Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Busting the Senate


In this very moment as I type, in Washington DC the country stands on the precipice of making history. In this moment, Democratic Senators, specifically the Senator of Connecticut, home of the Newtown school massacre, have taken the US Congress hostage in what is currently clocked at a 12+ hour filibuster, a dramatic and divisive effort to move the hands of the nation's lawmakers to draw more stringent gun control laws. For those unaware, Congress opens sessions each morning and closes them each evening, but these sessions cannot be closed if a senator is holding the floor and actively addressing the Senate. No one can force the senator holding the floor to give it up, and if the senator continues to talk, the session cannot close. The other senators cannot leave, Congress cannot close for the evening, and they can continue long into the night and into the next day if they choose. These filibusters are effective tactics to motivate action in the Senate. Following the devastating massacre that took place Sunday morning at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, as the country and the world heaved another exasperated sigh at another mass shooting in the US, people have demanded a change. For once, our representatives have heard us.

Gun control laws have been lax as gun proponents and powerful NRA members have blocked multiple attempts to create stricter laws and policies in regards to gun purchasing and possession, and limitations on types of firearms permitted. Falling victim to the slippery slope mentality, fear of losing their guns completely eliminated any possibility of negotiation on this forefront. Now the NRA has not always been the picture of tact and grace when dealing with their adversaries and victims of gun violence. In spite of the multiple shootings that had taken place, the NRA has even at times been callous in their swift response to secure gun support. Following the Columbine shootings, the NRA had a scheduled gun show in Denver that they refused to cancel, in case gun support waned in the face of innocent children being shot to death. Then just months after Columbine, when a six year old child took a gun to school in Flint, Michigan and shot another six year old, the NRA was there too, ready to represent as the community mourned another senseless act of violence.

But in this discussion, senators are finally breaching above the obstacle in this conversation and clarifying once and for all that guns will remain protected for the responsible, for the mentally healthy, for the upstanding citizens and residents of this country who are trying to live a decent and safe life above and beyond terror. However, we will not allow guns to fall into the hands of those who will do grave harm to innocent people around them. We will not stand for another mass shooting in this country.

I don't particularly expect drastic changes in this single filibuster. As a nation we work in baby steps before we can nudge the opposition in the direction we wish to fall. And what is becoming evident in these ongoing discussions is that the senators are presenting taking on the safer issues and tip-toeing around the more significant and sensitive ones. The broader suggestion that has currently taken the floor is the prohibition of "individuals of concern" or people on the FBI's watch list from purchasing weapons, and prohibiting any form of gun sales without background checks. While this is a good start to achieving change, it is certainly not enough; the senators are grazing on issues that have almost unanimously been decided and supported by the American people, therefore evade any significant risk in standing up in Congress and voicing their concerns. In the hours they've been on the air, not one senator that I have seen has mentioned the ban of assault rifles or high capacity magazines because this a more delicate subject, one that would spark those slippery slope concerns from gun proponents "well if you're going to take this type of gun how do I know you won't take my other guns?" While I commend the senators for taking action, they are also taking credit for a debate that is likely already won amongst the people and the other senators in the building. Edit: Senator of Connecticut finally acknowledged these issues in the 14th hour but wishes to focus on the safe issues mentioned above to start the movement.

As we move forward it will take more time and more initiatives to accomplish what we truly need to make this nation safe again. The senate has discussed but has not proposed changes to policies regarding individuals with mental health issues, which, as I cited in my LGBT blog, needs significant revisions in order to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill; a five year waiting period for a released psychiatric patient does not imply sudden mental stability. Some senators have argued that individual states are making their own laws to handle gun control and this should be sufficient, but it is not. The state legislative process involved and the opposition from the NRA and gun proponents is too long and too strong for many states to achieve this level of protection on their own. They need the power of the federal government behind them to expedite and enforce this movement, and the country deserves the umbrella of federal protection in the face of nation-wide and constant tragedies. But, we cannot deny that this is one giant leap in the right direction.

As the discussions go on and we enter our 13th hour, more and more senators are fueling the filibuster with heart-wrenching stories of the realities we have faced in the last few decades regarding gun violence. The woman above, though I did not catch which state she represented, recounting the mass shootings that have occurred since 2007 and listed the locations, number of fatalities, and numbers of the wounded. My heart ached and I shook my head in disbelief at all the recorded massacres that have been buried in the shadows of the past, buried beneath the headlines of the latest shootings, only the bloodiest worthy of remembrance. So many lives, so many cut short in tragedies, which, for many, could have been prevented with stricter gun laws.

What I do love about this discussion is a point easily recognized around the world and in some places in America, but one in danger of being glossed over: this was not just an act of terrorism. Yes, he claimed affiliation with ISIS, but as more information comes out, this was an act of hate and aggression towards a particular group of people: the LGBTQ community. And it happened specifically during our own month of celebration, our anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This was not just terrorism, this was a terrorist act embedded in a hate crime, the first of its kind in our sad, sordid history of human violence. And some amazing senators will not let you forget it. They have worked tirelessly in their speeches to remind us that this was a hate crime, an attack on people who loved whom they chose, who wanted to be who they are, and live life as they were made to. Hundreds and thousands of demonstrators around the world held vigil for those who passed, but they did it waving the rainbow flag, not the American flag. This was not just an attack on American soil, on American freedom and lives, this was an attack on the gay community. After everything we have endured, after the hate, the discrimination, the struggles we have absorbed, we must find room in our lives to comprehend one more tragedy and one more devastating fact: that we are not yet safe in this world before us.

But in watching the international response, I find hope. The world I grew up in rallied against any type of gay rights; they shamed us, they beat us, they even murdered us, as some from my generation will recall the brutal deaths of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. I am still shocked and overwhelmed when I see thousands standing in the streets of London, praying outside vigils in India, holding their own pride parades with their mothers in Asia, and waving their rainbow flags in solidarity. I was still stunned when I saw the hundreds of straight allies who answered the call for blood donations when gay men could not donate. In spite of the message this one man attempted to send, I can see that we have the love and support of millions more, and we can survive and thrive through these final dark hours before the rainbow shines through this storm. But we can't do it alone.

