Saturday, December 26, 2009

Modern Gynecology

(The text formatting is weird, and I don't want to put in the time to figure it out. To see it in reasonable-sized font, with appropriate line breaks, click the title of the post (not the blog).)

I really dislike pelvic exams. I assume most of us do, who have to have them. I know it's healthy to keep on top of my preventative healthcare. But when I think about walking into that waiting room ... sometimes, I just need a little extra motivation.

Luckily, my favorite coping mechanism - snarky, inappropriate humor - has proven remarkably applicable to gynecological conversation. Who knew! In fact, I'm almost looking forward to my next appointment, because I know I'll have another hilarious story to tell.

At least, in retrospect it will be hilarious. In the moment, it's sometimes hard to see the humor.

Electronic medical records, in particular, have turned a visit to the gynecology office into a stand-up comedy routine. The medical assistant has to ask the same questions, in the same order, to every patient no matter what. The computer won’t let her go off script. Of course, I’m not your standard gynecology patient. They ask me all these questions that I just don’t have the right answers to.

“Do you know the date of your last period?”

“January, 2007.” Now that one should have been fairly simple except that it was unexpected. So then we had a little selective hearing loss situation.

“July 27th?”

“No. January, 2007.”


Once that was cleared up it got even weirder.

“Are your periods regular?”


Now how was I supposed to make sense of that? So she just picked one, flipped a mental coin, I guess. She couldn't get to the next screen without answering. My official medical record, if you were to read all my gyn exams one after another, would say that my lack of period vacillates randomly between regular and irregular. Whatever.

“Are you on birth control?”

“… no?”

I’m on testosterone, but three gynecologists in a row have been notably non-committal as to how unlikely an unintended pregnancy is for someone on this dose. The medical assistant didn't appear to notice my intonation. Oh, well.

“Have you ever had an abnormal pap smear?”


At this point the medical assistant turned to me in open disbelief. “And your last period was in 2007??”

How I would like it to have gone next is like this:

“Do you have my chart? My paper one? Because on the first page it says that I’m transgender and I’ve been taking testosterone for 3 years.”


“Which also explains the facial hair.”


“And the fact that I didn’t respond when you called for “Ms. …” in the waiting room.”

“Okay dear the doctor will be right with you.”

But I’m not really that bold, or that mean. It wasn't her fault, anyway. Instead I just explained, all straightforward and apologetic-like.

The next time I went in, for a follow-up visit annoyingly shortly after that one, I had exactly the same conversation with a different medical assistant. Word for word. It was creepy.

I considered making a handout. It wouldn’t have to list the questions, or even full sentences, just my answers. Something like,

  1. 2007.
  2. Umm…?
  3. Not exactly.
  4. No.
  5. Yes.
  6. Yes, really.

I could just hand it to the medical assistant and let her sort it out.

The third time, I had the same medical assistant from the first appointment. She still asked all the same questions, but this time she believed me about each answer the first time I said it, so it wasn’t quite as funny. Then she started asking the behavioral questions, which for some reason had been skipped during the previous appointments. The conversation got exponentially more bizarre.

“Are you sexually active?”

I refer you to the quantum physics non-explanation of my dating life. I think I said “yes,” just for simplicity’s sake.

“Is your partner a man or a woman?”

“Umm … no.”

I felt sorry even as I said it. But I couldn’t think of anything else to say that would feel honest. Note how I restrained myself from launching into an explanation of quantum superpositional dating, wherein, in this case, the term “partner” is a bit of an overstatement during an unquantifiable, but large, proportion of the time. Interesting perhaps, but not pertinent. The medical assistant was confused enough.


“She’s … ze’s … we … our genders are similar.”

That one took her a little while. I guess they don’t have a button for that in the electronic record system.

“Is there any possibility you might be pregnant?”

Given my recent (if largely uniformed) musings on quantum physics, the phrase “any possibility” may mean something different to me than it does to the medical assistant. Or maybe it's just that it goes against centuries of cultural habit to promise a positive outcome (i.e. lack of pregnancy) with so much certainty. I dampened the impulse to explain my completely irrelevant hesitations, and settled on “no” because I thought it would end the conversation sooner, which it did. Then it was time for the actual exam part of the exam, which I won't relate here, except to say it was far less amusing than the talking part of the exam.

It’s probably not nice of to mess with the medical staff so much. I could play along, I guess. Give away the punch line sooner, so at least they can attribute the confusion to my queerness, rather than feeling badly for not knowing which buttons to push. Sometimes I do consider dialing it back a few.

But then I think, whose comfort am I more concerned about here? The medical assistant is just having a normal day at the office. I’m having a f*%$^#! gyn exam. If coming away with hilarious stories about the MA’s confusion about my gender makes the situation just a little bit less miserable, or makes it a little bit easier to contemplate showing up for the next time, then I think I’ll continue enjoying their confusion.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What Gentiles Should Know about the Holiday Season

by a cranky Jew
(revised from previous years and re-posted by popular demand. feedback welcome as always.)

I do not celebrate Christmas.

Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Canadian happy 4th of July.

Christmas is not a “secular” or “American” holiday. It is a Christian holiday.
If you celebrate it in a secular way, it is still a secular Christian holiday. (If I celebrate Pesach/Passover in a humanist style, without reference to G-d, is it then an “American” holiday? No. It’s a secular Jewish holiday, and it’s no more universal without the G-d language than with it.)

Some Jews do celebrate Christmas. That doesn't make it a Jewish holiday.
Jews may celebrate Christmas for many reasons. Many Jews have Christians in their family. Most Jews in the US grow up in predominantly Christian communities. Many Jews have tried to assimilate over the generations, and that has meant adopting Christian practices like having a Christmas tree. It's still a Christian holiday.

Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.

