The Most Heteronormative Thing Since 50s Magazine Ads


I went to an event last month that was presented and paid for by a Catholic student club on campus, along with the Pastor’s Office. I am choosing to remain anonymous in posting this, since the last time someone publicly critiqued it, they were met with a very hostile and patronizing response from one of our college’s pastors.

A speaker named Sarah Swafford came to St. Olaf and gave two separate talks, the first for women only and the second for both men and women (I suppose that the non-binary folks aren’t welcome to either?). I went to the first one, which was titled Perfectionism and Competition and focused on the tense relationships that sometimes exist between women.

She talked about a myriad of topics after spending the first 15 minutes talking about her family, and the next 10 about how she got her start giving talks. With nearly half of her time gone, she began discussing her experience working with first-year college women as a “dorm mom.” Her first group was comprised of 142 women, with whom plenty of drama came along. “Where there are 142 women there are at least 142 men right?” she joked before talking about the “fallout of hooking up.” As someone who is as sex-positive as I am gay, I cringed.

She went on to talk about body positivity. Things were looking up when she showed us pictures of the different beauty standards of America’s past, displaying pictures of what we would now consider “plus-size” models in swimsuits. This glimmer of hope was quickly crushed when she described these women as “curvy girls. Like, normal girls.” I am twig-thin with small breasts — am I not normal?

Another thing that stood out to me was the quote, “Women spend 90% of their time worrying about how they look in a bikini.” I’m surprised that she was even able to stand up there for an hour long talk if that’s what was on her mind the whole time!

It got worse when she explained her reasons for why we need body positivity. She said that “The men who truly want to get to know you and might be future spouses someday don’t care about [your flaws].” That’s fair! In the end though, her message of self-love boiled down to “men don’t care, so you shouldn’t either.” She is highly overestimating how much I value the opinions of men about my body. Or anything, for that matter.

She concluded by talking about solutions. Her solution is for every women to make good male friends, but she also notes how incredibly difficult that can be. “It’s almost impossible in our generation for men and women to just be friends,” she explained. “You can’t even have them interact without it turning into a giant flirt-fest!” God, straight people are so weird.

In short, it was the most heteronormative thing I’ve ever seen.


Yes, even more than this.

After the talk, a couple of friends of mine went up to talk to her while I hung back and joked around with some classmates (“I know it’s hard to talk to me when 90% of your brain is dedicated to your bikini body, but try to focus!”). One of those friends is a trans woman, and she told Swafford that she wanted to be a psychologist for LGBTQIA+ youth when she is older. “That’s wonderful,” Swafford replied, “those people need a lot of help.”

Maybe it’s somewhat obvious that I wasn’t thrilled about the college’s investment in this particular speaker. Maybe they didn’t know what the talk would really entail, though? Perhaps her website gave the Catholic organization and the pastor’s office the impression that her talk on female competition would address the larger patriarchal systems in our society that teach women to see each other as competition. Since she did push her websites pretty heavily, I figured that I would check them out to get a better idea of the bigger picture.

The first place I clicked on was the “homosexuality” icon on the front page, denoted with a rainbow flag. It contains many videos, some of which offer hesitant acceptance of marginalized orientations, gender identities, and intersex (MOGAI) people after spewing some pretty blatant homophobia. One of them literally uses the phrase “the gay agenda” while demanding that gay people remain abstinent in order to live out God’s will. In contrast, there is another video under the “‘Safe’ Sex” section (please note the scare quotes) titled “Cultural Imperialism” with horror movie music that states that the government advancement of LGBTQIA+ rights is “manipulation.”

Other parts of the site talk about why BDSM is wrong (because Jesus is the only one who should be whipped and beaten — I am 100% serious) and give false information about condoms, saying that you should opt for natural family planning as a contraceptive choice instead. They even have little misogynistic commercials — “I’m a Mac” “And I’m a PC” style — that offer up inexcusably false information about hormonal birth control while promoting the NFP method, which has a failure rate of about 24%.

What I’m saying is that the website is trash and that what Swafford had to say was trash. We deserve so much better than this.

We as a student body deserve programming that is positive toward and supportive of MOGAI individuals. At the very, very least, I believe that the programming presented to us should not be actively exclusionary towards marginalized groups or reinforce the toxic gender binary that is already actively dividing our society.

Or , if we are absolutely required to have programming that is extremely heteronormative, I would be willing to set aside my morals and stand for an hour next to the skeleton picture for a few hundred dollars.

Dark Sleep in Waking Light

By Cody Erickson

Every morning Zhang wakes up, but he is never really awake. Put to an eternal sleep by the confines of his “Great Wall” of a society, Zhang will never know what its truly like to be awake. Being awake is never something that Zhang found appealing in the first place, so he is fine with never awakening. Awakening would mean facing the chains that bind him to his humble abode of hiding and secretiveness, whose bounds stretch far beyond the borders of his mind and body: a body that has only ever known the gentle touch of another like himself biologically. Like a jail cell, his own home gives Zhang no consolation to help him deal with his dire situation.

“For what purpose, my humble abode?” Zhang demands, “do you not assist me in awaking to see the light of day?”. The house responds with a joyous plea, but Zhang hears only the criticisms of those who wish to pull the chains that bind him until he suffocates tighter. Awakening was never an option. Realizing his dire situation, Zhang finally manages to break out from the confines of his home, still asleep. Wrought of a consciousness that would now rather thrust him into imperforated darkness, Zhang moves towards the garish light: light never fails…does it…?

