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Everyday People*

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The New York City Police Department has a melting pot guide for its officers. This guide offers tips for understanding the ingredients that make up our multicultural stew. At first blush it would seem a little quaint in the 21st century to need such a guide (in New York City). Unless the police recruits are coming from a small town (in the 1950s!) it’s a pretty sure bet that they’ve met or seen people of other backgrounds. But more than a cursory familiarity is needed on the front lines.

What is striking about this 21st century guide is the assumptions it makes. The reports of its content would suggest that it is written for the white, Christian, heterosexual police officer. Unfortunately there’s nothing unique about this approach. “Diversity” manuals are almost always written from that perspective (and without irony!) Social worker guidelines, medical manuals, public and private sector human resource documents are almost always written from the perspective of the white Christian heterosexual. Anyone doubting this need only flip through the tomes in pursuit of the chapter: Understanding White Christian Heterosexuals. Good luck with that.

Beside the obvious bias that this perspective has, there is a larger efficacy issue at hand. Police officers, social workers, et al. who are not white, Christian and heterosexual experience a gap in their training. A social worker, let’s say from an observant Jewish urban background, working in a rural white Christian area is not well served by this type of training. It is assumed that she will know the customs and culture of white rural Christians. The assumption that NYPD officers are white, Christian and heterosexual is (mercifully) outdated. A first-generation Chinese-American police officer may be well versed in the customs of Chinese-Americans but not know the customs and culture of white Christians. It is true that people who are outside of the power-base of a society know some of the ways of that power group. It is an integral key to survival to know of the holidays and some customs of Christians, whites and heterosexuals if you are not of that background. But the more subtle cultural cues (the type which are always addressed in these manuals and training) need to be spelled out clearly for all people of all backgrounds. Creating diversity manuals, which only have the potential of being 100% effective for white Christian heterosexuals transcends irony.

By not viewing whites, Christians and heterosexual people as a “group” we are asserting that these people are the norm and everyone else is a minority or special interest. This perspective is not helpful and is on the verge of being utterly false. If nothing else it is woefully old-fashioned. When it comes to the topic of cultural awareness we must be ahead of the curve not behind it.

*I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do – Sly Stone (1968)

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Surviving AIDS

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There are (at least) two AIDS exhibits in New York City right now. One is part of a larger exhibit about activism in NYC and the other focuses on the first five years of the disease in NYC. Both of these exhibits are limited in their focus rendering them both effective. To create one exhibit that tells the 30+ year story of the disease, the social impact & history, the science and politics would be daunting and possibly not very meaningful. Historians and curators are familiar with this phenomenon if they’ve ever struggled with how to tell the story of something that changed everything. It’s best to narrow the focus to help people experience the story on the most intimate level.

It’s remarkable (and worth noting) that exhibits about AIDS have moved beyond a quilt exhibition. While nothing will mitigate the devastation, loss and shameful politics of the period, it is exhilarating to consider how far we’ve come. There is now an entire generation who has come into their sexuality without fear of death. The anxiety of HIV/AIDS testing is a distant memory for most. In the past, people would debate the trip to the doctor/clinic, not convinced that they actually would want to know. Weeks were spent waiting for the results, which could only be given in person. Today, like ovulation, pregnancy, and blood sugar, HIV testing can now be done at home. There is still no cure and there is still stigma, but boy have things changed, and that is a story worth telling.

Back in the early 1980s people started getting a rare form of cancer. The fact that it seemed to be striking gay men caused doctors to create the name GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). A year or two later the name changed to the more accurate AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and a few years later (1986) HIV was identified. In those first few years there was little information and as is often the case, rumor and fear filled the void. All that was really known was that homosexual men were getting very sick and dying. It was not known how exactly the disease could and could not be transmitted. Was it airborne? Could you get it from touching skin, sharing food, drink, or smoke? Patients were quarantined and communities were panicked. Things only got worse when a dormant period of the disease came to light. People who looked and felt perfectly healthy became concerned. Film and movie sets grew tense seemingly overnight. Few actors were ‘out’ in the early 1980s but friends and colleagues suspected (or knew firsthand). You couldn’t tell who might be sick (or harboring the disease) and therefore everyone (who seemed gay) was suspect. Some actresses refused to do kissing/sex scenes. Some actors refused as well (there is very sad and painful footage of Rock Hudson trying to avoid kissing Linda Evans). People in real life changed their behavior as well. Some people were concerned about their hairdresser. Should he be touching clients? Waiters drew public concern as they touched the tableware. Homosexuals, a group profiled since the dawn of time, were now seen as potentially dangerous, even lethal.

Devastation often brings people together, and the disease did. Gays (and lesbians) came together to support, fight and care for the ill. They took to the bedside, the streets, the stage and made their presence known. They drew attention not just to the disease but also to the deafening silence of political leadership. It’s impossible to separate the political stance and funding allocation for AIDS with the perception of it being a ‘gay disease’. In the later 1980s very public evidence of the equal opportunity of infection came to light. Ryan White’s mother sued the Indiana Department of Education in late 1985. Ryan, a hemophiliac had AIDS and wanted to attend school. Elisabeth Glaser died from AIDS in 1984 after receiving a tainted blood transfusion. (Both of her children died shortly thereafter.) She was married to a very popular actor at the time. And disgusting as it is, it’s true; a child and a celebrity spouse made for a better cause than homosexuals.

