Friday, June 29, 2012

The benefits of sharing a bed -- with lovers, children, or dogs

Should you share your sleeping space with Fido?

Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Sure, sharing a bed can be a nuisance from time to time.

And spending the night in a hotel alone while traveling can be a vacation in itself.

But there’s been some recent attention paid to Wendy Troxel’s research with her colleagues on bed-sharing and its benefits, which builds on a decade of research on gender disparities in nightly sleep and who gets what out of sharing a bed with whom. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey a few years ago on women and sleep in the United States, and Jenny Hislop and Sara Arber have been conducting ongoing research on women’s sleep in the United Kingdom. A few years earlier, Paul Rosenblatt published a nice, qualitative book on couples’ experiences of sharing a bed, Two in a Bed. According to this varied data, women are more likely to experience symptoms of insomnia and disrupted sleep. It’s not that women are innately predisposed towards insomnia, but rather, according to research, that they’re more likely to be woken up in the middle of the night – to tend to the needs of a child, perhaps, or to be disrupted by their sleeping bed partner, say with a snore or an apnea event.

Infants and toddlers

Despite recurrent concerns about sharing a bed with infants and toddlers, there’s also a fair amount of research – mostly from James McKenna’s lab at Notre Dame – on the sleep-related benefits of sharing a bed: co-sleeping parents report getting up to 2 hours more sleep each night than their counterparts who place their kids in separate rooms. This is especially the case for young children, especially while they feed at night; as children age, the benefits of sharing sleeping space decrease. And recent interest in Troxel’s research has been related to her findings that sharing a bed can result in heightened levels of stress-reducing hormones, implying that one of the reasons why we sleep better together is a sense of security – which makes a certain amount of logical sense. If adults get benefits from sharing a bed, shouldn’t young ones receive the same benefits? As I talk about in my book, the fears about bed-sharing usually revolve around accidentally smothering a child, but what evidence there is shows that more children die alone in their cribs than in beds with parents. And for parents who are anxious about sharing a bed, there are all sorts of things to buy to ease their concerns. If you could get 2 more hours of sleep each night and ease your child’s anxiety – and your own – wouldn’t you want to?


My partner and I have often wondered about the benefits of sleeping with dogs (in part because our border collie-pit bull, Turtle, often shares a bed with us and we want to imagine that we get something out of it more than cramped legs). Does sharing a bed with a watchful canine help our sleep be less anxious in much the same way as sleeping with another adult? Following Donna Haraway’s long-standing interests in multi-species encounters and the mutual shaping of one another’s development, especially in the case of humans and canines, it seems sensible that having a dog we trust sleep nearby might alleviate our nightly need to be vigilant.

This all changes when we move indoors, and to bedrooms far removed from entry doors with locks and alarms, but for many contemporary societies and throughout history, it may be that our co-species investments in dogs have had a lot to do with our desire to sleep without having to keep one eye (or ear) open. A dog sharing a bed might be an alarm system, but in parts of the world where such vigilance isn’t quite so important, they may be a hindrance as much as a help – Turtle is more likely to wake us up when he hears deer in the yard than criminal activity, for example . . . and despite his concerns, the deer are no danger to us.


All of this follows up on a piece in the Star Tribune on couples that sleep in separate bedrooms. For some sleepers, being at odds a with partner’s sleep behaviors is fairly stressful; larks want to go to bed early, and owls want to go to sleep later. When they go to bed at the same time, owls can lie in bed awake while their lark partner fades off to sleep; and when the lark wakes up early, the owl might be roused by its partner’s activity. Or, larks that go to bed early might be awoken by a late-to-bed owl partner getting into bed. And despite a history of some couples sleeping in separate beds – if not separate rooms – as the article mentions, the marital bed looms large as a normative space that couples seek to inhabit together. This can cause all sorts of tension, but maybe the benefits are worth it.

But if you plan on sharing a bed with a partner, a toddler and a dog (or two), investing in a king-sized bed might become a necessity.


We don’t always have the option to populate our beds with our kin, and for sleep apnics who sleep with their CPAP and BiPAP machines, they don’t have the option to not populate their beds with machines. For some, as I talk about in The Slumbering Masses, this unwanted bed-sharing can be its own source of stress and tension. What sharing a bed requires – and this is fundamental to sharing a bed with a partner, a child, a pet, or a machine – is some kind of intimate investment.

Sharing a bed with someone or some thing we are anxious about isn’t particularly restful. And when our beds become sites of anxiety and stress, we’re likely to not enjoy going to or staying in bed – regardless of the high-tech features of our chosen beds.

Outside of the bathroom, our beds are one of our most intimate spaces. Who and what we sleep with say as much about ourselves as our relationships in the world.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly at

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On this very day, Minnesota railroads turn 150 years old. And in 2012, they're doing better than ever.

The William Crooks was the first train to run in Minnesota, on June 28, 1862. Today, it lives at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, MN. Photo credit: Jeff Terry.

Trains Magazine correspondent and longtime railroad photographer

On this day in 2012, the people of Minnesota are driving their cars; heading to airports to catch a flight, or maybe even grabbing a seat on Amtrak’s Empire Builder on its journey between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast.

They will think nothing of making these trips, though these trips would not have been possible if not for the events of June 28, 1862. 150 years ago.

On that long-ago day, a tiny steam locomotive built in New Jersey named the William Crooks pulled a passenger train from St. Paul to St. Anthony, near what is today Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Main area. It was the first run of a train in Minnesota, and marked the beginning of the railroad industry in Minnesota.

It’s hard to imagine Minnesota without railroads, or for that matter much in the way of transportation at all. When Minnesota territory achieved statehood in 1858, fewer than 200,000 people were living within its borders, and transportation was largely by riverboat, horse, or ox cart. For Minnesota to grow, it needed better transportation, and that meant railroads.

So it was that work began in St. Paul in 1861 on the state’s first railroad line. The rail, cars, and locomotives had to be shipped upriver by Mississippi River barge. After fits and starts the first ten miles of track was laid, and the William Crooks, named for the chief engineer of the line, was ready to pull the first train. The St. Paul Daily Press of June 29, 1862, said the invitation-only affair included Minnesota’s governor and lieutenant governor, St. Paul’s mayor and several “aldermen,” directors of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (which built the line), and about 100 citizens. It left St. Paul at “about half past two o’clock and returned at six o’clock,” when an evening banquet was held.

From those modest beginnings, Minnesota’s railroads grew and prospered. After the Civil War, the state and its railroads grew up together: when one thrived, so did the other. Unless you lived near a river, the railroad was the only practical way for Minnesotans and their products to travel more than a few miles.

