Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Public Peeing: A Case for Gender Desegregation

I just wrote a scene about a topic near and dear all our hearts: public bathrooms. Below is an excerpt from my book.

“Yeah, so how come girls and boys have different bathrooms?”
Josh thought for a time. “I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But I read about it in the Twelve’s* books. I think they did it and we inherited it from them. You know we live in buildings they built and use sewer systems they fashioned.”
Garyn shook her head.
“Well, we do. We owe our infrastructure to the Twelves. They were great builders and developers. Not so great at taking care of each other, but you know that…I guess they thought women and men should pee separately.”
“Why?” Garyn persisted. “We don’t eat in separate places.”
“I don’t know, Garyn,” she said finally. “…I do know the Twelves thought a lot about sex. I think they were worried they wouldn’t be able to control themselves if they knew the person right next to them was only half-clothed.”
Lynna snorted. “What about onesex or allsex people? They thought we had more self-control?”
Josh shrugged. “I guess so.” Truthfully, she hadn’t read many books written by Twelves that even mentioned any kind of non-twosex couples. She hadn’t thought much about it before now. Given how much they wrote about sex between them, perhaps the Twelves’ twosex people really couldn’t control themselves.

* We, here in 2013, are the Twelves, in case that’s not apparent.

This is a topic I ponder pretty often. Yeah, welcome to my world. In my defense, this isn’t an idle question; the topic of sex-segregated bathrooms has haunted American history and, in some instances, even impeded gender equality. Ever heard of the Equal Rights Amendment? No worries – few nowadays have. It was a proposed constitutional amendment that simply said women and men shall have the same rights. This wild and crazy amendment (Gender equality? Gasp!) passed Congress in 1972. It required ratification from 38 states but, due to extensive campaigning against it, only garnered 35. It failed, and even though it’s been reintroduced every year since 1982, it has never again passed Congress.

One of the reasons it was so controversial? People were told it would require the elimination of separate bathrooms for women and men. So, yeah, the U.S. has no Equal Rights Amendment in part because people in the 1980s didn’t want to pee together.

Now, 30 years later, bathrooms remain hugely contentious places. Which one should trans* folks, both kids and adults, use? If trans folks use the “wrong” public bathroom, won’t they want to immediately molest children or, at the very least, make kids question which set of genitals belong in which rooms? And what about intersex peeps?

Why, I question all-too-often, is the bathroom such a scary, politicized place? Are we really so scared of our biological functions that the thought of its semi-public semi-nudity sends our fragile psyches spiraling into nail-biting scenarios involving rape, molestation, and public indecency? All because knowing a naked bit is leaking biological fluids only two feet from you? Really?

An example of what has never, ever
happened in a real bathroom.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but how heterocentric can you be? I mean, how often do you think queer sex happens in bathrooms? You think women’s bathrooms are filled with slow-motion pillow fights and lesbian daisy chains on the grimy tile? Shockingly, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual women and men have heroically resisted the urge to spontaneously initiate wanton orgies in the bathrooms. If given the chance, I would like to think straight people in desegregated bathrooms could say the same.  

(Okay, there was the Tearoom Trade book in 1970 and the infamous Larry Craig foot-tapping scandal, but those are examples of closeted gay/bisexual men who sought arenas for their clandestine sexual liaisons. Plus, while none of these men’s wives deserved being lied to and cheated on, these were consensual acts that ultimately harmed no one.)

I have to admit, this sign is disgusting and disturbing.
It’s not me I’m worried about, you might be saying. It’s all those rapists and molesters. Before, they had to hide in bushes and jump out at us. If we pee together, they won’t even have to resort to lurking in shrubs. From my perspective, this is the only semi-legit reason of the bunch. We live in a rape culture, and women (and men) are terrorized every day by the possibility of being sexually assaulted. Men are usually the perpetrators of rape, and frankly, anytime women and men (and sometimes men and men) are alone, the threat of sexual assault looms. Reality may involve nothing more than the awkward conversation of two strangers, but in a rape culture, most women and some men constantly maintain a low-grade fear and distrust of a man alone with them in the room.

