Category Archives: activism
Late last week, PinkyIsTheBrain on tumblr began a campaign to bring attention to the new Investigation Discovery show “Who the Bleep Did I Marry?”, which equates someone being trans* with being a serial killer, a con artist, or a bank robber.
[Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Tumblr, it can be a bit hard to navigate. “Conversations” or comments or follow-up tend to be nested.]
Music plays in background: “Love and marriage, love and marriage”
The video opens on a scene of a wedding in an idyllic location surrounded by trees with an arbor of flowers. The camera zooms in on the bride, who turns and says:
(Marriage officiant in the background): Join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.
First Bride: Five years from now, I’ll find out that he’s a bank robber.
The camera cuts to a different couple, walking under a portico with their backs to the camera. The bride turns to the camera and says “Serial murderer.”
A zoom in on another couple, standing like they are being photographed with their families.
Third Bride (loud whisper): Russian spy!
Another couple, cutting a cake.
Fourth Bride: Cheater. With three other wives.
Another couple, surrounded by a crowd, the bride sitting on a chair while her husband kneels to pull off her garter.
Fifth Bride: And he’s a… a she.
We cut back to the original couple, kissing at the altar.
The closing shot is of a fancy black car driving away, trailing ribbons, tin cans, and toilet paper. ‘Who the (bleep) did I marry’ is chalked on the back window.
Marriage Officiant (sounding disgusted): Who the bleed did you marry?
Voiceover: Who the bleep did I marry? All new [episodes?], only on Investigation Discovery.
This is not just a ridiculous comparison, it’s a pretty damned offensive one that equates being trans* with being a serial killer – and once again equates being trans* with lying, which is the same argument that murderers make with they murder trans* people.
FuckYeahFTM looked up the contact information for the Discovery Network, encouraging people to get in touch and point out how bloody offensive and shitty this is:
Here’s more info about the show:
Who The Bleep? [Opens with sound & Video]
The other episodes they have include: Married to An Embezzler, The Biggest Con, Married to a Spy, Married to A Bank Robber
And they are including marrying a transman, or in their words “He is actually a She” on that level, with criminals and murderers.
Discovery doesn’t actually make it easy to contact them with concerns (I had to use a search engine to find the Contact page because it wasn’t anywhere on the Who The Bleep? page), so here’s how I did it:
32. How can I contact you with programming comments or questions?
We welcome your e-mail comments and questions, which you can send to us by clicking here.
This is the most efficient way to contact us. Comments or questions directed to anyone else at Discovery Communications will be forwarded to Viewer Relations, which means it will take us longer to follow up.
You can also write to us at:
One Discovery Place
Silver Spring, MD 20910
There is actually a lot of “required information” before Discovery will let you contact them. They want your age, your name, what network you’re writing about (Investigation Discovery in this case), post code, Cable provider, program time, and “information needed” (along with several other pieces of non-required information) before you can fill in your comment. I believe it’s five steps before you can tell them what your concern is, the site is very slow (at least for me), and I have no idea how accessible it is. (It does not like my computer at all)
However, reaching out and making it clear to Discovery that this stuff is not okay, that being trans* is not a crime, is not lying, and is not the equivalent of being a “Russian Spy” or a “Bank Robber”, is important, and I hope as many of you as possible will contact them and make that clear.
This is what I wrote, if you are looking for a template:
Hello Discovery Network,
I am disgusted and appalled at your decision to equate being a trans man with being a criminal, a spy, or a murderer. A trans man is not “really a she”. He is a man who married a woman. The decision of your network to “out” someone like this is especially dangerous, as many trans people are murdered for allegedly “faking” or “lying” or otherwise “cheating” their sexual partners.
I hope you will reconsider your decision to air such an exploitive, dangerous, and abusive program.
Again, here is Discovery’s Contact Form. I emailed them last week and have so far received only a form letter, but if we overwhelm them with numbers, surely they have to pay attention, right?
We’re reaching out across our bi-coastal networks to move to the Bay, specifically Berkeley because of the level of access that can be found there for disabled folks. This is a huge, complicated and multidimensional decision that we have struggled with and we will be writing more about it to you, our loved ones and family, in the coming months.
But right now we need you. We need help finding a place to live and creating a community careshift collective.
Check for more information about what Mia Mingus & Ms Crip Chick need at Leaving Evidence (mirrored at CripChick’s blog), and also check out the Book Sale at thaura zine distro: Revolutionary Love is More Than a Catch Phrase. There appears also to be an etsy sale in the works, so please keep an eye out for that as well.
CripChick also has a list of books she’s giving away, as their new digs won’t have room for all the books (woe).
