Archive for May, 2008

Deep in their root, all flowers keep the light

May 31, 2008

It’s been such a pleasure catching up with my niece; today she emailed me with a tantalising snippet of information that she’d come across in a design magazine called Provider. There was a piece about a Dutch ‘flower engineer’ called Andreas Verheijen, who creates new flowers by combining the best parts of different flowers. He calls the results ‘transgender flowers’ and from the three small pictures that my niece sent me, they really are gorgeous.

I’ve been unable to find anything else about him on the web, so will simply quote my niece’s closing line: “transgender = beauty!”

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Later edit: It’s probably not necessary, but just in case – I do not believe for a minute that these are truly ‘transgendered’ flowers, at least, not in the sense that I understand it. (Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive definition, whilst The 519 has a slightly more succinct version).

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©2008 Helen G

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Pretty vacant in pink

May 31, 2008

Goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink cadillac

Carrie, one of my co-bloggers at TFW, has made a technology-related post (link here) which captured my geeky attention. Carrie was looking to buy a new USB memory stick and her search turned up, amongst other things, a model which had as its unique selling point the fact that it was pink and “designed specially for women of all ages”. As Carrie rightly pointed out, the only real consideration when buying something like this is that you get the highest storage capacity for your price range, and not what colour it is. She also questions the manufacturer’s apparent interpretation of the word ‘feminity’ to mean ‘pink’.

And while I agree that the advert is sexist and an insult to the intelligence to make that suggestion, I must confess that I find it really hard to understand why the colour pink has these connotations. I don’t believe that any colour is inherently equated with any one state or condition: ‘pink’ certainly does not mean ‘feminine’, but neither is it oppressive of itself. It doesn’t have any particular significance for me when I, for example, wear a pink T-shirt. I’m not making some coded political statement; the chances are it was just at the top of the stack of clean laundry that morning as I dressed, the first thing I grabbed and nothing more sinister. Am I to assume that, because I also like to wear black – like the Puritans did – that I am a moralising killjoy with an irrational belief that a mythical being has complete authority over humankind? No, Helen, now you’re being silly…

Society attaches meanings, yes, I know about that: this is the familiar territory of constructs and social/cultural conditioning, isn’t it? But why do we seem to accept unquestioningly those artificially attached meanings, at the same time as we rail against them? By which I mean: surely the connotation will only persist as long as we let it? “Oh Helen, it’s so anti-feminist of you to wear pink”. Oh really? Why’s that, then? You see, I wear pink because I like the colour; I think it looks well on me. Accuse me of vanity if you like, fine. But I really don’t understand how wearing pink oppresses me, or how I’m participating in the continuing oppression of women by doing so.

However, I can understand the argument that I’m perpetuating the exploitation of cheap labour in manufacturing sweatshops, and that that perpetuates capitalism; not to mention the environmental costs of cash crop economies and the polluting effects of transporting the finished articles from factory to shop. But then, that applies to pretty much every item of clothing in every high street chain store and, let’s be honest, the colour of an item is pretty much irrelevant in that context.

If I wear a pink top because I like how it looks, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I feel I’m leaving myself open to being criticised for breaching some apparently unwritten feminist rule, which is – well, I don’t really know. The meme seems to be “pink = girly = bad”. As far as I can tell, because pink has come to be irreversibly associated with women (for whatever reasons), it can now be used as a cipher, a symbol, a shorthand way to label women against their wishes and is therefore a form of insitutionalised oppression. Which, actually, I can understand in principle. So why don’t we reclaim it for ourselves, strip it of its symbolic (negative) meaning and give it a new (positive) one?

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Okay, so pink is a girly colour, and I’m a bad feminist because I like it – we’ve established all that. But I think there’s a parallel thread to this argument, too, a trans* subtext, but I’m still working out how it ties in… Consider this timeworn criticism: by transitioning, trans* women simply cross from one ‘side’ of the gender binary to another and are therefore upholding that same binary, which is, as we know, a patriarchal construct used to subjugate and oppress women through sexism.

