Prop_8_protest,_Washington_D.C.,_November_15,_2008

(Photo credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Prop_8_protest,_Washington_D.C.,_November_15,_2008.jpg)

Today is the last day of the American Sociology Association’s annual meeting. In honor of this year’s theme Sexualities in the Social World, I wanted to bring attention to the troubling trend of murders of transgender women. First, I introduce what little data exists about the experiences of trans women. Then I consider three existing groups of social movement activists that could act as allies to the transgender community and the presence of barriers which might inhibit the building of coalitions aimed toward stopping these deaths.

 

There is a dearth of reliable statistics on the murder of trans women. Thankfully, organizations which serve the transgender population and their allies in the academy have embarked upon a mission to attempt to fill this gap. To date only one national study has been conducted; the National Transgender Discrimination Survey was spear-headed by the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. This study found transgender women experience disturbingly high rates of violence and assault. In 2013, 72% of all victims of murder motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiment were transgender women.

 

Currently the National Center for Transgender Equality is distributing the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey (USTS). (Editor’s note: if you are a transgender person who is interested in participating you can find the survey here!) However, the time investment which a massive undertaking of this type demands means for the near future we will continue to operate without a full understanding of who constitutes the transgender population and the conditions of their lives.

 

Due to a dearth of scientific studies on the topic, the responsibility of data collection has fallen on activists and sympathetic media outlets. The LGBTQ periodical The Advocate has recorded the dates and circumstances of the murders of trans women killed in 2015. The publication has strived to preserve these deceased women’s lives by including their photographs and short biographies. As of August 18th, 17 trans women have been murdered in 2015 alone.  

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The very picturesque Xiamen University campus.

Last month I had the privilege of going to Xiamen University in south-eastern China for a ten-day research trip, along with ten other social science PhD students from my department at Southampton University. The purpose of the trip was to give us an opportunity to do a research project with ten Chinese PhD counterparts, and to give us a feel for what some of those buzzwords of contemporary academia – ‘global’, ‘networking’, ‘collaboration’, ‘inter-disciplinarity’ – might actually mean in practice. It turns out that these vague and perhaps glamourous-sounding platitudes hide a reality full of practical and cultural challenges (and rewards) that I didn’t know existed. I finished my ten days in Xiamen feeling rewarded, enlightened, a bit wiser, and rather knackered.

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Fastentuch

(Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Religious_items#/media/File:Fastentuch.jpg)

 

One of the main ideologies of religion, which Ninian Smart has pointed out, is that of the ethical, and legal dimension. Smart states, “the law which a tradition or subtradition incorporates into its fabric can be called the ethical dimension of religion” (Smart 18; 1998). History has proved how social customs, usually stemming from religious ideologies, tend to become laws, and govern social norms. When thinking about American society, society claims there is a separation between the Church, and the State: but, this is not true. With most presidential elections, society can see how a presidential candidate’s religious affiliations, or views on certain topics, such as abortion and others, are pertinent to the voter’s candidate choice. Although, this ethical and legal dimension may be the primary example to view religion and sexuality, most people neglect to view the other dimensions in which religion governs sexuality. more...

Source: thesociologicalcinema.com
Source: thesociologicalcinema.com

Do you remember your sex education during your youth? Did you even have sex education?

My school district (a local, public school district composing of four small townships) contracted out our sex education through Catholic Charities, which would come into health classes and teach “sex ed.” (Note: I am very conscientious of using quotations around my experience of “sex ed” because it wasn’t real sexual education, but rather, (heteronormative) abstinence only education.) We started having exposure to sex ed as early as sixth grade, but the “real” sex ed really started in eighth to ninth grade. Boys and girls were separated in two different rooms to talk about their own bodies separately, and would come together where they (at least in my interpretation) tried to scare us into submission.

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Photo by Katie Kullen

When same-sex marriage became legal, there was an outpouring of support for the gay community. Many self-identified straight men and women took the opportunity to vocalize their affirmation of gay identities and gay rights. Keeping in mind, as well, the recent public discourse around Caitlyn Jenner and the transgender community, I found it compelling to compile a list of tips for LGBTQ allies that seek to sustain and improve their support of the community during this time.

It should be noted that this list is not exhaustive, and I cannot speak for the entire LGBTQ community. These tips are merely a guideline for possible new ways for interested parties to continue their support in the post-gay-marriage world. Even the most earnest allies might find themselves lost with how to improve and continue to help. Though I only speak as a gay cisgender man and supporter of LGBTQ equality, I’ve taken some time to think about new ways and avenues for activism as well as present underrepresented views and problems facing the community at this time. LGBTQ activism can be made stronger by people of diverse backgrounds working in dialogue with each other. The importance of this list is to learn ways to foster dialogue, understanding and empathy for one another, as well as educate others on what some of the issues facing the community post-same-sex marriage are.

