Masterpost of My Current Beliefs about Queer Identities

I’ve posted somewhat often over the past few years about queer identities and the issues surrounding them. I think it might be useful to try and gather together my thoughts and offer a mostly comprehensive explanation of my beliefs.

Let me be clear: I have very strong beliefs and principles around this—fundamental value buttons—so I’ll do my best to lay out my perspective as clearly as I can. Forgive me if this gets long-winded. Brevity may be the soul of wit but it’s not the soul of precision nor comprehensive and nuanced understanding.

Keeping up with the vocabulary is one of the biggest challenges of committing to being a queer ally and accomplice, which is something I’ve commitment myself to. The vocabulary around queer identities is in a state of flux and changes frequently. Culture evolves, politics change, movements coalesce and grow and fracture, visibility and acceptance waxes and wanes, and language changes concomitantly. It’s also worth noting that the “queer community” isn’t a monolith and there’s disagreement between queer folk about what words should be used and what they should mean.

Part of the challenge is that English has a poverty of words sufficient to describe the variety of queer experiences. We have to make due with many words that aren’t quite good enough, or try to convince people to accept new words we invent. Neither option is ideal. We do the best we can.

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Grammar Doesn’t Matter

A Rant about the Arguments over “They/Them” Pronouns

Once again, I see arguments online about the grammaticality of the singular “they/them” pronoun. People yelling that it can’t be singular and using it that way is just confusing and it’s therefore illegitimate, followed by people illuminating the history of the word and pointing out that language changes all the time anyway and citing numerous examples of how easy singular “they” is to understand in practice. I, myself, have done the latter on multiple occasions. And I’ve come to the following conclusion:

This is all bullshit distraction. The grammar DOES NOT MATTER.

Trans youth are at the highest risk of suicide of any group in our country. When trans youth have adults in their lives who support and affirm their chosen gender identity, their risk of suicide drops by half.

Using people’s preferred pronouns can help save lives.

Trans folk of all ages are at elevated risk of violence, suicide, employment discrimination, healthcare discrimination, homelessness, and incarceration. When communities support and affirm trans identities these risks are substantially reduced.

Using people’s preferred pronouns can help save lives.

I don’t give a shit about grammar. People’s lives are at stake.

If you’re more concerned about grammar than the lives and well-being of actual people, your position is morally indefensible.

I personally found the singular “they/them” confusing at first. It contradicts a lifetime of grammatical conditioning and it took time for me to get used to it. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever not be confused by of most of the newly invented gender-neutral pronouns that have been introduced over the past few years. I’m afraid of messing them up. I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone if I get their pronouns wrong, and I’m afraid of how people might judge me for my mistakes.

My confusion doesn’t matter.

If using preferred pronouns can help a trans kid turn away from contemplating suicide, I’ll do it whether I understand the language or not. If using preferred pronouns helps a trans person feel accepted and affirmed, I’ll do it. If using preferred pronouns contributes even in some small way to building a more accepting and supportive culture, one which materially improves the lives of people and reduces suicide rates, then HELL YES I’ll do it. I have a moral obligation to do it.

I don’t give a shit how confusing it is.

There’s no morally defensible position which can hold my personal confusion as more important than the lives and well-being of other people. Pronouns may confuse me but they don’t do me any actual harm. If using them can materially improve the lives of trans individuals, then I’m happy to be confused.

We need to stop engaging with arguments about grammar. Engaging in this allows TERFs and transphobes to control the terms of the argument. It grants de facto legitimacy to an anti-trans platform that should never be legitimized. It’s a distraction and a sidetrack and we keep falling for it. We have to stop.

People’s lives and well being will always matter more than any concerns about grammar.

Anyone who argues about the grammar of pronouns for trans folk has no legitimate argument to make.

Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

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The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:

Continue reading “The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice”

On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

The opinions and positions expressed on this blog are always my own and should never be assumed to express the opinions or positions of my employer nor any other party other than myself.

