Mapping American Social Attitudes

28 03 2012

I’ve found maps fascinating ever since I was a wee lad. I remember getting a globe for my birthday in 1986 and an atlas for Christmas in 1991, and getting new maps and globes over the years to watch the changes in national boundaries. I was shitty at math but adored maps. Maps say so much in pictures  about people, politics, migratory patterns, industry, the environment, natural resources, social attitudes, and loads of other hot, steamy, bloggable stuff. Looking at different maps of the United States, we can see a stark divide in political and social attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Here I want you to take a look at some maps of the U.S. to see where different attitudes are concentrated. It’s amazing to see the clear patterning of regional differences, which in turn shows us where we have our work cut out for us in terms of achieving social equity.

We can start this work by looking at the political attitudes, which frequently overlap with social ones. Consider the following maps of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The first map shows states with red, Republican majorities, and those with blue, Democratic majorities; the second one shows this same information, but with a focus on population density.

As we can see, Republican voters were clustered in the south, the Great Plains, and the interior west, while Democratic voters were clustered in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west coast. As it so happens, the red areas also generally reflect sparsely populated areas, and the blue areas, more densely populated areas, revealing a correlation between cities and Democratic values.

But does the Republican-Democrat divide reflect something more than just urban versus rural? If we look at the following Gallup maps from 2011 and 2010, respectively, we get a better idea how conservatives and liberals are distributed across the country.

Not only are the northeast and northwest regions predominantly Democratic and urban, but they are also decidedly more liberal than the south and the midland. (The midland tends to be a grey area, as we shall see.) The ideological divide along geographical lines begins to deepen. Urbanity, Democratic politics, and liberalism begin to characterize the northeast and west coast while rurality, Republican politics, and conservatism begin to characterize the hinterland.

The regional difference comes into even sharper focus when we look at education and religiosity in America. Below is a 2009 Gallup map showing the most religious and most secular states in the country as well as a 2000 Census Bureau map showing educational attainment.

As the first map suggests, the south is much more religious than average, while Cascadia and New England are much more secular than average. The second map shows the inverse for education: the more secular areas tend to have better-educated people, and the more religious areas tend to have less-educated people, especially when we compare Washington state and Massachusetts with Mississippi. What this seems to show is that religiosity and lower educational attainment pattern together in the south, while secularism and higher educational attainment pattern together in New England and Cascadia (anchored by the cultural and educational centers of Boston and Seattle, respectively).

This ideological divide becomes particularly important when we look at the history of black civil rights in the United States. Consider these maps on slavery and anti-miscegenation laws:

It’s probably no surprise that the south consisted almost entirely of slave states, and the north and west almost entirely of free states and territories. Nor is it surprising that the map of anti-miscegenation laws so closely follows this pattern, with the south resisting the repeal of racist marriage laws until 1967, over one hundred years after slavery was abolished. The south wasn’t always overwhelmingly Republican, though: the region was full of “Dixiecrats” when the liberal Democrat and conservative Republican binary was not as stark as it is today.

But this general pattern of a blue, liberal region wrapping around a red, conservative hinterland doesn’t end with race; it also shows up in opinions about women, women’s rights, and sex differences, as illustrated in the following maps of women’s suffrage laws and attitudes about abortion.

In the suffrage laws map, the divide between a conservative south and a liberal north and west is slightly blurred. Large parts of the northeast joined with the south in resistance to suffrage, but vast parts of the west and northwest remained progressive on this issue, in stark contrast with the south. The north-south binary reappears, however, in the 2006 abortion map, which shows a northeast and west coast far friendlier toward reproductive rights than the south.

The south’s apparent concern for unborn babies seems incompatible with its poor record on child welfare. We see another stark regional difference looking at maps of state-by-state child poverty rates and overall child welfare across the United States.

On the 2008 child welfare map, children are better off in the lighter-shaded areas, which include Washington state, Utah, the Upper Midwest, and New England, but they are worse off in the south–the same part of the country where women’s rights, black civil rights, and post-secondary educational attainment tend to lag behind, and where religiosity tends to flourish. A very similar pattern holds for child poverty rates, with a dark band of impoverished children in the south and a lighter strip of well-off children in the west, north, and northeast.

