November 04, 2009

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As both a committed ally to LGBT people and an avowed fan of hip-hop music, I often find myself at odds with the unfortunate waves of homophobic language that tend to pop up in rap. Of course, this is not to say that all rappers are homophobic--that would be an irresponsible exaggeration--but certainly enough to make me pause and reflect every once in a while. Since hip-hop remains such a huge cultural force amongst youth today, I'll be exploring various facets of hip-hop culture and homophobia in a series of blog posts--and hopefully raising important questions about how sexuality, race and gender all play important roles in shaping popular youth culture.

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"It's crazy how you can go from being Joe Blow / to everybody on your dick...no homo."
-Kanye West, "Run This Town"
A recent Slate article cites these words to outline a broader lyrical shift that Kanye has taken in his short 5 years in the limelight. In 2005, in two separate interviews, 'Ye bemoaned his fellow hip-hop artists who discriminate against LGBT people and expressed his love and support for his openly gay cousin while recognizing his need to confront his own homophobia. As the article notes, "West's call for tolerance remains the highest-profile rebuke of gay-bashing that hip-hop has seen."

In recent years, however, Kanye and several other rappers have embraced the use of the term "no homo," a poetic aside meant to distance the artist from any lyrics that may sound homoerotic. Similar to the often-heard quip "that's what she said," the phrase "no homo" attempts to make sexual double entendres out of everyday language.

However, artists will use "no homo" not only to poke fun at certain sexual acts, but also at forms of gender identity/expression that may not be seen as "manly" or "masculine." In one of his songs, Lil' Wayne raps "I wear bright red like a girl toe, no homo." Whether to stress that wearing bright red isn't "gay," or that he doesn't paint his toenails, Lil Wayne is defending a certain brand of his masculinity by denying any "gay" undertones.

As Jonah Weiner mentions in the article, "no homo" is nothing new: it arose nearly two decades ago in East Harlem, but came into widespread use in recent years when popularized by a handful of well-known artists. Weiner recognizes the homophobia inherent within the term--as well as its relationship to an artist's desire to boast himself as heterosexual and manly--but also asks the reader to consider the nuances with the term and its use.

For one, Weiner suggests that most rappers use "no homo" not to express some homophobic principle, but rather to tout a punchline, to flaunt their dexterity with the English language. "A funny side effect here," he notes, "is that the no homo vogue doubtless encourages rappers not only to scrutinize everything they say for trace gayness, but to actively think up gay double-entendres just so that they can cap them off with no homo kickers." In his concluding paragraph, Weiner notes Lil Wayne and Kanye West's own departures from a rigidly-defined masculinity--such as Lil Wayne's displays of affection for his (male) mentor, and Kanye's open affinity for design and fashion--to suggest that their use of "no homo" is more complex than outright homophobia:
When these rappers say "no homo," it can seem a bit like a gentleman's agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity. This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we've seen before. It's far from a coup, but, in a way, it's progress.

Certainly, hip-hop has seen worse. Eminem has continually defended his use of the term "faggot" not as gay-bashing, but as a way to shame and emasculate his targets: "'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means... taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward." Be that as it may (and Grammy duets with Elton John aside), Eminem still conflates the word "faggot" as an insult to denote someone as effeminate or abnormal.

There is a striking similarity between Em's claims and the idea that "that's so gay" can refer to something as "stupid" or "bad" without ever introducing the idea of homophobia. In both cases, people may not intend to reproduce bigotry, but nevertheless leave the door wide open for the use of anti-LGBT language--and certainly do not denounce the disturbing levels of violence and intimidation that LGBT people, particularly students, face daily.

"No homo" may not be as used to intentionally express homophobia, nor is it as pervasive and shocking as other homophobic slurs, but does that make it okay to use? Journalist Jay Smooth breaks down his take on the term on his fantastic blog, Ill Doctrine (Facebook folks, click on the link, because Facebook can't support embedded video):

Jay brings up several good points: "no homo" (which he calls a "sad, old thing") can be used cleverly and is sometimes used to ridicule homophobia itself, but he chooses not to use the term, because it can get out of hand. His conclusion: "I'm not gonna say that nobody should ever say it, 'cause just like with any other word you've really gotta judge on a case-by-case basis...but as a general rule, if you're not the original target of an insult, you can't be the one to reclaim it."

