sunday smut: tumblr highlights (no. 6) | late-blooming lesbian edition

Last Friday, on tumblr, I shared a story about late-blooming lesbians by lisala @ That Gay Blog. Among other things, she wrote about the work of researcher Lisa Diamond, whose book Sexual Fluidity was instrumental in my own process of finding language to communicate the nature of my of sexual attractions. Although I don't tend to think about myself as a "late-blooming" lesbian so much as I do a late bloomer in the relational sexuality department (I entered my first sexual relationship at age twenty-eight), I do think my sexual desires needed the catalyst of a specific person in order to really catch fire. And sans that particular person, I felt like my evidence for same-sex desire was weak. (My evidence for opposite-sex desire was similarly weak, but our culture doesn't demand proof of heterosexuality in the same way that it demands proof of queer sexuality.) This catalyst concept was what the quote I shared on tumblr was all about:
Diamond notes often "women who may have always thought that other women were beautiful and attractive would, at some point later in life, actually fall in love with a woman, and that experience vaulted those attractions from something minor to something hugely significant." Professor Diamond adds that "it wasn’t that they’d been repressing their true selves before; it was that without the context of an actual relationship, the little glimmers of occasional fantasies or feelings just weren’t that significant."
Emphasis mine. Again, you can read the whole post over at That Gay Blog.

One of the lovely things about tumblr blogging, I'm finding, is that people are more likely to share (reblog) and comment upon the quotes I post there than they are (generally speaking) to come and comment on this blog. It's fun to see, via the "like" and "reblog" options, where the stories and ideas that are meaningful to me travel through social network of tumblr followers + their followers + their followers and so on down the line.

On this post, some of the bloggers who re-blogged the Diamond quote added their own two cents:
this is kind of how i feel right now.

I find this somewhat relevant to my own sexuality. The idea that having never been in a relationship with a girl doesn’t make me “less bi” was a long time coming.

I think I might be a late-blooming lesbian. I wish I had realised this before entering a serious relationship with a man.

I can see it happening.

Omg That's So True =O 

This quote just informed me I will become a lesbian later in life. 

oh hey, i might become a lesbian at some point. since i aesthetically find women’s bodies more attractive than men's…that doesn’t surprise me at all actually.
 It's a fascinating medium, to see all of the ever-so-slightly-different reactions passed along, amended, and added to.

Everyone have a great Sunday and best wishes for the week ahead.


booknotes: reality bites back

I have to begin this review with a disclaimer: I have virtually no first-hand experience with the type of reality television discussed in Jennifer Pozner's Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV.  This has been through both accident and purposeful avoidance. On the accident side, I didn't grow up with a lot of television around, and (The West Wing aside) TV has never been a very social experience for me.  Therefore my exposure to it has been primarily through advertisements, grocery-store checkout magazine headlines, second-hand reports and cultural analysis.

Why have I avoided reality television? My parents can tell you that public humiliation and social deception has always made me acutely uncomfortable: when we used to watch romantic comedies when I was younger, plot elements that revolved around social lies (Roxanne, The Truth About Cats and Dogs) -- no matter how benign and ultimately happy-ending they turned out to be -- sent me running to the other room in discomfort. I didn't like the idea of even a fictional character's emotional manipulation. So the prospect of watching any show that was actually constructed around such false social interactions involving real people had zero appeal. Add to that formula the heteronormative gender roles that are portrayed and reinforced in these shows, and my personal anti-manipulation bias was bolstered by political critique.

This is all to say that when Seal press sent me an advance review copy of Reality Bites Back last week I had a lot of pre-formed cultural skepticism and personal discomfort concerning the premise of reality television.  And I imagine this book struck me differently than it would a devotee of American Idol or The Amazing Race or come across to those of you who remember watching (for example) the first season of Survivor or The Bachelor with your buddies in high school or roommates in college. 

Jennifer Pozner is a media critic and educator specializing in media literacy.  She is the founder and executive director of Women in Media & News, which promotes the increased participation of women in media creation and analysis.  Thus, Reality Bites Back is the work of someone who is deeply immersed in media as a creator of content, a passionate consumer, and an astute critic of the ways in which media inform our political and personal lives -- on both a conscious and subconscious level. In her introduction, Pozner describes the decline in media literacy and critical analysis around reality television shows that she has over the past decade, as she tours college campuses and speaks about the messages that reality television sends to viewers.  While students in the early 2000s were critically aware of the constructed nature of reality programming -- a phenomenon that had only recently been widely adopted by the big networks and was getting a lot of press -- young people today have grown up with much more of the genre in their media diet and (Pozner argues) their "critical responses to gendered, raced messages within media 'texts' ... seems to have suffered as a result" (30). "The Millennial Generation," she writes, "seems to be getting more cynical ('Of course it's all bullshit, but it's funny. Whatever.') but less skeptical. This kind of mind-set makes advertisers salivate" (31).

The goal of Reality Bites Back is, in part, to re-energize the critical faculties of reality television viewers, so that they become less susceptible to the poisonous narratives of gender, sexuality, race, and class that reality television producers are peddling.  Pozner reminds us that reality television producers -- far from neutrally capturing how people interact with one another -- aggressively shape the stories that are told on-screen about how human beings behave. And these stories reinforce what we already "know" about women, men, heterosexuals, queer folks, people of color, poor people, rich people, and so forth.  They are brain candy in part because they tell us familiar stories about the world, rather than challenging our pre-conceptions about how folks behave. Stories like:
  • Romance and love is exclusively the province of white heterosexuals.
  • Romance and love are signified by providing (if you're a man) and consuming (if you're a woman) brand-name products.
  • Single women, no matter their social and financial circumstances, are desperate for male validation and will quit their jobs, submit to public humiliation, and accept the attentions of any man they are presented with.
  • Single, married, with or without children, women are seen as selfish, controlling, untrustworthy, desperate, pathetic individuals whose only worth is derived from their ability to meet draconian expectations of physical perfection and sexual availability.
  • Men must be rich in order to be eligible for (hetero) relationships, and their wealth is the only thing that matters: criminal records, histories of domestic abuse, on-screen abuse of female cast members are rewarded.
  • Men who treat women contestants as independent persons worthy of actual human-to-human interaction are rebuked by on-screen experts.
  • Poverty is an individual, not a structural problem, best alleviated through on-screen charity and gifts of various brand-name products.
And each of these stories has numerous side-plots and context-specific iterations.

Above all, Pozner argues, reality television programs are hour-long product placement advertisements, their primary raison d'etre being the income generated by advertiser revenue. These shows are indeed market-generated, as producers would have us believe -- but the "market" is not the audience who tune in to the programs, but the advertisers who pay to have their products relentlessly shilled in situations that viewers do not read as advertisements. These programs -- like most advertisements -- contain the not-so-sub subtext that the best way to achieve the good life in America today (understood in the context of reality television a life of wealthy, socially conservative conformity) is by maxing out your credit card and purchasing it.

As an historian, I feel compelled to point out that this permicious blend of consumerism, competition, and capitalizing on economic and social desperation is hardly new.  It's not really within the scope of the book Pozner set out to write to provide historical analysis, so I don't think the book is remiss in not providing it. Nontheless, I found myself thinking of potential historical comparisons and desiring some sort of historically-situated analysis that looked beyond anti-feminist backlash, media mergers, and the current recession.

One comparison that comes to mind, for example, are the Depression-era dance marathons, in which desperate couples vied for prize-money while contest sponsors walked away with the cash. As the entry at HistoryLink explains
Dance marathons opened with as great a fanfare as the promoter’s press agents could muster. Each major promoter had a stable of dancers (known as horses, since they could last the distance) he could count on to carry his event. These professionals (often out-of-work vaudevillians who could sing and banter and thus provide the evening entertainment that was a feature of most marathons) traveled at the promoter’s expense and were "in" on the performative nature of the contests (including the fact that the outcomes were usually manipulated or at least loosely fixed).

Known euphemistically as “experienced couples” (The Billboard, April 14, 1934, p. 43), professionals did their best to blend in with the hopeful (often desperate) amateurs. For all contestants, participation in a dance marathon meant a roof over their heads and plentiful food, both scarce during the 1930s. President Herbert Hoover's promised prosperity "just around the corner" eluded most Americans, but dance marathon contestants hung their hopes on the prize money lurking at the end of the contest's final grind.

