Tag Archives: Homophobia

Gender Matters

29 Mar

My second cousin is pregnant and recently learned the gender birth of her unborn second child. Here’s what she posted on Facebook:

OK for those of you that have not yet figured out what my changed profile pic means… It is a PINK square!! Think Pink and most of you should be able to figure it out now LOL.

My issue with this perpetuation of the gender binary system is not the act itself. Of course the gender binary system is inherently flawed, because it presumes and reinforces the lie that gender is a “this or that” construct, rather than a fluid, socially constructed category that contains “this,” “that,” and everything in between. And yet I cannot blame her, nor should I. We’re all socialized under the same system, and the invisibility of the transgender community is omnipresent. We’re taught since birth that we are either boys or girls, not both nor neither. Indeed, many children (like my cousin’s unborn child) are genderized even before birth, as mothers and fathers pick names, design rooms, buy clothing, and tout Facebook statuses asking friends to “Think PINK.” One would be hard-pressed to find a “Congratulations” card at Duane Reade saying, “Congratulations on your new gender-queer child!”

All that said, while my cousin’s enthusiasm and poor grammar may be notable, her attitude is not. She is excited, proud, and – based on the score of comments on her post – completely average in her thinking. Many of the comments correctly “figured out” that her child will be a girl. These attitudes are also not surprising. What was shocking, however, were two other comments to her post: “It’s a girl!! Or a gay boy!!” and “wow. coming out on facebook. I guess that’s normal nowadays…”.

These displays of homophobia bewildered and saddened me. The first comment (#9 of 23) sticks out as mirroring much of what we’ve seen on this site: the subordination of gay men as being the opposite of “real men” in their presumed femininity. Not only does this assume a monolithic gay culture (feminine, flamboyant, “flaming”), but it covertly reinforces our expectations for non-gay men to conform to society’s masculinity protocol. The fact that the commenter is a man (I assume, based on his classic Judeo-Christian name) is also saddening. It’s this type of internalized gender roles and homophobia coming from men that is most damaging to masculinity.

The second comment (#16 of 23) actually confused me more than it saddened me. In her comment (again, I assume gender, based on the commenter’s classic British name), the commenter suggests that my cousin is disclosing her homosexuality by changing her profile picture to a solid pink square. For the life of me, I have absolutely no idea how these two are connected. This is the source of my confusion. The source of my sadness is that sexual orientation was mentioned as a joke, and that my cousin replied, “lol” – laugh out loud. Neither am I sure what she’s laughing at, but what seems apparent is that somehow in this fallacious equation, homosexually ends up being the butt of the joke.

Yet despite the 14 comments that came after #9, nobody called out the commenter for his homophobic comment. Neither did anyone comment on #16’s ambiguous reference to sexual orientation. As we see again and again, silence dominated this conversation. I include my own silence in this condemnation. Silence has the same effect as agreeing, because it allows the perpetuation of prejudice to continue.

And yet, I wonder: how might one effectively and sensitively “call out” this kind of behavior when the context is something so joyous – the pending birth of a new human being? To complicate matters more, how do you address it when your relationship to the person is blood? What must be taken into account when the medium is Facebook? And, to play devil’s advocate against my own doubts, does any of this actually matter? Is it me that’s the problem in this? – my own unwillingness to risk stressing my relationship with my cousin by ruining her happiness, staining my “polite, good boy” image by raising a brouhaha in this context, and causing myself undue stress by waging an online war of morality (which, in my experience, end up simply polarizing both parties)?

    Double Whammy of the Day: Booze and Homophobia

    21 Mar

    This blog has seen its share of offensive ads over the last two months, and this beauty out of Brazil is no exception. Cachaça, if you didn’t know, is a popular South American hard alcohol. In Colombia it’s called aguardiente, and both are made from fermented sugarcane. Cachaça is the main ingredient in delicious caipirinhas, and – apparently – strong enough to console you if your son is gay.

