Thursday, January 31, 2013

Challenges of Long-Term Lesbian Relationships

 A Long-Term Power Couple
Two women who gossip together, debrief on relationship issues, exchange sexual intimacies, what could be problematic about this picture? In many ways, nothing is and that’s why many lesbians get together in the first place. But the more challenging part of this equation is staying together.

Unlike places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, in the U.S. the separation between the culture of men and the culture of women exists informally but nevertheless, serves as a divider for the men and women. The football with the boys and shopping with the girls stereotype is simply shorthand for a far wider separation that makes it easier for same-gender couples to meet, yet harder to persist in queer relationships.

Continuing to have friends is a given for heterosexual, married women. And I don’t mean only friends that are also coupled and visited with in pairs, I mean real “heart” friends. For lesbians in couples, emotional intimacy can be threatening for the life partner. There is no automatic dividing line between other women, as all of them have the potential of being seen as romantic partners. To prevent this, once coupled lesbians often engage in what I call emotional monogamy, meaning other couple friends are encouraged but new emotional intimacy is not. 

Among queer women some of the greatest wear and tear on relationships comes from the joined-at-the-hip phenomenon. This “urge to merge” is deadly to long term connections because it becomes attempting to share the totality of one’s existence tends to be deadly in a relationship. It is far healthier to bring home stories and adventures from two separate lives.. This involves cultivation of individual friends and interests; a simple thing that the majority of straight folks do automatically.

Being sexually monogamous yet emotionally non-monogamous is possible. But this feat  is more challenging for lesbians than for our straight sisters. It means being open to the kind of real friendships we had with each other before we were taught that emotional intimacy is automatically a precursor to sexual intimacy. This is debatable, but he absence of the possibility of true friendship cuts off an emotionally satisfying and healing connection to others. Friendship should not only be for teenagers, searching singles and old married ladies. Paired lesbians need friends too.

Of course, the major things that make our relationships more difficult are factors such as outright discrimination, lack of social support, denial of marriage rights, and inequality under the law, things that fall under the general umbrella of lesbian oppression. All are obstacles working against the longevity of lesbian relationships, demanding that we explore workable new alternatives.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Transgender Rights Push Us All Toward Equality

The archetypal blushing bride with her handsome groom is an anachronism in today’s society. Part of the reason for this is a newfound fluidity of roles that men and women assume in today’s world. Another component is the increased occurrence and visibility of lesbian and gay couples but the third, and arguably most powerful factor, is the coming of age of the openly transgender community.

The gender binary is dead. Now gender has become a continuum which, like that of sexual attraction, is individually perceived and defined, so much so that even putting forth the concept of transgender identity as a unilateral entity comes with inherent problems. The transgender community has traveled a great distance since the days of Christine Jorgensen when the word “transsexual” narrowly referred to a man who had specific surgery to invert his penis into a vagina, took hormones to build breasts and sometimes had surgery to minimize protruding facial features.

Now, transgenders and intersexuals (the less stigmatized term for hermaphrodites) of both female and male origin are making decisions such as whether or not to pass as one discrete gender, how much surgery to undergo and what level of homones to take. Unlike in days gone by, these decisions emanate more from an inner voice instead of outward pressure to from social norms and sanctions.

This is an important distinction. In Iran the government will pay for transgender surgery. This is not because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chronies have a high regard for LGBT rights. In fact, Mr A. went so far as to deny the existence of lesbians and gays in Iran in a speech he gave at Columbia University. In his country, surgical gender transformation is granted for the most reactionary of reasons. Not only are cross-dressing and transgender people allowed to have reassignment surgery, they are compelled to have it. Once it has been performed all documentation of that person is changed to the new gender. For all practical purposes they can now live their lives as heterosexuals. It totally diffuses the problem by simply eliminating same-gender couples. However, a person who desires a sex change to pursue relationships with people of her/his own identity would, obviously, not qualify for gender reassignment.

The rainbow gender continuum in the United States has implications that resonate far beyond the issue of marriage into the very fabric of society. The first thing everyone is told about us, before birth, is our gender. Baby clothes come in pink and blue and, it could be argued, that all the colors of life are painted with this same brush: In our very recent past job opportunities, voting rights, inheritance rights, the right to serve on a jury, financial rights like the ability to hold a mortgage or have a credit card, all of these options and more were denied to women simply because of anatomy. Discrimination against women is not only a phenomenon of the Middle East and Africa. It is still alive and well, flourishing in the western world.

Transgender sexuality and indeterminate sexuality of all kinds, by their very definition crush stereotypes. What are we to think of a person who comes across as a mélange of gender, not quite male, and not quite female? Well, after we get past the feelings of discomfort and move beyond knee-jerk prejudice, what we think will depend solely on our connection, or lack of it, with any given individual; nothing more and nothing less.

As all shades of gender expression flower, not only is the issue of one man, one woman marriage made irrelevant. The entirety of sexism itself loses all viability. It is the transgender population that will help push us all forward into a future where each person’s individual character traits and preferences carry more weight the shape of their body parts, a new world that transcends the narrow limits of gender and could well be the culmination of the feminist dream.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Closeted in the 21st Century

It still happens and not just in junior high school. LGBT people live double lives even today. My sister called me the other night so I could watch Jodie Foster come out publicly at the Golden Globe Awards. Anderson Cooper declared his gayness just last year. If it is still difficult for actors and media people to live proudly in the open, there must be a high degree of prejudice surrounding regular folks.

