Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.40.39 PMIn 2014, a story in The New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went viral using Google Trend data to address gender bias in parental assessments of their children—“Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?”  People ask Google whether sons are “gifted” at a rate 2.5x higher than they do for daughters.  When asking about sons on Google, people are also more likely to inquire about genius, intelligence, stupidity, happiness, and leadership than they are about daughters.  When asking about daughters on Google, people are much more likely to inquire about beauty, ugliness, body weight, and just marginally more likely to ask about depression.  It’s a pretty powerful way of showing that we judge girls based on appearance and boys based on abilities.  It doesn’t mean that parents are necessarily consciously attempting to reproduce gender inequality.  But it might mean that they are simply much more likely to take note of and celebrate different elements of who their children are depending on whether those children are girls or boys.

To get the figures, Stephens-Davidowitz relied on data from Google Trends. The tool does not give you a sense of the total number of searches utilizing specific search terms; it presents the relative popularity of search terms compared with one another on a scale from 0 to 100, and over time (since 2004).  For instance, it allows people selling used car parts to see whether people searching for used car parts are more likely to search for “used car parts,” “used auto parts,” or something else entirely before they decide how to list their merchandise online.  I recently looked over the data the author relied on for the piece.  Stephens-Davidowitz charted searches for “is my son gifted” against searches for “is my daughter gifted” and then replaced that last word in the search with: smart, beautiful, overweight, etc.

And while people are more likely to turn to Google to ask about their son’s intelligence than whether or not their daughters are overweight, people are much more likely to ask Google about children’s sexualities than any other quality mentioned in the article.  And to be even more precise, parents on Google are primarily concerned with boys’ sexuality.  Below, I’ve charted the relative popularity of searches for “is my son gay” alongside searches for “is my daughter gay,” “is my child gay,” and “is my son gifted.”  I included “child” to illustrate that Google searches here are more commonly gender-specific.  And I include “gifted” to illustrate how much more common searches for son’s sexuality is compared with searches for son’s giftedness (which was among the more common searches in Stephens-Davidowitz’s article).

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The general trend of the graph is toward increasing popularity.  People are more likely to ask Google about their children’s sexuality since 2004 (and slightly less likely to ask Google about their children’s “giftedness” over that same time period).  But they are much more likely to inquire about son’s sexuality.  At two points, the graph hits the ceiling.  The first, in November of 2010, corresponds with the release of the movie “Oy Vey! My Son is Gay” about a Jewish family coming to terms with a son coming out as gay and dating a non-Jewish young man.  The second high point, in September of 2011, occurred during a great deal of press surrounding Apple’s recently released “Is my son gay?” app, which was later taken off the market after a great deal of protest.  And certainly, some residual popularity in searches may be associated with increased relative search volume since.  But, the increase in relative searches for “is my son gay” happens earlier than either of these events.

Relative Search PopularityIndeed, over the period of time illustrated here, people were 28x more likely to search for “is my son gay” than they were for “is my son gifted.”  And searches for “is my son gay” were 4.7x more common than searches for “is my daughter gay.”

Reading Google Trends is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s certainly open to interpretation.  For instance, this could mean that parents are increasingly open to sexual diversity and are increasingly attempting to help their children navigate coming to terms with their sexual identities (whatever those identities happen to be).  Though, were this the case, it’s interesting that parents are apparently more interested in helping their sons navigate any presumed challenges than their daughters.  It could mean that as performances of masculinity shift and take on new forms, sons are simply much more likely to engage with gender in ways that cause their parents to question their (hetero)sexuality than they used to.  Or it could mean that parents are more scared that their sons might be gay.  It is likely all of these things.

I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that the trend can only be seen as a sign of the endurance of gender and sexual inequality.  But one measure of that might be to check back in with Google Trends to see if people start asking Google whether their sons and daughters are straight.  At present, both searches are uncommon enough that Google Trends won’t even display their relative popularity.

 

It was “Latino night” at a gay club. When the story finally broke, that’s all I heard. Orlando’s tragedy at the Pulse puts Latina/o, Latin American, Afro-Latinos, and Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean LGBT people front and center. Otherness mounts Otherness, even in the Whitewashing of the ethno-racial background of those killed by the media, and the seemingly compassionate expressions of love by religious folk. The excess of difference—to be Black or Brown (or to be both) and to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (or queer, as some of us see ourselves) serves to shock, through difference, how news are reported. Difference – the very basis of feminist and ethnic politics in the 20th century – has been co-opted and ignored, sanitized even, to attempt to reach a level of a so-called “humanity” that is not accomplishable. We know this, but we don’t talk about it.

Don’t get me wrong: empathy is essential for most social codes of order to functionally sustain any given society. To pay one’s respects for others’ losses, however, does not mean that we think of those lost as equals. Liberal people demanding that sexuality be less important in the news (and thus removed from the coverage) is an inherent violence toward those who partied together because there was real love among them, in that club, for who they were – and are. Religious righters may spread hate while trying to give the illusion of compassion, but they do so in a clear hierarchical, paternalistic way –that is hypocrisy, and we must call it out every chance we get. But this goes beyond liberal notions and conservative hypocrisy – even while Anderson Cooper wept when reading the list of those killed, he knows the distance between himself and many of those at the club is enough to build a classed, raced, and social wall between them. Clearly, empathy is not enough.