Light. The light seems to be a promising way to go, but was there ever really a “way” to go? Free will lives in the deepest depths of Zhang’s mind, depths that not even the devil himself would dare travel, not even for a split second. Lee yearns for the light that he knows he will never be able to grasp: a light that smolders all remorse and misery with the heat of a thousand suns, all mocking him-making him a laughing stock of shame and suffering. Even so, none of this matters; Zhang has only ever known shame. It’s his last name in a world whose only aim is to mock every second of his very subsistence. Zhang is still sleeping. He is coming to the somber conclusion that light in all of its greatness only exists to demoralize and terrorize the very being: his being. As light etiolates to darkness, Zhang begins clambering down the only other path available to him…

Darkness. Once a foe, never a friend. Zhang can’t see anything but that doesn’t matter; he has always been blind to those around him, the world, himself. But what of being blind to such monstrosities? Blindness for Zhang means those abominations around him can’t see him for what he really is…But what is he? Zhang now turns to the darkness that now envelops his soul looking for justification of himself. Him. He. The darkness’ answer is a soft, consolidating whimper of comfort and contentment. Zhang is still asleep. More dangerous than the light around him the darkness now threatens to pull Zhang, tearing his consciousness every which way through poison thorns drenched in mockery and bigotry. Seeing no way out, Zhang has made an unbreakable vow to retreat to the place from which he once came; a place of light sleep in a dark world. Slowly drifting back to the confines from which he came: Zhang finally starts to feel a tenacious sense of consciousness-Slowly, slowly maneuvering the confines of his mind, he finally reaches a place of peace and tranquility. He, for the first time in his dark existence, is awake.

* * *

Homosexuality in Asian countries has been an interest of mine ever since I came to college and have met so many international students. I always wondered how homosexuals are seen in Asian culture, as I was under the impression that many Asian cultures shun homosexuals from society. My suspicions were finally realized when I watched an online video entitled “Love and Sex in China”. This documentary gave its audience a look into the love and sex lives of Chinese people. Although there were many heterosexual couples interviewed, there was one homosexual actor who talked about his life as a homosexual man in Chinese society. Not surprisingly, the actor (whose name I will not make public) told the interviewer of a love life lived entirely in shadows, away from society in fear of being ostracized. The actor recounted the fact that his public image is very important, and that coming out as a homosexual man would ultimately shatter his reputation. Having to keep his love life hidden from the world consumes him on the inside, leaving him feeling powerless and somewhat ashamed in a strictly heterosexual society.

The Chinese term “TongZhi” might also come to mind while reading this post. For centuries, China has shunned homosexuals from society. The term “TongZhi” is essentially slang for a gay Chinese man. The irony of this term is that, in more colloquial terms it means “same will” or “comrade”, and was used in imperial China to refer to someone who has the same ideals or ethics as oneself. Many of the TongZhi in modern Chinese society find ways to hide their sexuality in fear of being shunned by family and society as a whole. Some even go to the extent of finding a homosexual couple of the opposite sex and legally marrying a partner from that other partnership just to fool their friends and family into thinking that they are heterosexual. These types of marriages are called “sham marriages”, and outlets to find these types of relationship can now be found all over the internet via gay Chinese dating sites and even “meet and greet” conventions. In this way, there are more outlets for gay peoples to meet one another, but the social stigmas that being gay carries remain unchanged.

In the past, the Chinese government has gone so far as to implement laws outlawing gay practice. One of these was called the “Hooligan Law”, which was part of the Official Penal Code in 1957. Although abolished in 2001, the aftermath of negative thoughts and feelings towards homosexuals in modern China persists. Although in the story Zhang never quite gets to the point of finding a homosexual partner, the struggles he deals with going out into the real world are testimony to the hardships gay people in China face.

Seeing this Chinese man reflect on his life’s struggles with regards to sexuality and society gave me the inspiration to write the story you see above. After doing a little bit of research on the history of gay culture in China, it made more sense why the man in the video feels the way he does about coming out. Still, I found it very sad that he has to live in a shadow of fear just because of his sexuality. This being said, I wanted to try and bring out elements that would invoke feelings of frustration, sadness and pity all at the same time. Another goal of mine in writing this piece was to make the reader feel just as lost as the character himself, searching for an answer that wasn’t there yet was always right at hand. Hopefully the story makes you think a little bit and was as fun to read as it was for me to write.

Can Jazz Be Homophobic?

By Jay Carlson

The word jazz has long been a stand-in for individuality and personal expression. Rooted in African rhythms brought to America on slave ships, jazz became one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century. Jazz gave a voice to Black Americans and, as its popularity increased alongside the Harlem Renaissance in the early quarter of the century, its players were thrown into positions of cultural influence that they scarcely could have imagined beforehand. The Beat poets of the 50s, who lived simply and wildly and who traveled the country living like beggars, dug jazz. Everyone who was anyone dug jazz. But jazz didn’t dig nobody except itself. Jazz especially didn’t dig gay jazzers.

How is it that an art form so thoroughly enmeshed in the belief that each person had something to say, was an individual, deserved rights, has been so unwelcoming to a group of people looking for an outlet in jazz?

Jazz and masculinity have a long and intertwined history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the advent of bebop in the 1940s. Bebop was badder, faster, louder, more complicated, more sophisticated, more masculine than its predecessor, swing jazz, had been. Bebop took off in isolated areas and with an isolated group of musicians taking center stage, largely a result of the frustrations of virtuosic jazzers at the number of less-than-virtuosic hacks (who were able to handle swing music) on the scene. As tempos increased and musicians became more nimble, ensembles were broken down to bare-bones combos to lose the dead weight of mediocre musicianship.

