September 28, 2012

Pride

Pride weekend makes me think about life here in North Carolina. I still can't believe that Amendment 1 was passed! I had seen so many "Vote Against Amendment 1" signs all around Durham. How could this have happened? Even my older child, age 8, has voiced an opinion about it, explaining that several friends at school have two moms. Now what would happen to these friends and their families? So even at age 8, a child can see the unfairness of such an amendment. It seems absolutely absurd to a child. To my child. To me.

Pride weekend gives us a chance to reflect on this amendment and on what means to be LGBTQA in North Carolina, in Durham, and at Duke.

On another note from my kids, my younger child, age 5, has been asking some interesting questions. On the drive to preschool each morning we pass by a Hardee's fast food restaurant. My child has been begging to go there and get some sort of bacon sandwich that he saw on tv. (The kid loves bacon!)

However, finding Hardee's marketing tactics to be offensive, I have tried to implement some consumer empowerment by refusing for my family to eat there. My child keeps asking, "Why can't I get my bacon sandwich there?"I tried to explain that Hardee's has extremely offensive advertising that promotes sexist attitudes and reinforces heteronormativity.

Unfortunately, my five year old does not quite get it. I am hoping that when my family attends the Pride events this weekend, it will become more clear to him. Having young children involved in Pride weekend is especially meaningful as they learn that each and every person is valuable on this planet just for being themselves. I once read an inspiring quote that stated, "Be yourself. Nobody else is better qualified!" Let's be proud to be ourselves!

Genna Miller, Ph.D.

Economics Department

September 27, 2012

Prejudice and Pride

Sometimes people mistakenly think I’m gay.

This isn’t particularly a big issue, except it can cause certain awkward situations. For example, last year I met a girl at a party on campus and ended up fancying her. I thought that we hit it off pretty well, so I asked to see her again. We got dinner together at Sushi Love where we had a pleasant chat all night, and we began to see each other more and more. One late night we ended up studying together, just the two of us, and the topic of conversation shifted to very personal issues. She told me some story about a guy she once dated and when I first began talking about an ex-girlfriend she suddenly got quiet and averted her look from me. I asked what was wrong and had to pry an answer out of her. “Well,” she started, “when we first met I wasn’t sure whether you were flirting with me or if you were gay. And since then I’ve just been assuming that you’re gay.”

The precise reasons for these assumptions remain elusive to me. Maybe it’s because pink is one of my favorite colors, or because I’ve been known to sport pins both from the Women’s Center and the LGBT Center on my backpack, or because I’m a “big friendly giant” (in the words of my friend C) who enjoys hugs and other forms of physical contact with friends. Whatever the reasons are, similar occurrences have been happening to me over the past few years, both with my friends and my family.

I have to admit that my knee jerk reaction to these situations was once to feel ashamed, as if I were betraying my identity. So the response was to “tone it down.” Think twice about wearing that pink shirt. Don’t tell your male friend that you love him. In one case I even refused a rainbow flag being offered by a bisexual friend of mine, and probably ended up hurting his feelings.

Perhaps this is a common reaction among straight men. Despite the growing inclusion of LGBT members in our culture, there is still some irrational stigma of emasculation and weakness that is especially associated with homosexual men. Then perhaps it is not surprising (though still not excusable, either) when a straight man becomes insulted when accused of being gay.

It seems that we as a culture have grown comfortable with the notion that gay people should act in a certain way. One does not have to look very far to see this. Consider, for example, how gays are portrayed in film and television. Programs such as Modern Family and Glee feature stock homosexual characters whose demeanors and attributes reflect what we expect to see in gay people. Even when such programs have good intentions they just reinforce the prejudices that we share. This is simply one of the numerous ways in which these standards are engraved into our brains.

The result of this culture is for both straight and gay men to act within the standard social guidelines that have been outlined for them. When one is seen behaving outside of these lines, they are treated as a foreigner. The reaction to such people can be confusion or even hostility. So then this causes a feedback loop of individuals hiding their true selves and adhering to the social standards set out for their sexuality. The end result is a mountain of false pride that stands between the people we are and the people we want others to see us as.

As for me, I now don’t feel insulted in any way when I am misinterpreted as being gay. I’ve come to realize that to take offense with this is to submit to ignorance and uphold the myth that homosexuality is a sign of weakness. Besides, I have grown comfortable enough with myself that I don’t mind being seen as something other than a brazenly macho heterosexual man. This Saturday I’ll be at the Pride Parade and I won’t think twice about what others may interpret my sexuality to be. Instead, I’ll just be honored to stand with the LGBT community and in support of their rights.

September 26, 2012

How the Other Half Lives


*Author’s note – Sorry, this needs to be reworked into a few posts that will touch upon a couple different issues.  For now, here is what I have so far.

“How the other half lives,” I thought to myself as I drove out of state to an away fraternity formal as someone’s date this past spring.  I’ve more or less shunned Greek life on campus throughout my time here, but when a mutual friend triangulated an invitation to an away fraternity formal, I decided I’d tag along.  After all, it’s not too often a non-Greek male gets to experience the inner workings of the brotherhood without having to pledge or be deemed worthy in any way whatsoever.

I actually ended up having an amazing time and my date was great about everything.  Outdoors and pool by day, dinner and dance by night.  And at the end of the day, people ended up being a lot more receptive to me being there than I had expected going into the adventure.  The positive treatment I received can be attributed to any number of reasons, but three stick out in my mind: 

1)   People really liked and respected my date and were willing to temporarily suspend their perceived stereotypes of gays and view us as an exception rather than as a norm.

2)   People were homophobic but unwilling to vocalize to the group how uncomfortable they were, at least in front of us.

3)   People were completely supportive and genuinely enjoyed having us there.

While I hope everyone at that formal was comfortable with two males carving up the dance floor to Jessie’s Girl, I know thoughts #1 and #2 were prevalent as well.   I’ve found this indicative of my Duke experience. 

Homophobia doesn’t build as much social capital as it used to.  Just watch 21 Jump Street.  I’m proud that I can live in a day and age where Dukies have to at least pretend to be allies and tolerant human beings in order to be respected, at least during daylight hours.  But when the sun goes down and the drinks come out, all of a sudden you hear offensive words, see crude gestures, and feel like you are in a completely different world.  It’s #1 and #2 coming out. 

I’m not sure if people realize to what degree #1 and #2 still exist on this campus.  It’s not a bad thing that kids don’t feel like they need the LGBT center for protection and refuge anymore.  It’s great that LGBT students assimilate into many groups around campus and that people are able to be out and place their sexual orientation relatively low on their identifier list. 

When I first came out, I was all about distancing myself from the LGBT community.  I’m not like that, I don’t go to pride, I’m not flamboyant, I like sports, I like appearing straight.  And you know what?  I could pass.  It’s easier and less stressful.  I was all about being that exception, the kid that was gay but not really gay.  And I hoped that if enough people would come along and like sports and act masculine and discard Lady Gaga and unicorns and rainbows and v-necks, stereotypes would vanish and LGBT would finally be accepted.

Then I grew up and realized how messed up that view was... To Be Continued

September 25, 2012

Equal and Equivalent

Our seven-year-old has started second grade and that means it’s fractions time in the James household. At the dinner table the other night, Sophie walked us through her budding understanding of “equal” and “equivalent.”

“Did you know that 1/2 and 3/6 are equivalent?” she offered in her best “teaching my parents” voice.
“What does “equivalent” mean?” we queried.

A pause. Finally she says, “When things are the same but different.”

(I’m positive someone with greater fluency in the nuances of mathematics could completely unravel the metaphoric thread I’m weaving but bear with me.)

Last spring, the battle over North Carolina’s Amendment 1 produced a diverse, committed coalition of forces unified against enshrining relationship discrimination (of both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples) into the state constitution. There were a host of specious arguments offered by supporters of this ultimately successful legislation. Ron Baity, founding pastor of Winston-Salem’s Berean Baptist Church and the head of Return America, promoted one line of though that sticks with me.

In February 2012, Baity addressed a gathering of religious leaders at a Day’s Inn in Southern Pines about the urgent need to pass this amendment “protecting traditional marriage.” Baity’s homophobic sermons are legendary, but that’s not the part of his 40-minute speech I remember from watching it on YouTube a week later. What struck me were his references to “studies” from the Netherlands, the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. The data show, insisted Baity, that even when given access to marriage, “the homosexual” does not avail him or herself of the right. “96% of [Dutch] homosexuals and lesbians,” he asserted, “remain unmarried.”

