tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[personal profile] tim

Dan Savage is a bully. I say this not only because of his history of using his column as a platform from which to belittle fat women, women in general, bi men, trans women, trans men (not meant to be an exhaustive list), but also because of his most recent column where he berated an abuse survivor for the crime of being triggered. (Why doesn't he tell suicidal gay boys that they are being cruel and selfish and ought to think of someone else's feelings besides their own, rather than telling them not to kill themselves? Oh, well, guess women's lives or experiences aren't very real or important.) Most of all, though, I say it because of a segment Savage did on the "This American Life" radio show (episode 341), where he related a story about verbally abusing a student while teaching elementary school, as well as his own experiences as a parent later in his life. In apparent sincerity, Savage said:

"You can't hit 'em... and so sometimes I feel trapped, like the only way I can communicate my intense displeasure and also, to the kid, how far he's pushed it... is by sounding like I'm going to kill him, physically, like I'm going to take his neck in my hands and choke the life out of him."

"Kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them... metaphorically beat it out of them."

"With the removal of violence from the parenting arsenal, we've had to ramp up the screaming and yelling and profanity. It soaks up the energy that might otherwise have gone into a clean, quick smack."

Who hasn't behaved like a jerk sometimes? No one's perfect. But I wouldn't be picking on Dan for his transgressions against peace, love and justice---I wouldn't even *know* about any of them---if he didn't choose for himself to assume, in a very public and intentional way, the persona of an aggressor, a screaming parent, a bully. In the story that Savage tells on this particular TAL episode, he tells a fourth-grade student of his, "Shut the fuck up, you little piece of shit," then lies about it to the school principal in front of the student; all, he says, to teach the kid the important lesson that adults are crazy and untrustworthy. If he actually meant anything he said, then Savage has about as much credibility to start an anti-intimidation campaign as the Portland Police Bureau does to start an anti-civilian-murdering campaign. And yet, people seem to take him seriously.

Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign is a wonderful way to help straight people believe in a just world. It's wonderful, really, for straight people to get to enjoy this fantasy about queer lives: Sure, maybe queer people suffer a little when they're young, but hey, a little suffering builds a kid's character. And once those kids leave home for college (everyone gets to leave home for college, right?) it's just the beginning of the ascent to a land of joy and bunnies, where gay people get accepted. As long as they're gender-normative and monogamous, but those are totally reasonable conditions, right? There's no need to actually work to mitigate the cultural factors that make everyday life hard for trans and queer people; why work when you can just send a few loving words, via the magic of the Internet, to some queer kid? And the best thing of all is that no one can criticize this particular political strategy, because if someone does, it clearly means they want to deprive kids of the one thing (a recording of a privileged adult talking about their life) that would surely stand between them and the most convenient weapon of self-destruction.

Let's be absolutely clear: "It Gets Better" is a political strategy. It is a strategy that renders the narratives of those queer folks whose lives do *not* get easier once they turn 18 invisible, and that de-emphasizes the role of political action in favor of passive waiting, of individual self-esteem.

The other fantasy that seems to be grabbing the coattails of "It Gets Better", though perhaps not part of the original campaign, is the idea that all bullying is basically the same. So, absolutely everyone can relate to the "It Gets Better" message; truly, it doesn't matter whether you're a member of a minority group or a member of a particular social class or, well, anything. There is simply nothing specific to the experience of queer people, trans people, queer people of color, or any other specific marginalized group, that isn't also shared by, for example, a rich white kid who's teased for wearing glasses.

"Bullying" is such an unfortunate term to choose here, because it attributes the crimes perpetrated by the instruments of a homophobic, misogynistic culture to the instruments themselves---you know, those wayward individuals who act as randomly as dust particles in the wind. The preferred story here, the one that "It Gets Better" helps people hang onto, is that if people would just be nicer, would respect each other more, listen to what their parents taught them (because all people have parents who teach them these things, of course), we wouldn't have such problems. There is no need to challenge fundamental values and certainly no social framework in place that supports individuals in their acts of violence against queer and gender-variant people.

Tyra Hunter wasn't killed by school bullies, but by a firefighter/emergency medical technician who refused to treat her after she experienced a car accident and he discovered that she had a penis. Though a civil lawsuit awarded her mother a bit under $2 million in damages (what is the value of a life?), the firefighter was never criminally punished for killing Hunter through negligence. In fact, he was promoted. The other firefighters on the scene, all of whom chose to joke about Hunter's body rather than save her life, as well as the doctors who provided only dilatory care once she was finally taken to an emergency room, were never punished either.

That says how much we really value queer lives. Saying that "it gets better" with no promise that the next time someone like Hunter gets murdered, there will actually be an indication that anyone valued her life, is worse than saying nothing.

