Inauguration in Virginia—A Bit Gender-Deaf, but I Think I’m Supposed to Be Quiet about That

(Photos taken on January 13, 2018, before the inauguration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, State Capitol, Richmond, VA)

This past week in Virginia brought not one, but two, parades on the streets of Lexington.  The first, on Saturday, was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The second, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, was sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE).  My family and I eschewed the first parade in favor of going to Richmond to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, and we joyfully marched, sang, and quoted Martin Luther King in the CARE parade, alongside over 700 friends and neighbors.  In this blog post, I offer a few observations about the inauguration in Richmond.

Twenty years ago, I would never have gone to an inauguration unless I had been invited to the inaugural ball as well, which I wouldn’t have been.  The antics of my more youthful days kept me away from gown-worthy, gala-sparkled, gorgeous-people events, where most people don’t match high-top Chucks with their most comfortable dress and most women don’t drink beer out of the bottle.  Let’s just say I’ve grown up a bit over these decades, but that my sartorial and libation styles have not evolved much at all.

My husband, our son, and I loaded our tired selves into a car late last Friday evening to drive two hours and some change on a soggy road to Richmond in order to join a good friend for dinner and get to the inauguration grandstand on Capitol Square by the designated time on Saturday.  Our thirteen-year-old daughter made the wise young adolescent choice to have a sleepover with friends instead of hearing “boring political speeches” in Richmond.  Our seventeen-year-old son reads a lot of books, follows national and international politics, and digs Model United Nations, so he was definitely in from the start.  His knowledge and youthful spirit gave my husband and me much-needed energy for the road trip.  In fact, we surprised ourselves in our commitment to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring.  Virginia’s newly elected triumvirate works close enough to the nation’s capital to make me believe that they can counteract a tiny portion of the evil taking place in Washington, D.C.

Saturday morning was drier than Friday evening, but the temperatures had dropped by about 35 degrees.  The inauguration tickets encouraged us to get to the grandstand by 9:30.  Nevertheless, we lingered over coffee and one of the best breakfasts we have ever had and then hauled chilly ass down Grace Street to get to Capitol Square by about 10:45.  Streets were cleared, and security was tight.  We stopped at the entrance to hear, and then chant along with, a group of people wearing fluorescent orange caps and insisting on a clean Dream Act.  We ran into a few people from the western side of the state, chatted, and then decided to hit the port-a-potties before the ceremony began.  The port-a-potties were in garden next to Capitol Square.  Our path to the port-a-johns brought us by The Virginia Women’s Monument (see photograph below), which honors the contributions of all Virginia Women.  This reminds me a bit of my poem titled “West Virginia Bridges,” which laments the lack of named women—real live women who accomplished namable things—in the 116 named bridges across the state.  Here are the last two stanzas from that poem:

There is one bridge dedicated to Nurse Veterans.

No specific names because West Virginia has no particular women. 

West Virginia needs one hundred and fifteen bridges for men.

 

Steel stringer and pre-cast concrete bridges

require manly names, like Robert and Don

and Stonewall. No Robertas or Donnas allowed.

When I saw the monument with my husband and son, I stated indelicately that Monument Avenue in Richmond has a statue for every man who ever crapped on a battlefield, but here we have the Virginia Women’s Monument, designed to honor a nameless collective of 400 years of women for their nameless feats.  You would have to work pretty hard to get more token than this.

But I digress.  That’s what happens when you leave an event to go to the bathroom!

The inaugural ceremonies themselves had me paying sharp attention.  I was fascinated by it all.  Seeing judges, lawmakers, and staff muckety-mucks behind the podium, observing the fabulous array of hats and tuxes and corsages, watching former governors greet friends and colleagues, hearing political conversations on our less-important side—all of it was fascinating and somehow finely distilled in the cold January air.  At one point, impossibly marshmallowed giant snowflakes fell to make the scene stand out even more.  People in our area of the stands were welcoming, chatty, funny.

If you can see the photo above well enough, you’ll see the listing of speakers and performers at the inauguration.  These included a volunteer choir from Richmond with a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and another singer piercing the cold with his interpretation of “Star Spangled Banner.”  The program demonstrates an effort to include people of all races, religions, and creeds.  The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boys and Girls Scouts recited the pledge of allegiance, two Baptist churches were represented, and a rabbi from a Richmond temple gave the benediction.  Representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes blessed the ground.  As I think was the purpose, the inauguration organizers communicated an overarching message of inclusion and celebration.  I was surprised, though, not to hear any women’s voices in the core program.  (There were two women singing as people streamed out of the stands in the time between the formal ceremonies and the parade, but that was it.)  If you read the Gender Shrapnel Blog regularly, you know I notice these things, but how can you not?  51% of Virginians are women, but 0% of the speakers were.  The judges who swore in Northam, Fairfax, and Herring were also all men.  How are we not noticing these gender-deaf moves? (*See this September, 2017, post on this issue.)

