A textbook that was allegedly proposed by the Jamaican Ministry of Education for inclusion in the home economics school curriculum made mention of same-sex unions and families, and a public outcry on the meaning of "Jamaican-ness" ensued.
Discussing attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica is a topic that I have so far avoided in my blogs. Writing from Jamaica, this could be paralleled to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. The island has repeatedly received international attention for its "anti-gay" social climate, particularly as it relates to the lyrics of some reggae and dancehall artistes. On deeper and broader levels, however, these attitudes towards homosexuality have permeated many aspects of life here, and have culminated in a strong sense that "to be Jamaican" is to disapprove of, at best, and abhor and eradicate at worst, homosexuality and more specifically homosexuals.
As a non-Jamaican, albeit one who has lived here for years, this has been a grey area for me, because the issues of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in Jamaica in particular, are very complex ones. In Jamaica, attitudes towards homosexuality seem to more visibly relate to relationships between men, and are typically placed in opposition to cultural ideas about masculinity and what it means "to be a man." Even in reference to same-sex relationships between women, the term "sodomite" is often used, again drawing the parallel between "aberration" and male homosexuality.
This strong adherence to gendered ideas about appropriate behaviors and relationships between women and men is further deepened by the overt and covert presence of a strong fundamentalist Christian base, which has resulted in cultural attitudes that call for fire and brimstone to be brought down on those who challenge – through their sexuality and sexual practices – these ideas of appropriateness.
What has clearly emerged is an environment marked by an unwillingness to change, despite the obvious impact that Western (in particular American) society has had on Jamaica. Coming out of this has been a strong sense of "Jamaican-ness," i.e. what it means to be Jamaican and "of Jamaica." Homosexuality is positioned in direct opposition to this "Jamaican-ness," and is taken to be a result of external influences on the island.
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This "Jamaican-ness" came sharply into focus for me in the past week. A textbook that was allegedly proposed by the Ministry of Education for inclusion in the home economics school curriculum came under fire due to its mention of same-sex unions and families. The home economics textbook in question includes a section stating, "When two women or two men live together in a relationship as lesbians or gays, they may be considered as a family. They may adopt children or have them through artificial insemination."
In response to the public outcry about the proposed inclusion of the text, Minister of Education, Andrew Holness, made reference to the "offensive clause" in the text, denying that it had ever been ministry-recommended, and further stating: "We want to make it absolutely clear that the Ministry of Education does not endorse or support the teaching of homosexual relationships as the accepted standard of family. We don't teach it and we don't recommend it."
This position has been supported by the Jamaica Teacher's Association (JTA), whose president Ena Barclay stated: "It [homosexual relationships] is not something that we embrace in Jamaica, and we can't ask our teachers to teach such a matter to students."
To put such a text in a public forum specifically for the use of children has been taken as an assault on the way things are done in Jamaica, resulting in a response that has unified many Jamaicans, rich and poor, who have been able to transcend social boundaries to condemn the text in unison.
Crime and murder rates in Jamaica are persistently high. Domestic and child abuse have continuously been cited as serious issues compromising the rights and lives of large numbers of women and children. There are serious social issues that warrant attention in this island, and it just seems to me that the collective energy that was brought to bear in the past week could be so much better used by focussing on issues such as those just mentioned.
In the meantime, "Jamaican-ness" reigns supreme, resulting in a climate in which an issue such as homosexuality are so taboo that it only seems to warrant wide-scale discussion when there is a collective move to clamp down on it, and ultimately, to eradicate it. This past week held the potential for serious discussions about the rights of human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation. There was the opportunity for us to really begin to talk openly and honestly about the lives and realities of members of this society.
Instead, Jamaican-ness has prevailed…and the gay textbook is out.
LGBTQ rights are not the single civil rights issue of our time. To think otherwise, as all too many do, is the same sort of misrecognition that shaped the Supreme Court’s VRA ruling: the notion that the work of the civil rights movement is done, and it’s time for LGBTQ people to take up their mantle.
Like many queer people of color, my celebration of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 has been tempered with concern over the Court’s mixed ruling on affirmative action and rage over its gutting of voting rights and Native sovereignty. It’s particularly infuriating that the difference between DOMA being struck down and a key section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) being stripped of its effectiveness ultimately came down to a single powerful, white, straight man: perennial swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The Politics of Misrecognition
What makes Justice Kennedy able to see the need for equal protections for same-sex couples when he apparently doesn’t for robust measures protecting the voting rights of Black and other marginalized citizens? There’s an important lesson here for liberals and progressives in this seeming paradox. Both decisions are examples of what political scientist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry describes in her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America as a “politics of recognition” and “misrecognition.”
