Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year Hopes

It is a clear and cold morning but Face Book is loaded with warm wishes.

Happy New Year.


My daughter has reminded me that four years ago we were on a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. That was so much fun.

The cruise had randomly assigned us to a table of total strangers that turned out to be a miracle of sorts. The characters, from all over the country and world, mingled and interacted so well that everyone thought we were old friends from the start.

I am trying to get a photo out of my archives to show but that may take a while. In the meantime,  it is an extraordinary mental exercise revisiting those snippets of sheer pleasure where no one had an rules...and living in the moment was enough.

We visited the piano bar one night. The pianist was very obliging for his "Jersey Girls" and we asked him to play Jerry Lee Lewis' "Balls of Fire". The piano started pounding and he gave a enthusiastic impression of the master. We had most of our dining group present.... and I even had a moment of madness and tried to dance.

The exuberant group and dancing spilled out into the corridor just in time for a visit from the ship's top brass. By this time the small lounge was packed. The Captain and Cruise Director had popped in to see what the noise was all about... and gave a thumbs up.

After they left, our pianist cheered....he said we just got him a positive review.  Yeah. Yeah. Yeah!

Of course we gave him a handsome tip. We dropped in the next evening and his substitute told us that he couldn't talk after singing and playing our session and needed a day off. We were hoarse too...but a round of Cosmos fixed that.

 Sometimes we need to remember that joy is a common quantity.

Incorporating Inclusiveness in the New Year

Reflections on Intersectionality
Systems of privilege and inequality exist in culture and are marked by differences that relate to a norm. When norms are broken, there are consequences. Women and Gender Studies is a means to analyze the complicated interactions of multiple identities. Awareness of privilege and discrimination, as related to perspectives and context, can contribute to change. In her essay “Intersectionality”, Vivian M. May says, “Intersectionality calls for analytic methods, modes of political action, and ways of thinking about persons, rights, and liberation informed by multiplicity.”(WVFV 81)
Normative and conventional elements run like power cables under a building, unseen, but the source of all available energy to drive essential services. Stereotypes operate as short cuts, speed up society, but result in unequal treatment of nonconforming groups.  Intersectionality points out these areas of oppression of all forms, not just sexism and racism, in order to pinpoint different aspects that contribute to disharmony. It is crucial to ferret out those elusive elements which lurk in individual experience to influence context. 
May points out that “Some forms of dependence (heteronormative, middle class) are more idealized (e.g., women’s dependence on men who are their fathers or husbands for protection and care), whereas others are stigmatized as deviant and in need of remediation (e.g., poor women’s dependency on the state via welfare) (80)”.  One is socially approved; the other perceived negatively.
In the case of disability issues, intersectionality may actually diminish activism. The issues are indistinguishable from each other when placed in opposition, as “enabled” versus “disabled”.  The accent on oppression diminishes universal issues of handicapped persons because it assumes a political norm for physical lack of access.  By insisting on classism and racism to prove discrimination, intersectionality interferes with change predicated on disability and gender.
Alison Kafer, writing in Feminist, Queer Crip, voices her concerns about cultural and social stigma from stereotypes concerning persons outside the hetereonormative existence. The FBL billboards messages emphasize “courage”, “determination”, “opportunity”. She says, “Who is involved in determining the characteristics valued in a particular community? Who is included in—or excluded from---the community itself? (100)” The pop culture approach to the physically disabled, as only needing to work harder, or change their attitudes toward their limitations, must be contested. She advocates for activism and dissent.
May says, “Intersectionality offers a vision of future possibilities that can be more fully realized once a shift toward the multiple takes place”. (81)  When surface assumptions create a norm that seems to accommodate most of the population, it runs the danger of becoming stagnant. One example, concerning Brazil, is found in Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. Since Brazil has a history of colonial invaders intermarrying with native peoples, it has promoted a policy of racial democracy.  This seems inclusive on the surface, but a group of feminists with African roots gathered to protest being homogenized. Coming together as African-centered women to preserve heritage is a locus-resource for non-blacks to experience.
  Narrowing into specific interest groups therefore provides an almost infinite number of intersections. This “shift toward the multiple” fertilizes the imagination and stimulates change.  What might seem counter-productive for Brazil’s political theory of racial democracy, might lead to other groups following their example. What may seem positive, by subscribing to popular community values, is actually counter-productive for a disabled individual whose perspective from a bed or chair will never change.  Piercing the stereotype of limitations will go a long way to enable empathy and activism. This heightened awareness of the “other”, whether racism, sexism, classism, or crip, will result in greater sensitivity and appreciation for all kinds of diversity.
Understanding the approaches that enable tolerance among human beings of all races, cultures, and ranges of ability is absolutely necessary for survival of the species.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Thoughts on Disability

Defining Disability and Driftwood

You have to love this author, Alison Kafer. She begins her chapter, “A Future for Whom: Passing on Billboard Liberation”, by commenting on Superman.  She comments while looking up at a billboard of Christopher Reeves which is intended to inspire recognition at his dreadful accident and acknowledge his courage.  However, the public relations campaign behind this feel-good message is subversive. Actor Reeves is associated with his most famous role of Superman. Now he is paralyzed and unable to survive without help from personal aides.  Kafer points out that the billboard image of his disability, other than an oxygen tube in the corner, lessens the impact of his disability. . The considerable financial and medical resources which supported his existence are not visible. They are invisible by intent. “ for a Better Life” sponsors the billboard and their agenda is politically ultra conservative. 

Reeves is white, male, and his billboard photo appeals to conservative values by taking advantage of America’s white/male/hegemony. He is obviously super-masculine in spite of his physical paralysis. This is deliberately tendered as success due to his manly “courage”.  If you are a different gender or race, you are invisible.

Community values trump individual obstacles. By making public perception one of individual vulnerability, by not acknowledging the enormous numbers of physically and mentally impaired coming home from war, the attitudes presented by FBL’s Superman billboard thrust the burden of disability on the individual. The message is one of “buck up” instead of “how can we help”.

This politicization of disability is intended to diminish and quiet activists who campaign for accommodations for the handicapped, or as Kafer puts it, the “queer crips”. Anyone who is outside the norm, whether sexually, racially, or disabled is different and queer.  Numbers of elderly are expected to swell the ranks of those outside the norm. Consider that stereotyped wheelchair persons are commonly perceived as less intelligent and therefore undesirable. For decades, handicapped persons were sterilized so they could not have children who might pass on “defective” genes.  Politicizing ignores reality and makes the elderly and disabled expendable.

A wheelchair bound person spends a lot of time waiting for suitable vehicle transportation which leads to the concept of “crip time”. Crip (read crippled) time has to allow for situations that do not accommodate physical needs.  Not only is the issue one of access, but the unexpected aspects of physical transport lead to living in the moment. This philosophy arose out of the HIV and AIDS era, when recovery was dismal and any future belonged to others. Crip time cannot be regulated by the clock; it moves to a disjointed rhythm that depends on need and services.

             Perhaps the most egregious attitude toward handicapped people is the notion that a disabled person is limited because they are not trying hard enough. Kafer writes, “…FBL’s website clearly delineates the group’s perspective by encouraging ‘adherence to a set of quality values through personal accountability and by raising the level of expectations of performance of all individuals regardless of religion or race’ (89)”.  By emphasizing community values over personal needs, the conservative position makes it clear that vulnerable disabled have to, and should, fend for themselves.

Disabled who dare to speak out, these“queer crips”, have to fight hard for ramps, elevators, public access across many venues, but more importantly, just to maintain their position in public consciousness. Kafer says, “I envision a media campaign that favors dissent at least as much as unity, that recognizes political protest and activism as signs of courage, that is as concerned with collective responsibility and accountability as personal (100)”. It doesn’t take much to give a hand up. Someone living in a physically challenged body just wants to get on with living.