I want to talk about something that happened where I work and how it changed my perspective. I want to talk about some lessons learned.

My employer, the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas, has furloughed 58% of our staff. We did this as part of a wider furlough strategy undertaken by the Johnson County Government.

I support this course of action. I think this was the right decision both for our staff and for the library as an organization. No one has lost their jobs. Everyone remains employed and retains their health insurance and other benefits. All furloughed staff are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Many of you read and responded positively to a tweet thread I posted last month near the beginning of this pandemic, in which I very strongly expressed my opposition to any form of unpaid leave or layoffs for staff. The fact that I now support furloughing JCL staff probably screams of hypocrisy.

I want to explain why I changed my mind. For all my grandstanding on principle and my moral certainty, this is a complex situation which makes practical action messier than I want to admit. I’m a big fan of lessons learned and I learned some difficult ones through this.

Continue reading “On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind”

The Case for Reading Fiction

I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.

The Case for Reading Fiction” by Christine Seifert
Published by Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020

I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.

I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.

And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.

But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:

I told you so!

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A Selfish Argument for Diverse Stories

I made a choice over the past several years to mostly abandon mainstream SF and seek out work by and for people from other countries and cultures, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA2+ people, minorities, etc.

I’ve had a couple conversations recently which have challenged me to examine this choice more deeply and articulate the reasons why I made it.

It has a great deal to do with my commitment to diversity and building empathy. I support #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Sharing stories is how we forge understanding and respect. I want to embody this belief in my personal reading choices.

But I also have a more selfish reason: my own personal entertainment.

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Cultures of Storytelling

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson
Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology
edited by Hope Nicholson
Bedside Press, 2016

I’ve made it a point over the past several years to seek out SF written by people from other countries and cultures, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA2 people, minorities, etc. The most recent book I read was Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology. I was discussing it with a friend and he asked me:

“Are the stories any good?”

I had been talking about the Two Spirit and queer authors and characters, the Indigenous settings and perspectives, the prefatory material which lay out the history and politics and which argue the need for stories like these—the important context surrounding these stories—and my friend noticed I wasn’t talking much about the stories themselves. Thus, his question.

I fumbled a bit to answer. Yes, some are good, a few excellent, some just OK. I voiced my belief that there’s benefit to reading stories like these even if they’re not good: I appreciate these works because of what they can teach me, how they challenge my assumptions and show me very different experiences and understandings of the world.

But the truth is also this: I don’t always know whether the stories I read are any good. I’m not always qualified to assess the quality of these works.

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Drag Queen Story Times in Public Libraries

NOTE: Everything on this blog is an expression of my personal opinions and not those of my employer. It’s especially important to keep this in mind for this post.

Drag Queen Story Times in public libraries are causing quite a lot of controversy lately. The most important thing for me is to state as clearly as I can:

I am an ally.

I do not believe it’s legitimate to cancel these programs because of the prejudices of some members of a community. It’s discriminatory. Public libraries have an obligation to represent all members of our community, which includes LGBTQIA+ folk.

It also includes representing those people who are offended by the drag queen story times. But when you cancel one at the behest of the other, you’re de facto showing preference for the people who are offended.

Some people argue this the other way around: if you go through with a drag queen story time, are you not de facto showing preference for the queens over those who are offended by them?

For me, the answer lies in who’s doing harm.

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Book Review: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
by Maryanne Wolf
Harper, 2018

I picked up this book expecting an exploration of the neuroscience and physiology of the effects of reading on the brain, and how reading in print and digital formats differ. I got that, and so much more.

Wolf presents a balanced account of the different effects of different mediums, both negative and positive, and how we might use this knowledge to do better for our children and ourselves. It’s a welcome perspective.

It’s also a deeply humanist and moral meditation of the capacities of the human mind and the importance of storytelling. It’s a clarion call to fulfill the responsibility we all bear toward our fellow human beings and to the future. This is a work of tremendous empathy and passion.

It may well be one of the most important works of our age.

Continue reading “Book Review: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf”