Thursday, October 22, 2009

Health Reform as a Queer Issue - Word!

Check out this awesome post at the similarly awesome blog RH Reality Check! Blogger Katherine Franke gives the quick & dirty version of why a health care system that ties insurance to employment and marriage status isn't so queer-friendly.

This just makes me think about how important genuine systemic change is if we really want healthier people (and not just more people with health insurance, although that would be great too!). Studies show that simply having universal access to care alone does NOT fix the disparities in health that people of color, those of "low socioeconomic status," and others experience. As you can imagine, there is a sad lack of data about these disparities for various segments of the LGBTQ community, but I've got a hunch the same is true for us. You know how they say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure? Access to healthcare is like the cure. It's great, and when you're sick, of course you want it - but maybe what we really need is prevention, to change the messed up, homophobic, sexist, racist world that's making us sick to begin with. And while I still have a lot of love for Obama, it seems to me right now that the health care debate has been stuck in the same rut for months and we'll be lucky if we even get an ounce of the cure out of it.

(And btw, RH Reality Check is a fabulous source of information & analysis related to reproductive health that is refreshingly not too heterocentric. Highly recommended!)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ho Your Garden: Tending the Sexual Soul

Feeling metaphysical at the change of the seasons, I could not help but ask my sister-girl-sister friends over a bottle of red wine: What is a soul anyway? And what does it have to do with sex?

An excellent conversation, especially when the lady-friends work for sexual justice. The abortion rights activist descends from a long line of progressive Protestant ministers, and the public health scientist comes from a family of conservative Italian Catholics. For the record, my family is Sicilian Catholic. My mother, however, when asked why she did not raise me in the church, said, “Because I had a daughter. And I loved her.” Plus, for a place founded on a birth by a single teenage mother, it felt ironically hostile to her at the time.

By the end of the bottle, we concluded, more or less, the soul is the essential part of ourselves that is somehow internal, ethereal and transcendent. Sexuality, being an essential part of every person—a normal and natural part of being human— is part of each soul. Sexual acts or expression can be infused with our souls. Maria adds that asexuality must be included in the spectrum of sexuality, what we express and enact and what or who attracts us.

I had found a book of writers interviewing writers, The World Within, and it offered us this passage:

Rikki Ducornet: I think the sexual soul has to do with sexuality informing one’s entire being. I always think of sexuality as the heart of who one is. I think the sexual soul means one delights in the natural world and isn’t frightened of other bodies or new experiences. A sexual soul is intrigued by other cultures, delighted by new music, by the sensuous experiences of language.
Naming this sexual soul or soulful aspect to sexuality bridges a soul/body disconnect perpetrated by our Western* philosophy and religion, the traditional deliberators of the soul. Many people of faith and those in the HIV and AIDS community have rejected this artificial dichotomy, arguing that it damages individuals and our communities.

To wit, we’ve been double-f***ed: from Judeo-Christian narratives of earthly suffering as a pathway to heaven to Descartes, “I think therefore I am.” If you include our Puritan heritage, we have a ménage e trios of repression. On this foundation, informed by (dare I say) patriarchy, our modern cultural and institutional practices regenerate this disassociation. And we live it out.

Rev. Krishna Stone has been working for over a decade in New York City to facilitate change within faith communities to support sexual wellbeing and to support individuals in reunifying their whole selves. I went to talk with her too.

“What I do in my work is to reconnect sexuality with spirituality,” she said. She facilitates personal and cultural shifts from an idea of sexuality that is connected with disease and damage to one rooted in our personality, our essential self, our soul. The soul being this thing about us that just is; “no religion needed,” she notes.

“It’s all dislocated. Like an eyeball over here, and a vagina way over here,” and she enacts the fragmentation many of us feel, waving about her golden hands.

She gives a workshop for HIV-positive women called Spirituality: What the Hell is It? In one exercise, the group makes two lists of words, those they associate with “spirituality” and with “sexuality.” Time and again, the words for “spirituality” are Christian-centric and abstract, and the list for “sexuality” is full of painful and intensely personal words like damage, rape, and nasty. Pleasure is rarely mentioned, relegated to the realm of luxury. Hardly surprising since sex for many women is not a free choice but a transaction, security or duty. Pleasure almost always secondary.

In contrast, there is an idea of the soul as our basic goodness, the piece of God or Everything that is in us and in every living thing, creating mutuality and connection. To have sex that honors the divine in each feels like love to me. What if we (and our partners) were able to be fully present, connected to our own bodies and souls, for our partner’s ecstasy, the moment of orgasm imagined as a place beyond words in full harmony with the perfect resonance of Everything. Where you can hear the heartbeat of you, her and the universe.

In our brutal society, moments of feeling connectedness to everything can be precious and fleeting. To move soulfully through the day, to be fully present, takes tremendous courage. It makes you vulnerable. There’s a lot of static.

Krishna and I talked about inexplicably soulful sexual moments or soulful moments erotically charged. “It’s like falling in love immediately,” she snaps her fingers. An honor. When her whole body, mind and soul says, undeniably, “Yes!”

After heartbreak, barriers surround your soul at full depth and strength, feeling all the windows of your soul blow open in a moment of sexual connection, I add.

To experience yourself as having a sexual soul, perhaps, is to have done the work to be able to feel these moments, recognize them. Krishna said, “You have to believe in this kind of magic for it to work.”

So much of what we believe twists us away from our sexuality, our bodies. Many of us have experiences that break the sexual soul: sexual abuse; sexual shaming; misinformation; silence, silence and more silence.

It is easier to heal when a community supports you. Some ministers believe if faith communities had accepted and supported gay men, particularly gay men of color, we would not see the AIDS epidemic as it is today. Despite the work of such leaders, there remains much to be done to engender theologies that resonate with the bodily experiences of those of us most vulnerable to HIV infection, sexual assault and other injustices.

Although we have inherited this tradition of a soul/body divide, text and tradition can be reclaimed as tools of justice for our bodies and souls, united. At the corner coffee shop in my Brooklyn neighborhood, a local minister explained to me that the roots of the word “salvation” mean to heal the body, like a salve.

Krishna thinks part of this healing is acknowledging sexual pleasure as a sacred right. She said, “In my church, every service, we’d ask for a show of hands of everyone who orgasmed last night. Raise your hands! Hallelujah! Amen!”

All of these conversations drew me back to the following passage from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, where I first remember hearing the call for healing the disassociation of sexuality from our souls and God-talk:

Here’s the thing, said Shug, the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. … She say, My first step from the [idea of God as an] old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I ran all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happens, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

Shug! I say.

Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ‘em you enjoys ‘em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like. … God made it. Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t.
God loves a mess of stuff you don’t love or understand. She loves our wildly variant bodies, tangles of addictions and fears, and struggles to thrive. Perhaps if voices like these from the faith community seized the values political platform, we would see federal funding for needle exchange, dissolution of the racist imprisonment system, and health care for all.

In my own faith tradition of offering yet more reading, here’s some good ones to illuminate and heal the sexual soul:

* I focus on Western traditions here because that is where my roots live, though this piece weaves in some Buddhist thought. When I manage to get a hold of my friends the experts, I will let you know where Muslims and other traditions fall in this mess. Not far, I am afraid. I believe when asked something similar, Waheedah responded, about Muslims, "Oh, you know, we just wanna kneel on the mat..."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Coming Out About My Friend Craig

When asked about how my girlfriend and I met, we can never seem to get our story straight. “At a concert” and “through a friend” are some of the common explanations that we use to avoid the horrified reaction we anticipate from people when we reveal the truth: we met online… more specifically, on Craigslist.

Having lived in 4 cities and 9 apartments over the past 3 years, I’ve found numerous rooms, appliances, and home furnishings on the site. However, until about 6 months ago, using Craigslist as a venue for meeting people seemed utterly terrifying. Not only was I afraid of what was lurking in the ‘bargain basement’ of online dating, but in the wake of news coverage about the Craigslist killer I also had reason to fear for my own safety.

What changed? I had just moved from Canada to San Francisco for an internship that left me surrounded by women in their 50s and I was desperate to break into the lesbian party scene with ladies in my age bracket. Not wanting to face the bars alone, in spite of my fears, I turned to my old friend Craig for help.

I started by posting a few “strictly platonic ads”; I carefully filtered responses to weed out potential creeps, did a little Facebook stalking to confirm people’s identities, and secured a busy social life in a matter of weeks. By the time I was ready to date in my new city, I had gained enough confidence in Craig to let him be my matchmaker. I trolled through the W4W section and posted some ads of my own (my personal favorite entitled “I love cupcakes and making out”). One ad was catchy enough to generate close to 30 responses over night, including: 1 from an unknowing friend, 2 that were interesting/normal enough for a first date, and 1 that resulted in a few dates and remains a friend today.

Since recently coming out to some trusted friends about my own Craigslist relationship, I have discovered 3 other couples who have kept their Craigslist roots on the down low. Despite the internet changing the nature of dating and relationships, social norms have yet to embrace online dating and Craigslist, in particular, remains a major taboo. Sure, the vast majority of responses you get on Craigslist will not be worth your while, but, then again, that’s not far off from real life encounters. And just like real life, you might even find love where you’re not looking: oddly enough, despite my extensive W4W search, I ended up meeting my girlfriend through an ad for a concert ticket.

Before you pass judgment on Craig, keep this in mind: You never know what you’re going to find in the ‘bargain basement’, but if you’re lucky you might just find that Prada bag that you were looking for, even if it’s hanging in the wrong department.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Eastern Corridor Bus Service and the Great American Media Perversion

I thought I had been to the pinnacle of bus-trapped insanity last summer, when I sat pinioned between adolescent girls popping jewel like jelly candies and chattering on cell phones about big city shopping shopping shopping, half drowning out the Chinese dubbed Tom & Jerry cartoons with Japanese subtitles but not the little butterball boy pin-balling up and down the aisle, burning off the giant soda and fries mama fed him at the rest stop. Oh yes, and oh—only to be topped by my most recent trip, coming home to Brooklyn breezes after an ill-timed vacation into the sweltering swamp that is our nation’s capitol in August.

I bought a ticket with a new company for some hope of not watching a movie, because the passengers vote whether or not to have one. I enjoy bus trips, even long ones, especially long ones, except for two things: the bad manners of fellow riders and forced media. I typically bring earplugs, but sometimes I forget and sometimes they’re inadequate. I’ve yet to acquire any nifty music playing/earphone device. So, I am compelled to at least listen which leads to watching whatever Hollywood swill they foist upon me.

As we’re departing, the bus is only three quarters full. There is a salt and pepper haired, tattooed dyke a row ahead of me, who delves immediately into her book. A Caribbean family with several small children make their way to the back. The white guy across the aisle helps me figure out how to work the seats and offers me a Ritz cracker before wrapping himself in wires and hunkering down behind his laptop.

Overall, the passengers vote to watch a movie. “Tyranny of the majority,” I mutter.

I cannot remember the options now, but the group also voted for A Bronx Tale. “Good choice,” the bus driver approves. “It’s good for kids,” he adds. “There’s some swearing. And some violence. But no sex.”
And pops in the cd.

Some swearing, apparently, means the F-word as punctuation. And the N-word as an integral part of dialogue. This is a Robert De Niro film, and the violence is graphic. Mafia-style shootings. Threats and bullying. Racist brutality.

Excellent, edifying movies for children, no?

This is the great American perversion. Creation and tolerance of visceral violent imagery alongside puritanical veiling of sexuality.

Oh my God! Breasts! Cover the children’s eyes!

What would have been the same audience’s reaction had the driver shown, say, Boys on the Side or Philadelphia? I’ll admit it would probably be very uncomfortable to watch Shortbus or Fire with my busmates. Given the types of special gentlemen who often seat themselves beside me, it would be awkward at best.

What about Bend It Like Beckham? Wasn’t that rated G? I’d be fine to be trapped with a G movie to accommodate the most sensitive audience members. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Akeelah and the Bee—bring them on.

Really, though, can’t we all just read a book or something? Here are some good ones for your last long rides at the end of vacation season:

Monday, August 31, 2009

Just in time for back to school

Sharpen your pencils. Press your pleated skirt.

Unlike many urban located colleges and universities, my campus was its own area with it's own zip code. The campus itself, while beautiful during all types of days, proved to be a nightmare for young women upon sundown, laced with high pillars, dark corners and an underground for traveling in inclemited weather, as centeral New York is know to have.