It is currently 2 am in Washington now, and they are still fighting. Filibuster on...14 hours and counting.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Desolation of Cultural Appropriation

As the internet grows ever sensitive to...well...everything, political correctness has taken an ugly turn into a mob of screaming whining children who seem to have nothing better to do than stir up shit storms on social media. Lately the discussion has turned to the copyright holders of various ethic groups and their cries of violations. From dreadlocks to head dresses, from song lines to clothing, the term cultural appropriation has certainly gotten worn out over the past few months. Laying claim to various elements of their own cultures, when an individual of a different culture adopts or uses one of these elements, the group as a whole denounces the use as crossing boundaries. But why do we create these boundaries to begin with and why are we so protective of the cultures we're so proud of?

We all have rich cultures with several wonderful layers and aspects that make our cultures what they are. Exquisite cuisines, hairstyles, clothing, accessories, music, dance, art, architecture, history are the colorful pieces that create the mosaic of our homelands and roots. I'm half Mexican; we have amazing things like tamales and enchiladas, ponchos and china poblanas, charros, mariachis, Frida Kahlo, and the Alamo. And tequila. Tequila es muy importante. I'm also half Irish. And we have beer...and beer...and corned beef and cabbage...and beer. No seriously, there's some Celtic stuff and River Dancing, and Bono, he's pretty important. Okay so my Irish family is probably 5th or 6th generation American and I'm not as incredibly aware of Irish culture like I am of my Hispanic culture from my more recently immigrated Mexican family members, but there's some great shite going on in Ireland.

Anyways I am proud of my cultures, I'm proud of these amazing factors and details that set us apart from other cultures and make us unique, and I want to share these things with people. I want to shout out "hey look how great we are! Listen to U2 and Selena, try our pan dulce (skip the boiled potatoes), check out our museums and kick ass Irish castles, buy this intricately handmade serape, drink tequila, stop at a pub, drink tequila in a pub!" I want the world to experience my history, my home countries, the things that make my life my life.

But it would seem lately some people have gotten a little stingy with their own cultures. Like five year olds who don't want anyone else to play with their toys, the whining babes of the internet are screaming "don't touch! That's MY culture! You can't have my culture! Go away poopy face!" Though the conversation of appropriation has been going on for years, it gained momentum more recently when some little twerp white singer decided to get dreadlocks in his Bieberiffic hair. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like the dude, I never did, and frankly I don't know any white people who have effectively pulled off the dreadlocks look, but I didn't see anything wrong with the move. However, hundreds of people immediately took to the internet to voice their discontent with the hijacking of a hairstyle that is often mis-attributed to the black culture (it originated in the Egyptian culture). Shortly after that in a similar situation of a young light lad and his knotted mane, a black woman became aggressive with him on a college campus because he had adopted the hairstyle as well, and stated he couldn't have the hairstyle "because it's [her] culture."

A few years ago, Pharrell appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in a beautiful Native American headdress, and the NAs were up in arms screaming appropriation and demanding an apology from the musician for his offensive depiction of their culture. There was no war paint, no stereotypical warrior on a horse. Just a beautiful headdress on a beautiful black man. When I Googled the image, I came across the Native American magazine Native Peoples, featuring a NA man wearing a headdress with a boasting comment below stating "our headdresses were featured in NP Magazine!" Even though there was no difference between the beautifully photographed models of either magazine aside from their ethnicity, one was crucified while the other placed on an artistic pedestal.

More recently Blake Lively found herself in hot water as well when she posted a photo of herself on the red carpet with a beautiful front side and a well endowed back side. The caption read "LA face with an Oakland booty" to quote Sir Mix-a-Lot's famous song Baby Got Back. Some claimed the fact that a white woman was quoting a black song indicated her caption was "racially charged"and inappropriate. One person stated she was using WOC's bodies as punchlines and another person wrote "you can never trust the whites." She was just proud of her large ass and quoted a large ass song. Did it matter that the singer of said large ass song was black? Sir Mix-a-Lot recently came to her defense noting women of all colors have curves and should be proud of them, but why did he have to defend her to begin with?

Not one person in all these examples was trying to make a mockery of any particular culture. No one was dancing around making black (Egyptian) jokes in dreadlocks, no one was riding off to war with cowboys in some offensive depiction of violent Indians, no one was claiming superiority or putting down black women's rear ends just because white women can have rear ends too (I don't have one, but some are more fortunate than I in the large ass department). These people only utilized the elements of these cultures because they admired them, because they enjoyed them, because they appreciated them as much as everyone else does. And that, my friends, is what strengthens our unity as a global community. Taking part in someone else's culture gives us the opportunity to learn more about that culture and appreciate the history of those people. It helps us understand that while we have our differences, they make us unique and beautiful and we can learn so much from one another. If we shut that down, if we demand that our cultures remain untainted by the hands of outsiders, we only build up barriers that create racial and cultural divides. Those divides create a lack of understanding, suspicion, and the increasingly detrimental Us versus Them mentality that has become so damaging to our society today.

And remember, each and every one of you that has claimed appropriation has probably eaten a burrito at some point, if you don't want to share your culture, we don't have to share ours. So kiss your chile verde adios bebes...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Responsibility of Rape


Someone I know was raped last week. It was of course devastating for her, as we would expect nothing less after falling victim to such a heinous crime. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women will become the victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, a number incomprehensible when you consider how many women that comes out to in our global population of 7 billion (that's roughly 1,139,353,126 rape victims worldwide). Historically, however, judgment has always fallen on the victim: fingers were always pointed as meticulous investigations sought out every detail of what they felt the victim did wrong. In turn, they cast their eyes away from the perpetrator, often but not always male, who could not be held responsible for his carnal instincts. Now the world has lashed out in warranted outrage in response and demanded a change. A movement has begun to battle victim blaming, to turn the focus away from what the victim was wearing, saying, doing, drinking and simply acknowledging that the victim said no. I wholeheartedly agree that no matter what the circumstances, no means no, and that should end all progressions. But is the movement against victim blaming reaching an unsafe extreme? Is perpetuating the fantasy of an idyllic society that has yet to be created minimizing the need for self-protection and risk reduction? Living in a world of shoulds does not guarantee your hopes and expectations; it may just end them.

