When it won’t go away – on managing chronic conditions in the academy

An important part of the initiation of Write Where It Hurts came from Xan Nowakowski and J. Sumerau’s experiences collaboratively managing chronic conditions in relation to their professional and personal relationships.  Building on Xan’s previous post in this area, in this post J. Sumerau reflects on aspects of managing chronic mental and physical health conditions in hopes of facilitating dialogue about these issues within and beyond the academy.

Although often invisible to the naked eye in social and professional interaction, estimates suggest as much as half the American population live with chronic mental and / or physical health conditions, and must manage such conditions throughout their daily lives. In this post, I reflect on some of my own experiences as one of these people in hopes of facilitating dialogue on this subject.

In so doing, I am seeking to build on the bravery of other scholars who have already addressed experiences with chronic conditions in many ways. Whether we look to recent blog posts (often anonymous) by people exploring, for example, aspects of bipolar conditions, experiences along the autism spectrum, managing dissociative identity disorders, or persistent anxiety, we can already see the silence around chronic conditions beginning to dissipate. I thus seek to contribute to these voices in hopes of continuing to, as DeWelde and Stepnick title their important volume exposing gender inequality in the academy, “disrupting the culture of silence” around chronic conditions in the academy.

To this end, I want to start by noting that on the surface – or from the outside so to speak – I generally appear to be a rather productive scholar. In fact, I regularly encounter people (well meaning, kind and complimentary people, best I can tell) who say things to the effect of “how do you get so much done” or “I wish I was as productive as you” when they realize that I only began graduate study 7 years ago but already have over 30 academic publications. I appreciate the kindness and compliments these people offer me, and I am proud of my work personally and professionally because doing this work is the closest I ever get to feeling like I might fit in somewhere.

I do not, however, note these experiences to boast in any way. Rather, I note these experiences because people might never think of me when they hear about scholars managing extremely painful and difficult chronic conditions. I have regularly heard people at conferences and in other settings assert negative stereotypes about people with enduring mental and physical conditions, which suggest these people are rare (false) and / or that these people are obviously or automatically different or deviant (false) and / or that visibly managing conditions or otherwise these people are somehow less capable than their normatively bodied or mental colleagues (false again). Like many of the scholars I am aware of managing such conditions, my constant struggle to exist is invisible to the casual glance, and still others face similar struggles managing more visible conditions. In both cases, every scholar I have come in contact with who is managing one or more chronic health conditions is at least as competent as any other scholar I have seen and often actually perform well above the average in their fields (Charles Darwin likely being the most famous example).

The mismatch between stereotypes and actual scholars managing chronic conditions is likely familiar to anyone versed in inequalities scholarship. Similar to people stigmatized via normative or dominant notions of race, class, gender, sexualities, and age to name a few, people whose minds and bodies work differently are typically framed as deficient or deviant. We are called diseased instead of simply different, our experiences are called disorders instead of variations, and our abilities are called lesser instead of diverse. In all such cases, we are assaulted for not fitting artificial norms about how human bodies and minds “should work” so that others who benefit from these norms do not have to reevaluate their own mind and body assumptions. As has traditionally been the case, many of us have realized that these patterns will only change if we begin announcing ourselves to the rest of the world and challenging mental and physical ablest assumptions embedded within academic and other social arenas.

To this end, I would like to share some things about my experience managing chronic conditions that I hope people will think about when they assume bodies or minds should be or work in a certain way. While strangers, colleagues, and acquaintances may look me up, meet me at a conference, see me speak, or otherwise come into contact with me, their view will generally be different from the people closest to me. While such people (based on their reactions to date) will likely see my “productivity” or “talent” first and foremost, those closest to me see how little I sleep because my brain won’t stop working, how many hours and days (and even at times weeks) I spend curled up in a ball in the dark because I feel like the world is trying to kill me, how confusing normal or common speaking patterns are to me and how much energy it takes me to have a five minute conversation with another person, scars scattered around my body from the regular times where it feels like my skin is too tight, and the constant headaches I live with and medicate.

The people closest to me also know that I always keep pills and ice packs nearby because I’m always in at least some physical pain due to issues with my legs. They also know that I regularly hear and see things that other people do not, and get used to me randomly having conversations with people and things they cannot see when we’re together. They also understand what its like to get a call from me when I’ve forgotten who I am, when I don’t know where I am, when I’ve gotten lost on the way to work again, when I think they’re dead but I want to check, when I think I’m dead but want to check, or when I can’t figure out how to put on clothes or feed myself. They also have the patience to look after me when, for example, I wander off following something that they can’t see, disappear mentally in the middle of a conversation without realizing it, or ask them if they’re real because I suddenly don’t know. They also understand when I throw out all my spoons because I’m convinced they’re out to hurt me, when I go whole semesters without working on our projects because my brain just won’t work, when something as simple as going to the grocery store terrifies me or tires me out emotionally, or when I just can’t interact at all for a while and need to be completely alone in silence or with music.

The people closest to me also are not surprised when I don’t buy shoes with laces because they already know that while I can memorize books I can’t tie shoelaces. They are not surprised (and often kindly try to protect me) when the thought of anyone being behind me terrifies me, when human contact makes me literally sick to my stomach (a wonderful example was a friend at a conference who once made controversial statements each time someone went to shake my hand so they would be distracted and I wouldn’t have to explain why I was not going to touch them), or when I have trouble even breathing in a large group of people (even people I like and care about) because I feel like the presence of others is suffocating me. They can even explain to other people why I spend so much time outside since sometimes walls feel like cages, why its much better to contact me online where I don’t have to talk to or see anyone, or how I might shift from the most hyper person they’ve ever met to the most comatose person they’ve ever met within a few minutes.

As you can probably tell, the people closest to me are wonderful people who make a very difficult world more comfortable for me in numerous ways. I find myself appreciating them more than words can say every moment I’m conscious, and without their efforts every aspect of my life other than writing would be much more difficult because I work in a profession where who you know, networking, and other social interaction skills are often just as and / or far more important to careers than how productive you are. This was a hard lesson for me when I arrived in the academy because I can write 10 or more solid articles in a semester but I will never know what to say at a mixer or conference surrounded by frightening strangers. This is all the more important because the conditions that facilitate the above examples are not likely to ever go away, and thus an academy based on the ability to “make small talk with the right people” automatically disadvantages me no matter how good a researcher I am or become.

I am able and willing to share these aspects of my experience, however, because in many ways I have been lucky enough to receive incredible emotional and instrumental support throughout my time in the academy. The people closest to me and especially my life partner, for example, are very understanding and protective of me, and many of them have the resources to protect me even if my disclosure leads other to stigmatize me in some regard. Likewise, I am incredibly productive because, as Matt Damon’s character says in Good Will Hunting, when it comes to research and writing – I can just play. I might not be able to do most of the things normatively bodied and minded people do so easily every day, but I write on as high a level and as fast as anyone I have ever met. The same things that make most of social life so hard for me provide me with abilities that are perfectly suited to the scholarship part of an academic career (i.e., I can read a book in an hour and memorize it, cite findings from years past off the top of my head, take apart anything I read or see or hear and turn it into patterns and themes without even meaning or actively trying to, etc.).  Further, from my earliest days in graduate school to my present academic position, I have had mentors in my programs, in other programs, in Sociologists for Women in Society, and in Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction who were and still are kind enough to accept and help me in countless ways as I try to survive the necessity of being social in the construction of an academic career.

