3. Queer Stuff, 8. Research & Academia

Coming out in Academia: After the Pulse Nightclub Shooting

This piece was originally posted on June 29, 2016 on the Society for Research on Adolescence Emerging Scholars blog.file-jun-29-10-02-38-am

I was trained to not come out.

It wasn’t specifically about hiding my gender identity or sexual orientation. As a college student peer counselor and peer educator, I learned to make space for others – to validate and accept other people’s experiences of gender and sexuality, to ask questions that helped other people say more. I learned to use public health data and critical theory to talk about why I did what I did, why sex education is important, why I focus on adolescents.

When I became a public school teacher, I was warned not to talk about “homosexuality” or homophobia in my middle school health classes. If I did, the school would not protect me from parents who protested. There were two out teachers in my building, so it might have been possible for me to follow their lead, and be open with the staff but not with my students. But even at that, they had each been part of the community for a long time, and were married, and I was new and young and single… and scared.

Many other factors shape how (not) often I “come out” explicitly: my critique of the gender binary, my discomfort with common sexual orientation labels, and my own complex relationship history. In addition, I appear generally feminine and gender-conforming and had a cis male/ gender-conforming partner for half of my twenties, so my queerness is not something a person would figure out just from getting to know me, or even sharing an office with me for many years. Keywords: “passing privilege;” “bisexual invisibility;” “femme invisibility.”

When I entered academia, I wasn’t specifically trying to keep anything private or hidden; I was simply not practiced in these forms of self-disclosure.

And there’s also this piece about post-positivist social science resisting transparency of positionality. (Stop, rewind, translate.) We joke about “all research is me-search,” and yet we want scientists to be “objective” and to have as little “bias” as possible. Perhaps I have unintentionally stopped myself from revealing “too much,” lest my personal identity make my professional work suspect. Would people think that? Do you think that?

These questions of if, when, and how to talk about my own gender identity and sexual orientation within academic spaces have specifically come to the fore since the attack against queer and trans folks of color, predominantly Latinx, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Not being clearly and consistently “out” means that the people I work with may not know exactly how much this attack has been affecting me, my loved ones, my community. This all feels so deeply personal right now.

Although by writing this post I am taking a bold step towards outness and openness, I want to share some of the nuances layering this question for me, with curiosity about how these nuances feel to others.

  1.   Sheer awkwardness. After making the decision to make this part of myself known professionally, how do I actually do that? How, if at all, do various people want to be told? What are the core concepts that I want to communicate? Where do I start?
  2.   Appropriateness. There’s something tricky about being an unmarried professional. Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post. When I’m talking about attraction and identity and relationships, how much of my personal life am I supposed to share, in the context of building professional relationships?
  3.   Scientific-ness. My experience of queerness does not check the boxes of our demographic questionnaires. My ways of describing my own gender and sexual orientation do not make me sound like a social scientist, necessarily. Or perhaps they simply lend themselves to qualitative descriptions and explanations, rather than quantitative!
  4.   Tokenization. Not being out means I might have missed opportunities to do some of the work of queer visibility, to have the chance to be that queer person that somebody else knows, thinks about, asks questions to. People have been asking me questions professionally because they know what my research and advocacy is about, but it’s different to be faced with someone else’s personal life and feelings. Could there be a useful or meaningful way to offer myself as an example, without being tokenized?
  5.   Reputation. Even in states with employment protections, so many subtle biases can shape a person’s reputation and movement within the field. Will being more out and open shape, at all, how people see me as a researcher? Will it affect how they see my work, judge its rigor, how they interpret my motivations?
  6.   Supporting students. As I have been checking in with friends, certain former students have also come to my mind. I particularly want to support members of the queer Latinx community, who were targeted in the Pulse nightclub attack, and queer Muslims suffering heightened Islamophobia in the wake of the attack. Do I reach out to students? What do I say? In general, what’s on the line with regard to the if, when, and how of coming out students?
  7.   Reflexivity. Qualitative research methods often include a statement of reflexivity, as in, the researchers’ reflections on their own identities and opinions in relation to the research project. Particularly when I write about sexuality and relationships, it’s not a stretch to claim that queerness is a relevant aspect of my identity and experience. What are the implications of naming that in a peer-reviewed manuscript?