One could certainly argue that the disease galvanized a movement and a visibility that has birthed today’s civil rights progress. But oh what a price was paid. Entire communities were lost (particularly in the arts.) An inconceivable amount of people has died from AIDS (25 million) worldwide. People are still contracting the disease all over the world, the worst infection rate is in sub-Saharan Africa. Prevention in these countries is incredibly challenging. Here at home there are many many people of all backgrounds and orientation experiencing a degree of sexual freedom that would make 60s love-in participants blush. It’s likely that safe sex is not often practiced. AIDS is no longer seen as a death sentence, but something for which you can take a pill (and not a regime of dozens of pills at specific times of the day). But it is still a helluva disease with no cure and it’s most certainly best to avoid it.

We can be grateful that the fear has lifted and for the medical progress that has been made. But it’s vital that men and women who have no memory of 30 years ago be told the story. It’s not about making people feel badly it’s about giving them roots. Knowing where we came from and how far we’ve come is empowering. When we feel strong and relevant we engage in less risky behavior.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Progress=Death?

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A man was targeted and killed for being gay; in Greenwich Village this week. People are killed all the time of course. But targeting someone because of being gay in the geographical home of Northeast gay liberation is shocking. There will always be people who are threatened by others. But it does seem that anti-gay violence has increased in recent months. Yes, it could be that the stories make the mainstream airwaves now (versus barely a mention in years past.) But the past year’s crime statistics in New York City would suggest that is not the case. Hate crimes have gone up, and presumably some of that hatred is aimed at LGBT people. Why, 44 years (almost to the day) after Stonewall does this violence exist?

How others live their life is of little concern to most people. It is only when our lives (inner or outer) feel weakened or threatened that we pick our head up and look around. Our negative thoughts and feelings about strangers come from our sense of instability. If we are not happy with our lives or ourselves it is (briefly) satisfying to malign others. We can call it bullying or bashing; its genesis is the same, and there is nothing new about it. Bullying/bashing is almost always perpetuated on those who are perceived as weaker. There was a time that by virtue of their position in society and actual laws regarding their personal lives. LGBT people were frequently victimized. A person who may fear for his/her job, housing, family connections, makes an easy target. Bullies could lash out without much fear of repercussion. Who would press charges? Even if charged, would society care? No doubt there were people sitting at home thinking; ‘well if they knew he was gay he must have been doing something ‘gay’ at the time.’ And that, for many people in olden times, was upsetting.

But this is 2013. Studies (for the past decade or two) have consistently shown that younger people (college age) don’t view LGBT people as an anomaly. Many teens now publicly identify as LGBT, in numbers and manner that children of even the 1970s couldn’t have even dreamed. LGBT people are openly serving in politics and the military (both rather straight-laced professions.) With the exception of a religious institution (or the Boy Scouts) it’s difficult to conjure a profession that would (lawfully) oust an employee for identifying as LGBT. It happens, there’s no doubt, but it’s not routine and it’s certainly not legal. LGBT people are now represented in television and film as something other than the object of ridicule. This is no small thing, as there are many subgroups that are still considered an acceptable punch line by virtue of their appearance.

So how could there be violence towards a people who have made such significant strides? Could it be that it is because of those strides that we are seeing this abhorrent behavior? Can it be that individuals who feel dissatisfied with themselves and their lives are as antagonized by the belief that someone is ‘getting what’s mine’ as they were/are by those who are seemingly weaker? Are attacks on people who are finally getting what’s rightfully theirs (civil rights) inevitable? Is it an inherent part of the battle, these innocent casualties that occur as we get closer to victory? Must Freedom Riders always be sacrificed for freedom?

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Will Someone Care?

There is a beautiful piece in today’s paper about, amongst other things. isolated geriatric gay men.   The generation that is now elderly, came of age in the late 1930s and 1940s.  Historically, not the best of times to be “out.”  It stands to reason that when one must keep their personal life in the dark, their personal life may not grow and thrive.  Certainly there are heart warming stories about men and women who defied convention during these times.  (Juxtaposed to the very sad piece about gay men dying alone was the grin inducing piece about a gay couple who met in 1944 and lived together for 60 years.)

I don’t think these two stories being about men is a coincidence.  I will venture that fewer gay women live a life of solitude, or if in partnership; notice.  An upside to our society’s gender bias is (remarkably) fewer gender lifestyle restrictions for women.  Women have lived together for centuries.  Boston Marriage, anyone?  Two women setting up housekeeping is not only not a “threat” to their community, but considered quaint.  Women who cross-dress (think: Annie Hall) are seen as creative or fashion forward.  I’m not so sure anyone would think that of a man in a dress (of course, they’ve probably never seen Eddie Izzard.)  Adding to society’s gender inequity is plain old biology.  Love it or hate it, there is a difference between girls and boys.  Chromosomal testing results aside, I am the first to say it is difficult to discern what is biological and what is sociological.  Let’s just decide not to be entirely definitive on the origin, but agree that women experience the world more socially than men.  GENERALLY.  Very very generally.  Women tend to have more friends and intimates and stronger social networks.  Women tend to process the world through relationships.  Again, generally.

The duality of a) the community accepting women cohabiting and b) women tending to have strong social supports contribute to gay women presumably being at less of a risk of aging/dying alone.  The author of the geriatric piece, Dr. Eskildsen, urges us to not to assume heterosexuality when working with patients.  I happen to think “not assuming heterosexuality” is just a good rule to live by, period.  However, I might shy away from sexual orientation emphasis when it comes to issues of isolation.

Aside from the obvious gender chasm (versus sexual orientation chasm) that I’ve described above.  Many people either choose, or through happenstance, live a very solitary life.  Some people even flat out prefer to be alone.  It would seem to me that the goal should be to avoid projecting our own desires onto someone else.  Tending to a person (geriatric patient or otherwise) according to what the individual craves is the most humane.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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