Theatre and Queerness at St. Olaf

By Leilah Kidess

Theatre has always been a place for people to explore different controversial topics. It is often a judgment free place in which audiences are able to form their own ideas about issues based on what they see on stage. In the past, theatre has been used to discuss issues such as wars, poverty, racism, and LGBT+ rights. The theatre community in general is often a place where minorities and those discriminated against can feel welcome. This has included the LGBT+ community and continues to do so.

The inclusivity and ability to talk about issues for the LGBT+ community is true of the theatre department at St. Olaf this year. As a member of the LGBT+ community, I have always felt welcome in our theatre department. There are many other members of the LGBT+ community in the theatre department and the professors of the department go out of their way to be welcoming and respectful to everyone. Many of the theatre productions this year had some queer ideas present and students in the department have also been exploring ideas in the LGBT+ community.

In the fall production of the comedy Love of Three Oranges, written by Carlo Gozzi and directed by Jeanne Willcoxon and Irve Dell, many of the characters were intentionally gender-bent. This created a very queer feel to the show. The prince in the show was played by Shannon Cron. This created an interesting dynamic, especially when the prince married a girl at the end of the show and the prince took of his hat. There was a bow in Shannon’s hair. This little touch created a subtle yet powerful statement about LGBT+ rights and the complexity and fluidity of gender and sexuality. Denzel Belin and Joey LeBrun both dressed in drag for the show. Denzel played a princess while Joey played a witch. They both wore heels and wigs to enhance their characters. Seton FitzMacken also played a man who assisted the villains of the show and wore a baseball cap. Along with the gender-bending, the king’s assistant, played by Nathan Aastuen, and the king, played by Memo Rodriguez had some implied onstage romance. The assistant comically portrayed his crush on the king and they shared some comical romantic moments. All in all, this show challenged the norms of gender and sexuality in a very palatable manner.

In the interim production of Cymbeline, written by William Shakespeare and directed by Gary Gisselman and Jon Ferguson, there was a lot of intentional gender-bending. Lily Bane played Polydore, a son to Belarius and was a hunter that lived in a cave. The character was fairly masculine and engaged in sword fights and even chopped off the prince’s head. Megan Behnke played Belarius, the father of Polydore and a hunter as well. Seton FitzMacken played Doctor Cornelius, a comical doctor that knew all the events of the play. Christine Menge played Caius Lucius, a Roman general that battled the Britains and King Cymbeline. Victoria Green played a French gentleman, a British lord, and a Roman attendant to Caius Lucius.

In the student-directed one-acts this spring, The Twilight of the Golds, written by Jonathan Tolins and directed by Olivia Mansfield, dealt with issues of abortion and homosexuality. The play follows the journey of a family comprised of a mother, father, gay son, daughter, and her husband. The play takes place at a time when prenatal screening has just gotten to the point where physicians can detect almost everything about the fetus with almost-complete certainty, including the fetus’ sexuality. The daughter of the family discovers that she is pregnant and learns that her baby will be gay, like her brother. The daughter and her husband must then decide whether or not to abort their child. The son finds out what his sister is planning and confronts his parents about it and asks them whether or not they would have aborted him if they knew and then confronts his sister. This show was very powerful and confronted many controversial issues without explicitly telling the audience what they should feel. I think that this show very effectively portrayed the subject matter and introduced issues for the LGBT+ community in a very accurate and captivating manner.

For his theatre senior capstone project, Joey LeBrun decided to look at gender as performance. To do this, Joey dressed up in drag for a full week and documented his experience. He called his project “Born Naked” and was looking to start a dialogue of gender as performance on the St. Olaf campus. He went about his daily life dressed as a drag queen and had different costumes each day. He got his inspiration from a RuPaul quote which says: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag!”

The Evolution of Gay TV

By Maddie Braun

The representation of LGBT characters on television has come a long way since 1971, when the sitcom “All in the Family” introduced the first openly gay character on broadcast TV. “All in the Family” tackled many controversial topics in its 12-year run, but the subject of homosexuality was an especially timely topic, as the gay rights movement was just beginning at that point. The show started many conversations and brought new, heavier topics into the public eye. For five consecutive years, from 1971 to 1976, the show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which measure audience size. There was both support and disapproval for the subject matter of the show. President Nixon, for example, expressed in an interview that he did not think the homosexuality represented in the show belonged on TV. Forty four years later, the representation of LGBT characters on television has changed drastically. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report on the diversity of television characters shows how.

During the 2014-2015 season, there were 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime broadcast series. This made up 3.9% of the regular characters, up 0.6% from the 2013-2014 season. Besides these regular characters, there were also 33 recurring LGBT characters on these series. On cable series during the 2014-2015 season, there were 64 regular LGBT characters, including 41 recurring characters.

The racial diversity of LGBT characters has also broadened over the years. Interestingly, the diversity of LGBT broadcast characters mirrors the diversity shown among broadcast regular characters of all sexualities. Of all of the broadcast characters this season, the make-up was 73% white, 13% black, 8% Latino/a, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. Of the LGBT broadcast characters, 74% were white, 11% were black, 11% were Latino/a, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and there were no multi-racial LGBT characters. While the percentages of black and multi-racial characters were lower among the LGBT characters, the percentages of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander characters were slightly higher. On cable series, the racial diversity of LGBT characters was even greater. The make-up on these series was 66% white, 10% black, 11% Latino/a, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% multi-racial.

As these statistics show, diversity amongst LGBT television is growing. This diversity does not pertain just to race and sexuality. These characters represent different age categories, economic standpoints, careers, family situations, and personalities.

