In Our Gender Diverse Era, Parents Should Practice Humility With Their Kids
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lisa Selin Davis writes that her daughter, who wears boys' clothes and has short hair, is definitely not transgender. Davis applauds her daughter’s rejection of traditional feminine style, but wishes that other people would stop thinking the child might be transgender, a curiosity they indicate with regular questions about her pronouns and gender identity.
On its face, this is a reasonable concern. The movement toward accepting and understanding transgender children shouldn't narrow the boundaries of how cisgender boys and girls express themselves. Wearing boys' clothes doesn't turn a girl into a boy, or vice versa, and all children should have room to experiment with clothes and toys and styles freely rather than feel forced into the limited menu of gender-conforming options only. There's just one problem: Davis' kid deserves room to explore and experiment out of the public eye, without mom declaring her gender must be female and then broadcasting it, along with the complicated presentation that leads people to mistake her for male or transgender, to millions of readers.
Let me be clear that I have no way of knowing what this child's gender identity is, or what it eventually will be. After reading an earlier parenting essay by Davis, however, I do have questions. In the piece for Parenting, Davis wrote: "As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like ‘Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?’ the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted." I'm curious as to why this anecdote didn't make it into the New York Times piece, and why Davis presents her kid's gender as definitely and persistently female if these sorts of complicated and complicating questions were present within the last few years of this kid's history.
Perhaps the people who keep asking whether this child identifies as a boy are doing so at least partly based on the mixed signals the kid is sending out, rather than prejudice borne of too much trans acceptance? Perhaps leaving the question open, rather than writing about it in a way that attempts to foreclose uncertainty might be advisable? In five years, this kid could be an extremely girly girl who is embarrassed to have once been a gender nonconforming tomboy, or a consistent tomboy, or a genderqueer-identified youth, or a trans guy. I don't know which it will be, but I don't have confidence that Davis does either.
When I was a child, my mother never wrote an op-ed about my gender for a newspaper. She did, however, express very strong opinions about my gender, and these didn't quite match how I felt inside. My mother told me, repeatedly, that I had always loved dolls and never liked toy trucks. While it's absolutely true that I had a favorite doll (Janet, named after my mother, who I took with me everywhere), I can also remember looking longingly and with jealousy at Hot Wheels ramps and big multi-packs of Hot Wheels cars in the toy store, wishing that we had some of those at our house. I never asked my mom for them directly, though, because I thought my mom knew something about me that I didn't. Much the same thing happened with jewelry when I was a little older. I agreed that I "liked" necklaces and earrings without ever once feeling happy or attractive when I was wearing them. My mother's myth of my girlness was stronger than I was when I was young, and so I believed in it even when it failed to match up with my true experience. I eventually transitioned to male in my late thirties, and while it's not my mom's fault that it took me so long, I can't help wishing there'd been more room for my gender to be complicated earlier.
What I would ask from parents who don't know what to make of the changing gender landscape is pretty simple: Don’t assume that your child who deviates from some of the norms of their assigned gender is transgender, but also don’t take their adherence to some of those norms as proof positive that they are cisgender, either. Give your children room to experiment and play without it meaning anything in particular, and without expecting certain behaviors to mean the same thing for every kid. Listen to your children and take them seriously, while understanding that they may change their minds. Let them know that it's okay to explore, to change. Don't write op-eds taking a position about what their gender identity definitively is. You might be wrong. They might be wrong, for a time. The marvelous thing about youth is its capacity for creativity, growth, and flux.
Of course, children also need limits, boundaries, and guidelines. I don't mean to suggest a radically child-centric approach that eschews sensible rules. A kid who is forced to wear clothes they don't like once in a while will be fine, even if they ultimately turn out to be transgender. Every loving parent gets things wrong sometimes. What I'm suggesting is a little more humility, and more acceptance that as children grow, they tend to do so in directions their parents could never foresee.
How Can You Help Queer Chechens Under Attack? Start by Tagging the President on Instagram.
When faced with the kind of brutality currently being shown to gay and bi men in Chechnya, the natural impulse is to look for something—anything—that we can do to stand against it. But for a situation so remote and opaque, it’s hard to know where to begin. OutRight Action International has one easy suggestion: Tag Chechnya’s strong-man president on Instagram.
Yes, the Chechen leader overseeing a country where kidnappings, detentions, tortures, and killings of innocent queer men have become startlingly frequent in recent months has an active Instagram! Ramzan Kadyrov (@kadyrov_95) uses the social media platform to share pictures of uniformed schoolboys, ribbon cuttings, and pictures of himself smiling, giving thumbs up to the camera, and speaking into microphones. He does not, however, share pictures from the facilities where suspected queer men are reportedly being held and tortured with electrodes until they implicate others, in a campaign of terror that shows no signs of abating.
How the Catholic Priesthood Became an Unlikely Haven for Many Gay Men
Adapted from The Sex Effect: Baring Our Complicated Relationship With Sex,out now from Sourcebooks.
Back in March, Pope Francis sparked a wave of headlines when he hinted at the possibility of ordaining married men as priests. Since there’s no evidence that church practice will actually change, reactions to Francis’ comments were premature. But the speculators ignored one interesting point: Opening the priesthood to married men would probably reduce the high percentage of priests who are gay.
While doing research for my book The Sex Effect, I came across many scholars who suggested that preventing priests from marrying altered the makeup of the priesthood over time, unintentionally providing a shelter for some devout gay men to hide their sexual orientation. By continuing to disqualify women and married men, the priesthood attracts men who desire to forgo sex for the rest of their lives in an attempt to get closer to God. Because the church denounces allgay sex, some devout gay men pursue the celibate priesthood as a self-incentive to avoid sex with men, which can help them circumvent perceived damnation.
Meet Pauli Murray, a Gender-Variant Pioneer for Equal Protection Under the Law
Being “in between” was both a curse and blessing for Pauli Murray, born Anna Pauline Murray, in 1910. Growing up in a segregated North Carolina, Murray displayed at an early age an artistic mind and a preference for the boys’ section of the clothing store. Variously tormented and buoyed in her life by her status as a woman, being of mixed race, and as a self-professed “boy-girl” who believed in her bones that she was really a man, Murray endured to become a journalist, an activist, a professor, a priest, and a lawyer who made monumental contributions to civil rights and women’s rights.
So why do we know so little about Murray, who, for example, laid out the seminal legal argument that Ruth Bader Ginsburg pursued to extend the Equal Protection Clause beyond the protection of white men? In 1971, Ginsburg, building on an influential law article Murray co-wrote, successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that the Fourteenth Amendment should apply to protecting both women and other minority groups from discrimination.
Barnard historian Rosalind Rosenberg, author of an exhaustive and transfixing new biography, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, sheds light on the dearth of information. The main reason: The executor of Murray’s estate, who holds the rights to 135 boxes of Murray’s most intimate reflections in the form of diaries, as well as correspondence, legal briefs, and other archival material, was highly protective of how Murray would be portrayed following her death in 1985. “I think that’s why it’s taken so long for anyone to try to delve a little bit more deeply into her life,” she told me.
In My Cat Yugoslavia, a Talking Feline Is Only One Kind of Queer
A man walks into a gay bar and there he meets a talking cat.
“I noticed the cat across the dance floor,” Bekim, the lonesome, dislocated narrator of Pajtim Statovci’s compelling and altogether beautiful debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia, tells us. “I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat” with gleaming fur and muscular back legs. “Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking towards me.”
Bekim is the youngest son of a broken family who, with his parents, came as a refugee from Kosovo to Finland in the early 1990s. He was a disturbed child who grappled with darkness and nightmares. His father, Bajram, was violent and once hired a Turkish imam to exorcise evil spirits from Bekim’s body. My Cat Yugoslavia opens with Bekim as a twentysomething college student cruising for a hookup online.
Texas May Hire Random Contractors to Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses Over the Phone
Last Wednesday, the Texas Senate approved a bill that would allow religious clerks to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The measure now goes to the Republican-dominated House, where it stands a good chance of passing. For the most part, the Texas bill mirrors other Republican proposals designed to let religious clerks refuse to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages. But it has one fascinating addition: The measure allows county courts to hire random people to perform same-sex marriages so that anti-gay clerks don’t have to.
Here’s how the scheme would work. In Texas, it’s pretty easy to get married: A county clerk simply certifies the couple’s application for a marriage license, administers a brief oath, then issues the license. Under the new bill, SB 522, most couples would undergo the same process. But if a clerk has “a sincerely held religious belief”—namely, anti-gay animus—that prevents him from issuing a license, the unlucky couple gets shunted off to a different track. First, the clerk can ask a deputy clerk to do his job for him. If no deputy clerk is ready and willing, the clerk can try to grab a judge or magistrate to perform his duties. If there’s no judge or magistrate on hand, the job falls to a “certifying official”—whose sole assignment is to issue licenses to couples who are rejected by clerks.
And who, exactly, is this “certifying official” tasked with marrying rejected same-sex couples? Pretty much anybody! SB 522 orders commissioners courts, which govern Texas counties, to designate a county employee to serve as the “certifying official” when nobody else is willing to issue a license. If no county employee volunteers, the commissioners court can contract with somebody else to do it instead. SB 522 doesn’t lay out any requirements for this position; it only notes that the contractor need not live in the county that hires him, and that he is “not authorized to perform” any duty except issuing marriage licenses. If the “certifying official” isn’t nearby, he can perform this lone duty “by telephone or electronic means.”
Besieged Queer Chechens Are Getting No Help From the U.S.
When it comes to the differences between the Trump administration America has and the Clinton administration we might have had, there’s no more chilling example than the government’s response to the unfolding crisis facing gay and bi men in Chechnya.
The country has always been extremely hostile to queer people, but at some point in recent weeks, authorities began a large-scale rounding-up of queer men, bringing them to illegal prisons where survivors described being subjected to brutal beatings, electrocutions, and killings. In accounts corroborated by humanitarian organizations, victims reported that security forces tortured them to extract the names of other queer men. Many of those released now face the possibility of “honor killings,” a practice whereby family members are expected to murder their queer or otherwise “dishonorable” relatives.
Washington State Judges Cannot Discriminate Against Gay or Bi Parents in Custody Decisions
The Washington State Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling April 6 prohibiting judges from considering sexual orientation in custody proceedings. Its decision clarifies a troubling ambiguity in state law that had previously allowed judges to favor heterosexual parents over gay parents. The court emphatically closed this loophole, barring judges from using pretext to inject anti-gay animus into custody disputes.
In re Marriage of Black, the case in question, involved a divorced opposite-sex couple, Rachelle and Charles Black. The Blacks have three children, whom they raised as conservative Christians. In 2011, Rachelle came out as gay, moved into a basement room, and began dating a woman. She filed for divorce in 2013. A judge appointed a guardian ad litem, Kelly Theriot Leblanc, to observe the Blacks’ children and recommend custody determinations.
Leblanc told the judge that Rachelle’s “lifestyle choice”—i.e., her sexual orientation—could harm the children due to its “controversy.” She also asserted that Rachelle was “on a campaign to re-indoctrinate the children” and that her orientation would cause her children to be bullied. Leblanc concluded that Rachelle’s relationship with a woman would injure the children due to their strict religious upbringing. She recommended that Charles receive primary custody, and that Rachelle be forbidden from:
... [H]aving further conversations with the children regarding religion, homosexuality, or other alternative lifestyle concepts and further, that she be prohibited from exposing the children to literature or electronic media; taking them to movies or events; providing them with symbolic clothing or jewelry; or otherwise engaging in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as being related to those topics.
Amazingly, the judge adopted these recommendations, writing that Rachelle’s “homosexuality” would be “very challenging” for the children to “reconcile [with] their religious upbringing.” He therefore granted Charles primary custody as well as sole decision-making authority regarding the children’s religion, education, and day care. He also barred Rachelle from discussing religion or sexuality with her children. An appeals court blocked the judge’s gag order and his reward of sole decision-making authority to Charles. But it upheld the judge’s decision to give Charles primary custody.
