Thursday, June 26, 2014

Burn Bright: On Cultural Change

What does it take to bring change, lasting change?  I'm not talking just any change, but specifically changes to those things we do or say that hurt people, yet continue to do.  We meaning enough of the population within a culture to be an ongoing problem, not just a small number.

There are always radicals at the edges, people way beyond the norm who either hurt people to the point most of culture is uncomfortable with it, or are so caring that we either see them as heroes or as a bit loony.  While the hurtful and harmful extremes are an issue, it is when the hurt and harm are coming from the middle of the bell curve, not the outliers that I'm concerned about.

People say oh, it's just words, or that's what kids/girls/boys do, or any number of dismissals.  These dismissals imply that beyond the issue that is causing the harm and hurt, the culture finds those things acceptable, or at least not unacceptable enough to do anything about them.

They might be "just words", but the same words said enough, said forcefully enough, or said by enough people, become more than just words.  They sink in like a morning mist, settle, and stay there.  Only with enough heat from the sun or a strong enough wind will that mist leave.  The same is true with words.

But language we use doesn't change simply because someone speaks out and says it hurts.  If culture accepts the language used, it will keep being used.  By the culture as a whole.

It's the cultural shift that changes people's thinking making hurtful language in an area no longer relevant or of any use, bringing about inclusive thought processes that naturally provide inclusive language that I'm a proponent of.  As long as inclusive and non-hurtful language is something people are trying to do with a lot of effort, the underlying cause remains unchanged, and it becomes a matter of hoping you (generically) don't slip and say the wrong thing because you weren't paying attention instead of the inclusive and non-hurtful language being your default without trying and sometimes things just coming out wrong and you being shocked you actually said something that sounded like that, instead of being pleased with yourself that you said everything in a non-hurtful way.

And that culture shift can't be regulated into existence or pushed on people, it has to be modeled and lived and caught like fire in the soul from the passion of those living it.  Cultural change begins in me shifting my perceptions and thought processes and world views, then living them with passion for those around me to see and have a fire of passion lot in them for the same.

I remember a friend of mine in college.

He had been quite hurtful to the LGBT community there on many occasions, or to individuals in particular, as a result of his religious beliefs and how he chose to act on them.  At a certain point, he became convicted for these actions and felt the need to support the people in the community and love them.  I wasn't involved in the community at the time, but knew him in a different context.

He realized he didn't really know them or what he could do to help them and love them, so he decided to start attending the weekly meetings for the group on campus.  He was quite surprised that they welcomed him and made him feel at home there.

He learned a lot, both about himself and about the community during the period he attended the group.  He grew in many good ways, and became much more compassionate and loving in general.  He changed many things he did.

One thing that stood out in particular was something he did that he didn't think of as hurtful, and wasn't something that crossed his mind before that as being an issue.  It was his use of phrases of the form, "that's so gay" and similar for things he thought were stupid.  To him, it wasn't saying anything about gay people, only about what the person was doing, so it never dawned on him to see it as an use.

After a few weeks, hearing the word "gay" using in the context of the LGBT community, he began to rethink the phrase.  In his own ears, the meaning had changed, and he began to take offense with himself for using it.  He worked hard to change his language, and he spoke out when anyone else used the phrase, at least when people outside the LGBT community used it.

It was never a phrase I had used, and I did find it offensive, but I had never spoken out about it, had just let it pass.  I cannot hear the phrase today without remembering his passion concerning the hurt it could cause.

Living life with those the phrase could affect, and having a face to go with the word changed him.  And the passion that resulted changed many around him.  This is how cultural change starts.  It takes time, but it changes not with the regulations or laws, but with people changing themselves, living their passion, and modeling what is right.

The end of the Civil War and the freedoms that began there did not end the hurt.  Over a century later, the Civil Rights movement was fighting the cultural issues that had not changed.  And today, another half a century later, not everything has been fixed.  But the changes from the mid 1800s to today are striking.

Laws and regulations don't bring cultural change, but they do open the door for the dialogue to start, for people to put faces to the names and words, for passions to start being shared.

As just one point of fact.  If it is so important to people in Belgrade to keep gays from being visible for a march that would happen just one day that they were preparing acid to throw on them if they marched, what must their day to day lives be like?

The government there in Serbia can't change the culture, but by changing their policies, laws, and regulations, they might begin the process of allowing cultural change to happen.  It may take a long time, but the change isn't impossible.

Activism and lobbying can help bring about political change, can help open those doors for dialogue.  And activism done right can ignite the fires of passion in people to begin making changes in their own life and where they are.

The next step, though, is in living it, walking it, modeling it.  Cultural change begins at home, in your house, in your neighbourhood, in your community, in your region.