Of all of the broadcast networks, Fox had the most LGBT characters, with an impressive 6.5% of their regular characters being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. One of the network’s new shows this season, “Empire,” a drama about a family in the music business, depicted two young gay characters: one regular character and one recurring character. The regular character here is Jamal, the young, black son of the main characters. The recurring character is his boyfriend Michael, a young Mexican man. Jamal faces negative attitudes from his parents regarding his sexuality, especially from his father. This is a main recurring theme on the show in regard to this character. Though Jamal’s mother thinks he will have trouble in the music industry because of his sexuality, she still supports him and believes he can become a star. His father, on the other hand, disapproves completely of his sexuality. Jamal is portrayed as a smart, talented musician, but he refuses to pursue a career in the music industry, due in part to struggles he envisions himself facing because of his sexuality.

Over on CBS, “The Good Wife” presents the character of Kalinda Sharma, a young bisexual Indian investigator who is good friends with the main character of the show. The character of Kalinda is powerful and compelling. Though she is revealed to have an estranged husband, she dates and engages in sexual activities with multiple men and women during the course of the show.

When LGBT characters first began appearing on television, they had a personality and story of their own, but the storylines regarding these characters were one-dimensional and faced the same issues of homophobia and disapproval. Both of the characters discussed here, along with many other LGBT characters on TV now, are strong, unique people that are more than just a label, even as they still face issues common to the LGBT community. They represent real people, with their diverse personalities and backgrounds, but facing the same issues underneath their differences. Even so, LGBT characters still make up a small percentage of all of those on television. There is an even larger, more diverse LGBT community in the real world, whose experiences are not all represented by these few television shows.

Of course, LGBT characters have always drawn both praise and criticism. One of the most recent controversies involved the television show “The Fosters” and the youngest gay kiss in TV history. Recently, two 13-year-old male characters were shown kissing on the show. Some made remarks calling the event a “sin” and “cultural suicide,” but the co creators of the show, Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, spoke out in defense of the scene. Bredeweg explained, “When people question the scene my response has been: ‘Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you?’ Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, ‘I was 12, 13, and 14 years old,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world.'”

Bredeweg’s point is fair, and brings to mind the progress that has been made so far on television. Homosexual romances in general were once seen as a huge taboo and were criticized, though graphic heterosexual romances were seen as acceptable. Over time LGBT characters and relationships have become much more accepted in the media. The young kiss will, hopefully, mirror this progress in television. Though it has caused a stir recently, it is over an issue that has been seen many times from young straight characters of the same age. Hopefully this scene will break ground and pave the way for young gay characters’ romances to be just as accepted as those of straight characters.

So the question remains, where are we now? LGBT representation on television has shown a definite improvement over the years, but is it enough? It seems to me that the diversity of television characters could, and should, be broadened even more. Steps are being made in the right direction, but hopefully in years to come, we will be able to look back at today’s lineup and see an even more diverse and accurate portrayal of LGBT characters.

Pride Reconsidered

By Lilia Escobar

Every year, Chicago hosts its annual gay pride parades. I have, unfortunately, only attended the parade once but I hope to attend again in the future. These yearly events bring out the inner “divas” in all of my friends. Every year, I see countless posts from my friends dressed in the clothes that make them feel sexiest and surrounded by the most colorful individuals. The parade itself is very representative of the sexual liberation in the LGBTQ community. It is an event where it is okay to be who you are and being gay is something to celebrate! It is always a fun time, although it never fails to bring its share of business, traffic, violence, and accidents.

Reading over some articles reflecting on the Pride parade in Chicago, there is a wide array of responses to these events. One blog post, entitled “Crime in Wrigleyville and Boystown”, called the violence and crime surrounding the event “the usual.” In the comments section, one individual weighed in, “Pride? It’s a shame how Chicago has portrayed us in the public eye in sake of the almighty $. Seriously…” This argument isn’t something new. One thing these arguments fail to see is whom these events are created for.

One of the questions introduced by this commenter is, do Pride parades create a positive or negative image of the LGBTQA community? In a survey conducted by City Data, the results revealed a general belief that Pride parades create an overall negative representation of the queer community to both heterosexual individuals and non-heterosexual individuals. Reading through a discussion of the subject on Quora.com, a commenter brought up a new perspective on the question: “The original intent of gay pride events were designed to create neither a positive nor a negative impact…it’s more reasonable to assume that the point was to demonstrate that gays were a group larger and more organized…” This is an interesting point and brings up a concern: are the parades even intended to impact the perception of the LGBTQ community? Thinking about other parades (Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.) these are generally celebration, not a stage for representation of any given group involved. People rarely use the St. Patrick’s Day parade to make a critical analysis of Irish-Americans. The part in the quote where the commenter mentions organization is an intriguing concept I had not thought about in analyzing Pride parades. Sure, the event is a celebration and a public statement of liberation, but it is also a way of proving the movement’s strength, presence, and threat. It makes a statement of “we’re here to stay and we’re not alone,” as countless queer folks and allies walk proudly through the parade.

The place where this sense of resilience and power becomes tricky is when it compromises the rest of the Chicago community and/or violates other city laws. A Chicago news site called DNAinfo addressed the issue of police crackdown on public drinking. A local Chicagoan argued, “There were too many people for police to realistically enforce the rule…” This is where the argument against the parade stops being about gay public representation and starts being about the exemption of city law because there is just too large of a group involved in the breaking of a law. While the argument against Pride parades may become about crime and public intoxication, it does not change the impact and importance of the parade. The same arguments can be applied to just about any other public event, parade, or march.

Thinking back on the concept of gay liberation movements, these parades create an interesting paradox. If the parades are indeed created to show the strength of the movement and/or the organization of the movement, who are they trying to prove themselves to? Queer culture in itself calls for strength and empowerment, so why do they have to prove they can organize an event like a parade?

Even with this, the pride parade still makes a big statement, and that is something that it will never lose. For individuals seeking sexual freedom, the parade is a place to step out publicly in a way that they might never have otherwise. The parade allows for sexuality to be expressed on a spectrum in a way that is not obvious anywhere else. You’ll see all of the letters of the alphabet soup represented, as well as subtle differences from sexual/gender “norms.” This is something special that only public celebrations as this can spark.

