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Photos by Maud Fernhout

Essay

What I Want for My SonAnd the daddies who adopted him

I want my son to know that families can look like anything. Families can be a mommy and a daddy, one parent, four parents, or — in our case — they can look like an interracial Gay couple and a birth mother who visits every couple of months, not to mention all his godparents, aunties and uncles, and grandparents. I want his concept of family to exist independently of any gender norms or expectations.

Mariah MacCarthy

Mariah MacCarthy is a playwright, producer, curator, storyteller, burlesque dabbler, rapper, birth mother, immersive-party-play-maker, and creatrix-of-all-trades. Her work has been featured everywhere from The New York Times to Upworthy. Her solo show about her experience as a birth mother, Baby Mama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People, will be touring the country this summer.

I want my son to have male role models, which he fortunately has in spades; his daddies are kind and brilliant. With a surgeon for a daddy and a papa in theater, he’s growing up with both art and science in his home, and truckloads of love.

I want my son to have female role models — also covered. The two men raising him have plenty of sisters and friends, all of whom are warm, hilarious, and accomplished badasses. And, I’d like to be one of those role models. I’m working hard to be someone my child can be proud of, even though I’m not raising him.

When my son has his own kids (not for a while — he’s 3), I want it to be intentional. I want him and his partners to grow up with awesome, comprehensive sex education and free birth control. I want them to be able to enter a Planned Parenthood without being harassed. And if their procreation is unintentional, I want them to have more options than I did. I had no money, no partner, two roommates, and no desire for an abortion. How was I going to live with a newborn without leaving behind the life and community I’d spent the previous five years nurturing and fighting for in New York?

I want him to know that I couldn’t come up with an equation where one loving parent made more sense for him than three loving parents. I want him to know that relinquishment is not abandonment, and that I will always be there for him, no matter what.

I want my son to grow up in a world where paid parental leave is a given. I never want my son, or his partner, to do the same mental math I did when I was pregnant: calculating how much unpaid time I could take off from my job, wincing because even two weeks would cost me dearly. And if his partner is a woman, I want them to live in a world where nobody expects her to take on the bulk of child care.

I want my son to graduate college without the debilitating student loan debt his mom had. As a writer, I want him to be able to pursue an artistic profession without accepting poverty as his default. I want him to enter a workforce where the women make as much as he does. I want him to know single mothers who raise their children with nary an eyebrow raised in their direction, free from slut-shaming or single-mother-blaming. I hope some of those single mothers are artists, and that they don’t live below the poverty line.

I want my son to know that I love him more than I knew was possible to love another human. I want him to know that him having the best life possible was more important than my getting to see him every day. I want him to know that I couldn’t come up with an equation where one loving parent made more sense for him than three loving parents. I want him to know that relinquishment is not abandonment, and that I will always be there for him, no matter what.

And, of course, I want a million things for my son that have nothing to do with the circumstances that led me to place him for adoption. I want him to know he can love anyone, be anyone, change his gender identification and his pronouns and his name if he wants. I want him to follow his dreams, to live a life that is exactly as exciting or stable or weird or conventional as he wants.

Mostly, what I want for my son is a shiny, loving, explosively happy life. Just like any other mom.

Mariah MacCarthy

Mariah MacCarthy is a playwright, producer, curator, storyteller, burlesque dabbler, rapper, birth mother, immersive-party-play-maker, and creatrix-of-all-trades. Her work has been featured everywhere from The New York Times to Upworthy. Her solo show about her experience as a birth mother, Baby Mama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People, will be touring the country this summer.

The Aha! Moment: Being a "Good Guy" Is Not Enough

Joe Samalin quotes

In 1993, the bombshell that would change my life dropped quietly. I was in 11th grade when my mother told me of the sexual violence she had experienced and witnessed as a child, memories she had begun to resurrect over time. It was my first Aha! moment about violence against women. Now, at age 40 and in my line of work, I know how common child sexual abuse is and how often survivors repress memories of that abuse. But as a teenager, I simply felt stunned, angry, sad, and at a loss for what, if anything, I could do.

Joe Samalin is currently Senior Program Manager for Community Mobilization & Leadership Development with Breakthrough, a global human rights organization that works to challenge the culture of violence against women and girls.

A few years after my mother’s revelation, when I was a sophomore at the State University of New York at New Paltz, I joined a few hundred other students, mostly women, in the Student Union just before midnight. It was my first Take Back the Night rally, a common event at colleges and universities designed to raise awareness about gender-based violence. Over the next three hours, nearly every woman in the room took to the stage and shared a personal story of being abused by a boyfriend, of being stalked, sexually harassed, and/or sexually assaulted. Some of the violence had taken place years before, some earlier in the semester on our very campus. Nearly every woman had a story to share, some sharing for the first time in that packed room.

The experience and power of all those women sharing their stories, the sheer weight and scale of violence against women and girls was clear to me that night as it had never been before. I remember an almost audible click in my head that night, the click of an Aha! too big to ignore, when I realized that sexual and gender violence was all around me, that my mom’s story wasn’t an exception. And with it came the realization that I was no longer comfortable accepting or ignoring the state of things anymore. It was the Aha! of realizing: I have no choice but to act.

I often liken these Aha! moments to Neo taking the red pill offered by Morpheus in The Matrix, a metaphor I came to love years ago while working for Men Can Stop Rape (a national organization based in Washington, D.C.). Once you have that moment, take that red pill, there is no turning back. Once you see the culture of gender-based violence around you, you can’t unsee it. You can deny it, minimize it, or ignore it, but you know it’s there.

In a culture that dehumanizes and objectifies women, we view men who don’t commit violence as “good.” But that is a very low bar for men if we are looking to stop this violence. It is not enough.

As a man, once you acknowledge that gender-based violence exists, people in your life, even strangers, begin to disclose to you stories of the violence they have survived or, sometimes, the violence they have committed. If they believe you are genuinely working to understand this violence, then they are likely to see you as someone they can confide in.

There is a somewhat hard and important truth that men come to realize in these Aha! moments: We all are either supporting and enabling domestic and sexual violence­ — directly by perpetrating it or covering it up, or colluding with it through our silence — or we are actively working to end that violence. There is no neutral ground. Most men think they are the proverbial “good guys.” (For years, I thought the same.) Most men make the conscious choice not to commit acts of domestic or sexual violence against the women in their lives, or anyone for that matter. But that is the starting point, not the goal. In a culture that dehumanizes and objectifies women, we view men who don’t commit violence as “good.” But that is a very low bar for men if we are looking to stop this violence. It is not enough.

It took a series of Aha! moments for me to decide that my work had to be focused on preventing and ending violence. For some men, it takes just one moment; for others, a lifetime. How do we get more men to have these Aha! moments in the first place? Men like me, young men in schools in my hometown of New York City, on college campuses in Wisconsin and Indiana? On military bases in Arizona, among business leaders in Japan, and among Native and indigenous men in Hawai‘i? Men who have committed violence and men who want to stop violence (sometimes the same men) and all sorts of men in between? How do we then take them from awareness to action?

These are just some of the men I have worked with over the last 20-odd years, and it still amazes me how often the key, while not always easy, can be so simple: Engaging men very often begins with questions. Most often, I am asked, “Why?”

Why, as a man, do I care about gender-based violence? Why, as a man, do I even know about violence against women and girls? It is a question I get from everyone, but mostly from women. The underlying assumption is that it is not a man’s problem; gender-based violence is still seen as a “women’s issue.” But the question is critical for individual men and the movement as a whole. The answers differ from man to man, but there are definite commonalities, such as my own story — knowing someone affected by violence, not knowing how to support a survivor, being shocked by the statistics. These answers and stories help us get more men involved, which is critical. And after so many years of asking and answering questions of men and myself, I really believe that questions lead to more questions, which, in turn, lead to more effective and accountable work to end violence and oppression.

For a long time, I thought this was the end of my journey: I had arrived. I am a man who knows about gender-based violence, and I have dedicated my life to ending it. My goal was to engage a group of men in a given community to recognize their responsibility to end violence against women and feel fired up to do something about it, whether supporting their local domestic violence shelter, helping a loved one affected by violence, or disrupting violent behavior when they see it. Once that was achieved, I could ride my horse out of town to the next community.

What I have come to realize now is that this is not enough.

