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Feminist writer Ann Friedman published a recent column in New York Magazine she entitled "Why It’s Worth Banishing Men Once in a While.” Over the years, Friedman has pushed strongly for gender parity in the workplace and especially an increased representation of women in publication. In her latest piece, she discusses the virtues of exclusively female gatherings.  

Unlike the male friends and acquaintances she cites, I am not intimidated. Should a group of women decide to meet separately, with no men present, it matters little to me. I understand the importance of spaces designated specifically for women and the great good that can result from them. There is value to be found when societal pressure to impress, compete, and conform is lessened. These behaviors can be directly expressed or so automatic that they are very nearly subliminal.

For my part, I’ve participated in Quaker LGBT conferences where everyone was welcome, regardless of sexual orientation. Inclusivity was strongly stressed, especially towards straight allies. Almost everyone who turned up, however, was at least one shade of queer or the other. We were instructed to never make assumptions about anyone's sexual orientation. Asking point blank would have been considered rude. A few people here and there self-disclosed, but there seemed to be few reasons to do so.

The gathering had been originally set up in the 1970's for gay and lesbian Friends who had been shunned by their local Meetings. Including bisexual and transgender attenders had been a controversial move that was initially opposed fiercely by some. With time, this distinction ceased to be offensive. By the time I attended, no one seemed to care one way or the other.  

It was a peculiar space, for sure, one where conventional demographics were flipped upside down. Those who usually made up 10% of the population were suddenly in the majority. Being present felt, to me, simultaneously euphoric and strange. What added to the surreal quality were the number of young Asian girls present who had been adopted, usually by lesbian couples.  

I have only one pressing, outstanding personal issue that gives me reason to question the thrust of Friedman's argument. Men-only spaces have never felt especially comfortable to me. Years ago, I found an online advocacy group for men who had, like me, been sexually abused as children. Eager to participate in their annual conference, the sticker shock was profound.

I found the cost extremely prohibitive, no doubt eliminating many worthwhile participants. No scholarships were offered, but if you asked nicely enough, their website implied that a few dollars might be provided here and there. My financial need was more than could be provided, which ended that discussion. I asked for a scholarship, provided the amount of money I requested, and was never contacted again.

I remain a touch annoyed at being excluded and passed over. The implication, whether by design or by accident, was that only wealthy survivors were capable of achieving increased emotional and social health. Financial discrimination is sometimes much worse than any other injustice. Those who schedule conferences like these may merely be guilty of not thinking beyond face value. These kinds of oversights, I have learned, affect everyone equally.

In a religious context, I’ve taken part in gender-segregated groups. Though they always filled me with great unease, I managed to keep my wits about me as we broke down into smaller groups separated by gender. Six to eight of us formed each team. We were actively encouraged to consider profound topics with each other. Guided discussion led everyone in the room towards often-uncomfortable honesty, though we always felt gratified afterwards.  

Conferences and gatherings are only one dynamic present here. While they are intense and powerful, they are ephemeral, though they tend to produce persistently strong and lasting memories. We cannot capture lightning in a bottle. Day to day life, as we know, is something very different. This is where the real work begins.

The statistical breakdown of Washington, DC, where I live, skews heavily female. Where I Worship reflects this discrepancy. Should the idea of a men-only worship group be proposed, I can safely surmise that there wouldn't be many male members around who would be able to commit to forming it. A women-only group, by contrast, would be large enough to need to be broken down into two or three separate smaller gatherings.

Religious groups are one of the few consistently female-dominated spaces in our culture. Having been a church attender my entire life, I am very familiar with those dynamics. It has been my experience that women-only gatherings are usually established in similar ways. In the beginning, a particularly motivated woman or pair of motivated women working in tandem take it upon themselves to put everything together. Justifying their need, they express forcefully and passionately their desire for gender-segregated spaces. Formal planning begins shortly afterward. The rest is history.  

Despite my squeamishness, I have observed great tenderness and comfort in the words and attitudes of men, more than I would have ever expected. I’ve introduced vulnerability and sensitivity into intimate settings and been affirmed for it, not discounted or insulted as not sufficiently masculine. But even with those breakthroughs, I must say I was always glad when time was up. When I returned an environment in which men and women resumed their interaction with each other, rather than apart, I was most content there. True comfort for me, for my own reasons, involves both the participation of both sexes.