With that, the magic and beauty of a Pride celebration should be preserved. If this means enforcing the laws in a stricter way, or assuring the safety of all the individuals involved, so be it. There is a much larger and more important message that should not be silenced by the incidence of violence and law-breaking at these events.

If Canada Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

By Anabel Kapelke

Marriage inequality has had a profound effect on many people in my life, and has consequently resulted in my life being immensely impacted by discriminatory marriage laws. My first encounter with marriage injustice occurred before I was ten. They were the only gay couple I knew, and coincidentally they were the people who first opened my eyes to homosexuality as a social category. Before this, I did not even consider the possibility that a woman did not have to marry a man and vice versa. At the time, of course, I did not really understand the magnitude of the situation.

Tim and Dave lived on a small farm in rural northern Minnesota. My dad met Dave in his office, and the pair became fast friends. Soon the entire family was invited to visit their home. I have fond memories of road-tripping to Tim and Dave’s farm, and even better memories of my time at their house. Spending time at the farm furnished some of my fondest childhood memories. Consequently, even as a child, I started asking myself why American society could not accept them as a couple.

Tim and Dave had been together for years, and finally fed up with America’s prejudice, the happy couple moved to Ontario, where gay marriage was legal, to make their partnership real in the eyes of the law. They had to uproot their lives in the United States for the sole purpose of getting married. Luckily for them, Canada was far more progressive than America, legalizing gay marriage across the entire country just one year later.

America’s progress toward marriage equality began at a later date, and is currently taking longer to make the same developments Canada has already made. Since the 1920s, the idea of homosexual legal union has been an idea on the minds of many Americans. The movement picked up pace in the 1960s and 70s and gained significantly more attention and power in the 1990s. So what were the driving forces behind the acceleration? In Why Marriage?, historian George Chauncey notes that the three most important factors in the level of determination for marriage equality were the progressively expanding acknowledgement and acceptance granted to the LGBT community, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and the lesbian baby boom of the 1980s.

Canada’s thirst for gay marriage also heightened in the 1980s, with an increasing level of acceptance. Many couples were living together openly and wanted the same rights be granted to them as to straight couples. Unlike in the United States, some Canadian courts began to grant limited recognition to the couples. Canada also had to cope with the losses of the AIDS epidemic, which contributed to the marriage equality movement as well. The majority of the movement took place in the 1990s. One influential factor was the issue of children. Much like the lesbian baby boom in the United States, gay parents in Canada wanted the same rights afforded to them, including rights revolving around couples adopting. Throughout the 90s, the marital rights granted to couples progressively got better. Cases like Egan vs. Canada and M vs. H display the importance the LGBT community was putting on receiving equal “spousal” benefits. These cases are also representative of the progress being made at that point. Following M vs. H, same-sex couples were granted the same rights as unmarried straight couples based on conjugal cohabitation, or living together for a certain number of years.

After the 90s things progressed quite rapidly for Canada, and also took a turn for the better in the United States. In the early 2000s, many others appealed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms after the decision made in M vs. H. The monumental 2003 Ontario Court of Appeal case of Halpern vs. Canada resulted in the recognition that denying homosexuals the right to get married violated the rights provided to them under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Within two years of that decision, on July 20, 2005, gay marriage was declared legal across Canada.

The 21st century held tremendous progress for the United States as well. The year of 2004 held particular triumph for the LGBT community, with Massachusetts and San Francisco handing out marriage licenses to gay couples. Since then 36 states have legalized gay marriage.

Overall the two countries have showed steady progress and similar reasoning behind their determination to make marriage available to everyone. Evolution of rights and acknowledgement, the AIDS epidemic, and the issue of children all seem to be similar catalysts in both Canada’s and America’s mission for marriage equality. The core issue with the United States’ lack of progress in comparison to Canada’s is due to the level at which the laws are operating. In Canada all marriage laws are decided at the federal level, while in America each state has the power to decide the laws on same-sex marriage. Ontario was the first to legalize gay marriage after the Ontario Court of Appeals decision in the Halpern vs. Canada case, however, some provinces like Alberta rejected the new definition of marriage. Not long after the Halpern decision. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that only the federal government had power over marriage laws consequently resulting in federal legalization of gay marriage. Unfortunately, the federal government is not allowed to place executive power over each state’s decisions. This, however, does not excuse the fact that Canada legalized gay marriage ten years ago, and yet there are still 13 states in the US that have a ban on same-sex marriage. There is still hope for the United States, however, especially in light of the expected Supreme Court decision this summer. The court must determine whether the Constitution grants homosexual couples the right to get married, and if they decide same-sex marriage is legal under the constitution, homosexual couples will be legally able to marry throughout the entirety of the United States.

Although marriage equality has come a long way in America, we are tragically trailing Canada’s progress. Interestingly, the couple that opened my eyes to gay marriage moved to Canada in 2004, the very year that the mayor of San Francisco started issuing legal marriage license for gay and lesbian couples and that Massachusetts first legalized gay marriage. Although this was a momentous break in the fight for marriage equality in the United States, it was just too little too late for two northern Minnesota farmers who still remain in Ontario to this day.

Social Media and the Transgender Community

By Kathryn Reed

As a user of the blogging and social media website Tumblr, I know that there is a large LGBTQA+ community on this site. Many of my followers and the people whose blogs I follow are part of this community, including the transgender community. I’ve noticed how this particular social media site provides a space for transgender individuals to network with each other. Although there is, as yet, no scholarly literature about this particular online community, sociologist Matthew G. O’Neill has discussed how social media sites like YouTube are a space for transgender individuals to express their identity and provide support for other transgender people. In a chapter entitled “Transgender Youth and YouTube Videos: Self-Representation and Five Identifiable Trans Youth Narratives” that appeared in the edited collection Queer Youth and Media Cultures, O’Neill states, “Clearly trans youth have a need for artistic expression, and YouTube offers a valuable performative and discursive space, allowing the individual to become aware of their chosen gender identity.” I think that many of the concepts O’Neill discusses are applicable to the transgender community on Tumblr, on top of the unique dynamics that define Tumblr as a blogging website.