Christmas is an important holiday for most contemporary Christians, based on one of the central stories of the Christian faith. Chanukah is not even a particularly religious holiday. It is primarily a cultural/historical holiday commemorating a military victory of one group of Jews, who advocated maintaining a traditional Jewish culture separate from that of the ruling empire, over another group of Jews, who advocated cooperating with imperial rulers and assimilating into the imperial (Hellenic/Syrian) culture.

It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.

The only reason Chanukah is such a big deal in the U.S. is because of its proximity to Christmas.

Chanukah does not occur on December 25th.

It is an eight-day festival beginning on 25 Kislev by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar /solar calendar. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used in public life, ranges from mid-November through late December. Therefore, do not tell me to have a happy Chanukah unless you know when Chanukah falls this year, and that it’s not over. Cheat sheet for 2009/5770: Chanukah begins at sundown on Friday, December 11.

Chanukah may be spelled several ways
Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukah, etc. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and it’s actually spelled like this: חֲנוּכָּה. Chanukah is probably the closest transliteration for the Hebrew - more like Channikke for the Yiddish. It sounds like it looks, only the initial H or Ch sounds like the guttural sound at the end of the composer Bach.

I don’t care how you spell it. Just don’t tell me how weird it is that it has multiple spellings. I’m over it. If you can’t say the Ch sound without spitting on me, then just say H and keep your germs to yourself.

There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush.

Did you really need to be told that? Christian hegemony appropriated the tradition from Celtic pagans, and now is trying to impose it on Jews. We already have pretty stuff for the holiday. We don’t need Jew-ish-ified trees, wreathes, elves or mistletoe.

Some Jews Have Chanukah Bushes.

See above, under "Some Jews Celebrate Christmas"

Chanukah is not a good excuse to tell me about your best friend, neighbor, or distant relative who is a Jew.

If you didn’t care enough to tell me the rest of the year, then I don’t care to hear about it now.

Don’t try to impress me with how much you know about Chanukah or about Judaism.

It’s a safe bet I know a whole lot more than that about Christmas and Christianity. Not cause I’m so smart or so studied. Just cause y’all are everywhere.

“Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable secular substitute for “Merry Christmas.”
No matter what words you use, we both know you’re only saying it because of Christmas. Otherwise, you would say it in September/October and March/April, when I’m observing major religious holidays, as well as in December, when you are.

This is not about your Free Speech.

In recent years, a few people who should know better have said things to me about Christmas that sound suspiciously like the ultra-conservative "war on Christmas" rhetoric. Stuff like, "Department stores cannot dictate how their employees greet customers during the holidays. If they want to say Merry Christmas, that's their free speech." Or "People can't stop people from putting up Christmas decorations in the town square. That's their free speech."

Good try, but, this is not about your free speech. Employees do not have the right to say whatever they want while they're working. They sell their free speech along with their labor during the hours they're getting paid. And I'm only prepared to grant "free speech" that's free, as in not paid for - especially not with public money. Go ahead, speak about Christmas all you want. But don't use public funds to speak about Christmas.

Anyway, no one is trying to stop you from saying Merry Christmas to your friends and loved ones, or on your Christmas cards. That's exactly where the greeting belongs. I just don't want you saying it to me, especially not all day every day for all of December. And I really don't want to pay for your Christmas decorations through public funds, and be subjected to them in public spaces.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Quantum Superpositional Dating

This was the hardest question on the 45-minute survey of attitudes toward Palestine/Israel conducted by the Big Gay Synagogue:

I am:

  • single
  • partnered
  • married
  • widowed
  • divorced
  • separated
  • in a steady relationship (e.g. boyfriend/girlfriend)
  • in a polyamorous relationship
  • it’s complicated
  • other, please explain: _____________________________

Seriously. They covered their bases!

I waffled for a while among single, poly, complicated, and "other," all the while wondering why it was so difficult to make a selection. After all, unlike most such surveys, this list includes options that actually apply to me!

The hard part was picking just one. And it got even harder if I wanted to pick one that not only was true today, but also was likely to still be true by the time someone got around to counting my responses. I had a creepy feeling that clicking one of the options would somehow jinx the situation - that by presuming to measure or define my relationship situation, I would somehow introduce new complications, and make my response instantly obsolete. It's like the dating version of Schrödinger’s Cat.

The Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment describes a phenomenon known as quantum superposition. In extremely simplified terms, this means that multiple physical states occur simultaneously. Inside a sealed box, where you cannot measure or witness what's happening, the hypothetical cat is both alive and dead. Once the box is open, possibilities collapse. You can't check on the cat without affecting the outcome.

Actually, given the attitude of [a person whose relationship with me is a quantum superposition of its own] toward my cat, let’s drop the metaphor.

Measuring reality necessarily alters it. Making the decision to click on a radio button alters my thoughts about a relationship, so it alters the relationship. I appreciate the plentitude of options. But I don’t really want to pick one. I guess I find quantum superpositional relationships sexy.

It's sort of like the opposite of Intro Stats Meets Dykes to Watch Out For.

Then a friend reminded me of another sexy implication of Schrödinger’s Cat – quantum fetish mechanics. You’ll never think about kink the same way again.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Report after Monday's Vigil

On Monday night, about one hundred people assembled at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and then proceeded to the SF LGBT Center in a memorial vigil honoring the young people who were killed and injured in the Tel Aviv LGBT Center last week.

To be honest, I was dreading this event. I needed to mourn – for the youth who were killed, and also for the sense of safety that I lost, years ago, when I first realized that my own LGBTQ youth center was not the safe space I needed it to be. I
worried, though, that I wouldn’t be able to mourn, but would instead be distracted by anger and alienation at the Zionist rhetoric that almost always accompanies any public Jewish event.

I was pleasantly surprised in so many ways.