I don't mean to make light of anyone's
experience with sexual assault.
If you or anyone in your world needs help,
 here are some resources. <3 
My response to this is twofold. First, I haven’t seen any moves to gender-segregate elevators, public transit, or workplaces. Why would public bathrooms make that much difference? Second, while any event of sexual assault is horrendous, the sad and horrifying fact is that women and men are likelier to be assaulted in their own homes or very near their homes and by someone they know quite well. In spite of all the news stories on stranger rape (and it does exist and is repugnant), most people are sexually assaulted by their spouses, partners, and relatives. So, unless we’re going to start gender-segregating people’s homes, I doubt desegregating bathrooms will put most of us in any more danger than any other situation where two people might find themselves alone in the room at the same time.

Speaking of heterocentric, is it just me, or would you like to see a world where we encounter fewer and fewer gender dichotomies? I mean, segregating bathrooms rests on the idea that there are two separate sexes. Mixed in there is the assumption that those separate sexes want to have constant sex with the other one. That just doesn't reflect the current world in which we live. Gender and sex come in a -- wait for it -- rainbow of possibilities. I'd love to see a definitive end to the angst over whether trans* folks can/should pee in particular bathrooms. I'd be thrilled if intersex, androgynous, or otherwise gendered or sexed folks didn't have to make a choice about which of the two bathrooms fits them best and/or will lead to the least amount of drama and even violence.

Amazing how something as seemingly innocuous as the bathroom can provide a space for discussions of gender equality, queerness, and sexual assault. Is it any wonder I had a precocious nine-year-old ask why straight women and men can eat together, work together, and make love together but, when they’re in public, not pee together? Really, how does this make any sense?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Amateurish Decoding of the SCOTUS's DOMA Ruling

On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) voted down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If you’re unclear on just what the heck DOMA is, here’s a very short and incomplete summary of it: In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively defined marriage as something that can only occur when the spouses-to-be have one vagina and one penis apiece. Section 2 of DOMA allows states and other entities to ignore same-sex marriages performed in, and legally recognized by, other states. Section 3 effectively stated the federal government would not recognize or honor same-sex marriage, no matter which states legalized it.

Let’s put wheels on these dry explanations. Say Maria and Rose tied the knot in Massachusetts in 2005 and then moved, for some perverse reason, to my home state, Idaho. Under DOMA, Idaho is not required to regard them as married or to ensure they receive the same state benefits they enjoyed in Massachusetts (Section 2). And the 1100+ federal benefits married couples receive, ranging from social security to estate taxes to immigration? Maria and Rose never received any, whether they lived in Massachusetts or Idaho (Section 3).  

After the Supreme Court tossed out good ol’ Section 3 of DOMA, same-sex couples now receive federal recognition of their married status in states that recognize same-sex marriage. So what are the implications? I list a few below. Before I do, though, let’s be clear on something: I’m not a lawyer, and I can’t begin to untangle all the massive implications of the overturning of DOMA. In fact, my understanding of this issue is pedestrian at best. However, I did a couple hours of research, and I’m happy to share my findings. Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes or overlooked something.

1. In theory, federal employees will now receive benefits for their same-sex partners.

2. Same-sex couples of mixed nationalities will now receive the same considerations as straight couples when it comes to issuing visas. Here’s a story about just such a couple; it just might make your heart dribble down your ribs.

No worries about Bert and Ernie. They live in NY, where
same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since 2011.
3. As far as I understand it, same-sex couples who marry in states where it’s recognized and then move or return to states where it isn’t will likely not receive many, if any, federal benefits. Or, to be more precise, it depends on which federal benefit and to which state they move. According to Lambda Legal, “There is no one rule across all federal agencies. Some agencies look to the law of the state where a couple married regardless of the law of the state where the couple now lives, while others look to the law of the state where the couple is living now.

4. Striking down Section 3 of DOMA does not mean all of DOMA is dead. Section 2 of DOMA says it’s just fine for states to pass their own, state versions of DOMA. For example, South Dakota, the state in which I live, has a law on the books that actively illegalizes same-sex marriage. If you’re interested in where your state stands, this graphic is deliciously thorough. This is another good summary of state-to-state laws affecting LGBT folks in general. According to MSN, as of July 2013, “[Thirty-six American] states ban gay marriage outright, and of those, 31 have passed constitutional amendments that make such marriages illegal.

