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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Talkin’ About a Revolution: JP Howard on Raising Her Fist—and Queer Women’s Voices


We are living in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance of literary work by lesbian and queer women of color. Some of the most powerful literary productions are by queer women of color and by lesbians of color; they are winning top literary prizes, gaining recognition in and outside of LGBTQ communities and gathering new audiences of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. This current issue of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal—expertly curated by JP Howard and Amber Atiya, two extraordinary poets in their own right—reflects and celebrates that reality. This issue lifts up the voices of African-American lesbians for us all to hear, see and know.

Howard is a 2018 featured author in Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program, was a 2017 Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist, won a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea and Brooklyn Arts Council.  Her debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), was a 2016 Lambda Literary finalist; she is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*). Howard curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon and is an Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review online, and her work has been published by Academy of American Poets, Anomaly, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine and The Best American Poetry Blog.

Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution! gathers together new writing by an array of emerging and established black lesbian and queer women writers. I spoke with Howard about editing Sinister Wisdom and she provided fascinating insights into the process and intentions of both editors in putting together the issue.

I have been so excited to publish Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution. How did you come to select this topic as the theme for the issue? And how did you select the title?

I selected the titled based on my favorite black lesbian poet/muse/activist/ and agitator Pat Parker, who once said: “The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.” The goal of the issue was to create a revolution of words. Black lesbian writers were invited to document their unique, powerful and diverse voices. The theme was inspired directly by Parker’s quote; essentially a call to be our full selves, to show up on the page, to use our words and voices and artistic images to create a revolution.

This issue speaks powerfully to histories of African-American lesbians and also imagines various futures. Can you talk a little bit about why this issue in this particular political moment?

This issue, a call for black queer womyn to share our voices and our art is needed, especially during this current political moment where LGBTQ, POC and marginalized voices are constantly under attack. It is crucial, in fact necessary, to have literary spaces like Sinister Wisdom to raise our voices, lift our symbolic fists and say “We are here! We are not going anywhere. We refuse to be silenced.”

How did you make your selections for inclusion in this issue? What principles operated for you as an editor while working on this issue?

It was urgent to have diverse voices represented in this issue. It was a long collaborative process to make sure that we included a wide spectrum of voices. The most difficult task was narrowing down selections, as we had more submissions than we could accommodate in this issue. As an editor, I was looking for work that fit the call, work that was revolutionary, work that was original and inspirational, work that could agitate, work that was sexy, work that honored our black lesbian ancestors, work that was forward thinking, work that was magical, work that refused to be silenced.

Talk to me about the gorgeous cover art. How did you find the artists? What speaks to each of you about these images?

Akinfe Fatou’s cover art features a striking photo of Amadi Agbomah titled Liberation. Amber and I put out a call to both visual artists and black queer womyn writers for recommendations of black queer womyn artists. Akinfe is an amazing writer and visual artist and actually ended up doing a cover photo shoot with a number of pieces for us to consider for our cover. Amber and I immediately gravitated towards Liberation and knew almost immediately that this was our cover. It is FIYAH! We are forever grateful to Akinfe and Amadi for this powerful and revolutionary cover. Our stunning back cover art piece is by phenomenal artist/photographer Nye’ Lyn Tho. I actually discovered N’ye’s artwork/photos from Sinister Wisdom contributor, poet Arisa White, who curates the Beautiful Things Project. I remember seeing striking work by Nye’ Lyn Tho when she and Arisa collaborated in California and posted photos of their collaborative project. Those visuals stuck with me and I asked Arisa if she could put us in contact with the artist. The rest, as they say, is herstory.

Can you discuss one of the challenges you encountered working together? What was the challenge? How did or did you not resolve it?

I think a big challenge was coordinating our schedules and finding time to actually meet to discuss and narrow down our choices. Sometimes Amber and I literally stayed up until early morning hours collaborating online via shared google documents. If we had a disagreement about a piece we would advocate vigorously for “why” it should or should not be included and then we would organize in order of preference, the pieces that we were each most inclined to accept. Often we were able to come to a joint resolution and sometimes one of us would defer to the other if a persuasive argument was made for accepting or rejecting a piece. Mostly, this process worked for us over time. It was definitely a labor of love on both our parts and I am forever grateful to Amber for accepting my invite to co-edit this issue of Sinister Wisdom with me.

What are you most proud of in this issue?

I am most proud of the amazing diversity of voices and black lesbian/queer womyn represented throughout. We have contributors from around the world, with so many parts of the United States represented. Our contributors are intergenerational, with a phenomenal line-up of both emerging and established writers and artists included. It includes black queer womyn whose work I have admired for decades and also work of new writers and artists who I only first discovered through the submission process.

Tell me about your relationship to feminism and lesbian-feminism. Is your relationship to feminism and lesbian-feminism informed by your understand of race? How?

I discovered the powerful words of Pat Parker and Cheryl Clarke, black lesbian feminists, while at Barnard College in the mid-to-latter part of the 1980’s. Cheryl Clarke’s words from “New Notes on Lesbianism” still resonate with me, so many decades later. I think because that is around the same time that I came out of the closet, that the world lesbian still feels most natural to me when I describe myself. Clarke said: “I name myself ‘lesbian’ because this culture oppresses, silences, and destroys lesbians, even lesbians who do don’t call themselves ‘lesbians.’ I name myself ‘lesbian’ because I want to be visible to other black lesbians. I name myself ‘lesbian’ because I do not subscribe to predatory/institutionalized heterosexuality” is definitely something that has influenced how I walk through the world. However, I also am acutely aware that many lesbian-feminist spaces are overwhelmingly white and as a black lesbian/queer womyn in this world, unfortunately those spaces are often not welcoming to me nor do they consistently celebrate how I walk through the world.