I have not provided a palatable coming out post, a clear narrative of who I am and who I’ve loved and the first time I told my parents. I have not given you specific labels. Even now, I am still figuring out what I want to share, what I am ready to risk, and how to open up space for those of us whose narratives aren’t as neat and whose identities aren’t as binary. Let me know if you have ideas.

I would love to hear from people who navigate coming out, or what it’s like for you to know or not know this information about a colleague. What other questions and concerns do you have? You can also consider this as a friendly reminder to reach out to colleagues and friends who you know are queer, especially queer and trans folks of color, who are particularly vulnerable to violence and particularly likely to be hurting after Orlando.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 3. Queer Stuff

So you’re trying to figure me out?

I am a divorced pansexual queer femme trauma survivor.
I am a smart successful sensitive spiritual progressive Jew.
I am a caring compassionate anti-racist White feminist.
 
I am layers of nightmare and daydream and full, raw presence.
I am hope and hurt and growth.
I am sweet caresses and confusion.

I am too much.
I am not enough.
I am busy.
I am deeply connected and loving and open.
I am alone and coping and yearning.

I am vulnerable.
I am incredibly strong.
I am not here to play games.

3. Queer Stuff

Queer Identity: More Questions than Answers

I didn’t realize it would be so hard to be queer after I got married. Seems like it should have been obvious to me, right? Marry a heterosexual cis-man, turn in queer club card, do not pass go, still collect hundreds of dollars of apparently-straight privilege. Is that how it has to be?
I had a boyfriend in college who once told a friend I was bisexual. His friend asked, “Is she activelybisexual?” Actively? What does that mean? At this very moment? My boyfriend told me this story in order to laugh at that friend’s ignorance. Silly friend, he must think that being bisexual requires actively pursuing multiple partners at the same time. Clearly, us enlightened folks knew I could be bisexual and just have a boyfriend and no other partners. No problem with that, right?
At the time, I feel a problem with that at all. My sexual orientation was about my identity, and it was about my past and my future as much as my present. I never even really identified as bisexual. Mostly, I identified as queer, which allowed me to position myself as “not heterosexual” while not succumbing to a word with the prefix “bi,” referring to a binary conception of gender in which I do not believe.
Actually, it wasn’t until deep into my current relationship that I started identifying as bisexual sometimes. “Bisexual” seems like a more specific identity than “queer,” staking a claim in the queer community that can more easily be reconciled with my current relationship status. But the truth is, it’s not like I walk around with a “bisexual” sticker on my forehead, and not a lot of people ask me how I identify. So it only seems to come up when I bring it up.
I’ve been partnered with a cismale for four years, and last year we publicly committed to each other through that complicated ritual commonly known as a wedding. Our relationship is monogamous, so I am not “actively” bisexual, since I am not pursuing sexual liaisons with anyone besides my partner. Given my current situation, what would it mean for me to be somehow “meaningfully” queer/bisexual? In my last relationship, my sexual orientation signified the diversity of my past and my future liasons. But I have no plans to pursue other relationships now or in the future. Without opening up our relationship or engaging in some form of non-monogamy, what would it mean for me to have a meaningful queer identity in the present?
The Klein scale has seven categories for assessing sexual orientation: attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, lifestyle preference, and self-identification. It is only in the “sexual behavior” category that change has occurred for me. So my identity inside really hasn’t change much, but the most visible marker that communicates my identity to other people has certainly changed. What I’m trying to figure out is, what effect does this have on my life, and on my membership in queer community?
I want to take a minute to discuss privilege, which, not so coincidentally, I also wrote about privilege last year on pride weekend. As David Levy wrote recently, the Pride Parade is a celebration as well as a political action. Since I benefit from all kinds of heterosexual privilege in my life, in what ways is this protest/celebration myparade, and in what ways is it not? I try to keep myself from taking up too much space, and I try to stay sensitive to the times when I should step back and take a position as an ally rather than claiming queer celebration as my own. But maybe I’m wrong, because it feels wrong when I do that, because queer is my own.
I’ve met a few people recently at queer events whom I really liked, and I might have vaguely led them to believe I’m queer, simply through context and association, and maybe also discussion of our life histories. It isn’t actually leading them on, since I am queer. But then later, they find out about my current situation. Do they still believe me that I’m queer? Do they feel I lied to them or led them on? Did I somehow owe it to them to be super-clear and upfront about my orientation and relationship status, even though they didn’t ask? Am I doing something wrong? Or not? Or should I just drop all this self-doubt and get over it?
Bisexual invisibility is a very tricky issue, because it is a privilege and a pain at the same time. I benefit from an extraordinary amount of material and cultural hetero-privilege. At the same time, I feel invisible within my queer community because I don’t know if people think I’m legit, or if I can ever be legit, or if I am taking up too much space, or if I’m needlessly shooting myself down with internalized biphobia or some other crap. It’s all very confusing and complicated. I have a feeling that there really aren’t clear answers, but I have a bunch of questions, and I would love to know what you think.
3. Queer Stuff

State your name and pronoun: Framing and Phrasing

This post is a follow-up to this one, which I wrote earlier this week.

At the beginning of this month, I again found myself at a retreat center working to make space with a group of progressive Jews together for the weekend. As we sat in a circle to introduce ourselves to each other on Friday night, we were asked to share our name and pronoun, in addition to answering an icebreaker question. As happened to me my first time, the ritual was not explained in detail before we did it. But afterwards, I had multiple conversations about it. I took it as a sign of progress, though, that the concerns raised in these conversations were not “why are we doing this in the first place?” but rather, they were, “why are we focusing on pronouns and not just asking people to share their gender identity?” And, “wouldn’t this exercise be really hard for some people, who may or may not want to out themselves right away?”
Great questions! While I definitely have my own answers to these questions, I also want to create a communal understanding of the answers. The biggest lesson I learned from these conversations is that as we continue to engage in this ritual, we need to use a more clear framing for why we invite people to share their name and pronoun.
Here’s a starting point. In working to create guidelines for our facilitators of Sex Ed Workshops for Young Adults, Joanna Ware helped craft the following example of how to frame this ritual:
“Let’s go around and say our names and, if you feel comfortable, your preferred pronouns. These are the pronouns you’d like other people to use to talk about you, for example I use _________. We share preferred pronouns so that we all know how to refer to one another respectfully, and because our pronouns aren’t necessarily self-evident. There is much more to gender identity than pronoun preference, and we ask for pronouns just so we can refer to each other respectfully throughout this conversation today.”
This framing addresses the above questions in a few ways. First, it clarifies that we share pronouns because we will be building community together and thus necessarily, at some point, talking about each other and thus perhaps using pronouns. This exercise is quite utilitarian. We say specifically “there is much more to gender identity than pronoun preference,” so that people understand we are not using pronouns as a stand-in for self-definition. The purpose of this ritual is to clarify something that we know we will need (pronouns) and that we know in many situations we will not get correct by simply guessing haphazardly.
Here are some pronoun options that I have commonly heard people choose. If you know more, please add them in the comments!
  • No pronoun—just use my name, please, and it repeat my name as needed
  • No preference—use whatever pronouns you want
  • They/them/theirs
  • Zie/hir/hirs
  • She/her/hers
  • He/him/his
I’m hoping that a better framing of why we ask for preferred pronouns and what we do or do not take them to signify will help us work together to build a safer space, to complicate the gender binary, and to stand in solidarity with trans and gender variant people in our community and who have yet to join our community.
And, as a new friend said to me last night, we do it just to be good people. To do something nice.
What do you think? I would be open to publishing guest posts on the topic from anyone who identifies as transgender, genderqueer, and/or gender variant, or anyone else who has worried about being mis-pronouned. I openly invite feedback on the reflections and concerns I shared in this post, and I would love to discuss it further both on and offline.
3. Queer Stuff

