Jun 082015

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Vanity Fair’s July 2015 issue features a glamorous woman on the cover with the words, “Call me Caitlyn.” Inside is a 22-page article about that woman’s journey to trans-womanhood. If you didn’t know any better, you would have no reason to suspect that this woman used to be a man. But because of the media coverage (hysteria?), almost everyone knows better. The irony is that Caitlyn Jenner probably would like nothing better than to be left in peace to be the woman she’s always longed to be. But because she’s a celebrity, she will probably never have that experience.

And yet I think her decision to “come out” in such a public way was actually quite brilliant. Stories about her “fluid” gender identity have been circulating for quite a while now and I applaud her decision to tell her own story. Less than two months ago, Jenner gave his last official interview as Bruce, with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in which he explained his struggle to become and accept the person he believes he was really meant to be. The Vanity Fair feature is her first public appearance as Caitlyn. And, in his words, “As soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.”

As you might expect, the public’s responses have been all over the place. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made the astute observation that now that Jenner is a woman she is going to have the unfortunate experience of being treated like one; in other words, as if the only thing that matters is her appearance. Many other people have applauded her bravery. Still others feel that she is, at best, in need of some soul-saving, and at worst, an abomination. And then there is the transgender community, which might well see her as its ambassador.

There is also a fair amount of cynicism leveled at Jenner’s actions. She has been accused of doing all this as a publicity stunt and a way to drive traffic to her reality show, which is set to debut this summer on E! Network. She laughs at the idea that she would go through all this (including surgery to feminize her features) just to pay the bills. On the contrary, she sees this as an opportunity to educate the public about what it means to be transgender as well as offer hope to other people who are transgender.

Many people believe that it’s impossible to be “born in the wrong body,” that saying you’re the opposite sex (from the one you were assigned at birth) doesn’t make it true; and that being transgender is a choice. But even the DSM (the manual  used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders) recently revised its terminology from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” to remove some of the stigma and enable trans men and women to get help with their “profound state of unease or dissatisfaction” about the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s not exactly saying that transgender is as “normal” in its way as heterosexuality or that it’s just one of several ways to be gendered in our society, but it has backed off from treating it as a mental illness.

We need to stop treating being transgender as a disease or a sin and start listening to the people who claim it as their gender identity. There must be some reason why they feel the way they do; it’s not likely something they would make up as a lark. Imagine having others tell you that you’re crazy or perverted just because you’re trying to express who you feel you are at the fundamental core of your being.

When I first saw the Vanity Fair cover, I thought “Call me Caitlyn” was a plea, for understanding and acceptance. But the more I thought about it, the more I hoped that it was a command instead. We all have the right to tell others what to call us and we need to exercise that right without apology. To do otherwise is to lose who we are.



Jun 062015

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anita-hillTwenty-four years ago Anita Hill testified before Congress about the alleged sexual harassment she experienced from the then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Last year a documentary, called simply “Anita,” was released which chronicles the whole affair in painstaking detail.  I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on its accuracy or objectivity, but I have to wonder why the film was made at all, and why it was made now. (See trailer for “Anita” here. See here and here for YouTube videos of Day 1 of the Clarence Thomas Second Hearing.)

Surely this is old news. After all, politicians don’t sexually harass their employees or colleagues anymore, do they? Didn’t they learn from the media circus that erupted when Anita Hill’s charges came to light that they don’t dare invite the same public scrutiny? And haven’t men from all walks of life learned that sexual harassment is a no-no in this society?

Hell, no. Sexual harassment is alive and well in 2015 America. The only difference between now and then is that sexual harassment is more frowned upon—in principle. Most companies now have strict anti-sexual harassment policies, for instance. But just because sexual harassment has been exposed as an evil, at the very least illegal, practice doesn’t mean that it isn’t still going on. People just hide it better (unless they’re incredibly stupid).

With all the attention that the problem has received over the years, the public censure of and consequences to the perpetrators, you would think that victims would feel emboldened to step forward. But too many women (and men) are still afraid to complain about it. Why?

  • Often the person who does the harassing is in a position of power over the person who was harassed, making the victim feel that his or her job is at stake if he or she reports the harassment.
  • Even when the perpetrator is a co-worker, the victim may fear retaliation or shunning, for the simple reason that no one likes a “snitch.”
  • The victim is either not believed or is blamed for the harassment. (“He is just making it up to cover the fact that he willingly participated.” “She must have done something to encourage it.”)

[When the alleged perpetrator is a man and the victim a woman, the man is more likely to be believed for the simple reason that men are generally seen in a more positive light than women are. Traits like truthfulness and integrity are ascribed to men while women are seen as deceitful and unstable.]

  • It’s very difficult to prove. The person who has been harassed needs to keep meticulous notes about the harassment: who, when, where, what exactly was said or done. Witnesses are rare, either because the harasser was careful to avoid having his actions or words witnessed or, more likely, because potential witnesses themselves are afraid of retaliation if they testify against the harasser.
  • Denial. What disturbs me the most about the way sexual harassment is treated is that people still persist in minimizing it, in shrugging it off as no big thing. “She’s just oversensitive/can’t take a joke (or a compliment).” (The same people tend to minimize rape by insisting on using the term “forcible rape,” as if the level of violence is what matters, not the fact that the woman said “no.”) Many people complain that it’s hard to tell exactly what constitutes sexual harassment. But the truth is, it’s not rocket science; there are some very clear guidelines. Once it’s established that the action or comment is, or appears to be, motivated by sexual interest, one of more of the following needs to also apply:
    • Is the action or comment unwanted (signified either by out-and-out rejection or by obvious discomfort)?
    • Does the action or comment make the work climate uncomfortable or unprofessional?
    • Does the action or comment cause a worker’s performance to suffer?
  • But perhaps the biggest reason why people don’t report sexual harassment is because they just don’t believe that anything will be done about it. Sexual harassment policies are only as good as the willingness to follow them, including acting on complaints decisively. Employers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Oh, they’ll refer the offender to some kind of counseling or sensitivity training, or move one of the parties to another location. But often what happens is the complainant is the one who is moved, or even later let go, for some “unrelated” reason. Sometimes an employer finds it easier to settle a few lawsuits than to do all that is required to avoid sexual harassment in the first place. However, the smart employer realizes that tolerating sexual (and other forms of) harassment has other costs that affect his bottom line: low morale, absenteeism, high turnover rates and low productivity.

For more information about sexual harassment, including what recourses victims have, read the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet.











Jun 042015

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world-peace-logo_4qghS_65We’ve all heard the adage (or some variation thereof), “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” This is about developing empathy, which is in short supply in this world. If there is one thing that causes disconnects between people, it is a lack of empathy. Every time we criticize another person or group, we almost certainly are guilty of not being empathetic.

Being empathetic is not the same as being sympathetic, but most people seem to think it is. Empathy can lead to sympathy, but sympathy doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy. You can feel sorry for someone without entering into his world, or more specifically, his head. In fact, sympathy implies that you are maintaining some distance and looking at a person’s situation from the comfort of your own (superior) position. Empathy is harder to attain and harder to feel.

Months before I converted to Islam, I wrote a post about the Islamic item of clothing called the hijab. (Women’s Rights: The Headscarf.) At the time I had no idea that I was going to convert, let alone that I would ever wear the hijab myself. I felt sympathy for the women who wear it, because of the way they are viewed—and treated—by non-Muslims. They can’t “pass” as non-Muslims, or fade into the background when it’s uncomfortable to be identified as one. (For this reason, I view wearing the hijab as a mark of bravery as much as a symbol of one’s faith.)

But I can’t say that what I felt was empathy. I simply didn’t know enough about what it was like to wear the hijab, what courage it took to put it on every day, the strength of motivation that was required to wear it in a society that is ambivalent (at best) about Muslims.

I’ve heard of social experiments where non-Muslim women have put on the hijab for a period of time (usually a day or a week, at the most) in order to get some idea of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, let alone a woman who wears one (often known as a “hijabi”). That’s fine as far is it goes, but it doesn’t begin to address all the issues faced by Muslims, like finding a place to pray five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan (or learning how to pray in the first place, if you’re a convert).

I no longer wear the hijab and, in fact, am in a state of flux about exactly where I stand in the matter of religion. I still subscribe to the basic theology of Islam, but I’m undecided about how “Muslim” I’m willing to be. But I will never be sorry that I converted. Because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have the empathy it takes to understand where Muslims are coming from. I could have studied Islam for a thousand years and it wouldn’t have taught me what I really wanted to know, which is: what is it like to be a Muslim?

Obviously we can’t convert to every religion, let alone pretend to be another race, for instance, in order to develop empathy. But there is a lot we can do to approximate walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • We can learn another language.
  • We can travel, whether it’s to a different country or another part of town.
  • We can watch movies with subtitles.
  • We can read, anything and everything.
  • We can listen to different types of music.
  • We can try different cuisines.
  • We can attend a different kind of religious service.
  • We can sponsor a child.
  • We can invite someone to dinner.
  • We can make a friend.

Anything that exposes us to another culture can help us to develop empathy. But the most important step we must take is to stop limiting ourselves to the way of life we were born into. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to open ourselves up to discoveries and be willing to learn something new, preferably every day.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more foreign something seems to you, the more important it is that you embrace it.

It’s so much easier to stick to what we’re used to, to take potshots at things we don’t understand, to hang out with people who are like us. But that’s a recipe for disaster. We can see the results in our world today. What is discrimination but an attempt to prove that the group belong to is better than the group you belong to? What is war but a refusal to admit that we all want—and have a right to—the same things: safety, security, sustenance, love, acceptance and happiness, for ourselves and those we care about?

Developing empathy is an ongoing and many-layered process. None of the suggestions above will, by themselves, help you to become deeply empathetic. But taken together, and repeated often, they will help.



What Hurts the Institution of Marriage the Most?

What Hurts the Institution of Marriage the Most?

Same-sex marriage isn’t weakening the institution of marriage; on the contrary: gay couples’ desire to marry is a vote of confidence. They’re saying that marriage matters. Cohabiting couples aren’t as sure about that.

Feminist Books for Girls (and Boys)

If you’re concerned about what you teach the children in your life about gender equality, try reading and buying them books that reinforce that concept. Book Riot recently published the following lists if you’re wondering where to start: Best Feminist Picture Books Best Feminist Books for Younger Readers