3Q

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In this blog I interviewed her with three questions about her new book, Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan (2019, Rutgers University Press).

BR: You write that stories about lesbian and gay successes were used both by the social movement for parents of LGBT children and by some of your respondents as well. Can you discuss the ways in which that seemed to have both strengths and weaknesses for your respondents?

AB: Many of the heterosexual parents that I spoke to were worried about the economic implications of being gay or transgender. Social stability and class mobility were major touchstones in our interviews, in support group meetings for parents and for queer and trans young people thinking through family issues, and in other places that parents gathered. These parents viewed normative signs of success, like a college degree and a stable job, as particularly important for children who do not conform in other areas. They used lesbian, gay, and (on rarer occasions) transgender success stories in ways that were often personally empowering but politically limiting. I saw queer and trans activists struggle with this: How to welcome heterosexual family members into the movement without compromising their more radical queer ethics?

In general, we think of normativity as benefiting middle class lesbians and gays, and this is true in Taiwan as in many other places. But, I also caution that it is often middle class and more privileged activists and academics who have the most developed critiques of normativity. We have to be mindful not to create a new stratification system based on how non-normative we manage or espouse to be, because this will end up reinforcing the very class divisions we claim to be trying to dismantle.

BR: It seemed that you attempted to bring together two different literatures, research on gender & sexuality with the research on family change in Taiwan. Did this integration of traditions, and your research itself, provide you with any directions that you’d recommend for studying and working with LGBT families of origin in the future?

AB: Bringing literatures together sounds fantastic in a proposal but tends to be harder in practice. The gaps that exist often reflect larger epistemological and political differences. For example, demographic data are collected by the state for population management and surveillance, and queer theorists are pushing back on this. But knowing something about fertility rates, about patterns in how people create and sustain families or break away from those families, is obviously of great value for those of us who are trying to figure out what is going on with queer populations and how to support them. I think queer scholars and activists can appropriate these data while remaining very critical of methods and frameworks.

In studying and working with families of origin, we cannot simply export models based on U.S. populations to other parts of the world. This is (I hope) an obvious point but one we must continue to make. For example, in my answer above, I noted parents’ economic concerns around sexuality and gender. These are concerns that activists must address if they want to bring parents into the movement. A model that assumes parents’ concerns are primarily moral or religious (as they are for many U.S. parents) is inadequate in this context. As a second example, I point out in the book that research on trans people in families does not consider the effects of gender transition within patrilineal and patrilocal family structures – still among the most common family structures in the world. There are many new directions that open up when we step outside the narrow box of what we already know based on predominately white, western families.

BR: Can you provide some examples of how your standpoint helped shape the research project and the analysis?

AB: Ethnography is such an intimate mode of research and who we are matters a great deal. There are several parts of my biography that I highlight in the book: my race and national origin, my femme sexuality, and my family background and coming out experience. I am white, U.S. born, and employed at a North American university. The unearned privileges that come with these characteristics shaped, for example, my ability to cross borders freely and without fear to do this research and my ability to apply for grants without first checking the citizenship requirements. (The Wenner-Gren, which provided the majority of funding for this project, does not discriminate based on nationality, but many other funding agencies do.) In Taiwan, my outsiderness shaped the ways that people perceived and related to me. For example, many people invited me to spend time with them in their homes, including on holidays and other special occasions. Hospitality can be a barrier to deep understanding because when we are hosting others, we often present only our best. But it can also facilitate understanding – in this case, by giving me a glimpse of everyday family life that I might not have had otherwise.

While I was doing this fieldwork, many people asked me questions about my own family story. I am very close to my family, but our journey around sexuality has been a difficult one, threaded with periods of deep pain. This, too, shaped the research. It opened up my life to my informants in a way that, in certain cases, brought us closer. In other cases, it positioned me as a daughter in need of advice from the heterosexual parents with whom I was spending so much time. It continually reminded me of the emotional labor my informants were doing when they agreed to be interviewed. This whole experience also changed the way I approached the topics of sexuality and gender with my parents. I became more open to hearing their points of view and reasons for acting and feeling as they did. Being an ethnographer gave me tools to listen in a way I had not been able to achieve before. So as much as my biography shaped the research, the research also shaped me and my family relationships.

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Tey Meadow has a new book  Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the 21st Century  that looks at transgender and gender creative children with supportive parents.  I recently had the opportunity to interview Tey about this fascinating new research.

What was the most surprising aspect of your ethnographic work?   Was there something you reported in the book that you hadn’t expected to find but did?

Two things surprised me about my research. First, there was no hypothesis I could make about what kinds of families would be most likely to support or facilitate gender nonconformity in their kids that held true. Some of the most radically supportive families were deeply religious, or from ultra-conservative, rural areas. And some politically liberal families in major urban centers were among those who struggled the most. The notion that there is any sort of monolithic gender culture in any of these areas is far too simplistic an idea to encapsulate the complex and competing desires and emotions these families experienced.

I was also surprised and heartbroken to learn how vulnerable some families were to violence, harassment and censure, even by the state, for simply allowing their children to be gender nonconforming. I detail a number of these stories in the book. Families with children of color, gay and lesbian-headed families and those with pre-existing relationships of surveillance with the state were the most acutely vulnerable, even in socially liberal areas. I met parents who faced false accusations of sexual or emotional abuse, or temporary custody loss and threats of physical violence; many who were too terrified to participate formally in the research, but desperately wanted other people to know this was happening. While media attention on these topics is on the rise, so too is a pernicious backlash that is worth our attention, as well.

One of the most surprising things for me reading this book was the complicated relationships between the social movement organizations founded by parents to advocate for their children and the LGBTQ social movements run by and for LGBTQ folks.  Can you explain that somewhat for our readers?

