Category Archives: Family and Home

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

hens

For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

smiling-pig

When Two Chicks Get Married…

by Joyce Clapp

engagement-edit1-500

This Saturday it’s October 11 again, so it’s National Coming Out Day again.
Last year I rhapsodized about how much I love working for UNCG. And I still do. However, this year my brain isn’t as much on sexuality as it is on gender, gender roles, and being gender non-conforming.

Currently, I’m teaching a face-to-face course on race, gender, and social class inequalities. These last couple of weeks in particular, we’ve been talking a lot about gender roles and sexuality, and how these two separate concepts are so intertwined in society. We live in a heteronormative society that takes its cues on how you’re supposed to act in relationships from our gender roles. When you don’t fit into either the gender or sexuality mold that society expects, you’re left without a cultural scaffolding to guide your interactions with other people and in relationships. Additionally, sometimes other folks don’t quite know what to say to you.

“So, who proposed?”
“I did, but she knew it was coming.”

gay-lunchThis past December, I had the great pleasure of asking my now wife to marry me. She knew I was going to askin my world, you don’t ask questions like that if you don’t know the answerbut nonetheless, the evening of the proposal came and we were both incredibly nervous. I was proposing on campus (after all, it’s gorgeous, my work at UNCG is a huge part of my life, and it seemed way nicer than in my living room with the dog and the roommate trying not to pay attention to what we were doing). Originally, I’d intended to ask her in front of Minerva, but my wife guessed that, so I fell back on my second favorite spot on campus: the round pavilion on the side of the School of Music Building.

She’s currently living several states away while finishing her degree, so I’d promised her a bit of a campus tour. However, every time I stopped to tell her about something, she started getting more nervous (thinking that it was time), so we finally just wandered back to the School of Music. I’d had this great speech planned that zoomed out of my head as soon as it was time, and instead I just said “Lee, will you marry me?”

She said yes. We both sniffled. And then I asked her to ask me, and she did. And yes, I said yes.

(We both wore engagement rings. There was never any question.)

“I know, I know I shouldn’t ask this… but when two women are out on a date, who pays?”
“Did you really just ask me that?”

So, after the proposal and traipsing around campus in the dark, we took our dressed-up selves out to an amazing seafood dinner (I paid, her being the “broke college kid” that she is), and all was right with the world. Which brings me to this: When you’re out to eat, pay attention to the dynamics of the check drop. The check usually gets dropped in front of my (male) roommate; my card with my picture on it has gotten dropped in front of him, as well (and he has several inches more hair than I do). On the other hand, when my wife and I are out together, waitstaff approach the table, and then pause for a moment before carefully placing the check in the middle of the table.

check

“So, who cooks?”
“I do. I have a gluten intolerance and she’s worried about poisoning me. And I like to cook. She does the dishes though.”

This is not news to anyone who’s in a same-sex relationship, but since folks don’t know what to say sometimes, you get a lot of questions. Sometimes you get a lot of nosy questions. Sometimes folks are just curious. But all of the questions get back to gender roles; often folks have real trouble considering how you might structure a relationship with two women, two men, or two genderqueer folks. The woman cooks and the man sits in the living room with a beer, right? Feedback that I get from students in class lets me know that many students are being raised in homes with non-traditional gender roles; however, I’ve also heard really heartbreaking stories from female students about being expected to do all the heavy lifting in households where fathers and brothers were not doing their share. We may try to assert that we live in a post-racial society these days, but no one even tries to make that assertion about gender. We know better.

“So…who…you know…who’s the guy?”
“Are you really asking this?”
“Yea, I guess I am.”

I’m gonna let Mae Martin take this one for me

I feel like I frequently have this exchange with my straight male friends where they are like, "Oh, you are a lesbian, that's awesome. That's cool. But your relationship with your girlfriend which one of you is the man of the relationship?" Like fair enough question, but I am like we are genuinely both women, that's kinda the point. That is the essence of the arrangement that we have made. "I know, but which one of you represents the man?" And it's like saying to a vegetarian, "Oh you are a vegetarian? That's the best. Which part of the salad represents the pork chop?" No, it's made of vegetables. Which vegetable wears the strap-on is really what they are asking. The answer is: All the vegetables. Even the long-haired vegetables sometimes wear them. And when they do it's very exciting for the short-haired vegetables.

