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.

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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

@

x

@s

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.)