Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Praise of Pink (Toenails), Masculinity, and Transgender Propaganda

When we look at what the factors are that make life so miserable for young gays and lesbians, it’s tempting for progressives to point the finger at religious traditions that are hostile to sexual pluralism. But the young men in American high schools who are beating up other boys whom they suspect of being gay are rarely doing so in order to comply with a misunderstood dictate from the Torah or the Pauline epistles. It’s not faith that drives the hate as much as it is an overwhelming desire to establish masculine bona fides. “I torment faggots, therefore I can’t be one; I beat up queers, therefore I’m a man.” That toxic equation may be aided and abetted by conservative religion, but it isn’t rooted in it. Rather, the hateful behavior is rooted in the rigid rules of American masculinity, a masculinity predicated on a contempt for and a paranoia about even the slightest whiff of femininity among the be-penised. ~ "Homosociality and Homophobia: Why the Distorted Rules of “Manhood” are the Real Problem" by Hugo Schwyzer

As a little one, I adored pink and covered myself with it. And then at some point, I started to hate it. Perhaps it had to do with being outnumbered by brothers? I don’t know. La
ter, I started distancing myself from masculinity. I straight-up ran away from it after leaving home, surrounding myself almost exclusively by other women during a time when I equated masculinity with violence and power-over. Now, I crave spaces made up of all kinds of genders. And I love to hear male-identified folks discussing masculinity in a way that is conscious of and challenges misogyny (women-hating), homophobia, and power dynamics. I also enjoy observing what kind of masculinity attracts me. At the Reproductive Rights Conference that I recently attended, I sat in on the Masculinity panel where I bore witness to four masculine-identified folks talking about their relationships, favorite music, childhood, privilege, and their vivid gender expressions. (To see projects that some of the panelists are apart of creating, check out Interseqtion and The Brown Boi Project) My assumptions were challenged in many ways by hearing the stories of folks who may feel most comfortable with a hyper-masculine presentation and who also use a female pronoun. Or folks who choose a masculine identity that challenges their upbringing, who also love their toenails painted and love glitter and faerie wings. I love this both/and (rather than either/or mentality) and the space felt really liberating to me. I've been reflecting since on the conversation about masculinity as separate from domination and misogyny, disentangling these in my mind.

As thoughts of masculinity have become more present and rolling around in my mind these past days, pink keeps coming up, as well as the theme of community response. I recently read the article Brazil Stadium Turns Pink After Faggot Chants Shock Community. In response to homophobic chants targeted at Michael Santos during a game, his volleyball teammates showed their support by wearing rainbows and pink. The larger community responded as well...

Michael Santos and his teammates

Community response - a pink stadium! and "
Vôlei Futuro Against Prejudice" banner

Soon after reading about this brillant community response to homophobic targeting, my friend sent me this clip: Stand Up! - Don't Stand for Homophobic Bullying by the BeLonG To, an organization which supports gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth in Ireland.

Again, positive, strong, and loving community response! More and more in the media and sometimes in our schools, workplaces, and even our own homes, we're surrounded by people on ridiculous and hateful tirades about topics that really have nothing to do with them, besides feeling threatened by their own insecurities, as if those seeking basic human rights are personally attacking them. Writing them off silently or with sarcastic remarks doesn't really do anything to make our world safer for all of us to be who we are and love who we will without fear or threat of violence, homelessness, being disowned, etc. We need to take action. And I love creative community responses like the one above.

Another public homophobic and transphobic attack has taken place recently. Targeted at a 5 year old! JCrew recently included a photo of designer Jenna Lyons giggling with her son. The scandal - her son's toenails are painted! Pink!!!!!

Media Research Center, which claims to be America's Media Watchdog whose mission is to bring balance to the news media, published J.CREW Pushes Transgendered Child Propaganda:Women's clothing company highlights pink nail-polish wearing boy in promotional email, where they write that JCrew is "targeting a new demographic - mothers of gender-confused young boys. At least, that's the impression given by a new marketing piece that features blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." Lyons is "exploiting Beckett (the son) behind the façade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.... Propaganda pushing the celebration of gender-confused boys wanting to dress and act like girls is a growing trend, seeping into mainstream culture."

