Correlation is Not Causation: STI Edition

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about a new study on STI rates among men who hook up with men using smartphone apps, and how easy it is to misinterpret the results.

new study by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and UCLA suggests that men who have sex with men and use hookup apps like Grindr are significantly more likely to have gonorrhea and chlamydia than men who have sex with men but do not use such apps. But before you panic and delete Grindr from your phone lest it give you an STI, let’s look at what the study does and does not actually show.

[...]Careless headline writers frequently mix up correlation and causation, spreading misinformation and stigma. Despite Lowder’s balanced take on the study, the headline of his own piece reads, rather alarmingly, “Study Suggests Grindr-Like Apps Increase Likelihood of Sexually Transmitted Infections.” This wording implies that using such apps increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting an STI, not that, in general, people who use such apps are also more likely to have an STI. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Another important distinction is whether the participants contracted the STIs during the course of the study (while using GSN apps) or just happened to have them at the time that the data was collected. Here Lowder’s article is also unclear: “Specifically, geo-social app users were 25 percent more likely than their bar hopping comrades to contract gonorrhea, and 37 percent more likely to have picked up chlamydia.” And an article about the study at Advocate is headlined, “STUDY: Smartphone Hookup App Users More Likely To Contract Sexually Transmitted Infections.”

However, the actual study notes that the participants were tested for STIs at the same time as they were asked about their sexual behavior, including the use of GSN apps. This means that they did not necessarily contract the STIs while using the GSN apps, or after having used them. The infections could have preceded the participants’ use of the apps.

This is important because it can help untangle the question of why this correlation exists, besides the obvious hypothesis that using GSN apps can actually cause people to contract STIs at higher rates than other ways of meeting sexual partners. Perhaps people who already have STIs are more interested in using the apps because of the anonymity—it’s much less scary to tell a random person you’ll never meet again that you have an STI and need to use a condom than it is to tell someone who’s embedded in your social network. Or, on the more cynical side of things, people might feel less guilty about not disclosing an STI to a random app hookup than someone they’ve met in a more conventional way.

Or, maybe people who are attracted to “wild” and “risky” sexual situations are more likely to have STIs and more likely to use GSN apps. The common factor could be impulsivity or recklessness.

Read the rest here.

I Admit It: I Was Wrong About My Sexual Orientation

On this day when so many straight people are finally realizing that they are actually queer and reaping the resulting “wow dude seriously”‘s and “LMAO”‘s and “ewww”‘s on their Facebook statuses, I have had the opposite realization: I’m straight.

Yes, straight dudes who scoffed whenever I came out to you and asked how I could possibly be bisexual if I am currently dating a man or have never had a serious relationship with a woman or “just don’t seem like that type” or don’t want to have a threesome with you and your girlfriend: you were right.

First of all, I’m straight because many scientists are still apparently unsure that bisexual people exist, and everyone knows that research evidence matters more than some random girl’s opinion about her own experiences. Until researchers using deterministic and rigid categories of sexual orientation prove that bisexuality exists with the same level of certainty that mathematicians have proven that the circumference of a circle equals its diameter multiplied by pi, it would be anti-skeptical for me to claim to be one, don’t you think?

I’m straight because, let’s face it, men just have more value than women. Sure, I’ve had crushes on girls or whatever, but everyone knows that what I really want is to marry a man and have children. You know, the “natural” way. So even if I’m attracted to women, it doesn’t really matter.

In fact, if you’re attracted to men, that is the essential aspect of your sexuality no matter what. That’s why “bisexual” men are all actually gay, while “bisexual women” are all actually straight. If you’re into dudes, that’s what counts.

I was only pretending to be bisexual for the attention. You know, girls like doing stuff like that so guys will notice them. Sure, bisexual people experience both biphobia and good ol’ homophobia, and on some mental health measures fare worse than gay men, lesbians, or straight people. But I am so desperate for a guy’s attention that I will pretend to be bisexual to get it. That’s literally how desperate I am. After all, the only other thing I’ve got going for me as a person is this crappy little blog. It’s not like I have a personality or anything.

I’m straight because I started seeing guys long before I started seeing women. How could I have really known I was bisexual if I didn’t have “experience”? Unlike straight people, bisexual people do not have the luxury of being born with an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. Nothing–not their turn-ons, not their crushes, not their romantic daydreams–nothing besides Real Sex with someone of the same gender is sufficient to prove for certain that they are really bisexual as they say they are. And if you’re not proven to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, then you’re automatically straight. So at any rate, I was simply lying all those closeted years.

I am straight because of the sheer power of your opinion. Since you are so utterly convinced that I am actually secretly straight, I have basically become straight. It’s like The Secret, but with other people’s sexual orientation! You are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea that I might want something other than dudes all day erryday that you have changed my mind with your iron will. Wow!

I’m straight because, as I mentioned, I don’t want to have a threesome with you and your girlfriend. There is only like a 3% chance that I want to do that, and that is just too far below the threshold to be considered properly bisexual. If I really were bisexual, I would want to have a threesome with you and your girlfriend immediately. I would also want to have a polyamorous relationship with you and your girlfriend in which you are both allowed to sleep with other people but I’m not, and I take care of your kids while you go on dates with each other or other people. Come on, what’s my problem? Anyone would jump at this opportunity. I must be straight.

I am straight because I don’t “look gay.” It’s pretty impressive that you picked up on this, but queer women actually have a slightly different bone structure than straight women, and it is said that the two groups are so genetically different so as to practically constitute two different subspecies. The winter plumage of straight women is slightly duller in color than the winter plumage of gay women, although during the summer months it can be nearly impossible to tell the two apart on sight alone. Experienced observers rely on other identifiers, such as nests, migration patterns, or calls. I guess I didn’t realize that your knowledge of these differences would be so extensive that you would immediately see through this ridiculous act I was trying to perform. Haha, you got me. I’m straight! Lol.

So, it’s time for me to come out. As straight. I will no longer argue with that dude that there is at every party I ever go to who starts spouting off about my sexual orientation as if he’s been checking my browser history. He knows better. If he says I’m straight, I’m straight. Thanks for clearing that up for me, dude.

The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.

~~~

* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

The Pressing Issue of Sham Gay Marriages

This, sadly, is not an April Fools’ joke. (Gotcha with that last one, though, right??)

Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party, on same-sex marriage:

You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow. Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal. I believe a husband and a wife should be a man and a woman, the benefits should be for a man and a woman. There is no way that this is about equality. To me, it’s all about a free ride.

Sometimes people just come so close to the source of the problem but then still manage to veer off into complete idiocy.

Of course there would be same-sex couples who’d get married just for the benefits if same-sex marriage were legal where they live. There are already straight couples who do that. Hasn’t Everhart ever seen The Proposal? (Ignoring the part where they totally unrealistically fall in love, that is, because romcom.) And couldn’t gay men and lesbians just marry each other for the benefits, too?

Perhaps Everhart lives in a fantasy land in which people are only friends with others of the same gender, meaning that legalized same-sex marriage would indeed make it easier for people to shack up just for the benefits. But that’s not really how friendship works, especially since the need for healthcare and green cards goes beyond gender.

The truth that Everhart came so close to but still managed to completely miss is that federal benefits for married couples are fundamentally unfair. Why should having a certain type of relationship entitle you to special prizes? And don’t give me that crap about promoting procreation; we already heard it last week in the Supreme Court arguments. First of all, we give married couples those benefits even when no procreation is reasonably going to happen, and second, if you really believe that what this world most desperately needs are additional humans, I feel sad for you.

Everhart clearly thinks that marrying “for the benefits” is the wrong reason to get married. But what’s the right reason? Because one of you got pregnant and abortion is wrong? Because you need someone to provide for you (or take care of your household)? Because your families want to exchange property? Because you “truly” love each other and not just “as friends,” whatever that means?

Assuming that getting married “for the benefits” is Bad, well, that’s the problem when the government chooses to incentivize certain kinds of human relationships with material benefits, and when health care is only available to those who are given insurance by their employer, who can afford to buy insurance or pay for healthcare out of pocket, or who can marry someone to get on their insurance plan. Why should you only have that “wonderful health plan” of which Everhart speaks if you happen to have the right employer or be married to the right person? None of these things should be tied to marriage. But if they’re going to be, it’s only fair that same-sex couples have access to them, too.

Cultural phenomena like marriage are constantly changing in meaning and purpose. It used to be that most marriages were essentially “for the benefits”–for the husband’s family to get a dowry and carry on their family name, for the wife’s family to get the bride price, for the wife to have financial support, for the husband to have a housewife and a source of sexual gratification, for both families to receive social advantages of some sort, and so on. So, either Everhart should condemn all forms of marriage-for-benefits, or she should acknowledge that it only bothers her when the gays do it.

Conveniently, she basically did just that: “Lord, I’m going to get in trouble over this, but it is not natural for two women or two men to be married. If it was natural, they would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship.”

All I can say to that is that I truly feel sorry for Everhart if she really thinks that P-in-V is the only way to have sex.

How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

I’m Going To Rant About Those Little Equal Sign Facebook Profile Pics Now

profilepics

Sources: here and here.

I get it. The cute little red equal signs all over Facebook today are an easy target. It’s not Real Activism. It doesn’t actually help anyone. Get off your ass and Actually Do Something for the cause. Right?

Yes, nobody should fool themselves that changing their profile picture will convince the Supreme Court to disregard Charles Cooper’s embarrassing performance today, and nor will it bequeath to Justice Antonin Scalia the empathy for his fellow human beings that he is sorely lacking. (By the way, Scalia, there is a scientific answer to the question of same-sex couples raising kids, and the answer is that you’re probably full of poop.) It will not magically make religious conservatives support queer rights. It will certainly not solve the serious, life-threatening issues that the queer community faces–issues more urgent than marriage rights, issues nevertheless ignored by many mainstream LGBT organizations.

I am also, needless to say, completely sympathetic to the arguments of people who chose not to use the profile pic because it’s the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, which is an organization I no longer support, either, and have recently stopped donating to.

But I’m not so sympathetic to the argument that posting the pic “does nothing.” First of all, you don’t know that a given person who’s posted it is literally doing nothing else to promote queer rights. And second, yes, it does do something.

It’s pretty damn cynical (and not exactly kind to one’s friends) to just assume that not a single one of the people who changed their profile pictures today has done anything else to support queer rights. None of them have voted. None of them have donated any money to any organizations. None of them have contacted any representatives. None of them have ever supported a queer friend who was coming out or facing bigotry. None of them have argued with anyone about queer rights.

Does changing one’s profile picture to reflect a cause they believe in negate everything else they might have done to support that cause?

It’s as though some people see others doing something small–changing a profile picture, posting a status–and then assume that that’s all they do about that particular issue. Probably not.

On Facebook, a bunch of friends shared this status:

Lots of comments about slacktivism tossed around today. I see on my feed people who contribute financially to the cause of equality; people who bear the brunt of homophobic bigotry; people who speak out in blogs, videos, social networking, newspaper editorials, and essays; people who encourage and motivate their gay friends when the crap gets to them; people who stay in contact with their representatives in government; and those who work for their candidates, attend meetings, and keep like minded thinkers informed. But I don’t see any slacktivism, not on this feed.

On that note, it seems that the people complaining about “slacktivism” today don’t necessarily realize that many of the people posting the profile pic are themselves queer. While it’d certainly be nice if all queer people “actually did something” about homophobia, many of them don’t have that option. For many of them, simply getting through the day is resistance.

