Category Archives: Spring 2010 (5/1/10)

Beyond Emotional Exclusivity – Resist the Monogcore!

Figuring out how to be in relationship with another human being is complicated, it is a process of continued engagement. Any structure that encourages us to check out of that engagement – to deny emotional truths or the extent to which possibilities for connecting to one another exist – impoverishes our lives. Material conditions and channels of power that force us to focus on our survival within a system are certainly examples of this kind of structure, but even when our needs for material safety and well-being are more or less met, the ways that we are expected to engage with people is often circumscribed by established stories about what is socially and emotionally acceptable. Monogamy is the centerpiece to a network of stories that we are told about the way that intimate human relationships are supposed to function.

When I say that I am against monogamy, I am not talking about being against people who are choosing to have sex with one partner at a time, or even people who are choosing to settle down with one person for a lifetime. Relationships are complicated and no one should feel bad about trying to engage in whatever kind of emotionally consensual relationship meets their needs. What I am against is the hegemonic system that views this form of relationship (two people being each other’s exclusive sexual partners and principal support system) as the best way to be in the world, as the only way that can bring someone a full and happy life, and the way that all other people are ideally expected to conduct their sexual relationships and build family structures. Several of my friends use the word monogcore to describe any social experience or cultural form that reinforces the dominance of this system.

For some people, beginning to consider non-monogamous models grows out of being in monogamous relationships that do not work for them either sexually or emotionally. For me, being critical of hegemonic monogamy is informed most by not having been in sexual relationships for the bulk of my adult life. When I was younger, accepting the ubiquitous narrative about happiness and human relationships often meant painting myself into a corner where I could never be fully present or alive without telling myself that I was building to a point where I would be part of a monogamous coupling. In this mental trap, the thought that I might never find a sexual partner to be monogamous with was enough to send me spiraling into despair; to turn myself into a person I did not want to be, into someone who bored me.

At some point, I made a decision to reject the idea that my life was empty if it did not involve significant monogamous sexual relationships because I did not want to become a person who was shaped so wholly by the presence or absence of that element. As a consequence, the whole way that I thought about the possibilities of friendship and the level of intimacy that I was interested in exploring in my friendships shifted. Coming out was not only a process of acknowledging that I like to have sex with men, but also a process of letting go of the idea that I had to find a monogamous partner in order to be happy and build relationships with people that I could call family.

• • •

Monogamy serves as a major theme in stories about how adults seek intimacy with other, unrelated adults and what the rules and limits of that intimacy are. Non-familial relationships are fit into a framework and hierarchy in which sexually monogamous partnership occupies the apex. Other relationships are necessarily subordinated to this one relationship and are only allowed to grow in specific ways and to certain limits. Many of our most powerful words are affected. The way that we commonly talk about family, honor, fidelity, happiness, betrayal, intimacy, integrity, love and commitment are all tied up with this idea.

The story that monogamy tells about itself is one that puts an enormous amount of pressure on a single axis. It declares that each person should find one other person and that those two people should make each other responsible for meeting the bulk of their emotional and all of their sexual needs, to consider each other as the only avenue to build family and have a complete life. Living inside of this story can force you to become engaged in emotional drama and participate in conversations and dilemmas that are not your own; not necessarily connected to the stories you want to be telling, or that the people you are engaged with want to be telling about themselves. There are of course many people who do not end up in monogamous situations, but their lives are often either invisible or seen as inferior, as obviously less ideal than those bound by ‘normal’ sexual practices and ‘traditional’ families. One of the reasons I find it difficult to have much enthusiasm for gay marriage is because of the way that the rhetoric around it relies so heavily on the power of this story.

For people involved in a monogamous relationship that does not do all of the things it has promised, staying faithful necessitates the scrupulous building of a grand lie. A lie about how the meaning of a relationship is obvious, self-evident and solid, a lie that makes it impossible to talk about the ways that the significance of their relationship to each other might be evolving, echoing as it does through the different geographies of their individual lives and experiences. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of monogamy as it is generally practiced is the way that its emotional exclusivity is so serial. The expectation that the person you are sleeping with is the one that you share the most emotional intimacy with leads to the idea that you should have very little emotional contact with former lovers and means that many people find themselves cut off from those who they have been closest to in life.

In a patriarchal and hetero-normative context, monogamy is a tool that severely limits the way that women are allowed to be in relationships with men (and men with women) who are not their lovers or family members. The fact that one’s reputation hinges on their adherence to these rules means that all sexual energy existing outside the context of monogamous coupledom or potentially monogamous coupledom is viewed as threatening. People often feel compelled, either explicitly or implicitly, to police social interactions under the presumption of defending monogamy. This dynamic has frustrated my desire to have relationships with people that are intimate and life enlarging even when there is no explicitly sexual motive. I have often felt pressure to alter my behavior, by either curbing my friendliness or making myself more visibly queer, in order to have interactions with women that are not viewed as inappropriate by someone in the room.

• • •

I resent the way in which stories about intimacy that hinge on monogamy restrict our language, limiting the words we use to describe our relationships to one another. I want words to describe what it feels like to have a platonic romance – to become best friends with someone in a matter of weeks. Words to describe my relationship to a person who I meet only once, but who changes my life forever or for the person who I see at a distance everyday for years and who knows things about me that no one else does; for trysts that I have with authors who are long dead and for rituals that commit me to people that I have no intention of marrying, or even necessarily sleeping with.

Finding ways to build our own definitions of these things as we go along which more accurately reflect our experiences with and desires for each other is certainly more complicated than accepting the definitions we have been given, but it expands the ways in which we are able to talk about living with each other in the world. Certainly there are constraints in every relationship and these constraints can be vital to the emotional health and well being of the people involved. But, wherever possible, they should be constraints that have been chosen by those involved according to their own particular emotional truth, rather than obligations wholly unconnected to the people making them.

There are, of course, people who are already doing this; people who are opting for polyamory because it makes the most sense for them, having sex with multiple partners in a variety of ways. People who are choosing to be exclusive sexual partners with each other for their own reasons, and are not threatened when other people make different choices. There are people who build families with people who are not responsible for meeting their sexual needs and people who have sex with people who are not responsible for meeting their needs for family. There are those who, for various reasons, choose not to have sexual relationships at all and people who are doing several (or all) of these things at different points in their lives.

Imagine what the world would be like if the terms of our relationships with each other were negotiated in every possible instance by the people involved and not by some abstract ideal about what people should be to one another. What grand possibilities would present themselves? How would the difficulties involved speak more directly to the problems we want to be tackling? I believe that our relationships are more meaningful when we are openly engaged in the process of negotiating them; when we open ourselves to the range of ways that it is possible to connect.

Leaving this world with a human touch

Death is a hard topic to face or write about with any honesty, modesty or accuracy. Five years ago, I held my best friend Jenn as she died from cancer. Her death was sad, overwhelmingly difficult and yet it was also somehow beautiful, natural, humanizing and reassuring. Her final moments were nothing like what you see on TV. Rather, they were raw and animalistic, unmediated by culture or language, almost like a reversal of birth. Since seeing her death, I haven’t felt afraid of my own death.

