Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Feeding Christians to the Homophobic Lions.

Being queer and being Christian in our culture have a fair few things in common at the moment.

For example, there are people who disapprove of Christians and/or LGBT people who believe that
  • it's something people ultimately choose to be and therefore could reason themselves out of. 
  • it's a fact that reflects on one's whole personality, one's hobbies and interests and especially one's politics.
  • it's something that fills one with smugness about one's superior lifestyle. 
  • it's something that one is compelled to spread around at every opportunity, encouraging if not coercing other people to be the same. 
  • it's something that makes you a bad influence on children.
Yet queerness and Christianity are often spoken about as if they are not only mutuality exclusive identities, but as if the rights of one contradict the rights of the other.  This isn't true.

The people who argue that this is true are predominantly Christian homophobes, who would very much like it to be true.  Homophobia is becoming increasingly unacceptable and, in certain contexts, illegal. For some people, this presents all the righteous indignation of being persecuted and a sense of justification in their hatred, without anything very bad actually happening to them. Which is a bad thing for queer people and good Christians alike.

Now, there are many obvious differences between sexuality and religion, where these things come from, how likely they are to change in a lifetime and how much power we have over them.  Clearly, some religious ideas are actually wrong and we can reason them away, whereas, there is no right or wrong - nor rhyme nor reason - about who we love and how we love them.

However, all this is mostly about love that others find confusing. Love for a God who may not exist.  Love for a human being of the same gender. Some folk, who have never experienced these things themselves (and a few folk who have and wish they hadn't) find it so strange they think it must be wrong.

There are also big differences between the way that Christianity and queerness are treated within our culture.  In politics, queerness is a much less acceptable and Christianity is almost default; the Conservative Party has precisely one out homosexual MP and Nick Clegg is the very first leader of any political party to be an open atheist. Our head of State is also the head of the Church of England and there are twenty-six places in the House of Lords reserved for C of E bishops. All kinds of political events as well as legal oaths, decrees etc., invoke Christianity by default. (Historically - such when I was a kid - these privileges were much greater; Christian assembly at school every day, non-church goers banned from adoption, blasphemy laws etc.. I can't think of any other group who have lost quite so much social and political privilege, quite so rapidly.)

In popular culture, Christianity is not at all cool.  It is far more acceptable to mock Christians than gay people on TV (I mean Christians, not Churches which, like many institutions, deserve mocking and in some cases, outright condemnation). In popular entertainment, it is easier to be openly gay than Christian. In British fiction, especially television drama, Christians are almost universally aggressive, delusional zealots or effete figures of ridicule. Writers and artists continue to use Christian religious imagery combined with sexual, violent or scatterlogical imagery to make their work shocking (I realise some artists use religious imagery as part of self-expression, but it is at least often about garnering attention.)

One trouble is... how things are in the US.

To most Britons, religion in the United States is baffling, hilarious and deeply disturbing. Of course, we only hear about the extreme stuff, about TV evangelists, creationists, people who bomb abortion clinics and people who use God to justify gun ownership and capital punishment. Their laws allow people to picket funerals to shout abuse at the mourners because they think that's what God wants. They have large groups of people being persuaded that the world is about to end. And religion really really matters in US politics. Politicians talk about God all the time, in the most bizarre contexts. In the UK, politicians sometimes mention faith or Christianity specifically (e.g. "This is a Christian country."), but never ever mention the old man in the sky.

Often, Christianity in the UK is criticised as if it was operated in the same way, or had the same political power, as it does in the US (worse, a caricature of the way things are in the US). I would say that the different ways in which Christianity is understood are a particularly profound illustration of the massive cultural differences between our two countries.

Another trouble is... The Catholic Church

Not Catholics. Blaming Catholics for the considerable sins of the Catholic Church would be like blaming the people of an undemocratic country for the sins of the current administration. Sure, they could leave their country, but they love their country and anyway, that's where they grew up, where their family is and where they feel at peace.  However, senior members of the Catholic Church are still trying to wriggle their way out of responsibility for decades of covering up for and enabling child rape and other abuse. They are still spreading myths about condoms to people for whom HIV/AIDS and overcrowding are the two greatest threats to health and happiness. And they are still talking about homosexuality as if that's a worse thing, worse than all this - worse than climate change!  The Catholic Church is in big trouble, both morally and in terms of its place in the modern world.

I don't know about Catholics around the world, but British Catholics are certainly not represented at all well by their Church.  However, Catholics and their church are frequently lumped together, with Catholics assumed to be guilt-ridden prudes, obsessed with what other people get up to in the bedroom.

A third trouble is...

There are people who get very angry about Christianity - not just angry at the bad things done in Christianity's name, but angry at its very existence -  and in my experience, they're almost always people who with few natural predators when it comes to freedom and social justice.  People who genuinely think that in the UK, in 2012, calling oneself an atheist is a daring act of rebellion against society itself.

Yes yes, there are contexts, families, certain work environments, school catchment areas, where this can be genuinely uncomfortable. But atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people are not subject to nearly so much religious-based violence or harassment as even Church of England Christians, let alone other groups. This may be partly because we're not so easy to identify; there's no non-religious clothing or symbols and we don't congregate in and around prominent landmarks, but even so. My atheist church organist brother-in-law is frequently invited along to Christian events with church friends who add, "It is quite a religious thing, and we wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable."

And then there's homophobia.