This exclusivist attitude was a product of patriarchal interpretations of masculinity; the desire and ability to assert superiority over others has long been a trait associated with successful men. Jazz musicians of my generation are passed down story after story from our teachers about the sex- and drug-fueled lives that our idols led. It was not uncommon for band members to scramble to find a horn for their leader after he sold his for drug money. It was not uncommon for jazzers to pimp out their girlfriends for drug money. And yet we uphold their legacy because they were dominant, and indeed many of the same terms that describe the doers of heroic or athletic feats are also used to identify premiere jazz musicians. But when womanizing was the post-gig talk of the night, a not insignificant number of players got left out. What of gay jazz musicians? Where were they?

As it turns out, there were quite a few gay musicians in jazz, and some were among the most lauded and innovative of the last hundred years. But as a direct result of the mentality that jazz was, first and foremost, a fuck you display of domineering intellectuality, virtuosity, and masculinity, most gay jazz artists remained closeted almost until the turn of the century, and even today many remain closeted to protect themselves from discrimination by other jazz musicians.

James Gavin’s 2001 piece “Homophobia in Jazz” looked into several influential jazz artists’ accounts of what it was like to be a gay jazz musician. Among those were pianist Fred Hersch and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Both musicians came out to the public in the early 90s and have received relatively little backlash for their sexual orientation since then (no doubt a result of their fame and influence in the jazz community).

In a landmark gathering of gay jazz musicians and friends at the Village Vanguard in New York, Fred Hersch and Gary Burton participated in a panel to publicly address the issue of homophobia in jazz for the first time. Writer Francis Davis had a question for them that they were unable to answer: How does being gay affect their jazz?

While Davis suggests that their inability to answer that question is a product of them still working out the details themselves, I would like to turn the question back on itself.

How does being homophobic affect jazz?

And so I repeat my first question: How is it that jazz–freedom, individuality, self-sufficiency–was so unwelcoming to the gay community?

Maybe what we’re listening to isn’t jazz.

Isn’t It Bromantic?

By Cosimo Pori

What is a bro and how does it relate to my queerness?

How do I even begin to comprehend the bro culture?

It started out with language. A few years back, I found myself in the throes of the popularization of the phrase “no homo.” Straight men would use this tagline following anything from compliments to opinions to jokes. Most vividly, I remember overhearing someone at a concert telling his friends: “We should go in deeper [to the crowd]…no homo!” By gendering and sexualizing an act so innocuous, the context obviously became extremely sexual and tawdry. Basically, it went from “no homo” to “very homo.” The phenomenon of straight men gendering and sexualizing everything while simultaneously acknowledging their own potential queerness was unwelcome to my closeted self.

Once I arrived at college, the linguistic became more physical. I was swallowed into the abyssal and perplexing sea of bro culture and politics. The close friendships I established with men were often referred to as adorable “bromances.” This exposure to bro culture and bromances opened me up to concept of the homosocial desire.

Literary theorist Eve Sedgwick, who coined the term homosociality in her 1985 study Between Men, describes this phenomenon as “a kind of an oxymoron.” Sedgwick explains that homosocial desire shares a close bond with other forms of connection including mentorship, friendship, and even rivalry. Homosociality, on its own, implies neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality.

I began to wonder what bromances and homosocial desire meant in relation to queer and gay identities. For a while, I had admired men who acknowledged their “queer tendencies,” as it were. I even felt grateful that there was a form of queer representation in straight society and media. I believed that the widespread use of the term “bromance” was a boon to the queer community, because it acted as another sign of acceptance from our straight allies.

But then I started thinking more deeply: how does this usage reflect on my relationships and connections to other people? Is the idea that my male friendships contain at least a hint of romance detrimental to my identity as a queer person? Since the coining of the term “bromance,” how far has the queer community really come? Through asking these questions, I started to realize that homosocial desire and the idea of the bromance are actually unique forms of oppression.

A bromance, in essence, is an appropriation of a gay relationship. Straight men with any form of friendly connection have the ability to take on a semi-romantic mantle without any of the discrimination and stigma queer couples often face. By appropriating a gay or queer relationship in literature, media, and film, the bromance entails several equally intriguing and toxic viewpoints about queer identity. The bromance is also a two-way street, as a strange type of institution that acknowledges a person’s queer potential or suppressed sexuality even as it implies that there is absolutely no way they could be anything other than straight.

The bromance’s acceptance into mainstream culture has come with its evolution into a form of sick joke or punchline on the queer community. The long existence of the “buddy film” shows that this joke has been in the media for a long while, though in the last decade it has become more toxic. The bromance’s depiction in film has become accessorized and branded as comedic, because obviously there is no way in hell that a man could ever have deep feelings towards another man. This punchline isolates the queer community while basically saying that the entire existence of queer romance is laughable, foreign, and unacceptable in straight society.

The expression of homosocial desire ties in with the ability to shrug on and shrug off a queer identity. Herein lies the systematic oppression of queer people, because for most straight people, the very idea of acting homosocially is so unlikely that it is laughable.

This ridiculous trend of appropriating queerness has spread to all realms of contemporary American life. Celebrities have begun to make wildly ridiculous claims about identifying as “queer,” while being hailed as “friggen cool” at the same time. For instance, Oscar winner Jared Leto claims that some of his “straight friends have begun to define themselves as queer without it being a sexual term, but a cultural one,” and saying he identifies with “people who are different.”

