30 November 2012

Lightening Round: Roadside Regional Heritage

The Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior graduate students put on a Friday Noon Seminar, which is essentially a fun/valuable seminar that is planned by a group of the graduate students. Towards the beginning of the semester there were lightening talks given by the professors and post-docs. In these, they had two minutes to give a talk on a question they are interested in. The talks were great, and I was amazed at how well they did with the time. Today, we graduate students have our chance to try it, and I was convinced to do one. The below is an approximation of my two-minute talk concerning a question I am interested in (my slide included below):

These are plants along the side of the road. Their life is complicated. They get mowed, scrapped by snow plows, bombarded by salt. In some cases invasive species have come in and proceed to fight with the system. Humans can make a pretty big mess. We do so with the side of the road. We do so socially with the people marginalized by our society.

One of the areas of a person's environment that they most encounter is the roadside. People associate this landscape with their region, part of their "regional heritage." Much of this regional heritage is based off of what they see out of the windows of their cars. Here in Minnesota much of that was prairie, which has been widely lost. On this map the red is the remaining prairie that used to occupy the whole yellow area.

Yet it isn't completely gone, and maybe, just maybe, we can restore some of it, some of our regional heritage. We also have land along the side of the road. That is what I want to be a part of, and my current little piece is figuring out how to ensure that these plants along the side of the road are able to adapt to these conditions, conditions that likely are in flux. Do they have genetic variation to adapt?

26 November 2012

Planned Parenthood Experience II

I'm titling this my second Planned Parenthood Experience rather than my first for a reason that will be mentioned later. Sorry if that is confusing...

What I want to write about is instead an experience that I had a few weeks ago. I visited the Planned Parenthood near where I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota to ask about volunteering opportunities. Outside there were three protesters. I obviously ignored them and did not take any of their propaganda, but just walked by them to enter the building. What struck me was one of the protesters called out, "Do you have a friend in there?"

It frustrates me how clueless the anti-abortion protesters are about Planned Parenthood. Abortions are a tiny fraction of what they do (3% to be exact). There are a number of reasons why I, as a male, might be there. One good reason, and the reason I have had a previous Planned Parenthood experience, is an HIV test. Everybody should periodically get an HIV test, and free tests were being offered one day so I took advantage of it. I should also note that HIV isn't just transmitted through sex. Contact with blood is another prime method of spread for the virus. In fact, screenings and treatments for STDs (including HIV) is 38% of what Planned Parenthood does.

Also, even if I did have a friend there, abortion is not the most likely reason for them to be there (as I said, 3%). Planned Parenthood offers a lot of medical services, particularly those of concern for women. What if I had been there about a friend's cancer screening (14.5% of what Planned Parenthood does)? I could also have been there to inquire about something as simple as birth control methods (which may potentially reduce the number of abortions performed). After all, contraception is 33% of the care provided by Planned Parenthood.

I didn't reply to the protesters, but it frustrated me. Do they think just because I am a man I would not be expected to be going to a Planned Parenthood? Do they think abortion is the majority of what Planned Parenthood does?

I strongly support women who choose to get an abortion. I also support women who choose not to get an abortion. When it comes down to the woman's body, she gets to make the choice. A fetus is part of the woman's body, and not its own independent human life, from implantation until viability (Roe v. Wade). If medically necessary, an abortion should be able to be performed after viability to save the life of the mother (which is just common sense). I would have no problem referring a friend or relative to Planned Parenthood to get an abortion for any reason she may have. After all, we on the outside will not ever know all that may go into a woman's decision to get an abortion, and I trust women to be able to make that decision for themselves.

That said, Planned Parenthood does not necessarily equal abortion either. Planned Parenthood provides a number of services that are vital (1) for the public health, (2) for quality of life, (3) for people who may be uncomfortable getting a test through a different channel, &c.

So, in response to the protester, no, I was not there for a friend. I was there for myself, and beyond that it is none of their business. It is none of their business what I or anyone else might want to do with our bodies. It is none of their business what medical tests or procedures I should choose to have. If I was there for a friend I would be saddened by the fact that my friend would have to wade through such flagrant misunderstandings in order to receive medical attention.

