Gay marriage: Check. Queer liberation: ?

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

Even a feminist/queer critic of marriage (me, alas) can’t help but be moved by today’s decision by the Supreme Court that finally makes marriage equality the law of the land. And coming as this does the day after the Supremes ruled for the Affordable Care Act, putting to rest the Republican obsession with denying Americans health care coverage, all people of good faith (or even simple common sense) should be celebrating. But after the champagne corks are popped and the tears of victory dry, it may be time (long overdue, in my estimation) for the LGBT movement to pivot and recalibrate. The push for marriage rights as signifying all things gay and all things “equal” has taken up too much bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.

So no27scotus4w that the battle is won, how can the movement (or movements more accurately, since the idea of some monolithic “gay movement” is already a problem) re-imagine and re-invent itself? Some moves are already being made, as LGBT activists and organizations have increasingly engaged with broader social justice movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” and other interventions against police brutality and mass incarceration. Surely this work needs to deepen and continue. And the always-frustrating inability for the gay movement to double down on its commitments to core feminist concerns such as sexual freedom, gender violence, and reproductive rights needs to be reckoned with head on. Indeed, as gay marriage triumphed in state after state (and now the Supreme Court), anti-abortion laws and restrictions also barreled ahead, a point Katha Pollitt detailed painfully in a recent piece in The Nation.

There is a danger that this pivot won’t happen, that gay rights organizations and the money that backs them will pat themselves on the back and declare victory over the ills of homophobia, as if one basic right signifies full inclusion and the end of anti-gay animus.

But there is also a danger that the ideology that undergirded much of the marriage movement (that the couple is sacrosanct and “special,” and the only way to raise healthy children; that gays are “born this way” and sexual identity and desire are hardwired so we just can’t help ourselves; that same-sex marriages and parenting as “no different” from heterosexual ones and pose no challenge to heterosexual business as usual) will mitigate against a recalibration that requires a more complex understanding of discrimination and hatred and a more robust vision of inclusion and freedom. In other words, this recalibration must entail a hard look at the problematic arguments (about biology, about family, about gender, about tolerance) that became the common-sense ideology of the marriage movement and, more generally, came to stand in for how “gay rights” have been thought about these past ten years or so.

Celebrate we should – but let us now look back to our more radical liberationist past (a past linked closely with broader concerns over social justice and gender equity) and look forward to a utopian future in which marriage is a basic right, not the brass ring of equality, and the queering of the world does more to rattle the cages than knock discreetly at the chapel door.

Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press 2014), is Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and Editor-in-Chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

How to be a straight man: Reflections on “No homo” and metrosexuality

—James Joseph Dean

The kaleidoscope of straight masculinities may be seen through shifts and changes in everyday language, fashion, and style. In American and British contexts, straight men’s identity practices negotiate a post-closeted culture, which I define as the presence of openly gay and lesbian individuals and representations of LGBTQ people. This post-closeted culture pressures straight men to be more tolerant of gays and to express less vitriolic forms of homophobia, while, at the same time, it conditions and supports gay-friendly straight men’s non-homophobic and anti-homophobic expressions.

straightsIt is in post-closeted cultural contexts where phrases like “no homo” emerge and gain meaning. For me, the phrase “no homo” signals less a homophobic attitude and more a way of flagging one’s straight status and claiming its privilege. “No homo” is an anxiety-driven way of saying, “What I said might come off as gay, but I’m really straight.”

On the website Urban Dictionary, for example, “no homo” is defined as a “phrase used after one inadvertently says something that sounds gay.” The example given to illustrate the definition is: “His ass is mine. No homo.” The phrase aims to indicate that the intended statement was not meant to imply a homosexual sexual desire or a gay identity.

Although the phrase “no homo” emerged out of hip hop music in the early 2000s, as language scholar Joshua Brown and journalist Jonah Weiner have explained, it continues to live on in the everyday talk of American youth. Alongside but qualitatively less homophobic than the epithet “fag,” “no homo” aims to reclaim straight status and privilege but avoid the hatefulness of the fag discourse, which as sociologist C.J. Pascoe shows is about both boys policing other boys’ masculinities and their homophobic prejudice.

At its best, “no homo” signals a non-homophobic stance that aims neither to be prejudicial nor against gay prejudicial attitudes. Rather, it is an interjectory phrase that reflects a way straight masculine culture manages its status in a post-closeted culture, where an anxiety over coming across as gay looms in a seemingly omnipresent way. At its worst, “no homo” is used as a homophobic insult along the lines of “fag,” acting as another weapon to police expressions of masculinity and sexuality.

