queer at work

I have a job working with members of the public, and so I have trouble when people ask me if I’m married, seeing someone, etc. I work with populations where homophobia is very common, so I don’t feel that I can give a real answer to this question and therefore I just say no, or give vague answers.

My straight coworkers are all married and have children, and can speak freely. They wear wedding rings and the women wear engagement rings too. No one ever accuses them of flaunting it or being inappropriate.

I’m the one who’s keeping it professional by not talking about my personal life, but if I said half as much as they ever do there could be serious consequences. So I leave people in the dark.

Neutrality is not the pretense of heterosexuality. It is making no mention at all, in any direction. It is not even a denial, but a dodge into what little null space is available. People don’t take it well. They want to talk to you about what they perceive to be normal life things and I’m caught between various lies and risking losing their business and seeming too distant.

I say nothing.

If I am in a situation where I could not talk about a girlfriend, I will also not talk about a boyfriend, because I do not talk about a boyfriend if it’s going to leave people with the impression that I’m straight. There’s a world of space between leaving people’s heterosexist assumptions alone and saying something you know will confirm them. The false opportunity to be open about yourself as long as you’re in an opposite-sex relationship reinforces a monosexual heterosexist construction of same-sex vs opposite sex relationships rather than a queer construction of queer relationships that includes bisexuality and other stripes of queerness as valid rather than judging based on a partner’s gender. It reinforces silencing about same-sex partners and openness about opposite-sex partners and the only way I can see to break that is to be silent as I would have to about a same-sex partner, to treat all my relationships equally even and especially when others do not.

There is not a “queer half” of my life. My life is wholly queer.


Remember a while ago when I wrote that post about how drug-testing welfare applicants was a stupid idea?

Well, the ACLU agrees:

The Department of Children and Families’ central region has tested 40 applicants since the law went into effect six weeks ago, and of those 40 applicants, 38 tested negative for drugs. The cost to the state of Florida to reimburse those 38 individuals who tested negative was at least $1,140 over the course of six weeks. Meanwhile, denying benefits to the two applicants who tested positive will save Florida less than $240 a month.

This law is not about efficiency, smaller government, or ensuring that people don’t use government assistance to buy drugs. It is about punishing people for needing help.


Marginalization and “The Help”

I’ve been following a little bit of the furor around “The Help”, both the book and the movie, and though I have no intention of reading or viewing it I have an opinion about it.

First I read The Association of Black Women Historians’ article, An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. Then I read the Salon’s response piece, Why “The Help’s” critics are all wrong.

The first talks about the inadequate ways black women are represented and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism, and the film’s construction and romanticization of black women in the Mammy role.

The second says it’s fiction and the purpose of fiction is to inhabit someone else, it’s well-done, and the biggest image in the movie is of black people and white people talking to each other and trying to understand each other, which is cool and might help create opportunity for conversation on race issues.

I’m jumping all over that opportunity right now to explain what’s fucked up about “The Help” versus what’s cool about it.

“The Help” is, as I understand it, about a white protagonist coming of age and using the myths of black women’s lives to understand her own experiences. I think this is not in itself problematic and it’s normal for people to understand themselves by interpreting the stories of the world around them, but like a lot of things it’s all in the telling.

And, I would love to see more movies with major characters who are black women – movies about black women’s lives would be great, but I’d also like science fiction with black women protagonists, black women saving the world, black women in historical dramas, black women slaying dragons, black women telling their own stories.

So at a basic level, no big thing. Racial understanding and more movies with black women. Cool, right? But there are also some problems.

The first place this fails is that despite all the talk about black women it’s still a movie about a white protagonist in the savior role. It is not a movie about black women on their own terms or for their own consumption, but a white interpretation of black lives.

This is the thing about marginalization. It’s an experience where someone else interprets your life for you. It’s when someone else who doesn’t really get what your life is like tells you what it means and wants to act like they’re really enlightened about it.

It’s having them not get that the ways in which you are marginalized limit what you can say to them, or even in front of them.

It’s having them not get that because of the inherent power relationship, interactions are always tilted and having them tell your story is necessarily filtered through this lens and made to fit their view of the world.

If this movie opens up opportunities for dialogue and for people to try to talk to each other about their different experiences and become less racist, awesome. If it gets people to try to expand their reading or viewing experience to include more works about black women, awesome. If it gets people to demand that Hollywood make more movies about black women or just that aren’t all white men all the time, awesome.

If it’s more bullshit that reinforces stereotypes by dumbing down the realities of racism and the intersection of racism and sexism and smoothing over the horrors of history, that’s not awesome.