While her life was cut short to only 35 years, it seemed like she had a good death. She didn’t want to lose autonomy or be connected to a bunch of tubes or wires, isolated in a scary hospital. And so she actively directed her own death process. With help from her doctors, housemates and hospice, she was able to end her life totally naturally with no extraordinary medical intervention, in her own bed, in her own room, cared for by her friends and loved ones.

We’re all going to die but most people feel inhibited talking openly about death because of cultural taboos. Discussing death openly and in detail can seem negative or scary — like if we don’t talk about it, maybe it won’t happen. But with a high tech, profit-driven medical care system, our culture needs to figure out how to honestly discuss death, both so the dying can have as good a death as possible, and to stop runaway end of life costs from bankrupting the healthcare system for the living.

We need to build a culture that discusses the death process so each individual can decide for themselves when more advanced healthcare makes sense, when it is time to give up the fight, and even when it might make sense to request lethal drugs to hasten our own death to avoid prolonged suffering.

Death Panels

A tragic detail of the past year’s struggle over healthcare reform was the moment when a proposal to pay doctors to consult with patients about end of life care was demonized as calling for “death panels” intent on “murdering grandma”. The proposal was immediately dropped from the bill, squashing a chance to have an honest discussion about how corporate, Western medicine mis-handles death. Under Medicare, the government healthcare benefit for people over 65 and disabled people, doctors are not paid for these complex and time-consuming consultations, which can be crucial for dying patients. But doctors are paid for procedures, regardless of whether these procedures are helpful or just prolong a dying person’s suffering while providing no real benefit.

Whereas death is inevitable for all of us and a normal and natural part of life, modern health systems can sometimes treat death in a dehumanizing, mechanical way — a problem that modern technology should somehow seek to “solve.” Rather than being able to end life at one’s own pace, people are put through increasingly desperate, painful and invasive medical procedures to buy a few more days or hours.

The hopeless struggle to defeat death costs not just quality of life for patients, but accounts for a huge portion of healthcare expenditures. The five percent of Medicare patients who die each year consume about one-third of Medicare expenses, with aggressive treatments during the final month of life eating up almost a third of that sum, according to government statistics. The mainstream healthcare system is in crisis not just because millions of people lack coverage, but because the cost of coverage is increasing so rapidly. End of life care is a big part of this increase. As medical technology gets better and more complex, there are more and more ways to spend a lot of money at the end of life.

There is not an endless pool of money to pay for healthcare, especially as the population ages. Money spent on expensive end of life care that doesn’t improve a dying patient’s quality of life is not available for other care.

Cultural attitudes about whether it is always appropriate to use every available medical technology to prolong life has to somehow evolve along with technology. This requires opening space to honestly and earnestly discuss end of life issues, which is precisely what was closed down with the “death panel” rhetoric.

Learning to talk

Learning to talk about death is not about government programs or changing the medical system — although it certainly would help to make sure doctors could be paid for participating in these discussions. Learning to have these discussions is much more about changing general cultural norms. Dying people may not feel comfortable talking honestly with their families because they don’t want to scare the people they love, or themselves. Caregivers don’t want to honestly discuss death issues with the dying because they don’t want to seem like they are giving up hope. The mutual fears and inhibitions are making difficult transitions harder for everyone involved.

I can remember, as Jenn’s cancer spread throughout her body, how we both avoided talking about her impending death, even when it would have helped to be able to discuss it openly. We were lucky to finally have frank discussions towards the very end, but it was never easy. Her doctor greatly helped in the process by telling Jenn at a particular point that there were no more realistic treatment options and that her focus should switch to palliative care — care designed to manage pain rather than fight her cancer. Jenn was so used to fighting that I think she would have tried more long-shot treatments right up until the end had her doctor not given her permission to pull back and change her focus from fighting to dying.

While it would be easy to confuse this transition with giving up, I think of those last few weeks of Jenn’s life as particularly meaningful for her. We began visiting outdoor places she loved and scheduling visits with her friends so they could say goodbye. She wrote a will to provide for her cat. We talked about what she wanted done with her body. She gave away her camping gear and materials she used as a high school teacher — symbolically wrapping up loose ends. Jenn could have missed some of these opportunities to wind up her life had she kept on fighting and trying more treatments until the very end.

At a housemeeting a week before she died, Jenn discussed her wishes regarding her care and the role hospice would play in permitting her to die at home. She asked housemates not to panic and call an ambulance when she got sicker because she didn’t want to be taken to a hospital or connected to tubes or wires. She signed a do-not-resuscitate order so that if paramedics were called, they would not take extraordinary measures to revive her. Her doctor prescribed pain medication, anti-anxiety pills and other drugs to limit her suffering as much as possible. An acupuncturist made home visits to reduce annoying hiccups and itching. Most of all, we scheduled her friends to sit with her 24 hours a day during her last 5 days.

While there was no way to avoid all of the suffering that one’s body goes through as it shuts down, all of this planning, communication and support helped Jenn depart in a fairly humane fashion.

What can we do to make these difficult conversations easier and more common, so more people can have humane deaths surrounded by their friends? The process around Jenn’s death was easier because the medical establishment in Berkeley was experienced and supportive of alternatives, because of the type of person Jenn was, and because her community was ready to participate.

I can imagine things being a lot more difficult when children are trying to relate to elderly parents across cultural divides, when the healthcare system is less supportive, and when the person dying doesn’t get information about alternative options or doesn’t feel comfortable asking if there is another way.

I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to change this dynamic other than trying to stimulate discussion about death and dying.

I think it can help to talk about end of life issues with your friends and loved ones before there is a crisis even though this is far from easy. One tiny part of opening discussion may be getting people to sign living wills. A living will is a document you can sign instructing your loved ones what you want done if you become seriously ill or injured and can no longer communicate your wishes about medical care. They usually appoint one or more persons to make decisions on your behalf. A person who signs a living will may, for instance, request that their body not be kept alive artificially when there is no hope of recovery. They permit people to limit the excesses of the high tech healthcare system.

When you sign a living will, you have an opportunity to talk with the people you are appointing to make medical decisions on your behalf about your wishes and your values around end of life issues and how you want to use the healthcare system. This can stimulate discussion and cultural development all around. I’ve put a sample living will at the end of this article and on-line in case you want to try this.

Death With Dignity

Even more taboo than openly discussing end of life issues is the movement to permit terminally ill patients to obtain lethal drugs to hasten their deaths. This allows terminally ill people to have some measure of control over their deaths. I see this as lying along a continuum of contemporary responses to the end of life — from using high tech medical care to aggressively extend life, to declining care, to using palliative care and hospice to control suffering at the end of life, and extending to a patient ending their life before they would otherwise die naturally to avoid prolonged suffering. The common goal is self-determination and empowering each person to decide what is right for them. No one path is right for everyone so the key is opening a variety of options.

In 1997, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act, the first law in the US to permit doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who request them. The law prevailed over court challenges and Washington State has since passed a similar law. These types of laws are more common in Europe than in the US.