According to O’Neill, there are five basic types of narratives that are produced by transgender youth on YouTube. First, there are the transition videos. These videos consist of pictures from different stages of the transition process, from one’s birth gender through the beginnings of hormone therapy, surgeries, and eventually to one’s preferred gender. Second, there are “DIY Gender” videos, in which the individual gives tips on how to dress and pass as their preferred gender. For example, for a transgender female to male, this could include advice on how to use a chest binder to get a flatter chest in order to present as a cisgender male. Third, there are trans video blog, which are video diaries of daily life experiences. These videos can be on topics like physical changes from hormone therapy, coming out to family and friends, using preferred gender bathrooms, and experiences at school as a transgender individual.

The fourth type of narrative O’Neill discusses is the trans anti-bullying videos. In these videos, individuals talk about their own experiences with bullying and discrimination because of their transgender status and offer tips to other transgender individuals about how to cope with bullying and discrimination. Fifth and finally, there are celebrity trans video blogging videos. These are videos from famous transgender people such as Chaz Bono, who talk about their own personal experiences of being trans. These videos are inspirational for transgender youth who look up to these people as role models not just because of their celebrity status, but also because they understand what young people are going through in terms of the complexities and issues that come with transgender identity.

O’Neill states that these videos “build an empathetic online community which respects the idea that, while every trans experience is different, there is a role for ongoing non-judgmental support for each individual at each stage of their journey.” Each person’s experience as a transgender individual is different, from differences in familial support to specific bodily changes. Through these videos, people can still find similarities in each other’s experiences, which creates a network of support as transgender people realize that they are not alone in their identity and the challenges they face. The videos are a platform for self-expression and community building.

Structurally, Tumblr is different from YouTube because instead of creating videos, transgender users create written blog posts about transgender-related issues. They can choose to post pictures and videos as well, but the primary content is written because Tumblr is a blogging website. However, content of these written narratives is essentially the same as the five types of transgender YouTube narratives that O’Neill describes. These Tumblr posts act as a form of digital literature that explores transgender issues and experiences. With the “archive” feature on Tumblr, one can look back at past posts and see the progression of an individual’s narrative overtime, like a personal digital storybook. The online dimension of these blog narratives also makes them accessible to a global audience, which is not the case with traditional print literature.

Tumblr also allows for an aspect of anonymity that is not as feasible with YouTube videos. In a video one’s identity is very much out in the open unless the creator decides to use a fake name or to alter their appearance. But on Tumblr, it is easier to maintain an anonymous identity because you do not have to include any identifiable information about yourself or show your physical appearance if you do not want to. Moreover, Tumblr has the feature of being able to ask other bloggers questions anonymously. This aspect of anonymity is a good way to stay connected with the transgender online community without “outing” oneself to the world, especially if the asker is not open with friends and family about their identity, or lives their life as “stealth” to the people around them.

Taking part in an online social media community like YouTube or Tumblr does come with some risks. Online bullying because of their gender identity is a risk that transgender people face when being open about their identity in a public space such as the internet. However, the sense of community is strong enough that people still feel like they can access the online transgender community as a safe space to be open about their gender identity without worrying too much about online bullying.

Overall, social media sites such as Tumblr and YouTube are unique mediums for transgender individuals to express their gender identity, discuss their personal experiences, and provide support for other members of the trans community.

Queer in Magic: The Gathering

By Jakob Asplund

Magic: The Gathering (commonly abbreviated as MTG, or Magic) is a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, and is played by approximately twelve million players around the globe, as of 2011.

With a variety of formats and a 22 year history, Magic continues to thrive on the creativity of its players and the community surrounding the sagas contained within. Each set of Magic is a story of a magical world, with “planes walkers” as important characters who can travel between them.

Stories follow typically follow a particular theme, and can be based on real life histories and mythologies: the two most recent blocks (three sets tied together mechanically and narratively) are based on Greek myth and Asian cultures, respectively.

Despite Magic’s rich and diverse history, the community surrounding it can have its own set of challenges. As with many gaming communities, sexist and racist attitudes can permeate a predominantly white male culture, and at times, the cards themselves can support such attitudes. There are few planes walker cards, around 30 (this is out of more than 20,000 cards ever produced), and only seven are of women, with one agender (which will be discussed later). Magic has a history of good writing when it comes to female characters, but in recent years, it has done much to increase the amount of representation.

The Theros block is based on Greek Mythology, with a fairly open queer element for the time; after all, this is the culture responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, and even the gods themselves are put in queer situations: Zeus and Ganymede, his cup bearer; Artemis and Calysto, and many others. As such, I think that it is fitting that this is the first culture used by Magic to portray openly queer characters.

As such, there are two cards from this set that stand out: The Guardians of Meletis, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. The Guardians of Meletis depict two royal figures guarding a river, the one on the right wreathed in armor. The card’s “flavor text,” the italic text on the bottom of the card that helps paint the larger narrative picture, says that the two rulers were in fact lovers, not the feuding rulers history thought them to be. A fan wrote in to the blog of Doug Beyer, one of the core writers and card developers for MTG, and asked: “Are the Guardians or Meletis Magic’s first gay Couple? Or am I misgendering one of them? Also, thank you so much for Ashiok! LGBTQ representation is awesome.”

Ashiok is a controller of nightmares and information, coming from an unknown world to Theros, the name of this plane, to experiment.

