Saturday, June 16, 2012

Moderate Theists, Stop the Enabling of Fundamentalists

Atheist is a dirty word in this country.  It conjures up images of asshole behavior, baby-eating, satanic worship, and general debauchery.  While individual atheists could theoretically have some of these traits (except satanic worship, since we don't worship anything) I wouldn't bet on it.  Unlike most people who make these broad generalizations, I actually know a great number of atheists and most are kind, honest people who only want what is best for their family and loved ones.  For that matter, I know a lot of theists who may believe in a book about a sadistic dictator, but at the end of the day most are kind, honest people who only want what is best for their family and loved ones.  We have much more in common that we do in conflict, so why the big stand-off?

Most theists and atheists are indistinguishable in their day to day life.  Sure, some pray and go to church while others do not, but apart from that we share many of the same values and humanistic ideals.  Of course, with this comparison we must exclude the dogmatic and fundamentalist theists.  (Sorry, atheists do not fall in these categories.  There are certainly passionate atheists, but by very virtue of not having a holy book or deity to worship, we can't have dogma or fundamentalism.)  Most moderate theists even confess that fundamentalists give everybody a bad name and I would agree, but far too often moderates become enablers of the very behavior they despise. 

Faith is defined as "belief that is not based on evidence".  It is this "virtue" that I take the most issue with even among my moderate theist friends.  By glorifying the idea of "knowing" something you can not possibly know, you are opening the door for fundamentalist behavior.  Because if it is possible to "know" through faith that God/Yahweh/Allah is the one true deity, it is equally as possible for someone else to "know" God/Yahweh/Allah hates the LGBT community, wishes for the bombing of abortion clinics, or demands your children be killed to save them from sin.  Religious faith is a dangerous double-edged sword that would probably best be put away all together.  If a religious moderate were to say, "I believe in God, but for all I know I could be wrong," that would be a much healthier way of approaching the subject.  This would ensure that when a fundamentalist says, "God has commanded me to vote against marriage equality," a religious moderate could ask, "How could you possibly know what God wants you to do?"  This may come across as agnostic theism, and that's because it is.  To be fair, I advocate for agnostic atheism as well.  You will never hear my say, "I know there is no such thing as gods."  Instead, you might hear me say, "I know there is no such thing as gods with the same certainty that I know there are no fairies.  But I could be wrong."

The other behavior I take issue with among moderate and fundamentalist theists alike is the belief that morality could somehow possibly be dictated by a book from the Bronze Age.  Regardless of whether there are deities or not, I can guarantee no god worth worshiping has written or "inspired" any of these "holy" books.  Why would a god who has infinite powers choose the least effective means of dictating their wishes?  Every book requires to be interpreted, and holy books are no different, regardless of what some may say.  But while you and I may disagree on a theme of The Great Gatsby, we can still have a drink after and enjoy each other's company.  But when people disagree on a theme or passage of a holy book, they splinter off into separate factions or denominations.  When a book contains immoral behavior, contradictions, inaccurate information, and despicable acts, we must either accept this book as "truth" or see it for what it is, a product of it's culture and time.  By accepting that our morality does not come from a book, you eliminate the conflict of our modern ethics being more advanced than the behavior in a holy book.  You are then free to pick and choose which parts of the Bible or Torah or Koran are helpful in your life and which are harmful.

Some will no doubt take issue with these suggestions.  As though to suggest something that could possible not be real could never truly inspire us to improve our lives.  To rebut, I'd like to hand the floor over the Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who summarized my views of "real" and "imaginary" things touching our lives beautifully:

"It's all real.  Think about it.  Haven't Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected you more than most real people in this room?  I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he's had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have.  And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and Superman and Harry Potter.  They've changed my life, changed the way I act on the earth.  Doesn't that make them kind of real?  They might be imaginary, but they're more important than most of us here.  And they're all going to be around long after we're dead.  So in a way, those things are more 'real-er' than any of us." - Kyle Broflovsky

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Respectful Reporting

Because it seems to be impossible for me to see any news coverage about a transgender person without wanting to pull my hair out, I thought I would save time by making a stock letter to use when future transgressions arise.  Feel free to adapt this yourself whenever a reporter makes you want to punch something.

Dear (Insert Ignorant Reporter's Name Here),

I'm writing in regards to your recent article/story/piece concerning (a transgender person).  Assuming you've attended journalism school or have been in the business for any fair amount of time, you no doubt have a recent edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, commonly referred to as "The Journalist's Bible".  I would like you to turn to the section concerning transgender people.  Just in case you don't have a copy handy, I'll quote below:

Transgender-Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.   

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
Because you are a journalist, I'm sure you are dedicated to presenting the truth in any story you cover, so I would hate to see you continue to misrepresent or disrespect people's gender identity by:

1.  Using improper pronouns.

2.  Referencing names assigned at birth over newer names.

3.  Putting a name in quotation marks.

4.  Showing "before" pictures of a transgender person.

5.  Referring to a trans woman (MTF) as a "man who thinks s/he is a woman" or vice versa for a trans man (FTM).

6.  Use of s/he, tranny, transvestite, he-she or any other derogatory remarks.

7.  Depicting transgender women as putting on makeup or trying on clothing when the story has nothing to do with beauty products or fashion.

8.  Depicting transgender men as shaving when the story has nothing to do with facial hair or grooming.

If you're unsure how to handle a certain subject, it's best to ask the people you're writing about.  Of course, that's not always possible, but there are many members of the community who would be more than happy to help you get things right.  Especially if it helps diffuse potentially confusing messages in the media.