Of the three officials who took the oath of office last Saturday, only one gave an inaugural address.  That, of course, was Ralph Northam.  He stuck mostly to what he knows best—healthcare, and I very much like what he had to say on that count.  He mostly ignored what he does least, which is care for the environment.  In one part of Northam’s speech, shaped around the campaign slogan “The Way Ahead” and concomitant metaphors about paths and compasses, the new governor told a story about a medical diagnosis he had given and how he learned years later that he could have delivered the news in a far more effective way.  I was struck by this simple story and heartened by hearing an elected official admit to committing a mistake and learning from it.  Then I wondered how low I’ve learned to set the bar, through a year of Trump and the trumpholes, when I consider this common act of learning from a mistake a heroic feat.  In any case, Northam’s inauguration speech was better than I was prepared for and slightly less gender-deaf than the rest of the inaugural ceremonies.

See you next week!

(The Virginia Women’s Monument, Richmond, VA / Photo taken January 13, 2018)

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Ben Cline. Sigh.

(Poster from the Lexington-Rockbridge Women’s Rights Rally, March, 2017)

For this week’s post, I am sharing a version of the letter to the editor that I have just written for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette (Lexington, VA), along with some additional comments about Ben Cline’s town hall meeting, held last month in Buena Vista, VA.  For those of you who are reading from outside the Virginia 24th or the Federal 6th District, you might want to re-read this Gender Shrapnel Blog post from last March.  Please note, too, that Ben Cline has declared his intention to run for Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s U.S. House of Representatives seat, which conservative, deaf-to-his-constituents-Goodlatte  has held since…wait for it…1992.

Editor, The News-Gazette:

There was already cause for concern that Ben Cline has been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for an eighth term, but Lexington and Rockbridge County voters should be even more alarmed now that Cline plans to make a bid for the United States House of Representatives. That’s right, the person who claims on his website to be “cleaning up the political cronyism that grips our system” hopes to be anointed Goodlatte’s successor in November.  Let’s not allow that to happen.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won an historic decision in the case of an Arkansas woman who was shackled to her hospital bed while in labor in 2003. The woman was a non-violent offender but was shackled throughout her labor.  When the ACLU won this case, one of the organization’s representatives rightly stated, “Today’s decision reaffirms that pregnant women in prison do not lose their right to safe and humane treatment.”  The decision reaffirms that women are human beings and, as such, have the right to safe treatment.  At that point, groups from various points along the political spectrum, along with over a dozen non-partisan health organizations, celebrated this decision.

In 2012, Ben Cline, of the Virginia House of Delegates, supported the shackling of pregnant inmates, despite evidence that such barbaric practices caused injury to the babies born in these conditions.  In her Letter to the Editor of The News-Gazette (12-13-2017), Ann Huebner rightly links Cline’s shackling stance to his support of medically unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds, his sponsorship of a personhood bill that “would have the potential to outlaw in-vitro fertilization and certain types of birth control, as well as force rape and incest victims (even young teenagers) to bear children.”  Huebner also correctly recalled Cline’s inhumane “Day of Tears” resolution of 2017.

The scant information offered on Ben Cline’s website tells us that, “Ben Cline’s values were shaped growing up right here in the Shenandoah Valley” (italics his), and that Ben never fails “to champion common sense, conservative legislation that challenge[d] the liberal orthodoxy of several sitting Democratic Governors.”  As voters in this area, we cannot possibly link Cline’s support of torturous shackling to “common sense, conservative legislation.”  Shackling pregnant women and women in labor should go against anyone’s values, especially those who impose their “family values” on their constituents.

ELLEN MAYOCK

Lexington

(*Visit this link to Ann Huebner’s guest blog post (2012) about Ben Cline’s support of shackling pregnant women and his double-speak about that support.)