  1. Understand What Gay Marriage Means and to Whom

It goes without saying that an ally supports same-sex marriage. But it’s important to understand the context of this win. I think one can support same-sex marriage as a legal right without embracing it as the end of LGBTQ activism, nor as the tenant of it. Similarly, marriage may be more or less important to every LGBTQ individual. But, I admit, it was moving to see rainbow Facebook profile pictures. It was moving to see support from straight allies in all forms. But as the subsequent op-eds have pointed out, it is not the end of LGBTQ rights. I don’t think this precludes the historicism of the moment, nor does it exclude various othered-LGBTQ people. What’s important is the context- understanding what this moment signifies to the various LGBTQ people. A good ally should strive to understand context.

Furthermore, as activist Laverne Cox has noted, it is equally important for cisgendered members of the LGB community to be inclusive and active in the concerns of the transgender community.

  1. Learn About What Gender Means to Others

Gender is a complicated issue; a very complicated one, and one that is constantly evolving. Now that publicly transgender people are just beginning to come out into the mainstream, it’s important to understand the language of how to talk about this issue. Sure, even the most understanding ally can have a slip up or moment of ignorance. This shouldn’t be demonized- I think there is an opportunity now for better education on these issues. We’re in the midst of a political moment to reinterpret what gender means and how we do gender. The first place to start is to undertake the task of understanding how trans and queer individuals have been talking about conceptualizing their communities and themselves. As well as what unique issues are pertinent to their communities.

  1. Be a conduit for change

There have been years of LGBTQ activists. But it should be noted the importance of straight-allies as well. While it would be inappropriate to speak for the community, it’s important to speak up as an ally. This could mean having various conversations with others, engaging in political action, or simply educating oneself about the issues. A straight ally can do a lot to show others how to be more accepting and empathetic to others. A frank discussion with a friend about your beliefs can change minds.

  1. Awareness of Differences

Not all LGBTQ people are the same. Not all gay people are the same. Not all trans people are the same. There are unique political intersections and personal preferences between all LGBTQ people. It’s easy to make generalization, and we’re all guilty of it from time to time. Stereotypes are present in popular media about what being LGBT or Q means. But everyone has a unique experience and personality that requires inquiry. It’s important to allies to explore these differences. It’s important to be vigilant against reductionist tendencies.

  1. Understand the Work Left to Be Done

We’re not quite in a post-gay world. You and everyone you know might be “cool with it” but the struggle for LGBTQ rights is not a thing of the past. There is a wealth of work to be done for these causes. There are numerous organizations that have been doing work on causes such as teen homelessness, harassment prevention, making spaces safer, providing services to at risk use and numerous other causes. Supporting any one of these causes can make a strong statement and a significant difference in the lives of others.

LGBTQ allies are important to the community. The LGBTQ community is at a critical time in the political realm where opening minds and making tangible real changes is very possible. The help of allies is invaluable towards continuing to acknowledge and alleviate the oppressions faced by the LGBTQ community. Everything from participating in large structural changes to simply changing one’s behavior and speech can be an important and vital force.

Again, this list isn’t the end of the story. Discourse around the needs of LGBTQ people is always evolving and changing to be more inclusive. Going beyond this list, communicating with LGBTQ people to find out the needs of their specific communities can unveil other more specific ways to be involved.

For some information on how to get involved visit the Human Rights Campaign’s website which features a variety of causes. For information on how to start a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) you can visit here.

 

Further Reading

Why Marriage Matters To Non-Gay Allies

http://www.freedomtomarry.org/communities/entry/c/non-gay-allies

 

An Ally’s Guide To Talking About Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

http://www.lgbtmap.org/effective-messaging/allys-guide-talking-about-marriage

source: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/prison-reform-florida-louisiana-/51b71aef78c90a03d20005e3
source: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/prison-reform-florida-louisiana-/51b71aef78c90a03d20005e3

The New York Times recently published an article about one of Norway’s maximum security prisons, Halden Fengsel – i.e. the “world’s most humane” prison.  The article doesn’t seem real.  Flowers, barley, open fields, live cows.  Since 1998, Norway’s sentencing has focused on rehabilitation.  This particular prison model – one that is designed from its inception for rehabilitation – was the first of its kind in Norway.  Even I, with my bright-eyed naiveté and mid-20s progressive agenda can’t help – just for a moment – think that the stars just aligned for Norway.  Maybe things are just different in Norway?