24 November 2012

Punctuated Equilibrium of University Queer Services

Combining my undergrad experience and my grad experience so far at two different Big 10 universities has led me to believe that Queer Services on campus follow a punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. In other words, campuses see a period of little to no change followed by a period of very rapid change. This has also led me to think that Purdue will soon be one of the most Queer friendly universities in the Big 10 due to it being the most recent to undergo the period of rapid evolution.

To give a brief background on Purdue, when I started at Purdue it was WAY behind the rest of the Big 10 on LGBTQ issues. It did not include gender identity and gender expression in its nondiscrimination policy. It did not have LGBTQ Affairs staff. Its bias reporting was a nightmare. It didn't have any sort of LGBTQ Studies program. It was definitely well behind the rest of the Big 10. A few administration changes, a change in strategy that got a big win to start the ball rolling, and all of a sudden Purdue changed drastically. I should also note that there seemed to be an earlier period of rapid evolution in which domestic partner benefits and sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policy were achieved.

The University of Minnesota (UMN), from the perspective of somebody who doesn't yet know the history well, seems from the outside to be a fairly well-advanced campus on LGBTQ issues. It has a cultural center, ranks well on Queer issues, et cetera. For me though, coming from Purdue, UMN seems to be backward on a few issues, and I think that comes from me being involved with an institution that was going through rapid evolution and then going to an institution in a steady state.

Because Purdue was rapidly evolving, we were actively thinking about the issues students were facing. We were actively asking the question of "What would a Queer-friendly Purdue look like?" We also could repeatedly say "We have to catch up to our peers!!!" and this enabled us to ask for things that some peer institutions had and others didn't. Thus, in addition to getting staff and an updated nondiscrimination policy, we were also able to get bias reporting online, address single-use bathrooms, etc. Personally, I then turned around and went to the cities that invented protecting gender identity and gender expression, and was shocked to see things like segregated single-use bathrooms. I was shocked to not be able to easily find online bias reporting (I don't think it exists here). It seemed super backwards after coming from a campus that was behind.

I'm going to speculate about why this punctuated equilibrium exists. The first I am dubbing the Glory Years Issue. It is the switch from thinking "How can we be a Queer-friendly institution?" to "We are a Queer-friendly institution." I'm dubbing it the Glory Years Issue because I think it is similar to things declining when people start thinking that their best years have passed as opposed to thinking their best years are ahead (this happens at a national level too). If one thinks their best years have passed, they are less likely to be active about making sure their future years are their best. Thus, thinking the golden age of Queer Activism is behind them, campuses get stale. An alternative hypothesis for this same prediction would be a Fat and Happy Issue where the people pushing the issues feel they got what they asked for, and thus they sit back. This could particularly be an issue for places that got white Gay male issues out of the way, and then issues facing non-Gay white male Queer people get left behind. (I will touch on a bit more of this later).

After the Glory Year Issue and Fat and Happy Issue, I speculate that there is something I will dub the Maxed-out Administration Issue. Essentially the people who have the power to say yes or no have been taken as far as they will go. At one time for Purdue, the administration had maxed-out at adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. It thus took administration changes and new forms of activism (in this case using student government) to overcome this maxed-out administration issue. I think a lot of campuses are currently maxed-out with regard to gender-neutral housing. While we can ask for a lot of things, gender-neutral housing beyond a case-by-case basis is just too far for the people who have the power to say yes or no, and so progress stalls there. A similar, but potential alternative, hypothesis to this I will dub the Method Death Issue. With this issue, it is that a particular method of activism won't work anymore and a new method needs to be tried. In the case of the nondiscrimination policy at Purdue, asking administration behind closed doors had reached saturation, and a new method (going through student government) was needed. The Method Death Issue and the Maxed-out Administration Issue are potentially related in the sense that the relevant administration has been "maxed-out" for a particular method of activism, but a different method can change the no to a yes.