"Intersectionality" and Equality

Intersectionality Toolbox

In their highly regarded text, Intersectionality,Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge write, “Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity of the world, in people, and in human experience.” (2)  This intersectionality technique shows how many peoples interact and influence each other. Their guide is helpful to understand and analyze how differing contexts of human experience impact social and political results. By suggesting multiple possibilities for study, that might otherwise be overlooked by stereotyped bias, it promises that a specific inequality is not as likely to fall through the cracks. The authors note, “… intersectionality can be a useful analytic tool for thinking about and developing strategies to achieve….equity ((3)”.

Major social elements such as race, class, gender, sex, etc. exist in nearly infinite range of possibilities. Considering complexities and permitting unexpected combinations can produce positive results. Intersectionality rejects the usual “normative” position in order to open up to the possibility of a more equal and level playing field.

Inequality issues of gender and LGBTQ can also be studied in the intersectionality framework. This is helpful on constructing gender identity for those not able to advocate for themselves. The authors note, “Relational thinking rejects either/or binary thinking…opposing theory to practice, scholarship to activism, or blacks to whites. Instead, relationality embraces a both/and frame…examining their interconnections (27)”. These interconnections pave the way for inclusiveness.

 In an interesting example, intersectionality shows how powerful wealthy business interests interfered with the political and social structure of Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. FIFA soccer lobbied for laws that restricted everything from travel to food concessions outside the venue. Without considering the way all Brazilians might be affected, the concerns of poor men and women were not included in tournament planning. Because many people enjoy sports, it was assumed that even poverty stricken people would be in favor of the extravagance. The opposite occurred. Brazilians suffered hardships from the exclusivity of arrangements aimed at an international clientele instead of local population. In spite of high expectations, Brazil lost the games and lost millions of money. The scandal following the games suggested massive bribery and corruption. The power domain enjoyed by the organizers had been based on the assumption that sports benefit everyone. That was certainly not the case for women because only men can compete in the tournament. That was not the case for non-athletes because the sport is exclusively for extraordinarily talented athletes. A level playing field, for most of the country outside FIFA, definitely did not exist.

Intersectionality, used to study Brazil, discloses many social aspects not addressed by the common assumption that there are no racial barriers. About a thousand Brazilian feminists felt they were discriminated against and gathered to express their African roots. This was contrary to Brazil’s policy of racial democracy which emerged from its history as a colonial mix of native and outside nationalities.

The authors note that the black women’s movement in Brazil, “shows how intellectual and political activism work by growing by a specific set of concerns in a specific social situation, in this case the identity politics of the Afro-Brazilian women (28)”. This focuses thinking about social inequality and power relationships in various contexts.  The importance of context broadens the appreciation of specific kinds of problems in social situations across the world and the awareness that one size does not fit all.



Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Transgender Need for Recognition

Transgender Dilemma

Leslie Feinberg was a transgendered activist who wrote the groundbreaking novel, Stone Butch Blues.  Feinberg died in 2014 but her novel is relevant in our culture as America’s political institutions resist inclusion. Her lead character of Jess Goldberg comes from Feinberg’s own bitter experience as a lesbian Jewish woman trying to fit in as living as a man. Trapped in a homophobic society by the male power structure, her struggles are tragic.  The forces which shaped her identity jump off the page with intensity that cannot be ignored.

As Dan Frosch previously noted, “…gay and transgender advocates say transgender students…are vulnerable to bullying and harassment” since institutions measure against a norm. Nonconforming persons are targeted. In the novel, Jess Goldberg and her friend Mona are jailed following a police raid against gays. She says, “The drag queens were in the large cell next to ours. Mona and I smiled at each other… Then she walked forward with them, rather than be dragged out (35)”. This is Jess’s first experience with police brutality against gays. The text continues, “About an hour later the cops brought Mona back…she could barely stand…blood running down (35)”. Mona tells inexperienced Jess, “It changes you…what they do to you in here…everyday on the streets---it changes you, you know?” (35)

 The queer person does not fit in and therefore constantly fights for recognition. Feinberg’s character is not just lesbian, but yearns for female love and a life gendered as a man.  Jess struggles to find someone who understands her quandary.  She lives as a border dweller, vigilant, with a foot in two worlds, trying to survive and how to fit in. Without a model to follow, the unscripted journey fraught with disaster. She dresses as a male but is incomplete without a companion to share her world of fluidity. As Jess’s lover Edna puts it, “I don’t want to go back to the bars and the fights. I just want a place to be with the people I love.  I want to be accepted for who I am, and not just in the gay world (218)”.  

Leslie Steinberg underwent hormone therapy and ultimately decided against continuing disruptive treatment. Toward the end of her life, she reconciled with the body she was born in and tried to increase awareness of the needs of gender queer issues. She is gone too soon.

 Deciding not to undergo gender modifying surgery becomes a political barrier to those identifying documents that signal change for a transgendered person. New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie has vetoed legislation, allowing birth certificates and passports to show transgender name and sex change, unless the person has submitted to sex change surgery. This means that not only is there still a challenge to a person’s liberty to be at peace with one’s self, but there is a political mandate to inflict potential harm on a person’s body.  Not much has changed institutionally since the homophobic abuse of pre-Stonewall police raids on gay and lesbian bars, as so graphically pictured by Jess Goldberg in Steinberg’s Stone Butch Blues.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Inscribing Gender on the Body: We Cannot All Be a Ten

Gender Expectations Shape the Impossible

When you meet someone for the first time, several things register: the overall impression of male or female sex, specifics like hair, eyes, makeup or lack of it, clothing that reinforces male or female gender, erect confident posture, or a yielding slouch that signals submissiveness. This immediate “read” is complicated if all the elements do not fit. American culture values thin, white, young as the desirable norm. This unspoken but powerful yardstick discriminates against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, the elderly and disabled, who are compelled to remake their body image to fit in. Long hair is usually gendered feminine. However, if the person with long hair is wearing trousers and work boots and wants to use the Gents restroom, it provokes harassment.   Dan Frosch writes about Coy Mathis, born a boy but now at the heart of a challenge to anti-discrimination against transgendered people. He writes, “…gay and transgender advocates say transgender students…are vulnerable to bullying and harassment (246)”. Political decisions and institutions cater to the norm and these forms of “other” have to constantly fight for recognition and consideration.

Women in American culture feel pressured to have a larger bosom and some resort to plastic surgery implants. In Donald Trump’s world, a woman with a small bosom has a “hard time to be a 10”. This sexist labeling lies behind the insecurity many women feel that they do not measure up to an unwritten norm. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, writing in her essay Breast Buds and the ‘Training’ Bra, notes that a girl’s insecurity begins early. She says, “…in gyms and locker rooms of post-war junior high schools, girls began to look around to see who did and did not wear a bra…and this visual information was very powerful (206)”.  As mass produced clothing produced a need for standard bra sizing, it also creates the idea of measuring up to a norm that had to be reinforced in some way.  She writes, “The old idea that brassieres were frivolous or unnecessary for young girls was replaced by a national discussion about their medical and psychological benefits…. An adolescent girl needed a bra to prevent, sagging breasts…which would create problems in nursing her future children (206)”.  The bra also draws attention to the sexual possibilities of breasts, rather than their biological function of nursing.  The result is an obsession for everywoman to present as a “ten”.

A woman’s hair represents an inescapable biological connection to gendered expectations. Thinking of hair as beautiful is culturally graded by sex but can also be exploited as a way to enforce power. In the white privileged culture in the United Stated, long fine straight hair is seen as beautiful. Minh-Ha T. Pham, writing in her essay “If the Clothes Fit: A feminist Take on Fashion”, says, “Professional women of color …consciously and unconsciously fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference (247)”. Asian women perm their hair; Black women straighten their hair. She continues, “If fashion has been used to introduce new ways of expressing womanhood, it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearances (248)”. Women in the daily eye as part of their job, find that one’s natural styling is discouraged in favor of a treatment that appeals to a media enforced norm.  Rose Weitz, writing in What We Do for Love, says, “If we ignore cultural expectations for female appearance we pay a price in lost wages, diminished marital prospects, lowered status, and so on (119)”.
One last thought: age gives one a different set of values. Seniors Rock.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thoughts on Gendering in Presidential Election

How Americans view sex and gender has never been more relevant. We had a former First Lady and Secretary of State with an unparallelled executive resume on paper. However by gendered perception, the female candidate was doomed to second place. If authoritative and assertive, she was regarded as bitchy and bossy. Photos of her with her new grandchild could have softened the portrait and then she was accused of lacking “stamina”. Her opponent was filmed crowing about his voyeuristic ability to dominate the naked women competing in his beauty pageants, and it was dismissed as men’s locker room talk.  To top it off on Election Day, one woman was interviewed as saying she voted for Trump because “a woman should not be President”.   This persisting gendering of women contributed to an unexpected Republican victory.

Culture Creates Concepts of Sex and Gender

Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, in Women’s Voices and Feminist Visions, note, “…gender is constructed through intersection with other differences among women such as race, ethnicity, and class…related to other systems of inequality and privilege (116)”.   Gender assignment, identity and expression contribute to notions of sex and gender in ways peculiar to the United States. Sex is decided at birth, according to obvious genitalia, and subsequent growth and behavior is channeled into expected patterns according to this binary. If a person’s internal sense of identity does not fit expected gender patterns, sexual labels go beyond binary choices. Subsequent gender expression, which does not follow the binary view, shapes social interactions which can unsettle one’s sense of self. (119)  Countries beyond America do not challenge transgendered identity in the same way which results in varying degrees of tolerance.

Evelyn Blackwood discusses the many kinds of masculine expression among females in West Sumatra and Indonesia.  Since gender is defined by intersections with other identities, each with their own perspectives and agendas, it follows that some combinations will occur as exceptions to the norm. 

Transgender may be applied to identities or practices that intersect queer socially constructed binaries based on the usual male/female expectations. Female-bodied persons may identify and live in ways which are casually stereotyped as male gendered.  Sometimes this takes the form of transgendered females who “appropriate and manipulate cultural stereotypes of ….a hybrid form of masculinity…as possessing a male soul in a female body (150)”.

 One of these identities in Indonesia is that of “tomboi”.  To deal with describing the gender-fluid woman Dedi, instead of using “him” or “her”, Blackwood creates an unusual form, “ h/er”.   She says, “Dedi was dressed in h/er typical man’s attire and appeared to be quite comfortable around h/er family (151)”.  This tomboi enjoys moving about freely and sleeping wherever she wishes. She is not concerned about sexual violence because her manner is masculine and tough.

Women are closely watched so freedom is encoded as masculine privilege.  The pressure for the female-bodied butch tomboi to marry, presents difficulties. Blackwood says, “Marriage is the most troubling challenge to their positionality as men (152)”. If married, would be forced to live in the constant role of female. This is uncomfortable so many transgendered put off the issue as long as possible. Dedi has compromised by following female gendered expectations when at her mother’s house, as long as it does not challenge her assumed masculinity. She will do repairs around the house but will not cook. She is not viewed as a sexual rival by other men, but rather as a woman with special insights. The text says, “…Dedi recalls h/er female body as part of h/erself, giving voice to a cultural expectation that female bodies produce female ways of knowing (154)”.  This shows that she has incorporated her body as part of her total identity, not merely a phase or convenient pose.

As the article h/er creates a space for Dedi in the discussion, Indonesia terms of address are much more complicated. She notes, “People tend to employ gender-marked kin terms when addressing acquaintances or close friends… (154)”.  This results in tomboi identity being expressed in public as a shield for moving freely, but gender-marked terms are dropped when she is more secure at home and her defenses are down. The transgender aspects of Didi’s persona also do not disrupt her culture because family practices still read them as female. Blackwood says, “Social relations of kinship and family connected tombois with discourses of femininity…and offered the efficacy that tombois attained as intelligibly gendered beings…that create space for themselves and their partners (155)”.
Seniors Rock!