The reality is that’s just not the case.  Magic justice dust was not sprinkled on Norway.  Similarly, America is not too heterogenous or too populated or too developed (and therefore crime-ridden).  It is simply is too broken.

Make no mistake, Norway still faces serious crimes.  Extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb that killed eight people and systemically hunted down and shot sixty nine others, many teenagers at a summer camp for the Labor Party.  He was sentenced to the maximum 21 years in prison.

Compare Breivik’s story to that of Kalief Browder.  The New Yorker followed Browder’s story to its tragic end.  Mr. Browder was arrested ten days before his 17th birthday for allegedly stealing a backpack.  Since he was unable to pay bail, he spent the next three years at Rikers Island in New York awaiting trial.  The trial never happened and he was released after the government dismissed the case.  During those three years, he spent two in solitary confinement.  In 2015, only 22 years old, Kalief Browder committed suicide in his parents home.

Mr. Browder’s story is not an anomaly.  The extent to which this happens, the number of people to which it happens, its disproportionate racial impact on black Americans, and its disproportionate economic impact on the poor is unique to the United States.  I’m not telling you anything you probably don’t already know.  With all of the publicity, change in America’s prison infrastructure has seemed imminent for years, but something seems to be holding back the floodgates.

Policy questions regarding prison reform often focus, first, on money, and then, on balancing rehabilitation and punishment.  However, even before issues of punishment and rehabilitation, there are fundamental hurdles to overcome: what do human beings deserve from the State?  Do prisoners qualify for these entitlements?  Do prisoners deserve something less?  If so, what?  There are of, course, some nuances that warrant consideration depending on the nature of the crime, but let’s start with the basics.

It seems to me that the issue of prison reform distills down to two essential questions:

  1. Once a person does something “criminal,” does that diminish that person’s status as a human being? and/or
  2. What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to by the State?

The second question is more complicated, but easier to answer.  We’ll start there.  The caveat with this question is that it requires us to think about we need, regardless of whether we commit a criminal act.  Barring protecting the safety of others or the safety of ourselves, no matter what we do, what resources should we be entitled to as human beings?

Ethical theorists have been ruminating over what human beings need – not what we want, but what we need.  What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to?  In its contemporary iterations (and the ones I’d like to apply to prison reform in this post), this conversation has centered around international development.  Two theorists who have changed the face of this field are Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen with their separate works on the “capabilities approach.”  To simplify, they have both argued that human beings are entitled to certain “capabilities” or “functionings.”  A person is entitled to more than just food, water, and shelter but also an environment that enables productivity, creativity, and – dare I say it – happiness.

Their work was revolutionary, not just because it increased international pressure for aid and nation-state funded welfare but because it redefined human dignity.  People deserve to be happy.  It is a matter of human dignity.

The capabilities approach is only one of many frameworks that may be applicable to prison reform efforts.  It certainly resolves some of the inhumane practices present in American prisons.  However, jumping to considerations of rehabilitation/punishment without first addressing the bare minimum that each prisoner is entitled to may result – and I would argue, has resulted – in an inefficient use of resources and slow, scattered policymaking.  Though not a fixture, this concept isn’t foreign to the American criminal justice and prison system.  Correctional facilities have culinary programs, professional certifications, and arts programs.  However, these programs rely heavily on outside funding and volunteers; they are often not a part of prison infrastructure.

Next, once a person does something criminal, does that diminish that person’s status as a human being?  First thing’s first:  If committing a criminal act does diminish a person’s status as a human being, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what resources you give it or how you treat it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that male prison guards watched female inmates while they showered, a 17-year old boy hung himself with a blanket in solitary confinement, or mentally ill inmates were so brutally abused that one was kept in solitary confinement for 2491 consecutive days and another left in his own feces and vomit until he died of a heart attack.

Of course, each of these stories is deeply unsettling.  They can only be written off as a case of mishandling by someone else (much less ethical, much less competent than any of us would ever be) so many times until we must confront the uncomfortable reality that our world – one that we cannot disclaim responsibility for (try as we might) – doesn’t treat human beings as such.  Status as “criminal” and “human being” though perhaps not mutually exclusive are certainly at odds to some degree, enough that the stories I’ve mentioned above are not a mere handful.

