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).

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).

The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

In late June, hundreds will convene in Jackson, Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. The 1964 Freedom Summer was one of the most courageous campaigns for freedom in the history of the United States. It built upon heroic work of Mississippi human rights activists who labored without much national media attention and support or protection from the federal government.

After emancipation from enslavement, Black Mississippians were denied basic human rights through a system of white supremacy and racial terror. Mississippi’s state leaders unashamedly promoted and supported Jim Crow apartheid in the state, which included denying voting rights of people of African descent, 42% of its population. Racial violence was a major force in maintaining white supremacy in Mississippi and other southern states.

In the early 1950s, an indigenous network of African-American activists emerged under the banner of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the guidance of movement veteran Ella Baker, young Robert Moses, a Harvard graduate, came to Mississippi in 1961 on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Moses began to recruit Mississippi Black college students and youth to organize for voting and human rights in the state, in coordination with the network local Black freedom fighters. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) soon joined Moses, SNCC, and local NAACP chapters in the effort to secure voting rights in the state.

The white supremacist power structure responded to the upsurge of Black activism with an increased campaign of racial terrorism, harassing, repressing, and in some cases, assassinating local Black activists and movement supporters. The terrorism in the state, which drew almost no attention from the media, inspired the singer Nina Simone to title a protest song “Mississippi Goddam.”

To overcome the ongoing campaign of terror, Bob Moses proposed an intensive campaign known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The project would organize a racially-inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), organize voter registration, and establish a network of Freedom Schools to educate Black children in literacy, math, and African-American history. Given the lack of media attention and the government’s failure to act, Moses advocated bringing in hundreds of white college students to volunteer in the summer project. The national news media and powerful government officials would pay attention if their sons and daughters were in racist, violent Mississippi.

The national leadership embraced Moses’ proposal (despite opposition from the majority of Black Mississippi SNCC organizers)—and in 1964, hundreds of Black and white volunteers from around the United States arrived in segregated Mississippi to confront white supremacy.

The Freedom Summer did not deter violence. On the eve of volunteers coming to the state, three members of CORE—James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman—disappeared and were ultimately found murdered in Neshoba County. Over one thousand activists were arrested in the state between June and October that year; 37 churches were bombed or burned to the ground; and 15 people were murdered, due to white supremacist violence. Local Black communities re-doubled their efforts to provide protection for activists and volunteers; some formed roving, armed patrols to protect their neighbors from attack. Activists from nonviolent organizations even picked up arms to join local Blacks in protecting the community.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) presented a persuasive challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. MFDP leader and spokesperson Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist Black sharecropper, powerfully described, to the U.S. and the world, the violent terror of Mississippi. Hamer passionately illustrated her experience of being evicted from the plantation where she and her husband worked, incarcerated, and brutally beaten for attempting to register to vote.

The National Democratic Party and its leader, President Lyndon Johnson, chose to maintain its relationship with the pro-segregationist Mississippi delegation. The MFDP was offered a compromise of two seats within the pro-segregationist delegation. This compromise was rejected by the MFDP. The national Democratic Party leadership realized the potentiality of the MFDP challenge, particularly as the freedom struggle was winning the fight for voting rights. This led to the undermining of segregationist policies in the Democratic Party in the South and the inclusion of Black people.

On the other hand, some SNCC and CORE activist chose not to rely on political parties, but instead to move in an autonomous direction calling for independent Black political organization. Some began to focus on grassroots, economic development through cooperatives. Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists in the historic Mississippi Delta initiated the cooperative Freedom Farms. The call for Black political self-determination or “Black Power” was also complimented with a call for self-defense particularly since the federal government could not be relied upon for protection, echoing the sentiment of local Mississippians, many from previously nonviolent organizations embraced the advocacy and practice of We Will Shoot Back!

The legacy of a system of apartheid and white supremacy manifested in contemporary institutional racism stills effects Black Mississippi. With it large Black population, Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S. In Jackson, the state capital, a movement has emerged for grassroots Black politics. Jackson is 80% Black, the second highest African-American population of any major city in the U.S.