Under the Oregon law, a patient has to be well enough to self-administer the lethal drugs. Patients have to make repeated requests to their doctors over a period of time, orally and in writing. The doctor and another physician have to fill out forms diagnosing a terminal illness with six months or less to live and finding that the patient is mentally competent to make and communicate health care decisions. The doctor has to advise the patient about alternatives, including palliative care, hospice and pain management options. And the doctor has to ask the patient to notify next of kin about the prescription. There are forms that all parties have to fill out and file on the Oregon Department of Human Services website and it is impressive to see all the safeguards built into the law.

Since its passage, Oregon has kept detailed records about how people have used the law, which are reported annually. From 1997 to 2009, 460 Oregonians have taken their lives using medicine prescribed under the Act. Not everyone who requests and gets lethal drugs actually takes them. Just having options can be helpful and comforting to many people.

In 2009, there were 95 prescriptions — 53 patients took the pills and died, 30 died of their illness, and 12 were still alive at the end of 2009. 98 percent of the patients who took the drugs died at home. On forms asking doctors to assess the reasons patients requested the drugs, the most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns were: loss of autonomy (96.6%), loss of dignity (91.5%), and decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (86.4%).

I find this law important and interesting — despite the hyper-state orientation of forms and permissions — because of the way it opens up end of life options and dialog. The reasons patients request lethal drugs is especially interesting. These people haven’t given up on life — rather, they are empowered and engaged in defining for themselves how they want to live, including when and how they want to die. This seems to me the polar opposite of people caught up in a medical system intent on delivering procedures disconnected from the potential costs of benefits to patients or society. While not everyone will want or use such options, pushing to extend them widens the space to grapple with these issues.

Conclusion

While death is a natural part of life, the healthcare industry and cultural norms that try to hide death have limited self-determination at the end of life. Just as many people are battling the inhumane corporate machine that is killing the earth and dominating most aspects of human life, we need to struggle so that the healthcare industry serves human needs, not corporate greed, at the end of life. That means fighting for freedom from suffering and empowering each person to decide how much to use, or decline to use, high tech medical procedures at the end of life.

For many people, having a good death may mean one connected to community, not machines. With help from friends as well as caring medical professionals, we can organize our own do-it-yourself deaths.

Promoting self-determination at the end of life doesn’t mean cutting off money to people who want to use healthcare to the max — it means giving everyone more options. There is a lot of evidence that the more open the dialog, and the more options available, the cheaper overall end of life healthcare will ultimately be, because many empowered people will not request every last procedure. But the main reason to struggle for a more humanistic culture around end of life issues is to avoid suffering, not just to save money. A lot of the fancy high tech healthcare procedures are causing, rather than preventing, human misery. By engaging in hard discussions about death and learning to think about death as a part of life, rather than as a terrifying unspeakable topic, we can help build a culture that supports individuals where it is okay to ask for help, as well as decline corporate care.

I wish to thank the excellent doctors and other medical staff at Herrick Cancer Center who cared for Jenn and exemplified the best of what the medical system can offer people.

For information on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, check out www.deathwithdignity.org.

Living Will and Appointment of Attorney for Health Care Decisions

To my family, my friends, my physicians, my lawyer and all others whom it may concern:

I ________ being of sound mind, emotionally and mentally competent, and understanding the full import of this directive, make this statement of my wishes and instructions concerning medical treatment.

I intend this document to be legally binding. I am a resident of ____. I direct my physicians, other health care providers, my family and any surrogate designated by me or appointed by a Court, to carry out the wishes stated in this document. If I become unable, by reason of physical or mental incapacity, to make decisions about my medical care, this document provides the guidance and authority needed to make any and all such decisions.

If at any time I have an incurable injury, disease or illness certified to be a terminal condition by two physicians, one of which is the attending physician, and where the application of life-sustaining procedures would serve only to artificially prolong the moment of my death and where my physician determines that my death is imminent whether or not life-sustaining procedures are utilized, I direct that my life shall not be artificially prolonged and that life prolonging procedures should be withheld or withdrawn, and that I be permitted to die naturally.

In addition to the above, I do not want my life to be prolonged if I have become unconscious and, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, I will not regain consciousness.

Finally, I do not want my life to be prolonged if I have an incurable and irreversible condition and life-prolonging treatment imposes risks and burdens of treatment that outweighs the expected benefits, even if my death is not immediately imminent.

In the absence of my ability to give directions regarding the use of life-sustaining procedures, it is my intention that this directive shall be honored by my family and physicians as the final expression of my legal right to refuse medical or surgical treatment and accept the consequences from such refusal. If artificial life-sustaining means have been commenced, they should be stopped. All care necessary to keep me comfortable and free from pain should be given, even if pain-relieving medications may hasten my death.

To effect my wishes, I designate ____residing at ___ or if he or she shall for any reason fail to act, I ____residing at ___ (in that order) as my health care agent/surrogate, that is, my attorney-in-fact regarding any and all health care decisions to be made for me, including the decision to refuse life-sustaining treatment, if I am unable to make such decisions myself. My agent/surrogate’s authority shall become effective when my primary physician determines that I am unable to make my own health care decisions. This power shall remain effective during and not be affected by my subsequent illness, disability or incapacity. My surrogate shall have authority to interpret this document, and shall make decisions about my health care as specified in my instructions, or, if or when my wishes are not clear, as the surrogate believes to be in my best interests. I release and hold harmless my health care surrogate from any and all claims whatsoever arising from decisions made in good faith in the exercise of this power.

[Sign and date, and have witnessed by two un-related persons who are over 18, not named in the living will, and who won't receive any property upon your death. They should confirm in writing near their signatures that you are of sound mind at the time you sign.]

Witness the resilience of Haiti’s people

I went to Ayiti March 28 – April 4, 2010, with my Haitian dance teacher Peniel Guerrier. It was a trip we had planned before the earthquake in January, and it is because of Peniel’s vision and commitment to the people of Ayiti that the trip was possible. These are my reflections on the trip.

It begins with seeing tents. Fields and fields of tents. Some are hearty, large, bearing the symbols of the aid organizations that gave them. Others are just plastic tarps tied together. The worst are patchworks of sheets upon wooden sticks. It is sunny and unbearably hot, and hard to imagine what will happen when the rain comes, soaking the sheets, turning the ground to mud. And the rain is coming. Soon. For two months: rain, rain.

Then there is rubble. Everywhere. And no sign of it being moved. I imagine it becoming part of the landscape, permanent stacks of devastation. Looking at it, I do not know how anyone was rescued or removed, the slabs of concrete heavy, awkwardly jutting against each other, or sometimes whole floors stacked on top of each other like two pieces of sandwich bread, or the whole building tipped onto an unstable diagonal, dizzying and crude. A member of my group who grew up in LA comments on the lack of personal possessions in the remains, in comparison to her memories of the LA quake. The possessions have either been taken, or more likely, did not exist in the first place.

