World AIDS Day 2011

Today is World AIDS Day, an annual occasion for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, remembering those who have died, for people living with HIV to share their stories and for those who don’t to support and stand in solidarity with them. This year’s theme is “Get to Zero,” i.e. – to get to zero AIDS-related deaths and zero new infections by 2015.

Many changes need to take place in our society and globally for this goal to be reached. HIV testing needs to become a routine part of health care for all sexually active people (the CDC recommends that all people between 13-64 be tested at least once in their lifetimes for HIV). Access to HIV treatment needs to become far more widespread and equitable than it currently is. In the U.S., only half of people living with HIV are receiving any treatment for it, and only 28% have the infection under control with medication [Loop 21]. About 1 in 5 are unaware of their positive status.

And as I’ve written before, HIV/AIDS is a problem that intersects with and is exacerbated by societal oppressions and injustices like sexism, racism, classism, and anti-queer and anti-trans bigotry. Concrete examples from the U.S.:
– Women of color are at significantly higher risk of HIV infection than white women, even more so if they are poor and/or transgender. Black women are infected at fifteen times the rate of white women, and three times the rate of Latina women. Black women also make up over 50% of new infections in women. [CDC, PDF]
– Black people make up 14% of the U.S. population, but make up almost half of all people living with HIV and 44% of new HIV infections. The percentage of black men who have sex with men who are HIV positive is nearly twice that of white men who have sex with men. [CDC, PDF]
– Transgender people are at significantly higher risk of HIV infection than cisgender people, with some studies suggesting that over half of black trans women are HIV positive [TransHealth, PDF].

Disparities along lines of oppression and privilege apply not only to rates of infection, but also to access to treatment. Similar disparities in infection rates and care exist worldwide. As the Latina Institute puts it, HIV/AIDS is a “two-way road” of marginalization: ”

 It is not only that our society marginalizes HIV-positive individuals, but that the most marginalized people in our communities are most likely to become positive.

Yes, it is important to get tested. Yes, condoms, condoms, condoms. But the truth is that some of us are at higher risk than others merely because of who we are and the communities in which we move. At particular risk for HIV are women of color,transgender folksyoung women. In short, HIV is not simply a disease, but rather an indicator of marginalization and injustice in our society…In the end, AIDS  is a disease of marginalization and injustice, and we will not see an end to AIDS without ending inequity.

As most of us know, HIV/AIDS is a global issue – a pandemic. By focusing on U.S. numbers, I don’t mean to be overly US-centric or imply that the U.S. matters any more than any other part of the world. But I think we tend to think of HIV/AIDS as a “third world” problem, and especially a black African problem. And there’s truth to the fact that most people living with HIV or AIDS are in the Global South – again in large part due to dynamics of power and privilege on an international scale, and due to oppressions like misogyny and poverty on local and national scales. But the reality is that the U.S. remains in the throes of an HIV/AIDS epidemic that is often invisible because most of its victims are marginalized in various ways.

An analysis by the Black AIDS Institute found that if  black America were its own country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people with HIV — ahead of Ethiopia, Botswana, and Haiti. [CDC]

“A great amount of attention has been put overseas,” said Marconi, who’s also an associate professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine. “Especially in these economically challenged times, we tend to be myopic in our efforts in our charitable giving. People say, ‘I’m already giving towards the international HIV effort – I can’t see two epidemics happening.’ No one wants to believe that extreme poverty and neglect exist in such a rich and powerful nation as this one.” [CNN]

The invisibility of the American HIV/AIDS epidemic is even more heightened in devout Christian communities. American churches are often willing to talk about HIV/AIDS as an African problem, but unwilling to talk about it as a problem in their own congregations or communities. CNN, for example, ran a few articles this week on HIV/AIDS in the U.S. South, which has a higher rate of infections than other parts of the country, and where HIV/AIDS are highly stigmatized topics – that is, even more so than in American culture in general. This seems to be correlated to high rates of religiosity and the “Bible Belt” culture of the South.