See, there is no “guy” in the relationship; we’re both just us. I cook. She does the dishes. Unless she needs to study, and then I do them. She mostly takes out the trash and recycling. Neither of us works on cars; we both have a little knowledge (her more so than me), but we don’t like to do it and we’re happy to pay other folks to do it.

She wears men’s clothes all the time but is way more particular about her looks and painting her toenails than I am. I keep my hair short most of the time (I grew it out for the wedding, but right now it’s high and tight), and wildly vary shaving my legs and painting my nails. There are mornings when my room resembles the clothing scene from The Great Gatsby, because nothing feels rightnot men’s clothes and not women’s clothes, and while UNCG may be pretty laid back, I still can’t go teach class in my pajamas.

HETS-IraqiFreedom

She can drive anything on wheels (having driven trucks through Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom), but she prefers automatics because of a bum shoulder. I prefer to drive a stick. I kill the spiders (she’s terrified of them), and she reaches the stuff on high shelves (being nearly a foot taller than I am). We’re still working out a lot of this (see also: long distance marriage), but whenever we do work out something, it’s because it’s the solution that makes sense, not because society tells us that one of us is supposed to take out the trash or fold the clothes (answer: she’s a lot better at that than I). Opposite sex couples have this process of negotiation to go through as well and often go for the “makes sense” solution, but they also have a lifetime of socialization and culture behind them as well (for better or worse).

Gender is in everything we do; our society eats and breaths gender in a way that we don’t notice when we’re in the middle of it. We still have terrible levels of inequality in our society (we’re still discussing women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s, for example). And when we get down to people’s lived experiences, the differences can become even more stark: ask Ben Barres, who was infamously told that his “sister’s” work wasn’t as good as his. (And we’re not even getting into issues of violence or job discrimination against trans* people, or that some days, there just isn’t a box for you on forms, because I don’t have those emotional cycles today.)

“What did y’all do about last names?”
“Well, we had the same options any couple has, right? One person takes the other name, you hyphenate, you both keep your name…”
“Yea, I guess so. Huh.”

The takeaway is that living sexuality and gender is sometimes super messy, but a lot of times it just is what it is; mostly we’re just a normal old couple doing boring old couple things like work and walking the dog. As I’m fond of telling my students, no matter who is in the relationship, someone has to buy milk and someone has to walk the dog and someone has to grade papers. I’m just glad that I found my person that I want to buy milk with for the rest of my life.

wedding-edit-500

A few resources:

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

UNCG Pride on Facebook

UNCG Safe Zone

National Coming Out Day page at Human Rights Campaign

Homeownership as Hazing

by Chris Metivier

Among the unique joys of home ownership.

Ah, the joys of homeownership.

I’m writing this as I wait for the air conditioning repair tech to call me back. He’s supposed to be here by now. I called the company office about half an hour ago to make sure he was still coming, and they said he would call when he’s on his way. I know that technicians get held up when they’re on call, but it’s late afternoon and if he can’t make it today, I don’t know when I’ll be able to reschedule. I’m about to start a new position at the university, a 9-to-5 office job, so today might be my only weekday off for a while. Luckily, it’s rainy today, and cool. So it’s comfortable in my house for now. But it’s only going to get hotter, and my air conditioning unit just runs, impotently, like a mouse on one of those wheels, endlessly turning but accomplishing nothing.

I don’t know anything about air conditioning, but I expect I’ll learn. Much the same way that I’ve learned about plumbing, wiring, and landscaping in the last 9 months or so that I’ve been a homeowner—by having it explained to me by a very capable and polite tradesperson as they repair it. Each time something goes wrong, I ask my veteran homeowner friends if there’s a repair person who they can recommend. They always offer suggestions, but with a tone of resignation that indicates they’ve been here too. Disappointed, financially stressed, unprepared, and even sort of victimized.

He’s happy because he knows the air conditioning works at HIS house.

He’s happy because he knows the air conditioning works at his house.