We attend a public Vodoo ceremony for the dead. Vodoo is a New World religion, the synchronization of traditional African religions brought by different ethnic groups to Ayiti, with the Taino native populations, sometimes carefully masked under the veneer and symbols of Catholicism. It should be stated that there is considerable amount of prejudice and misunderstanding about what Vodoo is. Probably some of these associations come to mind: black magic, dolls with pins stuck in them, senseless sacrifice of animals, perhaps humans. Despite taboo, Vodoo has been central to Haitian culture since the Revolution, which began at a Vodoo ceremony. As a dancer, understanding the religion is crucial to learning Haitian dance, as dancing is an essential means of connecting with the spirit world in the religion. This ceremony is an adaptation of what would be done as individual funeral rites, en masse. There is relatively little dancing at it, but much singing and drumming, with the occasional partnering and turning between different practitioners. After the ceremony, we meet with Max Beauvoir, the unofficial spokesperson for Vodoo in Ayiti. He shares hearty wisdoms with us, but one sentence rings out in my head now: “The Haitian people have been kicked in the back. We are down, and though you reach your hand to us, we can hold it, but we cannot get up.” The affect of seeing so much death makes the fragility of life a clear fact to everyone. He says we can bring life to Haitians living with the trauma.

So we hand out donations, clothes, food, and medical products. We pull over to the side of the road to tent cities and open up the back of the car. People swarm around us. Sometimes I cry, handing them what I can, torn open by how dehumanized they are, how they push each other, how they hide one thing behind their back to get another, how crushed they are by their overwhelming need. There are women with small babies, children, children, children, old men and women, standing one breath away from me, and we are in two worlds, only by the chance of our circumstances, delivering us into this moment where we are face to face, and no matter how much we give, we will run out and yet still always have more resources for ourselves, the scales tipped so unevenly, towards us. The insistent tapping on my elbow, the pleading in Kreyol, and underneath it all, the frequent smiles of children when we drive past, the sharp tug of gratitude for anything we can give, and the living of life on the edge of life.

And then, there’s the UN. In its trucks and military uniforms sporadically throughout the countryside. The UN workers at the hotel we’re staying at tell us they have seen evangelical ministers make hungry children recite biblical passages before giving out food aid. Aid has been unevenly distributed at best. The UN here is an occupying force. Occupying the first free, independent Black republic, it seems to be it could be humiliating to not have one governmental body or organization you can trust. And what is the occupying force doing? It is so unclear. The rubble is not moved. I do not see one sign of new construction. The rain is coming and 1 million people have nowhere to go.

There is a museum next to our hotel on Haitian history. The memory of slavery lives here. One member of my group puts her hands in the shackles. “So heavy,” she says. The wooden sculptures depict the faces of the enslaved, etched with sorrow and determination. And next to then, the marble sculpture of the colonizers. The creation of race captured in these artifacts, so stark.

It is hard to laugh, but sometimes we can, at the awkwardness of our American selves, thrust so far out of what we are used to. Here, 10 minutes can become 4 hours, you can drive on any side of the road, every stranger is a friend who can help (when our car breaks down in the middle of somewhere), what little resources there are will be constantly exchanged instead of hoarded, physical discomfort from heat or over crowdedness becomes routine, and small things are enormous surprise blessings: a napkin appears when I am sticky and messy from mango eating, water when we thought we had none, someone who can fix the car. There is a flow in the chaos, an order holding it together, connected web.

We laugh and we dance, taking classes with some of the Haitian master teachers, some of whom haven’t taught since the earthquake. Several of the drummers lost family members and homes. Their resilience is astonishing. The spirit of my teacher, Peniel, moves me to my core. He is willing to do whatever he can to ease the suffering, even though it seems so miniscule in the mountains of need surrounding us. He makes me see it is not futile; we must do what we can. At the only national school for the arts, now too damaged to be used, artists have pitched camp. They sell their paintings to maintain a bare survival. Their work tells the story of continued struggle and hope in the midst of hopelessness.

The moment of greatest meaning to me is when we visit an orphanage, also destroyed by the quake, to dance with the kids. 80 children, several missing legs, arms, are living in tents next to their collapsed building. Kids who had nothing now have even less. They are immediately affectionate, holding our hands, climbing into our laps, speaking in Kreyol and sometimes in the one language we share in common: Spanish. When they dance, they light up with glorious movement, smiles spread across their faces, and we move together, move the sadness, move the loss, through our shoulders, arms, hips, feet. We laugh and cheer each other on, dancing into the middle of the circle, the same way my students do in Brooklyn, the powerful movement of the Diaspora that has held this center through centuries of oppression. These children need everything in the world, and it is clear to me, they need to dance. As we leave, they crowd around the car. One girl is wearing a bright red tee-shirt from a Manhattan private school, and I pause on this odd moment of a privileged kid’s hand-me-down ending up on the flipside of our lifestyle of excess. It is clear to me how distant and how connected our worlds are. It is clear to me I have a responsibility to these people, to keep holding their hand, until they can stand, with solid feet on perpetually unstable grounds.

I encourage you to donate to Architecture for Humanity where money can get more directly to the people on the ground: architectureforhumanity.org.

For info on Peniel Guerrier: tamboula.com. Jesse’s website is jumpoffdance.org

Slingshot issue #103 introduction

Slingshot is an independent radical newspaper published in Berkeley since 1988.

It is always shocking to be slapped in the face by the contrast between the humanistic radical community we’re creating in the East Bay and the cold, oppressive boot of patriarchal family structures and the state. In the middle of creating this issue, we had to take a break to deal with the emotional fallout.

A couple of our collective members began caring for an infant a year ago when his mother’s mental state deteriorated and she was no longer able to do so. While they weren’t related to this little boy, they created an amazing, alternative family structure for him that was far more supportive and caring than what exists in many traditional nuclear families. He had a whole community to change his diapers, kiss his boo-boos, and bathe him. Instead of having TV as a babysitter, he had people and community gatherings — protests, Food Not Bombs, mardi gras parades. And he was here while we made Slingshot.

And then, with little warning, his blood relations swooped in and swept him away from everything he knew –his friends, his toys, his books, his name. No one asked him what he wanted or considered the emotional impact of pulling the rug out from under this amazing two-year old. The state supports traditional definitions of family, preferring form and blood over substance and love. What a perfect illustration of monogcore-thinking.

A lot of the most radical social transformations are in our minds and in the ways people relate to each other and build community. So while there might not seem to be a lot of flashy protests in the streets in the US at the moment (unlike what our comrades in Greece are stirring up), that doesn’t mean that things aren’t bubbling and shifting. Taking time to reflect, contemplate and debate what comes next is as important as organizing the next dance party or vegan meal. We hope some of the ideas we’re sharing in this issue will contribute to the next stage of the struggle.

The courts in the US have started to hear testimony on the issue of net neutrality. While we usually are ranting about misplaced reliance on technology, if media giants get unfair preferences on the internet or impose access fees, it will crush the relatively level playing field and open access to information that have defined the past 15 years. Before the rise of the internet, activists often felt burned when the media misrepresented and demeaned them. Now people seeking information can go directly to the source without a middleman. Would the murder of Oscar Grant be in the public consciousness the way it is without net neutrality? Probably not. Another example is how in Egypt the nature of feminism has changed after bloggers used video footage to expose violence. There wasn’t even a word in Egyptian for sexual assault before those videos.

• • •

Slingshot is always looking for new writers, artists, editors, photographers, translators, distributors, etc. to make this paper. If you send something written, please be open to editing.

Editorial decisions are made by the Slingshot Collective but not all the articles reflect the opinions of all collectives members. We welcome debate and constructive criticism.

Thanks to the people who made this: Adam, Apple, Autumn, Amanda/Dee, Ariana, Chris, Eggplant, Ergot, Hanna, Heather, Jesse (PB), Kathryn, Kermit, Kerry, Kristi, Lesley, Mando, Rena, Samiya Bird, Sandy, Will, Winship, Y.

Slingshot New Volunteer Meeting

Volunteers interested in getting involved with Slingshot can come to the new volunteer meeting on Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 4 p.m. at the Long Haul in Berkeley (see below.)

Article Deadline & Next Issue Date

Submit your articles for issue 104 by September 18, 2010 at 3 p.m.

Volume 1, Number 103, Circulation 19,000

Printed April 30, 2010

Slingshot Newspaper

Sponsored by Long Haul

3124 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705

Phone (510) 540-0751

slingshot@tao.ca • slingshot.tao.ca

Circulation Information

Subscriptions to Slingshot are free to prisoners, low income and anyone in the USA with a Slingshot Organizer, or $1 per issue or back issue. International $3 per issue. Outside the Bay Area we’ll mail you a free stack of copies if you give them out for free.

Slingshot Back Issues

We’ll send you a random assortment of back issues of Slingshot and other publications for the cost of postage: Send $3 for 2 lbs. or $5 for 5 lbs. Free if you’re an infoshop or library. Or drop by our office with cash or check to Slingshot 3124 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley, CA 94705.

PB Floyd Comes Out – the visionary and the pragmatic

There is no one named PB Floyd who writes for Slingshot — it’s a penname I made up and that I’ve been using for 24 years. This issue, I’m giving up PB and from here on out, I want to write under my own real name. There’s no reason for you, dear reader, to care — so long as someone writes those Slingshot articles it’s probably all the same. But for me, this is a big deal, a sort of coming out even though my friends and family have always known that I am PB. Permit me to briefly explain because I think it relates to some critical contradictions that radicals ought to address.

I started using the name PB when I was 18 years old because some other activists made fun of an article I wrote using my real name. They said the article was naive, and looking back on it, they were probably right. Who has their whole ideological/political analysis together when they’re 18 years old? Or when they’re 42 for that matter. But I found that I liked using a pseudonym — it felt cool and it added to a sense that us radicals were somehow outlaws, operating an “underground” paper, rebelling against authority and corporations and the police.

It felt freeing — I felt like I could write whatever I wanted about protests or immoral or illegal actions and not risk getting in trouble. Of course I also simultaneously knew how silly that was — if anyone really wanted to figure out who PB Floyd was, I knew it wouldn’t be very hard since anyone who wandered into a Slingshot meeting would immediately learn the truth.

But it was still fun and freeing, and that felt like enough reason to keep it. Over the years, I even began to feel like PB had built up a body of work of sorts — sometimes people would tell me they had read my articles. It was exciting. When I got a professional job to earn money, it felt better to have some separation between my Slingshot reality and my work reality. At one point, I was going to loan closings on high floors of banks wearing a suit. It felt better to have a bit of distance between that role and PB’s articles that were about tearing down capitalism and banks and suits.

When I wrote as PB, I didn’t have to ground my articles in the real, boring, flawed, compromising me, so it somehow felt easier to express the parts of me that aren’t boring or scared — that can take risks, dream great dreams, and put my whole heart and soul into the struggle for liberation. I think all of us have both kinds of people inside — the brave visionary, and the stuck pragmatist. In a sense, struggling for social transformation is about figuring out how millions of people can simultaneously find their inner revolutionary, and not listen to the doubting, fearful side.

The real me can be a pain in the ass — often saying the wrong thing, acting like a stubborn bully, being selfish, loud, rude and stupid. The real me has to make compromises with the hard real world to keep a job, have a place to live and have enough money and stability so I don’t go crazy. The real me is insecure and I don’t always like myself very much. I’ve been in therapy for 11 years and I still feel like a total psychological mess — often unable to enjoy my life or get beyond the coping mechanisms I developed when I was 15. I’m middle aged now and as I get older and older, I pile up more regrets and I feel less and less sure about what I ought to be doing or whether my core beliefs even make sense. I’ve broken the hearts of those who loved me, let down my friends and squandered my potential. PB was never weighed down with any of that messy reality.

And yet the mistakes I’ve made aren’t the whole story, because the real me is also the person who created PB and amidst all the compromises, I’ve mostly been able to figure out ways to resist the machine, struggle for change, contribute to the radical community, and be free. I’ve managed to arrange my life around publishing Slingshot — setting up my job, my housing, and my social relationships to support involvement in the grassroots radical community.

By keeping PB as a separate part of myself, I’ve avoided taking that part of myself entirely seriously. I’ve always kept one foot in the mainstream society while the other foot was in the radical community. The main reason I want to unmask PB and write under my own name is because I want to get rid of the split. I want to fully commit to the PB part of my personality and devote myself to the struggle for a different world with my whole heart.

I went to school and got a career and I’ve been working it for 15 years, and it isn’t what I want to do. I can do it okay but the real excitement in my life — my real life mission — is working on Slingshot and pursuing alternatives to the corporate/industrial society that is destroying the earth. I’m tired of rationing and suppressing and denying all of the stuff that makes my life feel meaningful and good — raw experience and adventures, biking in the sun, working with my hands rather than in front of a computer, building and gardening to create something real and tangible, struggling hard to push back eco-destroying machines and systems.

Doing Slingshot and being involved in other aspects of the radical community is the ultimate mind-altering, gratifying, life-giving experience. There are a lot of frustrations and ways alternative communities fall short, but at the end of the day they are about something meaningful — creating social relations that are just and sustainable — whereas being practical to get by in a society that is killing itself and the earth is crazy. It is crucial that we participate in these counter-cultural projects not only to build something for the future, but to actively participate in passionate lives now.

Writing as PB all these years has permitted me to be a lazy writer. By shifting into a PB character when I wrote Slingshot articles, it was easy to write from an idealized, pure place that the real me — and none of my readers — could ever live up to. We ought to distrust purity, absolutes, and idealized realities. Instead, I think what is most interesting is not the idealized utopias we can think up in our heads, but the messy compromises we make with the real world in which we nevertheless still try to live up to our values and visions.

I want to focus on these contradictions and compromises more and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the radical community to try this as well — less purity tests and more acceptance and compassion for each other as we all build paths outside the dying society together.

By the way, PB Floyd stands for Pretty Boy Floyd, a depression-era Oklahoma outlaw immortalized in a fantastic Woodie Guthrie song that concludes “Well as through this world I’ve rambled, I’ve seen many a-funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. But as through this world you wander and as through this world you roam, you will never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.”

cops beat on the beat unless we get on our feet

As Big Brother makes further demands that we spend our time in soul-destroying cubicles, perhaps we can instead sing songs, meet in the streets, and share food and resources as people have done over the ages. One example is in Santa Cruz CA, a seemingly liberal small town that actively suppresses community gatherings, especially around music in public places. Santa Cruz has been on the circuit for travelers and countercultural people alike for years, but it is becoming less affordable and more of an upscale shopping destination. To further this end, years of police harassment and punitive laws have targeted homeless, street people, and activists. Amazingly, with no prospects of the oppression relenting this has not deterred people as they continue to thrive.

