The Orlando Massacre and Beyond

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People fear what they don’t understand. From the ancient ancestors imagining an angered thunder god sending down lightning and destruction, picking out scapegoats as their preferred victims, and sacrificing them in the vain hope that a smaller amount of “their” spilled blood would stave off the larger amount of “ours,” humans have always been good at spreading their confusion and pain and fear around.

I have a friend who teaches middle school, fifth-graders, ten and eleven years old. In her homeroom she has a many-pages-long protocol for an active shooter attacking the school. They practice drills, twenty-first century survival skills for children. She is a teacher, like the teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (where 20 students and 6 adults were killed on December 14, 2012), and although we haven’t discussed it, I am sure that she has considered to what lengths she would go to protect her students in the event that the drills became real one day.

I know this because I have considered it myself, since the shootings at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, when the shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17. This was the first shooting at a college or university in a long time. Previously, most of the school shootings had happened at high schools; somehow I assumed that teenagers were more likely to be unstable than students a few years their senior, but the Virginia Tech shootings made me realize that I too could one day face the unthinkable at one of the universities I teach at.

Colleges don’t make protocols for these scenarios. College life is unlike middle and high school life in their uniformity of scheduling and classrooms. So if you work at a college, you have to think these things through for yourself. Could you talk a gunman down? Should you try? Does your classroom have two exits or only one? One of my criminal justice students pointed out that the safest place to be was near a gunman. Far away you haven’t got a chance in hell of closing the distance and overpowering him; even close up, it would be suicide, although as in Sandy Hook, a teacher might just consider that an acceptable choice if she or he thought there was a chance of success.

So tonight I was at a Pride Block Party. We had already held a moment of silence for the 50 Latin@s killed at the gay bar Pulse in Orlando, Florida (and the 53 still on the wounded list). Then, because Pride is all about standing against institutionalized oppression and ignorant hatred, we danced.

Intermittently, my lesbian sister texted the newly-out me to warn me that, given that the shooter had made comments about the Boston marathon bombers, Boston might be the site for a copy cat. I took her warning seriously, thought about exit strategies considering the narrow space we were in with a brick wall all along one side. Another of her texts pointed out that young people in the group might not be as savvy to the possibility of gay bashing, since the US has gotten a good deal friendlier toward gays than it was during the Stonewall Riots of 1968. I pointed out that as a teacher, I automatically consider the younger people; teachers teach, yes, but we also often protect. Sometimes it is just from bullying, or insensitivity or ignorance, but it does seem to be an unstated part of the job.

I could say that nothing happened tonight. I will not add “of course,” because if the US failed to take the murder of small children four years ago seriously, it will hardly take the murder of more than twice as many gays seriously. I do not expect better gun laws any time soon, alas, nor do I expect the violence to end. But yes, we were lucky in that no one else tried to attack our Pride celebration, or from what I have heard (so far) anyone else’s, so far.

But something has happened. We were reminded, at the height of our celebrations (which is of course how backlash so often works) that we are still vulnerable (not that the trans community needed the reminder, with the scandal of anti-trans violence a worldwide pandemic). Our straight allies, those who are not racing to blame radicalized Islam-against-Americans-in-general as the culprit, were reminded that achieving the right to marry has not granted us any more practical financial or physical protection from the haters.

And here’s the other thing that happened, and maybe I am the only one who put the bits together in this particular way, and maybe I’m not. But towards the end of the party, it rained lightly, just as it did yesterday at the parade. Only this time, we got an actual rainbow out of it, the symbol of hope from the story of Noah, where God promises not to wash the world away ever again.

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I know too much about human intransigence and sea-level rise to take it literally as a promise from God, but I do believe that humans are powered by symbols just as cats are powered by the sun. So I will take this as a sign that love is more powerful than hate, even if it does require more work. I am in the community now, and in the game, or war, or whatever it is. And I, too, was at a gay club last night with my friends. It could have been us. It could have been everyone. It could have been my out-of-state sister or friends or the friends of friends. So, for all intents and purposes, it was.

And, that rainbow tells me, it’s time to get to work.

 

Photo of rainbow over JP by Paula M. Grez.

The Manual Typewriter of Choicelessness vs. The Fabulous Rainbow Socks of Acceptance

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In case you weren’t sure, this will be a not-entirely-aimless post about my first out Pride and all the thinks and all the feels. Be warned.