The contemporary moment for trans children simply would not be possible without the interventions of older LGB-and especially-T activist communities. The adults who pushed for visibility and acceptance at a time when being trans was unthinkable outside of tabloid journalism, who struggled to control the terms of their own engagements with psychologists and physicians, who fought the state for the right to be recognized in their affirmed genders, all of their work set the terms by which parents could recognize children as trans and secure their rights to live openly.

But the political movement around transgender children now is largely a cisgender movement, a vicarious movement of parents and adult allies, who don’t necessarily connect the worlds of these children to the idea of trans that came before. Today’s trans kids will have earlier access to transition than their predecessors, and will, as the reach adulthood, have to decide whether or not their identify with those earlier movements, or whether they want to live outside of them. Some parent I met found the imagery of earlier transgender rights abject, worried that their children would be forced to live marginal lives, or simply felt that the world had changed so much that earlier trans people’s experiences were no longer instructive. Some of these parents chose to limit their children’s access to trans adults, or to carefully curate that access, selecting out the transpeople they felt offered the most assimilable genders for their children to emulate.

I detail this at length in the book and the novel questions it raises for these communities. Trans children whose parents have access to early medical transition will be able to pass unnoticed in most situations and will have greater latitude to disidentify with trans identities and communities. How they negotiate these new questions and options will be fascinating to watch.

What is the most important societal implication of this research project?  Are there specific social policies that your evidence about transgender children and their families suggests local or state governments should implement in the near future?

This is a crucial national policy moment for trans kids, as it is for many vulnerable populations. There are republican-sponsored bills in several states that directly target these youth in ways that could be catastrophic. For example, a piece of legislation that was recently introduced in Ohio, would force school teachers and administrators to “out” youth exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior at school to their parents, even if they know that doing so would be harmful to the child. This is an unprecedented intervention into family life that could have devastating consequences for youth with unsupportive parents.

On a smaller level, my work with children and families showed me how deeply concrete policies can shape institutional cultures. Schools with well-articulated expectations for climate, with curricula that incorporate gender diversity (or at the very least don’t exacerbate it), with teacher and administrator populations that are themselves diverse, create the best learning environments for trans and cisgender students alike. Organizations around the country have compiled useful resources for educators who want to bring their schools in line with best practices in this area.

Tey Meadow is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Marriage in Black: The Pursuit of Married Life among American-Born and Immigrant Blacks (Routledge, 2018) by Katrina Bell McDonald and Caitlin Cross-Barnet examines contemporary Black marriages in the United States. Based upon in-depth interviews with 60 couples, they examine the historical and continuing impact of racial inequalities in the United States on Black marriages, distinct features of Black marriages, and the diversity among Black marriages. Their interviewees included African American couples, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and White American couples. I enjoyed reading the book and recently had the opportunity to interview the authors.

AK: What are some of the ways that you found racial inequalities in the United States impact Black marriages in contemporary society?

KBM and CC-B: There are so many angles to consider in response to this question. If we consider the legacy of African American life from the slave era onward, there have been enormous efforts by the state to exert social control over Black relationships. Under slavery, legal marriage was prohibited, but after emancipation, Black couples were pressured or forced to formalize their unions. The context of heterosexual marriage in the United States has historically been situated in White patriarchy, but the privilege accorded White men to support that model of marriage was never extended to Black men. Thus, you see a long history of paid employment among Black wives; married White women didn’t meet married Black women’s employment rates until the 1990s. Systemic racism is a constant for Black couples—structural barriers mean that couples have to negotiate discrimination in housing, employment, the criminal justice system, and everyday interactions with institutions ranging from government offices to the grocery store. That stress spills over into relationships and can create instability that is beyond a couple’s control. But then there also is an increasing proportion of the American Black population that is made up of immigrants. The context of marriage is different in Caribbean and African countries, but their cultural practices and meanings of marriage (in those countries as well as in the United States) don’t always conform to conventions in the United States. And then there is the question of assimilation. Institutionalized racism has historically prevented the assimilation of American-born Blacks into the full privileges of White American middle-class life, so for Black immigrants, what does assimilation mean?

AK: What other distinctive features did you find among Black marriages?

KBM and CC-B: Part of what we found is that there aren’t necessarily any universal features of Black marriage. Intersectional identities make it difficult to define “Black marriage” because individuals have many more components to their identities than race. Black families do have to confront particularly entrenched institutionalized racism, and that means there are certain problems Black couples are more likely to face or just fear—poverty, housing discrimination, incarceration. But when it comes to couples’ ideals or behavior, there are wide variations in marital ideals and practices by social class and immigration status in addition to variation by individuals, creating much more diversity among Black couples than we saw between Black couples and White couples (our sample included 14 White couples). Our sample was small—61 couples all living in the same geographic area—so there could be clearer patterns that would emerge in a larger group, but that would probably be true of any categorization of people, such as by social class or geographic location. That being said, we did find a few patterns that we thought were worthy of further investigation (see next question).

AK: One thing that struck me about your book was the diversity you found among the Black couples you interviewed. What were some differences you found among Black married couples?

KBM and CC-B: Sociologists have speculated that Black married couples are more egalitarian than couples of other ethnic backgrounds, particularly Whites, and because we were looking at Black couples from such diverse backgrounds, we were excited about investigating that idea more deeply. We did find that, regardless of their marital ideals, American-born Black couples were more likely than Whites or immigrant Blacks to share tasks and power fairly equally and that black husbands generally weren’t threatened by Black wives’ income earning power. Conservative religious values of headship and submission expressed by some American-born Black couples actually translated into more role sharing in daily life because the men were more involved with their families. No couple ever used the word “egalitarian,” but some couples professing to share everything “fifty/fifty,” still left the wife with most of the responsibility for housework and childcare even though she worked.

