“Time has ravaged on my soul / To wipe a mother’s tears grown cold”

“Time has ravaged on my soul / To wipe a mother’s tears grown cold”

CW: Sexual assault, maternal abandonment


So as it turns out, I’ve had an awful lot going on and haven’t updated in the last two months. My apologies. I’ll likely write a catch-up piece when I have the spoons and the time, but for now, on the eve of Mother’s Day, I wish to share a story with all of those out there who, like me, have a strained or completely absent relationship with their mom. Take care of yourself while you read this, and know that if your heart is feeling empty, mine is there with yours. ❤

Several years ago, I was in a very confusing relationship. Hell, it was a confusing time in my life, and the relationship was a major, but not singular feature contributing to the overall miasma. I met someone I fell for almost immediately. I met this person (name and pronouns are unknown at this time) online, and after a few dates, things picked up pretty quickly. We spent a lot of our time together, then almost every day. We started spending the night with each other more and more. After a few months, we decided to move in together.

At first, I was over the moon. This person was male assigned at birth, very sweet, very much in touch with their femininity, and in every conceivable way subverted stereotypes of toxic masculinity as I knew them. They had long, silky hair and had a penchant for floral prints and prairie dresses. They were soft spoken and gentle. I thought this was the kind of person I’d been looking for my entire life, whose qualities I’d always wanted but had never been able to fully articulate. The sex was amazing. We had so much in common. Their family was great. It all seemed like such a good decision.

The night before we were supposed to move in together, I caught them in a pretty big lie. A close friend of theirs told me she and my partner used to have a sexual relationship. This wouldn’t normally have bothered me, except that I had asked them about it before and they flat out lied to me. When they came to my apartment that evening, we argued and I asked what else they had lied to me about.

This is the part where everything I thought I knew about this person completely came unraveled.

They told me that in their not-so-distant past, they had raped not one, but two of their female friends. My ears were ringing as if a bomb had gone off in my living room. Given what I had known about this person before, if they had told me they liked to put puppies in a blender for fun, I could not have been more shocked and sickened. Writing this now, it’s hard to put into words how horrified and perplexed this news made me at the time. I still  haven’t fully made sense of it. We talked about it for hours. I sobbed and yelled. They told me the particulars of what happened, which, for the anonymity of their victims, I won’t repeat, though I still remember it word for word. It still haunts me as much now as it did then.

They told me that in the years since, they had gone through extensive therapy. One of their victims had forgiven them and they’d made amends. One said she never would, and they accepted this reality as part of her healing and their reformation.

Now, dear readers… I can tell you this is one of those things for which there is no “right” way to react. The guide book of life has a blank chapter where this situation ought to be. I sent them out of my apartment that night. I needed time to think. Mind you, we were supposed to move in together the very next day. Our boxes were packed, our lease was signed, our truck rented. I had to make a snap decision about whether to dump this person, or forgive them; whether to invest in this relationship or reject this person I had grown to love. It put everything I know and knew about myself to the test. What kind of feminist would I be if I were to continue loving this person who had so grievously wronged two young women? Then again, in terms of accountability, this person had made attempts to better themself and move on. Is every person who commits sexual assault disposable? At what point do you have to stop outing yourself as a sex offender?

These are questions I can’t say I could answer differently today. I don’t believe in disposability of human beings. Many women and trans people in communities of color have long-held traditions of holding their friends, family, and loved ones accountable for their actions, rather than relying on ostracism or the prison industrial complex. I want to believe in people. I want to believe in the power of transformation. No person is the sum total of their most heinous act. We can be much more than that. Even in my pain and anger, I wanted to show compassion.

I made the choice to commit to them, to remain in their life and become a part of their family. I believed them that they had made attempts to change themself, but I hated that they had lied to me. I told them I wanted them to enter into therapy with me. We saw a couple’s counselor for many months. We made plans to move to the west coast together, and were even handfasted, with the understanding that if we were to marry someday, it would be well after we had worked through some of the shared trauma of both of our histories. Being a survivor of sexual assault, this news about this human being I thought I knew so well was not exactly something I took in stride.

During this time, I felt very alone. I have never known someone for whom this has happened, before or since. I sought counsel in the one person I believed I could trust, who would really “show up” for me — my mother. I told her what my partner had told me, that they had raped two women, and that I wasn’t sure what I should do. My mother is also a survivor and a feminist (although we subscribe to vastly different philosophies). I had shared with her so much about myself over the years. She was the first person I came out to as a teenager. We told each other everything. We had experienced so much collective trauma that I believed she would be the only person who could possibly understand. I don’t remember much of our conversation; only that we drove around at night, and I was drenched in tears the entire time.

Despite the fact that my mother had been abusive to me my entire life, made me frightened and made me feel small, she was also frequently my only confidant. I knew she would be there for me in a crisis, even though it became increasingly difficult to rely on her as an adult. I likewise became increasingly aware of her shortcomings and the undiagnosed and unacknowledged mental illness that caused her to lash out violently, angrily demean complete strangers in public, and disown almost every person in her life who failed to meet her standards. After recovering from decades of alcoholism, the other diseases that had been muted by liquor came to a head, and she was left with little to no coping skills to deal with them. I always felt that I was exempt from being cut off as she had done with other family members and friends, having come from her own body, being half of her just as I am half my father’s child. I felt that sharing with her this immense burden would be safe, and that I would be supported.