It is also with these resources in mind that I remain well aware that many people managing chronic conditions everyday cannot safely speak out about their experiences, marginalization, and /or aspects of ablest bodily and mental assumptions and norms that impact their academic careers. I also know all too well that in many cases chronic conditions do limit productivity in terms of normative metrics like publishing in much the same way they limit me socially, and the only way to shift these burdens is for those of us who can to start speaking out and advocating for a more realistic understanding of the multiple aspects of scholarly experiences and lives and the natural variation in the ways human bodies and minds operate.

I thus share my experiences in hopes of facilitating dialogue concerning the management of chronic conditions in the academy (and elsewhere), steps we could take to provide resources for such management within academic settings and programs, and concrete ways we could begin to shatter the stigma and silence surrounding this prominent and widespread experience. For many people, mental and physical conditions will not go away, but if we work together, we could get rid of the ways current academic norms, simplistic and conformist assumptions about bodies and minds, and silence surrounding mental and physical health within and beyond the academy punish people for their pain. In so doing, we might instead create a culture where people experiencing the wide variety of empirically common bodily and mental types and forms are celebrated, affirmed, and accepted as full beings capable of providing diverse perspectives on a complex bio-social world.

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Making the Most of a False Arrest

In this guest post, Dr. Jerome Krase reflects on an experience of false arrest in the 1990’s and the perils of navigating academic, legal, and political systems.  Dr. Krase is a public activist-scholar serving as a consultant to public and private agencies regarding urban community issues residing in Brooklyn who writes regularly on local and global social and political issues.  

The following, slightly edited, first person narrative was originally published in The Brooklyn Free Press in the Spring of 1998 as “Bill, Me and Sexual McCarthyism.” It is the kind of experience most people, not to mention, college professors would rather forget. I am grateful for the creation of a space to Write Where it Hurts to share and reflect upon very personal and emotional aspects of my own teaching and research.

Bill Clinton and I have two things in common; we both lean to the left and have been accused of sexual misconduct. The similarity ends there. Bill did “it”. I didn’t. For most of us an accusation of Sexual Harassment or Sexual Abuse would be punishment enough. In my case, the accuser, someone I choose to call Student X, understood the power of Sexual McCarthyism by which the fear of even unfounded accusations leads one to silence. He was also aided and abetted by incompetent and indifferent public authorities who assumed that their crimes of omission would be covered up by my embarrassment. I will not be silent.

For years critics have complained about “standards” at The City University of New York. Having gone through a year of personal hell I can tell you that the “standards” of officials in the Police Department, Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, PSC/CUNY Faculty Union, and Brooklyn College are much lower than those of my most unprepared students.

March 25, 1998, 10:30 A.M. I stood in Criminal Court as Bogus Charges of Sex Abuse in the Third Degree against me were dismissed. How I got to this low point in my life is a story only Kafka could appreciate.

Tuesday, December 2, 1997, 6:30 P.M. Brooklyn College. While I was addressing my class Student X entered, tossed a second rewrite of his failed mid-term onto my desk and made his way to the back of the overcrowded classroom. It had an extra page for “Comments by Professor Jerome Kraze.” When he became disruptive I indicated that he should leave. He went out, but stood in the hallway glaring at me through the open door. I closed it. He opened it. I closed it. He opened it, stepped into the classroom, kicked in the doorstop, and then retook his post outside. I closed the door again. During the next hour and a half he entered and left the class at least twice more. Finally it was time for the student evaluation. Mr. X asked what was going on. I told him to listen to the student proctors. I smelled alcohol. He wanted to speak with me, “Now!” I hurried out and down the long corridor. He stayed on my heels, muttering. “You going down the elevator?” I knew it was not a good idea.

On the escalator, I told him he was a problem in class. He said the “other colleges said the same thing”. He called me “the white professor”. I said if he didn’t leave me alone I would go to Security. He said if I reported him, he would report me. At the exit, I asked the guard to hold him while I went to my car.

Thursday morning, December 4. Brooklyn College. I spoke to Dr. Wertheim in Counseling about my problem student. Her first question was “Do you have tenure?” Then she said protect yourself and contact the Student Life Office for disciplinary action. She asked for his name and social security number. She left me a copy of “How to Identity, Assist and Refer Students with Personal Problems and/or Disruptive Behavior” in her office. I never heard from her again.

I assumed that Student X was entitled to “special” protections because of mental or emotional problems. In the past, such “persons” had been placed in my classes because I was a “sensitive” instructor. I called the Vice President for Student Life to find out his status. He was at a meeting. I was referred to his assistant, who was also not available. They sent me “forms” to fill out.

Sunday evening, December 7. There was a message to call Professor Natov at home. She informed me that Student X had accused me of Sexual Harassment. He also made a complaint to the Police that I had “grabbed his groin” on the escalator. She said the charge is unbelievable but the school is required to go through a process. I told my wife, three daughters, son-in-law, and my daughter’s police office fiancé, Juan Carlo, who all had joined us for dinner. They thought I was joking. I called my chairperson. He said, “not to worry”.

After several unanswered calls Juan Carlo and I took a ride to the 70th Precinct and found the civilian clerk eating at her desk while the phone rang off the hook. Student X had filed complaint #14135 that I had “grabbed comp in his groin area”. I filed complaint # 14307 against him. I was assured it would be treated as another “he said-he said” dispute. I called an NYPD lawyer friend of mine. He felt there was no need for me to get an attorney because the police are required to make a thorough investigation.

Monday morning, December 8. I called Student Life VP Hillary A. Gold. He had already seen the student’s accusation. I asked him to bar the student from the college and protect me. He couldn’t do anything until he “had paper” on the student. I made an appointment with his assistant, Dr. Williams. He said he would call back. He never did. Later that day, Public Safety Director Donald A. Wenz, called. Mr. Wenz said he had assigned me a guard. There were, however, no notes in the Security Log about the incident.

Mid-day, Tuesday, December 9. Dr. Williams said she had worked in the Brooklyn DAs Office and “it seems like an ex-con thing”. Student X didn’t have the course pre-requisites and she was not surprised he was floundering. I asked if she heard from Dr. Wertheim from Counseling. She said the offices don’t communicate with each other.

I went to my class. The students were worried because they heard him muttering threats, saw Student X follow me out of class, and also had smelled “liquor” on his breath. They tried to call me but something was wrong with the phones. When two female students were bringing the student evaluations back to the office Student X verbally abused and threatened them. A Security Guard intervened. Later that night Student X, confronted and threatened one of them on the subway. I asked them to tell the security guard what had happened. He told them to go to Security to fill out forms.

After class, I was told to call Detective Belgrave at the Seven O. I told my story, and what I learned that night. He had already spoken to Brooklyn College. He reassured me that he thought the charge was false, but had to proceed. I informed him that I had filed a counter complaint against Student X. He said he would interview him, and that I should call him on Thursday.

Wednesday morning, December 10. I called a NYC official, for help and advice. He said he didn’t think there would be a problem. Then I called Dr. Williams’s office about what I learned from the students on Tuesday night and about the guards not taking notes or filing reports. She said they were “not required” to.

Later that day my friend-the-official called to say that the best he could do was that I not be put “through the system” (held overnight for arraignment). I told him that my son-in-law-the-dentist thinks I should get a criminal attorney. He agreed it was a good idea. I called Detective Belgrave and asked him to complete the processing in time for me to meet my Thursday classes. I left a message for my lawyer about my impending arrest.