A decidedly cold and cruel character, many have questioned the intent of creating such an evil “token” character. Magic weekly posts fiction written by its development team to flesh out the story, and Ashiok appears in one to torment a local king and harvest his nightmares. Phenax, god of lies and deceit, one of the rulers of this plane, appears before Ashiok and says: “When the two had first met, the figure had called itself Ashiok…..  He, no, Phenax was not sure if the mortal even had a gender, Ashiok.” Thus, even a god does not know how to describe Ashiok’s gender.

Doug Beyer, the writer mentioned previously, received another comment that asked about Ashiok’s gender. In German, the card was given the pronoun “der”, which is masculine, and Doug Beyer replied by writing: “Others may attribute gender to Ashiok, but Ashiok does not define Ashiok’s own identity that way. Some languages require the use of a gendered pronoun, just like some people’s beliefs require other people to fall into clearly-defined categories. (I think Ashiok would be amused to hear those people’s attempts at categorizing Ashiok.) The effect of language on gender, and vice versa, is a complicated issue. But whatever any text or card or pronoun might claim, Ashiok’s gender identity is up to one person: Ashiok. And Ashiok hasn’t said, and won’t. So it’s officially unknown, just like many other mysteries about this mage.”

I think this response is rather fitting for a character who fooled the god of lies; the answer is simply a mystery. This queerest of characters will keep people guessing for a while.

The most recent expansion of Magic is the Tarkir block, which is set on a world populated by dragons and warring clans and is based on historical Asian cultures. There are groups based on the Thai empire, Tibetan Monks, Persians, Siberians, and the Mongol Horde. The leader of the Mardu Clan (modeled after the reign of Genghis Khan), which is devoted to warfare and freedom, is a 19-year-old transwoman with a blade canonically “as wide and as long as her arm.”

Yeah, rock on. The story for this character, known both as Alesha and by the epithet “Who Smiles At Death,” paints an interesting image of identity. The trans identity of the character is not the focus of this story, so much as knowing one’s own identity.

The Mardu people have a naming ritual where you earn the right to name yourself, and Alesha has an interesting story to tell of hers:

“She had been so different—only sixteen, a boy in everyone’s eyes but her own, about to choose and declare her name before the khan and all the Mardu.

The khan had walked among the warriors, hearing the tales of their glorious deeds. One by one, they declared their new war names, and each time, the khan shouted the names for all to hear. Each time, the horde shouted the name as one, shaking the earth.

Then the khan came to Alesha. She stood before him, snakes coiling in the pit of her stomach, and told how she had slain her first dragon. The khan nodded and asked her name.

“Alesha,” she said, as loudly as she could. Just Alesha, her grandmother’s name.

“Alesha!” the khan shouted, without a moment’s pause.

And the whole gathered horde shouted “Alesha!” in reply. The warriors of the Mardu shouted her name. In that moment, if anyone had told her that in three years’ time she would be khan, she just might have dared to believe it.”

This is an example of extreme inclusivity I think, especially in such a seemingly hypermasculine culture that this Genghis Khan expy) seems to embody. But it is much different than that, as Alesha remarks later. Her identity is called into question by a nameless orc, who calls her a “human boy who thinks he’s a woman.” “I know who I am,” Alesha says to him, still smiling. “Now show me who you are.”

This response is fantastic, such a verification of her own sense of self, while even as it questions that of a person that she knows to be lost. Later, after the battle, she confronts the orc again, who had proven helpful to everyone around him, saving them, protecting them, allowing them to deal the final blow. But he claims he has no glory, and the dialogue continues:

“I know who I am. I am not a boy. I am Alesha, like my grandmother before me.” Several of the nearest warriors murmured their approval.

“And I know who you are,” she said. “The Mardu know you. But you—you think every Mardu must be a Backbreaker or Helmsmasher. You think your deeds are not as glorious as theirs. And you are wrong.” She let go of his armor and shoved him, sending him stumbling back a few steps.

“When you learn what your place among the Mardu is, then you can choose a name.”

This story of her triumph as an individual is not about her trans identity. In fact, while the story mentions it, this is mostly about her interaction with the nameless orc rather than the fact that she is trans. This story is about knowing yourself and loving yourself, of finding a group of people who accept you for who you choose to be, whatever or whoever that is.

Alesha vows to help this nameless orc, the person who dared to misgender his leader in combat, to find his own place among the Mardu. Because knowing yourself and being yourself is the absolute freedom.

A Perspective on Gender Seen Through Flawless Lashes

By Corey Brooke

Before hosting a party in my dorm for the first time, I spent half an hour sitting in front of a mirror trying to attach a pair of the longest fake eyelashes I could find at Target. I had no idea what I was doing, and glue dripped onto my clothes and into my eyes—but for all its power to stain and irritate, the adhesive would not keep the lashes on my eyelids. I never doubted, though, that the trouble would be worthwhile: I was going to make the lashes work, and, eventually, I did.

That night, I was in control of my body. I had fun with how others saw me and even how I saw myself. I felt self-consciously and intentionally beautiful. Nevertheless, I took nothing about the lashes seriously—I wore them sardonically, though not without personal effect, like some sort of joke fluttering up and down on my face, reminding myself and my friends that I do not have to perform beauty norms (or even gender norms) in order to have a good night and feel satisfied with my appearance. Ultimately, I freed myself in an entirely new way, reshuffling dictations about tackiness, about glamour, about gender. But what was it that freed me, and how?

Before answering that question, it is worth saying that I am not a woman, have never considered myself one, and am inclined to believe that I never will. However, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “on ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (usually translated “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), she implied that gender is not something we are but something we do. Nothing deep in my soul or biology demanded that I bat fake lashes—my own desires motivated me to play with gender, to act in a way divergent from the performances of either manhood or womanhood, and my consenting to that motivation led me to feel unburdened. So, when I ask how it is that gluing on women’s cosmetic eyelashes seemed to liberate me, I am asking about the effects of disrupting gender. For an answer, I look first to experiences of gender among drag queens and multicultural queer youth on social media.