No discussion of American social attitudes would be complete without mention of gay rights, which seems to be the social justice zeitgeist of our time. It’s everywhere in the news, at least in the United States, where everything is controversial. Once again, the general pattern we have been seeing holds true when we look at the maps below showing the advance of gay rights in the United States.

The first map shows the northeast, Midwest, and west coast taking the lead in knocking down old laws banning sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Most of the south (as well as Mormon country) had to be forced by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to catch up with the rest of the country. And, in typical fashion, the northeast, Midwest (Iowa), and northwest (Washington state) shine bright blue as the beacons in the gay marriage movement, while the south and Great Plains are steeped in a mostly dark blood red. We must take care not to lump the entire south into the category of “retrogressive”, however: one former slave state–Maryland–is now a gay marriage state. Now, that’s a remarkable transformation. How many states can say that they used to have slaves, but they will soon have legally married gay couples if all goes according to plan?

Certainly, looking at a few maps gives only a rough depiction of social attitudes in America, and much more investigation is required to yield a truly refined and nuanced portrait of the issue, but we can still get a general idea where American attitudes lie with respect to the rights of women, minorities, children, poor people, etc., by looking at maps. Cascadia and New England generally represent more liberal, educated, healthy people while the south generally represents the opposite. We can use this kind of knowledge to focus our efforts on helping those who have been targeted for oppression. It isn’t about judging ignorant rubes–it’s about demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. With further research, and with the facts in mind, we can reach out to disenfranchised minorities, abused children, poor people who don’t have money for rent, young pregnant women with no access to reproductive health-care, bullied gay youth with nowhere to go, and the lonely, ostracised atheist or Muslim, with the goal of creating equity for all. This is the purpose of looking at social attitudes in America.

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The “Plug-in-Socket” Paradigm: How Homophobia Overlaps with Sexism

3 03 2012

Homophobia, it turns out, has its roots in good, old-fashioned sexism, and I’ll tell you why. On February 6th, Washington state residents Jennifer Morris and Allison Vance, a 13-year-old, testified against gay marriage before the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. Their argument was basically that gay marriage is wrong because men and women complement one another. The state Legislature didn’t buy their argument, however, as Washington state legalised gay marriage on 13 February, the day before Valentine’s Day. (The Seattle bars were rife with exuberant homosexuals that night.) Still, it is important to deconstruct Morris and Vance’s argument, expose its fallacies, and show how they are motivated by sex stereotypes.

The arguments of people like Morris and Vance are usually put in rather crude, simplistic terms. Lacking a grasp on nuance, they tend to compare marriage with things that involve inserting one object into another in order to make more “stuff”, or to produce something tangible. Consider the analogy Morris draws between copulation and buildings, which the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger reported on in its official blog, Slog:

Today my main message is that specific tools are for specific purposes…. If you were going to build a skyscraper, you would not be putting bolts with bolts and nuts with nuts, because the structure wouldn’t go up. And if it did it would probably fall apart, probably destroying many lives…. I feel very demeaned by the fact that roles don’t seem to matter.

Nuts with nuts. Such prurient imagery. According to Morris, sex is about creating people, not pleasure—despite the fact that the world is verging on 7 billion. Morris seems to care more about the tribal Bronze Age ideal of propogation than the twenty-first-century ideal of sustainability. The notion is that sex is about breeding as much as possible, despite the stress this may place on the environment, and ultimately on people. Echoing Morris, Vance says that trying to make a same-sex-headed family work is “like trying to walk with two left shoes.” She also says that “[i]n order to walk properly, you must wear one left shoe and one right shoe”. In other words,the only proper sexual union is that between a man and a woman, because the only proper sexual union is between two people who can procreate, and only opposite-sex couples can procreate.

