art, gender, photography, stereotypes, violence

THE TRANSGENDER BODY IN ART

The Guardian

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Captain Wright, one of the subjects in transgender artist Ria Brodell’s paintings, lived until his death in 1834 with Mrs Wright and an abundance of rabbits. They were “respectable gentlefolks”, according to Brodell’s extensive research. When Captain Wright died, his neighbors were astonished to learn that he had a body that would be assigned as female. Demoted to a “creature” by the newspaper, his body attracted a crowd of curious spectators. Captain Wright is one in Brodell’s series Butch Heroes, which reimagines historic men who were assigned as female in the format of Catholic holy cards. The portraits – some of which are currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle as part of the show Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects – are touching and amusing at times. They speak eloquently to the fraught history and present of the transgender community.

It’s an interesting moment for trans art in the US, as arts organizations large and small are finally bringing recognition to an ingenuous people and powerful movement. The Museum of the City of New York features Gay Gotham, a show that chronicles queer creative networks in 20th-century New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art is in the process of nearly doubling its footprint. It also recently created the Hunter O’Hanian Diversity Art Fund to collect artworks from primarily female and transgender artists. Yet Donald Trump’s election has given the LGBTQ community new reasons to fear for their safety. Mike Pence advocates for “gay conversion therapy” and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would give businesses and landlords the right to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Since the election, 43 anti-LGBTQ incidents have already been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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racism, stereotypes

Black, Jewish, and Adopted

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Illustration by Eric Mace

An article I wrote about what’s gained and lost in ‘cultural identity’ and religion when families decide to adopt across race lines just up on Tablet Magazine:

“What am I going to say to mom?” Lin asked her sister Martha. It was 1987, and Lin and her husband Peter had decided to adopt a black baby. A sculptor who carves and assembles wooden knots, bridges, and ladders, Lin was raised in an open-minded secular Jewish home. But she wasn’t certain how her mother would react to the prospect of having a black grandchild. “Tell her about adoption first,” Martha advised. “Give her a couple of weeks to let it sink in, and then talk to her about race.”

A short, wiry woman with untamed curly hair, Lin remembers calling her mother. “We’re going to adopt children but it will take a while.” Her mother’s response surprised her. “Not if you adopt black children!”

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criminal justice, discussion, prison, stereotypes

Beyond Punishment

Check out this audio-visual project that focuses on sharing individual stories from the restorative justice movement in the United States. Started by five Middlebury College students in the Spring of 2013, Beyond Justice offers a nuanced look at the ways individuals are challenging traditional approaches to punishment through narrative.

Beyond Justice

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criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.

Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.

Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading

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literary journalism, outsiders, reading, review, stereotypes

Of Long-Winded Female Writers and Role Models

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Just out on The Hairpin (very fitting considering the title of this blog):

One recent morning I awoke cranky and tired due to one too many Cosmos and a third night of insomnia. My first book was published a few months ago and I naively thought I would finally have some time to relax, some time for “pure happiness.” But it suddenly seemed like the real work had only begun. For months now I’ve been struggling with… let’s call it exhaustion. Yet again the difficult question loomed: how do we writers experience and accept obstacles without being buried alive?

As I sat on the couch griping, my husband tossed me The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), an old-time New Yorker writer of the kind they don’t make anymore. Or if they do, theNew Yorker doesn’t publish them.

“You’ll love it,” he said. This would not be a workday, I resolved guiltily. I grabbed the book and one of the cats and went back to bed, sulking.

I was surprised to catch glimpses of an answer to my question in Brennan’s short sketches of life in New York, the city she called “half-capsized (…) with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.” Somehow her short profiles of the invisible, the fragile, the mean, the lost and the lonely—the seen-but-immediately-forgotten—lifted my mood. They are the types we run into on the subway or at the bodega, mostly bypassing them, the way we try to bypass our own opaque emotions. In Brennan’s work a broken heel, a sudden rainstorm, a collapsed stranger, provide a window into her complex inner and outer worlds.

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fantasies, gender, mental illness, outsiders, prison, stereotypes

Gender Swap

If you do a lot of reporting at society’s margins—namely prisons, halfway houses and psychiatric institutions—the importance of fantasy to your subjects becomes painfully evident. Talking to prisoners and mental patients I have learned to appreciate their fantasies. Sometimes I envy them. For example, one of my subjects always talks about food he would like to eat. He has never been out of the country and he frequently asks me about German and Austrian cuisines. We talk about different dishes until our mouths water.

Inspired by my conversations with outsiders, last semester I assigned a gender-switch essay to my freshman students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. I asked the girls to imagine themselves as boys and vice versa, and to write about the constraints and freedoms of the opposite sex.

The male students hated the assignment. “I almost cringed because being called a woman is considered an insult to me and to many other guys I know,” one boy wrote in a typical response. “If I was forced to be a girl for a day I really have no idea what I would do cause I like doing the things I do now as a guy, I like going to the gym, playing sports and eating as much as I want without the worry of being called fat.” I didn’t know what I should be more worried about: the boy’s gender stereotypes or his run-on sentences. Most boys were so resistant that I hardly got them to write at all.

To be fair, there was one exception: the brave gay student who, after we read Terrence McNally’s play “Andre’s Mother,” decided to come out to his close-minded Philippine parents. In his essay he reveled in fantasies about maxing out his credit card at Victoria Secret, trying out tampons and eating Nutella while on his (or her?) period.

All of my female students said they often felt constrained by their gender and by the expectations tied to it. They had to be home earlier than their younger brothers, were expected to be more chaste and were forced to do more chores around the house. The girls were also sick of the prospect of earning less than their male counterparts—a topic we had explored a couple of weeks earlier.

Most of the girls’ essays made me sad. But there was one that made me laugh out loud. The girl, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to imagine herself in her brother’s skin and mind for a day. With her permission I edited her essay and submitted it to the college’s literary magazine, The Underground.

It begins like this:

If I Were a Boy

My name is Leonardo Vasquez, but my friends call me Trump. I’m a light-skinned Dominican. I stand at 5’11 and the ladies love my light eyes. The first thing I did this morning around six AM was text all my ladies a good-morning message. I make them feel special but in reality I have a chick for every day of the week. I mean, what do you expect? I am young, handsome and I live on my own. I have a main bitch in my life, my Siberian Husky Amber.

To read the whole essay click on the image below.

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