* * *

Last October, Facebook began deactivating the accounts of those not using their legal names on the social media site, including drag queens who used their drag names in addition to Pagans and some trans people. The policy, still in place, was and continues to be controversial. What surprised me the most initially, and what I find most compelling, is that many drag queens prefer to use personal accounts, rather than public pages, to disseminate information about drag-related events, issues, and discussion. I should note that many drag personalities do act problematically, especially often for the appropriation and caricaturing of black female culture. Still, I believe that others perform an important role in disrupting our ideas of what gender means to our identities. With this in mind, why did Facebook’s deactivation of drag accounts inflame the drag community and their supporters when the use of public pages (still an option) should seem to suffice?

From the insistence of drag queens that their drag personas deserve Facebook profiles, I read a clear assertion that personhood acted out in queer, gender nonconforming ways is just as legitimate as more normative conceptualizations of identity. To rebel against the tides of “man” and “woman,” either consistently or impulsively, shifts, refocuses, and creates identity, changing the experience of being, which is, after all, an action rather than a noun.

So, when I glued lashes on my face for the first time, I changed my experience of gender and others’ experiences of my gender, indeed re-envisioning (through perhaps more glamorous eyes) my identity. Stepping outside of my habits of gender allowed me to examine other aspects of my selfhood.

* * *

I find further insight in the recent explosion of the use of “flawless” as a conceptualization of beauty. Young racial or ethnic minorities and queer peoples especially use the term on social media to describe themselves or celebrities with similar experiences of race, sexuality, and gender (for example, Laverne Cox, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama)—perhaps as an affirmation of a countercultural beauty that norms have taught them not to see in themselves or others.

An article Javier Jaén wrote for the New York Times, entitled “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” explores the background and implications of  “flawlessness,” contending that “‘flawless’ feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution….[the word] recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed.” Flawlessness reclaims and upturns beauty by one’s own terms.

Further, beyond locating marginalized peoples within the fold of beauty, the epithet “flawless” explicitly critiques beauty altogether. More than fifty years before Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”, Jaén notes that drag queen Flawless Sabrina used the term to characterize herself as “a paragon of perfection” even despite her self-attestation that she “was anything but perfect.” Certainly, it seems that “flawless” has stayed sardonic, necessarily poking fun at dominant conceptions of beauty through assertive claims of beauty from those outside of beauty norms.

So, when I decided determinedly but not seriously to spend a night in cosmetic lashes, I unwittingly partook in a queer tradition of al at once playing with, critiquing, and locating oneself within the narrow umbrella of beauty. I had made myself flawless through my own luxe-lidded eyes and, by my own terms, I had claimed an experience of beauty for myself apart from the tantalizing and destructive cultural myth of what is beautiful.

* * *

So, what can queer voices teach us about gender identity and beauty? They suggest that, gender being an act of performance that defines aspects of our experience of identity, we might as well live gender on our own terms and find our beauty through pride in that craft. For me, strings of plastic curling out from over my eyes provided a great first taste of the liberation that can come from self-consciously steering one’s gender trajectory. I do not doubt that other people might redefine their relationship with gender quite differently from how I have. Nevertheless, I believe that drag queens and marginalized youth on social media can teach us all something about the value of performing and shaping our identities through gender.

Native Americans in Queer Politics

By Justice Galvan

The place of Native Americans within queer communities is one that is often shoved under the rug. It is only recently that I have discovered a set of combinations about this topic. Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees deals with the harmful influence of scientific experiments on indigenous peoples. What I did not expect to find in this book were discussions and debates of sexuality, particularly in relation to a Native American character. Never before had I seen these two identities come together. It is true that queer identities are typically associated with middle-class white men and that Native Americans receive very little attention in any form of media, but I began to wonder why I did not see more attention placed on Native American characters who might follow two-spirit traditions. Two-spirit is an “umbrella term” that is used to encompass various gender and sexual identities, traditionally of spiritual or cultural significance in Native American tribes.

Professor LaFlamme pointed me in the direction of Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, by Scott Morgensen. While I did not finish the book, it soon became clear that I was looking in the wrong place for Native American identities. Morgensen discusses the queering of Native American people by white settlers. When settlers arrived in a foreign land with their own heteronormative patriarchal system, they used this power against Native Americans. By forcing these standards on a people that did not ascribe to them, settlers effectively queered the tribes they came into contact with. They enforced their own sexuality by arresting and executing those who strayed from norms the settlers had created. The word “berdache” came into use as a negative descriptor of two-spirit people. The etymology of the word comes from the French “bardache,” which refers to a man who is passive in homosexual practices. Of course, this ignores the complexity of the two-spirit system, as well as female sexuality.

When settlers realized that the best way to destroy native culture was through the indoctrination of children, boarding schools came into place. These took children from their families and tribes to educate them in a way that would cause them to forget their language and practices. Morgensen concludes that the nail in the coffin of indigenous sexuality is the way it has been deemed primitive, much like the rest of indigenous culture. This strategy allows native culture to have existed as a relic, a representation of life before civilization arrived; it essentially becomes a dead structure in the eyes of settler society.

White settlers queered native sexual practices, and today these practices and identities are lauded as aspects of queer politics. People who have no Native American heritage take on the two-spirit identity. The culture that was once killed by immigrants to the land is revived by the same people. Even so, this revival is not to allow native peoples to practice the way they once did or to encourage them to regain a sense of cultural pride. The adoption of the two-spirit system was at first a form of activism by Native people against berdache, which had been used by non-Native peoples to speak for sexual minorities. However, the two-spirit system was then taken up by non-Native peoples in much the same way. This is the most basic form of cultural appropriation, and part of a very clear pattern about the way Native Americans are treated. People with no Native American heritage (or who are 1/35th Native American, descended from a Cherokee princess) wear stereotypical clothing or sweatshirts with offensive sports logos on them. These images, which native people were once killed for, are now accepted only for their place on non-Native bodies.