What advice would you give to future guest editors?

Future editors should start as early as possible to gather submissions and begin reviewing work on a rolling basis, set clear time deadlines and tasks, perhaps mid-way through the process, they can reassess and chart out new priorities based on earlier deadlines. Also please make sure to celebrate the issue as you are putting it together, it’s a HUGE accomplishment!

Interested in Sinister Wisdom 107: Black Lesbians—We Are the Revolution? Order your copy here.

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ and Frontiers. She is the author of four poetry collections—Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood and Handmade Love—and is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker, which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom and is a book reviewer for the The Rumpus and Calyx. 

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Masculinity Is Broken, But It Isn’t Hopeless


I’ve been surprised to see the conversation on how we raise boys taken to the mainstream by Michael Ian Black, care of the New York Times. It’s a critique of masculinity I’m extremely familiar with—and it’s been going on for longer than I’ve been a card-carrying member of the queer community.

I remember, just after coming out, returning to the church I grew up in for my grandfather’s funeral. Smack on the door, as I was grieving and walking into the building, I was treated to a poster advertising a brand new class on teaching boy children to be “real boys” so that they don’t grow up to be gay. That was ten years ago. Just after Elliot Rodger shot students at Isla Vista and his misogynistic manifesto came under public scrutiny, I spent a week on a mountain with about three hundred queer people; women, non binary folks, trans men. (Basically every sort of person except cis men.) We were certainly talking about toxic masculinity then, but it didn’t seem like anyone else was. That was four years ago.

Of our 99 problems, strict adherence to the gender binary is involved in most of them. As many as 43 percent of homeless youth identify as queer and are ejected from their homes because of their rejection of these rules. The average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is said to be 35 years—largely because they live at a precarious, often dangerous intersection of racism, misogyny and bearing the brunt of the toxic masculinity those around them wield, literally, as a weapon.

As a result, queers have been working to provide alternative models of masculinity for as long as I have known queers. And in our current cultural moment, the queer community has attained a level of representation in pop culture that challenges and remakes this toxic outlook in spaces where children are present. Which is why it is shocking that, as the conversation on masculinity moves into the mouths of straight, cis men in the wake of the Parkland shooting, I hear confusion, powerlessness and handwringing. As I read and hear published critique from men outside gender studies departments and queer clubs, there is a profound sense of being oppressed by masculinity, and a deep sadness that men have been required to adhere to it. I also hear the undertones of hopelessness—straight, cis men don’t seem to know what to do about fixing what it means to be masculine in this country.

And that’s frustrating. Because queer folks have not been stingy with examples. We have been, for decades, demonstrating what it is to unmake violent masculinity. And right now, young queers and creators alike are bringing new masculinities to life.

Look at Steven Universe, an animated show created by Rebecca Sugar, a bisexual woman. It features an empathetic pre-teen and teen male protagonist in Steven, and when he uses his powers and “fuses” with his best friend, Connie, they together become a genderless “experience” of a person. This is a show that has an entire episode dedicated to teaching children of all genders how to deal with emotions after trauma; it unmakes the masculinity of emotional repression regularly. Look at Lumberjanes, a comic with the character of Barney who doesn’t want to be a Scouting Lad and jumps ship to the camp for “Hardcore Lady Types.” Look at Moonstruck, which features Chet, a genderqueer centaur who uses neutral pronouns.

Queer Eye rebooted on Netflix this month, and the updated Fab Five represent a group of men heading into Georgia to fix masculinity. They don’t even commit to “for the straight guy,” as they did years ago; I wonder if and hope that it is because masculinity needs interrogating no matter where one falls on the Kinsey scale. I watched Queer Eye when I was a kid—it was one of the first family-friendly representations of subversive masculinity that I remember, and it’s even more subversive now. The group tackles race, Christianity, conservatism and what it means to take care of oneself and others as a man. Whether or not this show is intended for the younger set, I can near about guarantee that they are watching. I was.

We can already see the effects of that expansive gender outlook, that work women and queers have been up to for decades. Less than half of teens today identify as straight. Fifty-six percent of them know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. Seventy percent want to see ubiquitous gender neutral bathrooms.

A rise in queers, women and young folks making media has provided Generation Z with a lot more possibility models than we ever had. We built those possibility models for ourselves, and they exist for generations older to partake in as well—should they choose to look. So why, then, are middle-aged men so ready to throw up their hands and mourn the restrictive childhoods that led to their restrictive genders? Why, when Michael Ian Black’s teenager stomps up the stairs, does he not feel empowered to model different choices about what masculinity can become?

I can only guess it’s because it’s easier. Men have learned helplessness. Blaming masculinity itself seeks to absolve grown men of their agency in actively creating masculinity; it’s not an entity that lives without the decisions of people. Cis men have always had the power to expand the definition of what it means to be masculine. Men can actively make different choices about what masculinity means. I say this as a queer person who creates their own masculinity with active choices every day, who believes in the expansive constellation of masculinity; that there is so much more space in there than cis men believe there to be.