Baity went on to claim that a “Dutch poll” found that even those who are married “will have a sexual relationship with at least eight other homosexuals every twelve months.” In Massachusetts where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005, there are “stats,” Baity pronounced, showing that in the first three years over 6000 gay and lesbian couples got married. Since 2008, however, same-sex marriages across MA townships are “in the single digits.” Why the drop off? He offered this explanation:

“The homosexual community wants their false marriages to be accepted in this country like traditional Biblical marriage. It’s a social issue with them. They just want the status. They don’t care about the marriage. […] They just want the status of saying, ‘Our marriage is just as important as traditional marriage. [Statistics show] we’re not going through the process. We’re already enjoying our lifestyle. We just want [what the] status quo [has]’.”

For Baity, such evidence illustrates that LGBTQ individuals want the rights that come with marriage but are unwilling to accept the commitments that marriage requires. I have not been able to uncover what credible study actually says what Baity claims. He might have been referencing the work of M.V. Lee Badgett of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law & Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law. Badgett wrote a book that analyzed the impact of same-sex marriage legalization in the Netherlands. In a 2009 New York Times interview she noted that while the image of marriage for straight couples – its emotional and spiritual commitment to another person – changed little since same-sex marriage was approved, the impact of having a socially legible relationship on how gays and lesbians are seen and see themselves is palpable. Even if like heterosexual men and women they choose not to avail themselves of that right. Badgett writes,

“Only marriage has the social understanding to back up the legal status, and the social meaning is as important as the legal rights.”

Badgett’s study shows that despite the calamity predicted by supporters of Amendment 1 in NC (and those backing similar legislation on Minnesota ballots this November) marriage is not changed by allowing gays and lesbians to have that right; it’s the idea of equality that changes.

So Pastor Baity is partially correct.

Hear me out.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to argue that LGBTQ citizens who want to marry want that right because it is the status quo. It is the legal path to the same privileges enjoyed by other married American citizens like health insurance, inheritance, social security benefits, even pathways to citizenship itself.
Marriage is also the gateway to being seen as equal. By having the same privileges, queer folk become legible in ways that have ramifications beyond marriage. This is the real threat for Baity, one he tries to dismiss by implying gay people are biologically incapable of monogamy and therefore of ever really respecting or embracing marriage the way straight couples do. (I’ll leave divorce statistics unspoken. You can look those up yourselves.)

And here is where my daughter’s fractions lesson comes back into focus. In very real ways, equivalent rights are unacceptable. Many who opposed Amendment 1 did so because they saw the measure as an affront to equality. But there is a risk to pursuing marriage rights above more broadly conceived measures, like employment non-discrimination, universal healthcare, and immigration reform. While these initiatives might seem focused on equivalencies – domains outside of marriage where certain rights could be accessed – their potential impact is vast, especially for people who do not wish to marry. As marriage becomes the gold standard of LGBTQ equality, we would be wise to remember the many activists (past, present, and future) who argue for queerness as a challenge to traditional institutions, like marriage, that tend to fix and naturalize ideas about gender and sexuality.

As I celebrate NC PRIDE this weekend and consider the post-Amendment 1 political landscape, these are the questions at the forefront of my mind. If equality is only accessible through erasure of differences be it regarding marriage, monogamy, dress, or desire is it really equality? How can we strengthen and expand our coalitions of supporters beyond the question of marriage? Should we make a political and cultural space for equivalence? How do we fight for equal rights while also fighting for the right to be different?

September 24, 2012

Anonymous Posts (9.17.12-9.23.12)

Every week, we collect anonymous entries sent in using the link on our sidebar and post them all on Monday. We post anything as long as it doesn't contain personal attacks, hate speech, or express or insinuate that one is at risk for hurting themselves or someone else. Please read this for an explanation of this policy and seek help if your or a friend find yourself in that position. With those exceptions aside, please feel free to submit your thoughts and questions. :)

We're again lacking any Anonymous Posts for you this week, I'll just give you a quick update about what's going on in the LGBT Community this week.

First, a quick update on new features for the blog. You may have noticed that just under the banner for the website we now have have another tab that says "About Blue Devils United." This takes you to a new page that has a brief statement about the goals of Blue Devils United (the Undergraduate LGBTQA Student Group) and email links to the officers of the current exec board. If you ever need to get in touch with any of us, feel free to send us an email. Also, many of you may have noticed that the authors listing in the sidebar which used to let you sort posts by author is gone. While this could not be fixed, it has been replaced by the search window in the upper right hand corner of the webpage.

In other news, this Tuesday the LGBT Center will be holding an Ally Training at 5:30 PM in the LGBT Center. This is the sort of thing you have to RSVP to, so call or email Jess Evans if you want to join that. 

Annnnnnd of course I'd be silly if I forgot to mention pride. The LGBT Center will have a float in the Pride Parade. Meet us near Domino's BEFORE 12:00 if you want to get a spot on the float. If you don't get a spot on the float, don't worry about it, there'll be plenty of room for you to walk in front of the float. All are welcome!

September 21, 2012

Unrequited Like: A Fresh Perspective

[Editors Note: Hey y'all, I just wanted to put a little reminder for you about the Center's Pride Prep party this afternoon at 4. We're meeting in the LGBT Center to have some food, drink, and good times. We'll be making signs to hold on the float at Pride next Saturday so if you want to make your own sign to carry, stop on by! We've got supplies!]

I have had, over my nineteen years, my fair share of experiences with what I’m going to call unrequited like, that is, a crush gone wrong, unreturned feelings, and the like. I wouldn’t really call it “love” because that’s too strong of a word; some of the people for whom I’ve had feelings are people that, quite honestly, I know almost nothing about besides the surface level. Perhaps “obsession” is a better word, though the negative connotation associated with that word makes me loath to use it to describe a crush. To be as gay as humanly possible, I’ll just say I felt like Elphaba in “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked.

Needless to say, having unreturned feelings for someone is not very fun – it made me doubt a lot of things about myself: was it my personality? My intelligence? My looks? Or was it just that I, as a whole, was simply not desirable?  This little self-pity party was, in retrospect, unnecessary. Maybe it wasn’t anything about me; it is, after all, perfectly possible for someone to be intelligence, attractive, and have a good personality and still not ‘do it’ for everyone.  

So, he didn’t like me back. I got over it. That’s pretty much how that whole deal works, but I have to admit that I’ve held a bit of a grudge since then. I know it’s silly and immature, but I can’t really help but feel some animosity towards the boy who, when I had the bittersweet experience of close-quarters communication, either ignored me or was downright rude. But “hey,” I told myself, “at least he’s talking to you, even if it is a ‘fuck off’ here and there.”

This summer I had the tables turned on me. By that, I mean that instead of being the lovesick mess, I was on the receiving end of an unrequited like. It has changed my perspective about my experience last year quite a bit. I will admit that, when my feelings towards the guy in question were unreturned, I probably played the victim. I’m not ashamed of that, that’s exactly what it felt like from my perspective. But the great thing about perspective is that it can change. Does this mean I forgive my ex-crush for the way that he treated me? No, not entirely, but I better understand why he acted the way he did and how I can act differently so as not to put someone through that same experience.

 It was difficult to decide how to treat the situation, especially after having first-hand experience as the unwanted suitor. I had a difficult time deciding whether it was best to ignore it completely and hope that the clean cut from him would allow him to move on or whether that would, as in my case, simply turn the crush into bitterness. Though it was difficult and pretty awkward for both of us, I found it was better for our relationship in the long run to talk to him about his crush and explain that, while I valued his friendship, I was not currently interested in pursuing a relationship with him. Things still aren’t great between us, but I think it’s important to have the decency to treat him and his feelings with respect, even if it means a period of hard feelings may occur. I hope that, in the long run, closing the door on him will allow him to realize that there are many other suitable doors down the hall.

Being the recipient of an unwanted crush is hard. It’s awkward. It’s tedious. But when you find yourself as the recipient of unwanted affection, try to remember however ‘hard,’ ‘awkward,’ or ‘tedious’ it is to deal with someone liking you; it’s many times more difficult and uncomfortable for the other person.  To continue my door analogy, wouldn’t you rather someone answer the door to tell you that “no,” they didn’t, in fact, “order the tall, fair-skinned, brunette with freckles” and that “someone must have made a mistake” instead of ignoring the doorbell completely?

September 20, 2012

The Final Frontier

Space

Such a simple word with, as is true for most words in English, several different meanings.  It can be a noun, it can be a verb; it can be a major point of contention, as it is now.

Specifically, what space should the Center for LGBT Life have?  With the imminent closure of the whole of the West Union to make way for renovations that will seemingly convert all the space into dining, all the current occupants are finding new homes.  As a part of that process, Student Affairs asked the center directors to create consulting groups to gather information from constituents and report back on the current and future needs of those centers.  I felt honored to have been selected as a member of the consulting group for the Center for LGBT Life, and thus began work along with several other dedicated faculty, staff, students, and alumni to put together a report.  This report contained the best information we could find about the history of the Center as well as the history of the LGBTQ community on campus; about the evolving and expanding needs of the center; and about what an Ideal Future would look like.

What I personally discovered during this process is just how much growth there has been in the activities of the Center and just how much larger the community it serves has become.  I, speaking for myself and not in any way speaking for my colleagues on the committee or anywhere else, attribute a great deal of this to three factors - awesome student leadership, awesome center leadership, and increasing institutional support.  Without those three factors, I do not see there being as vibrant and outspoken a community as there is.  But even with those three factors there is more to be done even in view of the many supporting and empowering programs run through the Center now.  Which brings us to the current situation - what shall be done with the Center for LGBT Life?

When we received news from Dr. Long this summer that the Center would be finding a new home in the Bryan Center, there was quite a bit of cautious optimism.  The BC certainly represents prime real estate, and the information we gathered from various constituencies indicated that the time had come to move the Center out of the basement and into the light -- with the proviso being that there must still be pathways to the Center that allow for privacy for those most vulnerable members of the Community who want - who need - the services of the Center without feeling able to walk through a gloriously public front door.  I had imagined a space that represented a real step forward for the Center - a space that showed that Duke understood the growth of the LGBTQ Community as well as the many benefits a vibrant Center for LGBT Life offers the entire Duke Community, both from a programming and an educational perspective.  A space that showed that our report was placed in welcoming hands and came before open eyes.

And I believe reality nearly matched my imagination.

I'll allow the full stop that just formed in some people's minds to subside for a bit.  "But aren't you the one that was interviewed in the Chronicle talking about how strange it is that there are non-student-centric offices taking up prime area in the BC?"  Absolutely - that's me.  And yes, I apparently said "center" far too many times during that interview.

"Didn't you pretty much get shot down by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs when you asked for specific information about the current and future plans for the Center for LGBT Life?"  Yep - this summer I did ask for that information, and was then informed by members of the Office of the Vice President that my service to the Consulting Group had concluded and that any future conversations about the specifics of the space would be between the Vice President, the Assistant Vice President, the Center Director, and the Architect, and that there was insufficient bandwidth for further input from anyone outside that group.  The latter part of that statement is obviously my interpretation - only an ECE would use "bandwidth" in a sentence like that.

"So...this imagination of yours...what's wrong (or merely nearly wrong) with it?"  That is for you, the reader, to decide.  Because I think we're close.  But I also get the sense that we're still miles apart.

In looking at the plans published on this blog and in The Chronicle, I believe Dr. Long has tried to work a bit of a miracle in terms of balancing the needs she knows the Center fulfills now as well as what the future may hold.  The Center has so many distinct components that work in parallel - programming space, the library, the computer and study room, the administrative offices, the space for BDU and student groups, the spaces to meet with center staff in confidence - and the current plan represents as near an optimal solution as can be had given what seems to be one pretty big constraint - the wall drawn between the Center side and the rest of the former UCAE space.

But it must be said that it shows clear institutional support for the Center for LGBT Life and for the communities it serves that the Center would be relocated to the Bryan Center and not relegated to some far-off building or windowless basement.  The Bryan Center is a hub of activity for students as well as visitors to Duke, and this placement and the space it encompasses would simply not happen if the administration in general - and the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs in particular - were not supportive of the Center for LGBT Life and its missions. Whenever people come to the book store, or to a show in Griffith or Reynolds or Schaefer theaters, or to eat at Au Bon Pain or McDonald's or The 'Dillo, they will pass by a physical example of Duke's commitment to the LGBTQ community.

My opinion, then, is that there are three components not included in the plan - components which presumably cannot be included given the current total area without significantly compromising other critical facets of the Center.  These are: space for an Assistant Director for the Center for LGBT Life, gender neutral restroom facilities, and expanded reservable program space (which could be multi-purposed for other organizations in exactly the same way the Center's space is used now).  For the latter, I know there was a Chronicle Editorial proposing that the center simply rent space for some events, but I think they forgot that the Von Canons are going away, too, and with them the ability to reserve large spaces near the Center.  What rentable space then were they thinking of?  And did they keep the notions of confidentiality and privacy in mind with that suggestion?  I'm not sure.

So what is the space between reality and my imagination?  Probably about 500 square feet.  

Or one million miles, depending on who you ask.

I wish I had an answer.  Actually - scratch that - I think I do have an answer, because now that I have seen the plans there's a pretty straightforward way to carve out the needed space and move some non-student-centric offices elsewhere.  As I said (badly) in The Chronicle, it's not that those offices aren't important - they absolutely are - it's that their work does not necessarily need to be done on the first floor of the Bryan University Center.  What I wish for instead is that there were better channels of communication among members of the University community - administrators, students, staff, and alumni - and that conversations could take place in an open atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. 

There has to be space for that somewhere.

September 19, 2012

Stereotypes Are Fun!

At least, I think they are. 

At Monday's meeting of Man to Man*, there was a discussion about stereotypes, how we deal with them, and where they come from.

I spoke about how I like to play into some stereotypes of a gay male. One such stereotype being that we are all incredibly knowledgeable and into fashion. We are all fantabulous, impeccable dressers with great taste and a natural flare for clothing. Some gay men might hate this stereotype because it doesn't describe them at all. Others may not mind it much because they actually do have a passion for fashion. I, on the other hand, like to think that I fall somewhere in the middle. While I do enjoy dressing nicely and think I do a pretty good job at matching colors, I know next to nothing about actual fashion (You're wearing a Gucci suit? Is that a special kind like a two- or three-button?). And, I know what I like and what I think looks good. So, every once in a while, I'll see a girl walk by with a really fierce pair of shoes on and I'll exclaim a somewhat high-pitched "YYYYYYAAAAAAASSSSS GURL! You are WERKING those shoes!" or something to that effect. 

It actually took me a while to realize that I was actually doing this. There was nothing wrong with it though. The girl always appreciated the compliment and it was just my way of being nice. But why would I say it in such a flamboyant manner? There's nothing wrong with doing things in a flamboyant manner, but it just wasn't something that I did. I never thought of myself as having that aspect to my personality. I started wondering whether it was actually a part of my personality that I was just becoming more familiar and comfortable with or if it was just me performing the stereotype that was prescribed to me. I sort of came to the conclusion that it was just me developing who I am as a person and even if this new aspect was foreign to me, I should totally embrace it.

And I do. But why did it cause me so much trouble? Well, because I like to think of myself as a stereotype breaker. From my childhood, I was told of the different stereotypes of Black men raised in poverty that I would never fall into if my mom had anything to do about it. I wasn't going to be a high school drop out, drug dealer, gang member who ends up in jail. I was going to defy what society said, statistically speaking, was going to happen to me. And so, I adopted that into every aspect of my life, including my sexuality. I wanted to defy every stereotype possible and leave people constantly guessing, never quite sure how to fit me into their narrow box of who they thought I should be or how I should act.

Which leads me to why I think stereotypes are fun. I think they're fun because you can play with them. You can confuse the heck out of people when you warp the stereotypes they already have about you. I've done it and it's so much fun. You can actually see their mental CPU saying DOES NOT COMPUTE! You can watch their facial expressions as they try to deal with the overload. And it's so much fun! For example, I can drop a really flamboyant line about how I love your outfit and then turn around and name all of the NFL teams. But wait, I'm gay right? So I'm not supposed to know football. *brain implodes*

It's all about finding power in those stereotypes, using that with which they try to limit us as a source of strength. It's in this that we can find solace and security. Instead of feeling trapped by the stereotypes that don't fit me (because, let's be honest, I know that I do fit some stereotypes but not others), I throw them back in the face of whoever is trying to give it to me. I mean, isn't that the reason we all hate stereotypes? Because people think that they apply to everyone one, but they don't. So, I think of it as my job to set the record straight (lolz) and tell them where the line is and not to cross it again. And it doesn't have to be done in a mean, angry way. I'm a huge fan of a subtle, snarky retort that let's them know they're wrong and you don't like it but it's ok. Just be more careful next time.