A year or so went by. My couple’s therapy sessions with my partner were going nowhere. Our relationship was poly and I had been dating people who were a much better fit, and I felt that it was finally time for me to move on. I could never fully accept or process what they had done, and other red flags were present that I couldn’t ignore. It was a lot messier and more complicated than all this, as it so often is. A few months after ending things with my partner, I met someone new. I met someone I would go on to be with for years, someone who was very important to me.

My mother, however, was far from supportive. You see, it was also around this time that I began coming to terms with my gender dysphoria and my desire to transition. I didn’t have the language for it, but I began telling friends and lovers that I didn’t identify fully as female. I started crossdressing and using masculine names, searching for a better fit. I visited trans support groups to gain insight into my identity. I met and dated others from these support groups, and the person I wound up with after my painful breakup was someone AMAB and identifying as genderqueer/NB. (Name and pronouns here again withheld for reasons.) I knew my mother as a TERF before the term was coined. She always expressed her disdain for trans women and crossdressing men, and I wasn’t sure how she would take my transition. Still, I refused to keep myself or my relationships a secret.

It was important for the people in my life to get to know this new person, and I wanted my mother to get to know them. I warned my partner, and they agreed to meet her. Around this time, however, my mother’s symptoms were getting worse. She became steadily angrier. She sometimes had good days and sometimes had bad days, and it was hard to tell what mood she would be in at any given time. She often dredged up and blamed me for things I had apologized for years earlier. She remembered an email exchange we had some years before that had ended in my telling her off; she remembered a time when I didn’t hug her the right way; she kept score for every Christmas and birthday where I didn’t give her the right kind of present and made me bitterly aware of how much it hurt her. She had a way of making me feel inadequate and inconsiderate in my every breath and fiber of my being. To this day I struggle with gift giving and the general feeling that I am somehow a disappointment. Even after I apologized repeatedly for all of these things, she never forgave me and would find new times to bring them up. Whenever we fought, it was always my job to take the blame and to be the one to apologize, no matter who had done what to whom.

She had started dropping subtle hints that she didn’t approve of my past relationship. I’d imagine any mother would have their concerns about their child dating a known and admitted rapist. I’m sure I’d be afraid for my child’s safety and would express my qualms as well. My mother, however, blamed me for staying in the relationship, as if by participating in the relationship, I condoned their past actions — as if I was colluding with a rapist, as if I were to blame for something they did before I knew them. She seemed to take it as a personal offense. I was already out of that relationship and had started a new one, but my mother wouldn’t let it go.

I made plans to move out of my hometown with my new partner, back to their home state. On my partner’s birthday, I asked my mother if she would give us a ride to my employer to pick up my final check. I had sold my car in preparation for the move and didn’t have a way to get there. During the ride, the tension in the car was palpable. I hated to ask her for a favor because she always found a way to make me feel like shit for asking. She would remind me of a time when I couldn’t do a favor for her, or if I had done something for her, I hadn’t done it the right way. This isn’t the stuff of cutesy sitcoms of a nagging mother, but feeling like being trapped in a car with a live snake. I hoped having my partner in the car would help act as a buffer. I was wrong.

My mom was texting at a red light, and it turned green. We sat there for a few seconds when my partner mentioned the light had turned green. My mother snapped at my partner for this, what she saw as an unjustified correction to her behavior. Even though I always found it hard to stand up for myself, I wasn’t going to let her extend her abuse of me to my partner. We began to argue. It lasted until we were out on the highway. Finally, she dropped the bomb she’d been saving for just such an occasion — the words no amount of time will ever help me forget: “You’ve been dead to me since you married that rapist.”

I don’t know how many of you are still reading this admittedly quite lengthy story. But if you’ve ever been told by your mother that you are dead to her, you know it is something you can never forget. I still hate her for saying it. I hate her because after she said it, she dropped me and my partner off at the next exit, without money or a way home. I hate her because it was my partner’s birthday and we had to walk to the nearest bar, call a friend for a ride, and in my embarrassment and grief, accept a ride home from her husband, whom I didn’t know terribly well.

I hate her most of all because after she said it, after she pulled over to the side of the road to drop us off, I leaned into the car. I looked into her eyes, totally dry to my tear stained and pleading, and said, “Your mother died when you were young and you haven’t had her around because of it. You’re opting out of my life now.” She nodded with a “fuck you” look on her face and drove away. The last time I heard from her, she emailed me to ask if I wanted my baby pictures back or if she should destroy them. In her email, she told me how much she missed me and how hurt she was by what had happened, and wondered how I could be so cruel.

This time, I refused to apologize. I didn’t even respond and haven’t spoken to her since. It was over five years ago.

I’d like to say my life has been instantly better as a result of her departure from my life, but that would be untrue. The hate I feel today is something that sometimes makes me feel ashamed, and sometimes wanes to a sad, detached compassion. I wish I could purge it from my heart, but I’m not there yet. I still have strange dreams where she and I fight, or we hash it out, or we abandon each other all over again. I still miss her, or at least things about her. I miss having a mom, even if it’s not necessarily the same as missing her specifically. I miss having someone there to witness my milestones. My mom has missed my name change, my life in a new gender, my entire undergrad career and graduation, my moving out of state twice, my marriage, my divorce, my business ownership — all of it.