...Medical services were available to contestants, usually within full view of the audience. Physicians tended blisters, deloused dancers, disqualified and treated any collapsed dancer, tended sprains, and so on. "Cot Nights," in which the beds from the rest areas were pulled out into public view so the audience could watch the contestants even during their brief private moments, were also popular. The more a marathon special event allowed the audience to penetrate the contestants’ emotional experience, the larger crowd it attracted.
You can read the whole article over at HistoryLink.org.

The heady mix of consumerism, voyeurism and exploitation, in other words, is not unique to our era, nor is it an invention of reality television creators. However, the fact that exploitation and backlash is unoriginal  hardly exempts it from critical analysis -- just like the fact that a show is being sold as fluffy, lighthearted "fun" escapism doesn't mean with should turn off our critical filters.

The tie-in website for the book, RealityBitesBackBook.com, contains links to a whole series of essays and excerpts if you're interested in checking Pozner's work out in more detail before trotting over to your library and/or bookstore of choice and obtaining a copy to read in full.


from the archives: american medical student in germany between the wars

My "from the archives" item this time around is actually from Hanna's work at the Center for the History of Medicine (aka "CHOM," the noise refined zombies make when gnawing on their prey), a special collections unit within Harvard Medical School's Countway Library.

Hanna was asked by her supervisor to write a blog post about some of the materials in the collection she recently finished processing -- the personal papers of one Dr. Hyman Morrison (1881-1963).  She chose to write about a cache of letters Dr. Morrison kept from a medical student, Lewis Chase, who was an American studying in Munich and Berlin between 1929-1934. Hanna writes:

Chase was extremely adept at recognizing and commenting on contemporary German political rhetoric and noticing the tensions and potential for tensions between native German and “foreign,” often Jewish American, students at the unversities in Berlin and Munich. In December 1930, for instance, Chase wrote of an influx of American students: “Of the newcomers to Berlin, all are Jewish, with the exception of one Harvard negro—two or three from Boston, many from New York and its immediate vicinity. … Actually there have taken place a number of disagreements, happily only verbal, among the students; a protest against the ‘incessant, loud English-speaking carried on in the Anatomy laboratories’ has already been filed by some reactionary native students.”
 You can read the rest of her blog post over at CHOM's website. Go enjoy her stories (and help up the amount of traffic her contribution to the website receives!).


midweek calm (in pictures)

Sunday Morning at Chestnut Hill Reservoir
Photograph by Anna J. Cook, 2010-10-24
Thanks to Hanna for letting me borrow the camera to snap this photograph. Hope y'all have a good Wednesday and have things to look forward to in the second half of the week.


monday morning madness (a few random things)

Hello and welcome to the week!

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Hanna and I were up late with friends last night drinking tea, eating biscuits, and watching the first installment of Stephen Moffet's new venture, Sherlock. I shall resist spoilers of the plot-related sort, but would like to observe that Martin Freeman is an excellent Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Holmes, and Rupert Graves plays a charmingly rumpled Lestrade. And the slash is really text, not subtext. Incase the previews left you in any doubt. We're already looking forward to the second installment (and prematurely in withdrawal following the end of the third and final episode of the season).

It was awesome and then we were up 'til after midnight talking graduate school and fan fiction. Which was delicious, and we're already looking forward to doing it again next week. But it left something to be desired on the good-night's-sleep front, which means we rolled out of bed feeling a little bleary-eyed.

Something like this.

photograph by hanna (2010-10-24)
Although I imagine we'll get over it with enough coffee and intellectual puzzles to occupy our minds.

The all-too-short "weekend" (which for me consist of Saturday night through Sunday morning) was spent 1) shopping for my fall wardrobe at Goodwill, 2) discovering Rosenfeld's Bagels, 3) reading the first chapters of my ARC of Jennifer Pozner's Reality Bites Back (booknote to follow when I've finished it), and of course watching Sherlock.

Rosenfeld's is located out in Newton Center, about four miles west of where we live in Allston. We walked out there yesterday morning past Boston College, through Chestnut Hill and other old villages-cum-suburbs of Boston. Startlingly, this walk included passing the gothic-looking estate of Mary Baker Eddy's historic home. For some lovely photographs from along the way, see Hanna's blog post today.

The bagels were also very tasty.

We also ran into a teeny-tiny political rally outside the bagel shop; the Republican challenger to Barney Frank (who wants to dump Barney Frank?? seriously!) was on the corner in a bow tie and cream suit. I had a nearly overwhelming urge to conspicuously make out in front of them, just to be irritating. Hanna tells me this was perhaps a little mean-spirited of me. Is it really so bad that I get off on proving a point?

This has been a very eclectic post, and now I really must quit blogging and get some serious work done. Have a lovely week, everyone! Regular feminist-y blogging will resume as soon as I locate my brain.


friday fun: art deco smut

In lieu of actual words and thought today, I'm sharing silly pictures.

Via queerest of them all  via drake's way @ tumblr.com
The weather this week has been glorious in Boston and the leaves are starting to turn brilliant autumnal colors ... much like the leaves strategically adorning this naked beauty. There's something about her insouciance that I find charming. But perhaps I simply haven't had enough coffee yet!

Hope y'all have a lovely weekend and we'll see about getting back to more regular blogging soon.


i promise i won't become one of those bloggers...

...who posts incessantly about their pets.


But the thing is, I just discovered that Black Cat Rescue, the shelter through whom we adopted Verity Geraldine (formerly Marie), made a video of our kitty when she was a mama cat with her kittens not so long ago.

And who doesn't need a kitten fix mid-week? I mean, really.

The folks at BCR are so happy that mama cat has finally found a home, following in the footsteps (paw-steps?) of her kittens, who were all adopted back in June.


some monday links

'Cause it's apparently one of those periods when blog posts aren't so easy in the writing.

Hanna has some photos up from the past couple of weekends over at ...fly over me, evil angel ..., for those of you who follow this blog at least in part because you know us in not-net-life and would like to see what we're up to when not blogging.

Me reading, by Hanna E. Clutterbuck, 2010-10
She also wrote a wonderful two-part post (part one, part two) on Dr. Who for a friend of mine who recently requested some good introductory episodes from the earlier incarnations of the Doctor.

If you're on tumblr (or even if you're not), there are some awesome blogs to follow. Namely beautiful portals if you (like me) are in to liminal spaces; fuck yeah tattoos if (like me) you are in the process of considering how to design the tattoo of your dreams -- or you just like beautiful ink; and lesbian outlaw because her tagline is "separate from the government, beyond the police." And also 'cause she posts lots of great stuff.

Via our friend Rebecca came this great illustrated explanation of the four levels of social entrapment ("This person is seemingly immune to awkwardness and once they latch onto you, you are not allowed to leave until they are done with you.") at the blog Hyperbole and a Half.

For those of you who are at all familiar with the site Feministing and know that Jessica Valenti and her husband Andrew recently became parents through a pretty traumatic pregnancy and birth experience, I hope you've seen that their daughter Layla finally came home from the neonatal intensive care unit (warning: pictures of incredibly tiny baby human after the jump). I really hope they're getting some quiet time to be together as a family.

There's been a flurry of posts up this past week or so in the feminist blogosphere on "fucking while feminist": what that means, exactly, and how people live out their own particular iterations. I may or may not have an actual post in my about this (I actually think being feminist in my political identity and using feminism as an analytical tool has a pretty profound effect on my sexuality and sexual related-ness ... but I'm not sure how to talk about it yet). In the meantime, one of my favorite responses has been by Garland Gray guest-blogging over at Tiger Beatdown on how his feminism informs his experience of fucking other men:
Over time, I realized that if I was committed to working toward a world where gender variance was celebrated, where getting fucked wasn’t viewed as something shameful or disempowering, I was going to have to start voting with my dick.

This isn’t simply high-minded “the personal is political” sexual activism. If a dude thinks that he is powerful because he doesn’t get fucked, and you are weak and shameful for getting fucked, you really and truly don’t want to let him fuck you. Sex is about respect, and letting someone inside you without respect is a bad idea. No matter what position I am in, I follow this cardinal rule: If someone needs to be in control, it should be the person getting fucked. I fuck while feminist by insisting that there is nothing submissive about getting fucked. Accepting the standard bullshit narrative of “penetration as dominance” or “penetration as corruption” is ridiculous and arbitrary. It is just as easy to see penetration as submission. A part of your body is inside of me. If you don’t play by my rules, I MIGHT NOT GIVE IT BACK.
 And finally, Tenured Radical and Historiann had a series of thoughtful posts + comment threads up recently at their respective blogs about single-sex (women's) colleges. I haven't had the time nor been in the mental space recently to really sit down and digest them, but here are the links.
Thirty-second commentary: As someone who 1) worked at a men's college for a semester, 2) attends a graduate school attached to a women-only undergraduate college, and 3) is a feminist and historian of feminist activism and education, I find the question of single-sex education incredibly complicated. There are compelling (mostly, to my mind, historical and individual) arguments for the worth of women-only space, but I can't get away from the question of sex and gender varience, and the problem that once you start policing the boundaries of space by saying "women only" or "men only" you're reinforcing a world in which the gender binary is a fundamental organizing principle ... a principle that I believe is antithetical to the values of feminist theory and practice.

And because it's out there and thus needs to be shared: Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson has contributed to the It Gets Better project. I've linked before to a lot of really good commentary on the problems with the project, but none of those problems erase the fact that people are telling their own personal stories of Growing Up While Queer, and that each individual story is a powerful testament to the infinite possibilities that exist for each of us as we grow and change.

Enjoy the week ahead!


from the neighborhood: cat blogging

Despite -- or perhaps because of? -- the fact this was a short week here in Massachusetts (they take their federal holidays seriously in the commonwealth!), I feel like I've been running perpetually behind the last few days and don't have much energy or inspiration for serious blogging. So when in doubt -- post photos!

Here are the latest snapshots of the newest member of our family, a two-year-old kitty who has so far refused to tell us her true name. Front-runners thus far include Maida, Zia, Romana, Sarah Jane and Lucia. So far, she seems to have a slight preference for Sarah Jane ... but stay tuned for updates.

Under the tablecloth is a good place for lurking.

She seems to be picking up wicked
meditation skillz from Hanna

And of course the most important task of any cat is
to meet their daily quota of nap attacks!
Have a lovely weekend, and I'll try to come up with something feminist-librarian-activist to rant about come next week!


from the archive: the "celebrated Regan Water Curtain"

I'm cataloging images from the Marjorie Bouve scrapbooks this afternoon, and ran across a theater program from Tremont Theatre (Boston, Mass), 1909, which trumpeted themselves as "the safest theatre in Boston," being equipped with "three celebrated Regan Water Curtains which are positive in their action. Also an asbestos curtain." Obviously, this required a thirty-second search through Google to find out what, exactly, a "water curtain" might be. The image on the right shows the water curtain in action, as pictured in Public Opinon, vol 29 (January - December 1905).

This technique of fire containment was patented by Chief Regan of the Boston fire department as a method of keeping fires from leaping from building to building and also from destabilizing the front of buildings. As the Public Opinion describes:

The fire department can cope with the average fire when it is no higher than the sixth floor, but above that all that is needed to have a second Baltimore fire is a high wind and an outbreak. Tie fire would leap from building to building, say above the sixth floor, and we should see a long row of buildings in the great financial centers, with all their tops burning and the bottom floors intact. This may be remote, or it may not be, but, as fire insurance men know, it must be figured in the table of insurance rates. The Regan water

curtain is designed to prevent flames from leaping across a street and the front of a building from warping by heat. On the eighth floor and on the fifteenth floor, on the Broadway side of the Manhattan Life Building, 3 1/2-inch pipes were connected with the city water system in the street. The nozzles of the pipe were split into three tiny slots, so that the stream spread into fine spray. This system of pipes stretched across the front wall of the building made a canopy of water, covered the front of the building, and ran off in great streams for a block up and down the curb of Broadway.
So there's your history tidbit for the day. Don't you feel more informed?


sunday smut: tumblr highlights (no. 5)

by Sean Flynn @ Flickr.com 
Lots of really, really great stuff this week. I bring you a handful of excerpts I shared at tumblr. For the rest, wander on over to the feminist librarian reads.

Molly @ first the egg | unemployment, class privilege & family-blind expectations.

“Apparently unemployed people are all either single people, or men with wives to take care of the children and home, or independently wealthy. The online unemployment system advises that everyone should treat the job search like a full-time job, carrying on job-seeking for 40 hours each week. Isn’t that adorable? Should I perhaps stick Noah in a crate eight hours a day in order to accomplish that? Because being unemployed meansI can’t afford full-time childcare.”

echidne @ ECHIDNE of the Snakes | Who Stole Feminism? Part I.

“How does one define an 'establishment feminist,' by the way? Do people who write about feminism a lot count or not? Or does the person have to be running a feminist organization to count as one? How long must a person be famous as a feminist to count as part of the establishment? I’m asking because sometimes it is hard to know who these establishment feminists are, given that the whole feminist movement is in tatters and shreds.”

Courtney @ From Austin to A&M | Connecting with female characters in geek television.

[Courtney provides: spoiler warnings for Dr. Who, Torchwood and Supernatural, as well as trigger warnings for imagined violence, slut-shaming and misogyny against women characters]

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ‘being one of the guys’ strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, ‘I just don’t get along with women. All of my best friends have been guys.’ These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because ‘I don’t get along with women’ is dealbreaker for meAny woman who says this is either a) telling me that I can never expect more than perfunctory friendship with them or b) inviting me to denigrate women as well, as the basis of our friendship. And no thank you.”

Spilt Milk @ Spilt Milk | Bullies = bullies, children =/= sociopaths and other simple equations.

“At two years old, Bean is still developing her capacity for empathy. She doesn’t yet have the cognitive ability to ‘put herself in someone else’s shoes’ or to reason through all of the consequences of her actions. Even so, she shows concern when others are distressed, she shows affection and practices impulse control when she can in order to share and take turns. She actively comforts adults and other children, offering cuddles and sympathy. Just like the other toddlers and preschoolers and school-aged children that I know do. They are not adults and don’t (can’t) think and behave exactly like adults. But that doesn’t make them sociopathic.

. . . you can’t call for more vigilance, transparency and action against young bullies without also calling for more respect for young people. It is precisely because adults feel safe and justified in expressing anti-child sentiments like “[children are] basically sociopathic” – that is, precisely because children are marginalised in our culture – that bullying is allowed to flourish in institutions like schools. If you don’t feel that children deserve the same respect as any other group of humans (and I would argue that whacking a negative label on them, using sarcastic jibes about their behaviour and showing hostility towards those that would defend them is, um, disrespectful) then how can you argue that their pain matters and that their voices should be heard? The very same people who call being bullied ‘character building’ are the people who wish to maintain the status quo, a situation where children are not well protected.”

For all the rest of the week's links, head on over to the feminist librarian reads.


friday fun: Jay Smooth on Christine O'Donnell's latest campaign ad

Hanna and I watched this on Wednesday night and were in tears. 'Cause really, he says it all. All that is wrong with this ad and all that is wrong with hard-core populism in American politics.

I'm all for a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to smartness, intelligence, credentials, etc. But I also don't think "common sense" is good enough, wise enough, to be an indication that we should trust someone with power.

Also: who wants to mess with the space-time continuum? Seriously!

No transcript seems to be available yet, but watch Ill Doctrine for an update on that front.

Happy Friday, folks! Have a good (hopefully three-day) weekend.


"genitals as signifiers": when birth is a "social emergency"

Yesterday I started reading Katrina Karkazis' book Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience (2008).  Based on ethnographic research and review of the existing literature, Fixing Sex traces the twentieth-century medical treatment of individuals whom the medical profession identifies as "intersex." Part one of the book discusses the understanding of, and treatment for, intersex conditions in the past -- with a focus on the late twentieth century -- and Part Two explores the decision-making process for children who are born with what doctors feel are sex and/or gender atypical bodies. Since Karkazis draws heavily on interviews she conducted with the parents of diagnosed children and adults who had been treated for various conditions, I'm excited about getting into this second half of her study, which I have just started this afternoon.

What I really wanted to share with you in this post, though, is several paragraphs from the first chapter of Part Two in which Karkazis describes the way myriad ways in which children born with no immediately apparent sex identity are experienced as a matter of "social urgency" by their parents and the medical community. I realize it's kinda academic and somewhat heavy on the specialized terminology. But I think she's packing some pretty important stuff into these paragraphs (pp. 95-97). Reading this narrative, I just felt an overwhelming sadness in my chest for these tiny persons whose very being is somehow construed as problematic -- who cannot be incorporated into the human community, it seems -- because they lack a clear "girl" or "boy" box in which to be situated.