All I'm saying is that stereotypes are harmful for everyone. People hate it when they get stereotyped and those who do the stereotyping will never know they're wrong unless us stereotyped people show them. So, let's help each other out.

*Shameless plug: If you are a GBTQ male, I cannot urge you enough to at least come to one meeting of Man to Man. It's the perfect place to talk about issues that affect men in the community. There's always a great discussion and I promise you won't regret it. 

September 18, 2012

In which I get my boobs removed

The title of this post comes from a hilarious exchange I had with one of my coworkers at Au Bon Pain. Someone I'd never spoken to before came up to me while I was standing at the cash register and, during a lull in customers, said, "So, maybe this is weird to ask, but I heard you got your boobs removed?"

She asked if it hurt (I guess, but I had lots of vicodin) and how I felt about it (really relieved) and then we had to go back to work. Afterwards, I realised that she had put together "buzz cut" plus "mastectomy" and come up with "breast cancer", but because she never asked why I had surgery, there wasn't a graceful way to correct her assumption. I've been having a lot of these kinds of conversations lately, where people ask the wrong questions so I don't know how to tell them the right answer. Mostly I'm just not that invested in other people's dumb assumptions, but the experience of being home again has really highlighted my favourite part of getting surgery: everybody I met already knew their shit.

I do mean everybody.The women at the front office of the plastic surgery institute: incredibly invested in a traditional presentation of femininity, to the point of getting plastic surgery themselves-- and yet, they were genuinely excited on behalf of the trans men getting the reverse surgery. The woman who took my money at the clinic: a professional bureaucrat-- and yet, she apologized for having to ask for my legal name and write down my sex as female. The parade of nurses who took my vitals and gave me my IV and administered my anesthesia: not in any way specialised in trans care-- and yet, a brief glance at my chart and they knew exactly which name and pronouns to use.

I'm not really a sensitive person, any more. Not when it comes to being trans, anyway. I understand that people aren't going to 'get it' right away, and I understand that they are going to be curious. When someone calls me "ma'am", they are probably just trying to be polite, and I have cultivated the habit of accepting their politeness in the spirit in which it is meant. When someone asks a personal question, they are probably just trying to learn, and I answer in good faith every question that is asked in good faith. At this point, these exchanges just don't have any sting to them.

And yet, when I got surgery, it was such a profound relief to be in a space where I wasn't constantly choosing between explaining myself or becoming invisible. It was like a fish suddenly discovering that it lived in water… by leaving the water… and breathing the air better than the water? Perhaps I am a lungfish. Perhaps this was a terrible analogy. It was like suddenly realising that I lived in a cisnormative world. Which isn't exactly a widely-shared experience, but probably more so than the lungfish thing.

To get this blog post back on track: I feel like I have a lot of friends who have the basics under control, but want to know how to be a better trans ally after all the 101 stuff. And I think the answer starts with combating cisnormativity-- which mostly means remembering, at all times, that you may not actually know the genders of the people you see around you. And you probably do not need to know. Today I actually asked for someone's number while having no clue whether they were cis male, trans male, or cis female; their gender would have eventually become relevant, but at that point I just wanted a way to contact them to talk about Doctor Who somewhere other than the crowded Amanda Palmer concert.

If you have to ask, think about what information you actually need and why you need it. If you're a doctor and you want to know if I need a pap smear, ask if I have a uterus. If you're putting together a form, think about whether you really need a legal name. (DMV: yes. Blackboard discussion forum: no.) If you're just making friends… ask my name, and where I'm from, and what kinds of books I like to read.

This, I realized, is what I most want from the people in my life: I want them to ask what they actually need to know, and then carry on with what they were doing. Or, in other words, know your shit.

September 17, 2012

Anonymous Posts (9.10.12-9.16.12)

Every week, we collect anonymous entries sent in using the link on our sidebar and post them all on Monday. We post anything as long as it doesn't contain personal attacks, hate speech, or express or insinuate that one is at risk for hurting themselves or someone else. Please read this for an explanation of this policy and seek help if your or a friend find yourself in that position. With those exceptions aside, please feel free to submit your thoughts and questions. :)

 Unfortunately, we do not have any anonymous posts for this week. If you've got some thoughts you'd like to write up and send in, just use the link in the header for this post. Instead, I'm going to share a link to the Chronicle article about our demands for a better center. For the article, click here. For the editorial, click here. Thanks for reading y'all!

Also note that tonight is the first meeting of Man to Man, a discussion group for GBTQ male identified students. Be sure to swing by at 6:00 to the LGBT Center for some discussion on things that affect GBTQ men on campus.

Tomorrow will be the first meeting of Our Lives, the general discussion open to any student who wishes to come. We will be starting at 6:00 in the LGBT Center and all you need to bring is an open mind and your experiences.

September 15, 2012

Don't Feed the Animals

I’ve gotten a standing ovation only three times in my life for solely myself. One was for getting straight A’s from kindergarten through high school, and another was for my graduation speech as valedictorian. The one I think is the best story, though, was one I got over the summer.

Some background: I was a zookeeper over the summer, and gave shows with assorted reptiles to the masses who…well, were more interested in the work of the Swamp Brothers than Steve Irwin. Needless to say, I was used to getting a thousand and one questions every day related to how to kill something, how deadly something was, or how good it was with a side of gravy. I usually dealt with hecklers at my crowded shows by ignoring them, which usually worked. Not so much one day.

A man I’d predict was in about his 40s or 50s stood up and started shouting at me as I carried around my snake du jour.

“Hey, crossdresser!”

I ignored the outburst, not really getting what the guy was after. Yeah, everyone on staff wore somewhat androgynous clothing, but the girls wore pastel green shirts that were cut differently than the guys’. I continued my spiel, though the heckler decided he wasn’t through.

“You shouldn’t be wearing shorts! Those are MEN’S clothing!”

I probably rolled my eyes at that. What, and catch alligators in a full-length skirt in the summer heat? I don’t think so. Obviously, heckler dude was getting mad by now since I wasn’t reacting, so he switched tactics.

“You shouldn’t be a zookeeper! You’re doing a MAN’S job! You are an abomination to the Lord!”

The 200 person audience froze in silent shock as everyone turned to look at this guy. This man had interrupted me three times. Three strikes. Everyone knew that meant I had to do something.
I suppose that day I had a rare moment of insight, because I think I handled it well. I didn’t shout at the guy, just let the microphone carry my voice-which, strangely, didn’t even change tone from the show voice I was using:

“Well, I don’t know, but I think God would be more offended by me not using my talents than by wearing
shorts.”

I radioed the other staff, and as the man was escorted from the park by security, I got the third standing ovation of my life in what was probably one of my finest moments.

Anyway, that happening sent me thinking: we’ve come a long way in gender stereotypes in the last fifty years, if I feel at home (and am generally accepted while) doing what might have been once considered a man’s job. I’d be interested to know in what ways the Duke LGBTQA community breaks traditional gender roles every day, even if it wasn’t as consequential as what happened to me.

In which I am not brave, I am a pathetic kitten

Okay, it's top surgery story time!

I've actually started to kind of dislike telling these stories because they tend to make people coo at me over how brave I was. This is mostly annoying for the same reason it's always annoying when people tell me I'm brave: transitioning is seriously the path of least resistance for me. But it is also annoying because these stories are meant to be funny; my woes are not pitiful, they are hilarious!

Therefore, please refrain from reading the following anecdotes unless you are prepared to find them amusing. Ready? Let's go.

I spent a week in Florida recovering from surgery. A good friend came with me, and then let me continue recuperating at her house in Georgia for an additional week. You are about to learn just how good a friend she was.

So, post-tits, I couldn't raise my arms. I thought I was prepared for the implications of this, but I was not. I could only drink through a straw (expected), from a glass lifted to my mouth (unexpected). I could brush my own teeth, but only if my friend handed me a prepared toothbrush-- and then took the toothbrush from my hand and cleaned it for me. I could sometimes get out of my chair by myself, but never out of bed-- so several times a night I would mewl my friend's name into the darkness until she woke up and lifted me upright, to let me toddle to the bathroom. Then she'd tuck me back into bed.