Dealing with the epidemic in the South “is extremely challenging, because the stigma and discrimination is worse,” said Dr. Kevin Fenton…”There is less discourse around prevention, sexual health, comprehensive sex education in schools or having strong, community-based advocacy activities.” [CNN Also see: Pastor fights HIV stigma in rural town]

I think the tendency to conceptualize HIV/AIDS as only an overseas problem is a reflection of the very same oppressions that cause HIV/AIDS to disproportionately affect marginalized communities in the U.S. In both formulations the status quo in terms of power and privilege is maintained. HIV is constructed as an issue “over there” affecting poor, pitiable, ignorant black Africans who need to be rescued from their plight by knowledgeable and resource rich Americans (mostly white). This formulation falls in line with what’s expected in terms of racial, economic, and international political power dynamics. Similarly, the resistance in the U.S. against recognizing HIV as a very real and present epidemic in this country reflects the fact that the burden of HIV/AIDS is predominantly borne by people who are queer, trans, female, poor, and/or of color. There’s no way so many Americans would be unaware that we continue to have an epidemic on our hands if it were a disease that disproportionately struck down white, straight, middle class, etc., people.

And that casts the charity and goodwill of many conservative U.S. churches towards African “AIDS orphans” and other overseas people affected by HIV/AIDS in a less than flattering light. The patronizing nature of this sort of charity becomes clear when you factor in that it’s coming from the very same groups of Christians who complain and rage about the slightest bit of focused attention or resources spent on U.S. communities of color, LGBT people, women, or poor people (i.e., the groups disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS) as “reverse discrimination” and “divisive.” In both cases – paternalistically providing charity to black people “over there” and angrily demanding that the government withhold support and resources to marginalized people over here – the position of white middle class “mainstream” people as privileged over all others is insisted upon and maintained.

Of course, stigma and invisibility are not only the result of racism – they are also the work of ignorance and resistance, often religious, to talking about sex and sexuality within those communities most affected by HIV/AIDS (See, e.g., HIV AIDS and Black Churches: Ignorance can kill).

So this World AIDS Day, let’s think not only about the AIDS as a global problem, and how injustice on an international scale feeds that, but also about the forces that operate in our local and national contexts, wherever those might be, to produce higher rates of infection and lower rates of effective treatment in various communities.

If you are sexually active and don’t know your status, get tested! Folks living in the U.S. can find an HIV testing site near you by using AIDS.gov’s testing and services locator. Encourage people you know to get tested as well.

And check out some of these reads on World AIDS Day:
– On Twitter, ChrisMacDen shared about living with HIV. A must read..
–  Indigenous Youth in Canada are launching National Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week to address higher rates of infection among native youth.
– Black Women’s Health Imperative: What will it take to get Black women to Zero? A discussion.
– On The Issues magazine: Women HIV activists make Sex Ed a reality 

 


NaBloPoMo wrap-up

So, this is it, the last day of NaBloPoMo. Woohoo for posting 30 days in a row! Some of what I learned by doing NaBloPoMo:

– I have a lot to say! Often when I’m working on blog posts I feel like I’ve run out of ideas, or have nothing to say – especially when I’m feeling particularly anxious or depressed. Turns out I have a lot of things I want to talk about. In fact, there were a number of topics I though I’d be able to touch on this month that I just didn’t get to.
– It’s possible to write a decent post in a day, but I also need to write more often and try to plan out my writing further in advance. And also do more writing just for practice. My long-term dream is to be able to write about gender and religion issues as a career, so I definitely need to think more about my writing as a craft and skill.
–  Daily blogging is hard bloody work! I knew that in the abstract; I mean, blogging a few times a week is also a lot of work. But, whew. I’m feeling a bit blogged out. I do plan on posting tomorrow for World AIDS day, but after that posting may be on the light side for a bit probably more like twice a week.
– Having awesome readers and commenters who leave encouraging and insightful comments gives me energy to blog more, helps me hone my thoughts, and gives me more ideas for posts.

All of my NaBloPoMo 2011 posts can be found here. Thanks for reading!


Keep your pedestals

Trigger warning: female objectification, rape and sexual assault, war.

I’ve been thinking for sometime about how society puts “women” and “femininity” in the abstract on a pedestal in a way that ends up actually concretely limiting, hurting, and ultimately dehumanizing women.