YES! Photo by Robert Ranney

Joe Samalin visited with students at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, this past spring. YES! Photo by Robert Ranney

For me, there is no final destination; there can’t be. This work is all about the journey, about always doing better. Male privilege, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy — these very systems we are trying to dismantle — are at the core of, and protected by, the violence we seek to eradicate. And it serves these systems when I stop interrogating those things I do to enable violence and oppression, when I stop asking how I can do better.

Aha! moments are not static. What it means to be a man, the roles we play in perpetuating a culture of violence, the violence committed in our name — our awareness of these is like that of a fish in water. It takes a lot of work to remain aware of the water we swim in: the many ways men as a whole benefit at the expense of equity, equality, and safe, full lives for women and girls. Not all men benefit equally, of course, especially men of color, Gay and Transgender men, immigrant men, and others. But men — and masculinity as a whole — do benefit.

The question, “What does it mean to be a man?” might seem simple, but even simple questions we have answered before can change as we ourselves and those around us do too.

What we learn about what it means to be a man is often a factor in our choosing whether to commit violence. But it is also the reason that most men who witness and experience violence never seek the help or support they so often need, why so few resources exist for male survivors. Our ideas of masculinity are key factors in our choosing to support or blame victims and survivors of violence. What society says it means to be a man makes homophobia one of the most common tools used by men to keep other men in check, stuck in the box of uninterrogated masculinity. Asking “What does it mean to be a man?” has layers upon layers of answers.

“How do my male privilege and white privilege enable each other?”

“How can I continue to deepen my empathy for myself?”

“What can I do to hold the men in this work accountable when they commit acts of violence and discrimination themselves?”

I am still searching for my next Aha! moment. As I search, I struggle with doubt as I always have, wanting to ensure I do more good than harm, striving to live up to the trust that women and others in this work have invested in me, wanting to do right by the countless victims and survivors I have encountered in my life.

It simply starts with a question (I can suggest a few). And then an Aha! (Let me know when you have them! I love those stories.) And then another and another, until an action you can take to help end violence becomes clear. Followed, of course, by one more question.

Audio: Joe Samalin Shares One of the Best Aha! Moments He's Ever Heard (4 minutes)

Joe Samalin is currently Senior Program Manager for Community Mobilization & Leadership Development with Breakthrough, a global human rights organization that works to challenge the culture of violence against women and girls.

I Was Supposed to Be Pretty, Feminine, Nice, and Straight

In the mirror, my chest looks flat. I hold up the camera, pull at my silver button-up shirt, square my shoulders. Click. Another me looks back from the picture, the me I really am, or want to be, or think I might be. I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t feel like a girl, that I like my chest like this, bound by a too-small sports bra and a roll of ACE Bandages. Flat. Like a boy’s chest.

Raye Stoeve

Raye Stoeve is a Queer nonbinary writer, performer, and social justice organizer based in Seattle. They can be found online at rayestoeve.wordpress.com.

I took that picture in 2008, a few months after the July day I realized I was Transgender.

From a very early age, I had an acute sense of being gendered by the world and understood that my body and how the world perceived it made me a target for violence. Even as I fought against stereotypes, I internalized them: I was supposed to be pretty, feminine, nice, and straight. My body was not for me. It was for men.

By the time I got to college, I was suffocating. I stopped wearing makeup and clothes I deemed girly, cut my hair short, and wore T-shirts and basketball shorts to class every day. The difference wrought by my masculine presentation was stark: Men stopped smiling at me, staring at me, catcalling me. I was no longer presumed straight, presumed female, presumed available. It was both disorienting and relieving. I had lived my entire life under that scrutiny. Suddenly, it was gone.

My gender awakening deepened from there. I found online communities centered around identities like genderqueer, androgynous, and transgender—feelings I had always experienced but had never been able to name. These terms helped explain why I didn’t feel like a boy or girl. I was excited—and scared. I told only a few people before deciding not to come out, but my gender confusion would submerge and resurface again and again, presenting questions without definitive answers.

The questions always came back to my body—how I felt in it, whether it felt like mine, who it was for. I was Queer, but I felt trapped in heterosexuality. For me, this had solidified in high school as social pressure to have a boyfriend and adhere to feminine beauty standards ramped up. The media reinforced these ideas, and dating men became a habit, even though it never felt right. My last serious relationship with a cis man was utterly toxic. Although I was still burying my gender feelings, I knew I could never be myself if I stayed with him.