I couldn't get the bandage wet, so when I wanted to look presentable for an outing with a friend, she washed my hair by using all the cushions and pillows in the room to construct the perfect support for me to lie on the floor of the bathroom with my head over the tub. (Pictured: the deeply ridiculous ice cream which was my reward for flopping about on the tile.)

I repaid her by being truly terrible company. Mostly I slept and marathonned Mad Men while she… kept track of my medication schedules, I'm not really sure. (I told you I was terrible!) Never before has the phrase 'weak as a kitten' been more accurate. My first meal, I got tired halfway through and had to be spoon-fed the rest. My friend tied a piece of string around me so I wouldn't forget myself and reach too far, but it was a moot point.

I did get better, but the healing process was equally a process of adjusting expectations. It felt like genuine independence, the first day that I was able to finish putting on my own underwear after my friend had held them out for me and lifted them up to my knees. And once we'd returned to her house, I could even get out of bed all by myself! (Mostly by letting my lower body fall onto the floor, so I could get into a sitting position and then stand up from there, but it still counts.)

But for those first two weeks, I was so distracted by the unexpected absurdity of my situation-- and so removed from any of the social contexts which might reasonably have been affected by the change in my appearance-- that it was actually a bit difficult to remember that I wasn't just binding too hard. It didn't start to sink in until the day before I wanted to drive home to NC, when I grabbed a bra to put my tits on for a trip to the mechanic and… had no tits. I still get a little cheerful surprise every now and then, when I wake up and realize they're still gone. I'm not sure I'll ever stop being chuffed that I can leave the house without any ridiculous torso undergarments-- it's just so much easier!

And I guess that's the moral of the story: I am incredibly lazy, but I have folks looking out for me and that makes my life pretty good. Also: 'cosmetic' surgery, my ass.

September 13, 2012

Life-changing

I just finished my second summer teaching for the non-profit organization Student U in Durham (http://studentudurham.org/). At the end of each summer, each teacher gives a Presentation of Learning to the other faculty and administrators. Here’s what I learned.
NOTE: Dan is Dan Kimberg, founder of Student U (Duke class of ’07) “Best Part of Me” is a Student U 6th grade English assignment Global Connect is the Student U equivalent of social studies Instead of homerooms, Student U has “families”“Family,” “identity,” “life-changing.”

I’ve heard those words thrown around a lot this week. I don’t use those words to describe Student U. But here’s something else I’d use them for. When Dan tells the story of Student U, he often tells a love story in parallel about his wife. I’d like to do something similar with my presentation. This is a love story about a person and a place. I hope it has a happy ending.

On April 22nd of last year I attended my first ever Student U event, the summer faculty dinner. That was the same week I admitted to myself and my inseparable best friend of two years that I loved her. Of course, she knew that already. I think I’d been telling her I loved her since the middle of freshman year – in an oh-my-god-you-brought-me-take-out-LoYo, I-love-you– kind of way. That week I told her something different, something deeper and more scary. That I loved her, in fact was in love with her, exactly as much as wouldn’t freak her out. Turns out she wasn’t freaked out at all, just kind of exasperated that it had taken me so long to own up to – so much so that she scrawled FINALLY in her journal in capital letters with several underlines.
That week I started keeping the biggest secret I have ever kept and probably ever will keep. And I was bad at it. It ate me up. I watched my sister, who I’m very close to, start to think I didn’t like her anymore. What other reason could I have for not inviting her to dinner out with my “best friend?” Why did we always hang out without her? I watched my mother get mad as I lied to her face about something she already knew and had been hinting at, but I just wouldn’t claim. Eventually I caved to my family.

I kept my secret more completely at Student U. I couldn’t handle the prospect of an imbalance in which my entire extended network of work friends knew before her immediate family did. That summer I should have been a 6th grader at Student U rather than a teacher. What I needed was a caring mentor like Imani walking me through questions of identity in Global Connect. A patient English teacher like Alex helping me understand that sometimes the Best Part of Me can feel like the worst. The extent of my coming out at Student U that first summer was hesitantly flashing a wallet photo at one teacher on his way out to the mini-bus (because I ‘thought he might understand’) and tearfully confessing to Ms. Caroline during eval week at the very end of the summer (which was a little ironic, since she always seemed to be the one in tears).

Over the course of the following year at Duke more and more people were entrusted with my –our– secret, and as it turned out most of them were already in on it. What had been so confusing to me had been pretty damn obvious to them. As time went on I got more comfortable in my own, new skin, even if I didn’t quite know which label to slap on it. Maybe I was a lesbian, maybe I was bisexual, maybe I was straight with this one crazy exception. All I knew for sure was that I was in love.

Just as I started to come to terms with that part of my identity, my state legislature started to outline, in no uncertain terms, a very public, and possibly permanent rejection of it. I don’t cry very often. It’s hard to make me cry. But when Amendment One passed on May 8th of this year, I cried – I didn’t think I would, but I did. How humiliating, to think you loved me back. Oh, North Carolina, how I have always defended your charms and endearing qualities. How you were only part of the South in the good senses and never the bad. How wrong I was.

I have always been a homebody, making intentional decisions to stay in one spot to watch it grow and change. My friends and family members who’ve run off to out-of-state colleges or raved about study abroad – I’ve always argued with them about the value of staying put, of falling in love with one place. They sampled many different dishes, while I held on to my one onion that is Duke and Durham and North Carolina, hoping to keep peeling and peeling, until I knew it through and through. For 20 years, I peeled back layer after layer only to find you were rotten in the middle, North Carolina, that you made me sick.

At the end of last summer I came away with the conviction that I could devote my professional life not only to teaching, but to teaching here. In Durham, in North Carolina. But for all my roots here, all my layered memories, I have found I cannot stay. Not in a hometown, in a homestate that thinks it is vitally important to declare in its founding document that my love is second-class, my commitment false, and my life toxic to those around me. Many anti- Amendment One campaigns threatened that passing this kind of legislation would drive away valuable LGBT-friendly employers and employees who could help boost our state’s economy and institutions. I want to help make that threat a reality. I will be that homegrown talent that takes an NC education and leaves for greener pastures. I want my departure to be a consequence of Amendment One. This was the background current running through my head all summer and it made me angry and distant more often than I would have liked. Angry to reflect on the way my students ridicule gay people while unknowingly talking to one. Angry to remember the fall tutoring session in which a student explained to me (an atheist – or, on a good day, agnostic) that gay people were going to hell and this should be sufficient justification for me to allow her to continue mocking the ‘fruity’ waiter she’d had at TGI Friday’s. When I countered by citing the recent string of LGBT teen suicides, she simply asked why they didn’t just stop being that way then, if they were only going to get bullied and kill themselves.

This anger led me to be distant. I admired Rosemary, Imani, Amanda, and others for hitting these issues head on with their students. But did I use marriage equality as my sample essay topic in English? Of course not. Did I have real heart-to-heart conversations about “that’s so gay?” No. Because I could feel my blood start to boil and flush my face red when students asked if they could say “homo” instead.

But I became distant in a much more general way as well. With the exception of one boy, I don’t know this group of students in the same way I knew last year’s. And I wonder if that’s because I felt the futility of forging yet another connection with a place inside of a place where I am no longer welcome. Occasionally I was struck with the irony of creating a Student U “family” within a state that believes I am pathologically incapable of raising a real one. I didn’t want to fall in love with this place any more, give any more of my self to it. It would just make it that much harder to leave against my will.

I hope someday – 10, 20, 50 years from now – I can come home again. I’ll be waiting.

-Liza, Trinity ‘13

September 12, 2012

feminism = feminism



I have three T-shirts that people will consistently comment on: 1. The green T-shirt that has the bloke riding a dinosaur; it says, “Real life would be much cooler if we all rode dinosaurs to work.” 2. My Lost t-shirt which is based on the show’s fifth season, so please don’t actually look at that shirt if you don’t want spoilers. 3. My green Women’s Centre T-shirt, in women’s medium size, which boldly and plainly says “feminist.” across the front of the shirt.

Several females (*exceptionally off topic tangent at the end of post) on random encounters commented positively on my Women's Centre shirt the various times I wore it. "Nice shirt!" said somebody I don't know as I walked through Central. So far so good.