Which brings me to my second point: that posting the profile pic does do tangible good. How do I know? Because people said so. I saw tons of posts today from queer friends talking about how good it feels to see all the red profile pictures, because it tells them that there are so many people who want to support them–who aren’t perfect allies, maybe (but then, who is?), but who care how the Supreme Court rules. For one gay woman who wrote to Andrew Sullivan, it made a huge difference.

Helping a queer person feel loved and accepted matters. It matters just as much as donating to a queer rights organization or marching in a protest. Perhaps it even matters more.

And also? If you’re queer and you don’t feel this way about the profile pics at all, that’s okay too. It doesn’t have to matter to you. But it matters to many of us.

I don’t care if you’ve chosen not to change your profile picture. Seriously. I don’t care what your reasons for it were. I’m not judging you. I’m not going to look through my friends list and convince myself that everyone who didn’t change their profile picture hates gay people or whatever.

But it unquestionably felt nice to see so many red squares on my screen every time I checked Facebook today. Probably not for any “rational” reason. It just felt nice to know that all these people are paying attention to what’s going on, that they care about what the Supreme Court decides and they care in the direction of equality.

Maybe most of these people really haven’t “done anything” for queer rights other than change their profile picture. That’s actually fine with me, because not everybody needs to be an activist, and it’s enough to know that all these people are part of the majority of Americans who now support same-sex marriage.

And if you’re not part of that majority, you probably went on Facebook today and saw all the people who disagree with you and who aren’t going to take your shit anymore. Maybe you argued with someone who had changed their profile picture. Maybe we even started to convince you.

I think it’s vital to embrace all kinds of activism, from the easiest and least risky to the most difficult and dangerous. It’s important not to lose sight of the concrete goals that still need to be accomplished, and especially to discuss how the conversation about marriage equality marginalizes certain people and ignores certain issues. But it’s also important to recognize symbolic gestures for what they’re worth.

Being part of a minority–and being an activist–can be lonely, stressful, and discouraging. But today I felt supported and cared for. That matters.

Not All Beliefs Deserve Respect

“I’m not trying to be ‘that douche’ but it kind of pisses me off that people here accept other’s beliefs only if they’re liberal. What if I tried to post advertising all over about why ‘I’m not an ally’ or why I think abortion is about the most disgusting crime someone can commit? I hate that I feel like I have to hide who I am, because I know I will be judged. Probably won’t even get this posted for that reason exactly.”

This is from a Facebook page at my partner’s school where people anonymously submit confessions. In the comments, people trip over themselves to assure the OP that they respect conservative beliefs and that it’s “ironic” how closed-minded some liberals are towards conservatism.

It’s definitely not the first time I’ve come across this sort of sentiment. Many people of all political orientations seem to think that being a liberal means “respecting” and “accepting” everyone regardless of their beliefs or actions. I can see how they might get that impression, given that liberals sometimes try to frame themselves as more caring and accepting than conservatives (hence the “bleeding-heart liberal” stereotype).

However, liberalism actually has nothing to do with accepting anyone’s beliefs. Traditionally, it meant valuing ideals such as liberty and equality, replacing monarchy and feudalism with democracy and private property, and so on. (Note: this is intentionally simplistic.)

Nowadays liberalism admittedly has a broader meaning. At least in the United States, liberals tend to see a role for the federal government in ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and that vulnerable people receive assistance, and they tend to be associated with the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the opinions and beliefs of others, American liberals (like most Americans) tend to believe that everyone should have the right to express their opinions. The government may not infringe on that right, and while others are not required to listen to your opinions or allow you into their private spaces in order to express them, most people would agree that a healthy society encourages the expression of all sorts of differing views.

But none of that means that I, an individual, am required by virtue of my political orientation to respect and accept everything you think and believe.

Now, it’s important to draw a distinction between respecting/accepting people and respecting/accepting opinions. Political orientations, like all labels, take on a lot of value for us, and sometimes when someone rejects your labels it feels like they’re rejecting you. But that’s not necessarily the case. I reject conservatism but I do not reject my conservative friends and family; I reject all religion but I do not reject my religious friends and family. The reason I am able to keep up relationships with these people despite our vast disagreements is because I am able to see them as more than just their labels, and they are able to see that my rejection of their beliefs and opinions does not constitute rejection of them as people.

At this point a hypothetical conservative might ask why “rejecting” homosexuality doesn’t work the same way. Here’s why. I don’t reject conservatism and religion because I find them icky and weird; I reject them because I think they’re harmful to society. Politics and religion affect us all, so it’s reasonable that we might have opinions about the political and religious beliefs of others.

But someone else’s homosexuality does not affect you in any way. If you find yourself having strong opinions about what someone does in their bedroom with consenting adults, that’s a problem with you, not with those people and their behavior. If anyone ever managed to present a strong argument based on evidence and reality for why homosexuality is harmful, I’d reconsider that position, but I’ve yet to see one. In contrast, there are strong arguments based on evidence for why conservatism and religion are harmful. You might still disagree that they’re harmful and find contradictory evidence showing that they’re helpful, but you can’t deny that good arguments against them exist.