Another problem with the cultural appropriation of two-spirit identities is the way certain aspects are chosen while others are excluded. To pick and choose from an identity that is not one’s own is to mutate it into something that it was not intended to be. At least in some tribes, a person may be designated two-spirit at birth.

An interesting aspect of Morgensen’s description of boarding schools is his account of native children. He explains that two-spirit children would be punished for the ways they dressed and identified. Modern sexual politics rarely focuses on children, and it is commonly thought that children cannot decide their own identity until they reach a certain age. Rather, they are straight and cissexual until proven otherwise. This is perhaps an aspect of the two-spirit practice that can inspire modern politics. While not necessarily designating a child two-spirit, children can be given the choice to identify as they please, whether or not this is something they wish to be later in life.

It is a starting point for cultures to take inspiration from another culture without appropriating it. We can see poor examples of this in those who claim a two-spirit identity without actually being part of the culture. Not only is it harmful to take an identity without knowing what it entails, but it is all the more harmful to take an identity that was once queered by settlers and wear it as a queer identity. This perpetuates the cycle of settler-colonialism in regards to Native American culture. I think the queer community has the ability to become more welcoming to Native American cultures. It is not welcoming to wear Native American culture as a fashion piece; a better approach is to allow Native American people to speak and practice what they wish.

Enduring the Kremlin

By Kevin Jackson

Within the past three years, the Russian Federation has managed to capture a growing amount of global media attention. A majority of this spotlight is due to the nation’s domineering response to instances of civil dissent and leftist activism. More importantly, the international community has voiced concern regarding the potential human rights violations connected with the publicized conduct of Russian authorities.

In 2012, conservative candidate Vladimir Putin won a third-term victory in Russia’s presidential election. In the wake of his re-election, thousands of protesters took to the streets to vocalize their opposition to Putin’s policies as well as scrutinize his extrajudicial political demeanor. Putin has affirmed his executive role in Russian politics since 2000 by occupying both presidential and prime minister positions as well as being the chairman of the current ruling party “United Russia.” The reactionary anti-Putin demonstrations were quickly subdued after as series of clashes between protesters and police that resulted with numerous arrests. Simultaneously, the anti-Putin effort found alternative momentum after members of the punk-rock group “Pussy Riot” were arrested while performing an unauthorized show in an Orthodox church in Moscow. The band consists of several female Russian musicians who rely on shock value and social media to spread their music, which both scrutinizes Putin and advocates for social liberalism. Their highly publicized trials and eventual imprisonment made worldwide headlines and brought global awareness to socio-political issues in Russia. More specifically, they exposed discriminatory laws and intolerant behavior towards LGBT people.

One year later, Russian authorities were accused of harassing foreign journalists and hindering press freedoms during the controversial construction of Winter Olympics facilities in Sochi. The international community also scrutinized a new law that would make advocating for gay rights to minors illegal. Putin publicly defended the ban by claiming that the intentions behind this legislative effort were to stop the exposure of “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia” to minors. A 2014 Al-Jazeera article highlighted the fact that Putin further clarified in the same press appearance that the ban would not prohibit “nontraditional sexual relations,” even though the text of the ban specifically mentions “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”.

The ban has since produced serious ramifications disproving Putin’s original media assertions. In 2014, Russia experienced a dramatic increase in social homophobia. The iconic rainbow flag has historically been a symbol for supporting gay-rights, and its public exposure is now considered illegal due to the anti-propaganda ban. GQ reporter Jeff Sharlet found neo-Nazi stickers that read “Stamp Out Faggots” in public areas across Moscow and Arkhangelsk. The ban has acted as a pretextor city authorities to ban gay-pride parades. The gay-rights demonstrations that do manage to surface come to a halt within minutes from police arrests, or in some cases, by violent, homophobic counter-protesters. In June 2013, a “kiss-in” protest was dispersed by a mob of adolescents who violently clashed with the gay rights supporters. The same Sharlet column reported that homophobic activists supposedly organized the mob because “kiss-in” protesters would be unable to fight back and would be disheartened, since young people are seen as the next generation and represent the future. This position has also been sanctified by the Orthodox Catholic Church, which is why some believe that committing violence towards LGBT members is vigilante justice. New homophobic Russian organizations have taken form over the past two years, which actively seek out LGBT members in order to publicly expose, humiliate, and occasionally beat them. These groups commonly defend themselves by claiming that their actions and intentions are meant to preserve “traditional” Russian values.  The ban’s vocabulary conflates homosexuality with sexual offenders, partially explaining why the LGBTQA community in Russia has experienced such explicitly violent attacks. It may also explain why the attackers are never legally confronted and the perceived lack of sympathy for those who are protesting.

More recently, Russian diplomats have been battling U.N. policies that would provide benefits to gay U.N. employees. The U.N. has been an international platform that participating states have used to openly criticize Russia’s approach towards LGBT citizens. Writer Colum Lynch covered this story for Foreign Policy and suggested that Russia may be adamantly against this new policy in order to justify their own national policies or further promote their controversial ban on “nontraditional sex propaganda.” Either way, their denunciation of the new policies incited immediate criticism. The U.N.’s representative for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, urged other member states to “push back hard against Russia’s backwards efforts to impose on the U.N. the same kind of homophobic attitudes Moscow promotes at home.”