The 350-word limit on letters to the editor means that I didn’t address in the above missive Ben Cline’s town hall meeting, held on December 19, 2017. In January of 2017, Cline held a town hall meeting in now perennially blue Lexington, Virginia.  Many of us here praised Cline for being accessible to all his constituents and for being willing to meet “across the aisle.” His move less than one year later to perennially red Buena Vista, Virginia, just six miles down the road, signals more Goodlatte-like tactics: disappearance from view from any constituents who might dissent; movement to more conservative meeting places; limiting full conversation and expression of a range of views.  By November, 2018, we will have had 26 years of Goodlatte’s fat-cat, me-first, damn-the-rest strategies in the Sixth District.  Ben Cline seems to be following in Goodlatte’s selfish and morally bankrupt footsteps.

We should look carefully at Ben Cline’s website, which expresses this kind of pride: “Ben’s efforts have earned him the American Conservative Union’s (ACU)  “Conservative Excellence Award” as well as top ratings from leading conservative groups like the VA Tea Party Patriot Federation, the Virginia Family Foundation and an A+ rating from the NRA.”  The “A+ rating from the NRA” seems problematic for an area that witnessed a decade ago the deadliest campus shooting in the history of the United States (Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007).

Approximately 65 people attended Ben Cline’s Buena Vista town hall meeting, held in an office of Buena Vista Public Schools.  The public school’s hall included a room to meet and seemed to boast also an extremely large weight room—for whom and for what purposes, I don’t know.  There was a group of boy scouts at the town hall.  They were attentive, and some were even taking notes.  There were concerned citizens from the Buena Vista, Lexington, and Rockbridge areas.  Issues raised included gerrymandering, education and, especially, teacher pay, healthcare and Medicaid, law enforcement, and job and business development.  Cline insisted that he is strong on deregulation, that he wants to remove governmental control from private citizens’ business.  When I asked him if this hands-off approach applied as well to reproductive rights, Cline sighed, and said, “I am pro-life.”

This individualistic, church-IN-government, theocratic, and controlling stance says it all.  Cline is pro-life but is uniquely interested in shackling pregnant women and women in labor and causing harm to newborns.  He is pro-life but is keenly proud of being sponsored by the National Rifle Association, a lobbying organization that boasted of its surge in membership following the Sandy Hook massacre in December of 2012. (*See statistics on gun violence in the United States through the BBC [2015]; NPR [2017]; CNN [2017]; The New York Times [2017]).  He is pro-life but willing to sacrifice necessary healthcare for the people he represents.  He is pro-life but believes that poorly-paid public school teachers should just keep doing their work “for the passion of it.”  He is pro-life but anti-real people.

Many people like Ben because he seems to be a pleasant, God-fearing, middle-aged white man.  This misguided affinity should lead us to read Cline’s website, which codes him as Goodlatte- and Trump-like, communicates very little real policy information to his information-hungry constituents, and makes the assumption that former Goodlatte staffers like himself will simply accede to the next rung of the ladder, the next bit of power, the next opportunity to ignore the wants and needs of the people he represents.

I can’t think of a moment in which we more urgently need to discard shackles and embrace a variety of views, values, wants, and needs.

(I like feline fat cats, but not human ones.)

2017: Hard to Look Back

A few years ago, friends shared a New Year’s Eve drink with my husband and me and toasted to “washing down” the previous year.  I remember agreeing that the year had presented its challenges, but wishing not to wash.  The days had been long, but time still flew.  The clocks melted; time both stood still and moved quickly, transporting us to a Dalí painting in which time is everything and nothing.  I remember also thinking that every year brings good with bad, and we learn from challenges, yadda, yadda, yadda, right?

This past year, though, this past year was something else.  2017 hammered home how the world’s psyche can be delivered, like a cat’s dead rat, to our doorstep, rat-day in and rat-day out, another package full of lies and hatred, its Anthrax particles scattering into our homes, hearths, and hearts.  Despite all of this, I still don’t quite want to “wash down” the year.  I firmly believe that activists are the greatest optimists.  To push the rock up the hill every day, watch it roll back down, and then push it back up is to go necessarily Sisyphus on the regime’s ass.  I’ve got a lot of metaphors working here, but it takes a metaphor juggler to keep so many balls of resistance in the air; it really does.

January brought racist travel bans and lies about inauguration crowds, but also the heroic gathering of lawyers at airports and the awe-inspiring, seven-continent Women’s March.  In subsequent months, we experienced the soul-sucking Trumpcare proposal, James Comey’s firing, growing concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump presidency in general, elimination of DACA protections, the Syrian airstrike, and Trump’s support of Nazis following the events of Charlottesville, natural and national disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, and California, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.  (*Check out Jason Abruzzesse’s piece on Trump’s first eight months in office.)  I haven’t even mentioned the #MeToo wave that implicates Trump all the more.  ACLU President Anthony Romero has even written an outstanding and detailed article on Trump as a “one-man constitutional crisis.”     (*See also John Cassidy’s summary of Trump’s first nine months in office here; Here is CNN’s report on Trump’s first six months in office; Here is the White House version of Trump’s first six months in office.  All citizens should be aware of the White House whitewashing—you’ve got to read this stuff!)  Anyone following the news in the most superficial of ways must be affected by its content, by what it tells us about our nation’s direction and relationship with its own residents.  The sum total is, in a word, trauma.

