About MichelleMichelle Brown is an author, activist & public speaker who believes in common ground for all people.
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Category Archives: Women
Printed 5/5/2016 in Between the Lines issue 2418
Life started out simple, or so it seemed. There were two boxes — female/girl and male/boy.
It was all supposed to be simple from there. We would walk down that female/girl path from that first breath to our last without variation. There were supposed to be few curves in this female/girl path, but that path was never a viable way for any woman.
You see, this female/girl path has always been filled with inequities and inequalities. Even if we stayed on the “path,” the sign posts of “you can’t,” “you won’t” and “you aren’t” thwarted our efforts at every turn. They told me I couldn’t, I wouldn’t and I wasn’t and like so many of my sisters I planted my hands firmly on my little female/girl hips and said, “I know I can, so I think I will.”
I am African-American, female, queer, an artist, activist, and so much more. I choose to live all of these aspects of my life out and authentically. You get the picture — I do a lot of things.
The lines of my life are more than criss-crossing. Some days the lines are so blurred, it’s like I’m standing on the central island of a crazy intersectional roundabout pulling me in so many directions it’s at best challenging, if not totally overwhelming.
I’ve got a full house in the game of “diversity and inclusion” but despite my education, accolades and perceived opportunities, the deck has still been stacked against me, because when too many look at that central island of my roundabout, they still see that female/girl box.
We can go to space, lead companies, head foundations, serve in the military and, yes, raise families — but we are still women.
They see that female/girl box and deal their “woman card.” Their woman card says, “Women can’t be effective leaders.” Their woman card says we can’t make decisions about our own bodies. Their woman card says our work isn’t worth the same amount as our male counterparts. In their deck, the “woman” card is the joker and this joker must be tamed, never wild.
The “pink brick road” may be wider and go further than it did in the past, but the glass ceiling and the limited view of the abilities and value of a woman’s worth remains intact. If you had any doubt, just listen to the rhetoric of the current campaign.
At a forum at George Mason University earlier this year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich told a crowd that he won his 1978 election because women “left their kitchens” to support his campaign. When Fox News’s Megyn Kelly attempted to hold Trump accountable for his misogyny in a presidential debate, he dismissed the question as stupid and impertinent. Trump has referred to women he doesn’t like as ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Sen. Ted Cruz envisions a federal government under his administration that “works to defend the sanctity of human life and uphold the sacrament of marriage.”
When they look at our gender identity, their woman card says lesbian love/relationships are “experimental” or for their prurient interest. When forced to face the legitimacy of our LGBTQ relationships, they insert the hate card to attack our families and insert their woman card, supposedly to protect women and girls, to attack our transgender brothers and sisters. With their “woman” card comes oppression, misogyny, disempowerment, repression and would turn back the hands of time not just for women but also for the country.
But we have our own “woman” card. We’ve been keeping it up our sleeve as we’ve played each hand. We have overcome our fear of stepping into the intersections of our realities and our coming together to flex our collective muscle.
We are throwing down our “woman” card and leading the movements — like “Black Lives Matter.”
We are throwing down our “woman” card and fighting for women’s healthcare.
We are throwing down our “woman” card demanding safety for all women and girls, both cisgender and transgender, not only in bathrooms but in schools, neighborhoods and everywhere.
We are throwing down our “woman” card for environmental and economic justice and for families — all families.
We are throwing down our “woman” card because empowering women is a powerful strategy for reducing poverty and achieving other development goals globally.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump accused Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary R. Clinton of trying to play the “woman” card to which she responded, “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in.”
Come November, we all need to be marching to the voting booth humming that Sister Sledge anthem – “We Are Family!” Yes, we are family, and I need every sister with me. It’s time for all of us to play that “woman” card up our sleeve, and not just win this election but also change the whole game.
Published 4/7/2016 in issue 2414 of Between The Lines Newspaper
The win for marriage equality was our high point, but we knew it would not be smooth sailing ahead with this victory. We knew there would remain opposition. We knew there would be push back, but I doubt anyone could have predicted the magnitude of the efforts to turn back the hands of equality.
Last year lawmakers introduced more than 85 anti-LGBT bills in 28 state Legislatures. There was the stunning defeat that crushed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), an LGBT nondiscrimination law. And as the race to the White House heats up, threats to our rights continue.
Trump, the GOP front runner, has been a consistent opponent of marriage equality and has expressed support for the so-called First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) which would expose us to more discrimination. His closest rivals, Cruz and Kasich, promise no brighter future for LGBTQ Americans if they are successful. Both have consistently opposed our equal rights. And just when it looked like things couldn’t get more toxic, onerous anti-LGBTQ laws were passed in North Carolina and Mississippi.
So here we are approaching the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision. While some are planning weddings, others are girding our loins to continue the battle — recognizing that it’s not enough to be able to wed on Saturday if we can still be fired on Monday, and even worse to see some, if not all, of our rights turned back come November.
Okay, so no one says “gird your loins” anymore, but you get the drift. We must get ready for perilous times. Unfortunately it seems that some folks, at least on the progressive/liberal side, still don’t see how serious this stuff is.
Unlike the scared, misguided and/or lunatic fringe on the right willing to overlook the hypocrisy; vote against their own best interests; hold their nose; and fall in line behind whichever one of the three stooges heads the GOP ticket, our team is still working things out.
Some who are feeling the “Bern” hint that they will sit it out if it is not their candidate. Even worse, some Sanders supporters, most notably actress and activist Susan Sarandon, say they don’t know if they can bring themselves to vote for any candidate but Sanders. Sarandon went so far as to imply that Trump might be better for America than Hillary Clinton. Seriously?
Well, maybe in her world. Maybe in a wealthy, white, heterosexual world with the means and opportunities to seek refuge in greener pastures is that a good move, but for the other 99 percent, those of us in the LGBTQ community and especially those in communities of color, we need to be more thoughtful and strategic.
This does not mean a cakewalk, no matter how historic a Clinton candidacy might be. She has had her missteps and communication gaffs. There is too much information available, too many living witnesses to the past horrors, too many still suffering for ANYONE to be misinformed, misspeak or whitewash history.
Any candidate wanting progressive, LGBTQ and/or POC votes must be vetted fully and schooled on our issues like yesterday. We must ask more than, “What have you done for us lately?” but also, “What haven’t you done for us in the past?” and “Do you understand the consequences of your actions/inactions?” We need to ask them if they understand today’s world or are they still living with outdated values and views.
Having a social media presence and being on late night television might make you seem cool, but we need more than sound bites and slogans. We can’t hope that candidates will educate themselves — we must ask the hard questions and hold their feet to the fire to make sure they get it right and keep it right. That’s the relatively easy part. The pulling up not the girding up, the heavy lifting.
No politician, neither Hillary nor Bernie, can do that. They’re just the standard bearers. We must set and raise the standards which takes us back to the Them vs. Us reality.
They have done a pretty good job of raising a specter of doom and gloom, of portraying a scary future that only a return to their values can redeem — a message so powerful that many would vote against their own best interest to see fulfilled.
Us — well, not so much. Despite the fact that 12 years after marriage in Massachusetts the state hasn’t fallen into the sea (or burst into flames), that the country survived the enactment of the Affordable Care Act and more Americans now have health coverage, and after seven years of an Obama presidency the economy is in a far better place. We/Us still can’t get people to the polls to vote. We/Us haven’t directly or indirectly influenced enough of our friends/neighbors to realize our equality does not mean inequality for them.
When we have come together and raised our voices we have changed the nation again and again. We did this not by holding hands singing “Kumbaya” but by raising our voices in a song for freedom.
Now it’s the time to gird up our loins, to man-up and flex our ovaries and do whatever we have to do to focus not on our differences but on what will make a better world for us all — black/white, gay/straight, everyone. So, to borrow the words of the immortal Bob Marley, “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom? It’s all we’ll ever have.”
By Michelle E. Brown
I am no papal hater. I recognize that a lot of who I am, both good and bad, comes from my Catholic upbringing.
