Not a monster: Society’s creation of men who use violence

—Hillary Potter

The surveillance video footage released this week that depicts professional football player Ray Rice rendering Janay Rice unconscious with a single punch seems to have evoked a fairly unified opinion of Mr. Rice’s actions and how he should be sanctioned. It appears most of the public sentiment about Mr. Rice’s brutal actions is condemnation of the assault. These denunciations came in the form of calls for Mr. Rice’s permanent ousting from the National Football League and for Rice to be criminally prosecuted and incarcerated​—all of which satisfy standards of punishment in U.S. society.

Although already sanctioned months ago by the NFL commissioner with a two-game suspension after the release of a video that captured images after the assault took place, the commissioner and Baltimore Ravens management levied heftier sanctions. The collective public cheer for the swift actions of Ravens management and the NFL to, respectively, release and suspend Mr. Rice is welcomed in the wake of the often racially divided responses to last month’s shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. As a scholar and activist who critically interrogates the roles and impacts of race, gender, and socioeconomics on crime, criminality, and criminal legal procedures, I am pleased the NFL is no longer maintaining its complicity in Mr. Rice’s violent actions toward a person he presumably loves.

Aside from my personal concern for gendered violence, which overwhelmingly finds girls and women as the targets or victims of this form of transgression, this case seized my attention because of my research that especially focuses on the intersecting role of race, gender, and socioeconomics in the manifestation of and responses to intimate partner abuse and violence. The tactics used by abusers to control and harm their mates (and their children) have little variance across race, culture, and class; what frequently varies are responses by victims, family and friends of the couple, legal system officials, and factions of the general public because of distinct sociocultural views, values, and customs.

I have read and heard recent comments about Mr. Rice referring to him as a monster, an animal, and a “piece of shit.” Whether there is video documentation or not, I wish that assaultive behaviors like Mr. Rice’s​—by men of any race​—would always produce such a visceral reaction by others and I hope the average person is always disturbed by abuse and violence subjected on girls and women by their so-called partners.

There is, however, a minority who essentially supports Mr. Rice’s actions because of a perception that Ms. Rice slapping at or spitting on Mr. Rice was provocation or justification for Mr. Rice’s assault. In my research, victims are placed at the center of the analysis and I view them as the experts in their lived experiences. This must also be the way we consider the present case. The brutality against Ms. Rice must remain central to this case, but only to the extent that she is not blamed for Mr. Rice’s actions. Furthermore, that the couple married after the assault is not to be judged by those who are not privy to Ms. Rice’s experiences and emotions. Many women remain in relationships with abusive mates for a variety of reasons, and it behooves uninformed purveyors of this case to educate themselves on the virtual entrapment of women subjected to abuse by their intimate partners.

Those who victimize others must also be placed at the center of the analysis. However, deeming Mr. Rice a monster, an animal, or a “piece of shit,” serves no one. This labeling is a copout. To simply call Mr. Rice a monster​—just as is done with serial and mass murderers​—is easy, because doing so distances the abuser from the “regular guy,” and explaining abusive and violent behaviors without tenuous biological or supernatural explanations is complex, confusing, and messy. But we must reflect on the social and cultural mechanisms of our society that instill and preserve violent and controlling behaviors in our boys.

Once we recognize and acknowledge sociocultural explanations for abuse and violence, we are forced to acknowledge our role as a society in creating these “monsters.” Indeed, we know that many regular guys are abusers. The regular guy who abuses girls and women often operates in clandestine locations (such as the home) or his behaviors are known or seen by others who do not or cannot confront the regular guy’s abusive behaviors. But some regular guys who violate others are exposed. Ray Rice, in effect, is a regular guy.

I also believe aiming the mirror on society’s self will push us toward a criminal legal system that rejects ineffective punishment and banishment methods and adopts a system focused on accountability, healing, restoration, rehabilitation, and treating each other with humanity. To be sure, this notion is the basis of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to ensure boys and young men of color are provided with the resources necessary to realize socially productive and healthy lives. Although the initiative has been duly criticized for overlooking analogous plights faced by girls and young women of color, it has generally been accepted as “the right thing to do” to provide boys and young men of color with equal opportunities for success as their white counterparts.

Thus, even as a Black feminist criminologist who knows, works with, advocates for, and gathers personal stories from women victims of intimate partner violence, I promote and believe in a restorative and transformative approach that does not desert the abusive and violent men that our society has produced. These abusive men were once harmless young boys, but were ultimately “trained” by the best to become violent and controlling. They were trained by the gendered customs that are permeated throughout our society and have been transmitted through the generations for generations. Today’s abusive men were schooled in social scripts that trained them that girls and women are inferior to males; therefore, it is their right as men to control “their women” in any ways they see fit. This patriarchal training program spans a broad range of abusive and controlling behaviors, some of which involve blatant physical violence and others that result in discriminatory employment, legal, and social policies that suppress girls and women.