This hypothesis is then extended to add that trans* women are Teh Most Evillous because not only are we actively embracing our new-found femininity but are revelling in being ‘ultra femme’, thereby adding insult to injury by presenting to the male population a false stereotype of woman. Truthfully, I don’t doubt that there is an element of truth here, in that some trans* women do present in a very femme way. I’m not going to make excuses; I can even relate to it in a small way. But I don’t think it’s the heinous sin that some make it out to be; I think it’s simply an over-reaction, and quite possibly only transient (no pun intended). If you’ve spent most of your life repressing your identity, when you finally do ‘come out’, there is – along with the sense of a huge weight lifted – a wish to explore things which were previously denied you. I myself have never been that upfront about it – I don’t like trowelling on the makeup and doubt I could ever walk in a 4″ spike heel – but maybe there’s an element of that over-compensation in me that manifests itself in liking the colour pink. I just don’t think that necessarily makes me a bad feminist, per se.

Only time will tell if wearing pink will turn out to be just a phase I’m going through. But to ease the boredom of waiting, I think I might just take something else to bits with my pink screwdriver… like the patriarchy…

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(Cross-posted at The F Word on 31 May 2008)

©2008 Helen G

(Don’t) show us yer tits

May 29, 2008

wanna see my tits?Renegade Evolution has an interesting post (link here) about that very gendered thing, the bra. Or, to be specific, one particular aspect of it: the lining. It seems that Playtex has introduced an additional little piece of foam lining in the bra cup – to disguise hard nipples. Shock horror outrage! Teh Wimminz have nipples! And they get hard! Ohz noez!!!1!eleventy-eleven!!1!!

As Ren says, Playtex have been “long known for their attention to modesty and the use of the word in their advertising” but I wonder quite what this is really all about. Is it, perhaps, an attempt to ‘help’ women take another step closer to appearing about as anatomically correct as Barbie, further objectifying and curiously de-sexing us on the way? Or is it Teh Menz who are offended by our natural bodies’ reactions, and wish us to cover ourselves to spare their blushes? Whose modesty is it anyway, to coin a phrase…

I have a hunch it may actually be some kind of twisted amalgamation of the two. On one hand, women are being told that we may be embarrassed to discover – suddenly! – that we have nipples. On the other hand, perhaps it’s because of the risk of inflaming the manly-men’s passions, poor lambs: maybe they’re just unable to control their wild, animalistic urges if confronted with even the faintest shadow of a nipple through a bra and (presumably) top, and need to be shielded from this dangerously provocative sight.

Either way, it strikes me that underlying all this is probably yet another marketing ploy to make women feel worse about their bodies and spend more money we don’t have, on stuff we don’t need – purely to satisfy an entirely fabricated ideal, another fictitious norm to which we must all submit in the name of safe, unthreatening, homogenous conformity if we are to attain the goal of male approval. Assuming that’s what we’re seeking, of course…

Sorry if I’m ranting here but the fact is, the only time I am likely to feel embarrassed – and it’s not  embarrassment for myself – is when I have to interact with those (very few) other people who insist on talking to my breasts rather than my face – and they, I suspect, would stare regardless of how well (or otherwise) my nipples were concealed.

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(Cross-posted at The F Word on 29 May 2008)

©2008 Helen G

Do not pass Go

May 26, 2008

Do not pass GoI wake up in the morning, I get out of bed and drag my makeup on.
I walk out on the street, my every exit’s covered:
I hitch up my pants and I fake it, just like a man…

I’m probably tempting fate here (if I only believed in such a thing, of course!) but I don’t seem to have had much street harassment lately. For me, when it happens, 99 times out of 100 it’s some hairy-arsed neanderthal – male, always male – repeating this time-honoured mantra to his companion (they never attack singly, always collectively), “I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman“. It’s happened to me often enough that I’ve almost come to expect some sort of regular verbal harassment from random passers-by, so to go without for two or even three weeks is almost unnerving…

Maybe I’ve just been lucky and hit a quiet patch, or maybe I’m just passing a little better these days – although I’m aware the latter is unlikely. Whatever the reason, I’m realistic (pessimistic?) enough to know that it won’t last; sooner or later somebody will ‘read’ me, they’ll decide that they have the right to make some crass personal remark at me and I’ll find myself back at square one. So I thought that I would make use of this small oasis of calm to talk about the emotive subject of passing in a little more depth before my self-confidence is once again reduced to nothing.