Homophobia is often presented as the preserve of religion - specifically Christianity, in most contexts within our culture - for a number of reasons. These include:

  • It's a picture that appeals to the news media, who tend to see only the word sex in sexuality. If it's Christians complaining about gay people, then that's sex and religion in the same story and if you can somehow throw politics into that mix, you've as good as struck gold!
  • We're all inclined to simplify the stories we tell about people and behaviour. Religious oppression is a much easier story to tell than the complex social, cultural, sexual and religious reasons why a proportion of the population is still homophobic.
  • If it was all down to religion, it would be much easier to sort out. 
  • If it was all down to religion, then all non-religious or not-especially-religious people could wash their hands of responsibility for homophobia.
  • Some vocal Christian homophobes talk about their homophobia if that's what their religion is all about - that bars to hate speech and discrimination against LBGT people are bars to their religious expression.  
By some queer fluke of my social circle, about half the Christians I know are gay.  The rest are a mix of egalitarians and social conservatives. Yet none of my socially conservative Christian friends or family members have ever said anything homophobic in my presence. 

As far as I can make out, none of them understand homosexuality to be some great bane on the human race. They may see it as wrong, but wrong in the same way other consensual sexual behaviour can be, like infidelity or having sex with a member of UKIP - a private wrong, and something that is between a person, their partners and their God, not something that decent people pass judgement on in polite conversation. Many of my friends are ethically vegan or vegetarian, but I don't hear them telling others that meat is murder. I think most people who object to homosexuality on religious grounds see it a bit like that; believing that this not the best way of doing things, but it's kind of up to individuals to work that out for themselves. 

This must be one reason why the Church of Scotland, having sent out 200, 000 postcards for church attendees to simply sign and be sent to the consultation on equal marriage, got a little over 10% back; either most church-goers are in favour of equal marriage or they simply have more pressing things (like poverty and deprivation at home and abroad) to concern themselves with.

This, compared to the bonafide homophobes I know. People who make lewd jokes about LGBT people, who use gayness as a insult, a mockery, who make sweeping statements about what queer people are like, the damage they do, who don't want queer people near their children and who spend a hell of a lot of the time worrying about whether anything they do might possibly be perceived as a little bit gay.  The ones I know are too polite to shout at people in the street or throw bricks through windows, but it's all in that same infected vein. 

And these people are not religious. They are people who grew up anxious about sexuality, because we have live in a world obsessed by but disgusted by sex and sexual expression. They are people who grew up anxious about gender roles and the near impossibility of fully conforming to them. They are people who grew up with a sense that love is precious in a way that means it should be rationed. They are people used to blaming perceived outsiders - pretty much any perceived outsiders - for the social and economic problems in their own lives. They are people whose humour is very heavily based on mocking other people - again, especially supposed outsiders. They are people who very easily adopt a position of victimhood in the face of changing social attitudes, which they call political correctness.

If they were religious too, they'd claim it was a position of faith and throw a few Bible verses in there (if they'd actually read the book) but it couldn't make it any worse.

I think everyone needs to get behind equality, and religious tolerance is part of this.  It would be ludicrous to make concessions to discrimination law - or indeed, common behaviourial standards of any kind - on the grounds of religion.  But Christians are not the enemy of queer people.  Homophobia, in all its weird and horrible forms, is.

I know this post is all about Christianity and a lot of the same things apply to other faiths, but there are some major differences (like Christianity's unique place in our culture and history), and Christianity is the religion I know by far the most about.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lisa Egan for the 2012 Pink List.

LGBT Disabled Heroes: Frida Kahlo, Lisa Egan and Lord Byron (also feat. Betty the Cat)
"Is there really anything brave and wonderful about wanting to get drunk and stick your tongue down someone else's throat?"
It was with this line, in an article called Locked Out Lesbian about the physical inaccessibility of gay night clubs, that Lisa Egan joined the ranks of my personal heroes.  She later told me that it was through this piece on BBC Ouch! that her father first learnt that she was gay.

A pretty young wheelchair-user with
a purple hoody and a drink, probably Absinthe.
A stand-up comedian and post graduate student in TV and Film, Lisa wrote about issues such as how disabled people are much like movie vampires and the horrors of Christmas shopping as a wheelchair user, until illness forced both her comedy and academic career into indefinite hiatus. As well as being a massive personal blow, this was very bad timing. A good few decades have past since it was quite such a bad time to be chronically sick in the United Kingdom.

In recent years, Lisa has become one of the hardest working disability activists fighting the punishing benefit reforms which are threatening the lives and quality of life of disabled people. She founded and runs Where's the Benefit?, probably the largest active disability group blog, as well as the Where's the Benefit Podcast?.  She has made radio and TV appearances, as well as writing for the Guardian, the Huffington Post and the Independent about disability, welfare reform and the Paralympics (having been a Paralympic hopeful herself).

Last December, Lisa wrote very bravely about the harsh reality of her own situation and the how the abolition of Disability Living Allowance may leave her without a life worth living, leading to a surge in signatures to Pat's Petition against benefit cuts (which you can still sign, if you haven't already).

Lisa (bottom left) and fellow campaigners at an anti-cuts
march last year.
Even in the face of such gloom, Lisa remains passionate about pop culture and the importance of disabled and LGBT people's representation within it.  She keeps a Tumblr Lisy's Thoughts on Disability in Film and TV, took on Ricky GervaisJodi Picoult and once wrote about how Katy Perry (who also kissed a girl and liked it) brings her close to tears.

Lisa has major problems with modesty, once stating, "Being fat, ugly and fairly dull makes me unattractive. Being disabled is one of the few things about me that I'm actually confident in."

This is the only reason why she's not one of the most prominent faces of disability campaigning, instead working and organising others behind the scenes.

As you can see, Lisa really ought to be on The Independent on Sunday's Pink List, a list of the 101 most influential lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Britain, nominated by members of the public. As well as giving Lisa the recognition she deserves, it would be great to have a disability activist (or indeed any disabled person) on that list. And quite seriously, can you think of 101 more influential queer people? I certainly can't.