    Green: Your son; Blue: You son’s buddy; Purple rectangle: Brokeback Mountain | If you gotta be strong, we gotta be strong. – Cachaça Magnífica

    What’s incredible about this advertisement is that it perpetuates not just one, but TWO of the strongest and most harmful male stereotypes out there: that men must drink booze, and that to be gay is the greatest sin a man can commit. Even the language (“You gotta be strong”) and the architectural theme of the ad reinforce this notion of male toughness, intellectualism, linearity, and stoicism. They imply that every man should be a Howard Roark – a strong, brave, confident soul fighting a sea of slings and arrows. What’s brilliant (and devious) about the ad is that replicates the same societal traps that we’re all lured into; no man should ever refuse the offer to “be strong,” because that’s what being a man is all about. Thus, no man can resist relating to the ad.

    The more obvious oppression that this ad perpetuates is homophobia. It suggests that a father (or mother) may need to “be strong” in a time of despair — that time being when his/her son and his buddy are watching a gay love story. Why should one be driven to the bottle by such a mundane act? Because nothing – not even watching a movie – is mundane when a man’s sexuality is on the line. In this world, male homosocial interaction signifies homosexuality. And according to our heteronormative culture, to be gay is to wrong, backward, not “straight” (crooked? as if any aspect of any life follows a truly linear trajectory), unclean, unholy, untouchable. The only solution? More booze.

    ———-

    On a side note, what’s also interesting about this ad is that it subtly includes a classist/racial phenomena that is – to my knowledge – unique to Central/South America and the Caribbean. Bedroom #1, adjacent to the kitchen on the left side of the blueprint, is not a room that few of us (Americans/U.S.A.) would choose to live in. It’s an irregularly shaped room, more like a hallway, with a 6″x9″ space for a bed and a shelf(?), and a bathroom which is only accessible from that room – small even for New York standards. This room, based on my travels and admittedly limited knowledge of cultural norms, is where the empleada (“employee”) lives and/or works.

    The empleada, also known as the criada, sirviente, servicio, or interna, is the a maid, housekeeper, or nanny (ignore the flagrant soft-pornographic photos in a Google Images search for some actual images). 90% of empleados are women (empleadas). They are regular fixtures in many Central and South American houses. They are rarely related by blood to the employing family, but often come to hold family-like positions in the household, particularly for the children, and may stay in a household for years or decades, yet they may be fired for any reason.(More than once I’ve heard stories of empleadas being fired for allegedly stealing). They are rarely contracted or receive any formal benefits, and pay is traditionally low. They are typically responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, and other household tasks. The bathroom in the back is normally reserved for laundering tasks, or for the empleada only. They are almost never invited to dine with the family, but rather eat in another room, or at a separate table. It’s no coincidence that the empleada’s quarters are attached to the kitchen and only accessible through it, or that they are as physically removed as possible from the employer’s sleeping spaces.

    In my experiences living in and visiting South America and the Caribbean, empleadas tend to come from low-class backgrounds and have tended to be darker-skinned than their (often only slightly less dark-skinned) employers. While this is a deeply engrained element of many Latino cultures, many, such as the International Domestic Workers’ Network and other human rights organizations, feel that the empleada tradition is equivalent to slavery. That this element would show up in a Brazilian advertisement is, in retrospect, not surprising, since it is a normal part of that culture. However, to a North American or European audience, the leftmost part of the blueprint may not make complete sense. That’s why I noticed it.

    Kind of a Weird Question

    6 Mar

    Being the good son that I am, I talk on the phone with my mom pretty frequently. Not as often as she’d like, but enough to keep her up to date. This weekend her sister and brother-in-law (my aunt and uncle) are in town for a conference. Today my partner and I went to lunch with them and some of their friends (a couple; let’s name them Jeff and Susan). As I was talking on the phone with my mom, she indicated that she knew this couple. She then proceeded to ask me:

    “I know it might be kind of a weird question to ask a dude, but — is Jeff still ridiculously handsome?”