Minnesota railroad leaders became rich, and in some cases, famous. They included James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder” whose Great Northern Railway would reach the West Coast – and included the original St. Paul & Pacific line. Less remembered are Adolphus Stickney, who built the Chicago Great Western that connected the Twin Cities with Omaha and Kansas City, and W.D. Washburn, who had already made a fortune in lumber and milling when he became the first president of the Soo Line in 1883.

Minnesota became a center of railroad activity. Great Northern and Northern Pacific were based in St. Paul, while mid-sized lines such as Minneapolis & St. Louis and Soo Line were based in Minneapolis. Duluth was headquarters for the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range, owned by US Steel. It moved long trains of iron ore from the Mesabi and Vermilion Iron Ranges to huge docks at Duluth and Two Harbors. It could rightly be argued that the Missabe, and neighboring Great Northern, were crucial to victory in World War II, for Minnesota ore fed the steel mills that produced the tanks, ships, and planes that led to victory. Railroads employed thousands of Minnesotans to keep the trains moving.

With the end of the World War II, railroads spent millions to re-equip their passenger trains, thinking the public would not want to drive long distances, especially on substandard roads. Minnesota residents had a choice of speedy streamliners between the Twin Cities and Chicago that reached speeds of 100 mph. To the West Coast, travelers had the choice of Great Northern’s Empire Builder, Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, and Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha, and could enjoy scenery from bubble-top dome cars.

As the government subsidized highways and airlines took away passengers in the 1950s and 60s, and as steam locomotives were replaced by diesels, Minnesota railroads fell from public consciousness. Today, the only way many people relate to railroads is when a train blocks them at a grade crossing.

Now, Minnesota’s freight railroads are having the last laugh. While airlines pack passengers into airplanes like sardines and lose millions, and as highways crumble and are clogged with congestion, railroads are doing better than ever. The industry was deregulated in 1980, and the renaissance that followed allowed railroads to recapture market share. They now handle 42 percent of all intercity commercial freight.

Railroads made it through the economic downturn that began in 2008-09 almost as though it never happened. While traffic dropped 20 to 30 percent, profits did not, and railroads continued to spend billions of dollars on their physical plant. Union Pacific, the largest publicly held U.S. railroad, spent more than $28 billion on infrastructure between 2000 and 2010, and last year spent a record $3.3 billion on improvements. Even Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, carried a record 30.2 million passengers last year, despite having to beg for funds from a stingy Congress each year.

Today, the William Crooks rests in quiet retirement at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth. You can examine the locomotive up close and imagine what that day 150 years ago must have been like.

It is a great monument to Minnesota railroad history, a history whose ending chapter has yet to be written.


Steve Glischinski began taking photographs of railroads in 1970, at the age of thirteen. Since then, his photographs of railroads in action have been published in many books and magazines. He is a correspondent for Trains Magazine and organizes railroad photography charter trips and the Railfan Weekend at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. He lives in Shoreview, Minnesota. He is author of several books including Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012 (August 2012).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Happiness, death, and a few of his favorite (and most loathed) things: Dery does the Proust Questionnaire

[Inspired by.]

BY MARK DERY, cultural critic and author, most recently, of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

All the time in the world, all the books in the world, the creditors banished forever from my mailbox, the time clock stopped for all time, a pool of light falling poetically across the comforter, a martini within easy reach on the nightstand, its juniper fumes promising limitless inspiration.

Your favorite painter?

Marcel Duchamp, though it would have horrified him to hear himself called a painter, given his fond contempt for bourgeois notions of art: bête comme un peintre---“stupid as a painter”---he liked to say. So I use the term loosely, Marcel!

Your favorite musician?

The Bach of The Goldberg Variations. But only as played by Glenn Gould. And only in 1955.

Your proudest achievement?

Apart from the collaborative act of producing my daughter, who is Practically Perfect in Every Way, putting a period at the end of everything I write.

Your favorite occupation?

Writer, happily.

Who would you have liked to be?

The Incomparable Oscar (Wilde, of course). And in an alternate universe, where he dismisses Lord Douglas as the pernicious little fribble he is, and, spared the horrors of Reading Gaol, dies a centenarian in 1954, a literary lion, the toast of the talkshows, his wit undulled by age, and not a minute too soon to have bedded a young Don Draper---and a young Joan Holloway. (Wilde, remember, was bi-, historical revisionism notwithstanding.)

Your most marked characteristic?

The gift of gab.

What is your principal defect?

Loquacity. Especially when in my cups.

What do you most value in your friends?

Their long-suffering patience when I’m unwittingly (and unwittily) replaying a shopworn anecdote. (Then again, what is a man but his old anecdotes?)

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

Alzheimer’s, followed closely by encephalitis lethargica, the nightmarish disease that entombed Oliver Sacks’s patients in their bodies, mute and paralyzed, frozen in time.

What would you like to be?

Outside the flow of time.

What is your favorite color?

Black, he said, with dreary predictability, although I’m fond of that kind of grayish lavender A Dictionary of Color calls “lavender gray.” I wish I liked puce, mauve, and taupe, but I don’t.

What is your favorite flower?

The Amorphophallus titanum.
The corpse flower (Amorphophallus Titanum), whose flowering at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in August 2006---the first in New York since 1939---I made a pilgrimage to see. It was a sight to behold. It’s humongous, it’s obscene, and it reeks of death. Towering menacingly over the average man, Amorphophallus was once thought to be a man-eater because of its imposing height. Its unmistakably phallic flower (a cluster
of flowers, really) is the largest “unbranched inflorescence,” to use the botanical term, in the plant kingdom. Gifted with an upthrusting unit as big---or bigger---than a traffic cone, Amorphophallus (the name means “shapeless penis”) is the Gene Simmons of shock-rock flora. Rumor has it that Victorian women were not allowed to view it in full, concupiscent bloom, for fear it would inspire sexual hysterics. And its stench is legend: when it flowers, Amorphophallus gives off a dizzying stink of putrefaction, the better to attract the carrion beetles who feast on it. In a 1939 edition of The New York Times, an assistant curator at a New York botanical garden described the smell as “a cross between ammonia fumes and hydrogen sulphide, suggestive of spoiled meat or rotting fish.” If only it was ambulatory, like a Triffid, I’d love to have one as a pet, to walk on a leash. I’d sic it on the first pit bull I crossed.

What is your favorite bird?

The Raven, for its uncanny cleverness (hence its role as Trickster figure in Native American myth), its undisguised rapacity (a model for us all), and, ever after Poe, its unassailable perch in the gothic imaginary, portentous, inscrutable, sepulchral.