Harassing people for singing on the streets is a guise for keeping the sidewalks open for commerce and shoppers. We see this when looking at 4 people who were ticketed for “noise disturbances” in front of a downtown bookstore while advocating homeless rights during midday on January 6th. The police used a new ordinance, the “Unreasonably Disturbing Noises” law, that permits them to act on alleged citizen complaints. Under the new ordinance police can fine musicians up to $445. Many musicians, already counting pennies, will have to pay the fine, or $75 if they wish to do community service. Though it takes money for the state to process papers and go through court, the cash-strapped municipality will target vulnerable people to pay their bills.

The four musicians had actually stopped playing when the police came to issue a warning. They inquired about the complaint and questioned the officers for exact details about the ordinance, like “How loud is too loud?” And “How quiet is quiet enough?”‘ so that they could continue to play, but the cops had no answers. All of this confrontation was going on even as the musicians stood in one of the two city-slated ‘free speech zones’. This clearly displays the dressed up corpse of American freedom.

In naked practice, the new ordinance is just another tool for cops to punish dissidents with impunity. There have been several small-scale confrontations revolving around “unpermitted” gatherings recently in Santa Cruz. The Drum Circle adjacent to the weekly Farmer’s Market became a scene of confrontation in 2008 ending in Battery of an Officer charges against defiant drummers. Clearly, this was an attempt to push away the gathering that is also supported by weekly servings of Food Not Bombs.

Furthermore, houses that host live bands have come under the target of punitive ordinances which fine the residents hundreds of dollars, even if they are not present at the event. The fines are accumulative for the house, even if the prior offense is from a previous household. Still, this has not stopped people from getting together and making a racket. It passes the time that they gladly do not waste at the Cineplex.

Maybe the City Council and Police are acting out the frustration at not being able to eradicate and erase people who are openly refusing to play the capitalist game. But we must continue to play our game, of lighthearted laughter and soulful expression, so as to not forget about our real lives and the things that really matter.

Old Growth Redwoods face loging to build highway

Richardson Grove is a stand of majestic, ancient redwood trees bisected by the iconic Highway 101 north of San Francisco, preceding one of Humboldt County’s biggest tourist attractions, the Avenue of the Giants. Richardson Grove State Park represents some of the 5 percent of this nation’s last remaining old-growth forest.

The California Highway Department Caltrans has proposed straightening and widening the section of Highway 101 that runs through the grove. That section is a choke point — a short section of twisty, thin road with a slow speed limit surrounded by a more modern highway. The Caltrans plan calls for the removal of dozens of trees from the grove, cutting into the root systems of old-growth redwoods and disturbing Marbled Murrelet and other threatened species’ habitat. There is no guarantee that cutting roots will not harm the health of, or eventually kill, old-growth trees.

Public safety and concerns for commercial robustness are Caltrans’ stated reasons for moving forward on their proposal to widen 101. They want the stretch of road to be wide enough to accommodate the largest trucks legal under California state law. But many environmentalists and local business owners say that widening the highway to allow more semi-trucks may negatively impact the local economy by opening the gates of Humboldt County to sprawl and ugly development. The ecological impacts are also considerable. Richardson Grove is federally designated Marbled Murrelet critical habitat. As many as six endangered species make the old-growth forest of Richardson Grove their home.

Community members, tribal leaders and environmentalists are coming together to strategize about how to protect Humboldt county — with its rural charm and tight-knit local economies — from the threat of increasing gentrification / commercialization that opening up the highway would pose. Caltrans’ Environmental Impact Report is currently under review. If it gets approved, Caltrans could start construction — that is, unless massive protest and direct action stops them. Keep posted. For more info contact the Environmental Protection Information Center www.wildcalifornia.org

Squatters’ movement building in San Francisco

On this past Easter Sunday a group of at least 8 activists liberated a vacant house in San Francisco’s Mission District. The occupation of the building served as a protest to draw attention to SF’s vacant and abandoned buildings as well as the immense homeless population. The day’s action started with a rally and march from a nearby subway station to the occupied house with placards that read “House keys not handcuffs.” The action was organized by the 18-year-old SF group Homes Not Jails. The occupation lasted from the very early hours of Sunday morning into Monday afternoon. It ended when the SF Police attempted to batter down the door, the occupiers complied and let the police in. They were cited with misdemeanor trespassing and walked out of the house without ever being placed in cuffs.

HNJ formed in 1992 by squatters, homeless people and their supporters to advocate the use of vacant and abandoned buildings for people who are homeless. HNJ promotes the idea that people need a home in order to escape from the spiral of poverty and to get them back on their feet, something that typical homeless shelters cannot adequately provide. The group uses public actions, education and covert squatting to convey their message.

Pointing at the current economic recession and the collapse of the housing market, squatting has the decisive opportunity to demonstrate how to build from the ashes of the old by creating positive spaces away from the traditional norms of housing consumption.

“Space and property is used by people in an unjust unethical way to manipulate others,” said Sasha, a HNJ volunteer. “People play the game, work their job, pay their rent and one fucked-up thing happens and they’re on the streets.”

The weakness of the system is the ideal contrast to showcase our alternatives to capitalism through squatting such as — mutual aid, autonomy and consensus. Circumnavigating the status quo allows opportunities for transformation — teaching people to support themselves and each other outside of the hierarchical landlord-tenant relationship.

“People have this weird idea that a squat is not a home and that paying rent gives you more rights and we would like to get rid of that myth. If you live in a place and you close the door, you cook your food, you sleep there then that’s your home. Its just as much of a home as if you were paying rent,” said Sasha.

“The stigma of the word squat is kinda fucked up, we don’t like to use the word squat because of that. For us a squat is a home,” added Sasha.

Squatting, for the most part, has been absent from the minds of most Americans and mainstream media even though there is an estimated 1 billion squatters worldwide, according to Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World.

Tim, another HNJ volunteer said, “The need that HNJ serves is the direct gap between vacant buildings and homeless people. Government will tend to talk all day long about how they have an interest in seeing how buildings aren’t vacant and that they want people to have homes, and yet you have a vacant building and a homeless person sleeping on the street in front of it. In the legal-realty-money-world, when its all said and done, you still have a vacant building and someone sleeping on the streets. What HNJ does is covertly put people into these buildings. Even though the legal system may not see the validity and value in this change we nonetheless do it. And the public actions serve as a reminder to people that this is going on.”

The involuntariness of squatting for so many people worldwide is an important distinction that we must recognize from politically motivated squatting, but HNJ unites the two skillfully.

When asked how they thought the action went, Sasha said, “It was the best possible thing that could have happened. We did what we wanted to do. The cops never bothered us. We had the full support of the neighbors and no one was arrested. We had coverage on BBC, Indymedia, Fox News and even in Jakarta and Australia. It was great for a media trick. We got worldwide coverage.”

“I think the action went well, but unfortunately the building is still vacant and the elderly gentleman who was kicked out of this building is still fighting to get back into his home. It drew attention to this sad story and the fact that egregious injustices like this happen everyday,” said Tim.

So you want to start squatting? Its great to have an organization like HNJ behind you but it is not necessary. There are numerous online resources that can give you the technical knowledge of how to turn on electricity and water, to the appropriate tools and attire for entering a building. They also help you get an idea of what you need and what to expect, good and bad.