Modesty culture is a good example of this, actually. Part of the idea is that women are supposed to dress and comport ourselves in a way that lives up to an idealized femininity. Wearing tight or “revealing” clothing is unfeminine because we’re supposed to maintain some kind of mysterious allure that is ruined if we “expose” our bodies to male view. Men won’t respect us if we “leave nothing to the imagination.”

“Femininity” means we should be above dirt, sweat, grime, any signs of physical work or exertion. Even above the scents and sounds of typical bodily function. Smell like a garden. Look like your face has no pores.

We shouldn’t be too strong or independent – physically, emotionally, financially. If we’re too successful or content on our own, men won’t think we need them. Men want women who need to be protected and provided for. If we’re too strong, men will be intimidated by us. We’ll scare them off. Men want women who want to be treated like queens. Princesses. Or at least our two-dimensional fantasies of what we imagine the life of queens and princesses to be.

This idea that women’s bodies, appearance, lives should be all roses and delicacy and pampering stands so at odds with the realities of most women’s lives that it’s hard to believe it’s not a deliberate fiction meant to paper over our suffering and oppression.

I read a post once, when I was still a fairly conservative Christian, by a similarly conservative Christian guy quoting a Catholic complementarian on the role of women in war. This man – Anthony Esolen, if I remember correctly – asserted that women don’t belong in combat or in any military roles at all because women should be “above” the fray of war. Combat sullies our delicate and pristine nature. We should be on a pedestal, untouched by the ugliness and destruction of fighting. Because men and their lives are dispensable – are biologically and divinely intended to be dispensable – but women are not, because we are destined to give life and be mothers.

And even at the time I thought this was a load of bullshit, because honestly, apart from children, who is more harmed by the effects of war than women and female-assigned people? Who ends up being left to raise and provide for families alone, under the most horrific and deprived of conditions? Who do soldiers rape and batter with impunity, as a means of terrorizing and demoralizing “the enemy,” or just because they can get away with it?

Girls. Women. Children and adults who are read as female.

Just like modesty is a load of bullshit, because no amount of clothing is any protection from someone who is bound and determined to objectify you, to harass you, to assault you, to rape you. No, modesty is just society’s way of telling us that people who don’t conform to “femininity” deserve whatever we get. That we’re asking for it. And a way of absolving the perpetrator and an enabling culture for responsibility. It’s no protection even for those who conform to it and are subjected to violence. Even then you are held to the stringent standards of performing “femininity.” You must be the perfect victim, or you’re probably a lying slut.

This reminds me that just today, apparently, Jon Huntsman – clearly the most reasonable person in the current GOP presidential candidate field – described the allegations of adultery, sexual harassment, and sexual assault against Herman Cain as a distraction from the issues Americans really care about and a “bimbo eruption.”

Because speaking out about sexual harassment and assault = being a bimbo.

All this twaddle about women being obliged to be vulnerable so than men can swoop in and come and rescue us, this bullshit about how we’re all pretty princesses and mysterious alluring creatures with magical power over men, who men love to not be able to figure out or attain…I mean, what better cover for festering misogyny and the violence that goes with it? Because the reality is, the “femininity” we are socialized into tell us to make ourselves vulnerable in ways that serve to silence and disempower us in the face of (usually male) abuse and violence.

Fantasy: Don’t be too financially independent so your prince can come. Reality: stuck with an abusive partner that you can’t leave because of financial constraints, because you have no place to go. Reality: most people living in poverty are women and children, and economic hardship hits women and children most severely.

Fantasy: dress and present yourself in a certain way and men will think you are mysterious and alluring and irresistible. Reality: dress in a way considered too attractive and you will be considered a slut and not taken seriously. You will be blamed if you are assaulted. Reality: Dress in a way considered not attractive enough, and you will be considered a frigid bitch and not taken seriously. You will be considered impossible to rape, because rape is supposedly about sexual attraction.

Fantasy: You will be safe, respected, loved, and provided for if you do/are this or that. If you are “feminine.”
Reality: Femininity is despised, threatened, hated, marginalized.