In preparation for my first (real, not as an ally) Boston Pride, I looked for rainbow-striped socks. It took me five places and the one I just randomly thought might on the off-chance have them, Party Favors, did, although the socks have piano keys on them, but who is going to notice that?

Tonight was the Boston Dyke March. We gathered on the Boston Common, women wearing their hair in ways from the sublime to the ridiculous to the fabulous and EVERYTHING in between. Rainbows everywhere, including the flag under which we, the lesbian dodgeballers and friends, gathered (after five women figured out how to enlarge the holes in the flagpole with keys and make the zipties smaller with the same tools. I knew I should have brought my pocket knife, but there you go).

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About twelve or so years ago I went to an arts conference that had Adrienne Rich as the headlining speaker. I thought then that I was seeing a lot of lesbians. Wrong. I have never seen this many lesbians in the same place, and even weirder (queerer?) that the same place was a place I have lived, studied, worked and shopped: Boston Common, near Emerson College, the Back Bay, and environs.

I never thought I would be the sort of person who would find herself chanting, “We’re here, we’re queer. We’re fabulous, so don’t fuck with us.” But life, as it turns out, takes you in directions you could never have anticipated. This is not a bad thing.

Strange, sure. Surreal, absolutely. But bad? Hell no.

One of the things that made it surreal was the police detail directing traffic around our march. Being Hermione Granger, she who “when in doubt, go[es] to the library,” in advance of my first official pride weekend, I went to the library and borrowed David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. (Well, honestly, I am hardly going to celebrate a holiday I don’t understand or know about, am I?) Reading about the police entrapment that led up to the Stonewall riots and police brutality that occurred during them and then seeing the Boston cops waving at cars, waving at us, smiling at us: wow. Just wow. I was barely one when Stonewall happened. In my lifetime, all these things have changed so much, not just going from riots to parades, but going from the social stigma of same-sex couples holding hands or dancing together to the Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage…it’s all so overwhelming and fast.

A friend of mine tonight said that the difference in speeds between the struggle for rights for gays and for racial minorities probably was caused by finding gays in one’s family and neighborhood, something that is less likely or impossible to happen with people of different races. I had never thought of it in those terms, although certainly my sister being a lesbian started me off as an ally in the first place, and my older parents as well. (My brother was a theater major, so he didn’t probably need the family thing. Also, he is straight enough to make up for both my sister and myself, and that has to help too, I suspect.)

Still, I have only been out for five months. And before that I had no idea that I was in. When I was growing up straight was the default font, but not the way Microsoft Word makes, say, Cambria 11 point default and then you have a hundred options. When I learned to type, I had a Royal manual typewriter, that had Courier font in only two sizes, 12 and 10. Being straight was default: Courier 12. Being gay was not default: Courier 10. If you were not one, you were the other.

And maybe that is one of the coolest things about the rainbow: it’s not so fucking binary. It is by definition Both/And rather than Either/Or. It’s All Of The Above and Multitudinous and We-Are-Fucking-Legion.

So even though I still don’t feel 100% that I belong in this really amazing huge parade of women doing themselves in their own very particular ways, I have friends who say, “Oh no, you totally belong here.” And that makes me feel a little bit more okay with all these recent changes.

Which is, let’s face it, kinda fabulous.

Androgyny Issues: There are Costs

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Having been sirred twice this weekend, even when wearing large earrings, I am back to thinking about the social costs and benefits of androgyny. Doing a Google Image search shows primarily a lot of thin white girls in menswear, Grace Jones and Justin Bieber, and also the occasional thin young man in gender-neutral clothes. Obviously, this is an incomplete picture because Internet images are an inherently biased sample: what comes up in the first page is not the most common example of your search term but rather the most popular. The reality is much more variegated and, especially in the wake of the backlash to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage throughout the US, potentially much more dangerous. I recently saw a news story about a woman in Detroit who got pulled out of a restaurant’s ladies room and tossed out onto the street because the security guard thought she was male and wouldn’t let her show him her ID. All this mainly because she had a crewcut. Now she is suing; in places like Mississippi and North Carolina where such behavior has recently been legalized, suing might not even be an option. Just today a woman in England was kicked out of a McDonald’s ladies restroom for being too masculine.
Clearly this has to stop.

