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Uteri

April 1st, 2011 1 comment

I’ve read it, and I still don’t believe it:

During last week’s discussion about a bill that would prohibit governments from deducting union dues from a worker’s paycheck, state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, used his time during floor debate to argue that Republicans are against regulations — except when it comes to the little guys, or serves their specific interests.

At one point Randolph suggested that his wife “incorporate her uterus” to stop Republicans from pushing measures that would restrict abortions. Republicans, after all, wouldn’t want to further regulate a Florida business.

Apparently the GOP leadership of the House didn’t like the one-liner.

They told Democrats that Randolph is not to discuss body parts on the House floor.

[H]ouse GOP spokeswoman Katie Betta: “The Speaker has been clear about his expectations for conduct on the House for during debate. At one point during the debate, he mentioned to the entire House that members of both parties needed to be mindful of decorum during debate.

“Additionally, the Speaker believes it is important for all Members to be mindful of and respectful to visitors and guests, particularly the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates. In the past, if the debate is going to contain language that would be considered inappropriate for children and other guests, the Speaker will make an announcement in advance, asking children and others who may be uncomfortable with the subject matter to leave the floor and gallery.”

Here’s one body part the Florida Republican leadership would do well not to mention, lest people be reminded that the GOP has lost theirs: the brain.

This reminded me of the story, a few years ago, where a local theater company had been pressured to change the marquee of its feature to “The Hoohaa Monologues.” This really happened, and it pains me to report that the Sunshine State was once again the anti-sunshine culprit. Here’s an excerpt from back in 2007:

The Hoohah Monologues is a replacement title for The Vagina Monologues — a well-known play about that part of the female body.

“We decided we would just use child slang for it. That’s how we decided on Hoohah Monologues,” Pfanenstiel said.

They did this after a driver who saw it complained to the theater, saying she was upset that her niece saw it.

“I’m on the phone and asked ‘What did you tell her?’ She’s like, ‘I’m offended I had to answer the question,'” Pfanenstiel said.

Well, if legislators’ constituents really are “offended” that they have to tell kids that their body parts have names, perhaps politicians are just responding to that.

But it’s crazy. The idea that kids shouldn’t be taught the names of body parts — even the scary ones — has been discredited by every responsible expert in childhood development. Not only will this knowledge help with having natural conversations about their bodies and their emerging sexuality, but it has the added benefit of being a tool in the campaign against child abuse.

I guess putting their collective heads in the sand is easier, if only in the short run.

The Trans-Anything Line

October 19th, 2009 1 comment

I’ve often believed — and told anyone within earshot — that challenges to gender are scarier for lots of people than is sexual orientation.  A class full of law students knows they have a gay or lesbian professor? Ho, hum. But what do you think the reaction would be if that professor did anything “trans”? Start with cross-dressing and go down the line all the way to gender reassignment surgery, and imagine students’ (and everyone else’s) reactions. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this discomfort (including the basic lack of visual familiarity), but it’s clearly there.

See this example, from the state of Mississippi. A superstar female student, Ceara Sturgis, openly lesbian, only runs into trouble when she wants to wear a tux for her senior class picture. The girls, you see, are apparently supposed to wear “drapes,” apparently in homage to this unforgettable scene from the Carol Burnett Show:

Well, Ceara, do you have a sense of humor?

Categories: sexuality, transgender rights Tags:

Fatherhood and Parenthood: A Gay Dad’s Reflection on Father’s Day

June 21st, 2009 No comments

Happy Father’s Day!

These obligatory celebrations — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the lamentable trail of unsuccessful Hallmark efforts to expand the constellation of honorees (Grandparents’ Day! Secretary’s Day! Boss’s Day!?Evil Stepparent Day!) — were pointedly not designed with same-sex parents in mind. At one extreme is the fury-inducing story of an elementary school teacher who wouldn’t let her student make two Mother’s Day cards (creating a kind of reverse Sophie’s Choice for the upper-class). But that’s neither representative nor descriptive of the more subtle issues that Father’s Day raises for gay dads, uncomfortably.

