Tuesday, November 12, 2019

An Open Letter to Deyjah Imani Harris

Dearest Precious Deyjah,

   It is odd that I, a stranger, have to write you this letter, but I am doing so because unfortunately, your private business became public due to your father's bizarre, abusive, and quite frankly disgusting decision to discuss your medical history in the public press. First of all, no parent should do that in reference to you or any child of theirs. It abrogates their very responsibilities as a parent to discuss such private matters in a public way. It shows that, at least in that moment, they have abandoned the role of a responsible parent and do not need to be treated with the normal parental deference that some folks feel that parents are entitled to. I know that you are over the age of eighteen and this is a good thing as you as not as minor in the eyes of the law and therefore your father cannot force you to undergo any medical procedures that you object to. Nonetheless, you may be looking to older adults for guidance at this time as you try to figure things out from the perspective of the media firestorm that your father has hurled you into and therefore I wanted to say a few things to you as a thirty three year old woman whose life work in large revolves around supporting and defending the bodily, medical, and sexual autonomy of younger people.

   First of all, a test for the presence of the hymen is not a medically valid test and any doctor offering or claiming to perform such a test needs to have his medical license revoked. I have heard that the main purpose of the hymen from a biological standpoint is to keep fecal, urinary, or other bodily material from entering into the vagina during the first couple of years of a baby's life and causing an infection. It has nothing to do with ensuring "virginity" or "purity" or anything of the sort. Many people don't even have a hymen to show past puberty. This is not something that a legitimate medical practitioner would wish to associate themselves with. So I would keep that in mind and consider filing some sort of report to authorities regarding any doctor that was willing to play that game with your father. The entire concept of virginity itself is a cultural, not a medical, construction and you may enjoy learning more about this sort of thing by reading Hanne Blank's book "Virgin: The Untouched History." It is an interesting book that deals with many men who view virginity in ways not dissimilar to your father, among other topics which it broaches.

   Secondly, your body belongs to you first and foremost. It is not your father's business whether or not your hymen is broken be it by masturbation, playing sports, or engaging in sexual activity with someone you are interested in. You should feel free to use your body in any consensual sexual capacity that you wish. You, like all folks your age, should also seek out birth control, STD prevention, and sexual health resources from medical professionals who have nothing to do with your family and they cannot reveal anything about you under penalty of law to them. This is your right as an American and as a woman. Your body is for your pleasure and for you to use as you see fit and your father's attitude and actions towards it are creepy, predatory, dangerous, abusive, and wrong. Your father's behavior is not normal within families in America today (although by taking the long view of history you will learn that you are by no means alone in having a father who wishes to control your body as if you were his property, which you are most definitely not). As an African-American woman, there is a lot of cultural history surrounding the control of the bodies of women of color by people other than the woman in question which you might wish to take a deeper dive into. As a white woman, I probably cannot share those particular insights with you as well as other women of color can, but many will be willing and able to do so I am sure. There are many resources available specifically for women of color in reference to sexual and reproductive health. Planned Parenthood and Scarleteen might be good general places to start looking into matters of sexual and reproductive health. SisterSong seems to be specifically interested in helping Southern women of color in this department so they may be a good resource as well. In any event, you have been caught at the crossroads of sexism, ageism, and perhaps racism through no fault of your own and there are those who are ready to help you along the way.

   The important message for you to take away from this is that your body is yours to use and enjoy however you see fit. If you want to abstain from sexual activity for any reason, that is completely fine. If you want to engage in sexual activity of any sort, that is completely fine too although there are certain responsibilities to yourself and others that go along with that, which you probably well know. What you need to realize is that you are in control of your body, medical treatment, sexuality, reproductive health, and life. You do not owe an intact hyman to your father or anyone else and it is abusive to even suggest that you do. You deserve better than this. You shouldn't have had to go through this media nightmare of your father's making. But there are many women, men, and non-binary people of all ages, colors, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds who wish to support and sustain you nonetheless. Anyone who tries to make excuses for your father's creepy and abusive behavior is dead wrong. Look out for your younger siblings in your household and do what you can to ensure that they are not subjected to the same sort of abuse that you were by your father and apparently unethical medical professionals. Do not be afraid to look outside of your family for support, wisdom, resources, guidance, help, or protection for yourself or others. Know that nothing inherent within you or anything that you did caused your father's abusive and deleterious behavior towards you. I and so many others are rooting for you. May God bless you always.


