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Gender & Sexuality Archive

Roundtable: Michelle O, Beauty, and the Strong Arm of the Media

Karima: Roland Martin hosted a very interesting conversation with four black female actors from TV and film, about the negative criticism Lady Obama receives on her style and body type. The discussion progressed ultimately to black


Roundtable: 8-Year-Olds in Padded Bras and Thongs, Really?! 

Nichole: Ladies, what do you think of Abercrombie & Fitch's decision to sell push up bikini tops to little girls? Other than, this is ridiculous. I read the recent New York Times profile of Miranda Cosgrove, which in describing tween girl stars'


Roundtable: Shaken By Sexual Violence

Lucinda: An 11-year-old girl is gang raped by a group of men and boys. It’s captured on cell phones. The authorities begin an investigation just after Thanksgiving, because one of the girl’s classmates tells a teacher about the video.


Gender & Sexuality



Entries in Gender & Sexuality (5)


Calling Foul on Homophobia in Black America

By Karima E. Rustin

During the second weekend of May, I read two articles in The New York Times in which two men, both highly visible and successful in their respective careers, made public that they are gay. There are very few commonalities between these two men, yet after reading both articles, I began feeling annoyed, not about their decision to openly discuss their sexual orientation (I commend them for that), but about the inevitable issue of homophobia in the black community.

Don Lemon, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and prime-time anchor on CNN, has written a memoir entitled Transparent. He initially wanted the book to be about his professional life but felt compelled to divulge details about his childhood and ultimately discuss his sexual orientation. Mr. Lemon believes that the black community would have a more adverse reaction to him revealing his sexual orientation than the general population. In his New York Times interview, Lemon states “It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine..."

Rick Welts, the President and CEO of the basketball team the Phoenix Suns who has spent the majority of his adult life ensconced in basketball culture, decided that instead of waiting for his industry to be comfortable with his sexual orientation, he would make it public and encourage others to address the issue that envelops the court and boardroom—homophobia. Within 24 hours of Welts’ meeting with David Stern (commissioner for the National Basketball Association) to discuss his decision to go public, Kobe Bryant, the iconic guard of the Los Angeles Lakers and a black male, belligerently objected to a referee’s verdict of a technical foul by calling him a derogatory gay term. (Bryant later apologized after being fined $100,000.)

I was saddened to read about Lemon’s fear of being emasculated by his own race and fed up with hearing about a black athlete demonstrating blatant homophobia. Sports is where many young black males of limited economic means see their opportunity to achieve greatness, a chance to change their current economic circumstances and attain individual recognition.

The majority of the players in the NBA are people of color, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I believe there is a black cultural myth that the totality of your masculinity is made up from your sexual orientation, and being gay doesn’t equate with the current virile image of the professional basketball player. I worry about the young black gay kid who aspires to play ball and watches Bryant and other basketball players express an unwillingness to embrace a fellow teammate who happens to be gay. Four years ago former Miami Heat player Tim Hardaway let it be known that he hates gay people and would not want a gay man on his team.

Why black people struggle with homophobia baffles me. What are we so afraid of? Why does acknowledging differences in sexual orientation make so many of us uncomfortable? We must debunk this idea that to be a man means you can only be heterosexual. I would like to see more black people supporting men like Lemon who choose to come out publicly and condemning the use of gay slurs. Men like Lemon and Welts might need to make us uncomfortable in order for us to start addressing our unwillingness to accept people of different sexual orientations.


I Don’t Really Care Who Malcolm X Had Sex With

By Lucinda Holt

I just checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Sexuality of Malcolm X.” I was curious about what he had to say regarding the revelation that Malcolm X had sexual experiences with men in Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Ta-Nehisi makes the point that so many people reject the idea of Malcolm X having sex with men because they “think it’s antithetical to masculinity.” Ta-Nehisi comes out and calls this “wrong,” and I’m coming out and saying we’ve got to stop stuffing men into a “man box” that only allows them to be heterosexual, tough, aggressive and free of any emotion except anger. We’ve got to  broaden our definition of masculinity to include a variety of ways of being a man, including being gay or a nurturer or kind. Those qualities are just as masculine as being assertive, bold, and all of those other things we lump with masculinity. 

I would love to see us get to the point where discussions of sexual orientation are not value laden—where one is “good” and everything else 
is “bad.” This is such a simplistic way of thinking about something as complicated as sexual orientation. Why can’t sexual orientation—wherever you fall on theKinsey scale—be an attribute, like hair or eye color?

We aren’t only rigid and downright homophobic when it comes to sexual orientation either. We’re equally fearful and hateful toward people who don’t fit into the “right” gender box. Just look at the responses to the Vibe article “The Mean Girls of Morehouse.” People were very angry that there are some current and former Morehouse men who choose to express themselves in traditionally feminine ways. And just recently, El’Jai Devoureau, who was born female but has always identified as male, was fired for not being male enough.

Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are often much more fluid than the rigid categories we are so attached to. Few of us fit neatly into these categories, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Malcolm X may have had sex with men. I don’t think spending a lot of time speculating about his sexual orientation does us much good. He’s not here to tell us if he would have identified as bisexual or gay or if he was just a heterosexual guy who happened to have had sexual experiences with men. 

But when it really comes down to it, I don’t really care who Malcolm X had sex with. I care that he was an inspiring and thoughtful leader who was willing to have his ideas evolve, change, and grow.


Roundtable: Michelle O, Beauty, and the Strong Arm of the Media

Karima: Roland Martin hosted a very interesting conversation with four black female actors from TV and film, about the negative criticism Lady Obama receives on her style and body type. The discussion progressed ultimately to black content and images in movies and television and how they're showcased, packaged and presented to the public. My question: is there criticism because Mrs. Obama is a brown-skinned lady built like the typical black woman, the type of black beauty white America quite frankly has not been interested in or is it because she exudes a sensuality that hasn’t been present in the White House since Jackie Kennedy and that is why the first lady is catching so much grief?

Lydia: Honestly, I couldn't bring myself to watch the Limbaugh video and haven't yet watched the Martin clip but I think the connection to Jackie is clear. I don't know that that is the only reason for the criticism. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the some of the primary reasons critics find the need to emasculate her husband-- they are the first black First Lady and President of the United States. Critics try to hit a woman where they think it will hurt most, her body, sense of style, etc. It's also true that the typical black woman's build doesn't fit into what mainstream America says is ideal.

Sheryl: Karima, I think the connection you make between Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy is a good one. Like Mrs. Obama today, Jackie Kennedy exuded a youth, vibrancy and sensuality that is not often seen in the White House, and people may be uncomfortable with that image. However, I wouldn’t say that has anything to do with the comments made by Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Limbaugh’s comments are all about race-baiting; that is what he specializes in. In this diatribe, I think he is really telling his mainly white audience—this black woman is not just a concerned parent like you; she is trying to take away your freedom.

The women on the panel bring up the lack of black female images on television; I don’t think I would place as much emphasis on that point either. Tatyana Ali brought up a good point when she connected the critical comments to Mrs. Obama as “the other.” As Lydia mentions, the reason the stories have persisted that President Obama is a Muslim, he is not an American-born citizen, and on and on, is the same reason that Mrs. Obama’s is targeted; as a woman, her appearance is the lowest hanging fruit. If her arms were a bit fleshy (and they aren't), what woman in her forties would not be able to identify? In the end, the Obamas are a black couple in the White House and painting them as different in any way is an effective way for their opponents to tear them down.


Roundtable: 8-Year-Olds in Padded Bras and Thongs, Really?! 

Nichole: Ladies, what do you think of Abercrombie & Fitch's decision to sell push up bikini tops to little girls? Other than, this is ridiculous. I read the recent New York Times profile of Miranda Cosgrove, which in describing tween girl stars' journey to adulthood, suggests that the passage is often through expression of overwrought sexuality (i.e. Jamie Lynn Spears, Miley Cyrus, et. al.). A couple of the commenters raised an important point--why do we think that the only way for girls to mature into adults is by becoming sexy instead of smart, engaged people? I'm very perturbed by that because it persists through women's adulthood. I mean, I love Stacy and Clinton, but why must I feel "sexy" to be dressed well and appropriately? I feel like women are constantly supposed to be exuding "sexiness" as a marker of their femininity. Is sexy really the foundational component of our personalities? Of course, this also has ramifications as to how we teach our sons to engage with girls as equals.

Karima: I saw this on Good Morning America this morning. Abercrombie and Fitch also marketed thongs for young girls with "Wink wink" stiched onto the underwear. I don't have any children but I am appalled. This is frightening because why should 7-12 yr old girls be prepping to look sexual? This is candy for sexual predators. To put my 2 cents in on the point of why girls are encouraged to be sexy in order to welcome adulthood is this belief that the only worth a woman has is her womb so lets make her desirable enough for an old man to want to stick it to her. The old man wants to own her womb and dictate what happens there.

Lydia: Karima, I'd forgotten about the thong! Why are they so committed to supporting the sexualization of little girls? That takes the disturbance level to a new high. Clearly, they aren't making a lot of money on these clothes since people are outraged as soon as they hit the racks. I would imagine these products have to go through many hands to make it from the idea stage to the clothing rack and to think no one had the ovaries to stop it makes me angry.

Lydia: I just checked the Abercrombie Kids website and the bikinis are only available in sizes small through extra large, which, according to their size chart, are for girls 56" and up. I consulted a growth chart and 56" is the height of an eleven or twelve year old girl. Still on the young side for a padded bra but not nearly as disturbing.

Nichole: Do you think so? Doesn't it still put a lot of pressure on a young girl to think of her body in highly sexualized ways and to conform to that highly sexed body type?

Lydia: I can remember when I was ten, standing in line for lunch with a couple of girls from my class discussing who had started to get boobs and who hadn't. It wasn't about, in my mind at least, about sex or being sexy so much as a sign of being more mature, growing up. If you had signs of growth, you were more mature somehow.

Nichole: Yes, I can see that.  And perhaps I'm too attached to my Twitter feed and trending topics, but your memory calls to mind a story that shows how much has changed from when we were in middle school and going through puberty and now.  Now, the scourge of "sexting" makes public what once was private or limited to a small circle of friends. I guess I'm wondering how much private space tweens have to grow and explore their identities?

Lydia: Fair point. Times have certainly changed in that respect. The discussion amongst girls about how they are changing and growing up doesn't seem to happen anymore. It goes directly to publicly being "sexy" for some hormone-addled boy or even grown men which the padded bikini tops and thongs plays into directly. 


Related article: Sexy—Not the Be-All and End-All


Roundtable: Shaken By Sexual Violence

Michael Stravato for The New York TimesLucinda: An 11-year-old girl is gang raped by a group of men and boys. It’s captured on cell phones. The authorities begin an investigation just after Thanksgiving, because one of the girl’s classmates tells a teacher about the video. This makes me nauseous. I have a child and the thought of someone hurting her brings tears to my eyes as I type this.  

The New York Times just reported on this heinous crime. The article offers the facts in the first three paragraphs of the story, and then we get these lines:

“The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”   

The title of the article is “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” The town is shaken because they can’t imagine how their young men could do something like this? Really? There are also quotes in the article from people asking where this girl’s mother was. The town is shaken because they don’t know where this girl’s mother was? So this wouldn’t have happened if her mother was a better mother? Really? Is that what prevents gang rape—superior parenting? Why isn’t this town shaken because someone—a child—was brutalized by a group of people?

I am shaken because we live in a world where we let sexual violence happen. I’d love to see the guys lead the way to a world where being a man is not standing for sexual violence. I know two guys who are doing just that: Check out the work of Jimmie Briggs and Jackson Katz.

Lydia: But seriously, where were the men and boys' parents!? If you can be a grown-ass man and think it's OK to gang rape anyone, you have failed as a human being. If you are a boy and can be talked into participating in a gang rape, your parents may be able to take more of the blame, but you too are to blame.

I am trying my best to raise my two boys to be empathetic and sympathetic men that are not afraid to stand up for what is right and that includes standing against sexual violence, even when it means challenging the behavior of someone they thought was a friend.

Having been an 11-year-old girl myself, I would never wonder how these men and boys "have to live with this for the rest of their lives", as one WOMAN in the town told reporters. I'm wondering how that little girl is going to survive the rest of her life. I say survive, not live, because after going through something like that, it will take some serious support from her family, friends and the town to learn to live again and from what is being reported, they're more concerned about the "alleged" rapists than the brutally raped girl.

Nichole: The problem, which L'Heureux Dumi Willis hones in on, is that the age range of the males involved range from middle school to 27 and that "masculinization" of boys younger and younger creates a culture in which they can't even imagine or experience different ways of being a man.

I read a column in O magazine a couple of weeks ago about ways of raising boys you'd want to marry or partner with. I liked the piece because it focused on creating a relationship with your son in which, if I remember correctly, you don't let him get away with not being emotional. You talk and engage and remain physically as well as emotionally present. Right now, A is going through a phase where he's trying to work out how and with whom romantic relationships are formed as well as testing how and if there are limits on my love.

Lucinda: I love hearing this, Nichole, and I want the sweet boys in our lives to learn not just from us but from the men in their lives that there is more to being a man than that narrow ideal of the guy with muscles and a gun that gets glorified in our culture.

Sheryl: This story made me think of an incident that occurred in Manhattan last week and the ensuing public response. In an argument over a parking space, a man is reported to have punched a woman in the face so hard that she fell backwards and hit her head; she is now in a coma. He claimed that it was in self-defense because she hit or attempted to hit him first. She did something to provoke him to hit her and there are many members of the general public who agree (take a look at some of the comments related to this story).

Similar to this article which focuses on the townspeople's questions about the whereabouts of the girl's mother and how the young men could be drawn into committing such an act, a female news anchor, Megyn Kelly, who is also an attorney, responded by using a segment in her show to discuss the "controversy" surrounding the incident. To promote the segment she sent a tweet in which she asks if the man was right in his claim that the woman deserved it. What did the woman do to provoke the punch? What did the woman's boyfriend who was also at the scene do to provoke the punch? At the end of the segment, the anchor concluded that the woman did not deserve it. Thank goodness this anchor was there to sort it out because the question she posed is certainly what came to mind for me when I heard this story.

The Texas story is horrible. From sexual violence to physical violence perpetrated against women, it seems that the perpetrators, as well as other members of society, including the media, find a way to focus on what the victim may have done or not done to deserve the violence perpetrated against them.