Richard M. Juang, in his essay "Transgendering the Politics of Recognition" (in the anthology _Transgender Rights_, edited by Paisley Currah, Juang, and Shannon Price Minter) compared Hunter's death with that of Vincent Chin. Chin, a Chinese-American man, was murdered in 1982 in Michigan by two men who blamed Chin for "taking away American jobs". His killers were charged with manslaughter, fined $3,000, and released on probation (a decision defended by a judge who characterized the murderers as good people with responsible jobs). Juang compares Chin's case with Hunter not because there was any reason to think Chin had a queer identification, but rather, because both case illustrate---in Juang's words---"gross refusals of civil and human recognition".

The different amounts of punishment against Hunter's killers, and Chin's killers, as compared to the punishment that the killer of a straight, upper-class cis white man or of an attractive, young white girl would receive, show that bullying is not the same whether or not you're a member of a minority group. Or perhaps we can start saying "violence" instead of "bullying"? Good. To harm someone who's straight, who's white, preferably both, carries much greater social sanctions than harming someone whose life is seen as marginal, as subhuman. When the state backs those who do violence against queer people and people of color, that's when we have to start admitting that no, everyone's experience with bullying or other forms of violence is not the same.

The problem, as I hope you can see, is not confined safely within high schools. The fantasy that we're selling to kids---that escape from high school means escape from misogyny and homophobia---will never work. The problem is everyone.

It doesn't get better if you're a trans woman doing sex work because no other employer will hire you, and there are no anti-discrimination laws that say they have to hire you anyway, and you get arrested, placed in a men's prison, and raped.

It doesn't get better if you're a trans man who loses the right to see your kids, forever, because your ex-wife chose to invoke state-imposed gender regulations to render her marriage to you invalid and erase your parental rights in one fell swoop.

It doesn't get better if you can't get health care because it's legal to deny that care to trans people, and you die of a treatable illness or you kill yourself because you can't access medical transition.

When you go ahead and make your "it gets better" video despite knowing about all of these stories---all of these adults who *did* hang in there past adolescence and found that the world's designated enforcers of power structures were even more interested in using their own identities against them---you say "I don't think that these people's lives matter, because fully understanding their lives would require that I disrupt the comforting story I tell myself about *life getting better*."

All of these scenarios could improve, not for the people who have suffered through them already, but rather for the queer kids who are being born today and yesterday. It could get better if we take concrete action to dismantle homophobic, racist, and classist power structures. To be concrete, I mean things like lobbying for trans inclusion in health insurance plans (while access to private health insurance is a privilege, it would send a message that it's not okay to deny medical care to trans people just because we're trans)' like lobbying for universal health care, period; working to eliminate the state regulation of gender by eliminating gender designations from driver's licenses and passports; and working to decriminalize sex work. That's just a start, and if some of these ideas sound rather inspecific to improving queer and trans people's lot, that's because working to improve the lot of those who are disproportionately poor and disenfranchised is sometimes about taking steps to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement, too.

Holding up the privileged, white, middle-class or upwardly-mobile gay male experience as "The LGBT Experience" does a service only to people who don't need a service; it renders everyone else invisible, while reassuring straight folks that really, everything's just fine. The solution, this strategy says to straight folks, is to coax queer kids to suck it up long enough to turn into happily assimilated members of society---not to hold those kids' tormenters accountable, whether those tormentors are some other high school kids or some candidates for Michigan secretary of state who make it their campaign issue to deny identification to trans people.

And holding up that experience as the one true queer experience only serves the people for whom it was never bad to begin with.

What I find even worse than the "It Gets Better" campaign itself is the campaign of silencing that seems to go along with it. Look: "It Gets Better" is pissing people off. It's pissing off many of the people who it purports to serve. Just in my group of friends, straight people seem to love it, and the more socially normative of a gay or lesbian person you are, the more you probably love it too. But maybe it might be worthwhile to listen to what the naysayers say about it---particular the naysayers who have their own stories of violence to share. Rather than silencing them with "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" or "You can't criticize people if their intention is good" or "It's useful if it stops one teenager from committing suicide" (what about those who die as a result of apathy and complacency?), try listening. You're not doing anyone any favors by making it taboo to talk about queer lives that aren't all sunshine and ponies. The folks who are pissed off might just be angry because their lives aren't getting better---and Dan Savage is not only failing to help, but doing active harm to the politics of queer resistance.

In writing this, I am informed by the thoughts of more than one person who does not feel safe actually relating their experiences in a public forum. The anger is real, and we're getting told not to tell our stories because it interferes with the comfortable folks' comfort zones. So, seriously, please stop using "think of the children" as an excuse to indulge your fantasies. Kids are smart enough to know that "it gets better" is a fairy tale; if you're too busy to make the world a better place for them to grow up into, just a little bit, even if in some everyday ways, then maybe it's best to let the silence speak instead.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-22 02:40 pm (UTC)
talia_et_alia: Photo of my short blue hair. (Default)
From: [personal profile] talia_et_alia
Thank you. I have been so very twitchy about this, starting with "Dan Savage? Really?" and coping through at least one round of "how dare you deprive a depressed teen any solace!" complete with squeeing about how their favorite celeb had participated...b/c obviously isolated rural queer teens are huge fans of Tim Gunn, or something. I'm surprised that they're surprised that trans bloggers and groups, who generally spend a fair amount of time pointing out how mainstream white cis gay activism leaves them out in the cold and/or pushes them under the bus, met this latest effort with a round of "yeah, we'll trust y'all to remember intersectionality two weeks after never."