So, in short, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 only. This allows for the distribution of federal benefits formerly denied legally-married same-sex couples. In so ruling, the Supreme Court did not in any way recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, nor did it ban states from passing legislation forbidding it.

5. For those who, for whatever reason, think all same-sex couples can now get married, think again. This ruling doesn't actually affect opportunities for marriage; it allows for federal recognition of the ones acknowledged by the 13 states that have legalized same-sex marriage. When Section 3 of DOMA blew away on the winds of equality, it didn’t blast open the door for any same-sex couples previously denied the right to legally marry. Heck, for folks in the 37 states that haven’t yet legalized same-sex marriage, the end of DOMA’s Section 3 means very little to their everyday lives.

On a less Gloomy-Gus note, the overturning of Proposition 8 effectively made California the thirteenth state to allow same-sex marriage. That makes up for me tossing buckets of ice water on your Pride parade, right?

Striking down Section 3 of DOMA was a huge boon for the LGBT movements; however, it by no means represents the end of the fight for LGBT rights. In my state, for example, LGBT folks have zero legal rights. Even our single anti-bullying law is carefully phrased to exclude any mention of sexuality. We have a lot of work left to do.

If you’re interested in getting involved, below are a few organizations that need help. (Please feel free to read the comments section for more info on these orgs.) May the rainbow force be with you.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bustin' Some Welfare Myths

In my classrooms, and sometimes on Facebook, a topic comes up so predictably and with such frequency I can almost mouth the words as they begin to emerge from students’ earnest mouths: Gotta watch those those welfare recipients to ensure they don't Abuse the System©. The thing is, I don't know if they know they're the very recipients we should be watching.

Yeah, you heard right: welfare. I’m not going to pretty it up by saying “recipients of social assistance” or “family assistance.” I’m going old school and using the most emotional language I can: Welfare. Recipients.

Full disclosure, as bloggers are wont to do: I grew up on welfare. When I was four, my mother grabbed my two sisters and me and fled a violent situation. We slept in our car, bounced among various relatives, rented tiny trailers. Finally, we landed ourselves Section 8 housing, which meant a constant roof and our own beds. I’m not going to lie: The highlight of our month included waiting by the mailbox for the postal carrier to bring us our food stamps so we could once again fill our bellies. Our family ate ramen a lot, and not in the I’m-a-college-student-eating-ramen-and-finding-it-a-fun-adventure-because-I-know-it-will-soon-end kind of way. Our holiday dinners often arrived in a box from a local church or food pantry. Other kids laughed at my sisters and me because our clothing was old and out-of-style -- we didn’t have hipsters back then.

So here I am now, proud owner of a Ph.D. and a teacher who focuses on social inequalities. As my partner would say, go fig. Oh, and did I mention Pell Grants paid for about half of my tuition? I guess that means my welfare use didn’t end once I left home at age eighteen.

Given all this, you can imagine my rather dim view of people who wring their hands over the crafty laziness of welfare recipients. Those leeches on the system, these people wail, nibbling away at our hard-earned tax dollars. Sure, not everyone is so hard-nosed. Some folks don’t begrudge poor people their crumbs of financial and nutritional assistance, from SNAP (nee food stamps) to WIC to TANF (what we commonly refer to as “welfare,” meaning actual monies from the state government). That’s kinda okay, they say nervously, as long as, well, you know, they don’t Abuse the System© or use our tax dollars to fund their bad habits (read: Cheetos and crack cocaine). Oh, and as long as they don’t reproduce to keep those welfare bucks a-rollin’.

To all those folks who persist in thinking of welfare recipient as shifty-eyed, bon-bon-popping mothers with ten kids (all by different deadbeat dads) who will bilk the system for as much as they can until/unless we place cultural and institutional barriers on their endless gluttony, greed, and laziness, I cordially invite you to pull up a chair, make yourselves comfy, and educate yourselves.

Below I address a few myths about welfare recipients and benefits. I could write a book about this, but I’ll stick to the most persistent and, yes, ill-informed beliefs that haunt welfare recipients.

Myth 1: Those lazy welfare recipients live high on the hog and have multiple kids to keep raking in those lavish welfare benefits.

Truth 1: Below are some statistics I compiled for my Social Policy course. The information is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Economic Policy Institute.

SNAP (per the USDA):
* Average gross, monthly, non-SNAP income per food stamp household is $731; average net income is $336.
* As of September 2012, 47.7 million Americans were receiving on average $134.29 per month in food assistance.

TANF (per Economic Policy Institute, Health and Human Services, and USDA):
* Average family receives ~$400/month.
* 34% of TANF recipients experience critical hardship (homelessness, skipping meals, foregoing necessary medical care).
* 78% experience serious hardship related to food, housing, health care, or child care.
* The average family receiving TANF benefits has fewer kids per household (1.8) than the national average (1.9).

As for livin’ la vida loca on TANF, after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, recipients now have a five-year maximum; after that, aid dries up (although eligible kids in the household may still receive benefits). And “lazy” welfare recipients must also spend 30 hours per week working or looking for work. Ah, I remember the good ol' days when my disabled mother filled out logs of all the places she applied for work as well as how much time she spent applying. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “For a state to meet the federal work rates, half of the families receiving TANF assistance must be engaged in a work activity for at least 30 hours a week (20 hours a week for single parents with young children).  States also must have 90 percent of two-parent families engaged in work, generally for 35 hours per week.”

Additionally, recipients must get a job within two years. (I have tremendous sympathy for this, especially in today’s economy and particularly after spending three-and-a-half years myself looking for a full-time job – and this was after earning my Ph.D.)

Myth 2: Most welfare recipients cheat the system.

Truth 2: Nope. Not true. Not even a little true. I tell my students this over and over, and yet this is the single most frequent complaint they issue. Hear this, my friends, and pay attention:

Studies consistently show less than one percent (1%) of welfare recipients cheat the system. This doesn’t mean waste doesn’t occur, but when it does, it’s usually the result of bureaucratic mistakes (Barusch, 2012, Foundations of Social Policy).

Yes, I know you, personally, know of someone who Abused the System©. But if you can use your anecdotal observations as evidence, then so can I. I grew up in gov’ment housing, ate gov’ment cheese, and used gov’ment funds to grope my way via 16 years of college to the middle class. My family of origin was poor. My neighbors were poor. My friends were poor. I knew no one, not one, who lied, cheated, or stole from the government.

And by the way, did you see the statistics above? People on TANF and food stamps are starving, people. If they’re cheating the system, they’re doing a pretty crappy job of it.

Myth 3: It’s only the super poor who receive benefits.

Truth 3: Alas, this is also untrue. In fact, here is a lovely list of governmental programs from which most of us have at one time benefited. Have you ever been on Unemployment? Received a Pell Grant or subsidized loan to attend college? Benefited from a Home Mortgage Interest Deduction? Put money into a government-subsidized retirement system?

The chances are very, very high that in some way, you’ve directly benefited from government programs. However, unless it’s TANF, most people don’t consider these programs welfare.

Lucky for you, I do. And maybe, after reading this, so will you.

Since you benefit from my hard-earned tax dollars, I have some questions for you, welfare recipient: Did you earn these benefits? Since my tax dollars pay for your activities, maybe I should be the judge of that, eh?

Myth 4: To prevent Abusing the System©, we should: 1. Drug test recipients, 2. Make them attend nutrition classes, 3. Place restrictions on their SNAP cards so they can only buy “healthy” foods, 4. Intensely monitor them to ensure they properly spend our money, etc.

Truth 4: I’ll give you this. All of it. You want to have welfare recipients pee in a cup (even though Florida tried it and found: 1. Almost none of the recipients used drugs, and 2. The expense far outweighed the benefit.)? Only eat organic veggies and sip fair-trade tea? You want them to keep a detailed diary of every cent of state and federal funds they spend? Bring it. My only condition is that you make all welfare recipients, not just the poor ones, participate.

I have an even better idea! Why don't we eliminate this act that 
intrudes on our non-public lives? I'm unsure when my body became 
the property of my employers or my state.
Do you receive tax subsidies because of donations, a mortgage, or because you’ve successfully reproduced? Did you go to school using federal subsidized loans or even federal grants? Did you or your children attend Head Start? Eat free lunches at school? Use Medicaid or Medicare? Get governmental grants to buy a new home or install solar panels? Congratulations! You’re a welfare recipient.