So what does all of this mean for the queer community?

In essence, this phenomenon showcases the beginning of a loss of queer identity. Rather than being forced to assimilate, cisgendered heterosexual people have begun to identify as “culturally queer” without any of the real burden that comes with being queer. At the same time, queer folks still face constant discrimination for being too much of their own sexuality (too femme, too butch, and so on).

Because of the apparent innocence of bromance relationships and the structure of homosocial desire, appropriation is seen as commonplace and innocuous when in actuality it is a greater hindrance than people are realizing.

In conclusion, straight people: there is absolutely nothing wrong or abnormal about your relationships with cis-het people of the same gender. It’s all right for you to have close ties with people of your own gender, but don’t call it a “bromance” and don’t rob the queer community of its validity because you’re insecure about your own emotions.

Mental Health in the LGBT Community

By Michaela Banz

As a student who is extremely interested in issues regarding mental health, I have chosen to explore the accuracy behind the claim that LGBT young adults have a greater incidence of mental health issues. Up until 1973, homosexuality was considered a diagnosable mental illness in accordance with the guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Prior to the elimination of homosexuality as a disorder, homosexual people around the world were diagnosed as mentally ill, which resulted in thousands of prescriptions for conversion therapy to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual. As soon as empirical data could demonstrate that homosexuality was not a disease, the board of the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the DSM. However, it is important to acknowledge that gender dysphoria, or the feeling that one’s gender does not match one’s biological sex, is still considered a mental disorder according to the current DSM. Therefore, people who are transgender would technically qualify for a diagnosis of mental disorder.

Why do people suspect that people within the LGBT community have greater instances of mental health problems? One answer may be that homosexuals and transgender people have historically been considered mentally ill for simply existing. Another possibility is that because homosexuality is stigmatized around the world, people assume that homosexuals should have higher incidences of mental illness because of the discrimination they face. Theoretically, these claims make a lot of sense. It seems logical that young LGBT adults who are ostracized by their peers would have higher rates of anxiety and depression than their heterosexual peers. However, in the early 2000s, the American Psychological Association released new data on lesbian, gay, and bisexual mental health that complicated these assumptions. Their findings suggest that while gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals appear to have higher rates of certain mental disorders than heterosexuals, these rates are not to a level of a serious pathology or a statistically significant difference.

A recent study at San Francisco State University surveyed a group of 245 Hispanic and white LGBT young adults, ranging from 21 to 25 years old. The researchers used data from the Family Acceptance Project’s survey and were particularly interested in the findings of questions about disclosure of LGBT status at school, self-reported past LGBT school victimization, young adult depression, and overall adult life satisfaction. The goal of this study was to uncover whether the benefits of coming out at a young age outweighed potential health risks resulting from discrimination. This study found that coming out while attending school is strongly and positively correlated with life satisfaction and negatively associated with depression. Conversely, hiding one’s sexual orientation is correlated with a greater likelihood of mental health problems as a young adult. Interestingly enough, there were no significant differences in responses found between males, females, and transgender participants. As you would probably assume, the researchers did find that being out is positively associated with victimization, but the positive psychosocial effects of being out typically outweighed the negative effects of victimization.

The findings of this study challenge the notion that the perceived consequences of coming out, such as increased discrimination and victimization, lead to higher rates of mental health issues. Stephen Russell, the study’s principal investigator and the director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families at the University of Arizona, asserts that the findings of this study should not be too surprising. According to Russell, “This is clearly aligned with everything we know about identity. Being able to be who we are is crucial to mental health.” The changing attitudes of Americans regarding LGBT issues over the past couple decades likely contributed to the results of this study. These changing attitudes have had profound and positive effects on the lives of LGBT youth.

There is a fairly large body of research that would contradict the findings of the San Francisco State University study. For example, in 2001, the National Survey of Midlife Development found that perceived discrimination of the LGBT population in the United States was positively associated with harmful effects on the quality of life and psychological problems. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that LGBTQ individuals are three times more likely to qualify for a diagnosis of a mental illness such as depression and anxiety disorder. Furthermore, a literature review of studies about mental health and the LGBT community found that gay men and lesbians were more likely to receive a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or develop a substance abuse disorder. Almost all of the studies cited in this review suggested that social stigma and victimization were likely the leading risk factor for a diagnosis.

The question remains whether or not being LGBT puts one at a higher risk for the development of a mental health disorder. After looking at a multitude of studies that have examined this question, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is simply conditional on people’s experiences after coming out. People whose families and friends would not be receptive to the news and would instead disown, abuse, and torment them, would most likely be more at risk of developing a mental disorder if they came out. However, the development of a disorder would be based largely on circumstances. People who have a good support network of people around them would definitely benefit from coming out because they will be supported by these people. A supporting piece of evidence for the former claim is the finding that individuals who faced rejection after coming out to their friends and family were more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than someone who received positive affirmations. Assuming that all members of the LGBT community are at a higher risk of developing a mental disorder is too simple an answer to a question that requires complexity.

The Politics of Blood Donation

By Natalie Mironov

Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood.

More than 41,000 blood donations are needed every day.

A total of 30 million blood components are transfused each year in the U.S.

These are the first three facts about blood needs on the American Red Cross website. And yet the site goes on to explain that although an estimated 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, less than 10% actually do each year.

Given the clear need for blood donations, shouldn’t we be taking every donation we possibly can?

