Princess boy

A new children’s book, My Princess Boy, tells the story of 5-year-old Dyson Kilodavis – a Seattle boy who loves dressing up in pretty, sparkly dresses – and his family’s support for him to be himself. A video of the Kilodavis family’s appearance on a local talk show has been viewed over 100,000 times. What Dyson’s family is doing is so simple, yet it has clearly touched a nerve.

Kids do all kinds of funny things, but when boys cross gender lines, adults get anxious. Why? Sometimes it comes from a homophobic fear that a boy who wears princess dresses will grow up to be gay. Sometimes they’re just worried that he’ll be rejected by peers and targeted by bullies.

I think we should worry more that when we pressure boys to reject “girl things” it sets them up to feel ashamed of important parts of themselves – the sweet, the expressive, the magical. Michael Kaufman argues compellingly that societal pressure on men to conform to “expectations of masculinity” contributes to men’s violence against women and homophobic violence.

I have four young sons who like baseball and racecars and mud. They also like tight sparkly jeans, pink cowboy boots, and tutus. They like the things that make them happy not because they are “boy things” or “girl things” but because they are fancy, or fun, or (in the case of the glitter jeans) “sooo rock and roll”. I want them to know that the sparkly things in life are not off limits to them now or ever. Boys need adults’ permission to like what they like, and they need to see grown men who embrace beauty and sweetness.

Even though he liked the pull ups labeled “GIRLS”, my 3 year old was suspicious: “Are these for girls?” he wanted to know. I told him, “Well…they’re for anybody who likes butterflies. And rainbows. And pink.” Relieved, he shouted “Oh good! I like butterflies!”

Me too.

The tough questions

After reading last week’s post, I took the call to action and talked to my 13-year old twins about bullying. Because of my work, we’ve had lots of chats about violence in families. But we hadn’t yet talked about how kids treat each other at school.

I asked if they say anything when kids call someone “gay” or “faggot.” Turns out they might – if it’s directed at one of their friends. But more often they don’t, because they’re scared and don’t know what to say. Their school has an anti-bullying curriculum, but it hasn’t given any concrete answers to their questions: “What can I do?” “What if they start saying those mean things to me?”

They deserve answers. I can’t be the only adult in their life having this conversation with them. I want their school more involved. I want their teachers to have strategies for integrating bullying prevention into daily school life and I want them to answer those tough questions. I want my kids to learn, as the poet Audre Lorde said “Your silence will not protect you.”

After I talked to my kids I felt discouraged. But then I found that a local organization has become a national expert on this. Did you know The Safe Schools Coalition will intervene on behalf of individual students? And they have great practical advice for kids and teachers. I encourage you to print one of these out and give it to a kid or teacher you know. I did.

It gets better?

The recent rash of LBTG youth suicides make it clear that we have to change how we treat one another. Like domestic and sexual violence, this kind of bullying sends the  message that control, manipulation, and violence are tools that get you what you want.  And we have to stop it.

The “It Gets Better” Project lets LBTG adults who have survived bullying tell young people that things will get better. But is this enough? Or do we need to change the conditions that allow this to happen in the first place?

I’ve been thinking about the bystanders who witness bullying and choose to ignore it (maybe you’re glad it’s not you today) or participate (maybe you laugh or repost that degrading message). And what about the adults who think that this is just part of youth culture? What are they really saying by not speaking up?

I know there are complicated reasons for why bystanders do what they do, whether it’s fear for their own safety or not knowing how to respond. But the kind of violence that LBTG and other youth often endure should not be a rite of passage.

So, it may get better. And yes, we get stronger. But the question really is: How can we start making it better today? Let’s speak up against bullying – and support those who already do – so that we can create communities where any kind of violence is unacceptable.

Gaga about activism?

My job involves studying domestic violence homicides. So it’s no surprise that I’m against violent images in music videos. And when stars wear outrageous clothing to get more attention, I am even less interested in the politics of their fame.

Lady Gaga does both these things. But I’m inspired by how she uses her popularity for social and political activism, like taking a stand against SB1070 and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

So how do I reconcile all this? Or should I even try? A coworker told me that to her, Lady Gaga “embodies the complexity of the human experience. She makes me realize that we can’t look at what she is doing in a binary way.”

Maybe we should take this as an opportunity to re-think our views on feminism? And maybe the outrageousness of Lady Gaga’s videos is a brilliant way of challenging our societal norms around sexuality, power and violence?

While I think about Lady Gaga’s choices and messages, I think I’ll listen to (not watch) “Just Dance.”

1-2 sucker punch

Another domestic violence awareness month is upon us. Oh yeah, and another breast cancer awareness month.

I cannot name two issues that strike more directly at the heart of every woman … and anyone who’s ever loved a woman.

But I mean, really? Who wants to be more aware of disease and violence? Personally, I am all too aware of these dismal, depressing things.

Cancer and domestic violence have flattened me with a 1-2 sucker punch. Unless you are a really good friend of mine, I don’t think you want to hear about the ravages of being bald, ashen, and exhausted from chemotherapy. And honest, you don’t want to know the horrific details about the domestic violence murder suicide in my family.

Trust me. You do not.

And I don’t blame you.

But how about the flip side? What if we focused on what could be and how to make that happen?

What if I came to you and said: “October is Women’s Health and Liberation Month?” How about we spend at least 31 days each year being aware of the possibilities?

The prospect of equality.

The dream of universal healthcare.