What word or expression do you most overuse?

Adverbs such as incalculably, unimprovably, unutterably, a literary tic I’ve picked up from the British---“incalculably” from John Mortimer, “unimprovably” from Hitchens (especially when transposed into the key of irony, as in Hitch-22, when he recalls a public-school tormentor “with the unimprovable name of Peter Raper”), “unutterably” from---from who? Ibsen, insists Google, but never having read the man, I’m unconvinced.

Who are your favorite poets?

Poe, Patti Smith, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, the James Tate of Viper Jazz, the Michael Benedikt of Night Cries, the French symbolists, numberless one-hit-wonder Surrealist poets in innumerable Surrealist anthologies, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Sam Shephard’s prose poems in Hawk Moon, and, at my most unapologetically lowbrow, Bukowski, specifically the scabrous flophouse Surrealism of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

What is it you most dislike?

Bone stupidity---the sinister silliness of religion, the fatuities of the New Age, what Martin Amis calls the "moronic inferno" of American culture at its most gong-ingly dumb---and, far, far worse, the blasé inhumanity and injustices of a ruling class that knows better, the myopically short-sighted lunacies of profit-maximizing corporate power: age-old foes of human progress.

Also, pit bulls. And people who like pit bulls.

Which contemporary figures do you most despise?

The unimprovably loathsome Clarence Thomas, with Antonin Scalia taking up the rear, though only by a hair’s-breadth. It’s hard to imagine more pestilential presences on the American scene.

Which natural gift would you most like to possess?

A photographic memory.

How would you like to die?

Like Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green, borne gently into oblivion on the barely ruffled waves of an opiate while, on a movie screen stories high, poppies (appropriately!) nod their flaming heads in time to Beethoven’s “Pastorale.”

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it perversely refuses to even passingly resemble the young David Bowie.

What is your motto?

Credo absurdum est: “I believe because it is absurd”---Tertullian’s classic maxim of Christian apologetics. The absurdism of the thing warms my atheist heart. Because what is life, if not absurd?


Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He is author, most recently, of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, and known for his writings on the politics of popular culture in books such as The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Flame Wars, and Culture Jamming. He has been a professor of journalism at New York University, a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Irvine, and a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.

"Mark Dery’s cultural criticism is the stuff that nightmares are made of. He’s a witty and brilliant tour guide on an intellectual journey through our darkest desires and strangest inclinations. You can’t look away even if you want to."
—Mark Frauenfelder and David Pescovitz, Boing Boing

"Do not turn squeamish from the many considerations of death that lurk within—vampires, tombs, disease, corruption of many varieties. Mark Dery’s restless and stylish essay is concerned with one thing only—what it means to be alive in America."
—Richard Rodriguez, author of
Brown: The Last Discovery of America

"Always provocative, often humorous, Dery has a keen eye for absurdity, tragedy, and everything in between. "
—Publishers Weekly

"Dery’s dark you-can’t-think-this-stuff-up carnival tour of present-day America is far more thought-provoking than anything virtual reality can offer."
—Los Angeles Review of Books

Thursday, June 21, 2012

40 years of Twin Cities Pride: We've come a long way, yet still have so far to go.

The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is lit up in rainbow colors to commemorate
last year's Pride celebration on June 24th, 2011. Image via Creative Commons.

Former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota

As the end of June approaches, people across the United States are celebrating in a festival circuit of unprecedented size. In Boston, an anonymous decorator attached a pink boa and a blonde wig to a statue of William Ellery Channing. In Portland, Oregon, a rainbow tassel appeared on the tail of another statue, a horse, ridden by a stoic Teddy Roosevelt.

Here at home, Minneapolis has unfurled stylish rainbow-themed banners along Hennepin Avenue in preparation for our local celebration of Gay Pride week. Our Pride, like other Pride celebrations around the world, commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. We also celebrate the 1969 founding of a pioneering gay and lesbian student group, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE), at the University of Minnesota.

The first local Gay Pride was a gaggle of brave marchers who exclaimed "Gay is good!" to an afternoon crowd of bemused passers-by. Convinced that they would be arrested, the marchers asked their friends and lovers to picnic in Loring Park with enough money to bail them out. But their audience on the Nicollet Mall had seen many protests during the Vietnam War, and assumed that the marchers were proclaiming their gaiety during dark times. The police never showed. It was the last weekend in June, 1972.

That first march, attended by about twenty-five, gave way to more sizeable crowds as the years passed. New marchers held banners that howled slogans, such as "Ditch the bitch and make the switch," to an audience that finally understood what was really going on. Posters of a defaced Anita Bryant changed to posters of a defaced Jerry Falwell, the mood changed from heady to familial, and the picnic and march—now a festival and a parade—continued to grow.

In the early 1980s, some of the marchers began to wear black, mourning the loss of their lovers, friends, and family to a mysterious disease that became HIV/AIDS. Still more time passed, and advertisements began to multiply in ever-expanding "Pride Guides." The crowds grew exponentially, filling every corner of Loring Park, and corporate logos began to manifest on second, third, and fourth performance stages. This weekend, I expect to see yet another change, taking the form of bowed heads and furious fingers jabbing at small and expensive electronic devices.

Gay Pride celebrations and other noticeable examples of queer activity have profoundly reshaped the culture of American cities. Tolerance, particularly of white gay men and lesbians, has purportedly become an indicator of how well a city fosters creativity and innovation. Urban theorists like Richard Florida have recast gay men and lesbians as “the canaries of the creative age,” and attitudes toward the acceptance of gay and lesbian issues—notably same-sex marriage—have reached new heights. For some, it would seem that society is on the verge of proclaiming that gay is, indeed, very good.

And yet, there will be at least one person who would likely not share the sentiment of societal progress. She will be spending Pride weekend in a men's prison in St. Cloud, beginning a 41-month sentence. Her name is Cece McDonald, and she is changing the world.

One year ago, on a June night in south Minneapolis, Cece and her friends passed three white people standing outside of the Schooner bar at 29th Street East and 27th Avenue South. The bar patrons shouted racist and transphobic threats at the black youths as they passed by. One of the women struck Cece across the face with a glass bottle, and created a wound that required eleven stitches. During the ensuing altercation, one of the male patrons was stabbed in the chest and died.

Almost a year after Cece was arrested, she pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Initially, she was placed in a men's prison while the Minnesota Department of Corrections determined Cece's gender for its own purposes. Recently, the Minnesota DOC decided that Cece will spend the remainder of her time in a men's prison.