I was speechless when I first heard these claims. How someone can see this image and instead of feeling warm and mushy inside and/or have the urge to paint their toenails pink, see gender-confusion and transgender propaganda only shows how our rigid gender-roles keep us all confined. Boys and men must stay within such a narrow path of the ever-changing rules of what it is to be a man, otherwise they are called names (often accused of being queer - as if this is a bad thing - which shows how linked sexism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia are), assaulted, even killed. When I've traveled in parts of Canada and Ireland I've been struck by some the interactions between men that I’ve witnessed - standing closer to each other, dressing nice without this calling into question their sexuality - and realized how suffocatingly limiting the rules for "manly" behavior here in the U.S. are.

When my nephew was 2, he loved pink, just like his big sister. They'd get into some pretty intense fights over who got to use the pink cup at snacktime and when I painted my nieces toenails pink, he wanted his done as well. I definitely was not going to tell my 2 year old nephew that his sister was allowed to have pink toenails, but he couldn't, or why some grownups might get bent out of shape at the appearance of his new paint job. So I went ahead and painted them. And gave them the Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls genderific coloring book (also available: Sometimes The Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon and Girls Are Not Chicks coloring books), and I hope that they know that whoever they choose to be, whoever they choose to love, I will support them. Whatever pronoun they wish to be called by, whatever gender expression they choose, whoever they want to date, they have my blessing and my only concern is that they are happy and healthy and growing. And I've got a new little OOMS on the way, soon to arrive. My nephew just came up with this gender-neutral term, OOMS = Offspring of My Sibling. I thought of nephiece. His was better. (Just another part of the Transgender Propaganda Machine!)

And as always, Jon Stewart's had a hilarious response to this whole pink toenail fiasco:

Psychiatrist Keith Ablows' article on Fox News is actually even more frightening that what's included in the above clip. Responding to the text in the advertisement, he writes

"Yeah, well, it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure. This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” [author's word choice] is not known."

He goes on,

Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts? Why not make race the next frontier? What would be so wrong with people deciding to tattoo themselves dark brown and claim African-American heritage? Why not bleach the skin of others so they can playact as Caucasians? ...These folks (at JCrew) are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.

First of all, who amongst us couldn't use at least a little bit of therapy?! Especially in a mainstream culture that is so brainwashed by and obsessed with the idea that heterosexuality is "normal" and that all else should be dismissed, belittled, or destroyed. Unfortunately, even for those of us that can access therapy, psychiatry as a field creates a hostile environment for those whose gender and sexual identities lay outside what's considered "normal." Transgenderism (called "gender identity disorder") is still listed in the DSM - The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association- as a mental disorder. Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder as well, up until 1986. So, in terms of seeking out therapy to explore gender identity, unless a practitioner has done their work to explore gender both personally and systematically, and in a liberating way, rather than what is sanctioned by the field, we've got a case of trying to dismantle the master's house using the master's tools, which, as Audre Lorde writes, can not be done.

That a psychiatrist, so soon after the recent suicides by youth who endured constant bullying about their sexualities, insists on using such inflammatory language to create a vicious environment is completely unacceptable, unprofessional, and dangerous. That professionals who are supposed to support our overall health are so caught up in projecting their own personal judgments and obsessions that they refuse to accept their clients' life choices
that cause no one any harm is psychologically abusive. This is a form of violence.