But the American-born Blacks were distinct from the Caribbean and African immigrants, who had radically different approaches to ideas of egalitarianism. African immigrants usually said they wanted to “adjust” or “adapt” to more egalitarian practices, which they saw as distinctly American and necessary to life in America. They generally weren’t fully egalitarian, but they were certainly not replicating the practices they had grown up with in their home countries, where they commonly compared their fathers to “dictators.” Caribbean immigrants, particularly men, were the opposite, wanting to maintain patriarchal power they would have had on the Islands. Caribbeans–and also whites—who were more conservative or traditional attached those values to economic power for men and felt strongly that men should be providers and that mothers shouldn’t work outside the home. For American-born Blacks, working wives and mothers were a norm regardless of the couples’ marital ideals.

Sometimes quantitative work can lead people to believe that an aggregate difference between two groups indicates that there is homogeneity within each group. When it comes to “Black marriage,” that perspective has often led people to view Black couples as deficient because marriage rates are lower than those among white couples, and poverty and divorce rates are higher.  But there are lots of Black couples who marry and work things out, and within the group of those who do, there are many approaches to being in a marriage.

Katrina Bell McDonald is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of Africana Studies at The Johns Hopkins University. Caitlin Cross-Barnet is a federal researcher and an Associate at the Hopkins Population Center. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

Jessica McCrory Calarco is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington and recently published the book Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School (Oxford Press). Based on 5 years of ethnographic fieldwork following a group of students from 3rd to 7th grade, she explores class differences in the ways in which students interact with teachers. She found that, coached by their parents, middle class students are more likely to ask teachers for assistance, accommodation, and attention, while working class students acted with more restraint. I was recently able to interview about her book.

AK: What were some differences by social class that you found in students’ interactions with teachers?

JMC: The middle-class and working-class students were similar in many ways. They liked their teachers and they were excited about learning new things. Where they differed, though, was in the extent to which they tried to negotiate for individual (and often unfair) advantages in school.

At the schools where I observed, teachers got a steady stream of questions and requests. The vast majority of those questions and requests came from middle-class students. And many of those requests went beyond what was fair or required. Middle-class students asked for extensions on assignments. They asked teachers to check their work on tests. They monopolized class time with their stories. They even tried to talk their way out of punishment when they got in trouble for forgetting homework or running in the hallways or being disrespectful to their peers.

Middle-class students were also incredibly pushy in making those requests. They rarely sat patiently with their hands raised, especially if that meant waiting more than a few seconds for a response. Instead, they called out, got up from their seats, and even interrupted teachers to ask questions. They also kept asking, even when well-meaning teachers tried to deny those requests. They refused to take “no” for an answer, and they were willing to waste class time (and sometimes call in their parents for reinforcement) to get the support they desired.

Teachers rarely got questions or requests from working-class students. They didn’t feel entitled to teachers’ assistance, accommodations, or intention. And they tried hard to manage on their own. Of course, working-class students did sometimes ask for assistance or accommodations or attention. But the support they requested was typically fair or required. They asked for help when they were struggling to understand concepts. They raised their hands when teachers asked for volunteers to share.

Working-class students were also more patient and more polite in making requests. They would often spend three or five or even eight minutes with their hands raised, even while teachers responded to other students who got up or called out, instead. In the process, working-class students sometimes fell off-task or even gave up, leaving assignments incomplete and questions unanswered on tests. Furthermore, when teachers denied their requests, working-class students rarely pushed back. They just accepted the “no” and moved on.

AK: What role did parents play in teaching children to interact with teachers in specific ways?

JMC: Middle-class and working-class parents all cared deeply about their children, and both groups wanted their children to succeed. But they differed in the lessons they taught children about interacting with teachers and securing advantages in school.

Middle-class parents coached their kids to treat their teachers as resources. When their children were confused or struggling in school, middle-class parents encouraged them to turn to their teachers for support. One middle-class mother recalled what she tells her kids: “It’s okay to ask questions. Your teacher is there to help you. That’s her job.” Middle-class parents also taught their children to keep asking until teachers met their needs.

Working-class parents instead coached their children to treat teachers with respect. As one working-class father recalled: “I just want my kids to be respectful and responsible. My kids are good for the teachers.” Working-class parents recognized that teachers had a lot on their plates. They also worried that teachers might get frustrated with students who asked questions. So they taught their children to deal with problems on their own and to avoid making requests.

AK: Did these differences lead to unequal outcomes for children, and what can be done to reduce these inequalities?

JMC:  Middle-class students’ negotiations with teachers gave them a number of unfair advantages in school. They persuaded teachers to help them correct their work on tests. To grant them extensions on assignments. To exempt them from punishment when they got in trouble. To give them extra time to share their thoughts and ideas. In sum, the bulk of teachers’ support went to the students who needed it the least.

That said, those advantages weren’t automatic. Middle-class students were only successful in negotiating advantages because teachers said “yes” to their requests.

Of course, teachers were well-meaning. They did not intend to privilege middle-class students over their working-class peers. But they still said “yes” to middle-class students’ requests. And they did so, in part, because they worried about the consequences of saying “no.” In particular, they worried about the possibility of pushback from middle-class students and middle-class parents.

Teachers worried because middle-class parents and children could make their lives miserable. They could waste class time with constant emails and back-and-forth negotiations. They could undermine teachers’ authority by complaining to the principal or “blacklisting” teachers they saw as “unresponsive.” They could jeopardize the school by withdrawing critical financial and political support.

Essentially, then, middle-class students’ negotiated advantage was the product of privilege. And that means we can’t level the playing field by teaching working-class students to act more like their middle-class peers. It wouldn’t work. And it isn’t fair—we shouldn’t penalize working-class students for trying to be respectful and responsible.

Instead, we need to level the playing field by preventing middle-class students and parents from using their privilege to negotiate advantages. For teachers, that means thinking carefully before granting requests from middle-class students and parents. For schools, that means protecting teachers from pushback when they say “no.”

