Can’t See the Border for the Fence

Immigration status has always been a pervasive issue in my life.  I come from a family of undocumented immigrants. One of my earliest memories is of my mother coming home panicked after surviving an Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) raid at the factory where she worked.  It didn’t dawn on me until later that her U.S. born children would have gone days even weeks without knowing what happened to her if she had been deported. I am one of millions of U.S. citizens who is directly impacted by immigration policies because they affect my family.

Immigration as an issue is different from most public policy issues in that undocumented immigrants have little recourse to advocate for themselves in the U.S.  They cannot vote or contribute monetarily to campaigns, two of the things that are essential to move any legislation in this country.  As a result the movement has struggled to gain popular support and it shows.  I have many conversations with friends who are generally progressive but have a very difficult time wrapping their heads and values around the issue of immigration.  One recent conversation I had with a friend focused on building a fence on the border.  I kept going back and forth with this person about how all the proposed policies dealing with immigration were racist, inhumane or just plain ridiculous. I argued against every point and finally she just asked in exasperation “well how do we solve the problem?”  This frustration is shared by many on the left including me.  How do we solve the problems with immigration without solely reacting to policies that are misguided and bigoted? How do we address these issues in an anti-racist, humane and sane manner?

This is a conversation about values
As progressives we need to get on the same page and agree on what the problems are, and start offering solutions that don’t rely on punitive policies that promote the erosion of our own rights and values. Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws are an example of policies that stood out for their sheer magnitude of fuckedupness towards undocumented immigrants. Arizona also managed to legalize racial profiling of U.S. Citizens under the guise of being tough on immigration.

I want to offer a different way to think about immigration reform a way to think about this issue that focuses on changing systems and addresses the impacts rather than punishing individuals.  This is a long conversation and it will take up its fair share of blog posts, so check back often.

Value #1: No human being is illegal
We need to change our language when addressing undocumented immigrants. Using the term “illegal” effectively dehumanizes immigrants, and allows us to justify the types of punitive policies that we would not stand for if they were designed to impact U.S. Citizens.  (For example, when the federal REAL ID Act passed, it was largely rejected by the states–not because it was designed as an attack on immigrant rights, but because it was seen as a broad erosion of civil liberties.  Talking about REAL ID through an immigrant rights frame was passed over, in part, because many of us continued to believe that immigrants were not human beings deserving of human rights, but “illegal aliens,” and less than human.)  Just because someone is undocumented doesn’t mean their existence or the core of their being is “illegal,” and we shouldn’t stand for anyone saying so–least of all other progressives.

Value #2: We don’t support racism
Let’s face it: the communities that are heavily impacted by anti-immigration policies are not white and mostly of Mexican descent.  Current immigration policies are not just about containing immigration but culture.

Value #3: We can be better neighbors
Our international economic policies contribute the majority of immigration from Mexico. Mexico and other Latin American countries are deeply tied to our own economy which means that our economic international policies have a huge impact on immigration.  We posted about this recently http://wp.me/p1foYW-L.

Value #4: We’re PROGRESSIVES
Current Arizona Style anti -immigrant policies are creeping their way into every part of our country and are supported by the same groups who work against all that we hold dear women’s rights, racial justice, LGBT justice, labor and environmental justice.   These conservative policies are the foot in the door for the most radical on the right to seize power and erode our rights.

Clearly anti-immigrant movements violate our progressive values.  If I described a racist, anti-labor, xenophobic, jingoistic policy we would be outraged, yet we are on the fence about immigration.  If we have any hope in changing the tide on immigration we need to start at home.  Here are a couple of suggestions.

