Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Gay Youth Suicide: A response to the "flamboyance question"

I just spent the last hour writing and editing a post to a Gawker article. Admittedly, I feel a little dirty for saying that. However, the post was absolutely worth it. My post was in response to another series of gay suicides. I try to remember each of their faces from the news just like I try to remember the face of Matthew Shepard from when he was murdered over 15 years ago. I see a little of myself in each of these kids. I was just like them not too long ago. However, the feeling of "another series of LGBT suicides" has become something to which I've grown uncomfortably accustomed.

15 year old Jadin Bell took his life this week by hanging himself at a playground. He received a candlelight vigil last Wednesday. The article reports that he was a boy who "never forgot his friends." I don't doubt that this is a true observation. However, I am struck each time by the lack of information we get about each of these teenagers. I mean, they haven't been alive very long, so they can't have left a husband, a child, a legacy as a teacher, or an academy award. It's the lack of that life experience that hits me so hard when I read these articles. A life experience that Jadin Bell has been denied. He never got the opportunity to see things get better. He never had the opportunity to make his mistakes, share his triumphs, and find that person that makes all the hatred tolerable... because love, once you find it, does conquer all.

I encourage you to read the original Gawker article. The link provided doesn't jump to the beginning of the story; it loads a post that I felt compelled to write. After reading the article, I encountered a question that gave me very mixed feeling. In one sense, the question seemed to be incredibly insensitive. The respondent, "Denver" asks whether all gays are flamboyant, 
But, openly gay people I know are so 'expressively flamboyant' that I really have to wonder if it's uncontrollable or just a 'wear it with pride' thing... Does that make sense? Again I'm not trying to stereotype... I'm just wondering if the "stereotypical gay" way of acting is a choice or...? We all act a certain way near our coworkers or friends or parents because it's "socially acceptable". It protects ourselves and adheres to certain social guidelines. Seems to me that suppressing behavoir around threatening situations might be a good idea.
First, I had to resist my urge to take out my red grading pen. A sad state of affairs, but true nonetheless. After that moment passed, I was struck by the inappropriateness of this questions placement. Why would someone ask such an insensitive question in response to a tragic loss of life? The question seemed a bit self-gratifying and indulgent. It seems to imply that gay bullying is the fault of the victim. But there was something that I couldn't shake about the question, something truthful and honest, too.

Then it struck me, this question is at the root of the whole problem. Not only do straight people ask the question, but many "straight-acting" LGBT people actively ask the same question... even when they might not intend to be dicks about the suicide problem. Many people probably don't even realize that they share an assumption with the bullies that ended Jadin's life, whether gay or straight. I hope someone finds my response helpful. Here it goes:

Denver, I appreciate the question you've asked. It's a difficult and upsetting question to many people in the face of a tragic loss of life. If you're serious about the question, then you'll need to analyze where your question is coming from before you can approach an answer. And be open to all the responses because they will tell you different sides of the answer, even the ones who react in the angry way that you predicted.

Let's look at your question. You ask whether the behavior of an LGBT teen is compulsive and, therefore, might contribute to his suicide or death. You may be assuming that victims' death is their own fault, especially due to their "flamboyant" behavior. Statistics show that LGBT youth are about 35% likely to attempt suicide, which is significantly above average. There is some factor (or a range of factors) that cause LGBT youth to attempt suicide more than straight youth. One of those factors, ironically, is finding fault in seemingly-LGBT behavior. People bully others because they are threatened by their flamboyant behavior. Your question and the cause of LGBT youth suicide share the similar assumption regarding LGBT behavior, so please understand why some people on this thread are upset. However, I will assume that your question was well intentioned. I do believe it's an important question to ask. So, meet me half way by examining your own biases and maybe I can contribute something in return.

In essence, the answer to your question is 'no.' Being gay does not essentially mean that someone is flamboyant. In fact, most gay people that I have met over the past 20 years have been almost indistinguishable from their straight counterparts. I will not deny that there are flamboyant gay men in the world. However, one cannot deny that there are flamboyant straight people as well. We all know the sensitive straight soul, ones that wear bright colors, and the jokesters. Sometimes, when a gay person realizes that they are different, they choose to celebrate their difference and, as you say, "wear it with pride." However, most people just go on with their lives and become your boring next door neighbor like everybody else. Most people are average, both straight and gay (that was a pun, in case you missed it).

However, flamboyant straight people are rarely threatening to other straight people. Most individuals like a strong personality and a jokester! So, what makes people so threatened by a flamboyant gay? The flamboyant gay doesn't play by the "rules" of the straight world. And very few people like those who won't play along with the rules of the game that they're following. Why would someone not want to be masculine and, therefore, powerful like I want to be? A flamboyant man challenges that what some people have worked for so long -such as a masculine persona- might not be desirable.