Of course, those changes aren’t easy to make. Middle-class families have a history of hoarding opportunities, and they’re unlikely to give up their privilege without a fight.

In the short term, then, we also need to make schools and classrooms more welcoming places for working-class families. We need teachers to recognize silent signs of struggle. And we need teachers to reach out and offer support, even when students don’t ask for it themselves.

Jessica McCrory Calarco is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. She is the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. Follow her on Twitter  @JessicaCalarco. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg

Arielle Kuperberg outside her home in North Carolina

Hooray! Arielle Kuperberg is now to be the editor of CCF @ The Society Pages! Arielle has already populated many spaces in my life—mainly thanks to the interesting work she has done on cohabitation, hooking up, and most recently college debt.  She’s been sharing her good research at The Society Pages and via mainstream media and sharpening (and debunking where necessary) some issues people hold dear. I asked Arielle a few questions about her thoughts about forward-facing scholarship as she begins this new role.

VR: You are a busy person, as a scholar, teacher, program director, and parent. In that context, can you tell us about your commitment to public sociology?

AK: I have long had an interest in the types of messages presented in the media, and the degree to which they are inaccurate. I was a media studies major in college before I switched to sociology, and one of my first publications examined media rhetoric surrounding stay-at-home mothers, and how this rhetoric did not match up with reality. After I went to grad school and began to publish more articles, I started becoming frustrated when I would see inaccurate or misleading things in the media that I knew my research could speak to, or contradicted. I was also frustrated that after all the effort of publishing articles on topics I felt were very important, very few people would read my research unless they happened to be doing research on the same topic. I had published articles on  topics like the effectiveness of different policies in addressing poverty and gender/race-based pay inequality, and the role of poor labor market conditions in lowering marriage rates for the less educated, but what good did that work do if nobody ever heard of it?

When I was about to publish an article showing cohabitation does not cause divorce I felt this research was important enough that I should make a more concrete effort to get the word out, and that I was at a point in my career where I was ready to get more involved in public sociology. I got in touch with a mentor who recommended I get involved with the Council on Contemporary Families. CCF helped me put together a research brief about that project, and later another one about my research on college hookups, and both of those pieces were picked up by major outlets. I started writing some blog posts for the CCF blog and other blogs, and eventually started recruiting my friends into CCF and interviewing them for this blog, since they too have important research findings that more people should know about. Which is probably how I ended up in this position as the new editor.

I used to think of publication as the last stage in the “research pipeline” but I now think of public sociology as that last stage. For research to make an impact, other people need to hear about it. Academic research on the family has a lot to say about modern mythologies surrounding the family – but if nobody hears about it, it’s not going to be very useful. Pierre Bourdieu has been quoted as saying “My goal is to contribute to preventing people from being able to utter all kinds of nonsense about the social world” and I think that pretty well sums up my philosophy.

And yes I am extremely busy with all my different roles, but one of the reasons I went into academia is I enjoy the busyness and all the different roles you get to play – I’m never bored! I am also extremely lucky to have a partner who is a stay-at-home dad, and who supports my career by doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare and housework.

VR: Your active support of others’ work really stands out to me. What is your approach to mentoring, collaboration, and supporting colleagues and earlier career scholars?

AK: I am only in the position I am because of the generous mentoring of other people. My first two publications were coauthored with my undergraduate mentor Pamela Stone, who taught me everything from how to read a research article and format a table, to how to respond to reviewers when you get a “revise and resubmit.” She also introduced me to several leading scholars in the field when we went to conferences. Since then I have had several very important mentors who have helped me refine my research skills, wrote letters for me to get into grad school and later to get jobs, guided me through grad school, introduced me to their professional connections, gave me advice when I was facing important career decisions, and helped keep me going when I was facing various professional crises. I feel an obligation to pass that help forward to my students and junior colleagues, so that other people can have the same opportunities I had.

But it’s more than an obligation. I find mentoring to be one of the most rewarding aspects of being an academic. I’ve spent many years of my life developing some very specific skills in research, and some more general “succeeding in academia” skills, many of them learned the hard way. What use is all that knowledge if I keep it to myself? Plus there is a special kind of pleasure you get from seeing someone you mentored going off and doing well for themselves in life.

VR: What are your favorite ways of consuming social media?

AK: I have long been a fan of blogs. Back in 2001 when I was an undergraduate (and for several years afterwards), I started and ran a LiveJournal “community” (group blog) for sociologists, which was one of the earliest sociology blogs as far as I can tell. I think there is just something to be said about the short essay format that allows you to go more in depth than a tweet, but is still digestible in 10 minutes of reading while I’m drinking my morning coffee. One type of blog I particularly enjoy is the more personal memoir type of blogs, and I follow several non-academic blogs, although not as many as I used to.

Apart from that, I love facebook. I have made a few major moves in my life, and facebook lets me keep in touch with friends from the various places I’ve lived, and the academics I meet at various conferences. I also coordinate with two of my long-distance collaborators over facebook chat. I got a twitter account last year but have not used it as much as I could. I like the way it makes it easier to keep up with current events, and since most of the people I follow are academics and writers I have a very interesting feed, but I spend much more time on facebook. I also have participated in many message boards over the years, and right now my favorite one is reddit.

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg. Virginia Rutter is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. Follow her on twitter at @VirginiaRutter.

Virginia in Shaw, DC. credit: Dean Manis

Virginia Rutter was the founding editor of the Council on Contemporary Families Blog—CCF @ The Society Pages — which was launched in 2014. CCF@TSP is a venue for reporting on new research, policy reports, and current events. A particularly valuable feature of the blog has been the inclusion of undergraduate students, who have had the chance to engage with the substance of family sociology and the opportunity to address broader audiences. Virginia steps down in April, and I will be taking over. Here are some questions I had for Virginia before she leaves us:

AK:  What were some of your favorite blog posts that you edited in your tenure as editor of the Council on Contemporary Families blog?