The People’s Assembly was organized in 2008 in the city’s Ward 2 to elect revolutionary Attorney Chokwe Lumumba to City Council. Born and raised in Detroit, Lumumba had first came to Mississippi in 1971 as a member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1971. The RNA desired to establish in an independent, Black government and socialist economy in the Deep South, including Jackson and the Black majority counties of Mississippi. Lumumba later became the Chairman and co-founder of the pro-Black self-determination, pro-socialist New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). He also worked to bring Bryon De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice and for a Black agenda for city’s first Black Mayor. Lumumba identified himself as a “Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and was a card-carrying member of the MFDP, not the state Democratic Party, which he associated with the legacy of white supremacy.

After Lumumba was elected with 63% of the vote to the Jackson City Council in 2009, the People’s Assembly continued to organize task forces around youth and economic development, educational policy, and improving the ward’s infrastructure, as well as providing direction for the councilman in his voting on the city’s legislative body. This formula served as the model for Lumumba’s election to the city’s Mayor in 2013. In the runoff of the Democratic primary, he earned 58% of the vote while his opponent rose five times of Lumumba’s campaign fund. Lumumba received 86% of the vote during the general election. With this mandate, he planned to expand the People’s Assembly citywide and institute a plan of worker-managed cooperatives to reinvigorate the city’s crumbling economy. Lumumba consciously tied himself to the Mississippi Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Lumumba’s untimely death in February 2014, eight months after his inauguration to Mayor, is a setback to his initiatives and the agenda of the Assembly. But the struggle continues. The People’s Assembly is still building citywide and in May 2014, a Jackson Rising New Economies conference announced Cooperation Jackson, an initiative to organize worker-managed cooperatives in the city as a model for impoverished Black communities in the state.

As we commemorate 1964 Freedom Summer, we must not ignore the continued fight for Black self-determination, democracy, human rights and economic justice in the Mississippi and the U.S. The People’s Assembly and Cooperation Jackson represent contemporary manifestations of this fight and a continuation of the promise of Freedom Summer. Let us not forget: in Mississippi, the struggle for freedom continues!

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

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.] 

Suzanna Walters kicks off Pride Month book tour

June is LGBT Pride Month!

Celebrate with author Suzanna Danuta Walters as she hits the road this month on a national book tour for The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality (“out” now from NYU Press). Each stop on the tour will have an opportunity for a Q&A session with the author and book signing. If you are in any of the following cities, please stop by and meet her!

The complete list of tour dates is below. For further details, visit Suzanna’s website

 

William Way LGBT Community Center
JUNE 3, 2014 | 6:00 PM
PHILADELPHIA, PA

Out Professionals Pre-Pride Book Party at NYU
JUNE 4, 2014 | 6:30 PM
NEW YORK, NY

Barnes & Noble, Upper West Side
JUNE 5, 2014 | 7:00 PM
NEW YORK, NY

Book Soup
JUNE 10, 2014 | 7:00 PM
LOS ANGELES, CA

Books, Inc.
JUNE 11, 2014 | 7:00 PM
SAN FRANCISCO, CA

Attorney General’s Office
JUNE 17, 2014 | 12:00 PM
WASHINGTON, DC

Harvard Book Store
JUNE 19, 2014 | 7:00 PM
CAMBRIDGE, MA

The Book Cellar
JUNE 21, 2014 | 7:00 PM
CHICAGO, IL

Provincetown Public Library
JUNE 26, 2014 | 6:00 PM
PROVINCETOWN, MA

Mensa Gathering
JULY 2, 2014 | 3:00 PM
BOSTON, MA

Stay tuned for more on The Tolerance Trap this month on our blog, including a book giveaway and Q&A with the author. Happy Pride!

Book giveaway: Open Veins of Latin America

Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than a million copies. Written by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, the book chronicles five centuries of exploitation in Latin America—first by European empires, and later the United States. In it, Galeano argues that this “structure of plunder” led to the region’s enduring poverty and underdevelopment.

Now, according to a recent New York Times article, Galeano has disavowed the book. But has he?

In light of the controversy, we’re giving away a FREE copy of Open Veins of Latin America to three lucky winners. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and e-mail address. Winners will be randomly selected on Friday, June 6 at 12:00pm EST.