First of all, let me clarify what I mean when I use the word ‘passing’. Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive definition (link here): “Passing, in regard to gender identity, refers to a person’s ability to be accepted or regarded as a member of the sex or gender with which they identify, or with which they physically present“. However, it misses the key point, which is that transitioning is a matter of survival. “Acceptance” is only part of it. I prefer this definition: “The act of convincing people that you are NOT a transsexual for safety or other reasons“.

Passing is a critical part of one’s transition, particularly in the context of the Real Life Experience. It is a hugely complex affair with many variables, some of which arise from one’s own internal sense of self, and some of which require an abilty to convince random passers-by that one is indeed “a member of the sex or gender with which they identify”, if only for the time it takes to move from one place of safety to another. How a transitioning person feels on the inside may not be how they are perceived from the outside (by themselves as well as by others). The issue of how I am perceived can work both ways: I may feel I’m ‘looking good’ yet will be accosted almost every step of the way – at other times I may feel that I look like crap but nobody bats an eyelid. Small wonder that gender dysphoria, or in my case transsexuality (the extreme form of gd), inevitably leads to intense feelings of anxiety and depression.

It can be (and often is) stated that gender roles, gender expression and gender cues are constructs – but that doesn’t make them any less real. After all, money is a construct, too, and nobody demands that its existence be justified, or believes that it will cease to exist one fine day. Ours is a deeply superficial and judgemental society and, whether I like it or not, I am stuck with a simplistic binary choice in my gender expression. I present as a woman because it’s right for me; it’s a close match to my gender identity. But identity, like beauty, is not only skin deep and judging others ‘at first sight’, on the basis of their appearance does a disservice to all concerned.

The judgemental aspect perhaps deserves a little more consideration. I believe that people judge others from the positions their own privileges afford them. (I have talked about other aspects of privilege in my earlier post, The privileged few). For now I want to mention only the more specific ‘passing privilege’ as it relates to gender identity. Make no mistake, passing carries its own ‘knapsack of privilege’. Those who pass well may wonder what all the fuss is about and are therefore in a similar space to those who are ‘comfortable in their skins’, ie. who do not experience gender dissonance. People in this position, irrespective of whether they are trans* or cis people, may struggle even to understand the concept, let alone recognise that they benefit from cis privilege as a result.

Passing is such an iniquitous thing, though. On the one hand, it could be argued that it “implies that one is being mistaken for something they are not, or engaging in deception”. (Via FTM Guide). On the other hand, such ‘deception’ may make one’s life easier if those who would respond with prejudice, discrimination or abuse are not aware that you are a trans* person. Hence living in stealth. In addition, one may feel compelled to ‘walk the walk’ to the best of one’s ability, however limited, as a result of pressure from one’s medical advisers in order to access medical services such as HRT and SRS.

No information about one’s pre-transition existence seems to be entirely hidden, even though the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has gone a long way to helping protect trans* people in Britain. But if someone is seriously on your case, then anybody’s past – not just a trans person’s – can be uncovered in enough detail to make life difficult, at the very least. The stakes suddenly become much higher when you’re talking about your whole identity, your very existence…

In practical day-to-day terms, passing convincingly can be literally a matter of survival: think of Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo, Sanesha Stewart and many others. Conforming to society’s expectations of those who it has labelled as ‘male’ or ‘female’ – even though we may experience our gender identity in an entirely different way – is a huge and subliminal pressure of its own.