Of course, we already know that this is ridiculous, since sterile couples, hysterectomised women, postmenopausal women, and couples who choose not to have children can marry despite their inability or choice not to procreate—because they love each other. For the same reason, then, gay people should be allowed to marry one another. Any adult can marry another adult who consents to the marriage. Simple as that. But conservatives are immune to this kind of reasoning—it tends to go in one ear and out the other, or else they come up with increasingly desperate and tenuous counter-arguments to avoid facing the fact that this kind of reasoning makes perfect sense.

But Morris and Vance’s anti-gay sentiment is not just about procreation—it is about the sex roles associated with these (as Morris herself suggested above). Think about it. Traditional sex roles involve a dominant, independent male penetrating a submissive, dependent female. The male is the logical, aggressive, disciplinarian “yin”, and the female, the intuitive, submissive, nurturing “yang”. The male is the dominant force, and the female, the recessive one. The male is the unemotional breadwinner, and the female, the emotional care-taker. Or else, as in the T.V. show Whitney, the woman is the passive-aggressive psychopath, and the male, some dumb, confused testosterone machine who stares like some fucking dumb piece of numb-brained shit at women’s asses. Here we see Vance’s left and right foot. Her argument against gay marriage is founded on old-fashioned, sentimental ideas about a relationship in which a dominant male complements a submissive female (an inherently hegemonic system), and on teaching children these roles early on.

What does this have to do with lesbians and gays, you may ask? Well, in the view of people like Morris and Vance, lesbians and gays are traitors because their relationships do not involve a man dominating a woman (left versus right shoe). Lesbianism does not involve a man dominating a woman, and male homosexuality does not involve a man dominating a woman. Not only does the rigidly mechanistic “plug-in-socket” scenario of “male and female mate, thereby producing offspring” break down in these relationships, but so do the hegemonic, sex-based social roles which derive from it. In a word, gays and lesbians have sex for pleasure, not to dominate a member of the opposite sex and keep the plug-in-socket hierarchy functional. For this reason, in the eyes of gay-marriage opponents, gay marriage is wrong.

But are traditional sex roles really a desirable thing? I don’t think so. They basically imply that women should be nicer people than men (because they have different limbic systems or whatever). But this is kind of like saying that normal people should be a little bit nicer than psychopaths. We don’t say that psychopaths should be crueller than normal people; we say that they should be as nice as normal people, and so we medicate them accordingly. Similarly, we shouldn’t be saying that men should be meaner than women; we should be be saying that they should be as nice as women, and teach them accordingly. And even if there is some biological explanation for men’s greater aggressiveness, it isn’t an ethical imperative; it is merely an observation of a natural phenomenon, like a genetic predisposition for cancer. We don’t say that those genetically predisposed to cancer should be more susceptible to cancer; we treat them for their condition. So, everybody should be held to the same standard of sensitivity and compassion, and it is simply giving licence to cruelty to say that “boys will be boys”. What gay rights activists should be doing, then, is pointing out that homophobia cannot be justified using sexism, because sexism itself is not justifiable.

Besides, true Christians (who make up a sizeable portion of homophobes) shouldn’t be buying into the temptation of saying that male aggressiveness and female submissiveness are biologically predetermined. They believe in Jesus Christ. Well, the Bible says that Jesus was compassionate (Matt. 9:36), that others should be compassionate (Matt. 18:33), and that Jesus himself commanded people to be like him (John 14:12, 1 Corinthians 4:16). If Jesus was compassionate, if others should be compassionate too, and if he told people to be like him, it follows that Jesus and the Bible required people to be compassionate and peace-loving. Now, because Jesus was male, and because he commanded everybody to be as compassionate as he, he necessarily required males and females to be equally compassionate. After all, he is the common denominator for compassion among Christians. So, while sexism motivates homophobia, if Jesus himself breaks down traditional sex roles, Christians can’t use them to justify homophobia.

I didn’t write this post using the traditional English essay formula; I wrote it in a sort of stream of consciousness format. I guess I was channelling Virginia Woolf or something. Anyway, I wanted to show how homophobia stems from sexism, how sexism is stupid, and how sexists have no basis for using Jesus to justify homophobia, since Jesus-quotes don’t justify sexism. Hopefully I’ve achieved this much. It’s important to emphasise that homophobia and sexism have a lot in common. Both gay people and feminists defy patriarchy by defying traditional sex roles. In order to attack homophobia, what gay rights advocates need to be doing is attacking sexism, since this seems to be used to justify a lot of homophobia. A discussion on gay rights is not complete without mentioning women’s rights at some point. Both concern sex roles and sexual identity, and as such they inform one another. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the recent gay marriage victories in Washington state and Maryland.





Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.





Are We Really “Born This Way”?

11 11 2011

I’m sick of Lady Gerber, but I have to write about her because of this song she wrote about being born with immutable sex characteristics. The danger is in how she implies that these characteristics are unchangeable.

Upon its release, Lady Gerber’s dance hit “Born This Way” instantly became a brazen vindication of homosexuality’s biological basis. The LGBTQ community revelled in the message that homosexuality was immutable and therefore deserved society’s approval. The problem, though, is that the song’s message is founded on the precepts of biological determinism, a philosophy which reinforces the social inequities that the LGBTQ community and other minorities are struggling to eliminate. In other words, the song’s message relies on a socially damaging cop-out about human nature. Perhaps what we need to do is take a fresh approach to gay and lesbian apologetics by critiquing biological determinism for the way in which it disenfranchises us, because it doesn’t necessarily liberate us.

Essentially, biological determinism states that people are born with certain immutable biological characteristics, and that these characteristics help explain the social inequities we see in society. By contrast, social determinism posits that the behaviour of the individual is determined by social mores and institutions. Since they are both forms of determinism, biological and social determinism are the opposite of free will, a philosophy which states that human beings ultimately possess agency and volition over their actions. Finally, compatibilism states that free will and determinism are not incompatible, and that both work together to influence the behaviour of the individual. And then there is epigenetics, which is relevant but lies outside the scope of this article.

One might think that, ostensibly, biological determinism would serve gays and lesbians, because it transfers responsibility for homosexual behaviour from the person to the person’s physiology, thereby exonerating that person of any claims of moral turpitude. According to this view, if homosexuality is biologically predetermined, gays and lesbians are not sinning against God, because they are blameless. A person’s same-sex affection is driven by the neurochemistry of his or her brain, and it is unfair to blame a person for neurobiological processes they cannot control, hence it is unfair to blame a person for his or her same-sex affection. In short, the idea is, “You can’t blame a person for something they can’t control.”

It seems like a triumphant final “hurrah” in defense of homosexuality, but is it really a good philosophy for human beings in general? Maybe not.

Using biological determinism as an excuse for our behaviour might inadvertently hamper efforts at achieving gender equity. The biological determinist model posits that boys are inherently more aggressive, lustful, and dominating than girls, and girls, more passive, emotional, and nurturing than boys, because of some genetically-influenced cocktail of hormones which shaped their brains in the womb. But is this philosophy scientifically sound, and does it serve boys and girls? As Cordelia Fine points out in her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, testosterone does seem to determine which set of genitals a baby will develop, but it does not necessarily determine which toys children like to play with, let alone which types of careers they wish to pursue later in life. She also shows in the first section of the book that the scientific attempt to prove that girls are more empathetic than boys is implausible. Fine shows again and again that the “neuroscience” of hardwired sex differences use to justify gender inequity is methodologically flawed, misinterpreted, or simply nonexistent.

If we think about it, we can see the slippery slope of excuses which might be used if we embrace biologically determined sex inequity: for example, when a man rapes a woman, it isn’t really his fault, because he was being controlled by his testosterone levels. In effect, rapists get off the hook because “boys will be boys”, and girls like to please. In other words, men get to violate women because that is what it means to be a man, and women should just lie back and think of England. But biological impulse does not excuse rape, because rape hurts people. I know. Novel concept. If you’re impelled to rape, you deserve to be sequestered, medicated, and treated psychiatrically, not excused because of your testosterone levels. And if you continue to try to rape, a stable of women martial artists should be set on your ass to put you in your place, bitch.

But bio-determinism is dehumanizing for another important reason: empathy is something that defines us as human beings (or as mammals at least), and we need as much of it as we can get, but bio-determinism posits that boys are inherently less empathetic than girls, so, essentially, what it is suggesting is that half of the human race should be crueller than the other half. This is absurd if our goal is to encourage the greatest degree of empathy possible in everybody, male or female. If empathy is so valuable, why are we making exceptions for it? That’s just schizophrenic–it’s shooting ourselves in the foot. Does the LGBTQ community really want to endorse such ridiculously irrational self-limitation? I hope not.

Bio-determinism could even be used to justify racism. As bio-determinists, we might argue that black people are inherently more violent than white people in order to explain the disproportionately high number of black people in American prisons. We might also invoke bio-determinism to explain the higher mortality rate of black people, and why they need this-or-that medicine (the commercialisation of race for the purpose of lining the pockets of drug companies). This racialisation of social ills is roundly criticised by Dorothy Parker in her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. When we embrace bio-deterministic explanations for racial inequity in health and crime rates, we are automatically enabling such inequity to persist. Clearly, promoting the assumption that ill-health and violent tendencies are in the nature of dark-skinned people is detrimental to both dark-skinned and light-skinned people, so we should stop making excuses and figure out the larger reasons why dark-skinned people tend to crowd our prisons and hospitals. For this reason, the LGBTQ community might wish to be cautious about using bio-determinism as an explanation for behaviour.

Ironically, the “Born This Way” maxim might not just hurt women and racial minorities—it might actually end up hurting the LGBTQ community itself. Does it really matter whether or not something is natural? By using biological innateness to justify their desires, gays and lesbians are simply giving power to the oppressor, because they are sort of implying that they “can’t help doing something that might indeed actually be wrong”, as if it’s some uncontrollable disease. In other words, they’re suggesting, homosexuality isn’t OK because it makes somebody happy; it is OK simply because it can’t be helped. It’s kind of like saying that freckles are OK because they’re natural, not because they make somebody happy. Of course freckles aren’t OK just because they’re natural; they’re OK because they make somebody happy.  Similarly, homosexuality isn’t OK just because it’s natural; it is OK because it makes somebody happy.

What is taking place here is an “appeal to nature” fallacy, which states that a thing is good because it is natural, and bad because it is unnatural. But a thing is not good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural; it is good because it creates pleasure and happiness, and bad because it prevents pleasure and happiness. Clearly, rape and murder are part of human nature, but nobody in their right mind says that these things are good. Conversely, aeroplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around protesting against aeroplanes because they’re bad. So, what gays and lesbians should be doing is saying, “Even if homosexuality weren’t natural, that doesn’t make it wrong. It is right because it makes people happy. It is also your choice to be a Christian, and that’s a man-made decision, but I don’t discriminate against you because of that.” Thus, to deny power to the oppressor, the LGBTQ community should focus on critiquing the appeal to nature fallacy, not affirming it.

As we can see, Lady Gerber’s widely adored anthem ostensibly vindicates same-sex desire, but in many ways it actually reinforces damaging social inequities for women and racial minorities, as well as LGBTQ people themselves. It hurts almost everyone. Certainly, biology plays a part in who we are as human beings, but it does not necessarily define who we are in a distinct linear fashion from womb to adulthood. Absolute biological determinism, like social determinism, seems a little implausible, so perhaps we should consider paying more heed to compatibilism–the philosophy that allows for a complex interaction between the mind, the body, and society. We might even argue that we have more free will, more agency and autonomy, than we give ourselves credit for. Maybe we weren’t strictly “born this way” after all, and maybe there’s a bigger “socio-biological” picture to why we do what we do, but that doesn’t make homosexuality wrong any more than it makes, say, Christianity wrong. Maybe what we should be doing is defending minority sexual identities for their own sake, not for their basis in biology.

Of course, at the end of the day, it just so happens that there is a mounting heap of evidence defending at least the partial innateness of homosexuality, but, alas, it is exceedingly difficult to teach a religious fundamentalist new tricks, isn’t it?