If adult cis men are now chafing in an ill-fitting gender, perhaps instead of sounding the lament and shrugging their shoulders at the insurmountability of a society they created, they can follow the younger generations into new territory. They can engage with the narratives that Millennials and Generation Z are insisting on—and have been for quite some time.

And most importantly, they can legislate gun control in the way the youth are asking them to instead of staring frightened and helpless into the masculinity of their own making.

A.E. Osworth is Part-Time Faculty at The New School, Managing Editor of Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard College and has spent the last half a decade as Geekery Editor at Autostraddle. Keep in touch @AEOsworth on Twitter and at aeosworth.com.

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Masculinity Is Broken, But It Isn’t Hopeless


I’ve been surprised to see the conversation on how we raise boys taken to the mainstream by Michael Ian Black, care of the New York Times. It’s a critique of masculinity I’m extremely familiar with—and it’s been going on for longer than I’ve been a card-carrying member of the queer community.

I remember, just after coming out, returning to the church I grew up in for my grandfather’s funeral. Smack on the door, as I was grieving and walking into the building, I was treated to a poster advertising a brand new class on teaching boy children to be “real boys” so that they don’t grow up to be gay. That was ten years ago. Just after Elliot Rodger shot students at Isla Vista and his misogynistic manifesto came under public scrutiny, I spent a week on a mountain with about three hundred queer people; women, non binary folks, trans men. (Basically every sort of person except cis men.) We were certainly talking about toxic masculinity then, but it didn’t seem like anyone else was. That was four years ago.

Of our 99 problems, strict adherence to the gender binary is involved in most of them. As many as 43 percent of homeless youth identify as queer and are ejected from their homes because of their rejection of these rules. The average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is said to be 35 years—largely because they live at a precarious, often dangerous intersection of racism, misogyny and bearing the brunt of the toxic masculinity those around them wield, literally, as a weapon.

As a result, queers have been working to provide alternative models of masculinity for as long as I have known queers. And in our current cultural moment, the queer community has attained a level of representation in pop culture that challenges and remakes this toxic outlook in spaces where children are present. Which is why it is shocking that, as the conversation on masculinity moves into the mouths of straight, cis men in the wake of the Parkland shooting, I hear confusion, powerlessness and handwringing. As I read and hear published critique from men outside gender studies departments and queer clubs, there is a profound sense of being oppressed by masculinity, and a deep sadness that men have been required to adhere to it. I also hear the undertones of hopelessness—straight, cis men don’t seem to know what to do about fixing what it means to be masculine in this country.

And that’s frustrating. Because queer folks have not been stingy with examples. We have been, for decades, demonstrating what it is to unmake violent masculinity. And right now, young queers and creators alike are bringing new masculinities to life.

Look at Steven Universe, an animated show created by Rebecca Sugar, a bisexual woman. It features an empathetic pre-teen and teen male protagonist in Steven, and when he uses his powers and “fuses” with his best friend, Connie, they together become a genderless “experience” of a person. This is a show that has an entire episode dedicated to teaching children of all genders how to deal with emotions after trauma; it unmakes the masculinity of emotional repression regularly. Look at Lumberjanes, a comic with the character of Barney who doesn’t want to be a Scouting Lad and jumps ship to the camp for “Hardcore Lady Types.” Look at Moonstruck, which features Chet, a genderqueer centaur who uses neutral pronouns.

Queer Eye rebooted on Netflix this month, and the updated Fab Five represent a group of men heading into Georgia to fix masculinity. They don’t even commit to “for the straight guy,” as they did years ago; I wonder if and hope that it is because masculinity needs interrogating no matter where one falls on the Kinsey scale. I watched Queer Eye when I was a kid—it was one of the first family-friendly representations of subversive masculinity that I remember, and it’s even more subversive now. The group tackles race, Christianity, conservatism and what it means to take care of oneself and others as a man. Whether or not this show is intended for the younger set, I can near about guarantee that they are watching. I was.

We can already see the effects of that expansive gender outlook, that work women and queers have been up to for decades. Less than half of teens today identify as straight. Fifty-six percent of them know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. Seventy percent want to see ubiquitous gender neutral bathrooms.

A rise in queers, women and young folks making media has provided Generation Z with a lot more possibility models than we ever had. We built those possibility models for ourselves, and they exist for generations older to partake in as well—should they choose to look. So why, then, are middle-aged men so ready to throw up their hands and mourn the restrictive childhoods that led to their restrictive genders? Why, when Michael Ian Black’s teenager stomps up the stairs, does he not feel empowered to model different choices about what masculinity can become?

I can only guess it’s because it’s easier. Men have learned helplessness. Blaming masculinity itself seeks to absolve grown men of their agency in actively creating masculinity; it’s not an entity that lives without the decisions of people. Cis men have always had the power to expand the definition of what it means to be masculine. Men can actively make different choices about what masculinity means. I say this as a queer person who creates their own masculinity with active choices every day, who believes in the expansive constellation of masculinity; that there is so much more space in there than cis men believe there to be.

If adult cis men are now chafing in an ill-fitting gender, perhaps instead of sounding the lament and shrugging their shoulders at the insurmountability of a society they created, they can follow the younger generations into new territory. They can engage with the narratives that Millennials and Generation Z are insisting on—and have been for quite some time.

And most importantly, they can legislate gun control in the way the youth are asking them to instead of staring frightened and helpless into the masculinity of their own making.

A.E. Osworth is Part-Time Faculty at The New School, Managing Editor of Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard College and has spent the last half a decade as Geekery Editor at Autostraddle. Keep in touch @AEOsworth on Twitter and at aeosworth.com.

The post Masculinity Is Broken, But It Isn’t Hopeless appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.



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Birth Control Empowered Me to Build the Career and Family Life That I Wanted—On My Own Terms


I was born in Bogota, Colombia to traditional Latino parents who valued family above all else. But when I met my husband in my early twenties, I was making my way in a highly competitive field—so we delayed starting a one of our own.

My father, instead of asking me constantly when I would give him grandchildren, always told me to travel the world, and to live life fully before settling down. Many Latina mothers would have urged their only daughter to have children early; my mother never pushed me. Her support of every life choice was always without judgment and helped to provide the strength I needed to embrace my ambitions, focus on the issues I cared about in politics and make a difference while pursuing the career I wanted. While both my parents encouraged us to follow our dreams, my mother instilled in us the value of an education, taught us to be self-confident, and stressed in me the power of financial independence.

While my parents provided the emotional support I needed, birth control actually allowed me the opportunity to decide if, when and under what circumstances to get pregnant. I was in my late thirties when I decided to start trying, and I was thankful that I was able to get pregnant very quickly. Soon after the birth of my son, we decided to started trying for our daughter. At 40 years old, I found myself with two small children, a loving husband and partner and a demanding career—and it was exactly where I wanted to be.

Birth control provided me with the ability to live my life on my own terms. Every young person, regardless of who they are or where they live or what their circumstances may be, should have the same choices I had. Unfortunately, for too many young Latinas, that is never an option.

National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice activists at a pro-choice rally outside the Supreme Court. (NARAL)

Coming from traditional Latino families, young women are often encouraged to start families early, and they often lack access to the full range of contraceptive methods available. Teen pregnancy rates for Latina and Black women are still more than twice as high as their white counterparts; in addition, women who make less money and have less education are more than five times as likely to have an unplanned pregnancy. To compound these already existing challenges, more than 19 million women in need of publicly funded contraception lack reasonable access in their county to a public clinic that offers the full range of contraceptive methods. These locations are commonly referred to as contraceptive deserts.

Thanks to my mother’s constant support, and the ability to plan out when I would have my family, I have enjoyed an amazing career bringing awareness to the issues that impact the Latino community I love. But it is without question that my professional life would have been different if my children had come earlier in life. I am thankful that my parents never judged my decision to delay having a family. With their support, I was able to build my professional career and guarantee financial independence for myself and my children. But even moreso, I am thankful for birth control—and the ways it empowered me to determine not just my family matters, but my economic life.

Birth control has only been around for 45 years—and in that short time, women’s contributions to the workforce have been significant, and more and more women have exercised their rightful choice to delay pregnancy and focus on school and career. Imagine where we’ll be in the next 45.

I hope that one day my daughter finds herself, in whatever career path she chooses, surrounded by women and men who love and support her—and understand that ultimately only she should have the power to decide if, when and under what circumstances to get pregnant.

Maria Cardona is principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a CNN and CNN Español Political Commentator.

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How LGBTQ Politics are Shaping Alabama’s Gubernatorial Race


With the 2018 election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you content presented in conjunction with Gender Watch 2018 , a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.

The chain of events over the past week that led to the septuagenarian governor’s denunciation of claims that she was a closeted lesbian have injected some turmoil into an otherwise sleepy Republican primary in Alabama.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey at the Alabama Emergency Management Operations Center in 2017. (Alabama EMA / Creative Commons)

In the only recent public poll, incumbent Kay Ivey—who ascended to the governorship in 2017 when then-Governor Robert Bentley resigned after pleading guilty to charges related to campaign finance violations—was 36 points ahead of her nearest challenger and just three points shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off in next month’s primary election. With 30 percent of the primary electorate undecided, she looked all but certain to do so and cruise to a relatively easy win in the general election.

Then, last Tuesday, one of Ivey’s primary opponents criticized her for allowing funding to go to a local LGBTQ non-profit. She responded to evangelist Scott Dawson’s comments mostly with an eye-roll, claiming he was “getting desperate” in response to low polling numbers and noting that the funding was federally mandated. She also mentioned that she “certainly [doesn’t] agree with the agenda or the values of that organization.” While this may all seem fairly standard for a Republican primary in Alabama, one retiring State Representative took exception to Ivey’s comment on the values of Free2Be. Patricia Todd, a Democrat who recently received a standing ovation from her colleagues upon announcing her retirement after 12 years in office, and who also happens to be an out lesbian, reacted publicly—and outrageously.

“Will someone out her for God’s sake,” Todd posted on both her Facebook and Twitter accounts. “I have heard for years that she is gay and moved her girlfriend out of her house when she became Gov. I am sick of closeted elected officials.”  In each post, she linked to the article containing Ivey’s rebuttal to Dawson.

Count mine among the jaws that had to be scooped off of the floor after reading Todd’s tweet. Several years ago, Todd did warn in a Facebook post that she would expose hypocrites in Alabama politics, specifically mentioning legislators who “talk about ‘family values’ when they have affairs” and those “elected officials who want to hide in the closet.” Still, the comments were entirely unexpected, and much of Alabama’s political establishment reacted quickly and firmly.