   Kathleen Nicole O'Neal

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Organizing at the Intersections of Ageism and Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry

   Eight years ago, I wrote a piece about the intersection of LGBTQ rights and ageism. A lot has changed since I wrote that post and in a sense, a lot has stayed the same. There have been wonderful gains made in terms of outlawing anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy in minors. Is this child protectionism? Is it youth liberation? I don't know, but everyone does know that previously minors could be subjected to harmful anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy on the whim of their bigoted parents and now they cannot in many states and I consider that a victory. (Although these things may not pass in the states where they are most needed.)

   We have changed the culture such that being gay is no longer the sort of thing that gets you bullied in many places. Now, you have adult and youth allies that you can contact as a young person and many people will support you if you are dealing with heterosexism or cissexism. We are making positive change.

   And yet fundamentally the issue of youth liberation is left out of the conversation. Banning anti-gay conversion therapy does not lead to a more serious intellectual and political challenge of guardianship and minor status, but it should. If young people were liberated, so many harms that the LGBTQ community fights would disappear. Young trans folks could start transitioning medically and socially as soon as it felt right for them whether or not their parents approved. LGBTQ youth bullied in school would be able to choose a different school where other students shared their values. LGBTQ youth kicked out of their familial residences could start their lives with a guaranteed basic income and no need for the support of bigoted parents. Getting rid of legal age restrictions would integrate these youth into the community faster and help them to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency. Autonomy is the goal and supports facilitate that.
In the 1970s, gay liberation and child liberation went hand in hand. We need to bring that back.

   This Pride, remember to stay radical. In the past, youth liberation was on the LGBTQ agenda just as anti-racism, feminism, and disability rights are on the agenda today. We need to bring that same mentality back today. Happy Pride!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book Review: Resistance and Hope: Essays by Disabled People Edited by Alice Wong

  I have just finished reading the anthology Resistance and Hope: Essays By Disabled People. The book's other subtitle (which I love) is "Crip Wisdom for the People." This volume is edited by Alice Wong and is a part of the Disability Visibility Project. As I have found is oftentimes the case with anthologies which emanate from the disability community, the quality of writing will vary a great deal. Some pieces simply seemed like exercises in which the writer recited the list of politically relevant identity groups to which they belonged and then sought to promote their personal projects. Other pieces were excellent. The three best pieces in the anthology were written by Shain M. Neumeier, Lydia X. Z. Brown, and Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan. I'm proud to call all of these individuals personal friends of mine, but that is not what made their work stand out to me. It was the extent to which they were able to move beyond the politics of the personal to make their work speak with urgency to the issues facing disabled individuals and disability communities now. I would also add that all three individuals are youth liberationists. Their politics is grounded in recognizing the worth of all persons and working to create liberation from there.

   Brown's piece, entitled "Rebel - Don't Be Palatable: Resisting Co-optation and Fighting for the World We Want" focuses on the ways in which our movements themselves can be draining, discriminatory, exclusionary, and oppressive. It asks the reader to think about the ways in which activist communities to which they may belong all too often reenact the same rituals of devaluation and degradation that take place within so many other spaces within our society at large. Essentially, it is problematic to treat people as disposable simply because they may have behaved inappropriately at some point in time or shared an opinion with which one or the wider movement disagrees. And yet that is so often the course of action that our movement circles take.

   The absolute highlight of the book for me was Shain M. Neumeier's article "Back Into the Fires That Forged Us." Neumeier has a way of speaking to the heart of an issue in universal terms while bringing out unique aspects and connections among issues that others may not have noticed before. The ways in which Neumeier connects notions of authoritarianism, cruelty, and the criminalization of poverty and disability under the aegis of social Darwinism is impressive and thought-provoking. Perhaps most impressive of all, despite the piece's deep dive into such disheartening territory, the essay manages to end on a meaningfully hopeful and optimistic note. Neumeier's words are inspiring in the best possible way.

   Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan's piece entitled "Who Gets To Be the Activist?" relates the story of how Rodriguez, an attorney for the National LGBTQ Task Force, found herself talking to a legislative assistant for a Congressman about the Murphy Bill, legislation which would have stripped legal protections from people with psychiatric disabilities. The legislative assistant explained to Rodriguez, "You need to understand, this is just the serious mental illnesses we're talking about. Like bipolar and schizophrenia." At this point, Rodriguez informed the legislative assistant that actually she and her partner were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At this point, of course, the legislative assistant tried to backpedal and failed miserably. This story allows Rodriguez to make the larger point that disability inclusion has to mean all disabled people or else it is meaningless. It is beautifully and poignantly written.

   The last piece in the book is by comedian Maysoon Zayid and in it she says that, prior to the Trump era, the disability community had "focused less on survival and more on battling against ableist language and for the right to run out of spoons." I do not think that this is a fair summation of all of the disability activist work I have seen going on prior to the Trump era, but there is a grain of truth in it. The best pieces in this volume speak to what is truly important in reference to disability rights.


Friday, April 12, 2019

Gypsy Rose Blanchard, "The Act," and the Problematic Assumption of Caregiver Benevolence

   Gypsy Rose Blanchard's story is an object lesson in all of the ways that ageism, ableism, sexism, and the oppressive assumption of caregiver benevolence can intertwine with our society's mores and institutions to ultimately entrap someone. For those unfamiliar with the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Wikipedia provides a good synopsis. I watched the HBO documentary that was made about the situation, but ultimately felt that it missed an opportunity to explore the ways in which ageism, ableism, and the problematic tendency to view anyone in a caregiving role as necessarily beneficent contributed to the tragedy of Gypsy Rose Blanchard's life. However, the Hulu series The Act which dramatizes the story does a much better job of exploring these elements of the story. Watching it is truly thought provoking and disturbing in ways that should make all of us think more deeply about the caregiving relationships that we are privy to in our own lives.

   Watching the scenes in which Dee Dee Blanchard speaks over her daughter, rushes to attempt to acquire a guardianship in reference Gypsy, and explains to anyone who will listen that Gypsy is "not like other girls" and "has the mind of a child," I thought of the parents of some individuals that I know with intellectual and physical disabilities that have echoed those same words and behaviors. While in these cases there is not the element of Munchausen by proxy that existed in reference to Gypsy, one nonetheless finds oneself thinking that some of these parents seem perhaps too happy to infantilize their children, that they are too quick to control their children's associations, that they are all too glad to take on the role of "benighted mother of special needs child," that they take too much pride in keeping their children dependent, ignorant, and impotent in reference to the things that matter in one's life.

   The Act is a very well made series and the acting, cinematography, music, and other elements of the production are top notch. But what makes it truly great art is the way that it forces the viewer to see that there is a bit of Dee Dee Blanchard in a lot of parents and caregivers and that there are so many ways in which our culture is complicit in the oppression of the many Gypsy Roses of the world, even when Munchausen by proxy is not necessarily a part of the equation. And of course, there are many victims of Munchausen by proxy whose torture is aided and abetted by our society's refusal to center the autonomy of youth, elders, and people with disabilities and to question the benevolence of those who would claim to speak for them (and who all too often actually speak over them). This is a powerful television series and I strongly recommend it as required viewing for all of those concerned with the issues that I blog about here.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Disabililty Day of Mourning 2019 and the Presumption of Caregiver Benevolence

Every March 1st, the disability community mourns those of us disabled people whose lives have been lost too soon, particularly those who are the victims of caregiver and familial violence due to prejudice and hatred directed towards us as a result of intolerance for our disabilities. Disabled lives are ended prematurely all too often for a variety of tragic reasons. Sometimes the issue may be the physical health problems that we live with which in some cases have the potential to cut our lives short. Sometimes the issue is a lack of funding and resources devoted to our care and welfare, which can have particularly deadly consequences for us. As was the case with the recently departed disability rights activist Carrie Ann Lucas, sometimes insurance companies and/or governmental austerity policies are at least in part to blame. Sometimes the issue is one of medical malpractice, medical neglect, medical paternalism, or even the medically sanctioned killing of disabled people, all ways in which the medical industrial complex all too frequently systematically disvalues the lives of disabled individuals with devastating consequences. However, one of the most salient causes of the death of disabled people, both disabled adults and disabled youth, that is discussed widely within the disability community but almost entirely ignored outside of the community, is the epidemic of caregiver and familial violence that disabled people face and all too often lose their lives as a result of.