I imagine that a coming of age movie made by and for black people focusing on black domestic workers in the 60s in Mississippi would be substantially different.

For some reason Hollywood just didn’t make that movie this summer.


As someone who uses pseudonyms on the internet and who uses Google products fairly heavily, I’ve been following the Google+ realname policy with interest, especially given Facebook’s increasing insistence that everyone loves to share! and resetting the privacy defaults every two days without notifying users – an alternative would be welcome, but only if it’s less creepy.

So I did what any anal retentive internet pedant would do and read Google’s policy about realnames on G+.

From Google’s Privacy Center:

We have five privacy principles that describe how we approach privacy and user information across all of our products:

  1. Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

Nothing about realnames, right? So I went to the page about G+ specifically, which also had nothing about the realnames policy, and then the tab for User Content and Conduct Policy, which states

13. Display Name

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

I must say that Google has been decent at preventing spam, to the point where most of the spam that gets into my email is in languages I don’t recognize offhand. However, I’m not really sure what the issue is with fake profiles and whether Google is making any distinction about fakes versus established pseudonyms, especially with their assumption that you could be known as certain variations on your legal name but not that you might have a nickname or handle that you were better known by.

The problem is that I think a realnames policy is inconsistent with a policy that respects privacy. I think a meaningful user choice to protect privacy would first and foremost be a choice of what name you were known by.

People take pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, but I’m going to boil them down to as few reasons as possible. First, people take pseudonyms for safety reasons. Stalkers, rape survivors, death threats, being able to keep a job, avoiding conflict with relatives who have different political views, not being able to come out of the closet, being polyamorous… people who have something to lose if certain aspects of their lives are more widely known. There’s a good outline of some of those concerns here and here.

Second, people use pseudonyms professionally. Mark Twain, James Tiptree Jr., Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Manson, Dr. Seuss, George Orwell. Artists, writers, actors, anyone who does any kind of sex or naked work, which includes things like nude modeling for art classes.

Molly Crabapple has some choice words on the subject up on my name is me, where she talks about how she has built her identity under this pseudonym and this name is how she is known in her career.

Why shouldn’t she use the name she actually uses? If she thinks the best name for her to use is a pseudonym, why should Google say otherwise?

Similarly, Doctor Popular, who got his account shut down because G+ didn’t like his name:

When I first filed my appeal you told me that my name violated Google+’s Terms Of Services, which simply stated that I needed to “use the name that I commonly go by in daily life”, so I responded with newspaper articles (Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, etc) and statements from past employers that verified my daily name (or common law name) has been “Doctor Popular” for more than 12 years. Despite all this evidence, your support staff told me the only way to regain access to my accounts was to send in a copy of my government issued ID.

It’s one thing to shut people off from using G+ for violating the TOS, but cutting them off from other services and refusing to take the evidence of their identities is harsh to the point of being absurd and Kafka-esque.

The third reason is that pseudonyms are fun, and sometimes you want a new name and sometimes you want to do something fun that you want to insulate from the rest of your life. Most of the fun that people get up to on the internet is pretty harmless, but some of it has a stigma attached that maybe you’d like to avoid having to deal with at work or with your family not because it would be dangerous or you’re doing something wrong but just because sometimes you want some privacy. Maybe you’re a Harry Potter fan fiction writer or a recovering alcoholic or you model for art classes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s not illegal and it doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s normal to want to talk to other people who share your interests, but probably you don’t want to tell everyone in your life about it.

And this is where the lie of the transparent society comes in: the idea that people who are doing nothing wrong have nothing to be concerned about.

There’s a huge difference between not having concerns about the repercussions of wrongful actions or a particular wrongful action and just wanting some privacy. I’m not doing anything wrong when I poop, but I sure do like to do it alone. Sometimes it’s good to have a little space to do your thing, whether that’s talking to other people who love My Little Ponies as much as you do or trying to unionize at Starbucks because you’re sick of how they treat you or getting some support because you’re a gay teenager in Anoka, Minnesota and you can’t tell anyone.

You’re not doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t face consequences for being different. Danah Boyd sums this up well:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.

Why should Google have authority over what I’m called? Aren’t I in a better position to know what name I use and to make appropriate decisions about that?

Some of the higher-ups at Google think that people want to see realnames, but so what? Why should someone else’s desire to see my real name trump my desire to go by whatever name I choose, or to switch names in different forums? The EFF talks about Randi Zuckerberg’s desire to kill online privacy entirely essentially because of the greater internet fuckwad theory, which is a very negative take on an idea that Molly Crabapple illuminates well:

Anonymity online is an important protection for anyone who may receive persecution from their community- be they a Chinese dissident, a corporate whistle-blower, a trans-person, or someone with a sexual orientation or a physical condition that is marginalized.