So if you would, please pop over to the nominations page before Sunday and write a few sentences about why Lisa should be on that list.  Thank you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making feminism not racist isn't classist.

Caitlin Moran is a journalist and TV critic who writes in an entertaining way and has remarkable hair. She wrote a feminist memoir called How To Be a Woman.  Because she has such a public voice, she has come under criticism from other feminists on a number of occasions for, for example, using the words retard and tranny for humourous purposes in her book. She acknowledged the problem and pulled the word retard from further editions. A few weeks back, when asked why she hadn't raised the issue of all-white casting in Lena Dunham's New York-based sitcom Girls when interviewing the writer, she said on Twitter, "I literally couldn't give a shit about it."

This isn't about Caitlin Moran. People who had high expectations of her were disappointed and upset. But then prominent white feminists tried to defend her and a row ensued. This accumulated in a New Statesman article which has made me very cross, and demonstrates the big hairy problem at the heart of feminism.

The article is called In defence of Caitlin Moran and populist feminism by the Vagenda team. Lisa Millback summarises the piece very nicely in her comment on an F-Word blog as
"Making feminism not racist is classist"
The article lays the problems of feminism at the doors of unnamed "academic feminists" who use long words like "intersectionality" (they quote, but don't actually credit Flavia Dzordan's My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit, a weighty and largely inaccessible piece with an average word length of 4.3 characters which concludes with the impenetrable sentence, "My cats would be delighted to pee on you.").

The team that educated us on sexism as experienced by Porsche-drivers explain about working class women who can't cope with these big ideas and even bigger words;
You’ll still be left with hungry mouths to feed, or a violent partner, or a shit school. Winning places for women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is not a priority when your benefits have just been cut and your ex-partner keeps moving house to avoid the CSA.  Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse.
I subscribed to Vagenda Magazine for the first few months. It's mostly about women's magazines and body image issues, exclusively effecting young thin non-disabled straight cis women. It's often very funny, but the privilege issue and unrelenting cis sexism (it's 2012; possession of a vagina does not a woman make) began to grate. But I never read anything about chronic poverty, education, benefits, pregnancy issues, childcare provision or abuse. Genuinely and sincerely, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; this is fun, populist feminism. We do need a lot of voices and these lasses write well. Women's magazines are awful! Underarm hair is lovely! Vagina is a funny word!

However, this is not the kind of feminism that speaks for Vicky Pollard typical working class women with their teenage pregnancies, violent partners and difficulty understanding long words. Nor is Caitlin Moran's - she's a TV critic, above all else; my limited impression is that she's like Charlie Brooker with more interesting hair. So this is a pretty weird defense of Moran, especially when she is being accused of dismissing race in the context of popular culture (her area of expertise) - she's not been criticised for her failure to use academic language or to speak for women in big business.

But it's also an unfair caricature, all by itself.
"This woman does not represent me", they will think of their well-meaning lecturer, because how can she, with her private education and her alienating terminology and her privilege, how can she know how poverty gnaws away at your insides and suppresses your voice? How would she know how that feels?
The kind of feminists concerned with poverty and class are almost always those who know a lot about it. A few may be highly educated (working class does not equal low intelligence or no education) and work in academia, but most work in the communities from which they came. They do front line work (there are all kinds of campaigning, but campaigning isn't the only kind of feminist work). And they often don't look like Moran; they're very often women of colour, disabled women, fat women, queer women, Muslim women, trans women - often women with entirely unremarkable hair.

These are the people who know that, for example, being black and a woman means you can count non-stereotypical representations of people who look a bit like you in popular culture on the fingers of one hand, but giving a shit about that is unlikely to make any difference - you need to rely on pretty thin white media-palatable feminists to ask those questions for you.  But they're also likely to know that being black and woman means that you're more vulnerable to poverty than other black people and other women, and less likely to be able to raise yourself from poverty.

There's a word for that.  That word is intersectionality.  It's not important that everyone knows or understands the word, because the concept is easy enough to grasp.  Belonging to more than one oppressed group means that those oppressions work differently. Black women's experience of racism is sexualised and their experience of sexism is racialised. Belonging to one oppressed group also means that one's privilege works differently; being a white Muslim or a disabled man, for example, can mean you're not counted by a prejudiced society as wholly white or wholly masculine.

Poor and working class people get this because they are more likely to belong to minority groups and have multiple oppressions (given that being poor is one of them). They are also much more likely to have close friends, partners and family members who have multiple oppressions than wealthier and middle class people. Working class people are society's big mixers.

Earlier this year, Nat The Fantastic ran a feminist conference called Intersect all about intersectionality. Check out the videos, note the cut glass accents, the complex language, glimpse the Posche Boxsters parked in the disabled spaces outside. These are some of the British feminists who are talking about intersectionality.

There's a reason why they're not mainstream or have national platforms like women who look and sound like Caitlin Moran and the Vagenda team*. It's that reason is the big problem with feminism, the reason why so many women feel that feminism has nothing to do with them and their problems. It's that privileged feminists, along with the mainstream media, refuse to acknowledge that all our gendered problems and their interactions are worth time and attention.

See also The F-Word: Is intersectionality an elitist concept?,
Ain't I a girl? and A problem that  stubbornly refuses to budge.
Black Feminists: Dear Vagenda Editors...
Bim Adewunmi: What the Girls spat on Twitter tells us about Feminism
Another angry woman: How to be better on insectionality, privilege and silencing

For a much better article about socio-economic class and feminism, I'll remind you of Louise McCudden's Three Faces of Feminism: Louise Mensch, Laurie Penny and Jodie Marsh.