This bizarre decision is the result of contradiction in Washington state law. In 1983, the Washington State Supreme Court held that a parent may not lose custody or visitation rights simply because she or he is homosexual. But in 1996, the court created a workaround to this rule in a case involving a gay dad and a straight mom fighting over custody of their children. The family were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses; the mother argued that her gay ex-husband could no longer raise the children in the faith because of his orientation. A judge awarded her primary custody—not because the father was gay, he insisted, but because his homosexuality would disrupt the children’s religious upbringing. The state Supreme Court affirmed his decision, reasoning that the father was not disfavored “solely because of his sexual orientation” but rather because the children’s religion conflicted with his orientation.
This exception, of course, poses a glaring problem: It allows homophobic judges to favor straight parents over gay ones by using religion as a proxy for orientation. And that’s why the Washington State Supreme Court finally did away with it in In re Marriage of Black.
“Even if a parent's sexual orientation is contrary to the children’s religious values,” the court wrote, “a trial court may not consider it in a custody determination unless the evidence shows direct harm to the children. … Courts must remain neutral toward a parent’s sexual orientation.” That requirement still applies in cases where “children are allegedly uncomfortable with homosexuality due to their religious upbringing.” Judges may not cite this discomfort in rendering custody decisions; “such reasoning,” after all, “unfairly punishes a parent in a custody proceeding on the basis of her sexual orientation.”
The court might have added that this reasoning is also unconstitutional. Although it cited Obergefell v. Hodges, the court rooted its decision in state statutes and precedents, mostly leaving the federal Constitution out of it. That makes sense for a state Supreme Court. But it is worth noting that Obergefell, its predecessors, and the 1984 decision Palmore v. Sidoti clearly proscribe anti-gay animus in custody proceedings. In Palmore, the U.S. Supreme Court found that courts may not deny custody to a divorced parent because she entered an interracial relationship. The same logic should apply when a divorced parent enters a same-sex relationship. As I explained in a recent UCLA Women’s Law Journal article, such animus infringes upon the constitutionally protected “equal dignity” of sexual minorities.
Regardless, last week’s decision is a triumph for LGBTQ advocates and, in particular, Legal Voice, the feminist group that representated Rachelle Black. It is also an excellent model for other state courts. We are not far away from the era when judges freely labeled homosexuality an “abominable sin” and permitted custody decisions based exclusively on homophobia. Courts should follow Washington state’s lead in stamping out this animus even when it is dressed in pretext. It’s good for parents, good for children—and as a bonus, mandated by the United States Constitution.
Justice Department Withdraws Litigation over North Carolina’s HB2, Citing Fake Repeal
On Friday, the Department of Justice filed a motion to withdraw from litigation over HB2, North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law. Under President Barack Obama, the DOJ had fought HB2 in court, alleging that it violated multiple federal laws; Attorney General Loretta Lynch dramatically announced her agency’s lawsuit in a groundbreaking speech denouncing transphobia. Under President Donald Trump, however, the agency has taken a very different approach to civil rights. Attorney General Jeff Sessions openly opposes trans equality and has sought to reverse Obama-era protections for LGBTQ people. With this maneuver, Sessions handed North Carolina a considerable victory in its continuing attack on its trans residents.
Is It Fair to Consider Richard Simmons a “Gay Icon?”
"I went to dinner with him once," Dan Taberski recalled, chatting with me about his friend Richard Simmons. "He got up to go to the bathroom, and we were wondering—'what happened to Richard? Where did Richard go?' And we see people jumping up and down outside the window of the restaurant. We realized he's outside the restaurant making people exercise."
Those were the good old days, before Simmons abruptly retreated to his mansion in late 2013 and proceeded to cut off contact with almost everyone he knew, issuing only sporadic public messages since. It was an abrupt change for a man who was once a perpetual motion machine and a magnet for attention. Taberski, a longtime friend, was flummoxed. A producer who worked on The Daily Show and directed the documentary These Cocksucking Tears about gay country singer Patrick Haggerty, Taberski had been talking to Simmons about making a documentary about Slimmons, the Beverly Hills exercise studio notorious for frantic workouts that were part-burlesque, part-therapy.
"It's incredible," said Taberski of the studio. "It's like a class? Cabaret? Body burlesque? He screams and he's loud and hilarious and super foul mouthed." And, Taberski added, "his class is super gay."