   In our society, we like to think of caregivers, especially parents, as always loving, benevolent, and well meaning. We want to believe that even when they may not always do the right thing, they fundamentally want what is best for those in their care. And of course this is often the case. No one denies that many parents and caregivers for disabled and non-disabled people alike love those they care for a great deal and sacrifice a lot to try to do what is right for them. However, what we don't talk about is the reality that there are those who don't have the right attitude towards those in their care and yet wield authority over them all the same. The automatic presumption of caregiver benevolence is dangerous and deadly, particularly as its invisible and uncontested influence makes its presence felt in law, policy, and common social practices.

   According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), in the past five years six hundred and fifty disabled people have been murdered by their parents. According to ASAN's website, "We see the same pattern repeating over and over again. A parent kills their disabled child. The media portrays these murders as justifiable and inevitable due to the 'burden' of having a disabled person in the family. If the parent stands trial, they are given sympathy and comparatively lighter sentences, if they are sentenced at all. The victims are disregarded, blamed for their own murder at the hands of the person they should have been able to trust the most, and ultimately forgotten. And then the cycle repeats."

   Two major societal assumptions are at work in terms of how the media and the culture at large reacts to these events. Ableism is a major part of the equation. So is the presumption of parental and caregiver benevolence that ultimately harms disabled people of all ages as well as youth with and without disabilities. Disability and youth liberation and oppression are intimately intertwined with one another. The Disability Day of Mourning is a day that youth and disability rights advocates should take time to reflect deeply on these connections, mourn for the victims of violence justified in the name of ableism and paternalism, and recommit ourselves to working for a more just world for both disabled people of all ages and for youth with and without disabilities. This is what understanding intersectionality is truly all about. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Review: Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex

  In the course of doing research for my own book project on youth rights issues, I have been reading voraciously about a wide variety of youth related topics. As I read these books, I am trying to review as many of them as possible here on The Youth Rights Blog so that readers of the blog can get a sense of the literature that is out there on these topics, what various works have to offer, and where they fall short. Today's review regards independent journalist, scholar, and activist Judith Levine's 2002 book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. While some of the material in the book is now dated and is therefore clearly a product of its time (particularly the material which refers to then widespread and current youth attitudes regarding issues of gender and sexual orientation as well as some likely no longer accurate statistics on various topics), much of the material within the book is as relevant as ever. You could write an entire book about any given domain of youth oppression - the juvenile justice system, youth oppression within the medical industrial complex, problems with the PreK-12 education system, youth oppression and abuse within the family, the moral bankruptcy of the notion of parental rights, etc. - and this is essentially what Levine does in Harmful to Minors, zeroing in on the myriad ways in which youth sexuality is repressed, policed, controlled, pathologized, shamed, stigmatized, and restricted and the myriad harms that this causes to youth and often to adults as well. Levine is a good writer and Harmful to Minors is a powerful book.

   On the whole, Harmful to Minors is an excellent work of youth liberation theory that succeeds in portraying and theorizing in a right thinking way about the wickedness and devastation wrought by decades of moral panics surrounding sexual issues pertaining to young people coupled with wide ranging rollbacks of youth freedom in matters sexual and non-sexual alike that have resulted from these seemingly never ending moral panics. Few people are able to grasp the central tenet of youth liberation theory - that child abuse and child protectionism are in actuality two sides of the same coin. Even fewer individuals are able to communicate this truism clearly to others while talking about such highly charged topics as age of consent laws, moral panics concerning pedophilia, and HIV/AIDS. Levine, however, is able to do both of these things and does them very well in this book.

   All of that being said, I do have a few minor criticisms of this work. I think that it is important that Levine's focus on youth sexual rights be situated in a somewhat wider youth liberationist context than she gives them in most of the book. Towards the end of the book, Levine does tie her focus on youth sexual rights in with the larger issue of youth as autonomous citizens and community members, but I think that it would have been better if that perspective had been more obviously present from the beginning of the work and had more clearly informed it throughout. Youth sexual rights are important in part because they are inextricably bound up with a larger web of issues involving youth rights to bodily autonomy and personal self determination. I think that Levine recognizes that, but she could have made this point much clearer and she could have done so much earlier on in the work, thus deflecting the criticism that her interest in promoting youth sexual autonomy is somehow prurient.