In the political realm, the worst 2017 moment I witnessed—the very worst day to have to admit I am from the United States—was the day the nation’s “president” traveled to Puerto Rico after the most devastating hurricane in the island’s history and blithely threw paper towels out to people at a relief center as if they were audience members on a game show (reported here by the BBC).  The reality of the White House’s relationship to Puerto Rico already presents abundant and problematic colonial legacies without complicating the personal, economic, and environmental losses resulting from Hurricane Maria (*see this piece from today’s El Nuevo Día for a summary of Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis).  The United States needs a leader who knows enough to listen to his own citizens from Puerto Rico, to appreciate the leadership of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and to understand Puerto Rico from a nuanced historical, economic, political, and artistic standpoint.  The paper towel incident epitomizes Trump’s ignorance, inhumanity, and willingness to do even more harm.

The other day, I read an article from the 12-29-17 edition of The New York Times about increased binge drinking in the United States.  The author, Gabrielle Glaser, writes: “Many alcohol researchers and substance-use clinicians believe the steady increase in problem drinking arises from a deeply felt sense of despair: ‘Since the attacks on 9/11, we’ve been in a state of perpetual war, and a lot of us are traumatized by that,’ said Andrew Tatarsky, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating people with substance-use disorders.”  The key concepts here are despair (in Spanish, desesperación, the emptying out of hope and expectations), perpetual war, and trauma.  Since I’ve gone from 36 years old to 52 since 9/11/2001, I haven’t been sure how to measure the ingredients of the increased sense of deep preoccupation: having children whose future I worry about; having parents whose well-being is/was a daily concern; experiencing my own aging process, physically, emotionally, and intellectually; the military-industrial complex with its trillion-dollar budgets that seem to rob us of any focus on education and health; the troubled belonging to a nation claiming to be the world’s keeper of democracy but continuing to operate dishonestly in the world and to diminish the sense of humanity of its own citizens; the sadness of it all; the shame.

For my friends who read this blog who wish I would stop bad-mouthing the United States, I hope you know that there are many elements of United States culture that I appreciate highly.  One of them is the freedom to write this blog and to express opinions that go against White House policy, leadership, and ethos.  Nevertheless, to be a responsible citizen is to understand when elected leaders have gone way beyond the power of their office, way beyond respect for human beings and the earth.  Being a responsible citizen means thinking through issues carefully, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and expressing platforms thoughtfully.  The Black Lives Matter movement happened for a whole host of important reasons. The knee-jerk “blue lives matter” response creates a false equivalency and gets us absolutely nowhere.  We have to get to the point at which we value and build upon movements that give voice and power to those who have been silenced and oppressed, or whose parents and grandparents were silenced and oppressed.

I keep saying that I was never able to get in front of 2017.  I’m a generally efficient person, but 2017 delivered so much national and global strife that organizing, reading, writing, and protesting had to occupy vast amounts of my time and mental space.  I needed to connect with others—in person and on digital platforms—to effect some change and to feel emotions not linked to shame.  Although this meant sacrificing elements of self-care (never a good idea), I was unable to find a better course of action and still haven’t.  I don’t know how to strike a balance between caring and caring too much because so much is at stake every single day.  The total solar eclipse tells us of how we lost the sun for a time, but maybe the 2018 supermoons will present a new story of how we can care for self and others.

C’mon. Are You Kidding Me?

(Summary headlines from The New York Times, 12-15-17)

I need to write about how 2017 kicked my ass month in and month out, but I will save that for next week.

I’m saving the story of 2017 kicking my ass for next week because, well, it is still kicking my ass.  Take a look at the images above, a partial list of headlines from the December 15th (2017) edition of The New York Times.  There is no end to the list of harassers and assaulters, and yet there also seems to be a long line of doubters, some of whom are boasting, jousting doubters who are causing a backlash against the women who have me-too-ed.

