Forging Meaning Building Resistance

When we are in the fire, we cannot escape the pain and fear of annihilation. It feels like it will never end. Yet one of the few things I know to be absolutely true is that emotions are fleeting. In my somewhat wise middle-aged years, when someone sets fire to my body yet again, I know to breathe and breathe and chant “this too will pass.”

I’m not saying this is easy. I have been brought to my knees in tears and pain over and over by the cruel and abusive acts of former partners. Yes, I must sheepishly admit that I have been in more than one abusive relationship. The particular way I shape myself around partners causes me to ignore controlling and violent behavior for far too long. It also recently occurred to me that one becomes conditioned to such behavior; after one abusive relationship, the next one seems normal. It took many years of living under the control of another person for me to finally gain clarity about what constitutes healthy relational patterns. At this point, I am confident that I can say “never again.” Learning has occurred!

When dealing with acts of cruelty, it would be easy to revert to my own unhealthy coping skills, namely calorie restriction and substance use (though hiding under the covers, binge watching Netflix, and isolating myself would also not serve me). I am happy to say that in the midst of pain and conflict, I haven’t engaged in any of the above activities. Rather, I work diligently on my PhD, dance, spend time with nature, write and write, listen to music, eat and eat, sit in meditation, and engage with community. Look, friends- HEALTHY COPING SKILLS! It is possible to make use of them!

I was recently catching up with a dear friend with whom I had not spoken in a while and was musing about my role regarding a former toxic relationship. Where could I hold myself responsible? Is there something I could have done to prevent the onslaught of cruelty that followed my exit from the relationship? My friend asked, “is anyone else in your life telling you that you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control?” Uh, nope. Not even my doctors and therapists. In fact, they observe strength of character, healthy coping skills, and an ability to hold myself accountable for my choices. My friend then said, “so if one person is telling you you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control but no one else is, doesn’t that say more about that person than you?” Zoiks. Thank Goddess for the rational reflections of people who love us.

Acts of cruelty, abuse, prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions… these are all occurrences which plague queer people, sometimes on a daily basis. These are the matches used to set our bodies on fire. We will walk through that fire again and again. If one lives a non-normative life, it is nigh impossible that such things can be avoided. So I figure I have a choice: I can curl up in the fetal position under my covers, never to emerge except to hit the bottle or pop a pill or I can forge meaning and build resilience from these very acts of violence. That latter choice makes me smile.

I kind of enjoy the idea that a person or a group of people are so intimidated and frightened by my power and non-normativity that they have to spread rumors, target me through social systems, attack my choices, and exert a tremendous amount of energy to try and annihilate my existence. To those people I say, neener neener neener, I still stand. Like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore before me, I am more powerful after I am attacked. Resilience to adversity makes us stronger and at this point in my life, I am like a Bristlecone Pine and may be around for thousands of years. Tee hee.

I recently watched a Ted Talk about forging meaning from adversity and want to credit Andrew Solomon with the concept. If you’re interested, here it is:

The stories we tell about our lives are the building blocks of our reality. Will you choose to tell a story of victimization or will you choose to tell a story of resilience? When you’re in the fire, remind yourself that it cannot last forever. Let the flames increase your power so that when you emerge, you have the strength to tell your truth.

Love before hate. Always.

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End This War on My Body

You drive words like knives 
into my skin
Tell me I’m not OK
I don’t belong
I did wrong
I am wrong

You don’t look in my eyes
don't ask who I am
You drive your oppression
From fucked up projections
Straight to my heart
Hoping (don't speak it)
hoping it will stop beating

If you stop my heart
Stop my queer body
You don’t have to look
At non-normativity
Or ask yourself
why you play their game

You drive words like knives 
into my body
fists like words 
An offering of bruises
to remind me my place is
Below
Below  

From your stance up above
Gazing downward
in judgment
Not caring to know
To know
To truly know
The miles walked in my queer skin
The love birthed
From my queer blood