If there are two dads, someone is…missing. This is the kind of essentialist thinking that drives not only right wingnuts, but even many of those who are vocally supportive of families headed by same-sex parents. Well-meaning female relatives and friends will often offer the kind of unsolicited advice that they’d never give to a mother. Our twin daughters have been the occasion for questions like: “Why don’t you let their hair grow longer?” “When they get older, they’re going to want to talk to a woman about boys, dating, the prom, etc.”

Well, maybe they will. But not every kid wants long hair (and they’re pretty clear about this, even at an early age). Not every girl wants to go to the prom, or even to date boys. Some teenage girls want to talk to an uncle, rather than an aunt, when they feel the need to seek outside counsel.

We know that gender is more complex that we once believed. This isn’t to assume a completely postmodern stance; hormones do play a role in our actions. But now evidence suggests that not only pregnancy but also caring for a newborn can change a father’s behavior,  dramatically reducing testosterone levels and increasing production of other hormones, such as cortisol and prolactin. This same article states what many now see in watching men parent their young kids:

“We have the capability to be aggressive and nurturing. The traditional view of men as predominantly aggressive really sells men short and denies their capability to experience the range of human emotions.”

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to hormones. For whatever reason, I’m hyper-competitive, even when the stakes are…non-existent. Friday was the last day of Pre-School (a surprisingly moving occasion). There were zany competitions involving balloons, eggs, and then…a three-legged race. I was overcome with joy when one of our kids won her egg race (and then wondered if there were to be heats, and finals). Then I was outraged when David and I lost the “adult” three-legged race when a toddler impeded our path, turning our lead into a deficit. I couldn’t help noting that the diminutive reprobate was the son of our competitors’  best friend! (My demands for a disqualification were brushed aside.) Yet David’s not competitive at all, and many women put both of us away in that department. Serena Williams is one of the most competitive athletes I’ve ever seen, male or female. Dara Torres willed herself to an Olympic swimming medal in her 40’s. You get the idea.

There are soft men, and hard women. Mostly,  though, there are people who respond to what their kids need in the moment, and we can go from hard to soft, and back, in a blink. Yesterday, I saw a mother dress her young son down in as stern a way as any father could have; but she did it out of necessity (he’d hit another kid with little provocation), and didn’t belittle him, raise her voice, or threaten violence. He was visibly chastened. Yet a few minutes later, she was hugging him and singing to him softly as they left the playground.

And this is how most of us are with our kids. We are their parents first, mothers and fathers second. So how about a Parents’ Day?     

Equality Forum Day 4 (Part 1): Politics 101 (Domestic)

April 30th, 2009 No comments

How important is bipartisanship in pursuing full equality for the LGBT community? Is it better to work on the state law level, or to push for national policy changes? How are our issues connected to larger issues? And what will be the questions facing the community ten years from now?

Moderator Patrick Guerriero used these open-ended questions to stimulate dialogue and a healthy level of disagreement among the members of Thursday’s National Politics Panel, attended by an audience of about 70 enthusiasts. Perhaps in an effort to achieve balance,  there were two identifiable Republicans on the panel (former Mass politician Guerriero and former Log Cabin Republican leaader Richard Tafel), one identifiable Democrat (Jon Hoadley, the Executive Director of Stonewall Democrats so young that he was apparently put on the panel to remind me of my own mortality), and two women whose politics seemed generally progressive,  yet practical (Toni Broaddus, Executive Director of Equality Federation, a national network of state-based LGBT organizations, and Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force).

The Republican Party came in for a beating, despite Guerriero’s effective advocacy on behalf of some of the GOP’s courageous figures: a Massachusetts Republican(!) who ran against an entrenched Democrat who was ready to support a constitutional amendment overturning the Goodridge marriage equality decision; the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who allowed the Varnum marriage decision to be unanimous; and an ultraconservative district attorney in Colorado who zealously prosecuted the murderer of the transgendered Angela Zapata under the state’s newly enacted hate crimes law.

Tafel, to my surprise, appears to have had a sort of conversion experience (perhaps I should avoid that term). He grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and everyone else (OK, not everyone else) was Republican.  Now, he says, all of his nieces and nephews under the age of 30 are Democrats. He supported Obama, and urged moderate Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine to join Arlen Specter in the exodus from the increasingly depopulated and brain-dead GOP. When another panelist worried that activists shouldn’t put all of “their eggs in the Democratic basket,” Tafel didn’t seem worried. The GOP will “wander in the wilderness for a long time,” he opined. This was a culture shift on the order of FDR’s.