While “no homo” is a linguistic innovation of everyday language, metrosexuality represents a style and consumption practice, where straight and gay men share and trade on the social status they receive for displaying fashionable styles and having well-groomed appearances. Coined in 1994 by journalist Mark Simpson, the term continues to circulate as an entry point into the style practices of fashionable straight men.

david-beckham-h-and-m-underwear-ad__oPtThe global icon for metrosexuality is David Beckham. No longer a soccer player, bending it like Beckham today probably means buying his underwear line from H&M. Another contender for his metrosexual fashion appeal might be Kanye West, who sports kilts in concert, is an outspoken critic of homophobia, and helped popularize “no homo” in his collaboration on Jay-Z’s song “Run this Town.” Keeping straight men like Beckham and West in mind, the term metrosexual is a loose label that refers to straight men who adopt style, beauty, and consumption practices associated with gay men and women.

In my book Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture, I interviewed a diverse group of straight men about their thoughts on metrosexuality. Did they consider themselves metrosexuals? How so? If not, what did they think of metrosexual men? For some of the straight men I talked to metrosexuality was a label that others applied to them or that they took on in jest. Due to wearing stylish clothes, having a well-groomed appearance, and exhibiting a more relaxed masculinity, the metrosexual men I interviewed enacted a more fluid gender presentation than many of the non-metrosexual men in the study.

Their metrosexual masculinity also conditioned their ease in socializing in mixed gay/straight spaces as well as predominantly gay ones. Not surprisingly, their social circles included straight women and lesbians, straight men and gay men, among others. The audiences for metrosexual men’s performances were largely supportive of their non-homophobic and gay-friendly stances, admired their confidence, and appreciated their beauty.

Sociologically, metrosexuality represents a blurring of straight and gay identity practices and styles, enlarging the way men, straight and gay, may perform their masculinity in everyday life. The potential drawback of metrosexual masculinity is its recuperation into another dominant masculinity of, say, only upper class straight men, or in it becoming a masculinity that anxiously marks itself as strictly straight. As in: “Metrosexual. No homo.”

James Joseph Dean is Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and author of Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture (NYU Press, 2014).

Intersex buzz: To avoid (or engage with) ‘disorder of sex development’ terminology?

—Georgiann Davis

When Shakespeare asked what’s in a name, I doubt he was thinking about intersex, disorders of sex development, or how terminology can shape lives and obstruct social change. But I’ve been thinking about these issues since 2008, when I started exploring the language used to describe intersex people, that is, people whose bodies defy arbitrary markers of sex, including genital, chromosomal, and gonadal characteristics.

As an intersex person who has conducted research in the intersex community, I’ve seen how many of us have endured medically unnecessary surgery designed to “fix” our “abnormalities” so that we can more easily fit into our culture’s rigidly binary sex system, which recognizes male, female, and nothing in between. This surgery, and the lies that surrounded it in order to allegedly protect the development of my gender identity, has physically and emotionally scarred me, and many intersex people I know.

Since the early 1990s, intersex activists have organized to change intersex medical care and eliminate such harmful interventions. They have protested at medical association meetings, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 20/20, and, have been featured in the New York Times, among other outlets.

davis-frontAs I argue in my forthcoming book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (NYU Press, 2015), this public criticism put the medical profession under fire. For a time, it seemed unlikely that doctors could continue to treat intersex as they had been.

But that all changed in 2006, when a “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders” renamed intersex “disorders of sex development,” or DSD for short. The statement was published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and today DSD terminology has replaced intersex language in virtually all corners of the medical profession.

By renaming intersex—and specifically by calling it DSD—providers used the power embedded within diagnostic terminology to linguistically reinvent intersex, and thus to thwart our public criticism of their harmful practices. Medical providers no longer fix intersex—they treat disorders of sex development. But although medically unnecessary surgery on intersex bodies has continued, so has intersex activism.

In March, four intersex activists bravely shared their experiences with harmful medical care in a BuzzFeed video, “What It’s Like to Be Intersex?,” which already has over 1.3 million views. This video was part of a recent activist media blitz, which included a segment on ABC’s Nightline titled “Intersex Children: A Journey Between Genders.”

