Homophobia and Respectability Politics

I joined an adult Jewish education class. I jokingly referred to the class as my weekly Jew Cult because my experience with this type of Jewish education has been Birthright trips— which I’ve experienced as Jewish education marketed as a social way to meet Jews your age and reconnect with your history and heritage (while swallowing blatant propaganda to unconditionally support Israel and don’t forget to marry Jewish).

But if this course will eventually turn into pro-Israel propaganda, I won’t stay in the class to find out.

Last week’s class was about Judaism and relationships. The Rabbi spoke exclusively about straight relationships, describing marriage between a man and woman as the pinnacle of Godliness and that heterosexual sex is the pinnacle of pleasure. I asked what this says about same-sex relationships and the Rabbi told me to ask again at the end of class. At the end of class he still would not answer my question. He said he preferred to speak about this issue one-on-one because he likes to know whether the person raising the question is connected to the LGBTQ community.

I talked with him for two hours after class because I wanted to know two things:

  1. Why did he not answer my question for the whole class to hear?
  2. What does he believe the Torah says about queerness?

His interpretation of the Torah is that while God loves everyone, gay people are not natural. That trans people should try to fix what’s going on on the inside before altering God’s plan for their bodies. He used pitying language, that he feels bad for me. He compared queerness to depression and that people need to get help.

He did not answer my question during class because he considers this information to be a “hard truth” of Judaism. If he told the class, he would lose members and his goal is to promote the positives and the joys of Judaism first. And then, once people are on board, trusting that God has a plan, then he might bring up these “hard truths” if someone asks. He must know what he says is offensive and derogatory, if he knows there are people who would walk out of his class if he said such things to group. But he said such things to me because I asked, because I sat down and listened.

He said he respected me for not walking out of the room. But I should have walked out.

I play respectability politics around gender and sexuality. My brain is wired on logic first and emotion second and so I can play the rules of debate like man.

I sat with the rabbi for 2 hours to hear what he had to say, to debate, to let myself be heard, to determine if I should come out to him (I did and he briefly attempted to fix me, suggesting I find a feminine man, before settling on the fact that the Torah does not command women to marry, so if I never get married I can still be an upstanding Jew). I wanted his respect. I wanted him to see that I was not an emotional woman and that I could have this “hard truths of Judaism” conversation without succumbing to base emotions. I could rely on rationality and an intellectual exchange of information.

More than what he said, I’m confused and upset because I don’t know what to feel or think now that the interaction is over. I’ve told him I’m not coming back to class and he understands. On one level he shows me great respect by talking with me for so long, but his ideas are so disrespectful. When I tell my friends, I don’t know what I want them to say. Do I want their pity? Their sympathy? I know I’m not crazy or imagining the insult. Am I wallowing in this act of discrimination?

I didn’t grow up where Judaism was homophobic. Or maybe I did and never noticed. I didn’t figure out I was ace until mid-high school, long after my bat mitzvah and the end of my Jewish education. One of my favorite things about Judaism is that I never felt a conflict between my religion and my sexuality. And I still don’t.

I don’t want to quit the class. I want to learn about Judaism! I want to speak with people who have different views and opinions than I do. I want to be respected.

Identifying With Characters Across Gender and Sexuality

492069I just had an article pitch accepted to Brooklyn Magazine‘s Book section!

I’m writing a personal essay on identifying with fictional characters across gender and sexuality. Felix Harrowgate, the protagonist of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, is a gay wizard who navigates his relationships through sex and sexuality. As an asexual woman, I never thought I would identify with him. But it is through identifying with him, that I was able to come out as homo-romantic.

The problem is the last book in The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was published back in 2009. The editor from Brooklyn Magazine is asking me to find a hook to make this article more timely. I’ve considered that the author wrote a well-received stand-alone novel in 2014 (The Goblin Emperor), and co-authored a book with Elizabeth Bear, published in 2015 (An Apprentice to Elves), but even that is not particularly relevant. For context, my piece will be published roughly December/January.