I have been completely out since 1970. Saying this is not meant to toot my own horn. In many ways this decision has caused me a whole boatload of suffering from outright job loss to social ostracism. I didn't want to be a token lesbian for the world to see, but I felt that I had to be. My rationale was that if I had learned anything from past persecution such as what took place during the holocaust, it was that huge groups of people can really despise you and those same huge groups can be wrong. I didn't ask to be born on the other side of the bed, or to be Jewish for that matter, it just happened.

The queers I have met who remain closeted are good people. I am in no position to pass judgement on anyone. An African-American woman I used to work with took two full years to come out at work even though about a third of her coworkers were openly gay and experiencing no problems. It was more difficult for her to make this move because, in her culture, there tends to be more religion and less support. She is in a more vulnerable position.

 A new friend I met in an predominantly heterosexual but alternative environment is a clandestine lesbian. Her language of origin is not English and she is from another part of the world. I respect her very much but still have trouble with this decision, perhaps due to some failing of my own.

I am certainly well aware of what it is like to be openly other in a society that prizes conformity and uses ridicule and contempt as weapons to maintain it. 

I wonder how straight people will learn of our rainbow of diversity if the most introverted and frightened among us remain hidden? Don't these closeted ones realize that Audre Lourde was telling the truth when she said, "Your silence will not protect you?" And Lorde was African-American and, according to her "biomythography," "Zami: a New Spelling of My Name," openly queer since the fifties.

Perhaps my need to have everyone be living openly is a selfish analysis. I can neither assess another's life decisions nor the cost of speaking out for individuals whose experience is different from my own. The best I can do is help to create a world of, not just tolerance, but acceptance, a place beyond the sad, and outdated artifacts of guilt and shame. Until then, I'll just keep in mind that, at any given time, we all do the best we can.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

U.S. Women Have More Options Now…

There is a notable dichotomy that we occidental types fall back on when speaking of women’s rights and issues here at home. We all know that in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan women play an extremely limited role in society at large.We tend to forget things about our own society that are part of our own very recent history.

I was in Mexico this past summer. There, as in many countries, women play a limited role in the work world. Employee wanted signs in shop windows specify often that they want a female employee who is unmarried and around 28 years of age. This is a completely legal request, as it was in the USA up until the mid-sixties. The work that young women do in Mexico now and in the U.S. of the recent past, centers around receptionist, hotel-clerk, salesgirl and other low-level often clerical or service jobs. And sometimes those women with some foreign language skills can procure employment in the travel industry.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I was told in so many verbal and non-verbal ways, the work that I could do. The most important job was to marry and reproduce but, beyond that, my choices were limited to teacher, nurse, librarian, secretary and possibly for the strivers, something like social worker. A woman required tremendous external support combined with inner resources to move beyond the confines of her situation. 

And a generation earlier it was even worse. My mother, who was quite a bit smarter than my father, worked for Kelly Girls as a secretary. She had been a business major in college and the highlight of her working life was when she lived in New York City and worked as a buyer for Bloomingdales. The pay scales for male buyers were much higher than for female ones because those guys “had to support a family.”

She could not get her own line of credit or secure a mortgage loan to buy property. Those rights were not extended to women. To be sexually assaulted or raped carried with it a major stigma of shame. Women who were violated were routinely questioned as to why they were in the place where they were attacked and what provocative clothing were they wearing.

It’s true we still don’t have equal power or the kind of parity in government that we would like to see. In the United States women have never held top offices like they have in so many other countries around the world. But things have gotten better. It’s imperative that we hold our ground and not let them slide backwards to an era that is being somewhat romanticized. Those of us who lived it know the truth and it wasn’t pretty. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Women Rise Up in India and Nepal

Protest in India
Internationally freedom for women often takes the form of simple survival. "honor killings," "bride burnings" and requiring a woman to marry a man who kidnaps and rapes her have been common practices in India. Groping and molestation has been dismissed under the benign sounding designation, "Eve teasing."

But now women in India are rising up against brutal conditions. The impetus for this uprising was the gang-rape and murder of a young medical student aboard a bus in Delhi. This incident has been a last straw for Indian women. Their nascent militance is reminiscent of seventies feminism in certain ways ie: the viewing of women and men as distinct social classes with women playing the subordinate, powerless role and completely unlike our early movement in others ie: socially sanctioned brutality up to and often including murder.

Protest in Nepal
Now, the women of Nepal are rising up as well. Their last straw is the case of a maid who says she was raped and robbed by government officials in an international airport there. The perpetrators were not charged and she was reimbursed with less money than was stolen. This one story has opened a Pandora's box of tales of horror involving women in Nepal. Often it is the travelers and tourists who have brought the problem of rape to light, click here to see a story involving an American tourist, simply because Nepalese women had become inured to these travesties.

But this former attitude of helplessness and acceptance has transformed into a militant uprising. We are sending our sisters love and support to continue their brave struggle and hope it speads throughout the world, even to the repressive reaches of the Middle East!