Archive for December, 2008


Libraries are a Queer Issue, or, LGBT Politics Beyond Marriage

Remember all those nationwide rallies last month against Prop 8? I didn’t go to the Philadelphia one because I was at a rally to save the Kingsessing branch of the Free Library from closing. That pretty much sums up my political priorities these days. But this isn’t a case of libraries trumping queer issues or local politics trumping national issues or anything silly like that; rather, I see the fight to save 11 branches of the Philadelphia Free Library from permanent closure as exactly the kind of intersectional issue I’d like to see included in a broader sense of what constitutes “LGBT politics,” which is all too often overshadowed by gay marriage.*
Continue reading ‘Libraries are a Queer Issue, or, LGBT Politics Beyond Marriage’


What I’m Reading: A Map of Home

I just finished Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home, which I heard about here. I really enjoyed it, as a novel as well as for its probably bisexual protagonist.

Nidali Ammar is born in Boston to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian-Greek mother. Family circumstances call them back to the Middle East not much later, and Nidali spends her childhood in Kuwait before Iraq’s invasion causes her family to flee to Alexandria, and from there, eventually, back to America. Her attraction to girls is presented very much within the larger context of this life — her parents’ rocky marriage, her father’s rages and determination to keep her from hanging around with boys, her sadness and struggles to acclimate and make friends every time circumstances drag her to a new place. Nidali is a whole person, and her attraction to girls is not the only thing in her life that’s difficult or confusing. It’s so refreshing that queerness, and particularly bisexuality, can be contextualized this way, that there can be a book about a most likely bisexual character that is not only about her sexuality. Nidali as a character doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of being bisexual, and I’m glad that we’ve reached the point where that’s possble. I understand the need for the coming-out narrative, and those are also powerful books, but I’m glad they’re not the only books that exist.

Which is not to say that her feelings about girls aren’t upsetting to Nidali; the few times they come up, they certainly seem to be. After an unexpectedly sexual wrestling match with her friend Rama, the two ignore each other and read magazines the rest of their visit, and Nidali cries all the way home. She’s crying about her bewilderment about the war in Kuwait and the need to leave her home, but I got the impression she’s also bewildered about what just happened and why, and that might be what tipped her over into tears. Later, she finds herself thinking that she’d like to give her friend Jiji her first kiss. She manages it by offering Jjji practice with kissing so she’ll know what to do when her boyfriend kisses her, and she describes the minutes of kissing that follow in rapturous detail. Afterward, she dwells on that kiss and wonders how she can like both girls and boys, what it means that she does. But it doesn’t consume all of her attention; she has a whole life to attend to, and this is only part of it. I appreciate that visibility. Queer presses are very important, but so is having believable, sympathetic queer characters in more mainstream books that people will read for other reasons. The same way I got a look into what it might be like to grow up with Nidali’s ethnic and religious background, other readers will get a glimpse of what adolescence might be like as one discovers one is queer.

Bisexuality is not the only thing Jarrar handles sensitively and well. Nidali’s father’s feelings about Palestine, and the way Nidali herself feels going through an Israeli checkpoint, are presented simply and movingly, allowing the reader space for a reaction rather than telling hir what to feel. I have a bit of a blind spot on the subject of Israel, and the way the narrative refrained from preaching and instead simply shared the characters’ experiences gave me room to sympathize and empathize. This is the same thing I think Jarrar did well as far as Nidali’s sexual experiences with girls, reporting her feelings and actions and confusion and not telling us how to react to them. She’s similarly restrained about Nidali’s masturbation and sexual experience with boys, her struggles due to being mixed-race and never quite feeling she fits in, her mixed feelings about her nerdiness and good grades, the friction in her parents’ marriage, etc. She doesn’t preach about any of them, and it gives the reader a chance to really consider them.