This intersex buzz got me thinking about how intersex activists, myself included, rarely, if ever, refer to disorders of sex development when we are talking about intersex—and for good reason, because such language pathologizes our personhood. I know I consciously avoid it in my writing, like in my piece “Standing with Susie the Dachshund.”

But now I’m left wondering if we are minimizing the potential effect of this current media boom by using intersex language, rather than DSD terminology, in our public discourse? If we do not engage with DSD terminology in the media, are we letting providers off too easy? Are we making it possible for them to escape our intersex buzz? Might new parents who were positively moved by the BuzzFeed video fail to make the connection between intersex and DSD when a doctor informs them that their child has a disorder of sex development that can be surgically “treated”? Could sympathetic medical students who tweeted the video or posted it on Facebook forget about our intersex community’s all-too-common harmful medical experiences when they interact with patients diagnosed with disorders of sex development?

I don’t want to suggest that intersex activists use terminology they find offensive, but I do wonder if the power embedded in medical terminology might once again be working against us.

One possible approach to this dilemma is to be strategically flexible about terminology. We could, for example, point out in interviews and media appearances that intersex is also controversially—and problematically—referred to as a disorder of sex development. We could also reclaim the acronym DSD by replacing “disorder” with “difference.”

Whatever strategy activists enact, we need to make sure medical providers experience the critical media attention they deserve when they continue to treat people having disorders of sex development without humanity, and refuse to listen to the needs of intersex families. Our intersex buzz needs to reach all its targets.

Georgiann Davis is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (NYU Press, 2015). She is the current president of the AIS-DSD Support Group for individuals with differences of sex development.

A Queer Father’s Day

—Joshua Gamson

Given that I’m one half of a two-dad duo, I should probably see Father’s Day as double the pleasure, double the fun. After all, Mother’s Day is a somewhat awkward time for us—more on that in a minute—and Father’s Day would seem like a good chance to offset our May discomfort with some extra June celebration.

Also, it still seems to be the case that fathers as parents are taken less seriously than mothers, which ironically serves to justify the fact that women still do much more childcare than men; at my kids’ public elementary school, mothers still do most of the volunteering and organizing while a Dad’s Club invites the menfolk to “work hard and play hard,” to “get your hands dirty” with “light maintenance,” “campus cleanup,” and to raise funds through A’s game outings and the auctioning of manual labor. So Father’s Day seems like a nice chance for us to exhibit a more expansive view of fatherhood, in which men are necessarily full-on, competent parents rather than assistants, both “fathering” and “mothering,” clean- and dirty-handed, lifting heavy things and also doing hair. Plus it coincides with LGBT Pride Month, which I’ve often taken as an opportunity to parade around with my family basking in the cheers of people who are excited by the very fact of us.

This year, the state of my birth and upbringing, Michigan, has just passed legislation making it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents on religious grounds, so apparently some people still don’t want us to be the fathers we are. We gay parents may have something to teach the world about being parents, though: There’s evidence that we operate with a more equal division of childcare labor than straight couples, and have a tendency to be “more motivated, more committed than heterosexual parents on average.” So there: We’re awesomer! Two Dads are better than one! Father’s Day should really be my favorite day of the year.

Still, somehow I have a hard time getting into it.

One problem, of course, is that Father’s Day is basically bullshit. It began in the early 20th century, as Ian Crouch has written (drawing on the work of Leigh Eric Schmidt) as a “celebration of the father’s engaged and able participation in the family” and “a sentimental corollary to Mother’s Day,” but was rapidly commercialized. From the beginning it was seen as a bit of nonsense, since giving gifts to the higher wage earner “created a kind of anxiety about gift-giving that still lingers,” but it got a big boost in the 1930s from a New York menswear trade group, which created the National Council for the Formation of Father’s Day and aggressively promoted the holiday as an explicitly commercial one. By the time Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, my own father was twelve years into parenthood. At that time, it was all about neckties and booze, symbols, as Crouch notes, of the middle-class “dad as a man apart.” Even now, when advertising suggests a kinder, gentler father—the soccer dad or nurturing diaper-changer, eligible to consume skin care products, vaguely emasculated and checking his phone for instructions from his wife—the commercial representations still “emphasize fatherhood as a fraught and unsettled emotional enterprise.”