No sooner than a baby is born its sex is announced by the attending clinician, based on an inspection and understanding of the external genitalia as either male or female. The process of sex identification at birth is one in which genitals are granted the power of synecdochic representation. Genitals, and the sex designation to which they give rise, create gender expectations for almost every aspect of an individual's life. Not only are they usually the sole factor of sex determination but they are also assumed to correspond with fully and uniformly differentiated internal sex organs and are further charged with the task of signifying and predicting gender (whether identity, role, or behavior) and even sexuality. Put another way, if a baby is labeled "female" at birth, it is assumed that that person will grow up to understand herself as a woman, to dress and act like a woman, and to desire and have sex with men. Because this is the usual course of events, it is assumed natural. At birth genitals are thus viewed as symbolically and literally revealing the truth of gender.

At no time are the connections between genitals and gender more evident than when the genitalia of an infant either do not signal or else missignal sex. In these instances, atypical or, in clinical terms, ambiguous genitals are seen not as the representation of sex, but as the signal of a misinterpretation of sex. Without legible genitals, and thus without an evident or stable sex, an infant with "ambiguous" genitals flutters not simply between sexes but between genders and sexualities: such infants are neither readily male nor female, neither masculine nor feminine, and consequently neither readily homosexual nor heterosexual. So-called ambiguity is posited as the ground of sexual and gendered difference: a prediscursive, precultural dimension of bodiliness rather than an effect of a social system that requires a binary and incommensurate set of two sexes.
In other words, the body is seen as problematic and wrong because it fails to match our expected (and culturally-created) binary categories, rather than such a situation causing us to reconsider our categories that fail to take into account the existence of bodies that do not readily fit into them.

Bodies with atypical or conflicting biological markers are troublesome because they disturb the social body; they also disrupt the process of determining an infant's place in the world. Gender-atypical genitals (and bodies) create anxieties about the borders of properly gendered subjects and a desire to reaffirm those borders. In a culture that requires clear gender division -- a culture in which, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, we truly need a true sex -- gender-atypical bodies threaten an entire system of laws, rights, responsibilities, and privileges built on the notions of discrete and binary gender.

As a result, clinicians often rush to stabilize the sex of infants with intersex diagnoses. The urgency of this undertaking, to which parents no doubt contribute, all too often overrides the joy of the birth, as an infant may be whisked away for medical tests before the parents have had any chance to bond with their baby. Parents may be discouraged from naming their baby before a gender assignment is made. To avoid using gendered pronouns, clinical caregivers may refer to the newborn as "the baby." Because the announcement of sex is usually considered a prerequisite to naming a child, which is in turn a prerequisite to filing a legal notice of the birth, there is a sense in which biology determines -- or confuses -- a newborn's entire social and legal identity. Physically alive but denied a sex and a name, the infant has no social existence. Personhood depends on gender assignment.
This might seem like a somewhat silly comparison, but for some reason scenario -- in addition to making me almost physically ill at the thought of newborns being kept from their parents and made to undergo invasive tests -- reminds me of our new kitty, whom we adopted last weekend from a foster home. We know the cat is female from the rescue organization, but we have not yet settled on a name. This hasn't stopped us from lavishing love and attention upon our kitty, showering her with endearments and otherwise trying to let her know in no uncertain terms that she is now part of our family.  While I understand that, in our culture, most names are imbued with gender, terms of endearment ("sweetheart," "love," "darling") are pretty universal -- and with a preverbal infant it's the tone not the words that matter anyway. It's the sound of a familiar voice and the warmth it conveys that matter. The fact that the adults in this scenario seem to have lost sight of this due to being wrapped up in their own cultural anxieties makes me sick to my stomach.
Monica Cole, whose daughter has CAH, describes living with this uncertainty after the birth of her baby: "The doctor said we needed an ultrasound to determine our baby's internal sex organs, and a genetic test, which could take a week. Well, how could we not know the gender of our baby for a week? I had a hard time not being able to say 'he' or 'she' and 'baby' was so distant. The hospital had only blue-striped or pink-striped baby hats, and the nurse asked which we would like to use. I picked a blue hat and decided to use a male pronoun. The nurses followed our lead of what pronoun to use, but they also placed both an 'I'm a boy' and 'I'm a girl' cards on the baby tub."
"How could we not know the gender of our baby for a week?" Cole's question is posed as if the answer is self-evident: it was impossible for her, and the hospital staff that surrounded their family, to allow the child to exist without categorizing it. The trappings of the hospital stay (the birth announcements, the labeling of the baby "tub," the hats -- all of these were predicated on a gender binary; there was no third -- let alone forth, fifth, sixth -- option).

The birth of a baby with an intersex diagnosis is thus considered a social emergency in which medical experts are called on to intervene. The entire process could be understood as what the anthropologist Victor Turner has called a "social drama" with four stages: breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration. The breach or schism in the social order caused by the birth of a baby with atypical genitals (and this no obvious gender assignment) produces a crisis that must be addressed because it threatens social norms. The redressive action is the culturally defined process through which gender is assigned. Although not all parties may agree about the correct gender assignment for a particular infant all agree that the resolution of indeterminate sex is necessary [emphasis mine], and thus some accept a particular decision as final simply to bring about closure. Reintegration eliminates the original breach that precipitated the crisis. Treatment decisions remove biological or phenotypic atypicality, recreated a particular gendered world.

As this chapter and the next will reveal, clinicians and parents typically share the same goal, though their opinions on how to attain it may be diametrically opposed: to use the best medical technologies available to adapt the infant to life within the binary gender model; living as much as possible as a "normal" male or female.
It's not that I didn't understand that gender anxiety exists, or that the desire to sort individuals into a binary gender system is extremely compelling in our culture. I am not particularly surprised by this description of events. This does not mean that it fails to distress me. What appalled me about this passage was the degree to which none of the adults in this situation seem capable to stepping back and letting the situation be a non-emergency. In most of these instances, a healthy child has been born. This child is not in pain; this child is not suffering from something that could threaten their existence. There is no need for immediate medical intervention in order for this infant human being to survive. So can't we all celebrate this new life? Can't we welcome this tiny new person into the human family? Does a person really require a gender identity in order to be welcomed and cherished and loved for who they are?

As evidenced by Karkazis' account, it appears that they do. And that, in turn, seems like a pretty sick commentary on the relative importance of human beings vs. categories in our culture.

What I can't help thinking as I read Fixing Sex is what sort of birth experience these children would have if, instead of a general consensus that they must be made to conform these children were simply welcomed? What if, instead of confirming the parents' likely anxieties about the sex atypical nature of their child, clinicians were able to calm parents down and encourage them to get to know their child as an individual rather than as a "he" or a "she"? I can't help thinking that this would be a phenomenal place of strength out of which a child would have the best possible opportunity to thrive and become themselves in the world, rather than being taught -- physically, emotionally, and socially -- from the first moments of birth that conformity is a priority, regardless of the cost.


booknotes: brain storm

This past week I devoured a book Hanna found for me on the new books wall at the library: Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, by Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist currently teaching at Barnard College. The book is a systematic survey and assessment of the quality of the scientific research that has been used over the past fifty years in support of the theory that male and female brains are innately different because of different patterns of hormone exposure during gestation.

While the research in this area is inconsistent at best, and methodologically flawed at worse, the idea of sex-typed "brain organization" which pre-disposes men and women to gendered "masculine" and "feminine" behaviors has become widely popularized common sense knowledge, justifying everything from the intrusive medical treatment and scrutiny of gender- and sex-variant people to the dismissal of concerns about social structures that may support gender inequality (if men are "naturally" more interested in careers, and women are "naturally" more interested in caring for children, then no amount of social policy -- the argument goes -- will alter this predisposition).

Jordan-Young's goal in Brain Storm is not to argue against the scientific exploration of sex and gender development, but rather to suggest that the science we currently rely upon to support the assertions of sex difference are problematic.  She argues that an "epistemology of ignorance" characterizes the work of scientists who do research on brain organization. That is, these scientists purposefully ignore (because they assume it is irrelevant) any potential sociocultural explanations for the gendered behavior of their subjects, attributing the differences they do discover on atypical, early hormone exposure rather than on the complicated interaction between "nature" and culture. They assume this sociocultural evidence is irrelevant because they expect to find sex-typed differences, and expect those differences to be explained by early physiological sex-differentiation. They have closed the door on alternate (and ultimately, at least according to the strength of available evidence, more compelling) explanations.

This book is far too dense to adequately condense its major ideas into one short booknote; I encourage all of you interested in this area of research to read the whole book, since Jordan-Young's explanations of how these scientific studies have been generated are really useful as a window into understanding how to better interpret research findings. Regardless of your philosophical position on the physiological origins of sex and gender variety, Brain Storm will help you become a better consumer of the evidence out there that is currently used to support that network of ideas.

