Leelah Alcorn and Being a Parent to Trans Teens

Drawing by Leelah Alcorn

Leelah was a talented artist

I was recently on the Scott Sloan show on 700WLW in Ohio to talk about Leelah Alcorn and how parents should deal with their children revealing that they are trans.  This is a pretty big deal for me — it’s a nationally syndicated show that reaches a huge audience.  Sloan misgenders Leelah a couple times in the intro, but I get the sense from this, and other things that I’ve listened to, that he’s someone who’s more or less on the right side of the issue and trying to make it palatable to what he senses Middle America to be.  For those who don’t know, Leelah Alcorn was a trans teen who killed herself last month in response to being isolated from her friends, forced into Christian therapy that was meant to make her be cisgender, and denied the ability to start to transition.

My major point is that when children need medical care that their parents don’t believe in, the state intervenes to ensure that those children get the care that they need.  Jehovah’s Witness parents don’t get to deny their children blood transfusions, parents that believe in homeopathy don’t get to deny their children chemotherapy.  We don’t prosecute those parents for child abuse, unless the child dies from medical neglect, but we also don’t let them destroy their children because of their personal beliefs in unscientific nonsense that will lead to the deaths of their children.

When parents deny proper care to children who aren’t cisgender, they are contributing to a state in which that child is guaranteed to suffer and may die.  Suicide is the third most common cause of death for teens, but it’s even more common for transgender youth.  In cases like Leelah Alcorn’s, it is often predictable and can be preventable.  41% of those who identify as trans will attempt suicide in their life and that number jumps much higher, into the 70-80% or higher, if they are mistreated by their family, are denied the ability to get medical treatment, are out as a teen, and suffer from depression or other mental health conditions, as Leelah was and did.  The national average for suicide attempts, by the way, is around 5%.  For LGB people, it’s 10-20%.

Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

There have been a lot of accusations of racism thrown around in regards to the work of Charlie Hebdo and the media coverage (or lack thereof) around the domestic terrorist incident at the NAACP in Colorado and I want to tease out some of these ideas that I’ve seen.

1. Accusation: Media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and not the NAACP is racist

The idea here is that the media covered Charlie Hebdo because the villains were people of color and the dead were white, while the NAACP is an organization for people of color that was attacked by a white person.  The media thinks people are more likely to respond to narratives where the heroes are white, even if they are French.

I think this accusation is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.

1. No one died in the NAACP attack, 12 people died in France.

2. One of the more compelling stories to come out of France is the story of the Muslim police officer who was killed defending Charlie Hebdo against the terrorists.

3. The villains are organized and have been established villains in popular imagination.

4. Most importantly, the victims are other members of the media.  It cannot be overstated how much the media latches onto stories of the media being victimized.  This bias in the media is the most mundane one, and one that rarely gets talked about over the left vs right bias.

2. Accusation: The media not covering and being slow to cover the NAACP domestic terrorism is racist

When you separate it from the comparison to Charlie Hebdo and just note that the media has been a bit reluctant to pick up the story, then yeah, I think this is a reasonable complaint.  This is a big deal and should be big news.  It does seem to be picking up a bit now.

3. Accusation: Charlie Hebdo made racist cartoons

Ehhh, this is complicated.  Of course it is, isn’t everything?  A lot of the commentary around these cartoons has been, in my opinion, very shallow, both in the accusations of racism and the defense from racism.  I think everyone is, of course, welcome to their opinion, this is not a personal criticism of any individual.

Political cartoons are almost always kind of racist the moment you put people of color in them.  Not putting any people of color people in them would also be pretty racist.  This is because caricature relies heavily on stereotype to get messages across quickly — all communication does, but political cartoons do even more extremely.  Now, show a bunch of edgy political cartoons to people who don’t understand the language on the cartoons or the culture that produced the cartoons and ask them how racist those cartoons are?  Yeah, they’re going to think they’re really racist.  None of that, by the way, relieves cartoonists of the responsibility to make not racist cartoons.  That said, many of the cartoons that are being called out as racist are making points against oppression of minorities or oppression within minority culture or referring to specific racist behavior of politicians or other figures.  That doesn’t make them entirely not racist, but it also makes them complicated.  They also come in the context of Charlie Hebdo being equal opportunity offenders.