Apparently, the State has the power to decide a person's gender.

Graffiti outside Hennepin County Jail. Photo by Billy Navarro Jr.
Since the night of the scuffle, Cece has been the subject of media attention and political activism. Created to support her struggle against the legal system, a Facebook page, "FreeCece Mcdonald," now has more than 5,000 friends. Her supporters are vast, and span the globe. A new slogan, "Free Cece," is appearing on sunlit pamphlets in Brisbane, Australia; in hurried paintings within the subways of New York, and in graffiti on the streets of Athens. Here at home, a brief example of "Free Cece" graffiti, sprayed by Leslie Feinberg, made its way to the walls of a Minneapolis facility where Cece was temporarily held.

As many of us prepare to commemorate Stonewall, FREE, the first Twin Cities Pride march, and everything that has followed, it is important to pause and question what, exactly, we are commemorating. Are we reveling in our newfound cultural status as the canaries, the harbingers, of a creative urban world? Are we honoring past struggles against heterosexist power, and celebrating our victories over it? Cece McDonald reminds us that we are not so far removed from those marchers on Nicollet Avenue, or the rioters at Stonewall, who feared their own arrests long ago.

Canaries, it should be noted, are often kept in cages.


Stewart Van Cleve is a former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota (September 2012).

"Stewart Van Cleve has gone into the musty archives and brought them to vivid life. His comprehensive and entertaining overview of queer Minnesota history is a total page-turner. This feat is all the more impressive given that he’s writing about people who, for a long time, were trying hard to keep their lives hidden. This important work of regional history is also a kind of family history—documenting our recent past with equal parts painstaking accuracy and unabashed love."
—Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip DTWOF and former Dyke Heights resident

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reauthorizing Indianness (or Acts of Violence against Native Self-Determination)

Image source.

Associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina
at Greensboro

During the past few months, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives both have passed bills reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The law originally was adopted in 1994 and was last reauthorized in 2005, and in its various iterations, it has, among other things, created categories for interstate domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking in federal law as well as providing funding (for which periodic reauthorization is needed) for the prevention and prosecution of violent crimes against women. While also differing on issues related to immigrants and women in same-sex relationships, the House and Senate versions of the current VAWA take dissimilar approaches to the question of how to protect Native women against assault and domestic violence. Specifically, the Senate version allows for tribes to have limited criminal jurisdiction in cases involving dating and domestic violence over the non-Indian “romantic” and “intimate partners” of women living in Indian country as well as enabling tribal governments to issue and enforce protection orders. These provisions are absent in the House bill, which instead requires that Native women seek protection from federal courts.

The Republican resistance to this section in the Senate bill (S. 1925), and the effort to have it removed from the legislation, offers some sense of why it was not included in the House bill (H.R. 4970). In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) described these provisions as “blatantly unconstitutional,” adding that the section “breaks with 200 years of American legal tradition that tribes cannot exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.” He goes on to say, “All tribes require either Indian ancestry or a specific quantum of Indian blood in order to be a tribal member. Even a person who has lived his entire life on the reservation cannot be a tribal member if he does not have Indian blood.” In a similar vein, Senator Chuck Grassley (R- IA) argued, “Constitutional problems are made worse because the bill gives tribes criminal jurisdiction as part of their claimed inherent sovereignty.”

Determining Native sovereignty

These comments speak to a much larger problem within contemporary federal Indian policy, namely the issue of precisely how to determine the contours and content of Native sovereignty. Kyl suggests that tribal authority can be defined by reference to Indianness, the reproductive transmission of an otherwise undefined racial substance via “ancestry” or the passage of “blood.” To attempt to extend the jurisdiction of Native nations further, to include those who are “non-Indian,” then, would unconstitutionally subject them to the rule of a racialized enclave to which they can never belong.

However, if one reads against the grain here, a series of other questions emerge. Why does “American legal tradition” have any relevance in determining the character of jurisdiction exercised by Native nations on their lands? Given that “tribes” are Indigenous peoples whom the U.S. incorporated into its “domestic” space without their consent and against their will, why would their governance be subject to the U.S. Constitution? Moreover, from where did the requirement that tribal membership be defined by “Indian blood” come? In other words, the opposition to the “Indian” provisions of the Senate bill seems to depend on treating Native political authority as self-evidently equivalent to Indian identity, presuming the U.S. has the right to regulate the jurisdiction of Native polities, and claiming that the racial limits of Indigenous governance are constitutionally mandated.

This line of argument, and the logically incoherent if politically powerful assumptions on which it rests, can be traced back to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), in which the court found that tribes cannot exert criminal jurisdiction over “non-Indians.” The justices conclude that the exercise of such authority by Native nations would be “inconsistent with their status,” adding: “Upon incorporation into the territory of the United States, the Indian tribes thereby come under the territorial sovereignty of the United States and their exercise of separate power is constrained so as not to conflict with the interests of this overriding sovereignty.” The “status” at issue entails being inserted into the jurisdiction of a nation-state created by foreigners and imposed over already existing polities -- a process otherwise known as settler colonialism. The presence of Indigenous peoples troubles the U.S. assertion of its right to exercise “overriding sovereignty” on the land the government claims as domestic space.

The legal and ethical conundrum of legitimizing the existence of the U.S. as a settler-state in the face of competing and prior claims to sovereignty by Native nations gets managed in the decision through the figure of the “Indian.” Put another way, if “tribes” can exert full legal authority over everyone within their territories, what distinguishes them from the U.S. government? Invoking Indianness as the means of delimiting the scope and character of Native sovereignty displaces this nagging question, instead defining Indigenous peoples as a racial population living on, in the decision’s terms, “territory assigned” to them due to their “dependence … on the United States.”

The "American legal tradition"

Maintaining the distinction between Indians and non-Indians as the central axis by which to define the limits of Native sovereignty substitutes the reproductive transmission of racialized substance – having “Indian blood” or “Indian ancestry” – for the geopolitical dynamic of Indigenous peoples continuing to exist on territory forcibly incorporated into/as the settler-state. In this frame, “Indians” are a special kind of group within the overall structure of U.S. constitutionalism, as opposed to Indigenous polities whose status as such precedes and exceeds the U.S. Constitution. The political anxieties generated by Native peoples’ continued survival emerges perhaps most directly in the VAWA debate in hesitations around the “claimed inherent sovereignty” of tribal nations. While the assertion that Native peoples have not exercised criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians at any point in the past two-hundred years is simply inaccurate, it bespeaks a worry that acknowledging the legitimacy of such power puts in jeopardy central aspects of the “American legal tradition” -- that the right claimed by the U.S. to exercise “overriding sovereignty” over the territory said to compose the nation may be put in doubt. Turning the matter of the bounds of Native governmental authority into the question of who counts as “Indian” transposes the issue into a different register, one that makes Native sovereignty dependent upon biological difference and a heteronormative logic of reproduction.