Gandhi is well know, among many other things, for the statement that translates roughly, "Be the change you want to see in the world."  This is what I'm championing.

I can't change the whole culture of the world or country myself.  But I can change myself.  I can be conscious of what I see and do, of how those affect others.  I can keep in mind that it matters not at all if I think my actions or words are acceptable.  I can consciously analyse if I hurt people, even, and especially, unintentionally, and can look to how I can change my words and actions to avoid that in the future.

I'm not talking avoiding speaking truth or being true to myself because it might offend or upset someone.  Far from it.  The truth can hurt, but lies, even if they avoid immediate hurt, will hurt eventually.  I'm talking looking at what I'm doing and saying and seeing if my language and actions are inclusive, if they avoid hurt that doesn't stem from being honest, if they mean and look the same to others as they do to me, and so on.  I'm not talking changing everything, or walking on egg shells.  I'm talking being conscious and deciding objectively what I can change.

I am responsible for my own words and actions, and only my own.  This is a paraphrase of something Temple Grandin shared, reprased to be more straight to the point for me.  I am responsible for my own words and actions, and only my own.  I am not responsible for your reaction, or how you take what I say or do.  But if there is something about what I say or do that can be changed to avoid hurting you, I need to seriously consider it and decide if I'm willing to own leaving it unchanged.  Be the change you want to see in the world.  What do you want to see?

I can change myself.  And I can show that change, through my passion and actions and speech, to those around me.  And they can catch that from me, can change themselves.  And they can show that change, through their passion and actions and speech, to those around them.  And that is how cultural change occurs.

Cultural change cannot be regulated and forced by law.  But it can occur.

Be the change.  Live it.  Embody it.  Model it.  Burn bright.  Burn bright.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Show Pride, Remember Stonewall

The world is one great battlefield 
With forces all arrayed. 
If in my heart I do not yield, 
I'll overcome some day. 

I spent the weekend at Denver Pridefest, my first ever Pride, and Denver's is a big one.

I heard projections for total attendees from 200,000 to 700,000 for this year. Considering that Wyoming, where I lived from 1991 until 2012, has a total population only around 500,000, this is an amazing number of people to me. I don't know how many actually attended, but there were people everywhere. Except for the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City that we accidentally ended up there for, this is the biggest event of any kind I've ever attended.

In some ways, it was very commercial. Coors was a big sponsor, as were Wells Fargo, Smirnoff, At the Beech, and Xfinity. Vendors with stalls were everywhere, and a lot of money changed hands. Between Pride itself, the hotels and restaurants, and others places getting the business of all those from out of town, Pride is estimated to bring in around $25 million total to the Denver area.

Commercial or not, though, for many there, it wasn't, and isn't, about money. I'll get to the heart of that statement shortly, but the event itself needs a bit more details, I think.

There is a sexuality about an event that is centered around things like sexual orientation and gender identity and similar things, which can't be ignored. How can you talk about being true to yourself, in the context of sexual orientation, without sexual undertones? And how can you talk about being true to yourself, without the physicality of your body being front and centre? For many, you can't.

The things you see at something like Pride are varied and often beyond what you are used to. Women with stickers or pasties as their only top, and some men the same. Drag queens in full garb, likely baking, but willing to deal with the heat. Men and women both in nothing but underwear. Bikinis and short shorts. Costumes of all kinds, even some you just know they wore to Comic Con the weekend before, like the Storm Trooper walking down the sidewalk behind the onlookers during the parade. Leather face masks strapped around heads in the form of dog heads. Leather buckles and straps. You name it, you see it.

In the crowds moving around, you see all walks of life. Some are most likely homeless, but enjoying the festivities among some quite obviously rich. Manual labor workers in their best clothes rub elbows with techies and lawyers. Straight couples walk hand in hand past lesbian couples and married gay men. People who are thought to be straight by all their friends are openly gay for this one weekend. People who have hidden their true selves all their lives wear shirts proclaiming it to the world. Trans people too afraid to present in public normally, present openly in a crowd of thousands. People who are curious about what it's all about, who only know the things they've been told by friends and families and churches and politicians come to see what people really are like for the first time. People who don't know their own selves but are curious come and see and find themselves for the first time. Churches give out sun screen. Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians have booths encouraging people to register to vote. Petitions are passed around for for people to support whatever they are interested in. Politicians walk in the parade, shaking hands as they go. And other politicians have followers in the parade and don't bother to show up themselves.

I joke as I walk, in the belly dancing outfit I talked myself into the courage to wear and my rainbow feathered wings, that I can tell the straight guys because they are the ones that forget how to walk when they see me. I can tell the lesbians, because if I pass on one side of them, and a gay guy with a cute dog walks on the other, they are conflicted on which way to look. And I can tell the gay guys because they have no conflict, the dog gets the attention. And, joking aside, in some cases all three of these were true.