If, as Hegelian political philosophy argues, full participation in public life as a citizen depends on accurate recognition of one’s “humanity and uniqueness,” misrecognition of the lives of marginalized individuals and groups—such as stereotypes—materially hinder their access to the rights and privileges of citizenship. For example, the image of single Black mothers who use government assistance as “welfare queens” profoundly shapes welfare and health policy, as racist welfare reforms, legislative attacks on Planned Parenthood, and efforts to dismantle programs that disproportionately serve women of color amply demonstrate.
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The majority opinion invalidating the current formulation of Section 5.4 of the Voting Rights Act reveals a similar sort of misrecognition. The crux of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion is the conviction that the “pervasive,” “flagrant,” “widespread,” and “rampant” racism that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was meant to redress no longer existed when the VRA was renewed in 2006, and doesn’t exist today. Rather, requiring pre-clearance of new voting laws for certain states but not others based on their history (and ongoing pattern) of disenfranchising voters of color is based on “40 year old facts having no logical relation to the present day” and unfairly seeks to “punish” those states for the past. Roberts insists, “History since 1965 cannot be ignored,” while simultaneously declaring history before 1965 irrelevant to the present day, despite the rash of draconian voter ID laws and district gerrymandering in the very states covered by Section 5.4 of the VRA.
What is apparently ancient history for Chief Justice Roberts and the majority is not even past for most Black Americans. Thus the ruling’s implication that “serious” racism is effectively over can be understood as an act of misrecognition. Implicit in the ruling is the sentiment, explicitly held by many whites, that Black people are being oversensitive or even deceitful when we talk about the continued relevance of racism in our lives. This is the seamy underbelly of the belief that “extraordinary” measures are no longer necessary to ensure the equal protection of people of color under the law—the corollary that when people of color agitate for such measures, we are demanding not equal access and opportunity, but undue “racial entitlements” (to use Justice Scalia’s own words about the VRA and affirmative action).
In other words, those of us who insist that race still matters are demanding more than our fair share, more than we’ve earned or deserve; we’re greedy, shiftless, and either deceived or lying about our lived realities. “Racial entitlements,” by this thinking, necessarily implies taking something that rightfully belongs to white people. When Chief Justice Roberts claims that states once covered by the VRA were being punished, and Scalia complains that “once Confederate state[s]” are “familiar objects of the [Supreme] Court’s scorn,” they suggest that racial aggrievement—if not outright malice—on the part of people of color makes whites the real victims of racial revenge fantasies.
Misrecognition matters because the power to decide and shape policy on issues of discrimination almost always rests in the hands of people who don’t experience (and often don’t or refuse to understand) the discrimination in question. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a majority that was four-fifths white men, got to decide what constitutes reality for people of color with respect to racism—to decide that what most people of color say about our lives is in fact not true. As Harris-Perry writes in Sister Citizen, “to be a person of relative power and privilege viewing a person of less power and privilege” is inherently “a political act.”
This statement is as true for white liberals and progressives “viewing” communities of color as it is of white conservatives. In the weeks leading up to these rulings, I observed a typical but nonetheless disturbing discrepancy between white queers and organizations eagerly anticipating “major rulings” that only included DOMA and Prop 8, and not rulings on the VRA, affirmative action, Native sovereignty, or other issues that straight and queer people of color were also anxiously awaiting. Since these rulings, the response from mainstream LGBTQ organizations and media—dominated by white, cisgender, affluent voices—and their base has been at best tepid disapproval, if not disinterest.
This, too, stems from misrecognition—attitudes like “gay is the new Black” or “gay/LGBTQ rights are the civil rights issue of our day” that see racism as an abstraction or long dead concern. Ennui over attacks on voting rights fails to consider the most marginalized members of the community: LGBTQ people who are poor, trans, and/or of color. They not only fail to recognize that racism is very much still with us, they also fail to learn from the very movements they claim to be heirs to, and the continued, dedicated opposition these movements still face.
More Than Marriage
Advocates of marriage equality often draw parallels between one-time bans on heterosexual interracial marriages and current laws prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages. The comparison is more apt than many realize. It seems all but inevitable that marriage equality will ultimately gain the national recognition and acceptance that straight interracial unions have, but in both cases it would be a grave mistake to see this as a cut-and-dried sign of progress towards equality.
Consider that theoretically widespread acceptance of interracial marriage (86 percent of the public and 78 percent of conservatives say they approve) exists alongside significant and dogged white opposition to measures to address severe racial disparities—say, in access to voting, and even more basic rights. Indeed, acceptance of interracial marriage is often wielded as evidence that racism is dead and such measures are no longer necessary (if they ever were). Some of the most strident conservative racism deniers, like Clarence Thomas and Ann Coulter, for example, have been or are in interracial relationships.
