Shan Yi Koay 
(Photo by Michino)

Malaysia > Bangladesh > Louisiana > Worcester: Lunch date with Shan Yi Koay

“In 5 years? I’d be open to working anywhere in the world if I get a job that I like. I thought most people would think the same way, but I’m realizing that a lot of people are more concerned about the risks of moving to a new place rather than the experiences and opportunities it would open up. I think the flexibility that I have comes from our background.”

This is Shan Yi Koay, a recent Clark graduate (IDSC ‘2013), who is now enjoying her young professional career as the Community Programs Manager at Ivy Child International. Ivy Child is a Worcester based non-profit organization that works to improve the social and emotional well-being of children through mindfulness-based health education programs such as yoga and mindful art. Their vision is based on Positive Psychology and mindfulness based learning (MBL), and the founder and CEO Rose Pavlov explains their approach in her TEDx talk titled, “Unlocking children’s potential through mindfulness”.

Shan is a Third Culture Kid – a term you probably have heard of by now if you are a Clarkie, or have been reading this blog. She is from Malaysia, but has lived in Bangladesh for eleven years before coming to the states for college. After spending four years at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA, where she received a B.A. in Sociology, she moved to Worcester to pursue a graduate degree in International Development and Social Change at Clark University.

A fun fact is that Shan and I graduated from the same American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We are four years apart so we never actually overlapped in high school, but the social web of our school is so tight and small that we knew of each other through a handful of mutual friends and teachers. I met her at Clark four years ago as a first-year undergraduate student when she was a first-year graduate student, and I felt as though it was like meeting an old friend for the first time.

So I’ve known her for a long time, and I decided she would be a perfect person to interview for an article, as an example of what the “life after Clark” could look like – in Worcester – for an international student. (Just in case you were wondering, we went to a Thai restaurant called Basil ‘n Spice on Shrewsbury Street for lunch. Great food, reasonable pricing, and clean and classy interior design. I would definitely recommend it!)

Spicy Drunken Noodle, Basil 'n Spice (Photo by Michino)

Spicy Drunken Noodle, Basil ‘n Spice    (Photo by Michino)

Covered by the GoLocalWorcester magazine as a “Central MA Up + Comer” in 2013, Shan’s first job after graduating from Clark was the Executive Assistant to the President at Ivy Child International. She was not expecting to stay in Worcester, she tells me as we dig into the spicy noodles. “The opportunity just fell in place. After completing my OPT with them for a year, they were willing to sponsor my work visa. I decided to stay because the opportunity of being part of the behind-the-scenes operations for a start-up non-profit organization was such a unique learning and professional experience.”

As the direct assistant to the founder of a small but growing organization, Shan took on a variety of roles from her very first year including basic administrative and support duties, marketing and event coordination, and onboarding and managing interns and staff.

She spoke about two aspects of her current position that she enjoys. The first is the space that Ivy Child has for growth and change. The organization was basically kicking off when she joined. “I felt like I got to first-handedly experience the process of starting a non-profit, without actually being the Founder or CEO,” Shan says.

Located in Worcester, a city with great needs and potential to really seeing some results, Ivy Child allows Shan to get creative and bring her ideas to life. Yoga in the Park and Mindful Happy Hour are two examples of community programs that Shan created and helped develop, both of which are growing popular amongst Clarkies, as well. (Check out the recent albums for Yoga in the Park and Mindful Happy Hour!)

The second aspect of the job that she enjoys is the community connections it has opened up for her. “This job has allowed me to meet amazing community leaders and so many different people from various organizations and groups that are working towards similar goals in Worcester. This is something that has made me feel more ‘at home’ in Worcester.”

Grinning because it’s a little bit of a funny question to ask a friend over lunch, I asked Shan, “What inspires you?” The first word she said was, “family.” She has two younger siblings, who are equally motivated. She said, “We’re the kind of people who need to be doing things all the time. Otherwise, we get bored.” Shan for example is also a self-taught freelance graphic designer, on top of everything that she does. “I like to keep myself busy. I’m curious, and I love learning new things. I don’t know if I’ll ever see or learn enough.”

Needless to say, it was a delightful experience to share a good meal with such a friendly, bright and driven person. If you ask me – people like Shan are what inspire me.

– Michino

Bangladesh celebrate after dismissing Moeen Ali.

The Underdogs of the Cricket world have risen

The thunderous roar of the Mirpur (town in Dhaka city, the capital of Bangladesh) crowd rises into the hot Dhaka night as the 19-year old youngster merely smirks at the carnage in front of him. Hashim Amla, the most consistent batsman in One Day International (ODI) Cricket history, takes one shocked look at the uprooted stumps behind him before turning his back to the jubilant green-and-red huddle forming around the nubile teenager. These were the scenes at the Sher-E-Bangla Stadium last week, as Bangladesh subdued an otherwise-dominant South Africa side for the second match in a row. Bangladesh, long known as the minnows of the cricket world, displayed their newfound mastery of the game to overcome a side they managed to beat only once in the past decade. This is not new to them anymore.