The thing that gets me is, all these same people were so enthusiastic about my decision to buy a home a year ago. They went on and on about how good of an investment it is and how I’ve been “throwing money away on rent all these years” and “it’s the grown-up thing to do”. Now that the damage is done, they smile wistfully when I complain that everything that can’t be detected in a pre-closing inspection has gone wrong since I’ve bought my house. “Yup”, they say, “get used to that”.

Where was their resignation before I saddled myself with a mortgage? Where was their jaded sincerity? My homeowner friends were all middle-class pride and upward mobility when I was in the market for a house, but now they scoff at my naivete when I complain that I no longer have any savings because every extra dollar goes into fixing my house. I feel like an inductee into some vaguely secretive and mildly abusive club. One that spends a lot of time bragging about the benefits of membership to outsiders, but conveniently neglects to mention the disadvantages.

I had friends in college who joined fraternities, and during their sort of probationary “pledging” period, they were made to carry awkward objects around campus, or recite obscure facts about the university at the command of the senior members. I never joined any such organization myself, but I imagine this hazing ritual is intended to inspire loyalty and demonstrate commitment. My experience as a homeowner feels a little bit like that. It’s not that other homeowners are intentionally abusing or embarrassing me. But they knew I would be abused and embarrassed, and yet they encouraged me to join their club.

Like this, except it only hurts your bank account.

Like this, except it only hurts your bank account.

It occurs to me that this behavior applies to a wider range of groups. Parents often encourage non-parents to have children. Religious folks often recommend spirituality to the non-religious. Even fans of a particular tv show will push their friends to watch the show too. It seems like people always think that their choices are the best ones, and that others would be better off if they agreed. This, of course, is no surprise. How could anyone get through life thinking that all their decisions were poor ones and they would have been better off doing otherwise. Perhaps there are people like this, but they would be miserable friends, and so I suspect not many of us are receiving advice from people like that.

I think there is a range of interpretations of this behavior. The most cynical is that misery loves company—that people who regret their decisions are resentful of those who chose more wisely and strive to bring cosmic justice into balance by luring the lucky or clever into ruin. Perhaps, again, there are some people like this, but it seems pretty unlikely that there are very many.

Slightly less cynical is the possibility that people want to feel justified in their decisions, regardless of whether they are actually good ones, and so they put the most positive spin on their choice to buy a house, have children, get married, etc., which has the dual effect of both convincing themselves that their decision was justified in retrospect, and possibly convincing others to join them, further validating the decision.

A "Shellback" initiation (as sailors cross the Equator for the first time).

A “Shellback” initiation (as sailors cross the Equator for the first time).

A sort of value-neutral psychological explanation is that people simply don’t think about the bad parts of their experience when they make recommendations. They don’t have any real agenda when they tell you that their lives have improved since they started watching Game of Thrones or became gluten-free. They really believe, at least in that moment, that their lives have improved, and their recommendation is more of a description of the benefits they have actually enjoyed. They simply are forgetting about the costs. I think psychologists call this confirmation bias. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different thing, but I’m confident there is a name for it.

To be more optimistic, one more possibility is that people really do, on the whole, assess their lives as better in the light of the change they recommend. They judge themselves to be sincerely happier and they want you to be happier too. They reflect on the quality of their lives before and since their decision, they evaluate the impact of the change, and they believe that it has caused a net improvement. Of course, they may be mistaken in their conclusion that there is a causal link between their decision and their happiness (I’m referring to the work of Dan Gilbert here), but their motivations are benevolent.

While I lean toward the cynical in my explanations of human behavior in most cases, I suspect that my enthusiastic homeowner friends were not actually using me to justify their own bad choices or mollify their regrets. Probably they were reflecting on their current lives in a positive light, and perhaps mistaking correlation for causation.

xkcd552correlation

In any case, I don’t know if they really meant to initiate me into the exclusive club of homeownership through ritual hazing. But I have learned, since I started writing this a couple weeks ago, that there is nothing wrong with my air conditioning that is detectable by any tests that a professional technician is likely to perform. So now I just seem delusional. To this technician, like a bourgeois academic, mystified by the workings of the machinery that makes my comfortable life possible. And to you, like neurotic blogger spouting cautionary tales as though they are profound. Both you and he are probably right.