Monday’s vigil focused entirely on the tragedy of the youths’ lost lives. Speakers from the Jewish community and the broader community emphasized the need to stand up for queer youth in our own communities and worldwide. One speaker talked about creating safety for “all residents” of Tel Aviv – not “all citizens,” as pro-Israel speakers usually say.

Nobody used this event as an excuse to repeat the nonsensical rhetoric of many official Israeli sources, that this level of violence is “unheard of” in Israel. In fact, people hardly mentioned Israel. And that is as it should be – these youth were targeted because they were queer, not because they were Jewish, not because they were Israeli. The organizers of this vigil did an amazing job of keeping Zionist politics out of it, to an extent I have never seen at any Jewish event.

Even the default Jewish event default Israeli flags, which some people seem not even to realize are political symbols, were not as big a presence as I'd expected. There were only two, and one of them was the rainbow version created for this June’s Jews March For Pride contingent– which, despite my dislike for all
national flags and especially this one, I can see the relevance of for this particular vigil.

The vigil brought together groups that rarely share space, much less mourn together. There
were many Jews but also many non-Jews – rare at a Jewish-organized event! There were many congregants from Sha’ar Zahav (a predominantly LGBTQ shul), and also some “unaffiliated” Jews and many Jews from other congregations, including two Chabad rabbis.

Perhaps even more surprising, it brought together people from across the spectrum of political stances on Palestine/Israel. I personally spoke with one representative from SF Voice for Israel and one from IJAN – the right and left poles of SF Jews organizing around Palestine/Israel – and both said the vigil was “really nice.” Voice for Israel and IJAN agreeing on something!? My vision went blurry, I was so surprised at that one. Now, anyone who likes one of those groups probably thinks the other is vile. But still, there are queer folks (or LGB anyway) in both groups, and they all needed a space to mourn these losses. It’s a good thing that our community was able to create a broad enough space, in that moment, to be meaningful for all of us.

This vigil teaches us some important lessons about inter-community organizing, and also raises some important questions for us to grapple with. With less than one day of lead time, a small team pulled together a well-attended, successful, diverse event. We have skills, resources, and a smoothly functioning network to draw on. What can we pull together next?

I have some ideas:
  1. Some of us have wondered, why didn’t the LGBTQ community take the lead on this vigil? Why, worldwide, is it primarily Jewish communities who are mourning this homophobic hate crime? Since many of us are part of secular/gentile LGBTQ communities as well as Jewish communities, we can use our experience with this vigil to make sure that our LGBTQ communities also hone their capacities for rapid, organized, inclusive response.

  2. We can build on the relationships freshly forged to create dialogues, within our Jewish communities, about our varied and complex relationships to Palestine and Israel. There is a moment of opportunity, as the eyes of the global Jewish community are on Jewish queers, for us to leverage an influence we have never had before. On average, LGBTQ Jews and younger Jews are farther left on Palestine/Israel than our straight and/or older counterparts. This week, established community leaders, including rabbis, turned to some young queer Jews for instructions on how to create inclusive community programming. They asked for and followed our advice on how to avoid excluding people like us from Jewish community. They want to hear our concerns and to understand where we’re coming from. When else have Jewish leaders ever invited us to speak and be heard about Palestine/Israel? Let’s take this opportunity!

  3. As much as I appreciated the opportunity to acknowledge this tragedy communally without being distracted by Israel, it is not a coincidence that it happened in Israel. There are connections that need to me made. In a state where practically every man owns a firearm… Where entire ethnic groups are routinely and officially dehumanized and murdered … Where the state uses queers as a tourist attraction without regard for the likely backlash… Where the ultra-Orthodox have disproportionate power in the political system … In a state like Israel, this, or something like this, is always inevitable and ongoing.

    Now that we had a successful community-wide vigil, I would like to create other spaces in which my grief need not be depoliticized. I want to say to fellow mourners that we stand against all violence - including the violent evictions of two Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes that took place that same weekend, the violence of drafting children to participate in the murder of other children, the violence against immigrant workers that is widespread and tolerated in Israel and here, and of course, the ongoing horrific violence perpetrated by Israel in Gaza. When I acknowledge and speak out against all those forms of violence, then I am able to mourn more honestly.

  4. And finally, we can use our organizing capacity to build community that is not about Israel or Palestine, but is about our community here and now. Zionism is all about there and someday, about a fantasy of a homogeneous Jewish homeland where we'll somehow magically be safe from everything. To which I say, nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen - this idea does not have wings, never got off the ground. Safety is not built with guns and walls. Instead we need to build safety, home, and family here – wherever we are at – and now – because if not now, when? The more that we can create vibrant, supportive and sustainable communities here, the less people will lean on the idea of there to soothe their fears and insecurities.

I plan to start by buying coffee for a young, queer Jew I’ve never hung out with before, and finding out what that person is thinking and feeling about all this.

How about you?

(This article is cross-posted on indybay.)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Painful Irony in Tel Aviv LGBT Teen Center Shooting

In their own words, Stand With Us and other Zionist organizations "play gay card"; "Tel Aviv's burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox."
On Saturday evening, August 1, a shooter (presumably a Jewish Israeli, based on police reports' language, but no confirmation yet) injures 15 and kills 2 (with 3 more in critical condition) in LGBT teen center in Tel Aviv (as reported in Ha'aretz).

The mayor of Tel Aviv says "we will fight for every person's right to live their lives as they see fit."

I wonder what he means by "every person."

The irony makes me furious and scared. Furious at Stand With Us and organizations like it, furious at the shooter, and furious at the Jewish community here in the U.S. for pressuring me to "love Israel," when every bone in my queer body is screaming to run for safety.

(But, oh yeah - youth centers like the one where the shooting took place are exactly where I ran for safety when I needed it. And violence happened there, too. Machine guns are harder to come by in the U.S., but fucked up power dynamics are easy to find. And we did get hurt, in those moldy church-basement youth centers.