Despite these staggering statistics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still imposes strict limitations on men who have had sex with other men (MSM) from donating human cells, tissues, and cellular and tissue-based products, which include blood and bone marrow donations. These policies began in 1983 when HIV and AIDS started to gain a reputation as a “gay disease,” because they were more prevalent within the category of men who have had sex with men. The FDA claimed that due to the possibility of missing an HIV diagnosis during the screening of these cells and tissues, it was safer to impose a lifetime donation ban on any man who had had sex with another man after 1977, when the AIDS epidemic hit the United States. At that time, little was known about HIV/AIDS and there were many limitations surrounding the ability to test blood for infection. Given the limitations of testing at that time, maybe this policy made sense at one point, but with the technological development and the advances in scientific ability to screen for HIV and other infectious diseases, why is it still in place now?

Dr. Steven Kleinman, the senior medical adviser to the American Association of Blood Banks, believes the issue is related to the social stigma surrounding homosexuality. In a 2010 article in the New York Times he was quoted as saying: “You wonder, if this wasn’t about gay men, would the rules be applied in the same way?” The FDA claims that it is not an issue of discrimination, but what else can it be attributed to?

Merriam-Webster defines discrimination as the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people. If current HIV and infectious disease screening practices, which are mandatory for every single blood donation received, are good enough for heterosexual blood, why are they not good enough for homosexual blood?

I understand and agree with the importance of patient safety and the need to protect from transmitting infection. The last thing anybody wants is for a patient to become infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. But if the blood testing protocol presents this much risk, maybe we should start being more cautious rather than less. There are many other categorizations that can be correlated to an increased risk of HIV that are not currently used as reason for deferral, so maybe the FDA should start investigating these further. (I am being intentionally provocative here.)

According to the 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in terms of racial divides, the category of Black/African American, both specific to males and as a whole, was most affected by HIV. So should we start banning black people from donating blood? No, because that would be considered racist. Why, then, is it still okay to discriminate based on sexual preference? If anything, donation should be decided based on the level of risk and exposure of an individual. Maybe a higher prevalence of infection in certain sexual preference groups factors into that on some level, but more important would be safe sex practices and number of partners. Why should two men in a long-term monogamous relationship practicing safe sex be banned from donation, while a promiscuous heterosexual person who does not engage in safe sex is not even questioned about if he or she should be able to donate?

A letter written by John Kerry in 2012 pointed out that, “healthy gay and bisexual men continue to be banned for life, while the FDA allows a man who has had sex with an HIV-positive woman to give blood after waiting only one year.” While the FDA recently removed its lifetime ban on men who fall within the MSM category, reducing it to a one-year deferral since the prospective donor last engaged in sexual contact with another man, it still seems unreasonable to say that every man who falls under the MSM category presents a comparable risk to a confirmed, HIV-positive, heterosexual woman. This still prevents men in long-term monogamous homosexual relationships who would carry low risk of infection from ever donating blood or bone marrow, unless they choose to abstain from sex for an entire year.

They can take the #celibacychallenge — it can’t be that hard, right?

The celibacy challenge is a campaign that was created by organizations including GLAAD and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis with the aim of changing the FDA’s regulations surrounding MSM donations. The use of satire by Alan Cumming presents the challenge still faced by men in the MSM category today who wish to donate blood or bone marrow. The campaign is effective because it speaks to the very human nature of sexual desire and appeals to people on a more personal level, rather than coming off as a lecture about human rights. The humorous video allows the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of an MSM individual, and try to imagine what it would be like to remain celibate for an entire year in order to donate blood. The celibacy challenge’s aim is to pressure the FDA to further reconsider the one-year deferral for MSM and to base donation qualifications on level of risk rather than sexual preference.

Isn’t it time for blood and bone marrow donation requirements to be based on the risks of individual behaviors rather than stereotypes?

Dear Cielo and Peter

By Estrella Almaguer

I know this might seem a bit strange, but just bear with me. I am composing this letter to you with the best of intentions.

Can you remember the last time Mom or Dad mentioned anything about the LGBTQA community? Probably not. Do you even know what this acronym stands for? Perhaps. The point is that you likely have very little knowledge about this group of people, and that worries me. I was once in your shoes, which is why I want to share my new perspectives and lived experiences about the LGBTQA community with you, through this letter.

Coming from a big city like Chicago, people might assume that I knew a decent amount about the LGBTQA community prior to coming to St. Olaf. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I grew up in a bustling neighborhood with various grocery stores, restaurants, parks, churches, schools, baseball fields, and a bike path that runs through the woods and stops at a beautiful lake. The smell of fresh air, fresh-cut green grass, and fresh corn on the cob fill the streets of my neighborhood. The sound of laughter coming from children playing outside, the cheering and chanting coming from the baseball fields, the ringing of bells from the paltero man’s popsicle cart, the vibrations of cars driving by, and the jingle song coming the ice-cream truck make me feel at home.

Our neighborhood is predominately Hispanic, and therefore, the Hispanic population was the majority in our elementary and middle schools. Most households in our neighborhood practice Catholicism, which is why these families are not very knowledgeable about, much less accepting of, gay and queer rights. These families are very loyal to their religion, and they firmly believe that God created a man and a woman so that these two sexes could be together. Whether or not we realized our neighborhood’s influence on us at the time, the demographics of our neighborhood played, and unfortunately continue to play for the two of you, a huge role in our lack of exposure to the LGBTQA community.

Do we have any LGBTQA relatives in our immediate family? Not that we know of. How about friends? Can we name a handful of our friends who identify with the LGBTQA community? Not really. Have you stopped to think about this? Let’s not be sheltered about the harsh realities that the LGBTQA community is facing today, such as the struggles for marriage equality, protections for transgender people, and access to health insurance.