The last five years of my life have been an amazing time of self discovery. I’ve grown and flourished as a person. I’ve pushed myself to become the best person I can be. I’ve become a gifted public speaker and educator. I’ve shared knowledge about self, sexuality, race, gender, and a plethora of things which are of immense importance to me; many of which she is responsible for inspiring. I’ve become a more committed feminist and activist, moving from volunteering part time at Planned Parenthood, to working as a team lead on marriage equality campaigns, to traveling out of state to act as a medic at anti-KKK protests. I’ve become a stronger and braver person in so many ways. In short, she’s missed out on a lot, and I’ve missed out, too. I wish I had a mother to hug me and tell me she’s proud of me and who I’ve become. I’m very proud of myself and I wish I could tell my mom, “It’s because I had a mother like you.” In some ways, perhaps it is. I have grown up both because of and in spite of what she has taught me.

If you are without a mom this Mother’s Day, or your mom isn’t able to be the kind of mom you deserve, know that I am here with a big, wide open heart for you. Our kind of loss is seldom talked about, but know you aren’t alone. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship with a parent, sibling, or any family member, let me state this for you in a way that perhaps no one in your life has told you: You don’t owe your misery to anyone. Remember, love isn’t abuse, eternal resentment, disavowal of who you are, or constant anger. If you need to break away, and can do so, feel free to. I give you permission. It might not be easy, and it might hurt quite a lot, but your sanity is worth it. You are worth it.

For a nice exercise in surviving this upcoming holiday, check out this awesome post by Barbara Carrellas.

Take care of yourself, and do what is best for you.


Image credit: http://www.photographywest.com/

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“I’d meet a good girl / but I’d make a terrible boy”

“I’d meet a good girl / but I’d make a terrible boy”

(I’d meet a good boy / but I’d make a terrible girl)

CW: Gender dysphoria, depression, suicidality


 

I remember once upon a time, long before I knew being trans or genderqueer was a possibility… I couldn’t conceive of what exactly, only that something was amiss. I never knew its name. It was always there under the surface, a quiet and improbable voice whispering an indecipherable code. I loved femininity. I was thrilled when my mom took me to the Estée Lauder counter to get a makeover and my first real “grown up” makeup kit. I loved my high femme existence, replete with heels, skirts, corsets, and lace. But it always felt… false. Something in me doubted the “naturalness” of this identity.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I don’t enjoy these things now, but it always felt like a put-on. Smoke and mirrors. A form of drag…

As a very young child I wanted to be one of the boys. I wanted to skateboard and pretended not to be squeamish when my step brother and his friends would play with tadpole guts. But I didn’t want to be a boy, so much as be seen as one of the boys.

The inability to ever articulate these feelings fully was at turns confusing and maddening. I realized I was shuffled into the “girl” category, but I had no idea how to do girl. Other girls my age seemed to get it, to understand some crucial piece of the puzzle I simply failed to grasp. They liked boys the right way… They wanted to sit in boys’ laps, and not have them sit in their laps. They wanted to be rescued by the boys, not be their body guards. They liked the boys who bullied the sissies, and I developed crush after crush on gay boy after gay boy. (This, by the way, has never changed. To this day the most appealing AMAB folks are those who read as femme of center – my sweetie supports this by gifting me with books about Brian Molko and signed 8″x10″s of Kevin Barnes.) It wasn’t until I started sharing my fantasies that I realized something was very different about the way I felt desire; but it didn’t stop there.

Somewhere between being bigger and heavier than my peers and feeling uncertain in a body being increasingly read as female made me excruciatingly self conscious. I vividly remember hating gym class for a whole host of reasons… In my school district in the early 2000’s, there was no room to be queer and bad at sports. You had to pick one or the other, and I failed on both counts.

And you certainly couldn’t be queer in the locker room. I would sequester myself to an unseen corner of the girls’ room and change, both for my own good and that of my classmates. I didn’t want them to worry I was checking them out, and I absolutely didn’t want them to catch even a scant glimpse of any inch of my bare skin.

This didn’t ever dissuade me from embracing my sexuality, however. Even if my straight counterparts hated me, I found refuge in the bodies of the fellow queers with whom I shared some of the most tender and immensely fucked up explorations. I hurt others and found myself hurt, but along the way I put a few pieces together.

I stopped calling myself bisexual at some point and adopted “pansexual.” After a sweet (and patient) fuckbuddy of mine explained why she reclaimed the word “queer” for political reasons, I realized sex was more than just for pleasure, but was a form of activism in and of itself. Being branded deviant now meant I had community and a sense of belonging, and something to fight for, whereas before it had made me miserable.

So I had some things figured out… I liked women, men, and after joining various dating sites and meeting trans and intersex people, I realized I could very easily be attracted to and love anyone, irrespective of their gender or genital configuration. In a perhaps ironic twist of fate, it was my friendships and romantic interactions with trans women that led me to realize that there was something other than mere attracting stirring within me, but a sense of self-recognition.

