Don’t forget Orlando

This week we’re sharing a post from Eleanor Powell, our summer intern.

I could write about how angry I am. I could write that I had more faith in this country, that I believe people are fundamentally good and honest, not born with hate in their souls. I could, but I won’t.

The truth is I don’t expect much better from this country. At a mere 18 years of age, after witnessing countless incidents of racialized police brutality across the country over the past few years, I have already become numb to gun violence against the oppressed, and the shooting at Pulse in Orlando is no different. I wish I could say with the fervor of straight allies that I’m shocked such a hate crime could happen in the year 2016… but I’m not. Blatant hatred towards LGBTQ+ folk is never surprising to me. Even in a city as liberal as Seattle, I am afraid to walk out of my house looking too gay/dykey/gender non-conforming. Public spaces are always places of anxiety for LGBTQ+ folk, and with the added intersectionalities of being a woman of color, I very rarely feel safe outside of my own home.

For many LGTBQ+ folk, their homes are not safe because they live with abusive families or partners. While abuse occurs at the same rate in same-gender couples as it does in straight couples, bisexual women are almost twice as likely to be rape or abused by their partners than straight or lesbian women. Now, one of the few safe spaces for LGBTQ+ folk, especially survivors, has been compromised. After Orlando, I did not go to any more Pride events. I am even more conscious of what I wear and how I act in public―I am terrified. And so are the rest of the LGBTQ+ folk, the people of color, and the women in this country, because our oppressors keep telling us through hate speech and hate crimes that our lives are not worth as much as theirs.

I am not just angry, I am sad. Really, really, really sad, and scared, and just plain tired. I am tired of being hated, tired of hating myself, tired of trying to not hate myself while others like me are being murdered in safe spaces.

Staying hopeful after events such as Orlando happen is difficult, but not impossible. Pride Month is almost over, but that does not mean all LGBTQ+ folk go back in the closet until next June. Nor does it mean that we will forget Orlando. If it is safe to do so, be out, be proud, be who you were destined to be.

To the 49 people who lost their lives, may you rest in love and peace and power. To those still alive, may you find the strength to continue living.

An open letter to my son

"Almost done"Last Thursday you sent me this picture with the message “almost done.” Your dorm room was clean and you were packing up to come home. You have done more than survive your first year of college; you have done well. You ran with discipline, you took your classes seriously, you made friends, you found your way. I’ve told you I’m proud of you, and here it is in writing. I mean it.

I’m glad you’re home. I always need to look at you, have you close, to know that you’re still whole. These are troubling times.

I had intended to write to you about the Stanford rape case. I want to know if you read the victim’s statement. And what do you make of what Brock Turner’s father said? I had thought I would write about justice and how I don’t think the answer is to give Brock Turner the same sentence a Black man would get. That’s the wrong twist on equality.

I want you to be invincible, especially now in a world that seems so destructive, but I worry about how invincibility contributes to momentary lapses in judgment that can have devastating consequences. I worry about you being hurt. If you are, I will do everything I can to help you heal and be whole again. I worry about you hurting someone else. If you do, I will do everything I can to help you take responsibility and to explore a justice that can help everyone with healing and wholeness.

I was overwhelmed by the last paragraph of the victim’s statement. I read it over and over―her promise to girls everywhere. In spite of what she has been through, she claims her power and extends it to others, with love and with hope. It was a victory of sorts―she will not be defined by what Brock Turner did to her. None of us will. Not the young women you run and party with. And not you. That’s the point. You are not Brock Turner. You can stand with her.

That would have been the end of this letter. But then the shooting in Orlando happened, and I can’t ignore it. The airwaves are exploding with information and opinion. It’s as if the piecing together of timelines and facts will make sense of something that makes no sense at all. There should be no war of attribution here: ISIS, homophobia, domestic violence, guns. The protections we have created, and the ways we enforce them, don’t work. Could any amount of knowledge and any number of warnings have stopped Omar Mateen from doing what he did? Punishment and isolation are not the antidotes for hatred. Already this is coming through with Pride.

My thoughts are not as coherent as I want them to be. All I am trying to say is that your humanity has been compromised by Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. There are limits to what a mother’s fierce love for her son can provide. Until you return to campus for your sophomore year, I can have the illusion of making the world right for you and keeping you whole. Today that is what I have. I’m glad you’re home.