In spring 2014, I ended the relationship and ran for the ridges of southern Oregon, where I found myself as a volunteer on a Queer homestead. There, I felt like I was living the life I was meant to live. Tending the land, surrounded by other Queer folks, I came back to my body. The physical nature of homesteading—digging in the garden, chopping wood for the rocket stove, painting the house—grounded and restored me. I went home to Seattle newly confident and self-aware and threw myself into the Queer community there.

As I made friends and became involved in social justice organizing, I started to wonder again if it was time to come out. Then, I fell in love and dated a Queer person for the first time.

Like some of my new friends, this person used “they” as a gender pronoun and identified as genderqueer. Their openness in being who they were, and their acceptance of me, helped me step toward my own unfolding identity.

In September 2015, I decided to come out as genderqueer, change my first name to something gender-ambiguous, and change my pronouns to “they.” I cut my hair short, bought a chest binder, and started wearing makeup and calling myself femme. I’m experimenting with all the different ways my gender manifests to see what feels right—and by right, I mean right for me, not what society deems correct. I’m still not sure if I want to have top surgery or take hormones, but I know I don’t feel like a woman. Neither do I feel like a man. I just feel like a person, navigating the uncertainty and excitement of life in transition.

Raye Stoeve

Raye Stoeve is a Queer nonbinary writer, performer, and social justice organizer based in Seattle. They can be found online at rayestoeve.wordpress.com.

Forget the Bathrooms, the Trans Fight Is About Human Rights Transgender protections are being overturned left and right thanks to hate-filled narratives. What can counter that?

TOLES © 2016 The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

TOLES © 2016 The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Houston in 2015 was the right place and time: a vibrant, diverse Southern city with a beloved Lesbian mayor in her final term and an LGBT community excited to capitalize on the momentum of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. In May 2014, the City Council had passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a city policy supported by Mayor Annise Parker that would expand protections from discrimination, including for gender identity. But due to legal challenges, it went to a ballot vote in November of last year. Opponents rebranded the ordinance as “the bathroom bill,” whipping up fear that it would allow predators to enter any bathroom they wanted. And they were successful: The ordinance was defeated at the polls with more than 60 percent opposing.

Eesha Pandit

Eesha Pandit is a Houston-based writer and activist. You can learn more about her work at eeshapandit.com. Twitter: @EeshaP

Ordinances like Houston’s HERO seek to ensure that people have local recourse when they face discrimination, whether on the basis of race, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other identities that might leave them vulnerable to discrimination. Battles over them have been popping up all around the country. In March, the North Carolina legislature promptly rolled back hard-won protections secured by activists in Charlotte and blocked all cities from creating similar ones. A recent Human Rights Campaign (HRC) report found 44 anti-Transgender bills being considered in 16 states this year—more than double the 2015 figure—including 29 involving bathrooms and 23 targeting children in schools. HRC President Chad Griffin, quoted in The Advocate, called this a “deeply disturbing trend [that] is a stark reminder of just how vicious and deplorable opponents of equality are in their relentless attacks against our community.”

Though these ordinances protect the rights of many vulnerable groups, the Trans-specific fearmongering perpetrated by opponents can be described only as Transphobia. They have created a narrative in which Trans people commit abominable crimes, while in reality Transgender women are at greater risk of experiencing violence than of perpetrating it.

Even before the Supreme Court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a right to marry, LGBT activists had been calling on movement leaders to focus on improving legal protections as the next big challenge. “It is well past time for every LGBT person in America to have equal treatment under the law, no matter where they happen to live or work,” Courtney Cuff, president of the philanthropic Gill Foundation, wrote in The Advocate. She noted her organization would now focus on passing nondiscrimination ordinances, particularly in red states. Supported in part by the Gill Foundation, HERO was one of the first such post-Obergefell campaigns.

The loss in Houston left the LGBT community reeling—partly because of the divisions it exposed within the movement. Monica Roberts, a longtime leader in the LGBT community and founder of the blog TransGriot, said strategic errors included not only a failure to effectively address the bathroom propaganda but also a “too little, too late” messaging strategy in the African-American community. Roberts said many activists felt that the Houston Unites campaign, a coalition of LGBT organizations running the pro-HERO effort, was foiled by a lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. “When we formed African Americans for HERO, it was out of frustration that Houston Unites wasn’t doing the job in our community,” she said.

Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, an organization focused on the needs of LGBT and gender-nonconforming people of color in the South, emphasized that these communities experience discrimination not just on the basis of gender and sexual orientation but also on race and class. “What plagues many Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Queer, and Trans folks of color cannot be separated as single issues only to do with our gender, sexuality, creed, or class,” she said.

This has proven a hard lesson for the movement. In the wake of the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, prominent Gay activist and columnist Dan Savage argued that racist Gay White men were a smaller problem “than the huge numbers of homo-phobic African Americans are for Gay Americans, whatever their color.” This sentiment became a rallying cry for White activists, despite the fact that activists of color pushed the campaign to better connect with people of color. In the days afterward, one such organizer, Lawrence Ellis, told his story to Colorlines. Ellis had tried to mobilize small Gay and Lesbian organizations already active in Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities. “Not building a true coalition, where you get to leverage existing networks—that is a fatal flaw,” Ellis said.

What plagues many [LGBTQ] folks of color cannot be separated as single issues only to do with our gender, sexuality, creed, or class.
— Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of Southerners on New Ground

Equal rights ordinance campaigns are prime opportunities for intersectional coalition-building, and, as our conversations on race and immigration overlap, LGBT organizers should better ally with pro-LGBT movements like Black Lives Matter or the DREAMers. These movements, largely led by young, Queer people of color, are putting multiple identities at the fore.

To strengthen coalitions, the mainstream LGBT movement must amplify and center the voices of Transgender people who are being vilified. “I would rather invest my energy in the kinds of efforts that focus on Trans and gender-nonconforming leaders and support them in fighting these battles on their terms, with their vision and strategy,” said Gabriel Foster, co-founder and executive director of the Trans Justice Funding Project, which partnered with the Transgender Law Center to pilot a national training institute for leaders.

This strategy has worked in Tennessee and South Dakota, where bills prohibiting Transgender students from using facilities matching their gender were defeated. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who initially supported his state’s bill, met with Trans students after public pressure mounted. Daugaard said the meeting “helped me see things through their eyes a little better and see more of their perspective.” Ultimately, he vetoed the bill. In Tennessee, a similar bill died in a committee hearing after Trans students testified. Republican legislator Rick Womick said he withdrew support for the legislation after hearing more about the issue. In these states, Transphobic misinformation was countered by Transgender voices.

The lessons learned from the losses in Houston and elsewhere are not new. These fights show us that understanding multiple, overlapping issues affecting LGBT people is critical, as is the need to understand Trans identity. So far, we have seen that Trans folks are the best spokespeople for themselves. As we enter an election cycle where racism and xenophobia are front and center, these points will be crucial for the broader national movement for LGBT rights.

Eesha Pandit

Eesha Pandit is a Houston-based writer and activist. You can learn more about her work at eeshapandit.com. Twitter: @EeshaP

Featured Art

Go Ahead, CryGender stereotypes are cultural, not concrete

Manners and machismo: Traditional Western gender etiquette is clear. Ladies, don’t be loud and unruly. Men, be tough. Dutch university student Maud Fernhout challenged these stereotypes in her photo series “What Real Men Cry Like” and “What Real Women Laugh Like,” in which she asked fellow students from different cultures to do exactly that. When the women saw their own faces crinkled with elation and mouths agape, they were repulsed. “They said, ‘I look so ugly,’” Fernhout recalled. “But when they looked at the other girls, they said, ‘Oh, she’s so pretty!’ and they realized it was okay.” Seeing others break the mold of what a woman’s face should look like changed how they felt about themselves.

Fernhout found that attitudes toward crying men varied by culture: Eastern European students were most resistant, while Italians and Spaniards cried easily. Women’s reactions to how they looked laughing didn’t vary, Fernhout said, perhaps because most of Europe shares the same standards of beauty but not the same standards of masculinity. She hopes that these images will force people to look at their own preconceptions of gendered behaviors.

Just the Facts

The Most Radical Break From Patriarchy of All

YES! infographic author's emissions