Ablows’ claim of “crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts” is not only completely medically inaccurate, it clearly shows how fear-based his entire argument is. He isn’t talking about the anatomy of those with vulvas being amputated, but he doesn’t specify his personal horror at the thought of being de-penised. Clearly, he has no clue about gender confirmation surgery, sometimes called gender reassignment surgery. This irrational claim sounds quite similar to medically-inaccurate, fear-based abstinence only sex ed programs that claim to be based on morals, but instead are completely out of touch with reality and end up actually causing more sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies. These are just the tangible results of such programs and the mentalities they’re based on – they also encourage an atmosphere of shame, secrecy, and ignorance about other’s bodies and our own. This creates fertile ground for abuse. Ablows’ comments similarly create such an atmosphere and does a disservice for not only those questioning their gender, but also the family members, friends, religious leaders, co-workers, health care providers, and other community members who care for and about them. For those interested in learning how to better support their friends and loved ones who are going through gender transition and/or confirmation surgery (specifically “female-to-male” top surgery), see Jacoby Ballard’s zines (booklets) listed on this site’s product list page. Also, the organization RU12? leads trainings for health care providers and community members focused on improving patient care to queer and transgender clients/patients.

As for Albows’ use of the term "Psychological sterilization" - With this country's long history past and present of genocide through sterilization of indigenous, Puerto Rican, Black, Japanese, and other women of color, homosexuals, and people with disabilities (though of course sometimes these identities overlap), referring to this non-event as a form of "psychological sterilization" is completely disgraceful. Dr. Ablows is drawing on his manufactured authority as an educated, upper-class, straight, white male to again speak about something he clearly knows nothing about. White people who grasp for racial parallels to bolster their own argument completely out of historical context only contribute to misunderstanding, racism, and white supremacy. Attempting to connect painting a boy-childs toenails with changing one's skin color to pretend they're members of another race is problematic in numerous ways. First, race, like gender, is socially constructed, but he talks of these like they are biological categories that threaten the whole human race if defied. Also, Caucasian is a fictitious categorization of light-skinned (white) people who wanted to create a non-African place of origin for themselves. (Details, details, but I think it's important when discussing "race" and racism to remember that much of what we've been taught, and the language that we've been given to discuss it, is confusing at best and usually perpetuates racist ideas of people being broken up into distinct races in the first place.) And it's just plain irresponsible and ignorant for a white person in the U.S. to bring up the topic of skin color without doing their homework to understand and pass on to others accurate information about the history of skin color in terms of economics/employment, class, racism, and slavery, and how it affects us still today.

It's up to us to educate ourselves because Fox News is not about giving us empowering information to understand the world around us, and to be able to see through weak and selfish arguments such as the one from Ablows, who seems to lack any integrity at all.

He was also wrong about the pink nail polish. It was not an attack on masculinity. It was a transformation of masculinity, a fabulousization of masculinity! And if we don't want his type of masculinity, which attacks people, stigmatizes gender exploration, and perpetuates homo/transphobia, then we have to change it! It is easy to write off a wealthy white man on Fox News. However, homophobia and transphobia could not thrive if it wasn't upheld daily in a million different ways - ways that we ourselves within our families, schools, homes, workplaces, places of worship, doctor's offices, organizations, and other communities act out oppressive dynamics that we were taught.

Oh, and the Ultimate Fighting Champion, Chuck Liddell, that Jon Stewart refers to? Here are his sweet feet:

Pink and black!
To the Masculinities panelists, Interseqtion
, The Brown Boi Project, BeLonG To, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls coloring book creatrixes, Jenna Lyons, the players of Vôlei Futuro and all you lovely people with your pink noodles in the crowd, Chuck Liddell and his toenails, and all the others who transform masculinity daily just by being your beautiful pink-toenail-polished (if you like) selves: Thank you! You give me hope.

I’ve recently offered to all my male-identified friends and family members to paint their toes pink with non-toxic nail polish, along with an herbal footbath and foot massage. I’d love to offer the same here, but I know some of you are reading from quite far away, so I’d like to encourage you to team up and make this happen yourselves - I’ll post some herbal spa self-care info and recipes soon.

P.S. My toenails are painted pink right now. In solidarity and because I'm reclaiming the color...

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