Early Thursday morning, December 11. My wife and my first-year-law-student-daughter accompanied me to the 70th Precinct where we met Belgrave who said he was sympathetic but must arrest me. He asked me how I spelled my name. I told him. He smiled. Student X had said my name was spelled Kraze.

Belgrave left the room several times. During one trip another detective called out that there was a lawyer (mine) on the phone looking for him. When he returned they said nothing to him. I told him that my lawyer had called. He said it was “too late”.

The detectives were comedians. The Columbian Association representative was trying to recruit them. One said: “Where’s the headquarters of the Columbians, the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club?” When I was taken for my mug shot another called out “Get the Brooklyn College ID in the shot!”

As a Black police officer, Belgrave didn’t seem to have much rapport with the Caucasian wise guys. But his own ironic racism had more subtle expressions. He explained that Student X was “credible” because he wore “clean” pants, and “spoke well,” as if this was unusual for Black complainants. I asked Belgrave if he contacted any of my other students. He hadn’t. I asked him if he would act on my complaint. He said “No.”, because it was only a Class E. Misdemeanor. I said as a “Bias Crime”, it was a felony. He said he would check with his Lieutenant. I never heard from him again. He handed me a Desk Appearance Ticket for January 12, 1998 to answer to a charge of Sex Abuse 3.

Friday, December, Court Street. 8:30 A.M. My attorney informed me that District Attorney, Charles Joseph Hynes, had implemented a Mandatory Arrest Policy in cases of domestic violence and sex abuse. By his fiat the IV, V and XIV Amendments to the United States Constitution no longer applied in Kings County. Hynes allegedly told defense attorneys; “I don’t care if they can prove they were in bed with a judge at the time.” I became a victim because the NYPD and the DA had been burned too often for not arresting really dangerous people. And, perhaps because Hynes needed Black support in the gubernatorial primary, justice for a white man who was brought to the Abner Louima Precinct for sexually abusing a black man was impolitic.

I asked my attorney how much this was going to cost. He said although I can’t be convicted, it could cost a lot. He told me to forget about “justice”. It is merely a “process”. He said the DA’s Office would contact him. They never did. He advised me against participating in the Sexual Harassment hearings.

A few days later I asked my union for help. They didn’t believe that what the college had done to me was a “grievance”. The PSC/CUNY Union attorney advised that although the union is sympathetic it can’t help, but for my $600 a year dues he did wish me “Good luck.”

December 16. I learned that Student X was a transfer student from an upstate Community College, that he failed the CUNY Quantitative and Writing Entrance Exams, and that he should not have been in my advanced Sociology class.

Monday, January 12, 1998. My wife and daughter came with me for my first court appearance at 9:30 A.M. at 120 Schermerhorn Street. My lawyer told us to get there early. It was good advice. The ground floor lobby was a huge cattle pen, and the line of innocents-until-proven-guilty flowed outside and snaked around the corner. We took off our jewelry, and emptied our pockets. I took off my belt. We put our things in a basket, handed it to a court officer, and went through a metal detector. Then we crammed ourselves onto an elevator. We waited in the hallway outside the courtroom for an hour. When my attorney arrived they told him my files were not there. He asked for a new date. I asked what was going on. He said it was normal – “It’s part of the process.”

The next day, I received a Certified Registered letter from Brooklyn College dated January 12, 1998. It read in part: “…I concur with the “findings that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation of sexual harassment.” Sincerely, President Vernon E. Lattin, Brooklyn College. I faxed my attorney a copy.

Thursday morning, February 19. My wife and I made our second Court appearance. Although some of the paper work was still not presented charges were filed against me. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK V. JEROME KRASE…THE DEFENDANT DID GRAB INFORMANT’S GROIN AREA WHILE TRAVELLING ON AN EXCALATOR OF THE BROOKLYN COLLEGE. I pleaded “Not guilty”. Student X was granted an Order of Protection against me. My attorney asked for another court date.

Wednesday morning, March 25. We made our third court appearance. The prosecution was still not ready to proceed so my attorney moved to dismiss because the case had not met some requirement. After a discussion with the ADA his motion to dismiss was approved without opposition. I was not elated. I had to pay $5 for each copy of my Certificate of Disposition #502235. I sent one to President Lattin of Brooklyn College.

My attorney explained that although my record would be officially sealed, my name was now “in the system”. I got to hope that another 40 year old black male doesn’t walk into a station house and say he was grabbed by a middle-aged blue eyed white male with a Ph.D.

I have since learned that at one of the Sexual Harassment hearings Student X appeared drunk. He denied he disrupted the class during the night in question as described by other student witnesses. He also refused to account for several years of his life history. Student X took four or five classes in the Fall 1997 Semester. Two or three were remedial. He received only one grade – an “S” for Remedial Writing (Probably for my mid-term essay rewrite). In the Spring he registered for two classes but never attended them.

I asked Brooklyn College to bar Student X from campus for my own protection, and that of the other faculty, staff, and students. The College sees no need to bar him from campus. If he comes they will refer him to the Office of Student Life where “He will be advised that he is neither to contact you nor to retaliate against you…” And, appropriate security measures will be taken.

I asked the College to pay for a criminal attorney if Student X makes another false charge, and also reimburse me for my first attorney. Pamela Pollack, the college attorney, said she’d get back to me on that. She never did.

Finally, I asked why after learning all they had about Student X, even before my first court appearance, the college never contacted my attorney, the Police Department, or the District Attorney. Counselor Pollock said they never called. My attorney was right, it is just a process, and, I might add, one that never seems to end.

As I have reflected on this experience over the years, I have increasingly thought about what might have happened to me had I not been so privileged. I was, as he said, a “white professor.” I also had political connections enough not to suffer the immediate consequences of arrest. What would have happened had the alleged victim been a white woman and I a black professor or fellow student? There was also some implication on the part of police that I was Jewish and gay, and was hitting on black students so anti-Semitism and homophobia may have also played a role in their lack of interest in investigating the accusation. There are so many ways in which this could have been played out, but the most important factor in broadcasting my troubles was my wife’s insistence that I write and publish the story as soon as the charges were dropped. It should be noted that only the student in this story remains unnamed. Given the suggestion that he had been incarcerated, as an African-American male he was more of victim than I. I was just a more or less convenient target for his rage.

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What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a white woman late at night on the street?

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on navigating race and gender intersections in public spaces as a black man and a feminist committed to pursuing racial and gender equality.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago, this is his first blog.  

Ever since I started talking to women about street harassment, I’ve tried to be more conscious of my presence as a man in settings where women are often made to feel unsafe. I have become especially conscious of this dynamic when I’m walking around or behind women late at night. A friend of mine once suggested that he crosses the street in these types of situations to avoid making the woman feel uncomfortable (he was Latino). I’ve done this a handful of times since then and will continue to do so, provided I’m not thrown too far off my original route.

But I still have some mixed feelings about this suggestion. For a while now, moments like these have exposed a rift in my mind. On one side of this rift is my militant/anti-racist/black nationalist self. This is the side of me committed to racial justice for all people of color, and especially for black men. It’s the side of me that’s been cultivated since I sat and watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with my family when I was 6 or 7 years old. On the other side of the rift is an intersectional feminist attempting to use their position of (male) privilege as a megaphone to help spread the voices of women who are harmed by sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. These overlapping but distinct parts of my consciousness crash into one another whenever a woman reacts fearfully to my presence.