“Boys will be boys”?

—Judy Y. Chu

As a parent of a 10-year-old, I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few years observing kids playing—at schools, playgrounds, and various social functions. As a researcher who studies boys’ development, I am especially inclined to tune in to what parents and teachers say about boys. And I have found that when adults talk about boys, regardless of the context or the particular group of kids, I can expect to hear someone at some point remark that, “Boys will be boys.”

Usually, this comment comes as a response to boys’ rowdy and rambunctious play, as when they are running around, being loud, acting hyper, getting into mischief, or otherwise brimming with energy. (Incidentally, no one says anything when girls display similar behaviors). Even when said in a tone of acceptance, it seems to have a negative connotation. In my experience, this comment is not meant as a celebration, as in “Hooray! Boys will be boys!” Rather, as they say this, adults will often shrug their shoulders, smile mildly, and sigh as though in resignation: “Oh well. What can you do? Boys will be boys.”

But what does it mean for boys to be boys? And why might this be something less than desirable? When we think about it, the first question almost doesn’t make sense. Of course, boys will be boys. What else would they be? But the question gains new meaning when we consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation that in many cultures and societies, boys must prove their masculinity. Somehow it is not enough to be biologically male. Boys must prove that they are “boys” or “real” boys (and, later on, “real” men). For the most part, they do this by aligning with group and cultural norms of masculinity.

Social psychologists remind us that we tend to find what we look for and favor those things that match our expectations. So, when boys behave in ways that confirm gender stereotypes and are consistent with conventions of masculinity—that emphasize, for instance, physical activity and toughness, emotional stoicism, and projected self-sufficiency— we take notice and are prompted to conclude that, “Boys will be boys.”

Conversely, we tend to overlook or discount those things that challenge our assumptions. Although we may like to think of ourselves as being receptive to new information, most of us are more comfortable with evidence that affirms what we already know and believe. It requires extra effort to truly consider and incorporate unfamiliar ideas or ways of thinking.

This might explain why I rarely, if ever, hear people remark that “Boys will be boys” when boys are calm, quiet, gentle, kind, thoughtful, generous, and considerate. Boys certainly exhibit these qualities as well. Indeed, they are a part of boys’ (as well as girls’) humanity. Nevertheless, to the extent that these qualities are considered “feminine,” and we continue to define masculinity as the opposite of femininity, we are less likely to recognize these qualities in boys, much less count them among the attributes that confirm boys’ masculine identities.

As couples therapist Terrence Real points out, when we take all of the qualities that make us human, divide them into “masculine” and “feminine,” and decide that only males should be “masculine” and only females should be “feminine,” everyone loses. While there is no doubt that boys will be boys, it is necessary to update and expand our understanding of what it means to be a boy, including what boys are capable of knowing and doing in their relationships. We know from our experiences of the boys in our lives, as well as from research studies, that gender stereotypes may misrepresent, or represent only a fraction of, boys’ capabilities and strengths.

Although we know that there is more to boys than being “boys,” it is easy to allow stereotypes to influence how we view and respond to them. When we expect boys to be “masculine” and we focus on ways in which boys’ behaviors conform to masculine norms, it can become difficult for us to acknowledge that they are capable of anything else. At times, the notion that “Boys will be boys” can even become an excuse for doing nothing about sub-standard behavior (e.g., when boys behave dispectfully towards others or towards themselves).

To support boys’ healthy development and relationships, we need to hold them accountable to standards that exceed merely being “boys.” By moving beyond gender stereotypes, we can transform this cliché to convey greater expectations. Whether or not boys align with norms of masculine behavior, ultimately it is the qualities that make them human—such as their sense of integrity, decency, compassion, and connection to others—that will be crucial to their happiness and success.

Judy Y. Chu is Affiliated Faculty in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University and the author of When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity (NYU Press, 2014).