Where I ran into more skepticism with my shirt was with a few (incidentally male) friends. “What IS feminism? Why do you feel the need to tell people that you’re a...feminist?” As if my proclaiming that opinion was the most outlandish thing ever. As tends to be the case with my blog posts, I will now flesh out the response that I wish I had prepared at the time – one that will show why I am an ally of feminism. This is why I believe in feminism, and why it’s a topic that we shouldn’t shoot down without a second thought, but rather, a conversation that needs to continue and be agreed and disagreed upon.

My first point is that feminism is a more inclusive term then we’ve let it become. Women’s rights have been an arduous battle – for rights, equality of opportunity, cultural recognition, economic standing, and fair media representation, to name a few. In the US at least, these are indicators that have changed for the better over the last 100 or so years. At worst, it’s not unreasonable to think that these are important rights for women that we should not forget. Assuming that the battle is completely over is wrong in my opinion. Moreover, to not recognize these struggles is to forget an important part of human history. I think many of us are too quick to say, “yes, feminism did the job in the 60s. It’s done; let’s stop talking about it.” I literally just asked my friend while writing this post what she thought of feminism. Her knee jerk reaction: “um, pointless.” I haven’t done my research so maybe I’m wrong and maybe everything’s okay. But I hypothesize that most of us have this instinctive reaction nowadays that even if feminism is a relatively agreeable thing, it’s nowhere near the top of the priority list of things to fix in this world.

However, feminism isn’t done. The US debate on sexual health policy on contraception and abortion is a significant piece of proof that feminism is still needed. In particular, members of the US government who are not only predominantly male, but also misguided, have been pushing for unreasonable policies. There’s more that could be said about this topic, but I will defer to the smarter and cleverer people – I just wanted to highlight one recent issue in which it makes sense for feminism to continue to exist as a movement.

Feminism runs into the problem that the word itself connotes a movement that is “too extreme.” Every movement has its extremists, but feminism is all the aforementioned rights that we would mostly consider inalienable. Feminism also certainly isn’t about making women better than everyone else. In my personal conception of the movement, a big part of feminism is about removing the barriers that we still hold over the women in our society. I arrived at this conclusion in thinking about sports. It used to surprise me back in high school cross country, the amount of girls who were faster than me. In my so called glory days, I was an average to better-than-average runner. I will not, however, try to tell you I ran a 2:50 marathon. Just like you can do with Paul Ryan, you can simply search my name on Google to find out my running records. (You won’t find a voting record though because the one thing I have ever voted on so far has been Amendment 1). Anyhow, there were a fair amount of girls who would be minutes faster than me – these crazy chicks who were doing six minute miles. Three times in a row. This was always a point of macho-joking amongst the sophomore boys on our team who were just starting to taste varsity racing and stop training with our fastest girls. We were never actually “fast” until we were faster than the girls. We’re men. We’re supposed to be better than them!

I do not mean to disregard that the average female is biologically different from the average male. Male athletes are indeed stronger and faster at many major sports (but not all of them!) However, our society has interpreted the biological averages without also weighing the possibility for humans to excel beyond those trends. Humankind has constantly outdone itself in every possible field (or track, pool, etc.) Everyone can do better. However, I would argue that on the whole, our culture assumes women will be less talented or less well-equipped in life. We fulfill that prophecy, and there are actual outcomes that result from this – the gender divide in CEOs of major corporations, for example. I’ve now heard multiple times from my friends, “My adviser [at Duke] keeps asking me if I’m really sure about biophysics because he says it’s a lot of work, but he never says anything like that to his male advisees,” or “I chose to study to be a nurse instead of a doctor because everybody told me being a doctor would be too hard for a girl” or “I don’t want to go to Wall Street because I always hear women can’t handle the stress.” By no means am I saying that every girl should become a soulless premed or enter the soul-crushing walls of Wall Street. Rather, we must remove the inhibitions and voices in the heads of women everywhere that they should not try to do something because their gender is expected to hinder them.

So, remember those shirts I was talking about at the beginning of this blog post? One shirt that does not make that list is my green Love = Love shirt. That’s an amazing thing really, that I have walked around the Duke Campus and downtown Durham wearing a pro-LGBT shirt without getting a single comment on it. When it comes to the LGBT community, defining a feminine identity is another spectrum to consider. I won’t go into that because that would mean trying to speak for too many people I don’t have the right to speak for. However, one idea still applies here, always – there is more that brings us together than drives us apart. Both feminism and LGBT advocacy are movements that want to equalize the mainstream and the marginalized group(s). For example, I especially believe that we should try to erode the pervasiveness of heteronormativity because in the end, why should two blokes getting married and adopting a kid be considered abnormal? Yet along the way, the LGBT community and the feminist movement have forged their own identities and subidentities through the persistence of their resistance to marginalization, or at least in their escapism from the mainstream. These identities of course, lead to stereotypes, you know, the flaming gay or the Femnazi.

Many of us have internalized the most extreme images of the activists for our respective causes. We’re all guilty of it, but I’m not going to try and point fingers and say that women have been wronged more severely than LGBT individuals or that the subcultures associated with oppressed racial, ethnic, gender/sexual groups should not exist. Instead, I want to put this out as an open question to those who are reading this – is it somehow more socially acceptable or fashionable to say you’re an LGBT ally than it is to be a feminist? My impression is that because the legal gains of women and feminism are on average, more advanced than those of the LGBT community, people are more likely to assume feminism is no longer necessary. And for whatever reason, we also think what is left of feminism are just vestigial extremists, caricatures and stereotypes. As I hope I’ve convinced you about by now, there are still reasons why feminism or something similar to exist.

 “Well I’m an equalist,” said a friend in the LGBT Centre, somewhat humorously. Equality is indeed what we should be striving for, but there are only three ways to create equality – A. bring someone down, B. bring someone up, or C. make everyone better off through trade. Now option A. certainly is not optimal. I’ll also note here that I believe affirmative action is a dangerous thing that has been abused although the motivations behind such policies should not be disregarded entirely given that people indeed originate from different contexts on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation (this in itself is also another talk to be had by smarter people than me). The need empowerment is why we give the names we give to these marginalized subgroups – that’s why it’s LGBT, feminism (referring to women), etc. This is why I’m not so quick to shoot down “feminism” as an overly generic term and how I’ve come to rationalize the acronym LGBT as a term that highlights some (but unfortunately not all) the groups that want and need to be empowered.

So that leaves us with B. and C. Empowerment is a very powerful force, but those who hold power in our society will naturally want to hold on to their power. Feminism is in a transition state where the movement has gotten oh-so-close in many ways but is lacking in others - making it particularly prone to the pushback by those who might not necessarily want to see women empowering themselves. Within the way I am talking about this, it’s hard to really have any one-sided endowment of power. That brings me to C. When I talk about trade, I’m not talking about meat and potatoes because I’m a vegetarian, so let’s go with potatoes and beans. Bringing more women to the game means a lot of things. The reality is that there are certain short-term sacrifices that need to be made to accommodate for the empowerment of more people.

A friend of mine tells me that she’s afraid of medical school since she wants to be married by 25 or 30 and having kids. Residency would be a nightmare, no? There’s a brilliant article by Anne-Marie Slaughter about the challenges facing women today in terms of the doubled expectations to be successful as professionals and as family-starters. Some scientific literature actually suggests the transition to two working parents has helped contribute to a decrease in healthy eating in the US. In other words, we need a multidimensional solution – labor laws and work culture need to change to accommodate for a more gender - equal workplace and home setting and men in mainstream heterosexual marriages need to assume some responsibility over the traditional housewife realm, to name a couple changes that could help this issue. Optimizing this scenario could potentially benefit families and couples, allowing any young person to grow into a world where they don’t have to do everything (get a job, save the world, have a family). If we can integrate this type of thinking into our politics and culture, that we need to optimize not only for profit, but also for resource allocation and lower social cost given feminist considerations, then we can do what humans were made (evolved?) to do: exceed everyone that came before us.

Feminism represents the new compromises and trades that we need to make across genders to make sure everybody is empowered and endowed with equal opportunities.

If nothing else, please give me more free shirts. They’re more empowering than you’d think.



*Tangential discussion point – Can someone comment on what the most neutral but also not-awkward-sounding words for “female” and “vagina” might be? I find it rather telling that we have nice-sounding informal words that are accepted for males and their genitals – “guy” and “dick.” Woman is too formal, girl is too condescending, and lady just sounds off for some reason. There isn’t really a word for vagina that isn’t an anatomical vocabulary word, a huge swear word or doesn’t sound plain ridiculous. Why isn’t this a part of our vocabulary? Are vaginas just that icky? 

September 11, 2012

That Awkward Moment When...

On a campus famed for "hookup culture," it's no surprise that flirting breaches the classroom. The phenomenon is multicultural. I found myself in a sandwich of a Korean conversation five minutes prior to the start of my neuroscience discussion, as my male classmate in front of me and his female friend behind me exchanged loud, flirtatious banter.

Suddenly, I became a part of the picture when my male classmate awkwardly included me in the conversation: "Daniel, do you think she's nice?". I proceeded to respond very affirmatively and mentioned that I had seen her at the bus stop earlier, remembering that she had been a nice girl in my discussion section. She thanked me and also remembered having seen me at the bus stop just a few minutes prior. Subsequently, her male friend, suddenly jealous of the attention we gave one another challenged me, "Daniel, is that how you land girls? By following them onto buses?". His jealous remark slapped me in the face as heterosexism.

I quickly apologized to the girl for having caused awkwardness by complimenting her, but an apology on my behalf was unnecessary. I turned my attention to the boy, and two words sent him into a priceless state of confusion: "I'm gay". He looked puzzled, so I repeated, "Gay; I'm gay". Still speechless, his attention was drawn by a classmate who spelled it out for him, "G-A-Y; homosexual". As soon as he understood, he apologized for having assumed me straight. Fortunately, class began shortly afterwards, further awkwardness averted.

Culture has primed teenagers and college-aged students to presume intersexual flattery as flirtation. Clearly, I had no intention of "landing" my classmate. I consistently compliment my female friends on appearance, but none of them question my sexual intentions. It's shameful that female friends can acceptably compliment one another's fashion, appearance, or personality, yet a gay male's words raise eyebrows. Next time you overhear a compliment, appreciate the kindness of the speaker rather than assuming a conformation to promiscuity.

Daniel

September 10, 2012

A Letter from the LGBT Alumni Association



Normally we would have anonymous posts for y'all on Mondays, but this week we didn't get any. Instead we're publishing a letter from the LGBT Alumni Network that they sent to Larry Moneta on Saturday. Here it is:



Dear Larry:

We write to express our concern about recent developments related to the relocation process for the Center for LGBT Life.

As you know, some of the LGBT Network’s members were involved in the working group assembled by Janie Long earlier this year. Those participants, as well as our board members and other alumni have followed the developments of the process closely.

Recently we received a letter from the leadership of Blue Devils United outlining a gap in what was promised for the new LGBT Center space earlier in the process versus what is being delivered at this point. Their analysis, along with analysis posted on the BDU blog, was based on the architect’s drawings.

Our board members have first-hand experience attending some of the magnificent events held at the Center. We agree with the BDU assessment that the current programming space is insufficient for the foot traffic the Center attracts for such events, and we are discouraged by what appears to be the decision to sacrifice other LGBT Center staff-designated space to inflate the square footage of programming space in the new design.

We have corresponded with the leadership of BDU, and we believe this analysis is not only accurate, but shows a disturbing disregard for the needs of the LGBT community at Duke. Having had several Network members involved in the advisory process for this relocation, we are also concerned that alumni volunteer time and enthusiasm dedicated to a project your office designed is not being taken seriously. In addition, we are concerned at the lack of transparency with which this process has been carried out.

As active alumni volunteers, we take great pride in Duke, and we take the time and effort we dedicate to the University seriously. As members of Duke’s extended LGBT community, we watch closely when the campus community is affected by the administration’s decisions. And as a body that believes in conducting negotiations and consultations transparently, we are concerned when it appears that important voices were sidelined in the process.

We understand the Student Affairs office is charged with difficult decisions and negotiations every day. However in this case, the evidence we have seen suggests the LGBT Center relocation process was not carried out as promised – neither in protocol nor product. We encourage your office to take seriously the concerns of the Blue Devils United group, meet with their leadership, allow their input into the process before it is finalized, and adjust the current plans for the new space to reflect the promises made earlier in the process.

We look forward to hearing from you about your plans moving forward.

Respectfully,
The Duke LGBT Network Board

Kyle Knight, President
Tom Clark, Chair
Jules Torti
Butch Trusty
Maneesh Goyal
Christopher Ventry
Darren Spedale
Todd Sears
Harry Harkins
Todd Montgomery
Ariel Levin

September 7, 2012

Unnatural

When it comes to nucleotides and amino acids, evolutionary processes have led us to four bases and twenty amino acids that are utilized in our everyday biological chemistry. Even better, this is also universal: with very few exceptions, all organisms across all domains of life use these same nucleotides and amino acids to form DNA and proteins that guide our functions. The chemistry of amino acids and nucleotides aren't too complicated (although if you're in Bio201, biochem, or anything of the sort you might disagree with me); with some minor tweaks and substitutions, it is simple to construct new nucleobases and synthetic amino acids that, while novel, are unnatural, and do not conform to the central dogma of molecular biology.

I arrived to campus two years ago, and I felt like an unnatural amino acid: out of place, weird, and synthetic. I was putting on a face that was going to get me through college. I had to pretend to be "natural." Straying away from the chemistry, I was shy and unsure of what college was about to throw at me. My introversion kept me indoors, avoiding parties, and wondering about what I was missing. I wanted to incorporate myself into the Duke mainstream, but every time I tried for the first month, I felt rejected. Coming from high school where I was well liked, college was a different feeling as I searched for acceptance. No matter how much I attempted to conform to the Duke "culture," even the "culture" within the LGBTQ community, I felt unnatural.

Synthetic amino acids are peculiar because when substituted for a natural amino acid in proteins, they can shut down the protein's function and destroy the native structure. In addition, synthetic nucleotides can incorporate mutations into DNA if included in DNA synthesis and replication. Well, this is exactly how I felt coming in to Duke. Even if I wanted to fit into the community, I wouldn't contribute anything, or I would screw something up, both personally and communally. What did I know about LGBTQ activism? I had only been out for five months. What meaningful relationships could I form? I'm too awkward to interact with people, and how would I even be remembered? Me, the unnatural amino acid, wouldn't survive selective pressures and I would get flushed out as unimportant or extraneous.

Yet here I am, two years later, still writing for this fantastic blog that has been such an important part of my Duke career and my stable integration into the LGBTQ community. Remember how I said unnatural amino acids and nucleotides are, well..."unnatural"? How I said that they can stop a protein from functioning or mutate DNA? Well, these are true statements, in some regards. However, unnatural amino acids have been show to improve immunogenic response to self proteins that are involved in autoimmune disorders and could stop inflammation and toxic shock response. Unnatural nucleotides are used in a specific assay to detect very small amounts of viral DNA to see if HIV or HCV is dormant, on the rise, or eliminated. And the utility of these two synthetic biology tools is only increasing, not only for medical advances, but also to improve basic sciences research and develop a better understanding of ourselves and the origins of life.

I realized that being "unnatural" did not mean that I had no role in this community. In fact, as I cited at the beginning, being novel may mean the same as unnatural, but my novelty provided something new to the university and this blog (I mean, who else has a post centered around synthetic biology?). I had to find my niche, and it wasn't the easiest task, but I did find my way. Particularly, writing for this blog has been my way of reaching out to Duke in ways that I can't do by being an engineer, or by being a researcher, and especially by being an introvert. Being a novel, "unnatural," and unique amino acid or nucleotide may just be the tool this community needs to thrive and survive. There is no Duke or LGBTQ "culture" that is supplemented by a few nutrients. The LGBTQ community does not fit one mold, nor four, nor even twenty molds, and conforming to one of these set structures isn't going to advance us. As we welcome a new class of students to Duke, each person needs to appreciate their differences and embrace how we can come together and build a stable community. We need more unnaturalness to progress, so that the DNA strand can hold new structures, and so the peptide chain folds in new ways and confers new functions.

Hopefully I didn't go too crazy with this extended metaphor, but I'm always available to talk (especially if it's on the synthetic biology) via email. To the new class, welcome to Duke, and to the old, welcome back!

September 6, 2012

What you should know about the new LGBT Center


(Click for larger image)


First let us correct an inconsistency: The new plan for the LGBT center does include a programing space that is of similar size to our current space. Yesterday Members of the Blue Devils United executive board made a case to the Senate using the limited information we were able to receive from the administration.

A previous design only granted the center half of our current programing space. And while this final design does grant us more programing space than the original, it takes that space from other aspects of the center. 

We were able to receive a layout including square footage for the previous design, but not square footage for this latest design.

Note: the information on the previous design was not received from either the administration of the LGBT center, but forwarded by an outside ally of our cause.

This morning we were finally given a complete layout that included square footage.

Note: It took two months, pressure from alums, and legislation from the DSG Senate to finally receive the complete information requested months ago.

Let us be clear: We will continue our quest for more space and we ask that the administration be straightforward and clear with the facts and information so that we can have an accurate and truthful conversation about the future of our Center.


Two weeks ago I received this image, an image of a LGBT Center drawn and set forth without any consultation with its major stakeholders-the undergraduate LGBT community.

It should come as no surprise to you that the administration has once again ignored the needs of our community and attempted to silence our concerns. There is clear and painful history of institutionalized homophobia employed by this university that spans decades. From the dechartering of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance in 1983 to the current outright disregard for the LGBT community as the Center relocation process has plainly illustrated.

In the spring we were promised a seat at the table to design our own space, and given an assurance that the final plan would only be set fourth after student consultation.  But as evidenced by the final design, those promises were not kept. Put simply, we were systematically ignored, and blatantly lied to. Inquest into the process over the summer received responses that at best could be described as evasive.

To give you the raw facts…

We acquired a meeting room and office for BDU/center student staff but…
Both Janie and Jess’s office space have been slashed to create the new spaces.


The Administration’s plan grants the LGBT Center less space than what was promised, and our programing space has not been increased. Any of you who have attended a major event (Lav Grad, Orientation Reception, Guest Speaker, etc) in the center know that our current space is already inadequate. The fact that the administration would refuse to increase that space illustrates that either they ignored the information highlighted in our report, or just didn’t read our report at all.

It is also worth noting that the administration told us to form a study group so that they could better address the needs of our growing community. After we turned in the results of our research to them, that was the last we ever heard of it. No further contact was made with the students, faculty, and alumni that were part of this study group to discuss the findings of the report.

Either way, let us make this statement again- Due to the explosion of programming and rapid growth of our community, we need a programming space that allows for the nurturing and growth of our community.

THEREFORE WE DEMAND that the new LGBT Center be increased to at least half the size of UCAE, as was previously promised.

We also give thanks to the Duke Student Government for their support in this cause and their resolution.

We are not asking for special treatment or requesting unreasonable concessions; we only demand what was promised to us, and what is truly and duly owed to us.

So, once again, we assert that our administrators must embrace their responsibility to Duke’s LGBT population and acknowledge our right to speak and be heard.

Because…

We will not be second-class students on our own campus

We will not be relegated to the fringes of campus life

We will not live in fear on our own campus, and

We will not be silenced or ignored.


Denzell Faison
Co-President Blue Devils United

Jacob Tobia
Co-President Blue Devils United

Kory Painter
Vice President Blue Devils United

Michael Pruitt
DSG Director of LGBT Affairs and Policy
BDU Outreach Chair

Jessica Alvarez
Blue Devils United Treasurer

Kyle Berner
BDU Blog Editor

September 5, 2012

The closet seems smaller this time...

After a slow section over summer vacation, Our Lives is ready to get back in gear for this semester. If you're new to Our Lives, here's the kind of thing you can expect:

After the end of last semester I got home with every fiber of my being feeling totally relieved. Finally, I was out of the pressure cooker environment of Duke and could relax a little more. I do like being at Duke, I was just ready for a break from the intense environment here. After taking about a week to myself, I began applying to jobs for summer employment. I started with tech based internships to build a good resume for a computer science major, when that failed I went to the more typical retail/service/food job applications. 20 or so applications in, I started to get a bit nervous. I started branching out more, and found myself applying to local golf courses. Most of them weren’t hiring anybody, but one ended up calling me back. This course had a full time job available for the summer and I’d get paid $7.50 an hour. After all of the panic of searching without any positive results, I jumped at the chance and took the job immediately. (Little did I know that the job was half lawn mowing and half weedeating ditches and trimming thornbushes by hand. But hey, work is work.)

 A little while into this job I started to realize just how good I had it back at Duke. No, I don’t mean the difficult physical labor, that was hard but I didn’t mind it. No, I mean the people I worked with. The employees I called my coworkers included one rapist, one serial rapist, one decent man who was relatively unprejudiced, one man who was a pretty reasonable person but was still quite prejudiced, and a sixteen year old who wanted to grow up to be just like the serial rapist. (Note: I found out about the serial rapist when he bragged about how he used to get girls drunk to the point of being unconscious and then have sex with them. The other rapist then laughed and told the story of when he did something similar.) So, we’re talking about a pretty wide spectrum of people here. Oh, and my boss was a birther, said he was ok with “the f-gs” so long as they didn’t touch him, and was convinced that white people are naturally more hardworking than all other ethnicities. So a real charmer. By the way I describe them, you may be beginning to get an impression of how I dealt with this situation. I hid behind a veil of dry sarcasm to prevent myself from suffering a mental break but never having to commit the workplace suicide of telling them any of my real opinions. It sort of helped that none of them understood sarcasm.

 About two months into it I was having a bit of an identity crisis. I’d obviously not come out to anybody at my workplace, but I had also never explicitly denied anything. For an example of what I mean, I present this actual situation: I was edging and mulching planting beds around the parking lot of the clubhouse when my boss drives up in a golf cart and tells me that if I’d like to work on the bed near the pool next, he’ll let me. I should mention here that the reason he presented this like a gift is because most of the other people that work there liked to work near the pool in the afternoons to watch women who are sunbathing in bikinis. When I said I didn’t care, he asked, “What, are you gay or something?” I responded, “Not quite, but seriously what do you need done?” This answer put him off a lot more than I expected and he drove off disgruntled. I guess a lot of sarcastic comments like that built into a reputation for me, and many of the workers would refer to me as “queer”, “homo”, “fag”, or “faggot” about half the times they wanted to get my attention. Also, they had a little joke amongst themselves that if any of them were left alone with me, I would sodomize them. After a while, I started to wonder if I should be challenging them on it. Deep down I knew it wasn’t my responsibility, I knew that no real gain could come of me engaging the group about their homophobia, racism, or sexism. Yet I still felt like every time I just took it when they called me a faggot made me a weak person. I felt like a total coward, but I knew there was nothing else I could do.

One day the coworker that I mentioned earlier who was pretty reasonable but was also prejudiced finally picked up on my facial expression after he used gay as a pejorative. He then asked me if I had a problem with him using the word. Here’s how the conversation went.

Me: Do you hate gay people?

Him: No. Actually, I don’t think I’d mind if they could marry.

Me: So when you call something gay, what do you mean?

Him: Well, I guess I mean that it’s… I don’t know, it’s just a word.

Me: You mean it’s something you dislike.

Him: I guess, yeah.

Me: But you said you don’t hate gay people.

Him: I don’t!

Me: Then why do you use the word “gay” to refer to things you dislike?

Him: Oh.

Me: Yeah.

He didn’t mention it for a day, then came back two days after we had the conversation and told me that he considered it, and he wasn’t going to say it anymore. Best part is, he kept his promise.

I did gain a lot from this summer, as it gave new meaning to my work here at Duke. BDU, this blog, and my work at the Center seem even more real and relevant when I consider that there are people out there that have to experience what I did this summer with no foreseeable end. While that thought makes me angry, it honestly makes me more determined than anything else. Forums like this blog are rare, and though I obvious come from a biased viewpoint on the matter, having a place where the LGBT community can share and discuss their life experiences is so key to coping with the isolation that many of the members of our community feel. Here’s to an excellent year, for all of you, the blog, and the entire spectrum of people that belong to and affiliate with our community.

So on that note let me proudly announce that Our Lives is officially back! Well, we never really leave, but we're going to restart posting on a regular basis. The rate of posting will likely increase as we get more writers, but expect regular posts to be going up from now on! If you want to get involved with the blog as a writer, email me and we can get you set up as soon as possible! Also email me with any questions you may have about the blog, I'd be glad to answer them.

Best,
Kyle