As the sports-based saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Ray Rice is not a rare, unexplainable creature, and Janay Rice is not to blame. Ray Rice must be held accountable for his actions, but we must also place universal blame in the societal norms that social institutions and members of our society continue to espouse, and that too many men (and some women) are too complacent with and too fearful to abandon.

Hillary Potter, a resident of Denver, Colorado, is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner Abuse (NYU Press, 2008).

How not to react when your child tells you that he is gay

—Bernadette Barton

I actively avoided watching “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He is Gay” for a little while. A former student Facebook messaged me the link. I saw it pop up on other people’s Facebook walls. Dan Savage commented on it. And then my spouse Anna added it to our Plex queue and made me watch it on our television, though there isn’t much to see, just a lot of skewed shots of carpet, and later, a bunch of limbs tumbling.

So I listened, nervous, full of creeping dread, secretly overhearing, along with, at this point, 100,000 YouTube others, a violent family reaction to their son’s coming out. When our protagonist speaks, he is careful with his logic, even while his voice is strained and angry. He explains that he did not choose to be gay, he was born this way, right out of the uterus. His family members, especially his mother, respond that it is a choice, that he is choosing to shame them, and she tells him that they will no longer support him in his sinful lifestyle if he continues to choose to be gay.

The conversation begins with an ultimatum: if he does not try to change, with the help of an ex-gay organization, he is to leave. The listener enters at this point, and can track the conflict as it escalates and his family members physically attack him, yelling obscenities and insults.

And then the clip cuts off and we don’t know what happens next, although we can imagine it—the boy escaping out the back or front door with just the clothes on his back, or the boy subjected to a long, protracted period of testifying, or the boy submitting to his family long enough that they calm down and allow him to stay until “Thursday at midnight” to collect his belongings and find a place to live.

This disturbing clip, this painful moment captured and frozen in a person’s life, identical in so many ways to the stories shared by Bible Belt gays in my book Pray the Gay Away, frankly makes me queasy. The verbal accounts I collected with IRB approval, tape-recorder in hand, generously shared some time after the worst of such family abuse had receded is easier to process than the raw anger, hurt, and rejection expressed, indeed secretly recorded, here.  The trauma of familial abuse—being deliberately hurt by those who claim, and who are expected to love one the most—makes me dizzy and unsettled. I wonder how it is affecting all those who have experienced some version of it in their past.  Do they click on this YouTube offering unaware what is in it, try to avoid it like I did, or suffer through it reliving the trauma, purging it, feeling angry, unsettled, surreal, I wonder?

I want to wrap up this boy’s story on a hopeful note. As reader, viewer, voyeur, and story-teller, I crave a heroic ending, and perhaps it is this: even as his own family members were physically and verbally attacking him, our protagonist continued to assert that there was nothing wrong with him, there was something wrong with them. Doing so, he illustrates that he is not participating in his own oppression. He may be permanently estranged from his home and family, but he sounds aligned with himself, and perhaps that is powerful enough, for now.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Maleficent: A feminist fairy tale?

—Jessie Klein and Meredith Finnerty

Maleficent makes us want to stand up and cheer—and then sit down stunned. The film distinguishes itself as the third in a trend of major studio releases that seem determined to reverse the damage of the common fairy tale motif: “Wealthy princes save skinny damsels for love ever after.” Yet, as research reveals high U.S. social isolation, the reinvented princess plots portend ominous new troubles while embracing old snares; together these phenomena suggest that human love in the U.S. may be endangered.

In the wake of Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), Maleficent suggests that true love at best won’t be found in some random prince you meet one day, and at worst, said prince may well be seeking to destroy you to realize his own ambitions.

“You got engaged to someone you met the same day?” howls Kristoff to Anna in Frozen. These messages are a partial triumph, advising young people to work to find a forever partner, among other priorities.

The other themes, though, are foreboding: In addition to pressure to look like ever more unattainable Photoshopped images (still contributing to eating disorders at ever younger ages), young people are told to look for intimacy from parents and siblings—and consider romantic love from a spouse (or anyone else) a distant, and perhaps unachievable, goal.

Maleficent’s former love, Prince Stefan, steals her power to fly when he absconds with her wings, to become King. In Frozen, Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, tries to kill Anna and destroy the ice-power endowed to her older sister, Queen Elsa, in order to mount their throne. And Princess Merida’s suitors, in Brave, chosen by her parents, are arrogant and incompetent.

In Frozen, it is Anna’s sister, Elsa, who accidentally ices Anna’s heart, and then frees her from this fate with her own true love sibling kiss. In Maleficent, the evil witch-turned-doting mother figure embodies such love; and in Brave, Merida herself liberates her mother from life as a bear, with the heart only a daughter can bestow.

What a departure from the historic themes where evil stepsisters, stepmothers, and girls generally are so competitive that they achieve each other’s demise. Such parables characterizing sisters as envious and hateful are present in, among others, Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013) and expected in Cinderella (2015); and a constant in contemporary film renditions of classics such as King Lear.

The depiction of sisters and “stepmothers” as devoted to one another in Frozen and Maleficent is new; and the portrayal of true love found in familial bonds reflects startling statistics. Family intimacy remains constant when relationships of other kinds are disintegrating as revealed by the General Social Survey 2004 when compared to GSS 1985. The U.S. marriage rate has reached its lowest point in the past century. In 1920, 92.3 percent of Americans married; now it is 31.1 percent according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Marriage and Family; and 40 to 50 percent of those unions end in divorce. Not least, people have fewer friends, and connect with neighbors and other community members less.

Today’s fairy tale heroines are also turning to non-human companions for support (note Maleficent’s bird and Anna’s snowman). Princess Merida and her mother see each other’s wisdom only when the mom becomes a bear. Could this be a reference to real world declining rates of social connections outside family? Almost 25 percent of women won’t marry unless their pets approve (as per JDate and Christian Mingles State of Dating in America, 2014), suggesting that animals are replacing humans for family support. Another trend is for women to adopt dogs instead of children.

Young people watch these films while social isolation has tripled; and empathy and trust decreased. Other than with Mom and Dad, a trusted sibling, and perhaps a dog, people in the U.S. have less love in their lives than past generations.

We celebrate the victories in these reimagined legends. When before have children’s movies warned against blindly following the call to marry, above any other goal—and encouraged girls to look for intimacy elsewhere, much less the family? We appreciate the themes encouraging girls to know and use their inner power. These are among the memos we wish we and our peers received in our formative years.

We hope, though, that future scripts will also describe, and prescribe, more hope for social relationships in America among intimate partners (gay, straight and other) and male and female human friends. We look forward to heroines who defy the still frozen frames whereby women must be blonde and stick-thin to be loved.

These standards are destructive and cruel, and have even expanded to torment men. New impossibly high-definition muscle man images have contributed to increasing rates of eating disorders among men who are afflicted with life-threatening diseases such as the still recently dubbed: “Bigorexia.”

Each of these tales shifts hope for the marriage in question from the classic “happily ever after” to “perhaps.” Will we see such a “maybe” embrace heroes and heroines with different body types, in future films? Could friends and neighbors be the source of an expanded depiction of the many shapes of true love? Let us know.

Jessie Klein is the author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press, 2012). She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adelphi University. Meredith Finnerty is a Birth doula and certified HynoBirthing Childbirth Educator (HBCE).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

—Jamillah Karim

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”

When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.

Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.

A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,

“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).

It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.

Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.

Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.

Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).

Pride Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters

The parades are over… the fight for equality is not. 

As LGBT Pride Month comes to a close today, we invite you to read this Q&A with Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trapin which she discusses the shift from gay pride to tolerance, the trouble with same-sex marriage victories, and what it might look like on the other side of the rainbow.

Who doesn’t like tolerance? As you write, “It seems to herald openness to difference and a generally broad-minded disposition.” Looking a bit more deeply, what does “tolerance” really imply?

Suzanna Danuta Walters: Well, tolerance is certainly better than outright hatred for sure!  But think about it: we tolerate things we would rather do without (an irritating neighbor, a boring movie, a meeting that never seems to end) – we rarely speak of tolerating the things we enjoy (a delicious meal, a vibrant party, a sunny day.)  So tolerance is a very low bar to set when we are pondering the real and robust inclusion of a minority group into full citizenship.

Out gay and lesbian celebrities, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the end of sanctioned discrimination in the military… Are these not good things?

Of course these are good things – I would be the last person to deny the very real changes that have occurred in the past 15 or so years.  Things are undoubtedly better.  But three points need to be made here:  they are not better enough (we still have disproportionate numbers of gay youth on the streets, we still don’t have ENDA passed, we still have only a handful of openly gay politicians and national leaders).  Second, those gains—out celebrities, gay marriage, and military inclusion—are not the “end” of the struggle for full inclusion. Gay marriage does not = gay rights. And, third, the framing of gay rights around “tolerance” and acceptance forestalls addressing the deeper and more challenging questions posed by full inclusion.