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

Fox News’ divisive race strategy

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

Right-wing political figures have often defended the content of Fox News and other right-leaning media. A common ploy is the insinuation that the “mainstream” news establishment is in fact biased in favor of liberal ideological framings of issues or that it is actually antiwhite. For example, Sarah Palin famously blamed the “leftist lamestream media” for allegedly pressuring Newt Gingrich to soften his critique of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (while in fact the disapproval came from Fox News), and Palin again insinuated charges of political targeting when she decried the media as attacking right-wing figures with their brand of unfair “gotcha journalism.” Rush Limbaugh also compared the mainstream press to a “drive by shooter except the microphones are guns.” Limbaugh further asserted that the anti-right, mainstream media attempts to “destroy people’s careers. Then they get in the convertible, head on down the road and do it all over again, while people like you and me are left to clean up the mess with the truth. So I call them the drive-by media.”

The Fox News audience is distinct. Numerous studies have found Fox viewers to be less informed about political and current events than viewers of most other broadcast news and cable networks. This could mean either that Fox News performs less effectively in educating viewers or that Fox News attracts less knowledgeable audiences. Other studies have found that individuals who like news with in-depth interviews tend to watch network news and CNN more than Fox, and that individuals who prefer news that aligns with their already-formed opinions are much more likely to watch Fox News (while no such relationship exists for the CNN or network audiences). More research indicates that ABC, CBS, and NBC all favored their own polling numbers and reported “positive” polls for Bill Clinton and “negative” polls for George W. Bush, while Fox appeared to favor exactly the reverse. This would seem to indicate that Fox is simply on the conservative side of media bias. However, while all media outlets have political leanings, Fox News is exceptional in that Fox was especially willing to cite external polling numbers of Clinton if they were damaging—a practice that other news outlets did not perform.

Fox News also appears to cater to ethnocentric assumptions. This discourse has grown with the election of Obama to the White House. In one study, researchers asked panelists where they obtained their televised news about national and international affairs. Roughly one-quarter of respondents indicated that they received their information from Fox News. At the time of the study, questions of Obama’s birth were being raised. When asked if they believed Obama was born in the United States, only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American born. The authors of the study, Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, wrote, “[T]he reinforcing and/or persuasive role of oppositional media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio could make it increasingly difficult to disabuse the sizable minority of individuals disposed to accepting invalid assertions designed to paint Obama as the ‘other.’” In the face of such evidence, many Fox apologists, commentators, and guests often defended the views of Birthers and Tea Party activists. While frequent Fox talking head Ann Coulter claimed that that no one on Fox ever mentioned “Birtherism,” research indicates that not only did Fox News mention it; they ramped up coverage of the Birthers leading up to the April 2011 release of the “long form” birth certificate. Moreover, at least 85 percent (forty-four out of fifty-two) of false claims about Obama’s birth went unchallenged on Fox News. Fox segments repeated that Obama never produced a birth certificate, that Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and that Obama spent $2 million in legal funds blocking the release of his birth certificate.

As social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson make clear in “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Fox News realized in early 2009 that the Tea Party was a major conservative phenomenon in the making and “moved to become [its] cheerleader-in-chief.” Fox began speaking of major Tea Party events weeks in advance and they became more of an advertiser for the Tea Party than a source of news about them. This coverage glorified the future Tea Party events by creating buzz about the expected large crowds and the political and social effect of the rallies. Having just defected from CNN, Glenn Beck traveled to various cities to interview people days before Tea Party rallies even occurred. Skocpol and Williamson contend,

A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber.’” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” . . . [D]uring the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers.

Simply put, Fox did not simply cover Tea Party events as they transpired, but rather helped to create and sediment support for the fledging movement in its weakest stages.

With the alignment of Birther and Tea Party movements with GOP and other hard-right-wing candidates, Fox News is shown to have a significant effect on voting patterns. In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan find that

[t]owns with Fox News have a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point higher Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections, compared to the 1996 elections. A vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive in the 2000 elections. We also find an effect on vote share in Senate elections which Fox News does not cover, suggesting that the Fox News impact extends to general political beliefs. Finally, we find evidence that Fox News increased turnout to the polls.

Consistent with evidence of media effects on political beliefs and voting, this recent research indicates that exposure to Fox News may very well induce undecided viewers to vote for Republican candidates. Together, these findings demonstrate the unique character of Fox News, its power to influence voting patterns, and the makeup of its audience.

