30 October 2009


I’d like to totally undercut my credibility by mentioning that I hadn’t heard of this particular case prior to today. I’d be grateful to hear from folks with knowledge of asylum policies. I’m especially interested to hear how the US compares to other nations.

I ran across an absolutely better-than-bad, and in many ways good [trigger warning for descriptions of domestic violence] story in the New York Times this morning. The Obama administration has recommended that the US grant political asylum to Ms. Rody Alvarado Peña, who entered the country after escaping from an abusive husband in her native Guatemala background here. According to the Times, activists are hopeful that Alvarado’s case will set a precedent for abused women seeking asylum, and that it will ultimately lead to a coherent, humane asylum policy. If a Federal immigration judge goes along with the administration’s recommendation, Ms. Alvarado will be allowed to stay in the US, rather than being sent back to a potentially deadly situation. This is good news.

Not to be a buzzkill, but this story reminds me of something Angela Davis brought up a couple of weeks ago when she was giving a lecture out here. She mentioned the understandable happiness that many New Yorkers were feeling when Governor Paterson signed a measure that prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners during delivery. Clearly, the legislation in question was good, but a couple of things come to mind. First, it’s shocking that action from the legislature and Governor was a prerequisite to treating women like people. Second, New York became the sixth state to ban this practice (the Federal Bureau of Prisons did so last year). I’m pretty sure this doesn’t call for an “in your face, Jersey!,” ya’ know? Third, Davis said (a quick scan of the internet didn’t produce any links) that this piece of legislation had languished in Albany for 9 years, presumably because somebody was concerned about with the cons of not shackling pregnant prisoners.

Back to Ms. Alvarado’s case. She’s been in the United States for fourteen years. She’s also been in-and-out of immigration court for most of that time. While Ms. Alvarado has been living in limbo, her two children have grown up in Guatemala. As in the case of prison shackling, nobody (as far as I know) is debating the veracity of Ms. Alvarado’s story. The hand-wringing has been about whether the government should actually care enough to intervene. The US doesn’t have a policy in place that allows victims of domestic violence to seek asylum here. This case also doesn’t appear to be about whether we might, you know, create such a policy. Rather, Ms. Alvarado’s case turns on the issue of whether we can interpret existing statutes that protect politically persecuted classes to include her.

America’s policy towards battered women (or at least those who are being battered by spouses in foreign countries) appears to be getting better. As a result of slow deliberations, the U.S., according to the Times headline “May be Open to Asylum for Spouse Abuse.” Certainly, this is a step in the right direction, but also cause for us to consider our government’s hesitancy. I see two big stumbling blocks.

First, American society writ large seems to be concerned that people might actually want to come live here. Which people? For lack of a more nuanced way of putting it, plenty of Americans seem worried that poor brown people or other folks who totally don’t deserve the awesomeness that we have built for ourselves with our own hands and Godandthebibleandpickuptrucksamen are going to start coming here. Thus, we put would-be immigrants in the position of having to defend their right to live here. In the case of Ms. Alvarado, this means that rather than simply saying that she wants to be here, she has to give us a good reason. Moreover, someone, somewhere, gets to pass judgment (I believe the person in question is often called a judge, for obvious reasons) on whether that reason really is “good” (not in a philosophical sense, of course, but rather in the sense that it jives with how someone chooses to interpret the laws and policy that someone else has chosen to make).

Second, our distrust of certain foreigners and our concern that folks might actually be able to claim asylum has led to painfully deliberate policy. Ms. Alvarado and women like her can only claim asylum if someone in the American government decides that abused women are a politically persecuted class. The fact that the U.S. government may actually recognize that abused women constitute a politically persecuted class is interesting in its own right (and is yet another reason for a half-hearted parade). By the way, do you smell the lawyers yet? Fourteen years worth of lawyers? Obviously, there is an appeals process in place, ostensibly to protect applicants like Ms. Alvarado, who the government has ruled against. Still, it is Ms. Alvarado who is on trial here, not her abusivehusband. While in theory, our asylum policy is set up as tedious to minimize the number of people sent back to dangerous situations, as far as I can tell, the reality is just the opposite. Using this case as a benchmark, it appears (shockingly, I know) as though the American immigration system functions to minimize the chances that the wrong people might accidentally end up legally living in the United States. How else does one explain fourteen years and counting?