My father came from a family with strong Baptist roots but during a tour of duty in the Army in Italy, he apparently drank the Kool-Aid (or communion wine) and came back Catholic. When he married my mother, she abandoned her A.M.E. roots and accepted his faith and together they raised their three children as good little Catholics. We went to Catholic school, confession every Saturday and Mass enough times during the week and on Sunday to give me “frequent prayer” miles in that Big Book in the sky. By high school, I was over it for the most part thanks to the very things I had learned as a Catholic.
I am not a “recovering Catholic” I’m just over Catholicism. You see by the time I hit high school I was aware of a world outside my parish walls. A world where the doctrine and policies of the Church conflicted with the realities of my African American community and the changing landscape of urban America.
So you see it’s kind of hard for me to get excited about Pope Francis and his visit to the United States. He’s a new face but for me it’s the same old Church only worse since I was a child.
The church that closed parishes and schools in the inner city – decisions often made with the same cost-cutting, cold precision of any corporation. While abandoning the inner cities with populations that were predominantly Black and Brown, they proselytized in third world countries where Black and Brown folk continue to suffer from economic disparity and political upheaval.
As a woman, I watched the Church lead the attack against my reproductive rights. Even though Pope Francis recently extended to priests worldwide the authorization to reconcile those “guilty” of abortion The Church still holds abortion and contraception to be sinful, thus affecting the reproductive rights of women. Reproductive rights are not a matter of patriarchal morality, it’s a social and economic justice issue especially for poor women. Although women make up the majority of members of the consecrated life within the Church, its largely male hierarchy and refusal to ordain women implies “inferiority” of women.
And even though Pope Francis has made kinder, gentler remarks regarding the LGBTQ community and even hugged a member of our Transgender community, most notably saying “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem…they’re our brothers.” Being “gay” is still considered wrong and LGBTQ employees at U.S. Christian institutions (schools, etc.) are still being fired when they come out, announce their marriage or want recognition for their families and love. Faith leaders continue to harm LGBTQ youth by teaching that homosexuality is a sin.
Pope Francis has landed for a historic visit in the United States. His is a different papacy. Think about it. Traditionally being Pope has been a lifetime job, but Francis ascended to the thrown after his predecessor Pope Benedict resigned basically telling the “Big Guy in the Sky” to take this job and shove it.
Maybe God took a look at this Church and decided it was time to shake things up a bit, move things in a different direction. So he looked to the “New World/Third World” where so many injustices and inequities have resulted from the Old School Papacy and picked a new leader – this Pope from Argentina.
After a private meeting with President Obama, on official welcoming ceremony on the White House South Lawn and parade, Pope Francis will have the first-ever joint address to Congress by a Pontiff. He then heads to New York where he will host a religious service at the ground zero site of the 9/11 attacks and address the United Nations. Then he heads to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families is a triennial Vatican-backed event, held seven times previously starting in 1994 with the goal of strengthening marriage and families.
Pope Francis has received “Rock Star” treatment for comments emphasizing the central themes of his papacy — that the unfettered capitalism practiced in the United States and the West is fostering income inequality and creating an economic culture where the poor are simply discarded.
But this former Catholic will be watching to see what he does about cleaning up his own house – the Catholic Church – which has too often been a silent partner, even benefitting from, fostering the income inequality and creating the economic culture where the poor are simply discarded worldwide.
The Catholic Church has a long history, great influence and deep resources. Talk is cheap. Here’s hoping Pope Francis can be the change so many want to see.
A Review: Isabel Miller’s “Patience and Sarah” Audiobook narrated by Janis Ian and Jean Smart
I am a book nerd, a library card carrying, bibliophile. There is nothing more satisfying to me than curling up with a good book. A real book – hard cover, paper back – not an e-book but a book I can hold in my hands, turn a page and place a book mark.
My experience with audio books has been limited to road trips. The story broken up by conversations and sometimes left incomplete when the trip ended before the final CD. I found audio books entertaining, yes, but wondered if they could truly be engaging like a “real” book.
With no road trip on the horizon I settled down in my comfy chair, put on my head phones and popped in the first cd of Isabel Miller’s “Patience and Sarah” to see if this audio release of the 1971 historical fiction could meet my expectations.