Especially as this coming week is Asexuality Awareness Week (!!!) I’m hoping other aces or people within the queer community (or anyone really) might be able to pitch in some thoughts and suggestions. How can I make this essay relevant to 2016/2017 specifically?

Queerness and literature are the timeless parts of my essay; I’m still searching for the timely pitch. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas.

happy-asexual-awareness-week

 

 

Reading Queer Work with Students Part II

Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my post about reading queer work with students.

I chose to read the essay, “Origin of Dress” by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (please check out my literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages).

The essay was well received! Students who came to meet with me the week before saying nonfiction was boring, found Quintana’s essay not only engaging but relatable. I used this piece as an introduction to creative nonfiction and asked students to write some creative nonfiction of their own. Most students brought detailed understandings of themselves living in a gendered world.

When we put the piece away, one student asked, “So, will we read more stories like this?” She meant more nonfiction.

And while I was concerned to read work by queer authors and work featuring queer content and protagonists, I knew this was the right thing to do. Not only had some students expressed an interest in reading and learning about LGBTQ issues, but I also knew any fear I had was my own internalized homophobia. I didn’t want to read queer work for fear I was pushing the gay agenda, or flaunting my queer identity.

Students’ comfortability with queer content varied, but no one shut down or was visibly distressed. In some meetings the author’s sexuality never came up at all. In others, the student was the one to name Quintana’s sexuality as part of their discussion of the narrative.

What helped me the most in making the decision to read queer work with students, was putting this in perspective. If I had been an educator fifty years ago, I wouldn’t want to look back on my work and know that I avoided texts by people of color because I didn’t want to offend students or parents. I do not mean to make a comparison between the fight for racial equality and the fight for equality across sexualities and genders, but the same principle applies for this situation. To create an exclusive learning environment that only speaks to what is acceptable and won’t rock the boat is morally wrong. I would not be comfortable teaching a majority white-washed cis male heterosexual curriculum. Even if I my choice to read Quintana’s work had caused offense (and as far as I know it hasn’t) I still believe I made the right choice to read queer work with my students.

In the upcoming weeks, I might still read “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” with a few students who are strong readers. I will keep everyone updated.

Thank you again for your support, encouragement and advice!

Reading Queer Work with Students

I’m not technically a teacher. I work in a high school, I read texts with high school students, but I’m not a teacher. I’m not bound by State or Federal curriculum requirements. I don’t give tests. I’m not employed by the high school and when choosing what to read with students, no one is checking in to see if what we read is “school appropriate”.

What we read is “student appropriate” instead–the right text for the right student (I meet with students one-on-one a few times a week, so I am able to read one book with four students and another book with a different four students etc). I recognize I am in a unique position to be able to make such choices.

I’m about to choose texts for this school year and I’m running into a question I never thought I would ask: how do I read queer texts with high school students?

The first texts we read of the semester I read with all students and I’m debating between two pieces:

  1. “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” a poem by Julie Marie Wade published in PANK 11.1 Spring/Summer 2016
  2. “Origins of Dress” an essay by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (unavailable online, but keep an eye out for my upcoming literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages)

pank-726x293

Both pieces are by lesbian authors, although Quintana’s essay is more focused on sexuality and its presentation than Wade’s.

Quintana discusses being a lesbian and her relationship with wearing dresses through a series of vignettes. On the one hand, I think high school students will have no problem relating to a piece about how we are judged by what we wear. On the other hand, I’m asking students to relate to a lesbian protagonist and I’m concerned that this might shut down any conversation about the piece’s literary content.

For Wade’s poem it would be an insult to the author to discuss the content and not discuss why she expressly names her sexuality in the poem. I’m asking students to see themselves in a lesbian narrator.

Gay-agendaBut engaging students to empathize and see themselves in characters and situations that might be different than their own is my goal! So, why do I feel I’m promoting the “gay agenda”?

I know some of my students come from conservative and/or religious families, but I’m less concerned about offending someone, than I am about not being able to have a conversation. When I was in high school, I would shut down if an adult mentioned sex or sexuality in any way. I would literally be terrified to speak because I didn’t have the language to know I was ace, only that I found the whole idea of sex disgusting.

My students aren’t me and I know that. But I’m looking for advice on how to meet students where they are, even as I tell them that queer content is just another thing to read, another experience to understand.

Any thoughts on which piece I should read with my students? Does anyone have any advice on reading queer material with high school students? If you’ve done it, how did it go?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Orlando Shooter is a Terrorist, but not because he’s Muslim

Islam DOES NOT EQUAL terrorism. To repeat: Islam DOES NOT EQUAL terrorism.

Omar Mateen, the shooter who murdered 49 people in Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, is a terrorist. Whether or not he had ties to ISIS, he is a terrorist. But being Muslim has nothing to do with his act of homophobia and violence.

Mateen is a terrorist because he willfully planned to walk into a gay club and murder queer people during Pride month. Specifically, he planned this on Latino night, when Pulse would be filled with queer people of color. His intention was to spread fear so that queer people and queer people of color across the country and the world would feel threatened. If this is not terrorism, I don’t know what is.

If CNN wants to make this a conversation about terrorism, fine. It is terrorism. But this is not a conversation about ISIS or FBI watch lists.  To give ISIS credit is to dismiss our own complicity in this attack. Mateen was an American citizen, fed on our values of homophobia and xenophobia. And the longer we derail the conversation to be about ISIS and the same gun control speeches that get us nowhere, we become even further mired in the problem.

Mateen is us. He is every homophobic slur we hear on the street, every homophobic law being passed, every racist comment from Trump and on the news against the Latinx community. He is the product of an American culture which prays to stop gun violence, but in every conceivable way each day says the lives of queer people and queer people of color don’t matter. And now, we are making the situation worse by buying into the belief that this attack was motivated by Islam. We are showing ourselves to be Islamophobic, as well as homophobic and xenophobic.

This attack cannot become an excuse to commit further violence against Muslims. We cannot dismiss Mateen as an Islamic terrorist whose motivations are worlds away from American values. Neither can we cannot dismiss Mateen as “mentally unstable” or diagnose him with bipolar or other mental health disorders, and claim his actions were caused by being mentally ill. We cannot let this attack divide us. 

Please, understand the following facts:

  1. Mateen is a terrorist because he planned to use large scale violence to inspire fear among queer people and queer people of color.
  2. 49 people are dead, most of them queer people of color.
  3. Derailing the conversation to erase the sexuality and race of the victims, or blame Islam will only strengthen America’s homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic culture.

 

My Shaved Head

Wow, guess I never made an update on this, but I shaved my head in March. I took a little pair of sewing scissors, cut off my curls and then buzzed my head in my bathroom. I liked it so much, I reshaved my head April.

Shaving my head has been the most feminist action I’ve taken. I have never had such complete control of my appearance, and it is such a powerful feeling to own my body and defy gender norms of feminine beauty.

profile picture bald

I want to look as queer as I feel and be proud of who I am.

When I first shaved my head, strangers asked me if I had cancer. My hair has grown out a bit since April and now strangers assume I am sick in a different way: they assume I am queer and the thought sickens them.

Yesterday a man yelled “Fag!” out his car window at me as I walked down the street.

For a few moments I thought I deserved the slur. I wanted to look queer, after all. What else should I expect? But I was victim blaming. If I deserve anything, it is to look how I want, cut my hair how I want, dress how I want and be respected as a human being. If I should expect anything, it is to be able to walk down the street (no matter the time of day, no matter the length of my hair) without being afraid.

We all deserve respect and dignity and we should expect nothing less.

The slur shouldn’t bother me, and I know I am hardly alone in this instance of homophobia and street harassment. But I can imagine my brother as the man in the car. He was the type of person to laugh with his friends at women he thought were dressed “slutty.” He believes women are “asking for it.”

He does not approve of women with short hair. He does not know I shaved my head and I will see him less than a month.