Victim blaming is, at its core, a societal problem. Of course, some perpetrators are victims of catastrophic childhoods wherein they themselves may have been victims of abuse, and now, as adults, they seek to regain the control and power they lost by dominating and stripping others of their own control and power. Some male perpetrators, however, are taught from an early age that women are inferior and therefore property to be controlled and dominated by a heavy hand. The latter became clear when I was watching the documentary India's Daughter, the story of Jyoti Singh, an Indian woman who was brutally gang-raped by six men in a bus in Delhi. Jyoti had gone against traditional cultural norms and went to a movie with a male friend at night to celebrate the end of her school term. On the way home, she and her friend jumped on the city bus. It was here that her friend was assaulted, and the six men took turns brutally raping her and penetrating her with an iron rod that left her disemboweled. After 13 days and multiple surgeries, Jyoti succumbed to her injuries and died on December 29, 2012.

The men who were convicted of this crime gave plenty of excuses and justifications for their actions. Mukesh, one of the rapists, told the documentary "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy." But while this comment will undoubtedly raise the wrath of hell in any morally sound mind, Jyoti supporters in the documentary take full responsibility for the inhuman spawns of their own society. In a culture where men are revered and women are inferior, how can these men grow to respect them? In these homes, the male child is placed on a pedestal; he will carry the family name, he will be the ultimate representative of his lineage and upbringing, and he sees the benefits of his gender from the beginning. He is first to eat, he gets the largest portion of the meal and the most precious milk, as his sister is left to eat the remaining morsels, the smallest amount of milk, and to eat only when all the men in the home have been served. He goes out to play and study, she stays home and cleans, taking care of her brothers and father. He is the king, she is the servant, there to satisfy his needs. Growing up in such an inequitable environment, why wouldn't they think that these needs extend to sexual in addition to domestic? Even Mukesh could not fully understand the problem with the mentality that he had been indoctrinated with since a small child; he genuinely could not comprehend what he had done wrong. She was, after all, just a girl.

The refusal to hear the word no, to respect the limitations and boundaries set by your partner, is a sense of entitlement that has been deeply ingrained in the minds of these perpetrators by their own environments. While the west may not be as extreme as some eastern cultures in their gendered favoritism, there is still underlying messages about the value of a woman versus a man that have yet to be rectified. As such, even in our progressive society, there is still a savage need to dominate over one another that some people simply cannot suppress, which leads to the most important component of the anti-victim blaming movement: teaching a man to take no for an answer. Teaching respect for any partner you may be engaging with, accepting that sex won't happen tonight and moving on. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg in addressing the multi-faceted gender gap problems of this country, from wage gaps, exclusions, double standards, etc, we've definitely got our work cut out for us to rectify this imbalance. But change starts at home with our own sons and brothers, teaching them the true value of their female counterparts.

Note from the author: I want to clarify at this point that in these examples provided, I am not negating that women cannot and have not been perpetrators, or that homosexual assaults occur as well; however there are limited studies in female rapists and same-sex sexual assaults, and the underlying causes of such likely stem from differing factors. Therefore most supporting points made in this blog focus on the imbalance of power between men and women in heterosexual assaults. 

Of course, tipping the scales of the world and leveling the gender difference is a social movement, which by definition, progresses and evolves over the course of decades and at times even centuries. Being the realist-borderline pessimist that I am, I don't expect significant results in my lifetime, and thus I know that we as women need to be proactive in our own risk reduction. This is where the anti-victim blaming movement gets a little deluded. Granted, there is a fine line between blaming and taking responsibility for our own safety, and more zealous feminists will send up the battle cry for anyone who remotely suggests that we should be cautious, because that indicates that a lack of caution amounts to fault. This became blindingly clear when Nia Sanchez, crowned Miss USA in 2014, was asked a question involving sexual assaults on college-aged women. In response, the Tae-Kwon-Do black belt stated that she believed women should know how to defend themselves. Following this outrageously sane answer, the torches were lit and the pitchforks were thrust overhead as many screamed "victim blamer" at the pageant winner. "Women should not have to defend themselves, men should learn to take no for an answer!" Well that's half-true. But in my career and in life we have learned about the importance of risk reduction, in spite of life's Shoulds.

Risk reduction is simply taking responsibility for preventive measures, to ensure our well-being to the best of our ability and using our common sense and instinct. For example, I often engage in risk reduction by avoiding walking down the street by myself in the middle of the night in case someone may approach me and attack me. If I go to a club or a bar, I do not leave my drink unsupervised, and I never accept a drink from a stranger in case someone might drug me. If I am at said bar or club, I don't leave the establishment with some random person I just met. If I am online dating, I refuse to meet anywhere but in public places and I never go back to their place or take them to mine until I have gotten to know them and feel comfortable with them. It is ridiculous that such steps must be taken; I should be able to walk where I want when I want. I should be able to set down my drink without worrying because I can't dance and hold my drink without spilling it. I should be able to spend time getting to know someone new without keeping a free hand on the pepper spray in my purse, just in case. I should be able to wear what I want without someone thinking it's an irrevocable invitation into my pants. But I don't live in a world of Shoulds. No matter how society should treat me, life simply isn't this way. As Nia Sanchez said, "it would be great to live in a world without crime and without rape or murder. But that's not reality."

I must admit, in being human, as I sat with this young woman who had so recently been attacked, I had to check and re-check myself as victim-blaming thoughts crept into the back of my mind. Didn't we talk about risk reduction just a few weeks ago? Why would you go anywhere with a man you just met? If you had gotten to know him before you went with him, you might have learned he was a registered sex offender! But these thoughts had been swirling in her mind in the countless hours following her attack, most likely during the attack, and she didn't need to hear them from me. So I jammed those thoughts out of my head and reminded her that no matter what choices she made, he was nothing more than a sick, twisted fuck who took advantage of her, and it wasn't her fault.

I see more and more articles and videos of people in protest of victim blaming, and while most of the arguments are entirely justified and unfathomably legitimate, the pendulum is swinging towards the extremist idealist perspective that may end in someone getting raped simply because the Shoulds they had lived by all their lives could not protect them in that crucial moment. We shouldn't have to deal with an issue like rape at all, but in this less-than-utopian world we live in, it is all-encompassing, and since we cannot rely upon the people around us to make the right decision, until society changes, we have to take care of ourselves the best that we can. The choices we make may mean the difference between safety and assault. Of course, risk reduction is not risk elimination, we may take all the necessary steps to protect ourselves and it still may not be enough. Either way, whatever happens, in the end it is never our faults: no still means no, and whomever you're with bears the full brunt of the responsibility for whatever ensues. But if they can't take no for an answer, a karate chop to the throat and a knee to the crotch may just get the message across.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite

So this conversation is awkward. It's not an easy conversation to have with the impending fear of being labeled a racist for speaking out against anything that doesn't immediately elevate People of Color in the world. But I'm going to have this conversation because I've been reading the articles and the ensuing comments that followed for the past few days, and I even touched on this issue many, many years ago on this blog: the unforgiving world of Oscar nominations.

Since the nominations were announced earlier this year, there has been an outcry among the people for the lack of color in the nomination pool. Blacks and whites were screaming racism, some actors have vowed to boycott the show, and people have flung accusations of white privilege to anyone who questioned their stance. The opposition, however (also blacks and whites), has surged in rebuttal, demanding acknowledgement for achievement alone rather than skin color, retorting that the majority of films that included PoC cast and crew were not Oscar worthy, others were not Oscar eligible, and they accused the general public of requesting a sort of affirmative action for the film industry's biggest night.

The reality of the situation is that there is an issue of color when it comes to the Academy. The majority of members are older and white, and arguably this can skew what films they're drawn to, what films they're willing to watch, and how they are exposed to different films. This inevitably drives an unfair disadvantage to PoC when the nods are handed out. Undoubtedly there needs to be a change in the racial make-up of these award shows' voters. According to Academy president Cheryl Boon Isaacs, years ago, in the 60s and 70s, the academy began recruitment for younger members in order to "freshen up" the ranks. This was intended to give a more balanced approach to the film industry in acknowledging different works, and she plans for the same to be done in the coming year in order to balance the scales for next year's award show. Isaacs stated she was "heartbroken and frustrated" over the white washed Oscar Class of 2016.

But the Academy is not taking too kindly to being called racists for their film preferences. Penelope Ann Miller, an Academy member, shared with The Hollywood Reporter that many of the older members probably didn't see Straight Outta Compton. She also argued the majority of members probably weren't exposed to Beasts of No Nation because it was premiered on the internet streaming service Netflix and they can't figure out how to use computers, hell they're still getting used to the Talkies! She felt it was "extremely offensive" to be called racist or lumped into a class of white privilege, given that she had voted for multiple PoC cast and crew members this year. Jeremy Larner felt Straight Outta Compton was a good film but wasn't worthy of the nomination to begin with due to issues with "structure and substance." I was able to view Beasts of No Nation, and to be honest, I felt it was one of the best films I had seen in awhile, but there was a total lack of exposure. I happened to stumble across it accidentally without knowing that this small, internet streaming production was nominated for SAGs and a Golden Globe. This $6 million only grossed $51K in its opening weekend, and most people never knew it existed. There have been other arguments for Tangerine, Creed, and Concussion, but again, most claim these were not note-worthy performances.

The issue of PoC films rises and falls like the waves of the ocean when films and actors are denied or granted the coveted statuette, and it's hard to discern when we're up or when we're down. Many, many times in the history of this awards show have incredible films been ignored and passed over, other times they got their nods but never took home the gold, and once in a great while, they get a winner. Upsets have included films like Malcolm X, Hotel Rwanda, Ali, and Boyz N the Hood, but there was probably no upset larger than The Color Purple in 1985, nominated for 11 Oscars and taking home none. Some winners have been films and actors such as Training Day with Denzel, Ray with Jamie Foxx, Dreamgirls with Jennifer Hudson, Precious with Mo'Nique, and The Last King of Scotland, with the fabulous Forest Whitaker.

But a new issue arises when there is such a backlash against the academy and its members, and the fear of being politically incorrect drives the affirmative action of Hollywood. No one could have outlined this issue better than Ellen Degeneres when she opened for the Academy Awards in 2014. "There are two options for Best Picture tonight, Option 1: 12 Years a Slave wins, Option 2: You're all racists." It came as a minimal shock that some of the Academy members later admitted to voting for the Best Picture Winner without actually having seen the film, presumably because it seemed the non-racist thing to do. I'm uncomfortable in admitting that I did not care for 12 Years a Slave, because this is what existing in a overtly politically correct society has done to me, but I will say it did not live up to the hype. I'm uncomfortable stating that Lupita N'yongo, albeit a talented actress, did not deserve the Oscar she won for the three bits of dialog she blurted out and the brutal abuse scenes she portrayed. This was the result of the pity Oscar, which I described in the post linked above, when the award members realize they've been too white for too long and they throw a few statues at a few black actors and film makers and call the score settled. Whoopi Goldberg did not get the Oscar for her incomparable performance as Celie Johnson in the adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which everyone knew was invariably fucked up. So they gave her the pity Oscar for playing a sassy mouthpiece to a dead white guy and got a few good jokes in the dialog. Sorry, Ghost should not have been her winner. The Academy had never graced an African American actress with the Best Actress statue, though many had been dealt out for Supporting Actresses. Whoopi should have been the first. But she was shoved back to Supporting Actress, and after some bumping and grinding with a racist and a minor dramatic meltdown, Halle Berry got the honor with Monster's Ball. Again, in my opinion, undeserved. Oprah also got passed over for her portrayal of Sofia, another big miss by the show. I never saw Training Day, I don't know if Denzel deserved the Oscar for it or if it was his pity Oscar for losing the Best Actor for Malcolm X, but I saw that one and he totally should have gotten it. Sidney Poitier got an honorary Oscar that same night that Denzel and Halle won for all of his work, because the Academy suddenly realized "Fuck, we were supposed to be giving them to him all along!"

Changes must be made, that is is undeniable. A committee that equally represents all People of Color and varying demographics of gender, sexual orientation, and cultures to ensure a more accurate reflection of the faces we see here in America everyday is desperately needed. But change does not mean slapping a band-aid on the problem by awarding some unworthy actor or writer with a pity Oscar either, giving accolades to the films that are sub-par in order to compensate for the Academy's past failures of truly amazing artistic PoC productions and performances. And as Penelope Miller states, the Academy is not entirely to blame: "There were an incredible number of films in 2015 that were primarily about white people. Talk to the studios about changing that, not the Academy. There's only so much we can do." One commentator on an article I read estimated that only 10% of actors in the film industry are black. It's hard to stand out in that glaring sea of white faces, but neither should the first darker face we see get the gold for simply showing up to the party.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Refugee to Terrorist: The True Cost of Islamophobia

Photo by Magnus Wennman: Where Do Syrian Children Sleep?
The attacks in Paris left the world awestruck, downcast, and angry. Three teams claiming to be members of the terrorist organization ISIL/ISIS launched a massive attack of suicide bombings, mass shootings, and hostage stand-offs throughout the capital of France on November 13, 2015. Nearly 150 innocent civilians lost their lives in restaurant shootings, suicide and car bombings, and a massacre at a local concert hall where a California band was playing. Quick to claim responsibility, quick to cheer and celebrate, the Islamic State had plotted for much more than a one night attack.

As with any terrorist attack in the west, what followed the tragedy of 11/13/15 was a tidal wave of Islamophobia: perpetual fear of the predominant religion the IS claims to represent. Citizens and politicians began calling for the deportation of middle easterners, many demanded that borders be closed to the refugees fleeing from Syria and the IS that have taken over their land. Muslims throughout Europe and America were physically attacked and beaten. One woman in Canada was assaulted while picking her children up from school; another Uber driver was hit by a passenger who assumed he was Muslim. Racist slurs were spray-painted on the walls of mosques, many threats have been called in, and some mosques have been burned down. Social media has circulated doctored videos claiming to show Muslims celebrating the attacks (they were celebrating a soccer match). Right wing news stations have been running rampant as well, asking why we continue to tolerate such a violent religion in our land, overgeneralizing the acts of a few crazed extremists to an entire religion of mostly peace loving families. Of course the typical "facts" of Islam come out as well: they beat their women, they engage in female genital mutilation, they want to take over the world, they want their 72 virgins so they blow themselves up, and they do it because it's Allah's will. It's almost as if it's 2001, 2002, 2003 playing on repeat, as if we learned nothing from the last 14 years.

Years ago I was part of Queen Rania's YouTube channel, created 7 years after the brutal attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon in America. Islamophobia was still surging in most of the westernized world and QR (along with her hate fighting minions) worked tirelessly to bring an education, to bring compassion, to bring understanding between the east and west, between Muslims and Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Atheists. We battled it out, we discussed and debated, we fought and argued, and we created videos hoping to spread the word, the truth about Islam, about the east, and stop the senseless attacks on the victims of these terrorist organizations, both us and them. I felt it was successful in some respects, and a useless battle in others; some listened, some learned, and some stuck their heads in the sand and refused to even acknowledge the points made, maintaining that there was no passage, no statistics, no facts, no infallible logic that could convince them that Islam was a peaceful religion. Eventually I realized these were the morons that we had to simply give up on and expend our energy elsewhere. As Islamophobia calmed somewhat in America over the years, it seemed the tide might have been shifting. Perhaps cooler, more educated heads would prevail. Perhaps they already were prevailing, and this may be why ISIL attacked Paris.

ISIL was doing their best to conquer the Middle East, battling in Libya and staking footholds in Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Nigeria. But the biggest war front right now is the showdown in Syria. In a civil war that has left 250,000 dead, this 4.5 year battle has raged on, and the majority of civilians have fled the country in a desperate attempt to save their own lives, to save their families. Many have escaped to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but the countries have struggled to keep afloat with the influx of refugees that have scrambled to the safety of their borders. Though the world was vaguely aware of the struggle, the reality of this humanitarian crisis slapped us in the face with the death of Alan Kurdi. Alan was a young Syrian refugee who drowned after his family's boat capsized crossing the Mediterranean sea, seeking a safe haven in Turkey. Once the tragedy made front page news, countries throughout Europe were opening their borders to accept the refugees.

Undoubtedly, this was counterproductive to the IS's plan. In their plan, there were only two options for civilians: either join IS and their war against the west, or die. Many refugees had lost their homes and their families, many were weakened, angered, and hopeless with nothing to lose, which is the perfect recipe for an extremist. But hundreds of thousands refused to join, and they refused to die. They escaped. Perhaps this was exactly what ISIL feared: unity in the face of the adversity they bore, support for the Muslim community in the west, the western countries disproving the propaganda IS had fed their supporters for years, propaganda that painted us as soulless, immoral, intolerant capitalistic pigs. In helping these refugees, we were no longer the monster they claimed us to be, and this became a threat to their enlistment process. We provided the refugees hope.