Social movements usually evolve through various stages over the course of years or decades. What stages has the gay and lesbian movement gone through, and where are we now?  What would success look like to you?

True, some of what we are seeing now is the inevitable “normalizing” and mainstreaming of a social movement. But I do think there are some peculiar twists that the gay movement and gay rights has taken. I think “tolerance” as both a means and an end is NOT, in fact, what most social movements have centered their work around.  So feminism didn’t demand “tolerance” for women, but full inclusion and rights and— more importantly—a sea change in cultural attitudes about gender. The civil rights movement asks not for “acceptance” but for a robust re-imaging of race and an historical reckoning with slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve had a wonderful and radical history of gay rights and gay activism—and that has by no means disappeared—but I think we are now threatening that progressive potential by buying into the tolerance trap.

What did “gay pride” used to mean? What does it mean now?

Oh gosh, I still feel a little tingle at the parades, but it does seem it has become more of a rainbow food court than a righteous rally. I do think “pride” is actually a very different affect than “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If we actually got back to that old way of thinking of pride (evidenced in slogans such as “gay is good” and “glad to be gay”) we might begin to shift away from the tepid language of tolerance.

Can you talk a little about how coming out has come to be seen as the master narrative of a gay person’s life? In what ways does the mainstream, at least as represented by conventional wisdom and popular culture, get it wrong?

Coming out has long been both our master narrative but also the way in which gay identities and lives are seen and even “measured” by straight “audiences.” But coming out stories are complicated. For example, in much of popular culture, coming out tales focus more on the reaction of the heterosexuals than on the actual feelings and lives of gay people doing the telling. It often serves to give straight folks a pat on the back for tolerating their gay brethren but often asks little of them in terms of real shifts in attitudes.

In whose interest is it that gay people become “just like everyone else”? What does the gay and lesbian community stand to lose if this assimilation becomes complete?

I actually don’t think it is in anybody’s interest. Assimilation surely might help some (wealthy, white, married) gay people find a home in this country, and it might give comfort to some anxious heterosexuals who don’t want to be bigoted but also don’t want to themselves have to change. But we all—as a nation—lose out when the rich difference of gay life and history and culture are stripped away in the march toward tolerance.

As a progressive (and a lesbian), you are obviously not against marriage equality. And you admit to certain sentimentality about the very fact that gay men and lesbians can now marry their partners in many parts of the U.S.  Yet… you suggest that gay marriage is “the perfect Trojan horse for the tolerance trap.” [p. 177] Tell us more.

Of course I am for marriage equality in the sense of opposing any restrictions on basic civil rights. But what I mean buy “Trojan horse” is that I think gaining marriage rights produces the appearance of full inclusion and equality—it sneaks it through the gages so to speak, and thus allows everyone to pat themselves on the back for their tolerant acceptance of gayness.

Some people may not realize that there has been a healthy debate within the gay and lesbian community for decades about the wisdom of fighting for marriage rights.  Give us the argument against marriage.  What would a more progressive family rights agenda look like?

Same-sex marriage has been won largely by making one totally kosher claim and two (well, many more actually…) hugely problematic ones. The legit claim is the simple one of equal treatment under the law. A no-brainer. Easy to support. But the other two…not so much. The first, used in amicus briefs throughout the country, is that gays should get their marriage because they are “born that way” and therefore their immutable homo-ness puts them in the same category as other groups with supposedly immutable qualities. So “we can’t help ourselves” is the identity argument at the core of much of marriage argumentation and indeed pro-gay discourse more generally. The second claim is that legalizing same-sex marriage won’t affect straight marriages at all (because we’re just like you). To which I have to say: if it doesn’t change gender normative, often abusive, deeply unequal, heterosexual marriages, then why does it matter at all? If queer marriages DON’T alter straight sensibilities around gender and intimacy and family then they are strangely not queer at all. And not worth all the fuss.

I’ve been so frustrated at the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement. We are told that this is the culmination of the long march of progress and soon we’ll live in a happy rainbow world of official homolove. Lawyers and plaintiffs alike claim this decision makes us “more equal” and our families “more legitimate.” Gee, I thought we were pretty legitimate without marriage, and that our children weren’t torn apart by the agony of unmarried mothers. My nineteen-year-old feminist daughter (of a single mother to boot!) widened her eyes in horror at that old anti-feminist canard being trotted out and declaimed with nary a whiff of irony.