A decade after having heard the word “genderqueer” for the first time, I realized I could apply the label to myself. I had felt for so long that I wasn’t allowed somehow, because I enjoyed being femme. Just by knowing other people with an experience similar enough, I was given the permission I believed I needed to become a more authentic version of myself. Yet it would still be a number of years before I would meet anyone trans or non-binary who was AFAB – and certainly very few who had retained a positive relationship with their femininity… Given a shitty blueprint, I attempted to “butch up,” but that form of drag felt just as false as all the others. A fun costume to adopt sometimes, perhaps, but ultimately not the right fit.

As I think back on the times when only a dim bulb of my gender otherness began to be visible, I wonder if the dysphoria would have killed me, or if I could have persevered as a closeted “cis” person. For many trans people, the pain is unbearable, and they feel the only remedy is to end their lives. While I’ve experienced depression and hurt, and I’ve even had suicidal thoughts that have plagued me for months, in the back of my mind there’s a far louder “yeah, right” that chimes in, and reminds me that checking out now would mean missing out on the cool shit coming around the bend. (There it is – the secret to my unflappable optimism. I’m forever stuck in FOMO limbo.) While it wouldn’t be a comfortable or healthy existence, I doubt I would actually die.

Personally, I’m wary of the narrative that transition is the only option for trans people, and that to deny transition-related care means to deny a life-saving medical intervention. While this is true for many, many people, it is not true for all of us. For some of us, chemical or surgical intervention isn’t desirable at all. For other still, we are not on the brink of death and this may not be saving our lives, but our lives are worth more than simple survival. We deserve to survive, and we also deserve to flourish. We deserve to make the most of the time we have on the planet. We deserve to be as comfortable, beautiful, and whole as we can be. In my opinion, we all deserve to be believed and treated as we need – and it is only up to us to decide what that looks like.

I definitely know I can’t “go back.” The toothpaste is officially out of the tube, and I’ve long since outed myself politically, personally, professionally. I am fully open to the idea that my gender will continue to be fluid throughout my life, and I embrace the possibilities and iterations of self to come. I know this is at least one step on my right path, and I cannot wait to see where it all goes.


 

photo credit: the author

“We think it’s getting better but nobody’s really sure.”

“We think it’s getting better but nobody’s really sure.”

Enforced sexual dimorphism in an age when we’ve all but mastered our reproductive capacity is a matter of taste and not necessity. We are no longer purely at the mercy of biology. We can plan when, how, and whether we will bear offspring via the many forms of birth control, abortion, in vitro fertilization, etc., which continue to advance and improve every day. Many of these methods are relatively cheap and readily accessible, at least in nations and regions of relative wealth. Shulamith Firestone predicted that gendered class distinctions would erode as women gained complete access to the means of reproduction, and envisioned a future in which women were completely freed from hosting new life at all. In only a few decades since her Dialectic of Sex was published, we’re closer to that reality than she probably could have dreamed.

If we were still a threatened population on the verge of extinction, needing to know whether your potential mate was the “right” kind to either receive your seed or inseminate you in as certain terms as possible might make sense, but it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that’s where we are as a species. We’re among the most prolific mammals who’ve ever lived, and you can find us in nearly climate and region of the world. We also know that unlike many of our non-human brethren, we engage in sex for pleasure without the intention of getting pregnant every time. Many of us never have sex in a way that could ever get us pregnant, whether through acts that don’t involve the genitals meeting, (oral, manual) or with non-bodily implements (sex toys, whips, rope). Many of us don’t care much about sex, if at all, and should perhaps be the least among us to be pressured to present in a way “telling” of our biological gender.

Is it really valuable to advertise our genitals via external presentation – see “cultural genitals” – particularly in this cultural moment? I’m struck by this as I also muse on what, exactly, the qualitative difference is between the so-called “female”(vagina/vulva/clitoris, etc.) and “male” (penis/testicles, etc.) reproductive organs… From my estimation, we’re talking about the difference between .5″-6″ (on average) of erectile tissue, and perhaps the presence/absence of a “vaginal” opening. An erogenous zone is an erogenous zone, and while we might have certain preferences with regard to what we like to have done to ours or whose we do what with, when it comes down to it there’s really not a whole lot of variance. When I do talks on pegging, I discuss not only the reality that almost everyone has an anus, but I take the opportunity to show a slide of the Quigley scale which shows that, like cultural gender, our supposedly fixed biological/material gender includes many non-binary modes of being.

 

Quigley scale for (P)AIS

photo credit: http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.com/

An anthropologist from another time and place might find the importance we place on this minutiae puzzling.

As I read about the case of Jennifer Laude’s murderer, Joseph Scott Pemberton, (and think of the many, many trans people – mostly women – who have died in similar attacks) I’m struck by how plausible arguments like his have been regarded throughout the course of Western civilization. One who does not conform to a popular conception of “womanhood” or “femininity” is punished by the most severe means imaginable, and men of the establishment have nodded along in agreement. The presence of a penis, in their minds, negates all possibility of identification as woman. What is at stake, then, is the attacker’s sexuality. Despite the claim that Pemberton felt duped or raped, the real repulsion men like him feel is a self-repudiation: it is a betrayal of themselves evidenced by their own arousal. Like every other woman who is raped or beaten by men, these women become not only the victim but the supposed perpetrator of their own victimization. To spell it out plainly, Jennifer Laude and her many fallen siblings did not die because they were “found out” – they died because they turned their attacker on. It is internalized homophobia manifested in pure rage. Killing her is killing the part of himself that is suspect, the part that “fails” to be heterosexual. In a culture that demands 100% obedience to the gender binary, this is only realized for men in 100% heterosexuality. Doing sexuality wrong here is not an option.