Source:

The Muck of Ages





What Does It Mean To Be A Drag Queen?

28 10 2011

What social purpose does drag serve? Do drag queens reinforce gender stereotypes, or challenge them? I would wager the latter.

I once took a women’s studies course in university called “Introduction to Gender Theory”, or something like that. Oh my god, I was in heaven. For me, it was like going to church and singing, “Hallelujah! I have reached the Promised Land, and it is full of all sorts of delicious fucking freaks.” The course was basically an introduction to, well, gender theory, but from a poststructuralist perspective. That basically means when you look at identities and what makes people who they are in a critical, sceptical light. Anyway, at one point in the course handbook the professor discussed drag and explained how some people see drag as reinforcing gender stereotypes by embodying what they think women should be, which is traditionally feminine. The flip-side of this argument, however, is that drag queens are actually challenging gender stereotypes by mocking traditional feminine expectations placed on women.

The latter argument makes more sense to me, and here’s why. Drag is an incredibly complex form of art. It sends out so many messages at once that it is easy for the untrained eye to miss the ultimate point. It is so sophisticated, so full of so many layers of meaning, and so wrought with irony that it is almost too difficult to distil its essence in words. You can’t simply say, “Oh, it’s a man with fake boobs and high-heels, so he must be saying, ‘This is what women are like'”. That kind of answer is just too pat, and it’s an intellectual cop-out. Drag deserves a more nuanced explanation. When men do drag, they do so with a subversive goal in mind: to satirise the crass feminisation of women.

OK, so there are many different types of drag, and each has a unique purpose, but I believe the one I described above is probably the commonest or most salient of them all. And while most drag queens might not be able to articulate what I have just stated, I think they’d probably agree. For them, it is a highly instinctive and subconscious act. It usually is with artists.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at drag queen Tammie Brown (who I believe was a contestant in the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race). Do you really think she is saying, “This is what women should be like”? She looks like a cross between Tammy Faye Messner and Faye Dunaway’s version of Joan Crawford, for goodness’ sake. Tammie Brown’s art is so absurd that you cannot seriously think she is saying that women should have 1940s hairstyles, Joan Crawford lips, skin the consistency of puddy, and eyebrows in the middle of their foreheads. It’s satire. Drag queens are not stupid; they are socially savvy, culturally perceptive, and very streetsmart. I haven’t met an autistic drag queen yet (although that would be fucking awesome). What drag queens like Tammie Brown are doing is creating an over-the-top caricature of feminine standards of beauty placed on women. By embodying a cartoonish femininity, they are saying at least two things: “The feminine expectations placed on women are so aburd as to merit the sharpest satire” and “As a man, I will relieve women of this ridiculous ‘duty’ by placing it on my own shoulders”. Drag queens—at least the highly abstract and conceptual ones like Tammie Brown and Raja—are all about confusing people with regard to what men and women should be and do, and they achieve this by transferring traditional responsibilities from one sex to the other.

Sometimes, the drag community’s mockery of sexism is accompanied by a mockery of racism, too. This is a delicate subject, and it deserves the utmost sensitivity, but I do think some forms of racial drag actually satirise racism. Consider Shirley Q. Liquor, a.k.a. Charles Knipp, a white man from the American south who dons blackface in drag. Now, she’s controversial. She’s been on CNN, and leaders in the black community have vilified her as racist, but other black people have defended her in praise of her mockery of racism. One of these is RuPaul, who included Shirley on her album RuPaul RED HOT. In RuPaul’s own words, “[c]ritics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots.  Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever.  I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD”. Now, just as one woman cannot speak for all women, one black person cannot speak for all black people, but it helps to know that some black people see a certain satire in Shirley Q. Liquor’s art. And I think RuPaul sees the sweet irony in Shirley Q. Liquor’s absurdist blackface. From my perspective (and please correct me if I am misguided), Knipps mocks racism by donning blackface and showing how absurd racial stereotypes are. And when it isn’t clear that he is mocking racial stereotypes, I sort of think he is expressing a deeply human affection for the quirks he recognises in the black women he knew growing up. That said, I highly recommend against doing blackface unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and context of your art and you have support by a sizeable contingent of the black community, and if you fail to heed this warning and proceed to do blackface in a messy, thoughtless way, you are probably an ignorant fool.