I can divide opinions into three general categories: the ones I agree with, the ones I disagree with but can still accept as valid, and the ones I disagree with and cannot accept whatsoever. The latter category includes opinions such as these: same-sex couples should not have the right to marry. Racism is no longer a thing. Women who dress revealingly or drink alcohol are “asking” to get raped. There is no climate change currently occurring. Homeopathy works. Abortion is murder. People with mental illness should just snap out of it. I refuse to “respect” or “accept” these opinions because they are either barely-concealed attempts to impose religious ideology onto a supposedly secular society, and/or because they are contradicted by all of the available evidence.

That middle category, though, are opinions that I definitely disagree with, but I can sort of understand where they come from and appreciate the thought process that led to them. For example: the government should not mandate insurance coverage. People shouldn’t eat animals or animal products. Government intervention is inherently problematic. That soda ban in NYC was a good idea. We should ditch the Constitution. We should ban third-trimester abortions. Libertarianism and socialism tend to fit into this category for me, except when taken to extremes.

The reason I mention this is just to illustrate that disagreeing with an opinion doesn’t necessarily mean finding it ridiculous and dangerous. It’s entirely possible that someone would look at different evidence, or look at the same evidence in a different way, and come to conclusions that I disagree with but can accept and even respect. But you can’t just throw out any opinion, no matter how ridiculous, and demand that it be taken seriously and respected, not even by liberals who you think are supposed to be “open-minded” and “accepting.”

To bring it back to the anonymous comment that spurred this post, I cannot respect someone who wants to proudly state that they’re not an ally to LGBTQ people. (You don’t have to be an ally, sure, but that’s nothing to shout from the rooftops, you know?) And as for abortion, if you really think that’s “the most disgusting crime someone can commit,” you need to check your priorities. What about sexual assault? What about child abuse? Sorry, I do not “respect” those two opinions. I refuse to.

It’s worth noting, too, that it’s much easier to “respect” dissenting opinions when they do not have an immense detrimental effect on you personally. As I wrote in my post about ending friendships over political differences, sometimes what someone considers “just an opinion” hits too close to home. A straight person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman only, but a queer person may not be able to respect that. A neurotypical person may be able to disagree but still respect the opinion that mental illness is a sign of weakness, but a non-neurotypical person may not.

With this issue, as so many others, the difference often comes down to privilege.

I have complete sympathy for anyone who is bullied, harassed, or made to feel subhuman because of their political beliefs, even if I disagree with them. (Not only do I think that treating people this way is morally wrong, but it’s also a terrible way to get them to change their minds.) It’s difficult to be a minority of any sort, including political. I know because I’ve been that awkward conservative kid at a liberal school, wondering if everyone’s going to judge me the second I open my mouth about politics.

I have sympathy for those who feel that way, but I do not have sympathy for those who expect others to “respect” and “accept” their beliefs no matter how ill-considered, dangerous, hurtful, and unrelated to actual reality they may be.

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

[guest post] Sorry, You Don’t Own Marriage

My friend Seth, who’s becoming somewhat of a regular around here, returns with some observations about the same-sex marriage “debate” (if you could call it that).

I don’t know how many of you reading this right now have read any other of my limited contributions to the blogosphere, but if you have, you’ll know that I’ve been hopelessly indoctrinated into the gay agenda. So, unrepentant heathen that I am, you can imagine my reaction when this little gem of a quote from the debate over the Illinois same-sex marriage bill floated across my news feed:

“It is not a civil right, and marriage was created by God and not be modified by anybody except God.” (Source: Equality Illinois, corrected for grammar and punctuation because GAH)

Naturally this kicked the snark center of my brain into full gear. Gay people can’t get married because the Christian God holds the patent on marriage? Who else does this affect? Are all those poor Hindu couples technically unmarried because they didn’t go through the proper (i.e. Christian) procedure? What about me? I’m a Buddhist and an agnostic, does that mean that the children I father are doomed to be bastards born out of wedlock? What about my cousin, who just went up to a county courthouse and signed a paper with her fiancee—does that have the Divine Stamp of Approval?

That’s when a legitimate thought broke through the sarcasm. What about my cousin? She’s married in the (for lack of a better phrase) bare-bones legal sense, with no religious ceremonies or oversight. But she’s still married. I dare anybody to try and challenge that. They’d get laughed out of court.

And that’s what this is all about, because whoever supplied the above quote was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Certainly, marriage can be closely associated with religion: see every fictional depiction of it ever, which almost always involves it taking place in a church unless there’s a particular reason for it not to. But in this day and age, marriage is not controlled by religion. If it were, the entire institution would be an unmanageable clusterfuck—look at the sheer amount of religions we have in this country, and how many different interpretations of marriage they present. Rather, marriage is a way of legally acknowledging that two people have decided to live cooperatively, and to make that arrangement more convenient for them. Like my cousin, all you really have to do to be married is to sign a paper saying that you are; everything else is window dressing to make you feel like you’re square with your god and your family.

So marriage actually has nothing to do with religion as far as the law is concerned, and this is the law we’re talking about here, being, you know, legislation. And for a polyreligious country like ours, the law has an obligation to apply in equal measures to all citizens regardless of the proscriptions of any one particular religion. In other words: yes, the bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. No, that doesn’t give you the legal right to keep them from marrying, any more than you have the legal right to burn a priest’s daughter for being unchaste (Leviticus 21:9) or execute an adulterer or a child who curses their parents (Leviticus 20:9-10).

Your religion says gay marriage isn’t okay? Fine. Don’t let them get married in your church. That’s your religion’s domain and therefore your prerogative. But when it comes to the legal right to sign that piece of paper? Nobody gets to touch that, not you, not the Jews, not the Hindus, not the Pagans, and not us Buddhists. If you still want to claim that your God has exclusive rights to marriage, then you’d better get cracking on a bill that keeps us nonbelievers off of his turf. Go ahead. See how it goes.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.