I won’t claim to exist in a vacuum where I don’t realize that culture plays a huge role in how we are socialized, and who we become. Yet I value the chances when I get to be surrounded by those who openly reject the pressure to choose a gender and settle down; those who realize that our genitals are just that, and that the rest of who we are is up to us. In my day to day life, I’m often inundated with experiences where I am gendered as either male or female, and sometimes it simply makes my day easier to go with it. At work, my gender is seldom the central focus. When I am misgendered, it’s often not in a context where it makes sense for me to correct (in dealing with a crisis situation, for instance). Sometimes, I just don’t have the energy or mental wherewithal to do it. Still, I find myself resentful. I want to be seen as a whole human being, and part of that is my non-binary gender. I want to be more than seen, but accepted and appreciated. A few of my clients share with me that they do not know whether I am AFAB or AMAB, and many of them admire this about me. I like to think that for some of them, I can serve as a kind of role model, or at least evidence that it is possible to do this non-binary gender thing as an adult.

Like Firestone, I look forward to a day when gendered class divisions are completely exploded and allow for the possibilities of complete freedom from prescribed gender roles. I hope daily for gender equality, and I extend that beyond simply women and men. I think the only way we can do this is to get away from the claims of TERFs and “gender critical” feminists, whose conservative views of biological determinism only serve to set us back as human beings. We need to be open to the possibility that many of us will betray what our genetics supposedly dictate. We need to admit that we do not know why some people are trans, or non-binary, or neutrois, or Muxes, or two-spirit, or third gender, or any of the array of genders that refute the Eurocentric woman/man dyad, but that there is nothing wrong with those who do not “appropriately” advertise their genitals. We need to allow all people to determine what parts of gendered experience make the most sense to them, and for each of us to express a gender most fitting to our own personal preferences – AND to be respected while doing it.

In short, I look forward to a day when women like Jennifer Laude are allowed to live and thrive.


Photo credit: autostraddle

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

I’ll resist the temptation to post the nigh obligatory “Winter Is Coming” meme and just point out that I’ve been hermiting and watching a lot of Netflix lately. And I’ll counter the opinions of many who claim to current Golden Age of Television is dead; between House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, and scores of other Netflix exclusive films and shows, this era of on-demand, ad-free, quality television is something completely unthinkable to me as a young person. We had movies on demand through cable, but between Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and countless ahem more dubious opportunities to stream media, it’s never seemed more accessible. While these upstart streaming services may have seemed a base form of entertainment at first, it’s becoming apparent that they’re quite the contenders when contrasted with standard cable television. These venues also become a place for underrepresented voices to be heard, from trans woman of color Sophia played by Laverne Cox on OItNB to aging, closeted gay men and their families on G&F.

Enter Master of None by rising star Aziz Ansari. (Spoilers below thru-out.)

I’ll admit a few things right off the bat. Some of Ansari’s stand-up leaves me cold. It always feels like something I want to like more than I do, because Ansari himself is a likable dude. However, his Live at Madison Square Garden special made me have faith in his stand up (and stand up in general) once more. Here’s a cisgender man talking about how women face street harassment, the complexities of how we westerners get our foods, and tensions between generations of Asian American immigrants. It was refreshing, and fucking funny. I laughed and snapped my way through the special like I haven’t been able to do with stand up in quite a while.

Many of “the rules” of stand up have changed since I was a teenager – and for good reason. Punching up as a concept is now more universally understood and accepted; its meaner big brother, the “equal opportunity offender” is dying out. Those who bemoan the changing tides of “political correctness” sound like dinosaurs, and many younger comedians garner their appeal from being savvy on social justice concerns. While imperfect, the influx of female comedians gaining in popularity over the last decade – from Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, to Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have shown that women who talk openly about feminism are not only funny, but can become comedy powerhouses. Even in the brief time between Fey and Pohler’s ascent to Jacobson and Glazer’s has been transformative in terms of how far the popular consciousness has come. In short, we demand more now from our entertainers.

Ansari has risen to the challenge in many ways. His series, Master of None picks up on points only hinted at during his Madison Square Garden special. Here we get a panoramic view of what it means to be a first generation Asian American. The show deals with racism in the entertainment industry and feeling pigeonholed as a minority. It pays homage to the struggles a previous generation endured in order to secure  a better life for their children, while owning up to some of the cultural differences between the two that cause them to be somewhat estranged from each other. Denise, a butch lesbian of color, features prominently as a recurring character, and her sex life becomes part of the discourse in a way that feels naturalized rather than objectified. Here again, as with his special, Ansari makes room for the stories of women and street harassment to have air time – even acknowledging how men tend to downplay these stories.

For all of its home runs, the show falls flat in two key ways… First, the material of the first few episodes is fresh, groundbreaking, and even subversive. During the last three episodes however, the show devolves into, well, a kind of tired rom-com. Second, during the Indians On TV episode, Ansari and co. delve into the struggles of overcoming racist stereotypes so ingrained in our popular representations, and the ramifications this has on casting decisions and opportunities for work for southeast Asian actors. They discuss whether or not it’s appropriate to use “a voice” that sounds like what western audiences are accustomed to hearing come out of Indian mouths; particularly if it’s nothing to close to how the actor normally speaks. Mindy Kaling is invoked by name during this episode, and the absence of her or any other Indian woman (other than the lead character’s mother) becomes, in that moment, especially glaring. Indeed, much of the show deals with the main character, Dev’s love life, but his only love interests are white women. Claire Danes cameos aside, it’s disappointing to see these casting choices made after an entire episode dealing with racism in popular media. While this does lead to an opportunity to discuss the dynamics of interracial couples (which the show successfully does) it is disappointing to see no Indian women of Ansari’s generation represented. As someone who is a third generation Indian (and mutt; that is, a host of other racial and ethnic backgrounds as well) it’s always a sore spot that there are so few Indian women and nearly zero Indian queer or trans folks in any sort of western limelight. This feels like an overlooked opportunity for another Indian to gain notoriety.

Don’t get me wrong – Master of None is a fine series. Compared to the also recently released W/ Bob and David by sketch comedy veterans Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (replete with Muslim stereotypes, threats to visually depict the prophet Mohammed, a hearing person using a Deaf “voice,” and actual, literal blackface) Master is comedy gold on a silver platter. If my social media feeds are anything to go by, it’s definitely inspiring some thoughtful conversation, the way any good comedy should.


Photo credit: Pitchfork.com

“Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh, they’re red, white, and blue…”

“Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh, they’re red, white, and blue…”

I have a complicated relationship with Veteran’s Day. I’ve never served and have never wanted to. Years ago when I applied for college and put down “possibly female” on my application (still the strangest gender designation I’ve ever seen on a form) and received information on enlisting, I quickly changed my answer to “female.” If there ever came a time when I might possibly be drafted, I would do everything I could to evade it. I don’t believe in war and I would never kill anyone. Reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf in high school cemented my anti-war leanings and put into words sentiment that had resided in my heart unspoken for many years. When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, part of me mourned because I knew it would be one less out for folks to have who wished to escape the horrors of war.

In my lifetime, I’ve known a great many people who have served and been marred irrevocably by combat, whether physically or psychologically – in many cases, both. A good friend became a conscientious objector after seeing the horrors of actions he had helped plan brought to life, and now (at least last I knew) spends his days privately dosing himself with hallucinogens in order to avoid reliving those memories. A few of the people I’ve dated are veterans, and I’ve seen them struggle to claim their benefits, including basic medical necessities and the college education they were promised in exchange for their service. Through school I’ve come into contact with students who served and did manage to make their way to college, yet struggle with reintegration into civilian life after dealing with PTSD and deinstitutionalization. Before DADT was repealed, I knew queer couples who were closeted for decades because they were afraid of being discharged and losing the career and life they’d so painstakingly built for themselves. I saw them sit out Pride and other LGBT functions because they were afraid of being spotted and reported. I know of trans people who were discharged in spite of DADT and have lost all access to whatever benefits they might have been able to claim. Even still, the Veteran’s Administration has repeatedly received criticism for failing to adequately care for those who put their lives on the line for what they believed in. Meanwhile, conservatives who are all too happy to send troops off to die in unnecessary wars are the first to suggest funding cuts to services those folks so desperately need.

Let me be clear; I am not a U.S. military apologist, nor a supporter of any military effort. Our grossly inflated military budget could be better spent on any host of concerns facing this country – like getting single payer health care off the ground, improving our country’s infrastructure, creating better support for the homeless, decreasing student debt or hell, offering free education like other countries of comparable wealth. We have a military problem, and it is seeping into the way we do civilian policing. It’s terrifying times to be a citizen of the United States, and our fetish for militarization is at its core. I would love nothing more than to see the U.S. military be scaled back and, one day, completely dismantled. That would be the only way to ensure that no one would be pushed through the meat grinder that is the modern war machine – no U.S. citizens and none of those we are so eager to call our “enemies.”

However, we are not there yet. Compared to China, a nation with a population of 1 billion people to our 320 million, and 749 million in “available manpower” to our 145 million, the United States grossly and disproportionately outpaces them in aircraft of all kinds (13,892 to 2,860), and despite falling behind in tanks and artillery, the U.S. still boasts a national budget of $577 billion to China’s $145 billion. And our debt? Nearly $16 trillion to China’s $863 billion. Some figures suggest our budget is much higher – $610 billion, $9 billion greater than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the U.K., India, and Germany combined. In short, our military expenditure and reliance on aircraft warfare makes it unlikely that any country could successfully defend themselves from our attack or mount an attack against us. There is no sign that this will slow down in the coming decades. We have to face the reality that, despite all of our best efforts, right now, here, today, people are going to lose their lives. People are going to be abused. People are going to be mistreated. It will all be in the name of the U.S. military. We have to do what we can to take care of those people. I would go so far to say that it is a feminist issue.