An example of this came one night when I was in college. A group of friends and I – all African-American – were heading back to our dorms after dinner at the dining hall. As we were walking, an Asian woman walked briskly out of another building in front of us with her head down. At first, I wasn’t sure if she was simply lost in thought, or if she was nervous about our presence. I got my answer when one of my friends politely asked “How you doin’?” She jumped as if she had heard gunshots, and walked away from us even faster.

We laughed at the incident. By this point in our lives, we’d come to expect people to be afraid of us, even on the campus we called home for four years. One of my first nights at college, some friends and I headed to a gas station across the street from our dorms for a late-night snack. As one of my friends – a 6’4″, dark-skinned black man – reached for the door handle, an older white woman rushed to the door, locked it, and shook her head “No,” signaling that either they were closed or that she didn’t want us in her store. We laughed then, too.

The militant black side of me views these kinds of incidents as blatant acts of racism. What else could they be? Black men in America are among the most criminalized in the world. Black men are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and make up a disproportionate number of those who are stopped, searched, arrested, and jailed for drug-related offenses, despite studies suggesting that they use and sell drugs at rates remarkably similar to whites. Black men have long been assumed to be criminals or inherently threatening to our society, and are often profiled as such. Throughout history, we’ve often been assumed to be particularly threatening to white (and other non-black) women. Many lynchings in the American South and elsewhere took place after allegations that a black man had “improper relations” with a white woman. This often included criminal acts like rape or harassment, but even sleeping with or flirting with a white woman was sometimes grounds for death.

Today, we – as black men – often find ourselves being shunned and avoided by those who assume that we pose some sort of threat to them. This is especially the case for those of us who must navigate predominantly white/non-black spaces. When a woman crosses the street to avoid us, walks faster as we approach, or rushes to lock their door as we pass by, it reminds us that we’re often viewed as a threat to both society in general and to women in particular, even if we’re middle class, college-educated professionals.

So, should I cross the street when a woman walks past me late at night? My militant side says “No!” After all, I already spend too much time as it is managing the emotions of whites around me to make sure they’re comfortable. For example, black professors around the country must often manage the emotions of whites in the classroom when we discuss issues of white privilege and racism. We must navigate and manage the expectations of whites in college settings, at work, in our neighborhoods, in restaurants and in movie theaters. The stress this causes – known as “racial battle fatigue” – is highly associated with negative health outcomes. In other words, constantly dealing with racism in different settings is literally detrimental to our health. Given how much of a burden this places on the shoulders of black men, I reject the idea that I should have to cross the street to accommodate women’s aversion to black men.

Right?

But the feminist in me sees these events a little differently. A substantial amount of the violence and harassment that women face comes at the hand of boys and men of all races. I like to think of myself as a “nice guy,” despite the fact that many men on the Internet have given the term a bad name. But whether I’m the nicest, most feminist guy on the planet or a misogynistic serial killer – I must ask how any random woman on the street will know that? Many simply see a man. Moreover, domestic violence, sexual assault, street harassment and other forms of violence against women are at chronic levels in our society. You’d be hard pressed to find a woman in this country who hasn’t been verbally or physically abused, harassed, or sexually assaulted by a man somewhere, regardless of race, class, or sexuality. It’s not just black men who do things like this, despite what some may imply. ALL kinds of men harass women, and in those moments, women can’t be sure whether or not I’m one of those men.

Most of the women I’ve talked to have experienced verbal harassment, unwanted touching, or been outright assaulted by men. As feminists have brought attention to this issue over the years, I’ve come to re-evaluate some of my interactions on the street with women.

The woman who jumped as my friend greeted her? Maybe she had recently been harassed or assaulted by men like us. Or maybe she was being racist. Maybe both. I’m less inclined to give the store clerk the benefit of a doubt, as she very well could have just told us they had closed for the night. Store clerk jerks aside, men do pose a substantial threat to women in a variety of ways, and it’s important for us to do what we can to help women feel the same level of comfort that we do when we’re in most public spaces.

So, when a woman – white, black, Asian or otherwise – crosses the street to avoid me, avoids eye contact, or simply tenses up around me, I should acknowledge that she’s doing so as a form of self-preservation. I can empathize with that, as I react the same way when I encounter police officers or security guards. Whatever the circumstances, conversations around street harassment and violence against women aren’t about me, per se, or even about men as a whole. After all, many men aren’t abusers or rapists. But that fact doesn’t help women feel any safer, just as I don’t feel safer around unfamiliar police officers knowing that there are “good cops” out there. Women’s actions in these instances are reactions a perpetual pattern of harassment by men, black or otherwise. Put another way, #notallmen are harassers, rapists, or abusers, but #yesallwomen have experienced these different forms of violence at the hands of men.

So, which side of me is right? The Black Nationalist in me has a point – I shouldn’t have to tap-dance around other’s people’s racism just to make them feel comfortable. And I have a right to exist in public spaces without being criminalized. But as a black man, I also understand what’s it’s like to feel as though you are putting yourself in danger simply for existing in public. The stories of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and countless other black men remind us that we’re often one bad interaction or misunderstanding away from violence or death. Women experience something similar on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that women and black men should play “Oppression Olympics” when it comes to this subject, or to erase the nuanced ways in which black men and women experience violence in public spaces at the hands of police officers or even one another. And it certainly isn’t to suggest that all women experience violence and brutality in the same ways. Rather, it is to highlight one of the conundrums of trying to support women as they fight back against violence and street harassment while also trying to counter violence against black men.

I know that street harassment isn’t okay, but it’s also not okay to assume a man is dangerous because he’s black. Black men are by no means the only group that engages in this kind of reprehensible behavior, but that fact shouldn’t be used to dismiss the experiences of women across the world.

So, what’s the answer? What should I do when I’m walking behind or passing a woman late at night on the street?

I still have no idea.

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What “team”? Some thoughts on navigating monosexism

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences navigating monosexism in contemporary society.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts, this is zir first blog.

Earlier this week, Dr. J Sumerau posted on Conditionally Accepted and this blog about the disjuncture between lived experiences and academic definitions of bisexuality. Specifically, ze wrote about how the definitions generated by academics, often with little or no experience interacting with bisexual people (that they know of) or living bisexual lives, are then used to enforce and regulate what is “really” considered bisexual. In this post, I am going to reflect on what it is like for me to move through the monosexual world (i.e., a world defined by sexual binaries) as a bisexual person and bourgeoning sexualities scholar.

Some of my earliest memories about bisexuality came from high school. I often heard my classmates joking about bisexuality (or “bicuriosity” as it was often reduced to). In the hallways, at the lunch tables, in the parking lot after school, such pejorative comments ended up reducing bisexuality to some “true” gay or lesbian “nature” (often in far less neutral language) and were always followed by hysterical laughter. In addition to these comments, my male heterosexual peers often leered at groups of teenage girls, audibly fantasizing about how “hot” it would be if one of them were bisexual so that she would presumably engage in a threesome with one of them and another “hot chick”.