    What’s striking to me is not that my mom asked if Jeff is “still gorgeous”. Based on her eternal Hollywood crush, I’m not surprised that she finds him attractive.

    well hello, ladies

    What did strike me was that she considered it “weird” to ask a “dude” to rate the attractiveness of another male. “Weird,” it seems, was serving as a placeholder for any number of potential adjectives in her mind: offensive, uncomfortable, “gay,” feminine, wrong. The other, sadder thing that struck me was my own silence.

    I’m both surprised by and feeling resigned to this homophobic statement. I’m surprised, because my mom has evolved a lot since the days when “queer” was a regular word in her vocabulary (last heard c. 2003?). She’s a good person. She votes, and votes Democrat. She works with children on the autism spectrum. She’s active at her temple. We’ve talked about Proposition 8, and she supports LGBT rights. And she raised some fine children (hah). For her to morally judge one male rating another’s attractiveness seems to me very out of character.

    And yet I’m not the least bit surprised. The majority of “well-meaning” people harbor deep prejudices that they haven’t come to terms with. As Thompson says, many of them consider as their peers “progressive and liberal”people [1]. Despite the moderate or left-wing policies for which they stand and perhaps even vote, internally these people are trapped in cages of prejudice. They hold onto tightly engrained prejudices, ever fearful that an offhand comment will cause them to be judged as a bigot, offend someone, or cause them to question their own privilege.

    This particular manifestation of homophobia was relatively covert, a trick that those in power use to maintain their privilege and subjugate others. She wasn’t calling someone a fag, ranting against gay marriage, or discouraging me from having male friendships. She used that eternally ambiguous word – “weird” – rather than saying, “I know it might be kind of a gay/homo/queer question to ask…”. In this case, although the topic revolved around homosexual attraction, “weird” could have been replaced with “uncomfortable,” since this is the exact emotion she was probably feeling while introducing the question. That is, the uncomfortable phrasing of the question parallels her own discomfort, caused by her homophobia.

    The suggestion that I, as a male, would not be comfortable rating the attractiveness of another male, reduces down to both a misunderstanding of sexual orientation as a spectrum, and, homophobia. First posited in the academic tradition by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 (although the two-spirit custom has been practiced by Native people since before we White people ever stepped foot on the continent), the Kinsey Scale suggests that no human is exclusively homosexual (6 rating) or heterosexual (0 rating). Rather, each of us is situated somewhere between these extremes (a rating of 3 is “equally homosexual and heterosexual”). I would guess that mom’s difficulty (or inability) to acknowledge that I may not be 100% straight (and I am not) is a symptom of her homophobia. Or rather, it’s a symptom of having been raised in the 50s and 60s, in a suburban Midwestern city, and been taught her whole life that men should not be attracted to men. It makes me sad that my own mother holds this prejudice. It makes me even more sad that I feel I can’t call her out on it.

    As I mention again and again, my favorite analogy in social work is the “moving walkway” metaphor [2]. If we’re not actively, quickly, intentionally walking against the walkways of oppression, we’re all being led to the same societal end. This is how I’m feeling right now about not talking to my mom about her comment. Like I did a disservice to humanity (particularly the gay fraction of it, but in reality all of us) by not saying something. Like I am single-handedly perpetuating homophobia in this world. I’m recalling W.J. Blumenfeld’s article, “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone,” in which he notes that it “restricts communication…limits family relationships” [3]. Thinking more about it, I know exactly why I remained silent: because I didn’t want to hurt our relationship, which has never been perfect. I feared that by opening this can of worms, she would feel attacked. Because of my lack of skill and training in facilitating these kinds of discussions, I would botch the conversation. She would go on the defensive. And our relationship would suffer.

    Did I do the right thing?

    [1] Thompson, Cooper. (1997). “White Men and the Denial of Racism”.

    [2] Tatum, B. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”

    [3] Blumenfeld, W.J. (2000) “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone”. Just the bulleted list at the end of the article can be found at http://www.uas.alaska.edu/safezone/docs/homophobia_harmful.pdf.