Though I could certainly use some more Kiehl’s products and some Macallan single malt—email me for my mailing address—those Father’s Day origins don’t have much to do with what I understand as parenting. More importantly, it’s hard for me to see myself anywhere within this scene. I am neither the traditional father bringing home the bacon, nor the new Mr. Mom stay-at-home dad frying it up in a pan. There is no Mother in my home to whom I am a corollary, sentimental or practical. My fatherhood is basically a settled and unfraught, if also exhausting and sometimes tedious, emotional enterprise. My identity as a father is very strong, I love my kids like crazy and I think I’m pretty good at parenting, but Father’s Day seems to be made for other people and for other reasons.

It also seems wrong to treat Father’s Day as a solution to my ambivalent relationship to Mother’s Day, as if the doubling up on dads makes motherhood irrelevant. Mother’s Day brings some stuff up in my household. We don’t refer, for instance, to the women who helped bring our daughters into the world as their “mothers,” mainly because they are not. We refer to them by their first names, or as aunt so-and-so, and to the fact that they carried our kids inside them and gave birth to them. (We don’t talk yet about their egg donors, but when we do, it will certainly not be as mothers but as friends and people-who-helped-you-become.) Sometimes we call them “belly mommies,” to remind the kids that they came into the world like everyone else; “gestational surrogate” doesn’t quite have capture the relationships’ intimacy.To varying degrees and in different ways they are family—one, an old friend from way before the girls were born, is taking the girls to her annual family reunion in a few weeks. Still, these women are at once present and absent. We talk to them and about them, we see one of them occasionally and the other regularly. There are other mothers aplenty in our lives, of course, including my mom and my husband’s mom (who lives in our house), not to mention the many other women who love our children. But our daughters don’t have a mother.

Usually that’s not especially relevant—our kids are well loved, well adjusted, and lucky. But Mother’s Day serves as a potent reminder of our family’s difference, and of our different status in other people’s eyes that is tied to our children’s apparent motherlessness, about which we and our children do have feelings. Our older daughter once came home from Mother’s Day week in tears. Despite a Family Diversity curriculum and a queer principal, teachers and children can’t help but reinforce the notion that not having a mother in your life makes you somehow lesser. Reasonable accommodations are made: a shift in terminology when you’re in the room, some extra discussion, an alternative to the assignment of making a Mother’s Day card. Yet the message resonates, perhaps because it’s obvious that we are statistically rare—the only two-dad family in a school of several hundred—and even more because the one-mom/one-dad family is still ideologically dominant. Our kids watch television. They live on this planet. These girls know what the culture thinks of us, and sometimes it hurts, enough that I wonder if it’s ethical for schools to even celebrate Mother’s Day.

The politics of chucking out Mother’s Day without addressing gender inequality seem iffy, though. Especially in the United States, childcare remains an institutionally undervalued—if culturally romanticized—form of gendered labor. As Vivian Gornick and Marcia Meyers have shown, in Canada and much of Europe, family leave policies, labor market regulations, publicly funded early childhood education, and so on “encourage gender equality by strengthening mothers’ ties to employment and encouraging fathers to spend more time caregiving at home.” In the U.S., “parents—overwhelmingly mothers—must loosen their ties to the workplace to care for their children,” negotiate for leave or flex time, and buy private childcare or scramble for it, all of which exacts “a high price in terms of gender inequality in the workplace and at home, family stress and economic insecurity.” Behind this, the reproductive freedom of women in particular—the freedom not to reproduce, for instance, or to do so as a single woman—is under constant attack. In that context, rejecting Mother’s Day, or replacing it with the Parent’s Day nobody knows about but that has been on the books since 1994, seems misplaced. Adopting a gender-blind approach to the inequality between (in this case, heterosexual) mothers and fathers makes about as much sense as adopting a color-blind approach in a relentlessly racist society.

And so, each Mother’s Day, I am stuck, not just because of what it means to my kids but because of what it means to me: between resisting what Adrienne Rich called the patriarchal institution of motherhood and honoring the potentially empowering experiences of mothering. Father’s Day, even double Father’s Day or supergay Father’s Day, does nothing to resolve that tension.

Sure, Father’s Day is an outmoded, Hallmark-serving holiday that reiterates sexist gender role divisions and tired gender binaries, valorizes a narrow, class-specific, heterosexual version of family, and implies that people who choose not to have kids are less worthy of admiration and should at best be ignored. It’s part of a regime of normalcy that offers elevated social status and advantages to those who conform. I’ve experienced quite a bit of that since becoming a father; like marriage, parenthood is a status that, whether you want it to or not, legitimizes you, makes you easier to assimilate, and in doing so, positions you against those who do not want to (or cannot) conform in the same way. Father’s Day feels partly like a self-congratulatory celebration of that status hike, and that feels cheap and wrong to me.