I observed this trope of the “hot bisexual girl” (never a “hot bisexual woman,” only ever a “hot bisexual girl,” reducing adult bisexual women to an infantilized position) expand into my college years, as many of the teenage and young adult heterosexual men I met mused over the possibilities of finding the “right bisexual girl” that would be “down” for a threesome with him and another woman. At one point, I witnessed one of my female college peers follow up this statement with the question, “Well, why don’t you engage in a threesome with a bisexual guy? Maybe your girlfriend would prefer that!” This particular guy responded with, “Fuck no. I’m not having sex with a homo.” Following his blatantly homophobic, biphobic, and monosexist remark I asked, “Would you ever want to date a bisexual girl that you theoretically would have this threesome with?” He paused for a second, “Nah, I don’t date sluts.”

It was at this point that the messages about bisexuality I heard up to that point (from heterosexual people) congealed into a clear dichotomy – the hot, sexually available bisexual girl that you only have threesomes with, but never date contrasted with the always-already “truly homosexual” male who can never actually be bisexual because of the “one act rule” that is particularly pervasive in dominant heterosexual paranoia around males who sleep with other males. I even remember this theme coming up in interactions with some of my early heterosexually-identified boyfriends when they begged me to watch “bisexual girl porn” with them to “get in the mood”. This always made me uncomfortable, a feeling I attributed at the time solely to my discomfort with the sexist objectification in much of mainstream porn. While this was surely a large component of the equation, the fact that I also experienced bisexual desires (that I had yet to acknowledge) was likely another.

Despite the overwhelmingly derogatory lens through which I learned to view bisexuality from my heterosexual peers, I began to openly identify as bisexual during my last year of college. During this time, I did a great deal of research on the Internet and managed to find more positive messages about bisexuality in the form of online conversations among self-identified bisexuals. Additionally, after the negative experiences I had talking to heterosexual people about bisexuality in the past, I was encouraged by the presence of what I understood to be a fairly radical scene of activists and lesbian, gay, and “queer” individuals in the community where I resided at the time. I eagerly hoped that shifting my peer circle from a predominantly heterosexual and sexist scene to a supposedly “queer” scene would be a refreshing start to fully embracing my bisexuality in a positive and supportive environment.

You can imagine the disappointment, then, when a conversation like the following ensued:

At a coffee shop I frequented, some people that I knew were discussing the Occupy movement (this was in the early days of its existence, and many of the activists and “queers” in the place where I lived were planning a similar demonstration locally). The issue of sexuality came up and the conversation slowly veered away from Occupy and towards a conversation of sexual politics. At one point in the conversation I identified myself as bisexual, still a relatively new phenomenon for me, so much so that speaking it out loud felt disingenuous even though it wasn’t. The conversation lulled, some people’s lips pursed, one person pulled out his phone, another took a deep inhale of their cigarette. Finally, the quiet broke when one of the women sitting near me who I was accustomed to seeing rotating in this circle took a large gulp of coffee and then ardently informed me that:

“It’s actually pretty offensive that you use that language. After all, you’re limiting the existence of everyone to either men or women and there’s a lot more gender identities that exist beyond that. Just, like, politically try to be more aware.”

I was stunned, particularly because (unbeknownst to her) I was also reconciling my own non-binary gender queer existence at the time and did not at all see my bisexuality as an invalidating force in that regard. I was perplexed at how she arrived at the conclusion that the “bi” in “bisexuality” only meant “men and women.” From the hours of research that I did on the Internet, on bisexual community pages and Facebook groups, this was not at all the consensus. In fact, I read through a multitude of conversations of self-identified bisexual people reflecting on the beautifully multifaceted fact that “bisexual” can mean one’s own sex and other sexes, men and women, cisgender and transgender, intersex and non-intersex, or no preference for bodies and/or gender identities whatsoever!

I was beside myself trying to sort out why a college-educated supposedly “radical lesbian queer” individual would assert such a myopic view on the meaning of bisexuality. Yet, this was a circle I was fairly new to, so I did my best to disappear from the rest of the conversation (unsuccessfully based on the condescending looks of disapproval directed at me for the next half hour, what are also referred to as “microaggressions”).

In the midst of all this, I could not shake the questions running through my head: if the implication of bisexual attraction and desire supposedly means that I am saying only “men and women” exist, then why is it that no one interrupted the self identified gay male to my left when he discussed his sexuality? Wasn’t he suggesting that only men existed and that there was some “essential” type of being called “man”? Why was bisexuality the sexual identity and set of (extremely diverse) practices solely responsible for reinforcing the problematic and essentialist gender binary? Also, how did these people, a group of supposedly “radical activists, and members of a lesbian, gay, and queer community” not see that they were engaging in a kind of erasure that was not so dissimilar than what they experienced from heterosexuals? I was crushed and disappointed to learn that not only did I not belong in this space either, but also that my existence was offensive.

Be “hot” or be “offensive.” As a bisexual, what I first learned from heterosexual and lesbian/gay people was that I could not be considered fully human with ideas and desires of my own.

A few months after this interaction, I moved to a large city for school and hoped that I would find a more welcoming space for bisexuals in a big city (unlike where I previously lived). I started going on dates, primarily with self-identified lesbian women, in hopes of getting a chance to meaningfully engage this component of my desire and attractions (and also because I had no clue where to find other bisexuals). After the interaction I had with the woman at the coffee shop, I was apprehensive to disclose my bisexuality to anyone – straight, lesbian, or gay – and attempted to avoid talking about my sexual desires other than the ones that would be immediately relevant in that situation (while, ironically, cultivating an interest in studying sexualities). On these dates, I became acutely aware that not only was I offensive (as the woman at the coffee shop had informed me), but that I was also not to be trusted, since, as one woman put it, “bisexual girls can’t make up their minds,” (here, again, bisexual girls can’t make up their minds, reducing bisexuality to childhood not unlike the heterosexual males at my high school).

Eventually, I began to meet other bisexuals and became entirely frustrated with the notion that I was just not “gay” enough, and I began openly identifying as bisexual again (sometimes). Yet even when I did this, I found myself sitting around tables and making sure that those near me knew the story that I fashioned to shield myself from any potential judgment – that I was “like 85-90% gay, though,” generally followed by a laugh and a sip of whatever I was drinking at the time with the hope of concealing my profound discomfort and disdain for this practice of “quantifying” just how bisexual I really was just to avoid negativity from straight, but predominantly gay and lesbian people. In time this did not prove to be much better of an approach than entirely obscuring my desires altogether.

This dissonance was buttressed by the fact that, despite the multitude of ways I tried to present myself while navigating the changes in/with/to my gender, others most commonly read me as a lesbian woman. This was most clearly relayed to me in an interaction I had with a man one day while purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a corner store in the city.

“Congratulations!” The man behind the counter exclaimed as I walked through the door.

I looked around, unsure of whether he was addressing me, or someone familiar that he knew who happened to enter right behind me. I quickly realized there was no one else in the store and since all I had done that morning was get out of bed and walk to the corner, I inquired about the reason for his congratulations.

“Oh, well now you can get married!”

Setting aside the reality that I did not, in fact, have a partner at this time, I quickly realized that, in this man’s eyes, I was a lesbian woman and the day before our interaction the former governor of our state signed gay marriage into law in the state where we lived. Not only was I apparently a lesbian woman, but one who would, of course, automatically want to marry. His assumptions not only erased the fact that I, actually, could have been married to some of my partners long before this date, but that perhaps marriage was not something I had any intention of engaging in regardless of my partner choice. Alas, this man not only reflected his limited familiarity with only the most “respectable” of “LGbt” issues for many straight people, but also the erasure of bisexuality completely from potential “intelligible” forms of existence.

