Angela Anderson on Gender-Neutral Parenting, Misconceptions of Polyamory, The Stigma of Invisible Disabilities, the Intersections of Feminism and Capitalism

Angela Anderson on Gender-Neutral Parenting, Misconceptions of Polyamory, The Stigma of Invisible Disabilities, the Intersections of Feminism and Capitalism

"Every person, of whatever abilities, has an important and amazing life, and deserves access to whatever they need simply by virtue of existing - these are facts I grew up knowing, and therefore I never had to "learn" them."

 

I met Angela at the California Institute of Integral Studies where we both studied in the Anthropology and Social Change program. She's a long time activist and teacher whose focus centers on intersectional feminism, disability rights, and gender, relationship and family equality. In this interview, Angela shares about gender-neutral parenting, the misconceptions of polyamory, the barriers people with invisibility disabilities face, social oppressions and health, and how all of these topics relate to feminism and capitalism.

You've been engaged in gender-neutral parenting. You connect your family's engagement with gender-neutral parenting to capitalism in a chapter you've written  for Feminist Parenting. Tell me more about this connection. What led to your conscious decision to parent in a gender-neutral way? How do you define gender-neutral parenting? How is gender-neutral parenting a resistance to capitalism?

(N.B.: My family uses "he" pronouns for Heath Audre until such a point as he expresses a pronoun preference. We successfully mostly avoid pronouns in conversing verbally about and with Heath, but it gets pretty confusing in writing so when necessary for clarity I'll be using "he/him" pronouns.)

The short answer to why we are gender-neutral parenting is we love Heath Audre, no matter what, and we want Heath to know our love is not contingent.

Contrary to how the term initially strikes most people, "gender-neutral parenting" is NOT requiring children to be neutral-gender or be agender. Though if they do, great! And if they don't, also great! Hooray for all genders and lack thereof! And that describes gender-neutral parenting: it is tangible emotional neutrality towards your children's genders, whatever they may be or not be.  (For more, check out Paige Lucas-Stannard's book Gender Neutral Parenting.)

Intersectional feminism requires understanding that gender, and yes, even sex, are social constructs. This means that the categories are not immutable, but rather are defined by social norms. Children are gendered from the moment their genitalia are detected on ultrasound. Capitalism urges expecting parents - birth, adoption, anything - to purchase "necessary" equipment, toys, apparel, and these choices are "enhanced" by gender specificity. Capitalism benefits from so-called "gender reveal" parties, gender-themed baby showers, gender-themed gifts.

These gendered toys are not benign, but serve to reinforce capitalist gender roles. While tools and sports equipment "for girls" is increasingly available, you'd be hard-pressed to find strollers "for boys." Construction toys such as LEGO have "girl" options that are not as functional or sturdy as the "standard" options.

As Lucas-Stannard outlines in the book, gendered expectations of children impact their interests, opportunities, skills, and development for the rest of their lives. So gender neutral parenting strives for neutrality towards gender and providing children a variety of gendered experiences.

In our family, that means Heath has (primarily hand-me-down and second-hand) clothing intended for a variety of genders and is encouraged to choose among them. Heath plays with trains and baby dolls and musical instruments and cars and strollers and blocks and books. We encourage and support Heath in being gentle, strong, active, loving, intuitive, artistic, responsible, sensitive, and emotional. It's our intention that Heath know our love is not conditional on gender, that it's not bad to be boyish or a girl or both or neither, that gendered and other hierarchies need to be dismantled, and that the only expectations we hold are that Heath be respectful and kind to everyone.

One of the activisms you're deeply involved in is disability rights and visibility. You've written published pieces about it and helped change the language we use to be more inclusive. For example, you helped UCSF change the language in its ad to be more respectful to disabled persons. Tell me more about your activism in this area.

Every year since the year I was born, I volunteered with my family at a camp for children who use wheelchairs or are blind. As an able-bodied child and young adult, being of service at that event and getting to know the participants well taught me the meaning of being an ally. That every person, of whatever abilities, has an important and amazing life, and deserves access to whatever they need simply by virtue of existing - these are facts I grew up knowing, and therefore I never had to "learn" them. I learned later this is called the social model of disability - that people are disabled by an inaccessible society, not by their own bodies. A lifelong activist, I spoke out in support of access, of universal design, whenever I had the opportunity.