It’s disturbing that the man who shouted at me from his car hardly feels like a stranger. But the people who commit acts of bigotry and violence against any marginalized person or group, are people we know. They are our neighbors, our childhood friends, our friends’ parents, peers we went to high school with. They are our family.

But they are never right in what they do or say to us. We are never to blame.

The Casual Language of Sexism and Homophobia

For the past week I was chaperoning a dizzying tour of colleges in PA. But instead of leaving with a flavor for each school, I left with the muddy taste sexism and homophobia crusting in my mouth.

I was a tour guide for my college, so I understand that when you’re giving a tour sometimes you’re coming up with your words on the spot. I do not think our tour guides meant to be offensive, but as a queer feminist, their language was hurtful and isolating, even while it was also mundane.

But when a female tour guide describes the all-female dorm on campus as “the quiet dorm because it’s all girls” what am I supposed to think?  First, these are women, not girls. They are adults. Second, women are not naturally more quiet or passive or reserved. These are harmful stereotypes of women being perpetuated on college campuses and repeated to high schoolers.

When the same female tour guide later says, “our school’s 60% female, but that’s not a problem” my first thought is, why would it be a problem? What makes a majority of female students on a college campus threatening or a dissuading factor for students to apply? Why aren’t we celebrating these women?

On a different college campus, a male tour guide (who expressly said he is a feminist, that he cares about anti-racist work and participates in community service) said, “I’m not gay, but I love that dean.”

I’m not gay, but…

And in an instant, a space which should be welcoming to all becomes hostile. Because I am a female. I am queer. And your college campus is suddenly a threat.

I spoke to both of these tour guides after the tour and let them know how their language was harmful. Please, speak up when you hear things that make you uncomfortable, whether it’s about an identity you hold or not. These small things, this casual language, must also be stopped if we are ever to address the larger issues of rape culture and more blatant homophobia.

Please, speak up so that public spaces can be our spaces too.

Asexual (and queer)

I use queer as an ace inclusive term. Because the LGBT doesn’t include my experience (or the experience of pansexuals, demisexuals, and many others!) and when I hear LGBTQIQA, I feel like I’m back to being a first year student in college and timidly approaching the Queer club’s representative asking, “Does the A stand for Ally or Asexual?”

I’m done having to “come out” even in queer spaces.

Yesterday, at C2E2 (Chicago Comic Entertainment Expo) I went to the panel “Where are the Asexual Voices?” presented by Lauren Jankowski. Jankowski runs Asexual Artists: a blog dedicated to highlighting asexual art and artists, so anyone on the ace spectrum knows they are not alone in the creative process. Our work matters and our sexual orientation should be celebrated.

7155e1d6b8c14e380dbc6f4f233b9d57And while I’m openly queer online and have published essays about coming out as asexual and my asexual experience in Wilde Magazine and Voices and Visions (available to read for free), I identify as queer in most online spaces. I identify as queer and not ace.

If I say I’m queer you can assume I’m a lesbian and I won’t have to correct you. If you assume I’m a lesbian you assume you understand my sexual orientation and do not ask further questions.

I fear going back to high school, when I didn’t have the language to say I’m asexual and instead floundered through conversations about how I didn’t understand crushes and had no desire for a boyfriend or to have my first kiss. And even well intentioned friends told me, “You just haven’t found the right person.”

As an ace person, we face invalidation every day. We are not straight enough, we are not queer enough. We are infantalized. We are instructed on how to use a condom by ill-intentioned room mates in high school summer programs. We are outed at social gatherings as a spectacle. And I’ve put all this behind me because hey, it happened 4 or 5 years ago and I’ve also had incredibly loving conversations about being ace where my friends and my mother are respectful and show nothing but support.

But just a few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a queer ally training for seniors in high school and made the decision to come out as queer. And while I recognize the immense privilege I have in holding a job where I can come out to my students at all, it still felt like a lie or an omission because I did not come out as ace. I still fear the questions about my sexual orientation.

Being queer and not ace has allowed me to hide and cloak myself in a more understood and accepted term.