And yet, I will not insist that Father’s Day be banned at my house. That normalcy is part of what makes Father’s Day meaningful, if only for a few minutes, for my children. For them, probably more than for kids in more conventional families, it’s a chance to participate in the parent-focused holidays around which they observe considerable hoopla, and to remind themselves that our family is like other families, which is also true. Father’s Day is an affirmation, maybe some kind of relief from feeling outside the circle, and an opportunity to express gratitude. I want that for them. They deserve it.

Perhaps the trick is to balance all that normalizing with queerness, to celebrate not just a respectably-gay version of fatherhood but also the ways in which our fathering is different, to align ourselves not so much with the Dad’s-Club-and-aftershave vision but with those parents who aren’t trying to be and will never be in that club—for instance, the genderqueer dads among us, the women who are fathers and the men who are mothers and the folks in between. Perhaps it’s not just about toasting the fact that we are fabulous fathers, but taking another moment to look at the ways so much of the world, including a lot of this country, still deny reproductive justice to so many, including (but not only) to people like us. “We are not having that,” the toast might be.

For now, I’ll still take breakfast in bed. It took a lot to get here, and parenting is hard, and these girls owe us. Then I’ll call my dad. I might be wearing a wig.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (forthcoming in September 2015 from NYU Press).

‘Fun Home’ and Pride

—Amber Jamilla Musser

MotheralOn June 7th, 2015, the musical Fun Home emerged triumphant. It won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The significance of these wins cannot be overstated. A musical based on a graphic memoir featuring a lesbian, her gay father, and the rest of the family has been thrust into the purview of mainstream America—and really, who can resist having ALL of the feelings when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys?” Moreover, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have made history as the first women to win a Tony for best songwriting team.

It is clear that Fun Home gives people many reasons to be proud, especially in a month when we traditionally celebrate LGBT pride. One of the things that I find most moving about the musical (and the original graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) is the way it actually subverts traditional narratives of pride and shame based on particular understandings of identity and masochism.

One of the conventional understandings of Pride is that it exists to celebrate triumph over homophobia and prejudice against LGBT people. That this narrative privileges a particular form of progress and has been easier for particular segments of the LGBT population is something that has been written about extensively by other queer studies scholars. In this post, I’m more interested in mentioning the ways that this conventional version of identity politics shores up a particular vision of masochism. One of the main arguments in my book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is that the framework that we’ve been using to understand the relationship between individuals and power is masochism. In the book that means various things, but in the context of Pride, it has meant reveling in the wounds that produce LGBT identity—triumph would not be possible if there were no obstacle to overcome and the more wounds that are available, the more visible the triumph and the more celebrated the identity/person.

While I am not the first to describe this relationship between identity, woundedness, and masochism, I argue that this narrative frames our understanding of what it is to be an individual so that those with the privilege of appearing wounded are able to do because they are already part of an assumed arc of redemption and celebration while those whose wounds are less affective and more structural in terms of access to resources cannot access this arc in the same way (see last year’s post on Kara Walker as an example).

On the surface, it would appear as though Fun Home could fall easily into this particular trope, but it smartly sidesteps the arc of progress. In her retrospective gaze at her family life and its relationship to her father’s gayness, Alison (the oldest version of the character that we see) doesn’t pity her father or frame his suicide as the effect of a bygone prejudice that she has been fortunate to avoid. The question is not what would have happened to Bruce Bechdel had he lived in an era when he could live freely as a gay man. Neither is the focus on Alison’s ability to come out as a college student and live as a butch because things are better now. The universe of the musical understands these characters as inhabiting different modes of queerness, but it doesn’t ask us to do a comparison (despite the fact that Bruce commits suicide, which would seem to be the ultimate masochistic act).

Instead, the character whose life we imagine might have been different is Bechdel’s mother, Helen, played achingly by Judy Kuhn, whose song near the end of the show, “Days and Days” is a tearjerker —not because she is self-pitying but because she is resigned. This is structural difference at work. She knows that her suffering does not connect to later progress or triumph, but it does not diminish her work or her pain.

Where does this lacuna of feeling lie in a world structured by suffering or triumph, a world where the individual is a masochist in order to receive redemption through pity? Throughout the musical, we see so many moments when the semi-closeted world that Bruce inhabits that his daughter so desperately wants to remember and connect to, is not uniformly sad; there is fun—a dance with a casket, a furtive sighting of a kindred spirit (the butch that Lucas sings so movingly about). In all, it is not a play about moving through masochism to find identity, but about recognizing the many different notes being played at the same time. The arc of identity need not be neat or masochistic (so as to end in triumph), but it makes one feel, and gives reason for finding different narratives of individuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014).

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Maddening pleasures, subsequent silence

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

March Madness is just kicking off, and ESPN has already predicted that this year’s tournament will see over $9 billion in bets and gambling.

MarchMadness-confettiFrom offices to college campuses, March Madness continues to attract more and more constituencies in ways that other sporting events, even the Super Bowl, cannot. This time in March and April is often marked by explicit displays of collegiate allegiances and intense and passionate rivalries within the institution of higher learning, a kind of ‘madness’ that is unmatched in any collegiate setting across the globe.

Yet, there is something very particularly American about this event. This is very much a United States phenomenon. In many ways, March Madness tells us about ourselves, and the values we interject into collegiate sports, and March Madness, in particular. It is this matter of values—and how sport reflects us, as an American society—that I am interested in. Specifically, I want to focus on student-athletes in two respects: the male basketball collegiate players and the women’s NCAA tournament.

While March Madness is a time to celebrate alma maters, there is a way in which the iconicity of the athletes, the power and recognition of coaches, and the transcendental nature of sport intersect to create quite a venomous concoction. American studies scholar, Nicole Fleetwood, in her elegant and sophisticated analysis of the visual plane of black iconicity in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, asks that we critically evaluate how iconicity and icons fail to address either the messiness of social life or its major contradictions. Likewise, the iconicity of coaches, such as Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, along with number of collegiate players, hides significant problems within the realm of sport. In the midst of sheer athletic movements, creative plays, intense and intimate camaraderie, and shows of sportsmanship, many other questions and points will remain, at best, minimally discussed and, at worst, completely brushed over.

With so much of the focus on the athleticism of the young men in the men’s national basketball tournament, there is little time to reflect on their lives outside of sport and in classes, in the collegiate physical environment, and in the larger social landscape. As I have taught in big and small institutions of higher learning, in Division I and Division III schools, and I have myself played and coached at the collegiate level, I recognize that the student-athlete has become a source of capital in ways that the “student” is extracted from the “athlete.” The hyphen connecting and demanding a peaceful, synchronized, holistic existence does not exist in present-day sport. Rather, our collegiate (as well as other forms of amateur) sports are a mere show in ideals, but the reality is much more troublesome. “Student” is often treated as an adjective to athlete. With that, as the games proceed through March Madness, I ask this first question: What are ways to create a fantastic learning experience for student-athletes? What type of support is there and where is the support for the student-athlete? The athlete has become the pariah within the realm of students, as if his/her natural place is often assumed to be only on the court, the field, the pool, or the mat. My encounters with student-athletes have shown the precarity of their lives and various forms of alienation within institutions of higher learning.

There has been a trend to let out a big sigh of frustration upon hearing of a student-athlete in one’s class, especially if he is a basketball or football player (read as African American). Although instructors might take great joy in the feats of the athletes on the playing field, the same type of energy does not surface in the face-to-face interactions with student-athletes. As a result, some student-athletes that I have met expressed their alienation in the class setting. They felt like disregarded, like scrap metal. Especially for working-class African American student-athletes, as I discuss in my book, there was the everyday experience and dilemma of already being overdetermined as athletes and sporting bodies. Scott Brooks, in Black Men Can’t Shoot, and Rueben May, in Living through the Hoop, attest to the difficulties of poor young black basketball players. This over-determination meant that their excessive bodies were seen as lacking mind and other key elements of the academic experience.

In the place of this crevice within the college experience for athletes are academic counselors, advisors, and tutors. This seems like a good substitute. However, would anyone substitute John Calipari with a non-sport professional who does not have any of the training, experience, and strong basketball pedigree? Why then would it be okay to insert advisors and tutors who do not have the training and expertise as the professors teaching the courses? The providing of such tutors, counselors, and advisors is important, but it is a double-edged sword, cutting deeply on both ends. For one, it fails to manufacture a positive learning experience and relationship with faculty in the classroom. Instead, what we need are fewer classes so that student-athletes can enjoy classes like the rest of the student population. Taking only two courses a semester would free up time for student-athletes to engage the material fully. They would not feel overwhelmed and feel like studying is a losing battle especially with the demands of the sporting field.

