Monday, December 12, 2011

Red Kettles and Rainbows: On Giving Responsibly

One of my most persistent holiday woes is the little red kettle and jingling bell in front of my grocery store. My distaste for this iconic part of the holiday season is motivated by far more than the Holiday Humbugs. To me, they do not represent a warm spirit of charity and altruism; they represent bigotry. The sound of that bell sends a chill down my spine invoking the oppression and intolerance alive and well in my community.
You see, The Salvation Army (TSA) does not approve of homosexuality. Thier official stance, quoted from is:
"Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.
Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse." 
They claim to "oppose abuse," but their hypocritical denial doesn't make the harm they do any less real. And their bigoted policies do harm, to their LGBT employees, to those they purport to serve, and to society as a whole. Even aside from specific instances of policy discrimination, the widespread acceptance of an organization espousing such values contributes to a society which tacitly allows for hatred as "just another viewpoint" and enforces a tolerance of bigotry in mainstream society. 

The annual and oft disputed boycot of the red kettles has become routine and almost tiresome. And despite our boycott, they break fundraising records almost every year. But the Salvation Army boycott is one we cannot afford to abandon.

I should be clear that I don’t wish that the Salvation Army did not exist. I don't want to put them out of commission, and I certainly don't want to hurt the people they help. The point of the boycott is not to destroy TSA, it is to make it clear to them that an attitude of bigotry is no longer acceptable, to their donors or to the society they purport to serve.

Giving to charity isn’t like other types of shopping. When it comes to buying a product, a company's social and environmental policies must be balanced with the price and quality of the product they offer. Sometimes we make compromises and buy from a company we don't agree with simply because we like their product. Usually, if we're willing to look, we can find a comparable product from a politically progressive and environmentally sound company, but it is unrealistic to hope that every dollar we spend will go to a company we whole-heartedly support. Giving to charity isn't about convenience nor is there a product to be purchased. There is no excuse to compromise. Charity is about supporting a cause and helping others. Supporting an organization whose policies and beliefs help to perpetuate a cuture of oppression and inequality goes directly against the spirit of giving, even if some of that organization's actions are indeed charitable. When you donate to an organization you throw your name and your voice behind everything that organization stands for. So do your research and make sure it is a cause you actually agree with.

There are plenty of great charities out there that don't support bigotry: try the American Red Cross, the Trevor Project, Save the Children, or your local shelter or food bank. You have options, so if you don't think same-sex sex is evil, if you don't think all queer people should live celibate lives, if you believe everyone has the right to marriage, choose a charity that shares those views. In short, if you are LGBT or especially if you are an ally (we love our allies!), then for G-d's sake, give responsibly this holiday season and don't put your spare change in the little red kettle.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reclaiming a Word

I’ve had a lot of conversations about language recently, and how important it is to use language that accurately reflects what you are trying to say.  Using certain language can contribute to a very harmful form of micro-aggression.  Thus, I feel the need to explain why I don’t like the word “Faggot” 

“Faggot” is a pejorative word to refer to gay people, usually gay men.  It is derogatory, and is meant to imply negative stereotypes about gay men.  Homophobic people often use that word as the worst possible insult against gay men (I'm thinking of Westboro Baptist Church's "God hates Fags" signs.)  When a heterosexual man is called “faggot” it is explicitly an insult, meant to emasculate him and make him less of a man, implying that he is secretly gay and that that is the very worst thing he could possibly be.  Obviously, that’s homophobic.  If being gay isn't bad, it shouldn't be an insult to call a non-gay person a word that just means "gay."  

But I think that word can be just as harmful even when it is not intended as an insult.  The other day, a (straight male) acquaintance of mine called another (gay male) mutual acquaintance a “fucking faggot” behind his back.  I spoke up, of course.  But his immediate response was “well, it’s not an insult if it’s true!”  This is a common sentiment among people who don’t think of themselves as homophobic, but there is so much wrong with that statement.  “Gay” is not a synonym with “Fucking Faggot”.  Most importantly, he’s implying that it would still be an insult if it were used to refer to a straight man.  That word is still derogatory in nature and it’s still insulting when used in that context.