  • Get Educated. We cannot let those who seek to oppress dictate the direction of this issue.  Understanding the impacts of anti-immigrant laws and the causes of immigration will better equip the movement for fair and progressive immigration reform.
  • Support your local immigrants rights groups. Immigration reform  is one of the most unpopular issues in the country and progressive groups are woefully understaffed, and under resourced.  What’s worse is that support for anti-immigrant groups is growing exponentially.  When pro-immigrant rights groups put out a call to contact your legislator, do it!  If you can’t afford a large donation become a monthly donor.  Volunteer and get an insider’s perspective on the current immigration movement.
  • Talk to your friends. Immigration is a hot-button issue and therefore something that most people avoid talking about with their friends and family.  However, YOU are the strongest influence for your friends and family.  We are bombarded with anti-immigrant rhetoric everyday and we need to start counteracting it with real conversations that expose the hateful rhetoric.
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the inclusion impulse & the paradox of extending the LGBT acronym

I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further.  Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.

First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent.  This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized.  This isn’t that.  This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.

 

the problems with inclusion

Inclusion is a lovely impulse.  Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent.  And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality.  Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm!  Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution!  I’m in!

But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community.  But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities.  Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:

  • We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive.  When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact.  Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military.  Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts.  Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
  • We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
  • We don’t change our leadership structures.  Most boards require major fundraising.  That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
  • We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities.  We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions.  We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people.  And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.

I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite.  I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way.  And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.

(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people.  That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)

 

why it keeps happening

With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion?  Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits.  Inclusion pacifies guilt.  It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics.  And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities.  In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk. 

None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent.  The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you.  And that support must exist on those communities’ terms. 

Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.

 

same gender loving and two spirit

Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement.  Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.

Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities.  Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities.  It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice.  Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.

So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally?  If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work?  Then do it!  Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.

 

intersex

Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female.  Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

This is the one that hits closest to home for me.  Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female.  As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex.  In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people.  So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.

As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion.  But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain.  Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.

Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means.  But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work.  And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.

 

ally

Seriously, you guys?  We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies.  We welcome them with open arms, but really.  The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.

action steps

When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do?  Here are some options:

  • Speak for yourself.  Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
  • Include a community when they ask you to.  It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it.  Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.

We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements.  But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.

shortform: on charlie sheen.

So Charlie Sheen is everywhere.  Today, Good Morning America, Radar Online, Saturday Night Live, Vanity Fair… everywhere.  For the most part, these are sensationalist and often comedic depictions that make Sheen’s ramblings into ubiquitous turns of phrase in pop culture, and almost uniformly fail to explore any of the cultural implications of his very public breakdown.

On March 3, Anna Holmes wrote an excellent op-ed for the New York Times on Sheen’s history of abuse.  Holmes is right to turn the spotlight on Piers Morgan and the permissive media and a seemingly apathetic public, and question what values underpin the willingness to so quickly forgive & forget while simultaneously vilify the targets of his rage and abuse.  This is an excellent exploration of systemic misogyny, and how it’s allowed to continue and even flourish.  The problem is, Holmes’ piece is one of very few to hit mainstream media outlets deconstructing the politics of Charlie Sheen’s high-profile breakdown.

Without additional voices to provide some light and shading, Holmes’  standalone piece may seem to cast Sheen solely as an abusive sonofabitch.  This isn’t untrue, but, as witnessed by this week’s televised rants, it also isn’t the whole story.  To be clear, Sheen has said and done some unquestionably violent and oppressive things, from his anti-semitic remarks regarding Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre to his long and well-documented history of domestic violence.  But to paint Sheen solely as a nefarious abuser or a comedic caricature does a disservice to the sorely underexplored worlds of addiction and mental illness. 

Charlie Sheen is saying and doing some awful things and has been for a long, long time.  He is also clearly, before our eyes, breaking down.  Whether he has relapsed or is grappling with a peak in mental illness, his actions are clearly beyond reason and beyond his control.  And millions of us stand by, watch, and even laugh, while failing to engage with a deeply tragic narrative that’s playing out in front of our eyes.  At best, he’s subjected to at-a-distance pathologizing by ambulance-chasing TV analysts like Drs. Drew and Phil.  And at worst, he becomes the butt of the joke.  Either way, the opportunity to address mental health and addiction in a thoughtful public dialogue is quickly slipping away.

If you don’t have sympathy for Charlie Sheen, you don’t need to.  Again, he’s said and done some dreadful things.  But here’s the thing: if you’re queer, if you’re a woman, if you’re trans or gender non-conforming, if you’re a person of color, if you are a part of just about any marginalized community, someone at some point has probably told you that your understanding of the oppression you experience is a figment of your imagination, a part of a far-reaching and elaborate delusion you’ve victimized yourself into believing.  And for many of us, the systematic oppression has led to substance abuse and addiction.  Regardless of how we each individually feel about Sheen’s words and deeds, they impact us.  The public reaction to many major celebrity meltdowns—including Charlie Sheen’s—impacts all of us because it is part of an intricate system designed to disempower, oppress and disease marginalized communities.  This is one of precious few opportunities to discuss mental health and addiction as they exist within our communities, as they exist as tactics to maintain our disempowerment, and as they exist as methods to deflect the abuse and oppression we face (see: Sheen’s abusive history).

And, frankly, these aren’t conversations many of us have with one another.  How often do we engage and discuss drug use in gay men’s club culture?  How often do we address addiction and mental illness in trans communities?  And, for those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, how safe and supported do we feel in disclosing to partners, friends and family?

I do hope that Sheen gets help and, to echo Holmes, that media depiction of his exes shifts.  But closer to home,I hope that, within our communities, we take a moment to address mental health and addiction—both as tactics of oppression and as outcomes of it.

borders & intersections: wisconsin, choice & immigration

A lot’s at stake in Wisconsin.  Public understandings of the meaning and worth of labor are up for debate.  National displays of solidarity are popping up nationwide.  And, in amongst all of that, the very livelihood of thousands of Wisconsin workers is at risk.  We are looking at the resurgence of the labor movement.

One more thing that’s at stake in Wisconsin: corporations’ control over elections and legislative sessions.  To be clear, if Wisconsin conservatives get their way, corporations will be the only voice well-resourced enough to be heard in state politics.  By defunding unions—or preventing them from forming altogether—the biggest contributors to elections will be corporations.  Look, of course everyone approaches elections with their own interests at heart.  By breaking unions, we’re removing their voice from elections—which means corporations are the only voice left.  To make it all Marxist, we’re eliminating proletarian participation in democracy in order to play up bourgeois interests. Given that labor unions also fund and support most of issues we care deeply about Women’s rights, LGBT rights, POC rights this is not just an attack on labor its an attack on everything.

 

labor and immigration

Increasingly, “made in America” is a thing of the past.  Our economy is global, which means labor must be global, too.  When corporations can’t exploit labor abroad, they do it here—within immigrant communities.  When we fail to address immigration reform in a deep and comprehensive way, we unintentionally perpetuate classist and anti-labor systems of thought, policy and rhetoric.

This is an opportunity to re-imagine labor. Cesar Chavez had it right. The farmworker’s movement developed because migrant workers were the one pool of labor that could not legally unionize in the United States.  So business owners had carte blanche to treat farm workers however they saw fit—and with the latitude they had, they proved that corporations can play tidily into Hobbesian narratives of self-interest.  In short, they treated immigrant labor like shit. 

So what’s the Chavez connection to Wisconsin?  The farmworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s  interrupted what the labor movement was at the time.  Corporations were just beginning to outsource jobs and seek cheaper labor in other countries—thereby exploiting policy divides in nations that had less established labor laws.  In the United States, migrant workers existed (and still do) in a no man’s land: many aren’t documented residents who can leverage American labor laws against unjust employers.  At the same time, they also cannot unionize and speak out as a group about their own best interests.  It’s a stalemate in the truest form.  And corporations have been exploiting and perpetuating that stalemate for decades.

As of yet, major American labor unions haven’t deeply addressed the needs of immigrant workers.  In so doing, they have missed an opportunity to get union workers and their many allies to do something radical and actually identify with immigrants: as workers who can be all too easily exploited when they can’t frequently and vigilantly voice their own needs and enforce their rights.  And in the absence of intersectional, pro-immigrant perspectives, anti-immigrant xenophobia takes hold, even in the most progressive communities.  By not drawing the parallel between labor and immigration, we reify systems that keep immigrants undocumented and prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

And the labor connection to immigration is just one opportunity that progressive people in the United States miss.  There are many more opportunities to connect our work for immigration reform to choice, LGBT rights, and progressive activism around globalization.

 

gender justice

Gender justice is a term used to unite struggles for queer rights, trans justice, and choice & reproductive justice.  And guess what?  Immigration reform connects to all three!  Here’s how:

Reproductive justice & “anchor babies.”  A primary scare tactic used by the far right accuses immigrant women of entering the United States to give birth to “anchor babies” that will provide their path to citizenship.  In this trope are deep and unspoken fears of a conscious racial takeover.  And in using the “anchor baby” line of thinking, conservatives once again paint the fertility of women of color as something that’s “predatory” and must be restricted.  Once again, women’s families and reproductive health are up for public debate.

LGBT rights and asylum.  As astonishingly anti-LGBT stories continue to roll out of Uganda, and many LGBT people in the United States join together to show our support, we lose immigration and asylum as a key mode of supporting LGBT people in other countries.  Asylum is very rarely afforded to LGBT immigrants to the US, showing that, once again, homophobia and transphobia aren’t “real” enough, that it’s all in our heads, and that ultimately, we could choose to be or do something different.  (You know what’s not a choice, though? Being gay.)  At the same time, we fail to expose the role of American evangelists in creating the anti-LGBT climate in Uganda and then exploiting that climate by seeding sensationalist policies like the infamous “kill the gays” bill.

Trans justice, documentation and Arizona. Recently, Arizona effectively legalized racial profiling of people perceived to be immigrants  (read: Latinos).  If you’re brown, police will assume you’re not a citizen.  Something similar happens to transgender people every day: if they don’t present as gender normative, their documentation is challenged and questioned at every turn.   The whiter, and more gender normative you are, the less your citizenship is interrogated.

globalization & foreign policy

Globalization is inevitable, but the way it’s taking shape is not.  For decades, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so-called “free trade” agreements have defined what kind of power and money nations can access when they don’t already have power and money.  Many of us know that this is unfair, some of us know that this disproportionately breaks along lines of race (creating shitty impacts for nations of people of color), but few of us make the connections to immigration into the US.

In truth, “free trade agreements” could be more accurately renamed as “free labor agreements,” which allow American corporations to build maquiladoras and sweatshops in, among other places, Central and North America.  When those sweatshops open up, they employ many—if not most—people in the town where they’re located.  That means that corporations define the going price for labor in that area while simultaneously establishing a deep local dependence on that corporation to keep the local economy alive.  At the same time, corporations can decimate local natural resources and introduce social power structures that eventually decimate indigenous ways of living.  It’s malevolent, it’s racist, it’s insidious, and it’s forever.

 

do this, right now, today.

So, what can you do?  Here are some action steps:

  • Redefine “the immigration problem.”  Overwhelmingly, people on the left and the right will agree that the solution to “the immigration problem” is to stop the flow of immigrants to the US.   But the need for immigration reform runs much, much deeper than that.  If we had thought more deeply about the impacts of free trade agreements on Latino nations, we would have predicted the wave of immigration from Central America.  “The immigration problem” is more than documentation for farm workers, naturalization for LGBT immigrants, or the DREAM Act for students.  It bleeds into movements for labor, choice, and global justice in US-powered foreign policy.  And, at its core, it asks US voters who we think should be allowed to be an American.
  • Explicitly connect your liberation to the liberation of immigrants.  Because, as we’ve explored here, those two things are deeply connected.
  • Ask yourself: who benefits?  Overwhelmingly, you’ll find that the people who benefit from anti-immigrant policies and discourse are (surprise!) US corporations.
  • Come out as an ally to immigrant communities.  Speak up about your support for immigrant communities, and continue to educate yourself on the lived experiences of immigrants, the problems with public discourse about immigration, and how public policy continues to define who can be a “real American.”

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breaking down fatphobia

 

I love this video.  It’s such a fantastic breakdown of how conversations about racism can derail, and how to keep them on track.  These same scenarios can be true about a variety of oppressions: homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, and, with growing frequency, fatphobia.

Increasingly, the way we think about oppression in the US is as follows: “bigotry exists intentionally in individuals, and I do not intend to be bigoted, therefore I am not a bigot.”  The problem with this logic?  It acknowledges oppression in its smallest form, so that oppression in its larger, more nuanced forms can be denied or eschewed.  On top of that, being “a homophobe,” “a racist,” “a bigot,” et cetera, is also narrowly defined—usually as whether or not you physically or verbally attack others on the basis of their identity.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot of individual oppression happening out there—there is.  But to acknowledge that as a means to deny the experiences and needs of marginalized communities on a broader scale is a red herring.  The reasoning goes like this: I don’t use homophobic slurs, so I’m not a homophobe.  Homophobia exists intentionally in other people.  Because I have acknowledged this, and proven that I am not a homophobe, all of my opinions are objectively true.  Because I do not observe institutional homophobia, it therefore cannot exist.

I get a little sad typing that out.  It’s shortsighted, but it’s really effective.

While many of us may recognize how oppression (and denial of oppression) operates within many communities, not all of us understand how that works with fat people.  As with any system designed to exclude, shame or oppress people on the basis of shared characteristics or identities, it can be easy to assume that fatphobia only exists one-on-one, person-to-person.  Not so.  It’s a series of complex, interlocking systems designed to shame, silence and “correct” fat people. 

Because discussions of fatphobia are new to many of us, we may not recognize it as a layered system of oppression.  Plus, when we fail to recognize the ways in which fatphobia operates, it becomes difficult to recognize that it even exists, much less how to effectively interrupt it.

There are several levels of fatphobia.  Among them: personal fatphobia, cultural fatphobia and institutional fatphobia.  Let’s walk through what each of them look like in action.

 

personal fatphobia

This is where the conversation begins—and often where it ends.  I’d define personal fatphobia as the ways in which fatphobia is perpetuated on a one-on-one, person-to-person basis.  It’s important to note that personal fatphobia doesn’t need to be intentional.  Regardless of what you meant by what you said or did, its impact remains the same.  Some examples include:

 

  • Policing what a fat person is eating, or telling them about their own health.  Again, nobody knows more about diets, exercise, health and nutrition than fatties.  Friends, family members, doctors, partners and even strangers on the street have freely suggested a million and one things that we can do to change our bodies.  Many of us have tried them all.  And for those of us who’ve decided to stop hating our bodies, policing what we eat is a harsh reminder that, within current social systems, we are prohibited from defining our own bodies.

  • Shaming fat people for wearing “unflattering” clothing.  See above.  When I was in high school, my mother made a list of things I shouldn’t wear: cap sleeves, belts, skirts with hemlines above the knee, horizontal stripes, bright colors, drop waists, tank tops, pencil skirts.  Needless to say, my mom-approved outfits looked like, well, something a mom would wear.  The problem is that damn near every style guide and fashion magazine agrees that I should retreat to a life of caftans, muu-muus and graduation gowns.  The implication here is that telling fat people what not to wear is doing us a favor, and allowing us to define how we want to be seen would cause us grievous harm.  I heartily disagree.

 

  • Giving unsolicited suggestions about weight loss “for our health.”  This one’s problematic on a couple of fronts.  First, as witnessed above, lots of fatties know a whole lot about losing weight.  For real.  Second, my health doesn’t require weight loss.  Every physical I have shows that I’m healthy as a horse.  Third, my health is nobody’s business.  Seriously.  Fourth, and perhaps most basically, the assumption underlying unsolicited weight loss suggestions is that we can all agree that my body is repulsive and abhorrent, and that I must hate it and desperately want to change it.  Except that I don’t.