The athletic academic counseling structure justifies an entire cottage industry of sport services professionals within higher learning without providing a greater critique of collegiate and amateur sport. Several football players would be so worn out that staying awake in class took greater energy out of an already exhausted body. When I asked them why they were tired, a few of them spoke candidly that their coaches take every bit of energy out of them. Each coach, assistant coach, and trainer is there to take out all that if left in the athletic body. The student-athletes secure jobs and income for a wide assortment of sport professionals yet their lives reveal such insecurity. An injury could derail the entire collegiate experience. Yet, these students are pushed to the limits, and when demands are made for large stipends or paying student-athletes, the response is always, “They are lucky to be here,” “The scholarship is their payment,” or “The scholarship is the greatest gift.” Really? Is it this simple? Or have we become so blinded to the corporate regime of college sports?

The student-athletes barely have time for anything other than sports. Yet, they have to manage their work day (sports training) with their full-time class schedule. How many students, other than student-athletes, have to travel long distances for work, miss classes (and holidays and family events), and train for the entire course of the year? While we watch March Madness and take in all the joys that come with it, we have to ask whether the traditional student would have to put in the same hours and labor without pay as student-athletes. Student-athletes cannot even enjoy other experiences of the college environment, such as partying, studying abroad, holding part-time jobs, and securing important professional internships. With each round that goes by during March Madness, we should be obligated to ask how to equip and provide support for all of our students, including our student-athletes. As jobs increase around sports like coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and even scholars of sport like me, we owe it to fair play in sport that we give our student-athletes a fair play in academia with stipends and an unlimited commitment to fund the scholarship for student-athletes, even many years after their playing days.

While we talk about guaranteeing college futures for male student-athletes, we need to also interrogate why men’s collegiate basketball appears in sports media as just “basketball,” while women’s basketball foregrounds the gender category of woman as an adjective, appendage, and an addition to basketball. Basketball, as my research has shown, was already taken for granted as “masculine”—a sport to be practiced by men. As such, March Madness stands ubiquitously for men’s basketball. While filling out the men’s bracket, there is little engagement in sporting communities for filling out the women’s bracket. Accordingly, the iconicity of men’s basketball reduces sport to a male arena and celebrates male sporting accomplishments. In the process, female athletes, like female basketball players, are relegated to a realm where they are outside the language of everyday basketball talk. There will be little to no discussion of how Title IX does not guarantee equity in the field of play. (See Deborah Brake’s brilliant book, Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sport Revolution.) Rather, one sees equal numbers of men and women playing collegiate sports—but this metric does not translate into equal access to resources, nor does it mean that the voices of women players are heard as loudly as men’s.

This disparity is also prevalent in sponsorship opportunities and the minimal funding for women’s teams. There is frequent talk about the greatest collegiate basketball coaches, but rarely do coaches of the women’s game like Pat Summit, Dawn Staley, and Geno Auriemma enter that conversation. Likewise, there are many men coaching the women’s game, but no women coaching (as a head coach) the men’s game. Furthermore, as the case of transgender athlete Kye Allums shows us, there are few spaces in either the men’s or women’s game for gender-non-conforming or trans athletes. To add, another disturbing fact is the gendered and sexual violence within women’s collegiate sports. None of this, or very little of it, will be the subject of conversation during March Madness. The sexual violence that is normalized on college campuses seeps into and destroys women’s athletics as well. As basketball is rendered as a game for men, the violence against female basketball players is not always fully investigated. This is also because the women’s tournament becomes a side-show, not the main attraction. As a result, the storylines and issues within women’s sports are not legitimated and made visible.

There has to be a national discussion about sexual violence and it must also take place within the confines of collegiate sport. We need that discussion to begin now. In the late 1960s, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards played a critical role in organizing African American student-athletes against racism locally, and within the larger Olympic Games. We know of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest. There is a foundation, although we cannot always see it, to use sport as one of the key arenas for creating livable, fair, just, and equitable worlds. Sport, as the great scholar C.L.R. James has argued in Beyond a Boundary, is not apart from the real world but intricately connected to it. Sport provides various forms of reprieve from the outside world but that does not mean that we can forget about how power operates in sporting cultures. Through sport, we can harness new social arrangements and social justice principles that then truly make sport the most utopian social site.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).