Since they had tried and failed to destroy these refugees themselves, the IS realized the next step would be to destroy the west's trust in them and their trust in the west, to force them to turn back to their desolate, war-torn motherland; to death, or to surrender. This was their plan, and we played beautifully into it. With borders closing, with fear and suspicion filling the hearts of westerners, and with abuse and harassment, shame and humiliation, we are sending these refugees back to the IS in utter rejection, and we are sending them back hurt and angry. The mythical beast of the west has reared its ugly head, we have realized the image ISIL/ISIS has created of us. These poor wretches have lost their homes, have lost their families and friends, have witnessed horrific crimes against humanity, have been traumatized and shaken, and have bounced back and forth between countries and borders, sleeping in forests and gutters, starving and freezing. They are in that perfect, fragile state of mind to join the ranks of other scorned, rage-filled, gun toting, west-hating extremists. If we continue this abuse and suspicion, if we send them packing, we ourselves are helping build a new generation of terrorists and we will only have ourselves to blame.

The ignorance continues to flourish, the morons I met on YouTube back in 2008 have bred, and their little brainless seeds have spawned onto Facebook and Twitter; others made their way into politics. One Facebook user noted that he was Mexican and since Mexicans immigrated to the US and "took over" the country, we should be leery of Syrian refugees because when they come they too will take over, so we need to close the borders (perhaps we should've closed them about the time you came over). Sounds like he and and the Tennessee GOP are good buddies. Others have warned of terrorists bound to blow us all up. Some (Jeb Bush) have maintained we should allow refugees in, but only if they're Christian. Obama called them all a bunch of wusses scared of three year old orphans. He too acknowledged that these anti-refugee sentiments will only be recruitment tools for ISIL that we have forged and handed to them ourselves.

There is never a guarantee of safety; we don't know who is coming in with the refugees, or if anyone dangerous is coming in at all (so far a number of the Paris terrorists were shown to be citizens of the country), but what we do know is that if the world shuts its doors and turns its back on them, they will die, or they will join the ranks of our enemies. Not because they're inherently bad, but simply because in a world as cruel as that, what else have you got to lose? Terrorism is a real threat, there is no argument of that, but this will only provide a false sense of security and condemn thousands of innocent people to die. Closed borders or not, they will find a way in if they truly want one. The question is can you live with yourself if another three year old washes ashore on your beach?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Right to Die: Kevorkian Revised


California is on the brink of something big. A monumental decision in human rights, tail-gating the epic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, but unlike the law of marriage, where one’s life is just beginning, this law meets us at the end of it. The Right to Die Bill, better known as the Death with Dignity Act, Physician Assisted Suicide, or even “Kevorkian Revised,” is nestled on the desk of California governor Jerry Brown, awaiting his inscribed approval. But will he give it or will he condemn thousands of suffering Californians to a painful, embarrassing death?

For years, a handful of states in the US have been proposing and passing bills and laws allowing one to make their own decision on when they prefer to die. Some people have likened this process to Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s practices of the 1990s, where he assisted in ending the lives of 130 patients, all of whom he claimed were terminally ill, though this has been disputed. It is alleged that often times he didn't even verify that the patients were ill, and ended up assisting a few who simply suffered from severe depression. But in spite of his misguided practices, Kevorkian may have been on the right track. In the midst of his own failings, ones that would eventually land him in prison for second-degree murder in Michigan, Oregon passed a state law that would allow individuals who were terminally ill to choose to end their own lives. This would help them avoid a long and drawn out death that would end in nothing but extreme pain and humiliation. In 1994, the Death with Dignity Act was signed into law.

But the law was not without its opposition. Like many bills, misinformation had been spread thick, coating more gullible minds and manipulating them into a stealth support system around the nation. Many warned of the inevitable slippery slope: if we start killing terminally ill patients, why not the mentally ill? Why not the mentally and physically disabled? Why not kill people who don’t want to die but whose children are trying to get the inheritance, or who don’t want to bother with the costly care of a sick parent? Why not kill the Kardashians? (But seriously, why not the Kardashians?). A few claimed prescribing a deadly medication was against the Hippocratic Oath. Others claim suicide is the easy way out, that these people are weak, that they’ve simply given up. One Archbishop claimed the law would provide insurance companies an easy way out, denying patients appropriate care in favor of an easier and much cheaper solution. Some cite religious factors, that if you end your own life, you’re going to hell.

First off, multiple safeguards have been put in place to ensure that we cannot go on a genocidal killing spree of the various “plagues” of society, as Hitler may have done. Oregon state law and the California bill specifically state that only individuals who have been diagnosed by two separate physicians as terminally ill and expected to die within 6 months may receive this medication. These individuals are also expected to undergo intensive mental health examinations to ensure they are of sound mind and body to make such a decision. Once provided the medication, no one can administer it except the patient themselves. The medication is mixed into a drink; the patient is required to drink it themselves without the assistance of any physician, family member, or friend. If they cannot administer the medication themselves, they cannot utilize it. In short, if you can’t hold your own glass and swallow your own medicine, you will have to wait out the rest of your life until you pass away naturally. There is virtually no chance of someone else rubbing you out. Sadly one man had ordered his medicine but was waiting until the right time, and he ended up having a severe stroke, leaving him incapable of giving himself the medication. He suffered until his last day.

Some individuals have been concerned about providing doctors the power to “do harm” in contrast with the Hippocratic Oath they swear upon licensing. Doctors themselves have grappled with the decision in prescribing deadly medications. This was briefly mentioned in the documentary, How to Die in Oregon. One doctor finally came to realize when her patient Cody asked for the script, she would be doing more harm in forcing her to suffer through the pain of terminal cancer in her last months than to ease her into a quick and gentle eternal slumber.

The easy way out. I can only imagine the reaction some of the benefactors of this law would give when they hear that. All of these individuals have fought. All of them have suffered. They have faced numerous chemotherapy  and radiation treatments, they have stumbled through the side effects, the nausea, the weakness, the hair loss and weight loss, and the surgeries and tests in hopes of battling their diseases into remission. And sadly, they failed. Their efforts were not enough. Their bodies could not muster the strength and the antibodies to silence the invading cells once and for all. They rode into a war some of us will someday fight ourselves, a war all of us will have witnessed with our loved ones. And after all they have been through, they deserve that peaceful death, in their own time, with their own choice, adorned with the dignity they have earned. Cody tried her best to get through it on her own, to arrive at the moment where she would naturally “float away” without the medicine. She had ordered the medication and it sat in her cabinet for nearly a year as she outlived her life expectancy. Initially she had planned the date to die, but decided against it, because she was not suffering at that time. Suddenly, after months of extended comfort, fluid began to build up around her lower abdomen, creating so much pressure that her organs were displaced and her ribcage was shifting upwards, compressing her chest cavity. Draining the fluids offered only temporary relief and she was often hurting, struggling to keep foods down, incapable of keeping most of her pain management pills down. Doctors informed her that in spite of the cancer, her body was strong, and she could continue to live on in severe pain for several more months. There would be no floating away. It was time to go.

As for healthcare companies and the easy way out, in the same documentary mentioned above, one man had been diagnosed as terminally ill and was denied treatment for chemotherapy by his insurance. He was, however, provided in his denial letter a solution. In being notified that he cannot receive what he believed may be lifesaving treatment, he was also informed of his option to request life-ending medications, which would be fully covered by his insurance. This understandably angered him, but let’s get a few things straight: he had no possible chance of survival and the treatments would have been largely ineffective anyways (once he went public with his complaint, the insurance company granted his treatment, and he died a few short weeks later). But I will not deny that this could be a very real possibility given the dastardly methods insurance companies have employed to save a buck over a life day in and day out. However, why prevent some people from having the option to avoid suffering because of a corrupt healthcare system? Address the system head on! Where is healthcare reform? Where are the checks and balances? These people shouldn’t have to suffer because billionaire insurance companies have lost their sense of humanity.

Religion? Bottom line: your religion is not their religion and you cannot use it to make laws for everyone.

Last year, Britney Maynard made headlines when she relocated from California to Oregon to take advantage of their Death with Dignity Act. Diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer, Britney had undergone multiple operations and treatments to battle the disease before recognizing that she would not win. Given that she had no right over her own life, she was left with little option than to move, but became a significant advocate and a public figurehead for getting similar laws passed in states that have not acquired such legislation. Britney passed away at the age of 29 at home surrounded by her loved ones.

As I watched How to Die in Oregon, I bawled after each patient took their medication and slipped into a calm and gentle darkness. I was torn in half in the moment. I have never seen someone pass away, and I couldn’t imagine standing there in a room watching someone I love take a mixture that would rip them out of my life in a matter of minutes. I would never be able to hug them enough, I would never be able to say enough to them before I finally had to say goodbye. I would never get enough of the sound of their voice or their smile before they slipped away from me. But, like many of you, I have watched my family members and friends suffer and wither away from cancer, from terminal diseases that render them helpless. I have seen my family, always strong, always proud, try to mask their embarrassment as someone had to feed them and clean the excess that dribbled down their chins, as someone had to wash them in spite of their deep-seated modesty, or wipe them after using the bathroom. They were lucky, I suppose, in that they never lived long enough to be confined to diapers, sitting in their own urine and feces like helpless infants until the nurse came ‘round again to change them. And they suffered. They hurt. They couldn’t bear the pain, the nausea, the weakness, the humiliation and embarrassment. As one family friend had put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But we had no solution for them. Just make them comfortable. Pump them full of pain meds and wait for the inevitable, whenever that may come. But like Cody, sometimes they can’t keep the pain meds in. Sometimes, as they get closer to the end, the pain meds are rendered totally ineffective, and they suffer in their final days.

Cody died in the comfort of her own home. She was not weakened to the point of being bed-ridden; she was not strewn limply across her bed with tubes and needles feeding in and out of her. And because her fluids had been recently drained, she was not suffering at the moment. Cody was singing. She had gathered her family in her bedroom and her children and parents sang songs to her, light-hearted children’s songs she no doubt sang to her kids when they were young. They hugged and kissed, they said their goodbyes, and she took her medicine and lay down. In a matter of minutes, she breathed a sigh of relief, and slipped into a coma that would soon allow her to finally float away as she had always wanted.

This law must pass. We cannot condemn people to suffer in their final days because we fear the loss, because we fear the choices they’re making for themselves. I struggle to comprehend how we can be so humane as to inject our beloved pets and animals with a painless medicine to end their own suffering, but we refuse to allow it for human begins. We can’t treat each other as well as we treat our dogs. We deserve so much more than that, and our loved ones deserve more too. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Out of Orange Juice

Possibly the most unnerving moment in a homosexual’s life, the coming out party, has the potential to uplift you, to raise a harrowing burden off your shoulders, to unmask the lies you’ve lived and send them fluttering away like torn pieces of paper on the wind. Or it has the power to level you, dissemble you bit by bit and leave you broken and dying in the gutter. My party took form in the latter.

At 15, I had done little to hide my sexuality as for the most part I hardly understood it myself. But my mother saw it, and had seen it for years: the moment she caught me kissing my female next door neighbor as a young child, my lack of boyfriends, the promiscuous photos of women I had printed off the internet, and the not so subtle confrontation from my high school teacher during conference night when she informed my mother the photos of women in bikinis were unsuitable decor for the inside of my binder. Driving to the store one afternoon, my mother finally asked that definitive question, and for a moment the world froze. Unsure how to respond, all the while knowing she had asked a question she already knew the answer to, my hesitation came from the fear of what this confirmation would bring. I took a breath and nodded in the affirmative, but added the qualifier that I was not gay, but bisexual, as if the 50% of Normal that lingered somewhere in my gut might’ve softened the blow and made me seem more human somehow. This did not sway my mother, and a lecture ensued, littered with religious proclamations and damnations as I was beaten down by God’s hatred for gays and my ultimate destination of a fiery afterlife.