But is Pride about the commercialization, about the money and the things to buy? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. Is it about showing skin, about being seen, about being checked out, or checking people out? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. Is it about politics and voting and petitions for your favourite cause? For some, sure. But it isn't the heart of it. What is Pride? And why is it important?

If you pay attention, if you listen, if you observe, you can't go to Pride without hearing or seeing the word Stonewall somewhere. And therein lies the heart of it. In places like Russia, where every year those who march are beaten and/or arrested, this heart is more obvious than Denver Pridefest with police and sheriff vehicles in the parade and officers walking among the crowd not to prevent riots, not to keep things from escalating, not to be seen to keep people quiet, but to protect those there and keep idiots from doing stupid things. Bags aren't checked in Denver to make sure no one brings weapons to use against authorities, but to prevent weapons from being used on the crowd, and more pressingly, to keep beverages that weren't bought there from being brought in. Stonewall is not as obviously on the minds of many, but it is of those that were there, or those that saw what happened, knew people who were there, or saw the after effects. The heart of Pride is not all the festivities or anything else so gay (in the sense of happy). The heart is what happened in the Stonewall Riots and where those short days have brought us.

Denver Pridefest has happened in June every year since 1976, two years before I was born. For those counting, the United States finished pulling out of Vietnam the year before, and 1976 marked the 200th year of the existence of this nation, marked from the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 
It wasn't until the 1990s that Denver Pridefest became the big event it is today, but 1976, the year of the first march in Denver, was also the year that in November the first gay center was opened, which became over the years the Center that many visit out on Colfax. This center was the first safe place for the LGBT community in Colorado, as only came about as a result of legal battles from 1972 until then. Before that, many were beaten by police in addition to by civilians, especially gay men. It is from the changes in this that both the Center and Pridefest came to be, though of course it was a long process and change didn't happen overnight.

Going back a bit further, things never would have changed in Denver if it wasn't for events previously in New York City. As I said, Stonewall. Specifically, the Stonewall Inn and the riots involving it.

The Stonewall Inn was in Greenwich Village in New York City. During a time when gay bars and clubs were routinely raided, and it wasn't safe to be outwardly gay or lesbian, and very unsafe to crossdress, dress in drag, or be known as trans, the mafia in New York City overhauled the old Stonewall Inn and turned it into a gay dance club. Greenwich village was a very rough place, and the LGBT community there were very poor and often in bad shape. Mafia run or not, and with what problems it may have had, Stonewall was a place they could be open about who they were with less danger than normal.

When the police raided it on June 28 of 1969, things didn't go as normal. It was at a time of night that raids were rare. It wasn't announced the way they normally were, so everyone was unprepared. And the police didn't expect they'd have any backlash.

Those presenting as female refused this time to have their gender checked. Those presenting as male refused to show identification. Those thrown out of the club didn't go quietly home. Those living around that area didn't look the other way. A crowd formed. People sang We Shall Overcome, a song growing in popularity in the Civil Rights movement at the time A lesbian being mistreated fought back, then called for the crowd to do something when she was manhandled into a vehicle. And the crowd responded. All the hardship that had been suffered by the community and by individuals boiled over, and it went badly for the police who tried to control the crowd. The riots continued into the early mornings. More riots followed. Gay shame shifted to Gay Pride. Oppression shifted to Empowerment.

The first Pride March was held a year after the riots, June 28, 1970. The marchers marched with signs and banners, uncertain how things would go. It was an exciting time, but not one of safety and security. It wasn't met with resistance, though, few if any tried to stop it. Similar marches were also held in Los Angeles and Chicago, with similar results. The next year, there were more marches, across the US and Europe. And the year after that, five people met in Denver to discuss how to make a change for what was being suffered here.

Pride isn't about dressing promiscuously, about bright colours and fancy floats. It isn't about corporate sponsors and vendors selling goods. It isn't about burlesque shows and rock concerts. It isn't about socializing and gathering for festivities and fun. All these things are there, but they aren't what it is about. These things can be enjoyed because of the heart of what Pride is, not because they are what Pride is about but because they can happen because of the changes that have come.

I wasn't at Stonewall. It was nine years before my birth. I don't know anyone who was, at least none that have mentioned it. I can look back through what has been written, what has been told. Storytelling has power, and the history of change is the soul of that change. Do I know what it was like in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s? No. Do I know exactly what happened on June 28, 1969? No. Do I know what it was like in Denver in the late 1960s and early 1970s? No. But I can walk the streets with less fear because of those who do, those who were there, those who had had enough. I can be true to who I am because they risked their lives. I can attend the largest party I've ever seen, walk the streets with thousands of people, enjoy food and drink and love and laughter with friends, buy things from vendors, watch a parade with not just those marching who are proclaiming who they are, but politicians and police officers as well. I can do all these things because of those that risked it all before I was born, in a time when death or suffering was a more likely outcome than overcoming and surviving and rejoicing.