Just in case some of you still think Charles Knipps is racist, let me share with you a horribly beautiful video of him impersonating Barb, the stereotypical “narthern” Great Lakes housewife with an obnoxiously twangy, vowel-fronted North-Central American English accent:

I know. Now he’s doing drag in whiteface. So that’s just in case you think his racial drag is mere racism, and not an ironic mockery of racism. Now, we might be able to say, “Oh, look. He’s racist toward white people, too.” But I don’t think we have to say that he’s racist toward anyone. In every face he does, he is mocking some stereotype or another by exposing its absurdity as plainly as possible. It’s hard to take patent bullshit seriously.

Drag queens are inscrutable creatures; they create a disturbingly comical image of beauty, challenging our assumptions about what is pretty, who should be pretty, and why. The simple-minded philistines among us, with their intolerance for irony, will view drag queens as horribly sexist, racist monsters, but those of us with a capacity to think critically and apprehend the intent behind the art will think the exact opposite—they will view drag queens as highly perceptive cultural critics of sexual and racial stereotypes, as people who have been to hell and back and have something to say in defense of the underdog. The purpose of drag is to mock feminine expectations placed on women, it is to toy with our cherished notions about who can be feminine—women, or men?—and it is to defuse racist stereotypes through crass caricature. At the same time, though, drag queens seem to exult in a certain bizarre, twisted, exaggerated beauty in the very femininity they satirise, perhaps because they value it for its own sake regardless of which gender is performing it. You can have crazy eyebrows or an overdrawn lipline whether you’re male or female. It’s all supposed to be messy, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. At any rate, drag challenges our deepest assumptions about who we are, who we should be, and who we can be, and this is an invaluable tool for deepening and enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.





Are Women Funnier than Men?

4 10 2011

I’m usually very sceptical about sex differences, but I must admit that as of late I have been tempted to draw the tentative conclusion that women might be funnier than men. Now, I’m not saying that women are intrinsically funnier than men, nor that they should be, but I suspect that their different life experiences have resulted in a different sense of humour. A sense of humour far, far wickeder than anything the male mind has ever conjured up, something rich with subtle streaks of irony.

(To avoid over-generalisation, whenever I say “women” below, it should be taken for granted that I technically mean “many women”.)

Such dry cynicism might also be shared by racial and sexual minorities. Often, I find gay people and black people to be funnier than straight people and white people. Again, it is not that the former two are intrinsically funnier than the latter two, but their worldview, and hence their humour, may have been shaped by different life experiences. I think it might be a coping mechanism. Life is a little bit harder in some ways for people who are gay, black, or mixed-race, so it can be empowering for them to treat their oppression with levity. Such an attitude suggests that the oppressor has failed in their attempt to break down the morale of the oppressed, and as a consequence the oppressed  demonstrate a sense of triumph and resilience.

This notion that women and minorities are funnier than white, straight men is especially apparent when we look at women who are also minorities. Consider, for example, the comedians Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho. The former is black, female, and gay, while the latter is Korean-American, female, and bisexual. Not only can they make light of living life as a woman, but they can make light of living life as a racial and sexual minority. For these women, the vast reservoir of story-telling material is almost inexhaustible, and the droll, bizarre, sexually explicit anecdotes they tell are almost cathartic in their gutwrenching hilarity. They have embraced their human frailty, thereby shunting the sense of self-pity used against them by more privileged groups. Think about it. We’re all familiar with the straight, white male screaming, “stop pitying yourself and take responsibility!” Well, he has no reason to hurl such invectives when the object of his vilification laughs bittersweetly at her own lot in life. And the beauty is that that same self-mockery actually turns out to be self-sustaining.