Here is some key terminology that I learned since leaving Chicago:

LGBTQA is an acronym that replaced what was formerly known as the “gay community.” The acronym was created to be more inclusive of diverse groups. LGBTQA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and asexual or ally.

  • Lesbian: An individual who identifies as a woman and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other women.
  • Gay: An individual who identifies as a man and who is predominantly sexually and romantically attracted to other men.
  • Bisexual: An individual who is sexually and romantically attracted to men and women.
  • Transgender: An individual who identifies as the opposite sex from the sexual characteristics that he/she was born with.
  • Queer: An individual who feels more comfortable identifying with a term that is fluid and inclusive of diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Questioning: An individual who is unsure about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and prefers to identify as “questioning,” rather than adhering to a label that does not designate how they feel.
  • Asexual: An individual who lacks sexual attraction to anyone, or expresses low or absent interest in sexual activity.
  • Ally: An individual who is supportive of the LGBTQA community.

I felt so sheltered when I came to college and I wouldn’t want you two to feel the same way. I did not have anyone to brief me on these social matters. Coming to St. Olaf gave me a new perspective on the conditions that the LGBTQA community is forced to live under. I have friends who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, whom I hold dearest to my heart. These individuals have been honest and openly vulnerable with me about the stigma they feel is bestowed upon them by society every single day. These individuals just want to feel like they can be true to themselves, even if they are a little different than everyone else. Taking classes about this marginalized group of people and listening in on Wellness events that discuss issues facing the LGBTQA community has educated me on the lack of equal rights that this population experiences.

There is another important term that I want to highlight, a term that you can relate to. A heterosexual is a person who is romantically and sexually attracted to the opposite sex and/or gender. For example, heterosexual females are attracted to males and heterosexual males are attracted to females. Over the years, I have witnessed, experienced, and learned about the overwhelming pressure that society puts on us to conform to heterosexual practices. I have taken multiple classes where I have discussed the social constructs of femininity and masculinity. The word masculine, as we think it, means strong, muscular, well-built, confident, brave, powerful, robust, dominant, athletic, and independent. On the contrary, the word feminine means tender, gentle, dainty, emotional, nurturing, affectionate, submissive, weak, and dependent.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, I want you to be knowledgeable about the LGBTQA community because many of them actively challenge our society’s gender norms. Learning about the LGBTQA community can also help you understand your own sexual identity better. Whether or not you identify as a member of the LGBTQA community, these disregarded people deserve your respect and support. I encourage you to be an ally and to begin to acquire a deeper self-understanding of your own identity throughout the process, just like me.

Much love, your sister,

Estrella Almaguer

Normal: A Review

By Rachel Jackman

normal [nawr­-muhl]

  1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual
  2. serving to establish a standard
  3. Psychology:
 free from any mental disorder
  4. Biology/Medicine: free from any infection or other forms of disease or malfunction, or from experimental therapy, or manipulation
  5. of natural occurrence

The word “normal” has existed for centuries–originating first from Latin and then being incorporated into a myriad of cultures and languages. While a dictionary can contain a valid definition of the word, can anyone truly know what it means? After all, what is normal? A standard and natural occurrence can vary cross culturally, but also individually. Normalcy is never static and is incredibly personal. However, often the established standardization of normalcy overrides the individual complexity of it. It seems that in recent years, within the United States especially, gender binaries and heteronormativity have become increasingly relevant issues: in particular, our definitions of “normal” gender and sexual identities. While the vast majority of the population is cisgender, meaning that an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth, a minority of transgender individuals struggle to express themselves completely in our society that views gender in binary and immutable term. We have created a standard that gender expression is expected to match sex; anything other than that is abnormal and wrong. However, this expectation is unrealistic, due to the fact that normalcy is dynamic and greatly influenced by individual perspective and experience. The 2003 HBO film Normal pursues the question of what normalcy actually looks like not from a societal perspective necessarily, but rather an individual and familial level.

The film begins at a local church with the celebration of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Roy and Irma Applewood. At this celebration, the pastor emphasizes the love this couple has for each other and that no one could have such love. Yet, suddenly during this speech, Roy passes out; in the next scene, the audience sees Roy coming out to his wife and pastor, announcing that he is transgender and stating his desire to become a woman named Ruth. Initially reluctant to accept Roy’s identity, Irma files for divorce in an attempt to separate herself completely from her husband. However, while attending a celebration for Roy’s father’s birthday, the father tells a story of Roy as a child getting caught wearing his sister’s clothing and being forced to strip down and sleep in the barn. Brought to tears, the adult Roy takes refuge in the barn and contemplates suicide when Irma finds him and realizes the agony he must be suffering. Eventually, Irma comes to a deeper understanding of her husband and helps Ruth through her transition. Their tomboyish daughter, Patty Ann, is fascinated by her father’s transition and even pleads with Irma to “let [Patty Ann] off the hook for being the woman in the family.” However, Ruth’s son does not accept her transition initially and reacts with hostility. Ultimately, despite finding general acceptance from her family, Ruth is ostracized by many of the men at her workplace as well as her entire church community.

As the title of the film suggests, established normalcy is likely not what normal actually looks like. The film begins in a church setting, suggesting that the standardization of heteronormativity began with religious influences and persists because of the Christian faith, in particular. This is still true today: most often, trans rights are opposed by religious organizations. For example, in a recent article in the Miami Herald, opponents of a ban on discrimination against trans people likened the South, if it accepts such a ban, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, in our society, religion is so closely linked to morality that, in many situations, it limits freedom of expression for minority groups. Normal precisely captures the isolation and damnation that Christianity places on the very people it is supposed to incorporate and love.

