31 October, 2010

It gets better - but it needs help

There's two things going on at the moment, mostly in the US, but it's also spilling over here too. The first is that there have been a string of young, queer people who have killed themselves due to the constant bullying that they receive for their particular shade of different. Whether this is something that has recently reached a crescendo or that it's rather that the mainstream is just starting to pay attention, doesn't matter - it's starting to get the attention it requires.

The second is the response. Celebrities across the US are posting videos online and giving speeches on their talk shows telling same-sex attracted youth that it gets better, that life is worth living, and pleading with the everyone to end the homophobic and transphobic bullying. The latest trend started when Dan Savage posted a video titled It Gets Better, with a number of celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres contributing to the project. I must say that I am impressed by this - usually the mainstream media don't like talking so frankly about queer issues, preferring to sit on the "balanced" sidelines.

I am absolutely thrilled that this is happening, but I'm worried that as soon as the novelty wears off, we'll find something else to worry about, and the abuse and the suicides will continue to happen.

In New Zealand, gay, lesbian and bi youth are three times more likely than their straight counterparts to be bullied for being gay, or being thought of as gay. I'm not sure what the stats are like in other countries, but from what I understand that it doesn't get much better.

There is a reason that young queer people are being singled out and bullied, and it goes quite a bit beyond general schoolyard meanness. As a teenager at school, you're pretty much guaranteed to be bullied if they don't fit into whichever clique is supposed to be popular. Nerds and geeks are classical fare, as are the fat kids, and those who are just arbitrarily deemed unpopular. But if you're labelled 'gay' - even if you're really not - then life can become a living hell. At school, I fell into all those categories.

There needs to be a lot more done to curb bullying in schools. A lot of the abuse is often just passed off as childhood and teenage meanness; we certainly wouldn't expect adults to act like that. But when homophobia and queerphobia gets involved it becomes much worse - who you love and who you find attractive become one of the most things in a teenagers life once puberty strikes, and coupled with the overwhelming desire to fit in and do and like the 'right' things, things can get very stressful for a young queer person even before you add bullying into the mix. Children and teenagers can be very cruel - I should know: I spent years being bullied and taunted everyday, including two years at a boarding school I couldn't escape, for having the audacity of being different in a way that was outside my control, and for not following the rules of that society which, to this day, I can't totally comprehend.

I think that there is a dangerous myth present here that knocks back efforts to curb school-yard bullying - that children are cruel, purely because children are cruel. I really don't think that is the case. Yes they can be blunt, yes they take time to learn about things like compassion and empathy. Male children are learning how to establish hierarchies and pecking orders, in which they put others down. But I don't think that's enough to explain it all. Where do they get their ideas of how to be at the top of that pecking order? How do they know who to pick on; who's 'different'?

Adults.

Quite simple, really. No prizes for me. Some children might not have developed their empathy, but that doesn't mean that they're incapable of understanding it (children are capable of understanding anything if you explain it to them) and it is the duty of adults, especially parents and educators, to explain it to them. And it is also adults who spread most of the lies, misunderstandings and stereotypes about homosexuals and queer people.

“Being a fag doesnt [sic] give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself [...]  I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.”
That from Clint McCance, a school board member in Arkansas in responce to students wearing purple in memory of - and to protest the homophobia that led to - the recent, high-profile cases of gay teenage suicide. Read that again: a school board member, i.e. a person who influences teenagers' education. There's currently a Facebook campaign calling for him to be fired. Thanks to the fallout, McChance has since announced that he will resign from the school board. (Just as well, too - do we really want someone in charge of people's education when he can't seem to comprehend an apostrophy's role in contractions?)

Another person to not like It Gets Better, is a strange person called Mike Adams. In the interest of one-upping those annoying gay suicides, he decided to write about the suicides of eight straight people due to "harassment" by homosexuals. The cases he cites are all real except for two subtle points. The first is that they couldn't really be counted as "harassment." One of his 'victims' had recommended a homophobic book for a freshman reading course as a library committee member, and another member filed a harassment complaint against him. Because of that complaint, the librarian took his own life. Except, as he admits at the end of his rant, he didn't. And that's the other point. None of his 'victims' took their own lives. Instead, they're mostly sueing the people who "harassed" them.

So, Adams - a college professor - tried to out do a spate of teen suicides caused by horrific homophobic bullying by equating that abuse (which has included kidnapping and torture) with what mostly amounts to being called out for their bullshit, and then not committing suicide. Harassment is not being told you can't be a bigot. Harassment is being called a fag every other day. It is being spat on on the street. It's being told that you shouldn't be allowed to marry your partner. It's being accused of paedophilia and bestiality. It's being called a disease ridden whore. And not just being picked on by high-schoolers, but by entire churches and religious leaders, celebrities and politicians - all of these people demanding freedom of speech and religion to deny the rights of others, apparently without noticing the irony of their actions.