You use systems like weapons
To keep me oppressed
“they are there to help…”
Averting your gaze
As this act of violence
so full of lies 
Destroys my queer life

If you stop my heart
Stop my queer body
You don’t have to look
At non-normativity

This ends now
This war on my body
I stand firm on the ground of my spirit
And say (again)
ENOUGH

Rip into my skin
Tear into my heart
Throw my life, my love
Into the fire
Again
And again

Leave me torn
Bleeding
Bruised
Staring at you (yes you)
Who threw a knife
And looked the other way
as it pierced my heart
My still beating heart
Hoping (don’t speak it)
hoping it will stop beating

I stand firm on the ground of my spirit
With ghosts who bravely said
We’re here
We’re here
We’re not going anywhere
My still beating heart
My resilient heart
My uncrushable heart 
its rhythm in my body
beats 
fuck normativity
fuck normativity 
fuck normativity...

Smacked in the Face with My Class Privilege

Oh yes, it happened again. There I was, driving along a tree-lined snowy road, listening to NPR when Class Privilege reached up from under my sweater and smacked me in the face.

“Ye of the professional class, pay attention to this! Cause you have been missing it.”

I am so happy to have a working relationship with my Privileges: Race, Class, and Ability/Body. Without this strong bond, I would have to rely on other people to call me in on blissful privileged ignorance and that, in addition to placing undue strain on others, is woefully inefficient.

So the slight ego bruise notwithstanding, I was delighted at the smack.

I’m going to do my best to unpack the moment, but remember, this is an area of privilege for me so I may still miss something.

I tuned in to NPR when they were in the middle of a story. It related to the 2016 Presidential election (what doesn’t these days?) and had something to do with voting patterns and privileged perspectives of certain candidates (or possibly the whole democratic party… I didn’t quite catch the context). What I did catch was a statement about working class white people being fed up with professional class white people telling them they are privileged when they are having a hard time finding jobs, paying the bills, or seeing themselves represented in government.

SMACK! POW! Ouch.

In that sudden smack, I knew without using words that I had a privileged perspective regarding the topic of privilege. While I understand intersections of privilege and oppression and the ways we might examine such a thing, I had not brought that cognitive knowing into my daily discourse on white privilege.

Huh, what?

Let me see if I can articulate this right-brain, non-verbal understanding that is floating around in my consciousness:

Systems of Oppression

Systems of Oppression.jpg

Systems of oppression are top-down processes that begin with the ideology of an elite class and end with squashed dreams, internalized hate, and opportunity deserts for the oppressed.

Social identity categories

Dominant Group.jpg

Subordinate Group.png

My Social ID.jpg

I talk about privilege a lot in my everyday life. A lot, a lot. There is nary a corner of my life where I do not examine how my own privilege (and let’s be honest, the privilege of everyone around me) might be offering some majorly unearned benefits. I point it out. Yet this morning, as I heard the statement about white people who do NOT have class privilege, it occurred to me that I may have missed examination of this intersection:

Race and class.jpg

Specifically, I tend to be ignorant of class oppression in the face of racial privilege. To me, white people have heaps of privilege… well, this isn’t just my opinion, it’s a fact. But white people who are poverty-stricken, working poor, or working class are also facing oppression at the hands of white people of the professional and owning classes. The NPR story noted that these people were tired of hearing professional/owning class people spouting their elitist jargon regarding white privilege.

I get it. The way to rally others towards inclusive thinking begins with validation of the ways they are oppressed. I suspect this is why so many “white men with no college” voted for Trumpywumpie Cheeto Head. They neither saw themselves benefiting from Senator Clinton’s policies nor even heard themselves represented in her discourse. To be clear, I got behind Hillary, but I also saw how her elite white feminist approach would be alienating to many groups of people. This is an ongoing issue in social justice movements: The marginalized elite (read: white, affluent…) pushing out even more marginalized subordinate classes (read: people of color, working classes…).

We see a clear example of this in the assimilation of cisgender gay and lesbian people into heteronormative values. I do not judge gays and lesbians who believe in those values and want to walk with them, but when those same gays and lesbians push queer and trans people out of the movement for being too freaky and ruining their chance at assimilation, well, then we have a problem.