  • Insisting that fat people are universally unattractive, or publicly refusing to date us.  That one’s pretty basic, right?  You don’t have to want to date us, but you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, and you can’t speak for the whole rest of the world. 

 

Again, personal fatphobia is a big challenge, and is where a lot of internalized fatphobia comes from.  But personal fatphobia isn’t the whole picture.

 

cultural fatphobia

I’d define cultural fatphobia as the norms, values and practices of a culture that devalue fat people, and value thin people as the norm.

A note on thinness: it does not, in and of itself, qualify someone as fitting into the beauty standard.  Other determinants like race, ability, age, gender presentation and much, much more play into that.  Plus, there is still some deep, longstanding pathologization (and simultaneous fetishization) of people—usually women—who are perceived to be “too thin.”  As someone who has not ever been considered “too thin,” I can’t and won’t address that.  When I say that a culture values “thin people” as the norm, I’m referring to the culture’s hegemonic values.

That said, here’s what cultural fatphobia looks like in action:

 

  • Media images of fat people.  We’ve all seen them.  In the best cases, we’re jolly, fun, full of personality, and totally unsexed.  In the worst cases, we’re slovenly, unhygienic, smelly, lazy, and morally corrupt.  Either way, the roles we’re allowed to play are extremely limited.  And an attractive, charismatic fatty?  Perish the thought.  Meanwhile, thin people (again, this is colored by many other characteristics & aspects of identity), can be anything.  Not all thin people in movies, on TV, or in magazines are culturally defined as attractive, but damn near every person who’s culturally defined as attractive (and interesting, worthy, charismatic, etc) is thin. 

 

  • The myth that thinness has always been the beauty standard.  Not so, y’all.  Beauty standards are always, always, always defined by a time and place.  They reflect the values, class politics, available resources and technologies, and historic context of the time and place they come from.  Historically, fatness has, in varying times and places, been considered a sign of wealth, fertility, virtue and more.

 

institutional fatphobia

Institutional fatphobia is arguably the farthest-reaching of them all.  Institutional fatphobia can be defined as the ways in which institutions exclude, underserve and oppress fat people.  Again, these institutionally fatphobic policies don’t need to be intended to exclude fat people—but they do disproportionately impact us.  Examples:

  • Changing BMI standards, and the consequent “Obesity Epidemic.” A lot has been written about this, including this and this, and I’m sure I can’t do it any better.  But to give a quick recap, in a nutshell, the standards of the body mass index changed in the late 1990s, making 25 million people overweight or obese overnight.  And, while nutrition, exercise and health are sorely under-addressed in the United States, to define that as an obesity epidemic is incredibly reductive, and it deflects attention from the way that classism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression play into body image, food availability, and more.

    Concrete policies around nutrition, availability of food, and health education all break around lines of race, class and gender.  Take schools, for example.  People with more money are likelier to be able to attend smaller schools, where students get more individual attention and schools are likelier to provide fresher, more nutritious foods (ie, less mass-produced canned and processed foods). When we talk about fatness, though, it’s a two-dimensional conversation about reducing fat and calorie intake, rather than a multidimensional conversation about getting your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs. And it’s almost always a question of individuals at the expense of a conversation about policies. Ultimately, blaming fat people for a lack of willpower deflects from a much broader cultural conversation about nutrition, and reifies existing systems of oppression while making them invisible.

 

  • Policies that require fat passengers to buy two seats on airplanes.  Regardless of whether or not you think that fat people should have to buy an extra seat on an airplane, this policy inarguably excludes many fat people, especially those of us who can’t afford to find out at the gate that we need to drop an unexpected $400 on an additional plane ticket.  (Sorry, poor fat people!  No air travel for you.)  Plus, the policy is decidedly punitive.  It’s not designed to be equitable.  It’s not designed to make fat people more comfortable.  It’s designed, quite literally, to make fat people pay for their size, and the tone almost always steers the conversation toward a moral referendum on fatness.

 

what’s missing & what’s next

These lists and definitions aren’t complete and they aren’t meant to be.  Fatphobia is dynamic, changing over time and adapting to the culture that produces it.  So what’s missing from these lists?  What kinds of personal, cultural and institutional fatphobia do you see at play?

on allies and comedy.

I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend.  It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.

Conversations with allies are necessary.  Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own.  Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people.  In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies.  And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.

I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy.  The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive.  What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.

I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity.  It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment.  When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.

On a person-to-person basis, it works.  And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens.  It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.

 

Louis CK and Privilege

Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly.  Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:

http://www.hulu.com/embed/d6MGfjvL_cCJ26O3NWldnw

Did you see what just happened?  On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience.  He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience.  Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded. 

Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):

http://www.hulu.com/embed/7Dx_-ySbkLqnFRadm0oZCw/2/420

It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic.  And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen.  It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.

And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too.  He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are.  He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table.  And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room.  This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.

The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.

 

Maria Bamford and mental illness

Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):

As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women.  It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.

And her work is deeply vulnerable.  She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her.  In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences.  Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.

 

Why humor matters

Neither of these comedians are unassailable.  Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point.   And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.

But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work.  It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when.  It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.

Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage.  In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear.  There really is something revolutionary about humor.  When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus.  It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.

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    You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

    Week before last, Saturday Night Live aired the sketch above as a fake ad for “EstroMaxx,” a once-daily hormone treatment for transgender women.

    I know. There’s a whole lot of bad going on there. Take a minute if you need one.

    Thankfully, and almost immediately, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) responded by launching a petition, calling upon SNL producers to address the impact of the sketch. In their release, GLAAD provided a quote from org president Jarrett Barrios, who said:

    “The violence, discrimination and harassment that transgender Americans experience each and every day is no laughing matter. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a touchstone of American comedy, but Saturday’s unfunny skit sends a destructive and dehumanizing message.”

    GLAAD’s response is timely and critically important. But the format of a press release doesn’t allow for a full response, breaking down just how & why a sketch like this is so destructive. So let’s do that here.

    The Problem with EstroMaxx

    To put it simply, a sketch like EstroMaxx contributes to a climate of transphobia. Where there had been radio silence on trans identities, EstroMaxx filled that silence with counterproductive and misleading messages. (And it’s become part of a little avalanche of transphobia, from Craig Ferguson to Adam Sandler.) Here are some of those messages:

    The sketch makes a joke of passing, without recognizing the extraordinary barriers, challenges, and yes, violence, that people face when they don’t appear to be a gender that can be quickly and easily categorized. Trans and gender non-conforming people are followed into bathrooms, called names, and subjected to the use of gender pronouns that may not reflect their identity. And that’s just the daily background noise that transphobia creates. On the larger end, trans and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination, violence, and even dramatically increased rates of death, both by suicide and murder. Given the considerable risk, it’s incredibly unlikely that a trans woman would sport a week’s worth of facial hair growth. Should she have the right? Absolutely. But the chances that she’d do so this cavalierly are slim.

    It encourages disrespectful behavior, like leering at trans people’s bodies, using the wrong pronouns, and laughing at the daily lived experience of trans people. The writers here clearly did their homework: they read up on the medical care necessary to transition. They looked into hormone treatments and surgery, and found out how difficult they are to access. Hell, they even brought in the danger that trans people face in going through airport body scanners. They learned all that, and then what did they do? They made all that hurt and all those barriers into one big hateful joke. Classy.

    It paints a target on the backs of trans women, portraying them as clueless, bumbling impostors who are completely unaware of the way they’re perceived. Bobby Moynihan appears as a woman with styled hair, no makeup, and a beard. Paul Brittain wears a skirtsuit with feathered hair and a mustache. On Friday, most Americans weren’t specifically on the lookout for people whose gender presentation they didn’t recognize. By Sunday, Saturday Night Live’s 5.4 million viewers were. And that’s 5.4 million people who will start making jokes, saying hurtful things, and even inciting violence against trans people. It’s not a one-to-one equation, that’s for sure—watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.

    It fetishizes trans people, while simultaneously making anyone who’s attracted to trans people creepy and suspect. That’s right, people who date trans people: you’re on the hook, too. Keenan Thompson’s attraction to Bobby Moynihan is played for skin-crawling laughs. Can it be genuine attraction? Nope. It’s got to be creepy. Partners of trans people must be even crazier than trans people, if they find that attractive.

    Isn’t anything funny?

    So we’ve established what’s counterproductive about EstroMaxx. But when is humor productive?

    Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does it expose the bias that trans people face? If so, awesome! Go forth & funny! Does it educate people on trans identities and communities? Rock it out! Is it in the hands of trans-identified people? Go team!

    Look, I’m the fat girl who makes more fat jokes than anybody. I’m a big fan of the funny. Humor’s also a great tool for interrupting oppressive moments, and for taking control of narratives about our communities and experiences. But jokes that perpetuate oppression and misconceptions? Thumbs down.

    “Why can’t they learn to take a joke?”

    GLAAD’s response has popped up on a number of web sites, from MTV to Perez Hilton. Many of the comments feature a sad old line, rehashed again and again: “Why can’t they just take a joke?” It’s a line that’s used time and time again, in a wide range of context against a variety of communities. It’s deceptively simple, and it accomplishes several things at once. This one short line can deftly:

    Absolve the speaker of any responsibility. It’s not my fault that I said it, it’s your fault for misinterpreting it. I don’t need to confront my privilege, you need to confront your hyper sensitivity. This one can also quickly and easily slip into accusations of emotional instability or straight up mental illness—a tactic that’s been used against women (hysteria was a real illness, everybody!), queer people (reparative therapy, anyone?) and communities of color (drapetomania made slaves run away!), to name a few. Simply put, the why-can’t-you-take-a-joke approach swiftly shifts focus from the oppressor to the oppressed, and can shortly thereafter cast dangerous aspersions about that person’s stability. Fair? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

    Creates a space in which it’s okay to be oppressive and you can say anything as long as it’s in jest. We also see this when white people make racist jokes ironically, as a way to prove how “post-racial” they are. Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything to anyone: it perpetuates oppressive tropes and makes them impossible to critique. I like to call this part “you can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!”

    Places blame and responsibility on the person/community that’s already being targeted. If you’re offended, that’s your own fault. Not only that, but you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The take-a-joke line quietly but clearly creates a climate where speaking from your own experience and voicing your needs is now, in this bizzarro upside down world, somehow oppressive to people with privilege. I know, you guys! It’s ridiculous.

    Ultimately, the EstroMaxx skit is deeply transphobic. It perpetuates some dangerous myths about trans people (particularly transfeminine people, who are already at extraordinarily heightened risk of violence and discrimination) and salts that wound by making a mockery of the oppression they face. And when someone musters the courage to speak out against that oppression: they’re too sensitive to be trusted, and they’re a pariah for “ruining a perfectly good sketch.”

    Some joke.

    woah!

    Thank you all for the incredible response to our first (real) post! We’re hard at work on the next set of posts, at least one of which should be up in the next day or two. In the meantime, here’s a quick preview of some of the topics we’ve been thinking & talking about:

  • Immigration Reform: A Practical Argument for Amnesty
  • Target, class politics, and the problem with boycotts
  • Saturday Night Live’s EstroMaxx sketch and the politics of “taking the joke”
  • Personal experiences as queer & trans youth, and the shortcomings of the “It Gets Better” approach
  • So stay tuned! And while we’re working on those, you tell us: what else should we add to that list? What would you like to discuss here?