Fun fact: Adams is also a misogynist.

So, what to do? First of all, we must remember that there is no arguable defence of homophobia and queerphobia. None. Is it a 'sin?' Nope. Does it lead to paedophilia, rape and incest, or be kept away from children? Nope. Is it 'unnatural' (however you qualify or measure that)? Nope. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other shade of queer is no more wrong than being left-handed, or blond, or female, or black.

Next: be visible. Show people that it's not shameful to be queer. Be visible in your sexuality, or your acceptance of the differing sexualities. I know a lot of people don't want to do this for fear of precisely the things we are trying to fight, but we need to make ubiquitus the idea that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer - being different - is completely normal* and acceptable.

* Normal, as in an everyday, natural occurance, not as in statistically average. I am aware of how stupid that word it.

And finally, we need to discourage homophobia and queerphobia wherever we see it. When people say "that's so gay" or call someone they don't like a "homo," tell them that that's not alright. When someone says that gays can't raise children, ask for proof, and let them know that, according to research, children raised by lesbians fare better than those raised in heterosexual households. If they say that it's a 'sin' or that God forbids it, point out leviticus, along with prohibiting male homosexual acts, also forbids the eating of shellfish (which also uses the term abomination), shaving, vegetable gardens, doing anything on a Saturday, and mensturating women from sitting on chairs - furthermore, there are stories of a lesbian couple and two gay couples.

Everyone needs to own this problem; both queer people and 'straight', but especially adults. It's time we got rid of homophobia and queerphobia, and all other forms of bigotry, once and for all. Oppose it whenever you witness it, and tell people that it's not OK.

To all those teachers, parents and caregivers, you need to go out of your way to loof for and discourage homophobic and queerphobic bullying. Yes, all bullying is bad and needs to be stopped, but for too long, bullying of young queer people has been largely ignored. It's your job to ensure that children and teenagers are raised in an environment free from persecution and harassment, and that they understand that they live in a diverse world with many different types of people, just trying to live as who and what they are, and that bigotry is unacceptable.

And to all those people, young people especially, who are being bullied and abused for being gay or being perceived as gay; for all those who are caught in a spiral of depression and are comtemplating suicide, know this: It gets better. You grow up. The arseholes go away. You can get away from it. You can do something about it. I've been there - I've been bullied, yelled at, called a 'faggot' and been tormented. When I was at Timaru Boys High School, as a boarder, I was in an inescapable cuccoon of hypermasculine homophobia. The prefects egged it on, and the housemasters cared more about not letting my parents think there was anything wrong with the hostel than whether I was alright. (It was at the boarding school, that I developed my keen disdain for hegemony, authoritarinism and also militarianism)

But I grew up. I was able to leave Timaru Boys† and, although Ashburton College (shut up) didn't fare much better in the homophobia department, I eventually left that too. I went to university - the bullies dropped out. Now, I'm the happiest I've ever been.

 † I have nothing against the school itself, except the rigid, Christian, superiority complex that I remember. It's the boarding hostel, Thomas House, or rather those that ran it at the time, that draws the attention of my ire.

Life gets better. Even if you're being dragged throught the shit, don't give up. Depression can cloud your judgement and make you unable to see through the storm. It may even make you just want to give up and kill yourself. But that's never the answer. Once you're dead, you're dead forever. You can't go back and fix it. Instead of killing yourself, hold on. I know it may seem futile, but grab onto whatever gives you strength and keep going. Just remember that it does get better.

11 October, 2010

Reading things make me angry

I today saw both the names "Michael Laws" and "Paul Henry" in a tweet. In the interest of masochistic rigour, I clicked on the link to see if I could get my blood to boil. Why do I do this to myself?

It didn't take long - the fact that I'd already read the name "Michael Laws" helped out a lot there. The link led to his column on the Radio Live website. Apologising to the Governor-General for controversial statements seems to be in vogue at the moment, so Laws jumped the bandwagon and apologised for calling Anand Satyanand fat:
Today I have engaged in discussions with RadioLIVE regarding my comments about the Governor General and his physique.
I apologise to the Governor General for comments which were, upon reflection, uncharitable and inappropriate.
So, Laws called Satyanand fat. That's not really that offensive. Fatphobia is a bad thing and should be discouraged, but I can imagine Satyanand shrugging it off. Laws is just trying to remind everyone that he's offensive too, and that by apologising for this one act of insensitivity, he can claim that he cares and isn't all that bad.
But he is. He's a racist homophobe, and he's worse than Henry. At least Henry could hold a logical debte when he wasn't laughing at lady-moustaches. Laws is just a dick.