Sometimes I detect this same cynicism when I listen to women talk about going on dates with men. I’m sure a lot of you have heard women complain about forcing themselves to laugh at their date’s stupid jokes. Why are those jokes so stupid? It’s because they’re artless, contrived, naïve, bourgeois. Men don’t have to put as much effort into their humour, because they’re men, so they can expect the listener to lavish them with heaps of unearned laughter. You don’t have to try as hard to be funny when you automatically command respect, but you do when you have more invested in it. Men don’t have as much to lose. So, it must be absolutely tormenting for a woman with a more nuanced understanding of life’s cruelty to feign some fake Miss Universe grin at her spoiled date’s inane, bathetic, self-satisfying jokes. Or I could just be reading too much into it. But this is what I imagine to be the case, because I think I see a shadow of the same thing in straight, white males as many women do.

This, I think, is possible because of the special camaraderie between women and gay people, who share, it would seem, a comic genius of particular sharpness and panache. For me, women and gay people harbour a secret cynicism about sex and romance. If we think about it, women are funnier than men because they have to try harder, and gay people are funnier than straight people because they have to try harder, too. Both straight women and gay men are in a position to comment on relationships with men from a perspective which lies outside that of the heterosexual male—a person with more privilege than either women or gay men. On top of that, both straight women and gay men like penises, so they already have a lot to talk about regarding their sex lives. Lesbian and gay male humour also overlap in that both lesbians and gay men view life from the perspective of sexual minorities. Thus, we can see how the comic taste of many women is corroborated by that of sexual minorities.

What all of this leads to is a distinction between two types of comedy—standard and vernacular. Standard comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the privileged classes (white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), while vernacular comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the underprivileged classes (non-white, female, non-heterosexual, transsexual, poor, etc.). As in language (e.g. AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English), vernacular humour is dangerous because it presents the worldview of the underprivileged classes, who tend to be seen as subversive. It lurks somewhere on the outskirts of the comedic metropolis, just beyond the purview of the cocky college jock grinning stupidly at his deltoids in his smartphone mirror shots, brandishing a middle finger for no real reason. According to standard humour, a funny woman isn’t feminine, because belly-rolling laughter is a messy, rowdy, indelicate affair, and while that kind of woman may not exactly be threatening, she isn’t considered as desirable as a male of the same calibre, hence she gets screwed over despite her talent. And that is why I love pioneering women comedians like Lucille Ball, and emerging talents like Melissa McCarthy. They’re utterly, unabashedly unruly—they’d be sitting on the toilet and eating Rice Krispies in their smartphone mirror shots.

Believe me, there are so many men out there who make me chuckle till my guts roll out of my mouth. Where do I start? Well, there’s Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Conan O’Brien for starters. But these men are self-deprecating. For some reason, they are able to mock themselves when it would behove them not to do so. Men are “supposed” to save face and look cool while telling jokes (because they can get away with it), but these men don’t care, and they relish every minute of it. They don’t rely on prestige to get a laugh; they shamelessly eviscerate themselves in front of a live audience. They make themselves look like fools because they don’t want to be taken too seriously. And in doing so they join the ranks of Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Wanda Sykes, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Margaret Cho, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Hynes, Julia Davis, and all of the other grande dames of comedy. Funny men, I salute you! You have clearly surmounted the nature of your sex. (Kidding.)

By the way, we should all salute our newest star Jocelyn Jee Esien for being so brave. She is a challenger of comfort zones, which is absolutely paramount in comedy.

I guess the point is that women are funnier than men because they have had different life experiences. These life experiences are determined by environmental stimuli, and are not intrinsic, but they affect us nonetheless—for the better, I would say. Meanwhile, female and minority humour often overlap, and together these upstarts turn puritanical, middle-class, mainstream American humour on its head (when America notices, that is). In addition, women and gay men in particular seem to share a similarly tawdry humour, especially about sex and romance, while this type of humour can be said to be vernacular, since it challenges middle-class norms. Should women be funnier than men? No, of course not, so what we should be doing is teaching men to relax for once, take themselves less seriously, and  start mimicking Conan O’Brien. Don’t worry—you’ll probably still have the upper-hand in most areas (until we take care of that). It’s just that you’ll be a little bit more lovable in the meantime.