Love is not more legitimate or good or valuable if the state makes it official, and garnering a basic victory is not the same as making the world a more genuinely amenable place for sexual difference. Marriage rights are not synonymous with full citizenship or true belonging.

Also, many of us fear a few other things:  that we will now see a division between the “good” marrying gays who deserve tolerance and those recalcitrant gays who are pushed even further outside of the field of respectability.  So as I listen to the victory speeches I have a smile on my face, but I also hear the voices of my friends who have pledged not to take part in this rush to the altar. I hear the voices of the poor, the disenfranchised, the gays of color for whom marriage is hardly the golden egg or prized victory. I am sickened by the wedding industry that bilks billions out of those who need these resources for health care and housing and everyday life. I shudder at the resources that go into this industry, while HIV/AIDS remains a national crisis. I am reminded, again, of the vexed history of this institution and its stubbornly gendered and racialized parameters.

What is on the other side of the rainbow?  Give us a picture of how things have changed, not just for gay and lesbian Americans but for all of us, when gay and lesbian people truly belong?

We can’t know in advance what that will look like but I can say that gay belonging will mean assuming that heterosexual business as usual gets upended.  If you really reject the tolerance trap—and all that goes with it in terms of “born that way” ideas and odes to acceptance and assimilation—you open the door to a re-imagining of intimacy, family, sex, and love as unmoored from gender certitudes and assumptions. It might be pretty fun.

Trans*politics, solidarity, and ENDA

—Isaac West

Having already declared June as LGBT Pride Month via a presidential proclamation, President Obama is prepared to further demonstrate his commitment to LGBT equality by signing an executive order designed to prohibit federal contractors from practicing employment discrimination against LGBT individuals. Obama’s action is necessary because the Republican leadership in the House refuses to allow the membership to vote on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which the Senate passed 64-32.

In short, ENDA would incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into the protected classes of federal employment anti-discrimination law. (The current version of ENDA is not without its problems—the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center and GetEQUAL, among others, withdrew support for the current bill, citing unprecedented religious exemptions for non-religious employers.) Even though 208 co-sponsors have signed on to ENDA in the House, including eight Republicans, Speaker John Boehner will not bring it to the floor. According to Boehner’s rather disingenuous reading of employment law, he finds ENDA redundant because he claims LGBTs are already covered by current legislation and does not want to afford “special rights” to any new minority groups.

If Boehner’s interpretation of our current laws was not motivated by his catering to his right flank, he would be in good company given that the majority of Americans think that it is already illegal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Along with this common misperception, paradoxically, there is also a consensus that LGBT employment discrimination is widespread. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of the general public revealed 67% of respondents answered affirmatively when asked if “LGBT people experienced discrimination ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in applying for or keeping a job.”

Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that in a recent poll of LGBT Americans, conducted by the Pew Research Center, employment protections topped marriage rights as the most pressing legislative issue. Although same-sex civil marriage equality gets most of the media attention, LGBT advocates and allies have waged at least as vigorous a campaign for employment protections.

Like most legislation, ENDA’s long, slow march through Congress began in 1974 when Bella Abzug introduced the Equality Act of 1974, a bill that outlawed address discrimination based on sexual orientation. After two decades of little to no movement on measures such as this, ENDA experienced numerous stops and starts during the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

Congressional momentum picked up in 2007 when Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin, self-identified gay and lesbian members of Congress, championed the bill. The 2007 version of ENDA finally included gender identity as a category, which had been a sticking point for years, until Frank, over Baldwin’s objections, excised the gender identity protections from ENDA., justifying the move on the grounds that some members would not vote for a bill with gender identity as one of the protected categories.

In a surprising turn of events, almost every major LGBT organization, excluding the Human Rights Campaign, withdrew support of the sexual-orientation-only ENDA. Over 400 LGBT organizations joined forces to form United ENDA, pledging to actively work to delay, if not defeat, the bill if it excluded trans’ protections.

In my analysis of these events, I highlight how the gender identity provisions of the bill provided an occasion for solidarity, reversing the general trend whereby trans* and gay and lesbian issues are framed as separate and competing agendas. In this case, these advocates had to make a choice about whether or not they would fight for the rights of the whole LGBT community, or accept a partial victory for the LGB community. After examining the legislation, United ENDA argued that gender identity protections would prevent employers from exploiting the “gender identity loophole,” meaning that an employer could claim to fire someone for their atypical gender performances, not their sexuality.