To be Latina/o in the US – increasingly another Latin American country, again – is to breathe in hate, to face retaliation, to be questioned at every turn about our allegiances, tested on our sense of citizenship, pushed in our capacity to love the nation and thus hate “like the rest” (a testament to the masculinity of the nation). At a minimum, to be Latina/o guarantees one to be looked at oddly, as if one was out of place, misplaced, inappropriately placed. Simply by being, Latinas/os rupture the logics of normalcy in USAmerica. To be Latina/o and LGBT is to disrupt the logics of racial formation, of racial purity, of the Black and White binary still ruling this country – all while de-gendering and performing an excess (of not only gender, but sexuality) that overflows and overwhelms “America.” In being Latino and queer, some of us aim to be misfits that disrupt a normalcy of regulatory ways of being.

A break between queer and América erupted this past weekend – in Orlando, a city filled with many Latin Americans; a city that, like many others, depends on the backs of Brown folk to get the work done. Put another way, Orlando’s tragedy created a bridge between different countries and newer readings of queerness – Orlando as in an extension of Latin América here. Queer-Orlando-América is an extension of so many Latin American cities as sites of contention, where to be LGBT is both celebrated and chastised – no more, or less, than homophobia in the US.

Enough has been said about how the Pulse is a place where people of color who desired others like themselves, or are trans, go dance their fears away, and dream on hope for a better day. Too little has been said about the structural conditions faced by these Puerto Ricans, these immigrants, these mixed raced queer folks – some of whom were vacationing, many of whom lived in Florida. Many were struggling for a better (financial, social, political—all of the above) life. Assumptions have also been made about their good fortune as well. Do not assume that they left their countries seeking freedom—for many who might have experienced homophobia back home, still do here; though they have added racism to their everyday lived experience. Of course, there are contradictions on that side of queer-Orlando-América, too; yet same sex marriage was achieved in half a dozen countries before the US granted it a year ago. This is the world upside down, you say, since these advances – this progress – should have happened in the US first. Wake up. América is in you and you are no longer “America” but América.

You see, this is how we become queer-Orlando-América: we make it a verb, an action. It emerges where the tongues twist, where code switching (in Spanish/English/Spanglish) is like a saché-ing on the dance floor, where gender and race are blurry and yet so clear, where Whiteness isn’t front and center – in fact it becomes awkward in this sea of racial, gendered, and sexual differences. This queer-Orlando-América (a place neither “here,” nor “there,” where belonging is something you carry with you, in you, and may activate in some dance floor given the right people, even strangers, and real love – especially from strangers) was triggered – was released – by violence. But not a new violence, certainly not a Muslim-led violence. Violence accumulated over violence – historically, ethnically, specific to transgender people, to Brown people, to effeminate male-bodied people, to the power of femininity in male and female bodies, to immigrants, to the colonized who speak up, to the Spanglish that ruptures “appropriateness,” to the language of the border. And in spite of this, queer-Orlando-América has erupted. It is not going down to the bottom of the earth. You see us. It was, after all, “Latino night” at a gay club. You can no longer ignore us.

Vidal-Ortiz FR quote Queer-Orlanda-AméricaAs the week advanced, and fathers’ day draws closer, I have already noticed the reordering of the news, a staged dismissal so common in media outlets. Those queer and Brown must continue to raise this as an issue, to not let the comfort of your organized, White hetero-lives go back to normal. You never left that comfort, you just thought about “those” killed.  But it was “Latino night” at a gay club. I do not have that luxury. I carry its weight with me. Now the lives of those who are queer and Latina/o have changed – fueled with surveillance and concerns, never taking a temporary safe space for granted. Queer-Orlando-América is thus a “here and now” that has changed the contours of what “queer” and “America” were and are. Queer has now become less White – in your imaginary (we were always here). América now has an accent (it always had it – you just failed to notice).  Violence in Orlando did this. It broke your understanding of a norm and showed you there is much more than the straight and narrow, or the Black and White “America” that is segmented into neatly organized compartments. In that, Orlando queers much more than those LGBT Latinas/os at the club. Orlando is the rupture that bridges a queer Brown United States with a Latin America that was always already “inside” the US – one that never left, one which was invaded and conquered. Think Aztlán. Think Borinquen. Think The Mission in San Francisco. Or Jackson Heights, in NYC. Or the DC metro area’s Latino neighborhoods. That is not going away. It is multiplying.