So what about when gay men use the word faggot to refer to themselves or to each other?  That’s a little bit more of a gray area for me.  Words can be reclaimed.  My own chosen label “Queer/genderqueer” is a reclaimed word.  (My friend Ryan wrote a great blog entry on that word yesterday, so I’ll just refer you there for further reading on the word queer: )  Has word Faggot be reclaimed?  I think, in order for a word to be reclaimed, we have to assimilate the negative connotations of the word and make the word so much our own that it is no longer potent as an insult.  If “fucking queer” were ever used against me as an insult, it would be meant as “you are not normal, you break social boundaries, you are odd, strange, queer, you exist outside of a narrow and traditional conception of the way gender and sexuality are supposed to work.”  And I could look them in the eye and say “Yes, I am a fucking queer,” and I would mean it in exactly the same way they do.  That word is mine, it has been reclaimed.    

Can the word “faggot” been reclaimed?  I don’t know.  Reclaiming a word has to be a conscious choice, and either an intentional assimilation of negative connotations or at least an explicit defiance against those undertones.  Maybe some people have reclaimed the word faggot.  Maybe some gay men have taken that word and made it a part of their identity.  But I know that when I hear a straight person use that word, whether it is intended as an insult or not, I still flinch.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Freedom of Choice

There's a rally today in DC to protest limitations of abortion rights, and I really wish I could be there.  The current political climate towards abortion is scary, not just because of the vehemence of our opposition but because of the complacency of our allies.

Last year, when I was canvassing on behalf of Planned Parenthood, some of the things people said to me were really disturbing.  I don't mean the people who called me a baby-killer.  They were jerks, but I was prepared for that.  Hearing that was part of the job, and I let it roll off.  What bothered me were the people who said "Oh, you're worried over nothing, they'll never take away the right to choice."  or "We have Roe v. Wade, what are you worried about?"  What scarred me was the (supposedly) educated people who supported abortion rights, but who had no idea what is really going on politically or how much danger we are in.

So to clue you in, things are pretty bad.  We have Roe v. Wade, yes.  But Roe v. Wade is not a universal unilateral legalization of abortion.  It is vague, and has many caveats.  Many smaller cases since have been chipping away at the constitutional protection, and our opponents are going to continue to do so.  We can't count on the current Supreme Court to protect us as new cases come up.  Which means we have to defend our rights in the legislature.

So let me focus in on just one current legislative debate and why it is such a big deal: the de-funding of family planing clinics (including Planned Parenthood).  Planned Parenthood (PPFA) gets about 1/3 of it's total budget from the federal government.  That money does not and has never gone directly to fund abortions.  The Hyde amendment has forbidden government money from paying for abortions since the 70's.  All abortions at these clinics are privately funded. (To be clear, I don't think there would be anything wrong with the government funding abortions, but that's not at issue here.  It is irrelevant.)

What that money does is provide basic reproductive health care to men, women, children and teens all over the country.  This includes annual gynecological visits, mammograms, prostrate cancer screenings, STD testing and treatment, affordable birth control, and countless other services.  Without that money, dozens of clinics (both PPFA and non-affiliated clinics) all over the country will be forced to close.  There is no moral justification for wanting these services to be discontinued; they are basic health care, pure and simple.

The most common argument I hear is "Well, it's just about money.  Lots of great services are getting cut, because we just can't afford it anymore."  Sorry guys, that's just not how economics work.  By providing people with affordable and convenient preventative health care we save billions later on.  (This is the same economic principal behind government funded universal health care-but that debate is for another day).  To put it as simply and crudely as I can:  If we give all of our citizens access to affordable birth control, there will be fewer unplanned pregnancies, and thus fewer unplanned babies.  Babies are expensive, and the taxpayers end up supporting many of them.  That's not to mention all of the long term economic benefits to providing cheap preventative medical care and early cancer detection.  Quite simply, the government doesn't fund Family Planning just because it's the right thing to do (I wish).  The government has funded Family Planning through Title X for decades because it is economically sound to do so.

Now I don't believe for a minute that most of our lawmakers don't know all of this.  The economy is a justification, but not the real reason for the movement to de-fund family planning.  They have an agenda, and that agenda is to stop abortions.  If clinics close, millions of women all over the country-especially in rural areas- will lose all access to any doctor willing to perform a legal abortion.  The legislation doesn't (yet) have the power to make abortion totally illegal, so they are focusing instead on cutting away women's access.  With no access, there is no choice.

This is happening guys.  I know we've come a long way since the 70's but we haven't won yet.  Our opponents are loud, so cut the complacency and get your voice heard.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Problems with Pronouns

To most people, pronouns are effortless.  They were assigned a pronoun at birth, and that's what everyone has always called them.  They never think about it, it's a non-issue.  But I think pronouns are the greatest failure of the English language.  Our lovely language's use of pronouns is entirely dependent on the concept of binary gender.  There is male and female, he and she, her and his, Mr. and Ms.  There is no gender neutral singular pronoun.

Recently, many Trans groups have come up with neutral alternatives.  The most common is ze/hir, though there are many others.  I find these invented words cumbersome and awkward.  My favorite alternative is simply using the plural gender neutral pronoun they/their as a singular pronoun.  This is grammatically incorrect, but is becoming more and more acceptable.

As far as I'm aware (and a very brief Google search did not reveal anything different), there is no commonly used neutral for Mr./Ms.  I've seen Mx., and M. but how exactly do you pronounce either of those?  They're even more awkward than ze.

I raise this issue because in my new office we use formal titles.  My colleagues and I address each other by Mr. or Ms., not by our first names.  I have been dubbed "Ms. K" (no one can pronounce my full last name, so I conceded to the initial K).

At this point I'm still using female pronouns in most of my life only because I haven't found a gender neutral alternative that I'm comfortable with.  For the most part it doesn't bother me, because I don't often hear myself referred to using pronouns at all (how often do you call someone "she" where they can hear you? That would be rude, no matter the genders involved).  But in this office space, I'm called Ms. K constantly.  The "Ms." is an ever present demarcation forcing me into a binary gender that doesn't fit.  It's made me a lot more aware of how much being genderqueer has become a part of my identity, and how uncomfortable I am with people assuming I'm cis-female.

How can we hope to create a society that doesn't depend on a gender binary when it is so entrenched in our day to day language?  I have to believe that it's possible, but I'm really not sure of the best strategy.  Is is better to focus on changing the language, because we know how much language influences thought?  Or should we focus on changing social structures and attitudes and hope that language will follow?  Do we try to do both simultaneously; Is that even possible?

And then I remind myself that progress comes in baby steps.  Most of my office still doesn't know the difference between Ms. and Miss.  Miss is a counterpart to Mrs.; Miss refers to an unmarried girl who will take her husband's name and become a Mrs.  This distinction is sexist and outdated; it presumes that a girl is using her father's name until she marries and takes her husband's name.  Ms. is pronounced "Miz", and it is the non-sexist female equivalent to Mr., acknowledging a woman's last name as her own not that of a male in her life.  But Most of my office still pronounces "Ms." as "Miss".  And as much as I am not entirely a "Ms.",  I am really, really not a "Miss".  Progress is slow, but I think my presence is going to be good for this office.  I'm trying not to rock the boat too much in my first few weeks, but I'm also not hiding who I am, and I think just having a genderqueer feminist around is going to do some good for this company.  Every little bit counts, right?

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Welcome to my first attempt at a public blog!  I have determined to make more of an effort to maintain an active web presence, and that starts here.  I am here to push buttons, to cross boundaries and to challenge assumptions.  I'm here to discuss politics, feminism, socialism, queer theory and life outside the mainstream.  I'm here to defy homophobia and transphobia, sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, and all other forms of social and political oppression.

This blog will be my observations of life, politics and various social issues which are close to my heart.  I will post my opinions about what is going on in the world, and my fears and hopes for the future.  What I won't be posting is details about my personal life.  To those of you following me from my old livejournal, this is not simply a continuation of that blog.  Sorry, but this blog is public, if you want to keep in touch on a personal level you're going to have to do it the old fashioned way and send me a private email.  However, I am fully aware that my identity and life experiences drastically impact my social and political world view.  Who I am and what I'm doing with my life will become relevant on this blog as far as is necessary to explain my perspective on various issues, and I'm not going to shy away from that.

I'm going to make it a goal to update at least a couple times a week.  There's certainly plenty of fodder for topics, both locally, domestically, and internationally and you can look for my first real post some time this week.  I welcome comments, and I value productive discussions and debates, so please tell me what you think!