I’m not thrilled that women are likely going to be able to serve on the front lines. This will do nothing to right the imbalances of power that cause so many women to be raped in the military every single day. I’m not ecstatic that trans people will much likely have an easier time serving in the military, and like Dean Spade, I’m skeptical that this is the movement trans people should be rallying around. Unlike Spade, however, I see a very real need to take care of the very real trans people who are already serving, and are terrified to come out for fear of being sexually harassed, assaulted, or killed. This becomes particularly true when we take into account the fact that transgender women enlist in disproportionately high numbers prior to transition in order “to prove they [are] ‘real men.'” We need to listen to the stories of those who are serving, for whatever reason, and take care of them as we would anyone else. I see them being able to openly serve to be one such way to do this.

There is an attitude among my fellow liberal, academic kin that we oughtn’t be serving in the first place – as Spade says, “It’s true that trans people need jobs. But is military service a job we want?” He goes on to cite examples of the failures of the military to support soldiers, including suicide rates and instances of sexual assault. Yes, the prospects are ugly, and yes, I would personally actively discourage anyone I knew considering serving from doing so. I’ve seen how horrific it can be, and I know the statistics. At the same time, I know many good, decent people who have been duped into serving because they believed they were doing the right thing by a country and people they love tremendously. I do not share their sentiment in many ways, but I know where they are coming from. I know many good, decent people who live in areas so economically deprived that the military may seem like the only viable option. A 2008 study from Syracuse University found that, “Class differences in military enlistment likely reflect differences in the non-military occupational opportunity, structured along class lines. This research shows that the all-volunteer force continues to see overrepresentation of the working and middle classes, with fewer incentives for upper class participation.” Many of those poor people are women, and many of those poor women are black. It feels lofty and callous to simply suggest to poor people that they not serve. It feels a lot like arguments middle and upper class people make to homeless people; that they just “get a job” or “stop using drugs,” as if it were that easy.

I’m not saying there are easy solutions. I’m not saying it’s unimportant or even ill-advised to be critical of the military. But I think it is important for us to push for supports for those individuals who are enmeshed in a disgusting system while we simultaneously work to bring it down. We can do this for our folks in prison, and I say we should do it for those who enlist as well.

On this veterans day, I’m thinking about my ex lovers, my friends, and the many LGBT, POC, and straight, cisgender women veterans whose stories often go untold. In working for military abolition, we cannot turn a cold shoulder to those who simply couldn’t opt out, or who made a choice to do what they believed in their hearts to be right.


Photo credit: PlaidZebra.com

“This is where the party ends / I can’t stand here listening to you and your racist friend.”

“This is where the party ends / I can’t stand here listening to you and your racist friend.”

I’m thinking a lot lately about the ways in which we can be accountable to one another. For me this means deep personal reflection and self-inventory, and owning up to my screw-ups and trying to avoid repeat performances.

I also think about the ways in which I interact with others who do and say things that go against my own views of how we ought to treat each other. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment where hate speech isn’t tolerated, and we can actively participate in addressing it when we hear it. With my clients, I try to offer alternatives. “Instead of calling someone the b-word or c-word, why not call them a jerk or a pain in the ass or something?” “Instead of using the r-word, why not say this situation is frustrating or asinine?” “Instead of crazy, why not say bananas?” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it goes over like a lead balloon. With my co-workers it’s a little different. We’re all “adults.” We can’t reprimand or re-direct each other per se, but it’s completely legit to say to someone, “eh, that’s a little racist.” Or, “hey I have a learning disability, can you cool it with that?” For me, humor does wonders. It softens the blow and makes people a little more receptive. Instead of “you’ve sinned you horrible bag of shit,” it’s “hey that’s kinda messed up.” Sometimes just talking about why a word or phrase is messed up helps.

It’s more about the action than the person. We all fuck up. We all fuck up huge. Sometimes life throws fucked up things at us…

Someone who is crying and visibly wounded because their parent has just cut them out of their life for being queer? That’s not the time to call that person out for using the wrong word.

And sometimes it’s murky… A person of color talking about a stereotype pertinent to the way their family interacts, but applying it to everyone of that cultural background? I don’t feel comfortable calling that out unless I know that person really well, and even then I’d feel very hesitant.

The world is chaotic and messy. The stuff isn’t always cut and dry. I’m of the unpopular opinion that context matters, and that people matter. I’ve been called out on a number of things, and sometimes I feel it’s been constructive and helpful, and sometimes I’ve felt like my words and motivations were intentionally misconstrued.

I think part of being accountable means taking personal inventory and reflecting on why we want to call someone out. Do we want to make a scene/space/situation feel more safe? Do we want to help someone understand that they might be unknowingly committing a faux pas, and we believe them to be a well-intended person? Is it someone in a position of power who might not realize how their words and actions impact others? Are we reacting to trauma and can’t be calm or “rational” in the situation and need to voice our concerns right then and there?

Or could it be something else? Do I want to earn cool kid points with my other social justice buddies? Am I taking out shitty feelings on another person in a kind of online know-it-all bullying? Does this person not have the kind of educational privileges that would bring them into contact with certain schools of thought — in that case, is it cool to put them down publicly?