VR: I’m still delighted with the title for Braxton Jones’s October 2016 post, As American as Divorce, which was a round-up of interviews done about research and commentary on divorce. But, Secular Listening at a Brainstorming and Prayer Meeting on 11/9/16 by Sarah Diefendorf, about the reaction by Evangelicals to the election of President Trump, was a wonderful, generous, quick turnaround piece of writing dealing with just a shocking, shocking day. I felt like Sarah had gone off to do the best kind of meditation for a sociologist to do on WTF had just happened the day before: She studied it. Respectfully, thoughtfully, effectively. And she told us a bit of what she heard, and so told us also about her own process in that strange time. The post went up two weeks after that 2016 election day. At that time it was hard to talk about the election, about people, about factions, and yet so hard not to do so. She did it, and it was a great post.

AK:  What is your advice for a blog writer who wants to write a successful blog post? What are some common missteps?

VR: The great thing about blogging is whenever you’ve said something you want to put out into the world, that’s success. But at CCF@TSP a few things work well: Make it short. Make one point. Don’t be cutesy or corny or cliché. You aren’t writing a scholarly paper, but you do have to support or substantiate what you have to say.

So, to make it short: Edit yourself, just take the time to streamline it sentence by sentence. To make one point, try reading your post backwards, paragraph by paragraph. You might see that you have more points than you need. You can always keep the multiple directions—there’s really no limit on space!—but make that decision consciously. Remember, that stray point could be the start of a separate post.

A few other rules: Try to make your title short, too. Provide the editor with open source artwork to go with your post, and embed good links to key references. Here or anywhere, know the website you are writing for; read other people’s posts there. That will teach you what to do and what not to do better than anything else.

AK:  What are you looking forward to doing with all your free time now that you will no longer be managing this blog?

VR: Yes, like other professors at underfunded state universities fighting for our contract, I am mostly, but for the occasional blogging, a lady of leisure. Just kidding. I have a project right now that focuses on connecting students from underrepresented groups to people just like them in professions they want to pursue. And at this very moment, I am completing a report about a family diversity and change teach-in we held last fall at Framingham State. It involved a digital photography installation, SHOWING (workxfamily), and about six weeks of campus events including about 65 classes that incorporated the exhibition into their subjects—from physics to English to (of course) sociology.

Virginia Rutter is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. Follow her on twitter at @virginiarutter. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.

These days—perhaps as in every generation—relationships between grown children and their parents have changed. Parents and grown children expect to be friends. Many have that experience. But, remarkably, Joshua Coleman finds that perhaps thanks to this closeness there also are profound falling-outs. Coleman works with families where parents and adult children have been estranged and his book, When Parents Hurt, is a resource for those isolated parents who wonder “am I the only one?”

Coleman is a psychologist at San Francisco Bay and a past Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.

LG: How common is parental estrangement? Do you see trends? So, for instance, is it more common? Or are there patterns–like does it happen in some groups more than others to the best of your understanding?  

JC: A recent meta-analysis on the topic by Lucy Blake notes that while the research on estrangement has grown significantly in the past five years, it is still new and sparse. Therefore, getting a clear assessment of whether estrangement has become more common is challenging.

Based on my clinical experience though, I believe that it is widespread and growing for the following reasons:

  • In the United States, today, and in some other developed Western nations, nothing binds grown children to their parents beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. In the same way that marriages increasingly succeed or fail on the basis of how satisfying or meaningful the relationship, adult children may estrange themselves from a parent based on similar principles or ideals. However, while successful marriages require a somewhat equal level of investment between the partners, typically it’s more incumbent on the parent to be attuned to the needs of the adult child than the other way around.
  • According to a recent Culture of American Families Survey, today’s parents hope to be best friends with their children for life. While many are succeeding, others may suffer in part because of high parental expectations of meaning and closeness with their children since these feelings occur in tandem with a decrease in social supports and activities for the parents. As a result, some adult children today complain about feeling too needed by their parents, in contrast to earlier eras where parents had richer, more varied networks of support. This is likely why the issue of boundaries is a frequent topic that I hear from adult children (wanting more boundaries) and from their parents (wanting less). Estrangements are sometimes the result of parents and adult children being unable to negotiate those very different needs and perspectives
  • The use of therapeutic narratives (the language of psychology and self-help) as a way of making sense of life means that now, more than ever, young adults may blame “dysfunctional families” and poor parenting for the state of their lives rather than other contexts such as lack of decent paying jobs, health care, affordable colleges, etc.
  • The American culture of adversarial individualism, where identity and autonomy are developed in opposition to parental authority, may also increase the risk of estrangement. Family relationships succeed or fail primarily based on whether they are a platform for individuality, growth, and self-actualization. From this vantage point, estrangement can be experienced as an act of existential courage on the part of the adult child.
  • A rise in the power of children to set the terms of family life, both when children are in the home and out of it means that parental authority to compel contact over the life course has diminished. While it used to be the child’s job to earn the parent’s love and respect, today it’s the parent’s job to earn (and keep earning) that of the child’s
  • While divorce rates have stabilized, parental divorce at any age may increase the risk of estrangement for the following reasons:
    1. It may cause the child to view one of the parents as the cause of breaking up the family.
    2. It may cause one of the parents to overtly or covertly poison the relationship to the other parent.
    3. Remarriage and dating after divorce may bring in new people to the child’s life with whom they must compete for emotional or financial resources.
    4. In a highly individualistic culture like ours, it may cause the child to view the parents more as individuals with their own relative strengths and weaknesses rather than as a family unit to which they also belong.

LG: What are some of the biggest hurdles that estranged parents have to get over to live with–or change–the situation?

JC: There are several common obstacles to resolving conflict with an estranged adult child:

  • An inability on the part of the parent to see that the use of guilt or demands for a return on parental investment in the form of time or attention will backfire. Most adult children raised in the past 3 decades or so are likely to have been socialized with the belief that relationships, including those with parents, should be a platform for personal growth and the maintenance of happiness. From that perspective, the organizing principle is based more on those themes rather than historically earlier ones around obligation, respect, and duty.
  • It’s important for parents to be able to take responsibility and empathize with the adult child’s perspective, even if it’s at odds with their own.
  • Marriage of the adult child is also a common source of estrangement when the parent or parents don’t get along with the new spouse of their adult child.

In general, most reconciliations require the parent to take the initiative. However, there are many reasons why an adult child might not be willing, despite the parent’s efforts:

  • He/she may have been successfully poisoned against the parent by the other parent after divorce.
  • The adult child’s spouse may prevent the adult child from reconciling either because they feel too threatened by the adult child’s attachment to the parent or because of their dislike of them.
  • The adult child, or a parent, may have a subtle or overt form of mental illness which makes the relationship too challenging, despite the relative health of one or the other.
  • The adult child may know no other way to feel separate from the parent than to engage in estrangement. This sometimes occurs in homes where the child felt overly dependent on or enmeshed with the parent.
  • The adult child may feel too hurt or mistrustful of the parent as a result of the parent’s earlier problematic behavior.

The following are some common obstacles to reconciliation on the part of the parent:

  • The parent may not be psychologically able to express empathy for the adult child’s complaints because of their own emotional challenges. Thus, they may experience the adult child’s reasonable complaints as an unfair attack against them.
  • The parent may be unwilling to change in ways desired by the adult child- for example, to be willing to accept their sexuality, religion, career path, partner choice, parenting style; or their requests to criticize less or demand less.
  • The parent may not be able modify their demands for time and attention to be more in line with those of the adult child. Therefore, the adult child may eventually choose estrangement as a way to stop feeling chronically guilty or misunderstood.

LG: Is there such a thing as “recovery” from estrangement? I think it might take your whole book to describe, but can you tell us a little bit about what recovery might look like?

JC: In general, reconciliations are the most likely when parents can do the following:

  • Empathize with the adult child’s complaints and take responsibility for whatever mistakes were made
  • Avoid being defensive, qualifying, or explaining
  • Show commitment to working on the relationship
  • Accept the adult child’s terms for frequency and length of contact
  • Accept the ways that the adult child is different from the parent without shaming or criticizing them.

On the part of the adult child, reconciliation is more likely if they can:

  • Show compassion for the parent’s limitations as a person or parent
  • Acknowledge that expectations of parents and parenting have risen and therefore, what seems like ineffectual or problematic parenting today, may have constituted reasonable parenting during their childrearing years
  • Accept that the more attuned and psychological form of communication common today is relatively recent in parent-adult child relations and therefore learning this may take some time and practice on the part of the parent.

Joshua Coleman is a clinical psychologist, author, and media expert on individuals, couples, and families. Twitter: @drjcoleman. For more information about estrangement, visit www.drjoshuacoleman.com. 

Luilly DeJesus Gonzalez is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

Trevor Hoppe is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY-Albany, and recently published the book Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness. The book traces the rise and application of criminal laws used to prosecute people living with HIV in the United States, typically for failing to disclose their status to a sexual partner.  I recently interviewed him about his book.

AK: Besides HIV and related behavior that you focus on, have other sexual behaviors and diseases been criminalized in recent United States history, and are these laws disproportionately enforced among certain populations?

TH: The book traces the rise of HIV-specific criminal laws in the 1980s and 1990s, linking that shift towards criminalization to the broader war on crime and particularly the war on drugs. AIDS unfortunately coincided with a massive expansion of the carceral state through Ronald Reagan’s presidency and it was seized upon by evangelical conservatives as a harbinger of moral decline. That made for a unique and deeply punitive response to this epidemic that has no parallel in history or in the years that have followed. During World War II, many states did pass venereal disease statutes, mostly to target prostitutes who were viewed mistakenly as responsible for the spread of syphilis. However, those laws featured misdemeanor penalties and there’s no evidence I could find that that they were widely used.

Recently, states have been moving to expand their felony HIV-specific criminal laws to include other diseases, particularly Hepatitis C. To date, only a handful of states have done so and it’s not clear that they will be widely utilized by prosecutors, as that disease is spread primarily through the sharing of needles, and drug users are not especially likely to call the police to report a needle-sharing partner. By comparison, the sexual transmission aspect of HIV more readily lends itself to a criminal justice response, since the HIV-negative partner can more readily claim victimhood in a criminal courtroom.

AK: You found that lawyers and judges often had very little medical understanding of HIV and how it is transmitted, leading to legal arguments that were inaccurate, but compelling. Did these inaccuracies allow for anyone to appeal their convictions?

TH: As is the case in the criminal justice system more broadly, most defendants charged under these statutes plead guilty. Once you plead guilty, it’s difficult if not impossible to turn back and show cause for an appeal. Defendants take pleas to avoid the much harsher penalties that come with taking your case to trial. My analysis finds, for example, that male defendants at trial received an average prison sentence of 153 months versus an average of 77 months for male defendants who plead out. Further, there is no evidence that any defendant charged under a felony HIV-specific criminal law in the United States has ever been acquitted at trial. The only cases that do not result in conviction are the rare few that are dismissed, usually because the accuser does not show up to testify. In this context, appeals are few and far between and those that have proceeded are almost universally unsuccessful.

That said, there are many cases I encountered that would appear to a casual onlooker to be ripe for appeal—such as the case of a Michigan stripper convicted for giving a lap dance (the prosecutor claimed the prohibited sexual penetration involved the client’s nose). But in her case and countless others, defendants chose to plea.