For myself, I have only recently become aware of the amazing work that Mia Mingus does, but what I’ve read at her blog, Leaving Evidence, from hearing about her work this year at the Allied Media Conference, I am blown away by her passion, her drive, and her love. CripChick’s work I’m more familiar with, especially her work with young people with disabilities, as a youth organizer and a radical woman of color. Both of their blogs are outstanding, and as well they are also both heavily involved in community organizing and disability solidarity.
I know things are tight all over, but much of the help they need is not just in money, but in support and information. Check out what they need!
These are some things I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t yet figured out where this train of thought is leading, or what it might connect to, or what conclusions I might end up with. I’m writing this to see if virtually talking it out can help me think through it further, or hoping it will spark some ideas or brilliance in one of you! This is not meant to be an authoritative statement on these issues and there may be glaring issues I’m overlooking! I’m just hoping to have a good discussion about it.
Recently, the federal circuit court in California heard a case about whether the city of Hermosa Beach could ban tattoo shops entirely. The plaintiff – a man who wanted to open a tattoo shop in the city – argued that the ban was an impermissible restriction of his free speech rights. The court wrote a long decision (pdf) considering not whether having a tattoo was something protected by the First Amendment, but whether the actual act of tattooing someone was conduct with sufficient expressive content to be considered as speech. So the court was thinking about whether the act of giving someone a tattoo counts as speech – if the tattoo artist is the equivalent of a painter or a photographer and adding artistic judgment and content to the representation, or if they are more like a computer printer printing out text or images designed by someone else.
This meant the court spent a lot of time discussing the idea of “expressive conduct” – behavior that isn’t actually “speech” in that the person is not speaking words, but is behaving in a way that communicates a message or idea and so is protected the same way that speech is. In the United States, the Supreme Court has already considered a whole bunch of activities and determined that they should be protected the same way that speech is. For example, burning the United States flag, wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, and nude dancing are all activities that aren’t directly speech, but convey a statement or message and so are protected the same way that speech is.
I started thinking about the idea of “expressive conduct” – behavior that conveys a message or statement – and was immediately struck by how existence as a person with a disability could be seen as expressive conduct. Using a wheelchair or cane or braces while out in public seems to me to express a statement: “I am a person with a disability, I exist, I share public space with you.” This is, as we’ve discussed here at FWD and many others have expressed, a radical statement, a powerful message. To me, it seems equivalent to the message expressed by wearing a black armband to protest a war – it is a political statement of resistance.
The law of expressive conduct recognizes that not every instance of the behavior is communicating an expressive message. If, for example, I had mini American flags as part of a table decoration and one fell into a candle and started burning while I wasn’t paying attention, that flag burning would not be sending the same message as intentionally burning a flag at an anti-war demonstration. My accidental flag burning would not be sending a message and so would not be protected as speech. Similarly, a PWD alone in their apartment likely isn’t sending any message or statement with the mere fact of their existence – they might be typing or painting or speaking and sending a message that way, but not simply by existing. So PWDs wouldn’t automatically “become” speech – only when their existence communicates a message.
I’m not entirely sure where that gets us. In First Amendment law, when conduct is considered speech because of its expressive content, it is protected by the First Amendment, which means that the government cannot restrict it without passing certain protective tests. So theoretically, arguing that disability is a form of speech would let PWDs argue that governmental restrictions on their presence are in fact restrictions on speech. But since the First Amendment only protects speech from restriction by the government, not from private businesses or in private life, I’m not sure that would add any protections that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t already provide. So I’m not sure this analogy would be helpful in extending the existing legal rights of PWD.
I’m also unsure how people with invisible illnesses (like myself) fit into this analysis. My being in public does not automatically communicate to people that I exist as a PWD, because my disability status is not apparent from looking at me. So I don’t start communicating this message until I affirmatively disclose or mark my disability status.
I also wonder if this forcibly ascribes expression or speech to PWDs who do not think they are or want to express that radical message.
I don’t really have a strong conclusion to any of this – I’m still rolling it around in my head to see what if anything it turns into. But I like the idea of acknowledging that when PWDs with visible disabilities are engaged in sending a message as powerful as burning a flag.
What do you think? It’s ok if you don’t have a clear position one way or the other but just have thoughts or reactions!
Back in May, I wrote about the rampant slashing of the sections of California’s budget pertaining to disability services. abby jean has also written about how California structures social assistance programs and their funding. These are issues seen not just in California, but across the United States, where states are struggling to come up with ways to provide services while facing falling revenues and funding shortfalls in every direction. The most vulnerable populations in many states are the first to face cuts, and some of those people have decided to fight back.