I can't help but [cynically] notice that he refers to him only as "the Governor General," not once does he refer to him by his name. Is the name Anand Satyanand not 'New Zealand' enough? (Sorry, that's the domain of Henry)
I reserve the right to be controversial and outspoken.
Translation: I reserve the right to be a bigoted arsehole - freedom of speech and all that!

OK, so we all know that Laws is a dick (well, we should, by now). I won't keep flogging him - I found something else to be cynical about [Emphasis mine]:
By Jane
What the hell is wrong with this country...sorry but this is seriously a case of the Emperors New Clothes, sorry to state the obvious but the Governor General, not matter how holier than thou he is, is of Indian descent and hes FAT, regardless of whether he was born in NZ or not! And if you dont want English speaking nations to say your name as Dikshit, then spell it Dixit! And if that makes me a racist, then I'm happy to wear that label
(3)   (0)
This was the first comment I saw on Laws' column. I could poke fun at 'Jane's' grammer, I could poke fun at her misplaced "Emperors New Clothes" analogy, but I won't. Firstly, at what point has Satyanand acted "holier than thou?" He's hardly said anything - it's the media and social commentators (myself included, granted) that been blustering about this.

Secondly, yes, it does make you racist, but that's not something to be proud of. Furthermore, at the time I read this post, 3 people 'agreed' with her. This is what is what "is wrong with this country." Not people being offended at offensive stuff, but the racist, bigoted sentiment that comes gushing to the surface when people like Laws and Henry get in trouble.

It's hard to think of New Zealand as being a bigoted nation, but the bigotry is there. What I can't comprehend is people defending it, and claiming it as their right to be bigots.

I should stop reading the internet, it makes me angry. Also, Jane, your grammer sucks and that "Emperors New Clothes" line makes no sense.

08 October, 2010

Do I give more face time to Paul Henry?

The ship is fast sailing on this one, but the media keep plugging it, so I will too.

[Warning: This post gets cynical quite quickly]

What I find interesting (though not at all surprising) about the whole Paul Henry thing, is the difference in reporting between the two networks. TVNZ (understandably) is only giving a minimal amount of information, focusing on his offending question surrounding whether Anand Satyanand was "even a New Zealander," and only focused on his joking about Sheila Dikshit's name once the controversy hit India. TV3, by contrast, played a sort of Paul Henry mega-mix whereby he laughed at a lady moustache and his mockery of Susan Boyle.

Both networks conspicuously leave out his comment that homosexuals are "unnatural."

There are two things that annoy me about this whole Henry debacle. First is the fact that people are defending him - some people joining ‘boycott TVNZ until Paul Henry returns’ groups on Facebook. They act (seemingly echoing TVNZ's sentiment) that it was a one-off incident, and wasn't really all that bad. The reason people are pissed off and want his blood, is because it's the latest in a long line of bigoted, arsehole statements that the veteran broadcaster has made - and, being racial, it's the one that's inflamed us all the most. He's not saying “what we're all thinking but afraid to say” (granted, TVNZ later retracted this statement). Most New Zealanders are not bigoted arseholes. Tough I would agree with the sentiment that we'd like to be able to “tell it like it is,” that has more to do with New Zealanders reprehension with complaining rather than any introverted intolerance.

Henry is a bigot and giving him free reign on Breakfast has exacerbated his bigotry. The argument that he's a good broadcaster and that he's fantastic at debating politicians, et al, does not warrant letting his offensive remarks slide.

The second thing that annoyed me about the whole thing is that TV3 interviewed radio shock-jocks John Tamihere and Willie Jackson. The pair admonished Henry's offensiveness, rightly pointing out that a government-owned network shouldn't employ openly racist presenters, while ignoring the hypocrisy of them making those comments. Jackson and (especially) Tamihere have received their fair share of complaints about their own offensive statements, but they defend their right to do it because their radio programme is privately owned, as if that makes it all OK.

Finally, I should pay lip service to the fact that many people are saying that we shouldn't be flogging this piece of non-news. While the media do have a tendency of over pushing pointless “news” items, I think people are more worried about giving Henry's words an ersatz legitimacy by talking about it.

I disagree, and think that we should be talking about it. The fact that he said it, and the fact that many people are rushing to his defense, shows that New Zealand is still a quietly bigoted country. While we have nothing of the sort we see proudly trumpeted from the parapets across America, we're not the paragon of tolerance and freedom that we tell ourselves we are. Racism, heterosexism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination all still exist in our society.

But does that mean that we need to keep harping on Paul Henry? He may be a bit of a media pariah at the moment, but he's fast becoming a patsy for bigotry in New Zealand. In stead of keeping on him, we need to honestly look at ourselves in the mirror, and actually have a conversation with ourselves to finally deal with the conservative bigotry lurking beneath our liberal fa├žade.

[UPDATE: Paul Henry has resigned, lol]

07 October, 2010

Straight Men are Lame and Insecure :)

[This post was originally published in Critic - Te Arohi, p. 31, Issue 25, 2010]

"Why is it," I was asked, "that women get Women's Week? We don't get Men's Week." I also often hear "Gays get a 'Pride' Week, but I bet they wouldn't let us have a 'Straight Pride' Week." Instead of responding to things I don't like with vitriol, like I usually do, I thought I would offer a more elaborate rebuttal than just saying "Because you already have the other 50 weeks!" (OK, there's going to be a little vitriol in this).

As it turns out, straight men are insecure. For the last few decades, as Feminism and Queer Civil Rights really picked up steam, straight men have been having their stranglehold on society slowly, but forcibly, loosened. Straight men are still the dominant group in society, but their authority is being challenged, and that makes them insecure.

If you're so insecure in your masculinity that you need a special week to fellate your ego, then by all means, have a Men's Week.

However, before you rush out and install a blow-off valve in your car or whatever it is that straight guys do, note this: Women's Week, Pride Week, Diversity Week, et alia are about dismantling stereotypes and misunderstandings, claiming a political voice and challenging the insecurities of wider society through visibility and supporting women, queers, and diverse ethnic groups by creating 'safe' spaces, both emotionally and physically, for a week.

The truth is, straight men are unfairly affected by sexism and expected to behave in certain ways. Men are expected to be REAL MEN™ - to be the epitome of logic and reason, yet resolve everything with violence; be humble, yet win every fight. They are expected to tend to a woman's 'needs', yet not give a shit about their feelings. They have to be good fathers, yet not invest any emotions in their children. They have to tread a fine line between stylish, yet looking messy. They can't possibly be mistaken for gay - even if they are. They have to enjoy watching and playing sport (personally, I'd rather watch grass grow with paint drying on it). They also absolutely have to have a penis - a big one; and be willing and able to prove it (though not really prove it, because that would be gay).

All of these things tie men up in awkward, contradictory, illogical knots. No wonder straight men feel confused and insecure - especially in a society that's also trying to pry a little of their power away for women and queers. If we are to have a Men's Week, then it has to dismantle the impossible expectations of 'straight' men in today's society.

A couple of year's ago, we [OUSA] did have a Men's Week. It was lame. This year we had 'Manday'. Sport, violent video games, meat - this just reinforced the hyper-masculine stereotype. As a friend said, it was straight men saying "We have a voice too - and it's deep." While I agree that X-Box and barbecues are awesome, there's much more to being a man than this. If straight men are insecure about loosing their place in society, then it's not going to be helped by having Manday-esque circle-jerks where you high-five each other and tell yourselves how awesome you are. Instead, men should be told that they can still be REAL MEN™ without having to subscribe to the beer, tits, rugby, rally-cars, guns, explosions, steak, barbecue, sex, violence, car-maintenance, womanising, track-pants-wearing, hyper-masculine, bullshit stereotype that we keep getting sold.

In reality, most of the straight men in my life don't subscribe to this image. But time and time again this is the image we're sold, this is the contemporary archetype male that is hammered into us. In advertising, on TV and in print we're sold this lie over and over again. A common source of sitcom hijinks sees the blokish main character fall slightly outside this ridiculous norm or (more hilariously, apparently) be caught in some kind of 'gay panic' situation. Father's Day seems to have less to do with parenting and more to do with powertools, and don't get me started on department store Christmas catalogues' 'gifts for boys' sections. This is what we keep being sold in spite of the fact that most men are not like this at all.

Men, be they gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, or whatever, need to be sold the idea that they don't have to resolve everything with a fight; they don't  have to win every argument; they don't have to be tall and 'rugged' and physically strong. They should be told that they don't need always to be ready to have sex with anyone (of the 'correct' gender); that they are allowed to date the 'fat chick'; that they don't have to be able to fix stuff or make lots of money, or hide their emotions. And most importantly (from my perspective) they need to know that being called 'gay' is not an insult. If a guy hits on you in a bar, take the compliment and politely decline, don't have a mini freak-out. These are issues that we must own collectively - not just those outside the norm, but everyone who comfortably sits in it too.

But if you'd still rather cling to your insecurities, then by all means, keep your Manday's and your rugby and your beer; just don't be baffled when you get no respect in return.