Category Archives: gender & sexuality

Upcoming Mary Gray talk on on “Out in the Country: Youth, Media & Queer Visibility in Rural America”

It used to be the case that all of the queer youth living in rural America ran away to the city to find others like them. The Internet has dramatically changed this. More and more, rural queer youth are building out networks of other queer rural youth, helping generate a rural queer identity. Think about what this means for the health and safety of queer youth. Think about what this means for the future of tolerance.

It is with great pleasure that I will be hosting Mary Gray at Microsoft Research on February 10 to discuss her latest book: “Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America.” Mary is going to talk about her findings so that we can get into a fun conversation. This will also be a great opportunity to connect with queer scholars and activists throughout New England so please join us for an evening of fun!

February 10, 2010 from 6:30-9:00PM
Microsoft Research, Cambridge, MA

Talk Description:

Join acclaimed author, Mary Gray as she discusses her latest book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press), which examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

Drawing on her experiences working for close to 2 years in rural parts of Kentucky and in small towns along its borders, Mary will map out how lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their allies make use of social media and local resources to combat the marginalization they contend with in their own communities as well as the erasure they face in popular representations of gay and lesbian life and the agendas of national gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

Against a backdrop of an increasingly impoverished and privatized rural America LGBTQ youth and their allies visibly—and often vibrantly—work the boundaries of the public and media spaces available to them. This talk will explore how youth suture together high schools, public libraries, town hall meetings, churches, and the web that construct spaces for fashioning their emerging queer identities. Their triumphs and travails defy clear distinctions often drawn between online and offline or rural and urban experiences of identity, fundamentally redefining our understanding of the term ‘queer visibility’ and its political stakes.

Register today to join the discussion! After the presentation, Mary will be available for book signings.

About Mary Gray:

Mary L. Gray is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press) examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success

Growing up, I loved to debate. With anyone. My debating tone used to drive my mother batty because she thought I was yelling at her. Exasperated, I would often bark back that I was simply debating. Over the years, I realized that my debating tone is one of such confidence that people believe me to be stating facts, not opinions. My mother interpreted it as yelling; my classmates interpreted it as arrogance. I also began to realize that it was the same tone as that of my male peers. I never apologized for my opinions, never deflated them with “I may be wrong but I think…” I asserted. Confidently. And loudly.

Why am I telling you this? Clay Shirky’s “A Rant About Women” has provoked all sorts of conversations in the blogosphere and on Twitter. And Tom Coates rightfully pointed out that one interpretation of Shirky is the problematic encouragement of self-promotion and lies. While a lot has been said on this topic, I feel the need to speak up and say more. Because, as I said, I’m loud.

I’m terrible about self-promotion. I get all squeamish about the whole thing. I’m dreadful at throwing my name into the ring when there is an open call for something that I want. The idea of nominating myself for an award makes me want to vomit. And I’m TERRIBLE about taking compliments; I blush and run away. But there’s one thing that I’m damn good at that has gotten me pretty darn far in this lifetime: speaking confidently. I can walk into a room and be a ball full of butterflies and speak assertively. I sound like I know what I’m talking about even when the voice in my head is having a panic attack. And the weird thing is that, because I’m a woman, people read my assertiveness either as arrogance or expertise, even when I’m just stating my opinion. Why? Because women don’t do that. Women don’t talk like that.

There’s nothing that upsets me more than deception. As a teenager, I had my world spun apart by lies. So you’re not going to find me engaged in trickery. But what I’ve found is that people interpret my assertiveness as dishonesty and this still baffles me. It’s as though, because I’m a woman, if I don’t apologize for every thought I have and I’m proven wrong, I must’ve been lying because I convinced someone of an untruth. Confidence, when misinterpreted, can be interpreted all sorts of problematic ways.

Amidst the questions of women’s assertiveness, we must also call into questions our interpretations of the messages they put forward. Cuz many women are immediately labeled “bitch” the moment they speak with the kind of assertiveness that would be considered average for men. And that double standard also sucks. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve definitely gone out of my way to look young and cute and fuzzy and lovable in order to avoid that label. And to smile even when I don’t feel like smiling. Because, in many environments, if I look as serious as I feel, my message does not get across. Of course, this can also be a costly signal because plenty of other folks have dismissed me for being young. I’ve found that it’s a sin to be young in academia while it’s a sin to be a serious woman in the tech industry. Needless to say, my identity development is mighty confused.

As Tom rightfully pointed out, there are many layers on top of this. It’s easy to move into a binary of Men vs. Women, but race, ethnicity, nationality, accent, sexuality, religion, class, and any form of cultural background you can imagine play into this at every level. Just look at the biases you have when you’re interviewing someone of a different background… the expectations you have. And imagine what they’re experiencing trying to give the right impression when they know they’re being interpreted along a standard that they cannot possibly live up to. If you need to think about this issue a bit more and don’t want to read scholarly materials, there’s Gladwell. I have the privilege of being white, a native American English speaker, being able to speak geek and academic and street speak depending on context, being able-bodied, and relatively attractive in a heteronormative way without being too attractive. But I can imagine plenty of configurations and impressions that would automatically be rejected. We can’t forget about those folks.

While I strongly support any and all efforts to get women to speak with confidence about what they do and who they are, assimilation won’t get us to be where we should be. Far too many academic women tried this, a practice that I always thought of as out-manning the men. It was a survival mechanism for them but dear god it’s terrifying. We don’t want that in other industries too. What we want is diversity.

Diversity is one of those sticky terms that people seem to boil down to creating a Benetton ad. Diversity isn’t about some magical collection of five differently colored skin tones. It’s about bringing different perspectives and backgrounds to the table and creating an environment that values what can be gained from different voices who’ve taken different paths. Skin color (or gender performance) is often interpreted as a reasonable substitute for this and, for many reasons, it has been historically. But bringing in a woman whose attitude and approach is just as masculine as the men isn’t going to help your team break outside of its current mindset. They key is to bring people who think differently than you. Of course, that’s darn tricky. Because you need need similarity AND diversity to be successful. But this is a rant for another post.

In thinking about creating parity, we all need to look around and account for our biases. Whose voices are you listening to because they’re the loudest or the most like yours? Are you going out of your way to seek out people who approach the world differently than you? Everyone needs to make an effort to make visible what has become invisible.

At the same time, I do think that we also all have a responsibility to make an effort to get our voices heard by people who are different than us. This is especially true for women and other marginalized populations. Sure, it’s a burden to have to speak back to power over and over and over and over again. But that’s also a valuable skill. Making a conscious decision to break expectations tingles at the soul, but the doors that are opened can be awe-some.

I would love to see more women stand up and say “me!” and I vow to continue to help younger women assert themselves. But let this not push the onus entirely to women. We need men as allies, men who both encourage women to speak up and who consciously choose to spotlight women who are talented. But, more importantly, we need men (and anyone with privilege) to consciously and conscientiously account for their own privilege and biases and to actively work to highlight and embrace diverse voices of all kinds. Your interpretation of others is just as (if not more) important in creating change as their efforts to impress you. The privileged cannot expect the disenfranchised to assimilate, as tempting as that may be. And even if that were possible, it wouldn’t give us the society we want anyhow.

“i am not an angry girl / but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled / every time i say something they find hard to hear / they chalk it up to my anger / and never to their own fear”Ani Difranco

teaching, nursing, and second wave feminism

I am deeply grateful for all that was accomplished by second wave feminism. I love living in a world in which my job opportunities are not constrained because of what’s between my legs. That said, I also struggle with the externalities of the accomplishments in the 1970s. This week, I found myself thinking about the role of teaching and nursing in society and the relationship between feminism and those professions.

When my mother was entering the professional world, there were pretty much three options for women: teacher, nurse, secretary. Many women did not work and those who did were highly motivated, passionate, and underpaid. When barriers were eradicated, women left these professions to seek jobs in other fields that were better respected. Nurses were often just as knowledgeable about medicine as doctors and yet doctors were more greatly valued. Not surprisingly, as the years went b, many women who wanted to enter medicine chose to become doctors instead of nurses because the professional rewards were so much greater. When the sex barriers collapsed, women sought out “men’s jobs” because they were higher paying, higher prestige, and more flexible.

Since the 1970s, the number of brilliant, motivated individuals working as teachers and nurses in particular declined rapidly. Many women left these professions because they had many more opportunities and many men refused to do “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong – there are some amazing teachers and nurses out there, but sexist constraint meant that the most brilliant, most passionate women inevitably went to these professions while that is no longer the case.

The problem is what has happened since then. I certainly don’t want to go back to the dark ages where women had no choice. But while we’ve opened up doors for women, we haven’t addressed how sexism framed nursing and teaching in ways that are causing us tremendous headaches in society today. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued because we took women’s work for granted. When teaching stopped being women’s work, we didn’t rework our thinking about teaching. As a society, we still have little respect for teachers and nurses and we pay them abysmally. This is deeply rooted in the sexism of the past but the ripple effects today are costly.

Let me addressing education specifically for a moment. Rather than addressing the issue head-on and finding market solutions that value teachers, we have created a cultural expectation of altruistic teachers. We run long NYTimes stories on individuals who grew miserable in their first career and came to teaching to make a difference. In fact, good teachers are almost always discussed as saints who gave up everything for the good of the students. While those individuals should be commended, shouldn’t this also be discussed as market failure? For each brilliant, highly motivated teacher out there, how many are there who aren’t particularly qualified or good at their job? And, more importantly, what are the costs of not incentivizing potentially amazing teachers to enter the profession by any means other than guilt?

I get uncomfortable thinking about the societal consequences of second wave feminism, especially since I’ve personally benefited from it so much. I don’t blame the feminists or the women who pushed forward to make change. But I do blame society as a whole for not taking stock of what was implicitly devalued and making strides to rework things. Even when nursing and teaching were “women’s work,” they were challenging professions that contributed greatly to society. I’m glad that women are not limited to just those jobs today, but it’s not because those jobs are worthless. We desperately need them and we need to rework our value systems to actually value such jobs. While women have made tremendous strides in the last 30 years, society has not done nearly as good of a job reworking how it thinks of historically women’s work.

gender gap in perception of computer science

“New Image for Computing” recently released a report in their first wave to understand the image of computing among youth. Funded by WGBH and ACM, this report examines both race/ethnicity and sex-based differences in perceptions of computing. What they found was that there is little race/ethnicity-based differences in how youth perceive CS but there are HUGE gender based differences in perception.

While 67% of all boys rated computer science as a “very good” or “good” career choice, only 9% of girls rated it “very good” and 17% as “good.” Digging down deeper, it is fascinating to note that there’s a gender gap between boys and girls when it comes to feeling that “being passionate about your job” is “extremely important” (F: 78%, M: 64%), “earning a high salary” is “extremely important” (F: 39%, M: 50%), and “having the power to do good and doing work that makes a difference” is “extremely important” (F: 56%, M: 47%). These all play into how these youth perceive computer science and computing-driven fields.

The summary of key findings is:

  • Most college-bound males, regardless of race/ethnicity, have a positive opinion of computing and computer science as a career or a possible major.
  • College-bound females are significantly less interested than boys are in computing; girls associate computing with typing, math, and boredom.
  • College-bound African American and Hispanic teens, regardless of gender, are more likely than their white peers to be interested in computing, although for girls the overall interest is extremely low.
  • Teens interested in studying computer science associate computing with words like “video games,” “design,” “electronics,” “solving problems,” and “interesting.”
  • The strongest positive driver towards computer science or an openness to a career in computing is “having the power to create and discover new things.”

Computer science is still dominated by men. The computer industry is still dominated by men. In order to combat these issues, we need to get to the crux of the issue. We need to address both the perception of computing as well as the very real issues that young people raise regarding the realities of life in the computing industry. For more information, check out the full report.

(Disclosure: I am on the advisory board of New Image for Computing.)

Trade: Brilliant film about sex trafficking

Unrelated to my research, I recently met a teen activist from a local high school. She runs a student group called “Students Against Human Trafficking.” Tonight, her group put together a screening of the 2007 film Trade at a local movie theater, followed by a discussion with the producer.

Now, I watch a lot of film and I pay attention to what’s coming out that deals with serious matters, but I was completely unaware of this film. And yet, it was stunning. Heartbreaking, moving, jawdropping. Unfortunately, the film was only released in 25 cities, was not advertised, and was pulled two weeks after release so most people who should see it didn’t. Gosh darn it, I hate when the studios get cagey about serious films and fail to actually promote them like they should. Anyhow, the film is now on DVD and I want to encourage everyone to see it. It’s haunting, but definitely worth it. And it will definitely make you think.