Knowing the tale was narrated by legendary singer, songwriter Janis Ian and Emmy award winning actress/director Jean Smart heightened my expectations. My curiosity was also piqued by the strong lesbian theme of this historical fiction.
The familiarity of Jean Smart’s voice as Patience White immediately drew me into the story, welcoming me like an old friend into her parlor to tell me the story not only of these two incredible women but providing a window into a time when women’s lives were governed by a code defined by class and male privilege.
From the beginning Smart’s voice paints a picture of Patience not just her curiosity and her passion but how her beliefs are strongly influenced by the affluence she is born into. She has education and property which both inspires her possibilities but initially restricts her own belief that she can attain her dreams.
Smart so convincingly portrays Patience’s amusement, flirtation, seduction and manipulation of Sarah Dowling that I was at times infuriated by her games while at the same time titillated by Patience’s expression of love, growing passion and those kisses.
With the slightest inflection of her voice Smart is able to seamlessly portray all the characters in Patience’s world not only as an insider sharing religious beliefs, societal attitudes, and expected behaviors but also as an outsider straining at the bits to escape the boundaries of her lot in life.
As Patience’s world expands with Sarah, she continues to provide insight to that other world where even women of her background are seen but often not heard and those deemed of a lower class, male or female, are at risk and/or in peril simply because of their station in life.
Ian’s Sarah Dowling paints a picture of a different world – A harsher world of hard work, duty and resignation to place. Was Sarah’s love for women nature or nurture? The harshness of her world made her “a boy.” It’s just the way it was there was no son in the family, she was big and strong so she became the son – dressing, working being treated like the male child.
Ian’s raspy reading of Sarah helped you visualize this tall woman/boy walking the fine line between the masculine and the feminine. In the phrasing and use of words as Sarah, her family and the world through Sarah’s eyes, you saw a clearly different world.
Her gender, gender identity and class were like a chain holding Sarah down, denying her the possibility of hope for freedom let alone happiness. The times dictated “it was a man’s world” but even after mastering all manly affectations, Sarah Dowling still found herself the outsider ever fearful of discovery of her womanhood not only by the world but by her own heart as well. The only escape was to escape to a place where she could be free.
As I listened to Ian’s portrayal of Sarah Dowling I thought of her song “Society’s Child.” Sarah was not the person singing the song but the person being sung about. Sarah was called by so many names – an oddity, a runaway servant, an abomination, not welcome inside of respectable homes in 1816 society. She wasn’t Patience’s kind.
Did Ian feel the empathetic resonance between Sarah Dowling and the unnamed “other” in her song and see this as an opportunity to give voice to the person she had written/sang about in her 1965 hit?
Miller’s fiction took place in a world that was not fair to the uneducated, poor, women and those otherwise oppressed who historically searched for that Promised Land where they could begin again and find freedom.
“Patience and Sarah” is historic fiction but so much more. Through Patience and Sarah’s eyes we are able to see a world that once existed and, in some ways, offers insight into some evils we are still wrestling with today.
It is also a story of transformative love. Both women evolve over the course of the novel finding new strength because of their love. As much as they change they gain a greater understanding of and are able to adapt the very things that had, at one time, held them down to help them navigate the road blocks and achieve their goal of living free.
And yes, it is a love story that is tender, sensual and passionate with all the ups and downs of any relationship. It’s a story of women loving women in all its complexity, beauty and sweet kisses.
Kudos to Janis Ian and Jean Smart. They took Ms. Miller’s novel and, with their remarkable voices alone, brought not only the characters but their world to life.
I still love a good book but the audiobook of Isabel Miller’s “Patience and Sarah,” available September 15th, narrated by Janis Ian and Jean Smart gave me a literary eargasm of epic proportion. Don’t wait for a road trip to indulge yourself.
Printed 4/30/2015 in Between The Lines issue 2318
I’m always surprised by the reactions of people when I tell them I have been (more than once) to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.
Most often the response is either, “You went?” “You camped?” or, after thinking about me/my life while shaking their head, “Of course, you would go!” Then the real questions begin – were there many black women there? You slept in a tent? Did you get naked? But most often, the question asked is why I, a self-proclaimed lover of all things urban who considers “roughing it” staying at a hotel without room service, would go the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. My response generally involves telling the story of my first MWMF!