However, Charlie Hebdo’s many layered context comes in the further context of France being a really awful place to live if you’re Muslim.  It’s an incredibly racist and xenophobic society.  What does that all mean?  Not any one thing, except that if you are going to read criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s interaction with race, make sure it is nuanced and culturally specific and not just, “Look at this racist cartoon.”  And just because a cartoon is racist or has racist elements, that doesn’t mean the publication or the people behind the publication were “racists.”  Finally, I personally am really hesitant to take seriously any criticism of these cartoons unless it comes from someone who is a fluent French speaker and follows French politics closely, criticism from anyone else veers perilously close to cultural imperialism for lacking enough context unless they’ve done an immense amount of research.

4. Accusation: Calling Charlie Hebdo cartoons racist means you don’t support free speech

No. Nope.  Incorrect.  There are a small group of people who think that the cartoons are hate speech and shouldn’t be allowed to be published, but the vast majority of people who think that the cartoons are grotesquely racist have valid reasons for doing so and are making points about complicated histories and relationships between people and media.  They are worth listening to even if you ultimately disagree with their conclusions.  And people thinking that speech is terrible doesn’t mean they want to regulate it away.  I think the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to say things.  I also think they are horrible.  These two things reflect totally different values that I hold independently in the same head.

5. Accusation: You can’t be racist against Muslims

Usually accompanied with “Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world.”  To which I say, “Show me one Charlie Hebdo drawing that is of someone from Indonesia.” Islam is not a race, but that really doesn’t matter, because the Western world has a racial idea of what it means to be Muslim.

Maya Angelou, Susan B. Anthony, and Ashley F. Miller together at last

Sometimes you’re doing a deep Google search on your own name and you discover new things about yourself — I discovered a Table of Contents that included me.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 11.09.01 PM

An article I wrote about feminism and atheism that was published in CrossCurrents last year was put into a women’s studies anthology textbook — apparently the #1 one on Amazon: Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings.  So now there is a thing about atheism and women in the most recent edition of, according to Amazon, the #1 gender studies textbook.  So hurray for atheism being included in discussions of gender in academia!

Of course, this inclusion happened last April and no one told me that it happened so…? I’m going to contact the editors of the book and talk to them to see if I can get some more information on what happened and see if I can get a copy for less than the $110 it’s going for.  I’ve asked my local library to pick up a copy and it looks like the school library has one that you can’t check out because it is required reading in a class.  I was contacted last year because my article was the required reading in that class, but I guess no one thought to mention that it was in a textbook rather than a journal.  Internet searching also reveals to me that the article has been cited in at least four academic papers and assigned in at least three courses.  That’s not bad for something that’s been published only 18 months.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 8.16.00 PM

Anyway, so Ashley F. Miller of FreethoughtBlogs is listed and included as the same kind of feminist expert must-read in a major text as Maya Angelou, Gloria SteinemEmily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, bell hooks, Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, Susan Douglas, Jessica Valenti, Barbara Ehrenreich. Also, you know, Natalie Merchant, so there’s that. And more.

Torn between being confused that no one told me it existed, to ecstatic that I am considered anywhere close to the same caliber as these other writers and thinkers, to fighting down imposter syndrome, to super stoked to include this on my resume.  Gonna go die now.  And not just from the mono.  Will update if/when I find out more information or locate the Discussion Questions!  Discussion Questions, people!

I have mono and everything is difficult

I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep the darkness out. I am here to keep it in. – Terry Pratchett, Thud!

I haven’t been around so much.  This is because I have mono.

I assumed that if I got to 30 without getting mono it meant that I was one of most everyone who got EBV as a child and it wasn’t terribly noticeable and hooray for me.  I should have been less optimistic.

It’s amazing how much you can not do with your time. Not dissertation, not work, not volunteer, not writing blogs.

There’s a lot of drama going on around here, to which I can only say this: I didn’t know Avicenna very well, I didn’t follow their blog much either.  Much as I hate how some individuals over at Slyme Pit dehumanize some of my friends and colleagues, they did FtB a favor by finding and pointing out the plagiarism.  And if it wasn’t going to be us, it is far, far better that it was them than almost anyone else.

There is something to be said for the fact that even when two groups of people hate each other as much as FtB and SP, it took only a few hours for a legitimate wrong to be corrected once brought up.  I think that speaks to something right in the world.  Now I nap.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes Qui Custodes Custodiet

Provide Abortion: A Giving Tuesday Ask

hey2This is going to be a donation ask, but in my defense, I don’t talk about where I work that often, so let curiosity lead you to read on — Provide is the real deal. It’s really rare to be able to say that about a place, to see the sausage being made and still be able to say, no really, this place is legit. Provide works in Southern, conservative states to make abortion more accessible, specifically because they are challenging and because the culture is hard to move. We train health care and social service providers on how to refer to abortion care, often giving them some of the first accurate information on abortion they’ve ever encountered. This is a huge gap in their education — abortion is a basic healthcare need for women, nearly 1/3rd of women will have need of one in their life, but it is not treated that way for political reasons. A third of women need a service and that service is hidden behind closed doors and misinformation, even from people in health care roles.

What Provide does is really different from what other abortion organizations do. The reason that I am so proud to work there is because it is situated so well at the intersection of so many concerns — class, race, gender, health, and geography — without making it about us versus them. We train people who are pro-life because our training isn’t about politics, and we have them acknowledge a professional obligation of care to their patients that is different from their own personal beliefs. There is a place for abortion politics and there are a lot of great organizations that do that work, but we’re about on the ground culture change. And we’re actually making that happen.

I am immensely proud to work for an organization that so successfully integrates intersectional feminism and harm reduction philosophy into its worldview, and I am immensely proud to work for an organization that cares about and invests resources in people who are from the South. Our trainers are people who were already local activists in the states where we work. My creative communications work means that I’ve gotten to put money into the local creative economy for video and acting and graphic design. We’ve got a UU church lady and an LGBT Youth Advocate; they didn’t hesitate to hire me despite my atheist activism and have never asked me to stop blogging and seeking attention on that front; we’re translating all our resources into Spanish and holding Spanish-language trainings. It’s really an amazing place. And it does it on a smaller budget than almost any other national abortion organization that you’ve ever heard of.

This is the link to where we’re trying to raise $5000 today for‪ #‎GivingTuesday‬. This is the cost of one of our Abortion Referrals Trainings — a day long intensive training that teaches up to 40 health care or social service workers, at no cost to them, how to do non-judgmental, accurate referrals, why they should be doing them, and allows them to ask an actual abortion provider questions about what happens when they refer someone to an abortion.

Here is a video featuring our field team from across our states that I spent about four months producing over the summer and I’m quite proud of it. If you have a minute (three minutes), check it out. And if you can donate, even a little bit, I know it’s not as aggressive a cause as atheism or politics, but it is a thing that is really making a difference in the world. And if you can’t, but think that what we do is worthwhile, maybe share what we’re doing, because a lot of people haven’t heard of us, and I think they should.

Ferguson: 5 Points We Need to Understand

Mike Brown

Mike Brown

We often hear about the cultural bubbles that we build for ourselves online, but, for better or for worse, I’ve never managed to insulate myself from the opinions of those I disagree very strongly with.  Ferguson has been no exception.  I thought it might be worth the effort to lay out, in detail, my own opinions and observations here on my blog.  This is a bit difficult because, for the most part, I would much rather promote the voices of others on this issue, particularly those voices coming out of Ferguson, but I also think that there are people that I can reach by writing about it myself.  It’s worth noting at the top, then, that I am a white, upper middle class woman who has never had any trouble with the police and never thought twice about calling the police when I was in trouble myself.  But that’s who I’d like to talk to right now, white people who aren’t afraid of the police, because I think we’re the ones who aren’t getting why people are burning buildings and cars in their own city in frustration.

I have some quibbles and questions about who exactly is burning things down, but let us assume for the sake of this discussion it is in fact residents of Ferguson behaving destructively and looting and so on and not, as rumored, militant anti-protester groups, out-of-towners, anarchists, or the KKK.

Forget, for a moment, what you know about Ferguson.  I want to talk about anger and despair.  When is the last time you got angry?  Really, really angry?  That you felt unjustly treated, that someone got something that should have been yours?  You were robbed, you were violated, you were cheated, you were mistreated, powerless to control the world around you.  Have you ever been so mad that you screamed? Threw something? Punched a wall? Got in a fight?  The last time I got angry, really properly angry like that, it was because someone had lied to me.  I was so angry I wanted to hurt something, wanted something else to hurt so I didn’t have to.  I had no power to change what had happened.  Despair and anger and powerlessness together are destructive — usually self-destructive. [Read more…]

Skepticon: Friday 4pm Classism: From Honey Boo Boo to Anderson Cooper

Are you going to Skepticon 7?  Capital!

I am hosting a workshop about class and classism on Friday — about recognizing it and how we can address it.  A class on class, if you will.  You should come.  It’s gonna be fun.

Here’s a preview of some things I may talk about:

rachel-vs-dropoutsdawkins_malala

 

 

[Read more…]

A Letter from Morehouse SafeSpace President Marcus Lee UPDATED

by Marcus Lee

Thank you for writing this poignant blog about your experience. I’m the President of Morehouse SafeSpace—Morehouse’s Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversities—and these issues are ones we grapple with frequently.

Our situation is a complex and peculiar one. I’m proud to say that many of us (students & alum) have committed to loving ourselves/each other regardless of—and in some instances because of—our differences. Moreover, there are many faculty and staff members—including the President of the college, the Office of Student Life, several professors, etc.—that embrace us. However, Morehouse’s curricula, institutional policies and procedures do not reflect this embrace. There are no Black queer studies courses, gender and sexual orientation are absent from our employment nondiscrimination policy, we have a dress code that outlaws wearing ‘female attire,’ we have an inactive diversity committee, and the list continues. So, I don’t think the football team’s reactions are inherent to them specifically. Instead, they are a product of a grooming process—that begins in the world, and is buttressed or goes uninterrupted at Morehouse—that’s checkered with heteronormativity and silence; inclusive spaces are forged here in spite of, not because of, the culture of the college.

To be sure, Morehouse will respond to this issue—many of us (students and alum) have reached out to the President and the VP of Student Affairs and they’ve responded with disappointment and noted that the football team will be engaging in dialogue about this soon. And, when asked about an institutional commitment to diversity, the VP noted that it’s also coming soon.

I hope this is true. Issues like these cannot and should not be dealt with discreetly. This is a systemic issue that permeates campus no matter how friendly and encouraging a few administrative folks are toward us. In short, I implore anyone who is concerned to ask, not what will happen with the football team particularly, but what will be installed to permanently mitigate homophobia on campus. That’s the key.

Thanks again,

Marcus Lee

EDITED TO ADD:

So many folks have reached out about the “Dear White People” blog and I’m so thankful for your support. I haven’t been able to offer detailed responses to folks asking about our needs because I’m still a student with A LOT of work to do, applications to complete, etc. But, I wanted to write a short post advising folks on what support for us looks like in this moment.

Things that don’t help:

- [Erroneously] saying that Morehouse is a school full of girls (which is somehow supposed to elucidate the irony of the situation; but, in reality only implies that there is something wrong with being a “girl” [gay] and reinforces homophobia.)

- Opportunistically reaching out to us to be flown down for a panel, a meeting, etc. without actually having any real concern about or knowledge of Morehouse’s history with diversity–i.e. our setbacks and triumphs.

- Castigating the actions of the football team without asking questions about what Morehouse is or is not doing institutionally to interrupt homophobia [thereby, allowing for the possibility that the football team may be used as a scapegoat to avoid dealing with institutional issues].

- Suggesting that homophobia among those men–some of whom are my friends–was inevitable [thereby, perpetuating the myth of Black “super-homophobia” (as opposed to white “gentle-homophobia”?)]

Things that do help:

- Reaching out to the Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities and asking her how many of the several open positions in the social science departments will be filled by scholars who study sexuality and gender–more specifically, scholars who label their work “Black/Queer/Feminist” [be sure that the word “Black” is included somewhere in that label.]

- Reach out to the President of the college and the VP of Student Affairs to ask which campus-wide programs are happening in order to mitigate homophobia.

- Ask the VP who is on the Diversity Committee, how often they meet, and what they have done for the campus

- Reach out to the Provost of the college to ask which part of the general education curriculum includes a necessary, thoroughgoing engagement with Black/Queer/Feminist work. Then, ask which texts are being read.

- Ask when the LGBT diversity competence training happens on campus and how many faculty and staff members show up.

- Reach out to General Counsel and ask how long it will take for gender identity and sexual orientation to be added to the employment non discrimination policy and the student non-discrimination policy.

- Reach out to the President and ask that the “Appropriate Attire Policy” be abolished.

- And the list continues.

I hope this helps!

How the Morehouse Football Team ruined Dear White People and proved its point

dear white people

Response from Morehouse SafeSpace president here.

As a filmmaker, intersectional scholar, and a huge fan and supporter of the original trailer and campaign for “Dear White People,” I was ecstatic to be able to go see the film here in Columbia, SC.  The film itself didn’t disappoint.  Clearly influenced by Wes Anderson in cinematography, but wholly unique in tone, it was a brilliantly funny, biting, and moving film.  The acting, the directing, the cinematography were all superb, even before you take into account the origin story and budget of the film.  The experience of seeing the film, however, was incredibly unpleasant.  Spoilers ahead.

Just as the trailers were ending and the movie starting, a hundred people started pouring into the theater.  This was the Morehouse College Football Team, here in Columbia to play Benedict College tomorrow.  Morehouse is an all-male historically black college in Atlanta not too far from my own undergraduate institution of Emory.  It is the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As the movie started, I was excited that this many people were in the theater to see the movie.  It was a short-lived excitement.

There are three main plots in “Dear White People,” and one of them focuses on a black gay kid named Lionel, played by “Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams, who doesn’t fit in with any group — not with gay kids, not with white kids, and not with black kids, who have historically treated him with homophobia and cruelty.  His story is about the toxic effect of homophobia in the black community.  In addition to the heterosexual romances involving all the other characters, there is also a budding romance between Lionel and another man.  The initial hints at this romance did not win the Morehouse College Football Team’s approval.  They started saying homophobic things every time Lionel was onscreen.  When Lionel had a same-sex kiss, the team went into a frenzy — everyone turned on their phones and said they weren’t looking, they started yelling, “What kind of movie is this?”  Several of them walked out, others started yelling at anyone on their team for looking at the screen when the kiss happened, “Man, you looked at that, I saw you!”  “What is this gay shit?”  “Some of y’all didn’t turn your heads away!”

It was nauseating.  But it got worse.

Lionel has a major heroic moment toward the end of the film in which he breaks up a racist party being held by an entitled white jerk, who is, more or less, the antagonist of the film, and who verbally and sexually harassed Lionel over his sexuality throughout the film.  The racist white guy tackles Lionel and pins him down.  In retaliation, Lionel kisses him (this freaked out the audience again), but the racist white guy responds by punching Lionel repeatedly in the face.

They cheered.  This room full of black men who attend Dr. King’s alma mater.  They cheered for the racist white guy because the black man he was being allowed to beat without repercussion was a faggot.

When the beating stopped, the Morehouse player behind me said that the white guy should have kept hitting him because that’s what he got for being gay.

I want you to imagine yourself in a dark room with a hundred physically fit men rooting for a hate crime to be perpetrated against a gay man.  It was terrifying.  It was horrifying.  It was depressing.  Can you imagine what a kid on that team who was gay would have felt?

When the film was over, it was all the men of Morehouse could talk about.  Who hadn’t closed their eyes and looked away when there was gay kissing?  One player said of Tyler James Williams, “Man, I must’ve watched every episode of ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ back in the day.  Can’t believe he’d go out like that.  Shit kills me.”

I don’t know if Morehouse College offers LGBT sensitivity training, but it should have someone come speak to the football team.  Even if you don’t approve of homosexuality, to come to a city as a football team, representing your college and your hometown, and to spit hate and vitriol in a room that includes other people, including LGBT people — it is not OK.  What kind of school sends out ambassadors of hate?  Can it be the same one that sent out Dr. King?  Hewing to the stereotype of black homophobia makes Morehouse and the black community weaker, and there are real victims.  Lionel may be fictional, but his treatment was not.  It’s a shame that “Dear White People”‘s message of acceptance didn’t reach everyone in the room.

EDITED TO ADD: Raynard Ware, a member of the Morehouse Football Team who was there last night offered this comment below, and I thought I should highlight it:

As a student and football player for the Maroon Tigers, I was disturb by the reaction of my teammates during certain scenes of the movie. The remarks and outbursts were upright embarrassing and prejudice. I am big on reputation and presentation. However, this is not a true reputation of our institution. We are sincerely apologetic that the loud embarrassing remarks were heard and not the intellectual discussion, which we also engaged in after the movie. Sorry to give off such a poor perception to the public eye, we ARE apologetic.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention, some of my teammates needed to know the perception they give to people.

Michael Shermer’s Harassment

A piece has just been published about misogyny in skepticism and atheism, and particularly about Michael Shermer, that includes me as a named source who has experienced inappropriate behavior from Mr. Shermer.  It’s worth pointing out that my story is merely a supporting story to the larger overall story of Mr. Shermer’s behavior, and not nearly as awful as some others.  I have never told it in public, though many people have heard it in private, because of a fear of litigious reprisals and hate mail; it never seemed worth it until I was asked to comment on this story.  To the extent that it’s useful and people would like to have full details on what happened, this is my full story.

In 2010, I went to the Orange County Freethought Association Conference after reading about it on PZ’s blog.  You could pay $50 to eat dinner with PZ, which struck me as a good deal.  I was in LA and didn’t have a lot of friends and I was a big fan of PZ’s blog.  I was, at the time, an atheist but not really aware of the larger skeptic and atheist communities.  Which was a shame.  As I later learned, if you were part of the movement before you went to events, you’d get warnings on who to avoid.  The number one person I was told to avoid was Shermer, but I didn’t hear that until months after I met him.

[Read more…]