The concept of having a “quantum” of Indianness became institutionalized in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century censuses of Native groups conducted by the federal government, and such designations became an administrative tool of federal Indian policy starting in the 1910s as the basis for decisions about “competence” to own land, determinations made as part of the allotment program that sought to break up Native landholding and eliminate Native sovereignty. The current efforts to determine the contours and limits of Native governance by invoking the apparently biologically self-evident figure of the Indian, therefore, have a long history as part of attempts to dismantle Native peoplehood and to bring Native lands into the regular jurisdiction of the U.S. While such a detribalizing initiative is not directly at play in public conversations over the VAWA, that debate highlights the entrenchment and stakes of the logic of Indianness codified in the Oliphant decision and potentially modified by the Senate version of the bill.

However, even though this version does offer possibilities for tribal jurisdiction over “non-Indians” unavailable in the House bill, it does not escape the orbit of the racializing reproductive assumptions guiding the arguments made by the Senate bill’s detractors. The bill notes that the persons that would be prosecutable under this act must be “in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with the alleged victim or “a current or former spouse or intimate partner.” While such categories do not fit exactly the contours of the nuclear family unit, especially since the bill pertains to “dating” as well as “domestic” violence, the model here still appears to be that of marital pairing, extended backward to courting and forward through divorce. This delimitation of the potential authority exerted over “non-Indians,” then, seems to take couplehood as the axiomatic frame. Why, though, would romantic partnering provide the prism for thinking about how legally to redress violence against Native women by non-natives?

Understanding Native sovereignty

The key to answering this question may lie in the repeated description of the powers of Native governments under this proposed act as “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction.” What makes it “special” is that the bill offers forms of authority “that a participating tribe may exercise under this section but could not otherwise exercise.” In other words, this bill does not displace the Oliphant decision and its logic of the necessary subordination of Native nations to, and “dependence” on, the “overriding sovereignty” of the U.S., instead creating a limited exception for kinds of violence that can be understood in relation to the nuclear family unit. In this way, the bill preserves the presumptively reproductive distinction between “non-Indian” and “Indian” (a term which itself is nowhere defined in the bill) while allowing for cases in which the former enter into the romantic-familial orbit of the reproduction of Indianness. Thus, the Senate version of the VAWA exceeds the letter of Oliphant while still retaining the spirit of understanding Native sovereignty as control over the genealogical/reproductive process of transmitting Indianness.

That orientation in the bill further can be seen in the repetition of the phrase “the Indian country of that Indian tribe.” The purpose of this somewhat odd and seemingly redundant formulation seems, rather controversially, to insist that those places within a reservation’s geographical boundaries that are owned by non-Indians (due to the history of allotment) fall outside tribal jurisdiction. The exception to the implicit exemption of non-Indians from Native sovereignty is when they somehow can be tied to Indianness via marriage or “intimate” romantic relations – a familial or proto-familial connection that does not fundamentally trouble the imagination of Indianness as procreatively conveyed racial substance.

More than signaling a particular Republican reluctance to expand tribal jurisdiction, the debate over the VAWA reveals the lineaments, and limits, of the ostensible U.S. commitment to recognizing Native sovereignty. Despite the fact that since 1970 federal Indian policy supposedly has taken place in the “era of self-determination,” the U.S. continues to insist on the legitimacy of its “overriding sovereignty” over Native nations since they occupy territory within its “domestic” space. The intractable and unresolvable problem of legitimizing such exertion of authority over Indigenous peoples consistently is displaced by substituting questions of “ancestry” and “blood” for engagement with the ongoing geopolitical violence of settler colonial rule – the creation of a nation-state over top of already existing polities who did not consent to such enforced incorporation and belonging. In that transposition, racialized bodies are made to substitute for the full measure of peoplehood as defined and protected under international law. Instead of asking should tribal governments be able to exert jurisdiction over “non-Indians,” a better question would be, what would an acknowledgment of Native self-determination look like if completely unbound from the U.S.-instigated process of authorizing, regulating, and reproducing Indianness?


Mark Rifkin is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is author of The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination.

"Mark Rifkin’s ability to productively articulate the connections between straightness and empire alone marks him as one of the most significant scholars in American Indian Studies. In this book, Rifkin thoughtfully prods us to think about how queer Native writers are literally ‘reimagining’ Indianness outside of those oppressive norms in a way that nuances our understanding of how Native peoples practice sovereignty in everyday life, despite the continued influence of imperialism inside tribal politics."
—Malea Powell, Michigan State University

This post was published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another long and winding road: Translating Japanese speculative fiction

This illustration was created for Hayawaka's SF Magazine by Hidenori Watanave.
Here, Takayuki Tatsumi, who wrote the introduction to Chiaki Kawamata's
Death Sentences, traces Japanese science fiction translation back to this monthly
magazine, which debuted in 1959. Image source: Creative Commons.

Professor of English at Keio University

In the 2010s you might consider Cool Japan to be self-evident as a revival of fin de siècle Japonisme. Certainly, if you like to read the hippest works of Japanese science fiction, you have only to search for charming titles published by Vertical, Haikasoru, Kurodahan Press, and Kodansha International. Nonetheless, to us who came of age absorbing Anglo-American culture in the 1970s, the very boom of Japanese culture seems another science fiction we could not have imagined back in the High Growth Period.

The genesis of translating Japanese science fiction could well be located in the early 1960s. After the inauguration in December 1959 of the first successful science fiction monthly, Hayakawa’s SF Magazine, a number of talented writers flocked together around the magazine and expanded their market beyond the boundary of science fiction, forming the group of the first generation Japanese SF writers with Shinichi Hoshi as the ultra-superstar in this period. It is Hoshi’s black humorous tale “Bokko-chan” featuring a beautiful robot maid that achieved fame as the first Japanese science fiction story translated into English. Originally published in the February 1958 issue of the first science fiction fanzine in Japan Uchujin ("Cosmic Dust") edited by Takumi Shibano and reprinted in the May 1958 issue of the professional magazine Hoseki ("Jewel") edited by Rampo Edogawa, the guru of Japanese detective fiction, “Bokko-chan” ended up by being translated into English by Hoshi’s friend Mr. Noriyoshi Saito and published in the June 1963 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), one of the leading SF magazines in the United States then edited by distinguished writer Avram Davidson. Since Hayakawa’s SFM started as the Japanese edition of F&SF, the English version of “Bokko-chan” marked the climax of their transpacific honeymoon. Please note that the year of 1963 saw the organization of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan (SFWJ) with Hoshi as the first president, which preceded Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) by two years.

This monumental achievement of Hoshi’s “Bokko-chan,” however, did not easily ignite the boom of Japanese science fiction in English-speaking countries. “Bokko-chan” is exceptionally well-wrought, but its translation itself was exceptional in the golden age of Anglo-American science fiction. Indeed, Japan’s High Growth Period attracted so many international writers that SFWJ succeeded in producing the first-ever International Science Fiction Symposium in the summer of 1970 that coincided with EXPO ’70 held in Osaka, Japan, with Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril and others as invited speakers. In 1972, major anthologist Judith Merril, among others, revisited Japan and started living in Higashi-Koganei, Tokyo, for several months in order to construct a system of translating Japanese science fiction, calling together major English-Japanese translators such as Tetsu Yano, Norio Itoh, and Hisashi Asakura. Merril and her Japanese friends joined forces to complete translating several short stories of Komatsu, Mitsuse and Ishikawa, only to find no markets for publishing an anthology of Japanese science fiction. Nonetheless, their primal work was not wasted but faithfully inherited by a couple geniuses of Japanese-English translation living in Japan: Gene Van Troyer and Edward Lipsett, both of whom made friends with and helped English-Japanese translators in a number of ways. For their achievements in the 21st century, please visit Lipsett’s company, Kurodahan Press, and take a look at their multi-volume project Speculative Japan (2007-), based upon the translation resources of Judith Merril and her splendid fellows.

Merill played a significant role in not only translating but also enlightening Japanese science fiction from the perspective of New Wave Speculative Fiction revolutionizing the whole genre from the 1960s through the 1970s. Without her presence Japan could not have engendered major speculative fictionists like Koichi Yamano and Yoshio Aramaki. In particular, Yamano represented the New Wave movement in Japan and inaugurated a new SF magazine NW-SF in 1970, which discovered a number of post-science fictional talents such as a baby boomer Chiaki Kawamata. A big fan of surrealism and science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs, literature and rock’n’roll, Chiaki Kawamata became a new voice of Japanese science fiction capable of easily deconstructing the boundaries between classics and trash.

Therefore, while I was studying American literature and critical theory at Cornell University from 1984 to 1987, I felt ambitious enough to introduce someday the cutting edge of Japanese science fiction, especially Japanese speculative fiction as represented by Yamano, Aramaki and Kawamata. I cannot forget the day my cyberpunk comrade Lewis Shiner proposed to me that he is interested in helping me translate Japanese science fiction at ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas, in October 1986. Thus, I asked my Cornell friend Kazuko Yoshio Behrens, who was writing her MA thesis in cultural anthropology and whose bilingual ability I believed to be able to accomplish the mission impossible.

This is the way she started translating the stories I selected and joined forces with Lew Shiner to elaborate the prose. This system was so successful that we could publish Aramaki's story “Soft Clocks” in the January/February 1989 issue of Interzone and Yamano’s essay “Japanese SF, Its Originality and Orientation” in the March 1994 issue of Science-Fiction Studies. For Kawamata’s Death Sentences (originally published in 1984), which Kazuko finished translating in the early 1990s when Haruki Murakami began storming English-speaking countries, we had to wait many years until I first met Thomas Lamarre at a Trent University conference in 1997. His enduring cooperation and intellectual sophistication contributed to the remarkable elaboration of the draft. Chiaki Kawamata and I cannot appreciate too much the efforts made by Tom, our Mechademia colleagues, and the University of Minnesota Press.


On July 4th, 2012, Chiaki Kawamata and Thomas Lamarre will be joined by Kiyoshi Kasai and Yoshio Aramaki for a panel on Death Sentences and Japanese science fiction translation at Josai International University—Kioicho Campus. Takayuki Tatsumi will be the panel moderator.

Find more information about the event here.


Death Sentences is the first novel by Chiaki Kawamata to be published in English. It was a best seller in Japan and was a recipient of the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. Sharing its conceit with the major motion picture The Ring, it tells the story of a mysterious surrealist poem, penned in the 1940s, which, through low-tech circulation across time, kills its readers before sparking a wave of suicides after its publication in 1980s Japan. With echoes of such classic sci-fi works as George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Philip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip, Death Sentences is a fascinating mind-bender with a style all its own.

"A hard-boiled, sharply surreal fable about the power of the written word."
—William Gibson

"Deeply rich in atmosphere and idea, (this book) deftly establishes the power of the central poems by showing their effects on the emotions, minds, bodies, and very consciousnesses of their readers; and proceeds to build living characters, central and minor, for their dangerous potential to impact."
—Publishers Weekly

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Is a good night's sleep legitimately possible?

Sleep: It might traditionally be relegated to the twilight hours.
But that doesn't mean it has to be.

Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Slate & Survey Monkey just published the results of a poll on sleep, most of which is pretty innocuous. The two findings that work pretty well together -- from my perspective -- are those on average time of length asleep (respondents come in around 7 hours or less -- some 65% are between 6-7 hours nightly) and the non-use of pharmaceuticals (~62% say they never use pharmaceuticals).

When you put these two findings together, they pretty much prove that our consolidated sleep patterns are the result of regular, daily fatigue. That is, when people sleep in unconsolidated fashion (like nightly sleep and a nap -- which Slate unfortunately didn't ask about), they're less likely to be fatigued at the end of the day; that is, when you get to take a nap midday, you aren't quite as exhausted when you finally get to bed at 10-11 PM. When you don't get that nap -- when you need 8 or more hours of sleep to be well rested and only get 6-7 -- by the time you get to bed at night, you're totally wiped out. Of course you don't need pharmaceuticals to help you sleep when you're that exhausted. I write about this both in ​The Slumbering Masses, but also in a historical article on the invention of modern sleep. And, Roger Ekirch has a lot to say about it in pre-industrial Britain.

What's maybe most important to note about all of this is that, at least according to William Dement, the father of American sleep medicine, this fatigue is totally necessary to get a good night's sleep. Dement suggests that unless we get to bed with a little fatigue in us, a consolidated night's sleep is hard to come by. One might rightly ask if that's the kind of sleep we want, when exhaustion is its motor. Maybe some other model of sleep would do us better?

There's been some recent interest in things like workplace naps, but the secondary literature on this shows that often it's cloaked in pro-worker sentiment, but ultimately in the service of employers. That is, when people nap at work they tend to work longer since they aren't so tired when the end of the work day rolls around. So maybe that isn't the answer. There's also a fair amount of research at this point that flextime is both only good for the managerial class, and that it's underused, since people are afraid of seeming lazy or delinquent to their co-workers. So that might not be the answer either. Maybe shorter work and school days would solve the problem of not enough sleep?

I'm a full subscriber to the goldfish theory of labor, i.e., labor will expand to fill any container that you give it, much like a goldfish will grow to its environment. Shrink the work and school days, and people will find a way to get as much work and learning done, they just won't have to spend so much time in their institution. This might mean that work and school demands creep into family life -- but they're already there. If we can be more efficient and stress-free working and schooling with our families and friends, it might also mean that we get more done and have more time to play. And have more time to sleep at night.

The dangerous side of this less institutional work and school is that they'll both take up more and more time -- like I'm doing right now as I write this, work can come to expand in all sorts of ways. But given that how we balance our lives has increasingly been a 'devil take the hindmost' situation in relation to our institutional demands, maybe it's time to push back on our institutions a bit and leave the development of that balance up to us, as workers and students. There are other ways to arrange our days, and we just need to think creatively and sensitively about our needs.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

London 2012: A Woman's Place is on the Field (Part 2 of 2)

Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz) was an Olympic athlete who won
medals in the 1930s and was later found to have both female and male
sex organs. Gender verification didn't make its Olympic debut until 1968.
Image source.

Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

As I wrote in my first book, a look at politics of racial identity in the 1968 Olympics, the rigidity of gender perceptions in sport became reinforced with the debut of “femininity control” – gender verification testing – at the British Commonwealth Games in 1966. The testing eradicated any notion that a male/female binary could be complicated despite past cases such as Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz), who won gold in 1932 and silver in 1936 in the 100-meters and was later found to have male sex organs, and German high jumper Dora Ratjen, a hermaphrodite who was banned from competition after a fourth place finish in 1936. Gender verification made its Olympic debut in 1968 in the Winter Games in Grenoble; the IOC then made it mandatory for every woman competing in Mexico City. The sports press had a field day with the absurdity of witnessing women submit to having their mouths swabbed to prove their womanhood, particularly when it came to the athletes that the writers found to personify femininity. The AP wrote of U.S. swimmers Linda Gustavson and Pam Kruse, for example, that “no person in his right mind could have any question of their sex.”

In the LA Times, legendary columnist Jim Murray exploded over the gender verification storm. Charging that the International Olympic Committee “wouldn’t be convinced by a topless waitress,” he wrote his own take on “separating the men from the girls”:

If it lisps, cries at weddings, stop speaking to you unaccountably for days at a time, can’t get along with your mother, puts its hair up in curlers and stands in front of two closetsful of clothes and sobs “I haven’t got a thing to wear!” it’s a girl. Color it pink. If it sits around in front of the TV all weekend watching football, trailing cigar ashes on the rug, pudgy fingers wrapped around a can of beer, scratching its hairy chest and ogling pretty girls at the family reunion, and eats with its fingers and makes noise eating soup, and gets into political arguments with your best friend’s husband, it’s a boy. Color it ugh! (October 16, 1968)

Playing on the various stereotypes that conflate gender and sex, Murray saw how the IOC had refused to understand gender’s social formation. His waggish solution was to test only the women “who speak baritone, have a mustache, or drive trucks for a living in the non-Olympic years,” as well as men “in rouge and high heels.” With the gender verification test, he warned, the IOC could make “girl athletes…one of the last persecuted minorities.”

Murray understood that gender, a social construction based on the perceived effects of biological differences, was not a physical designation, as “a great many more people,” he wrote, “are emotionally confused about their sex than they are organically.” Yet the IOC continued to conflate gender with sex, which refers to a person’s anatomy and hormones alone.

Flash forward to the hot topics of London 2012: While the Atlanta Games were seen by many as a turning point for American women who had come of age in the era of Title IX, London is proving to be the Games in which the nitty gritty questions of women’s athletic participation will be coming to a head. The most obvious question hanging over London is whether or not Saudi Arabia will field any women on its team. Both Brunei and Qatar, neither of which had ever sent a female participant to an Olympics, have promised that they would this time, but IOC President Jacques Rogge has described the circumstances with Saudi Arabia as “not an easy situation” and the Saudi National Olympic Committee president, Prince Nawaf, has stated that he does “not approve” of sending women. Whether or not there will be sanctions by the IOC, as there was for South Africa when it failed to send an integrated team in the 1960s, is still undetermined, but the questions that seem to always surround the presence of Muslim women athletes, particularly in terms of what they will wear, remain as pertinent as ever.

China and Austria compete in beach
volleyball at the 2008 Olympics.
At the 2012 Olympics, beach
volleyball competitors will have the
option of wearing shorts and sleeved
tops for the first time.
Indeed, fashion has been at the forefront of the questions surrounding women’s competitions in London. While the inclusion of women’s boxing events on the Olympic program means that for the first time women will compete in every Olympic sport, what the boxers are going to wear has plagued many. Female pugilists have been asked by the AIBA International Boxing Association to wear short skirts, saying that it will “help the women stand out from the men’s competitions.” Such a request, to be sure, has precedent, as the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, asked the women’s soccer teams in 2004 to wear “tighter shorts” in order to up the interest in the game. Conversely, the Badminton World Federation has ditched its proposal to make skirts mandatory for women, but still wants competitors to “dress properly” in an attempt to get more television coverage. Over at beach volleyball, women will be given the option for the first time to wear shorts and sleeved tops, as opposed to the formerly required bikini, with the International Volleyball Federation noting that because “countries have religious and cultural requirements … the uniform needed to be more flexible.”

How could finding a balance of what a female competitor should look like be so difficult? Peggy Orenstein argues that as women continue to push themselves into arenas formerly forbidden (including, she writes, “flooding the playing field”), the question of how to maintain – exaggerate, even – a feminine image does not go away but becomes more magnified. In her exploration of American girls’ increasingly amplified obsession with all things princess, she wonders about its effects: “Did playing Cinderella shield them from early sexualization or prime them for it?” Likewise, how to digest the fact that women in the boxing ring might need to put on a skirt to find feminine respectability, while women on the beach volleyball court might need to cover up to do the same?

For one competitor, what to wear will likely be determined by what adjustments she can make. Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will be eight months pregnant when she competes in London. While she qualified for both the 50m rifle three positions and the 10m air rifle, she has relinquished her spot in the former, as she can no longer shoot while on her stomach. While some Malaysian sports officials have urged her to drop out completely, claiming she cannot compete at an elite level while pregnant, she is determined to follow through, with hopes that the baby will not kick as she takes aim on her target.

I really hope it’s a girl.


Read Part 1 here.


Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. This will be her eighth Olympics working as supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room. She is author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (2002) and Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois (2009).

On Not the Triumph:
"In addition to being competition, entertainment, business, and shared experience, Sport has often been a stage where significant social issues were played out. In the twentieth century, those issues often pertained to human rights and race. Sometimes the dynamics of sports served to clarify those issues, sometimes to muddle them. Here, Amy Bass sorts through the events and perceptions linked to some of the biggest names and moments in sports history, and assesses their meaning beyond the playing field."
—Bob Costas, NBC Sports

On Those About Him:
"Amy Bass’s excellent history of ‘un-American activities’ in a pleasant New England town is another cautionary illustration of the banality of evil: in this case, the long, willful distortion of the progressive legacy of their greatest native son, W. E. B. Du Bois, by the people of Great Barrington in the service of a perverted patriotism."
—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

London 2012: A Woman's Place is on the Field (Part 1 of 2)

Kathrine Switzer (pictured) made
her first historic run in 1967's Boston
Marathon, five years before women
were officially allowed to race. This
year promises to be another revolutionary
one for gender identity and sports as
Keelin Godsey works toward becoming
the first transgender Olympic athlete.
Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

There are many reasons that I am a proud alum of Bates College – established by abolitionists, founded co-ed, sustainable campus, no Greek organizations – but reading about Keelin Godsey in the alumni magazine for the past several years has certainly been a highlight. In 2006, Bates reported on his second place finish in the shot put and his victory in the hammer throw at the NCAA Division III Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The meet marked his 15th and 16th All-America awards, making him the most decorated athlete in the college’s history.

Yes, I just used “his” and “him” to refer to an athlete competing in the women’s division: Godsey is a transgender athlete, and Bates reported it as straightforwardly as anyone could hope for.

Godsey is gearing up to qualify for the London Olympics, and is but one of many stories that has shifted some of the focus off Michael Phelps, William and Kate, and the Queen herself. From the questions that surround Godsey’s possible participation, to what many of the female competitors will wear, to whether or not Saudi Arabia will field a team that includes women, London 2012 is shaping up to be an Olympics of particular historic significance in terms of gender and identity.

Godsey came out just before his senior year at Bates, becoming one of the first known transgender athletes to compete at the college level. Since he did not transition medically and continued to compete as a female, Bates worked with the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to figure out how to address a gender identity that contradicts the biological male/female categories that govern most athletic competitions. Godsey speaks often about the support Bates gave him and credits art professor Erica Rand for helping him to figure out how to self-identify in the first place, and praises his teammates and his coach, who, he says, “never messed up my pronouns.”

After placing seventh in the trials for Beijing in 2008, Godsey again has his sights set on the Olympics. Having officially met the qualifying distance, he hopes that a top-three finish at the Olympic trials on June 21st will send him to London. Although a longshot (six women have thrown farther this year than his personal best of 69.39), he is certainly in the mix. And folks have noticed. A thoughtful eight-page feature in the May 28th issue of Sports Illustrated by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein explores the predicament of the transgender athlete in the biologically segregated world of sports. While the piece includes examples such as tennis player Renee Richards and George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums, the first openly transgender college athlete to compete in Division I, it largely focuses on Godsey, including a two-page photo of him swinging the hammer.

But, again, Godsey’s story is not the only thing to consider regarding the complexities of gender in the upcoming London Olympics, as the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA have had very different approaches in understanding identity’s role on the field. The Sports Illustrated piece points out that the NCAA has been progressive regarding the issue of gender identity in athletic competition, issuing a study in 2011 (in cooperation with the National Center for Lesbian Rights) that allowed “a transgender student athlete to participate in sex-separated sports activities so long as the athlete’s use of hormone therapy is consistent with the NCAA policies and current medical standards.” As the SI article beautifully summarizes, the NCAA found that “genitalia … do not impact athletic performance.”

But the IOC has a far murkier history on the matter, and has tended to construe the category of “woman” in absolute terms. Absent from the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, women debuted in competition in Paris in 1900 in tennis, equestrian, and golf, and added track and field events in Amsterdam in 1928, where American Elizabeth Robinson took gold in the 100-meters. Early on, issues regarding these athletes’ femininity ran the gamut: accusations of “mannishness” plagued particularly muscular American women, while physicians worried that women needed to focus their physical attention on reproduction, not gold medals. In the postwar period, views slowly began to change. In 1964, the American Medical Association officially encouraged women to get involved in sports, and sportswriters began to forgive the image of the “mannish” Soviet woman, who continually crushed her American counterpart, as part of the evolving Cold War rhetoric, wondering instead why American women could not step up to the plate and win in the name of democracy.

Yet despite these shifts, female athletes were generally understood within a framework of biological determinism, especially in terms of their physical incapacities when compared with men. This applied more directly to some sports than others. Distance running, for example, was rarely – if ever – recognized as an acceptable pursuit for women, considered to be too draining on the frailer female constitution. When Kathrine Switzer made her historic run at the Boston Marathon in 1967, five years before women were officially allowed to race, she had to dodge the pre-race medical exam and fend off the race officials who tried to physically remove her from the race. The women’s marathon would not make its Olympic debut until the Los Angeles Games in 1984, won by American Joan Benoit.

The complexities that surround female athletes, then, are many. On the one hand, those who are strong and powerful and can throw things great distances, for example, are considered too “mannish” to be women. Yet events like the marathon, which demands outstanding stamina, are considered to be too arduous for “the weaker sex.”

Whoever that is.


Read Part 2.


Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. This will be her eighth Olympics working as supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room. She is author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (2002) and Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois (2009).

On Not the Triumph:
"In addition to being competition, entertainment, business, and shared experience, Sport has often been a stage where significant social issues were played out. In the twentieth century, those issues often pertained to human rights and race. Sometimes the dynamics of sports served to clarify those issues, sometimes to muddle them. Here, Amy Bass sorts through the events and perceptions linked to some of the biggest names and moments in sports history, and assesses their meaning beyond the playing field."
—Bob Costas, NBC Sports

On Those About Him:
"Amy Bass’s excellent history of ‘un-American activities’ in a pleasant New England town is another cautionary illustration of the banality of evil: in this case, the long, willful distortion of the progressive legacy of their greatest native son, W. E. B. Du Bois, by the people of Great Barrington in the service of a perverted patriotism."
—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963