Same thing happened with feminism. It was cisgender, whites only in its first and second waves which had to be challenged (and continues to be challenged) by women of color and trans women.

What am I taking away from this? I do not want to be another white member of the professional class telling people to examine their privilege before I examine how my own class privilege might be stomping all over my white neighbors. Therefore, I need to listen. I need to seek out experiences that take me outside of the elite professional class and into the working classes. Did I mention I need to listen? I need to hear how people are impacted by class oppression before I start with discussions of racial privilege.

For someone who makes inclusivity and diversity a focus of daily living, it is humbling to continue to encounter the privilege mirror. I suspect it will never end. I suspect understanding and fully internalizing systems of power and oppression will never be a box that I check, “done!”

May my Privileges continue to smack me in the face from now until forever. I offer gratitude for their tenacity.

 

The Worst Kind of Toxic Work Environment

Give me explicit discrimination over implicit hate any day.

When the People Who Wish I Didn’t Exist are explicit in their hatred, I know how to conduct myself (hide, run, ignore, placate). When the People Who Wish I Didn’t Exist PRETEND to be open, accepting, and inclusive, I fall prey to a false sense of safety and do things like come out at work, only to majorly regret it a few months later.

This happened to me in 2016 (along with an ugly break-up, the death of a friend, bike theft, the loss of beloved pets, slander, and more…good riddance 2016!). I was working at a therapeutic organization that supports the mental health needs of young adults. One would think that the helping professions would be more inclined towards inclusivity and diversity- they certainly pay enough lip service to these concepts- but my experience has shown that such organizations are often more hateful and exclusive than other companies; they just hide it well.

Paying lip service to inclusivity without doing the work necessary to actually create a safe enough work environment is extremely dangerous. When I first started at the aforementioned organization, I was pleased by the rhetoric around diversity. I’m a fairly obvious queer person with a shaved head and gender-bendy clothes and my supervisor made it clear that he was in support of my identity. So I came out. I let staff know that I am attracted to same-sex partners and, when that went fairly well, let them know of my trans identity several months later. I’m embarrassed to admit that my naivete prevented me from recognizing that staff would more-or-less “approve” of my sexual orientation (it’s “OK” to be a white cis lesbian in most progressive cities in the USA these days-thank you assimilation) but would recoil in fear and loathing at my trans identity.

Oops. Big mistake. Lesson learned.

From the moment I started to assert my gender, I was met with hostility. Staff members who previously expressed feelings of friendship and connection withdrew and made microaggressive comments in staff meetings. Curious about what I heard? Check it out:

  • How can I support what I don’t believe in? 
  • You need to grow a thicker skin
  • I can’t get on board with your pronouns
  • Your gender isn’t real
  • What do your partner’s genitals look like? Yes indeedy, a member of the leadership team asked me this

My colleague who is QPOC has it even worse. They experienced (and continue to experience) racist, transphobic, and homophobic harassment from clients. What is leadership doing about this? Nothing.

I presented a training on gender inclusivity and diversity to the leadership team and while they raved about the content, they didn’t do anything to change their toxic environment. It was during this training that I found out admissions personnel hid my gender from prospective clients, using binary pronouns ON PURPOSE in case the freaky trans employee scared off profitable bodies.

The scariest aspect of all this: This organization markets itself as an inclusive space for LGBTQ clients. WHAT?!

Let me repeat: Give me explicit discrimination over implicit hate any day.

If I understood from the moment my employment began that I was working in an environment that liked to be superficially inclusive but hid a wellspring of hatred and transphobia I NEVER WOULD HAVE COME OUT. Because I thought I had the support of leadership, I asked for gender inclusive practices to be instated (such as the naming of pronouns during community meetings) but I had no idea that cis staff and clients would be allowed to express hatred and microaggressions towards trans staff and clients who outed themselves.