This past week, my family and I had the good fortune of seeing many family members and friends for the holidays.  We are lucky to want to see so many people and always feel like we come up short, like we wish we had another week to finish the conversations and start some new ones.  This year was no exception, but I did hear some conversations in big-group settings that I wish I hadn’t heard.

Men from my father’s generation think that women and men will never be on the same page and that the #MeToo business proves this.  They think that women have gotten uppity in their quest to rupture gender role expectations.  They have no idea what non-binary means, and they really don’t want to know.  They long for the days when things were simpler, when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and women just shut up about it.  These particular men in my conversation don’t necessarily want to wantonly stroke, grope, and fondle, but they certainly don’t want to have to hear any complainin’ about other men’s stroking, groping, and fondling.  Mostly, they long for the days when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and never question whether it was right or wrong. They definitely don’t want the words “stroking,” “groping,” and “fondling” to be replaced with “harassing,” “attacking,” and “assaulting.”  That’s just over the top.  Too much, I tell you.  It’s time to restore some balance and civility and let the strokes, gropes, and fondles fall where they may.

Men from my own generation want to gather to talk about not riding elevators with women.  They have had the Human Resources training.  They have read about Harvey Weinstein.  They want to maintain their sexist work cultures without the threat of being accused of sexual harassment.  They want to believe that sexual harassment and sexual assault are confusing and nuanced concepts.  They don’t know it, but they want to become Mike Pence and never dine with any woman who isn’t their wife (remember: that’s most women).  After all, any random woman on an elevator might accuse them of sexual harassment.  They don’t know how to be alone in an elevator with a woman because who knows what exactly sexual harassment is?  If they’re pushing buttons to get to the fourth floor, is that sexual harassment?  If they say hello to the other person in the elevator, is that sexual harassment?  I mean, who really knows?  How can you know?  Is it possible they could just say, “Hi.  How are you?” and then not stroke, grope, or fondle another person on the elevator?  If they could succeed in doing that, they might be able to assure themselves that this is not sexual harassment.

Many men from a generation younger than me seemed to actually get it.  Huzzah!  They understood that women and men are professionals.  They understand that most professionals prefer not to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, or otherwise harassed or assaulted at work.  They read articles and books about these issues, but mostly they talk to their friends, some of whom are cis-women, some of whom are trans-women, and all of whom do not want to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, harassed, or assaulted.  They all seem to know what these words mean.  They know how to ride in elevators and greet other human beings.  They know how to respect body autonomy, work etiquette, and human decency.

Nevertheless, one topic that still too few people are addressing is the assaulter-in-chief in the White House.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post that treats yet again why Trump must go.)  The more the old guys wax nostalgic about when women put up and shut up, the more the middle-aged guys worry that they might suddenly start masturbating on an elevator, the more we understand how so many people have indulged the assaulter-in-chief for so long, from long before his Russian-rigged run to the present day.  Accusing Trump of loudly admiring or detracting, stroking, groping, fondling, harassing, and assaulting—women and girls—might require people to assess what they themselves have done to others, what they themselves have indulged in others, and/or what they themselves have allowed others to do to them.  None of it is good.

2018 requires rigorous self-evaluation.  Figure out what you’ve done wrong, and then don’t do it again.  You can do this.  You can ride the elevator and just say “hello.”  You can work with women and appreciate their good work.  You can eat meals with people and move through an agenda. You really can.

Seven Words

(Photograph taken at a YMCA in Virginia.)

I took this photo a month or two ago at my daughter’s swim meet, held at the YMCA of a small Virginia city.  Of course, I know that the “Y” is a Christian organization, no problem.  At our local Y, there is a “scripture bowl” on the counter—also not a problem because everyone can sign up or not, read the scripture quotes or not.  Nevertheless, I was struck by how this quote from Corinthians, a quote displayed in the entryway and framing the experience you’ll have inside the Y, privileges faith over knowledge.  Sight, or knowledge, doesn’t supersede faith; sight doesn’t even walk alongside faith; sight is erased, eliminated as a way of knowing and existing in the world.  In my own naïve conceptualization of the world, I still do not understand how some religious, faith-based folks choose to ignore millennia of beautiful and useful discoveries, one built on top of the next, helping human beings to live, survive, and understand in more complex ways the world around us.  Shouldn’t we consider this sight, or knowledge, part and parcel of the wonder of the world, which I assume is captured in faith?  I ruminate on this here in order to grapple with the Trump administration’s imposed censorship, a move which seems to move a nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state to faith-based language, rather than evidence-based or science-based language, in official governmental contexts.