In a statement posted to her social media accounts, Governor Ivey managed in just 66 words to call Todd’s claim “disgraceful,” “a disgusting lie,” “false,” “wrong,” “a bald-faced lie” and “everything that’s wrong with politics today.” She further reiterated in a TV interview that her “biblically-based faith definition of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman.” Ivey’s fellow Republican primary candidates largely steered clear of the commotion, denouncing the focus on the Governor’s personal life and calling for a return to a discussion of the issues most important to Alabama. Terry Lathan, the chair of the state Republican Party, called Todd’s comments “shameful rumor mongering;” Republican State Representative Phil Williams told AL.com that he “took it as one of the meanest things I’ve ever heard her say.”

Todd, the first out gay lawmaker in Alabama, has faced backlash from the LGBT community as well. Some advocates in the community accused her of “weaponizing queerness” and “psychic and emotional violence.” The One Orlando Alliance, the umbrella organization of LGBT groups for which Todd was set to serve as Executive Director, rescinded her job offer on the grounds that involuntarily outing a person, regardless of perceived hypocrisy, is against their values.

Todd, for her part, is refusing to back down. During a radio interview on Friday, she apologized for “the inappropriate way” she delivered her message and conceded she should have commented on the Governor’s remarks rather than her personal life. Still, when asked if she thought Ivey would identify as gay, Todd dug in her heels. “There’s a lot of men who have sex with men,” she responded, “who don’t identify as gay.”

If Kay Ivey was hoping for an apology or recantation from Todd, it certainly did not come during that appearance. Instead, this was the political equivalent of a mic drop—and the reverberations are being felt throughout Alabama.

Scholarship concerning out LGBT political officeholders and candidates is under-developed, though a study by David Niven suggested that a gay or lesbian candidate’s sexual orientation no longer poses a political disadvantage. In fact, he finds that such an orientation may even help the candidate win office. Such findings contradict those of other academic work that has shown that downplaying traits traditionally associated with LGBT people—“tells” that might give away someone’s sexual orientation—is the best strategy for success. Doan and Haider-Markel found that gay and lesbian candidates are perceived as less honest, weaker and amoral—especially among male, Evangelical, less educated, conservative, Republican and older respondents, a veritable cross-section of the Alabama Republican primary electorate. Jerry Harvey found through experimental research that candidates identified as being gay or lesbian lose support compared to otherwise identical non-LGBT candidates, and Billy Kluttz argued that out candidates often “mute” their sexuality during their campaigns so that, even if elected, voters may never have even known they identify as LGBT.

Ewa Golebiowska found that context is key for gay and lesbian candidates: They do better when they disclose their sexual orientation after they are well-known to voters for their positions on issues. And the context of place matters as well. In the UK, for example, Magni and Reynolds found that LGBT candidates perform at least as well as their straight counterparts, even in more conservative areas, and in some more progressive locales, an LGBT identity may even help a candidate, as David Niven suggests. In Palm Springs, California, as an anecdotal example, the mayor, city manager and entire city council identify as part of the LGBT community; in fact, Councilwoman Christy Holstege, who is married to a man and identifies as bisexual, was accused of inventing her bisexuality for political gain and was often asked to somehow “prove” her sexual orientation.

While identifying as LGBT may be a boon in some places, this is unlikely to be the case in Alabama, suggesting that Todd’s comments would amount to the weaponization of queerness that some critics have claimed. A recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study found Alabama to be the only state in the nation with a majority of residents who still oppose same-sex marriage, and one of just six where the issue garners less than 50 percent support. Alabama also registered the second-lowest level of support for legally protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and the state does not have any such statewide protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Gov. Ivey herself signed a bill in May 2017 that allows religious-based adoption agencies to refuse placement of children with LGBT parents. Roy Moore was famously removed as the state’s Chief Justice, for the second time, for instructing his probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in direct violation of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. And as of June 2017, at least eight Alabama counties still refuse to issue any marriage license , asserting that by denying all couples marriage licenses they are not treating same-sex couples in a disparate manner.

Regardless of the Gov. Ivey’s actual sexual orientation, the accusations levied against her by Todd have shone a spotlight on the darker side of identity politics. Dawson, Ivey and Todd have all been criticized for their roles and responses to the developments, though it remains to be seen whether the episode will have any tangible effect on the Governor’s race. Ivey is still highly favored to win her primary, though the allegations and fallout could prevent her from winning the 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a run-off election.

Perhaps the major takeaway from the incident should not center around the accusations themselves, but instead the reactions to them. The statements and actions of the principal players in this story, regardless of party or politics, were all widely panned as insensitive, unnecessary and even bigoted. In their disagreement, however, lies a reminder that the politics of candidate sexual orientation and gender identity remain unsettled—not only in Alabama, but nationwide.

That won’t be resolved in any one election cycle—but, for Governor Ivey at least, the effect these claims regarding her personal life will be revealed by voters’ choices at the ballot box during the primary on June 5.

Rick Kavin is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers-New Brunswick and a research assistant at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. 

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Reflections in Oshun’s Mirror: Beyoncé Mass, the Royal Wedding and Highly Visible Black Girl Magic


Days before waking up in the wee hours to watch the wedding of American actor Meghan Markle and British royal Prince Harry, I was already pondering the meaning of a different service: “Beyoncé Mass,” held at the Grace Cathedral Church in San Francisco and presided over by Reverend Yolanda Norton and Reverend Jude Harmon.