I can do all this because of what happened at the Stonewall Inn and what followed, both in New York City and across the United States and Europe.

Truth forever on the scaffold, 
Wrong forever on the throne. 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, 
And behind the then unknown 
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above his own. 

~Bethany Davis

Monday, June 2, 2014

Trust, Not Trusting, and Distrust


There's a lot of discussion just now about trust and distrust, about whether it's okay to distrust an entire portion of the population because of things a small percent do, or might do.  The context of this is of course the recent killings by a man upset that no one would have sex with him, and the discussion that has followed this about the fear many women deal with daily, and hurt and pain more that should have gone through.

This has been an emotional topic for me over the last week, as many fears and realizations have been brought to the surface for me in it.  I had an anxiety attack related to all this a few days ago, but have got it calmed down enough now that it isn't affecting my ability to function.  Which is a good thing.

While the over all topic is quite emotional, it's easier to face and process when I step back and look at it in abstract.  And writing about it helps.  One point of abstraction to look at it in is that that I broached above.  Is it okay to distrust an entire segment of the population because of things a small percentage so, or might do?

The following are my thoughts on the subject.  Take them for what they are worth.  Or if not, take them for what you paid for them.

There's a difference between not trusting and blaming and accusing, in my mind.  Maybe even between not trusting and distrusting.  Actually I think I prefer that last phrasing.  Distrusting is an active presuming the person can't be trusted and therefore being unwilling to enter dialogue.  Not trusting is withholding judgement on if you can trust them until you know evidence one way or the other.

If I am in a parking garage alone, it is not safe for me to trust those around me.  It is not a setting to open dialogue, the results might end horribly for me.  So I don't trust and I act under the assumption anyone could be a danger to me and remove myself from that danger as fast but controlled as I can, avoiding making myself a target.

If I met the same person the next day in a safe location where dialogue would not put me in possible danger, I would leave the door open for them to show me who they are to see if I can trust them.  And honestly, in a safe environment, even if I had not trusted them in the unsafe environment the night before, I'd likely fully trust them until they gave me reason not to.

Distrust is not the assuming they could be a danger but assuming they are.  If I distrust someone, even in a safe environment I won't give them the chance to show me I can trust them, out of fear they will hurt me if I do.  So I endeavour to trust people when it is safe to do so until they earn my distrust but to not trust people when it is not safe to until they earn my trust by allowing the dialogue to occur in a safe environment instead of an unsafe one.

Not trusting someone because they might be a danger to you is good sense, not a matter of judging or unfairness.  My not trusting you when I don't know if you are a danger or not reflects nothing on you as a person, it reflects on the circumstances where I am vulnerable if you happen to be a danger.  I don't owe it to you to give you a chance if the circumstances are that I might end up raped, in the hospital, and/or dead if you turn out to be a danger.  My safety comes before giving you the benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, not trusting someone when it is a safe environment when you don't yet know if they would be a danger or not in a different situation shuts down the conversation and prevents any chance to find out if they are safe.  It's a matter of mutual respect to give the benefit of the doubt in a safe setting and find out.

That being said, it's a completely different story in regards to those who have already been hurt.  If you remind me of those that have slammed me up against lockers or walls or buses and pressed against me, pinning me with their body while calling me names and asking what I'm going to do about it, there is no safe place to talk.  If you remind me of those that threw rocks at me, tried to drown me, chased me with a board with a nail in it, there is no safe place to talk.  If you remind me of those that pulled my hair or grabbed me by it, or grabbed my arm behind my back and lifted me by it, or took things from me and told me if I wanted them I had to come get them, or destroyed my art work I worked hard on, there is no safe place to talk.  I have scars from the things I've experienced, and the risk of re-opening them is usually too much.  This isn't a matter of groups of people, but types of movements and body language that reminded me.  It isn't "all men" or only men.  Anyone that makes me feel like something I suffered might occur again is not someone I can trust.

This likely has nothing to do with you (unless you are the type that would do such things), it has to do with me, and if I can't feel safe around you, not because of distrust because of the part of society you are part of but because the memories are too much.

So, trust and distrust, trust and not trusting.  It isn't a very simple subject.  But here's how it stands for me:

I will not trust you if I am in a situation where the danger that could come from trusting you puts me in danger.

I will trust you if I am in a safe situation and you don't specifically remind me of those who have hurt me.

I will not trust you if you remind me of those who have hurt me, if you make movements that bring back those memories.

And neither category of not trusting is about me blaming you or saying anything about you.  It's about me staying safe and feeling safe.