Popular Culture


After 10 years on the books, Washington State’s law protecting transgender people from discrimination is under attack. And we’re not alone. Similar fights are playing out across the country over the recent wave of anti-trans legislation. Why now? It seems that for all these years, Americans were okay with trans people in public bathrooms, but only so long as they remained on the margins, in a legal limbo, with no rules laid down to clarify their right to be there.

These so-called “bathroom bills” won’t keep transgender people out of public spaces. They simply shore up the status quo that makes trans lives illicit or invisible. Despite the ugly rhetoric, most of their supporters acknowledge that a trans person using the bathroom is not a threat to the person in the stall next to them. The only real threat is to the authority of the (previously unwritten) rules that force all of us to fit into rigid gender roles and punish us if we don’t.

The current backlash is a signal that the transgender movement has achieved a profound cultural shift. Social acceptance of trans people has made room to acknowledge all kinds of gender expression and identities that don’t fit neatly into the categories defined by standard bathroom signs.  The “bathroom bills” re-assert a clear dividing line between men and women. They lay down rules for which is which, and penalties for crossing that line.

If you have been watching television for the past 20 years, you have witnessed the progression of cultural attitudes toward trans people, from freaky (trans people on Jerry Springer) to respectable (trans people on Oprah). And if you have not been watching, now is a good time to start. Trans people are asserting the right to be respected and freaky at the same time (and we have our own shows!).

It’s not just state legislators anxious about this development. The trans community itself is grappling with the tension between “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” and “We’re here, we’re totally normal, so nothing to worry about!” The trans women of I Am Cait represent the whole range. As Caitlyn Jenner is thrust into the role of transgender celebrity, Professor Jenny Boylan leads a crash course on everything she needs to know to represent the diverse community. Jenner sees no contradiction between her goals of winning broad acceptance for transgender rights and protecting her own substantial privilege through electing right wing conservatives. And then there’s gender outlaw Kate Bornstein, whose version of liberation is making the world safe for everyone living outside the lines.

The conflict may be predictable, but the solidarity and commitment to hearing each other steals the show. Who would have thought reality television would bring us an exquisite model for approaching this essential conversation with realness, courage, and love?

Sometimes, when I’ve been working on a particularly challenging project, I like to reward myself by watching a video from Urban Dance Camp . (Seriously, if you have not checked them out, do it now, I’ll wait.) That is how I came to love the dancing couple and choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid. So when I heard that they did Justin Bieber’s new video, I had to check it out. No surprise I loved the dancing but I was also struck by the lyrics. They are actually pretty wise.

Love Yourself lays out a pretty solid checklist of when you might consider walking away from a crappy relationship:

Lyrics Takeaway
For all the times that you rain on my parade Not cool – you want your partner to throw you a parade, not rain on it!
My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone When people who love and care about you don’t like your partner that may be something to listen to.
And when you told me that you hated my friends
The only problem was with you and not them
Honestly if your partner doesn’t like your friends, they may not actually like the real you either. And why would you stay with someone who doesn’t like you or wants to keep you away from your friends?
And every time you told me my opinion was wrong
And tried to make me forget where I came from
Having differences of opinions is fine, but telling someone they’re wrong or to forget their roots isn’t great.
For all the times that you made me feel small
I fell in love. Now I feel nothin’ at all
Your partner should build you up, not break you down. No wonder you fell out of love!

 

When your relationship makes you feel this way, it’s a pretty good idea to move on. And “you should go and love yourself” is a pretty good way to end things.

Way to go, Biebs!

David Bowie died last week. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I started thinking of all the people who have listened to Bowie with me during hard times and good times. I know his legacy is unfortunately more complicated than I’d like, but today I’m focusing on how his music made me feel. David Bowie has been a huge part of the soundtrack of my life and because of that, he’s been a huge part of my domestic violence advocacy work too.

I remember that David Bowie’s music made me and the survivors of abuse I was working with in West Lafayette, Indiana feel good about ourselves―that we should be accepted just as we were and that we could dance while we were at it. I remember being a burnt-out shelter worker in Boulder, Colorado and the album Low was a salve to my soul. And more recently, I remember having an all-out sing-along dance party to Ashes to Ashes after a particularly hard week facing what felt like insurmountable obstacles to getting women the resources they need to be able to leave an abusive partner.

There have been other artists on my playlist too. Artists who make my soul come alive with funk, make my hips move with music, and make my heart regain hope and wonder. Here is my playlist this week as I celebrate life, meaningful work, and the fact that I was lucky enough to be alive on this planet at the same time as so many other greats.

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Ah, the holidays. That glittery season of joy and forced togetherness with people that we both love and love to argue with. I’m preparing for my annual trip back to Atlanta where my ENTIRE Southern conservative family still lives. I love them. And we pretty much disagree about everything. (Except barbeque. We all fully support smoked meat).

I’m already feeling a bit low lately with the many bad things happening in the world, so as part of my mental preparation for enduring conversations with loved ones about Trump’s greatness, here are five things that I’m going to do before the end of 2015 to spread a little love, kindness, and cheer.