I wanted to die. I grappled with my own self-hatred. Raised a Christian and incredibly devout through my childhood and preteens, I had turned away from the church for several reasons, but my sexuality played a larger role. My peers at school were beginning to catch on as well, and the bullying that ensued pushed me to the edge. I watched movies and read books about other homosexuals, hoping to identify with their stories. Instead I felt anger and jealousy whenever I read of a situation where someone else’s family supported them and loved them through their coming out (above). Why couldn’t I have that? Why don’t I deserve that? A failed suicide attempt left me with one dark realization: without the love and support of my mother, I wouldn’t make it through this world alive.

I always sensed that my mother clung to the hope that the 50% of Normal in me would prevail and I would end up with a nice man, get married, have a family. Even I hoped it, knowing the perilous road that I would walk if the evil lesbian in me won. But as I progressed through my adolescence, the dream of normalcy faded along with my deluded attraction to the opposite sex. A date with a male companion finally made me realize that I was fully gay and the hopes of a peaceful heterosexual life died. I would have to do what many homosexuals have never faced: coming out a second time.

When I was 21, following the date with the male friend, my epiphany, and an eager inquiry about a second date from my mom, I sat down to tell her that the Normal was gone. Shaken and traumatized from the first coming out response, I immediately began sobbing and blubbering out that I didn’t like men and never would. Noting my devastation and the utter fear in my eyes, my mother took a softer stance than before, insisting that she still loved me and she always would, I was her daughter, after all, but adding the point that no matter what, she could never support my lifestyle or what I was doing. It was against her religion and she couldn’t be made to see differently. Begging for her acceptance, I was denied. It was unconditional love with an asterisk and a footnote: “I love the You, I love my daughter. I can never love the Lesbian, I will never accept the abnormal.” Leveled again, I retreated to my room in solemn resignation. Accepting the loss, I began to tentatively live my new life alone.

Dates came slowly and were enveloped in my mother’s disapproval. Knowing I was going out, she would ask where. Once I revealed that I was going on a date, her lips pursed shut and she spun on her heels, hastily vacating the room. I often returned from my date to icy silence and tried to keep future dates under wraps, lying that I was going out with friends or going shopping. But gradually, very gradually, things began to change. A few years later, dates began with my mother asking directly if I was going out with a girl. Then they were capped in the end by the simple question: “Did you have a good time?” One quick “yes” and the conversation was over as my mother retreated to the kitchen, having done her duty by asking at all. It was understood that details were not requested or required, but my mother was trying.

But it was not a steady ascent to acceptance and harmony. Our progress was pock-marked with regressions and fallbacks. Like me explaining to my mother why she couldn’t use the word “faggot,” or my mother absent-mindedly lamenting her disgust for two women walking down the street hand in hand, forgetting I was seated in the car beside her. I think, however, that the biggest step back came in 2008, when my mother informed me she had voted yes on Prop 8. Furious and confused, a ticker tape of memories ran through my mind of all the progress we had made, all the changes we had gone through, only to stop at such a critical crossroads. My mother explained that she didn’t mind gays dating and living together, but felt it frivolous and inappropriate to grant them marriages. Arguing still that marriage was a religious institution and homosexuality had no place in marriage, she couldn’t grasp the significance of her vote or the obstacle it created in helping me feel that sense of Normal again.

Older now, a bit wiser, slightly more patient, I was angry, but understanding. My mother had been fighting her deeply rooted religious beliefs for 10 years, trying to balance her faith with her biological attachment and affection of her own child. She tried to make heads or tails of which path to take: follow the 3,000 year old theology her life had been based on, or erase the asterisk from her unconditional love and support her daughter, embracing her completely. The decision could not have been easy, and separating the two was a challenge my mother had tasked herself with for the past decade. But bringing that lifestyle into the church? Merging the two by granting marriages before the eyes of God in his very house? My mother could not handle those worlds colliding and she voted the only way a God-fearing woman of tradition could.

The following years, as I went on sporadic dates, my mother’s interest increased and the events were sandwiched with questions and comments like “where are you guys going? You look nice, have a good time!” and “What was she like? What’s her name? Will you see her again?” And the Normal began to grow. We survived my brother’s wedding, an event which at the time I looked upon with somewhat blighted eyes. I struggled through the pain of thinking I would never be afforded the same opportunity as a legal marriage, and I watched as my mother buzzed around preparing what she must have thought would be the only wedding of her children, even commenting it would be “the only bridal shower [she] would give” and “the only daughter-in-law [she] would have.” I did not take this to be a malicious comment, just more so a statement of fact as the fate of Proposition 8 sat on a desk somewhere outside the US Supreme Court, awaiting someone’s consideration.

Lately I have been flittering through internet dating sites and personal ads, struggling with my own perpetual social anxiety and my dislike for the club and bar scenes to find love. On top of that, I have the worst case of baby fever as my hormones have kicked into full gear. Though I am not even 30, my own unfulfilled expectations of where I should be in my personal life leave me melancholy. While family members and friends are getting engaged, marrying, having babies, I have yet to secure even a long term relationship in my hapless decade on the gay dating scene. Overjoyed by the announcement that my brother and sister-in-law are expecting a child, a twinge of pain struck my heart knowing that a baby for me is so far away. I always knew I wanted children. I of course dreamt of sharing the precious milestones of raising a child with a partner, but even if I never found a partner to have one with, I had made up my mind I would be a mother through my own pregnancy or adoption. But being gay makes the task that much harder in that you must pay for either artificial insemination or adoption, in addition to all the other costs that come with having a baby. Knowing I cannot afford this on my own, I am left feeling alone.

I burst into tears one night. My mom held me as I cried for my loneliness, I cried for my uncertain future in love and motherhood. And with one comment from my mother in one moment, I realized how far we had come in the last 15 years: “I will pray for you. I know someone is out there for you, and I know you will find her. I will go home and pray for you, I just want you to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted for you.”

I love you, Mama.