All of these encounters are just a sampler of my experiences navigating bisexuality in a monosexual/monosexist social world. In my adolescence and college years I primarily confronted the dynamics of heteronormativity (and still do). Yet, heteronormative regulations are only one side of a monosexist coin, the other side of which involves navigating the imperatives of homonormativity. For many bisexuals this is a phenomenon all too familiar. We are either too straight, or not straight enough. We are not gay enough either, or we’re really just gay and waiting to “pick a side already.” We’re hot, offensive, untrustworthy, a specter of danger, and volatile. Yes, we are destabilizing for homo and hetero normative assumptions in the most fluid of ways. This is a reality I continually have to work to embrace while navigating hostility from lesbian, gay, and straight others.

While I have often heard – from straight, gay, and lesbian people alike – that bisexuals have it easier because we can “just choose to be closeted” I want to stop and interrogate this assumption –especially since recent reports reveal that bisexuals suffer from more severe health complications than straight, lesbian, or gay people, and because the same assertion was made against lesbian and gay people not so long ago. Additionally, one of the most cited difficulties that bisexuals report is lack of community support. Monosexism is not just inconvenient for bisexual people, it is a form of violence, and it is quite real in its consequences, particularly for bisexual people who already occupy other marginalized structural positions.

My hope in sharing this information is to continue dialogue concerning how we define “bisexuality” in our own communities compared to the academy. I am hoping that perhaps we might opt to challenge where we see monosexism in our own classrooms, writing and research agendas, and community engagement projects.

Lain Mathers

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Writing about Bisexuality

This week, Conditionally Accepted will post my two-part essay on bisexual marginalization in the academy. In this post, I reflect on the experience composing these essays to offer some other things for people to consider when engaging with sexual fluidity in our world.

When a colleague I admire (Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman) asked me to consider writing about being bisexual in the academy, I began wonder what I would say. On the one hand, talking about my sexuality and sexual experiences is something I have a lot of experience with and generally feel very comfortable doing (in large part thanks to a very supportive network of loved ones of varied sexualities I can turn to for support when I need it).  On the other hand, bisexuality is a such a wide and varied experience that I was uncertain what aspects I should focus on in the post.

As I often do when confronted by such questions, I conducted an informal poll of sorts.  I reached out to a lot of sexually fluid people I know within and beyond the academy (most identify as bisexual, but others self identity as polysexual, pansexual, trysexual, fluid, and / or Queer), and asked them “If you were granted a platform to talk about bisexual experience that might be read by many binary sexual folk (i.e., heterosexual and lesbian/gay people), what would you want to discuss most.”  I was lucky enough to get a lot of responses, and I began to synthesize them along the lines of how we are typically defined by others in the academy and then symbolically assaulted by the same others using the definitions they came up with in the first place.  I then turned my attention to binary allies (i.e., lesbian/gay and heterosexual folk who are supportive of fluid people, communities, and issues), and asked them roughly the same question.  Again, I got many useful responses, and they ultimately spoke to the definitional question and attempts to “make y’all fit into our binaries” as one said.  As a result, I focused the Conditionally Accepted essay on definitions of bisexuality (part one) and strategies for combatting biphobia based on such definitions (part two – coming soon) and I encourage everyone to check out these posts (as well as this one by Dr. Julia Serano) and hope they may be helpful to people regardless of their sexual identities and preferences.

By the end of the experience, however, I realized there were at least two more important components that I should at least raise for further commentary. First, I would like to share some other common issues raised in my informal poll that we might want to consider in relation to sexual fluidity within and beyond the academy. Then, I would like to share some definitional issues I accidentally ran into in relation to talking about binary sexual people in hopes of helping other fluid folks avoid the same pitfalls with binary sexual colleagues and audiences.

In the first case, alongside concerns about how fluid people are defined in the academy, the three most common questions raised in my informal poll included (in no particular order) the following:

  1. Why doesn’t there ever seem to be much conversation about monosexism (i.e., the elevation of beliefs that one is naturally only attracted to one sex) in the academy despite rising recognition of systems (like heterosexism, homonormativity, and cisnormativity) that are often built upon this ideology?
  2. How do binary sexual people (generally lesbian and gay people and seemingly more and more popular recently) reconcile calling themselves Queer (i.e., a label initial conceptualized via the rejection and opposition to binary categories) and also mobilizing “born this way” or “binary lesbian and gay” claims? How do they make sense of this contradiction?
  3. Since studies show bisexuals are viewed less favorably and sometimes experience even more marginalization than binary sexual minorities (i.e., lesbian and gay people), where are the massive calls for action on behalf of bisexual communities that we see so often from and for gay and lesbian communities?

I can’t pretend I have answers to these questions, but I do wonder what binary sexual people would say in response.

In the second case, one thing this experience taught me is that some of the terms I use for binary sexual people (and hear used regularly by other fluid sexual folk) may be problematic when seeking to develop fluid-binary conversations. As a result, I thought I would mention this aspect in hopes of helping such conversational efforts since (best I can tell) we all have more in common (especially binary and fluid sexual minorities) than we are often taught. To this end, I want to share a handful of terms I use to refer to gay/lesbian and heterosexual people regularly in practice that do not seem to raise any issue for fluid sexual folk, but might for binary sexual folk.

I have used these terms (and was taught them – sometimes by gay/lesbian and heterosexual people) interchangeably because from a fluid perspective they all basically mean the same thing (i.e., the same way that in practice bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, trysexual, and fluid tend to all mean the same thing in practice among the vast majority of people I’ve met). While these are all the same from my perspective, I regularly learn that they can mean different things to binary sexual people, and I think it is important to be aware of such variation in order to avoid (likely unintentionally) hurting people who see certain terms in certain ways.

When talking about sexual binary folk, I tend to use the following terms as similes that all convey “this person identifies within homo/hetero sexual binary categories,” but here I’ve noted observations about how binary sexual folks respond in varied ways to these terms and / or how I’ve seen them used:

  1. Binary Sexual – I have only heard bisexual / fluid people, bisexual / fluid allies, gay/lesbian/straight folk who don’t agree with the “born this way” rhetoric, and / or gay/lesbian/straight people who identify as politically Queer and /or somewhat fluid or fluid capable use this terminology to date.  I admit, this is my preference simply because it focuses attention on monosexism and the sexual binary.
  2. Gay / Lesbian / Straight – I have yet to find any negative reactions to these terms in the academy, but some homosexual people without access to college education do not like the terms gay and lesbian and prefer homosexual or same-gender-loving.
  3. Homosexual / Heterosexual – Some gay/lesbian people in the academy don’t like homosexual and some straight people don’t like heterosexual – they offer too many different reasons in my experience for me to effectively summarize them here.
  4. Homophile / Heterophile – I’ve only heard this used by gay/lesbian elders and by elder straight allies to gay/lesbian communities. I don’t actually know what younger gay/lesbian/straight folks think of these terms, but I would like to learn.
  5. Same / Separate Genital Loving – I’ve only heard this term used politically by bisexual, intersex, asexual and transgender people seeking to (a) decouple sex and gender, (b) Queer assumptions of romance tied to genital appearance and use, (c) not erase same-gender (i.e., same gender identity and / or presentation) heterosexual, asexual, bisexual, and other relationships, and / or (d) oppose “born this way” or “genitals determine selfhood” rhetorics.

Once again, I have only learned what some sexual binary people think of these terms by engaging them in conversation. In much the same way I suggest in this weeks essays at Conditionally Accepted, I think the way forward is to have such conversations no matter how difficult in hopes of embracing the possibility of full sexual equality for all.

Finally, I should note that for many wonderful sexual binary people and sexually fluid people I have met, none of what I’ve written here will be new or original, and I appreciate such people everyday since they ease the experience of living in a primarily-binary-defined world. To those who this may be new information, however, I hope it is helpful to you in engaging with sexual fluidity or binaries in your own world, and building healthy and mutually respectful connections between sexually binary and fluid people.

I have been lucky enough to meet people who cannot imagine sexual or romantic attraction and activity with anyone that doesn’t have the same or different genitals.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people (like me) who cannot imagine genitals having anything at all to do with sexual or romantic attraction and activity.  I have also been lucky enough to meet people who exist in a wide variety of areas between these parameters and / or bounce around between these parameters in daily life and / or in relation to certain potential lovers.  In all such cases, I long for the day when members of each of these behavior and desire groups stand together equally recognized, celebrated and affirmed in their consensual sexual and romantic endeavors.

J. Sumerau

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Why “Marriage Equality” Is Not Enough

 

In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend.

 

It was my turn to sleep in on June 26, so I awoke to the news that SCOTUS had decided that same-sex marriage is a right. My initial reaction? I said, “Oh, fuck.” Probably not what most people would have expected to hear from me, since I’m well known as an advocate for equality and fairness.

But my concern is that the freedom to marry–the right to be allowed legally to marry–is quickly going to become a requirement to marry in order to secure other rights. I worry that this ruling has inserted the state into my relationship in ways that I cannot resist unless I’m also willing to forego other rights and protections that will now be completely limited to married partners. I’m afraid that this ruling—which indeed reflects the extension of the rights, privileges, and protections of marriage to same-sex couples—will further strengthen the perception and reality that only relationships that bear the stamp of legal marriage should be recognized and respected. I’m afraid that my partner and I will be required to marry in order to secure her access to health insurance through our employer (she works there part time; I work full time, so only my job includes health-insurance benefits). I’m afraid that this ruling will make marriage the only way for us to take care of each other in all the ways we wish to, the only way to secure the life and family we have built together.

When I filed paperwork with my employer to add my partner, Alison, to my health insurance, I completed a form that included my affirmation that I would marry her legally if I could. In other words, she could become my domestic partner as long as same-sex marriage remained illegal in our state. The university does not extend benefits to unmarried other-sex partners. And the implication was that, should marriage law change, that would still be the case; and only married partners, straight or queer, would be able to access benefits. Honestly, when I completed that form, I had no inkling that, within a year, same-sex marriage would become a reality in my very red state and, just one year after that, in the United States as a whole. We jokingly said that we’d only marry each other if we had to. In fact, we promised not to marry each other unless we had to.

As the marriage equality movement picked up speed, though, we started to talk more seriously about the implications of a potential–soon, likely–national ruling for our relationship. We agreed that we would only get married if we had to. We would only marry, in other words, if the state (and, by extension, the university) forced our hand.

You may wonder why a committed, loving couple would resist marriage. You may wonder why my reaction to this ruling was not to cheer and celebrate but to feel annoyed and irritated.

Here’s why: As of June 26, the only available path to the recognition of the commitment, seriousness, and mutual support involved in our relationship is through marriage. The only way to garner recognition for our partnership and our family now is by marrying each other.

Yet, for the last five years, I have supported her and our children emotionally, socially, financially, and in every other way. I have become a parent and accepted all of the responsibilities that accompany that status without having any of the rights that usually come along with it. All because we are not married. I cannot sign permission slips or grade cards; I cannot seek medical attention for my children and have no legally recognized right to participate in any decision involving their welfare. And this is true despite the fact that I have accepted all of these responsibilities for the past five years. That is, for the last five years, I have shared a home and a life with these three people without any legal protection for the life we’ve made together.

Please understand what I’m saying here. I am not suggesting that marriage rights should not have been extended to same-sex couples. I understand the symbolism, the feeling among many queer people that this, and perhaps only this, right could affirm their humanness. And I am certainly not asking to go back to the dark days of same-sex partners not being able to stand by each other’s side in medical emergencies, of same-sex partners losing the homes they had built together when their partners died because the house was only in the dead partner’s name, of pretending the love of your life was “just a good friend” and “de-gaying” your living space before suspicious relatives visited. I’m not calling for that. For those couples who, after months or years or decades together, long to marry, I will not stand in their way. I understand the desire to affirm your relationship this way, to make it public with this ritual.

What I am calling for is attention to the fact that marriage is an exclusionary, discriminatory institution. And this ruling doesn’t change that. It doesn’t change the history of marriage and it doesn’t change marriage’s present or future. It simply expands the possibility that now the meaningful distinction in our society will be between people who are married and people who aren’t, with the unmarried continuing to experience prejudice and discrimination. Will we now look skeptically at partners who choose not to marry when they legally could? If the history of treatment of unmarried heterosexual partners is any guide, then that’s exactly what we can expect to happen.

In other words, this ruling expands the possibility that partners who choose not to marry, who choose not to accept the legal strictures that marriage brings, will face prejudice and discrimination. This ruling does not, for example, allow individuals in multi-partner relationships to legalize all of their bonds and access the rights and privileges associated with marriage. It does not remove policies that penalize poor people with children for marrying by decreasing or ending their public assistance once a marriage is in place. (After all, the solution to women’s and children’s impoverishment is marriage, right?) If anything, this ruling places more pressure on partners to hew to the requirements associated with legal marriage to have the seriousness and dignity of their relationships recognized.

That is, unless I’m willing to enter into a marriage—which is one, but only one, way to organize a relationship—my family still will not be recognized by the state and others as worthy of protection, rights and privileges. Why is that? Why are we so convinced that only relationships organized this way are legitimate and worthy? Why is it that my partner must marry someone in order to access affordable, quality health care? Why is it that I must be married to their mother to legally parent the children I accepted as my own years ago?

June 26 was, indeed, a historic day for our country. Had you told me even five years ago that same-sex marriage would so quickly become the law of the land, I would have responded with incredulity and skepticism. But my fear is that, in the exuberance of that celebration, we have lost sight of the limitations of marriage.

Marriage, like any other contract, is supposed to be entered into freely, voluntarily. On June 26, SCOTUS took that possibility away from me and everyone else who shares my perspective on this flawed and limiting institution. Unfortunately, the freedom to marry also signals the tyranny of marriage.

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To Be Seen, Not Heard at the Boys’ Table: Sexism in Academia

The following guest post is by a doctoral candidate in sociology at a public research university in the United States. In this post, ze reflects on experiences with sexism at academic conferences.

 

The systemic problem of gender inequality is often a driving force behind individuals’ decision to specialize in sociology and, more specifically, in the areas of sex and gender. Doe-eyed graduate students, such as myself, believe academia is where merit and opportunity are derived from hard work and meaningful contributions to science. A place were females, males, cisgender, and transgender individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexualities or social class, are accepted by their peers and discrimination is checked at the door. Academics, certainly those in sociology, would never discriminate against minorities and those who are different. Right? Wrong! So wrong, unfortunately. As a first year PhD student in sociology, and also a female, I have already experienced evidence that the boy’s club is still alive and kicking in academia.