Not only have we been hit this week by the Senate Republicans’ passage of the tax scam, but also by news that the Trump administration has prohibited the use of seven words in official documents being prepared for the 2018 budget.  These seven words are DIVERSITY, ENTITLEMENT, EVIDENCE-BASED, FETUS, SCIENCE-BASED, TRANSGENDER, and VULNERABLE.  A few things I like about these words are: (1) they are words that we get to use how and whenever the hell we want; (2) “diversity” might remind some people that there are other people in the world who might be unlike them; (3) “entitlement” recalls that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (4) “evidence-based” and “science-based” demonstrate the profound power of scientific research and its importance for the well-being of human beings and the earth; (5) “fetus” distinguishes between beings that cannot survive outside a uterus and those that can; (6) “transgender” ruptures notions of binary approaches to sex and gender; (7) “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word for “wounding” and thus exposes the extent to which certain populations can be harmed in the face of dangerous policies, procedures, and tax bills. Think about it: the prohibition of these seven words provides linguistic evidence (oops, sorry, just call it “proof”) of the Trump administration’s fear of those who live in disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions, non-Christians, people not born in the United States, people of color born in the United States, people who refuse binary gender categories, women and their wombs, science and scientists, and the Earth.

The Washington Post gives specifics about the challenges for some agencies and departments in avoiding these terms that define some or much of the work they do: “At the CDC, several offices have responsibility for work that uses some of these words. The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention is working on ways to prevent HIV among transgender people and reduce health disparities. The CDC’s work on birth defects caused by the Zika virus includes research on the developing fetus.”  Can you imagine being an expert on, say, socioeconomic disparities and not being allowed to use the word “socioeconomic” or “disparity” in your research?  Let’s say you treat patients with prostate cancer, but you’ve been forbidden from saying either “prostate” or “cancer.”  I think our federal government has become a veritable poetry workshop as it asks us to use metaphor, simile, metonymy, and other rhetorical devices instead of precise terms for important concepts.  Kudos to Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon, who have captured this idea through their CDC Poetry Project.  If the past year has taught us nothing else, we have learned that we have to signal every single day the lies and hypocrisies of our government officials.  I am particularly struck by Trump’s, DeVos’, and Sessions’ calls to increased free speech, especially on college campuses, even as the administration prohibits the use of precise language in federal departments whose work affects us all. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on free speech.)

Last night I attended the town hall meeting of Virginia House Delegate Ben Cline.  We are all grateful to Delegate Cline for continuing to hold town hall meetings, especially in light of a five-year chase to find Representative Bob Goodlatte anywhere in the federal district he represents.  As Goodlatte steps down (only a couple of decades after he promised to), and Ben Cline plans to run for his seat, we can only hope that the one good thing Cline has going for him—a willingness to listen to and speak with all of his constituents—remains intact.  While Cline certainly has not started to censor language, he has transported his religious beliefs to the center of his legislative motivations and work.  When asked why his keenness for deregulation in business and jobs doesn’t translate to a deregulation in the control of women’s bodies, Cline could only reply, “Well, I’m pro-life.”  This reply, bald and unelaborated, basically tells his constituents, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

At this point, many of our government representatives are using the United States Constitution as a weapon against the people they have been elected to represent.  Freedom of speech expands hate speech rights (and, I would argue, subsequent acts of violence) and, in the case of this week’s CDC news, reduces freedom of expression in a whole host of realms.  The events of Charlottesville tell us that the freedom to assemble is only for selected groups, and the right to bear arms enhances the public power of those selected groups.  Freedom of religion is supposed to protect us from one, singular, state-imposed religion, but in fact we have become a Christian state, with real repercussions for those who choose to walk by another faith, or by no faith, or by a combination of faith and knowledge.  It’s time for our elected officials to recognize diversity, including among transgender individuals, embrace appropriate entitlements, understand vulnerability, take stock in evidence-based and science-based research, and give science-based context to the term ‘fetus.’

Her/His/Their

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xs

I have just returned from a two-day work trip to the Yucatan, for which I traveled with wonderful colleagues, met generous people, and researched opportunities for students. I teach Spanish and interact frequently with Spanish-speaking people from all over Spain and Latin America.  This trip, nevertheless, reminded me how easy it is to get into protective silos of like-minded individuals and to become accustomed to mostly egalitarian language use.