I was about to write that if you’re only reading A Map of Home for the bisexual content, you may be disappointed. But that may not be true; I read it for that reason, and found many other things to like. Nidali’s sexual orientation is nowhere near the focus of the book, and only comes up a handful of times. We know that she never saw Rama again after their experience, since shortly afterward Nidali’s family fled Kuwait for Alexandria. I would have liked to know more about how her friendship with Jiji changed (or didn’t) after they made out; what Jiji’s reaction was, if they ever talked about it, whether and how they justified it to themselves. I would also have liked to observe more of Nidali’s thoughts about these experiences – she seems to struggle with it more than she does with her frequent masturbation or her sexual experiences with boys, both of which are also supposed to be beyond the pale, and it seems reasonable to assume she gives it more than the few pages of thought we see. I’d like to know what she’s thinking, and what if anything she concludes about herself. Given her background, it would make sense for her to decide that regardless of her feelings for certain girls, she will of course eventually marry a man — after all, she likes them. She doesn’t necessarily have to give up her chance at happiness in order to be normal. But we don’t know if that’s how she’s framing it for herself, or whether she’s framing it for herself at all.

I do wish we could have stuck with Nidali a bit longer. As the book closes, she’s getting ready to go to a small liberal arts college in Boston. If she’s going to encounter queer ideas and develop an identity and ethos around or in opposition to them, not to mention finding queer girls to befriend or date, she’d likely do so there. And she’s rebellious enough and willing enough to challenge herself and the expectations of others that it seems a strong possibility. It’s a pity we don’t get to know. But the soft focus on Nidali’s sexual orientation, and the lack of politics around that and everything else, are among the things I enjoyed most about this book. While it would also be fun to watch a character go through the process of becoming politicized, I suppose in this case I can’t have it both ways. And by not following Nidali until she’s partnered, we avoid the conundrum of discovering whether she’s “really straight” or “really gay” based on her partner’s gender, and she has the space to feel of what she feels and be all of who she is. All in all it’s a beautiful, engaging book, and I enjoyed the time I spend with Nidali.


Fortnightly Round-Up?

Thanks for hanging in there with me all these months while I figure out how this blogging thing works. I hope to have it figured out and everything running smoothly by the time this blog is a year old, which gives me until next summer. In the meantime, a round-up of all of the news I haven’t had a chance to read, let alone write about, since the last round-up. (I was so right to ask for an Eee for Chanukah. Bus rides to DC are one of my major sources of blogging time, these days.)

Julia Serano has a call out for anecdotes from trans women about being objectified or hypersexualized in ways that relate to their being trans. She’s planning to use them in an upcoming article highlighting and speaking out against such misbehavior. Bi-Furious! would like to take this opportunity to remind you that Julia Serano is awesome and inspiring (as far as I’m concerned the saddest thing about me missing the Femme Conference was not getting to introduce myself), and you should read her book Whipping Girl.

We were asked ages ago to post this call for submissions to Chroma, and I am a flaky airhead. Sophie emails us to say, “Chroma is the UK’s premier queer literary magazine. We pay $50 per accepted piece and we can accept email submissions from overseas contributors — but please get in touch first and let us know what you’d like to send along! Issue 11 has the theme Utopia, and we are looking for great science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, horror writing, comics and art…The deadline is 15 June 2009, so there’s lots of time to imagine beautiful machines and fabulous planets…”
Submission guidelines here, more information here. And I think our very own Sarah is planning to submit a piece!

Yet another call for submissions, this time from QueeredFiction, a queer genre publisher, for an anthology on queer futures. The deadline for that one is February 28th.

The 6th International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was on Wednesday. Check out the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s information packet, which includes their demands and an open letter to President-Elect Barack Obama.

Speaking of President-Elect Obama…he chose Rick Warren to give the Invocation at the inauguration? Rick “same sex mariage intrudes on my freedom of speech” Warren? Really? He defends the choice here. I’m not ready to join the hordes of LGBT activists declaring that this does not bode well for queer issues during Obama’s presidency, but I must say it makes me cautious. I realize that you can never please everyone, but who exactly did he hope to please with this move?
Actually, let’s take a closer look at Warren’s fascinating argument against same sex marriage. “And the reason I supported Proposition 8, is really a free speech issue. Because first the court overrode the will of the people, but second there were all kinds of threats that if that did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn’t think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech.” My eloquent counter-argument is: huh? Where are you even getting this? Legalizing civil marriages doesn’t mean that clergy have to perform them, let alone condone them. This conflation of two unrelated things (without any explanation of how the speaker got from A to B)  is a favorite tactic for bigots justifying their bigotry, but unless I’m sorely mistaken, there was nothing in the phrasing of Prop 8 that would have made religious disapproval of homosexual practice hate speech had it failed.

Ironically, a study in British Columbia suggests that pregnancy rates are higher among gay and bisexual teens than among straight teens. The suggestion is that queer teens engage in heterosexual sex as camouflage in an attempt to avoid harrassment and discrimination. I also want to take issue with the phrasing “7.3 per cent of lesbians and 10.6 per cent of girls who said they were bisexual” – what’s that distinction about? Maybe they trust lesbian teens to know their own minds, but suspect some girls identifying as bisexual might be confused?

I kinda want to see this documentary chronicling a long-term triad. Bisexual and polyamorous relationships get so little positive exposure, I’m intrigued at the thought that this might have been done well. Pity I don’t get HBO. (Who does and wants to invite me over to watch it?)

Health insurance company Aetna has formed an LGBT advisory council. Good for them! I have no idea how it’s working out in practice, but they seem pretty committed to recognizing and addressing LGBT-specific health needs, and in general to “eliminating inequalities in health care.” That’s definitely a goal I can get behind. And speaking of inequalities in health care…I think in my last post I glossed over the main point about the study showing that queers are less healthy than straight people. What I found most interesting about it is that, while there’s a health disparity between gays and lesbians and straight folks, there’s a markedly bigger disparity between straight folks and bisexuals. Why should this be? What does it say about the near-universal assumption that bisexuals are better off because we have access to straight pivilege? Is it possible that instead, it’s even more stressful and unhealthy to be caught between two worlds, neither of which really wants you? Gay men and lesbians at least have a subculture that fully embraces them, while it sometimes condemns and excludes bisexuals; bi culture and activism is much newer and smaller. I don’t have answers, but boy, I have questions.

Apparently, this month marks the two-year anniversary of the Conservative Jewish movement deciding that being gay or bisexual is not a violation of Jewish law. I enjoyed this piece by a gay Conservative Jew about the intersections of minority experience in being gay and Jewish. I don’t necessarily think it’s helpful to compare being gay to being Jewish, but do think it’s useful to explore how being both colors one’s experience.

“Not everyone is bisexual” pins! I doubt I’d wear one of these, but they amused me. And the arguments she makes in explaining why she made them sound awfully familiar. I also found an interesting piece on bi identity when I went poking around that site. It’s a good take on a lot of the stereotypes bi folks run into out in the world.

Oklahoma State Senator Sally Kern’s husband calls on the courts to put homosexuals in mandatory treatment centers like those for drug abuse and anger management. Scary stuff. (Question: would this be spontaneous, or — like the examples he cites — only in response to a crime? ‘Cause it seems like he’s implying the former, and how exactly does he expect that to work? Oh, right, probably making gay sex a crime again. ) Sally Kern, remember, is the one who was recorded saying all kinds of hateful, homophobic things.

Applications are open for the Point Foundations 2009 scholarships for LGBT students. Apparently, they’re particularly looking for bisexual applicants. I know some of our lovely readers should be applying. (Come to think of it, when I get around to going back to school, I should be applying.)

And, um, I have lots more emails full of news to read, but no more time today. Maybe instead of spending the weekend trying to figure out what my next post should be about, I’ll wrap this up on the bus home on Monday.


Bisexuality and Health

I had a very odd experience at my doctor’s appointment a few weeks ago. Odd enough that I’m going to write about it here even though I’m not sure it ties in neatly to bisexuality; the nice thing about having a platform is that I can write about whatever I consider important.

It was a routine appointment, and I told my doctor that I wanted the full run of STD tests as part of my annual check-up. She started asking me about my sexual behavior, and after ascertaining that I still have the same regular partner as last year and still use barriers for all of the behaviors we discussed last year, she turned to me and said “So what are we doing all of this testing for?” I was understandably taken aback, and just stared at her looking flabbergasted while she launched into a spiel about how people having safer sex within the context of a monogamous relationship just don’t need yearly testing. Granted, this doctor seems to have a pretty strict idea of what constitutes safer sex (she asked me quite earnestly when the last time was that I’d had someone else’s fingers in my mouth without a latex glove, and insisted that even boiled silicone toys should have condoms on them – maybe she means monogamous couple who wear hazmat suits with each other?), but still, let’s back up a little. When did doctors start discouraging patients from having yearly STI testing? Seriously? And this is not an isolated incident. I’d already heard a friend or two say that her doctor thought she wasn’t at risk and didn’t need to be tested. And when I went around in a haze of disbelief telling people about this crazy thing my doctor said, many of them told me they’d had the same experience.

I can think of so many problems with this strategy. What happened to the constant push to get tested? I still get that from the ubiquitous ads telling me to know my status, and from my peers in my fairly slutty, sex-positive, very risk-aware subcultures — from pretty much all of the cultural sources I come in contact with. But not, apparently, from my doctor. My doctor at the LGBT health center, no less. This is a place that offers Herpes 1 and 2 testing as part of its basic testing procedure and has fliers on its walls advertising countless support groups for folks who are HIV+. If anyone is going to be on top of encouraging everyone to get tested, I’d expect it to be the doctors here. And it hardly matters that I was able to convince my doctor that I actually needed the tests, or that I probably could have had them by insisting even if I hadn’t convinced her. The important thing is that many people trust their doctors, and go to them as their main source of not only medical care but also medical information and advice. If advising people not to get tested is a general trend in medicine right now, there are probably a lot of people out there listening and not getting tested.

What I really don’t get is who this advice benefits. What’s to lose in getting tested, and how can it possibly compare to the risks involved with *not* being certain of your status? A few dollars of lab work, versus the damage an undetected and untreated STI can cause; we all know about HIV, syphillis involves stark raving madness before it kills you, and even the easily-cured gonorrhea can lead to infertility if left alone. Even for money-grubbing insurance companies, it should be clear that prevention and early detection are significantly cheaper than late-stage treatment. And I’m having trouble thinking of rationales for this other than insurance companies leaning on doctors to order fewer expensive tests. (Also, they’re not expensive. I just paid for my own, and if I hadn’t tested for Herpes 1, all the rest would have come to $60.)

‘Cause it’s just not true that people in monogamous couples don’t need yearly testing. I haven’t been keeping track of the men, but nearly all of the women I know who’ve contracted STIs have done so while in what they believed to be monogamous relationships. I’m all for trusting your partner, but I’m also all for taking care of yourself — you’re not with your partner all the time, you don’t know what ze does or doesn’t do when you’re not there (or what protection ze does or doesn’t use while doing it). I don’t think this should keep people from trusting others enough to have relationships — or even enough to be fluid bonded, though that’s a harder one for me — but it should certainly mean getting tested. Because you can be a lot more sure of your test results than you can be of what’s happening when you’re not around. I’m utterly confused as to why doctors wouldn’t take that into account when advising on testing.