If these four issues: Glory Years, Fat and Happy, Maxed-out Administration, and Method Death, are creating the observed pattern of punctuated equilibrium on campus Queer concerns, the next natural step would be to ask how these issues can be overcome. I think a lot of this comes down to a leadership change. If the Chief LGBTQ Affairs Officer changes, then people are likely to be broken out of Glory Year thinking because the new person will likely bring new ideas. The new person bringing new ideas also helps to overcome the Fat and Happy Issue because for them there is likely still a need for something. They will also potentially bring new activism ideas and administration might view the new person differently. It is highly likely that LGBTQ Affairs staff will have specialties. There are probably people who are excellent inaugural LGBTQ staff who should set up solid programs and then head somewhere else to establish solid programs. Universities looking for inaugural staff should try to recruit these people, and these people should be conscious to move between universities after they meet certain benchmarks. There are also likely people who are great at getting certain issues to go through. Thus if housing issues are a major concern, somebody with a housing specialty should be sought out. For bias reporting there is likely a different person. While we shouldn't necessarily pigeon-hole people, we should be aware of where their strengths lie when recruiting, and they should be aware of when it is time for them to move to a new campus.

Another suggestion I have would be to be aware of who isn't at the table. I think with Queer issues it is typically the people who aren't at the table who have the greatest needs. While I could discuss this further, I don't want to start Oppression Olympics type of discussion, so I will instead just say that at Purdue to LGBTQ issue table was dominated by white Gay men, and I think that was both indicative of some issues and a potential source of others (either directly or indirectly). I will also note that I don't think many people would argue with me suggesting that people in the closet probably need the most services, and thus we should be aware of the channels they can and cannot use (aka online and anonymous resources are especially important and should be easy to find because some won't even be able to ask about them to anyone but Google or from a URL on a flier they have seen).

To address these issues I would also highly encourage conference attendance. Hearing the issues facing other campuses and how people are addressing them is important in becoming aware of the issues that may cryptically exist on a campus. This also makes me think that the Queer-rights focused people should find some way to talk to grad and transfer students who were active on other campuses about what is happening there. This might led to some unexpected insights.

tl;dr Going from Purdue to UMN has led me to think Queer issues on campus go through punctuated equilibriums. The period of little change can be brought about by thinking focused on past achievements, how far administration is willing to go, who is at the table, and the methods of activism used. I then suggest changing up LGBTQ Affairs staff occasionally, being conscious of who isn't at the table, going to conferences, and talking to grad and transfer students to overcome some of these obstacles.

03 November 2012

Election is Almost Upon Us and Such

Tuesday is the election, something I am sure we have all heard about ad nauseum.

In August I left Indiana for Minnesota to start graduate school, and the transition has been an interesting one. Minnesota is an odd state - and I don't mean that in the Midwestern "I don't like it" sense, but in a "How does a place like this exist?" sense. It has a bit of a working flavor, yet is strongly environmental. It still has the Midwestern non-confrontational passive-aggressiveness, but has a niceness that isn't like the privacy of Indiana. Oh, and red lights essentially mean nothing to them. These are digressions though.

A big difference between Indiana and Minnesota involves politics. The two states are night and day. Indiana is Republican-dominated; Minnesota is Democrat-dominated. Indiana has early voting; Minnesota does not. Minnesota has same-day registration to vote (you can register to vote at the polls on election day); Indiana does not. Minnesota has three major parties and a number of minor parties; Indiana has two major parties and one minor party. It is just a different political world here. While some things annoy me (aka no early voting), I rather like other details (same-day registration, many parties, ranked ballots for local elections, etc.).

Minnesota could be undergoing a transformation soon though. In 2010 Minnesota fell to the same trap much of the rest of the country did - the Republican wave. In that wave the Republicans took control of Minnesota General Assembly. They used this to try to pull a trick on the voters - a voter photo ID amendment. Currently Minnesota doesn't have a photo ID law for voting. People can bring in general forms of ID (government issued, a bill, being vouched for by a neighbor who can prove their identity) and vote. The system works pretty well in Minnesota, and helps a few groups of voters, particularly three - students, the elderly, and people of color. Students aren't likely to have a government issued ID with their current address because they are (1) living on campus and (2) moving frequently. A student ID is all somebody living in a residence hall needs (as the universities provide lists of these), and of course a bill works for those living off campus. While I went and got a Minnesota ID (my Indiana one expired in October), many don't need to so don't. The elderly and people of color are more likely to not have birth certificates. While state IDs don't require birth certificates, many of the documents that are an alternative to a birth certificate require a birth certificate to get. Thus, while the voter ID itself may be made free, one won't necessarily be able to get all the documentation together to get one for free. Also, the elderly, people of color, and students are less likely to drive/own a car, and thus getting a voter ID may not be the easiest. Thus a voter photo ID law can seriously hurt their ability to vote. I've heard the argument that an ID is needed to buy alcohol, so why not vote, but that argument is silly. Buying alcohol is a privileged (as the 18th Amendment should show us), whereas voting is a right. Plus, informed voting is important for our democratic republic to run, buying alcohol is not. Plus, the address issue is not an issue with buying alcohol.