  1. I know many of us are hemorrhaging money this time of year, but I’m going to find a little bit to donate to an organization I believe is doing good. For me, I think it will be Planned Parenthood.
  2. Read the Humans of New York blog and sign the petition to bring Aya and her family to the U.S.
  3. Read this post about how to be a good non-Muslim ally. Try at least one idea and share the author’s thoughts with others.
  4. Rather than say something rude when someone I love espouses hatred, I’ll grab my phone and answer trivia at freerice.com, where each round helps end world hunger. That’s much better than calling mom racist during a shouting match.
  5. Look at and share these Emergency Kittens. For when I or someone I know needs a smidgen of cheer.

It’s true, doing these five things are not going to change the world. But when we we find ways to do good, to spread love and kindness, and behave the way we would like to see others behave we are setting examples for those who are close to us.

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RadAmericanWomenCoverThe other day I got my hands on a long-awaited alphabet book for me my kids: Rad American Women. This book is cool on so many levels—the art, the content, and the lasting impact of reading it to my daughter…

A few days after the book arrived, I was sitting in a heap of unfolded laundry and turned to my favorite laundry helper (Netflix) to get me through. So I was watching the PBS special on Billie Jean King when my daughter came in and excitedly said, “Mama, she’s from the book!!!” It took me a second to realize what connection she was making but when I did, I invited her into the fold (see what I did there?) and we watched for a while. She was thrilled to know about her and be in on something special.

We talked about how bold Billie Jean King was and all the other women and men that helped her achieve such greatness. And we dreamed. We dreamed for a future where we have pay equity—not just at Wimbledon, but everywhere. We celebrated. We talked about how I once got to see A is for Angela Davis speak and how I hoped we would continue to go to protests and marches together and live our lives in a way that exemplifies the ideals of which she spoke. And we appreciated. We took time to be grateful for all that we have because of leaders who had the guts to work for equality. And then we got up and went outside to play ball. Because we could.

Here’s to the other rad women of the book and to the rest of us still out there working for justice!

Top Ten lists are so hot right now. With David Letterman retiring and the school year ending, lists of reflections are all over the place. So I’m jumping on that band wagon.

Top Ten list of things I’m thinking about:

  1. Dress codes—This again? Really? Can we just all agree that it is not young women’s responsibility to hide their bodies from men and that perhaps the responsibility of not sexualizing girls lies on the rest of us, rather than her $#@%^& leggings?
  2. Indiana—I am proud of my Hoosier roots, but my home state is really on a roll lately, and not in a good way. First the discriminatory religious freedom law (which, spoiler alert, was really a way to legalize homophobia), then this. Please do better Hoosiers.
  3. Young women’s activism—My optimism for the future is constantly restored by young radvocates’ work to undo sexism, promote peace, and dismantle rape culture.
  4. Amy Schumer—She is on feminist fire right now. Sketches on birth control, sexism in Hollywood, and spoofs that point out double standards galore are warming this feminist killjoy’s heart.

  1. Weight-loss shows—Ugh. I recently saw an ad for some show that was probably called “Extreme ways to shame and stigmatize your body.” I’m so ready to stop body policing and celebrate health in a new way.
  2. PG-13 movies—This is really for my eight-year-old son who is sad that many of the movies that are aimed at kids contain so much graphic violence that even in our violence-tolerant culture they are rated PG-13. I’m looking at you Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers.
  3. Purity culture—Recent events have brought this one to light, but yuck, just yuck. How about we acknowledge that all of us are sexual beings and need tools and information to help us make the best decisions for ourselves.
  4. Police shootings—This one hits home. Olympia recently joined the many other cities in the country where unarmed black men were shot by a white police officer. There are still many unknowns, but the one thing we do know is that even if there was no malice, racism is part of the air we breathe and to deny that we all are impacted by it is disingenuous at least and dangerous at worst.
  5. Mattresses—Rape culture had a powerful opponent with the courageous Emma Sulkowicz. Cheers.
  6. Eleanor and Park—I love young adult lit and this book sparked so much joy and angst in me. If you want to remember what it is to be young and in love, read this book.

What’s the deal with so-called male feminists? You know who I’m talking about. Men who say they support women, call for equal pay and wear Pro-Choice tees and then get caught for sexual harassment. Or the guy that’s shocked by the “obvious misinterpretation” of what he’s doing and is like “But I love women! Look at my t-shirt—solidarity, sister! We’re cool, right?” WRONG.

 

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of great dudes out there. Some who truly understand feminism and act on behalf of the rights of women. What does that dude look like? Here are my thoughts:

  • He makes space to amplify the voices of the women in the room. This means consciously not talking or offering his commentary on everything the women say, even if it’s supportive. We don’t need your constant approval, dude.
  • He refrains from making sexist jokes and remarks (which means he knows what would constitute a sexist joke or remark), and he lets other dudes know that it’s not cool when they do.
  • He makes space to include women in places where they are absent in ways that are not patronizing or disrespectful.
  • He offers support to women-centered organizations, asks how he can help, and does not take the lead.