I also really appreciate the people who've pointed out other axes of hatefulness in play, like fat-phobia, and who've called out the weird glossing-over of all the real costs of making it better for yourself; while I'm pretty at-peace with my estrangement from my family, I would never say it's awesome, and friends who are much more positive about their families have had real trouble reconciling themselves to the need to set boundaries and stop the abuse. No one else can be my mother except my mother, and all the chosen family in the world can't change that. [This may be worth an entire post of thoughts on families.]

I am intrigued by what seems to be a slightly different dynamic than the usual "we're outsiders, here to help, never mind what you say your problems are." A fair number of the folks speaking up in favor say they were bullied for being queer and were/are depressed, and that this would've helped them. But I can't figure out why they don't realize that there's more productive ways to help than making a fucking YouTube video (isn't that, like, the cliched Internet pseudo-activism that everyone mocks?), like donating and/or volunteering for programs that help queer youth on the streets, in sex work, in foster care, in the justice system, mentoring, etc.? Or, if they're a parent, going to their school district and finding out what the situation is wrt bullying and/or queer students, and exerting pressure appropriately?*

I just made a donation to Mass Trans Political Coalition instead. I wish I had time to give as well as money. :/

*My high school refused to let us start a GSA b/c of explicit threats from alumni to withhold donations; while I'm not sure, I think agitating parents would've been the only reasonably effective counter-force.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-22 07:36 pm (UTC)
juli: hill, guardrail, bright blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] juli
And of course, moving to San Francisco sometimes still means you'll get killed because the white elitist racist structures in San Francisco are such that trans people who were denied an education and use the last of what little money they had to get on a bus to SF from anywhere end up dumped into really neglected and impoverished communities, left to sex work and the illegal drugs trade and other things that really up their chances of being murdered to the point that it's no less dangerous for them than being in the violent backwater they came from.

But at least they get to live their lives "authentically", being true to themselves. In all seriousness, that can be transformative and important, but upward and outward mobility isn't guaranteed, and it's a lot harder to get out once you're a junkie or when food prices are so high that you can barely afford to eat, let alone get a bus ticket, etc., and it can be disillusioning to need to find a way to get out of what was supposed to be utopia; where else could you possibly go?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-22 07:20 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: Shadowcrane (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
Let's be absolutely clear: "It Gets Better" is a political strategy. It is a strategy that renders the narratives of those queer folks whose lives do *not* get easier once they turn 18 invisible, and that de-emphasizes the role of political action in favor of passive waiting, of individual self-esteem.

Damn straightqueer!

I remember reading an anthropology book back in intro anth about the emergence of chosen families in queerdom. And from an anthropological point of view, a subculture countering the lies about how the thickness of blood and water relate or about who will stand with you when shit goes down is fascinating. But from a political point of view, and from a personal point of view, we really should stop and question the rhetoric hidden behind this kind of subversion. I had a fucked up childhood. And even if things do get better once you move out of an abusive household and insular K-12 environment, that doesn't mean it's something we should be applauding. How come the queer kids have to be the ones to grow up and move on? The bullies I have to deal with as an adult are the same kinds of kids as I had to deal with then: immature twits with the full support of a culture that never comes down on them for failing to act like civilized adults or decent human beings.

And how come we have to fucking wait until we are free of the legal shackles binding us to abusers before we can get on with the business of living? Life is not about waiting for some future when things will "get better". That's a survival mentality born from living in a toxic environment. The illusion that things will get better is a way to survive the blows and insults for another day longer, all the while avoiding to alter the situation around you in ways that would actually cause the situation to get better. That's your body doing whatever it takes to keep itself alive, because that's what biology does. We shouldn't be selling PTSD as if it's a cure for violence and abuse. It's an insidious disease. There is no future where things get better; there is now, and then there is now. Do we make YouTube videos telling war veterans that "it gets better"? "Y'know, once you aren't woken up by bombs every night and you don't have people shooting at you anymore, things really start looking up."

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-23 10:09 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: Shadowcrane (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
Was that _Families We Choose_ by Kath Weston?

That's the one. It was presented as an example of contemporary anthropology which focuses more on "the view from the inside", as opposed to traditional anthropology where the researcher does their best to not "interfere" in any way for fear of biasing the results (whereas contemporary anthropologists accept that bias is unavoidable and so try to make it explicit). For that, I thought it served the purpose well; though for anthropology as such I felt she didn't go far enough in exploring the intricacies of how the conception of families is being changed and the forces behind that change or the conflict between old and new definitions or between contrasting new definitions.

maybe the idea of throwing teenagers together into a shark tank so they can 'develop social skills' is candy coating for a hidden curriculum of oppression.

I'd love to see that sentence fleshed out and explored thoroughly.

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Tim Chevalier

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