AK: If someone does not know their HIV status at the time they expose somebody else, can they be prosecuted under these laws, and if not, do these laws then encourage avoiding HIV testing so that individuals can avoid legal issues? What would be a better policy that could more effectively encourage testing and disclosure of HIV to sexual partners?

TH: No. HIV-specific laws require that a person be aware of their HIV-status. Advocates often criticize these laws on the basis that they discourage HIV testing. I don’t think there’s good social science evidence to support that claim. Most people who are not currently living with HIV do not know that these laws exist. There are far stronger arguments for demanding legal reform. For example, these laws are extremely broad and can be used to prosecute harmless behaviors, such as spitting, biting, or in at least once case, even a lap dance. The crime is failing to disclose before any sexual contact, whether or not that contact posed a risk of transmission. To this point, less than 10 percent of cases involve an allegation that defendant transmitted the disease to their partner. This is a dangerous precedent. Should partners suffering from noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, be required to disclose? No. We can obviously recognize that policy intervention as ludicrous. The only reason we can’t say the same for HIV laws is that our vision is clouded with stigma and, too often, obfuscated by ignorance. It is terrible policy to send people to prison for years or even decades for nothing more than causing a sexual partner to experience irrational and, in most cases, unwarranted psychological duress. The best science we have today says that people living with HIV who are on treatment and have a suppressed viral load cannotcannot—transmit the disease. It’s time for most Americans to wake up and rethink everything they know about HIV. The disease has changed. The laws, unfortunately, have not.

Trevor Hoppe is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY Albany. He is the author of Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, published by University of California Press, and co-editor of The War on Sex, published by Duke University Press. Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg

Picture by katlove via pixabay

Underrepresented groups are often silenced, oppressed, ostracized, and neglected. Suppression can happen overtly–but it gets reproduced and extended even in sociological research. I don’t think this is happening on purpose. We don’t collect the data, so how can we learn more about them? When thinking about underrepresented groups, race is a big topic. A variety of races are underrepresented, yet we must also acknowledge different genders that are swept under the rug. To wit: there is a troubling lack of research about transgender individuals: Who are they? Where are they? What affects this community and their strategies towards living happy, healthy lives, safe from violence and cruelty?

To learn more, I interviewed Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, an assistant professor of sociology at Framingham State University. His research focuses on intimate partner violence (IPV) within LGBTQ+ communities. He sheds light on the nature and extent of harmful effects IPV has on the transgender community and shares the resources that are provided:

TC:  What made you focus your research on intimate partner violence? Specifically, what made you focus on transgender intimate partner violence?

XGD:  After a few years of researching same-gender (lesbian, gay, bisexual) IPV as a graduate student, it became very clear to me that transgender experiences were almost completely absent from the available literature. It’s common to see the absence of transgender samples listed as a limitation or a call for future research – even in some of my own studies, I typically did not garner enough transgender respondents to make any claims about their IPV victimization. Given that gender is so central to how we understand and study IPV, the absence of the trans lived realities made some of the theories seem incomplete to me. I wanted to not only reach transgender samples but also to complicate the ways in which we think about gender and other identities as they relate to IPV.

TC: Even though transgender people have been part of society for quite some time, why do you think there is little research focused on transgender individuals and their involvement in IPV?

XGD:  Unfortunately, the reality is that our culture is predominately cisgenderist and transphobic in how we construct, do, and think about gender. Partly because we have made the explicit (and erroneous) assumption that links physical sex with gender identity, trans experiences are often erased. We assume that physical sex automatically denotes social identities and gender expressions (masculine, feminine). We know this is not an accurate reflection of how gender has always been experienced – gender is much more socially informed, individually performed, and meanings and categories have changed throughout time and space. Early IPV research was predominately focused on ciswomen and heteronormative perspectives. While they made many important critiques on how patriarchal culture fosters violence against women, they largely failed to incorporate a non-binary way of thinking through gender.

TC: What differences between cis-gender IPV and transgender IPV have you found? Has race played a part in these differences?

XGD: The transgender IPV literature is very scarce compared to the available knowledge on cisgender victimization; as a result, all of the differences are not entirely known. Some key differences focus on trans vulnerability to abuse in a cisgenderist culture, the tactics of abuse, and the high rates of self-reported victimization. Our broader cisgenderist culture makes IPV a more common reality for transgender people. A hostile society often make trans people more susceptible to abuse by intimate partners. This happens in a number of ways. abusers can manipulate trans identities in ways that don’t happen for cisgender people: undermining gender transition or making trans people feel undesirable, often citing the hostile world around them as reason for them to just put up with the abuse. Especially for transgender people who are early in transition, identity can be a major site of emotional and psychological exploitation. What’s worse is that many of our help-seeking avenues (i.e. shelters) are structured largely around a cisgender experience with rigidly gendered or gender-segregated spaces. Race, ethnicity, and other identities certainly intersect with gender-and they matter.

We don’t yet know the racial differences across transgender IPV, but some points of interest look at how race complicates structural access to resources and how some immigration statuses may prevent trans victims from getting the help they need and deserve. Just last year, a Latinx transgender woman was arrested by ICE in court while attempting to secure a restraining order against her abusive partner. While its only speculated, the abuser is believed to have made the call to officials. This is especially problematic because victims of IPV have protections regardless of citizenship status.

Bonus/Extra! TC: What are the resources provided for transgender individuals and have those resources recently grown?

XGD: FORGE is a national organization that provides services to trans and gender non-conforming and The Network/La Red also operates 24/7 hotlines (617-742-4911 (voice) • 617-227-4911 (TTY) • 800-832-1901 (Toll-Free) and also provide connections to services for LGBTQ survivors. Similarly, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) also operates a hotline (212) 714-1141 in addition to resources, information, research, and more for the LGBTQ community. The National Center for Transgender Equality has a page dedicated to listing the rights transgender victims of IPV have when accessing legal and social services help. https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/survivors-violence

So, here we are. We are fully aware this community exists and they have real problems like all real people do. As Dr. Guadalupe-Diaz stated, transgender experiences are absent from most of the literature and dismissed from conversations. This has left us unfamiliar with people who we see in our everyday lives. With the lack of discussion, this has wiped out the experiences of an entire part of our society. These are our co-workers, our peers, our educators, and so many more established people within each and every community. It is time to shift the focus from cisgender individuals and realize we must also include this population in our research, in our community, and in our lives. If IPV does not discriminate, our research and resources should not either.

Tasia Clemons is a Senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

Picture via Loyola University Chicago

To improve the well-being of families in urban communities, it is important to understand how violence exposure can have an effect on the development of youth. Dr. Noni Gaylord-Harden is valuable for understanding community violence as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Dr. Noni Gaylord-Harden is clinical psychologist and an associate professor of Psychology at the Loyola University of Chicago. She is also a Council on Contemporary Families expert—and board member. Her current research focuses on community violence exposure in African American youth. I recently asked her several questions about her research and perspective on it.

EO: How did you become interested in the mental health of African American youth and families?

NGH: There were a number of seemingly unrelated factors that occurred around the same time to generate my interest in the mental health of African American youth and families. In one of my courses in graduate school, we discussed the impact of stressful life events on psychosocial development in children, and one study that we discussed found that, for each additional stressor experienced by a child, the likelihood of negative psychosocial outcomes increased exponentially. At the same time, I was working as a graduate research assistant on an intervention to reduce aggressive behaviors and increase prosocial behaviors in children, and the project was being implemented in one of the most impoverished school districts in the area. Through this experience, I witnessed how societal inequalities resulted in limited resources and opportunities for success for African American children and families, and I was struck by the number of stressors experienced by the children in the intervention.

Each day, I left the intervention sites thinking about the research study we discussed in class, and wondering how to enhance the well-being of African American youth exposed to disproportionate levels of stressors. Around this time, child coping was emerging as a research area and gaining a great deal of momentum in clinical and developmental psychology. Starting with my dissertation, I began to pursue a program of research on stress and coping in African American youth. I began to conduct research to better understand the impact of stressful life events on psychological functioning in African American youth, how adaptive coping behaviors may buffer the negative impact of stressors, and how African American parents support or enhance adaptive coping in their children.

EO: Your research focuses on community violence exposure as a stressor for African American youth and families in urban communities. What is the impact of community violence exposure on the well-being of African American youth and families? What helps to minimize the negative impact of violence exposure?

NGH: My early work on stress and coping focused on African American youth’s experience of stressors in multiple domains, including peer stressors, family stressors, school stressors, community stressors, etc. Due to attention on violent crime in Chicago, our more recent work hones in on community violence exposure as a stressor. We are learning that, in comparison to other stressors, community violence is unique in regard to both its impact on well-being and the factors that buffer its impact. Our work demonstrates that higher levels of community violence exposure predict higher levels of aggression, delinquency, and post-traumatic stress symptoms, in African American male adolescents, similar to other stressors.

However, we were surprised to find that the association between violence exposure and depression is curvilinear in a number of our studies. This finding means that as the level of community violence exposure increases, levels of depression increase to a point, and then depression begins to decrease as even as community violence continues to increase. This pattern suggests that youth may become emotionally desensitized or emotionally numb to community violence exposure as levels increase. At the same time, these youth are experiencing more trauma symptoms, such as hyperarousal, as violence levels increase. Further, we found that both emotional numbing and hyperarousal mediate the association between violence exposure in early adolescence and aggressive and delinquent behavior in late adolescence in African American males.

We were also surprised to find that coping strategies that were helpful for others forms of stress were not helpful for community violence exposure. Instead, our work has shown that the one coping strategy typically regarded as maladaptive, avoidant coping, is helpful in reducing negative outcomes for African American youth exposed to violence. Finally, we found that parental support does not impact on how youth cope with violence, which is inconsistent with our findings for other stressors. Interestingly, another factor—positive future orientation—has emerged as a stronger and more consistent protective factor that coping. Positive future orientation means that youth are optimistic about their future and expect to achieve their goals. Our findings with African American high school students suggest that positive future orientation buffers the impact of violence exposure on delinquent behavior. We believe that future orientation holds promise as a malleable target for intervention efforts with youth exposed to community violence. We are now interested in exploring how parental behavior may influence youth’s future orientation. We believe that future orientation may be more easily influenced by parents than youth’s coping behaviors, and if we can demonstrate this, we can endorse future orientation as a target in family-based interventions for youth exposed to violence.

EO: In order to better the well-being of African American youth and families exposed to community violence, what are some policies or conditions that contribute to making matters worse for them? In other words, what just isn’t working? What are policies or conditions that are needed to make things better?

NGH: Of course, the most effective policies would be those designed to reduce violent crime, thereby minimizing opportunities for youth to be exposed to violence in the first place. Policies that focus on economic investment in under-resourced communities to improve school conditions, create high quality mixed income housing, and provide job opportunities and workforce development will likely help to reduce violence.

In the meantime, we believe that treating community violence as a criminal justice issue is ineffective. Due to the traumatic nature of violence, community violence exposure is a health issue and should be treated as such. Our work shows that youth who have been exposed to community violence are at higher risk for additional exposure, as well as perpetration of violence. We have also demonstrated that symptoms of PTSD and emotional numbing help to explain this risk. Thus, rather that responding to youth’s behavior in punitive ways, which may further traumatize them, policies should work to ensure that systems and programs in the lives of young people are trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. We believe that reducing symptoms of hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing in youth exposed to violence can help to reduce the risk of subsequent exposure and perpetration and enhance well-being.

Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern and a senior sociology major at Framingham State University.