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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 The assumption that NYPD officers are white, Christian and heterosexual is (mercifully) outdated.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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Integrating Sports

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Organized sports have been in the news an awful lot lately, and not in a bowl/pennant/series kind of way. It’s been all about sex. Sexual orientation, sexual (mis)behavior, and gender orientation in team sports has been popping up like kernels in a Jiffy Pop. The accumulated effect of these pops is to force us to look at sports with fresh eyes. Why are teams gender-specific? Well, because (we sputter), because…men are biologically larger. Sometimes they are, and that is an ancient argument that we used to keep women out of the police force, the firehouse and the military.

If a standard of physical skill and strength is set for a team, why does it matter the gender of the player? Organized sports have never been so popular amongst children. Free-range play for every age of child has been replaced by team sports. During the K-12 years, boys and girls are often the same size, and in some cases the girls are bigger. There are unisex teams for children, but usually they only lasts until middle school. Most sports do not legally allow full body tackles. So if a girl/woman has an equal skill to that of a boy/man what is the issue exactly? Why are we hanging onto this gender specific paradigm? We let go of most gender specific curriculum years ago (show of hands for those who remember being tracked into sewing/cooking or mechanical drawing/shop.) The “Boys” and “Girls” engravings on old school doors while quaint are ignored. Title IX opened up an entire world of athletics to girls. And that was good. But it has been almost two generations since the initiation of that progress. Team sports have become as routine an endeavor for girls as ballet once was. So why aren’t boys and girls playing on the same team? Well, (ahem) what of the locker rooms, you ask?

Why in the world do we design locker rooms in which there is no privacy, particularly in schools? Is there ever a life stage more rife with body image issues?! Why do we subject any person to such a thing? Heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, transgender; everyone deserves a little privacy. That aside, the short answer to the locker room question is; build locker rooms with private showers equipped with a small vestibules (with hooks and shelves.) Lockers can be in a communal setting and dressing/undressing can be done privately.

Any organization, which by definition is for only one segment of the population, cultivates a potentially unhealthy camaraderie. The less diverse a group the more myopic their orientation. A group can easily influence even the most open-minded individual, particularly when they’re coached that there is no “I” in team. It is in closed societies that we often find misdeeds towards others. Opening up the teams to any person with the skills/talents to play the sport will create a better environment for all.

As more young people openly identify as transgender and/or L(esbian),G(ay),B(isexual) we will be faced with privacy and equity issues. And this is good. When we change the way school athletics is handled we will (eventually) see the effect on professional sports. It took years of Title IX to get us to the WNBA, and we certainly have a ways to go in other sports. But it is progress, and that is good.

 
 

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Sports Talk

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Team sports and bad behavior have been linked more than a few times recently. The theme of the stories isn’t necessarily new nor are their clusterings. It’s common that news producers bring similar stories (of any vein) to the forefront resulting in the illusion of clustering. The fact remains that bad behavior in team sports probably happens all the time to varying degree. What makes the recent spate of stories worth examining is that they’ve prompted conversations regarding homosexuals in sports. Several sport professionals and commentators have made grim pronouncements and analysis about the state of ‘tolerance’ in team sports. More than a handful of serious men are giving serious thought to what homosexuality means to and how it affects team sports. Armchair commentators are baffled by the efforts to correct what they experience as innocuous behavior. Some harken back to their own survival of a coach’s wrath and wonder what the hell has happened to sports.

What seems to be missing from all of these conversations is women. Where is the serious analysis of women’s sports teams? Why are we not discussing what a locker room might look like with openly gay women in it? Where are the exposes of women coaches yelling gay slurs at her athletes? Putting aside the fact that women sports teams are not nearly as financially lucrative as their male counterparts, why the discrepancy? Why do we not seem to care all that much about the sexual orientation of women athletes? Why is it hard to even imagine a woman using a lesbian slur? Can we even picture a locker room in which any female athlete would care a whit about the orientation of a teammate? Could it be that the recent ‘homosexuals in sports’ conversation is much more about ‘machismo in sports’?

Men dominate sports, and sports are often about domination. For men (regardless of orientation) homosexuality can be seen as a threat to machismo/dominance. Much of the anti-homosexual slurs don’t refer to men loving men, but of a state of being effeminate. Of course on a purely rational level it’s hard to imagine anything more masculine than men partnered with other men. It is the very celebration of manhood that is what defines homosexuality, but we digress.

Even if we ignore women being ignored in this conversation, we are still left questioning whether we’re being ingenuous in this conversation. Is it really about how athletes and coaches view and treat homosexuals? Or is it that male sports teams are defined by homogeneity and there is little room for divergence? Could it be that male team sports is an ancient phenomenon and like a good chorus line, is dependent upon a neutrality of identity? Is the version of machismo fostered by team sports am ancient defense to the intense touching and often underdressed state of teammates? Could it be that self-concsciousness that sometimes leads to bad behavior with women? Could it be that all traditionally all-male groups suffer from the same self-consciousness? Could that be behind “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Boy Scout ban? Could all the bigotry really just be an attempt to affirm; “No, I’m not, they are!”

 
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Posted by on April 22, 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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