I went primarily because Shea Howell was going. Everyone has one of those friends who they would follow anywhere, who strongly impacts their life and who they straight-up, unashamedly, unconditionally love. Shea is my person. The Meredith Grey to my Cristina Yang, you might say. We’ve worked on many things together. We marched together. We summered together. So when she said I needed to go to the festival, I was ready.
Shea and the rest of our group went up before I did earlier in the week. I was supposed to drive up with a mutual friend on the weekend who had attended before and knew the location of the spot Shea et al. camped at every year. The festival is on over 600 acres; I needed a guide.
That Friday, when we were supposed to leave, my guide was nowhere to be found. Made a few calls and discovered that she had left without me. Undaunted, I threw my gear into the car and headed toward Hart – a little cranky, but I had plenty of time to get there before dark.
When I arrived, culture shock kicked in. I was a “Festie Virgin.” I had no idea where Shea was camped, and I had all this junk to lug across a huge parking lot into the woods and I didn’t know where I was going!
I walked and as I walked, I got angry. Angry at my guide who had left me and angry at myself, but then the magic of “The Land” began. Women came up to see what was wrong. They took my bags. They set about finding my friends. They comforted me and made me feel welcome. I was part of the sisterhood.
We came from different socio-economic classes. I was African-American while most of them were white. We had each experienced patriarchy, but many of them had also experienced a privilege I never would because of their race. But on “the Land” it didn’t matter – we were all womyn/sisters.
They didn’t just drop me at the campsite and forget about me. They checked in on me, helped me navigate the showers, pathways and workshops. We danced naked under the moonlight.
That weekend and at the other festivals I attended in later years, I learned what it was like to be in a space created by, for and about women. It was empowering.
After I tell people about my first trip, I go on to tell them about the women who build everything! The women who not only make sure the land is handicap accessible but help women with disabilities experience the festival fully – pushing wheelchairs, getting meals, etc.
I tell them about the marvelous feeling of walking clothed or naked amongst your sisters, feeling truly beautiful just as you are with no “body shaming.” I tell them about the acceptance and respect for each other and different lifestyles. And how being in this space opened my eyes and helped me evolve as a person of color, a woman and a lesbian – to think differently, to challenge patriarchy and to, more than ever, stand in my truth.
I had experienced a freedom that every girl/woman should have the opportunity to experience in their life – a freedom that can gird us for the fight that continues for full equality. However, it was because of the lessons learned that I stopped attending.
The lessons you learn on “the Land” go home with you, some short-term while others for a life time. It was during these years that my LGBTQ family increased as I met and became friends with many transgender sisters and brothers. One day while having coffee with a friend, she said, “I just want to be accepted as me. You have no idea what it’s like to be judged by how you look.”
I thought back to that day wandering around in the woods. Someone could have looked and seen this angry black woman wandering about, turned and walked away. Instead, they saw our commonality, our womanhood, our humanity.
When I arrived on “the Land” I was welcomed as a woman with the understanding that my path to womanhood was unique, but we shared a humanity.
We were different, yes. My path had been different from my Trans Sister, but here we sat sisters in struggle. Here was a member of my community facing the challenges in our woods of oppression, trans-phobia and discrimination. Her safety, her protection, her equality was on the same path as mine. We — all of us in the LGBTQ community — are on that path.
The times they are a changing. We know that gender is more than chromosomes. More of our children are declaring that they are transgender at an earlier age. Too many of these children are dying often at their own hand because we are still defining masculine and feminine by what’s between their legs.
We are one community – LGBTQ – still discriminated against, still under attack. It’s time we have dialogue on the core values our community will embrace for ourselves, our children and generations to come that must include respect for our diversity and inclusiveness for all members of our community.
I was deeply saddened to hear this is the last Michigan Women’s Music Festival. It has changed hearts, minds and lives. It provided a transformative space for women to grow as women where we can find and live our truth. Strong, empowered women can not only change the world but also the boys/men who live in the world. The loss of this space and its potential for transformation, growth and change is a loss to our entire community.
By Michelle E. Brown