GLSEN's perspective is that "no homo" isn't an acceptable term, regardless of the circumstance. Just like "that's so gay," "no homo" associates LGBT and gender non-conforming people with something bad or negative, because the speaker makes the effort to clarify that he/she doesn't want to be seen as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There's also plenty of ways to be witty or clever with words without denigrating someone's sexual orientation or gender identity/expression!
And, I'd really like to stress that hip-hop isn't inherently homophobic--just like any other subset of the wider population, there are a spectrum of prevailing views about LGBT issues among hip-hop artists and it's important to embrace the personal and political changes that people make. Case in point: one of my favorite artists, the Minnesotan rapper Brother Ali, admitted his own past mistakes: "In my old [music], I was so ignorant to the hell that gay people are put through because they're deemed to be different...I said the word 'faggot' in my first album, and I'm so thoroughly embarrassed by that now. I have gay friends and gay people I look up to."
His recent album, Us, even addresses the emotional stress that closeted teens can go through when faced with the social pressures around them. Check out the song "Tight Rope" (skip to about 2:30):

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He retreats inside himself
Where he lives life itself in secret
Daddy says people go to hell for being
What he is, and he certainly believes him
'Cause there ain't no flame that can blaze enough
To trump being hated for the way you love
And cry yourself to sleep and hate waking up
It's a cold world, y'all, shame on us!
What do you think? Is "no homo" ever an acceptable term to use? Does it matter that many of its users don't necessarily intend to be homophobic?

Stay tuned until next time, where we'll explore other facets of hip-hop, homophobia, and youth culture!
November 02, 2009

>A note from GLSEN Public Policy Director Shawn Gaylord on the passage of an anti-bullying policy in Birmingham schools that includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity/expression:

I was so excited to see this news from Alabama. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition gathering and was so aware of the difficulty safe schools organizers face working in some of the more conservative areas of the country. Seeing progress like this in Alabama, as well as last year’s statewide gay and transgender-inclusive anti-bullying law in North Carolina, proves that there are opportunities for safe schools victories everywhere, and I am grateful for the work of Howard, the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition and everyone working to make this a reality.

As we know, enumerated anti-bullying policies are essential to creating a truly safe environment for LGBT youth and having a generic policy is about the same as having no policy at all. Congratulations to Howard for his work to make schools safer for all youth in Birmingham.

November 02, 2009

>Great news from Alabama! Last week, Birmingham's Board of Education passed two critical pieces of legislation affecting city schools. The first policy--the most comprehensive anti-bullying policy in the state of Alabama--includes enumerated categories specifically protecting students against bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The second policy protects LGBT teachers from harassment as well.

The policies were passed largely due to the efforts of Board Member Howard Bayless, the first openly gay man in Alabama to hold an elected position and the first openly gay school board member. Bayless recalls the tireless efforts he put into ensuring that the bills would be passed:
I first gathered anti-bullying policies from multiple school districts that I felt encompassed what we needed in our policy, and then drafted a policy for Birmingham schools. I then began the long process of having conversation with each board member about why this was important not just as a board policy but also about why it was the right thing to do. I told them my own story of growing up in Birmingham City Schools and being harassed and bullied–and how I carried that pain with me still today. I also helped them to understand how that impacted me and my education. As part of a broader strategic planning process, my fellow board members all agreed that we wanted safer school environments for ALL our children.
This is especially good news, considering the alarmingly high rates of anti-LGBT bullying in schools throughout the South. According to data from GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey, students in the South:
  • heard biased remarks more frequently and experienced higher levels of victimization in relation to sexual orientation than students in other regions
  • were less likely than all other students to report that staff frequently intervened when hearing homophobic remarks
  • reported higher levels of other forms of victimization--because of their race, sex, and religion--than students in other regions
We hope that Birmingham's new comprehensive anti-bullying policy serves as a model to school boards across the South, and the entire country, to protect the safety and well-being of ALL their students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Thanks to Howard Bayless and the Birmingham Board of Education, and keep up the good work!
November 02, 2009

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GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard (L) and Sirdeaner Walker traveled to Washington DC to urge members of Congress to advocate for and advance comprehensive anti-bullying and LGBT-inclusive policies.
Last week, Congress passed historic legislation that provides the first federal protections for LGBT Americans. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act sends a strong message that anti-LGBT violence will not be tolerated in our society and our schools.
In the next few weeks Congress will continue work on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in both the House and Senate. ENDA will extend prohibitions against employment discrimination to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
In addition to supporting efforts that protect students, educators and all Americans from anti-LGBT violence and discrimination, GLSEN continues to work with Congress to explicitly protect students from anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. The Safe Schools Improvement Act will require schools and districts receiving certain federal funding to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that enumerates categories often targeted by bullies, including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and others.
Learn more about the SSIA and how you can take action to support this critical bill.
October 31, 2009

>Pumpkin art by Community Initatives Associate Kiwi Grady:

October 30, 2009

>Regarding Elizabeth's post, I just want to point out that Corruna School Board Treasurer James Lockwood does not speak for all tall, white men.

October 28, 2009

>Good news from MI tonight via Todd Heywood of the Michigan Messenger.

A local Shiawassee County school board plans to hold a meeting as soon as Monday to rescind a decision it made Oct. 23 to order the removal of an extracurricular club display honoring gay history month.

“We have violated the First Amendment rights of the students and the Diversity Club,” Maureen Stanley, president of the Corunna Board of Education, said. “We limited their expression.”

Kudos to the ACLU for informing the school board it was violating the law (several, actually).
Todd spoke to GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard on the phone on Tuesday regarding the situation and again today through email.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the national group Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network, said Tuesday she was very worried about the message the board move sent to students, even after the announcement the decision would be rescinded.

In an e-mail Wednesday, Byard wrote: “We thank the school board for recognizing the damage its decision has done to creating an educational environment where difference is valued and respected.”

At the same time, Byard said, she hoped the board would consider the importance of encouraging diversity in educational settings, saying, “While the clear violations of the law stopped them short, the board members should also be taken aback by the educational impoverishment of a curriculum that erases facets of our common history and the reality of life in a diverse society.”

Anti-LGBT bullying is a pervasive problem in Michigan schools, according to a GLSEN research brief based on data from Michigan students who took the 2007 National School Climate Survey. The brief found that 87% of Michigan LGBT students experienced harassment in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation and nearly two-thirds (66%) of those students never reported the harassment to school staff.
October 28, 2009

>GLSEN applauds President Obama and Congress on this historic day for recognizing the critical need to ensure that investigations of biased-motivated violence based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and disability, among the most frequent forms of hate crimes, receive the same federal support as other forms of biased-motivated violence. According to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey, 22.1% of LGBT students were physically assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 14.2% because of their gender expression. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act sends a strong message that anti-LGBT violence will not be tolerated in our society and our schools.

October 27, 2009

>Autumn Sandeen has a great blog post at Pam's House Blend about an article in the November issue of Seventeen Magazine, "My Boyfriend Turned Out to be a Girl."

While transphobia obviously is nothing new in the media, it is rather shocking to see such a blantant example in the decision to publish this article without any perspective of what it is like to be a transgender youth. As Autumn points out, via GLSEN's research report on the experiences of trangender students in school, Harsh Realities:

  • Two-thirds of transgender students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (69%) and how they expressed their gender (65%).
  • Almost all transgender students had been verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year at school because of their sexual orientation (89%) and gender expression (87%).
  • More than half of all transgender students had been physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (55%) and gender
    expression (53%).
  • More than a quarter of transgender students had been physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (28%) and gender expression (26%).
  • Most transgender students (54%) who were victimized in school did not report the events to school authorities. Among those who did report incidents to school personnel, few students (33%) believed that staff addressed the situation effectively.

Seventeen has previously written positively about the Day of Silence and written an article about a former GLSEN national student leader, but after this article it's hard to defend the publication's record on LGBT youth unless they try to make things right and publish a story about the issues and harassment facing transgender youth (with a positive portrayal of a trans youth, of course).

Short of that, even an apology isn't good enough.

A Facebook group has started to encourage a letter writing campaing. Go join and tell your friends.

Queerty also has a good blog post.

October 27, 2009

>Autumn Sandeen has a great blog post at Pam's House Blend about an article in the November issue of Seventeen Magazine, "My Boyfriend Turned Out to be a Girl."

While transphobia obviously is nothing new in the media, it is rather shocking to see such a blantant example in the decision to publish this article without any perspective of what it is like to be a transgender youth. As Autumn points out, via GLSEN's research report on the experiences of trangender students in school, Harsh Realities:

  • Two-thirds of transgender students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (69%) and how they expressed their gender (65%).
  • Almost all transgender students had been verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year at school because of their sexual orientation (89%) and gender expression (87%).
  • More than half of all transgender students had been physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (55%) and gender
    expression (53%).
  • More than a quarter of transgender students had been physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation (28%) and gender expression (26%).
  • Most transgender students (54%) who were victimized in school did not report the events to school authorities. Among those who did report incidents to school personnel, few students (33%) believed that staff addressed the situation effectively.

Seventeen has previously written positively about the Day of Silence and written an article about a former GLSEN national student leader, but after this article it's hard to defend the publication's record on LGBT youth unless they try to make things right and publish a story about the issues and harassment facing transgender youth (with a positive portrayal of a trans youth, of course).

Short of that, even an apology isn't good enough.

A Facebook group has started to encourage a letter writing campaing. Go join and tell your friends.

Queerty also has a good blog post.

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