What happened when I brought these issues to the attention of my supervisor? I was told I was being “theatrical.” In all fairness, he apologized for that remark, but I think it illuminated a truth of feeling that lurked beneath the surface.

The bottom line is that racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia abound at this organization, but administration and leadership refuse to examine their own roles in the creation of this hate culture. Why is it OK for a cisgender staff member to tell a transgender client WHO IS IN RECOVERY FROM ADDICTION AND DEPRESSION that their gender “isn’t real?” It’s not OK, but it happens.

One of the reasons I am not naming this transitional residential therapeutic center is because this issue is not unique to this particular organization. It happens all the time in the helping professions and I have said before that it is unacceptable.

Here’s why:

  • If an accountant commits a microaggression towards a client it sucks; it’s familiar, it might spur us to seek tax support elsewhere, but it won’t offer undue harm to our mental health (any more than the other daily microaggressions we experience from strangers)
  • If my postal worker tells me to “pick a gender,” I feel hurt and confused but my recovery from substance abuse isn’t called into question

However, when your “mentor” at rehab tells you your gender isn’t real, it has an impact. This person has power over you. They are in charge of your health and well-being. They are your guides on your path to recovery. And they just told you you don’t exist. Good luck moving through your depression after that.

For queer staff members of the helping professions, such implicit biases lead to a false belief in safety which leads to vulnerable admissions of identity which leaves one open to attack. I came out at work, in part, because I wanted to support our queer clients. I thought my role as an out trans person would be a beacon of safety for them. I was wrong. My false sense of safety led to a false sense of safety in other staff and clients. Yes, other people came out and asked for support. And yes, they were met with microaggressions and hostility. I still feel responsible for that.

So how do we create our own safety?

  • Don’t assume that organizational lip service regarding inclusivity is backed by training, professional development, or policy in any way
  • Be wary of cis-het white people who claim to understand multiculturalism and diversity without offering any education or training on such topics to staff
  • Remember that it’s not your job as a queer person to educate everyone else on inclusive practices. You can point out areas that need improvement if you feel safe enough to do so, but know that leadership teams and management are the ones who need to work to create a safe enough environment
  • Form groups with other queer and marginalized employees. Share experiences. Support each other. Do not tell management you’re doing this
  • Take your time in coming out. Do what feels right to you, not what you think might be in the best interest of clients or other staff

“Ninety-seven percent (97%) [of trans people] have experienced mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination on the job including: invasion of privacy, verbal abuse, and physical or sexual assault” (National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011).

Nice to know I’m just a statistic.

I’m starting a new job next week. As of now, I am uncertain of how to show up. I could let everyone misgender me without correction which feels rather craptacular, or I could come out and risk hostile encounters. There is a trans adolescent client at this organization and I already feel the pull to come out in order to stand in solidarity with him, but I think I will assess the situation over time before making any decisions. This makes me sad.

And thus I begin 2017…

 

 

 

 

Binge Watching Heteronormativity

I am not a huge fan of movies and even less of a fan of television. Therefore, it is rather odd that I have recently found myself watching an obscene amount of really bad, really heteronormative media.

What is going on?

On November 8th, when this country elected Trumpy Wumpy to the office of President, I fell into a deep and somewhat debilitating despair. I cried for two solid days and started looking at immigration websites for countries which I thought might accept me as a resident on day three. As someone who normally stands at the front lines of every fight for social justice, this time I just felt defeated. I have no more fight in me (or so I thought).

A week after the election, feeling like a shell of a person, I sat on my couch and stared at the fire. Then a thought popped into my head, “I need to watch something hetero.” I sat a bit longer, trying to come up with the most heteronormative movie ever made when the title, Father of the Bride flashed into my head. I gleefully found it streaming online and immediately watched the entire outrageously heteronormative film. Then I found Father of the Bride II and watched that on the same day. Admittedly, I growled at the actors, pointing out the not-so-subtle instructions on how to be a man or a woman…

Man: Bumbling, unobservant, goofy, tyrannical, possessive of the the females in his life, wealthy, out of touch, playful, juvenile

Woman: Pretty, intelligent (for a girl), nurturing, wiser than man, soft, wants nothing more than romantic love, stylish, mature

I won’t go into the overt racist and homophobic stereotypes that appear in the films, but know that they are there.