A subset of LGBT people (though not all), are simply not as masculine as their peers. It's a fact of their lives. This leaves them with two choices: they can hide who they are or they can lose at the "masculinity game." Either way, they're left feeling pretty powerless and alone. Even other LGBT people, the masculine ones, can make this subset feel like crap on purpose. Given the relative vulnerability and inexperience of those in their teens and early 20s, these LGBT youth turn to suicide.

However, the question "then why do they act so flamboyant?" doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. It's the wrong question. Rather "why would femininity in a guy be so threatening?" reveals so much more. Why should something such as a harmless behavior lead to death threats, crucifixion (M Shepherd), bullying, and suicide? The problem is not the behaviors of the LGBT youth. The problem is with the individual actions and reactions that are cruel, uncaring, judgmental, and deadly, whether they come from straights or gays.

Which is sad because there is a little bit of the queer kid in all of us, whether we are straight or gay. We've all been treated like crap at one point or another. For me, it's helpful to just try to be compassionate whenever possible. Hopefully that makes sense .

I hope this makes sense and you can accept it with the same sincerity that you ask others to show regarding your question. I recommend reading Pascoe's "Dude You're a Fag" if you want to know more about this subject. Best, my friend.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Simple Logic

The following conversation was had between Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann and an Iowan high school student:

BACHMANN: Well, No. 1, all of us as Americans have the same rights. The same civil rights. And so that’s really what government’s role is, to protect our civil rights. There shouldn’t be any special rights or special set of criteria based upon people’s preferences. We all have the same civil rights.

JANE SCHMIDT: Then, why can’t same-sex couples get married?

BACHMANN: They can get married, but they abide by the same law as everyone else. They can marry a man if they’re a woman. Or they can marry a woman if they’re a man.

JANE SCHMIDT: Why can’t a man marry a man?

BACHMANN: Because that’s not the law of the land.

Now, let's break this logic down. The beginning of this exchange is my favorite, mostly because I believe it is almost 100% correct.

The role of government is to ensure our civil rights. All full citizens should have the same civil rights without special exceptions. Therefore, in America, all citizens should be given the same civil rights despite belonging to certain groups, such as gender (i.e. being a man versus being a woman).

Alright, that was easy! Way to go Bachmann. We actually agree on the role of government. I was a bit surprised. Let's keep this ball rolling.

Civilly, marriage is when two citizens are joined together in legal union. A citizen has the civil right to get married.

Now, we can't say that a man's civil right is different than a woman's civil right, because that would be special treatment. No citizen should have different civil rights than the other. If a woman can marry a woman, for instance, then a man should be able to marry a woman as well. A woman should no be disallowed from having the same right to marry a specific gender because of her gender.

Usually it's best to simply say "citizen." That keeps us from tripping up on that pesky special groups thing. For instance, I would not want to say that Latino citizens have a right to vote on Tuesdays. Or that old citizens no longer have the right to free speech. By specifying a specific subgroup of citizenship one rhetorically excludes others. Instead, it is proper to say "American citizens have the right to vote for their elected officials," or, "American citizens have the right of free speech."

Ok, so, American citizens have the right to legally wed other American citizens. Excellent. We're on the same page here.

Now, as Bachmann then continues, since we all have the same civil rights as citizens, gays should not have the right to marry.

Huh? Please, explain.

"Ok, so, you're a guy," Bachmann might answer, "You have the same right as any other guy to get married to a woman."

"Correct, but as a guy, I should have the same rights as all citizens, including women, right?" I would probably inquire.

"Yes, because, as I said before, 'all of us as Americans have the same civil rights... There shouldn't be any special rights or special set of criteria...' While I intended this to be a gay thing, logically it would have to apply to women and men as well." She would be forced to reply.

Ok, let me get this straight. All American citizens should be given the same rights. I am a man. I, as an American citizen, should have the same rights as a woman despite being a man. Women have the right to marry men. Therefore...

Now, here is where Michelle Bachmann and I differ on our logic.

JOHN'S ANSWER: Therefore, I, as an American citizen, should have the right to marry a man. Legal and civil marriage is based on my status as a citizen, not my gender or status as a separate group.

MICHELLE'S ANSWER: Wait, can you repeat the question?

If faced with copying test answers from someone during a big final, I would put my money on the high school student rather than the presidential candidate from Minnesota. Well, actually I'd just use my own brain. I am getting my doctorate, you know. I'd hope those few extra years of schooling are good for something.

Now, for your next logic assignment, try to figure out the line of reasoning on this.

