Tuesday, June 16, 2015


I'll be on a break for the rest of the summer.

I'll start up again this fall.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dennis Hastert

Unfortunately, the latest news that Dennis Hastert, the one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, sexually abused a student when Hastert was a teacher is not shocking. We’ve seen this story play out (especially in politics) over and over again: Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, Anthony Weiner, etc. Men in positions of power caught in sex scandals. We’ve also read more than one story of a high school teacher currying sexual favors from students: this month, for example, a Florida teacher pleaded guilty to having a sexual affair with one of her fourteen-year old students. On college campuses, we are also handling more and more sexual harassment cases that have, at times, turned administrators into adjudicators.

These instances when people in positions of power sexually abuse subordinates are deplorable, even if they are also completely predictable. What I’m interested in, though, is how these scandals can guide us in understanding the Title IX (i.e., sexual harassment) cases that are popping up on campuses all over the country.

When a teacher walks into a classroom or a gym class or onto a sports field, he is unquestionably in a position of power. Whether that teacher works in an elementary school where students see these adults as parent figures, or in a high school where students look up to their teachers and coaches as mentors, or in a college where, if for no other reason, the degree behind that professor’s name automatically distinguishes him from his students, the men and women working in education undeniably occupy positions of power. Similarly, the students who fill our classrooms at every level in the educational system—regardless of the type of school or its location—are at a disadvantage in this relationship. In the simplest example, we see this power dynamic take place at the end of each semester when the teacher stands in judgment of his or her students by giving them grades, which can, in many instances, have profound effects on that student’s future.

Our pedagogies depend on this unequal power relationship. The teacher, after all, is supposed to be the authority on the given subject of the classroom. The student has willingly subjected herself to that authority in order to learn. This model is the basis of education. Even in student-centered education, which gives students more say in how and what they learn, the presence of the teacher in that space of learning represents authority. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in the same way that power relationships are not always bad—think of the relationship between a parent and a child that is the most primal power relationship.

The problem arises when the people in these positions of power abuse their authority. This abuse can come in many different forms—intellectual, psychological, emotional, verbal, physical, and, most damaging of all, sexual. Unfortunately, abusing power is fairly easy to accomplish, especially in a classroom where the imbalance of power is so great. A nefarious teacher—especially in the elementary and secondary years—has a tremendous amount of power in the classroom. He or she can manipulate that power to seek out and seduce the most vulnerable of students, many of whom are also the most powerless (emotionally, economically, physically, etc.).

When a grade school teacher abuses one of her or his students, no one would argue against the inappropriateness of that relationship. Even when a high school teacher has sex with a student—whether that student is a minor or not—we easily understand that it is an abuse of the power dynamic between teacher and student. We run into difficulty, however, when we consider the kind of relationships that form on college campuses.

Most colleges have rules that prevent a professor from having a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student who is sitting in that professor’s classroom. We recognize that such a relationship is clearly taking advantage of the authority the professor holds over that student. Many colleges also have rules that discourage faculty from having sexual relationships with any undergraduate because, again, we acknowledge the imbalance in the power dynamic between professors and students. Although, few colleges have rules about professors having sex with graduate students, except that such relationships must be disclosed if the professor has any kind of say in that student’s success or failure. 

The problem we are seeing now on college campuses is much more difficult to judge. That is, sexual harassment complaints between students, when both parties are roughly the same age and may or may not know each other, but in which one student alleges sexual misconduct (e.g. rape, as we’ve seen recently) against her fellow student. The difficulty of these cases arises because many times they boil down to a ‘he said, she said’ scenario.

I want to suggest, however, that we start looking at these most difficult of cases in the same way we so clearly understand indictments like the one Dennis Hastert is involved. That is, we should be cognizant of the power relationships involved in those incidences. If we can uncover the power dynamic, I think we will have clearer idea of who is at fault.

For example, in the case of a coed who accuses a fellow student of rape, in addition to investigating the facts of the case, we should come to understand who held the position of power in that relationship both at the time of the incident, and in any prior relationship they may have had.  If we can determine this—and this may be a big if—we may have a better understanding of liability.

I understand that every relationship—even a healthy relationship—is based on power dynamics. Some relationships function when one person has the economic advantage. Others operate when one person has the emotional or intellectual or social or sexual advantage. But even in these cases, the person who holds the reigns of power has a responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the other participant in that relationship. This is true whether you’re a teacher, politician, boss, parent, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, student, etc. 