In my early twenties I was disabled by the US medical system, which denigrates and dismisses young women with chronic illness of "unknown cause." Thus I made the transition from ally to member of the disabled community. I was in college, taking my first classes on sociocultural perspectives on disability, which inspired me to pursue a social science graduate degree.

Throughout my life and education, I have learned and thought a lot about how we speak about disability, or disablement. In graduate school, a professor assigned Merleau-Ponty's "The Child's Relations With Others," which asserts that children establish a sense of self through seeing themselves in mirrors - the question I posed to my colleagues was what of children who do not see? How do they, from Merleau-Ponty's perspective, establish self-identity? What does this omission say about Merleau-Ponty?

How we talk about things both reflects and impacts how we perceive those things.

As I continue in my activist life, I look for ways to address the everyday perceptions of disability - for instance, I contacted University of California San Francisco Benioff Children's Hospital to change one of their most offensive "inspiration porn" ads displayed in BART, one of the most accessible public transit systems in the world. The ad, which original said a child was "wheelchair-bound", was changed to say he "used a wheelchair, but is now up and running." More details on the changing of this ad is available here.

When I interviewed Dominick, he pointed out that people with an invisible disability "face different barriers." I would love to hear you share more about this. What are the barriers that people with invisible disabilities face, and what can we do to reduce/eliminate the stigma?

Dominick is an incredible activist - I'm so glad Dominick was featured in an interview!

I agree, people with invisible disabilities have very different lived experiences than people who are visually perceived as disabled. By that I mean that while I am disabled, I do not carry the visual characteristics that people associate with disability such as a wheelchair or cane or service dog. When people see me, they assume me to be able-bodied.

Invisible disability is undoubtedly a privilege in some ways, as compared to "visible disability." To borrow a term from many other communities that experience oppression based on appearance, I am able to "pass" as able-bodied and am not treated with the same prejudice as people who are immediately perceived as disabled. Because of this, I do not need to deal with a lot of the everyday bullshit that other disabled people face.

Invisible disability also means making a decision about if and when, again to borrow a term, to "out" yourself. In interviewing for a job, do you tell them during the first meeting that you have health concerns? During a follow-up interview? Not until you're hired? How will you be perceived depending on how long you wait? How will you be able to tell if they will be supportive of accommodating you? Similar questions are asked in dating, making friends, anything that involves long-term interaction or intimate knowledge.

"My non-hierarchical polyamorous style not only flies in the face of these sexist, heteronormative, monogamous-normative social assumptions, but shows my partners that I personally do not buy into these messages that we all constantly receive from the status quo."

 

You've been polyamorous for a while, and engage in non-hierarchical relationships. Non-hierarchical relationships seem to be the minority in the polyamorous and non-monogamous communities. Tell me more about your conscious decision to create non-hierarchical relationships, what it means to you, and why it is important. 

I prefer deep relationships - friendships and romances. I also feel that hierarchy has no place in my life, ever, at all.

Being polyamorous, most people I encounter seek to denigrate my relationship identity. I refer to all my partners as just that, "partners," as I find that often people are trying to figure out if I'm referring to what they'd consider my "legitimate" partner or my "extra" partners. Similarly, my cis male partners are frequently asked about "sharing" me, as if, as a cis woman, I am still "owned" by my male partners and I am their possession to do with as they please. Because of all of this, partners may be more disposed to compare themselves to each other. My non-hierarchical polyamorous style not only flies in the face of these sexist, heteronormative, monogamous-normative social assumptions, but shows my partners that I personally do not buy into these messages that we all constantly receive from the status quo.

I sometimes have relationships that are not integrated into my family, as do my partners. Even in non-hierarchy, our family has commitments and resulting priorities. Because of this, sometimes family priorities will need to take precedence over less integrated partners. However, my non-hierarchical approach to polyamory extends to less integrated partners, mine and others', whose needs I try to balance with the needs of our family.

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What are some misconceptions and stereotypes that have been placed upon you as a polyamorous person? In addition, I've heard the argument that being polyamory is a privilege. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

I love questions about polyamory misconceptions! Let's start there, as the privilege question leads into the next set of questions.

In addition to the misconceptions I addressed above about cis male partners "owning" and "sharing" their cis female partners, here are some common misconceptions I encounter:

  •  IT'S ALL ABOUT SEX: Well, not for me. My chronic illness has rendered me semi-/demi-sexual. In fact, I love polyamory because I don't feel pressured to have sex more often than I want, because my partners can and do seek safe sexual relationships with others. So, no, not all about the sex.
  • It's selfish!: Polyamory is not inherently more selfish than monogamy or any other form of relating. The "selfish" argument seems to come from the possessive mindset bred by monogamous status quo - if all relationships are expected to be possessive, then of course relationships with multiple people would seem selfish.
  • Committed polyamorous relationships are impossible: I've done it. So, myth.

There are also scarier misconceptions, like that polyamory is inherently dangerous to children. Historically this argument has been brandished towards all kinds of subjugated relationship structures: interracial couples, queer families, single parents, BDSM communities, disabled parents, and on and on. Like many groups, polyamorous parents are not protected by law.

And this begins to speak to the question of privilege. Like invisible disability, polyamory undoubtedly indicates privilege - polyamorous people, largely, must have the time, resources, support, and safety in their lives to pursue multiple relationships. (Recognizing, of course, that polyamorous people can also be single and not dating, etc. etc.) Said another way, people privileged by society in other ways will be more readily able to practice polyamory and feel safer identifying as polyamorous.

And, like with invisible disability, polyamory is also a targeted identity in our society. Marriage is privileged in the US, conferring hundreds of financial and legal privileges that single and otherwise unmarried people do not receive. For instance, since polyamorous people cannot marry all their partners simultaneously in the US, polyamorous people are necessarily discriminated against when it comes to finances, health insurance, hospital visitation, etc.

 

"No relationship style is inherently feminist. In my life, polyamory is feminist because I have my needs met by multiple people and meet the needs of others according to my strengths."

 

When we talk about intersectional feminism, I think we often leave out disabled persons and those who engage in non-monogamous relationships. What is the intersection between feminism, disability, and polyamory/non-monogamy? How is non-monogamy and polyamory feminist? How can intersectional feminism be more inclusive?

I'm happy to see intersectional feminism, in publications such as Everyday Feminism, increasingly including disability and non-monogamy.

To me, the over-arching intersection between feminism, disability, and non-monogamy is the seat of all oppression: the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (For more, bell hooks Ain't I A Woman and all else.) Capitalism in the US relies on compulsory monogamy - separating us into nuclear families or smaller, increasing consumption and decreasing solidarity, etc. - as well as disabling a major portion of the population - allowing construction status quo to stand, providing a "cheap" labor force, and encouraging the populace to devalue "disabled" life deemed useless by capitalism.

There are some intersections, particularly between feminism and disability, that need to be resolved - for instance, aborting "disabled" fetuses cannot be separated from ableism, a tool of the capitalist patriarchy. We all need to continue listening to each other and working together - the patriarchy cannot be destroyed unless we are united.

No relationship style is inherently feminist. In my life, polyamory is feminist because I have my needs met by multiple people and meet the needs of others according to my strengths. I do not feel pressured to be everything to my partner and not feel the need to have one partner be everything to me. I can live in community, with more people around to help me address the time tax of living while disabled - I have more people around to help with my health needs, help care for my child, and the time I regain can be used towards my own work. Without multiple partners, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, for me to be healthy, parent, and continue with my own pursuits.

You're interested in the dialogue between social oppressions and health. You have a medical degree in addition to your Anthropology and Social Change masters. Tell me more about how social oppressions affect people's health. What is the connection between oppression, health, the medical world, and feminism?

Damn, Cameron, I could go on for DAYS! How long do you have??

I'm currently researching the social determinants behind the gender disparity in chronic illness of "unknown cause" in the United States. These diagnoses include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, post-Lyme disease syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), non-epileptic seizures, multiple sclerosis (MS), migraine, celiac disease, most other autoimmune disorders, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. Epidemiology bears out these diagnoses disproportionately affect "women" 1.5-7x more than "men" (scare quotes because the research is not queered at all). There are further disparities in these diagnoses in intersection with race, class, gender variance, sexuality, and on and on we go.

The minimal attempts at explanation by the Western medical establishment/pharmaceutical industrial complex firmly place blame for these conditions on those affected. In other words, "It's all in your head," which is generally verbally expressed by doctors as "We recommend antidepressants."

I assert that these diagnoses, rather than being legitimate and scientifically sound, are at least in part revealing the sexist, racist beliefs relied upon by the US capitalist system, and therefore the pharmaceutical industrial complex. Other examples of these oppressive diagnoses are the historical constructs of hysteria, drapetomania, and homosexuality as a mental disorder, as well as the still-considered-legitimate diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

These diagnoses therefore maintain the oppressive structure of US capitalism by gaslighting those oppressed by the system, keeping them sick, while prioritizing the health of the most valued workers - white cis heterosexual men. This is maintained by the historical and current subjugation of alternative medical knowledges which have the potential to cure and prevent the conditions underlying those diagnoses. And this is truly just the tip of the iceberg.

It is my hope that all those people who know that their conditions, and their loved ones' conditions, are not all in their heads will demand better from the US medical system. I'll be presenting a poster on this at the National Women's Studies Association conference in November 2016. Stay tuned for more from me on this topic!

 

"Capitalism has been destroying independent, strong women who were often healers through witch hunts for centuries."

 

You are into holistic care, including homeopathy. Tell me more about your experience with holistic health, and what is the link between holistic care and feminism?

Capitalism has been destroying independent, strong women who were often healers through witch hunts for centuries. This has been a technique for making the whole population more reliant on capitalism, on doctors, on the pharmaceutical industrial complex. The system has devalued midwives, natural knowledge, and deep understanding of menstrual cycles. Like many others, I have actively been reclaiming this strength, this power, this identity of being a witch.

Coincidentally, I LOVE treatments that are effective but have no "satisfactory" "scientific" explanation. Diane Wolf in "Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork" says that positivist science is "simply a reflection of male forms of interpersonal dynamics-distant, 'rational,' uninvolved, hierarchical, and unrelated" and that "objectivity is simply a form of male subjectivity" as Pat Caplan points out.

Dr. Rankin points out in "Mind Over Medicine" that the placebo effect is just that: effective; and that we should not lose track of the fact that we want people to be well, and should not be hasty to judge effective treatments that are not explained by science. This also speaks to the mind-body connection in health.

These treatments ARE magic, because science has declared them so. Should science be open to the explanation for these modalities, should they be legitimated by the capitalist Western healthcare industry, they would no longer be alternative, no longer magical, no longer holistic, merely medicine.

Since grad school, you've become more interested in feminist theory. How has feminist theory shaped your intersectional feminist beliefs and activism? Which feminist theories, in particular, compel you?

I've referenced a lot of them! I'll use this section as a citation/reading list.

Lorde, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" and the rest of Sister Outsider, as well as "The Uses of Anger" All books by bell hooks, but especially Ain't I A Woman and Teaching to Transgress Wolf, "Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork" Butler, Gender Trouble and Undoing GenderAnzaldúa, now let us shift...Federici, Caliban and the WitchFernandes, Transforming Feminist Practice, on incorporating spirituality into feminismHaraway, Situated Knowledges, on feminist scientific practiceSerano, Excluded, on inclusion in feminism and queer movementsTallBear, Native American DNA

I also love the aspirational speculative fiction of Octavia's Brood, especially "Hollow" by Mia Mingus.

You grew up in Pennsylvania. Tell me more about where and what that experience was like. 

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Reading, PA, a small city over an hour outside Philadelphia that had the horrific distinction of ranking in the top of American cities in murder and poverty rates per capita. My suburb, at the time almost exclusively white and very conservative, was where Taylor Swift lived in a mansion before moving to the South. I remember blatant racism, classism, and homophobia perpetrated by the parents of my classmates and peers. My school was very clique-y, worsened by teachers who had gone to the school reinforcing the cliques and rewarding/penalizing accordingly.

Because of this, I spent most of my time in community theater, where I gained the confidence and support I couldn't find in school. In going into Reading for rehearsals, I learned many things that many of my schoolmates never did - that Reading wasn't irredeemably dangerous, and yet that random men might hurt me if given the chance so I should always be accompanied outside at night. This is when I started learning the perspective and skills needed to survive as a solo young women in Pittsburgh and Rome, recognizing how to walk the line between dismissing oppressive assumptions and keeping myself safe in a world hostile to women.

I'm happy to report, upon returning to my hometown, that there are now many more people of color living in my neighborhood, and more are moving in all the time. It's still conservative, it's still mostly white, but it's encouraging to see it moving in a less exclusionary direction, at least in some ways that I can observe.

I know you want to be a full-time professor. What does teaching mean to you? Ideally, where and what would you want to teach?

From your mouth to god's ears, Cam!

Teaching is an extension of my activism. In teaching, which I don't get to do formally as often as I'd like, I incorporate both canonical and subjugated works from the topic at hand, and examine critically why each work is considered canonical or subjugated by the field. Only when we are critically examining what we are being taught can we understand the full scope of what we are learning!

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