We’re now seeing the makings of a similar cultural disconnect on LGBTQ issues. Straight conservative politicians like Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman have come around in support of marriage equality, and there’s good reason to believe that before long, supporting marriage equality will be a—if not the—conservative position on LGBTQ rights. Much as some white Americans, across the political spectrum, point to their approval of interracial marriage as disproving the reality of racism, it’s not difficult to see a day where straight “allies” might point to national marriage equality as proof that sexual minorities are no longer oppressed. (See this image, from 2004, by cartoonist Tony Auth, suggesting that women, people of color, and people with disabilities have already attained equality and that “gay marriage” is “next.”)
It would seem that marriage equality for queer folks and straight people of color alike, even with the considerable time and hard work necessary to secure it, is in some ways a more easily attained milestone than many even more fundamental rights. Extending legal recognition to interracial and queer couples is both subversive and, to quote Kent L. Brintnall, “expanding access” to what remains “an exclusionary institution” that orders family and sexuality in fundamentally conservative ways. It’s not a surprise that the “traditional” beneficiaries of marriage might simultaneously embrace the assimilation of new groups into this institution, while rejecting steps toward equality that require more radical challenges to existing power structures.
Conservatives continue to wage pitched battles at federal and local levels to maintain racial inequity in employment practices, education, housing, health care, and access to public accommodations. (Consider that in 2013, Paula Deen is being sued for, among other things, denying Black employees use of the same entrances and bathrooms as white employees!) Not coincidentally, access to decent shelter, work, health care, and public accommodations are the very issues that are most pressing for LGBTQ Americans—especially those who are poor, trans, and/or of color.
In other words, gay is not the new Black, and LGBTQ rights are not the single civil rights issue of our time. To think otherwise, as all too many do, is the same sort of misrecognition that shaped the Supreme Court’s VRA ruling: the notion that the work of the civil rights movement is done, and it’s time for LGBTQ people (mostly meaning white, cisgender, gay men) to take up their mantle. This misrecognition matters. Shrugged shoulders at rulings undermining the rights of people of color ultimately aids and abets efforts to undermine equality for all.
These assaults on voter rights have far-reaching consequences and implications, some of which we’ve seen just in the past week. The anti-choice omnibus bill rushed through the North Carolina state senate on Tuesday was made possible by extensive district gerrymandering that gave state Republicans 70 percent of seats in the legislature despite winning half the votes. This is just one of many regressive moves from North Carolina Republicans; they’ve also killed unemployment benefits, denied 500,000 North Carolinians access to Medicaid, and attacked a state law aimed at racial disparities in death penalty sentencing.
And it’s not just in the South; in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere, the same state legislatures and governors leading the assault on voters’ rights are also pushing legislation that’s anti-choice, anti-public education, anti-worker, and anti-family. And they’re able to get away with it in part because of laws that hinder marginalized groups from voting in people who represent their interests—the same groups, incidentally, who are most likely to support marriage equality.
The seeming paradox of Justice Kennedy’s votes on marriage equality versus voting rights is no paradox at all. It’s reflective of how misrecognition of the reality of racism breeds complacency and indifference about stripping rights from the most marginalized citizens. And it’s an attitude that’s all too common in the LGBTQ rights movement—one we’ll have to address if we ever hope to achieve more than marriage.
This Fall, viewers have been treated to two very, very different new shows about women’s healthcare providers, rife with yowling birth scenes and women being examined in stirrups. As different as they are, I thought it might be fun to look at them both at once.
“The Mindy Project” is a smartalecky sitcom by and starring Mindy Kaling centered around a group of young, single, verbal barb-slinging Ob-Gyns at a shared practice; “Call the Midwife” depicts a group of nuns and midwives in the post World War II slums of London. In both shows, delivery scenes abound and births are occasionally the fodder for jokes, and while the first trades in wit that verges on being too sharp, the second trades on emotional melodrama that can verge on treacly.
“The Mindy Project” has its laugh out loud moments, and reasons to root for it: a trailblazing heroine who is neither tiny nor white, nor entirely likable, and has a classic comedic self-centeredness. It has, for the most part, a non-shamey attitude towards sex and relationships and its heroine’s body.
But for me, at least, it verges too often towards mean-spiritedness, particularly in its depiction of a central male-female friendship. Like many other reviewers, I can’t get over the line in the pilot when Danny, Mindy’s colleague, frenemy, foil, and presumably someday romantic-interest, tells her to lose weight and the line just sort of hangs there, nastily. I was appalled that we were then supposed to accept the banter between the two of them as a core part of the show’s brand. But Kelsey Wallace at Bitch thought this was simply the show being realistic. Women get hated on for their weight–this is life.