[crossposted at Shakesville]

Syracuse.com: Making our city scarier, one post at a time

Dear Syracuse.com:
In regards to your newspaper’s website, would you do the world a favor by not including space for public comment (or at the very, very, least, provide some degree of moderation) on posts where you report the occurrence of crimes? On the increasingly rare occasions when your paper publishes crime details in a professional manner, I find it very troubling to see anonymous commenters speculating upon why the victim deserved to be have a crime committed against them (Too black? Too poor? Too queer? Too female?), contemplating future crimes against other supposedly deserving victims, and generally joking about how incredibly awesome they think rape, assault, and murder are. Today’s example comes from the online version of your article “Court papers: Vicious dog used to force woman to have sex with Syracuse man.” I know the First Amendment gives people the right to voice their opinions, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the job of journalists to silently observe, or worse yet, foment hate speech. I’m not sure what you expected to achieve by allowing the public to comment on police and court reports. What you have managed to accomplish is to increase the shame and terror that crime victims feel, as well as making Syracuse feel like an even more threatening and unwelcoming place. Seriously—I’d consider patronizing any of your many sponsors, but I’m terrified that I may run into some of your readers. Well done.
Addendum: The Post-Standard's prompt response: "In every story there is a link that says "Inappropriate? Alert us." Please use that and fill out the necessary information every time you see something inappropriate. It will go directly to our Interactivity Group who evaluates comments and determines whether they should be deleted, and if the user needs to be blocked." This is about what I expected. Of course, the odds of me having the time and interest to personally help moderate every thread on Syracuse.com is about the same as getting a productive response to: 'a woman in Syracuse was raped. Discuss anonymously."

20 October 2009

About Morehouse's Appropriate Attire Policy...

Here's some background and personal thoughts to accompany my recently posted letter to Morehouse administrators.


As some folks are already aware, Morehouse College recently announced a new “Appropriate Attire Policy.” According to CNN, the policy prohibits several things, including "the wearing of “women's clothes, makeup, high heels, and purses” by members of the all-male student body. In public comments about the policy, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. William Bynum implied that “about five” students were particularly problematic, in that their wearing feminine attire and "gay lifestyle" did not fit the college’s vision of Morehouse men. This latest incident does not come out of the blue. As Reverend Irene Monroe writes, there has long been tension within the Morehouse community about the possibility of gay or bisexual Morehouse students.

I have seen a few blogs carry this story, as well as CNN. I haven’t yet seen anything in The Chronicle of Higher Education, perhaps because there isn’t anyone in their offices who has the vision to see this as one of the top 10-20 stories in higher education on any given day. Hopefully this will change. The Morehouse gay students’ group, Morehouse Safe Space, hasn’t spoken out against this policy—reports are that they largely supported the new dress code. As a white woman, life-long northerner, and a transsexual woman who constantly has to fight for her right to be included in women’s spaces (and not relegated to men’s ones), I’ve had to overcome my worries about having my voice dismissed on this issue. However, more people need to speak out.

This policy isn’t about some imaginary, tangential issue that we can push into someone else’s inbox. This isn’t about whether people who wear feminine clothing belong at a men’s college. While the majority of people who wear “women’s clothing” are women (either cissexual or transsexual), other possibilities exist. It is possible to imagine a world, this world, in which wearing “women’s clothing” is not synonomous with identifying as a woman. This isn’t about whether single-gender colleges are right or wrong. Indeed, I see the value of spaces restricted on the basis of race (another discussion that’s come up before in the context of Morehouse), or sex, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or any number of personal characteristics. Rather, this is about how those in power choose to systemically disenfranchise and dehumanize those people (not blacks, not gays, not women, not some other stylized, codified, imagined, and homogenized group, but actual human beings in flesh and blood) who threaten the dominant group’s status as the powerful, normal default against which all else is measured. This is about an institution that celebrates its mission to fight for justice as it uses its might to kick undesirables to the curb.

I’m worried that this issue is going to fade away. I don’t want to let it. I’m still thinking about those Morehouse students singled out by administration as problematic. Like them, I cross dressed in college (although that’s not how I like to refer to it, nor do I know how they think of it). It’s not easy to summon the courage to be yourself in a world where allies are scarce. It’s not easy facing bureaucracies that are unaware of your existence, that don’t care about your needs, that leave you struggling and alone. It can be terrifying. Unfortunately, these Morehouse students do not face institutional indifference.

I am not inclined to react to hostility with indifference. Rather, I remember a particularly scaring incident shortly after I came out. I was standing on a street corner in relatively modest, uninteresting dress when a young man came up to me, pointed, and begun to laugh. Soon he was bending over at the waist with excitement. I barely heard him. What I did hear was the silence of the midday, downtown crowd. I heard the dozens of people on that street corner that didn’t feel that this was enough about them to bother speaking out.

I don't want to leave these students in that same void. I don't want them to endure the silence of whites too indifferent or too sheepish to speak out against the actions of a traditionally black college. I don't want them to suffer the silence of transsexual women who consider women's clothing an issue for women's colleges, nor the silence of gender-normative gays who are worried that these students' behavior is somehow unfair to the "good" gays. I don't want them to suffer the indignity of hearing the silence from women, from straights, or from any other group that thinks it can afford to not relate to people who are like that. If we all need to wait for someone just like us in order to fight for our own humanity, where does that put us?

18 October 2009

Open Letter to Morehouse

18 October 2009

Dr. William Bynum

Vice President for Student Services

Morehouse College

830 Westview Drive SW

Atlanta, GA 30314

Dear Dr. Bynum:

I hope this letter finds you and the Morehouse College community well. It is in part due to the respect I have for your institution that I am compelled to write to you today in regards to Morehouse’s recently announced “Appropriate Attire Policy.” While I have many personal and professional discomforts with dress codes, I indulge you to consider three issues with the portion of the attire policy that prohibits the wearing of clothing typically associated with women.

First and foremost, I am gravely concerned with the impact of this policy on gay, bisexual, transgender and queer members of the Morehouse community. This policy tells some of your community’s most vulnerable members that they should be ashamed, and that they are not welcome. As an educator, I find this stance counterproductive. As a queer woman, I find any policy that fosters the self-hatred I so often see my brothers and sisters struggling under to be abhorrent. As the Morehouse College administration is well aware, self-hatred is not the only form of violence facing GLBTQ Morehouse students, faculty, and staff. This policy would appear to condone further hostility towards my family at Morehouse, notably the roughly five students you have referred to in public statements. I am as fearful as I am confident that this policy is a step in the wrong direction.

Second, while you are justifiably proud of Morehouse’s tradition of producing leaders of the black community, I ask you to reconsider who that communities includes. When your community included Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., did it also include Bayard Rustin? Does your community include Moses Cannon and his late sister Latiesha Green, who were both shot because a young man objected to who they were, as they sat in a car in our city of Syracuse? Is their family part of your family? LGBTQ people of color have leadership to offer your community. In the face of oppression, they and I need leaders of our own. Will Morehouse graduates provide them?

Lastly, I ask you to consider the economic, psychological, and physical violence that all women, particularly women of color face. Women will not be able to end this violence on our own. The letter of a white, female college professor will not end this violence. In addition to our own collective strength, we need men who are willing to be leaders in their communities. We need Morehouse men. How does a policy that encourages the hatred and fear of femininity and feminine accoutrement bring my sisters and me closer to equality and safety?

I am sure that you have received many passionate pleas on this matter. I anticipate and appreciate your patient consideration of the needs of our respective communities.

Warmest Regards,

Katherine J. Forbes, Ph. D.

CC: Ms. Melissa McEwan

Rev. Irene Moore Monroe

Ms. Monica Roberts

Ms. Pam Spaulding


18 October 2009, 930pm

My apologies to Reverend Irene Monroe for completely and inexcusably getting her name wrong in my initial post. I really do read her online work, and find it troubling that I didn't get her name correct.