Though there are nuances of sentencing and resource allocation to be handled in policy meetings, thoughtful prison reform will remain a distant goal until uncomfortable confrontations are made.  Confrontations about how how our courts and our prisons treat people who commit crimes in terms of (1) their status as human beings and (2) what capabilities and/or resources those individuals are entitled to.

The importance of these preliminary issues is paramount.  The consistent to failure to confront them has left a broken prison system that has harmed our friends, families, and communities.  Behind the cages of America’s prisons are human beings just like you and me.  People who are entitled to our respect and, indeed, their own happiness.

Future Readings

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cornrows#/media/File:Tropenmuseum_Royal_Tropical_Institute_Objectnumber_10019385_Portret_van_een_jonge_Marron_vrouw_me.jpg

Amandla Stenberg, an activist and an individual who has considerable reach amongst the masses used her platform as an actress to speak out against cultural appropriation when she responded to a post on the Instagram of a celebrity teen socialite in early July. Many replies to Stenberg’s response of the original poster demeaned Amandla for making an argument about race as many bystanders were convinced that the original Instagram post was meant to be a fun fashion statement. The subsequent comments have a false sense of logic behind them however, and it is clear that most responders did not understand the argument that Amandla was making. This argument was further convoluted given that is was a response to the derogatory hashtag #whitegirlsdoitbetter; a twitter hashtag meant to spread hate and racism by implying that women of color are unworthy. Her reply has since been deleted but I would argue that Amandla’s reply has everything to do with race, fashion, and hair, all which comprise culture. She later posted another reply which provides more detail about black femininity and cultural appropriation. A person stating that her original reply is about anything less is simply blind to the structures of power and dominance that are at play and is the reason why these issues will continue to be perpetuated so long as their diminishment is condoned by overarching forces such as mass media.

Cultural hegemony is the control of culture through domination of social groups via social institutions. Simply put cultural hegemony is a type of hegemony that serves to police society in a way that is unnoticeable to the dominant group and is perpetuated as the parameters of what to think and how to think about it. Most importantly cultural hegemony serves the interests of the hegemony, the dominant class. When discussing race in America the dominant class refers to White people and minority groups of races and ethnicities are considered subordinate groups. While it is a fact that not all White people have the power and means to establish and carry out this dominance, it is true that all White people benefit from being a part of this dominant class. Culture is comprised of many things to include race, gender, religion, sexuality, class, etc. I aim to focus on race and gender as these are the topics that are at the root of Amandla’s Instagram reply which became viral. more...

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(Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:BDSM_equipment#/media/File:Salon-erotik_Besançon_001.JPG)

Sexuality is, still, something seen as taboo, and deemed not appropriate for everyday conversation. Society assumes men and women will marry, procreate, and in time, create their own family: where their children will repeat the process. However, people do not always adhere to the model: some will live within the “deviant” parts of society. There are people who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, Queer), SM (Sadomasochism), and many more. One identity, out of the plethora, that many people have problematized is the identity of SM. Those who participate in the SM scene proscribe SM as their primary identity. Previously, there has not much research done on the SM community: but, that has changed. more...

Source: Claus Rebler via Flickr, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Source: Claus Rebler via Flickr, CC-BY-SA 3.0

At the time in which I write this, I have been sick for eight days. I’ve gone through 5 boxes of tissues. Two packs of medicines. Had a fever. Called off a day of work. Gone to the doctor. Slept more than I have probably all year long. Needless to say, this is quite the summer cold. Being sick is no fun, and I’m one to remind everyone around me that it is as such. I complain, I play the victim card, I am essentially helpless. I pretend like I’m going to die, probably because it feels that way. Being sick is no fun because we are not our “normal” selves, we are not healthy, and we are not able to do the things we usually do, at least not the way that we usually do them.

But in a moment of clarity, I wonder to myself, being sick is okay. Maybe our bodies need to be sick in order to rest from the pressure and constraints we put on it everyday to be “healthy.” What is healthy anyways?

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Photo Source: Sociology Lens Media Library
Photo Source: Sociology Lens Media Library

When we here at Sociology Lens decided to dedicate July to posts about teaching, I had so much excitement. After all, graduate student advice month had gone over so well, why wouldn’t another themed month that is also relevant. I mean, is teaching not a significant part of what we do as sociologists? But there was one problem… I’ve never taught before. What could I offer in my posts?

Really. I had a very difficult time thinking of something, of anything, to offer. I’ve never even been a teaching assistant! Being in the classroom, beyond one or two guest lectures, is something that baffles me. On top of that, being so young (no more than 2 years older than some college seniors) and fresh out of college myself, how I could I really be considered an authority on being the teacher?

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