Renewal

by Susan Thomas

renewal1

Snowdrops and crocuses heralding spring.

As spring struggles to take hold and overcome the last vestiges of our stubborn winter, the budding leaves and emerging flowers hold the promise of renewal for the natural world around us. The lighthearted feeling that warm sunshine and chirping birds induces within us reflects how these changes can bring us out of the doldrums, lift our sagging spirits, and sometimes inspire us to smile despite our problems.

But renewal from without can be limited and ephemeral, especially in today’s world where the frenetic pace and our overloaded schedules loom like a cloud over us daily. We worry constantly that we’ve forgotten something. And when we remember, we worry that there is not enough time to accomplish whatever we’ve finally recalled. We need renewal from within.

Finding sources of personal renewal can be challenging. Hardly anyone goes anywhere these days without some technological device tethered to them, and new wearable devices will exacerbate the problem being connected presents for us. Overuse of cell phones can be dangerous, of course, and we’ve all seen people of all ages misusing their devices, motorists texting while driving, swerving in their lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of oncoming cars. A few years ago, someone talking on their phone while driving sideswiped my car.

Family time?

Family time?

Even when we share meals with one another, we are constantly checking in to see what we may have missed, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the person across the table. But it isn’t so much the rudeness or the lack of safety that such use represents, it is how it limits our opportunities to engage, learn, and grow from each other and from tech-free activities. It prevents us from living in the moment.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to cut ourselves free of the daily grind. Reports still have to be submitted, email still has to be answered, phone calls still have to be made, evaluations still have to be conducted, and the list goes on. Both personally and professionally, our time is seldom our own. But even a few moments can make a difference. The key is to consciously think about small ways to free your mind. I’m not advocating that everyone should take up meditation or practice yoga. Just find something that works for you. It could be a beautiful image or meaningful music, or even deep breathing. Life is too short to neglect what’s most important.

renewal3

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916.

Macklemore, My Girlfriend, and Me

by Joyce Clapp

My girlfriend1 and I got into our first fight this week, over Macklemore.

I know, it sounds silly. But hear me out.

Macklemore

Macklemore on stage.

You know who Macklemore is; at this point, you’d likely have to be living under a rock not to know who he is. Macklemore has managed to get the issue of marriage equality on radio stations everywhere; I can’t turn on a pop/rock station around here in Greensboro and not hear “Same Love” playing at least once a day, if not more. The song has apparently become an anthem for the marriage equality fight, and I won’t lie; I went to the Macklemore show in Raleigh last fall (I am a fan, for sure). Hearing a stadium full of people singing along to “Same Love” (in a state that voted in Amendment One last year by a 61%-to-39% margin, with a 34% voter turnout, not that this is hardly the “overwhelming majority” many folks wanted to portray it as) had me sniffling as I sang too.

So, the issue of marriage equality is out in front of the entire country in a big way. In fact, in such a big way that same-sex couples2 were married on the Grammys recently. In addition, Macklemore seems to be a genuinely nice guy who cares about the issue of same-sex marriage. This is awesome, right? When even the straight white guy is making hip-hop music about how same-sex marriage should be legal, then it should be legal, right?

And therein lies the difficulty.

It is a sociological fact that minority groups need majority allies. Allies, after all, make laws; the very definition of a minority group is one that doesn’t have power in a society. If enough men hadn’t become convinced that women should be able to vote, we still wouldn’t be able to. If seven white men hadn’t looked at Loving v. Virginia and said…

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

…then we’d still live in a country that outlawed interracial marriage (and my girlfriend and I would be out of luck twice over).

The Supreme Court, [date].

The United States Supreme Court, 1967.

However, when a society only starts to pay attention to an issue when allies are the ones taking notice and pushing for social change, then we have a problem as minorities and as a society. When James Zwerg was beaten because of his participation in the Freedom Rides, people sat up and started paying attention—in other words, when a white guy got beaten up over racial civil rights. This is not to diminish the huge contributions that Zwerg and other white allies made to the Civil Rights Movement—but it does raise some problematic questions about power in society and why issues only seem “real” in society when majority group members join in. What does this do to the process of social change in a society? It can create a feeling of alienation among the very minorities the social movements are intended to help.

