Speaking of Women's Rights: 10/09

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forget Hallowe’en … What’s REALLY Scary

Hallowe’en approaches, and with it, the usual excitement for kids (sugar! lots of it!) and trepidation for parents (sugar! lots of it!). And, of course, there’s the perennial challenge of what costume to wear.

Hallowe’en is one of the few sanctioned times that as a society, we allow ourselves to publicly transcend the constraints of reality – to imagine ourselves as something other. Yet, even then, how often do you see kids crossing stereotypical gender lines? And why does it matter?

I admit, these observations stem in part from my sadness that my little boys no longer will agree to dress as cute animals; they want to be Darth Vader, skeleton-biker-dude-with-a-sword, and other scary things. Meanwhile (though there are, of course, exceptions), their female classmates are gravitating toward the princess, fairy, and other “feminine” fantasy characters.

As children get older, they often feel a bit freer to experiment with gender transgression. For example, my white male neighbor, a Catholic middle-schooler, is dressing as a cheerleader. But note: he’s doing so because he thinks it is funny. A boy? In a cheerleader’s miniskirt? Oh ho!

But back to the question: Why does this matter? There are oodles of studies, articles, and theses about gender stereotyping, gender politics, queer politics, etc. But the rubber hits the road when people’s discomfort turns to bullying, harassment, and violence.

Under existing laws, courts are often reluctant to find that harassment based on sexual orientation is prohibited discrimination, unless sexual orientation and gender identity are explicitly listed as protected classes (which, FYI, they are in Washington’s law against discrimination). Yet there is no question that the root of many acts of discrimination and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals is gender stereotyping. The kind that begins with seemingly innocent Hallowe’en costumes and eventually turns into hardened expectations about how males and females (yes, just two choices) should act.

Nearly 9 out of 10 (86.2%) LGBT students experience harassment at school and 60.8% feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2007 Survey of 6,209 LGBT students in middle and high school. LGBT youth are four times as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, and 28 percent of LGBT youth drop out of school because of harassment resulting from their sexual orientation. (See here.)

Moreover, between 1998 and 2007, the FBI reported “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," according to Attorney General Eric Holder. A little more than a decade ago, in 1998, two horrific events brought popular attention to the issue of hate crimes. On June 7, 1998, three white men chained an African American to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. On Oct. 7, 1998, two men in Wyoming beat up a gay teenager and tied him to a fence, leaving him to die.

In honor of these two men, earlier this week, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, race, or religion. While seemingly simple in concept, it took over 10 years of focused effort after the deaths of Shepard and Byrd (and many more years of work before that) for this to become the law of the land.

So it’s no wonder parents are worried about what to do if their little boy wants to wear a tutu, out of fear that he will be bullied. And why it is helpful for there to be more support for kids who are questioning their own sexual orientation and coming out as early as middle school.

According to GLSEN, “It is difficult to understate the powerful impact of allies who intervene when they witness anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. Allies play a crucial role in addressing and raising awareness about the pervasive problem of anti-LGBT bullying.”

So listen up, parents, neighbors, and others – as you look at the parade of Hallowe’en costumes this year, it’s OK to laugh or be amused by the cute gender-conforming costumes, as well as the gender-transgressing ones. But when Hallowe’en is over, and the official “costumes” are put away, let’s work to create a respectful and safe environment for kids who aren’t “dressing up” or defying gender expectations just for fun.

World domination and Halloween candy

Yesterday, Legal Voice made a plan to take over the world.

Well, not exactly. But we did take some time to think about the big picture that guides our daily work - in other words, we took part in some strategic planning exercises!

I know, thrill-o-rama. Even we cringed as we heard oursleves say corporate-ese things like "cultivate a culture of excellence." Once you're done yawning, though, take a look at the Wordle illustration I created from the draft of our new vision statement:

Puts some nice pictures in your head, doesn't it? Yesterday ended up being a great day to feel optimistic and idealistic about everything that Legal Voice does, thanks to the expert guidance of our consultant, Heather Andersen. A little motivation in the form of Halloween candy didn't hurt, either.