The vision of prevention (not early detection or intervention) for both cancer and domestic violence?

How about that?

Our summer of discontent

We are pleased to bring you a post from our first guest blogger – Nan Stoops, our executive director.

I am a baseball fan. I love the game. I watch, I play, I coach.

My mother followed the Red Sox and raised me on the Cubs. Her mantra was “suffering builds character.” I never really understood it, but I knew better than to question her about baseball.

We partner with the Seattle Mariners on the Refuse To Abuse™ violence prevention campaign. For 13 years, the Mariners have been the only MLB team to focus on violence against women. Make no mistake, I am proud of this effort.

But 2010 has been rough. The Mariners made a remarkably fast exit from playoff contention. And then came the trade that brought us Josh Leuke – a minor league pitcher who had been charged with rape.

In dealing with the public reaction to this trade, the Mariners are experiencing what we have always known: doing the right thing is complicated. Especially during a losing season when fans are restless and unhappy. People ask me why we continue to partner with them. Here’s why.

With Refuse To Abuse™, the Mariners agree to be held to a high standard. We applaud that. We expect them to “walk the talk” and we know they will stumble. After all, learning and changing is a slow, painful process.

Justice requires 3 things: truth-telling, accountability, and restoration.  We expect that from everyone we work with. Including the Mariners.

For my home team, the degree to which “suffering builds character” remains to be seen. But the other thing my mother always said was, “quit while you’re ahead.” On the justice-front, we’re not ahead yet. So, in work and in baseball, I plan to keep showing up – until the pennant belongs to us.

What an anti-violence expert learned from the BBC

After ten years of working against domestic violence, I was fairly sure I “got it.” Then something really crazy happened to me: doctors found a gigantic tumor in my six-month-old baby daughter’s head.

It was a rare, aggressive cancer. She went through brain surgery, intense chemotherapy and radiation. We spent six months in the hospital and even traveled across the country to get what she needed.

We referred to the whole ordeal as the “BBC” (Baby with Brain Cancer), believing that something as ridiculous as childhood cancer deserved a ridiculous nickname.

When I came back to work, I began to see the experiences of abused people in a new light and saw many parallels to my experience:

When your intimate partner is abusing you:

And/Or

When your child is diagnosed with cancer:
  • It is unexpected, devastating and totally inconsistent with your dreams and desires
  • You have to make some tough decisions when all of your options are pretty crappy
  • You need your family, friends and community more than ever
  • It’s hard to concentrate on anything else when lives are on the line
  • In shelters and hospitals: sharing space with strangers and dealing with institutional rules is a drag
  • Money makes a huge difference

I did notice one key difference: Our family got oodles of sympathy and tangible support, and virtually no one questioned our choices. But what I have seen in my work is that many survivors of abuse get the opposite reaction. The experiences are similar; the stakes are equally high, but the response tends to be a lot less supportive. Why is that?

P.S. My daughter is currently showing no evidence of disease. But just like survivors of abuse, the fear of what might happen still lingers.

Gay divorcees

Same sex couples can legally marry in five states and the District of Columbia. But state law allowing marriage is not enough. Without federal recognition, the benefits and protections that marriage affords same sex spouses are not portable from state to state. As several recent cases show, couples may not be able to get a divorce anywhere their marriage isn’t recognized. For LGBT survivors of domestic violence, this can mean being legally tied to an abuser with no way to divide property or establish child custody.

The right to divorce doesn’t make for feel-good campaigns about equality and love. (And when was the last time you heard anti-gay activists insist on preserving the sanctity of divorce between one man and one woman?) Yet the ability to get out of a legal marriage contract is every bit as important as the right to get in.

All of us who care about ending domestic violence need to fight for full marriage equality. We need to demand that the federal government recognize all marriages. Anything less leaves LGBT partners vulnerable.

She’s lying to me

These are the questions that run through my head when people tell me that battered women lie:

  • What do you really need to know?
  • Why do you need to know it?
  • Why do you think you need ‘the whole truth’ in order to help her get what she needs?
  • How does your judgment of her affect what you do?

Omission does not equal deception. And, lying does not mean that she doesn’t deserve our help. When we focus on her honesty or lack thereof, we’re saying that battered women are not credible and therefore are not worth our time, our compassion, our action.

Listen to what she is asking of you. Figure out what you can do and offer help. You don’t have to fix anything or anybody. Don’t underestimate the power of trying to connect with her and understand what she wants.

Believe that she’s telling you everything you need to know. Believe that you can’t choose for someone else. Believe that you can act.

It is hardest thing in the world to trust someone else – just ask a battered woman.

Everybody needs a little knipple

Recently, while sharing stories about her family, a coworker mentioned that she kept finding knipples in her mother’s house. After an awkward silence, she explained that “knipple” (pronounce the “k”) was a Yiddish word that meant a woman’s secret stash of money. That got me thinking—this sounds like a pretty good idea.

When a woman has money, it gives her more options and more power to make her own decisions. This makes her life more stable and gives her flexibility to respond if things go south (like in her relationship). Sure, it’s important to have community resources like affordable housing, food banks, and so on. But nothing gives you freedom, and that includes freedom from abuse, like cold hard cash.

Knipple

It would be great if we all had a rich uncle who could overnight us a boatload of Benjamins, but we’re not all so lucky. We need to find ways for women to access cash when they need it, promote financial education, and protect and expand welfare  programs that already exist. Because, at some point, everybody needs a little knipple.