To give you a flavor for the type of material covered in Brain Storm, here are a few excerpts.

From "Chapter Six: Masculine and Feminine Sexuality", which explores how researchers have defined "masculine" and "feminine" sexuality in their research and findings.  Jordan-Young points out that during the 1950s-1970s, when brain organization theory was taking hold in the scientific community, immense changes took place in the cultural perception of what "masculine" and "feminine" sexuality looked like, and how it "naturally" expressed itself.  The scientific literature, however, largely ignores these historical shifts, treating these categories as uncomplicated notions that do not need to be explicitly defined.
Surprisingly, against this backdrop of change [the sexual revolution], most brain organization researchers have used the common term feminine sexuality through more than four decades as though it is absolutely self-evident and unproblematic. But the ground has been shifting under their feet. While ideas and practices associated with "normal" sexuality changed in the broader world during those decades, the transformation of masculine and feminine sexuality was just as dramatic [yet unacknowledged] in the studies that are intended to determine how male and female sexual natures develop.

In brief, from the late 1960s until around 1980, brain organization researchers relied on a model of human sexuality that sharply divided masculine and feminine sexual natures ... Things began to change in the early 1980s. In the most general way, scientists continued to assert that early exposure to "masculinizing" hormones make sexual development either more masculine or less feminine, and their preoccupation with sexual orientation intensified. But a closer look at the specific behaviors coded as masculine or feminine in the later studies shows some surprising and very important differences from the first period. In particular, masturbation, genital arousal, and sex with multiple partners came to be understood as "commonsense" features of feminine sexuality, even though these had earlier been read as clear signs of masculinization (pp. 113-114).
In "Chapter Seven: Sexual Orienteering," Jordan-Young tackles the jaw-droppingly simplistic approach brain organization researchers continue to take toward sexual orientation, despite increasing acknowledgment across a wide range of scholarly fields that sexual identity and orientation highly subjective, often subject to change over time, and are inextricably wrapped up in both "nature" and culture.
To Dr. A and Dr. N, who are among the mos influential scientists in the world studying biological influence on human sexuality, subjects who gave equivocal or contradictory answers to questions about sexual orientation are either being obstructive or confused. Ironically, Dr. A's admonition to "listen to the subject" ends up being qualified by "if they're consistent." Dr. A doesn't consider the possibility that subjects' hedging and ambiguity reflect meaningful complexity -- that the phenomenon of sexual orientation is complex and sometimes ambiguous. Instead, he thinks of sexual orientation as a simple categorical trait -- the objections of modern intellectuals and old cranks like Alfred Kinsey not withstanding, you can sort people into discrete types. In this view, subjects who don't fit the profile are simply lying, or perhaps more charitably, self-deluded.

While other scientists vigorously debate what sexual orientation is and how best to measure it, brain organization researchers almost never address the fundamental questions involved. The majority of studies linking early hormone exposures with human sexuality have focused primarily or exclusively on sexual orientation -- yet most brain organization studies that are "about" sexual orientation have not defined sexual orientation at all, or have used vague and contradictory definitions that often do not agree with the measures scientists have used (p. 145-146).
It was particularly revelatory for me to realize the (obvious once you're looking for it) point that the most basic ways of sorting groups of people according to orientation can matter, both when it comes to grouping people for the purposes of research and for the purposes of understanding populations in more cultural/social frameworks.

For example, does your definition group people according to the gender of the people whom they are attracted to (men or women)? Or does your definition arrange people according to whether their attractions are same-sex or opposite sex? Both of these definitions, obviously, beg the question of what to do with people who do not fit a binary schema -- but for the moment let's pause here.

If you arrange people on a heterosexual/homosexual schema, you're grouping them by same-sex vs. other-sex attractions. That is, gay and lesbian people will be in one group, straight women and men in the other. And research designed to explain these categories would look for sameness within the groups and difference between them. You would presume that straight men and women had certain markers of sameness, while queer folks had similar profiles.

Most brain organization research uses the heterosexual/homosexual schema when it comes to structuring their research populations (i.e. they have a "straight" population and a "gay/lesbian" population, and yet their research questions and theories actually follow the people-attracted-to-men vs. people-attracted-to-women model. They assume that individuals who are attracted to men (gay men, straight women) will have markers of sameness, and individuals who are attracted to women (straight men, lesbians) will have markers of sameness -- and that these two groups, when compared, will show patterns of difference.

The distinctions seem slight at first, but actually matter a great deal when it comes to structuring a research study or understanding how we make sense of the world, about what we expect of certain groups of people, and what assumptions those expectations rest upon.

The most painful sections of the book to read, at least for me, were the sections that dealt directly with research around intersex conditions, most prominently girls and women with CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia). Since brain organization researchers are interested in the effect of hormones on brain development, they have obviously sought out populations known to have had atypical hormone exposure. They then study these individuals for "signs" of sex/gender/sexuality atypicality -- "atypical" usually meaning, as the above excerpts show, "contrary to researchers' culturally-shaped assumptions about gendered behavior." In "Chapter Nine: Taking Context Seriously," Jordan-Young uses the example of CAH studies to show how the tunnel vision approach of brain organization researchers has led them to ignore powerful evidence that sociocultural context matters when it comes to sex and gender identity. Not necessarily to the exclusion of hormonal or other "natural" influences, but in ways that simply should not be ignored by scientists who are attempting to test their hypothesis.

No brain organization research, for example, takes into account the fact that the sexual feelings and activities, the self-identity of their CAH subjects is inevitably influenced by the fact that these girls and women are subject to intense scrutiny and intervention -- both social and medical -- from birth into adulthood. They are expected to behave atypically, and monitored rigorously and anxiously by parents and medical professionals in hopes they will be "normal." Their bodies are often treated to invasive "normalizing" surgeries and examined regularly. They are asked to perform certain sexual acts, such as masturbation, under supervision, and until very recently little or no thought was given to the actual quality of their sexual experiences and feelings about their own bodies and sexuality -- all that mattered was intervening in their lives in the hope that they could be shepherded toward "normal" sex/gender/sexual identities (read: straight person presenting and identifying as female).

To me, this sort of anxiety surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as the simplistic notion that male/female heterosexual = best possible outcome for all people is just incredibly sad. It's a very sad testament to the lack of imagination among medical professionals and the general populace that human variation is not only okay, but might actually be the best possible outcome.

I don't really have any concluding thoughts about this book other than that it's definitely a keeper, and I urge you all to at least be aware of its existence in the world, should you find yourself in need of a comprehensive survey of brain organization research. It also has an extensive bibliography that can point you in all sorts of branching directions ... next up on my list, for example, is Katrina Karkazis' 2008 book Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience.

Happy reading!


no single story is everyone's story: thoughts on the "it gets better" project

There's been buzz around the feminist/queer interwebs about the It Gets Better crowd-sourced YouTube project, in which non-straight, gender-non-conforming folks are asked to film and post their stories about coming of age and leaving shitty adolescent experiences behind for better places.  This project was started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry in response to the recent high-profile suicides by teenagers who were bullied for being, or being seen as, queer.

There have been a number of, I think, valid critiques of the project: its limitations (is "it gets better" all we can offer kids in pain??), the implicit assumptions it makes (that things will get better, that adolescence universally sucks and adulthood is inherently superior).  One of the best breakdowns I've seen comes from TempsContreTemps @ (femmephane). Quoting at length, from the ten reasons the project (and specifically Dan and Terry's contribution) makes her feel uncomfortable
1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.

2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).

3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.

4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.

5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.

6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.

7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.

8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.

9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.

10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.

Plus three (with a little help from my friends)

1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.

2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.

3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.

It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like,  is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.
You can read the whole thing over at (femmephane).

You can also read the follow-up post there.

And thanks to taniada @ Cynical Idealism for sharing the link on Tumblr and thus bringing it to my attention.

I haven't been at a computer where I have multimedia access long enough in recent weeks (I can't watch videos at work; I try to limit my recreational internet time at home) so I haven't actually watched Dan and Terry's video.  So this post isn't really about the project or the specific video. Instead, it's about the responses to the video; in particular, the frustration expressed by many that this project -- particularly since it has Dan Savage's name on it -- has been getting so much attention, and the implications of that attention for folks whose stories don't fit the narrative of "it gets better."  As TempsContreTemps writes in her follow-up post:
I wrote my piece as a response to the way that Dan and Terry’s video went viral so quickly. I was thinking about 1) why it was that THAT video was so popular and liked and 2) why the video made me and many of my friends uncomfortable. Also, I wanted to know whether those questions were related. Did it seem so painful because it was so popular? I am not capable of, nor would I want to, destroy Dan and Terry’s message. There are a multitude of ways to be queer. Dan’s isn’t the only voice… and neither is mine.

Instead, I want to complicate the dialogue.
This post illustrates for me the point that so easily gets lost in discussions about whether X or Y representation of movement Z or community Q is accurate or not, privileged or not, silencing or not, worthwhile or not, illuminating, incisive, judgmental, blind, feminist, misogynist, transphobic, racist, ageist, ableist ... or not. The point that any one piece of activism can be multiple things at once.  Just as any feminist critic of popular culture knows that a song or a movie or a phenomenon can embody contradictory messages about women, so too can a single piece of activism embody contradictory messages, and cause contradictory effects.

We can (and I think should) get angry at these bits and pieces of activism for not living up to our expectations that people working for social justice be aware of, and attempt to mitigate, their personal biases and blind spots.  In scholarly research, we are (ideally!) trained to situate ourselves self-consciously in relation to our research, and be as honest as possible about the context out of which we analyze our sources, the context out of which we construct our narratives, the context out of which we formulate plans of action. There is no universal context (except for the context of being an oxygen-breathing human being, and even there you might be able to convince me otherwise ...) and context mattersPeople who don't exhibit some sort of awareness of their own context in relation to others' are bumbling at best and willfully ignorant at worst.  And they do deserve to be called on that behavior.

However, too often the echochamber of the internets, or of your given subculture of choice, seems to amplify these critiques to the point at which any meaningful, life-enhancing contribution of the originating act (in this case, the It Gets Better campaign) is denied. The act becomes shameful and the people involved are shamed, all nuance is erased and in the end -- in my opinion -- the potential for rich, collaborative, transformational work is often lost. All parties involved are often partially responsible for this dynamic -- in my experience, it is rarely wholly caused by the critic(s) or the original actor(s) but some combination of failing to listen and failing to respect that human beings are complicated, and often contradictory, and that all of those contradictions deserve a place at the table, in all their messy glory. 'Cause that's what life is all about.

So I'm really thankful that TempsContraTemps raised questions about the project in this particular way, and I'm hoping the project (or counter-projects, or spin-off projects, or parallels or out-growths or alternates or reappropriations) benefits from that critique.

Maybe, when I finally have a chance to go watch some of the videos, the representative voices will be as gloriously myriad as I know the queer community to be. And hopefully, each one of those stories will speak to someone else's heart and let them know they are not quite so alone.


reading the (lesbian) classics: hello, groin

As explained in the first installment of this series, "reading the (lesbian) classics" is a monthly(ish) series of posts in which Danika Ellis of The Lesbrary and I read our way in a very haphazard manner through queer literature.  Our method is basically picking out the books that sound like a fun time and taking it from there!) and chat about it, and then post our conversations on the interwebs. For this second installment, we read another young adult novel by Canadian author Beth Goobie, Hello, Groin (2006).

This month, because of busy schedules, Danika and I exchanged our thoughts via email, rather than chat (as we did last time), so the nature of the exchange is a little more long-format rather than conversational. I color-coded our contributions in hope that it makes the reading a little easier for y'all.

Also, I don't hide the plot spoilers on my post, so consider yourself warned if you care about that sort of thing. Danika posts our conversation with the plot spoilers obscured (unless you highlight them), so head on over to The Lesbrary if you want the "safe" version.

Danika: I guess to start off with, we could talk about the handling of teen sexuality in AOMM [Annie on My Mind] vs HG [Hello Groin]. HG doesn't actually have any lesbian sex scenes (spoiler!), but it does have a lot of sexuality in it. I found it really interesting that Dylan is not a virgin. Neither is Joc, of course. And sex is a frequent topic of conversation and speculation. It seemed really true to the reality of teenagers at this point in time. What did you think?

Anna: Wow, so there's a lot to unpack in your opening comment, and I'd love to tackle it all eventually! I was very struck by the fact that, despite the frank acknowledgment of sexuality in HG there was no lesbian sex (I was so disappointed!). The (mostly implied) sex is hetero sex, and masturbation, neither of which are demonized but both of which are not a substitute for same-sex love scenes, and I thought it was an interesting choice for Goobie to back away from being sexually explicit in that instance when she had not with other aspects of sex and the fact that teenagers can be sexual beings, and that this isn't divorced from other aspects of who they are in the world.

In fact, I felt in a lot of ways that Dylan (our narrator) is a lot more uncomfortable about her same-sex desires than Liza was in AOMM. She acknowledges her discomfort directly in the book, quite early on, in chapter five when she addresses the reader and says, "The main question here, I suppose, would be, What was the big deal? Most people didn't go into a major funk over sexual orientation anymore--a lot of lesbians and gays were out these days."  And yet, for Dylan, it's not so much a question of sexual desire but social identity: "I just didn't click with them," she says, "They were all really different than me--besides our hormones we had nothing in common." 

To me, that's a pretty major shift away from understanding your sexuality in terms of specific, personal desires and specific relationships in AOMM towards understanding sexual orientation as a form of group belonging in HG. And, ironically, the greater visibility of the LGBT community in Dylan's life means that she has a much stronger sense of what it "means" to be queer. Therefore, because she can't see herself as part of that community, this becomes a roadblock to her acknowledging, and feeling comfortable with, her desire for Joc. In AOMM, nearly the opposite is true: it is the lives of the lesbian teachers (embodied in their home and relationship) that help Annie and Liza see that being together is possible. It's a dawning awareness that takes place almost in isolation from their peers.

What do you make of the lack of relational lesbian sex scenes in the book, and the fact that Dylan's dawning awareness of her desire for Joc is depicted primarily in terms of solitary sex and her internal physical reactions, rather than exploration as a couple?  And (major spoiler!) I was particularly struck by Dylan's desire to slow things down with Joc when they finally got together, rather than dive in and get to know her very willing partner on that level.  What are your thoughts?

Danika: Interesting. You know, I've never really considered how there is no explicit lesbian sex in HG. It seemed to fit with the models of lesbian teen books I've read before, like Empress of the World and Bermudez Triangle (correct me if I'm wrong; it's been a while since I've read them). But you're right: why shouldn't these teen lesbian books include lesbian sex? After all, AOMM did (even if it was a little "off screen"), so you would think by this time we'd be more frank. When I think about it, though, I don't know if I've read any teen lesbian books with actual lesbian sex scenes, even any that are comparable to AOMM.

I think the scenes of masturbation and talk about hetero sex was pretty explicit in HG. You'd be hard-pressed to find a reader who didn't catch on that Dylan was masturbating. It's kind of an ongoing theme at some point.

Hmm, that's a good point. HG offers a sort of double-edged sword of queer visibility. Dylan knows what being a lesbian is, and she even personally knows lesbians. She doesn't think they have miserable lives. But that idea of a queer community, which can be life-saving when coming out, can also seem too exclusive. If you don't fit in in the queer community, can you really be queer? Can you be queer in a straight community? And that's been an ongoing issue with queer activism: the "extremist" queer people want to create our own community, our own world, or at least radically reconstruct dominant society; the "moderate" queer people want to tweak dominant culture to allow us to assimilate. Even within lesbians I've met I've heard both "Why can't I just sleep with girls without having it define me?" and "I love the lesbian community". I think it's really important to have both, to have a place for queers who feel displaced in straight/cis society to be around people they can relate to, as well as accommodating queer people who just want to fit into dominant society. Unfortunately, in Dylan's case, the community was too small to really be inclusive, and the straight/cis world wasn't going out of its way to be queer-positive.

I think we see this positive aspect of queer community/role models in AOMM and the downside in HG. I mean, if the teachers in AOMM had been people that Liza didn't like, or didn't relate to, would that have made it even harder for her and Annie? It's hard that queerness has these two elements: the queer culture, with a rich history and literature and activism and entertainment and social scene, but it's also something that is so very personal and individual, and has to do with the most private parts of ourselves.

My first instinct to respond to the lack of lesbian sex in HG is that it doesn't fit the storyline. HG is about Dylan coming to grips with her sexuality and sexual orientation, with her desire and what that means for her identity. Getting together with Joc was really almost secondary to that. It was the final step in that journey, in that arc. The story of Joc and Dylan as a couple isn't really included in HG. I don't feel like you could really have them have sex after years of repressed desire and then fade to black, because it would leave too many questions. And answering those questions would require a whole other book!

That's my first instinct, but I know that it's really easy to dismiss these sorts of questions by saying "That's what the story demanded", so I'd like to look more closely at it. I really quite liked Dylan's insistence that they move slowly. I thought the "I'm in love with this finger" line was absolutely adorable. I feel like them having sex right then would be too fast, because they had only just acknowledged their feeling for each other, their sexual orientation, and Joc hadn't even come out to her mom yet! It would have been too many emotional experiences at once for them.

I think it's exactly what you touch on: the "dawning" of her sexuality. The title alone implies that Dylan is only beginning to know herself. I think that the book was working up to this point, to this careful introduction to sexuality. I guess it also is in contrast to Dylan's previous sexual encounters. She's forced herself to have sex before, because she felt like that's what she's supposed to do. She'd been pressured to have sex with her boyfriend the whole book. I think maybe Dylan negotiating with Joc about sex shows her new understanding of her sexuality, her ability to not repress her desire, but also not repress her better judgment. I'm not totally satisfied by that answer, though. What do you think? Was she afraid of backlash about have lesbian sex in it? She already addressed drinking, drugs (briefly), partying, homosexuality, queer desire, teen sex, and female masturbation. It doesn't seem likely that she thought lesbian sex was going too far. Do you have any theories?

Anna: I like you analysis of the two-edged sword of queer "communities." In my own life,I can think of examples where the HG model has been in operation as well as examples where the AOMM experience has been really helpful.  Particularly in smaller populations (I'm thinking particularly of the insular spaces of teenage peer culture, so often segregated in schools), the "queer" community, in my experience, tends to be dominated by -- as you put it -- "extremist" personalities. And if you don't see yourself mirrored in those personalities, it's hard to see how your life is going to improve by identifying with them. Coming out, in those cases, seems ripe for being rejected by both the dominant culture (for being queer) and the queer community for not being the "right" kind of queer. As someone with more fluid sexual attractions, for example, I was timid about voicing my same-sex desires for many years because I perceived the potential for rejection by the lesbian girls I knew for not being lesbian enough, and I really didn't see myself reflected in the lives of the few bi women I met at college. So I sympathize with Dylan's struggles to name her desires openly, even though she knows inside herself where her attractions lie.

As someone in my late twenties, too, when reading YA literature I wonder what role my adult expectations play in the sense that there's not "enough" sex in HG? And whether, as you say, having Dylan approach her relationship with Joc as something special, more intimate, and therefore something to approach slowly and cautiously, might be a legitimate reflection of age rather than prudishness on the part of the author? When I was Dylan's age, would I have wanted to go from zero to sixty in a sexual relationship? I suspect with the right person, yes, given my personality :).  But I also think it's legitimate for an author to write characters who are slower to feel sure about how they want to express their sexuality in relationships, even when they know it's a relationship they want to be in, and be sexually active in, eventually.  An example of a similar "taking it slow" approach that is nonetheless sex-positive (and more sexually explicit) is the novel This Is All by Aiden Chambers, although I think that novel had other issues. However, the (hetero) couple at the center of the story were both very purposeful about choosing the time and place to be sexually intimate for the first time, yet also joyful in the moment as well. I rather wish HG had gotten to that point. In part because, from a political and cultural perspective, there's such a persistent stereotype that lesbian relationships are more romantic than physical. Clearly, Dylan and Joc are both highly physical, highly sexual beings. But the fact that this grinds to a halt when the girls come together in bed was frustrating to me.

Have you read other books by Goobie and if so, how does the treatment of sexuality compare? Going back to our last conversation and the example of David Levithan, he writes romantic stories with explicit sex and without explicit sex, and I enjoy them both, so perhaps it is unfair to place the burden of expectation that this ONE novel do everything at once! I know that, as you pointed out, YA authors often have to tread a very careful line between exploring issues that they feel are relevant to teenage lives and also not being too heavy-handed with the Real Life Issues stuff. Likewise, the balance between including stuff about sex without being so controversial that young people can't get their hands on the books!

Of course, resourceful kids (with access to a good library!) can get around this by going straight for adult lesbian literature, if they know where to look. It's interesting to me that, with the emphasis on the library book display, that Dylan did not reference more lesbian-themed literature, or at least didn't seem to see books as a resource the same way that Liza did in AOMM.  I know, as a teenager, that novels like Fingersmith (to give one example) were a wonderfully safe and private way to explore same-sex desire and sexual arousal. Do you have any thoughts about the role of books in HG, particularly since we discussed this as such an important element of AOMM?

Danika: Yes, again, that idea of having a shared culture is amazing when you identify with that culture, and alienating when you don't. The queer community, like the feminist community, still has a while to go to actually be as inclusive as they claim to be. Luckily, I think that a lot of girls (not so much guys) in high school now are feeling more comfortable coming out as queer, especially as an unlabelled queer. I think, in some situations, at least, we're seeing more acceptance of people being true to themselves without necessarily claiming a title. A lot of teens are now saying that they don't feel the need to label their desire. Speaking of, I found it a little disconcerting that Joc uses the word "bi-curious" to describe herself, and then has her mother label her "lesbian", and Dylan thinks that label will take a while to get used to... but that's not Joc's label. I mean, I think that since Joc has been attracted to Dylan for years now, she's probably more towards bisexual than "bi-curious", but there's no reason to think she's gay.

When I first read this book, I was in my late teens, and I don't remember thinking that it lacked sex. I really liked how it handled their sexuality. But now that you mention it, I hadn't considered how their sexuality ends when they're in bed together. That is problematic. I keep coming back to not knowing how it could be fit into the story, though. Dylan wants to wait until they're both more comfortable with each other, with the idea. I know that when I first realized I was attracted to girls, I didn't immediately want to have sex with them. It was a slow process of wanting to kiss them but not anything else, and then maybe a little bit further, but not "all the way", etc. I know when my girlfriend first started realizing she liked girls, she was first just puzzled about why she wanted to write girls poetry. And then actually doing anything with girls was a whole other process. I think I thought I was going to pass out the first time I held a girl's hand. It's overwhelming to begin with. (Or maybe that's just me...) I think that Dylan and Joc would have waiting at least a month or two before having sex, which is a perfectly valid thing to do in any relationship, and I don't know if you could really fast forward a month to the sex scene and then fade out. At the point we end the book on, Dylan and Joc are still adjusting to switching from "best friend" mode to "girlfriends" mode.

I've only read one other book by Beth Goobie, and that was Something Girl, which was about parental violence, so it didn't include any sex. I'm fairly sure that this is Goobie's only queer book, but I could be wrong.

On of the reasons I really like HG was the literature subplot (there's even Harry Potter references!), just like I liked AOMM for that. I really like how the idea of censorship got woven into how Dylan feels like her sexual orientation is censored, but also just teen sexuality. The display really seemed to let her work through her own feeling about sexuality and censorship. There was also the reoccurring Egyptian Book of the Dead theme, which I liked, and it also let her work through her feelings. The scene with "I have not eaten my heart? [...] No heaven for you then, eh Dyllie?" was haunting. I thought that was very effective.

Again, it's funny how I never noticed that before. Dylan sort of sees Foxfire as a representation of lesbians, but it's not explicit, and she never seeks out other books. Are there no others at the library? The librarian doesn't seem like the type that wouldn't stock queer books. Was Dylan not aware of them? She volunteers at the library; she should be pretty familiar with the material. How odd. I guess that Dylan really doesn't see the books as a resource, which, now that you mention it, seems odd. She likes the library, she seems to enjoy books (she talks reverently about a shelf of books near the beginning of HG), but we don't see her reading anything that isn't assigned, and she never seeks out lesbian books. I think that might have been an oversight on the part of the author, because it seems like something Dylan would do, or would at least consider doing.

On another note, though, I kind of wonder about it being a sort of curse of plenty. In AOMM, it was fairly easy to know which lesbian books to read, because there weren't very many! You could conceivably set out to read all of them in your lifetime. Now, though, there are enough lesbian books that it can be overwhelming to know where to start. I don't think that would've stopped Dylan, though, so I really think that was an oversight.

Have you read Beth Goobie's explanation of writing HG? It's really interesting and encouraging.