Friedman writes,

Any feminist will tell you that the movement has to include men in order to succeed. We also live in a gender-fluid age when many, many people don’t identify with either “man” or “woman,” and in order to segregate by gender, you need to force people to choose one. (For the record, my rule is that no matter how you were born or how you like to dress, if you consider yourself a woman, you’re eligible to attend.)
I don’t always feel masculine or male. I've dressed to reflect this sense of gender confusion and outright contradiction for a long time. According to her definition, do I consider myself a woman? That’s tricky. Most of my friends and acquaintances are women, assuming that single fact taken in isolation makes me somehow less than male. What I will say is that I might feel more comfortable with myself had I been born a woman.

But at the same instant I recognize that I often act like a man. I’ve absorbed particular lessons since childhood. These have taught me how I am to verbally respond in particular situations and how I ought to form and present my thoughts. That's the template upon which I communicate to the world around me. Over time, I've noticed that I copy my father’s mannerisms and turns of phrase without meaning to do it. None of that can be undone.

Mostly, I feel like a gender hermaphrodite. Being around men makes me aware of the places where I am not male, and being around women produces the same effect in a different way. This is a difficult concept to explain to skeptical people, and I would much rather have to wrestle with either male or female, but not both at the same time. That is not, however, my fate. I’ve never been one for self-pity and I won't start here. Maybe the trick is to not focus on the inevitable differences and to try to find comfort where one can.

Friedman’s conclusion shows not much in the way of love towards her critics.

When everyone’s a woman, your actions aren’t even remotely associated with your gender, but rather, with you as a person. That, I think, is a feeling even men could benefit from once in awhile. Which is why I encourage my male friends who feel left out to start their own annual holiday. They’ll never be invited to mine.
With the blanketing anxiety that has been a constant throughout my life, I’m not sure I could ever escape myself or benefit from any gender-segregated experience. My self-scrutiny is intense enough that even the most uplifting, comforting group would not grant me the ability to purge my insecurities, or at least leave them at the door. This might not be exactly what it’s like to be a woman in American society, but, based on what I’ve read and observed, it surely sounds close.

Ann Friedman's exercise in gender purity is complicated. Knowing how to interpret anecdotal evidence with any satisfaction may never provide more than interesting analysis. Our conclusions may be as different as we are.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

    by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 08:11:34 AM PST

  •  From my very limited sample set, I can say that (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cabaretic, Wee Mama, VeggiElaine

    the performance of masculinity is problematic in one way or another for a lot of men in this society.

    And I can sympathize with you, as I had a lot of work to do to figure out my way of performing femininity. Because my way isn't the social standard, and can edge into soft butch at times.

    When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

    by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 08:59:38 AM PST

    •  I thank you (3+ / 0-)

      I'm still working on who I am, and hope I don't have to wander in the wilderness that much longer.

      I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

      by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 09:04:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  more than one way to "perform" masculinity (3+ / 0-)

      When conventional, hegemonic masculinity can be affirmed through other ways, you'd be surprised at the way a lot of the cold, angry, stupid stuff disappears.  Men-only spaces, groups, and activities are probably the easiest ways to give men that ability to drop their guard ... but even then it's still taken for granted that the intention is to conform and perform according to the stated purpose.  Joining or otherwise engaging a group of men to object or change them or what they do is simply not acceptable among men, even when another man does it; stop making it about you.

      Men definitely act differently around women then they do around other men, and I don't think that's ever going to change.  Men know that women want and expect certain attitudes and behaviors from men and are willing or at least trained to offer them ... even at the cost of suppressing their own desires and personality.  Men also know that what a woman says and what she actually means are not necessarily related: "Yeah, they all say they want a 'nice guy' who'll cry and shit, but the last thing she wants is for you and your feelings to get in the way of her and what she wants."

      Domestic politics is the continuation of civil war by other means.

      by Visceral on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:03:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There's a lot of personality editing that goes on (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cabaretic, VeggiElaine

        on both sides.

        One of the things I do on my weekends are activities that sandbox power games and run them in miniature, and some things that are traditionally attributed to masculine role wind up attaching more to the dominant role. It was surprising difficult to admit to a fear and an uneasiness with a proposed area of exploration, and as I am normally very open with those I love, I had to think a bit and realize that I am still shedding conditioning that the one in charge can't admit to fear.  But I see this sort of conditioning in men all the time.

        When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

        by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:52:53 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Agreed (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Alexandra Lynch, VeggiElaine

          And some of this personality editing we're aware of innately and some of it is so enmeshed within us that it flies under the radar. At times we reach understanding, having epiphanies and realizations that have lain dormant for a long time.

          I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

          by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:59:53 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thoughtful, well-written post that provides much (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cabaretic, lotlizard, Alexandra Lynch

    food for thought.

    I've been a feminist since my 20's. Even before that age I was a feminist, only I didn't know enough to call what I felt "feminism."

    I have to admit to some sympathy with women who want women-only groups. My Dianic circle has from time to time discussed the possibility of admitting male Witches, but we always end up voting "No." The Dianic version of the Craft of the Wise is one of the very few in which all women are priestesses and no men are needed to create or direct rituals. We like that.

    Also have a great deal of sympathy for girls-only education. I went to an all-girls' academy for my junior year of high school. What I found was that girls were free to be themselves, without worrying about what some boy would think of them. We could bright or dull, as we chose; we could dominate class discussions or remain silent. It was a liberating experience, the kind I'm sure women experience at all-female colleges and universities.

    Yet, I've participated in rituals with men and welcomed their input. Masculine attributes add a great deal, in my opinion. I like that. I admire my husband for being able to do things I'd never even dream of being able to do! In a work situation I preferred a 50-50 ratio of men to women. All-male work environments I found crude and unmannerly; all-women work environments seemed catty and dominated by trivia.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for the diary, and I hope you're able to arrive at a comfortable--and comforting--place in your emotional development, cabaretic.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 09:55:03 AM PST

    •  Thank you! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alexandra Lynch

      As I wrote, I see the value in women-only spaces. I understand the benefit for many. One of my female friends went to an all-girls Catholic school where she was the victim of terrible gossip and hurtful rumors. Others had uniformly positive experiences in single-sex educational settings.

      If we could ever establish a strict 50-50 ratio, I think it would be of great benefit to everyone. Unfortunately, the way it shakes out in reality is not especially equal. At my house of worship, I have tried to establish gender parity, but I live in a city where women outnumber men.

      There are so many interlocking variables at play here. One hardly knows where to begin.  

      I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

      by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:03:07 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I have a lot of questions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

    about just the notions of gender identity and sexual orientation should be understood. I am a gay man who has always been generally comfortable in the male configured body that I was born with. However from a very early age my gender role behaviors were distinctly non-conforming to the standards of masculinity in the small southern town that I was growing up in. This might have been influenced by the fact that I was raised entirely by women, but there have been many boys who were raised in such circumstances who easily followed a traditional gender role path. I'm fairly certain that all female parenting is not why I turned out to be gay.

    Humans can never fully separate the roles of biology and culture in shaping their lives. We all have to be raised in some culture by older humans or we wouldn't survive. It is likely easier for some people to conform to social expectations for various reasons, but nobody ever is ever exactly identical to everybody else. Some people are more willing than others to deal with difference and ambiguity.

    •  I agree with you (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Richard Lyon, Alexandra Lynch

      Biology and culture are wrapped around each other so tightly, that it's tough to know where one begins and another ends.

      I was raised in a house full of women, but my father had probably the most influence on me while growing up. He had desperately wanted a son of his own, and my only qualm with him is that I could rarely be the sort of boy he could understand. That sense of not measuring up is partially why I have negative associations with masculinity.

      I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

      by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:40:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hmmm... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

    "When everyone’s a woman, your actions aren’t even remotely associated with your gender"

    If gender as experienced is inescapable, How does one disassociate from gender?

    --ml

    •  Is it necessarily inescapable? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

      The transgender experience would seem to suggest that it is not.

      •  But what transgender experience? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Alexandra Lynch

        One of my former partners went through transition and now identities as male. He confided to me a few months ago that he is trying to reconcile that he will always be a man with a vagina.