Which brings us to Arnieville1. In June, disability rights activists occupied a traffic island in Berkeley to fight budget cuts. The Arnieville protests continued off and on throughout the summer and protesters led demonstrations in other areas of the state as well, leading to things like arrests in Sacramento.
Arnieville put disability rights issues front and center. People passing by couldn’t help but notice a large encampment of people with disabilities, and their numerous signs, protesting policy and budget cuts. It was a very in your face protest, and it makes sense that such a thing would take place in Berkeley, a city long known for its active disability community and disability rights activism.
Yet, if you rely on mainstream media for your news, you wouldn’t know about Arnieville. A search on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the largest Bay Area newspapers, for ‘Arnieville’ returns no results. Likewise with the Press Democrat, a smaller regional paper that still manages to find time to cover other local news. The Los Angeles Times, an award-winning California newspaper with a long history of investigative journalism and coverage of both disability issues and the California budget, also has absolutely no coverage of Arnieville.
If you don’t follow the disability community in the Bay Area closely, you probably wouldn’t know about Arnieville. Unless you happened to read independent media like IndyBay, The San Francisco Bay View, The Berkeley Daily Planet, or New American Media. Coverage in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and San Francisco Bay Guardian, three farily large independent media outlets? Nil. Zero results. Coverage on radio and television news is a little more difficult to track as I can’t search through months of broadcasts as conveniently as I can through months of print media, but I suspect coverage has been relatively minimal, if not nonexistent, with the exception of KPFA in Berkeley.
Arnieville is news. People with disabilities camping out in a traffic island to protest budget cuts, to demand independence from institutionalisation, to challenge social policy, is news. Yet, most of California’s media is completely ignoring the Arnieville protest, let alone its implications. This is typical. Disability issues are rarely covered in the media and when they are, it’s usually in a very patronising, frustrating kind of way. An article on budget cuts, for example, might focus on interviewing parents of children with disabilities instead of interviewing the children themselves, or interviewing adults with disabilities.
Activists from other movements are profiled in the news in California. Protests demanding everything from clean energy to better accountability in police brutality cases are covered, extensively, as they should be. Because protest is one of many legitimate forms of communication with the government, and newspapers have an obligation, and a mission, to report on issues of interest to citizens. Disability rights is an issue of interest to many California citizens, not just people with disabilities, yet, the media seems very disinterested in covering it.
What about Arnieville isn’t newsworthy? The Los Angeles Times had no problems covering a tent city in Sacramento in March of 2009. A whole series of articles was run, including profiles of members of the encampment and a number of very strongly written editorials about social responsibility, budget crises, and public shaming. But a disability rights protest in the form of an encampment on public land? Not even a stray word.
One of the reasons our lack of visibility in the media makes me angry is that the general population is often unaware of the issues that affect us, and of the long history associated with many of those issues. It’s extremely hard to fight social attitudes when the media either ignores us or reinforces its social attitudes with its coverage, instead of debunking those attitudes through news stories. Arnieville conflicts with a lot of beliefs about people with disabilities, and I suspect that’s part of the reason why it hasn’t been covered in the media, because it threatens established social attitudes.
To cover Arnieville might suggest that the protesters have a legitimate grief and have something important to say. It might even hint that some people with disabilities are not happy with the current state of social services. That people with disabilities do not want to be institutionalised and have the capacity to live independently. That people with disabilities have a right to live, have a right to participate in governance, have a right to voice their objections to policy that harms them. These are scary, scary things to many nondisabled people, which is why they are being swept under the carpet.
- A reference to encampments established during the Great Depression by people who lost everything, nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’ after President Herbert Hoover, blamed for the policies that led to the catastrophic economic collapse; in this case, the camps are named for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. ↩
Putting all of those effects aside, I want to focus on the mental health effects of the spill. Obviously, we are still very close in time to the three month period before July 15, 2010, when an estimated 3 to 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, so quantifying or understanding the mental health effects is difficult. An initial report from Louisiana State University found that nearly 60% of the 925 coastal residents they interviewed “said they were almost constantly worried by the oil spill.” Another recent study done by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (pdf) gives us some preliminary data on the impact of the spill on the mental health of the coastal population, focusing specifically on the mental health of children. And it is, frankly, not very good news.
The survey was limited to people who live within 10 miles or a 30 minute drive from the coastline in Louisiana and Mississippi. Between 40% and 50% of people had had direct exposure to the oil spill, either by being involved in the cleanup, coming in direct contact with spilled oil or cleanup activities, or who had lost or damaged property as a result of the spill. Excluding children who had emotional or behavioral problems prior to the spill, about 20% of the children in the sample were experiencing mental health problems after the spill. The researches estimate that only about 15-20% of these mental health problems were associated with direct exposure to the spill and cleanup activities, meaning that the remaining 80-85% of mental health problems were among those without direct exposure. Having direct exposure made both adults and kids about twice as likely to report mental health symptoms.