Anonymity allows difficult truths to be said without persecution for the speaker. It allows honest discourse, self-determination, the free spread of information, and protest against repressive regimes.

Sounds like Randi Zuckerberg’s vision of the perfect internet is one where LinkedIn is the big social network, where we can all put up our photos of our most professional suits and possibly a carefully selected list of interests and no one ever chats or shares links because they’re busy being civil and professional.

Online dating would die.

As a note, LinkedIn is the only social networking service I know of that does not allow you to block individual users. The assumption is that everyone is behaving in a civil and professional manner, and they have been unresponsive to complaints that this is not in fact the case. This gives the lie to that realname structures will discourage bullying: pretending that we’re all being civil doesn’t make everyone’s behavior okay. It just makes it harder to hide from the bullies.

Realnames policies enforce existing hierarchies because people in power face few if any negative repercussions for the things they do and say. They have greater social freedom in general, and this is true on the internet the same way it is in the flesh, if not more so. Pseudonyms are a powerful equalizer and letting people determine what name they will be called is an important part of freedom of expression.

Conventions around naming are an element of the structure of discourse, and it’s more important than just your desire to be snapelover2000 rather than snapelover69. Forcing people to use names that are essentially assigned and checked by your government-issued ID is a stance on the ways this structure impacts people. Google can choose whether they want to support existing hierarchies of power and dominance, or whether they want to allow people to have room to challenge these structures to promote democracy and egalitarianism.

When Google tells me that I can only be who my driver’s license says I am, I can only be my official self that I want my parents and my boss to see. Making the whole internet a realname network would mean I would have to kill most of my personal projects, and having Google require this is very serious because the reach of Google is so broad.

The first step in a civil discourse is allowing people to introduce and identify themselves.


children and dogs in the courtroom

Advance warning: this post deals with court cases that involve adults raping children, which some people like being warned about. Consider yourself warned.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a New York Times article about the legal questions raised by having therapy dogs in the courtroom, and I think this is kind of an interesting legal issue.

The short version for people who don’t like clicking things is that a 15 year old girl was allowed to have a courtroom dog with her while she testified against her father, who was accused of raping her and making her pregnant. The dog, Rosie, is handled by ECAD, which is a group that trains service dogs to help people with various disabilities, like seeing eye and hearing ear dogs but also dogs trained to work with veterans and other people who suffer from PTSD and the like only this is a dog trained for courtroom support.

This is all pretty cool, unless you’re on the other side of the case.

The defense is raising a couple of legal issues around having dogs like Rosie in the courtroom, as is to be expected since as a lawyer your job is to do the best you can for your client, and if not to win their case then to ensure that they had a fair trial in the hopes that the wrong person doesn’t go to prison.

There are two concerns about the dogs, one concern for the witness and one for the jury.

With the jury the concern is straightforward and obvious: that the dog will sway their opinion with cuteness or that they’ll feel like the fact of having a therapy dog present will serve as a kind of silent evidence of its own, showing that the witness suffered some kind of trauma and therefore they must vote a certain way. Essentially, that the dog will make the witness more likable or seem more vulnerable.

With the witness, the concern is that the dog will help them lie, that the distraction of the dog will help someone who wants to lie cover it up by focusing on the dog.

These are legitimate concerns to have. My initial reaction was that a therapy dog is like another service dog, but in a criminal case it’s a bad idea to go with a pet therapy dog for a bunch of reasons that I will sum up by saying that a pet therapy dog is different from a courtroom dog, the training is different, and requirements and needs are different. A pet therapy dog is unlikely to be trained for a courtroom situation and there are limits on how many hours they can work (two hours) since a trial can go on and on for approximately ever. A dog that is trained by the witness or who lives with the witness poses an even more obvious problem. So, specialized courtroom dogs are the way to go if you’re going to have a dog in the courtroom, since they’re specifically trained for this situation and handled by people associated with the court.

So is it cool to have dogs in the courtroom?

The thing with the dogs is that testifying is pretty hard for some people, and it’s notably hard for kids and people who’ve been through significant trauma. It’s a long, grueling process. First you have direct examination, from the lawyer on your side, where they run you through whatever horrible thing happened in excruciating detail. This can take hours and reawaken things you’re desperately trying to move on from. Then the other side gets to cross-examine you, and this is pure hell. The cross-examination is to get out any information favorable to the other side and if there is no information favorable to the other side, to tear you down as a witness. The cross-examination is to show that you’re wrong, you don’t remember, you were having a mental breakdown that was unrelated to any trauma you may be imagining, that you’re lying or otherwise just not believable. This is horrible to go through as an adult who understands the process. It has got to be even worse for a kid, especially a kid who’s been traumatized. For a criminal case, the jury has to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty in order to convict. I’m guessing if you knock up your teenage daughter that’s not too hard, but as a lawyer in order to get your defendant off the hook sometimes all you can do is muddy the water a little so that the jury can’t be sure.

