Thursday, April 14, 2011

Common threads

The French parliament banned the wearing of face-covering Islamic veiling--the niqab and the burqa--and French Muslim women were arrested for wearing that attire in a protest for their right to dress and express their religious beliefs as they wished.

A designer for a clothing company appeared in a fashion spread with her young son. It contained a photograph of her painting her smiling son's toenails bright pink, and that picture became one of those news-network nontroversies that revealed oh, so much about the speakers.

A man was beaten very close to death for wearing his San Francisco Giants jersey to the Los Angeles Dodgers' home opener. As if the fact that he remains comatose isn't bad enough, on Sunday, a sports columnist took it upon himself to blame the victim for wearing that jersey at all, then express a grievance about most sports fans.

There are common threads in each of those stories, no pun intended. In each case, someone is being attacked or punished for their clothing choices. I've discussed this before, years ago, in this post. I feel the need to discuss it again.

My wife, L'Ailee, is particularly sensitive to the significance of others' clothing and accessory choices, and has imparted that sensitivity to me. She literally majored in fashion design. Although she doesn't use the degree in the way she intended, she considers fashion an art form and painstakingly assembles the outfit--the self--she'll present to the world before she goes out. Someone will disapprove of the Team Russia Olympics t-shirt, the red lipstick, the sharply tailored gray sheath dress, the heady cologne, the exposed bat tattoos on her arm, the diamond stud in her left nostril.

She maintains her right to wear whatever she wants in whatever combination she wants. When she grew up in the dying days of the Soviet Union, she was punished for such acts as daring to embroider flowers onto her school uniform shirt. Later, in an elite New York City high school where she also wore a uniform, three changes were made to the dress code thanks to her. She states that with sincere pride.

When we watch news footage from Muslim-majority countries, she's taught me to note how the women are dressed. If there aren't any women at all, we're most likely looking at an extremely totalitarian nation. If the women are swathed head to toe in black, with their faces obscured or invisible, that's also an awful sign for the entire nation. We were encouraged by the sight of bright headscarves, exposed hair, jeans, and calf-exposing skirts on the female Egyptian protestors recently. We've been told that we're shallow and looking at the wrong things. However, in totalitarian regimes, the way a person--most often, a female and/or young person--looks becomes extremely important, so much so that violations of appearance standards are met with physical punishments and arrests. If it's important to tyrants, it becomes important to the rest of us.

That said, we find France's ban on face veiling as distressing as mandated face veiling in other nations. I can see reasons to ask a woman to remove that veil--for instance, for her driver's license picture, because part of its purpose is to verify identity. However, the reason France ordered a tiny minority of a minority to remove these veils was to express anti-Muslim bigotry. They are a secular nation, they claim, and want all citizens to live by their secular values. Nevermind that sometimes people cover their faces for secular reasons, such as illness or extreme cold. Like governments that order all women to cover their faces, heads, ankles, etc., France decided that their "right" to inflict their standards onto citizens was more important than citizens' right to express themselves freely through their clothing. It is, in short, simply the other side of a slimy, rusty coin.

It isn't even working. When the French parliament first debated this law, 300 women claimed to cover their faces. Now the number is 2,000--still a tiny percentage of the nation, but exponential growth regardless. Muslimahs in France understand that they are being targeted, and this leads people to become defensive. How many times in your life have you uttered a sentence such as "Oh, you don't like that, huh? Let's see what you think about *this*!"? As far as I see, this is exactly what new and part-time niqab wearers in France are doing.

So far in this country, females can wear or not wear almost anything in public, so long as their nipples and genitalia are covered. Males technically can as well, although there are more and stronger de facto rules about it. When Jenna Lyons helped her young son Beckett paint his toenails--PINK!, even--for a J. Crew ad, she unleashed right-wing rage. Never mind how J. Crew's actual clothing looks. (For one thing, there's very little pink in their spring boys' collection.) She was encouraging her son to accessorize in a slightly feminine manner, and seemed proud and happy about that! And by allowing that picture to be published, she was clearly encouraging transsexualism and Teh Ghey!

I remember covering Love Won Out, an anti-gay seminar that had been founded by Focus on the Family (it's now an Exodus International project) in 2001, for an Orlando LGBT magazine. The speakers discussed childrens' gender identity in great detail. Boys were to be *boys*. Girls were to be *girls*. One speaker, Joseph Nicolosi, exhorted fathers to roughhouse with their sons. I'll never forget this joke of his: "You may drop him on his little head and cause brain damage, but that's a small price to pay for heterosexual masculinity." I believe he and many others truly would rather see a boy like Beckett Lyons brain-damaged than with painted toenails.

When I was a little girl, I was rather mixed in my gender presentation. Mostly, I was a lonely little geek. Y'all can see that I like pink just fine now. But when I was little, I hated it. I didn't hate it because of itself, I hated it because there was such an expectation that I would like it just because of my age and gender. I always wore skirts and dresses, but they were always shades of green and blue, which are still my favorite colors.

I would wear those green and blue dresses, with long blonde hair in braids, while climbing trees, digging in hopes of finding cool ancient stuff, training squirrels, and "winning" many Daytona 500s in milk crates. My parents told me I could be an archaelogist or a NASCAR driver if I wanted. It breaks my heart now to see how, 30 years later, there seem to be even fewer possibilities presented for children. So many things are splashed in pink to mark them as "for girls." I want every child to have every color in the big crayon box. But for every person who feels that way, it seems there are so many who want to keep choices for children as simple and limited as their own minds.

One objection to the boy's pink toenails is that "he'll be made fun of by other kids." Really? Who would be giving the other kids the idea that it's wrong for a boy to have pink nails and that such a deviation from the norm is worth discussing loudly in the cruelest language possible? Who keeps trotting that picture out, which would otherwise have been forgotten by now? It is, purely and simply, concern trolling. There is absolutely no excuse for adults with media platforms to act like the meanest playground bullies themselves.

Besides, sometimes a person can wear something that's considered 100 percent gender appropriate and still be punished for it. That's what happened to 42-year-old Bryan Stow for wearing San Francisco Giants gear to the Los Angeles Dodgers' stadium on March 31st. As I--and John Steigerwald--write, he is still comatose. Steigerwald, however, had this charming take on it: "Maybe someone can ask Stow, if he ever comes out of his coma, why he thought it was a good idea to wear Giants' gear to a Dodgers' home opener when there was a history of out-of-control drunkenness and arrests at that event going back several years....Are the 42-year-olds who find it necessary to wear their replica jerseys to a road game, those kids who are now fathers who haven't grown up?"

That's right, Steigerwald blamed the victim. Stow was expressing his unpopular minority stance through highly visible clothing in a sports arena, so of course he had a savage beating from which he may never recover coming, right? And what a perfect opportunity for Steigerwald to then address how stupid he thinks all adults look in team replica jerseys at sports events!

In all of these stories, there have been strong opinions, and people made clear their own stances on so many issues besides the bit of cloth or cosmetic. I know I'm no exception to this. In all of these stories, people think they have the right to tell other people how to express themselves, to practice their religious belief or sports fandom, to raise their children. They predict dire effects: You'll erode our secularist tradition, repress women and scare children. Your son will need years of therapy, and you want to make other children just as warped as your own. You're not just supporting your team--you're pretending you're a member of it, like a big baby!

The Thanksgiving before I took my then-girlfriend home to my family, my aunt said, "Everything was so much better when the gays stayed in the closet." I wanted to yell, "Better for *who*?" But of course, I was still semi-closeted as a bisexual girl at that point and wasn't sure I wanted to throw that rhetorical grenade into the middle of the family dinner table. I've heard other people long for the good ol' days of (what they thought were) no gays, no bisexuals, no transsexual people, no atheists, no Pagans, no Muslims, no *weirdness*.

People in all of these stories want difference stuffed deep into a closet, or at least caged and confined somehow. They find something as tiny as a small boy's toenail intolerable for flaunting difference. They don't want to open a catalog and be reminded that there are people who don't subscribe to their views of gender. They don't want to walk down a sidewalk and see a woman in full niqab, a page out of National Geographic come to life and sharing their space. They don't want a fan of some other team being an asshole by, you know, existing and cheering. Somehow, another person's difference spoils their day. Their children end up thinking and asking questions, too.

When L'Ailee shaved her head, people occasionally would get agitated: "I don't want my daughter thinking that's okay!" "So you tell her it is not okay," L'Ailee would calmly respond. But too late--a little girl saw a possibility outside of her family's carefully constructed and constrained world in a flash of pale, stubbled scalp on a small woman. For some people, such a thing is genuinely threatening.

The solution is not to hide in plain sight by carefully suppressing oneself and one's beliefs. I don't know what the solution is. I can't control another's mind. What I do know is that hiding doesn't stop people from hating anybody. Instead, it further emboldens bigots to create an atmosphere of intimidation. It allows them to believe they aren't actually hurting anybody when, say, they ban a mosque from being built in their town or a book about a child with two mommies from a library. It allows stereotypes to take root in another's heart rather than truth.

In Dr. Seuss' children's book Horton Hears a Who, a tiny creature demands to be heard by an elephant. The Who screams a "Yop!" into the elephant's ear. Those of us who are members of minority groups often have to "Yop!" to an elephant more than once in our lives. Our clothing, our accessories, our small gestures, can say it all for us. Perhaps we take a chance that we might get trampled. But we'll definitely get trampled if we remain hidden and quiet.


Raven said...

I saw that ad for J Crew and knew people were going to freak out about it, cuz that's just how ridiculous they are. My grandma used to paint my uncle's toenails all kinds of colors. And it wasn't even my gay uncle either.

That poor man in the coma (and his family), I hadn't heard that one. That is just awful. What is wrong with people? My Gawd.

The whole France thing is ridiculous as well. No matter what my opinion on burkas etc, I don't think they should be outlawed.

From the time they could first dress themselves I always encouraged my girls to express their uniqueness by dressing however they wanted whether it matched or looked good to me or not. It drove my mother, who is all about appearances, absolutely insane. They always hated it when they went out with grandma cuz they had to 'dress up' which meant they had to match. Even their socks.

BostonPobble said...

I absolutely love this post.