Teen activists in action

We’re excited to bring you a guest blog post from Quinn Angelou-Lysaker of Franklin High School’s Feminist Union, an energetic student-led group that has been tackling teen domestic violence along with other feminist issues.
On January 13th, Franklin High School’s own Feminist Union lead a class we called “Intersectional Feminism 101.” Five members of our leadership team created an activity based on WSCADV’s game In Their Shoes. In Their Shoes takes participants through a story about an abusive relationship, where they’re asked to make decisions as the story progresses. We used this idea and wrote our own stories in which sexism and other forms of oppression intersect. One story was about a black girl who was forced to resign from a theater program because she wouldn’t straighten her natural hair. Another followed the story of a boy with two gay mothers who makes some homophobic friends in school. We also used one of the original stories from In Their Shoes about a Mexican girl whose relationship with a boy becomes abusive.

franklin-feminist-union-teensThere was a healthy turn out of both boys and girls, which we were glad to see. As I spoke to groups participating, I found that it was easier for them to detect the racism, classism or homophobia in the stories than the sexism. But as groups went through more and more stories, it became more clear to them how multiple kinds of discrimination could exist in the same situation. It was interesting to hear how people identified with the characters, like to “Cassandra,” the gay daughter of conservative Chinese immigrants. They had insightful comments about how if she were straight, she would have more resources (like her parents) to get her out of her abusive relationship. Overall, people seemed to enjoy the activity and learn a lot.

Root causes

For the last 34 years, October has been recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And I’m all for it—except for one little word. Let’s change Awareness to ACTION. We’re all aware that domestic violence occurs and is unacceptable, so it’s time to do something about it.

In honor of Domestic Violence ACTION Month I’ll be blogging all month about what it takes to end domestic violence. It is our view (at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence) that to prevent violence we need to:

Address root causes of violence, Shift culture, Build Skills, Promote healthy relationships

So let’s get started. How do we address root causes of violence? What does that look like?

I just spent three amazing days at our annual conference. Root causes of violence were at the heart of our discussions on government deportation policies, racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few. Working to interrupt any of these oppressions is part of addressing root causes of violence. Because ultimately we know that if there is a system in place that values one person over another—for any reason whether it be racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia—that system also allows domestic violence to flourish and thrive.

It seems like a daunting task, but I know change can happen. I want to tell you a story.

When I was three and my sister was six, my Uncle Jerry and Uncle Sean came to visit us. This was such a treat. What kids wouldn’t be squealing with delight when their uncles with purple and yellow hair and rainbow sequin tennis shoes came to shower them with love and affection? So we were pretty excited to show them around our neighborhood. In the time it took for us to take a walk around the block, my mother received a frantic phone call from a neighbor:

“I just saw your children on the shoulders of two weird men holding hands.”

My mother responded, “Those aren’t weird men, that’s my brother and his lover.”

The phone call ended with a click.

That neighbor never spoke to my mother again.

Fast forward to this summer, when I took my children to two (gay) weddings where the only thing that was weird was how darn hot it was for Western Washington.

This shift didn’t just happen. We fought for this change. When we at WSCADV stood in solidarity with Washington United for Marriage we did it not only because it was the right thing to do but because we understood that we must stand together if we want justice.

I know that things aren’t perfect. But I also know that when people are allowed to be who they are, the threat of violence is less. I know that if we take homophobia out of the equation, and people are not punished for being who they are, that relationships are healthier, and that ultimately we are all the better for it.

A change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A feminist killjoy’s Top Ten list

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 IS wrong with this picture?

I showed my friend a picture of this billboard and asked her “What do you think about this?”

PLU-billboard

I had actually passed the billboard on my way to do an errand and it just nagged at me. On my way home, I pulled over and took the picture. I kept wondering, why is this black woman responsible for ending hate speech?

My friend struggled to put into words why she thought the message was off kilter. Another friend walked by and commented, “But look, what do you expect? This is the Lutherans.”

Hey, hey, hey. I was born into a Lutheran household. And probably would have been raised Lutheran except the (married) pastor came onto my (married) mom, and she wasn’t having it.

No. I was raised Unitarian which instilled a world view that nobody, not even the Lutherans, but  especially not the Unitarians, are off the hook in the daily grind to end racism.

And clearly, Pacific Lutheran University does not want to be off the hook. Good on them for getting out there and splashing a message on a billboard. This takes a lot of courage, because you have to know that (a) you are going to draw out the haters; (b) the chances that you are going to get the solution to racism right on a billboard hover somewhere around zero; and (c) since you can’t get it right, you are going to hear about it.