Sierra: How modesty doctrines harm young women

Trigger warning: objectification of women/female-assigned people, disordered eating, spiritual abuse, sexual assault and rape.

Alternet has a great article by Sierra on the various ways evangelical and fundamentalist teachings on female modesty are  concretely harmful to women and, though she doesn’t touch on this aspect, female-assigned trans or genderqueer people as well. All of her points are on target, especially her comments on how ‘modesty’ discourages women from activities that would build up their physical strength, and also promotes a mindset that easily lends itself to distorted body image and disordered eating:

Modesty was not just about dress. It was also about moving like a lady. Knees together, butt down, breasts in, arms down. It is impossible to get physically fit while adhering to ladylike movements only. You might be able to run, but only if you wear two sports bras to keep anything from jiggling inappropriately. You certainly can’t do anything with weights. [She goes on to talk about how she avoided exercising in the presence of men because of the constraints placed on her by modesty rules.]

… before I got to college, modesty contributed to my eating disorder. How? Because I noticed that the best way to keep men from staring at my ass was not to have one. Ditto boobs. The skinnier I got, the less womanly I looked, and the more “modest” I felt, until I was 25lbs underweight. I was perpetually “fat” in my own mind – because in my own mind, the only acceptable body type was an androgynous one – one that could not possibly provoke a man to lust.

Sierra gets at one of the aspects of modesty culture that isn’t discussed much, i.e., the very real ways in which it functions to severely limit the ability of women and female-assigned people to move and act freely in public spaces and the public sphere. Requiring people to be constantly aware of how their bodies and appearance are perceived by others – more problematically, holding people responsible for how their bodies are perceived by others – places real constraints on what people can do in public or in mixed company. Of course this is true to some extent for everyone, but it’s particularly true for people who are or are perceived as women in a way it is generally not for people who are or are perceived as men.

We’re the ones called to justify what we are doing or wearing when we are harassed, assaulted, or raped. To answer whether we were behaving or dressed “suggestively.” Whether we gave someone reason to think we were sexually available? Whether we “provoked” sexual harassment or violence against us in some way by, well, being provocative. The implication behind such questioning being that someone subjected to sexually threatening or violent behavior is only truly sympathetic if they appear to hold no sexual attraction to others.

When you argue that modesty is just a “debate” that must be won by those whose arguments are strongest in the abstract, you ignore the fact that the “debate” has consequences you don’t have to live with. Women have to live with the consequences of modesty debates. Those debates impact every sphere of their lives: work, play, even their own health and wellbeing. If you think that, as a man, you can somehow argue “objectively” about what women should or shouldn’t wear and “win” a debate fair and square, let me remind you of a few things. If a man “loses” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. If a man “wins” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. But if a woman loses a modesty debate, the entire fabric of her existence changes. If a woman loses a modesty debate, she has lost whole areas of freedom in her life. She now has more things to worry about not doing so that men will not get aroused. There is no such thing as an “objective” argument in which the stakes are astronomical for one side and nonexistent for the other. Furthermore, by even accepting modesty as a valid area of concern for women, you have accepted a premise that defines women by their looks and objectifies them. Women have already lost the moment a modesty debate begins.

And as Sierra points out, this is a losing proposition from the outset, for many reasons. It’s premised on confusing (or willfully choosing to associate) sexualized exercise of power over another human being with sexual attraction. It assumes that it’s possible for a woman or female-assigned person to present themselves in such a way as to prevent any sexual attraction or response on the part of another person – when in reality, there’s no way to anticipate what will or will not be attractive to another person, and more importantly, it’s absurd to hold someone merely going about their business responsible for the thoughts and actions of another human being.

Absurd or not, this is precisely what our society in general, and modesty culture in a specific and extreme way, both do to female and female-assigned people. We are expected to shoulder responsibility for the sexual feelings and behaviors of men (usually cisgender), while the fact that men are perfectly capable of choosing how to act on their sexual thoughts and feelings, and therefore accountable for their sexual behaviors, is completely erased. And we are sent the message that we can be sexualized and objectified at any moment of any day, in any context, no matter how banal or public. We are always responsible for how our bodies are perceived.