If as a society, we begin to accept and understand the dynamics of power, then we can teach each other about the responsibilities in these relationships. With this knowledge, we can dismantle the structures of abuse—which depends on ignorance, fear, and silence—that allow people like Dennis Hastert to use his power position for immoral purposes.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bruce Jenner

Back in October, I wrote a post on Dutee Chand, an Indian track star who was disqualified by the International Association of Athletics Federations because, while biologically a woman, she had high testosterone levels and thus the IAAF considered her to be a man. In that post, I also noted that there were rumors that Bruce Jenner had had his Adam’s apple shaved as part of his gender transition. Now, of course, Jenner has confirmed that he is in the process of transitioning from a man to a woman.

Jenner made his announcement during the much-lauded Diane Sawyer interview. The Jenner interview received a lot of attention. Some praised Jenner’s frankness for bringing transgender issues to the forefront. Others took Jenner to task for manipulating the media in order to grab attention in a similar way that Keeping up with the Kardashians depends on sensationalism to keep his family in the limelight.

As gay and lesbian rights have become more secure, it makes sense that the other half of the LGBT equation is becoming more visible and more accepted. In the last few years, we’ve seen shows where a transgendered and/or transsexual character was featured: the 2005 movie Transamerica with Felicity Huffman, the 2012 sleeper British series Hit and Miss with Chloë Sevigny, and, more recently, the Amazon series Transparent with Jeffery Tambor. On Broadway, the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a resounding success, attracting hordes of tourists from all over the country to a Broadway show featuring a transgendered character who isn’t shy about discussing her botched sex-change operation.

Before Jenner’s announcement, we’ve witnessed a number of public figures who are transgendered come out, including Chaz Bono, Chelsea Manning, and Laverne Cox, whose photo on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014 declared that we’d reached a “Transgender Tipping Point.” America—or at least younger America—seems no longer squeamish about the idea that a person can choose to live a life in the gender they feel most comfortable.

On one hand, though, it’s much easier for the country to accept gays and lesbians because—at least now—we are fairly easy to understand. Boys who like boys and girls who like girls love in the same way that our heterosexual brothers and sisters love even if the way we have sex is different—although not all that different. It takes little imagination to understand what it means to be gay and lesbian.

Being transgendered, though, requires a completely different understanding that flummoxes people.

After a montage of Jenner during his glorious 1976 Olympic victory, Sawyer holds up an iconic picture of Jenner taken after he’d won the decathlon: the handsome man with the muscular arms raised in victory. The image of masculinity. She points to the picture and asks, “Help everybody struggling with what this is?” Jenner points to the picture and says empathically, “That is me. That is her.”

The most lucid part of the interview, I thought, occurred when Jenner tried to clear up Sawyer’s confusion about the relationship between gender and sexuality. Sawyer says, “You understand that people are baffled and confounded.” They want to know, she insists, whether Jenner’s transition means that he’s gay. “No,” he says, “I’m not gay.” Then, Sawyer continues, “if your male and you become a female but you like women are you a lesbian?” Jenner smiles. “You’re going back to the sex thing,” he says, “and it’s apple and oranges. They’re two different things.”

This is a salient point and the core question that fuels ignorance, prejudice, and discriminatory practices.

We want identity to be as easy to understand as a child matching Garanimals. The tags that come with gender, that is, should match up perfectly with the tags that come with sexuality. This is still true today even when we’ve expanded the inventory of identity to allow gays and lesbians to fit comfortably in our modern wardrobe.

The problem that most people wrestle with is that gender, sex, and sexuality do not come in predetermined matched sets.  As there are multiple variations within each term (man, woman, transgender, queer, genderless, gender fluid, non-binary, etc. AND male, female, intersex, transsex, etc., AND straight, gay, bi, asexual, pansexual, etc.), so too there are an innumerable ways in which these markers can intersect: man-intersex-gay OR queer-female-straight OR transgender-intersex-bi, etc. etc. etc. Even these examples of mixing and matching are far too prescriptive.

While Sawyer represents the difficultly most people have with understanding a person who is transgender, without necessarily realizing it Jenner is still caught in the same trap. When he insists that he’s heterosexual even if he’s a woman who loves other women, he also admits that he doesn’t know what will happen if he chooses to marry again. Sawyer asks whether it will be with a woman. He says that he “can’t figure that side of it,” and that he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. I imagine it will be a telling moment, one that challenges his and our notions of identity.

Even theorists who conduct their research in areas of gender, sex, and sexuality have come to understand that we, too, fall into the same trap that Sawyer and Jenner fall into.  We want to expand and explore the categories of identity but at the same time we depend on those same categories to ground our theories.

As the heirs of Enlightenment, we rely heavily on the process of categorization to understand the world. But in relying on this method of organizing knowledge, we’ve boxed ourselves in and have a hard time thinking outside those boxes when we are confronted with questions that can’t be answered so simply.