In a nutshell (which is almost as bad as a billboard) here’s what I think about it. Individual black women can stop saying hateful things to one another, but they do not (as just one example) set the salary scale. White people do. So it’s really a matter of figuring out how to get white people to stop saying hateful things to people of color—and then get white people to stop thinking hateful things about people of color—and then get white people to stop paying black women a lower wage than white men for doing the exact same job.

PLU is educating a lot of white people who are going to graduate into a whole lot of power to actually DO something if they understand what the real solutions are. It would be amazing to give every student a sophisticated, multi-year, down and dirty academic challenge to understand the roots, trunk, and branches of racism.

I set out to critique the critique—meaning the overabundance and corrosive nature of the criticism that flies through the internet when any individual or institution tries to say something to oppose racism, sexism, and homophobia.

And look what I did. I criticized.

I’m left wondering what the role of honest and kind criticism is. How do we fan the flames of understanding and creativity? How do we say “Hey, PLU, excellent effort. Keep going.”

It’s National Coming Out Day!

390x420_ComingOutDay-KeithHaringtPerhaps in this age of increasing support for gay rights, marriage equality laws, and the oh-so-popular Ellen, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a need for this day anymore.

But it is needed.

We talk a lot about community and relationships here, on this blog and in the work we do throughout the state. Part of what makes a relationship healthy is integrity, right? If you’re not able to be your full, honest self due to safety concerns or worries about being cast out of your community, what kind of relationship is that? Not much of one, in my book.

Being out actually relates quite intimately to domestic violence. Abusers will often use sexuality and gender identity against their partners and threaten to out them to their families or employers. This is particularly the case for trans women and men: someone who has transitioned may not have told their employers about their past (partly because it’s really none of their business, but also because they may be fired because of it). Additionally, abusers may use their partner’s identity as a way to belittle and humiliate them (“you’re not a ‘real’ woman, no one else would ever want you” or “I know you’ll just leave me for a man”).

When you consider the disproportionately higher rate of unemployment AND higher rates of domestic violence (and all other forms of violence) for trans folks, particularly trans women (and even more particularly, trans women of color), you can see how this would make someone feel trapped in an abusive relationship.

Although the reality is that some people need to remain closeted for their own safety, coming out is still a powerful, vulnerable, and important act. Coming out helps put a human face on issues like  homophobia and transphobia. Coming out helps create a domino effect, allowing more and more people to be an integrated, authentic part of their communities.

Gut check

Photo by VIUDeepBay
Photo by VIUDeepBay

Last summer was the fourth year my family spent a weekend at Jewish family camp. It’s a great experience that I look forward to. Campfires, talent show, crafts, folk dancing, learning and building community, all on the shores of Puget Sound.

Last year was all those great things once again. But I also had an unsettling experience that I’ve been thinking about since. One of my boys had a tough time in the kids program. He is a sensitive kid, and the stress and stimulation of camp was more than he could handle. He was agitated and needed help to calm down. The children’s program director—who was also a teacher at a local synagogue’s religious school—stepped in.

The way he handled the situation was spectacularly unhelpful. It was like a textbook of what not to do to de-escalate a kid. Over several conversations, his responses ranged from inappropriate to absurd. He ranted about being in charge. He was self-absorbed. He warned my kindergartner not to “start fights he couldn’t finish.” It quickly became clear to me he did not have the skill or emotional maturity for the job he was doing. I wondered how he could have kept his job as a religious school teacher if this was how he handled conflict with kids and parents.

I recently learned that this program director, Lydia Katz (pronounced L’Dee-ah), is in prison on child molestation charges. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he taught in religious school. According to news reports, the sexual abuse went on the same summer he spent with us at camp.

When I heard the news I was shocked but not surprised. I started rethinking what I saw and didn’t see, what I did and what I should have done.

The charging papers described Lydia as a “dynamic and charismatic individual who is able to easily engage with youth.” One way of seeing him was as flamboyant, fun, youthful, outside the box. Another was as narcissistic, immature, manipulative.

Sometimes we do exactly the wrong things to protect our kids from exactly the wrong people. A friend’s preschooler came home recently from a “safety” presentation convinced that “strangers will murder you, your sister, your parents, and your dog.”

Telling kids to fear all strangers is a useless message. And the flip side of that message is downright dangerous: you can trust all adults who you “know.” It is not that trusted adults are likely to be abusers, but abusers absolutely are likely to be trusted adults. (90% of teens who are sexually assaulted are hurt by someone they know. That number is even higher for younger victims.)

The world where only strangers and monsters are unsafe is a fantasy. As much as I may wish I could teach my kids a simple rule that would keep them safe, in the real world they need to develop independent judgment about who to trust. I try to talk to them about the complex process I use to gauge whether someone is safe or trustworthy. I explain why I decided to open the door for this stranger, but not another. Why I chose this neighbor’s house as the place they should go if they need help. When I will talk with someone on the street, and when I just keep walking. Even as young kids, they have to make these decisions all the time, and I want us to practice together.

Now we have the chance to reflect and practice as a community. I’m sure I was not the only one who noticed Lydia was immature and had terrible boundaries. What did we think that meant at the time? What do we see now, with the clarity of hindsight?

This is not about assigning blame. This is gut check practice.

It takes practice—even as an adult—in part because our gut reactions are not pure. We all internalize a lot of garbage that can be hard to filter out. My oldest son once wanted to know, “is it racist if I don’t like someone who’s African American?” My first answer was no—assuming you’re not rejecting a person because of their race, you can dislike whoever you want without being racist. Of course that is true, but I told him he also needs to know this: racism can gum up the works of your intuition. Unconscious negative messages can interfere with your gut feeling about the person in front of you. You can develop strong and reliable intuition by being aware of your feelings and talking about them.

Lydia is a mixed race, Black and Jewish, gender bending young man with a large personality and a big dramatic streak. Some of the news coverage made it sound like that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. But being uncomfortable is not enough to identify a problem. You have to figure out if you are uncomfortable for the right reasons. Racism and homophobia can serve as dazzle camouflage—a cloud of confusion that an abuser can use to hide in plain sight.

It is important for kids to know that the adults in this situation know exactly what happened, without euphemisms or ambiguity. Being confused leaves too much room for excuses, minimizing, and victim blaming.

I will tell my kids this: Lydia did not deserve the trust he was given. He had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He sent her “romantic” messages. He used the trust he had as her teacher to his own advantage. He put his own desires ahead of his responsibility not to hurt her. He knew it was wrong and he knew it was illegal. He lied about it and he asked her mother to keep it secret. If you had a feeling that Lydia was not okay, you were right. That gut feeling was right. Remember what that felt like, and practice trusting that feeling. Let’s talk about what you can do when you have that feeling again.

Boys will be boys?

Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.tough-boys

After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”

Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.

Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”

The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.

So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.

I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.

*explicit language

You’re not alone, Mike

When the video was released of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice hurling vile epithets at his players and roughing them up during practice, the public outrage was swift and nearly unanimous.  Sports reporters, athletes, public officials piled on: “frightening,” “medieval”, “unacceptable.

This should all be reassuring—evidence of our collective intolerance for bullying. But instead, the condemnation left me disoriented. I turned on the news one morning to find out misogyny and homophobia are off-limits in sports culture. What planet am I on?

Mike-RiceThe fact is we live in two parallel universes. In one, the kind of abuse that Rice dished out is run of the mill. Common, if not condoned. It has its defenders: those who insist that boys need toughening up, and only naive liberals are shocked by coaches using slurs like “c*nts” and “f***ing f*ggots” to motivate their players.

In the other universe, coaches are expected to be upstanding role models, community leaders, molders of virtuous young men. In this world, we are shocked and horrified that such a person would abuse his authority. It is hard to understand why the players didn’t speak up or fight back. We hear a question familiar to any domestic violence survivor: why didn’t they just leave?

Rice’s coaching techniques weren’t exactly a secret before the infamous “highlight reel” of abuse became public. Lots of people attended practices where he belittled his players. University officials had already seen the video that was later leaked. Rice’s sideline rants during games were nationally televised. I have a hard time believing anyone familiar with competitive sports was truly shocked.

Maybe what’s going on here is that we have had a culture shift, but that shift has not yet taken root in the locker room. Maybe most people these days really believe that using humiliation and homophobia to attack players is unacceptable and damaging. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Rice’s style of “coaching” is truly rare, not just rarely captured on tape.

Or maybe we just want it both ways. Winners at any cost, as long as the cost stays hidden.