For instance, I have been counseled multiple times that it is in my best interest this early in my career to abbreviate my feminine-sounding name on scholarly publications. The second and probably more disheartening sexist experience took place during an annual sociology conference; ironically, the theme of the conference was gender. I feel compelled to share my experience as well as the experience of my co-author (who is also a doctoral student in sociology) during our paper session at this particular conference in the hopes that others can read this and know that they are not alone. Our experiences as minorities deserve to be shared in hopes that they will act as a wakeup call to our more privileged peers.

Nobody Wants to Hear a Female Talk Longer than 6 Minutes

Although I had previously presented at this particular conference when I was a master’s student years ago, this was my co-author’s first time presenting at a sociological conference. We were both excited and bit nervous to present our paper among more seasoned academics. However, our enthusiasm was quickly stifled by the patronizing demeanor of the moderator during our session.

Our session was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am and end at 12:15 pm. This was a fairly small paper session with five presenters and only five audience members, so the moderator decided to start the session at 10:58 am. The moderator asked the five audience members as well as the presenters if any of us anticipated having questions at the end of the session. When one member said yes, the moderator decided that the presenters would have 12-13 minutes to present their work in order to leave sufficient time at the end for questions.

The first presenter was a female professor of sociology, who, mind you, traveled several hours by plane to present her research. About halfway through her PowerPoint presentation the moderator abruptly cut in to tell her that she needed to bring her talk to a close. Flabbergasted, she quickly attempted to finish her presentation while insisting that she was not given the 12-13 minutes promised. Dismayed by this, the first female presenter headed to the back on the conference room and began timing each presentation.

The next person to present was a male who was also giving a PowerPoint presentation. This presenter was politely and unobtrusively shown a written three-minute, hand-written warning by the moderator. The male presenter was then not only permitted to talk for those three minutes, but beyond that time as well, enabling him to complete his presentation in full.

Next up, my co-author and I, both females, were scheduled to present. Unfortunately, I forgot to start the timer on my phone, but the first female presenter had her timer going. Besides, I was confident that my co-author and I would not go over our 12-13 minute time limit. However, we were only about five minutes into our presentation when the moderator interrupted me, mid-sentence to tell us that we needed to conclude. He did not offer a three-minute warning as he had for the previous presenter, instead I was brusquely cut off from speaking. I fumbled to collect my thoughts and wrap up our presentation. The female who was timing us also feverishly waved her hands and stated that we were only given five minutes to talk, but it did not matter. Our time was up – all the practicing and nervous anticipation for five damn minutes!

The next presenter, a male, had time to complete his presentation in its entirety without interruption or suggestion from the moderator that he needed to “wrap it up.” And yes, his presentation took all 13 minutes. The moderator presented his paper last and adhered to the 12-13 minute time limit he set at the beginning of the session. When the moderator concluded, the time was 11:48 am. As the session began at 10:58 am with five presenters, it is obvious that not every presenter received an equal amount of time to convey their research, averaging around 10 minutes each. It was also quite apparent that the two presentations given by females were the two (and only two) that were cut short of the promised 12-13 minutes.

But it does not stop there. The remaining 25 minutes were devoted to putting each presenter, one-by-one, in what the moderator called “the hot seat,” inviting audience members to question each presenter. During the other female presenter’s “hot seat” time, the moderator challenged her in a condescending tone rather than engaging her professionally. He provoked an argument with her rather than a discussion and disrespectfully dismissed her responses to his questions. Finally, this awful, degrading paper session came to an end a few minutes early. The moderator quickly offered a general apology for cutting the session short and insisted that it was important for the audience to be permitted to have ample time to ask questions.

However, the moderator’s hollow apology was not directed at anyone in particular. As graduate students, we spent a great deal of time practicing and preparing our presentation to ensure we did not exceed the anticipated 10-15 minute time slot. Besides the frustration of only being allowed to speak for six minutes, the fact that this clearly only happened to the females and not the males at a sociology conference focused on gender seemed especially terrible.

It is in these very moments where I feel like throwing in the proverbial pink towel and walking away from academia. But, I am stronger than that. I have to remind myself that I earned my spot at that conference table and I will not allow sexist, close-minded individuals to make females (or anyone, for that matter) feel any less deserving. So, fellow minority grad students, let us beware: while we study the systems of inequality outside the walls of academia, the frontline of social injustice may still lie within.

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Why #BlackLivesMatter Matters

In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the importance of #blacklivvesmatter.  Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend. This is her first blog.

 

When I heard this morning that Hillary Clinton went to Iowa and said, “All lives matter,” I knew I could be silent no longer. When I heard Bernie Sanders on NPR insisting that “lives matter,” I knew I had to speak up.

To insist that all lives matter, to refuse to say–unequivocally–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans feel right now. It is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans have felt for centuries.

To insist that all lives matter is, for me, the most blatant statement of white privilege that someone could utter right here, right now. To refuse to say–explicitly, specifically–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny history, to ignore the present, and to accept a future where black lives continue not to matter.

When I heard about the massacre in Charleston, I was angry, sad, outraged, embarrassed… But I was not surprised. And, that, too, is a reflection of white privilege. That, too, is a reflection of just how much black lives have not mattered, do not matter, and cannot matter in a white-dominated, white-centered, white-identified society like ours.

Writing in The New York Times, philosopher Shannon Sullivan explained: “America is fundamentally shaped by white domination, and as such it does not care about the lives of black people, period. It never has, it doesn’t now and it makes me wonder about whether it ever will.” That statement has been part of the signature on my emails since the moment I read it. Until then, I had not seen this truth rendered so eloquently, so brutally, so honestly.

Thinking about the deaths of Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson and Daniel Simmons, Sr. makes me sick to my stomach. It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to wail and scream and fall into a pit of despair.

But then I heard about how Bible study began again last night at Emanuel AME, just a week after their deaths. I heard a member of the church talk about how the AME church welcomes everyone. I hear black folks saying, yet again, that we must not give up; that we must not give in to hate. And I know that despair is not the answer. Honesty is.

And honesty requires a long, hard look at the past, present and future of race in the United States. Honesty requires us to consider how Charleston is both the home of this church and the home of slave auctions. You see, I visited Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church once. I beheld the beauty of this place where people have worshipped since 1816. As soon as I heard about the murders and where they took place, I thought, “I’ve been there.” As soon as I saw pictures of the outside of the building, my heart sank again. I had been there. And, as I recalled standing there, looking around at the beautiful space, I couldn’t help but think about the location that was next on that tour of Charleston.

From Emanuel AME, we went to the site of Charleston’s pre-Civil War slave auctions. We stood on a street corner and heard about how Africans had once been auctioned at that very spot.

It is because of that history that we must—if we mean it—say BLACK LIVES MATTER. Given that history, given that legacy, given the countless deaths of black people at the hands of white people, we must be willing to say BLACK LIVES MATTER. If anything is ever going to change, we must understand why saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is a necessity right now.

We must say this not because other lives do not matter. We must say this because our actions have shown generations of Black folks that their lives do not matter, that their pain does not count, that the lives taken from them deserved to be lost.

Africans who died on slave ships bound for the United States, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, John Crawford… The list grows ever, sickeningly, longer. These lives were not “lost”; they were taken. All of these lives were taken for no reason other than the belief that white people are better, more deserving, more important, more worthy.

Saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is not enough. Not by a long shot. We must act as if BLACK LIVES MATTER. And unless we do, we must accept that saying all lives matter will never be enough. Because it only reminds us that they don’t.

For more information on #blacklivesmatter see http://blacklivesmatter.com.  

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