Instead of thinking of the world using the metaphor of boxes, we need a poetic realignment. We need to develop a language of complexity and contradiction and fluidity. We need a new set of signifiers that more accurately describe the experience of people who have never fit in—and I think most people feel as if they’ve never fit in. We need a way to identify without judgment, to make claims of fealty without bias, and to understand ourselves without prejudice.

We need to stop being surprised when people like Bruce Jenner and Dutee Chand don’t meet our expectations. Rather than look at them as curiosities, we need to acknowledge that the failure lies with our system of classification that has never really been able to capture anyone’s sense of self. Once we dismantle this outdated system, then perhaps we can all experience life on our own terms.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Indiana Home

‘On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away’ is the official state song of Indiana, my childhood home. The Wabash is a major river that runs through Indiana, but it’s the ‘Far Away’ part that I like best. As in, I live far away from Indiana, now.

Although I’ve lived away from Indiana for over 25 years, when news comes out of my home state, as it did these past few weeks over the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), it feels as if I never left. The same sort of intolerance that is enshrined in this bill—even with its ‘fix’—is all too familiar to me and many other people who simply don’t fit the standards that Indiana values.

We are ‘others’ and in Indiana we have never been welcome.

The reddest of the northern states, the birthplace of the KKK, Indiana has been an intolerant place to live long before I was born and still is long after I—and many others like me—have left.

 In conversations with friends and colleagues over the past few weeks regarding the anti-gay law that Governor Mike Pence signed, the focus has been on the way in which this bill—like similar bills in 20 other states—allows rightwing ideologues to enact discriminatory laws under the guise of First Amendment rights; i.e., as a Freedom of Religion issue. The trick the Christian right is trying to pull off is to assert that their religious freedoms are denied when, in business, they are forced to serve people with whom their beliefs conflict. It is a spurious argument. These lawmakers are knowingly subverting the law in order to pander to their voting bloc, which is perhaps what we should expect from politicians.

Despite Pence’s argument that the law cannot be used to discriminate against LGBT people, we saw last week the way in which his constituents plan on using the law to discriminate. For the owners of Memories Pizza—who declared that they would refuse to cater a same-sex wedding—the law has given them the cover to discriminate. The outrage that followed their discriminatory claim was countered by a crowdfunding campaign that netted the owners $800,000.00 from likeminded individuals.

I’m less interested in the political game that is being played in states like Indiana than in the mindset of people like Pence and the pizza owners. Millions of Hoosiers across the state have no qualms with discrimination especially when a group of people threaten the Hoosier way of life. While the tourism board pedals the idea of Hoosier Hospitality, Indiana is one of the least hospitable places for people who are different.

Like many states, Indiana is incredibly segregated, even in the state capital, Indianapolis, which has significant black and Latino populations. I grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis and I didn’t encounter a person of a different race or ethnicity until I was in high school, and even then these interactions were so limited as to be meaningless.

In such a highly segregated place, there are few opportunities for someone to contemplate what it means to live a life other than that in which you and your circle of family and friends live. Even in large cities like Indianapolis where you are more likely to see someone from a culture different than yours, that engagement is almost always peripheral.

The culture in Indiana is homogenous.  Most Hoosiers do not have the cultural sensitivity or social skills to imagine the lives of people of difference. It is simply too foreign, too uncomfortable, too taxing for them to even contemplate.

For Pence and his Republican allies in the Indiana legislature, their worldview is informed by a homogeneity that is constantly being reinforced in the neighborhoods where they live, the people with whom they socialize, the churches they belong to, the politics they practice, and the codes that make up their belief systems. They so rarely come face to face with otherness. When they do, it is very difficult for them accept difference as something positive and nonthreatening.

In the Indiana I know, the preservation of a family model that privileges the production and upbringing of children takes priority over the rights of the individual. Opposite-sex marriage is the prime vehicle that ensures and enshrines this ideal. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in Indiana, the law—if nothing else—forces mainstream Hoosiers to think about lives that they have chosen not to consider, to seriously confront a group of people who are different and to consider that their lives matter. This is not an easy thing for most Hoosiers to do.

A monoculture—like the one that exists in Indiana—too easily accepts stereotypes than it tries to understand difference.

Difference engenders a society that is heterogeneous and far more interesting, and, as it turns out, far more economically sound.

As Ryan Casey argues in this Salon article, those states like Indiana that are intent on producing and supporting monocultures are doomed. Being hostile to different types of people and cultures is simply bad for business. As we saw in the backlash to the Indiana law, businesses are less likely to invest in such states, and millenials—the economic engine of any economy—are more likely to seek employment in more tolerant environments. Such a threat was behind Pence’s quick attempt to fix the law, which did nothing to assuage businesses or millenials.

