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.

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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.

That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.

Pocahontas

 

Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.

This is not Dragon Ball Z. Or is it?

I keep tabs on the Dragon Ball Z facebook page and frequently find their material strikes a chord with me. The page reminds me of all the reasons Goku is a loveable idiot, but such an amazing individual. The page reminds me why I believe in Goku and that there is so much more to DBZ than strong men beating each other to a pulp. Dragon Ball Z has provided me with heroes who are the epitome of fall seven times, get up eight times. 

But, as I’ve mentioned previously, DBZ is not perfect. It’s sexist toward men and it’s sexist toward women. What I haven’t had much time to explore however, is that as an extension of its sexism, DBZ is also homophobic. I’ll use this image posted on the DBZ facebook page to begin my point then I’ll explain further.

To begin, this image is homophobic. Even if it weren’t connected to DBZ, it would be homophobic. In this set of images, to be gay is something you want to get rid of in yourself. It is something that can be cured where you can walk away and be “better.” Especially in the context of this image set, it is the father telling his son not to be gay, to overcome his gayness, and–even worse–that gay here is used as a generic insult. The Great Saiyaman looks stupid and poses funny, that’s so gay! Yes, the Great Saiyaman looks stupid and poses funny, but all that means is that he looks stupid and poses funny. It has nothing to do with his sexuality.

When I first saw this image I commented and said how offensive it is. I also said it’s not DBZ. However, I was quite wrong in that second statement. This image set brings to the forefront homophobia that is present in DBZ, but never discussed.

What some people may not be aware of is that homophobia (and any other form of oppressive thought and action) does not need to be as direct as someone proclaiming “I hate gays” or “homosexuality is a sin.” Most bigotry is more subtle than that, but no less harmful. Because it is silent, it is allowed to persist.

So, how is DBZ homophobic? Let’s look at the images presented of men and women. The men are all the absolute epitome of “traditional masculinity.” They are muscular, they are courageous, they take punishment in battle without complaining and they are unfaltering in their straightness. The special cases are Goku and Piccolo. Goku exists in a state of partial asexuality–though more to comment on his purity than to ever suggest he is queer. Piccolo, as an alien, is also for all purposes asexual–but more to express his alien difference than to highlight a queer identity.

Of the main male characters, Tien is the only one without a love interest and fans speculate he is in a relationship with Chiaotzu. If this is the case and Tien and Chiaotzu are the only queer characters in the show, their relationship is entirely speculative and because Chiaotzu looks and acts so different from every other character, even the hint of being gay becomes something to look askance at. If Tien and Chiaotzu were to be openly together, their queerness would be immediately visible because Chiaotzu does not look or act human. If Chiaotzu is written as a gay character he is an offensive stereotype.

As for the female characters, the few there are are unfaltering in their straightness as well. They may not always be perfect paragons of female virtue–Chi-Chi fights in DB and Bulma is a computer tech and scientist–but Chi-Chi is also introduced from the start as a love interest for Goku and Bulma’s original quest is to find the perfect boyfriend. Android 18 winds up marrying Krillin. Even Launch from DB is last seen chasing after Tien. Lesbianism is a foreign concept in the DBZ universe.

So, when the DBZ facebook page posts an image such as this:

it is actually being very honest about DBZ’s homophobia. In DBZ, being queer is speculative (at best) for the men and impossible for the women. It makes perfect sense that this image set would blatantly highlight the resistance to queers. Being queer can be the butt of jokes because there are no openly queer characters to offset the stereotypes. There is no one to defend the queer community and so to be anything but straight puts you in direct conflict with the rigid gender binary of masculine men and feminine women who only desire heterosexual relationships.

My response is that you cannot “get a little gay” and there is no way to “better” from your gayness because there was never anything to be fixed in the first place. I know I would feel better if Gohan if DBZ was not so heteronormative.

“No, I’m not gay”…I’m just not straight

My mother is a wonderful person who cares deeply about the rights of every human being. Although she initially told me being asexual was a phase I would grow out of, she is now my staunchest supporter. She wants to ensure that I feel comfortable with my sexuality and am treated with respect. She works that this same respect is given to everyone as a matter of course. I am grateful beyond words.

But I spent time visiting my grandfather who believes gay people shouldn’t get married and says he believes so because that’s how he was brought up. I don’t think he understands that being queer is not a choice. And, even more unfortunate, he doesn’t think to question why he holds the beliefs he does. Like my brother, he believes that because he has a right to his own opinions, this right extends to saying whatever he wants. He has no understanding of his privilege as a straight, white cisgender man. And I knew my grandfather was conservative (he watches Fox News religiously), but when I told him his comments were hurtful he did not understand.

“How am I being hurtful?” he asked.

“I have a lot of gay friends and they do not have the same rights that you do–”

He interrupted and turned to me. “Where did you meet these people?”

“At my college. I have a lot of gay friends and they deserve to be married and have lives for themselves. They’re great people.”

We went on for a bit, back and forth and getting nowhere. He assured me that if he were to meet any of my gay friends (as if being gay is always as visible as a birthmark or a scar) he would still treat them with courtesy. I wonder if this is worse: closeted homophobia. It certainly feels worse to be on the receiving end.

For years now, I was certain my grandfather has been waiting for me to come out as a lesbian. I have never dated and never showed any interest in boys so therefore the only option for me was lesbianism, in his view. And after all these years he finally asked me the big question:

“Tell me, then are you gay?”

And I stared at him and kept my face blank. “No. No, I am not.” I came so close to following my statement and revealing the truth that No, I’m not gay, but I’m not straight either. 

I’m queer. I’m asexual. I won’t bring home a woman on my arm anymore than I will bring home a man. But I didn’t say any of this and, though I know how lucky I am to have my mother on my side, I felt shoved into the closet. My grandfather and my aunt are my only immediate family I have not yet come out to. I am fortunate that I can easily pass as being straight.

Still, I don’t think my grandfather believed me when I told him I’m not gay. He asked me later that day about when I would want to get married and I told him that I don’t want to get married. He didn’t press the issue then and told me it is my decision–though he would have been able to hold a lovely wedding reception. I was not surprised when he brought up the issue of my refusal to marry to my mother. Again, I see how damaging closeted homophobia is. I fear my grandfather will never see me the same way and, even worse, he will never tell me so and our anger and misunderstanding will simmer away under the surface.

I know I am not the only one to feel closeted and to be concerned about coming out. I know I am incredibly lucky to have my mother as my support network. I know I care about queer issues beyond my own sphere and this conversation with my grandfather really brought homophobia home for me. I am even more dedicated to advocating for queer rights because no one deserves to suffer under homophobia or any other type of bigotry.

A few months ago I spoke on a “Queer + [Blank]” panel  where everyone who spoke came from a place of intersectionality. I have a shirt from the event that proudly displays “Queer + [Blank]” and I have yet to fill in my intersectionality because I am afraid to wear this short outside of my campus environment. When the panel was first being publicized I did not yet know that I was speaking and I talked with a queer friend of mine about the design for the shirts. She is very open about being a lesbian, but she said she had to ask herself whether or not she would want to walk down the street and have everyone know that she is queer. I agreed, but I felt I needed to do buy this shirt because I needed to embrace being queer as an essential part of my identity.

I do not know if I will come out to my grandfather anytime soon, but I will not get married–even if it means I stop entirely passing as straight.