James Zwerg

James Zwerg in Alabama.

Which brings us back to Macklemore, my girlfriend, and me. My reaction to the Grammy event was, “Wow, that was sweet, and look, there’s same sex couples on TV. That’s pretty awesome. Maybe this is getting normalized, and where there’s normalcy, there’s social change” (I am, after all, first and foremost a sociology professor). Her reaction was, “Wow, what a publicity stunt designed to make CBS look good, and oh hey, who is this white straight dude making money off of same-sex marriage. I don’t want to be ‘normalized,’ I just want to get married.” My reaction to that was, “Yes, but until it’s legal everywhere, we don’t get to just get married, and who cares how this is getting done, as long as it’s getting done?” And we were off to the races.

Process versus product is a problem for any social movement. It’s easy for me to say, “by any means necessary”—in the end, I just want to be able marry my girlfriend, peacefully and legally. It is harder for her to say “by any means necessary” about a society that works to systematically marginalize her because of the groups she belongs to. Sociologists talk about intersectionality—the idea that all of our social identities interact to affect how society interacts with us, how we interact with society, and what kinds of inequalities we run into. In other words, it’s not just your race or gender orientation or sexual orientation that matter—all of these things matter when it comes to how we view the world, how it views us, and what hurdles we encounter. My race and social class and other identities added up to me going “Why does the process matter here, as long as it gets done and we get to get married in the end?”3

But process does matter. As social movements normalize and become more mainstream, those that are already marginalized in minority groups become even more marginalized. For example, Disney is releasing its first show featuring a same sex couple. Awesome, right?

Same-sex couple, per Disney.

Susan and Cheryl on Disney’s Good Luck Charlie.

Sure, there are blonde skinny white women who love women out there—and sometimes, they even hook up with each other, and they are as queer as anyone else; to say that white skinny blonde women can’t be queer would be missing the point.

But the more mainstream GLBTQIA2 issues get, the more the butch women and nelly queens and drag queens and trans* folks and genderqueer folks get marginalized (and forget people of color who are also queer—once you’re a minority within a minority within a minority, your voice gets drowned out). The more mainstream social change becomes, the more alienated the people at the edges of that change feel and are. After all, people who look straight aren’t as threatening to society, and it’s frustrating (at the least) to think that civil rights might be predicated on not appearing threatening. Nonetheless, that is how social change goes—after all, we don’t celebrate Malcolm X day. We do celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day. One gentleman was seen as threatening, and the other, not so much (at least, the parts of Dr. King’s vision that we talk about; we talk about the “I have a dream” MLK, but not the anti-Vietnam MLK).

This post doesn’t have a nice neat ending. Social change never does. I was wrong to say that process doesn’t matter. This process is rapidly marginalizing many of the same people it was meant to help, and that does matter. It also matters that in talking about marriage, we’re ignoring other issues—trans* health care, the 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. that are GLBTQIA2, violence against trans* folks, or the fact that sexuality is not a federally protected employment class. We cannot marginalize large sections of our community in the quest for one (very important, but) issue. Process matters, and how we get to social changes matter. I was wrong to say that it didn’t, and in doing so, I pushed my future wife’s voice to the sideline.

We need allies. Allies are important to social change; they have power in society, and some of our allies care deeply and passionately about their minority friends, family, and loved ones (no matter what the issue in question is). However, we need to not have social movements where allies become the only faces on those social movements. We need a society where our culture encourages marginalized voices on the edges of marginalized communities to have a voice. How do we make that cultural change happen? I don’t know.

———

1. Sigh. Titles, when you’re queer, can get annoying. We’re engaged, and planning an August wedding. However, when I say “fiancé,” that erases the fact that we’re both women. Wife, on the other hand, will not have that issue. So right now, I still tend to refer to her as my girlfriend (even though, when we’re past the age of 35, that title also starts to feel silly).

2. Dear news media: we’re not all gay. Can we please stop referring to “gay couples”?

3. And we kind of can right now—we’ll be legally married in Maryland. That is both awesome and bittersweet.

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim

Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.

—–

Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.