Once, while traveling in Japan, I walked into the women’s bathroom and a Japanese woman said, “This is the women’s bathroom, you know.” I replied, “I am a woman, you know.” Now that was twenty years ago, but even now, outside Tokyo, most girls and women in Japan wear their hair long and dress relatively feminine. (And don’t even get me started on the ‘cute’ subculture.) That woman saw a white woman with a very short haircut walk into the restroom in a short sleeve shirt and trousers (I was wearing earrings, but they were probably fairly small). Also, I was a B cup back then. (Ah, youth.) So some of the confusion was intercultural.

But part of the problem now in the US is also cultural. Some people cling to the old gender norms and others don’t. And when you add to that the very real challenges that transgender people face every day, and the danger of horrific violence that they often are threatened with, this whole thing goes beyond an issue of some people feeling comfortable to an issue of other people being safe.

The bathroom “problem” in this country is about at least three things: physical spaces, hate- and fear-mongering politicians and media, and gender norms.

Physical Spaces

The only real reason for segregated bathrooms is the problem of urinals. But if all bathrooms have stalls, we no longer have to segregate our bathrooms. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a list of 70 gender-neutral bathrooms in 35 buildings. This is a good start. But it leads me the problem of intersectionality, and a broader conversation about ableism in this country. Katie Rose Guest Pryal does an excellent job of explaining the distinctions between accommodation and accessibility here. Briefly, accommodation means someone asks for special treatment and is given it (more time to take a test due to a learning disability; stairs and ramps). Accessibility means we make everything accessible so no one has to ask for special treatment (conference materials in large print so no one has to ask for a larger version; ramps). We need to make all of our new spaces completely accessible and redesign our older spaces to make them completely accessible.

Politicians and Media

Some politicians lead by example, others by diatribe. If they can convince people to fear the Other (Jews, Armenians, Mexicans, gays, transgendered) and spend time finding ways to make Them miserable, then the people won’t have time to notice what the politicians are really up to and also they will buy stuff to make themselves feel better. The fact that this practice goes against all values of civil discourse, egalitarian participatory democracy, and Christ’s command to love one another apparently goes unnoticed, steamrollered by the folks pandering to Joseph Goebbels’ adage that a lie repeated enough times comes to sound like truth.

Gender Norms

Our ideas about gender are binary (masculine and feminine only) rather than single (there is an “average” human who is halfway between two extremes) or multiple (with 720 billion humans on the planet, there is likely to be many, many ways of doing gender). In a great little recent post, Ann E. Michael pointed out how much humans just loooove simplicity over complexity. I guess that is at the heart of the problem, a kind of intellectual laziness that the promoters of hateful rhetoric take advantage of.

So although bucking gender norms can be fun, it also comes with several issues that we need to keep in mind at the same time.

The Ties That Bind or Free Us

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It’s funny that I started out this week thinking about religion. The word is related to the word ligament and means to tie back or to tie together, and that is definitely what our belief systems can do, constrain us (sometimes from doing the things we shouldn’t do, sometimes from doing the things we need to do) or connect us. I know a lot of people have been hurt by organized religion, but I have been very lucky to find myself in times and places where it has been very beneficial. Going to Catholic school (because we were getting beat up in the public school) in the 1970s right after Vatican Council II meant, among other things, that I got some of the most comprehensive sex and drug education compared to anyone I know, even and especially those who went to public schools. Go figure.

During Holy Week it is easy to see the two sides of religion. The Jewish authorities of Jesus’s day had the Roman Empire breathing down their necks; Israel was a nation occupied by a superpower that didn’t like trouble-makers. Executing Jesus was a way of protecting the status quo that he was always complaining about. In our own day we can see people like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose faith gave him the strength to help lead the fight for Civil Rights and to speak against poverty and war; on the flip side, we see the court clerk refusing to do her job and sign gay marriage certificates because her faith constrains her ability to see that love is bigger and wider than she thinks it is.

Back around Thanksgiving when I was starting to think about these things in earnest, I bought a cornflower blue suede string necklace as a reminder to try to be open to possibilities. It was too long to wear as a necklace so I looped it three times around my wrist and wore it that way for the last three months, day and night, in the shower, at the gym. Every time it broke I retied it. A few nights ago it broke for good and was too short to retie, so I put it away. Its work is done. Now I am on to the next stage, where I write these posts like threads to cast out into the ether and see if anyone out there gives a tug on the other end. As King would say, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”). There are worse fates.