But, see, I worry that you might have used some of your governmental funds for things that, well, I really don’t agree with. For example, I don’t do drugs. Neither do I drink. So I hope you don’t mind, but I intend to go through your cupboards and drawers and make sure you don’t have any booze or wacky weed. And, sweetie, get ready to unzip your drawers and grab a cup, cuz we’re drug testing you.

Also, what if you spent some of that Pell Grant on “unhealthy” things like Pringles or gas for a motorcycle, which has a much higher mortality rate than regular automobiles? I suggest we monitor your potato chip habit and confiscate your motorcycle. Oh, and also, I hate companies that test on animals, so please purge your house of any non-cruelty-free items. I also don't love the color blue, so maybe you could, you know, limit your blue intake? That would be great. I’ll let you know if I, a taxpaying American, have any more problems with the decisions you’ve made about spending MY tax dollars.

This means you. And me. And corporations. Pretty much everyone.
If you're not familiar with the term "welfare queen,"
THANK GOD! But if so, here's some info on how this myth began.
And by the by, all those businesses that use tax havens to avoid paying American federal taxes but benefit from American infrastructure and workers? Welfare leeches. I plan to make all of them, every CEO, pee in a cup and account for every penny she or he has spent of our money. And those corporations we bailed out five years ago? We should own their every move. I suggest forcing each CEO to devote at least 30 hours per week to somehow engaging in gainful activity that directly benefits American employees—giving back to the community, as it were. Such actions may include any of the following: actually hiring instead of sitting on their largesse, providing health care to their employees, offering more full-time positions with benefits.

You want to spend time and stress worrying about the personal and spending habits of impoverished welfare recipients? I’m on board. Let’s just make sure the microscope remains equally as focused on all welfare beneficiaries, regardless of income. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Random Announcements. Plus, I Hate Moving

All right, kiddies, sit down and open up your ear holes, ‘cuz Elle’s got some announcin’ to do.
The approximate number of boxes I've
packed, lifted, or otherwise engaged.

1. I’m on “vacation.” Actually, few vacations involve this much manual labor. I’m on moving duty. I’ve taken five weeks out of my light summer schedule and am helping my partner pack and move to South Dakota to be with me. Yeah – South Dakota, where my partner’s presence personally doubles the Jewish population. Now that’s love, folks. Anyway, this is why my blogging has been so desultory lately. I promise to get back to my usual couple-times-per-week blogging once the hauling of my-nemeses-the-evil-boxes and the driving of 1900 miles and across nine states have reached their beautiful conclusions.

2. I hate moving. I hate manual labor. I hate driving. It must be love. Or masochism. I’m not so sure there’s a big difference.

3. I just proposed a short story idea to Soul Mate Publishing, my publisher for Hunted and Hunted Dreams. For those who love Jade, a character who plays a pretty major minor role in Hunted Past and Hunted Dreams, this will be a special treat. I mean, Jade may be a bit of a player, but she needs some true love in her life, right? Because I’m especially benevolent, I decided to pair her up with a curly-haired, blue-eyed, culinarily-inclined Jew named Jensen. Yeah, she’s essentially getting my partner. (However, Jade won’t be tormented with packing 30 boxes and moving across 1900 miles.) The proposed title? You got it: A Hunted Holiday.

4. I like bullet points. Whoever invented them, I thank that person.

5. Forthcoming blog posts: a. What the end of DOMA means. Given how often I’ve seen peeps on Facebook reference how “gay marriage is now legalized!,” I think many need a little
I love you a latte.
primer; b. Why we need fat/size pride/acceptance/diversity movements; c. Who inspires my romantic heroes; d. Maybe some pictures from across the many states I have/will recently travel.

I’m off. I’m quite sure there will be more my-nemeses-the-evil-boxes in the immediate future. However, my partner is also about to return from a coffee shop with a coconut-milk latte. Maybe this love thing is kinda worth 30 boxes and 29 hours of driving. 

P.S. I counted the boxes, and their number is much closer to 50 than 3o. I think I deserve an extra latte.

P.P.S. It was actually eleven states we traversed, not including Florida and South Dakota. Yeah.