I may be a queer Latino man at home, at the University, at the store, and at the club. That does not mean that the layered account of my life gets acknowledged (nor celebrated) in many of those sites – in fact, it gets fractured in the service of others’ understandings of difference (be it “diversity,” “multiculturalism” or “inclusion”). But it sure comes together on the dance floor at a club with a boom-boom that caters to every fiber of my being. It is encompassing. It covers us. It is relational. It moves us – together. So, even if I only go out once a year, I refuse to be afraid to go out and celebrate life. Too many before me have danced and danced and danced (including those who danced to the afterlife because of AIDS, hatred and homophobia), and I will celebrate them dancing – one night at a time.

We are not going away – in fact, a type of queer-Orlando-América is coming near you, if it hasn’t arrived already, if it wasn’t there already—before you claimed that space. No words of empathy will be enough to negotiate your hypocrisy, to whitewash our heritage, or make me, and us, go away. If anything, this sort of tragedy ignites community, it forces us to have conversations long overdue, it serves as a mirror showing how little we really have in common with each other in “America” – and the only way to make that OK is to be OK with the discomfort difference makes you experience, instead of erasing it.

We must never forget that it was “Latino night” at a gay club. That is how I will remember it.

________________________

Salvador Vidal-OrtizSalvador Vidal-Ortiz (Ph.D.) is associate professor in the sociology department at American University (AU), in Washington, DC; he also teaches for their Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. He coedited The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men (NYU Press, 2009) and Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism (University of Texas Press, 2015). Aside from his Fulbright-supported research on forced migration/internal displacement and LGBT Colombians, he is now engaged in a new project, with Juliana Martínez, also from AU, on “Transgendering Human Rights: Lessons from Latin America.” He is currently writing a manuscript on Santería, tentatively titled: An Instrument of the Orishas: Racialized Sexual Minorities in Santería, as well as a book he is co-authoring with two of his former students: Brandon A. Robinson (UT-Austin) and Cristina Khan (U-Conn) titled Race and Sexuality (to be published with Polity Press).

When I returned to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I was acutely aware that I was a woman. Families were slow to return and the influx of military and construction workers rebuilding the city and its infrastructure meant that women were severely outnumbered by men. Street lamps were inoperable and police were over extended. Gendered violence was up (see here, here, and here). When I rang in the New Year down in the French Quarter, camo clad military police in Humvees and carrying open automatics patrolled the street—but they did not make me feel safe.

As a sociologist and gender scholar, these experiences made me think more about women in post-disaster spaces. During the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, I have been immersed in the study of gender in the men’s grooming industry. But my new biography shaped my sociological imagination and spurred my now second vein of research. I have explored why it is gender analysis comes second to race and class analyses in disaster work and traced the movement of women as they evacuated and relocated or returned to New Orleans. I am currently working with colleagues at the Centre for Community Disaster Research on analyzing data of single-mothers during the Southern Alberta Flood. Biography, the lived experience, informs scholars’ research trajectories and data, and this is certainly the case with my disaster work.

Narrating the Storm

Sociology is a science, as it is a rigorous and methodical empirical process. Perhaps it is in defense of this that sociologists have a history of prioritizing objectivity as the “gold standard” of research. In the 1980s, though, feminist scholars began a critical conversation about the myth of objectivity, or what Donna Haraway refers to as the “god trick.” The notion that researchers are unattached from their work is only smoke and mirrors and has often silenced already marginalized people. By writing themselves out of their work, many researchers help to veil the fact that very few—privileged white men—were and are speaking for many. It is no coincidence that gender studies grew only as women entered academics, and that scholars of color lead the fight for university race and ethnic studies departments. Diversity of voice, that is the diversity of lived experiences, is key to creating a diverse sociology—or any field for that matter. We need to know who is speaking and move past the dangerous idea that white men represent unbiased authorities—those same authorities whose supposedly objective science led to conclusions like women have smaller brains and thus an inferior intellect than men.

In the classroom I constantly tackle the entrenched god trick in the sciences when students express discomfort or confusion around my requests to write themselves into their papers. “Use the ‘I’,” I say. “Don’t pretend that you don’t exist,“ I tell them. “Why is it that you are interested in this topic? How does being you impact your entrée into your field site? The questions you ask? The data you get? The analysis you do?” In other words, don’t continue the androcentric legacy that the scholar-author should be and can be a disembodied authority and that subjectivity hinders “real” science.

In our article, The Experiential Gap in Disaster Research, my co-author, Tim Haney, and I discuss how the god trick continues to shape sociological work. We argue what is now taken for granted by many gender scholars as obvious but has not yet seriously shaped all fields of sociology: standpoint matters. We should acknowledge and have honest discussions about how researchers’ closeness to or distance from a topic, including disaster, shapes what we know about a phenomenon. In terms of environmental disasters, valuable lessons go missing if we define closeness as bias and bias as bad science.

We sampled and compared work in a modest number of qualitative articles written by researchers who were affected by Hurricane Katrina and others that weren’t. Both did great work, asked important questions, and presented important results. There were a couple of key distinctions, though:

  1. Scholars who experienced Hurricane Katrina were more likely to focus on localized problems and organizations, while those who didn’t were interested in testing more generalizable theories. This reflects the investment affected scholars have in the wellbeing of their communities.
  2. There were several cases where the disaster experiences of scholars clearly led to new lines of inquiry, including questions about a women’s studies brain drain from local gender scholars. These scholars worried about what the post-Katrina financial cuts to such programs meant for crucial research on women (see here).