The opposition between religion and gender expression continues throughout the film, beginning when the pastor tries to fix the marriage between Roy and Irma based on Ephesians 5:28: “for no man hath hated his own flesh.” This passage suggests that men need to look to women to satisfy themselves, and thus need women for completion. According to the pastor’s perspective, Roy is being selfish in his attempt to fill the role of the wife as well as the husband. Yet, no one in his church community can truly understand. This disconnect is ever-present in the film, as in another scene where Ruth and Patty Ann are asked to leave a service and the congregation even refuses to accept the offertory from Ruth–as if the money she offers to the church is tainted because of her “abnormal” gender expression. As Ruth continues her transition, the pastor and the rest of the congregation begin to treat Irma as if she is a widow: is there anything she needs help with around the house? Maybe they should bring her meals? As far as the church is concerned, Roy is dead. Normalcy is established through shared practice, such as religion, but if it becomes tradition, it can also lead to oppression of those individuals for whom established normalcy is abnormal.

Even though Roy desires to embrace his true female identity and finally match his sex to his gender, thus feeling complete and normal, at the start of the film he admits that his gender identity is not in conjunction with the majority of people. He proclaims that he “prayed for years for [these feelings] to go away,” and even refers to himself as having a condition called gender dysphoria. The need to describe what he is feeling through the terminology of a disorder illustrates the societal imposition of gender and sexuality norms. If anyone strays from standard gender binary, the only explanation is that they must be diseased. This belief in established normalcy is so powerful that even those individuals whose personal definitions of normal differ from it believe themselves to be wrong or diseased even when that has never been, nor will ever be, the case.

Normal is incredibly successful in capturing the difficulty trans individuals face in our society here in the United States. Because religion has fettered heterosexuality and cisgenderism to established norms, anyone who exists outside of those norms is fated to oppression or condemnation from society even if they are able to find love, understanding, and happiness within their family as Roy was finally able to do with Irma. However, as the film illustrates, normalcy is dynamic and personal to every individual and his or her closest relationships.

The Right to Intimacy

By Bridget Novak

In the article “Privacy, Dependency, Discegenation: Toward a Sexual Culture for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” Rachel Adams concisely states, “While desire may be instinctual, the rules governing its appropriate expression are cultural.” For non-heterosexual couples and for individuals with disabilities, social and legal institutions limit sexual expression. It is by society that these identities are constructed and their sexual expression restricted.

Robert McRuer, in his introduction to Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, discusses the constructed nature of heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. The construction of these categories is evidenced in their definitions, which incorporate the “opposite” identity–for an identity cannot occur socially without an opposing one. “The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] defines able-bodied redundantly and negatively as “having an able body, i.e. one free from physical disability, and capable of the physical exertions required of it; in bodily health; robust.’” The “physical exertions required” of the body are culturally determined and used to distinguish the “able-bodied” from the “disabled.” The OED Supplement definition of heterosexuality includes a normative evaluation: ““pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of the sexes; opp. to homosexual.”” Again, the incorporation of the opposite identity in the definition emphasizes the constructed nature of the identity category. These constructions and their social reification must be acknowledged in order to understand how the labels “disabled” and sexually “abnormal” determine how people’s livelihoods are dictated by society.

People with disabilities are often desexualized or assumed to be asexual. “American Able,” a photo series by Holly Norris, draws attention to this assumption. The photos imitate American Apparel ads, but incorporate a model with disabilities. Norris describes her inspiration for the project: “I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women… Women with disabilities go unrepresented…in most of popular culture,” The model, Jes, is posed in the same positions and outfits as the able-bodied models in American Apparel ads, drawing attention to how rarely images like this include people with disabilities. The photo series may result in many questions for the viewer. Is it shocking? Why? Is this an effective method to challenge stereotypes? What are the concerns people have in regards to people with disabilities participating in sexual acts?

There are systems and organizations in some countries that successfully provide sexual services to the physically disabled. In the Netherlands, an article in VICE notes, the national health system provides “a grant scheme for people with disabilities to receive public money to pay for sexual services up to 12 times a year.” In Taiwan, the NGO Hand Angel provides opportunities for sexual experiences, namely handjobs, for the physically disabled. To determine the eligibility of clients, Hand Angel assesses the client’s level of disability: “The person has to be recognized by the government as having a serious physical impairment, but can’t be mentally disabled. Once they’re cleared, the service is totally free, but each applicant can only receive three bouts of sexual stimulation.” Hand Angel provides a safe, comfortable environment for their clients to experience sexual pleasure. One client reported, “I didn’t feel I was the target of pity. The whole process was full of respect and equality. This might be deemed as controversial by society, but as long as you’re willing to look into it, what we desire is no different from others.” Organizations can provide safe, consensual environments for the physically disabled to act on their right to sexual expression.

The sexual rights of people with intellectual disabilities are restricted with this classification. Sex education and privacy are regulated, limiting opportunities for safe sexual experiences. These limitations prevent the fulfillment of what Rachel Adams calls “fundamental needs for companionship, intimacy, and the right to self-determination.”

Sex education for people with intellectual disabilities is often inadequate, which prevents them from fully consenting to participation in sexual acts. Again, in Adams’ words, “the differences of people with intellectual disabilities are cognitive, as well as physical, and claims about their sexual rights will need to account for atypical ways of perceiving, understanding, and navigation the world,” Improving sex education for people with intellectual disabilities is an important precursor to their giving of consent. Otherwise, Adams points out, “a vicious cycle arises when inadequate sex education leaves people with intellectual disabilities ignorant of the mechanics and repercussions of sexual activity, rendering them unable to establish their competency to consent,”  There is no rule to determine suitability for sexual experiences that applies to every individual with intellectual disabilities. Currently, however, deprivation of sexual experiences is the norm.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to engage in sexual acts are practically nonexistent due to a lack of privacy. For people with intellectual disabilities, Adams notes, there is “the possibility of lifelong dependence,” This often places them in the care of someone (typically a group home or a relative) who may not grant them privacy. This lack of privacy prevents people with disabilities from encountering the circumstances in which it is socially acceptable to perform sexual acts. Ultimately, Adams concludes, “sexual experience rests on political determinations about who has the right to enjoy intimacy in private.” In order to fully satisfy the basic human right to intimacy, something must change in the way people with disabilities are categorized and treated. Like other sexual minorities, Adams suggests, “the sexuality of people with disabilities is queer in that it confounds bourgeois notions about the appropriate settings and circumstances in which intimacy may occur.”

The Truvada Debate

By Heidi Beckman

There may be a one-word solution to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: Truvada. What is Truvada, exactly? It’s a pill that is highly effective at preventing HIV infection. If taken daily, this FDA-approved pill can be up to 99 percent effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorses Truvada, also called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), as an efficient way to prevent infection in those who don’t have HIV but are at risk. Essentially, the answer to the HIV/AIDS crisis may be close at hand, and its name is Truvada.

In terms of affordability, Truvada can be quite expensive. Most private health insurance companies will cover PrEP; however, these companies often charge a high co-pay for Truvada. Without private health insurance, Truvada costs approximately $13,000 per year at $40 per pill. However, Gilead, the company that manufactures Truvada, offers two different programs that help cover the cost of the drug. Despite Truvada’s expensive price tag, Gilead aims to make their product more affordable and accessible to its users.

A drug as revolutionary as Truvada, however, is bound to cause commotion. While Truvada is available to heterosexual couples, its main target is gay men. Certainly, there are mixed reactions from gay men in regards to the development of a successful HIV-prevention drug. That is to say, the availability of Truvada has changed perceptions of risk, as well as sparked gay men’s opposing attitudes towards PrEP.

According to Truvada’s website, there’s a strong recommendation to follow the comprehensive HIV prevention strategy, which includes the following: getting tested regularly for HIV and STDs; practicing safer sex; knowing partner(s)’ HIV status; not sharing needles; and using condoms all the time. This last recommendation–always using a condom–has sparked quite a controversy within the gay community, and it’s worth exploring.

Some gay men who are on Truvada refuse to use condoms, as the pill protects them from HIV. Does this philosophy encourage a change in sexual behavior? Yes, it can. In fact, some Truvada users embrace the bolder, unapologetic sex that the drug has to offer. Truvada has been called an accessory to promiscuity.  In November 2012, David Duran coined the term Truvada Whore in an article written for the Huffington Post. Duran believes that “a good number of those running to get the prescription are gay men who prefer to engage in unsafe practices.” Duran’s use of the term “whore” isn’t a direct reference to sex work; instead, it’s a negative term describing those who abuse or misuse Truvada. In March 2014, Adam Zeboski’s reclaimed the term with a hashtag that took the gay blogosphere by storm: #TruvadaWhore. In this case, #TruvadaWhore illustrates support for Truvada, as it allows men to have risk-free sex. These “#TruvadaWhores”–proudly wearing their slogan on t-shirts–view the drug as their liberation, their ability to have condom-less sex with whomever they please. Zeboski and his counterparts argue that sex without condoms is “old school, natural, [and] kind of amazing.” The TruvadaWhore movement emphasizes the appeal of promiscuity; however, this opinion isn’t shared by all gay men.

Certain opponents of Truvada believe this medicine’s sole goal is to promote promiscuous sexual behavior. While Truvada may grant sexual freedom, this is not the medicine’s main purpose. Truvada isn’t the end-all and be-all. It can’t cure STDs or HIV. However, Truvada’s capabilities are still significant: it’s a medicine that prevents HIV infection. What a great stride in the fight against HIV/AIDS! Also, Truvada encourages the use of condoms during sex; in fact, a link is available on Truvada’s website to “order condoms discreetly by mail.” If anything, Truvada aims to both prevent and contain HIV/AIDS.

Interestingly enough, the dispute regarding Truvada varies between generations of gay men. As already noted, some young men embrace Truvada to the fullest, becoming full-fledged #TruvadaWhores. Other younger men, however, refute the of idea of promiscuity: Truvada simply assures a peace of mind, as there’s one less factor to consider before having sex. Older gay men–most of whom experienced the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s–offer an intriguing stance on Truvada’s availability. Larry Kramer, now 79 years old and HIV-positive, wrote the influential play The Normal Heart in 1985. Kramer’s play, now an HBO film, documents the initial moments of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Kramer strongly opposes Truvada: “Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads. There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” Not all older gay men share Kramer’s opinion; others believe that the gay community has suffered enough already. Why should such suffering continue?

All in all, there are many drawbacks and benefits associated with Truvada. As Truvada becomes more and more prominent, the conversation surrounding this medicine will evolve. Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge the main advantage of Truvada: it prevents HIV infection, which in and of itself is a bit miraculous.