Before I watched the video, I was ready to dismiss it as yet another example of literal celebrity worship—but it was clear from the integration of the pop star’s empowering songs in the service that Reverend Norton found strategic ways to utilize the symbolism of Beyoncé for theological and spiritual purposes in her construction of black feminist/womanist-based worship.

Women like Beyoncé and our American duchess understand that symbols can be mobilized for change and uplift. And in a year that brought us the celebrated record-breaking superhero film, Black Panther, in which black audiences worldwide showed our devotion to African stories steeped in royal traditions, it was more than fitting to watch a real-life royal wedding featuring the daughter of an African American woman.

Whether one is a royalist or anti-monarchist or still indulging the remnants of a colonialist mentality or elitist aspirations, it was easy to be moved by the efforts made to blend elements of British royal culture with Markle’s own African American heritage. The wedding featured a reading from the sexiest book in the Bible—Song of Solomon, a scripture that includes the words of the “Beloved” narrator describing herself as “black and beautiful.” The exuberant sermon of African American Bishop Michael Curry expanded on the biblical themes of romantic love and challenged us all to move towards agape love with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and slave spirituals. An Afro-British gospel choir sanctified the union with a rendition of Ben E. King’s classic ballad, “Stand By Me.” The young Afro-British celloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason displayed his prowess by performing from the classical musical canon while also sporting an afro.

And then there was the quiet and regal presence of Markle’s black mother, Doria Ragland, sitting opposite Queen Elizabeth in a similar yet more demure shade of green while proudly donning dreadlocks and a nose ring. That she was also accompanied on the bride’s side by wedding guests like tennis champion Serena Williams, sporting elaborately long braids while seated next to her husband, and America’s media “queen” herself, Oprah Winfrey, in a traditional church hat, signaled that we were not only not watching your typical English royal wedding, but that we had entered a new era of representations of black womanhood. Even judging by the natural hairstyles of the women in the Kingdom Choir, or the close-cropped hair of Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the queen who led the congregants in prayer for the bride and groom, it was clear that black women’s natural hair movement had expanded and triumphed in the Diaspora.

Such hairstyles on black women in the presence of white British royalty would have been unthinkable decades ago, and yet, here we are—with Markle’s mother taking the lead. Even Markle’s choice to wear a bun—and a “messy bun” at that—does subversive work in challenging the white hegemony surrounding the beauty and femininity of long, flowing straight hair or a neat and tidy bun. We saw black women entering white space and power and being fully themselves. Markle’s minimalist make-up and gown—the latter of which E Kehinde Thurman noted bears a striking resemblance to the one worn by black Panamanian Princess Angela of Liechtenstein when she had married into European royalty in 2000—suggests a naturalness and willingness to come to the table with a certain sense of authenticity.

But do these representations matter? We may debate ad nausea the racial politics of feeling validated when a biracial person is given “a seat at the table” and being viewed as “lifting as they climb,” carrying the entire black race with them—not unlike our own celebrations ten years ago when another biracial person, Barack Obama, became the first black president of the United States. Neither a black president nor a black princess is likely to change race relations, not in this era of anti-immigration Brexit struggles or the rise of a violent white extremist movement in the U.S., but neither should we ignore the significance of a popular British prince with tremendous global influence gazing with love upon his beloved, biting his lip after saying, “you look amazing,” and addressing such words of adoration to an American woman of color. The traditionalists who had looked to the British royal family as the last vestige of racial purity in the midst of a rapidly-changing multicultural social landscape must now feel under siege.

As Bishop Curry proclaimed, in ways that would shock the segregationists: “When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.”

I am quite certain Prince Harry made it easier for those white men and men of color out there to boldly own up to their interracial and intra-racial unions. I am sure that every black woman who has had to battle workplace and military rules prohibiting dreadlocks, braids, twist outs and other natural hairstyles can now point to Doria Ragland and say: “If she can wear dreadlocks to a royal wedding, I can wear this on the job!” Ragland just made acceptable what even our own Supreme Court would not. Such changes can only help to ease racial tensions, even if they are not a cure-all.

Considering these symbolic changes, some black church folks have said in response to the global event: “Look at God!” Even here, I would like to complicate this expression. For which God are we referring to here? This, of course, was the question I also pondered when watching Beyoncé Mass.

While Reverend Norton was clearly invoking the Judeo-Christian deity, I wonder if it is not time to expand our cosmologies to encompass our African orishas, as Beyoncé had done when she made manifest the beauty, glamour and power of Oshun, a Yoruba/Santeria/Candomble goddess of love, beauty, wealth and fertility. She had first invoked this orisha in her critically acclaimed visual album Lemonade, which managed to highlight the glorious beauty of black womanhood and to feminize the body of Williams, in defiance against some black men and white dominant media’s constant attempts at erasures of her womanhood. She did so, during the segment “Sorry,” in the space of a plantation home where their ancestors had been brutally oppressed. I cannot help but view this bold reclamation of white spaces, disrupted by sexualized black vernacular dancing, such as the twerk—another manifestation of Oshun’s sexual power—as well as images of Beyoncé eventually burning down the house before we cut to the terrain where the enslaved in Louisiana once rebelled against their oppression, as work inspired by an African-themed god.

As Beyoncé declared on the album: “When you love me, you love yourself… love God herself.”

When I participated in a Lemonade seminar with other scholars, organized by black feminists Kinitra Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin, one of the participants, Nicholas Jones, who is also an Obá Oriaté—a high priest in the Santeria religion—suggested that we view the Lemonade project as an initiation ceremony to Oshun. Whether Beyoncé unwittingly or deliberately unleashed the power of this goddess, known for holding up her mirror so we can all truly see ourselves, we might imagine that this orisha revealed herself through the vehicles of hypervisible black women on the global stage.

After flaunting their sexiness and posing as if they were the queens of the universe in Lemonade, both Beyoncé and Williams appeared in the same vicinity again when the pop star, in stunning braids and white outfit, attended the Wimbledon women’s final months after her album’s premiere to support the tennis champion as she claimed her seventh Wimbledon and 22nd grand slam title. Interestingly, days before this dramatic win, another friend of Williams’ went unnoticed while sitting not too far from the Royal box at the Wimbledon games. Unbeknownst to the public, the Suits actor had just gone on that fateful blind date with a British prince set up by a mutual friend while she was in town to see Williams play.

A then-globally unknown Markle may not have predicted how, two years later, she would come to rival two of the most highly visible black women for the world’s attention when she married her prince in a globally televised event. However, in that moment at the Wimbledon games, in the wake of post-Lemonade black feminist awakenings, we might imagine a divinity like Oshun showing up and showing out—as she demonstrated later in the year when she blessed both Williams and Beyoncé with pregnancy (of twins, no less!), Williams with an engagement and Markle with a prince—one who issued an unprecedented statement against racist and sexist media coverage which essentially announced to the world his romantic involvement with a woman of color.

Beyoncé quite literally doubled down on her homage to the African goddess when highlighting her pregnancy on Instagram and in an ethereal and jaw-dropping Grammy performance. Despite the resurgence of conservative white male supremacy in the world, black women are finding themselves in highly visible spaces and bringing unapologetic black girl magic into the spheres of cultural and political influence. This visibility now encompasses a celebration of  their beauty and choices in love—the domains of Oshun—be it interracial in the case of Markle and Williams, black love in the case of Beyoncé or queer love, as Janelle Monae recently demonstrated with her album Dirty Computer.

These changes may only be symbolic, but representations still hold the potential to transform our social realities.

Special thanks to Kinitra Brooks, who provided helpful feedback on this piece.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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The post Reflections in Oshun’s Mirror: Beyoncé Mass, the Royal Wedding and Highly Visible Black Girl Magic appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.



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Reflections in Oshun’s Mirror: Beyoncé Mass, the Royal Wedding and Highly Visible Black Girl Magic


Days before waking up in the wee hours to watch the wedding of American actor Meghan Markle and British royal Prince Harry, I was already pondering the meaning of a different service: “Beyoncé Mass,” held at the Grace Cathedral Church in San Francisco and presided over by Reverend Yolanda Norton and Reverend Jude Harmon.

Before I watched the video, I was ready to dismiss it as yet another example of literal celebrity worship—but it was clear from the integration of the pop star’s empowering songs in the service that Reverend Norton found strategic ways to utilize the symbolism of Beyoncé for theological and spiritual purposes in her construction of black feminist/womanist-based worship.

Women like Beyoncé and our American duchess understand that symbols can be mobilized for change and uplift. And in a year that brought us the celebrated record-breaking superhero film, Black Panther, in which black audiences worldwide showed our devotion to African stories steeped in royal traditions, it was more than fitting to watch a real-life royal wedding featuring the daughter of an African American woman.

Whether one is a royalist or anti-monarchist or still indulging the remnants of a colonialist mentality or elitist aspirations, it was easy to be moved by the efforts made to blend elements of British royal culture with Markle’s own African American heritage. The wedding featured a reading from the sexiest book in the Bible—Song of Solomon, a scripture that includes the words of the “Beloved” narrator describing herself as “black and beautiful.” The exuberant sermon of African American Bishop Michael Curry expanded on the biblical themes of romantic love and challenged us all to move towards agape love with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and slave spirituals. An Afro-British gospel choir sanctified the union with a rendition of Ben E. King’s classic ballad, “Stand By Me.” The young Afro-British celloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason displayed his prowess by performing from the classical musical canon while also sporting an afro.

And then there was the quiet and regal presence of Markle’s black mother, Doria Ragland, sitting opposite Queen Elizabeth in a similar yet more demure shade of green while proudly donning dreadlocks and a nose ring. That she was also accompanied on the bride’s side by wedding guests like tennis champion Serena Williams, sporting elaborately long braids while seated next to her husband, and America’s media “queen” herself, Oprah Winfrey, in a traditional church hat, signaled that we were not only not watching your typical English royal wedding, but that we had entered a new era of representations of black womanhood. Even judging by the natural hairstyles of the women in the Kingdom Choir, or the close-cropped hair of Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the queen who led the congregants in prayer for the bride and groom, it was clear that black women’s natural hair movement had expanded and triumphed in the Diaspora.

Such hairstyles on black women in the presence of white British royalty would have been unthinkable decades ago, and yet, here we are—with Markle’s mother taking the lead. Even Markle’s choice to wear a bun—and a “messy bun” at that—does subversive work in challenging the white hegemony surrounding the beauty and femininity of long, flowing straight hair or a neat and tidy bun. We saw black women entering white space and power and being fully themselves. Markle’s minimalist make-up and gown—the latter of which E Kehinde Thurman noted bears a striking resemblance to the one worn by black Panamanian Princess Angela of Liechtenstein when she had married into European royalty in 2000—suggests a naturalness and willingness to come to the table with a certain sense of authenticity.