For more info: contact@homesnotjailssf.org, www.homesnotjailssf.org www.squat.net, www.squattheplanet.com

Grandiose courage & passion: Lydia Gans

The 5th Annual Slingshot Award for Lifetime Achievement was awarded to Lydia Gans in March at Slingshot’s 22nd birthday party. The Award, also known as the Golden Wingnut Award is to honor people in the radical community who have spent their lives working for alternatives to the current system and deserve proper recognition. Their stories are worth telling. Lydia Gans has been active in the East Bay since 1988 but was an activist for virtually her whole adult life. Thank you, Lydia, for your inspiration and dedication.

***

Lydia Gans is a woman of small stature but of grandiose courage and passion. She has become a role model in the radical activist community here in the East Bay. Throughout her life Lydia has found herself affected by the larger context of political turbulence and was thus repeatedly at the heart of major social movements, such as the woman’s movement, racial integration, and the struggle for rights for disabled people. Her involvement in progressive movements has been heartfelt and sincere, as she herself and people close to her have experienced oppression. She continues to work tirelessly, despite the inevitable ageing process, for social justice and humanity. Currently, Lydia volunteers with the Disaster Relief Project of the Red Cross in Oakland, which is a program that offers immediate food, shelter, and clothing to people affected by disaster. She also holds down the Tuesday kitchen for the People’s Park meal serving with East Bay Food Not Bombs, directly feeding hungry people, a job she has kept for about 20 years. Lydia maintains her photojournalism career through writing and photographing for Street Spirit, the East Bay monthly publication featuring poetry, artwork, and legislative news regarding houseless and poverty issues. To feed her heart and soul, Lydia participates at the Berkeley Community Chorus, volunteers at the Telescope in the Chabot science center, does math problems, and reads plays with a local theater group.

Born in pre-Hitler Germany in 1931, Lydia immigrated to New York with her family upon their first chance of escaping the immanent persecution of Jews. They arrived in 1938 when Lydia was seven years old. She did not know a word of English when she arrived to this new country, but it took her only three weeks to feel comfortable with the language. Lydia attributes her learning of English to the encouragement and positive enthusiasm of her teacher and school peers. “Everyday,” she says, “my peers wanted to have play dates and to teach me English.” In 1948, Lydia passed the entrance exam to get into Hunter High School, at the time an all women’s high school. Throughout high school she walked the city streets for fun and focused on her studies. She graduated at the age of 17 and immediately moved westward to Berkeley, California. Lydia was the only woman from her high school class to move so far from New York. Other woman stayed close to home and – despite their intelligence and potential – became victims to the cultural normality of woman’s roles. One of her friends from high school had an uncle who was a leftist in California; it was through him that she was able to get her foot in the door working with Marxist youth. As Lydia said, “and then I got mixed up with the radicals.”

Lydia started college in the wake of the McCarthy era. She began a physics major, but changed to mathematics. There was a real fear due to McCarthyism that spying and government infiltration played in the physics field attributed to fresh discoveries in atomic science. She didn’t finish school until later in her life because she moved from Berkeley, fell in love, and had kids. Lydia married a black man as the civil rights struggle occurred; it was illegal in some states to have a biracial marriage. Lydia did eventually go on to receive a doctorate in mathematics, where she pioneered women in the field.

As a professor at Cal Poly Pamona, Lydia became insecure and believed she was not as smart as other professors in her mathematics department because she was always being put down, not being promoted, and not permitted to teach higher level classes. In fact, there were only a handful of women in the sciences who finally, one day at lunch, got to stare each other in the face and validate for one another that in fact they were intelligent, strong, and doing fabulous work. For these women, finding supporters helped to alleviate the hatred, anger and frustration caused by their oppression. “…That’s what the woman’s movement was about.” Lydia was a professor from 1963 to 1988, and continued to fight sexism throughout that time. During her time as a professor, Lydia became President of the teacher’s union and served on the statewide academic senate. The union activities enabled Lydia to exercise political action in the school system.

When she lived in East LA, Lydia participated in radicalizing the Democratic Party and fighting racism. She and her husband worked with the Chicano community to gain more representation in government. The community of organizers were successful in electing the first Chicano city councilman along with a democratic governor to end a republican stint. Until they started organizing, Mexican-Americans were sorely underrepresented in democratic government.

In 1967, when restrictive housing laws were overturned, which had restricted people of color from living in particular areas, Lydia was living in Southern California in a town called Altadena. Lydia moved to Altadena so that her children could find a community with which to identify being that they were biracial. She and her family joined with neighbors to support racial integration. The neighborhood came together during meetings and through their children playing. “This house is not for sale” was a common slogan posted at people’s homes, because realtors would bother people to leave their homes to escape minorities – a practice deemed ‘white flight’. Lydia remembers her life in Altadena fondly. There was a lot of open space as the town borders National Forestland and the area itself has roots of revolutionary activity. It was a hot bed of abolitionists after the civil war when Owen Brown, son of John Brown (leader of the Harper’s Ferry revolt) moved to Altadena where he is buried with the tombstone saying “here lies Owen Brown, son of the liberator; 1895″.

Lydia moved back to Berkeley in 1988 and started taking classes in photojournalism. She became interested and involved in disability activism — mostly because she had had disabled friends in Southern California. Until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, disabled persons could hardly get around and were not treated as equal people in society. If someone was in a wheelchair one would have to go blocks out of their way to a driveway as an access point onto the curb. In the late sixties, disabled students at UC Berkeley became the forefront of the disabled persons’ struggle, named the Independent Living Movement. The movement was still happening when Lydia returned to the Bay and a man by the name of Ed Roberts became Lydia’s peer and role model. Lydia met Robert’s through a friend of her’s in southern California. Roberts lived with polio since the age of fourteen. He created the Disabled Students Union and fought for ramps on campus and in Berkeley. Lydia worked closely with Roberts on various projects to gain more rights for disabled people on campus. Through working with disabled people and learning about photojournalism, Lydia was inspired to take pictures and write books about the subject. Roberts helped her to publish two books called: To Live With Grace and Dignity and Sisters, Brothers, and Disabilities. Her books document disabled peoples and their caretakers, and how families function with disabled children, respectively. To create the books she was welcomed into people’s lives with her camera, developed relationships with the people she photographed, and captured emotion and passion to make her books come alive.

Before Lydia started working with East Bay Food Not Bombs (EBFNB), it had never occurred to her to work with food. Philosophically, she is not an anarchist, but EBFNB functions well in that context when people are so committed to actualization of the group’s goals. The group of people who were EBFNB impressed her because, “everyone was dedicated to the community, and dedication is what we all believe in, which is pretty unusual, most people do things because they’re supposed to, but at Food Not Bombs no one tells another what they have to do.” As she has lived her life in the East Bay participating in Food Not Bombs and Street Spirit, Lydia has proved her own dedication to the causes that directly affect the quality of life for so many people including herself and her nearest community. With the risk of sounding hokey, Lydia explains that each relationship is a treasure, especially compared to the academic world.

Looking back on her life, Lydia says that at one point politics seemed simple, black and white, it was bad versus good; but now she sees more gray areas and complexities. She says that people in general need to find common ground, more humanity. And when asked what kept her going through lull periods and tough times, she responded by saying, “well activism always keeps you going…”

Not playing fair! – Olympics’ Gender Police & Interset Rights

One of my best friends is a butch genderqueer lesbian who competes locally in womens’ sports. Recently she told me “I think it’d be fascinating to find out if I’m at all intersex like you.” I said “not if you know what the Olympics are trying to do to intersex people.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) isn’t playing fair with intersex athletes. They’re playing gender and appearance police on female athletes, and only female athletes, in a witch-hunt against butch and intersex women. The IOC is using hateful language against intersex women and demanding that female athletes found to be intersex submit to forced hormone treatments or forced surgery akin to female genital mutilation if they want to compete as the women they are. This violates basic human rights and a 1990s international court ruling in favor of intersex women in sports.

Intersex refers to being biologically in between or outside medical/legal definitions of male and female due to natural variations in sex hormone balance, chromosomes, or internal & external genitalia. Many people don’t know they’re intersex. As the same fetal tissue can develop into either male or female genitalia, many people have some variations in either internal or external genitalia, which can include men with ovaries or uterine tissue (including some cases of men who menstruate), women with internal testes, people with an ovary and a teste and people with ovatestes (a combination of both) to name a few variations. Everyone who produces sex hormones (some people don’t) has some balance of estrogen and testosterone. And the average person doesn’t know what their sex chromosomes are unless they’ve had a medical need to know or competed in sports before the Maria Pettino ruling.

Intersex differs from transgender, which is living as a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Some intersex people identify as transgender (this is known as intergender), some as men or women. Intersex people who live as men are men, and intersex people who live as women are women.

The IOC refuses to consider intersex as a valid human population with natural biological variations. Instead they’re using disease language. The phrase “DSD” (Disorder of Sex Development) was imposed on intersex people in 2006 without our consent or input. Think about it, who would want to be refereed to as being a “disorder?”

DSD was created by doctors who see intersex people as diseased and want the world to agree. One of the most infamous, J. Michael Bailey, has written a book and articles defaming the transgender and intersex communities, claims Latin women are inferior (as in his now-discredited book The Man Who Would Be Queen), belongs to a racist and anti-immigrant think-tank known as the Human Biodiversity Institute and publicly advocates aborting “gay babies.” Since 2006 the intersex community and our allies have devoted much activism to challenging DSD. Many places people who started using it are dropping it – except now the IOC.

The “current” controversy over intersex women in sports actually goes back over 60 years. In the 1930s Stella Walsh, a Polish Gold-medal Olympian, who set the world discus throwing speed record, was taunted by detractors as “Stella the Fella” and claims that she “isn’t a woman” until her supporters threatened her rivals with similar accusations. After Walsh’s death she was discovered to have been intersex.

During the Cold War chromosome, testing was added to the Olympics. This was apparently from fears that the Soviet Union would, as one writer of the day said, “sneak hermaphrodite super-athletes into womens’ sports.” Under chromosome testing many women were told they weren’t women, despite the reality of their bodies and lives. In the most ridiculous incident, a 1960s Eastern European womens’ swim team were all disqualified and told they “aren’t really women.” They all went home and every single one of them became pregnant soon afterward.

“Gender testing” policies for female athletes continued to be used to deny women opportunities and have been used to physically harm women. Several women in the last 20 years have been targeted under an appearance profiling system. This means that the officials have singled out women for seeming “too masculine,” “too butch” and other ways of saying that because they don’t fit stereotypes of femininity that they “mustn’t really be women,” which is plainly misogynist. That this system has been used primarily against women of color shows this to also be a racist policy. One of the most horrific uses of this policy was in the 1980s when Brazilian judo champion Edinanci Silva was forced to either undergo what the IOC called “Feminizing surgery,” to remove part of her genitalia or be banned from competing. This is akin to female genital mutilation.

The Pettino decision is supposed to have ended chromosome testing. In 1985 Spanish hurdler Maria Pettino faced being banned and losing her medals because of the results of her chromosome test. Pettino has an intersex variation known as AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) where her body does not respond to testosterone; this can lead to a woman having a female body with male chromosomes. Pettino fought the IOC in world court and won in 1992 on the basis that she is a woman and her body is female and she should be allowed to compete in womens’ sports. The courts ruled that intersex women are women, and chromosome tests were supposed to be dropped … until now.

In 2009 South African runner Caster Semenya found herself in world headlines because the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) targeted her for being butch, claiming Semenya couldn’t be a woman because she’s muscular, has short hair and deep voice. They demanded she submit to several types of biological gender tests, including a highly invasive internal examination. Semenya has been found to have internal testes, though this was not about her being intersex so much as her being found to be intersex because they targeted her appearance.

While Semenya is seen as a hero in South Africa, the IAAF and several other sports bodies are trying to keep her from competing. They claim her levels of testosterone give her “an unfair advantage.” This is nonsense. Almost all women also produce testosterone, some more than others. What flows naturally in your veins is not a “performance-enhancing drug.” Athletic excellence isn’t about who’s bigger, faster or stronger. It’s about who trains harder, works longer and is willing to push their body to its limits, even sacrificing time with family and friends to be the best. Lindsay Van (not to be confused with athlete Lindsay Vonn) just broke a world record for ski-jumping, but the IOC won’t let her compete because she’s a woman and “womens’ parts aren’t made to handle that sort of jumping.” Can they think they can get away with even saying that in 2010?!

The Olympics’ reaction to Semenya’s existence is to pretend the Pettino verdict never even happened. They want to make Caster Semenya have her testes removed. They’re also demanding that female athletes be put through biological gender tests, and many say these tests will be selectively enforced on butch women.

Organisation Intersex International (OII, website: www.intersexualite.org) is not about to let the IOC have their way. OII has been raising awareness about this whole situation for some time now and is currently working to urge the IOC to stop discriminating against intersex women and allow intersex women to compete without fear of being singled out for harassment, pathological labels or the kinds of barbaric “treatment” the IOC has been demanding. Activists are working on various awareness raising measures, including a petition which can be found and signed at http://www.intersexualite.org/IOC-petition.html

The goal is a Games where even the officials have to play fair.

Sources:

1) DSD Fact Sheet, Organisation Intersex International, found at www.intersexualite.org/DSD_Activists.html

2) Edinanci Silva’s story, Organisation Intersex International site, found at www.intersexualite.org/Edinanci_Silva.html

3) J. Michael Bailey’s statements about wanting to abort “gay babies, found at ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/Bailey/HBES/Bailey%20on%20homosexuality.htm

4) KQED interview addressing J. Michael Bailey’s claims about Latinas, found at www.tsroadmap.com/info/alice-dreger/bailey-kqed.html

5) Maria Pettino’s Story, found at www.medhelp.org/ais/articles/MARIA.HTM

6) “Queer Science,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report (about Bailey and the Human Biodiversity Institute), found at www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?sid=96

7) Rachel Maddow on Lindsey Van, youtube clip at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#35375415

8) Stella Walsh articles, found at www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1462

9) TS Roadmap archive of transgender community criticism of found at www.tsroadmap.com/bailey/