Many of us would arrange our classes according to the seasons, knowing that it was not safe for us to sign up for a 3 hour evening class in the fall when it will be cold and dark by 7pm. The industrial underground tunnels, which were rumored to house the untold stories of many young women who chose to utilize them on those below zero kind of nights, were not an option, unless you were very brave, very stupid, or male.

I am sure that my experience is not unique. Regardless of location, college campuses are not the safest place for young women. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, young women (ages 16-24) are the most at risk of being raped. While we do know that the majority of sex crimes are perpetrated by known offenders, I am all for women learning ways to protect ourselves, against anyone who tries to violate, harm, or disrespect.

So, here is some Self-Defense Basics posted by Cherry Grrl.

#1: You gotta believe!
No matter what and under the most severe circumstances, we must always believe we will survive. It’s got to be our most steadfast thought, even in the midst of a horrible situation. Thinking strong, positive thoughts and being committed to saving ourselves is one of the best ways to ensure self-preservation, even in a worst-case scenario. In many self-defense courses, you will take the time to discuss what in your life is worth fighting for. Why do you need to live? Why do you need to fight? For some it’s the people they love, for others it’s a principle or goal they are committed to. Regardless of the
reason, we all need to make a commitment to our own survival.

#2: Act quickly.
The way men attack women is extremely predatory – pouncing when we least expect it. Sometimes they attack us in our homes, even while we’re sleeping. Others wait until they have trusting friendships or relationships with us and then make their move. The first few moments of any violent confrontation tend to set the tone for how the situation will go down. If your immediate reaction is one of intolerance, boundary settings and physical resistance, you will spend less time thinking and more time reacting. Learning self-defense has been proven to shorten the freeze response, making it possible to act as soon as possible.

#3: Embrace your fear.
It sounds odd, but many people fear their own fear. They become frightened of the intoxicating feeling that encompasses their entire body with a sense of urgency and action. Remember that adrenaline is power and allowing yourself to experience fear does not equate to being helpless. Adrenaline helps you feel no pain and become capable of strength you never knew possible. Harness your fear and it will make you stronger.

#4: Avoid the second crime scene.
Ever thought how you might handle a situation in which a van pulls up next to you and a person in it demands you come inside? If you resist or run, there’s the risk of being attacked, shot or killed. Comply, and you may have to endure the realities that many police officers refer to as the “second crime scene.” Nearly all safety experts agree that you should run or fight to escape. If anyone ever pulls up next to you on the street or tries to force or manipulate you into going somewhere unfamiliar, it’s time to resist or run like the dickens. In most cases, it’s bound to become more violent and chances of escape decrease as the area becomes more secluded.

#5: Fight in threes.

By fighting using various series of three moves, you will be more likely to escape a confrontation because you’ll do triple the damage you would have accomplished with just one strike. We can never be too confident that one jab to the eyes or strike to the face is going to end the fight, so we must always follow up.

#6: Breathe.
Ironically, it’s one of the hardest things to do during a fight but also the most important. Sometimes a response to fear is the sucking in of breath and holding it in. For example, have you ever been in a near-miss car accident? Right after you realize that you’re not actually going to hit someone, all of a sudden you let out an enormous sigh of relief. Though you didn’t realize it, you had taken in that deep breath and didn’t let go. Hold the breath long enough and you will surely pass out. Unfortunately, I don’t teach unconscious self-defense, so you’ll just need to obey the breathing rule. A great way to do this is by yelling “no” with every strike to keep air flowing.

#7: Escape.
Your responsibility in a self-defense scenario is to defend yourself until the bad guy is no longer a threat. In many self-defense schools, they refer to this theory as “Stun and Run.” Sticking around and fighting to the point where you can make sure he’s down could lead to “overkill” and consequently legal problems. If someone attacks you, the safest thing to do is execute techniques necessary to open up an opportunity to get the hell away from this person, and escape to a safe place.

I'd also like to add a few of my own:

#8: Be aggressive, B-E aggressive.

By this I mean, walk with confidence. Head up, shoulders broad, standing tall and taking up space. It then becomes your space. It is yours to defend

#9: Be Loud.
Your voice is often your best weapon and line of defense. Use it to intimidate, defend and alert others.

#10: Be Safe.

Follow your gut. If you don't think a certain situation is safe, try to avoid it. When you can't, be prepared.

Now go get your education ladies! It's time to take over the world! = )