But do these representations matter? We may debate ad nausea the racial politics of feeling validated when a biracial person is given “a seat at the table” and being viewed as “lifting as they climb,” carrying the entire black race with them—not unlike our own celebrations ten years ago when another biracial person, Barack Obama, became the first black president of the United States. Neither a black president nor a black princess is likely to change race relations, not in this era of anti-immigration Brexit struggles or the rise of a violent white extremist movement in the U.S., but neither should we ignore the significance of a popular British prince with tremendous global influence gazing with love upon his beloved, biting his lip after saying, “you look amazing,” and addressing such words of adoration to an American woman of color. The traditionalists who had looked to the British royal family as the last vestige of racial purity in the midst of a rapidly-changing multicultural social landscape must now feel under siege.

As Bishop Curry proclaimed, in ways that would shock the segregationists: “When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.”

I am quite certain Prince Harry made it easier for those white men and men of color out there to boldly own up to their interracial and intra-racial unions. I am sure that every black woman who has had to battle workplace and military rules prohibiting dreadlocks, braids, twist outs and other natural hairstyles can now point to Doria Ragland and say: “If she can wear dreadlocks to a royal wedding, I can wear this on the job!” Ragland just made acceptable what even our own Supreme Court would not. Such changes can only help to ease racial tensions, even if they are not a cure-all.

Considering these symbolic changes, some black church folks have said in response to the global event: “Look at God!” Even here, I would like to complicate this expression. For which God are we referring to here? This, of course, was the question I also pondered when watching Beyoncé Mass.

While Reverend Norton was clearly invoking the Judeo-Christian deity, I wonder if it is not time to expand our cosmologies to encompass our African orishas, as Beyoncé had done when she made manifest the beauty, glamour and power of Oshun, a Yoruba/Santeria/Candomble goddess of love, beauty, wealth and fertility. She had first invoked this orisha in her critically acclaimed visual album Lemonade, which managed to highlight the glorious beauty of black womanhood and to feminize the body of Williams, in defiance against some black men and white dominant media’s constant attempts at erasures of her womanhood. She did so, during the segment “Sorry,” in the space of a plantation home where their ancestors had been brutally oppressed. I cannot help but view this bold reclamation of white spaces, disrupted by sexualized black vernacular dancing, such as the twerk—another manifestation of Oshun’s sexual power—as well as images of Beyoncé eventually burning down the house before we cut to the terrain where the enslaved in Louisiana once rebelled against their oppression, as work inspired by an African-themed god.

As Beyoncé declared on the album: “When you love me, you love yourself… love God herself.”

When I participated in a Lemonade seminar with other scholars, organized by black feminists Kinitra Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin, one of the participants, Nicholas Jones, who is also an Obá Oriaté—a high priest in the Santeria religion—suggested that we view the Lemonade project as an initiation ceremony to Oshun. Whether Beyoncé unwittingly or deliberately unleashed the power of this goddess, known for holding up her mirror so we can all truly see ourselves, we might imagine that this orisha revealed herself through the vehicles of hypervisible black women on the global stage.

After flaunting their sexiness and posing as if they were the queens of the universe in Lemonade, both Beyoncé and Williams appeared in the same vicinity again when the pop star, in stunning braids and white outfit, attended the Wimbledon women’s final months after her album’s premiere to support the tennis champion as she claimed her seventh Wimbledon and 22nd grand slam title. Interestingly, days before this dramatic win, another friend of Williams’ went unnoticed while sitting not too far from the Royal box at the Wimbledon games. Unbeknownst to the public, the Suits actor had just gone on that fateful blind date with a British prince set up by a mutual friend while she was in town to see Williams play.

A then-globally unknown Markle may not have predicted how, two years later, she would come to rival two of the most highly visible black women for the world’s attention when she married her prince in a globally televised event. However, in that moment at the Wimbledon games, in the wake of post-Lemonade black feminist awakenings, we might imagine a divinity like Oshun showing up and showing out—as she demonstrated later in the year when she blessed both Williams and Beyoncé with pregnancy (of twins, no less!), Williams with an engagement and Markle with a prince—one who issued an unprecedented statement against racist and sexist media coverage which essentially announced to the world his romantic involvement with a woman of color.

Beyoncé quite literally doubled down on her homage to the African goddess when highlighting her pregnancy on Instagram and in an ethereal and jaw-dropping Grammy performance. Despite the resurgence of conservative white male supremacy in the world, black women are finding themselves in highly visible spaces and bringing unapologetic black girl magic into the spheres of cultural and political influence. This visibility now encompasses a celebration of  their beauty and choices in love—the domains of Oshun—be it interracial in the case of Markle and Williams, black love in the case of Beyoncé or queer love, as Janelle Monae recently demonstrated with her album Dirty Computer.

These changes may only be symbolic, but representations still hold the potential to transform our social realities.

Special thanks to Kinitra Brooks, who provided helpful feedback on this piece.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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The post Reflections in Oshun’s Mirror: Beyoncé Mass, the Royal Wedding and Highly Visible Black Girl Magic appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.



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