What does your ideal version of the world look like? Ours has a whole lot of happy feminists running around shouting "Woo hoo! Social and economic justice everywhere! It's a dream come true!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

What Are Those "Self-Evident Rights," Again?

Vacations are great. And then there’s what you learn – or are reminded of. Having returned from a trip to Ireland, where a hotly-contested election occurred during my visit, only to leap back into the various races and initiatives in Washington State, I was brought face-to-face with a sad yet indisputable reality: people in the United States are woefully ignorant about politics, civics, and even our own Constitution, compared with citizens elsewhere.

First, let me say Ireland is a fabulous place to visit, and the people are tremendously friendly. They are also wonderfully well-informed not only about their own country and its governance and politics, but also about the rest of the world. I had conversations with clerks, B&B owners, salespeople, restaurant workers – folks from a wide range of jobs and professions – about the pending vote on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. And they not only had an opinion about it, they had in-depth knowledge of its provisions and implications. “I was in favor of it until I read Article #XX,” a cabbie said. “Its effect on diary and sheep farming in the country will be dreadful, and here’s why: [details and data omitted], an unemployed salesperson told me.” “The opposition government in Germany have pointed out why the treaty will have a good/bad economic result, and I agree,” others said.

And here in the U.S.? Quick: name an ‘opposition party’ (or any party) in either Mexico or Canada. Identify the provisions of any treaty the U.S. Senate should be (but probably isn’t) voting on. For that matter, name the three branches of government in the U.S.

Hope you can, and congratulations if so: you’re in a select minority. That’s right, surveys in 2006-07 revealed that fewer than 30% of Americans can pass a short, basic civics quiz.

Why am I not surprised? You wouldn’t be, either, if you had been present when I testified before the Washington Legislature several years ago about a bill that would have declared that any bill the Legislature passed was constitutional, simply because they passed it. Ummm . . . there’s this thing called ‘separation of powers’, but that didn’t seem to occur to the bill’s sponsor. Or to the House Committee that passed the bill. (It died after that.) That’s why I am so pleased to see that the new President of the Washington State Bar Association (and Legal Voice cooperating attorney) Sal Mungia plans a mentoring program to ensure that by the time children leave the 3rd grade, they can read, write and perform arithmetic and have an age-appropriate knowledge of civics. Teaching about our government, constitution and civics in high school and college is just too late, so thanks, Sal!

Even if we do increase civics education, though, we still somehow have to deal with the polarized, sound-bite, non-thinking, hate-filled rhetoric that this country seems to wallow in. Not that it’s a new phenomenon, or that there isn’t zealous speech in Ireland and elsewhere. But in this country we’ve replaced thoughtful analysis and civil debate with frenzied screaming. And, of course, that is nowhere more evident than in the debate around Referendum 71 here in Washington, which must be APPROVED by the voters so we can retain the full domestic partner law that passed last session.

I wish I had a solution to the shallow shrieking, because “can’t we all just get along?” doesn’t cut it, but alas, inspiration has not struck. How about you: any suggestions?

P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes, I passed the civics quiz, though I did not achieve a perfect score. Oops: that last economics course was a looooong time ago.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Help! Gays Are Taking Over The World!
Why Seeking Equality Is Not A Crime Against Humanity.

There are so many offensive falsehoods in Washington State Senator Val Steven’s recently published plea for donations to the Reject R-71 campaign, I don’t know where to begin. The term “depraved lifestyle” certainly stands out right off the bat, but as I read down the page I realize that this immediate assault is merely a case of ignorant name-calling… and you know what they say about sticks and stones. What’s truly troubling in this “important message” to the homophobic base is the insinuation that wanting “full-scale acceptance” or "normalizing homosexuality” are somehow perverse goals which will lead our society down a path of destruction. (If I hear one more person allude to the decline of Scandinavian society due to their acceptance of homosexuality, I’m going to barf up my lutefisk.

Though there seems to be a lot of pointing to nameless studies and un-cited claims coming from the anti-gay contingent, I have yet to see one shred of proof that gay families are ruining societies anywhere. In trying to illustrate the devastating impact of legalizing gay marriage Stevens’ writes this:

“The sociological effects of fatherless homes are clear from every study...”

What’s clear to me is that a “fatherless” home is not the same thing as a family with two parents of the same gender (nor a "motherless" one for that matter). Pediatrician Dan Summers recently spoke about this in his testimony to the Maine legislature in support of marriage equality.

“It is scientifically untenable to use studies about the effects on children of divorce or being raised in a one-parent household to draw conclusions about children raised in two-parent households where the parents are of the same gender.”

I am not aware of a single study which supports the theory that children are harmed as a result of being raised by gay or lesbian parents, and apparently neither is the Iowa Supreme Court. The court threw out evidence that made this claim because it lacked scientific merit.

Speaking of lacking merit, one of the most ridiculous points the Senator attempts to make (I’ve been in a constant struggle with myself over which claim truly takes the absurdity prize) is that speaking against homosexuality will soon be against the law. I would like to remind Senator Stevens that we have this little thing in the United States called the First Amendment, which allows her to spew as much uninformed, ludicrous, hate speech as she can conjure up. But that doesn’t mean that we have to take it sitting down.

Stevens is right. We are in a battle: Equality is under attack, and as patriots of this great nation it is our duty to defend it. So get out there and vote, and make your neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, baristas, and fellow transit riders do it too. Approve Referendum 71, and bring us one step closer to a state where equality is a reality.

p.s. Does Val Stevens represent your district? Email her and let her know that you don’t appreciate her hateful, false rhetoric, and that you would like her to stand with you in support of equal rights for ALL Washington citizens.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Beauty and Health: A step in the right direction for our young women.

Artwork by Stephen Shanabrook

A recent survey found that 60% of female Caucasian middle-schoolers read at least one fashion magazine regularly. In another study, women’s magazines were found to have over 10 times more advertisements and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines did. That’s why I’m glad to hear about a couple of companies who are focusing on providing a true picture of how women look.

In 2004 Dove launched a campaign called the Campaign for Real Beauty . Since then they’ve developed advertisements that point out the amount of photoshopping that takes place in the ad industry and have pledged to use only “real” women (ie: not professional models) in their adds to ”provoke discussion and debate about today’s typecast beauty images.” They’ve also begun a fund to enhance the self-image of adolescent girls, and to support research into the causes of negative self-esteem.

Very recently Brigitte, one of Germany’s most widely distributed magazines decided to ban professional models from its issues, in order to combat body image issues it believes that “rail-thin” models are contributing to. Instead, they will feature women who “have an identity,” including women involved in music and sports, and who are furthering their education. A spokesperson was quoted as saying that “the magazine views the move as an investment.” Investment indeed!

Hooray for Dove and Brigitte! It’s about time we start to focus on the self-esteem issues created by the unreal depiction of women in the media.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What on earth is a Bumpaholic?

An article on the UK website Daily Mail makes a jaw-droppingly outrageous claim: that women become pregnant multiple times because they are addicted to the "euphoria of pregnancy."

There are almost too many obnoxious elements of the piece to try to name the highlights. Which is worst? The writer's assumption that her observation ("I see lots of pregnant women!") = a real trend, despite having a single, unexamined statistic about birth rates as her only research? Or is it the way that women are represented exclusively by celebrity actresses and models? Or maybe it's the weird insistence on diminishing and cute-ifying childbearing by referring to women's pregnant bellies as "bumps."

Regardless, I think this piece illustrates a trend I've noticed in celebrity reporting lately - not that I've conducted a thorough literature review. I marked up a copy of the article to show you what I mean... Click the small image below for a larger version.