When digesting this narrative timeline of LGBT issues in Russia, it is worthwhile to think of what might come next. With regards to this, journalist Mark Gevisser suggests in a New York Times column that a majority of Russians are far more tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, which defies global Western perceptions. If this majority were to speak up for and along-side the LGBT minority, this could justify queer identities as well as destroy the perceived association between sexual offenders and homosexuality.

Works Cited

 

Gevisser, Mark. “Life Under Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Lynch, Colum. “Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay U.N. Employees.” Foreign Policy Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay UN Employees Comments. Foreign Policy, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Mullins, Dexter. “LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games.” LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games. Aljazeera America, 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

“Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law.” Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law. Aljazeera America, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Sharlet, Jeff. “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” GQ. GQ, Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201402/being-gay-in-russia?currentPage=1>.

Speri, Alice. “Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi.” Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi. Aljazeera America, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

 

The Gay Brain

By Emily Dzurak

I was raised as a Lutheran in an ELCA church. I was taught that good Christians were compassionate, forgiving, accepting, and loving; not self-righteous or hateful. Yet I have met many members of the latter group of Christians–most of whom subscribe to the Christian Bible literally. I have always found these Bible literalists to be an interesting, yet misguided group. Specifically, I mean those who pick the couple of Bible verses that condemn homosexuality as a basis for persecuting the LGBTQA community. This seems incredibly hypocritical: how could these so-called Christians overlook the hundreds of verses about compassion and acceptance just to focus on less than ten verses that vaguely disapprove of homosexuality? If they were Bible literalists, didn’t they then also believe that women were inferior to men (according to the dozens of passages stating so) and that marriage ought to be between a man, a woman, and a couple of concubines? I guess you cannot rationalize irrational thinking.

I was confronted with some of these literalists early in my high school career. They were two of my friends, actually. Both of them believed that being gay was a sin and a choice. I was appalled. A choice? Really? Not quite yet tactful in my argumentative tactics, I simply responded that that was “the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” We aren’t friends anymore. But while my argument rested on my personal experience (I did not choose my own sexuality, so others surely could not choose theirs), I lacked scientific evidence to strengthen my point.

There has been a lot of evidence in recent years, however, that being gay is, indeed, not a choice. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences journal published a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden comparing 90 adults’ brain sizes in order to garner evidence that sexual orientation originates in the brain during fetal development. The research team focused on measuring brain parameters that were fixed at birth, and couldn’t be altered by learning or cognitive processes. The study was based on the relationship between hemispheric dominance in the brain and whether a person is gay or straight. Hemispheric dominance refers to an individual showing preference towards using one hemisphere, since the two hemispheres of the brain are specialized to perform certain tasks. In this Swedish study, a group consisting of healthy gay and heterosexual men and women underwent brain scans to measure the volume of their right and left hemispheres. The results of the study showed that heterosexual men and lesbians share a “particular asymmetry” in their hemisphere size, with the right hemisphere being slightly larger than the left. Heterosexual women and gay men had no significant difference in size between their hemispheres. This suggests that the brain structure of gay men are more similar to heterosexual women, and gay women’s brain structure are more similar to heterosexual men. Scientists, however, are still trying to find out what this data means.

Furthermore, studies of the amygdala show other significant differences in gender and the brain. In heterosexual men and gay women, the right side of the amygdala has more nerve connections than the left. The reverse was true in gay men and heterosexual women, with more neural connection in the left amygdala. The amygdala, known as the emotional center of the brain, plays a primary role in processing memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The findings that gay men share connectivity patterns with heterosexual women and heterosexual men with lesbians could lead to a better understanding of how that brain is connected to sexuality and gender.

Time magazine reflected on the Karolinska Institute study in an article called “What Makes People Gay?” In the article, Dr. Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at UCLA, asks “if the brains of gay men are different, or feminized, are there regions other than those connected to sexual preference that are gender atypical in gay males?” Vilain hypothesizes that the brains of gay men “possess only some ‘feminized’ structures, while retaining some masculine ones,” which is “reflected in how they act in their sexuality.” He further explains that men, regardless of their sexual orientation, manifest “masculine” characteristics in their sexual behavior. For example, both straight and gay men tend to prefer younger partners, while women tend to prefer older partners. Vilain supports this example by saying that he expects “some regions of the brain [to] remain masculine even in gay men.” Well, duh. To summarize, scientists have found that an individual’s brain structure may determine and explain their gender and sexual preferences.

But why does that matter? Would this evidence really convince my Christian ex-friends that being gay wasn’t a choice, when they also rejected other scientific findings in lieu of their religion? Would the LGBTQA community feel empowered that the connection between their innate brain structures and their sexuality was legitimized or saddened that it needed to be legitimized in the first place while heterosexuality is fully accepted?

John Lauritsen has ridiculed scientific research trying to prove the relationship between the brain and homosexuality, writing that:

“Attempts have been made, at least since the beginnings of ‘sexology’ in the 19th century, to explain ‘homosexuality.’ Almost as soon as ‘homosexuality’ was coined in 1869, the term acquired a clinical character based on the false assumption that only a tiny minority of human males are erotically attracted to each other. Male love (comprising sex, love and friendship) does not need to be explained. When males have sex with each other, they are expressing an ordinary, healthy component of male sexuality — something phylogenetically inherent in the sexual repertoire of the human male, and thus a product of evolution.”

Lauritsen’s article reminds me of the argument I had with my friends many years ago. I remember trying so hard to come up with a counterargument to the claim that being gay was a choice. But maybe I didn’t need to. This does not mean that the findings of the studies previously mentioned are irrelevant. Simply that scientific evidence is less important than the human compassion and decency needed to understand that sexuality is not a choice. If the Christian community does not need scientific evidence to legitimize their beliefs in creationism and a talking snake, the LGBT community certainly doesn’t need scientific evidence to legitimize their sexual preferences. Sexuality doesn’t need to be explained. What does need to be explained, as Lauritsen notes, is sexuality’s condemnation.