They rounded off the most successful season of ODI cricket, adding the scalps of the Protease to those of the Indians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans – the fourth home series they won in a row. The last 8 months truly saw the “Rise of the Tigers,” a bout of success that 150 million Bangladeshis around the world had been waiting for, for almost 20 years.

Instrumental to this amazing success have been the youngsters that have stepped into the big shoes from the youth teams. Debutante fast bowler 19-year-old Mustafizur Rahman nabbed a record 13 wickets in the three games that left the full-power Indian side –  widely claimed as the best batting lineup in the world –  completely beaten and lost for words. Newbie opening batsman Soumya Sarkar, only in his first few months of international cricket, saw Bangladesh through to victory both games against South Africa, displaying a barrage of sweetly-timed strokes reminiscent of the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. The side has rallied around the fighter captain Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, whose kneecap (that has seen 13 surgeries in the past 8 years) juts out tough his trousers every time he runs in to bowl, who embodies and instills the attacking mindset that Bangladesh have confidently displayed.

The raucous Mirpur crowd and the entire cricket-crazed nation beyond the stands have been living the dream. For Bangladeshis like myself living abroad, staying up nights to watch the matches that begin in the dead of the night, trying desperately to stream the matches on the morning commute, and keeping an eye on the Cricinfo scoreboard have been a regular part of our lives for the past 8 months. I lost count of the number of times I whooped on the morning Boston subways the past month, drawing strange stares, as the Tigers routed their opposition. A nation that has been divisive in politics, culture and religion in recent times, that has been racked by violent murders of children, has been given these precious moments to unite behind. The immense pride we all feel for the Bangladesh Cricket Team never fails to bring a smile to the faces of the farmers, rickshaw pullers, school students, professionals, and expats like myself, who is grinning right now as I punch these words into my computer.

The Bangladeshi team, like many others in the past, has now become an inspiration. Every team that is currently known as the stars of the cricket world has worked days and nights to get where they are. Often times we see successful beings and we are amazed by their accomplishments and are in awe of them.  We don’t highlight their failures or the bruises they’ve had to endure to come where they are. The truth is, we often end up thanking all those that made it possible to achieve our dreams but we don’t thank ourselves for trying and failing and then trying all over again. It takes determination and will power to overcome our greatest losses and become someone who people can look up to. It takes even greater determination when they hold an entire nation’s faith and hopes on their shoulders.

Let it be known, the Bangladeshi Cricket Team till today was an ‘underdog’ barely qualifying for international tournaments. And today, it has moved past it all and is carrying its scars and bruises of failures as it keeps moving forward. We as Bangladeshi Cricket fans take pride in its accomplishments today, but are also prouder because it has come a really long way.

Want to learn what Cricket is? Check out this YouTube video:

– Suaida

Image from: http://www.icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup/news/2015/media-releases/86718/bangladesh-and-sri-lanka-qualify-for-icc-cricket-world-cup-2015-quarter-finals

Greece (image from web)

My insight on the Greek crisis

Amidst all the geo-socio-political news since the start of this year, the Greek debt crisis most likely resonates as the most ubiquitous. While negotiations are being held, a recent deal has allowed for a bailout, resulting in crushing austerity measures. Now, I have never taken an economics class in my life. Following the terminology has been a challenge. For the most part, my only connection to Greece is that I’ve lived there for a short span of months. Speaking to friends and acquaintances there, the jargon is not so much a problem as its repeated presence in Greek life. In the past five years, coming to terms with the reality of the crisis has been a frustrating ordeal for the Greeks. Covering an expansive range of topics from national-supranational identity to Greek history and politics, discussions on the crisis represents a tumultuous melting pot. What has remained, is a populace that is moving forward amidst a confusing and painful time.

When I first visited Greece in 2012, the Piraeus port in Athens had already displayed the trickling failures of the 2010 bailout. For a Euro-tripping teen, this was the reality of a heterogeneous currency union. The homeless peddlers in the port and streets were a far cry from the quaint cobblestones of Berlin. The 2010 bailout then had attempted to boost an economy with 11.8% unemployment. Today, as the Eurozone demands for austerity, unemployment is more than 25%. What needs to be understood is that the crisis has affected the populace’s identity. Feelings of humiliation and desperation have come to replace what had been Greece’s longstanding pride of its heritage. By now everyone has realized that Greece’s debt will never be repaid. Because of this, the new austerity measures are more vindictive than practical for Greece.

(image from web)

Last week, Europe and the entire world saw a nation celebrate their voting against austerity measures. Behind the scenes, political propaganda had for the most part taken over the decisions. Despoina Lioliou, a Clarkie from Greece, states that the international media has provided a skewed image of the crisis. The inner political drama has been sparsely covered. The week before the referendum vote, people described their situation as such: “We are standing over a cliff. We can either wait for them to push us over, or we can jump ourselves.” When NO came out as the nation’s answer, people were celebrating on the streets. Only a week later, everyone demanded that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigns because he didn’t fulfill his party’s promise against austerity. The conflict lies in the political arena, both amongst the people and the decision makers.

According to Lioliou,

“the week before the referendum vote, all Greek media outlets promoted YES as the most beneficial vote. They interviewed people on the streets, and just as someone said they will vote no, they pulled away the microphone. They presented fake polls where the YES vote was predicted an astounding victory, more than 70% or so. They only covered the rallies supporting the YES vote, and not the much bigger ones advocating for NO. Greek celebrities made TV spots talking about how Europe is a Greek word and thus Greece belongs in Europe. If people took only this into consideration, it would make sense to them why the Greeks are celebrating the NO vote: part reactance, part genuine support of the vote.”

The neglect of such nuances in the political climate beckons for a reassessment of our international news outlets.

Speaking to young adults in Greece, the supranational political relations have evoked fear of a “war-without-bullets.” The term war itself evokes a historical tragedy for Greek identity. In truth, one could say Greece never had a recuperation “post-war” period; Greece has experienced Nazi occupation, civil war and a dictatorship until joining the European Union. The desperation that follows these historical patterns provides for a bleak outlook. Young students struggle for a future amidst such high unemployment rates. Most college students work as much as they can and live with their parents to save money. Many even resolve on saving to move abroad in search of better opportunities. USA would be a tough destination, but relations with other European countries have also been very vulnerable. Entering the European Union while already in a poor economic stage, the burden of debt piled onto the Greek economy. Adding to the politics, the emergence of caricatures depicting the Greek citizen as lazy has sparked a crisis in the Greek identity. Many call for a reckoning, but the proposed austerity would be another humiliating challenge to overcome.

Yet even so, in spite the confusion and vulnerability, Greek life is as normal as they try to be. The Piraues port is still functioning. Greek families still celebrate birthdays, baptisms and weddings. Friends continue to meet, to fish, to chat in cafes and joke for the curse off against their economic situation. While the bigger decisions are being made, most have realized the futility of their efforts to negotiate a less humiliating agreement. Not to say that they’ve stopped striving. Everyone still goes to their jobs and tries to make the most of their situation. The resulting “take-it-as-you-go” attitude is both a humbling and helpless reaction as a general populace.

– Fileona

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Being hijra: Gender identity in the South Asian context

I just finished reading an op-ed piece published a few days ago in the New York Times, which discussed the brave actions of one Labannya Hijra, who as an eyewitness managed to apprehend two of the three Bangladeshi Islamist radicals who brutally hacked to death secular blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. There are a number of angles to this story – the religious intolerance that motivated this barbaric murder and the courage of Labannya Hijra being the most prominent. While the fate of Oyasiqur Rhaman is grievous indeed, and warrants mobilization and discourse around freedom of speech and tolerance in über-conservative societies, Labannya’s involvement in the matter has sparked interesting developments in Bangladesh.

What you should know is that Labannya is a hijra, which is a term used in the South Asia to signify a person assigned male at birth who later goes on to identify as female. While some hijras are intersex, a broad majority of them are assigned male at birth. It is interesting to note that hijras have long been mentioned in recorded history of the region, such as in Hindu and Jain texts, as well as in the Kama Sutra. It was the arrival of British colonialism in the subcontinent that enforced the gender binary and outlawed hijras into the fringes of society.

In 2013, Bangladesh made history by recognizing hijras as a third gender. Nepal, Pakistan, and India are the other countries that have legally recognized the existence of a third gender, including on passports and other official documents. While this may seem rather progressive of the South Asian subcontinent, one must not be too quick to assume true equality in these societies. As a South Asian myself, I understand the ability of our cultures to embrace contradictions. While the concept of a third gender exists, hijras have very little beyond that recognition. They operate within a close community, which serves as both a support system and a prison. They have little autonomy in a hierarchical structure that places their guru in charge of their order. Despite what their governments might think, the citizens in these countries are yet to fully recognize hijras as their equals. The societies in our countries still employ inflexible, impermeable gender norms to police behavior, and hijras must either conform or be shunned. What generally occurs is both. Due to the socio-economic isolation that hijras experience, an overwhelming number of them face a lifetime of begging or prostitution. While heterosexual men in these countries utilize the sexual services of hijras, it is done largely in secrecy, a shameful secret that none are willing to admit. Comparable to the status of trans communities in the U.S., hijras face discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing, education, immigration, law, and bureaucracy. HIV prevalence among the hijra population is 276 times that of the entire adult population in Pakistan.

Reading this account aroused mixed emotions in me. On one hand, I was struck by the western-centrism of social justice narratives in our world today. It is worth noting that the West is not the only part of the world that rejects binaries and hierarchies of oppression. From examples of grassroots feminist movements in Latin America to the celebration of homosexuality in Ancient China, all cultures have their own takes on equality. The historically-rooted concept of a third gender in the Indian sub-continent is yet another example of this. This is important to keep in mind when we consider fighting for equality globally. The western definitions of identity are not a one size fits all approach, just like western liberal democracy has failed to take root in other parts of the world in its purest form. Similarly, the hijra identity does not translate neatly to a western equivalent. For instance, there is no natural association between gender and sexuality that occurs with hijra identity, for some go onto renounce sexuality altogether. There is an element of the sacred to hijra identity, despite the low status granted by society (remember what I said about contradictions?), with a belief in the bond between sexual and spiritual energies. It is important to be culturally competent when espousing the cause of a particular population, as opposed to blindly transplanting the beliefs of one group and imposing it upon the other.

On the other hand, I am struck by how far our South Asian cultures must progress to be truly equitable. Identities may be relative and subjective, but perhaps all of us can agree that one of the objective standards in this world is to ensure that all people enjoy the same freedoms and privileges. Well then, I wonder if those who are assigned female at birth have the same capacity to transcend their identity as hijras do. I consider the injustices heaped upon the hijra community. I think about how homosexuality is a criminal offense in all countries in the region except Nepal, which affects the hijra population as well as all sexual minorities. While the western approach to rights and recognition may not suit these cultures completely, it is important to embrace the fundamental principle that lies at its heart, which is recognition of all people and the struggle for the rights of everyone.

Labannya has become an overnight sensation in Bangladesh. As a South Asian Caitlyn Jenner, her bravery has led to the government’s announcement of hiring hijras as traffic police and the Central Bank requiring financial institutions to devote a portion of their corporate social responsibility funds on the hijra community. Thanks to those like Labannya, times are changing in this part of the world. Let us hope that it spells change for everyone.

– Themal

rainbow_court

When the rainbow filter went global

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made history on Friday, June 26th by ruling that same-sex marriage be legal nation-wide. Countless Americans took to the streets while others proudly displayed profile pictures in rainbow hues, celebrating this moment in jubilation. As the story hit international news streams, perhaps billions of people received the news to mixed reactions. It is interesting that 21 other countries – even developing nations like Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, as well as South Africa – legalized same-sex marriage before the United States, and yet none of them caused the international uproar that the SCOTUS ruling achieved. This is yet another testament to the kind of global influence America wields.

As the SCOTUS ruling made its way around the world, gathering statuses, comments, likes, hashtags, and more rainbow-filtered profile pictures, something more sinister was brewing beneath the surface. In Russia, conservative politicians and Orthodox Church leaders were quick to denounce the development as America’s attempt to “impose its anti-natural and post-human view of marriage on other countries.” In China, Prof. Zeng Yi of Tongji University, who described the U.S. decision to approve same-sex marriage as a “crime against humanity,” stressed that the purpose of marriage was to have children. Most chillingly, ISIS decided to commemorate this historic event by posting footage of an execution of four gay men in a barbaric fashion – throwing them off a roof of a five-story building and sending them plunging to their deaths. This video was accompanied by ISIS’ ironic use of the hashtag #LoveWins.

I myself was eager to see the reactions of other Sri Lankans to the news, and was horrified to see the outpouring of hatred and bigotry on Facebook. Many commented on same-sex unions being unnatural, akin to pedophilia, was immoral, was upsetting the balance of nature etc. It was clear that homophobia, which had long existed in the form of micro-aggressions and less overt forms, was being pushed to the surface by this landmark ruling in America. I shudder to think of the backlash that the members of the LGBTQ+ community must be experiencing in their home countries, from being denied their identity to being denied their life, much like the four innocents who lost their live to ISIS.

Many wonder as to what the cause of this surge of resentment and bigotry could be. One answer is that the topic of LGBTQ+ rights was never a mainstream issue in these countries, until society perceived the institution of marriage to be threatened by the U.S. ruling. Others claim that such a bold and sweeping move was not expected from a nation as staunchly religious and conservative as the U.S., thus shaking the confidence of the religious right and traditionalists globally. Whatever the cause may be, the U.S. cannot be held to blame. It is not the fault of Americans that bigotry exists in other parts of the world. Each of us must shoulder the weight of what flaws exist in our own countries.

On a more positive note, not all of this is gloomy and dark. In Australia, legislators are confident that the U.S. policy isolates Australia as the only developed, English-speaking nation to refuse to legalize marriages between same-sex couples. Legislator Janet Rice, Greens Party leader, called the U.S. ruling “the loudest call yet for marriage equality in Australia.” Meanwhile, in India, activists believe that this recent development would force legislators to reconsider the 2013 Indian Supreme Court decision to reinstate a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime. As Chinese LGBTQ+ activist Ah Qiang, director of Guangzhou-based Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) said, “I’ve never seen so much debate in both the traditional media and social media – so many people, and in so much depth. People who opposed homosexuality rarely felt a need to speak out — but they’ve taken this chance to express their feelings.”

This was definitely the case for the many vociferous opponents of marriage equality in Sri Lanka, who flooded my newsfeed with their posts, comments, and homophobic memes. I doubt that many of these people had ever had a full-fledged conversation about LGBTQ+ rights. And yet, the news of the SCOTUS ruling had forced these opinions out on to the surface. No longer were they festering deep in the hearts and minds of people, but being aired out in public and debated by others. This gave me the opportunity to write a blog post that addressed some of the basic arguments against queer identity that I encountered, which got over 1,400 views and was shared by many. I do not say this to brag about myself, but to point out that every word and gesture helps. I know that my voice may have helped someone out there question their prejudice or rekindle hope in the heart of those who are driven deep into the closet. This is the first step to more and more people realizing the justness of the LGBTQ+ cause.

Let me end by saying that for those who believe that the struggle for queer liberation and justice is over, think again. Queer identity is continually besieged both in America and abroad, and no one can rest until all people celebrate the same rights under the same rainbow flag. Yet today, we are closer to achieving that dream. It is the duty of each and every one of us to engage our family, friends, and social media acquaintances in these conversations, and to spread the message of equality that the Supreme Court stood for.

– Themal

Source: https://s3.amazonaws.com/prod_object_assets/assets/38908737700680/Rachel-Dolezal-NAACP-Spokane-1.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAI7NUHQYARXR2GGCQ&Expires=1435178857&Signature=pM%2FlYEfpQVLT77cC%2FhWnVU0kNSo%3D#_=_

Why Rachel Dolezal’s Story is so frustrating

If you haven’t heard the name, Rachel Dolezal, then you’ve been doing a pretty good job at hiding from media circuits. In case you are that person, let me catch you up: Dolezal has brought her name to fame and tarnished it all within a few days. She is a Caucasian woman who has been living the most recent portion of her life as a black woman. Yes, you read correctly. Her social media debut was when her estranged parents informed a news station that she has been falsely claiming to be African American. Dolezal has been identifying with a non-white race since the early 2000s. She has been sporting kinky weaves, braids, and skin bronzer in an attempt to deepen this facade. She has even made some extensive life choices that have helped her narrative: She attended a historically black university, Howard. It was at Howard where she even sued the school for discriminating against her for being biracial. She taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. She was also the head of the NAACP chapter in her place of residency, Spokane, Washington.

In recent interviews, Rachel Dolezal has revealed that her identifying as black is nowhere near deception or a mockery of black culture as many people are calling it. She claims that she feels an inherent connection to black culture, and that the black experience and struggle have spoken to her. She has told different interviewers that she’s known she was really black ever since she was young. Dolezal has even gone to the extent of saying that her parents aren’t her real parents, and that there is no way of proving otherwise (even though she won’t take a DNA test).

But Dolezal is, in fact, white. Her familial heritage does not indicate otherwise. For many people, this situation is laughable. But looking at my Facebook a night or two after her story was released proved that not everyone was able to find the humor. Many of my friends, predominantly black, shared information about her story with comments of outrage and confusion. I share the similar anger and disbelief when learning more details of Dolezal’s story, and my frustration mirrors much of the opinions presented in articles that have been published in response to Dolezal.

Rachel Dolezal (Image from the Internet)

First and foremost, impersonating any race is pretty hard for me to find justifiable. She used this new identity as an attempt to assimilate into black communities. She wanted to understand the black experience on a personal level. Yes, while identifying as black, Dolezal worked as an activist for racial/human rights justice. She did great work and was a community leader. But she could have done this work as a white person. White activists exist. Different NAACP chapters across the U.S. have employed white people. I feel as though we are currently in such a crucial time where white allyship and solidarity are needed and are being defined. Dolezal could have used her experiences and her privilege to mobile change in a way that would never have called for her to misrepresent herself.

Another issue I have with her story is her going to Howard. I’m not upset that someone who is non-black has attended a historically black school. What’s troubling is that if she claimed to be black to get into Howard, it is as though she cheated a person of color out of a spot at the university. The school was established to provide opportunities that non-white learners couldn’t get otherwise. If she wanted to attend a historically black school, she could have attended as a white person because historically black schools do admit white students.

Issue number three is her claim that she needed to identify as black as a way to help and relate to her black adopted siblings. There are studies that show that children who are adopted by families with race/ethnicity different from their own can have self-esteem and identity issues. I have even heard firsthand accounts from friends and family who were adopted by different races and have been told of these challenges. As an educated person who is aware of these challenges, she could have still been a support system without changing her identity. Her actions make it appear as though adoptions shouldn’t happen outside of an adoptee’s race, instead of advocating for restructuring how families help their new family members feel supported with their differences.

The end-all is that I feel as though Rachel Dolezal has trivialized black culture. Using her privilege, she invited herself into a culture that continues to fight for its protection. By simplifying the experience and making it appear to be so easy to “become black,” she is making an example of herself. She has made it known that others can take something that never belonged to them. Women of color still struggle to find job opportunities with natural hair and darker skin. As a woman of color myself, I often wonder if I will face discrimination for sporting my natural hair or the styles she’s brandished over the years. What Dolezal really did was to revel in enjoyment of being able to change herself – bring able to play both sides so fluidly, without fear or consequence. If I relax my hair and bleach my skin, I’m still black.

– Lulu

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Why Pride isn’t enough

It’s Pride season, and everywhere and everything is festooned with rainbow hues. The colors carry symbolic meaning, representing the diversity of the queer community. While watching the Boston Pride 2015 Parade last week, I was struck by the scale of this diversity. The parade featured nearly all identities of the movement – trans* community, white and racial minorities, differently abled. It was heartening to see signs of ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ being borne right before the delegation from the Union United Methodist Church. It was a moving experience, to feel the sense of community that prevailed in that space, and hear the crowds cheer and support all the different identities of the queer community.

But by now, you should know that I rarely write happy, positive pieces. While it is truly amazing that inclusive spaces such as Pride exist, this is not a daily reality for the queer community. It always saddens me to think that a movement that has experienced the pain of exclusion and stigma would dole out those very things to their own. The queer community has much to do in terms of tackling the sexism, racism, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice that exist within its ranks.

I once wrote an article about gay cis-men and their male privilege. In it, I discussed the privileges that gay cis-men take over women and their bodies, infringing on their bodily integrity by critiquing their fashion, appearance, and diet in a non-consensual manner. It is worrisome that this trend extends to sexual harassment, with gay men groping women at bars and clubs and using their sexuality in order to trivialize their actions. The fact that sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire and everything to do with power assertion means that gay men contribute to sexism as much as the rest of society. In another article – an interview of faith-based LGBTQ+ advocate Judy Hanlon – I was shocked to report the blatant racism that she and the LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in her care had experienced. To take for granted the legacy of queer communities of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lord, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker, is to do a disservice to the legacy of the queer community itself.

Another dimension in which this insularity occurs is in the trans* exclusion that prevails in certain sects of the queer community. The Human Rights Campaign recently came under fire when one of their staffers asked an attendee at the Proposition 8 Supreme Court hearings to remove a Trans Pride flag, on the grounds that marriage equality is not a trans* issue. As the key group supporting marriage equality initiatives across the country, the organization’s trans* exclusionist policies has led to a stifling of trans* perspectives in this issue. As of 2013, the organization did not have any trans* individuals in their staff and they did not include the letter ‘T’ in their use of the LGB acronym until 2004. Most troublingly, they have supported transphobic policies, such as in 2007 when they supported a version of the Employment Non Discimination Act (ENDA) in Congress that did not extend the same protections for discrimination on the basis of gender identity as sexual orientation. It seems that there are those within the community who have forgotten the ‘T’ in our label, and don’t find as much meaning in the diverse colors of the pride flag as they should.

One of the major problems with the mainstream queer culture is that it has become assimilationist, adopting a white, middle class, cis agenda at the expense of identities that don’t fit into this mold. Consider how the hallmark LGBTQ+ issue of the modern day – the one that is debated by hopeful politicos and the Supreme Court – is marriage equality. Violence against LGBTQ+ identity still exists, as is demonstrated by the statistic that queer youth are twice as likely as their peers to experience violence. 73% of youth are more comfortable being honest about their sexuality online than in the real world.

Employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity is yet to be criminalized in 29 states. And yet marriage equality has become the seminal topic of queer rights. What is most disturbing of all is that marriage equality is commonly referred to as gay marriage – which fails to be inclusive of many queer identities – representing how its poster child would be a gay, white, cis-male couple. It is signs like this that point to the insularity of mainstream queer culture, and the many ‘isms’ that exist within its midst.

It is important for the queer community and its allies to force these conversations, discuss these issues, and attempt to rectify the mistakes that we’ve made. For if not, Pride would cease to be any kind of meaningful symbol to the queer community and the world at large.

Themal

Sources: http://mic.com/articles/40629/as-marriage-equality-marches-forward-don-t-forget-the-trans-people-left-behind ; http://www.hrc.org/youth/view-statistics/#.VX4STPlVikp

- Photo by Suaida Firoze, Boston MA

#Pride

The LGBT Pride month and festivities are a 40-year-long tradition in the United States. Many of us don’t know that it started as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots that took place in 1969. Stonewall, back then, was a very popular gay bar situated in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

ElyanaThe riots themselves were a series of rebellious and violent demonstrations against the NY police for raiding the Stonewall Inn on June 1969. This single event is currently considered the biggest tipping point for the LGBT civil rights movement. Since then every year, the LGBT community and supporters get together and celebrate the diversity of the LGBT community and the impact they have had all over the world.

Pride has evolved from just marches to week and month long activities filled with picnics, shows, huge parades, workshops, symposia, concerts etc. The month of June was also declared as ‘Pride Month’ by President Obama this year.Obama

I attended my first Pride parade in Boston this past weekend. And I cannot do justice to the experience I had, by putting it into words. It was simply exhilarating. Seeing so many people come together to support a movement that not just promotes the LGBT community but sends out an even bigger message – ‘it’s okay to be whoever you desire to be’ – was simply inspiring.

Banks, churches, schools, politicians (WE SAW ELIZABETH WARREN, no biggie :D) and so many non-profits came together to stand up for what they believed in and made the parade a huge success. My favorite moment was when I saw a South-Asian woman carrying a sign saying ‘I support my queer desi daughter’. Of course that hit me very close to home since I am Bangladeshi, but even if I wasn’t that was definitely the proof of how far so many people have come in terms of accepting those that are different from themselves.

- Pride parade captured by Suaida Firoze, Boston, MA.

– Pride parade captured by Suaida Firoze, Boston, MA.

The LGBT community has come a very long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969. The global community has also come a long way to accept those that may not fit the ‘norm’ according to their ideologies. And there is a very prevalent hope that it can only get better from here on out.

After attending Pride this year, the rainbow flag made a lot of sense to me. The flag means a lot of different things to many.  Well for me, it just meant ‘happy to be unique’. Everyone there who could express themselves freely seemed so happy. The entire parade just radiated happiness.

It always feels great to be comfortable in your own skin and embrace who you are. And it just feels ecstatic when thousands around you tag along. Mankind has come so far to accept all the diversity this world has to offer. There’s plenty more milestones to reach till every day feels like Pride for the LGBT community. But till then, let’s appreciate all that we have, and of course- Happy Pride y’all!

– Suaida Firoze

Why a liberal professor shouldn’t be afraid of his liberal students

Facebook is a wonderful thing. It helps one stumble upon everything and anything, from the illuminating to the mind-numbingly mundane. Two days ago, my newsfeed cheerily threw in my face an article that was neither. Titled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me”, the article speaks of one particular professor from the Midwest who was experiencing grave challenges in speaking out and challenging the beliefs of his students in the face of the growing cost of being politically incorrect. He discusses the challenges in “rocking the boat” by exposing students to controversial material, in the face of the growing power that students have over the job stability and career progression of academics. He blames this (and I quote) on “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice”.

There are many things contained in his article that I agree with. His concerns of the stifling of debate and discourse around topics that the social justice movements have embraced are valid (as he cites the examples of the shutting down of an abortion debate in Oxford in 2014). However, there are flaws to his argument which must be addressed. A nuanced response to this article was published soon after, which indicated that the immediate problem that the original writer spoke of does not lie with students and their sense of justice, nor with the bent of various social movements, but with the capitalist motivations of institutions which seek to preserve their reputation and the investment of their students by refusing to diffuse situations or back their faculty.

The original contributor cites many examples of modern youth’s misguided intentions. He mentions that comparing the number of “web articles surrounding the supposed problematic aspects of the newest Avengers movie with those complaining about, say, the piecemeal dismantling of abortion rights,” it is clear how liberal society gets riled up over trifles. And yes, I do agree that social conscious cyber communities may tend to zero in on certain topics with almost missionary zeal, but I believe that it is necessary, nay even healthy, for us to question and critique. If critical thinking is what the writer strives for, then he cannot argue against this phenomenon (especially when media has proven time and time and time again that we cannot accept what they present at face value). The second element, and one that is required to complete this process of problematization and engagement, is to create spaces for the discussion of such topics. Secondly, I do not agree that the number of articles that exist on a particular topic is in and of itself an indicator of how great a concern it may be. This seems rather simplistic. The abortion debate has existed for decades, and is still a number-one priority in many social justice movements. Timing is everything, with more recent debacles, such as Joss Whedon’s alleged treatment of gender, tend to garner an immediate response. More problematic to me, if truth be told, is how short the memory span of cyber activists may be, but that is a discussion for a later day.

I do not doubt that the professor who authored the article is well-intentioned. For instance, he does state that we cannot dismiss identity (and the prejudice that follows like a rabid dog). However, he does much harm by stating that the feelings dictate discussions of identity, as opposed to rational thought. I, for one, am rather tired of feelings being demonized and denigrated to a lower status than rationality. In the age when we believe that emotional experiences form the cornerstone of human life, we still cling to the archaic belief that rationality trumps all. It is emblematic of the eurocentrism that still dominates any mode of philosophical thought. Mothers make split-second, emotional decisions to protect their young; is this bad? It is time we realize that emotions are an integral and necessary aspect of humanity, which we cannot trivialize. Secondly, it is not only the feelings of individual students, for instance, that stand to be affected when one discusses problematic issues without any modicum of sensitivity. The very real threat of reinforcing harmful stereotypes and beliefs – which students take with them from the classroom to society – cannot be ignored.

He blames social justice movements for being insular and narrow-minded. Yet again, while I agree that open dialogue and discourse about issues is the ideal modus operandi for the fight for equality, there are very real barriers to consider. First, let’s really think about the scale of the movement. We’re not talking about a shadowy, Illuminati-esque force here (as Ann Coulter would have us think). Socially conscious liberals and libertarians are still very much a minority in this country, and are constantly required to debate and revisit the basics of their ideologies before a majority that views them with skepticism. Even a simple example serves to illustrate this point – consider how terms like fag and retard are still in use, and how long it took for the n-word to be phased out of our lexicon. While I don’t believe in censorship, to blame all social justice movements for this phenomenon is to undermine them as any whiff of a flaw has the critical majority out for blood. In fact, this degree of opposition necessitates that social justice movements constantly evaluate their ethos, serving as an undesirable checking mechanism.

In such a volatile environment, there are grave dangers in promoting unrestricted freedom of speech. I know that this may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe this American insistence on free speech needs to be reined in. Allowances for free speech enables people like Ann Coulter to travel around the country, propagating her ill-informed messages of hate and bigotry. Although she expects the truth to emerge in a free marketplace of ideas, reality is not quite so simplistic. People are willing to embrace what ideas appeal the most, and with money and fame to lend power to their voices, the likes of Ann Coulter are able to appeal to the misinformed masses.

Again, I must point out that open discussion and dialogue are not be demonized and shunned. Yet, the problem is that people do not approach these spaces with the right attitude. Respect alone is not enough. It is important to recognize and value the humanity, and to seek to understand rather than discredit. If only all human beings could approach one another from a place of love. Then again, if that were the case, we would not have anything to discuss in the first place.

– Themal

A Love Letter to Clark

It has been over a year since I began blogging for the ‘Things That Matter’, and I took the time to peruse some of the articles that I wrote during that time. In reading them serially, I was struck by how quickly they began to focus on issues of social justice, discussing topics like race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and the intersections of these concepts. As someone who strives to write from the heart, from a place of authenticity and passion, I believe that what I write is a reflection of who I am and try to be, and Clark has played a large role in that.

In the everyday conversations about Clark that I have with friends, acquaintances, and even random Clarkies (such a Clark phenomenon), I present a critical voice because I believe that Clark should be held to higher standards than the less progressive colleges we are constantly compared to, and should aspire to rectify problems that exist in our community. However, this article will deviate from this tradition, and instead celebrate the many wonderful ways in which Clark broadened my perspective.

As sensitive and aware as my family was of issues like racism and sexism, broader Sri Lankan society could hardly be categorized in the same manner. Racism and sexism, as two issues that had gained ground in the public consciousness, were rife in our immediate environment and were normalized to a great deal. Other forms of prejudice, such as homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc. were virtually unheard of growing up. Worse yet, conversations about identity were not as commonplace as they are within the Clark circles I move through. While there was a chance that glaring displays of racist or sexist behavior would be identified and problematized, microaggressions would slip under the public radar and prevail unchallenged. For instance, I remember being taught at a young age that it was impolite to use the term ‘woman’ to refer to someone who identifies as female. No doubt a legacy of our British colonial past, such ideas had taken root of Sri Lankan society in a death-like vice. Given my young age, I took this lesson to heart, but looking back I question this flawed logic. Why is it acceptable to call a man a man, while the term woman is considered tainted in some way? The sexist overtones – that being a woman is inherently degrading – are now crystal clear to me. I had a penchant for writing, and was prone to write (pseudo)philosophical treatises on all things ontological. When referring to the human race, I would always unconsciously use the term ‘mankind’, excluding women and trans* populations in the process. Never during my 13 years of schooling was this corrected by any of my teachers.

Looking back on my childhood, I feel that I have come a long way. Clark played an immense role in awakening my political and social consciousness. The amazing people I associate on a daily basis have inspired me to expand my awareness and understanding of diverse identities, the intersections of these categories, and the issues that plague them. I have grappled (and continue to do so) with the concept of privilege and how fluid-like it is in changing based upon context and identity, passing hands from one group to another. I think about how historically rooted phenomena such as privilege and power are inspired by centuries of colonial influence and the human impulse to dominate and master. And not only has Clark taught me to question and reflect on such topics, but to speak out and act towards the ending of oppression and the liberation of all peoples.

This particular international student owes a large debt to Clark, for helping him learn and unlearn what he has during the past two years. Yet, Clark alone does not earn all the credit for my transformation. My family has taught me in innumerable ways the importance of valuing human life and easing the suffering of others. My culture has taught me the importance of sacrifice, empathy, and the power of the collective. It is the influence of both Clark and my culture that have contributed to who I am today. Clark taught me who I should care about. Sri Lanka taught me why I should care.

– Themal