When I feel the need to call someone out, I ask myself why I’m doing it, and how I can do it in a way that’s effective. Will blasting them publicly on facebook work? Not usually. Especially if it’s someone I’m close with. A private message or talking to them in person would do better.

I also consider how egregious the oppressive behavior is. Atheists like Richard Dawkins are often guilty of spreading xenophobic and Orientalist notions in their critiques of Islam. As an atheist, I think it’s important to recognize that this kind of behavior is part of a centuries’ long history of the West treating the East as inferior — it’s part of delusional thinking and those who fancy themselves rational thinkers ought to reject it. A post on a friend’s wall recently stirred up a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, and I was quick to publicly call it out. It wasn’t a simple misunderstanding; it was a group of white Western atheists talking shit about millions of people. My motivation wasn’t only to stem the vitriol spewed by the individuals involved in the conversation, but also for others who might be reading and following along. Based on my own interactions with the atheist blog-o-sphere, it can be an echo chamber, and I wanted to voice an alternate viewpoint.

When I do a speaking gig, or a friend who is genuinely curious asks me something about being a trans person, but might use an awkward word like “transgendered” or “hermaphorodite” when they mean intersex. In these cases, I would correct the language but understand the person is coming from a place of literal ignorance and not bigotry.

And sometimes [drumroll] I just let it slide. Sometimes I have to. Sometimes there are bigger fish to fry. Sometimes I like someone enough to squint past their fuck ups because we all make mistakes, and at the end of the day we all need each other. I might call it out again later if I notice the same thing happen again (like if someone repeatedly uses the same ableist slur) or maybe I’ll bring it up later. Sometimes I don’t have the mental bandwidth to do it, and as a counselor once told me, I don’t always have to go die on that hill.

Sometimes it’s okay to drop the flaming sword.

A lot has also been written on calling in v. calling out. I’ll post a couple of lovely links here if you’re puzzled about how to have those tough conversations and want a primer:

Here’s one from Everyday Feminism and another from Black Girl Dangerous.


Photo credit: This person’s awesome pinterest

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

This is the third in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 of Twin Peaks, now slated for 2017.

Enjoy!


My favorite work of Lynch’s, Eraserhead, is perhaps his most enigmatic. The film, which reads like a nightmare, deals with the feelings of dread and inadequacy surrounding new-found fatherhood. This is Lynch at his most raw. The malformed baby the protagonist Henry (played by Jack Nance) must learn to care for is fragile, terrifying, and exceeds the skill set of its parent. To fail to provide means its death – a fear common to all parents who are just learning to sustain a life that is not their own. Henry’s masculinity in general is put to task as the Lady in the Radiator squashes large, globular sperms with her high heels in a playful, mischievous way as the viewer-as-Henry helplessly looks on. Henry’s longing for his neighbor juxtaposed against his own shyness and duties as a father communicate a subordinate, introverted masculinity. The fact that this is Lynch’s first feature length film makes the above all the more impressive – rather than hiding behind the camera, Lynch is putting himself on display to be examined.

I would also argue that the “gaze” of Lynch’s work isn’t always clear. Sweet and intimate friendships like Donna and Laura’s and Shelly and Norma’s in TP came well before Garfunkel and Oates or Broad City. Indeed, Ronette, Laura, and Theresa Banks share a kind of camaraderie as sex workers that humanizes them and exemplifies the special kind of friendship that can develop among women in this profession. Mulholland Drive’s Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla serve as a sort of Hitchcockian hapless victim/rescuer dyad which evolves into a romantic and sexual relationship, in much the same way viewers are habituated to expect with heterosexual pairings. This allows for a subversive twist on the typically straight film noir genre. While it’s possible to argue that this choice was made for the titillation of male, heterosexual viewers, I can say that as a young queer person viewing this in a theater with my mom, it was nothing short of… Well, let’s just say awkward as hell.

Here again, though, it cannot go without noting that Naomi Watts has been publicly vocal about her discomfort with some of the scenes in the film, particularly the masturbation sequence. As a feminist and someone who has directed and starred in erotic films, the comfort of my performers is always at the forefront of my mind, and it gives me pause as to the nature of Lynch’s on-set director/performer dynamics. It would be intellectually and ethically dishonest to say I don’t find this potentially problematic. Being the one “behind the camera” brings with it all sorts of privileges, namely that you are in charge of image creation. You decide what the performers do, how they are framed, lit, etc. Being in front of the camera is a considerably more vulnerable position, and if I ever had the chance, I’d

Those who decide they cannot support Lynch due to his depiction of women have my understanding and support, even though I remain a devoted fan. This brings me back to where we started… My new friend at the bar. After I realized my words had little sway over someone who had never seen anything of his, and I was possibly getting into the territory of talking her out of it, I decided to back down and enjoy the rest of my drink. But this conversation had given me the chance to reflect, and to begin to articulate feelings about and artist I’ve admired for so long, but have had little success in describing.

I for one know I’m looking forward to what’s in store for those of us who’ve waited patiently these long 25 years to be reunited with the weirdest small town in television history. Twin Peaks has forever changed the face of American TV, and it will be interesting to see how it fares with new audiences having their first bites of that cherry pie so good it’ll kill ya.

Photo credit: luisalvaradob.tumblr.com