Right now, larger discussions on the epistemic importance of experiential based research is ghettoized in already reflexive-friendly subfields, like gender and ethnic studies. And this is a problem because social scientists in all fields have accepted a significant degree of influence over policy and in litigation cases as experts. That is, we may indeed encounter moments when we can influence the material realities of other people; and so we have a responsibility to be honest about how this influence is unequally distributed among scholars and may continue the colonization of marginalized groups struggling against allegations of bias to be considered experts on their own lived experiences and community needs.

 

Beginning today, I will be “going home” to Mindy’s Muses, a blog that I created over five years ago. Over past two years, I have had the honor of writing for Feminist Reflections (FR). I began as a Guest Author, having been invited to share a few posts from Mindy’s Muses. Then one of the FR Founders, Gayle Sulik, and I decided to collaborate on a series of posts about Black Lives Matter, because we felt it was important to write about how white allies could support this movement. After a relatively short run as a “Guest” on FR, I was invited to join as a Contributing Author, one of five writers who churn out provocative essays weekly. Mindy’s Muses went on an unofficial “semi-hiatus”.

feminismBeing a member of FR has strengthened my understanding of the challenges of “doing public sociology” for academic Sociologists. Because I’m an Applied Sociologist and don’t work in academia, I don’t have pressure to publish in peer reviewed journals, nor do I have constraints on what I write about, other than those I self-impose (!). I have been inspired by my academic colleagues who navigate these demands, and maintain a commitment to reaching an audience beyond academia.

Over the past year, FR experienced some turnover, as a few of its Founders moved on. Tristan Bridges and I became Co-Chairs of the Editorial Board, and in that role, I learned more about the logistics necessary to maintain the hum of weekly posts by a variety of authors. We also added two new writers:  Kristen Barber and Tressie McMillan Cottom. I can truly say that being a part of FR has been exhilarating. I love reading drafts of essays by my “FRiends” (or “FRolleagues”!), and providing feedback and editing advice. I continue to be in awe of their talent and it’s exciting to discover whatever new essay they publish. And I deeply value their feedback on my work.

Being part of a “writing group” is a different animal than writing solo, as I had been doing with Mindy’s Muses. When I consider what I want to write for FR, my thoughts are thread through a feminist lens that weaves the personal and the political. I know that my fellow FR writers are available for feedback on potential topics as well as on drafts. Writing for Mindy’s Muses is a little scarier and also maybe a little freer. While my writing style generally brings a feminist sociology lens to issues that I face personally, I also allow myself, at times, to write pieces that are just “stories”. Unlike FR, it’s on me if a post doesn’t fly. And while I can reach out to friends to read a draft, it’s more of a favor than an implicit “obligation” or commitment that comes with being part of a group.

caring for red coverSo with all this said, it is with a feeling of gratitude that I have decided to take a “sabbatical” from FR. I am thrilled to say that I have a new book coming out this summer: Caring for Red:  A Daughter’s Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press).  I will return to writing for Mindy’s Muses, which has just moved to a new website on WordPress called www.mindyfried.com. For now, the focus of the blog will have a broad lens – which is care work scholarship – as I feature the important research and writing of some of my colleagues, both in the US and Canada. The blog – still called Mindy’s Muses – will also provide a platform to write about my own experiences vis a vis Caring for Red, and will include excerpts of the book, lists of author readings (including Seattle on August 21st at 3PM at the Eliot Bay Book Company!), and more.

My plan, ultimately, is to provide platform on the blog portion of the website – once my book is out this summer – for other people to share their experiences, thoughts, fears and resources about caregiving for elder parents. My story – as I tell it in Caring for Red – is a universal one, and I hope that my book provides a portal for others to share their stories as well.

THANK YOU to my esteemed FR colleagues:  Kristen Barber, Amy Blackstone, Tristan Bridges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Meika Loe, Trina Smith and Gayle Sulik! It has been a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to continued opportunities in the future. I am still here to run by an idea or read a draft! And finally, a big thanks to Jon Smajda and Letta Wren Page from The Society Pages, who have been fantastic to work with on the technical side of FR business.

 

Originally posted at Huff Post Women and Inequality by (Interior) Design

Most people think of gender as some kind of inalienable property of individuals — as something we either are or have. Decades of scholarship on gender have uncovered a perspective at odds with the conventional wisdom. The thing about conventional wisdom, though, is that it’s difficult to challenge even when we can prove it wrong. It’s much more accurate to talk about gender as something we “do” than as something we simply “are” or “have.” While this might initially seem like splitting hairs, people’s lives, legislation, and more hang in the balance. Sociologists Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt just published a new study on how the media manage moments of conflict over who “counts” as a woman or a man, and they’ve uncovered new reasons why we ought to care more about this distinction than you might have thought. Their study of how media navigate transgender individuals tells us more than why transgender people challenge conventional wisdom on gender. They continue a tradition in the sociology of gender of relying of the experiences of transgender people to provide new insights into what gender is and how taken for granted gender inequality has become.

Transgender individuals have long been of interest to sociologists of sex and gender. Transgender people are a powerful illustration of some of the cracks in the ways we think about gender and gender difference, and they often have the most to tell us about what gender is and how it gets produced. But, before I explain why Westbrook and Schilt’s new research is so important, I want to provide a short history of why the experiences of transgender people are so important. Perhaps the most famous transgender woman to be studied is a woman who scholars refer to as “Agnes” to protect her anonymity. Agnes is an American woman who, in the 1960s, was in her late teens when she heard about study at UCLA concerned with “disorders of gender identity” on the radio. The research team was interested in coming up with a set of medical guidelines for determining who ought to be allowed to undergo what were then called sex reassignment surgeries (now more accurately and respectfully referred to as gender confirmation surgeries).

Agnes first came in to meet with the research team because she was had a dilemma she couldn’t solve on her own and she was hopeful they could help. Agnes had all of the bodily signs of femininity you might expect with one small exception. She had a small waist, slender fingers and wrists, long hair, feminine breasts, and more. Beyond this, Agnes had the gamut of feminine intangibles. She was soft-spoken, moved slowly, sat with her legs together, crossed at the ankle. She waited to have doors opened for her, rarely interrupted. She was, in other words, a paragon of femininity. And, despite coming in to talk with a group of researchers concerned with disorders of gender identity, there really wasn’t anything “disordered” about Agnes’ gender at all. She was completely comfortable with and confident in her gender. Her real problem was that she had a penis and was interested in receiving a surgery that would better help her body confirm her gender more completely.

Agnes was studied by surgeons, endocrinologists, psychologists, all manner of medical professionals, and — as fate would have it — a sociologist named Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel wasn’t a sociologist of gender; indeed, the sociology of gender didn’t even really exist at that point. And it may very well be Agnes that we should thank for its production. While the medical professionals meeting with Agnes (among others) were all concerned with helping her, they were also all casually in agreement that it was Agnes who was the one with the problem. Garfinkel’s great insight was to recognize that while her desire for surgery may be statistically rare, there was nothing at all “problematic” about her gender. In fact, Garfinkel found that Agnes knew quite a bit more about her gender than most. Rather than teaching Agnes how to better “fit in” or “pass” as a woman, Garfinkel became increasingly interested in what he could learn from Agnes about gender.

Having been raised as a boy in her youth, much of what Agnes understood about femininity was learned a bit more deliberately on her part and practiced more intentionally than it is for many young women. She was able to talk about the subtleties of gender in ways that are invisible to many people. Transgender communities and medical professionals still use the term “passing” to assess how well transgender people are able to “pass” as the gender with which they identify. Indeed, having successfully passed as a woman or man for a defined period of time is often considered part of the criteria for receiving a diagnosis that enables transgender people to undergo gender confirmation surgeries (if they so desire). But it was Agnes’ intricate insights into her daily performances of gender that allowed Garfinkel to realize that gender is a performance for everyone. It wasn’t just Agnes who was passing; we’re all passing as men and women. Agnes was just better able to talk about it than most. It becomes so much a part of who we think we are that most of us don’t even recognize the daily work we do to pass as men and women (shaving, make-up, clothes, hair cuts, styles of walking, talking, sitting, how to interact conversationally, carrying wallets or a purse, and more). It’s exhausting once you list it all out, and we’re constantly at work.

Passing is important to many transgender people on different levels: from issue of violence personal safety to the psychological pleasures associated with being publicly recognized with who we understand ourselves to be. Yet, transgender people struggle with more than simply being publicly recognized. They also struggle with recognition from a variety of institutions, and it’s here that Westbrook and Schilt break new ground in research and theory on gender and inequality. Transgender men and women struggle having government documents altered to reflect their identities. But, access to legibly and legally gendered identities also comes with access to institutions, like workplaces, housing, competitive sports, and all variety of public accommodations (like, restrooms for instance). We don’t often think about this, but like Agnes, transgender people often make gender more visible — they lay bare gender arrangements in our society, like our fierce allegiance to the idea that bathroom and sports teams (among other things) ought to be gender segregated.

Deciding that a transwoman “counts” as a woman is done on multiple levels. It’s done in our interactions when we publicly recognize her identity. But it’s also done institutionally, if we consider whether or not she ought to be allowed to change her driver’s license to represent her gender or whether we ought to let her compete against other women in competitive sports. A great deal of anxiety is often provoked around these issues — what Westbrook and Schilt refer to as “gender panics” — and Westbrook and Schilt use the media as a litmus test of that collective angst. Surveying newspaper articles surrounding gender panics to do with three separate issues (transgender rights legislation, a 2006 policy proposal in New York to remove genital surgery as a requirement to change sex markers on birth certificates, and controversies over transgender athletes), Westbrook and Schilt provide a new way of thinking about and measuring gender inequality.

It turns out that the criteria for determining a person’s gender vary — they’re not the same everywhere. As Westbrook and Schilt argue, while most people “keep the same classification in all spaces, transgender people may be given different gender classifications… depending on the type of interaction occurring in the space.” So, for instance, while we might collectively acknowledge transgender women as women in their daily lives, we are often less willing (or have a different set of criteria) to acknowledge them as women in restrooms or on sports fields. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — the body that, among other things, makes decisions about the gender categories in which transgender and intersex athletes can compete — has an elaborate set of criteria for considering whether or not transgender athletes can compete as the gender with which they identify. But we don’t rely on these same criteria in most social interactions. Gender-segregated settings are much more heavily policed and women’s spaces are more heavily policed than men’s. Gender-integrated settings — like workplaces — involve fewer gender panics. It’s those spaces we think men and women ought to be separate that provoke the most powerful reactions.

Westbrook and Schilt also found that the criteria for being considered a man are much less demanding than the criteria to be considered a woman. The real anxiety appears around people who have penises who enter women’s-only spaces. Not everyone with a penis identifies or is identified as a man, nor do all those without penises identify as women. But, the penis is a powerful cultural proxy. Thus, in Katie Couric’s recent interview with Laverne Cox (a transgender woman and actress), it’s not surprising that Cox was asked about the status of her genitals. Cox deftly dealt with the question by refocusing the conversation on transgender people’s lives rather than their genitals. Westbrook and Schilt found that a great deal less anxiety appears around transgender people — even in gender-integrated settings — when the transgender person is penis-free (regardless of whether the person in question identifies as a woman or man). This interesting insight enables Westbrook and Schilt to say something really powerful about gender inequality and our collective investment in its existence.

Public reactions to and acceptance of transgender people function as a sort of gender inequality Rorschach test. This cultural anxiety provoked by penises in “women’s” spaces belies a larger investment in a twin set of cultural ideals: the belief that all people with penises are uniquely capable of violence and the belief that those without penises are uniquely vulnerable. While this anxiety might be easily upset by recognizing that transgender women are most often the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence, Westbrook and Schilt’s research shows that this fact is less publicly recognized than it should be. Indeed, Schilt and Westbrook address violence against transgender women in their previous research as did Cox in her interview with Couric. And our collective failure to recognize violence against transgender women is a testament to the power of conventional wisdom about gender. While transgender people have a unique capacity to help us understand gender as more flexible than we often imagine, Westbrook and Schilt’s research illustrates the ways that the challenges brought about by transgender individuals are often dealt with in ways that have the effect of shoring up our faith in gender as innate and gender inequality is inevitable. This research helps us learn more about some of the most deeply held beliefs in our culture about gender. Their findings show that, despite the many gains toward greater gender equality, we still fervently hold onto a set of beliefs that speak to the endurance of inequality and just how difficult it will be to overcome.

I studied a group of fathers’ rights activists and men undergoing divorce, separation, and custody battles for a little over a year.  Fathers’ rights organizations were, for me, an interesting place to study anti-feminist gender politics because they are, in many ways, one of the most successful arms of the men’s rights movement more generally.  Fathers’ rights activists and advocates are asking for things feminists have long sought from men: a greater investment in their children, a move toward a model of parenting that moves beyond the “provider” model.  And all of these things make fathers’ rights groups the most politically palatable and mainstream of the virulent misogyny that characterizes the men’s rights movement more generally.

At the weekly meetings I attended, I regularly heard men pushing back against this stereotype, wanting to be “more than a paycheck” in their kids’ lives.  And in my experience, the men who gave up on their custody battles the most quickly, those who lost contact with their children, or failed to show up at the times designated by the court had one thing in common: most of them had daughters.  In the group I studied, men with sons stuck with and struggled through really challenging custody arrangements and incredibly tense relationships with the mothers of their children. My study did not involve a sample from which I can generalize about this idea.  But there is a host of interesting scholarship on how fathers in straight couples engage with their children contingent upon the gender of their children.

Gender is a big topic of discussion when people have babies.  It shapes the sorts of names we consider (or don’t).   It shapes the way we set up the nursery, what color we paint the walls, the infant clothes we buy and receive, the things we imagine our child doing one day (or not). And research suggests that, among heterosexual couples, fathers are more invested in gender conformity than mothers. It’s not uncommon to hear that heterosexual men want boys—or are expected to want boys.  Sex selective abortion is a really powerful illustration of son preference.  But son preference can be measured in other ways as well.

I just read a working paper by economist, Laura Giuliano examining the effects of having sons versus daughters on heterosexual marriages.*  The paper was initially published as a working paper in 2007.  So, it’s a little dated.  But the data and argument are really fascinating, if frustrating. Children take a toll on marital happiness for both mothers and fathers (shocking, I know).  Among heterosexual married mothers in Giuliano’s sample, there was no meaningful difference in the level of marital happiness among mothers who had sons compared to those who had daughters.  Among fathers, however, the story is a bit more complex.  Heterosexual married fathers with sons had significantly higher levels of marital happiness than those with daughters (see graph below).

Marital Happines by Child Gender

This makes men look like the problem here.  But, Giuliano found that women are invested in this issue as well.  She also discovered, for instance, that couples in which  the fathers had higher levels of marital happiness but the mothers said that they would be as happy or happier NOT married were disproportionately likely to be couples with sons.  This suggests that mothers in heterosexual marriages that make them unhappy are much more likely to remain married if the child happens to be a boy.  One hypothesis for which Giuliano found support is that this discrepancy is produced by a collective perception that sons and daughters have different needs and that fathers are more essential in the raising of boys than girls.  Add to this that fathers of sons in Giuliano’s sample also engaged in different parenting practices.  Fathers with sons were more likely to look after and spend more time with their kids and the wives of fathers with sons held more positive views of them as parents.

There’s a lot of literature out there on how we need to get men engaged in modeling healthy masculinity to the next generation—showing boys that parenting and care work aren’t feminine practices; they’re human practices.  But all of this can’t be accomplished alongside an “androcentric” ideology that holds that boys and men are somehow more important than girls and women, more deserving of our time, attention, and apparently even affection sometimes.  It’s great that men are participating more as parents.  But we have a long way to go if they’re still waiting to see if the child is going to be “Matthew” or “Megan” before deciding whether to ask for a more flexible schedule at work.

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*I learned about this research from Emily Bobrow’s great essay in The Economist, “It’s a Boy Thing” (shared on social media by Philip Cohen).

This week my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with comments about the Man Book Club, featured in Jennifer Miller’s New York Times article. This club is for men, by men, and feature men. In fact, the golden rule of the Man Book Club is: “No books by women about women.” And the International Ultra Manly Book Club, also featured in the article, announces they are “not your mother’s book club.”

At first blush, these clubs appear transgressive. Book clubs are, after all, associated with women. Men getting together to chat about the book of the month seems out of the ordinary or even humorous. One member noted that a woman he met at a bar figured he must be gay since he was in a book club. If book clubs are places for women to talk about fiction, which Houston Men’s Book Club member, Edward Nawotka, said, “is designed to examine empathy,” then these groups are redefining the book club.

Image Source: Salon.com
Image Source: Salon.com

When I read this article, I wondered: When and why did reading become feminine and something only women do? And why do these men feel like they need a place where they can escape women—both in the flesh and as meaningful literary characters? As a woman and a gender scholar who studies these things, I bristled at the idea that leaving women out is something pleasurable to men, something they seek.

Leaving women out is nothing new. And neither is defining masculinity as the avoidance of empathy. In fact, research time and again shows that discouraging men from showing their emotions and from sharing their feelings is harmful to everyone. Scholars have linked emotional distance to men’s loneliness and poor educational performance and the privileging of aggressive manhood to violence against women, other men, and genderqueer people alike. Books highlighted in these clubs thus unsurprisingly promote this theme. Sure, this is not true of all the books, but the list of the “Top 100 Books for Every Man” includes amongst its titles the James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and The Call of the Wild. Classic books? Sure. Books that romanticize womanizing and define men as animalistic? Also yes.

Image Source: iumbc.com
Image Source: iumbc.com

Both of these clubs aim to break supposed stereotypes that men are not thinkers. “[W]e too, are intellectuals,” proclaims the International Ultra Manly Book Club’s webpage. Their vision includes: “That one day we men of the world could be more educated, have deeper conversations, and connect with our fellow men.” But what sort of education leaves women out of the conversation? How are women represented in these discussions if they are not protagonists who help to shape the world?

Women on my Facebook feed responded to this article with sarcasm about how difficult it must be for these clubs to find a book without a female lead or one that is written by a man. These comments play on the fact that women are already underrepresented as lead characters (especially in books written by men) and as authors in literature courses, as well as in other forms of entertainment (See here for a discussion of sexism in Hollywood).

Some men’s book club members Miller interviewed did note that these are important places for them to bond with other men—and not just around misogynistic ideas of women and manhood. Miller quotes one member, Haruki Murakami, as having said, “We’ve seen each other through family tragedies… I turned to these guys.” And so men in these clubs might be able to seek out intimate friendships they often lack, especially straight men. (See also Lisa Wade’s Salon article). At the same time, these friendships are forged in a sex-segregated environment where hypermasculinity is highly regarded. And this contradiction is important. It keeps these clubs from becoming truly transgressive—and transformative—spaces.

let's talk sexMy friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer to stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.

healthy futures 2When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”.  Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources.  But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:

woman concern 2A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.   

I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.

The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs

According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms. According to researchers, Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.

ab onlyAOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.

The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”

The case for comprehensive sexuality education

According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.

sex edA series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.

A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs

dollarOver the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!

Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!

Power of the parents…

After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school. We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.

orgs comp edWe presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:

We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.

We went to dozens of meetings  – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.

we wonIn the end we won!  After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!

With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including:  Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…

states sex ed

Merriam-Webster announced on Twitter yesterday that it added “cisgender” and “genderqueer” to its dictionary. This is big news for gender and sexuality scholars and activists, who have long been fighting for the legal equality and social acceptance of LGBTQ. Oxford added the terms to their dictionary in 2015, so Merriam-Webster is a bit behind the curve. But at a time when state legislators are promoting and passing new laws to deny the identities of, restrict the movement of, and allow discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, this institutionalization of language reflects a larger move toward inclusion (see here, here, and here).

English, like all languages, is constantly evolving, and gender scholars emphasize its importance is not just in reflecting existing cultural trends but also in creating new possibilities. Language and gender are simultaneously formed, and in recent history it has established dichotomies that suggest there are two clear categories into which people fall: male/female; and thus two clear ways people should identify, appear, and behave: masculine/feminine. And we have an elaborate language to stigmatize people who fall outside of these binaries, including “sissy,” “fag,” and “dyke.” Some people might label cisgender men—men who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth—as “fags” if they don’t participate in the collective sexual objectification of women, for example. Prove you’re masculine, this word suggests, and make sure it’s straight.

Source: http://www.transstudent.org/gender101
Source: http://www.transstudent.org/gender101

But language that sets up binaries of any kind is inadequate because it will never fully reflect the diversity of people’s desires, identities, or practices. This inadequacy of course does serve a purpose by naturalizing the existence of some and making “others” deviant or invisible, and invisible people don’t get rights because they technically don’t exist. Advocates of identity politics make it clear that labels are important in pulling marginalized groups out of invisibility, and so “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” help us have a larger discussion of sexuality. Similarly, “cisgender” allows us to examine the privileged norm, and this is an important turn.

“Genderqueer,” which refers to an individual whose gender identity is neither, both, or a combination of male/female, or otherwise cannot be labeled, is a uniquely important term because it pushes back against the notion that gendered categories are stable in the first place. While gender scholars and theorists alike are popularly teased for coining too many terms, coming up with language to reflect diversity and to challenge our current way of thinking is a crucial part of gender revolution. To understand that change is possible first requires us to have a language for imagining what the world might look like if change occurred. In other words, new language can allow some to imagine a world they never thought possible.

“[A]n analysis of traffic can enrich sociological theory.” (Schmidt-Relenberg, 1968: 121)

Almost everywhere we go is a “gendered space.”  Although men and women both go to grocery stores, different days of the week and times of the day are associated with different gender compositions of shoppers.  Most of our jobs are gendered spaces.  In fact, Census data show that roughly 30% of the 66,000,000 women in the U.S. labor force occupy only 10 of the 503 listed occupations on the U.S. Census.  You’d probably be able to guess what some of these jobs are just as easily as you might be able to guess some of the very few Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs.  Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as occupational segregation, and it’s nothing new.  Recently, I did read about a gender segregated space that is new (at least to me): traffic.

When I picture traffic in my head, I think of grumpy men driving to jobs they hate, but this is a horrible stereotype of traffic that’s misleading.  Women actually make up the vast majority of congestion on the roads.  One way of looking at this is to argue that women are causing more congestion on our roads.  But another way to talk about this issue (and the way to talk about this issue that is consistent with actual research – and ought to make us feminists smile) is to say that women endure more congestion on the roads.

Women were actually the first market for household automobiles in the U.S.  Men generally traveled to work by public transportation.  Cars sold to households were marketed to women for daily errands.  This is why, for instance, early automobiles had fancy radiator caps with things like wings, angels and goddesses on them.  These were thought to appeal to women’s more fanciful desires.

Traffic increased a great deal when women moved into the labor force.  But this is not exactly what accounts for the gender gap.  In the 1950s, car trips that were work-related accounted for about 40% of all car use.  Today that number is less than 16%.  The vast majority of car trips are made for various errands: taking children to school, picking up groceries, eating out, going to or from day care, shopping, and more shopping.  And it’s women who are making most of these trips.  It’s a less acknowledged portion of the “second shift” which typically highlights women’s disproportionate contribution to the division of labor inside the household even when they are working outside of the household as well.  Sandra Rosenbloom‘s work on this topic is fantastic (see her chapter summarizing some of her research here).

Traffic research has shown that women are more than two times more likely than men to be taking someone else where they need to go when driving (see Nobis and Lenz’s chapter here and Rosenbloom’s research here).  Men are  more likely to be driving themselves somewhere.  Women are also much more likely to string other errands onto the trips in which they are driving themselves somewhere (like stopping at the grocery store on the drive home, going to day care on the way to work, etc.).  Traffic experts call this “trip chaining,” but the rest of us call it multi-tasking.  What’s more, we also know that women, on average, leave just a bit later than men do for work, and as a result, are much more likely to be making those longer (and more involved) trips right in the middle of peak hours for traffic.

Who knew?  It’s an under-acknowledged gendered space that deserves more attention (at least from sociologists).  Traffic is awful, and if we count up all that extra time and add it to the second shift calculations made by Arlie Hochschild, I think we have a new form of inequality to complain about.

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This post originally appeared at Inequality by (Interior) Design.