I was not in the least surprised that my home state passed a law like RFRA, nor was I in the least surprised that Pence seemed stunned by the national backlash. Yes, perhaps his naiveté over the reaction to the law was politically motivated, but it was also the product of living the kind of isolated life that so many people in states like Indiana live.

Friday, March 27, 2015

La Famiglia

I’ve been meaning to write about the Dolce and Gabbana uproar over gay adoption and in vitro fertilization. The fashion pair came out against ‘non-traditional’ families, claiming—as the right wings in America and Italy have claimed—that a child deserves both a father and a mother. I meant to read the many articles written about this dust up and document the different reactions. I could have dug up widely published evidence that disputes the idea that a child is better off with a mother and a father regardless of whether those two people make good mothers or fathers. But, in the end, none of this really matters to me. Not because I don’t like children or gay families or disagree with alternative methods of fertilization. Rather, I’m more interested in my responsibility for the outbursts of someone in my family; i.e., la mia famiglia gay.

More importantly, perhaps, does the fact that I’m gay and they’re gay make me obligated to accept them as part of my family, even if—as with my biological family—I don’t agree with what they stand for? Do I need to support them unconditionally even when they engage in illegal activity, as when D&G were convicted of tax evasion several years ago? Do I have to claim them at all?

One reason given for the D&G anti-gay stance is that both men grew up in conservative families and, thus, can only appreciate the ‘traditional’ family model. They seemed to celebrate this exclusive idea of la famiglia in their last runaway show that was peppered with fashionable women carrying babies on their hips, a staging of that particularly Italian obsession with la mamma.

A cornerstone of the gay rights movement, and at the heart of gay community formation, was the idea that we could (and should) shake off the oppressive restrictions imposed by our ‘traditional’ families and come together as gays and lesbians to form new families. However, in building our new families we inevitably encounter LGBT people we didn’t particularly care for. Our new family units also tended to coalesce around other traits beside sexual orientation like gender, class and race. If, we asked ourselves, we left our old families behind in order to join in more positive and healthy ‘alternative’ families, did we have to accept all people who were gay or lesbian or bi or tran, or just the ones we liked?

If the aphorism holds true that you can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends, many of us ran up against another maxim that seemed to contradict this liberating idea of family; i.e., in the words of Gloria Gaynor, We are Family.

Are we really?

I’m around the same age as Dolce & Gabbana, but while they seem to have a very clear idea of what family means—the traditional Italian family—I don’t at all. I’m conflicted between the bloodline that connects me to my conservative family whose lives are centered on having children, the gay community’s insistence that my sexual orientation automatically knits me into the fabric of their family, and the relationships I’ve developed with my friends and David and the dogs (not necessarily in that order, of course).

When D&G made their comments, the international gay family fell into a snit the way all families fall into such spats. Most notably, Elton John threatened a boycott, as if boycotting luxury clothing was going to make any difference in the lives of LGBT people anywhere. The D&G boycott, which didn’t gain any traction, reminded me of the boycott on all things French post-9/11 when some bar owners poured French wine into the gutters. Such a bougie response to real-world issues.

That it is to say, my response to Elton John’s fulmination was exactly the same reaction I had to D&G’s comments. Do I have to take sides and accept that Elton John more closely represents my reaction to this faux feud, or can I stand on the sideline and let them duke it out?

The problem, of course, is that in forming the LGBT family we also invited the same sort of dynamics that exist in most of our other families. Synedochely (I made the adverb up), the beliefs or utterings or asinine behavior of one member of the family is inevitably going to be taken by outsiders as representing the whole. And the member of the family who has the most public presence is bound to be taken for the spokesman for the rest of us.

Is Dolce & Gabbana’s anti-gay rhetoric ill informed, piggish, and appalling? Of course it is. But the idea that their political stance either represents the ideas of gay people in their country or any other is a politically and p.r. motivated response waged in a war that thrives on cheap shots and theatrics, which is the reason that such flamboyant actors like Dolce, Gabbana, and Elton John are getting such press over this family spat.

The family I’m interested in belonging to, however, has so little to do with expectations or consequential traits, but with shared world views and personal respect and a sense of support that stems from choice rather than a begrudging obligation born out of duty.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m interested in the network of loved ones I’ve created in my own life, rather than with the idea of a global family knitted together by sexual orientation. Such a family is bound to fail because it cannot adequately represent the nuances and complexities that make up real families. I suppose that this is the reason the D&G statements are so absurd, as if anyone but political actors would take them seriously as spokespeople for anything but their own brand of clothing and la famiglia.