Excuse This Disruption: #MeToo Must Not Neglect Race

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s political fire turned into smoldering ruins last week as allegations by his former partners of emotional, physical, verbal and sexual abuse came to light in an article in The New Yorker. It is now clear that the former head of law enforcement for New York state strategically assumed the rhetoric of the gender equity and justice movements for political gain—while in private, according to the allegations, his behavior consisted of intimate partner violence that derived from exercising unequal power and control to the point of physical assault and emotional abuse.

Since the news has broken, the analysis of his alleged behavior has rightfully been framed within the lens of domestic and sexual violence—but it is important that we do not ignore the racial elements in the allegations against Scheniderman.

Tanya Selvaratnam, a Sri Lankan artist and activist, claims that he called her a “brown slave,” forced her to say that she was his property and hit her until she complied. This behavior hearkens back to the painful colonial past that many South Asians carry with them, and reflects the belief that white people are racially superior to brown and black people.

This moment is a pivotal one for our movement: Schneiderman’s racism should provoke just as much disgust and demand for accountability as his misogyny.

Undoubtedly, the cosmic shift occurring in our national socio-political landscape by way of #MeToo and #TimesUp is refreshing. Collectively, we are exhuming and ripping open the fastened coffins of abuse and sexual violence. But in spite of the presence of and need for active participation in these social movements, they do not offer an identifiable space for a significant segment of survivors. For women who do not occupy positions of power or privilege, much of this has been a conversation that is unrelated to their lives.

The experiences of women of color in situations of abuse do not occur in gender silos—and our movements for social change must not treat race and gender separately. It is not a far stretch to wonder whether Selvaratnam would have been believed without additional narratives by a white woman against the same powerful man. For women of color, speaking up and coming forward can be extremely dangerous—we are often not believed, and we face a brunt of victim-blaming.

During this moment of reflection, it is necessary to hold a mirror to our unified face to share the complexity of the allegations against Schneiderman. The experiences of survivors cannot be sanitized in a gendered construct; in fact, overtly being viewed as “other” is yet another thread in the narrative of sexual violence. Limited frameworks for these revelations and conversations only perpetuate the racism, sexism and classism that has deeply saturated the fabric of our culture and divides our collective experiences.

The very nature of a survivor is to be resilient; to face adversity in spite of challenge. We can stand with them by putting structures in place that stop them from experiencing any additional abuse. In order to do so in this moment, we must support survivors beyond listening to their stories—and acknowledge the racial impact of violence.

Kavita Mehra is Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women.

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This Summer, Go See Women-Centric Films!

Last week, leaders of the Cannes Film Festival signed a pledge to improve gender parity at film festivals. The pledge, drafted by the French organization 50x50x2020, includes commitments to increasing the number of women-directed films chosen for festivals and greater transparency in selection processes—such as revealing the identity of members of the selection and programming committees, including information about gender breakdowns of film crews in the application process and a movement toward gender parity on executive boards.

50x50x2020 also organized the red-carpet protest in which 82 women, led by this year’s jury president Cate Blanchett and French director Agnes Varda, stood together on the stairs. Joining Blanchett and Varda in silent protest were many other stars, including Jane Fonda, Kristen Stewart, Marion Cotillard, Salma Hayak and filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Kim Longinotto.

“82 women, representing the number of female directors who have climbed these stairs since the first edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946,” said Blanchett, reading from a statement. “In the same period, 1,688 male directors have climbed these very stairs. In the 71 years of this world-renowned festival, there have been only 12 female heads of its juries. The prestigious Palme d’Or has been bestowed upon 71 male directors, but only two female directors, Jane Campion, who is here in spirit, and the wonderful Agnes Varda who is here today. These facts are stark and undeniable.”

The signing ceremony brought together feminists and an international cadre of pro-equality movements representing Time’s Up (both in the U.S. and the UK), Dissenso Comune in Italy, IMA in Spain and Women’s Wave in Greece. Female members of this year’s jury including Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, Léa Seydoux and Ava DuVernay attended. France’s culture minister, Françoise Nyssen, and the national film board president, Frédérique Bredin, also took part.

The fact that the first signing happened at Cannes, one of the most well-known film festivals in the world, and arguably the one with the most work to do in terms of gender parity, is an important first step and represents true progress. And it should be celebrated. But we really do have so far to go.

Although some film festivals, notably Sundance, where I serve as chair of the board, have been actively working on inclusion for years, getting to 50×50 is harder to achieve than it may seem. In 2012, The Sundance Institute and Women in Film launched the Female Filmmakers Initiative to foster gender parity behind the camera. They commissioned research with Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications to analyze the gender composition among content creators in the independent film space. This kind of research had never been undertaken before.

In the first and second phases, Stacy and her team looked at the barriers and opportunities for women in independent film getting into festivals and focused on films included in the previous decade—2002 to 2012—at the Sundance Film Festival. In the third phase, they looked at what happened in the careers of female filmmakers whose films were featured at Sundance in terms of distribution deals, exhibition patterns, opportunities to direct and funding for new projects.

Stacy and her team found a broken pipeline in the independent film world for female filmmakers, particularly for women in the narrative space. From 2002 to 2012, roughly 17 percent of U.S. narrative directors, versus 35 percent in docs, and 30 percent of U.S. narrative producers, versus 46 percent in docs, were women. Additionally, working in a male-dominated industry meant women must also navigate gendered financial barriers and exclusionary hiring practices in Hollywood. Of the top 100 grossing films from 2002 to 2012, only 4.4 percent of all directors were women.

4.4 percent!

Their report notes that “clearly, females—particularly directors—face a steep fiscal cliff as they move from independent to studio-based fare.” You can watch more of what Stacy and her team found in their research by watching her TEDWomen talk on the data behind Hollywood’s sexism.

In order to include more films made by women in festivals, we need more films made by women! Gender stereotypes and financial barriers still exist for women filmmakers—even those who have successful first films. When Stacy and her team asked industry experts to name attributes of a successful narrative director, they named twice as many traditionally associated male attributes as female ones. This tendency to “think director, think male” is a real problem.

But even if you don’t work in the film and television industry, there is something very powerful you can do. Part of the process of repairing the pipeline for women in film, in all areas—producing, behind and in front of the camera — is on us.

Miss Representation, a wonderful organization led by filmmaker, actor, activist and advocate Jen Siebel Newsom, is working to empower women into leadership positions in media and to fundamentally change the representation of women behind and in front of the camera, protesting negative stereotypes often perpetuated by the roles and stories that do make it all our screens from theaters to television to phones. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” underlies their entire mission. And part of their campaign is encouraging women, who represent 85 percent of consumers, to consume better and more consciously.

As she noted in her 2011 TEDWomenX talk, we need to vote with our dollar and we need to vote with our media choices. This summer, Miss Representation is asking people to go see a movie written, directed or produced by a woman. “Let’s change the narrative,” they tweeted. “Cannes is just the beginning.” Women and Hollywood is helping you get involved with a weekly blog post name-checking films about women opening each week and an uber-list of women-centric films coming in 2018 in theaters, on streaming services and cable that you should bookmark right now.

As you can see, there are a lot of projects on the list. That’s progress, too. Some of the films I’m looking forward to watching in theaters and on screens this month include Book Cluba new film starring four women actors—Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenbergen—who have been on the frontlines challenging stereotypes and creating new opportunities for women in film for decades; RBG, a documentary about the incredible career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen; and The Tale by Jennifer Fox, both breakout films at Sundance earlier this year.

Choose to pay for and watch films that align with your values—and check the credits for names of the many talented women prepared to take on all of the positions behind and in front of the camera, from leading actor to director to producer to every other position. The very least we can demand is for something closer to the true representation of women consumers of media. That change begins with you and me.

Originally published on Pat Mitchell’s blog. Republished with author permission.

Pat Mitchell is known for her leadership in the media industry as a CEO, producer and curator. She partners with the TED organization to co-curate and host an annual global TEDWomen conference and is the chair of theWomen’s Media Center and Sundance Institute boards, a founding board member of V-Day, a member of the board of the Acumen Fund and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The first woman president and CEO of PBS, she most recently served as president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media; she is now a senior adviser to the organization. She is also the former president of CNN Productions, where she executive produced hundreds of hours of documentaries and specials, which received 35 Emmy Awards and five Peabody Awards. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Women Ambassadors, Mediocre White Men and the Iran Deal

“God, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.” Sarah Hagi’s quote came to mind as I watched a bombastic, overconfident President Trump cause the demise of a truly historic nuclear deal.

Confident in his personal assessment that the Iran deal was “very bad” and that he could do better, President Trump violated the Iran deal and broke the United States’ commitment to the international agreement. If only he had the ability to question his own confidence. If only he could comprehend that his decision to violate the Iran deal is catastrophic—and that he cannot fulfill his promise to secure a “better one.”

If only the president would draw on the expertise of someone who helped craft the Iran deal—someone like Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran deal) while serving as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2011 to 2015 and has had more contact with Iranian representatives than almost any other American diplomat.

Over several years, Sherman carefully negotiated and crafted the strongest deal possible—one that verifiably reduced the risk of a nuclear Iran and was championed not just by the United States and Iran, but by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. In the end, the deal blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and implemented an expansive monitoring system designed to alert the world if Iran resumed its banned nuclear activities, and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA time and time again since.

The U.S. is not “withdrawing from” the deal. It is violating the deal—and compromising the continued ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities in the process.

Ambassador Sherman knows as well as anyone what works when negotiating with Iran. She argues that two years of sanctions were not what stopped Iran from pursuing a nuclear bomb and brought them to the negotiating table. Instead, it was a change in the political climate in Iran, exemplified by the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, that favored greater involvement in the international community.

But President Trump has declared the he knows better—and that this time, sanctions will work. Subsequent to his announcement last week, the U.S. Treasury has issued guidance for reinforcing all of the sanctions relieved by the Iran deal. Reimposing these sanctions will do exactly the opposite of what President Trump thinks they will do; they will turn the political climate in Iran against further cooperation with the United States and harm Iran’s most vulnerable citizens.

President Trump is attempting to create conditions that will force Iran to come back to the United States and negotiate a new deal that will meet his criteria for a strong deal, but this outcome is highly unlikely. Iranians will blame the suffering caused by the new sanctions on the United States, stoking feelings of mistrust and hostility toward further engagement with the United States.

But suppose for a moment the Iranians do decide to re-engage in talks with the United States. What would that look like? Sherman has characterized the Iranian diplomats she engaged with as, “tough, smart and legalistic negotiators.” There is no reason to believe that President Trump and his team would find future negotiators to be anything less. As for Trump’s team? Adept negotiators like Ambassador Wendy Sherman have long since left the State Department, as have career diplomats that understand the Iranians’ pressure points and tactics.

In any case, these experts would be useful only if President Trump put aside his confidence in himself long enough to ask for, or even agree to incorporate, outside expertise. President Trump’s violation of the deal insults senior State Department officials, baffles national security experts and even defies his own military officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was asked by Senator Angus King if he thought remaining in the nuclear deal was in the national Security Interest of the United States. (His response? “Yes, Senator, I do.”)

President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran deal counters expert advice, careful analysis, and America’s interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The world is now at the mercy of President Trump’s misguided confidence that he can do better than the experts. Hopefully Sarah Hagi won’t mind if I modify her quote to fit our current times: “Lord, save us from the overconfidence of a less-than mediocre white man.”

Cassandra Varanka is the Nuclear Weapons Policy Coordinator at Women’s Action for New Directions.

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Don’t Ask Us to be Civil in the Face of Violence

Last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Virginia restaurant The Red Hen by the owner. A few days prior, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted by protesters at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., eventually prompting her to leave.

Some commentators have called these small acts of protest against Trump administration officials as marking “a decline in civility.” These critics miss a major point. Civil discourse is not always comfortable discourse, and dissent is not always polite. As the Trump administration rolls back the progress of the last century—leaving women, people of color and other marginalized group at risk of losing their basic rights—our moral obligation is to fight back.

They don’t get to define the terms of our fight. We don’t need to be civil in the face of abuse. We need to be strong and strategic.

Following mass arrests of 150+ immigrants in northern California, hundreds surrounded the San Francisco Immigration and Customs Enforcement Headquarters, blocking intersections and forming blockades at entry and exit gates. (Peg Hunter / Creative Commons)

Trump’s rhetoric, and his administration’s policies, are dangerous. He stirs up and perpetuates nativism, bigotry and prejudice, which has in part fueled a rise in white supremacist violence and hate crimes. He gaslights and scapegoats to justify policies that leave families torn apart and violence victims without recourse. Headlines throughout his presidency, and especially in the last few weeks, have largely centered around the destruction of American values and democracy happening under his watch.

Donald Trump has never been civil. His entire campaign was a firestorm of toxic masculinity, xenophobia and explicit racism. Thus far, his entire presidency has been, too. Within days of assuming the Oval Office, Donald Trump re-instated policies that left women around the world at risk of death and a loss of their own destinies. Within months, he had called white nationalists “fine people.” Most recently, he put in place border policies that the UN itself called a violation of migrants’ human rights—and then attempted to leverage their lives for a border wall. Now, he plans to oversee modern-day internment camps for entire families seeking asylum.

All of Trump’s major actions in office have been objectively violent. The Muslim ban, separating families at the border, ending DACA and pathways to asylum for women experiencing domestic violence, the ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military, numerous attacks on Planned Parenthood—these are assaults on the livelihoods of Americans. The actions of the Trump administration have serious and sometimes fatal consequences.

Some argue that incivility must not be met with incivility, for then this implies that we have stooped to Trump’s level and that we have been roped into the game of insults and vulgarities. I’ll concede that personal attacks, targeted bigotry and a commitment to narcissism are no way to respond to criticism. But to suggest that calling out and confronting violence, injustice and oppression is “uncivil” is to demand that we ignore the many people and communities that have suffered and will continue to suffer the most under Trump’s policies.

Recently, Representative Maxine Waters spoke to the need to continue resisting Trump and his affiliates by calling them out in public and making them know they are not welcome as a result of their inhumane practices. She stated that people committing inhumane acts should expect confrontation.  “I believe in peaceful protest,” she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC. “I believe that protest is at the centerpiece of our democracy. I believe that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of speech. And I believe that protest is civil.”

One of the first lessons you are taught when you learn about bullying, harassment, abuse or other unjust behavior is to be an upstander, not a bystander—to call it out, to intervene and to use the social power you may have to protect those who do not. The lesson is not to be gentle and respectful of abuser—it is to address abuses and demand that they end.

Being the “bigger person” does not imply surrendering. It is unreasonable to suggest that any resistance to abuses of power is uncivil. Dissent is a patriotic act, and conflating civility with morality allows for Trump’s predominantly white and male administration to manipulate the narrative of resistance and shield itself from accountability and the demands of this democracy. Outrage at the indecency of this behavior should be encouraged. If inhumane treatment is Trump’s idea of power, then we need disobedience.

Of all the things deemed appropriate in response to these political times, the Trump administration’s idea of civility isn’t what comes to mind. Our actions as citizens have the potential to form a critical mass. We live in an era where individuals are finding their voice in order to stand up to bigotry and injustice, in a time where it is imperative now more than ever to speak truth to power.

I refuse to believe that rolling over or giving up or staying silent is the way to address the hateful statements and practices of this administration. I refuse to believe that anger is not a valid response to actions that actively demean and violate people’s basic dignity. We have the power to demand better—and we not only deserve to utilize it, but are called on to do so by our moral obligation to ensure that equality and justice are never lost.

Rosalind Jones is a writer and global feminist thinker with a focus on international women’s liberation. Her goal is to use her writing and language skills to elevate the voices of gender equality advocates in all corners of the world. She is an Occidental College graduate with a degree Diplomacy and World Affairs and is currently an editorial intern at Ms.

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How Feminists Should Remember Justice Kennedy

This week, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, announced his retirement. The announcement punctuated a devastating week from the Court. An alarming slate of 5-4 rulings—that will surely define the Roberts’ Court—upheld the Trump administration’s third attempt at a Muslim ban, truncated the rights of public unions, struck down a California law enacted to promote women’s health and protect them from fraud and deception at crisis pregnancy centers and passed the baton back to Texas in a high-profile gerrymandering decision.

For many, Kennedy’s retirement, effective July 31, signals a worrying period ahead for the Supreme Court. They wonder what comes next on important civil liberties and civil rights issues. Pundits and his fellow Justices suggest that there will be a void on the Court; they point to Kennedy’s commitment to the dignity of persons as part of what they believe will be his enduring legacy. Kennedy’s pivotal record on marriage equality in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor decisions certainly speaks to that.

Others note Kennedy’s record, even recently, on abortion rights as a sign of his judicial independence and objectivity on women’s rights. This, some suggest, will be a robust and lasting legacy. In Whole Woman’s Health, which struck down two Texas laws that unconstitutionally burdened women’s access to abortion, Kennedy joined Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor in the majority.

Yet Justice Kennedy’s record is far more complicated. This week, he voted with the majority in each of the aforementioned cases; he was less of the “swing” voter that pundits memorialize him to be.

That may be the correct way to remember his tenure.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivering remarks at San Francisco Symphony Hall. (Steve Rhodes / Creative Commons)

According to one study, Kennedy was far more likely to vote with Justice Clarence Thomas, regarded as the most conservative justice on the Court, than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (84 to 76 percent). He was more likely to find affinity with Chief Justice Roberts than Justice Elena Kagan (88 to 80 percent). And he voted more often with Justice Antonin Scalia than he did with any liberal on the Supreme Court.

Those who care about women’s health and rights should be concerned about Justice Kennedy’s retirement, but not for the reasons offered by pundits who frame his retirement as a grave loss on women’s issues. It would be as much as a mistake to ignore Kennedy’s pivotal vote in Whole Woman’s Health as it would be to conflate or exaggerate his record on women’s rights and health—or to overstate the Supreme Court’s legacy with regard to women.

Despite crucial advancements in the rights of women and girls brought about through legislative and judicial victories, the Supreme Court has historically shown antipathy—or at best, disregard—for the rights and concerns of women. The Court sanctioned forced sterilization and eugenics against poor women in Buck v. Bell, an infamous decision yet to be overturned. It affirmed states’ denial of women’s suffrage, refused to strike down laws denying women opportunities to become lawyers;, deferred to states that denied women the right to serve on juries and more.

In reality, Justice Kennedy failed to demonstrate a consistent and courageous regard for the interest of women or their reproductive rights. Some might argue that it was the failure of his liberal colleagues to persuade him to their interpretation of the Constitution, or that the right cases did not land before the Court during his 30-year tenure to compel or motivate him to move the needle on women’s rights. But what is clear, in a line of defining cases, is that Justice Kennedy has sided with a conservative, all-male majority.

This includes writing for the majority, upholding a Bush-era federal law to ban an abortion procedure in Gonzales v. Carhart. Based on no credible empirical evidence, the otherwise careful Justice claimed that long-term mental health suffering “and loss of esteem can” result from pregnancy terminations. Kennedy disregarded a robust empirical record, including amici briefs, pointing out the fallacy of that argument.

Justice Kennedy also cast crucial votes, just to name some recent examples, limiting women’s rights to file suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for gender pay claims in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co, denying women plaintiffs class action status to sue Walmart based on gender discrimination in Wal-Mart v. Dukes and finding “that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law…they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs” in a case denying female employees contraceptive coverage—Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Justice Kennedy’s significant regard for the dignity of marriage equality must be acknowledged—for it moved the Court out of a shameful past. But Justice Kennedy’s record must also be measured by his concerns for the dignity of women—and we should remember his lack of vision for a Constitution that could embrace their highest ideals.

Michele Goodwin holds the Chancellor’s Professorship at the University of California, Irvine. She is the founder and director the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy and its Reproductive Justice Initiative. She has published with Forbes, Salon, L.A. Times, Politico, Chicago Sun Times, Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, among others.

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I Won’t Stop Fighting for Title X—Because it Transformed My Mother’s Life

My mother can recall in vivid detail the day she went with her friends to buy birth control in 1970. She planned the excursion meticulously: Her high school nurse wrote notes excusing her and her friends from class that day, and she secretly borrowed the family car while her parents were out of town. Soon, they were on the road to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Newark, New Jersey.

Before her trip, pregnancy was, in my mother’s words, her “greatest fear.” The stigma associated with teenage pregnancy was suffocating. Roe v. Wade was still a few years away. Two of her closest friends had become pregnant, but New Jersey laws strictly prohibited abortion.

Luckily, they had the means to travel across state lines to New York, which had just become the first state to legalize abortion, to access these services—and President Nixon had just enacted the Title X Family Planning Program, the only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with contraception and related preventative health services.

Congress created Title X  to “prevent unwanted pregnancies among sexually active adolescents.” Sure enough, its funding enabled clinics around the country to provide young people like my mother with the confidential services they needed to make responsible choices about their sexual and reproductive health.

With the passage of Title X, my mother and her friends witnessed firsthand how the law could be used as a tool for women’s liberation. Their lives were transformed. But 48 years later, we’re witnessing a devastating attack on Title X—and the ability of teenagers to access confidential reproductive health services.

BACORR clinic defenders outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic. (Steve Rhodes / Creative Commons)

In February, the Trump administration announced that it aims to radically shift Title X family planning services grants to reflect socially conservative priorities—prioritizing abstinence-only programs over comprehensive care.

Abstinence-only approaches withhold facts and potentially life-saving information and, quite simply, fail to convince most adolescents to abstain from sexual activity. Ironically, the government’s own teen pregnancy data shows that urging health care providers to communicate abstinence-until-marriage messages to adolescents simply does not work.

Trump’s attacks on Title X come amidst historically low teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the U.S. According to HHS, teen pregnancy rates in 2016 are down 67 percent from 1991, when they were at a record high in large part because of Ronald Reagan’s own approaches to the policy—which were similar to Trump’s.

The administration has also imposed a Domestic Gag Rule barring organizations that receive Title X funding from providing information, counseling and referrals about safe abortion services. Like the Global Gag Rule reinstated and expanded by Trump last year, new Title X policies coerce doctors into staying silent about evidence-based family planning methods, including abortion, under threat of losing their government funding.

These proposed Title X changes will disproportionately affect low-income women, further building a system in which reproductive rights are unnecessarily restricted and only accessible to those who can afford them. They violate teens’ right to confidential care. They violate international human rights laws. They flout international protections of the freedom of speech and association.

My mother and her friends witnessed their rights to family planning and contraception come into being. Nearly a half-century later, we must all remain committed to resisting attempts to take them away.

Danielle Stouck is the Grants and Development Manager at the Global Justice Center. She holds a Master’s Degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s Degree in middle eastern studies and human rights from Barnard College. With expertise in forced displacement, gender equality and refugee rights, Danielle has worked with organizations including the Human Rights Funders Network, Women’s Refugee Commission, the World Food Programme, and the Near East Foundation and Public Agenda. 

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Representation Matters—Even When It’s Not of Happy Families

Sometimes, the thing society most objects to about your family isn’t what’s “wrong” with it.

In my house, mental illness hid in the shadow of the showier word—lesbian—where it festered and grew. I loved my parents, but I wanted the yelling to stop. Still, I told no one—not my favorite teachers or even my counselor. Even as a child, I knew it was a forbidden topic.

Adult queerspawn whisper to me: “I can’t tell my story, because my childhood wasn’t happy.” We all worry about the neighbors who view our families as inferior, unnatural abominations. We keep our secrets and still our pens. We let the shiny people be the poster children for our movement.

But I have never been good at silence. My mom is gay and my family wasn’t okay.

LGBTQ activists and allies attend a vigil for those lost in the PULSE shootings in Orlando in 2016. (Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

There is deep love in there, composting with resentment and fear and laughter. Like most families—dare I say all? Yet we are not allowed the luxury of dysfunction—that’s for straight people, rich people, white people, all of the above and some of the below. But the problem with only turning our good sides to the light goes beyond its dishonesty. It makes us one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

When I write about having lesbian parents who were also trying to reign in mental illness, I am often gently reminded that it is imperative that I make sure people know that most lesbian families are great, happy, sparkly, well-adjusted. I needed to qualify that my experience isn’t how it is for all lesbian families. If gayness was my ethnicity, they might tell me that I needed to be a credit to my race.

Certainly, I’m not the poster child they wanted. We must be smiley, happy people to appear nonthreatening.

Taking a survey of my objectors, the majority are straight, white women indignant on behalf of queer people—my people. Queer people, however, by and large, understand. “The problem is that the world is so incredibly hard on queer people,” one lesbian woman confided in me, “yet we aren’t allowed to let it break us or even wound us. We are expected to be paradigms of mental health—mentally stronger than straight people to prove our worth.”

I don’t write for well-adjusted people who had happy childhoods. Of course, I love when they can relate to my writing, don’t get me wrong—but I want to reach everyone who didn’t have a family that cherished them and protected them from the terrors of the world. I write for my queer community who isn’t allowed to speak about mental illness.

I can’t totally own the queer label, because the parts that make me queer are easily hidden. But that small distance creates space for me to tell my story. As long as queer people are being beaten and murdered, fired or denied housing based on their sexuality or gender identity, we won’t be able to hear everyone’s voices—but it is safe for me to write, and so I write for those who can’t.

What we need is more space on bookshelves for queer writers. We need happy stories and tragic stories. We need books by asexual, intersex, gay, lesbian and bisexual writers as well as other queerspawn like me. We need stories about people who refuse categorization, and we need more than just coming out stories. We need queer main characters and bit parts in novels and movies—mainstream stories where characters just happen to be queer. Only then will we have a three-dimensional view of a very diverse group of people.

I remember my drag queen roommate who moved in with me after his boyfriend hit him one too many times, how he said that the cops laughed and didn’t intervene because it was “a fair fight.” I remember the whispers of my lesbian friend: “No one wants to talk about abuse in the lesbian community, but I was abused.” And another: “She told me no one would believe me, because I’m butch.” And still another: “She took our children away and married a man. She wants to erase the fact that she was ever a lesbian.”

The fight for LGBTQ equality is far from over—but representation in pop culture can, does and will help society to catch up. The more easily we are seen as everyday people—friends and neighbors, teachers and mechanics, three-dimensional people with problems and struggles not unlike everyone else’s—the more easily we will find acceptance, and maybe even a space to tell these stories.

Or so we hope.

Lara Lillibridge sings off-beat and dances off-key. She is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction. In 2016, she won the Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest and was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and Disquiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter.

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