I’m done hiding. I am an asexual homo-romantic writer. I am asexual (and queer), but I cannot keep hiding under the queer umbrella.  I am proud to be ace.

Demonizing Teenage Sexuality

I work with high schoolers everyday. Other adults, snort and chuckle, pat me on the back and say:

“Ooh, that’s rough.” “How’s that going?” “Good luck.”

When I once failed to properly lock the staff restroom, a teacher who followed me in demanded I learn to  lock the door properly. “Believe me,” she said, “you don’t want one of them getting in.”

Them. As if high school students are dangerous animals and that just because we see them everyday doesn’t make them human beings. We herd them from class to class on a bell schedule to manage them. We place security officers in the hallways and the cafeteria to control them. We expect criminal behavior.

And because our school system does not trust young people to walk from class to class without, of course we do not trust them with their own sexuality. Yes, teenagers make mistakes. And yes, those mistakes are especially harmful when they involve sex and sexuality, because what is a healthy sexual decision and what is rape might not be clear.

So, let’s talk about it!

I grew up in liberal blue-Democratic Connecticut, and our sex-ed program only focused on STDs. While I don’t remember it being an abstinence-only education, in health class there was still no discussion of healthy sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality was heterosexuality (and allosexuality–not being ace) only. There was no way to be a teenager and also make smart choices.

Teenage Sex = WRONG.

This is especially challenging for queer students (promiscuous stereotypes, anyone?) and students like myself who are ace and might not even have the language to say so.

But what happens if we change that narrative?

Chicago schools have begun to institute sex ed as early as kindergarten in order to promote a healthy shame-free understanding of sexuality from an early age. As from thinkprogress.org said in 2013, not teaching accurate sex education

has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished.

I am privileged to work one-on-one with students where I have fewer restrictions than teachers. I can question the sex ed curriculum and American sexual mores. One of the most liberating ways to do this is to not shy away from sex language. If it’s not a big deal for me to say “queer” “sex” “vagina” “penis” “trans” “cis” these words become a little more normalized. Young people then have space to consider what healthy sexuality means to them and how they can develop healthy and smart relationships. My expectation is not perfection, but it certainly isn’t failure.

I refuse to be embarrassed by high schoolers singing and dancing to songs about sex during a school dance. As long as there is no coerced sexuality or romantic conduct, I would not step in. If high school students are shouting and singing about sex acts, this might be the only place where talking about sex is a free act. And if we, as adults, are embarrassed or demonize this freedom, then shame on us.

We have clearly not created inclusive spaces in schools and youth programs where people of all sexualities and genders can discover what healthy sexuality means for them. It’s time to create those spaces.

What It’s Like to be a [blank]

I was at a Slam Poetry workshop the other day with Cyndey Edwards. As a prompt to get us writing poetry, she share Patricia Smith’s poem “What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t).” Take a look at the poem below.

What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t) by Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
priming in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance in your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally have a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

_______________________

What I enjoy the most about this poem is that it reads like a ‘how-to’ guide and is  instructional as well as personal. Here’s the prompt so you can write your own poem and share it with others!

First, we created a list of ways we identify. My list included everything from being asexual and homoromantic, to being a tea lover and a comic book reader.

From that list, we generated our own “What it’s like to be a [blank]”. The idea behind writing this poem is for us to define ourselves and claim ownership our identities and experiences.

Below is my first draft of “What It’s Like to be Asexual and Love Women.”

It’s not a Freudian lack no

Penis envy but a

Filling like the dentist’s

Hands inside your mouth the whir of

Metal drilling into bone under

Gum and enamel so your teeth grow

Strong so you grow strong.

Fixed.

Drink your tea.

Fill those silent mornings evenings wondering

How long can Single last

Before your Aunt, your Grandfather, the dentist (who

Goes to your Synagogue), the airport security agent begins

To ask

Questions about

Where your man is

(maybe) where your woman is

And why you want to shear your

Hair to your scalp and

are you gay and

“a little” does not answer

Cannot provide sustain the

Fullness that is romance

Without sex.