* I really don't want to suggest for a moment that these women are where they are because of how they look and sound. They are all talented intelligent writers and, as funny women writing about feminism, aren't exactly establishment. However, it's not a coincidence that the only women we seen given a platform to speak about feminism by the mainstream media look and sound an awful lot like them.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

On Adults Living With Their Parents

After I got sick and the prospect of leaving home for Drama School or University came under threat, the prospect of continuing to live with my parents into adult life became a source of ongoing terror. It didn't happen. I left when I was eighteen. Then, eleven years later, I had to come back.

This is a very common scenario at the moment, for a great variety of reasons. Last week, the BBC reported that 1.6 million 20 to 40 year olds were living with their parents because they could not afford their own home. A spokesperson for Shelter is quoted as saying, "These figures paint a vivid picture of 20 and 30 somethings in arrested development."

Since I've been living with Stephen's and my parents, I've become very conscious about the way that adults living with their parents are discussed.  Arrested development?  In a Guardian article from earlier this year, Barbara Ellen put it more strongly:
I could barely suppress the urge to grab someone, perhaps not the 20-year-olds, but certainly the thirtysomethings and scream: "What are you playing at? You get one life and you're living it in your parents' house, as a strangely tall child, presumably with secondary sexual characteristics. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, however much your standard of living falls, you must save yourself and leave. At once!" 
But then I'm funny like that. I've always believed that people should have one of those things that start with a birth, end with a death and have lots of stuff going on in the middle. You know, a life.
Nice.  Urocyon wrote an excellent post about this a few months back, drawing from other subjects in the brilliant way she does, and quoting from the amazingly thorough Living in His Parents Basement Part 2: The Ideological Image:
...it implies a social failure. It implies a failure because it’s assumed that such an individual either remains under parental control in a substantive way or they ironically exist as an “ungrateful child” who rebels against the rightful and reasonable demands of the parent.
Urocyon pulls together various intellectual strings to make the point that anxiety about adults living with their parents is born out of universalism; the idea that there is one way of doing things, and all other ways are problematic - either morally wrong, or harmful and unhealthy for the people involved.

I think there's even more missing from our narrative about adults living with their parents, so allow me to muse on the subject (after all, it's not my job to put out the bins).

Sometimes it's a choice, sometimes it's not much of a choice.

The idea of young adults not being able to afford their own home in the Shelter Report has two very different connotations in my mind - a fact that appears to be missed in almost all discussion of those forced to live with parents as a consequence of the economic downturn. There will people who are working towards establishing an income (whether from a position of unemployment or low paid employment) which would allow them to rent a place of their own - or simply waiting and hoping that rents will drop to affordable levels. Then there will be people who live with family to avoid rent while they save up to buy a house.

These situations are very different.  In one case, these people would be functionally homeless if they weren't able to fall upon the hospitality of friends or family.  We have a government preoccupied by the needs of "First Time Buyers", whilst cutting Local Housing Allowance across the board and abolishing all housing benefit for those under 25. As I wrote for Where's the Benefit? our government can't get over the idea of the idealised upper middle class family where there's an endless supply of space, love and material resources which any young adult would be a fool to leave behind. This renders young already vulnerable adults even more vulnerable to abuse - both from family, as well as from wealthier or older people who can offer them a way out.

It may be a problem that it's so difficult to get on the property ladder, but it is a much bigger problem that many young individuals, couples and sometimes families with children simply can't earn enough money to put a roof over their own heads.

Other times, it's really not a choice.

The adults I know who have always lived with parents are carers or themselves disabled, and disability is a huge factor in restricting a person's options for housing and living arrangements. Not merely in terms of needing care (even just a little too much to ask a regular housemate level of care can be a huge barrier to independent living), but in terms of finances, accessible and appropriate housing, plus confidence, which is not to be underestimated.

Before the economy sank, it wasn't exactly easy, but there was a fair amount of help, through state and charity schemes, to enable severely disabled people to move out of their parents' homes.  Almost all of this has been pared back or abandoned. And that sucks. Some people who didn't choose to live with their folks can study, work and save with a view to getting out some day. Some people really are stuck.

We are the lucky ones.

There are people in their twenties and thirties who don't have any parents, or whose parents' circumstances or character make it impossible for them to live together.  And these aren't exceptionally unlucky people - I know plenty of people who would have no familial safety net, given a single change in circumstance; a downturn in their health, unemployment or a broken relationship.

It's also worth mentioning that if Stephen were a woman, it would be impossible for us to stay with my parents (and extremely difficult for me to be here, even while it was long distance).  A lot of queer people who are forced back to their parents' homes, as well as people with religious (or non-religious) beliefs that clash with those of their parents, may have significant curbs placed on their social, sexual and spiritual lives.

There's also an assumption that adults living with parents will not have children - that somehow having children means you're guaranteed appropriate council housing and nothing can go wrong. Alas, not so.  And that's got to complicate things a lot further.

But this was normal before, it is normal elsewhere and it has never been particularly odd.

Most of my parents' generation are home-owners and managed to become so very early in life. Same with people a little younger than them. A little older and the story is different; Stephen's parents married and lived with his grandmother for a period of years before getting a mortgage on a flat of their own.  Same with my grandparents (both my sets of grandparents moved from their parents' homes into council houses - no shame back then).

In the generations before that, these arrangements were longer term. My Granny's childhood tales involve multi-generational households, with some adults children moving out and some staying to raise their families there. Back then, almost everyone was renting, so it wasn't a question of any given person or couple's house. Everyone who could, would contribute to the rent and housework, so the issue of dominion gets muddied.

And of course this has been going on in poorer families and families of other cultures always. Urocyon writes;
Where I'm from, it's totally normal to live “at home” until or unless you want to move out, usually when you get a career and a longterm relationship established. [...] It only makes sense, on a practical level, to make sure you have a decent income established before you try to live on your own. [...] That is until people who don’t have your practical best interest in mind, nor even understand your reasoning, start suggesting that you’re really failing at life by not adhering to their ideas about becoming an “independent adult”. 
We tend to see cultures where multiple generations share a home as oppressive and patriarchal, but this needn't be the case.  It can be the case, and I think choice is always what matters; when adult children feel unable to do their own thing because of familial obligations, when abuse continues unquestioned or when women of any generation are treated like slaves; that stuff is a problem.  But clearly, there are and always have been happy homes where several generations dwell together.

These days (for less than a hundred years) our culture expects units of two adult parents and two or three children to be happy workable arrangements for everyone.  Okay, so fewer people might mean less complex dynamics, but the nuclear family gives individuals far less time, money, energy and allies than the live-in extended family.

Today we think living alone is reasonably normal - at least for a while, either just before you marry and have babies or when you're old and widowed.  I'm very happy to live in a world where this is a practical and socially acceptable option for many (in the right circumstances, I imagine I could enjoy it myself), but historically, and in the greater scheme of things, that's far far stranger than living with one's parents into adulthood.  It's so inefficient!

All Families Are Different.  (Really!)

Tolstoy was wrong.  Even happy families can be completely different from one another.

We split our time between Stephen's and my parents' houses and the dynamics in one place are completely different from the dynamics in the other. Neither place is our own, so we have to fit in around other people, but how we achieve this varies a very great deal. We have a different routine, we contribute in different ways towards the cooking and housework and we have completely different arrangements with household expenses. There are different unwritten rules about food, money, territory, noise, privacy and language.

This difference remains a source of fascination to me. Of course I realised that other families could be very different, but I didn't expect to ever belong to any other family than the one I grew up in.  I do and it's really good - Stephen's family offer me all kinds of things I never had before.  I know I have been extremely lucky, but I am not discussing the way to live. I'm talking about ways people can and do live.

Exploiting Mum

In her article for the F-Word Taking Advantage of Mum, Rebecca argues that economic and benefit changes which force young adults to live with their parents place an undue burden of housework on middle-aged mothers:
I find myself falling back into old bad habits. I'll make myself a sandwich and leave the plate by the sink, the day will go by and I'll think to myself, "I really should wash that plate before mum comes home" but then I'll go to the library or to see a friend and when I get back the dirty plate will be sitting in the drying rack sparkling clean.
Rebecca makes an important point (as well as describing the complete absence of choice she has about her and her mother's living arrangements).  However, these family dynamics - where mothers are relied upon even by their teenage or adult children - are created and sustained. Their creation is complex, and influenced by outside forces, but they are not inevitable.

One stereotype attached to adults living with their parents is that the adult children enjoy complete indulgence from their mothers; preparing their meals, clearing up their mess and washing their clothes.
This has got to happen sometimes, but just as it is a sexist world that has conditioned generations of women to take on the greater burden of housework without question, it is a sexist stereotype that middle-aged women are so attached to their earlier mothering role that they will happily treat a twenty year old (or even a twelve year old) as one might a four or five year old, before they're able to dry dishes or make a sandwich.  I can't speak for mothers of adult children in general, but I can guarantee that at least two of them aren't like that.  Even being in receipt of personal care doesn't necessarily make one a burden.

However, Rebecca's mother and our parents are burdened with having us live with them, whether they like it or not.  And none of us particularly like it.

Growing Up / Not Growing Up

In Urocyon's post, she writes about how some models of impairment are based on deviance from "contemporary professional middle class conformism."  Certainly, many diagnostic symptoms of mental illness, autism and other cognitive/ developmental impairments aren't so much about unpleasant experiences (like most symptoms of physical illness), but unconventional behaviour or even unconventional methods of living and learning. An adult who is close to his parents, who is comfortable living with them, may be considered to have something wrong with him because we live in a culture where young people - especially men - are expected to rebel and set out on their own.

Our cultural ideas of maturity are very... cultural. A lot of them are about acquiring the vestiges of one particular lifestyle; a stable salaried job as part of a career, a mortgage, a committed monogamous relationship and a few (not too many) children. Adults who resist these things or find that they aren't realistic options are often told to "grow up".  It's common to see newspaper inches dedicated to a Generation who refuse to grow up, when really we're just doing things differently. On average, younger people are better educated because they're staying in education longer and more readily returning to education. Folk marry later, if at all, but those marriages last longer. Having children tends to be a more conscientious decision and more of us opt out. Young men are even less likely to commit suicide these days (when for ages we treated suicide almost as an occasional side effect of testosterone plus youth). There may be certain problems unique to twenty and thirty somethings, but less mature?  I blow a raspberry at that.

Not got a mortgage? Wow. Nobody told my great grandfathers, each veterans of the First World War, that they were a generation that never grew up because so few ordinary working people ever had a mortgage (and a lot of them came home to live with their parents).

The only common issue I see in among adults I know who have never left their parents' home, is one of confidence. As I've said, disability is usually in this mix. These stereotypes of inadequate adults too lazy or dependent to move out are often internalised, when in reality there's been no option. The same thing goes for romantic experience; if you've been housebound for the last ten years, chances are you've not met anyone in circumstances were you might have struck up a relationship, but it's still tough not to feel unattractive and unwanted.

Meanwhile, I've known people in their thirties and forties who have jobs, partners and homes of their own who really haven't moved on, emotionally, from their mid teens.  I've known people who have relationships with their parents which seem weird, unevolved or even vaguely incestuous, after the kids have lived away for decades.  I've certainly known adults who regularly take money from their parents despite living away and having their own income.  I've known adult men who leave dirty washing on the floor, can't iron a shirt and expect to be waited on hand and foot, but who have an office job, wife, mortgage and two cute children, so the world thinks they're just fine.

We are not our living arrangements.

Then again, maybe I'm just a Middle Class Status Symbol

My Dad has long joked about his children being expensive and always asking for money, despite the fact that (to my knowledge) we've both been financially independent from the end of school and until two years ago, neither of us had lived with them as adults (and I've never been here for more than six weeks at a stretch, and never more than five months total in the year).

When I first moved back in, I was initially hurt, confused and irritated by the way Dad framed it, as if this was a continuation of the heavy yet fictional financial burden his children had placed upon him (particularly as I was merely taking up space). But then I realised that this wasn't about how he felt but how he wanted to be seen. Dad works around much wealthier people for whom a wayward adult child, yet to get themselves together - drifting through foreign adventures, interminable higher education, experiments in self-employment and unpaid internships - is a symbol of magnanimous and bottomless wealth. You have the child or children who've made it to the top of their game by the age of thirty, but you can afford to have the one that's swanning about doing nothing and living in one of your converted outbuildings.

Adults who exploit whoever happens to be around for cash, domestic chores and accommodation are not restricted to any particular class or generation, but only fairly privileged people can afford to boast about such behaviour in their children.

Households where there are fewer beds than people don't tend to complain so loudly. Adults forced to live with their parents as carers, disabled dependents or in dire financial circumstance don't write hilarious memoirs about the experience. Yet these experiences are all but absent from the stories we hear about adults living with their parents.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

How to Support People in Abusive Relationships #2 Valuing Oneself

My first post on this was about helping someone to learn to trust themselves.  This bit is (roughly) about encouraging an abuse victim to learn to value themselves.

This isn't about getting a person to feel good about themselves, so much as encouraging the fairly fundamental idea that neither they, nor anyone else, deserves to be abused. It seems very strange now, that from time to time over a period of years, I would worry that my partner would strike me too hard, at the wrong angle, and I would fall against the wrong kind of surface and be seriously injured or killed. And whilst, as I say, the risk occurred to me, it wasn't an urgent matter. And yet I thought I had reasonably good self-esteem.

Some abusers do make their victims feel very good about themselves, but very briefly, very occasionally and often only in the direct aftermath of violence or betrayal. Victims end up living for those highs of praise or affection, appreciating them all the more for the contrast between that and the usual coldness and criticism. Oddly, Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, yes, I've read some with Jennifer Armitrout's commentary) illustrates this very well, with the heroine's inner goddess leaping about at the slightest compliment and during sex, when the rest of the time (which is most of the time) she is angry, puzzled, dejected, jealous, doubting, creeped out and very often actually afraid of the person she thinks she's in love with. (Incidentally, I don't think this means anything about the people who enjoy this book, except that this is probably the first porn they felt they had permission to read. Nor do I think it's an even slightly good reason for the book to be burnt.). Anyway...

There are many ways of making our loved ones feel valued, which in turn helps them value themselves. I hope most of those things are obvious, so here are some which may not be...

1. Don't think your disapproval will help at all.

Isolation is a huge factor in abuse. Abusers sometimes attempt to cut their victims off from friends, family and other sources of support, but failing this, they'll merely attempt to undermine all the victim's other relationships by whatever means. Outside disapproval is a gift to them, so much so that they may well make it up if it doesn't actually exist. They will work hard to spin whatever's been said or done so that the victim can think
  • This person doesn't respect me or my choice of partner. 
  • They don't understand me. 
  • This person says these things because they want to control or hurt me. 
  • I can't expect my partner to spend time with this person, who obviously hates them. 
  • Any time I spend with this person is a kind of betrayal to my partner. 
  • I must always put the best spin on my relationship in order to prove this person wrong. 
  • If I ever so much as hint that we have problems, this person will say “I told you so.”
When I first got together with my ex husband, my parents were understandably upset – I was very young, in a very vulnerable position, both physically and mentally unwell and my ex was almost twice my age. They were having a tough time in their own lives and (in common with most abusive relationships) things moved very quickly. So they handled it quite badly. There was no element of my parents' disapproval making this man more attractive - their disapproval meant I had nowhere else to go.  I felt I had to keep spinning the relationship like it was all roses in the garden.

Years later, long after my folks had chilled out and made a massive effort to include my ex as part of the family, my ex continued to use the idea that they didn't like him and didn't respect me. In the comments on #1 post, Kethry described how her abusive ex went one further and attempted to portray her parents as abusers.  Even after I finally left, it was only when my ex started being a problem to them that I decided to tell my folks the truth.

Expressing an explicit objection to specific behaviour is a million times better than expressing general disapproval through hints, passive aggression and excluding the abuser from family events. Perfectly nice people are sometimes ostracized by disapproving in-laws and jealous friends. Abusers are likely to lie about what has happened but "They hate me because they don't think I'm good enough for her." requires less creative spin than "They told me off because I called her a stupid bitch in front of them."

On which subject...

2. Do object to abusive behaviour when it happens in plain sight.

It is okay to make it clear when things you see and hear are not acceptable. Reacting to this stuff demonstrates that we care about our loved-ones being in a bad situation. It doesn't always mean that we can do something about what is happening, but the expression of concern matters so much.  It undermines the bubble in which the victim is living, where abuse is a  normal occurrence.

Top tips:
  • Address the abuser, if they are present.  It is their problem.  You and I know that what you say probably won't make any difference to them, but you owe it to others to treat abusers as if they are grown-ups, capable of taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to the missing stair.
  • If the victim is the only one around, give them sympathy rather than a telling-off.  I used to hear, "You shouldn't let him treat you like that." as if there was something I could and should be doing about it.  Far better was when I heard, "I'm sorry he did that. You deserve better."
  • Object to the abuse, not the abuser.  The temptation to say "Stop being such an arsehole." is best resisted in favour of "Please don't do [specific behaviour]." 
  • Be specific. For example, try to repeat the exact words they used rather than objecting to their tone or manner. Specificity makes it more difficult for the abuser to twist later on.
  • Be as brief as possible and perhaps most importantly, 
  • Don't get into an argument about it.  This is a very difficult trick, but is perhaps the most important. Abusers aren't any good at arguments, but they are pretty good at derailing them and twisting them into something else.  End the conversation with your objection.  Move on.  Either change the subject or walk away.  If you're not allowed to change the subject, walk away.
As human beings, we owe it to each other to object whenever we see bullying or mistreatment.  Sometimes someone is having a bad day, but they still need to be told.  Vulnerable people around us (to say nothing of any children present!) need to know when behaviour is not okay.

Meanwhile, when abuse happens in company and nobody says a word, it is very easy for the victim to imagine that everyone feels the same.  My ex used to lecture me on various of my supposed inadequacies in front of other people, and I realise now that usually, folk were simply too embarrassed to speak up.  It's  probably worth knowing that that's not always what it looks like. 

3. Talk about abuse.  Talk about abuse with everyone

There's a part of me that feels that, now life is so good, maybe I should stop talking about and writing about domestic violence. But quite obviously, domestic violence is a very common experience and a very damaging one.  If one person learns something which helps someone avoid or escape an abusive relationship, then it is worth rabbiting on about until the cows come home.

When I was being abused, I inevitably read or heard about domestic abuse from time to time. When I did, I found reasons why these stories were absolutely nothing like what I was going through. When friends and family told stories - even though few had any clue of my own situation - they were somehow more vivid and struck home.

Some examples of the stories I remember effecting my perspective:
  • A couple in my social circle had had a very difficult time; the girlfriend had something of a breakdown amid all manner of personal and professional pressures. During this time – which was short-lived and over by the time the boyfriend told me about it – she had verbally attacked her partner and accused him of all kinds of ridiculous things. He told me, “I learnt for the first time how a man can actually be tempted to hit a woman, but you'd have to be a complete monster to actually do it.”  I was pleased that my friends were both physically safe, and wondered why I was not. 
  •  A rather macho friend described abuse he had experienced which culminated in his being stabbed. He spun this story in a particular way – all the violence was down to the girlfriend's mental illness, and his reasons for staying with her were sympathy and concern for her safety. I don't know the truth - I really don't - but I suspected that (a) he had been manipulated, to at least some extent, in order to stick with her when she was regularly violent and (b) mental illness was a poor excuse for attacking someone once, but no excuse at all for doing it after the first time. 
  • A gay friend telling me about the abuse and violence he suffered at the hands of his ex-wife. Years later, he still partly blamed himself because he was gay and couldn't give her the kind of marriage she wanted, despite wrestling with his sexuality and undergoing a series of exorcisms (seriously) to try to straighten him out.  I was shocked that he should blame himself and while the marriage must have been a bit of a disaster, that didn't make the violence somehow more reasonable.
  •  My mother telling me the story of her young colleague coming into work, looking very upset. She said she'd broken up with her boyfriend and didn't seem to want to talk about it, but everyone rallied around to look after her. Later in the day, strengthened by the support of her colleagues, she lifted her skirt and showed the entire office a horrible bruisey carpet burn down the length of her thigh. Her boyfriend had pushed her down the stairs and so she had finished with him. I understood immediately the power of what this young woman had done and wished I had such strength. 
It's probably not a coincidence that three of these stories involve abused men.  For various reasons to do with my psychology - but probably not uncommon reasons - I have always perceived other women as being more vulnerable than I am. I tend to feel protective of other women who are in trouble, rather than relating to them (although I've got better at this). Meanwhile, the way stories of domestic violence are often told in the media and in fiction makes victims hyper-feminine; young, pretty, quiet, modest, nurturing and often from traditional backgrounds. I struggled to relate such cases to my own circumstances. 

Gender may be a fundamental factor in the way we are treated at times, but it is not a fundamental factor in life experience. This is one reason why I think it is very dangerous to talk about abuse as something that men do to women - it can alienate women, quite apart from people of any other gender. This is not to say that it's somehow sexist to discuss abuse within a specific gender dynamic. Discussing the experiences of abused women does not cause a problem for abused men - the absence of discussion about men's experience of abuse, and the very poor provisions for abused men is the problem. Similarly for people of other genders, those abused in queer relationships, adults abused by people who aren't their romantic partner and so forth.

All the stories matter for everyone's sake.

And on this subject

5. Don't be sexist

Seriously.  Almost every long-term abusive situation I have ever witnessed, heard or read about has featured gender as a weapon. This includes abuse within same-gender couples, mothers abusing daughters and fathers abusing sons.  The stereotyped flaws of men and women (e.g. men are rubbish at expressing their feelings or understanding the feelings of others), as well as stereotyped ideas about what men and women should be like (e.g. a real man never shows his emotions) provide a large and reliable arsenal of abuse available to any abuser, in any context.

Sexism is, of course, inconsistent, so these stereotypes can be applied inconsistently; one moment, I would be a disappointment as a woman, because I was fat and ugly, no good at multi-tasking and failed to meet my ex's bizarre standards of housework and tidiness. The next moment - and any time I was upset - I was chided for being a typical woman; over-emotional, unforgiving, demanding, talking too much etc.. My ex questioned my stated feelings if they contradicted what he thought a woman should or would naturally feel about sex, sexual jealousy, marriage, having children, family, friends, work and money. Sometimes he wanted me to be more like his idea of a normal woman, sometimes he wanted me to be less so.

The trouble is that these stereotypes are the foundation for lots of people's ideas about gender and certainly the basis for a lot of our humour and social bonding.  Having been looking at poems and other readings for our wedding next year, it's quite terrifying how many readings suggested for weddings, contain jokes which present men and women as creatures so inadequate and incompatible that it sounds to me like code for "This will never work out, so let's have a laugh about it while we can."

I know that lots of happy egalitarian couples make jokes about each other, playing on gender stereotypes.  Sometimes it means nothing at all.  Sometimes, it is a gentle way of negotiating one another's faults, particularly faults brought about by upbringing.  I know I am sensitive to this stuff.  But I became sensitive to this stuff, because during the years I was abused, part of my mind was always saying, "It is not fair that I should be treated this way, that I should be characterised this way and expected to perform this role." and part of my mind was saying, every time I heard so much as a sexist joke, "Well, everyone else seems to be cool with it. Even if I'm right, I'm pretty much alone on this."  This is to say nothing of jokes about domestic violence.

The same goes for all kinds of prejudice - any difference that the schoolyard bully would pick up on will be used by adult abusers.  But sexism has to be the big one that effects absolutely everyone.

6. If you are scared for someone, express your fears.

It is always a good idea to tell people you fear for exactly what you're afraid of.  At the very least, this begins a conversation the two of you need to have, even if it doesn't change their course of action.  Knowing that your loved-one has a vague sense of unease about your situation isn't much help at all (Parents really need to know this - some parents, not just mine, are very good at letting their kids know that they don't like a situation, when the kids don't have a clue what their actual concern is.)

The state of Maryland in the US have reduced their domestic homicide rates - rates that tend to remain stable over decades - by introducing a "screen" used by police officers called out to incidents of domestic violence (ht @pseudodeviant):
The first three questions concerned the most important predictors of future homicide: Has the abuser used a weapon against you? Has he threatened to kill you? Do you think he might kill you? If the woman answered yes to any of those questions, she “screened in.” If she answered no, but yes to four of the remaining eight questions, again, she was in. Among these were other, less obvious indicators of fatal violence: Has he ever tried to kill himself? Does she have a child that he knows isn’t his? 
The officer would then present her with an assessment: Others in your circumstances have been killed; help is available if you want it. If the woman agreed, an officer would dial the local shelter from a police cell phone (to prevent the abuser from finding out about the call) and hand it over. 
If you're worried that someone you love will end up badly injured or dead, let them know.  Don't catastrophise; abusers of all kinds are much more likely to commit murder than people who are not abusive, but that doesn't mean that the sister-in-law who calls your brother names is at all likely to end up killing him. She might, however, damage his self-esteem, his mental health, and will provide some very problematic messages to any children they have.  And it is okay for you to voice such a concern.

As with objecting to abuse, don't blame the victim "You'd be stupid to stay with him!", try to be specific, be brief, only say it once and make it clear that you're not going to say it again and again.  If you offer help (and it's generally a good idea to offer some very serious and flexible assistance to someone whose life you fear for), make sure that help is unconditional, with an open ended time-frame.  If you're offering to take someone in, also offer to contact refuges and support your loved-one through finding emergency accommodation elsewhere.

And make sure they know that you will continue to support them whatever they do.  It can take an abuse victim many attempts to leave an abuser. Zero-tolerance is extremely difficult. They may have false starts.  They may get scared or be moved to forgiveness and go back on their own accord.  But at no point does a person stop needing support.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Move over, Dalek

We missed Doctor Who this weekend. We were too busy living it!

I'm rather alarmed to realise that it has been four whole years since my mother last received a Dalek birthday cake, but this year has surpassed all previous attempts. The idea is that, should the Daleks be considering yet another invasion of Earth, they will see us consuming their life-like effigies without mercy and get on the first bus back to Skaro. Also, my Mum really loves Daleks.

Behold the original Dalek Cake made by my sister back in 2007.

Dalek cake!
Dalek Cake, 2007 (A terrifying brown Dalek)
Behold the Extermicake I made back in 2008.  

Dalek Cake
Extermicake 2008 (Another terrifying
brown Dalek)
I couldn't remember it was so long ago. I thought nephew Alex would have remember the two Dalek cakes, and whilst they are undoubtedly etched into his nightmares, he was only two on the last encounter.

Mum's birthday isn't for another few weeks, but since my sister, Alex and baby Sophie were coming for the weekend, Stephen and I set about making a Dalek cake so we could celebrate the birthday while we were almost all together.

Behold, Extermicake 2012:

Extermicake 2012 (A truly horrifying, slightly lopsided, brown Dalek, with terrified on-lookers)
The Dalek leans in a plaintive fashion.
Stephen and I made a cake from a made-up recipe, a bit like this one, only without the baking powder, with added instant coffee and about half the sugar was Muscovado. For the icing, I recalled how a previous fudge-making expedition had gone disastrously wrong and never truly set, so I merely repeated the mistakes I made that time to produce a kind of fudgey plaster. The plunger (technical term in Dalekology) was produced by firing a cook's blow torch at the top of a marshmallow before stabbing a chocolate finger into it.

I can't tell you how to make it stand up straight or be Dalek-shaped because we achieved neither of these objectives.

Right, I hope you paid attention to all that or how are you going to make one yourself?

See the Flickr Dalek Cake Group for more Dalek cakes - some are even better than ours! Some, however, are worse.

Baby Sophie was awake much more than when I first met her. She's a very happy baby and has begun to smile a little. I will put some photos of her up on my Flickr stream once I have organised myself.