What makes this case instructive for the future is how United ENDA placed trans* concerns at the center of their advocacy and used it as the glue for their coalition. Instead of treating trans* and gender identity matters as a fringe issue, they served a unifying purpose for rethinking what LGBT solidarity might look like. By rethinking LGB identities through a trans* perspective, the advocates understood that their identities could not be cleaved off as neatly as Frank would have liked to do. As we move forward, keeping in line with the actions of United ENDA, we need to make sure that LGBT politics work toward the good of the whole, and sometimes this may require us to focus more on our shared positions of vulnerability rather than our differences.

Isaac West is Assistant Professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Transforming Citizenships: Transgender Articulations of the Law (NYU Press, 2013).

Love travels: Queer friendship across class lines

—Lisa Henderson

Hotel giant Marriott International has unveiled its #lovetravels marketing campaign just in time to sponsor Pride events this June in Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. The campaign appeals to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender travellers, featuring celebrity queer and transgender people on multiple media platforms. This would have been hard to imagine back in the 1980s, when many of us in Philadelphia volunteered with the Lesbian and Gay Task Force to protest against routine discrimination, including in public accommodation.

But as anyone who travels (or wants to) knows, love travels best with money, especially if you’re DC-bound this Pride month and plan to stay at the Renaissance and Residence Inn hotels at Dupont Circle, the Renaissance Downtown, the Ritz Carlton, or the Washington JW Marriott—all establishments that will feature #lovetravels banners. This is a high-end campaign, inclusive of those who can pay.

I am employed; I travel; I have stayed in Marriott properties; and I know that appealing to queers on the road beats taking our money while reviling our profile. But the campaign reminds us that wealth is the price of admission, which means that those without it aren’t invited. This is a far cry from an earlier period less enfranchised by the standards of civil rights but perhaps more sustaining of queer world-making across class lines.

In “An Old Queen’s Tale,” downtown performance artist Penny Arcade’s recent love letter to Christopher Street, Arcade writes:

“When I speak to young queers who want to know the differences between today and back then I say quietly, ‘Show me one twenty-seven-year-old queer guy who is going to take in a homeless seventeen-year-old girl. Back then we knew we had to take care of each other…It was humane and inclusive…Everyone recognized their people intuitively.’”

Queer history is full of community friendship and protection across class lines, but that can’t really be the message of a marketing campaign, least of all when pricey forms of access are the measures of queer arrival.

Consider a recent but old-school example of queer friendship across class lines. Last January, English actor Rupert Everett wrote a feature for The Guardian/Observer about the police ouster of sex workers from their shared apartments in London’s Soho neighborhood. The arrests were conducted under the guise of stopping sex trafficking, says Everett, though no traffickers were apprehended. Contrary to the claims of police and morality squads, there is a Soho land grab going on, where police co-operate with property developers and their partners in City Hall, rubbing their hands together over a Soho reconfigured for international tourism and sales, as if London weren’t expensive enough. Everett follows his sex worker friends to trial, to witness the proceedings and to write dryly—and knowingly—about the theater taking place there and the revelation of legal done-deals against Londoners with few resources, save their own social networks now ruined by police “protection.”

Readings Everett’s piece left me wondering about Everett himself—his posh writing style, his come-and-go fortunes as leading man in popular film since openly identifying as gay in 1989, his friendship and solidarity with maids and prostitutes pooling their housing resources in Soho. Everett is not unique among English cultural figures—part social and cultural elite, part artistic bohemian and old school sexual rebel—indeed he reminds us of Oscar Wilde, whose biography, plays, and film adaptations Everett knows well as performer.

Everett’s Guardian piece, however, re-animates the conversation about sexual culture and class solidarity in queerness—the queerness of being a gay actor who, at one time, traded sex for drugs and money, the queerness of being unmoved (if still displaced) by morality squads working at the service of property development, the queerness of sexual libertinism and the sensible distrust of sexual show trials. Anyone who watched the purification of New York’s Times Square and the loss, there, of a mixed culture of rent boys, porn workers, and sexual bohemians (Samuel Delaney’s writing preserves it achingly, as Sarah Schulman’s does for New York’s East Village) will find Everett’s account of Soho familiar.

Everett’s Guardian authorship reminds me of the history of multi-class queer friendship, of solidarity amid survival and sexual trouble-making. It also reminds me of the thick weave of social, cultural, and economic forms—capitals, in Bourdieu’s terms—that make up class and class difference in the present.  In Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production, I unravel the cultural and economic intersection of class in queerness, to expose that intersection in many places, from the history of hyper-acculumulation that marks queer—and all—political development since the mid-1970s, to the cultural representation of queerness as a class project, the taste hierarchies that separate queers once gathered by sexual exclusion, the draw of class recognition in queerness, and the terms of political opening that might favor renewed solidarities across class lines.

