Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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).

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).

Interview with Rebecca Moore, author of Women in Christian Traditions

9781479829613_FCBelow is a brief interview with Rebecca Moore, Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University and author of Women in Christian Traditions (NYU Press, 2015). The book, part of the Press’ new Women in Religions series, examines the roles women have played in the understanding of Christianity. You can read the full interview on San Diego State University website here

Give us a brief overview of what the book is about.

Women in Christian Traditions offers a concise and accessible examination of the roles women have played in the construction and practice of Christian traditions, revealing the enormous debt that this major world religion owes to its female followers. The text provides an overview of the complete sweep of Christian history through the lens of feminist scholarship. It recovers forgotten and obscured moments in church history to help us realize a richer and fuller understanding of Christianity.

What inspired you to write the book?

I was honored to be asked to contribute a volume to a series on women in religions published by New York University Press. I had published a prior book on Christianity, “Voices of Christianity,”  and on Judaism and Christianity, “A Portable God: The Origin of Judaism and Christianity, Rowman & Littlefield.” I have been studying Christian traditions since graduate school, so this was a book that was decades in the making.

I have taught courses on Christianity and on the New Testament here at SDSU and elsewhere for many years. The new spin, however, was to take a feminist approach to explain the history of Christianity, and this required original research on my part. I had incorporated discussions of women church leaders in my classes, but writing an academic book required much more study than I had previously done.

What did you learn from writing this book?

The most valuable thing I learned, and that I hope others will learn, is that women have played a major role in the development of Christianity. I learned of important figures, movements, and ideas that were somewhat unfamiliar. For example, because Protestant church leaders excluded women from participating in male missionary societies in the nineteenth century, women simply created their own missionary societies. They raised money, trained leaders and sent women doctors and educators abroad. I could go on at length about all I learned!

Why should people read this book?

NYU Press required authors in the series to limit their texts to no more than 200 manuscript pages. This means that the book is short and is designed to be reader-friendly. Readers will learn about inspiring women figures who have been largely lost to history because of the way Christianity is generally understood.

Rebranding safe haven laws

—Laury Oaks

Last week, the Republican-heavy Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to enhance its safe haven law and voiced support for a newly marketed baby-saving product: the Safe Haven Baby Box. Indiana firefighter, medic, adoptee, non-profit founder, and pro-life speaker Monica Kelsey is promoting metal, black 2-foot long incubators branded with SafeHavenBabyBoxes.com as a solution to a problem that haunts baby abandonment prevention advocates: Despite safe haven laws passed in every state between 1999 and 2009, newborns continue to be unsafely abandoned.

Advocates of Indiana’s baby boxes are concerned that distressed mothers fail to safely relinquish their newborns because they fear facing a first responder, required by most state’s laws. Sidelining other relevant issues, including coercion, fathers’ rights, and even baby-knapping, the problem is distilled and oversimplified.

Drawing on centuries-old European practices, heated incubators located at an exterior wall of a hospital were installed in 1999 in Hamburg, Germany. Known as baby boxes, flaps, or hatches, this system is sponsored by non-governmental organizations and religious organizations in 11 European countries and in China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. In the US, state governments legislate safe haven sites and non-profit baby abandonment prevention organizations promote their use. The embrace of baby boxes by Indiana politicians is in stark contrast to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s outspoken opposition to this drop-off mechanism because anonymity denies the child knowledge of its identity.

Media coverage of the Indiana government’s first step to authorize baby boxes focuses primarily on the novelty of this proposed baby-rescue method. The last time an innovative safe haven law was implemented was in Nebraska, the last state to pass a law. No upper age limit was set, resulting in the relinquishment of teenagers — including a teen mother and her infant — by distressed guardians, many of whom traveled to Nebraska as a last resort and exposing a severe lack of adequate social services. How might Indiana’s baby boxes be used in unanticipated ways?

Other dimensions of safe haven advocacy are downplayed when baby boxes are trumpeted as an exciting advance. One is the underlying anti-abortion and pro-adoption views held by vocal safe haven advocates, including Kelsey. Further, the anonymity of the baby box drop-off conceals any understanding of the experiences of women and girls who are faced with a safe haven decision. Unwantedness is not the only or the main factor that leads to relinquishment.

Instead of debating the value of baby boxes, state governments should direct attention to the unequal social and economic support available to women and girls within our society. A reproductive justice analysis pushes us to critically question the safe haven assumption that a good mother relinquishes her newborn anonymously as an act of maternal love. It is our political and social responsibility to reveal and eliminate the social injustices that coerce some women and girls to relinquish the right to raise their newborns or to ever have future contact with them.

Laury Oaks is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice (NYU Press, 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).