More to the point, I’m just me. Helen. Just another middle-aged woman trying to build a life for herself as she deals with some fairly major twists and turns that have come her way… Unfortunately for me, there are too many people out there, invariably (but not always) the proud possessors of penises, who seem to think they have some inalienable right to demand I justify my existence and choices to them, so that they can deny the validity of my gender. And if I fail, I will – for reasons I cannot fathom – be deemed a threat to their identity and must face the consequences. So until such a time as those people understand that they do not have the right to interrogate me, then I must continue to try and send out the ‘right’ gender cues and signals to get by undetected. I do need to pass, each and every day, if I want to get home in one piece without taking a detour via A&E. Passing is one of the hidden costs of transitioning, one of the biggest, and it is time for this theft of our gender identities to stop.

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©2008 Helen G

Calm down dear, it’s only a movie

May 25, 2008

Inevitably there are loads of reviews of the new Indiana Jones movie doing the rounds at the moment (IMDB link here, may contain spoilers) – and many of them seem intent on slamming it for its over-reliance on CGI effects and implausible storyline. And there was me thinking those things were prerequisites for Hollywood blockbusters…

What I am interested in is the number of comments to the effect of how great Harrison Ford looks for his age (65). I’m all in favour of mature actors still finding gainful employment in their sixties – for example de Niro and Pacino. But I just can’t seem to bring to mind any woman actors in their sixties who are still playing leading roles.

Ageism? Sexism? Maybe both. It’s almost as if it’s okay for the old guys to relive their glory days, they’re obviously still young guns at heart, yay them for being up for it, ra ra ra – but if you’re a woman actor even over 40 (and that’s pushing it) you have nothing left to offer?

Eye candy, anyone?…

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(Cross-posted at The F Word on 25 May 2008)

©2008 Helen G

Message in a bottle

May 22, 2008

click to embiggenThe other morning, I got off the Tube near where I work, as usual, walked round the corner from the platform and just stopped in my tracks in front of this poster (click thumbnail to embiggen). The caption reads: “If you drink like a man you might end up looking like one” but all I saw was “Drink too much and you’ll develop a gender identity problem“.

And that’s just one subtext; I suppose it was fairly predictable that I would first of all pick up on the gender identity aspect. Although I don’t think that is the primary focus of the poster, it’s no less insensitive for that. It’s not acceptable to use any means to get your message across; the question of whether or not it may cause offence, to your target demographic or anyone else, should have been considered in more depth.

The poster is part of a publicity campaign by a public organisation whose website seems to have good intentions, the Drug and Alcohol Service for London, and I’m sure that they don’t believe that people with gender identity issues are a legitimate subject for a campaign about heavy alcohol use. Let’s face it, if you’re taking prescribed medications, such as HRT, then you shouldn’t be taking any alcohol, let alone drinking to excess on a regular and frequent basis.

So what is this poster about, then? My guess is that the advert is attempting to target the so-called ‘binge drinkers’ and is intended as a reminder of the long-term physical changes that heavy alcohol consumption can cause. But, rightly or wrongly, the media would have us believe that binge drinkers are predominantly young women; not middle-aged. This advertising campaign – no matter how well-intentioned – fails because it raises more questions than it answers by simplistically asserting that alcohol misuse will, of and by itself, cause aesthetically displeasing changes in a woman’s appearance. But this is problematic as the image relies on heavily stereotyped and very narrow standards of beauty, not to mention gendered norms of behaviour.

There is a degree of finger-wagging going on with this campaign which could easily be interpreted more as nagging than trying to be helpful. And the subject of alcohol misuse by women might have been more clearly understood if the poster had used ‘before’ and ‘after’ images. But a single image of what appears to be a badly made-up middle-aged woman above a caption about “drinking like a man” sends out a very different and specific message to someone like me who is daily grappling with her own identity issues, and for whom travel on public transport is already a necessary if unsettling evil without being unexpectedly confronted with a poster like this one.

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(Cross-posted at The F Word on 27 May 2008)

©2008 Helen G

Thank a second wave (old) feminist if…

May 21, 2008

Daisy has posted what I think is a rather wonderful piece on her blog, and when I finally get to be Empress of the Universe (next week sometime, if my plans for world domination succeed!) – it will be emblazoned on T-shirts, tea towels, hot-air balloons, the lot…

But while you’re waiting, please go and have a look at it.

To quote Daisy:

This post was inspired by the young feminists who seem to believe they have invented feminism and have nothing to learn from women over 50. Well, I have some news for you. As Kevin McCarthy famously said at the end of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’: You’re next!

>>> clickety <<<

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(Cross-posted at The F Word on 21 May 2008)

©2008 Helen G

Still mad: more on DSM-V/Zucker/Blanchard

May 18, 2008

Further updates relating to my earlier post, Mad as hell

  1. Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Preferences – Part 1 of 2, posted by Alix Spiegel at NPR
  2. Parents Consider Treatment to Delay Son’s Puberty – Part 2 of 2, posted by Alix Spiegel at NPR
  3. The Sissy-Whupping Method – Response to the two linked posts above by Holly at Feministe
  4. 3 Models of Transsexuality – Posted by Mercedes Allen at The Bilerico Project
  5. Who Decides If LGBT Is Normal? – Posted by Dana at Mombian
  6. Update on the DSM-V Issue – Posted by Emily0 at quench zine
  7. Scaremongering – Posted by Mercedes Allen at Transadvocate

19 May: And I must also add Zoe’s post The Science and Junk Science of Gender (it’s over at The Bad Science Forum) to the list of pertinent posts, albeit not directly about DSM and Blanchard/Zucker…

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©2008 Helen G

Space: the final frontier

May 17, 2008

The subject of ‘women-only spaces’ seems to be a source of endless fascination for the feminist and trans* feminist elements of the blogosphere, which may explain why it reappears and disappears like a moorland fire on a hot summer’s day.

Currently, that fire is burning brightly at both Philomela’s blog, Reweaving and over at Rebecca’s appropriately named Burning Words. It should go without saying that I recommend them unreservedly; as regards this post, you should read Philomela’s post, Lets go round again, and Rebecca’s A gripe about “allies” and trans-exclusive spaces.

I recognise that this is not a new or unusual subject; a quick Google for ‘women-only spaces’ returned some 245,000 results. But if I understand correctly, Philomela’s post is in response to another post elsewhere, written by an unashamedly transphobic radical feminist, and Rebecca’s expands on a couple of points raised by Philomela. As I said, this is a recurrent theme in so-called internet feminism; my co-blogger Laura posted on the subject at The F Word only a few weeks ago (link here) which was in response to a post by Michelle at Lonergrrrl, which references the binaristic divide between men and women, with no mention of trans* or other gender variant people.

Press For Change argued against ‘women-only spaces’ in a briefing paper in 1998, and I gather that the whole incendiary subject originally came about in 1991 following the ejection from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival of the trans* woman Nancy Burkholder. (Via wikipedia).

But I have no burning desire to rake over the ashes of history yet again; the reason I write this post is to raise two points which occur to me and which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

First and foremost, those pesky invisible trans* men. Okay. One of the big objections by Certain Special Radical Feminists to trans* women is that trans* women cannot possibly be ‘real’ women (whatever that means) because “once a man, always a man” – and I cannot help but wonder about the opposite situation. Because, presumably, to qualify for admission to the hallowed ground of ‘women-only spaces’, a fundamental requirement must be that one is “once a woman, always a woman”. So, by that logic, a trans* man who has transitioned and lives in his acquired gender would be welcomed with open arms, whilst the doors would be locked, barred and bolted to someone like me, a trans* woman who has transitioned and lives in my acquired gender. Hmmm. Ok-a-y-y-y…

This same determinist/essentialist reasoning also undermines the idea that subject-based exclusion is acceptable; for example, ‘women-only spaces’ for the discussion of matters specific to pregnancy. Would our previously accepted trans* man be unceremoniously ejected if it should be discovered that he had undergone bottom surgery and was therefore physically unable to conceive, whilst Thomas Beatie would presumably be able to stay?

The twist here, for me, is that, even if this hypothetical ‘women-only space’ to discuss pregnancy was open to me, I would not want to attend anyway. See, I have some fairly major and unresolved issues around the reproduction of the species, both personally and globally, and I would likely be deeply distressed to have to discuss the subject in any shape or form.

But anyway.

The second point I want to talk about is this. The counter-argument is often made, “what if there were ‘trans* people only spaces’?” Well, by a strange co-inky-dinky, I am aware of at least one that exists in my adopted hometown. A year or so ago, a trans* people’s support group was set up, not far from where I live. I was in the early stages of my transition and even more self-absorbed than I am now, so I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention. For one thing, I was wary of ghettoising myself; for another, I had issues with the way the group had been set up. I felt its management structure was opaque, undemocratic and unaccountable to its members. The real problem for me was the organisers’ pronouncement that admission would be restricted to trans* people only; SOFFAs (Significant Others, Families, Friends and Allies) were not permitted to attend.

Although I couldn’t quite put my finger on ‘why’, I knew that it bothered me enough to be a deal breaker. At the time, I was a regular visitor to a few online forums (fora?) and I ‘knew’, in that old familiar online way, a couple of people who were very upset by the exclusionary clause. One in particular had a very supportive partner, and the pair of them were deeply involved in voluntary outreach and support. The idea that one was barred because he wasn’t a trans* person baffled me.

And your point is, caller?

I think what I’m saying is that the creation of exclusive spaces, irrespective of who they seek to shut out, is a result of ignorance, irrational fear and, well, poor management. One has to trust people to be intelligent and self-aware enough to know when tact and diplomacy are called for, to know when ‘discretion is the better part of valour’. After all, even the Women’s Institute doesn’t actively bar ‘men born men’ from attending its meetings should they wish to: but, quite simply, MBM would probably not wish to attend those meetings because they know there will be nothing of interest to them there. So if a long-established national organisation can solve the problem without even missing a beat, then why are certain radfems unwilling to at least try this approach themselves, to see if it might even work for them, too? I have a hunch that it wouldn’t result in their space being invaded by a hundred million nekkid sex-crazed trans* women waving their penises at all and sundry…

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Later edit: Jess and I have been talking about this; she has a really interesting take on it and, when I think about what she says, it makes good sense. We seem to agree that, as long as women-only spaces don’t seek to impose their own personal, arbitrary definition of who is and is not a woman, then why should there not be a role for them?

I did wonder if there may be an inherent contradiction there, though: if you don’t define who is/is not a woman, then how can you say that a space is ‘women only’? But that may just be me being defensive: I’ve seen too many radical feminists, time and again, trying to take ownership of the concept by insisting that they and they alone will decide what defines ‘woman’. And, however they define ‘woman’, it’s no secret that they define trans* women as not-women. But I’m with Lisa on this: to steal a quote from her, “my identity is not subject to a vote“.

So perhaps a more useful way to phrase it may be, “if you identify as a man, then this space isn’t for you”. And that makes so much more sense to me: let people decide for themselves how they identify instead of telling them what they are and/or aren’t. The emphasis is then turned from exclusive-by-default to inclusive-by-default, which seems to me to be a far more positive and workable solution.

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©2008 Helen G

International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO)

May 16, 2008

Tomorrow, Saturday 17th May, marks the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO). This particular date was chosen because it marks the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. If only homophobia could be removed in the same way. Unfortunately, despite some comparatively enlightened UK legislation to oppose homophobia (as in hate speech, hate crime and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation), prejudice and discrimination still exists both in this country and elsewhere.

In a recent piece here at The Bilerico Project, Kate Allen (Director of Amnesty International UK) posted some disturbing and upsetting statistics to illustrate the prevalence of homophobia in Britain today. For example, “two thirds of lesbian and gay schoolchildren have experienced homophobic bullying – an astonishing 17% of which were death threats.

Figures like this demonstrate just how much work still needs to be done on the subject of homophobia in all its manifestations throughout society.

Click here to see the 2008 events listings on the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) website.

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Cross-posted at The F Word on 16 May 2008

©2008 Helen G