On this trip, I traveled with a female and a male colleague.  In many settings, I noticed that our male colleague was addressed first by most men.  They would initiate the conversation by calling my colleague “Jefe,” making a few jocular remarks, always kindly intended, and then asking questions of him. If my colleague didn’t hear this or they anticipated that it would be better to continue in English, they would reframe and call him “Boss.”  The first time I heard “Jefe,” I almost answered, simply because I speak Spanish and am the oldest of the group.  I cracked up each time as I had to remind myself that they were not addressing me, that they hadn’t said “Jefa,” and that, besides, silly, women aren’t bosses!  The “jefe”-way to exist in the world is never having to assume you’re not being directly addressed by the vast majority of people on the planet.  Think about it: If you’re in a group and you are the one always addressed first, and the address defers to your power in a hierarchy, you might start to make some significant assumptions about your importance and about your role in conversational movement and negotiation.  The others in your group might also make assumptions about their secondary role in the group.  And each time this happens, the use of “boss” might reinforce for the women that they are to be silent, to speak only when spoken to, to assume a less important role.  In other words, we are conditioned by language use and re-use, in part due to power dynamics and in part due to conduct codes, often based in niceness or politeness (jocularity among the men and the women graciously accepting abnegation).  In this case, niceness translates into deference, deference to the linguistic codes of men speaking with men.  Not one person in any of these situations was purposefully making the women secondary, not one.  But the effect, especially over the long haul, is just that.

Signs welcomed individuals with “Bienvenido” (masculine singular) or “Bienvenidos” (masculine plural), never making the nod to women or to non-binary categories.  I was critical of this in the Yucatan, but then noticed the very same code used upon my return to the U.S. as male travelers (“Bienvenido”) were welcomed one by one to Dulles International Airport.

Brilliant linguist and theorist and Mexican-American Chicana lesbian activist Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera that Chicana women from her community always used the masculine-identified pronouns when they spoke in the plural (nosotros, ellos), even when they were referring to a group of all women.  It wasn’t until Anzaldúa met groups of women from the Caribbean, whom she observed using the feminine endings (nosotras, ellas) in empowering ways, that it occurred to her that she herself could conceive of a specific gender in language and use it as she chose.  She found this discovery to foment more creative ways to think about identity through language, one of the major themes threaded throughout Borderlands/La Frontera.  Anzaldúa writes, “We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse” (54).  Similarly, linguistic codes of inclusion and exclusion continue to reinforce traditional gender roles.

In the English language, people can choose the pronoun that best describes their gender identities.  Our pronoun system has never been highly flexible, thus making the use of “he or she” or “his/her,” and now “they” and “their,” rather clunky.  In fact, I always wonder why “his” still always goes before “her,” even though an alphabetic ordering would have it go the other way.  The same goes for official forms that ask for gender/sex identification.  “Male” always comes before “female,” which seems to indicate a primacy of male, rather than an alphabetic ordering.  This may seem incredibly particular or picky, but, if we’re going to move from a universal he/him to a more inclusive set of pronouns and possessive adjectives, then I am curious about the subsequent linguistic choices we make.  The they/their option works well to allow people not to have to choose between two options and not to have to reinforce a gender binary that certainly has been busted open—quite appropriately—in many ways.  At the same time, the use of they/their for a single person can still cause great confusion simply because language still seems to want or need to distinguish between singular and plural.  Language is both wonderfully fluid and tremendously based on precedent.

My old and mostly male professors in graduate school used only the masculine forms to refer to us graduate students, even with a majority of women in the program.  I don’t think any of us took much notice, and we women just were defined by the –os endings.  In Spanish it used to be that you could have one thousand women and one man in a room and you would use the masculine ending to refer to the group.  We were taught this (in Spanish and French and Italian and Portuguese) from the get-go, and we kept it going because it was a language rule.  I remember a professor who, instead of referring to herself as “profe” (short for “profesora”) used “profa,” and other professors mocked her for this.  I also remember using “pilota” for referring to a woman pilot and being corrected, told to use “mujer piloto,” thus emphasizing that men universally are pilots and that women pilots are the exception.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall saying “hombre enfermera” for a male nurse, but rather “enfermero.”  The universal/exception rule only went so far, which is to say it continued to reinforce masculine domination in language and, by extension, in assumptions about the workplace.

About ten or so years ago, I followed others’ lead in using the “arroba,” or “at” sign, to designate both female and male endings in Spanish.  I especially liked seeing Latin@, with neither the “a” nor the “o” ending coming first, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to say this (“Latina/o,” “Latina/Latino,” “Latino/Latina”?) out loud, but at least any of these possibilities was actually say-able.  At this point, I’m used to interacting with many Spanish speakers who consistently use the –as and the –os endings for each word that includes both genders, and I try to do some of this, both in spoken and written Spanish.  The practice is less unwieldy than I thought it would be, but for me still requires focus and patience.  The newer use of “x” instead of the gender-marked “a” or “o” endings, somewhat parallel to a plural use of they/their in English to refer to a single person, really makes the point that we don’t have to label everyone and everything along gender lines, and I thoroughly appreciate this.  At the same time, the “x” symbol seems to negate, rather than create, and it is way more difficult to interpret its natural pronunciation in Spanish than the “at” sign was/is.  I also see as just too short the transition period in which women were consistently acknowledged in the increased use of the –a and –as endings for mixed groups.

The generations after mine have labored effectively to rupture binaries and to respect how individuals choose to self-identify.  In this dark political world, I take comfort in observing this change, this understanding that we can call people what they want to be called, or not put them in a category or box at all.  When I measure these efforts against the still pervasive “jefe/boss” paradigm, I see a huge gap in cultural practices and in rates of cultural change.  Until we are even more deliberate in our conversational practices, we will continue to have only one gender “bienvenido” in our private and public spaces.

Shame, in Five Acts

(Just your typical sign at the checkout counter of Dick’s Sporting Goods)

Act One: The Dream

Brown people are not stealing
the jobs of white people.
Brown people are not stealing.
White people steal in the dead of night—
borders, jobs, lands, people, words, paintings, ideas, bodies.
This is empire; this is colony.
Stealing it all and blaming those who lose it all.

Brown people are dreaming
dreams already made reality for the white people
who complain of brown people wanting too much,
living above their station, taking jobs meant for others,
articulating a desire to be treated as human beings.
Brown people are dreaming of a time when brown means
Work, labor, vida, amor—, and not having to see brown.

Act Two: One Lid at a Time

The alarm rings.
One eyelid opens.
Is he still president?
The other eyelid shudders,
can’t open, can’t greet the day.

The other eyelid opens,
burdened, heavy,
willing the eye not to see.
Do I still live in the United States?
Both eyelids close, shuttered.

The alarm insists.
Both eyes regard, en garde.
The body resists this existence
in a regime made in USA,
built to deny, hurt, annihilate.

Eyes open; heart resists.
Beat, come on, beat, heart,
start the day.  Beat, come on,
heart, beat the regime of the USA.
Beat, heart.  Beaten down.

The heart opens, starts the day.
Extends the glass, filled half-way.
Exists, resists, insists, has its say.
Buhm, buhm.  Buhm, buhm.
Buhm.  The regime seems here to stay.

 

Act Three: The Public Square

Charlottesville lies awake,
wide awake to the vultures
circling overhead, and to the
creatures in the swamp below,
as yet undrained.

Tiki torches take the public square,
telling a tale of who gets to spew
hate and rage and whose protest
must be put down, gunned down,
carred down, charred, laid to rest.

Both sides, they say?
One side was armed to the teeth,
Opening the mouth, speaking in
tongues that lie in wait, lie and hate–
a surefire way to create two sides.

The other side, you ask?
Where were they?
Told to stay away for their own safety,
told to be quiet for their own protection,
unable to be and breathe in the public square.

 

Act Four: Praise Be

Praise be, Roy Moore!
Rise and shine and give God your glory!
You are a good Christian man.
You are an elected official.
You are the best Republican
the State of Alabama has to offer.
You (allegedly) raped young girls.
You are to be defended, supported, paid for
by the Grand Old Party and its Groping Old President,
whose support for you confirms all we knew.

Praise be, Roy Moore!
Rise and shine and give God your glory!
You believe women should not hold office
but girls should hold you.
Your abnegating wife stands by your side
because the State of Alabama needs a landslide.
You cast shame; you cast blame,
but you feel none of your own, for
the Grand Old Party needs its tea
in the figure of Christian rapist Roy Moore.

 

Act 5: U.S. on the U.S. State Department Warning List

The State Department Warning List should include a lengthy bit on the United States and the dangers of traveling here.

Los Angeles, Ferguson, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and a long etcetera: Beware police violence

Charlottesville, Lexington, Richmond, and a long etcetera:  Beware Nazi and KKK violence on the streets

Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Charleston, Newtown, Blacksburg, and a long etcetera: Beware mass shootings

Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Alabama, New York, everywhere: Beware sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and rape

The United States: Beware the devastation of land and water

The Unites States airports and points of entry: Beware border violence against non-whites and non-Christians

The message? Beware, beware, beware.  No one welcome here.

(We’ve got a long road ahead.)