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I’m not ready to entirely give up on the show yet. When “Parks and Recreation” became a goofier and gentler show in its second season, it won my heart. And I admire Kaling tremendously. But I hope “The Mindy Project” resolves some of its own inconsistencies–and those include the way it portrays the characters’ workplace.
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress argues that the show fails to capitalize on the premise of the Ob-Gyn office, rarely using the setting for humor or even for interrogating cultural taboos about women’s health. An early scene in which Mindy triumphantly delivers a baby belies a subsequent “total disinterest in actual women’s health,” she writes.
My discomfort with the show began in the pilot when Mindy flat-out missed a delivery, blew off another in the midst of a date, and faced absolutely no consequences for her flagrant disregard for her patients. Obstetrics and gynecology are delicate health care issues, and I’d initially hoped that The Mindy Project might break television’s normal awkward silence around them. As that hope faded, I hoped that the show might at least redeem Mindy’s immaturity in other areas by demonstrating her basic competence as a doctor, something that provided the emotional and M.I.A.-scored climax of the pilot. But we’ve never seen Mindy in an extended scene with a patient since.
“Call the Midwife,” the BBC drama just ended at PBS (you can still watch it here) about midwives and nuns in London in the 1950s, is made up almost entirely, it sometimes seems, of extended scenes at the bedsides of patients, or by those patients sides in fish shacks, gutters, and other places where babies show up, demanding to be born. Its cast of nurses and midwives deliver babies (sometimes baby animals) at a regular pace, changing discreetly-filmed bowls of bodily fluids, and regularly calling for more hot water, towels, and “just another push, dear.”
This is quintessential British TV: unabashedly sentimental and piercingly brutal, too. To illustrate this contrast, I’ll describe a shocking moment in another series “Call the Midwife” creator Heidi Thomas wrote recently: her adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford,” memorably full of venerable older british actresses chewing the scenery. After a long romantic plotline unfolds for the maid employed by Judi Dench’s character, the show’s creators suddenly kill off both mother and baby in childbirth. The time-period-accurate plotline concludes with the maid’s husband riding away from Cranford, having lost everything he loves in an instant. Dench’s Miss Matty, who was longing for a baby in her home, sits alone in an entirely empty house. It’s devastating. Then some young people whose parents objected to their match are finally allowed to marry and we all cry again. Then more people die.
The death in childbirth described above prefigures a similar sudden maternal death in an episode of “Call the Midwife,” and its tone encapsulates this new show’s approach to heartwarming drama too: it will warm your heart but only if it breaks it too. Consider the impossibility of lasting through an episode without laughing over the unexpected birth of triplets or the shenanigans of “Chummy” the blue-blooded, clumsy nurse with a heart of gold, then sniffling over the miraculous c-section birth of a baby to a disabled woman–thanks, NHS and medical technology–then weeping at the death of a noble old soldier, or at the authorities removing the child of a young mother coerced into prostitution, an adulterous woman who sobs as she gives birth to a baby of another race, or a brother and sister pair who live out the end of their lives traumatized (possibly into incest) by growing up in the workhouse.
This is the no holds-barred vibe that on the other side of the pond, beat “Downton Abbey” in the ratings. The show also presents a somewhat simplified, problematic approach to class, with its nice middle class girls “learning so much about love” from the destitute folks to whom they tend. But for the most part, the show’s format works. It has the production values of BBC television–painterly shots that both show and soften the gritty realities of life in London’s East End (although it never gets, say “The Wire” level gritty, there’s prostitution, violence, death, lots of fairly graphic childbirth scenes, and some really nasty urban insects). But it also has that other British quality that I love: blatantly pushing a social message. As Amanda Marcotte noted in her podcast when the show premiered:
I knew going in that the show was going to be a love letter to the NHS. The midwives portrayed were part of the national health insurance England installed after World War II, which basically made health care free to all and is now being attacked by those who wish to privatize it. The show really emphasizes the quality of care that was made to women by the NHS, both in terms of regular prenatal visits from midwives, but also post-natal check-ups to make sure the babies were doing okay, all at the home.
In 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, and abortion was no longer illegal. When I was a gynaecology ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London, I was sometimes asked whether or not I approved of it. My reply was that I did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, it must be done properly.
I’d love to see “Midwife'”s Thomas take that on.
For both shows to live up to their promise, there’s always next season. My message to their creators: “just push, dear!”