Imagine the alternative marketing campaign that invites people to share rides, sleep 8 to a room, eat pot-luck, and welcome strangers and the friends of friends. A lot of people got and get to big-city Pride celebrations that way.  It wouldn’t work for Marriott but it might signify the practice of friendship and solidarity in a mixed life that is both queer but never only queer, and it might enable a little more movement energy, the stuff we still need to make life work for everyone.

Lisa Henderson is Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production (NYU Press, 2013).

Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

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 (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

What straights can do for Pride

—James Joseph Dean

It’s Pride Month, a time for celebrating the differences that make up LGBTQ communities. Queer celebration and pride are of course important acts and feelings to embrace in a heteronormative society. However, by celebrating only queer people, we sideline the ways straight people support us and are often-honorary members of our communities. Even more than that, we are letting our straight friends and allies off the hook. They could be doing more.

While being against homophobia is the most obvious way for straight allies to promote sexual equality, another immensely powerful practice is for straight individuals to give up their straight privilege. Giving up straight privilege, even some of the time, I think would elevate the status of LGBTQ sexualities and lessen the social hierarchy that privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality in our culture.

For me, it’s important to separate out homophobia from heterosexual privilege.  Homophobia is the range of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory acts that stigmatize, subordinate, and exclude queer people from respect, equality, and social goods such as jobs, homes, and services.

Straight privilege, in contrast, is about the unearned advantages that come from being or claiming a straight identity. Straight privilege is, then, a benefit every straight person accrues just by being straight. To be clear, I am not arguing for straight people to become gay or queer. But I am arguing that straight people should let themselves be seen as gay or as not clearly straight more often in their everyday lives. Everyday acts of surrendering straight privilege would counter the sexual stigma that persists in defining LGBTQ sexualities and it would promote a more queer-friendly society.

Straight privilege, for example, is claimed and performed in everyday life when straight individuals simply disclose their heterosexuality to disassociate themselves from homosexuality. In my book Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture, I found that many of the straight men I interviewed who supported LGBTQ rights still felt uncomfortable being alone at a Pride parade event or in socializing in a gay bar without a female companion, be it their female friend, girlfriend, or wife. These straight guys would bring their girlfriends or wives to Pride events and other gay spaces to signal their straightness. If by chance their girlfriends or wives weren’t available, they would mention them in conversation to indicate their straight identity.

Similarly, many of the straight women I talked to would also bring up their boyfriends or husbands when they were worried about being perceived as lesbians, but they expressed more comfort socializing in gay spaces without their male friends, boyfriends, or husbands present. In part straight women’s comfort came from the fact that the gay bars and clubs they went to were patronized by mostly gay men, not lesbian women.

However, the most queer-friendly straight men and women I talked to said and did a number of things to lessen LGBTQ stigma and promote sexual equality. These straights used inclusive terms like “partner” instead of “wife” or “husband” to refer their significant others. They also didn’t defensively disclose their straight identity when a same-sex person flirted with them. Of course, they didn’t try to lead people on, but they also didn’t make known their heterosexuality or bring up their wife or husband to avoid being thought of as possibly lesbian or gay.

And so for Pride Month and, really, every month, I challenge straight allies to refuse the unearned advantages that adhere to being part of the dominant sexual group and to enact a small measure of change through resisting the identity politics of straight privilege in their everyday lives.

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

Fat Gay Pride

—Jason Whitesel

I recently finished my first book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigmawhich offers an inside look at “Girth & Mirth,” a gay social club where members nurture each other’s joy in being fat and happy. As a gay man who participated in Girth & Mirth—therefore as a partial insider, yet admittedly with thin privilege, white privilege, and a professor’s privilege, among others—I want to share my critique of the wider gay community’s sizism.

As Marcia Millman observed almost 35 years ago, in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, “when a homosexual man is fat, he is often viewed in the gay community as not having sufficient ‘self-pride.’” Indeed, fat gay pride is a difficult subject position to sell; and when the Girth & Mirthers I studied invited other big gay men to join their cause, they opened themselves up to public rejection, as if it weren’t already difficult to be personally rejected because of their size and sexual orientation. I have witnessed these men being chastised for wanting to participate in annual Pride parades and being told they are embarrassments to the gay community.

Girth & Mirthers are often left out of Gay Pride media coverage; yet they persist despite their invisibility, seeking group recognition. As Lory Britt and David Heise put it so aptly, while “shame may lead to hiding, . . . pride may lead to expansive behaviors in public space.” The growing sense of pride Girth & Mirthers feel parallels their ample body size, which is even reflected in our language when we say: “He swelled with pride.” Indeed, pride makes one feel bigger and stronger and stand taller.

With the protection and backing of their fellow sufferers in Girth & Mirth, members move toward reconfiguring their shame. For some, being in the Pride parade means they come out twice: for being gay and for being fat. In a 2006 San Francisco Bay Times article, Sister Dana Van Iquity quips tongue-in-cheek on the homogenization of Pride: “The Girth & Mirth club will be asked to either not be fat or at least not show a sense of humor about their stout state. After all, we would not want the public to think that a bunch of happy, chubby gays represented our community, now would we?!” Thus, this author affectionately acknowledges the existence of big men in the gay community. Sister Dana’s remarks point out the contradiction that if gays are open to making fun of themselves in campy-queer drag, they need not be so threatened by Girth & Mirthers’ presence in the gay community.

When Girth & Mirthers participate in Pride celebrations, they not only gain visibility, but also communicate an alternate message: not all gay men are pretty-perfect and chiseled. As queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam puts it, taking pride in one’s shame is like going to “a place where shame can be transformed into something that is not pride, but not simply damage, either.” Girth & Mirthers take pride in their shame, sometimes going to the extreme to present a fun, larger-than-life persona. Despite acutely feeling the sting of rejection from those who are sizist, big gay men march in Pride parades and put themselves out there something fierce.

Therefore, with Pride Month upon us, it’s my belief that the road to accepting those groups that continue to be marginalized within the gay community—people of size as well as transgender folks, people with disabilities, and/or racial-ethnic minorities—must involve more than simply tolerating these groups. It requires all of us to embrace a wider range of diversity unremarkably, and without fuss. Fat activists put it best when they say, “We’re here, we’re sphere, get used to it!”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (forthcoming in July from NYU Press).

Are we still queer even though we’re married?

—Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp

We got married for our 30th anniversary, although not on the actual day. Despite our feminist reservations about the institution of marriage, we did it for political reasons, as an act of resistance to those who loudly and publicly asserted, especially in the Prop 8 campaign, that same-sex couples did not deserve the right to marry because we would corrupt children and destroy the institution of marriage. We did it aware—and in agreement with many—of the queer arguments against marriage: that there are more important issues, that rights should not be attached to marriage, that marriage is homonormative.

So we got married. Does that make us less queer?

Despite the marriage equality movement’s strategic emphasis on the claim that “we’re just like you,” the reality is also that marriage has not necessarily turned out to be the beginning of an inexorable slide into hetero- or homonormativity, as queer theorists predict. The Right is right about one thing: our marriages have the potential to undermine marriage as we now know it. Consider, first of all, the way that a younger generation of queer people is wielding and transforming the terms “wife” and “husband.” It is not unheard of for a stranger to assume a woman who refers to her wife has misspoken and to correct her, saying, “You mean your husband.” That’s in-your-face. Is it possible to imagine that marriages between two men or two women, not to mention transgender or genderqueer people, will transform the meaning of the words “husband” and “wife”? For the better?

And consider the fact that marriage, across blue states in the United States and a number of other countries, is becoming something that heterosexuals enter into later or not at all. Or that they enter into it but exit out of it with increasing frequency. That should reassure us that younger queer people will not necessarily be pressured into marriage just because it is a possibility. For those to whom it means a lot—because it is an important personal expression of love and commitment, because it brings recognition from family and friends, because it provides health insurance or immigration rights or needed tax benefits or inheritance rights or parental rights or the right to make life and death decisions—it may be an option. For those to whom it means or brings nothing, it can be an option not taken. And if queer people, like straight people, more and more eschew marriage, then perhaps the rights that we all deserve will no longer be tied to a marriage license. That would be a victory for the LGBTQ movement.

So just as we reject the notion that getting married magically bestows endless happiness and a lifelong commitment on anyone who ties the knot, we reject the notion that it severs us from the queer community. When strangers ask us if we are sisters, or even twins, as they are increasingly wont to do, and if we say in response, “No, we’re married,” we can assure you that they don’t then think of us as just like them. They still look at us as if we are, well, queer.

Verta Taylor is in the sociology department and Leila J. Rupp is in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Taylor is the co-author (with Rupp) of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, and Rupp is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women (NYU Press, 2009).

[Note: An expanded version of this article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]