I've learned that safe spaces aren't always safe - for Jews, for queers, for anybody. That's because safety isn't a matter of place and walls. Safety has to be made some other way.)

Stand With Us wants you to love Israel. If you love Israel, love it for what's true about it. Not for an ad campaign.

Hey, queer Jews: Do not let them fool you! Israel is no more gay-friendly than any small, non-coastal U.S. city, and is less friendly than most. Don't let Tel Aviv's bar scene trick you into thinking it's some kind of San Francisco. (Not that San Francisco's perfect, either.)

Hey, straight Jews: Talk to your queer Jewish friends. Talk to queers from Israel. Just because Israel can wave a rainbow flag, doesn't make it a friend to the queers. (Remember HRC?)

Hey, queer Jews: Here in the U.S., we are doubly (at least) marginalized. In Israel, Jews are privileged. When Stand With Us says they dig the gays, which gays do you think they mean? When the mayor of Tel Aviv says he'll fight for "every person's right to live their lives as they see fit," do you think "every person" includes Palestinians? Do you really want to ally yourself with people for whom a Palestinian doesn't count as a person?

Hey, queer gentiles: Talk to your queer Jewish friends. Most of us are farther left on Palestine/Israel than you might imagine. Most of us are not fooled by the rainbow flag waving. You can support us best by hearing our concerns about these issues, and making your own thoughtful and informed decisions. To be an ally to the Jewish community, support the Jews you are in community with. This may or may not align with supporting Israel, in general or on any particular issue.

Hey, queer Jews: Check where you're standing! We don't need Tel Aviv to be our queer / Jewish homeland. We have been building homeland and building family wherever we go for generations. Who's your queer / Jewish community, here and now? How will you protect and nurture it? How will it protect and nurture you? How will you make your community what you need it to be?

Hey, everybody: It's not so complicated. Well, okay, it is. But you're smart! Don't let "it's complicated" become an excuse for not having an opinion. Gather information. Share news sources. Exchange perspectives. Listen. Speak. Don't be afraid to say something you might later think is wrong. Don't believe everything you're told. Question. Argue. It's the Jewish thing to do! It's the queer thing to do! And if you're not Jewish or queer ... you know, this is something we've got right. Give it a try. Don't let someone do your thinking for you. Don't let someone else define "home" for you. You gotta do it yourself. We gotta do it together.

(This article is cross-posted on indybay.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Addendum re RACHEL

On a more personal note ...

I am realizing, some 8 hours after the screening ended, that I really resent having to sustain my awareness of the local and global politics of showing the film, not to mention the local politics and possible consequences of my showing up at the film, rather than being present with the political situation the film describes and its personal ramifications for me and people I love.

I mean, this film is traumatic. We see multiple still shots of Rachel Corrie as she lay dying and dead. We see soldiers, most of them younger than I am, admitting that they believe their actions in Gaza were wrong, and we see one saying that he can't say he won't do the same thing again, the next time he's called for Reserve duty. I was on the verge of tears for some six hours after the film ended (which is not a good state to be in when driving across the Bay Bridge) (but it's okay, I made it safely).

I wish I could have sat with those feelings, discussed those issues, learned from those aspects of the film I agree with and those aspects I disagree with. I wish I could have cried with my friends about it, and wrestled together with the implications for our own behavior as anti-occupation Jews with all our various privileges, citizenships, and complicated positionalities. I wish I could have done what you're supposed to do with documentaries!

Instead I was constantly aware that the audience's reaction might affect JFF's decision about going through with next week's screening, that this controversy might once again tear my synagogue community apart (or tear me apart from it), and that my presence at this screening might get back to people I work with, and have who knows what consequences in my workplace.

I feel angry that those who sought to silence this film succeeded, not in getting the screening canceled, but, at least partly, in ruining it for me.

This makes me think about sustainability and self-care. About how to build healthy communities in the midst of a profoundly unhealthy society. About building in some debriefing, mutual support, and dancing whenever we lay plans to attend and/or protest a politically fraught event.

At the very least, we should have brought some chocolate.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Support SF JFF Screening of RACHEL

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's showing of Rachel has been met with protest from (what I perceive to be) a small but wealthy segment of the Jewish community that is so Zionist that it considers it inappropriate for a Jewish film festival to screen any film that is not explicitly and completely pro-Israeli-government.

Muzzle Watch (a project of Jewish Voice for Peace) has an excellent piece on it here.

Rachel is a documentary exploring the case of Rachel Corrie, a young activist from the U.S. who traveled to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to act as a "witness" and human shield. ISM members hoped by their presence to deter IDF (Israeli military) soldiers from harming the Palestinians with whom the ISM members lived. In one of their direct actions, attempting to block soldiers from demolishing a Palestinian home, Corrie was killed when an IDF soldier ran her over with a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer.

As the SF JFF's statement about the film notes, Rachel offers a fastidiously balanced point of view. IDF spokespeople are given equal airtime with ISM leaders. Even the soldiers involved in the incident (including the one who actually drove the bulldozer) have their say, and the filmmaker treats their testimony with complete neutrality and respect. The film focuses solely on the circumstances surrounding Rachel Corrie's death, and does not even mention the broader context of ongoing occupation that drew Corrie there as a solidarity worker in the first place. (Neither does it play the other side of the "context" card, by citing suicide bombings or other intifada tactics as an excuse for killing civilians, as is so common in pro-Israeli-government messaging.)

Right now SF JFF needs to hear from people who support the festival's decision to show this film. It may be especially useful from San Francisco Jews, but also from anyone who feels drawn to write.

Writing in support of SF JFF is not uncomplicated. As the Festival director proudly announced today during the SF screening (there's another next week in Berkeley), the JFF is showing 37 other films from or connected to Israel. Many of them are explicitly pro-government. It goes without saying that I do not support everything the JFF does. In fact, in line with the current call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, including selective cultural boycott, I would not feel right attending any Israeli film that is funded in part of in whole by the Israeli government, or that doesn't seek to criticize the occupation and/or benefit Palestinians.

Nevertheless, I think that communicating my support for JFF's decision to show this film is strategic in two ways: 1) to interrupt the assumption and assertion that all Jewish institutions are or should be Zionist, and 2) to assuage the fear within Jewish institutions that any Jewish institution that violates this taboo will lose community support and funding.

This is a moment when some Jewish institutions in the U.S. are beginning to acknowledge that a significant slice of the Jewish community does not support Israeli government policies or actions. These acknowledgments are baby steps, but crucial ones, toward opening up a real dialogue within the Jewish community that could lead (maybe is already leading) to reduced U.S. Jewish donations to Israel, increased international pressure on Israel to respect Palestinian rights, and increased international commitment to create the conditions necessary for Palestinian self-determination. Our support for SF JFF's decision can help SF JFF not be scared by donor's threats, and perhaps begin to recognize even more of the spectrum of perspectives on Israel and Palestine that exist in increasingly public ways in U.S. Jewish communities.

If you would like to show your support for SF JFF's decision to screen Rachel, please visit the SF JFF website for information on next week's Berkeley showing, and also visit the site of Jewish Voice for Peace (one of the co-sponsors of this film at SF JFF, along with American Friends Service Committee) to learn more about the situation and how you can direct your letters of support. You can also check out this Facebook group, whose purpose is not very defined as yet, but has something to do with making space for queer anti-occupation voices in the LGBTQI Jewish community in the SF Bay Area.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Queer Jews Will Not Be Silenced"

From the group on Facebook titled "Queer Jews Will Not Be Silenced":

We, Queer members of the Bay Area Jewish Community and our allies, are deeply saddened by events surrounding the “Jews March for Pride” contingent in this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade.

We wanted to march with Jews March for Pride because we are proud to be Queer Jews and allies. We felt excited and privileged to have a place in the San Francisco Pride Parade to celebrate our whole selves as Jews and Queers.

However, our sense of pride in the contingent was shattered when we learned that not only would the Israeli Consulate be marching with Israeli flags, but also that “inclusion monitors” would censor anything that deviated from the narrow message of “Jews support LGBT equality.” We see this as a contradiction. Support for the Israeli government is a political position that is not synonymous with support for LGBT equality, and is not synonymous with Judaism. Because these strong Israeli symbols would be dominating the contingent, we felt we could not in good conscious march without publically repudiating those messages. And although the planners reached out to include us, we felt excluded when any disagreement we voiced was declared “off message” and inappropriate.

This illusion of unity, at the price of silencing some members, is a deliberate trend that is plaguing the Jewish Community. Many Jewish organizations portray a unified front of support for Israel, and allow this single message to come at the expense of the diverse needs of our Jewish Community. In fact, we have a range of views on Israel/Palestine and our commitment to Jewish and Queer communities lies far beyond this single issue. We reject the dichotomy that 'Pro-Palestine' is synonymous with 'Anti-Israel,' and encourage space for deeper conversations about the complexities of these issues. Additionally, we refuse to let discussions about Israel detract from the many other struggles for justice our communities are engaged in.

Prior to the Parade day, we were not sure that we would be allowed to march at all. We arrived holding signs such as “No Pride in Occupation,” and “Feygele for Free Palestine,” and to our surprise, we did not get kicked out. We were met with a positive reception from many participants and observers of the parade, and a few hostile reactions. But the real consequences of our action have occurred in the days and weeks following the parade. Many of us have faced social sanctions in our personal and professional lives. Some of us who work in Jewish organizations have been harshly shamed in our workplaces and our political views have become a topic of discussion amongst our peers and supervisors. We feel vulnerable in the very community that had supposedly organized to support us as Queer Jews.

Rather than retreating to safer, less public expressions of our convictions, we are asking you to join us in resisting the silencing in our communities. Let's seize this opportunity for discussions, programming and policy change, and push to create spaces where our voices are allowed and welcomed.

Join our group on Facebook to show support, stay updated and get involved.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Po-pos on our side??

As promised, some writing about being uncertain:

Yesterday the California Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in the state. It also affirmed the validity of all the marriages performed during the months leading up to the proposition's passage. So, those who are married already, are married. Those who aren't, can't. At least not here. At least not if they call it marriage.

As a friend said last night, very bravely, in front of a whole congregation of grieving gay people, "I am over marriage. I am so over marriage." Word. Me, too. So I'm not going to get into the political analysis. Instead I want to think about a perversely heartening and disturbing story I heard about the police.

In SF, there was lots of planned civil disobedience in front of City Hall. A few hundred folks got arrested, about 40 of them clergy, including the Rabbi and Rabbinical Intern of our local Big Gay Synagogue.

The way the arrests went down was ... really peculiar. From what I understand, a bunch of gay cops volunteered to be on crowd control duty at the action. They were the friendliest, helpfulest crowd control cops ever. They circulated in the crowd and let people know what was going on. They weren't pushy. By all accounts they were even cute.

When it came time to start arresting the clergy folks, these gay cops actually refused to do it, prompting more (presumably straight?) cops to get called in, who went ahead and arrested folks, while gay cops stood by making sure nobody got hurt. And actually, as far as I've heard, no one got hurt. Gay cops videoed the pat downs, which protesters interpreted as holding other (straight?) cops accountable for their treatment of those arrested.

Overall, the safest "arrested at a protest" story I've ever heard.

And yet I am left reeling.

I live in a place where cops are on the side of protestors.
Yeah, but, I'm still afraid of cops.
A trans person decided to get arrested for a cause he believes in, and knew that he would likely be safe doing so.
As safe as anyone is, when their body is searched and imprisoned.
A trans person had the freedom to decide to get arrested for a cause he believes in, and he was totally safe!
I know trans people who've been arrested here, and have not been safe.
Cops violated orders in order to show their support for queers putting their bodies on the line against state controlled-definitions of our relationships.
The cops were still there to control queer bodies.
I live in a place where cops are on the same side as protestors.
I don't want to be on the same side as cops.
My friends were in a protest yesterday, and the cops were on their side.
My friends were in a protest last month, and the cops beat up some of their comrades.
Having a few cops on our side can't be a bad thing.
I never want to be on the same side as cops.
Maybe they're changing the system from the inside?
The system is rotten, through and through.
Some cops helped to protect my friends' bodies from state violence.
Cops are state violence.

As usual, even more than usual, I want your thoughts/feedback/ideas.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Panelspiel on Environmental Illness

An old panelspiel, from Dec. 2007, focusing on chemical sensitivities and ableism (the oppression of people with disabilities). I would not write it the same way now, but in the interest of continuing to post often, and because it's still true and still something I struggle to navigate, I will swallow my pride and share it anyway.

My name is Davey & I’ve been asked to speak about chemical sensitivities. I feel a little bit awkward about that, because I’ve been on panels about a lot of different issues, but never this one. So this is new to me. I also feel awkward about it because I have relatively mild chemical sensitivities, compared to some other people I know, and to the cases that get publicity (when any do). On the other hand, if my chemical sensitivity were very much more severe than it is, I wouldn’t be able to be in this room with you safely.

First I’m going to explain a little bit about what chemical sensitivity means, and what my experience has been. Then I’ll talk a little bit about how I understand chemical sensitivity in terms of ablism, and about some intersections with other forms of oppression.

I think a lot of people become confused about chemical sensitivity because of the word “sensitive”. People hear sensitive and think, “oh, that person’s just picky,” or whiny, or something like that. This misperception is exacerbated by the fact that most people with chemical sensitivities are women, so sexist stereotypes play into the situation, and by the fact that the medical establishment is not in agreement as to whether or not it constitutes a legitimate physical problem.

Chemical sensitivity has also been called MCS, Sick Building Syndrome, environmental illness, and a lot of other names. Basically it means that chemicals in the environment cause a physiological reaction similar to an allergy, but not a histamine reaction like most allergies, even when those chemicals are found at low levels that are considered safe or that don’t bother most people. People report a very wide range of symptoms.

For me, the chemicals that provoke an obvious reaction are usually perfumes and other scented body products. I get a variety of symptoms in response to those chemicals – sometimes I get short of breath, or I get a wheezing cough kind of like asthma, or I get what feels like a sinus headache or sometimes a migraine. If I leave the room immediately and get fresh air, the symptoms usually go away. If I hang around for longer I often get dizzy and sometimes nauseated. Sometimes symptoms come on suddenly and other times it’s more subtle.

In terms of walking around in everyday life, this means I have a really hard time being in public places. Most body products are scented, so really anywhere that I’m around other people I’m liable to have a reaction. There’s not really a way to avoid all of the substances that make me ill, so I have to prioritize which outings are worth it.

I haven’t stopped going out, but I often have to leave gatherings early. A few times I’ve gotten so ill that I felt it wasn’t safe for me to drive home, and luckily I was out with a friend who could drive my car.

If you have more questions about my personal experience I’m glad to answer them, but for now I’m going to move on to talk about an ablism analysis and some intersections.

I think that MCS is a really clear example of disabilities as socially constructed, for several reasons. First of all, this condition is not natural - it does not come from a biological cause. It’s caused by chemicals that are produced and proliferated by humans. I have never ever had a reaction while taking a walk in the woods, or camping, and I almost never have one when hanging out in my home by myself [when I lived by myself], because I don’t bring chemicals into my home that will trigger a reaction.

Second, the public discourse about MCS individualizes it. When it’s acknowledged at all, it’s treated as an individual medical problem and not as a social problem. People affected by MCS are expected to deal with it by taking medication for specific symptoms, and by avoiding chemicals that trigger them. There’s relatively little action in the other direction, such as putting fewer toxins into the environment, or making less toxic body products.

You can see this tendency in the language that’s used to describe MCS. For example, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (a division of the NIH) defines MCS as a "chronic, recurring disease caused by a person's inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals" (wiki). Note the “caused by a person’s inability to tolerate …” rather than, say, “caused by chemicals that are toxic to some people more severely than others.” For the most part there’s no controversy that these chemicals are toxic, it’s just that they’re supposedly safe at low levels. It seems really logical to me that a chemical that’s toxic at high levels probably isn’t good for you at low levels, so I don’t understand the resistance to blaming the chemicals, rather than the individuals affected by them.

Actually, I think I do understand a little bit. Corporations make a lot of money by taking shortcuts with toxic chemicals. It is more profitable in the short term for corporations to continue making poisonous products, so that’s what they do. And they use ableism to blame people like me when those products prove toxic to us.

On an individual level, when I tell people that I have chemical sensitivities, they almost always ask me if I take medication. The answer is, I do sometimes take medication to treat specific symptoms, but those are chemicals too, so that doesn’t seem like such a clever idea in the long term. And really, why should I have to be popping Excedrins all day or ab/using albuterol, when you could solve the whole issue by switching to a less toxic skin cream?

Finally, before I go on to talk about intersections, I should mention that legally, MCS is not uniformly recognized as a disabling condition. Some people have sensitivities so severe that they can’t be in public spaces at all, and yet they’re routinely denied Medicare and other benefits because MCS is not seen as a legitimate illness. I feel really angry and frustrated about this. One of the main arguments has been that MCS is psychosomatic, that it originates with psychological rather than physiological causes. I have four answers to that:

  • First, as I’ve said, there’s no argument that these chemicals are toxic. Why is it so hard to believe they might be more toxic to some people than to others?
  • Second, if you’ve studied even a tiny bit of neuroscience or neuropsychology, you know that the line between psychological and physical is really fuzzy. Lots of psychological conditions are known to have physiological correlates and/or causes, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and the list goes on.
  • Third, lots of psychological illnesses are considered to be “real” disabilities. People can get Medicaid coverage for a wide range of mental illnesses. Even if MCS is caused in part or in whole by psychological factors, that shouldn’t make it any less legitimate.
  • Fourth, about 80% of people with MCS are female. There’s a long history of illnesses specific to females going undiagnosed, or being pooh-poohed as “all in your head.” As informed people we should be skeptical when these same arguments resurface.

With that as a transition, I’ll give a few more examples of how I see ablism intersecting with other forms of oppression around chemical sensitivities, and then pass it on to the next panelist.

On an institutional level, the intersections that come to mind are environmental racism and environmental classism. Antiracist activists have noticed that toxic industries tend to be located in communities where People of Color and poor people live, and that’s the most basic example of environmental racism or environmental classism. One hypothesis about the etiology of MCS is that a severe or chronic chemical exposure wears down a body’s resistance, making it more sensitive to chemicals that previously did not cause any symptoms. So if poor people and People of Color are more likely to be exposed to toxins in childhood, by having toxic industries sited in their neighborhoods, then they’re more likely to develop chemical sensitivities.

In addition, poor people of all races and People of Color are more likely to work in jobs where they’re exposed to chemicals.

For myself, all that has made me wonder what childhood exposure might have contributed to my current experiences. One thing I think of is that I grew up in a rural area with relatively high levels of agricultural chemicals. Once when I was young a bunch of kids got pretty seriously sick after swimming in a public swimming hole that was contaminated with pesticide runoff. In addition, we were near the Hudson River. You’ve probably heard of the long history of PCB contamination, originating in chemicals dumped from a GE plant for several decades. There’s still an ongoing argument about how to clean it up and who will pay for it. As environmentalists have studied the ecology of the Hudson River, they issue recommendations about which species of fish are safe to eat and which aren’t. During my childhood, the reccomendations seemed to change every couple of years. This year you are allowed to eat the shad, this year you aren’t, and who knows what we were all exposed to?

And, although I grew up in upstate NY, I was born [and now live again] in Oakland, CA. According to the 2000 census, Oakland the most ethnically diverse city in the US (tied with Long Beach) (wiki). It also has amongst the highest rates of asthma and other environmental illnesses, largely due to pollution from the Port of Oakland, which is one of the busiest shipping ports on the West Coast.

Finally, on an individual level, ablism intersects for me with Transgender Oppression. I am transgender. In social settings, transphobia and ignorance about trans issues can cause a huge disruption. I put a lot of energy into just trying to make small talk, without having my gender become an issue for people. In settings where I come out as trans, I feel like I’m already asking a lot of people. So often, I’m making a decision about whether I’m going to ask for “accommodation” in terms of people learning enough about trans issues to be generally respectful, or for the “accommodation” of avoiding chemical scents. I’m afraid if I do both that people will lose patience with me, that all the confusion will be too disruptive, and I just won’t be able to participate in that space. In this example the 2 forms of oppression don’t have a whole lot to do with one another, but on an individual level the way that they can play out is very similar, and when they both play out at once it can be overwhelming.

That’s all I have time for. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll pass it off to one of the other panelists now. I look forward to hearing your questions.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cultural Appropriation, Transgender Names, and Looking in the Mirror

DRAFT 2 UPDATED 5-5-2009

I’m a little snarky sometimes. No, really! In real life, too. This is not an affectation created especially for my net presence.

One of my favorite things to be snarky about is how trans people choose our names. In particular, it really bugs me when trans guys (I’ve never noticed trans women doing this) adopt Hebrew names even though they’re not Jewish.

Names like Aaron, Asher, Isaiah, Isaac, Jacob, Jesse, Jonah and Jordan seem popular among non-Jewish FtMs. Some of these are frequent choices because they sound gender-neutral: Aaron (where it sounds like Erin), Jesse (Jessie), and Jordan are examples.

I can understand why some FtMs would gravitate toward neutral-sounding names, sometimes to reflect our own genderqueerness and other times simply to reduce the chance of a stranger saying, “But that’s a boy’s name!” On the other hand, in Hebrew, Jordan is the only name of these three that actually is used for both boys and girls. Aaron and Jesse are quite clearly gendered; it’s only the translation and mis/pronunciation that make them gender-ambiguous.
Gender aside, most of these names would not be cause for comment if one or two guys chose them. But the sheer number of Isaacs (for example), is a little odd. In addition, there are a few Hebrew names that are weird to encounter even once. Micah. Ezra. Ezekiel. I mean, really. You just don’t get a lot of white gentiles named Micah, unless they’re FtM.

And I don't totally buy the argument that "these are Christian names, too." They are of course - some of them, anyway. But still, they're out of proportion. There are lots of Christian names that FtMs do not typically name themselves. There is no remarkable surplus of Mathew, Mark, and John like there is of Aaron, Isaac and Jonah.*