What “valuing modesty” means is that the appearance of women and people perceived as women is always open to question. The message at the heart of this is that we cannot simply exist in the public sphere or in public settings.*  Our right to be in such spaces, to move with relative freedom and self-determination through such spaces, can always be challenged.

*Indeed, this is a luxury few outside the norm of white, male, able-bodied, class-privileged, straight cisgender folks enjoy – e.g., black men and other men of color often have to worry about how their appearance or behavior is perceived in a racist and white-privileging culture that sees nonwhite masculinity as inherently threatening.


LGBT Asian and Pacific Islander Stories

NaBloPoMo Day 27: I spent the time I would ordinarily be writing dealing with some unexpected snafus at home, so here’s a video :p From a series from Basic Rights Oregon highlighting LGBT families of color.


Tiresome fundie apologism

NaBloPoMo Day 26: Well, the goal is to post *something* every day, not necessarily something long or completely fleshed out, so here’s something ;) I’ve been traveling today and haven’t had much time or energy to write. I feel a bit silly that I need a prompt like this to give myself permission to share brief posts, but hey, whatever works.

trigger warning: spiritually/emotionally abusive theology.

So I really need to write that comments policy.

I got a comment from someone who attends Mars Hill on an old post (Mark Driscoll is not God) and it’s…well. It hits several points of Mark Driscoll Bingo: People have come to Christ through Mark, you’re taking Mark’s comments out of context, Mark/Mars Hill is doing God’s work, etc. Tiresome and predictable. Oh, and an extra special version of  Jesus wasn’t a peacemaker: “a fun fact, did you know that Jesus talks about hell more than anyone in Scripture? :)”

The smiley face is particularly charming touch.

Never mind that Jesus doesn’t talk about hell very much at all, so, you know. Certainly not as much as he talks about, say, greed or hypocrisy or judgmental Pharaseeism, or, you know, love. But yea, those handful of times that Jesus* (read: those texts claiming to be Jesus’ words that have become accepted as canonical) mentions hell (read: the words that we translate as “hell” but really had little or nothing to do with our notion of hell in their original cultural context) totally trump all those other parts of the gospels.

Also tiresome: the red herring argument that “a loving God must punish injustice.” Sigh.

Can I just say? I feel like we really need to examine and take apart that the proper response on God’s part to “injustice” is “punishment.” It’s unclear to me what purpose that really serves. Injustice needs to be remedied. Punishment can be part of that, but there’s something rather simplistic about seeing it as the primary response of a sovereign God, and also simplistic in its assumptions about what injustice is. There isn’t always a clear perpetrator in something like “injustice.” Who should God punish for rape culture? Who should God punish for institutional racism or classism or ableism? The assumption here is that “injustice” = discrete acts committed by individuals. There’s no room for thinking about systemic wrongs. And it’s a notion of a divine response to justice that centers the “wrongdoers” instead of those harmed – that God is primarily preoccupied with punishing people who do harm, not with restorative justice towards those who have been harmed.

But also, it’s a bit laughable to trot out that argument in response to a post taking apart the claim that all non-Christians (as defined by one tiny sect) are going to hell. To bring up, as this commenter did, actual injustices like sexual abuse, genocide, murder, as this commenter did, as a defense of Driscoll’s preaching divine punishment for anyone who doesn’t believe one specific interpretation of one particular religion, to imply that God needs to punish the “injustice” of people having different beliefs to be loving, to imply that genocide is comparable to not being a Christian? Well. It makes one seem rather out of touch.

I won’t even get into the strawmanning about how I claimed that all 12,000 people at Mars Hill are blind, angry, and brainwashed. *eyeroll*

So yea. Comments policy. Need to get on that.


Black and atheist

The NYT has an article out today about the challenges of being black and atheist. I’m more agnostic than atheist, but the experiences the article describes really resonated with me. It especially captures the double isolation black nonreligious people face in the U.S. – isolation from often highly religious family who assume that you believe as they do unless you explicitly say otherwise, and isolation within the atheist/agnostic/humanist community, since high levels of black religiosity mean that  a disproportionately low percentage of black Americans identify as atheist.

African-Americans are remarkably religious even for a country known for its faithfulness, as the United States is. According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population, with more than half attending religious services at least once a week.