The other thing I would expect them to take into account is the fact that people don’t tell their doctors everything. When my doctor asked why we were doing all of this testing and I said because it had been a year and that’s what you do, that could easily have been the last thing I said. I didn’t have to tell her that I’m in a nonmonogamous relationship and prone to casual sex — hell, I had to interrupt her spiel on the safety of monogamous relationships to do so. And what if I was in a nominally monogamous relationship but I was cheating? While I might not feel the need to point that out, it would certainly affect my level of risk. What if I shared needles? She might have asked me about that if my answers about drug use indicated the need, but I bet drug use is another thing people routinely lie to their doctors about. As, come to think of it, is sexual orientation; particularly lies of omission. What bits are involved can affect how risky sex is and how likely people are to use barriers, whether it’s men not using condoms with other men because they can’t get knocked up, cis women not using barriers with other cis women because it’s so much less risky than sex with penises, or not being prepared because you’re sneaking out doing something counter than your claimed identity and having protection on hand would mean admitting to yourself that you’re about to do it. My doctor asked my orientation (last year), but how many outside the LGBT health center do? And how may patients outside the LGBT health center hesitate to answer honestly? Not to mention the countless people whose identities don’t give you the whole picture on their behaviors (I know lots of dyke-identified people who have sex with men, and not a few fags who have sex with women – I’d probably know similar straight people, except I don’t know many straight people these days). And the faulty assumption that people sleeping with only women or only men will always encounter the same sets of bits and have the same sorts of sex with them. “Are you having sex with men?” is a totally different question from “Are you having intercourse?,” so if that’s the information doctors want, they may not always be getting it accurately.

And while I’m writing about bisexuality and health (and about withholding information from one’s doctor), there’s something I’m sure ties in to bisexuality quite neatly. Girlfriend, Esq. and my Google alerts both pointed me toward this report on bisexuality and health (read the report itself as a .pdf here). I want to take a moment to object to their statement that “Lesbian/homosexual women were more likely to be obese versus at a ‘normal’ weight compared to straight/heterosexual women” as a statement of health. Evidence that lower weight equals better health are much more uncertain than the medical establishment would have us believe, and it’s been theorized that higher weights among lesbians could have to do with lesbians being more likely than straight men to find a wider range of body types attractive, thus putting less pressure on queer women to hate their bodies and try to lose weight (and you know what’s unhealthy? Self-hatred and yo-yo dieting). But the medical establishment’s fatphobia aside, it’s an interesting report. Apparently gays and lesbians are measurably less healthy than straight people in a number of areas (“self-reported health; disability-related activity limitation; asthma; current and past tobacco smoking; anxious mood; 30-day binge drinking and substance use; and lifetime sexual assault victimazation.”), and bisexuals are even worse off (“access to health insurance, as well as medical and dental providers; heart disease; anxious and depressed moods, 12-month suicidal ideation; current tobacco smoking, and lifetime and 12-month sexual assault victimization. In addition, bisexual women were more likely to report disability-related activity limitation, 30-day illicit drug use, and lifetime intimate partner violence victimization”). I’ve been hearing speculation along those lines for a long time, but maybe having an actual study to point to will catalyze people a little more to figure out what’s going wrong here and fix it. (On the bright side, queers are more likely to have ever been tested for HIV, and gay men are more likely to have gotten colorectal cancer screenings, and to report recent condom use.)

Of course, we could always follow this guy’s advice and simply stop having all of that queer sex. That would clear the problem up for sure. No gays, no measurable health disparity! ‘Cause it’s definitely actual homosexual behaviors that are leading to poor health. It’s not that queers are likely to have lower incomes and less support from their families, and therefore less access to both health insurance and medical care – even though this study itself says that bisexuals have less access to health insurance and are less likely to have a regular healthcare provider, and those two things in and of themselves could explain a lot of health disparities. It’s not that homophobic doctors might be consiously or unconsciously be providing a lower quality of care to queer patients, or that queers are not coming out to their doctors for fear of that and therefore aren’t getting healthcare that’s really targeted for them. It’s not a lack of training and education on how healthcare could be targeted for us. There’s no way that the extra stress and despair of life in the closet or of facing individual and systemic homophobia affect health generally and specifically lead to more self-harming behaviors like drinking, smoking, and drugs. No, none of that. It’s the evil of our ways manifesting in our bodies, for sure. And forcing us back into the closet definitely won’t make the problem worse.

I wonder what “strategies to reduce the number of gays, lesbians and bisexuals” he thinks the Department of Health, Governor, and Legislature have come up with, since everything from McCarthy-era witch hunts to concentration camps to, oh, believing the lifestyle is inherently evil and unhealthy has failed in the past, and those pesky gays, lesbians, and bisexuals still insist on engaging in their unhealthy gay, lesbian, and bisexual behaviors. Here’s a nice rebuttal.


Weekly Round-Up

This week in my life: was four days long, sandwiched between two weekends out of town. Maintenance finally got around to fixing the leak over my window, and I finally got around to doing some more settling into my new apartment, once the dripping water stopped destroying my sleep and it no longer felt futile. I thought about blogging a lot, but never quite managed it. Slowly, slowly life is coming back under control and I’m finding the time and energy to do the things that are important to me.

This week on the internet:

Two bi magazines folded. Joining a general trend of print magazines that don’t want to tell you how to lose weight or decorate your home or which celebrities are smooching each other folding. I should really find out if there are any bi magazines left at this point, so I can subscibe before I lose my chance entirely.

This piece in the Washington Post charmingly blames DC’s high HIV infection rates on male bisexuality and black folks’ promiscuity. Joshua Lynsen  ably counters the former {ed: link fixed…I really was careless this week}, though I’d like to see someone take on the latter in more depth, as well.

Britain’s Office of National Statistics is going to start asking people about sexual orientation. This might actually give us the first accurate picture of what percentage of the population — that population, at least — identifies as straight, gay, bisexual, or other. Information that could easily be used for good or evil, but it should be interesting.

Binghamton, NY’s City Council has proposed a law to extend freedom from discrimination from the basics (and not so basics) of “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, sex, and sexual orientation” to “sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender presentation, gender identity {ed: oops!} weight and height.” Awesome! Does anyone know if this is the first potential protection from size discrimination, nationally or internationally? {ed: Apparently  not.  See TGStoneButch’s comment below for more information.)

I’m a little bit confused by this keynote speech about LGBT research. The speaker is suggesting that the same studies are being done over and over, and it’s time to actually learn something. Which sounds good to me. I also think it’s important to point out how often “LGBT” research is actually research on (usually white) gay men except when it’s being used to blame usually black bisexual men for spreading STIs). But I wonder about this quote: “He also questioned whether the LGBT research community was too inclusive. ‘It may be the case that in trying to be inclusive we have failed to recognise the exclusivity that some of our research requires,’ he said. Services labelled LGBT often serve ‘G’ and hopefully ‘L’, occasionally ‘B’ and rarely ‘T, he said. “How can we justify the fact that LGBT sexual health usually means gay men’s health? We accept a need to fund gay men’s health projects, but what about lesbian health, transgender health, bisexual health? In trying to be inclusive have we ‘played’ to the lowest common denominator?‘” “Lowest common denominator?” Does he mean what I think he means? ‘Cause if so, that’s fucked up.

And this piece on Bilerico about whether sexual orientation needs to be an immutable characteristic to deserve equal protection under the law is insightful and interesting, and also reminds me of a piece Girlfriend, Esq.. wrote on her brilliant legal blog about sex and sexuality back in March about whether political powerlessness is a good criterion for same. Both pieces are somewhat lengthy, but well worth reading. (And speaking of Girlfriend, Esq’s blog, she also expanded on the EHarmony settlement I mentioned in last week’s roundup.)

Have a lovely weekend! My bus is just pulling into Philadelphia, and I know I will.