Do not hesitate to call me if you have any questions, either about this letter or general questions about proper terminology for the LGBT community.

Sincerely yours,

Dorian Mooneyham

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Growing Up Queer in a Straight Market

Artwork by Paul Windle
It's easy (and popular) to claim the media has no effect on who we are.  To claim we're sophisticated enough to rise above influence and separate the truth from the hype.  But the truth is, whether we're born trans or cis, the world has a lot to say about gender and most of those messages either start with or are reflected by the media.

Before we're even born, parents-to-be are asked, "Is it a boy or a girl?"  This seems like an innocent enough question, although the proper answer would be, "Neither, it hasn't told us yet.  But it's physically male/female."  But of course, that would not be a socially acceptable answer.  You must answer "boy" or "girl" or "we don't know" and shut up about the difference between gender and sex.  Nurseries, toys, clothes and the babies themselves are already divided down the gender binary before they can even open their eyes properly.  And the media encourages this by dividing catalogs and nursery planning books along stereotypical gender lines.  The most popular "themes" for Babies R Us includes sports, racing, Winnie the Pooh, jungle and space for boys and pink, Disney, pink, princesses, and, what do you know, more pink for girls.  What a surprise!

Of course infants won't be influenced by things they have no way of remembering later in life.  Case in point, I have no idea what my nursery looked like or if I even had one (being the first child to poor college students).  But what is important is the parents treating the child differently based on sex.  Studies have shown female babies are comforted more and are handled more gently and with a softer voice than with male babies.  These differences are both accidental and actually encouraged by some parenting books that play on parents' fears of raising a queer.  Perhaps this is the foundation for so many girls and later women being unable to make themselves heard or allow themselves to occupy space.  It could also be seen as the first instance of a boy being told to "suck it up and walk it off" and deny his emotions.

Let's move on to childhood.  Kids can walk, talk and even think for themselves to some degree.  This is perhaps their most vulnerable time to internalize harmful messages and stereotypes.  Therefore, marketers target them with a vengeance in order to seal "cradle to grave" loyalty.  Until the age of about 8 or 9, children are unable to distinguish commercials from the actual program and marketers play on this shortcoming, having the beloved characters sell fast food, candy and toys to children who can't tell they're being emotionally manipulated.  Because television is such a popular babysitter, most parents are not there to help their child see marketing for what it is and to point out gender stereotypes.

Children also have a lot of uncertainty in their private lives.  For this reason, they can be seen clinging to gender stereotypes presented to them.  For their early school years, children are unsure why the gender binary exists, but fear crossing over to the other side.  This fear is reinforced and preyed upon by creating exaggeratedly gender-specific toys, advertising and programming.  At the same time children naturally divide themselves by gender, "The Cootie Phase", marketers tell children they need to play with trucks if they're a boy or dolls if they're a girl.  The urge to strongly identify with their gender is played against them and they buy it hook, line and sinker.  Now they've been primed to respond to gender-specific marketing on through adulthood.  Cleaning and cooking commercials will feature women and car and beer commercials will feature men, even though men and women both engage in these activities throughout their lives.  The transition is so subtle most don't even realize it.  Now that I've pointed it out to you, try to find a gender-neutral advertisement next time you read a magazine or watch television.  It's harder than you'd think.

So how do all these messages about gender affect queer children and later queer adults?  Whether you were confused about your gender or sexuality or both as a child, nearly every queer adult can remember the feeling of alienation from feeling "different".  That's all most kids know at such an early stage.  They might not be able to articulate that they're gay or trans, but they easily know they're "different" from what they believe the rest of the world is like.  There is no advertisement or show that reflects their personal reality, so they internalize the message that they are "weird", "different", or a "freak".  They play with the toys presented to them normally when adult eyes are watching, but as soon they're alone Barbie becomes a lesbian.  Batman and Superman have a tea party and discuss their busy lives.  A stuffed toy becomes a baby doll.  But it's not just queer kids who "queer" their toys.  All three of the examples I just gave were shared with me by straight, cissexual friends.

If the idea that all boys play with trucks and all girls play with dolls is a lie, why does it keep being portrayed in the media?  Because everyone has insecurities about gender and sexuality.  And where there is insecurity there is a profit to be made.  From "cradle to grave", women are shown images of young, skinny, white, straight, feminine and usually blond role models.  From the Disney princess to the supermodel in magazines, this same image over and over becomes seen as "normal" because it's all that's presented to us.  Despite the fact that this role model reflects a very small portion of the general population, women are told we should all aspire to be her, which is an impossible goal, otherwise we'll never get married.  This ensures we will buy into diets, makeup, beauty treatments, clothing and cosmetic surgery until we die.  From "cradle to grave", men are shown images of tall, muscular, swarthy, heroic, masculine, misogynistic, violent, tough role models who don't show their emotions.  From GI Joe to Rambo, men are sold a very narrow image of manhood that doesn't include any real person.  (Except maybe Hemingway, but even he did "un-manly" things like write for a living.)  Men are told if they don't fit this stereotype then they'll never have sex and their lives will be meaningless.  This ensures they will buy into cars, cologne, alcohol, guns and sports paraphernalia until they die.

Boys do cry.  Girls are aggressive.  Everybody ages.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  We should embrace the truths of our world and base our reality on the people in our lives rather than the ones on the screen or page.  There's no photoshop in the real world and there's much more variety than skinny, big-breasted women and tall, muscular men.  And when we interact with children we should encourage them to enjoy aspects of themselves that go against the norm.  Take your daughter to the science museum.  Teach your son how to cook.  The world will be a lot better for it.