    Superbowl Homophobia

    7 Feb

    I didn’t get a chance to watch too many of the commercial’s during yesterday’s Superbowl XLV, but one that I did catch that upset me was this Sealy Posturepedic Mattress ad:

    [To the remixed tune of Barbara Streisand’s “Just a Little Lovin’ (Early in the Mornin’)”] “It’s better on springs. Whatever you do in bed, Sealy supports it.

    Isms take on many forms; overt discrimination and violence are one manifestation, but so is absence. For example, we learn that women are worth less than men because fewer than 25% of op-eds are written by women, 24% of people interviewed in the news are women, and only 16% of news stories focus on women [1]. This lack of presence of women in the media teaches us that men are smarter, stronger, and worth more. In this same vein, sexism may take the form of absence of images of men in a variety of roles. One of these roles is as gay partners.

    To be fair, it’s a clever promotion. It combines the world’s greatest marketing tool (sex, of course) with the coyness of never explicitly naming or showing it (well, aside from the musical reference). Furthermore, it sends the message, “Yes! We know that you have sex, and we support you!” Sadly, through its lack of images, it also sends a covert message about gay, interracial, and elderly relationships: all are wrong. While the ad is not blatantly homophobic, racist, or ageist, nor does it work to dispel the prejudiced messages that we constantly breathe in.

    Through this ad, Sealy has aligned itself with Tatum’s (1997) notion of “smog in the air” [2]. The “smog” is the cultural racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, etc. that we are constantly breathing in. Invisible, it surrounds us. And simply by living and breathing, each of us is poisoned by it. Only by turning on our air purifiers can each of us combat this smog and its effects. Until each person turns on their purifier, they will be subjected to the poisoned air. To truly purify our world, those forces of socialization – media, schools, parents, etc. – and the individuals who control them, must act as filters and begin to send a new message.

    I challenge Sealy to retract its advertisement, and with it its closed-mindedness and exclusionary perspective. By issuing a new commercial featuring couples of all genders, ethnicities, and ages, Sealy will position itself as a true supporter of the beautiful diversity of human relationships, rather than just those relationships that contribute to its bottom line.

    ===

    [1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-6xsRG9PWA

    [2] Tatum, B.D. (1997). ‘Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?’ and other conversations about race. Basic Books.

    Applebees Knows Men

    5 Feb

    It took a few tries to find the commercial on YouTube, but when I finally searched “Applebees Men,” there it was:

    “[4 men walk into Applebees; football on the TVs in the background; distorted guitar music plays] [Narrator] It’s a new year and time for a fresh start. [Man A] ‘What are you gonna have?’ [Man B] ‘Real burger.’ [Man C] ‘Double-glazed ribs.’ [Man D] ‘House sirloin.’ [Man A] ‘I’m gonna have one of these under 550 calorie meals.’ [throws down menu] [music stops] [camera pans to each man, looking embarrassed] [Man A laughs to himself]. Time for Applebee’s unbelievably great-tasting and under 500 calories menu. Great tasting, generous dishes like new Teriyaki Shrimp Pasta, new Sirloin with Garlic Herb Shrimp, and more. All under 500 calories, and starting at $8.99. [cut back to table; food arrives] [Man B] ‘That’s under 550 calories?’ [other guys try to steal his food]. Only at Applebess. There’s no place like the neighborhood. Open until midnight or later.”

    So what’s happening here? Applebees is teaching a number of misguided lessons through this commercial. The first is that men are tough, sports-loving, carnivorous beings. Male bonding can only happen in the presence of food and competition; anything else would be far too feminine. That Man A’s companions laugh at him for choosing one of the <550 cal menu items reinforces the notion that heathy eating is not the activity of “real men”. This is no exaggeration; I’ve experienced this identical situation when ordering salads at restaurants. The fact that those companions eat their words (no pun intended) at the end of the commercial is irrelevant; the damage has been done – Man A is still the low man on the totem.