On top of that, a defendant has the right to face their accuser in court. This means that when you testify against someone who has done something truly terrible to you, you have to do it with them sitting there in the room looking at you. Back in the day in England defendants didn’t have the right to face their accusers or see the evidence, so you had these freaky trials where you couldn’t cross-examine witnesses or see the evidence or even really know what you were up against and you were pretty much guaranteed to lose, much like Bush tried to do with the military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. So here the founders were like “hey that’s bad, let’s not have that anymore” and they wrote the constitution and they were not really thinking about girls whose dads rape them having to testify. Probably they were not thinking about kids or even women at all since a lot of this is about the “reasonable man” standard, but that’s a huge tangent that I’m not going on right now.

To get back to the subject, testifying is really hard on people and the protections of the criminal justice system, such as they are, are made for the accused, not the other witnesses, since the accused is the one who may be going to prison or being executed or something. And this focus on the defendant is absolutely valid, but it doesn’t mean the defendant gets to dictate the entire process.

It’s difficult in general to take testimony from kids, and obviously the younger they are the harder this is. With very small children you have to see if they can understand what’s going on well enough to testify reliably, like if they get that they have to answer questions truthfully and whether they can handle the situation. With slightly older kids, there’s a whole bunch of case law on allowing various things to help them testify without freaking out.

It turns out there’s a whole bunch of cases where a kid was allowed to have something to help them out. In Holmes v. United States, 171 F.2d 1022 (1948), the court let a 9 year old testify while sitting on her mom’s lap while testifying against the man who raped her and beat her almost to death:

The first point of appellant’s appeal is that the court erred in on its own motion permitting the child complainant to sit on her mother’s lap while she testified. This it was asserted might tend to inflame the jury. The child was a little girl of nine who had been subjected to a most terrible and horrifying experience to a degree which might well influence the balance of her life. She was at the moment on crutches and with her leg in a cast. What might have inflamed the jury was the pitiable condition of the little girl herself and it would doubtless have inflamed them more if she had been unable to sit in the witness stand comfortably by herself or had been compelled to stand on her crutches with her leg in a cast while testifying. The action of the trial court sua sponte in permitting the child to sit on her mother’s lap to put the child at ease as much at least as was possible under the trying circumstances was not only proper as a humanitarian act but was praiseworthy as being in the interest of justice.

So this was significantly about the kid’s physical comfort.

In State v. Johnson, 38 Ohio App. 3d 152, an 8 year old sat in her aunt’s lap:

“In this particular case in the pretrial hearing the court took note of the demeanor and the appearance of the alleged victim in this case on the witness stand and was able to form from her appearance and her demeanor what appeared to be a state of mind in which she was either frightened or embarrassed substantially and with what appeared to be a decided reluctance to speak concerning the matter at issue.

“The court is mindful of the risk which has just been enunciated by defense counsel with respect to a situation in which a child of tender years could be perhaps indirectly coerced or at least influenced by virtue of having someone with whom she is familiar with her at the time that she offers testimony * * * and in balancing these interests which rub off on the complete and total right under the Sixth Amendment right of the defendant to confront the witness in a way in which the child of tender years who is the witness is free from influence by outside sources in any way whatsoever or sources of any kind.

“In balancing these interests the court has determined in this particular case that the interests of society outweigh the concerns enunciated by the defense.

and

The perceived need of the witness to sit on the lap of the aunt, her reluctance to answer direct questions, the need for leading questions to elicit answers and the demeanor of the infant-witness, all could be construed by a jury as diminishing, rather than extending, the credibility of the witness.

Which is essentially the court saying that while it’s important not to interfere with the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, it’s also important for the kid to be able to testify at all and having someone there with her could undermine her credibility as easily as supporting it.

In Baxter v. State, 522 NE 2d 362, one of the kids was allowed to hold her mom’s hand:

Baxter also concludes that the testimony of S.W. should not be considered because her mother held her hand throughout S.W.’s testimony. Without elaborating, he claims that such conduct prejudiced the jury against him. The trial court had discretion to allow special measures aimed at putting the young child at ease on the witness stand. See Ricketts v. State (1986), Ind., 498 N.E.2d 1222. We fail to see how Baxter was unduly prejudiced, particularly considering that the victims’ mother testified and denied the sexual abuse.