…With the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian. “That’s the kicker, when they ask which church you go to,” said Linda Chavers, 29, a Harvard graduate student. The question comes up among young black professionals like her classmates as casually as chitchat about classes and dating. “At first,” she said, “they think it’s because I haven’t found one, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I know a few great churches,’ and I don’t know a nice way to say I’m not interested,” she said….

Given the cultural pull toward religion, less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.

This is something I’ve been struggling with a bit in recent years, as I’ve simultaneously left the church and also been consciously working on building relationships and community with other people of color, especially other black people (relationships that the white evangelical culture I grew up in actively discouraged and prevented me from forming). On the whole it’s an amazingly positive, affirming experience. It’s both exciting and a relief to finally be part of a community where there’s a common vocabulary and shared experiences around race and racism, where we have similar political and ideological values and commitments. Given all that it can be very jarring to hear, in a space that feels so much safer and welcoming, people invoke language and beliefs that in my personal experience have been really toxic and damaging.

I know part of that is an implicit expectation on my part that people who share certain values I hold will probably not be all that religious. That’s definitely a holdover of fundamentalist thinking – that if you believe X, you must also believe Y, or that if you believe X you can’t possibly be a “real” or serious Christian. That’s a mindset I need to work on ridding myself of.

And I definitely see that a big part of the role Christian faith plays in so many black communities is that historically, the black church has played a huge, central role in organizing and shoring up black resistance and struggle against racism. The church has been an amazing source of strength and cohesiveness in that respect. And for some, the story of the black civil rights movement is one of divine providence and intervention, perhaps because the black church played such a prominent role.

Jamila Bey, a 35-year-old journalist, said, “To be black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be black.” She said the story the nation tells of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights is a Christian one, so African-Americans who reject religion are seen as turning their backs on their history. This feels unfair to Ms. Bey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and whose father is Muslim, because people of different faiths, and some with none, were in the movement. The black church dominated, she said, because it was the one independent black institution allowed under Jim Crow laws, providing free spaces to African-Americans who otherwise faced arrest for congregating in public.

Recognizing the role of churches in the movement, Ms. Bey still takes issue when their work is retold as God’s. “These people were using the church, pulling from its resources, to attack a problem and literally change history. But the story that gets told is, ‘Jesus delivered us,’ ” Ms. Bey said. “Frankly, it was humans who did all the work.”

At the same time it’s difficult to deal with the assumptions that I see coming from a lot of black people that if you’re black, you believe in God. And Christian faith is so intertwined with many aspects of black American culture that invocations of God and the Bible can come up in unexpected settings, with little warning. A fairly trivial example of this is the BET awards, which can go from rather sexy performances to feeling like a gospel church service in no time flat. Religion and faith in Jesus specifically are just liable to pop up at any moment. And while it’s not outright triggering for me – I don’t get panic attacks if someone quotes a Bible verse at me or tells me if I just trust God everything will be alright – it can feel…not safe or welcoming. It can be jarring.

Another part of the problem, I think, is that there’s so little room to even have an open conversation about not believing in God (and obviously this is an issue in the U.S. in general, not just in black communities). As the article points to, for some people, atheists are far scarier and harder to relate to than people who have engaged in concrete actions that are clearly harmful to others. People who don’t believe in God can be seen as so completely other or foreign that we’re basically less than human: “It scared some men to hear me say I don’t believe in God the way you do. I’ve heard people say, ‘How can you love somebody if you don’t believe in God?’ Or if it’s not that extreme, it can simply be an inability to participate in certain conversations where faith is taken as a given, or where there’s little or no room to be open about one’s experiences as a nonreligious person, both of which are really marginalizing and silencing.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to this. As with many things I think it’s an issue of people being able to listen to and embrace a variety of perspectives and experiences, which can be uncomfortable and difficult in the process. It can mean facing things – facing people and ideas – that are scary, or upsetting. From my end I just wish there wouldn’t be the automatic assumption that everyone believes in God, or believes in the same sort of God. And it would also be nice if there weren’t the assumption that people who don’t believe or believe different are somehow inherently defective or meriting suspicion just because of that fact.