So, what gives?
I’m not just saying this to be snarky. I mean, I am snarky. I admitted it right off, didn’t I? But there’s something more serious going on here, too. When I meet a non-Jewish guy who’s named himself a clearly Jewish name, I feel a little bit jealous. A little possessive.
In my family, no one in my generation, or my parents’, or my grandparents’, have recognizably Jewish names. Even my great-grandparents, most of whom spoke Yiddish primarily and English only haltingly if at all, had anglicized names (see also).
They changed their names, and gave their children English names, in order to assimilate, partly for class mobility, partly just for survival. It worked for some of them, in some ways. It did not prevent them from experiencing antisemitism. Probably it mitigated the severity. Probably it continues to do that for me.
In my generation, I know lots of young adult Jews who have obviously Jewish names. For some, these are the names on their birth certificates. Others are choosing to go by the Hebrew names their parents gave them for use during religious rituals. I even know a few people who go by Yiddish or Arabic names. Almost all of these folks who reclaim Jewish names catch flack from their non-Jewish peers. At the very least they are considered weird.
In short, some Jews in the U.S. go through a lot to have Jewish names. I resent the non-Jewish FtMs who choose, as adults, to take on names that, if they were Jews, would mark them as outsiders, but since they are not, only mark them as trendy/interesting/exotic. It’s cultural appropriation. It’s oppressive. It kinda sucks.
I know all about the trendy/interesting/exotic thing, because I have gone by non-English names most of my life. The name I grew up with was Gita, a Hindi name meaning song.** When I introduce myself that way to white folks, after the inevitable back-and-forth about pronunciation, the almost universal response is, “What an interesting name!” I get that response not because the name is interesting per se, but because it’s an interesting name for a white girl. As I wrote here not long ago, when people don’t know that I’m white (because I’m not present / they can’t see me), having a Hindi name causes them to see me as suspicious, rather than interesting.
I stopped going by Gita because of gender, not because of airport security. But I started going by Davey for way more complicated reasons.
My mother tells a story that after I was born, she wanted to name me Devi (which sounds a lot like Davey if you don’t speak any Hindi). The story goes that other people – my father? her friends? – wouldn’t let her name me that because it sounded too much like a boy’s name. This is ironic because Devi actually means “goddess.” Like with Aaron and Jesse, it is the mispronunciation that makes it sound ambiguously- or unexpectedly-gendered.
In college, for some reason I can’t remember but probably had to do with feminist neopaganism, I started using Devi as part of an internet handle. The hot trans*** guy across the hall, once I corrected his pronunciation (as best I could, given that I don't speak Hindi either), thought it was totally interesting, not to mention convenient, that I already had a name that could sound like a boy’s name. For a little while, I went by Devi rather than Gita.
At the same time, I was exploring my gender and presenting in more and more masculine ways. Sometimes when I really looked or acted “like a guy,” my friends would jokingly ask if I was sure I didn’t mean Davey rather than Devi. So, for a while, I used both Devi and Davey. They weren't interchangable. I switched according to how my gender was feeling at the moment. I don't know how other people decided which to call me, but either way I was never bothered by it. I enjoyed the contradiction of honoring the Goddess while using what everyone around me heard as a guy’s name. To highlight what ought to be obvious, I will point out that this could only have happened in a predominantly white environment where very few people had more than passing familiarity with Indian cultures.
In grad school, after an intermission in which I was too busy scraping rent from change in couch cushions to think much about these things, a bunch of factors came together to shift me away from using Devi at all. One of these factors was a kind of gender policing in both trans- and non-trans spaces. People got really anxious about me having two names, or as they usually put it, two spellings of a name. They pressured me, more or less overtly, to “pick one already.”
Another factor was my learning about racism. For the first time, I was working and studying with people who recognized my name as Indian, and not because they were hippies but because they or their families were actually from India. I got the sense some of them were uncomfortable with my name, and the more I learned about the dynamics of cultural appropriation, the more I was uncomfortable with it, too. Plus, of course, they knew it was very definitely not a guy’s name. And not that this makes it okay, but that may have contributed to them never calling me the right pronouns (I was going primarily by male pronouns by this time).
I had tried to be consistent about always putting Devi on assignments I handed in, since that was the name I had applied to grad school under, and I had already learned that having multiple names confused people. But I was using both names in my personal life, and using Davey more and more of the time. One time I accidentally put Davey on a term paper and handed it in. My professor approached me afterward and said, “You know, Davey, when you spell your name this way, it’s a lot easier to call you ‘he’.”
I thought, ouch. There are so many things wrong about that statement. And at the same time, thanks. After all, most people weren’t being so helpful as to tell me what was getting in the way of their respecting my gender. I figured, if that’s what I have to do to be respected as a guy, then, what the heck. I started using Davey in school, as well as in my community. I got comfortable with it. And then I started publishing. And it sort of stuck.
But, I’m thinking about how much it annoys me when non-Jews adopt Jewish names, and mispronounce them, and make them mean something different. Even though Davey is not the same word as Devi, my name still came from that same process of appropriation. I don’t want to continue perpetuating that.
As I shifted to using Davey more or less all of the time, it became more and more a convenience, – a way to represent myself to the world that gave most people the impression I wanted to give them – and less and less connected with my mother’s intention to name me for the goddess, my own desire for connection with the feminine divine, or anything even slightly related to Hinduism or Indian cultures. I'm glad I don't go by Devi anymore, because I recognize the cultural appropriation that gave me access to that name. At the same time, I want my name to be more than a convenience. I want it to mean something more than a strong hint to use male pronouns. After all, if all I wanted was male pronouns, I could name myself Bob. And no offense to the Bobs out there, but ... No.
I never changed the name on my legal documents. At first, I had sensible reasons. Lately, I just haven’t gotten around to it. It's only been in the past few weeks has I noticed part of my reason for not changing it is that I don't know what to change it to.
So, for now, call me Davey. For later, I’m open to suggestions.

* Although there do seem to be a whole lot of Lukes. I have no hypothesis.
** Yeah, I know it's also a Yiddish name (more often as its diminutive Gitl), but let's be real here - Hindi is spoken by between 500 and 680 million people (wiki), and Yiddish by about 3 million (wiki). Even before WWII it was only around 11-13 million (wiki also). And anyway, my name was never Gitl. Just saying.
*** Edited long after the fact to read "trans guy" rather than "tranny guy," because of the shifting discourse around the word "tranny" and what it means for FtMs to re-appropriate it. For one perspective on how it can sometimes be okay for FtMs to call themselves tranny, see Kate Bornstein's take on it.