I’d like to see more dude feminists step up. And being a feminist does not mean declaring it from the mountain top—actions speak much louder than words. When men support women to be heard and respected, abuse of women will have less and less space to exist. It won’t be tolerated. It will be stopped before it gets dangerous. There will be powerful social consequences for abusers. I’m looking forward to that.

Lately my internet life has been inundated with debate over 50 Shades of Grey. So far, I’ve heard that the movie perpetuates violence against women, that it’s empowering for women, that it reinforces negative stereotypes around BDSM, that it’s an appealing fantasy. I haven’t read the books or seen the movie but 50 Shades of Grey has become a cultural phenomenon that is hard to ignore.

"50ShadesofGreyCoverArt" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpg#mediaviewer/File:50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpgI just want to start out acknowledging that there is no lack of movies (or books) that glamorize controlling, abusive, and unhealthy relationships. Have you ever seen a movie that follows the story of a young, naïve women who meets a wealthy, powerful, and troubled man who uses manipulative, controlling tactics, and then claims it as true love? Does Beauty and the Beast come to mind? How about Twilight?

So, why is this story the one to spark a debate? I don’t know. But whether you like it or hate it, it has launched people into a dialogue around topics our culture largely ignores and thinks of as taboo—what healthy sex looks like, women’s sexuality, domestic violence, and emotional abuse. I wish these conversations had been happening when I was younger. Instead of being taught that my sexuality was to be guarded, shameful, or simply not important, I wish I had been told that women have the freedom and agency to choose and explore. I wish I had been told that abuse can be emotional, not just physical.

Everyone deserves to be in a good relationship. Everyone deserves the freedom to choose what their relationship looks like, what their sexuality looks like and what their love looks like. Whether you see or read 50 Shades of Gray or not, I encourage you to use it as  a way to talk to your kids, your partner, and your friends about the dynamics of domestic violence, about what a good relationship is (and is not), and what healthy, consensual sex looks like.

When I was a child, every year at about this time I would wait for the “World Book Encyclopedia Year Book” to be delivered to our house. When it arrived, I would skim it cover to cover, examine the pictures, and read the chapters on sports and science. For me, it was an annual crash course in world events. Once I closed the book, I was ready for the next year. I miss that Year Book. I miss the pictures. I miss the ritual of considering what it means to be human.

Everything happens now in real time. See it, post it, comment, move on. On January 1st, we were already looking at what happened on January 1st. But I want to go back to 2014…

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This picture grabbed me, as did the story. It is a heartwarming, heart-tugging, snapshot of humanity. It also begs us to reconcile a most discomfiting combination of rage, hope, resistance, trust, cynicism, and love. Shortly after I saw it, I had the opportunity to join in #BlackLivesMatter, which lifts up, again, this complexity of emotions.

No mother wants to bury her son. Not Trina Greene. And not the mothers of Devonte Hart. Instead of spending the next few minutes reading more about what I think, please just look at the picture and watch the video again. And then consider what it means to be human.

In 2014 we said that Black Lives Matter. In 2015, let’s make sure they do.

Mrs. Ericson used to stand solid as a rock between the rows of high school desks and compel us through the sheer force of her love of literature to love it too. I never read willingly before she was my teacher, and I never stopped devouring books after.

She popped into my head the other day, as random memories do, though accompanied by an unusually strong feeling of appreciation and love. It took me by surprise.

What followed was a meandering of memories—the people, famous and unknown, for whom I hold the deepest appreciation. In this season of thanksgiving, it seems fitting to call a few of them out.

Thank you Joseph Campbell, who with Bill Moyers shined a brilliant light on myth and the hero’s journey. I think their messages are more relevant than ever as men struggle with the purpose of violence. Though Joseph Campbell did not speak of the heroine’s journey and was decidedly a man of his time in his use of gender pronouns, I remember feeling remarkable resonance with his ideas—compelled to listen as though he were speaking directly to me.

Thank you Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield for putting me solidly on the road to exploring what mindfulness, as the Buddha taught it, has to do with violence and the end of violence.

Thank you Norma Wong and Ellen Pence for your deep and wide understanding of domestic violence. Today I am especially aware that what the two of you have in common is, yes, brilliant minds, but also an enduring curiosity and loving engagement that helps all of us think more critically and act more courageously.

And finally thank you Mary Oliver and Rumi for poetry. A long time ago, I was driving down the road listening to a poet reading his work. It was a beautiful autumn-roadday and I was transported by the magic of the words, even as I became vaguely aware of a funny burning smell. I’d like to tell you that self-preservation trumped the ethereal moment, but it didn’t. I ended up with an expensive tow. But that experience was a reminder about the power of beauty, art, and words; as important to our humanity as food and shelter.

So hurray for the teachers, the authors, and the poets—for the bloggers and the readers. May you find joy in remembering your people. Gratitude abounds.

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