple forms of discrimination contributes to these documented health disparities.
These findings reiterate the importance of examining the intersections among systems of oppression. In the case of this article, only examining racial discrimination or gender discrimination, for example, would miss that youth who are disadvantaged in more than one way face the greatest amount of discrimination. Unfortunately, scholarship and popular discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia in isolation from other forms of oppression continue to gloss over the experiences of individuals whose lives are constrained by multiple systems of oppression.
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 Better” video. 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.
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.
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.