So, aside from Guerriero’s qualified defense of the GOP, what was there left to argue about? With the tiresome two-party debate on hiatus, other issues swam into focus. All panelists had their eyes on the big national prizes (ENDA, hate crimes, repeal of DOMA and of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), but were in general agreement that, to use Hoadley’s term, advocacy groups that didn’t get to the grass roots level were “Astroturf organizations.” Nipper explained Hoadley’s point to be that effective advocacy had to address the “issues that actually matter to people.” Obvious, right? But national groups1 have often been criticized for not taking sufficient account of these voices.

Broaddus and Nipper were particularly compelling in their account of the many interconnected ways in which state-level work needs to be done. Nipper was just in Maine, working with 150 field workers who came from several local states. (Somehow, I had no idea that this was going on.) That state is on the threshold of marriage equality, and these boots (on the ground) are made for lobbyin’. Broaddus emphasized the need to work on all fronts: through the courts; the legislature; and with the people directly. Iowa supplies a great example here. The state was targeted as a likely success on marriage, because (1) the court was fair and progressive; and (2) the constitution is hard to amend — but not impossible, of course, so advocates worked behind the scenes for some two years to lessen the chance that the legislature would initiate the amendment process. These actions  must be further supplemented by door-to-door efforts.

As for the federal level, this isn’t the first panel where I’m hearing a note of concern beginning to overlay and temper the community’s goo-goo eyes infatuation with Obama. If an inclusive ENDA  isn’t passed this year, then…when? Yesterday’s hate crimes vote in the House was the crumb we need to keep believing, for now.

When Guerriero asked the “where will we be ten years from now” question, I managed only with great self-control and muscular discipline to avoid  rolling my eyes. I hate questions asking for opinions about the unknown. But he must have known his panel, because they did a great job with it. Hoadley made the startling statement that he’d recently spoken to a group of young gays who had never known anyone who’d died of AIDS. His point was that each generation has different issues, new stuff to deal with. For his generation and the one right behind it, he’s hoping (so am I), that most of the basic equality issues will be resolved  in our favor by then.

Then we can get on with the more general construction of a more just society. Broaddus said that “Join the Impact,” an organization formed in angry response to the passage of Prop 8, was doing things like a food drive. There’s nothing particularly LGBT about that, except to the extent that the energy we’re harnessing in our current struggle is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

  1. “Give me an “H”! Give me an “R”! Give me a “C”! What’s that spell?”

Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 2): It’s Always Personal

April 30th, 2009 1 comment

Family Law is an exciting yet weird course to teach. The law school model (now admittedly under both siege and reconstruction) emphasizes legal reasoning and analysis, the parsing of cases and statutes, and the occasional foray into broader constitutional issues. Of course, very few legal scholars or students today think that a legal result can be fully explained by logical analysis, but we continue — in most courses, anyway — to mostly pretend otherwise in order to get some actual material covered. This polite fiction kind of falls apart in Family Law. Students can’t refrain from talking about their divorced parents (or their own divorces), the annulment that wiped out a student’s parents twenty-year marriage, their extended families, their own adoptions, etc. And at least one professor (me) is complicit, peppering the discussion with examples drawn from people I know, as well as from celebrities. Why? Because it’s interesting stuff. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have a pre-nuptial agreement that increases her “take” if he’s adulterous; Madonna has trouble adopting a Malawi kid despite her international clout; and Britney Spears (remember her?) marries and immediately “takes it back” in Vegas. Try matching that, “Sales and Leases”!

Given my experience in the classroom, I therefore wasn’t surprised when last night’s Same-Sex Families panel was dominated by discussion not of the legal and political issues surrounding gay families, but by stories about the families themselves. To a great extent, this emphasis was directed by the moderator, long-time Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Gail Shister, who began by asking the couple how their families “came out,” and later asked about how the couples decided on what names they’d use (“daddy” and “papa” seem to be close to universal for gay men; lesbians have to be more creative). But for gay families (maybe for all families?), every personal question calls for a somewhat political answer.

Thus, consider these responses to the “coming out” question. Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of the Family Equality Council, noted that her seven-year-old  twins have to constantly explain who they are and where they came from. Philanthropist and founder of thebody.com, Jamie Marks, talked about his discussions with potential nursery schools over such matters as how they dealt with Mother’s Day. (One school said that the kids would just do a special project for “mom” and then give it to whichever gay dad was “the mother.” Next!) Nancy Polikoff, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., noted that her daughter was 26 so that it was harder for her than it likely is now: the numbers of kids being raised by same-gender couples was truly tiny back then. Penn psychiatrist Steven Sokoll explained the decision-making process that led his family (including a son and a daughter) to a supportive suburb, and to a public school there. The importance of such support has caused the parents to leave their daughter in the public school despite what he described as a less-than-ideal academic fit.

On the names issue, Chrisler’s response was particularly interesting: Names matter. Who are these people to the family, and how should we describe them to create the appropriate relationship between them and our families? For adoptive kids, that might mean referring to “birth mother”; for kids conceived through surrogacy, parents who want to make clear that the sperm donor isn’t a father shouldn’t use that word in describing him.  In a way, I understood Dr. Sokoll’s point about forms to be a qualification to Chrisler’s comments: Yes, we decide what names to use, but we’re not the only “deciders.” Schools, businesses and governments send messages about our families too, either by changing forms to reflect the reality of same-gender parents (or not, as I discussed in this earlier post about my experience with the Social Security office), or by granting us the name and status of marriage (as opposed to no recognition, or the more limited “civil union” status).

Shister, who has a terrific sense of humor but was somewhat out-of-date in her knowledge of current developments, did move the discussion towards more scholarly, educational topics at times. Polikoff, one of the nation’s leading experts on cutting-edge family law issues, was given just enough time for a breathless run-through of some of the difficult issues that same-gender parents face, including having to adopt their own children (think about it!). I urge anyone interested in this and other topics of interest to gay families to pick up her excellent book, “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law.” I devoured it last summer. Polikoff is good at explaining complex issues in a common-sensical, clear way. The book changed my thinking about the importance we assign to marriage over other forms of families that also need legal protection and social support.

The final question, about the importance vel non of opposite-gender role models, became the highlight of the session. Polikoff situated the question within its sociological context, reminding everyone that the data show that parental gender doesn’t matter (a new, meta-analysis of the data making the point even more decisively is about to come out, she said). Marks related a story about a friend, who, on seeing Marks’s daughter having trouble removing her nail polish, said: “You too?”

Then Chrisler brought down the house. Rising up in an escalating indignation, she went after the supposed need for “role models” of the same sex, calling it “based on social gender stereotyping” that, in turn, is code for slamming same-sex parents as deficient in parenting because the couple is “missing” a gender.

Please don’t make me teach “Sales and Leases.”

Equality Forum Day 2 (Part 2): The Persistent Problem

April 29th, 2009 1 comment

You’ve got an accomplished, racially diverse panel; appropriately, since this was the National Racial Panel, the “closer” on Tuesday evening. H. Alexander Robinson has done national-level AIDS policy  work, and is now Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, which describes itself as the only national Black, gay civil rights organization. Juanita Diaz-Cotto is an influential and prolific scholar at Binghamton University, whose work might be reductively summarized as focusing on the oppression of  Latina Lesbians. But as her webpage indicates, she has a staggering breadth of knowledge and expertise on a number of disparate topics. Glenn Magpantay, a staff attorney with the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is also Political Chair of the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York and is helming a national federation of  similar organizations. Last month, he testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on barriers to voting faced by the Asian-American community in last November’s election.

You could be forgiven for asking: Why the long-winded resume summaries? Because I was again struck, as I often am, by the difficulties faced by this and every other panel when it comes to answering these questions: What makes a great leader? Why do different groups within the LGBT community have so much difficulty working together?

It’s  not surprising that the first of these is a stumper, because no one really has any idea of how to create the next Mandela, Gandhi, King, or Christ. The only answer that had any traction with me was Robinson’s point that preparation and training were essential. This seemed obvious once I thought about it; each of the above examples certainly was prepared. But I’d say that preparation is necessary but not sufficient: For example, why does Gene Robinson have leadership mojo that Barney Frank — for all of his brainy, witty accomplishments and insight — does not? Who knows? I could listen to Frank for hours, but that’s not quite the same thing.

The inability to come up with a good answer to the second question is perhaps more puzzling. Professor Diaz-Cotto struggled to explain the difficulty of coalition-building, choosing instead to offer the one and only example (“an anomaly,” she called it) in her experience, of success in reaching across lines of race and class, even within the LGBT community. In one case,  she said, a group of 15 white women, one Asian woman, and Diza-Cotto herself worked together successfully on a project. Magpantay, if I understood him correctly, seemed at once to be both celebrating the uniqueness of the gay Asian-American community while trying to understand the problem. Robinson spoke of “inclusion” versus real inclusion as one of the problems; he’s  always “the race guy” at conferences, never the plenary speaker.  But he’s not giving up.

My only contribution to this discussion would be to note that any group trying to figure  out how to be more inclusive is limited by its own perspective; it’s like you need diversity to understand how to get the diversity you need.  Not easy, but I was heartened by the racial, class, and age diversity within the audience itself. Listening to concerns of others in the room (literally) and out of it (figuratively) is Step One.

The Puzzled Generation (Part Two)

March 26th, 2009 No comments

This story is way better than either of the incidents related in Part One. (“Better than Part One? Pinch me!”)

Sometime in the mid-1990s, a now long-since “ex” and I took advantage of a friend’s generous offer of the use of his mother’s condo in Destin, Florida. After a seemingly interminable drive from Philly (nb., the Florida panhandle is, strictly speaking, endless), we arrived at a well-appointed, two-bedroom condo in a complex that housed a nice pool, tennis courts, and a view of the Gulf (of Mexico, for the geographically challenged).

It turned out that this condo bore heavy traffic; the day after we arrived, two men in their 70s showed up. They, too, had permission to use the condo, and were there to compete in a tennis tournament. As there was plenty of room for everyone and these gents were seemingly friendly enough, there was every reason to expect respectful accommodation from all parties.

But wait.

My friend was acquainted with a woman who lived about two hours away. They’d been chummy in college, and he saw this as a rare opportunity to catch up. So she drove west from Southwest Georgia, and the three of us went out for dinner and a few drinks. But because of these same drinks and general fatigue, it made sense for her to spend the night at the condo. When the three of us walked in to the condo, the U.S. Open Senior Doubles competitors were in the living room. After introductions that explained who everyone was to each other, the two men bade us a polite good night and retreated into their assigned bedroom. We — an African-American woman, a Mexican-American man and me (white guy) chatted for awhile, and then sacked out. (The woman slept on the sofa, while we men were in our assigned bedroom.

The next morning, we all awoke to find a brief and odd note from the two older guys: They’d left for a hotel. Weird, we thought — but didn’t think too much about it until…

We heard through the grapevine that these guys had left because they weren’t comfortable staying with two men who had brought home a prostitute!

Remember, we introduced my ex’s friend to them in context: as his old college friend. But this made no impression on these men, who must have disbelieved this account. In place of the truth, they constructed a set of assumptions about the three of us that supported the only narrative that made sense to them:

(1) These two men (my ex and I) were a couple of straight friends. For reasons I won’t get into, this assumption required an astonishing blindness.

(2) This woman — after all, an African-American (maybe not the term they would  have used) — could not have been friends with these two men.

(3) Therefore, these guys brought this woman back here for sex.

Look, I didn’t know these guys at all. To this day, I have no idea whether they’re decent or awful, politically liberal or conservative, bright or lamppost-dumb — or even whether they’re still alive. But I can conclude that, by virtue of their life experiences and social background, they made up the only story that made sense to them. (As my condo-lending friend’s wife said: “Well, she wasn’t cleaning up, so what else could she be to these guys?”)  And while there’s plenty of humor in this situation, it’s also a sobering reminder that the problems of perception that often attach to race and sexual orientation are stubbornly resistant to change.

I’d like to think progress is continually being made towards at least a recognition that the world’s beings can’t be so neatly boxed. Speaking in gross generalities that are probably offensive to senior citizens, subsequent generations do seem less “puzzled” by such relationships and friendships. But I do think of this story every now and then; it reminds me of the heavy lifting — the moving and then unpacking of these boxes — still to be done.

Categories: race, sexuality Tags: , , , , , , , ,