My name is Mimi, and you can use “she” and “her” to refer to me

 

The first time I was asked to share my name and pronoun, I felt pretty upset. Why make gender so primary, right here at the beginning of this event, as we introduce ourselves to each other? I was in the woods with a bunch of Jewish activists, trying to escape the gender binary and fight the patriarchy. So I said something like this: “My name is Mimi, and you can use ‘she’ to refer to me, as long as you understand that doesn’t say anything about who I am and what I’m capable of.”
I was at a point in my life where priming gender was really hard for me. “Priming” refers to the idea that simply bringing up a social category, such as gender, results in psychologically (and maybe subconsciously) bringing up the stereotypes associated with that social category, such that the pressure associated with those stereotypes has a stronger effect. I felt that identifying myself along the gender binary meant making myself vulnerable to expectations based on gender. Just because I didn’t think twice when people refer to me as “she” didn’t mean I was totally comfortable with everything in the category of “woman.”
Five years later, having learned a lot about my own and other people’s experiences of gender, and having more access to multiple means of both escaping the gender binary and fighting the patriarchy, I came around. Friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators at Keshet taught me many valuable lessons about how to be an ally to transgender, genderqueer, and gender variant people. I came to see my own privilege in the fact that when a person is left to their own devices to guess what pronoun is best to use when referring to me, that person will always choose “she.” At least, people always have, and I my guess is that they always will. So I never have to fear being “mis-pronoun-ed” (someone using the wrong pronoun to refer to me). In addition, I don’t have to endure any uncomfortable or tense moments when I first meet someone, as they figure out what pronoun to use. In fact, I’d never actually thought about what pronoun I use until that moment in the woods with the fruity Jews.
Now, opening a space by inviting everyone to share their name and their preferred pronoun has a lot of meaning for me, on multiple levels.
  • We get to make our space safer for trans and gender variant people: We directly address the fear/discomfort of being mispronounced by establishing preferences at the beginning of the event
  • We get to complicate gender: Through this ritual, we demonstrate our belief that gender is not always binary and is not always obvious by looking at someone.
  • We get to stand in solidarity: People always have referred to me using my preferred pronoun without me having to say anything. But by saying something anyway, I am putting myself in alliance with people who need to specify their preferred pronoun in order for other people to know what to say.
For these reasons, I have come to value sharing names and pronouns as an important ritual for setting the space of a community event or retreat. In my next post, I share some questions that have come up in introducing this ritual to my current community.
2. Weddings, Marriage, & Divorce, 3. Queer Stuff

Doing Femme

Yes, wearing makeup can be a feminist act. Wanting to appear feminine and femininely put-together can be a feminist desire. I never meant to imply otherwise. What I meant to say is that wearing makeup is not always a feminist act. Sometimes, it is a demonstration of internalized oppression, a desire to hide flaws, an act of objectification and submission, a nod to the system. When I wear makeup and skirts and pink and feel I’m doing that as a feminist act, I call that femme. I feel feminine, beautiful, brilliant, and powerful. I feel in control.

Doing femme means simultaneously critiquing and celebrating femininity in a variety of forms. It means embracing the aspects of femininity and female-focused culture that I find empowering and pleasurable in conjunction with embracing aspects of myself that totally clash with traditional conceptions of what it means to be feminine and womanly. Femme is about embracing contradictions, strengthening personal agency, and having a whole lot of fun. At least, that’s what femme means to me.

My last post was also about embracing contradictions. This contradiction: my decision to wear makeup does not only come from a place of femme desire and personal agency. It also comes from a place in which I feel I need to be girly in order to be accepted, in which I fear rebellion at risk of my own comfort and privilege, in which I yearn to achieve that standard of prettiness that I see held up as the ideal. Yes, that girl exists inside of me. Those fears and insecurities are a part of who I am.

Those fears and insecurities don’t make me any less femme and fabulous. Or do they? To be honest, I had not thought about it much until this week. I had associated doing femme with the times and places in which I feel truly free and empowered to be myself, to live and breathe and show off my own contradictions, to push boundaries. I had associated doing femme with weekends, vacations, or those days that seem so stressful that my best coping mechanism is to break out the red dress and black lace tights and go for it.

Until now, I had not thought to associate femme-and-fabulous with that place of insecurity and fear. When I chose to wear makeup at the wedding, I knew I could be radical and choose not to; but I still felt pressured by a desire to conform to mainstream practices of female beautification. Because I felt this pressure, this strong influence and pull that would, in the end, be a strong element of my decision, I didn’t feel I was doing femme. If it wasn’t totally free, it couldn’t be femme, right?

I realized today (through a conversation with a glorious femme friend) that not only had I been holding myself up to a ridiculous and damaging ideal, but I had also been holding up femme to an ideal that restricted it. I was trying to protect my femme identity from my own imperfections. I was protecting my femme identity from the parts of me that feel insecure, disempowered, and scared. But that’s not fair. What will it take to free my femme identity and let it flourish?

Femme can be imperfect. The reality of my inner experience is that, at this point in my mind-twenties, I can proudly and strongly embrace of my own power and beauty and brilliance. I am quite femme-confident. AND. And I have a good chunk of that internalized-female-oppression that entails a constant questioning of whether I am measuring up or not. I have both. And I bet a lot of other people do, too! And that’s okay. And that’s difficult. And it’s real. And yes I am using the word “and” over and over again on purpose to demonstrate that finding personal agency includes this process of embracing over and over again the contradictions of our own desires. And we can find beauty in these contradictions. And we can find power. And we can find feminism.

We can find these things, if we’re willing to risk looking for them.

3. Queer Stuff

Better, Bolder, Hotter

First: watch this video.

Lyrics here.

Rebecca Drysdale made this video for Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, and I hereby dub this video my favorite thing on the Internet. I challenge you to find something online that I will love more than this video–seriously, go for it.

I love so many things about this video.

It’s hot and fun and funny.
Having fun has a very important role to play in the process of enjoying and promoting sex positivity. After all, sex is about pleasure and ecstasy and just plain feeling that. Watching this video makes me feel good. Pleasure is an important theme throughout the video—what the youth find pleasurable, what adults find pleasurable. In addition, the video itself provides an opportunity for us (the viewers) to enjoy the pleasures of the entertainment media—comedy, music, and dance.

It makes me want to throw a dance party.
I have been searching for sex positive hip-hop and pop music for many years now. This song promotes positive messages about queerness, community, and sexual empowerment. What other song would you rather dance you? (Read: another challenge for you to post sex positive links in the comment section.)

It is an active, multidimensional demonstration of how better it can get.
She did not just tell us that it gets better–she proved it by making this video. We can see that she is a smart, talented, edgy, hilarious young artist. She also shows the personal, professional, and sexual confidence necessary to sing loud and proud a plethora of explicit sexual slang and anti-gay slurs effectively used to communicate a clear positive message. Furthermore, she has a community. You heard her at the end–there were over 50 people involved in making the video! They embrace her artistic talents and demonstrate their support of her sexual identity. If that’s not better, I don’t know what is.

Special shout outs to Rebecca Drysdale, The It Gets Better Project, and The Trevor Project for their ongoing support of LBGTQ youth. Thank you!

3. Queer Stuff

The Gender Jungle Gym

What is gender? Without using gender categories like boy, girl, woman or man, the term is hard to define. Here’s my attempt:

  • Gender is a structure of social systems that teach, elicit and reward different behaviors from different people depending on a person’s sex classification, age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Historically, the systems of gender have been structured according to two boxes, one bound as boy/man and the other as girl/woman.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The idea of gender as a box, a role, a stereotype is familiar to many of us. We often feel nudged, shove, or pressured into these boxes, resulting in alienation from ourselves and from each other.

And there’s potential for something better.

Sometimes I like to think of myself as on a gender jungle gym. I use my upper body strength to pull myself out of the box, and I swing my body around in order to perch on top, pause, and view the horizon. From here, I can see all of you pull yourselves up and swing yourselves around, from sports to skirts to tears to engineering. Sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward, you are consistently courageous. You inspire me, and I want to know your stories. I want to know how you feel.

I invite you and encourage you to post in the comments section and tell some of your stories, some of your feelings about the gender boxes and the gender spectrums and the gender jungle gyms that structure our lives.

3. Queer Stuff, 7. Youth Development & Education

Homophobic Bullying As a Sign and Symptom

Judith Warner just posted a blog about the topic I brought up two weeks ago — kids calling each other gay. The article and many of the online comments provided me with insight into multiple perspectives on this issue: addressing it either as a sign of homophobia, a symptom of patriarchy, or one of many acts of childhood bullying. In my opinion, we can understand the “that’s so gay” epidemic as a sign and symptom of all of these problems, and seek to eradicate it using a social transformation perspective.

Bullying is not and never has been separate from sexism. When children bully each other, they’re reflecting society’s prejudices — they are re-creating the same systems of violence that torment the adult world. To get rid of this behavior among children we need to model healthy alternatives, teach preventive behaviors, and discuss issues as they arise.

All that my students know about bullying is that on the one hand, they shouldn’t do it because they might get in trouble, even though if adults get involved they do not always effectively stop the bullying. My students also believe that “respect” and “being nice” are the opposite of bullying. Maybe respect is just not a strong enough concept to encompass the alternative and preventative behavior we all need to practice.

Calling a classmate gay is not simply disrespect — it is participation in the violent, deeply rooted systems of sexism and heterosexism. We need to actively work to counter the systems that define our worth based on how effectively we fit into certain social categories and how fully we meet certain social expectations. We need to counter children’s urge to use cruelty to “police” their own in each other’s behavior. We need to teach our children processes of support and affirmation so that they don’t need to fear who they are and who their friends are. We need to find out why they put each other down and replace that behavior with its opposite.

Gender and the pressures that come with it intervene in children’s lives with pervasive and contradictory expectations. What would happen if children didn’t need to worry about being the perfect boy or girl and instead worried about reaching a standard of humanity — being loving, caring, and kind? And what if other roles children reach for, such as student, athlete and partner, were no longer differentiated by gender and instead everyone had the same encouragement and guidance as well as the same expectations for success and achievement within these roles?

What if children were taught to be their whole selves, and nothing but themselves, in order to achieve happiness and success? What if they were taught to help others do the same? How can we teach them to do so?

3. Queer Stuff, 7. Youth Development & Education

A More Specific Question

What are the best ways of responding to students who called something “so gay” in order to cast it apart as weird or wrong? The best response will entail having a conversation — communicating with the students, engaging them, challenging them.

In order to plan a caring and effective response, I’ll start by applying the very communication skills that I teach in health class. When preparing to have a serious conversation, first determine a good time and place. If I’m not in the middle of teaching a class, I can ask the student to step into the hallway with me and I can address the issue immediately. If I am in the middle of teaching a class, but do not have a class directly following, I can tell the student to speak with me after class. If neither of these options is available, or if the student spoke these words in the context of other disciplinary issues, then I will keep the student in my classroom after school.

That’s when the hard part starts. What can I say to help them understand better why they said it, why they shouldn’t say it again, and why homophobia hurts all of us? Those are my three objectives. What’s my plan?
1. Guide them through taking responsibility for what they said.
2. Ask them why they said it and listen to where it was coming from.
3. Help them think of more effective and respectful ways of expressing their feelings.
4. Use this moment to teach them…

… insert 5-to-10 minute, developmentally appropriate lesson on homophobia here. Any suggestions? I have lots of ideas, but I have yet to determine the best strategy. Right now I’m trying out what I feel is most applicable to the given student in the given situation. But I would love more feedback on planning ahead for this too frequent of challenges, for I’m sorry to say it will come up again.