Call Me What I Tell You to Call Me

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.



What Hurts the Institution of Marriage the Most?

Opponents of same-sex marriage say that allowing homosexuals to marry would hurt the institution of marriage. I don’t quite see why: if gays and lesbians want to marry, isn’t that reinforcing the idea that getting married is a good thing?

People who use this argument are failing to see the forest for the trees. They freak out over a handful of relationships nationwide and ignore the relationship that may have hurt the institution of marriage more than anything other kind: that of the cohabiting couple.

My oldest daughter and I were watching “She’s Having a Baby” the other night and for me it brought back memories of a time when marriage was treated with much more respect and honor than it is now. In 1988, when “She’s Having a Baby” was made, living together was only just beginning to be a common phenomenon. (The number of cohabiting unmarried partners increased by 88% between 1990 and 2007. Source: U.S. Census Bureau. “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007.”)

But when my first husband and I thought about living together before getting married back in 1972, we didn’t have the guts to do it. We didn’t want to be an aberration or the object of unkind gossip. Besides, to our parents at least, marriage was a very big deal. It was the ultimate state of commitment. So, like the couple in “She’s Having a Baby” we went ahead and got married despite the fact that we were young and naive and didn’t know each other very well.

Would our relationship have survived if we’d lived together before getting married? I doubt it, since getting married didn’t cause us to break up—it just made it harder to. (And more expensive.)

Consider these statistics:

About 75% of cohabiters plan to marry their partners. 55% of different-sex cohabiters do marry within five years of moving in together. 40% break up within that same time period. And about 10% remain in an unmarried relationship for five years or more.  (Source: Smock, Pamela. 2000. “Cohabitation in the United States.” Annual Review of Sociology.)

Cohabitation implies that marriage isn’t as important as we were once led to believe. Many couples go into a living-together arrangement because they don’t trust the institution of marriage. They look at their parents’ generation and wonder why they should even bother to get married. (I’ve even heard people say that the main reason they would consider getting married is to get wedding gifts. Really.)

So why aren’t conservatives berating couples who have opted to not marry (like Goldie Hawn and Kirk Russell)? Why aren’t they holding them up as examples of relationships that hurt the institution of marriage?

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.

Sometimes it seems that gays are doing more to promote the sanctity of marriage are than straight people are.



A Thirteen-Year-Old Talks About Sex–OMG!

The video below has gone viral recently, scoring over a half a million hits, and generating a lot of controversy about the fact that a thirteen-year-old girl is talking about…wait for it…sex!

It seems that many adults are blown away by the fact that “Astrorice” is so knowledgeable and articulate about sex. They obviously see a thirteen-year-old as a child who has no business knowing, much less talking about, things like “slut-shaming” and rape.

I for one am encouraged by this young woman. She really has a handle on what’s wrong about judging people for their sexual activity, whether real or presumed. And I was really impressed by what she said about rape culture. The adults in this next video, not so much; they thought she crossed some kind of line.

What disturbed me is that the panelists spent more time talking about her precociousness than they did about the issues she raised. I thought the most important part of her video was when she talked about “the rape culture.” She’s absolutely right that slut-shaming (or judging people based on their sexual activity or appearance) does contribute to the attitudes that make some men think it’s all right to push sex on women against their will. That’s rape whether the woman is drunk or dressed in a mini-skirt or just minding her own business. I don’t understand people who say that “date rape” isn’t really rape, or that there are degrees of rape, some barely worth mentioning.

Just sayin’.


The Sex Ed Hall of Shame (reprint from

In light of NYC’s mandate, we look at states with the worst policies when it comes to the birds and the bees
The sex ed hall of shame


This week people were abuzz over news that New York City had mandated sex education — and some were simply scratching their heads at the realization that this wasn’t already the case. Seriously, it took this long?

Well, seriously, there are still 24 states that haven’t mandated sex education, including New York state.

That’s too many states to cover in any detail, so I’ll narrow it down to the worst of them. These are states that not only fail to mandate sex ed, but require that when it is taught, abstinence and the “importance of sex only within marriage” are stressed. These states make sure to defend “traditional” values, but they don’t protect scientific ones: Unlike some states, they don’t require that classes provide medically accurate information. Without further ado, the embarrassing eight that meet this criteria:

  • Alabama has “among the highest rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis of any state in the union,” according to youth advocate Amplify, and has the 15th highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. Another not-so-fun fact: It bans schools from teaching anything positive about homosexuality.
  • Arkansas has landed on some unfortunate top-ten lists: When it comes to STI rates among young people, it ranks 5th in terms of chlamydia, 7th for gonorrhea and 10th for syphilis. It also has the 8th highest teen pregnancy rate in the country.
  • Florida has the sad distinction of ranking 1st in HIV infections and 12th in teen pregnancies.
  • Indiana fares well in terms of teen pregnancy and STI rates — relatively speaking — but the state’s teens “are among the least likely to report having used condoms the last time they had sex,” according to Amplify.
  • Louisiana has the highest syphilis rate among young people in this country. It’s also in the top ten for both chlamydia and gonorrhea, and 11th in terms of teen HIV.
  • Missouri was given a “C” rating on teen health by Amplify — while most of the states on this list received closer to a “D” — but, still, “the state has higher than average rates of STIs and lower than average rates of condom use among sexually active high school students.”
  • Texas has several claims to sex-shame: It ranks 5th for teen pregnancy, 3rd in young people with AIDS and 4th in terms of syphilis among teens. A whopping 96 percent of Texas school districts teach abstinence only, according to a study by the Texas Freedom Network.
  • Virginia has the 8th highest syphilis rate among young people. While it’s seen a decline in unplanned pregnancies, a study found that between 1991 and 2004 teen births still cost taxpayers roughly $3.1 billion.

The good news is that there are 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, that currently mandate sex education. But that’s a very basic achievement — it says nothing of the requirements and restrictions that are made on curricula across the country. Guttmacher reports that “26 states require that abstinence be stressed” in sex ed classes; meanwhile only 19 states insist on any mention of contraceptives. And we wonder why the U.S. has the highest teen birth rate in the developed world.

Tampon Commercials That Make Us Laugh (and Think)

UbyKotex has produced a series of commercials that are not your typical tampon commercials.

One reaction to this commercial was: “This is actually the best commercial i have ever seen in my life, I am a guy and I’m seriously considering purchasing those LOL”

To which UbyKotex responded: “Awesome — We’ll take that as a compliment! :)”

Here is one more for your viewing pleasure:

Book Review: Girls Like Us

Sometimes a book is singled out not just for its writing, but for its topic. Girls Like Us is such a book. The author, Rachel Lloyd, has turned what could have been another “terrible childhood” memoir into both a social commentary and a call to action. Her own story of commercial sexual exploitation and how she made her way out of it is interesting enough in its own right, but Lloyd makes it into so much more by weaving the stories of “girls like her” throughout her narrative.

Lloyd’s main message is a strong one: she contends that teen prostitutes are not criminals or bad girls, but victims of commercial sexual exploitation. She even goes so far as to say that children and young women are being trafficked in this country. She makes her case so well, I came away from the reading of this book with an entirely different view of prostitution.

I took a course on “Sex Work” in college a few years ago where we debated whether or not prostitution was a victimless crime, or even a crime at all. Were prostitutes and other sex workers exploited or empowered by what they did for a living? Some feminists insist that all sex work is a form of exploitation, even a rape of sorts. Others feel that we have put down sex workers far too long and that we should accord them agency to dictate their own lives.

Lloyd has come up with a different perspective and once you’ve read the book you wonder why you didn’t see it for yourself. When a person is tricked, cajoled, and even terrorized into “the life” (of prostitution) the victim is the prostitute herself. And when we’re talking about children, who have not reached the age of majority by a long shot, it’s clear that something is wrong with this picture. All too often these children are victimized not only by their pimps and their johns, but also by the system that should be protecting them: the social workers, police, lawyers and judges who see them as criminals who must be punished for their transgressions.

This book makes it clear, without heavy arguments or specialized jargon, that these girls have much more in common with the rest of us than we would like to believe.  They have hopes and dreams and interests like any other children, but they’ve been deceived into thinking that “the life” is going to give them the security, both financial and emotional, that they are so desperately seeking.

When I told an acquaintance about this book, her reaction was that she just didn’t believe that police and the legal system would see these under-age prostitutes as seasoned criminals. I told her that she should read the book. She still insisted that I had to be wrong (meaning that the author had to be wrong).

Her reaction may not be unique. People are so uncomfortable with the underside of life, they would rather assume that those who inhabit it have chosen to live that way. They refuse to believe that fear and violence and self-loathing are powerful determinants. Especially for children.

Twenty years ago I read Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol which was about the horrible conditions in our country’s poorest schools. Almost overnight I became painfully aware of something I would rather have not known about. There was no answer for why we would allow poor children to go wanting for even the basics of a decent life. When I read Girls Like Us, I had the same reaction. How can we look the other way when children are being destroyed daily? How can we allow such a total loss of innocence and potential?

The best part of this book is that the author offers hope, not just to the reader, but also to the young girls themselves. Because this is not just an exposé or expanded article from a socially conscious magazine. This is also a chronicle of one woman who was able to climb out of “the life” and go on to make something of herself. The really amazing thing is that she didn’t stop there. She founded an organization when she was only 23 designed to reach out to young women and children who are caught up in sexual exploitation and to help them, too, to extricate themselves from their (sometimes literal) prisons.

Lloyd doesn’t sugarcoat the process. This is no sunshiny, pie-in-the-sky approach to human redemption. Lloyd’s been there herself and has done this work long enough that she knows exactly how hard it can be. But she refuses to give up. Today she serves as the executive director of her organization, Girls Educational &Mentoring Services, otherwise known as GEMS, and devotes her time to spreading the word about its important work and the work of so many other organizations and individuals who share the same concerns and vision.

I urge you to read Girls Like Us and to visit GEMS’ website. You owe it to yourself as a concerned citizen and a human being. These young women are not “throwaways.” They deserve the chance to remake themselves and achieve their potential. But they need our awareness and our support. Reading this book is an important first step.