Q&A with Heather Laine Talley, author of Saving Face

Heather Laine Talley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Western Carolina University. Her new book, Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance, examines the cultural meaning of interventions aimed at repairing faces defined as disfigured. In the interview below, Talley discusses her research on appearance, disfigurement, and the role of the human face in society. More about her writing and work can be found at heatherlainetalley.com.

What sparked your interest in facial disfigurement and reconstructive surgery?

Heather Laine Talley: In 2004, I began a project that was focused on exploring the bioethics of face transplantation (FT), a technology in the making. No transplant had yet been completed, but the surgical and immunological groundwork for FT was largely established. Face transplantation ignited hugely divergent reactions from surgeons, bioethicists, cultural critics, and the public at large. Some saw FT as miraculous, while others perceived FT as a gruesome and unethical procedure. (It’s important to note that in the time since FT has actual been practiced, some critics have radically shifted their position.)

The ways that reconstructive surgery was framed in these debates as both life enhancing and lifesaving fascinated me. Clearly though, this is a different kind of lifesaving procedure than in the way a heart transplant is lifesaving. As I started researching surgery on the face more broadly, I heard surgeons talk about a wide range of surgeries in similar terms.

It’s not new to point out that we are enmeshed in beauty culture or that the consumption of cosmetic intervention is on the rise. But the ways appearance is increasingly thought about in terms of life and death is striking and worthy of investigation.

In many ways, my work is driven by a classic sociological question—how do statuses like race, gender, class, sexual identity, disability, and citizenship status impact our life chances? I thought there was more to say about appearance. Rather than unpacking beauty, I became fascinated by the other end of the appearance spectrum: specifically, the way appearance functions either as a vector of privilege or a basis of social death.

From rhinoplasty and face lifts to Botox injections, cosmetic facial procedures continue to grow in the U.S. Why do you think that is—does cosmetic surgery help raise self-esteem? 

In a culture that overvalues appearance, it’s no wonder that our self worth is shaped by what we look like. It’s critical that we begin to think about how frequently appearance is used to attribute value over and above any other dimension of a person. In other words, appearance is often valued more than personality or experience. This is glaringly clear in schools and even workplaces. Psychological research shows that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to beautiful people, so it isn’t surprising that cosmetic surgery is on the rise.

But what’s interesting is that there is also research that demonstrates that in cases of trauma, the severity of facial injury does not predict individual adjustment, self image, or quality of life. What this suggests is something that many of us know intuitively—we can change or improve elements of our appearance without experiencing a change in our overall happiness.

It’s not safe to assume that cosmetic surgery actually improves self-esteem, so I think we should question what the real and durable effects of cosmetic surgery are. It is true that our attractiveness does impact factors of our lives like salary that can shape our overall wellbeing, and so cosmetic surgery can generate powerful effects, especially in social interactions.

Ultimately, the research on facial difference hints at something that is powerful for us to consider too. What we look like is a very fragile element of who we are, and the quality of our life is not exclusive determined by what we look like, but rather by the quality of our relationships and our investment in resilience.

What can be done to reduce stigma associated with facial disfigurement?

The organization Changing Faces does amazing work to combat lookism or discrimination on the basis of facial appearance. Their Face Equality campaigns highlight the stereotypes associated with facial difference and the assumptions people make when encountering appearance disabilities. Some argue that our reaction to beauty, and by proxy ugliness, is an evolutionary (and thereby “natural”) response. Perhaps.

But what decades of social justice work tell us is that we are capable of transforming our implicit assumptions. Changing Faces offers incredible resources, including a Face Equality survey that provides users with some feedback about their appearance based biases and guides for teaching children about appearance disabilities.

While Saving Face offers a theoretical analysis of facial surgery, I am very invested in the practical implications of this work. For this reason, I include [in the book] a list of eleven concrete strategies that those invested in appearance justice might employ in order to challenge stigma in everyday life and the systematic dimensions of lookism, too.

What has your volunteer work at a burn camp for children and adolescents taught you?

Burn camp has taught me that things could be otherwise. Currently, stigma is intensified in the very spaces designed to treat a condition. For example, in the process of diagnosing a condition and outlining treatment options, stigmatizing language is regularly employed. This isn’t only true in the case of reconstructive facial surgery, but of many, many biomedical interventions, from gender affirming surgeries to labor to Cesarean birth. Oftentimes, stigma drives consumption, so there is a financial incentive at stake in healthcare for-profit contexts like the United States.

But facial surgeons may have something to learn from the kids I spent time with. What I saw over and over again was the capacity to acknowledge an injury, to hold space for grief or pain, and to avoid conflating being burned with being a victim. It’s not that some of the children I met haven’t been victimized. Some injuries are the direct result of violence. Others have been victimized by a health care system that provides disparate services by socio-economic status.

In medical sites, the story is regularly told that life is not possible with a facial injury. At burn camp, there is no conversation that remotely suggests that life is not possible with a facial injury. And it’s important to note that the kids are living, breathing reminders to the contrary. Burn camp reminds me that our ways of seeing injury, disability, and trauma matter. The ways we talk shape how we act. And how we respond can either limit possibilities or expand the likelihood of recovery or human flourishing.

R.J. Palacio’s debut children’s novel, Wonder has sparked attention on school bullying associated with facial deformity. What advice can you give parents and educators in changing attitudes on facial disfigurement? 

Wonder is truly exceptional, particularly because August the main character who is facially atypical speaks for himself. Representations of disability, and facial difference in particular, permeate popular culture, but an appearance disability often functions in the service of a plot. At the same time, stereotypes about atypical appearances abound. A scar is regularly used to signal that a character is evil. A congenital anomaly is used to mark learning difficulty. Wonder stands in sharp contrast to both of these patterns.

Kids often take their cues from adults about how to respond to new information. Children’s perceptions are incredibly malleable, which suggests that as adults, we must do some real self-reflection about our own reactions and biases, to consider the subtle (and overt) ways we play a role in dehumanizing others who are different from ourselves.   

What do you hope readers will learn from Saving Face

Saving Face presents some interesting case studies about contemporary aesthetic surgery and about the redefinition of some interventions as “lifesaving.” But more than anything, I’d like readers to think about the taken for granted ways differences—from appearance to family configuration—are informally talked about and how these everyday ways of thinking about difference translate into systematic devaluation.

Bringing home the bodies, after World War I and today

This week marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. To commemorate, Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War, gives us a glimpse into the history of America’s memorialization efforts after the First World War. 

—Lisa M. Budreau

While watching the appalling recent events surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between the mayhem surrounding the slaughter of these innocent civilians, and the similarly ghastly situation left upon the former battlefields after the First World War. The presumably mistaken, but nevertheless brutal murder on July 17th that left bodies scattered for miles across eastern Ukraine, resulted in a complex, macabre travesty where no plans or policy existed for the protection of the site, the identification of the dead, their burial or transportation home. Under the watchful eye of the global media, militants attempting to guard the site were exposed as woefully unprepared to handle this grisly state of affairs that engendered looting, corruption, public suspicion and marked irreverence to the dead.

In the aftermath of war in November 1918, the burial, exhumation, reburial and eventual shipment of American war dead home was equally ghastly, similarly disorganized and mysteriously unplanned for. Families grew increasingly intolerant as the passing months brought no evidence of any effort being made to return their loved ones. Their impatient pleas began arriving at the War Department within days of the cease-fire, with friends and families clamoring for the return of the war dead. Yet the government had entered the conflict in April 1917 with no clear measures for coping with the remains of the deceased.

Once plans were arranged for the return of the war dead, transportation of bodies across France became a logistical nightmare requiring a generous allowance of trucks, canal boats, and railway cars. Coffins had to be procured and more labor was required to complete the task on a time scale that would keep the American public content. Yet, despite the government’s best attempts to deny allegations against its efficiency, accusations mounted as press surveillance reports struggled to meet the demands of an increasingly suspicious public. Numerous cases of mistaken identity were reported by families who claimed to have received the wrong body (while others were promised remains that never arrived). In an attempt to get bodies back more expeditiously from overseas, some families with the means to do so, were willing to pay as much as $2,500 for their loved ones, to unscrupulous officials.

By the close of 1921, the gruesome burial work was nearly complete after the American military had shipped close to 46,000 dead to the United States and 764 to European places of birth. Those who remained overseas were laid to rest in immaculately constructed national cemeteries in England, France and Belgium. For these dead, war’s purposefulness— rather than its tragedy—was emphasized, as death in battle became a noble deed for a “worthy” cause.

By contrast, marked ambivalence will likely shroud the memory of those shot down from the skies above the Ukranian war zone as these tragic deaths can ever be fully justified. But the sacrifice of life still needs to be fully mourned and remembered in an honorable way. Regardless of national affiliation, we all owe a lingering moral obligation to the dead and to their families, and those in mourning need a collective site to remember their loved ones. It will be interesting to see if and how these losses will be remembered beyond the tributes left at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport since this well-intentioned site can offer only the smallest, temporary measure of consolation.

Lisa M. Budreau, PhD, is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).

 

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.

Upcoming events with Gerald Horne

Author and historian Gerald Horne will be on a mini book tour this weekend to discuss his two new books, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, released in April 2014 from NYU Press and Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow, ​out now from Monthly Review Press. 

All events below are free and open to the public.

Friday, July 25 at 7:00pm
New Haven People’s Center, 37 Howe Street, New Haven, CT

Gerald Horne will launch his new book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crowas part of the People’s World Friday Night Film and Discussion Series. Books will be available for signing at a discounted price. For more information, please contact ct-pww@pobox.com.

Saturday, July 26 at 6:30pm
Sistas’ Place
456 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

Join NYU Press and Gerald Horne for a book signing and discussion on his recently published book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the origins of the United States. This important historical analysis highlights how slavery and ongoing racism are tied into the fabric of US society. Books will be for sale at the event.

Sunday, July 27 at 7:30pm
Red Emma’s
, 30 
W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD

Special double book event! Gerald Horne will present and sign copies of ​The Counter-Revolution of 1776 ​and ​Race to Revolution. RSVP on Facebook (optional).

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).

What Freedom Summer means to me

—F. Michael Higginbotham

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

The famous line from the song “Summertime,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, captures how I feel when I reminisce about most summers gone by. Playing little league baseball, swimming at the beach or local public pool, or roasting marshmallows over the open fire, playing team tag under the stars, and gazing at fireworks on the 4th of July, all represent the best of what an American summer should entail. Yet, the summer of 1964 brings up very different images of America’s past.

In the summer of 1964, major civil rights organizations implemented a plan to significantly increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Officially called the Mississippi Summer Project but popularly referred to as Freedom Summer, the initiative was a bold step to directly tackle racial exclusion in the political process in a state with, arguably, one of the worst civil rights records. Due to discriminatory laws and practices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, economic punishments, and physical intimidation, black registration in Mississippi was at 6%, the lowest of any state. The plan involved over one thousand volunteers, mostly white college students from northern universities, working closely with civil rights workers and leaders in the Mississippi black community, facilitating black voter registration.

From the onset, most white Mississippians resented any attempts to increase black voter registration, or to alter the racial status quo in any way. During the course of the two and a half month project, massive and often violent resistance occurred, including bombings and burnings of black churches, businesses, and homes; arrests and beatings of volunteers and aspiring registrants; and the murder of four civil rights workers and three state residents. These resistance efforts were successful at dissuading black Mississippians from registering.

While few additional voters were registered during Freedom Summer, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi helped to focus attention on racial barriers to voting rights throughout the South. Recognition that Mississippi was not an aberration but rather a reflection of widespread exclusion of black voters throughout the south, and in some parts of the north, helped further efforts by civil rights groups and leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Lyndon Johnson, to secure passage of voting rights protection on a national scale. The result was the Voting Rights Act (VRA), enacted in 1965, the most democratizing piece of legislation ever passed.

In signing the law, President Johnson termed it “a monumental law in the history of American freedom.” He was right. In less than four years after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. In Mississippi, for example, black registration increased from 6% to 66%.

Certainly substantial progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Much is owed to those brave young participants in Freedom Summer who helped bring attention to the broken promises of democracy for thousands of Mississippi blacks. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an effective VRA. Anything less would diminish the meaning of Freedom Summer.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

‘The Fault’ in our memories

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

One fine morning in Amsterdam, Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, sports a tee shirt emblazoned with Magritte’s most famous painting. It reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) under a painting of… a pipe. The point of the painting is that it is not a pipe, but rather, a representation of a pipe. A signifier. A treacherous fake.

Yet sometimes we insist that we see a pipe. In the same way, The Fault in Our Stars is not a group of teenagers with cancer; it is a representation of teenagers with cancer. We are enraptured by it because it signifies suffering but it is not the real thing, giving us a vicarious “fantasy of witnessing” tragedy. We insist that we are seeing heartbreak.

The film’s blockbuster success stems from many sources: the popularity of the novel; the rising power of teenage girls at the box office; our cultural fascination with death; and the fact that it is genuinely a strong film. However, except for a significant kerfuffle over a kiss in the Anne Frank house, the role of religion in the film has gone unremarked—particularly when it is religion on the fuzzy line between what we call “religious” and “secular.”

John Green, the author of the book on which the film is based, was a religion and English major at Kenyon College. Before becoming a writer, he served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in ministry. Perhaps this is one reason why his luminescent book is filled with existential fear and a refusal to meet the terror of theodicy with empty platitudes. Here, teens with cancer meet in the “literal heart of Jesus” for a support group at a local church. Hazel is not comforted by this 12-step two-step, but she also recognizes the Sisyphean task of the group’s peppy leader, Patrick. Elsewhere, Hazel’s father asks who we are to deny an elegant universe its desire to be noticed.

This is what I find so profound about the book, its inspirations, and its afterlife. Religion no longer happens only in formal institutional spaces (and it probably never did). In the hallways of hospitals, in our visceral reaction as characters high on a movie screen ponder ultimate questions—in the act of sitting in that dark theater itself—religion is happening. So is memory.

Augustus Waters wants to be noticed before he dies. At first, by the universe: to live an exceptional life. He and Hazel know this cannot be. They know they are finite; they never declare “always,” as some other lovers do, but rather, “okay.”

We all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtual superaddressee: the echoing expanse of Facebook and Twitter. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones. In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts.”

Hazel finds the term “forever in our hearts” especially galling.  Skeptical of memory, she mimics the poster’s intentions: “‘You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU!’ Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.” Hazel sees through memory’s ruse: we think our power to remember and to recover memories is how we resurrect those who are lost—and that has theological implications. To possess one’s own fellow creature through memory is godlike… but we are mortals.

What happens to our memories of love and of suffering, here in the twenty-first century?

Green answers us with both dark infinitude and a leap of faith. He became a parent while writing the book, and says this changed it. When Hazel is eight, her mother fears that she will not be a mother anymore without her daughter. Years later, she moves past that into a brazen, stark resilience. She tells Hazel that she will always be her mother. Green has said, “I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children … Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.”

And yet, he also writes: “I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.”

John Green wants to have his existential cake, and eat it, too. Maybe that’s not the worst idea ever.

Okay.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (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).