This one is pretty clearly not about the kid taking signals from an adult, but about her comfort in the courtroom and ability to testify.

There are also a bunch of cases about kids taking dolls or toys into the courtroom. In State v. Cliff, 116 Idaho 921, 782 P. 2d 44 (1989) (the citation I found is through the courtroom dogs website), where an 8 year old brought a doll with her to help her not panic

[…]the trial court must strike a balance between the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the witness’s need for an environment in which he or she will not be intimidated into silence or to tears.

so the defendant argued that it impeded his ability to cross-examine, and the Appellate Court said

the Confrontation Clause grants only “an opportunity for effective cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.”

Which means the goal is effective testimony within the bounds of the Sixth Amendment, not reaching the verdict that the defendant wants. It’s not about ensuring a particular verdict at all, but that the process is fair. While we must always be careful not to prejudice the jury and to protect defendants’ rights and the presumption of innocence as paramount, it’s also necessary to separate out what actually interferes with cross-examination and what merely offers comfort to the witness so that they can testify at all – what the defendant’s rights are, versus what they merely desire. When we can satisfy the defendant’s rights and make things a little easier on a witness who’s having trouble testifying and being in the courtroom setting, especially when the accommodation is for the purpose of getting testimony, then we should do that.

In conclusion, if you rape your 15 year old daughter and make her pregnant, the thing swaying the jury against you is probably not that there’s a dog sitting with her.


Foreskin Man and how to undermine your own campaign

Today I was poking around the internet, like you do, and came across one of the worst comics I have ever seen in my life, Foreskin Man.

I read this comic so you don’t have to.

Foreskin Man is an Aryan-looking dude who fights the evil people who want to cut your infant son’s junk. Regardless of the merits of the arguments against circumcising infant boys, this comic is racist, anti-semitic, anti-medical care, and generally could not undermine its own case more seriously if that were the author’s explicit goal.

In the first issue, Foreskin Man saves a baby boy from being forcibly circumcised by a doctor who turns into a Hulk-like monster while the baby’s mom is right there saying no. It smacks of the anti-choice portrayal of doctors cruelly tricking ignorant women into having abortions they don’t want and of course involves Foreskin Man saving a beautiful helpless woman’s baby.

In the second issue, blond, blue-eyed Foreskin Man’s enemy is Monster Mohel, a rabbi. Monster Mohel. He has goons. They’re even called goons in the comic. GOONS. I did not call them that. The scene is at a bris, where the evil dad has secretly scheduled a circumcision so the baby boy can have access to his evil Jewish heritage. The mohel and his goons are possibly the worst stereotypes I have ever seen outside of nazi propaganda. Even a lot of the nazi propaganda I’ve seen is milder than this. Again Foreskin Man comes to the rescue of a beautiful helpless woman’s baby.

In the third issue, Foreskin Man goes to Kenya and teams up with Vulva Girl to fight genital mutilation – she saves the girls and he saves the boys! Aryan Foreskin Man saves babies from black people, who are of course ignorant savages. At least there’s a beautiful woman here who isn’t totally helpless. That’s the best thing I can say about this comic, which is overall less appealing than Harley Quinn’s new costume for the DC reboot. It’d be better if Vulva Girl could just save the baby herself, but women can’t save baby boys from circumcision! That’s a man’s job.

In general the idea seems to be that a blond, blue-eyed white guy in a pervert suit saves babies from a terrible fate perpetrated by monsters. Which is to say non-aryans.

This comic fails on pretty much every level there is. Foreskin Man doesn’t seem to have any real reason for his obsession with baby junk. There is no discussion of health issues, sanitation, or what advantages there might be to not circumcising. There’s no discussion of parents’ rights or the law. The autonomy argument is made something like once and not very clearly. The author confuses the issue by always having a fight between the parents about whether they want to circumcise their son, with dad as pro-circumcision and mom tearfully and helplessly against, essentially serving as the voice for the infant because women don’t have opinions themselves and aren’t equal partners in decisionmaking anyway. The villains are the worst kind of stereotypes. It comes off as advocating that white aryan men should be in charge because all those other men want to hurt babies, and women are too weak to do more than stand by and wail. Except maybe Vulva Girl, who we don’t really see much except so the author can kind of try to get in that circumcision is just exactly like female genital mutilation.

Way to promote a white supremacist heteropatriachal worldview and make a shitty comic at the same time.

Next time you make a comic called Foreskin Man, do it right and make it a porno fetish book.