        So even with transgender identity, it's still difficult to disassociate completely from gender.

        I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

        by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:45:38 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The question would revolve (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

          around people's expectations. If one hopes to make one's life conform to a traditional binary then it is not likely to be that tidy. However, there are people who have gone through medical transition and found their outcomes essentially liberating.

          I have been following Robyn Servin's diaries for a number of years and have found her to be a source of information and inspiration. She is a person of intelligence,  creativity and imagination. All of that helps is not letting other people shove you into their little boxes.

          •  Boxes (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Alexandra Lynch

            Some want the comfort of boxes, especially if they've never felt that they belonged most of their entire life. When I came out and went to the gay club, I found that the queer men I encountered conformed to a particular standard of presentation and dress. They'd never felt a part until then, and this was their way of embracing a standard that felt authentic. But with time, that often changes.

            Some people reach an understanding of gender and never need to deviate from it. It depends entirely on the person, in my experience.

            I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

            by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:21:15 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I can understand that to a certain extent. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

              When I came out in the 1970s it was a world that was still a pretty hostile place for LGBT folk. Initially I found real comfort in a community in which I could express an important part of myself. However, with the passage of time I got more comfortable with that part of myself and the world around me also began to change. There were lots of other aspects of my life that offered interest and challenge. I long ago ceased to primarily define my entire personhood in terms of my sexual identity.

              Sometimes that creates a problem for some other people. That is their problem rather than mine.

              •  My two cents (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Alexandra Lynch

                I think that in the beginning, every queer-identified person defines himself or herself in terms of his/her sexual orientation and identification. Or at least many do. It's a progression of a sort.

                I came of age, gratefully, in a much more tolerant time.

                I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

                by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:43:54 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  I think that people coming of age (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

                  now are going to inevitably experience things in much different terms than my generation did. I think that it is likely that they will see things in more fluid terms. I am very that they don't need to solve all the same problems that I did. They will have enough new ones of some kind to deal with.  

                •  Depends on who the person was (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch

                  and if we have had to deal with multiple identities from the get-go, as queers, as people of color, as immigrants, as religious minorities, as impoverished, as socialists, as whatever multiple identities we might have in a world that often required you to:  Pick One.  

                  Perhaps this is why the fluidity of gender identity or expression is a little less unfamiliar to me as to my contemporaries (though I still have much to learn).  I've never been able to pick one identity as primary, I'm all who I am.  Sometimes dissonant, sometimes in harmony.  

                  "Out of Many, One Nation." This is the great promise of the United States of America -9.75 -6.87

                  by Uncle Moji on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 12:56:58 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

    •  The definition of "woman" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alexandra Lynch

      The author has a particular standard of what constitutes a woman, which may differ from the women with whom she surrounds herself.

      I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

      by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 10:42:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  As a woman born female gendered, (4+ / 0-)

        part of what we have to do is to figure out what "being a woman" means to us.

        And we learn this from our families and our societies.  Some of them are pretty nasty. Like "Being a woman means society owns your body." or the one I've had to unpick, "Being a woman means your needs come after men's wants."

        When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

        by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:09:49 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Good Point (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          VeggiElaine, Alexandra Lynch

          I had to learn what "being a man" meant for me. And in all honesty, I'm still not sure.

          I was taught that I had to be an island and to always be self-sufficient. I was also taught to adopt a stoic attitude towards pain and adversity. I learned to avoid interactions with sharp-tongued boys who used insults to wound the weaker ones.  

          I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

          by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:14:46 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I would note that every time we separate by gender (3+ / 0-)

    we create another land mine in the lives of the transgender. Best not to create MORE opportunities for people to feel excluded or unwanted.

    "Nothing happens unless first a dream. " ~ Carl Sandburg

    by davewill on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:34:24 AM PST

  •  Thought provoking (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cabaretic, Alexandra Lynch
    Mostly, I feel like a gender hermaphrodite
    I think even our genitalia exist on a continuum, not just our intellects or emotions.  I almost think we could be like peppermint shrimp  with a little push in that direction.