Anna: Thanks for the link to Goobie's comments. I was particularly struck by the comment that some have criticized her book for being "surrealistically positive," since I read it as much more of a mixed bag.  Perhaps what people were reacting to is the fact that, while teenage sexuality -- and coming to grips with one's sexual desires -- is central to the story, same-sex attractions aren't presented as a problem, something to be overcome and/or something that is going to damage the character.  Until very recently, I think, literature with gay or lesbian characters presented those characters as somehow inherently tragic and wounded, whether those wounds were the result of being internally disordered somehow OR whether those wounds came as a result of living in a hostile culture.  AOMM tries not to do this, but Liza's public acknowledgment of her relationship with Annie, and the discovery of the teachers' lesbian relationship, is still dramatic and painful for people. 

In HG, the issue isn't so much homosexuality but teenage sexuality. Homosexuality, as you say, isn't being censored -- teenage sexuality is being censored.  And I think that's an interesting angle. In some ways, I agree with Goobie that this is the direction we've moved in -- people are more willing to think about the diversity of sexual orientation, but they're still very, very uncomfortable with teenage sexuality.

On the other hand, the recent flurry of suicides by queer students who have experienced bullying here in the US (in part because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation and/or gender expression) belie somewhat the rosy picture that Goobie's adolescent informants painted.  I'm skeptical that the (mostly straight) students she interviewed or otherwise talked with really understand what it means to be a non-conforming teenager and all of the internal and external pressures non-straight teenagers might face to just conform already! Another example of this disconnect would be the wide-spread perception that college campuses are generally lgbt-friendly, whereas the 2010 CampusPride survey of queer faculty and students indicated an enduring pattern of harassment and hostile climate that has pushed over a third of the individuals surveyed to seriously consider leaving their place of employment/studies.

Returning to the book-and-library theme, as a librarian I was so pleased that the school librarian in HG was seen as such a supportive character! She comes across as a real advocate for the students, even if she couldn't overrule the school administrators about Dylan's book display.  But, as you say, the book theme doesn't develop as much as it could, and it does seem strange the Dylan doesn't seek out information in the library or in books that might help her make sense of her desires. Certainly, in the face of a local queer community I didn't feel I could connect with, literature and online networks were where I was able to piece together a broader context for my own sexuality (though not until college and post-college, so perhaps I'm placing too much expectation on a high school student to have herself sorted out!).

The commentary from Goobie that you linked was interesting in that it was similar to some of the commentary in the back of my copy of AOMM, which contained an 25th anniversary interview with Nancy Garden.  It is interesting to me that Garden wrote the book very much out of her own personal experience -- writing, perhaps, for the teenager she herself was.  Whereas Goobie seems to have taken a more distanced approach, interviewing teenagers and writing a story that is not so clearly connected to her own personal feelings (from the brief commentary you linked to, one gets no sense of her own orientation.  It's not like I don't think only queer people can write books with queer characters and/or protagonists, but I wonder how that effects the stories they tell and their narrative priorities. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Danika: It is odd that people thought it was fairytale-ish, considering how hard Dylan fought against her sexuality to begin with. I think what they were criticizing, though, was the way the parents and other students dealt with Dylan and Joc coming out. In AOMM, even if we don't see any disowning by the parents, Liza and Annie still face huge consequences as a direct consequence of being outed, and so do their mentors. Joc and Dylan don't see this, other than with Joc's brother.

It is a very interesting direction to take, because in some ways, while HG is a "teen lesbian book", it's not about being a lesbian. It's about being a sexual being, and it's just that differing sexual orientations tend to be the times when we really critically look at sexuality. So the lesbian theme, though it can be seen as the major theme of the book, can also be seen as secondary to the theme of teen sexuality, and that lesbianism was just the easiest way to confront sexuality.

Aah, but you have to be very careful about that. It's clear that definitely, a whole of teens face incredible pressure and harassment for their perceived sexual orientation. Many queer kids are disowned by their parents, a disproportionate amount commit suicide: you can't deny that it is still nowhere near being an accepting or even safe environment for queer teens in North America as a whole. But, the cases that you are talking about are from the United States. The thing I noticed about Goobie's commentary about HG which I really appreciated was that she was careful to set it in a very specific location and was telling a very specific story. Dylan's story isn't supposed to universal, it's supposed to represent the reality for teens from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She didn't interview students from all over NA, or Canada, or even Saskatchewan, but just that specific city. And that's how students responded. So she shaped her story around what these teens represented their lives as, the stories they told, the experiences they had. She wasn't trying to impose her own idea of what growing up queer looks like, partly, I suspect, because she didn't. I fully agree that queer youth face a huge amount of difficulties coming out or even just appearing queer (regardless of whether it's true), and those stories need to be told, but we don't need that to be the only story told. I don't think we have a lack of stories about how hard it is to be queer. I don't think it's a hugely underrepresented narrative, to be told that coming out means losing your friends and family. It is true in some cases, and it's a story that deserves to be told, but it's not every queer youth's story, and even if it is, it's not necessarily something you want to hear reinforced over and over. It can be heartening to read a positive portrayal of coming out, even if it's not something to relate to.

I can attest that these students were not necessarily making it up; there's definitely a chance that that's just what being lesbian/gay looked like in their school. When I came out as bi, there were at least half a dozen other girls in my (small) high school who I knew also were out as bi, and those were just the ones I knew of. When I came out as gay (standard disclaimer: coming out as bi was a transitional thing for me, but it's definitely not transitional for all or even most people), I knew of at least one other lesbian in my high school, and she was fairly popular. I was very out, and no one gave me a hard time. I never faced any harassment at all, my parents were okay with it, my friends were okay with it... I had an even easier time of it than Dylan did. (I lived on Vancouver Island in British Columbia; it's a pretty hippie place.) I think we have to be careful not to generalize people's experiences with being queer. Just because it's a positive story doesn't mean it's unrealistic.

Yes, I definitely think that Dylan and Joc not exploring more in the library or even online is a bit of a plot problem. It seems unrealistic. Joc mentions in passing that she got the term "bi-curious" from "the net" (do teens actually say "the net"? Don't we all say intertubes now?), but that's as far as it goes.

I would suspect that Goobie doesn't identify as queer, yes. I think that's why she did the interviews; to get more of a context to what real teens' experiences with queerness look like. I'm always happy to see more queer books, no matter what the sexual orientation or gender identification of the author is, but I do think that it's important that queer people are able to tell their own stories. It's fine if straight, cisgendered people are also telling queer stories, just as long as they aren't creating the dominant narrative, because you do definitely get a more nuanced view of queerness when you live it.

Anna: I was thinking about Goobie's non-queer identity yesterday, after I wrote you, and also about the fact that she is an established author of young adult literature, which in some ways has its own very specific conventions. If I remember, Nancy Garden wrote AOMM very early in her career -- and wasn't it her first novel for young people? Whereas Goobie set out to write a YA novel. And I think this does something to change the tenor of the book. Especially since it's in a contemporary real-life setting, then it's really hard not to read everything she writes into the novel as some sort of object-lesson. In part because that's how real-life teen literature is often reviewed -- on the adult perception of whether or not it's "appropriate" and something young people can relate to. And there's this expectation that it will have some sort of moral value. It's very difficult to write teen fiction that is accepted as a story without some sort of message.

The issue of depicting sex falls into this category. If you're writing science fiction, fantasy, even historical fiction or magical realism -- your teenagers can be sexually active and there isn't the expectation that you will write in stuff about safe sex, for example. Or about waiting until marriage, etc. The teenagers are just characters within these other universes. Whereas, in YA fiction in the contemporary world, there's the expectation that it will somehow interact with all of the expectations surrounding management of teen sexuality, risk, etc., that goes on in the world around us. It's no longer acceptable for it to be just a work of fiction.

I know from talking to my queer friends, for example, science fiction and fantasy authors like Tanith Lee and Ursula LeGuin were often where they found stories about characters and relationship models they could somehow relate to. I still remember vividly my first exposure to the modern, queer concept of polyamory being through the ElfQuest graphic novels series that my brother and I used to read (checked out from, bless them, our local library!) ... the elves in that series were straight, bi, gay, and existed in a network of group marriages. It offered me a different model for intimate relationships that I could think about, but not be threatened by, because it was so clearly fantasy. It makes me wonder how large a role genre fiction plays in the queer community in positing alternative ways of being, and whether -- in the end -- genre fiction (not to mention the proliferation of fan fiction and slash narratives that queer mainstream television and fiction storylines) ends up being more powerful in some ways in connecting teens with their sexual selves than even the best real-world YA fiction.

And I think I'll leave it there -- feel free to add any last thoughts and I'm looking forward to doing this again at the end of November.

Danika: I think that's probably a good place to end. I don't think I have anything more to add. Thanks for doing this with me!