    The commercial replays the classic homophobia that Kimmel calls the “central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood” [1]. The companions’ emasculating behavior mirrors the homophobia that shames men and boys who do not live up to society’s definition of “masculine.” Seeing this ad on TV made me furious, but I imagine that the general public reaction was not so critical. Indeed, when I raised a fuss afterward, my partner said to me: “Lighten up, TCM. It was funny.” Was it?

    ===

    [1] Kimmel, M.S. Chapter 33: Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W.J., Castaneda, R., Hackman, H.W., Peters, M.L., & Zuniga, X. (Eds.) (2000). Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.

    Karate Lessons

    1 Feb

    Given the recent suicides of young, gay men, this kind of blatantly homophobic advertising is despicable. These ads were produced by the ad agency Zubi for RDCA Academy of Martial Arts, located in Key Biscayne, Florida. They feature a young boy applying lipstick and trying on a pair of red high heels, and the text “Karate lessons”. The message is clear: if you think your son a little too feminine, put him in karate lessons.

    Fortunately, the online backlash against these ads has been tremendous. The most obviously damaging aspect of these ads is that they reinforce the stereotypes that gay and gender-questioning boys are sissies, and should be engaging in more “masculine” (read as: violent) activities. The less obvious and more insidious danger is for homophobic parents who see these ads. The ads are not targeted toward 9-year-olds, they’re targeted at 49-year-olds, with whom the message may resonate more resoundingly.

    While most of the reactions on the blogosphere to these ads have been negative (i.e., pointing out their homophobia), not everyone has reacted with the same disgust, particularly in the comment threads. Here are some examples:

    • “Given that there is no text on the poster, how do we know that this was the correct meaning behind the ad? One possible meaning: ‘fix your gay son with karate’. Another: ‘if this is the sort of thing your son likes, he might need karate’. One of these positions is judgemental. The other is realistic.” [martialtalk.com]
    • “I don’t think they are about toughening up a girly boy, but about offering a self defence option to those who might need it most, in a lighthearted funny way. What has happened to the world, why can’t we just laugh at stuff cause it is funny? Why must everything be appropriate or politically correct? You know what, lots of inappropriate things are hilarious and laughing at them does not make me a bigot/homophobe/racist/sexist person. Lighten the fuck up people. Sometimes things are just FUNNY.” [mamamia.com.au]
    • “To be fair, that kid is going to need to know self-defense. Isn’t it possible that the ad is trying to convey that instead of the nefarious message you’re suggesting?” [towleroad.com]

    Given that most of the websites that called out these ads were left-leaning or progressive, that the majority of the comments are negative is unsurprising. It’s a classic sampling bias. What’s scary is that these three examples of non-negative comments were largely untouched by the other commenters. I imagine that they represent the common public reaction: one of covert homophobia or outrage that we need to “lighten the fuck up.”

    Including these ads in this website was a no-brainer. Yet I am also challenged by Comment #2, and the potential to see humor in the ads. As a straight white male, learning more each day about the harmful effects of my words and the words of my peers, I’ve begun to be more careful with what I say, almost to a paranoia. I find myself often feeling the need to tip-toe in my conversations, being very careful when I’m speaking with people of color, women, gays, etc., not to say something that might inadvertently offend. And when I do say something off-color*, I’ll either feel guilty and scared, or immediately point out that I didn’t mean to offend. Not long ago, I did exactly this when I made a joke with my partner about being an immigrant (she is one). Her reply? — “TCM! It was funny! Lighten up!”

    How do others find a balance between a sense of humor and living up to an anti-oppressive agenda? Where do you draw the line?

    =====

    *I even felt compelled to look up the etymology of the expression “off-color,” for fear of its covert racial implications. Is it so crazy that “off-color” could have come about to describe anything non-white, and therefore bad or dirty? Thankfully, the term was originally used for gems (Source: etymonline.com).