In case you want to see more about the exchange between Bachmann and Jane Schmidt, the Iowan high school student, check it out for yourself.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Regarding Expelled

Someone recently suggested that I watch "Expelled: no intelligence allowed," the Ben Stein movie that supports creationism/intelligent design. This individual used this movie to support the dissolution of academic tenure. Here is my analysis and letter to this person:

Dear X,

I finally watched "Expelled." The movie was certainly a persuasive piece and not an in depth analysis. However, I'm quite surprised that the movie persuaded you on the evils of tenure. I have my doubts about tenure, but the movie really reinforced my desire to protect academic freedom by using job security! You may notice that the creationist scientists were all not-renewed except the one that had tenure (who was alternatively forced to remove a website). It's odd that we're on opposite sides of this issue, but I suppose we've imbibed our experience differently.

The best part of the movie was the comments about "hostile climate." I agree that popular evolutionists and creationists refuse to listen to one another. One of the interviewees made a very astute comment, a person who opposes any paradigm is met with hostility. By extension, any undue hostility is certainly problematic for science as a process. I really enjoyed this section of the movie. I cannot, however, follow Stein's implicit assumption that academicians (as a whole group) can be equated with the public response to creationism. Public understanding of science and the creation of scientific fact, while related, operate differently. The scientific community is NOT a democracy, as another interviewee commented. We can regulate the laws of our country, but we can't legislate scientific fact. We've seen what happens when that happens (look up the repercussions of Lysenkoism). One cannot equate public outcry at teaching creationism with "lack of free speech" in the academic community.

The academic community works off of rhetoric. We research new subjects and write papers (or give presentations) to convince others around us. The creationists have academic journals and are allowed to submit papers to any journal. Most people who submit to journals are denied. Most researchers fail to meet academic rhetorical standards. The creationist scientists are simply failing to convince other scientists. Perhaps they should consider why this happens. In fact, I think they are aware of this problem. I make my case with the birth of "intelligent design" as a rhetorical device for creationism.

Besides the faulty assumption that Stein makes, there are a few incorrect statements that he uses for evidence. Creationism is not a surpressed scientific theory that has never gotten its scientific moment. Creationism was the dominant theory until the turn of the 19th c. Both science and religion changed at this point. Biblical literalism reemerged as a prominent American/Western idea for the first time since the Middle Ages (with Aquinas). Science also gained new descriptionist ideologies. The religion and science conflict wasn't helped by the campaigns of T.H. Huxley, but research shows descriptionism was mostly started by the public reception of Maxwell's research. Creationism fell away in lieu of a differing ideology and set of evidence. One could almost make the comparison that creationism is much like the "flat earth" movement. Evidence supported another theory, but some members have decided to do a scientific move called "saving the theory." If the creationists cannot convince other scientists, perhaps they should examine their rhetorical structure instead of declaring a lack of freedom of speech. One has to remember that one is equally as free to believe something as to NOT believe something. Requesting that the academic process to go back to unpopular and reportedly disproven theories assumes the burden of proof. Circumventing this is infringing upon the academic freedom of others.

So, I'm left with a conclusion. The hostile environment towards creationism exists in tension with an unreasonable demand for "flat earther" groups to be heard. Frustration builds in unhealthy ways on both sides. I'll have to consider a plan of action over the next year, however, the dismissal of tenure is absolutely NOT the course that you would want to advocate, unless you want this controversy to disappear altogether (by eliminating the unpopular, untenured scientists). A little conflict and inefficiency is worth preserving freedom of thought.

Just some thoughts.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A New Sort of Question

In physics, it is not possible to find both the position and velocity of an electron. When one pins the velocity down, the location disappears. This is the nature of how electrons exist.

I have studied science from a few angles over the past few years. One of my students accused me of having a scientific and literary mind. I don't know if I agree with that. I'm beginning to think that one cannot know both the velocity and sound of one hand clapping. By answering one the other necessarily disappears.

Perhaps the trick is to be able to switch between these two minds at all? I can suddenly see how neither and both answers are true.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A strange twist of fate

I never stopped to consider one of life's little ironies. Just a few years ago, I was in last place for the "world's greatest writer" competition... out of everybody in the whole world. Illiterate little children in the unknown Amazon jungles could write better academic papers than I could.

Now I am teaching rhetoric to undergraduate students at a world-class institution. I'm not doing such a bad job at it according to my teaching evaluations, either.

It's funny how you'll never know where life will take you if you let it.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Desert of Dust

I'm still alive! I managed to survive my first year of academia and I feel like the next year will be so much better. I've finally narrowed down my research topics and I'm getting a firmer grasp of my subject. It's nice to be back on familiar ground, so to speak. So, my long career or scholarship begins with a firm foundation and a happy send-off.

So, obviously, this gets me thinking about the lives we create for ourselves. You know, the empires we build together, the knowledge we create, and the lives that we touch. I ran across two quotes while in this frame of mind. Well, technically, I ran across one quote and then I opened up an old book to find the second quote. The two quotes are related and I thought of the second one immediately after reading the first. I saw the first quote while reading A Continent Of Islands by Mark Kurlansky. The book is about Caribbean history; how the people of the islands have struggled against near insurmountable odds to craft nations out of slavery, poverty, genocide, and their colonial pasts. The quote is somewhat out of place, padding the end of the introduction and starting the first chapter, but there's a universal appeal about the quote; something about it speaks to so many things.

I was thinking about was what my life will mean one day, what it means to build a nation, and what role can I play in the grand scheme of things. Here is where I found the quote:

"And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of the colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Those words still ring through my ears, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" I imagine myself in the Imperial Sand Dunes of southeast California. The dunes are huge and expansive. You can't help but feel small compared to them. Not just small, but vulnerable. You check your gas gauge, twice. The heavy sands and the heat they trap could kill you if you don't keep moving.

And here, in the middle of this wasteland, you encounter a pedestal. One stone artifact in a mountainous terrain of sand, heat, and desolation. The stone object is a warning to the mighty, to you who believe that you can create something timeless. "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" The warning is clear: nothing remains.

This reminded me of a second quote by one of my favorite authors, H.G. Wells. In this passage, the protagonist travels into the future where the remaining people had become like animals, simple and unintelligent. He explores the area and encounters an abandoned building here. It's old, but it is obviously some sort of museum or university. The flags that line the large room catch his eyes. That's when he sees the shelves:

"The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness or rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought cheifly of the Philosphical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics."

Again, the warning is clear. So little remains from our massive efforts. Our great nations are sand and all the we know is dust. Our monuments break and our books crumble. Really, in the end, all we have are our individual life journies. My roommate once jokingly told me that he's after prestige in the scientific world. At first, that seems like a noble goal. In the end, however, that goal, like Ozymandias' great kingdom, will be like every other goal; a desert of dust. Suddenly, I'm glad that my journey is one I do out of love. We have so little time and so many steps to take in our lives. I can only pray that each of my steps takes me towards happiness and the things that truly are timeless in life.

What I study may not last forever, but it brings me true inner joy. On top of that, I think I may be able to touch a life or two in the process. Isn't that all that matters in the end?

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Monday, June 01, 2009

2000-2010: A Growing Distinction

I've been thinking about the first decade of the American 21st century. If you were to characterize it, what would you say were its most salient features? As we progress into a century to which we shall never see the conclusion, one can only wonder how historians will look back and summarize our lives. What is our context? While nobody can completely answer this question, I thought I'd take a shot:

I see a decade of growing separation.

This separation is unlike the socio-economic stratification that characterized the Victorian eras and industrializing England. We will no longer have Eloi and Morlocks coming from the same first-world nations. Poverty exists, we cannot deny that. However, the working underclass of industrialization and the service class of America are very different.

Instead, the American social divergence has more to do with perspectives than anything else. Let me explain. I have been reading a book on gender expression and the liberties afforded to modern Americans as opposed to Americans of the early 20th century. We have so many more ways to express ourselves now than we did then. Forget Foucault; we have freedoms! In fact, these freedoms have caused a huge shift in the fabric of our society. The post-modernist turn has caused us to question everything we know about classifications and absloute Truth. We have begun to ask questions like, "what do you mean by feminine," "what exactly is the difference between man and woman," and "are our traditional values even worth upholding?" An athiest, nonconformist, gender-fluid person of color can stand in front of a white, anglo-saxon housewife and the two can survey each other, akin to viewing through onself the looking-glass darkly. We can ask "who am I" by seeing those who are not like us. We have unrivaled access to people who are fundamentally like, and yet unlike, ourselves.

Where class barriers separated the working class worker from the aristocratic industrialist, we have astoundingly fewer barriers. Let's be honest. Further, now that we see the "other self," many odd things taking shape in that mirror. We have begun to question who we are even more as we gain more looking-glasses. It seems like we're going around in post-modern circles, coming back to the same annoying questions every time. Can we even say what our differences are, even though they are finally standing right in front of us?

This is the divide I see going into the 21st century. One person can be incredibly sexually and socially liberated. This person can live next door to (or at least interact with) the most conservative and repressed person in America. We don't even have our traditional ways of pretending the separation doesn't exist! Those barriers are slowly crumbling. We constantly face these problems head on. How do we create a vision of relationships that works as well for the queer couple as for the conservative WASP couple? Is such a middle ground even possible?

This separation continues into other walks of life, too. It's not just sexuality, but a whole range of ideologies and information. How do we deal with the education divide? What about traditional politics and a post-rationalist world? Money, social power, even the ability to distinguish "junk news" from "real information?" What about access to the internet? We live in an information and opinion society that will define the whole century the way the great wars defined the 20th. Here is where our divide distingiushes us.