   Finally, I felt that Levine's chapter on abortion rights was altogether too blase about the ethical and personal dilemmas raised by the issue of abortion for individuals of any age. And while Levine seemed to take the view that any adolescent who found herself pregnant would be all to eager to have an abortion and that this would be the right decision for most youth in that situation, she ignored the choice that many youth make to parent and did not speak at all to the rights and interests of young parents stigmatized by our society's negative discourses surrounding teenage pregnancy and parenting. I think that this was a major missed opportunity and a mistake. Reproductive justice and liberty, including for young folks, is not about enforcing a one size fits all agenda or glossing over the real and challenging issues raised for an individual of any age who thinks about electively terminating a viable pregnancy.

   Having voiced my criticisms of Harmful to Minors, I want to end this review by saying unequivocally that it is an excellent work of youth liberationist theory and that everyone interested in youth liberation issues needs to read it. A great deal of what Levine has to say will no doubt inform my own work on youth rights issues in reference to sexuality going forward.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Conference Presentation and a Distillation of Why I Am an Unapologetic Radical Youth Liberationist

Jackson Howard Wagner, me, and Alexander R. Cohen. Great friends and comrades.
   Back in November, I had the privilege of attending the wonderful Applied Philosophy Workshop at Bowling Green State University. On Saturday, November 3, 2018, I gave a presentation at this conference entitled "In Defense of Liberated Young People: A Critique of the Protectionist Developmentalist Position." The talk went really well and I could tell that folks were nodding along and understanding the message that I was trying to convey. The information that I presented was mostly taken from the Master's thesis that I wrote on this very topic (and which I am proud to say was given the honor of "passing with distinction" from my graduate committee) as a graduate student at San Francisco State University. My wonderful youth liberationist friends and comrades Alexander Cohen and Jackson Howard Wagner were there and they really helped to make this conference presentation a truly wonderful experience.

   After my presentation, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University was tasked with delivering a response to the material. At first, I thought he was raising some good points that I wanted to respond to, but he closed his remarks in a dismissive and flippant way by saying "What if teenagers are running off to the mall in their bikinis to get tattoos on their faces?" I had five minutes to respond and this is basically what I said after setting a timer on my iPhone.

   "The presenter that we just heard from raised some good points and I want to thank him for his response. However, he said one thing in particular that I wanted to respond to. He talked about teenagers in bikinis going to the mall to get tattoos on their faces. Well, I know a lot of young people and I don't know any that are clamoring to go to the mall in bikinis to get facial tattoos, although I suppose that that would be their right if that is something that they wanted to do. But here is what I do know about. I know about youth that are abused within their homes physically, emotionally, and/or sexually by their families and are returned to those very families when they attempt to run away. I know about youth who have been sent by their parents to gulag schools for behavior modification that traumatized them for life. I know about youth who are not allowed to express their gender or sexuality within their family and as a result they are oppressed and abandoned with no options. I know about youth subjected to medical procedures against their wills who have been traumatized for life by that. I know about youth who are bullied or mistreated in schools and do not have the option to choose other educational institutions. I know about youth who are in schools that are just not a good fit for them and where they are just not thriving as they should be and they do not have the option to make a change. I know about youth subjected by family members to behavior modification programs which traumatized and pathologized them. I know about youth who were denied freedom of conscience in reference to religion and spirituality, which is such a sacrosanct value in our society. I know about youth indoctrinated into racism, sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism by their families. I know about families that want to break up loving relationships involving youth because of the partners' ages, race, or sex. So, I do not know about teenagers in bikinis at the mall getting facial tattoos but that is what I do know about."

   After that statement, everyone clapped and I sat down, knowing that I had given the right response to my interlocutor's words. We cannot allow youth rights issues to be trivialized. They are too important not to do so.
Me and my wonderful host, Kathryn Gonda, at the Bowling Green State University Philosophy Conference.