    "Traditional" social roles I think used to be more commonly used to categorize people.  Male attributes: achievement or money oriented, the need to "make a mark" on the world, to separate oneself as unique; female attributes: friendship network based competition, ability to stabilize family situations. Now that the workplace is closer to equal & hopefully one day will be, those mores become antiquated.  Many of those male only spaces are opened, as are the women only places. So as Alexandra mentions above,

    part of what we have to do is to figure out what "being a woman" means to us
    & i don't think we can tie that to social roles or tasks, or, because the varieties of relationship couplings is now more accepted, even to relationship dynamics; what we are left with is perhaps a behavioral continuum, where some behave more femininely than others or more masculinely, based on how we decide that's measured.

    I do not demand tolerance, I demand equal rights. --Anna Grodzka

    by VeggiElaine on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 11:58:01 AM PST

  •  The trans experience of gender exclusion (3+ / 0-)

    depends on whether you are FTM or MTF. I am MTF and my life has coincided with the history of Second Wave feminism.

    In the 1970's and 1980's, the feminist position was that FTM's didn't exist (they were "confused lesbians"), while MTFs were Frankenstein's monsters and fifth columnists for patriarchy. The most transphobic piece of hate literature (until the publication of J. Michael Bailey's The Man Who Would Be Queen), was feminist Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire. Raymond worked with Senator Strom Thurmond to exclude transsexuals from medical coverage under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which lead to decades of exclusion of trans medical coverage in all US insurance policies. I had to liquidate my retirement saving to pay my transition medical costs, and I owe that fact -- and my subsequent homelessness -- in large part to Janice Raymond.

    After transition, I was active for a few years in women's spirituality, but was hounded out by rabid transphobes.

    My experience of women's spaces has been one of venomous hatred, not from everyone, but from enough of the most vociferous and active people that participation was made impossible. There are still many women's spaces where rabid transphobia is the norm -- Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is one, and all the "Dianic" pagan groups in California (where are live) and several other places are others.

    As for "mens spaces", those were places I was often thrown into unwillingly, and had to survive. I developed my extremely solitary and isolated mode of life in order to avoid
    them.

     In general, trans people are not welcome in the cis world. There is nowhere we are more unwelcome than in "gendered spaces". It is enough to make one wish to have been some other species than human -- a tree, perhaps... if they too were not mostly imperiled by humanity.

    •  My observation (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      VeggiElaine, Alexandra Lynch

      The second-wave feminists were often transphobic. Think Germaine Greer, for example. It's a regrettable part of feminist history.

      The third-wave feminists, of which I am a member, haved tried to reconcile that inequality. We've sought to treat transgender folks, be they transmen or transwomen, with basic human dignity.

      There are always some feminist or womanist radical voices spewing hatred. I do not associate with them and vocally denounce what they believe.

      I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

      by cabaretic on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 12:28:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I am cisfemale, and I've had trouble with (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      VeggiElaine, cabaretic

      second-wave feminism.

      See, I like men. I have sons. I think there's no pathology of maleness, it's just different, and both men and women are humans and should be treated as such.

      The only pagan circle I ever stood up and walked out of was the one where we were instructed to "bless ourselves with the tears of the women raped by the patriarchy."

      When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

      by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 02:12:29 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  WHat I object to is being told by women that... (4+ / 0-)

    ...I am a man because of the circumstances of my birth.

    •  in the trans experience (3+ / 0-)

      labels can be irrelevant.  "Lesbian""Woman""Gay"/"Man"  what does all that even mean?  & yet those labels are misused to justify exclusion & to use a word i've overused lately, "othering" of those from outside the qualified definition of some term.  Sort of like staking the claim that integers are the only numbers, which completely misses the irrationals/imaginaries/reals.  It can hurt personally, but lately what hurts worse is that it so limits human understanding to have such arbitrary conditions on inclusion when its not just not necessary, its not even rational.

      I remember some comments you made awhile back regarding transphobia in the feminist community and I still think what you encountered was some type of sociopathy, a consciencelessness.  In my naivete at this ripe age I am still sickened and amazed that humans can be so heartless.

      I do not demand tolerance, I demand equal rights. --Anna Grodzka

      by VeggiElaine on Sat Jan 25, 2014 at 03:54:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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