Fox News and associates constantly constructed the average white viewer as a hard-working American who is, at base, frightened by the unfair and racialized agenda of Obama. Characterizing the white viewer as an American under the assault of a dark and dangerous “other” implies a racial conflict in which the white viewer is an innocent bystander in the racial drama directed by the Obama administration.

For example, in July of 2008 Glenn Beck engaged in a pithy race-based fear-mongering remark on his Fox News show. He stated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that Obama “is, I believe, a racist.” After other journalists and activists asked him to specify, rationalize, or retract his remarks, Rupert Murdoch defended Beck’s comment. In a November 2009 interview with Australia’s Sky News, Murdoch said,

On the racist thing, that caused a grilling. But he [Obama] did make a very racist comment. Ahhh . . . about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.

Moreover, Sean Hannity joined Murdoch in defending Beck’s assertion that Obama is a “racist.” In discussing Beck’s comment, Hannity stated, “But wait a minute. Wait, hang on a second. When the president hangs out with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years, I’m—can one conclude that there are issues with the president, black liberation theology?”

Right-wing pundit Mark Levin went so far as to frame Obama as a cult-like figure whom whites should reasonably fear as heralding the opening stages of a fascist social order:

There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.

During an October 2008 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated,

I fear that Obama will stir up a race war. You want to ask me what I fear? I think Obama will empower the racists in this country and stir up a race war in order to seize absolute power. I believe that’s what he will do. It will not be as overt as you may think, but it’ll be a subtle race war on every level imaginable.

As the show went on, Savage took an online caller, who stated,

I absolutely agree with you as far as the race war goes. I think the greatest thing that concerns me about Obama is his resentment toward this country. I feel that him and his wife feel that they have fought very hard against whites, and that everything that they have, they are entitled to versus being thankful and feeling privileged for living in this country, and what this country has provided in terms of opportunities.

To this Savage replied, “Correct. And affirmative action helped both of them, there’s no question about it.”

White viewers of Fox were constantly framed as people who should be frightened and apprehensive about issues pertaining to race. In February 2007 Glenn Beck stated that he doesn’t “have a lot of African-American friends [because] . . . I’m afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare.” In this same vein, Bill O’Reilly stated, “Instead of black and white Americans coming together, white Americans are terrified. They’re terrified. Now we can’t even say you’re articulate? We can’t even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescension?” In this way, Fox commentators played up racial fears and anxieties, while painting whites as victims of overly sensitive nonwhites, race-baiters, and political correctness.

Seizing upon this fear, Fox News and right-wing commentators anointed themselves as the real civil rights activists of today’s “anti-white” era. Glenn Beck stated that his Restoring Honor rally was to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” So also, in 2007, Michael Savage stated,

[B]asically, if you’re talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you’re gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it’s become in this country. It’s a whole industry; it’s a racket. It’ s a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males’ birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn’t qualify for it. Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They’re not coming out of women’s hides.

Are they? No, there’s only one group that’s targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.

By stoking racial fears and framing themselves as the true heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative commentators can effectively advance a pro-white agenda that seeks to roll back some of the progressive gains toward equality of the past half-century while mystifying any such overt claim or color-conscious agenda.

These examples illustrate that the white-as-victim narrative both is widely shared and carries resonance across the right-wing media airwaves. Indeed, the story of white victimization is, in our supposedly “post-racial era,” a dominant feature of the media’s obsession with race. The right-wing media calls out to its viewers to identify as racialized white victims. And in competing for audience viewership, networks like Fox attract white viewership by telling them they deserve both social sympathy and a (white) badge of courage for the battle wounds they have received for simply being white. The white audience’s righteous indignation is constructed through a media narrative that tells them they should feel displeasure with the legal initiatives (for example, affirmative action) that are not redressing past discrimination but enacting it upon them in the present. This makes the political quite personal. Such right-wing media discourse reinterprets historical and current patterns into personal attacks in which a black bogey man (today incarnated in the personage of Obama) hates them only because they are white. Importantly, these media messages attempt a paradoxical recovery of white political domination through the discourse of personal white victimization.

Matthew W. Hughey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.

[Read a fuller version of this excerpt from The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks on Salon.com.]