“Trade” depicts the global dynamic of sex trafficking, focusing on the role that American demand plays in the perpetuation of this insidious business. The film centers on the story of a young Mexican boy who is on the edge of becoming a thug himself when his younger sister is abducted and trafficked, eventually to be sold through an Internet sex slave auction. Through luck, he ends up running into a cop (Kevin Kline) who is trying to make sense of this business and reluctantly agrees to help him find his sister. Weaving together the stories of people who are abducted or experience the emotional devastation of sex trafficking, this film is a brilliant although disturbing portrait of a real life criminal business. An absolutely must-see. Haunting, yet important.

If you’d prefer a more serious approach to this horrific topic, I also recommend checking out the PBS documentary on Lives For Sale. (My cousin-in-law was involved in the production of this piece.) This film steps back to think about the dark side of illegal immigration and the black market trade in human beings.

All I need is a pair of pants.

Dear Clothing Designers,

I am disappointed in your lack of understanding of the diversity of women’s bodies. I traipsed down Broadway, into Soho, and out to the malls in search of a pair of pants that fit. I was willing to spend a decent amount of money on said pants so I visited everything from high end designers to department and chain stores. I tried on over 150 pairs and came up empty handed. I tried on pants ranging from sizes 6-12, petites, regulars, and “short.” I was even willing to get the bottoms hemmed if only I could find a pair that fit up top. I even tried on the ugly pants.

The relationship between my waist, hips, ass, and thighs appears to be completely alien to you, for none of you seem to make a pair of pants that fit all of these dimensions (let alone length). Why? Am I _that_ different? Or would you simply prefer that I conform to your body aesthetics? Like many other women, I do not belong on a hanger. I am not shaped like a model nor do I have any interest in resorting to anorexia to try to fit into your skinny clothes. I am curvy and I like my curves.

I am a confident woman, but shopping demoralizes me. Your industry sells a standard of beauty, demanding women to conform and ostracizing them when they do not. I know that I am not alone in not fitting into your clothing. Have you ever considered the impact that you have on young women’s sense of self? How hard would it be to diversify your clothing dimensions?

I long for the day when I can submit my dimensions and order personalized clothes. I know it’s coming, but I desperately want it NOW. Particularly since the only thing that is “in” seems to be tight and tighter. Why oh why can’t we personalize our clothes yet?

In the meantime, dear clothing designers, please bring back phat pants. I don’t care if they’re not “in style” but at least they fit. I desperately need new clothes for all of the ones that I bought when phat pants and flowy yoga pants were the in thing are falling apart. I have upcoming engagements and I desperately need pants. Please, I beg you, do something.

Thank you.

PS: For all of you men who think that my flowy clothing is my “style,” please realize that it is simply because nothing else ever fits. Welcome to the hell of women’s shopping.

San Diego mayor backs same-sex marriage

In a tearful explanation to the San Diego community, Republican mayor Jerry Sanders explains why he decided that he would support the gay marriage bill. It’s a stunning display of courage, bound to turn the Republican party against him in order to do what’s right for his lesbian daughter, gay friends, and the San Diego community. I have to admit that I totally broke down crying listening to him and I hope that more elected officials have the courage he had to do what’s right rather than play to a religious-lead campaign of intolerance. (Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger still seems bent on vetoing the state bill that would define marriage as a civil contract between two people.)

For more coverage on this historical moment, click here.

Note: my personal belief is that marriage is a flawed institution and I would like to see it obliterated entirely. Given that this is not likely to happen, I strongly believe that everyone should have access to the rights afforded by such a commitment. I personally wish that there was more public discussion of those rights and the reasons behind why society supports unions. Those opposed to same-sex marriage are typically involved in myth making instead of reality checking. Many of us know painfully well that marriage does not inherently protect children nor does it guarantee that the partnership will last. Yet, we also know that marriage allows us to get access to our partners in times of medical crises, keep our foreign-born partners in the country, etc. Economists also know that marriage statistically reduces stupidity (thus, the logic behind cheapened car insurance and tax benefits in general). Functionally, marriage is a commitment that is rewarded economically and socially because it makes for a more stable and prosperous society. All signs seem to point towards the same being true for same-sex marriage so the objections to it are more philosophical than functional, rooted in intolerance rather than societal efforts towards a collective good.

Globalization of norms: Facebook challenges Arab LGBT group

Update: After posting this, i spoke with various people involved. Investigation on the part of Facebook uncovered a poser pretending to be an admin. Their account was suspended. Facebook has assured me that they would never censor such material, even if requested to do so by a government. This is very good news.

In a globalized society, whose norms count? This weekend, Lawgeek gave me a heads up about a battle taking place on Facebook. On April 24, the administrator of the ArabLGTB Facebook Group received the following message (emphasis mine):

Report MessageDear Subscriber,

You have violated the terms of conduct you agreed upon when you signed up with Your violations fall in the following criteria:

1. Advertising\spam, you have posted in the group advertisements concerning a website. You do have the right to refer to websites but not advertise them.

2. Creating a global group that is not allowed in some regions. Your group “Arab LBTGAY(Lesbian,bisexual,transexual and gay)” has put facebook in trouble as we received an official complaint from the Saudi government, the Egyptian government and other Arab governments that do not want to be mentioned.

Your Group must be shut down or a new Group with a specified network other than the two mentioned may be created. We are very sorry as we support any group but the countries mentioned are threatening to block our server from their side, therefore please comply.

Thank you for understanding
The Facebook Team

Wow. We all know that many regions in the world are extremely homophobic, but what does it mean that Facebook is going to institute policies to abide by the norms set forth by the most conservative cultural environments? Do we really want to propagate such intolerance through our networked technology?

I’m also curious as to whether or not Facebook’s policy would be a violation of American free speech laws. If there are lawyers out there reading this, i’m curious… What are the laws concerning free speech in semi-public spaces like malls and parking lots? Are commercial networked publics like Facebook and MySpace seen as public or private spaces when it comes to the law? To what degree can networked publics control or limit the speech that takes place within? Obviously, there are good reasons to limit some speech – hate speech for example. But what about speech that’s simply a violation of cultural norms? Do we have any sense of where the law sees this? Is it different in Europe? Given that there are different norms for public and private venues in meatspace, how are the lack of walls online being handled by the courts? Is this public or private? Given that all servers are owned, is there public space online when it comes to the law?

Regardless, i hope that Facebook reconsiders what it’s doing. I would hate to see it become a space that oppresses some of the most oppressed people simply because others feel that they should be oppressed. The Ivy League institutions from which it stems are some of the most progressive queer-positive environments in the country. At Brown, i met a lesbian woman who came to Brown from a very intolerant country. When she approached Brown concerning her fear for her life in returning home, they supported her in seeking asylum. In parts of the Arab world, being queer is a crime, punishable by death. Let’s support our queer Arab brothers and sisters, not further discriminate against them out of fear of their intolerant regimes.

For those who are on Facebook, i encourage you to join “The official Petition to prevent Arab LBTG from being shut down.” For all of you who work in building networked communities, give some thought to how problematic this decision is and PLEASE do not repeat it.

Bush appoints guy to destroy the program he heads

You have got to be kidding me. “The Bush administration has appointed a new chief of family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services who worked at a Christian pregnancy-counseling organization that regards the distribution of contraceptives as ‘demeaning to women.'” — Washington Post

How can this be legal? Unfortunately, there’s no recourse because Congress doesn’t have any power to do anything. How can something like this be fixed? Gahhhh!

Keroack’s outfit deceives women about other issues as well. It uses a combination of dubious statistics and scripture to attack the efficacy of condoms and the very idea of safe sex. “God requires those who know Him to remain pure until marriage – no sex, in fact, not even a hint of sexual immorality,” it says. “Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman to reflect Christ and His bride, the church.” — Michelle Goldberg

God this breaks my heart. So much for thinking that Bush would play nice with the Democrats.

(Tx Randy)

this video is important

Please watch this video. It is a depiction of how beauty is crafted for print. It’s made as part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Below are the before/after images (tx to BoingBoing).

I will never forget the first time that i did a magazine shoot. It was for a glossy girls magazine and they dyed, curled, teased, plucked, shoved, stretched, and pinned me into a perfect static place. And then they airbrushed me to normalcy cuz i refused to cut off my raver neckless and my hair was purple. (Business mag shoots have always been a bit more civil.) During a bathroom break, i wandered the halls and found a Playboy shoot where i saw how unhappy the model was trying to sit perfectly still as wind was blown on her to keep her nipples perky. The plastic face looked perfect but her eyes showed how miserable she was.

This video depicts that process in the most compelling way i’ve ever seen. I’m not saying makeup is bad, but i think that it’s critical to understand what we’re modeling ourselves after. Girl power is a crafted narrative meant to make us consume. The images of perfection we’re sold are a fabrication. Most of us know this at some level, but do we really get it?

I realize i don’t own the copyright on this commercial but i think that it is too culturally important to stay locked down. Please watch it.