Over the course of the following several weeks I watched (this is highly embarrassing):

Gilmore Girls
Little Women
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

At some point in this train wreck of a past time, I realized that I was engaged in an activity from my younger years- binge watching heteronormativity in the hopes that intense study of the phenomenon would allow me to accurately perform it.

I am reminded of all the years I spent trying to be a girl, pouring over fashion magazines and watching What Not To Wear to gain a better understanding of how I should perform my gender. I have not engaged in this activity for a decade, but it showed up in November after we elected Cheeto-head.

Why?

I am still uncovering the motivation for this recent hetero binge fest, but I suspect it has something to do with fear. I am an out queer/trans person. I write about the experience of being a queer/trans person. My doctoral research centers around the experiences of queer/trans people. My survival instinct likely kicked into overdrive and said, “Hold the phone! If you want to live you better learn how to perform their shit and assimilate into their world. Otherwise they are going to kill you.”

I had a dream last night that I grew my very short hair out into long, luscious locks. I wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, but people kept complimenting me on my beautiful, feminine hair. My only response was, “I feel like a drag queen.” I did not like the hair, but I noticed how nicely I assimilated into the dream society. This is not so far removed from my actual experience. When I shave my head, most people raise their eyebrows and say, “why did you do that?” When it starts to grow out I hear, “Your hair is starting to look nice again. I’m glad it’s growing out some.” If I ever wear anything that remotely looks like girl clothes, I am complimented. “You look so pretty in that.” “You look very nice today.” But when I wear my normal men’s clothes, no one says anything.

It’s interesting how people use compliments to let you know how well you are performing gender or not. The subtext of their words are:

“When you do things that push the boundaries of gender, you make me uncomfortable and I hate you for it.”

“When you assimilate in a way that makes sense to me, I feel better and therefore like you more.”

How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days shattered something in me. Even straight people must be offended by this! It was so overtly misogynistic, both men and women appeared ridiculous. Maybe it is supposed to be satire and I just didn’t get it which is quite probable. It did have a serious moment were the audience is supposed to “ooh” and “ahh” at the slender lead actress in her swanky yellow gown. I wonder what would have happened if they sent her to the party dressed as a Dapper Dan in bow tie, vest, and hat? And the lead actor could have worn the beautiful yellow gown (I’m sure he would have looked marvelous in it).

Shit. There I go again with my inability to assimilate. This period of binge watching has ended. As much as I might think I want to give up my queer identity in order to be accepted by the masses, I know I won’t. Living a lie won’t help me or anyone else. If I’m killed for being queer, so be it. I won’t be the first person. Plus, who knows if Mike Pence will get his bigoted little hands on our rights, or if there are enough people who don’t hate us to stop him and Trumpy Wumpy’s team of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic cronies. And finally, if I go into hiding, then I’m not standing in solidarity with my fellow queers and we all need each other as we head into a period of time that we may refer to as “The Dark Years.” Or maybe just “The Years of Cheeto” which at least makes me smile.

What Does it Mean to Heal From Abuse?

It means finding your breath and breathing deeply again.

It means seeing the beauty of a sunset.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

It means letting the tears flow, letting the anger grow

and not getting stuck

When the crying stops, when the raging ends

you feel your heartbeat

the wind on your skin

your feet on the ground, supporting you

supporting you

and you move on.

Healing from abuse means one day you find yourself spontaneously dancing

One day you do not flinch when someone gets close

One day you do not walk on eggshells

or fly under the radar.

One day you allow yourself to be big

without fear

or maybe with a little fear but you face it anyway.

It means listening to the plea of your heart

and trusting that your heart carries wisdom.

Healing from abuse is a journey

A journey that gets easier as we travel the path

and practice the art

the art of healing.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

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