It will be utterly unsurprising to most readers of FWD to learn that mental health problems were related to the race and income of households. Black families were significantly more likely to have mental health problems among both adults and children. Similarly, children in households with incomes less than $25,000 were nearly three times as likely to have mental health problems than children in households with income over $75,000.
One woman interviewed by the study told the New York Times how the spill was contributing to mental health problems for her family:
Shannon Drury, a mother of four in Venice, La., said her husband, a commercial fisherman, had been working for BP but was owed six weeks’ pay. For a time after the spill, Ms. Drury was forced to find work as a houseboat cleaner, coming home exhausted at night. Ms. Drury’s 11-year-old daughter has grown more insecure, she said. Another child has developed a mysterious rash that Ms. Drury suspects is infected. Tensions over money, she said, reminded her of the warning from a visiting speaker from Alaska, who said the divorce rate there had skyrocketed after the Exxon Valdez disaster. “I realize what the woman was talking about now, because it puts different strains on your family from what you’ve been used to,” Ms. Drury said.
This kind of mounting pressure is similar to the National Institute of Mental Health’s understanding of how disasters like the oil spill contribute to mental health problems. As NIMH Dr. Farris Tuma explains:
One of the tragedies that we have seen over and over again after large scale disasters, is really a spiraling downward of people who were, maybe, managing to keep their lives together, to keep their emotions and behavioral problems under control. But with some additional stress and some additional disorganization in their community- really became quite disabled by their anxiety, depression, psychosis.
Despite the magnitude of this problem, the current resources available for these families and communities are very limited. One of the women interviewed in the study told the New York Times the only counseling resources to which she had access were a new program started by her church to respond to the spill. All of this suggests that BP should be held responsible for assisting these families with their mental health symptoms resulting from the spill. Unfortunately – and again, unsurprisingly – Kenneth Feinberg, the independent “claims czar” who will decide who gets compensated from BP’s compensation fund, said the fund was not likely to pay damages for mental illness and distress alleged to be caused by the spill.
“If you start compensating purely mental anguish without a physical injury — anxiety, stress — we’ll be getting millions of claims from people watching television,” Feinberg said. “You have to draw the line somewhere. I think it would be highly unlikely that we would compensate mental damage, alleged damage, without a signature physical injury as well.”
Please excuse me while I beat my head against the desk for about an hour or so. The implication that compensating people who have experienced the kind of mental anguish and uncertainty described above would open the door to an endless stream of claims from people who felt mildly upset when viewing television coverage of the spill is so condescending, so insulting, so wildly inappropriate that I’m having trouble responding coherently. This kind of attitude is offensive on a broad level – it minimizes the significant impact of mental health problems by equating them to obviously silly and spurious claims and implies that only physical health problems are “real” problems worth compensating.
But this attitude is even more harmful for Gulf Coast residents. This is compensation that people need in order to seek treatment and assistance with their mental health problems that they are otherwise extremely unlikely to be able to afford or obtain, so denying these claims means they’ll be left to cobble together whatever meager resources they can. As the study discusses, these are not isolated people who live in a vacuum, but will have real and lasting effects on the “social ecology” of the region, affecting entire communities and regions. And the people most likely to be left without any help are those who are already more vulnerable because of their race and their poverty. In short, administering the fund this way and denying these claims will not only perpetuate but actually exacerbate the underlying inequalities in the region, punishing poor children of color for the stigmatizing beliefs held by Mr. Feinberg.
This is especially galling as there have already been suicides linked directly to mental health problems stemming from the oil spill. William Kruse, who had two boats he expected to use for tourism over the summer, was forced to work cleanup for BP and became increasingly depressed and despondent, eventually killing himself in late June. It is almost certain that there have been more suicides that have not received national news coverage. It is unclear whether Mr. Feinberg would consider a gunshot wound to the head a physical injury sufficient to justify compensation of the underlying mental health problem.
Thankfully, the state governments are reaching out to BP for help in this area. Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all submitted requests to BP for money to provide mental health services to affected residents. Louisiana has requested $10 million specifically for emergency mental health services to respond to the crisis. (BP has not yet responded to these claims.) We can only hope that these states and the Congressional members who have oversight over the BP compensation fund will continue fighting so that the mental health needs of affected residents can be met.
Thanks to Karen Whyte for the suggestion for this post, as well as for many of the links and materials cited here.