Let's be honest, the voter photo ID law is an attempt to favor Republicans. By going after students and people of color, the Republicans can lessen the lead Democrats have in this state. I'm afraid it stands a good chance of passing too. People seem to think there is this huge voter fraud issue, but not very many cases exist. Headlines note things like, "Voter Fraud: It's Real, but Rare," and "UFO Sightings are More Common than Voter Fraud." In Minnesota, one election was noted for a number of ineligible felons voting. It was later realized that wasn't the case. It should also be noted that this issue would not necessarily be resolved with voter photo ID as the issue would be with the system to ensure people who register to vote are also eligible.

The other amendment on the ballot is the Marriage Discrimination Amendment. Minnesota is one of the states that have managed to avoid a marriage amendment issues, but Republicans probably sensed it was the last election they may be able to get a ban here in Minnesota and managed to get it onto the ballot. This vote has me incredibly nervous. I have been asked a number of times how I think it is going to go, and I just note I think it is going to be close. The polls are very close, within the margin of error. Another issue is the Bradley Effect. The Bradley effect is the idea that non-whites fair worse in elections than polls would suggest, and the Bradley effect has been expanded to explain why marriage discrimination amendments do better than they poll.

The Vote No forces have had a great campaign.
Unlike in California they have always acted from the standpoint of assuming we are going to lose, and working like crazy to change that outcome. Vote No stuff has been everywhere. Major politicians (like the Senate candidate) has been openly campaigning against it. When the US Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar and the Mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak walked in the University of Minnesota homecoming parade, both of their contingents had Vote No signs and chanted Vote No. We have also raised WAY more money. The Vote No campaign has raised $10 million while vote yes has raised $3.6 million. Both campaigns have pretty frequent ads. The Vote No ads leave something to be desired, but aren't bad. They are essentially a bunch of straight couples talking about why they are Voting No. The most powerful of our ads is the one that is different - talking about a Gay soldier who died. The vote yes campaign has run the same ad they are running in the other states with marriage ballot questions. It is also an ad they have run in a few other states with the idea that same-sex marriage will be taught in schools. One of our ads that runs on TV was modified to point out the lies in this ad before the rest of the ad goes on.

I don't know how the ballot initiatives will go. I hope that Minnesotans reject both of amendments. I certainly will be voting against them. I'm nervous about the results though. I'm definitely glad my cohort for my grad program will be getting together to watch the results come in. I had planned on going to celebrate/protest, but I think being with my graduate cohort will be a healthier alternative for me. Granted I think it is likely we won't know the result of the marriage discrimination amendment that night, and a recount would not surprise me. Three other states will also have marriage equality on their ballot: Maine, Maryland, and Washington. These three states will have marriage equality depending on the outcome of these ballot questions. I hope that these states give me a reason to celebrate. It will all come down to time.

If the Minnesota marriage discrimination amendment passes, I'm pretty sure I will question why I came here. Grad school is already a large emotional roller coaster. Some days I absolutely love it and know I made the right choice. Other days I question why I am putting myself through this. It is a completely different world from undergrad. I had an amazing undergrad experience, and I'm still trying to find my grove in grad school, so I assume part of the roller coaster will even out. There are a few things I am working on that I know will also help me to feel more at home here. Also, the marriage discrimination amendment has been something that I have been aware of ever since I got here. Luckily I live nestled between the two cities (in Saint Paul, but only a block or two away from where Minneapolis starts). I'm surrounded by Vote No everywhere, and that is comforting. Commercials on TV haven't been all that comforting though (Nathan, Joe, and I have taken to watching the New Normal).

Also, since I can't end a blog about the elections without encouraging people to vote for Obama, I give the following hilarious video: